The endless rows of simple granite headstones at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego spill down almost to the Pacific Ocean’s edge. In a photograph I took two years ago, the setting sun silhouettes the white headstones creating a stark reminder of the ultimate sacrifice the servicemen and women, who are interred there, made serving our country.
One of the things I love about traveling around the country (and sometimes the world) to photograph birds is that I get to appreciate and admire the many species I don’t have the opportunity to see in Northern California. The Black-crested Titmouse is an example of that. This bird lives in Texas year round and no where else in the United States. Although I’ve been to South Texas in past years and have even seen this bird, I have not photographed it so it was a real treat that I had a three chances one morning to photograph it on our third day there.
The intense red of a Male Northern Cardinals is gorgeous. This male was drinking from a pond in South Texas near the Rio Grande a few weeks ago. He was so close to us that I had trouble keeping all of his tail in the viewfinder. There is a bubble of water in his beak. I never tire of seeing these beauties. We don’t have Northern Cardinals on the West Coast.
When I was growing up, my oldest brother, Artie, had a Steiff Mohair Teddy Bear that he probably got as an infant in 1941. It was pretty ratty and moth eaten when I discovered it sometime in the 1950’s. I quickly learned that it apparently had some value to my Mom (probably sentimental then but they now sell for hundreds of dollars) because I got into trouble for using the bear instead of a ball to play catch with my next door neighbor. My mother stashed the bear away then and although it did reappear from time to time, I don’t know whatever happened to it in later years. Looking at the Kodiak Brown Bears I was reminded of that Teddy Bear and think that the Kodiak Brown Bear must have been used as its model. Of course, the real thing is Steiff on steroids!
It’s probably a good idea to leave these sleeping “dogs” lie. The Kodiak Brown Bears we photographed last week look cuddly and reminded me of big dogs when they lay down to sleep. The bears were comfortable with our presence, so much so that they often slept in plain view of us and our cameras. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to disturb them. The claws on her front paws are warning enough to leave her alone.
Not only do the Kodiak Brown Bears I once considered ferocious act like cuddly Teddy Bears, grazing cattle, or lazy dogs, they seemed to enjoy just relaxing by the edge of the river with not a care in the world. A fallen tree branch served as a convenient way for this sow to reach that unreachable place on the back of her neck to scratch that itch! Ahhhhhhhhh!
The land surrounding the Uganik River on Kodiak Island in Alaska was criss-crossed by shallow streams created in part by snow run off that divided the island and gave the Kodiak Brown Bears places to drink and bathe. We watched one bear walk into the shallow water, flip onto her back, feet in the air, as she soaked and floated in the water. The bear in this photograph took a moment to drink then continued across the stream to feast on the grasses on the other side.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Kodiak brown bears are the largest bears in the world next to Polar Bears. They are a unique subspecies of the brown bear and they live exclusively on the islands in the Kodiak Archipelago, having been isolated from other bears for about 12,000 years. Despite their large stature, these huge bears can seem to disappear in an instant and keeping an eye on them was a continual challenge. Our expert guides were constantly watching in a 360° circle to make sure they knew the whereabouts of any bears near us. When we changed location, we kept our eyes on the bears as we slowly moved toward them or past them. The terrain near the river’s edge was covered with deep grasses that the bears loved to eat. They would sometimes lay down to munch on the grass. When they did, they’d all but disappear. If there was a knoll or depression these half ton plus animals could completely disappear from sight. The bear in this photograph is laying down in the deep grass. She was watching us but sometimes she would lay her head on her paws and only a sliver of her back showed. Because of her color and the color of some of the surrounding vegetation, she blended in well with her surroundings.
After spending most of this past week photographing Kodiak Grizzly Bears on the Uganik River on Kodiak Island in Alaska, my long-held perception of these massive beasts has changed radically My perception of grizzlies was formed when I was growing up in Santa Rosa, CA. In the 1950’s my family would occasionally go to dinner at the Saddle and Sirloin Restaurant which was owned by a local developer who was also a big game hunter. Many of his trophies adorned the restaurant and when I walked in, I would stare awestruck at the massive Kodiak Bear standing on its hind legs, arms menacingly outstretched. It towered over me and from my first glimpse of that gigantic Kodiak Bear, I thought of grizzlies as frightening, menacing creatures. I have discovered that despite their massive size, they are neither frightening nor menacing. Don’t get me wrong. Grizzlies are powerful wild animals and humans are no match for their speed and strength. If threatened or intimidated, they would be incredibly dangerous.
