Squirrel lovers, avert your gaze

4 March, 2018            Squirrel lovers, avert your gaze

This is a non-sequitur – but Evelyn, my faithful editor, is out of town this weekend. She normally reins in my blogging impulsivity, in addition to correcting my spelling and grammatical errors, so you may notice the absence of her influence on this blog post.

I didn’t ask her if I could use this image, so I hope she won’t mind. She sent it around 5:30 this evening – I’m guessing that’s when she took it. Evelyn grew up on Waackaack Creek in New Jersey; her mother still lives that house and her sister Jackie is not far away. Evelyn is visiting them both this weekend. I grew up in suburban Maryland inside the Beltway; it was probably about twenty feet from our house to our next-door-neighbor’s house on either side. This is the view where Evelyn grew up:

Waackaack Creek, New Jersey, a couple of hours ago. Thanks for the picture Ev!

Anyway, back to the way this blog post started out. I saw precisely one raptor this week – two if you count when her mate flew over and they took off together. Normally I see ten or more during the course of a week. I’m not sure why this week (Week 9 of 2018) was so slow for raptors.

The Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is the most visible wild mammal in central Virginia. If you live in this area and you didn’t see one today, you probably will tomorrow. They’re everywhere, all the time. Adult gray squirrels are too big and tough even for many hawks in this area, but they still make up a large part of a Red-tail’s diet. I was in my backyard Wednesday – filling my bird feeders, believe it or not – when a Red-tail flew very low over my head and landed in a sweet gum tree next to my house. The hawk was carrying a very dead gray squirrel. The picture is not shocking but neither is it pretty. Especially if you love squirrels. So I’ll put it several images down. And start with something more cheerful – a whitetail deer from this morning at Pony Pasture!

When you’re taking pictures in the woods – or anyway when I’m taking pictures in the woods – things happen that you are unaware of. Or I’m unaware of, anyway. When I first took this picture, I was sure I was only seeing one deer. They started to move later, but it wasn’t until I got home that I noticed the two deer on the right of the picture: 

A deer in the center, two more on the right

To give an idea of how close the deer let us get, have a look at this brief video. I point the camera at the dogs then move it around to the deer. They watch the dogs (and me) but they don’t waste valuable energy running away: 

A couple of daffodils from today – I never tire of them: 

Daffodils still glowing beside the trail at Pony Pasture this morning

Possibly they were out earlier and I missed them, but this morning was my first look at Redbud buds at Pony Pasture. They’re a beautiful, bright, brief-tenured harbinger of Spring – they’ve been a favorite for decades. I used to hike and camp on the Appalachian Trail every Spring with Nicky and Ivory (my first dogs) and Redbuds continue to remind me of the inevitability and incipience of the new season. Take a look – they’ll be developing in the coming weeks:

First redbuds of 2018

Another pleasant picture or two then the Red tail with the unfortunate squirrel. So if that’s not your thing, avert your gaze. Or skip the rest of this blog post and come back in seven days. Here’s a Carolina Wren at my house this morning when the dogs and I got back from the river:

Carolina Wren on my fencepost

Here’s a Downy Woodpecker from Pony Pasture yesterday:

Male Downy woodpecker, well-camouflaged, center of the image

OK – a Red-tail with a dead squirrel. This is a female Red-tail; her much smaller mate flew in just after I put my lens cap on. I don’t know if she killed the squirrel or not. If a squirrel gets hit by a car, a hungry Red-tail won’t pass it up. If you look closely at the end of the squirrel’s tail, you can see missing hair. It could have lost the hairs in a fight with that hawk, or when it got hit by a car, or it could be old age. However the hawk caught it, the squirrel’s flesh has now become hawk flesh:

Very alive Red-tail with a very dead squirrel:

The Spring free-for-all is building in earnest, and yesterday there were starlings on my feeder – no surprise. But a female Red-bellied Woodpecker showed up too, and she drove some starlings off – there is no doubt that is precisely what was happening. I wish the light was better, but she was making gestures like this (and gestures that appeared to be more aggressive) toward the starlings and they moved out of the way:

Doesn’t that look aggressive? I think it is.

