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BEAUTIFUL BIRDS OF THE UNITED STATES
and Your Freedom
MALE CAPE MAY WARBLER IN SPRUCE CONES (COVER PHOTO)
The warblers of the U.S., as a group, are the most beautiful birds we have, and they are the most beautiful warblers on the planet. The warblers in other parts of the world are mostly drab in comparison. Breeding plumaged males of many of our species have colors and patterns unmatched by any other group in North America. The breeding plumaged Male Cape May Warbler is a bold example.
This warbler is a spruce budworm specialist, which means that it dramatically increases its numbers in areas of the current budworm outbreak. Spruce budworm is a tremendous food source for certain songbirds in northern spruce and fir forests of the Eastern United States and Canada. Periodic outbreaks of spruce budworm are part of the natural cycle in these forests. The eggs of the budworm are placed in microscopic holes in the needles of mainly balsam fir and spruce trees, but also some tamarack, pine, and hemlock trees. The larvae hatch out and feed on needles or expanding buds. As the larvae grow, needles are severed at the base. After many years of defoliation, the treetop (or the entire tree) may die.
The larvae that escape the mouths of birds mature to become moths that drill holes in more needles, plant eggs, and continue the cycle for the next year. Cape May Warblers, Bay-breasted Warblers, and Tennessee Warblers are known as spruce budworm specialists, and they dramatically increase their numbers near infested areas as this cycle progresses in years. They feast on the larval worms and eventually help bring the cycle to an end, which may take eight or more years. Most then move on to another area of North America where spruce budworm is more abundant.
The nest site of the Cape May Warbler, a 5.5-inch bird, is near the top of mature spruce trees, near the trunk, as high as 60 feet. A spruce is very narrow near the top so adult birds approach their nest by flying to branches much lower and climbing upward near the trunk, so as not to reveal the nest location. On a spring after many spruce trees had an abundant cone crop, in response to a drought the previous year, some cone-laden tree-tops broke off after a wind storm. I found one on the ground of a neighbor’s property and received permission to use it near a water drip and shallow pond I set up to attract migrating songbirds. This beautiful bird came in to bathe.
NORTHERN HARRIER PREY DROP (BACK COVER)
This is one of the most spectacular events in the world of North American birds, and Northern Harriers have a range map that covers most of North America. Not more than three days after taking their first flight, juveniles chase their father for a meal. The winner is about to catch the prize – a nestling bird captured in the early morning and dropped in mid-air by the white/grey colored adult male. He appeared just over the tree line directly in front of me and swooped down to an open prairie. His offspring waited there, but upon his arrival they flew up from within the tall grass, racing to be the one to receive the prize. He never saw me because the low sun (just after sunrise) was behind me, pointing straight at him. During the drop, another sibling complains, close on the winner’s tail. My camera and lens struggled to gain focus on the adult male, because of the trees in the nearby background, and the moment focus was “locked on” I took one photo, the luckiest I have taken to date. The catch was successful, and the unfed juvenile accepted the result and had to wait for its meal, which arrived about 30 minutes afterward from mom.
The Bald Eagle is a well-recognized choice as a symbol of freedom in the United States, but all birds can be viewed as symbols of freedom. They have freedom of mobility that humans will never achieve. Their ability to escape and elude gives them more confidence to get closer to us. That is why birds can be seen more easily than most other wildlife. Combine this visibility with their amazing variety of colors, patterns, and behaviors and it is easy to see why they are by far the most viewed wildlife on the planet.
The space in which action can take place is much larger for birds than for us because they can fly from one space to another so quickly. We can only imagine the freedom to experience that as a birds does. We have and we do. Man’s yearning to fly surely stems from observation of birds. Many people report dreams of having the experience of flying, gaining the perspective of floating through space and feeling the freedom and power it brings. This is reflected in mythology (various God’s), science fiction (Superman, Thor, Captain Marvel), and song (Fly Like An Eagle, Steve Miller Band). And it led to the successful development of airplanes and helicopters, and our freedom of continental travel.
The impact of birds on the imagination of man is undeniable. People yearn for the freedom of flight. They identify with it. It makes them feel better. Because they envision greater space, greater action, greater velocity. It opens the mind, psyche, spirit, and soul with more energy, a different quality of energy. You have the power to create that energy – a source for your stability and well-being. That is what freedom is ultimately about, and it can be realized by responsibly seeking the beautiful birds of our country.
At one time our connection with nature was intrinsic to our survival. Our ancestors had a direct connection with nature, and the freedom to fully interact with all of the resources needed for their survival. And they developed and passed along the ability to learn from nature. But today specialization has disconnected most of us from interacting with nature for our resources. And technology and computers make it seem as if everything is understood and all questions are already answered. So we are less inclined to go out and interact with nature and discover for ourselves what it has to offer.
But observing birds can reverse that trend. It is one of the best and most accessible ways to reconnect with a past that is still intrinsic to the core of our existence. Our peace of mind and sanity once depended on our connection to nature because disconnected we wouldn’t have survived. Think about that. Deep inside us, our drive to connect with nature will always be there. It is programmed into us and its importance cannot be dismissed because it once defined what it meant to be free. Free to determine our fate.
The ability of wild birds to survive and adapt to the forces of nature is strongly dependent on their freedom – the freedom of flight. It is also dependent on their motivation – the motivation to be free. Ask a caged bird. The same relationship between ability, dependence, and motivation allowed man to survive external forces for thousands of years. But man has more intelligence available. Therefore, responsibility and accountability are required for his actions. With the rise of technology external forces have been increasingly imposed by other men, not nature. But it is firmly embedded in man’s nature to use the same motivation to survive these forces. Freedom cannot be eliminated from man’s nature. It has been there too long. That is why birds will always be a reminder of our freedom.
Our freedom to live in a healthy biosphere is now at stake. We can use our freedom to reverse that course. Birds can help provide motivation.
We can turn back to recognizing nature as a healing art of the mind through birding. Observing birds can help you relax because of the peace and tranquility of your surroundings, yet you feel more alert and energetic at the same time because of the anticipation of discovery. Birds’ incredible diversity of colors, songs, and behaviors offers more variety than most outdoor activities, reducing boredom, and that adds energy to our lives. It’s impossible to predict all the birds you will find on any given day. A few of the expected birds may not be found, while completely unexpected species can appear at any time. So there is a sense of reassurance and excitement because of the unknown.
This owl sliced the silence of a tranquil light snow with its appearance, without making a sound. The specialized feathers at the wingtips of owls allow them to fly without making the usual flapping noise of other birds of similar size.
PAGE 1 OF PHOTOS
YOUNG SHARP-SHINNED HAWK IN FLIGHT
This young Sharp-shinned Hawk has a full crop, so it was successful in a recent hunt. It was migrating at Whitefish Point in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, about to cross a narrow section of Lake Superior, and continue to Canadian breeding territory. Many migrating songbirds gather at Whitefish Point and are often caught by migrating Sharp-shinned hawks.
If you have the opportunity and take the time to observe a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk hunting on its own, with no help from an adult, you will most likely see it fail, often and repeatedly. It will change its tactics, and spend a tremendous amount of time and energy failing, but it will never give up or stop learning. And it will eventually succeed. But an experienced adult is a master who recognizes the right situation and time to attack, using stealth, speed, and endurance as needed. And it wastes no energy. Its ability to change direction can seem to defy the laws of physics and even the ability of human eyes to follow it. If you were never to have seen the failures of a juvenile you would never know how much practice and time the adult took to master the hunt. This is an excellent example of what it takes to become accomplished at something difficult. And this is something too often underappreciated or forgotten. Some people in our society tend to think that talented people are “born with it”, end of story. Not so. When drive and enthusiasm are anywhere close to a wild raptor’s, and you spend enough time, only then does “talent” appear.
SNOWY OWL ( 2 PAGE IMAGE)
This owl stayed the entire winter in one large field which showed evidence of a large vole population. I could see vole tracks everywhere as I walked the field. So I came up with a plan to let this owl accept my presence. I started walking over a hundred yards away from it and very slowly zigzagged my approach to it as I looked downward. I made sure I walked in a direction slightly away from it when I glanced in the owl’s direction and saw its head turned toward me. But I slowly approached on a slight angle while it looked away. After almost 45 minutes I arrived at a location for this photo.
MALE GOLDEN-WINGED WARBLER IN FLOWERING CRABAPPLE
I found this bird in a large forest clearing loaded with numerous very small crabapple trees, most likely “planted” by birds, such as Robins and Cedar Waxwings. The clearing also had lots of small bushes and shrubby tangles, providing the perfect habitat for Golden-winged Warblers. This male, with perfect plumage, had just arrived on his nesting territory in mid-May.
The colorful crabapple flowers would attract plenty of small insects once they opened and nectar began to flow. Some crabapple trees barely had the beginnings of flowers while others were close to full flowering. His decision to claim this area was wise. There would be a window of continuous flowering within his nesting territory for about the next 2 weeks. During that period there would also be a good possibility of very cold nights, and his energy reserves becoming depleted. He would quickly lose heat from his small body and be required to expend a lot of energy to stay warm enough to survive. But, because of his nesting territory location, he assured himself that if and when a cold night occurred he would be able to spend less energy searching for food the following day, and easily recover from the stress of that night. He just needed to stay close to the flowers attracting insects. I have witnessed this scenario a few times. Normally fast flitting warblers and other small songbirds will become methodical in their approach to feeding, conserving energy while they feed near the flowers. They become excellent subjects for a patient slow-moving photographer.
FEMALE COMMON MERGANSER WITH MULTIPLE BROODS
If a female Common Merganser is separated from her brood, by (for example) an attack by a Bald Eagle, she will abandon her brood to save her life. Her chicks can hide in reeds or rocks, waiting as long as it takes for mom to return, but if another mom passes by with her own brood in tow the abandoned brood can join her brood and the new mom will accept them. At least 2 broods joined this mom’s brood. Shortly after this photo, she swam away, followed by the entire group of about 43 chicks.
Overcommitment to organization is not seen in nature. Nature is mostly disorganized, and that is a big part of the reason why we often view organization within nature as beautiful. Chaos (disorganization), or what seems like chaos to us, precipitates the need and ability of animals to adapt to their environment. Most birds adapt fast and their great mobility via flight plays a big role. If wind direction changes and a forest edge is suddenly subject to strong winds a feeding songbird flock will quickly fly to the calm side. If that area is near a lake with a mayfly hatch many of the songbirds can suddenly make mayflies a primary food source. I have witnessed this. Below is the proof.
BLACKBURNIAN WARBLER WITH MAYFLY
I am not overly concerned about the organization of the material I present because I accept nature’s chaos and feel it helps me learn from nature, and its beauty and mysteries. The best photographic opportunities I find are almost always revealed randomly so I must be flexible and open to many possibilities. I feel this is a necessary part of the freedom of my learning adventure.
HORNED GREBE BEHAVIOR
I observed this nest the day before with 4 white eggs but backlit by the evening sun, so I decided to return the next morning for photography with the sun behind me. I soon found the female discovering her nest had been robbed of all eggs (probably by a seagull), and she was upset. I observed her climb on the nest in the early morning and calmly stare down for a few minutes, and then leave for about an hour. She returned as if she might not find the same disappointment. She did, but the male immediately let her know there was time to start over, offering reassurance by bringing a reed to reinforce their bond.
