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.


Monday, May 18, 2015


It is late spring now, and the birds are in various stages of the nesting season.  Great Horned Owls have already fledged, Eastern Bluebirds are feeding young and Yellow Warblers are building nests.  The Bobolinks have finally arrived and are filling the air with a wonderful, bubbly song in the meadows.

Today, I went to the Greensprings Natural Cemetery near Ithaca to see the Bobolinks. The meadows are not mowed during nesting season, and an abundance of ground nesting birds can be found. While there was an oversupply of male Bobolinks, I saw two pairs that were defending territory, and perhaps, starting a nest beneath the widely scattered honeysuckle bushes.

The male has this fluttery flight over the meadow accompanying his bubble and tinkle song. It seemed to me that it principally attracts rival males, not females.

The male also take a perch to broadcast his message.  This seemed to be announcing a territory.

This fellow's lady seemed to keep pretty close to him, and foraged among the grasses with a few excursions to the weed stalks for a look around.  I find her quite attractive too.

Greenspring practices responsible management of the meadows with regards to mowing. I recall that they only mow every other year in the late summer when nesting is complete.  The result is an abundant, prairie-like habitat full of the cycle of life.


Friday, May 1, 2015

Competition- Nesting Wars

The Bluebird boxes that so frequently dot the meadows around here are equally attractive to House Wrens and Tree Swallows to name just two. It seems that Eastern Bluebirds are actually minority occupants. I've been lucky to be able to get really close without disturbing the birds at one location. I began well outside of the birds' safety zone, and over an hour or more, moved a few feet closer whenever activity around the nest boxes waned. I never faced directly towards them, and moved forward in a zig-zag path. Eventually, they allowed me to be within 15 feet.  Rather than "taking shots", I am "receiving a gift".

The main competitor for the nest boxes here are Tree Swallows. The pair seen below are the main protagonists.

Just like the Eastern Bluebird, the male is the more colorful one (above) on the upper left. A closer look confirms his elegant form.  As the male shifts relative to the light's direction, his back flashes a lively blue.

Through the morning, the Bluebird pair showed a preference for one of the two nest boxes in front of me.  They chose the perch stick above that box with greater frequency. When the Tree Swallows soared past the box, the male would spread his wings in a display of his size. See below a typical response.

Then, the female Bluebird entered the nest box and remained for over twenty minutes. I wondered if she was laying an egg or simply  establishing ownership?  During that time,  a female Tree Swallow made several attempts to enter. She always retreated quickly.

The male Bluebird remained very close. He even defended the perch over the second nest box.

 I must admit that I am becoming very interested in seeing how this drama between the Tree Swallows and Eastern Bluebirds plays out. Yes, I am rooting for the Bluebird male.  He puts on quite a show in the sunlight. If the Tree Swallows settle in the second box, it will be interesting to see the interplay. Will they work out a truce?


Monday, April 27, 2015

Details Make a Difference

I began this last week scouting for a good location to photograph Eastern Bluebirds.  I quickly found them, plus the usual abundance of Tree Swallows competing for their nest boxes. The light was good, but I did not have time or tools to prepare the location for the best results. At right is what I captured for a Tree Swallow. The light is good; the bird is in an active pose.  The background is nice too. BUT, the white plastic pipe is plain ugly.  The technical details were fine, yet more is needed.

I returned a few days later with a pocket tool in hand, so I could add a natural perch to the nest box pole.  Swallows and Bluebirds frequently perch above the nest box that they are defending from interlopers.  The first Tree Swallow to approach immediately chose the dead stick over a plastic pipe.  I positioned the camera so that the background was very distant and entirely featureless.  Isn't that a lot more pleasing to view?  

There was also a tangle of briars that had been brush hogged in the fall.  Some of the briars had remained.  Noting that the Bluebirds were hunting from a perch on a briar stem, I jammed another dead stick into the pile to add another option for the birds.  That, too, brought immediate results.

It only took me fifteen minutes to find some nice branches and stick them into place.  The results were pretty immediate.


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Bluebird Day

I've sometime wondered if we use the term "bluebird days" because the sky is the same as the male bluebirds rich color, or if we associate sunny days with a lot of bluebird activity.  Yesterday had a brilliantly blue sky, and I found overflowing bluebird activity. (Today is rainy and I saw only one distant bluebird.) Going with the first explanation, the birds put on a nice show for me.  This male bluebird quickly became accustomed to my proximity.

Center of interest for the male bluebird is the female who is checking out the available nest boxes.

Anytime you are around bluebird nest boxes in the spring, there is a conflict with the ever- present tree swallows, that greatly outnumber them. So, the bluebirds often take up a perch on a box and withstand the fly-bys from their antagonist. I've seen the male bluebird spread his wings to appear larger in face of the harassment. Yesterday, I saw a new behavior as the pair stood together with some degree of solidarity. 

I mentioned a second meaning to "bluebird days" relating to the sky color.  So, as I was photographing the birds, I became aware of an unusual aircraft sound.  It approached slowly with a broad seemingly widespread rumble. I realized it was directly overhead and looked up to see this. The sky really was close to the bluebird color.

It was a KC-10 wide body Air Force tanker with six A-10 Warthog fighters at a modest altitude performing a refueling exercise.  (The KC-10 is a modified DC-10.)  In a few seconds, one of A-10s moved into position under the tail of the tanker. The muffled sound I was hearing was the combined noise from fifteen engines. 

In my previous blog, I noted to expect the unexpected.  So true. 


Friday, April 17, 2015

Expect the Unexpected

I just learned, or relearned, a lesson about being prepared.  Made a short drive to a nearby park to scout an abandoned road known to have a lot of birds.  I wasn't seeing a lot of birds, until I was nearly back to my car.  A beautiful Redtail Hawk flew in over my head and landed in a willow tree beside the road. I admired him with my binoculars and continued toward the bird, as a single crow fussed at the hawk. As I drew closer, the hawk flew very low over me and landed beside the road. Binoculars revealed that the hawk was returning to a rabbit kill. All I had was my cell camera. I had not expected the unexpected.

The Redtail Hawk held its ground, feeding eagerly, and allowed me to approach to a mere 12 feet.  It showed no concern with me, but that was my limit. I got low and attempted a photo with a very inadequate, wide angle lens.  My cropped image is below. Not very good.

I felt pretty stupid.  Not wanting to stress the bird which I decided was a juvenile, I walked back to the car  hoping that in the early morning, I could be there with a "real" camera when it returned. I was in the car with the key in the ignition when I felt pretty silly.  My full camera kit was in the trunk.  But, I also was elated to reverse course.  Now, birds don't see you in a car, so that greatly reduces any stress on the bird. I slowly drove back with my big lens and true to form, the bird ignored the car. Here is what I got for my effort.

It is a beautiful bird in nice warm light.  Soon, I backed out and went home with the idea that the hawk would again be there in the early morning.  Sure enough, I arrived to see it perched in a large tree next to the road.

I eased the car to the place I'd seen the rabbit, but it was not there.  I thought, "not a good sign", and backed  the car to where I could watch the hawk; it was attracting a chorus of Blue Jays and smaller birds.  It was a mob.  The hawk seemed to tire of this and swooped away into the dense brush near the kill.  After a wait, I eased there to see it pulling the rabbit back out. It had hidden its kill for the  night. Interesting. The hawk just about finished off the rabbit, and then "posed" for one last photo.

Hopefully, I learned my lesson.  My good fortune revealed some very close details on a glorious bird, and some greater understanding of hawk behavior. I'm hoping this juvenile will stay in the area and have continued success. The first year is pretty tough on a predator.

Be prepared.