These guys (and girls) are favorites of hawks too, and they don’t put up as much of a fight. It’s an Eastern Chipmunk. Notice its puffed up cheeks? One of their survival strategies is to fill their cheeks with food then go underground to eat it. Spend less time attracting the attention of hungry predators. They love fallen bird seed:

Chipmunk with its cheeks stuffed with bird seed

I’m going to wrap it up for this week – next week my editor will be home and you can expect a better blog post. But it won’t begin with a beautiful picture of her backyard in New Jersey! Have a great week,


Oops – got a passable picture of a female Pileated woodpecker at the river this morning. Have a look: 

Female Pileated Woodpecker at Pony Pasture this morning


Trust the process

Subtitle – everything is ephemeral

Please in advance pardon my stream of armchair philosophizing. I’m watching the boldest part of the new season begin, and the predictability of it balances my habitual uncertainty about the future.

“Let go, let God” is a bromide I do not subscribe too – I know I have to take action to affect certain outcomes. But at least for the half-century plus I’ve been on this planet, Spring has followed Winter. It hasn’t failed yet, and I suspect it won’t. The flowers open every Spring – it’s already begun. Soon there will be pollen – there will be lots of pollen. It makes my eyes red and my nose itch, but it’s not intolerable. I know some people react more than I do. Some people react less than I do. I don’t love flowers less because there’s pollen.

Trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) will appear at Pony Pasture before long. They’re referred to as an “ephemeral” which, at least in the case of plants, means “short-lived or lasting for a brief time.” Brevity is, of course, relative. Redwood trees would refer to humans as “ephemeral.” The Blue Ridge Mountains would refer Redwood trees as “ephemeral.” There are plenty of bacteria and tiny organisms that even Trout lilies would refer to as “ephemeral” – it’s all relative.

It won’t be long – a month or six weeks – before you’ll see baby mallards and baby Canada Geese. At Pony Pasture, a lucky few people will see young deer – they’ll be appearing soon. There will be baby owls, hawks, chipmunks, squirrels, frogs, fish, salamanders, bluebirds, rabbits, new life everywhere. 

Buffleheads are here now, but not for long. They’ll head north soon. Never fear – they’ll be back in October. I’ve heard there are ospreys down the river, in downtown. Soon they’ll appear on this upper part of the river. They typically arrive for the summer at the same time the Buffleheads depart. They swap again in the Fall.

I saw Juncos on the ground below my feeders today. They’re often referred to as “snowbirds” and keep a similar schedule to the buffleheads.

Tuning into these rhythms provides me comfort and calm in every season, in every view of the river. The sun set awhile before I typed this, but it’s going to rise about 6:30 tomorrow morning – I trust the process.



Posted in Birds, Carolina wren, daffodils, Dogs, Downy woodpecker, Flowers, Fun, James River, Pileated Woodpecker, Pony Pasture, raptors, Red-bellied woodpeckers, Red-tailed hawks, Rivers, Smiles (including "dog smiles"!), whitetail deer | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Paper cranes

25 February, 2018            Paper cranes

It’s a “paper crane.” Not an “origami swan.” The reason for the distinction currently escapes me, but I’ll figure it out. These caught my eye on Wednesday morning around 8:00 at Black Hand Coffee at 3101 Patterson Avenue, Richmond, Virginia 23221. I cannot recommend that place highly enough – what a tremendous experience:

Paper cranes at Black Hand Coffee

In Japanese folklore, the gods will grant a wish to a person who folds one thousand paper cranes (origami). A girl named Sadako Sasasi was two years old and lived with her family on the outskirts of Hiroshima when the United States incinerated it and poisoned it with the world’s first atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. She and her family escaped, and the war ended and she grew up and went to school. She was a popular student and athlete. When she was twelve  years old, she began to experience symptoms of what the Japanese referred to as the “Atomic Bomb Disease.” The correct name is leukemia. Sadako began folding paper cranes while she was in the hospital. Unfortunately she died about two months before her thirteenth birthday. Her story has survived as a symbol of the horrors of war and the nightmare of atomic weapons.

When I was studying about paper cranes, I read this: What does an origami swan mean? Traditionally, it was believed that if one folded 1000 origami cranes, one’s wish would come true. It has also become a symbol of hope and healing during challenging times. As a result, it has become popular to fold 1000 cranes (in Japanese, called “senbazuru”).

I’ve read two wonderful books about Sadako and her experience. I recommend either of them to anyone. Both are brief and well written. If you’re interested, try either One Thousand Paper Cranes: The Story of Sadako and the Children’s Peace Statue by Ishii Takayuki or Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr.

