Garth Brooks may prefer his low-placed pals, especially since singing about them has pulled in a ton of money, but he is really missing out. I have soooo many friends in high places!
Most numerous of these are probably the osprey. Last year I counted 19 osprey nests on and around the stretch of Rt. 89 that brings me to the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge, and that’s not counting the 6 that are perched atop the utility towers near the entrance on Rts 5&20. This year I counted 3 more, 2 at West Shore Trail and another right on the Erie Canal in Tyre.
Osprey look like small eagles; it’s their size and the brown eyestripe that give them away. Ospreys chirp pleasantly, almost like a songbird, but if they are stressed they string them together in a woeful, whiny series. It’s enough to drive other osprey (and pesky photographers) far away!
Osprey like to nest upon platforms, which is why utility towers located near a marsh, pond, or stream soon become prime osprey real estate. The nests are used and reused year after year, maybe or maybe not by the same osprey family but certainly by other osprey, who repair and improve them to their own liking. The nests can become pretty big real fast.
Osprey eat fish, fish, and only fish. Which is why they are also called fish hawks.
Great blue herons also number among my high-placed friends. No platform nests for them; the great blues prefer to build in the V formed by intersecting tree trunks and branches.
Like ospreys’, herons’ nests are permanent structures, unless they blow down in a windstorm or if the host tree falls.
Great blues may lay claim to an existing nest or may start up a new one all their own; in any event, nest building (and rebuilding) is part of the great blue heron courtship ritual. It’s so beautiful, I could watch for hours as male herons search for suitable twigs and branches — some from a nearby forest and others from a nearby nest! — to impress his lady.
I’ve written something about this in another essay on this blog after observing one enterprising young fellow surreptitiously de-construct another heron’s nest in order to build his own. Amusing for sure. . .as long as you were not the other heron.
Great blue herons are goofy sometimes
Great blues are numerous up here. I’ve found rookeries in some of the strangest places, including one at the edge of a suburban housing development in Penfield and another off the side of the busy New York State Thruway. Just about any marshy area with a cluster of trees, dead or alive, might support anywhere from 3 to 15 heron nests.
I am counting more and more eagles among my friends in high places. This year I’ve come across 6 nests, 3 more than last year. I’m sure there are many more, but they are hard to find and difficult to access. When the DEC discovers them they construct (or have the landowner construct) barriers around them at 330′, and if the eagle activity can be easily seen, the barrier must be double that.
S’OK, though, eagles are pretty smart. They choose to nest in areas that are essentially self-secluded, either by impassible land, bodies of water, or both. Two of the nests I am following are visible from the roadside but require a long lens to view — they are about 1000′ away, protected by a swampy area that itself is protected by a large ring of perennial mud.
The eagle population was nearly decimated in the U.S. in the 1970s, primarily by the overuse of the pesticide DDT. The story of Montezuma and its pivotal role in restoring this population has been told many times but is summed up quite nicely by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (https://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/9380.html).
That program increased the eagle population from a single known nesting pair in 1976 to 10 pairs in 1989, when the program ended. A real and ongoing success, which is confirmed by more recent numbers. Ten years ago (2010) the DEC counted 220 bald eagle nesting pairs; no doubt there are even more today.
Eagles, too, will use and reuse older nests — even if the older nests aren’t exactly eagle nests. Last year I saw an eagle family squatting in an osprey nest, and this year another eagle family has settled into a heron nest. I guess they don’t encounter much opposition, since eagles begin nesting weeks before osprey and herons return to their western NY homes, and by the time they do arrive it’s way too late to kick out the squatters.
Owls do the same thing. Why bother with nest-building when you can use someone else’s? I was intrigued to see a great horned owl tending a nest at the heron rookery at Sterling this year, although the resident expert, Jim the Wandering Naturist, tells me this has happened regularly in years past.
It was fun following the progress of the three little babes, who rather quickly grew into three big babes — all of whom enjoyed a feast of goose before fledging the nest and heading off into the nearby woods.
I have lots of other friends who utilize high places even if they don’t live there. You may consider utility poles and wires a bothersome intrusion in the wetland environment, but I don’t. They make great rest stops and observation towers for gulls, hawks, eagles, and even songbirds.
I don’t think Garth Brooks will bother reading this blog, but if he does I have a message for him: Look up! That is where you will find friends in high places!
More friends in high places:
I didn’t even know what a bridge camera was until maybe a year-and-a-half or so ago, when I decided to concentrate on nature photography. That’s when I yearned for a 400mm lens to replace my very-good-but-now-hardly-used 300. It wasn’t long before I wanted a 600 to replace the 400 — and that’s where I was stuck until I discovered bridge cameras. Sure, I could live with a smaller range of apertures and a cap on shutter speed if only I could trade it off for a 60x lens! or an 83x!
