Catching Gnats and Plucking Lichens

More than with most species of small birds, the attention and interest of the observer center about the nesting habits of the blue-gray gnatcatcher because of the great beauty of its nest.

~Francis Marion Weston, 1949

One of my favorite spring arrivals is the plucky little blue-gray gnatcatcher. It is tiny, but bold. It looks a bit like a tiny mockingbird, but builds a nest like a large hummingbird. My friend, Mary, found a nest at the Garden recently and emailed me where to look as I prepared for a program. I never did find that one (they are often very well camouflaged on a branch). But, a week later, as I was leaving work, I heard the familiar “Steeve” call, looked up, and saw one fly into a small tree. I got out my binoculars, and was pleased to see a nest in progress.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher nest empty

Blue-gray gnatcatcher nest (click photos to enlarge)

A few evenings later, I brought my camera and spent some time watching this industrious duo go about the business of finishing what is certainly one of nature’s most beautiful nests. By this time, it looked like the nest was nearing completion, but the gathering of materials, and fine-tune adjustments, continued for over an hour as I watched.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher with spider silk on bill

Female bringing in spider silk

The nest is a deep (about 3 inches) cup about 1.5-2 times the size of a ruby-throated hummingbird nest. Otherwise, they look almost identical – a somewhat high-walled, elastic nest covered on the outside with lichens and held together with spider silk. The inside is lined with soft materials like plant down, hair, and fine feathers.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher in nest 2

Male checking the feel of the nest

As I watched, both adults were busy contributing to the efforts. During the breeding season, the male blue-gray gnatcatcher (photo above) can be distinguished from the female (photo below) by the presence of their black forehead and supercilium (a stripe that runs from the base of the birds beak and above its eye). The female’s head is plain gray.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher in nest 3

Female inspecting the progress

I had my big telephoto plus a teleconverter, so I was well away from the nest. The birds chose a very busy location for their activity, right next to a road and walkway that is popular with Garden visitors, so I don’t think they minded me watching them.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher in nest 5

Male placing a lichen

There were times when nothing happened at the nest for 10 minutes or so, then there were bursts of activity with a bird bringing in materials (especially pieces of foliose lichens – they look like lichen cornflakes) every minute or so. The usual routine was to fly into  a branch next to the nest, pause, then hop into the nest and place whatever material was brought in. Then there was often some fine-tuning, placing the lichen just so, inspecting it for a second, and then off again. Time spent in the nest on any one visit was usually less than 20 seconds. References say it takes about a week to complete a nest, but I think this pair could do it much faster based on what I saw.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher singing

Male singing

Blue-gray gnatcatcher preening

Male preening

In between nest-building activities, the pair would pause for some singing, preening, or the important duty of nest protection. I am a bit worried about this particular nest, since it seems in a more open location than many I have seen. There are a lot of hazards to any nesting bird, especially one so tiny. I witnessed a few bouts of territorial defense as this pair chased after a crow and a pair of blue jays that flew through their air space. And a pair of brown-headed cowbirds received a lot of attention when they perched within 50 feet of the nest. Both adults repeatedly dive-bombed the cowbirds, who seemed uninterested. They eventually flew off, and nest building resumed about 5 minutes later.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher pressing down in nest 1

Shaping the cup

The final stage of nest building is refining the shape of the cup. This is something they put their whole body into…the adult plops down into the nest with just their head and long tail (the tail accounts for about 45% of the total body length) visible and pushes against the sides of the nest, shaping it as they rotate their body around, flexing the sides until it is just right.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher pressing down in nest

Putting your whole body into getting the shape just right

At times, I could barely see their head at all, with just the slender bill projecting above the lichen wall. I checked on the nest the next few days and saw no activity, so I figured they had completed construction. And now, I see the female sitting in the nest for long periods of time, so I assume she is incubating her eggs. I will keep you posted on their progress.

Unfurling

Only spread a fern frond over a man’s head and worldly cares are cast out, and freedom and beauty and peace come in.

~John Muir

Before there is a fern frond, there is a fiddlehead. The curled tip of an unfurling fern frond resembles the curled ornamentation (called a scroll) on the end of a stringed instrument, such as a violin. It is also called a crozier (or crosier), from the curved staff used by bishops, which supposedly has its origins in the shepherd’s crook.

It is a ritual repeated every spring, and one that always catches my eye…the beautiful and detailed unfurling of the frond, starting at the base of the leaf blade and progressing outward and upward. It is one of the simple delights of spring.

