Posted tagged ‘rare’

LOST

January 30, 2013

Perhaps there was a violent storm raging in the northern Pacific. Perhaps the storm came up suddenly, while the little bird was in flight, starting its migration from Kamchatka to Cambodia. Perhaps the creature became separated from a flock and flew down the Alaska and British Columbia coast instead of the northern Asian coast. Perhaps it was exhausted and a bit desperate. We’ll never know.

All we know is that one Red-flanked Bluetail, entering its own personal Twilight Zone, ended up alone in the winter drizzle of a Vancouver, British Columbia, park. An observant person sketched the bird’s coloration and showed the sketch to an expert, and the unusual visitation was confirmed. This tiny bird of the Russian taiga decided to make the best of its wintering grounds, and began daily circling a little territory under the cedars, which included a childen’s playground, two picnic shelters, and scattered logs and brushy islands where it could perch.

Red-Flanked_Bluetail-30-2Showing its identifying colors, this Red-flanked Bluetail is a hemisphere away from its kind

Meanwhile, its arrival spurred a sensation, spread at Facebook and Twitter speed, with birders flocking from all over North America, arriving by plane and car and SkyTrain and on foot, to experience the wonder of this little creature. Some days, there were 60 people at once. The Bluetail was pretty much unperturbed by its newfound celebrity, and went about its rounds regularly, the people following it like disciples following a mystic.

We drove the 220 miles to Vancouver to see the Red-flanked Bluetail on a recent Sunday. At the Canadian border,  the guard asked me the name of the bird when I told him we were going to see a specific bird, and I answered correctly (I think he was trying to trip me up). He let us through, mentioning that they had experienced a lot of people coming north to see it. We drove through busy neighborhoods and ended up in the community of New Westminster, where we entered Queen’s Park. We parked our car, then a local dog walker pointed the way to a small cluster of birders, and we joined them and almost immediately saw the target bird. During the two hours of our visit, there were friendly local Canadians, as well as a man from Georgia and another man from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. One young teen was perhaps the best birder there, with acute hearing and vision and a passion for birds that can lead to a life-long obsession.

Red-Flanked_Bluetail-20The Bluetail constantly twitched its tail, like some of the closely related flycatchers

Later, we ventured to a neighborhood of old homes in Vancouver, where we wandered down a back alley and trained our binoculars on a thicket in a small yard, where there was another rarity: a Brambling. This one had been reported by a kindly homeowner who fed the birds and noticed a strange one among the regular Golden-crowned Sparrows and House Finches. The Brambling is also from Eurasia, and is a bit more common than the Bluetail (which had last been seen on one of the Channel Islands off Los Angeles).

Still another wanderer, a Citrine Wagtail, was observed for a couple of months on Vancouver Island, beginning in November and ending with its disappearance in January. I didn’t get to see that one, but it was as rare as the Red-flanked Bluetail and also attracted human observers from all over North America.

We can all feel sorry for these lost little souls, so far from their kind and their familiar surroundings. Yet we can also imagine them as castaways, trying to keep life going when the going has gotten rough. Sometimes people have been stranded on remote islands by a storm, and they try to make the best of it. Birds can end up the same way, and sometimes evolution can lead to a whole new line of colorful creatures in an unexpected place.

Carry on, brave little Bluetail. I hope you make it home.

I don’t have the ears or eyes or passion to be a great birder, but I admire those who are. One of my favorite movies of all time is the gentle comedy/drama The Big Year, which follows several birders traveling all over the country trying to see as many different kinds of birds as they can in one year. It stars Steve Martin and Jack Black. Both are great in the film, and play the roles with an uncharacteristic laid back charm.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

May 13, 2008 Mystery of the Misplaced Trilliums

May 26, 2008

This is a tale of that beloved wildflower family, the Trilliums.  Several years ago, while I was jogging along a floodplain trail in Battle Creek, Michigan, I noticed some pink flowers off to the side of the path.  Even without my standard issue baby boomer lineless bifocals, I could see that these blossoms were trilliums–those beautiful Midwestern spring wildflowers that start out as pure white, then fade through stages of pink into deep magenta.  Then I spotted a second variety of trillium–a yellow toadshade with leaves patterned in light and deep shades of green–that I had never seen before.  After getting off the trail, I drove back to my in-law’s home, where my wife and I were staying, then told my story and brought back reinforcements–my wife and her parents.  Together we found two more species of trilliums in the same vicinity.

Three years later, I’m back in Battle Creek, inhaling the rich aroma of corn flakes cooking at the Kelloggs factory.  It is the same time of year as before–that wonderful time in early May when Michigan reawakens from its long winter sleep in shades of bluebirds and blue skies and yellow warblers and green oak leaves newly emerging.  The same bunch, plus my mother, walked out to the trillium trail to see if the forest was as alive with trilliums as  it had been before.  It was!  We saw the same species as previously, plus we noticed enough variation that we felt there was probably some hybridizing going on among these related species.

Now for the mystery: why are these trilliums here?.  They are growing in a floodplain forest that includes such flood-loving woody species as Sycamore, Hackberry, Silver Maple, Cottonwood, Poison Ivy, and Box Elder.  When we looked at the range maps for the trillium species we identified, it appears that all could be here on their own, without any help from wildflower gardeners.  And some of these species seem to be little-known, except among botanists, because they grow in formidable habitats (as in, “watch for poison ivy!”).  But they are growing in a linear strip perhaps 20 feet wide, paralleling the trail for about 200 yards, and just off the mowed portion of trail.  The thing is, I can’t find a single trillium anywhere else along the trail.  Yet these trilliums are thriving on their own in this one location.  Were they planted as a garden club project?  Is this just the last surviving patch of the native spring flora?  I wish I had a botanist’s 911 number that I could call to help with this emergency!

The photographs below represent my best from about two hours of photography.  I used a digital SLR at ISO 400 (to help with a wind problem) and a ball-head tripod for all these shots.  In addition, I also variously used a 100mm macro lens, a 24-105mm zoom lens, a polarizing filter, and a diffusion screen to cut contrast on these sunny days.  And Adobe Bridge and Photoshop to clean up the leaves and petals.  You will notice that for some frames, I wanted every detail to be tack-sharp; for other pictures, only I wanted only the focal point to be sharp.

Like many originally Midwestern nature photographers, I started out my photography by photographing wildflowers, and I still return to the subject every year with renewed passion.  In the last decade, nature photography has fallen severely out-of-fashion, as the sophisticated crowd has moved on to European and exotic travel (think of traditional National Geographic portrayals of unfamiliar people) and still-life photography as being the oh-so-trendy subjects.  Even in outdoor magazines such as National Geographic Adventure, Outside, and Audubon, photography that does not include people is considered too static–as if readers don’t have the imagination or creativity to see themselves in a wild scene.  I think this parallels American alienation from nature.  Many people call themselves environmentalists or love action sports in wild places–but few have developed a deep love of the very elements of those places.  Environmentalists too often think in abstractions and adventure sports enthusiasts too often look at wilderness as a challenging outdoor gym.  I prefer to move through the forest, camera in hand, with a sense of wonder at all that surrounds me.  And if that leaves me hopelessly unfashionable, so be it.

 

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with caption.