Marked transformations of the landscape and its inhabitants occur daily now in the upper Midwestern U.S., as the weather is warming up.  I took an early morning walk around the settlement ponds beyond the backyard and found quite a few changes since the week before.

backyard pond

early morning reflection in one of the ponds

The trees have leafed out, the grass is greening up nicely, and wildlife has again taken up residence there.

canada geese-

A pair of geese claimed one end of the pond as theirs — encouraging another pair to move away.

great egret-

A Great Egret fished along the shore…this is the first one I’ve seen so far this year.

great egret-

They seem to love dining on miniscule fish fry they find on the edges of the pond. The bird caught three in quick succession.

male wood duck-

Only male Wood Ducks patrolled the pond’s edges; perhaps the females are all sitting on eggs somewhere.

And of course, a symphony of Chorus Frogs added their music to the landscape.

western chorus-frog-calling

Indvidual tiny Boreal Chorus Frogs emit incredibly loud calls, and together with the other 100s in the pond, their “symphony” is deafening.

Each day brings new surprises — stay tuned for next week’s report on the pond.

at the mouth of the Rio Grande

Running an almost 2000 mile course from south-central Colorado to the beaches of Brownsville, Texas, the mighty Rio Grande river trickles into the Gulf of Mexico, much of its volume removed as irrigation water along its path.

The mouth of the Rio Grande near Brownsville, Texas

At the mouth of the Rio Grande, a thin slice of river on the far side of the sandbar separates Mexico and the U.S.

Brown Pelicans

Fish were so plentiful near the shore, the Brown Pelicans scooped them up while floating in ankle deep water.

Brown Pelicans

Brown Pelicans

Brown Pelicans

Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, and an assortment of gulls and terns tried to cash in on the feast as well.

Royal Tern

Beautiful Monterey Bay

Monterey Bay, Lovers Point

A variety of wildlife can be found on or near the rocks that line the shore of Monterey Bay in Pacific Grove, California.

Egret and cormorants in Monterey Bay

A Great Egret rested on top of the rock (in the middle of the previous photo), while three almost black Double-crested Cormorants also used the rock to dry off in between swims.  Judging from all the white guano accumulating on top of the rock, it must be a very popular resting spot.

Brown Pelican dynamic soar

Brown Pelicans skimmed the surface of the water, using the energy of the wave movement to push them up.

Harbor Seals restin o the beach at Monterey Bay

One beach is appropriately marked Harbor Seal beach, and what do you know, there they are, napping in the late afternoon sun.

Harbor Seals, Monterey Bay

Who knew these Harbor Seals had such variable coat colors? Young ones are darker furred, but the mature adults vary from white to light gray to brown, with varied spots and splotches of darker fur.

Harbor Seals are the most common pinniped in the northern hemisphere, returning to their favorite beaches to rest and breed.  This particular beach is part of the Hopkins marine reserve, fenced off to keep the public out, so the seals are quite often seen here.  I held the camera up over the fence, pointed down, and hoped for the best when I took this shot.

Harbor Seal by Andreas Trepte,

Large populations of Harbor Seals congregate along the California coast in the winter to breed. (Photo of the Harbor Seal by Andreas Trepte,

How can you tell this is a seal and not a sea lion, you might ask?  Seals do not have the outer ear pinna that sea lions have, and the rear flippers (legs) of seals point backward, while those of sea lions point forward.

One of these is not like the others

I counted 51 Great Egrets at the marsh early this morning.

great egrets and Great Blue Heron

There were so many egrets spread out over the marsh I couldn’t get them all in one shot with my telephoto lens. A couple of mallard ducks flew through the scene.

But then I noticed that one of these egrets looked a little different.

great egrets and Great Blue Heron

Sure enough there was a Great Blue Heron in the middle of this enormous flock of egrets.

great egrets and GBH

Kind of looks like the egrets are giving the heron a wide berth. It is a bigger bird, with a longer, sharp bill.

great egret and mallard duck

It was a beautiful morning for photographing bird statues.

down by the swamp…

With apologies to Raffi’s lyrics for Down by the Bay 

“Down by the swamp, where the water lilies bloom
I take my camera and my big zoom.
I edge up close, the birds won’t stay —
Did you ever see a duck, stand in the muck?

mallards at snail lake park

Ducks standing in the muck

Did you ever see a heron that didn’t like sharin’?

great egrets-snail lake park

Great Egrets (herons that don’t like sharin’)

Did you ever see a bird that didn’t say a word?

least flycatcher

a little bird that didn’t say a word (least flycatcher chasing bugs in the swamp)

Did you ever see a Snapper looking so dapper?

alligator snapping turtle

A dapper snapper sporting a coat of algae

Down by the swamp.”


