Assateague and Chincoteague

We didn’t have too much trouble spotting the famous wild horses and ponies of Assateague and Chincoteague. Immediately upon entering Assateague State Park, we came across a group grazing beside the road. Long unkempt manes add a dash of careless aloofness to their beauty.

WB_-DSC_1893

WB_-DSC_3215

WB_-DSC_3326

Although Assateague and Chincoteague are famous for these large (controlled) population of wild horses and ponies. I found both island to be a bird photographers dream, despite having visited in not the ideal season. Assateague’s and Chincoteague’s marshes support vast populations of cranes, herons and other wading birds; their proximity to the ocean brings gulls and terns to the refuge; the woods in the area house warblers, thrushes and other small birds; the abundant fish attract raptors like ospreys and eagles. Unsuprisingly we got a taste of them all.

WB_-DSC_1828

A Great Egret making a landing

WB_-DSC_5731

Another Great Egret on the hunt

WB_-DSC_2032

Common Terns abound

WB_-DSC_2649

An Eastern Kingbird

WB_-DSC_2791

A Pine Warbler

WB_-DSC_2910

A Yellow-throated Warbler

WB_-DSC_3005

A Great-blue Heron lifting off

WB_-DSC_3509

Common Tern at the Chincoteague Pier

WB_-DSC_3522

A Double-crested Cormorant basking in the sun

WB_-_DSC4842

The beach at Tom’s Cove is teeming with Sanderlings, scurrying about

WB_-DSC_5639

This Brown Thrasher was very well camouflaged, a hard bird to spot!

Both wildlife refuges support their avian inhabitants with an abundance of seafood. Everywhere we looked a bird was about to dine.

WB_-DSC_2313

For a Common Tern, a catch almost always ends with a chase

WB_-DSC_3995

A rare sight, a solitary Common Tern with its lunch

WB_-DSC_5852

This egret spent a few minutes violently shaking the fish before eating it…

WB_-DSC_5935

The fish wasn’t an easy swallow

WB_-DSC_6092

A Herring Gull

WB_-DSC_4140

Yet another gull (another Herring?) with a crab for its lunch

The best photographs however came in the wee morning hours at dawn on the last day of our vacation. We woke up well before sunrise and drove to Tom’s Cove, a south-east facing beach, in Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge.

I photographed the rising sun with the only lens I had, a 200-500mm telephoto. The sun’s shimmering outline, its flattened reflection on the sea below and the moment of capture – all make it work beautifully for me.

WB_-_DSC5134

Great Egrets are magnificent birds. The warm morning sunlight adds to their magnificence.

WB_-DSC_5199

WB_-DSC_5323

This light morning mist over the swamps and marshes of Chincoteague made for some beautiful scenes. Soft wispy lighting like this is a photographers delight.

WB_-_DSC5407-Pano

WB_-DSC_5527

WB_-DSC_5347

WB_-DSC_5377

WB_-DSC_5580

Horses in the mist

Bombay Hook Wildlife Refuge

When – 3rd and 10th July
Where – Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge

During our John Heinz Wildlife Refuge a fellow (more experienced) birder suggested we visit Bombay Hook Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. Unlike John Heinz, it is remote, located in the countryside. This, and the fact that it is a vast tidal marsh, enables several species of birds and small animals to thrive here. With our enthusiasm for birding quite high from recent successes, we visited Bombay Hook on successive weekends.

A single, unpaved road runs through the refuge. Vast sections of this road are along the many marshes here and it is quite common to just pull over alongside to bird watch or photograph. In some places, there are a few breakaway paths that lead to lookout towers that give a great overview of the marsh.

At this time of the year, in the summer, early mornings and late evenings are the best time for bird photography in wide open spaces. Once the sun gets higher up in the sky, blown highlights and heat haze are some of the problems one has to contend with. Since Bombay Hook is a short drive away from Philadelphia, only about an hour and a half, this allowed us to make early morning visits to the refuge, to get some photos in the soft warm light.