A gallery of ferns unfurling from the woods behind our house, to the NC Botanical Garden to the Green Swamp…

Fern fiddlehead

Southern shield fern fiddlehead (click photos to enlarge)

early Cinnamon fern

Cinnamon fern

Cinnamon fern fiddlehead

Cinnamon fern fertile frond

Cinnamon fern unfurling group

Cinnamon fern group

Cinnamon fern unfurling 1

Cinnamon fern

Christmas fern fiddlehead pair

Christmas fern

Royal fern unfurlng 1

Royal fern

Royal fern unfurlng

Royal fern

Bracken fern unfurling 1

Bracken fern

Bracken fern unfurling 2

Bracken fern

 

 

Changing Weather

Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.

~John Ruskin

We have had a variety of “good weather” lately, including a brief return to winter white yesterday morning. It had been predicted for several days, but when I awoke, it was just cloudy and cold. As I sat sipping some coffee, I noticed the first few tiny flakes. There was soon a dusting covering everything but the stone steps and gravel driveway, which must have retained enough heat to prevent the snow from sticking.

forest after a brief snow

The view across the road after the “snow” (click photos to enlarge)

Spring has arrived a few weeks early this year so many flowers are in full bloom that would normally just be flirting with opening. It made for some odd sights as we walked the property. But, by the time we finished the walk about an hour later, the skies had cleared and almost all of the snow had melted. March in North Carolina…

Junco in redbud with snow

Strange photo partners – a dark-eyed junco and redbud flowers, with a dusting of snow

Ruby-crowned kinglet

A ruby-crowned kinglet was busy at the suet feeder

Columbine in snow

Wild columbine with snow crystals

Columbine bud in snow

Maybe I should stay closed

Phlox and snow

The first phlox are rethinking their opening

Red buckeye in snow

Red buckeye about to open

Unfurling painted buckeye and snow cruystals

Painted buckeye bud beginning to open

Christmas fern fiddlehead and snow

Christmas fern fiddlehead

Unfurling fern fron in snow

Unfurling with a blanket of snow

Bottlebrush grass in snow

Bottlebrush grass seed head from last season bent over with the weight of some snow

Spider web with snow

Bowl and doily spider web with snow. These were the last places the snow melted and as we returned, the woods looked like someone had dropped white rags everywhere in the low branches. Perhaps having the cold air swirl all around these little snow platforms allowed them to retain their wintry prize a little longer.

 

 

 

Being in the Moment

Our public lands – whether a national park or monument, wildlife refuge, forest or prairie – make each one of us land-rich. It is our inheritance as citizens of a country called America.

~Terry Tempest Williams

Sometimes you just need to spend time in a wild place, in your special place. This weekend was such a time. Luckily, I had a magical trip to two of my favorite public lands this weekend – Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. My friend, Art, and several of his friends, were supposed to go with me the weekend of the snow/ice storm, but we had to reschedule because of road conditions. Once again, the weather did not look promising (rain this time), but we managed to dodge most of the storms, and enjoyed the subtle light and saturated colors of the overcast skies. Oddly, even though I had my gear with me, I only took about 20 images for the entire weekend, all with my phone. This weekend was for reflecting, for taking it in, for renewal. I wanted to experience the place, to feel land-rich.

duck feathers

Duck feathers along the bear trail (click photos to enlarge)

The swans are still putting on quite a show at Pungo and their sounds define this place. Gray skies and the occasional mist made the surroundings more intimate. The snow geese continue to be unpredictable and the low cloud ceiling made it even harder to see them. Several flocks went over us during our first day and we could hear them, but not see them, which I found both frustrating and somehow peaceful. We spent a lot of time with the swans, and all found a way to be in the moment as they returned to the lake by the thousands at sunset.

bear claw marks

Bear claw marks on a tree

A walk in the woods revealed plenty of bear sign, but no bears (we finally saw one moving into a corn field after sunset). I am concerned about the lack of bear sightings this winter, but hope they are just spooked from the hunting season and so many people on the refuge, and things will return to normal later this spring.

cattail marsh after snow/ice

Cattail marsh along the boardwalk at Mattamuskeet NWR

This was a very visual group of people, with eyes trained by careers in design and time spent surveying scenes of the world. I enjoy being with folks like that, it encourages a slow pace, the pace of discovery and wonder. Lichens on tree trunks, the disheveled appearance of a cattail marsh after ice and snow, and the track patterns of a deer highway through the woods are all cause for quiet celebration and contemplation.

