Just a Bird…

Spend time every day looking and listening without any ulterior motive whatsoever. Look not as a writer, or as a philosopher, not even as a scientist or artist—look and listen, simply, like a child, for enjoyment, because the world is interesting and beautiful. Let in nature without the vast and complicated apparatus of duty, ambition, habit, morals, profession—look and listen like a child to the robin in the tree.

~David Grayson

Much of my time outdoors is spent wandering, not for something in particular, but just wandering and being open to whatever I discover. Even in a place like Yellowstone, known to wildlife-watchers as one of the premier places in North America to observe charismatic megafauna like bison, bears elk, and wolves, there are many treasures that await those who are open to them.

Western tanager

Western tanager male (click photos to enlarge)

Before my guests arrived, I stopped at a pullout in Lamar Canyon to scan the far ridges for some of those magafauna I mentioned, but what caught my eye was brilliant flash of yellow and orange in a nearby conifer. A male Western tanager, one of the most beautiful birds in Yellowstone! Suddenly, there was another, and then another. I raced over to the van for my camera, long lens, and tripod, and that caught the attention of a passing motorist. The common refrain when someone sees a spotting scope or long lens pointing at something is “Whaddya have?” or something similar. I responded with “a  couple of Western tanagers”, and got that look, the one I often get when I am photographing a bird, insect, or something besides one of the big mammals. It is even sometimes accompanied by that phrase, “It’s just a bird”, and then they drive off. Well, I have had many memorable just a bird moments over the years, too many to recall really, and that goes for birds in Yellowstone as well. And a few Western tanagers are sure to catch my attention anytime. A couple of other park visitors even came over to try to photograph them once I pointed them out.

Below are a few more of those moments from this trip.

Hawk attacking eagle

A hawk dive bombs a bald eagle that was flying too close to its nest

sparrow nest 1

The ground nest of a vesper sparrow that we accidentally flushed while walking through the sagebrush

Fledgling American robin

A fledgling American robin near my cabin in Silver Gate

Red-naped sapsucker in hole

A red-naped sapsucker peers out of its nest cavity in an aspen tree

Flicker male at nest 1

A male Northern flicker at its nest cavity after feeding a young bird

Flicker at nest

Female Northern flicker feeding young

American avocets

American avocets feeding in Floating Island Lake

American avocet

American avocet

Osprey at nest

Osprey nest with one bird  sitting on eggs, and the mate sitting nearby

Osprey coming in for fish

Osprey making a strafing run on cutthroat trout spawning in the creek at Trout Lake

Osprey catching trout

Osprey snags a trout just behind the tall grass along the creek

Osprey catching trout close up

It looks like the fish is caught by only one talon

Osprey catching trout 1

The osprey tried to lift off with its struggling prey

Osprey flying off with trout

Right after this photo was taken, the trout wriggled free and fell back onto the water

Bird species observed in and around Yellowstone National Park – June 10-18, 2017

60 species:

Trumpeter Swan; Canada Goose; American Wigeon; Mallard; Cinnamon Teal; Green-winged Teal; Northern Shoveler; Ring-necked Duck; Lesser Scaup; Bufflehead; Barrow’s Goldeneye; Common Merganser; Ruddy Duck; Ruffed Grouse; Western Grebe; American White Pelican; Osprey; Bald Eagle; Red-tailed Hawk; American Coot; Sandhill Crane; Killdeer; American Avocet; Wilson’s Snipe (heard); Wilson’s Phalarope; California Gull; Rock Pigeon; Great Horned Owl; Williamson’s Sapsucker; Red-naped Sapsucker; Northern Flicker; American Kestrel; Peregrine Falcon; Gray Jay; Stellar’s Jay; Black-billed Magpie; Common Raven; Tree Swallow; Violet-green Swallow; Cliff Swallow; Barn Swallow; Mountain Chickadee; House Wren; American Dipper; Mountain Bluebird; American Robin; European Starling; Yellow-rumped Warbler; Chipping Sparrow; Vesper Sparrow; White-crowned Sparrow; Dark-eyed Junco; Western Tanager; Red-winged Blackbird; Western Meadowlark; Yellow-headed Blackbird; Brewer’s Blackbird; Brown-headed Cowbird; Cassin’s Finch; Pine Siskin

Christmas Week Birds

To be standing together in a frosty field, looking up into the sky, marveling at birds and reveling in the natural world around us, was a simple miracle. And I wondered why we were so rarely able to appreciate it.

