Making the Birds Earn their Supper

White-breasted Nuthatch

I have been given a lot inspiration lately by a number of Facebook friends to photograph the great birds that visit our feeders, or to put it another way, make these models work for their supper. On a recent birding trip, Sarah and I collected some great drift wood that I turned into horizontal and vertical branches in the backyard, not too far from the feeders and our sun-porch.

Dark-eyed Junco

I drilled a few extra holes towards the rear of some of these to act as unseen cavities to place my homemade bark butter. It only took the Juncos a couple of hours to find their favorite food. These guys go crazy trying to figure out how to get to this stuff. I made sure to place a few feeding spots near horizontal perches that they could access without too much difficulty as they cannot grasp vertical perches very well. These guys are so tame that they were my primary subjects, other species being a little more timid to visit the close perches and seed deposits that I sat close to.

Dark-eyed Junco

For a first attempt, I’m pretty pleased. These were shot hand-held in mixed lighting with my 100-400 mm lens and I shot through the not-so clean windows of the sun-porch. I tried sitting behind the open windows, but this must have made me much more conspicuous. I sat for an hour or more with few birds coming in to feed. Within seconds of me closing the windows, the Juncos came to the feeding stations.

Downy Woodpecker

I’m a little concerned that my resident Downy Woodpeckers might have a little too much of the rich food I am providing. They now have access to the peanut and tree nuts in the no-mess mix I provide, beef tallow suet blocks, and now the bark butter. But, I suppose it would take a lot for a wild bird to over indulge.

Anyone who feeds their wild birds and has an interest and access to photography should give this a try. I’m looking forward to more cold mornings spent outside trying my hand at this.


Finding Snow in April

Snowy Owl – BK Leach Conservation Area

A huge thank you to Danny Brown, without whom I most likely would have stayed at zero Snowy Owls for the great Snowy irruption of the 2017/2018 winter. Because of travel and just poor luck, I had missed out on finding the Snowy Owls that had salted the state this winter and would never have imagined that we would have another chance a week into April. But, since the weather to date  suggests little of spring, I suppose we should have not been too surprised.

Snowy Stretch

The birding on Saturday was seemingly great everywhere and Steve, I and others were having good luck finding interesting species at RMBS when we received the messages from our phones about Danny’s find. I think Steve and I would have been satisfied with our usual views from a football’s field or two away, but were ecstatic to find the bird perched at an optimal viewing distance, resting after a nice meal that others had documented earlier in the day.

Snowy Yawn

We left the bird still on its perch shortly after sunset. On the way out of the conservation area we had a Short-eared Owl and American Bittern flyovers. Thanks again, Danny.

Birds of Australia – White-bellied Sea Eagle

White-bellied Sea Eagle at Wilson’s Promontory NP, Victoria Australia

The first place we explored during our single day at Wilson’s Promontory National Park was Miller’s Landing and it’s associated trails. Miller’s Landing is a north-facing beach that leads to a healthy and productive inlet and marine sanctuary. The chances for finding all sorts of birds and other wildlife were high. We just needed to get lucky. After a few minutes of walking along the coastal mangrove marsh at low tide, Collin and I got a show that I’ll never forget. I only wish we had a spotting scope to see it better. After passing nearly overhead in a horrible back-lit situation, we watched this impressive White-bellied Sea Eagle fly off shore and into the inlet. We thought that would be the end – watching it fly until we couldn’t see it any longer. But this bird was on the hunt.

White-bellied Sea Eagle – on the hunt

I’m not sure of the species, but for the next several minutes we watched this eagle hunt and eventually capture a duck. Without stopping to rest, this eagle hover-hunted, trying time and time again to capture a duck that was diving and putting up a fight. I couldn’t believe this large bird had the stamina to continuously try at capturing this bird without rest.

White-bellied Sea Eagle – the struggle continues

Collin and I were the only humans on the beach and the only ones fortunate enough to observe this struggle. Although difficult to see in detail from our position, we could tell the duck was trying its best. It lasted at least 5 minutes and perhaps as long as ten. Eventually, the eagle won its prey, perhaps taking it to a nest nearby.

