Tuesday, March 31, 2015

On the Road Again

These are Horned Grebes in breeding colors. The photo was taken at the boardwalk in North Beach. I would never have known they were there if I hadn't kept up on a birding website that posts reports of what people are seeing throughout the area. If you want to film birds or if you would simply like to see unusual birds, keeping current on one of these sites is the way to go. I have also set up a subscription to Ducks Unlimited where I receive reports from hunters about waterfowl numbers and locations.

The salt marsh just outside of North Beach is beginning to come alive with summer migrants. These lesser Yellowlegs are beginning to show in good numbers. The goal I would like to achieve this summer is to obtain more flight shots. That is the best opportunity to capture unusual body language and interesting images. They are fast though and things are over almost before they have begun.

The dried up marsh grasses around the edges can really enhance the photos with their beautiful reflections in the water. A blue sky day can also really add to the photographs. I am not talking about this photo in particular, but it is something to look for if you are filming in this type of environment.

One of the heralds of summer are the Great Egrets. I saw this one yesterday flying deeper into the marsh. They should start showing up in greater numbers pretty quickly. Their smaller cousins, the Snowy Egrets, will also begin appearing soon.

One duck species that has been difficult for me to film this past winter is the Blue-winged Teal. It isn't a matter of not being able to find them, but being able to find them with their head out of water. I have never seen a duck that spends so much time with it's head underwater — unless you consider the Green-winged Teal which exhibits the same habit. The male is more colorful, but the blue on either male or female doesn't really show up until they are in flight.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Parasitism versus Symbiosis

One of the few times I encountered Tundra Swans this winter was when I spotted these three birds. It wasn't for lack of looking. Sometimes it is a matter of access. I knew where swans were a couple of times, but there was no public access to that particular piece of shoreline.

Anyway, there was a seagull hanging with these three who was pretty obnoxious. He would get so close, he would actually be bumping up against them. I thought it was a bit strange, but they didn't seem to mind.

The Tundra Swans eat what is known as SAV, subaquatic vegetation, so they are usually found in water no deeper than the length of their neck. That can be a helpful tip for finding them. They are seldom found in deep water and can usually be found along the shoreline or in shallow ponds and marshes.

While watching the interaction of the swans and seagull, the answer revealed itself, as to why this seagull was staying so close. One of the swans pulled up some grass and brought up a razor clam with it. That was what the seagull was waiting for. He grabbed it and flew off triumphant!

I have seen two other instances of one bird species using another to obtain food. One was seagulls and diving ducks and the other was Snowy Egrets and dabbling ducks. It doesn't fit the definition of a parasitic relationship, but neither is it a symbiotic relationship. I'm not sure what you would call it.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Case of Mistaken Identity?

I read a list which is continually updated by members at a birding site (http://birding.aba.org/maillist) to see what types of birds are being seen in my area. The site has lists covering every state, so no matter where you live, you should be able to find a list that interests you. Someone on the list mentioned a pond where I have been filming recently and thought that a swan seen there was a Trumpeter. I have seen the swan for all of March at least, but I never looked at it very closely because it always stayed at the far end of the pond where it was difficult to see and Trumpeters are not suppose to be in this area, so I assumed it was a Tundra Swan.

The Trumpeter and Tundra Swans are difficult to separate in identity because the differences are subtle and subjective. In the past, it was easy to identify these swans because, it you lived in the East, it couldn't be a Trumpeter since they never came here. But that changed with the reintroduction of a breeding population in the Great Lakes area, so now, chances are better that it may be this species.

One thing that is different about this particular bird and has been obvious right along is it's comfortableness with not being with others of it's species. I have thought that was unusual from day one. It is the only Tundra Swan, if indeed it is a Tundra Swan, that I have seen willing to be alone.

Here is a recent photo of three Tundra Swans. One of the main features in identification is the little yellow area on the bill. You'll notice on the other photos, the swan has a completely black bill. The thing is, Tundra Swans can lack the yellow also. A better way to separate one from the other would be to view them full in the face. Unfortunately, I intentionally avoid filming a bird head on because it almost always looks odd. On many birds, the bill seems to disappear when looking at it straight on and it gives the bird a strange appearance. So, I don't have any photos showing the suspect bird head on.

I have sent several photos to a friend of mine who is an expert at identification. I'll let you know in a future post what he had to say, although I would be surprised if he can make a conclusive identification from the photos I sent him.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpeckers (PWP) are not as common as some other woodpeckers such as Downy or Red-bellied woodpeckers, but they are not uncommon either. Their favored habitat is mature deciduous forests. I know of four different locations where I can see them. They have one call that sounds very much like a "jungle bird." The most common vocalization, though, is a "kuk,kuk, kuk," which can be almost constant when they become agitated.

