Wood Ducks at Huntley Meadows

Male-Wood-Duck-in-TreeAt sunrise last weekend and again today, I went to Huntley Meadows Park in northern Virginia with the hope of seeing and photographing Wood Ducks. I heard and confirmed on eBird that they were there. If you follow my blog, you know that Wood Ducks are high on my list of photography goals. The reason is simple: the male Wood Duck is one of nature’s most beautiful waterfowl with its iridescent colors and bright red eyes and, although not nearly as colorful, the female is very attractive as well. They are found only in North America and are second, only to the Mallard, as the most hunted duck, which is probably why they seem to be so timid and quick to hide or leave when people approach. That has been my experience, making photographing them very challenging.

Huntley Meadows is located in Fairfax County in northern Virginia within a short drive to Washington, DC. It is a natural oasis in the middle of a very dense suburban area of houses, condos, apartments, strip malls, fast food restaurants, highways, and an airport close enough that the sound of arriving passenger planes is often very loud, partially drowning out the sounds of Nature. The park  consists of 1,500 acres of unspoiled meadows, freshwater marshes and wetlands, and hardwood forests, which is the perfect habitat for Wood Ducks.

Wood-Duck-in-Tree

Most wildlife are very active in the early morning. That is when Wood Ducks inspect potential tree cavities for nesting and what the first pair of Wood Ducks that I saw were doing. I later observed the same behavior, and at both times, the tree cavities were far up in the trees, at least 75 feet. Below is a pair of ducks high up a very large tree, and the male can be seen watching me closely, as the female poked her head out of a possible nest. Their nests are typically close to the water. Females lay between 7 – 15 eggs, and Wood Ducks that live in the south often raise two broods per season.

Male-&-Female-Wood-Ducks-1 Male-&-Female-Wood-Ducks-1-cropped

Did you know that Wood Ducks spend a lot of time in trees and nest in trees? They are one of the few ducks that are well adapted for tree dwelling. Their webbed feet are equipped with strong claws that enable them to perch on trees and grip bark. If Wood Ducks use tree cavities high off the ground for nests, do you know how their young ducklings get to the water after hatching? They claw their way to the cavity entrance and jump. Wood Duck ducklings can survive falls of almost 300 feet, uninjured. When they land on, or I should say fall to, the ground, they scramble to the water.  What a way to be welcomed into the world.

(Below image of female Wood Duck at a nesting cavity very high in a tree, and unfortunately, well covered from my view by branches.)

Female-Wood-Duck-at-Nesting-Cavity

As you can see from the images in this article, I had some success in photographing Wood Ducks at Huntley Meadows last weekend. However, today was disappointing. The one Wood Duck that I saw was a female, and she flew deep into a heavily wooded area about the same time that I saw her, which was fine, since a photograph of a duck on top of a nesting box was not what I was after.

The following images are of a male and a female Wood Duck, and although thankful to have captured them, they are not perfect, but better than what I got today…nothing. What helps to “make” these images, and those above, is that the trees do not have leaves yet, making the ducks stand out and their coloring more striking. Regardless, it was still very difficult to locate the ducks and get these images, because of the many trees and branches obstructing my view in the heavily wooded forest.

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Female-Wood-Duck-in-Trees

To say I am excited about finding Wood Ducks and getting some decent images of them is an understatement, but what excites me more is the potential to photograph the Huntley Meadows Wood Ducks over the next few months as they continue to nest and raise their young. A perfectly exposed and tack sharp image of a male and female Wood Duck followed by a group of ducklings composed in a natural setting would be the image to achieve my Wood Duck photography goal. When I get that image, it will posted on my blog within hours.

The images in this article were photographed with a Nikon D800, using a Nikkor 600mm f4 VRII lens and TC14 Teleconverter and mounted on a Wimberley gimbal head and Gitzo Mountaineer tripod.

Posted in Bird Photographs, National and State Parks, Nature, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , | 13 Comments

Bombay Hook and Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuges

Snow-Geese-Lift-Off-at-Sunrise-at-PHNWRHaving received reliable reports of significant numbers of Snow Geese in the marshes and wetlands along the Delaware Bay, I went to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and Prime Hook NWR. I went with two friends, who also are passionate, experienced photographers that enjoy being outdoors even on very cold, windy mornings, which is how it was two weeks ago.