It was hard to read and hard to experience but it was time well spent. It’s hard to write about too and I’m ready for a change of pace. Here’s an idea – how about a daffodil? Pony Pasture, 11:00 this morning:

Yellow and green – note the conspicuous absence of the blues

I was at our friend Ariel’s house last week (that’s where Yuki lives) and she had a stunning gardenia on her back patio. The gardenia and Yuki were the same color. I asked her about it and she said she’d gotten it at Strange’s Florist near Broad and Gayton, which is just down the street from where I work three days a week. So I picked one up Wednesday morning and brought it home. Photographs don’t do gardenias justice, but this is just one of perhaps a dozen buds from that plant. It’s still blooming on our back porch, except for a few buds Ev trimmed off and put in a vase in the house:

My jaw always drops. There is simply nothing to not-like about a gardenia.

Our bird feeders are covered in birds; here’s a bluebird with a treat the same morning I brought that gardenia home:

Not a crisp image, but this bird looks triumphant. To me.

I clicked again a moment later when a Brown-headed Nuthatch (lower left) lit on the feeder for an instant before it vanished. They have a special place in my heart because I never knew such a bird existed before one landed on my feeder last year. That experience of discovery etches itself in my brain. It’s almost a physical sensation:

Brown-headed nuthatch, lower left. I’m always grateful when I see one.

I could hardly even open my eyes without seeing a hawk this week. I’m seeing pairs of them (I mean that literally, not in the sense that I’m “seeing double”) all over the place. I’ve never gotten great light or great angles on any of the pictures, so here’s the least worst picture I’ve gotten this week. Soon I’ll get a pair on a church cross. It happens every year and it’s always a good picture. But here’s a representative picture for Week Eight of my “Raptor-A-Week” project for 2018:

I don’t love this image, but I feel privileged every single time I see two Red-tails together.

I don’t do a “Dog-A-Week” project because it’s too easy with domestic animals. But we got right in the middle of a little herd of deer at Pony Pasture this morning and I tied off the dogs’ leashes so I could take a few pictures. Of the deer, of course, but here’s one of Yuki (white), Mackey (lying down) and Turner (none of the above):

They’re such a handsome, easygoing crew. A joy to hike with.

I’m guessing this is Mom. She was calm and cool. There were three youngsters – adolescent age I’m thinking – tiptoeing around looking much less confident. They were making an almost comically conspicuous attempt to appear inconspicuous. She was alert but not anxious. She knows Mackey and Turner and Yuki are not a threat:

A picture of calm awareness. She’s in the moment.

Here’s a youngster. The mother is gazing; this one is peering. It is a subtle but in my opinion unmistakable difference:

Compare this gaze to the one above. I wish I’d known their heart rates. I guarantee this deer’s was 20% higher than the other one.

When Mackey and Turner and Yuki and I went back to Ariel’s house to drop Yuki off, she invited me in for a spritzer and the dogs for their post-hike treats. My camera is hanging around my neck from the time I leave the house Sunday morning until I get home after the hike, so I picked it up and snapped a quick shot when this Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) landed on a  metal fencepost:

Song sparrow in Ariel’s backyard early this afternoon:

Anyway. It’s been a good week. I hope yours was even better, and next week is better than last  week. And come back again! Have a great week,


Posted in Birds, daffodils, Dogs, Flowers, Fun, Gardenias, Pony Pasture, raptors, Red-tailed hawks, Rivers, Smiles (including "dog smiles"!), whitetail deer | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

February is the new March

18 February, 2018            February is the new March

Happy Birthday Sheila! Today is my sister Sheila’s birthday. Mackey and Turner and Yuki and I texted her birthday greetings from the river this morning. This was the photograph (more or less) we sent:

“Frog Dogs” at Pony Pasture this morning. Listen to the 7 second video to hear why

But the sound is what sets it apart – the frogs in the background. This video is seven seconds long – and it’s partially why I chose the title for this blog post:

I’m not sure what all those frogs are. I know people who do – Kim H, I’d be interested to hear your take. Years ago I would have said “Spring Peepers” and that is correct but imprecise. There is a web site called iNaturalist that catalogs naturally occurring phenomena, at least across the United States and perhaps across the world. I did a search on the page for “James River Park amphibians” and you can see them all here – and maybe decide for yourself: James River Park amphibians

There was a deep flood at the river early in the week. The river crested above fifteen feet at the Westham gauge, a couple hundred yards upstream from the Huguenot Bridge. At fifteen feet, most of the paths at Pony Pasture are under water. My friend Sam and I took the dogs and had a good hike, but only the high ground was passable. And it mainly has trees on it and you can’t get great river views.

