Thursday, April 30, 2015

Greater Yellowlegs

The Greater Yellowlegs is one of the bigger sandpipers. Open marsh such as in this photo, mudflats, streams and ponds are all typical habitat. It breeds across Canada and Southern Alaska, so this is just a stop on it's migration.

It looks very duck-like in this photo. Actually, it was sunbathing. You may not know that many species of birds do that. They will spread their feathers out allowing the sun to heat up the oils used to keep their feathers waterproofed and in good condition. It is simply not typical to see a bird sunbathe while sitting in water.

Next, it was time for a bath. The Greater Yellowlegs has a habit of bobbing it's head. There is another sandpiper, the Spotted Sandpiper, that will almost continually bob it's back end and can be identified by this characteristic alone. The Yellowlegs will stretch it's head out full length and then pull it down, so it is kind of a reverse bob which goes up instead of down.

The Greater Yellowlegs has a fairly loud musical whistle, often directed at the approaching observer. This one didn't do that to me when I approached to film it, but it did get vocal when another species of Sandpiper flew into the same area.

Here, it is looking at the sky, a sure sign a predatory bird has entered the area. I looked, but was unable to spot an eagle or hawk this time, but in most cases, they are good a tipping you off.

Believe it or not, these large sandpipers were once a popular game bird. The common name in that era was tattler because of it's penchant for raising an alarm.

You can just see the back end of a minnow that the Greater Yellowlegs is getting ready to swallow. It has a very similar feeding technique to the Snowy Egrets which will run around very actively, racing one way and then another trying to catch fish. At other times, it moves methodically, probing mud and grasses for crustaceans, insects and snails. I wondered at one point if it might not be eating fish eggs deposited by minnows.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Cherry Blossoms 2

The cherry blossoms pass away all too quickly. After about one good week, you begin to notice missing petals and other imperfections in the blooms.

One of the nice things about where this tree is situated is that the background is a hundred yards away. That allows for good blurring of the background in most cases. A redbud tree in the background lends pinkish highlights.

By shooting either early in the day or late in the day, specular highlights can be included in the background as well as some warmth of color.

I personally like the backgrounds where a pattern can be included such as in this image.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Marsh Madness

I saw a pair of Brown-headed Cowbirds at the marsh. The female wasn't close enough to include her in the photo, but I liked the background so I took the picture. The female is a more uniform drab brown color. In the case of this bird, it does take a village to raise them because they have no parenting skills. The female sneaks into an active nest belonging to another species and quickly lays an egg. For whatever reason, the nesting female treats it as her own, despite size and color differences. Once the cowbird chick hatches, it either out-competes the other chicks or throws them out of the nest. It is not the kind of conduct that endears them to you.

While the female is sitting on the eggs, the male Osprey will bring her fish to eat. After the male catches a fish, he takes it to a tree limb and eats the forward half of the fish. It seems to me they save the best for the female (and later, the chicks), but it probably has more to do with the fact that it is easier to start eating at the front of the fish and work back. Anyway, once they are ready to bring the female her portion, they will do a victory lap type celebration before going to the nest. They have a one-note call, which is what this male is doing.

There were only about eight Snowy Egrets at the marsh while I was there the other day, but most were not fishing. They would slip in and out of the reeds, disappear for a while, then reappear. I am not sure what that was all about since they build their nests in trees and bushes.

This is a Greater Yellowlegs. Except for a Willet, it is probably the largest sandpiper. In the next photo, you can see how large they look next to a Snowy Egret. I could see a lot of minnow activity in the grasses that were flooded. Minnows like to gain access to areas that become flooded at high tide and forage in new areas that have not been picked over. I didn't realize the Greater Yellowlegs would eat minnows until I saw him scurrying around helter skelter trying to chase them down. It may be a little difficult to make out, but this is a minnow that became "folded over" when the bird grabbed it.

I had to laugh at a footrace that developed between these two birds over minnow activity ahead of them. While the photo is a still, you can see the suggestion of speed in the leg postures of both birds. The only time the sandpiper bends his foot at the wrist like this is when it is in a hurry. When it is just walking it keeps the foot straight and spread open. The long gait of the Snowy also means it was in a hurry.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Cherry Blossoms

I have been waiting two years for these cherry blossoms to re-emerge. I filmed them two years ago, but they do not last very long. I was disappointed last year when the tree didn't have one blossom on it. That characteristic is called "biennial bearing" and is not uncommon in some types of fruit trees. When you take into consideration rainy days and poor lighting, and the fact that you may have other responsibilities, time to devote to photographs can be limited.

