Starting off..

For some time, friends have been suggesting I start a blog, and I have finally got around to trying. I live in two wild and beautiful places: Western Maine , USA, and the Cotswolds, England.  I also travel to far-flung much wilder places.

I take photos with my trusted Panasonic Lumix, sometimes beautiful photos, more often photos that tell a story.

The blog will be erratic, depending on what catches my eye.

For my first post, from Maine, here are the tree swallows that nested in our old purple martin house and raised four young. They fledged two weeks ago.

Cruising along…
She often fed them without touching down at all
It took a while to ram this down the throat of the largest chick



Lassoing lost loons

Not exactly, but it makes for a good headline…

Loons, aka Great Northern Divers, spend their summers on largish lakes like ours in Maine. There they breed, and solicitously proffer minute fish to their chicks:

Photo by Moira Yip

But the lakes freeze in the winter, and the ice is much too thick for them to break through to reach the fish.

Photo by Heinrich Wurm

So they migrate either south, or to the coast. But sometimes the inexperienced young, or the old and sick, leave it too late, and get stranded. They have heavy bones that help them to dive deep, so they can need as much as 1/4 mile of open water as a takeoff runway. This one tried, but never got airborne.

Photo by Heinrich Wurm

Five juveniles found themselves marooned in steadily shrinking pools on our lake last week. What to do? Call Paw Patrol? Bad idea. Rescuing the loons takes planning, expertise, and courage. Getting close will mean venturing onto thin ice, and well-intentioned people put their lives in jeopardy if they don’t understand the risks. Call the experts, don’t do this yourself.

The heroes of this hour were close to home. Heinrich Wurm was on the shore when he heard the loons calling out while hopeful bald eagles were circling overhead; Laura Robinson coaxed the troops into action and contacted Lee Attix our local loon expert and mentor.  The actual rescuers were Bill Hanson,  Lucas Savoy and Chris Persico of Biodiversity Research Institute; Diane Winn from Avian Haven of Freedom, Maine (very appropriate) made sure the birds were healthy before being released to the Atlantic.

They use a 300′ seine (or gill?) net, and dip nets, and they have rafts on the ice to transport the loons, and if necessary for the humans to hold onto. Here they are with the seine/gill net, which they can use to move the loon out of the water and onto thicker ice so they can get closer:

Photo by Laura Robinson

Then the dip net is brought out:

Photo by Laura Robinson

and maneuvered into position:

Photo by Laura Robinson

Finally, success:

Photo by Laura Robinson

The birds are then taken to the lab, where they are examined, weighed, measured, photographed, and banded. Notice the more subdued winter plumage, compared to their dapper black-and-white summer breeding plumage:

Photo by Laura Robinson

They were then triumphantly released on the coast, where they are supposed to be at this time of year!

PS I played no role in this expedition, and can take no credit whatsoever. The photographs in this piece were taken by Laura Robinson and Heinrich Wurm. The rescue team on the ice was made up of Bill Hanson, Chris Persico and Lucas Savoy, backed up by a big team of professionals and volunteers. Well done everyone.

Spotting otters

[In mid-winter here in Maine only a few birds and animals stay in town, and are neither nocturnal not hibernating. So I’ll be returning more than once to the active ones, and interspersing that with archived but never-posted blogs. Today, a break from warblers, and back to the otters.]

A whole summer can go by without a glimpse of an otter. They can stay underwater for up to 8 minutes and swim at 6mph. If they are on the surface, they swim low in the water, barely raising their heads to catch a breath, and they are dark brown shapes in a matching brownish pond.

If they emerge to eat a fish they are often concealed by the thick vegetation in the shallow water at the pond’s edge.

But in winter, the game changes. They are hunting under the ice, and so they can’t breathe on the move, but only by finding a hole and surfacing. They create the holes and keep them open, at least for a while, so they use the same holes all the time. My otters seem to base themselves at a hole for an hour or so, diving under the ice for 2-3 minutes to hunt, then returning to the hole to breathe. They usually come out for half a minute or so, having a little rest, and maybe a little light grooming. If they catch a fish they lie on the ice, crunching away, in full view, and strikingly dark against the snow. All I have to do is watch the holes, and if it happens to be a time and day when they are hunting nearby, I will see them. Even more helpfully, they seem to like the period between about 1pm and 3pm, so I usually go out looking for them right after lunch.

They have one hole relatively near the shore, so I got some closer shots one afternoon.

