We had no sooner plopped down onto the sand at Red River Beach and here they came. The first to appear in my viewfinder were my favorite Shorebirds, the Sanderlings, heading toward the place where the waves ebb and flow. These small Sandpipers spend much of their time at the edge of the surf, where they find a bounty of tiny crustaceans and other things to feast on. It was such a pleasant experience at the very end of our trip to have such a rich encounter with several of our target species. This little Sanderling walked with purpose directly toward me and staring straight into the lens. At the last moment, it veered off and headed to the edge of the surf.
When I refilled the Hummingbird feeders, something caught my eye in the large pot of chives under the feeder. The spring chive blossoms, now faded and dry, are still there but I was surprised to see a tiny open white flower and some unopened buds on a stalk protruding above the dried stalks. Next to it was another small cluster, an open flower at either edge of the cluster. I went inside and attached my Z105mm Macro lens to the Z9, put both on a tripod and went back out. There was a breeze that kept the tiny blooms swaying slightly which always wreaks havoc with my outdoor macro florals but I didn’t want to pick the stalk. A couple of attempts at focus shift shooting with the lens wide open were unsatisfactory but when I closed down the aperture to f/18, I liked the results. This is an image created in HeliconFocus using 25 images. The open flowers are slightly more than a quarter of an inch.
The Least Tern is the smallest of the terns, about the size of a Brewer’s Blackbird, under nine inches. When we observed a nesting colony of these small terns, they were still busy bringing fish to their offspring although the colony was beginning to dwindle in size. We were surprised to see a pair of adult Least Terns seemingly taunting their offspring with a tiny fish. They would dangle it enticingly in front of the young bird, then jerk it away just as the bird reached for it. This behavior went on for a while with a couple of young birds. Finally, one of the young birds flapped its wings and suddenly flew off. Apparently, it was time for them to leave the nesting colony and the parents were doing their best to get them to fly. The ploy seemed to work eventually. This tern is heading to the nesting colony with a tiny fish, perhaps not just to feed its young but to encourage it to fly.
I have a new bird book, the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America by Roger Tory Peterson. My friend Moose Peterson, no relation although he was friends with Roger Tory Peterson, recommended I add it to my collection. I’ve had the Peterson Field Guide to Western Birds, birds found west of the 100th Meridian, for more than 30 years but since I now travel extensively beyond that boundary, it makes sense to have this guide. In recent years, I’ve been using the Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley and its digital counterpart but I think the layout of the Peterson guide might make it easier to help me identify unknown birds. There is no digital version that I can find yet so I’ll keep using Sibley’s. However, I love the layout of the Peterson hard copy guide which groups similar types of birds and makes it easy to find the different groups by color coding at page bottoms. Small Sandpipers, like this Least Sandpiper, are identified collectively as Peeps (not to be confused with the springtime marshmallow confection also known as Peeps) in the guide which I find quite endearing. One of the distinguishing features of this Peep is its greenish legs. Raindrops began to fall while we were sitting on a concrete curb near Sandwich Boardwalk outside of Plymouth, Massachussetts watching and photographing the Peeps.
The last hour of the last day of our visit to Plymouth, Massachussetts made up for the dearth of birds we encountered during the week. And, thanks to Tony, we finally found birds. Tony went down the beach alone and when we connected with him he told Moose he’d seen a bird with red legs. That was all it took and Moose, trailed by the rest of us, took off in the direction of the “red-legged” bird Tony had seen. It did not turn out to be the exotic Moose hoped for but it did set the stage for an hour of incredible photography. The “red-legged” bird was actually an orange legged Ruddy Turnstone, still in breeding plumage.
