Saturday, October 31, 2015

Looking Back

The Chesapeake Bay region is within the Rusty Blackbird's winter range. On the Eastern Seaboard it stays along the coast up through southern New England. As the summer progresses, the rusty feathers become worn and the bird turns darker.

The Wilson's Snipe is also a bird that can be seen in this area over winter. They breed throughout Canada and Alaska, so this area is like their Florida in winter.

This is one of the Osprey pair that nests on the platform on the edge of the marsh just outside of town in North Beach. This was just at the beginning of the nesting season, a time of final preparations on the nest.

I'm not sure if this is the male or female. It was early April and the bird looks in excellent health for having finished it's migration a week or two earlier. It is not a tagged bird.

Both the male and female gather material for the nest. That is what this Osprey is doing. They do not land to do this, but fly low over the marsh and snatch grasses and mud for the nest in their talons without stopping. This one gathered a clump of mud and took it to the nest. A little while later both flew, one right after the other, picking up mud like WWII fighter planes in a strafing run.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Five on a Friday

I saw these two crows back in the spring. They appeared to be trying to decide where to site their nest. The crow's nest on a masted ship purportedly got its name because it was so high up like a — er, crow's nest.

This Bald Eagle also had nesting on it's mind as it parachuted down into the marsh to pick up a stick. Perhaps, like Osprey, they add sticks to their aerie throughout the year, because this was already past the time when they would have been nesting.

Can you imagine how long it would take to clean your entire body if you had to use a toothpick? The tips of their bills are pretty much all they have for preening. phttt...

Bald Eagles spook just about any other species of bird. Like these Green-winged Teal, birds feel safer if they are in the air when an Eagle is flying around.

The ones with the mahogany and green heads are the males. The less colorful ones are the females. Eventually, they settle back down when the Eagle becomes a speck on the horizon. Their numbers bottomed out in the early 1960's at about three quarters of a million. Today, there are roughly 3.5 million Green-winged Teal.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Early Snows

I took a bunch of photos of Snowy Egrets at the marsh in the spring. I was like an addict who couldn't help himself. Who would have thought the mud could make such a nice backdrop, the way it isolates the birds?

The black leg, orange-yellow foot is typical of the breed. Young have duller greenish legs.

Osprey often find sticks on the ground to carry back to the nest. This one, however, had actually broken the branch out of the tree.

The bird on the right portrays the typical egret posture; the bird on the left is in a posture more reminiscent of a heron.

By August the long aigrettes, or breeding plumage, are shed in a molt prior to the migration south but until then, they are pretty spectacular looking.

Monday, October 26, 2015

A Mix of Species

Northern Shovelers are such graceful birds in flight. I posted another frame from this series back in the spring. I was glad to capture them against the backdrop of a sycamore rather than just sky. They have one of the longer wingspans of ducks. When their young are born, they have a regular duckbill shape. It is only as the mature that the bill becomes "spoonbill" shaped with the tip being almost twice as wide as the base.

This is about as monochrome as it gets out in the wild. These are mostly Lesser Yellowlegs with a couple of Snipe mixed in.

Blue-winged Teal can be very difficult to photograph because they spend so much time with their heads underwater. If they had not been moving from one mud flat to another, I would not have gotten so many with their heads above water. Notice how difficult it would be to identify the females from other similarly mottled females of other species. They do have a telltale patch of blue on their wing, but it is not always visible.

Lesser Yellowlegs eat mostly insects but will occasionally eat small fish if the opportunity arises. I photographed one catching and eating a small fish in the spring. Females will abandon the nest before the young can fly, leaving the male to defend them until they can fend for themselves.

When they are only moving a short distance to another location, they won't tuck their feet, but will let them hang down in readiness to land. Many other species also do this. It is not as aerodynamic as pure flight.

