My Personal Connection to an Ornithology Legend

What do birders do when it’s raining? Well, today I decided to bird indoors…at the art museum. In recent years, the Toledo Museum of Art has been featuring special bird exhibits every other spring, timed to align with the massive avian migration along the Lake Erie shore. This year’s exhibit is called “Before Audubon: Alexander Wilson’s Birds of the United States.” It showcases the work of Alexander Wilson, who produced his massive 9-volume work American Ornithology before John James Audubon published his better-known The Birds of America.

Before Audubon - Alexander Wilson exhibit - Brown Thrasher Volume 2

The image above shows pages from Volume 2 of the museum’s first edition of Wilson’s series, featuring the Brown Thrasher. I encourage you to enlarge the photo so you can read his text about this bird. And perhaps you’ll also be able to see that the eyes on the Bay-breasted Warbler and the Gray Catbird sparkle. As I looked through the glass case at this page, I first thought he’d placed gemstones as eyes, or maybe there’s glitter in the paint or something. I’m not sure how he did it, but those eyes seemed alive.

Wilson was born in Scotland and immigrated to America after being imprisoned briefly for writing poetry about poor conditions in the mill where he worked. He settled in Philadelphia and became a teacher. His neighbor William Bartram became his mentor as he studied birds and learned to draw them.

Of course some of my favorite images are of the woodpeckers. In the left image, he shows (clockwise from left) Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-headed Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker. On the top of the second image he shows a Pileated Woodpecker (left) and the presumed-extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Below their heads he shows them again, with a Red-headed Woodpecker for size comparison. With the exception of the Ivory-billed, all of these woodpeckers can be seen here in northwest Ohio.

I learned at this exhibit that it was because Wilson’s work had been so popular that Audubon was able to secure financing for his own work. I found this interesting commentary on one of the interpretive signs:

Wilson had helped to popularize ornitholology in America, and his approach had a strong impact in Europe, helping to renew the market for natural history studies. Consequently, Audubon was able to secure more funding than Wilson had ever enjoyed. The result was a luxury production, with plates printed and hand-colored on the largest paper available at the time (the double elephant folio) and each bird shown life size.

The scientific community in Philadelphia–the publishing capital of the U.S. at the time–remained loyal to Wilson, forcing the “upstart” Audubon to publish Birds of America in London.

Before Audubon - Alexander Wilson exhibit at TMA - about Wilson

I pulled out my copy of Audubon’s The Birds of America to compare to the images I’d just seen of Wilson’s birds, and I noticed a couple interesting things.

Audubon's Birds of America - from my copy - pileated woodpeckers
Pileated Woodpeckers by John James Audubon

First, Wilson’s birds are mostly shown without much surrounding habitat, and with multiple species combined in each image. Audubon’s birds, on the other hand, are usually shown as individual species in dramatic poses with detailed backgrounds of flowers and trees. And I’d never noticed before that the captions include the names of the flowers and trees in most cases. I’m so glad I discovered that.

The museum’s exhibit explained that, due to financial concerns, Wilson put more species in each image to save paper costs. Clearly Audubon had no such constraints.

Over the seven years Wilson worked to document birds, he traveled over 12,000 miles and had to overcome many difficulties. I went to Amazon and found a used copy of Alexander Wilson’s Life and Letters, and that tome is on its way to my eager little hands right now. I can’t wait to read about how he managed this groundbreaking accomplishment in the wilds of 18th and 19th century America.

Wilson's Warbler by Kevin Vance via Flickr Creative Commons license
Wilson’s Warbler courtesy of Kevin Vance, via Flickr Creative Commons license

Fittingly, there are five bird species named after Mr. Wilson today: warbler, snipe, storm-petrel, phalarope, and plover. I’ve seen some Wilson’s Snipe recently here in Ohio, and am expecting to find some Wilson’s Warblers in the next few weeks as migration ramps up. And when I do, I’ll take a moment to remember the passion of Alexander Wilson and be grateful for his contribution to our knowledge and appreciation of birds.

Alexander Wilson's tombstone in PhiladelphiaThe Toledo Museum of Art is a real jewel in this city. Admission is free for everyone, all the time. And it’s only a 15-minute drive from my house, so I can go often. Sometimes I just drop in for a brief visit to stand in front of Van Gogh’s “Wheat Fields with Reaper,” because…well, because I just feel a need to do that. I’m grateful for such easy access to beautiful works of art and for the exhibits that teach me something new on every visit. Even though admission is free, I pay for membership each year to show my support for this organization that does so much for the quality of life here.

Oh, my personal connection to this legend? Alexander Wilson and I were both born on July 6. I like knowing that.

Reflecting on Birds

I’ve amassed a small collection of bird photos showing their reflections in water, so I thought it would be nice to share them as I reflect a little bit on birds’ lives. Hope you enjoy this quick little item.

