Saturday, December 31, 2022

The Gadwall, an underappreciated beauty

A pair of Gadwall (Mareca strepera, hen L, drake R) forage for chara (a type of aquatic algae). In the photo below, a drake shows off his ornate plumage, which is rich in ornate vermiculations, artistic scallops and subtly beautiful coloration. He is giving a characteristic low nasal quack - a distinctive sound amongst the cacophony of quacks in a duck-filled marsh or pond.

Gadwall, in my opinion, is our most underrated and overlooked fowl. For instance, despite being common over much of North America, it has only been selected for the famous annual Federal Duck Stamp once since its inception in 1934 - the 1951-52 stamp featured a pair of Gadwall by the artist Maynard Reece. I made these photos in Erie County, Ohio, on December 28, 2022.


Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Herring Gulls, mussel-bombing


An adult Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) loafs on rocky riprap where the Barnegat River meets the Atlantic Ocean. I made this image on an epic December 13 (2022) trip to Barnegat Light, New Jersey, with a late day spur trip to the Edwin Forsythe (formerly Brigantine [they never should have changed the name]) National Wildlife Refuge.

While there was plenty of arguably more exotic fare to watch/photograph at Barnegat, this wise old bird caught my eye, and I seldom can resist photographing these beautiful and quite interesting animals. While some (many?) people disparage gulls, these are people that know nothing about them. A book could be written on the Herring Gull and its fascinating behaviors and history. I'll drop just one tidbit now, a facet of these big birds that always makes me ponder old warriors such as the bird in the image.

The oldest known Herring Gull lived to 49 years of age. But as our sample size of Herring Gull longevity is miniscule, and there are estimated to be around 300,000 of them in eastern North America alone, we can be sure that older individuals are out there. Indeed, it's possible that some ancient gulls might have a life span comparable to humans (or large parrots). Clever and adaptable, Herring Gulls have learned lots of interesting tricks, as we shall see.

PHOTOGRAPHY NOTE: I made the above image with the Canon R5, a new iteration of Canon mirrorless cameras that I have increasingly become infatuated with. In fact, my main trial run with the R5 was October 2021, to Barnegat Light and this general area of New Jersey. I have discovered that the R5 is friendly to the Canon 1.4x III extender coupled to my Canon 800mm f/5.6 lens. I've never been able to adequately dial in any other camera body to that combo, in spite of seeking professional "micro-adjustment" services. The Herring Gull image is completely uncropped. It wasn't all that far, but with 1120mm of firepower, it wasn't all that close, either. The 800/1.4x combo does lose a bit of sharpness (the raw 800 is stunningly sharp) and focus issues increase with distance as might be expected, but when working with subjects at a reasonable range, it works well. For much of the wildlife work that I do, more is better when it comes to reach. I'd love to have Canon's new RF1200mm lens, which presumably is perfectly dialed in and definitely much lighter than my tank of an 800, but at $20,000 it isn't in the current budget. Anyway, all of the following images other than the landscape shot were made with the 800mm/1.4x = 1120mm combination.

The wildlife drive through Edwin Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. That's Atlantic City, New Jersey across the bay. While I made this shot on my October 2021 trip, this is the exact spot where the following action took place.

As always, click the photo to enlarge it

An adult Herring Gull has just dropped a Blue Mussel (Mytilus edulis) from several stories up. NOTE: I think I have the bivalve's identification right. If you know better, please let me know.

I think every time I have been here, there has been Herring Gulls dropping mussels on this section of road. This time, I resolved to obtain some decent imagery, in between shooting big blastoffs of Brant and Snow Geese, along with other interesting fowl.

Another adult Herring Gull watches his freshly launched mussel missile drop to the road far below. I believe the thread-like projections from the mussel are its byssus - specialized filaments that enable the mussel to firmly affix itself to bed sites. The byssus isn't enough to prevent clever and powerful gulls from ripping the mussels from their moorings, however. I noticed the handful of mussel-hunting gulls would foray into the nearby bay, and then return with a Blue Mussel. It did not seem like it was very hard for them to find the hard-shelled prey. I wondered why ALL the Herring Gulls didn't seem to engage in hunting this target. The meaty innards of a mussel must be exceptionally rich and nutritious fare. Maybe only the smartest Mensa gulls can figure out the steps involved?

