Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

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The shots came from the direction of the rookery.  Guy Bradley didn’t hesitate as he checked his rifle, pushed the skiff into the water, and went to investigate.  Although he hoped otherwise, he feared the shots were from plume hunters making another assault on the rookery where the snowy egrets, ibises, and herons were abundant targets.  Hired in 1902 he was a deputy of the American Ornithologists’ Union and himself a converted plume hunter, but now, at age 35, sworn to protect the Florida birds from these poachers.  As he warily approached rookery he was not surprised to see Walter Smith and his two sons loading the dead birds into their boat.  He had previously arrested them for poaching and was aware of their threats if he ever tried to arrest them again.  Unfortunately they fulfilled their threat and Bradley’s body was found by his brothers the next day in the bottom of his boat.

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Victorian Plume Hat

 

The Bradley family moved to South Florida from Chicago in 1876 when Guy was 6 years old.  Instead of the more common westward migration of the era, they joined others looking to make their fortunes in railroad and real estate development in the undeveloped swamps and marshland of Florida.  As a teenager Guy worked as a fishing and hunting guide and became a scout for the noted French plume hunter Jean Chevalier.  The plumes, especially those acquired with the birds in full mating glory, brought prices of more than $20 an ounce, more than the price of gold, in the New York millinery industry of the late 19th and early 20th century.  The fashion was for large, gaudy hats, adorned with feathers, and sometimes even the whole stuffed bird.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

The Lacey Act of 1900 outlawed the trafficking of illegally acquired wildlife and recognized the stresses on the wading birds of Florida.  The roots of the early conservation movement began to take hold.  Game warden Bradley had the almost impossible task of covering a territory extending from Miami, across the Great Cypress Swamp and Everglades to 10,000 Islands on the west coast, and south to Key West.  His early work in educating the public, enforcing the law, and resulting murder made him the first martyr of the early conservation movement.  Eventually changes in fashion, further laws, better enforcement, and the efforts of the National Audubon Society and others finally brought this sorry chapter to a close.

Corkscrew Boardwalk

Corkscrew Boardwalk

The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, an 13,000 acre preservation of unspoiled Southwest Florida in the western Everglades wetland, is a monument to those early conservation successes, but the story doesn’t end with the control of the plume hunters.  The history of Florida is also about ongoing water management issues; the damming, draining, rerouting, and utilization of fresh water.  Its about its natural resources, mining, logging the bald cypress forests, and the vast sugar cane and citrus plantations. Its about finding a formula for sustainable population growth and development, while preserving some of our past.

Blue Flag Iris

Blue Flag Iris

Corkscrew has been at the forefront of these effort since was acquired by the Audubon Society in 1954.  Starting in the 1930’s  the development of railroads in South Florida made the logging of the Bald Cypress forests feasible.  The hard wood was valuable and much was shipped to Europe for reconstruction of that continent following World War II.  With the loggers getting ever closer to the Corkscrew and its large stand of virgin trees dating back 500-600 years, the Audubon Society was able to acquire the property and save the forest.

Boardwalk across the Wet Prairie

Boardwalk across the Wet Prairie

Early development in South Florida was understandably all about draining the central swamps.  The only land high enough for initial settlement was the narrow highlands along each coast.  From as far north as present day Orlando the rain and ground water flowed south to massive Lake Okeechobee, which periodically flooded its southern banks, creating a massive “river of grass” supplying the Cypress Swamp and Everglades with fresh water, but making central Florida inaccessible. The fall was only 2 inches per mile, but just enough to allow the inexorable flow of water to the south creating in the words of forester Gifford Pinchot, “a region so different that it hardly seems to belong to the United States.  It is full of the most vivid and interesting life on land, in the air, and in the water.  It is a land of strangeness, separate and apart from the common things we all know so well.”

Gator in the salad soup

Gator in the salad soup

The last quarter of the 20th century was all about the restoration of this southern flow of water, previously disrupted by dams, dikes, and canals, in hopes of saving the Everglades and Cypress Swamp.  The Corkscrew Sanctuary has benefited from this renewed supply of water and today has the largest stand of old growth Bald Cypress in the world.  It is home to the largest nesting colony of Wood Storks in North America, countless other wading birds, and other subtropical fauna and flora.

Cypress Stand

Cypress Stand

I’m a member of Corkscrew Sanctuary and usually visit 4 or 5 times a year.  On my last visit I decided to leave the telephoto bird lens home and take some wider angle views of this wonderful site for this post.  As luck would have it the fog rolled in that morning, but it did create an ephemeral mood, so fitting to this place.  I’ll create a later post specifically about my experiences Birding Corkscrew.

