My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Archive for February, 2016

Merlin, Falco columbarius

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

Merlin, Falco columbarius

The merlin (Falco columbarius) is a small species of falcon from the Northern Hemisphere. A bird of prey once known colloquially as a pigeon hawk in North America.

The merlin is 24–33 cm (9.4–13.0 in) long with a 50–73 cm (20–29 in) wingspan. Compared with most other small falcons, it is more robust and heavily built. Males average at about 165 g (5.8 oz) and females are typically about 230 g (8.1 oz). There is considerable variation, however, throughout the birds’ range and in particular in migratory populations over the course of a year. Thus, adult males may weigh 125–210 g (4.4–7.4 oz), and females 190–300 g (6.7–10.6 oz). Each wing measures 18.2–23.8 cm (7.2–9.4 in), the tail measures 12.7–18.5 cm (5.0–7.3 in) and the tarsus measures 3.7 cm (1.5 in). Such sexual dimorphism is common among raptors; it allows males and females to hunt different prey animals and decreases the territory size needed to feed a mated pair.

The male merlin has a blue-grey back, ranging from almost black to silver-grey in different subspecies. Its underparts are buff- to orange-tinted and more or less heavily streaked with black to reddish brown. The female and immature are brownish-grey to dark brown above, and whitish buff spotted with brown below. Besides a weak whitish supercilium and the faint dark malar stripe—which are barely recognizable in both the palest and the darkest birds—the face of the merlin is less strongly patterned than in most other falcons. Nestlings are covered in pale buff down feathers, shading to whitish on the belly.

The remiges are blackish, and the tail usually has some 3–4 wide blackish bands, too. Very light males only have faint and narrow medium-grey bands, while in the darkest birds the bands are very wide, so that the tail appears to have narrow lighter bands instead. In all of them, however, the tail tip is black with a narrow white band at the very end, a pattern possibly plesiomorphic for all falcons. Altogether, the tail pattern is quite distinct though, resembling only that of the aplomado falcon (F. berigora) and (in light merlins) some typical kestrels. The eye and beak are dark, the latter with a yellow cere. The feet are also yellow, with black claws.

Merlins inhabit fairly open country, such as willow or birch scrub, shrubland, but also taiga forest, parks, grassland such as steppe and prairies, or moorland. They are not very habitat-specific and can be found from sea level to the treeline. In general, they prefer a mix of low and medium-height vegetation with some trees, and avoid dense forests as well as treeless arid regions. During migration however, they will utilize almost any habitat.

Most of its populations are migratory, wintering in warmer regions. Northern European birds move to southern Europe and North Africa, and North American populations to the southern United States to northern South America. In the milder maritime parts of its breeding range, such as Great Britain, the Pacific Northwest and western Iceland, as well as in Central Asia, it will merely desert higher ground and move to coasts and lowland during winter. The migration to the breeding grounds starts in late February, with most birds passing through the USA, Central Europe and southern Russia in March and April, and the last stragglers arriving in the breeding range towards the end of May. Migration to winter quarters at least in Eurasia peaks in August/September, while e.g. in Ohio, just south of the breeding range, F. c. columbarius is typically recorded as a southbound migrant as late as September/October.

In Europe, merlins will roost communally in winter, often with hen harriers (Circus cyaneus). In North America, communal roosting is rare, and merlins are well-known for fiercely attacking any birds of prey that they encounter, even adult eagles.

Merlins rely on speed and agility to hunt their prey. They often hunt by flying fast and low, typically less than 1 m (3.3 ft) above the ground, using trees and large shrubs to take prey by surprise. But they actually capture most prey in the air, and will “tail-chase” startled birds. Throughout its native range, the merlin is one of the most able aerial predators of small to mid-sized birds, more versatile if anything than the larger hobbies (which prefer to attack in mid-air) and the more nimble sparrowhawks (which usually go for birds resting or sleeping in dense growth). Breeding pairs will frequently hunt cooperatively, with one bird flushing the prey toward its mate.

The merlin will readily take prey that is flushed by other causes, and can for example be seen tagging along sharp-shinned hawks (Accipiter striatus) to catch birds that escape from this ambush predator into the open air. It is quite unafraid, and will readily attack anything that moves conspicuously. Merlins have even been observed trying to “catch” automobiles and trains, and to feed on captive birds such as those snared in the mist nets used by ornithologists. Even under adverse conditions, one in 20 targets is usually caught, and under good conditions almost every other attack will be successful. Sometimes, merlins cache food to eat it later.

In particular during the breeding season, most of the prey are smallish birds weighing 10–40 g (0.35–1.41 oz). Almost any such species will be taken, with local preferences for whatever is most abundant—be it larks (Alaudidae), pipits (Anthus) or house sparrows (Passer domesticus)—and inexperienced yearlings always a favorite. Smaller birds will generally avoid a hunting merlin if possible. Even in the Cayman Islands (where it only occurs in winter), bananaquits were noted to die of an apparent heart attack or stroke, without being physically harmed, when a merlin went at them and they could not escape.

Larger birds (e.g. sandpipers, flickers and even rock pigeons as heavy as the merlin itself) and other animals—insects (especially dragonflies and moths), small mammals (especially bats and voles) and reptiles—complement its diet. These are more important outside the breeding season, when they can make up a considerable part of the merlin’s diet. But for example in Norway, while small birds are certainly the breeding merlin’s staple food, exceptional breeding success seems to require an abundance of Microtus voles.

Corvids are the primary threat to eggs and nestlings. Adult merlins may be preyed on by larger raptors, especially peregrine falcons (F. peregrinus), eagle-owls (e.g., great horned owl, Bubo virginianus), and larger Accipiter hawks (e.g., northern goshawk, A. gentilis). In general however, carnivorous birds avoid merlins due to their aggressiveness and agility.

Breeding occurs typically in May/June. Though the pairs are monogamous at least for a breeding season, extra-pair copulations have been recorded. Most nest sites have dense vegetative or rocky cover; the merlin does not build a proper nest of its own. Most will use abandoned corvid (particularly Corvus crow and Pica magpie) or hawk nests which are in conifer or mixed tree stands. In moorland—particularly in the UK—the female will usually make a shallow scrape in dense heather to use as a nest. Others nest in crevices on cliff-faces and on the ground, and some may even use buildings.

Three to six (usually 4 or 5) eggs are laid. The rusty-brown eggs average at about 40 mm × 31.5 mm (1.57 in × 1.24 in). The incubation period is 28 to 32 days. Incubation is performed by the female to about 90%; the male instead hunts to feed the family. Hatchlings weigh about 13 g (0.46 oz). The young fledge after another 30 days or so, and are dependent on their parents for up to 4 more weeks. Sometimes first-year merlins (especially males) will serve as a “nest helper” for an adult pair. More than half, often all or almost all, eggs of a clutch survive to hatching, and at least two-thirds of the hatched young fledge. However, as noted above, in years with little supplementary food only 1 young in 3 may survive to fledging. The merlin becomes sexually mature at one year of age and usually attempts to breed right away. The oldest wild bird known as of 2009 was recorded in its 13th winter

In medieval Europe, merlins were popular in falconry: the Book of St. Albans listed it as “the falcon for a lady”. Today, they are still occasionally trained by falconers for hunting smaller birds, but due to conservation restrictions this is not as common as in the past. In countries where they are allowed for falconry they are highly regarded. Though the merlin is only slightly larger than the American kestrel in dimensions, it averages about one third larger by weight, with this weight mostly being extra muscle that gives it greater speed and endurance than the kestrel. Though the most common prey pursued by merlins in falconry are sparrows and starlings, they are capable of taking small game birds such as dove and quail. Their eagerness to hunt leads them to pursue falconry lures avidly, and they will put on entertaining displays chasing a swung lure.

On to my photos:

These photos were on two separate occasions, the first ones at the Muskegon wastewater facility, and the others, at Millenium Park in Kent County.

