Share Your Nature Photos at the Library: April 21, 2014

The photo above was taken by Elena, a very  talented twelve-year-old young lady who joins us at our quarterly photo-sharing evenings at the Chesapeake Central Library (298 Cedar Rd.). Elena created this image by simply punching a hole in a white piece of paper and inserting the flower into the hole, resulting in a creative and unique perspective on a simple subject, which she photographed with her iPad. This is one of the photos that she shared with us at last January’s meeting.

Our next “Nature Photo Night at the Library” will be on Monday, April 21 beginning at 6:00 p.m. Anyone who wants to can bring up to 20 of their favorite nature or wildlife photos on a USB device or a CD, and we will project them onto the library’s big screen for everyone else to see and discuss.  All ages and levels of experience with photography are welcome to join us; if you do not take photographs yourself but want to see what others are showing, you’re also invited to come!

The diversity of our group and the different perspectives everyone has on nature makes for a very enjoyable evening. We all learn from each other, and have developed a good fellowship. Some people specialize in landscape and beach photography; some, like me, focus on birds and butterflies.  Others like sunrises or macro photography or wildlife; some travel to find subjects to photograph, and others prefer to remain in their own back yards. Some have sophisticated camera equipment, and others take photos with their cell phones. There is a place here for everyone!

Here are a few more of the photos that people showed at the January meeting:

Bill Niven, one of our original members, was lucky and talented enough to get this beautiful photo of the usually-hard-to-see American Bittern. Bitterns are usually tucked well away from humans in the thick grasses and reeds near water. This one is out in the open, and you can see how its colors perfectly match the grasses, providing it with near-perfect camouflage when it is a just few feet further back off the path. American Bitterns winter in Hampton Roads but leave in April to migrate to their breeding grounds.

All the snow we got this winter forced more seed-eating birds than usual to concentrate at residential bird feeders. I know I saw more birds than normal at my feeders after the snowstorms. Debbie Economos showed us this photo of her snowy backyard with two of our most popular feeder birds, a male Cardinal and a Carolina Chickadee. Keep your feeders filled during inclement weather!

This photo by Nora Leonard needs no words; the doe’s beauty speaks for itself. Gorgeous!

Chris Williams told us he had been out birding for several hours, and it was just one of those days when he didn’t see much of interest. So he packed it in and returned home — where he pulled into his driveway and immediately found this beautiful male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker! 
Here’s one of my own photos; this is a Cedar Waxwing that I photographed at Paradise Creek Park in Portsmouth. This was taken during another of our extreme cold spells after another snowfall. I found dozens of Waxwings in a feeding frenzy, eating the berries from the Wild Privet.
And last, here is one of my favorites, another Bill Niven classic! (These are Tundra Swans at Mackay Island).
Please do join us on April 21 if you are interested in sharing your nature photography, or just want to learn more about the abundant nature and wildlife that is ours to find and photograph right here in our own back yard — what is here, and where to go to find it. Call me at (757) 410-7147 if you have any questions; ask for Karen.
Addendum: One of our members, Sally Zeil, told me that Bill’s swan photo (above) is just begging for a clever caption! She suggests

“Enough with the synchronized swim practice already, it’s time to migrate!”
“Give it up: you’re never going to find Lucy’s contact lens!”
“I see England, I see France…”    

 Do you have a caption of your own to share? If so, log into Google with your Google or Yahoo ID, then go to my blog and enter a “Comment” at the bottom of this entry. 

I Love Photo-Sharing Night at the Library — Please join us!

Every three months (at the end of each season), a group of nature and wildlife photographers get together at the Chesapeake Central Library where I work to share photos they have taken during the previous three-month period. We enjoy celebrating each season, since the natural landscape and the wildlife are so specific and relatable to each season. We emphasize the nature that we find here in the Tidewater area, but anyone can share any photos they like from anywhere.

Each photog brings up to 20 photos on a CD or a USB device like a flash drive, and we project those photos from a laptop onto the big movie screen in the library’s meeting room. Everyone admires and discusses them and we all have fun and learn a thing or two about our local wildlife. Age and level of expertise have no bearing on our photo sharing and fellowship; anyone is welcome to join us and share in the fun, whether they want to show photos or just watch. (We do, however, ask that no children under 12 years of age attend unless accompanied by their parent). We usually have a group of 10-15 people.

So, this is an invitation to anyone who would like to join us at our next get-together on Monday, July 29 starting at 6:00 p.m. We meet at the Chesapeake Central Library at 298 Cedar Road. If you’d like to show some photos, bring up to 20, and a few more if you like, in the event that we have extra time. Please give me a call if you have any questions or would like more information; the number is 757-410-7147. Ask for Karen.

The photo at the top of this entry is an outstanding capture of a Pileated Woodpecker that Tim Fearington showed at our last meeting in April.   What follows are some of the photos that other participants showed at the same meeting. Please enjoy!

 A beautiful Chesapeake sunrise photographed by Bill Niven.
 Chris Williams found this adult Bald Eagle at the Chesapeake Locks Park. Good luck and talent combine for a great photo op!
Nora Leonard took this stunning photo of a doe.
Green Herons like to skulk about in the shadows, but Tim Fearington captured this one 
out in the open.


 Canada Goose and its perfect reflection at Chesapeake’s Locks Park, 
photographed by Chris Williams.
SO pretty. Yellow Iris by Bill Niven.
Spring blossoms (cherry?) photographed beautifully by Nora Leonard.
Tim Fearington found and photographed this Red-Headed Woodpecker at the 
Norfolk Botanical Gardens.
 Another beautiful photo taken at Chesapeake Locks Park by Chris Williams.
 Bill Niven has a new super-zoom camera and was able to get this great shot of 
an Osprey on its nest from a long distance.

Mercurial May

What a strange month May was this year! It seems that every time I had a day off work to go out nature-watching, it was either rainy, cold, windy, or dark and gloomy; none are good conditions for bird photography, and of course butterflies and dragonflies were scarce, if flying at all. Nonetheless, I was able to  visit a few places and take a few photos to share with you.

To start out the month, my aunt from California flew in to Richmond for a couple of Roads Scholars trips (previously named Elderhostel), and I spent the weekend and my birthday with her in Richmond. On Saturday we went to Maymont Park (photo above), but spring had not yet arrived there; it was cold and cloudy. It’s a gorgeous park, though, and I intend to go there sometime in the summer; it has lots of possibilities for butterflies and dragonflies.

On Sunday we went on a pontoon boat Bald Eagle tour up the James River with Captain Mike, owner of “Discover the James” ( I highly recommend his trips; his pontoon boat seats six participants and he drives it about seven miles along the James pointing out the wildlife along the way. The focus of our trip was Bald Eagles, and they did not disappoint; we saw about 7 or 8 of them. Mike knows them all and their territories, as he has studied them for years, and knows where to find them. Unfortunately for me, it was another dark and dreary day, and the eagle photos I took are a bit dark and blurred — but I’ll share one anyway. The first photo below is of one of the Bald Eagles in flight clutching a fish, and the second is a Great Blue Heron that has just grabbed a fish that Captain Mike threw its way.

On the home front in Chesapeake, breeding season is in full swing. I have a bird house in my front yard that was investigated early in the month by Chickadees and even Eastern Bluebirds, but in the end a pair of House Wrens won the battle for it, and have built their nest inside; I should hear the babies soon.

Eastern Bluebird male investigating the bird house
One of the House Wrens that won the battle for the bird house.
An interesting fact about House Wrens: the males arrive on their breeding territories earlier than the females, and spend their time building multiple nests to impress the females. When the female arrives, she will hop from nest to nest to nest, and finally pick the one that strikes her fancy. Or desert to the neighboring male if she likes his nests better.
Last fall I posted photos in this blog of some impressive moth caterpillars that friends and neighbors brought to me. I put the caterpillars in my screen cages, and fed them until they went into their cocoon or pupae stages. They overwintered in that stage on my front porch, and two weeks ago one of them, the Polyphemus Moth, emerged! Below is the photo I took last fall of the caterpillar, followed by the moth:


I didn’t even realize that the moth had emerged until I noticed two other Polyphemus Moths that were perched on my house near the cages. I then realized that “my” moth had emerged, and she was a female! Females send out their scent, or pheromones, and males can detect that scent from several miles away; the two moths on my house were males that came looking for my female. Here’s a picture of one of the males; one of the ways to tell the male and females apart is to look at their antenna. The male’s are much “fatter” than the female’s (You can click on my photos to get an enlarged version for closer viewing):

By the next day I had five males, so I put them all in the cage with the female, hoping they would breed, which they did:

I should have kept the female in the cage with the leaves of her host plant (Oak), so she could lay her eggs and I could raise more caterpillars; this is what most other butterfly and moth enthusiasts would have done. But the adult Polyphemus Moth, like most of the other large Silk Moth species, lives for only seven days, and I just didn’t want her to die in my cage. So I left the cage door open one night and all the moths left to complete their life cycles in the wild.This is also the time of year that Luna Moths, another of the Silk Moths, emerge from their overwintering cocoons. Below is one that we found on the library’s outside brick wall. Like the Polyphemus Moth, Lunas emerge, breed, lay eggs, and die within a 7-day span. They do not eat or drink in the adult stage; their sole purpose is to reproduce.