We had alert, competent guides who made sure we understood the potential dangers. We were fortunate that our two guides, Chris and Aaron, were able to slowly move the six of us closer and closer, only moving when the bears were contentedly eating, stopping immediately when they raised their heads. On several occasions we were surrounded by up to ten bears at the same time. I was never afraid and I was never worried that we were in danger. What a thrill it was to see and appreciate these beasts not as threatening but almost like big Teddy Bears. We watched their daily routine of grazing almost like cattle as they munched contentedly on native, nutritious (we were told 21% protein) grasses. We were struck at how much they seemed like dogs as they dozed in the sun with their heads on their paws. We chuckled as they rolled gleefully on the gravel beach or scratched the back of their heads on a log. What an experience. And I am so glad I have a new found appreciation for these wonderful bears. Kodiak Grizzly Bears are the largest brown bear and comparable in size to a Polar Bear.
By our fifth day, the bears in the area we visited had become used to us and knew we were not a threat. Instead of moving away from us, they sometimes approached us, not in a menacing way but just because they were not concerned. I took this photograph on our last morning as this sow we had photographed every day walked to within 30 yards of us. In this shot she is starting to move away but I love how she glanced back at us, almost as if to say goodbye.
This Bullock’s Oriole is enjoying a dip on a warm afternoon at 26.546020° -98.532067°. These GPS coordinates pinpoint the exact location where I photographed this bird in Texas last week. What is so intriguing to me about that is the camera I used, a Nikon Z6II, does not have built in GPS like Nikon’s flagship D6 camera and I didn’t have an external GPS tracker attached to the camera. I was able to get the GPS coordinates through a setting in Nikon’s SnapBridge App. Once I set the camera so that it talked to my iPhone, the iPhone GPS coordinates are automatically transferred to the camera. What is even more intriguing is that the camera keeps the setting so that turning it on and off or removing the battery does not negate the setting. Once turned back on, it will continue to record GPS coordinates so long as the iPhone is in talking distance of the camera. Now I can stop trying to remember to take an iPhone photograph at locations to document the GPS coordinates.
In South Texas, the most colorful bird on the desert by far is the male Painted Bunting. To me, he is what paints the desert. It looks as if he has rolled across an artist’s palette. The colors are brilliant and some are almost like neon. The blue and red primary colors on his head and breast dominate but a bright yellow-green back provides contrast and adds to the palette. The rest of his feathers are variations and blends of the dominant colors. He is a gorgeous sight to behold. It was always a thrill to see him approach and he was unable to hide well in the trees because of his brilliant coloration so he was relatively easy to spot despite his small size. Mrs. Bunting has bright greenish yellow feathers but she appears drab by comparison to the male. Her visit to the pond always accurately predicted that the male would soon follow. What fun it was to see her bathing, knowing that we would soon see him and we were never disappointed. We photographed the Painted Bunting each day we were in South Texas.
The Greater Roadrunner was thirsty on our last afternoon in the blinds in South Texas. He visited the water several times during the afternoon, beginning and ending our day. It was perhaps more than one that made an appearance for us, so we had lots of opportunities to photograph Roadrunners. A very fast and animated bird, it is easy to see how Warner Bros. created their cartoon facsimiles of Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote for its Looney Toons series. This shot made me laugh and it seems almost as cartoonish as the roadrunner cartoon character himself.
Crested Caracara are native to the arid southern tip of Texas in the semi open mesquite brush lands there. They feed on carrion and we observed several with bloody beaks from a carcass that we could not see. This Caracara did not show any signs of having visited the dead creature nearby, yet anyway. We photographed these large raptors from a blind, this one raised above ground so that we could photograph them at eye level in the nearby branches.
Say what??? “Look Mabel! I don’t care what they told you at the beauty shop, the punk look just isn’t you.”
At least that’s what I thought they might be talking about when I saw this image of a pair of Green Jays that I took near the Rio Grande a couple of days ago. I must apologize for this blatant use of anthropomorphism but when I saw this image and the blue “mohawk” on the one Jay, it just screamed to me for a caption and this one seemed to fit.