Merlin, Falco columbarius

Merlin, Falco columbarius

 

Merlin, Falco columbarius

Merlin, Falco columbarius

 

Merlin, Falco columbarius

Merlin, Falco columbarius

 

Merlin, Falco columbarius

Merlin, Falco columbarius

 

Merlin, Falco columbarium in flight

Merlin, Falco columbarium in flight

 

 

This is number 187 in my photo life list, only 163 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

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Much thought will be required

It’s something that I have to face, and plan on, like every one else, I’m getting older. I’ll turn 61 this year, just one year away from when I could take an early retirement and collect a partial Social Security benefit if I choose to do that. However, I know that I couldn’t live on that alone, so I’ve done a little checking on the subject. The first thing that I learned is although I thought that I’d have to wait until I reached 67 years old to collect full benefits from Social Security, it’s actually age 66 and two months for me. Ten months may not seem like that long now, but one never knows what the future holds.

Fox squirrel pondering a bright future?

Fox squirrel pondering a bright future?

I’m fortunate, I’m in relatively good health for some one my age, and I can still get around fairly well, but who knows how long that will last?

As you may know, I hate driving truck for a living, but after the economic collapse a decade ago, I found myself out of work and no one willing to hire some one my age in the line of work that I used to do. So, I looked at what was available, and made a career change even though I didn’t really want to.

I’d love to have more time off from work so that I could travel more than I could ever hope to when working full-time, just one week of vacation per year doesn’t go very far, or allow me to go very far. I’d love to see and photograph Yellowstone Park again, as well as the Canadian Rockies, maybe the most scenic area on Earth. But, since they are over a thousand miles away, getting there and back in a week leaves no time for anything but driving back and forth. Two weeks isn’t close to being enough time either.

So, what I am thinking about doing is taking the early retirement, sort of, and to also continue working for the majority of each year until I reach full retirement age.

Chipmunk pondering its escape route

Chipmunk pondering its escape route

From the little that I have looked into the matter so far, it looks like if I worked most of a year, and collected Social Security for the entire year, that I could end up earning about the same as I do now by working a full year. That seems too good to be true, and probably is. However, I may find that by signing up for Social Security early, I may be able to take an entire month or two off from work, with Social Security benefits picking up the slack in my income.

Red-tailed hawk trying to see into the future

Red-tailed hawk trying to see into the future

The rules for Social Security are a bit complicated to say the least. If you take early retirement but continue to work, there is a limit as to how much you can earn and still collect the full benefit. If you earn more than the limit, your benefits are cut in the short-term until you reach full retirement age, then, those benefits that were cut are added back into your full retirement benefits, actually increasing them in the long run if you live long enough.

Nowhere on the web site for Social Security does it mention any income tax implications, and I’m sure there must be some. Another thing that I would have to consider is paying the health insurance premiums for the months that I don’t work. There’s a lot to think about, that’s for sure. However, if I read the government website correctly, and I did the calculations correctly, I could work for ten months a year, take two full months off, and not lose very much in terms of income now, and my income would increase when I reach age 66 and two months and qualify for full benefits.

Nashville warbler trying to find its way though the maze

Nashville warbler trying to find its way though the maze

 

Nashville warbler trying to find its way though the maze 2

Nashville warbler trying to find its way though the maze 2

As complicated as all the rules and regulations are for Social Security, I will probably have to consult an expert on the matter. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of “experts” to choose from, unfortunately, they are not all trustworthy. I learned that while dealing with my mother’s financial matters when she developed Alzheimer’s and I had to take over managing her financial affairs.

I can’t tell you how much that I would love being able to get away from work and spend an extended amount of time outdoors shooting photos of the things that I see. I could easily stick to Michigan and work on both more species of birds for the My Photo Life List project that I’m working on, as well as photographing the scenic parts of Michigan, such as the Pictured Rocks and Porcupine Mountains in the upper peninsula of Michigan.

If it were to work out so that I could take two months a year off for the next 4 years, I could spend one month escaping winter, traveling to places like the Grand Canyon and Death Valley, which I’ve always wanted to see, and where it’s too warm in the summer for me. Then, I could take another month off in the warmer months here to visit the parts of Michigan that are too far away to reach in just a weekend or even a week.

Juvenile turkey vulture pondering an escape

Juvenile turkey vulture pondering an escape

 

Juvenile turkey vulture preparing to escape

Juvenile turkey vulture preparing to escape

 

Juvenile turkey vulture escaping

Juvenile turkey vulture escaping

Of course, that would mean that I’d also have to cut down on my expenses as far as camera gear that I would like to purchase in the future as well. That doesn’t seem too hard to do, as most of the equipment that I had on my wish list were things that would be nice to have, but weren’t things that I absolutely had to have. Most of the expensive things on the wish list revolved around the new Canon 5DS R camera body that I would love to have for photographing landscapes since it has such a high-resolution sensor.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the craze to have the latest and greatest gear available, and in part, the 7D Mk II that I purchased fed into that. It may be the best sports and wildlife camera on the market today, and it has features that no other Canon camera had at the time when it was released, until the 5DS R was introduced. Canon has just announced a major upgrade of their top of the line 1DX that incorporate some of those features, as well as introducing an all new 80D crop sensor body that has scaled down versions of those features. I can’t help but think that they will soon upgrade the 5D Mk III very soon as well, that would include the features that I would love to have, but with a more modest full-size sensor somewhere between the current version and the high-resolution 5DS R version, at a lower price than the 5DS R.

There are many advantages to a camera with a full-size sensor, lower noise being just one of them. In reality, I don’t need a camera with a full-size sensor at all, but it would make more sense for me to go with less than the very best anyway. I seldom print any of the photos that I shoot, the major reason to switch to the high-resolution camera. Then, there’s the fact that the 5D Mk III has been a workhorse of a camera for many professionals over the past few years, something that I have to take into account if I were to decide to go to a full-size sensor camera. I know, all this camera talk has many of you scratching your heads.

Dragonfly scratching its head

Dragonfly scratching its head

There are other things to consider, like, what do I do with all the photos that I would shoot in a month? Would it be better to stock up on memory cards or purchase a notebook computer to take with me? A quick check of prices tell me that a notebook would actually be cheaper than memory cards, as hard to believe as that is. That would work out much better anyway, I could review my photos to delete the bad ones, and to make sure that I had gotten the shots that I wanted of an area before moving on.

As a matter of fact, I did make it out for a walk once this week, even though it was quite cold that day. When I got home, I couldn’t transfer any of the very few photos that I had shot from the memory card to the computer. I have to think that it was because the card was still very cold that the computer couldn’t read it, because it worked fine yesterday, when it was warmer and a rare sunny day.

Male northern cardinal

Male northern cardinal

It was so warm that many of the pine cones were fully open.

The open cone of a white pine

The open cone of a white pine

Back to memory cards, I’d hate to spend an entire day or two shooting photos only to find out that they were all lost, so having a notebook computer rather than relying on just memory cards would be good insurance.

I’ve been working on this post and my dreams of extended vacations for a few days now.

I had even begun to plan when I would take time off from work, and where I would go. I’d sign up for Social Security at the beginning of the year that I turn 63. That year, I’d go to the Grand Canyon in February, making it my first place to visit. I based that on the fact that it would likely be one of the more strenuous trips, so I’d like to do that one while I’m still in good shape. That same year, I’d spend a month in Michigan’s upper peninsula photographing the scenery there, much better than a did a few years ago.

It does all seem too good to be true, so I have been trying to contain my excitement about all this, there has to be a fly in the ointment somewhere. However, I found an online Social Security calculator on the AARP website, and it confirmed my calculations, not only would the idea that I have in mind work, it would also mean a hefty increase in my full Social Security benefits once I do reach full retirement age.

There may still be a fly in the ointment though, they just changed the laws as far as Social Security, and no one seems to want to put out any information as to what those changes are, or what they would mean to me. As much as I was looking forward to taking an extended vacation or two a year, I have to believe that the changes in the law will put a chill on my plans.