I felt like I was just getting to know them and, suddenly, they were gone. There is a a very real sense in which you get to know a subject and begin to understand how to present it's best qualities  as well as what can be done with the lighting, the camera and the lens.

This isn't the tidal basin with broad scenes of blossoming trees and water. This is one little tree on the edge of the woods with a trunk half the size of my wrist. So, standing back and taking in a sweep of the entire tree is out of the question.

No, Instead, it is a matter of trying to depict the essence of the tree in smaller, more intimate views. For the majority of the images, I used my go to lens — a 400 mm telephoto. Sounds like overkill, doesn't it? On some, I add a extension tube which allows me to get a little closer. I like the "bokeh" this lens produces. That is a Japanese word basically defined as the background blurring in the photos, but more specifically, the round points of light in some of the pictures.

I do not have a problem with increasing the saturation to achieve what I envision for a photo. I do not see it as any different than if I used a paintbrush to create the images. If this were journalistic photography, that would be different and accuracy would take first place. Some photographers consider that kind of manipulation almost sacrilegious, but I don't have a problem with it.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Pileated Woodpecker

I was thinking the other day how, once the leaves fully emerge on the trees, it will be much more difficult to take pictures of the Pileated Woodpeckers around the house. As if on cue, the male showed up just on the edge of the wood. The small red patch between the two white stripes on the cheek identify it as a male.

You have to admire the commitment of the Pileated Woodpeckers to one another as they mate for life. And, except at this time of year when one stays with the young in the nest cavity, they will almost always be seen together and stay within sight of one another. They share nesting duties.

I have never seen one do this with it's crest. There was a gray squirrel close by and the bird was annoyed with it. An hundred years ago, it was more likely they would be referred to as a "logcock" then a Pileated. That is often where you will see them. On the ground banging on a fallen tree that is in the terminal stages of rot. Their diet largely consists of ants and other insects found in trees in the final stages of decay.

It is also why they need such a large territory of old growth forest. It takes a large amount of logs and stumps to maintain a pair. One study estimated territory size at between 132 and 320 acres. That is a lot of ground! The more intact a canopy cover and the number of logs there are, the smaller the territory can be. The woods around our house have largely been set aside in an agreement to retain a buffer to benefit the wildlife in our area. It is not very wide in some stretches, but it is a mile or more in length.

The posture the male is assuming in this image is similar to that used in courtship. In this instance, though, the male is attempting to make himself look bigger to intimidate the squirrel which was getting too close. I saw one do this another time years ago where it spread it wings fully trying to look more imposing to a curious squirrel.

I am not sure what the squirrel had in mind but only a split second after I took this photo, the squirrel tried to jump the woodpecker and it took off. Maybe you saw the photo from England that went viral of a ferret riding on the back of a woodpecker while flying. I thought I was going to see the same thing for a second.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Just Snowies

It isn't very often I am able to get two of these birds in the same frame when they are flying. The two Blue-winged Teal with their heads above water were pure gravy (since their heads are underwater so much of the time).

I was motivated to take this picture by the beautiful water reflections. Most of the time, they are standing in ugly water.

I accidentally clicked on a the photo with the White Balance Selector and changed the color of the image. I kind of liked it and so offer it as a possibility from an alternative universe.

This walkway crosses over a narrow area of the pond allowing access to a little bit of woods on one of the shorelines. Some of the snowies have decided they like to stand on the railing. After preening itself, I think this one was bothered by feathers in it's mouth. You can see the tiny feathers at the end of it's bill.

There are several techniques different snowies use to catch fish. One is to study the water and race to a spot where a minnow may be disturbing the water. This one hurried to the shoreline and then backed off almost as quickly. It turned out the water disturbance was caused by a turtle swimming by. It is only the second one I have seen in the marsh. I didn't think turtles particularly like brackish water. The other one I saw was an Eastern Mud Turtle and based on the part of the shell I can see, I think this one probably is also. The snowy, on the other hand, may have thought it was a snapper.

I thought this odd angle on a snowy taking off had a certain "je ne sais quoi." That is French for "I don't know what." And, I don't know what, but all the colors seem complimentary — which you don't usually see in a un-staged scene, plus you get a good sense of the length of their wings.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Identifying Birds

One of the main identifying features I personally use to identify birds is bill shape. There are other clues such as size and shape of the bird, it's color, in what habitat it was seen, and perhaps even it's call, but for me, bill shape can quickly narrow the choices.

