Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

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Ardea herodias

Pentaquod, the fugitive Susquehannock had successfully escaped punishment for disagreeing with the war-like behavior of his elders in 1583, by canoeing south down the Susquehanna River, through Conowingo Falls, and into the wide open waters of the Chesapeake Bay. He had heard about the great bay but was seeing it for the first time.  Having evaded his pursuers Pentaquod could now relax and drink in the majesty of the large bay, called “the great river in which fish with hard shell coverings abound” by native Americans. He chose to settle on a small uninhabited island near the mouth of the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore.  Near morning he was suddenly awakened by a loud kraannk, kraannk, kraannk. Initially thinking his pursuers had finally caught him, he was relieved to see the call came from the “fishing-long-legs” flying away, a bird he had rarely seen and never heard near his home further north.  Thus begins James Michener’s historic novel Chesapeake, relating Pentaquods’s story and nearly 450 years of settlement and evolution of this large estuary.

Great Blue Heron 3816

Great Blue Heron, “Sentinel of the Marsh”

Pentaquod’s introduction to the Chesapeake and the Great Blue Heron was similar to mine 32 years ago.  I was not fleeing a violent tribe but travelling to a new job with my family when we came here from the north, following the Susquehanna River from the southern tier of New York,  through Pennsylvania, crossing over the Bay Bridge to the Eastern Shore and settling into a small rental farmhouse on a shallow tidal creek off the Choptank.  We were not far from Pentaquod’s mythical island and saw the same tall, gawky bird perched on the end of the dock and wading through the shallow creek, and heard the same loud kraannk whenever it took flight.  Someone recently asked me about a favorite bird. I never thought much about that and don’t have a specific list, but if I did, the GBH would be near the top.

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GBH

You can call this bird stately and majestic, or you can call it gawky and awkward.  In either case it is the largest and most widespread heron, seen at sometime in all the 48 states and in lower Alaska.  It is found in all seasons in the Chesapeake region and usually visible everyday somewhere on my way to work.  Familiarity can breed respect. It is a patient and flexible hunter, standing alone and perfectly still for long minutes in the shallows before uncoiling its S-shaped neck with lightning speed catching the unsuspecting fish or crustacean.  Snakes, frogs, and small rodents also make up its diverse menu.  I’ve seen it pose on the creek in summer heat and in the winter snows, only migrating locally when forced by a deep freeze.

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The heron is usually seen alone except in breeding season when its found in a small rookery, or more correctly, a heronry.  I’ve had the pleasure of observing the commotion and excitement of one of these in Venice, Florida.  The guttural calls of the herons, ibises, and egrets flying in with food and the squawking fledglings fighting for their share was quite a sight and photo-op.  Take-offs and landings are always a bit iffy for this large bird.  The Great Blues in Florida seem more adapted to people and I can usually get close for a good shot.  In the north it seems they spook more easily and make me work harder and sneak up for a good look. Staying in the car and shooting through an open window seems to work best.

Venice, Florida heronry

Venice, Florida heronry

The herons in flight have the easily seen S-shape neck, slow steady wing flap, and long trailing legs; some say a prehistoric or dinosaur-like appearance.  This is a distinct difference from the straight neck pattern on the storks, ibises, anhinga, and flamingoes.  In South Florida you may be lucky enough to see two morphs from the usual plummage.  An all white morph or “Great White Heron” resembles a Great Egret but is larger, with stouter bill, and pale legs contrasting with the black legs of the egret.  A cross between the Great White and Great Blue gives a Wurdemann’s Heron looking like a GBH but with a white head.  I have not seen either but they are on my target list for Florida next winter.

Chesapeake Bay

Chesapeake Bay

In 1608, 25 years after Pentaquod, the English explorer John Smith proclaimed upon seeing the Bay for the first time that “heaven and earth have never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation.” I’ll second that opinion in 2015 and the familiar Great Blue Heron is one of the many avian wonders that makes that true for me.

Birding Hakone, Japan

 

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Chicago Historical Society

 

When Commodore Perry sailed his Black Ships into Edo Bay, later known as Tokyo Bay, in 1853, feudal Japan was on the cusp of the Meiji Restoration.  For better or worse the steamships signified the end of 200 years of self-imposed isolation under the Tokugawa shogunate, and a return to the authority of the Emperor. With some fear and trepidation Japan entered this new era and uncertain future, characterized by modernization, industrialization, and increased trade with the West.  Typical for the times, Sennosuke Yamaguchi, a young graduate and hotelier spent 3 years in America studying hotel management and architecture, with the goal of building Japan’s first modern hotel suitable for western guests, in the Hakone region of rural Japan, not far from Mount Fuji.