The one on the right has just emerged and is having a good shake:

This youngster is nuzzling its mother, below (the father plays no role in rearing the young):

At one stage I thought I had been spotted:

One “periscoped” to get a better look:

Then they settled down again:

By now, you are no doubt thinking that winter otter spotting is easy. To dispel that impression, let me point out that the pond is half an hour’s walk each way through sometimes thick snow. I am out every day at least once, sometimes twice, on snowshoes or spikes, for 90 minutes or so per trip, and I can go days or even weeks without seeing a single otter. Today the temperature was 2F, (-17C). No otters. But if it was too easy it might lose its wonder, so I am content.

PS: They can periscope quite far out to improve the view; this shot is taken from further away on another occasion:

Warblers II: A sweetness of Yellow Warblers

My previous two warblers, the Palm Warbler and the Yellow-rumped Warbler, both had partially yellow plumage, so like Malvolio I’ll stick with that hue. Today’s stars are the pedestrianly named Yellow Warblers, who make up for their unimaginative singular moniker by a trio of glorious collective nouns: a sweetness, a stream, or a trepidation. Second in line today, the Common Yellowthroat, also a warbler. They don’t seem to have their own collective noun.

The Yellow Warbler, Setophaga petechia, is widespread in North America, and breeds in Maine. It winters in Mexico and South America. This is a female; I have never seen a male:

You can see why a group of them is called a sweetness.

The Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas, also breeds here, and it doesn’t go as far south in the winter. The male is striking, with the eponymous yellow throat, a jet-black mask, and white eyebrows.

For a better look at his plumage, I resort to this sad photo of one that flew into my glass screen door, and never regained consciousness.

In the mid-West, the male is also called the Yellow Bandit, for obvious reasons. The female, as usual, is more sedately garbed:

They were nesting near my pond, where I found these two fledglings, in juvenile plumage:

The one on the right seems to think her brother might feed her, but no such luck.

PS In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night Malvolio wears yellow stockings under the false impression that it will delight Olivia, the object of his love. It doesn’t work.

A Reading of Palm Warblers

My first post of 2022, sent from my truck parked outside the library because our internet is down! Clouds and fog are misting the landscape, and rain is threatening . So I’ve decided to cheer myself up by digging out some posts from greener times of year that I never sent. Here goes.

A different times of year we have many species of warbler in Maine. Wood warblers are the more proper name for New World warblers and so far I have seen eleven species. I thought I would show you a few from time to time. Most of them have their own dedicated collective noun and for a group of Palm Warblers it is a ‘reading’. Why? Who knows, but it provided the title of my post!

During the fall migration, small flocks of mixed warblers pass through, heading south. I stood in the woods by the edge of the pond and saw small flitting movements in the lowish branches. It was a Palm Warbler female, dull and brown

but then I saw a male, much brighter and more cheerful.

Palm Warblers, Setophaga palmarum, breed further north in the boreal forests, and they winter in Florida and the Caribbean, hence their name.

The next flutter at the bottom of my field of view, rummaging in the leaf-mold, turned out to be a Yellow-rumped Warbler, Setophaga coronata, rather crudely nicknamed the Butter-butt.

Here is a first-year bird, on a branch:

The male has a yellow cap and strong black markings in breeding plumage, like this one in May:

They are pretty common in the spring as they head north, sometimes in largish flocks, and they do breed here, though mostly further north, and they winter in the southern US and Mexico.

Like all warblers, they are mainly insect-eaters. Bird of the World says that unlike other warblers they eat waxy berries in the fall, but these three were eating beggartick seeds also called tickseed, a Bidens species.

Birds of the World admits they eat the seeds of sunflower and goldenrod, but don’t mention beggartick or the closely related Coreopsis.

Have I made a new scientific discovery??

And a happier 2022 to all of you.

The otter dynasty

Last winter, I showed you photos of an otter on my pond, and commented on March 1 that she seemed a little fat. She then disappeared from view at just the time of year when pregnant females retreat to their dens and prepare to give birth.

Twice this summer I have glimpsed what looked like a pair of otters, one much smaller than the other. And now I have proof.

They typically give birth between February and April, and the young stay with the mother for up to ten months, or through the early part of the first winter. They have 2-4 young, and in the past I have seen an adult with two young ones, but not more. This time I just saw the one youngster, and it must be somewhere between 8 and 11 months, so it could be getting close to setting out on its own. Right now, though, it is still nuzzling affectionately up to its mother:

After a few moments the mother decided to go fishing:

And somewhat reluctantly the youngster followed her:


The next day I saw just the mother, but the youngster was chirping in the distance, and the mother was clearly quite agitated, as this video shows.

