Sunday, January 15, 2017

Great Birding Escapes

In the Shadows of the Rockies
Bobby Harrison

    Perhaps no sight is more inspiring than the mighty Rocky Mountains.  In Rocky Mountain National Park the mountains rise to such heights as to divide a continent into east and west, and host a wilderness that harbors a grand diversity of flora and fauna.  They are indeed a spectacular
     Moraine Valley, at over 8,000 feet elevation is one of my favorite Rocky Mountain destinations.  The valley, carved by glacial erosion is surround by craggy, snow-covered peaks that rise to more than 14,000 feet.  Spring is a mecca for wildlife such as Elk, deer, bears, coyotes, ground squirrels and of course, birds.  Wildlife is so abundant that viewing animals is as simple as just being there.   Of course, I had come to Moraine Valley to photograph its birds, but the snow-clad mountains and the curvaceous stream that meanders through the valley made the experience even more enjoyable.

 Moraine Valley, Rocky Mountain National Park
     I arrived with great anticipation of photographing birds. But, no sooner had I arrived, heavy, dark ominous clouds roll over the mountaintops at the head of the valley.  Within minutes the storm darken the sky and a light rain began to fall.  The images of the birds I had envisioned soon vanished.
     I spent the rest of the evening and night in the campground listing to the falling rain.  In the wee hours of the morning the rain intensified, and my hopes for a Rocky Mountain sunrise were dashed.  As the dawn waxed the rain stopped, but thick clouds covered the sky from horizon to horizon.  The world seemed mighty drab that morning.
      By the time I drove out of the campground the sky began to clear.  As quickly as the storm had arrived the day before, the cloud cover dissipated.  It was as if someone had flipped a light switch, the sun shown bright, animals became active and the birds began to sing.  It was as though new life had been breathed into the valley and those images I had envisioned earlier began to fill my head once more. 

Mountain Bluebird, Sialia currucoides:  Moraine Valley, Rocky Mountain NP

      Scanning the woodlands I saw all the birds I had come to photograph.  Mountain Bluebirds and Pygmy Nuthatches were busily gleaning insects and ferrying their gathered morsels to young still in nest. Violet-green Swallow swooped through the air scooping insects into their wide gapes, while Black-billed Magpies harassed a couple who had stopped for a picnic.  All the elements were in place.
     After watching a pair of Pygmy Nuthatches for a while I discovered their nest in an old Ponderosa Pine snag.  Slowly I worked my way toward the nest tree.  The nuthatches seemed at ease with my presence as they continued to forage and feed their young.

Pygmy Nuthatch, Sitta pygmaea:  Moraine Valley, Rocky Mountain NP

     While I never tire of photographing birds, I was distracted.  While shooting the nuthatches a pair of Mountain Bluebirds flew to a nearby branch.  Opportunity had presented it self again.  I took advantage of the fearlessness of the bluebirds and shot frame after frame.  After a short time I discovered that they too had a nearby nest.  As I lingered in the area both birds gave me wonderful shooting opportunities.

Violet-green Swallow, Tachycineta thalassina:  Moraine Valley, Rocky Mountain NP

      But there was more.  The Violet-green swallows circling above decided to take a break from their feeding frenzy and alighted on a branch near the nuthatch nest.   The black-billed magpies that harassed the picnicker’s decided to check out what I was doing.  A coyote intrigued by my presence stopped by, and so did a cottontail rabbit, but he waited for the coyote to move on before showing himself.   Two bull elk and mule deer strolled by, but they paid little attention to me. 

Black-billed Magpie, Pica hudsonia:  Moraine Valley, Rocky Mountain NP

      Not every day is like the day that I spent in Moraine Valley.  Usually I spend hours just waiting for one shot.  But, there is something special about Moraine Valley.  Perhaps it is the fearlessness of the wildlife, the high altitude light; or perhaps it is the grandeur of the mountains themselves that draws one closer to the nature.  What I did realize while standing in the shadows of the Rocky’s, is come rain or shine never give up on what nature offers.

