Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Ravens at Play

Common ravens are our most intelligent birds – they cache food and move it if they’ve been observed in the process, can repeatedly pull on a string and hold it with a foot to retrieve food dangling from a perch, they use simple tools and they play. They’ve been observed carrying sticks as they fly, dropping the stick and catching it; dropping a rock for another raven to catch in the air; and playing similarly with streamers of surveyor’s plastic tape. While flying in a stiff wind they’ll do loop-the-loops and barrel rolls seemingly for the pure joy of it.

We went back to the farmland where we’d previously seen harriers and short-eared owls to try for better photos. That was not to be, because a northwest wind was howling across the ridges.


What we saw instead was a band of juvenile common ravens at play –

The ravens were playing in the wind, chasing each other, occasionally landing on a fencepost, and then resuming the chase –

After a while they apparently tired of the games, flew over us and out of sight.

For more about ravens’ intelligence see biologist Bernd Heinrich’s The Mind of the Raven.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Hawks and Owls

About a half hour from here there are a number of farms on a series of high jumbled ridges. Woodland grows in the valleys between the ridges, but the higher terrain has all been cleared and farmed for 150 years. Although many of those farms had been dairy farms, few are now. Most of the land produces hay, row crops or pastures beef cattle.

Late one afternoon H and I went to see the northern harriers that hunt the fields in winter and hoped to see some wintering short-eared owls that take over the night shift. Although there was but a gentle breeze at the house, up on the open ridges the wind was strong. It wasn’t long before we saw a harrier hunting for meadow voles in a hayfield –

The wind was high and there were raptors aloft soaring on high
a red-tailed hawk accompanied by three harriers –

As the sky cleared a bit they were soon joined by an immature bald eagle accompanied by a much smaller harrier –

They were all too high for good photos and these harriers soaring close to a ridgetop were quite far from us –

There were no owls fighting the wind that day, but we went back on another evening when the sky was gray and the light bad; that evening both the harriers and the short-eared owls took to the air. Short-eared owls in flight resemble gigantic moths; they have long wide wings and are light in weight so they’re fast and buoyant. When they find prey they often turn quickly and make a vertical dive –

The owls frequently sought out perches on the dead stalks of common mullein or on fenceposts –

The birds were far away and the light poor so we headed home. Several days later when the light was better, hoping that the third time would be a charm, we went back late in the day, parked along the township road again and watched for hawks and owls. Great day in the evening when the northern harriers passed over as they headed to roost, first a male and then several females or juveniles –

The fading light brought out the short-eared owls to hunt the same fields that the harriers hunted during the day –

When the sky darkened further we headed home, leaving the owls to hunt through the night.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Favorites from 2023

How many photographs did I make in 2023? That’s a good question and I don’t have an answer, but it certainly numbered in the thousands. Many went directly into the computer’s trash bin after they’d been downloaded from the camera; others were edited, still found wanting and then trashed.

Of the thousands of photos taken in 2023, somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 were deemed worthy of being saved. Of all those photographs these few may not be the best from an artistic standpoint or the most technically proficient but, for one reason or another, became favorites. For those of you that are photographers the metadata is included for each photograph. Here are 12 of my favorite photographs from 2023, not in any particular order

A Pennsylvania elk photographed on a foggy morning in September at 6:51 am. This was at the peak of the rut, he had a band of four cows in the field with him. Olympus E-M1 ii camera, Olympus 100-400mm lens, 1/3 second, f/9, ISO 3200.

Fly aminita is one of the mycorrhizal fungi growing on trees’ roots that provide water and nutrients to trees in exchange for sugars produced by the tree. This is the “toadstool” that’s often seen in artwork and cartoons. Photographed in October.
Olympus E-M10 ii camera, Olympus 60mm macro lens, 1/200 second, f/8, ISO 1000.

A pair of
filmy dome spiders, female above, male below; photographed in our garden in August.
Olympus E-M10 ii camera, Olympus 60mm macro lens, 1/125 second, f/10, ISO 400 with flash.

