Sunday, June 20, 2021

My Love Affair with House Wrens

 I have a love affair with house wrens that goes back to a day in elementary school.  My mother, Elizabeth,  announced that I would be skipping school that June day to watch the wrens bring their chicks from the nest onto our back porch railing.  Mom said I'd get more from that than from any teacher.   I sat in the kitchen window and saw them coax the chicks from the box onto the porch railing.  She was right, and my love of house wrens has continued. 

Why do I find wrens so wonderful.  They aren't colorful but they are good singers.  Unlike many birds, they are approachable to varying degrees.  Often, our pair will ignore me when I am weeding beneath the nest box, although this newest pair are more prone to fuss at me if I am within 10 feet.  Maybe next year they will be more tolerant.  

House Wrens are efficient bug catchers and when the chicks get large, they may bring in a catch every 2 to 5 minutes.  This was a unusually large insect.

They frequently sing as part of bringing in food.  I think this conditions the chicks to leave the nest when it is time to fledge.  They announce the food but don't take it into the box.  It seems to be "if you are hungry, come out here now". 

When the chicks are small, the parents enter the box to feed and we speculate on the number of chicks.  But about a week before fledging, the chicks begin to show at the nest hole.

It surely gets crowded in the box for the last few days. Watching closely, I could see above the three obvious chicks the tip of chick number four.  Could there be five? Not unusual for experienced parents.

I watched the box until dark on this day hoping to see the chicks emerge and finally learn how many chicks.  The next morning, about an hour after sunrise, I found the box quiet and could hear the adults singing in the redbud tree.  I missed the event and won't know if there was a chick number five. 

That afternoon, I pulled the box down and opened it to clear out the bundle of sticks.  After a good cleaning, I will dust the box with powdered sulfur - pest repellent- and hang it up for a second nesting.  

One final thought occurred to me.  The nest on the kitchen porch many decades ago was in my mother's clothes pin bag.  It hung from the clothes line strung between porch posts.   It seems to me that the wooden clothes pins looked like an ideal pile of twigs to the wrens.  What did Elizabeth do with the clothes pin bag?  It would have been full of extra twigs, fecal dust, down and feathers.  I am thinking she made a new bag and probably boiled the clothes pins to sanitize them. It was a reasonable price for the lesson it taught me.

When I came in to write this, I could still hear the wrens' song as the adults guided the chicks through their first days outside the nest.


Friday, May 14, 2021

Surprise!! Cedar Waxwings

 I love Cedar Waxwings.  They are graceful and only voice faint high pitched calls to communicate.  I never go out expecting Cedar Waxwings.  It's unpredictable.  In November of 2011, I started a neighborhood walk, but only got two houses down the street when I saw them stripping berries from a tree.  Hurriedly I backtracked home for a camera with a long lens.  This is my favorite result.

I like to think I can do better now, but as I look at this I still love the scene and the behavior it shows.

Today, the target was warblers or maybe Baltimore Orioles. A few Yellow Warblers were high in the apple trees and never very visible.  I closed up shop and hoisted the tripod on my shoulder for the walk back to the car. But halfway there, there was motion in a small crab apple.  Binoculars revealed Cedar Waxwings, maybe a dozen.  There was good light and they seemed to not notice me.

They dropped onto upper branches that were heavy with blossoms.

Last year at the same trees, I saw Baltimore Orioles in the same trees picking small yellow caterpillars from inside the flower. I expected the same.

It is unwise to assume the different birds have the same habits.

Looking at the bird's beak closely reveals the entire blossom was being eaten.  Above, the waxwing is swallowing the final petal of the flower.  I saw and photographed this repeatedly.

The waxwings did not strip all of the blossoms from a cluster.  Maybe they only choose the sweetest?  With no warning, the bird was off to the next branch.  (Lucky timing by me.)

The flock only left when an early morning walker slipped past me.  They'd tolerated me at only 15 feet, but I had never moved directly towards them and only shifted a few steps each time. 

I had packed up to leave feeling disappointed, but got to the car elated. 


Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Bald Eagle Nest- A Work in Progress

Made my first exploratory visit to a Bald Eagle nest that is at eye level.  That's really a special opportunity.   It's going to take time to get the images I want.  Today's results were okay, but fishing seems slow at present due to muddy water in local rivers.  So there was no active feeding in 3-1/2 hours.

Here's an adult at the nest checking on the two chicks.  They are nestled down with only one head visible.

And here are two chicks.

Appears to me that the front chick is the dominant (alpha) one.  I expect they  have another four weeks before fledging.


Thursday, April 29, 2021

A Burst of Spring Flowers

The woodland bloom is getting exciting.  I went out yesterday to search for a warbler at Cornell's Arnot Forest and did not get 200 yards into the woods before the wildflowers changed the plan.  Right along the main forest road was this stately Purple Trillium- Trillium erectum- in perfect condition.


While the species name would imply the flower is erect, it is always nodding down.  The trick to a good image of it is to get very low - that is best done by finding plants on a steep hillside.  Seen at right is the usual approach.  In this case, I had to straddle a fallen log on a somewhat slippery slope.  It is a slow process with much care to avoid damaging other blooming plants.

At such a close distance, the lens has a shallow of depth of focus. So, I made six images stepped from closest leaf tip the to the most distant leaf. This, of course, included the purple flower's detail.  The resulting "portrait" came from aligning all six images and selecting the sharper parts of each image.  This is a revolutionary change in how to overcome the inherent limits of optics. See the result below.

