Birds of the Grasses.

Henslow’s Sparrow near Sligo, PA

If you read my last post you saw that I really love focusing on the warblers in the spring and summer, but another favorite of mine are the grassland species. These are birds that inhabit grasslands of vast open meadows and often brushy reclaimed strip mine areas. Birding this kinds of habitat you can rack up your vast array of sparrow species as well as lots of other cool birds. Here are some of my favorite birds that love to call the high grasses their home.

The Savannah Sparrow is a handsome bird that resembles closely a Song Sparrow but they have thinner, more crisp stripes on their underside and most have a wash of yellow above the eye.

The Grasshopper Sparrow is one of the less striped of the sparrow species but still a very dapper bird with their buffy colored chest and beautiful markings on the back. Like many of the sparrows they have a very distinct song which goes: “titi-zeeeeeeee” and probably could easily be confused with an insect sound.

The Henslow’s Sparrow might be my favorite grassland sparrow. They are quite rare for most of my home state in PA but they can be found in good abundance at certain spots. A very beautiful bird and another that sound more like an insect rather than a bird with their quick “tis-lick” call.

This is the same bird singing his heart out.

The Clay-colored Sparrow is the rarest breeding sparrow in my home state and there are only a few spots (that I know of) throughout the state where they can be found breeding. Needless to say they are a thrill to find. They make a very long drawn out “buzzzzzz, buzzzzz” call.

Prairie Warblers can also be found in grassland habitat but are often found in more brushy areas with small stands of trees. I always seem to have great luck getting these beauties to pose for me.

Dickcissels are a very irregular visitor to Pennsylvania but every so many years some will show up. This summer many have been found throughout the state and I was fortunate to see this one outside of Derry, PA recently.

The Eastern Meadowlark is a fairly abundant grassland bird but since they always stay in the high grass, your best chance to see them is when they take flight or perch on a fence post or wire.

The Bobolink may be the most unique looking of the grassland birds. They have been described as wearing a tuxedo but in reverse as their back side has lots of white marking while they are solid black on the front. Amazing singers of a rich, electrical sounding song.

The Eastern Kingbird, a type of flycatcher is a common bird of grasslands but can be found in many open habitats and they really love being near ponds or lakes.

The Upland Sandpiper is a type of shorebird, however they are never found anywhere near any shores but rather inhabit high grassy Meadows. A bird that unfortunately has greatly declined in population so it is always a delight to find.

Last but definitely not least is the mighty Northern Harrier. This bird of prey keeps all the other grassland birds on their toes and is always on the lookout to grab one for its next tasty meal. Most Harriers go north to breed but some can be found throughout the state where they spend the summer and breed.

All of these photos were taken this spring, except for the Upland Sandpiper which I got several years ago. My favorite place to catch the grassland birds are the areas around Sligo, Pa which includes: Piney Tract (Mt. Zion Rd.), Mt. Airy and the Curllsville Strips.

 

The Warblers!! Spring 2017

If you follow me on Facebook and see my posts (especially in the spring time) you’ll probably notice that one of my favorite birds are the warblers! They in my opinion are some of the most beautiful and stunning birds on the planet and many make an incredible journey each year where they spend the winter in South America and migrate up to North America for the breeding season. The first Warblers for the year arrive in my home state of Pennsylvania in early April and the rest continue to migrate north through the middle of May. Some will stay in PA for the breeding season, while some continue their journey north to the boreal forests of Canada. So pretty much between April through June, I go into warbler mode, and focus my attention on finding and photographing these amazing little birds. Ask any bird photographer and everyone will agree they are extremely challenging birds to snap pix of. Most are around 5 inches in length and most are very hyper active little birds and don’t sit still for more than a second or two. Many also love the high canopy of deep forest so just getting a close glimpse of one is rewarding. A lot goes into getting photos of warblers – patience, skill and lots of luck!! Here are some species I managed to get this spring season.

