Bob MacDonnell Photography: Blog en-us (C) Bob MacDonnell (Bob MacDonnell Photography) Mon, 29 Jun 2015 12:11:00 GMT Mon, 29 Jun 2015 12:11:00 GMT Bob MacDonnell Photography: Blog 90 120 MOVING PICTURES On New Years Day,  Jim Brandenburg, one of my favorite nature photographers, and film director Laurent Joffrion launched a video journal, posting a short video of the midwestern wilderness every day for the entire year. Nature 365  is the result of an accumulation of video clips Brandenburg shot while photographing with DSLR cameras over the past seven years. Brandenburg admits he had no project or idea in mind for them while making them. I love watching these short videos and find them very inspirational, and would encourage anyone who enjoys nature and photography to check them out. I have to confess though, that I have resisted getting into into video for the most part. 

Toward the end of my time as a newspaper photographer, for certain assignments there was a push to have us shoot and produce short videos for web viewing, in addition to shooting still pictures for the paper. I always saw this as a "splitting the baby" approach because it didn't allow you to do either job as well as it could be done. In fact, I thought the videos were usually pretty poor quality. It also involved the cumbersome process of carrying two sets of gear and switching back and forth between cameras and digital video equipment. There were times, though, when a video just captured the story better than any still photos could. Sound and motion often reveal far more than a still image and written words can. Now that many DSLR cameras also capture HD video of amazing quality, many creative still photographers have adopted the new technology to produce amazing videos and even full length films. DSLR cameras are better suited to producing cinematic quality video than the lower end digital video equipment we were using. 

This winter, inspired by the Nature 365 project, I spontaneously decided to shoot video of a fast moving snow squall crossing the Connecticut River. I made a 90-second video using iMovie that I think captures the feel of the dramatic weather visually, but the sound quality is so poor that it's unusable. My camera's built-in microphone is very limited and proper audio recording suffers without the use of an external video microphone. Since I don't shoot video that often, it seemed superfluous to carry one around with me.

Since making the squall video I have occasionally shot video clips of other situations I was photographing, without really having any idea what to do with them either. Again, they usually suffer from bad audio. Another sound issue that I have encountered is that it's really difficult to record nature in Connecticut for any length of time without some type of man-made noise in the background. Passing traffic, distant power equipment, speed boats on the water or planes flying overhead, some distracting sound can be heard in many of my video clips, even in the deepest woods. This shows how few truly wild places there are in the state, and I think I will appreciate the quiet of true wilderness much more now, if I ever get there again.

This spring I was fortunate to find a Barred Owl nest near my home that I was able to photograph several times over a couple of weeks. It involved a lot of patience, standing still and waiting for something to happen. After getting some still photos, I decided to start shooting video clips of the chicks in action and the adults when they were present. With the camera mounted on a tripod and trained on the nest, alternating between video and still photography was pretty convenient, just a matter of flipping the switch, but the situation didn't allow me to move around much and get different angles to vary the perspective. Using iMovie, I made a basic four-minute video to document the nesting owls. I did not put much into the production of the video, but there are some scenes that just don't translate as well in the still photos I shot. So, here are my moving pictures. Hopefully some day they might end up in something that approaches the beauty of Nature 365. At least it's a start.

P.S. - I reduced the image quality of the original HD files since they take so much time to upload. iMovie is a pretty basic tool compared to the Final Cut software which I used for video editing at the newspaper. If anyone has any suggestions on how to improve the editing and especially the audio in iMovie, please let me know, and definitely check out Nature 365.


]]> (Bob MacDonnell Photography) Barred Owl Connecticut bird photography Connecticut birding Connecticut birds bird photography nest owls video wildlife photography Sun, 28 Jun 2015 20:34:12 GMT
THE HOLY GRAIL Having worked most of my adult life as a photographer, I tend to treat wildlife photography like a job (even though the pay stinks) . Of course, if it was a job it would be one that I really enjoy, but what I mean is that I set goals and try to assign myself projects to work on. Yes, nature is unpredictable and I try to look out for any opportunities that may just pop up, but I also pick specific targets that I try to work on.

This self-assignment approach started when I rekindled my wildlife photography after a six-year hiatus. I was looking through my old slides and saw that I didn't have any good screech owl photos. I was disappointed to have nothing on such a common owl, so I made it my mission to find them. I started looking in suitable habitat, listening for them at night and checking just about every tree hole I walked or drove past. At first I was frustrated and had a fatalistic attitude that I wouldn't ever find something that I was looking so hard for. The breakthrough came after a few months. I was on my way home from work and drove past a tree with a couple holes in it that I'd passed a hundred times before. It was almost dark, but this time I noticed that one of the holes wasn't empty. I backed up and took a few shots out my car window in the marginal light. A few days later, I returned in slightly better light and got a few more shots from my car, since it was a on a busy road with no place to park nearby (I realize that I may not have been the safest driver during this period). The owl did not stay in that spot very long, but a short while later I found another "screech" in a tree on the side of the park road. This one was much better for photography. Over the next several months, I found two more. The flood gates had opened and I soon had hundreds of screech owl photos.

E SCREECH OWL 08-02-1521232E SCREECH OWL 08-02-1521232OLD LYME, CT Eastern Screech Owl (Otus asio) red phase. E SCREECH OWL 08-02-1621312E SCREECH OWL 08-02-1621312NIANTIC, CT Eastern Screech Owl (Otus asio) red phase. E SCREECH OWL 10-05-0122525E SCREECH OWL 10-05-0122525LYME , CT Eastern Screech Owl (Otus asio).

Full of confidence that my new approach was foolproof, my next project was to photograph a Great Horned Owl nest. Presto, like magic, two appeared before me. I was on a roll, so logically my next assignment, in keeping with the owl theme, was to find a Barred Owl nest. That's where the wheels ground to a screeching halt, and just fell off altogether. For the past four springs I have been looking for a Barred Owl nest without success. There were a couple close calls, where I'd heard and seen a pair repeatedly in the same location, and was sure they were nesting there. I just couldn't find where. At first it was just frustrating, then as the hours were consumed fruitlessly, it became a slight obsession. As years passed without finding one it became my nemesis, my curse, it became my Holy Grail. 

This spring the curse was finally broken, and like the 2004 Boston Red Sox, it happened in the unlikeliest way. I had very little luck finding any nests this spring, and it was getting late in the season. On a drizzly morning I went hiking in a spot I had not been for a couple years carrying only my binoculars, hoping to scout out possible photo opportunities. The trail took me up to a hilltop, and through a hole in the leaves I saw a narrow cavity in a large oak tree. I immediately thought, "Wow, that looks like a perfect nest hole." I trained my binoculars on it, but didn't see anything inside. The hole was about 30 feet up in the tree, which was growing at the bottom of the hill, so from the hilltop it was right at eye level. As if I was willing it to be an owl nest, I stared into the hole with my binoculars for a minute or two, but nothing appeared. I continued down the hill and a hundred yards down the trail when a squirrel suddenly chattered in alarm, clinging to a tree trunk with its tail twitching. The woods erupted with sharp thrush calls, vireo rattles and titmouse whines. Was it me that was causing all the commotion? I stopped walking and scanned the woods for whatever it was that was alarming all the woodland creatures. I stood there for several minutes but didn't see anything. The rain started to pick up and the chatter died down, so I started to walking back the way I came. Something big and brown flew over my head, and down the trail where it just disappeared. I stopped back at the top of the hill and stared back into the tree cavity for a bit and a face appeared.

BARRED OWL 15-05-2883090BARRED OWL 15-05-2883090Barred Owl (Strix varia) at tree cavity nest in Connecticut forest. A Barred Owl stared out at me, then squeezed out of the hole and flew off. The Holy Grail was finally within reach, but I didn't have my camera with me and had no pictures yet. I returned later that evening and waited under a camouflage blind to see if I could get some pictures, but no owls appeared. A few days later I tried again in the morning, but saw nothing. Was this going to turn out badly? I had the same nervous feeling when the Red Sox came back from 0-3 down to beat the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS. What if they lost to the Cardinals in the World Series? I would be the cruelest failure of all time.

Until I had a picture, I couldn't relax. So I waited, standing under a bag blind for hours. Four hours passed and I started getting hungry. Six hours, still nothing, my back and legs were starting to ache. Eight hours, nothing, I think I was starting to hallucinate. Finally, late in the afternoon, I heard a faint two-syllable call. Then, again, a little closer. At the bottom of the tree cavity, the top of a fuzzy white head appeared. A minute later an adult owl landed on a branch just above the nest. With my lens trained on the hole, I didn't dare move. The owl dropped down into the nest and reappeared with the remains of a bird of some type. With the camera on silent drive, I managed about five or six shots before the owl flew off. Again, the light was pretty low, and the shutter settings were marginal. I checked the pictures in the LCD and there was hope. I drove home and immediately downloaded them and checked them on the computer. At last, the Holy Grail was in my grasp.

Over the next two weeks, I visited several times and got to watch the owl chicks grow and make their way out of the tree cavity. I got to see the adults roosting in the nearby woods, and bring food to the nest, usually once during the day. Occasionally other hikers walked by on the trail while I was there. I was dressed in a mesh bug suit and hiding under a camouflage cloth just off the trail and realized this could be seen by some (or most) as a bit strange and even threatening. Most didn't even notice me, and to the few that did, I explained that I was photographing birds, without revealing the specifics. The owls knew when I was there, but I kept my distance and they seemed to tolerate my presence. 

One of the highlights of my nest watch was seeing a chick climb out of the tree cavity for the first time. At first they could barely be seen in the bottom of the nest, but as they grew, they appeared more frequently and began flapping their wings inside the hole. One day, I was bored and waiting for something to happen. Suddenly, a downy white chick lurched into the bright light and, using its beak, pulled its way out onto the edge of the cavity. It was quite unsteady and I was petrified it would fall out of the nest, but it propped itself up and stared out into the woods for a while. Another highlight was seeing a chick studying a small flock of songbirds that were flitting around it in alarm as it perched in the opening. It was also a treat to see the adults bringing food to the nest and watching the nest almost invisibly from nearby.

As they grew, I wondered how the chicks would leave the nest since it was up about 30 feet, and there were no branches below the cavity. I arrived one day and found one chick out on the trunk of the tree where it forked, about four feet above the nest cavity. The other was perched in the opening of the nest hole and was trying to walk its way up the tree, but could not make it all the way. The chick above the nest was climbing up and down the trunk and hopping from one fork to the other. The adult owls were close by and seemed more nervous this time. I took some pictures and video and decided to leave after a while, wondering if it was the last time I'd see them. 

Barred Owl (Strix varia) nest in Connecticut forest. Barred Owl (Strix varia) nest in Connecticut forest. BARRED OWL 15-06-0983838BARRED OWL 15-06-0983838Barred Owl (Strix varia) roosting near nest in Connecticut forest. Barred Owl (Strix varia) nest in Connecticut forest. BARRED OWL 15-06-0983804BARRED OWL 15-06-0983804Barred Owl (Strix varia) adult near nest in Connecticut forest. BARRED OWL 15-06-1184036BARRED OWL 15-06-1184036Barred Owl (Strix varia) chick branching from tree cavity nest in Connecticut forest. Barred Owl (Strix varia) nest in Connecticut forest. BARRED OWL 15-06-1184099BARRED OWL 15-06-1184099Barred Owl (Strix varia) chick branching from tree cavity nest in Connecticut forest.

When I returned late the next day, I looked from a distance with my binoculars, but there was no sign of the chicks in the tree. As I started to walk down the trail toward the spot where I had been photographing from, one of the adults flew out and landed in a tree just in front of me, staring down at me. The chicks had likely branched out of the nest, still unable to fly, and were most vulnerable at this time. I decided to leave well enough alone, whispered a quiet thank you under my breath, and retreated back to my car. The Holy Grail was finally attained, I was grateful for the time I had with them. With my faith in the self-assignment approach restored, there are plenty of new Holy Grails on my list to find now. 



]]> (Bob MacDonnell Photography) Connecticut bird photography Connecticut birding Connecticut birds bird photography nest owl wildlife photography Sun, 28 Jun 2015 20:21:49 GMT
OUTDOOR EDUCATION After such a nasty winter, I really couldn't wait for spring to arrive this year, but this spring brought new, unpleasant surprises. My photography took a back seat, and when there was time for it, it wasn't very productive or enjoyable, especially early on. The unusually cold weather continued into March and April and seemed to throw off the rhythm and timing of spring's changes. I always look forward to my first sighting of an Osprey returning to Niantic in early March as the true signal that winter is on the way out, but this year it was closer to early April. The runs of Alewife returning from the ocean to spawn in area streams and ponds usually begin shortly after the Osprey return, and are an important food source for them. I've learned that this can produce some great spring photo opportunities if you can find the Osprey that have found the fish, but this year it didn't quite work out for me. There were a few days when I saw a dozen or more Osprey circling and hovering above sections of the Bride Brook in Rocky Neck State Park where the fish were to be expected, but saw just a few dives and even fewer catches. OSPREY 15-04-1282263OSPREY 15-04-1282263NIANTIC, CT Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) with Alewife catch.

There just didn't seem to be that many fish this year. I figured the cold spring had delayed the Alewife runs as it did the returning Osprey, or even worse, that the number of returning fish had declined sharply. Either way, it was a disappointment for me, and a problem for the Osprey, that were forced to look farther away for different types of fish. One Osprey I photographed in a courtship display near Rocky Neck actually had a trout in its talons.

OSPREY 15-04-0181812BOSPREY 15-04-0181812BOLD LYME, CT Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) in courtship display with trout.

In mid-May I took an evening drive through Rocky Neck even though I've usually moved on to greener pastures (actually the woods) by then, and noticed a lot of gull activity near the bridges near the mouth of the Bride Brook. The park has usually quieted down a lot by then, so I was surprised to see so much commotion. I stopped to investigate, and saw the gulls circling and diving into the water, which was percolating with schools of fish. It was a month or so after the Alewife runs were expected, but could they have arrived this late?

HERRING GULL 15-05-1382730HERRING GULL 15-05-1382730NIANTIC, CT Herring Gull (Larus argentatus).

The next morning I went back and found the same situation. I could see the large schools of Alewife swimming between the two bridges, sometimes right below me. I had never seen the fish like that before, and was surprised to see them swimming back and forth up and downstream during the day. Several years ago, while working on a newspaper story about the DEEP's efforts to restore the dwindling Alewife runs, I learned that the fish swim upstream at night, so this seemed odd. 

ALEWIFE 15-05-1482809BALEWIFE 15-05-1482809BNIANTIC, CT Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) is an anadromous species of herring that returns from the ocean each spring to spawn in fresh water. Shortly after spawning they return to the ocean. These fish were photographed in a shallow salt marsh tidal creek on there return run to the ocean. Even though the water was "boiling" with fish, only one or two Osprey were in the area to fish them, most had established their nest sites and fishing grounds by then. Even the gulls were not as active as the night before, perhaps they had their fill already? One creature, however, was having a field day with the abundant supply of Alewife. A mink repeatedly slunk to the edge of the brook, and slid into the water. AMERICAN MINK 15-05-1582618AMERICAN MINK 15-05-1582618NIANTIC, CT American Mink (Neovison vison). A short while later it would climb out and bound along the same route through the salt marsh with its impressive catch, to a spot at the edge of the adjacent woods. The fish looked to be close to half the size of the mink itself. I witnessed this five or six times within the span of a couple hours, so it seems unlikely that it could be eating the fish on its own, and must have had a family to feed in a hidden den. One two occasions the mink had an eel, equally impressive in relative size, instead of an Alewife.

AMERICAN MINK 15-05-1582625AMERICAN MINK 15-05-1582625NIANTIC, CT American Mink (Neovison vison). As the light got too harsh for photography, I walked back to my car and a man in a pick-up truck rolled his window down and asked what I was photographing. "Birds", I said, not wanting to get too specific. He replied that I should go the the beach at the mouth of the brook because the gulls were having a field day with river herring. We struck up a conversation and I found out he worked for the DEEP's anadromous fish program and was monitoring the Alewife in the Bride Brook. It turned out that the fish were not entering the brook to spawn, but actually on their way back out to the ocean. They had become trapped by the sandbar that built up in front of the restored channel the DEEP created at the mouth of the brook and could only exit the brook at the highest tide. This was the reason they were swimming back and forth during the day. I also learned that the herring did return at about the same time they usually do and the numbers were actually pretty good this year. 

ROCKY NECK 15-05-1583417ROCKY NECK 15-05-1583417NIANTIC, CT Alewife restoration efforts at the mouth of the Bride Brook at Rocky Neck State Park. ROCKY NECK 15-05-1583433ROCKY NECK 15-05-1583433NIANTIC, CT Alewife restoration efforts at the mouth of the Bride Brook at Rocky Neck State Park.

One of the things I like most about photographing wildlife is that it provides a first hand opportunity to observe and learn about the things I take pictures of. What I learn can then be helpful in finding new photo opportunities in the future. Instead of getting the herring on the way in, this year I got them on the way out. I haven't ever seen the Alewife returning to the sea in such a dramatic way, and may never again, but now I'll be looking out for it if it happens.


