A 2-bird day

I am a little late kicking off the New Year this year — unlike last year, when I got a new bird (a Cape May Warbler) on New Year’s Day, this year I did not go “serious” birding until today, the 3rd.

But this year I got 2, instead of 1, new bird on this day!

The first one is A Vermilion Flycatcher. This is a “mega bird” for the State of Maryland (meaning it is very rare). It is, in fact, a sub-tropical bird, usually found in southwest U.S., Mexico, and Central and South Americas. But one — a female — has been spotted in the Eastern Shore of Maryland recently. The recent warm spell in this part of the country probably contributed to its lingering. Today I finally made the trip to see this bird. Thanks to some helpful birders, I quickly located the bird. Though it was perched far, I was able to snap some pictures.

Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermilion Flycatcher

Since I was already on this side of the Chesapeake Bay, I decided to take a detour to go to Conowingo Dam. This dam sits on the Susquehanna River above the beginning of the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace. It is know for the congregation of Bald Eagles in winter (for easy picking of fish below the dam), but the reason I went was because another rare bird, an Iceland Gull, has been reported there.

Again, thanks to a helpful birder, I quickly located the gull. This is an immature gull, pale brown in color, and far in the middle of the river below the base of the dam. To be honest, if not for the more experienced birder, I would have a very, very hard time spotting it. I was able to take a few pictures, though because of the distance, they are far short of spectacular.

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull

iceland_gull3

Iceland Gull

Both the flycatcher and gull are new birds for me, not a bad way to start a New Year!

Just then the icing on the cake arrived — a Bald Eagle flew by, majestic in the late afternoon sun. I snapped away and some of these pictures a little less short of spectacular.

 

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

bald_eagle2

Bald Eagle

bald_eagle3

Bald Eagle

bald_eagle4

Bald Eagle

If you wish to see more of my nature pictures, and pictures of many other nature lovers, you are welcome to join the Facebook group Nature Lovers of Virginia.

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Merlin

I knew it, I knew it, I knew it!

I knew the Merlin would come. Well, actually I have to admit momentarily I had some doubts, but as the light faded and I already put my camera into my car, I turned around for a last look at the tall cedar tree at Manassas National Battlefield Park, I saw the bird perched there — the same place where I saw it 10 months ago!

The Merlin is a migratory bird. It is a falcon and a beautiful bird. In my neck of the woods (northern Virginia), it is supposed to only appear during migration season (as you can see its range map here). But not all birds conform to the same rules. I think that this particular bird overwinter here. Actually I am not even sure if it is the same bird (without banding, individual birds are nearly impossible to distinguish from each other). But I have a hunch that this is the same bird indeed (though without proof).

I first saw the bird on February 23, 2014. Then a year later, on February 14, 2015, I saw and photographed it again. Today (December 16, 2015), I went to the same place again (I don’t go there nearly as much as I would have liked), thinking — even believing, even convinced that — I would see it there.

I arrived around 4:15pm or so. The light was already fading on this shortened late-autumn day. I walked about, looking at the usual places. But I did not find it for half an hour or so. As the sun started to set and the light started to fade, I started back to my car, thinking “maybe not today, but I will check back again next time”. Then it happened — I turned around and saw it on the exact same branch where I saw it three seasons ago.

Merlin (taken on 12/16/2015)

Merlin (taken on 12/16/2015)

The following are two pictures I took earlier:

Merlin (taken on 2/14/2015)

Merlin (taken on 2/14/2015)

Merlin (taken on 2/28/2014)

Merlin (taken on 2/28/2014)

As I said — it is a beautiful bird!

To see more of my nature pictures, you are welcome to join the Facebook group Nature Lovers of Virginia.

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A trip that should not have happened

In August I spent a week in Seattle. Working. This was during the most glorious days in Seattle — sunny with temperatures between 60 and 80 (Fahrenheit), all was nice.

