I find it hard to resist this beautiful bird. I headed out one morning to specifically get a good, morning-light fix. I was well aware the Mountain Bluebirds had fledged their young at this time but I decided to go anyways. I set up on the lichen covered sandstone and awaited sunrise and the arrival of the birds. Sure enough the rocks lit up and the bluebirds arrived and greeted the morning sunrise. Now I am well aware this rarely happens to a photographer but on this particular morning it did and I enjoyed the sweet light on this bluebird family!!
I have mentioned this abandoned RV camp once before in a discussion on Mountain Bluebirds. I have noticed a number of different birds in this particular area over the past several years thus it has become a stop on my birding route along the Green River. This year a pair of Say’s Phoebes were nesting in the concrete block building. They built a thick, warm-looking nest on top of a wall-hung box with an open lid which provided a sheltered nest site. The parents were feeding young at this time and would enter the nest from both sides making it impossible to photograph their entry. They would often stop, prior or after delivery of their insect dinners, on the edge of the window sill allowing several photos. While photographing this pair feeding their young, I seemed to bring out the curiosity of a few other birds nesting in the area. A Sage Thrasher came in and sat on the top of the building’s air vent to take a long look at me. A family of bluebirds had just fledged from their RV hook-up box and enjoyed hanging out on the roof or in the rafters making their “mewing” calls to each other as they learned to catch insects. Several pieces of furniture were left to disintegrate outside of the building. The batting on the inside of the chair was providing an Eastern Kingbird with a soft lining of nest material. She would stop by to fill her beak and then take off for the river bottom; her distinctive black and white feathering set off by the faded orange armchair.
A Loggerhead Shrike arrived to inspect the inside of the building eventually finding a snack for it’s little ones. (I was hoping the young Phoebes were too big by this time and were not being eyed by this “raptor of the passerines”.) Vesper Sparrows, Horned Lark’s, a Western Kingbird all stopped in along with a lone Northern Mockingbird. My “first of the year” Common Nighthawk flew over letting me know he had arrived with it’s “peent” calls from the sky above me. All in all, a very birdy spot this beautiful morning. My thoughts were: it is nice to know, we can abandon an area and leave quite a mess behind but it may someday go back to the birds.
The calendar tells me spring has been going on for 6 weeks now. If you talk to a fellow Wyomingite, they may tell you spring does not arrive until June. If you watch the weather, you may decide spring does not arrive until June. If you pay attention to the birds, they will tell you spring arrived sometime in early March. I really enjoy this time of year with all of it’s frustrating weather that can put a damper on being outside and setting up a camera. This morning, May 7, it is snowing quite well outside and it is predicted to turn to rain as the day warms up. I, of course, am hoping for a little break in the clouds in which a bit of sunshine will shine on this fresh frosting of snow.
I like to start spring with the Greater Sage Grouse strutting on their lek. I was hindered slightly with the deep snowpack this year but I did get a chance to watch and photograph these birds on a number of mornings as they performed their annual mating dance and the antics that go with this ritual: chasing, fighting for dominance, indifferent hens, etc. The snowpack was difficult at times but I came away with clean images without a lot of clutter in the background. I did discover, the birds do not like strutting in a 10″ layer of fresh snow. I was disappointed on this particular morning, as the sun rose beautifully and the light was incredible. All was in place for good photos except: I had no birds. They made an attempt but then decided to go about their other daily business leaving this photographer to head home.
During this same time period I had been watching several nesting Great Horned Owls. I was determined to capture an image of a particular nest with an owlet sitting on the lip of the cavity. I have been working on this image for a number of years; my timing has always been wrong. This year I discovered the young owls were about a month ahead of where I thought they would be. I rearranged my schedule for fear of the two, young owlets fledging the nest any day. Despite the weather (the weatherman forecasted wind and cold temps), I arrived early to the site in hopes of getting a morning break from the wind. No luck! The weatherman was correct, windy and cold. I dressed warm and arrived just before sunrise. The owlets had not fledged but they were napping, I waited them out. I briefly stepped away to warm up during a large, cloud- covered moment. When I returned, there sat a brazen, young owl on the lip of the cavity. Just what I had hoped for! I took a few distant insurance shots and then slowly moved into position. It could not have been any cuter! A photographer’s high was happening!
