“Marsh Hawk”, “Meadow Hawk” or however one’s local flavor might identify this beautiful raptor, the Northern Harrier is one of my favorite birds of prey to observe and can be a joyful challenge to photograph. “Hopewell Harry” was the nickname I chose for this young male harrier who entertained me during several visits to the Hopewell Area Recreation Complex near the borough of Stewartstown Pennsylvania. He became quite the subject of my attention during the afternoons while he hunted the grasslands of the project while I awaited the showing of my targeted subjects, the short-eared owls who wintered at this location. In fact, he seemed to have little fear and seemed to care less that I was present, as he would come very close at times during his exploration of the field looking for a tasty meal.
Located in York County Pennsylvania near the intersections of Plank Road and Althouse School Road, the Hopewell Area Recreation Complex (Map via Google) is a project of the York County Solid Waste Authority. This now closed and reclaimed landfill consists of approximately 200 acres that during 2006, and with an agreement with Hopewell Township, were developed into a public recreation complex that include multi-use fields, walking trails, a wildlife habitat area, tot and youth playgrounds, a picnic pavilion, information kiosks and two bird/wildlife viewing platforms. More than 122 species of birds have been documented at the site. The Authority provided the funds to build the facility and Hopewell Township is the facility operator.
The Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) can most often be seen flying low and gracefully above upland grassy fields or inland and coastal marshy areas, and primarily in search of food. Males, often addressed as the “Gray Ghost”, are a beautiful slate grey and white, while the females are a dark chocolate-brown with lighter, buffy streaking on the head and a buff-colored breast. Both the male and female Northern Harrier present a bright white rump patch that is clearly visible in flight. The harrier is considered one of the most agile and acrobatic in North America with the male’s elaborate courtship flights consisting of a series of U-shaped maneuvers.
Northern Harriers breed in North America from northern Alaska and Canada, south to central and southern California, Mexico and portions of the southern U. S., but exclude the southeast region of the country. Wintering occurs from southern Canada to northern South America. Communal flocks roost on the ground during winter and migratory periods in agricultural fields, abandoned fields and salt marshes. Breeding occurs in both freshwater and brackish marshes, tundra, fallow grasslands, meadows and cultivated fields.
Historically, populations of Northern Harriers were considered abundant and widespread. However, significant declines began in the 1950’s and were attributed to factors such as loss of breeding habitat and effects of pesticides. Reforestation, filling in of wetlands, changes in land use, changes in agricultural practices and urban and industrial development all contributed to habitat losses. (NY DEC)
Capturing images of the Northern Harrier’s flight will test even the most experienced avian photographer with their unpredictable and erratic patterns of flight, especially while hunting close to the ground. Today’s modern DSLR camera’s and fast lenses with blazing auto-focus speed make the job a bit easier for the aspiring “bird in flight” photographer such as myself. However, tall upland or marsh grasses, brush and other obstructions at the subject’s level can test a photographer’s knowledge of his camera’s auto-focus settings and capabilities.
The images presented here were some of the first “bird in flight” images captured with my new Canon EOS 7D Mark II paired with the Sigma 150-600 Sports lens and I’m extremely pleased with the performance of both compared to the performance of the same lens paired with my older Canon EOS 1D Mark IIN which was just “acceptable” for “bird in flight” photography; although paired with a fast-prime lens, that old body was once considered the flagship of its time…
“Happy Shooting” ……….
“The Chase is On”… It’s a constant game of tag with the eagles competing for fish..
Thanksgiving weekend 2012 was supposed to host the first annual “Wildlife South” fall outing at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge but a lady named “Sandy” put a damper into it. However, a few of us decided to meet and greet anyway with a beginning at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in the morning then with an hour and a half commute around lunch, finish the day at Maryland’s Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River to photograph the yearly gathering of Eagles who draw huge crowds of photographers, tourist and birders from the area and surrounding states. The “Dam Eagles” have become a pilgrimage for many.
“Big Guns for Big Birds” …. Photographers gather on the fishing deck, just below the dam to photograph the eagles.
Wildlife South is an online Nature and Travel magazine dedicated to the Mid Atlantic, Southeastern and South central United States for whom I am a writer and photojournalist covering the Mid Atlantic and Texas. I also co-moderate the photography forums along with Scott McWatty from South Carolina.
“The Catch” …. An Adult Bald Eagle with his catch of the day…
The morning at Bombay Hook was hampered by dense fog until we left for Conowingo so Photography was pretty much out of the question but I was joined by Steve Keller and Mark Shartle from Pennsylvania and Fred Hurteau from North Carolina. Another Wildlife South member, Randy Lawson was to meet us at Conowingo in the early afternoon. The lack of photography opportunities was not a misfortune since we had ample time to chat and enjoy the Great Horned Owl show shortly before sunrise in a nearby dead tree along the Raymond pool levee. We did hear the snow geese depart at sunrise but didn’t get a visual due to the lack of visibility from the fog. Bombay Hook was alive with migrants and winter residents and we did enjoy a bit of non photographic birding during our few hours there.
