Tag Archive 'birdwatching'

Apr 23 2023

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The Golden Hour

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Last week Judy and I made a much-anticipated pilgrimage to Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge to witness the spring migration there. Located in the Finger Lakes Region of upstate New York, we reached it in less than 8 hours. Even though the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge is only ten miles away from where we live, one never knows what one will find elsewhere. Besides, birding destinations give us a reason to get away.

Monday was overcast and rainy. We saw shovelers, coots, mallards, teals, and other ducks in the marshes while slowly motoring along Wildlife Drive. Judy was in the passenger’s side of the car so she didn’t get any good photos. Visitors are not allowed out of their cars on Wildlife Drive this early in the season. But she was on the right side of the car to catch hundreds of carp in a spawning frenzy. Such is the nature of wildlife photography. It’s serendipitous, to say the least.

The weather on Tuesday was much the same: less rain but a more chilling wind. We explored the outskirts of the refuge, ending up in the Sandhill Crane Unit where Judy took a good picture of a gadwall half-hidden in the grass. We saw some ospreys, as well, before returning to the Wildlife Drive. This time Judy sat in the back seat so that she could shoot in either direction. I chauffeured her. She photographed a great blue heron eating a fish, a female red-winged blackbird close-up, and the coots doing their funky head-moving action as they swam. I can’t watch them without breaking into laughter.

Wednesday was partly cloudy sky, but the cool temps hardly felt balmy in the steady breeze. We drove the Wildlife Drive once again, seeing the usual suspects, before heading up to the Sandhill Crane Unit. There we parked the car at the end of a dead-end dirt road and watched waterfowl while enjoying the wild silence. I woke Judy from her nap when a bald eagle suddenly appeared, but she didn’t get a picture before it flew away. Yeah, that’s how it goes sometimes.

Back on the Wildlife Drive late afternoon, we hoped to see the snipe spotted there the day before by someone else, as well as a sandhill crane. The snipe turned out to be a dunlin (bird identification is always tricky). Then, as luck would have it, we saw the sandhill crane. It was being harassed by a Canada goose most likely protecting an unhatched brood nearby. We were in the Golden Hour, as bird photographers call it – the hour before sunset. Light illuminated the crane’s wings as it defended itself against the goose. Judy caught it with her camera. And that made the trip. Serendipitous, indeed!

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Dec 15 2021

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Bluebirds of Happiness

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During a short spell of relatively warm, sunny days, Judy and I went birding. We went birding just to get out of the house. We first stopped at Shelburne Bay, where various waterfowl had been spotted recently. We saw mergansers and buffleheads there, but they were too far away for Judy to take good photos. So we walked the LaPlatte River Trail next, instead of lingering along the lake’s edge waiting for ducks to draw nearer.

The trail following the LaPlatte River was muddy, but we had donned hiking boots before leaving the house in anticipation of that. We took our time, moving ever so slowly over waterlogged boards.

When I first saw movement through the trees, I assumed that the fast-moving, airborne creatures were robins. They turned out to be eastern bluebirds – half a dozen of them passing through. A pair perched temporarily on power lines not far away, making it easy for me to identify them with my binoculars. Incredible! This time of year? A few moments later, one landed on a nearby tree branch, giving Judy an opportunity to snap shots of it.

Bluebirds of happiness. Just what we needed. Deep into the second year of a pandemic, with all kinds of depressing news both locally and worldwide, and one week shy of the darkest day of the year, a little happiness goes along way.

In Russian fairy tales, the bluebird is a symbol of hope. In Navajo culture, it’s associated with the rising sun just as it is in ancient Chinese myths. The bluebird of happiness dates back to the Middle Ages in European folklore – a tale retold by Madame D’Aulnoy in L’Oiseau Bleu. Yeah, the upbeat symbolism of bluebirds is nearly universal. How lucky were we to spot them?

We went to Delta Park after that, catching a brief glimpse of a wren in the dense underbrush along the lake’s shore. Judy didn’t even have time to raise her camera for that one. No matter. The clouds had cleared out by then, exposing a perfectly blue sky an hour before dusk. We went home happy. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to feel that way.

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Dec 08 2020

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Eagles at Lake Carmi

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Judy is going deeper into birding. She has recently picked up several books on bird behavior and has spent the better part of the past few days reading about them. So I wasn’t surprised when she told me that she wanted to go to Lake Carmi because people from an online birding group had spotted bald eagles there. But a light snow was falling yesterday as we were getting ready to leave the house. I thought for sure she’d change her mind.

