Thursday, January 31, 2013

Wilder than One Might Think

Sometimes the skiers are wilder than the birds. This guy is among the best I have seen down there.

They are not really "street legal." There is suppose to be a second person in the boat who is keeping an eye on the skier and not driving the boat.

This guy really knew how to get some air out of a fairly small wake.

I don't think you could do the same maneuver with actual ski's, but I have never skied so I am not sure.

I wasn't able to get this guys information to send him the photos although I bet he would have loved to have them.

The gentleman who allows me to use his dock told me a story about how his daughter was dating a pilot one time who flew pontoon boats.  He flew in and landed on the river and they hooked up a skiing rig to the plane and she skied behind the plane. He said the pilot was doing about 70 mph! He was flying on this same stretch. Now, that would be wild!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Not as Wild as One May Think

You may get the mistaken impression from my blog that the Patuxent River is fairly remote and wild from seeing photos of birds day after day.  That isn't really true. There are some houses along the shore and activities that I mostly avoid capturing within the confines of a photo of a bird because they seem out of place and lessen the impact. Think of the Sandhill Crane I posted a few weeks back in front of a house and a boat.

Depending on what is going on, at times I will even photograph some of the activities of boaters, hunters, and skiers that pass by. One morning when the lighting was really nice and the water was completely flat, a boat with a water skier came through and, since there wasn't much going on with birds, I decided to capture a few images. 

Very seldom does activity like this impact on the birds. In fact, I have taken pictures of osprey catching fish only a few yards from a water skier sitting in the water waiting for the boat to come back and pick him up. Even the loud noises of bridge building they had to put up with one summer didn't seem to bother them.

This view of the river isn't typical of where I film. It is a lovely area to use as a background, but a bird in that spot would be so far away, it wouldn't be worth capturing. But, boats and humans are bigger so it turned out to be a really nice background. With the lightness of the boat and water against the darker surroundings, they turned out to be very striking images.

I very quickly realized the best time to take a picture was when the skier went through the white rooster tail he was throwing up so that he stood out against the background. He didn't quite make it into the rooster tail in this picture.

Now, they didn't know I was filming them and I was in a quandary about trying to get their attention because that would mean the skier would have to take a dunk. As it turned out, though, they just happened to stop straight across from where I was standing and I was able to call them over. After explaining that I had taken some photos, I offered to send them to them via email. The skier himself, really liked the photos and ended up purchasing a larger version of the opening photo for his home. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Doo, Doo, Doo, Looking Out My Backdoor IX: Other Visitors

Two species of woodpeckers are regular visitors to our feeder. One is the red-bellied woodpecker shown here. This is a female. On the male, the red extends all the way from the base of the bill to the nape of the neck without the gray gap you see here.  This is a good picture of the tail feathers which are specialized on woodpeckers. The two longer outer feathers are much stiffer and are used by the birds as a brace as they climb up the trunks of trees. Notice how the inner tail feathers are rounded so that when the edge of the feathers are placed against a tree it more or less matches the curve of the tree, increasing the tail's strength.

The downy woodpecker is the other regular woodpecker visitor to our feeder. This is a male, easily recognized by the red patch of feathers on it's crown. We include a special mix of fruits, seeds and nuts specifically to attract the woodpeckers. It looks so good, I'm tempted to try it!

This is a female downy. Most birds have three toes facing forward and one facing backward.  Woodpeckers, because their specialty is climbing tree trunks, have a two toe forward, two toe back arrangement.  (See the wren and junco below also.) The bristly feathers around the base of the bill help to keep wood chips from striking them in the eye as they dig holes in trees.

Wrens aren't big seed eaters, but they visit the feeder every now and then. They love peanuts, but they are not really equipped for eating them. They can't swallow peanuts whole and have to eat them in smaller pieces, so they have to break it up first - and there's the rub. When they strike a peanut with that pointy bill, it will go spinning off in all directions. It is comical to watch.