If your interested in further reading about the plume hunters I recommend Death in the Everglades:  The Murder of Guy Bradley, America’s First Martyr to Environmentalism, by Stuart B. McIver.

What’s In a Bird’s Name?

Mimus polyglottos

Mimus polyglottos

 What’s in a name?  that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.

William Shakespeare

Georg W. Steller huddled down in the crowded makeshift hut as the bitter cold wind whistled through the cracks.  In addition to the hunger and frostbite, many of the crew were also showing early signs of scurvy.  Captain Bering had already succumbed, and others were sure to follow.  If they could just make it until spring, perhaps the agile survivors could construct a boat to carry them back to Kamchatka.

German-born Steller met Danish navigator and explorer Vitus J. Bering in spring of 1741 and signed onto the ship St. Peter as a naturalist.  Bering planned to map a northern sea route from the east coast of Russia to North America, but in November the expedition stalled in the frigid treacherous seas.  The battered ship finally broke up at anchor off Bering Island and only a few made it to shore.  Some, including Steller did survive and eventually returned to Kamchatka in the spring of 1742.

During this ordeal, as hard as it is to imagine, Steller functioned as a naturalist and birder, recording several animals previously unknown to science.  This included the Steller’s sea cow, soon thereafter hunted to extinction, and the Steller’s Jay, still gracing the western skies.  Steller died four years later trying to return overland to St. Petersburg through Siberia.

Steller's Jay

Seller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)

Turdus migratorius

Turdus migratorius

Some bird names are visual no-brainers–Northern Cardinal, Glossy Ibis, Red-winged Blackbird, etc.  Other names are a little more subtle, describing birds song or behavior–Chickadee, Kiskadee, Towhee, Flycatcher, etc.  The latin genus and species designations occasionally suggest a hint of humor in the high priests of bird namers–Mimus polyglottos for a Northern Mockingbird, or Turdus migratorius for an American Robin.  But the bird names that intrigue me the most are those bearing someone’s proper name.  Who were these people and how do they rate having a bird bear their name?

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

Of the roughly 10,000 bird species about 1,400 have people’s names, and some lucky people are associated with multiple birds.  As I tracked down the life stories of these people, it became obvious that it is an impressive list of primarily 18th and 19th century naturalists and ornithologists, sometimes going to life-threatening lengths to find new species.  Some named the birds after themselves and others were honored by others.  Let me give a few examples.

Bonaparte’s Gull, Wilson’s storm-petrel, Cooper’s Hawk– The gull is not named after Napoleon Bonaparte, but rather his nephew Charles Lucien Bonaparte (1803-1857).  Charles was active in both the birding and political spheres in America and Europe.  In 1822, on a voyage to America with his new wife he discovered a new storm-petrel, later named after Alexander Wilson, not himself. He also named the mid-sized Accipiter after William Cooper who first collected a specimen of this hawk in 1828.  Later he unsuccessfully tried to get his fellow countryman, John James Audubon into the American Academy of Natural Sciences.  In 1827 he convinced the birding world to create a new genus for the Mourning Dove and similar birds, and named the genus “Zenaida” after his wife.  Politics was also in his blood and after moving to Italy, he was elected to the Assembly and helped create the Roman Republic, later defending it from an attack from his French brother Louis Napoleon in 1849.

Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura

Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

Anna’s Hummingbird– I’m not aware of another bird named with a given name.  Anna Massena (1802-1887) was the Italian Duchess of Rivoli and was forever linked to this beautiful bird by Rene Primevere Lesson, a French Naval officer in the Napoleonic Wars and subsequent world-wide traveler and naturalist.  The nature of his relationship with Anna seems unclear???  He was the first European to see the Bird-of-Paradise in New Guinea and published a book of hummingbirds, including Anna’s.

Anna's Hummingbird

Anna’s Hummingbird

Clark’s Nutcracker–  William Clark (1770-1838) is an American hero, a child of the frontier West, educated at home, and partner of Merriweather Lewis in their famous exploration of the Louisiana Purchase from 1803 to 1806.  He probably cannot be called a naturalist but did identify the nutcracker as a new bird on his trek to the Pacific Northwest.  He later became Superintendent of Indian Affairs and Governor of the Missouri Territory.

Wilson’s storm-petrel, plover, phalarope, snipe, and warbler-  Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) is rightly considered the “Father of American Ornithology”.  Born in Scotland, Wilson was a weaver and poet in his early life, emigrating to Pennsylvania in 1794.  Inspired by naturalist William Bartram he became the most prolific painter and ornithologist prior to Audubon.  The 9-volume American Ornithology is his culminating classic showing 268 bird species, 26 of which had never been painted or described.