MALE MONTEZUMA QUAIL
Montezuma Quail can be found in the mountains of southern Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, but the majority of their population is south of the U.S. border. They are stunningly patterned yet very cryptic and difficult to find within the tall grasses of their habitat, like a Leopard or Cheetah in similar circumstances. They often crouch and stay motionless upon close approach, only flying as a last resort. The nights are often cold in their mountain habitat (above 3000 ft) so groups of Montezuma Quail (called coveys) spend the night together only on south-facing slopes and often bundle on a rock which has stored heat from the daytime southern sun exposure.
This bird was walking away from its only source of water within a large area after it quenched its thirst just before sunset. The sound of my camera’s shutter prompted it to look my way.
Gray Jays are incredibly hardy, highly intelligent, bold and curious. They are always on the lookout for food and have learned to associate humans with food. Some individuals can even land in your hand for a free meal. They eat just about anything – berries, seeds, insects, even small rodents and roadkill. They are sometimes known by the nickname “whiskey jack”, which is an English version of the Algonquin word for prankster – Wisakedjak. Gray Jays have followed trappers to steal their bait and, upon finding their camps, searched their belongings for food, so they have the nickname “camp robber” as well. But they also warn campers of nearby predators, such as a grizzly bear, by making chattering and whistling noises. Guides in the far north have told stories of Gray Jays leading lost hunters home by singing from tree to tree.
These Jays hoard great quantities of food, mixing tidbits, such as seeds and berries, with very sticky saliva, to form a ball, and tucking it in the bark of spruce trees. And they can remember where 4 out of 5 balls are stored. This allows them to nest in the far north and high mountains, and to nest early, starting in February or March. Females have been observed incubating eggs in temperatures below -20 degrees F.
MALE HARLEQUIN DUCK
Witnessing the striking combination of color and pattern of a male Harlequin Duck is unforgettable. Hazy sunlight from directly behind me fully revealed the nice plumage of this individual after he popped up from a dive and shook the water out of his feathers. He was one of many Harlequin Ducks that consistently winter at a jetty on the New Jersey coast.
ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK PREPARING TO LAND
Rough-legged Hawks occur in a very wide variety of plumages. I have never encountered a more striking Rough-legged hawk than this individual nicknamed “fancy pants”…by me. It had its “landing gear” down as it slowly coasted against a breeze before settling on a perch out of the frame.
AMERICAN AVOCET REFLECTION
While I visited a wildlife refuge in North Dakota this lone bird fed in shallow waters on a still morning, allowing a very clean reflection photo. The American Avocet is the only bird in the U.S. with an upturned bill, shaped like a scythe. In shallow water it can use its bill to feed by touch, swinging it along or just below the surface and stopping when it encounters and captures a small aquatic insect, at which time it quickly vibrates its entire head while raising it, as the prey item makes its way to its mouth and is swallowed. When you witness this you know you have seen something unique. No other bird in the U.S. feeds like this.
MALE YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER AT WORK
This bird had a nest hole full of hungry nestlings in a tree less than 30 yards from the dead tree full of larva pictured. My wife discovered the nest and this photo opportunity and told me I should give it a try. I set up my camera and lens on a tripod next to the thick trunk of a live tree about 30 feet from the tree of bounty, so my body could stay hidden behind the trunk when I photographed, and would not be seen by the bird while it worked on the tree. I knew this was important so I would not be seen as a threat by this bird. I left my equipment in place for about 30 minutes and observed with binoculars from about 100 feet away. This father’s single-minded determination to feed its young was not interrupted, so when it flew to the nest I got into position to photograph. It worked. He returned to work undeterred. The photo shows that he flecked bark off the tree and bored into it.
WHITE-EYED VIREO STARE
The White-eyed Vireo is a common summer resident of dense tangled low growth in a variety of habitats in the Southeastern U.S. The male seems to be constantly singing, and his songs are loud, clear and astonishingly varied. This bird came to scold me as I voiced some squeak-like sounds in a friend’s backyard in southern Ohio. The scold was backed up by the stare.
The Least Grebe is the smallest grebe in the Americas (8-9 inches long) and is found in the U.S. mainly in southern Texas. Groups of this species will sometimes colonize temporarily flooded areas after heavy rains. They spend most of their time within the densely vegetated margins of their habitat, but this individual took a break in a very open area, accepting my presence completely, and remaining in a trance-like state for minutes.
MALE VERMILION FLYCATCHER STARE
The brilliance of a male Vermilion Flycatcher is unmatched by any other flycatcher in the Americas. He often hunts open spaces of scrub habitat from an exposed perch, usually near water. He will sally to catch airborne insects as well as hover over ground insects before diving down to capture them. This individual briefly stared at me and raised his crest, but accepted my presence while he hunted near a campground. Beekeepers should be aware of him. When hives are placed near his favored feeding areas, many bees can disappear.
AMERICAN WOODCOCK ON NEST
While walking through recent regrowth after selective logging my wife almost stepped on this nest as she stepped over a log. The bird flushed, but she remembered the location. About 1 hour later she took me to a vantage point where I had a clear photo of the nest. Before that, while eating lunch in our car on the remote dirt road about 40 yards from the nest, we witnessed the bird cross the road while walking back to its nest. This was an unforgettable experience. Every step was taken painstakingly, with hilarious caution: with its head remaining still – a rocking motion or two forward and back with its body, then a step. And then repeating the rocking motion and stepping with the other foot. And so on. Well after the bird settled on the nest I set up to photograph, and the bird stayed motionless, and never even blinked, even through a mist-like rain. Notice the droplets accumulated on its feathers.
People often unintentionally box their creativity within established limits. If we remind ourselves that the results of our creativity take the journey with us every day – in our confidence and in our self-esteem, those limits would disappear. Observing birds can inspire our capacity to create because they are constantly creating. They create ways to survive while finding food and shelter from wind, rain, and extreme temperatures. Seasonally, most species create a nest and the next generation. Two times a year migratory species must create ways to surpass a gauntlet of obstacles, such as mountain ranges, the Great Lakes, and the Gulf of Mexico.
Ordinarily, we do not have the mindset of creating. Yet the act of creating something changes our emotional state and makes us feel alive. It gives us a tremendous influx of positive energy. And that gives us more power. The power to leave a passive mindset behind us. The desire, courage, and impetus to take action. The power to supersede a chronic negative emotional state that can be induced by industrial society. Note that intelligence alone does not automatically supersede that condition. But it would be intelligent to look to nature, and especially birds, for help.
KING RAIL WITH CHICKS
King Rails are the largest of the rails in the U.S., found locally in freshwater and brackish marshes of the eastern U.S. They feed mainly after dark and are rarely seen out in the open. But this adult bird brought its two very young chicks out into an open section of a marsh during the morning for many days in a row.
This species has declined badly in the past 40 years as a result of the draining of wetlands and runoff of farm chemicals into existing wetlands.
MALE YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER
The Yellow-throated Warbler is a southeastern U.S. warbler associated with cypress swamps and pine forests. In the south, it is known as a harbinger of spring because it is one of the first warblers to return to its nesting areas and begin singing. It spends most of its time high in the canopy and can nest as high as 120 feet. Its range extends northward into Ohio, but there it is associated with Sycamore trees. This photo was taken along a stream lined with Sycamore trees in southern Ohio. The bird was foraging low on a very cold morning, and steam was rising from the stream.
BROAD-WINGED HAWK AT WOODPECKER NEST
This Broad-winged Hawk was looking into an active Northern Flicker’s nest. A nestling was poking its head out moments before I took the photograph, begging for food while the adult Flickers were foraging. While the hawk flew in the frightened youngster escaped down into the nest. The hawk’s opportunistic behavior was surprising and may have never been documented before. A Flicker nest is typically 12-16 inches deep so the nestling remained out of reach. The hawk tried to hold on and even used its wing for support, but it couldn’t hold on long. It is not adapted to hang by its claws and use its tail for support, like a Pileated woodpecker, which is similar in size and weighs just a little less than it.
In my opinion, the boldly spotted pot-bellied Wood Thrush has the most melodic song in the U.S., flute-like and ethereal in character. It spends most of its time on the forest floor digging and turning leaves, in search of food, and prefers ground with abundant decaying leaf litter (as pictured). When you hear two neighboring male Wood Thrushes singing to define the border of territory between them they almost always sing different songs. But most songbirds sing the same song to each other in similar circumstances.
The male can be somewhat of a ventriloquist. When you approach an unseen singing male by walking through the forest from a long distance away it seems as if his song comes from one location at first and the next song from a very different location, but he did not move. Experience has shown me that this makes it very difficult to locate a singing bird deep within a forest. And I wonder if he is able to utilize that ability to the fullest when he knows he is being pursued – prompted by “traveling clues” given by other birds in his forest. This phenomena is real in mixed-species songbird flocks. They quickly communicate specific short chip-like calls from one bird to another, over a great distance, to warn of predators.
In winter the Wandering Tattler can be found along Pacific Ocean coastlines from Australia to North America, hence the name “Wandering”. This individual frequented a jetty in Northern California. At low tide, it walked and fed along the temporarily exposed barnacle-encrusted boulders. I saw this bird methodically feeding and making its way in one direction along the jetty so I set up way ahead of it with just my lens poking around a large rock, focused on a scene of barnacles and clams. It worked.
AMERICAN ROBIN IN ICED BERRIES
My wife captured this image after a fall ice storm. Before the ice storm, roaming flocks of Robins relied on an abundant crop of berries in a city setting, before migrating south. After the storm, most of them returned to feed on the icy berries. There were many birds feeding at this location, moving as a group from tree to tree. In this type of situation if a bird or two is comfortable feeding close to you the entire flock will usually accept your close presence.
MALE PAINTED BUNTING #1
Neotropical migrants, such as the Painted Bunting, spend the summer in their breeding range in North America but migrate to Central or South America for their nonbreeding range in winter. Most of these birds migrate at night.
The first time you see a male Painted Bunting in good light in the wild is unforgettable.
Many male Neotropical songbirds in the U.S. have brilliant colors during the breeding season, but the male Painted Bunting is deemed the most beautiful by many people. He was captured and caged at one time, but this has been prohibited for many decades. Caging this bird was possible because it eats seeds. If its diet consisted of mostly insects, like the diet of a warbler, it most likely would not have survived in a cage.
Brilliant colors are triggers for us. They concentrate energies, which we feel and are transferred to us. The effect is real, especially for the vast number of birders who look forward to the spring arrival of colorful Neotropical songbirds, such as warblers, tanagers, and buntings. The impact of the brilliantly colored males of many species is especially pronounced the first time someone sees them.
There are many things in our society that can sap a person’s energy level, such as the myriad of information and misinformation which induces fear. But here is a way to counteract that, one way you can make a conscious effort to take responsibility for your own energy level. Target migration hotspots in spring to see these beautiful birds.
(CONNECT WITH BELOW – one on left page of spread, the other on right page)
LAWRENCE’S WARBLER #2
Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers hybridize where their ranges overlap. The hybrids are named Brewster’s and Lawrence’s Warblers, but there is a range of characteristics possible for each hybrid. And there are “impure” Blue-wings and Golden-wings. For example, the wing bar of a pure Blue-winged Warbler is white, but I have found a Blue-winged Warbler with a yellow wing bar, so it was “impure”.
The Lawrence’s Warbler is the rarest hybrid of the Blue-winged/Golden-winged warbler hybrid complex. I saw this well-concealed bird with binoculars, deep within some bushes and saplings. I knew the rarity of the situation. It sang constantly from the same perch, so I made a plan to possibly get a photograph. I noticed I would be able to stay well hidden upon my approach, so I had a chance. I moved behind my camera and lens on a tripod only while the bird sang with its head tilted back, and I would freeze the instant it stopped singing. It took over 1/2 hour to maneuver through bushes and get close enough for a photo, but I was still behind a lot of vegetation and there wasn’t a clear shot. I took a chance to move into a position to my left where there seemed to be a clear shot, and I found that there wasn’t. But the wind began to blow the vegetation and, for an instant, there was an opportunity. The bird let out a song, I hit the shutter, and the effort paid off. Notice the blurred areas to the left and lower right. That’s vegetation blowing in the wind that was much closer to me than the bird.