The Dark-eyed Junco is commonly known as a "snowbird" and with good reason.  When they migrate, they will use the winds associated with a storm front (often a snowstorm) to help them conserve energy while they move long distances. So, in many years, they arrive at the same time as the first snows of winter. Except this year, they arrived locally very early and there has been a flock around here since early November. I don't know that I have ever seen them on the feeder, but they like to associate with other birds around the feeder and they all use each other as a warning system. If you look carefully, you can discern a white edge along the tail. They have a white feather on each side of the tail that become very prominent when they fly, making them fairly easy to identify.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Doo, Doo, Doo, Looking Out My Backdoor VIII: Common Grackle

Grackles are not regular visitors to our feeder. In fact, other than this one time when several hung around following a snow storm, I can't recall another occasion when they have been present. They usually travel in mixed flocks of blackbirds in the fall and winter months which often include Starlings and Red-winged Blackbirds. The colors - green head, bronzed back and purple wings and tail are only seen under good light. I would guess this is a male since the females are duller.

These three pictures may all be of different birds since, when they would come around, I would do little things to try to startle them and get them to move on. A bird this big (larger than a black bird) can go through seed pretty quickly. The strong, pointed bill is found in all grackles, but the pale eye is indicative of the Common Grackle. 

I suspected this bird was going to fly, focused, and framed the space it would enter immediately after it took off.  It highlights how even when you think you have pretty good reaction time, you probably aren't going to react fast enough.  I think I may have mentioned before taking pictures of hummingbirds where, in the time it took to press the shutter - even at a shutter speed of 1/500 sec., I have come up with nothing in the frame.  I have found this  to be a general rule: the smaller the bird, the harder it is to film them in flight.

Sunday, January 27, 2013


The puddle ducks or dabbling ducks, as they are known, strain food from the surface of the water or by tipping and foraging on the bottom of shallow areas. This female Mallard (although it may also be an American Black Duck - they can be hard to separate) is swimming along the surface straining the water with her lamellae using a means less commonly seen then tipping up to forage.

I happened to see these two lovebirds one day in a shoving match. They were not fighting and there was an entire flock of ducks cheering them on. One would push the other backwards for a distance and then it would be reversed. They were mainly using their bills to push. They are American Black Ducks.

The reason I am including this photo is because you can readily see the lamellae, the comb-like ridge along the bill with which dabbling ducks strain the water. By the way, the male is on the left.

I decided to include the last photo in the series I took of this unusual incident. My guess is it was some kind of mating ritual. It is the only time I have ever seen this kind of activity. I was also in plain sight and they had to have known I was standing there. That speaks to their tameness.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Finding a Safe Haven

The hunting pressure on Canada Geese this time of year is almost constant in our semi-rural area. The guns go off almost without ceasing. A few minutes after a round of shotguns go off, you'll see a flock of survivors fly over looking for a safe field in which to land. Places that are both safe and also contain food are relatively hard to find.

There is a large pasture on the edge of the Bay where the geese have learned they are safe and where I have learned you can find them pretty reliably. There is also a small marshy area on the other side of the road where these photos were taken.  I am standing at the road. (If you want to take pictures on someones property, ask the owner's permission. Don't just assume it is okay.) The brushy area at the back of the photo is the shoreline of the Bay, so you can see that it is a fairly narrow area. If I hadn't told you that, though, it could pass for the edge of marsh in a wilderness area. In any event, with the long lens, I don't need to get any closer or ask permission.

This is a naturally occurring puddle which must stay wet much of the year based on the grasses growing in the surrounding area.  Geese are highly attuned to what goes on around them. If you see a flock on the ground eating, you will always see at least one that is simply keeping guard. No one is appointed; it is simply a rule that if your head is up, you are watching for danger. So, forget sneaking up on them. You are not going to be able to do that.

The approach I use (no pun intended) is to move slowly. It is best to move at a tangent and not directly toward them. If they become suspicious of you, they will begin to waddle away. If they become alarmed, they will fly.  If you stand still for a while, they will settle back down. After that, as long as you don't do a lot of moving around or make any loud noises, they will go back to doing what geese do. You can tell from the two standing that the water is not very deep.

About a year ago I posted pictures of Canada Geese completely upside down taking a bath with their feet sticking up in the air. The geese here are using the more traditional method of bathing by ducking their heads under and throwing the water over their back.