“Junior Got His” …. A juvenile Bald Eagle shortly after a successful catch…
Arriving at Conowingo around 1 pm I ran into friend and fellow photographer Eric Gerber who suggested the best shooting would be from the rocks just below the new Fisherman’s deck near the base of the dam. The power-plant was only running one generator and the birds would congregate for the best fishing photography in that area. So we gathered our gear and made our way from the parking area to this location and as luck would have it, Randy Lawson had already secured a spot. The action was a bit slow overall but we all had a wonderful time and ample photographic opportunities on the “White-headed Buzzards” that blessed our viewfinders.
“Lunch Time” …. An adult Bald Eagle enjoys his lunch in a tree above the parking lot while we photographers capture the image..
Even from a non-photographic viewpoint the Eagles are amazing to observe and can be enjoyed by all. The fishing action is fun but the best entertainment is watching the juveniles try to steal the “catch of the day” from adults proficient at fishing. They can get downright corny and very aggressive to the point of hilarity. It’s truly nature at it’s light-hearted finest for the onlooker but serious business for the bird with the fish. I’ve witnessed quite a few talons hooked together along with a spiraling dive into the drink for all concerned! The year before last I watched one bird float lifeless with the current for a good distance but then crawl up on an island shoreline to fully recuperate and fly back to the distant shoreline and join his brethren. There were no “spills and chills” on this trip but plenty of mid-air dog fights over “Charlie Tuna”. I bet the cormorants fishing the discharge were thinking they’d be glad when these guys go build a nest somewhere and leave them to the river and peace.
“Never a Dull Moment” …. Two juveniles harass and challenge an adult eagle for his catch..
The peak of the action will continue into mid December and finally winding down near the beginning of the New Year. So if you have the chance, make Conowingo a part of your “must visit” list….
Other birding and photography opportunities at the dam included a Pileated woodpecker frolicking in the trees just above the parking area along with a “goofy” group of Black Vultures gathered along the woods edge on the ground near the deck parking lot foraging for who knows what in the dirt. I stood about ten feet from them photographing their behavior and they could care less.
“Wings of Fury” …. A handsome juvenile eagle presents a photo opportunity from above .
For more information, visit our post on Wildlife South.
A Map for the Conowingo Dam can be found below
For the past five years, the coming of spring brought excitement and anticipation to the arrival of one of my favorite warblers to a location very close to my home. Many of you have heard me mention, or read about through my prior posts, loving references to the Hanover Watershed Wildlife Management Area which shares its acreage with both York County Pennsylvania and Carroll County Maryland along the Mason-Dixon Line. There is a special section of this area that sits on the Pennsylvania side just below the MD state line which was a clear-cut, freshly planted with pine seedlings along with a thorny and brushy under story that seemed to be a highly prized breeding habitat of the Prairie Warbler.
This area had been a prior favorite of mine for the Indigo Bunting and the numerous sparrows present. I kept hearing multiple symphonies’ of a rapidly ascending sweet trill including a “check note” that I just couldn’t quite put my finger on. I was at that time, still very new to birding and especially new world warblers.
This was also a familiar tune that I had heard near the scrubby and wooded areas of the Gettysburg National Battlefield during some of my visits, but I hadn’t laid eyes on this songster at neither location.
So I spent an evening listening to the song of every warbler on my iBird smart phone app until I put a name to the sound.
A few days later I returned to my little spot in the watershed to see if I cold get a visual and capture a few images of this beautiful woodland warbler. The area covers about 2,000 feet of length and 670 feet of width along a busy roadway running north-east. The location is posted so any observing or photography had to be done from the vehicle along the road shoulder and when the weather is dry, the grassy shoulder is suitable to get off the road completely and safely out of the way of traffic.
There is however, signs warning “No Parking”, but luckily the caretakers of the property know both me and my vehicle well and afford me tolerance for my undertakings. The entire watershed is posted and not open to the public with the exception of the hunting area on the Maryland side which is by permit only, so all birding must be done off the roadways; the majority of which are gravel with very light traffic.
I started my exploration at the southern most corner of the property and there I heard the first song of the Prairie that morning. I also knew what I was now looking for so spotting the bird was much easier and faster and his location gave me multiple opportunities for photography. It’s funny how they seemed not to be bothered by me sitting there quietly enjoying and capturing their presence. I must have heard, observed and photographed at least 6 or 7 birds along that stretch of road during the morning hours that day along with the one pictured right perched on the top of a pine sapling. And that didn’t include the other birds I had either heard or spotted farther into the property.