Spring continues on with crazy weather but it does not stop the birds. When they decide it is time to nest, they nest. A week later, I had a morning in which the spring weather was great; calm, warm, and sunny. I took a drive to go birding and scout a number of nest sites which included a Mountain Bluebird cavity. The Mountain Bluebird pair had returned and were nest building. The male was present but the female was returning time after time with a beak full of grass or feathers. She was diligent with her task, filling the cavity with nesting materials. I did not stay long for fear of disrupting their nest building. I look forward to their eggs hatching and photographing the constant feeding routine of both parents.
It is an exciting time of year with migration in full swing in Wyoming. I am seeing FOY (First of Year) birds almost every day, such as the lovely Lark Sparrow that did not mind a photographer coming in close for a photo. I do my best to not let the cold and wet weather keep me inside as you just have to “Get out and go for it” or you may be stuck inside for days. I was told by a wise photographer years ago that there was only one guarantee in this business: You won’t get any photos if you don’t get out and take them! It is so true!
I recently headed to Nebraska with a good friend and awesome photographer to witness the annual lekking courtship of the Greater Prairie Chicken and the Sharp-tailed Grouse. We had to be good friends and very tolerant of each other as we spent ten mornings in small blinds in close proximity. We did very well, I must say! I have photographed our local Greater Sage Grouse on it’s lek on numerous occasions but wanted to see these two other birds displaying in the sandhills of Nebraska. It was quite a sight and as always: I want more!!
The Greater Prairie Chicken male displays a pair of pinnae (ear like feathers) along with an orange and purple air sac as it produces a soft, low, hooting sound. They also do a short hop-flight with a cackle that sounds as though you may have just entered a jungle. They will battle each other for top spot in the lek. The bird that holds the top spot has most of the breeding honors. They will display to each other casually, but the real “ruckus” happens when a female enters the courtship arena. Suddenly, all of the males are hooting and dancing, sparring with each other as necessary, truly strutting their stuff. The hen wanders through the lek with an indifference to all of them, taking in the attention and checking out the merchandise. A spectacular audible and visual sight!
The Sharp-tailed Grouse is less colorful but no less spectacular. These males entertain their hens on the tops of the sand hills. They have a smaller air sac but it is colored a bright purple. They display with wings spread, air sac puffed, and yellow eyebrows raised. Stomping their feet, they will all go into a display position and synchronize their moves with the top male initiating the start. Crazy sounds are made by all consisting of hoots and snapping of tail feathers; as usual a flurry of activity comes into play with the presence of a female.
These two birds are truly something to see on their spring courting arenas. Like a number of our other native birds, their demise will be the loss of habitat. Historically, the grasslands they need have been under siege for a long time, shrinking the available habitat and thus decreasing their numbers. Conservation programs are coming into place and efforts are being made to preserve or restore the native prairies. May enough Americans find these birds worthy of saving!
What a grand sight it is to see and hear this beautiful bird, especially in flight. It is spring here in Wyoming and these birds are passing through on their way north. A few will stay and raise young in the area but the majority will continue northward. We have had several pairs spend the winter allowing me a number of cold mornings of photography sitting under a blind. They are wary birds and it took time and patience to approach the pond and give the swans time to relax and move within camera distance. This particular morning it was cold and the frost was still visible on the birds feathers. Unlike myself, they had no concerns over the sub-zero temperature. I watched them awaken and toss water over their heads to rid their feathers of the frost crystals. The water literally rolled off their backs just like a duck!! The reality of the warmth of their feathering really hit home.
