I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had heard a Mourning Warbler singing before, but I had never seen one. I always attributed that to their habitat and skulking behavior. It could have been my poor eyesight, however.
Mourning Warblers tend to stay closer to the ground than the one I spied 15 feet high in a dead wild cherry tree. They favor low brushy habitats, not bare tree limbs. Yet, here it was, and I was pretty happy to be able to capture a few photos before this beautiful bird with a lovely song dropped into the underbrush and out of sight.
Most Mourning Warblers nest in boreal forests in states and Canadian provinces well north of Virginia. However, there is a small area in the Allegheny Mountains along the boundaries of Virginia and West Virginia, where they also breed.
When I learned that other birders had spotted Mourning Warblers near Reddish Knob, a mountain summit on the Virginia/West Virginia border, I decided to go for the bird. The drive to that area is less than an hour from my home in the Shenandoah Valley.
Other birders had the same idea. The bird was easily heard, and with six pairs of eyes, the target bird was soon spotted. However, I didn’t expect it to be so out in the open. But I had to act fast. Mourning Warblers seldom sit still. As you can see, this bird was already looking down and dropped out of sight right after I snapped this photo.
I was grateful for the help of the other birders, who were equally happy that I was able to get the photographs I desired. The Mourning Warbler was only one of several bird species I saw that day, but it was the best.
After celebrating our grandson’s first birthday, my wife and I headed west along the Lake Ontario shoreline. We stopped a couple of times to bird at state parks and were pleased with the few warblers, flycatchers, and a Northern Harrier we saw.
Then it was on to Niagara Falls, Ontario. We had been to the Canadian and American sides of the falls before. However, I had never seen the light show that lit up the falls after dark. I especially wanted to view the falls illuminated with rainbow-colored lights.
After a nice dinner, we walked down to the falls after dark. We didn’t have to wait long. The first lights, though, were light-colored and then pastel. The evening air was getting chilly, aided by the wind-blown mist from the falling waters.
Please click on the photos to enlarge them.
At exactly 9:30 p.m., we got a pleasant surprise. A colorful fireworks show lit the night sky on the Canadian side directly across from the American Falls. As soon as they finished, the lights changed to vivid colors that kept changing from gaudy green to brilliant blue to the ripest red.
At 9:45, my wish came true. Both the Horseshoe Falls and the American Falls flashed all the rainbow colors. I was happy as a 10-year-old. Satisfied with my photos, my wife and I walked hand in hand back to the motel, ready for a good night’s sleep.
Whenever I go birding, I inevitably discover many other curiosities to photograph. Such is the life of a retired senior citizen.
On my most recent outing, I came upon this wild cherry tree that had been struck by lightning sometime last year. I hated to see the stately tree destroyed since it was one of only a few in this small state park. All kinds of wildlife depended on its flowers and berries for sustenance.
Since the tree is about halfway around the lake, pictured in the background, I usually pause my hiking for a rest here, admiring the beauty of the tree’s bark and splintered wood. This time, however, I noted something fascinating. Tender shoots of new branches were growing from the tree trunk, as seen in the foreground of the determined hardwood.
Such is nature’s way of producing life, where we humans see only demise. There is a lesson to remember here: No matter your situation, never give up.
On a recent birding expedition to a local lake, I spotted these spent heads of last summer’s crop of Black-eyed Susans. The buttery petals had fallen off or been eaten by birds or insects, and several hungry bird species had devoured the nutritious burnished seeds in the center of the wildflowers.
The morning sun kissed the bulbous cones, creating a two-toned effect. It was a fun find.
Redbud trees are in full bloom in the Shenandoah Valley and across the entire Appalachian region. The mountain drives are gorgeous right now.
Redbuds are one of the earliest blooming trees, and they grow in all sorts of conditions. They are one of my favorite trees, especially in bloom.
That’s because there is more to their beauty than meets the eye. The unique way the individual blossoms form is the secret. Clumped together, it’s not easy to see. Get up close, and focus carefully. You can see that each separate flower closely resembles a hummingbird.
Not convinced? Perhaps the photo below can help you see the pink little hummingbirds. I hope you have a chance to check out this phenomenon in person.
My wife and I recently celebrated our 52nd anniversary. We did so quietly.
Initially, we considered driving to Washington, D.C., to view the cherry blossoms at their peak. We had never done that, and living only two hours away, we could easily view the iconic flowers and be home before dark. We weighed our options and decided instead to stay close to home, which was my wife’s preference.