rain drops and reflections

Rain drops on tree reflections along the boardwalk

Water levels are still quite high at Mattamuskeet, so bird numbers seem low, at least in the areas accessible to the public. The variety of ducks did provide some excellent views, along with  couple of sleeping raccoons in a small tree, and a few white-tailed deer in the marsh. A gentle rain started falling as we walked the boardwalk, adding another pattern to the already elegant design of tree trunk reflections in the dark waters.

tree silhouette north shore mattamuskeet

Reflections along the north shore

Gray skies and thick, low clouds helped us decide to bring our trip to a close. One last stop imprinted the message of the wildness in our minds – the stillness, the reflections, the stark beauty of the places we had witnessed. The abundance and proximity of life found here is to be cherished. I am thankful for these places and the opportunity to experience and share them. I have probably used this quote before, but it seems appropriate after a good weekend with good people in two of my favorite places…

Cherish sunsets, wild creatures and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth.

~Stewart Udall

Merlin Magic

…we will not care about what we do not recognize.

~Tim Beatley

I have spent a lifetime trying to learn about the world around me. Not about the financial sector, or cars, or electricity (all of these, I now realize, might actually have come in handy), but about the natural world, the plants and animals that live around me. It is just who I am, what interests me. In his essay on the importance of fostering a connection to the natural world, Tim Beatley starts by saying – What we choose to name and the names we choose to remember, for the places, people and things around us, says a great deal about what is important to us. I have spent a lot of years trying to help people learn the names of things in nature and have come to realize that it takes time. On many of my field trips, I remember being frustrated when people could not remember the name of some interesting creature we had just observed. I finally realized that it often requires that the person is prepared to receive that information and that they want to learn it. In his 2013 article, Dr. Beatley offers numerous suggestions on how we can help foster a connection to nature through helping people become better acquainted with their natural surroundings. He also recognizes that new technologies and applications may of course help us here as well. I-birds and I-trees that make it easier and quicker to identify birds and trees. Well, it is happening…

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-6-44-55-am

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology launched its popular Merlin App in 2014. It is billed as an online field guide assistant for beginning and intermediate birders. The app asks you a series of questions about the bird you just saw (such as the color, size, and behavior), much like an experienced birder would if they were trying to help you identify it. To be honest, I never downloaded that app, figuring I had enough experience to use field guides and figure most birds out on my own. But, late last year, a new feature was added – the Photo ID portion of the app. I heard about it from a couple of people I know, saw a review online by a fantastic wildlife photographer I follow, and then had a friend post about it on her blog. I decided to check it out and downloaded the free app to my iPhone (also available for Android devices; being developed for laptops and other non-mobile devices)..

Details on how it has been developed are mentioned in a press release about the launch of the Photo ID portion of the app last month. The app claims to have about a 90% accuracy rate in identifying over 600 species of North American birds. I decided to give it a test drive and see for myself.

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The app has a simple and elegant design. You simply click the Photo ID tab and either take a photo or choose a photo from your files.

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I used an image of a sharp-shinned hawk I had taken a couple of years ago at Roads End. Even good birders struggle with identifying this species from its larger cousin, the Cooper’s hawk. You zoom the image in until it roughly fills the box…

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The app pulls information off your photo as to date and location. I had to fill in the location information since this was a photo I uploaded from a file on my computer, not one directly from my camera. Once I had added Pittsboro as the location, the app can compare my image to its database of images (I think it has at least 1000 images of each species covered) and then gives you an identification.

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Boom! It got it right. It even gives alternative possibilities if you scroll down in the app. This can be very important for some species where confusion is likely (like this one), or if the photo you use is not that great.

I soon realized I didn’t need to transfer images from my laptop to my phone for identification, I could simply click the Take Photo tab and take a picture of my laptop screen with my phone and use that image. So, here is another. For these next few images, try to identify the species before you see the Merlin App identification. As this progresses, I intentionally use pictures of lesser quality, those that I normally would delete from my files, to see how the app performs.

This first one is a photo of a pretty nondescript species (taken with my phone of a fairly good shot on file on my laptop, note some of the squiggly computer screen lines in the photo).

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And here is what the app said it was…

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Indeed, it is a female of a warbler, the common yellowthroat. The app gives you multiple images of each species so I swiped through and found an image of a female (turns out my image is better than the one they have on file). In all fairness, I knew what that bird was. If I hadn’t, it might have been tough for me to figure out based on the images the app provided. But, the beauty of this is it gives you a place to start in terms of looking up your bird in a field guide (book or online).

Here’s another, a bird I photographed with my iPhone as it was getting dark in the Boundary Waters last October. This bird landed next to us on a boulder and walked around, allowing me to get a good look, and this crummy photo. I did not know what species this was, as I had never seen this one before. Once we got back home, I identified it using my field guides, but the app got it on the first try.

