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.


American Safari, 6/24/2018

The Elegance of Avocets (and the Dance of Stilts)


My mother was an artist. She always dabbled in art, but after being widowed in her 50’s she went back to college and got a BFA. For the remaining 30+ years of her life, art was her life. One of her favorite themes was the elegance of animals. In our house we have many pieces of pottery with great blue herons on them. My brother has a panorama of wild horses my mother drew.

All this is to say she would have LOVED avocets stilts and avocets-7282and black necked stilts. stilts and avocets-7265They look designed by one of the great fashion houses, combining good looks and the instincts of a model. In North America they are the only two species in their family (Recurvirostridae). We found them together in a seasonal pond on the Waterville plateau. stilts and avocets-7266

stilts and avocets-7263

Three trips later the water is disappearing and so are the birds. But we got to record not only their beauty but also the exotic dance of the stilt.

stilts and avocets-8169

I welcome any informed opinion about the dance: performed with energy, flapping wings,  and much ‘peeping’ calls, often by a bird not near any of its kin, and observed numerous times performed by numerous birds over the course of an evening. Here are more examples:


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stilts and avocets-8175

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Thanks for reading.

American Safari, 6/20/2018

All things come to he who waits…


Yeah, like hemorrhoids, saddle sores, and obesity. I like to keep moving, personally. However, sometimes, if you really want to see where the woodpecker’s nest is, you just have to wait. And watch. If you’re far enough away that the birds decide the your threat factor can be managed they will go in to feed their young.

This is a story of three woodpeckers. The waiting part applies most strongly to the Lewis’ woodpecker. A strangely colored bird for a woodpecker, around us they like the burned forests. lewis', black backed, and white headed woodpeckers-8003We have a lot of those. Usually they perch 100 feet off the ground, obscured by branches, tantalizing but not in range. 2 days ago, however, the bird kept landing at trees near us, a beak full of insects. Clearly feeding behavior, meaning a nest must be near. We sat down, agreeing we would leave in 10 minutes if the bird never went to the nest (don’t want the chicks to starve just for a photo op). We got lucky- not only did the bird fly into a hole in a tree, the hole was clearly visible from the trail. We got ourselves into a good position, 50 feet from the nest site, sat down, and stayed quiet. And waited. Gradually the birds (a couple) gained confidence and started feeding more regularly, though one scolded us periodically. lewis', black backed, and white headed woodpeckers-8062I went back today, an hour hike in from the trailhead. And waited. And was rewarded with a feeding show, again. Good thing I take lots of pictures, as my autofocus struggles to find the black bird against a black tree trunk. lewis', black backed, and white headed woodpeckers-7667

Second uncommon woodpecker: the black backed. It depends on burned forests even more than the Lewis’. I guess if you seek out forest fire areas for food, black is your color. We haven’t located a nest yet. Maybe we haven’t waited long enough. Sadly they prefer to show us their shaded side, so a backlit picture of a pecking bird, wood chips flying, is all I can show. lewis', black backed, and white headed woodpeckers-7816

And, for dessert? A white headed woodpecker nest. The finding is easy, since there has been an active nest at this site for at least 4 years in a row. lewis', black backed, and white headed woodpeckers-7884The waiting remains a part of the process, however, as the nest is adjacent to a road. The birds get chased away by logging trucks, neighbors’ dogs, etc. I sit, waiting for the commotion to calm down so the birds and I can get back to business. The  picture at the beginning of this post shows the male with a beak full of ants to feed the growing chicks. Immediately above, the female. Below the male rests after delivering food prior to the next grocery run. lewis', black backed, and white headed woodpeckers-7850

American Safari, 6/8/2018

Redheaded is better than Greenheaded


I’m not a real birder. I’ve said that before. When it comes to seeing birds, I’ll take a common colorful bird in good light over a drab rare bird partially hidden high in a tree any day. That doesn’t mean I don’t PREFER less common birds to photograph, just that being close and in good light still matters a lot.

That said, robins can be in good light all day, but they usually have to be doing something darn interesting to get me to lift my camera. Similarly the ‘greenheaded ducks’ referred to above (mallard males) better swim by in perfect light, and acting pretty unusual before my interest flickers to life.

All this to say I approached a secret location, discovered by Janet (of course) where some redheaded duck couples were hanging out. Peter's puddles birds-6122I had only ever seen them once before, far away. Now I had three pairs all to myself, in a pond small enough to really see them well, and morning light breaking through the clouds in which to photograph them. Deelightful! as Teddy Roosevelt would have said; I had forgotten how fun easy photography can be after a long stretch of seeking birds too furtive to pose. Peter's puddles birds-5784


To top off the day, another elusive bird joined the bigger redheads and tried to blend in: a cinnamon teal male. Peter's puddles birds-6212It does look like he used some of the same pigment on his body as the redhead has on its head. Here’s a size comparison with the female redhead:Peter's puddles birds-5624

Lastly an uncommon view of a common bird. A red-winged blackbird, that most common of marsh birds, must have hatched a teenager- I believe this a fledged but not mature male trying out his call. Peter's puddles birds-6188

American Safari, 6/1/2018

Northwest Tennessee and the bottomlands along the Mississippi.