“Peek-A-Boo” with the Prairie Warbler
How some of our warblers get their names behooves me considering the Magnolia has noting to do with the magnolia tree and the Prairie doesn’t live in, or is associated with open prairies. The Prairie prefers scrubby areas, grown over brushy pastures, young pines and breeds in dry old clearings, edges of forest, and sandy Pine Barrens with undergrowth of scrub oaks, and notably on ends of slopes and ridges. Now that I come to think of it, I have heard this song over in the New Jersey Pinelands while photographing wild orchids at several of the bogs. Some of the permanent residents of this species in Florida prefer the coastal mangrove forests. It also takes a liking to power-line right-of-ways, Christmas tree farms and abandoned orchards.
“Lurking in the Shadows” A Prairie Warbler captured with the flash..
Interesting facts include that Prairie Warbler males typically return to the same breeding territory used in previous years. This species is monogamous and will typically find a new mate each year. The female might leave after a nesting attempt with one male and attempt to mate with another male; and then some males may also mate with multiple females in non-adjacent territories Pairing normally occurs approximately one week after the male returns to his territory with breeding occurring from mid May to Mid July.
“Birds and Blooms” …. What an appropriate image..
The Prairie warbler’s breeding range encompasses most of the eastern United States from eastern Texas, north through southern Missouri, northeast through southern New England, and south to northern Florida. There are also isolated populations north into Michigan which are listed as “endangered” and continue into southern Ontario. The non-breeding range is almost exclusively within the Caribbean islands, with a few birds holding a permanent residence within the extreme south-eastern US (Florida).
“King of the Thorns” no problem with his perch whatsoever…
The Prairie warbler will begin breeding within its first year and will breed annually throughout its lifespan average of 3.5 years to a maximum potential of 10.5 years. The female will normally lay a clutch of 3 to 5 eggs and though only one brood is typical, she may lay an additional clutch. Post-fledgling mortality in this species is very high, but mortality from post-fledge to independence is quite low at only 18%…
“Sing A Happy Song”…. After the “attentive” pose above, he let out a tune…
As with so many of our warbler species, the greatest threat is habitat loss caused by development and “clean” farming. Habitat is also critical within its winter range and much has been lost to wood cutting, agriculture and of course more development. Besides habitat loss, Wind Turbines along migration routes and feral cats have also taken a toll, especial with the latter in Florida. I can remember a trip to the 10,000 Islands Region (southwest coast) and the Florida Keys where I witnessed an abundance of feral cats. I counted almost two dozen at one motel we stayed at in Marathon. Hurricanes and children hunting with sling-shots is also a major threat in the Caribbean.
“Rear View” …. A nice over the shoulder pose
Another pair of serious threats to the Prairie Warbler, like many of the warbler family, is the Brown-headed cowbird which acts as a nest parasite to this species and can cause the female to leave the nest completely. Then finally predators such as snakes and corvids take their toll. In fact predators are responsible for about 80% of nesting failures… Like many of our New World Warblers and other songbirds, populations have been declining over the past years.
“Face to Face” with the Prairie Warbler …. What more could one ask for !
All of the images presented throughout this post were captured at the same location over the past few years. However, as I had mentioned before, this little jewel can be found almost anywhere in his suitable habitat. The population in my favorite spot has been declining somewhat as the planted pines continue to grow taller shading out the sun dependent brushy under story. But, I will look for them again this coming spring as I always do…
Happy Birding to All!
Avian Photography is truly a passion and I honestly have to say, of all the species I photograph, the colorful and tiny wood warbler has to be my favorite. The majority of my friends and peers much prefer the majestic “raptor” and owls as their subjects of choice. While I enjoy photographing those as well, and especially the rarest Accipiters and Buteos (Hawks) to my region; I find trying to follow the tiniest of bird with a long telephoto lens; where the word “still” is a total misnomer in and out of the tightest of natural cover, “the ultimate photographic challenge”. Then you add forever changing light, from one extreme to another, creating an exposure nightmare and adding a final touch to the feat.
A Michaux State Forest Black and White goes “Vogue” for the camera
This post will be the beginning of a series dedicated to the “Woodland Warbler” and contain the species I have been fortunate enough to photograph; and over time collect enough imagery to keep things interesting. Just photographing these birds is only half of the challenge whereas establishing the proper identification for each can be the difficult part. Spring and breeding season identifications can be as simple as just looking them up in reference materials such as a pocket guide-book or on a smart-phone app. Fall and migrating birds can create quite a bit of confusion with many species appearing similar, or with some completely changing in appearance. In some cases, one has to really pay attention to some very subtle differences between the “look-a-likes”… All in all, this is what keeps it fun and interesting.
Black and White warbler photographed deep within the
Rhododendrons of the Michaux State Forest in Pennsylvania.