BWCA shorebird

Grainy iPhone photo of an unknown shorebird in Minnesota in October

An American golden plover, a new species for me. Once again, I had to swipe through the images to find the shot of the bird I saw in its non-breeding plumage.

Here are three more just for fun…

raven

Black bird in NC mountains

Merlin gave me the wrong answer the first time, calling this a fish crow. I zoomed in even more, tight on the bill, which is diagnostic of this species, and it got it right (did you?).

img_2748

Notice that fish crow is the second option this time (other options are listed below the primary choice in the app). I found that zooming in and out did make a difference on some species. The first time I tried the next photo, I was in very tight on the whole bird and it gave me red-headed woodpecker as the answer.

black throated blue

Mystery bird in NC mountains in May

Zoom in on the photo and see if you can identify it. I edited my photo on my next try by backing off a little and, this time, Merlin was right.

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It is a male black-throated blue throwing its head back in song.

I tried a range of images of a variety of species differing in photo quality. They were all images where I knew the identification of the bird from other, better images, taken at that same time. Merlin did not get a black-capped petrel or the glaucous gull from the pelagic birding trip I took last winter. Turns out that species of petrel is not one in the database as yet, and the gull was misidentified as an Iceland gull. And, it surprisingly gave me a related species (correct species as second choice) on the following really terrible image I used from the Christmas bird count this year.

_-3

Mystery bird from Christmas bird count at Pungo

Guesses?

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Yes, a blue-gray gnatcatcher, a species not often seen in winter in these parts (but also not an extreme rarity). Interesting that it gave me a species from the southwestern United States even though I put in the location information for our count. But, to get any gnatcatcher from that photo is pretty impressive if you ask me. The photo does not show the flitting behavior, nor the relatively small size I witnessed while watching the bird in person.

Overall, I think this app is a great tool for anyone that wants to identify the birds they photograph. I get asked a lot of questions about bird identification (which I enjoy tying to answer, by the way), but I will also be recommending this app for all those folks from now on. Give it a try, download Merlin and have some fun. While you are at it, I recommend making a donation to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to help them continue to produce valuable information for all us folks trying to learn about, and conserve, the birds around us ( I just did).

Creating a Sense of Wonder at Pocosin Arts

If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later year…the alienation from the sources of our strength.

~Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

Downton Columbia 1

Downtown Columbia at sunrise  (Pocosin Arts lodge on left, studios across the street) (click photos to enlarge)

I spent a few days last week helping others learn to observe and visually record the natural world in a workshop sponsored by Pocosin Arts in Columbia, North Carolina. This is the fourth time I have taught a class at Pocosin Arts, and each time has been a real treat. The staff are so accommodating and the facility is wonderful, and now includes a beautiful lodge. A small group gathered to explore some of the areas I love in this region of rich natural resources, and to learn how to better observe nature, and record it in a journal. My friend and neighbor, Jane Eckenrode, took the lead in helping students gain confidence in creating memorable sketches of nature as we spent a few days observing the features and creatures of this wild area, including Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. My goal, as always, was to help people learn to see the world through new eyes, and learn to appreciate some of the tremendous natural diversity that surrounds us.

sunrise on boardwalk at PLNWR VC

Sunrise view form the boardwalk on the Scuppernong River at Pocosin Lakes NWR

After some initial hands-on observations of natural history mysteries and tips on sketching, we spent the next few days out looking for wildlife.

White-tailed deer at PLNWR

White-tailed deer at Pocosin Lakes NWR

Our primary mammals were white-tailed deer and several of the region’s most famous critters, black bears. We also saw some animal signs that intrigued us, including some huge bear tracks (we made a couple of plaster of paris casts)…

Turtle tracks

Turtle tracks crossing a sandy road

…and some initially puzzling trackways.

Great egrets

Great egrets at Mattamuskeet

Birds were a constant companion at both refuges, with the impoundment at the entrance to Mattamuskeet providing great views of flocks of waders (including great and snowy egrets, little blue herons, great blue herons, white and glossy ibis).

green heron

Green heron along boardwalk in Columbia

pileated woodpecker juvenile

Juvenile pileated woodpecker along boardwalk

The interpretive boardwalk behind the visitor center at Pocosin Lakes NWR in Columbia proved to be one of the best places to see and hear birds. I had not spent much time on this boardwalk in the past, but will now try to walk through any time I am in the area as it is rich in plant and animal life and affords close up views of a variety of species.