Cassin’s auklet, kingbird, vireo, sparrow, and finch–John Cassin (1813-1869), a Pennsylvanian Quaker and taxonomist pushed the North American birding frontier westward naming 198 new western birds not previously seen or described by Wilson or Audubon.  His engravings were published in his Birds of California.  Cassin died from arsenic poisioning resulting from his preservation of bird skins.

Similar accounts could go on and on, but you get the point.  The 18th and 19th centuries were the epitome of exciting exploration and classification.  There seemed to be new lands, animals, and birds over every horizon, just waiting to be discovered by the adventurous few who are rightly memorialized in the birds’  names.  Today, new bird discoveries are rare and the names seem set, but if you ever do run across a new bird, just remember that “Brigham’s woodpecker” or “Mimus brighami” have a nice ring to them.

After penning this post I came across a wonderful and entertaining reference, Whose Bird, by Bo Beolens and Michael Watkins.  They have researched and compiled a mini-biography of the 1400 people whose name is associated with a bird.  Life has been made easier–the hard work has already been done.

Backyard Birding

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My yard, your yard.  It’s the quiet, familiar place we visit to think or commune with our natural world and the outdoor spaces we have carefully created, at nature’s slow pace, planting trees, shrubs, and bulbs, with a hope of what they may become.  But we also build stone walls to try to deny time’s inexorable march.  We won’t always live here, but someone will.  Will they wonder about the planter and designer of this yard and notice the careful plan?  Will they maintain the bird houses and stock the feeders? Will they appreciate the birds?  I hope so.

Osprey with catch

Osprey with catch

The birder has the added joy of creating an avian refuge, and witnessing the seasonal changes in birds occupying the various micro-climates throughout the yard.  Some birds will make it their permanent or seasonal home, and some will just pass through, but all add to the our satisfaction.

Canada Geese

Canada Geese

Twenty some years ago I stumbled upon an Eastern Shore farm on a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay being subdivided into residential lots. Zoning regulations required that the majority of the farm be maintained as an inland, undeveloped field and forest, but the waterfront portion was available for 6 homesites. Our choice was a flat, treeless field, with a collapsing and eroding waterline, but a property with great potential.  There was the shallow cove on the north side and wide open views of the islands to the west. A one acre fresh water pond was dug on the adjacent lot by the developer to act as a silt catcher from the field’s runoff, but the pond was easily visible from our projected home site.  We took the leap and bought it.

Killdeer

Killdeer

It was several years before we could begin construction of the home but the plantings were begun immediately.  Twenty-five generous-sized loblollies were used to define the lane and several hundred saplings of native black cherry, russian olive, red cedar and loblollies were planted along the east boundary with hopes of someday becoming a protecting hedgerow for the birds.  We elected to keep much of the grasslands as meadow, only creating a manicured lawn near the house and sowed wildflowers with some success.  Year by year native trees (red maple, silver maple, sycamore, green ash, willow oak, and more loblollies) were added, and I let the wind-spread and bird-deposited seeds of the red cedar take root wherever they landed.  Now, 25 years later as I bird in the yard, I marvel at the transformation and abundant birdlife.  If you build it, they will come.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

I started birding in the yard long before there was a house.  A Killdeer, trying to build a nest on the gravel drive, and then faking injury as I approached, was one of my first entries into the yard list. Regrettably they are not as frequently seen today.  Mute swans, nesting in the tidal marsh along the cove were also not happy to see me or my dog in those early days.  One attacked me and my wife as we explored the shoreline by kayak, and another actually went after me on the John Deere tractor.  We clearly changed the land and the wildlife had to adjust, but overall we were eco-friendly.

Mallards

Mallards

So, is back-yard birding the realm of the lazy birder or something more?  It is definitely the latter.  Its joy stems from witnessing the rhythm of bird-life, just outside the kitchen window, at the feeder, or off the back porch; from hearing the hooting Great Horned Owl, even when before the snow melts; hearing the Red-wing Blackbirds staking out their territory in early spring in the wetlands along the cove; greeting the returning Osprey or Eastern Kingbird, home from their long trek from Central or South America; or awakening to the ever-changing repertoire of the resident Northern Mockingbird perched outside the bedroom window.  In the Chesapeake region the migrating waterfowl take center stage, entering and leaving stage left as reliably as if they could read your Audubon calendar.