Here is another closer look. When my wife and I were doing a lot of fishing, we had a boat. I always thought it was better to go to the fish instead of hoping the fish would come to you. Duck and goose hunters, on the other hand, have to hope the waterfowl will come to them. Seems to me you better know how to pick a good spot.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Doo, Doo, Doo, Looking Out My Backdoor VII: Mourning Dove

Not a bird you would normally associate with a bird feeder, but we've almost always had doves around the feeder. Not too many songbirds will eat kernel corn or cracked corn, so if there is any in the mix, it usually will end up on the ground under the feeder. And that is what attracts the doves.  They are such sweet birds, recalling Jesus statement in Matthew about being as "innocent as doves." So, here you have the picture of innocence. Doesn't it look like it is asking, "Who me?"

We had a feeder at another home we had and, at the time, the seed mix we used had quite a bit of cracked corn in it. One winter, that started attracting doves. The flock kept building over time and I kept counting them from one day to the next. Twenty one day.  Twenty-four a few days later. The last count I took was 53 sitting in the mulberry tree where the feeder hung. Fortunately, once they settle down on a branch, they tend to stay there for a while and not flit around like smaller birds.  So, I'm pretty sure the count was accurate.

I always think of a painting when I see a picture of a dove.  Look at the rounded feathers and the darker spots of color. Each feather is separate and carefully delineated.

Doves have very short legs which causes them to bob their heads when they walk. Doves are found throughout almost the entire continent and are also considered a game bird, although I don't know how anyone could shoot them. It seems to me you couldn't harvest enough meat off one bird to make cleaning it worth while. But then, maybe they are sooo good that it is worth the effort. I don't know. I've never tasted one.

These last two photos were taken with my "junk" telephoto and are not as sharp as the others. This photo may look as though it was taken in deep woods, but it was actually taken through the kitchen window after a pine tree fell on the deck. I left the tree there for a couple of months (it didn't do any damage and it was winter) so that I could use it as a background. There wasn't any snow, but it was a cold winter day so the dove was fluffed up.

Doves are thought to be monogamous through more than one breeding season.  I am pretty sure these same two doves that were long-term visitors to our house were mated through at least four or five years. You can see a slight difference in coloration although I would not hazard a guess as to which is male and which is female.  Well, okay. The one on the left is a male. That's my guess.  I shot this out the second floor bathroom window and they were off to the side which caused me to have to tilt the camera and that is why the trees are not straight up and down. But, there are times when this gives a photo a more dynamic feel.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Doo, Doo, Doo, Looking Out My Backdoor VI: House Finch

This is a fine example of a male House Finch. The species is not native to America, but was introduced into New England in the 1940's. They have now spread over pretty much the entire country.  There is a reason they are called a House Finch. They like to build their nests around human habitations taking advantage of being able to build under eaves and keeping their nests dry. The shadow passing over the bird's breast would pretty much exclude it from use in a bird magazine or book.

This female had gathered nesting material and was waiting for me to leave the porch so she could come in a add it to her nest in a hanging basket. There is not the slightest bit of red in her feathers to link her to the male.

Here is the hanging basket in which she built her nest. It did not bother her in the least that the plants were all fake. She laid a second batch of eggs within a week of fledgling the first brood! While they are prolific, it is probably due to a low survival rate.

I didn't understand it, but this female had two males that were bringing in food for the babies. I could tell them apart because the second male was thinner and had a peak on the top of it's head. That, and the fact that this one would try to chase him away. It is the only case avian polygamy I have personally ever seen.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Doo, Doo, Doo, Looking Out My Backdoor V: Eastern Towhee

Until recently, this bird was known as the Rufous-sided Towhee, but the race was split in two, more or less divided by the Mississippi River. The race west of the Mississippi is known as the Spotted Towhee. Females are almost as dapper as this male, except where he is black, she is brown. Notice the ruby red eye which is not always visible unless the light hits it right. Towhees are about the size of a robin.

We almost always have a pair around our house, although this past summer we had a male with no mate. I believe they mate for life. They are fairly secretive birds and it is rare to see them when I am outside. They only seem to come around when I am inside and can view them through a window. When you do see them, they are almost always on or near the ground. They like to kick up leaves in search of insects. They are high on the list of my favorite songbirds.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Doo, Doo, Doo, Looking Out My Backdoor IV: White-breasted Nuthatch

Nuthatch is derived from a European word, "hatch," probably meaning to "hack" open a nut. This photo is a good photo for seeing it's identifying features. Males and females are exactly the same except that the male's color is more intense.  The best way to tell them apart is to see them together. My experience has been that they mate for life although the books say it mates for a season. You almost never see one without the other, however. Notice the slightly upturned lower bill which is not seen on many other birds.