During both visits, we were impressed by the scale of the refuge’s ecosystem. Vast open marshland, teeming with small fish and snails and worms support a huge number of water birds. This photograph perhaps best represents the refuge – in one frame we have egrets, yellowlegs, herons and stilts.

Great Egrets are perhaps the commonest birds here, at least at this time of the year. They keep moving about the marshy plains in small groups. Every so often a few will swoop in from inaccessible areas of the refuge offering great opportunities to photograph them.

Snowy Egrets, distinguished from the Great Egrets by their smaller size, black beaks and yellow feet, are aplenty too.

Great Blue Herons, though fewer in number than the egrets are quite common as well. They seem to be more persistent hunters, and will spend longer on the marshes picking up fish and other critters.

In between the larger wading birds, smaller Lesser Yellowlegs dart about pecking at the shallow water and mud picking up worms and critters.

There are plenty of Avocets too. Their slender upward curved beaks are striking, you can’t miss them. This group of three gracefully flew in and started to swish about the shallow waters with their beaks to feed.

The Black-necked Stilt is a beautiful bird, with a spotless white body and deep black wings. It’s slender legs and narrow beak make a nice symmetry when in flight.

Glossy Ibises too visit the refuge. They are beautiful birds that glisten in the sun, but are deceptively difficult to photograph well. Most of my shots came out underexposed (I wasn’t quick enough to adjust the metering) and I had to pull the shadows in post which added noise. This one though came out quite clean.

Plovers like this Killdeer are abundant too. They tend to feed in big groups of about 10-12 individuals (called a season!). Maybe because of their smaller size, they typically feed around the edges of the marsh where the waters are shallower still and muddier, which sometimes brings them quite close to the drivable path.

With so many birds, and a rich ecosystem, raptors and vultures were bound to be around. Besides the omnipresent Turkey Vulture, we spotted Bald Eagles and a lone Golden Eagle too.

Although Bombay Hook is famous for water birds, it is home to a lot of other species too – marsh wrens, grosbeaks, blackbirds, terns and more. Starting late July (now), the concentration of such birds is expected to increase as more of them start their migration south. We’ll surely be making more trips to Bombay Hook.

Bald Eagle

When – 2nd July, 2017
Where – Peace Valley Park, along the long south-east side

Having spent a very fruitful day at the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge, we planned to spend an evening at Peace Valley Park, specifically in the small shallow swampy pool near the Nature Center. The aim was to photograph some great-blue herons and possibly some other wading birds which we knew roosted here. Little did we know that we’d get to photograph a Bald Eagle, that too in a ‘compromising’ situation.

We arrived at the park late afternoon and parked at the Nature Center. There was just one heron, hunting on the far side of the pool and slowly moving further away. Since it was still quite sunny we figured it would be a little while before more herons arrived. We decided to walk along the trail on the south-east side of the lake hoping to spot some woodpeckers and nuthatches.

It was here, about a half-mile from the bridge and along the trail that we spotted a bald eagle overhead, flying away from the lake. As we walked further, the eagle returned and swiftly flew across the lake towards the woods on the north-west side. We guessed it was shuttling between it’s nest and a possible hunting ground. To test this theory out, we got off the trail and settled at the lakeshore waiting for the eagle fly toward us again.

A short while later, to our delight, the eagle reappeared. I quickly fired off a few shots with my camera. As I was following the action, I saw that the bald eagle was being driven away by a lone kingbird!

These four shots below capture the ‘attack’ best. The tiny kingbird seems to almost be riding the huge eagle, pecking on the back of it’s neck. The eagle, despite it’s fiery yellow eyes has an expression of surprise and bewilderment on it’s face. Whoever thought a mighty Bald Eagle could be chased away by a spunky little bird!