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

Back yard birders learn the habits of the common birds well, instead of always traveling and searching for the rarity, but the unexpected still surprises us on occasion, even in the back yard. Like the attacking Sharp-shinned Hawk pouncing on the songbirds at the feeder, or the group of Bald Eagles feeding on carrion out by the dock.  There’s the unexpected Pine Siskins or Purple Finches at the feeder as part of the latest irruption, sharing food with the common visitors.  There’s the strange-billed solitary Surf Scoter in the cove or the distant Common Loon on the river.  I’ve learned to be ready for these spectacles by keeping the old, passed-over binoculars on window sills throughout the house and a camera close by.

Adult Bald Eagles at lunch, while the juvenile waits his turn at the table

Adult Bald Eagles at lunch, while the juvenile waits his turn at the table

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Back yard birding became formalized by the creation of “The Great Backyard Bird Count” in 1988 by the joint effort of the Cornell Lab or Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. During four days each February citizen/scientist throughout the world submit their observations and see their results become part of the data tracking species from New York to Mumbai.  In 2015 147,000+ checklists were submitted counting 5090 individual species.  Check out their great website and consider taking part next winter:  http//gbbc.birdcount.org.

I’m not a hardcore lister but do keep a yard list; it currently totals 96 species.  The first entry was a Red-breasted Merganser seen on the cove in 1996, and the last was a lone Snow Goose in the midst of a field of hundreds of Canada Geese last December. The prior entry was a Great Black-backed Gull on the dock last November.

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Snow Goose

We’re a mobile society; none of us remains in one home and one yard forever.  Even deep roots can be dislodged and planted elsewhere.  As I begin to consider down-sizing I know my biggest regret on moving day will be leaving the familiar, maturing yard and its birdlife behind.  But the farewell will be softened by the anticipation of a new, albeit smaller yard, waiting for our creative touch, and a new list starting at zero.

Book Review: The Goshawk by T.H. White

Peregrine Falcon, sorry, I do not have a photo of a Goshawk, but the Peregrine is a close but smaller cousin.

Peregrine Falcon. Sorry, I do not have a photo of a Goshawk.

The Goshawk, by T.H. White, published by the New York Review of Books, copyright 1951, 215 pages, introduction by Marie Winn.

I was browsing in the local bookstore, in the birds and wildlife section, when I saw this small paperback tucked on the bottom shelf between the large well known guides.  I tend to favor the smaller books and picked it up, but almost put it back when I discovered it was about falconry, published years ago.  No self-respecting birder would condone the enslavement of hawks, let alone pay good money to read an account of the practice from 1951.  Yet something I read on the back cover or introduction gave me pause and I made the purchase, and am glad I did.

T.H. White was an young Englishman, recently retired as an English professor and starting a literary career in 1936 when he wrote this book.  He had become a Thoreau-like recluse, living alone in a gamekeeper’s cottage, “tired of most humans”, when he received the fledging goshawk by mail-order from Germany.  The book is his non-fiction log of the training of the bird named Gos, using two dated manuals, one written in 1619, as his only guides.  It is a battle of wills, hawk vs. human, with the final result very much in doubt.  It is also the musings of an observant and perceptive naturalist with a discussion of the art and history of falconry, and what he learned about these willful birds and himself.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red-Shouldered Hawk

The Northern Goshawk is the largest accipiter of North America, primarily seen in the northern forests.  Its name is derived from the Old English words gos (goose) and hafoc (hawk). It was known in ancient times as the “Bird of Apollo” and its symbol was worn by Attilia the Hun, testifying to the bird’s fierceness and power.  According to White the “hawks are sensitive to the eye and do not like to be regarded–it is their prerogative to regard.”  These characteristics make it one of the more difficult raptors to train for falconry, a lesson learned late by the author. The book briefly describes falconry as an ancient art and sport, primarily of the nobles, dating back to Mesopotamia 3000 years ago and reaching its peak in Medieval Europe.  In typical English fashion, a hierarchy of raptors was allowed to the falconer or austringer depending on ones class; an eagle for an emperor, a peregrine for an earl, a goshawk for a yeoman, and a kestrel for a knave.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

The book has only two characters of note, the author and Gos.   Its charm stems from the detailed description of their evolving relationship during the arduous, frustrating, and laborious training of this wild bird, spanning 3 months of days, and often sleepless nights.  Who will crack first, man or bird?  The author noted that his admiration of the skills of mothers and demands of motherhood grew from the experience.