Yellow-throated Warbler

Louisiana Waterthrush

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Northern Parula

Hooded Warbler

Cerulean Warbler

American Redstart

Black-throated Green Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

Black and White Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

Prairie Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Blue-winged Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Canada Warbler

 

All of these photos were taken in Western Pennsylvania.

The Northern Shoveler

This is a male Northern Shoveler. I’ve been having great luck finding lots of these this past month as they have been migrating through, going onward to their breeding grounds of Canada and Western United States. They tend to be more common on the western side of the continent so some years they can be a challenge to find in my home state of Pennsylvania. If you read my previous post on my waterfowl bonanza day, you saw that I found lots of them up in Crawford County and in very good numbers, which usually from my experience doesn’t happen often. My luck finding more continued yesterday when I visited a local park nearby, Northmoreland, and found this nice male. When I first spotted him he was all by himself out in the middle of the lake. I got some distant shots of him out there and usually with highly skittish species such as the Shoveler, that’s about all you can hope for.

However this Shoveler seemed a little more tolerant to people than most. I watched as many people walking the park passed by him and he would only swim away causally, not franticly fly away like they usually do. So then I decided to spend some time and see if it was possible to get a little closer to this very handsome duck. With a little patience and slow moving I got the closest I’ve ever been to this species!

If you are familiar with other ducks you may notice his bill looks a little different than the rest. He has a large spatulate bill that is shaped very similar to a shovel, hence how they got their name. You can see the shape better if you see it from the top, such as in this picture when he was preening.

You can really see the difference when compared to a Mallard’s bill.

So if you’re like me, you may be wondering why is his bill shaped differently? Well like so many species, they are adapted to fit a special niche in nature. Here is a paragraph I took from Wikipedia that explains it all:

Northern shovelers feed by dabbling for plant food, often by swinging its bill from side to side and using the bill to strain food from the water. They use their highly specialized bill (from which their name is derived) to forage for aquatic invertebrates – a carnivorous diet. Their wide-flat bill is equipped with well-developed lamellae – small, comb-like structures on the edge of the bill that act like sieves, allowing the birds to skim crustaceans and plankton from the water’s surface. This adaptation, more specialized in shovelers, gives them an advantage over other puddle ducks, with which they do not have to compete for food resources during most of the year. Thus, mud-bottomed marshes rich in invertebrate life are their habitat of choices”.

Aren’t these ducks amazing!

I tried to get even closer to this bird that seemed very tolerant of me. However I approached a bit too quickly and startled him at one point and he took off. Luckily he didn’t go very far….only about 50 yards down the lake. Once he took flight however, it afforded me the opportunity to get a close flight shot.

I was about to go home at that point but I looked over and he was actually swimming back over to where he flew from. I then hunkered down low to the ground and tried to conceal myself behind a park bench. To my amazement he came right back over and swam so close to me I almost couldn’t fit him in the frame! And to add to that, he swam into a beautiful spot where the perfectly still water gave him a magnificent mirror reflection.

At that point, I had to say this was the coolest Shoveler I had ever encountered. If only all birds would cooperate this well for picture taking. I had to take just a few more photos before I called it a day and headed for home. What a beautiful, unique and stunning bird to be able to see at such close range!

A Waterfowl Bonanza!

There is a different kind of March madness that happens this time of year. No I’m not talking about college hoops but the massive waterfowl migration! Here in Pennsylvania ducks, geese and swans begin to move through the area heading north to their breeding grounds and the peak time is right around the middle of March. So the avid birder that I am, I always find time this time of year to hit some lakes and wetlands to see what I can find. One of the best areas in Western PA is in and around Crawford County. The places I really like looking around at are Geneva Marsh, Conneaut Marsh, Conneaut Lake and Pymatuning. So yesterday I decided to go and see what I could find. I got up at the crack of dawn and headed northward. By 9am I was at my first location at Geneva Marsh. This is an incredible birding place and sits right on I-79, a little south of Meadville. If you’ve ever traveled this stretch of I-79 you no doubt have seen this place because it is huge! The very southern tip of the marsh is known as Custards and what makes this spot really nice is that the road cuts right across it, so if you’re lucky the birds can be right out your car window. And yes I had some luck with these Ring-necked Ducks that were just 15 yards or so from the road. My first ducks for the day!