Witnessing the brilliant colors of many Neotropical songbirds during migration is energy-lifting, but so is hearing the dawn chorus of these birds in a northern forest after they have reached their nesting grounds. An amazing range of sounds occurs simultaneously. You experience disharmony yet it is mesmerizing and uplifting. Its beautiful chaos.
This bird is the more common hybrid of the Blue-winged/Golden-winged warbler hybrid complex, but all hybrid birds are somewhat rare. My wife photographed this striking individual in the Jordan River Valley of Michigan, a beautiful place to view a good variety of warblers, including many Golden-winged Warblers and a few Blue-winged Warblers.
SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER STRETCH
The Short-billed Dowitcher has a longer bill than most shorebird species but shorter than the Long-billed Dowitcher, hence its name. It nests in Alaska and far northern Canada and returns south to spend its winters along the Gulf coast, and the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. In August this individual stopped during its southbound migration so it could feed on mudflats after crossing Lake Erie. It fed with sewing machine probing of the mud in one area for a while and then rested. I saw that this bird was positioned correctly for a specific photo when I positioned myself with the sun directly behind me and my shadow line pointing directly at it. I patiently waited for it to do what many shorebirds do after resting for a while – stretching its wings to a vertical position before flying away. It gave a telltale sign before stretching – a slight dip of its head about 1/2 second before it raised its wings abruptly, held them at the top for about 1/2 second, and then took off like it was shot out of a cannon.
MALE MOURNING WARBLER
The Mourning Warbler gets its name from the male’s black bib on its chest – in reference to a widow’s black mourning cape. It is a Neotropical migrant that nests in a great variety of habitats, all of which provide plenty of brushy cover. Some breeding pairs utilize streamside tag alder habitat (as pictured). I would often find migrant Mourning warblers in this habitat.
People often don’t explore their options as fully as they should. They can trap themselves as a result. Birds can be a good reminder of the importance of exploring options. Their power of flight lets them cover great distances and gain perspective of available resources – food, water, shelter. Neotropical migrants are a good example of this. Most of them stop for days in an appropriate habitats that meet their resource needs.
Healthy food, water, and shelter are simplified priorities for humans, but that doesn’t change the fact that they should be top priorities.
After observing birds for years I realized that the nature of their survival is often related to exploring options, especially for insect-eating songbirds. When temperatures are cold upon arrival to northern nesting grounds they will feed on insects attracted to nectar-producing flowers in the sun. They will also find alternatives to eating insects. Some drink flowing sap from Sapsucker wells or drink nectar from flowers until insect hatches provide their normal food. Where insects are consistently abundant some songbirds that normally drive off songbirds of other species attempting to nest nearby will adapt to tolerating them. And some individuals will begin nesting later in the season when there is less competition from experienced songbirds of the area.
If you don’t succeed try something different, with the caveats of not interfering with the freedom of others or harming the environment. And keep trying different options until you get the desired result. This is the freedom to adapt at the most basic level.
Burrowing owls are the only owl that lives much of their life underground. I photographed this bird in Florida, where these owls dig their own burrows, which can be up to 10 feet long, with a nest chamber at the end. In the western U.S. they usually use old prairie dog burrows, and so do rattlesnakes. If threatened a burrowing owl of the west can run into its burrow and make hissing and rattling noises similar to a rattlesnake. This often works as a deterrent to a potential predator. Note its long legs. These owls often hunt by running after prey (mostly insects) during the day, especially during the breeding season, when there are many mouths to feed. In Florida, Burrowing Owls are typically located near people and have adapted to their presence, but still bob their heads up and down if you approach their burrow too close, a behavior which earned them the nickname “howdy birds” by cowboys of the west.
SANDHILL CRANES IN FARMERS FIELD (2 PAGE IMAGE)
In September large flocks of Sandhill Cranes can be found in fields of the upper midwest. The farmers know where the cranes are most likely to be found: the barley fields.
YELLOW-THROATED VIREO IN TULIP TREE
Yellow-throated Vireos breed in open deciduous forest without a thick understory, and they often perch in one place for a while. This would seem to make it easier to walk through their habitat to locate a singing bird. But finding its exact location can be difficult because it blends very well with a sunlit forest canopy. I have often tried to locate an unseen singing male high in the forest canopy within his territory on a sunny day and most times did not succeed. The repetitive alarm call of the Yellow-throated Vireo is very distinctive and helpful to the migrant songbirds of the eastern U.S. It is recognized by all of them and warns of a predator, such as a cat, fox, hawk, or owl.
This Solitary Sandpiper was photographed in mid-September on the north shoreline of Lake Huron. It was feeding in shallow water close to a natural spring originating at the shoreline. Notice the running water in the background. It comes from the spring. The bird captured several leeches at this location. This species is the only shorebird species that do not nest on the ground. It uses an old or deserted nest of a land bird, such as Robin’s nest in a tree or bush.
GREAT HORNED OWL NEST
This nest cavity was on the edge of a forest which faced a maintained lawn which was used as a public space. There were graveled walkways within the lawn, not far from the cavity. The owls stayed hidden deep inside the cavity during the day, but climbed up to become visible just before dusk when people were not around. So the owls remained unnoticed. Even if someone walked by while the owls were up they most likely would have remained undiscovered because of their camouflage within that particular cavity. Unfortunately a winter storm felled the tree holding the cavity, well after the fledged birds were independent of their parents and on their own. I hope an owl was not using it as a roosting cavity at the time.
The Great Horned owl occupies a great number of different habitats: wetlands, deciduous forests, grasslands, cities, and almost any other habitat. They live as far south as southern Brazil and as far north as Alaska. Larger races breed in the far north, smaller ones in the desert. Their diet is greatly varied, according to prey available, and includes squirrels, rats, prairie dogs, woodchucks, skunks, porcupines, house cats, geese, reptiles, other raptors, fish, scorpions, and insects.
This owl an excellent example of the value of diversification. With the triumph of technology our country has come to place too much value on specialization and organization, and less value on diversification. As a result our thoughts and psyche can become trapped in a box. But the vastness, unpredictability, and chaos found in nature offer a counterbalance, regardless of how much we have learned about success in the box. The knowledge gained by observing and interacting with nature is limitless because creation in nature is limitless. There is no box. Nature can remind you that your creative capacity is limitless. This is where abundance and the ability to solve problems lie, and the pretension of scarcity ends. Problems become much smaller because of your confidence to create solutions. When this is accompanied by the willingness to try those solutions, and bring them to fruition, a real basis for self-esteem is realized. I believe the Great Horned Owl has a lot of self-esteem. Its creative capacity to adapt is remarkable and admirable.
BELTED KINGFISHER WITH FISH
After the breeding season, this male Kingfisher utilized this rock as a favored perch every day for more than 2 months in the fall, before going south for the winter. The rock is not far from my dock in a cove along the north shore of Lake Huron. I set up a blind on the shoreline and this bird became used to it very quickly. You can see why. He was very successful at this location.
MALE GRACE’S WARBLER
Grace’s Warbler, a denizen of tall pine trees of mountain forests in the southwestern U.S., is named after the sister of an ornithologist who discovered the bird in Arizona. This bird just finished eating a spider it pulled out of the base of the needle cluster of the Ponderosa Pine tree pictured.
OSPREY LANDING AT NEST
Osprey are widespread. They are common breeders in the Pacific Northwest, Upper Great Lakes, Northeast, and along the Atlantic coast. And they occupy all continents except Antarctica. People really like observing them. In many areas, people put up poles with platforms in hopes of attracting a pair of Osprey to nest. But this photo was taken at a natural nest, by my wife. It was located about 1/2 mile from a river a nesting pair used as a primary hunting ground. At the beginning of the nesting cycle, the male would sometimes bring a nice colorful whole brown trout to the female waiting on the nest. Their nests can become enormous structures as they add sticks from year to year. Unfortunately, this makes them vulnerable, and this nest was blown down in a winter storm.
MALE HOODED WARBLER
In the southeastern U.S. Hooded Warblers are common breeders in swampy forests, but in the northern part of their breeding range, where they are uncommon, they can occupy dry mixed hardwood forests. During a drought period, I set up a water drip and small pool in a dry mixed hardwood forest in Ohio. The sound of the water attracted this shy resident, who perched before bathing. This would not have worked in the swampy forests of the south, where pools of water are common.
MALE VARIED BUNTING
The Varied Bunting breeds in the U.S. close to the Mexico border – in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and times its nesting cycle to the summer rains. Nesting may not begin until August when summer rains are delayed. The male is a jewel among the dense thorny thickets of its preferred streamside habitat.
LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSH REFLECTION
This Louisiana Waterthrush nested in the northern part of its range, which overlaps the southern part of the Northern Waterthrush’s range. Its preferred habitat in the north is near a flowing gravel bottomed stream in a hilly area. But this individual choose the stagnant waters of a large swamp which held numerous breeding Northern Waterthrushes. Its song, very different from a Northern Waterthrush’s, came as a surprise to me while I walked along the path bordering the swamp. More surprising was its acceptance of my presence. The numerous people walking the path had probably habituated it to humans. Louisiana Waterthrushes seem to always bob their tail and never stop walking. As this bird walked and bobbed along the partially submerged old downed mossy tree it briefly paused to drink and momentarily glanced my way.
MALE PROTHONOTARY WARBLER AT NEST
The brilliant yellow of a Prothonotory warbler usually contrasts with the dark surroundings of its southeastern U.S. swampy breeding habitat, especially as it runs over dark mudflats at the edges of pools. The male’s loud song contrasts the usual swamp stillness. Prothonotory warblers are one of only two warblers which nest in cavities. They often utilize old woodpeckers holes in a snag over water. The nest pictured was on the edge of a large pool near a public path. The adult bird became used to my presence immediately and fed its young repeatedly and without pause. In the photo, it has a nice larval worm.
The world of birds has a balanced relationship with nature’s other worlds. A good example is the relationship of insects and insect-eating birds in a deciduous forest. If the insect-eating songbirds of the forest disappear the foliage eating insects could get out of control, defoliate the trees, and there would be no cover for tree nesting birds of any kind. But under normal circumstances balance is maintained.
We can learn a lot from these types of relationships because they maintain environmental health, and that should be our goal as stewards of the planet. This goal is a big part of bringing our civilization much closer to the truth, justice, beauty, and all other virtues people pay lip service to. The art of deceiving the public about a goal of domination and control of the environment has destroyed environmental health for far too long, mainly by ignoring balanced relationships. This occurs with the most and longest-lasting damage through the improper use of chemicals or the use of chemicals that never should have been approved for use. Deception in nature is always balanced by numerous factors, but especially the struggle to survive. When environmental survival is at stake our survival is at stake. Will our freedom to struggle to survive to prevail and balance the present situation?
MARBLED GODWIT AMONG OTHER SHOREBIRDS
Many shorebird species spend their winter along the ocean coastlines of the U.S. and remain for much of spring before migrating north to breeding grounds. Here, a group of Willets, Red Knots, and Short-billed Dowitchers rest in an intertidal wetland on the Gulf coast while a larger Marbled Godwit walks among them. The Knots and Dowitchers are in various stages of changing to their brighter breeding plumage. I crawled about 40 yards on my belly to the edge of the wetland, with the low morning sun directly behind me, in order to avoid disturbing any member of the group. If one would fly they all would.
