Saturday, October 29, 2011

Great Egrets, Horicon Marsh NWR

A congregation of Great Egrets congregated in Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, Wisconsin; 10/2/2011.
 While visiting the great bird sanctuary of the Horicon Marsh NWR in Wisconsin in early October, I saw more Great Egrets than I have ever seen at one time. Usually when I see Great Egrets, they are either solo or in pairs, so it was a treat to see so many together.

Egrets, American Coots, and White Pelicans enjoying a sunny afternoon at the Horicon Marsh NWR, WI; 10/2/2011.
Not only did I see a huge 'heronry' of Great Egrets wading in the Marsh at the northern edge of the Refuge, but as I was walking on the floating boardwalk taking pictures of Palm Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers, a wedge of Great Egrets flew right by me and I was able to get a few good BIF's of them (Below).
A graceful Great Egret flew past me, HMNWR, WI; 10/2/2011.
It's a great contrast of the bright orange/yellow bill on one end with the pitch black legs on the other end separated by a large white body.
Another Great Egret flew past me for a perfect photo in the morning light, HMNWR, WI; 10/2/2011.
According to
a collective group of egrets can be called a "congregation", "heronry", "RSVP", "skewer", or a "wedge" of egrets. I don't make this up, folks.

Greater Yellowlegs, Horicon Marsh NWR

A flock of Greater Yellowlegs appeared at the Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge in early October; 10/2/2011.
I decided to take another trip to the Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge four weeks ago and was rewarded with my 331st and 332nd entries onto my Life List - the Gadwall (no pics of noteworthy) and the Greater Yellowlegs (Above).  A year ago I saw my first Lesser Yellowlegs in the same refuge (  my 11/7/2010 post ). So it is cool that almost exactly a year later in the same location I see my first Greater Yellowlegs.

A Greater Lellowlegs, Horicon Marsh NWR, Wisconsin; 10/2/2011.
The main difference between the Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs is of course its size. The Greater is larger (Hence its name) at 14" in length, compared to the Lesser's 10 1/2" length. However because the size of a bird seeing at a distance is not always obvious, esp. if you have nothing reliable to compare it to, the easier identifying trait is its bill. The Greater's bill is longer than its head and has a slight upward curve (Above), while the Lesser's bill is about the same length as its head and is straight (see my link above to my Lesser Yellowlegs post).
Another Greater Yellowlegs, HMNWR, WI; 10/2/2011.
In the summer months, Greater Yellowlegs can be found in the northern regions of Canada and the southern coast of Alaska. In the winter they will migrate south to the coastal states of the Gulf of Mexico as well as the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. So my sightings of these larger sandpipers are while they are in the midst of their migration route.

Greater Yellowlegs feeding on an invertabrae, HMNWR, WI; 10/2/2011.

Greater Yellowlegs in flight showing off its yellow legs, HMNWR, WI; 10/2/2011.
Another Greater Yellowlegs, HMNWR, WI; 10/2/2011.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Great Horned Owl, Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve

A rare sight of a Great Horned Owl in broad daylight, Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve, Rockford, IL; 10/1/2011
I have seen and heard Great Horned Owls all my life, but since I have taken up bird photography as a hobby, they have eluded me with all their efforts. I have never seen one close enough, unobstructed enough, nor in the daylight as I did earlier this month while hiking in the Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve (Above).  I was patiently waiting for a Ruby-crowned Kinglet to show itself in a nearby briarberry bush (I think - I am not very good at identifying plants) when a large shadow crossed over me. I expected to see a crow, but as I caught a glimpse of the bird creating the shadow, it was far too large to be a crow. Its wing beats were too slow and flying too high to be a wild turkey, so I figured it was a turkey vulture. As luck would have it, it alit on an exposed branch only about 100 feet from me, midway up a tree. As soon as it landed and I had a clear view of it, I knew it was an owl, and I was excited for two reasons. One, I have never seen an owl this close in the daylight while I had a camera, and two, I do not have any good photos of owls in my collection of bird photographs. My heart beat a little faster as I moved into a position to get a good line on it, hoping it would not fly away before I could focus. It stayed put and eyed me warily, as I snapped off a few photos, and inched closer with each new click. Eventually it turned its head away from me, but stayed on the branch.

