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Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

Generally I prefer to photography my wildlife subjects in natural surrounding and often try to frame my shots so that they do not include manmade elements. During a recent visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I inadvertently spooked a small bird, which looks to me to be a juvenile Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis), and I watched as it flew to a tall wooden post. I looked at it as a mixed blessing, because I had a clear view of the bird, even though the perch was manmade.

I captured this image when the bluebird turned its head to look at me. I really like the way that the composition of this modest little image turned out. I remember moving a bit to make sure that the sky was in the background, but hadn’t really counted on the background being as pleasantly blurred as it is. The wires and other hardware attached to the post add some additional visual interest to the foreground without being too distracting.

 

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Carolina Chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) are small and active, so I rarely get a clear view of one of them, especially during the times of the year when there are leaves on the trees. Last week I was happy to get some photos of this chickadee at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge as I was searching for warblers.

The leaves in the first two images and the tiny acorns in the final photo provide indications of the change in seasons. Temperatures are really dropping as we approach the end of September and the leaves are just beginning to change colors. In my area, unfortunately, the leaves mostly tend to turn brown—the fall foliage is definitely not as bright and vibrant as the colors in New England, where I was born and grew up.

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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During a short period in the spring and again in the early autumn, migrating warblers move through the area in which I live. Occasionally I will manage to get a shot of one during the spring, when the warblers are sporting their colorful breeding plumages. During the autumn, however, their plumage is duller in color and the leaves on the trees block them from view, so I rarely see a warbler (though I can hear them) and even less frequently photograph one.

On Tuesday during a visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I spotted a flash of yellow high in a tree. Although I did not get a good look at the bird itself, I knew immediately that it was some kind of warbler. I focused on the area in which the bird moving about and watched and waited, snapping off shots whenever even the slightest bit of yellow was visible.

I never did get an unobstructed shot of the warbler, but different shots helped me to identify various features of the bird. In the first photo, for example, I can see the gray head and white eye ring. In the second and third images, I can see the extent of the yellow underparts, the white wing bars, and the moderate streaking.

What kind of warbler is it? I went through my bird identification guide—I use the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America—and decided that it was possibly a Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia). I was uncertain of my identification, though, so I sought confirmation on a birding forum on Facebook. Shockingly I was correct in my identification. I think I have about a 50 percent success rate in correctly identifying warblers and similar birds.

I would love to get clear unobstructed close-up shots of these beautiful birds as some photographers are able to do, but I am quite content with these shots. They highlight for me the beauty and mystery of the warbler in what I consider to be its natural habitat.

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was quite shocked when I spotted this Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) with a frog in its mouth on this past Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. When I first spotted the bird, it was mostly hidden in the foliage of the tree, but I could clearly see the dangling frog. I stopped in my tracks, quickly adjusted the settings on my camera, and took some shots. When I moved slightly to the side to try to get a better angle, alas, the bird detected my presence and flew away with its prey.

I had no idea that a bird like a cuckoo would consume a frog. Wow! According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Caterpillars top the list of Yellow-Billed Cuckoo prey: individual cuckoos eat thousands of caterpillars per season. On the East coast, periodic outbreaks of tent caterpillars draw cuckoos to the tentlike webs, where they may eat as many as 100 caterpillars at a sitting. Fall webworms and the larvae of spongy (formerly gypsy), brown-tailed, and white-marked tussock moths are also part of the cuckoo’s lepidopteran diet, often supplemented with beetles, ants, and spiders. They also take advantage of the annual outbreaks of cicadas, katydids, and crickets, and will hop to the ground to chase frogs and lizards. In summer and fall, cuckoos forage on small wild fruits, including elderberries, blackberries and wild grapes. In winter, fruit and seeds become a larger part of the diet.”

I love to capture images like this one. No how many times I visit a familiar location, there always seems to be something new to see.  My favorite encounters most often seem to occur when I am by myself and moving slowly, immersed in the natural world. Fortunately I am quick to react with my camera, for these moments tend to be ephemeral and fleeting.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I often have trouble identifying shorebirds, because so many of them are similar in appearance. When I spotted this one last Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I immediate thought it might be a Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). This bird seemed to be perfectly content to be by itself, pursuing its goals at its own pace, marching to the beat of a different drummer. Was it an introverted shorebird of a different species or was it really a Solitary Sandpiper?