Plan your visit to Rocky Mountain National Park with these connections.

Information on Rocky Mountain National Park:

Places to stay at Estes Park, CO:

Eateries at Estes Park, CO:

Places to stay at Grand Lake, CO:

Eateries at Grand Lake, CO:

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Pic of the Day

 A Tale of Two Nuthatches

Brown-headed Nuthatch, Sitta pusilla (L):  Guntersville Dam Recreational Area near New Hope, Alabama.  Pygmy Nuthatch, Sitta pygmaea (R): Moraine Valley; Rocky Mountain NP, Colorado.

     The Brown-headed Nuthatch and Pygmy Nuthatch are about as close and you can come to two birds that are so much alike.  Both species favor similar habitat, but in totally different regions of the United States.
   Brown-headed Nuthatch:  Guntersville Dam Recreational Area near New Hope, Alabama

     The Brown-headed Nuthatch is a bird of the South, ranging from North Carolina south and west to eastern Texas.  It is a bird of the pine forest, especially open loblolly pine lands where trees are spaced twenty feet or more apart.
     The Brown-headed food, consist primarily of insect and pine seeds during winter.  During the breeding season they favor beetles, caterpillars, and spiders.   They often travel in flocks scouring tree trunks and branches probing cracks, scaling bark and gleaning pine needles for prey. 
     During the nesting season the Brown-headed Nuthatch employ nest helpers.  These helper birds are usually young males.  It is not currently known if the helpers are offspring of the breeding pair or not.   
      The Pygmy Nuthatch is a bird of the western mountain pine forest ranging up to ten-thousand feet in elevation in the California mountains.  It lives almost exclusively in long-needled pine forest, particularly associated with ponderosa pines.  Its typical habitat is open, park like stands of older, larger trees.
     Like its eastern counter part, the Pygmy Nuthatch feeds primarily on insects and pine seeds.  Pygmy’s also travel in flocks searching for prey in cracks between and under bark plates and gleaning seeds from pine cones and insects form pine needle bundles.
     Also, like the Brown-headed Nuthatch, the Pygmy Nuthatch gets help raising young.  During the nesting season, a pairs relatives usually help in nesting duties such as feeding incubating females, and defending territory.

Pygmy Nuthatch, Sitta pygmaea:
Moraine Valley; Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
      Both species are similar in appearance and size as well.  The Brown-headed had a dull brown crown, white underparts, and a blue gray upper body, wings and rump.  Its size ranges from 3.9-4.3 inches (10-11cm).  The Pygmy Nuthatch sports a rich brown cap, white underparts and slate gray upper body, wings and rump.  Its size range is slightly smaller at 3.5-4.3 inches (9-11cm).   Both species sport a white spot on their napes, with the spot being a bit more pronounced on the Brown-headed.
     Perhaps it is the behavior that bonds these two species the most.  Both are energetic feeders.  They forge on trunks of their beloved pines and are constantly in motion as they move down and around tree trunks and branches to feed.  I have seldom seen either species stop for more than a second.  They also move in family flocks and are often found with chickadees, kinglets and other songbirds.  Even their songs are similar, both sounding like a child’s squeaky toy. 
     I must confess that I do love photographing these two species.  As I photograph one, I am constantly reminded of the other and can not help making comparisons between the two.  But perhaps it is simply the joy of being so close too, and my presence accepted by these tiny bundles of feathers.

Hear the Brown-headed Nuthatch vocalization here: Scroll down to “Songs and Calls.”

Here the Pygmy Nuthatch vocalization here:  Scroll down to “Songs and Calls.”

