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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Pileated Woodpecker Scaling

Pileated Woodpecker's are numerous on Sanibel Island.

We followed this female Pileated Woodpecker this morning.

We saw her scaling bark off Mangrove Trees.

Scaled areas near wher she was feeding

She landed and began to pound away at the bark,

striking blows beneath it,

and a large piece of bark fell away.

At one point, we saw her long tongue extended out.

She would poke her bill in at the edges of the scaled bark.

You can see her tongue going beneath the edge of the bark, here

and here,

and in this close-up.

There has been much recent discussion about Pileated Woodpecker bark scaling and how to tell it from Ivory-billed Woodpecker scaling, if Ivory-billed Woodpeckers exist. We had an opportunity this morning at the Sanibel Lighthouse park to follow a Pileated Woodpecker. We watched the female in the above photos work over some Mangrove Trees, partially dead from damage done by Hurricane Charley in 2004. She whacked off chunks of bark and at one point we saw a fairly large chunk fall after she struck repeated blows. Later we went to some of the areas she had scaled and felt the bark and found it was tightly adhered to the tree. It was hard for us to pull any off. One of the observations made by Geoff Hill in his Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Choctawhatchee River research site, is that the bark he has seen scaled there is fairly tightly adhered to the trees. We had visited the Choctawhatchee River Basin recently and seen multiple evidence of scaling, some of quite massively chisled. In many cases there were large holes of cerambycid beetles under the scaling. We did not see those type of holes in this case.

One of the great things about digital photography is that you see amazing things when you blow up your photos. Our photos showed the long tongue of this female Pileated that tapers at the tip. How cool is that. Reminds us of seeing the tongues of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds when we watched through our binos as they perched near our feeders in NH. In the Birds of North America Pileated Woodpecker account written by Evelyn L. Bull and Jerome A. Jackson, it says the Pileated, "uses long, extensible, pointed tongue with barbs and sticky saliva to catch and extract ants from tunnels." This female was using her long tongue to poke into the sides of the scaled areas. Intriguing. At one point, we saw some tiny ants going under the bark and wondered if that was what she was getting. What an unusual opportunity we had to witness up-close-and-personal the feeding techniques of this female Pileated Woodpecker. Thank you digital camera and woodpecker.

Photos © Lillian Stokes, 2007

Monday, January 29, 2007

Peregrine's Breakfast

Peregrine Falcon with tern, note the feathers flying in the upper left.

Now we can see its face

Flying with its prey

Four wings.

We saw a distant bird on the Osprey's usual perch and began to see feather's flying from that direction. We thought, wait a minute, Ospreys don't eat things with feathers..... that's no Osprey! We cautiuosly stepped closer and saw that it was a Peregrine Falcon with its breakfast, a tern!

Photos were taken at the Sanibel Lighthouse park this morning.

Photos © Lillian Stokes, 2007

Sunday, January 28, 2007


Yesterday at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel, FL, at high tide, the shorebirds were roosting on a sand bar. I saw some flying in and took this shot just as they were landing. The cinnamon wings of the Marbled Godwit stand out in contrast to the dramatic black-and-white wings of the Willet.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Phoebe Blossom

We have a friend that calls Phoebe, "Phoebe blossom". Thought this was an appropriate photo to go with the title. This was taken 2 days ago at the Sanibel Lighthouse park. Those are Dune Sunflowers in the background. The way you get her to tilt her head in that adorable way is to say the word "cookie!"

Photo © Lillian Stokes, 2007

Friday, January 26, 2007

10,000 Warblers at Sanibel Lighthouse

This morning we saw over 10,000 Yellow-rumped Warbler fly past the Sanibel Lighthouse in two hours. Wow!

Sanibel Lighthouse with Don and Phoebe on the beach

My first photo, before we discovered the warblers, was an Anhinga

Photographing the warblers in flight is a challenge

I was using my Canon Mark II and the Canon 300 mm IS lens

The warblers launched off the lighthouse tip, flying into a strong wind, headed for the distant shore.

They fly with strong rapid wingbeats in a burst, then sail for a millisecond with their wings tucked and look like little bullets.