As I stood there at the edge of the pond, I realized that we were a lot alike, the bird and I. It was a moment for reflection. Most of the time I too would rather enjoy nature in solitude, separated from others.

I make a conscious effort to avoid contact with other people when I am out with my camera and avoid certain locations because they are too popular and crowded. I generally prefer to spend my time communing with wildlife.

Solitary Sandpiper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I really like Green Herons (Butorides virescens). Unlike their more stoic Great Blue Heron “cousins”, Green Herons seem to be full of personality. I have not seen one in several months, so I was delighted when I spotted this one on Friday at a small pond at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The vegetation around the pond had grown so high that I did not see the Green Heron until I was almost on top of him. My first indication that the heron was there was when I accidentally flushed him, but fortunately he flew away only a short distance and I was able to capture this image.

As is often the case, the heron was sporting the Mohawk-style look that always makes me think of punk rock. The lighting was good enough that I was able to capture some of the beautiful feather detail of the heron. Despite its name, though, I don’t really see much green on this green heron—I might have given it a different name if I had been in charge. 🙂

Green Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I first saw this bird on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I thought it was a type of gull. However, its flying pattern—it repeatedly flew low above the water— suggested to me that it was some other kind of bird. When I looked at my photos afterwards and checked my bird identification book, I concluded that it was most likely some kind of tern.

When I posted an image to a birding forum in Facebook, one of the experts there informed me that it was a Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia), a bird that I had never before seen. He pointed out “the heavy red bill, extensive black on the underside of the primaries, short tail, and full black cap” that indicated that this was a Caspian Tern and not the somewhat similar-looking Royal Tern.

As the summer begins to wind down, I will gradually shift my attention from insects to birds as my primary subjects. In the meantime, I will still be focused a lot on my beloved dragonflies and butterflies, with an occasional tern (or re-tern) to the birds.  🙂

Caspian Tern

Caspian Tern

Caspian Tern

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday I visited Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, my favorite local venue for wildlife photography, for the first time in almost a month. It was a beautiful summer day for a walk in nature, with temperatures and humidity lower than usual for this area. I was thrilled to be able to capture a few modest images of birds, which is a bit unusual for me during the summer, when most of the time I am more likely to hear birds hidden in the foliage than actually see them.

The first image shows a rather fluffy-looking Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis). This is probably my favorite shot of the day, because the pose is more dynamic than most perched bird images. The little catbird seems to have a lot of personality and energy.

I was delighted to photograph a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) perched above the large eagle nest at the refuge. I composed the second shot to include some of the clouds that, in my view, add some visual interest to otherwise solid blue sky background. No matter how many times I see a Bald Eagle, it is always special for me.

The final image is a long distance shot of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). When I first spotted the hummingbird, I thought it was a butterfly as it flitted about among the flowers. When it finally registered on my brain that it was a hummingbird, I clicked off a series of shots, without much hope of getting a usable image. I was pleasantly surprised when several of the shots had the hummingbird relatively in focus. I selected this particular image because it shows the hummingbird hovering and because its wing positions reminded me of a butterfly.

It was exciting this month to be on the road, seeing different parts of the country and photographing some different subjects, but it was comforting to return to the familiar confines of a location that is a refuge for me in all senses of the word—it felt like I had returned home.

Gray Catbird

Bald Eagle

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I was visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota last week, I did most of my wildlife photography while inside of my car. Surprisingly that included bird photography. In order to spot birds, I had to drive slowly, often at about 10 mph (16 kph), and listen very attentively. Fortunately, there were not many other people around in the early morning, so I was able to move about at my own pace.

The Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)in the first photo, did not make a sound, but was big enough for me to spot visually. I have photographed Wild Turkeys numerous times, always in a forested environments. I was therefore astonished to see on in a desert-like area of the park.

The bird in the second photos is a Lazuli Bunting (Passerina amoena), I believe. I spotted them several times, but most of the time they were out of range or were blocked by branches. I was fortunate to capture this one as it was singing.