The Trumpeter Swan is a large, white bird that was at one time headed for extinction. It’s numbers have now increased but it is still easily disturbed at it’s nesting sight. It lives along waterways, lakes, and in marshes eating submerged vegetation. The call of this swan is described as a “ko-hoh” which can easily distinguish it from a Tundra Swan, a much smaller waterfowl that typically has a yellow spot on it’s upper mandible. Both can be seen during the migratory season in Wyoming thus it is always good to take a second look. The Trumpeter Swan can often be heard calling in flight and I thoroughly enjoy seeing a family group winging by on a cold, winter/spring day!
The American Dipper is a small, gray bird found along clear, swift-moving streams of the western states. It does not migrate away from the cold weather in Wyoming but seems to thrive in it. I have watched this bird on numerous occasions when the air temperature was sub-zero and it continued to feed non-stop by diving under water to locate small invertebrates.
At times it submerges only it’s head into the water scanning the creek bottom and other times I have watched it dive through the air a distance of 18+ inches before hitting the water and diving to the rocks below bringing a caddis larvae to the surface in its bill. It will dive continuously for a period of time working the same underwater area pulling up a variety of morsels for dining.
As winter continues it will take moments out of it’s feeding schedule to sing a melodic song consisting of a series of trills and whistles that are a thrill to hear as they are added to the sounds of the babbling creek on a cold, gray, winter’s day.
A quick little bird, it is often hard to follow with the camera and lens; predicting it’s movements works best but focus is still difficult to maintain on this constantly moving subject. I have sat for hours watching and attempting to photograph the American Dipper. It seems to avoid the areas with sun, sticking to the shadows as I desperately try to decrease my ISO and bring my shutter speed up to stop it in action. The Dipper is a photographic challenge along with great entertainment as it makes it’s living along cold, mountain streams throughout the winter months of Wyoming.
I was out with my camera the morning of December 1, just to get outside. The weather was warm, grey, and spitting snow; not great light for photography! I was hoping to find something to photograph but was not having much luck. As always I was paying attention to the bird life as the annual Christmas Bird Count was coming up. I was focused on the American Dippers feeding along the waterway when a gray bird popped up into the shrubbery. My first reaction was: Dippers do not land in trees. Sure enough I got a better look and realized it was a blackbird. My camera was ready and I wanted a positive ID. As I looked through the viewfinder I realized the expected birds: Cowbird, Brewer’s Blackbird, or Red-winged Blackbird were not the case. I took a few quick photos for ID purposes and returned home to find I had come across a Rusty Blackbird. A “Lifer” for me and a rather unusual bird for the area.
I returned for several mornings and found the blackbird feeding on aquatic invertebrates in the open water of the irrigation ditch. He was very cooperative with this photographer, even coming too close for my lens’ 15 foot focus limit. The weather was relatively warm but the weatherman insisted cold was imminent and by the third morning the temperature dropped to -2. The blackbird continued to hunt for his breakfast not seeming to be fazed by the cold. He stopped on occasion to shake the frost from his feathers and pull the ice from his legs. I had the pleasure of spending a number of hours observing and photographing this bird.
I have since researched this bird and found it was very abundant in the first half of the 1900’s and prior. According to Arthur Bent’s 1958 Bulletin which includes the Blackbirds, “the ‘Continental Rusty Blackbird’ spring migration is spectacular, noisy, and ubiquitous: the birds may be seen in enormous numbers almost anywhere”. Since then the species has taken a sharp decline and research is now being performed to find the reason why. The Rusty Blackbird is typically an eastern species wintering in the Southeast and migrating into the boreal forests of Canada and the northern US for breeding season. Unlike other blackbirds it frequents wooded, swampy areas, beaver ponds, and shrubby shorelines.
I returned this morning to check on the bird. We had had a number of days in which the nighttime temperature dropped to -20 and below barely making it into the single digits during the daytime. I had my hopes high that this small bird would be very cold tolerant and survive this blast of winter. Sure enough there he was in a small opening of water in the ditch. He flew over to the creek which parallels the irrigation ditch. This creek will stay open all winter boosting my hopes that he may hang around for the winter or at least until our annual Christmas Bird Count.
