Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Well Known Secret Place

Searching for "tree blobs", "whitewash", and "pellets" is the usual way to find owls.

We found this one by asking the park ranger where the owls were.* He spotted this one for us, using the traditional technique of scanning the tree branches for a blob shape. And when you raise your binoculars the blob becomes an owl, in this case a long-eared owl.

* There is an old joke amongst physics students (my bachelors degree is in physics) that has to do with using a barometer to determine the height of a building. The expected answer is to take a reading at the base of the building and then one on the roof and use the difference to calculate the height. The clever answer is to find the building superintendent and offer him a nice barometer if he'll tell you the height.

I had expected long-eared owls to be here, as I had seen two a couple of weeks before. My friend Laura had yet to see long-eareds, so it was easy to talk her into joining me for a return visit, even with the forecast for sub-freezing temperatures (I do not think it broke 20〫F all day).

I was glad we met up with him in the parking lot, as his finding the first owl took all the pressure off me to find Laura an owl (a multi-hour drive in freezing weather to come up empty would not have been fun). Having spotted us an owl he, after we thanked him, headed off down the trail, no doubt further ranger business calling.

Laura and I continued to explore the area, as he had mentioned that there had been five long-eared owls spotted in the grove. He also noted that the birds had been moving form tree to tree (I don't know if this is because so many people wander about or because there was just so much good habit). We found plenty of pellets, and in several spots Laura found the feather remains of several large birds (canada geese?).

And while she was examining feathers of one of those presumed geese I found a massive number pellets beneath the tree shown above. Can you see them? There are at least three owls in this image. (Click on the image to bigafy it. Answer below*.)

Yep, that's what makes owling so difficult. (But we did spot four of the five reported owls. Not bad at all.)

I backed off from under the tree, both to avoid disturbing the owls too much, and to get better camera angles (having a 100-400 mm lens with a 2x doubler allows for a lot of backing off). And I shot this image (and a bunch more). Unfortunately there was no really clear line of sight and this was the best I could do.

Despite the cold, despite the long drive, despite listening to country music (!), despite the snow storm on the ride home, Laura and I had a great time wandering in the woods and spotting the owls (and enjoying the wood burning stove in the nature center!).

Etiquette in the birding world holds that the location of owl roosts is not shared outside of one's trusted birding buddies, so as not to disturb the birds too much. But some places become so well known, because they are easily accessible (these owls were with yards of the parking lot) or because the owls return year after year, that they become "well known secret places". Like this one.

* There is one owl in the center of the image, this is the easiest one to see. Directly to the right and mostly hidden behind a branch is the second owl. The third one is directly above the first. Not much help is it?

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Of a very approachable gull.

I grew up in Atlantic Highlands, NJ, four blocks from the bay. And I spent many a day on Sandy Hook in summertime. I even caught a gull once, using a box on a stick trap. My mom wouldn't let me keep it. But it wasn't until some thirty or so years after that that I discovered that there was more than one type of "sea gull"!

On the first of our MattanPallooza family vacations, we rented a house on the Jersey Shore in late September. And I noticed that there were two different sized gulls. Two different kinds, who knew? So I figured the next time I was at the library I'd get a bird book and find out what the two types of gulls were.

The birders in my reading audience are laughing now. My Sibley Guide lists twenty-six gull species in North America (not counting hybrids) each with several age related plumages. In the sidebar "Identification of Gulls" Sibley writes:

Gull identification represents one of the most
challenging and subjective puzzles in birding
and should be approached only with patient
and methodical study. A casual or impatient
approach will not be rewarded.

This, along with trying to figure out what the little yellow birds in the yard at the shore house were, (Sibley again, "Identification of of fall warblers can be daunting ..."), triggered my interest in birding.

And I'm still trying to figure gulls and warblers out. Which is a big part of the appeal.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Harbor Seals and Harlequins

For several years in the middle of the last decade* the NJ State Parks Department held an event in late winter celebrating the overwintering wildlife at Barnegat Inlet: Harbor Seals and Harlequins it was called. As far as I can tell, this event was last held in 2007, discontinued, no doubt, due to a lack of funds. I went a couple of times and while I saw plenty of harlequin ducks, I never saw a harbor seal. In fact, I'd never seen a seal in New Jersey.

*The "oughts", the "oohs", what do do you call those years?

