Birding Haiku

Haiku is an ancient form of short Japanese poetry.  It usually consists of 3 lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, although more modern examples have become less stringent with this rule.  Despite their short length, they leave the reader with distinct impression or mental image.  Consider this example by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), considered the master of the form.

old pond…

a frog leaps in

water’s sound.

With fear of corrupting a beautiful art form, I offer these birding haiku.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl mournfully calls,

“Who cooks for you, cooks for you?”

I reply, “my love”.

Brown Pelican

The Brown Pelican

His pouch is bulging with fish.

How the helican?

(apologies to D.L. Merritt)

Osprey

Osprey flies above.

Unsuspecting fish below,

Beware the talons!

American Robin

The Robin Red Breast

On the lawn, upright and still,

Hunts worms for the young.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Woodpecker attacks

My aluminum gutter.

Make him stop now.  Please!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Trumpet vines in bloom.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Savors the nectar.

Carolina Wren

The loud hidden call,

Somewhere in the dense willow,

Carolina Wren.

Great Blue Heron

Tall Great Blue Heron,

Patiently fishing in the

Still waters.  No luck.

Here’s the appeal of birding.  You can pursue the science of ornithology, bird structure, evolution, physiology, or behavior.  You can study migration patterns, climate change effects, habitat loss and gains.  You can collect data and lists and contribute to the science, or just observe the beauty at the backyard feeder.  You can combine birding with travel, traipsing through the best scenery the world has to offer.  You can draw, photograph, or just feast your eyes on the beautiful avian fauna.  You can play with gadgets, scopes, binoculars, cameras, and lenses.  You can read the vast birding literature, both fiction and non.  You can even write your own bird haiku and publish it on the internet to decidedly and understandably mixed reviews.

Feel free to add your creations to the “comments” section.

Blackwater NWR, Dorchester County Maryland

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The small group huddled in the corner of the barn, cold, vulnerable, and frightened at every sound.  They were waiting for darkness, the nearly total darkness of a cloudy night and a new moon.  It might be tonight.  The barn door creaked open.  Relief, when they saw it was their leader and savior!  They noticed her calm and determined demeanor as they gathered up their meagre possessions and followed her into the frosty night.  She had done this before and was confident she could do it again.  She had never lost a passenger, guiding them through the tidal  wetlands and forests of Maryland, into Delaware and Pennsylvania, to freedom in the north.  She was Harriet Tubman, a conductor on the Underground Railroad and this was Dorchester County in the year 1851.

Harriet Tubman, Library of Congress

Harriet Tubman, Library of Congress

She was born in 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland, and escaped from slavery to Philadelphia 1849.  Over the next several years she risked life and limb returning to the Eastern Shore on multiple occasions to lead her family and others to the same freedom she enjoyed. Her first-hand knowledge of this land with its tidal marshes, creeks, and dirt roads was key to her success.  Blackwater occupies much of this same land today and has become one of my favorite birding and photography sites.

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow, click on any photo to zoom

The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is 12 miles south of Cambridge, Maryland and was founded in 1933 primarily as a stopover site for migrating birds and a winter home for waterfowl.   www.fws.gov/blackwater/  It occupies 28,000 acres of tidal marsh and mixed hardwood and loblolly forests.  Wildlife Drive is a 5 mile road, winding through the mixed habitats with multiple pullover sites to get out of your car and explore on foot.  Just remember to bring fly dope in the spring and summer seasons.  I have a modest Blackwater life-list of 85 species of birds, including the passerines, Barn Swallow, Red-headed Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Red-winged Blackbirds galore, Common Yellowthroat, and Brown Creeper.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

Although the passerines are great, the stars of the refuge are the eagles and the seasonal waterfowl and shorebirds.  This site has one of the highest concentrations of breeding Bald Eagles on the East Coast with many photo-ops of perching birds and overhead flight shots.  Also watch out for the low-flying Northern Harriers hunting over the marsh, and in the spring and summer check out the fishing and nesting Osprey.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Part of Wildlife Drive is on top of a dike, with the brackish water and wide vista of the Little Blackwater River on your left and the freshwater impoundment ponds on your right.  I like to drive along this section very slowly, with both windows down, and the camera ready to sneak a close shot of the waterfowl or wading birds.

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Little Blackwater River

There have been 20 species of ducks recorded here.  I visited the refuge early this January and found only a few.  I think there had not been enough cold weather and freezing up north to force them to the south and open water.  In addition to some Shovelers and Pintails there were the ubiquitous Mallards, much underrated for their own beauty, at least for the male.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

 

Snow Geese

Snow Geese

As I drove along the dike last week I saw a peculiar long white line on the far shore of the river, probably a mile away.  I was deciding whether it was tidal foam, gulls, Tundra Swans, or Snow Geese, when it rose up and formed a tremendous flock of at least several thousand Snow Geese, identified by their black-tipped wings, visible even at that distance.  Unforgettable!  Even on a slow day Blackwater gives up a memorable sight.