Great Egret at Snail Lake Park

The little ditty above was inspired by this Great Egret who croaked and threatened every other egret that attempted to come into his foraging territory.

Great Egret at Snail Lake Park

Neck stretched ready for the attack. How can it possibly see what is swimming around in that murky water?

Great Egret at Snail Lake Park

Stab and grab …

Great Egret at Snail Lake Park

Success! I watched this bird for 30-40 minutes and never saw it miss, judging by the swallowing that followed the stab and grab move.

Great Egret at Snail Lake Park

Now here’s a different strategy, lean the head and neck way over to one side for better viewing of the prey in the water?

Great Egret at Snail Lake Park

That beak is a powerful weapon for all sizes of prey.  Usually birds cannot move their eyes around in the orbit like humans can, so how does this bird see what is swimming around beneath it while its eyes are projecting forward?

I don’t know what these egrets were catching, but they caught a lot of them.  According to a study done by H. Mincey in Georgia, Great Egrets catch something with 70% of their strikes, which makes this wait and strike strategy highly efficient. However, I was surprised to learn that the average size of prey taken by these birds was only 4-6 cm (1.5-2.5 in).  They must have to consume a huge number of such small items to meet their daily energy needs.

Like some other avian species, herons and egrets gather split visual field information from each eye. The upper part of the field provides a lateral monocular view of the landscape around the bird (useful for scanning for prey as well as other encroaching herons — or photographers), and the lower part of the visual field provides a binocular field of view of what is directly beneath the bird.  It’s like having four eyes instead of two! In tilting its head and neck to the side, the bird is probably using monocular vision to fix the position of the prey in the water while reducing glare from the angle of the sun on the water.

Coming in to roost

There is a Great Egret nightly roosting spot on a lake down the street from me that doesn’t seem to attract any visitors but me.  Each evening right at sunset, a stream of large, white egrets fly in to roost in one particular set of oak trees bordering the lake.

great white egret-flock

The egrets circle the roost a couple of times before gliding into roost in the tops of the trees. With the early evening sun behind me, their white shapes stand out against the sky.

great white egret-flock

Flying into the sun as they circle the lake, the white shapes turn to dark ones.

great white egret

Some fly right over my head as they glide in for a landing.

great white egret-roost

Birds land in one spot but may scramble around for a few minutes trying to find just the perfect spot to spend the night.  There are a lot of croaking vocalizations among the crew as they settle down.

great white egret-roost

Sometimes there are disagreements about whose spot it is.  Erect neck feathers indicate the state of agitation in these two birds, as they threaten each other with those sharp beaks.

great white egret-

It’s rare to find an egret roosting in the open, free of branches and leaves.

great white egret-

Even rarer to get a shot of one framed by the last remnants of the sunset.

With their breeding season completed, these birds will probably stick around for a few more weeks, fattening up on the local frogs and fish in nearby lakes, before heading south for the winter.  When I see flocks of egrets like this flying around, I realize the number of summer days is quickly coming to an end…

sunset in the hills

Just a 20 minute drive from where we are staying near downtown San Jose, CA takes you out in the country with great views of the oak savanna and the “wild” life there. Small ranchettes might harbor a variety of livestock, and on hiking into the hills, you might find a deer or two grazing at sunset.

pasture land near Calero Park

The pasture grass has long since dried up, and probably doesn’t have much nutrition. I’m sure livestock must be supplemented with alfalfa here.

california oak grassland cattle

A cow and calf are part of the larger herd that roams over the huge expanse of this ranch land.

It’s the contrast of the deep, olive green color of the oaks in the golden-colored grasslands that characterize the oak savannas of coastal California.  And the colors become even more intense in the orange glow of the sunset.

sunset in the Calero Park hills

Sunset colors really bring out the golden hues in the grasses.  A layer of fog had rolled in obscuring the hills in the distance, one of which houses the Lick Observatory.