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We left Friday afternoon around 3:00 and arrived at Bombay Hook NWR just before sunset, which was early enough for us to scope out the area for wildlife (in particular, Snow Geese) and look for the best location to shoot the sunrise the next morning. Sunset was pretty, but not special (above image). I have seen some awesome sunsets from the same location on other visits (two examples below from last year). Although we saw a lot of Snow Geese in farm fields near the refuge, there were none in Bombay Hook’s tidal pools and marshes. However, we did see some small groups of geese flying nearby; therefore, we hoped more would arrive later and spend the night at the refuge.

Sunset at Bombay Hook NWR 7Sunset at Bombay Hook NWR with DucksMillions of Snow Geese migrate to the mid-Atlantic area from the Canadian tundra, where they breed during the summer. The Snow Geese, safe in tremendous flocks, roost overnight in saltwater tidal pools and marshes to avoid predators, like foxes. They also spend evenings in large groups on the bay along the shoreline. Then at dawn, as the sun rises, the geese take off in small or very large groups and, at times, in tremendous flocks of hundreds of thousands of geese, all usually heading west to feed in nearby farm fields. This incredible sight, when thousands of Snow Geese take off, is known as a “blast off,” because the geese explode out of the water into the sky making a thunderous sound from their flapping wings accompanied by their constant loud squawking. It is an unforgettable sight and sound. (The following link is to my blog article from last year’s Snow Geese experience.  https://stevetabone.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/snow-geese-at-prime-hook-national-wildlife-refuge/)

Twilight-at-Bombay-Hook-NWROn Saturday morning, we started out early, leaving the hotel at 0450. We arrived at the refuge before sunrise, at twilight, when the sun’s light was illuminating the horizon. The colors were spectacular, and the horizon was glowing in brilliant shades of orange and yellow. It turned out to be a beautiful sunrise, cold, but we had the refuge to ourselves, making it even better.

BHNWR-Windy-and-Cold-February-Sunrise-2After photographing the sunrise, we worked our way around the refuge’s nature drive looking for wildlife and attractive, sunlit landscapes. We did not find a lot of wildlife. There were a few Tundra Swans, some Canada Geese and Shoveler Ducks, a few Pintails and Bufflehead Ducks, plenty of Coots, and an occasional Great Blue Heron.

Belted-Kingfisher-2Before heading south to Prime Hook, we stopped to photograph a female Belted Kingfisher. Kingfishers are typically very active, fast, and entertaining. This kingfisher moved within a nearby tree hanging over a creek, staying in sight for over 30 minutes, while we filled our memory cards with her images. It was as though she was posing for us. This does not happen often. The below image of the kingfisher with her beak wide open was the final shot of a series of images when she was stretching and yawning. We must have been boring her.

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It was late afternoon when we arrived at Prime Hook NWR. Again, we hoped to find a lot of Snow Geese, or at a minimum, Snow Geese heading to the refuge for the evening, but they were not around. While there, we met a local resident whose home is on the beach; there is a small strip of land and beach within the refuge with bay front homes. He said he had been seen thousands of Snow Geese, about 4 out of 7 days a week. Unfortunately, it looked like it was going to be one of those days when the geese did not return. Nevertheless, we agreed to return at sunrise with hopes of finding them there. It was the same location where I had seen and photographed over 200,000 geese last year. Therefore, we were hopeful.

Sunrise-at-Prime-Hook-NWRSunday morning was another early day. Starting out from the hotel at 0500, we arrived at Prime Hook before sunrise and could hear Snow Geese, but could not tell how many. As the sun rose and it got brighter, we could see that there were at least 20,000 geese. My excitement rose as we prepared to photograph them. It was very cold, but I was not thinking about the weather; rather, I was thinking about where to be best located to photograph the Snow Geese while they were on the water, as well as when they took off. I left my friends and headed back up a dirt road that paralleled the water until I was as close as I could get to see and photograph the geese.

After arriving at the better location and setting up my camera (Nikon D800 with 600mm lens), it was not too long before the Snow Geese became louder and very restless. Many small groups were beginning to take flight, leaving behind the majority of the geese. However, it was not long before all the remaining Snow Geese, at least 15,000, took flight and blasted out of the water almost in unison. It was exciting to see and hear. One minute, it was very noisy with the loud constant squawking of the geese, but then they were quickly gone, and it was dead silent. We left too, but it was too early to head home.