Dragonfy on grass stalk

Dragonflies ruled the skies last week

The most common wildlife we saw were the small ones that many people rarely notice, and, foremost among the legion of invertebrates, were the dragonflies.

Golden-winged Skimmer

Golden-winged skimmer

Golden-winged skimmers seemed to be perched on every grass stalk at the observation platform at Mattamuskeet. They had easy pickings as there were what appeared to be millions of midges emerging from the lake as a tasty morning snack.

Eastern Pondhawk male

Eastern pondhawk, male

Eastern Pondhawk female

Eastern pondhawk, female

Other species we observed included Eastern pondhawks, great blue skimmers, slaty skimmers, and blue dashers (dragonflies have some interesting names as well as behaviors).

Argiope and shadow

Argiope spider and its shadow

We even found eco-art in some strange places including a beautiful spider web and shadow lit by the rising sun on the side of a pit toilet at Lake Mattamuskeet. You just never know what you might find if you pay attention (or where you might find it!).

After our four days together, we all had a better sense of place about this area, and a better appreciation for how special it is. I know I will be back to Pocosin Arts soon…it is a great place to relax and take in the scenery, the culture, and the wildlife of one of my favorite places on the planet, the wilds of Eastern North Carolina. And the name is perfect because the natural art found in these wetlands is food for both the eyes and the soul. If you find yourself traveling toward the Outer Banks this summer, stop and check them out. Better yet, take a class at this unique facility and expand your vision of the world around you. Hope to see you there…

Some natural beauty along the boardwalk in Columbia…

swamp leatherflower

Swamp leatherflower, a type of wild clematis

Painted turtle and reflection

Painted turtle and reflection

bumblebee on pickerelweed

Bumblebee on pickerelweed flower

Marsh mallow buds

Marsh mallow (Hibiscus) buds

swamp rose

Swamp rose

Royal fern b and w

Royal fern patterns

Fly eyes

Fly eye art

bald cypress trunk b and w

Bald cypress trunk

Walking with Warblers

From those tall hemlocks proceeds a very fine insect-like warble, and occasionally I see a spray tremble, or catch the flit of a wing. I watch and watch till my head grows dizzy and my neck is in danger of permanent displacement, and still do not get a good view.

~John Burroughs, on trying to observe warblers in the woods, from In the Hemlocks, 1910

Most of us can relate to what naturalist John Burroughs had to say about trying to observe warblers. Birders typically hear them before seeing them, then strain for a glimpse, often looking straight up into the tall trees, trying to catch enough of a view of the flitting creature to confirm an identity. It can lead to the malady known as warbler neck, and can be frustrating . But, when it pays off, it can pay off big, as these tiny songsters are among our most beautiful birds.

Black-throated blue warbler male 2

Black-throated blue warbler (click photos to enlarge)

Spring is warbler time as they migrate from their wintering areas to their breeding grounds dressed in their finest. While we do have several species that nest here in the Piedmont, many others are passing through, on their way to higher elevations or latitudes to breed and raise their young. But, there is a place where warblers are incredibly abundant during spring migration, or at least that is what I had read. That place is the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area on the south shore of Lake Erie.

Trail entrance Magee Marsh

West entrance to Magee Marsh (click photos to enlarge)

It is a 2000+ acre state wildlife management area, adjacent to Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, and is home to the famed Magee Marsh boardwalk, which regularly appears on lists of the top birding spots in America. It is also home to The Biggest Week in American Birding festival for ten days each May, around the peak of the spring migration.

Magee Marsh boardwalk 1

Birders line the boardwalk at Magee Marsh

The boardwalk is just under one mile in length, but is the destination for thousands of birders each spring due to the amazing number and variety of birds that tend to pile up here, waiting for the right conditions to fly across Lake Erie as they migrate north. I was a bit hesitant to visit such a potentially crowded area, but really wanted to see this spectacle, so we decided to arrive on the last day of the festival and spend a day or two birding, hoping the crowds might thin. When I made my lodging reservations, it was apparent we would not have had any choice anyway, as every lodging I could find in the area (it is in rural farmland about 30 minutes from Toledo) was booked through the festival. Birders are obviously good for business. Arriving on Sunday afternoon, we avoided the crowds, and spent a couple of productive hours on Wildlife Drive at nearby Ottawa NWR. The next morning, we arrived at Magee Marsh a little after sunrise, with only a dozen or so cars as company. This is a good start, I thought. It turns out, weather this year had delayed the migration a bit, and the weather last Monday (chilly, with winds out of the north) is the perfect set up for keeping the birds in place, and low, making them much more visible. It would be one of those days to remember…