Starbucks

Starbucks

But this was in fact too nice. On a whim I decided to take a day off and go to North Cascades National Park. The weekend before I already went to Mount Rainier National Park, so this one would nicely round up all the national parks in the Pacific Northwest for me. So off I went!

But as I got closer to the Cascades, it got very smoky. I heard on the radio that there were many wildfires. I hesitated … I had gone that far and did not want to turn back, but clearly, I would not see much. At 10:30 I entered the park and there was fire on the slope right across the visitor center. I went into the visitor center and talked to the rangers. I asked them if there was road closure (there was none). I knew they would not give any guarantee. I studied the trail maps again and told them that I would just go see some waterfalls then turn back. They said it was a “good call”. So thus I left the visitor center with this plan. I stopped across from the road again and took some pictures of the fire (this would be the “Goodell Fire”.

Wildfire

Wildfire

I stopped at a few places. At Diablo Lake, it was very windy and the lake is covered in smoke. I could see a snow-capped peak just barely through the smoke. I could not see that water at all. At that point I almost decided to turn back. But then I chatted with a couple who came the other way and they told me that “over the divide” it was completely clear at Washington Pass, which was 40 minutes from where we were. So I decided to check it out.

Indeed, as I continued to drive the sky became more and more clear. At Washington Pass there was almost no trace of smoke, except a little haziness in the distant air. I walked to the overlook, the view was panoramic and truly breathtaking. Although there was no glacier-covered peaks here, the jagged mountains are imposing and spectacular. There were even a few groups  having picnic there. At that point all seemed very peaceful.

North Cascades (view from Washington Pass)

North Cascades (view from Washington Pass)

North Cascades

North Cascades (view from Washington Pass)

This was around noon, and my planned had changed. I knew there was still the danger of fire, but the clear sky and the other tourists gave me some sense of hope and assurance. I decided to have lunch and take a short hike before I left. At Rainy Lake I ate my lunch at a picnic table, then took the 1-mile hike (on paved trail) to the lake. This Varied Thrush was a nice encounter on this short trail; it would be a new bird for me.

Varied Thrush

Varied Thrush

Before long I reached the lake. This is a small glacier cirque lake. The setting was picturesque and the lake was serene … that is, if you can ignore the little chipmunk, apparently unafraid of people.

Rainy Lake

Rainy Lake

Chipmunk

Chipmunk

Then a lady came by and we chatted. She said she’s from Olympia. She said the fire was getting big over there, and I said I better get going in case the road was closed. But she said “so far so good” and was not concerned. She went for a swim in the lake.

I hurried back to my car, this was just after 3PM. I had planned to return my car before 7PM in Seattle and there was almost enough time. Ominously, a helicopter flew overhead toward west, the way I would go. The scenery from this road toward the west is spectacular, with a sheer wall of mountain in the front. I stopped on the road shoulder to take some pictures, now I could see that there were more smokes in the sky. Then as I continued, a couple in a white truck waved “turn around” signal to me and I stopped to talk to them. The road was closed, they told me. They are very friendly. I asked for directions to get back to Seattle. At this point, I knew I was in for a long trip back.

North Cascades

North Cascades

So I took Highway 20 East, through the towns of Winthrop and Twisp. There were many police cars and EMS vehicles, but no traffic jam. It turned out both towns were being evacuated. In some parts I could smell the burning from inside my car, and sometimes the sun was eerily orange. On the radio they said that 3 firefighters died near Twisp, in all likelihood, they were in the EMS vehicles that I drove by.

Eventually, between detours and road blocks (just my luck that they were blasting on Interstate 90 on that day and closed the road for an hour), I spent 7 hours on the road. It was nearly 10 PM when I got back to Seattle. I later found out, North Cascades National Park was closed for nearly 2 weeks after my trip.

Was this worth it? I spent most of the day driving. The precious moments were at Washington Pass and the hike to Rainy Lake, though even that was rushed. Had I known this was what I would have gotten myself into, I probably would have chosen a different destination – the Puget Sound, or Mt. Rainier again, or maybe even Olympic, the amount of time wasted just does not justify it.

