Capturing critters: Solstice edition

It’s been exactly a year since I started shooting with the Nikon my kids gave me, hoping  it would get me out of the house and give me something to do in my dotage. 

It worked. Maybe too well.

There are times I fear I’m turning into a psycho bird photographer and/or a social-media slut.

This spring, as the weather improved and daylight lingered, I found myself going out twice and sometimes three times a day in search of feathered prey and the perfect picture. 

Spent way too much time obsessing over my failure to capture the smorgasbord of warblers and other pint-sized migrants supposedly infesting my neck of the Canadian woods. Got pissed off every time I saw a colorful little bird flitting around in the treetops, only to depart with the exit velocity of a Giancarlo Stanton homer when I raised my camera.

About all I got for the effort were a couple of decent shots of brightly hued transients …

Yellow warbler
Baltimore oriole

… and a serious case of warbler neck that still has me rubbing on Icy Hot and gobbling extra-strength Tylenol.

I have to keep reminding myself that I’m just a point-and-shoot hack with a camera – and accept that big birds and mammals are more my speed. 

Herons at Sam Smith park off Lake Ontario in Toronto have been especially cooperative.

Black-crowned night heron, late April
Juvenile black-crown, late May
Green heron

That green heron, which landed on a log right in front of me in early May, may be my best photograph yet.

Though a contender is this one from among fifty-odd frames of a great blue taken last week at Sam Smith. 

Most days, I also spend about an hour before sunset walking the trails in the Rattray Marsh near home. 

Lately, deer appear nearly every evening. Often up close.

Coyotes and foxes sometimes cross my path.

I shoot anything that moves and comes into focus. Reflexes aren’t bad for an alte kaker

I’ve shot squirrels and chipmunks and rabbits and raccoons and beaver and muskrats and minks only because they’ve made my trigger finger twitch. Really don’t interest me. 

Neither do turtles, frogs and all their reptilian and amphibian kin. Ditto insects. 

Post photos daily on Facebook and/or Instagram, seeking approval of my work from friends, acquaintances and strangers. Likes are the currency of my new economy. 

The other day, a neighbor approached my car as I was pulling out of the driveway. I lowered the window.

“Writing anything new?” she asked.

“Nope,” I said, lifting the camera off the passenger seat. “I take pictures now.” 

My book, The Expat Files: My Life is Journalism, is available in print and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

Capturing critters: A walk in the woods

I borrowed the subtitle from the Bill Bryson book and the movie of the same name with Robert Redford. 

But while Bryson tried – and failed – to walk the 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail, my woods is about the length of a city block.

My daughters used to play in these woods, way back in the 20th century when kids went out to play.

And, these woods became an oasis for me a year ago, when my usual haunt, the Rattray Marsh, was barricaded in the first pandemic panic. I’ve gone back more often recently, as fair-weather tourists crowd the trails in the marsh. 

I was in these woods a couple of Sundays ago when I came across a woman with her granddaughter. 

 After saying hello through our masks, she asked: “Want to see a screech owl?”

“You bet,” I said. 

After a lot of pointing – by her – and squinting – by me – I finally focused on the little owl tucked into a hole high in a tree

Gray owl in gray tree. Gray afternoon. Full camo. 

I wouldn’t have spotted it on my own if the owl had been screeching The Battle Hymn of the Republic.  

A few hours later, with a low sun breaking through the clouds, I went back, hoping the owl might be catching some rays.

Since then, I’ve stopped by every day. Most days the owl is in the same hole. Eyes closed. Unperturbed. Unmoving. Uncooperative, photographically speaking.

 I sometimes wait until dusk, hoping it will fly to a nearby perch before a nightly hunt. No such luck.

But, on an evening early this week, there was action nearby. I turned to find a read-tailed hawk on a low branch.

It seemed oblivious to my presence or that of a couple of kids on bikes who rode under it with music blaring.

And, while I was shooting the hawk, I heard the Keith Moon of woodpeckers drumming somewhere far behind me.

I followed the sporadic, echoing sound, stumbled around in the underbrush, and finally spotted the pileated perpetrator.  