Black-necked stilt with reflection - copyright Kim Smith
Black-necked Stilt

Imagine what it would be like if you had to spend virtually every waking moment of your life either finding food, or trying to impress a potential mate, or hiding from other critters who want to eat you. I think of this often as I watch large numbers of birds arriving here in the spring, some of them just passing through and others who will stay and breed in this area. Regardless of whether they’re migrants or returning breeders, all of them are tired and very hungry. It’s a matter of life and death for them to find enough food to survive each day.

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American Avocets (2×2=4)
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One of my first bird reflection shots, Great Egret
American Tree Sparrow and reflection in water w sig - Metzger Marsh
American Tree Sparrow and his winter reflection

And for many of them, this is a new place where they don’t know the special spots for the best food sources. So they’re in a strange place with thousands of others who are also hungry and tired. Competition for survival is fierce, and they get no vacation from it. I’ve never seen a bird take the weekend off to sit on the patio and drink iced tea, have you?

Watching birds in the winter is another time when I’m deeply moved by their lives. Among our resident birds, the struggle for food is more intense when most of the plants have gone dormant and insects have died or hibernated or migrated to warmer climates. And getting through the cold nights is a special kind of challenge when you can’t snuggle up under a warm blanket in front of a blazing fireplace.

We humans definitely have our own set of problems, but thinking about the difficult lives of wild animals helps put things in perspective a bit, doesn’t it?

 

 

 

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American Coot doing a bit of self-reflection

Rx: Go Birding, You Fool

Well, it’s been a long, hard winter in northwest Ohio, but we’re finally able to see light at the end of the tunnel. Birds have started arriving from their winter homes in the south, some trees are beginning to bud out, and a few wildflowers are popping up here and there. The transition feels excruciatingly slow, but all of these things are soul-healing sights after we’ve endured months of brutally cold weather, lots of snow, and then barren landscapes of brown and gray in every direction.

Today I went to my nearest metropark to get some exercise and see if I could find any more bird species to add to my year list. So far this year I’ve recorded 95 species in my home county, and today I added two more, which I’ll tell you about below. I thought I’d just recap the walk as I experienced it, because it was full of interesting bird behavior. The weather was still chilly, with a temperature in the low 40s but made to feel colder by a light but persistent northern wind. The sun was shining though, so that made it tolerable.

I should mention that I purposely left my heavy birding camera in the car today, because I didn’t want to carry it and I thought I’d just enjoy the birds without worrying about trying to get good photos. So the photos in this post were not taken today, but I still want to give you a representation of what I saw on my walk.

Before I even left the parking lot I heard some woodpeckers raising quite the ruckus in a large tree. At first it seemed to be an interaction between two Red-bellied Woodpeckers, but I quickly saw that there were three of the smaller Downy Woodpeckers also hopping around them, as if they were spectators egging them on. And a lone Eastern Bluebird sat off to the side on the end of a branch, calmly observing this melee.

(For some reason the normal caption won’t work on this, so the Downy is on the left, and the Red-bellied is on the right)

I watched the woodpeckers for a couple minutes, until they eventually quieted down and flew across the adjacent mowed meadow and into the woods. I’m still not sure what they were bickering about, although the red-bellies were a male and female, so maybe it was part of courtship. And perhaps there was a nesting cavity in that tree that the downies were interested in as well, who knows?

Eastern Towhee male
Eastern Towhee male

Just 50 yards farther along I heard some birds rustling around in the leaf litter of the woods, so I stopped to scan the ground and found a beautiful male Eastern Towhee poking around near a fallen log. These are such pretty birds that I don’t see all that often, so I walked slowly around the edge of this section of woods to try for a better look. Towhees have a pretty song that sounds like “drink your tea!” and I was hoping to hear him sing that one. He didn’t, but he did toss out a few repeats of his “chew-ee!” call, which was good enough for me.

Field Sparrow at Oak Openings w sig Kim Smith
Field Sparrow

Moving along, I headed toward an area along the river where I’d had some rewarding bird experiences last year. And I was not disappointed. I followed a mowed path that eventually just ended in a field surrounded by a broken down fence. I’d never walked this particular path before, and wasn’t sure I was supposed to be there, but I could see across the field to the place that was my destination, so I just continued into the field. I startled a cute Field Sparrow, who popped up and watched me with his sweet baby face.

Brown Thrasher at Magee w sig
Brown Thrasher

Then, as I turned my head I saw a Brown Thrasher dive like a bullet into a thicket about 25 yards in front of me. I was really excited by this, as he was the first thrasher I’d found this year. I slowly approached the cluster of tangled shrubs (maybe forsythia, but not blooming yet so I can’t be sure), walked all around it, finally locating the thrasher hopping around inside on the ground. These are usually pretty shy birds, so I didn’t expect to get a good look at him. But then he began singing his seemingly unending series of twice-repeated notes that is so distinctive to this species. It was, literally, music to my ears.  Here’s a Brown Thrasher song recorded by David LaPuma at Cape May, New Jersey:  (Courtesy of Xeno-Canto Creative Commons license.)