Mackey and Turner on one of many newly dead-end trails (Monday, 2/12/2018).

Today marks the end of the sixth week of 2018. I am six for six in my quest to photograph a raptor a week in 2018. Nothing magazine-worthy this week, but there are hawks everywhere. I could almost do one a day. Unfortunately I’ve been unable to get any good pictures yet – but soon. Here’s a wet one I took on Valentine’s Day near Freeman High School:

Wet Red-tailed Hawk near DS Freeman HS

That one was shortly before noon. A friend of mine and I went to Hollywood Cemetery later that day, and looked down the bank at the flooding river. We saw a Richmond Fire Department River Rescue Team practicing in the rapids. Next time you think your job is difficult, consider whether you’d trade places with these folks. Remember, this is February:

Training for work. These people are hard core.

My feeders are covered with birds most of the time now – the “Dawn Chorus” will begin soon. When I came home yesterday there were the usual starlings on it. There are certain birds that, if you are an elite photographer, you can take a good picture of them. I am less skilled than that, and I have  yet to take a good picture of a starling. But this big Red-Bellied Woodpecker had muscled them out of the way. It appears to be flaunting this prize it got from the feeder, but I suspect it’s just a way to eat it more easily:

I don’t know why I think they deserve seed and starlings don’t. But there it is.

I hiked at Deep Run Friday; the light was elusive. This is far from a gorgeous bluebird picture, but I was interested in the unusual color and texture on its breast:

Odd light, odd color. Cute bluebird. It’s Spring. After a fashion.

I think it’s because their colors are about to “pop” for spring courtship and mating, but they’re not quite there yet. Here’s one fattening up on my front feeder: 

Everybody is filling up for Spring!

I also photographed a flicker, a bird I always enjoy, but the light was too thin. Another time. 

The days are getting longer and lighter and (eventually) warmer. I’ll be here! Hopefully! Hopefully you will too! All best,


PS Oops! I photographed my first flower of 2018 today just before noon at the north end of Charlie’s Bridge. Feast your eyes – this is only the beginning: 

That’s an appetizer. The main course will take about two months.


Posted in Birds, Dogs, Flowers, Fun, James River, Pony Pasture, raptors, Red-bellied woodpeckers, Red-tailed hawks, Rivers | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Short and primarily sweet

11 February, 2018            Short and primarily sweet

Short because it’s getting late and Evelyn and I just got home from a long and excellent weekend with family in Blacksburg and Charlottesville. Virginia. Primarily sweet rather than completely sweet because it’s not all my lovely nieces and adorable nephew. Because of course Obsessive Uncle Jay has to include at least one picture of a hawk to wrap up the sixth full week of 2018. I won’t start with the sweetest picture – but it’s primarily sweet.

Blacksburg this morning – Shane, Kristin, Wesson, Evelyn, me, Tara, Mackey, Turner (timer shot set up by Shane) 

This picture is more than partially sweet – it’s 100% sweet. I regret cutting off the tip of Turner’s nose in this one but he wasn’t the subject. My nephew Wesson on his 2.5 year old birthday, walking Mackey in Blacksburg in the 50º February rain. For nearly an hour. And when we were headed back toward the house, Wesson wanted to keep going! I should have asked Shane, but I’ll bet Wesson weighs less than Mackey. Think about walking a dog that weighs more than you do for an hour in the rain – and wanting more:

Check out that jaunty dog-walking flair. That’s how it’s done – he’s a Natural.

Evelyn’s sister said “he looks like a mini-Jay.” If his face was in that picture, she’d have said “he looks like a mini-Jay except he’s much handsomer!” He is a born dog walker, though.

Since I began this blog post a few minutes ago, my brother Shane texted me a picture he took early in today’s hike. Moments before Wesson hitched up Mackey:

Mackey keeping an eye on us, me walking Turner, Wesson walking point. This morning in Blacksburg (Shane took this one) 

Now a couple of obligatory (to me) raptor pictures and a pileated woodpecker or two then it’s off to bed. Have a great week!