I became rather driven to find Purple Trillium clinging to increasingly steep slopes.

Inevitably, I found the most marginal of all possibilities.

This was about 50 feet above the valley floor.  It convinced me to find other subjects.  

The beautiful Trout Lily - Erythronium americanum - were also in bloom.  They are only open when the sky is clear so, this was the opportunity I wanted.

Like the Purple Trillium, they are looking downward.  I put my camera down in the leaves and propped it up to get the image.  They are a true ephemera and will totally disappear by mid-summer.

There are other blooms to find that were easier to photograph.  Consider the Virginia Bluebells- Mertensia virginica.  It is a plant of the river woods.  Here's one of my favorite images.

It had been a full morning. As I exited the forest road, I saw an exceptional cluster of White Trillium - Trillium grandiflorum - and had to stop.  Too lazy to unload my camera again, I depended upon my iPhone. 

Ten blooms!   The steep bank must be rich and well watered.  

No wonder that spring is my favorite season.


Sunday, April 25, 2021

A Potpourri of Spring Offerings

This late arriving spring still staggers along.  Some of my field effort has been exploring new places.  Up near Cayuta Lake, I visited the newly discovered Allen Preserve of the Cornell Botanic Gardens.  I cannot recall a greater number of Skunk Cabbage anywhere.

It only required a cell phone for this image.  Honestly, I was ranging wide without a camera pack, had to stand in running water and the phone was what I had.  I held the phone about 2 inches above the water and wished for the best.   

Back in Cornell's Mundy Wildflower Garden, I did a stack of seven images to create create this companion image with the spadix clearly visible within the spathe.

Why one shot for the first image, and seven for this one?  The wide angle lens in the phone has huge depth of focus.  The lens used on the latter one only has sharp focus for about 1/2 inch.   Each has its place.  I like them both.  (No more Skunk Cabbage this year.  I promise.)
Let's look at some itty-bitty birds.  This male Song Sparrow was a bit angry at another intruding male.  I captured him leaping off to make a challenge.

  I discovered a different sparrow while waiting for a Bald Eagle at a beaver pond.  The Swamp Sparrow has a rich rusty-red crest, and is just as vocal as the other sparrow.

No Bald Eagle came within distance that morning, but some days later I did get a little closer when the male returned to the nest.  (I am still working on this for a closer result.)

Spring is also about wildflowers, and a few early ones are coming out now.  This is Sharp-lobed Hepatica.

Finally, the Great Blue Herons are back (and nesting already).  They can be supremely elegant in flight, or truly awkward depending on the moment.  I love the patterning displayed as they set wings for a landing.

It is getting more spring like, and some warblers are arriving.  Hope I can offer a greater variety of images soon.


Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Signs of Spring

 Here in New York State a late spring followed a hard winter.  The signs of a warmer season have been late and mixed.  The Canada Geese are back.

And they are starting to nest.

But appropriately, on April 1 some wintery weather dropped in to play a joke on us.

There is one spring flowering plant that cares not if it is snowy or cold.  The Skunk Cabbage creates a catalytic warming that melts the ground so it can bloom.  

First, it does not smell like a skunk. but the spathe does seem to have an odor that attracts flies and gnats.  I rather welcome its hardiness along with the daffodils.

Waterfowl also make an early spring arrival.  One favorite bird that always excites me is the Wood Duck.  Here are two gorgeous males that I found on a small pond lined with woodlands.

 It seems like there is always a greater number of males and on this morning there were six males vying for two females.  This female has made her choice and a rejected male is facing a determined stare from the female.

Another set of visitors to the pond on this chilly morning was a gang of Common Mergansers. They often sweep across a pond or river in a line suggesting a coordinated fishing strategy.

These early spring days are often a frustrating time where we are ready before the seasons are willing to make a clean switch to warmth. I am surely not alone in being ready for better days.

Paul Schmitt

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

A Winter Visitor

 Here in the Finger Lakes we have summer visitors and winter visitors.  Fewer birds choose to end their winter migration this far north.  One that has attracted me is the Horned Lark.  I first saw and photographed them in the summer of 2017 at Cape St. Mary's in Newfoundland.  We were there to see the colonies of Northern Gannets that nest on the high ocean bluffs, but one day produced such dense fog that I needed to find something inland from the ocean fog.

There were dozen of Horned Larks nesting in the highland grasses.  They were busy gathering insects to feed their young, and were fairly likely to come close if one picked a spot and just stayed there. Larks seem to be very skittish.  It was damp and it showed on the matted plumage.  The ends of the black head stripes normally stand up to resemble a horn.

Horned Larks are small (7 inches long) and slender (32 grams).  Compare that to the American Robin that is 10 inches and a relatively bulky 77 grams.  Getting close is a must for photography.

This winter, we have many flocks of one to four dozen birds foraging mostly where farmers have spread manure mixed in with bedding straw.  But they don't range widely  while feeding like in summer. Today was the first time in about six attempts where any Horned Lark came close.   

It appears that the winter has been hard on their feathers as most of them seemed disheveled, perhaps exaggerated by the strong winds. 


I don't expect to see them here much longer, as the days are growing longer and the nesting grounds are calling them.

 Paul Schmitt