WB_20170702_DSC_6086

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/1000, f/8 @ ISO 400

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/1000, f/8 @ ISO 180

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/1000, f/8 @ ISO 200

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/1000, f/8 @ ISO 200

Bird watching and bird photography are working out a lot like this for me at this stage – since I’m not too well versed with the habitats and the habits of my subjects, I’m almost always in for a surprise. We went to the park to photograph herons strutting about, but instead captured a fine moment between a bald eagle and a kingbird.

John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge

When – 1st July, 2017
Where – John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge

John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge is one of the more popular birding spots near Philadelphia. From the get-go I was sceptical of the richness of this preserve – for one, it is next to the airport and secondly, Google Maps told me that one side of the refuge is along I95, a heavily trafficked interstate.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Early July is not the best time of the year for birding here – it is after the breeding season and before the migratory season. Nevertheless, it was chock full of birds, I got more great shots in one morning here than four at Peace Valley Park. The concentration of water birds in John Heinz is an order of magnitude higher than at peace Valley, which makes it a great place for both birders and bird photographers.

After entering the refuge, we started off on a trail from the visitor center, along I95. This part of the trail is quite wooded and dark. Almost immediately however, there is a smaller trail that breaks away leading into the woods. Here I was able to spot and photograph this beautiful Carolina Wren.

WB_20170701_DSC_4482

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/2000, f/5.6 @ ISO 4500

A little further along, we heard a ‘throaty’ shriek. Triangulating our way, we found this Catbird with a bunch of insects in it’s beak making those sounds.

WB_20170701_DSC_4549

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/1600, f/5.6 @ ISO 4500

The trail soon opened out into a shallow swampy lake. A Great-blue Heron and a Great Egret were hunting here. A boardwalk with a couple of bird viewing areas crosses the lake. As we were crossing, the egret took off to another end of the refuge. I managed to get these 4 shots of it’s graceful flight.

WB_20170701_DSC_4638

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/2000, f/5.6 @ ISO 1000


WB_20170701_DSC_4639

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/2000, f/5.6 @ ISO 800


WB_20170701_DSC_4641

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/2000, f/5.6 @ ISO 900


WB_20170701_DSC_4650

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/2000, f/5.6 @ ISO 1600

We spotted these two American Goldfinches as we made our way along the trail.

WB_20170701_DSC_4734

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/800, f/5.6 @ ISO 450


WB_20170701_DSC_5426

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/1000, f/5.6 @ ISO 560

An experienced birder there, who was waiting for a shy Gallinule to show up, helped me sight this Prothonotary Warbler, a beautiful rare bird.

WB_20170701_DSC_4945

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/1000, f/5.6 @ ISO 2200

The lake is lined with tall grassy reeds, teeming with birds. These Marsh Wren made quite a racket, tiny though they are.

WB_20170701_DSC_5525

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/1000, f/5.6 @ ISO 800


WB_20170701_DSC_5558

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/1000, f/5.6 @ ISO 640

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are here aplenty too. I was able to photograph this one catch a tick before flitting away.

WB_20170701_DSC_5702

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/800, f/5.6 @ ISO 100


WB_20170701_DSC_5705

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/800, f/5.6 @ ISO 125

Talking to some other folks there, I had missed out on Gallinules, Bitterns, Ospreys and a Bald Eagle. John Heinz Refuge is definitely on my calendar for another visit during August-September when a lot of waterbirds make their migration south and take a break here.

Blue Jay

When – 11th June, 2017
Where – Peace Valley Park, near the Nature Center

I photographed these Blue Jays along one of the many small intertwined trails around the Nature Center of Peace Valley Park. Despite it being a bright sunny day outside, i was all the time stuck in the upper thousands with my ISO – the thick foliage let very little light through.

This first one is a ‘classic’ bird photo. The jay literally posed for me here.

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/1000, f/6.3 @ ISO 6400

In this photo a jay is doing, what looks like, a breeding dance – it half-spread it’s wings and sang.