If you see a bird on the trunk of a tree traveling down rather than up the tree, it is almost certainly a nuthatch. They are almost the only bird that can do this. Notice how, if the bird in this photo were resting on a horizontal surface, it's head would be looking straight up in the air.  This "L-shaped" stance comes very naturally to a nuthatch. A look at their skeleton would probably reveal quite a difference between their spine and that of most other birds - but, I'm just speculating.

In this photo you can see the advantage of the very long backward facing toe by which they are able to hang in a downward direction. It is thought that because they are able to descend on a tree trunk, they are able to find insects that escape the notice of woodpeckers and creepers that travel in the other direction. The snow in this photo adds a lovely blue background. Snow, especially in shaded areas, is actually very blue, but our minds translate the color because we know snow is white. As a photographer, you almost have to force yourself to examine the "real" color that is present.

Here is something many birds do occasionally, but the nuthatches that come to the feeder do quite a bit. They "puff" themselves up in an attempt to make themselves look larger and, therefore, more intimidating in an attempt to scare other birds from the feeder. They are actually quite shy and don't like to be on the feeder with other birds. They will puff themselves up like this and rock back and forth, looking to see if it worked.  It is  amusing to watch.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Cobs and Pens

Can you tell which ones are pairs? Seems pretty obvious, doesn't it? Males are called "cobs" and females are called "pens." I don't make this stuff up. My guess is that males are called cobs because they are so rough while females are called pens because they are so domestic. You're welcome to your own opinion.

The majority of the time, the swans were very quiet and most were feeding. Like geese, anyone not eating was standing lookout. But then, every once in a while one would get to honking and it would be joined by what appeared to be it's mate.  This would become an encouragement to others and they would all join in the "celebration" as they swam to meet each other.

While it made for great pictures, what motivated the "meet-ups" or what purpose they served was not completely clear. In some photos the action might be interpreted as being mating ritual, but I wouldn't swear to it. I would expect that ritual would be a little more involved than what I was seeing.

The migration back to the north will probably take place around the end of February to the middle of March. The actual nesting season in the high arctic is from about May through September. In that time they have to recover their strength from migrating, build a nest, lay the eggs, hatch the young (which takes 2 to 2-1/2 months), and raise them to the point where they can migrate with the parents. That is a pretty compressed schedule!

Once in a while I realize what a privilege it is to peek into the lives of these wondrous creatures and share them with you. I am glad I can share some of the experience with you, the reader.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

White Wings

Compare these photos to those posted in the first Tundra Swan entry taken in bright sunlight. While, in some, there was a little bit too much fog, for the most part I prefer the softness of these images. Can you believe these are the smallest of the swans?!

Swans migrate to the same traditional places year after year and stop over in the same locations along the migration route. This allows them to teach their young the route. Young from previous years will often meet up with the parents and form "super families," allowing them to dominate the best feeding areas.

Is this not the picture of grace? They have been known to fly at an altitude of 28,000 feet, almost 5-1/2 miles up! And they don't hold the record. Some birds fly even higher, notably those that cross the Himalayan mountain range. You wouldn't want to run into one of those with a jet.

Swans fly in v-formations or in a slightly offset straight line when in smaller numbers.  Oh, to have a longer lens. But, I would have to mortgage my house to get one. No kidding. You wouldn't believe how expensive a fast 500 mm lens f/4.0 is - $10.5K! 

I only saw four birds fly that day.  Take-offs and landings are at the top of my list. Only thing is, if they are content with where they are, it can be hours before they think about flying. For their own safety at night, they may spend the night well out in the Bay away from predators, so they may fly toward evening. I can only hope that a few will want to cross to the other side of the pond during the day and will fly instead of swim.  That is what these swans were doing.

Tundra Swans were formerly known as Whistling Swans. Whistling apparently refers to their voice rather than the sound of their wings in flight. Their voice, however, could not be described as a whistle by any stretch of the imagination. A flute-like sound with the volume of a French horn, maybe. I wish you could hear how musical they sound.