We ate our lunch in the car while parked at the Lake Carmi State Park day use area. That’s when we saw several bald eagles flying over the lake a good distance away. Shortly thereafter, while walking a nature trail around a nearby field, we spotted another one overhead, silhouetted against the grey sky. Judy wasn’t able to get a good shot of it, though. We wandered about the day use area a bit more, chilled by a steady wind out of the north before retreating to the car.

Now what? Judy suggested that we drive the road running along the northern edge of the lake. We did just that but spotted only a few songbirds in the process. Then I suggested that we drive the access roads to private camps along the west shore of the lake. It was a long shot, but we had the time so why not?

Most of the camps were closed for the season. A thin layer of snow covered the dirt road. Judy scanned the trees along the lake’s edge as we puttered along slowly. “There’s one,” she exclaimed, “Stop the car!” I did just that. Then Judy stepped out with her camera, shooting at a bald eagle resting on a branch. But the grand old bird was annoyed by my shutterbug wife so it flew away.

We sighted that eagle again a short while later. Judy stepped into the cold for a few more shots. That’s when I told her she was hardcore. Then I laughed. But I was right there with her, binoculars in hand. Such a funny pastime birding is. An endless hunt. So many different kinds of birds in all kinds of habitats. So much to learn.

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Nov 06 2020

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A Wild Goose Chase

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Yesterday Judy and I drove down to the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in Addison County, hoping to see some migrating snow geese and photograph them. Judy had been following reports of them showing up there by the thousands. We were excited about the prospect.

Upon arriving at the viewing area, we saw about fifty snow geese half a mile away. Moving over to Gage Road, just south of the Management Area, we spotted a couple dozen more half-hidden in a farmer’s field a quarter mile away. We saw some Canada geese, as well. Then we caught a rough-legged hawk flying overhead. That was a pleasant surprise. Still Judy had no good shots of geese.

Undaunted, we headed north along a country road running parallel to both Route 7 and Dead Creek. Nothing. No more geese. So we crossed Otter Creek in Vergennes and continued north to Kingsland Bay and the Little Otter Creek WMA. No geese there, either, though we watched a great blue heron catch fish for a while. Judy got some good shots of that.

Resigned to the fact that we were on a wild goose chase, we hopped back in the car and headed home. Yesterday was an unseasonably warm, pleasant day in November, and it was good just getting out of the house. But no sooner had we crossed over a bridge spanning the creek, I saw a huge nest in the trees right next to the road. Surprisingly enough, the nest was occupied. It was a bald eagle!

Judy got a good shot of the eagle right before it flew away. I followed that magnificent bird with my binoculars as long as I could. Until this sighting, I had seen plenty of bald eagles elsewhere but never in Vermont. What a treat! Nature is funny that way. You never know what it’s going to throw at you.

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Mar 03 2020

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WTB New Release: Wings Over Water

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When I published Franklin’s Streamwalker’s Journey, I told him that it would be the last book of his to appear under my Wood Thrush Books imprint. Time to give other writers some attention. Then he sent me Wings Over Water once he had completed it and, well, I just couldn’t resist. That was last summer. Seven months later, I am pleased to announce its publication.

Wings Over Water is similar to Franklin’s previous collections of personal essays, delving deeply into the sport of fly fishing and the riverine ecosystem. But the focus of this book differs significantly from his other work. This time around, Franklin draws attention to the flora and fauna around him. His passion for fly fishing is matched by a lifelong interest in birds, and nature in general. There are times when his observations of the natural world make his angling endeavors seem like just an excuse to be outdoors. Then he regales us with a bit of fishing lore, or his own streamside adventure, and the familiar Franklin is back. It’s a nice balance. This is unquestionably some of his best writing.

You can get a copy of this book at Amazon.com, or order one directly from me at the WTB website: WoodThrushBooks.com. Those of you already acquainted with Franklin’s work won’t be disappointed. As for newcomers, this is a great place to start. Or you can learn more about the man before getting into this book by visiting rivertoprambles.wordpress.com. He blogs there on a regular basis.

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Sep 26 2015

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Walt Franklin’s New Book

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BLAM front coverI have just released Walt Franklin’s new book, Beautiful Like a Mayfly, under the Wood Thrush Books imprint. As most of you probably know by now, I’m a big fan of his, having published his work repeatedly in years past. In 2014, I reprinted his collection of fly-fishing essays, River’s Edge, thus assuring that it would stay in print. This newer work complements that older one.