There are a few bird songs that make me just stop in my tracks and smile, and the Brown Thrasher’s is one of those. It’s up there with the song of the Wood Thrush, Northern Mockingbird, and Gray Catbird, in my opinion. Just melt-your-heart, catch-your-breath stunningly beautiful, jubilant song.

As I continued my walk along the river’s edge, I kept hearing the screech of a Red-tailed Hawk. I’d caught a couple glimpses of it soaring over the trees, but then I heard it once more and when I looked up I saw a mature Bald Eagle flying a lazy circle above the river.  And immediately I saw the hawk dive at him, and the eagle gave his squeaky chattery call as it tried to ignore him.

There’s an interesting bit of trivia about the call of a Bald Eagle that most non-birders don’t know, so I’m going to give you the scoop right here and now. Many times in tv or movies, for some reason the producers use the call of a Red-tailed Hawk when they show a Bald Eagle. If you’ve ever seen the opening sequence to The Colbert Report, you’ll see a Bald Eagle swoop across the screen as it screeches an ear-rending call. But the thing is, that’s the sound of a Red-tailed Hawk, not the eagle. I can only guess that it’s because people think a Bald Eagle needs to sound fierce.  Here’s what a Bald Eagle really sounds like:

(Courtesy of Paul Marvin on Xeno-canto.)

Golden-crowned Kinglet for blog widget
Golden-crowned Kinglet

Next I came upon an area on the river bank that was just hopping with birds — the first ones I noticed were Northern Cardinals and Song Sparrows, both belting out their lovely songs. There were Tufted Titmice and Black-capped Chickadees here too. But then I hit the jackpot. Ahead of me about 30 yards I could see a pair of titmice hopping around on the ground and thought I saw a Golden-crowned Kinglet near them. My plan was to slowly approach them and try for a confirmation of the kinglets, but suddenly I heard more of them very close to me, so I stopped in my tracks to listen.

As I waited for a kinglet to come into view, I saw another of my absolute favorite birds, the tiny little Brown Creeper. Creepers are aptly named, because their feeding behavior is one of creeping along the trunk of a tree in a spiral pattern, then dropping down to the bottom of an adjacent tree and repeating the spiral creeping pattern up that tree.  The creeper was several trees away from me, but I knew he would probably end up on the tree right beside me if I held very still. So I did, and he did. And it was awesome.

brown-creeper-at-stony-creek-w-sig-4-17-14
Brown Creeper

And just as the creeper moved past me, a Golden-crowned Kinglet landed in the tree beside me, just below my eye level.  The kinglet was my second FOY (first-of-year) bird today, after the thrasher I’d seen earlier. And this tiny creature paid me no attention as he searched the branches for insects to fuel his continuing migration journey. There were several more kinglets with him, and I stood on the boardwalk along the river bank for about 20 minutes watching them and another creeper who showed up. A two-creeper day is an excellent day for me. (Here’s where I wrote about a three-creeper day a couple years ago.)

My entire walk only lasted about 90 minutes, but as you can see, it was chock full of great bird sightings. And it went a long way toward lifting my spirits and helping me shake the winter blahs. Isn’t it amazing how nature can do that?

Part 3 – A Grand Time in the Rio Grande Valley

This is the last in the three-part series about the Texas trip. It still amazes me when I think of how many great birds I saw in just three days of birding. This first bird is one I can see in Ohio during the breeding season, but I still got a big thrill out of seeing it on its wintering grounds down south. Meet Mr. Crazy Eyes, the White-eyed Vireo.

White-eyed Vireo - Santa Ana NWR w sig
White-eyed Vireo

This bird is mesmerizing and I just can’t get enough of it whenever I see one. And while I’m talking about familiar birds, take a look at this Orange-crowned Warbler eating…wait for it…an orange. I hope I’m not the only one that gets a little kick out of that.

Orange-crowned warbler eating an orange - w sig

Orange-crowned warbler better shot w sig
A better look at the Orange-crowned Warbler

I can see this warbler in Ohio during migration, but I got to see so many of them on this trip that I almost found myself saying, “Oh, just another Orange-crowned Warbler.” One day we visited a campsite at Falcon State Park where there were feeders set up, and there were more of this species there than anything else. It was crazy.

At the same feeding station I got my best looks ever at Northern Bobwhites. We were sitting in the car in a light rain, eating our lunch and watching to see what would show up at these feeders. The quail were feeding on the ground on Rick’s side of the car, and whenever I tried to get out to see them, they ran back into the shrubs. I eventually managed to get a photo by crawling on my hands and knees and hiding behind the car’s tires. Very much worth the pain of knees-on-asphalt!

