The Nature of Birding

I’ve been in Athens, Georgia for eight days and have only attended two graduate classes, and I’ve already heard about a rare bird in the area. Thank goodness for bird groups on Facebook, email listservs, and nice people who will get nerdy and talk about birds with you before class starts.  The rare bird in question is a brown booby. Yes, I said booby. Brown boobies are tropical seabirds that occasionally find themselves along both coasts of the United States. “Betty the Booby” has been seen and photographed regularly on Lake Russell in Elbert County since the beginning of July. Having just found out about her yesterday, I figured I’d drive an hour out to Elberton, Georgia to attempt to find this bird. Knowing my luck, I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but it was difficult to suppress them considering the bird has been seen nearly every day.

However, upon arrival around 9:20am, I met a disappointed-looking, fellow birder who explained to me that he hadn’t seen hide nor…feather…of the booby today. I willed myself to believe that “I knew this would happen,” but I couldn’t stop that stomach-sinking feeling you get when you’ve been majorly let down. I stuck around for a little over an hour, but the elusive booby never appeared. It seemed like her favorite perch, the “CAUTION: TREES SUBMERGED” sign, was taunting me.

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LOOK, NO BOOBY!

However, as disappointed as I may have been, the day was not a bust. While standing on the dock, I noted a spider wasp flitting around. I’ll admit I was quite wary, since I know how painful their stings can be, but upon further analysis of my photograph after I got home, I realized the wasp only had one thing on its mind: lunch!

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A spider wasp (Family: Pompilidae) with a spider in its grasp

Then I walked the length of the parking lot and up to the bridge where, if the booby had been cooperatively posing on her sign-perch, I would have gotten some usable pictures. Instead, I stood next to the bridge and listened to the rattle of a belted kingfisher…the angry-esque squeaks and chirps of three ruby-throated hummingbirds as they zoomed by me and up into a tangle of mimosa blooms…the rapid, garbled song of a white-eyed vireo…and the “Drink your TEAAA!” song of a male eastern towhee.

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“Drink your TEAAA!”

A large, reddish dragonfly kept flying nearby, and while I was never able to get a picture of it, an eastern tiger swallowtail nectaring on pink mimosa flowers caught my eye. I reveled in the color contrasts between the yellow insect, the pink blooms, and the bright, blue sky.

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So many colors!

Finally, I gave up (for now!) and drove back to Comer, Georgia, where multiple Mississippi and swallow-tailed kites had been reported actively hunting some fields. It was a super hot day, so I wasn’t sure if many birds would be hunting, but the Mississippi kites didn’t disappoint. I observed at least a few individuals flying over soybean fields, and some of them were even eating their kill on the wing. Unfortunately, I was too far away to see what they were consuming.

Another lifer for the list!

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Lifer! Adult Mississippi kite.

As you can see, birders are crazy. We take huge gambles by driving hours to see notable, rare, or new birds, and sometimes we come up empty-handed like I did today.

…OR, we explore new areas we’ve never been to in pursuit of two lifers, observe nature in action (spider wasp observation), do a little birding on the side, and end the day with one new lifer (Mississippi kites).

Sometimes it just takes a little perspective. That’s the nature of birding.

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That super long hashtag about nature…

Y’all have probably heard of the #challengeonnaturephotography movement. The longest hashtag…ever. (No, that’s not accurate, but it sure feels like it.) The point of the challenge is to inspire people to step outside, observe the world around them, document what they’re seeing, and share it with everyone…or, y’know, their Instagram and Facebook friends.

Well, I was nominated to take this challenge about a week ago by a friend I made at VT’s Wildlife Conclave, and I accepted! Here is a compilation of all seven photographs I used for this challenge. Oh, and I should add that I’ve pulled them all straight from my Instagram (@ginga_ninja30), so some are cropped into that wonderfully perfect square characteristic of the popular photo-sharing app.

(All photos except for the peregrine falcon were shot using my Canon Rebel SL1. I captured the PEFA with my Nikon Coolpix S8100, a pocket digital camera.)