Missed shot

I have way too many shots like this, or with just twigs where the warbler had been

Based on some tips about birding the area I read online, I was carrying my 300mm telephoto, a flash, and my tripod onto the boardwalk. After walking about 50 feet and already seeing several warblers, and viewing the conditions (thick vegetation and close proximity to birds), I carried the tripod back to the car. This is a place for quick photos, maneuverability, and reasonable focal lengths (plus, the tripod is difficult to use when the boardwalk is crowded). Birds were everywhere! And close! As we made our way down the boardwalk, more and more birders started to arrive. But, in spite of the developing crowds (and this is the day AFTER the festival), you could always just walk a few feet and have a bird to yourself. It turned out to be an incredible day, a tiring day, but a really rewarding one. The hype is for real…this is an incredible place to bird. Below are some portraits of some of the 22 species of warblers we observed at Magee Marsh in our day and a half of birding. In addition to these 18 that are represented in photos, we had 4 others – yellow-rumped warbler, prothonotary warbler, worm-eating warbler (heard), and ovenbird (heard). The official checklist for the ten day festival period this year had 34 species of warblers viewed by the throngs.

Tennessee warbler

Tennessee warbler

Canada warbler

Canada warbler, one of the toughest to get a good look at, as they tended to stay hidden in the low shrubs

Wilson's warbler

Wilson’s warbler, another skulker that was rarely far from a thick tangle of twigs

Chestnut-sided warbler 2

Chestnut-sided warbler

Northern parula warbler male 1

Northern parula warbler

Magnolia warbler 1

Magnolia warbler

Bay-breasted warbler

Bay-breasted warbler – it took me most of the day to finally get a clear shot

Black-throated green warbler

Black-throated green warbler

Blackburnian warbler

Blackburnian warbler

Northern waterthrush

Northern waterthrush

common yellowthroat

Common yellowthroat male

Black-and-white warbler

Black-and-white warbler

Blackpoll warbler

Blackpoll warbler

 

Palm warbler

Palm warbler

American redstart male

American redstart

Black-throated blue warbler male

Black-throated blue warbler

Yellow warbler male

Yellow warbler

Cape May warbler 1

Cape May warbler

There were a few species we saw that I never managed to get a clear photo of, but, as you can see, it was an amazing day for warbler portraits. The other thing I loved was having the time to watch these beautiful birds do their thing, and to be close enough to observe some of the details of what they were doing. I spent about ten minutes with this Cape May warbler, watching it probe among the flowers on just one branch of this shrub (some type of gooseberry or currant??).

Cape May warbler 26

Probing for…?

Cape May warbler

Warblers are great arboreal acrobats

It almost looked as if it was drinking nectar from the flowers, but, after looking at zoomed-in images of this behavior, I think it was meticulously gleaning aphids from the the petioles and flowers.

Northern parula foraging

Northern parula doing a head-stand while foraging

While we were there on Monday, most of the birds were busy foraging in the thick vegetation bordering the boardwalk. On calm days, or when there are southerly winds, many of the birds will be higher in the trees feeding.

Cape May warbler foraging on tree trunk 1

Cape May foraging on tree trunk with a midge taking flight just above the bird

A couple of species (Cape May and Chestnut-sided warblers, in particular), often moved along tree trunks, picking off midges and other tiny insects from the furrows of the bark.

Black-and-white warbler 2

Black-and-white warbler forages much like a nuthatch

Of course, that is the primary feeding strategy of a species like the black-and-white warbler, although it seems to spend more time spinning around branches than it does creeping up trunks.

Chestnut-sided warbler with fish fly

Chestnut-sided warbler with a huge meal

While most of the warblers were feeding on small insects, like midges, one lucky guy managed to snag a beak-full. A chestnut-sided male grabbed a huge winged critter (I think it is a male fishfly), and after struggling to subdue it, dropping it, and recapturing it on the wing…

chesnut-sided warbler gulping down meal

Going, going, …

managed to gulp it down.

American redstart male singing

American redstart singing

The other prime activity seemed to be singing. And what a treat, especially for a guy that is losing some of his high frequency hearing, to be so close to so many species of songsters.

Chestnut-sided warbler singing

Chestnut-sided warbler singing

Northern parula warbler male singing

Northern parula belting it out

It was a fulfilling day of low level warbler-watching. After spending over 12 hours on the boardwalk, we were both pretty tired. I even had my first-ever photo-blisters from gripping and maneuvering a heavy camera rig all day. That night, as predicted, the winds shifted, creating favorable conditions for a flight over the lake (most warblers migrate at night). Many of the birds must have taken advantage of the winds, as the next morning was noticeably different. It was still great, but the birds tended to be higher up in the trees, and, they just were not quite as abundant. Experienced birders recommend spending a few days in the area for this very reason, since conditions can vary considerably from day to day with changes in weather.