Northern Bobwhite quail w sig

One day as we were walking along the banks of the Rio Grande I heard a very familiar sound and reflexively said, “Downy Woodpecker.” But they don’t get Downies down in the valley. 🙂 As it turns out, it was a Ladder-backed Woodpecker, which looks and sounds very much like the Downy, a bird I’m used to seeing here in Ohio. Their call note is often compared to that of a dog’s squeaky toy.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker cropped v2 w sig
Ladder-backed Woodpecker

And another woodpecker that is very similar to one of my local birds was this Golden-fronted. This species is what I think of as the western cousin to our Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker w sig
Golden-fronted Woodpecker

 

This woodpecker was at a birding hotspot at Salineño, on land owned by Valley Land Fund, an organization that protects wildlife habitat in the Rio Grande Valley. On this property there’s a large feeding station maintained by volunteers, and they even provide comfy lawn chairs so you can stay a while. Their guest registry consists of two bulging three-ring notebooks, and I was able to look back and see where I’d signed it on my first visit in 2014.

My previous visit was during a heavy rainfall, and I was huddled under the trailer awning behind a crowd of other people, and wasn’t able to see much. This time was much easier. I saw two species of orioles, the Audubon’s and the Altamira.

Audubon's Oriole w sig
Audubon’s Oriole

 

Altamira Oriole w sig copyright Kim Smith
Altamira Oriole

This location was loaded with Green Jays, Great Kiskadees, various blackbirds, and plenty of other interesting species. I’m really glad we made the 90-minute drive from McAllen to this spot.

The only bird I didn’t see on this visit that I’d really hoped for was the roadrunner. But I’m not disappointed. It just gives me a reason to come back to Texas next winter and try again. During a time when things here in Ohio are pretty bleak, this trip was excellent nature therapy!

Black-necked stilt with reflection - copyright Kim Smith
Black-necked Stilt in a roadside pond

 

Part 2 – A Grand Time in the Rio Grande Valley

This is a continuation of my previous post about winter birding in Texas. As I try to edit photos to show you, I realize that I saw such an abundance of great birds on this trip that I might have to do three posts instead of the planned two.

I’ll begin this time with a focus on waterfowl. At home here on the shores of Lake Erie, it’s often difficult to get good close looks at ducks and shorebirds. But there were a couple places in Texas where I was able to get good views of a large variety of species. Some of them were species that I can find in Ohio, but others were new to me.

One of the new species was this Cinnamon Teal, a gorgeous little duck that usually stays in the western part of this country. The last time these showed up in Ohio was in 2010, according to eBird. I’ve seen both Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal here at home, so it was a real treat to see their spicy western cousin. (Get it? Because cinnamon is a spice…haha.) This shows a male Cinnamon Teal with (I think) two females.

Cinnamon Teal - Estero Llano Grande w sig
Cinnamon Teal at Estero Llano Grande

This Green-winged Teal was quite cooperative, and this is probably one of my best shots of this species so far.

Green-winged Teal w sig - Estero Llano Grande
Green-winged Teal at Estero Llano Grande

The Blue-winged Teal wasn’t quite as eager to pose for a photo, but I got this guy before he got away from me.

Blue-winged teal w sig
Blue-winged Teal

How’s that for a teal trifecta?

And even though American Coots are very common back here in Ohio, I was happy to see them in Texas as well. Although coots are often found with ducks, they’re more closely related to Sandhill Cranes than to ducks. So they’re not ducks, they’re…well…they’re just coots, I guess.

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American Coot at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge
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American Coot at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

I’ve seen rafts of thousands of coots before, and in that situation it’s easy to see them as one big unit without details. But when you pay attention to individuals you’ll see that these are beautiful birds. Rich black plumage with a white bill and a pretty red patch on the forehead. And don’t forget that stunning red eye. The other really cool part of this bird is below the water…it’s got big goofy feet that always make me laugh. (That link takes you to a google image search for “coot feet.”)

Ibises are another type of bird I’ve not seen much of before, so I was excited to find two species on this trip. I got a distant view of a few White Ibises at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, and wasn’t able to get a very good photo. This was the best I could do, and I had to use my amateurish Photoshop skills to erase some vegetation from the face on this bird. That’s why I’ve reduced the size of this one, so you (hopefully) can’t see the sloppy edits I made. I really need to get better at that.

White Ibis cropped and blurry - Santa Ana NWR
White Ibis at Santa Ana NWR

While watching these ibises out in the marsh, I saw them fighting each other over tasty morsels, a behavior that is typical of this species.

At Estero Llano Grande I got a closer view of another species — this juvenile White-faced Ibis. My attention was so focused on that long down-curved bill that I didn’t even notice how beautiful the feathers were on this bird. Only when Rick (Snider) mentioned it did I start to really pay attention to the rest of the bird. (Rick is the Park Host at Estero, and so I was birding with two Ricks on this day, both of them expert naturalists. How much luckier could a girl get?) I see raspberry, green, and gold in this bird’s feathers…just stunning!