]]> (Bob MacDonnell Photography) Alewife Niantic Osprey Rocky Neck fish herring mink spring Wed, 24 Jun 2015 22:18:14 GMT
GROUNDHOG DAY - ETHICS IN WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY PART @$%^#* In the past few days I've seen links and comments about the article in the May 2015 edition of Audubon Magazine called "Too Close for Comfort", about the ethics of wildlife photographers. The article details several examples of photographers disturbing nesting birds in Florida and the conflicts that are arising from their behavior. This is a tired old subject that I have dealt with for years and written about a few times in the past, (here is a link to a blog I wrote two years ago, on the occasion of another blow up:, but I'll add my two cents again, against my better judgement.

The Audubon article begins with a Florida photographer who was prosecuted for violating the Endangered Species Act by getting too close to a Snail Kite nest on several occasions, ignoring a sign posted to keep viewers a certain distance away. The photographer in question was leading a commercial tour for other photographers, taking them by boat to what I assume is a pretty remote location. While I don't know him personally, I am familiar with his work and he is very good at what he does, and has built his tour business on those talents. Of course that doesn't give him the right to violate the law, and it appears that his case is pretty black and white. The more common problems are the gray areas where nobody sees eye to eye. 

Experienced wildlife photographers know that having a good knowledge of their subjects is one of the most important tools they can possess to get good pictures. Many started out as biologists or naturalists, and some may know as much about the creatures they photograph as anyone, including birders or researchers. While hard-earned experience and knowledge is helpful, it can sometimes lead to hubris, and allow a photographer to feel it's okay to push a subject to get the desired picture. With some newer photographers, a lack of experience may cause them to cross the line without even knowing it, and with some there is just a lack of concern for their subjects. The question is what are the limits and who determines them.

Working as a newspaper photographer, I was occasionally able to gain access to protected wildlife through my job and was able to get pictures that might not be accessible to everybody. I have tried to work with scientists and researchers both for access and for guidance on how to safely photograph certain subjects, but is it okay for a newspaper photographer or one shooting for National Geographic or Audubon to take certain pictures and not okay for another photographer? 

As a photojournalist, most of my work was to illustrate news stories with informative and interesting pictures. My approach to wildlife photography is similar, and I try to portray creatures in a way that tells something about their lives, what they eat, where they live ....etc. It's for that reason that I like photographing nesting birds, because it is such an important part of their lives. I know it's a sensitive subject, and there are many wildlife photographers will never photograph birds on the nest and bristle when others do. I wrote a blog post about photographing nesting birds a long time ago, which remains an unpublished draft because other than me, who cares what I think?. I'm not trying to encourage anyone else to photograph nesting birds, just explain how and why I do.

One of my earliest nest encounters was in the 1990's with a Yellow Warbler which I found just off a path in a popular park. I watched the nest from a distance for a couple weeks (I knew not to photograph until the chicks hatched because there would be a greater chance that they could abandon the site). I told a few other local birders who were very helpful and friendly to me about the nest and when the chicks hatched, I waited through the weekend when the park was busy and went early Monday morning to get my first pictures. When I arrived at the nest, there was a photo blind set up in front of it, so I walked around the rest of the park for a while and returned again but the blind was still there. I set my gear down about 50 yards away and waited until the photographer eventually got out and started to yell at me. He gave me some B.S. story about how he had been photographing the nest for weeks and had sold several pictures from it already, but I found out he was on a bird walk that weekend led by one of the birders I'd told about the nest. I came back later and found that he'd cut some branches below the nest exposing the bright nest fibers and making the nest much more conspicuous. The birds were okay, but I learned an important lesson that has stuck with me since. Never tell anyone else about a found nest.

YELLOW WARBLER 00-16YELLOW WARBLER 00-16MADISON, CT Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia) female feeding chicks in nest.

The Audubon article talks about the danger of photographers leading groups of people to nesting areas. A year after my Yellow Warbler episode, I went on a group tour to Churchill led by professional wildlife photographers. There were six clients and two guides and we photographed nesting birds, mostly shorebirds, on the open tundra. It was a productive trip, but there were a few things I was uncomfortable with. I felt uneasy being in a group of large men shooting small birds from a few yards away, even though the bird seemed to tolerate our presence.

AM GOLDEN PLOVER 00-18AM GOLDEN PLOVER 00-18CHURCHILL, MB American Golden-Plover (Pluvialis dominica) adult in breeding plumage at nest. On top of that, there were some in the group who wanted to get closer than others were comfortable with, causing the birds obvious stress. I was excited to photograph these beautiful birds in breeding plumage, sitting on their nest, but felt bad when they went through their distraction displays when we first approached or when someone moved too close.

AM GOLDEN PLOVER 00-11AM GOLDEN PLOVER 00-11CHURCHILL, MB American Golden-Plover (Pluvialis dominica) adult in breeding engaged in distraction display near nest. One day we found a beautiful Pacific Loon, one of my main target species for the trip, on its nest and were getting incredible full frame pictures in great light.

PACIFIC LOON 00-18PACIFIC LOON 00-18CHURCHILL, MB CANADA Pacific Loon (Gavia arctica) on nest at edge of tundra pond. Some in our group kept creeping closer, until the bird finally sprang from the nest with a loud sound I can't begin to describe and started flailing and splashing in the pond nearby. All our cameras were clicking away for the short while this occurred, and the pictures are pretty wild, but I had a sinking feeling after it happened. I learned later that this was an alarm display and have seen published pictures of other loons just like it. The captions usually describe a rival loon approaching or a predator flying overhead, but now that I know what it is I hope I don't see it again.

PACIFIC LOON 00-15PACIFIC LOON 00-15CHURCHILL, MB CANADA Pacific Loon (Gavia arctica) in breeding plumage. The biggest problem I had with the group dynamic turned out to be that I got basically the same shots as the rest of the group and that felt less satisfying to me. My goal at the time was to sell pictures for publication, but I don't think I ever sold any from the trip. The guides that led the tour and one or two of the clients had pictures from the trip published in books and articles about the location, but the market for those type of pictures was pretty much covered. Photographing with a group and getting the same or similar pictures as a bunch of other photographers was not only less satisfying, but it was also bad business. That was the first, last and only group photo tour I've been on.

Earlier that year, my wife and I drove to Florida to visit her family and I talked her into stopping at the Venice Rookery so I could take some pictures. We arrived in the early morning darkness, and when the sun finally rose, I was underwhelmed by the tiny stand of mangroves in the small pond at the Venice municipal complex. Among the dozens of photographers there, I met two whose work I'd seen published and complimented them on it. The asked me where I was from and I told them I was visiting from Connecticut and was hoping to visit a few of the Florida birding hotspots and asked if they had any suggestions. What happened next shocked me, but they both got angry and said they were tired of outsiders coming in and photographing in their home territory and cutting into their stock business. Florida .... Vacationland ....? Turf is turf, and it was being defended.

GREAT EGRET 00-14GREAT EGRET 00-14VENICE, FL Great Egret (Ardea alba) in breeding plumage - courtship display. The situation today is almost the exact opposite. With the advent of digital photography it seems like everyone has a camera and the flood of new photographers has completely changed the landscape of all types of professional photography, wildlife photography included. Photographers who once made a living selling stock pictures to magazines and calendars found the overwhelming volume of new work and the diminishing number of outlets for it caused publication fees to plummet, crashing their business. Magazines like Audubon were always tough to break into, but even the smallest magazines now act like you are bothering them by trying to submit pictures you want to be paid for, and they pay accordingly . Photographers who once guarded their prime shooting spots figured out that they could make up for lost publishing income by leading tours for the hordes of newcomers to those same locations. Common sense dictates that probably doesn't benefit the creatures there.

With so many more people photographing wildlife today, it's also harder to stand out or get noticed unless you have some really unique pictures and may be willing to push the limits with your subjects. In a way, magazines, including Audubon, may be indirectly contributing to the problems when their editors select the most unique and unusual pictures to publish. If that's what it takes to get noticed or published, there are always people who will do it, and others will follow their lead. Shooting wildlife up close or with a wide angle lens, or using remote cameras or camera traps are all growing trends in wildlife photography. On the same web page for the Audubon story documenting these ethical issues with wildlife photographers is a link to the 2015 Audubon Photo Contest winners. In the gallery of top 100 photos are examples of the same things they are decrying, including extreme close-ups, wide angle close-ups and pictures of birds at their nest. One of the contest judges is a photographer whose work I admire, but I've seen close-up wide angle pictures of nesting birds on the tundra that he's taken published in National Geographic.

I don't know exactly how any of those photographs were made, but surely some birders or naturalists would take issue with these photographers if they were there to witness it. I do know that if editors and judges use or select those kinds of pictures, more photographers will copy them. While working on a photo package about the Audubon Christmas Bird Count for the Hartford Courant, I showed some of my stock photos to my editor, and she selected a picture of a screech owl with its eyes wide open. I tied to talk her into picking a picture where the owl didn't look so alarmed and wasn't staring right at the camera, but she liked owl with its wide open, as most editors do. Is it any wonder then that photographers will whistle, squeak, squeal or do whatever they can to get an owl to open its eyes, regardless of how it affects the owl.

E SCREECH OWL 08-11-1721560E SCREECH OWL 08-11-1721560NIANTIC, CT Eastern Screech Owl (Otus asio) gray phase. E SCREECH OWL 08-03-0321446E SCREECH OWL 08-03-0321446NIANTIC, CT Eastern Screech Owl (Otus asio) red phase.

I've been trying more wide angle and remote camera techniques in recent years to get a different look than the long lens, shallow depth of field perspective so typical of most wildlife photography, including my own. Just as the wide angle shot from the Osprey nest I wrote about in my earlier blog post angered some, I'm sure there are many who would not approve of these recent efforts, not knowing how they were obtained. The Wood Thrush nest photo below was taken with a remote camera on a pole that reached nearly 10 feet over my head. I watched the bird from my car, from about about 40 yards away, for more than an hour before it left the nest, then jumped out with my contraption already set up and took about 20 pictures. The whole thing lasted around a minute and I returned to my car and the bird returned to the nest. I like the picture and I know it did not result in any harm to the birds, I saw the chicks fledged from the nest, but I'm sure this falls in the gray area for some and is completely out of bounds for others. 

WOOD THRUSH 14-05-2575624WOOD THRUSH 14-05-2575624LYME, CT Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) nest.

I took a philosophy course in college called Ethics. I was a biology major at the time and can't remember much of what the class was about, but I do remember that there didn't seem to be right or wrong answers, you had to subjectively reason your response. This wasn't easy to grasp for a science major. One of my favorite wildlife photography books is called "Vanishing Songbirds" by Eliot Porter. It contains dozens of beautifully lit, sharply detailed large format photos of many North American songbirds at their nest that were taken 40 or 50 years ago. The book was made in an effort to document the decline of the birds Porter was so passionate about and receives high praise, even today. I love the pictures and would like to emulate them, but by today's photography ethics, these pictures would be considered criminal evidence.

I spend lots of time in the woods each spring looking for nests and find a fair number. I never even try to photograph most of them because they are hard too even see. I have found Blue-winged Warbler and Common Yellowthroat nest sites, down to a square foot, but never seen an actual nest because I'd never part the dense clumps of vegetation they are buried in. Instead, I do the best I can to capture those kind of photos within my ethical standards. My chances are greatly limited, and the pictures are usually flawed by some distracting element I wont remove. The one picture I've taken that comes closest to those Elliot Porter pictures is one of a Worm-eating Warbler nest. I was parked in a pull-off area on a dirt road in the forest listening for songbirds with the windows down and saw the birds bringing nest material to the leaf covered hillside adjacent to my car. I was able to watch the progress of the nest for the next few weeks from my car, and eventually photograph it from an open window covered with mosquito netting. It's one of my favorite photographs because I was able to see right into the nest and into their world like I was a fly on the wall, the birds seemingly unaware of my presence, which made it so satisfying.  

WORM EATING WARBLER 09-06-1811222WORM EATING WARBLER 09-06-1811222LYME, CT Worm-eating Warbler (Helmitheros vermivora) bringing food to nest. In the nearly 30 years I've worked as a photographer, it has changed more dramatically than I could have imagined. New technology has made wildlife photography more accessible to many more people and the internet has made it much easier to learn how and where to find subjects. Photographers' work will evolve over time and some will shape and others follow the new styles and trends. Like most things these days, the trend is more extreme. The one thing that has not changed in that time is that wildlife photographers have come under fire for "endangering" their subjects. Game farms, baiting, getting too close, flash photography, group tours, owl roosts, Snowy Owls, Bald Eagle nests .... the list goes on and on. It's easy for someone with no interest in wildlife photography to say here's the line and you're wrong if you cross it. It's not that simple. Wildlife would be better off if there weren't six billion people on earth, too, but I don't see those people volunteering to check out. Right or wrong, black or white, or the dreaded gray areas, pushing the limits has always been a part of progress. I think photographers need to figure out when we have reached the line, beyond which we are harming our subjects, and hopefully we don't cross it.

]]> (Bob MacDonnell Photography) Fri, 01 May 2015 05:10:17 GMT
A BLUE STREAK I spent a fair amount of time this spring, like many others over the past 20 years, searching the woods near my home for opportunities to photograph birds that nest in the area. While I have pictures of many of the birds that breed in the local woodlands, photographing a nest is a much trickier challenge. Obviously, most birds do their best to keep their nests well hidden from predators, making them very difficult to find. Over the years I have figured out ways to locate nests, but it's incredibly time consuming. I can often find a dozen or more nests each spring, but only a small percentage of those can be photographed without disturbing the surrounding vegetation, which I will not do. With so much of the activity crammed into three or four weeks, one thing that strikes me every year is how quickly the nesting season flies by.

One day in May I found what looked like a freshly excavated Pileated Woodpecker hole and a tent caterpillar web near the parking lot of a land trust property in Lyme. I sat in my car and watched to see if any birds might visit either site. While waiting I saw a male Eastern Bluebird flying past several times carrying food. I followed it as it flew to one branch for a few seconds, then to anther, then eventually dropped down to a tree stump where it deposited its catch into a woodpecker hole in the decaying tree trunk. Bluebirds that nest in boxes around open fields are pretty easy to find and photograph, but it was the first time I'd seen one in a natural tree cavity nest in the woods.

EASTERN BLUEBIRD 14-05-2074952EASTERN BLUEBIRD 14-05-2074952LYME Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) male at nest in old woodpecker hole in dead tree. EASTERN BLUEBIRD 14-05-2074919EASTERN BLUEBIRD 14-05-2074919LYME Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) male at nest in old woodpecker hole in dead tree.

Around the same time, I found fairly large nest on a bent sapling less than a mile a way. It looked like an American Robin or Wood Thrush nest, but I watched it at a distance for quite a while and didn't see any birds. I decided see if there were eggs in it and set up my camera with a remote trigger on an extendable pole and took a few shots from above the nest. It was empty. The following week I returned to find a Wood Thrush sitting on the nest. I usually don't take pictures of nesting birds while they are incubating but I wanted to see if the nest might have been parasitized by cowbirds since it was so exposed. Again, I watched from a distance until the bird left the nest, then using the same remote set-up I quickly photographed the nest from above. This time four sky blue eggs and no brown speckled eggs revealed that the nest had not been parasitized.

WOOD THRUSH 14-05-2575624WOOD THRUSH 14-05-2575624LYME, CT Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) nest.

I found two other Wood Thrush nests, probably the most conspicuous song bird nests, the same week. I used the same method to photograph them and found them undisturbed as well. Another theme was developing this nesting season, I was on a blue streak.

WOOD THRUSH 14-05-2575644WOOD THRUSH 14-05-2575644LYME, CT Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) nest.

A few days later, my streak was confirmed. An open gate in Nehantic State Forest, one that is normally closed, got me to stop and investigate. Just beyond the gate a bird was singing like the proverbial fat lady (Viking helmet and all) from the edge of a clearing. The song didn't register at first, but I should not have been surprised to find that it was an Indigo Bunting. 

INDIGO BUNTING 14-05-2975835INDIGO BUNTING 14-05-2975835LYME, CT Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) male.

The blue streak was not powerful enough to overcome my uncanny propensity to find only Indigo Buntings that are in some state of molt, and not the perfect all blue specimens that my colleagues seem to find at exactly the same time.

INDIGO BUNTING 14-05-2975867INDIGO BUNTING 14-05-2975867LYME, CT Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) male.

As the nesting season quickly progressed, the bluebirds fledged their young while I was busy with work. I found a few other nests but only two could be photographed, and they too, turned out to be a disappointment (I'll detail in the next post). The Wood Thrush nests all hatched out and I was able to photograph one of them with the adults feeding their chicks. Then work, weather and family events kept me away for five days and I returned to find the nests all but empty. Two were abandoned and in the third, one almost full sized chick remained, missing only its tail feathers. I set up to photograph it, keeping a safe distance, and saw the adults feeding the other fledged chicks in the surrounding woods. One returned to feed the remaining chick a couple times but seemed to be trying to entice it to leave the nest to get its food. The leaves surrounding the nest had grown to obstruct the once open view, so I gave up and went back to my car. I watched for another half hour and saw the chick hop from the nest and out onto a branch, then flutter away out of sight. Just like that, the nesting season seemed to be over for another year, gone in a blue streak.

