Saturday, February 28, 2009

Great Blue Herons--Spring at the Rookery

Spring begins silently, in unnoticed ways. While we humans are still shivering and wishing for more sunshine, many bird species have been busy building nests, strengthening pair bonds and mating.
When I took the photos below, I was standing braced against the side of the upper deck of the Blue Moon as we moved along the windy Tennessee River approaching a great blue heron colony. I was thinking how exciting to actually see herons at their nests from a closer distance without disturbing them.
In this colony, only one pair built their nest in the trees. The rest used the braces of a tranformer tower for their platforms.
As an artist who enjoys observing animal and bird behavior, I aim for reference photos and that intimate connection that stirs my joy and the desire to create. And I try to capture the moment, images that bring me new insights into the world of my subject.
In this case, I was hoping for something a little more than what I knew and what I got was packed with exciting information about another species that lives near the water in east Tennessee and now thrives, despite the fact that it once was rapidly disappearing. The heron above seems to have landed on an empty nest. But nestled down in its center is his mate who soon rose up to greet him and received the fresh twig.
Below, another heron flies toward the lower level braces where he has positioned his nest. You can see his mate waiting expectantly for his arrival. As you move through the photos notice how the pair greet each other, erect their plumes and stretch their necks to display their plumage, a ritual that helps anchor their pair bond.

When I looked at these images, I saw what none of us could see in the few minutes it took to pass the rookery. That this moment was captured frame by frame in a time that spanned less than 60 seconds makes me feel even more privileged. It was one of those gifts of place and time that nature sometimes hands us unexpectedly. In fact, my whole experience on the cruise seemed to be like that.

While we wait a bit longer for the human version of spring to arrive, there is plenty of evidence in Tennessee’s bird community that spring is already underway.

To see the entire Blue Moon Cruise series click here.

Linked to Bird Photography Weekly #29 at in support of the conservation of our world's birds.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Striking Subadult Bald Eagle

When a juvenile bald eagle leaves the nest, it is a mostly dark bird with variable amounts of white mottling that is sometimes localized in patches. Its beak and cere (nostril area) are dark brown and its eyes are dark brown. The immature eagle then goes through a series of five annual partial molts as it changes into adult plummage, usually by year five, and becomes the mature bald eagle that we most often recognize with that flashing white head and tail. This beautiful subadult is probably into its third year of age, identified in part by that osprey-like look to his face, his yellowing cere and tawny but not dark beak. This I have on the opinion of a veteran birder observing him with me, only because I asked. And I did ask because I had never had the opportunity to see these facial markings before. Pretty striking, huh?He was resting on a sandbar as we passed the Hiwassee Island on our return trip to the marina. Eagles are known to perch on the ground as well as on limbs and dead knobs.And just before we encountered him, we spotted two more subadults in flight coming from the same area. He is believed to be the third of a group of subadults seen hanging out together over the winter. He sat quietly as we passed, then finally decided to lift off, presumably to join his buddies. Need I say what a gorgeous sight that was? The power in those wings... In all we saw seven bald eagles, two adults and five subadults.

This is the second of a series on my recent Blue Moon cruise on the Tennessee River. Click here to see the first post.

Next: herons displaying at the rookery.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bald Eagle Spring

How do we know its spring? For many it’s when the snow melts, when we can shed our coats or when the first blooms appear.But this week I've experienced a different view of spring through the activities of several bird species that are deep into pair bonding and nesting here in east Tennessee, in southeastern USA. It was fortuitous that I made the decision yesterday to take a voyage on the Blue Moon, down the Tennessee River, departing from the Sale Creek Marina in Soddy Daisy, TN. Today I awoke to a blanket of fresh snow! But the source of my contentment goes much deeper than weather. It rests with the richness of our natural world and those who have loved it enough to help preserve it.

My gratitude began even before I arrived at the marina. What I witnessed as I drove across the bridge over the Tennessee River on Hwy 30 brought tears to my eyes. With the golden pink of sunrise still glowing on the horizon, more than a thousand sandhill cranes rose in front of me, their bodies waving in long broken V’s, above me and below me, some at nearly eye level, shimmering like mythical winged creatures as they departed their roosts for feeding grounds or more northerly breeding destinations.