White-faced Ibis - Estero Llano Grande w sig
White-faced Ibis, juvenile

I learned something interesting as we watched the waterfowl at Santa Ana NWR one day. I’d just seen my lifer Least Grebes, and was enjoying trying to find more of them among the marsh vegetation. There were lots of Northern Pintail ducks in there too, and I started to notice that each pintail was closely followed by a grebe.

Northern pintail and Least grebe partnership w sig

I was told that the grebes are taking advantage of food that is stirred up by the feeding behavior of the pintails. These ducks are dabblers, which means that they feed by dabbling at the surface or by dunking their heads under the water, as in this photo.

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Pintail with head under water, grebe watching for an easy meal

Grebes are perfectly capable of going under the water to find their own food, but they’re clearly smart enough to figure out how to get ducks to do the work for them sometimes.

And in writing about this, I learned a new word. My first thought was to say that this was a symbiotic relationship, but I wanted to be more specific, so I did a quick bit of research. It turns out that there are several types of symbiotic relationships, depending on whether one or both of the animals are helped or harmed by the behavior. If they were both benefiting from it, we would call it mutualism. But in this case, while the grebe is clearly the beneficiary of the duck’s behavior, the duck isn’t receiving any benefit (that I’m aware of) from the grebe’s behavior. So that would be called commensalism. I love learning stuff like that!

Well, I think that’s a good thought to leave you with today.  I’ll probably finish this series with some songbirds next time.  I hope you’re enjoying these images and little stories from the trip. I think I’m drawing it out as long as possible because it helps me forget that I’m back in Ohio where it’s so cold and dreary. I was commiserating with a friend today when we realized that we still have months — months! — of winter left.  I can make it, I can make it, I can make it…. 🙂

A Grand Time in the Rio Grande Valley

Good grief, where do I even begin? I just spent a week down in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and my head is still spinning from all the beautiful birds I saw. It was so nice to escape the cold of northwest Ohio for a few days, even though the weather down in the McAllen area wasn’t as warm as I’d hoped. Most days we saw high temps in the upper 60s, with quite a bit of cloudiness and some scattered rain.

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Roseate Spoonbills, one of my most-wanted species!

But that didn’t have much of an impact on how much I enjoyed this trip. My only other visit to this area was in November three years ago, and I didn’t have a very good time on that trip, so I was eager to give Texas a chance to redeem itself. And it did that in spades, with the help of my friend Rick Nirschl.

Rick is a Toledo resident who spends winters in the Rio Grande Valley. He has an amazing ability to find any bird you might want to see, whether it’s in Ohio or Texas. He’s well-known for finding new bird and dragonfly records in both states, and even discovered a dragonfly that had never been identified before (It has since been named the Sarracenia Spiketail, Cordulegaster sarracenia). So with Rick as my world-class tour guide this week, I got to see almost every bird I’d hoped to find, as well as enjoying great conversation and soaking up as much of his knowledge of the natural world as I possibly could. Nature experiences don’t get much better than this.

Places we visited included Quinta Mazatlan, Estero Llano Grande, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Falcon State Park, and the National Butterfly Center. Rick also knows lots of special spots along various roads and on the private property of his many friends in the area.

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Pyrrhuloxia, a desert relative of our cardinal

One of the things that made a big impression on me down there was that there were birds everywhere, as contrasted with right now in my part of Ohio, which sometimes feels dead and barren because the birds are so scarce.

And in Texas many of the birds are vocal now, whether it’s the noisy chatter of a large flock of blackbirds or parakeets, or the calls of songbirds in the woods. It was just so refreshing to see and hear so much bird activity at a time of year when I’m not able to do that at home. It’s always fun to be down south in winter and see some of “our” birds on their wintering grounds. I saw more Orange-crowned Warblers on this trip than I’ve seen in my entire life!

Each of these photos is more than just a record of the physical presence of a bird. A photo serves as a memory trigger, reminding me of where I was, what I was searching for, who I was with, and even what we were talking about while we watched the birds. When I get to the point in my life where I can’t travel anymore, I’ll be able to re-live these experiences just by looking through my photos.

But I do have a couple stories to tell you about a few photos. Let’s start with one of my favorites, these American White Pelicans. While planning my trip I’d talked to Rick about some birds I’d like to see. But somehow I didn’t even think about pelicans, so of course he didn’t make any special effort to show me those birds. One day he took me to the home of a friend who lives on a resaca, which is a lake formed when an oxbow of the Rio Grande River gets cut off from the main river and becomes a separate body of water.

We got out of the car and started walking toward the back of the house, toward the resaca. Even from a distance I could see the hundreds and hundreds of Black-bellied Whistling ducks out there (I eventually estimated 1,000). That was really neat, because I’d only seen a few of those beautiful ducks in Ohio a few years ago.