When I first began to notice shorebirds, I was visiting friends in Port Aransas, Texas, a few years before I became interested in photography. When we’d walk on the beach, I was taken by the small birds scurrying to keep ahead of the waves washing ashore and I was fascinated by their antics. They plunged their beaks deep into the wet sand and sometimes pulled out tiny crustaceans. Their paths were erratic and it was a challenge to keep up with them. My friend Susan new the names of the shorebirds, I did not. She told me the tiniest birds scurrying around on that beach were Sanderlings, a type of sandpiper. I fell in love with these small, grayish birds. The only time I visited Port Aransas was in January so the birds were in their non-breeding plumage. When I took up photography and fell in love with what I call “Beach Panning,” I was able to stop them in their tracks with a fast shutter speed and photograph them up close at their level. But again, it was late fall or winter and the Sanderlings were still in their gray, non-breeding plumage. Until I saw them at Salisbury Beach in Massachussetts, in mid August, I’d never seen one in breeding plumage. They were unrecognizable to me and I needed to confirm their identity with my Merlin Bird ID App. This is a Sanderling in breeding plumage, behaving like Sanderlings do all year.
Learning about various bird species takes serious study. So many birds are so similar to each other that it takes a real pro to decipher the nuances that can distinguish one species from another. Take, for example, the Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, two very similar birds distinguishable by size difference (the Greater Yellowlegs is over 3 inches more in length than the 10 inch Lesser Yellowlegs) and beak size. The beak of the Greater is noticeably longer than its head and the beak of the Lesser is about the length of its head. But at a distance, and when the bird is by itself, it can be difficult to be sure of the correct identification, especially for me. I have long relied on a digital version of The Sibley Guide to Birds on my phone but more recently, The Cornell Lab’s Merlin has been an exceptional aid in facilitating the identity of birds by both the bird’s call and the bird’s photograph. How cool is that? Hear a bird call and don’t know the bird? Pull out the Merlin app on your phone and it listens and identifies the birds it hears. Take a photo of the bird and the app finds possible matches. What’s so great is that unlike the sound ID, the picture ID can happen at the end of the day after you’ve downloaded your photos to your computer. Take a photograph of the screen and instantaneously, Merlin comes up with possibilities. In this case, it’s a Lesser Yellowlegs. The beak is about the length of its head.
The birds all ventured close to us as we lay flat on Red River Beach. This Herring Gull was sampling some sort of mollusk in the debris washed up by the tide. The gulls are so much larger than the small shorebirds that when one of them moved closer, it quickly filled the entire frame.
The small Piping Plover is unique to North America, not traveling past the Gulf Coast in winter according to the Audubon Society. Its conservation status is listed as threatened or endangered and it now rarely breeds in the Great Lakes region. The open, sandy tidal flats they choose as breeding areas are affected by human intervention and flooding. We noted that vast stretches of the few Atlantic beaches we were able to access in and around Plymouth, Massachussetts last week were closed, roped off, to protect the nesting areas of these tiny, adorable shorebirds. Something seems to have caught the attention of the young Piping Plover above as it stops, mid stride to look and listen.
Semipalmated means half-webbed. The feet of Semipalmated Plovers, the bird pictured here, and Semipalmated Sandpipers have webs between the toes but it does not extend between the toes very far. It is relatively subtle, not like a duck or a goose. These small shorebirds move very fast. It was quite a challenge to keep them in the frame as they darted hither and thither in search of delicacies beneath the sand. This was taken on Salisbury Beach, north of Boston.
A lone Willet appeared on the small bluff where we were laying in the sand with our 400mm lenses on Red River Beach. The tall Willet dwarfed the Sanderlings and Semipalmated Sandpipers that were scurrying back and forth. It moved slowly and purposefully, unlike the quick, erratic movements of the smaller birds. Its visit to the top of the bluff was short. After it disappeared down the side, we could occasionally see the top of its head as the tide began to rise. Then it was gone. There are two Willet subspecies, an Eastern and a Western subspecies, something I didn’t realize when I photographed this bird. A review of the Sibley Guide to Birds revealed that the Eastern Willet is slightly smaller than the Western and its bill is a bit shorter. The Sibley Guide also pointed out that Western Willets breed on both coasts so I can’t be positive that this is an Eastern Willet but based on the descriptions, I think it is.