I also videoed a fairly large group of Snow Geese as they began to stir in the morning light, moving around in and out of the water. Below is the video, followed by a serious of images of the Snow Geese lifting off and beginning their flight inland to feed. (Turn your speakers on to hear the geese.)

Snow-Geese-at-Sunrise-Prime-Hook-NWRFlock-of-Snow-Geese-at-Prime-Hook

Snow-Geese-Lift-Off-at-PHNWRSince it was early, we decided to head to Blackwater NWR to see if there was anything happening there. About two hours later, we arrived and drove through the refuge. It was very quiet, more people than critters, and less activity than I have ever experienced at Blackwater. It was cold and windy— everything must have been huddling out of the wind. It would have been very disappointing, but I was still excited from seeing the Snow Geese blast off just a few hours earlier.

Shortly after entering Blackwater NWR, we stopped and entered a wooded area to locate an eagle’s nest (below image) to see if there was any visible activity, but there was none to be seen. However, I heard from a reliable source that there was an eagle sitting on eggs in that nest. She was probably there, but down low in the nest out of the wind.

Eagle-Nest-BNWR

It was a fabulous weekend with friends, photography, and some of Nature’s spectacular beauty.

Posted in National and State Parks, Nature, sunrise, Sunset, Wildlife | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Keel-billed Toucans, Pico Bonito National Park, Honduras

Toucan-in-Tree

If you have been following my blog recently, you know that in late January/early February, I was at Pico Bonito National Park, in Honduras. Pico Bonito National Park is a pristine neotropical environment consisting of rainforests and cloud forests. The park encompasses the Cordillera Nombre de Dios mountain range and is the perfect, unspoiled habitat to an extraordinary variety of wildlife and about 400 species of birds.

Keeled-billed-Toucan-in-Tree

Prior to going to Honduras, and having researched Pico Bonito, I noted that it was the home to Keel-billed Toucans. I was hoping to see at least one toucan and excited that I might be able to photograph one. I had seen toucans in captivity many times, but never in their own environment. They were on the top of my list of wildlife to see and photograph.

Keel-billed Toucans are also known as Rainbow-billed Toucans, for obvious reasons. They are large birds ranging between 17 to 22 inches in length, which includes their bill. Their very large bill is about one-third of their length, and although it appears very cumbersome, it is very light, mostly hollow, and covered in keratin–the same protein substance in human hair and fingernails.

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Keel-billed Toucans have blue legs and feet, which compliment their very colorful bodies and bills. Their feet also are unusual because they have two toes facing forward and two facing back, which helps them hold on to and hop from tree branch to tree branch, which is where they spend most of their time.

Keel-billed-Toucan-Feeding

The toucans were most active early in the morning and at dusk, and were located high in the top of trees. They eat mostly fruit and berries, but also eat insects, bird eggs, reptiles, and tree frogs. It was interesting seeing them feed, because they grabbed the fruit in the end of their bill, and tossed it up and swallowed it whole.

Keel-billed-Toucan-22

Keel-billed Toucans are very social birds and are rarely seen alone. Most of the toucans that I saw were in pairs, and the males and females were indistinguishable. They nest in tree cavities and raise one to five young. Both the male and female incubate the eggs and take turns feeding them. Unfortunately, when I was in Honduras, the toucans were not nesting. I was told that they lay their eggs and raise their young in late February and March.

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As you can see from the images in this article, I was very fortunate to not only see toucans, but also to photograph them in several locations. I did not see many, but I did see at least one or two pairs everyday, and I was thrilled to see them each time.

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All of the images in this article were photographed with a Nikon D800, 600mm f4 VRII lens and TC14 teleconverter, and using an SB900 Speedlight with a Better Beamer. The toucans may appear close in these images, but they were far up in the tree top canopy and often backlit, shaded, or in the dim light of the early morning or very late afternoon sun.

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Rio Santiago Hummingbirds

Rufous-tailed-Hummingbird

While in Honduras last February and staying at the Lodge at Pico Bonito, my guide for the day, German Martinez, who was assisting me locate wildlife in Pico Bonito National Park, told me about a “hummingbird sanctuary” about 30 minutes north of the lodge. He said, the sanctuary was home to hundreds of hummingbirds and as many as 10 different species. It was known as Rio Santiago, probably because it was located near the Santiago River.

