Winter Solstice Birding


Tundra Swan, Cygnus columbianus


The shortest day of the year dawned with a heavy frost, but all was calm and bright.  The stockings are hung by the chimney with care, the shopping is done, and the guest rooms are ready for the extended family, soon to converge here on the Eastern Shore.  This was one last chance to bird before the guests arrive and the joyous celebration begins in earnest.

Swamp Sparrow

Swamp Sparrow, Melospiza georgiana

I consider myself knowledgeable regarding astronomical events, but the neolithic cultures have me beat.  Those observers in Stonehenge, England and New Grange, Ireland, warmed only by primitive furs and campfires, somehow determined the exact timing of the solstice.  They built stone edifices that survive today, aligned precisely with the sites of sunrise and sunset on their horizons.  It must be they were more aware than us about the natural world, being so dependent on timing the changing seasons for planting and harvesting.

Bald Eagles

Bald Eagles at Blackwater NWR                      click on any photo to zoom

I’m thankful for the 23 degree tilt.  That is the tilt of the spinning earth off its axis relative to the plane of its revolution around the sun.  It accounts for our changing seasons and spurs me on to Florida’s warmth each winter.  At the winter solstice, December 21, the northern hemisphere is tilted directly away from the sun and our hours of daylight are at their minimum.  Fear not, for the days begin lengthening tomorrow.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

My birding destination today was the Blackwater NWR.  I’ve described this wonderful location in an earlier posting called “Blackwater NWR, Dorchester County, Maryland”.  I only saw a few birders today but the site was loud.  Thousands of Canada Geese in the fields and shallows constantly squawked–what are they saying?  On a few occasions there was a sudden crescendo and on cue a huge flock took flight, the beating of their wings adding to the cacophony.


Geese Galore

The Mallards were the next most numerous Aves and the second loudest.  I describe their vocalizations as a mocking descending chuckle, mocking whom I’m not sure.  There were also fewer retiring and quieter Northern Pintail and Shovelers scattered in the flock.

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail, Anas acuta

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler, Anas clypeata

Every birding trip seems to have a memorable event or bird-of-the-day.  During the recent Christmas Count, for instance, I saw more Cedar Waxwings than ever in one day; 207 to be exact.  The bird today was the Tundra Swan.  They have a plaintive, ghost-like call, almost but not quite drowned out by the geese and Mallards.  These seasonal visitors from the north are especially welcome when they treat me to a close flyover as they did today.  I saw them approaching low over the marsh just in time to jump out of the truck, aim, and shoot, hoping the settings were reasonable.  I was lucky this time.  It was another day to remember.

Tundra Swans

Tundra Swans, Cygnus columbianus

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all and may the Peace that passeth all understanding descend on you and yours throughout the New Year.


Top Ten Bird Photos of 2016


House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus


I know; it’s just a House Finch.  But each photo has a back story.  I was alone at the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve last week.  The first visitor to this famous southeastern Arizona site on a frosty morning.  The drinking fountain at the visitor center was frozen and the slanting dawn light was just beginning to warm this finch and a flock of Lark Sparrows along the trail.  I’m still shivering along with this bird who had just survived another frigid night by ruffling its feathers to add precious insulation.


Great Blue Heron, Ardea hernias               click on any photo to zoom

Deciding upon the “ten best” for the year is difficult.  My first run through hundreds of candidates yielded 30 nominees.  It’s the final elimination that is so tough.  I left many good shots on the cutting floor and came up with these.

In addition to the obvious factors of exposure, sharpness, color, and composition, what makes a photo special?  That Great Blue Heron shot above made the cut due to the background, or lack thereof.  That blackness, with just a hint of the green grasses showed the bird in stark contrast, all more an accident than planned.


American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis

The American Goldfinch made the cut by being a backyard bird visiting Cone Flowers, specifically planted pool-side years ago to attract this striking bird in male breeding plumage.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

Every portfolio needs at least one flight shot.  I can remember the time and place where most of these photos were taken, even without the GPS tool.  But I can’t quite recall how I got the lucky eye-level view of the Red-shouldered Hawk in Florida.  Either he was very low or I was in high in a tower.


Bridled Titmouse, Baeolophus wollweberi

The hiding Bridled Titmouse was included since it was a life-bird, found near Pinnacle Peak in Scottsdale, Arizona.  The partially obscured profile of this lifer with the dappled light on the eye reminds of the work needed to capture this elusive fellow on film.  Anna’s Hummingbird below was a lucky shot from the same location.


Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna

Some birds are included if they are somewhat unusual or a nemesis bird for me, but none of these are rarities.  It was many years of birding before I saw my first Red-headed Woodpecker and several more years before I got a decent picture.  This one’s from the Blackwater NWR in Maryland.


Red-headed Woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus

The eyes have it.  I don’t care how great the other factors are, if you don’t have a sharp, well-focused bird’s eye you don’t have a great shot.  That’s especially true for the White-eyed Vireo below.  I also like the cocked head and unusual pose.


White-eyed Vireo, Vireo griseus

The Golden-crowned Kinglet was a member of a large mixed feeding flock of small birds suddenly appearing and causing a great commotion in a hedgerow planted along the back edge of our property 25 years ago.  The dividends are paying off as he, Downey Woodpeckers, Titmice, Chickadees, Yellow-rumped Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets all joined in the tit party.


Golden-crowned Kinglet, Regulus satrapa

The last photo of the Pied Grebe is perhaps my favorite.  The ripples on the water and the action of swallowing that large fish make for a memorable shot, despite this being a common bird.  My goal next year is to seek out more action and flight shots–I have too many posed portraits.

Thanks for your interest and comments in 2016.  It’s been fun.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps