Thursday, November 17, 2011

Snow Geese

This morning I was running early on my way to work. Mainly because there was no frost on my windows. Then, in an incredible struck of luck, I spotted two immature Snow Geese in the field outside my neighborhood. This field has a near constant flock of Canada Geese in the fall, winter and spring, and despite my constant scanning - they always remain Canada Geese - unless of course there are a smattering of Rock Pigeons thrown in for good measure or spite.

Not today though - real, live, Snow Geese! Two of them! Why did the Snow Geese pick this morning to appear? Because this morning, @#$%, I had left my camera bag at home!
"Don't leave Geese!" I thought to myself as I made the split decision to correct that oversight.
I find it amazing that anxiety can reach such levels in moments it took me to turn back into my neighborhood, navigate safely to my house, retrieve my gear, drive back to the edge of the neighborhood, park, cross the divided two lane street on foot, and then, (having confirmed the birds had not been chased off by a happily walked dog), walk along the field to a position where I was not shooting into the sun.

Needless to say, I was happy they hadn't picked those few minutes to leave! Both birds, the second is visible in the top picture - facing away and feeding (AKA the moon shot) - are first year birds, and are trading out their dark plumage for the snowy white feathers they will show for the rest of their lives.

In addition to switching to their 'snow' white plumage, the birds' bare parts, (bills and feet), will turn mostly pink, except for the grin patch on the bill which will remain dark. Check my previous Snow Geese posts for adults in traditional and 'Blue' phases. This bird was nice enough to stretch, showing off the dark primary feathers on its wing, which will remain dark, but are generally hidden when it is standing or swimming and the wing is folded. These were my first juvenile Snow Geese, first of the year Snow Geese, and the first time I had seen more than one at a time in my home county. Not a bad way to spend a few extra minutes before work.

On the topic of good sightings, John Vanderpoel, a Colorado birder, is really tearing it up on his Big Year bid, if you haven't seen his blog yet be sure to check it out in the next six weeks. I have a feeling it is going to be a wild ride down to the end of 2011!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Seasonal Change

Growing up in Minnesota you learned to anticipate the seasonal changes. Living without four distinct seasons would feel like a major loss to me, I find joy in each one, and the transitions between. In Minnesota the change of seasons could be fast, or measured and gradual. No matter what though, there was always a movement from one to the next, you rarely went backwards.

In Colorado the seasons jump all around, and with or without a bit of driving you may find yourself catching a feel of all of them in a single day. One day you may get an early taste of winter, and the next may be reminiscent of summer. Here on the Front Range we have already had several significant snows, and a cold start to the week has progressed back to mild temperatures and the potential for a nice weekend.

I guess one of the aspects of Colorado that I am most fond of is that here you can find the unexpected in nature to reflect thoughts or feelings. For instance, Wednesday's lunch visit to Standley Lake Park found me admiring a Song Sparrow against a backdrop of the warm colors of fall. This morning, while unimpressed by a group of Ring-billed Gulls at Lower Church Lake, I did find frosty beauty in a puddle with a partial skin of ice, reflecting an otherwise unnoticed clump of grass against a cloudy sunrise.

No matter if you are in a place where fall is hanging on, or winter is establishing an early grip, I hope nature finds a way to make the commonplace reflect the beauty of the season. Have a great weekend everyone, and Go Buffs! (It's basketball season - time for a win!). BTW, for anyone who followed my England posts, expect a bit of a lag. I have plenty more pictures, but I need to grind out some more processing before I will be ready to add more posts.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Adventures in the United Kingdom - the Recap Part 5 - Wildlife in Windsor Great Park October 13th

Having walked directly down the Great Walk to Snow Hill and the Copper Horse I quickly deviated from the paved walkway, exploring a good sized woodlot to the west of the statue. I was able to get bad, but identifiable shots of Great Spotted Woodpecker and Spotted Thrush. One of the real highlights of that area was a group of young Pheasants that were passing me as I descended the hillside. They kept their distance, but our directions were generally merging, and it was a nice few minutes of watching stealthy birds try to move more slowly than my notice. The ground wasn't the only source of interest though. Birds were also in the trees, this Great Tit for instance.