Black-bellied Whistling ducks w sig - copyright Kim Smith
Black-bellied Whistling-ducks

But as we got closer to the bank of the lake, I noticed a few pelicans very close to shore, and my jaw dropped as I absorbed their enormity. I quickly stepped behind a large palm tree to try not to spook the birds, and leaned over slightly to start taking photos of them.

American White Pelicans w sig - copyright Kim Smith
American White Pelicans

Meanwhile, from about 10 feet to my left, Rick was trying to get me to come look at a Ringed Kingfisher. I continued shooting the pelicans and said, “Okay, just a sec, I’m watching the pelicans!” A minute or so later I walked over and looked at the kingfisher, and then went back to watching the pelicans. I just couldn’t get enough of them! In addition to the ones already on the water, I got to see a few more of these colossal birds fly in, a spectacle in itself.

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After we were done watching the birds, we got in the car and had a good laugh when Rick said that lots of people come here specifically to find a Ringed Kingfisher, and I was more fascinated with the rather ordinary pelicans. Don’t get me wrong, that kingfisher was pretty neat. But the pelicans were extraordinary. Oh man, I still smile when I think of those enormous birds with buckets on their faces.

Another day we stopped to watch a large flock of Green Parakeets on power lines in the city of Mission. We also saw Monk Parakeets in the town of Hidalgo. As my friend Ryan says, there’s something so cool about green birds. That bright green almost glows on an overcast day, as does the red of a Vermillion Flycatcher, of which we also saw a few.

Monk parakeets in Hidalgo city - cropped w sig
Monk parakeets

And speaking of bird colors, I finally got to see a Painted Bunting. This clownish bird is aptly named, because he looks like someone spilled several cans of paint all over him. He makes me smile.

Painted Bunting w sig - copyright Kim Smith
Painted Bunting

Another excellent experience was finding this Cactus Wren, a life bird for me. (I haven’t tallied up my life birds from this trip, but I probably added twenty species.) Rick walked up to a row of cacti along a fence and said we could probably find a Cactus Wren there, and boom, this one popped up and started singing directly in front of us. We both slow-walked closer and closer, shooting photos as we moved, and we eventually got up to the fence, which put us about 15 feet from the bird. We both got incredible views of this strikingly-marked wren, and he watched us calmly until we started walking away and then he dropped down to the ground and resumed his business.

Cactus Wren w sig
Cactus wren

This Blue Bunting is normally a bird of Mexico and northern Central America, but this species occasionally shows up in southern Texas. This particular bird had been frequenting the feeders at the World Birding Center at Quinta Mazatlan, and after a couple unsuccessful stakeouts, we both got to see it. Unfortunately our sightings were in poor lighting and, combined with the dark color of the bird, made for difficulty getting high quality images. But even a poor image can be a fantastic memory.

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Blue bunting, an unusual find

One day as we arrived back at my hotel, I saw this White-tailed kite hovering above the adjacent field. This was the first time I’d seen this species in the U.S., and I was excited to try for a photo. I knew the chances of getting a good photo were low because of the white bird against a gray sky, but I took several shots anyway. As I clicked through the series of photos on the computer later, I was struck by the varying wing postures I’d captured as the bird hovered in the air searching for small mammals below. I decided to paste two of the different shots together, and this is the result. Isn’t this bird gorgeous?

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White-tailed Kite, 2 images of the same bird

One of the birds I’d wanted to see the most was the Burrowing Owl. And, as usual, Rick knew exactly where to find this one.

Burrowing Owl w sig
Burrowing Owl

One bird I hadn’t even considered finding on this trip, however, was a Great Horned Owl. These birds are year-round residents in Ohio, and I was focused mostly on seeing birds I can’t see at home. So imagine my surprise when we arrived at Estero Llano Grande one afternoon and saw this beautiful silvery-gray owl sitting among the wind-tossed fronds of a palm tree.

Great Horned Owl in palm tree and blowing wind v2 w sig
Great Horned Owl, gray morph

We don’t have this gray color morph up north, as far as I know, so it was a real treat to see this bird. And we were told that there’s another owl in the park, perhaps the mate of this one, although it’s not a gray morph. Despite the name of the bird, those pointy things on top of the owl’s head are not horns. They’re not ears either. They’re just tufts of feathers. I love how they’re blowing sideways in this shot.

I didn’t take many photos of things other than birds on this trip, but I did grab a quick shot of this cow as it emerged from the vegetation on the Mexico side of the Rio Grande River at Salineño. I noticed that the river had been much lower the last time I’d visited this location, and I wonder if the river ever gets low enough for livestock to cross the international border, and if so, how do they deal with that issue?

Cow standing in the Rio Grande River - Salineno Texas

Okay, that’s enough for this time. 🙂 Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Texas trip stories and photos coming up shortly.