But after it already happened, I am glad I was there. Incidentally, this was national park #30 for me (the 30th national park I have visited in the United States), and I rounded up all the national parks in the Pacific Northwest.

So all this, for a trip that should not have happened.

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Spruce Knob Lake Journal

I sat on my beach chair and sipped ice cold club soda, oh, it is so refreshing!

It was just before 6PM, the day before Memorial Day and I was at Spruce Knob Lake campground. The sky was a little cloudier than I would have liked, but I decided to rest a little bit before going down to the lake. 173 miles to camp. I left home in the morning. It took me forever to get things packed – camping equipment, food, drink, camera equipment, maps and directions. Finally at 10:15 I drove off on this bright sunny day. I first got on I-66 going west. I cannot count how many times I’d taken this road to go to Shenandoah National Park, but today I just breezed by. Going through Strasburg, before long I crossed the line into West Virginia. I remember these roads, winding down the river valleys and hollows, with glimpses of craggy rock formations on either side.

Soon the road widens and becomes a freeway. This section US-48, WV-55 and WV-259 coincides and it is one of the most delightful roads in the east, I dare day – nicely paved surface, gently graded and curved, generous shoulders and wide median. In some stretches one side of the road gently curves over a deep hollow, offering breathtaking views; in other stretches the road cuts through a mountain, the sheer cliff reveals the folds and faults in the rock formation, giving free geology lessons. To add more to my delight, there are always very few cars on this road. Indeed, it reminds me of the roads in sparsely-populated Canada when we took the trip to Fundy and the Gulf of St. Lawrence two years ago.

The road goes through Mooresfield. I stopped at a McDonald’s for lunch. There were many flies at this restaurant. To my amazement (and amusement), two of the fliers, one on top of another, landed right in front of me on the table. Apparently they were mating. They should have advertised “free insect porn!”, I thought to myself.

Route 28 follows more or less Mill Creek, a tributary of South Branch Potomac River. The limpid and bubbling water easily reminded me of Oak Creek Canyon in Arizona, or Highway 1 to Point Reyes in Marin County … oh, all those places that we have been to!

I arrived at the visitor center at Seneca Rocks at around 1:45PM. Composed of Tuscarora quartzite , Seneca Rocks is the most dramatic rock formation east of Mississippi. Its saddle-shaped peaks rise some 900 feet from the valley floor. Though modest in absolute elevation (just over 2,400 feet), its almost sheer cliffs and craggy contour give it an imposing character. The west-facing rock surface just came into the sun, and there were many clouds, some rather thick, in the sky. I went into the visitor center and talked to a park ranger, who gave me some maps and directions to Spruce Knob Lake Campground. I decided to wait there for some time, half hoping the clouds would be blown off or dissipate. I had taken the hike to the top (actually not the top; only rock climbers can get to the very top, but there is a wooden viewing platform near the top at the end of the hiking trail) 10 years ago; I thought I would take it again the next day on my way back. I waited, leisurely watching the rocks and the rock climbers. The clouds never dissipated, and I finally left at 3:20PM.

Seneca Rocks

Seneca Rocks

Seneca Rocks

Seneca Rocks

Seneca Rocks

Seneca Rocks

Seneca Rocks

Seneca Rocks

Turning off the highway and unto a forest road , I now drove toward Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia (4,863 feet or 1,482 m). The road winds up the mountain and conifers started to appear on the side. For the second time I was reminded of our road trip to Canada two years ago – this part looked similar to the road in Fundy National Park. I half-expected to see a moose crossing the road. The road is paved, but narrow. When a car comes from the opposite direction, we often have to both veer off the road and onto the road shoulder (which is rather slim or nonexistent).

A sign of the Eastern Overlook came up; I pulled off to the overlook. A country couple were hugging and kissing outside their car at the overlook; they were not pleased to see me pulling off. “You two, go get a room”, I yelled at them. Actually I did not say that but just ignored them. Nice view of the lower hills and valley below. I took out my camera and took some pictures. The couple left.