It wasn't just seasoned adults that were catching and dropping mussels. This is a first-year Herring Gull (it takes this species four years to attain adult plumage), doing the same.

As I'm sure you realize by now, the gulls drop the hard-shelled bivalves on the roadbed to crack their thick shells. Here's a young gull holding a just-smashed mussel. The clam-cracking bird quickly flutter-drops to the road right behind the victim, as to not quickly claim one's prize would mean piracy by other gulls would likely happen.

An adult gull flies out to the bay with a shattered mussel. They always did this, probably to find a more private spot to dine in and hopefully a hassle-free zone from other gulls. For a Herring Gull, I imagine Blue Mussel is fine dining indeed; probably the equivalent of a meaty steak to a person.

Dropping hard-shelled potential food to crack it open is a very well-known behavior by large gulls. I've seen it on a number of occasions in widely scattered areas. But the wildlife drive at Edwin Forsythe is probably the easiest place that I've seen to actually observe and make photos of the gulls dealing with mussels, at close range.

TIP: This is a VERY popular refuge, and busy days bring lots of cars to the wildlife loop. Far better to visit on a weekday as opposed to weekends, if possible. Too much traffic really horns in on the gulls' efforts to use the road as a mussel-smashing substrate. From my limited experience here, the southernmost section of the wildlife loop (towards the beginning) near the can't miss observation tower is the best place to catch the gulls in action. And the end of day will probably provide the best lighting.

Sunday, December 25, 2022

BWD Magazine

BWD Magazine (formerly Bird Watcher's Digest) always features artwork on the cover, often original. The current issue sports a wonderful rendition of a Red-shouldered Hawk in habitat, by Michael DiGiorgio.

BWD Magazine is the new and improved Bird Watcher's Digest, and the latest issue is hot off the presses. As with all prior issues, its full of interesting information about all things birds. I was pleased to have penned an article for the new one, on the amazing Kankakee Sands - a major prairie restoration project in western Indiana.

I'd highly recommend a subscription to BWD. Here's the link:


Thursday, December 22, 2022

Brown Rats, in the "wild"


While shooting eagles at the Conowingo Dam in Maryland back on December 14 (2022), I noticed a glimmer of fur flash through the rock riprap behind me. Weasel? A minute later the suspect revealed itself: Brown Rat ("Norway" Rat, Rattus norvegicus). I (fortunately, I suppose) have next to no experience with this much loathed mammal and set about getting some shots. While it stayed mostly hidden in the rocks, I noticed it was working ever closer to my sandwich in a sealed container on a low wall. As I didn't think the rat could see that, I became curious as to their sense of smell. I took a small chunk of turkey from the sandwich and placed it high on a flat rock where I knew the rat couldn't see it. The mammal soon started circling ever closer to the turkey, staying mostly under cover. In about 3-4 minutes it had found the turkey atop the rock and ran up and took it.

A Brown Rat poses nicely for the camera. For the most part, they - I saw at least three - stayed well concealed amongst the rocks. I think that I was the only photographer there who noticed them. Apparently, the many fishermen who work this section of the Susquehanna River are in the habit of tossing "trash" fish (their terminology, not mine) into the rocks. The rats eventually discovered this food source and established an outpost here.

Say what you will about Brown Rats - and most of it will be unpleasant - but they are clever and adaptable mammals. The mammalian counterpart to House Sparrows. It's thought that their original native range was the region of northern China, but Brown Rats have gone nearly global by now. Just about everywhere people go, rats will follow, and they live nearly exclusively in our shadow.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Two owls - one shot. Almost!

A Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) hunts from atop a kestrel nest box. Our team stopped to watch this box because we spotted a red morph Eastern Screech-Owl looking out of the hole. The owl popped back inside when we stopped, and while awaiting his reappearance the short-eared landed. What a shot that would have made, had the little owl looked back out of his hole with the other owl over its head! The short-ear was not hunting the screech owl - the box is just a convenient perch to look for voles and other small mammals - their stock in trade. The big owl up top would not even have been able to see the little one had he peered back out, due to the little roof overhang. As incredibly acute as owls' hearing is, I am sure the boxed owl knew something was atop his home, perhaps hence his reluctance to show himself. Screech-owls are normally not too shy towards humans, at least quiet ones watching from inside a vehicle from a respectable distance.

When I made this shot, it was well into dusk and light was scarce. The image parameters are f/5.6 (wide-open with the Canon 400mm DO II and 1.4x extender), 1/50, and a very high ISO of 12,800. When we left a few minutes later, it was too dark to shoot pictures and getting too dark to even see the screech-owl if he did reappear in the hole (which I am sure he did, eventually). Chandlersville Christmas Bird Count, Muskingum County, Ohio, yesterday.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

American Mistletoe

A Silver Maple, liberally festooned with large orbicular clumps of American Mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum). This is the same plant that is often used as Xmas decor around now, and that people like to kiss under.

Last Friday, December 9, I made a trip to Chesapeake, Ohio and vicinity in Lawrence County. This region is probably the mistletoe epicenter in the Buckeye State and it's quite easy to find there. I'll post something more robust on this very interesting plant later, when time is more plentiful.

Mistletoe forms large ball-shaped masses and is strictly epiphytic. It typically grows high in trees, which makes photographing the tiny flowers and showy fruit a challenge. The Ohio side of the Ohio River Valley represents the northern limits for this widespread species.

A hemiparasitic plant, mistletoe attaches to its host plant's branches via specialized root-like structures known as haustoria. Once embedded, a mistletoe plant can live a long time, probably in many cases only succumbing when its host tree finally falls. This one is on an ornamental crabapple. Most mistletoe occupy native Silver Maple and American Elm, although they can exploit a number of other tree species.

I finally found an opportunity to photograph the reproductive parts of the plant, and it was a challenge. I'll relate that tale when I post about this trip later.

The showy, conspicuous berries (drupes) lure birds, which eat them. The seeds within survive the ride through the avian digestive tract and are expelled on to lofty branches later. There the seeds germinate, tap into the woody tissue, and begin to grow. The tiny greenish flowers are to the right. One must essentially have mistletoe in hand to see those.

More to come!


Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Northern Gannet on Lake Erie!

Last Sunday, December 4, I took a trip to one of my favorite Lake Erie hotspots, the municipal pier at Huron, Ohio, in Erie County. I was undecided about any trip until late the night before, due to some pending projects, but ultimately felt it was in my best interest to get out for a while and try to trip the shutter on some interesting targets. And I found a completely unexpected and mega-interesting target.

A juvenile Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus)! The mouth of the Huron River and nearby Lake Erie was teeming with gulls, mostly Ring-billed and Herring gulls. A smattering of Bonaparte's Gulls, and at least one Lesser Black-backed and a few Great Black-backed gulls, too. I had walked out to the furthest southwestern corner of the riprap wall surrounding the huge dredge impoundment on the west side of the pier, as this position offered a commanding view of the action, and the light was good.

I wasn't in position for ten minutes when I saw an enormous bird cruise in from the direction of the open lake. I got my big lens on it ASAP and verified that it was indeed a gannet. The camera was all set for action, as I was already focused on shooting birds in flight. The Canon R5 was in electronic shutter mode, which yields a burst rate of 20 frames a second. Unfortunately, the gannet was at a distance of perhaps a quarter mile or so and never came nearer than that. But fortunately, I was shooting with the Canon 800mm f/5.6 lens, and had the 1.4x extender attached, making for an 1120 mm lens. Even with that firepower, this image was the best that I could do - and it's extremely cropped - but it leaves no question regarding the identification.