The Short-billed Dowitcher  (L) I saw a couple of weeks ago stood out from the Lesser Yellowlegs it was found among because of it's bill shape. While the habitat and general color of the two birds was the same, the bill jumped out as being quite different.

The first time I ever saw a Northern Shoveler, I knew exactly what it was because of it's distinctive bill. The spatulate-shaped bill looks very much like a garden trowel.

A Brown Thrasher can be easily confused with Wood Thrush. Both are reddish-brown birds with streaked breasts. The bills, however, are quite different.

Several years ago, I saw a bird flying at a great distance, but knew I might be able to at least identify it by it's silhouette. Up until the other day when I saw the six Glossy Ibis at the marsh, it was the only other Ibis I had ever seen. While I couldn't identify which Ibis it was, the distinctive profile did allow me to narrow it to that family of birds.

Most of the pictures in this blog are not very good but a bad picture beats a bad memory. This shore bird I saw one summer at the marsh caught my attention for a couple of reasons. One was the unusual, upturned, long, slender bill. The other reason it jumped out was the blue legs. It turned out to be an American Avocet, which isn't even suppose to be found in this area.

Sometimes, it is a combination of characteristics that help to identify a bird. The conical shaped beak on this Eastern Towhee is common to quite a number of other birds, but taking the distinctive markings into consideration, as well as the red eye, not seen in too many other perching birds, and the two-note song, one can be fairly confident about it's identification.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Red-breasted Mergansers

There have been a couple of occasions when a small flock of Mergansers have visited the marsh pond. I am not sure whether they are Common Mergansers or Red-breasted Mergansers. Both appear very similar in general appearance and they have not come in close enough to take very good photos for identification. Note how far back on their body their legs are placed. This is a good indication of a bird whose niche is diving and swiming underwater. Loons, Grebes, Mergansers, and diving ducks such as Ruddies all have this same characteristic.

I believe they are Red-breasted Mergansers for a couple of reasons. They prefer shallow water such as the shallow Bay water at the top of the photo as well as the shallow pond. They also have ragged looking crests, the long feathers at the back of the head.  Each time I have seen them, they have come in from the shallow waters on the other side of the road.

As quickly as these birds came, they left when an Eagle appeared overhead. They are not gone long, however, and as soon as they feel the danger has passed, they return. Mergansers have decidedly pointy wings compared to many other waterfowl.

Part of what is throwing me is the fact that these birds don't appear to be in breeding colors, although I should think they ought to be right now. Some have darker heads like the one in the middle here, but none have the dark green-black color of a breeding male.

The ones with the slightly reddish heads are females; the one with the dark circle around it's eye may be a male — but don't quote me on that. It could simply be a bird that needs more sleep.

Once they begin fishing, they are very fast. They fish cooperatively, all diving at roughly the same time and driving the fish ahead of them. The water in this photo is probably not much more than a foot deep, but they become very animated, racing around excitedly. Both Common and Red-breasted Mergansers have a serrated bill like a saw, which gives them an advantage when catching fish.

I wish they had been able to come in closer to my location, but the vantage point from where I shoot is too shallow for them to fish.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Saturday Scenes

Peaceful coexistence

The Snowy Egrets and Green-winged Teal (GWT) get along well together. I'm not sure why there are still so many GWT here unless they intend to nest in this area. All the duck species except for Mallards, Blue-winged Teal, and GWT have left for parts north.

The Green-winged Teal male is easy enough to recognize with his mahogany-colored head and the green patch near the crown. The female, like most female waterfowl, is dressed in more cryptic, camouflage colors which make her difficult to spot. The neon green wing patch, which is not always visible, proclaims her membership in the GWT family.

The Blue-winged Teal have also continued to stay in the marsh, although not in the numbers the GWT  have. The male of this species is also easily recognizable with the crescent-shaped white patch in front of his eye. You almost have to see the female's sky-blue wing patch to identify her properly. Again, the patch is not always visible

I'm not sure what goes on with the male members of the Blue-winged Teal. They travel in pairs and seem to get along, then all of a sudden, the males will start pumping their heads up and down, which translated, works out approximately to, "You want a piece of this?" Then it's on. This "fight" didn't last long, but the one aggressor got in a pretty good pinch.

Usually, the first indication I have of an eagle entering the air space over the marsh is the sudden flight of most of the birds. Some birds will use the tactic of freezing in place, but most take to the air like these Green-winged Teal. I just happened to press the shutter as they were passing the Osprey nest platform. The female Osprey is there, but cannot be seen sitting on the eggs. The male has his eye on the Eagle and is considering escorting the bird out of the area, which he did a moment later.