Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Share Your Nature Photos at the Library: April 21, 2014

The photo above was taken by Elena, a very  talented twelve-year-old young lady who joins us at our quarterly photo-sharing evenings at the Chesapeake Central Library (298 Cedar Rd.). Elena created this image by simply punching a hole in a white piece of paper and inserting the flower into the hole, resulting in a creative and unique perspective on a simple subject, which she photographed with her iPad. This is one of the photos that she shared with us at last January's meeting.

Our next "Nature Photo Night at the Library" will be on Monday, April 21 beginning at 6:00 p.m. Anyone who wants to can bring up to 20 of their favorite nature or wildlife photos on a USB device or a CD, and we will project them onto the library's big screen for everyone else to see and discuss.  All ages and levels of experience with photography are welcome to join us; if you do not take photographs yourself but want to see what others are showing, you're also invited to come!

The diversity of our group and the different perspectives everyone has on nature makes for a very enjoyable evening. We all learn from each other, and have developed a good fellowship. Some people specialize in landscape and beach photography; some, like me, focus on birds and butterflies.  Others like sunrises or macro photography or wildlife; some travel to find subjects to photograph, and others prefer to remain in their own back yards. Some have sophisticated camera equipment, and others take photos with their cell phones. There is a place here for everyone!

Here are a few more of the photos that people showed at the January meeting:

Bill Niven, one of our original members, was lucky and talented enough to get this beautiful photo of the usually-hard-to-see American Bittern. Bitterns are usually tucked well away from humans in the thick grasses and reeds near water. This one is out in the open, and you can see how its colors perfectly match the grasses, providing it with near-perfect camouflage when it is a just few feet further back off the path. American Bitterns winter in Hampton Roads but leave in April to migrate to their breeding grounds.

All the snow we got this winter forced more seed-eating birds than usual to concentrate at residential bird feeders. I know I saw more birds than normal at my feeders after the snowstorms. Debbie Economos showed us this photo of her snowy backyard with two of our most popular feeder birds, a male Cardinal and a Carolina Chickadee. Keep your feeders filled during inclement weather!

This photo by Nora Leonard needs no words; the doe's beauty speaks for itself. Gorgeous!

Chris Williams told us he had been out birding for several hours, and it was just one of those days when he didn't see much of interest. So he packed it in and returned home -- where he pulled into his driveway and immediately found this beautiful male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker! 

Here's one of my own photos; this is a Cedar Waxwing that I photographed at Paradise Creek Park in Portsmouth. This was taken during another of our extreme cold spells after another snowfall. I found dozens of Waxwings in a feeding frenzy, eating the berries from the Wild Privet.

And last, here is one of my favorites, another Bill Niven classic! (These are Tundra Swans at Mackay Island).

Please do join us on April 21 if you are interested in sharing your nature photography, or just want to learn more about the abundant nature and wildlife that is ours to find and photograph right here in our own back yard --- what is here, and where to go to find it. Call me at (757) 410-7147 if you have any questions; ask for Karen.

Addendum: One of our members, Sally Zeil, told me that Bill's swan photo (above) is just begging for a clever caption! She suggests

"Enough with the synchronized swim practice already, it's time to migrate!"
"Give it up: you're never going to find Lucy's contact lens!"
"I see England, I see France..."    

 Do you have a caption of your own to share? If so, log into Google with your Google or Yahoo ID, then go to my blog and enter a "Comment" at the bottom of this entry. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A Birding Boat Trip Around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel

On February 16th I went on a 4-hour boat trip organized by Geoff Giles and the Williamsburg Bird Club. During that four hours, our boat went to all four of the manmade islands along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT), and ventured into some deeper waters a little to the east of the bridge looking for seabirds, waterfowl, and whatever other wildlife was present. Our trip had originally been scheduled for January, but severe weather prevented the boat from going out as planned. That turned out to be a blessing, because although it was a bit cold on February 16, it was sunny, the wind was not a problem, and we had a wonderful time!

