Tuesday, December 29, 2009

have an ice day


[i realize this post is about two weeks late, but better late than never, i guess…]

the snow was awesome…

…but the cocoon of ice that encapsulated all of the branches of our towering trees was even better. when the sun broke through the thick, broiling blanket of clouds, there was a point at which the treetops looked as though they were littered with a million tiny, glittering diamonds.

of course, i failed to capture that spectacle, what with me on the ground and possessing the distinct disadvantage of not being 40 ft. tall. so i had to shoot everything at 500mm from what felt like a worm's-eye view, leaving the glistening ice on the other side of the branches (i.e., the top) while the view through the lens revealed a less appealing scene (i.e., the not-frozen, non-glistening underside of the branches).

i was blessed to have a northern flicker alight for a bit on one of the frozen treetops, giving me a nice shot of the eye-catching gold underneath his wings.

silver and gold…what a perfect combination for this special time of the year.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

happy thanksgiving

we feed the feral siamese that calls our neighborhood — and the woods surrounding it — home. we have been for almost a year now. at first it was, "awww…look at the cute little cat. she looks hungry." so we'd stick a little bowl of food out for her. of course, our back porch became her favorite spot, and now she enjoys three hearty meals a day out there. she grew on us, with her beautiful coat and color, and her striking blue eyes; we looked forward to her arrival, came to expect her presence at our back door.

then, 4 days ago, she stopped coming around.

we scanned the woods for her cream-colored silhouette; we watched the stump of a large, dead tree that had become her throne, where she would bask in the sun and bathe herself; we consistently eyed the corner of the house, expecting her to slink around the corner at any moment, plop herself down, and wait patiently for her meal; we monitored the back door, turning toward it with so much frequency our necks started to hurt, hoping to see her face pressed up against the glass…


our hearts, heavy, surprised at how much we missed our little visitor. there have been a lot of hawks around lately. vultures, too. and let's not forget cars.

we feared the worst.

then, thanksgiving eve.

out of habit, i turned toward the glass door, now coming to expect a backyard devoid of furry animal friends, but too set in my new ritual of hope not to look…and there she was. like a ghost. silent, her face pressed against the transparent barrier; patient, as if saying, "no, no…don't get up. finish what you're doing. i can wait."

so today i'm thankful that our "unofficially adopted outdoor pet" is safe, and has resumed her daily routine at "restau de le dugfresh."

i'm thankful for God and for the seemingly impossible likelihood that He continues to love a sinner like me.

i'm thankful for my family, and for our health.

i'm thankful that i have a job, and can still pay (mostly) all the bills.

and i'm thankful for birds. and flying squirrels. and cats and dogs and dragonflies and caterpillars. racoons, foxes, coyotes, and possums, bats, mayflies, assassin bugs, northern water snakes, deer, boxelders, towering oak trees, ferns, rain…for nature and this wonderfully complex and bewilderingly beautiful planet that circles the sun at just the right distance away.

happy thanksgiving, readers. (although it's only one four so far, i'm still thankful for you.) i hope your day was filled with joy, comfort, love, family and friends, and appreciation for all the little things we can so often take for granted.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

case of the curious flying squirrel-like bird-thing

so this thing came gliding down from the canopy of tall oak trees, from the upper left field of my vision, gliding down to the right in a slight arc. i watched, filled with anticipation, wondering what new species of bird i was going to discover at 7:45am saturday morning. without warning — no flapping or extending of wings to slow down and prepare for a graceful landing — *SMACK!* mr flying thing hits the side of a large tree. my brain was in denial that a bird would travel that fast and smack into a tree (nothing bounced off and landed in the crisp bed of leaves on the forest floor), so my eyes kept following the possibly-now-deceased bird-thing's previous trajectory. they gave up when my brain registered the fact that they were just sweeping across a scene filled with trees and not much else and that all the action was back there at the tree. so my eyes swung back to the crash site.

nothing moved.