The bird in the final photo was initially a bit of mystery for identification purposes. However, the speckled wings, dark body, and bright red eyes led me to conclude that it is probably a Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus).

The birds in the last two photos are western birds that are not found in my home state of Virginia, so I am only semi-confident about my identifications. Please let me know if I have made a mistake in my efforts to figure out the species to which they belong.

Wild Turkey

Lazuli Bunting

Spotted Towhee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Some crows were harassing an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The osprey kept looking to the sky and crying out. Was it yelling at the crows or perhaps calling out to its mate?

Eventually one of the crows flew up onto the same branch as the osprey and continued to pester the larger bird. When I captured the final image, the crow looked away with a look of feigned innocence. The osprey, however, was not buying the act and appeared to be looking over its shoulder, keeping an eye on the crow.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Osprey

Osprey

Osprey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday I visited some family members who live on a farm. They have hummingbird feeders set up at various spots around the farmhouse and I was delighted to see Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) zipping about throughout the time of my visit. I would have liked to have gotten shots of the hummingbirds feeding on some beautiful flowers, but they seemed content to use the feeders.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, the only hummingbirds where I live, are small at about 2.8-3.5 inches in length (7-9 cm), so it is not easy to capture shots of them in flight. Most of my shots include the feeders, but I generally prefer a more natural-looking backdrop whenever possible, so I used these shots. It was a hot, humid day and I quickly wore myself out chasing after these energetic little birds.

In case you are curious, I was once again using my new Tamron 18-400mm lens. I would have liked to have had a bit more reach to get closer shots—these shots are significantly cropped—but I think that is the constant complaint of most wildlife photographers, even those with super telephoto lens. I’m pretty happy with the shots that I was able to get of these hummingbirds that look to be either females or juvenile males—I did see some adult males with their brilliant ruby throats, but, alas, was unable to get any shots of them.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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I was absolutely thrilled on Wednesday when I streaks of bright yellow flashed in front of my eyes while walking among the flowers at Green Spring Gardens—goldfinches were present. Few other birds in my area can match the brilliant yellow color of the male American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) in breeding plumage. It is easy to spot these birds, but it is a challenge to photograph them, because they are small, fast, and skittish.

My camera was equipped with my 180mm macro, which can also serve as a short telephoto lens, so I had to use all of my stalking skills to get as close as possible. Fortunately, the goldfinches were preoccupied with feeding and I was able to capture these images. I had to be quite patient, though, because the goldfinches spent most of their time with their heads buried in the flowers and only rarely gave me a good view of their faces

Together with the goldfinches, the abundance of blooming flowers helped me to create images that have a happy feel to them, a welcome antidote to the gloom of these troubled times.

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Earlier this season I saw a lot of Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) activity at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Many of the Ospreys seemed to be attempting to build nests, but it was never clear to me which ones were viable. These potential nesting sites were scattered around the entire refuge, so I count not simply monitor them as I do with the two eagle nests.

One of these sites is a man-made nesting platform that is located in the middle of a field. It is a simple wooden platform atop a vertical post that looks like a telephone pole. During the off-season, when the ospreys have departed from our area, bald eagles often perch on this platform, but it is not suitable for a bald eagle nest.

Apparently, though, the nesting platform is suitable for ospreys. Last Friday, I noted a lot of activity at the platform and managed to capture this image of an osprey family. I was shooting a telephoto lens, but was a good distance away, so the shot is not quite as sharp and detailed as I would have liked. However, it is easy to pick out both parents and at least two baby ospreys.

That same day, I checked the eagle nest to see if I could see the eaglet that I had previously photographed, but did not see it. Previously it looked like the eaglet was almost ready to fly and it is possible that the eaglet is no longer spending its time in the nest, but I will be sure to check for activity the next time that I visit the refuge—it is one of my regular stops when I make the rounds at the wildlife refuge.

Ospreys

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Here is a look at what might be one or more of the parents of the young eaglet at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge that I featured in a recent post. Last Friday, the larger Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) at the top was perched for an extended period of time in a tree overlooking the large nest when the second eagle flew in. They remained in place for several minutes before flying away.