That decision paid dividends we didn’t expect. First, we slept in, which is not our routine. We usually awaken at first light. It felt good to start our big day well-rested.
After a quiet, light breakfast, we continued with a habit we started during the pandemic. We played cards and drank our morning decaf coffee. With the temperature hovering slightly above freezing, we were in no hurry to head outside for a few local adventures.
Traffic was light for the 10-minute drive downtown for an early lunch at a favorite restaurant. Since it was a Monday and not yet noon, there was no wait. We enjoyed our meals and the quiet atmosphere. They even had gluten-free bread for my brisket sandwich. It was nice to sit in the serenity of the ordinarily bustling restaurant. Our waitress even took her time bringing the check.
After lunch, we drove to a local arboretum and strolled around the artificial pond. Both buttery yellow and white daffodils colored the forested hillside surrounding the murky pond. Some flowers were already fading, while others were beginning to bud.
The aptly named star magnolias were also losing their luster. We admired some snappy-looking white and orange daffodils and various wildflowers beginning to grace the forest floor.
A young man approached us as we sniffed the blooms. He was the new marketing person for the arboretum, and we enjoyed an extended conversation with him about photography. My constant snapping of the shutter gave me away.
By then, the sun had taken the chill out of the air. That meant one thing: ice cream. We drove to a local ice cream parlor in a neighboring town. A kid’s cup is suitable for us now. My wife was more adventurous and ordered a caramel salted chocolate chunk while I stuck with my tried and true chocolate. We chose a table outside where my wife sat in the shade while I preferred the sun on my back.
On the way home, we stopped at another smaller arboretum at the north end of the small town. The place is more park than a botanical garden. A small, tree-lined stream called Cooks Creek winds lazily through a green space. Cooks Creek Arboretum is sandwiched between a hillside condo complex and a farmer’s still-fallow field stretching up to a big red barn.
Once the flock of pesky common grackles flew off, we heard a barred owl calling softly from inside an owl box fastened to a giant sycamore on the creek’s bank. The harmony of the owl’s twittering and the silvery gurgling of the stream brought a smile to both of us.
Please click on the photos to enlarge them.
With the return of the noisy grackles, we detoured to Silver Lake to check for migrating waterfowl. A quartet of ring-necked ducks floated and dived, floated and dived on the shallow lake’s surface. The lake’s Civil War-era mill attracts people far and wide.
Shortly after we arrived back home, the doorbell rang. A young woman handed my wife a bouquet from her sister and her husband, who live in Ohio. We appreciated their kind and loving gesture.
We snacked for supper, and after sunset, I drove to a high point in the countryside to take photos of three planets. Venus shown bright in the night sky, but I couldn’t find the conjunction of Saturn and Mars near the horizon. An invisible haze hung over the Allegheny Mountains, obscuring any starry beauty.
When I returned home, another kind of darkness fell. We learned of the horrific mass shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville. The sad news snapped us out of our anniversary bliss into the reality of today’s life in the United States. Our peaceful, quiet, and enjoyable anniversary day with my loving wife ended with a tearful thud.
I don’t know about you, but the Common Grackles have taken over my birdfeeders and birdbaths. If you are interested, I’d gladly sell you a few or all of them.
Of course, you know I’m kidding. I couldn’t resist since April 1 is better known in the U.S. as April Fools Day. When I was a principal, the students loved to fool me on April 1 with all means of shenanigans. I was always glad when April 1 came on the weekend, like today.
So, April Fools Day! And in case you are interested in the grackles, please contact me a.s.a.p.
I found it on the way home from Florida. Without success, I had looked for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker in South Carolina’s Cheraw State Park. I had also searched extensively for the rare bird in the tall pines of Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge near Folkston, Georgia.
Since we would pass by Cheraw State Park on the return trip to Virginia, I decided to try again. We had the time, and I needed to stretch my legs and aching back. I stopped at the park’s welcome center and spoke with a ranger about where to look for the woodpecker. He gave me precise instructions, and I was where I needed to be in five minutes.
When my wife and I exited the van, we heard woodpeckers chipping, calling, and flitting high in the pines overhead. Were they the ubiquitous Downy Woodpeckers found in every state, or were they my nemesis bird? It turned out they were both.
To protect the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, scientists mark their cavity trees with rings of whitewash a few feet off the ground. That enables them to keep a close eye on the welfare of the rare birds. Look up, and the entrances to their nests are easy to find. Spotting the elusive woodpecker is a bit harder.
I was careful to stroll, always alert for any sound or sight of birds foraging. It didn’t take me long. Straight above me, a handful of small woodpeckers moved from limb to limb, pinecone to pinecone, searching for any moving insect protein.