Top to Bottom, Left to Right:
Nikon D800, Nikkor 500mm f/4,  1/125 second @ f/7.1
Nikon D800, Nikkor 500mm f/4,  1/500 second @ f/7.1
Nikon D800, Nikkor 500mm f/4,  1/250 second @ f/7.1
Nikon D800, Nikkor 500mm f/4,  1/800 second @ f/10

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Pic of the Day

Barred Owl, Strix Varia: Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Florida:
     This image goes all the back to around the spring of 1989 or 1990, and yes it was shot on film.  The sentinel of the south, the Barred Owl is perhaps the most common owl found in southern swamps and forest.  Its “who – who – who cooks for you” call, heard in the evening twilight is synonymous with southern nights.
     I had long sought the opportunity to photograph this iconic bird and got the opportunity in Corkscrew Swamp, an Audubon Society sanctuary east of Naples, Florida.  Barred owls are common in the sanctuary and I had seen owls in the swamp for many years, but they were always far from the boardwalk and inaccessible as photo subjects. 
     On one trip I was fortunate to find a Barred Owl perched on a limb no more than 20 feet from the boardwalk.  It was at the perfect distance from my lens.  The owl was patient with me as I hastily set-up my tripod and began to shoot.  The owl must have enjoyed the attention, fore it perched on the limb for half an hour while I put roll-after-roll of film through the camera.

Nikon F4, 500mm f/4 Nikkor, Kodachorme 64

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Pic of the Day

Willet, Tringa semipalmata: Indian Shores, Florida
     While visiting Indian Shores, Florida I found a dozen Willets busily feeding along the tide line.  They were just beautiful in the warm light of the rising sun and I could not seem to take my eyes off of them.  The Indian Shores beachfront is festooned with hotels, but the light found its way between the towering buildings at certain spots, and when the light struck the birds they became even more alive and active in their foraging.

     Though I have a thousands photos of Willets running across, standing on, flying over, and probing sandy beaches, I could not resist taking more.  Besides, the light was just beautiful, and that’s what photography is really about, light.  The low angle light was warm and direct.  As the Willet moved across the sand the light would catch the bird at just the right angle to bring out incredible detail.  And the Willet itself seemed to love the camera as it provided perfect poses, one after another.

Nikon D800, Nikkor 500mm f/4, 1/1,000 second @ f/8

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Pic of the Day

American Oystercatcher, Haematopus palliates
Fort Desoto State Park, Saint Petersburg, Florida                                                                                                   
     The American Oystercatcher is one of the most beautiful shorebirds in the Americas.  I photographed this one at Fort Desoto State Park in Saint Petersburg, Florida.  When I arrived there were few birds on the beach.  Another photographer was working a small group of feeding birds that included a Reddish Egret and a few shorebirds.  I found a Great Egret, but soon after shooting a few shots it flew to spot where the reddish was feeding.
     After the egret flew I moved to the tideline where I found a Willet probing the sand for mollusks.  Things were pretty slow and I though about leaving whenI Looked down the beach and saw an American Oystercatcher fly in and begin probing the sand with its orange beak.
American Oystercatcher, Haematopus palliates
Fort Desoto State Park, Saint Petersburg, Florida

     It had been years, I mean film days, since I had photographed an oystercatcher.  Like lighting I was down the beach in a flash.  With the oystercatcher so busy feeding, it paid me no attention. 
     I began shooting about fifty feet away, but wanted to be closer.  As I scooted along the sand toward the oystercatcher I shot a few more frames, fearing that the oystercatcher would take flight.  As I got closer and closer, instead of flying away it became completely comfortable with my presence and began moving toward me.  I could not believe my good fortune.  As it fed along the tideline I shot frame after frame.  At times it came so close that could not focus the camera lens. 
     After shooting more than a thousand frames I left the oystercatcher to its activities.  It was one of the best mornings I’ve had in a long time.  I had been totally immersed with a bird that accepted my presence without fear.  Very few people get such an experience, and I hope I get a lot more.

Nikon D800, Nikkor 500mm f4, 1/1250 sec. @ f9, ISO 640