~Lynn Thomson

While visiting Melissa’s family in Richmond, I often take walks around a section of shoreline of Swift Creek Reservoir adjacent to where they live. I am always amazed at the abundance and diversity of birds in a relatively narrow natural shoreline designated as a Resource Protection Area in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Below are some of the birds spotted on a few walks this week…

Eastern bluebird

Eastern bluebird (click photos to enlarge)

There are at least 15 to 20 bluebirds foraging through the natural area, often returning to a few American holly trees to glean what must be the last few berries. They also spend a lot of time sitting and watching, then dropping down to the ground like small hawks, picking up unseen morsels (maybe some insects moving about in a sunny spot).

Yellow-rumped warbler preening

Yellow-rumped warbler preening

Numerous small birds move through the woods, often together in a mixed feeding flock. In addition to yellow-rumps, I saw ruby-crowned kinglets, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, song sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, and American goldfinches.

Northern flicker

Northern flicker female


It was the woodpeckers that really had my attention in one particular patch of woods. There was a downy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpeckers, and several Northern flickers. I watched one female flicker (she lacks the black mustache of a male) repeatedly poking her bill into a small knothole on a tree. Others were doing what flickers often do, hopping around on the ground probing for one of their favorite foods – ants.

Northern flicker from behind

Northern flicker – back view

Flickers really are beautiful birds when you get a chance to study their varied plumage. The red heart-shaped patch on the back of the head is particularly pleasing. Many of the small black dots on the breast are also heart-shaped. Perhaps a bird better suited for Valentine’s Day than Christmas.

Red-headed woodpecker mature male

Red-headed woodpecker adult

The highlight of my walks was the chance to watch several red-headed woodpeckers forage, chatter, and chase one another. I don’t see them often where I live, as they seem to prefer places with lots of standing dead trees in relatively open habitat, like beaver swamps. They are one of noisier woodpeckers, chattering frequently, allowing me to find them easier than many other species. Adult males and females look alike, with bright red heads and a boldly patterned black and white body.

Red-headed woodpecker imm male

Immature red-headed woodpecker

Juveniles differ in having a brownish or splotchy red/brown head. This one had a small territory amounting to a couple of hundred feet of shoreline containing a narrow strip of trees. It kept going back to one dead snag, so I finally worked my way over to where I could see what it was doing…

Red-headed woodpecker with acorn

Red-headed woodpecker preparing to fly off with acorn

It was digging out acorns that it presumably had stashed in the loose bark of the snag. Red-headed woodpeckers are one of the few species of woodpecker that regularly cache food. It is also considered our most omnivorous woodpecker with a diet that includes seeds and nuts, insects, berries and fruits, birds eggs and nestlings, and even mice.

Double-crested cormorant fly-by

Double-crested cormorant

The most noticeable birds along the reservoir were the hundreds of double-crested cormorants that flew in and out every afternoon and morning. I stood at the edge of the water and watched them fly by me, turn back into the wind and land, either on the lake, or in the trees on an island a few hundred yards away.

Cormorants in tree

Cormorant roost

The cormorants have used this island as an evening roost for at least the past few years. They make a lot of noise at the roost – various squawks and grunts, plus a lot of splashing and washing in the water near the island. A fleet of ring-billed gulls swam nearby, as well as several species of waterfowl including pied-billed grebes, ruddy ducks, buffleheads, mallards, hooded mergansers, Canada geese, and a few ring-necked ducks.

Ring-necked duck

Ring-necked duck drake

I always enjoy seeing ring-necked ducks with their distinctive ringed bill and bold color pattern (that head can be quite purplish in the right light). Surely, the bearer of one of the least descriptive common names for a bird, the ring-necked duck is known to hunters by the much more reasonable common name of ringbill. There has even been a recent attempt, perhaps tongue in beak, to rename this beautiful duck to more accurately reflect its appearance (see http://www.audubon.org/news/its-time-rename-ring-necked-duck). The actual ring on the neck is a narrow chestnut brown band separating the dark head color from the dark breast feathers in the males only. Not a very useful field mark at all.

All of these birds are all a delight to see on a cold winter morning (especially the two immature bald eagles that sailed by). So, this holiday season, be sure to get outside and give yourself the gift of “…marveling at birds and reveling in the natural world around us”.



Yellowstone in Feathers

 ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
~Emily Dickinson

It has been a busy week, but I finally had a chance to wrap up some images and thoughts about my recent Yellowstone trip. Like every trip out there, this one helped me see the world as it should be, at least the wild parts do. Being there is an experience of feeling free – free from the drumbeat of the daily news (and it has been a particularly steady drumbeat this political season); free to feel the joy of sharing a place I love; and free to feel that there is hope in this world. I usually don’t take quite as many images when I have other folks with me as I spend more time trying to get them to places to see the things they want to see. But, I still managed some shots, especially of birds. Plus, I had a couple of days by myself before the others arrived and decided to spend some of it just watching some of the smaller wildlife the park has to offer.