I recently visited Yellowstone for a long weekend of photography with a good friend and awesome photographer. Yes, we ended up getting closed out with the gov’t shut down. We only lost one day but… it still was one day of photography in our first and most amazing national park. Against other adversities such as rainy weather and wind we managed to witness and photograph some incredible wildlife behavior. We started the first day with a young grizzly bear along side the road between Norris and Mammoth. The bear fed and wandered downstream, taking his time, doing what bears do. At one point, we took a break from the “bear jam” and ate lunch while a steady rain came down. The bear was taking a nap. It was a short nap and the bear started to wander again. She stopped right in front of us to scratch her back on a thermal area sign. No cameras ready with short lenses!! Ugh!!! We finished our lunch and continued down the road to find the bear taking another nap on a warm thermal area, sprawled out like she owned the place; well, yes she did. This bear was great and entertained these two photographers for hours that day. We returned to Mammoth in late afternoon to find a large, bull elk keeping the crowds away from his harem in front of the hotel. Not unusual at this time of year but exciting to watch. Two employees were trying desperately to keep the unsuspecting tourists from getting injured by this grand bull who had no qualms with charging a “too close” visitor, a camera flash, or a vehicle.
Day two: We headed for Lamar Valley in hopes of finding badgers, bears, or just about anything to put in front of our lenses. There was not a lot going on and the weather continued to be stormy and windy. We enjoyed lunch in a picnic area amongst Gray and Stellar Jays, Ruffed Grouse and an American Three-toed Woodpecker who decided it was OK for us to photograph his backside. We left before we wanted, as the wind had picked up and the sound of crashing trees was all around us. We headed back to Mammoth and detoured towards Norris in hopes of seeing our bear. No bear but we found a beautiful red-tailed hawk trying to dry his feathers after the persistent rainstorm.
Day 3: This was the first day of the gov’t shutdown and we were in the park (before the gaits were barricaded) bright and early for sunrise. We ended up at Le Hardy Rapids and had several Harlequin Ducks come close and pose for the camera. The park was steadily quieting down with diminishing traffic. What a treat, it was hard to believe! There was only one glitch, nobody was to get out of their car, sightsee, or photograph. We headed north towards our exit, spending a little time at the Mammoth Terrace knowing that we would probably be locked out as soon as we left the park. And so it was true, as a tourist on the boardwalk exclaimed “Can you believe it, they closed Yellowstone National Park!!?”
I was asked recently how I knew this Great Horned Owl was a juvenile of the year. It made me stop and think. I now had to put my observations into words which was a bit difficult as there are a number of things that came automatically that made me think “young bird”; any one of which would not necessarily stand on its own.
First of all, I frequent this particular aspen grove off and on throughout the summer. I have unintentionally flushed an adult Great Horned Owl on a number of occasions and it flew out of my sight quickly, not to be seen again that day. I knew there was a nest close by but I was unable to locate it as I was adjacent to private property. This young owl did not flush immediately but seemed to take an interest in me and had little fear. It was also very alert and paid attention to the goings-on around it. I found it on several occasions sitting out in the open on a lower branch or stump. I would say an adult Great Horned would find a quiet, hidden spot in the trees to roost for the day and try not to be detected by alarmist birds such as the American Robin. Also, the young owl’s feathering was clean and all primaries and tail feathers were lined out nicely with no ragged edges. It looked as though it had an entirely new “coat” of feathers which would be true of a September juvenile. I also took a good look at my photos upon returning home and could see the feathers around the eyes were not fully developed. The final clincher, which did not happen until later in the second morning of watching, was a juvenile begging call. The call is a “squawky- screech”; nothing that sounds like a typical owl hoot.
I did have the opportunity to watch this young bird (from a respectable distance) for a number of hours on several mornings. This time is when I learn the most and really take in some good behavior which becomes imbedded into my brain subconsciously making it difficult to describe “How I know”.