Just a little further down the road and I came across another fine looking pair….Mr. and Mrs. Wood Duck!

Like so many species of waterfowl, Wood Ducks are highly skittish and it doesn’t take much for them to spook. Within a minute they had about enough of me taking pictures from my car window and decided to leave.

Looking out across the marsh were hundred upon hundred of various ducks, geese and swans. Those white blobs in the back is a huge flock of Tundra Swans!!

And here is a more focused shot of the huge flock with I-79 in the background.

I looked back at the bridge where I had crossed and saw some American Wigeons swimming in close. I put the car in reverse and pull up slowly to them. They stayed for a little bit and here I caught them as they lifted off.

Then I spotted a Pied-billed Grebe swimming in close to the road. I waited for him to submerge and I got out of the car and quickly headed to the guard rail and waiting for him to come up. He eventually popped up but looked like he was trying to imitate the Lock Ness Monster…haha!

The morning was moving along so I decided at that point to go further north and hit some more spots. Next was to McMichael Road which is on the edge of Conneaut Marsh, just above Geneva Marsh. I found lots more waterfowl there including Mallards, Green-winged Teal, Hooded Mergansers, Wood Ducks, Northern Pintails and American Wigeons. However the only things close enough for decent pictures was this beautiful pair of Northern Shovelers! Notice their very uniquely shaped bill.

It turned out to be one of my best days for finding lots of Shovelers! At my next stop at the Pymatuning fish hatchery I found a huge flock of them huddled on the ice resting.

Just then I looked up in the sky and spotted yet another flock of Tundra Swans. I hoped that they might land nearby where I could get some shots of them coming down, however they continued on, eventually going out of sight.

At this point it was nearing the noon hour so I headed over to the Pymatuning causeway which goes across the Ohio border. I was getting hungry so I pulled into the parking area there and took out my sandwich for a bite to eat. All the Ring-billed Gulls in the area must know when people stop there, there’s a good chance they have food and before I knew it my car was surrounded by dozen of gulls. This afforded me the opportunity for a close up portrait. And yes I shared a little of my sandwich.

And then there they were….my best duck of the day! Two Long-tailed Ducks swimming out from the causeway parking lot. I sat there waiting, hoping and praying that they would come closer. But NO!! They were not in the least interested in being cooperative birds for photos, so all I got was this very distant shot. But hey, it’s an awesome bird to at least see.

I then swung over to the Millers Pond area but unfortunately with the bitter cold, 90% of the ponds there were iced over with not much in the way of birds. I did see a Rough Legged Hawk there flying off and did catch these two Sandhill Cranes as they flew over.

It was now nearing the 1 o’clock hour and I still had lots of hours of daylight left so as a spur of the moment decision, I headed to Conneaut Ohio along Lake Erie to see what else I could find. After the 30 minute drive I got to the Conneaut Harbor and the first bird I see is a Common Goldeneye swimming right next to the deck of the harbor. I waited for him to submerge and then quickly got out of the car and hoped for a nice shot as he surfaced. He popped up but as soon as he did, the little bugger spotted me hunkered down on the ground and just like that he was off.

I then continued around the Harbor and then spotted something I was not expecting. The rarest bird of the day! A juvenile Glaucous Gull!! What a treat and he was sitting with a group of Ring-billed Gulls not more than 20 yards from the harbor!

The marina area was loaded with more ducks, the most abundant being hundreds upon hundreds of Red-breasted Mergansers. This one looked like he was walking on water.

I then stopped back at some of the places I had been earlier in the day. The ducks were still abundant everywhere I went. Back at Conneaut Marsh the ducks were flying around in hysteria and then I saw the reason why when eventually a Bald Eagle flew over. This is a Gadwall with Pintails in the back.

More Northern Pintails.

And here’s what spooked them all…

My last image of the day came from the same spot where I got my first picture of the day, back at Geneva Marsh at Custards. Here another Bald Eagle looks over a lake full of waterfowl.