Frosty leaves

Frosty leaves

 

Frosty dandelion

Frosty dandelion

It would be just my luck to have this all planned out, only to learn that the laws had changed, destroying this dream that I’m dreaming right now.

Even if I found that I couldn’t travel to the out-of-state places that I’m thinking of, having an entire month off at a time for a vacation would still be wonderful. A chance to escape the daily rat-race and really relax. The past few vacations that I took were good, but I tried to pack too much into too short of time. When I went up to the UP a few years ago, I wore myself to a frazzle, I was so worn out by Thursday morning that I couldn’t remember how to make simple exposure adjustments to my camera.

That’s what happens when I push myself too hard and don’t take time to eat right or allow myself any downtime. I was on the go from before dawn until after sunset everyday, and my body and mind finally said enough already, you need to take a break. I passed up places that would have produced some good photos, and didn’t spend any time looking for wildlife, because I simply didn’t have the time. Also, because of how much that I tried to see, I was forced to shoot photos of many of the places at the wrong time of day when the light was all wrong for the best photos.

I don’t want that to happen if I visit some of the places around the United States that I have in mind, or even the more distant parts of Michigan. I’d like to be able to take the scenic route, stopping along the way to see some of the lesser known places, and to also spend some time shooting photos of the wildlife that I see. I’d like to be able to plan to be in each place at the right time for a change, to get the best photos possible.

But, I’ve prattled on long enough about a dream that may or may not become a reality, time to get back to reality. Last weekend was the coldest of this winter season, so I stayed inside catching up on my housework and cleaning my lenses. It’s amazing how much crud a camera lens can attract in such a short time. One day during the week I did venture out after work, that was the day that it was still so cold that I couldn’t get any of the photos that I shot from the memory card to the computer.

On Friday, warmer air arrived, packing a wallop…

The aftermath of the push of warm air

The aftermath of the push of warm air

…as the warm air was driven here by wind gusts over 70 MPH (112 KH). We did set a record high temperature for the date, but I was working, which was just as well as I don’t want to be hit by falling trees or branches. Saturday was also very nice, and I did make it out for a walk after work, but by then, most of the birds were taking their afternoon siesta. Sunday dawned cloudy and even a bit gloomy…

Blue skies all around, but not over me

Blue skies all around, but not over me

…so I went for an extended walk around home once again, rather than going to Muskegon. That was probably the wrong choice, for later on that day, we had pretty good light for just about any type of photography.

The day improved

The day improved

It felt great to be out in nice weather for a change, not that this winter has been anything like the past two. We’ve only had 30 inches (76 cm) of snow for the season, last winter season, we had that much by the end of November. I’m glad that I spent as much time outside as I did, for if the current weather forecast for next weekend is correct, I’ll be back to hibernating again. The idea of being out in sub-freezing temperatures with the wind blowing snow in my face doesn’t appeal to me as much as it used to. besides, I’d like to get a really good photo for a change.

The ones that I shot this weekend so far are okay, but nothing special, as you will see. But then, I am getting more picky about which photos that I post. When I crop a bird photo these days, I limit myself, and go no smaller than this most of the time.

American goldfinch

American goldfinch

In the past, this was the lower limit which I would crop to.

American goldfinch

American goldfinch

That’s mostly because I view all my photos full screen on my 27 inch iMac, rather than on the tiny screen of my old notebook computer. The tighter crop does look good here, but not so good when viewed when presented on the bigger screen. Still, I may have to consider doing some tighter crops for my blogging photos, since they are presented here in such a small size format. I’ll have to think about it, as I can easily have two versions of the same photo using Lightroom. One for if I want to print an image, and a second version for here.

Anyway, here’s the rest of the photos from this weekend so far. I’ll start with a photo that I didn’t have to crop at all.

Fox squirrel

Fox squirrel

It was still a bit breezy yesterday, which had the remaining milkweed seeds dancing in the sunlight.

Milkweed seeds in the wind

Milkweed seeds in the wind

 

More Milkweed seeds in the wind

More Milkweed seeds in the wind

But, those are a fall type of image, I was looking for signs of spring, and found a few.

Maple flower buds beginning to open

Maple flower buds beginning to open

But, I couldn’t catch one of these guys singing.

Male house finch

Male house finch

It dawned on me that shooting photos of the mosses that grow on the ground this time of year, before the other vegetation cover and hide them would be a good idea…

Mosses

Mosses

…but, I wasn’t about to lay down in half-frozen mud to do these mosses justice.

More mosses

More mosses

I recently posted a couple of photos of the goldfinches eating sycamore seeds, well, here’s one of the seed pods still intact.

Sycamore tree seeds

Sycamore tree seeds

Then, I thought that I should show how the stem that the seed pods hang from unravel over time, to look like strings are holding the pods on the tree.

More sycamore seeds

More sycamore seeds

I found more signs of spring.

Willow leaf buds?

Willow leaf buds?

And, a couple of birds willing to pose for me.

American robin

American robin

 

Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee

 

Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee

In a recent post, I showed the cone from a white pine tree starting to open…

Pine cone opening in warmer temps.

Pine cone opening in warmer temps.

Here’s how much progress the same cone has made so far, after a few very cold days, then a few warm days.

Pine cone opening more

Pine cone opening more

While checking the cones, I noticed what looks like new growth starting on the tips of some of the branches on the white pines, but I don’t know if it’s a flower bud, or new needle growth, but I took it as another sign of spring.

New growth on a white pine

New growth on a white pine

I still wasn’t ready to lay in the mud for this one, but I had to shoot it anyway.

Yet more mosses

Yet more mosses

With all the wind earlier this week, there were plenty of branches down to allow me to see some of the lichens that had been growing on the branches too high for me to see.

Lichens

Lichens

Sometimes, even I get lucky and shoot images that need no editing what so ever, as these next two show. I didn’t even have to crop them.

Male downy woodpecker

Male downy woodpecker

 

Male downy woodpecker

Male downy woodpecker

I didn’t have many chances to stay in practice shooting flying birds, here’s one of the few times that I did.

Canada geese in flight

Canada geese in flight

I love the patterns and symmetry of pine cones, can you tell?

Another cone from an evergreen

Another cone from an evergreen

All in all, not bad photos, but still, I want more. It’s been almost two months since I shot one that I would rate as excellent, one that I’m very proud of, other than mallards that is.

Male mallard

Male mallard

So, today I’m going to take the short trip to Muskegon to see what I can find. It’s been over a month since I was there, and I need a change of scenery from what I see around home here.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!


Wilson’s Snipe, Gallinago delicata

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

Wilson’s Snipe, Gallinago delicata

 

Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicata) is a small, stocky shorebird. This species was considered to be a subspecies of the common snipe (G. gallinago) until 2003 when it was given its own species status, though not all authorities recognized this immediately. Wilson’s snipe differs from the latter species in having a narrower white trailing edge to the wings, and eight pairs of tail feathers instead of the typical seven of the common snipe. Its common name commemorates the American ornithologist Alexander Wilson.

Adults are 23–28 cm (9.1–11.0 in) in length with a 39–45 cm (15–18 in) wingspan. They have short greenish-grey legs and a very long straight dark bill. The body is mottled brown on top and pale underneath. They have a dark stripe through the eye, with light stripes above and below it. The wings are pointed.

They breed in marshes, bogs, tundra and wet meadows in Canada and the northern United States. They are year-round residents on the U.S. Pacific coast. The eastern population migrates to the southern United States and to northern South America.

They forage in soft mud, probing or picking up food by sight and eating insects, earthworms, and plant material. Well-camouflaged, they are usually shy and conceal themselves close to ground vegetation, flushing only when approached closely. They fly off in a series of aerial zig-zags to confuse predators.

The male performs “winnowing” display during courtship, flying high in circles and then taking shallow dives to produce a distinctive sound. They have been observed “winnowing” throughout the day and long into the night. The “winnowing” sound is similar to the call of a boreal owl. They nest in a well-hidden location on the ground.