1st raptor of the week – Red-shouldered hawk, 9:20 Monday AM, 10000 block Patterson Ave

2nd raptor of the week, Red-tail leaping from a cell phone tower near my house Tuesday

Honestly IMO there really is NOT such thing as too many raptors. But three is enough. Red-tail Friday, Discovery United Methodist Church.

Slight change of pace – no red-tail here, but a red crest on this adult female Pileated woodpecker from Pony Pasture early Monday afternoon:

Adult female Pileated woodpecker, Pony Pasture, Monday midday

 I hope to be more organized next week and get a more substantial blog post up at a more reasonable hour. But there are never guarantees. But have a fine week! All best, 

Jay, Evelyn, Mackey, Turner, and more

PS On our way back from visiting my brother and his wife and my nephew in Blacksburg today, Evelyn and I stopped in Charlottesville and had a late lunch with our niece Clare! I regret we came away with zero photographs, but our visit was as wonderful as our visit to Blacksburg. Except it didn’t last long enough! Another time. 




Posted in Birds, Dogs, Fun, People, Pileated Woodpecker, Pony Pasture, raptors, red-shouldered hawks, Red-tailed hawks, Rivers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

There is no full moon in February!

4 February, 2018            There is no full moon in February!

Who even knew? It can only happen in February. Talk about “learn something new every day.” Back to that in a paragraph or two. Here’s something that’s not new – today (Sunday, 4 February, 2018) is the last day of the fifth week of 2018. And I photographed hawks for the fifth consecutive week!

Red-shouldered Hawk on a wire in Bon Air (photographed through my sun roof) 

Evelyn plants nasturtiums in our yard every year. The earliest picture I can find in my blog is May. So you won’t be seeing any this month and I’m sure not next and it’s possible they’ll be out in April but unlikely. This is an out of season picture – in the sense that you can’t photograph a blooming nasturtium outdoors in central Virginia in February. This is from a blog post from May of last year called “Big Mike Biathlon.”:

Glowing orange nasturtium from our yard last May

The guideline for planting nasturtiums is you plant them on the full moon in February. I looked on my Virginia Wildlife Calendar for the date of the full moon – and there was none! So I read up on it and found this on a site called earthsky.org, on a post called “Lengths of lunar months in 2018”: [[…called a lunation or synodic month, it has a mean period of 29.53059 days (29 days 12 hours and 44 minutes). That’s the mean, but the true length varies throughout the year.]] So that means every month with thirty or thirty-one days has a full moon, and some even have two. Only February can go from start to finish with no full moon, and that is a rare occurrence. As I understand it (don’t bet your life on this), it happens about five times per hundred years. In addition (another fact I learned this morning), a February with no full moon is almost (but not always) preceded and followed by a month with a “blue moon” – a month that contains two full moons. January (last month) had a full moon on January 1 and a second (a “blue moon”) on January 31. That will happen again next month  – a full moon on March 1 and another on March 31.

The genesis of this post came earlier this week when I saw these on our kitchen windowsill and asked Evelyn what they were:

Nasturtium seeds on our kitchen windowsill. They look like tiny moons. Or sea monkey eggs.

I thought they were sea monkey eggs. But Evelyn said they were nasturtium seeds. Don’t they look sort of like miniature moons? I wonder if that was involved in the folk wisdom of planting on the full moon. I’m not sure when Evelyn will plant them in 2018, given the absence of a full moon in February, but I have faith I’ll be posting images of healthy nasturtium blooms before Memorial Day. Stay tuned.

Anyway, I’d gone two full days at the beginning of this week and seen not a single raptor – that is unusual for me. I still hadn’t seen one Wednesday morning, and it wasn’t until Wednesday around noon when that Red-shouldered hawk perched on a wire in a neighborhood in Bon Air. I pulled over and opened the sun roof and took that picture without getting out of the car. Or even turning it off. That broke the no-raptor stalemate for the week, and ninety minutes later I looked down a hill in Hollywood Cemetery and saw this fat female Red-tailed hawk. The image is not crisp and although it’s obvious she’s eating something bloody, I can’t make out just what:

Female Red-tail at Hollywood Cemetery. Converting some other form of life into living hawk.