there were some thin branches, belonging to equally thin trees, stubbornly clutching on to their last reddish-orange leaves that crossed in front of the tree i was watching. the leaves swayed in the cool morning breeze every once in a while. registered that: not a bird-thing.

there was a knot of wood on the trunk of the tree; it didn't move. file that: not a bird-thing.

up a little ways, above the criss-cross of branches, above the benign knot of wood, there was a vertical gash, dark brown, about six or seven inches long. hmmm…that's right about where the flying thing smacked into the tree. registering…registering…

two to three minutes later, it hadn't moved. register that: not a bird-thing.

a few seconds after i filed that into the mental topographic map of this tree, the gash moved. it scampered up the tree. no hopping, bouncing, or fluttering; it climbed. my brain decided that this was a pretty fantastic moment, so it sent signals on down to my facial muscles to assume the appropriate expression, meaning that my mouth fell open in that universal countenance indicating reduced mental faculty. as that happened, the once-flying-now-scampering thing leapt from the tree and glided down *SMACK!* into another equally unforgiving tree. same descending arc. no wing action.

my brain, being overstimulated at this point, busied itself with the task of rearranging the expression on my face into one of delight, surprise, and confusion, while simultaneously toying around with another thought: flying squirrel.

could it be possible? they're nocturnal creatures. it was pretty light out, and anything past 6:00am, in my book, is disqualified from being classified as "nocturnal." even so, i'm sticking with my decision until someone can prove me wrong, based on these three Very Scientific Observations:

Very Scientific Observation number 1: it didn't fly. at least, not in the traditional sense. wing beats were never present, nor was there any spreading of wings to slow down before landing.
Very Scientific Observation number 2: it didn't die. birds are not constructed to survive SMACKING into trees at moderately high speeds. this creature was supposed to be able to SMACK into tree trunks. he probably thinks he's pretty cool, too.
Very Scientific Observation number 3: it scampered. in addition to surviving high-speed impacts into solid objects, scampering is also something that birds do not do well.

as you can plainly see, the Scientific Evidence is stacked in favor of the southern flying squirrel. and you can't argue with science…

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

on the wings of a song

those hard-working ornis at cornell have postulated (and through the clever application of lasers, proven) that birds can "sing" by using their wings. or at least this one can. it's a club-winged manakin, found in south america (possibly peru?).

i think it's my new favorite bird. it's beautiful, and that little trick he does with his wings puts him right over the top. i also like how he puffs up after his little wing song, like he's saying, "that's right…with my wings. you wanna see it again?"

enjoy. (and it looks like you might have to go full screen to do that…not sure what's up with the incredible shrinking player…)

Monday, November 16, 2009

mute monday

gonna let the great blue heron speak for itself.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

seeing red

i'm seeing red again, which is usually what happens when i spend too much time thinking about the direction in which this great country of ours is headed. but this red isn't due to societal ills — this red centers on my haven from all the madness: nature.

this time of year, the northern cardinals seem to increase the intensity of their hue, as if in competition with the trees to see who can draw the most attention with their splendid display of color.

make sure you get my good side…

i love the tchip-tchip of the females hidden in neighboring trees, no doubt voicing their admiration of the males showing off for them.

…and don't forget my other good side…

the votes are in: cardinals—10; trees—9. cardinals take this round…

Saturday, October 31, 2009

the color of magic

ok…gonna lighten things up a bit. apologies for that last post, for both the length and preachiness factor…i was in a mood.

thought i'd just post some nice images of fall in north carolina this time around. no preaching. just pictures.

i have never been blown away by the color of fall like i have been since moving here. new mexico has two seasons: hot and cold. north carolina, i was pleased to discover, has four. the old traditional winter-spring-summer-fall roster. and spring and fall are my favorites. it's absolute heaven here; it literally takes my breath away sometimes. there is so much going on with color at this time of year, it overwhelms the senses.