Violet Sabrewing (male)

German definitely had me very interested. I had attempted to photograph the many hummingbirds that were around the lodge, but their fast and sporadic movement made them very difficult to photograph unless they perched on a nearby tree or bush, and I was not satisfied with what I had captured so far. Therefore, it was an easy decision to travel out of Pico Bonito, although I had no idea what to really expect based solely on German’s vague description. I wondered: would there really be many hummingbirds; at what distance would they be from me and my camera; what would the light be like to photograph them; would it be heavily wooded and shady or more open with harsh afternoon sunlight; and would I lose an afternoon of exploring and photography around Pico Bonito, if the hummingbird sanctuary did not work out. There was only one way to find out, we would go the next afternoon.

Long-billed Hermit

The lodge furnished a vehicle and driver, and German and I left for Rio Santiago after lunch. We drove north from the lodge for about 30 minutes and turned west on a narrow, rugged dirt road. I asked German how far up the dirt road we were going, and he replied about 4 kilometers. It seemed more like 10 kms, because the road was winding and very rough, and it had very recently rained so it was also muddy. As we drove up the dirt road, we passed many small, ramshackle homes, typical of how many Hondurans live in the rural areas, and it was very rural. There were chickens crossing the road, loose dogs running about, and a few Hondurans walking with machetes. I asked about them.

The mountain range, called Cordillera Nombre de Dios, which is encompassed by the Pico Bonito National Park, grew closer as we drove the dirt road. It was very overcast, but it was also very beautiful and green. It was a significant contrast to home in wintery Virginia. Where were they taking me, I wondered as the van slowly made it around and through large ruts and holes in the dirt road, and what was this place going to be like?

Violet-crowned Woodnymph (male)

Eventually, we arrived at the Rio Santiago “hummingbird sanctuary,” which turned out to be the private property of Terry Habdas, who is a Canadian that lives on 80 acres that abut to Pico Bonito National Park. Terry had about fifty hummingbird feeders around a facility that catered to visitors that came to see the hummingbirds. German had not exaggerated; there were easily a couple hundred hummingbirds buzzing around from feeder to feeder, bush to bush, and tree to tree. They were flying all around us and within what seemed like inches at times as they buzzed by. They were like little jet fighters often buzzing each other, because they are very territorial. After arriving, I couldn’t get my camera gear set up fast enough and start photographing.

German told me that Terry goes through over 80 pounds of sugar a week feeding the hummingbirds. Terry also had staff that were refilling the feeders for the next morning. They start to feed early.

White-necked Jacobin (male)

Terry stayed with us most of the afternoon and watched as I photographed the hummingbirds, switching between two different camera bodies and different lenses. It was very overcast, which actually worked out well, minimizing what otherwise would have been harsh afternoon light. In order to photograph the extremely fast hummingbirds in the dim light, I used a Nikon SB900 speedlight (flash) and Better Beamer, a device that attaches to the speedlight and extends the reach of the light, as well as focusing the light on the subject.

Rufus-tailed Hummingbird

Then, the heavily clouded sky opened up, and it began to pour. It slowed the hummingbirds down a little, but they continued the fly about in the rain. Several perched in a nearby tree and took advantage of the pouring rain to take a “shower,” flapping their wings vigorously and making very interesting images (below three images).

Violet-crowned Woodnymph (male)

Violet-crowned Woodnymph (male)

Violet Sabrewing (imm. male)

We did not leave Rio Santiago until about 4:30. I thanked Terry for his warm hospitality and conversation. Terry told me never gets tired of watching the hummingbirds, and I agreed, they were fascinating to watch.