Great Horned Owl nest with three young

Great horned owl chicks in nest in Lamar Canyon (click photos to enlarge)

It seemed it was the season of the owls this summer, especially great horned owls. I had seen reports online of a nest high on a rock face in Lamar Canyon and was delighted to see it on my first evening in the park. The three chicks were quite visible in their seemingly precarious perch across the Lamar River. I checked on them every day I was in the area, and they all apparently fledged by the time we left the park.

Great Horned Owl chick under eave

Great horned owl fledgling in Mammoth

I also checked in on another nest that is usually in a tree in the Fort Yellowstone area of Mammoth. It was in the same conifer as last year and the  two chicks fledged within a few days. Much to my surprise, one of the chicks ended up about 200 feet from the nest up under the eaves of a three story building. I guess it must have some flight ability as I can’t imagine it “branching” and climbing up the side of that stone building.

Great Horned Owl adult

Great horned owl adult sitting near chick

Just a few feet away was one of the adults, calmly sleeping under the roof overhang. The next day both birds were gone, but we found the chick in a nearby cottonwood tree.

Great horned owl with chick in nest in Beartooths

Great horned owl nest in Beartooths

The day we went up the Beartooth Highway, I checked a nest I had found last year along the road. Sure enough, another active great horned owl nest. These chicks seemed a bit further behind developmentally than their counterparts from the lower elevations in the park.

Great Gray owl fledgling

Great gray owl chick

I was fortunate to once again tag along with my friend, Dan Hartman, as he checked a great gray owl nest he has been observing outside the park. Great grays are the largest owl in North America, and it is always a pleasure to spend time with these magnificent birds in their forest home. When we walked in, I spotted a chick that had just fledged and had climbed a leaner to perch above the ground (a much safer place to be in these woods).

Great Gray Owl chick

Great gray owl chick high in branches near nest

We soon spotted another fledgling high in the branches just beyond the nest. A third, smaller chick, remained in the nest.

Great Gray Owl female

Female great gray owl

The adult female was nearby, watching over the chicks. A northern goshawk nest was not far away, and we soon witnessed an encounter between an agitated hawk and the female owl. The hawk came screaming through the trees as the owl took flight, striking the owl from behind. The owl went down to the ground. But, other than missing a few feathers, the owl seemed fine, and soon continued to hunt while the hawk disappeared into the forest. Soon, the male owl showed up and we witnessed a simultaneous feeding of the two fledged chicks by the two adults.

Great Gray chick with prey 3

Great gray owl chick with food brought by male owl

I was near the first owl chick, which was closer to the ground than its sibling. The male owl flew in, clung to the side of the tree trunk next to the chick, and transferred a small mammal to its begging beak. It was a mouthful (looks like a northern pocket gopher, a favorite prey of great grays). The chick struggled with it, and in the dim light, I managed a lot of blurred images and a few decent ones.

Great Gray chick with prey

Going down…

The chick finally managed to swallow the food after a lot of gulping and head shaking.

Raven nest

Raven nest on cliff

Several other nests were spotted during our visit, including the highly visible raven nest that is usually on the cliff wall in the area known as the Golden Gate, just outside Mammoth.

Sandhill cranes at sunset

Sandhill cranes at sunset

 We saw several pair of sandhill cranes with their young (called colts), feeding in wet meadows along various waterways in the park. It is always a thrill to see, and especially hear, these majestic birds.
Male and female green-winged teal

Female and male green-winged teal

Green-winged teal male

The male is distinguished by a cinnamon head with a beautiful green eye mask

One afternoon I was fortunate to spend about 30 minutes alone with a pair pf green-winged teal just behind Soda Butte. We were hidden from the road by the formations of this old thermal feature, and it was a pleasure to just sit and watch this pair as they fed in a side channel of Soda Butte Creek.
Ruddy duck male

Male ruddy duck with his Carolina blue bill

Eared grebe

Eared grebe

Floating Island Lake provided good views this year of several species of water birds, including some ruddy ducks and eared grebes that were busy courting and fussing.