Finally, to the top! I was surprised to see many cars in the parking lot at the summit as the traffic was light going up. A sign commemorates “the Top of Mountain State” (at 4,863 feet or 1,482m). But the walk to the observation tower was rather anticlimactic – the top of the mountain is very flat, the walk is only 900 feet, with no perceptible elevation change. I did not even change to my hiking boots and just wore my sandals. The observation tower has panoramic views, but the sky was overcast, a blue-gray haze hung in the air. An Eastern Towhee, hidden in the spruce nearby, repeated its raspy “drink-your-tea” song. Not to be outdone, an Indigo Bunting also sang its whistling notes incessantly in the distance. How funny, I thought, neither bird had a melodious song, but you could feel their exuberance on the top of the mountain.

View from the Eastern Overlook of Spruce Knob

View from the Eastern Overlook of Spruce Knob

The “Whispering Spruce” is a half-mile trail winding through its namesake forest around the summit; I certainly wouldn’t decline such a stroll. Along the trail there were several overlooks, even viewing platforms. One of the spot overlooks a gently sloped hill cleared for homesteads and pasture, almost exactly like a drawing of “the Shire” in the Lord of the Rings. As I walked, I heard the songs of a Wood Thrush. Now that is a melodious song, in fact I think it is the most haunting, ethereal songs of all North America songbirds (save for that of its cousins, the Hermit Thrush, perhaps).

The road to Spruce Knob Lake campground is a dirt road, laden with potholes, some quite large. I drove slowly, carefully negotiating the road, trying to minimize the bumps. Soon a Jeep appeared behind me, following very closely. The tires of my car kicked up a cloud of dirty and loose gravel, yet he kept coming, effectively tailgating me. I tried to drive at my own pace, but in these situations, you inevitably still take the action of the car behind you into your calculus. Around a sharp downward turn, almost 180 degrees, the road widens a little bit, and I slowed down and let him pass. Asshole disappeared quickly (and bumpily) in a yellow-gray haze. After that I drove in peace.

I arrived at the campsite before 5:30PM. My site is near the entrance and I saw my name on the reservation notice on the pole. I parked my car and checked out the site – as expected, a parking spot, a picnic table, a rectangular flat gravelly field for the tent. Awesome, I thought to myself, I would spend a night here. I walked to the staff’s site and chatted with them, I told them that I paid for the night on the website (“we know”), and asked where the lake was. Just follow the road and you will get to the lake, I was told. So now I am sitting here, drinking club soda. I decided not to set up tent yet, but just pulled out the beach chair and got a cold drink from the cooler. It was still early, there was plenty of time before dark, so I decided to rest a little bit before going down to the lake.

I walked along the road to the lake. At 3,840 feet Spruce Knob Lake is the highest lake in West Virginia. But it really is a reservoir; it came to existence when they built a dam at the headwater of Narrow Ridge, a mountain creek. I suspect before the dam was built, this area was swampy and reedy. Now that it is officially a “lake”, WV DNR (Department of Natural Resources) stocks it with trout for recreational purposes. So it is hardly “wilderness”, that’s for sure.

But the setting is lovely – the lake is surrounded by gentle hills that are covered with a mix of conifers and hardwoods. Technically we are still in spring, and at this elevation the deciduous trees still have their tender, yellow-green leaves, contrasting with the dark needles of the conifers. I walked down to the parking lot, then across the dam and counterclockwise around the lake. There were many people fishing there, most lazily sitting in their chairs on the bank, some floating in a boat in the middle of the lake. One woman waded into the lake, fly-fishing style, but in jeans and not hip boots.