Early on, I was able to photograph some striking images of Snowy Egrets against mud backdrops that appeared almost as if they were painted. It caused the birds to really stand out. The streams that coursed through the mud narrowed the area where minnows could swim, making it easier for them to be caught.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Disappearing Act

The colors and patterns on many animals can make it very difficult to spot them in their environment. In addition to camouflage, they also use other techniques to hide. One common method used by many different animals is to simply stand completely still.

In this photo, the two male Wood ducks can be seen fairly easily over on the left. The left arrow points to a third half-hidden male and the arrow on the right is pointing to a Great Blue Heron that you might have overlooked if the arrow wasn't there.

I recall a mother raccoon that brought her two babies up on the deck one year and tried to catch my wife's goldfish out of her little pond. I went out there and the mother took off, but the babies froze in plain sight thinking that if they were simply completely still, they would surely be invisible. Even when I shushed them, they wouldn't move.  This is not the pond; it is the birdbath, where they were politely washing their hands before the main course.

I was painting around the front door yesterday afternoon when a herd of ten or more Whitetail Deer snuck down the ridge on the side of the house. I watched one acting just like a kid. It went from tree to tree hiding most of it's body behind each one and peeking around the side. This photo was taken last year from the same porch where I saw the herd coming from the back of the house. I beat them to the side porch and got real still before they passed. This female spent the longest time standing still and studying me to see if I would move and whether I was a threat.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Highly Processed

I was going to continue yesterday's blog with the thoughts I am about to relate, but I decided to give them their own space since it is a change in the entire subject.

Digital photographs right out of the can are mostly blah. I don't care how you choose to set your camera, they are not going to look all that good. No one who takes photography seriously is going to be happy with the images just the way they look right out of the camera.

Photographers are a cagey bunch. Read photography magazines and they will admit to making "minor adjustments" in tone or contrast, etc. "But otherwise," they insist, "The image is just like I saw it out there in the wild." Yeah, right.

Who starts a race and doesn't finish it? Who goes half-way and says, "That is far enough?" No one I know of! It doesn't make sense. That is essentially what these guys are saying, though. I could have done more, but I wanted to keep it "real."

You want to know the truth? I process the heck out the pictures I take until I am completely happy with the results. The subject matter may not be that great, but I keep processing until I get the result I am looking for.

I have been using a program for a couple of years that beats Photoshop by a mile and with a lot less effort. (If you are curious about what the program is called, email me.) Sometimes I end up with so many pleasing versions, I have a hard time deciding which one to choose.

Both of today's photos are the same except for one detail: in the first the color saturation was enhanced quite a bit while in the second it was diminished almost as much. The difference affects the birds almost not at all, but it does affect the background. Since there is so much white in the picture, the second creates a monochrome appearance and changes the mood of the image.

If you click back and forth on the thumbnail pictures, you'll get a better idea of the differences between the two photographs.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Four on a Friday

American Ringed-necked ducks are very cool looking with the white markings on their face. I can't figure why they don't call them Ring-billed ducks since the white ring around their bill is much more obvious from a distance than a ring around their neck. The brown one in the middle is the lone female in this bunch. For a supposedly common duck, I don't really see all that many of them. They might be mistaken for the Greater Scaup which has similar markings sans the rings.

Here is another mystery. I don't understand why this swan is so perfectly content to live life alone. You would think it would miss the companionship of others of the same species. There was a Sandhill Crane in this area a few years ago that also spent its days in a solo existence for at least a couple of years. I don't know if it is still in the area or whether it finally went looking for other Sandhills.

Here she (or is it he?) is patrolling her domain. I wonder what her reaction would be if another Mute Swan visited the pond. That would be interesting to see. Her wings are in the raised or "warning" position indicating an aggressive attitude, although I don't remember anything being near her that she might be upset with. Unless it was me. She had passed by me a few minutes earlier.