Fujiya Hotel

Fujiya Hotel

It was now spring of 2014.  We were enjoying our first visit to Japan and had spent several days in Tokyo and near the U.S. Naval Base in Yokosuka, but it was now time to leave urban Japan and sample some of the rural areas of this fascinating country.  The Fujiya Hotel was recommended to us as a great base of operation to tour the beautiful, mountainous Hakone region, sample Japanese food and rural customs, and of course to see birds.  This is the hotel built by Sennosuke Yamaguchi in 1878 and restored and enlarged in 1884, 1891, and 1924.  It had become the grand dame of 19th century architecture mixing the traditional Japanese and western styles.  It also had a long list of distinguished guests including Emperor Hirohito, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, German ambassadors during WWII, General Eisenhower in post-war years, and John Lennon. The hotel is situated over a hot spring in the small town of Miyanoshita, on the side of a mountain and serviced by the Hakone-Tozan Railroad.  Of added interest to me was the hotel’s the 4 acre rock and water garden and its potential as a birding site.

Hotel Garden

Hotel Garden

I spent two mornings birding in the hotel grounds.  These are spectacular gardens presenting the challenge whether to bird, or just sit and drink in the view as the sun rose over the building and gradually bathed the gardens with early light. The birds were not abundant but I did see 9 species including 4 life birds:  a flyover Gray Heron, a Japanese White-eye, a Gray Wagtail drinking from the moving stream, and a Varied Tit.  But there was also a haunting and mysterious birdsong with a long drawn out first sound:  Hoh….., and then hokekyo.  I heard it repeatedly, both mornings and just could not track it down.  First it was right in front, then behind, then loud and within feet, but I could not see the bird.  It was as if it was playing with me.  I knew it was a life bird, but as a fellow birder keeps telling me, you cannot claim it until you see it.

Gray Wagtail

Gray Wagtail

Japanese White-eye

Japanese White-eye

Brown-earred Bulbul

Brown-earred Bulbul

Black Kite

Black Kite

Birding in a new international location is always exciting; even the common birds are new, with frequent life birds added.  I sometimes hire a guide, but did not in Japan, just happy to be a tourist.  Even in tourist mode though, the binoculars and camera are always ready, just in case.

The hotel in Hakone is within a short train and cable car ride over the Owakudani Crater to Lake Ashinnoko, where we took a boat to the town of Hakone Sekisho.  This is all near the base of Mount Fuji which unfortunately was hidden in fog and clouds that day. Photographers had their gear set up and aimed toward the mountain waiting for the fog to lift and clouds part, but it did not happen, at least when we were there.  On the boat and in town, however I did add 5 more life birds including a soaring Black Kite, White Wagtail, Eurasian Coot, Pygmy Woodpecker, and a flock of Asian House-martins bathing in a puddle. But there it was again:  Hoh…hokekyo, still with no sighting.

Lake Ashinoko

Lake Ashinoko

After 3 wonderful days in Hakone we returned to the city to complete a wonderful trip abroad. I know it sounds a little hard-core, but I even did some birding from the high speed Shinkansen zooming 200 mph back to Tokyo.  I’m counting a Little Egret, seen even at that speed in a wet field along the tracks, to make the Japan Life List total 36 birds.  The last night was at the Hotel Nikko Narita near the airport.  It had a small garden and beckoned me to one last birding adventure before boarding the plane.  And there it was again; Hoh…hokekyo, clear and tantalizingly close, and then I saw the bird, I think; small and non-descript, but a master of birdsong and sleuth. Finally with some internet research I discovered that this bird was Uguisu, a Japanese Bush Warbler–the elusive harbinger of spring, famous for its secretive behavior, hiding from birders for centuries.  It is a bird often painted with plum blossoms and celebrated in haiku since the Nara period in the 8th century.

If not for the call

of the bush warbler coming

out of the valley,

who then would be aware of

the arrival of springtime?

by Oe no Chisato

I was fortunate to finally ID the famous bird from its enchanting call, heralding the Japanese spring. It made the long flight home somewhat tolerable.