There were stands of fiddlehead ferns in the swampy areas around the lake. These dedicate plants were just sending out their furled fronds, covered with fine, filamental hair. A Dark-eyed Junco flitted in the trees. Unlike most other migratory birds, which employ a latitudinal migration strategy – that is, they migrate from north to south and back, juncos migrate attitudinally – that is, they spend their winter months in the lowlands and migrate to their breeding grounds at higher elevation in spring and summer. To me who lives near the coast, they are decidedly a winter bird, but in summer I always expect to find them in the mountains.

A sandpiper on the shore of the lake caught my eye. Its bobbing and wagging tail gave it away – this was a Spotted Sandpiper. They were also on their (latitudinal) migration path. West Virginia is at the southern edges of their breeding range, it is possible that they might settle down here. This one certainly had its breeding plumage, with the dark spots showing on the chest (these spots disappear in the winter, adding much to the confusion of identifying sandpipers).

There were some warblers singing in the trees, but I could not see them. My skills at identifying birds, especially warblers, by ear are still poor. I did see a Cedar Waxwing and a Red-winged Blackbird though.

Spruce Knob Lake -- "the lake is surrounded by gentle hills that are covered with a mix of conifers and hardwoods"

Spruce Knob Lake — “the lake is surrounded by gentle hills that are covered with a mix of conifers and hardwoods”

Fiddlehead Fern

Fiddlehead Fern

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

Back to camp after 7PM, I pitched the tent and boiled some water and made coffee. The campground is quieter than I expected, this being a holiday weekend. I think campgrounds in national forests are generally less visited by people, whereas in national parks, starting from Memorial Day, the campgrounds can be very crowded and festive. I could hear Ovenbirds singing in the woods. What more can you ask for? Since I was on a solo trip, I kept food items to a minimum: just cup noodle and boiled eggs, and some snacks and a few apples. It’s the best food I have had in a long time. It’s always the best food when it’s eaten in the mountains.

Tent -- "The campground is quieter than I expected"

Tent — “The campground is quieter than I expected”

I brought two books with me: “Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat” by Paul Halpern and “Death of a Hornet” by Robert Finch. I got into the tent and put on my headlamp and started reading. The Halpern book is a fascinating read, but the rudimentary spelling and grammar errors are a little irksome sometimes. Surely he had a spellcheck in his favorite word processor program? The Robert Finch book I had read a couple of times before, but it is always a solace to read his writing, and especially so in camp.

At around 10PM or so I went to the outhouse. I looked up and there were so many stars in the sky! I did not plan to take night pictures, but I was prepared (which is to say I brought the right photo equipment with me). Earlier, I had concern about the clouds, but now the sky looked clear. I decided to give it a try. I walked again to the lake. I wore my headlamp backwards so cars behind me could see me, and used a powerful handheld flashlight for illuminating the roads in front of me.

Roads take a decidedly different character in the dark. During the day this was just a forest road, lined with trees but not much different than any roads that wind through the woods. At night, the trees on each side looked taller and more imposing, the gentle bend toward the lake seemed to extend into the unknown. Insects and frogs were buzzing, chirping, calling, adding mysteries to the atmosphere. A very large toad sat in the middle of the road. I shone my flashlight on it but it ignored me. I hope it would move at some point, as there were still occasionally cars going to the lake, even at this hour.

But down at the lake there was no mystery — there were quite a few night fishermen there, you could almost say it was crowded. A waxing crescent moon hung in the southeastern sky, pale and luminous. Jupiter was near the moon, then further to the west, Venus. My goodness, it was so bright. I think in intensity it is brighter than the moon, almost piercingly blinding (now that my eyes were adjusted to the darkness). And it is large, it almost seemed like a disk rather than a dot to me. Together — the moon, Venus, perhaps Jupiter to a lesser extent — cast a soft and milky veil on the grassy surface of the dam and the swampy area below it.