Harlequin duck

Lone harlequin duck at LeHardy Rapids

American dipper on rock

American dipper bobbing on a rock before diving in…

American Dipper feeding

…looking for dinner underwater

LeHardy Rapids once again provided some good bird watching with a single harlequin duck out on the usual rock, and a very active American dipper feeding in the rushing water ( I never tire of watching these unique birds and their amazing feeding style).
Clark's nutcracker with bison scat pile

Clark’s nutcracker picking through some bison scat for who knows what

Cliff swallow nests

Cliff swallow nests under roof overhang of pit toilet

Trumpeter swan on Soda Butte Creek

Trumpeter swan along Soda Butte Creek

Trumpeter swan with leg band

It wasn’t until I looked at the image on my laptop that I saw the swan has a large leg band

Mountain Bluebird male 1

Mountain bluebird

 While most people are more interested in the charismatic mega-fauna of Yellowstone, I find some of the smaller forms of wildlife, especially those with feathers, to be just as interesting and fun to watch. It is a treat to be able to spend time with these feathered beauties each time I visit this incredible wonderland.


Here is the bird checklist for this year’s trip:

Canada Goose, Trumpeter Swan, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Mallard,   Cinnamon Teal,  Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup, Harlequin Duck, Bufflehead,  Barrow’s Goldeneye, Common Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Wild Turkey, Eared Grebe, Western Grebe, American White Pelican,  Osprey, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Peregrine Falcon, American Coot, Sandhill Crane,  Killdeer, American Avocet, Spotted Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, California Gull, Great Horned Owl, Great Gray Owl, White-throated Swift, Northern Flicker, Gray Jay, Stellar’s Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, American Magpie, American Crow, Common Raven, Tree Swallow, Violet-green Swallow, Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Mountain Chickadee, American Dipper, Mountain Bluebird, American Robin,  European Starling, American Pipit,  Yellow-rumped (aka Audubon’s) Warbler, Green-tailed Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Red-winged Blackbird, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Brewer’s Blackbird, Western Meadowlark, Brown-headed Cowbird, Purple Finch, Cassin’s Finch, Pine Siskin


Sunset Birds

Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty, if only we have the eyes to see them.

~John Ruskin

While we saw a variety of wildlife on our Florida adventure, I was a bit surprised we had not seen as many birds as I had hoped. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it has been a wet winter in South Florida, which apparently causes the birds to be more spread out than usual during the winter months.

great egret preening

Great egret preening in Big Cypress

There had been plenty of scattered sightings (and some great views) of egrets, herons, hawks, and song birds, but no large concentrations. On our last evening in Florida, I was hoping to change all that. On the advice of our kayak tour company, I had booked a sunset boat tour with Allure Adventures out of Everglades City. I was told Captain Kent was a long-time local that took small groups out to the mangrove islands at sunset with the chance of seeing lots of birds coming to roost, beautiful skies, and maybe even dolphins and sea turtles. He lived up to the promotion.

manatee sign

A nice Florida combo – osprey nest on a manatee zone sign in the channel

We met him at at the dock at 5:45 p.m., boarded his small boat, and headed out into the area known as Ten Thousand Islands. Close to shore we saw pelicans, a few egrets, some cormorants, and passed by a couple of osprey nests.

rooskery islands 1

One of several mangrove islands filled with birds coming to roost at sunset

Within a few minutes, we saw a cluster of mangrove islands dotted with birds, lots of birds.

Great egret coming to roost

Great egrets settling in for the night

As our boat slowly circled the islands, I could see hundreds of great egrets, brown pelicans, white ibis, cormorants, and other species jostling for position as more of their kind flew in to roost for the evening.

Brown pelican at roost

Adult born pelican surveying us as we cruise by the island

brown pelican head close up

Adults have yellow heads and white necks; immature pelicans are gray-brown on their head and neck

Boats are required to stay a certain distance away from the roosting birds so as to not disturb them. Our slow speed, the calm waters, and a telephoto lens (plus a cropped image) allowed great views and close-ups.

red mangrove on sandy beach

The last mangrove island before the vast expanse of the Gulf of Mexico

Promising we would return before sunset, the captain steered us out through a maze of islands until we came to the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. We beached the boat and got out for a stroll for a few minutes to take in the view and immensity of the scene.

dolphins behind boat

Dolphins riding our wake

Cruising back toward the birds, we spotted a couple of sea turtles, and a small group of dolphins. As we passed through the area where the dolphins had been swimming, the captain said they often like to “play” with the boat. Sure enough, it wasn’t long until we had dorsal fins trailing in the wake of our boat, with dolphins taking turns leaping out of the water behind us.

