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Great blue herons are large birds, their wings spanning 5½ to 6½ feet. Yet, when I saw this one soaring high above the pond, it seemed unimaginably small against the vastness of clouds and sky.

The great bird was so high that my telephoto lens could bring it no closer than you see here. I tried cropping the photos, to pull it a bit “closer,” but the results were disappointing; there just wasn’t enough detail. The magic here is not in the heron, itself, but the heron set against the majesty of the world it inhabits.

The great French scientist, Louis Pasteur, famously wrote, “In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” This sequence illustrates his point. I was leaning out the window, my head and torso extended precariously over the sill, trying to photograph a bird in the lower branches of a tree. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the great blue high above. I swung the camera up and clicked away.

I’ve often seen these big birds flying low over the water, but never this high. Could this be a rare event? I’ve never seen it recorded. I was thrilled to witness it.

Admittedly, each photo in the sequence is modest by itself, but the overall effect is more than the sum of the parts, conveying the grace of a great bird soaring and banking effortlessly in its medium.

The date was May 24, 2014. The entire sequence took place in six seconds flat, at 1:52 pm. Enjoy!
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Related:  Great Blue in Flight

 

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These flowers are the “usual suspects” from years past, all still growing in our garden by the pond, but less formally portrayed this year, perhaps, than in earlier posts. The Shasta and ox-eye daisies were late, so they’re not here. The herbaceous peonies were spoiled by the rain, so they’re not shown, either. (The latter are cultivars, and have always been less hardy than our traditional Chinese peonies.)

I’ve been asked about the difference between “herbaceous” peonies and “tree,” or “shrub” peonies. The latter have woody stems and stand up by themselves. The former usually require the help of metal hoops for support. The former also die off in the winter, and return in the spring.

The Thalia Jonquil is a bit out of scale in the slide show. That is, its image is relative to those of the other flowers is quite large, and so belies the petite size of the living flower. As large as it is, that slide show image only hints at the wealth of detail revealed when it is viewed full-screen. The low, soft sunlight models the translucent petals, revealing an exquisite delicacy.

On close inspection, the Chinese peonies may appear to vary slightly in color from frame to frame. Although blooming at different times, these peonies grew on the same shrub, and usually exhibit the same color. That apparent variation is due to subtle differences in the color and brightness of the outdoor light when the photos were taken. Such ambient light, as it is known to photographers, can vary from day to day, or even from hour to hour. Admittedly, such color differences are subtle and may not be noticeable on some computer screens, those that over-saturate colors, this, those that render them intensely. Adjusting a flower’s color in the photo-editor is possible, but not easily done, and can make the flower look artificial.

In point of fact, all colors we see — whether indoors or out — vary with changes in the ambient light, although our brain usually compensates, and hides such variations from us. One notable effect is too great to hide, however — that of low, late afternoon sunlight that renders any scene before us gloriously golden.

Less obvious, and almost as hard for the brain to hide, are the effects of overcast or cloudy skies (my favorite light sources, especially for shooting flowers). Such skies can be gray and dull, emitting a flat light of little use to photographers. Or, they can be deceptively bright, bathing the subject in a lively, shadowless light, usually with a cast of blue, red or orange. These colors are not always discernible when we look up at the sky (the brain, again), but they do influence how we perceive a flower on the ground, for example.

If you start paying attention to these color effects, you’ll soon adopt the careful habit of seeing that is common to artists, photographers, architects, designers, naturalists, and anyone whose stock-in-trade is visual observation.
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Related: Daylilies After Rain*, Spring Garden 2013*, Siberian Iris*, Chinese Peony*.

 

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Most mornings this winter, I’d look out at first light and see fresh tracks in the snow. A coywolf had passed within feet of the house, often directly under a window, heading from the wooded area northwest of the pond (I surmise) to the street in front of the house.

The individual shown here was almost certainly the author of those tracks. My neighbors and I had seen it more than once, during daylight hours, cutting through our shared yard. Sadly, it seemed to suffer from a bad case of mange.

When first I spotted it through the window, it was already aware of me. I think my presence gave it pause. After surveying the scene for three minutes, it turned on its tail and returned whence it came.

(Note: If I’m not sure of an animal’s gender, I use the neuter pronoun, “it.”)

Coywolves were reported all over the neighborhood this past winter — not only lone individuals, but also a group of three (a family, I suspect). Two local residents, living a mile apart, each told me of seeing three, together, in his yard.