It is open season on Wood Ducks right now. It wasn't all that long ago that the population was facing extinction of a lack of good nesting sites. They naturally nest in tree cavities found in bottomland hardwood forests. Volunteers got organized and started building and installing nesting boxes and, before you know it, the ducks started coming back. There was probably a population of between twenty-five and fifty at this pond early in the spring. I am not sure where they are finding all the nesting cavities because there isn't one box on this pond that I am aware of.

A mother Woody will encourage her young to leave the nest the day after hatching. That can entail a jump from a hole in a tree fifty feet or more up and a march of up to a mile to get to water. They are precocious, born with their eyes open and the ability to do many things on their own such as swim. This pond is hemmed in a by major highways and a railroad track, so there is a limit to where they can find suitable nesting cavities. They are finding them somewhere close, though, since there were quite a few clutches of chicks on the pond in the spring.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Orderly Chaos

I am not sure how professional nature photographers can make a living. Take a photograph like this. Except now substitute the seagulls with Whooping Cranes or Sandhill Cranes and the background for Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico or some other "exotic" location. What is the difference between the controlled chaos out there or right here near home? My answer is a few thousand dollars for airfare, hotels, rental car and meals. When you get back, you are several thousands dollars in the hole before you even attempt to sell a print.

I personally would just as soon stay close and film these birds. But you say, "They are nothing but stinkin' seagulls!" To which Winnie the Pooh would reply, "Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.." What is it that piques your interest in a photo like this? Is it the species of birds or the chaos? If the answer isn't the former, the photographer has gone to New Mexico for nothing.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Islands in the Sun

Birds standing in water, like these Lesser Yellowlegs, remind of little islands. I thought I would have more opportunity to photograph them this summer, but that didn't happen.

Here are three Killdeer on little islands. They always strike me as being very worried birds. It is strange how animals can embody certain qualities.

Sometimes I take a picture that is intended to be an ornament to a photo book — if I ever do one. Like a little postage stamp-sized image at the beginning of a chapter.

A pig in a puddle

Look at this drake! How in the world can he extract anything nutritious out of that mess? Maybe a better question is, How can he extract himself from that mess? He would have to either slog out or fly. Fortunately, Mallards can take off straight up.

The green on Green-winged Teal is not green — it is neon GREEN! I wouldn't be surprised if it was glow-in-the-dark too. Teal are the last ducks to migrate and the first to return. They are already back in this area. The two in back are males.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Fall Photo Ops

I enjoy photographing on the Patuxent because I can do two things at once: film the birds in the area and wait for the perfect light to photograph the Autumn foliage. The birds will always have you waiting so you may as well have a secondary goal as well. Okay, so I may have pumped up the colors a little.

Reflections like these are not available any time you want to film. Sun angle or position and water conditions (flat water and no wind) have to be just right. Not to mention the leaves are at peak for only a short period.

This photo and the next are very similar and were taken on the same morning.

This is the photo I was referring to in yesterday's post. Compare this image and the last and see if the fish splash doesn't add just the right ornament to the picture. I could not have timed that. It was caught at the perfect instant when the water was arced just right. The fact that it isn't centered in the frame is a bonus. My eye circles around the image and returns ineluctably to the splash.

It fulfills most all the major intentions I try to achieve with a photo. It has whimsey, a sense of innocence, peacefulness, and beauty. Without the splash, I think the photo would only exhibit the last two characteristics.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Garden Party

But it's all right now, I learned my lesson well.
You see, ya can't please everyone, so ya gotta please yourself.
                                                                   — Rick Nelson

It has taken me a long time to reach the point where I don't wish I had someone else's photographic talent. I am happy with my own. If you happen to like some of the photographs I create, great. If not, my daddy had a folksy southern saying that fits — if you don't like my peaches, don't shake my tree.

The ponds I visited over the past winter continually amazed me with the variety of waterfowl they attracted. There are three species in this image, but I could have just as easily displayed a photo with five or six kinds of birds. You have to pick your shots because the backgrounds are not always picturesque at these ponds. I failed in that regard, but I was focused (no pun intended) on the beautiful banking moves of the upper three Canvasback Ducks.

