Monday, February 27, 2012

Northern Gannets


Gannets are my entry into Tuesday Tweets organized by ecobirder.  This past weekend my wife and I took a trip to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and Eastern Shore of Virginia with the Hampton Roads Bird Club.  I plan on post some of what we saw but for today I'll focus on the large flocks of Northern Gannets that we saw at the Bridge Tunnel.   There were thousands of them out over the mouth of the bay when we were there.  While on island #4 we stood facing into 30-40 mph winds just watching gannets stream by.

They were passing really close to the island and the stream of them lasted the full 40 minutes we were there (and I'm sure it was going on before we arrived and well after).

While I've seen Gannets plenty of times before, I've never seen so many or had them so close.  There were times where I couldn't get them fully in the frame of my 400 mm lens. 

The only missing was there were very few that were diving, and none close to the island.  Groups the past few weekends have reported seeing full flocks of Gannets diving all at once.  That is an amazing sight as they fold back their wings and hit the water like spears.  And there are also often whales around as they feed on a lot of the same food.  There is a great video of it on David Attenborough's The Life of Birds.  I highly recommend the show to anyone interested in birds.

Luna Moth

Luna Moth
Two years ago my wife and I went on a guided photography walk as part of the Great Dismal Swamp Birding Festival in Suffolk, VA. It is really a nice place in spite of the name (although you don't want to be there during mosquito season).  After birding in the morning, we went to an afternoon photography class taught by a friend from the Hampton Roads Digital Shutterbug Club; someone we knew to be a good bird photographer and frequent visitor to the swamp.  The class included a walk on a 0.5 mile trail behind the visitor center through a pine forest.  Birds were pretty quiet by that time but we did stumble upon a Luna Moth hanging onto a low twig on the ground.  It was very cooperative and let everyone in the group take pictures.  A few of us even circled back around to get some more.  I only had my birding lens with me so I was standing back about 10 feet so I could focus.  After my wife got her shots, I borrowed her macro lens and got in close, laying on the ground just a foot or so away from it.  The moth has a wingspan of about 4-5 inches.  In the image above you can see how hairy the moth is.  In the one below, I looked in on this little curl that the moth has on its wings.  I'm not sure what is for (I would appreciate a comment if you know), but is an interesting pattern. 
Curl on Luna Moth Wing
You can check out other interesting close-up shots at Macro Monday over on Lisa's Chaos.

And if you are still here, you must be wondering if we even did see birds on the photography walk.  And we did.  As the first group of folks left the moth, they saw an Eastern Screech Owl sitting in a hole in a tree.  I managed to get a decent photograph of it before returning to the moth.
Eastern Screech Owl, Great Dismal Swamp, VA

Monday, February 20, 2012

Brown-headed Nuthatch

For the past few weeks we have been having a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches visiting our yard.  I first noticed them one afternoon when one of them came to the feeder and were taking some peanuts from a new feeder.  It seemed to be able to get some nuts out that the chickadee wouldn't.  My wife had also heard one calling in the yard while she was gardening.

Then last weekend I was walking through the wooded part of the yard and I heard some drumming from a nearby tree.  Thinking it was a woodpecker, Downy most likely, I searched up and down the trees hoping to find it.  It took several minutes to localize the sound but then I saw the movement.  It wasn't a woodpecker, but a nuthatch excavating a hole in a neighbor's tree.  I went back and got my camera and was able to get several pictures.  There were two nuthatches that were taking turns pecking away at the hole and spitting out the wood.  While one was excavating, the other would be on a nearby tree eating.  The hole was getting almost big enough for one of them to fit in. 

Nuthatch spitting out wood pulp.
Nuthatch reaching deep into the hole.

I've been watching for a little over a week now and I haven't been able to see any more work on the hole. Or should I say holes; there are actually two holes in the branch very close together.  Last week they seemed to be working on the upper hole but I can't see how they could get it very deep before running into the lower hole.  And why would they make two entrance so close together?

I hope they do nest back there and I am able to watch them through out the spring.  Nonetheless, they have a pleasant surprise to our yard list this winter.

And check out other bird posts on Tuesday Tweets.