All the while Pheasants lurking.....I thought this shot really highlighted the adaptation of their plumage for camouflage. What are feathers and what are fern leaves? In all honesty, at the time I wasn't sure what these birds were. It was my first experience with this age of Pheasant, and I wondered if they weren't some form of grouse. Going to a place where the majority of birds are unknown kept me guessing. I also noticed that I had a much more difficult time picking birds out of the canopy. In past posts I have noted my repeated experience of finally spotting a long sought bird, and then refinding the species several times over the following days. One of my impressions from this trip is that the same brain function seems to happen on a larger scale as well. My visual cortex didn't seem to be dialed in on the patterns and shapes of unknown birds. I could hear them, and even spot motion, but until I had really picked a species out they would remain hidden far longer than I would have expected were I birding on familiar territory.

On the flip side, once I 'got to know' a species I would pick them up far more readily. Granted, the Blue Tit below was fairly obvious against a bare trunk, but they became frequent sights over the course of the trip.

I left the wooded hillside, and headed north across open fields, keeping the Long Walk in sight off my right shoulder. I was heading generally closer to where the Red Deer had been on my visit the day before. I spotted this lone bull, and gave it plenty of space as I walked past at an angle.

Despite my distance and passing route the deer eventually decided he had enough of my presence and camera and wandered off.

Meanwhile, I had arrived at a small pond I had noticed the previous evening. With clear skies and a sinking sun I had much better light for this visit. Common Moorhens are colorful sights on the water. Their red and yellow bills are very impressive against a mostly black body.

I don't think Egyptian Geese are going to be mistaken for classic beauties often. I will give them high marks for having a striking appearance though. They are certainly well suited to picking up the colors of fall.

I had just moved beyond the pond, when I suddenly found myself in an uncomfortable situation. A different male deer had crested a small rise, and I found myself too close for assured comfort, with a lake directly behind me. The male was 'roaring', and headed towards the walk, and the herds I knew to be beyond it. I didn't stick around for the 'killer' shot, opting for the middle ground of a short move to show him I was not a challenge, and then see what I could get for a photo. Unfortunately, (or fortunately), he moved off and didn't give me another direct look. Even in passing the shot is good enough to show the velvet shedding from his antlers. Definitely a memorable experience.

Having determined that he was not going to charge me, I settled back to the geese, getting another Egyptian Goose to pose on land.

Once again the sun was getting low, Windsor and London sit at roughly the same latitude as Calgary. That gave extended periods of soft light, and I took the opportunity to get a slightly different view of the castle towers.

Even though the day was winding down, and I was heading back towards a welcome seat at a pub, I still had one more memorable interaction in store.

Red Kite!

I was just at the point of leaving the deer enclosure fence along the long walk, when I spotted this bird working on a kill farther down the clipped lawn. It gave me a few looks, but I had sat down against a tree and was willing to watch as long as the bird remained.

It did just that, allowing me many shots, and a memory card swap, before a walker on the path behind it finally set it to flight. I believe it had finished its meal at that point, and was just waiting for a bit of motivation before moving to a perch to roost and digest.

A great sight, and a wonderful conclusion to a long and memorable day in Windsor. The remainder of my walk was highlighted by views of the castle, and anticipation of a good pint when I reached town.

The following day, Friday the 14th, I would meet my parents when they arrived in the early afternoon, but the question was how I would spend my morning...

Adventures in the United Kingdom - the Recap Part 4 - Snow Hill

After leaving Windsor Castle I did head down the Long Walk into the Windsor Great Park. Rather the detouring on my way out I went straight to the end of the walk, and climbed up to the statue of the George the Third at its summit. The statue was impressive, so was the view back to the castle and town.

By this time the weather had turned wonderful. It made for a great day of walking.

Both statue and walk are symbols, ways that their creators shaped the world to their perceptions of order and style.

Like so many other tributes, these cast their vision through an idealized mask. An artificially structured walkway, applies an unnatural order to nature. A British monarch, cast as a classical Roman conqueror.

A four story horse atop a hill might seem gaudy or outlandish, Denver residents and visitors may consider a certain blue horse outside the airport, but in this setting they just seem to fit.

Adventures in the United Kingdom - the Recap Part 3 - Windsor Castle

My morning walking had lead me up to the castle entrance just before eleven o-clock. I had planned to spend the middle hours of the day at the castle, getting my tourist and history fix while the wildlife was least active. It turned out to be a great plan. As I arrived I noticed that people were lining both sides of the road. I grabbed a likely spot, and soon had my suspicions confirmed when a tour guide explained to his group that they would soon be seeing the changing of the guard.