On to my photos:

These photos were taken in September of 2015, at the Muskegon County wastewater facility in one of the rapid filtration cells.

Wilson's snipe (Gallinago delicata)

Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicata)

 

Wilson's snipe (Gallinago delicata)

Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicata)

 

Wilson's snipe (Gallinago delicata)

Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicata)

 

Wilson's snipe (Gallinago delicata)

Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicata)

 

Wilson's snipe (Gallinago delicata)

Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicata)

 

Wilson's snipe (Gallinago delicata)

Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicata)

 

Wilson's snipe (Gallinago delicata)

Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicata)

 

Wilson's snipe (Gallinago delicata)

Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicata)

 

Wilson's snipe (Gallinago delicata)

Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicata)

 

Wilson's snipe (Gallinago delicata)

Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicata)

 

Wilson's snipe (Gallinago delicata)

Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicata)

 

This is number 186 in my photo life list, only 164 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

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Three years, learning and luck

I know that many people find the posts that I do in the My Photo Life List project that I started three years ago to be boring. On the other hand, some one asked me for an update on my progress, and many people comment on the variety of species of birds that I photograph.

As of right now, I have 224 species of birds photographed from a list of 350 species of birds regularly seen in Michigan, not bad for the amount of time I’ve been working on it. Remember, that’s species of birds that I’ve gotten photo good enough to make a positive identification of the species. That doesn’t count the other species that I’ve seen, but not gotten a good photo of, such as the yellow-billed cuckoo or the least bittern, both of which I missed on the same day.

I’d say that I’ve picked the low hanging fruit, and that now I’ll have to go after the less common species, but in reality, I’ve done very well getting some of the rarer species that are seldom seen in Michigan.

That was made clearer to me when I found a list similar to the one that I got from the Audubon Society to work from on Wikipedia.com. Both lists included some information as to how common sightings of some species are, which I used to whittle down the list somewhat. Here is a list of the categories of sightings of the rarer species of birds to help explain all of this.

(A) Accidental – recorded fewer than four times in the last 10 years
(C) Casual – recorded at least four, but fewer than 30, times in the last 10 years and in fewer than nine of the last 10 years
(E) Extinct – a recent species that no longer exists
(Ex) Extirpated – no longer found in Michigan but continues to exist elsewhere
(I) Introduced – population established solely as result of direct or indirect human intervention; synonymous with non-native and non-indigenous

Of course I’m not going to be able to photograph an extinct species of bird, so I deleted all of the species marked as extinct from the list, as well as the ones marked “Extirpated” and most of those marked as “Accidental” as well, I didn’t want to make the challenge too tough, or I’d lose interest. My goal was to photograph the species of birds seen regularly in Michigan, not go for the rarest of the rare.

As I scanned the list that I found on Wikipedia the other day, the thing that struck me was how many of the species that were marked as “Casual” I have gotten photos of already, and I’ve even gotten two species marked as “Accidental”, so I had to add them back to the list after I had initially deleted them.

That’s just one of many surprises along the way so far, I’m sure that there will be more as I go.

The biggest surprise is that I’m almost two-thirds of the way through the list already. When I started this, I thought that I’d get most of the species after I retired. Not bad for some one who isn’t a serious birder and that doesn’t keep a life list other than the photo one I’m working on, or some one who keeps count of every species seen every year, and so on. Some people take birding to the extreme. Me, I just enjoy birds, and this project was a way for me to learn more about them, their habitats, behaviors, and so on. Also, a way to learn more about photographing them.

I’m not bragging as if I were some super birder or photographer, I’ve had a lot of help so far. For one thing, I use modern technology to alert me when a rare species of bird is seen in the area, either my home county or the Muskegon area. Still, I have to track the bird down and get their photos for it to count. I’ve been lucky there as well, especially with the waterfowl. Often, one of the serious birders would point their spotting scopes at a rare bird and let me take a look so I’d know which bird to go for. However, it was still up to me to get the photo, and I’ve done very well on the songbirds all by myself. Most of the songbirds that I’ve gotten photos of, even the rarer species, have come just from me spending as much time as I can outdoors, and paying attention to all the birds that I see or hear.

That’s where learning on many levels comes into play. Learning what to look for and paying attention to details when I spot a bird that doesn’t quite match any that I’ve seen before. But, before I see the bird, I’ve been learning more than ever about them as I go, which was one of the reason that I began this project as I said earlier.

The amount that I’ve been learning is what keeps me going with this project. I thought that I knew something about birds when I started this, turns out that I didn’t know much at all. I knew that I didn’t know all of the species that spend at least part of the year in Michigan, but I didn’t have a clue as to just how many that there were. Even when it came to species that I had heard of, I knew that I couldn’t tell a lesser yellowlegs…

Lesser yellowlegs

Lesser yellowlegs

…from an American avocet…

American avocet

American avocet

…so learning to be able to identify the various species has required a great deal of time on my part. I had heard that warblers were hard to ID, and that was true when I began, not that they’re easy now, but they’re much easier than some other families of birds. To me, identifying shorebirds is much more difficult than warblers are. Even tougher to identify are the gulls. It seems that almost all the species of gulls are at least somewhat similar looking to all the others, and that it takes several years for gulls to gain their adult plumage. As the gulls mature, they go through several stages of the coloration of their plumage, making it even more difficult to identify them.

To make matters even worse, gulls are social birds, gathering in flocks that number into the hundreds or even thousands at times. I usually lack the patience to scan a large flock of gulls to pick out any that may be of a different species…

Glaucous gull and friends

Glaucous gull and friends

…but in this case, I was able to do some gull herding and cut the glaucous gull out of the main body of the flock to get this photo of it.

Glaucous gull

Glaucous gull

I’ve been lucky along the way, I’ve run into Brian Johnson, an ornithologist that works in the Muskegon area many times, and have had the chance to talk to him and learn from an expert. One topic that comes up often is the variations within a species. With a common species, such as robins, while there are variations in the coloration of individual birds, the species as a whole is rather distinctive, and we hardly notice that individuals in that species may be lighter or darker than others. But, when you’re first trying to make an identification of a new to you species, the variations within that species and the limited number of photos in a typical field guide can lead to frustrations. I’ve often had to check a number of sources before I was positive of my identification of a bird.

I’m using up some photos that I know aren’t very good, but there was something about each one that prompted me not to discard them, and this post is turning out to be a good place to use them. For example, here’s an oddly colored herring gull.

Herring gull

Herring gull

How the gull managed to dye itself green, I have no idea, but no species of gull shows any green feathers naturally. I’m using the photo to show what I have to deal with as I work on this project. Here’s two more photos that I saved even though they’re not that good from along the same lines.

Northern harrier in flight

Northern harrier in flight

You may not be able to see it in the small size that the images appear here, but this northern harrier is showing some blue on its wings and tail. Maybe you can see that in this one.

Northern harrier in flight

Northern harrier in flight

I don’t know if it was the light that day, or if that individual has more of a bluish cast to some of its feathers than any other northern harrier that I’ve seen. If I hadn’t seen many northern harriers before, this individual may have thrown me off in making an ID, but I’m positive that this was a northern harrier, because of the white band at the base of its tail and for other reasons. However, since I went looking for other photos of norther harriers that I’ve shot, I do notice that some of them do have a bluish cast to them that I never noticed before, but not as much as the one above.

Northern harrier in flight

Northern harrier in flight

I mentioned being lucky in that I’ve been able to have conversations with an expert, a big part of my success so far has been luck. Although I didn’t know it at the time that I began this project, weather has played a large part in my ability to find so many species of birds so quickly.

To begin with, we had a series of mild winters leading up to when I began this project. That allowed some species of birds to move farther to the north than their typical home range was before we had the milder winters. The Carolina Wren is one species that comes to mind. They don’t migrate south in the winter like many other species of birds do, they need milder winters to survive here in West Michigan. Unfortunately, the last two very harsh winters has taken their toll on the Carolina wrens that had moved into the area. I’m afraid that most of them died during our last two severe winters, as I haven’t seen any reports of any one seeing or reporting one of those wrens for some time now.

