Reflecting on 2021: Birds in Winter

This winter season in the snow belt has been very unusual, with little to no snow cover. We must be a couple of feet below normal. Snow is finally arriving, but I must back pedal to January and February 2021, to tell this story.

Much of my winter bird photography occurs around the house and along adjacent trails in managed wildlife habitat.

Northern Cardinal
Common Redpoll, an erratic northern visitor
Red-breasted Nuthatch
“Slate-colored” Junco
White-throated Sparrow
Tufted Titmouse
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-bellied Woodpecker

The Central New York region has a rich variety of natural areas and bird life, so there is much to see beyond the backyard. Weekly excursions on the back roads that crisscross rural areas and wetlands can be a challenging, but rewarding, winter activity. Nesting eagles and visitors from the far North – especially snowy owls and snow buntings – are always subjects of interest.

Bald Eagle, one of a mated pair, circling an active nest in February
Snow Bunting, one member of a large flock of about 100 northern visitors
Snowy Owl, hunting open fields for meadow voles

Photos by NB Hunter (January and February 2021). © All Rights Reserved.

The Partial Lunar Eclipse and Blood Moon

Rarely do all of the stars align, literally and figuratively, as they did around 4:00 AM, EST, last night.

In Central New York, cloudy skies usually hide major celestial events, but, last night was the exception. As if on cue for connoisseurs of astrological phenomena, a clear, pitch-black sky revealed brilliant, sparkling stars overhead, with an amazing event unfolding in their midst: the longest partial eclipse and blood moon in 580 years!

At its peak, the spectacle was fleeting, less than 30 minutes to be sure, but the image of the night sky of November 19, 2021 appears in great detail every time I close my eyes.

Photo by NB Hunter, 19Nov2019 @ 3:45 AM, EST. All Rights Reserved.

Summer Meadows: Blooms and Visitors

The wildflower sequence of bloom in summer meadows is a daily reminder of the wonders of nature and, as Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe”.

This gallery of favorites features a Monarch caterpillar on milkweed and butterflies on knapweed, Joe-pye Weed and goldenrod. The bookends are a bumblebee on goldenrod and New England Aster.

Photos by NB Hunter (Late July – early September, 2021). © All Rights Reserved.

A Great Egret in Central New York

Every now and then a Great Egret wanders into my viewing area in Central New York during the late summer/early fall migration. We are blessed with abundant surface waters and wetlands, ideal habitats for wading birds like herons and egrets. This year, a solitary egret chose the shallow waters and wetland habitats of a small mill pond to feed and rest. I set up in the morning light to observe and photograph this beautiful bird behaving naturally and must share the story. The gallery is a rough sequence of events as the egret left a log perch to hunt and forage in shallow water. It relocated once, hence the flight sequence. Enjoy!

Photos by NB Hunter (Madison County, NY; September, 2021); © All Rights Reserved.

Summer Meadows and Halloween Pennants

There’s so much to see in a meadow on a warm summer afternoon, especially in the world of insects. I love watching dragonflies as they perch, cruise and hunt, sometimes putting on a dazzling display of flight maneuvers that would make any military proud. Halloween pennants are a favorite species, in part because they afford multiple image possibilities from a perched position. Perched atop tall stalks of grass, amber wings in constant motion for stability in a shifting breeze, they put on quite a show. This female Halloween Pennant entertained me during walks on a couple of hot, breezy afternoons in late June.

Photos by NB Hunter (Central New York; late June, 2021). © All rights reserved.

Spring 2021 – In Living Color!

In the snowbelt region of Central New York the tug of war between winter and spring seems endless. We’re teased with mild weather, encouraged by the appearance of a pair of bluebirds in early April. They investigate nest boxes, sometimes commence with nest building, then disappear when the mild weather gives way to cold rain or snow.

Spring eventually wins the battle of the seasons and successive warm days trigger an explosion of activity. Warm, sunny days foster a sense of urgency and a pressing need to be exploring dozens of natural areas simultaneously. Spring ephemerals like hepatica and red trillium are always on the early spring itinerary.

There were lots of cardinals around in early spring and one in particular chose to defend the house and grounds against all rivals. We did everything imaginable to discourage him, but he tried for weeks to run his own window reflection out of town. Regardless of the vocalist, cardinal, towhee or other songbird, the music of spring is as uplifting as anything the season has to offer.

Backyard habitat management, including supplemental feeding stations, pays dividends during the spring bird migration and leads to many unforgettable observations and photos. Ruby-throated hummingbirds and Baltimore orioles put on quite a show this year. Prior to 2021, I had only seen orioles feeding on things like jelly, oranges and sugar water in magazines and social media posts. Now, I’m a believer!

I devote much of my spare time to the cultivation of wild apple trees on a 30-acre parcel, so apple blossom time is special. In addition to the beauty and promise of fruit, the blossoms attract an array of wildlife species. Songbirds, like this yellow warbler, forage on the blossoms as well as insects visitors.

Dame’s Rocket, an alien wildflower, carpets open places and disturbed sites in late spring and provides the annual introduction to the world of nectaring butterflies. The Tiger swallowtail is often the first to appear.

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” – Aldo Leopold

Photos by NB Hunter; April, May and June, 2021. All rights reserved.