Meep, meep!! Wile E. Coyote was nowhere in sight when the Roadrunner made a quick visit to our blind in South Texas. Greater Roadrunners are native to the Southwest and we were delighted to see this one run quickly past our lenses, pause to take a quick drink from the pond, then just as quickly disappear into the scrub. It was a great finish to a great morning of shooting near the Rio Grande. At Moose’s suggestion, I had switched from my Nikon D6 to my Nikon Z6II mirrorless camera, still using my Nikkor 500mmPF lens. There was a recent firmware upgrade to both cameras that made significant improvements to their autofocusing systems and I wanted to compare the two. I was, quite frankly, astonished at how quickly the Z6II acquired focus even with the 1.4 teleconverter attached. In previous versions, some auto focus functionality was lost when a teleconverter was attached and the upgrade has returned that capability. It acquired focus almost instantaneously and kept focus. What an improvement to an already spectacular focusing system!
You’d think sitting on uncomfortable chairs in a sweltering blind near a pond on a ranch in arid South Texas photographing birds would be a miserable thing to do but it’s a great way to spend time learning about new bird species, enjoying nature, and being rewarded with opportunities to photograph amazing species like this Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. I don’t think I’d ever seen one before and that tail is something to see. It claims the longest tail of all songbirds in North America. Of course, photographing this bird was a challenge. That tail is so long, almost double its body length, that keeping it entirely in the photograph was while it swayed in the wind on top of a shrubby perch made it even more difficult. I was lucky it landed in a place the perfect distance for my lens so at least I had a chance to keep in in the frame. The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is native to Texas in the summer and rare most other places in the US so we were in the right place at the right time to see it.
Last spring, during the early days of the Pandemic, I found great joy in using my macro lens to photograph flowers. I found many of my subject flowers on my daily walks, usually in the landscaped area along the sidewalk and the occasional dandelion in a neighbor’s lawn. I felt some guilt filching blossoms from these public areas but not enough to keep me from doing it. After all, it was just one or two every once in a while. When I began to travel again wildlife returned as my primary focus and flower photography was put on the back burner. Then, a couple of days ago on my walking route I espied a cluster of white flowers on the edge of the community park that I mistook for dandelion seed pods. They were the same size and shape but as I looked more closely, I realized they were something different. I used my iPhone App called “PictureThis” to identify them and discovered them to be an annual wild flower called a Blow Wives (Achyrachaena). I’d never seen them before and I discovered happily that they are native to California and southern Oregon. I plucked a few blossoms emerging through the weedy grasses in the median strip between the sidewalk and the street. Many were already starting to fall apart and when wind gusts hit them, some of the tiny flowers and seed pods blew off the round pompoms. The very next day, the Park and Recreation Department mowed all of the grasses and wildflowers in the park. Despite the fact that I picked a wildflower, and to do so is illegal in California, apparently mowing them down is not. So, I consider my deed one that allowed me to commemorate these lovely natives that, at least for now, no longer bloom along my route.
The lek is either calm or frenzied. On our last morning on the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek in Nebraska, there was a momentary calm and this grouse seemed to be appreciating that peace and quiet while it lasted.
The Prairie Chicken lek booms in the early morning hours with the sounds of Greater Prairie Chickens vying for the attention of one of the few females that might stop by to watch the face-offs. Even before the sun comes up, the sound reverberates across the “booming ground” and furious wing beats are audible as the birds try to intimidate each other with their talons and shows of bravado. Once the sun is up, the sparring, which began in darkness, increases in intensity across the lek. This is serious business for the Greater Prairie Chickens.
Watching the nesting Mourning Doves on my patio this past week has been such fun. Their nest is visible from my kitchen table so I keep an eye on it. I can open my patio door and take two steps outside and and I get a closeup view through my Nikon D6 and 500mmPF lens. It is nice to be able to photograph these moments. I love this shot, the chick resting its head against Mama Dove’s breast. Once again I’m anthropomorphizing because I see a sweet family moment here and not the actual biology of a chick resting momentarily before returning to gorge voraciously from the parent’s crop.
And all too soon, it’s over. Late Friday afternoon, I looked out the window and one chick was perched on the edge of the basket looking down. Then, suddenly it launched and landed on a patio chair beneath it, its first move toward independence. Now both chicks have fledged. Earlier Friday morning, the Mama Dove and the other chick flew out of the nest when Papa Dove, on the fountain nearby, was startled by me checking feeders. I’m guessing the chick was already out of the nest earlier Friday and his nest-mate took a few hours to follow. How fun to see the entire cycle. Now the two chicks with Mama Dove are resting on the patio underneath one of the chairs. It will be interesting to see how quickly they grow and how soon I won’t be able to distinguish them from their parents. Mourning Doves usually have several broods in a season. I’ll be keeping an eye out for another nest, hopefully in the same spot.