Making Hay While the Sun…Doesn’t Shine

Last weekend’s trip to Indiana’s Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area for crane-viewing didn’t turn out exactly as hoped for due to some extreme weather conditions. Of course I knew the weather forecast in advance, and even made a half-hearted attempt to back out of the trip, but Jim responded with an admonition about not being a sissy.  That was just the kick in the pants I needed, because one of my primary goals in life is to not be a sissy.

So once we got there we were determined to make the best of the situation, and persisted through rain and cold north winds to find the best photo subjects we could. Since the largest numbers of cranes are found near dawn and dusk, the lighting was also a challenge. And since I’m still learning to use my new camera, there were some times I couldn’t change settings quickly enough to get certain shots. But enough with the excuses. Despite all of that, I do have a few things to show you.

Crane viewing platform at Jasper-Pulaski

This is the viewing platform that overlooks the area where the sandhill cranes congregate each morning and evening. Unfortunately, this lovely photo isn’t representative of the rest of my results from the trip, which were all taken in less-than-optimal conditions.

I really like this 30-second video I shot in the pre-dawn light one morning. It shows lots of the birds practicing their courtship dancing moves. And although the lighting is poor, it still gives you a taste of what it’s like to see and hear large numbers of cranes at their daily social gathering.

And although I have many in-flight shots of these birds already, I couldn’t resist trying to get some more. In particular, Jim and I both love the moments when the birds are making the transition from flight to solid ground, dropping their gangly landing gear legs while still hanging in the air. We noticed that some birds would lower their landing gear while still fairly high in the sky, while others would wait until much closer to the ground. That difference could be something to do with age and experience, perhaps.

Sandhill cranes with legs down for landing w sig
Flying monkeys dropping from the sky (poorly focused but still awesome)

In my past writing about this I’ve described them as looking like giant marionettes falling from the sky, but this time I was struck by a new image: the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz.  You know the scene when she sends them all out to attack Dorothy and her friends in the woods, right?  This mental image was triggered not only by the visual spectacle, but also the cacophony that accompanied their descent from the cold November sky. I can’t stop smiling when I think of it that way now.

One of the few daylight photos I could salvage was this one. I took a series of rapid shots as one crane dropped down into this small gathering in a grassy field, and got many images of his wings in various positions. This one is my favorite because the wings are fully extended, giving an excellent impression of the enormous size of this bird.

Sandhill crane landing with wings spread fully

In-flight silhouette shots were the easiest to create in low-light conditions, and I really like these two.

Sandhill cranes in flight against dawn sky
Cranes flying into the golden light of the sunrise sky
Moon and ducks at dawn
Duck side of the Moon (my Pink Floyd tribute)

One morning I was tracking the flight of these ducks across the pre-dawn sky and was ready when they crossed in front of the moon. This is one of my favorite shots from the weekend.

When we weren’t at Jasper-Pulaski, we spent time driving around surrounding areas shooting trees and other nature scenes. The rain had provided us with lots of opportunities to use the moody fog in our compositions.

Fog and lone tree with reflection in water

Fog and two big oak trees

I’ve been enchanted with the photographic possibilities of trees for many years. I usually seek out isolated trees, as in the first photo above. But this scene was great too, with the structural interest of the big oaks, the curving country road, and the fog in the air. This one was edited using a NIK filter, thanks to Jim’s excellent suggestion. I could (and quite likely will) spend hours playing with these filters on my photos.

Algae-covered creek and beaver dam w sig

The bright green of the algae in this scene was a welcome and cheerful display of color on a rainy day. Notice the beaver dam crossing the waterway just behind the algae.

Finally, here’s a scene we shot under threat of lightning and pouring rain.  I think it was worth it.

Woods with color and fog resized w sig

I’m glad to find out I’m not a sissy after all. 😉 I had a great time and learned a lot on this trip, and will be better prepared for my next challenging photography outing.

Sky-High Anticipation

Sandhill Crane family vocalizing - grainy dusk pic
Family of Sandhill Cranes vocalizing as they meet in the marsh at dusk

I’ve had a love affair with Sandhill Cranes since the moment I heard their prehistoric-sounding bugling calls.  It’s hard to believe I only saw my first of this species in July of 2011, just two individuals walking around on the lawn at a metropark. Those first birds were silent though, and I had no idea what a thrill was still in store for me. But I found out later that summer, when I had a dramatic encounter with a pair of these statuesque birds on a remote lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

It was near dusk and I was in a kayak on a small private lake, trying to sneak up on a beaver so I could take some photos of it. I was floating quietly near the tall vegetation at the water’s edge…waiting…when suddenly there was a commotion just a few yards away. Before I knew what was happening, a crane burst out of the phragmites and flew right over my head, only 15 feet above me, belting out some of the most spine-tingling sounds I had ever heard.  Click below to hear a sample audio of Sandhill Cranes from the National Park Service.

Sandhill Crane flyover BEST
This photo isn’t from the day I’m describing here, but it illustrates what I saw from my kayak.