I raised my binoculars and spotted what I was sure was a Red-cockaded Woodpecker. But birding alone is iffy, especially in search of rare birds. I briefly saw the big white patch on the bird’s cheek, a reliable field mark. But I had no one else to verify it was a Red-cockaded. That is protocol in IDing rare birds. My wife is not a birder, so I could not use her observations.
Soon, other small woodpeckers appeared and chased the Red-cockaded back to its nesting tree. Even with binoculars, it was hard to distinguish the Downys from the Red-cockaded. I took a few photos, hoping the rare bird was in one of them.
Still, I submitted my observations to eBird, the preferred app of birders. Of course, it flagged the Red-cockaded and told me what I already knew. My find was a rarity.
It wasn’t until we returned home, unpacked, and settled in that I could finally download my images to my laptop. With that done, I could enlarge the photos and see what I had captured digitally. My heart sank when I spotted not one but three different Downy Woodpeckers feeding in the treetops amid shadows and filtered sunlight.
However, one photo, taken without the zoom lens, clearly showed a large white patch on the bird’s cheek. About then, I got an email from a regional volunteer reviewer for eBird. He politely questioned my sightings and asked me to add details to verify my sighting. I did just that and added the two photos you see here.
That evening, the reviewer replied via email and thanked me for the additional information and photos. He certified that I had indeed seen a Red-cockaded Woodpecker! I was thrilled.
What’s the next rare bird on the list to find? The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, of course! (For you non-birders, that’s a joke. The Ivory-billed has been declared extinct, though a few supposed sightings occasionally pop up. None have produced evidence of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker).
I wish you could see the view from my winter window. It’s nearly the total opposite of the one from our home in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
Each winter, my wife and I spend a few weeks away from the cold and snow. We’ve done so for a dozen years. We always head to Fernandina Beach, Florida, a small town that anchors Amelia Island, a barrier island northeast of Jacksonville.
The weather is not usually balmy there. After all, Amelia Island is Florida’s northernmost spit of land. Still, it’s not northeast Ohio, where we used to live, nor Harrisonburg, Virginia, where we moved five and a half years ago to be close to our three oldest grandchildren.
So, we pack up the van and head south for brighter, warmer days during winter’s darkest. Of course, when you rent a condo on the Atlantic Ocean, the weather is as fickle as a two-year-old. Sometimes it plays nice, and sometimes it doesn’t. Nevertheless, we take our chances and hope for the best.
So far this year, sunny, warm days have been the rule rather than the exception. We couldn’t be happier.
I often sit at my computer in front of large plate glass windows and attempt to finish my work. By work, I mean doing morning devotions, checking emails, and reading stories online. That’s my routine in Virginia. Only I look at neighboring houses, vehicles, pedestrians, and dog walkers passing by.
But I am easily distracted in Florida. Besides being a writer, I’m also an amateur photographer. I bounce from desk to balcony to capture the menagerie of what I see. A beautiful sunrise over the ocean equals a pleasant start to any day.
Then there are the beach walkers, dog walkers, beachcombers, Navy helicopters from a nearby Naval station, and so much more. I gladly take it all in before my first spoonful of cereal.
Please click on the photos to enlarge them.
I watch the tide charts as much as I do the beach. I’m not alone. Joggers, runners, bikers, and shell seekers use the flat, wet sand as their personal expressway. I see the same people at about the same time every morning doing their separate things.
The dark, swarthy, tanned skin tones quickly identify the veterans. The pasty-pale pedestrians are asking for sunburns. The younger generations pass their elders rapidly unless they’re trying to steer a dog in the same direction and pace they want. I’ve witnessed many a canine confab between northbound and southbound owners and pets.
People aren’t the only regulars that come into my view. Brown Pelicans play follow-the-leader only inches above the rolling waves. Resident Ospreys sail overhead, hovering high above the gentle waters if they spot a potential meal.
I keep an eye out for dolphins and whales, too. The dolphins regularly feed in the waters a hundred yards offshore. Last year I was fortunate to spot an endangered Right Whale and her newborn calf floating at the surface like logs. The bright morning sun glistened over their dark, blubber-puffed skin.
Pelicans, an assortment of competing gulls, and terns often follow the dolphin’s lead hoping for spoils that manage to escape, if only temporarily. I especially enjoy the antics of the Forster Terns that zoom along and then climb in a glide over a school of fish. The terns divebomb toward the salty sea, hoping to scoop up delicate sushi morsels.