They are wary, but I have gotten amazingly close to one at times without spooking it. I saw this particular bird at the pond I have been visiting this winter to film puddle ducks. One side of the pond consists of a commercial area, a warehouse type area. One day, my wife and I drove into this area to see how reasonable it would be to try to access the pond from that side. As we drove on the edge of the driveway closest to the pond, we stopped to evaluate our options. All of a sudden, not ten feet away, a pileated appeared on a tree at eye level. We were able to watch him for a couple minutes without scaring him. He was actually so close, I couldn't film him and the minimum distance for that lens is eleven feet. In other words, the bird was closer than eleven feet from us.

I am pretty sure the bird I just described is the same one pictured here. The tree in the previous image is at the top of the small knoll shown in this image. The knoll is a little promontory that sticks out into the pond. It was a tree near the building in the background of this photo where we saw the PWP up close.

Their territory is necessarily large because of the type of food they eat and I don't think they tolerate others of the same species in their chosen area. Once he landed in the big tree, he cautiously made his way from one tree to the next, moving lower with each change.

His final destination was the base of this tree where a root of the tree must be in decay. He spent quite a while searching for insects and carefully surveying the area to make sure everything was okay. A common name for them in the not-too-distant past was "logcock." You have to look carefully to see him in this image.

After perhaps fifteen minutes, he shinnied back up the tree and flew back over the pond and out of sight. Because they are almost always surrounded by trees, it is difficult to get shots of them in flight, so I was pleased that he flew over the pond out in the open. Coincidentally, I saw the male that lives right around our home just before writing this. He was alone so I'm thinking his mate is on a nest. They are normally inseparable.

Friday, March 27, 2015

More Recent Photos

If you guessed these are Green-winged Teal, you would be correct. It is hard to miss the neon green speculum on their wings.

I don't know how anyone can shoot a duck. They're so fast! You thought I was going to say, "They're so cute," didn't you? Well, yeah, there's that too. Teal must be really hard to shoot because they fly absolutely crazy. This image kind of gives you a hint of that. Notice how I almost missed them simply shooting with a camera!

This Mute Swan did me the favor of flying past the most photogenic spot on the entire pond. The rocks on the little hummock in the background always reflect a little more sunlight into the area. That tree in the background is showing beaver damage as do a couple other trees around the pond.

Red-winged Blackbirds are not very skittish and this male landed very close. I think it is a first year male based on the rusty feathers on it's back.

I don't particularly like the mud, but I did think the water reflections, the colors in the water and the tawny colors of the yellowlegs were beautiful. This is another bird that is not easily spooked.

Red-shouldered Hawks are pretty common throughout the Eastern U. S. Especially around swamps and marshes — which is where I saw this one.

I was able to get a few fairly nice flight shots by adding 1 full stop of exposure to the camera settings. It causes the sky to "burn out" but on a day of full sun, it is difficult to get a decently exposed bird in open sun without it.

The way the bird has it's tail artfully cranked to make turns caught my attention. There is nothing wrong with it's wing. It is just the angle the wing was at when the photo was taken. The light spots on the wings and the noticeable red shoulders pretty much confirm this bird's species.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Battle Royal

I don't think it was ten minutes after the event I described yesterday, than two more Canada Geese seemed to discover the pond.

They set down for a little peace and relaxation.

When a Mute Swan raises it's wings like the one in this picture, it is suppose to be a threat posture. I was not convinced of this because I had seen her exhibit this same posture when she was swimming near where I was standing. But she never made a move for me and there didn't seem to be any other animal life in the immediate area that might have provoked her. Maybe I should consider myself lucky she didn't come after me.

I say "she," but for all I know this is a male. I'm not sure there is any way to tell by markings. I did see this one sitting on what appeared to be a nest a month or so ago, so that is why I say she. I have never seen a second swan. Notice how many ducks got up and left the area between this photo and the last. She wasn't after them, but  they knew what was coming and they weren't going to hang around.

When she thought she was close enough to attack, she started running across the water. It seems to take the geese a few seconds to realize they are the target of her wrath.

They finally get the idea and take flight in a panic.

These two were so panicked, they actually flew through tree branches to get away. The swan never actually took to flight this time.

