American Safari, 9/23/2018

Backyard birds, Common birds:


I didn’t post for a month or so. The fires bracketing Winthrop turned the air into something you could make smoke signals with…if you could find clear air for contrast. The birds weren’t happy, neither were the residents, and the light was a lackluster gray.

But, that changed two weeks ago, and migration is on. Our backyard bushes filled with warblers this week. First, the orange crowned. You can tell it’s an orange crowned warbler, because it lacks all identifying characteristics, best described as a ‘generic’ warbler. There is a rarely seen orange crown, visible when it bathes.September blog-1990

Fellow warblers Wilson’sSeptember blog-1949

and yellow rumps also visited the same day, passing through on their way to Central America, I think. September blog-2081

Meanwhile, some common birds tolerated my approach in a kayak at Pearrygin State Park (the Methow is blessed with an abundance of publicly accessible land). A great blue heron portrait:

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A crow eating a tidbit undoubtedly stolen from a camper.

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An osprey devouring a fish:September blog-1888

And, lastly, a red-necked grebe not usually found on these waters.September blog-1663

Thanks for reading.


American Safari, 9/24/2018

Marsh Hawk!


The Northern Harrier (aka. marsh hawk) has always been an elusive bird for this photographer. It flies over fields very low in an irregular swooping pattern, making the flight hard to follow with a camera. Autofocus never seems to catch up with the bird sometimes obscured by vegetation, so low is its flight path. Once I get nearish, all I get is butt shots, as this species definitely doesn’t like people. But today was different.

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So how did I succeed in acquiring an acceptable shot? The bird had a bigger threat than me to deal with.September blog-2163 I saw it being chased by a crow, so exuberantly that the crow sometimes overshot its mark and was in turn being chased by the hawk. The birds circled me at least 4 times, too busy to mark a kayaker, bright green boat notwithstanding. After its fourth pass, the harrier gave up and soared away.September blog-2177

I can’t say, “Check one off the list.” yet. I want a perfect shot, and those are rare. But I’m happy anyway.

American Safari, 8/23/2018


We fled to Whidbey island to get away from the smoke, to breathe clean salt-water-tinged air, see blue skies and forget wildfires. We were not very successful. The smoke followed us, the air was hazy and the sky dull. But the blackberries were everywhere, offering a free all-you-can-eat treat. We ate a quart a day, plus the fistfuls we shoved in our mouths while picking. Still hard to believe all that food grows without fertilizer, weeding, or really any human attention.

There were birds to photograph, though none seemed attracted by the blackberries. Go figure. A goldfinch preferred a much less voluptuous meal of thistle seed.goldfinch in thistle plant -1115

Imagine, preferring thistle seed to blackberries.

Taking advantage of being on an island, we visited the rocky beaches. There we saw a pair we couldn’t identify without poring over the bird guides: western sandpipers.western sandpiper, pigeon guillemots, greater yellowlegs-0918

We knew those two above weren’t this next species: The greater yellowlegs certainly lives up to its name. western sandpiper, pigeon guillemots, greater yellowlegs-1377

In the woods, tall and healthy, I finally got a presentable picture of another well-named, if comic, bird. The brown creeper.western sandpiper, cottontail, goldfinch-1027 It flies to the bottom of a tree and works its way up, eating insects ensconced in the bark. Other birds (nuthatches come to mind) will go down as well as up, but the creeper has a one way creep. To go down it has to fly.

One new species for us has a feature hard to miss, even in the dull light of a smoky day: the red feet of the pigeon guillemot. First a pair, appeared to be mated or courting:western sandpiper, pigeon guillemots, greater yellowlegs-1260

Then an individual landing.western sandpiper, pigeon guillemots, greater yellowlegs-1279

But we didn’t come to Whidbey island to see birds. We came to breathe; failing that, we came to eat blackberries! One denizen of the brier patch posed for us western sandpiper, cottontail, goldfinch-1130(though he, too, showed no evidence of actually eating the berries near his home). If you want to pick a gallon or two of blackberries, we know the places and the date.


American Safari, 8/18/2018

One good tern deserves…


…a blog post! Caspian terns are delightful raucous shorebirds with a unique behavior when they catch a fish. Unlike a sensible heron, that simply swallows it, the social terns try to gain status by showing off what they caught. First, flying circles around as the rest of the flock noisily comments on it (approval? envy?).tern status-1492

Sometimes they land and parade the capture through the flock, to some reaction. tern status-1575

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Not satisfied with the current level of adulation, the tern practically shoves the fish at a fellow bird, tern status-1585snatching it back when it reacts.