It was really high. Really dark. I was bummed with the results of my effort.

So, with the sun shining the next afternoon, I returned – and found about a half-dozen enthusiasts, two with bazooka-sized lenses, stalking my prey.

Seems the birding tom-toms had been beating in faraway Toronto, sending this bunch to my little woods in the suburbs..

No matter. We all caught a nice show as this pileated woodpecker did its thing.

My book, The Expat Files: My Life is Journalism, is available in print and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

Capturing critters: Equinox edition

I always thought the seasons change on the 21st. But the calendar says today is the vernal equinox, whatever the hell that is, so I guess it’s spring.

Already warmer than yesterday, when I was freezing my ass off shooting a loon in a marina off Lake Ontario. 

Last time I saw a loon at this time of year was on San Carlos Bay off Sanibel Island. Thought it looked weird then in its drab gray winter outfit.

Weirder still when the windchill reminds you it’s months before Ethel and Norman open the camp On Golden Pond.

This year has been time of discovery for me. Had no idea so many visitors from the north consider southern Ontario a swell place to spend the winter, or portions of it anyway.

Saw this snowy owl in early March, before it headed back to the Arctic.

Mostly, though, I’ve focused on a smorgasbord of ducks that dive into icy waters. Have developed a particular fondness for mergansers – great hairdos – in all three flavors.

Hooded merganser, December
Female common merganser, late January
Male red-breasted merganser, early March

Shot a lot of long-tailed ducks and buffleheads these past months with little satisfaction, except when the light playing on the water painted a pretty picture. 

Male bufflehead
Female long-tailed duck

Scaup have been abundant  since January …

 as have goldeneye.

Redheads showed up for a spell. Had never seen one before. 

Quite attractive, though my favorite redheads remain Rita Hayworth and my daughter Kate.

I share many of my best shots on sometimes-social media sites. Discovered #waterfowl on Instagram attracts burly bearded guys in camo, who post photos of themselves posing with shotguns and rows of dead ducks.

My book, The Expat Files: My Life is Journalism, is available in print and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

Capturing critters: Mystery of the white raptor

I was following my usual path alongside Lake Ontario when I spotted a large white bird in a far off group of trees.

I managed only a couple of clear shots – there was a fence with a No Trespassing sign and a bunch of branches between us – before it flew off. 

When I looked at the images I was left with a mystery. What is it?

My bird books and online resources were no help identifying the white raptor. I posted the photo on Facebook, with a plea.

Birder friends:

Anyone know what this is?

When perched, a second earlier, all I could see was white.

The only reply with a possible ID came with a question mark:

A gyrfalcon, white phase? 

I went back to the books and online. Gyrfalcon didn’t match.

I turned to Sam at Birdzilla.com, who’d come through for me before. But I hadn’t heard back when, more than a week later, I saw the same bird – or its twin – in roughly the same place.

I sent this photo to Sam, in case he had missed my original query. This time, eleven days after my first sighting, I received the answer:

It is a beautiful bird.  I think it is a leucistic Red-tailed Hawk.

I learned that leucistic is a partial loss of pigmentation in animals, not to be confused with the albino assassin in The Da Vinci Code.

Sam had suggested I send the images to Birds Canada.  

I did. And got a quick reply from Ellen Jakubowski, communications specialist:

It’s great to connect with you and see your photos of this unique and beautiful leucistic bird. It can be quite a head-scratcher to encounter leucistic birds in the wild – they don’t look quite like anything in the field guide! On this bird, it is helpful that it has that bit of red on the tail. Very interesting and thanks again for sending these along.

 Good birding.

My book, The Expat Files: My Life is Journalism, is available in print and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

Capturing critters: The birding game

I stopped on a path through the trees in my neighborhood, a safe distance from where a middle-aged man with a snarly dog was looking skyward.

“Lots of birds today,” he said, “black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, and, of course, that downy woodpecker.”

I focused on the woodpecker, waiting for a pause in its hammering to take a couple of shots with my Nikon.