I’m confident this was a female; she was massive. Here is a brief video of her eating. I was on a hill in Hollywood Cemetery, looking down toward the CSX tracks and to the north bank of the James River. Take a look at this – it’s worth watching and hearing. Fifteen seconds long: 

I spend most of my central Virginia “park” time in Pony Pasture but venture to other parks on occasion. I was in Deep Run Park in western Henrico this week. I wasn’t walking dogs in Deep Run, but I take my dogs to Pony Pasture multiple times each week. As a multi-decade multi-dog walker, I am sensitive to the way different areas approach the problem of pet waste. This is a sign at Deep Run, and it feels sensible to me:

A sensible sentiment about pet waste removal

Also at Deep Run this week – and at home, and at Pony Pasture, and everywhere else I’ve been, the flocks of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) are large and boisterous. My main reference for birds is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds and they use strong language. This is what they say about robin behavior: “Behavior – American Robins are industrious and authoritarian birds…”. “Authoritarian” is an unusual choice of words. “Industrious” is too, but less surprising. Here’s one at Deep Run Friday. You almost never see them on a feeder. In bird baths often, but not on feeders:

Robin at Deep Run on Groundhog Day. I believe it saw its shadow. Does it look authoritarian?

Shortly after lunch today I was pointing my camera out the window at a robin when it abruptly leaped off the ground and headed for a more comfortable spot. I was surprised to see it was displaced by this Red-winged blackbird: 

Marauding Red-winged blackbird. I am surprised nearly every day.

A couple more pictures before I sign off. The first is a male Downy Woodpecker from my feeder on Monday: 

Bright Downy Woodpecker clutching the bird feeder pole outside my office window

I almost closed this post and left a picture out. This isn’t brilliant but I like the angle of the bluebird’s head. I suspect it’s not being quizzical, but it gives that impression: 

They’re cute even when they don’t cock their heads like this. See the raindrops falling? 


Good for what ails me

I am a natural worrier – I always have been. I’m a calm anxious person. Politics themselves don’t make me anxious – I am a firm and faithful believer in the democratic system. I stay informed about the workings of our local, state and federal government. I am comfortable reading about it, but the shrill and strident tones I’ve heard on broadcast media are deeply unsettling for me. So I read.

At the river, the tones are never shrill and strident. Outdoors, walking my dogs in my neighborhood, no shrill or strident tones. Birds will be nesting soon, and their tones may be construed as shrill or strident, and they may even experience some anxiety, if birds have emotions. But they’re the opposite of anxiety producing for me – they’re good for the anxiety that ails me.

They’re predictable too, in the sense the river and the seasons and the moon phases are predictable. There is no end to the violence in nature. Look again at that video with the Red-tail up there. Whatever it’s eating woke up earlier that day, no doubt expecting to make it through another twenty-four hours. But the hawk didn’t kill it out of anger, or for entertainment, or because it was bored. Look again at the video; you can see the river flowing downstream, and the breeze rocking the branches on the tree. The hawk, the river, the breeze – they’re all just doing what they do. It’s good for what ails me.


Posted in Birds, Downy woodpecker, Flowers, Fun, James River, raptors, red-shouldered hawks, Red-tailed hawks, Rivers, robin | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Slim Pickens

28 January, 2018            Slim Pickens

Change of pace (remember, pickings are slim this week). I was looking for something else and found this picture from March of 2009 at Pony Pasture. It’s a long time from now to March:

Roux in the background, Ivory in the center, Mackey in the foreground, Pony Pasture, March, 2009

It was only a matter of time (almost seven years) before I had such a dull week I chose to fall back on that title. Possibly everyone who reads this blog understands that title but it’s a reference to the “slim pickings” I had to choose from this week. But I spelled it as the name of the late “rodeo performer and film and television actor” Slim Pickens, born Louis Burton Lindley Jr. (thanks Wikipedia) in 1919, died 1983. That link is to his obituary in the NYT; he was a character. I first saw him in Blazing Saddles with my Dad and maybe Katie; I suspect it was my first “R” rated movie. It was 1974 so I was thirteen. Here’s an excerpt  from that review: “What I found amazing was that, in one of our better theatres, a civilised-looking audience laughed loudest and longest at a scene in which a bunch of cowboys sit around a campfire eating beans,” declared a horrified John Simon. “One after another, they raise their backsides a bit and break wind, each a bit louder than his predecessor. If this is what makes audiences happiest, all future for the cinema is gone with the wind.” “Gone with the wind” when writing about a fart joke in a movie review – you just can’t top that. So if you haven’t seen it, by all means do.