MALE WESTERN TANAGER
This species spends most of its time during the breeding season in the canopy of western conifer forests. But this striking individual came near ground level to drink and bathe. The male Western Tanagers are very distinctive and cannot be confused with any other bird in the U.S. The red in his feathers is from a rare plumage pigment, rhodoxanthin, and he must obtain it from an external source. Scientists believe that the male Western Tanager does this by consuming plant-eating insects that have bio-accumulated the pigment via ingestion of plants containing it. This male has more red than most males so if they are right he is a good example of concentrated bio-accumulation of this pigment. Other strangers in the U.S., such as the Scarlet tanager and Summer Tanager, make the red pigment in their feathers from yellow pigment.
Although common Long-eared Owls are difficult to find because their numbers fluctuate year to year, they change locations often, and they are most often buried within thick vegetation. A group of people found this owl in a relatively open situation along a path bordering a creek and directed me to its location. It was roosting during a winter day and there was a group of like owls nearby, but well hidden. Long-eared Owls are known to occupy communal winter roosts of up to 100 individuals.
MALE CERULEAN WARBLER IN EASTERN REDBUD
In mid-to-late April some forests of Ohio are sprinkled with the brilliant color of flowering Eastern Redbud trees. On a very cold morning, hazy morning sun warmed this tree, and it was the only flowering tree of the area in sunlight. Its flowers’ nectar began to flow and this attracted many small insects. The concentration of insects attracted a few hungry small insect-eating songbirds that just arrived on their breeding territory. This was the most colorful bird to visit.
The same type of situation occurred when I first became aware of the colorful warblers and other songbirds of our region. But the tree was a flowering Cherry tree in lower Michigan, the birds were stopping during migration, and there were many more species visiting the tree.
The female Cerulean Warbler has a very interesting method of exiting her nest, which is usually placed high in a deciduous forest canopy on a horizontal limb. She jumps off the nest with wings kept to her sides and drops well below the nest before opening them to fly. This seems like a unique strategy to avoid nest detection.
Known as “devil downhead” White-breasted Nuthatches probe for insects in tree bark from every conceivable angle. But they also can pick worms from leaves like a warbler, fly to catch a moth-like a flycatcher, or creep along the ground to search for spiders and all variety of insects, like a thrush.
This individual was photographed in late summer and was a curious member of a mixed-species flock of mostly warblers and kinglets which were migrating. Blue-headed Vireos can give away their presence within these flocks with their distinctive drawn outcall. And once one individual starts to call if there are others within the flock they will soon follow. A ruckus of Blue-headed Vireo calling ensues: friends just keeping in touch with each other. This species was once known as the Solitary Vireo, but this behavior may have helped change its name.
When you observe group behavior in birds it is usually based on cooperation which benefits each individual directly. The safety of mixed-species songbird flock individuals from predators during migration is a good example. When a few members of the flock locate a predator, such as a perched Sharp-shinned Hawk, they will mob it and identify its location to the entire flock, so all birds may join to drive the threat away. That hawk will never have the advantage of a surprise attack, and this is a direct benefit to each individual. If a Blue-headed Vireo is a member of the flock and it joins the mob it will use its repetitive alarm call, which is recognized by all members, and the mobbing behavior will intensify.
AMERICAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKER
In the U.S. this species only breeds in mountain ranges. The bulk of its population is in Canada. All other woodpeckers have four toes, hence its name. I found this individual in Northern Minnesota in the winter so it was most likely a visitor from Canada. It found a 30 acre patch of mature pine and spruce forest, with some trees infested with beetles. The tree pictured had almost all of the bark removed in a low section. This woodpecker (and probably other Black-backed Woodpeckers in the area) did a lot of work here. Notice the holes, and the beetle damage is clear. This species is known for its effective control of spruce bark beetle. I approached this bird through snow almost up to my waste, as it froze in position for minutes – a behavior common to this species.
GREEN HERON HUNTING
Just before a Florida sunset this Green Heron patiently waited for an underwater meal to get within striking distance. If you look closely you can see it has the middle toe of its right foot holding down a reed. You could surmise that it probably flew from the left and landed on the rock, but trapped the reed under its body in the process. And then found that the reed was annoying its belly, so it grabbed the reed with its clawed toe and held it down.
Great-crested Flycatchers are more often heard than seen. They always seem to stay hidden within the deciduous foliage of their breeding habitat. But this individual was a welcome exception. This species nests in abandoned woodpecker holes and often places shed snakeskins within its nest, presumably to scare off squirrels or other birds that poke their heads inside.
MALE NORTHERN PARULA
This bird and its mate made their nest a few feet from a private road often used by people for walking. He was undisturbed by their presence because they did not notice a 4.5-inch bird (tail tip to beak tip) foraging for insects very close to its nest. I only needed to set up my camera and lens on the tripod and wait. He was completely trusting and would often go to the tips of spruce branches (like those pictured) and probe for insects on the underside.
IMMATURE NORTHERN GOSHAWK
A migrating immature Northern Goshawk flew close over my head. It had the menacing look of a formidable top predator, with no fear. Rightfully so. There are accounts of this bird-killing turkeys. Snowshoe hares, squirrels and grouse are its main prey, but it has a greatly varied diet which includes other mammals and birds, as well as reptiles. Revered as a symbol of strength, it is a powerful bird. A thick body and short wings enable rapid acceleration while a long tail allows it to deftly maneuver around the trees of a forest. I once witnessed an adult male zoom through a forest with such velocity that it sounded like a miniature jet fighter, something I will never forget.
GREAT GREY OWL WITH SOUTHERN RED-BACKED VOLE
Great Grey Owls are residents of the boreal forests of Canada, but when prey is scarce they can move into the northeastern U.S. and the northern states of the midwest, mainly in winter. They are large in appearance but mostly feathers, with a small body, so they hunt mostly small rodents. This owl hunted intently with no concern for my presence. It hovered into a slight wind after detecting prey, then dove under the snowpack to capture a vole in its claws. It flew to the perch pictured and transferred the vole to its mouth before swallowing it whole.
The Southern Red-Backed vole is often found near wetlands, the same habitat the Great Grey Owl seems to prefer when visiting northern Minnesota, the location of this photo. This vole, like the meadow vole – the other primary target of the owl when visiting the U.S., is active all winter, creating and using tunnels under the snowpack. Large numbers of these owls (over 4,500) came to Minnesota in the winter of 2004-2005. In some places so many individuals grouped together to hunt that they depleted the voles of the area within days, then moved on, as a group, to other areas in search of prey abundance.
MALE RED-FACED WARBLER
Red-faced Warblers nest in the U.S. only in the high mountains of southern Arizona and New Mexico. The male is a bright spot within its preferred habitat of small groves of deciduous trees within conifer forests. During the breeding season, males can congregate in loose groups and sing in order to attract females. Very early in the nesting season, this male was alone, possibly arriving at the very high elevation location of this photo the day before. The buds on the deciduous trees hadn’t begun to open yet, and some leaves from the previous season remained.
MALE KIRTLAND’S WARBLER SINGING
Kirtland’s Warblers only breed in very large young regenerating jack pine forests, which in the past only occurred naturally after very large and intense forest fires. When man moved into the Kirtland’s’ habitat fire prevention allowed all jack pines to become too mature, and the birds declined drastically. But clear-cutting of mature jack pine forests, followed by re-planting of saplings, has allowed this species to recover. The male’s loud song can be heard for a great distance in its habitat.
The healthy effects of birding on the brain, especially as we age, are undeniable. Learning the language (songs and calls) of birds can maximize positive functional and structural changes in the brain. Science already has confirmed this in studies of persons learning a new language. But with birds you frequently cross-reference visual and auditory learning when you simultaneously see and hear a bird sing. You form new connections in the brain, and this makes a greater impact on memory than seeing alone.
When I started learning the songs of birds, especially warblers, I realized that when I saw a colorful male sing and clearly heard his song simultaneously I would not forget the song. It was etched into my memory. But when I heard the only song, and the bird was hidden, it was more difficult to learn and remember which species made the song when I encountered it in the future. So I made an extra effort to see new birds sing while listening to them. And after years of experience, I sometimes relied on that combination of visual and auditory learning. For example, when listening to birds in the spring or summer, without being able to see them, I would sometimes hear a song that seemed unfamiliar, but which I believed I had already heard in the past and identified. I immediately noted the habitat and searched my memory for a list of typical birds that utilize that habitat – from book learning and experience. Then I visualized each bird of that habitat and “heard” its song (and variations of its song) in my mind until the unfamiliar song was matched. I would oftentimes just stare at the forest floor to do this. It almost always worked. I confirmed my result by making sure I saw the bird, with a lot of time and effort at times. I enjoyed the challenge of testing my learning. And still do, when the occasion arises.
AMERICAN BITTERN MARSH FLIGHT
American Bitterns have an expansive breeding zone within the northern half of the U.S., from the west coast to the east coast. In early April warm south winds melted the last remaining ice in this marsh along northern Lake Huron and helped many American Bitterns arrive from their southern wintering areas. It seemed this bird arrived at its nesting territory in the marsh a day before when I heard its booming call for the first time of its breeding season. The call of another American Bittern far to my right prompted its flight in the early morning. Since this photo, the water level of Lake Huron has risen substantially and the shoreline marshes have become flooded. American Bitterns were forced to move inland to areas with very little marsh habitat, surrounded by drier fields. There has been an abundance of meadow voles in those fields, and the Bitterns learned to take advantage of them as a food source: the freedom of flight and freedom to adapt on display.
MALE BLUE-WINGED WARBLER
Blue-winged Warblers nest in a variety of open situations with low shrubbery and bushy thickets, oftentimes in fields or along the borders of woods. Males sing two distinctly different songs in different situations – one for rival males and one for females seen as potential mates. This male just arrived on its breeding territory and some of the saplings, which had just begun to leave out, retained some nice color.
MALE RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH
Red-breasted Nuthatches often search and probe for insects in every crevice and cranny of tree bark like an acrobat of the bird world. With feet seemingly too large for their bodies they climb up, down and spiral around tree trunks and limbs with equal ease. This could be the reason for this bird’s very short tail, as it probably would get in the way if longer.
The cedar cones pictured are not fully developed yet but would eventually become an important winter food source for this bird.
MALE BLACK AND WHITE WARBLER IN “SPRING COLOR”
During a dry period in May, I set up a water drip and shallow pool in a forest with colorful spring saplings (aspen and maple pictured). This well-patterned bird came in to bathe.
Notice this bird’s large feet. Unlike other warblers it often climbs the trunks and thick branches of trees, like a nuthatch, looking for insects in crevices.
MALE SPRUCE GROUSE DISPLAYING
In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Spruce Grouse are permanent residents, most likely found in areas of mature jack pine forest. The ground is mossy and often interspersed with wild blueberry plants, as pictured on this early spring day. I found this male displaying in what is sometimes referred to as a “room” – a clearing where he performs courtship daily, usually in the early morning. You can sometimes identify a “room” by looking for piles of droppings in the appropriate habitat. To the left of the photo there was a female hidden at the base of a small jack pine, but with a good view. The male approached her, walking from the right while swaying his partially fanned tail side to side. Then he came to an abrupt stop and puffed out his chest while briefly fanning his tail completely.
