The best of times

8 March, 2015            The best of times

“It was the best of times,

it was the worst of times…” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Or from a less (to some) classic piece of literature:

“…We’ll take the best, forget the rest

And someday we’ll find these are the best of times

These are the best of times…” – Styx, The Best of Times, (1981) 

I’m a snow lover so I’ve enjoyed this winter. I’m not a pollen lover but I am a flower fanatic – and they come together. I’m not a humidity lover but I love warm, late summer evenings – and they come together. I don’t love when the days get shorter but I love the first cool days of autumn and the first fires in my woodstove – and they come together. So I “take the best, forget the rest” when I’m able. And the snow’s been great. I suspect it may be gone until November or December (or later) but we’re not out of the woods (in a manner of speaking) until I believe early April. Looks like a pretty week ahead though.

Tuesday (3/3) at the river I was surprised to look up and see this handsome fellow sitting on a branch hanging over the water. The Osprey (Pandion haliaetus ) looks great – his lunch, not so much: 

Late afternoon dining:

Late afternoon dining:

I believe this is a male osprey because the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says “Females usually show dark necklace across white breast.” And this guy has no dark necklace. Here’s another picture. If you look closely on the left you can see the hapless fish’s tail hanging down over the branch. This was not a small fish: 

See the fish's tail hanging down to the left?

See the fish’s tail hanging down to the left?

I had a surprising lesson while I watched him. He must have sat there for fifteen minutes while I snapped away, changing angles for better light, etc. I was amazed how patient he was. We weren’t twelve feet away. I looked up as he finally flew off. Much to my dismay my camera wasn’t pointed his way. Anyway, to my amazement, a crow swooped in and landed on the branch to gobble up leftover chunks of catfish. The branch had not stopped swaying from the Osprey’s departure – the crow landed probably two seconds later. Or less. Amazingly – I hadn’t known there was a crow in the area. But it had obviously been watching the osprey. 

Crows go after owls and hawks because owls and hawks raid crow nests and eat their eggs and young. You can always tell when there’s a hawk or a crow in sight in PP – the crows “mob” it. The crows just go berserk – one hundred percent of the time. But this crow was invisible (to me) near the osprey.

Further research revealed (to me; you may have known this) that ospreys eat one thing: fish. Hawks and owls and ospreys are all raptors so I assumed (oops) that crows would go after ospreys just as they do the other two. But at least in this case, they left it alone.  

I discovered some other fascinating (again, to me – ymmv) information about ospreys when I began my research following this photograph. Ospreys catch fish that weigh as much as 50% of their own body weight. And they have to lift them out of the water. Flying. Think about something that weighs half as much as you do. And picking it up out of the water and jumping up. Unbelievable. Anyway, their wings are specially shaped and adapted for just that task. I never cease to be amazed at the way evolution fills niches.

Here’s a different evolutionary niche. This focus is a bit off, which I apologize for and am irritated by, but what can I say. This is the ultimate in slacker photography. I came home from work the other day and I had my camera in my car. There was a flock of robins in the snow in my front yard. I’m sitting on my heated seats, with the car heater on, listening to NPR, I lower my power windows, point the camera out and voila. Slacker photography extraordinaire:

It looks fat. But I believe it just had its feathers puffed out to keep warm. Spring is almost here, but not almost enough to keep warm in the snow.

It looks fat. But I believe it just had its feathers puffed out to keep warm. Spring is almost here, but not almost enough to keep warm in the snow.

As long as I’m displaying slacker photographs this is the perfect time to put in a picture of – a fencepost. This is in the woods at Pony Pasture. It’s a pretty picture. But I believe that taking a picture of a fencepost may be the very definition of slacker photography: 

I find this image pleasing. I like the light. It's deep in the woods.

I find this image pleasing. I like the light. It’s deep in the woods.

For some reason recently I’ve seen more female birds than I’m used to. I see Downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) on approximately 100% of hikes at Pony Pasture. Males are identical to this lovely lady except males have a “small red patch on the back of the head.” She doesn’t: 

Elegantly attired in black and white

Elegantly attired in black and white

I also “got” a new seagull this week – but I have no idea what it is. Of the seagulls I’ve seen in Richmond, I have identified one – the Ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis). I don’t know what this gull is, but I know it is not a Ring-bill. It’s big. I may spend time this week learning more about gulls. Nice looking bird though: 

An as-yet unidentified gull. It's a big one.

An as-yet unidentified gull. It’s a big one.