the feel of the air — crisp, clean, comforting — carrying the promise of holiday warmth to come; the scent of wood crackling and popping in fireplaces; the cozy, yellow glow of lit-up windows; the wonderful aroma of cinnamon and clove and nutmeg wafting down neighborhood streets. it feels right.

one of my favorite walking trails had fresh new carpet put down; plush, full, soft…and colorful. gone was the old motif of brown soil with pine needle accents.

fall colors compliment the simple beauty of this female adult house finch. (at least that's my guess. initially, i would have gone with pine siskin, but in the end — mainly because of the beak, i decided on female house finch. please…correct me if i'm wrong, though.)

i don't want this magical time to end, but, as with all seasons in life, this one will pass and usher in the next, and it, too, will be laced with it's own subtle beauty, waiting to be uncovered and enjoyed by those who know how to look for it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

random, if not slightly stupid, act of kindness

i think i saved a northern water snake yesterday. (i say "think" because i couldn't spot the heat sensing pit between the nostril and the eye that are common to the family that water moccasins belong to — pit vipers, i believe. i never saw any fangs, either. maybe they were tucked up against the roof of his mouth. strangely enough, i can't recall if his pupils were elliptical or not. i'm thinking not. if my identification was off, then i'm dumber than i originally thought…and just as lucky.) anyway, he was trapped in the mesh that landscapers use to start patches of grass. not sure how long he had been there, but he was tangled up good. apparently, he went after a field mouse or some other rodent — successfully, i might add, judging from the bulge in his midsection — stealthily tracking it up the bank from the river…and on through the mesh.

i was out for a drive in God's country, trying to find some peace, and finding it in the overwhelming beauty along I-85 and its little random offshoots of backwoods country roads. the peace came not only from the beauty of the trees proudly displaying their fall fashion line in this season's hues of reds, oranges, yellows, greens, and everything in between, but also from the fact that no large corporations were currently tearing it all down to build office complexes and malls.

i'm going to interject here in the interest of keeping it relatively short (i could post a few pages on just the drive alone), and cut to the part about the snake.

he was at a rest stop. (have you noticed that snakes are always "he"?) or more specifically, on the river bank next to a bridge, where, as i mentioned at the beginning of this post, landscapers were trying to grow grass. the bridge led to a vietnam vet memorial for north carolinians who served — and gave up their lives — in the war. (not to get off the subject again, but the memorial itself was a haven. simple and bold, it was built within an earthen "bowl," the memorial surrounded by a circular barrier of impossibly lush, green grass, and featured a curved wall built with handmade bricks, each carved with the name of a soldier who died or went missing in that war. trees and benches were placed sparingly along a brick pathway that encircled a large patch of grass that made up the middle of the monument. All in all, a nice serene place to remember those who gave up their lives for whatever reason we engaged in that horrible war.)

back to the snake, and from here on out, staying on the snake. i promise.

so it was on my way back from the memorial to the rest stop parking lot that i saw the snake. not sure how i missed it on my way there — it was about 3-1/2 to 4 feet long, and it's dark reddish/bluish-grey body stood out sharply against the pale yellow of the straw. at first i thought, "cool," but then i started noticing things: the fact that he just ate (which was still on the "cool" scale), the fact that his head was missing (tipping toward "uncool"), and the fact that thin green plastic strings were crisscrossed and embedded in its torso (we've fallen completely off the "cool" scale now). my curiosity was piqued, and when my curiosity is piqued, i am not content to just sit and watch…i like to interact. so i detoured around the edge of the bridge, through a little of the grass-to-be, and down into some rocks to keep a safe distance in case his head decided to materialize.
from this new vantage point i could see that his head was not missing, but hidden…under the green mesh and straw. i could also see with more clarity just how serious the green mesh problem was. and my heart dropped.