My reaction was swift and automatic: I swung my camera up and snapped a couple blurry shots of it before it dropped down on the other side of the small lake. As it did so, I realized its mate had been hidden over there, probably also warily watching my movements around the water. They both continued calling for a couple minutes before eventually settling down for the night. It took a long while before my heart rate settled down that evening, and I can feel it again now as I recall this story.

Why am I talking about Sandhill Cranes now? Because in less than two weeks I’m going to see more of them than I’ve ever seen before, and I just cannot wait! I have to stop letting myself listen to audio and video of them because it’s just making me too excited.

In 2012 I attended Michigan Audubon’s Crane Fest and got a taste of what a mass migration spectacle is like. The number of cranes in the marsh at Baker Sanctuary that year was several thousand. I loved the experience, and got some distant photos of the birds in the water as well as some flyover shots. I went back to Baker Sanctuary with my friend Tracy a couple weeks ago, but the cranes were very distant and not present in large numbers. Although we found a few hundred of them during the day, foraging in farm fields in the surrounding area.

Sandhill Cranes in flightBut now I’m preparing for my first experience at Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in northern Indiana. I’m told it’ll be possible to see maybe 8,000 cranes this time, and in much closer viewing conditions. I’ve watched some videos from Jasper-Pulaski on YouTube, and I can tell it’s going to be one of the highlights of my year.

And, to make it even more exciting, I’ll have a brand new camera in tow!  My trusty Canon 60D has become a bit outdated and I think my newer Canon will give me more options.  I’m very close to springing for a new telephoto lens too, but can’t get myself to put that money out just yet. But anyway, I hope the camera arrives as expected so I can have several days to familiarize myself with it before the trip. Since many of these crane photos were taken in low light conditions, I’ve pushed the ISO setting on my camera too high, resulting in a lot of graininess. I’m hoping to get better results with my new camera and my slowly-improving photography skills. 🙂

Crane silhouette v1
Silhouette of a crane dropping from the sky with landing gear down

Along with their statuesque beauty and that fantastic trumpeting call, Sandhill Cranes are known for the “dancing” they perform as part of their mating and bonding rituals. I’ve seen this many times, and it never gets old. Imagine, if you will, hundreds or thousands of 4-foot-tall birds dropping from the sky into a marsh. Don’t forget to imagine those raucous calls too. And now picture many small family groups gathering within the large group, jumping up and down with enormous wings raised in greeting. It’s hard not to get choked up with emotion when you see and hear this joyous and life-affirming spectacle. (Here’s a video I found on YouTube.)

Chains of origami cranes
Me with origami cranes at a shrine in Tokyo, 1985

Cranes have been important symbols in many cultures around the world, including in Japan, where I spent five years of my life (a looong time ago). One quality they are believed to embody is longevity. They were said to live for 1,000 years; in reality they can live for more than 30 years, so perhaps they deserve this one. Because they mate for life, they are also used to represent fidelity. It’s also believed that if you make an origami chain of 1,000 cranes and leave it at a shrine, your prayer will be answered.  As you can see from the photo above, people really do make huge numbers of those tiny folded paper cranes.

Two cranes in formation

It’s surprising how often my photos show cranes in synchronized poses like this one. They’re mesmerizing no matter what they’re doing, but I particularly enjoy the transition from the sky to the ground, when they drop those long dangly legs below them.

Cranes landing with legs hanging down

I think they look like giant marionettes, with someone above working their strings, frantically trying to get those lanky legs positioned properly below them before they hit the ground. I really hope I’ll be back here in a couple weeks showing you even better pictures of these incredible birds.

 

Sandhill Cranes in marsh at Baker Sanctuary 2012
Cranes in the marsh at Baker Sanctuary in Michigan

Resources for further reading about Sandhill Cranes:

Birds of North America, by Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Michigan Audubon’s Crane Fest, held each October as birds are heading south for the winter.

Audubon Nebraska’s Crane Festival, held in March as the birds are heading north for the summer breeding season.

No Words, Just Birds (#3)

Scarlet Tanager - Metzger Marsh - May 3 2017 with sig
Scarlet Tanager male (Metzger Marsh, Ohio)
Black-throated Green Warbler cute w sig
Black-throated Green Warbler (Magee Marsh, Ohio)
Eastern screech-owl at Pearson Metropark w sig
Eastern Screech-owl roosting at Pearson Metropark in Oregon, Ohio
Northern Rough-winged Swallon on cable with chain reduced w sig
Northern Rough-winged Swallow at Metzger Marsh
Great Blue Heron best in flight over Metzger pier reduced w sig
Great Blue Heron soaring over Metzger Marsh on Lake Erie’s south shore

Note: The winds have remained mostly northerly, but some new birds did manage to get here last night.  We’re still waiting (a bit impatiently) for the big wave of warblers to arrive.