During the training the bird was restrained by jesses or leather straps around the ankles, holding him initially by a short leash to a perch or the falconer’s padded arm. The early days consisted of frequent tantrums or “batings” of the wild bird.  Batings are “the headlong dive of rage and terror, by which a leashed hawk leaps from the fist in a wild bid for freedom, and hangs upside down by his jesses in a flurry of pinions like a chicken being decapitated, revolving, struggling, in danger of damaging his primaries.  It was the falconer’s duty to lift the hawk back to the fist with his other hand with gentleness and patience, only to have him bate again, once, twice, twenty, fifty times, all night…”.  The final breaking of the bird’s will and its acceptance of its human master required, according to the ancient lore, 72 hours of sleeplessness, enforced by the also sleepless trainer, nudging the bird awake, until the bird finally relaxes it feathers, droops it wings, drops its head, and succumbs to sleep, even in the presence of its new human master.  After this ordeal the formal training could begin.

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle

“Manning” the bird involved gradually introducing the bird to the outside world, including other humans, automobiles, dogs, and other birds. The author calmly stroked the bird through each of these inevitable batings caused by new worldly contacts, and verbally soothed Gos with the frequent recitation of the hymn, Lord, My Shepherd.  White would walk the countryside for miles with Gos on his arm, and even taught the bird to perch on the handle bars of the bicycle for longer trips.  The tired falconer’s patience however had it limits as evidenced by the various nick-names asssigned to Gos through the process;  Hittite, Absalom, insane assassin, Caligula, filthy bugger, and choleric beast. Gradually the leash was lengthened and Gos could test his wings, even up to several hundred feet.  The author learned the key to enticing the bird to return to the wrist was through his stomach.  Overfeeding and overuse of food as a reward was to be avoided as William Shakespeare relates in The Taming of the Shrew:

My falcon is now sharp and passing empty;

And, till she stoop, she must not be full-gorged,

For then she never looks upon her lure.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

One finds multiple themes in this book.  One is freedom vs. enslavement;  the soaring hawk is a symbol of freedom, but when man captures it, breaks its spirit, and uses it for its own aims, nature is corrupted.  Then there’s the theme of teacher vs. pupil, or parent vs. child and the need for the instructor’s loving patience and persistence, no matter what.  I recommend this book to all who find the subject of interest; the writing is superb.  I will not give away the outcome of this adventure, other than to say life is not always as we wish it to be.  The author goes on to train multiple other birds, but in closing, sadly quotes the old proverb, “When your first wife dies, she makes such a hole in your heart that all the rest slip through”.

 Other books by T.H. White include:  The Once and Future King, The Sword in the Stone, The Book of Merlyn, and The Queen of Air and Darkness.

Birding the Pepper Ranch Preserve, South Florida

Pepper Ranch Preserve

Pepper Ranch Preserve

How did Frank Jefferson Pepper, born on a ranch in Cherry Creek, Nevada in 1880, to parents who knew Jesse James and Wyatt Earp, end up on a ranch in South Florida?  And how did we end up birding this remaining piece of disappearing “Old Florida” in March 2015?  After high school Frank made the right decision and entered the growing country’s railroad business, first in Chicago and later working for tycoon Henry Flagler as a surveyor with the Florida East Coast Extension Railroad.  Eventually, after several false starts and resets in business, Frank assumed a partnership position in another Florida railroad and acquired significant real estate holdings, including the Royal Palm Club and Gulfstream Racetrack in Miami.  He also acquired the Pepper Ranch, near Immokalee on the northern shore of Lake Trafford in 1926, as collateral on an unpaid debt and developed it as a family fishing and hunting camp and working cattle ranch. IMG_7388 The more I read about late 19th early 20th century Florida history, the more I’m struck with the similarities between it and the westward development of our country a half century earlier.  The pioneer and entrepreneurial spirit, the large ranches with round-ups, cattle drives and range disputes, the growth of the railroads, the land speculation, the big sky and flat land, the taming of the wilderness, and the friction with the displaced Native Americans, all have a similar ring.  You still get a hint of this history as you cruise the dirt roads on the 2500 acre ranch today, acquired by Collier County in 2009.  The solitude and beauty of this land is breath-taking.  In a day of birding we saw just one other birder and several ranch hands–quite a change from the other birding hotspots in Southwest Florida.IMG_7623

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My two birding partners and I seem to bring a compatible mix of skills, knowledge, and absurd puns to these adventures into the central parts of the state, making them memorable.  The driver and instigator is a long-time resident of Florida with local knowledge, always looking for the next adventure and remote location to explore.  The other is a long-time friend and photography guru, but also our safety officer, reminding us about the large gator, poisonous snake, panther, and wild boar that may be lurking behind the next palm tree. I’ve been birding the longest of the three, but am relatively new to wildlife photography, and more than happy to tag along for the birds, scenery, and fun.  On this particular day all of us were breaking in new equipment.