]]> (Bob MacDonnell Photography) Blue Connecticut bird photography Connecticut birding Connecticut birds Indigo Lyme bird photography eggs nest nesting wildlife photography Tue, 01 Jul 2014 15:39:22 GMT
LOST CAUSES LOST CAUSE - a cause that has lost all prospect of success (Merriam-Webster Online)

Trying to make the most of the natural activity and diversity of springtime in Connecticut, I try to get out frequently near my home in search of subjects to photograph. Sometimes I feel pressure to be as productive as possible during this short time of plenty. So after a busy week without much time for the outdoors, I was anxious to head out and find something to shoot. I set out on one of my favored routes in the afternoon, through the woods of Lyme and East Lyme, despite the dreary weather. After a few fruitless stops at some of the many land trust preserves and state forest areas on my route, I decided to pack it in, thinking it was a lost cause.

On my way home, I caught a glimpse of the familiar football shape of a hawk through the trees and hit the brakes. Fortunately, these roads are lightly traveled, and I backed up to see what kind of hawk it was.  A Broad-winged Hawk was hunting from a perch in a wooded swamp about 50 yards away, so I pulled off the road to see if I could get a picture.  The hawk cast a few curious glances my way as I inched my car back and forth, trying to find a clear view of it through the trees, but continued its hunt. While searching for a vantage point to photograph the too-distant hawk through the jumble of gray trees, shooting up into the dull gray sky I was thinking "I'm really getting desperate here".

After finally settling on a spot, training my long lens with teleconverter out the car window balanced on a jacket (I've never been able to justify spending so much on a specialized been bag for such purposes) the seconds had turned to minutes. Finding an exposure that I could shoot hand held and captured enough detail in the dark hawk while not completely blowing out the sky added more time. That the hawk was still there seemed a miracle, as I waited even longer for moments when would turn its head to the side or back toward me. Finally, a pick-up truck drove by, and the driver give me that "what the heck are you doing" look. By then I had taken more than 100 pictures and my thoughts echoed his look, "why am I wasting so much time on this picture, it's obviously a lost cause".

A week later, as I was catching up on editing and came across these raw pictures, I had similar sentiments and deleted most of them because they weren't sharp enough. I opened one of the keepers to see if I could do anything in the processing to transform the dull gray image and a glimmer of hope appeared. Photography is extremely subjective, and opinions will always vary about what makes a good photograph. I'm not sure whether it's because I had no hope for these pictures, or that the hints of color from the emerging leaves break up the gray linear composition, or that it shows the hawk in its habitat, doing what it does, but this turned into one of my favorite pictures from this spring. The popular trend in wildlife photography has been toward the sharp, clean close-ups with soft, out of focus background and no distracting elements. I like those kind of pictures but find they get boring pretty quickly. There is something rewarding about being able to organize the chaos that nature sometimes presents, and capture something a little less obvious that makes you look a little a little longer and closer at an image. It gives hope to all the lost causes out there.

BW HAWK 14-05-0974169BW HAWK 14-05-0974169EAST LYME, CT Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) hunting in wooded swamp.

]]> (Bob MacDonnell Photography) Connecticut bird photography Connecticut birding Connecticut birds East Lyme Lyme bird photography hawk spring' wildlife photography Fri, 06 Jun 2014 13:49:12 GMT

No, not the English rock supergroup of the 1960's that launched the careers of guitar legends Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. At the risk of dating myself, they were one of my favorite bands as a teenager (I still have my original Mono album) even though they were over by the time I was five years old.  I wonder why they named themselves The Yardbirds, since it seems to imply the common or ordinary. Fast forward four decades or so and I'm still into the yardbirds. 

I've been photographing birds in my yard for 20 years and have not done too bad considering my modest plot. Each new season brings a new batch of subjects, although it's usually the same new batch year after year, and they have become ordinary to me over time. Reports in the spring of people seeing migrant warblers like Cape Mays and Blackburnians in their Connecticut yards always turns me a bit green with envy ...... "the grass is always greener". But each new year holds new hope, so I keep at it.

After a cold spring, the season kicked off for me on Mother's Day weekend, when I walked out the front door to get a package and scattered a House Finch from the shrubs next to the landing. The reason for its close proximity stared me right in the face, a nest with two chicks in the back of a dwarf Alberta Spruce. I went inside and watched from the window for a while as the adults came and went, feeding the chicks. I decided to to set up a camera under the eaves and trigger it remotely from inside. After a couple failed attempts at framing and focusing (I couldn't look through the back of the camera since it was up against the house) I finally got it right.  HOUSE FINCH 14-05-1074206HOUSE FINCH 14-05-1074206NIANTIC, CT House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) nest in decorative yard shrub.

The nest was pretty ugly since the adults stop removing the chick's fecal sacs, and and it was ringed with excrement. An unhatched egg was buried under a pile of it, as well. The adults also never brought insects, like other birds do, to feed the chicks. Instead, it was some ground up stuff they regurgitated. I've since learned that House Finches feed their chicks mostly plant matter, and dandelion seeds are a favorite food. Sadly, my lawn has plenty of them. While I watched from the window, waiting for the adults to return, I noticed another pair had a nest lower down in the same bush, buried way inside and a third pair nested in a similar tree about 10 yards away. Later in the day I took a walk around the block with my wife and we scared several blackbirds from a neighbors lawn. One turned out to be a male Bobolink and when we got back around to our house it was in our yard. A new yard bird added to the list!

The next few days the migration seemed to peek in Connecticut, and we had a bunch of new arrivals in our yard. Among them, a pair of Great Crested Flycatchers that were dust bathing in our garden and a House Wren that plucked fibers from the frayed net of my son's lacrosse goal.  One day as I was loading my gear into the car to go to a job, I heard a high pitched song in the back yard. I walked around back and saw the pear tree, in full blossom, dripping with a half dozen or more Blackpoll Warblers. I grabbed a few quick shots and headed to work, hoping they would still be around when I got back. BLACKPOLL WARBLER 14-05-1374283BLACKPOLL WARBLER 14-05-1374283NIANTIC, CT Blackpoll Warbler (Dendroica striata) male during spring migration feeding in fruit tree blossoms.

The good thing about my yard is that there are several fruit trees, a pear, two apples and a cherry that were planted 60 years ago by my grandparents. Behind them are two tall oaks and closer to the house are a few crabapple trees that I planted to provide shade for our two dogs, who have since departed. The bad thing about it is that we're in eastern Connecticut near the coast (I know .... you're thinking why is that bad?) The reason it's bad is that we get far fewer spring migrants than central or western Connecticut. It's most likely just geography, but another reason might be that because of the cool ocean air the trees leaf out here at least a week later than other parts of the state, so most of the migrant songbirds I see in our yard are towards the tail end of the season. The fruit trees, however,  usually blossom in early May before we get many migrants. Some years we have orioles feeding in the blossoms but if it's a warm spring, the blossoms are often gone even before the orioles return.

So back to my pear tree and the Blackpolls. They were still there when I got home, and I spent the last hour of sunlight photographing them while "hiding" behind the aforementioned lacrosse goal. The cold spring this year held the tree blossoms back until mid-May and the birds were here to capitalize. Timing is everything. The next morning I went out early and even more had warblers joined the feeding frenzy, Blackpolls were everywhere.  We often get a few late in migration way up in the oak trees but these were at eye level! BLACKPOLL WARBLER 14-05-1374293BLACKPOLL WARBLER 14-05-1374293NIANTIC, CT Blackpoll Warbler (Dendroica striata) male during spring migration feeding in fruit tree blossoms.

Joining the Blackpolls were a couple Magnolia Warblers, several Northern Parulas, a few resident Yellow Warblers, Baltimore Orioles, and an immature Orchard Oriole.  The next couple days it was tough to get much processing work done, because every time I got up from the computer I'd see more birds and get sidetracked photographing them. There was also a Worm-eating Warbler, a first time yardbird, and Common Yellowthroats that I never  got clear shots of. I also heard a Blue-winged Warbler singing, but never saw it. MAGNOLIA WARBLER 14-05-1474490MAGNOLIA WARBLER 14-05-1474490NIANTIC, CT Magnolia Warbler (Dendroica magnolia) male during spring migration feeding in fruit tree blossoms. NORTHERN PARULA 14-05-1474505NORTHERN PARULA 14-05-1474505NIANTIC, CT Northern Parula (Parula americana) during spring migration feeding in fruit tree blossoms. YELLOW WARBLER 14-05-1474431YELLOW WARBLER 14-05-1474431NIANTIC, CT Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia) male during spring feeding in fruit tree blossoms.

What the birds are actually eating in the tree blossoms appear to be small worms, although some birds tear off the whole flower to get at them. I was able to capture several shots of birds with small worms in their beaks.

NORTHERN PARULA 14-05-1474520NORTHERN PARULA 14-05-1474520NIANTIC, CT Northern Parula (Parula americana) during spring migration feeding in fruit tree blossoms. YELLOW WARBLER 14-05-1474422YELLOW WARBLER 14-05-1474422NIANTIC, CT Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia) male during spring feeding in fruit tree blossoms. BLACKPOLL WARBLER 14-05-1374356BLACKPOLL WARBLER 14-05-1374356NIANTIC, CT Blackpoll Warbler (Dendroica striata) male during spring migration feeding in fruit tree blossoms. The cherry on top of the whole episode was that two of the flowering crabapple trees are right next to the house, and I was able to shoot from inside, through open windows. Using the camera on quiet mode, the shutter made almost no sound and the birds took no notice of me as they foraged undisturbed. As a photographer, you know things are going well you have to make the tough decisions about what to shoot. Do I focus on the female Baltimore Oriole hanging upside down in the white blossoms, with the clean background?

BALTIMORE ORIOLE 14-05-1474546BALTIMORE ORIOLE 14-05-1474546NIANTIC, CT Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) female feeding in fruit tree blossoms.

...... or the striking male that's just below it? BALTIMORE ORIOLE 14-05-1474549BALTIMORE ORIOLE 14-05-1474549NIANTIC, CT Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) male feeding in fruit tree blossoms.

..... or better yet, the Blackpoll Warbler that's even closer .... BLACKPOLL WARBLER 14-05-1374309BLACKPOLL WARBLER 14-05-1374309NIANTIC, CT Blackpoll Warbler (Dendroica striata) male during spring migration feeding in fruit tree blossoms.

or do I go the front window and shoot the Magnolia Warbler in the pink tree? MAGNOLIA WARBLER 14-05-1474478MAGNOLIA WARBLER 14-05-1474478NIANTIC, CT Magnolia Warbler (Dendroica magnolia) male during spring migration feeding in fruit tree blossoms.

I can't remember many times where I had to make so many "tough calls". Not to worry though, it only lasted a couple days. One thing that's certain is that this season with the yardbirds was definitely not ordinary.

]]> (Bob MacDonnell Photography) Connecticut bird photography Connecticut birding Connecticut birds Yard birds bird photography migration spring warblers wildlife photography yard Sun, 25 May 2014 01:49:59 GMT
A SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM This winter has had it's share of cold snaps, bringing new terms like "polar vortex" to our collective vocabulary. It seems that the weather is overly dramatized more and more each year by meteorologists looking to build hype and drive up their ratings. There are usually a few times each winter when it gets pretty cold, sometimes even below zero, which doesn't stop me from going outdoors. So in early January, when the temperatures plummeted, I didn't think too much of it despite the cries from weathermen (and women). I had been watching a Snowy Owl on Great Island in Old Lyme, and usually stopped a few times a week in the late afternoon to check on it.  One night as I was driving to Great Island during the worst cold spell, I noticed hundreds of gulls flying around as I drove past the Black Hall River, a small tributary near the mouth of the Connecticut River. This was pretty unusual, but I didn't think too much of it and spent about a half an hour watching the owl with a couple other hardy birders in the bitter cold and wind. It was really unpleasant.

A few days later, a birder kayaking around Great Island for the Christmas Bird Count reported seeing dead striped bass at the south end of Great Island. Soon after, the source of the floating fish, and the huge flock of gulls I saw, became apparent when hundreds, if not thousands, of dead Striped Bass were found lining the banks of the Black Hall River. The DEEP responded and determined that the die-off was likely caused by the record cold weather.

OLD LYME, CT Dead Striped Bass line the banks of the Black Hall River after extremely cold weather. It's thought that the fish were trapped in the shallow river either by tides or ice and died by the hundreds or thousands due to cold shock. OLD LYME, CT Dead Striped Bass line the banks of the Black Hall River after extremely cold weather. It's thought that the fish were trapped in the shallow river either by tides or ice and died by the hundreds or thousands due to cold shock.

It's believed that the fish became trapped in the shallow water of the Black Hall, either by ice or low tides due to a coinciding new moon. The sudden onset of extremely cold weather combined with the fish being trapped in the shallow water resulted in a condition called cold shock, that caused a massive fish kill. A smaller die-off in the river was reported a few years earlier after a similar cold spell. As the news got out, I stopped by the river at the Route 156 bridge to see the carnage for myself. It was awful to see so many beautiful fish strewn along the river bank, many with their eyes pecked out. Farther up the river I saw more than a hundred dead fish in one spot at low tide, piled up on the bank near a bend in the river. I'm sure there were many more in areas I couldn't access, based on the huge flocks of birds gathered there. 

OLD LYME, CT Dead Striped Bass line the banks of the Black Hall River after extremely cold weather. It's thought that the fish were trapped in the shallow river either by tides or ice and died by the hundreds or thousands due to cold shock.

As sad as the fish kill was, it was apparently a natural occurrence, and nature has a way of cleaning up its messes. In the weeks after the die-off, the decaying fish provided a seemingly endless bounty of food for the birds. Large flocks of gulls gathered to feed on the carcasses scattered along the river bank. There were hundreds of gulls and as several immature Bald Eagles concentrated in areas at the mouth of the river near Great Island and Griswold Point and upstream from the Route 156 bridge, attracted by the unexpected banquet. 

GBB GULL 14-02-0171212GBB GULL 14-02-0171212OLD LYME, CT Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus) scavenging fish (Striped Bass) killed by cold shock.

As the dead fish along the river bank were exhausted, the gulls would gather noisily near sand bars and mud banks at low tide to feed on the fish exposed by the receding water. Great Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls dominated, and although there was plenty of food for all, they often fought noisily over each fish. GBB GULL 14-02-0171314GBB GULL 14-02-0171314OLD LYME, CT Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus) scavenging fish (Striped Bass) killed by cold shock. GBB GULL 14-02-0171202GBB GULL 14-02-0171202OLD LYME, CT Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus) scavenging fish (Striped Bass) killed by cold shock.

When those fish ran out the gulls resorted to dragging the seemingly endless fish carcasses from the shallow water onto ice floes or sand banks and just kept eating.  GBB GULL 14-02-0171179GBB GULL 14-02-0171179OLD LYME, CT Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus) scavenging fish (Striped Bass) killed by cold shock. GBB GULL 14-02-0171187GBB GULL 14-02-0171187OLD LYME, CT Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus) scavenging fish (Striped Bass) killed by cold shock. GBB GULL 14-02-0171298GBB GULL 14-02-0171298OLD LYME, CT Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus) scavenging fish (Striped Bass) killed by cold shock. HERRING GULL 14-02-0171157HERRING GULL 14-02-0171157OLD LYME, CT Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) scavenging fish (Striped Bass) killed by cold shock. HERRING GULL 14-02-0171165HERRING GULL 14-02-0171165OLD LYME, CT Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) scavenging fish (Striped Bass) killed by cold shock.

While the flock of gulls remained constant, the number of Bald Eagles on the Black Hall River began to build over the first few weeks of the bounty. At first I saw four young eagles feeding on an ice floe (presumably on the dead fish) near at the mouth of the Connecticut River. Early on, about half a dozen immature eagles congregated near the mouth of the river. As their numbers slowly built, the young eagles could be seen flying around upstream from the Route 156 Bridge, often chasing each other and perching in the tall pines on the bank of the Black Hall River. BALD EAGLE 14-01-3171098BALD EAGLE 14-01-3171098LYME, CT Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) immature. BALD EAGLE 14-01-3171149BALD EAGLE 14-01-3171149LYME, CT Bald Eagle(s) (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) immature dueling. BALD EAGLE 14-01-3171050BALD EAGLE 14-01-3171050LYME, CT Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) immature.

Once in a while all the gulls would suddenly take flight and a young eagle would swoop down to the water, grab a fish and fly off with it. BALD EAGLE 14-01-3171102BALD EAGLE 14-01-3171102LYME, CT Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) immature scavenging fish (Striped Bass) killed by cold shock. BALD EAGLE 14-01-3171107BALD EAGLE 14-01-3171107LYME, CT Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) immature scavenging fish (Striped Bass) killed by cold shock. BALD EAGLE 14-01-3171106BALD EAGLE 14-01-3171106LYME, CT Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) immature scavenging fish (Striped Bass) killed by cold shock. BALD EAGLE 14-01-3171114BALD EAGLE 14-01-3171114LYME, CT Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) immature scavenging fish (Striped Bass) killed by cold shock. BALD EAGLE 14-01-3171111BALD EAGLE 14-01-3171111LYME, CT Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) immature scavenging fish (Striped Bass) killed by cold shock.