Beautiful Like a Mayfly is both a travel narrative and a collection of nature essays. Even though it spans four decades, Franklin is reluctant to call it a memoir. Rightly so. It’s more a celebration of life lived simply: roaming through Greece and Germany, fly-fishing out west and here in the Northeast, and engaging the world as both a naturalist and a conservationist while always keeping a watchful eye for songbirds. And Franklin gives it all to us with generous helpings of humor, erudition and insight, per usual.

I couldn’t be happier about publishing this. While I’ve been busy cultivating an online bookselling business this past summer, I’ve pushed this project ahead, one step at a time. Now here it is, the finished product – a fine addition to the Wood Thrush Books list, and a welcome break from a long parade of self-publications.

You can get a copy from Amazon.com or by going to the WTB website, WoodThrushBooks.com. If you are new to Franklin’s work and want to sample it first, check out his blog, RivertopRambles. He posts there regularly.



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Mar 18 2010

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The Red-wing Returns

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When does spring begin?  Everyone has a different idea about that.  For some spring arrives when the crocuses pop up.  The more skeptical wait for lilacs.  Many look for robins feeding in their front yards.  For me it’s the return of the red-winged blackbirds.  Once they’re back, everything starts changing and changing fast.

I heard the red-wing’s unmistakable call the other day, while I was indoors reading.  I got up and went to the kitchen window and, sure enough, there it was on the ground right below the bird feeders.  The red and yellow markings on that bird are distinct.  The red-winged blackbirds are back.  The calendar on the wall tells me they shouldn’t be, but they are.

Judy and I spotted a tufted titmouse at the feeder nearly a week ago.  According to my bird book titmice don’t migrate, so seeing one doesn’t really count as sign of spring.  But we couldn’t help but take it as a good omen.  The red-winged blackbirds appeared shortly thereafter.

The grackles and cowbirds have also returned.  My wife doesn’t want me badmouthing those troublemakers like I did last year, so I won’t say anything more about them.  It’s clear, though, that the red-winged blackbirds are only the beginning of a great migration north.  The robins can’t be far behind.

We have twelve hours of daylight now.  The Vernal Equinox takes place the day after tomorrow.  While that doesn’t necessarily mark the end of winter this far north, there are several indications that spring has come early this year.  The first green shoots of day lilies have pushed up in my front yard.  The grass is greening.  Mud wasps have already appeared on my porch.  And while there’s still plenty of snow in the woods, the snow piles around town are almost gone.

Where are my binoculars?  I keep hearing an unfamiliar bird song and want to go out and identify it.  Yeah, I’ve got the fever already.  No, I’m not foolish enough to put away my snow shovels just yet, or peel the caulk from my windows.  But there’s no sense denying what I see, hear or feel . . .

Suddenly a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders.  Soon my hiking boots will be caked with mud.  Bring on the cold rain.  I’m ready to wander aimlessly through a misty awakening forest as polypody and evergreen woodferns slowly spring back to life.  Something deep within me is stirring.  You can wait for a 70-degree day if you want, but I’m calling it right now.  It’s spring!

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Jan 18 2010

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A Murder of Crows

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I went out at dusk yesterday to throw the ball for my dog, Matika, in the back yard.  While I was out there, a bunch of crows flew overhead, then a bunch more.  Then a great, dark stream of them flew past – hundreds of them, then hundreds more.  Their passing took five minutes.  I stood there awestruck by the avian display.  I’ve seen crows countless times, but never so many.

Where are they going?  Why are there so many of them?  What keeps so many birds alive in the middle of winter?  I like to think of myself as something of a naturalist, but even in my own back yard I am often stumped by the wild.

Black birds against a mottled gray sky.  A murder of crows in the dead of winter.  In Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds, crows play a particularly menacing roll, attacking school children. If all those crows landed in my yard, I’d step inside, certainly.  Yesterday over a thousand crows flew overhead in the fading twilight.  Occasionally one would let out a halfhearted caw, but for the most part they were silent.  As silent as the grave.

A flock of crows is called a murder because some farmers say they’ll gang up and kill a dying cow.  I find this hard to believe, but I’ve often seen them feeding on roadkill so I know they’re big carrion eaters.  Hence their association with death, especially in European culture.  I’ve also seen a crow being mobbed by a songbird after attacking its nest.  Yeah, they’re opportunistic as well – proof positive that Nature can be very cruel.

When I was sojourned in Alaska, I learned to appreciate the ways of ravens, those close cousins to crows.  Crows, ravens, jays and other corvids are intelligent creatures.  They know how to survive, that’s for sure.  In the Alaskan bush, I watched ravens carefully and took their lessons to heart.  Consequently, I developed a certain affinity with them.  But crows are still just crows to me.  Nature’s clean up crew at best.