One of my favorites, and one of the most prolific breeders to my region is the Black and White Warbler, which is the only member of the genus Mniotilta; which means “moss plucking” and refers to the bird’s habit of probing for insects. The Black and White warbler is also one of the first to arrive to the breeding grounds which includes from southern Canada south through the eastern U.S., and south to Florida. It winters along the Gulf Coast, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. I often see wintering populations during my Christmas trips home to the Texas Gulf Coast
“Just Hanging Around”
The Black and White warbler forages unlike any other of the warbler species, with the movements of crawling up and down tree trunks or under or over branches like the nuthatch. With the unusual long hind toe and claw on each foot that allows them to move securely on the surface of tree bark, they were once referred to as the Black and White Creeper. However, the Brown Creeper can only move up the tree whereas the Black and White warbler can climb or descend in any direction.
Black and White Creeper???
Black and White warblers breed in both purely deciduous and mixed deciduous-conifer forests with a preference to large mature trees with an under-story of smaller trees and shrubs. During the migration and winter, this warbler can be found in a variety of forest types as well as woodland borders, gardens, and coffee plantations.
An “Attentive Pose” by this Black and White Warbler
photographed in Dorchester County Maryland
During the spring and after they form a pair, the female will begin building the nest which is cup-shaped and is made of leaves and grasses. The nests are constructed on the ground and normally at the base of a tree or next to a fallen log and are usually well concealed under dead leaves or branches.
Once the nest is finished, the female will lay a clutch of 4 to 6 eggs which are white and with brown flecks in appearance. The incubation period consists of 10 to 12 days. The male will occasionally bring the female her meals during the incubation period. After the chicks hatch, both parents will assume the duties of feeding the young and defending the nest
“Belting Out a Tune”
The song of the Black and White Warbler is commonplace
in the Michaux State Forest of Pennsylvania
The chicks will normally fledge and leave the nest after 8 to 12 days, but will remain within their parent’s territory for 2 to 3 weeks before setting out on their own. Most Black and White warbler pairs will raise only one brood per year. However, some breeding pairs are able to raise two broods per summer. Black-and-white warblers are diurnal (active during the day) and all are migratory.
“Wee-see – Wee-see – Wee-see – Wee-see”
sings another Michaux Black and White Warbler
The Black and White Warbler is a fairly common bird of the forest with a present population of about 140,000,000 across their range. The species has a preference for large forested areas and one of the major threats facing them is forest fragmentation. Nest parasitism by cowbirds and as insectivores, pesticide poisoning is another major concern for this species… As a “nocturnal migrant”, Black-and-white Warblers are a frequent victim of collisions with glass, towers, and wind turbines.
A fall migrant grants me a sweet pose in my beloved and close to home,
Hanover Watershed Wildlife Management Area
At present, Black and White warblers are not threatened or endangered. However, they are protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act. May we keep the populations safe and happy!
The world of “Avian Photography” is filled with discovery, wonder and intrigue presenting a “never ending” learning environment as well as a sense of accomplishment after successfully pursuing and photographically capturing your subject…
Step one begins with research and careful study of your subject’s biology, preferred habitat, seasonal movements and daily habits; hunting, feeding, etc… Once you accomplish the preceding, it’s time to start looking! Although sometimes quite fickle, finding owls is not a difficult chore. Most are quite habitat oriented during select seasons or year round. Some are migratory and some are not.
Above, with an intense stare, a short-eared owl patrols the winter grasslands of Adams County, Pennsylvania in search of prey.
The Short- eared Owl, Asio flammeus, is a creature of our “open spaces”; including the prairie, meadows, tundra, moorlands, marshes, savanna, and scattered woodlands sharing the fore mentioned. Short eared owls can be found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.
Drawing a line from the southern border of New York state and tracing it west would mark the southern edge of their breeding range, however the Short- eared Owl is also one of a few species that seems to have benefited from strip-mining. It will occasionally nest on reclaimed and replanted mines south of its normal breeding range. Northern populations are believed to be highly migratory and nomadic; recently showing an increase of the owls at the edge and farther south of their normal breeding range especially during the winter months.
A Short-eared Owl carefully watches a Northern Harrier above violating his feeding territory on a brackish marsh near the Chesapeake Bay in the state of Maryland…
Finding the Short- eared Owl in the Mid-Atlantic region is again a task of locating suitable habitat along with applying a lot of patience while exploring each location. A lot of grief can be avoided by searching the local birding “List Serves” and/or using e-Bird’s vast mapping and sighting resources for recent sightings. But, even with all of the available information, sighting and photographing these birds can be “hit or miss” at your selected locations.
King of the Hill”….Variations on a Pose…
A Pennsylvania short-ear enjoys an elevated perch to keep an eye out for dinner.