Well, not being made of money (because I am a short-round, opinionated, and retired — that means “poor” — old lady with an unhealed hand injury), I had to start small and light, which I did in the used market with the Canon PowerShot SX60. It wasn’t long before I thought the Sony DHC-HX400 would provide better color. It did, but the reach was smaller than I wanted,and the lag on the EVF guaranteed that only feet or tails would show in my portraits of flying birds. So I jumped up to a Nikon p900. . .but it didn’t have raw capabilities; plus, it was a little wiggly at full extension. So, when I learned that the lens on the Nikon p1000 would reach to a whopping 125x, I was hooked into saving every penny I could find so I could get one of my very own. This wasn’t a camera, it was a small telescope! And I wanted to buy it NEW!
It wasn’t quite a month or two of mostly fuzzy long shots before I was sorely disappointed. Maybe “disappointed” doesn’t describe it. I was disappointed when my Sony a6000 had to be returned for servicing four (4!) times during its one-year warranty period. . .so when the Nikon p1000 failed to live up to its expectations I had similar but vaguely different feelings. Sad. Yes, I think “sad” describes it best. All this promised power bundled into a camera that failed on the most important promise of all, a fully usable (and dependable) superzoom. Why?
Asking that question taught me a very expensive lesson about sensor sizes, effective lens length, and centers of gravity, but it was the physics lesson that sobered me up and got me off the long-lens train. A camera with a 539 mm lens that can zoom in to a calculated 3000 (!) is impressive, but it’s also long. . .and heavy. . .so much so that it makes the camera unbalanced and front-heavy at full extension. I mean reallyreallyREALLY unbalanced and front heavy. . .to the point that even a tripod can’t stabilize it, not unless you jury-rig something like a cut-up Manfrotto 293 to support its center of gravity, which varies with the amount of extension required for your shot. Even on a tripod. Especially on a tripod. And that was the point where I packed up the no-longer-cherished p1000, kissed it good-bye, and sent it off to the used department of a large camera shop.
I should probably loathe Nikon right about now, or at least hate the advertising executives who push the p1000 as the greatest thing since sliced bread. But I don’t. After all, it’s a bridge camera, and bridges, even those packed into a camera, can lead us to new places. So, I find that I don’t loathe this foray into Nikon-Land as much as I thought I would. I mean, I wish I had my money back, but hey, it’s a pittance compared to what REAL cameras cost. Nope, I loathe neither Nikon nor its wobbly bridges; I’m actually kind of grateful, because it led me right into the World of Micro (mirrorless) Four-Thirds, and I (finally!) have a camera that is a reasonable compromise of zoom and sensor size that doesn’t wimp out in the areas of aperture and shutter speed. The full range it offers means that you can get decent results even on a gray day. AND it weighs less than 2 pounds! So far (I’ve had it for about a week) it is working out fine. I am hoping that with my new Oly + Panny combination I can pay more attention to improving my photography and less attention in trying to make the camera live up to its expectations. I mean, cameras should do that all by themselves, without us having to worry about it. . .right?
Still, I had to be certain before I jumped right in to the 4/3 pool, so I tried out the Panasonic Lumix bridge, the FZ80 (gray-market-speak for the FZ82). I wasn’t impressed with its full-length focus, but I think I’ve given up on all that superzoom hype — it just isn’t going to happen with the tiny sensors used in bridge cameras and all the lens and other material that are necessarily built around it. Still, it was inexpensive (around $200 used) and, like the other bridge cameras, produces good photos when the light is good — as long as you don’t push the zoom.
Despite all the talk nowadays about mirrorless cameras displacing the DSLR, I am not ready to forsake my Canon — not yet and maybe never. My investment in Canon, Inc. is “only” a 77d, which I consider the poor man’s 80d, but it is a true workhorse. The optical viewfinder guarantees that, with BIF, what I see is what I get. Coupled with an L series 100-400 f/4-5.6 and a 1.4x converter I can get some really decent photos at a not-too-shabby-but-calculated 896 mm, even as a greenhorn newbie! And now that I’ve learned the lesson about bridges, I’m not as green as I used to be.
West Shore Trail is in the northern part of the Montezuma Wetland Complex. It’s rather isolated; nobody seems to go there much except me. That’s too bad because now that the simulated drought is over, the water levels at West Shore have risen even higher than those at the main pool in Seneca Falls, and the resident wildlife is even more varied here than it ever has been.