Blackpoll warbler 1

The blackpoll warbler is a

When you stop to appreciate what these tiny birds have gone through to make it this far, it is humbling…the blackpoll warbler, for instance, winters in Brazil and migrates almost 5000 miles to its nesting grounds in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska. During the fall migration, this species takes a more easterly route that includes flying out over the Atlantic Ocean for distances up to 2100 miles non-stop (a flight that has been recorded to take up to 88 hours). The phenomenon of bird migration is one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world, and Magee Marsh is certainly one of the most remarkable places to witness it in spring. I’m glad we were fortunate, on our first visit, to experience it at its best.

Suet Sightings

I think the most important quality in a birdwatcher is a willingness to stand quietly and see what comes.

~Lynn Thomson

This past week must have been the peak of spring migration in our woods. Every time I looked out, I saw something of interest, either just passing through among the branches, or stopping by the feeders.

Rose-breasted grosbeak in tree 1

Rose-breasted grosbeaks have been very abundant this past week (click photos to enlarge)

One of my favorite migrants is the rose-breasted grosbeak. They have been here for a couple of weeks now but seem to have reached their peak this past week. I have counted as many as eight at one time near the feeders. The males are one of our more boldly marked birds, with striking black and white and a colorful rose-colored breast and underwings.

Rose-breasted gtrosbeak female

Female rose-breasted grosbeak

Females arrived about a week after the males and don’t seem quite as abundant. They are drab in comparison, but are still a striking bird, especially with that bold head stripe and huge beak.

Rose-breasted grosbeak ifemale at suet

Female rose-breasted grosbeak helps herself to some suet

And they have been putting that beak to good use at both the sunflower feeders and the suet. It seems the suet has been getting more than its share of visitors this spring and on a few recent days, the birds have gone through more than one entire suet cake in a day (there are two suet feeders out).  I decided to set the camera up with the tripod, 500mm lens, and a flash, to see what I could record. The light is best late in the day when there is a shadow cast on the feeders, but still plenty of ambient light on the trees behind the deck. The flash highlights the birds without appearing too harsh, as is the case earlier in the day. In three afternoons, I had some pretty good luck, plus some bonus species that didn’t visit the suet, but were feeding in nearby trees.

Female common yelowthroat

Female common yellowthroat foraging in some low shrubs

Among the passers-by were a few warblers, including a female common yellowthroat, a worm-eating warbler, some northern parulas, and several black-and-whites. Some beautiful non-warblers also made the scene – American goldfinches, northern cardinals, blue-gray gnatcatchers, and summer and scarlet tanagers, along with a few others I’ll mention later.

Rose-breasted gtrosbeaks at suet

A pair of male rose-breasted grosbeaks at the suet

But most of the action has been at the suet feeders. So, close to one of the feeders on the deck, I attached a branch to the rail with a clamp, and set up the camera in the bedroom with an open door (yup, real wilderness photography), and waited. Here are a few of the highlights…

Blue jay at suet

A pair of blue jays have been making the rounds

Carolina chicadee on branch

A Carolina chickadee having a bad hair day

Downy woodpecker male on branch

Downy woodpecker hanging on

Tufted titmouse

Tufted titmouse thinking…suet or seed? So many choices…

Red-bellied woodpecker male on branch

Red-bellied woodpecker male showing how he got his somewhat confusing name

Black-throated blue at suet

A black-throated blue warbler is the highlight of my suet sightings

But, of all the birds that are coming to the suet, my favorite has to be a male black-throated blue warbler. This is the first time I have had one of these beauties visit a feeder. There have been several moving through the trees (including one female that I have spotted), but this little guy is a regular visitor at the suet.

Black-throated blue on branch 2

This little male is rather bold, but only stays a few seconds on each visit

Male black-throated blues are one of our most stunning spring warblers, with a beautiful blue back and top of head, set off by the black throat and sides, and a white belly. They are common spring migrants in the east as they head north or to our mountains to nest. They may look so fresh and bright because they probably spent the winter in the Bahamas or the Greater Antilles. My warbler guide says they are frequent feeders at peanut butter or suet during migration, so I am glad this one (or more than one?) is living up to its reputation.