The same Great Horned Owl, Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve, Rockford, IL; 10/1/2011
Great Horned Owls are very widespread, and can be found in virtually every corner of North America year round, from Mexico to Alaska, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, except for perhaps parts of the Arctic Circle. As widespread as they are, they are still an uncommon sight, especially during daylight hours, as they are basically nocturnal and like secluded spots. They are one of our larger owl species as they grow to 22" in length with a wingspan of 44". Indeed this one (Above) was probably at its optimum size; the shadow it threw as it flew overhead was enormous. I felt very fortunate to see and photograph it and I counted it as my 330th identified bird on my Life List and the 194th different bird I identified this year.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Sage Thrasher at Mono Lake, CA

A Sage Thrasher checking out its territory at Mono Lake, CA; 6/16/2009
As I was chasing Violet-Green Swallows around the unique formations of Mono Lake a couple of years ago, another bird appeared suddenly scattering all the swallows off their perches. It was a Sage Thrasher (Above) which posed proudly for a few seconds before disappearing again.

The same Sage Thrasher
Its long bill and yellow eyes, a trademark of most thrashers, were very evident even while I was several yards away. This is the only time I have seen a Sage Thrasher and upon seeing it, I guessed it was a thrasher or thrush  of some type. After getting a better look at it on my computer, I was able to identify it in my Sibley Guide. Sage Thrashers are fairly common in the sage brush plains of Wyoming, Nevada , Utah, and Colorado, as well as further north into Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana, and slightly into Western California. I probably saw this guy in its farthest western range. During the Winter months it will migrate into southern Texas, Arizona, and the Baja Peninsuala and much of Mexico.
The unique calcium-carbonate spires of Mono Lake, CA; 6/16/2009.
While researching places to visit during our trip to Yosemite Nat. Park, I came across images of Mono Lake, and knew right away that I didn't want to miss this area with its unique towers (Above) made of calcium-carbonate. I certainly wasn't disappointed. it was a very photogenic lake.
The snow-streaked Sierra Nevada Mountains prove to be a great backdrop for the spires of Mono Lake, CA; 6/16/2009.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Rock Wren

A Rock Wren, Petrified Wood State Park, Utah; 6/11/2009
While hiking in Escalante country, where I was doing some canyoneering, I kept hearing a series of ringing buzzes fo quite some time before I finally spotted what was making the sound. It was a Rock Wren which landed briefly on a rock (of course) next to me on the trail. Rock Wrens (Above) are another Desert Wren, but not as common as yesterday's post of the Cactus Wren. This wren is found more in the higher altitudes and in the mountains, often on the rocky talus slopes. It is also one of the larger Wrens at 6" in length and its buzzy sound is known to carry over a great distance.  Rock Wrens aren't as colorful as the Cactus Wren and is more in tone with its smaller cousins - House and winter Wrens - with their drab grayish brown bodies, but like all wrens also sports a long bill.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Cactus Wrens

A young Cactus Wren in the Sonoran Desert hasn't grown its buffy flank and belly feathers yet, Tuscon, AZ; 12/27/2009
Cactus Wrens (Above) are common in the desert. Almost every time I visit the Southwest, I see them. They can be found in the southern halves of Arizona and New Mexico, extreme South California and the Baja Peninsula, as well as the western half of Texas and into Mexico.
This Cactus Wren posing in the McDowell Mts. Regional Park, Phoenix, AZ;
Cactus Wrens are the largest of the North American Wren family growing to 8 1/2" in length; whereas, most of the other Wrens range from 4" to 6" in length. Their earth tone colors contrast beautifully from their reddish brown crown set off with a long white eyebrow, to their buffy belly and white breast which are spotted with dense dark brown markings. Their brown wings and tails are crisscrossed with white and darker markings almost like a checkerboard pattern.
Another look at a Cactus Wren in the McDowell Mt. Reg. Park, Phoenix, AZ; 12/30/2009.
Because of its size and noisy disposition, the Cactus Wren (Above) was so visible and creating so much noise with its rattling song (almost like a gigantic cicada sounding insect) that I totally didn't even see the Black-throated Sparrow that was perched directly below it in the same bush (Below) until I was viewing my photos later in the day.
The very visible Cactus Wren on the top of the bush takes the focus away from the smaller Black-throated Sparrow perched just below it, McDowell Mts., Phoenix, AZ; 12/30/2009.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


