Bird (and other Stuff) Walk

This dragonfly (or is it a damselfly?) appeared to be depositing eggs, but we weren't sure

This dragonfly (or is it a damselfly?) appeared to be depositing eggs, but we weren’t sure

April is primetime for birding.  The number of bird species here increases dramatically during spring migration.  For example, while only a handful of Wood Warblers nest and breed in the Tennessee area, dozens fly through Tennessee (including the Tennessee Warbler) during migration.

False garlic bloomed in the grass

False garlic bloomed in the grass

Spring migration is also easier on those of us with bad eyes.  This is for three primary reasons:

  1. They sing more, making it easier to figure out where they are and, with a bit of practice, to identify which bird it is from its song,
  2. In early spring, there are few leaves for the birds to hide behind, and
  3. The birds are in full breeding plumage, making them (especially the males) much easier to spot and recognize.
Oh how I wanted to trim the branches between me and this Brown Thrasher

Oh how I wanted to trim the branches between me and this Brown Thrasher

Therefore, it only makes sense that we would decide to have a Birdathon in the month of April.  This is a stolen idea from a friend up North who started raising money for the local Audubon chapter up there.  This friend introduced me to birding when she invited her sponsors to go on a bird walk each year as a thank you for contributing.  I guess it stuck–I think the first time I went on a bird walk with her must have been over 15 years ago now.

Trillium was just starting to bloom along the trail

Trillium was just starting to bloom along the trail

In any case, as part of the Birdathon, we are trying to raise money for the Audubon by taking pledges for the number of bird species we identify over a 3 week period.  I am not doing so well.  I don’t think I’ve even gotten up to 50 yet.

Much easier to shoot, this turtle basked in the sun

Much easier to shoot, this turtle basked in the sun

One of the rules is that if a bird is not commonly found in the area, you have to either have a second person who agrees with the ID or a photo of the bird.  This has led to me carrying my DSLR with the 100-400mm lens on it every time I go walking through the park or on an official bird walk.

Evidence that someone got only half a meal--we discovered the back half of a 5-striped skink

Evidence that someone got only half a meal–we discovered the back half of a 5-striped skink

I so want to get some great photos of song birds.  But every time I carry the camera, I end up with tiny shots of song birds up in tree tops.  I need a tree house with a blind to sit behind so I can get up closer to the birds.  Since I don’t think Park and Recreation will approve of me building a birdhouse, I guess I will have to stick to cropping the heck out of my images.

A muskrat surprised us while we looked for birds--I like how it is actually just under the surface of the water

A muskrat surprised us while we looked for birds–I like how it is actually just under the surface of the water

The photos in this post are from 2 bird walks, 2 locations.  One at the park near me and one at Audubon Acres.  I am slightly proud of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher’s photo–that sucker is a 4 ½” bird and I was not that close–the fact that it’s as sharp as it is even though I cropped it a lot is what I’m proud of.

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher busy hunting among the tree tops

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher busy hunting among the tree tops

What strikes me as funny is that I only came back from 3 hours of looking at birds with images of 2 birds–I hope bird photographers are well paid.

These turtles looked like they were in the middle of some sort of dating ritual

These turtles looked like they were in the middle of some sort of dating ritual

Bad Birds

The plentiful song birds migrating through Chattanooga right now have not only evaded my lens, but also my vision.  I haven’t even been able to figure out what they are.  Usually when I can’t see a bird well and I run into it for several days in a row, after I obsess about trying to identify it for a while, it will perch in front of me and I will discover it’s something as exciting as a house sparrow.

Because I find the difficulty of shooting such small birds amusing, I’ve decided to share some photos today that I would mostly not choose to share under ordinary circumstances.  As any wannabe photographer will tell you, most actual photographers advise never to put your crap photos on the web; only show you’re best.  But what’s more amusing than headless birds cut partly out of the frame completely out of focus and under exposed?

I guess what’s funny to me about them is not the actual image I ended up with so much as the story behind it.  If you can visualize me crouching patiently with my camera, firing as rapidly as I can while I try to keep a tiny songbird in my frame and walk towards it in the hope of ending up with something bigger than a tiny dark spot that is indistinguishable from a leaf.  Inevitably, this ends in the bird flying away and me tripping over something.