The extreme northern tip of the Chesapeake Bay's waters is fairly shallow. It is ideal for growing sub aquatic vegetation (SAV), but in recent times the health of the plants have ebbed and flowed with the silt from heavy rain events. In good years, the grasses attract ducks by the thousands, especially Canvasback.

SAV in smaller ponds can also attract puddle ducks and divers and the competition may not be as fierce. One type of grass is so favored by American Wigeon, like the female in the picture, it has been given the name wigeon grass.

A Wigeon and an American Coot went into a pond — stop me if you've heard this one...

Sometimes, unintentionally, my timing has been just right to capture something I couldn't capture if I tried. In this photo, a coot is just emerging from a dive underwater and I happened to catch the moment. That has also happened surprisingly frequently with fish jumping out of the water. I can think of one photo I took which, in and of itself is nice, but a classic splash of a fish that I just happened to catch, really sets if off. I'll see if I can find it and post it...

I am a sucker for the choreographed landings of Canada Geese. They can be as artful as the Radio City Rockettes. Try as I may, for some reason I can not ignore a flock of geese going over. If I am out in the yard doing something, I have to stop and watch. I can't help myself.

My most memorable moment involving geese was not even a picture I could share, but a mental image. I was sitting on the porch one mild autumn morning on which there was a heavy fog over the region. I heard the complaints of a flock of geese growing louder and louder and could tell they were going to pass right over me. They flew over barely above the trees like half-seen ghosts in the fog. It is hard to describe how beautiful it was.

I caught this hawk (variety unknown) in a dive that I felt sure would end in the capture of some unsuspecting prey. To my astonishment, it wasn't hunting at all but was simply landing in a tree. Birds will often fly downward on the way to landing on a branch and turn upward just as they reach the branch so that their flight stalls and they land gently and almost effortlessly.

That is what this one was doing, except that it was doing it at very high speed and in an arc that took the entire height of the tree to slow it down.

It had so much forward momentum it was in the top of the tree before it slowed down enough to land in the top branches. It is the only time I have ever seen a hawk do such a thing.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Kelvin-Helmholtz Waves

Often, the way that I learn about something new is by investigating something I have seen that I don't understand. Being out in "the field," I almost constantly confront things that motivate me to look into them in more detail. Weather is one of them. I never knew there was anything like a fogbow, for example (think rainbow made of fog), until I experienced one while filming on the river.

On this particular morning, however, I saw a cloud formation that I had never seen before. I took the photo quite some time ago, but I didn't realize there was actually a name for the phenomenon. The corona around the sun exhibits this effect all the time — although a total eclipse is about the only time you could view it.

It is pretty much the same affect that cause waves over open water where the wind over water results in excessive turbulence. In the atmosphere, the wind above the tops of the clouds is moving much faster than at the base, which causes them to develop a rolling motion.

It probably is more common than we realize, but cloud cover masks the phenomenon in many cases. The atmospheric condition is named after scientists Lord Kelvin and Hermann von Helmholtz, who discovered the process that causes the formations.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Hunting Season

A flock of Gadwall parachuting into a pond

Fall has returned and with it, the sound of gunners gunning. I personally could not shoot waterfowl, but I don't have a problem with those that do. Opening day on the river is loud with shotguns going off all up and down the shoreline and geese complaining and looking for safe haven.

I only ask for two things: clean kills and don't just throw them in a trashcan when you are done hunting. That use to bug the heck out of me when I would see a fisherman who didn't want to clean the fish simply throw them away. It made me wonder why catch and release never occurred to the selfish soul.

Hunters contribute much more than most people generally realize to the conservation of bird species and wetlands. They don't just take, but give a lot in return. They are knowledgeable about the ecological issues that plague modern society, something from which we could all take a lesson.