I set up my tripod and camera to take some pictures. In the dark it was very difficult to focus — I could barely see anything in the viewfinder. I then realized, I could use the fishermen’s lights or the moon to focus, then re-compose the picture. There were still many stars in the sky, definitely more so than in the light-polluted sky in the suburbs, but the bright moon and planets washed out any trace of the Milky Way. The sky was also not free of man-made artifacts — blinking jets, and a faint aura of light from the valley below. After spending half an hour or so and capturing some half-decent pictures (not as good as I had hoped, but probably the best I could do under such circumstances), I wrapped up my equipment and started walking back. A large moth fluttered by the road side. It was brownish in color with large concentric spots on the wings. I would have to put down everything, take out my camera, mount the flash to take a picture. I decided I was too tired for that, so I just watched the moth for a few seconds.

Spruce Knob Lake at night -- "The sky was also not free of manmade artifacts"

Spruce Knob Lake at night — “The sky was also not free of man-made artifacts”

Spruce Knob Lake at night -- "The sky was also not free of manmade artifacts"

Spruce Knob Lake at night — “The sky was also not free of man-made artifacts”

Finally back into my tent again. There was nothing to do but sleep. I got into a state where I did not know I was really asleep or still half-awake. Then the wind started. At first, I heard it at the top of the trees, it seemed so distant. Then, after some time, the wind seemed to start to descend, and the rain cover of my tent started to flutter. The wind was neither vicious nor gentle; it was the kind of persistent and permeating wind. It sounded like every leaf in the woods was trembling. In a kind of dreamy but restless state I spent the rest of the night.

By golly the Overbird was loud! It sounded like it was right outside my tent. And the woodpecker (which kind I could not tell): it banged heavily on a tree trunk. I woke up. It was not even 6AM yet. I went outside my tent. The day was breaking already. A Scarlet Tanager flew above my campsite. “Sweet”, I thought, not often one wakes up and sees a Scarlet Tanager. Then it perched on a tree branch right above my head. This begged for pictures. I quickly opened the trunk of my car and got out my camera and snapped a few pictures.

I boiled some water to make coffee. My eyelids were heavy; two cups of coffee helped somewhat. It was getting brighter now and I knew the light must be good at the lake. I made oatmeal and ate it with a boiled egg, then headed to the lake.

Scarlet Tanager -- "This begged for pictures"

Scarlet Tanager — “This begged for pictures”

As I walked on the stairs toward the lake, I heard the persistent “yea-PEE” calls of Alder Flycatchers. Actually, at the time I thought they were Willow Flycatchers. Both Alder and Willow Flycatchers belong to the genus of Empidonax, or “Empids”. They are notoriously similar to each other. The only reliable way, we are told, to distinguish them is by listening to their calls. I had not so far definitively identified either species, and I studied their calls on the internet before, yet I could not memorize their calls. The “official” transcription of Alder Flycatcher’s song is “f-bee-oo” or “ree-BEE-a”, whereas that of the Willow Flycatcher is “fitz-bew” or “rrritz-bew”. Got the difference? And this is the most reliable way (they look practically identical). Trying to describe bird songs using onomatopoeia of human languages is more often pathetic than not.

The birds were not the only thing that caught my attention though. Hanging over the lake is a thin layer of mist, which was rapidly disappearing, as the sun peered over the hills in the east. Mornings are when birds are most active. A few Canada Geese were already quarrelling in the parking lot, and several robins were singing and foraging in the bushes.

I decided to do something different than the day before: instead of going counterclockwise, this time I went clockwise around the lake! The creek that was dammed to form the “lake” runs east-west, so the northern and southern banks are dry, man-made banks impoundment. The western (downstream) end is the dam, the eastern end (upstream) is more swampy, then gradually changes to thickets and woods farther away from the lake.

I finally saw the buzzing warbler that I heard the day before on the top of a tall spruce tree – it was a Magnolia Warbler, in beautiful breeding plumage, with a dark mask and white “eyebrow”, and brilliant yellow breast with prominent black streaks. A few fishing boats serenely floated on the water. I saw the sandpipers again, flying along the lake shore, pecking and probing in the mud. Reaching the thickets at the eastern end, a singing Gray Catbird caught my attention. Part of the thrasher family (the same family that also has the Northern Mockingbird), Gray Catbirds also have a repertoire of songs, mixed with its whiny “meow, meow” calls that give them their name. They are not the prettiest birds and their song not the most melodious, but I like them. There is one pair that nest outside my kitchen window the last few years, I wonder how they are faring this year.