Or, there’s the blurry shot of Cayse coming right at me in a flare.  I’m sitting there trying to refocus on her as she perfectly spreads her wings and even fits in my frame.  But, no.  She’s closer than my lens’ minimum focusing distance.  Or, the fact that her solid black feathers present no contrast for my camera’s focusing system to work with prevents reaching focus before she’s flying over my head.

I would love to have a video of me trying to follow a hummingbird with my lens and get a shot of it in flight.  I’m amazed I got even the shot in the gallery, but I must have looked insane bobbing and weaving with my camera trying to follow the flight pattern of the hummer.

Whenever I am in Florida, I am relieved by the large, cooperative birds who will gladly stand around and pose for hours at a time.  Northern waterbirds are far less cooperative.  This is apparently true in Europe too–we were at the Bodensee on the southern border of Germany when I attempted to shot a group of swans.  Much like a fly that will shoot out from under your hand when you try to slap it, these swans would tip upside down as soon as I pushed the shutter button.

I suppose much like the rare bird seems more beautiful than the common one, the rare decent shot seems more beautiful because it’s rare.  In the meantime, I keep watching eBay for a great deal on a used 600mm lens.

Raised Hands

Today’s photos provided by my guest photographer and husband, Pat.

Today, I did a volunteer gig instead of eating lunch.  The company I work for provided a grant to fund taking an educational program using birds of prey to underfunded schools that can’t afford special programs.  I’m psyched about having the opportunity to work with both the kids and the birds.

But, when I arrived at the school, I got a text message from one my best friends in the world, Gina.  She was having a bad day.  Her text to me was representative of something I feel all the time.  It was along the lines of “I feel invisible.”  Dismissed, unheard, unimportant, irrelevant.

These are the words that describe the worst feelings any person who regards herself as a valuable asset in the workplace can have, except maybe fired.  But, I suspect it’s the fear of being fired and what that represents to us that makes these feelings so difficult to deal with.  We all want to feel indispensable.  Invisible and indispensable don’t work in the same sentence (except, of course, this one).

I returned from vacation vaguely disappointed that the entire company didn’t come to a halt while I was gone.  It hurts my ego to realize the company didn’t even skip a beat.

But there I was, about to meet two 3rd grade classes with a bunch of birds and I’m getting this text that reminds me about my own fears of inadequacy in a corporate, adult world that often feels foreign to me.

I set my phone aside and focus on the event at hand.  The 3rd graders file in and the program begins.  The children are fascinated.  They smile, laugh, and look amazed.  Not mildly interested and politely faking amazement.  No, they ARE amazed.  And I don’t mean that in the over-used, can’t-think-of-a-better-word sort of amazed.  I mean they were surprised and delighted that something so wondrous as the opportunity to pet a Screech Owl and feed a Black Vulture was happening to them.

And then, they start raising their hands.  They want to be called on.  As each takes their turn, it becomes evident they often don’t know the answer to the question they volunteered to answer or they don’t actually have a question even though that’s why they were supposedly raising their hand.

I had the sudden realization that these were children who feared invisibility.  They raised their hands not because they had something to say but because they didn’t want to disappear in the crowd of their peers or the rules of their teachers who seemed to largely focus on making sure they behaved.

Behaving seemed to be an act of making oneself invisible.  But raising your hand, speaking out, those are acceptable actions that allow you to stand alone and be recognized.  A statement of being worthwhile, important, relevant, and noticeable.

It all suddenly seemed so simple–it’s all about raising your hand.

Bird Kings

I have a lot of funny stories about birding.  Let’s start with the 2 years I spent getting out my CD-set of bird songs every time I heard a particular bird calling, trying desperately to figure out what it was, only to discover (eventually) it was a chipmunk.

Or, how about the time I managed to convince myself that a Great Blue Heron (one of the most readily identifiable birds around) was a Tri-colored Heron because its feathers were hanging at a weird angle, making a pattern of color around its neck I hadn’t seen before.

Then there’s the time I was sure I was seeing a Louisiana Waterthrush only to realize I was looking at a female Red-winged Blackbird.  While I think all birders have been fooled by a female Red-winged Blackbird, I’d bet there aren’t too many who thought they might be a Louisiana Waterthrush.