A red-tail perched on the power line across from our house Monday morning and I was able to get a raptor picture for the fourth consecutive week. This won’t end up on a magazine cover, but I’m just taking data:

4th consecutive weeks of a raptor-a-week. Red tailed hawk on power line near DS Freeman HS 

I did get another raptor picture (several other raptor pictures) this week, but notably in my opinion (IMO), I got another accipiter rather than the buteos I normally see. This is another shot that won’t end up on a magazine cover, but I’m still learning these birds. Again I’m uncertain whether this is a Cooper’s Hawk or a Sharp-shinned Hawk (those are the only two choices). And this image is inadequate (IMO) to make that determination:

I’m amazed I got another accipiter. I hope I see more.

This is a good time to follow up on last week’s accipiter image. Here it is again:

Pony Pasture accipiter

Here’s the blog post if you’d like to see it again full-sized: “I can’t complain but sometimes I still do”. I posted the picture on a Facebook page called simply “Hawk ID.” People put pictures up there all the time, but questions over the difference between a Cooper’s Hawk and a Sharp-shinned Hawk are constant. One frustrated wildlife rehabilitator once commented that she had held them in her hand and still couldn’t tell the difference. There were several comments about this picture and the consensus was “immature Cooper’s Hawk.” Here are a few excerpts:

  • Blocky head, forward set eye, fine neat streaking, tubular center weighted shape and graduated tail feathers point to immature Cooper’s Hawk.
  • All the hallmarks for Cooper’s Hawk are here. Large, square-backed head, fine tear-drop breast streaking, graduated tail feathers, stout legs & toes, in juv. Plumage.
  • A first winter bird by the breast coloration, the graduated tail feathers and the blocky head with a natural slope to beak make this a Coopers Hawk. Judging by size is not a reliable way to determine gender.

Some have asked about the progress of my flying lessons, but unfortunately my lessons have gone as far as they’ll go. I flew a total of twenty hours with an instructor including seventy landings and was getting close to soloing when I got the response from the FAA for my medical evaluation, viz:

FAA’s final decision on my pilot’s license:

It’s a result of long-term restrictions from injuries sustained in my 1988 accident. The injuries didn’t prevent me from finishing my BS and MS at VCU and they didn’t prevent me from eleven Ironman finishes. But they do prevent me from scuba diving – I learned that decades ago but scuba was never a thing for me. And now I learn they prevent me from earning a pilot’s license. It’s a First World Problem – my sister suggested I instead focus my energy on a solo trans-Atlantic sailing trip. And my brother suggested hiring his daughter as a sailing instructor, since she has more experience than I do and “accepts payment in gummy bears.” 

Speaking of my family, one of my siblings was working on family pictures this weekend and found this and posted it on Facebook. I suspect this is from 1970, give or take a year:

We’re still close! All these decades later! It is a good fortune beyond compare.

I have more good luck in my life than any one person really deserves, but being part of that family is worth more than the rest of it combined.  

Mourning dove in my front yard Wednesday:

Front yard mourning dove in January:

I’m on another Facebook page called “Nature Lovers of Virginia.” A person named Michael  posted a picture of a bluebird and wrote “Bluebirds never fail to make me feel happy–there is just something about their attitude and their colors.” I know just what he means – I never feel blue when I look at a bluebird. I saw dozens at Pony Pasture this week but could never make the light work for a good image. This one perched on one of my feeders yesterday morning:

“Bluebirds never fail to make me feel happy” – commenter on a “Nature Lovers of Virginia” Facebook page

I was never able to photograph a large bunch together, but mallards are flocking up in broad shallow spots around Pony Pasture. It’s easy to stand in one place and see thirty mallards at once. They’re normally “dabbling” in the shallows then and it’s not often  sunny. As an aside, if you’re interested, the binomial name of mallards is “Anas platyrhynchos.” “Anas” is the genus and in Wikipedia it says “Anas is a genus of dabbling ducks. It includes the pintails, most teals, and the mallard and its close relatives.” This pair was calm on a midstream rock – not dabbling:

Pair of midstream mallards at Pony Pasture, captured in a non-dabbling moment

Everything is pairing off now – the raptors have been getting things ready for some time. Pileated woodpeckers too. After reading a lot, I began to notice some pre-nesting and pre-courtship behaviors in December – which I never knew was the case. The cycle lasts 365 days, and I’d always thought nesting behaviors began in Spring. It’ll be another month or two before they’re occurring at that frantic pace that makes them impossible to overlook. It won’t be long before we have the windows open and we’ll hear the “dawn chorus” every morning. But not this week!

