Category Archives: wildlife

The Harder Watercourse Garden- A Gardener’s Canvas of the Seasons

The Harder Watercourse Garden is a relatively new addition to the beautiful arboretum at Cornell Plantations.  I found it recently and find it a photographer’s dream of textures and changing colors as the season progresses. First, let me show you where to find this place. It lies just south of the Neuman Overlook at the first parking area just past the overlook.

The view when you park is inviting……

Continue reading The Harder Watercourse Garden- A Gardener’s Canvas of the Seasons

Redtail Hawk Nest Today

After a fruitless trip to find Showy Lady’s Slippers this morning, I stopped by the Redtail Hawk nest in Ithaca. It’s been five days since I saw them, and the change is dramatic.

First, the chicks seem to be getting more demonstrative.  This chick seems to be giving the adult some demand in full voice.

The adult did not stay very long.

I noted two changes today.  First, the chicks are now have the strength to break open the Chipmunks without the aid of an adult.  That shows considerable progress.  Second, they are testing their wings frequently.

I am wondering how many more weeks before they take flight.  Likely, it will be a surprise.

All photos used a Nikon D800 with 400 mm lens and 1.4 multiplier.  Shot at ISO 1600 using aperture priority at f/8.  Noise reduction done in LR4.

Paul Schmitt

Black Swamp Warblers

I resolved to visit the Black Swamp area east of Toledo, Ohio after a terrific presentation at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology by Kim and Ken Kaufman.  I was not disappointed. The number of warblers and other spring migrants is overwhelming, and the ability to be at eye level with the birds remarkable.  My most productive time was along the boardwalk at Magee Marsh.  I will make this an annual outing for future years.

There were several warblers that particularly caught my attention.   First was the Prothonotary Warblers. Some were as close as 5 feet.  Try focusing on that!

I’ve posted high resolution images in a gallery on my website at:!i=1847010336&k=9Kdz6Gh

In the link above, you’ll also find a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a Palm Warbler and  the Blackburnian Warbler below:

I’ve written a further commentary with more details in my personal blog at:

Paul Schmitt

Just a quick post from today..

Have to post this one photo of a Chestnut-sided Warbler in full voice.  Went to a park very near  home and found the bushes alive with birds due to the spring migration. It was  mostly Chestnut-sided Warblers with a few Yellow Warblers, Wood Thrushes and Song Sparrows.  The  males seemed totally driven to out-sing one another, and to jump around trying to find their rivals.  Never saw a female, and wonder if the females, as with so many birds, trail the males by a few weeks.  Anyone know about that?

Perhaps someone can tell me why this seems humorous.  I did not know they could open their beak so wide, but something makes me think he is just a loud mouth doing some bragging.

Appreciate any comments.


Great Conditions for Nature Photography

The sun is shining, the reports of new birds are filling my email and a great weekend is coming. So, my message for CNP members is to be sure to set aside some time to get out and photograph. I only have to step outside my door to have wildflowers emerging in bloom, and birds singing.

Met up with CNP member David Duneau at the Mundy Wildflower Garden on Cornell campus this Wednesday.  I’ve posted a longer blog on my personal site at:


To briefly summarize, we were looking for birds, but not having much luck getting close.   As we wrapped up on the parking lot, we saw incredible activity in nearby apple tree that was rich with blooms.   The most exciting was a fantastically colorful Baltimore Oriole.

A Northern Cardinal was also pretty cooperative.

For CNP members looking to try some bird photos for  themselves, I’d begin at the apple tree next to the Horticulture Building off of Caldwell Road.  It’s just to the right of the building.

We also saw an uncommon Nashville Warbler in the tree.  Warblers are harder for me because they are so often hidden inside the tree or bush, seem to move constantly and are very small.  Perhaps the richest place right now is the Hawthorn Orchard behind the tennis center on campus.  Seemingly dozens of different birds in the cover.

I’ll be unable to attend the next CNP meeting, but I hope to see reports of your success and perhaps a post here too.

Paul S.

My bad start ended up good.

In spite of the threat of rain, I headed out to my secret little farm ponds, hoping for Wood Ducks.  I was  hurried, and halfway down the woods road from the car I realized that I did not have my little three legged stool.  Sounds trivial, but it is basic to my moveable blind.  I sit on the stool, put the tripod in front of me, hook a bungee cord from one side of the stool and across my waist to the opposite side, and then drape a camouflage cover over me. Beginning out of sight, I can slip the tripod forward, than scoot the little stool forward without needing to take hold of the stool.  The bungee cord keeps the stool in place and my hands are always on the tripod for steadiness.  Like a caterpillar, I can slowly move into an exposed location with good visibility. Absent the stool today, I would have to make the approach on my knees. Not fun.  Then, I got to the pond and found three pairs of very vocal  Canada Geese patrolling right where I wanted to be.