The CBBT is known nationally for its great birding; I knew about it years ago when I lived on the west coast. During spring and fall bird migrations, songbirds that are flying across the Bay and become tired frequently land on the islands to rest, especially during rough weather. Seabirds that usually remain far offshore will often be blown closer to the coast during storms, and the CBBT islands are an excellent place to scan for them. And during the winter months, the islands are an outstanding place to scope for wintering waterfowl, gannets, loons, grebes, gulls and other types of birds. The photo at the top of this blog post is of a male Red-breasted Merganser that I photographed during the boat trip. This species is a common winter visitor to the Bay. The female's plumage is quite different from the male's; the photo below is of a female that I photographed earlier this winter at Fort Monroe.

When I moved to Chesapeake in 2000, anyone could bird from all four of the islands as long as they registered and obtained  a letter of consent to do so for that calendar year. Unfortunately, after 9/11 the authorities decided this was a security issue, and now they only allow people to stop at the southernmost island, unless you pay them $50 per hour for a security guard to accompany you to the other three islands. That’s a big loss for birders and bird study. So the Williamsburg Bird Club boat trip was a great way to explore waters around the islands that are not normally accessible. Here are some of the things that we saw:

Scoters are one of our most common wintering sea ducks. There are three kinds, and we saw all three (all occur regularly along our coast and in the Bay in the winter). In the photo above, the one on the left with the big orange knobby thing on his bill is a male Black Scoter, and the one on the right is a male Surf Scoter. Below is a better picture of a Surf Scoter, called the "clown" of the duck family, and a photo of the less common White-winged Scoter; this one is a female.

Harlequin Ducks are fairly rare winter visitors to Virginia; some years we see none. When they do get this far south, the most reliable place to spot one is usually along the CBBT islands near the rocks. Harlequins are spectacular little ducks with very colorful plumage and, yes, a harlequin-like pattern. The male duck below was some distance from our boat and my photo isn't great, but you can still make out his beautiful markings.

Birds are not the only life along the CBBT islands! Most winters there are a few Harbor Seals to be seen, and during our boat trip we found a dozen or more near island #3 (below). They are a joy to observe, because they are active, gregarious, cute, and curious about the people who are watching them!

Long-tailed Ducks, formerly called "Oldsquaws," are another sea duck that we only see during the winter months. In my opinion, they are one of our most beautiful ducks. The males and females look quite different, and as is usually the case in the bird world, the male is the more spectacular. Below is a photo of a male that I took on the boat trip; following that is a photo of a female I took earlier this winter.

The bird below might not look all that impressive to you, but it was the highlight of our trip. It's name is "Razorbill" for pretty obvious reasons, and it is a seabird of the alcid family that is rarely seen in Virginia. A few usually winter far offshore and can only be found, with luck, on pelagic boat trips far from the mainland. This winter has been a banner year for them because of all the winter storms that we have had, and large numbers have been seen south of their normal winter range. And on several days in January and February, large numbers were seen from shore in Virginia. This was the hoped-for "target bird" of the trip for most birders, and we were rewarded with about a half dozen of them in the waters north of Ft. Story.

Most non-birders think that "a seagull is a seagull is a seagull." There is actually no such thing as a "seagull," rather, there are many different species of gull worldwide. It takes a lot of practice to tell one species from the next; gulls are different sizes, have different shades of gray in their mantles, different wingtip patterns, different leg and bill colors, and many more field marks that distinguish the various species. And that's just for the adults birds! It takes anywhere from two to four years for a gull to reach its adult plumage, and until they do, they go through various juvenile and subadult plumages that can be very confusing. 