The last hour of our last day photographing shorebirds in Massachussetts was sensational. And it happened only because of a chance encounter two days earlier. Our week here was disappointing mostly because of the lack of shorebirds to photograph. Whether it was a fluke or an ominous indicator of what’s to come, the end result was that we had very few birds to photograph. And Beach Panning, one of my favorite ways to photograph birds, didn’t happen until briefly our third day here because we couldn’t access beaches where the few birds that were listed as eBird sightings was impossible. Late the afternoon of our second day, while we were photographing some Least Sandpipers by Sandwich Boardwalk, a person approached because we were a rather curious group, six people, all with telephoto lenses, lined up on a concrete wall, lenses focused on the water’s edge. He told us that there were plenty of shorebirds at Red River Beach, an hour’s drive from Plymouth. Thursday afternoon, as each subsequent potential site failed to produce birds, Moose decided to try the guy’s suggestion so we drove to Red River Beach. It was almost 5PM and high winds prevented us from using our super telephoto lenses. Instead we opted to handhold our 400mm lenses and lay in the sand supporting our cameras with our elbows. And the shorebirds came right up to us, sometimes so close we couldn’t focus on them. Groups of Ruddy Turnstones, flocks of Sanderlings, a couple of Piping Plovers, a lone Willet, some Herring Gulls, and some Ring-necked Gulls all foraged among the seaweed and snail shells just a few feet from us. As the tide washed in, the birds got closer to us. We had to inch over a few times when the waves broke and washed within inches of my prone body. But we were determined despite sand in our mouths forced in by the wind and the possibility of getting drenched by a rogue wave. It was our last chance because we were flying home the next day. After an hour, the winds were still fierce but we had given it our best. This is a Sanderling, one of my favorite shore birds, as it poked its beak into the sand to extract a tiny crustacean. I had a personal best of sorts. I shot ten thousand four hundred two images in that hour. I have a tendency to shoot more images than most of my fellow photographers except one, my friend Jerry. This day, I dethroned Jerry with the highest image count, all made possible by the fabulous Nikon Z9 and its incredible auto focus system and 20 frames per second firing rate. It’s always great to end an adventure on a high note!
Finally, after a couple of days without finding an accessible beach and almost no shorebirds, We left Plymouth and drove north for ninety minutes to the Salisbury Salt Marsh Wildlife Management Area where the tide was receding and the beach was promising, with a few small clusters of shorebirds. We attached out long lenses to our panning plates affixed to Frisbees and laid down in the wet sand to get bird’s eye views of the shorebirds we encountered. This is an immature Piping Plover, pausing for a brief second from scuffing the sand in search of tiny crustaceans. Beach panning is one of my favorite ways to photograph birds because of the unique point of view and the very shallow depth of focus that makes the background disappear. I haven’t had a chance to do it for a couple of years and I was happy to put my new Nikkor Z800 lens to the test. We photographed the birds for a few hours but when the tide began to return and the winds got stronger, we called it quits.
Sometimes you have to fall back on those tried and true practices to accomplish something you want to accomplish. After a day and a half of finding almost none of the shore birds we came to Plymouth, Massachussetts to photograph, we needed to do something. The types and numbers of various species of shore birds reported as eBird sightings at the many beaches and marshes are not at all what we’re seeing here. To make things even more frustrating, access to beaches named in these reports has been practically impossible. It was time to take action to improve the odds. And, what has proven time and time again to assure bird and wildlife sightings? Ice Cream! Late Tuesday afternoon, as the skies darkened and clouds of the impending storm began to gather, we stopped at Shipwreck Ice Cream. in Sandwich, MA. Within the hour, Moose found a marsh that was not listed as a place for bird sighting, the Sandwich Boardwalk. The parking lot was almost empty at 5PM. The boardwalk itself was crowded with kids jumping off into the marsh so we sat on a concrete curb and watched and waited. An Osprey flew over. Terns, Gulls, and Cormorants bobbed on buoys. And the shore birds began to arrive. Just a few small groups, but there they were. Within an hour, we saw Least Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpipers, Baird’s Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowagers, some flying overhead and landing in the marsh grasses across the water. But lots landed fifteen feet away from us. Like this juvenile Least Sandpiper. Once again, no need to reinvent the wheel. The tried and true method guarantees results!