Are these two eagles a couple? The one on the left is probably three to four years old and may not be mature enough to be a parent—it can take about five years for the head feathers to turn completely white and for an eagle to fully mature. On the other hand, if only the older one is a parent, it seems a little strange that it was so comfortable with an interloper zooming in and perching that close if they are not a couple.

Several Facebook readers commented that the eagles that were hanging around the nest earlier in the year both had completely white heads. What happened? We may need a paternity test to determine if this precocious young eagle is indeed the father.

So what do we have here? Is this a much older sibling of the eaglet in the nest? If so, where is the other parent? Female eagles tend to be larger than males, so it is quite possible that the eagle perched higher is a female. Maybe she is disappointed that there is only a single eaglet and is trying out a possible new mate. It is a bit of a mystery.

bald eagles

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Earlier this month I did a posting called  Looking out of the nest that featured a young Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) sitting up in a large nest at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and wondered when it would be able to fly. Last Friday I returned to the refuge and was delighted to see the eaglet flapping its wings and testing them out—I think it is almost ready to fly..

The eaglet repeatedly extended its wings, but seemed a bit uncoordinated, like a gawky teenager who has experienced a growth spurt. Several times it was able to rise up into the air, but looked uncertain about what to do next. The photos below show some of the action, which lasted only for a few minutes. The eaglet then disappeared into the deep nest, possibly to rest after its exertion.

I watched for a while longer and eventually the eaglet reappeared, but it simply sat up, looking out of the nest. A fellow photographer told me that he spotted the eaglet the following day perched in the tree that you can see in the right side of the image. I suspect, though, that the eaglet will need some quite a bit more practice before it will be capable of venturing out on its own and, of course, it will have to learn how to fish.

I will probably make a trip to the refuge this week to check on the eaglet. So many of the nearby trees are covered with leaves that I may have trouble spotting the eagle, particularly because its dark, and mottled plumage help it to blend in well with the foliage. Adult Bald Eagles tend to stick out a bit more because of the bright white feathers on their heads.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) looked a bit bedraggled when I spotted it on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, where it was perched just above the large eagle nest in which a young eagle was visible. Harried parent? Check out yesterday’s posting “Looking out of the nest” if you missed the photos of the inquisitive juvenile eagle.

The sky was totally overcast on the day when I took these photos and the sky was almost pure white. The resulting effect makes these shots look almost like high key portraits taken in a studio setting, although personally I would have liked a little more directed light to make the photos look less flat. Still, any day is a good day when I get to see a bald eagle.

bald eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It was really cool on Tuesday to be able to capture these images of a young Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) looking out from the large eagle nest at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The growing eaglet appeared to be quite alert and was sitting up quite high near the edge of the nest. I love how you can see the mottled plumage, dark eyes, and multi-colored beak of this eaglet in these photos.

The nest is high in the trees and there is now a lot of vegetation growing, so it was quite a challenge to get a clear angle of view. I am pretty happy with the results that I was able to achieve. The eaglet looks to be big enough to be flying, but I am not sure if that is the case. One of its parents was perched on some branches just above the nest, so I am pretty sure that it is not yet ready to go out on its own—eagles normally take about 12 weeks to fledge and then may hang around with their parents for another month or two.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I have seen an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) only a few times in my life, so I was thrilled last week when I spotted one last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, my second sighting of this species this year. Once again I was struck by the brilliant blue coloration of its feathers—even from a distance the bird’s amazing blue color really stood out.

As I was doing a little research, I was surprised to learn that Indigo Buntings, along with other buntings and grosbeaks, are part of the Cardinalidae family, which I tend to associate with the bright red Northern Cardinals. When I look at the first photo, though, I must admit that the raised crest on the head of the bunting does remind me a bit of a cardinal.

I did not notice it when I took the first photo, but as I was processing the first image I spotted what appears to be a band on the bird’s right leg—I encourage you to click on the image to get a closer look at that leg. There is a bird banding station at this wildlife refuge and several years ago I visited it and watched the fascinating process of bird banding (see my 2018 posting entitled Visit to a banding station). I recall being amazed at the range of sizes of the bands, which allow for the banding of birds even smaller than the Indigo Bunting, which is about 5 inches (13 cm) in length.