So far in the past thirty-ish days, I have had three opportunities for extended photo “sessions” with wildlife. First with a small herd of whitetail deer, then with that osprey, and a couple of days ago with a mating/nesting pair of Pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus). When I say “sessions,” I’m talking about these animals sitting still – one hundred percent aware I’m standing there, with Mackey and Turner, taking lots of photographs – and they don’t leave. I cannot properly express how much I enjoy those experiences. With the deer I got one photograph that was out of this world (My favorite place) plus I’m happy with the osprey pictures. These pileated woodpeckers gave me an eternity and none of the shots are spectacular but they’re not bad. I saw the male pileated first but he was in deep woods and the picture is marginal. Plus the sun was behind him which is terrible for photography. You can tell he’s a male by the red spot in the black line below his eye: 

Male Pileated woodpecker, from the shady side

Male Pileated woodpecker, from the shady side

I looped around and came up on the other side; the female was tap-tap-tapping away on the sunny side of a big sycamore: 

Female Pileated woodpecker, from the sunny side:

Female Pileated woodpecker, from the sunny side:

There are two obvious Pileated woodpecker sounds. You cannot miss either one if you’re in the park. Cornell says that “They are loud birds with whinnying calls. They also drum on dead trees in a deep, slow, rolling pattern, and even the heavy chopping sound of foraging carries well.” You might even refer to their calls as “obnoxious.” “Raucous,” certainly. They have a “call” that is their version of a sparrow’s chirp or a crow’s caw but it is amazingly loud and sometimes grating. And when they’re drumming on trees, it is so loud that I’m sure you can hear it for a mile – it’s just incredible. It sounds like the drummer in a college marching band at halftime of a football game. I believe (not positive) that it is used to attract mates. The interesting thing was – one interesting thing was – that these two were tapping so softly and tentatively and you may even say conversationally – or contemplatively (awkward word) that you could hardly tell they were in the woods. The sound of the pieces of bark dropping from the trees was louder than their drumming. It takes a long time to figure all this stuff out! 

Moderately deep flooding yesterday (the river crested just below 13 feet) pushed a lot of birds and animals into atypical areas. Our hike was somewhat soggy. This is Turner surveying a foot bridge in the back of the park. Mackey had already loped nonchalantly (another awkward word) across; he’s more comfortable with water. That is Turner’s posture of mild trepidation, a sensation he doesn’t often experience. He doesn’t like it when Mackey is out of sight. Unless a squirrel is in sight, and Turner’s focus becomes laser like and nothing else (including Mackey) exists. But here he’s anxious:

Mackey is on the other side, and Turner wishes he was too.

Mackey is on the other side, and Turner wishes he was too.

This is looking back at the bridge. If you’re a Pony Pasture hiker, you may be familiar with this area. And if you look to the left, you can see 4×4’s and wires sticking out of the water; those are handrails along a large pipe that is normally two or three feet above the surface of the water. Rather than a foot below it:



Have a great week! All best,


PS If you’re here on the East Coast of the United States, we changed to Eastern Daylight Time this weekend. At least in my case that means I wake up well before dawn on weekdays. And Spring is coming along fast – there’s a warm week in the forecast – and there will be lots of songbirds coming in. In the morning listen outdoors for the “dawn chorus.” You’ll hear it soon. This is what Cornell says:

Sounding Out the Dawn Chorus

The dawn chorus is one of the most conspicuous vocal behaviors of birds, and one of the least understood. Near sunrise, birds often sing more loudly and vigorously than they do at other times of the day. Recent studies have suggested that these intense bouts of song may help male birds exchange information about their social standing. However, because so many birds sing at once, sorting out these vocal interactions has been difficult using traditional techniques such as observation and simple audio recordings.”  

It’s worth listening for – check it out during the next couple of weeks. It will begin soon, and happen every day through mid-May here in Richmond. It is a real sign of Spring.        

About Jay McLaughlin

I am a rehabilitation counselor. I have many friends with autism and traumatic brain injuries. They help me learn new things constantly. I hike with dogs at the James River in Richmond - a lot. I've completed an Iron distance triathlon a year for 11 years. My most recent was in Wilmington, NC in November, 2013. I currently compete in mid-distance triathlons. And work and hike and take pictures and write and eat.
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5 Responses to The best of times

  1. Jackie says:

    Awesome photos!

  2. Thanks Jackie! The light has been very beautiful lately – I’ve gotten lucky more than usual! Thanks again and have a great day,


  3. Sandy says:

    The mystery gull seems to be a juvenile great black backed gull. Nice photos.

    • Thank you Sandy! I apologize for my delayed reply to your prompt reply! My friend Betsy also suggested the mystery gull is a juvenile great black backed gull. She told me she believes “the gull is a first-year Black -backed Gull Larus marinus. It takes 3 years for the adult plumage to appear.” The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that “The king of the Atlantic waterfront, the Great Black-backed Gull is the largest gull in the world, with a powerful build and a domineering attitude.” I never saw its “attitude” but it certainly was huge. Thanks for the comment! Have a great day,


  4. Pingback: “Well that’s a blessing!” | NEWFAZE

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