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret

This was not a big day in the sense of seeing a large number of species, but rather a day to see who could get the most unusual shot of the more common birds.  In that spirit I had our driver stop the car to let me out and get a close unencumbered shot of the cattle egret near that small, funny-looking dark cow.  A few seconds later I was scrambling back into the car when the safety officer noticed the definitive anatomy on my cow; it was a wild boar.  It was also a good day for Red-shouldered Hawks in flight, mating Crested Caracara, singing Eastern Meadowlarks, a Sandhill Crane family, and soaring Swallow-tailed Kites.  Did you know that the Kites eat their prey in flight, rather than returning to a perch or landing before eating, like most raptors?

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

Crested Caracara sharing an intimate moment

Crested Caracara sharing an intimate moment

Eastern Meadowlark

Eastern Meadowlark

Sandhill Crane with youngster

Sandhill Crane with youngster (sorry for the blurry image)

Swallowtail Kite with frog lunch

Swallowtail Kite with frog lunch

At the end of the long day, and perhaps 250 cattle egrets later, 3 hungry, tired, happy birders pulled into the local MacDonald’s drive thru, but low and behold, we got stuck behind another cattle egret, clearly off the ranch and struggling with his menu choice.  It was unanimous– this was the shot of the day! cattle egret at McD

Hawk Watching

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

The dull drone gradually got louder as the excited but purposeful boys, 10 and 12 years old, prepared their spotting cards and cigarette packs (each pack had a different plane silhouette on the back).  Would these approaching planes be the friendly Hampdens returning from a nighttime raid, or German bombers headed to London? The Heinkel had twin engines and small tail whereas a Dornier had an unusual elongated fuselage and wide-spaced tail fins.  The fast German Messerschmitt would be a great find, but most of the small fighters would be the friendly Hurricanes or Spitfires, intercepting  the invaders and defending the homeland.  Some say these planes could be differentiated by their sound, but these boys had become experts plane spotters by learning the characteristic silhouettes.  It was the fall of 1940 and the boys were living on a small farm in Sussex England, previously relocated here from London, the main target of the blitz, with a dozen other children.  No doubt about it–these were Dorniers, headed toward the city!  The boys called their observation to the local Home Guard before the planes were even out of site, happy that they were doing their part.

“Friendly” B24 Flyover, Penn Yan, New York, 2012

Seventy falls later I was sitting on a elevated wooden spotting platform on the western shore of Delaware Bay.  Not far away, along the beach, was a tall concrete observation tower, built in 1941 to help protect the homeland from German ships and submarines.  During those war years it was important for our coastal defense but was now crumbling and overrun with vines.  I had my spotting cards ready, thankfully scanning the skies for hawks rather than bombers, but using the same spotting techniques perfected by those English boys a generation ago.

Have you ever noticed, when birding with a group, if someone spots a hawk or eagle flyover everyone leaves their warbler or sparrow to train their glass on the raptor?  The excitement picks up and the ID process begins.  There is a mystique about these large birds, heightened by their hunting behavior, armed with sinister beak and claws, always ready for the next kill.

American Kestrel

American Kestrel

To review the basic classification there are the Buteos, Accipiters, and Falcons, with the side groups of Eagles, Vultures, Harriers, and Kites which I’ll discuss on a later post. The English schoolboys may have thought of the Buteos as the bombers, the Accipiters as the fighters, and the Falcons as the dive bombers. Years ago, before the age of binoculars, the ID was made by shooting the bird and then examining the field marks, bird in hand.  The advent of good binoculars lets one check field marks on close or perching birds, but these details are rarely visible on the high, soaring, backlit raptors one usually encounters in the field, especially during spring or fall migration.  This is where the silhouette ID’s of WWII are applied to hawk watching.  Relative size, shape, wing-beat, behavior, location, and gross or large markings have become birder’s main tools, replacing the more subtle field marks.

Soaring Red-tailed Hawks

Soaring Red-tailed Hawks

A couple trips to the hawk watch platform at Cape May and Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania introduced me to the basic concepts.  Learn the common birds first.  In the pictures above and below the ID is easy.  These are large buteos with wide wings and a dark leading edge or patagium on the center 1/3 of the wings, and dark comma seen on the outer 2/3’s.  It can only be a Red-tailed Hawk, my most common hawk sighting in Maryland.  The red tail itself is often not visible, but is obvious on the photo below.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

The Red-shouldered is the most common buteo I see in Florida, but it is usually found perching in the woodlands watching for small prey, rather than soaring.  Some say its a buteo that acts more like an accipiter. When seen in the air it is distinctly smaller than the Red-tailed with a more rapid wing beat and distinct call.  Its a gorgeous raptor.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

The smaller, long-tailed Accipiters come in small, medium, and large (Sharp-shinned, Coopers, and Northern Goshawk) and are referred to by Pete Dunne, et-al in “Hawks in Flight” as the “artful dodgers” for their rapid agile flight.  This accounts for my limited photography of these.  The Sharpie’s and Cooper’s however do have specific silhouettes making their ID easier.  The small Sharpie has a “T” configuration with the head barely visible, whereas the larger Cooper’s looks more like a “t” with obvious head projecting in front of the wings.  I have not seen a Goshawk.