Up Close to a Tiny Forest

Here is my entry for Macro Monday.  Visit Lisa's Chaos to other people's.

A few weeks ago my wife and I escaped the cold weather by taking a walk at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens.  We spent quite some time in the tropical house where they have a display of Bonsai Trees.  I really liked the idea of get close to the trees and making it look like it was a large tree.  Let me know what you think of them.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Feathers of a Bird

It is not often that I get a chance to combine macro photography with my true photographic love: birds.  I was inspired to look for this combination after getting turned on to Macro Monday at Lisa's Chaos. 

 Back in the fall my parents called and said they were going to be visiting our neck of the woods and wondered if my wife and I would like to meet them for the afternoon.  Their destination was Sylvan Heights Waterfowl Park.  Sylvan Heights started as a captive breeding center for endangered waterfowl and several years ago they decided to open a park for the public.  It is a giant outdoor aviary.  And while waterfowl is their main focus, they have many other types of large birds there.  Like this African Crowned Crane that liked standing in front of the sun.

It is an interesting place to visit as you get close up looks at birds from around the world.  And the park is very accommodating of photographers.  Both times we have been there, there have been many photographers there and they have no problem with you using a tripod.  For many of the exhibits you can actually walk inside the enclosure so you don't even have to shoot through the fence.  But taking "zoo" pictures has never really appealed to me.  While there are some striking images, it's just not the same as seeing the animals in the wild.  So on this visit I thought I would try for something different; something I couldn't get in the wild (at least not at my skill level).  So I tried these close-up shots.  And I was pretty pleased with them.  They give a different sense of the birds than the normal, full-body shots.  And maybe someday the Chickadee on the feeder will let me get close enough to them to get feather shots.

The First Cold Day of the Season

This weekend we have had our first real wintery weather of the season.  It has been a very mild winter with temperatures 5-7 degrees above normal.  And for southeast Virginia, that's pretty darn warm.  That has seemed to keep the birds well supplied with food so they have not been coming to the feeders.  I generally put out some suet plugs in mid- to late November and have Downy woodpeckers, wrens and even the occasional nuthatch stop by for a snack.  The plugs will last a month or two before they are gone and need replacing.  This year, it is mid-February and I'm still on the first set.  And we usually get several House Finches at the feeder; and this year, very few.  I've always noticed increased activity when the weather gets cold, so when the forecast for this weekend called for highs of around 40 and a chance for snow I made sure the feeders were well stocked and hoped for a busy day.  It was great that it would occur on a weekend when I would be home to enjoy it.

A full house of House Finches
Saturday started chilly and cloudy and with a long line at the "bird cafe." In the first hour I was watching, there were 16 species in the back yard.  For the past several years I have been participating in Project FeederWatch and to ease data collection, I have a list of common birds I see for the count.  That list is at 22.  So 16 of the 22 species that I see probably more than a couple of times a winter in the backyard were there all within an hour.  A few more were seen in the front yard but outside the FeederWatch area.  They kept coming and going throughout the day and I ended with 19 species and 58 individuals.  This included 15 American Robins (saw several pulling up worms in the lawn), 10 House Finches, and a female bluebird.  Bluebirds are one of the rarer "common" birds we see in the yard.  A few will pass through every year.  They seem to hang out in the fruit trees at the back of the yard for a few minutes and then move on. 

But the birds weren't the only ones visiting the feeders.  Our local squirrels were taking advantage of the food.  Every several minutes they would go running at the feeders and scatter the birds to the trees.  I have squirrel-deterrent feeders so they don't get much food from the feeders but they do seem to bully the birds.  This in spite of putting on their cute and innocent look.
"I'm not doing anything wrong"
Saturday night we received a dusting of snow.  Enough to cover the grass but not the hard surfaces.  It was only 20 degrees Sunday morning and the birds were back.  It wasn't quite as busy as Saturday morning was (but then again I got up a little later).  But still plenty of activity.  