The next day, a single otter again, but I think it was the young one because I glimpsed that white patch on its side. It looks rather as if the young one is making long independent forays on its own, like any teenager, and sooner or later it just won’t come back, and she will be an empty-nester. Or maybe she has to shove it out into the big bad world…

But then, today, Christmas Day, a wonderful sight. Normally I would be inside cooking and eating, but my family couldn’t reach us because of Covid contacts, or ice on the roads (some of them will come tomorrow instead), so I went out in the snow. And there were three otters, far away, blurred by snow, but definitely three of them.

So I am sharing my Christmas gift with you, and I hope that everyone had a wonderful holiday, delayed or on time, with family or friends if at all possible.

The secret egrets

[This post was written but never posted after a trip to Florida in 2019, and recently updated to include Maine.]

Florida has three white egrets, the Snowy Egret, the Great Egret and the Cattle Egret. The Cattle Egret follows behind cattle for the insects stirred up by their passing, and in Florida they have learnt to follow the suburban lawnmowers instead!

This Great Egret flew through the swamp, thoughtfully doing a heron fly-past for my benefit:

Egret and heron

The smaller Snowy Egret is an exquisite little bird, equally at home in the swamp

Snowy egret

or by the seashore

Snowy egret

This one is actually running after its prey in the surf, instead of just standing still and waiting for its victim to come into range.

Those flowing plumes on the back of the head are the source of the name “egret”, after the French “aigrette”, for an ornament made of feathers.

These became so popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries that vast numbers of birds, especially in Florida, were shot to supply the fashion world. Eventually, the trade was brought to a halt in America by a successful campaign spearheaded by women:


PS: The Snowy Egret, Egretta thula, might remind you of the Little Egret, Egretta garzetta, of Europe and Africa, but they are different species, and the Great White Egret, Ardea alba egretta, is not even in the same genus, but more closely related to the herons.

PPS: Even the more pedestrian Cattle Egret, Bubulcus ibis, can be exciting out of context. In April I saw one in a flooded field in Maine, well north and inland of where it was supposed to be. It was in breeding plumage (the reddish areas), and the last breeding egrets seen in Maine were on the coast in 1995. It has never been reported in Oxford County on eBird until this sighting.

It was hunting in a flooded field, where it caught a small snake or huge worm:

Not to worry, though, their population is secure: even if Maine is a stretch, they famously expanded their range at explosive speed throughout North America during the 20th century, so they are a success story in the world of birds. Their populations reached saturation in many places, and then declined again, but they are classified as of Least Concern.

Cranes: beloved in both Maine and Bhutan

[In 2018 I did a blog that was partly about these cranes, but I had no decent photos. So this is a closer look.]

Sandhill cranes, Antigone canadensis, are majestic birds, up to 4ft 6in tall with a wingspan of over 7 feet, that gather in vast flocks in parts of the USA, and sometimes wander calmly around golf courses and subdivisions. But around us in Maine, they are novel and exotic creatures, still skittish near humans, having only established themselves as a breeding flock in the neighborhood fairly recently.

They seem to be attracted by an area of rich flat farmland with fields of turf grass, corn (maize) and occasionally sunflowers, where they forage in the daytime. When I wrote this in early November these fields had recently been harvested, perfect for gleaning.

The young are called colts, maybe because of those long spindly legs? They lack the red foreheads of the adults.

At dusk, they fly a mile or so north to a fen at the edge of the lake where they spend the night. This flock numbered about 30 birds.

They make rather charming sounds, surprisingly like small chickens, as they fly in. I failed to capture this, but you can hear it on this video:

The best view of their evening passegiatta is from the lake, but if they see you they abort their landing and divert to an alternative roosting area.

We tried hiding under camouflage nets, but they still saw us. Last year, though, they landed in the gloaming, and settled in:

My friend Heinrich Wurm, who invites me out on his boat from time to time, took this wonderful photo:

Soon now they leave for New Mexico, where they spend the winter in their tens of thousands in the poetically named Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

Back at the farm, a lone ultralight aircraft floats above the farmlands, searching in vain for the departed cranes:

PS It is not only Maine that loves their cranes. The world has 15 species of crane. The Black-necked Crane, Grus nigricollis, winters in the Phobjikha valley in Bhutan, arriving in early November 2010:

They are sacred to the Bhutanese, so their arrival is celebrated at the Gangtey monastery with the wonderful Crane Festival. These children are doing the Crane Dance:

Here they are in close-up:

watched by the monks (and the whole village).

and nowadays by a goodish number of tourists. The cranes need all the love they can get: there are only around 10,000 left.