The common gulls along Virginia's coast in all seasons are the Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, and Great Black-backed Gull. Laughing Gulls, which have a black head, usually migrate south of Hampton Roads for the winter and start returning in mid-March to breed (look for them in Food Lion parking lots soon!). Far less common on Virginia's coast, although increasing in numbers, is the Lesser Black-backed Gull. We found several of them in the gull flocks that followed our boat. Two of the photos I took of them are below:

Our boat returned to the Dockside Marina in Lynnhaven Inlet in the early afternoon. The marina itself was a good place to look for birds from the docks. We saw American Oystercatchers out on the sandy islands, geese, Brown Pelicans and cormorants (both Double-crested and Great) in addition to the wintering waterfowl:

American Oystercatcher

 Male Hooded Merganser at Dockside Marina

 Male Bufflehead, one of our most common wintering ducks 

A group of Buffleheads along the CBBT

This was a wonderful trip, and I intend to join the Williamsburg Bird Club again next year. Several other boat trips operate out of Virginia Beach, including the popular winter wildlife boat trips operated by the Virginia Aquarium. The Virginia Beach Audubon Society often arranges trips, and some are usually planned during Virginia Beach's annual Winter Wildlife Festival. In some years, whales are seen on these trips, but this year the waters were too cold for them (on the day of our trip, the water temperature was 36 degrees!). I highly recommend any one these trips to anyone who is interested in exploring our local winter wildlife!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Over the past month, I’ve gone everywhere from Virginia Beach to Chincoteague to Pea Island to my own back yard chasing both common and uncommon birds, and testing out my new camera and lens (hooray!) on just about everything that moves. It’s been a lot of fun, despite some cold and nasty weather.

The photo above is of a male Eastern Bluebird. During the first week of January I went to the Owl Creek area by the Virginia Aquarium and found several pairs of these beautiful birds right by the parking lot. They were all “puffed up” because of the cold temperatures, and were very actively feeding.

I also found a Brown Creeper there (below), which has been a nemesis bird of mine to photograph. These inconspicuous little guys creep up trees looking for food in the crevices of the tree bark. Once they get to the top, they dive back down to the bottom of another tree and start the process again. They’re hard to see because they blend right into the bark (and, like woodpeckers, they usually stay on the side of the tree opposite of where you are), so your best bet of finding one is catching it in motion. These birds only visit our area in the winter.

Rudee Inlet in Virginia Beach has hosted an extremely rare sea duck this winter, a King Eider. It has been there for over a month and is still in the area. The normal winter range of this arctic duck is well north of us, so this bird has caused quite a stir in the local birding community. The Rudee Inlet bird (below) is an immature male bird that you might not find terribly impressive, but I’ve also posted a photo of an adult male, courtesy of www.allaboutbirds.org, which is what our bird will look like in another year:


      Adult King Eider photographed by Kevin T. Karlson and posted on www.allaboutbirds.org 

I've visited Chincoteague a couple times this winter. Like everyone else, I was hoping to see one of the Snowy Owls that have been sited there; I tanked on the Snowies this time, but Chincoteague always has something interesting to offer birders. This time it was the Snow Geese, thousands of them near Tom’s Cove. The sheer numbers of these noisy geese were breathtaking, and small groups continued to fly in to join them, gleaming bright white against a blue sky:

Kingfishers are notoriously hard to photograph. If you see one perched and try to approach it or slow down your car to see it, it will always fly away. That's why it was so fun and rewarding to find this very cooperative female Belted Kingfisher (below) on the Chincoteague trip. She stayed in the bushes along the ditch that borders the road leading to Tom's Cove, periodically diving for fish and then returning to the same little patch and posing for her portrait:

Whenever I go to Chincoteague or the Eastern Shore, I stop at the southernmost island of the Bay Bridge-Tunnel to scan the bay for winter waterfowl. The island is a reliable place to look for Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, Scoters, Cormorants, Gannets, Loons and other water birds in season. Here is a photo of a Double-crested Cormorant sunning itself on the rocks along the island; it's a very common bird and often overlooked, but is beautiful nonetheless (in its own way):

The most common duck in the Bay is usually the Bufflehead, a beautiful, iridescent little duck that can be found on practically any body of water in the winter:

   The female Bufflehead is on the left, the more spectacular male is on the right.

 A couple of weeks ago I went to North Carolina’s Outer Banks and Pea Island to bird for a day. The weather was terrible – dark and very windy-- but there are always good birds to see there, and I managed to get a few photos that I like:

It was so dark and colorless on the day I was there that these American Avocets in winter plumage look like they were photographed in black-and-white! One friend told me that they look like they're sword-fighting with their long bills.