It took forty-five minutes to get in position.  At times, the geese slipped to one side or another and I could move two or three slow steps on my knees.  Not pleasant. At other times, I could see they were all looking the other way and I would move. In the end, I was in full view, though in camouflage, and they took no note of me from 45 feet away.  I am thinking they have very short  memory for what is present in a particular place. It seems their vocalization is not in alarm but just making noise.  From experience, I know Wood Ducks are much more wary and would have made for a more difficult sneak. Now, I just needed the Wood Ducks to come in to the pond.

I first saw movement at the far side of the pond.  Putting my long lens on the area I saw a lone drake. It seems odd that there were no other Wood Ducks, especially no hens.  He seemed to be looking for company.

To my good fortune, the geese seemed to be drifting away to the other end of the pond and out of sight. Now, I needed the drake to complete the circuit and come around to my side.

It could not have developed any better.  The drake came right in front of me, only about  15 feet away.  Wow, they are beautiful!  And, to give a measure of their wariness, he heard the camera and did a U-turn to retreat a distance away.  I was relieved that he did not take flight, but over the next twenty minutes, he teased me. Then the rain appeared.  I took cover under a large hemlock tree to quickly cover my camera, lens and tripod head on a large plastic bag for a very wet hike back to the car.

These are my first bird photos with  my new D800 Nikon, and I am greatly impressed with the color based matrix metering and the continuous autofocus.

Overall, not a bad day. I kept the camera and lens dry in the rain, got a nice photo and my knees don’t hurt from the abuse. Next time I will  have a check list.

Paul Schmitt

Smoky Mountain Wildflowers and Waterfalls

Visited the Smoky Mountain area in the southeast United States for the first time.  In addition to being rich in waterfalls, I expected to find some native wildflowers that were new to me compared to the northeastern US.  I have added nearly a dozen new wildflowers to my photo galleries as a result of this outing.

The first stop was with friends who took us to  Bald River State Park in southeastern Tennessee.  Rather loved this single drop and the plunge pool half way down the drop.

Bald River Falls

After a pleasant visit with our hosts, we moved on to the Smoky Mountain National Park that spans Tennessee and North Carolina.  Continue reading Smoky Mountain Wildflowers and Waterfalls

The End of the Free Lunch, Bald Eagle Style

There are a pair of Bald Eagles regularly seen perched on the Chemung River where I-86 comes along the river.  The location is commonly called the Pressware Pool because of the glass plant the sits to the south of the pool. –This is where Corning’s Corelle dishes were developed.–  I found this pair’s nest this summer about 2 miles upriver and watched their fledglings testing their wings.  The location was inaccessible for photos.

This week, I found a boat launch ramp at Pressware that allows me to follow the eagles from my car. Call it a photo blind on wheels.  On Friday, I parked with my beanbag hung over the window sill and a long lens ready, and simply waited for birds.  After about a half-hour, an adult Bald Eagle mysteriously appeared, likely while I was scanning downriver with my binoculars.   I shot a few photos, but there really was no interesting behavior.  In another half hour, the bird went about 300 yards downriver to a perch in a tall pine tree a scant one hundred yards above the busy highway.  I could watch the bird in my binoculars, and in time saw it launch in a long shallow approach to the opposite bank in what appeared to be a strike at prey.

To my surprise, the bird headed not to that distant perch, but back upriver to the tall willows opposite me.  Such luck!  I could not see if it had a fish even with binoculars, but was also quickly switching to my camera.  Once on the perch, it obviously was tearing a fish apart. Now that is interesting.

Each time I get a close look at a Bald Eagle, I am impressed with their broad shouldered, brawny build.  They are so much heavier than the Osprey such that there is little danger of confusing them.

I never got a good look at the fish. It must have been small.  But, I could at times see that the eagle’s beak was soiled a rich red.

After a while, the eagle seemed to slow its feeding.  Perhaps as its hunger was met, it took a more measured meal. It’s posture was often upright in an attentive pose.

Soon, I noted a change in the bird’s posture on the perch.  Eagles assume a more horizontal form when preparing to take flight. This is a tip-off to prepare to take photos.  But, this bird had food. Why would it be leaving? In a short minute, it took off in a strong, deliberate flight downriver.

Quickly, the reason became obvious.  There was a thief in the neighborhood.  Sometimes the thief is in the family, so to speak.

I had not seen this immature Bald Eagle, and can only presume it was out of my binocular range, or in a hidden perch.  The adult was in no mood to share. The encounter developed rapidly, with no false posturing. The adult just went straight into the target,  driving it into the tree branches.  Amazing to see!

The immature quickly turned tail, and retreated downriver.  Some time later, I saw an immature soaring along the steep hillside some  one-half mile away. It never came back within range.

The situation corrected, the adult returned to it’s perch.

