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.

April in NW Ohio

Life has been pretty busy for me lately, as evidenced by my lack of posts here on the blog. I’m sort of frustrated that I’m losing touch with some of my regular readers because I just don’t have time to keep up with anything outside of work anymore. But I’m really hoping to get back to writing more after the Biggest Week in American Birding isn’t absorbing all of my time. At BSBO we’re burning the candle at both ends these days, attending to all the details that make this festival so successful. It’s a lot of exhausting work, but the carrot at the end of the stick is the joyful ten days next month when our birding friends from across the country will gather here on the shores of Lake Erie to celebrate the spring migration. This is very satisfying work, and even when I’m drop-dead exhausted, I’m so thankful to be where I am, doing what I’m doing. 🙂

But what I wanted to write about now is the wonderful afternoon I just had. We had a very mild winter here in northwest Ohio, with only a couple snowfalls of about two inches at a time. But last night we got whopped with more than seven inches of heavy, wet April snow. I wasn’t liking it very much when I got caught driving home in the worst of it last night, but this morning everything was so beautiful. Here are a couple pictures from my backyard:

Seven inches of snow on patio April 9 2016 (800x533)

Snow in backyard April 9 2016 (800x533)

After my driveway was plowed at lunchtime, I decided to go run a couple errands. My intention was to be back home in less than an hour, so I didn’t take my camera (…cue dramatic music that tells you that was a BIG mistake…).

As I ran my errands I noticed how pretty the tree-lined streets were around this little town, and I took a few cell phone pictures. Then I impulsively decided to drive over to Spiegel Grove, the home of President Rutherford B. Hayes, to take a quick walk around their lovely grounds. It’s a pretty place very close to my home, and I’d like to visit there more often. And I knew my cell phone camera would be fine for taking some pictures of the huge snow-covered trees.

Hayes Memorial - April snow v1.jpg

As soon as I stepped out of my car I heard a flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets in the evergreens beside the parking lot. I quickly counted at least a dozen of them, and stood there watching them for a few minutes. There were also a couple Eastern Phoebes in that spot. I was already kicking myself for leaving home with out my camera. But it seems that I get the best views of birds when I don’t have my camera, so I decided to just enjoy the birds and make mental images. (I’m sharing a couple bird pics from previous years, just so you can see which species I’m talking about.)

Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Phoebe
Golden-crowned Kinglet - best crop (800x541)
Golden-crowned Kinglet

I loved this tunnel of trees, even though it was a bit treacherous when huge clumps of heavy snow came crashing down near me several times.

Hayes Memorial - April snow v5.jpg

And halfway down this tunnel of trees, I looked off to my left and saw a female Cooper’s Hawk just sitting calmly in a tree, surveying the area below her. There were a couple phoebes flitting around here too, and I wondered if one of them would become her next meal. Later, when I returned along this same path, a male Cooper’s had joined her on the branch. I was happy that I was able to share those birds with a woman who happened along just about then with her dog. I pointed out the hawks and let her use my binoculars to get a good view of them. And then we had a nice chat about a variety of things, including small town living and the process of adjusting to life after divorce. She gave me some tips on places to go and things to do, which I appreciated. It was really nice to meet someone who could relate to some of the things I’ve gone through in the past couple of years.

I continued walking…

Hayes Memorial - April snow v3

…and just around a bend I saw a woodpecker fly into a tree beside me. I stopped and lifted my binoculars, expecting to see a Downy Woodpecker. But what I saw was even better because it’s a bird I’ve only found once before: a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. It’s not that uncommon really, but I think it’s a really cool bird. It’s easy to mistake for a Downy or Hairy Woodpecker if you don’t look closely enough, but it’s got that bright red throat patch that gives it away, and the yellowish tint to the belly area too (thus the name). I stood there smiling from ear to ear, wishing there’d been someone with me to share this bird with. But it’ll just have to remain “my” bird for now. And that’s okay. (Sorry I don’t have any good pictures of sapsuckers, but you can find lots of them on the Google-machine.)

Hayes Memorial - April snow v6
Looking skyward….

I took a short video as I walked through that tunnel of trees earlier. It’s a little jiggly while I’m walking at the beginning, but I wanted you to hear the crunching of the snow under my feet.

Isn’t that pretty? I wish all of you could have been there to experience this quiet moment in time.

Extreme Birding: One Tree Limit

I ran away today. The road commission was out on our dirt & gravel road doing their never-ending maintenance, assailing my morning with the loud and incessant sounds of backup beepers and grinding truck engines. So I packed up my laptop and some books for writing inspiration and headed to the park, hoping to find a quiet spot for an afternoon of writing. Here’s how it went:

View of the lake from my picnic table writing desk
View of the lake from my picnic table writing desk

It’s a cool, sunny day, about 70 degrees with a brisk breeze that results in me being bombarded with a hail of cotton puffs from the cottonwood trees. I settle myself at a picnic table a couple hundred yards uphill from the lake, and get busy typing. Of course I’m immediately distracted by the birds, but I remind myself that I will not be birding today. I’m here for writing. But I still have my binoculars (“bins” in birderspeak) and 300mm lens, just in case something incredible happens by.

Chipping Sparrow singing (click to enlarge)
Chipping Sparrow singing (click to enlarge)

Just to get warmed up, the first couple paragraphs I type are about the birds I’m hearing and seeing. In particular, a chipping sparrow is singing constantly from the inner branches of the tree right in front of me. He even dropped down to the ground a couple times to nibble on a caterpillar or other delicious tidbit.