My bird book tells me that crows gather by the thousands when they roost in trees at night.  That explains what I saw.  No doubt they have a roosting site nearby.  But in the depths of winter, I can’t help but sense something ominous about the presence of so many crows.  Black undertakers in a white landscape, they make me long for spring, anyhow.  I miss my green world.

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Jun 01 2009

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The Rhythms of the Sea

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Because it was Judy’s vacation, we went to the Maine coast.  I’m more a creature of deep woods, but it’s not always about me.  Judy has a challenging job.  When she needs to get away from it all, the coast is the best place for her to go.  So we rented a cottage and escaped to it for a few days.

The cottage faces an estuary – one of ten estuaries along a fifty-mile stretch of coast known collectively as the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.  We couldn’t afford a place overlooking the beach.  That’s okay.  After a couple days of gazing out the window, watching the estuary fill with saltwater then drain again, this cottage seemed like the best place for us.  It is easy to fixate upon the oceanic horizon, ignoring the rising and falling tides just below the line of sight.  But the rhythms of the sea are dramatic and inescapable just a little farther inland, where six hours is all that separates a flooded salt marsh from a muddy one.

A chilling rain fell steadily for three days.  That kept the sun worshipers off the coast, leaving more room for us.  Wherever we went, whether it was the beach, a rocky stretch of coastline, or in town, we were pretty much alone.  Just the two of us.  Steady rain has its advantages.

Judy was happy enough walking the beach or resting in the cottage.  Other than that all she required was a big bowl of fresh steamers chased with cold beer.  I had binoculars in hand most of the time.  I don’t think of myself as a birdwatcher but birdwatching is hard to resist on the coast.  Along with the ever-present gulls, I glassed ducks, eiders, cormorants, and herons just off shore.  A fast-running plover entertained us as we walked the beach.  A gaggle of Canada geese kept to the salt marsh for the most part.  A snowy egret fished alone in the estuary the entire time we were there.  Good company.

Days passed.  The water kept rising and falling in the estuary.  The ocean withdrew from the beach, leaving countless shells behind only to reclaim them a few hours later.  Waves crashed to shore at high tide, washing away the tracks we left in the sand.  When the tide receded, I felt a part of me drawn towards liquid oblivion – as if I too was being swept away.  The sea is like that.  It wants to reclaim all that belongs to her, all things organic.  Even a landlubber like me can feel it: caught in the rhythm, in a primordial magnetism.

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May 25 2009

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Judy and the Hummingbirds

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Judy loves hummingbirds but it has been years since she last saw one.  Two summers ago, she purchased a hummingbird feeder and hung it from the lilac bush a few feet from our kitchen window.  That allowed me a close-up glimpse of one once but Judy wasn’t so lucky.  So for the third year in a row she hung the feeder, hoping for the best.  I knew better than to encourage or discourage her.

Judy loves hummingbirds.  She loves them so much that she has one tattooed right above her ankle.  She says that every time she has seen one she has been on some kind of vacation – with me in the Adirondacks, with a friend on the Maine coast, or elsewhere.  More than once she has seen them at rest and has meditated on the fact that even a creature as frenetic as a hummingbird must stop every once in a while.  Seeing them when her own life was frenetic, she too has stopped.  There is a time for wingbeat intensity and a time to rest.

Many years ago, when I was alone in the Alaskan bush, I awoke almost daily to the low-pitched buzzing sound of a hummingbird hovering just outside my tent.  Even then Judy had an affinity for hummingbirds, so I couldn’t help but think that her animal spirit was watching over me.  Nowadays I can’t see a hummingbird or the mere image of one without thinking of her.  Judy’s existence and the essence of that tiny bird are somehow bound together.  Don’t ask me to explain how I know this or why it is so.  Some things go beyond words.

A couple days ago Judy put up her hummingbird feeder, hoping for the best.  She put up a fuchsia plant next to it, thinking that that might help attract the little busybodies.  She was right.  Yesterday, just before dusk, I looked out the kitchen window and saw a female.  Judy saw it a few minutes later, delighting in the encounter.  This morning, we both saw a male hummingbird at the feeder, repeatedly.  It looks like Judy has finally succeeded in attracting them to our home.  That makes this a red-letter day.

There are times when the wild is in our faces, and other times when it seems elusive.  Always it keeps us off-balance, somewhat amazed, unsure what to expect next.  That is the wonder and beauty of it.  Few creatures illustrate this as well as a hummingbird does, flitting around with such erratic intensity.  Maybe that is why Judy, wife of a woods wanderer, loves them so much.

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