This is an interesting window into Bald Eagle behavior.  When hatched, the young are helpless to feed themselves, just like humans. Once fledged, they still are inexperienced at fishing.  The adults feed them, but at some time they have to fish or fail.  So it is with our children too.  At sometime, they need to be pushed out into the world to survive.

I’ve seen elsewhere where an adult, returning to its perch with a large fish, is robbed by an immature. When in flight with a heavy load, the adult is at a big disadvantage.  I assume this adult knew that the best solution was to drive the immature away at a distance rather than defend the fish from a static position.

Considering that this eagle pair will likely start a new cycle of nesting in early March, their first need is to come through the winter in good condition.  The free buffet for last year’s brood is over. Time to prepare for the next.

Photo Details:  Nikon D300s, 1/800 sec. f/6.3 @ISO 1600, 825mm equivalent; processed Lightroom 3 with noise reduction

Paul Schmitt

See ’em ducks? MR knot ducks, MR ponies. MR no ducks right now.

The Thanksgiving weekend at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia is billed as a waterfowl weekend to celebrate the huge numbers of migrating waterfowl that come to the Chesapeake Bay. Evidently, the waterfowl did not get the announcement this fall. So, absent them, what to photograph?  Well, wild ponies.

The ponies spend most of the year on the Assateague Island except in July when the firemen round them up, and swim then onto Chincoteague to select out a number of yearlings for auction, and to provide veterinary care. Otherwise, they are pretty much on their own to survive.

Having come to see thousands of Snow Geese and such, the ponies were only mildly interesting though the majority of visitors seemed to get really excited to see them. Obviously not birders.

There are, of course, resident birds that are pretty accustomed to people.  I’ve found that an auto is an excellent “blind” for bird photography.  My wife, Pam, is becoming proficient in positioning the car for me, and I set up in the back seat with a bean bag on the window sill to support the heavy telephoto lens. Moving the car just a little can greatly  improve the background and more clearly define the subject.  Being in the backseat, I can shoot to both sides.  Well, the first resident bird for us was a Great Blue Heron very intently fishing along the road to the beach.

One of the enjoyable aspects of photographing birds is learning to recognize the signs that a bird is ready to take flight or to strike at prey.  When your reaction time is added to the shutter delay of around 45 milliseconds, it is key to press the shutter before the main motion is seen.

The action is so fast that I am not generally sure if I have captured the event until I get the images downloaded to my laptop that evening. The camera’s screen did not clearly let me see the small minnow in the bird’s beak.

Adding to the difficulty is keeping the bird’s eye in focus. The autofocus has to recognize the movement and shift focus in the milliseconds involved.

All of this was on a section of the beach road where a canal parallels road so you can be close to the birds.

While there, I was out of the car anticipating a fly-over of some egrets or an ibis that were nearby. Did not happen.   As I chatted with another photographer, I saw a Belted Kingfisher fly down the canal towards a wooded patch some 200 yards away. Great Blue Herons are interesting but Belted Kingfishers are much less approachable, and I was excited.  I’ve not previously had any good images with them.  So, I gathered up my gear, set up the bean bag in the back seat, and Pam moved me into position.

The result was pretty encouraging. This little Belted Kingfisher helped me forget how few waterfowl were on the marshes. I realized how small they are as I watched it for about a half hour.  It preened, and stretched, and then began some serious watching for prey.  I was disappointed that it never dove for a fish, but still it was a high point for the weekend.

You’ll note the nice background.  That came about from a shift of only 5 feet in the car’s position.  If you are going after improved photos, pay serious attention to the background.

This was pretty much the high point of the weekend. We searched widely for more subjects but what I saw was not equal to images I already had of waterfowl. Still, we had an enjoyable time observing bird behavior with our binoculars.

There were a few Tundra Swans on the fresh water pools. We found one immature foraging very close to us on Sunday afternoon (after most of the weekend visitors had joined the exodus home). As the bird foraged, I realized how powerful they are.  It was pulling water plants out by the roots, and would vigorously twist and strain to gain the plant.  Their long neck allows them to feed at a greater depth than competing geese or ducks.  Their size convinces the smaller waterfowl to stay distant.

Of course, Sunday evening was very quiet in town and the sunset along the channel was colorful.

We decided to skip the refuge in the morning and head home with a stop at Bombay Hook NWR where we found American Avocets, Northern Harriers, Pintails, Northern Shovelers and huge mixed flocks of Starlings, Grackles, and Redwing Blackbirds swirling about their roost trees in liquid waves called “murmurs”. ( The volunteer receptionist at Bombay Hook was from Ithaca.  Small world, again.)

I expect to see on some bird blog that the waterfowl arrived on the Chesapeake in a few days. It will be tempting to try again, but I’ll first check with some local contacts. Overall, the weekend was enjoyable with some good practice on birds.  The Kingfisher saved the weekend from being a loss.

Paul Schmitt