I recently read an article on this very subject, the same thing has happened in the past. We have a series of mild winters here in Michigan, and some species of birds expand their range into southern lower Michigan. Then, we have a series of much colder winters, and those poor birds are wiped out. The same thing happened with the Carolina wrens in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, they were expanding their range to become common in Michigan, then the series of severe winters that we had in the late 1970’s killed almost all of them here, and it became very rare to see one.

On the other hand, the two severe winters have brought more species farther south than they normally migrate, which has given me the opportunity to see and photograph them. The past two winters were so cold that most of the water on the Great Lakes was frozen over, which concentrated the flocks of waterfowl into the few remaining areas of open water, making them easier to find and photograph.

So, I was very lucky when I decided to begin this project when I did.

I could go on at length, even longer than what I have so far, but I’ll try to cut this short.I know, too late to cut it short now. 😉

My goal for the upcoming year is to get ten more species added to what I have already. That will put me up to two-thirds of the way through the list. It may not be that easy to get them, but I’m going to try. If I am ever going to complete the list, sooner or later, I’m going to have to spend time in other parts of Michigan. The two main regions that I’m going to have to spend time in are the far southeastern corner of Michigan near the Ohio State line. There are some species of birds that are seen there and nowhere else in Michigan, for several reasons that I won’t go into now. The same holds true of Michigan’s upper peninsula, there are species there that are never seen in the lower peninsula.

This spring, I’m going to spend the week of my vacation in my favorite part of the lower peninsula, the northeastern quadrant. I’ll spend part of the week in the Pigeon River Country, the closest thing to wilderness in the lower peninsula. I’ll also spend part of the week near Alpena, where I’ve gone in search of birds for several years up till last year. So, that will use up my vacation time this year. It may not be until I do retire that I’ll be able to spend much time in the upper peninsula, since it’s such a long drive up there.

I really don’t want to spend much time in the southeastern corner of the state, that’s the area between Detroit and Toledo, Ohio. It’s not very scenic, but it is marshy with large expanses of mud flats. I’ll have to spend time there to get more of the wading birds, such as more of the species of herons, egrets, and rails that seldom, if ever, visit west Michigan.

Even if I do make it two-thirds of the way through the list this year, it may be a year or two before I catch up posting the species that I have photos of. For most of the year, I don’t have the time to do the posts in that series, I’m too busy with other things. Posting to that series over the winter months works out well for me, I’ll probably continue that schedule for the foreseeable future. That does work out well though, it gives me a chance to get better photos of the birds before I do a post on them. You may have noticed that I recently began adding some information about where and when I shot the photos that I use for the posts in the series, I plan to continue doing that since I don’t post species immediately when I find them.

To change the subject for a moment, here’s a pretty flower.

Aster

Aster

I threw that in to remind me that spring still hasn’t fully arrived here, in fact, it retreated this past week. Yesterday was the coldest day of the season, and today won’t be much warmer, so I’m hibernating this weekend. Starting on Monday, we in for a warming trend, with spring-like temperatures next weekend. Yeah!

I’d better throw this one in as well for the same reason.

Honeybee

Honeybee

Now then, back to birds for at least a few photos.

American tree sparrow

American tree sparrow

I included these because the American tree sparrow is one of the species that started me on the My Photo Life List project. They look very much like chipping sparrows, which are very common here in the summer. It was several winters ago that I saw a flock of American tree sparrows and dismissed them at first, thinking that they were chipping sparrows, until I remembered that chipping sparrows migrate south in the winter, and aren’t seen here in Michigan in January. So, I did some checking and learned that the American tree sparrows migrate here to Michigan in the winter, and more or less replace the chipping sparrows that go south.

American tree sparrow

American tree sparrow

I know that I’ve told that story repeatedly, but I’m repeating it again for newer readers. But, that event got me to thinking about how many species of birds could be seen in Michigan.

I soon learned that it was easy to make mistakes when identifying birds, which led me to decide to only list birds that I could positively ID from my photos.

Even then, I made a mistake or two when identifying shorebirds the first year, and I’ve corrected those mistakes since as I’ve gotten better photos, and gotten better at identifying shorebirds.

Okay, enough of that. Here are my photos from last weekend that I didn’t get around to posting yet. I learned that the cones of white pines open when it’s warm, and close when the temperature falls.

Pine cone opening in warmer temps.

Pine cone opening in warmer temps.

I’m learning that crows…

American crow in flight

American crow in flight

…blink more often than any other species of bird.

American crow blinking in flight

American crow blinking in flight

You’d think that I’d learn not to have twigs going through a bird’s head by now.

House finch

House finch

The birds are learning too, neither Bertha or Bruiser will fly as close to me as they used to.

Red-tailed hawk in flight

Red-tailed hawk in flight

Even if they had been perched in the same tree and flirting with each other…

Red-tailed hawks

Red-tailed hawks

…before taking off to go hunting alone.

Red-tailed hawk in flight

Red-tailed hawk in flight

As for the rest of these, they are of common species of birds.

House finch

House finch

 

Female downy woodpecker

Female downy woodpecker

 

Mourning dove

Mourning dove

Oops, for got that one was a squirrel.

Fox squirrel

Fox squirrel

Back to the birds.

Blue jay

Blue jay

 

Northern flicker

Northern flicker

Now it’s time for the other things that I saw while walking last weekend.

Unidentified seed pod

Clammy Ground Cherry seed pod

 

Cattail seeds

Cattail seeds

I don’t know who, how, or why this cone from an evergreen was cut in half, but I found it very interesting.

Pine cone cut in half

Pine cone cut in half

 

Frosty green

Frosty green

 

Frosty goldenrod

Frosty goldenrod

Well, that wraps up another one, I hope that I didn’t bore every one with the update on my progress as I attempt to photograph every species of bird regularly seen in Michigan. I could have prattled on much longer, as I am learning so much by having undertaken this challenge.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!


Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Stelgidopteryx serripennis

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Stelgidopteryx serripennis

The northern rough-winged swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) is a small swallow.

Adults are 13–15 cm (5.1–5.9 in) in length, brown on top with light underparts and a forked tail. They are similar in appearance to the bank swallow but have a dusky throat and breast. They are closely related and very similar to the southern rough-winged swallow, Stelgidopteryx ruficollis, but that species has a more contrasting rump, and the ranges do not quite overlap.

Their breeding habitat is near streams, lakes and river banks across North America. They nest in cavities near water, usually a burrow in dirt; they do not usually form colonies. The normal clutch is four to eight eggs, incubated by the female for 13 days, with another 20 to fledging.

They migrate to the Gulf Coast of the United States and south to Central America.

These birds forage in flight over water or fields, usually flying low. They eat insects.

“Rough-winged” refers to the serrated edge feathers on the wing of this bird; this feature would only be apparent when holding this bird.

 

On to my photos:

These photos were taken in May of 2015, near the Muskegon County wastewater facility, at what used to be a gravel mining operation where the area excavated had filled with water creating a small man-made lake.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Stelgidopteryx serripennis

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Stelgidopteryx serripennis

 

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Stelgidopteryx serripennis

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Stelgidopteryx serripennis

 

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Stelgidopteryx serripennis

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Stelgidopteryx serripennis

 

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Stelgidopteryx serripennis

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Stelgidopteryx serripennis

 

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Stelgidopteryx serripennis

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Stelgidopteryx serripennis

 

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Stelgidopteryx serripennis

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Stelgidopteryx serripennis

 

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Stelgidopteryx serripennis

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Stelgidopteryx serripennis

This is number 185 in my photo life list, only 165 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

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More signs of spring, before the blast

During the last week of January, the long-range weather forecasts for February were calling for much above average temperatures for the entire month. Once again, the meteorologists have let me down. It has been slightly above average here for the first week of February, but the forecast for this upcoming week is for us to return to the deep freeze for as long as the forecasts go out. With the cold will come another week of lake effect snow, just as the last of the snow that we got earlier is about melted away.