Violet Sabrewing (imm. male)

It turned out to be an incredible afternoon. I probably will never see that many hummingbirds in one location again, unless I return there. I was able to photograph six of the ten hummingbird species that inhabit Rio Santiago.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph (imm. male)

You can see many more of my hummingbird images on my website at: http://stabone.com/p90686516 Each of them is identified for those that want to know  the type of hummingbird.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph (male)

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Collared Aracaris at Pico Bonito, Honduras

Aracari While at Pico Bonito National Park, Honduras, in late January and early February, I fulfilled my expectations of photographing many amazing birds and wildlife. It was my first time there, and I did not know what to expect–that is, how difficult it would be to find and photograph Honduras’ wildlife. I also did not know how often it would rain in Honduras’ rainforests, where rain certainly was expected, and where rain could make it difficult to impossible to be outdoors with photography equipment that could easily be seriously damaged. As it turned out, it only rained one afternoon and a couple of evenings. Therefore, rain was not a factor. Nevertheless, I was prepared with all kinds of rain protective coverings for my gear, but it was never used or needed.

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Other than the weather, the other two key considerations potentially impacting fulfilling my expectations were (1) would the wildlife be where I was at the time I was there, and (2) how difficult would it be to get a good photograph considering the availability of light and whether the wildlife would be visible enough to get clear shots in a jungle/rainforest environment. Again, like the cooperation of the weather, it turned out there was an abundance and tremendous diversity of wildlife, in particular birds of various species.

Regardless, it was a challenge and work (term “work” used loosely, because I loved very minute of it) to get good images of the wildlife and birds that were often hidden in the thick, lush and shaded rainforest vegetation and that were most often moving about and trying their best not to be seen and blend into the environment. It was also “work,” because I was lugging around all day over 25 pounds of camera gear on rainforest trails trying to avoid falling or dropping my camera, which consisted of a Nikon D800 with a battery grip, 600mm lens with a TC14 teleconverter mounted on a Wimberley head on a Gitzo tripod and a speedlight with a Better Beamer. On a couple of days, I also carried a second camera, Nikon D700 with either a 24-70mm or 70-200mm lens. Miraculously, I did not slip and fall or drop my cameras, but I was constantly soaked from the rainforest’s heat and humidity. Sounds bad, but it was a fabulous experience.Aracari-in-Tree-02-22

While there, I started out each day around 0630 meeting my guide after an early breakfast, and we would stay out wandering around the trails leading from the Lodge at Pico Bonito, where I was staying. A couple of mornings, I skipped breakfast or lunch in order to stay out on the trails. I also chose to stay at Pico Bonito, when the group I was traveling with went to the coast for the day.  Later in the week, I decided to stay at Pico Bonito for two more days after the group departed for Copan near the west coast to see Mayan ruins. It was very tempting to go with the group to the coast and to Copan, but I was intent on seeing and photographing the wildlife in Pico Bonito. As it turned out, the days I remained at Pico Bonito alone with my guides were very productive and I was able to see and photograph many more birds and other wildlife.

Aracari-Wings-Stretching

One of the birds that I was able to see and photograph on several days were Collared Aracaris, which are fairly common in lowland areas. Of all of the birds and wildlife I saw, the Aracaris were my favorite, although the Keel-billed Toucans and Motmots come in as a close second. The images in this article are of Collared Aracaris.

Avacari-Upside-Down-Feeding

Collared Aracaris are related to Toucans and have similar large, oversized bills–about 4 inches in length. Their antics were very interesting to watch as they fed in the trees overhead. They are highly social birds and are generally seen in pairs or small groups. Males are indistinguishable from females.

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Aracari-Entering-Nest-in-Tree

As you can see in the images in this article, they are very colorful with bright yellow chests and a large patch of red feathers on their lower bodies above their tails. They eat the fruit from Cecropia and palm trees, as well as insects, small reptiles, eggs, and sometimes even other fledgling birds.

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Collared Aracaris live and breed from Mexico through Central America. They nest in tree cavities, as seen in the above and below images. I was fortunate to see and photograph this Aracari thanks to Elmer Escoto, the guide that spent the day with me on my last day at the Lodge at Pico Bonito. I told Elmer when we met early in the morning the birds I hoped to photograph on that last day, and high on my list were Toucans and Aracaris. Elmer’s timing in taking me to a nest was perfect, since a pair of Aracaris were working on the nest to prepare it for a new brood. According to Elmer, it was too early for them to have laid eggs, and as he pointed out, their bills were scratched from working in the nest. In fact, in some of my images, I could see the Aracari removing debris from the nest hole in the tree.

Collared-Aracari-Looking-Out-of-Nest

As you can see from the images in this article and others on my website, my expectations were highly exceeded.

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