In addition to the feeders, we make sure the birds have a nice supply of water.  On the deck near the feeders we have a shallow bird bath with a few rocks in it for the birds to stand on.  We often see birds bathing in here as well as smaller birds drinking from it.  But the larger birds like drinking from my pond.  I have a half-whiskey barrel pond with a few plants in it.  This mockingbird sits on the side a drinks from it.  A few will even stand on a submerged planter to have a drink.  Sunday morning it was frozen over so while I made breakfast, my wife took some warm water out to replace the ice in the bird bath.  

As the day continues I expect to see more birds stopping by.  While it is colder outside than I would like for spending time out there, it is nice to see the birds return to the feeders.  We are able to enjoy the outside while staying warm inside.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Spring is in the air

Sunday I saw some pretty wild behavior in the yard. There were two squirrels chasing around the Crape Myrtle tree outside the dining room window. But it wasn't the usual manic chasing that squirrels do. The chasee would hurry, but not a full run, forward a few feet and then stop. The chaser would wait a few seconds and then follow. This repeated several times over a couple of minutes. Occasionally the back squirrel would smell the rear of the front squirrel. I never saw them doing more but it sure looked like courting behaviour to me. So regardless of what the groundhog might have said, spring its in the air.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Who's Coming to Dinner?

This past fall, while on the way back home from a trip, we stopped on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and bought a handful of pumpkins to decorate the garden.  There is a nice place that we have been to a few times before with an old school bus out by the road and a large "pick your own" patch behind.  We didn't get around to carving jack-o-laterns, so we just set the pumpkins out on the front steps and in the garden to add a touch of fall color.  The nice thing about not carving the pumpkins is that they keep much longer than carved ones.  A few years ago we had some friends over to carve pumpkins and Scott's had collapsed by the next day.  It didn't even make it to Halloween. The uncarved ones will stay around until at least Thanksgiving and continue giving us spots of bright color as the garden fades into it's subdued winter plumage.

After Thanksgiving we moved a few of the pumpkins from the front garden to the back garden where we could continue to enjoy them but they wouldn't clash with the Christmas decorations going up around the street.  After a few days we noticed that one seemed to be moving about over night.  We had set it on the edge of the garden but then one morning it was a few feet out into the lawn.  I moved it back and again, the next morning it was out in the lawn.  Then we started noticing small holes in the bottom of a couple of pumpkins.  About the size of a half-dollar, the entry holes were perfectly round and the seeds and strings in the pumpkin was missing.  But the flesh was still there.  In fact, I was worried that it would fall apart when I picked it up, but the pumpkin was still quite firm.

We weren't sure who had been eating the pumpkins.  It could be deer.  We have plenty and they are frequent visitors to the yard.  I even saw one licking dew off a pumpkin one morning.  But we figured that if the deer were eating the pumpkins they would just break it open.  We couldn't imagine how a deer could be making, or using, those small holes we saw.  It could have been rodents.  The hole seemed reasonably sized for a large rodent to get in.  Maybe a mole?  Or a rat?  Scary thoughts.  Or maybe the local raccoons were getting in to the pumpkins?  But wouldn't they break it open?  So to find out we took the remaining whole pumpkin and set it up with my Audubon BirdCam.  I received the BirdCam as a birthday present a year ago and have had fun trying to catch some of the backyard wildlife that we aren't around to see.  It is motion activated and includes a flash (good for this use).  It also does stop-action shots so I can make some interesting movies with it.  I'm sure some of those will show up here soon.  

But back to the pumpkin.  The camera was set up a few feet away from the pumpkin and we waited.  It took a couple of nights but one morning we saw the pumpkin had shifted.  When I retrieved the camera and card, this is what we found.

We had missed a lot of the action, like how did it make the hole?  But we had caught the perpetrator red-handed (or should I saw orange-pawed?).  We are glad it could make a meal of the pumpkins.  And maybe they are nesting nearby again.  Last year a family made their nest in a neighbor's redtip tree (shrub) that is right on the property line.  We could see the fuzzy little heads in the nest for several weeks.  And occasionally, the young ones would venture up to a whiskey barrel pond to have a drink.
 It has been great fun having the raccoons taking up house near us.  They occasionally will get into the bird feeders or cause other minor annoyances.  But overall, having such cool and wild animals sharing our yard has been wonderful.