Valentine Day broke with an unusual color palate spreading across the southeastern sky. Bright coral-red clouds dominated, wispy and tenuous, like aurora borealis, against a darker blue sky. Between water and sky, lit windows were just visible as pinpricks of light.

For once, I didn’t doddle. Still groggy with sleep, I grabbed the camera upon glimpsing the red glow. At first, there was just enough light to shoot without a tripod. Within moments, there was too much light, the colors becoming progressively paler and brighter. Once again, I had to override the camera, manually reducing the exposure.

Due to its great distance, the formation was a little slower-moving than most. Sadly, I had other matters pressing, and couldn’t wait for the grand finale — the slow, stately march of the fire gods to the edge of the sky, and oblivion.

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This early February dawn was well under way when I caught it. Only minutes earlier, when I first woke, a much larger display loomed outside my window. So fast did the formation move, that much of it was gone by the time I pulled myself together and grabbed my camera.

I shot the second frame seven minutes later. The sky had grown lighter — so much so that it appeared but a pale image on my camera’s screen. Cutting the exposure let me replicate the contrast and saturation of the first photo. By then, however, the color palette had shifted.

The photo was taken on February 6, 2012.

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The pond was unusually still, and the reflection almost mirror-perfect. It was late, so once again I made do without the tripod. Lowering the top sash, I braced the camera against both the sash edge and my chest for the 1/5th-second manual exposure. (I had determined the manual exposure in advance by taking a few trial shots through the glass, as I’ve found the camera’s auto-exposure unreliable in low light.)

It’s perhaps not an artistic of photo in the usual sense, but it cried out to be taken. During the summer, this rental community is screened by foliage. The image was recorded at 9:10 pm on February 3, 2012.

See related post: Night Lights*. This photo is best viewed in dim light. Click image to enlarge it, and browser’s back arrow to close. Comments are welcome.

 

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Like Rodney Dangerfield, gulls don’t get the respect they deserve. We look at them, yet we rarely see them. We often regard them as lowly scavengers, and all too common ones at that.

I’m as guilty as the next person, but I’ve recently taken a fresh look. Like all scavengers, they are important to the ecosystem. They are intelligent, inquisitive, and resourceful, and can be elaborately social in behavior. Their daring acrobatics in the air, and graceful soaring are a joy to watch. To my ears, there’s no sound in nature more beautiful than the plaintive call of the gull.

Gull’s are not easy to identify. There are many species, and much variation within each. It takes time and patience to learn who’s who. I’ve made a little progress with the ones we see on the pond. I can usually identify the larger species, the Herring Gull, the Lesser Black-backed and the Great Black-backed. The smaller gulls are more difficult to learn, for the clues are fewer and less obvious.

This year, the larger gulls are present on the pond in much greater numbers than I can remember, especially the Great Black-backed. I’m used to seeing one or two of the latter; there must be eight or ten now. This biggest of all gulls can be aggressive, and will often attack another gull or duck to steal away its catch, or like a raptor, even take live prey, such as another bird or a rodent. Fortunately, we don’t see that very often on our pond. We don’t expect it of gulls as we do of hawks and eagles, so it can be upsetting when we do see it.

Gulls are opportunists. In the gull gallery at top, we see them darting in and snatching various scraps of food, or small fish, brought to the surface by the diving mergansers.
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Right: 8:54 am, Mallards head to breakfast in a nearby, shallow cove.
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Gulls may nosedive or bellyflop to snatch such scraps out of the water. The latter method allows them to fly off more quickly, but it can make an undignified “plop” when they hit the water. They are inventive when it comes to grabbing food, and can meet any challenge that presents itself.

On the morning these photos were taken, the Mallards came around to our little cove for breakfast as usual. Dabbling ducks, they scoop up edibles from the water with their broad bills, but they also upend to reach decayed plants on the bottom. Here the water is shallow, and they can feed easily.

The morning held a small surprise. A small flock of Common Mergansers was visiting. They had been here about a week, arriving a few weeks earlier than usual, no doubt responding to the warm weather and the absence of ice. They, too, showed up, and were feeding farther out. They are diving ducks, and hunt primarily for small fish, using their serrated bills to grip a slippery catch. They hunt constantly, even while swimming along, diving quickly and then emerging seconds later some ten or twenty feet further on. My bird book says they may stay as long as the pond doesn’t freeze over. In fact, I’ve always known them to leave long before that. Perhaps they grow restless, or the fishing becomes spotty.

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Left: 9:45 am, Common Mergansers dive for small fish farther out. A female merganser, with a brown crest, is just visible at the far right.
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Between the home team of Mallards, and the visiting mergansers, with their promise of bringing up fish, there was plenty of activity to attract the gulls. They circled overhead excitedly, waiting for a chance to dive, willing to expend a lot of energy, apparently, for a tiny scrap of food. There was some pushing and shoving, too, as one might expect. No doubt, at this time of year when food is scarce, the gulls get a mite hungry at times.

All the images were captured on the morning of February 4, 2012. Because I lack the expensive telephoto lenses needed for proper shooting at these distances, I had to content myself with cropping the photos, thus making the birds appear larger, and achieving the effect of a longer lens. So, the photos are not as sharp and detailed as I’d like, but they do catch the action and tell a story.

Although I’ve spent some time watching the gulls here on the pond, and reading about them, I don’t think of myself an expert. So, please regard any identifications I’ve made here as tentative.

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Related: Hopeful Gulls, and Snatching Gulls*.

 

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I woke later than usual, that morning. What I saw took my breath away. It was a wide, bright band of orange-gold along the southern horizon. I left the window to wash the pixie dust out of my eyes. By the time I got back, minutes later, the wide band had shrunk to the narrow, pale gold strip you see in the photos. I shouldn’t have dallied, knowing that such spectacles are almost always short-lived.

Yet, the photos I did get are rewarding for their subtle, faintly luminous colors. Later, I came back again to record the interplay of sun and clouds in the early morning sky.

The scene that first greeted me that morning was dramatic, certainly, although a bit pale. Taking some artistic license, I manually overrode the camera’s light meter, and reduced the light entering the camera. The result was to increase contrast and intensify color, thereby adding drama and interest to a scene that otherwise would have been a bit bland.

“Isn’t that cheating?” you may ask. Only if wearing glasses to read a book is cheating. I simply made more visible what was already there. As I’ve written before, I’m not a documentarian; I merely try to capture the beauty of nature as I see it.

The photos were taken on January 30, 2012. The time is noted under each.

See related post: December Dawn.

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My neighbors, Becca Kaufmann and Robert Hendrick, reported seeing two Bald Eagles cavorting over Hardy Pond today, January 29th, at about 12:45 pm. Robert took photos and kindly shared them with us. Click on the photo, above, to see his entire series. Photos by Robert Hendrick.

Did you also see the eagles? Please feel free to share what you saw in the Comment box.