You can spend hours watching for one to take flight and still not see an owl. As a photographer, things become even more critical, especially the available light and its angle. The optimum time of day to spot the short-eared owl is during the late afternoon hours until dusk, or an hour before sunrise and perhaps a couple of hours afterwards. However, it’s not unusual to see this species during the daylight hours “on the wing” over and hunting the grasslands and marshes. As I have learned over the years past, this normally nocturnal or early/late hunter may choose to perform his activities far earlier in the day and rest quietly during the normal feeding window.
Owl and raptor photography has somewhat become a “main-stay” for me during the winter months while my other feathered friends are on hiatus in the tropics. While I like to photograph wintering waterfowl as well, I normally always end my day with an owl outing during the final hours of daylight; and many times joining my good friend Larry Hitchens on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and what he calls his “Lower-Slower” Dorchester County. Larry’s knowledge of reputable locations, as well as the habits of these birds has been immensely helpful in my success with the short-ear and other owl species.
A short-ear patrols the Adams County grasslands in south-central Pennsylvania.
I will make an effort here to share a few notable locations to begin your short- ear experience. These areas normally see this species on a yearly basis, but it is still wise to use the links I provided above before heading out. I also noted that much of a successful outing can be “hit or miss” and almost based on the “luck of the draw” so frustration can be common place.
“Strike A Pose”
Freedom Township Grasslands, Adams County Pennsylvania
I will begin close to our home near Gettysburg Pennsylvania and travel south from the Freedom Township Grasslands (which I will cover shortly) along Bullfrog Road into Maryland’s Carroll County to the road’s end at Baumgardner Road. The field to the east, just before Baumgardner is productive year after year it seems and we enjoyed a pair of “shorties” there just this past weekend. A previous report sighted 3 at that location along with a pair of Northern Harriers and other raptors…… Map via Google
Freedom Township Grasslands…Traveling west from Business Route US 15 on Millerstown Road, through the Battlefield and after Millerstown becomes Pumping Station Road just past West Confederate Ave, and continuing will take you through the heart of the Freedom Township Grasslands to the intersection of Bullfrog Road previously mentioned. This road will also take you to the historic and “hallowed” Sachs Covered Bridge which is well worth a visit before waiting for the Short-ears to fly. All of the “flight” and snow images were captured in this area…. Map via Google
“The Capture”…. Freedom Township Grasslands, Adams County, Pennsylvania
On the “negative side”, last winter we found 7 short-eared owls in the field on the left just before the intersection of Pumping Station and Bullfrog Roads. However, this spring brought the plowing under of most of that field and the planting of corn which certainly will not benefit the owls and the other grassland species. “What was once supposed to be preserved”, is now falling victim to estate development and farming.
There still are substantial areas of grasslands available, but for how long is anyone’s guess! The same is happening to the Gettysburg Battlefield National Park. Just a couple of years back the park contained huge expanses of grasslands, especially along Business Route US 15. For visitors to the park with an eye for nature, these fields always held a few short-eared owls as well as many raptors. Meadowlarks and Bobolinks were also once abundant visitors.
These same fields today are now mostly farmland, which the Historical Society wanted to bring the area back into the Civil War era. However, I seriously doubt that today’s modern farm equipment and hybrid crops were used or planted during that period of our history! I’m also willing to guess that most visitors to the park would much rather see a rich natural environment with flora and fauna instead of commercial modern-day farming of which they can see on any highway across America.
“A Watchful Eye”
This short-eared owl keeps a careful watch of another patrolling his hunting grounds
There are several other locations to look for the short- ear, and where I have observed them in the past not too far from my home here in south-central Pennsylvania. Just above the Mason Dixon Line, and just above the town of Stewartstown, lies a reclaimed landfill planted in native grasses called the Hopewell Township Recreation Area. The area will occasionally host the Short- eared Owl as well as other grassland raptors and songbirds. Map via Google.
There are a series of trails that traverse the property and two nice viewing platforms have been added, one at the parking lot and the other mid-field. The area has become very popular with dog walkers and I’m not sure as to the impact on the wildlife.
Freedom Township Grasslands
Another notable location to find the short-eared owl, is the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, sharing acreage in both Lancaster and Lebanon Counties, Pennsylvania. Middle Creek is most frequently visited by waterfowl enthusiasts, especially in early March for its amazing population of migrating snow geese, but also holds a nice population of raptors and various owl species that patrol its surrounding grasslands. The owls are most prevalent along Kleinfeltersville Road, north of the Visitors Center through the rolling uplands. This is really the only access to the area during the winter months until the first of March when the tour road opens. Map via Google..
A Pennsylvania short- ear rests along a plowed farm lane upon a clump of snow
As I have previously mentioned, wide – open grasslands and wetlands compose the primary winter habitat for the Short – eared Owl. Traveling eastward to the coastal plains and marshes of Maryland and Delaware, present numerous opportunities to find this owl; in fact almost too many to mention. However, I will list a few of my favorites.