The Northern Shrike is a practically fearless predatory songbird that visits from the far north to the northern U.S. in winter. I have seen it stake out a bird feeder from a high perch, at a distance, waiting for the right time to make a surprise attack on an unwary seed-eating finch, so it is an enemy to most people feeding birds. It is considered a cruel bird because it may kill more than it can eat and impale prey on thorns or barbed wire. Many winters I would find Northern Shrikes hunting large fields that had an abundant population of voles. I observed them cover the same amount of terrain as Rough-legged Hawks and Snowy Owls, which were hunting the same area. But the Shrikes were much more difficult to find at a distance because of their small size.
One winter the bird pictured would often stake out a bird feeder from a relatively close distance almost every day. The owner of the feeder told me it would arrive on the perch pictured and the birds would scatter, but it wasn’t after the birds. It waited for mice to scamper out from a nearby shed to eat the seeds on the ground under the feeder. And the mice were its quarry. So the owner of the feeder welcomed it.
There is a trend in the U.S. to appeal to authority instead of gathering information through your own experiences and coming to your own conclusions. Birding can be a good way to counter that trend. Ask the welcomed Shrike.
MALE BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLER WITH COLUMBINE
In a dry period during late-May, I set up a water drip and pool at the edge of a large tract of mature hardwood forest which is a Neotropical migrant hotspot located near the north shore of Lake Huron, where wild columbine grows perennially. This colorful resident came in to bathe.
Boredom is a common energy-sapping condition in modern society, and most people afflicted just learn to live with it. But deep down they are made for adventure. Otherwise, they wouldn’t mind being so bored. A birding adventure to a Neotropical migrant hotspot is a good way to prevent or end that boredom. And it can serve as a gateway to other birding adventures. At the hotspot, during the right time in spring, the spectacle of birding is on display to the fullest degree: breeding plumage warblers, tanagers, buntings, and thrushes; large numbers of birds overloading our senses with color, pattern, and song. That’s a good hook for a future birder.
MALE OLIVE WARBLER
Olive Warblers breed within the U.S. only in the southern mountains of Arizona and New Mexico, mostly in pine forests at elevations above 7,000 feet, where the air is lighter and nights are cold. Much of this bird’s range is south of the U.S. border, and the further south the smaller the bird will be – a phenomena named Bergmann’s Rule. A bird benefits from a larger body in a colder, more northerly location because less heat is lost from its body. This species feeds mostly in ponderosa pines, as pictured.
SHORT-EARED OWL HUNTING
The fall of 2016 was very mild, until December when the weather suddenly became very cold, windy and snowy in the midwest. This lasted for more than two weeks, and there was a constant strong north wind, so birds could not migrate south. But finally, a day with mild temps and very light wind occurred. During the morning of that day, I knew many birds would be out in the open feeding, and that was the case. I was on the lookout for Short-eared Owls, and other rare birds, because the mild conditions could have tempted some birds to stay too far north too long, then become trapped by the cold conditions. This individual, with fresh blood on its face, was actively hunting voles, and oblivious to my car stopping. I was happy to see it was having success. The wind shifted to the south and the mild weather continued for a few days, so this owl probably migrated south to its wintering area.
The Short-eared Owl is one of the most widely distributed birds on earth, found on all continents except Australia and Antarctica.
MALE INDIGO BUNTING IN FLOWERING DOGWOOD
The male Indigo Bunting occurs in a lighter cyan plumage with a slight greenish cast (as pictured), a darker blue with purple tones, and variations between those extremes.
One day in late May (1997) my wife awoke me to the site of a male Indigo Bunting perched on a power line outside our upstairs bedroom window, a shocker brilliant in the morning sun of our city setting at the time. As part of a large flock of migrating warblers, orioles, grosbeaks and tanagers he was the first bird that got our attention. When we went outside we saw the others, and we would see them every morning for the next 6 days. Later we learned that all of them were late migrating to their breeding grounds to the north, blocked by cold north winds for weeks. Looking back at the weather we saw that the winds briefly shifted to the south for a night and large numbers of many Neotropical species migrated. But then they flew into a cold front which brought them down in our area. And this was followed by more cold north winds for days so they could not migrate further north.
We had a flowering sour cherry tree in bloom in the backyard, which attracted insects as it warmed in the morning sun and its nectar flowed. The insects attracted an incredible variety and number of insect-eating warblers, which made up the majority of the flock. The Indigo bunting just wanted to remain close to the big flock, and often picked through the leaf litter around our shrubs.
MALE AMERICAN KESTREL FLIGHT
Whitefish Point, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, can be an excellent place to view raptors as they migrate north to Canada. A day in April with strong south winds and relatively warm temperatures can bring thousands of raptors to the tip of the point, and many of them will fly about 8-20 feet off of the ground in such conditions. Near the tip, the birds fly between or just above the pine trees until they reach the open beach, where the wind is even stronger. Kestrels are a small raptor so they can be intimidated by the wind and may rest on a perch for a while. I took this photo shortly after this bird flew from its perch and headed for Canada.
Downsizing is a popular trend and very useful at times, but when we take that to the point where we limit the space within our mind – our imagination, we can limit our options and perception: only specific avenues of accomplishment exist, ways to make money, career goals, etc. This is spiritual suicide. Birds occupy and cover huge spaces in comparison to us, so they can help us think in terms of bigger spaces, more possibilities. And that can lead to spiritual greatness.
GREAT BLUE HERON MARSH FLIGHT
When this heron crouched down to jump into flight I knew it would fly right because the wind was coming from the right. Larger birds almost always fly into the wind at takeoff because lift-off is easier. But they do not gain speed as easy, making it easier for me to successfully capture a handheld photo with a long lens. And they must pump their wings to full (or close to full) upward and downward extension. This photo caught the heron at full upward extension.
HOODED MERGANSER GROUP COURTSHIP ( 2 PAGE IMAGE)
This photo was taken on a creek in late March in the upper midwest. During this period Hooded Mergansers often perform courtship rituals in the early morning, on ice-free water, where the wind is calm or light. Initially, there were four individuals feeding. Another small group flew in and landed nearby, and feeding ceased immediately. There was a spectacular transformation to courtship behavior. The female with her tail up was the center of attention, with six males vying for her attention. Notice that the entire group is swimming fast, as a unit, from the upper right toward the bottom left, and a male, not close enough to the action, with his crest down, is darting in from the back.
MALE BALTIMORE ORIOLE IN FLOWERING APPLE TREE
The spring arrival of Baltimore Orioles is welcomed by many town residents in the eastern U.S. These colorful visitors will feed at feeders stocked with jelly, especially just after arriving at their nesting grounds in spring, and can nest in trees close to homes. But most birds nest away from human activity. They will also feed on the nectar of flowers. The male pictured was feeding on larval worms in the apple tree. During the nesting season, Baltimore Orioles feed mostly on insects (especially caterpillars) but will later eat berries of many kinds, and they seem to only choose the darkest berries, ignoring ripe berries that are not dark.
BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERON IN CREEK #1 connect with below
Black-crowned Night Herons nest on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. Their breeding range covers almost all the continental U.S., and they are found in a wide variety of aquatic habitats. In the upper midwest, their breeding range overlaps that of Black Terns. The herons feed at night and if an individual chooses a location very close to or within a colony of nesting Black terns the whole colony can abandon their nests when they are full of eggs and/or chicks. It is thought that the terns cannot distinguish the silhouette of the Heron from that of a Great Horned Owl, a known predator of Black Tern eggs and chicks. In an extended study in Ontario, night cameras recorded Great Horned Owl predation of chicks and eggs, but not adults. The known behavior of an entire colony abandoning nests suggests that adults have been taken in the past. It is certainly not beyond the owl to do so. It will hunt a tremendous variety of prey, including birds of similar size to an adult Black Tern, and much larger.
The Heron pictured used that spit on a shallow creek near my home for many early mornings in a row. I returned one afternoon to look into the creek near the spit and found creek chubs spawning there.
BLACK TERN TURNING #2 connect with above
Early in the morning, an entire Black Tern colony can take flight to feed on airborne insects. On the morning of this photo, the insects were concentrated in an area about 100 yards away from the colony, near a causeway where cars passed. I was able to photograph from my van window from the causeway shoulder, with the low morning sun behind me. When the tern pictured rapidly changed direction it did so with the underside of its wings facing the wind, using the wind for lift as it turned. It used a west wind, so the top side of its wings and back faced east, the appropriate direction for perfect illumination from the morning sun.
A Purple Gallinule (also known as a Purple Swamp Hen) is a shimmering glossy gem of southern U.S. swamps and marshes, about the size of a small chicken. It’s extra-long toes and long legs allow it to walk over floating vegetation without sinking. This beautifully plumaged adult bird walked the edge of a large mat of vegetation but paused for this photograph before flying over water to another mat not far away.
MALE AMERICAN KESTREL AT NEST
While driving a dirt road surrounded by hay fields a female kestrel flew from a field and across my windshield with a vole in its talons. It flew directly into a forest patch. I strongly suspected there was a nest cavity at that location because it was the nesting season for kestrels. After noting the location I asked the landowner of the forest for permission to do a search and photograph the nest if it was a photogenic nest location. It was in a nice location and the owner liked his print of this photo of the male at the small nest hole.
LEARNING TO FLY
Immature Northern Harriers remain near their nest site for weeks after hatching. After just one week they can walk a short distance away from their nest, but return when fed by the adult birds. After many weeks they make their first attempts at flight. One of four siblings in the area, this juvenile bird had made its first attempts at flight just a day before. In the photo, it made a short flight out of the dew-covered shrubs in the early morning and soon crash-landed in the soft flexible branches of a small tamarack. It fell to the tall wet grasses below, but immediately climbed up to a sunny spot in the tamarack and shook the water out of its feathers. It remained perched, drying for the next 15 minutes. The numerous small tamaracks of this area provided an excellent safe learning area for the siblings because crash landing in other trees could have been more dangerous.
In our time of science and technology, many of us are too consumed with resolving problems. That does not apply when you fully open your mind to the possibilities nature presents. You take a break from the mental stress of that existence and get outside of it. You free yourself from the limitations of that state of mind when making your own interpretations of experiences in nature, and develop an ability that leads you into the unknown. When you come back to resolve a problem you will be better prepared to find new solutions because you are coming from the outside.
AMERICAN GOLDEN PLOVER
This species is a long-distance migrant, nesting in the arctic tundra, and wintering in and around the Pampas of Argentina and Uruguay. It migrates primarily through the center of the U.S. and is often found in plowed fields. I located this migrating individual (and others) in early June in a farmers field, stopping my van on a very low traffic road to look with my binoculars in the back of the field. I asked the farmer if I could try to photograph and promised a print if I had success. He obliged. I took about one-half hour on my approach in order to habituate the group to my presence, walking back and forth as a farmer would when doing manual work in the field. It worked. The farmer watched from his home window, and I talked to him afterward. He was amazed and curious about the birdlife of the area. He recounted my encounter with other people in his community and I ended up doing a digital slideshow presentation at a local restaurant. He also liked his print.
Fruit-eating birds, such as the Bohemian Waxwing, have been documented to feed in a way that helps forest diversity. They use a disproportionate amount of time selecting rare fruits, which may number in the hundreds, even though millions of fruits are available from common species. They carry the seeds great distances and excrete them in various locations in the forest, helping replant the less common fruit-bearing trees and bushes.
In my opinion, a big part of the reason for the Waxwings’ selection is nutrition from a varied diet and its benefit to their health and reproductive success. Those rare berries may contain the critical vitamins, minerals, and/or other nutrients not easily found in the common berries, and which would otherwise be lacking in their diet. Many animals are known to have an intuition when it comes to their nutritional needs. If and individual’s diet is lacking a certain macro-mineral, such as magnesium, or even a trace mineral, such as manganese, it will search for and find the plant (berry, seed, insect) which is rich in that mineral, even if the search is difficult because of the rarity of the source in the individual’s environment at the time.