But besides my identification mishaps, I also have physical ones.  For example, at the end of this month’s Wednesday morning bird walk (which I was leading), I got excited trying to see a bird in a tree right above us and I walked right into a concrete bench and fell over it, landing on my rear.  Fortunately, my fellow birders managed to catch me enough to keep me from falling all the way over the bench and onto the ground.

There’s also the time I was so busy looking up that I walked into a branch that smacked me right in my wide-open mouth.  I guess that’s better than a friend of mine who made the mistake of looking up with an open mouth just in time to catch a not-so-tasty snack.

Oh, and then there’s the time I drove off the road trying to identify a hawk perched on post at the side of the road.  Friends, don’t let friends bird and drive.

Perhaps it’s all of these antics that often give me the feeling that the birds are as amused watching me as I am watching them.

On our Saturday morning bird walk, which I was also leading, we discovered a family of Eastern Kingbirds.  It appeared the baby had fledged and Mom and Dad were trying to encourage it to start feeding itself (sound familiar, parents?).  But the baby wasn’t ready to give up on getting spoon (or beak) fed.

Perched low in a shrub near eye-level, we had quite a treat watching these wonderful flycatchers swoop in and encourage the baby to make an effort.  Baby, on the other hand, demanded to be fed loudly, squealing at Mom and Dad with a bright pink, open mouth.  No tasty treat for Baby either.

I love Eastern Kingbirds. They’re the easiest flycatcher to identify by sight.  The white rim along the tip of their tails and their size along with their pure white breast make them striking and distinct.  That’s what makes a bird a favorite for me–easily distinguishable features.

Down Came the Rain

There’s been an interesting development in the weather of late.  We went from ridiculous heat and drought to rain, rain, rain.

When at last the rain came, I went from relief to disappointment to worry.  The first day, when the rain drops started, I felt myself exhale.  Finally, rain!  But, it lasted only a half an hour or so and rained so hard it seemed like of it bounced off the dry earth and rolled away in the gutters.  The steam rising off the asphalt left us in a steam bath and the temperature barely dropped.

The next day, it rained more.  The temperature dropped dramatically and the sky took on an ominous tone.  The 10-day forecast was predicting rain for all of the next 10 days.  The relief in the temperature was welcome, but when the skies unleashed a torrent of rain that caused our roof to leak and the streets to flood, I started to worry. Coincidentally, I had volunteered to lead a bird walk for beginning birders before work Wednesday morning.  I scheduled it “rain or shine”.

This meant taking Tisen for a walk before the bird walk.  I tried to get him out of bed at 6AM.  He heard the rain on the roof and just rolled his eyes at me and stuck his nose under his blanket.  Tisen is not fond of rain.  Fortunately, his dad was home and volunteered to take Tisen out later while I was on my walk.

It did rain during the walk.  In fact, it started raining about the time we started walking and then kept raining harder and harder.  No one seemed to mind except the birds–they were suspiciously absent.  Although, we did see a couple of Osprey soaring over the river.

It rained like it was never going to stop from then on out.

The following afternoon, I managed to take a break for lunch.  I looked out the window and saw it was only sprinkling, so I thought I’d better take Tisen out right away.  He grabbed Blue Dog and off we went.  By the time we got downstairs, it was pouring.  I figured we might as well go for our walk in the rain, but Tisen had to be convinced.  He took two steps out from under the overhang and turned back around and started running for the door.  I managed to get him headed back out with much coaxing.

When at last we returned home, all three of us were soaked.  As soon as I let Tisen off his leash, he went running into the house with Blue Dog in his mouth.  He carefully laid Blue Dog on a towel left on the floor from drying Tisen earlier.  I had to laugh.  Since Tisen gave the big towel to Blue Dog, I had to use the only dry dog towel left in the house, which was an old hand towel.  Poor Tisen was still wet hours later.

Winging It

On Saturday afternoon, I went to a Chattanooga Audubon Society fund raising event as a volunteer for S.O.A.R.  S.O.A.R. was there to do their 45 minute long educational program on birds of prey in support of the Audubon.

The challenge for John and Dale was that the program was in a large field outdoors, potentially tempting free flying birds to head for the trees.