I was lucky to have arrived when I did. The guard 'changes' every 48 hours, rotating the soldiers that will guard the castle from the barracks in town, to the castle and back, via a parade march. It is very ceremonial, and a great photo opportunity, but best not to forget that these are armed soldiers performing the legitimate duty of guarding the royal family when in residence and some of the treasures of the nation.

Having seen the entrance of the guard I headed on in to the castle, hoping to avoid a percentage of the crowds while the 'change' took place. After entering I approached Edward IV Tower, it is at the front of the visitor apartments. Behind and to the left in the picture above is the Upper Ward. Below, a closer view of Edward IV tower and its gargoyles.

Stonework above St. George's Gate showing a mounted knight slaying a dragon. The gate leads into the Upper Ward, a courtyard surrounded by the Visitor's Apartments, Private Apartments, and State Apartments. This section of the castle is restricted, and is the home of the Queen and Royal Family when they are in residence, the State Apartments which are open to tours seasonally and used for ..... functions of State.

The public access lead away from the gate, and offered this view back including the gardens at the base of the Round Tower, or castle Keep.

While not a peak season for garden color there were still colors to be found as the sun began to break through the clouds.

I had looped around the Round Tower, and toured the State, and Semi-State Apartments. They were incredible, and as such photography was not allowed. Readers may recall that in 1992 there was a fire at Windsor Castle. The fire was in the State and Semi-State Apartments, and while it was extensive and caused major damage to the buildings, the vast majority of the works of art were saved, and have since been returned to the refurbished rooms. There are some incredible highlights there, trophies from the empire, furniture made of sterling silver, St. George's Hall decorated with the coat of arms of every member of the order. Paintings by grand masters, Semi-State Apartments lavishly furnished and just opened to tourists for the season. Outside, a closer view of the upper ward, and perspective on the scale of a guard.

The Round Tower, passing back through to the Lower Ward.

Castle Guard, iconic symbol packing serious heat.

St. George's Chapel. Resting place of multiple monarchs, incredible decorations and a choir adorned with the coat of arms and helm of each current member of the Order of St. George. Which of course meant no photographs allowed!

Don't worry, lots of interiors of castles and churches from future sites. Here is an exterior view looking back across the Lower Ward towards the Round Tower, with St. George's Chapel on the left.

One parting shot, the Round Tower just outside the castle's main entrance. I made my way towards the Long Walk, Snow Hill, and my second trip to see wildlife in the Windsor Great Park.

Don't worry bird fans, the next post will be back to feathers and fur.

Adventures in the United Kingdom - the Recap Part 2 - Birding the Thames, Alexandria Gardens, Bath Island

My first full day in England dawned overcast. I was undaunted. This was to be my only full day where I had full freedom of schedule. I had a full plan, but complete flexibility to diverge for birds or whatever photographic subject caught my eye. My loose plan was to wander through town to the river Thames, then work my way to Windsor Castle during the middle of the day, and spend the afternoon heading back into the Windsor Great Park.

The overcast skies were less than ideal, but the ducks and swans were cooperative and I was able to find a great variety of Mallard mutts.

I was amazed at the variety shown in what were all more or less Mallards. Centuries of domestication, escape, and interbreeding make finding a 'true' Mallard a bit of a chore.

It wasn't all ducks though, a Grey Heron was looking for breakfast just on the far side of the foot of Bath Island. Bath Island was so named as in years past it was removed from the shore by the channel where the local residents were encouraged to bathe.

I made my way onto the island, which is now a pleasant park where vacationers who are riding the Thames in canal boats can tie up. Here I found Blue Tits,

and Ring-necked Parakeets.

I walked the length of the small island, passing beneath the brick arches of the oldest wrought iron suspension bridge still in use. At the foot of the island I had a look back towards the riverfront area of Windsor, including the castle, and Christopher Wren's house. Wren was the architect who designed many of London's landmark buildings after the Great Fire, including St. Paul's. His house is left of center, on the waterline. It is just to the right of the large tree at the bend of the far bank. Now it houses a cafe. Just another sign of living amid history in England.

I walked back along the island, gradually following my feet uphill, towards the castle. On my way I was visited by this posing European Robin. So different from our American Robin, a thrush, but still immediately recognizable as welcome bird in garden and park.

I followed the river to the base of the bluff where the castle dominated. I was not on a timetable, but was soon to find that I was exactly on time.