Don is counting, Phoebe, good puppy, patiently waits.

Here's a Yellow-rumped Warbler perched,

and here is its signature yellow rump!

Notice the two tail spots.

We both got "warbler neck".

A Cedar Waxwing flock

Turkey Vultures sail over the lighthouse

A Turkey Vulture's silver lining

An American Kestrel was also at the lighthouse

It all started out innocently enough. I said to Don,
"Let's take Phoebe to the lighthouse, I need photos of the lighthouse to go with some bird images I took there yesteday".
We arrived and strolled down the center path, puppy and hubby not happy with my slow "I'm-looking-for-photo-ops "pace. On the corner, birds were huddled in the ditch, hiding from the cold, strong, north wind. I saw this Anhinga drying its wings and waited for the moment the blowing grasses parted and framed its face, to get my composition.

We to the beach to get the classic postcard photo of the Sanibel Lighthouse and began to notice Turkey Vultures milling overhead. They may have been getting some lift off warm air rising from the parking lot, since it was too cold and windy for good thermals. They looked like bats coming out of a belfry.

Suddenly we were hearing and seeing lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers. They were launching themselves in groups, headed right into the wind, out over the waves. At 9:08 am we decided to start counting them. We continually took sample counts of the number of birds flying by in a minute. Our low count per minute was 75; our high count was 125 and most counts were this number. They were surprisingly constant. We chose a number of 110 birds per minute as a conservative estimate and multiplied that by the number of minutes we watched. We also continued to sample the number of birds per minute to be sure the pace had stayed the same.

From 9:08 am to 10:28 am the pace of birds was constant and totalled 8,800 warblers. From then to when we stopped counting, 11:08 am, the pace slowed to 50 birds per minute and totalled 2,000 birds. In all we had 10,800 Yellow-rumped Warblers in 2 hours!

How many warblers actually passed over the lighthouse on their way to the mainland that morning? We can only guess. They could have easily started an hour earlier bringing the total to 17,400; and continued later making totals close to 20,000.

We noticed birds flying at various heights. In the first hour, many were about 50 ft. high and easy to see, but as we looked higher we saw many more 150 ft. high. During the second hour, when we thought things had slowed down a bit, we suddenly noticed hundreds of birds flying at the limit of our binoculars. They looked like little snowflakes, totally invisible to the naked eye. We had not thought to look this high earlier, and may have missed them, making our totals much higher.

Here are some other thoughts and observations we had. There was a strong north wind which they had to struggle against as they crossed east to the mainland. Why would they pick this time to cross? We conjecture that these birds chose to move because the north winds helped them come down all the barrier islands, which are oriented north/south, and this left them on the last island, Sanibel, which is oriented east/west. At this point, they had to head to the mainland by the shortest route which meant slightly against the wind.

We wondered if any birds were just circling back over the water and returning to the island and thus being repeatedly counted by us. We checked this by following individual birds and groups of birds as long as we could. They always kept going until they were out of sight. We also looked for any birds coming back onto the island. There were none. Thus, we felt sure we were not double counting.

We wondered why the stream of birds was so constant. Why were we not seeing 500 warblers all at once and then none for a while. The pace, as we continually checked it, was amazingly constant. We think this means that the warblers were fairly evenly distributed over the barrier islands before they started flying and that most started flying at about the same time, thus creating a steady flow. This may be due to their feeding habits, insects and berries, where large flocks could not find enough to eat. There are still questions here to be answered.

Also, where were are the birds going? And why? We do not know. We also do not know if anyone has reported a similar winter movement of Yellow-rumped Warblers. The reference, Birds of North America, makes no mention of movements like this.

Other birds we saw while out there were about 30 Cedar Waxwings heading out over the water but circling back. This was also the case with a flock of 200–300 American Robins. At one point we saw 200–300 Tree Swallows take off from the island about 1–2 feet over the water, going to the mainland.

At one point I decided to watch just one Yellow-rumped Warbler until it disappeared out of my sight. It got blown around then joined others. I realized it could see hundreds of other yellow-rumps up there where it was. What a strong urge compelled it to fly with its like kind, the flock instinct and migration urge functioning like a big magnet to pull these thousands of Yellow-rumps back to the mainland. It was our very own "Winged Migration" moment.