We arrived at Duxbury Beach just outside of Plymouth, Massachussetts about 7:00 AM on a warm and sunny Monday morning. The intermingled Least Tern and Piping Plover nesting colonies on the rocky beach above the high tide line are roped off with “keep out” signs to protect both species and to keep their nesting colonies from being trampled and otherwise disturbed. These terns nest on the sand among the rocks and seaweed in a small scrape or depression and they blend in with the rocks and sand around them so they are difficult to see. We were first alerted to their presence when the small white birds, usually in pairs, flew to and from the rocky edge of the colony. Most of the birds we saw and photographed on our first morning there were Least Terns, the smallest of the Tern family. The young are growing fast and will be leaving in a few weeks with the adults to fly south. Parents feed their young offspring as they grow. The juvenile terns we watched were quiet and still until they saw or sensed their parent arriving with a small fish. Then, they began to squawk and flap their wings to make sure Mom or Dad couldn’t miss seeing them. Here the young bird squawks and flaps, singing for its supper. It’s efforts paid off.
A few days ago, I posted a photograph of this Anna’s Hummingbird on a perch in the Xylosmas. At the time, I thought it was a juvenile male but now I’m thinking it’s probably a mature female. Whichever it is, this part of the shrub makes the perfect watch tower as well as a napping post. I walked around this bird to see if I could get a better view and to see if the gorget would reflect color but I struck out on both accounts. Most of the time I watched, though, the hummer seemed to be napping. It was a warm afternoon, perfect for a summertime snooze.
The male Anna’s Hummingbirds seem always to start their day with a bath. I’ve photographed this male Anna’s at the urn fountain several times in recent weeks early in the morning but this is the first time any color was reflected on his gorget. How the light strikes the hummingbird’s feathers determines whether the gorget has color or not. The changing angles of the bird’s head alters the color that is reflected back so the gorget seems to change from one shade of red to another in an iridescent display. Sometimes with the turn of the head, the colors completely disappear and the gorget looks black. Only a slight shift can create a dazzling display and the hummer appears to have a pink neon helmet. The placement of the lip of the fountain dictates where the hummingbirds bathe and because of that, there is seldom much light reflected onto the bird’s gorget in the early morning hours. I was thrilled to see a little bit of color the other morning for this shot.
When the flowers are in full sun, I usually don’t even try to photograph the hummingbirds. When I saw this young female Black-chinned Hummingbird at the California Fuchsia in full sun, for some reason I grabbed my camera and opened the patio door. She stayed for the longest time with her back to me feeding on the fuchsia blossoms hanging over the side of the cobalt blue pot. Then, she turned and hovered at the purple salvia right next to it. It seemed like the perfect shot and I like the results. I’m really getting spoiled by my backdoor photo blind.
Bella is my brother’s English Cream Golden Retriever. Bella spent four years as a breeder and produced four litters before retiring and going to live with my brother Art. Unfortunately she had some difficulty acclimating to her new life in a house instead of a kennel. Part of the problem was that Art travels so much and Bella had become extremely attached to him so she acted up when he was gone. After a few months, he decided that Bella needed a more stable living arrangement so my other brother John agreed to take Bella. John doesn’t travel so it has been easier for Bella to adjust to her environment and her anxieties have diminished significantly. She dotes on John and is as attached to him as she was to Art. While this adoring look might make you think it was an indicator of undying love, John was holding a treat when I took the photograph.
In the last couple of days, there is slightly more hummingbird traffic in my garden now than in recent weeks. By that I mean maybe five but since I usually have just one, that’s a big difference. With the increased traffic, the feeders are emptying faster than in recent weeks. The hummers are usually not at the feeders or the flowers at the same time because one of the dominant hummers keeps an eye out and chases interlopers away. Lately, sometimes that’s a female and now there’s a male. I have identified an adult female Black-chinned Hummingbird, a juvenile female Black-chinned, a male Anna’s Hummingbird, a female Anna’s, and this, a juvenile male Anna’s. I think he is establishing territory and has found a good spot from which to survey the feeding stations. He’s chosen a lush Xylosma shrub which is more like a tree, full, dense, and about 25 feet tall. He stayed for quite a while the other afternoon and I captured a half dozen blinking sequences which I always find fascinating. It was as if he wanted to take a nap but had stay awake to keep watch.