Unfortunately, the 2019 drainage practices forced nearly the entire muskrat population to relocate. There’s still a lodge here and there but nowhere near the hundreds that dotted the marsh last year. Though few, the lodges now serve double duty — one for the great blue herons (resting) and another for the ducks (nesting).
Nobody actually hikes the West Shore Trail. Part dirt road and part gravel path, it’s wide enough to drive, albeit slowly and quietly so as not to disturb the animals. The trail ends rather abruptly where the land is too wet to support a roadbed, but that is fine — looking up, there is a sturdy osprey nest resting atop an old utility pole. It hasn’t attracted any squatters yet, but it’s still early in the season. . .besides, if you look off in the distance at the line of poles running past the old bridge supports, you’ll see two new osprey nests that have indeed attracted family-loving osprey.
There is an eagle nest, too! I didn’t see this in years past, so it may be new. . .or maybe not. Maybe I just didn’t see it. In any event, an eagle pair has taken it over. It’s too far away to see any little ones, but there are signs of life in the comings and goings of the parents. There are probably other eagle nests deeper in the woods, because there is always a juvenile or two or four perched on trees, poles, or atop the muskrat lodges as they seek out fish, frogs, and other delicacies swimming in the marsh.
Great blue herons are also seen at the Trail marsh as are great egrets, which have only recently returned from migration. Beautiful birds!
Ruddy ducks, redheads, and mallards reside here as well as pie-billed grebes and coots. They ply the water for an occasional fish, but their diet is mostly grasses and other submergents. Common gallinules (a fancy name for moorhens) like the grasses, too, but they will also forage for spiders (eww!), insects (eww!) and tadpoles. They are much better swimmers than they are flyers, although they will indeed fly if provoked by a heron, an egret, or maybe even each other.
Gulls and terns are good fishers, too, and there are lots of them here at West Shore Trail.
Curiously, this is one marsh that is nearly devoid of Canada geese! I saw a few the other day, but the others must have found a marsh that isn’t quite so crowded as this one.
Even though the West Shore Trail spans just about a mile, the water is sparkling, clean, and deep enough to support vegetation and fish. . .just what a food chain needs!
But that’s how the Caspian terns do it — a nonchalant flyover that begets a frenetic flying frenzy! They circle and hover for several minutes in crazy cycles before suddenly and spectacularly dive-bombing for the prize.
The prize could be a crayfish but more likely is an unlucky fin fish, which the tern will immediately make short work of. And as soon as it is consumed (or forwarded to the young ‘uns for breakfast), the frenzy begins all over again.
Poor little fish! They probably never know what hit them!
Caspian terns look like gulls, but they’re not. They are slender, more colorful, and less annoying (unless you’re a fish — in that case, they are dangerous!). All About Birds, Cornell University’s website on all-things-feathered, states that “there is little information on Caspian Tern population trends,” but notes survival of the species is of “low concern.”
The truth is, Caspian terns are just about everywhere — they are found on every continent except Antarctica (environmentalists call this a “cosmopolitan distribution”).
There must be several colonies of Caspian terns where I live in western New York, because I see them flying over just about any of the wetlands I visit.
And why not? Their diet consists of fish, fish, and more fish, but if they are reallyreallyREALLY hungry they are not averse to making a meal of crayfish.
Or snacking on big, fat insects.
(Insects — ewwww!)
Caspian terns have to be alert and cautious while hunting, though, because any laggards could themselves easily become a tasty meal for owls or eagles. . .
. . .and maybe even gulls. . .
. . .not to mention foxes or raccoons.
If the terns leave their nests unattended for too long, they might return to find them pillaged, their eggs and little ones having been a delectable lunch for one of the above.
I mean, who knows of a raccoon that doesn’t enjoy a feast of eggs?
However, Caspian tern predators must be stealthy and sly; otherwise, they might find themselves surrounded and harassed by a mob of angry tern parents.
Caspian terns understand the harsh nature of nature, but they will fiercely protect their families from it!
Babies! Just hearing the word prompts a smile. . .remember the debut of Baby Yoda?
Springtime in western New York means that there will be lots of babies born in the wild. . . little balls of fluff that elicit oohs and ahhs from each observer. Some of them eventually poke their tiny heads above the nest rim, waiting for a treat; others learn to waddle behind momma, heading for a swim — and just about all of them are trailed by a league of photographers lugging long lenses and tripods, hoping to capture some candid cuteness — from afar, of course. No one wants to disturb either momma, poppa, or their babies!