another interjection (but still on topic!):
i have a love and respect for all creatures, from spiders and flying bugs to feral cats and african plains-roaming elephants, and everything in between. i'm all for the "cycle of life," of letting nature run its course (for instance, if the snake would have been caught by a raccoon or something), but this was nothing of the sort. this was man intruding — even if for good intentions (attractive landscaping) — on nature, and the snake did not have this scenario wired into its dna. no special sensors to detect plastic mesh. this is when i like to take action and intervene. i realize that most people would just frown a little and walk on, maybe even thinking, "poor snake," but i'm not wired like most people.

so, i searched for a large, strong branch of reasonable length to stimulate the snake; i needed to know if its head was stuck, or if instead it was camouflaged with a stealthy purpose in mind. the branch i found was perfect: strong, thick, long enough to prod with, short enough to pry with, and forked at the end, in case i needed to pin its head so i could get in close. i touched the snake's body (with the stick) and he moved a little, but no head. I put the stick underneath him and lifted...and his head popped out of the straw. but my heart sank even farther when i saw the condition of his head. he was so tightly ensconced in the mesh, that it was digging under his scales, into his flesh. my work was cut out for me, and it was at this point that i wondered if i should just leave. what could i do? no scissors, no knife…nothing but a stick. animals are getting caught — and killed — in or by human-made objects all the time — road kill being the perfect example. what could i do about that?
what could i do about this?
i could try.
so i did.

my only option was to use the fork with the sharpest end, and dig it underneath the sections of string and pull until the stress snapped them. this was easy at first, as the snake was facing uphill (where i was positioned), so i could dig under the string with his scales instead of against them. it wasn't easy snapping the mesh, though. they pulled apart with relative swiftness when using my hands, as there were two forces acting upon the string in opposite directions, but when using the stick with the snake, the only opposing force to my pulling was the tension of the mesh and/or the weight of the snake. the last scenario was the worst. i knew i was hurting the snake, but i kept telling myself the alternative was worse. so with this pathetic technique, I slowly freed his head.

now you may be thinking to yourself, "you freed the snake's head first?!? what a dumb@$$." hear me out…
there were two good reasons for this: one, his head was being mangled by the way in which he was tangled — parts of his face were being pulled in two different directions at once; and two, i wanted to give him more freedom to be able to move — in essence, help him help himself.
yes, he tried to strike me several times; too many to count. but i was always aware of the distance i needed to keep from him as more of him became free. most of the time he would strike when i put immense amounts of pressure on him while trying to break the strings. the force i was putting on those thin but maddeningly strong filaments lifted him off the ground, which, i can say, he wasn't too happy about. his head would flatten and take on a triangular shape like that of a viper's, and his mouth would open wide, as though he thought he could swallow me. sometimes he would strike, other times he would just pose with flat head and open mouth. but my line of thinking paid off, as he did just what i wanted him to — slithered and writhed and turned — and by the end of it, he and i had a mutual understanding. for the last ten to fifteen minutes i pulled and poked and strained and snapped, and he took it all bravely. no more flattened head, no more open mouth, no more striking. just resolved himself to bear with it until it was over.

perhaps he knew we had made significant progress.

an hour after all this began — an hour filled with frustration and tension and moments of disappointment and elation — i had to leave him to make it out on his own. he was 90% free, and i had to tell myself that as soon as he digested his meal, he would be able to squeeze out of the remaining bonds.

i went back to my car feeling good, feeling right. i think that may have been the driving purpose behind rescuing the snake: because it was right.
This world today is lacking a sense of right, and i'm not saying everyone needs to go out and rescue snakes trapped in landscaping mesh, but it would, at least every once in a while, help to not put yourself first. extend yourself to others, especially those in need. try to see things from others' points of view. open yourself to the idea that, as impossible as it may seem, the world does not revolve around you. you are more than likely the only one that thinks you're the greatest thing since sliced bread. how does that bumper sticker go..."practice random acts of kindness"? there was a movie called "pay it forward." i never saw it, but heard enough about it to get the gist, and i know this: the concept works, but only if you bury your selfishness first.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

the dinner guests

standing out in the backyard tonight, watching the deer graze through the misty clouds of my breath in the cold air. it is such an awe-inspiring thing, watching the mother deer and her baby cautiously peek out from the woods, checking to see if the coast is clear, and then, after their brief, preliminary inspection, stepping lightly and silently through the leaves and into the open grassy area.