Bird photos © Lillian Stokes, 2007

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Sanibel Hope

Sunset, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge with birds, Sanibel Island 1/21/07

Sanibel Island viewed from causeway

Sanibel Beach with Red Drift Algae 1/18/07

We are in Sanibel Island now and, as you may know, Sanibel is facing some tough environmental problems. In the last few years, the hurricanes (more numerous because of global warming?) have dumped excessive water on FL. That water goes into Lake Okeechobee and, in order not to have the lake flood, much of that is released by the South Florida Water Management District and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers down the Caloosahatchee River to Sanibel Island’s surrounding waters. Trouble is, the polluted fresh water from the lake contains heavy nutrients, like nitrogen and phosporous, that contribute to excessive algae blooms and also dense sediments that hurt sea grass growth. The releases of this polluted water can kill oyster and clam beds, severely impact the marine environment and its wildlife, and hurt the toursim industry.

Excessive algae blooms have impacted Sanibel’s Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge where there is bloom of green filamentous algae (especially visible last year). Even though this year has been a dry year (no hurricanes) and there have not been the excessive water releases, some of Sanibel’s beaches are piled high with excessive red drift algae. The city has been pressured by many to clean up the algae, but environmental groups want to make sure it’s done with care, since cleanup could impact dune vegetation, mollusks and crustaceans shorebirds feed on, as well as resting and nesting habitat for many bird species and sea turtles.

Rest assured there are many organizations such as, the city itself, PURRE (People United to Restore Our Rivers and Esturaries), SCCF (Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation) and others fighting hard to find solutions to the polluted water quality issues facing Sanibel.

The SCCF website says its annual fund drive will provide “an extremely exciting scientific response to harmful algae blooms such as Red Tide and the water quality problems flowing down from Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee into our estuary. We intend to purchase six marine research water quality sensors. Our Marine Research Laboratory scientists will collect streaming data using this real-time coastal observatory system. The first of its kind in this area, the scientitsts will be able to gather sampling data in a 12-hour period that would previously have taken a year under more conventional sampling practices. This data will be used to encourage more sustainable water management practices on the local, state, and federal levels.”

The City of Sanibel has an excellent website called Sanibel H20 Matters, that has weekly updates and tons of background information on the scope of the crises.

This week’s update from that website,

- Announces that the city is allowing the removal of the beach red drift algae but restricting removal to the use of hand tools like rakes. Cleanup will only be authorized until Feb. 15 the beginning of the Snowy Plover nesting season.

- Quotes from a newspaper article that says....“ People who have been fighting to protect the Caloosahatchee River's water quality won a significant battle Thursday morning. Agencies that manage Lake Okeechobee agreed to designate land where excess water from the lake can be stored in an emergency instead of being released into the river”....."Sanibel Mayor Carla Brooks Johnston told the district board that a short-term solution is important to give the estuary at the mouth of the river a chance to heal. She and others have complained that it's overloaded with nutrients and algae blooms caused by releases from Lake Okeechobee during the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons”....”We can't have that happen again”, Johnston said, "We need to be able to recover and have the waters clear themselves out. ... We're an island surrounded by the effects of releases. Our environment is our economy... I'm pleased with the progress since I was here a year ago dialing 911," Johnston said. "We need proof and we need evidence and we need to see what exactly your plan is going to be."... “Johnston said the decision of the district and corps to work together on this issue is a vast improvement from last year, when they simply pointed fingers at each other. But, she said, more needs to be done to find additional water-storage areas.”

- Announces, “a new Medical Committee has officially formed to research the possible presence of human pathogens in waters in and around Sanibel. This committee is composed of local island doctors and includes Council member, Dr. Steve Brown. The committee will act as an advisory group to City Council.”

We have been on Sanibel for several weeks and here are some of the things we have seen:

- Many of the beaches are full of red drift algae piled high and on some beaches we saw dead fish and even dead birds. Tides can sometimes temporarily wash away the algae. Many beaches had lots of the algae, a few had little.