Wildlife Drive

Wildlife Drive, the section through the mixed forest

I would be remiss in not also mentioning the thousands of Canada Geese and fewer white Tundra Swans, sprinkled throughout the marsh like salt and pepper.

Canada Geese

Canada Geese

As I walked the Marsh Edge Trail and Woods Trail looking for birds, I imagined I may be on the same paths Harriet Tubman used for her far more important trek; like Moses, leading her small groups to the Promised Land of freedom.

“When I found I had crossed that line into freedom, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person.  There was such a glory over everything; the sun came up like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”

Harriet  Tubman, 1849

You can visit the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument near Blackwater NWR, created in 2013. www.nps.gov/hatu

Welcome Home, USS Anchorage

 

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Essex Amphibious Ready Group underway (photo by U.S. Navy/MC2 C.B. Janik)

This December ended the 7-month Middle East deployment of the Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), made up of the USS Essex (LHD2), USS Anchorage (LPD23), and the USS Rushmore (LSD 47).  These ships were the temporary home for 4500 marines and sailors and all their weapons, helicopters, and motorized vehicles.  Their mission was to be ready and available for anything, project force, but hope for peace in that troubled part of our globe.  The ARG is described as a “Swiss Army Knife” with a wide range of capabilities.

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USS Anchorage LPD23

When I read my son’s email from the Anchorage, it seemed too good to be true. He knew of my love of warships and the sea; maybe there would even be an opportunity for some pelagic birding.  His ship would be completing its long deployment and off-loading the marines and their gear at Camp Pendleton. They would then take family members aboard for the last overnight leg of the voyage to the home base at San Diego.  We would be the guests of the U.S. Navy for this “Tiger Cruise” and we would be the tigers.  All we had to do was to get to the West Coast on time and climb aboard.  What an opportunity.  We decided to “just do it”.

USS Anchorage, waiting for us

USS Anchorage waiting for us several miles off shore (click on any photo to zoom)

That was easier said then done.  Nearly 100 tigers waited patiently at Camp Pendleton for the seas and surf to calm.  The ships had dodged a major coastal storm to the north and made repairs following an engine room fire on the Anchorage.  Despite it all, the ARG had arrived off Pendleton on schedule.  Now if the heavy seas would just cooperate.

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Boarding the landing craft unit (LCU)

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We waited and waited, but finally the word came to board the LCU.  It didn’t seem any calmer to me, but we were all excited to go.  As soon as we rounded the breakwater the waves hit us with vengeance, soaking all the people in the bow.  Soon, a few tigers were losing their breakfast off the stern rail, but we were getting closer to the Anchorage.  I could make out the well-deck, open and welcoming, and our loved-ones waving from the stern.

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Safe in the well deck

As we disembarked from the landing craft we passed a long line of marines in combat gear, carrying their heavy packs, patiently waiting to board our same landing LCU to head ashore.  It gave me an opportunity to welcome them home and thank them for their service.  We tigers finally found our sponsors and loved ones on the flight deck with hugs and kisses all around.  The CO, Captain J.J. “Yank” Cummings gave us a warm welcoming speech and invited us to explore the entire ship, ask questions, and take pictures.  There was very little of the ship we did not see.

CO welcoming speech

Captain Cumming’s welcoming speech

I was assigned a small cabin with two other tigers.  Even this officer’s berth was spartan.  Our son suggested we skip trying to shower on the rocking ship.  Sleeping was difficult until I discovered the straps designed to hold you in the bunk, letting the roll of the ship rock you to sleep.

Bridge, my favorite spot onboard

The bridge, my favorite spot onboard

Oh yeah, what about the pelagic birds?  I had done my homework and reacquainted myself with what I might see off southern California’s coast this time of year, but I knew there would be no chumming from the stern of this U.S. naval vessel.  Right after early breakfast in the wardroom, I stationed myself on the lee side of the upper deck, in the shelter of the bridge and started birding.  Unseasonably cold temperatures and high winds made that a chore; the bridge watch and I were the only ones on deck.  My sightings were meagre and nothing unusual, including Western Gulls, Brandt’s and Double-crested Cormorants, and Brown Pelicans.  I think I saw some Surf Scoters also but was not sure.

Welcoming coast gull

Welcoming coastal gull

Rounding Point Loma and entering San Diego harbor on the Anchorage is an experience I will ever remember.  First of all, it is just a beautiful city and harbor with clear blue skies and water, seabirds, and pleasure boats.  The Cabrillo monument and military cemetery are high on the bluff to port and the Naval Airbase is to starboard.  As you cruise under the Coronado Bridge, you see all the other warships lined up and waiting their turn to go to sea.

USS Midway

USS Midway

Secondly, there is sight of the sailors and officers, so young and vital-looking, solemnly manning the rails in their dress uniforms, happy to be home.

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Thirdly, you can’t help but have some national pride in the Navy and its dedicated sailors and officers–an impressive force for peace.

Manning the rails

Manning the rails

And lastly, finally being with my son, reunited and safe after his long service in a dangerous part of the world, was best of all.