A Fishing Bay Short – eared Owl perches on a Trappers mark….
Larry’s beloved “Lower – Slower” Dorchester County in Maryland was my introduction to this owl species and still remains productive year after year. The Chesapeake Bay, Blackwater, Choptank and Nanticoke River wetlands are prime locations. Public lands like the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (Map via Google) and the Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area (Map via Google) provide plenty of access. The thing to remember about this area, is to find a “back-road” to explore during the late afternoon hours until sunset/dusk and keep an eye out for hunting owls.
A Fishing Bay short-ear takes a break from patrolling the wetlands
Traveling farther south via US Route 50 to Salisbury and then US Route 13 towards Virginia and the town of Princess Anne, the Deal Island Wildlife Management Area (Map via Google) offers back-road access to a vast wetland complex and notable sightings of the short-eared owl. This area is also very productive for wintering waterfowl. Again, I want to stress you doing a little research via the birding reports and eBird. You never quite know when one will be reported.
Finally, I will include the state of Delaware in my presentation and several popular locations to find the short-eared owl. Starting with the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge (Map via Google) and heading a short distance south to Port Mahon Road and then the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and of course, “parts in-between”.
I have observed this owl species at the Bombay Hook refuge on quite a few occasions during both the early morning and late evening hours flying out over the Delaware Bay marshes, adjacent to both the Shearness and Bear Swamp Pools. Most visitors have their eyes glued to the fauna occupying the fresh-water impoundments at the refuge and pay little attention to the open marshes to the east along the bay and miss the spectacle. So, on your next early or late visit, you just might want to make a little extra effort to be observant to the marsh.
Just a few miles to the north of the Bombay Hook refuge is the Woodland Beach Wildlife Management Area (Map via Google) and I have observed a short-ear patrolling the marsh from the observation tower a few years back so this might be a good spot to check out as well.
A Fishing Bay short-ear lands on a Trappers Mark
Traveling south from Bombay Hook along DE Route 9, you come to the town of Little Creek and Port Mahon Road, (Map via Google) which is a very popular route for those with an interest in shore-birds. This road is also very well known for wintering short-eared owls and sightings are reported on a yearly basis. Just be very careful when traveling this road as only half is paved and the rest is sand, shell and rocky rip-rap. You can easily damage tires if not paying attention to your route of travel. A favorite spot of mine to watch for the owls is from the elevated steps of the fishing pier.
A bit farther south of Port Mahon Road lies the Ted Harvey Conservation/Wildlife Management Area (Map via Google) and the Logan Tract of the Little Creek Wildlife Area at the end of DE Route 9, via Kitts Hummock Road; and then continuing south along DE Route 1, Bowers Beach Road contains favorable habitat near it’s end and the Delaware Bay.
Then finally, Broadkill Road, (Map via Google) ending at Broadkill Beach through the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge also contains suitable habitat and is certainly worth taking a gander…
Hopefully, all of the above areas mentioned will give ‘owling” fans a bit of reference and a few starting points to begin their adventures. Finding these birds is “game of chance” on most occasions, but can be a lot of fun and the rewards when successful are by far worth the effort..
Happy “Owling” Everyone!!!
Greater Snow Geese
Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania
hat could be more exhilarating for a lover of birds than the visual treat of tens of thousands of Snow Geese launching from their over-night roost during the early dawn hours in an exploding massive cloud of white and painted with a warm glow from the rising sun! And it’s not only a spectacle of sight, but sound as well, which at close range can be quite intense to the human ear. But it’s an experience of an audible magnitude that one will remember and cherish for the rest of their lives.
This “Blast-off” as many of us call it, can be the highlight of the day and an overwhelming experience for the avid waterfowl enthusiast. It only requires a journey to your favorite wildlife refuge or other location where these birds are present during the wee hours of the morning, and then arriving at or before nautical twilight, finding the birds, setting up and then patiently waiting for the event… Let’s not forget the stop en-route at your favorite local donut shop for coffee and those delectable sugary treats that so many of us simply cannot do with out.
For the waterfowl photographer, this extravaganza can often take place before he or she has suitable light to accomplish their craft. But today’s modern digital DSLR’s are capable of capturing images in very low light so opportunities are on the increase. However, all is not lost “missing the shot” as just experiencing the event itself is worth the trip, even with the camera sitting idle on the seat of your vehicle.
Weather can play a major role in the morning departure of these birds to their chosen feeding grounds as well as the distance they have to travel. I have seen them wait until well after sunrise to lift-off on numerous occasions, especially on foggy mornings.
Exodus with a “splash” of color….