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/1000, f/6.3 @ ISO 6400

Cedar Waxwings

When – 6th June, 2017
Where – Shenandoah National Park

I’ve never had much luck photographing birds at Shenandoah National Park. During my previous visit, I only managed to photograph a pair of ravens. This time, I was able to snap a pair of Cedar Waxwings.

This photo was taken in ideal conditions – the sun was not too high in the sky and a few clouds helped give some soft light. My only regret is that the bird closer to me is a bit soft due to the shallow depth of field. Perhaps I should’ve narrowed my aperture some more and risked increasing the ISO.

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/1000, f/7.1 @ ISO 400

Update – Upon further reflection I can’t unsee a major flaw in this photo. I don’t know why I kept the bird on the right (which is further away) in focus instead of the bird on the left. I should’ve reduced my aperture further to get them both in focus or maybe focussed on the bird on the left or perhaps cropped it out.

Great-blue Heron

When – 24th May, 2017
Where – Peace Valley Park, along the North side near the boat ramp

Walking along the trail along the North side of the park, I spotted this Great-blue Heron gracefully glide over the lake and land on a rickety wooden pier. While patiently waiting for it to hop into the water and start hunting (alas, it never did), I snapped these two shots.

In the first shot, the heron is awkwardly hopping off the rails of the pier – putting it’s best foot forward.

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/2000, f/5.6 @ ISO 180

After basking in the sun for a bit, the heron quickly gathered itself and flew away. I managed to get a shot of it while it’s wings were down. The curled up wingtips add to the beauty.

Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/1000, f/5.6 @ ISO 320

Cooper’s Hawk

When – 14th May, 2017
Where – Peace Valley Park, South-west corner

As we walked along the trail, in a clump of trees near the dam at the south-west corner of Peace Valley Park, there was a flurry of activity. A lot of small birds were loudly chirping and jumping between branches. Upon sneaking closer, we saw that it was a Cooper’s Hawk quietly sitting on a branch that had the others agitated. Despite the heavy shade, and overcast skies, I managed to take a decent photo of it through the foliage.

Nikon D7200, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/1000, f/5.6 @ ISO 5000

Further along the trail, on the far side of the dam, this Brown-headed Cowbird struck a nice pose.

Nikon D7200, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/1000, f/5.6 @ ISO 1600

European Starlings

When – 7th May, 2017
Where – Peace Valley Park, near the Nature Center

Spring was truly in the air. After a pretty luckless day at Peace Valley Park, on our way out we spotted these two European Starlings having a go at it. I managed get a sequence of 5-6 shots, of which this one framed both of them the best.

Nikon D7200, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/800, f/5.6 @ ISO 100

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

When – 30th April, 2017
Where – Peace Valley Park, along the North side trail near the Nature Center

This Rose-breasted Grosbeak was handsomely posing for us on a branch very close to the trail. I managed to get a few shots before it flew away, the one below is perhaps the best of the lot. The Grosbeak has a nice pose and expression, my only regret is the rather poor lighting which resulting in quite high an ISO.

d7200, 200-500mm | 1/1000, f/5.6 @ ISO 3200

Spring brought a whole lot of Catbirds with it – at Peace Valley Park, Catbirds challenge Robins in gross population count now. As we walked along the trail, I snapped a photo of this catbird lunging at a fruit. I’m pleased with this photo too – it captures a fleeting moment nicely.

Nikon D7200, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/800, f/5.6 @ ISO 4500

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

I photographed this Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in mid-May in Peace Valley park. It was great day, warm and sunny, which meant we saw a lot of birds darting about above us. The gnatcatcher is an extremely skittish bird, so I’m quite pleased with myself for having captured this pose. Nevertheless, it is a rather boring photo.

NikonD7200, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/1000, f/5.6 @ ISO 100

In this next photo I was (luckily) able to capture it in mid-air with it’s wings spread out, a strikingly good pose. The bird is slightly blurred out and a faster shutter speed would have definitely helped. Despite that, I love this photo. The pose, the colors both work very well for me. So much so, this was my phone wallpaper for quite long.