The challenge for me was to see if I could get any good shots of the birds.  I am planning to make a screensaver to give away in exchange for donations at an upcoming event.  Unfortunately, I’ve never seen the program before, so I am completely winging it (yes, a pun).

I chose my new 70-200mm lens thinking because it’s faster, it will help me freeze more movement.  Given that it was a bright sunny day, I probably would have done better with my 100-400mm since I didn’t really need the speed.

I put my camera on a tripod and set it at its maximum height thinking I’d have a better angle catching the birds flaring before they land.  Unfortunately, I didn’t consider the need to separate the birds from the audience.  I would have been better off getting really low–well, not sure my knees would have been better off, but my pictures would have been.

I also needed to be as unobtrusive as possible so the birds didn’t get confused and fly to me.  No one wants a bird of prey to land on their unprotected flesh.  As a result, I tried to stay in one spot and not move around much.

In addition to being in a fixed position, up high, with too short a lens, all my subjects were in motion.  John and Dale are constantly moving.  When I am looking through my lens, I can only track one of them, but I need to know where the other one is to predict what direction the bird will fly.  Looking away to locate the destination person caused me to miss more than one good shot.

My lack of experience using the continuous focusing mode also did not help.  I had issues with losing focus. I’m not sure what I did wrong, but I’m going to have to do some more practice with continuous focusing mode.  It was depressing to see perfectly framed and timed shots that were totally out of focus.

In the end, I have some fun snap shots, but nothing to put in the screensaver.  I spent an insane amount of time trying to salvage one of the photos by blurring away the distracting background.  Unfortunately, the photo doesn’t look right now–see if you can tell which one I majorly doctored.

At least I learned a lot for the next time.  And, none of the birds flew away.

As for Tisen, he couldn’t come to the event with me–birds and dogs don’t mix well.  But, I included another shot from his nap with Red Dog.


The weather is playing tricks again.  Apparently, the ground hog did not see a shadow.  For President’s Day, it was as warm as a day in May with lots of sun.  Every child in the area congregated on top of the mound across the street for some good old fashioned grass sledding.

Chalk that up as one of the things I love about Chattanooga–instead of clinging to the hope that they might get to sled 1x a decade when it snows, they slide down grass covered slopes on pieces of cardboard.

The warm weather got the birds all riled up again.  I’m surprised they haven’t given up after having been teased so many times by warm weather.  But they are singing with vigor, seemingly sure that this time, it really is spring.

The robins, towhees, cardinals, wrens, and song sparrows seem to be having a sing off of some kind when Tisen and I take our morning walk.  As I try to spot a particularly loud wren, the large white rump of a flicker flashes by as one flies up into the trees.  I watch mourning doves zoom by–I am always surprised by the speed and agility they exhibit once they are in flight compared to the awkward slowness of them near the ground.

Perhaps it’s the addition of the song of the blue birds that make me think it’s really spring.  While the blue birds have been around all winter, they’ve been lurking silently waiting for the right moment to burst into song.  It seems today was the day.

Whether Tisen notices the bird songs or not is hard to say.  But he definitely has the same spring fever.  By the end of the day, when we take our last walk before the sun sets, as we walk by a long grassy slope down to the wetland, his legs bend and he plops down in the grass much like a horse.  Then he flips onto his back and kick his legs for all he’s worth.  He scootches around on his back, scratching what itches and sliding his way part way down the hill.  I start to think he’s spent too much time watching the kids sledding.

Each time I think he’s done when we get to another grassy area, he flops down again, repeating the process.  His black/brindle spots are looking more green/brindle with the grass clinging to him.  I do my best to capture him on my iPhone, but I need a longer leash to get a good angle.

After finally convincing him to leave the park, Tisen bounces along with a new spring in his step.  It’s like all he needed to know it was spring was a good roll in grass still holding the heat from a warm day of sunshine.  His antics have put a new spring in my step as well.  On the way home, I contemplate how I can take Tisen sledding on our next sunny day.

Shooting Hawks and Clouds

I am sitting at my desk on a conference call.  I have been working on a spreadsheet for hours and, as I listen to the call and tweak numbers, I suddenly start seeing double.  I take off my glasses, rub my eyes, and then look out the window at the sweeping view of downtown.  Something between me and the city moves across my line of vision.  I look and recognize one of the hawks I’ve been seeing in the park across the street for the last few days.