Then, he turns around and parades it the other way to modestly greater feedback. tern status-1598

After garnering what praise (?) he could, he takes off for another part of the beach, presumably to eat the unfortunate fish. tern status-1610

American Safari, 8/12/2018

Lake paddle nostalgia


As we head into fire season here, smoke obscuring the air and birds dispersed and hiding, I reviewed my photos from July and realized there are a lot I haven’t inflicted on you yet! Since it may be a month before the air clears, the birds come back, and my camera gets busy, here’s a look back at July in the Okanogan Highlands.

We don’t take pictures of mallards any more…just too common. But an exception can be made for the young chicks which have that cuteness of youth that’s hard to resist. Here’s a threesome that let me get close. mallard chicks, kingbird, sandpiper-9288

We’ve had an explosion of eastern kingbirds this year, never seen so many. Though only black and white, they have great posture and attitude, and the intricate feathers  that make bird photography rewarding. mallard chicks, kingbird, sandpiper-9318

And there’s nothing as delightful as the humorous bobbing of a sandpiper.lake birds, July expedition-9431

And when the birds get hard to find as the weather relentlessly heats up and the air gets thicker with smoke, there’s always insects to fill the gap.lake birds, July expedition-9613

Thanks for reading.

American Safari, 8/3/2018

How wingless birds can ‘Fly’


Often, when I’m kayaking on a lake and approach a clutch of ducklings, they spook simultaneously and scuttle across the water in a frothy dash. The speed of this evasive maneuver can be quite impressive, far outstripping my ability to follow. Recently, I got a better look at the mechanism for their fast travel. Janet and I were both photographing the same pair of ducklings (goldeneyes, not sure which kind), when another boat spooked them and they flew into rapid transit mode. goldeneye chicks hydroplaning-0410Unable to fly, they nonetheless ‘flew’ across the water…towards me! When they realized they were approaching yet another threat they formed perfect O’s with their mouths. goldeneye chicks hydroplaning-0415Actually, not, beaks are rigid, but they would have if they had lips. The ducklings turned and crossed the bow of my boat, and I caught this picture:goldeneye chicks hydroplaning-0421

The bird is essentially hydroplaning! Which we know can be a pretty fast mode of travel. Another small mystery of nature explained.

American Safari, 7/6/2018

Lake Trip- Looking for Loons


We live on the dry side of the state. You know, sagebrush and ponderosa pines, wildfires and scorching July sun. So how do I  explain the profusion of lakes we got to visit last week, clustered together in the Okanogan Highlands? I don’t (explain that is), I just enjoy them. We traveled to a series of lakes near Tonasket hoping to see loon babies riding the backs of the adults. We arrived a few days too late to get that image, but I’m not complaining about the ones we did get. lake birds, July expedition-9892

Photographing loons from the shore is a largely hopeless exercise. The rarity with which loons decide to paddle close to wherever one stands means that one will get very old before getting a presentable picture. Happily, we go after the loons in kayaks, even though, with my kayaking skill, that means risking dousing the camera in water should I lurch wrong.lake birds, July expedition-9757

Many waterfowl better tolerate a boat approaching than they would a land-based person by the water’s edge. A good example was the nesting red-necked grebe we saw. It was invisible from shore, and only careful placement of the kayak allowed a photo at all. lake birds, July expedition-9724

They are attractive birds with that wedge-shaped head of grebes that I find captivating.lake birds, July expedition-9575

Paddling around the shore allows us to get closer to other birds’ nests as well. Eastern kingbirds lake birds, July expedition-9707often nest on branches over water. They do vigorously discuss our presence with each other if we get near their nests. lake birds, July expedition-9351

Killdeer shouldn’t be hard to photograph at all, since they often want to attract our attention away from nests, but it’s been years since I got a shot at one that wasn’t just its backside. My kayak floated a foot from dry ground when I got this shot.lake birds, July expedition-9560

And what would a lake expedition be without a mallard chick,

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or the ubiquitous spotted sandpiper? lake birds, July expedition-9389

And I’ll end with the lament of the loon. A mother (?) loon calling plaintively for a missing chick that dove and failed to surface. lake birds, July expedition-9772Happily, Janet saw them reunited minutes later. Thanks for reading.