Black-tailed Deer in Calero Park

I spotted three Columbia Black-tailed Deer (Mule Deer) on the next set of hills across a valley from me. This is a 100 mm shot.

Mule deer buck in Calero park hills

The buck watched me closely even though I must have been several hundred yards away. This was shot at 400 mm.  His antlers are still in velvet. Note the enormous ears of these mule deer, much larger than those of the White-tailed deer.

Sunset at Calero Park dam

I went down to the dam at this park and found an egret and a couple of ducks getting a last meal as the sun set.

Great Egret and Mallard ducks at sunset at Calero Dam

The sunset was beautifully reflected in the water behind the birds.

Flying away

The blog will be taking a vacation while we are traveling in southern Africa for the next few weeks.  If I find some internet availability there, I may be able to post a photo or two of our travels.  But there will be plenty of shots of exotic wildlife from the African backyard when I return.

In the meantime, enjoy a few of my favorite “flying away” photos of herons and egrets (the ones that are always flying away from me).

great egret flying

Just once — could they fly toward me instead of away from me?

great egret flying


great blue heron flying

great-blue-heron flying

Ciao for now…

The patient hunter

Nothing exemplifies patience better (in the bird world) than herons and egrets fishing.  On a recent morning walk at the marsh at Wood Lake nature center, I spied these statues along the shore.

great white egret fishing

I love the mirror image of this statuesque bird.  Unfortunately, I disturbed its hunting and it flew off.

If they are undisturbed by a photographer’s presence, they will stand, unmoving in a fixed stance, for minutes on end, patiently waiting for the unwary fish or invertebrate to swim by.

great blue heron fishing

I was so far away from this bird that it continued its imitation of a bird statue for 10 minutes while I stood there.

great blue heron fishing

An imperceptible lowering of the bird’s head must mean there is something interesting there, but another 5 minutes went by with the bird in this position with no action. I moved on.

green heron fishing

Further along the marsh shore I spied a juvenile Green Heron repositioning itself on a branch. It assumed the statue stance… while I hid behind a tree to capture what I hope would be some fishing action.

green heron fishing

Sure enough, within a minute of landing, the heron started into its attack stance.

green heron fishing

Another lesson in patience — holding a pose while upside down clinging to a branch. Waiting…waiting…(me with my finger on the shutter, I mean).

green heron fishing

The strike and grab happened in a blink. To make up for my slow trigger finger, I just pressed down on the shutter and rapidly clicked off multiple shots.

green heron fishing

It’s a tiny little fish, but every calorie taken in counts when you’re trying to put on fat to migrate.

green heron fishing

Toss that baby back in the throat, just like you would a much bigger fish.

green heron fishing

And now back to pose number one — the statue impression.

The patient hunter reaps a reward!  Herons and Egrets have an astounding 70% average success rate (# of captures/# of strikes) in both natural and man-made aquatic environments in the southeastern U.S*.  I assume it’s roughly the same up here in the northland.  Great Blue Herons were by far the most successful hunters in estuary habitat, racking up a 93% success rate there.  Great Egrets enjoyed their greatest success along rivers (94%).  Snowy Egrets were almost equally successful in a variety of aquatic habitats (65-75% success) but were not able to match the prey catching efficiency of their larger cousins.

*data from H.D. Mincey, 2006.  MS Thesis, Georgia Southern University.

Marsh birds

At the local marsh this morning, about 20 Great Egrets congregated around the edges of the shrinking pond of flooded wetland left after the abundance of June rain.  I wish I had been able to photograph the scene at 7:30 a.m. when I drove by, but went back with a camera an hour later.

snail lake marsh

Only a few Great Egrets remained from the earlier congregation.  The water level of the flooded wetland has gone down quite a bit, but is still attractive to the big waders.

great egret

Still water makes for nice reflections. Too bad I was so far away.

great egret flying over the marsh

One by one, all the egrets eventually took off, perturbed by my presence.

great blue heron

I didn’t spot the Great Blue Heron until it moved to a new spot. It was well camouflaged by the dead grass in which it was standing.

great blue heron

And, of course, it took off shortly after I spotted it.

The reddish leaves of the dead trees and brown color of the grasses that were in the flooded areas make it look like fall has arrived here already.  But recent cool mornings and evenings will probably start that chain reaction of leaf color change soon enough.  We hardly had summer weather this year.