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Reunited on the flight deck

As the tugs eased the Anchorage into its slip my wife and I were high on the bridge deck looking down at the welcoming and waving families, many with signs and flowers.  There were numerous sailors who had infants waiting whom they had never seen.  They were understandably the first ones ashore.  One by one everyone disembarked into open arms.  I think we were the last to leave.

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I know this is a birding and bird photography blog, so forgive me for the lack of bird photos.  There were only a few “bird moments” on the cruise, but there were many other “Kodak moments” and memories to share.  I’ll return to birding on the next post.

Best Pictures of 2015

 

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

 

As a year-end post I decided to review my 2015 photos and share the ten best with you.  This was harder than anticipated.  I took thousands of pictures this year and several hundred were potential material.  Getting the number down to 10 turned out to be impossible–my grandson and wife were no help; they liked them all. I ended up with 13–I’m not superstitious.

My favorite picture of the year was an easy choice.  Its the lead shot in this post of the juvenile Pied-billed Grebe.  This is a common bird, not too exciting, but when he caught that fish close to the trail in the Bird Rookery Swamp in Florida, the action, lighting, and color all came together.  The green and blue background color, the sharp image even in the reflection, and the ripples on the pond all seemed just right.

Florida Scrub Jay

Florida Scrub Jay, click on any photo to zoom

What factors contribute to making the perfect shot?  Sharpness of focus is key in bird photography and best determined by examining the bird’s eye glint in a zoom mode.  Proper exposure, lighting, composition, and color are necessary.  The pleasing blurring of the background called bokeh, a function of your lens, also adds appeal.  If you can catch the bird active, as in flying, feeding, singing, or mating, so much the better, but I admit to posting some perched bird portraits.  The Scrub Jay is such a portrait, but for me it works because of the unusual white contrasting background.   I also remember the effort involved in getting this shot of the endangered bird, found in decreasing numbers in the scrubland of central Florida.

Great Egret

Great Egret

Birds-in-flight are always a challenge, especially a white bird on a sunny day.  This shot balanced the exposure of the sunny side with the shadows of the underwing and light shining through the outer wing feathers.  The wisp of trailing cloud also broke up the deep blue sky.

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Western Bluebird

Forgive me this additional portrait of a Western Bluebird.  I could just not resist the blue vs. green background and the fuzzy, soft feathers contrasting with the hard, brown, branch.  The composition “rule-of-thirds” applies here with the bird placed off-center.

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Jackdaw

Some shots appeal to the photographer because they are a reminder of a special site or trip.  The black Jackdaw above, with contrasting white eye, perched on the stone buttresses of the 12th century cathedral, Saint Sauveur in Dinan, France.  The singing Robin below was taken in Monet’s garden in Giverny, France.  Both of these sites will long be remembered, and not just for the birds.

European Robin

European Robin

 

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

I had many appealing raptor shots to choose from, but most were perched portraits.  This flight shot, taken near take-off or landing shows of the beauty of this bird and the reason for its name.

Eastern Meadowlark

Eastern Meadowlark

Along with the striking color contrasts, this bird is taking its typical pose on a fence post. This shot brings to mind the fun of birding with Andy and Mel at the Dinner Ranch in old central Florida.  The Meadowlark responded well to its call and gave us some easy, close shots.

Bobolink

Bobolink, in fall plumage

The light was perfect for this shot from Nantucket Island.  I’d seen and heard this bird at a distance in flocks, but never had a good photo.

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White-winged Dove

I wanted to include at least one bird from the recent trip to the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas.  This common bird for the locals was a life bird for me.

Common Loon

Common Loon

I think it’s the placid water with alternating stripes of blue and brown, interrupted by the loon’s wake which appeals to me.  The bird detail itself is not great, but the overall gist is pleasing.  Also this shot was taken from my backyard dock.  You don’t have to look far for great subjects.

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl

We’ve found an unusual colony of these small owls on Marco Island, Florida.  They dig their burrows on the vacant sandy lots in the middle of growing residential neighborhoods.  Someday the vacant lots will all be gone, but in the meantime it’s a great place for an owl photo shoot.

American Oystercatcher at Great Point, photo by S.M. Sternick

American Oystercatcher at Great Point, photo by S.M. Sternick

These running American Oystercatchers, with their feet not even touching the sand, is a favorite of mine, but I did not take it.  It was shot by my “non-birder” and “non-photographer” friend who had the camera thrust upon her by her husband who was driving along Great Point on Nantucket–not a bad effort.  I included this for congratulations.  My “non-birder” friend became a grand-mother for the first time this week and will likely now have other more important pursuits than bird photography.

I started this blog in January 2015, not sure what to expect and even if I’d make it through the first month.  Now 62 posts and a year later I can say it has been fun.  I want to thank everyone who has visited the site, and especially all the “likes” and comments.  Additional thanks goes to my patient wife for happily living with a birder/blogger.  I am amazed and awed that we’ve had over 4700 views from 68 countries, and 79 people have asked to receive each post by e-mail.  The most popular post of the year, by-the-way, was “Birding Mount Auburn Cemetery”.  Its all possible because of the wonders of the internet, the beauty of the birds, and the joys of birding photography.