The awe of this one moment would have been enough to make my day but there was more to come.
Our 3.5 hour journey on the Blue Moon took us from the Hiwassee River to the Tennessee River, around the grassy Hiwassee Island and through the Hiwassee State Wildlife Refuge. This is the area where thousands of sandhill cranes and endangered whooping cranes stage and where waterfowl, shore birds and eagles spend their winter months. I expected to see a bald eagle or two on this trip, but I wasn't expecting what I witnessed--a pair of eagles at the nest. Above in the warm sunlight you see one eagle perched on the nest, the other, directly above, is partially concealed by a pine bough. Wintering eagles arrive in Tennessee in late October and their numbers peak by late January to early February. But nesting bald eagles remain in Tennessee year around and are generally incubating by February 10-15. While we watched, the eagle on the upper branch lifted from his perch.There were 14 active nests at Reelfoot Lake in western Tennessee in 1955. But Tennessee had no known successful eagle nests from 1961 until 1983. The hatching of one bald eaglet in 1983 marked the first known successful bald eagle nest in Tennessee in 22 years.Due largely to the banning of the insecticide DDT in the U.S. in 1972 and restoration efforts since 1976, bald eagle nests in the lower 48 states doubled about every 6 years from 1980 to 2001.
I had not seen a bald eagle in the wild until I visited the Hiwassee Wildlife refuge in 1999. It was there that I first encountered thousands of staging sandhill cranes, met organized birders with their scopes set up to bring them closer into view and witnessed my first bald and golden eagles in flight over head with identification help from veteran birders. And to add one more tidbit of history, in the early 60's, greater sandhill cranes were only suspected as migrating through Tennessee but rarely observed.

And so yesterday's journey took me full circle. It's February of 2009, exactly ten years later and I have again witnessed thousands of sandhill cranes and topped it off with a pair of bald eagles at their nest and I can't help but feel immeasurable gratitude.

We humans would be a formidable species indeed, if every individual on the planet joined forces to revere and preserve the beauty and balance of our natural world in the same manner that many championed our bald eagles. World peace and prosperity would surely follow.
Above, our hosts on the Blue Moon cruise. From left, Rick Houlk, one of the owners and cruise naturalist; yours truely; Will Ross, crew member; Dave Anderson, captain and interpreter.

Coming up: More highlights from the cruise--immature bald eagles, blue herons at the rookery; and in a separate story, a nesting pair of red-shouldered hawks.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Greater Sandhill Cranes—Are We Dancing?

I’m leaving the backyard for a bit to muse about sandhill cranes and their enchanting behavior, a species that captured my heart about ten years ago. But I'm not alone. People have watched them for centuries and used their behavior to symbolize good health, long life, peace and happiness.
And this reverence is well-earned. Like many animal and bird species, cranes mate for life, are territorial and protective of their families, and show emotion, including grief when a mate is lost. Sandhill cranes migrate in large flocks of family groups. You hear them even before you see them, that wonderful melodious call that fills the air and causes you to look up with wonder. And then you hear the tiny "peeps". The juveniles, though nearly the size of their parents, still have their chick voices until their vocal chords mature sometime near the end of their first year.
Animal behavior has always been one of my loves, second only to people behavior. So it was with great pleasure that I attended an eight-hour crane behavior workshop at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in San Antonio, New Mexico several years ago.Sandhill cranes are peace-loving birds but it is their wonderful array of postural communication that allows them to co-exist in harmony while in wintering flocks of thousands. Though they do not require a large territory while staging, they still have territorial boundaries within the feeding area and they protect their feeding space with determination.
The crane above is not dancing. Though elegant and full of grace, he is displaying aggression. Cranes use a variety of postures and vocalizations to let intruders know they aren’t welcome.

Among the postures are the head down position below, showing the bald red patch which can be engorged with blood to intensify color and display aggression or excitement.Above you see a crane family with the male in front with head down, the juvenile in the middle and the female in the back. You will see some mud stains on the adults from painting themselves, a ritual that is of uncertain purpose but believed to be a part of courtship and an assist to camouflage while nesting.
Notice that the juvenile below still has rust feathers on his head and his wings and he has not yet developed the adult white facial marking. The rust feathers on the juvenile are more uniform in appearance than the painted mud stains on adult breeding birds.

The feather ruffling you see below serves as a mild threat called a ruffle threat--a general expression, "you better not mess with me".

And the crane below, after issuing some warning calls, is getting into some serious displays of attitude and intent to defend his feeding territory.
These behaviors are usually sufficient to cause the intruder to back off. But when retreat does not occur the dispute intensifies and dust flies.
Cranes avoid physical disputes whenever possible using calls and posturing. When disagreements escalate to the point of contact, they are settled rapidly and peace is restored. Maybe the human species could learn a few pointers from cranes.
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For the Love of It...

...the sage sees heaven reflected in Nature as in a mirror, and he pursues this Art, not for the sake of gold or silver, but for the love of the knowledge which it reveals.
Sendivogius (1750)

Your Uncapped Creativity...

Your Uncapped Creativity...
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. You must keep that channel open. It is not for you to determine how good it is, nor how valuable. Nor how it compares with other expressions. It is for you to keep it yours, clearly and directly." ----the great dancer, Martha Graham