Friday, July 24, 2015

Exploring the Capitol Mall

The National Mall in Washington just became much easier to explore with the introduction of the Circulator Bus. A huge amount of walking is avoided at a very modest fare. It begins in front of Union Station and makes a figure-eight passing in front of the National Gallery and the Smithsonian Museums of Natural and of American History before circling around the Washington Monument. It then goes clockwise around the Tidal Pool to deliver you to the Jefferson, ML King and Lincoln memorials. The route returns passing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and again circling the Washington Monument on the way to return up the opposite side of the National Mall.

While in DC at a family celebration, we explored this new way to see the mall. It was extremely hot, and the Circulator allowed us to easily visit those sites, such as the Jefferson Memorial, with little stress. Here are some photos of what I found.

 I began straight off the Metro near the Capitol walking from the Federal Center stop to the US Botanic Gardens at the foot of Capitol Hill. It was 10 am, so I began outside before the heat soared.

The gardens offer a quiet  place among the constant traffic around the Mall. Still small glimpses of the buildings sneak into view like the National Museum of the American Indian (which is highly recommended).

Given the  heat, I found the gardens in surprisingly lush bloom.  This ramada was surrounded by native plants in brilliant bloom.

Hidden in among the natural stone were a wide array of colorful summer blooms like these.

Nearby is nice water garden with a Mallard drifting about looking for feed. The bench seemed a welcoming place to relax, but on this hot day visitors seemed more intent to keep moving and rest inside the air-conditioned conservatory areas.

As the heat built above 90F, I, too, retreated to the Conservatory building. One of my favorite places was a tropical orchid display.

Across the Mall,  one can board the Circulator at Union Station or at the National Gallery of Art.  The attractions at the east end of the Mall (near the Capitol) are easy to visit, so we rode to the west end.  Our first stop was the Jefferson Memorial.  Stepping off the bus, the west side is seen.  It surely echoes Jefferson's Monticello.

The east side presents massive steps up to the rotunda.  Note the red "Bike Share" bikes parked in front. They offer a second way to easily move through the city. Residents love them for fast commuting.

Inside the rotunda, Jefferson's statue is flanked by some of his most notable writing. His declaration of "We hold these truths to be self evident" flanks his left shoulder.

Another of his statements to the statue's right shoulder was new to me and certainly apropos 239 years later.  I felt moved to record it.

It was time to hop on the next Circulator for an air- conditioned ride to the Martin Luther King Memorial. The work of the sculptor appeals to me both for the overall memorial's design and for the beauty of the sculpture.

We were making excellent progress at a pace far exceeding what could be done on foot.  Back on a Circulator for the Lincoln Memorial.  More steps.

The view from the steps is a classic one towards the Capitol.

We found the Lincoln Memorial to be the most crowded of all.  The classic photo standing in front of the great statue seems to be the ultimate proof of a visit.  It took patience and holding the camera overhead to simplify the image.

Our long-delayed visit to the west end of the mall complete, we were again on the Circulator for a final stop at our favorite spot on the Mall.  The National Gallery of Art always has new exhibits, plus our beloved gallery of impressionist paintings. As usual, many hurry through taking snapshots without really seeing, and a few settle on the sofas and really see the art.

This time, there was a painter copying Monet's The Artist's Garden at V├ętheuil. This would seem to be the best example of really seeing the painting. It seemed that few visitors paused to see the paint being applied.  Isn't that a chance to go back in time as though Monet was working the canvas?

Thank you for allowing me to take you along on our exploration of the National Mall using the Circulator to catch some of the high points.  The standard fare is $1.00 for up to two hours of boardings.  They run very frequently too.


Monday, July 13, 2015

The Attraction of Trumpet Vine

There was a lot of bird chatter around our home garden this morning, as the early fog lifted. Nuthatches, Black-capped Chickadees, Cardinals and Woodpeckers were heard frequently.  But activity at our Trumpet Vine was silent, and, more interesting.  Only twenty feet from our sun room, there was a feeding frenzy by a flock of Baltimore Orioles with one Scarlet Tanager tagging along.  No time for the big camera and lens, so I grabbed the little Nikon 1 V2 and fired away. While most of the flock stayed in the treetops, individual birds would come down to the Trumpet Vine growing on the arbor.

They all appeared to be females and juveniles, maybe twenty or more. They were also in the cherry and osier, presumably after berries. The target of the orioles in the Trumpet Vine was a little different. They were taking apart the blooms for the sweet parts.

My original thought was that they were seeking the nectar just like a bee or hummingbird.  But the evidence on review of my photos changed my thinking. Now, I recalled watching them devour the meat of ripe oranges in spring. They did not restrict their feeding to open flowers. They also tore open the buds.