With the coming of spring, these furtive visitors melted away, along with the snow. No doubt they had ventured here, into this densely settled area, to scavenge for food. With snow on the ground, prey must have been scarce. Now, they’ve retreated to the suburbs, or beyond.

What is a coywolf? I admit I had never heard of such a creature before I saw a remarkable program, Meet the Coywolf, on PBS’s Nature, a few years ago. Not until I saw a rerun last January, however, did its full impact hit me. (You can watch the entire program here. You can also find a useful field guide here.)

What is a coywolf? The question is answered in the program’s introduction:

The coywolf, a mixture of western coyote and eastern wolf, is a remarkable new hybrid carnivore that is taking over territories once roamed by wolves and slipping unnoticed into our cities. Its appearance is very recent — within the last 90 years — in evolutionary terms, a blip in time. Beginning in Canada but by no means ending there, the story of how it came to be is an extraordinary tale of how quickly adaptation and evolution can occur, especially when humans interfere. Tag along as scientists study this new top predator, tracking it from the wilderness of Ontario’s Algonquin Park, through parking lots, alleys and backyards in Toronto all the way to the streets of New York City.

The photos are a bit soft, due to circumstances. I had to shoot quickly, and through a window; to make matters worse, I had to crop severely to bring the distant subject “closer.” The photos were taken between 8:39 and 8:42 on the morning of January 5, 2014.
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Related: Coyote!

 

Coneflowers, also called Rudbeckia, left standing in the fall, dry out and morph into an abstract composition, vivid against the snow. They present differently every winter — as if arranged by a master painter — and bring new pleasure.

In this scene, a fine haze has subdued the brilliant sun. The finely textured stalks play against the soft, luminous tones of freshly fallen snow. The white backdrop is not a studio prop set there by the photographer, but new snow covering the pond ice.

The photo was taken on December 18, 2013, at 8:54 am. More than most, this photo comes alive when viewed in low light. Click the image to view it full screen; click the back arrow to return.
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Related: Winter Garden Early 2013*, Two Winter Gardens*.

 

The big bird was chipper, if not downright frisky, full of itself, and having fun. After all, it’s not every day that a Great Blue Heron gets to stand on water instead of in it. In the bottom, two frames, it may also may have caught a glimpse of its reflection in the ice.

In an earlier post, I described this bird as “variform.” The first two images only hint at this contortionist’s vast repertoire.

The four photos were all shot in the space of one minute, between 9:34 and 9:35 am, on November 25, 3013. The Great Blue was standing on thin ice between Heron Rock and Smith Point, just beyond our little cove.

I was stationed discreetly behind the closed window, shooting through the glass, but the big bird I’m sure spotted me. After the fourth frame, it abruptly flew off.

Click an image to view it full screen, and click the back arrow to return. Cursor over the image to see its description. Enjoy!
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Related: Variform Great Blue

 

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Suspended momentarily in midair, then swooping or diving, the gulls were excited by the prospect of Bluegills for lunch. The small sunfish are caught and brought to the surface by migrating Hooded or Common Mergansers. It is a service these diving ducks have reliably performed every spring and fall as they’ve paused here to rest on their long migration. This year, however, hopes were dashed; there were few Bluegills. The pond’s stock of small fish suffered a massive die-off in March 2012, and has not yet recovered. Bird life has not been the same since.

The migrating mergansers moved on quickly, soon to be replaced by more of their kind. Overall, the migrating ducks have been disappointingly few this spring, but not unexpectedly so. The gulls have also left, presumably for better opportunities elsewhere.

I’m partial to the gulls, and I miss them. They are smart (at times, even cunning), they cooperate to round up prey, and they are uncommonly graceful in flight. To see them soar effortlessly on high thermals is to witness a harmony with nature that is denied us humans. Their trademark, plaintiff cry I regard as the most beautiful sound in the natural world.

Elsewhere, I have lamented on the gulls’ bad reputation. They are seen, if they are seen at all, as common scavengers, unworthy of our attention or praise. That is a form of political correctness, in my view, and does no justice to these lovely, resourceful birds, whose joie de vie should be an example for us all.

Note: The species I have identified from wing patterns, but it is tricky with gulls, especially from photos, and I regard the identifications here as tentative.
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Related: Snatching Gulls*, Gulls’ Lament*.