Soon after the guy with the nasty mutt moved on, a white-haired gentleman with binoculars approached.

“You a birder?” he asked.

“Not really,” I said, having always defined a birder as someone who could distinguish one sparrow from another. “I  just like taking pictures of birds,” I added.

“Good day for it,” he said, before introducing himself as Bill. 

“Hairy woodpecker,” Bill the Birder said of the critter still splintering wood.

“Not a downy?” I said.

He looked through his binoculars. “Hairy,” he proclaimed, “bigger than a downy, with a longer beak.”

It was just before noon on a weekday in early March. Sun shining. Blue sky. Temperature a balmy few degrees above freezing in suburban Toronto.

We socially distanced for a few more minutes, Bill pointing out a red-breasted nuthatch commuting between the trees and a backyard feeder.  

I raised my long lens toward a far off treetop. “Goldfinch in winter plumage,” I said.

Let’s stop right here. I’m full of shit. 

The day before, I discovered a service at Birdzilla.com that allowed me to email my fuzzy photo of a small bird with a greenish breast, with the promise of a an ID.

Thirteen hours later, Sam the Birdman replied: Looks like an American goldfinch in winter plumage.

So, why did I play a con on Bill? No clue. Makes no sense. Have little interest in little birds that come in more varieties than Heinz makes condiments.  

I resumed my walk around Walden Spinney, a complex of townhouses built in the 1980s with of its trees left standing. Thus: Spinney.

The Walden name is questionable, though the community swimming pool has a sign that reads: Walden Pond.

We, too, are out, obeying the same law with all nature. Not less important are the observers of the birds than the birds themselves. – Thoreau

Farther along the path, a lady in a flowery housecoat  shouted from her back deck, “What are you taking pictures of?” Not sure if it was an accusation or a question.

“A mourning dove,” I replied. 

“Did you see the eagle?” she asked.

I did see a pair of bald eagles off Lake Ontario on Valentine’s Day, but didn’t think that was the question.

Before I could answer, she corrected herself. “I mean red-tailed hawk.”

I knew there was a hawk in the neighborhood. My wife Linda had seen it walking the dog on a recent morning. 

“It was on my roof yesterday,” the lady in the housecoat went on. “Hope it doesn’t make a nest on my roof.”

“Think you’re safe,” I said. Apparently relieved she would not have to call a raptor exterminator, she went inside.

Then, as if on cue, a red-tailed hawk swooped over my head and rose onto the branch of a nearby tree. I walked around Walden Pond to get a clear shot.

“You taking pictures of birds?” came a voice from behind me. I turned to face a maskless schlumpy guy in a tracksuit. 

“Yeah,” I said through my mask.

“That’s okay,” he said. 

With his permission, I went back to shooting the hawk. 

“Whoa, that’s a big bird.” The schlumpy guy wasn’t finished.

“Red-tailed hawk,” I said.

“I hear they’re eating all the squirrels in the neighborhood,” he said.

“Good,” I stamped an end to the conversation.

He walked on. I stayed with the hawk until it flew off.

A few minutes later I saw it soaring in the suburban blue yonder.

 —

My book, The Expat Files: My Life is Journalism, is available in print and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

Capturing critters: Sedition symbolism?

The day after  his GOP comrades gave Agent Orange a free pass for inciting a deadly insurrection at the Capitol, I spotted a couple of bald eagles near my home on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario.

Can’t be certain they fled the USA overnight to protest the vote in the Senate.  Then again, they may have been sympathetic to the seditionists, if you buy Ben Franklin’s argument against the raptor being declared the symbol of the young country:

“The bald eagle is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly … Is too lazy to fish.”

 When I first came to Canada in the early ’70s, based in Vancouver as the UPI correspondent, a fellow barfly told me  the  Squamish River north of the city was lousy with bald eagles during the salmon run.

Fresh from my hometown of New York, I was aware bald eagles were facing extinction in the lower 48 states, but had never considered seeing one in the wild and didn’t know salmon ran.

I drove about an hour or so up to Squamish and, sure enough, there was a mob of eagles feasting on salmon carcasses along the shoreline. 