Day #1: “Always Hiding”

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For Day #1, I chose this photograph of a ruby-crowned kinglet, shot close to Cape May, NJ earlier this fall. I selected this photo because this particular species is infamous for being a challenge to shoot (see, it fits the theme!). They are energetic little buggers that prefer the crowns of conifers during breeding season, but you can often see them in shrubbier habitat during migration and winter.

Day #2: “The Birds”

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For Day #2, I chose a photograph that I took on November 23, once again near Cape May, NJ. I remember this day vividly: I was driving back to the field house with my boyfriend (poor kid drove 8 hours to spend Thanksgiving Break with me) after spending the day banding raptors when we suddenly entered a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Common grackles, with a handful of European starlings mixed in, were EVERYWHERE–we’re talking hundreds, if not thousands, of migrating birds making a pit stop to refuel.

We idled in the car and watched them for a while, then when we pulled up to the house I raced inside to grab my camera with the hopes that they’d still be there in substantial numbers. When I ran back outside, I didn’t even have to leave my front stoop because they’d all settled in front of the house! I took many photos that day because I wanted to practice photographing very dark birds–it can be challenging to obtain the correct amount of light to pick up the details without overexposing parts of the photo.

However, I particularly like this shot because it illustrates the sheer number of birds we saw that day. It’s also a very different style from my usual, up-close, portrait-style shots. The sky is really the limit with photography!

Day #3: “Beaver Moon”

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I took this photograph of the moon on Thanksgiving Day of this year in Cape May, NJ. I was driving home (on a full belly!) from a relaxing evening with friends when I saw how beautiful and large the moon was–the full moon had been the day before. I made a split-second decision to pull over to attempt to capture its beauty.

Nature and wildlife photography are challenging because there are many variables to consider when taking a photo (and only some of them are in your control!). Lunar photography is especially challenging because you’re working in an incredibly low-light setting. I have improved thanks to much trial and error– isn’t that what photography is, anyway?? This particular photo was taken using a shutter speed of 1/2000, an ISO of 1600, and an f-stop of 5.6. I also only have a 55-250mm lens.

Day #4: “Yellow”

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Here’s a picture from my archive, but it’s one of my favorite photographs thus far (it’s even featured on the VA TWS website here). This is “Yellow,” one of the banded peregrine falcons I monitored while interning at Shenandoah National Park, Summer 2014.

It is not often you have the opportunity to observe wildlife at such close range. Peregrines are also my favorite raptor, which makes this encounter extra special to me.

Day #5: “Reflections”

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**This was not how I ultimately cropped it, so ignore the lack of balance.**

I had yet to really capture a good reflection photo until I was in Blacksburg in early December. Usually, I focus solely on capturing the bird itself–I want it entirely in the frame and focused. However, the mallards at the VT Duck Pond were perfectly willing candidates for my photographic experiments.

The end result: a beautiful female mallard and her reflection.

Day #6: The Little Things

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Most people who know me know I have an insatiable passion for ornithology. However, many people are not aware of my fascination with entomology and macro photography. Therefore, I selected this shot of a fuzzy bumblebee on a beautiful cosmos for the challenge. You can even see tiny balls of pollen that have fallen onto the petals.

Day #7: “Shorebird Struggles”

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Shorebird identification has been a recent challenge for me. I didn’t have much experience with shorebirds until I worked in Cape May, NJ. It’s been quite an adventure since! On my last day, I featured a sanderling, one of the first shorebirds I learned to identify.

I was honored to be nominated for this challenge, and it appears that the individuals I nominated each day enjoyed it, as well. My one desire is to educate and inspire others through my photography, and everyone’s comments were incredibly supportive and encouraging during this challenge. So I thank you!

With Migration Comes Fall

I managed to come down with a cold a couple of days ago, and naturally my symptoms are worse today, so it was strongly suggested that I take the day off with the promise that I’d drink plenty of tea and water in hopes that I’ll feel better by the Fall Festival this weekend. Therefore, between catching up on episodes of Rizzoli & Isles and Once Upon a Time, this has given me plenty of time to reflect on my experiences thus far here in Cape May.