I believe that Indigo Buntings remain with us all summer, so I will be keeping my eyes open for them during future visits. However, I couldn’t help but notice how the trees are now covered with leaves and the vegetation is lush, which makes it really hard for me to see small birds, even when I am able to hear them.

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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When the Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus) emerged from the water on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I initially thought that he had snagged some underwater vegetation. However, it quickly became apparent that the prey was wriggling and squirming and was in fact alive. It looked a bit like a small snake or maybe some kind of marine worm, but several Facebook viewers later informed me that it was probably an American Eel (Anguilla rostrata).

The eel put up quite a struggle, but I believe that the grebe eventually subdued it and swallowed it. Unfortunately the grebe turned his back to me during the process, so I was not able to document the final phases of his efforts with my camera.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I spotted this Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius) on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. There are a lot of sandpipers that are similar in appearance, so I was not sure what kind it was when I took these shots. As I looked through my bird identification guide, however, I realized that the spots on the bird’s chest and the orange bill made it quite easy to identify, because these traits are distinctive for breeding Spotted Sandpipers.

I was intrigued to learn on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website that the female Spotted Sandpiper is the one who establishes and defends the territory—she arrives at the breeding grounds earlier than the male, unlike in other species of migratory birds, where the male establishes the territory and arrives earlier. More amazingly, the male of this species takes the primary role in parental care, incubating the eggs and taking care of the young. Wow!

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was tracking the movement of this colorful Prothonotary Warbler on Monday (Protonotaria citrea) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge as it hopped about in the dense green foliage, when suddenly it popped into the open and I was able to capture these images.

I absolutely love the bright yellow coloration of this warbler that never fails to put a smile on my face—years ago I used to drive a Toyota Matrix that was Solar Yellow and was visible from a long distance away. It was cool during this encounter that the bird was close enough to me that I managed to capture the reflection of the sky and the landscape in its eye.

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was excited to spot this juvenile Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) sitting up in the big nest at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge on Monday. I assume that this eaglet was born this spring, based on its coloration and markings.

Earlier this spring I had noted eagle activity around this nest and thought that the nesting process had already begun long ago. However, this nest is very large and so high up that it is impossible to tell when the eagles began to sit on the egg or eggs. I checked my blog postings from the past and saw that I posted a shot of eaglets at this same nest on 19 May last year (see the posting Eagle nest update in May), so things seem to be following the same approximate schedule.

I saw only a single eaglet this time, but will continue to monitor the nest for more eaglet activity, including indications that there is more than one eaglet. Earlier on the same day I spotted an adult eagle perched in a tulip tree—you can actually see some of the “tulips”— adjacent to the nest and suspect that this is one of the parents keeping an eye on the eaglet(s). I included a shot below of the presumed proud parent as a final photo.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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This bird was in the middle of a field on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge when its movement caught my eye. When it hopped to the top of the vegetation, its brilliant yellow chest made it really hard to miss, even though it was far away. I am pretty sure that it is a Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens), my first sighting ever of this cool bird species.

Many of the migrating warblers that are passing through my area have various yellow markings, so I assumed that this was simply another warbler that I had never seen before. The reality, however, is hardly simple. According to Wikipedia, “The Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens) is a large songbird found in North America, and is the only member of the family Icteriidae. It was once a member of the New World warbler family, but in 2017, the American Ornithological Society moved it to its own family. Its placement is not definitely resolved.”

Compared with most other warblers, the Yellow-breasted Chat seems much larger and bulkier and it has a relatively long tail and a rather robust beak. I love the bright yellow color on its breast and the distinctive eye-markings that make it look like the bird is wearing spectacles.

I think that we are nearing the end of the period of bird migration, but I will definitely keep my eyes open for possible new finds like this gorgeous Yellow-breasted Chat.

Yellow-breasted Chat

yellow-breasted chat

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Although I have photographed a Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus) several times in the past, I had never seen one in colorful breeding plumage until yesterday. According to the range maps on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, Horned Grebes do not breed in my area, so this one, who was swimming by himself, may just be passing through as he migrates northward.