I especially enjoy watching the smaller shorebirds dash to where the water recedes along the soft sand. Willets and tiny Sanderlings drill and peck for small crustaceans deposited by the rhythm of the waves. Somehow the tiny Sanderlings always manage to outrun the encroaching foamy water. Their little legs seem to move 100 miles per hour.
Please click on the photos to enlarge them.
The ocean itself has been unusually calm so far this winter. Most passing weather fronts that constantly stir up the waters into angry waves have thankfully evaded us.
Still, I love the tender interplay between the sky and the Atlantic. Their colors intermingle, making it difficult to tell one from the other where they meet at the horizon near the Gulf Stream.
Every once in a while, rangers cruise up and down the beach in their off-road four-wheelers. Their primary duties are to clean the shore of any trash or driftwood and to keep an eye on early morning and after-school surfers. They also stop to chat with strangers who quickly become friends. The latter seems to occupy most of the rangers’ time.
Farther out in the deeper water, I use binoculars to watch shrimpers ply their nets 24/7 unless the dense fog obscures them. Occasionally freighters and dredgers sit in the channel that leads to the little port of Fernandina Beach. Their bright white LED lights punctuate the moonless night’s darkness.
I see all this and more through my winter window. I am most grateful I can take it all in before we return too soon to my more mundane vistas.
I’ve never been a beach kind of guy. I prefer the fields, hills, and forests. When we winter in Fernandina Beach, Florida, on Amelia Island, I head to Egans Creek Greenway for peace of mind. That’s a bit ironic since our rented condo is on the beach facing the Atlantic Ocean.
I enjoy watching dolphins swim by and the many birds of prey, shorebirds, and other avian species plying the ocean waters. I also delight in the lovely sunrises, though they have been few and far between this year. I’m not complaining. We’ve had plenty of clear blue skies and above-average temperatures in the two weeks we have been here.
The warmth and fair weather have allowed me to spend enjoyable hours on the Egans Creek Greenway. The Greenway is a preserved wildlife area sandwiched between two busy east-west roadways, including the northernmost section of Florida’s noted A1A Coastal Highway. It’s my sacred place, though it is hardly quiet.
Egans Creek Greenway is a place to discover all of nature’s wonders. Visitors can find alligators, Ospreys, butterflies, river otters, and much more in, on, and among the waters, marshes, and greenery. Opened at the turn of the millennium in 2000, the Greenway is an undeveloped park for conservation and passive recreational use.
Egans Creek runs north through the far northeastern section of this barrier island. Housing developments and commercial buildings like hotels constantly push at the edges, even though the area is designated a preserve. The Greenway is managed by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, which has its headquarters adjacent at the north end of the marsh.
The Greenway consists of over 300 acres of protected lands, which include slivers of marine woodlands, wetland bushes, and a sizeable briny marsh. Trails for walking, running, biking, and birding wind throughout the Greenway. Maps are available at the Greenway’s entrances, and benches are dotted along the grass-covered paths.
In the dozen years we have been coming here, I have found the Greenway my place to relax, explore, and rest. Its location forces me to focus on what is right in front of me and always watch for surprises. Last year a Northern Harrier swooped low across the marsh. Roseate Spoonbills make rare appearances.
I especially enjoy the creativity it affords me if I only take the time to see it. The stark contrasts of crimson buds of red maple trees against the shiny green leaves of Live Oaks create a festive feel. Or the orange and black of a lone Monarch butterfly settling on a barren stalk keeps me mentally alert and spiritually alive.
Please click on the photos to enlarge them.
An added enjoyment is meeting new people on the Greenway. Some stop to talk or inquire about what I am seeing. Others just run or bike right on by. Rowdy teenagers occasionally pitch a stick at a sunbathing alligator or spook birds with their boisterous talk.
Nevertheless, these experiences allow me to tune out the human-induced noises that permeate our lives. In the case of the Greenway, commercial jetliners approaching Jacksonville International Airport 30 minutes away buzz overhead. So do smaller planes taking off and landing from the local airport two miles southeast of the Greenway. And then there are the military helicopters flying up and down the beach from Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville.
Sirens wail away, responding to the next emergency. Trucks, motorcycles, and cars hum along the adjacent streets. Train engine horns from tracks along the riverfront invade the Greenway’s peace and tranquility.
Despite those acoustic interferences, I still find the Greenway a respite, a private sanctuary in a very public place. I accept that I cannot change those annoyances. I can concentrate on solitude and enjoyment in whatever I find each time I walk the Greenway.
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