I suppose that’s not all bad, I’ll put in more hours at work to help pay for my new Forester when it arrives in March. Also, the new run that I started at work last month has me going east towards Detroit, and away from the lake effect snow bands, whereas before, I was running through the worst of the lake effect snow every night whenever it fell.

I’m just now beginning to get excited about getting a new car, the decision not to keep my current Forester was not easy. I love it, and there’s really no compelling reason for me to get rid of it. But, having an even newer and nicer one will be good, and I’ll get Subaru’s three-year road service plan for free for a little extra added piece of mind.

But, to keep the mileage down on my current car, I’ve stayed home this weekend. Well, that and the weather forecast called for clouds all day on both of my days off. That forecast was wrong, again, it was actually quite nice on Sunday, as you will see later. Anyway, when I go to turn in my current Forester, I should be right about at the mileage limit that my lease called for, so I shouldn’t have to pay any extra on that account. Also coming into play in my decision to stay home was that I was rather bored during my last two trips to the Muskegon area. Other than mallards…

Male mallard

Male mallard

…I didn’t get any good photos. It’s funny how that worked out, when I had poor light, I saw a few of the species of birds that I’d love to catch in good light, such as this rough-legged hawk…

Rough-legged hawk in flight

Rough-legged hawk in flight

…and this merlin…

Merlin

Merlin

…but the early morning light was so poor that those photos were the best I could do.

I also saw a red-tailed hawk arguing with a bald eagle about who was going to use the pylon for a power line as their hunting spot for the morning…

Bald eagle and red-tailed hawk

Bald eagle and red-tailed hawk

…but they were so far away that the photo of them is junk. I did set out on foot to get closer to them, but by that time, the eagle had convinced the hawk to move on…

Juvenile bald eagle

Juvenile bald eagle

…and the eagle flew off while I was looking at a few ducks in the other direction, so I missed the eagle taking off, not that any photos that I would have shot would have been good in such low light as there was then.

I spent some time at the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve shooting photos of the birds there, the only photos worth sharing from there are these, for a got a fair shot of a hairy woodpecker.

Male Hairy woodpecker

Male Hairy woodpecker

Hairy woodpeckers are declining in numbers, no one knows for sure why that is. They used to be very common, but it’s becoming rare to see one, unfortunately. They look identical to a downy woodpecker, except the bills of a hairy woodpecker is longer, here’s a downy to show the difference…

Male downy woodpecker

Male downy woodpecker

…here’s the hairy again…

Male Hairy woodpecker

Male Hairy woodpecker

…and the downy.

Male downy woodpecker

Male downy woodpecker

What doesn’t show up well in photos is that the hairy woodpeckers are considerably larger than the downy woodpeckers are, other than the length of their bill, they look almost identical.

Back to what I was saying, all day long I had crappy light, until I stopped at the Bear Lake Channel to shoot the mallards. Then, a hole in the clouds opened up, and I got more chances to shoot the perfect shot of a mallard, which I missed again. I got to the Muskegon Lake channel, not only had the hole in the clouds closed, but fog had set in, so the only photos that I’ll use from then are these of a pair of long-tailed ducks that I found.

Male long-tailed duck

Male long-tailed duck

And, the only reason that I’m posting these is because I may not get any more photos of them this winter…

Female long-tailed duck

Female long-tailed duck

…because of how little ice there is on Lake Michigan, and because I may not make it back to Muskegon before this species of duck heads back to the north for the summer.

The last two winters were so cold for so long that most of Lake Michigan was covered with ice, so the ducks wintering here were forced into huge flocks in any open water that they could find. That was lucky for me, since I was able to see and photograph well most of the species of ducks that do winter here. With our topsy-turvy weather this winter, the ducks are able to spread out more, and if we do get the early spring that I’m hoping for, the ducks will be gone soon.

Actually, our weather this winter has all the critters confused. We had two very cold weeks in January, then, it began to warm up, to the point that some caterpillars…

Unidentified caterpillar

Unidentified caterpillar

…came out of hibernation…

Woolybear caterpillar

Woolybear caterpillar

…and I found them crawling on the last of snow that remained, as you can see.

We even had thunderstorms and set a daily record for rainfall last week, even though there was still snow on the ground. Now that almost all the snow is gone…

Cloudscape at Creekside Park

Cloudscape at Creekside Park

…and there’s just a little ice left in places…

Ice still life 1

Ice on the small creek near home

…so I thought that I would try to get creative…

JVIS4269

Ice still life in color

…and shoot a few more artistic shots.

Ice still life B&W

Ice still life B&W

I also thought that it would be a good time to try some of the type of photos that I worked on inside while the weather was very cold. To refresh your memory, I was practicing getting near macro photos that have some depth and dimension to them, rather than having my photos look flat like this one….

Unidentified lichens

Unidentified lichens

…or this one.

Unidentified lichens

Unidentified lichens

In my defense, I couldn’t get into a position to use a wider lens and get very close to those. But, I could with these British soldier lichens.

British soldier lichens

British soldier lichens

I consider that one a failure, as were most of the attempts that I made on Saturday. I did much better shooting photos of pine sap on the trunks of the white pine trees on that day.

Dried pine sap 1

Dried pine sap 1

I should have brought the macro lens with me, for as I was shooting this one…

Dried pine sap 2

Dried pine sap 2

…I noticed a clear, tube-shaped object vibrating in the wind under the top layer of dried sap, so I got as close as I could for this one…

Dried pine sap and unidentified clear tube

Dried pine sap and unidentified clear tube

…still, I have not idea what the tube-shaped object is. It can’t be dried pine sap in any form, for I could see it moving in the wind. In fact, I had to shoot several photos to catch the tube not moving in the wind, and blurry because of that. Another of nature’s mysteries.

I shot those last few with the 15-85 mm lens with the shortest of the three extension tubes (12 mm) behind it to provide near macro capabilities from that lens at the shorter focal lengths. It’s no coincidence that the photos of the pine sap were the last ones that I shot using that set-up, it took me a while to learn how to use it for various subjects, rather than when I was testing it inside. You have to zoom in and out to focus, rather than using the focusing control, other than for fine tuning the focus. On Sunday, I tried again, with some better results.

Lichen covered fence post

Lichen covered fence post

I did get the result that I was looking for in that photo, it does have a sense of depth, and, everything that I wanted sharp in the frame is sharp. I can see that using the short extension tube behind the wider angle lens has some possibilities, I need to play around with it a lot more though to really get the hang of it. I also used that set-up for these next two, although I didn’t really need to. Ice is flat, and I was going for a different look for these photos anyway.

Ice still life 1

Ice still life 1

 

Ice still life 2

Ice still life 2

I hate to brag, but having two camera bodies is a wonderful thing. While I was using the 60D and the wide-angle macro set-up on it, this guy shocked me by flying over me!

Turkey vulture in flight

Turkey vulture in flight

So I grabbed the 7D with the 300 mm lens and 1.4 X extender to catch the earliest photo of a turkey vulture that I can recall. That has to be another sign that spring can’t be that far away now, as they don’t usually return here until the end of February, beginning of March. The turkey vulture is an even better indicator of spring than what robins…

American Robin

American Robin

…and cedar waxwings are….

Cedar waxwing

Cedar waxwing

…because it’s not unusual for those two species to show up early for spring, no matter how bad the weather is.

It’s funny, I’m rather proud of these next two photos, even though they aren’t of anything special, just goldenrod galls. However, I did put a good deal of effort into making these the best that they could be artistically, since the subject isn’t that interesting to most people. Here’s the first, which shows a tiny hole in the gall.