- The vegetation on Sanibel, though may tall trees were lost in the hurricanes, is very lush and full of fruits, such as wax myrtle berries, figs and cabbage palm fruits. There are many flocks, numbering in the hundreds, of wandering Tree Swallows and Robins, both of whom eat berries in winter. There are three Bald Eagle nests with young in the nest. The Christmas Bird Count put out by the Sanibel-Captiva Audubon Society showed a return to more normal count numbers of birds after the drop seen for the last two years following the hurricanes.

- Ding Darling refuge has many birds sometimes, not other times, depending on the tidal schedules and other factors. We have been in the refuge at dusk and seen many Roseate Spoonbills (see my photos from last post) and roosting shorebirds at high tide. There have been Red Knots and other shorebirds feeding in the refuge. We met scientist Brian Harrington, Red Knot expert, earlier in the month and he had just banded 300 Red Knots on Sanibel.

- The lighthouse end of the island, which was quite demolished by hurricanes, has been replanted and birds are there providing good photo ops. See my post tomorrow.

Where does this leave things now? Sanibel is facing a crises, but fighting hard to remedy it. Will the cooperating agencies involved be able to work together to find a solution fast enough to stop the ecological damage being done to Sanibel before the next hurricane season brings with it the threat of more massive water releases? We hope so. Stay tuned and read the city’s website.

Photos © Lillian Stokes, 2007

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Pink Angels

The Roseates were out in full force at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island at sunset a few days ago, on Jan. 20th. I couldn't resist the photo ops. The light was coming in from the side and they were standing in shallow water on the first pond, bathing, preening and holding out their wings in the special way they do during their preening rituals. I was blowing through my 1 Gig cards in record speed, trying to anticipate the seconds during which they hold open their wings.

Every feather in those beautiful wings were lit up as if held in front of a candle, wings glowing luminescent against the dark water. It was a heavenly moment, captured and preserved by the camera. When I look at those glorious wings all I can think of is Pink Angels.

Photos of Roseate Spoonbills © Lillian Stokes, 2007

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Lillian's Bird Photography Tip, Higher ISO

(click on photo to enlarge)

I don't pretend to be the world's most expert photographer. Far from it. I'm still learning and grateful to all the people who have taught me things. Learning photography can be a lifelong process, that's part of the appeal for me. Along the way, I have discovered some useful things that I'm happy to pass along to you, such as using a higher ISO setting on your digital camera.

To continue with yesterday's discussion about using higher the ISO settings I was teaching Julie Zickefoose, here's an example of an image I shot recently at Ding Darling National Widlife Refuge at dusk. I wanted to stop the action of the Roseate Spoonbill's wings and water droplets and I also needed a good depth of field to get almost all the Showy Egrets in focus. This was tricky and I love a photographic challenge.

I set my camera's ISO setting at a higher ISO setting — 640. This increased the camera sensor's light sensitivity, allowing the camera to gather more light. I put my camera on the AV, aperature priority, setting (read your manual, "ugh", to learn how to do that) and used an aperature setting of f 18 to get a greater depth of field.

Decreasing the aperature actually reduces the amount of light coming into the camera. It was a very good thing I had set a higher ISO to compensate for that. The camera's shutter speed read 1/500th of a sec., which made me happy because faster shutter speeds allow you to freeze motion. Hence, I caught the flying water droplets. This feat was made possible by increasing the ISO of my camera. I was using my Canon Mark II camera with my 500 mm IS lens with a 1.4 teleconverter.

Here you can see the individual water droplets coming from the beating wings of this bathing Roseate Spoonbill

Here's an amazing photo I took of an Anhinga in flight at sunset at 3200 ISO, f 5.6, 1/800th of a sec. with my Canon Mark II at 300 mm. The highest ISO setting on the Mark II is a skyscraper 3200! I love the way it looks, so soft, more like a watercolor painting than a photo. There's so much more to do with these digital cameras than I ever thought. I like to push their limits and discover new things and encourage you to do the same. Photos like the Anhinga make me ponder where the line is between a photo and a painting. I often think that if John James Audubon were alive today, he would be using a Canon 1D Mark II and experimenting with every setting on the camera.