On a warm day in mid-May, I took a short walk along the Dismal Swamp Canal Trail in Chesapeake. If you haven’t been there, you should go check it out. An 8.5-mile multi-use trail runs along the Dismal Swamp Canal, paralleling the old Route 17 to the North Carolina border. It is used by nature lovers, runners, bicyclists, and all manner of outdoor enthusiasts. (Check out the website at I generally prefer to bird on the less populated west side of the Dismal Swamp, accessed in several places from Suffolk, but the Canal Trail is a nice, quick, easy place to access some of the Swamp’s unique habitat if I don’t have a lot of time to travel over to Suffolk.

Since the weather was warm, a few butterflies were active, and even though none were unusual species, I enjoyed photographing some “old friends.” Here are a few favorites:

 Red-spotted Purple Butterfly
A lot of our swallowtail species also have black-with-blue coloration, but note that the 
Red-spotted Purple does not have the “tails” that the Swallowtails do.
 Zebra Swallowtail
 Tiger Swallowtails mineraling 
Spicebush Swallowtail
Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

I threw in the photo of the Gnatcatcher because I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to get a decent photo of one, and I finally did. These tiny little birds are almost everywhere in the spring and summer months, and you’ve undoubtedly heard them even if you didn’t know it; they have a soft wheezy, nasally, rambling song. These little guys are very active, like Kinglets, and are usually flitting about high up in a tree. They are also very curious; if you make “pishing” sounds, they will usually come in closer to investigate you, which is what the one in my photo did.
So, here comes summer now, and I hope that the excessive rains we had in May finally cease! If they do, I’ll be out looking for birds and insects to photograph at Mackay Island, Piney Grove, Back Bay, Maymont Park, and hopefully some places in the Piedmont and in the Blue Ridge; the more different kinds of habitat you visit, the more possible species there are to find. I’ll let you know what I saw next time, and if you want to share your own sitings with me, please feel free to comment. Or better yet, bring your photos to my next “Nature Photo Night” at the Chesapeake Central Library, which will be on Monday, July 29 at 6:00 p.m. Call me at 410-7147 if you would like more information about this — ask for Karen.


Winter Birds At My Chesapeake Yard

No question, I see a lot more birds at my Chesapeake bird feeders in the winter than I do in the other seasons. In the warm seasons, many of the birds we see are insect-eaters and do not use bird feeders that offer seeds. And the seed-eaters can find all the food they want naturally, and are less dependent on our feeders. In the winter, food is harder to find; the insect-eaters have migrated south to warmer climates that still have insects, and the seed-eaters rely more on the easy pickin’s at the local bird feeder. Winter can be the most interesting time to “feeder watch.”

I had an interesting winter in my own yard this year, and I hosted some species that don’t come to my yard every year. Winter birds are far less predictable than breeding birds which remain pretty much the same year-to-year. Weather patterns and food sources to the north of us affect bird movements greatly in the fall and winter, and many of the birds we see during those seasons are migrants that do not necessarily return to the same locations each year like the summer breeding birds do. Each day can bring something new and unexpected.

My first real surprise of the winter was the female Painted Bunting that visited my yard for a week or so (below). The male Painted Bunting is well known for its bright and showy colors; bright blue, red, green and yellow; the female’s colors are subtle shades of green. Painted Buntings are very uncommon in Virginia, but a few seem to stray here from the southern states each year. I have seen three or four in my yard over the years, including one gorgeous male.

       (Here is the male bird for comparison, courtesy of
This winter was an “irruption” year for many northern species of songbird. When cone crops and other food sources are poor in the northern states, birds that usually winter in those regions move south in search of food. An “irruption” year is one in which large numbers of these birds occur in more southern states; a few of these birds might be seen most years, but in irruption years they are conspicuous and can be quite common. The three birds below were much more common this year than in non-irruption years:

Pine Siskins are little finches about the same size as American Goldfinches, a species that they often associate with in “feeding flocks.” Pine Siskins are a streaky little brown bird with variable amounts of yellow coloring in the wings. I’ve had anywhere from two to two dozen at my feeders all winter.

Red-breasted Nuthatches move through eastern Virginia each fall in varying numbers; the Eastern Shore is a reliable place to find a few. They do not usually stay here or visit our bird feeders, but during irruption years like this one they have been common. They are daily visitors to my feeders.