A Winter of Shorties!

I saw my first Short-eared Owls almost 10 years ago when I first got into birding. They quickly became, in my opinion, one of the most enjoyable birds to watch and take photos of. However 2008 was the last year I had good luck finding them and the last I had some decent shots of them. In the years since then I would be lucky to see one per year and it usually would be when there was virtually no light left. Short-eared Owls mostly breed up in Canada so I only see them in my home state of Pennsylvania during the winter season from about Decemeber through March. These owls like to inhabit various grasslands like old reclaimed strip mine areas or Amish farms. Like most owls they roost during the day but the best chance to see them is about an hour before sunset when they wake up and begin their hunting in search of a tasty rodent. Their favorite is the meadow vole and any place that has an abundance of them, then there’s a good chance they’ll stick around through the winter and get their fill. Finally this winter of 2017 they have been back in better numbers and I have seen them in several different locations. The reason could be, is that these areas have an abundance of rodents unlike years in the past.

Like a lot of birds, they don’t get spooked easily by just seeing a car, so the best way to get pics of them is to watch for one to land, drive up slowly and shoot from your car window. Such as how I got this shot which was one of my first from this winter.

These owls have a much different flight style compared to the Harriers that you also see in the same areas. Shorties have what is described as a very buoyant and floppy kind of flight which makes them look light as a feather when they are flying about.

They love to find a favorite perch where they can listen and look from. Many love the Amish corn stalks.

One of the coolest things to see is when they fly by and have their eyes locked on you. They have the most piercing eyes and such an expressive face.

Occasionally they will fly up fairly high but most often they really like to hug the ground and typically aren’t up more than 10 feet. This no doubt lets them hear and see a rodent they are trying to find much more effectively.

Some birds just know how to put on a good show for birders and photographers and these owls are one of the best at doing that. They love interacting with one another as they chase each other through the fields and often bark at each other in a very strange sounding call. In this shot I got three together.

One evening as it was getting a little too dark for pictures, I was heading out the road but found one sitting on top of a telephone pole. I slowly pulled up beside him, stuck the camera out the window and began to get some shots. I think he heard my shutter clicking away and turned his head to the side as to say “what’s that funny noise I hear” much like how your pet dog does when it hears something.

Since they begin to get active right around the sunset hour, if you’re lucky you can get them with some brilliant colors in the sky which were some of my favorite shots I got of them.

I very much hope these owls will be back next winter in good numbers like they were this year. Unfortunately their population numbers have plummeted in recent decades mostly due to loss of habitat. Hopefully they can find a way to bounce back. I could truly watch these guys every day and never get tired of it.

Osprey on the Hunt!

There are many reasons I am inspired by birds and wildlife, but maybe the biggest thing that I am awe-struck by is when I witness their absolutely phenomenal physical abilities they display just in order to survive from day to day. This past Saturday at Keystone Lake in Armstrong County I watched this Osprey for several hours on his hunting forays and he was a fine example of what I am talking about. First off, Osprey, like all birds of prey, possess out of this world eye sight. If they don’t have this, they will never find anything to catch. Secondly their flight skills need a combination of agility and power to go after what they find. In the case of Osprey they are always going after a fish in the water which requires tremendous precision and strength. This Osprey I found was a juvenile by his dark orange eyes. The adults will change into light yellow eyes.

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Osprey when they are hunting will typically fly up quite high and do a lot of circling while constantly keeping a watchful eye to the water.

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Often when they are eyeing up a fish, they will hover in one spot, as was the case here.

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I watched this Osprey in the couple hours I was there perform at least half a dozen dives. Only once did he come away with a little fish. Perhaps with his young age he still needs to perfect his hunting skills. Most of his dives ended with him coming up empty.