The colors and patterns on this bird are amazing. The gold circles in the grebe’s red eyes really grab a viewer’s attention, though I must admit that I find them to be a little bit creepy—it is definitely worthwhile to click on the photos to get a closer look at those eyes. The bird’s distinctive “horns” appear to be tufts of long golden feathers behind each eye in a pattern that is reminiscent of the haircut of a medieval monk, particularly in the middle photo. My favorite photo may well be the final one that captures some of the grebe’s spunky personality.

Like most other grebes, Horned Grebes have compact bodies, relatively short necks, blocky heads and straight, narrow bill that is very different from a duck’s bill. I observed the grebe as it repeatedly made short dives in search of food yesterday in the waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, during the breeding period Horned Grebes also feed heavily on insects and larvae, some caught in the air, others in or on the water.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I kept hearing loud singing coming from the top of the trees on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, but had trouble locating the source of the singing. Leaves are now covering the trees, complicating my efforts to spot small songbirds. Eventually I managed to locate the birds and they turned out to be Indigo Buntings (Passerina cyanea).

Once again I was amazed by the deep blue coloration of the male Indigo Buntings—its intensity never fails to startle me. The bold color of the Indigo Buntings, sometimes nicknamed “blue canaries,” was matched by the cheerfulness of their songs. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Male Indigo Buntings whistle a bright, lively song of sharp, clear, high-pitched notes that lasts about 2 seconds. They are voluble, singing as many as 200 songs per hour at dawn and keeping up a pace of about one per minute for the rest of the day.” Check out this link to hear samples of some of the songs of Indigo Buntings.

I was amazed to discover about how Indigo Buntings learn to sing. According the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Indigo Buntings learn their songs as youngsters, from nearby males but not from their fathers. Buntings a few hundred yards apart generally sing different songs, while those in the same “song neighborhood” share nearly identical songs. A local song may persist up to 20 years, gradually changing as new singers add novel variations.” Wow!

I believe that Indigo Buntings will be with us all summer and I hope to get some shots at closer range. I have fond memories of the first time I photographed a male Indigo Bunting in August 2017 as he perched on the drooping head of a sunflower—check out the posting entitled Indigo Bunting and Monarch.

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Monday I spotted my first Green Heron (Butorides virescens) of the season at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Unlike Great Blue Herons that remain with us all winter, Green Herons migrate to warmer places in the fall and return to our area in the spring and spend the summers with us.

When I first spotted the heron, it was perched in a tree, as shown in the final photo. I passed by the heron, stopped a short distance away, and waited. Eventually the heron grew comfortable with my presence (or chose to ignore me) and hopped down out of the tree. Recent heavy rains had caused a pond to overflow onto a road and I was happy to be able to get some shots as the heron poked about in the shallow waters at the edge of the road.

I crouched as low as I could and waited for the heron to move into one of the patches of light. The little moved slowly and deliberately, gradually Green moving into the dense undergrowth where I had trouble tracking it. It was a cool encounter with one of my favorite birds—in my experience Green Herons show a lot of personality than other herons.

Green Herons are also one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Green Herons “often create fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, and feathers, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish.” I have not yet seen this kind of behavior, but try to be particularly alert whenever I spot a Green Heron. It would be easier for me to recognize the behavior if the Green Heron used something more distinctive, like a little fishing pole.

Green Heron

Green Heron

Green Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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A speedy little Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) was perched on a paved path at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens last Saturday and I captured this first image as it was taking off. The shot is a little blurry, but I love the the really cool shadow that the swallow was casting onto the ground. The second image shows the same swallow just before it took off and give you a better view of the coloration and markings of a Barn Swallow.

When I first spotted the birds in the final photo, I thought they might also be Barn Swallows, but when I took a closer look and did a little research, I determined that the bird on the outside of the nest was a male Purple Martin (Progne subis) and the one with her head poking out was a female Purple Martin. As far as I can recall, this is the first time that I have photographed this bird species, which is the largest swallow in our area.