To change the ISO setting on this Canon 10 D camera, hold down the button that says ISO and turn the large wheel on the back of the camera and the ISO numbers will change. Find our how to change the ISO on your camera.

To summarize about higher ISO settings;

If you're photographing in lower light conditions, increase your camera's ISO setting. This will enable your camera to gather more light, have a faster shutter speed, stop action, and result in a sharper photo. Higher shutter speeds are in the 400, 640, 800, 100, 1600 range.
Using a higher ISO, will increase the "grain" sometimes called "noise" in the photo. That's not always a bad thing and can still have a pleasant and artistic effect.

In brighter lighting conditions, use a lower ISO speed, such as 100, or 200 because you want to decrease the light sensitivity of your camera's sensor and avoid overexposing or burning out the photo. People are usually told to use the lowest ISO speed they can because it will produce less noise or grain in their photos. However, under dim or low light conditions, a higher ISO can be a real plus.

Photos © Lillian Stokes, 2007

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Visit with Julie Zickefoose

We went photographing at sunset on Sanibel

Julie giving her talk, she's a very engaging speaker

Julie Zickefoose's new book, Letters From Eden— a Year at Home in the Woods

Julie on the Sanibel beach photographing a Great Blue Heron at sunset

My photographs of gulls in flight, I love the long graceful wing dipping from pink to gray

The dark gull silhouette is suspended in orange air, sun at right

another gull, the sky has turned persimmon

The light faded to pastels as the sun dipped behind the clouds, making a threesome composition — heron, gull, sun

The Great Blue, head plumes flying like a flag against the half-a-pink-pie sun

and then all cleaned up and out for dinner, we prevailed upon the waiter, like tourists, to take our photo.

Julie Zickefoose, talented artist and writer, came to Sanibel Island, FL for a talk and book signing for her new Letters From Eden book. We went to hear her talk and later hung out and did some photography together, then had dinner. What an enjoyable time!

During her talk, Julie showed some of the wonderful illustrations from the book and read a sampling of entries. The book is a collection of essays that take place over eight years on her "eden", the farm in the Applachian foothills of Ohio that she shares with her husband, children, and, of course, her canine companion and frequent blog subject, Chet Baker the Boston Terrier. Julie is a compelling writer and her essays are richly imbued with her own feelings and reactions to her nature experiences on the farm. Julie had a long line of fans for the book signing.

At the end of the day, I took Julie out for some photography fun at a sunset spot on the end of Sanibel, called Blind Pass. We got there just as the golden orb was sinking into the sea. I noticed a man feeding some gulls (a no-no on Sanibel) but it presented an opportunity for me to try and grab some flight photos of gulls against the rosy-gold glow. For you photography geeks out there I will mention my camera gear and camera settings. I was using a Canon 1 D Mark II camera, sometimes with a 1.4 teleconverter and Canon 300 mm IS lens, hand held. Most photos ranged from 400 to 500 ISO, f 5.6 and from 1/800 to 1/2000 sec.

There was a wonderful Great Blue Heron on the sand, head plumes blowing. The sun began to morph into a half pie as it dipped behind the horizon cloud. Julie, who has a Canon Rebel XTi and was using a shorter focal length lens, was down low in the sand, a good idea to frame birds against a setting sun. One of the great things you can do in lowered light situations is to bump up the ISO setting on your camera. By getting off the auto settings in the camera, onto the AV (aperature priority) setting and opening up the aperture (note: a wider aperature means a lower number, such as 4.0, 4.5 , 5.0, 5.6) more light is let in, shutter speed increases, resulting in less blurry photos. I love to teach others about photography and it was fun to share this information with Julie, who is still a newbie with her camera.

After sunset, we went out to dinner at Traders and had delicious seafood. Julie said she likes to take advantage of all the fresh seafood available here, which is harder to come by in the Midwest. We have alot in common, as we are also in the book business and we, as with Julie and her husband, Bill Thompson, III (editor of Bird Watchers Digest) have land that we love that is rich with nature. We talked about how Julie's learning photography might affect her art — I think it will make her a better artist. Keep on taking photos, Julie!

Photos © Lillian Stokes, 2007