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Osprey catch fish much differently than how Bald Eagles do. Eagles will circle around and come in very low right above the water’s surface and when they come over the fish, they’ll just stick their feet into the water and grab the fish out with their mighty talons. The only thing they get wet is their feet. Osprey on the other hand will dive straight down like a missile, stick their legs straight down with their talons pointing towards the water and plunge their entire body in. Then they have to lift their wings out of the water and power their drenched body out. Then once air borne again they do a big shake to dry off their feathers. Here’s this Osprey doing the dive.

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Which ends in a big plunge into the water.

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If they aren’t successful in catching the fish they go back up high and begin another search. Here his watchful eye is looking just beyond his outstretched wing.

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Looking even harder.

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My money shot of the day is when I luckily caught this Osprey the split second before he impacted the water.

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And the second after impact. Unfortunately he came up empty after this spectacular plunge.

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I could’ve sat their all day and watched him. They are so fun to watch and you can’t be left but in total amazement with witnessing their breathtaking physical abilities. Here he flies off looking for another good spot to fish. Hopefully as this young Osprey ages he will perfect his hunting with great success!

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A fine day at Conneaut

If you’re an avid bird photographer from Western PA or Eastern Ohio, then there’s a good chance you’ve heard about Conneaut Ohio for the fall shorebird migration. It lies only a mile from the PA border on Lake Erie. The lake shore is a migration corridor for many migrating birds and come August the shorebirds are already heading south to their wintering grounds. Gull Point at Presque Isle is another good spot to catch the migrating shorebirds, but what makes Conneaut so great is that you can get incredibly close to the birds. You can drive your car right out on the sandspit and take pics of the birds without even leaving your vehicle! In late summer I always make a few trips there to see what I can find. I got there this past Monday at 8am and the first shorebird I saw was a group of Sanderlings. They have always been a favorite of mine. They have so much personality as they are constantly running the shoreline back and forth in front of the waves.

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This one came walking right up to me!

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The next shorebird I came across were some Lesser Yellowlegs. I got this one as it almost looks like he is staring at himself in the reflection, but really he’s just trying to find his next little meal.

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Other than those birds, there wasn’t a whole lot to take pictures of at that point, so I got some photos of this Great Blue Heron as he was completely focused on catching his next fish.

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And then there it was!! An American Avocet just flew into the sandspit!!

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Avocets are birds that breed in the Western U.S. and Canada and we only see them here in the East (if you’re lucky) when they are passing through in migration. They are not a common bird to see in Ohio or Pennsylvania so it’s always a treat when one shows up. This Avocet landed by the water’s edge and at first he was extremely flighty and every time I tried approaching he took off.

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But finally after awhile, this bird seemed to realize that all the birders and photographers there looking at him, meant him no harm. So then he just chilled out a little ways in the water.

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They are my favorite shorebird. They have an elegant beauty like no other in my opinion. During their breeding plumage their head and neck is a very rich cinnamon color, but the color was fading on this Avocet which is what happens in late summer. Eventually their head and neck will turn all white for their winter attire. Even with changing out of his breeding colors this bird was still a stunning sight to see!

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Occasionally I’d take aim at some of the other shorebirds present like this very fresh juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper.

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During the morning hours, the Avocet would occasionally take off flying, but he’d do a few laps around the sandspit and then settle back down.

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Here a Barn Swallow for what ever reason decided to give him a little chase.

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I took tons of photos of this Avocet since he stayed the entire time I was there. So many times when you see shorebirds during the migration they only stay a short while, sometimes only minutes, so to have several hours with this fine bird was a pure delight.

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It may have been a dark, dreary day with rain off and on, but catching the sight of an Avocet will brighten any day. Here was my final photo of him with the Conneaut lighthouse in the background.

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A summer watching the Harriers of Piney Tract.