Until last Saturday that is. When I saw not one but two harbor seals. My birding buddy Laura invited me on a Monmouth County Audubon Society trip to Barnegat (she's a big wig in the society).*

*Then she promptly bailed on me, something about a dentist appointment. Yet it's somehow my fault that she couldn't join me to see the tundra swans! (Thankfully, she did catch up with us later in the day.)

My first look at a harbor seal was early in the trip. It was a brief distant glimpse, just a head above the water. It wasn't until we were leaving that we came upon the one pictured here. Nicely posing in the golden light of the setting sun. Aware but unconcerned with all the photographers and other gawkers.

Conversely, the harlequins were scarce this trip. This is one of only two drake photos. Usually they are right up on the rocks of the jetty, well lit from the low southern winter sun.

And this one of only a half dozen or so shots of the hen. The surf was a bit rough along the jetty, so bad we couldn't walk out to the end. And the ducks were somewhere else, I know not where.

But I was at Barnegat Light State Park, on my annual winter pilgrimage. With friends old and new. As well as my life harbor seal. Pretty cool.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Tundra Swans

On Saturday morning I took a ride over to Whitesbog in the New Jersey Pinelands, to see if there were any tundra swans about. There were.

The swans overwinter in in New Jersey, vacationing on the flooded cranberry bogs. As you can see on this day the bogs are mostly frozen over, but I guess when you're from the tundra, this is balmy weather.

The swans are usually very skittish, taking off at the first sign of humans (or at least me, make what you will of that fact). But this time they did not rush away as I approached. Perhaps there weren't many places to go. As you can see, they are crowded around the few small openings in the ice, which grant access to underwater plants such as red-root, which makeup their diet.

Hey who stepped in it!

The swans were not the only ones hanging out at the waterholes. This one looks slightly bemused at the little guys hanging about.

Uh-oh, something's got their attention. It's a dog! As I was snapping away two women and one black lab drove up and got out at the far corner of the bog. The geese had been surprisingly tolerant of me, and a couple of other observers, but the dog was another matter altogether.

They didn't hang around for much longer after that.

Now this is more familiar. (As mentioned above, this is how I usually see them, leaving.)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Crappy Bird Pic #1

Trying to photograph a hunting harrier, 100+ yards away, with a tripod mount camera probably wasn't the best strategy.

First of a (hopefully very!) occasional series of bad pictures that I actually like. What do you think?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Two Weeks From Today ...

I, and others like me from across the country and around the world, begin what for many of us has become an annual journey; a migration south each February, to a very specific location at the bottom of the east coast of the United States.

Stop over points for me include the everglades, home of wooded streams ...

... and sawgrass prairie (backlit at sunset with the Belt of Venus).

Then onward to the final destination, West Summerland Key, which is curiously located east of Summerland Key.

Where I'll join up with a dozen or so club mates and 500 other like mind souls at the Winter Star Party. Where after the sun goes down plenty of other stars come up. And we'll spend our nights gazing up (or down through the eye pieces of our telescopes) in amazement and wonder.

I can't wait.

Images from previous trips can be found here.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


An image which got away.

This is snow on the trail at Peace Valley Park. As noted in a prior post, it was very cold. Thus the snow did not melt on the ground; it remained as crystals and acted as a myriad little prisms. And I tried to get an image of that.

Now I had the 100-400 mm lens on the camera, and that probably was not the best for this task, the depth of field being too shallow and requiring too much distance between the camera and subject. The second problem is that I under exposed and thus the grayness of the snow. I can fix that somewhat in post processing, but at the cost of the sparkles. Third the center of the image is too sharp. To enhance the color sparkles I wanted to have the image slightly out of focus, which would enlarge the color spots. You can see the effect in the upper and lower parts of the image, although it is too much as you get closer to the edges of the frame.

Alas, we don't get that much snow in my part of the planet, and when we do it doesn't last (or I have to work! I much prefer not working!). So I don't have much opportunity to practice my technique. Any suggestions on how to do better are gladly accepted. So please let me know what you would do in the comments.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The feature that gives this woodpecker its name is readily visible in two of the three images shown here (here's a hint, it's the first two).

And unless you know it you'll probably never guess what it is. Perhaps the original namer was colorblind. Or perhaps they were working from third party reports. Or stuffed and mounted specimens.

But I doubt the bird is troubled by it at all (its been my experience that they never come when called anyway). I suspect that all it is thinking is that it doesn't get any better that this, when the holes are ready made and there is food in each one. Saves a lot of wear and tear on the bill that way.

And makes for a great photo op.
*Not it's real name (leave your guess in the comments).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Winter Birding

I went on a birding photography trip under the auspices of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (aka DVOC) to Peace Valley Park this past Saturday. It was cold. I think the high for the day was 25〫F. You can see many of the birds I saw, and participate on the field trip vicariously, by identifying the species shown below. Be sure to leave a comment with your IDs! (As always, click on the image for a larger version.)

There were birds that were watching us, although this hawk was just as interested in the smaller birds as we were, probably more so. There were a pair and hopefully soon baby hawks to feed. Hence the interest in other birds.

Those smaller birds included sparrows like these two, who are afforded some protection by the cage around the feeder platform. But they were still wary and constantly on the lookout.

And there were plenty of these, named for the prominent throat patch.

And these, perhaps named for where it it found.

And yet another sparrow species, our last, looking right at you, while the bird with it's back to us, who is not a sparrow and not looking quite as golden in its winter plumage.

There were sparrow like birds (hint, not a sparrow).

There were non-cooperative birds, like this one who absolutely refused to stand still or venture into the sunlight.

There were acrobatic birds, getting a workout at the feeders.

And focused birds making sure they got every bit of those sunflower seeds.

Small, quick moving, and hard to photo birds.

Comparatively drab females of familiar species.

And the very lovely orange capped woodpecker (not its real name, but a better one methinks).

Later down by the lake, and after I fallen on my butt trying to navigate down a too slippery hill (I'm ok, thanks) we saw hundreds of birds, most walking on water, the solid variety (I said it was cold). Look closely, as one of these things is not like the others! Named after another type of solid water, it was the only one of its kind we saw.

Bye! (Extra credit if you get this one!)

I hope you enjoyed this blog field trip. We saw several other interesting birds, including several long eared owls roosting, but a photo op it was not, sorry (but you can always look at this one ).

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Peanuts! Get Your Peanuts!

A quite dexterous performance. But it would have to be, with all those squirrels about!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Let Me In!

To this squirrel's chagrin and the wren's delight, not all of the feeders at Peace Valley are raid-able. I note however, that the squirrel does not appear underfed.
Squirrel on a Branch

After raiding the bird feeders, this fellow found a place in the sun to enjoy breakfast. And watch the Bird on the Wire. Another Peace Valley Park image.

This first of several posts from my trip to Peace Valley Park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. A gorgeous male northern cardinal.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy 2010!

Another year over, another challenge (partially) done. Again, the fun for me was matching the images I made to the themes in the challenge; it was never about getting all 365 themes. A sincere thanks to everyone who left comments.

Thanks again to Julie (who's blog is apparently no more) for creating the list.

Here are links to the 365 Challenge Themes I posted images for:

1. 100
5. Abandoned
10. Aged
17. Baby
24. Bent
28. Blue
36. Broken
40. Candy
49. Chores
50. Circle
53. Clocks
56. Clouds
57. Clown
68. Cross
71. Curly
72. Curvy
76. Dirt
83. Eight
84. Empty
88. Eyes
96. Feathered or Feathers
98. Fences
103. Flowers
109. Foreign
115. Furry
117. Gap
122. Girl
124. Goal
129. Green
132. Growing
133. Grumpy
136. Hair
139. Hands
144. Hats
164. Kite
169. Leaves
170. Legs
171. Letters
172. Lines
175. Logs
189. Moving
199. No Exit
211. Oops!
212. Open
213. Orange
221. Outdoor Seating
223. Pair
226. Passion
229. Paws
234. Pink
239. Power
246. Purple
250. Rainbow
255. Red
261. Risky
266. Rusted
268. School
273. Seeds
277. Seven
279. Shadows
284. Silly
287. Skin
298. Spiral
301. Stairs
306. Stripes
307. Stuck
312. Sweets
313. Swim
316. Teeth
318. Tent
333. Tower
339. Trio
341. Two
348. Vapor
350. Wall
352. Watch
353. Water
362. Windows
363. Winter
365. Yellow