This behavior likely extended to our ancient ancestors and we should heed this example. Variety in our diet is very important in fulfilling our nutritional needs for optimum health.
HAWK OWL FLIGHT WITH MEADOW VOLE
Hawk owls sometimes spend the winter in the U.S. near the border of Canada. They are diurnal – hunting during the day. This owl hunted a very large field from a forest edge and was very habituated to my presence. I saw it leave its perch and fly after abounding vole over two hundred yards out in the field. As I watched with my binoculars I observed the vole bounding fast, and at the peak of a bound the owl calmly, and seemingly effortlessly, grabbed it with its talons – a master at work who timed its approach perfectly. Then it calmly turned to come back. I ran with my equipment through two feet of snow to get into position, hoping it would return to the same perch. It would fly low and rise up to the 20 foot high perch, so I positioned myself well before the perch, along its line of direction to the perch, with the sun at my back. I was lucky to capture a good image with its wings up so the meadow vole could be seen in its talons.
MALE WESTERN BLUEBIRD
When western U.S. juniper woodlands have had an abundant crop of berries Western Bluebirds can roam for the bounty in flocks of hundreds of birds in winter. But I found this bird alone one morning in June, right at my campsite in the high mountains of New Mexico, warming itself in the early morning sun after a cold night. It probably had a nest nearby. It never moved from its perch, oblivious to me setting up my camera, lens, and tripod, and approaching it.
AUDUBON’S YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER
The Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warbler breeds within the U.S. in the west and the Myrtle Yellow-rumped Warbler in the East, and the yellow throat of the Audubon is white in the Myrtle. There are also other differences not so obvious, but they hybridize where their breeding ranges overlap in western Canada. Hybridization occurs within an 80-mile wide band, which, for the past 50 years, has not widened. Scientists have concluded that there must be some type of weakness in the hybrid birds which prevents them from successfully occupying areas outside the band. That weakness has not been discovered yet. Regardless, all Yellow-rumps are known as “butter butts” to many birders because of their yellow rump patch, which is concealed by the wing of the bird pictured.
MALE BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER
The majority of Black-throated Gray Warblers breed in the southwestern U.S. and all winter in Mexico, so they are considered a short-distance migrant. Some individuals seem content to wander because every year a few of these well-patterned birds end up as rare finds for birders in the Eastern U.S.
We can look to nature for examples of self-reliance. The self-reliance of birds is obvious. They have no physical possessions other than a nest, which may or may not be used in successive years. Nestlings are dependent but all other birds must provide for their needs, such as food, water, and shelter. They do so with their high mobility and a high degree of action. This gives them a very high degree of independence and self-sufficiency. Observing them can prompt us to consider the importance of our independence, something most people only think about, if at all, on the 4th of July. It can lead us to take more action to ensure our independence, to take back the heritage of our power. Independence from control. Spelled out in the Declaration of Independence.
Observing the independence of birds triggers our imagination. As a result, we can be inspired to become a much less thing-oriented culture and more imagination oriented. And become less likely to be trapped into letting someone else be the source of the most vital information to us – how we create. That is a con, with the ultimate purpose of power and control over us. Instead, each individual controls the form and direction of their own creativity.
RED-NECKED GREBE ON NEST
I found this nest during the day and returned in the evening to quickly set up and enter an on-shore temporary blind, while the female was off the nest feeding. The wind became calm, and she returned and allowed this reflection photo just before sunset. The following day the nest was 40 yards further out into the lake, and I would not have been able to photograph it from shore. A Red-necked Grebe’s nest is a floating clump of vegetation with a depression in the middle.
BALD EAGLES FIGHTING
Twelve bald eagles stopped in a farmer’s field one February day in the northern midwest. They were migrating. With a cautious approach along a back road, I was able to pull my van into position and photograph from my window without disturbing the group. I talked to the farmer later and he told me he liked to ice fish in the winter, and he put scraps of the cleaned fish out in the field.
The Least Bittern is uniquely adapted to its environment. Its long toes and small size allow it to climb cattails and reeds while its narrow body allows it to slip through dense vegetation. It is the only wading bird in the U.S. that straddles reeds to hunt or survey its surroundings (as pictured). So it can hunt deeper waters than other waders. It has also been known to bend many reeds to build a comfortable hunting platform at a favorite hunting spot. Finding a Least Bittern in a large marsh can be much easier when slowly kayaking its open waterways and scanning the edges of the reed beds.
MALE SCARLET TANAGER
Scarlet Tanagers nest in large tracts of deciduous forest in the east, especially ones abundant with oaks. The exotic plumaged male stands out among the green of the canopy, but the yellow-green female blends in well. Deep within a large forest on a very cold morning in early May, this male slowly and deliberately foraged at ground level for insects. Good light reached the forest floor because the canopy of the forest was not left out yet. But the understory was partially left out. He must have just arrived on the territory (or close to his territory) from the tropics. I will never forget how he easily became habituated to my very slow-moving presence. Years later a mushroom hunter looking for morels recounted to me a similar story he had with many Scarlet Tanagers on a cold morning in Mid-may further north.
MARCHING MARBLED GODWITS
These entertaining individuals were part of a much larger group that wintered on a beach along the Pacific Ocean in Washington. They moved as a cohesive unit in the shallow waters of an intertidal pond, seeming to march forward, and always moved against a slight breeze. Once they ran out of water to march through they would lift off into the breeze and turn, letting the wind carry them back to the other side of the pond. Then the marching would begin again.
MALE BLACKBURNIAN WARBLER ATTITUDE
In the spring, after a year when many spruce trees had an abundant cone crop, some cone-laden tree tops broke off during a wind storm. I found the tops of a few trees on the ground on my property and set them up near a water drip and shallow pond I set up to attract migrating songbirds. This beautiful bird was attracted to the sound of the water and reacted to the sound of my camera shutter with this pose.
Blackburnian Warblers increase their numbers in areas of Spruce Budworm outbreak, an infestation that defoliates and kills mainly spruce and balsam fir trees. They eat a lot of budworms during their entire nesting cycle. It’s ironic that such a beautiful creature helps remedy this ugly situation. Other beautiful warblers, known as spruce budworm specialists, help even more – Cape May and Bay-breasted Warblers. They nest in areas of spruce budworm infestation in huge numbers, relocating to areas where Spruce Budworm is abundant.
WIPPOORWILL ON NEST
My wife was approaching a flower when the leaves seemed to fly away right in front of her. Startled, she knew to look for a nest. She found 2 small white eggs and noted the location, right next to a dirt road we were walking. We left the area and returned about 1 hour later to find the bird on the nest. It completely relied on its camouflage. Interestingly, this road was a well-used recreational ATV road on weekends and the nest was only 5 feet from the road.
The mind of the modern man is often preoccupied with pattern and predictability but especially organizing. The randomness of finding beauty in nature, especially finding it within nature’s seeming “chaos”, offers a welcome reprieve. It is an opportunity we can and should often use to balance our lives.
An effective camouflage photo presents a chaotic scene that has organization hidden within it – oftentimes, in the form of the animal. When the animal is “found” the viewer accepts the chaos. And a sense of “relief”, or balance, is achieved.
MALE BUFFLEHEAD FLAP-UP
Ducks often repeatedly dip their bodies into the water and shake, as a way to clean their plumage. They often finish with flapping in place while standing up on the water, to force water out of their feathers. The Male Bufflehead does this, but on his last flap, he holds his wings up, coming to a brief pause, while he juts his chest out. It seems he does this more emphatically in the presence of females during courtship, as pictured. Two females were just out of the frame.
A female Merlin rises to a tall perch (20 feet up) after approaching a group of songbirds as she flew a few feet off the ground. Her attack was unsuccessful. This was an incredibly difficult image to capture, as the Merlin was going very fast, then suddenly decelerated as it curved sharply upward. My wife (Giuliana) did it, handheld with a 300mm lens.
MALE BLACK-CAPPED VIREO
The Black-capped Vireo is the smallest regularly occurring vireo in the U.S., the only vireo with males wearing different plumage than females, and the only vireo with males requiring 2 years to reach adult plumage. It has a breeding range almost entirely within Texas and Oklahoma and is endangered because of human activity which has altered and destroyed its habitat. It requires low young semi-open areas of vegetation and these areas have been mostly cleared to provide grazing for livestock. In some areas, fenced in livestock with few other feeding options overgrazed habitat which was appropriate. The birds will not nest in areas without enough leaves.
MERLIN CHASING KESTREL
On a September morning, a Merlin and Kestrel were hunting a good migration stopover location (Point LaBarb) in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which is located where birds migrating south fly the shortest distance over water possible in order to reach the Lower Peninsula. This area has the only undisturbed habitat just north of the Mackinac bridge. A wide diversity of birds can gather here: songbirds, shorebirds, raptors, ducks, marsh birds.
Before this photo, the Merlin and Kestrel were perched out in the open about 40 yards from one another. The Kestrel dove from its perch to the ground to catch a grasshopper. But flew it up (grasshopper in left claw) when it realized the Merlin was coming to steal its catch. The Merlin soon gave up. If the Kestrel had caught a nice meadow vole I do not believe the Merlin would have given up so easily. The was no use wasting its energy over a grasshopper. A 25mph wind helped slow the action down, as the birds flew into it, so I could capture an image from my van window.
RUDDY TURNSTONE ON LAKE SUPERIOR BEACH
Ruddy Turnstones nest in the high arctic and winter on all ocean coasts of the U.S. I have followed them on the beaches of the Gulf Coast while they constantly ran around and stopped to turn practically anything they could in search of food – under piles of leaves, seaweed, little pieces of driftwood, etc. I found this bird on Lake Superior but it was not trying to pry under and turn over any of the colorful beach stones. It fed on small flying insects among the stones and sand but paused for a moment for this photo.
MALE LONG-TAILED DUCK BOUNCE LANDING
When most ducks land on the water they lean back, put their feet forward like a pair of skis, and come to a graceful skiing stop. Before landing a Long-tailed duck looks like it would do the same but at the last instant, it leans forward with its feet extended back and head up, and bounces on its belly, resembling a bowling pin.
Long-tailed ducks winter on the Great Lakes in deep open water. American Indian fishermen have recounted stories to me of encountering flocks in the thousands on calm mornings in the early spring, many miles from shore. We live on the north shore of Lake Huron and we would sometimes hear the distinct calls of a large flock way out on the water, on a dead calm morning. We would go to the beach and look with our binoculars but never be able to see them.
MALE CANADA WARBLER SINGING
The Canada Warbler nests in moist woods with dense cover and spends most of its time closer to the ground than most warblers. The male arrives on territory and is very vocal in the morning for about one week, warning any intruder in its territory. After that, it sings much less often and with a softer voice.
There is evidence that birdsong may affect human circadian rhythms, which help synchronize the body’s internal clock to the 24-hour day, and that this may have positive effects on sleep and mood. We live in a forest full of breeding warblers (8 nesting species within 50 yards of our home) and other songbirds. During the breeding season, the building dawn chorus starts before sunrise around 5:30 am. It begins with a few American Redstarts, then the Yellow-rumped Warbler, followed by the Black-throated Green Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler, Black and White Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, and Common Yellowthroat. Mixed in with a Song Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Swainson’s Thrush, Robin, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Brown Creeper, and Great-Crested Flycatcher. We are pleasantly awakened, and when the singing stops after migrant songbirds go south at the end of summer we notice the difference and miss it. We sleep with the windows open during the breeding season so the dawn chorus is never missed. There is no doubt about the positive effects for us.