The Outer Banks are only a hundred miles or so to the south of us, but they host substantially larger numbers of many wintering birds than we see in Virginia, including these White Ibis and the Avocets, above.

The gorgeous Northern Pintail is a common wintering duck in this region. Bodie Lighthouse can be a good place to see them and study their intricate plumage up close.                  

The Long-tailed Duck, formerly name the Oldsquaw, winters along the Atlantic coast, becoming far less common south of North Carolina. This female was at Oregon Inlet.    

   Who can resist taking pictures of the American Oystercatcher? No matter how many I've taken, I always have to try for more.                         

I've made a couple of visits lately to a new park in Portsmouth on Victory Blvd. called Paradise Creek Natural Area. A fellow birder was posting reports on the Virginia Birds listserv about the different kinds of birds he was seeing there, sparrows in particular, and I gave chase. The park is a nice little mitigation area in the middle of Portsmouth and South Norfolk industrial areas, and I think it will attract more birds over the years as they discover where it is. On one of our snowy days last month I went there and found a "feeding frenzy" of birds eating berries, particularly Cedar Waxwings, Hermit Thrushes and Robins. Here are photos of a Cedar Waxwing (first) and a Hermit Thrush enjoying the bounty:

On the home front, I've enjoyed testing out my new camera on some of my regular “yard birds.” My favorites, of course, are the Baltimore Orioles that are wintering for the third year in a row in my humble yard. I’m pretty sure that it’s the same birds returning here each year; they remember where the grape jelly is! (During our snow days, I was putting out a large jar of Smuckers every day because the Starlings also discovered it).

One of the adult male Baltimore Orioles wintering in my yard.

I do enjoy winter birding far more than summer birding; there are so many more opportunities for bird photography and for finding unusual and out-or-range birds. This winter in particular has been spectacular, with record-breaking invasions of northern birds that we do not usually see, including Snowy Owls, White-winged Scoters, Razorbills, the King Eider and others. It has been one for the books, one that birders will be talking about for years to come, and I plan to continue go out birding every chance I get.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Snowy Owls: The Invasion of the Century!

Even if you're not a birder, you probably know what a Snowy Owl looks like. Harry Potter's owl Hedwig is a Snowy Owl, a huge white owl with bright golden yellow eyes. Snowies are Arctic birds that are at home on the arctic tundra and are not often seen in the lower 48 states, although some are usually seen in our northernmost states during the winter months. This year, however, is different -- it's what we call an "invasion year," when Snowies move further south and are seen in places where they are considered very rare, including Virginia.

Bryan Watts of the Center for Conservation Biology explains this phenomenon very well on the CCB's blog
(http://www.ccbbirds.org/2013/12/23/snowy-owls-enjoy-virginia-beaches). He writes:

"The winter of 2013 will be remembered as a historic irruption year for snowy owls throughout northeastern North America. Birds are being reported in numbers not seen in a century or more. Such irruption events are triggered by productivity booms on arctic breeding grounds. Snowies are opportunistic breeders with the capability of producing large broods when food conditions allow. Hatch-year birds have yet to develop the hunting skills required to withstand arctic winters and move to easier hunting grounds within lower latitudes during the fall months. During irruption years the large numbers of young move south out of the arctic like a wave. In boom years like 2013 this wave can be like a tsunami."

Virginia birders have been on an adrenalin rush, locating and photographing Snowy Owls. There have been maybe a dozen sitings so far this winter, both along the coast and inland. Not only are Snowies rare, but they are also large, stately, gorgeous, and very impressive, making them one of the "most wanted" birds on a birder's wish list.

The Snowy Owl at the top of this page is one that I photographed at Craney Island in Portsmouth when I went there on a field trip with members of the Virginia Beach Audubon Society, led by Steve and Julie Couri. We did not discover this bird on our own; it had been previously reported and we were hoping it had stayed put long enough for us to get a look. Not only did we get "a look," we got once-in-a-lifetime looks at this magnificent bird. It was a great day!

I want to share photos that other birders have taken of Snowy Owls throughout Virginia and, in the photo below, from Buxton, N.C. near the Hatteras lighthouse. Keith Roberts of Chesapeake took this beautiful photo on December 2nd; this was one of the first Snowies to show up in our region. (I planned to chase it too, but the Bonner Bridge closed the day before I could go).

Victor Laubach of the Augusta Bird Club in Waynesboro photographed two different Snowies, one in Dayton, and one in Bridgewater (photos of both are below). He writes:

"The one in Dayton was found by a local person but the birder/photographer who reported it was Kevin Shank. I read the rare bird alert on my email around 1pm that day and I dropped everything and drove there. That bird was pretty dark and was either and adult female or a 1st-year male because of the dark barring with white bib. It’s difficult to tell for sure. It was perched all day on a wooden post in the back of a Mennonite Church."

"The one in Bridgewater was found by me along with Josh Laubach (my son) and Gabriel Mapel as we were driving over highway 81 on Cecil Wampler Rd. Just before we got over the highway my son shouted out "Snowy Owl, Snowy Owl!!!", whereupon I hit the brakes, backed up and the bird was sitting only 150 feet away on a fence at the edge of a cornfield. It sat there for a few hours and then took flight twice, landing in the cut cornfield both times. This bird appears to me to be a male, either adult or immature. It's hard for me to tell. It's pretty light with very faint barring on breast and more apparent dark spots on back, wings and tail. This is a different bird that I photographed in Dayton on 12/3/2013, which had heavy barring on breast and top of head."

William Leigh also photographed the Bridgewater owl -- in fact, he lives in Bridgewater. He wrote:

"There have been numerous reports of  Snowy Owl here in Rockingham county this Winter. I managed to miss all the previous birds and was getting very eager to see a Snowy here in my own backyard so to speak. Finally I got a call from a friend on the December 27th  that a Snowy was sighted just 3 miles from house! When I arrived the bird was sitting on a post right beside interstate I-81. Several hours later with dusk upon us and the light  fading  fast the bird became more active and at one point flew directly overhead. Over the last several days the bird has become more active right at dusk."

Below are his photos; one of my favorites is the owl sitting on a post right on the freeway. It's just so absurd! The second is a beautiful photo he got later when the owl flew over his head, a very hard shot to "freeze" and get in good focus. He did a great job:

Barbara Houston is well known to Virginia birders as a prolific photographer, and she shares links to many of her photos on the Virginia Birding listserv and on her Fyne Fotography website (http://www.fynefoto.com). She found and photographed her Snowy Owl at Chincoteague -- after three other unsuccessful trips there! Here is her report and her outstanding photo:

"[My favorite photo] has to be this one, the first owl we saw on the day...and the lighthouse in the background! We had previously visited the Chincoteague beach 3 other times with no luck when we arrived around 8am on Thursday morning.  We were greeted right away with a snowy owl sitting near the parking area at the south end of the beach while several other photographers watched.  We parked a hundred yards or so away and walked slowly down the beach until we were positioned to take some pictures.  The bird was gorgeous and all that we had imagined.  It sat and gave us good looks for about twenty minutes before moving down to the off road area of the beach.  I was fortunate to get this shot as it took off with the lighthouse in the background."

The rest of the photos, below, are of the Snowy Owl that was at Craney Island, and all were taken on that Virginia Beach Audubon field trip arranged by the Couri's (thank you again, Steve and Julie!) You'll see different "faces" of the owl in these photos, from comical to sleepy to stately. I've included two photos each from Steve Couri, Julie Couri, Keith Roberts, and myself, so I hope you don't tire of them. But who would ever tire of a Snowy Owl!?

The two photos above were taken by Steve Couri; the two below were taken by his wife Julie.                    

Keith Roberts took the following two photos, and writes: "These were taken on the Craney Island trip with the Virginia Beach Audubon. This Owl was located on the north side of the island. I think we woke it up as it was yawning."

And last, two (okay, three..) more photos of my own. And let me take this opportunity to wish everyone a Happy New Year and "Peace on Earth." This sentiment is usually accompanied by a picture of a white dove, but I think the Snowy Owl is much better, don't you?