Killbuck Marsh Migration

April 26th, 2016

Bufflehead and Lesser Scaup

Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area is a 5,700 acre state-owned alluvial swamp stretching from the outskirts of Wooster all the way to Holmesville. It’s a very happy place for waterfowl, but not a very good place for farming or human housing, so I’m in favor of expanding the Wildlife Area as budget permits.

Ruddy Duck Makes a Landing next to Lesser Scaups

By my count, in a chilly 45 minutes near Shreve earlier this month I saw: American Black Duck, American Coot, Blue Winged Teal, Buffalohead, Canada Goose, Cardinal, Great Blue Heron, Horned Grebe, Ring-Necked Duck, Red-Tailed Hawk, Ruddy Duck, Tree Swallow, and a Muskrat.

Horned Grebe

The Horned Grebes were my favorite.  Squat bodies covered with hairy feathers, and faces comically painted with a yellow stripe and some sloppily applied pink lipstick, they dive completely underwater, popping up in unexpected places.

Horned Grebe taking a dive

The waterfowl just seem more exotic than what we get on our little pond.  The Ruddy Ducks have blue bills, and the elegantly brown and green Northern Shovelers, which were flying around in great flocks, have a schnozz like Jimmy Durante.

Northern Shovelers in Snow

Compared to most of the other ducks, a pair of Mallards look downright pedestrian, but with his iridescent green head and old-fashioned DA, the Mallard drake, and his demure but smartly-patterned hen, were far more stylish than a very plain looking pair of Black Ducks.

Mallard Ducks

Many of the flocks contained multiple kinds of duck. In one mass landing, I captured Bufflehead, Ring-Necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, and some Tree Swallows.

Bufflehead, Ring-Necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Tree Swallow

It was a real workout for me and my new telephoto.  In a snowy 90 minutes, I managed to get identifiable photographs of some of 12 different birds I saw. I’d already spent a couple hours taking photos in the nearby Ken Miller Supply Museum looking at old oilfield tools and tractors, so I was ready to head back home to the digital darkroom.

Muskrat

These photos were taken late in the afternoon of April 9, 2016, using the Canon 7DII DSLR and Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens. For most of these shots, I sat inside the pickup truck, and rested the lens on the door to keep it stead.  All processing in light room.

Tree Swallows

April 3rd, 2016

Mar2016-6360

Not all of the birds hanging out in the marshland near Killbuck are aquatic.  As spring approaches, the marsh always has swarms of little birds, swooping around, eating invisible insects.  They seemed to be perching on some dead trees pretty far out in the water, so I couldn’t get a good look at them, but I came back on March 26, and found some that were within telephoto range of the pickup truck.

Mar2016-6365

They turn out to be Tree Swallows. Once I found a place in range of a sunlit roost, I parked the pickup, and propped the telephoto on the open window to watch.  Appearing mostly black in flight, I hadn’t appreciated how brilliant iridescent blue they  are.  The first one landed on the branch, spent some time resting, and then checked out the knothole, which is their favorite natural nesting site.  If I understand the lifecycle correctly, unlike ducks and geese, the males and female migrate separately, with the males arriving in the breeding grounds before the female, so the male can choose a nesting site. 

Mar2016-6366

A little bit later, a second swallow arrived. Both were brilliant blue, as were all the ones I could see, so either the brown females hadn’t arrived yet, or they were just shy around photographers.   I’m guessing that the females were still in an outlet mall in North Carolina.

Mar2016-6373

The first male seemed pretty attached to his knot hole, and it wasn’t at all apparent to me if there actually were enough knot holes to go around.  The originally swallow didn’t seem too keen on sharing a perch, at least not with another male.

Mar2016-6382

As recorded by my DSLR, they stood on the broken branch and glared and postured at each other for over 6 minutes.

Mar2016-6384

Finally, the interloper, either bored, frustrated, or hungry flew off.

Mar2016-6391

After spending some more time exploring his knot hole, the first swallow flew off to get some more of the 2000 bugs he needs every day to keep his wings pumping.  I don’t know how he defends his territory when he’s out slurping up insects.

Fowl Weather

March 28th, 2016

Mar2016-5896

The anticipation of capturing something photographically inspires me to seek out new experiences.  Intellectually, I realized that Heiser Hollow was only a few miles from a major motel for migratory waterfowl , but until I bought a long telephoto lens, I’d never explored the opportunity.