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

The Falcons commonly seen in the East also come in small, medium and large (American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon).  These are the fastest raptors with long, narrow, pointed wings, and are commonly seen in open spaces on purposeful straight-line flight, usually targeting small birds.  The Kestrel or sparrow hawk is the falcon most commonly seen by me.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

Merlin

Merlin

If seeing a single raptor is exciting, little compares with the accounts of large kettles of hundreds and thousands of birds observed during migration along the flyways.  Reportedly the premiere location to witness this natural phenomenon is Veracruz, Mexico, situated along the coastal lowlands where the flyways of eastern North America converge over the narrowing isthmus of southern Mexico.  Hawk watchers there report a hundred thousand raptors and vultures per day at peak migration.  I have not been to Veracruz, but the next best place to witness the fall migration is Hawk Mountain, Kempton, Pennsylvania, which I have visited.  Visit the web site for a history of this venerable site, set aside as a protected sanctuary in 1934 by Rosalie Edge.  www.hawkmountain.org

View from Hawk Mountains toward numbered peaks

View from Hawk Mountains toward numbered peaks

I usually do not go on trips solely for birding, but on a recent beautiful September weekend we made a memorable trip to Hawk Mountain–my first visit.  This rock strewn ridge or small mountain is at 1500 feet elevation and the north face, at the end of a relatively easy 2 mile climb provides a unobstructed view to the northeast and adjacent glacial ridges.  The raptors use the updrafts from these to conserve energy in their yearly fall migration to the south, giving birders a wonderful opportunity to observe and count.  The trail was deserted, but as we made the final climb to the summit we were surprised to find a dozen or more birders or hawkers, all settled in to the most comfortable rocky seats, with scopes and binoculars at the ready, and coolers on hand.  These people clearly knew what they were doing, were here for the day, and smart enough to bring a cushion. They have helpfully numbered the subtle peaks to the northeast and the watchers would call out, “hawk over peak #3 heading to the right”.  We’d all look for the bird, initially just a spot above the horizon, until someone would make an ID as the bird closed, perhaps by consulting the silhouette cheat sheet. When it approached our summit you could get a picture with a long lens, but remember, this was primarily long distance viewing.  The stuffed owl on the pole in the picture above occasionally caused a close encounter, but usually the hawks passed by at moderate altitude.

Hawk Mountain

Hawk Mountain

We spent two wonderful half days on the mountain, learned much about hawk ID, and just enjoyed the hike and scenery.  Our hawk count was relatively low as we were rushing migration season by a few weeks, but we did see 9 species of raptors and vultures and many other birds along the trail.  I’ve experienced the mystique of these raptors and someday may make the trek to Veracruz. I also remember those English school boys and bet they would have made great hawk spotters as well.

Bird Photography II

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In an earlier post I listed some basic photography techniques for birders:  get close and low, take many pictures, avoid over-exposure by checking photos frequently, and focus on the bird’s eye.  I also made the distinction between photo-birding, the use of a camera to help with bird ID’s, and bird photography, the goal of which is to obtain the “perfect” photo.  In this post I’ll list the basic DSLR camera settings that I have found most useful for bird photography. Remember, like many of you, I am relatively new to this hobby and these are all evolving techniques.  Some have been recommended to me by other photographers, and some learned in the field by trial and error. For those new to DSLR its time to move away from automatic mode and test your wings with some semi-automatic and manual settings.  Relax, its easier than you think.  What can go wrong?  You’re not wasting film.  I use Canon equipment, but Nikon and other vendors have similar settings, albeit with different names.

Shoot in AV Mode- (A Mode for Nikon)  This aperture priority mode accomplishes several goals critical to bird photography.  It allows you to select the depth of the field (DOF) that will be in focus, and also automatically selects the appropriate shutter speed.  Most think that bird pictures are more pleasing when the bird is in focus and the foreground and background are pleasantly blurred or out of focus (a narrow depth of field).  The blurry background is referred to as bokeh and its pleasing appearance is an innate function of your lens’s ability to handle out-of-focus points of light–some are better than others with this.  In AV Mode I put the F-stop as low as it goes, narrowing the DOF to its minimum.  The DOF is also determined by the focal length of the lens you are using (longer or telephoto lenses have a narrower DOF) and the distance from the camera to the subject (closer subjects will have a narrower DOF).  The low F-stop opens the aperture wide, allowing the most light to strike the image sensor, which in turn gives you a fast shutter speed.  If you desire a wider DOF, say in shooting a flock of birds that you want in focus, just increase the F-stop, but beware as this will slow your shutter speed.