It's been more than a month now since the fish kill and there are still plenty of dead fish for the taking. The well fed gulls continue their noisy feast and the number of Bald Eagles has grown to more than two dozen. Last week, after one of the snow storms I drove by the river early in the morning and counted at least 15 immature eagles roosting in a single stretch of woods, their dark shapes standing out against the snow covered branches. It was the kind of scene you'd expect to see in Alaska, not in Connecticut. Unfortunately, they were too far off for a good picture. There are also two adult eagles frequenting the area. 

Another interesting thing was that I kept seeing Red-shouldered Hawks perched out in the open in trees along the river bank, forsaking their normal woodland habitat. One morning I discovered that they, too, were taking full advantage of the all-you-can-eat seafood buffet. I watched a hawk spend nearly 45 minutes eating a fish on a gravel bar, completely stripping the carcass of flesh.

Nature can be pretty harsh, and the death of so many healthy young fish is sad to see. Hopefully the die-off won't seriously deplete the Striped Bass population in our waters. As cruel as it can be, though, nature also has a way of balancing things out, and the dead fish have turned a cold, harsh winter into a time of plenty for the many birds who have gathered at the Black Hall River.


]]> (Bob MacDonnell Photography) Bald Eagle Black Hall River Connecticut bird photography Connecticut birding Connecticut birds Striped Bass bird photography cold shock die-off fish kill wildlife photography Sun, 09 Feb 2014 21:50:26 GMT
A SNOWY WINTER - PART 2 (The Show Must Go On) Once the novelty of this record setting Snowy Owl invasion into the region started to subside, and the owls settled into spots where they could be found consistently, the real fun started. Having the Snowies around and in reliable locations for a good part of the winter has not only created many more photo possibilities than any other year I remember, but also allowed a lot more opportunity to watch them in action and get a better sense of their behavior. I think that knowing your subjects well is one of the most important factors in improving a wildlife photographer's results, and believe my own experience bears this out.

Many photographers ask me about my camera equipment, and I get the sense that some think that having the newest and best equipment will automatically make them better photographers. I was already a working photographer with professional gear when I started photographing birds (my first official bird picture, at left, was a Short-eared Owl), but many of my early attempts were pretty bad. That my results have improved over time, I think, has more to do with an increased knowledge of birds rather than the level of equipment I use, which has stayed relatively consistent. Think of any other trade or skill, like a carpenter or musician. Buying the best tools or an expensive instrument wont instantly make you better at it, it takes time and practice and a good knowledge your subject. So having a chance to study and learn about a bird, especially one as uncommon and beautiful as a Snowy Owl, is a rare opportunity and is one not to be missed.

The closest area to me where Snowy Owls have been seen regularly is Great Island in Old Lyme, and since it's only ten minutes from home I check there often. The first owl was found there just before Thanksgiving by Old Lyme birder Hank Golet. For a few days birders saw it there, occasionally being harassed by a resident pair of Peregrines, before it disappeared. Hank later spotted one in Old Saybrook on the breakwater near the Saybrook Point Lighthouse. That spot is only a short flight from Great Island, and by Christmas he reported one back on the island.

OLD LYME, CT Birders gather at sunset at the Great Island Boat Launch to look for a Snowy Owl that spent a good part of the winter on Great Island. The owl routinely became active at sunset and could often be seen flying between Osprey nest platforms. Late one afternoon as I drove down to the Great Island boat launch I was surprised to find the small parking lot full of cars and at nearly a dozen people on the viewing platform. Hank had his scope trained on the Snowy Owl on the far side of the island and the people took turns looking at, their excitement obvious. Soon anther was spotted on the near side of the island, across from Griswold Point, offering much closer views. The crowd was exuberant, especially when the sun began to set and the owls began to stir, flying between the Osprey nesting platforms. A family with young children arrived, hoping to watch the sunset, and wondered what the attraction was. They were obviously not birders, but seemed genuinely gleeful to see the owl show. The crowd was then treated to a spectacular view as the owls flew north on the island, the closer one passing right by the platform in the dusky pink sky.

OLD LYME, CT Birders gather at sunset at the Great Island Boat Launch to look for a Snowy Owl that spent a good part of the winter on Great Island. The owl routinely became active at sunset and could often be seen flying between Osprey nest platforms. SNOWY OWL 14-01-0770458SNOWY OWL 14-01-0770458OLD LYME, CT Birders gather at the Smith Neck Boat Launch along the Connecticut River to look for Snowy Owls (Nyctea scandiaca) on Great Island during the Snowy Owl irruption winter of 2013-14.










The afternoon owl show at Great Island became an almost nightly event, although one of the owls quickly moved on. Modest crowds would attend in nice weather and usually just a few diehards when the frigid cold arrived. Most nights the owl could be found near the beach on the opposite side of the island, and would begin flying up to the platforms around sunset like clockwork. Once or twice I saw it out on Griswold Point , but only when duck hunters and dog walkers were not present. Because the owl was so far away, it was not worth taking pictures. Occasionally, a Short-eared Owl made an appearance there, especially during the cold spells. It seemed to hunt the area closer to the boat launch, away from the area where the Snowy was, where I was able to get some pictures of it one day.  

SE OWL 14-01-1370705SE OWL 14-01-1370705OLD LYME, CT Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus). Since getting good pictures of the Snowy Owl at Great Island was unlikely, I had to travel a bit to find locations where they were more accessible. The beaches of Long Island were the most promising. As I wrote in my previous post, I went there one day with a friend and we saw five owls in the dunes, but there were also lots of photographers there. I got plenty of pictures of the owls sitting on the dunes, and quite a few of them flying up and down the beach, the latter because some people were a little over zealous in their efforts to photograph the owls.

SNOWY OWL 13-12-2769298SNOWY OWL 13-12-2769298WANTAUGH, NY Snowy Owl(s) (Nyctea scandiaca) during irruption year, winter 2013-14. SNOWY OWL 13-12-2769172SNOWY OWL 13-12-2769172WANTAUGH, NY Snowy Owl(s) (Nyctea scandiaca) during irruption year, winter 2013-14.

I considered going back there when things quieted down a bit, and still may, but it's a long trip for me and I'd rather work areas closer to home. Snowies have been seen at Hammonasset, but the sightings are sporadic and usually pretty distant, as well. One bitterly cold and windy day I watched an owl as it slept on the roof of a pavilion near West Beach. I decided not to bother photographing it because of the location, but was amused to watch as it fended off repeated dives by a Merlin with raised wings. A couple other times I watched an owl out on the beach from the end of the Cedar Island Trail, but it was too far for photographs. On those occasions, I had to leave just when the owl started to stir in the late afternoon because the park was closing (one of the big drawbacks to Connecticut parks).

SNOWY OWL 13-12-2269415SNOWY OWL 13-12-2269415STRATFORD, CT Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) during irruption year, winter 2013-14. SNOWY OWL 13-12-2269458SNOWY OWL 13-12-2269458STRATFORD, CT Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) during irruption year, winter 2013-14.













Many of the best spots to see Snowy Owls in Connecticut are in the western half of the state.  At Long Beach in December I was able to get some pictures of an owl perching on different trees, along with some shots of the mud covered owl from the last post. After visiting a couple spots in western Connecticut and several in Rhode Island, I decided to concentrate my efforts in our neighboring state since the opportunities seemed more plentiful and the distance for me to travel was about the same.

My usual route took me through Westerly, Charlestown and West Kingston in the morning and then Jamestown and Middletown in the afternoon. In November I was able to get some pictures of Snowy Owls at the Charlestown Breechway and at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Middletown. Later I saw them in Westerly, near Misquamicut Beach and at Beavertail State Park in Jamestown, but picture wise the best results were at Sachuest.

When they first arrived, the owls at Sachuest mostly stayed on the rocks near the southeastern shore of Aquidneck Island, where the refuge is located. There were as many as four Snowy Owls there. After several weeks some were reported near the parking area and visitor's center, hunting in the open fields in the early morning and late afternoon. Sachuest quickly became the best location for the owls.

SNOWY OWL 14-01-2070869BSNOWY OWL 14-01-2070869BMIDDLETOWN, RI Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) at Sachuest Point NWR during the irruption winter of 2013-14.










Some people were able to photograph owls near the parking lot with rabbits or other prey, although I was not so fortunate. One afternoon a Snowy hung out in the grass near the parking area, at times near a herd of deer, drawing big crowds of spectators. Just after the sun set, it flew out over the field adjacent to the parking lot and began hunting, hovering in place like a Rough-legged Hawk in the strong wind.

SNOWY OWL 14-01-2070856ASNOWY OWL 14-01-2070856AMIDDLETOWN, RI Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) at Sachuest Point NWR during the irruption winter of 2013-14.

SNOWY OWL 14-01-2070882SNOWY OWL 14-01-2070882MIDDLETOWN, RI Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) at Sachuest Point NWR during the irruption winter of 2013-14.










Another night, while leaving the refuge, I saw the silhouette of an owl on the dunes at Sachuest Beach. I was able to pull into the parking lot and watch and photograph as it prepared for its evening of hunting in the orange afterglow.

SNOWY OWL 14-01-1270699SNOWY OWL 14-01-1270699MIDDLETOWN, RI Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) on dunes at dusk.

One day I pulled into the parking lot at Sachuest Point in the mid-afternoon and got out of my car. I immediately spotted a tawny bird flying in the adjacent field which I thought was a Northern Harrier, which are common there, or Short-eared Owl. I grabbed my camera and started shooting the bird, which to my great surprise turned out to be a Barn Owl. 

I was able to get pictures as it worked its way through the upper fields near the parking area and down to the capped landfill, then back to the top. For nearly an hour it hunted, diving to the ground for prey, and after a few minutes flying up to continue its search. BARN OWL 14-01-0970501BARN OWL 14-01-0970501MIDDLETOWN, RI Barn Owl (Tyto alba) hunting fields in late afternoon at Sachuest Point NWR.

BARN OWL 14-01-0970506BARN OWL 14-01-0970506MIDDLETOWN, RI Barn Owl (Tyto alba) hunting fields in late afternoon at Sachuest Point NWR. BARN OWL 14-01-0970533BARN OWL 14-01-0970533MIDDLETOWN, RI Barn Owl (Tyto alba) hunting fields in late afternoon at Sachuest Point NWR.

It turns out that the Barn Owl had been seen for a few days, although the word was slow to get out. It became a somewhat of a regular, coming out in the late afternoon most days, hunting near the parking lot. Soon the Barn Owl became as big an attraction as the Snowy Owls, drawing crowds of birders and photographers on a nightly basis, especially on weekends when the parking lot overflowed and dozens of birders and photographers lined the fences waiting for the owls to appear.

 I tried to visit at least once a week to take advantage of the opportunity. Talking to some of the local birders, I learned that another Barn Owl had been found dead earlier in the winter, apparently killed and eaten by a Snowy Owl. Every time I watched it, the Barn Owl seemed to hunt with an amazing success rate and little disturbance from the Snowy Owls or any other raptors, save for the occasional arial duel with a passing harrier. The refuge seemed to be a haven for birds of prey, and in addition to the Barn and Snowy Owls, there were several Northern Harriers, a Merlin, a Peregrine Falcon, a Coopers Hawk and a Red-tailed Hawk all frequenting the area.

PEREGRINE FALCON 14-01-0970560PEREGRINE FALCON 14-01-0970560MIDDLETOWN, RI Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) immature.


TROUBLE IN PARADISE - I recently had a free afternoon and decided to head to Sachuest Point, hoping for an encore performance. When I arrived there were a group of photographers in the parking lot, looking rather grim. I was told that two days earlier some one reported seeing the Barn Owl being attacked in mid-air by a Snowy Owl and knocked to the ground. When it tried to fly away it was chased and knocked to the ground again by a harrier, and had not been seen since. We waited for a while, and as the light faded without any sighting of the Barn Owl, so did our hopes of seeing it again. We walked around to other fields near the visitor's center, without luck, so I headed back to the parking lot. From there I saw a Snowy Owl in the lower fields take flight and make a bee line for the field that I just left. I tried to alert a few other photographers walking back from the field that the owl was headed their way. They turned to see it speeding across the field and saw the Barn Owl take flight from the grass heading towards a nearby stand of cedar trees where it apparently roosted by day, with the Snowy in hot pursuit. By the time I got around the visitor's center I could see a harrier diving into the cedars as the Barn Owl ducked into the lower branches for cover. The Snowy returned and perched atop one of the cedars while the harrier dove at it repeatedly. The Snowy Owl stayed perched on the cedar tree, as if lying in wait for the Barn Owl, flying out once to duel with another Snowy passing the area, then returning to its perch.


 It's unclear what has caused the the sudden change in harmony and the resulting drama. Back in the parking lot another photographer who stayed in the field showed us a distant picture he got of the Barn Owl sitting in the grass eating a mouse before the Snowy chased it. Everyone was happy to see it alive and still able to hunt, but for how long will the show go on?






]]> (Bob MacDonnell Photography) Barn Owl Connecticut bird photography Connecticut birding Connecticut birds Griswold Point Sachuest Point Barn Owl Sachuest Point Snowy Owl Snowy Owl Snowy Owl irruption bird photography owl Sachuest Point wildlife photography Sat, 01 Feb 2014 18:35:17 GMT
A SNOWY WINTER - PART 1 (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly) The winter of 2013-14 will be remembered as a very snowy winter in the Northeast, no matter how many storms we get and how many inches fall. It's been one of the greatest Snowy Owl irruption years in decades for the region. It's hard to determine just how many owls are here, but the numbers are unprecedented for the 20+ years that I've been birding.

THE GOOD - In Connecticut alone there have likely been at least a dozen different owls this year, mostly along the shoreline, although it's difficult to pin down because they may be moving around. There have been sightings from Groton to Greenwich with as many as four seen at one location in Stratford. In Rhode Island, it's a similar story and I've seen owls (in some cases multiple owls) in Westerly, Charlestown, South Kingstown, Jamestown and Middletown. In New York, there were five different Snowies on a single stretch of Long Island beach. And in Massachusetts birders have reported seeing eight different owls at one time on the North Shore. The most amazing report I've heard is from NewFoundland, where a researcher counted 75 in one location and more than 200 in a single day. Snowy Owls have been reported all the way down the eastern seaboard, as far south as Florida and Bermuda and into the midwest. The invasion is so impressive that EBird has a special section just for Snowy Owl information.

Having so many Snowy Owls around has made this an interesting and exciting winter for birders and photographers, myself included. With so many people getting out to see and photograph the Snowies there have been some other great finds, including some other cool owls. Here are my observations from this "snowy" winter.

The first Snowy Owls started showing up in southern New England a little before Thanksgiving. My first sighting of the season was a darkly barred immature female in Charlestown, RI on November 26th, and one was found in Connecticut the same day.

SNOWY OWL 13-11-2667147SNOWY OWL 13-11-2667147CHARLESTOWN, RI Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) first year bird during incursion year.

A few days later I went back to Charlestown and saw three Snowies at the end of East Beach, at times getting pushed around by fisherman and off-roaders who frequent the area. It seemed like more owls were showing up every day.

SNOWY OWL 13-11-2967986SNOWY OWL 13-11-2967986CHARLESTOWN, RI Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) immature from incursion year.

SNOWY OWL 13-11-2968039SNOWY OWL 13-11-2968039CHARLESTOWN, RI Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) immature from incursion year being disturbed by vehicle on beach. SNOWY OWL 13-11-2968054SNOWY OWL 13-11-2968054CHARLESTOWN, RI Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) immature from incursion year.

Later that afternoon I went to Sachuest Point NWR in Middletown, Rhode Island where at least two more Snowy Owls were seen. There were dozens of people constantly stopping to look at one of the owls perched on the rocky shoreline. The word was out and there were lot's of birders and photographers, but also many hikers who were just out for a walk who were excited to see a white owl. Most were happy to watch from a distance, but with so many people eager to see and photograph them, the pressure on the owls mounted. Around the Northeast the rift between birders and photographers ignited almost immediately.

MIDDLETOWN, RI Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) immature from incursion year.

 THE BAD -The birder vs. photographer battle has gone on for a long time, and owl sightings are almost always a fuse that ignites an explosion. Initial reaction by some birders that all the Snowy Owls here are starving, near death and unable to withstand any disturbance are often overblown, in my opinion. Surely, some of them are in desperate shape, and may not survive, but this is likely to be the case even without human disturbance. In nature, a large percentage of young birds, especially birds of prey, do not survive their first year. Human disturbance of any kind might compound this. Unfortunately, though, some of the criticism of photographers in particular (I use the term to include anyone with a camera) is justified. 

SNOWY OWL 13-12-2769189SNOWY OWL 13-12-2769189WANTAUGH, NY Snowy Owl(s) (Nyctea scandiaca) during irruption year, winter 2013-14.

The picture above, from Long Island, is not intended to imply improper behavior. The photographer is farther a way from the owls than it appears as the distance is compressed by using a telephoto lens. As a photographer, I have felt the disapproval of some birders for getting too close to birds for a picture. With 20 years of experience and a telephoto lens, I think I can judge how close to approach birds and other wildlife for the best results, both mine and theirs, although I can't say that I've never flushed an owl. This year I've seen a lot of photographers' actions with the Snowy Owls, some deliberate and some due to inexperience, that hurt our cause. These are only my opinions.