Piney Tract is located in the heart of Clarion County PA, a little north of the small town of Sligo. It contains superb habitat for many birds especially the grassland species. It has one of the highest concentrations of the rare Henslow’s Sparrow of anywhere in the state! You can also find the Clay-colored Sparrow there most summers which is even more rare for PA. It also is a favorite spot for breeding Northern Harriers. Harriers are strictly found in grasslands or marshes where they most often hunt flying very close to the ground. They look like a cross between a hawk and owl with their disc shaped head, which lets them have incredible hearing capability that is mostly associated with owls. This year there was a pair of Harriers nesting not far from the road at Piney Tract, which afforded observers a close look at these marvelous birds of prey. Just sitting in the car, you had the best seat in the house! They build their nest on the ground in the high grass and weeds, so it is well concealed. The first day I went there to watch them the male, who is also known as the “Gray Ghost” from his white and gray coloration, flew up and perched on the sign post not more than 20 yards from my vehicle!

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After sitting there for awhile chillin’ and preening his gorgeous feathers, he took off and flew right past me and let me get this shot of him taking off.

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The male rarely, if at all, came in to feed the chicks in the nest. Instead he would hand off the food to the female who would then take the food in and feed the little ones. Harriers are one of the few birds of prey where the male and female look very different, she is mostly brown with streaks on the chest. Here the female comes in with a freshly caught song bird.

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And here she is about to drop down into the nest.

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Nearly every time I went to watch the Harriers, I witnessed a food exchange, where the male and female fly up together, then the male drops the food and the female catches it, all in mid air!! I was able to capture this sequence of frames that shows how it’s done.

HarrierExchangeS

Once the female had the prey item, she would fly around with it for awhile and drop down to different spots in the field. I believe she did this to make it hard for anything to know exactly where the nest location was and to also “prep the food”, skin it or pluck the feathers before feeding it to the little ones. Finally after some time she would then come down and enter the nest.

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The males duties were to hunt and defend the nest. Anything that got too close to the nest was met by the male as he dive bombed it, as was the case with this unsuspecting Turkey Vulture.

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As time went on, the female would spend a lot of time soaring near the nest location, maybe she was trying to entice the little ones to try out their wings like she was.

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Here is some video of her flying high:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KV7Iej-rnJ8

Every now and then the male would come around close but mostly he was out and about.

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One of my favorite shots I got of this beautiful pair was right as I was leaving one evening. I looked out over the hills towards the setting sun and there she was flying off into the sunset.

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One of my friends who also watched the pair often, said he saw at least 3 chicks fledge the nest. Live long and prosper Harriers!

A great 2016 Warbler Season!

For about the last 2 months I’ve been focusing a lot of my attention with finding some of my favorite of all birds….the warblers! Warblers are tiny migrants, about 5 inches in length on average and many spend the winter in Central and South America. Starting in April they start arriving in my state of PA. The migration goes on through the end of May and by June the ones you find here are more than likely on their breeding grounds. I made up this collage image which shows 20 species I was able to photograph this spring season.

WarbCollageS2

Ibis in Indiana!

Last Friday I was informed of a very special bird that showed up on a small farm pond near Indiana, PA….a Glossy Ibis!! I’ve seen these birds in Florida and a few spots in Delaware and Virginia but never in PA. I was keeping my fingers crossed it would stick around since I was off work for the weekend and could take a ride over to look for him. Saturday afternoon I arrived at the farm pond and to my good fortune he was still there! I first spotted him just down the grassy embankment next to the water.

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I wasn’t sure just how skittish he would be so I approached very slowly and cautiously. I quickly could tell he didn’t seem to concerned with my presence but I still kept a respectable distance. All of a sudden without warning he took off, and I thought, oh no he’s leaving!

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As it turned out he was just in the mood to fly a little, did a couple laps around the pond and then came flying back in.

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Then for the next hour or so, my friend and I watched as he foraged around the pond, sweeping his bill in the water, eating what he could find. Occasionally he came extremely close to us, probably within 10 yards a few times, which afforded us with some nice close ups!

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When the light hit him just right, his iridescent colors absolutely shined. With a maroon colored neck and upper body and green and purple iridescence in the wings, he was truly a beautiful sight to see.

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They are a very rare bird for Western PA as they are mostly found along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Coast states. I later found out, this day was the last day he was seen there….I was so fortunate to have had this opportunity to see and photography this magnificent bird. This was definitely one of my highlight birds thus far for 2016!