I wrote a feature for UPI. Still recall the lede:

 The national symbol of the United States is alive and well and living in British Columbia.

(I wasn’t the only lazy writer doing a take on Jacques Brel in those days.)

Around the same time, the U.S. put the bald eagle on the endangered species list and banned the use of DDT, the main culprit in its decline.

Since then, I’ve seen lots of bald eagles, mainly on the West Coast, but also when we lived on Lake Superior in the mid-’90s.

This was the first time I spotted them in southern Ontario. 

My book, The Expat Files: My Life is Journalism, is available in print and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

WTF, Canada?

Last month, a cousin in Manhattan sent me a photo of her receiving the COVID vaccine.

Since then, other family and friends across the United States – in New York, California, Florida, Georgia, Montana – my fellow geezers, have sent word they got the shot.

It seems the only challenge facing American oldsters is precisely where, when and whether to get the vaccine.  

Meanwhile here in Canada, with our famed healthcare system, the envy of Michael Moore and Bernie Sanders, I have no idea if or when the vaccine will be available. 

Could be spring. Summer. Fall. The twelfth of never.

Since governments are responsible – or chronically irresponsible – I  sent an email to my representative (MPP) in the Ontario legislature.

Sir:

As your constituents, my wife and I, both in our seventies, have no idea when/if we will be able to be vaccinated. Even our family doctor says she has received no information on when and how her patients will be able to get the vaccine.
While we are once again being asked to do our part to stop the spread — and have followed the rules for nearly a year now — our elected officials have done little to reassure us that they are fulfilling their responsibility to keep us safe.
What’s the plan for vaccinations? Is there one?  

You and your government have a duty to deliver the vaccine asap and keep the public informed on such life and death issues?

Thank you.

One minute later, I received a 612-word robo-reply that said nothing.

Two and a half hours later, at 9:35 p.m., a personal message from my MPP, Rudy Cuzzetto, informed me the holdup in distribution was the federal government’s fault. He suggested I contact my MP in Ottawa.

So, I sent the same message to Sven Spengemann.

Ten days later, Sven passed the buck back to Rudy. “The phased vaccination plan falls under provincial purview,” he wrote.

Last I looked, Canada ranks 44th in the percentage of its population vaccinated.

And all I’ve heard from Canada’s leaders, from PM Justin Trudeau on down, are excuses about how Canada has been screwed by the U.S., the EU, Big Pharma, and an outbreak of beaver fever in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

My book, The Expat Files: My Life is Journalism, is available in print and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

Capturing critters: Finding beauty in the pests of winter

Growing up in New York, I considered pigeons the roaches of the outdoors 

I agreed with “the concierge” in The Producers. “Dirty, disgusting, filthy, lice-ridden birds.”

Never had a problem with Tom Lehrer’s Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.

I rarely see pigeons in the suburbs of Toronto, where I’ve lived for nearly forty years and shifted my loathing to the feral flocks of starlings and Canada geese that litter the landscape when most of their environmentally pleasing cousins have gone south.

As black-and-white silhouettes in a distant treetop, starlings can present an intriguing Hitchcockian tableau.

But, I more often see hundreds swarming, behaving like escapees from an avian asylum.

Recently, though, I’ve focused on a couple of attractive strays from the mob. 

This one found its own branch to shake off the frenzy of its kin crowding the wires between utility poles on a busy street.

And I spotted another loner showing off all its glistening colors in a bush off Lake Ontario.

In the same Lakeside Park, I see thousands of Canada geese every day. 

They shit all over the beach and everywhere else they come ashore. 

Their incessant honking reminds me of stalled crosstown traffic in Midtown Manhattan at rush hour. They don’t shut up when airborne either, but, in the right light, present an image worthy of their wingspan. 

And, caught at the right moment of takeoff, one can appear pleasantly comical. 

My book, The Expat Files: My Life is Journalism, is available in print and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

Capturing critters: Day of the hawk

Walking a path beside Lake Ontario to my latest birding retreat on these coldest days of winter.  