With the explosion of digital photography, there are now many more people interested in photographing birds and wildlife, and therefore a lot more chances for disturbance. Some are new to birding and/or photography, and may lack the experience and judgement to act appropriately. Others are experienced birders or photographers who may feel their knowledge justifies "aggressive" photography. Whatever the circumstances, here are a few examples of "bad" behavior by photographers I've seen this winter.

SNOWY OWL 13-12-2769098SNOWY OWL 13-12-2769098WANTAUGH, NY Snowy Owl(s) (Nyctea scandiaca) during irruption year, winter 2013-14. SNOWY OWL 13-12-2769164SNOWY OWL 13-12-2769164WANTAUGH, NY Snowy Owl(s) (Nyctea scandiaca) during irruption year, winter 2013-14.

The most annoying example was on the trip I made with a friend to Long Island last month. There were five Snowy Owls (two pictured above) on one stretch of beach, and many photographers with big and small lenses were there to photograph them. The owls were a bit skittish, likely because there were a lot of people around. Competing for subjects can be frustrating for photographers, especially when some are inconsiderate of the others. One photographer with a shorter telephoto (300mm) repeatedly approached the owls too closely, causing them to fly off. I got a bunch of flight shots of owls that this photographer flushed from their perches and towards me. And when the owls landed near other photographers, he would immediately walk directly towards them, almost racing to get there first, cutting in front the others in the process.  At first I thought he just didn't know what he was doing, but the more I watched, I believe he was doing it deliberately to get flight shots. Walking quickly toward the owls, raising his camera as he got close, ready to get them flying as he chased them away. Besides the obvious, that he had no concern for the birds, he also had no regard for the many other photographers there, either.

SNOWY OWL 13-12-2269442SNOWY OWL 13-12-2269442STRATFORD, CT Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) during irruption year, winter 2013-14. SNOWY OWL 13-12-2269512SNOWY OWL 13-12-2269512STRATFORD, CT Birder and photographers surround an unhealthy Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) during irruption year, winter 2013-14.

Another instance was in Stratford at Long Beach, where an unhealthy owl drew a crowd of spectators near the parking lot. This was the owl that I wrote about in my previous post that was all muddy. Although this owl did not fly off when several people approached it very closely, it was clearly disturbed when people began to walk all around it to photograph it from different angles. I'm not sure of the circumstances, but I believe someone in the group had contacted a rehabilitator (more than likely saving it's life) and were waiting for him to arrive. I'm sure their hearts were in the right place, and the picture is not intended to embarrass anyone, but surrounding an owl, or any wild bird or animal is likely to scare it.

SNOWY OWL 14-01-0970466SNOWY OWL 14-01-0970466JAMESTOWN, RI Birders and photographers gather around a Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) at Beavertail Lighthouse State Park during the Snowy Owl irruption winter of 2013-14.

Another example of this was at Beavertail State Park in Rhode Island where a group surrounded an owl on a utility pole, photographing it from all different directions. It flew off to a lower perch closer to me, and some in the group hurried past me towards it, one exclaiming that boreal birds had no fear of people, sending it flying off again, of course. With so many people hoping to see and photograph the owls there are some common sense guidelines (that I try to follow) that will work better for the owls and photographers, and invite less criticism from those with the scopes and binoculars.

1. Move slowly and quietly, and if possible, stay low.

2. In a group, stay and move together, don't spread out or surround the bird

3. Don't get "too close"- Individual birds may react differently, but start shooting from a safe distance and gradually move closer as it allows. Don't be afraid to crop your photos and be realistic, you're not likely to get a tight portrait with your IPhone, although I've seen people try.

4. If an owls is perched or lands in front of another photographer, let them at least get a few pictures before you start to approach. Ask to move in if possible, and approach slowly and quietly from directly behind the other photographer. Don't cut in front without asking. Trust me, you won't miss a mortgage payment because you didn't get that killer owl shot.

5. Don't deliberately flush an owl to get flight shots. Don't try to alarm or startle it to get it to move or open it's eyes. Be patient and let sleeping owls lie, they'll wake up when the light gets nice.

SNOWY OWL 13-12-2769213SNOWY OWL 13-12-2769213WANTAUGH, NY Snowy Owl(s) (Nyctea scandiaca) during irruption year, winter 2013-14. SNOWY OWL 13-12-2769314SNOWY OWL 13-12-2769314WANTAUGH, NY Snowy Owl(s) (Nyctea scandiaca) during irruption year, winter 2013-14.

Okay, enough about the bad. It really shouldn't that long because it's been a really good time.

THE UGLY - With so many Snowies around, I've hoped to get that great close up picture of a perfect specimen in a spectacular natural setting and beautiful light, but so far it hasn't all come together. I see a lot of incredible pictures other photographers have taken, and keep hoping I'll get my chance. Ugly doesn't describe the owls I've photographed, except maybe the dirty owl at Long Beach in Stratford. It has more to do with the places some of them choose to perch. Most of the owls I've seen in ugly places I have not bothered to photograph. These include buildings, rooftops, light poles and messy beaches. 

SNOWY OWL 13-12-2769138BSNOWY OWL 13-12-2769138BWANTAUGH, NY Snowy Owl(s) (Nyctea scandiaca) during irruption year, winter 2013-14.

The only real pretty spot I've photographed a Snowy is on the dunes in Long Island. The Rhode Island beaches are nice, Connecticut less so and I have not even been to Massachusetts or beyond to see them. Many of the owls I've found, though, have unfortunately chosen some of the ugliest spots available to hang out. In Westerly, Rhode Island a Snowy spent a whole afternoon perched on a makeshift drive-in movie screen in a dirt lot across the street from Misquamicut Beach, only moving when the wind caused it to lose balance and almost fall off. The owls blood stained feathers only added to the ugly scene, although I guess that meant it had eaten recently.

SNOWY OWL 13-12-2169566SNOWY OWL 13-12-2169566WESTERLY, RI A Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) perches on a dormant water park near Misquamicut Beach during irruption year, winter 2013-14. SNOWY OWL 13-12-2169548SNOWY OWL 13-12-2169548WESTERLY, RI A Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) perches on a dormant water park near Misquamicut Beach during irruption year, winter 2013-14.

As the sun lowered in the sky and the bird woke up, I was hoping it would fly across the road to the beach or dunes, but instead it dropped down to the adjacent lot and perched on ....... yes, a beautiful water slide. Hard to get a nice shot in this setting.

SNOWY OWL 13-12-2169557SNOWY OWL 13-12-2169557WESTERLY, RI A Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) perches on a dormant water park near Misquamicut Beach during irruption year, winter 2013-14. SNOWY OWL 13-12-2169575SNOWY OWL 13-12-2169575WESTERLY, RI A Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) perches on a dormant water park near Misquamicut Beach during irruption year, winter 2013-14.

As I mentioned earlier, an owl was perched in the open at Beavertail State Park atop a utility pole near the bathrooms. It eventually flew to a perch right next to the lighthouse. Unfortunately, it chose a utility pole with a big, ugly transformer. 

SNOWY OWL 14-01-0970469SNOWY OWL 14-01-0970469JAMESTOWN, RI A Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) perches on a utility pole at Beavertail Lighthouse State Park during the Snowy Owl irruption winter of 2013-14. SNOWY OWL 14-01-0970472SNOWY OWL 14-01-0970472JAMESTOWN, RI A Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) perches on a utility pole at Beavertail Lighthouse State Park during the Snowy Owl irruption winter of 2013-14.

Although I have taken more pictures of the owls this year than in any other year, I'm still looking for that truly spectacular shot. Despite not having the photographic success I'd hoped for, it's been nice to have so many chances just to watch Snowy Owls in action. Since they are sticking around for the long haul, it's great that so many people have had a chance to watch the owl show, as well. Please check back soon for Part Two of this Snowy Winter.





]]> (Bob MacDonnell Photography) Connecticut bird photography Connecticut birding Connecticut birds Owl Snowy Owl Snowy Owl irruption bird photography incursion invasion irruption wildlife photography Sun, 26 Jan 2014 16:20:20 GMT
IT'S A WRAP My Connecticut Big Year came to an end somewhat uneventfully. I came up well short of my goal of 300 state birds, but as I stated in the beginning, that might have been unrealistic. I ended with 238 different birds for the year, adding only Monk Parakeet in the final weeks. While my list fell short of the mark, it was certainly not a disappointing year in the field. 

The final two weeks of December are always a hectic time and getting outdoors often takes a back seat. I had a couple chances to get down to the western half of the state, where I don't often venture, and both trips were interesting. On December 16th, I decided to head to Stratford to try and photograph the many Snowy Owls being reported there with great frequency. It was a cloudy morning a couple days after a light snow and rain had fallen. As I was driving west through East Haven, I noticed the bare gray tree branches starting to glisten, encased in ice. As I passed through New Haven, the ice covered scenery turned spectacular as the sun broke through the clouds, and I decided to hop off the highway to try and  get some pictures of it.

CT WEST HAVEN 13-12-1669988CT WEST HAVEN 13-12-1669988WEST HAVEN, CT Winter ice - Sandy Point.

I headed to Sandy Point, in West Haven, where a Snowy Owl had been seen a few days earlier, hoping I might get to photograph one in the amazing ice show. I drove into the unplowed parking lot and my car barely cracked the crusty surface of the snow. I scanned the sparkling seascape with my binoculars, but didn't see any owls. I took a few scenic shots and decided to walk out to the point. The icy surface was a bit treacherous to walk on in places, as this picture of another walker demonstrated.

CT WEST HAVEN 13-12-1670047CT WEST HAVEN 13-12-1670047WEST HAVEN, CT Winter ice - Sandy Point.

Walking along the beach, I saw plenty of gulls, Brant in New Haven Harbor and a few smaller birds darting around in the ice covered dune vegetation. A small flock of Horned Larks were feeding on the few uncovered seed heads.

HORNED LARK 13-12-1669943HORNED LARK 13-12-1669943WEST HAVEN, CT Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) in winter.

A few sparrows including Song Sparrows and a pair of Ipswich Sparrows (one pictured below) also darted around the frozen weeds.

SAVANNAH SPARROW 13-12-1669917SAVANNAH SPARROW 13-12-1669917WEST HAVEN, CT Savannah Sparrow (Passercula sandwichensis) Ipswich race.

I walked well out on the point, but saw no owls. I ended up taking a lot of pictures of the glasslike, ice encrusted grasses.

CT WEST HAVEN 13-12-1669992CT WEST HAVEN 13-12-1669992WEST HAVEN, CT Winter ice - Sandy Point. CT WEST HAVEN 13-12-1670022CT WEST HAVEN 13-12-1670022WEST HAVEN, CT Winter ice - Sandy Point. CT WEST HAVEN 13-12-1669984CT WEST HAVEN 13-12-1669984WEST HAVEN, CT Winter ice - Sandy Point. CT WEST HAVEN 13-12-1670024CT WEST HAVEN 13-12-1670024WEST HAVEN, CT Winter ice - Sandy Point.

On the walk back to the parking lot another small bird popped briefly out of the grass. I couldn't identify it right away, so I followed it back down the beach a way, before it reappeared and revealed itself to be a late Palm Warbler.

PALM WARBLER 13-12-1669944PALM WARBLER 13-12-1669944WEST HAVEN, CT Palm Warbler (Dendroica palmarum) in winter.

I ended up spending half the day there so Stratford would have to wait for another day. A day later a pair of Rough-legged Hawks were spotted at Hammonasset Beach State Park, and I was able to see them a couple days later. I was hoping to get pictures of the dark phase, since I don't have any, but I only saw it at quite a distance. The light phase hawk also spent most of the time hunting well out in the marsh, often across the Hammonasset River. When I arrived first thing in the morning, however, it made a few passes along the edge of Willards Island allowing me a few photographs as it hovered, almost stationary, in the brisk wind, using its tail as a rudder.

RL HAWK 13-12-1969909RL HAWK 13-12-1969909MADISON, CT Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) immature light phase. RL HAWK 13-12-1969911RL HAWK 13-12-1969911MADISON, CT Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) immature light phase.

Just before Christmas I finally made it down to Stratford, stopping at Long Beach, where a number of Snowy Owls were being seen. As I was setting up my camera, a birder told me about a Glaucous Gull on the nearest breakwater. I took a few shots of it and started looking down the beach, where a Snowy Owl sat on the sand near the dunes just before the second jetty. I watched as a number of people walked past it along the waterline without disturbing it, so I started walking along the same path towards it, moving slowly and not looking directly at it. As I got closer the owl started to look alarmed so I stopped walking. It continued looking spooked so I looked behind me and saw a couple walking two large dogs along the dune line, directly towards the owl. It flew up and away, then banked and flew back toward me, gliding right over my head. I took a number of pictures of the flight but didn't have high hopes for them as I had a 2X teleconverter mounted on my 500mm lens, which I was hand holding (not the ideal setup for sharp photos!). Compounding the problem, the owl looked terrible, covered in mud on the belly, tail and wings.

SNOWY OWL 13-12-2269444SNOWY OWL 13-12-2269444STRATFORD, CT Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) during irruption year, winter 2013-14.

Surprisingly, I got a whole sequence of sharp photos of the owl .... SNOWY OWL 13-12-2269448SNOWY OWL 13-12-2269448STRATFORD, CT Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) during irruption year, winter 2013-14.

........ making the poor bird's tattered condition even more lamentable. I continued out on the beach where a photographer friend was shooting a second owl. This owl was cleaner looking and sitting up in a tree, although the clouds and fog made for a difficult photo situation. Occasionally, the sun would break through and light up the scene acceptably.

SNOWY OWL 13-12-2269458SNOWY OWL 13-12-2269458STRATFORD, CT Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) during irruption year, winter 2013-14.

As the clouds thickened, we headed back to the parking lot to go get lunch. As we were leaving we saw the dirty owl sitting on a fence surrounded by people photographing it from all angles. The owl looked uneasy, but did not fly off. It appeared that something was wrong with it. 

SNOWY OWL 13-12-2269534SNOWY OWL 13-12-2269534STRATFORD, CT Birder and photographers surround an unhealthy Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) during irruption year, winter 2013-14.

We went for lunch and returned to find the owl gone. We later found out that someone had called a rehabilitator who was able to pick the owl up and take it in for treatment. To end the day we went back to the first jetty to photograph the second cycle "Glaucous Gull".  After I looked at the few shots I took first thing, I decided it was an Iceland Gull, not a Glaucous. When we returned to it, we both thought it was a Glaucous Gull again despite the gray wing tips, based on size, head and bill shape and behavior. It turns out that this is the infamous gull that has been stirring debate among birders and gull experts for the past two winters. There's still no consensus on the gull's identity, but the prevailing thought is that it's a very large "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull. I have no expert opinion to add, only a few more pictures.

ICELAND GULL 13-12-2269815ICELAND GULL 13-12-2269815STRATFORD, CT Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) presumably second cycle Kumlien's or hybrid. ICELAND GULL 13-12-2269756ICELAND GULL 13-12-2269756STRATFORD, CT Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) presumably second cycle Kumlien's or hybrid.

ICELAND GULL 13-12-2269768ICELAND GULL 13-12-2269768STRATFORD, CT Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) presumably second cycle Kumlien's or hybrid. ICELAND GULL 13-12-2269791ICELAND GULL 13-12-2269791STRATFORD, CT Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) presumably second cycle Kumlien's or hybrid.

ICELAND GULL 13-12-2269797ICELAND GULL 13-12-2269797STRATFORD, CT Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) presumably second cycle Kumlien's or hybrid. ICELAND GULL 13-12-2269812ICELAND GULL 13-12-2269812STRATFORD, CT Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) presumably second cycle Kumlien's or hybrid.

ICELAND GULL 13-12-2269771ICELAND GULL 13-12-2269771STRATFORD, CT Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) presumably second cycle Kumlien's or hybrid. ICELAND GULL 13-12-2269763ICELAND GULL 13-12-2269763STRATFORD, CT Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) presumably second cycle Kumlien's or hybrid.

ICELAND GULL 13-12-2269802ICELAND GULL 13-12-2269802STRATFORD, CT Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) presumably second cycle Kumlien's or hybrid. ICELAND GULL 13-12-2269782ICELAND GULL 13-12-2269782STRATFORD, CT Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) presumably second cycle Kumlien's or hybrid.

The end of the year was pretty quiet, but there was a large flock of Starlings around at Hammonasset that I spent some time photographing. I marveled as the flock swirled through the west end of the park, changing directions on a dime in unison.

EUROPEAN STARLING 14-01-0470426EUROPEAN STARLING 14-01-0470426MADISON, CT European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) flock in winter.

 At one point they wheeled around in tight horizontal swirls, known as murmurations, before I noticed a Red-tailed Hawk flying west in the middle of the flock. The behavior is a defensive mechanism to confuse birds of prey with overwhelming numbers.

EUROPEAN STARLING 13-12-2469700EUROPEAN STARLING 13-12-2469700MADISON, CT European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) flock murmurations, a defensive behavior designed to confuse attacking birds of prey.

I was reviewing those pictures in the camera back and when I looked up the Starlings convulsed into a vertical comma shape. I quickly aimed the camera at the distant shape and fired off a number of frames. When I stopped shooting they were again in a long line spread out horizontally. As I reviewed these pictures discovered the cause of the gyrations, a stooping attack from above by a Peregrine Falcon that I had not even seen.