Verdin, Phoenix, AZ;12/25/2009
On an early Christmas morning in Phoenix, a couple of years ago, I was walking back from the neighborhood golf course in Phoenix, a place where I go to check out lots of great water birds in the water hazards, I saw a flock of small birds scatter from the ground and hide into a small tree along the sidewalk. I wasn't sure what they were, so I waited patiently for a few minutes to see if they would eventually show themselves, which they did. One came out from the thick branches and landed on an open branch and stayed put long enough for me to get a couple of good pictures (Above). I still wasn't sure what it was, but knew it waasn't a usual bird that I would see back home in Rockford, IL.

Verdin, Phoenix, AZ;12/25/2009
After reviewing the images on my memory stick later in the day, I had to look up this little guy, which turned out to be a Verdin (Above). Verdins are fairly common in the southwest (Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and into Mexico. They can be usually found in brushy habitats. They are a small (4 1/2" long) gray bird, lighter underneath with a yellow head and a small red wing patch. They are similar to chickadees and bushtits.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

California Condor

Val's photo of a California Condor in the Vermillion Cliffs, near Page, AZ; 12/22/2009.
Two winters ago, Val and I decided to spend a few days in Northern Arizona and check out the Lake Powell area near Page, AZ.  This was to be a trip all about  the scenery and trying to get a few pictures of the beautiful high desert and the Lake.  On our first morning there we were planning to make the 100+ mile drive out towards Monument Valley, when we were met with heavy fog (Below) and a fierce snow storm which forced us to turn back before we had gone even 30 miles.  Being in Arizona, I figured the snow would be temporary and we could drive through it, but it didn't stop or even lighten up; it became heavier with each mile. I never thought snow would accumulate so quickly in Northern Arizona, even in December, but both the snow and fog were thick, and with our little rent-a-car, we knew it wouldn't handle the conditions and reluctantly turned around and headed back to Page.

A lonely windmill peaking through the thick fog, Page, AZ; 12/22/2009.

Snow on a Prickly Pear Cactus, Page, AZ; 12/22/2009.
By the time we returned to Page, the snow stopped, but it was still foggy, and we needed an alternate plan. We decided to go in the opposite direction and head for the Vermillion Cliffs to try to get some photos showing the contrast of the snow on deep red rocks (Below) and desert vegetation (Above).
Snow on a "headless Sphynx-looking" rock formation in the Vermillion Cliffs; 12/22/2009.

Red cliffs showing through the lifting fog near Horse Shoe Bend, AZ; 12/22/2009.
Even though we didn't get to see the beautiful Vermillion Cliffs glowing in the sun, the fog and snow made for some cool dramatic photos (Above). While we were exploring the Vermillion Cliffs area we came across the Navajo Bridge spanning across the Colorado River. It was constructed in 1929, and is now a pedestrian bridge with a newer auto bridge constructed alongside it in 1995. We stopped to walk across the bridge in hopes of getting some cool Colorado River pics, so I just brought my 18-55mm and wide angle lenses with me. When we reached the other end of the bridge I spotted a huge black bird sitting on the cliff side and knew it wasn't a vulture and far too large for a crow or raven. It turned out to be a Condor (Top and Below) and I immediately regretted not bringing my 200mm lens with me.