Black-throated blue on branch best

A quick pose, and then off he goes

I am glad I am around to appreciate the beauty of this tiny visitor, however long it decides to hang around. Sunday afternoon was a special treat with this guy visiting every 30 minutes or so, plus, out in the yard, a great crested flycatcher, two blue-gray gnatcatchers, and two male northern orioles (a new species for the property).

Rose-breasted grosbeak male on branch

Rose-breasted grosbeak waiting his turn

Oh, and the rose-breasted grosbeaks are still here, chowing down. Guess I had better get some more suet.

Patterns of Spring

We find the works of nature still more pleasant, the more they resemble those of art.

~ Joseph Addison

This Spring has been incredibly beautiful here in the woods. Always a favorite time of year for me, it has been heightened by the almost perfect weather in recent weeks. The fresh green color of the season seems to sparkle in the sunlight streaming through the leaves. On the ground, there are daily discoveries to be made of something emerging from the leaf litter or starting to bloom. And while I have had plenty of chores and appointments to keep me occupied, I try to walk the yard as often as possible, and notice the players in this ephemeral show. If I pause and look around, there are always colors, shapes, and patterns that affirm that this is the month where new life bursts forth and beckons us to slow down and notice, before it disappears for another year.

Here are just a few indicators of the season from the past couple of weeks…

pawpaw flower and bud

The unusual flower of pawpaw (click photos to enlarge)

trillium leaves 1

Trillium leaves

fern fiddlehead

A fern fiddlehead

mayapple leaves

Mayapple leaves

red buckeye flowers up close

Red buckeye flowers up close

red buckeye flowers on duckweed

Red buckeye flowers that have fallen into the water garden onto a bed of duckweed

foamflower

Foamflower

tent caterpillar silhouette

Eastern tent caterpillar headed down a tree trunk to pupate

Phlox flowers

Phlox flowers

dutchman breech's leaves

The lacy leaves of Dutchman’s breeches

columbine flower

Wild columbine

Sunrise, Sunset

Let the beauty we love be what we do.

~Rumi

The older I get, the more I find beauty in the dazzling displays of light and clouds that form the sunrises and sunsets of my life. They remind me of the passing of time, of things seen and to be seen. They can form the book ends of a memorable experience in a wild place, or in a day simply looking out the window here in the woods. And, true to form for me, I prefer the skies (and temperatures) of winter to those of summer. This past weekend, I had a group of photographers with me on a trip to Pungo and Mattamuskeet, and we were keenly aware of the majesty in the skies as we chased the light each morning and evening, and enjoyed the subtleties of color that paint our surroundings and the life that calls this big sky country home. Later this week I will post about some of the extraordinary wildlife we observed, but, today, I just want to share some of the simple artistry we experienced at sunrise and sunset, surely the best times of day.

Sunset Friday night at Pungo…

Swans at sunset 1

Tundra swans flying back to the refuge at sunset (click photos to enlarge)

Sunrise Saturday at Pungo…

canal reflections

Canal reflections at sunrise

Swans at sunrise

Morning light tinting the feathers of flying swans

Sunset Saturday at Mattamuskeet…

Ibis in golden light

A golden hour spotlight falls on roosting white ibis

ibis silhouette at sunset

Juvenile white ibis in bald cypress tree

Great egret preening in golden light

Great egret preening at last light

Great egret flying at sunset 2

Sunlight bathes the underside of a great egret coming to roost

 

Great egret flying at sunset 1

A different angle to the sun creates very different lighting on another egret

broomsedge highlighted by setting sun

Broomsedge seeds glow in the setting sun

Cypress tree at Lake Mattamuskeet 1

“The tree” at sunset at Lake Mattamuskeet

pink cloud at sunset

Pink clouds and tree silhouettes

Sunrise Sunday at Lake Mattamuskeet…

 

cypress island at sunrise

Sunrise at the cypress island at Lake Mattamuskeet

Golden lining to clouds at sunrise

Telephoto shot of clouds on the horizon

Golden lining to clouds at sunrise 1

Golden lining to clouds at sunrise

Sunset Sunday at Pungo…

swans at sunset

Swans flying in against a thickening cloud cover

Fiery sunset

A surprise fiery sky as we drove back to Plymouth

These ephemeral glimpses of beauty help remind us what an amazing world we live in and how we should pause to enjoy it, to make it what we do, and to live in the moment.

Here is a moment of extravagant beauty: I drink it liquid from the shells of my hands and almost all of it runs sparkling through my fingers: but beauty is like that, it is a fraction of a second, quickness of a flash and then immediately it escapes.

~ Clarice Lispector