Spring sidles toward us.
With the ground in Winthrop still firmly covered in over a foot of snow, belief in the advent of spring requires faith. We look for signs, and hope they are not head-fakes. Alternatively, we drive south (4 hours in our case) to enjoy the foretaste of spring in less refrigerated climes. At the McNary Wildlife Refuge we found a definitive harbinger of spring: a song sparrow singing repeatedly.
The song of this sparrow is a modern composer’s dream, with mixes of melody and buzzing. Although the tune is cheerful enough, when not singing the bird always looks like someone who just found out his car was towed from an illegal parking spot.
This past year or two song sparrows, and nearly every other sparrow in North Central Washington, seem to be greatly outnumbered by the white-crowned sparrows. They are larger than most other sparrows I see, and they migrate through in number, so crowd out the others. They do have a striking feather pattern, appearing more formally attired than their browner counterparts in the sparrow world.
Then there’s the ubiquitous house finch. We don’t see finches at our home in the winter, may be too cold for them, but they were at the warmer McNary Refuge. This one looks a little worn down by winter.
Lastly, another harbinger of spring: the California quail on dry ground. A very common bird, but I haven’t found it easy to photograph, as it tends to scurry off into bushes as soon as it spots me. Sitting on the ground helped make me look less human, so my luck improved.
Is it the Malaysian Black Peacock Duck?
No, just a hooded merganser in a tailwind. Facing the other way he looks his normal elegant self.
And he’s not the only one affected by the tailwind. Here are two female common mergansers whose ‘hairdos’ are undone.
However, once they decide to leap over a small waterfall (really just a 1 foot pour-over), the aerodynamic position takes over, not a feather out of place.
The male common merganser, emanating a certain Mr. Cool vibe, never looks mussed up.
The waterfall requires an effort though, giving the shore-bound photographer a chance to capture action poses, wings and all.
Why am I cropped so tightly on the female merganser’s effort? Because she nearly leapt out of the field of view, the camera almost failed to follow (there’s a lot of empty water to the left of the bird in the original photo). I’ll have to anticipate better next time.
Thanks for reading.
Love Among the Birds
During our tropical trip to see something other than snow, we went all the way south to…Walla Walla, Washington. There we got to witness some early spring courting, and learned some things about love.
Love is LOUD!
Love can be tender.
Love can make you change, encourage you to new efforts. Take this hooded merganser, solo.
Its mate appears and look at him stretch his neck out now!
Whether this is the female version of attracting a mate, or just preening I leave to your decision (hooded merganser pair, female raising her ‘hood’; then common merganser pair):
Love can even make you aggressive. Take this menage a trois when a second male appears:
Beta male driven off, the parade of the trio goes on.
I can’t explain why the aggression (observed several times) was directed at the ‘extra’ male by the female, without apparent rivalry with the other female. Fodder for a short story, at least.
Backyard Birds: The Safari Starts at Home
Sometimes I just don’t have to travel far to get a series of bird pictures. We live by mixed habitat (riparian, belts of trees,and an open field next to our house) with lots of nearby bushes for birds to perch on, or hide in. Our multiple feeders bring in a good variety of birds, and the birds shown here have been visiting all winter (with one exception noted below). What has changed is the light: longer sunny days instead of the gloom prevalent for much of the winter. Clear light that’s not the harsh quality of summer sun brings out the color and texture of bird feathers.That means I can walk out on the back deck, hop over a railing and set myself along the side of the house, partially hidden by a berm of snow and the corner of our home. I wear dark or bland clothing, sit on a low stool, and have my camera on a tripod aimed at a nearby snag and bush. The tripod works better than hand holding so I don’t have to swing up a camera/lens combination more visible than a shotgun every time a bird lands nearby. I sit still, waiting. To mitigate my impatient nature I give myself a time limit: if 1/2 hour passes with no action I give up. If interesting birds pose in interesting light before the time limit? Then time passes without notice.