Six weeks ago we traveled to Tennessee to visit my brothers and sister-in-law. We, of course,  added bird photography to the trip. Since northwest Tennessee (where that state’s refuges are) lies close to several other state’s national wildlife refuges, Janet planned a whirlwind tour of Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois,  and Kentucky as well. The reason these refuges all cluster together? The Mississippi bottomlands. Meaning, places that are swampy, muddy, marshy and often flooded. See Exhibit A above.

You know that expression, “Too much of a good thing?” In this case that good thing was water. Water-loving birds (eg. blue winged teal)Tennessee trip best of a bad lot-1541had their choice of spots (everywhere), so mostly chose not to be visible to us. Wading birds had to hunt hard for shallow areas, so weren’t much where we were.Tennessee trip best of a bad lot-0818(The egret shots were dull, so you get a spotted sandpiper). Now I know why African safaris are best during a drought: the animals all congregate in one area. But, we persisted and ended up with a respectable crop of photos.

Eastern birds we don’t get in Washington made our target list, such as cardinalsTennessee trip best of a bad lot-1410

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and warblers (prothonotary and Tennessee),Tennessee trip best of a bad lot-1594

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and an Eastern towheeTennessee trip best of a bad lot-1877

Some of our finds surprised us. A ruby-crowned kinglet revealed its red head decoration with more abandon than I had seen. Trust me, it’s not usually so obvious. Tennessee trip best of a bad lot-1843

As we were leaving our first refuge with nothing much to show for our efforts, a barred owl sat on nearby branches and stared at us. Tennessee trip best of a bad lot-0676

Some places teem with birds. Our travels this time missed all those places. We saw lots of redbud, however.Tennessee trip best of a bad lot-1974

And some waterfalls (this from the Smokies, with family).Tennessee trip best of a bad lot-1020945

I’ll end with three other birds we don’t encounter in the Northwest: a summer tanagerTennessee trip best of a bad lot-1740

a woodthrushTennessee trip best of a bad lot-1453

and this blue-gray gnatcatcher (what a name!).Tennessee trip best of a bad lot-1150

Thanks for reading.


American Safari, 5/27/2018

Acting ‘Reddish’: Dancing Snowy Egret.


We all know how herons and egrets hunt. They wade into shallow water very slowly, then stand stock still waiting for fish to swim under them. We’ve all seen a great blue heron imitating a statue. Egrets act the same way. Except, there is, or was, only one exception: the reddish egret.



A Gulf Coast native, one of birding’s more unusual performers, it prances through shallow water leaping and spinning like amateur night at the Modern Dance Theater. Then, when it has caused consternation among all the fish in the vicinity, it kindly raises its wings to provide shade for the fish to hide under. Of course, those fish scared enough to swim to the ‘safety’ of the shade get eaten first.

The pictures above date from a Florida trip two years ago, the last time I saw the quirky and uncommon bird. What other wading bird acts like that? snowy egret dance, Half Moon Bay-3796

It turns out, on our visit to the Bay Area this month, we saw a similar frenetic prancing through water performed by a more familiar bird, the snowy egret. Snowy’s are medium sized wading birds with black bills and yellow feet. (The larger great egrets have yellow bills and black legs and feet- but you knew that). The bird repeatedly caught fish while I watched. The dance technique works!

snowy egret dance, Half Moon Bay-3798

snowy egret dance, Half Moon Bay-3800

snowy egret dance, Half Moon Bay-3803

I did get a few photos with fish in its beak, but the photographs were dull, so I’ll spare you. Thanks for reading.


American Safari, 5/22/2018

On Being a Lucky Duck (seeing a rare-ish Harlequin).


Every photographer looking for birds to photograph wants an uncommon and very colorful bird to pose for him or her. An easy way to accomplish this is to travel to tropical countries and snap pictures of the exotic creatures who live there. That, of course, becomes expensive quickly, and cuts into gardening time. Even an avid bird photographer like Janet won’t abandon her tomatoes without deep regret, so this month we look for the most colorful birds we can find here in North Central Washington.

One such bird, of which rumors appear every spring, is the harlequin duck. harlequin duck male, Twisp-3317The bird remarkably thrives in turbulent water. It seeks out the raging stream, and, surfing the waves, finds food washed down by the current. It’s an improbable survival strategy, and their numbers, I can attest, are few.

This spring reports surfaced again of sightings by a bridge in Twisp. Janet found the birds as advertised (for once) and returned home from her mission with many dozens of photos of a mating pair. Knowing lightning rarely strikes twice at the same bridge, I nevertheless sought the birds the next day- and there they were, in the same pool of water. harlequin pair-3308Protected from me by twenty feet of rapidly moving current, they fell asleep as I clicked away. One an only take so many photos of sleeping birds, so I left for another pond, checking back an hour or more later to find they were just waking up. harlequin pair-3339


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A few minutes later they entered the swift water harlequin pair-3368and drifted downstream seeking a different venue.