If you are interested in filming ducks and geese, I have found that a good place to get information on their whereabouts is Ducks Unlimited. I signed up for emails and hunters from all over the region tell me what they are seeing. I may not go where they are hunting, but it indicates what species have arrived in the area and what I can expect to find when I go out to take pictures.

Next time you see one, thank a hunter that you aren't overrun by Canada Geese or whitetail deer.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

A Sense of Loss

It is surprising how many little things add texture to our lives when you think about it. We all have little things that help to make us comfortable or add a measure of  joy to our existence. Or maybe not. For some people it seems, joy in life is being miserable. But, that is another story.

One of the things that always adds a small dab of joy to many of my days is the sight of a pair of wrens and their great example of fidelity. If they aren't within eyesight of each other, they are always at least within shouting distance. And, for a such little bird, they do have a booming voice. They do everything together. If  you see one at the feeder, it was a sure bet to see the other one somewhere close by looking in cracks between deck boards for bugs.

Earlier, in the spring of this year, I posted some photos of the pair coming and going with food for their young. They had constructed a nest in one of the flower baskets we hung this year.

We also have another hanging basket that is left up year round. I had constructed a little "cave" out of one of those semi-disposable plastic storage containers. Sand at the bottom with leaves over that and a little sphagnum moss added. In winter, the pair would come in, usually well before dark, and retire to the cave. It hangs far back on the porch keeping it out of the wind and any rain or snow. Even if we weren't sitting out on the porch for them to fuss at when they came in the evening, I would hear their loud conversation from inside the house and know they were retiring for the evening. It was almost like watching a little processional the way they would retire each evening.

In the last month or so, I had only been seeing one wren — and that only occasionally. When I was filming the hummingbirds, one of the pair had come in and landed on a "prop" near the feeder. The bird was looking pretty disheveled, but I thought it was molting. Maybe it wasn't.

Yesterday, I took everything off the porch to power wash it, including the little hanging basket "cave." That is when I discovered the remains of one of the wrens. It is odd because my wife had experienced the same thing at work where a wren had returned to the last nest where she had raised her young and died there. Perhaps they saw it as a familiar and safe place to spend their last hours. I couldn't help but feel a sense of loss for  a little sprite that has always brought joy to my world just by living out it's life around my house.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

In Context or Getting Your Ducks in a Row

I found this image with mud on the faces of most of the Canvasbacks and a bonus Redhead in the middle of them for comparison between the two breeds. The second and fourth from the left are females.

I have to wonder if Mute Swans aren't getting a bum rap. They don't chase all birds out of their territory. The only birds I have seen them chase are geese. The swan is unconcerned with all the ducks in this picture and I observed the swan over the summer share a beach with Mallards and a fallen log with herons. Personally, I don't have a problem with them chasing the ubiquitous gooses.

I took this image of the Mute Swan early on in my acquaintance with the breed. I thought the lifted wings were lovely, but didn't realize that is suppose to be a sign of aggression. Her (or his — I'm not sure) head is cocked in curiosity as she eyes me to determine if I am a threat. Had I known this, I might have been a little more concerned for my safety. They are an imposingly large bird that could do some harm.

Ben Carson has been complaining about the news media distorting what he says by reporting his comments taken out of context. And he is right. The liberal media intentionally do that to conservatives It seems to me, a  close-up photo of a bird can be similarly taking the bird out of context. Like I said recently, it has taken me a while to come to grips with the idea that not all of my bird photos are going to be in-your-face close. On the other hand, not many people are willing to show you their not-so-close shots. So, maybe there is a niche there that my images are filling.

It is gratifying to see a bird like the Pileated Woodpecker thriving in an area like this. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a close relative, is in all likelihood extinct because it's preferred habitat was so specialized. This bird lives in an area with a heavily travelled highway close by and commercial businesses which include equipment that can be very loud. Not ideal, but it is nice to see him making it none the less.