Goldenrod gall

Goldenrod gall showing the exit tunnel

The galls are formed when the female goldenrod gall fly lays eggs in the stem of a goldenrod rod plant. In about 10 days the eggs hatch and the larva burrows down into the plant stem. The larva’s chewing and the action of its saliva, which is thought to mimic plant hormones, results in the production of the galls which provide the larva with both food and protection. There they feed and grow, passing through 2 larval stages. The 3rd stage larva reaches its full size by late summer; this is the stage that will over-winter and is freeze tolerant. One of the last things the larva does is to excavate the exit tunnel that it will use to escape from the gall as an adult fly the following spring. The larva scrapes out a tunnel from its central chamber right to the edge of the outer wall of the gall, leaving only the plant epidermis (skin-like layer) remaining. It doesn’t eat the material it scrapes out, which accounts for the debris usually found within the central chamber of the gall.

However, some species of birds, woodpeckers and chickadees particularly, have learned that there’s a tasty morsel inside the galls, so often you’ll see galls that look like this.

Goldenrod galls that have been opened by a bird

Goldenrod galls that have been opened by a bird

You can see that a bird had enlarged the exit tunnel that the larva had made in the fall by pecking at the gall to get to the larva inside. I did my best to capture the colors and swirls of the galls, as I find them pretty in a way when viewed up close.

It isn’t only birds that feed on the larva of the goldenrod gall fly, some other insects do also. In the top photo, I see holes smaller than the exit tunnel that the larva made. It could be that a parasitic wasp or other insect laid its eggs in the gall, and the larva from the other insect ate the goldenrod gall fly larva before the birds found it, which is why the exit tunnel hasn’t been enlarged by a bird. If I can see the smaller holes, the birds can as well and they may have learned to avoid galls with them.

It just so happens that I have three bad photos that I shot last fall of a downy woodpecker pecking away at a goldenrod gall. I should have deleted these because of the poor quality, but for some reason I didn’t.

Downy woodpecker pecking a goldenrod gall

Downy woodpecker pecking a goldenrod gall

 

Downy woodpecker pecking a goldenrod gall

Downy woodpecker pecking a goldenrod gall

 

Downy woodpecker pecking a goldenrod gall

Downy woodpecker pecking a goldenrod gall

To make up for those three, here’s a few better photos, starting with a dark-eyed junco preening after its bath.

Dark-eyed junco

Dark-eyed junco

 

Dark-eyed junco

Dark-eyed junco

In the same tangle of grape vines was this male cardinal eating the shriveled remains of the few grapes left there.

Male northern cardinal eating grapes in the winter

Male northern cardinal eating grapes in the winter

Pickings were slim, I believe that the cardinal was also eating the seeds from the grapes.

Male northern cardinal eating grapes in the winter

Male northern cardinal eating grapes in the winter

Well, that about wraps this one up. It’s Monday afternoon, and I’m a bit bummed out. I went for a walk this morning, when I left my apartment, there was a large hole in the clouds to the southwest for the rising sun to pass through. By the time that I got to the top of the hill where I enter Creekside Park, a few clouds had formed within the hole, but I still thought that I’d see some sun, nope.

Angry clouds on my almost sunny day

Angry clouds on my almost sunny day

The hole in the clouds filled in rapidly after that, and I spent most of my time outside in a gloomy mood to match what the sky had become. Shortly after I returned home, the sun broke through the clouds again, and it’s been mostly sunny since then. Isn’t that the way it goes?

The most recent weather forecasts are calling for the coldest temperatures of this winter for next weekend, I hope that they are wrong, but I doubt it. If it does get down below 0 F here (-18 C), I’m going to hibernate the weekend away. The good news is that after that, it’s supposed to begin warming up again.

I really shouldn’t complain about the weather too much, it’s been much milder here than either of the past two winters when we set records for how cold it was and/or how much snow fell. But, with the slightly milder winter this year has come even more clouds than we typically have. We’ve had just four sunny days since Christmas, other than gaps in the lake effect clouds for a few minutes at a time, like when I shot the mallard photo at the beginning of this post. That’s what really gets to me, the endless cloud cover for days on end, I doubt if we’ll see any sunshine at all this coming week.

Well, the signs of spring are still coming, it won’t be that long until I start seeing another returning species of bird on an almost daily basis for a while, and just a few short months until I can shoot photos like this one again.

Moth mullien

Moth mullein

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!


Northern Bobwhite, Colinus virginianus

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

Northern Bobwhite, Colinus virginianus

The northern bobwhite, Virginia quail or (in its home range) bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus) is a ground-dwelling bird native to the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean. It is a member of the group of species known as New World quails (Odontophoridae). They were initially placed with the Old World quails in the pheasant family (Phasianidae), but are not particularly closely related. The name “bobwhite” derives from its characteristic whistling call. Despite its secretive nature, the northern bobwhite is one of the most familiar quails in eastern North America because it is frequently the only quail in its range.

There are 21 subspecies of northern bobwhite, many of which are hunted extensively as game birds.

This is a moderately-sized quail and is the only small galliform native to eastern North America. The bobwhite can range from 24 to 28 cm (9.4 to 11.0 in) in length with a 33 to 38 cm (13 to 15 in) wingspan. As indicated by body mass, weights increase in birds found further north, as corresponds to Bergmann’s rule. In Mexico, northern bobwhites weigh from 129 to 159 g (4.6 to 5.6 oz) whereas in the north they average 170 to 173 g (6.0 to 6.1 oz) and large males can attain as much as 255 g (9.0 oz). Among standard measurements, the wing chord is 9.7 to 11.7 cm (3.8 to 4.6 in), the tail is 5 to 6.8 cm (2.0 to 2.7 in) the culmen is 1.3 to 1.6 cm (0.51 to 0.63 in) and the tarsus is 2.7 to 3.3 cm (1.1 to 1.3 in). It has the typical chunky, rounded shape of a quail. The bill is short, curved and brown-black in color. This species is sexually dimorphic. Males have a white throat and brow stripe bordered by black. The overall rufous plumage has gray mottling on the wings, white scalloped stripes on the flanks, and black scallops on the whitish underparts. The tail is gray. Females are similar but are duller overall and have a buff throat and brow without the black border. Both sexes have pale legs and feet.

The northern bobwhite’s diet consists of plants and small invertebrates, such as snails, grasshoppers, and potato beetles. Plant sources include grass seeds, wild berries, partridge peas, and cultivated grains. It forages on the ground in open areas with some spots of taller vegetation.

The northern bobwhite can be found year-round in agricultural fields, grassland, open woodland areas, roadsides and wood edges. Its range covers the southeastern quadrant of the United States from the Great Lakes and southern Minnesota east to Pennsylvania and southern Massachusetts, and extending west to southern Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and all but westernmost Texas. It is absent from the southern tip of Florida and the highest elevations of the Appalachian Mountains, but occurs in eastern Mexico and in Cuba. Isolated populations have been introduced in Oregon and Washington.

The clear whistle “bob-WHITE” or “bob-bob-WHITE” call is very recognizable. The syllables are slow and widely spaced, rising in pitch a full octave from beginning to end. Other calls include lisps, peeps, and more rapidly whistled warning calls.

Like most game birds, the northern bobwhite is shy and elusive. When threatened, it will crouch and freeze, relying on camouflage to stay undetected, but will flush into low flight if closely disturbed. It is generally solitary or paired early in the year, but family groups are common in the late summer and winter roosts may have two dozen or more birds in a single covey.

The species is generally monogamous, but there is some evidence of polygamy. Both parents incubate a brood for 23 to 24 days, and the precocial young leave the nest shortly after hatching. Both parents lead the young birds to food and care for them for 14 to 16 days until their first flight. A pair may raise one or two broods annually, with 12 to 16 eggs per clutch.

On to my photos:

These photos were taken in northeastern Kent County, Michigan, along side of a road near the Pickerel Lake Nature Preserve one morning in May 2015, as I waited for the preserve to open.