The swampy area below the dam was a live with birds: American Robins, Eastern Towhees and Alder Flycatchers. Here the creek cuts through a valley, with sloping hills on either side forming a V-shaped portal to the beyond. I scanned the trees and shrubs for birds, but they were mostly invisible. Finally I spotted a flycatcher sitting on top of a Fire Cherry, nonchalantly issuing its raspy little song. This was when I finally definitively identified it, and it would be my only new bird of the trip.

Spruce Knob Lake

Spruce Knob Lake

Spruce Knob Lake

Spruce Knob Lake

Spruce Knob Lake

Spruce Knob Lake

Narrow Ridge (name of the creek) -- "The swampy area below the dam was a live with birds"

Narrow Ridge (name of the creek) — “The swampy area below the dam was a live with birds”

I returned to camp and quickly unpitched my tent, cleaned up camp and packed everything into the car. The riotous chorus of the birds at daybreak had died down a bit, and the woods were just getting bright, now that the sun was high. I left just after 9AM.

The drive back along the dirt road was completely unharassed – there was no incoming traffic whatsoever, and for more than half of the way there was also no car behind me. Then suddenly a big black bear hurriedly ran across the road to the slope on the left. It was a big and strong beast, most certainly an adult male. I stopped the car and looked over toward the slope, hoping to get a glimpse of it again, but it disappeared in the forest. Always exciting to see a bear, especially when you are safely in the car! This is when I noticed another car came bumping up and down the road behind me. But its pace was slower than mine, so I was never rushed.

In contrast to the day before, the weather was delightful when I reached Spruce Knob again – there are smudges of clouds near the horizon, but the sun was shining bright. As I walked toward the observation tower, a couple walked by and the woman said “Be careful with the flies!” There were a lot of flies under the spruce trees next to the trail, I think these were common green bottle flies whose larvae (maggots) feed on carrion (adults do not eat), so there must have been a dead animal somewhere. But there were harmless enough, if a little annoying.

On top of the world again! For some time I was the only one there. All the rolling hills and rugged ridges were below me. Spring was at its last leg now, but at some of the higher slopes and peaks there were still smudges of the light yellow-green of new leaves. The day was getting hot, and I had to leave soon, but for a moment, I tried to take it all in. I took the Whispering Spruce Trail again, stopping at every overlook along the way. What does it mean by being a traveler at home? It is this: every trip, near or far, is once-in-a-lifetime. Spruce Knob is just over 170 miles from home, surely if I want I can drive here any weekend and spend a night in one of the campsites, or I can even drive back on the same day. But will I? Truth is, having lived in Virginia for more than a dozen years, I have been to Seneca Rocks just once, and this was my first time to Spruce Knob. There are other entanglements of life, and there are other places. Every trip is unique; even if I go back to the same places again, they will change, and I will change. Every moment is to be savored.

Spruce Knob -- " A sign commemorates 'the Top of Mountain State'"

Spruce Knob — ” A sign commemorates ‘the Top of Mountain State'”

View from Spruce Knob

View from Spruce Knob

View from Spruce Knob

View from Spruce Knob

Spruce Knob Observation Tower

Spruce Knob Observation Tower

(For a version with the same text but with higher-resolution images, please visit my website)

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My wild goose chase

OK, so it is cliche now to call an activity a “wild goose chase”, but in my case, I was really chasing two wild geese.