The rising sun adds a warm reddish glow to this somewhat abstract composition of thousands of Greater Snow Geese “blasting off” from the Raymond Pool at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware.
Growing up along the Louisiana and upper Texas Coast, the first hint of a November chill would bring anticipation of the arrival of thousands of Lesser Snow Geese, White-fronted Geese (Speckle-bellies) and wintering ducks to the marshes and coastal prairies. During my younger years my excitement was more from a hunting perspective but as I grew older the visual enjoyment alone became equally exciting or perhaps even more so. I have long since put down the gun for the camera instead and enjoy observing and photographing life more than taking it for whatever the reason.
Waterfowl hunting had been a tradition among my family and friends; more so than deer or any other game. Hunting the Wild Turkey was a close second as far as a dedication and source of enjoyment, and I still enjoy that challenge to this day, although “Old Tom” will normally outsmart me on most occasions.
Just being out in the marsh long before sunrise, mucking around setting up decoys and then retiring to your blind or boat, sipping coffee and waiting for the first sound of “whistling wings” is an experience everyone should experience, even the non-hunting folks.
“Grey Skies – White Cloud”
A mid-morning “blast-off” near Willow Point at the Middle Creek Wildlife
Management Area in Lancaster County Pennsylvania.
Relocating to the Mid-Atlantic region to work for the National Geographic Society had presented numerous opportunities for new birding and wildlife adventures within a variety of habitats I had longed to explore for prolonged periods of time instead of just a “tourist glance” during some of my previous “quick” visits. As far as waterfowl and coastal birds, my move would be an introduction to new species I had desired to see in “real life” and not just photographs on the pages of reference materials. I was also pleased to find many of the species I consider “old friends” from the Gulf Coast, but dressed in brilliant breeding plumage’s instead of the dull colors of their winter attire we so commonly see in Texas and Louisiana and their wintering grounds.
Remembering the huge flocks of Lesser Snow Geese from the Texas coastal prairies, like the “Katy Prairie” west of Houston sparked an interest in what I could find within the region of my new home here in the Mid-Atlantic States. I knew the Greater Snow Goose was a huge draw for the waterfowl hunter as well as the waterfowl photographer and birding enthusiasts. So I began my exploration for this prolific species along the eastern shores of Maryland and Delaware east of the Chesapeake Bay and along the coastal reaches of the Delaware Bay.
A young Greater Snow Goose stands alongside the Wildlife Drive
at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware.
The coloration is prior to gaining the pure whites of the adult.
Agricultural areas are a big attraction for Snow Geese with the plentiful food sources of their favor and the Mid-Atlantic coastal region, like the Texas and Louisiana coastal prairies support farming as a major industry. The crop yield is a bit different with rice and grasses being the major draw in Texas and Louisiana while winter wheat and other various and numerous grains are prevalent within the Mid-Atlantic coastal areas.
Maryland and Delaware both host major National Wildlife Refuges that provide safe places for resting and roosting wintering geese, however Delaware seems to lead the two in sheer populations. Bombay Hook and Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuges are the stars of Delaware and both offer the waterfowl lover and photographer great opportunities to observe and photograph these birds at rest as well as the popular early morning “blast-off” from the roost on many occasions.
“Whats for Dinner?”
An adult pair of Greater Snow Geese probe the corn stubble for left-over morsels
near the Visitors Center at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
in Dorchester County, Maryland
Bombay Hook NWR seems to have lost the draw of many of the roosting birds since a political lawsuit took the on-site farming away and the geese lost a safe place to feed and graze before retiring for the night. The loss of the farming is a whole other story that I won’t go in to other than to say a few misguided humans won the battle and the majority of the wildlife lost!! You can still find roosting birds on the Raymond and Shearness Pools but not in the huge numbers as years past it seems.
“Lift-Off from 13 Curves”
A huge flock of Greater Snows I found along 13 Curves Road
near the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge take to the sky in a flurry.
Maryland’s Dorchester County is home to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and its adjoining neighbor the Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area which provide safe resting and roosting locations for some of Maryland’s Snow Goose populations. However for good viewing, the later winter months are the best at the Blackwater refuge.
Other good areas around Maryland for observing Snow Geese include the portion of the state south of the city of Salisbury and also eastward to the towns of Berlin and Ocean City; and then southward to Assateague Island. The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge just across the border in Virginia is a Snow Goose “Hot-Spot”..
“Monkey See – Monkey Do”
The flock at the Middle Creek WMA take to the air during a Bald Eagle fly over!
When one bird senses danger, the others will follow the lead to safety.
The state of Pennsylvania is another farming mecca with the eastern portion of the state, and especially the counties of Lancaster and Lebanon which lie east of the Susquehanna River, hosting feeding and resting places for thousands of Greater Snow Geese and many other waterfowl species during their migratory travels. Here plentiful field corn silage spills and leftovers are the main attraction with more winter wheat and various grasses as an added enticement.