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow

Purple Martin

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Most warblers forage in the forest canopy and I have to strain my neck to search for them. Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum), however, mainly forage on open ground or in low vegetation.  When I saw a flash of yellow in some low bushes last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I therefore suspected that it might be a Palm Warbler.

I watched and waited and eventually the bird hopped up onto a branch and I managed to get a clear shot of it. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure that it was a Palm Warbler, but the color and markings looked about right and I could see the rust-colored cap on its head, another identification feature for a Pine Warbler. Some experts in a Facebook forum confirmed that “my” bird is indeed  a Palm Warbler.

The warblers are with us for only a limited period of time in the spring before they continue their migration northward, so I don’t know how many more times I will have a chance to photograph them. At this time of the year, though, colorful flowers are popping up and insects are reappearing, so I won’t suffer from a lack of subjects when the wablers depart.

Palm Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I spotted this colorful Prairie Warbler (Setophaga discolor) as it was singing high in a tree on Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Most of the time I spot birds like this when they fly to a new perch, but this warbler stubbornly refused to move. I stared and stared at the tree, desperately trying to locate the source of the song that the bird was singing over and over again.

I finally located the warbler in the crook of a branch. I was looking upward at such an acute angle that I mostly got a view of the underside of the bird, but eventually I captured the first image in which the warbler was singing. Prairie Warblers have an unusual rising song that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology described in these words, “The Prairie Warbler sings a distinctive, rising and accelerating song with a buzzy quality, zee-zee-zee-zee-zee-zeeeee.” If you click on this link, you can listen to several sound samples of the songs of the Prairie Warbler.

I do not know how much longer the migratory warblers will be in my area, but I hope to have another chance to see some of these joyous little birds. I am still not confident in my identification skills for warblers, so there is a chance that I am wrong about this being a Prairie Warbler, but its beauty is undeniable.

Prairie Warbler

Prairie Warbler

Prairie Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I could hear a bird singing in a tree on Wednesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, but I had trouble finding it. Eventually I spotted some movement and was able to track the bird, but it remained mostly hidden. I saw some flashes of yellow and assumed that it was some sort of warbler. I finally managed to get decent shot of it and was anxious to check out my birding guide to see what it was.

When I looked through the warbler section of the book, none of the images seemed to match “my bird.” What else could it be? Suddenly I remembered that a couple of other local photographers had mentioned seeing vireo at this refuge. Could this be a vireo?

The overall coloration and the stunning eye convinced me that this is almost certainly a White-eyed Vireo (Vireo griseus), a new species for me. This is definitely one of the coolest looking birds that I have seen in a long time. I love the wash of pale yellow on its breast and the darker yellow around its bill. If you click on the image and look carefully at the bill, you will see that it is slightly hooked, which is not the case with warblers.

I went to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website to learn a bit more about the behavior of this species—”White-eyed Vireos hop among branches and make short flights between shrubs, making sure to stay well hidden in the process. Males sing from the edges of understory vegetation all day long, even during the heat of the day.” I still have trouble geolocating a bird on the basis of sound, but can use all the help I can get.

I am currently alternating between looking for birds and looking for dragonflies. At this time of the year, they are found in vastly different habitats, so I have to make a decision when I set out in my car. I am absolutely thrilled that I have already had some success with both birds and dragonflies this spring and look forward to new discoveries.

White-eyed Vireo

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday I featured a warbler that was so brightly colored that it was impossible to miss. Today’s warbler is the complete opposite—it was so nondescript and so well hidden that it was almost impossible to see and initially I could not even identify it from my photos.

My eyes detected some motion high in a pine tree on Wednesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and I stopped. I had set my long lens on a monopod, so my arms did not get tired as I strained to make out the bird that was moving about among the pine needles and the pine cones, though my neck quickly became sore. It looked like the bird was feeding on little seeds, so it would stop momentarily from time to time, giving me a change to find it in my viewfinder and acquire focus.

None of my shots was spectacular, but I was able to capture enough details of the bird’s body that some experts in a Facebook birding group identified it as a Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus). Not only were they able to identify the species of the bird, they determined that it was a first year female on the basis of its markings and coloration. I am always amazed when confronted with that level of expertise.

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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