Flickers reliably take the full 1/2 hour to return after I settle in, but I can see them working up their courage as they move to a nearby willow tree, first the far branches, then the near ones, then finally the snag in good photo range.
Juncos are a given around bird feeders throughout the Northwest, so I rarely click the shutter on them. However, occasionally, they pose so well, they get their picture taken anyway.
There are three nuthatches that live in the Methow Valley. Until recently we only ever saw the red-breasted nuthatch at our home.
But its cousin arrived last week, and seems to like it here: the pygmy nuthatch. The resemblance is unmistakable.
We’re still waiting for the white-breasted nuthatch to visit, but no luck so far.
It’s been a long winter, so we’ll be traveling soon to find birds in warmer climates.
Can you take too many pictures of Bohemian waxwings? Of course you can! I just don’t know what that number is, and I haven’t hit it yet. 409 pictures in the last few days, and there isn’t one that tells me, “I never have to look at this bird again.”
So here they are. I have tried to choose ones that show a different aspect of the bird than previous blog posts. It’s the detail in the wings that attracts me…
…or it’s the way they swarm a tree all at once that keeps my camera clicking.
Or, it’s the pursuit of the perfect flying picture, of which this next is a start on that journey.
Of course, the fact that they eat our crabapples, and that it isn’t always easy for them to swallow them that entertains me again and again.
The trees are almost bare of fruit, but the melting snow is still littered with edibles.
Bohemian season is close to done, so I won’t post about them again…this year, anyway.
Driving for owls: a day in the car
Janet and I avoid long car drives chasing rumors of birds. We don’t like the sitting all day, the missed exercise time, and the frustration if we come home with nothing. However, we overcame our reluctance today for three reasons: the news of a saw-whet owl, a tiny predator with cartoon-big eyes, came persistently and with very specific instructions for finding the birds; two retired biologists volunteered to go with us; and the skiing became less thrilling than usual as a prolonged warm and wet front camps in our valley.
So we headed east with four of us hoping the birds hadn’t moved much from the locations specified: two pine trees 50-100 feet from that brick bathroom at this pullout…At the pullout, I had barely killed the engine before Julie, the biologist from South Carolina, walked the 50 feet, looked up in the tree, and announced, “It’s here.” Guano and owl pellets on the ground marked the spot directly underneath the tiny owl, but still it took me many seconds to see the bird. The size of a ladies mitten, it barely moved as we stood right underneath it clicking away. After too many pictures of a stationary, if very cute, bird, we headed to the next specified area.
After seeking other birds including waterfowl, we turned our attention to the next set of directions for finding an owl. Three of us walked around the tree looking for minutes without success until biologist Mimi from Alaska pointed out where it was. We had been looking near the trunk missing the smear of guano near the outer edge of the branches. We later found multiple trees with guano and owl pellets but no owl, so we were grateful that our companions spotted the two that were there.
Owls weren’t the only birds we saw today, though most were too far away to photograph. One kestrel tolerated our approach better than most. Still not the perfect shot of a kestrel I’m looking for, but perhaps a personal best.
On a parting note: we might be more motivated to ‘drive for birds’ if we didn’t have the resident menagerie by our home. A male pileated, crest raised, inspects a nearby cottonwood tree.
Thanks for reading.
The light always matters
300 days of sunshine. That’s what the Chamber of Commerce promises in their brochure for those of us living in the rain shadow of the Cascades. This winter the Chamber is deeply in arrears on their sunshine payments- but when the sun finally does come out, the seeing, and the feelings, are spectacular. The white-tail fawns look great in the morning light.
You may be tired of my Bohemian waxwing photos, but I can’t help myself, not when the sun comes out at a low angle and makes the birds more dazzling than usual! Janet and I were on our way to a group ski yesterday when we noted the combination of sun and the now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t birds, and knew we had to photograph them; we could always ski later.