Two thousand miles of beavers: 2

Back at the ranch (well, my pond in Maine, to be more precise), the beaver has been building its lodge. It still seems to be alone, which worries me. But it’s working hard, if somewhat ineffectually. In this case it cut through a clump of three sizable trees, and failed to fell any of them. (The lodge can be seen in the distance).

Back at the lodge..

The lodge is built up with layers of fresh mud, and fresh branches. He works entirely at night, I’ve never managed to catch him in the act. But every day there are small changes, more mud, new branches, or both. These photos are taken over a seven week period from September 16th to November 8th:

While the beaver was doing this, Bruce was cutting a new trail further up the pond’s shore, and we had marked the route with pieces of orange tape tied to trees. On November 8th we discovered that the beaver had been at work at the end of the new trail:

And the next day, November 9th, when I photographed the lodge on a frosty morning, there was an orange flag at the top:

I think it had been tied to that tree, and after he cut it down he limbed it and dragged one branch out to his lodge, complete with tape. At least he didn’t swallow it, which could have been disastrous. I have carefully picked up every scrap of remaining tape.

PS Peter Ellison sent me this wonderful photo from southern New Hampshire of an East Coast beaver aspiring to be Andy Goldsworthy, this time by extending an old stone wall into a sinuous dam:

Two thousand miles of beavers: 1

The drive from Lovell, Maine to Jackson, Wyoming is just under 2500 miles, and beaver live in both places. I didn’t actually see any in Wyoming, but we found fascinating evidence of their presence. New to me was a little dam made of pebbles only, just enough to create the sort of terracing effect that makes the stream deep enough to float logs down.

Here it is in closeup. Mark, my guide, says that they may start like this and then build a larger structure on top with logs.

Personally, I would have guessed it was an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture, perhaps secretly constructed at night.

Another day, some distance from water, we found all that was left of a beaver that must have been killed and carried some distance:

The orange color is iron, which makes the enamel extremely strong. Notice the gap between the huge incisors and the back teeth: a beaver seals its lips behind the incisors, so it can carry branches without getting a mouthful of water. Nearby we found the lower jaw, and we slid the lower incisors out all the way to see how much tooth was there in reserve as the beaver wears away its teeth with all that chewing. The teeth grow throughout its life.

You can also see that the back of the incisors is not orange, and has worn away more quickly than the front, creating a very effective wedge-shaped cutting edge.

One more photo for fun. Close to the beaver skull was the femur (I think) of something BIG, bison or moose:

Next time, back East.

Pronghorns: the goat-antelopes of the American West

Pronghorns tend not to make the headlines. They are not endangered (750,ooo or so still around), not THAT big, not excitingly dangerous, just dapper little antelopes …. except they aren’t.

Their scientific name is Antilocapra americana, which means American goat-antelope, but they are neither goat nor antelope, and quite unrelated to any other animal in the world. I watched a male with his harem of females:

The buck has these sculptural black horns, which turn out to be rather unusual. The San Diego Zoo website says (abbrieviated) “The horns of the pronghorn .. . are a cross between horns and antlers. True antlers are made of bone and shed each year; true horns are made of compressed keratin that grows from a bony core and are never shed. The pronghorn’s are a hybrid: the sheath is made of keratin but the horns shed yearly. True horns have only one point, not the prongs or forks that antlers have. Yet the male pronghorn’s horns can grow to be 10 inches long with a forward-facing prong. Female pronghorn have tiny horns” as you can see here:

The buck was very interested in his does, and doing the rounds. If one seemed to be receptive, he would scent the air around her, smacking his lips:

If she is receptive, she raises her tail, and he follows her:

still sucking the air:

and when she stands still,

he mounts her briefly.

After much sniffing around, and just this one apparently successful mating, he looked first triumphant,

but then exhausted:

Mark took a video on his phone through his scope of another rather desultory attempt:

What I really wanted to see was them running: they can run at 60 mph, and keep it up for longer than a cheetah. They achieve this with specially adapted limbs, extremely large lungs, and the ability to maintain a high rate of blood circulation. Alas for me, they were calmly grazing, with no reason at all to run off.

You’d think there would be a sports car named after the Pronghorn, rather than the Mustang. And guess what, after this idea occurred to me I googled around and discovered I was not the first person to think of this:


PS For more technical details of their ability to run faster than any other New World mammal, read this: https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Antilocapra_americana/

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