Watch a common goldeneye body-surfing in the waves that have kicked up with the accelerating windchill.

Trudge along a rocky beach to a small pool where a lone female common merganser has been posing lately.

Nobody home today.

Back on the path, a starling alights on the branch of a tree. For me, these descendants of the Euro-trash set free in Central Park in the Gay Nineties have always been the roaches of the bird world.

But, when apart from their fussy flocks, they can appear quite fetching.

It’s about an hour before sundown on Groundhog Day. I focus on a downy woodpecker feeding its hammering habit with the adroitness of a contortionist. 

My route to this park, about five minutes from home, takes me down a road I call “Hawk Alley.” 

For months, I’ve often seen a red-tailed hawk perched on the trees and utility poles that line the road. But, every time I roll down the window or open the car door, the raptor flies away.

Now, while focused on the downy, I see through the viewfinder something big flying in dense woods.

Think it might be a pileated woodpecker, a creature I’ve been on the lookout for since my friend the Marsh Maven said they’ve been around. 

I walk about twenty yards, fighting my way through a jumble of thorny bushes to a small snow-covered clearing. Scan the trees. Nothing.

Go deeper into the thicket, climbing over downed trees. Look around. 

And there is a red-tailed hawk on a low-limb, just above eyelevel, somewhat obscured by branches, but only a dozen or so feet away.

I struggle to position myself for a clearer shot, while being poked by sharp sticks.

I watch the hawk ripping the flesh of an early-bird special.

Edge closer, boots crunching in the snow, twigs snapping at my side. The hawk hops to another branch, settles on its perch, keeping an eye on me.

I take dozens of pictures. Jazzed. 

Eventually, the big bird flies off. 

I head home in the gathering darkness along Hawk Alley.

My book, The Expat Files: My Life is Journalism, is available in print and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

Capturing critters: Where the birds are

As the calendar flipped to the new year, I was desperate to find feathered creatures to photograph during my escapes from pandemic purgatory.

Daily walks in the Rattray Marsh had become a daily bummer, struggling to be stirred by the occasional cardinal appearing like an orphaned Christmas tree ornament.

I live less than a mile from Lake Ontario. So, in mid-January, I began going down to the great lake, looking for action.

Besides the ever-present mallards and Canada geese, the first intriguing sign of life was a group of black and white ducks intermittently floating and diving in the chilly water about fifty yards offshore.

Later, at home, after puzzling over old bird books – National Geographic, Peterson’s – and internet birding sites, I  concluded they were long-tailed ducks. 

Maybe. Probably.

That was the beginning of an ongoing routine:

  1. Go to lakeside parks every day.
  2. Shoot whatever flies, floats, dives or dabbles. 
  3. Edit the images.
  4. Figure out what the hell it is. 

One early mystery was the scaup versus the goldeneye, which tend to hang out together to frustrate me.

This greater scaup – not to be confused with the lesser scaup – if, god forbid, you confuse such things – has a golden eye.

While the first goldeneye I captured, an otherwise attractive female, appears  to be suffering from a slight case of conjunctivitis.  (Or bad light.)

Fortunately, just the other day, a male goldeneye displayed its bright golden eye , as well as an open bill and weird-shaped head.

Classifying some ducks was less challenging. I was familiar with common mergansers of both sexes – female on top here.

And for some inexplicable reason, I knew a northern shoveler when I saw one.

Spotting all of these species was thrilling. Though I’ve lived near the lake for forty years, I had no idea so many different ducks spent their winters here.

My favorite is the male gadwall, with its subtle shades of gray, black and brown, the intricate weaving of its feathers.

Before distinguishing this handsome fellow amid a mob of mallards, I didn’t know a gadwall from a firewall. 

The greatest ID challenge turned out to be a gull.

I focused on this one cavorting with a gang of ring-billed gulls at the shoreline. It was considerably larger, with dissimilar coloring than its cousins.

After convening a panel of experts, it was identified as a herring gull.

Or maybe not.

My book, The Expat Files: My Life is Journalism, is available in print and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.