Friday, March 30, 2012

March Marsh

All this week I have been making posts describing what is going on in our marsh.  I plan this to be a regular feature to document the changes that go on month-to-month.  So today's submission talks a little about the marsh itself.  We get a great view of what is going on thanks this folly from a previous owner.  We have a 600 ft long pier that stretches from the back of our yard out to a tidal creek that leads to the Chesapeake Bay.  Although the marsh is wide on our side of the creek, we are the only ones with access from this side.  So while the property is only 60 ft wide, we get to enjoy the entire thing without visual interruption. But I can not imagine what convinced the previous owner to build it.  Especially since he built it all by himself.  But we sure enjoy the his labors; it is what convinced us to buy the house.

We have a fair number of deer that live in the marsh and the nearby fields and yards.  It makes it hard on my wife's garden, especially since our deer are illiterate and do not read the "deer-proof" plant tags and eat them anyways.  There are also raccoons out here and muskrats.  So at several places there are paths worn down through the grass.  When the tide is high or we have had a lot of rain, the paths flood like in the picture below.  It is not uncommon for us to scare a deer out from under the pier as we start walking out or see them flash their white-tails as the disappear into the taller grasses and phragmites.

Animal path flooded during high tide
 Looking out the other direction (east) there is a small tributary, if you can call a 100 yard long arm of a creek a tributary, that runs back behind some other houses.  Along the edge are several small trees that have grown up on higher land.  These trees make good perches for birds.  Of late there have been several Red-winged Blackbirds that have abutting territories along the trees.  So we will see two or even three blackbirds up in the tops of the trees calling away or sitting with their backs to each other watching over their territory.  Soon they will start nesting.  The call of the blackbirds (a raspy conk-a-reeee) is one of the thrilling sounds of the marsh.  The trees also make for a good middle distance interest for taking photographs. 

 During dryer periods, there are several open mud spots that form where the grasses haven't taken and we will occasionally see shorebirds stopping by for a bite.

At the end of the pier is a small boat dock where we keep a canoe for quick trips out onto the creek.  For longer trips we drag out kayaks all the way out there.  It sure is nice to have water access but it takes nearly as long to carry both boats the 900 ft to the creek as it does to drive to the local boat dock and drop them off at the water's edge.  This is probably the most photogenic in the pier and my go-to location for marsh photos.  On this day it was foggy so the view isn't great but I will be posting more in the future that should really show off the beauty of the creek.

I hope you enjoyed this quick introduction the our marsh and come back for more.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cedar Waxwings in the Marsh

Today I am continuing my series on the tidal marsh behind our yard by showing some of the bird visitors we had over the weekend.  This past Sunday I introduced the marsh including a time-lapse video of the tide coming in and out and Monday I had a few macro shots of the hackberry tree starting to leaf out and flower.  Today I will join Tuesday's Tweets and World Bird Wednesday with some photos of Cedar Waxwings that visited a tree across the creek from us.

Saturday afternoon while I was preparing to make cookies, my wife came in and told me there were some interesting birds out in the marsh.  I followed her back out  there and in the trees across the creek from our pier were about 25 Cedar Waxwings.  They are very beautiful birds with a bright yellow terminal band on the tail, a small red spot at the end of some of the wing feathers and a very smooth greyish-brown plumage.  They also generally flock in large groups.  It is rare to see just one or two at a time.  This wasn't the first time we had seen them from our yard but they are infrequent visitors.  Definitely less than once a year.  They were sitting in an oak tree and then as a group they would flock to a nearby holly tree and feed on the berries for a few minutes before returning as a group to the oak.

On Sunday, I was out on the pier taking some landscape photos on the marsh (check back on Friday for some of those) when I saw the Waxwings again.  This time there were at least 50.  By the time I put my long lens on the camera, another group of 20 or more joined in.  By this time the holly tree was nearly bare but there were still small groups that would go over and eat the remaining berries.  Some would even hover for a second to grab at berries that were hard to perch by.