But, more was revealed by the photos. They had a wider diet - ants. Look at the beak of this bird.

Mixed with the fascinating display of Baltimore Oriole behavior was another visitor to the flowers.

On occasion, the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds would land and crawl up onto the flower to reach the nectar. The activity continued for about twenty minutes before the Orioles moved on to new grounds. 

I had passed on a trip up to a natural area this morning with the intention to get some chores done.  The unintended consequence of staying home outweighed the  importance of doing those chores.


Thursday, July 9, 2015

Thinking Back for Two Months

The pace has been so fast, that I have fallen behind on sharing images. So, I've looked back over May and June to find those images that recall special days.  My first close encounter with a Marsh Wren in the Montezuma wetlands in May came as a surprise. He landed in an odd perch and stared at me with defiance.

Closer to home at the Newtown Battlefield Reservation this Hooded Warbler, like the Wren above, chose a nice spot to sing for me. I can regularly find one of them along a particular trail.

For a third year, a pair of Sandhill Cranes was spotted in a marsh near Watkins Glen. Would they be nesting this year?  The quest to answer that landed me on sight for some colorful mornings.

I found the cranes on several different days in June in the tall grass, so any chicks would be hidden. Then, on one day as I approached my parking spot to explore for the cranes, they were standing out in a corn field in plain view.  Dropping into a drainage ditch for concealment, I got very close; it was obvious that they did not have chicks this year.  Mixed with  disappointment was the interesting display that one crane made.

In addition to the larger animals, there is a much smaller world that can be interesting.  This black ant was feeding on the nectar in the blooms of my rhubarb plants.

A good part of June was directed at the Bluebird Trail Farms, which was the subject of an earlier message.  Surely a favorite of the grassland natives was the Eastern Meadowlark.  It is a very strong singer for its size.

I have created a new gallery on my website devoted to grassland flyers - birds and a few butterflies. See it at:

In late June and early July, some of my attention moves to orchids and other beautiful flowering native plants. Arguably, the most exciting are the Showy Lady's Slippers. This cluster of blooms was photographed with my smartphone.

Most exciting was this pair that provided the two orthogonal views in one instant.

Back at the Newtown Battlefield Reservation, a White-breasted Nuthatch found a spider nest under some peeling bark of a White Birch, and I captured the moment when it pulled out the spider.

The American Goldfinch is a seed eater, so it nests later when the grasses are going to seed. This male is in fine colors as July begins.

In the meadows and grasslands, the birds' young are fledging, and one is more successful finding colored butterflies like this Fritillary.

Saving one of the best subjects for last, we come to the Canada Lily.  It's hard to find, because the over-abundant Whitetail Deer find it tasty.  I was introduced to a pocket of them isolated between a big river and a railroad yard in an urban location. No deer get there. Arriving in early morning, I spotted the first plants next to the river.

Some of the plants had profuse blooms. It was very striking. This is just two plants.

One distinctive feature of the Canada Lily is the "freckles" on the petals.

So, there is a view into why my last two months have passed so quickly.


Friday, June 12, 2015

Bluebird Trail Farm- Meadow Birds and More

I joined my friends in the Chemung Valley Audubon Society on a Bobolink outing  to the Bluebird Trail Farm in Caton, New York a few weeks ago. The visit sent me back for some serious photography.  There were abundant Bobolinks, plus many other grassland birds and an inquisitive Alpaca.  Actually, it is an educational farm with chickens, ducks, sheep, and goats, in addition to vegetable and fruit gardens. It is a great outing for the family. The Barn Swallows are plentiful, and a joy to watch returning to their nests in the big red barn. There are a variety of activities on their website plus clear directions. Check them out at:

So, what did this photographer find at Bluebird Trail Farm? Yes, there were Eastern Bluebirds actively feeding young in nest boxes. They were a little leery of my approach, so I left them to their duties.  Bluebirds offer some challenges.  The sun's direction plays a big role in showing their brilliant blues, and the only place to see that was too close for them. There were so many other exciting birds in the grasslands that I did not feel disappointed.

There were many Tree Swallows, including some resting on various perches.  Away from the nest, they were much more comfortable with my approach. Tree Swallows are a common species, yet their appearance and acrobatic flight are very appealing.  Given the great number of insects they catch, they deserve to be appreciated. I got quite used to their flying within feet of me, as they swooped and rolled over the grasses. When I was under camoflage, one nearly landed on my head. 

The Tree Swallows in the nest boxes were very actively feeding young, and they, too, were more comfortable with my location. I took it as a challange to capture their rapid flight towards and away from the nest box.  The colors on the male are brilliant in the sun. It is a delight to stand a comfortable distance away and watch their nimble flight.