EUROPEAN STARLING 13-12-2469703EUROPEAN STARLING 13-12-2469703MADISON, CT European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) flock murmurations, a defensive behavior designed to confuse attacking birds of prey. EUROPEAN STARLING 13-12-2469706EUROPEAN STARLING 13-12-2469706MADISON, CT European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) flock murmurations, a defensive behavior designed to confuse attacking birds of prey.

Even common and unpopular birds like Starlings can make interesting subjects. As I wrap up 2013, I look back on the many exciting observations throughout the year. It kicked off with Crossbills and Razorbills last January and ended with a spectacular South American Fork-tailed Flycatcher and the biggest movement of Snowy Owls into New England in decades. Along the way, there were plenty of great opportunities to photograph birds, from the ordinary to the exotic, that made this venture worthwhile. I'm not disappointed that I didn't see anywhere near the number of different birds that I'd hoped to. For me, it's more about quality than quantity. It's a lot more satisfying to see and photograph birds up close, even the common ones, than to compile a big list. I'll continue to work on seeing more uncommon birds, and will continue this journal on a regular basis, writing about field observations and photography. Thanks to all who followed my blog this past year. 



]]> (Bob MacDonnell Photography) Connecticut bird photography Connecticut birding Connecticut birds Glaucous Gull Kumlien's Gull Rough-legged Hawk Sandy Point Snowy Owl bird photography ice murmurations snow starling murmurations wildlife photography winter Wed, 22 Jan 2014 21:37:19 GMT
MERRY CHRISTMAS NIANTIC, CT Northern Cardinal (Carduelis tristis) male.

]]> (Bob MacDonnell Photography) Wed, 25 Dec 2013 03:42:47 GMT
ONCE IN A LIFETIME ...... TWICE It would take a big attraction to draw the spotlight away from the Snowy Owls presently invading the state and region. Well, that's exactly what the Fork-tailed Flycatcher being seen for more than a week now at the Hadlyme Ferry Landing has done. It's as much about where it's from as it is the bird's stunningly long tail plumes that has birders from far and wide flocking to the tiny, potholed gravel lot. Three years ago, at about the same time of year, another Fork-tailed Flycatcher spent a few weeks in Greenwich, Connecticut. I don't usually chase rare birds that draw big crowds, especially to the opposite end of the state, but I made an exception for that bird. Since they are usually only found in Central and South America, I thought it would likely be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Who knew I would see another one a few years later fifteen minutes away from my home?

FT FLYCATCHER 13-12-0367791FT FLYCATCHER 13-12-0367791EAST HADDAM, CT Fork-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus savana) extralimital bird found in November.

The Hadlyme Ferry Landing would usually be pretty quiet this time of year, actually all of Hadlyme would. The ferry stopped running in November, and the road dead ends at the Connecticut River. But, on the three different visits I've made to see and photograph the bird, there have been at least a dozen birders and or photographers there, coming and going all the time, all day long. Even some local residents stopped by to see the star attraction that was drawing visitors from far and wide to their quiet community. I spoke to people who drove from Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania to see it. One resident thought it might even be an economic boom for the Hadlyme Country Store, where he had run into a number of birders here to see the wayward wanderer.

EAST HADDAM, CT Fork-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus savana) extralimital bird found in November. EAST HADDAM, CT Fork-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus savana) extralimital bird found in November.

I doubt anyone visiting went away disappointed, either. This bird is not a camera shy, and often sat perched in the open at various spots around the tiny parking lot and lawn, posing for the crowds. Given its behavior, and the amazing number of people with cameras, it's probably one of the most photographed birds in state history.  And it's not a bird you need to get that close to, either. On my second visit, while the crowd was at the far end of the little park looking for the bird, I waited near a tangle of vines in the middle that it frequented. As the bird flew in, I heard someone from behind me call out "there it is" and then "it's right over your head". The bird landed on a post right in front of me, too close to fit the whole tail in the frame. I took a couple shots and quickly tried to remove the teleconverter on my lens as the group from the far end closed the distance quickly. Just as I got the converter off and the camera back on, the pack closed in and the bird flew off.

FT FLYCATCHER 13-12-0367760FT FLYCATCHER 13-12-0367760EAST HADDAM, CT Fork-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus savana) extralimital bird found in November.

Fortunately, on my next visit I planned accordingly and was able to get the shot I'd missed days earlier.

It's strange to think that these birds, whose normal range is thousands of miles farther south, and whose diet is primarily insects could wind up in Connecticut, twice in three years, just as winter is about to get going. The theory is that instead of migrating south during spring in the southern hemisphere, one will occasionally head in the opposite direction, winding up more than 1000 miles to the north instead. As with the one in Greenwich, this one seems to be finding enough insects considering the time of year. It's also supplementing its diet with berries, like pokeberry, pictured below.

FT FLYCATCHER 13-12-0367771FT FLYCATCHER 13-12-0367771EAST HADDAM, CT Fork-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus savana) extralimital bird found in November with pokeberries, an occasional food source.

On one of the warmer afternoons, there were definitely some bugs buzzing around and the bird was flying out and snapping at them. I was hoping to get pictures of the bird in flight, especially flycatching. Taking my camera off the tripod, I trained it on the bird as it perched in the branches and tried to anticipate which direction it would fly out. All I got were some tired arms from handholding the camera and a few marginal flight shots for the effort, but it was fun to watch. I only hope the bird has the sense to head south before winter really sets in.

FT FLYCATCHER 13-12-0367817FT FLYCATCHER 13-12-0367817EAST HADDAM, CT Fork-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus savana) extralimital bird found in November. EAST HADDAM, CT Fork-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus savana) extralimital bird found in November.

The Snowy Owls in Connecticut didn't completely take a back seat. Most of the sightings lately have been in the southwestern part of the state, but there have been a few reported from Hammonasset Beach State Park, in Madison, as well. I was able to photograph one there last week on the jetty at Meig's Point, along with a whole group of photographers.

SNOWY OWL 13-12-0268098SNOWY OWL 13-12-0268098MADISON, CT Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) from incursion year.

This one was a lightly barred bird that sat calmly on the rocks, allowing a group of photographers to shoot from the beach at a respectful distance. I used two teleconverters, a 1.4x and a 2x, stacked together to get tighter shots while it sat quietly. As it started to stretch and preen, I took the 2x off in case the bird flew. The time stamps on my pictures show that I was there for more than 15 minutes before the bird took flight, and many were there long before I arrived. I don't think anyone moved any closer to the owl the entire time I was there. Over the weekend, another was spotted off Cedar Island and there were dozens of people out there looking for it. There were also an amazing number of photographers toting big lenses, and it's fascinating for the few of us "old timers" to see how many more people there are now that share our craft.

At Hammonasset, I saw the Clay-colored Sparrows reported in the campground, mixed in with a big flock of juncos. While looking for them, I also saw a Pine Warbler and a Blue-headed Vireo.

MADISON, CT Clay-colored Sparrow (Spizella pallida) - fall migration in November. MADISON, CT Pine Warbler (Dendroica pinus) late in fall migration in November.

So far, the female King Eider at Harkness State Park, in Waterford has eluded me on two occasions, but I did see a flock of 17 Purple Sandpipers there while looking for it.

MADISON, CT Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius) late in fall migration in November. WATERFORD, CT Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima).

I added three new birds in the past week, including Clay-colored Sparrows, Snowy Owl and Fork-tailed Flycatcher, bringing my year total in Connecticut to 236. 




]]> (Bob MacDonnell Photography) Connecticut bird photography Connecticut birding Connecticut birds Fork-tailed Flycatcher Hadlyme Snowy Owl bird photography wildlife photography Tue, 10 Dec 2013 05:16:16 GMT
FOWLS AND OWLS (AND FOULS) What's the old saying about weather in New England? .... if you don't like it wait a few minutes. Well, you can add birding to that, too. Okay, make it a few days instead of minutes. After struggling to find much to see and photograph a week ago, this week the feathers were flying and the pixels burning. It started unwittingly last Monday, at Hammonasset, scrounging a few pictures of the usual winter denizens, small flocks of Horned Larks scattered around feeding in the grass and gravel lots, joined by five or six Lapland Longspurs. 

I was about to give up for the day when I saw that Keith Mueller reported a Greater White-fronted Goose in Durham. I decided to take a look since it was nearby and I haven't seen one this year. When I arrived there were about 100 Canada Geese tightly packed in the back end of the pond. Scanning the flock, I saw a few female Common Mergansers, Ruddy Ducks and Mallards, but no GWFG. I kept looking for 45 minutes as the Canadas slowly broke their tight formation and drifted towards the center of the pond, and a few made their way to the near edge of the pond. There were plenty of smaller Canada Geese of different races to look through, although none appeared to be Cackling Geese. Finally, I spotted a tiny goose in the center of the pond with its back to me. When it turned around, there was the GWFG. Eventually it joined the Canada Geese at the near end of the pond, then waddled out right in front of me and started feeding in the grass field.

As I was heading home I saw a Barred Owl perched low in a tree at the edge of the road in Old Lyme. It was mid-afternoon and it appeared to be hunting. I was able to take a bunch of pictures from my car window without it flying off.

OLD LYME, CT Barred Owl (Strix varia).

Since I was on a roll, I stopped at the Great Island boat launch to look for owls. I try to check there at sunset for Short-eared Owls flying over the island, but have not seen any there in a few years. With the influx of Snowy Owls to the region the possibility was there for one of those, too, but the only thing I saw was a Northern Harrier.

On Tuesday I had to pick my daughter up from school in Boston. Hoping to avoid potential traffic, we decided she would take the commuter train to Attleboro, MA so I decided to check a few spots in Rhode Island on the way there. My first stop was the Charlestown Breechway, where the first thing I saw when got out of the car was a Snowy Owl on the dune across the channel.

I told a Rhode Island birder about it and asked about the protocol for posting owl locations in the state, because Rhode Island has a private bird list that I'm not a member of. He said that the policy is not to report owls and asked me not to post the sighting. After quick stops at Trustom Pond and Moonstone Beach I left for Attleboro. We got home after dark to find that we had avoided a 33 mile traffic jam on the Mass Pike leaving Boston and that Hank Golet found a Snowy Owl at Great Island. Later that night I saw that the Charlestown owl was posted on the RI ABA site that is rarely updated. I checked for the Snowy at Great Island in the rain early Wednesday morning but saw nothing.

After a great Thanksgiving, I headed out early Friday morning hoping to avoid anything related to Black Friday. Arriving in Charlestown as the sun rose, there were at least a dozen Common Loons at the mouth of the breechway. There were a few fisherman and their pickup trucks across the channel in the area I saw the owl Tuesday, and an owl was perched on the sand fence father down the beach (at far left, below).

  I thought there was another lighter owl farther down the beach, but it was too far to be sure. While I was watching across channel, another darkly barred first year owl flew down the beach from behind me and landed on the rocks fairly close to me.

This owl looked skinny and perched with its wings hanging awkwardly before flying across the channel to join the other owl in the area the fisherman had since departed. Although I never saw all at once, I believe there were three owls on East Beach near the breechway, two darkly barred ones (pictured together) and a lighter one (at right). 

Next, I headed to Sachuest Point NWR in Middletown, RI to join a friend who photographed one of the Snowy Owls there. The owl was still sitting on the rocks at the edge of the water and dozens of people at a time stopped to look at it from the trail above.

Nothing draws crowds of spectators, including birders, photographers and casual observers like Snowy Owls, a rock star among birds. This combination of crowds of people with a wide spectrum of experience and interests and spectacular, rare birds is a powder keg that invariably explodes. The owls are here because there is a food shortage in their normal range, and there have already been several venomous exchanges on the Massachusetts and Connecticut bird lists about people harassing them. It's silly to generalize, and blame groups of people for the behavior of a few, but it's also unrealistic to expect no human disturbance to these owls in such a crowded region as southern New England. 

While we were watching the Sachuest owl from the trail along with many others, I wondered aloud what the owl might be thinking about the crowd of people who just stared at it, not posing any apparent threat. Many were people just out for a walk with their families, and stopped to see what the attraction was. Some climbed on the rocks nearby, a common activity there, but were eager to steer clear of the owl when alerted by onlookers. But as I was setting up my camera before walking out to the owl, a young man approached and asked if I was going to photograph it. He was excited to show me the picture he got of the flying owl. "Does that mean it flew away?", I asked as he showed off the nearly full frame picture of the owl taking off from the rocks that he shot with his 70-200mm zoom lens. "It came back", he replied, but I'm sure the damage to the reputation of "photographers" was already done.

The situation in Charlestown is even more complex. It is an area that is frequented by fishermen, duck hunters, rabbit hunters, dog walkers and off road enthusiasts. Most of these people are just going about their usual routine, not intending to disturb the owls, but it's unavoidable. Fisherman fished from the breakwater, while the owl tolerated their presence from the rocks on the opposite side. But when a boat went through the channel the owl was flushed from a favored perch. 

Later, a jeep made it's way down the two mile stretch of beach, chasing the owls back to the east, directly towards me.

All these pictures were taken from a distance with a long lens, and some are cropped significantly. I got some unexpected chances and took advantage of some unintented disturbance of the owls, hopefully without committing any "fouls".  I hope the owls stick around for a while, but they might not if they can't find enough food or are continually harassed. It would be great to get some closer pictures but it might be better to wait until the novelty wears off, and some other rarity like a FORK-TAILED FLYCATCHER (.... next post) shows up and draws the crowds away from the owls.




]]> (Bob MacDonnell Photography) Connecticut birding Connecticut birds Rhode Island Birds Rhode Island Snowy Owl Snowy Owl Rhode Island Snowy Owls bird photography wildlife photography Mon, 02 Dec 2013 15:39:42 GMT
BERRY PICKING SEASON With fall migration winding down and winter on the way, this time of year can get pretty slow for bird photography. I just put my bird feeders out and have not set up any photo perches yet. Winter waterfowl are coming into the state, but with no ice yet, and lots of open water it's hard to get anywhere near close enough to photograph them. Many ducks are still molting into their breeding plumage and don't look their finest right now, anyway.  So with the potential for a slow period, finding good photo opportunities in this transitional time is always a blessing. While driving through Old Lyme last week, I saw an odd looking bird (it looked like a flycatcher) on the side of the road and I quickly stopped to check it out.  Naturally, it immediately flew into the roadside brush, never to be seen again. But as I was looking for it, I noticed a lot of birds flying back and forth to a lone standing bush well off the road. It was loaded with red berries, and birds were hopping all over it. BY7D8729BY7D8729

Grabbing my camera, I walked closer and saw that it was a Winterberry bush, and it was under attack. I set my camera up quickly and started shooting. The first birds I saw were American Robins, nearly a dozen at a time. They were feasting on the berries with little concern for my presence, reaching to grab a choice one, and gulping it down whole.

Soon I heard familiar high-pitched whistles, and a small flock of Cedar Waxwings descended on the bush, joining the robins at the all you can eat buffet.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker also joined in, hanging upside down while it fed.

Next to arrive were two pairs of Eastern Bluebirds, although the males kept to the other side of the bush.

Even a White-throated Sparrow sampled the berries, crushing them with it's beak to eat the inner parts.

I had to leave for the day, but came back a few days later to find the bush had a lot fewer berries. There were still lots of birds in the area, though this time they were more spread out. Walking down the street a way, I found a flock of Cedar Waxwings feeding on a crabapple tree nearby.

Finding a good food source is one of the best ways I've found to get close enough to birds to photograph them. In the late fall and into the winter, when insects become scarce, finding a good crop of berries like these can turn out to be a gold mine. It was puzzling that so many birds were eating Winterberry so early in the season. I've always thought that it's one of the last berries that birds eat, lasting late into the winter, but there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the birds' berry picking schedule.

In my yard there is a flowering dogwood that is a prolific berry producer. Every fall, a day arrives when birds decide that the berries are ready to eat. I try to watch it closely, hoping to photograph them, but there are years when I come home one day and the berries are gone, picked clean in a matter of hours. This usually occurs in November, and it's always the same birds, American Robins, European Starlings and the occasional Northern Flicker that eat the berries. NIANTIC, CT 11/5/09 Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) feeding on dogwood berries.

In 2012, the birds decided the berries were ready in early October, a month earlier than usual. The robins, starlings and flickers were all there, but because it was so early there were also some unexpected guests. These included Scarlet Tanagers, Swainson's Thrushes, Brown Thrashers and Gray Catbirds.  NIANTIC, CT Swainson's Thrush (Catharus ustulatus) eating dogwood berries during fall migration.

The truth is, I've photographed birds eating berries in all seasons. I also have a honeysuckle bush in my yard that draws the a crowd of birds, and for years I have photographed robins, catbirds and waxwings from my back deck as they swarm when the berries ripen in July. BERRY COMPBERRY COMPNIANTIC, CT American Robin (Turdus migratorius) eating Morrow's Honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowii) berries. The berries are eaten by several bird species, but are slightly poisonous to humans and other animals. Often referred to as bush honeysuckle, the plant originated in Asia and is now considered an invasive species in the U.S.

Even though these are common bird species, the bright red berries make for attractive pictures, the kind that calendar and magazine editors always seemed to like. One of my backyard berry pictures was chosen for a magazine cover years ago. BW COVERBW COVER

So it's a good idea to keep track of the trees and bushes in your neighborhood that produce berries that birds eat, because for birds and photographers, berry picking season can be quite a bounty.