standing there while the deer look at me, almost seeming to peer into my soul — assessing the nature of that other living creature they sense across the yard — does it mean us harm? is this a safe place to eat?
fear not, my frail, short-tailed friends: i am with you, not against you. my backyard is your dining room, and you're welcome anytime. bring the whole family.

what was that?! "quick...into the cover of the thick woods. follow me!"

and just like that, they're gone, leaving me to wonder if they were ever there at all; spirits passing briefly through this world, on their way to the next.

i couldn't kill these animals for sport. i know that knocks me down a few notches on the manly meter, but i just couldn't do it. i don't see the point. skill? the odds are tipped very much on the side of the one holding the rifle, don't you think? i propose that a better test of skill would be to fasten a set of antlers to your head and then go toe-to-toe with a buck. that would be a true test of one's manliness.
nope. hunting's just not for me. i prefer to do all my shooting with a camera.

that's right, little fella. the worst thing that comes out of this black, formidable-looking piece of hardware is some beeping and clicking noises. and a memory or two of when you and your family would come over to dine with us.

ok. so i realize that i said that the great blue heron in flight was coming up next, but i saw the deer again tonight, and, well...
the great blue heron will be coming. soon. maybe not the next post, but soon.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

misty morning hop

another early weekend morning venture, but this time mist enveloped everything. it was so thick that the sun resembled the moon when it plays hide and seek with the clouds. it choked off the sound of the birds, their chirpy morning songs suffocated by the dense fog. nothing moved. nothing stirred, flitted, or twittered. it was as if the weight of the low-lying clouds could be felt by all of the little woodland creatures, and it pressed them down into their burrows, hidey-holes, and other nooks and crannies. no starlings on the baseball field. no crows doing their usual fly-bys. no cardinals, wrens, or finches chirping away from the tops of trees. nothing...

except for the spiders and their amazing webs.

this guy was hanging out between the slats in a wood fence, and the mist being as heavy as it was, darkening the sky as though it were 5 o'clock in the morning instead of 9, i had to break out my flash for this shot. 400 ISO, f/6.3, 1/250 shutter speed at 500mm added a lot of noise to the photos, but then i wasn't out to shake the wildlife photography world by the collar, and because of the mist, i had already resigned myself to just enjoy the walk.

then i saw this:

and this:

and it became clear to me that this would be the theme of my little weekend morning photo-walk. in fact, it couldn't really be called a walk, as i was only about 150 yards from my house and all i really had to was turn in a circle. they were all over the place; i was surrounded by these things. they were on every tree, and most trees had more than one; some had five or six.

the challenge was framing a decent shot with the zoom telephoto, so i did my best.

if you're wondering where all of this dramatic mist is — the one i carried on about in the opening paragraph — i color-corrected the heck out of these shots. all of the photos from that morning were muted and drab.

here's a shot of the sun i mentioned earlier, untouched by photoshop.

next up: great blue heron flight shots. taken on a very non-misty day at the lake.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

morning on the observation deck

sometimes i like to get up early on the weekend and set out on a walk. no breakfast (though a mountain dew of some sort is necessary); just get up, get dressed, grab the camera, and see where i'm led. it's strange…i never really have a set destination in mind. i just walk out the door and feel. one morning about a week or so ago, i started my walk out by visiting a couple of my usual haunts, one of which had previously turned up some great belted kingfisher action; the other, a green heron patiently stalking his breakfast (pictures of which are forthcoming).

but on that day, those locales were dry, so i just pointed myself up the road and walked, on toward the greenway. i stopped walking when i reached the observation deck—not because i was lazy, but because it felt right. so i turned, walked to the end of the deck, and waited. and watched. and listened. and waited some more.