I finally put down the bins and resume writing, chastising myself for my lack of focus. I make some good progress in the next hour, stopping periodically to look at the birds. Suddenly it dawns on me that I could write about the experience of birding in a single tree. That seemed an intriguing idea, so that’s what I’m doing. Pretty clever, huh? I’m writing, but I’m also birding. Two birds with one stone, so to speak.

Our tree for today's "Single Tree Birding" experiment, a pretty black locust
Our tree for today’s “Single Tree Birding” experiment, a pretty black locust

Before I tell you about the other birds, let me introduce our tree for the day. This is a 30-foot-tall black locust tree located on the edge of a parking lot. At least I think that’s what it is, after perusing two tree field guides. Other trees nearby include cottonwoods, various evergreens, oaks, elms, and many more I don’t know how to identify (yet). There’s a large lawn area too.

The little chipping sparrow appeared to “own” this tree, as he sang from it for the entire three hours I was there, entertaining me with his pretty little song.

Eastern Kingbird, scouting for flying insects
Eastern Kingbird, scouting for flying insects

At one point I think I see a kingbird fly into the back side of the tree, but can’t confirm it. But 15 minutes later he pops into view on a branch right in front of me, posing nicely for his photo. I later watch him launching flycatching forays from the highest branches of the tree, grabbing insects midair. The kingbird is a member of the flycatcher family, birds that grab insects on the wing, often coming back to land again and again on the same branch. I’m always delighted to see this feat of timing and speed, not to mention eyesight. I can’t even see the insects they’re grabbing.

I open a document of notes I took at a writing workshop recently. I read some of them. I look back up to try to see the chipping sparrow (because now that I know what I’m writing about, I realize that a photo of him would be a nice addition). As I look up, I see a bluebird fly out of the tree with a caterpillar in its mouth. He flies overhead and goes into a tree behind me, where I soon see his mate as well. No matter how many times I see a bluebird, it always makes me smile because I think of the “Bluebird of Happiness.”

Cottonwood seed puffs and some leaves from the locust tree
Cottonwood seed puffs and some leaves from the locust tree

Back to my notes. The writing workshop was led by Dr. J. Drew Lanham, a professor at Clemson University. This was my first time being taught by him, and I came out of that workshop with some notes that I know I’ll refer to many times in my future writing efforts. One of my favorites of his ideas was to pick up a leaf nearby when you see a special bird, and insert it into your field guide to remind you of how you felt and what you saw at that moment. So I stopped in my writing to bend down and gather up some of the cottonwood seedpuffs that were coating the grass.

Now the breeze slows down and the air feels warmer. A robin starts singing loudly behind me. I can hear a blue-gray gnatcatcher in another tree nearby, and now goldfinches have gathered in the interior of our locust tree, softly chattering among themselves. A flicker announces his presence with his boisterous calls. And still the chipping sparrow sings every five or ten seconds. Does he sing for the pleasure of it, or to get a mate, or to protect his territory? Possibly a bit of all those, I think.

Turkey Vulture flyover
Turkey Vulture flyover

I stand up to stretch and see a turkey vulture soaring over our tree.  As I sit down, some blue jays and crows are having an argument in the trees behind me. Two cowbirds land beneath the tree and walk around poking around in the grass.

A chickadee is singing his sad-sounding two-note call in a nearby tree. The breeze has brought a sweet smell now, from some plant I can’t see around me and can’t identify from the scent. But trust me, it’s lovely. I can’t inhale deeply enough. Maybe honeysuckle?

Down near the lake there are red-winged blackbirds calling occasionally. They seem to have already settled down from the noisy and aggressive early part of breeding season. A couple geese land in the lake as a red-bellied woodpecker makes a brief stop in our tree.

I keep writing. I make good progress, ending up with two draft articles for future use.

Taking a break from eating to sing again
Taking a break from eating to sing again

Then I hear a catbird softly mewing behind me. I play a catbird song on my Audubon bird app and he responds by singing back to me for twenty seconds or so. (I try to be judicious in my use of bird calls so as not to cause distress to the birds, but I thought in this situation it was ok to play it one time.)

Chipping Sparrow with leaf
Chipping Sparrow with green  caterpillar

So to summarize, I saw the following birds in this single locust tree during my three hour writing session: Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Bluebirds, American Goldfinches, and Red-bellied Woodpecker.  This unassuming tree managed to feed or shelter at least five species of birds this afternoon, not to mention all the work it did to capture carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen to make our planet healthier. A tree is a special thing. (And this “one-tree birding” idea is fun and I might just try it again soon.)

And, just because I’m compelled to record all the birds, here are the others who didn’t actually visit our tree: Northern Flicker, American Crow, Blue Jay, Red-winged Blackbirds, Canada Geese, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Turkey Vulture, American Robin, Gray Catbird, and Black-capped Chickadee.

The sparrow is finally quiet and I find that I feel lonely without his pretty serenade to inspire me. I hope he’s taking a well-deserved nap up there in the cool interior of that lovely tree. I’m heading home, rejuvenated and relaxed, happy that I can share this peaceful afternoon with all of you.

Maybe a change of scenery and some fresh air would do you good too. Why not try it and find out? And don’t forget to hug a tree while you’re out there. 🙂