Elsewhere, I was able to see three new birds this month, including Cave Swallows at Hammonasset, a beautiful drake Eurasian Wigeon found by Hank Golet in Old Saybrook and a Long-billed Dowitcher at Rocky Neck bringing my total to 233 this year, still way short of my goal.

The dowitcher was first reported two weeks ago, and after checking for it several times with no luck I had given up hope of seeing it. More than a week later, it reappeared, in the company of some Greater Yellowlegs and stayed until November 20th. Now if I could have the same luck with the Short-eared Owls I keep missing and a few of the Snowy Owls showing up in neighboring states can make there way into Connecticut it could be an interesting winter.

]]> (Bob MacDonnell Photography) Connecticut bird photography Connecticut birding Connecticut birds berries berry bird photography birds and Berries birds and berries wildlife photography Sat, 23 Nov 2013 01:11:50 GMT
AUTUMN COLOR It happened sometime last week, I woke up at the usual time and looked out the window, like every other morning. In the gray pre-dawn light I was greeted by wind driven rain, and barren black tree branches swaying wildly back and forth.  Instantly, a sad feeling came over me. Autumn was over.

Sure, the calender says it's fall for five more weeks, but at that moment it unofficially ended. It's not like you couldn't see it coming, the temperature was dropping, the crisp breeze had turned into a biting wind, and the gaudy foliage was fading to more somber hues with each passing day. When the sun went down the night before, though, there were still plenty of leaves on the trees, and the hope of another colorful autumn day. But overnight it all changed, it always seems to happen that way.

For as long as I can remember, fall has been my favorite time of year. No surprise really, autumn in New England is pretty spectacular. I've always liked the cooler weather, fall sports, apples, cider and just about everything else that goes with the season. As a photographer, the spectacular colors and softening light create seemingly limitless picture possibilities, as well. CT EAST HADDAM 13-10-1666752CT EAST HADDAM 13-10-1666752EAST HADDAM, CT Scenic vista - Devil's Hopyard in autumn.

Every autumn I spend many hours trying diligently to capture the color and beauty I see all around. The pictures always seem to fall a little flat, though, photographs rarely outshine nature itself, or images captured in the human eye and mind. But that doesn't keep me from trying, and the results aren't all bad.  CT LYME 13-10-0265475CT LYME 13-10-0265475LYME, CT Morning sun burns through the fog on a swamp near in autumn.

I'm usually most underwhelmed when I first go through the photos, because they don't live up to my memory of the scene. As time goes by and the mental images fade, the photographs tend to grow on me. Shooting fall foliage depends so much on the light. In order to capture the rich colors, I shoot mostly on overcast days, a holdover from the film days. That helps keep the colors saturated, but pictures can look dull and flat. It's harder to capture the brilliant colors on a crisp sunny autumn day, and I rarely shoot foliage in direct sunlight, although I do sometime like the results of backlighting, like the picture above. Another problem I have is, that despite the beautiful colors, editing foliage pictures is very laborious for me and takes away a lot of the fun of the capturing the beauty of the season. With stationary subjects, it's easy to take lots of different views, but I find it painstaking work to choose between them.

BLACK BIRCH 13-10-0466264BLACK BIRCH 13-10-0466264EAST HADDAM, CT In Devil's Hopyard State Park, an early successional stand of Black Birch trees (Betula lenta) has replaced the mature Eastern Hemlock forest devastated by an infestation of woolly adelgid. The fast growing birch trees grow in dense stands in the absence of the shading canopy of the hemlocks. BLACK BIRCH 13-10-0466282BLACK BIRCH 13-10-0466282EAST HADDAM, CT In Devil's Hopyard State Park, an early successional stand of Black Birch trees (Betula lenta) has replaced the mature Eastern Hemlock forest devastated by an infestation of woolly adelgid. The fast growing birch trees grow in dense stands in the absence of the shading canopy of the hemlocks. RED MAPLE 13-10-0465511RED MAPLE 13-10-0465511LYME, CT Red Maple (Acer rubrum) is also know as Swamp Maple because it is commonly found near swamps and wetlands. It is, however, one of the most common trees in the U.S. and will grow in a wide variety of habitats. It is easily distinguished by its deep red foliage in autumn. RED MAPLE 13-10-0465504RED MAPLE 13-10-0465504LYME, CT Red Maple (Acer rubrum) is also know as Swamp Maple because it is commonly found near swamps and wetlands. It is, however, one of the most common trees in the U.S. and will grow in a wide variety of habitats. It is easily distinguished by its deep red foliage in autumn.

I also like to vary my subjects. Trees and foliage are everywhere, but I like to find the equally colorful but less obvious plants, like Sumac and Virginia Creeper. One of those is plants is Glasswort, which grows in salt marshes and turns deep red in the fall. It really stands out to me and every year I shoot it, though I'm rarely happy with the results. This year I photographed a few nice patches of Glasswort and pushed the processing a bit to get the pictures below. The saturated colors in the photographs are a bit exaggerated, but that's how I remember seeing it.  GLASSWORT 13-10-0466295GLASSWORT 13-10-0466295MADISON, CT Glasswort (Salicornia rubra) is a succulent plant that grows in patches in salt marshes and turns brilliant red in the autumn. GLASSWORT 13-10-0466309GLASSWORT 13-10-0466309MADISON, CT Glasswort (Salicornia rubra) is a succulent plant that grows in patches in salt marshes and turns brilliant red in the autumn.

When I find a patch of Glasswort in a marsh, I keep checking it hoping to photograph a bird or animal walking through it, but it never seems to happen. This year I finally found a Great Egret that would feed in such a spot, and even though it was a little past peak, the red plants added a splash of color to the otherwise ordinary pictures. GREAT EGRET 13-10-1165675GREAT EGRET 13-10-1165675OLD LYME, CT Great Egret (Ardea alba) feeding in salt marsh. GREAT EGRET 13-10-1265973GREAT EGRET 13-10-1265973OLD LYME, CT Great Egret (Ardea alba) feeding in salt marsh. GREAT EGRET 13-10-1266015GREAT EGRET 13-10-1266015OLD LYME, CT Great Egret (Ardea alba) feeding in salt marsh.

Since taking an interest in birds, I've come to appreciate fall for yet another reason. With migration in full swing, the variety of birds in Connecticut is great. Whether it's a rare bird passing through the state or a common one found year round, photographing birds with a backdrop of brilliant fall foliage or even a hint of autumn color is always a bit special, and has resulted in some of my favorite pictures over the years. It's also easier and more enjoyable for me to work on pictures that capture the colors of the season, but also have an interesting subject as the focal point. FALL COMP 2FALL COMP 2

This fall I spent quite a few mornings working in the community gardens at Bauer Park in Madison. In past years I've photographed there in early September, because the flower gardens attract a good variety of butterflies. With reports of some uncommon birds being seen there this October, I stopped to see if I could get a look at them. I did get to see most of the better sightings in my fist couple visits, including Blue Grosbeak, Grasshopper, Vesper and Lincoln's Sparrows, but didn't get any good pictures of them. What kept me coming back was the colorful autumnal backdrop that had all kinds of picture potential. AM GOLDFINCH 13-10-2867054AM GOLDFINCH 13-10-2867054MADISON, CT American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) in autumn.

I have adopted "ride the hot hand" strategy for photography that has worked out many times over the years. When I find an area where I see good stuff, and get some good shots, I keep going back to it until it cools off. Sometimes these are pretty odd locations, like a stretch of a residential street that I drove through or a commuter parking lot. I may have never seen anything there before, and might never again, but for a week or two the area was hot spot. Bauer Park is a more likely spot, but when I started having some luck there, I kept going back. Most of the birds I photographed were common ones, plain looking goldfinches and sparrows that you could find anywhere. But, feeding on the sunflowers, overgrown weeds gone to seed and fading flowers in the garden, they seemed to capture the color of fall perfectly. AM GOLDFINCH 13-10-2066919AM GOLDFINCH 13-10-2066919MADISON, CT American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) in fall migration.

Savannah Sparrows were most plentiful, but their coloring and feather patterns are so variable that they always drew a long look. They also seemed to blend in perfectly with the autumn backdrop. SAVANNAH SPARROW 13-10-2566811ASAVANNAH SPARROW 13-10-2566811AMADISON, CT Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) in fall migration. SAVANNAH SPARROW 13-10-2566813ASAVANNAH SPARROW 13-10-2566813AMADISON, CT Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) in fall migration. SAVANNAH SPARROW 13-10-2566807SAVANNAH SPARROW 13-10-2566807MADISON, CT Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) in fall migration.

Among the most colorful birds there were Palm Warblers. They were not feeding on seeds at all, but hopping through the leftover vegetable plants looking for bugs. PALM WARBLER 13-10-2566974PALM WARBLER 13-10-2566974MADISON, CT Palm Warbler (Dendroica palmarum) in fall migration.

These Palm Warblers were the yellow eastern race birds that also seemed to match nicely with the fall color scheme. PALM WARBLER 13-10-2566982PALM WARBLER 13-10-2566982MADISON, CT Palm Warbler (Dendroica palmarum) in fall migration.

One day, from across the garden I kept seeing Eastern Bluebirds landing on the sunflowers. I moved closer, wondering if they were actually eating the sunflower seeds, too. As I got close enough, I could see that it wasn't the seeds they were after, but insects, like the spider caught by this male bluebird. EASTERN BLUEBIRD 13-10-2567031EASTERN BLUEBIRD 13-10-2567031MADISON, CT Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) male on sunflower.

Eventually, this hot spot cooled off, like they always do. And a couple weeks later, a rainy, windy morning brought this colorful season to an end for another year.

]]> (Bob MacDonnell Photography) Connecticut birding Connecticut birds autumn bird photography fall foliage wildlife photography Sun, 17 Nov 2013 19:53:40 GMT
FALL MIGRATION Like the spring, fall migration is usually a pretty interesting time of year, with lots of new birds, and maybe a few surprises to look forward to. The early part of the season was a bit lackluster, with shorebird and hawk migration falling a little flat.

Most years the fall migration kicks off in mid summer when the first shorebirds arrive from their nesting grounds farther north. I'm usually not in "migration mode" that early and still working on the resident birds until the end of August. This year was a bit strange, though, because there were very few of the expected terns gathering along the Connecticut shoreline. While looking for Roseate Terns, which I usually see by July, I noticed that it was hard to find any terns in the southeastern part of the state at the end of the summer.

Turning to other subjects, it was a good season for the many herons and egrets staging in local salt marshes. These aren't the most exciting subjects for me, but they are plentiful and can be fun to watch as they show off their various fishing techniques. At Rocky Neck, a young Green Heron used a stealthy approach, stalking its prey. GREEN HERON 13-09-2664996GREEN HERON 13-09-2664996NIANTIC, CT, CT Green Heron (Butorides virescens) first summer.

Great Egrets congregated in tight groups around productive pools in the Hammonasset salt marshes, spearing small fish in the flooded Spartina grass. GREAT EGRET 13-10-0965662GREAT EGRET 13-10-0965662MADISON, CT Great Egret(s) (Ardea alba) feeding in salt marsh.

Occasionally, the close quarters led to noisy outbursts as dominant birds battled for elbow room in the best locations. GREAT EGRET 13-10-0365586GREAT EGRET 13-10-0365586MADISON, CT Great Egret(s) (Ardea alba) feeding in salt marsh.

Immature Little Blue Herons usually joined them in the golden grass. LITTLE BLUE HERON 13-10-1166049LITTLE BLUE HERON 13-10-1166049MADISON, CT Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) immature feeding in salt marsh.

In Old Lyme, a Snowy Egret used a technique I have never seen before. Standing motionless in the shallow water, it seemed to be blowing bubbles or disturbing the surface of the water with its bill. It stayed in this position for more than ten minutes, stabbing into the water twice in the time I watched it, coming up with a small fish on both tries. I'm not sure if the tactic was designed to attract fish to the egret or to obscure the water surface so fish could not see the danger above. Either way, this patient method seemed far less productive than the more active stalking I'm used to seeing them do. SNOWY EGRET FISHSNOWY EGRET FISH

Much was made of the DEEP filling in the potholes in the parking areas at Hammonasset Beach State Park this summer. These holes would fill with rain water and attract shorebirds in fall migration. Well, rain was so scarce the past few months that there were very few puddles to be had, anyway. Shorebirds still pass through Connecticut, but the puddles create easily accessible spots to view and photograph the birds.  Without the puddles, birds stay farther out in the marshes, often hidden in the grass. Because of this, I saw and photographed fewer shorebirds this fall than in the past few years. Ironically, my best shorebird sighting of the fall was an Upland Sandpiper at Hammonasset that I photographed standing in one of the hydro seeded "filled in" areas. UPLAND SANDPIPER 13-09-1364734UPLAND SANDPIPER 13-09-1364734MADISON, CT Upland Sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda) in fall migration.

The same evening, there was a Short-billed Dowitcher in a tiny puddle a short distance from the Upland Sandpiper at the bottom of the Nature Center parking area. SB DOWITCHER 13-09-1364743SB DOWITCHER 13-09-1364743MADISON, CT Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus) in fall migration.

As the few puddles quickly dried up, the shorebirds were noticeably fewer (except for the dozens of Killdeer), although a couple American Golden Plovers stayed a few day feeding in the grass parking lots. This sharp looking juvenile seemed very tame, and as a friend and I lay on the ground photographing it one afternoon, it walked past us so close that we couldn't even focus on it. AM GOLDEN PLOVER 13-09-1564661AM GOLDEN PLOVER 13-09-1564661MADISON, CT American Golden Plover (Pluvialis dominica) juvenile in fall migration.

It turns out there was a plentiful food source in the grass that the plover was feasting on. Grubs. AM GOLDEN PLOVER 13-09-1564673AM GOLDEN PLOVER 13-09-1564673MADISON, CT American Golden Plover (Pluvialis dominica) juvenile in fall migration.

This plover stayed in the same area for a couple days, gorging itself on the plentiful bug banquet. American Golden Plovers breed in the high arctic and winter in central and southern South America. For a bird with one of the longest distance migrations, it's vitally important that they find these productive refueling stops along the way.  AM GOLDEN PLOVER 13-09-1564690AM GOLDEN PLOVER 13-09-1564690MADISON, CT American Golden Plover (Pluvialis dominica) juvenile in fall migration.

A week later an adult American Golden Plover stopped over for a couple days, this time in the west end of Hammonasset. AM GOLDEN PLOVER 13-09-1764714AM GOLDEN PLOVER 13-09-1764714MADISON, CT American Golden Plover (Pluvialis dominica) adult in fall migration.

Despite the lack of rain, it turned out that a decent variety of shorebirds could be found feeding in the dry grass lots at Hammo, including Pectoral Sandpipers. PECTORAL SANDPIPER 13-10-0866156PECTORAL SANDPIPER 13-10-0866156MADISON, CT Pectoral Sandpiper (Calidris melanotos) in fall migration.

A  juvenile (at left) and an adult White-rumped Sandpiper fed in the same area one day, allowing for easy comparative photos. MADISON, CT White-rumped Sandpiper (Calidris fusciollis) juvenile in fall migration.

In tidal pools and pannes, the typical peeps and yellowlegs were plentiful .....

...... but despite searching for it for two days, I missed seeing the Wilson's Phalarope that was hanging out with the yellowlegs at Hammonasset in September.

Hawk watchers in Connecticut have described the raptor migration this year as disappointing, too, at least through mid-October. The lower numbers, I assume, are the result of fewer than normal cold fronts that produce good hawk flights.  I've seen all the common migrants this fall, Kestrels, Merlins and Peregrine Falcons and Sharp-shinned and Coopers Hawks, but no unusual sightings. Getting pictures of hawks is always a challenge, but Cooper's Hawks put on a show this fall. The one below was chasing sparrows through the tall weeds at Bauer Park, and after coming up empty, popped up close by me to look for another potential meal.

One day at Hammonasset, there were at least three immature Coopers Hawks flying around the west end, playfully jousting with each other and a dozen or so crows. They seemed oblivious of the small group of birders and photographers gathered around to watch them play. MADISON, CT Coopers Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) immature(s) in fall migration being mobbed by American Crow(s) (Corvus brachyrhynchos) in fall migration.

Unfortunately, the beautiful morning light vanished as the sun disappeared behind clouds just in time to put a damper (at least from a visual perspective) on the frolic. MADISON, CT Coopers Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) immature(s) in fall migration being mobbed by American Crow(s) (Corvus brachyrhynchos) in fall migration.

I mentioned in my previous post that I didn't spend any time photographing migrating warblers at Bluff Point State Park this fall, and missed a lot of the warblers I usually see there. This year I tried some different locations for songbirds, seeing a much smaller variety of migrant warblers, but plenty of the common ones, especially Palms and Yellow-rumps.