MALE ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK IN FLOWERING APPLE TREE
The male Rose-breasted Grosbeak is a handsome and welcome resident to eastern woodlands, and not hard to find. He will visit seed feeders during migration and upon arrival to his breeding territory. His song seems like an improved version of a Robin’s song. I have often walked up to male birds in wood lots while they remained perched for long periods. He’s a great bird to impress a first-time birder.
JUVENILE NORTHERN HARRIER LANDING
Not more than three days after its first flight this juvenile seems scared as it struggles to land correctly, and it screams. The fear is short-lived, as its learning curve is phenomenal. It will be an expert in a few days.
The Buff-breasted Sandpiper is a long-distance migrant, nesting in Canada above the arctic circle and wintering in and around the pampas of Argentina. It migrates through the middle of the U.S. and is a special bird to find for most birders. Most times they find it on dry open ground, but I found this bird on the northern shoreline of Lake Michigan. I almost stepped on it and two others as they laid down motionless and camouflaged among the rocks. They casually got up and walked away, and were very tame. Soon they began feeding the shoreline. I positioned myself ahead of them and waited. Two of them almost walked right between my legs as I photographed – a very memorable experience.
COMMON GOLDENEYES IN ICY WATERS
Very few Common Goldeneyes winter in the northern waters of the Great Lakes. But in March, in a typical year, many migrate from southern wintering areas up through the Great Lakes. They feel the safest moving along ice-free shorelines, and not over land. And they are one of the earliest ducks to head north. All rivers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are usually frozen at that time so many individuals that come up ice-free waters of Lake Michigan across the Straits of Mackinac to join those coming up Lake Huron. Together they migrate toward the mouth of the St. Mary’s River, the largest river to head north, and the first one to become free of ice because of the ice-breaking barges that keep a channel open for ship travel. When the river ahead of them is mostly frozen (other than the shipping channel) Goldeneyes gather in large numbers, sometimes for many days, waiting for the ice to break apart and float out to Lake Huron. When I took this photo the river ice was starting to break up and ice-filled the channel near the mouth, but small groups of Common Goldeneyes were everywhere, eagerly negotiating the ice flows and sometimes engaging in courtship behavior.
MALE WOOD DUCKS IN FALL POND
I visited a pond that can hold migrating Wood ducks at the time of peak fall color in October. The maples were brilliant along the far shoreline of the pond, and the morning was calm, providing an amazing reflection scene.
In the upper midwest in spring, I would often hike deep into forests when spring snowmelt would form temporary ponds before any vegetation began growing. Many times I would find Wood Ducks motionless, perched on a log, their brilliant color shattering their bland surroundings.
VIRGINIA RAIL WING STRETCH
Virginia rails breed in a wide variety of marsh habitats. When the water level in the Great Lakes drops they increase their numbers in coastal marshes because there are many more mudflats where they can feed and drier areas with plenty of vegetation where they can walk and hide. When the water level rises they are forced to leave. They are more often heard than seen, but this individual fed and preened out in the open near a public boardwalk splitting the center of a marsh in a large metropolitan city.
ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK WITH MOLE
Voles are the main prey for a Rough-legged hawk while it spends its winters in the U.S., but mice, shrews, and moles are on its menu as well. This individual captured a mole. Interestingly, falconers do not try to train Rough-legged hawks because this species does not go after anything but small rodents. Its feet are too small, even though it is a large bird with a four and one half foot wingspan. But it seems these hawks could serve a purpose on large open estates with a rodent problem.
A wild hawk’s mastery of the hunt results from its own struggle. Its parents can only teach it so much. Then it is on its own. I have observed young Rough-legged Hawks fail repeatedly when hunting for rodents in the fall. But they never gave up. There was nothing to lend confirmation to their efforts. Think about that. The same thing applies to all of us. Teaching can only introduce us to our own motivation and creativity, but the development of those qualities is necessary for mastery. Each individual, at some point, in his or her own way, without self-deception, must move forward to create a path to success, and take it. Each individual in the U.S. has the freedom to do this.
On some stretches of beach along the Texas coast, individual shorebirds such as this Long-billed Curlew can feed at the shoreline just before sunset, without concern for walkers on the beach. I was walking with my camera and lens and stopped at the spot where my shadow pointed directly at this bird. This not only put me in a position for the best lighting on the subject, but it also prevented the bird from concentrating its attention on me because it was reluctant to look into the sun.
The Long-billed Curlew is the largest shorebird in the U.S. It often feeds the bottom of shallow water, and its long bill allows it to probe a soft bottom for shellfish, worms, and aquatic insects without getting it’s head wet. But if you look carefully you see that the bird pictured had some water droplets on its head. It was probing moments before, digging with its head angled toward the shore, and a wave covered its head. It successfully captured a small crab and was unfazed by the wave.
NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL
Northern Saw-whet owls are nocturnal, prowl the entire northern half of the continental U.S., and are found mostly in coniferous forests. This owl was roosting in streamside tangled vines in winter. A flock of birds (White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, Chickadees, Tufted Titmice) mobbed it, alerting me to its presence. They could have been on its menu after dark. Notice the canopy of leaves which formed a roof over the owl. This was the only such location within an extensive area of tangled vines. I searched for other owls which used the same strategy for protection from snow or rain, but never found a suitable roof or owl. It was a smart bird to put a roof over its head.
MALE AND FEMALE WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS FEEDING
In this photo a male and female White-winged Crossbill feed together. The male is pink. Males seem to tolerate females feeding closer to them. They will briefly fight other males if they try to feed close by. Crossbills often feed from a hanging position, as pictured. When a large flock of White-winged Crossbills finds a spruce with a bounty of cones they get very choosy and behave as if they are spoiled. A feeding bird will often pluck a cone off the tree and hold it in a claw to position it better. Then it will insert its curved bill between the layers of the cone and open its beak. Its oppositely curved mandibles create a perfect space for its tongue to easily extract the seed. If it doesn’t like the first seed extracted from a plucked cone it discards the entire cone. When a large flock feeds in a bounty tree on a calm day the sound of cones hitting ice-crusted snow is distinctive, seeming like the sound of someone typing on a keyboard.
MALE PILEATED WOODPECKER “HIDING”
This individual claimed an area near my home as its own feeding area years ago. Its nesting area was about one mile away. The tree pictured was about twenty yards from the private drive through the peninsula where I live. When I would pass by with my van this bird would take the pose pictured, as if he was successfully hiding from me, then resume its project after I passed. I suspected he did this when other vehicles passed him. One day I stopped my van and turned the engine off, with my lens poking out of the window. It stayed motionless (as pictured) even as I restarted my van and drove away. I have never seen this behavior in another Pileated Woodpecker or any woodpecker. I’ve seen many woodpeckers go to the other side of a tree and stay hidden as I passed by with my van, but never try to hide in plain sight. I learned this bird would not do the same thing if I walked the road by the tree. He would go to the other side. So his behavior was a response to vans, and probably other vehicles. The tree is not standing anymore. No surprise. The wind took it down because of the weakened base.
COMMON LOON WITH CHICK
At about eight days old this chick was getting big and very comfortable and content on Mom’s back. In a few days, Mom would rarely let it ride anymore, and would dive soon after the chick successfully made it onto her back, forcing the chick to swim behind her. These were perhaps the first necessary lessons to develop the chick’s independence.
The freedom that birds exemplify is not only defined by their ability to fly. Many birds walk and run well. The common loon has an ability to dive underwater down to 200 feet and stay under as long as 5 minutes.
Yellow-breasted Chats breed in a habitat with many patches of tangled weeds, bushes, and vines. They are very capable of negotiating the thorns of raspberries and blackberries while they feed on either. They are our largest warbler, with the longest tail, yet conceal themselves very effectively within their chaotic patches, while seeming to sing constantly. And they are ventriloquists, their mocking series of weird squawks and whistles seeming to originate in one spot and then come from another spot anywhere within thirty yards of the general vicinity, even though they do not change location. One time I pursued an unseen singing Chat in southern Ohio while I carried my lens and camera on the tripod. I became confused as to which direction I should go and almost stepped on a coiled Copperhead snake.
MALE LAZULI BUNTING
The male Lazuli Bunting is colorful and not too difficult to find in the western U.S. in spring. He often sings from a high position in a tall shrub and that is where I found the male pictured. Each male’s song is unique. At almost 1 year old, upon returning to the area where he was born, he learns parts of the songs of many local males and combines them. Then he owns his distinct song, with a local dialect. He is accepted in his neighborhood – the general area where he was born, but if he flies to a distant area of Lazuli Buntings he will not be accepted easily when he sings. He will be an outsider and other males will react aggressively to his presence.
MALE AMERICAN WIGEON
The Male American Wigeon is an attractive welcome visitor to public ponds of the south in winter. But not so welcome to the diving ducks of the deeper ponds. Wigeons are dabbling ducks and spend most of their time in the shallow nearshore waters with other dabblers, but they will venture out to deeper water among the diving ducks and steal food from them when they surface.
FEMALE EASTERN BLUEBIRD AT NESTBOX
I was surprised that a pair of Eastern Bluebirds used this nest box, which was at the end of a line of nest boxes occupied by tree swallows. The Bluebirds started their nest cycle very late so the Swallows were unconcerned, and busy raising their fledged nestlings. I put up a blind and the pair readily accepted its presence. After waiting for many rainy days to pass I finally had a calm sunny morning and nice early morning light. The last unfledged nestling (pictured) was given a mouthful of insects and retreated briefly into the box, but soon poked out screaming for more as mom calmly paused (while possibly contemplating her thankless job) before returning to find more food.
WHITE-PHASED REDDISH EGRET WITH FISH
The Reddish Egret has 2 varieties, one dark, and one white. Both were decimated for their feathers in the 1800s, which were used for decorative hats. The plumes of the white birds (the variety pictured) were valued higher, so they were killed off in greater numbers than the dark birds. But this species has been fully protected for many years and can still be found, especially along the Texas coast. This individual displayed typical behavior when hunting shallow water – running, using raised wings to reduce glare on the water, and spearing for small fish. But it paused for a brief moment after success, possibly contemplating how it would swallow this good-sized fish, allowing this photo.
Male and Female Painted Redstarts share the same beautiful plumage. Although the majority of their population nests south of the U.S. border some nest in the southern mountains of Arizona and New Mexico, above 5,000 feet, in steep canyon woods bordering streams. I would consistently find them feeding like a flycatcher for airborne insects congregated around these streams in the early morning. This bird returned to its perch after an unsuccessful foray.
Our concept of beauty can be trapped inside ideals deemed acceptable, or various standards telling us what is aesthetically pleasing and what is repulsive. Nature can free us from this obsessive trap. You need that freedom to be able to conceive of different types of beauty, and doing so is a key to liberation. Nature shows us that the variations of beauty are enormous, unmatched anywhere else, presented in an unlimited number of ways. A person who has viewed many birds, on many continents, can surely affirm this.
SLEEPING MARBLED GODWITS (2 PAGE IMAGE)
On the Pacific coast in Washington, this late summer group of Marbled Godwits rested in an intertidal pool. Notice that most of the bird’s bodies were facing left. The wind was coming from that direction. The bird’s body feathers laid in the opposite direction and stayed in place while the wind provided an interesting ripple in the water. Very few birds faced right, and most of them had body feathers blown upward. This seems to bother most birds, and that’s why most of them face into the wind. Birds also take off into the wind, and these birds were already facing that direction and could quickly fly in case a predator arrived. Many birds rest as pictured, with their beaks tucked into their back feathers, probably to rest their neck muscles and conserve heat.