Mar2016-6409

The Killbuck Creek is the primary drain for the western half of Wayne, Holmes, and Coshocton County.  Thousands of years ago, it flowed from south to north, but the glaciers changed all that, forcing the Killbuck into the Mississippi watershed, and filling up the 80 mile valley with alluvial silt and muck. The ice didn’t quite make it to the Appalachian foothills of Heiser Hollow, but where the glaciers stopped, a short five miles away, they left a really nice place for ducks.   As described by the Ohio DNR “the wetlands in the Killbuck Creek Valley are the largest complex of wetlands remaining in Ohio, away from Lake Erie.” 

Mar2016-5875

A day earlier, I’d seen some kind of exotic looking water bird when driving to town (‘exotic looking’ meaning something other than the wood ducks, mallards, geese, and herons that we see on our pond).  In spite of the snow, I decided to hitch my new telephoto to my DSLR and see what I could see.   On the theory that the birds were used to seeing lots of vehicles, I figured I could just sit comfortably in the pickup cab and shoot out the window. 

American Coot

It didn’t take me long to find some geese. The lower Killbuck wildlife area crawls with the things.  I found a few shy Wood Ducks, hiding in the weeds.  I startled a Blue Heron, and he flew off to the middle of the swamp where I couldn’t follow him.  So I drove around to another position and found something with a bright white beak swimming along the shore.  I followed him around for awhile, and managed to get a good enough view to identify him as an American Coot.

Mar2016-5864

Nearby the coot were were a couple of little jobs that I couldn’t really make out, until they broke cover and headed into some open water.  Pie-Billed Grebes are divers, and these perky little swimmers with their big heads and striped little beaks didn’t seem to mind the snow at all.  Now it was starting to get exotic for me.   I’ve watched loons dive in Ontario, popping up far away from where they submerged, and I’ve sat and watched some kind of diving duck in Lake Zurich, but I’ve never seen a show like this in Ohio.  I spent at least 20 minutes watching 4 of them disappearing and reappearing as dripping water, they moved out of camera range.

Mar2016-6327

Then a much nicer proportioned pair of birds, with a much more elegant paint job, appeared.  Ring-Necked Ducks may have been named by the same guy who named Red-Bellied Woodpeckers—there are so many more obvious characteristics that could have been chose.  They apparently are divers also, but all they did was float around the emerging lily pads, with the drake’s glowing amber eye keeping track of his mate.

Mar2016-6340

My favorite find of the day was a pair of Hooded Mergansers, which I found in a smaller pool while driving home. Like the other ducks, the hen was much less gaudily colored than her mate, but both of them had fantastic headdresses, feathering out behind their ears.  The drake had striking black and white racing stripes, accented with a bright yellow eye. I could have watched them for hours, but they got shy under all the attention and soon flew off.

Feathers of our Lives

March 20th, 2016

Mar2016-5097

Wood ducks are one of the harbingers of seasonal change at Heiser Hollow. We start seeing them about the time the pond melts in the late winter, and then after disappearing for the summer, a few of them return in the fall. I think most of them must be migratory. Some of them are regulars during the summer, hanging out along a secluded bend of the creek that borders the northern edge of our place, but we usually only see them in front of the cabin during migration time.

Mar2016-5107

Careening out of the early morning sky like so many feathered bowling balls, they somehow manage to make a graceful and relatively quiet landings. Punctuated by the quietly piercing upward jeeeb call of the drake, the ducks, which usually arrive in pairs of 2-8 birds, dabble around the pond, grazing around the edges of the pond, sometimes walking several feet out of the pond, and hurriedly by silently scooting across the center of the water.

Mar2016-5137

They also hang out in the trees surrounding the pond, sometimes roosting within site of it for several hours.  They are brilliant fliers, much more adept at zipping around trees than are their larger mallard cousins.   Masters of the vertical take off and landing, the former typically accompanied by the teeWEE alarm call, they can run rings around geese (which we haven’t see this year). In spite of their obvious comfort with heights, there is something a bit disconcerting about seeing ducks in the tree.  They have claws on their webbed feet and they can land on the side of a tree trunk.

Mar2016-5149

Whenever the ducks are on the ground or water, it seems to be a subject of interest for our local hawks—or at least those that are equally comfortable in arboreal settings. This afternoon, I watched a red tailed hawk, frequently seen checking out our pond and woods, sail 40 feet over the top of 4 wood ducks and land in a tree just beyond the dam. When shooting most of the duck shots in this blog entry, leaning out our bedroom window, a young cooper’s hawk shot right over the top of the cabin, swooped low over some dabbling woodies, and perched on the far side of the pond, bright yellow eye of prey keenly interested.  Although the wood ducks are always watching, and fly at the least sign of danger, they evince no fear of birds of prey.