All best,


Posted in accipiters, Birds, Fun, James River, Pony Pasture, raptors, Red-tailed hawks, Rivers, Smiles (including "dog smiles"!) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

 “I can’t complain but sometimes I still do”

21 January, 2018            “I can’t complain but sometimes I still do”

That line is from Joe Walsh’s 1978 song Life’s Been Good from the album But Seriously, Folks. An accipiter – either a Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) or a Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) landed above us on a branch at the river this morning. This is the image I got:

Pony Pasture accipiter

I was “complaining” (the voice inside my head was complaining) that I cut off the tail in that picture. Instead of being grateful I got it at all, which I’m thrilled – that is always a difficult bird for me – I was complaining (in my head again). The line (in the song) that follows the line I used for the title of this post is “Life’s been good to me so far.” Speaking of life being good to me (and to many others), this was the river this morning, half an hour before I photographed that accipiter: 

Our incomparable James River this morning, about 5 casual minutes’ hike from the main parking lot:

I have a vague goal – I’ve possibly mentioned – of photographing a minimum of one raptor per week in 2018. Just to see if I can do it. All in the City of Richmond/Henrico County area. Today (Sunday, 21 January, 2018) wraps up the third week and I’m three for three. On Monday (1/15) I photographed two Red-shouldered Hawks plus a Red-tailed hawk, plus I passed up two other nice Red-shoulders – they were everywhere Monday. It’ll be interesting to see if I can get a raptor each week for fifty-two consecutive weeks.

Red-shouldered Hawk Monday afternoon (see below for location):

This is where that bird was perched: 

The hawk is perched in the top of a tree near the center of this image – it’s a dot:

You have to look closely at this picture – it’s tiny – but you can see where that hawk is sitting. It’s only about the size of the “8” next to the word “Riverside” on the green sign. It’s on a branch precisely in the center of the picture, just below the top. Imagine if a football was in the top of one of those trees. That’s what you’re looking for. But don’t drive yourself crazy – if I didn’t know it was there, I might not be able to find it. 

I’ve been trying to get a good Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis ) picture for Evelyn and I’ve been mostly unsuccessful (but I can’t complain). I went back through my pictures this week and found this one from Thursday – I can’t believe this was only three days ago – in our front yard. Today Evelyn and my niece Cappy and our friend Ariel and I had lunch outside. Pardon this digression but a week ago I posted a picture of Mackey and Turner and me standing on the frozen James River. Remarkable. Anyway, I wish the bird’s face had been in sun rather than shadow but so it goes. Sorry you can’t see the dark eyes that give its name. This one has a seed in its mouth:

Dark-eyed Junco. Astounding I took that picture 3 days ago, and we ate lunch outside today.


I stumbled into an indistinct (moderately) image of two Great black-backed Gulls (Larus marinus), described by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as “The king of the Atlantic waterfront.” I’m not in love with this image, but it has interesting features. First, you can see the size of “The king of the Atlantic waterfront” relative to the average sized Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis ) – it’s enormous. Another interesting feature is the opportunity to compare the two Great black-backed Gulls – there’s an adult (left) and an immature (right). I’m not certain how to age the immatures; that picture quality is too poor to determine. But they have a distinct “juvenile” color pattern and an equally distinct “first winter” color pattern. I’m not sure which this is. Have a look:

1 Mature & 1 immature Great Black-backed gulls, + innumerable Ring-billed gulls

I’m going to put this blog post to be then put my self to bed at a reasonable hour. Have an excellent week!

All best,


PS If anyone cares to enlighten me about that accipiter, I’d love to know more. A, is it a Cooper’s Hawk or a Sharp-shinned Hawk and why. B, is it a male or a female and why. I’ve photographed female Cooper’s Hawks; they’re too huge to be anything else. I’ve photographed male Sharp-shinned Hawks; they’re too petite to be anything else. But there’s a size overlap between male Cooper’s Hawks (medium-sized) and female Sharp-shinned Hawks (medium-sized) and I can’t distinguish breed by size. This bird was approximately the size of a crow – in between. Please enlighten me if you know more. And have a great week!  

Posted in accipiters, Birds, Fun, James River, Pony Pasture, raptors, red-shouldered hawks, Rivers | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments