Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Life Mammal

On my recent trip to the Everglades in February, I saw my life manatee. It was a melancholy event.
I may have seen a manatee (or two) on a previous trip, although it was not a satisfying look. A large brown blob well below the surface. This year I got much better looks. 
I saw them at Flamingo. My first look was of an adult surfacing in the lagoon. It did this several times, but I was too far away to get any photos. I would see manatees surfacing, snouts breaking the surface to breathe, several times throughout the morning. But never once got the camera on the  beast (I tried). I mentioned this to one of the rangers and she told me that there was a manatee that was known to haunt the far dock area. So off I went. And I found a manatee, right where she said it would be.

It was a youngster, lazily floating just under the surface, occasionally breaking through to breathe. But otherwise it was doing nothing. Which as far as I know is normal behavior for manatees. 

I was not the only person watching and several were quite excited to see one of these creatures up close and for an extended period of time. Many cameras were pointed straight down.
But it was obvious not everything was right with this manatee.

As you can see there are some rather large scars across its back. I would later learn that these scars were new. Sadly, even in a place like the Everglades these peaceful creatures were still at risk. 

It seems that it would be a simple thing to throttle back while leaving the harbor and heading out to the bay. And I find it hard to believe that any boater in the Everglades would not be aware of the damage boats present to manatees. But I guess my sensibilities are not everyones. I find that very sad.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Night Lights

The Moon, Venus, and Jupiter over Philadelphia.

The Moon and Venus are in conjunction, with Jupiter below. Venus is at it's greatest elongation, and is easily the brightest object in the night sky that isn't the Moon.

Monday, March 19, 2012


After a recent butterflying trip we stopped by the Burlington County Fair grounds (aka the Columbus Sod Farms) as one of our party had spotted an eagle nest there on her work day commute.

It is rather small for an eagles nest, befitting its newness. It was not there last year, as a friend and I did a grassland bird survey there last spring, following up on a report of a vesper sparrow (we were asked as we both live relatively nearby). We were unsuccessful in that search. We did however find nine dickcissel, seven signing males and two females (a life bird for me). And the first male we found was signing from this tree. We'd be poor surveyors had we not seen an eagles nest!

Fortunately for our reputations we were not the only ones at the (closed) park gate, watching the nest. Two couples, locals who had been watching the birds build the nest and who just enjoyed seeing these magnificent creatures in their backyard, where there as we drove up. We were all at some distance and it was not clear if there was a bird on the nest (I think there is, but behind the branch). But there was at least one eagle in the neighborhood.

We all got great looks at this bird, who no doubt got great looks at us. He or she was also getting good looks at a trio of northern harriers who were hunting over the fields. Although it may not be obvious form this image (as always click any image to bigafy).

This harrier apparently flew a bit too close to the nest, and the eagle was having none of it ...

.. and was off, chasing the harrier away. But none of the harriers seemed at all concerned with their larger raptor neighbors, continuing to hunt the fields of the fairgrounds.


It is not clear if this property, part of the Burlington County parks system, is yet open to the general public. When we did our survey last year we needed a special permit to be on site. But the 2011 County Farm fair was held here as the park grand opening. The county website mentions that the plan is to open it to the public via a network of trails, future tense. But regardless, and as with any eagle nest, it is best to observe from a distance. This is even more true for a first time nest like this. And great views can be had from the perimeter of the site with binoculars (and scopes).

The continuing revival of bald eagles in New Jersey is a major success story of the Endangered and Nongame Species Conservation Act. 1973, the year the act passed, there was but one nesting pair in all New Jersey. Last year there were over 100 nesting pairs. Sadly, todays political climate has has little use for the lessons of the last century and seems hell bent on repeating past mistakes. The natural world has no value in their eyes. Very sad. Very sad indeed.

Friday, March 16, 2012


Another shot from the scouting trip.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Speaking of Dinner ...

Scouting for my Barnegat field trip, I came upon this gull. And its fish.

It didn't seem to quite know what to do with it.

I watch as the fish is dragged across the sand. First one way, and then back again. Sometimes stretching it out, others curling it up.

But the gull never got around to eating it. Perhaps it couldn't bite through the skin? I did see it trying to bite. And despite a large number of other gulls in the area, none seemed interested. Very curious, as gulls routinely challenge each other for food.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Dinner Time

It is well known Mahogany Hammock in the Everglades has a resident pair of barred owls. And I've seen barred owls there every year I've visited. Some years adults, some years chicks. This year I saw both.

As I was heading to the trail head I met a couple who told me that owl chicks awaited. "Just look for the guy with the big camera," they told me. So I did. And I found him, camera aimed at a hole in the tree. "Two owl chicks in the hole up there, they pop up every once and a while." So I aimed my camera and waited.