Nikon D7200, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/1000, f/5.6 @ ISO 360

This photo was taken moments after the one above. After having landed on the branch, the gnatcather paused for a brief moment which let make this sharp image. The exposure this this photo is exactly the same as earlier, which means I get the same beautiful colors. But the pose is not quite as dramatic.

Nikon D7200, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/1000, f/5.6 @ ISO 360

Osprey

I photographed this Osprey on a cloudy afternoon in Peace Valley. After having roamed about for a couple of hours photographing some grackles, robins and blackbirds I was lucky to spot this bird on my way out. Very close to where we had parked (near the boat-ramp on the south-west end of the lake), the osprey was making a few dives trying to catch fish.

This first photograph shows the osprey having leveled off, flying past me after a failed attempt. I’m very pleased with this photograph. It’s sharp and the fierce eyes and talons of the bird are both clearly visible too.

D7200, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/2000, f/7.1 @ ISO 900

In this photo I was able to capture it’s moment of attack. I have mixed feelings about this photo – it captures the action well with the osprey’s wings and talons outstretched. But its not sharp enough and perhaps a slightly faster shutter speed would’ve captured the splash better.

D7200, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/2000, f/7.1 @ ISO 1250

Next, I got a good shot of the Osprey lifting off (sadly away from me) with it’s catch. I think this is a beautiful shot. The bird, it’s catch and a few drops of water falling off on the bottom left are all tack sharp. That the background is two-tone adds to it’s look. The raw image quality of the photo is great too – I’ve got a couple of different edits already.

D7200, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/2000, f/7.1 @ ISO 900

A couple of crows which were perched on a nearby tree spotted the Osprey with it’s catch and started to circle it, trying to get some free lunch. I managed to get a decent shot of it too. Like some of the others in the series, I love this one too. The osprey with it’s wings outstretched looks majestic, with the crow in the background greedily eyeing the fish.

D7200, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/2000, f/7.1 @ ISO 720

The last photo I got of the Osprey is probably the best of the lot. After having warded off crows, the osprey made a final pass of Galena Lake before flying off to it’s nest in the far nort-east corner of the lake. This is easily among my best bird photographs – it’s tack sharp with the osprey and the fish clearly visible. I’ll likely be spending a lot of time on edits before printing this sometime.

D7200, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/2000, f/7.1 @ ISO 720

After going back home, I was able to merge a sequence of 10-12 photos into one to show the dive. Unfortunately, my editing skills were not quite up to the mark, the different background colours for each image (due to slightly different ISO) shows through.

Hunt Sequence

Tree Swallow

During spring and summer the most common bird around Lake Galena in Peace Valley Park is the Swallow. I photographed this pair in the south-west end of the lake. The individual in flight was constantly in air, hovering around its partner which gave me several opportunities to capture their dance.

D7200, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/640, f/8 @ ISO 220

This is among my favorite photographs, one that I’ve already printed. Everything about it works for me – the composition, the sharpness, the exposure.

White-tailed Nuthatch

On a sunny but cool day, I photographed this White-breasted Nuthatch along one of the trails in the north-east end of Peace Valley park. Since the Nuthatch spent almost all the time hopping about (upside down) the base of this tree, I initially thought it was chick woodpecker unable to fly. It was only later, after referring to my trusty app that I got informed otherwise.

D7200, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/1000, f/7.1 @ ISO 640

Despite having a clear shot at the bird I feel I messed the exposure up. Because of way I exposed it to the highlights, I ended up having to lift the shadows up way too much. ETTR would have worked better.

Sparrow

I photographed this excited Sparrow heralding the coming of spring on an early-April afternoon, in the north-east corner of Peace Valley park. Despite the overcast, cold weather spring was in the air – green buds, chirping birds and more.

D7200, Nikkor 200-500mm | 1/1250, f/5.6 @ ISO 560

I like this photograph, despite the distracting twigs in the foreground it came out well. The exposure is good, the bird is sharp and it captures the sparrows singing nicely.