Northern Bobwhite, Collins virginianus, Male

Northern Bobwhite, Collins virginianus, Male

 

Northern Bobwhite, Colinus virginianus

Northern Bobwhite, Colinus virginianus

 

Northern Bobwhite, Collins virginianus, Female

Northern Bobwhite, Collins virginianus, Female

 

Northern Bobwhite, Collins virginianus, Female

Northern Bobwhite, Collins virginianus, Female

 

Northern Bobwhite, Colinus virginianus

Northern Bobwhite, Collins virginianus, Male

 

JVIS3897

Northern Bobwhite, Collins virginianus, Male

This is number 184 in my photo life list, only 166 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

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The first signs of spring

It may seem early for such a post, since the official start of spring is over a month and a half away. However, spring doesn’t arrive in one day when the date on the calendar changes. It comes slowly at first, gaining momentum as it approaches. It’s the last day of January as I begin working on this post, and I’ve already noticed a few signs that spring is on its way. So far, it’s been the birds that are letting me know that so far. Unfortunately, I missed a photo of the first sign of spring that a bird sent me, it was a downy woodpecker testing dead branches to see which one would be the best to use for drumming.

Woodpeckers don’t sing songs, but they drum loudly against pieces of wood or metal to achieve the same effect, attracting a mate. People sometimes think this drumming is part of the birds’ feeding habits, but it isn’t. In fact, feeding birds make surprisingly little noise even when they’re digging vigorously into wood to find food. When you hear a male woodpecker rapidly drumming on a dead branch, it’s to attract a female.

Anyway, the male that I heard drumming was just out of camera range, and he was too busy looking for exactly the right dead branch to use for drumming to pause for me to get a good photo of him. So instead, I’ll have to use this photo as one of the first signs of spring.

Male tufted titmouse

Male tufted titmouse

As he went from branch to branch in search of food, he’d pause once in a while to sing for any females that may be looking for a mate this spring. I don’t know if he found one, I do know that hearing him singing certainly brightened up my day, especially since it was on a rare sunny day to begin with!

The day before that stood in stark contrast, it was the very gloomy day when I had gone to the Muskegon area in search of birds. As I noted in a previous post, I sighted many bald eagles, but the light was the pits, and the eagles kept their distance from me. Still, I have to remember that very few people have the chance to see one bald eagle, let alone several of them at one time. So, I decided to go ahead and post these next few photos of juvenile bald eagles establishing their rank within the flock that was there.

Juvenile bald eagles in action

Juvenile bald eagles in action

 

Juvenile bald eagles in action

Juvenile bald eagles in action

 

Juvenile bald eagles in action

Juvenile bald eagles in action

 

Juvenile bald eagles in action

Juvenile bald eagles in action

 

Juvenile bald eagles in action

Juvenile bald eagles in action

Okay, enough of the poor photos, it’s time for a good one, even if it’s just another mallard.

Male mallard

Male mallard

I had high hopes for that one when I snapped the shutter release, but I was a little disappointed with what the camera actually captured. I’ll have to work on that a bit more. Photographing anything well is a humbling experience, but mallards take that to the extreme due to their coloration. I’m not sure that any camera sensor has the dynamic range to handle an adult male mallard, but that won’t stop me from testing the limits. 😉

It has dawned on me that other than mallards, I haven’t been posting very many photos of the more common species of birds here in Michigan. So, since I had a few hours of filtered sunshine, and with a few birds to be photographed around home, I did shoot a few photos that I would normally have skipped these days.

Brown creeper

Brown creeper

I’ve posted similar series of photos before, but here’s another to show you how quickly the birds react when they spot me.

Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee

It heard the shutter go off, turned to see what made the sound…

Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee

…and was off.

Black-capped chickadee taking flight

Black-capped chickadee taking flight

I was shooting at 5 frames per second, and got three shots off including the take-off. The little buggers are quick!

On the other hand, mourning doves don’t flit around much, but for some reason, they’ve become very wary around here and will no longer pose for me. So, I had to shoot this next one at a greater distance than what I would have liked.

Mourning dove

Mourning dove

Recently, I posted a photo of a goldfinch eating seeds from a sycamore tree, not only are these next two better images…

American goldfinch

American goldfinch

…when I blew those photos up on my computer, I recognized that individual. It’s Scarface, a male goldfinch that I photographed back in the fall of 2014, he has a scar on the left side of his face, that you probably can’t see in these small versions of the photos. However, it’s good to see that he recovered from his wounds and is still around and kicking.

American goldfinch

American goldfinch

Next up, a pair of cardinals, other than I haven’t posted many photos of them recently, there’s nothing special about them.

Male northern cardinal

Male northern cardinal

 

Female northern cardinal

Female northern cardinal

It’s now early afternoon on Monday, I spent the day yesterday at Muskegon, I’m not sure how many, if any, of the photos that I shot I’ll end up posting. The light was good right at sunrise, but went downhill quickly. Besides, I had a great morning walk around home this morning, with plenty of signs of spring, much to my surprise. After all, it is only the first of February, neither I…

American robin

American robin, first of the year

 

Cedar waxwings

Cedar waxwings

…nor the birds should be jumping the gun on spring. We’ll have plenty of ice…

Ice patterns in black and white

Ice patterns in black and white

 

Ice patterns in color

Ice patterns in color

…left to endure this winter.

I was surprised both the robins and waxwings had shown up on the same day. But, with them around, I went crazy as far as shooting photos, since it’s been a while since they’ve been around.

After their long flights, the birds were hungry!

Cedar waxwing eating a high bush cranberry

Cedar waxwing eating a high bush cranberry

However, this robin was tasting the crabapples before eating them…

American robin taste testing a crabapple

American robin taste testing a crabapple

…and if the berries didn’t taste good…

American robin taste testing a crabapple

American robin taste testing a crabapple

…the robin would spit the crabapple out.

American robin dropping a crabapple

American robin dropping a crabapple

It did find a few to its liking…

American robin eating a crabapple

American robin eating a crabapple

…swallowed whole of course.

American robin eating a crabapple

American robin eating a crabapple

With flocks of both species present, I had a tough time choosing a subject.

American robin and cedar waxwing

American robin and cedar waxwing

Then, I got serious about trying for some good portraits of the waxwings.

Cedar waxwing

Cedar waxwing

This one puffed itself up for me.

Cedar waxwing

Cedar waxwing

This next one thought that it would model for me, striking one pose…

Cedar waxwing

Cedar waxwing

…after another.

Cedar waxwing

Cedar waxwing

The only thing that kept me from filing the memory card on my camera was that the light was just okay, not great for bird portraits. I also have to remember to pace myself, these birds will be around all summer, so I don’t have to get the perfect photo of them on their first day back.

I missed several other species of birds that I saw, but I did manage to catch this goldfinch.

American goldfinch

American goldfinch

What it and the Juncos (one of the species I missed) were doing in with the flocks of robins and waxwings, I have no idea. Maybe the other birds have missed them also?

I saw more signs of spring, the color green for a change.

Lichen covered tree and rock

Lichen covered tree and rock

I had taken one of the 60D bodies with the macro lens and one wide lens, just in case, and it was a good thing that I did. That was my first shot of that scene, I took several others, with this one being the best in my opinion.

Green!

Green!

The macro lens came in handy when I checked to see if the ornamental witch hazel bushes had buds in them yet. Not only did they have buds, but they were opening.

 

Witch hazel

Witch hazel

I also played with the wide lens to shoot this photo of the British soldier lichens growing on the fence at the entrance to the park.

British soldier lichen

British soldier lichen

One more sure sign that spring is coming…

Male northern cardinal singing

Male northern cardinal singing

…several of the cardinals were singing today, for the first time since last summer!

These signs of spring couldn’t have come at a better time, I was a bit down after the previous day at Muskegon. The day had begun with fair light, but soon, this is what it looked like there.

The Muskegon channel in the fog

The Muskegon channel in the fog

We may have had a mild winter so far as far as the temperatures and lack of snow, but the constant cloudy, gloomy days are wearing on me. I’m looking forward to spring when I can shoot photos of flowers…

Aster

Aster

…and insects again.

Ladybug

Ladybug

Hopefully, I’ll be able to build on what I’ve been learning over the past few years as far as photography is concerned, and get some really great photos this spring. It looks as though I may be able to get an early start if the weather continues to cooperate.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!