White-bellied Sea Eagle – the conclusion

Birds of Australia – The Fairy Wrens

Superb Fairy Wren

Among the most well known and sought after of Australia’s passerines are the Fairy Wrens and probably none is more popular than the Superb Fairy Wren that is found in New South Wales and Victoria in southeast Australia.

Superb Fairy Wren

Confident and brash, these guys have the personality of a chickadee on a mood-altering substance. On a couple of occasions, Collin and I found ourselves face to face with these guys at an arm’s length, being the apparent subjects of their songs and scoldings.

Superb Fairy Wren

The Fairy Wrens are sexually dimorphic, with males having an eclipse phase in the off-season where they molt to an appearance similar to the females. These birds tend to be found in family groups of 5 – 10 birds.

Variegated Fairy Wren

I found this Variegated Fairy Wren foraging among some low trees in a parking lot for Sawn Rocks at Mount Kaputar, NSW.

It’s Officially Spring!

Blackburnian Warbler, Carondelet Park, May 2017

Along with finding the typical rarities that everyone looks for during spring migration, I will not count spring as arriving until I lay eyes on a male Blackburnian Warbler.  This past Saturday, not only did Miguel and I find my prize at Carondelet Park, but I got my best photos to date of this tree-top dwelling, piece of greased lighting.

Blackburnian Warbler, Carondelet Park, May 2017

With a throat this bright and luminous, a song that is so high-pitch that dogs aren’t safe for blocks and a never resting habit, more than one birder has assumed these guys must be powered by a battery.  Seriously, there’s a reason these guys eat all day long.  They have to!

Blackburnian Warbler, Carondelet Park, May 2017

Well, hopefully I might have another before the season has completed springing.  If not, I’ll always have something to look forward to next year.


How I Spent Superb Owl Sunday

For the first time since junior high I did not watch a single down or minute of the NFL this season and I couldn’t be happier for it.  Rape my town three times, NFL – shame on you.  I’ve been pleased to get those precious free minutes back for my Sundays, several of which I found I could spend not dreading the upcoming workweek.

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

When the forecast showed a near perfect meteorological condition for shooting the Short-eared Owls of BK Leach, I figured this could be promising.  While most other naked apes with functioning vision would be in front of the picture box and ingesting mass quantities of wings and beer, I would enjoy the warm and lightly breezy evening in my own kind of chair with friends of a different sort.

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

Of course there is never a sure thing.  Often, when I have expected the best due to light and temperature, the owls don’t show where I set myself.  On this particular day, all conditions came together and I had a super time.

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

I want to give huge thanks for my lovely and talented wife, Sarah, for the special help she gave me this season in getting my best to date SEOW in flight shots.

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

A perfect day ended in the perfect way – with a great sunset on the Lincoln Hills.

Sunset on the Lincoln Hills
Sunset on the Lincoln Hills

Until next time…

Birds of the Texas Gulf Coat – Laughing Gull

Laughing Gull – Galveston Ferry Crossing, TX

When traveling to a new location it is always interesting to see what gull species is the local equivalent to our Ring-billed Gull.  In the case of the Texas gulf coast, that is definitely the Laughing Gull.  We found that a really great place to see hundreds at great distance is the ferry ride between the Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston.  Be sure to check the water as well as the skies if you take this 20 minute boat ride.  Steve and I were able to spot a bottlenose dolphin or two during the crossing.

Laughing Gull – Anahuac NWR, TX

After hearing their vocalizations for quite a long period, we can say this species is quite aptly named!

Laughing Gull, Anahuac NWR, TX

In summer plumage, this is obviously one of the easier gulls to identify.  Largest of the hooded gulls, with red bill, legs and feet, slate-colored back and black primaries.

Laughing Gulls, East End Lagoon Preserve, TX

Birds of the Texas Gulf Coast – Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer -
Black Skimmer – Skimming – East End Lagoon Preserve, Texas

Coastal bird photographers, particularly those who have access to areas highly trafficked by humans, have really got things easy.  We were consistently surprised at how much luck we had getting close enough to our subjects – and this was with visiting these locations for the first time.  I can’t imagine the fun to be had with some time, experience and practice.

Black Skimmer – Houston Audubon Society – Bolivar Flats Shorebirds Sanctuary, Texas

The Black Skimmer just may be one of the perfect targets for the bird photographer.  The species is colorful and contrasty, which is so nice for autofocus.  This species is rather large.  It prefers to spend time in groups that enable the photographer to capture interesting social behaviors.  If you are lucky enough to be at the right time and place, the chicks are unbelievably cute.  And, if that isn’t enough, they of course have their namesake feeding behavior that can be seen in the image at the top of this post.

Black Skimmer – Houston Audubon Society – Bolivar Flats Shorebirds Sanctuary, Texas

Closely related to the gulls, auks and waders, the skimmers are in the small family – Rynchopidae (roughly translated to beak-faced).

Black Skimmer – Houston Audubon Society – Bolivar Flats Shorebirds Sanctuary, Texas

If you inadvertently flush a group, don’t give up or chase.  Skimmers have favorite resting places and will often settle to the same stretch from which they flushed.

Black Skimmer – Houston Audubon Society – Bolivar Flats Shorebirds Sanctuary, Texas

Until next time…

Birds of the Texas Gulf Coast – White-tailed Hawk

White-tailed Hawk – Fort Bend County, TX

This stunning and large buteo is often seen with the last Texas gulf coast bird featured, the White-tailed Kite.  This was one of the birds that Steve and I got a big kick out of finding.  Although common and abundant over much of its range in the Americas, the White-tailed Hawk can only be found along the Texas coast and the Rio Grande Valley within the United States.  I was doubly fortunate to be able to find another perched in a tree in Fort Bend County when my New-Englander friend, Sam, and I came across it during a few precious hours birding following several hectic days on the job.

White-tailed Hawk, San Bernard NWR, TX

White-tailed Hawks are birds of the air.  Pete Dunne (Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion) suggests that the species is most often spotted in the air.  Steve and I first located a pair at San Bernard NWR on an island of trees within coastal prairie.  I paid the price by taking a number of fire ant bites by wading through the prairie trying to get a bit closer.  We watched as the pair eventual flushed and rose higher and higher on the coastal thermals, eventually rising to a height where they were almost invisible to the naked eye.  Once spotted in the air, there is no mistaking this species with any other bird, with contrasting white body with black-edged wings and striped tail.

White-tailed Hawk – Fort Bend County, TX

Until next time…

In the Land of the Blind the One-eyed Man is King

Hooded Mergansers - Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary - St. Charles Co, MO
Hooded Mergansers First Year Males – Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary – St. Charles Co, MO

The one-eyed man referred to in the title of this post is, of course, the photographer with a telephoto lens sticking out of a well-placed blind.  Yes, we are all aware of and use to good effect the mobile blind – our warm vehicles.  However, shooting from a car in a place like RMBS leaves a bit to be desired.

Common Goldeneye – Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary – St. Charles Co, MO

From a car, the angle at which the birds are photographed will always be at the same downwards angle that in my opinion is less desirable than being close to eye level, which sitting low in a a portable ‘bag’ style blind can afford.

Hooded Merganser Hen – Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary – St. Charles Co, MO

Although I have owned such a blind for a few years, I have only recently given it some real use with friend and fellow like-minded nature photographer, Miguel Acosta.  All of the images from this post were made in our first attempts at this and even with limited light and opportunities, I can already see the potential in using this technique for improving photography of waterfowl.

Hooded Merganser Big Boys – Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary – St. Charles Co, MO

Getting an eye-level perspective yields more benefits than just a resting duck.  Catching birds taking to flight from the water’s surface from this angle makes for a more powerful image than from above.

Lift Off! – Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary – St. Charles Co, MO

I’m really glad we tried this out.  It is something I’ve been wishing to do for quite some time and I guess it just makes sense that this is the way to do it.  Now I just need to think of places and opportunities to try more.

Trumpeter Swans – Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary – St. Charles Co, MO

Until next time.