Birding Corkscrew

IMG_8498 The Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, named for the tortuous Corkscrew River, is a gem of preserved flora and fauna in Southwest Florida.  A small portion of the 13,000 acre preserve is available to the public on a 2.25 mile boardwalk loop that samples the 4 distinct habitats of the region which are defined by their elevation and relative wetness as the Pine Flatwood, Wet Prairie, Pond Cypress Swamp, and Bald Cypress Swamp.  Only a couple feet elevation causes this remarkable and observable change in habitat as one progresses around the boardwalk. Immediately upon leaving the Blair Center and its exhibits you encounter the Pine Flatwood region. This relative uplands contains Slash Pine and Sabal Palm is usually a great sight for seeing and hearing woodpeckers including the ubiquitious Red-bellied and impressive Pileated.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

The boardwalk then passes over the expansive Wet Prairie covered with Sand Cordgrass.  The open sky here gives you a good chance to see soaring hawks, vultures, and Swallowtail Kites before entering the denser forest.  There is usually a Common Yellowthroat lurking in the brush.

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat

One then enters the pond cypress stand.  These are the smaller cypress with lighter gray bark with many over 100 years in age. They apparently like drier feet than their larger cousin further down the boardwalk.  In winter and early spring before they leaf out you can peer into the stand, often seeing a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker drumming away.  If you’re lucky a feeding mixed flock will pass through, composed of Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Northern Parula, Black-and-white, Pine, and Palm Warbler, and White-eyed Vireo.

Black-and-white Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler

The majestic bald cypresses are one of the main attractions of the preserve, with many of the larger having specific names;  examples include Muir, Roosevelt, and Asteenahoofa, which is Seminole for big cypress.  This is the largest remaining tract of these trees in the world, with the largest being 500-600 years old.  When the boardwalk enters this region you immediately sense the change with the damp smell, darker forest with the tall cypress, often girdled by Strangler Figs, and understudy of countless ferns, air plants, lichen, and Spanish Moss taking center stage.  You may even get a glimpse of a Ghost Orchid. Photographers, crank up your ISO and open your f-stop–its a low-light habitat. The trail winds by the Lettuce Lakes where the wading birds congregate, especially in the dry winter season, just as the big game seek the watering holes in the Serengeti.  In addition to the regular Florida waders look for the less common Purple Gallinule, Limpkin, and American Bittern.  There’s usually also a large gator lurking nearby.

Bald Cypress and Strangler Fig

Bald Cypress and Strangler Fig

Purple Gallinule

Purple Gallinule

Limpkin

Limpkin, some of these birds are so close to the boardwalk you can’t  get them into the field-of-view with the big birding lens

The Wood Stork is one of the success stories of Florida habitat restoration and the only stork that nest in the US.  This gauky, awkward, large wader was recently taken off the endangered species list, and is now listed as merely threatened.  Corkscrew usually supports a large breeding rookery, depending on water levels, but none were known to breed there in 2015.  It also breeds in Georgia and the Carolinas.

Wood Storks

Wood Storks with White Ibises

The parade of people around the boardwalk is an interesting mix of walkers.  It ranges from young families pushing an infant stroller (with no binoculars or camera in sight) to the hardcore birder, also pushing a carriage but loaded with the latest, heavy and expensive birding gear.  There are the elderly, just out for a stroll through the beautiful forest, people in wheelchairs, and the birders of all stripes, from novice to expert.  Many are Floridians making a return trip and others clearly are first time visitors from the north, drawn by Corkscrew’s reputation as a birder’s mecca.  I’ve found people there anxious to share a siting or request a second opinion for a difficult ID.  And if we’re all stumped there is a generous number of volunteer guides scattered along the boardwalk, many with scopes already trained upon nesting hawks, owls, and kites.

Anhinga

Anhinga

One day I was at the sanctuary with a non-birder friend and we became separated along the boardwalk.  When I looked up she came running back to the group, excited to relate that she had found a beautiful rarity while birding next to an knowledgeable Englishman.  He told her, with cockney accent, that the colorful bird was a “Pine Tit Bunting”.  For 30 seconds I started furiously checking out the bunting section of our guidebooks, looking for that bird I’d never previously heard of, before it dawned on me that the American translation of this bird was “Painted Bunting”.  So much for the rarity, but we still had a long good-natured laugh, and it is a great bird, especially for someone seeing it for the first time.