After that, everything was once again right with the world.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Bonny Swan O

Almost as soon as I arrived at this pond, I saw the swan across the pond take to the air and disappear into the foliage on the edge of the pond. I thought perhaps she was going to the smaller pond on the other side of the railroad track. While the tracks are not photogenic, it does keep the pond somewhat isolated from the general public. I don't know who owns the pond, but it is not park property of any kind.

After a very few more minutes, I heard some geese honking and, sure enough, four circled the pond and dropped in. I heard one say, "Why, this is a lovely pond. Why have we never stopped here before?" It was only then I realized I hadn't ever seen any geese in this pond — although the other, smaller pond always had a fair-sized flock.

I don't think they were there five minutes when the swan decided to take off. The geese looked on, admiring how gracefully she became airborne.

It was about at this point I think they began to realize their presence was not welcome on the Royal's pond.

The geese also need room to get into the air, so it was a good thing they started to leave before she reached them.

Who knows what the swan might have done had she gotten to them first. Notice how she doesn't bother the ducks. They didn't even flinch when she became agitated.

Now I know why I never see geese on this pond. And that is a visual lesson in why Maryland would like to extirpate the Mute Swan population. They are extremely aggressive and out compete most other species while doing damage to the health of the submerged aquatic vegetation, which they eat. They are very prolific and the population can grow exponentially. In England, they may be considered the property of the royals, but in the United States, they have been removed from federal protection.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Are you talking to me?

I've seen this behavior from time to time. A goose stretches it's neck out as far as it can and lowers it to the water, cackling with it's mouth wide open. Occasionally it results in blows, but most times it dissipates after the goose blows off some steam.

Maybe they are talking about finances or why his mother's coming for Easter or why he didn't take out the garbage before he left for work. You get the idea.

Meanwhile, he is pretty much ignoring her. Let her have her say. She is half right. She'll vent a little bit and we can move on.

Once in a while, it escalates into something more. Why? I don't know. I don't speak Canadian.  A few other species also do this same kind of posturing and, wouldn't you know it, they all have long necks, so it is easy to spot. Great Blue Herons and Swans will also assume this kind of threat posture.

If it gets to this point, you had better get out of the way. Domestic geese will go after people like this just for fun. I use to go to a farm with my dad when I was a kid a couple of times a week. For sport, I always use to try to sneak up on a goose that stayed behind the barn. I never could. It was always waiting and wanting a piece of me.

I have never seen the victim seriously injured by these arguments, but that doesn't mean they don't want to harm one another. Geese are usually the biggest bully on the block and get their way in a dispute involving pecking order. But tomorrow, I'll post an example of when the tables get turned.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Keep 'em Coming

Double-headed Snake

I wanted to include this photo of the ice-covered pond before it became too distant a memory. The Canada in front had just jumped out of the slush (see all the way to the left) and was trying to land without falling. It is hard to believe we are still in the same month what with all the raking and pruning and other yard work. Expect to be mowing next week!

I take waaay to many Canada Goose pictures. At least my wife thinks so. There is a lot of junk, but once in a while you get one that rises to a superior level. I like this flight shot with it's wintry background.

I never knew until a couple of years ago that geese will routinely do this when they are bathing. They don't do it all the time but when they do, it is contagious and they all start flipping over.

One day, at the pond, all the seagulls suddenly went airborne. There were several hundred of them, so it was impressive. Then, all the Northern Shovelers which I was filming all jumped up and left the pond completely. I should have known what caused it because I have seen it lots of times down on the river. It was the Bald Eagle alarm going off. Some birds so respect the eagles that they will not stay in the same location with them. I have never seen an eagle take a bird, but I think they know something I don't. This is the one that had them agitated that day. Even at it's great height, the snow was moderating the shadows underneath the wings.

It looks rather desolate, but it isn't quite as isolated as it seems. This is a view of the marsh (foreground) and Chesapeake Bay, maybe a hundred yards beyond. You can't see it very well, but there is a road that runs through the higher ground. This is only a couple hundred yards from the edge of town. I wanted to show how close the marsh pond is to the Bay. Because of phragmites and other plants, in the summer you cannot see one from the other.

I took this image on the marsh less than a week ago. In bird reports from the area, people were saying they saw Rusty Blackbirds. I had never seen one to my knowledge. When this mixed flock of birds landed, I decided to take a photo and see if there were any Rusty Blackbirds. Sure enough, there were a couple of them. They're the ones with the white eyes that look like the undead. The thing is, there is one bird there that I am not sure of it's identification and have sent the picture of to an acquaintance of mine who is an expert.