Hummers 2020

The most interesting and frequent visitors to our backyard feeders and flowers in the summer are hummers – two very different kinds of hummers.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. I’ve been negligent in landscaping for hummingbirds so most of my observations and photos center on a sugar-water feeder and adjacent perches.

Diurnal moths. Phlox is one garden flower that thrives despite my neglect. It reaches full bloom in August and another “hummer” visits almost immediately: the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth. They buzz around like miniature hummingbirds, feeding on dozens of flowers in the time it takes to lock in on one. Mid to late afternoon is prime time.

Touch-me-not (Jewelweed), a native wild flower, is now in bloom. It’s sought after and guarded by hummingbirds and, with a lot of luck, might lead to a followup post on hummers!

Photos by NB Hunter (July and August, 2020). © All rights reserved.


Summer Thrills and Musings

In the midst of an oppressive heat wave with high humidity, even a trip to the extensive, unbroken forests of the Allegheny Mountains offered little reprieve. Cold, freestone streams remained cold, but the waters were low and the trout sluggish. A good rain would bring them out from their hiding places but it wasn’t to be!

Sunrise over the forested ridges and fog-laden valleys of the Allegheny Mountains

A freestone trout stream, protected from the summer heat by the canopy of a forested watershed

My attention quickly shifted to a world where heat and humidity were a blessing: wild flowers and butterflies. The trees and shrubs of deciduous forests provide a smorgasbord of host plants for the caterpillars of many butterfly species and the adults are apt to swarm floral blooms for nectar. Swallowtails are the main attraction.

Tiger Swallowtails on milkweed

Bee Balm (Oswego Tea; Monarda), escaped into wild places from cultivation and a favorite food source of butterflies and hummingbirds.

Spicebush Swallowtail on Bee Balm

The white variety of native Rhododendron, in full bloom in early July on a moist, shaded site near a mountain stream.

The limiting weather and stream conditions in the mountains led me to break  camp early and return to the comforts of home and the rich, natural world that I know so well. Summer is a time when everyone seems to let their guard down as they go about the business of nurturing young and foraging on Nature’s bounty.

Red Fox pups frolicking in a hay field and playing keep-away with food (1 of 2 images).

The resident groundhog (woodchuck) foraging on dandelion leaves.

A “bachelor group” of whitetail bucks in velvet, heading for a field of corn.

July is our peak butterfly month and they have no interest in the “golden hour”. Mid day is their time to flutter. Depending on the species, the goal might be flower nectar, tree sap or minerals in a carcass or mud puddle!

Sulphur butterflies “puddling” in the mud on a nature trail.

Photos by NB Hunter (July, 2020). © All rights reserved.

June: Something for Everyone!

The month of June bridges seasons and showcases the best of two worlds – Spring and Summer. There’s a surprise around every turn that appeals to our senses of beauty and wonder and connects us to the natural world.

My journey through this wonderful month always begins with a camping trip to the Deep Valleys Section of the Allegheny Plateau. An annual renewal of mind, body and spirit begins in this place, where largely forested watersheds and deep, shaded valleys spawn cold springs and freestone streams and a delicious sense of wildness.

Pink Mountain Azalea usually greets us on the approach to our destination.

“And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul” – John Muir

Unspoiled, forested watersheds – a threatened natural resource to be sure – support diverse aquatic ecosystems that include mayflies and the wild trout that devour them. In these settings, catch and release fly fishing provides Zen-like experiences where one is completely absorbed in the moment.

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in” – Henry David Thoreau

The appeal of small, mountain streams is much more than the drag-free drift of a dry fly and the explosion of a fooled trout. The sights and sounds that envelop and animate these environments enrich and complete the overall experience.

Great Blue Heron foraging in a wetland habitat

A Fisher, our largest member of the weasel family, hunting squirrels in the early morning hours

Upon returning home, I’m still surrounded by the myriad wild things and events that make June so special. But, there’s also a backdrop of civilization and the constant reminder of its profound impact on the natural world.

A Catbird guarding her nest in a nearby thicket.

Tree Swallow at the entrance to her nest, guarding the helpless babies

A young Cottontail from the first litter of the year, looking all grown up

Cultivated farm fields bustle with activity in June. Fields of corn, hay and oats dominate the landscape and animals adapt quickly to the cycles of planting, growth and harvesting.

A whitetail family group foraging in a hay field. The fawns are no more than three weeks old and facing the steep learning curve that is critical for their survival.

A mature doe in uncut hay; her fawns are invisible in the tall grass.

Young animals are vulnerable to the operation of big farm machinery in fields, as well as predation and other mortality factors. However, A carcass in a recently cut hay field doesn’t go to waste. In this instance, several crows and an immature Bald Eagle made sure of that.

We met, eye to eye, on a recent summer evening. While walking along the edge of a developing corn field to set up for pictures, I surprised two antlered bucks munching on the succulent new growth of corn stalks. A mature whitetail buck in velvet is a beautiful thing!

“An understanding of the natural world and what’s in it is a source of not only a great curiosity, but great fulfillment.” – David Attenborough

Photos by NB Hunter (June 1 – June 28, 2020). © All rights reserved.