 Immature Coopers Hawk

While the majority of our anatine visitors only seem interested in a meal and snooze, a couple times every spring, one or two pair suggest that they might be sticking around for the summer.   A pair of wood ducks can get very frisky, and spend an hour tightly circling the pond, weaving in and out of the tree tops, quietly screeching, as only wood ducks can do. I once found a small, dark yellow egg lying alongside the pond, apparently a premature and inconvenient arrival.  For the last three years, we’ve had a duck nest box hanging over the pond.  Although it has apparently raised several generation of screech owls (even more elusive than the woodies), only once did a see a wood duck hen fly into it and check it out.  For a brief 10 minutes, I thought we might play host to a family, but something about it just wasn’t what they were looking for. It never seems to be.

Mar2016-5194

Earlier this month, I really thought that a pair would setup housekeeping with us.  Arriving early one morning, without a larger flock, they very quickly took to the trees, never sitting in one spot for long. The drake flew on top of a broken stump of a red maple limb, right outside my office, and began gently encouraging the hen to join him.  Last spring, that hollow and cracked branch had providing a nesting site for a litter of squirrel pups.   The male called, whinnied, pleaded, looking alternatively lonely and encouraging.  The hen flew up next to him.

Mar2016-5115

He flew to a nearby branch on another tree, continuing to whicker at her, while she carefully inspected the site.

Mar2016-5123

They flew around the pond, landed on some other trees, checked out a big knot on the side of a sugar maple, and then she returned to the broken limb. She sniffed it carefully.

Mar2016-5169

She experimented with a landing at the base of the broken limb. 

Mar2016-5126

She tested the route between bedroom and kitchen, to see how long the trip would be.  She discussed the local school system with the drake while they tried to envision how easy it would be to avoid predators.

Mar2016-5194

She tried the nest on for size, roosting in the hollow space for at least 10 minutes. 

By that time, and all of these photos were taken of the same pair of ducks during a 40 minute period,  I was very hopeful that they’d decide to stay.  I was already envisioning our being able to watch (and photograph) the entire cycle of wood duck life, envisioning fluffy little ducklings following their mum around around our pond.  But something about it just didn’t their (or probably her) standards.  They decided that this particular nesting site wasn’t all that it was ducked up to be, and they flew off, never to return. Or maybe they did, but that was the last time I saw any of the ducks roosting in that spot.

Mar2016-5140

Our little half acre of woodland water is probably a better for resting than for roosting—at least from the point of view of a wood duck. While the pond is surrounded with the homes of countless ground hogs, multiple squirrels, robins, orioles, sometimes a pair of buzzards, and one very territorial pair of eastern phoebes, Aix sponsa is particularly shy.  At this time of year, just opening my office door and walking out onto the cement pad is likely to result in the alarm call, as one or two pair of hidden ducks quickly depart.  A midday delivery from Ron the mailman immediately results in a wood duck exodus. It would be nice to think that they could build a home within site of ours, but they are just too shy for it.

Mar2016-5200

Notes on photography: Nature photography isn’t really my specialty area, and photographing wild animals is just not something I have much patience for. Sitting still for hours at a time to shoot something, with camera or gun, is just not how I’m wired. Yet we are surrounded by nature, and a constant parade of animals, so earlier this year, I supplemented my Canon 7DII DSLR with Sigma’s new 150-600mm telephoto. Together, the lens/camera combo tops the scale at a sobering 7 pounds, which is a lot of weight to hold steady, especially when the tiniest motion of such a long telephoto can blur the image. It does have an image stabilizer, which helps a lot. I quietly slid down the lower half of the window, and rested the lens on it. To keep from startling my subject, I set the camera in a special mode that keeps the shutter quiet. It was a bright and sunny day, with harsh beams of light shining through the trees, making a very contrasty light source.  I’d been shooting at a relatively high ISO in order to keep the shutter speed up close to 1/1000, but I was afraid that with such high-contrast light, higher ISOs would result in either burning out the highlights, or losing the shadows. When the hen turned toward the sun in the shot immediately above, her wing bar lit up an iridescent blue that I’ve never seen on a female woodie.  At that point, I had the sensitivity set at what I’ve found is relatively low for this telephoto, at ISO 500. At 562mm, just shy of full extension, and shooting wide open at f/6.3, there wasn’t much depth of field to be had. While it did a nice job of blurring out the background, it also meant that by focusing on the drake’s bright red eye, I’d thrown the front of the hen slightly out of focus.  The moment didn’t last long enough for a second chance.   I like how it turned out, but I’m still learning what ISO, shutter speed, and aperture to use with this honking big bird lens.  All of the above were shot in camera RAW and processed with Adobe Lightroom.

