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Photography is for the birds

Birds--of all kinds, big and small--are among my very favorite targets for photography.  In fact, my interest in photography and my interest in birds seem to have co-developed.  I took some pictures of birds and wanted to be able to identify them and to find out more about them. The more I found out about them, the more eager I was to find shoot more birds and to find new species to shoot. I quickly learned, though, that getting good shots of birds can be quite challenging. The darn things are often small, far away, and not very inclined to stay in the same place for very long.  I have lots of failed attempts that prove this theory and many times have found myself asking "wouldn't flowers be a lot easier?"  But when you do get a good shot, it can be super rewarding.

I recently drove Noah out to Boston where he was starting school at Brandeis University.   On the way out there I shared the driving with both Noah and Nina. But Nina had to fly home to get back to work which left me to make the drive back to Minnesota solo.  It is about a 1400 mile drive and my ability to drive for long stretches at a time is not what it used to be. To help stave off fatigue and to break up the monotony of a 1400 mile drive, I found a few good birding spots to visit along the way. Here is a sample of what I saw...and shot.

The first place I visited was the Cornell University Ornithology Lab in Ithaca, New York. It was a bit out of the way, but well worth the detour. (Thank you, Barb, for the excellent suggestion.) Cornell has one of the premier bird labs in the world and their very impressive facility includes a big wooded area in the back, known as Sapsucker Woods. More than 200 species of birds have been sighted in that location and, though I did see lots of birds, I found that they were no easier to shoot here than they were anywhere else. I hear birds singing in the trees somewhere, but it is often impossible to find them.  Yet they keep singing--almost mocking me for my inability to locate them.  Perhaps I finally catch a glimpse as they seek a spot even more hidden by the leaves.  Maybe another glimpse and then they fly away. Wouldn't you think that a big, important lab like this could do a better job of training their birds to pose?

I was able to get a few decent shots, the best one being a bird that I did not recognize immediately, but that turned out to be an immature American Robin. The immature robin has sort of been my nemesis when it comes to finding and identifying birds.  I had always thought of robins as those big brown birds with that familiar orange breast that we see all over our lawns in the summer. But like many species of birds, the young bird can look very different than the adults of the species. This was not the first time that I have spotted what I thought might be an exotic species of bird that turned out to be an immature robin. There was one time that I was sure that had found a hawk off one of the bike trails I frequent...but alas, only a young robin.  Anyway, this one was kind enough to stand still for a few pictures. In Sapsucker Woods I also saw a couple of turtles basking in the sun, which are not actual birds, but were nevertheless interesting.

The next morning I went to Conneaut Harbor on the shores of Lake Erie in the northeast corner of Ohio.  It was a beautiful early morning and I was able to see a a number of ducks and geese in the harbor.  I noticed that there was a greater variety of birds on a large sandbar just across a little inlet.  A couple of men paddled by in a row boat and they told me that if I got back on the road I could drive over to to where the birds were. When I arrived I saw a number of ducks in the water and some shore birds, including several LesserYellowlegs and a few Least Sandpipers hunting for bugs.

The fun thing about the spot was that I could drive right on the beach and approach the birds who, though generally afraid of people, have not evolved to be frightened of automobiles.  There was a large pool of water in which a solitary Great Blue Heron was standing and I drove up within a few yards of him.  The great blue heron is a fascinating species of bird. I love to watch them stand in the water and remain absolutely motionless for a long time, then quickly dive their head into the water and emerge with a fish in their mouth.  I wasn't fortunate enough to see the heron catch a fish, but by staying in the car I did get to observe him for several minutes and I was able to get some nice shots of him.

After navigating across the state of Ohio in the afternoon I found myself at the Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve towards the western part of the state. This particular site had caused me a bit of concern as the guidebook that I had consulted warned that only the very brave would be willing to do battle against the mosquitoes found within.  Now, I am not all the brave when it comes to mosquitoes, but I did have a can of DEET to serve as my armor and, doused with the insecticide, I prepared to meet the enemy.

I wandered down the paved trail leading from the parking lot and soon observed a marshy area over to my left.  As I continued down the path the marsh was generally occluded by trees but I occasionally caught a glimpse of it, as in the case of this majestic Great Egret.  What I like about larger birds such is this is that you can get decent shots of them even from a fair distance.

Or a little bit further down the trail I found a Green Heron, a species that I had not previously seen before (a "lifer" in birding parlance).

Sheldon Marsh is a lovely site and, in spite of what my guidebook had warned, I saw few signs of mosquitoes, but that could have had something to do with my chemical armor. I

would have liked to have continued down the path, which I later learned led eventually to Lake Erie, but the skies were getting threatening and I still had some driving to do before reaching my intended destination for the night. On the way back to the parking lot I did stop to take some pictures of a Least Flycatcher who I found sitting on a branch not far off the path.

And, as it turned out, I left just in the nick of time as when I was on the Ohio Turnpike about five miles from my motel a very ominous warning blared out of the radio.  "DANGER!  DANGER!  LIFE-THREATENING DANGER! Tornadoes have been sighted in  Defiance County."  Of course that did me little good as I had no idea in what county I was at the time but could only imagine a tornado, picking up my car, tossing it around in the air, like Dorothy's house in the Wizard of Oz, and dropping it who knows where. I have been through many tornado warnings in the past, but felt a lot more vulnerable on the road in the middle of nowhere.  I made it as quickly as I could to my exit and was relieved when the toll taker lady informed me that we were in not in Defiance County, but rather in Williams County.

The next day was Indiana.  My sister, Sandy, lives in the Terre Haute, in the middle of the state, and we had arranged to meet and spend the day together at the Indiana Dunes along the coast of Lake Michigan. It was sweet of her to drive up to join me.  We had a great time, did some hiking, and saw some beautiful scenery and plant life.  Birds, however, seemed to be in pretty short supply.

Of course there were gulls--and lots of them--but I can't tell you how many pictures of gulls I already had.  Yet I never turn down good shots when I encounter them.

Now, I had just one more day in my journey, which was to be a mad rush through Chicago, across Wisconsin, and home.  I figured it would take a full day to get home--or a very full day, depending on the traffic in Chicago. No more time to stop for pictures of birds.  I made a stop for lunch at the Blue Collar Cafe in Hixton, Wisconsin (great place for lunch and delicious spicy jelly that they sell by the jar). The only other stops I made were at rest stops along the highway. As I was exiting one of these rest stops I suddenly saw a Red-tailed Hawk sitting proudly on a sign just off the access road.  I slammed on the breaks, grabbed my camera, quietly got out of the car, and took what was maybe the best set of pictures in my whole trip!

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