Green-headed coneflower photographed
in August in State Game Lands on Barkley Mountain. Olympus E-M10 ii camera, Olympus 60mm macro lens, 1/400 second, f/10, ISO 1000.

hummingbird clearwing moth is a day-flying moth often mistaken for a butterfly or a hummingbird. Wild bergamot is one of their favorite flowers, here at the peak of its bloom in July.
Olympus E-M1 ii camera, Olympus 100-400mm lens with 1.4X teleconverter, 1/2500 second, f/9, ISO 1000.

red-bellied woodpecker showing the color on its abdomen for which it was named, while clinging to an old fencepost in November. The species has expanded its range northward in the last 50 years.
Olympus E-M10 ii camera with Olympus 75-300mm lens, 1/200 second, f/8, ISO 1000.

bald eagle feeding her chicks in April. The nest is at eye level in a large sycamore growing on a steep bank below a well-traveled road.
Olympus E-M10 ii camera, Olympus 100-400mm lens, 1/800 second, f/6.3, ISO 1000.

Jumping spiders, like this
tan jumping spider, have personalities and often jump on the camera as I attempt to photograph them. In November this was one of the last spiders still active in 2023.
Olympus E-M10 ii camera, Olympus 60mm macro lens, 1/60 second, f/10, ISO 400 with flash.

A young
white-tailed deer photographed on the hill above the house in June. She had a brother born at the same time since most female white-tails have twins each year.
Olympus E-M10 ii camera with Olympus 75-300mm lens, 1/125 second, f/11, ISO 1000.

This female
wood duck seemed to be saying “Who’re you lookin' at?” as she stood on an old stump in a beaver pond in April.
Olympus E-M1 ii camera, Olympus 100-400mm lens with 1.4X teleconverter, 1/500 second, f/9, ISO 1000.

Wood lily photographed after a rain in July in the Quehanna Wild Area. This was the first blooming wood lily that I’d seen in years, but just one of several I found that day.
Olympus E-M10 ii camera, Lumix 45-150mm lens, 1/160 second, f/10, ISO 1000.

This male
yellow-bellied sapsucker was busy working on a series of holes in our apple tree. He’ll feed on the sap and any insects that might still come to the sap in December.
Olympus E-M1 ii camera, Olympus 100-400mm lens with the camera’s 2X digital teleconverter, 1/320 second, f/6.3, ISO 1000.

Would other photographers say they’re the best photos I made in 2023? Probably not, but they're my favorites.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Goldfinch and Harrier

An area of restored grasslands along the river contains extensive areas planted to warm season grasses and prairie wildflowers. Among the wildflowers are purple coneflower, gaillardia and giant sunflower; the giant sunflower lives up to its name, often growing over eight feet tall with bright yellow flowers –


Never have I found any of those wildflowers growing wild in northcentral Pennsylvania, only in areas such as this where they’ve been planted. Did they grow in the meadows that developed following Native Americans’ slash and burn agriculture?

In any event, it’s winter now and the flowers of summer are long gone to seed. It’s those seeds that attract American goldfinch to the abundant tall dried stalks of the giant sunflower that were swaying in the wind –


As I inched closer to the flock of goldfinch they took flight and were quickly lost from of sight. So I continued my walk through the grassland without the expectation of seeing anything else of interest.

It wasn’t long before a female or immature harrier came into sight, quartering above the tall grass in its search for a vole or small bird –


The hawk suddenly dropped from view and remained lost in the grass for quite some time. Finally it emerged and flew to a large dead snag where it proceeded to eat its meal, too far away to allow me to see whether it was feeding on a mammal or a bird –

The remainder of my walk in the grassland was without any sightings of interest.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024


Up the hill, not far above the house, stood a dead tree, a red maple. Over the years after it died, the bark had sloughed off, the twigs and small branches gradually fell to the ground, later the larger limbs also fell, having succumbed to decay, heavy wet snow and wind.

For the last several years the bare trunk stood tall and straight, gleaming in the sun or dark with rain. In late October we looked out one morning and there, flat on the ground, lay the trunk. It was large enough and tall enough that it must have hit with a solid WHUMP! – but we never heard it, there’s a lot to be said for a good, sound sleep.

Ahh, an opportunity for a camera trap placed to look down the trunk. The videos from November –

The buck in the last portion of the video had survived the first few days of rifle deer season following a month of archery deer season. Although bears frequently mess with trail cameras and deer often smell them, this is one of the few times I’ve had a buck trash a camera trap, I found it lying on the ground facing the sky. It hadn’t taken a video after it was treated so badly, but it was undamaged.