An area along the borders of these two counties was set aside to host the large Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area and lake which give these travelers a safe place to rest and roost for their journey. Like the Blackwater refuge in Maryland, Middle Creek is the most productive for the larger numbers of snow geese during the late winter and early spring.
Seemingly “well fed”, Mom and Pop pose for me and a family portrait at the Middle Creek WMA.
I did forget to ask them for their address so I could mail them a picture.
“Fading Colors forWhite Arrivals”
The last of the fall colors welcome a flock of Greater Snow Geese
to the Shearness Pool at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.
Many of my friends and peers who share the love of Avian photography, and especially the ones who are dedicated to waterfowl have this “obsession” with photographing “birds in flight” or BIF as they call it.
As a photographer who spends most of his time with the little song birds hopping from branch to branch in a bush or tree, photographing birds in flight is not one of my stronger points. However, I do enjoy taking the challenge once every “Blue Moon” or so!
I will dedicate these remaining images to “their obsession” and my sometimes feeble attempts at it to pay my respect and homage to their dedication and skills.
“A Perigee Departure”
One of my favorite images from the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge is
this sunrise departure of Greater Snow Geese during the setting of a Perigee Moon.
As with the above “sunrise image”, sunsets (below) can add their own splendor by warming colors to your subjects backgrounds and the evening sky. We photographers call this “sweet light” and for those who prefer to rise later or depart early truly miss out. “Bankers Hours” are not for the dedicated photographer of nature.
“Gear Down and Locked”
The aviation term applies here as four Greater Snow Geese have their feet extended
and wings cupped like the flaps on a jet-liner slowing their decent while on a sunset
approach to a field at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.
Using the low sun at about 3:30 PM on a chilly January day, I captured the image of
these seven birds on their final approach to a pond at the base of the Woodland Beach WMA
observation tower from which I was shooting. The geese were approaching straight towards me.
Several years back on a gray, cold and blustery day in March, I and my beloved 90-year-old friend Elmer Schweitzer joined friends Steve Keller and Eric Gerber for an outing to photograph the Snow Geese up close and personal from the auto-tour loop at the Middle Creek WMA in Lancaster/Lebanon Counties Pennsylvania.
Eric was kind enough to lend me an older Canon 600mm lens for some “Bird In Flight” photography of individual birds. Again, this is not my strong point as far as photography is concerned but I had a blast and managed some half-way decent images. The guys set up on tripods, but I had to improvise and use a bean bag off of the passenger door frame of my vehicle.
Still, “all in all”, things fell in place, and even with the older relic lens and the lack of image stabilization that these new shooters consider a “must have” I managed. I guess it’s my “old schooling” and after all I have been shooting for over 40 years and long before IS was a thought in some technicians mind..
Here are just a sampling of the approach and landing sequence results below……..
“Smooth and Steady”
Who could ask for a nicer composition? This adult Greater Snow goose had just departed
from the lake so take notice to the water droplets from his feet.
“Shallow Bank – Eyes Forward”
Just a nice shallow turn before the final to landing…
“The Three Amigos”
Perhaps Mom with two of her offspring making their approach to the field below.
“A Slight Adjustment”
Two youngsters on a final approach as the following bird makes a slight turn to the right
to land beside and with the leading goose..
A “Blue Phase” Snow goose picks a spot for his touchdown in the flock below.
He will stand out like a “sore thumb” in the field of white..
“Feathers For Flight”
As a pilot I am amazed as to how the feathers of the wings and tail of these birds closely
resemble and act like the control surfaces of an aircraft. Looking at the upper portions
of the wings on this Snow, you can see the deep curvature of the leading edge
like the “slats” or flaps on a jetliner. I would imagine this is how we humans
developed the principles of flight we use today!
“Approaching the Landing Zone”
An Adult Greater Snow goose prepares for his touchdown…
“Picking a Spot In a Field of White”
Just before touch-down, this Greater Snow maneuvers for an open area to land…
“Student Pilot – Close Quarters”
A juvenile Snow goose jockey’s for a tight landing spot while the adults watch…
In conclusion, I hope everyone has the opportunity to enjoy these birds as much as I have. I look forward to this season and many more in the future for chances to observe and photograph these amazing birds along with so many others along our coastal prairies and marshes whether it be the Mid-Atlantic or Gulf coasts.
“The Over The Hill Gang”
at the Middle Creek WMA
(from left to right) Steve Keller, from Reading Pennsylvania;
along with my “young” and chipper 90 year old friend Elmer Schweitzer
and yours truly with camera and lens by Canon, Tripod by Chevrolet and my
modern gimbal head by Wildlife Imaging constructed of fabric and “beans”…
Photo taken by good friend Eric Gerber