On January 31, 2014, a report of Pink-footed Geese in Baltimore, Maryland sent the birding community abuzz. This is a species native to northern Europe, and it is an ABA (American Birding Association) Code 4 rarity (the ABA codes range from 1 to 6, the higher the rarer, with 6 being “extinct”, so the scale is really from 1 to 5). The second day (February 1), I made a trek to this region (it is about one and half hour’s drive for me). After a couple of false starts — the geese, being wild, moved about a lot — finally I got report from the Maryland birding mailing list that they were re-discovered on the Stevenson University campus. I hurried over, and sure enough, there they were on a meadow, among a flock of about a hundred or so Canada Geese. The view was distant but I got a few passable pictures.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose

Another oddity among this flock of Canada Geese is one with a white back-of-the-neck. It is just a Canada Goose with aberrant coloring, but I labeled it as “White-necked Goose”.

"White-necked Goose"

“White-necked Goose”

I could not get close to the Pink-footed Geese, or rather, I did not want to get too close to spook them, as there were many other birders watching them (in any case, I would not want to disturb them). The following are two of the best pictures I could get, the “White-necked Goose” is in fact in the background of both pictures.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese

I stayed around for a couple of hours, knowing full well that I may not see them again unless I go to Greenland or Iceland. But eventually I had to leave.

I stopped at Fort Armistead on the way home. In this rather severe winter, the Chesapeake Bay is full of ice floes. Where there was open water, waterfowl and gulls were floating or swimming around. A pair of Lesser Scaups were near the boat dock, allowing me to get a few close pictures.

Lesser Scaup (male)

Lesser Scaup (male)

Lesser Scaup (female)

Lesser Scaup (female)

For more on this trip, with more images of the geese and scaups, you may visit my website here (for storage reasons I do not include too many pictures on my blogs).

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Birds, near and far

Sometimes I take long trips (even long day trips) to go see birds and take pictures of them, such as my 400-mile day trip to Ocean City, Maryland.

But sometimes birds just come to me, like this Cooper’s Hawk. The other day when I went out check my mail, it suddenly flew to and perched on a tree right in my front yard! I held my breath and got out my camera. Luckily, it stayed for a few minutes and I was able to snap a few pictures of it. The light was fading but at such close range, I was able to capture some stunning details.

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

In the next picture, blown up to 100%, you can see the details:

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

So, sometimes all you need to be is in the right place at the right time, and sometimes that place may just be your home.

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A very “snowy” New Year’s Day

No, it actually didn’t snow, but this is an irruption year for Snowy Owls. So what do I do on New Year’s Day? Driving more than 400 miles and 7 hours, of course, to see the Snowy Owls!

After 3.5 hours of driving I arrived at Delaware Seashore State Park on this sunny and crispy first day of 2014. The day before, there were reports of Snowy Owls at a location in this park. Sure enough, there were people lined up along the Coastal Highway watching a large white bird on the sand dune — the Snowy Owl! However, because of the rather long distance from the highway to the bird, I could not get very good pictures at this time.

But I did make a trek to the beach. There, in the Atlantic Ocean, I could see Northern Gannets, gulls (several species), and Red-throated Loons and Surf Scoters, both were new life birds for me! It sure looked like my New Year got to a good start!

Red-throated Loon

Red-throated Loon

Surf Scoter

Surf Scoter

After some stopping at some places along the way, seeing Snow Geese, Redheads and Canvasbacks (both duck species) and other waterfowls, I decided to go back to the beach to get a closer look at the Snowy Owl.

And this time it paid off — after trekking rather laboriously over the soft sand for more than a mile, finally I spotted the owl (and some photographers) at a sand dune. The sun was setting, but the Snowy Owl was very cooperative and allowed us to get pretty close. I managed to take quite a few clear pictures of him (“him” would be right, this appeared to be a male bird).

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Satisfied, I headed back in the setting sun and chilly breeze. But it seemed that my day was not quite over yet — just then three Snow Buntings flew to the beach and stopped right in front of me. Unlike the Snowy Owl, which is irruptive, Snow Buntings are regular winter migrators found in the northern half of the United States (they spend the summer or breeding season in the Arctic). But it is a new bird for me nonetheless.

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

I still had more than 200 miles to go back home, but the roads did not look that long after these encounters somehow …

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