Capturing that moment when the bird just touches the box meant that I triggered the shutter when it was still some 4 feet away, and then just hoped I had it right. As I reviewed the photos, I noticed a wide array of insects in their beaks.  All were flying insects.  Other birds in the grassland had different menus.

Capturing the departure presented a new challenge. On approach, I could see the birds some twenty feet away and triggered the shutter as it passed a mark in the background. When it is leaving, there is just a bit of head showing, and often I reacted to a little twitch in the head that was just that. Other times it was the only warning of the explosive launch into the air.

So, Tree Swallows were abundant and provided a great challenge.  The Bobolinks offered a different entertainment.  First, their bubbly song is one I would never tire of hearing. However, the females  nest in the tall grass, and the males are often in the grasses searching for both larva and flying insects to feed the nestlings.  Even when feeding young, they do sing among the grasses.

Here is one male who gained a perch before delivering a catch of insects to a hidden nest in the grasses. The Tree Swallows in the nest box did not seem to object to the Bobolink.

The female Bobolinks are very differently colored to hide in the grasses. I captured this one flying towards a hidden nest.

This brings me to the more elusive of the grassland birds at the farm, and arguably the most colorful and musical, the Eastern Meadowlark. The bird proved difficult to locate, and required complete camoflage before it would approach a favored spot to sing.  It was worth the effort.  Thankfully, they are slower on the wing than a Tree Swallow.

The Eastern Meadowlark takes the posture of an operatic tenor to belt out its song with full voice.  I wonder if I could be so lucky as to record one on video?

Bluebird Trail Farm is not just for the obsessive nature photographer who needs to get ridiculously close to get a full frame image.  With a reasonable set of binoculars, one can get detailed views.  Absent binoculars, the views are reasonable, and the distinctive birdsongs clear to the ear. It is a wonderful place for the young and the young at heart.   Check out their website, and give Margie a call to arrange a visit.

I'll be posting more of my photos at:


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Blooming Wonderful

The Finger Lakes of New York are a bonanza for the nature lover. One of my favorite nature spots in spring is the Mundy Wildflower Garden along Fall Creek on the Cornell University campus. It is a rich, intensely managed natural area with an amazing array of native plants, and it is alive with birds, too.  I have been going there for twelve years and always come away richly rewarded.  To learn more, go to:

Today, I began there shortly after sunrise. I concentrated on the flowers though the birds were very active.  Later, I would join a work party removing invasives and planting more native plants. But first, I would have some play time. Entering the garden,  large beds of yellow surrounded the white flowers of the Great Solomon's Seal hanging gracefully beneath rich green leaves.  I've seen Ruby-thoated Hummingbirds hovering under these to gather nectar.

Near the entrance was White Baneberry, Actaea pachypoda, called Doll's Eyes because the china white berries have a purplish "pupil". The plant in Mundy was in such a charming alignment that a photo was mandatory. The leaves and flower head were in ideal arrangement.

Other delights awaited me in the garden.  Down the trail were the Great Solomon's Seal mixed in with Wild Geranium. Also called Spotted Cranesbill, Geranium maculatum is an easy plant to introduce into the home garden.  Both of these are hardy, though I've learned to keep the Solomon's Seal behind a fence to thwart the deer's hunger. Unlike so many of our introduced garden plants, they are ideally matched to our climate and low maintenance.

Next I came upon some False Solomon's Seal growing among the ferns. These sway in the slightest breeze, so I had to work fast before the sun stirred up the air.  However, unlike a bird, they cannot fly away just as I get ready to fire the shutter.

Not all plants are in peak bloom; the large White Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum, can also be attractive when the white flowers fade to red.  See below.

 Another deer resistance plant that is ideal for the home garden is the Wild Columbine. Watching a hummingbird feed on it is not to be missed.  In many cases, it has been shown that these native varieties have richer nectar than the exotic varieties that may be somewhat showier.  For me, a native plant that is better adapted to our locale means less care in the garden and a great ability to sustain itself over the years.

My saunter through Mundy Wildflower Garden led me to another late spring favorite, May Apple.  I have it in my home garden where its toxicity has proven its worth. Deer have never touched it.  It is not invasive and requires zero care.  Today I headed for a favorite place in Mundy where I discovered a harvestman spider in residence.

I made a final stop on my way to join the work party. I had found another Wild Geranium next to a contrasting tree.  The difference in the textures and colors attracted me.

 There was just so much eye candy to be found, that I found it hard to quit. The ephemeral nature of native plants means that a return next week will present a new set of blooms to enjoy. That is part of what keeps me coming back each year. Throughout the spring, there are both wildflower and bird walks in the Plantations that are expert-led.  They are listed in this link:

So, whether it is birds or flowers, the Mundy Wildflower Garden is a treasure for all nature lovers.  Discover it if you can.