Painted Bunting, aka

Painted Bunting, aka “Pine Tit Bunting”

I add to my Corkscrew life list almost every time I visit and it now stands at 73, growing at almost every visit.  The site has become one of my favorite birding destinations in Southwest Florida.

Book Review: H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Merlin

Merlin

H Is For Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, published by Grove Press, New York, copyright 2014, 283 pages.

It was one of those nights, becoming more frequent now, when I laid wide awake at 2 AM.  When this happens I reach over to the night stand, turn on the dim light, and grab whatever book or magazine I touch first.  Reading usually puts me back to sleep. This time it was an old New Yorker.  I started at the back to avoid those long current event articles in the front that I rarely agree with, and checked out the cartoon competition and then the book reviews. The title of the review, Rapt, Grieving With Your Goshawk, by Kathryn Schultz caught my eye–I had just finished my review and post of The Goshawk by T.H. White.  The coincidence grew as I read Schultz’s review of H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which itself is in part a review and commentary of T.H. White’s life and writings, including The Goshawk.  It seemed like a sign.  After a quick Amazon download to my Kindle, I was off and reading another hawk book and well into it by dawn’s early light.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

The author was a young graduate student in the history of science at Cambridge who recently lost her father to an unexpected cardiac death.  This book is a skillful weaving of three themes:  her personal grieving and situational depression and eventual recovery, the acquisition and training of a goshawk named Mabel, and a commentary of the life and works of T.H. White, the earlier 20th century author who was also a falconer and naturalist, and also struggled with depression. H Is For Hawk won the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction and the Costa Book of the Year prize.

Helen Macdonald’s father was a free lance photographer and former plane-spotter as a child.  His lessons of patient observation and sky-watching led to her unusual and precocious interest in birds, raptors, and falconry.  As a child she had already read White’s The Goshawk, Blaine’s Falconry, and all the related texts needed to master this art.  Prior to her fathers death she had already trained kestrels, merlins, and peregrines and was a former falcon breeder for the United Arab Emirates.

Peregrine Falcon with recent kill

Peregrine Falcon with recent kill

Why train a goshawk now with her grief so fresh and raw, and why a goshawk?  Its an uncommon, secretive, wild, and difficult hawk to train.  Just “looking for a goshawk is like looking for grace; you don’t get to say when or how.”  But its also the bird that T.H. White acquired when he sought to retreat from humankind and kindle his own feral self.  She was experiencing those same impulses.  As she relates the fascinating training of her young goshawk Mabel, she compares and contrasts her techniques with the love/hate relationship between White and his Gos.  But as this training goes on the reader senses the author’s growing alienation with humankind and identification with the bird, and her deepening depression.  The bills aren’t paid, mail and calls not returned, and human contact avoided.  As a reader I felt like an observer of a train-wreck in slow motion, not sure I wanted to see how this all ended, but the compelling writing kept me going to witness the recovery.

Black Kite

Black Kite

Midway through the book there is the memorable scene when Mabel is given her freedom to fly without constraints for the first time.  Remember this is a hawk bred and fledged by humans, never previously released to the wild.  Helen is “practically catatonic…this is ridiculous…I don’t want to be here…Oh!  And I let her go.  And immediately I wish I had not.  Suddenly my hawk is free”.  When the hawk does not immediately return to the fist Helen is devastated, “My beating, horrified heart, and my soul feeling like water at four degrees; heavier than ice, falling to the bottom of the ocean.  And suddenly she is back on the glove, I feel soaked in ice water, and I cannot believe she is not lost.  I feel like White:  a tyro, a fool, a beginner, an idiot.”

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

The first step in recovery is recognition of the illness.  At some point the author disagrees with the naturalists like Muir who celebrate becoming one with nature and one with the birds.  Most have a “little splinter of wildness” while coming home, having dinner, and participating in humanity.  But she realizes, “I don’t have both sides.  I only have wildness.  And I don’t need wildness any more…Human hands are for holding other hands.  Human arms are for holding other humans close.”  She wonderfully relates this process of repair and restoration, the role of her mother, the memorial service, her friends, professional help, and medication, eventually leading to the point of separating from her beloved Mabel during the long molting phase of spring.  After all, she has her own spring revival to tend to.

I don’t believe my short review does justice to this affecting and fascinating book.  Please refer to the Kathryn Schulz review in the March 9, 2014 New Yorker for a more in depth analysis, or better yet, read H Is For Hawk.  You won’t be sorry.