If you keep a feeder, or even if you are just a casual bird watcher, you are familiar with our resident House Finches; the males have red markings, and the females and juveniles are plain birds with blurry brown streaking. The bird in the photos above is similar to the female House Finch, but is its “cousin,” a female Purple Finch, which is a separate species (note the distinct whitish stripes above and below the bird’s eye; this is a reliable field mark for distinguishing the two female finches). Purple Finches do not breed in southeast Virginia, but a few do pass through during the southbound fall migration (mostly to the west of us), and some visit bird feeders. This is only the second Purple Finch I’ve ever seen at my feeder.

Remember this guy? Last year I wrote in this blog about the six Baltimore Orioles that spent the winter in my yard. I had kept a hummingbird feeder filled with sugar water outside during the late fall, hoping to attract a rare winter hummingbird, but instead I noticed one day that a Baltimore Oriole was drinking from the feeder. I knew that Baltimore Orioles love to eat grape jelly, so I immediately went out and bought some jelly and a feeder to put it in. Within a few weeks, I had a total of six orioles, and they spent the entire winter with me, which is very uncommon here. They must have remembered my yard and my grape jelly, because this winter  they returned; in fact they added a member to their group. All seven Orioles are still with me as of today.

All sparrows look alike to most people — “little brown jobs,” as they’re called. But this one, a Fox Sparrow (above),  is special to me. Although this species does winter in our region, it is usually not seen in suburban yards; they prefer woods and unpopulated places. But this one spent two months in my yard this winter.

The bird above is also a species of sparrow, although it does not look like most sparrows at all. It is a member of the Towhee family, and this species is an Eastern Towhee. Eastern Towhees are quite common in our area, but for some reason they do not often frequent my yard even when there is free food. This year was the exception, as at least two visit me daily.

Pine Warblers (above) are a relatively plain member of the Warbler family of birds, but in the winter they bring a much appreciated splash of color to a dreary day. They frequently come to my yard for the suet and nuts that I put out. Pine Warblers are year-round residents in southeast Virginia, and one of only two warblers that commonly winter here; the winter-plumage Yellow-rumped Warbler, below, is the other.

If you have busy bird feeders as I do, you will eventually attract one or several of the Accipiters, known commonly as “bird hawks.” Accipiters do prey on small birds, and they are often much maligned for this, but they need to eat too and it’s all part of the natural cycle and survival of the fittest. There are two species of Accipiter that you are likely to see in this area, the Sharp-shinned Hawk and the Cooper’s Hawk. They are extremely similar in appearance, and even though there is an “average” size difference between them, there is much overlap; the average Cooper’s Hawk is larger than the average Sharp-shinned Hawk, but since female hawks are larger than males, a male Cooper’s Hawk might in fact be smaller than a female Sharp-shinned. Confused? Even the most experienced birder can have an extremely difficult time identifying those birds in the overlap range. It takes a lot of experience and familiarity with the more subtle field marks to be able to distinguish these two species.

This bird is a first-year, or juvenile, Sharp-shinned Hawk. It is just starting to acquire some of its adult feathers on its breast. Compared to the Cooper’s Hawk, it has a smaller-looking head, a shorter and squared-off tail, and it has a “puffed chest” appearance, seeming to carry the bulk of its weight in the chest.

This is a Cooper’s Hawk that is almost in its adult plumage. The Sharp-shinned Hawk will have the same plumage in its adult stage, so don’t try to ID these two birds based on their color; one is juvenile and one is adult. But if you look at the overall “feel” of this Cooper’s Hawk, you can see that its tail is longer than the Sharp-shinned’s and is rounded at the bottom rather than squared. The white tipping on the tail is also more in evidence than it is with the Sharp-shinned. The Cooper’s head is larger in proportion to its body, and the entire posture of the body is just longer. Rather than looking “puffy-chested” like the Sharp-shinned, the Cooper’s seems to carry more of its weight lower in the belly.

There are other things to look for when identifying these two hawks; a good website with concise, helpful  information is

Next month we will have another Nature Photo Night at the Chesapeake Central Library, so pencil in the date if you’d like to join us: Monday, April 29 starting at 6:00 p.m.  Bring about 20 of your nature or wildlife photos on a USB device or a CD, and we will project them onto the library’s movie screen for everyone to view and discuss. All levels of expertise are welcome to come, and if you’d rather just look at the photos than show your own, that is fine too. Give me a call at 757-410-7141 if you have any questions or would like more information — ask for Karen.