Make Way for Ducks

March 13th, 2016

Mar2016-5382

We’ve been seeing wood ducks regularly all week, but we hadn’t seen any mallards until this morning.  Migratory fowl are always interesting, and welcome, but we didn’t realize there was going to be trouble.  I blame it on the female mallard.  She hopped up on an old cherry tree, half submerged along one side of the pond, and started letting it all hang out. She was primping, preening, and working those duck breasts big time.

Mar2016-5369

I should start at the beginning.  Today was a very typical rainy spring day. One you might say it was a perfect day for ducks.  After .33” of rain, on top of sodden ground, the pond was slowly taking on a light brown stain as silty water flowed in from the sandstone falls further upstream.  The ducks had begun arriving early , apparently not aware of the change in clocks last night.  We hadn’t seen more than 4 at a time this year, but this morning, we had at least 3 pair of wood ducks, floating, paddling, dabbling, and then grazing on the far side of the pond dam.  And then a pair of mallards arrived.

Mar2016-5400

The hen quickly perched herself on the cherry branch, and started putting it on—or taking it off, as the case may be. Its hard to tell with ducks.  Either way, she put on show for the lads, stretching, and contorting, doing a Daisy Duck dance for the drakes.  The wood ducks all pointed themselves towards that end of the pond and started paddling over to the perch.  A wood duck hen made a small commotion at the opposite end of the branch, but a drake pushed her out of the way.

Mar2016-5413

Another wood duck drake swam around the corner while the first one perched himself on the same branch, and started edging sideways closer towards the larger mallard hen.  Several curious female wood ducks floated around, apparently curious.  At this point, I should point out that while there are significant aesthetic differences between the two species, the plumbing is relatively compatible.   It turns out that duck crossbreeding is a recognized problem, at least from the point of view of the wildlife managers.

Mar2016-5414

One particular drake was having none of it. He sped across the pond and, in his own duckish way, Donald made it clear to the other males that he had first dibs (dabs?) on Daisy.

Mar2016-5415

With an open beak, some stretching of the neck, and a beady eyed staredown, the mallard called fowl, and the smaller woodies retreated.

Mar2016-5416

This left the mallard couple alone together on the preferred perch.  The drake stood half in the water, not looking at the hen, but perhaps communicating his feelings.  The 3 pair of wood ducks continued to hover around in the water, approaching several times, and then retreating after a gesture from the mallard male.

Mar2016-5419

Perhaps the mallards were embarrassed, or maybe this just isn’t a completely comfortable spot for ducks who prefer avoiding trees. Once the female had finished drying and combing her feathers, they took off, leaving the pond to the wood ducks.

Beijing

According to the state travel guide, Tiananmen Square has become a relaxing place for the common people to fly kites and walk. I didn’t see any kites, but they did have the biggest fake floral arrangement I’ve ever seen in my life.  And I saw a lot of visitors, many of whom were quite relaxed and presumably common.

Beijing2015-9298

Finding myself isolated in a huge crowd of people in the center of China at the start of a holiday week, I noticed that everybody else was taking their picture, so I thought, I’d take their picture, too.

Beijing2015-9330

There was some photo action around the flower pot, one of many in town for the holiday week, but the heaviest photo action was on the side of the square facing the Tiananmen Gate and the entrance to the Forbidden City. There were even a couple kiosks with professionals taking tourist snaps and printing them out on the spot.

Beijing2015-9329

I spent all of my limited free time in Beijing just looking for photo ops, so I don’t want to seem hypocritical by asking why anyone else is preoccupied with taking pictures.

Beijing2015-9340

I merely observe that having your photo taken in front of tourist locations, in a wooden pose, is characteristic of several flavors of Asian culture (they do make the cameras).

Beijing2015-9344

A steady stream of snapped shots carefully placed Mao in the background.

Beijing2015-9346

And of course, the ubiquitous camera phone makes it possible to take your own self-portrait with the Chairman.

Beijing2015-9333

It probably is just a rumor that ‘selfie’ is a Chinese word that means ‘Let’s start on a new photo album’.

Beijing2015-9336

Perhaps the ultimate selfie is the Mona Lisalike portrait of Chairman Mao, benevolently, steadily, and subtly smiling across decades of dramatic change. 

Beijing2015-8998

[The first post in this series of  Beijing blogs can be found be clicking here.]