I’m not sure who enjoyed it more, the dolphins or us.

sunset boat tour

Cruising through the mangrove islands at sunset

We spent several minutes enjoying the company of the dolphins, but the captain soon turned the boat back toward the bird islands. The sun was setting and he wanted us to see how many more birds were now occupying the mangroves.

rooskery islands

Hundreds of birds dotted the mangroves at sunset

magrove island sunset

Birds were flying in to roost from all directions

As we approached, the trees were speckled with white and dark shapes, with more coming in from all directions.

Great egrest at sunset

Spectacular scene at sunset


White ibis at sunset

White ibis coming in to roost

The color of the sky became a flame orange as we circled the islands one last time. This was what Captain Kent wanted us to see…the bird rookery with a golden sky as a backdrop.

great egret carrying stick against orange sky 1

Some of the egrets are busy building nests in the mangroves

It was a perfect way to end our trip – calm waters, a beautiful sky, and huge numbers of birds flying in for the evening. This was what I had hoped to see, the spectacle of wild Florida. And I must also thank Captain Kent for going above and beyond the call of duty. One of our party left behind a pair of rather expensive binoculars, presumably out on the mangrove island we had walked on. The captain made a special effort to look for them on his next outing, and, amazingly, found them. They have been shipped to the owner, and we all thank him for an amazing trip, and his kindness. Now, that IS the perfect ending.


In a Fog

In nature, everything has a job. The job of the fog is to beautify further the existing beauties!

~Mehmet Murat ildan

Spider web with dew

Spider web in lifting fog at Viera Wetlands (click photos to enlarge)

I just got back from a whirlwind trip south to the so-called Space Coast area of Florida. I have always wanted to visit Florida in winter to see the bird life and now finally have the time to do it, although I still only managed to visit a few key places. I will post a few blogs over the next week on what I found, but wanted to start with a short post on my last two mornings. I had watched the weather and picked a week when conditions looked good for photography, so you can imagine my initial disappointment when my last two mornings were heavily socked in by fog.

Sandhill Cranes in fog

Sandhill Cranes in fog at one of the “Click Ponds”, Viera, FL

At first, I viewed the fog as a thief of the light, stealing the precious few hours of prime low-angle light that can make all the difference in a wildlife photo. The Sandhill Cranes I had hoped to photograph with the golden light of sunrise on their feathers were not much more than dark blobs in the mist. But, as I was in a place full of wildlife and I wanted to observe and photograph, I decided to move to the other side of the wetland pool and shoot into the sun that was struggling to make its presence known. Most of the cranes had already left by the time I got to the other side, but there were plenty of other subjects. So, here are some images of birds silhouetted by the rising sun as it tried to burn through the dense ground-hugging cloud. See if you can identify the birds by shape – there may be some repeats (answers are at the end of this post).

Great Egret hunting in fog

White pelicans in fog 2

Anhinga in fogBald Eagle in fog

White Pelicans and Tree Swallows in fog

You have seen one of these already – what is the other species in this image?

Great and Snowy Egrets in fog

Nice comparison

Tri-colored Heron in fog

Mixed flock of waders in fog

Now that you have had some practice….

Okay, here are the answers to the quiz:

Great Egret

American White Pelicans


Bald Eagle

American White Pelicans with a flock of Tree Swallows

Great Egret with Snowy Egret

Tricolored Heron

Great Blue Heron, three Great Egrets, two Snowy Egrets, four Greater Yellowlegs, White Ibis

Here are a few more images from the hour or so the fog coated the landscape…

White Pelican landing in fog 1

American White Pelican landing

Tri-colored Heron preening in fog

Tricolored Heron preening

White pelicans in fog 1

American White Pelicans in fog

Great Egret in fog

Great Egret and Greater Yellowlegs

White Pelicans as fog lifts

American White Pelicans as fog lifts

Grass seed heads in fog

Grass seed heads laden with moisture from lifting fog

A Cup’s Worth of Birds

Summer Tanager

Summer Tanager (click to enlarge)

Yesterday morning I sat out by the garden with a cup of coffee to listen and watch for birds – spring migration is in full swing. Here are the species seen or heard in about 45 minutes of sitting and sipping:

Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Turkey Vulture, Yellow-billed Cuckoo (first of season), American Crow, Blue Jay, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Mourning Dove, White-breasted Nuthatch, Pine Siskins (still a few around surprisingly), Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Bluebird, Wood Thrush, American Goldfinch, Chipping Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Indigo Bunting, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Cardinal, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black and White Warbler, Northern Parula Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Eastern Wood Peewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, Red-winged Blackbird.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird-4

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (click to enlarge)

Not a bad list for one cup of coffee…

The afternoon before there were two Rose-breasted Grosbeaks at one feeder and this evening I also heard a Great Horned Owl. I love spring (and good coffee).