Kinglets, both kinds, have been plentiful this fall, too. Golden-crowned Kinglets often feed by working through the outer branches of cedar trees and often will allow very close approach as they appear totally focused on their task. Despite this, the tiny, fast moving birds are difficult to get good pictures of as they flit from branch to branch, often leaving me with shots of blurry feet and tail feathers exiting the frame. Finally, this year I got a cooperative kinglet. After catching a (relatively) large moth, this Golden-crowned Kinglet moved to an open branch and spent at least a couple minutes in the same spot, working to dispatch it. My favorite picture shows the hairs and dust flying as the bird shook the moth violently to dislodge the wings. GC KINGLET 13-10-0966349GC KINGLET 13-10-0966349MADISON, CT Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) in fall migration eating moth.

I spent a lot of time this fall working in open and brushy areas. At Harkness Park I got a distant look at a molting Indigo Bunting and was able to see the Blue Grosbeak reported at Bauer Park on a couple different occasions. BEEGEESBEEGEES

Finding the grosbeak, at times, could be quite a challenge, as it fed in the tall weeds. This shot shows how well it blended in with the surroundings. BLUE GROSBEAK 2BLUE GROSBEAK 2

As October arrived I began to concentrate on the many species of sparrows in transit through the state, some on their way farther south, others arriving to spend the winter. These LBJ's (little brown jobs) are often overlooked (at least by me) so I decided to concentrate on them for a while this fall. It helped that some of the less common ones were being reported from areas close by, including Grasshopper, Lincoln's and Vesper Sparrows form Bauer Park, all of which I was able to find there. Despite carefully studying scores of Chipping Sparrows, I never turned up a Clay-colored. Below is a sample of the different sparrows I was able to see this fall.

The best sighting I've seen so far this fall was a handsome Lark Sparrow found by a birder in the Hammonasset camp ground. It was feeding in the open grass, in the company of a mixed flock of sparrows, including White-throated, White-crowned, Field, Song, Swamp, and a Vesper. LARK SPARROW 1LARK SPARROW 1

This mainly western species in a great example of the surprises that can show up in Connecticut during fall migration, and what makes it such an exciting time of year. Here's hoping there are a few more surprises to be found before the fall winds down.

]]> (Bob MacDonnell Photography) Connecticut bird photography Connecticut birding Connecticut birds bird photography migration wildlife photography Wed, 06 Nov 2013 15:02:14 GMT
IT'S BEEN A WHILE ... After falling way behind on editing pictures and updating my website, I decided to take a break from my weekly blog posts to catch up in those areas. With the weekly routine interrupted, four or five months have quickly passed and I'm trying to figure out where to begin again. For starters, I'll say that I'm way off target for my goal (lofty as it was) of 300 Connecticut birds this year. I'm currently at 230, and that's after some pretty good ones recently.  I'll be very lucky to hit 250, but really, I'm not terribly disappointed since I've had plenty to photograph this year. NASSAU CO., NY Black Skimmer(s) (Rynchops niger).

One reason for the shortfall is that a some of the expected, but more difficult to find birds that I have seen in specific locations near my home the past few years, I didn't see this year.  Among these are Virginia Rail, Least Bittern, Yellow-crowned Night Heron and Alder Flycatcher. It's pretty likely that I could have found them in other areas, but I decided not to chase them around the state (chalk it up to time constraints and high gas prices). A lackluster fall migration resulted in lower numbers of shorebirds, and I missed seeing Whimbrel, Red Knot and Buff-breasted and Stilt Sandpipers that usually are annual checks and Hudsonian and Marbled Godwit which are a little less regular. I also had bad luck and timing with some of the rarer birds, missing out on Pine Grosbeak, Wilson's Phalarope and a few others that I made the effort to see.

The main reason, by far, for missing out on many birds is the ever present conflict between birding and photographing. For example, I usually visit Bluff Point State Park in Groton several times each year during fall migration when the weather looks promising for the spectacular morning warbler flights. With thousands of birds pouring out of the woods, I'm usually focused on the lower branches for slow moving stragglers that I can photograph. I miss 90 percent of the sightings birders identify with fleeting glimpses as they fly past, but do see some nice birds that linger in the trees although I rarely get any great pictures. This year, I didn't visit Bluff Point at all, opting for greener photographic pastures instead. As a result, I missed seeing Philadelphia Vireo, Tennessee, Nashville and Wilson's Warbler that I see almost every year there. Below is a selection of photographs from past years at Bluff Point. GROTON, CT Philadelphia Vireo (Vireo philadelphicus) in fall migration.

So, on to the positives. I'll try to quickly recap of the first few missing months, starting where I left off. After the rush of spring migration, I usually turn my attention birds breeding in Connecticut, and spend a lot of time in the woods looking for bird nests. It's generally hard work since most birds do their best to keep their nests well hidden, but I usually find a handful each year. Of those, I'm lucky to find one or two that can be photographed without disturbing the nest or surrounding area too much. This is a delicate subject, but I try to be extremely careful and usually pass on any nest that can't be photographed from a distance and without disturbing the birds or the habitat. In March, it looked like my nest finding was off to a good start, when I found a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks building a conspicuous nest near the main road in a busy park.

RS HAWK 13-03-2861015RS HAWK 13-03-2861015NIANTIC, CT Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) at nest.

I usually don't photograph birds at their nest until they are feeding chicks, since the risk that they will stay away or abandon is smallest then. But after seeing many walkers staring at the vocal hawks and fearing that the heavy human and dog traffic might force them to move the nest, especially as the weather warmed, I decided to try to get a few shots one morning. I was able to find a fairly clear view from across the road and photographed the male hawk bringing sticks to the nest.  One trip it returned to the nest with a frog, then flew back into the woods with it a hundred feet or so and presented to the waiting female before mating with her. RS HAWK 13-03-2861006RS HAWK 13-03-2861006NIANTIC, CT Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) at nest.

I checked the nest each time I drove past but eventually stopped seeing the hawks there, although I could hear them somewhere near by. I should have guessed that the situation was too good to last. After the trees leafed out the nest was completely obscured by the foliage anyway. In June I found another Red-shouldered Hawk nest in Lyme in a much taller tree, and was only able to find a narrow window where two of the three chicks were visible. RS HAWK 13-05-3061622RS HAWK 13-05-3061622LYME, CT Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) chick(s) in nest.

It turned out that I didn't have too much luck finding nests this season, and didn't find a single songbird nest in the woods. I did find a few nests in open marsh areas including a Marsh Wren nest, a huge tube of woven reeds, that I decided I couldn't photograph without impact. I did photograph a Red-winged Blackbird nest in a cattail marsh. RW BLACKBIRD 13-05-2761748RW BLACKBIRD 13-05-2761748OLD LYME, CT Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoniceus) female at nest. RW BLACKBIRD 13-05-2761745RW BLACKBIRD 13-05-2761745OLD LYME, CT Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoniceus) female at nest.

... and a very low hanging Baltimore Oriole nest in a short tree growing in another marsh. While the nest looked very promising, the orioles always took a back door route into the nest, limiting the picture possibilities. BALTIMORE ORIOLE 13-06-17586BALTIMORE ORIOLE 13-06-17586EAST HADDAM, CT Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) at nest.

BALTIMORE ORIOLE 13-06-17615BALTIMORE ORIOLE 13-06-17615EAST HADDAM, CT Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) at nest.

BALTIMORE ORIOLE 13-06-17608BALTIMORE ORIOLE 13-06-17608EAST HADDAM, CT Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) at nest.

Looking to work on areas of different habitat, I went the northwestern part of the state looking for grassland birds, and was able to find some Bobolinks near their nesting area. BOBOLINK 13-06-0561979BOBOLINK 13-06-0561979BROOKFIELD, CT Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) male.

BOBOLINK 13-06-0561949BOBOLINK 13-06-0561949BROOKFIELD, CT Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) female.

BOBOLINK 13-06-0562024BOBOLINK 13-06-0562024BROOKFIELD, CT Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) male.

I also found Cliff Swallows flocking to the same small puddle to collect mud to build their nests under a nearby bridge. CLIFF SWALLOW 13-06-0562237CLIFF SWALLOW 13-06-0562237MONROE, CT Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) gathering mud for nests.

Most of the birds got along just fine,  but occasionally a skirmish broke out ..... CLIFF SWALLOW 13-06-0562239CLIFF SWALLOW 13-06-0562239MONROE, CT Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) gathering mud for nests.

..... resulting in swallow mud wrestling matches. CLIFF SWALLOW 13-06-0562142CLIFF SWALLOW 13-06-0562142MONROE, CT Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) gathering mud for nests.

Closer to home, I spent some time checking the shoreline for birds nesting in the salt marshes. It seemed that fewer Osprey nests had chicks this year, or were well behind their normal schedule. Many platforms were damaged by the hurricane last October, and I saw many Osprey still carrying sticks to their nest well into July. Perhaps that affected their nesting schedule this summer?  I saw a lot of Willets, often chasing around the marsh in noisy flocks, but did not see any chicks this year. WILLET 13-06-15421WILLET 13-06-15421GUILFORD, CT Willet (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus).

It was reported to be a down year in Connecticut for nesting terns, so I decided to visit a large skimmer and tern colony in Long Island. There were many American Oystercatchers, Black Skimmers and Common Terns still feeding chicks well into August and the beach goers, birds and birders all seem to get along pretty well there. BLACK SKIMMER 13-08-1164414BLACK SKIMMER 13-08-1164414NASSAU CO., NY Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger) at nest colony on Nickerson Beach.

BLACK SKIMMER 13-08-1164308BLACK SKIMMER 13-08-1164308NASSAU CO., NY Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger) with Atlantic Needlefish.

BLACK SKIMMER 13-08-1164149BLACK SKIMMER 13-08-1164149NASSAU CO., NY Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger) in territorial dispute at nesting colony. BLACK SKIMMER 13-08-1164239BLACK SKIMMER 13-08-1164239NASSAU CO., NY Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger).

COMMON TERN 13-08-1163849COMMON TERN 13-08-1163849NASSAU CO., NY Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) feeding fish to juvenile.

COMMON TERN 13-08-1163894COMMON TERN 13-08-1163894NASSAU CO., NY Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) juvenile.

juvenile Common Tern (above)

AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHER 13-08-1164463AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHER 13-08-1164463NASSAU CO., NY American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus).

AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHER 13-08-1164489AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHER 13-08-1164489NASSAU CO., NY American Oystercatcher(s) (Haematopus palliatus) adult, at left, with juvenile. American Oystercatcher adult (left) with juvenile.

So after wading through the thousands of pictures from the trip to Long Island and catching up on the stuff shot earlier in the summer, it was about time for fall migration to kick into full swing.


]]> (Bob MacDonnell Photography) Connecticut bird photographer Connecticut bird photography Connecticut birding Connecticut birds bird photography migration wildlife photography Fri, 01 Nov 2013 04:10:43 GMT
HIDDEN IDENTITY - PHOTO CHALLENGE      While going through thousands of images taken over the last month, I came across a bird that I could not identify.  It was photographed at Hammonasset Beach State Park on May 14. 

     It's an Empidonax flycatcher that I thought was a Willow Flycatcher when I saw it, perhaps because they are resident birds, commonly seen and heard there in the spring and summer. The problem is that it wasn't singing, and I was busy trying to photograph it so I didn't study the details (not that I would be confident identifying it based on sight alone anyway). After reviewing the following two marginal images, I'm not sure the bird was a Willow Flycatcher. 

The bird in the picture has a brighter and more prominent eye-ring than Willow Flycatchers are supposed to. Based on field guide descriptions of the eye-ring, head shape and wing projection, I think Acadian Flycatcher can be eliminated.  It looks a bit too elongated, with a longer bill than a Least Flycatcher, which leaves the Willow /Alder (virtually identical) Traill's Flycatcher conundrum. If anyone feels more confident calling it or has a better educated guess than I do, please let me know.

Here are some reference shots of the four species;ACADIAN FLYCATCHER 10-05-2824178

Acadian FlycatcherALDER FLYCATCHER 10-06-0324689

Alder FlycatcherLEAST FLYCATCHER 11-05-1336550

Least FlycatcherWILLOW FLYCATCHER 10-06-2625839B

Willow Flycatcher


]]> (Bob MacDonnell Photography) Sat, 25 May 2013 17:21:17 GMT
WEEKS 19 & 20 - MAKING HAY      I'm desperately trying to catch up on nearly two months of photos left clogging my computer, so the rainy weather this Memorial Day weekend is not all bad for me. With a steady stream of photography jobs this time of year, my kids, Maddy and Kyle, playing lacrosse (congats to Maddy and EL girls -ECC Champions) and so many birds (and other subjects) to shoot in a short window of time, something has to give. So the dreaded computer work gets left for last and starts to pile up, the tomato plants remain unplanted and my lawn is not looking its finest right now. But there's lot's to do and that's why it's such a GREAT time of year.

     Weather-wise, there has been little rain this month, until the last few days, so there's always a draw to go out and photograph, to make hay while the sun shines. As I wrote in my last post, there are plenty of summer residents to capture as they return and set up territories to nest in different habitats. But one of the big draws of this time of year is to catch the migrants passing through on their way farther north, especially if you're hoping to see as many different species as you can. For much of early May, the weather was not great for migrating birds and some birders were saying it was the worst spring migration they had seen. I had not seen many migrants in the woods around southeastern Connecticut either, but a break in the weather pattern (away from the easterly flow) opened the flood gates and migrant songbirds finally began pouring into the state. Most of the big sightings were from New Haven west, but on May 16 at Hammonasset Beach State Park, I finally caught a good fallout day. I recorded 61 different species in one morning including a dozen different kinds of warblers foraging in the trees on Willard's Island.

Many of these were migrants, passing through Connecticut on their way to nesting grounds in northern New England or Canada. Among them were many Northern Parulas (above), Blackburnian, Black-throated Blue, Canada, and Chestnut-sided Warblers. Most were foraging high in the trees, and were difficult to photograph, but it was great fun seeing so many different species and so much activity. As the morning wore on, some birds came down to feed in the lower cedar trees and provided a chance for some better photos. Most were Magnolia Warblers (2 below) that moved through the dense branches mercurially, and could pop out close by at any moment.

The trick was to be pointed in the right direction and prepared to get them before they flitted away to the next branch. The highlight of the morning was seeing the lone Bay-breasted Warbler (below) that was found. Spotted earlier in the morning by other birders, I saw it briefly in a cedar tree a while later, before it disappeared again. A short time later it was spotted again by Shirley and Charlie Rafford, as it worked its way methodically through a cedar branch along the pathway, and I was able to get a couple of record shots.

Along with the migrant warblers, there were the omnipresent Common Yellowthroats and Yellow Warblers (below).

In the Hammonasset salt marshes, Willow Flycatchers, Marsh Wrens, Seaside and Saltmarsh Sparrows returned to their nesting territories. I spent some time photographing the herons and egrets because I usually don't visit the park for the rest of the summer after Memorial Day. A Little Blue Heron (below) put on a show, preening and ruffling its feathers,

and then doing this weird gagging thing.

Nearby a Great Egret, patiently working a productive fishing spot, found itself repeatedly targeted by a Red-winged Blackbird. Perhaps it had strayed into the blackbird's nesting area.

     Another wading bird I wanted to see was the Cattle Egret spotted at the pond behind Cabela's in East Hartford. I missed the one seen in Portland earlier this spring. I drove up there early on a Saturday morning and could not find the egret. I went to look for Upland Sandpipers and Grasshopper Sparrows in the runway field, but before I could spot them the Cattle Egret flew in right past me and landed at the edge of the pond.  I got a few backlit shots of the striking bird before it flew to the back edge of the pond.

I went back and spent an hour searching the fields, seeing several Grasshopper Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks, a Bobolink and finally a distant and somewhat unsatisfying look at two Upland Sandpipers. The trip was a productive one though, as I saw four new species for the year. Before leaving, I stopped for one last look at the Cattle Egret and saw it emerge from the grass mound behind the pond with a vole, which it took a few minutes to gulp down.

     The rest of the last two weeks I have been working to capture as many of the resident birds as I can, visiting a variety of different habitats for different subjects. In a cool Hemlock stand, I photographed Black-throated Green Warblers, (2 below)

In deciduous woodlands, a brilliant Scarlet Tanager, and very vocal Red-eyed Vireos (2 below),

and Yellow-throated Vireos (2 below).

In brushy open areas, a White-eyed Vireo,

a Prairie Warbler Yellow Warbler,

and a Common Yellowthroat.

Also in brushy openings along two different woodland edges I saw cuckoos, Black-billed Cuckoos at Walden Preserve,

and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, at Hartman Park

both species near webs of tent caterpillars, which are apparently a favorite food source for cuckoos.

Also in similar habitat, I watched a female Baltimore Oriole gathering vine fibers for its nest,

and a Great-crested Flycatcher working along the woodland edge.

And along the edges of salt marshes, Willow Flycatchers returned, singing their distinct song and revealing their true identity (see my next post to find out why).

     And finally, while watching my son's lacrosse game last Saturday, one of the parents looked up and spotted a sun halo, formed by ice crystals in the atmosphere creating a reflected ring of light at 22 degrees around the sun, (thank you Mr Science!) and everyone's eyes and phone cameras were trained skyward. In keeping with my bird theme, I captured a crow (no, I don't know which kind) flying through it. Just making hay while the sun shines.

My sightings list is up to 210 species as of May 24, and I still have quite a few easy ones left.

]]> (Bob MacDonnell Photography) Connecticut birding Connecticut birds bird photography halo migration nesting spring sundog wildlife photography Sat, 25 May 2013 17:19:15 GMT