Double-crested Cormorant.  This shot illustrates the effects of limiting depth of field.  Focus is at foreground bird with his friends progressively blurred.

Double-crested Cormorant. This shot illustrates the effects of limiting depth of field. Focus is at foreground bird with his friends progressively blurred.

Shutter Speed-  Luckily in AV Mode the shutter speed is automatically kept as fast as possible for the chosen aperture or F-stop.  Birds usually are not good at posing for your pictures, so you will usually need a shutter speed at least 1/500 second, and even up to 1/1000 or faster for twitching birds or birds in flight.  If you notice that your shutter speeds are slower than this while shooting in AV Mode, just increase your ISO.  If your lens is not image stabilized the faster speeds also minimizes unsharpness due to camera shake.

Costa's Hummingbird.  Notice wing blur at shutter speed of 1/320 sec.

Costa’s Hummingbird. Notice wing blur at shutter speed of 1/320 sec.

Anna's Hummingbird.  Wings now sharp with shutter speed of 1/3200 sec.

Anna’s Hummingbird. Wings now sharp with shutter speed of 1/3200 sec.

ISO-  In the field, after putting your camera in AV Mode and setting the F-stop wide open, the ISO is one of only two additional settings you’ll need to adjust, depending on lighting.  The ISO controls the light sensitivity of the camera’s sensor and is equivalent to the ASA of film in the pre-digital age.  The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the detector, and the faster the shutter speed.  So while birding, when you leave the brightly lit field and go into the dimmer forest, just turn up the ISO.  You can try a practice exposure in the woods just to be sure the speed is 1/500 or faster; if not, just crank up the ISO some more.  You may ask, why not just keep the ISO high at all times?  In photography, as in life, everything is a trade-off.  Higher ISO settings result in a grainy image.  Generally, to get a sharp image you should try to keep the ISO as low possible but still obtain a fast enough exposure to freeze the bird.  You’ll find that the newer digital cameras allow much higher ISO settings before graininess becomes an issue.  I usually start the day at an ISO of 400, but can go up to several thousand with the Canon 7DII camera.

Exposure Compensation-  Prominently displayed on your camera screen or menu you’ll see the adjustable scale of exposure compensation, incremental by thirds into positive and negative ranges.  This is the other lighting adjustment that you will often need to change, increasing or subtracting light in the exposure depending on natural sunlight, bird color, etc.  I would suggest shooting with neutral or zero compensation initially and checking and adjusting from there as needed.  You’ll find that when shooting a white bird in bright light you’ll need to adjust well into the negative range, and the opposite for a dark or black bird.  This fine tuning will become second nature in time.  Remember its better to be under than overexposed.  Underexposures can usually be salvaged by post-processing, but over-exposed pixels are gone forever.

American Crow.  Exposure of black feathers required positive exp. compensation.

American Crow. Exposure of black feathers required positive exp. compensation but “burned out” the unimportant tree trunk.

White Ibis.  White bird needing significant negative exposure compensation.  Even with this white feathers on back are overexposed.

White Ibis. White bird needing significant negative exposure compensation. Even with this white feathers on back are overexposed.

Focus-  Your lens probably has a settings for manual and auto-focusing.  I use auto focus almost exclusively.  Your camera allows you to choose the focus points, ranging from a single central point to various arrays of points.  While birding I use the center point and aim for the bird’s eye.  This seems to work well, even with birds in flight, but occasionally I’ll choose multiple focus points in that situation.

Barn Swallow.  Note pleasing Bokeh from narrow field of view, F5.6, and sharp focus on eye.

Barn Swallow. Note pleasing Bokeh from narrow field of view, F5.6, and sharp focus on eye.

So in summary, when you start your day birding, put your camera in AV Mode, open up the F-stop to its widest, set the ISO at 400, put exposure compensation at neutral, set the lens to auto focus, choose the single center focus point, and fire away.  These are my basic settings.  Today’s cameras allow many more adjustments, but my philosophy has been to stick with the basics first, learn them, get comfortable with your camera, and slowly add the fine tuning later.  In a later post I’ll discuss composition, post-processing, and image storage.  Good luck, the birds await.