I can’t believe the season is already 2/3 of the way over. I have spent many hours in the blind and have really only witnessed ~3 accipiter flights, but every bird I trap, band, and process is a step towards obtaining a sub-permit for raptor banding. Fortunately, slow days in the blind mean I have the wonderful opportunity to assist with other research projects and explore (read as: bird) the surrounding area.

The past couple of weeks have been particularly enjoyable. My friend, past environmental science teacher, and idol Liam McGranaghan came to town with his wife, Laura, and a few friends two weekends ago; my boyfriend, Collin, came to visit this past weekend; Collin and I helped catch and tag monarchs with the monarch interns; I got to hold and release a golden eagle; and two mornings earlier this week I woke up at the buttcrack of dawn to help with passerine banding. The handling of many adorable songbirds ensued.

So I shall begin with Liam.

Liam and I bonding after a great day of birding and raptor banding.

Liam and I bonding after a great day of birding and raptor banding

Liam and I have been discussing Cape May since before I accepted the position with CMRBP, so it was wonderful to finally carry out our plans. He attended one of my banding demonstrations Saturday morning at the Cape May Point State Park. Afterwards, I finally got to meet his wife, Laura, of whom I’ve heard much about—they’re both fantastic birders and photographers, and they make a great team. Liam then spent part of the afternoon in a blind with me and one of our fellow banders; he got to witness the ins and outs of our trapping and banding process as well as observe me on the job. Later that afternoon, we met up at Cape May Point Beach to look for jaegers and photograph the sun as it set over the water (we did indeed see what were presumably parasitic jaegers way out over the water). When part of the group finally managed to drag us away from birdwatching, we went back to the little house they were renting to enjoy some wine; homemade white pizza, quiche, and chili; and lots of good memories. I truly felt like I belonged with these fellow birders and naturalists, and I am thankful to be able to call them my friends.

Breathtaking sunset over the water at Cape May Point beach

Breathtaking sunset over the water at Cape May Point beach

To continue the fun, Collin and I met up with the monarch crew on Friday morning to learn how to catch and tag migrating monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). Now, I received a minor in entomology and have a fairly solid background with insects, but it was amazing how much I learned! Did you know you can actually tell the difference between male and female monarchs? Males have much thinner lines on their wings, and they also have what look like two black blobs (known as alar glands) on their hind wings. Alar glands are scent glands and are important during the mating process. Females lack these glands, and the lines on their wings are much thicker, as if they were drawn on with Sharpie marker rather than Sharpie pen (thanks, Katie and Lindsey, for the tips!).

Releasing a female monarch after tagging her

Releasing a female monarch after tagging her

Remember when you were little and your parents told you that if you rubbed the scales off of a butterfly you would hurt it because they need their scales in order to fly? Well, that’s actually a myth. A butterfly’s wing doesn’t contain any live cells; it is simply a paper-thin membrane. The scales covering this membrane act as visual cues for predators and to attract a mate. So to tag a monarch, we gently scrape a few scales off of the mitten-shaped cell on the left, hind wing and adhere a round “sticker” to the wing. The butterfly is then tagged for life!

Upon finishing tagging for the day, Collin and I did some quick birding at Triangle Park to gauge which species of migrants were in the area. We saw plenty of Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks flying around, and…LOTS of yellow-rumped warblers. No lifers for me, but I figured a bird’s a bird so I snapped some pictures anyway.

Cooper's hawk. Note how the head passes the front plane of the wings while in flight, making it resemble a flying crucifix.

Cooper’s hawk. Note how the head passes the front plane of the wings while in flight, making it resemble a flying crucifix

One of many migrating yellow-rumped warblers seen at Triangle Park

One of many migrating yellow-rumped warblers seen at Triangle Park

Little did I know excitement would follow the next day….Collin and I were spending time with a weekly bander on Saturday when we received a call that a golden eagle had been trapped. A GOLDEN —-ING EAGLE! Naturally, we raced to the banding station to see this magnificent bird, and when it was done being banded and processed, I got to hold and release it. This bird was a very small male, but regardless of size, it’s definitely not something I’m ever going to forget.

GOLDEN EAGLE

GOLDEN EAGLE

Finally, these two busy but fun weeks were wrapped up with some pumpkin carving with my housemates. Pumpkins, hot cider, dirt pudding, Hocus Pocus, and Final Destination 2 made for a wonderful evening of bonding and relaxation.