just when i was drawing the disappointing conclusion that i either got up too early or got here too late, i spotted the green heron.

not sure how long he had been there, watching me while i waited for something to watch, but there he was, and in a couple of seconds he was in my viewfinder. i got a lot of pictures of him—stretching his neck and body, contracting back to his little compact shape, scratching his neck and chin with his formidable-looking claws (reminding me briefly of my cat), switching positions so that i got his good side(?), then back again—but unfortunately, i don't have the fastest lens, so those shots (and really, almost of my shots that morning) were between 200 and 400 ISO with the lens as wide open as it could get (6.3), and a shutter speed that needed to strike a balance between slow enough to let the right amount of light in and fast enough to take care of camera shake (i handhold everything for now...a tripod is a distant dream of mine). that combination did not really serve me well—inordinate amounts of noise resulted—but, as i've said before, it's not always about the picture. i caught a lot of birds that morning, and it was cool just to observe them.

ruby-throated hummingbird (female?)

downy woodpecker

great blue heron (vignetted through a very small opening between the leaves)

and a couple of things that birds like to eat:

more than a few of them need IDing (as i'm still a birding newbie), and they are as follows:

i saw this one on my way to the deck:

(a juvie red-winged blackbird? he was small...3 to 4 inches head-to-tail, at the most. my little arrows are pointing to some significant distinguishing features: the little mustache things; the red stripe on his neck; the buff-colored underbelly; the red streaks under his tail.)

and these on the way back:

here are a couple of flycatchers (or maybe the same one...):

(eastern wood-pewee? that's my best guess.)

this one made the aforementioned observation of the birds that morning very rewarding. seeing him launch into the air, performing his acrobatics while trying to catch the bugs, then landing again, making it all look so easy.

and this is a before picture (the arrow points to a little flying bug...no, it's not a spot on my lens!):

i'm sure if i looked through the succeeding pictures, the little flying bug would not be present...

birds i heard but didn't see: some sort of jay (blue jay maybe?); red-shouldered hawk; some crazy, amazon jungle-sounding thing that i would love to ID; chickadee; and a few more i'm failing to recall at the moment.

so all in all, despite the lack of "keepers," it was a good morning out on the observation deck.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

prepare for landing





i'm after the eastern pondhawk next. this is not an eastern pondhawk. it's another blue dasher, i believe. no, i didn't get a picture of the eastern pondhawk because — are you ready for this — it was always too close.

that's right. usually you can't get close enough for a shot; the 30,000 moving images of you registered through those large, bulbous eyes are an immediate dead giveaway that something larger than it is coming and that it would be prudent to leave. like, now. and, voila!, you missed your shot. then you end up stumbling around like frankenstein's monster, crashing through bushes, tripping over rocks and branches while you follow it, no match for its agility, hoping it will land again soon and give you another chance.

well, this one was either blind or somehow knew my 200-500mm lens would never pick it up. so instead of running away, it stayed close — just under the minimum focus distance of my lens.

not only are they cool looking; they're smart, too.

anyway, i'm kind of obsessed with these things. they're beautiful. i happened upon it while out looking for my elusive-but-sometimes-cooperative green heron (see my previous post in which he was playing the cooperative card). no bird, but then, this, in all its gleaming, metallic green glory. it soon became obvious that i wasn't coming home with a picture of this guy (for the reason mentioned earlier), so i just watched him through my other lenses; lenses of the prescription variety, the ones that hook around my ears and rest on my nose.

so the hunt is on. i will get you, you little green bandit. you can't stay close to me forever. no, one of these days you'll stray far enough away and into 200mm range, and then...snap!...you're mine.

Monday, August 17, 2009

mute monday [no words, just pictures]

[ all were spotted w/in a 40 minute window (my lunch break) and a 50 yd. radius. ]







[ what the heck happened to my rounded corners?!? well, so much for mute monday... ]