Northern Gannets are certainly not unprecedented on Lake Erie, but they are great rarities. They appear every few years, but I think the last report prior to this one dates to 2017. It's the third gannet that I've seen on Lake Erie.

Within a few minutes of the bird vanishing towards Cedar Point to the west (I got to watch it for perhaps 2-3 minutes) I got word out to the birding community via Facebook. And scuttled my other plans to hit other lakefront locales. I proceeded out to the end of the pier, which offers a commanding view of Lake Erie, and hoped the big bird would reappear. A number of other birders stopped by as well, but at least by the time that I left around 3:30, the gannet had not reappeared. Hopefully it will turn up in the area again and others can see it. The lake between Huron and Cleveland is the zone for wayward gannets on Lake Erie, and that's where most Ohio records come from.

This is the first image that I took of the gannet, shortly after spotting it. The big seabird dwarfs the nearby Ring-billed Gull.

I suspect that gannets that appear on Lake Erie or elsewhere on the Great Lakes originate from the massive colony (100,000+ birds!) on Bonaventure Island at Perce, Quebec. That's the red dot on the Google Earth map above. "Ile Bonaventure" sits at the terminus of the Gaspe Peninsula, in the expansive Gulf of St. Lawrence. This is the outflow for the entirety of the Great Lakes. I believe all Ohio gannet records are of juveniles. Apparently, the naive youngsters mistake west for east, and instead of heading out into the Atlantic Ocean to winter with the other gannets, the wayward birds head up the St. Lawrence River and inland. They pass by the iconic Canadian cities of Montreal and Toronto, through Lake Ontario, on past Niagara Falls and up the Niagara River, and into Lake Erie. It's about 1,100 miles from Bonaventure Island to Huron, Ohio, as the gannet would fly.

A juvenile Northern Gannet in the Atlantic Ocean off Ocean City, Maryland. I made this image on February 27, 2022, during a pelagic seabird trip run by George Armistead and his company, Hillstar Nature. We saw many gannets, of all ages.

It takes gannets 4-5 years to attain full adult plumage. After their first (juvenile) year in which they are all brown like the bird that I photographed, immature gannets start to develop a patchwork of white. In general, they go from darker to whiter but there is great plumage variability even among gannets of the same age. All or virtually all Lake Erie gannet records are of brown first-year birds.

A smattering of the 100,000+ Northern Gannets that nest on Bonaventure Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This is the likely source of origin for wayward juvenile gannets that appear on the Great Lakes. I made this image on July 1, 2018.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Two showy creatures at Kankakee Sands

A Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina) atop a particularly showy hunting perch. The beautiful predatory insect chose this equally beautiful flowering spike of Hoary Vervain (Verbena stricta) as a lookout from which to hunt game. This was at Kankakee Sands in Newton County, Indiana, last June 29, 2022.

Kankakee Sands is an epic prairie restoration owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy. This year's trip was my fourth visit, and each one has been interesting and highly productive. While my house in Worthington, Ohio, is less than 300 miles east of Kankakee Sands, the ecological difference is vast. Many true prairie species - flora and fauna - did not make it quite as far as Ohio, and Kankakee represents their eastern terminus.

So smitten with Kankakee Sands am I that I successfully cajoled the editor of BWD (formerly Bird Watcher's Digest) into letting me pen an article on the place in their upcoming January/February issue. While the article focuses mostly on birds, of which there are many, it also gives a thumbnail of the fascinating history of this region. BWD is well worth getting - learn more about the magazine RIGHT HERE.

I made this image on the same Kankakee trip. While Indigo Buntings (Passerina cyanea) are not rare, who cares? The extroverted little buntings are astonishing in appearance, and I never tire of looking at them. Within earshot of this chap's briar patch were Bell's Vireo, Grasshopper and Henslow's sparrows, Western Meadowlark (Eastern Meadowlarks, too), and TNC's fabulous, reintroduced herd of about 100 head of American Bison.