My roommates and I got creative! The minion on the left was my creation. Can't wait for Halloween!

My roommates and I got creative! The minion on the left was my creation. Can’t wait for Halloween!

Now on to SO.MANY.BIRDS.—Cape May Fall Festival 2015. I see lifers in my future.

Until then.

Dealing with fieldwork…and hurricanes and nor’easters

First and foremost, this is my first blog post, so welcome to my blog! If you’re curious, my Bio and avian Life List can be accessed via the menu in the top left corner. The menu in the top right corner provides you with prior posts, categories, and all that good stuff that WordPress provides (once I start blogging more).

I created this blog to use my photography to educate viewers and fellow bloggers about the natural world. I love photography, but so far I’ve only really shared my work on my Facebook profile and on my Instagram (@ginga_ninja30). I finally decided to start a blog so I can share my photography along with a longer story or experience than what I would post on Instagram.

I graduated from Virginia Tech this past May, but I have been gaining research and field work experience since the summer after my freshmen year—that’s a fair amount of field work thus far for a young’un like myself! Aka plenty of time to relish in the perks of traveling and doing something new…and too much time to hate your life when situations are less than ideal. In light of the weather lately, I have decided to give my insight on a very clichéd topic with a slight twist: dealing with field work…and hurricanes and nor’easters (lookin’ at you, Joaquin’!).

For those of you who don’t know, I am currently the Fall 2015 Raptor Banding Assistant for the Cape May Raptor Banding Project in Cape May, NJ. It was recently strongly suggested that I and the rest of my roommates “evacuate” the dorm we were living in for impending Hurricane Joaquin (access to our dorm becomes nearly impossible due to flooding). As a result, I am now holed up in a fellow bander’s house in the heart of Cape May…consequently without internet. However, this ultimately created a perfect opportunity for me to gather my thoughts and throw them onto a computer screen. So here’s to those who are new to field work! Or maybe those who have been at it for a while but need a reminder about how awesome it is.

Field Work: The Struggles, The Woes, The Cons, you name it…

1) Sometimes you have to evacuate for hurricanes…or tolerate a very relentless, cold, and wet nor’easter while you sit in a blind for hours trying to catch one bird to band.

2) Rainy days mean endless hours of data entry…assuming you don’t go into the field anyway and continue to be miserable

3) No matter how many mosquito bites you get, they never get less itchy.

4) You apply endless layers of sunscreen and bug spray…to the point where you’re not sure your skin is ever going to feel healthy again.

5) Maybe you never swore when you were growing up, but you do now.

6) You make lots of U-turns when you accidentally fly past your field site or connecting road. Oops.

7) You think beer is an acceptable form of hydration in the field.

Field Work: The Benefits, The Pros, The “Worth-Its”

1) That one female peregrine you catch after sitting in a cold, wet blind for hours…

Our single peregrine caught during this nor'easter.

Our single peregrine caught during this nor’easter.

2) That delicious wine or beer you cracked into while you struggled through hours of data entry…potential gift for your best friend?!

3) You witness some spectacular sunrises and/or sunsets. That is not an exaggeration. And they’re always better in person than on a cell phone screen.

Breathtaking sunrise on the prairie in Iowa.

Breathtaking sunrise on the prairie in Iowa.

4) You have a plethora of opportunities to learn and expand your species list, from avians, to insects, to mammals, to herps…whatever your forté is!

Migrating black skimmers on the beach in Cape May, NJ.

Migrating black skimmers on the beach in Cape May, NJ.

5) Your co-workers [hopefully] have similar interests to you, so you can geek out over nature together.

6) You truly begin to appreciate the few-and-far-between opportunities to spend time with family between jobs.

7) The same goes for your best friends or significant other.

8) When people ask what you do, no matter how shitty a day or week you’ve had, you suddenly get giddy and smiley as you describe your job and the outcomes it may have.

Because at the end of the day, we chose this career path for a reason. We care about the world around us, we want to improve it, and hopefully we all aim to share our passion and knowledge with other inquisitive minds.