I hope you enjoy the photos and check back again for more photos of the marsh and the visitors.  I'm going to try to keep updates throughout the seasons to track the changes.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Spring in the Marsh

I've decided to start a series of posts about the marsh we have in our back yard.  See yesterday's post for the start of the series.

For Macro Monday I went searching for the start of spring in the marsh.  The tide was high during the day so I had to stay up on the pier.  But right as the yard transitions to the marsh we have a handful of trees that hang over the pier.  The Hackberry in this area is starting to leaf-out and has flowers.  The flowers will turn into little berries by late summer (I'll have to see if I have any good pictures of them from past years for a future post).  The berries are quite small, BB-sized, with a large seed in the middle.  But the little flesh that is on them is quite sweet.  The raccoons in the marsh seem to really like them as do we.  In late summer we often grab a few as we walk by. 

Hackberry flowers

This tree has some odd behavior as well.  There are two trunks that grow up together.  We are not sure if it is two trunks of the same tree or two trees that grew together early on.  The later might be the case as the second one always seems to leaf-out a bit later.  But here is a picture of the leaf buds.  Enjoy.

Hackberry leaf buds

The Flowing Tides

One of my cool toys is a WingScapes BirdCam.  It is a motion-sensitive camera that is designed to take pictures at bird feeders or baths or the like.  But it also has a time-lapse option and I've made use of that several times.  You set the interval and then it just snaps away until you stop it.  If the flash is on, it will even take pictures during the night.  Without the flash it is smart enough not to take pictures when it is too dark.  I then copy all of the images to the computer and turn them into a movie.  I use the flip-book option in Photoshop Elements.  This is the same camera I used to capture the marauding raccoons last month.

Last week I decided that I would start a series of post about the marsh we have in our back yard.  As I mentioned in my first post, our yard backs up to a brackish, tidal marsh.  A previous owner had built a large pier leading to a boat dock on a creek that leads out to the Chesapeake Bay. So to start this series I decided to make a video of the tide coming in and out.  I ended up leaving the camera out for a few days so you can see the creek coming and going and the sun rising and passing overhead.  It was very foggy for a couple of the days and and you can see the lens get fogged up in the mornings. 

Keep coming back over the next week or so as I make some more posts about the marsh.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Great Horned Owl

Welcome to Tuesday's tweets. I've been busy this last week and was going to skip this week's tweet but seeing Ecobirder's Great Horned Owl just inspired me to post my own.  Last spring I was birding at a local park when I came across another photographer getting shots of this owl.  She was quite cooperative (if a bit too far away). 
Be sure to enjoy the others over at

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Wisteria is Coming

Asian Wisteria is a rather pretty and floriferous plant that is incredibly invasive in the southeast US.  As Fairweather Gardens describes it, "[it] grows up to 100 feet, rooting wherever it touches the ground."  It is the bane of our yard, growing high up in a number of pine trees along the property line and putting runners halfway across the lawn.  In fact, last weekend, my wife, our neighbor and myself spent several hours cutting it off at ground level and treating it with Roundup.  We generally refrain from using poisons in our yard but wisteria is the one exception. 

So why am I telling you this? Because the reason it is so prevalent around here is the beautiful flowers it gets early in the spring.  We have one plant that was planted next to the deck and well away from anything else.  So that one is staying for now.  But I cut back the runners that grow under the deck every year.  And that plant is getting its spring buds right now.  And those buds make up my submission this week for Macro Monday.  You can see other macro shots over at Lisa's Chaos.  Hope you enjoy and come back in a few weeks when I'll post some shots of the flowers once they open.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Winter Shorebirds

For Tuesday's Tweets and World Bird Wednesday, I have decided to talk about a recent shorebird sighting I had and explain a little about the three species we saw.
Here in coastal Virginia, we often have small groups of shorebirds winter.  They will often pick some muddy tidal flats to stay around and probe the mud for small marine invertebrates and wait for their nesting grounds to open up for the season.  Most shorebirds winter further south in the Caribbean or South America. But those that stay in North America for the winter likely get a head start on reaching their nesting grounds in the north of Canada.  Migration is very risky and expensive for birds.  After surviving their first summer, migration is the deadliest thing they do.  So, even though many species migrate over great distances, those individuals who can find food closer to their breeding grounds are more likely to survive and will return to their summer habitat earlier (better nesting sites and territories) and in better health.  It is the lack of food at their breeding location, and not the cold weather, that drives birds to migrate.