BARRED OWL WITH CRAYFISH
When I found this owl it hunted a cypress swamp in the early morning. I could not imagine what it was after. It dove after prey and then flew up to land almost right in front of me. I was on a trip, using slide film at the time, so I could not see that it was a crayfish until the film was processed weeks later.
Barred Owls are mostly nocturnal, but can hunt and call during the day.
MALE TOWNSEND’S WARBLER
The Townsend’s Warbler nests in the tall conifer forests of the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Its breeding range extends through British Columbia (Canada) to Alaska. Some of Townsend’s Warblers are able to remain the entire winter in British Columbia along the coast. Some Yellow-rumped Warblers and Palm Warblers also remain. In no other area of North America are warblers able to spend the winter at such a northerly latitude. They benefit from the warm winters caused by the North Pacific Current, which receives its warmth from a current originating near Japan. The same warmth is responsible for the presence of Redwood trees in the coastal region.
MALE GREEN-WINGED TEAL
Green-winged Teal are found throughout the entire southern U.S. in winter and are the smallest dabbling duck we have. This tame bright plumaged male was in a marina, but he could have just as easily been found on a backyard pond. The water ripples reflected a dock, as well as sky, to provide a unique background for this photo.
MALE HOODED MERGANSER WITH PERCH
While behind a tree I watched this bird repeatedly dive close to a short break wall which extended about 1.5 feet up from the ground. I timed a number of dives with my watch and estimated I had enough time while it was underwater to get into position for a photograph at the break wall, which was about thirty yards away. When it dove I ran, then slid on grass into a lying position, put a beanbag on top of the wall, my camera and lens on the beanbag, and covered myself and lens with a camouflage sheet, without covering the view of the lens. Just in time. The bird surfaced directly in front of me. This was a sequence of events I will never forget.
MALE MAGNOLIA WARBLER IN SPRUCE
Magnolia Warblers can be abundant in areas where many small spruce trees are grouped together within their nesting range, and their nests can be very close to each other. When males arrive on their small breeding territories in this type of situation they are much more aggressive and can be very visible at the beginning of the nesting season, when battles are fought and territories won or lost. This species was named by a fellow who saw one (you guessed it) in a southern Magnolia tree. It was a migrant. There are no Magnolia trees within its northern breeding range.
FEMALE NORTHERN HARRIER DIVE
This bird regularly hunted within 800 yards of its nest in a local marsh along the northern Lake Huron shoreline. Northern Harriers fly with an erratic, almost moth-like flight, as they scan the ground for prey. They will sometimes hover into a wind while contemplating an attack. But before they do they briefly flare their tail (as pictured), then dive down to pounce on prey.
You can learn from a hunting wild raptor. Knowing you have the freedom to do something new, which is at the heart of your deeply held beliefs, there is a moment when you decide to make a bold move, like the moment the Harrier decides to strike after prey. The raptor’s survival is at stake, but it’s your spiritual survival at stake. You must cross that line with a naked decision, no guarantee of success, just like the raptor, never contemplating possible negative factors that could hold you back.
I intentionally put this book together in a way that reflects my adventure of discovering beauty in nature. The randomness of that process is the most alluring aspect. Over years I developed limited expectations of what beautiful opportunity I might find daily, based mostly on circumstances provided by weather and season, but never knew what that would be or what I would learn. So I did not organize this book around the seasons and/or themes or birds from different regions of the country. Or even made it into chapters. I wanted you to feel what I felt discovering the unexpected or unknown.
I learned that it was just a matter of time being immersed in nature, tuning in and learning – the special opportunities would arrive. Knowing that will always motivate me. This is a free, wide open and infinite path of discovery. When I fully understood this I began to change how I spent my time, and even how I thought of time. Time changes when you are doing what you really want to do. You lose track of time. And that is not a luxury, its a freedom based on choice.
FAILURE IS A LEARNING EXPERIENCE
I rarely talk about the rare and excellent photographic opportunities I have missed. Most people would consider them failures and even dwell on them. They are very numerous and at the beginning of my photographic adventures, they tended to ruminate in my mind. Over years it helped me to witness the incredibly numerous hunting failures of juvenile raptors of species such as Merlin Falcon, Rough-legged Hawk, Sharp-shinned hawk, Northern Harrier, and Red-tailed Hawk. During the same period, I witnessed the mastery of adult birds of the same species. The combination of witnessing failure and mastery eased my mind. I began to view missed opportunities as learning experiences that would need to be experienced. They became accepted and remembered but would never negatively influence my motivation or future opportunity.
During this transformation, my mental approach to photography became more relaxed and I became convinced that subjects sensed it and accepted my presence more easily. I also began to learn which situations could not yield acceptable results within my developing range of artistic expression, no matter how much time and effort were made. This was very important because, in order to have success, acceptable lighting conditions for wildlife photography (especially fast-moving birds) must combine with periods of subject appearance and activity. But for most days that window of opportunity is short. Continued time and effort behind the camera outside that window, in the long run, will obviously not lead to an acceptable success rate. Just ask the experienced adult raptor, whose success rate helps define it as a master, and helps ensure the survival of the next generation.
What do I mean by “my developing range of artistic expression”? Most importantly I began to emphasize the portrayal of subjects in conjunction with their environment. But I also began to focus heavily on the compositional elements of the subject’s environment before the subject would even appear. During times outside the ideal window of opportunity, I made a habit of walking areas where subjects had visited before, and would likely return, and noting the compositional elements, such as cones, berries, rocks, water reflections, ice, etc. Then I envisioned how those elements could combine with a subject (or subjects) to result in photos with good composition. Later, when there was a high probability of opportunity, and I was behind the camera, I knew I needed to have patience, anticipation, and timing. I learned when it would pay off to be extremely patient, like the perched adult Sharp-shinned Hawk, while it hunts a flock of migrating songbirds, waiting in the early morning for the right moment for a stealthy attack and likely success.
ADULT FEMALE SHARP-SHINNED HAWK
This hawk was actively hunting a flock of migrating songbirds at Whitefish Point, Michigan. It landed very close to me, allowed me to slowly turn to photograph it, stayed perched for minutes, and eventually flew off to pursue prey.
DREAMING AND BIRDING
What? Follow me here.
During a dream, you never know what is going to happen next. You can experience several rapidly changing scenes while the distant past combines with the recent past. So dreaming is an incredible adventure that offers freedom from the normal predictability of the flow of time and physical cause and effect in waking life. In that sense, it is often therapeutic.
Our relationship with nature can and should be an adventure at times. The unpredictability of when and how we discover nature’s secrets and the obvious or hidden beauty in nature offers a similar therapeutic effect as does dreaming. Every person wants to experience adventure and the unknown, and if he/she cannot then there can be a negative effect. Especially when our daily lives are filled with too much routine. Introducing the concept of dreams to waking life, in some way, can help. And birding is a good way to do this because it is so unpredictable. Especially at certain locations, such as areas that can concentrate migrant birds – migrant hotspots. That’s why birders like these spots so much.
Have you ever noticed the dream state of indigenous people in celebratory rituals, which are most often focused on nature? Reverence for nature and dreams – the connection is instinctively recognized and experienced.
MALE BLACK-THROATED GREEN WARBLER AT MIGRANT HOTSPOT
This bird was a member of a multi-species flock of warblers that crossed Lake Huron the night before. They flew into rain during their nighttime journey and landed on the first piece of land they encountered, a peninsula jutting 1.5 miles out into Lake Huron. This peninsula is a magnet for migrating birds.
RED-TAILED HAWK IN FLIGHT
Great freedom is necessary to achieve great power. Adult raptors are an excellent example of this. Their freedom to soar high, giving them a broad field of view, is a big part of their hunting power. We are sometimes taught to be afraid of power because it can be abused. Of course, it can be abused, but each of us can use our freedom to have plenty of power without harming anyone or the biosphere. The freedom to pursue happiness never implies the right to interfere with the freedom of others. It always implies responsibility and accountability for our choices. Consider the critical choices our ancestors made on a daily basis. For thousands of years, there was much more responsibility and accountability because survival was more often at stake.
Some people believe that power corrupts a person. They are referring to the urge to exercise dominance over others or nature, not the power innate in all of us.
When you study nature as a scientist you see relentless imagination. But nature boldly and vividly displays imagination to us via birds. They occur in a mind-boggling variety of colors and patterns. They utilize an incredible diversity of behaviors to survive. They have adapted to virtually every environment on the planet. And they are highly visible to us, so we have been given great opportunity to witness and study these qualities, more so than with other wildlife on the planet. There is a good reason to believe the “imagination of nature” is on display with respect to birds.
Birds have great freedom because of their power of flight. They are a prime source of inspiration for our power because they stimulate our imagination. No other group of living things on the planet has had more impact on man’s spirit and psyche than birds. Yet the phrases “bird nerd” and “birders are sissies” exist. Buy either and you are conned into diminishing your own imagination and creative capacity, which is your power. Do you really want to limit your perception of what is beautiful, and effectively reduce your power, yielding to the concept that you are weak for recognizing, appreciating, and experiencing beauty? Do you want to give away your freedom like that?
Freedom, power, and imagination are three closely related qualities that are the undeniable foundation of a human being. We should have the courage to aggressively rebuild society on that basis while letting unpredictable solutions flow from relentless imagination. We must create and utilize options for ourselves without interfering with the freedom of others or polluting the biosphere; especially in the areas of healing, energy, and food production. The pattern of large corporate and governmental organizations supervising innovative ideas and the advancement and standard of living of society should end. The development and utilization of non-polluting technologies should progress freely. The paradigm of large organizations implementing technology and controlling it and its availability should stop. Only then can real environmentalism thrive.
Order often comes to us as a surprise while we view nature because nature seems mostly chaotic. Man is obsessed with imposing order on nature, and this is at the root of the widespread environmental destruction and pollution we confront daily. Yet, ironically, the perception of beauty in nature is often associated with order, and the randomness with which it appears. For example, if rainbows appeared every day their effect on us would diminish.
I prefer randomness.
I support those who work with nature.
What seems like chaos in nature is really disguised balance. The way balance is achieved is often unfathomable to man, hidden within the chaos, or revealed slowly – sometimes very slowly. The reason why balance is important – environmental and human health, is often misunderstood by industrial man. But he has been allowed to act quickly and recklessly, to proceed without “proof of no harm”, turning a blind eye to the harmony and balance exhibited in nature. The result? Chemical pollution of air, water, and land – on a vast scale; irresponsible logging, mining, and dredging and damming of rivers; the disappearance of wetlands; soil erosion; loss of biodiversity; endangered species; extinction of species – too many bird species.
Its time to require “proof of no harm”.
Selecting the right time and place to make a photograph is my first priority. But meticulous attention to detail with respect to field technique is also required. This involves critical adjustment of the camera and/or lens settings prior to the anticipated action of subjects and changing those settings when factors such as lighting conditions and behavior change. Sometimes, recognizing a behavioral clue prior to quick subject action is necessary to hit the shutter button in time or to keep a moving (or potentially moving) subject in the camera frame. It is often useful to know how a species flies. For example, whether its typical fight is undulating, swooping, or straight. I may need to lock down my camera and lens on my tripod, put much of my weight leaning on top of the lens, and try to release the shutter between heartbeats; or I may handhold my camera and lens to my face and track a moving subject.
I work with today’s digital darkroom techniques to optimize contrasts, colors, tonality, etc., in an attempt to bring the viewer to the experience I witnessed and felt. I do not add or remove anything from my images.