A California Condor with a number tag (#4) on it, Vermillion Cliffs, AZ; 12/22/2009.
I managed a couple of long distance shots, hoping one might be worth keeping. The best I managed was a soft photo (Above) that I had to zoom in on the computer just to be able to see what it was.  Val had her Tamron 18-270mm lens and some nice photos of a Condor with a #17 tag on it (Top of page in which I cloned out the tag in Photoshop). We weren't sure what was up with the tags but upon returning to our hotel in Page and doing some research, it wasn't hard to figure out that the birds we saw were California Condors, which were reintroduced in Southern California and the Grand Canyon in 1992 after being on the brink of extinction with less than 100 left in the wild by 1970. California Condors are the largest flying bird in North America at almost 4 feet long and a wingspan of 9 feet.  For more information check out the link to a National Geographic article below...
These magnificent birds are mostly black in their juvenile stage, which are the Condors we saw and as they mature, their heads become a brilliant orange and grow white underwing coverts.  I would love to see an adult California Condor some day, but felt very fortunate to see a couple of them in the wild as a great treat to what I thought was just a sight seeing trip.
Snow melting off some desert vegetaion, Page, AZ; 12/22/2009.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

White-headed Woodpecker & Black Bears on North Dome Trail, Yosemite Nat. Park

Val's photo of a White-headed Woodpecker on the North Dome Trail, Yosemite National Park, CA; 6/21/2009.
Two years ago while hiking on the North Dome Trail in Yosemite National Park, I kept seeing an interesting woodpecker with a white head along the trail, but by the time I could get a focus on it, it was gone. After that hike, wherever we went hiking in the park, I kept an eye open hoping to get another chance to see this woodpecker. But didn't see another one for the week we spent in Yosemite. Since we were tent camping (with no electricity), we couldn't always have access to see our photos, so some evenings we went to a local lodge to plug in our laptops and check out our photos.  A couple of days later while Val and I were looking at our pictures, I noticed she had a couple of photos of the White-headed Woodpecker (Above and Below).
Another of Val's photo of the White-headed Woodpecker.
White-headed Woodpeckers are not very common, but when they are observed, they are usually seen in mature coniferous woods. They are found mostly in the Northwest and California. They have a black body with a ... guess what ... a white head and a white patch on their wings. Val took a photos of the female, as the male looks the same except with a red crown.
Val on the North Dome Trail, Yosemite National Park, CA; 6/21/2009.
The North Dome Trail was a great trail with super scenery and vistas (Above). On our return back to the trail head there was a couple from Norway that was a good hundred yards ahead of us. About midway back I noticed that we were gaining on the couple, even though we ahdn't picked up our pace. I figured they stopped for a snack or to take photos and that slowed them up. Pretty soon I noticed that, not only were we gaining on them very quickly, but  they were actually coming back towards us. When they reached us, they told us there was a mother bear and her cubs on the trail, and were afraid to walk past it. I suggested that we all walk past together. The general rule of thumb is that bears will not attack a party of three or more, and since there were four of us, that was pretty good odds. As we approached, the bear was feeding next to a fallen log (Below) not more than a few feet off the trail, and its two cubs had climbed up the sides of two separate tree trunks behind her, probably from orders of their mother for safety. As we walked past the bear, she didn't even give us a look - just kept feeding. I assume that as long as her babies were behind her, they were protected and she felt they were safe from us. It would have been a different story if we happened to get in between her and her cubs - that's when mother bears get aggressive - if they feel their cubs are in danger. As we walked past, I tried to get a few photos without actually stopping because I didn't want the mother to feel threatened.

A mother black bear on the North Dome Trail in Yosemite Nat. Park; 6/21/2009.
Even though the bear above is brown, it is still considered a black bear, not a grizzly (which are cosidered the brown bear). Many black bears, especially those in California are lighter and more on the brown side than black. It's cub however was more on the black side (Below) and would probably turn lighter as it matured.
One of her cubs clinging to the side of a tree trunk. I didn't get a photo of the the other club, as I felt it wasn't in our best interest to loiter around the area.
Nothing makes for a good hike than great scenery and the added plus of wildlife. The bear and her cubs weren't the only bears we encountered on this hike. I took another interesting photo of a bear (Below).

It looks kind of like a bear head, doesn't it? North Dome Trail, Yosemite Nat. Park; 6/21/2009.
Actually it wasn't a real bear. It was a tree that had a growth on it's trunk that seemed to be in the shape of a bear's face (Above). I love nature!