I’m one of those hopeful nature photographers who quietly pursue these family photographs. Having stalked no less than 3 eagle nests and as many wetlands since February, the appearance of the little ones was much welcomed.
First come the owls. They are fairly lazy, you know. Rather than build nests of their own, they simply squat in someone else’s. Which is okay, I guess, since the great blue heron who built this particular nest doesn’t really care. So, momma owl sat there for over a month, watching the returning great blue herons repairing old nests and building new ones. Now her great horned owlets are getting ready to fledge.
I don’t think this momma owl likes me much — in every single one of my photos she turned her back. Silly thing! So, many thanks to Betsy Berglund, who took this excellent photo with her Nikon p900 and then posted it on the Facebook page of the Sterling Nature Center, https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2987462564648057&set=p.2987462564648057&type=3&theater.
Bald eagles are next in the chronology of wildlife births. They generally build their own nests — huge things that measure somewhere between 4-5 feet across and 2-4 feet deep. The larger ones often represent the work of several generations. There is plenty of room here for mom, dad, and their one, two, or three eggs, but the hatchlings quickly grow tall enough to poke their heads above the nest and then gradually edge out mom and dad.
This particular eagle family settled upon a second-generation nest on lakefront property owned by a developer. The New York State DEC moved in quickly, though, to protect the nest from encroachment. They began by issuing a cease-and-desist order to prevent any development on the property. Then they established a 660′ perimeter around the tree supporting the nest. They promised the developer that they would revisit the situation in 5 years. In any event, this building lot belongs to the wild as long as the nest is not abandoned. Prime real estate, indeed! — but only for the eagles 🙂
However, not all eagles are as enterprising as this pair — in fact, some are as lazy as owls. This eagle momma was happy to settle in another unused great blue heron nest in another rookery in nearby Wayne County. Her two babies are quickly outgrowing this small space! No artificial perimeter is necessary for their roadside home, as there is a natural 650′ barrier in the wetland surrounding the nest site.
Actually, this eagle is pretty smart. Heron rookeries are great places for birds of prey to match and hatch. Great blues build their nests on clumps of dead trees in the middle of marshes or ponds. Not only does this guarantee safety from predators such as foxes or coyotes, it also provides a ready supply of frogs, fish, and other tasty treats to feed the hungry young ones. Clever birds, those great blue herons!
While most heron chicks are still a few weeks away, it’s not so for Canada geese. In a quick trip to the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge today I counted several new families as well as a few mommas who continue to patiently sit on nest mounds. Watching a line of tiny fluffy goslings toddling along behind their mommas is sweet indeed, making it rather easy to forget that these adorable little ones will soon be big, fat, and noisy — and just as annoying as their parents!
Unlike the eagles, owls, and herons, though, Canada goose families are not protected by isolated rookeries or DEC-enforced perimeters. So, beware the photographer — or other Canada geese — who dare to come too close to momma, daddy, and their precious babies!
Not too many ducks today. The migrators have been long gone, and the residents seem to be limited to northern shovelers and the ubiquitous mallards. I did see some swans and some blue-winged and green-winged teal plus a few coots but no babies yet. I did hear the wail of common gallinules, but they and their babies, if any, remained well hidden in the reeds and rushes.
Another few days will warrant another visit — springtime in western New York may be cool, rainy, and windy, but there is so much to see and enjoy!
Wild, wet, and wonderful!
Grebes, they’re so weird.
We have the (ubiquitous) pie-billed type here. They’ve come back stronger, I think, this year. . .or maybe I just didn’t notice them as much last year as I do now. They’re cute little things, like tiny ducks with a fancy-looking bill. But they’re definitely weird.
They like to hide in the vegetation that grows in marshy water, but they don’t eat it much. That is the stuff of which ducks and geese are made. The pie-billed grebe prefers food that wiggles, such as fish, frogs, insects, and the like — much tastier than a dried-up cattail or some soggy pickerel weed. Grebes, including the pie-billed type, also eat their own feathers (!), which they sometimes feed to their young. I have to say ewwww! to that.
They build mats, not nests, from that marshy vegetation, and the chicks hatch on that. Babies can swim from the day they are born, but they spend most of their first 3 weeks on the mat — either that, or riding around on their parents’ backs. Lazy little things!
Grebes aren’t so good at walking and are worse at flying, but they are great swimmers. Those feathers, when they aren’t being consumed, hold a lot of water — fluffy feathers are a good thing when you’ve got three or four little ones riding on your back and you’re trying to stay afloat.
I’ll be watching, as the weather gets warmer, for those little ones to appear!
. . .the kind I’d like to meet (on the side of the road in an old cornfield!)