Shorebirds at Willis Wharf
As you may know from my Gannet post, I went to the southern Delmarva Peninsula (the Eastern Shore of Virginia) with the Hampton Roads Bird Club a few weeks ago.  One of the stops that we made was at Willis Wharf.  It is about 30 miles north of the southern tip of the peninsula on the Atlantic side.  It is a fishing village on a tidal creek and well protected behind some of the barrier islands along the coast.  When we arrived there were extensive mud flats, even though it wasn't yet low tide.  We saw a few hundred shorebirds out in the flats and once we got our scopes on them, we could identify three main species: Marbled Godwits, Willets and (Short-billed) Dowitchers (you can ignore the Ring-billed Gulls in the picture, I did).  I put the Short-billed in parenthesis because the species was identified by others.  It is very difficult to distinguish between the Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers in the field and I'm not confident enough to make the distinction.  And no, the bill length is not diagnostic. Their call is useful though; but we didn't hear any. But wintering very near the coast in brackish mud flats is suggestive of Short-billed over Long-billed.
After we were watching for several minutes, a Peregrine Falcon came swooping by and caused the shorebirds to take flight.  It was quite an amazing sight.  Luckily I had my camera ready and was able to capture some good photographs.
Shorebirds take flight from a Peregrine Falcon

We didn't see the Falcon take any birds and after a few passes it went to perch on a tree at the far side of the marsh.  The birds are able to fly and maneuver in tight formation with others of different species.  The tight grouping of hundreds of birds and their frequent turning back and forth is a defensive mechanism.  It is hard for a predator, like the Peregrine, to pick an individual out and attack them. Even though seeing this was quite exciting, it did cause all of the birds to land quite far away.  But after a few minutes, many of them returned.  I guess the eating was better here.  I was able to capture a great image of them all banking to the side as they returned.  I love how they are almost vertical.

Banking to the left before landing

In the picture to the right, you can see all three species.   I have cropped out a section of the upper left of the previous image to show the three species (see below).  You'll find The Marbled Godwits (marked 'A') has a warm cinnamon color to its feathers, is the largest of the three species.  It is also the only of the three with an obviously two-toned bill: black near the tip becoming pink near the head.  The Dowitchers are the smaller birds in this picture.  There are three seen near the 'B'. They are about half the size of the Godwits, have a white spot in the middle of their backs, somewhat shorter tails and show dark towards the wing tips.  When they are feeding, they have a very characteristic probing motion that is likened to a sewing machine.  A very rapid up-and-down motion.  Much quicker than most other shorebirds and continual.  The third species seen in the picture are Willets.  They actually breed in this area as well.  They are larger than the Dowitchers, but not quite as big as the Marbled Godwits.  There is a good example marked by the 'C'.  Willits are easy to identify in flight as they have a long white 'W' stretching from wingtip to wingtip.  They also have a clear call of "pill-will-willet."  

Close-up showing the Godwits ('A'), Willets ('C') and Dowitchers ('B')

We ended up staying for about an hour as the birds continued feeding pretty close by in the mud flats. And I will close with this final picture from that day that I like. Can you find the Willets?

Monday, March 5, 2012

A little Thyme

A few weeks ago we had a nice weekend day and I was able to get out and take some photos around the yard.  My wife has been growing this Thyme is a pot in the front yard.  I love how the leaves have added a little blush; apparently a result of the cold weather.

I hope you enjoy these and the other Macro Monday images this week over at Lisa's Chaos.