And the waiting paid off with these two curious chicks, looking down at us looking up at them. 

As we were watching we heard the "who cooks for you" call, and not long after mom showed up with dinner.

We learned that dad had caught the rodent, and given it to mom after calling. Then mom flew by the nest before landing on a branch high above. She took stock of our small group watching the nest. Once confident we posed no threat, she flew down and into the nest hole, the chicks disappearing down in it with her.

And here's mom after dinner, (she needs to wipe her beak). She took one more look at us and was off.

And then so was I. Until next year.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

It's a Damn Petting Zoo

As is my custom, I visited the Everglades in February. And as usual I took pictures of the wildlife I saw.

The difference is that these shots were taken with my phone (iPhone 4). Which prompted my bestest birding buddy Patty to exclaim, "It's a damn petty zoo!" Not quite, but close.

The first three were taken along the Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm, where the wildlife is quite habituated to people and concentrated because it's where the water is (February is the dry season there). The gators mostly just lie there. The cormorants, two different birds here, will react to your presence, but mostly just to look you over. The black vultures were fighting over a car crushed snapping turtle. They reacted to my approach as if I was just another contender for the prize. The skimmer flew to me, I was on the doc watching for manatees and it just flew in. In the manatee shot you can see my shadow holding the iPhone. And in the manatee shot you can also see scars of a recent encounter with a boat. Sadly, the habituation to humans is not always benign.


“If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to 
collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, 
but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea”
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

My favorite shot from the trip

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Loon Show

Second in number only to the gulls Sunday were the loons, both red-throated and common. I counted between forty and fifty birds, the uncertainty coming from diving and resurfacing birds. Unfortunately, most were too far for anything other than spec-bird images. But I did manage a few serviceable shots of this common loon.

I met several birders out that day that mentioned they had never seen as many loons at Barnegat. It was certainly the most I'd ever seen there on one day. Very cool.

Friday, March 9, 2012

They Weren't All Bad ...

I did manage to get some good shots of the ruddy turnstones and purple sandpipers that wandered about the rocks, often right at our feet.

It is very easy to lead a bird photography trip when the birds wander right up to you. 

Ones That Got Away

Here's an image of one of those fancy ducks we saw on our trip to Barnegat Light State Park.

The problem with diving ducks is that they dive! Usually just at the moment you train the camera on them and click the shutter.

Here's another different fancy duck, diving.

I didn't even have time to level the camera and it was gone. Loons and grebes are prone to do this as well. But with a little patience, and a lot of shutter pushing, it is possible to capture these dandies.

Here's an image of the first duck species, pre-dive, albeit a bit farther out than the diver above.

It is a male long-tailed duck, although long time birders may know it as an oldsquaw, a winter visitor to these parts who breeds in the Arctic. 

The second is the fanciest duck at the inlet and a major draw for photographers and birders alike. And as you could imagine it was a key target bird for us birder-photographers.

Harlequin ducks, female on the right left and more gaudily plumaged male, who's not quite in full breeding regalia, on the left right [thanks Wren!]. The nice thing about harlequins is that they like to hang out on the rocks of the jetty. And it is much easier to get a good photo of a bird on a rock than one bobbing on the waves. And it doesn't hurt that they are much closer either. These too are only winter visitors to our shore, breeding up north along fast moving streams. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


I mentioned in the previous post that we had nice looks at gulls, specifically herring gulls. They were easily the most common bird at the park that day.

As you can see, they covered the last fifty meters of the jetty. And there were several large rafts in the inlet.

They were almost all herring gulls. We spotted the occasional great black-backed gull, but they were too far off to get a good photo. And as we were leaving we spotted a birder friend arriving, there to look for a reported glaucous gull. We bade him good luck and expected he would need it. We hadn't noticed it.

The herring gulls made good targets for a photo workshop though. Close enough so that everyone could get frame filling shots while calm enough in our presence to give everyone time to futz with lenses and settings.

So while not as showy as some of the fancy ducks we saw, they are definitely photogenic.

And they gave everyone a chance to practice their technique and experiment with things like depth of field and composition. An excellent bird to have around for a first time trip leader on a bird photography trip.

Bad Bird Photo of the Week

This past Sunday I led a field trip for NJAS to Barnegat Light State Park, my first time as a trip leader. It was a photography field trip with me as the supposed expert.

You wouldn't know it from this image, huh?

A nice shot of the wrong end of a ruddy turnstone. But what really makes the image is the out of focus purple sandpiper in the lower right corner.


Overall the trip was a good one, the weather, while overcast, was not windy. And any winter's day that isn't windy at Barnegat is a good one. Photography wise we had nice looks at harlequin ducks, herring gulls, and the two species shown here. The turnstones were quite cooperative, often walking right up to us.