There are two mounds in the park.  According to the sign, the mounds were created as part of the process to contain hazardous waste.  Not exactly comforting, but they look nice.  The mound on the right has low-growing plants all along the sides that flop over and create lots of little dark hiding places for rodents that scurry through the plants whenever someone walks by.  Pat and I have been trying to get a good look at exactly what lives on that mound for a long time.  We know it’s grayish brown and larger than a mouse or mole.  We decided they were voles after getting a quick glance at one, but part of me secretly fears they might be rats.

Whatever it is that lives on that mound, a pair of hawks discovered the colony the other day and seems to be returning regularly for an afternoon picnic.  I’m relieved to see the hawks.  Not just because they will help control the rodent population, but because I miss seeing birds from my window.  Other than the house sparrows and starlings who seem to have an ongoing war over who will roost in the crevices above our windows, most the birds hang out in the park and are too small to see from my desk.  However, I’m confused by this hawk.  It looks to be on the small side, but it has very bright reddish coloring around it’s head, chest, and shoulders.  I would normally assume it was a Red-shouldered Hawk, but it looks awfully small.  It’s also more vividly colored both in the red areas and in the strong contrast in the spots on its back.

When I see the same pair again that evening, I spend some time looking up Red-shouldered Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks trying to determine for sure what it is.  Now, most people who have any interest in birds do not have trouble telling a Red-shouldered from a Cooper’s.  I, however, am wired to perceive connections and similarities.  This is probably due to some genetic misfortune in my brain that causes me to see commonalities that may or may not exist, but others rarely see.

This same feature of my perceptions causes me to mistake people I’ve never seen before in my life for people I know quite well.  I had to start applying a rule of probability in deciding whether to enthusiastically greet someone or not in order to avoid frightening complete strangers.  The rule of probability takes into account the likelihood that the person I think I’m seeing would actually be where I am.  I will say, though,  that I did run into a co-worker once when both of us unknowingly took vacations in Scotland and then happened to end up waiting on our completely unrelated groups outside of Edinburgh Castle at the same time.  What are the odds?

Fortunately, I did not fail to greet my co-worker in that case because I heard his voice and knew definitively it was him.  Similarly, with the hawks, if I could hear them calling, I would know for sure which species I have the pleasure of watching.  If they are calling, the traffic noise drowns it out and there is no hope that I will ever be able to use their voice for identification.

But, back to comparing Red-shouldered hawks and Cooper’s, in my defense, a young, molting Cooper’s Hawk can look like a Red-shouldered Hawk if they turn a certain way, stand in direct but muted lighting, and the viewer has a vivid imagination.  Plus, the size of these birds seems more like a Cooper’s to me than a Red-shouldered.

However, after looking at pictures of both in various settings, I have to go with Red-shouldered.  I continue to be puzzled by their size.  I manage to get a few shots, although I struggle with focusing with my long lens pointed out the window.  It’s a pretty good distance to the bird, so I’m not surprised that my shots are disappointing.  I leave the camera set up just in case I have another opportunity the next day.

In the morning, I start watching for the hawk as soon as the sun is bright enough.  When I get too busy to look, that’s when movement catches my attention out of the corner of my eye.  I look out and there is one of the hawks, hunting on the hill.  She has something in her talons that she carries to a light post to snack on.  I cringe when I see it’s a rodent with a long tail.  I really didn’t want to see any evidence that those voles really might be rats.  I say a quick thank you for the presence of the hawks and hope for some owls, too, while I’m at it.

When I go for a walk, I see the hawk in the park again, only this time I am looking up at it.  I realize it’s size is correct for a Red-shouldered hawk after all.  I’ve been looking down at it from a distance.  Now that I am standing on the ground looking up, I remember the old trick in photography that says if you want your subject to look bigger, get down and point up at it.  If you want your subject to look smaller, stand above it and shoot down at it.  Apparently it is this phenomena that has been at work on my perception.

Now that this is settled, I can move on with my life.  Next step:  learn how to shoot the suckers so that they are in focus and doing something interesting.  For now, the sky is cooperating more than the hawks, so I switch from shooting wildlife to shooting clouds.