Saturday, February 28, 2009

Scenes from the Macro-World - "Winter dies into the spring..."

Winter dies into the spring, to be born again in the autumn.
- Marche Blumenberg

photograph © 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Friday, February 27, 2009

Winter Visitors - Loons, Grebes, and Geese

And here we are, the final installment of my look at our visiting Winter waterfowl. We're done with ducks, and now it's time to look at the rest. We get visited by Common Loons, Horned, Eared, and Pied-Bill Grebes (although I only have pictures of Horned Grebes), and three subspecies of geese - Canada Geese, Brants, and Snow Geese.

We do have both Eared and Pied-Bill Grebes here in Newport, but Eared Grebes aren't that populous, and Pied-Bills are shy and live up to their nickname of "Sinking Pete" - when they see you, they just drop under the water. But we get lots of Horned Grebes. This is what they look like in their drab Winter plumage.

And this is what they look like in the Spring when they molt into their breeding plumage. A pretty dramatic change, yes? It's too bad they don't make the change until late March and early April; that get-up would be perfect for Mardi Gras!

This is what a Common Loon looks like in Winter, when they leave the lakes and the ponds of the upper Midwest and northern New England for the salt waters off the New England and Mid-Atlantic coast. Not only do they lose the dramatic black and white plumage, they also don't let out with their characteristic lunatic laugh while they're here.

But in mid to late March they start molting and morphing into the dramatic black and white breeding plumage that is characteristic of them. Soon after reaching full breeding plumage they leave us and go back to the northern fresh waters.

And at last we come to geese. This is a Snow Goose. Now normally, Snow Geese are all white with the orange bill. But this is what is known as a Blue Morph, aka Gray Phase, Snow Goose. I've told you about my literal "wild goose chase" after the flock of white Snow Geese who are wintering here. This blue Morph is the only Snow Goose I've found all winter, and it was hanging out with a huge flock of Canada Geese.

This is another kind of goose, called a Brant. They can be mistaken for undersized Canada Geese, especially since they tend to mingle with larger flocks of Canada, but when you get closer you can see the difference - the white ring around the neck rather than the Canada's white chinstrap, and the very different distribution of the white, gray, and black areas of plumage, not to mention the smaller size.

Which brings us to the ubiquitous Canada Goose, without whom it just wouldn't be Winter in Newport. They are EVERYWHERE! They form great rafts on open water, and they cover extensive lawns on land, munching the grass and leaving a legacy of goosey turds in their wake. People with large lawns have taken to using cut out and staked Coyote silhouettes strategically placed in an effort to scare them away. But Canada Geese aren't anywhere near as stupid as their domestic cousins, and they soon figure out the Coyotes are fake and just ignore them. And of course there's no getting away from the characteristic "honk", especially when you have roughly 50 to 100 of them all honking at once!

Interestingly enough, not all of our Canada Geese leave in the Spring. There are some who stay all year and breed here, mostly down around Gooseneck Cove. Here's a happy family out for a stroll along Ocean Drive back in July of 2006.

I'll leave you with this shot of a Canada Goose in flight out over the Atlantic Ocean off the Cliff Walk. these birds may be big and clunky and look awkward as all get-out on land, but in the air they're poetry in motion!

And that ends my survey of the waterfowl who winter in Newport. I hope you've enjoyed the tour!

© 2006, 2008 & 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Theme Thursday - Toy

So what exactly is a toy? Personally, I like Wikipedia's definition:
A toy is an object used in play. Toys are usually associated with children and pets, but it is not unusual for adult humans and some non-domesticated animals to play with toys. Many items are manufactured to serve as toys, but items produced for other purposes can also be used as toys. A child may pick up a household item and 'fly' it around pretending that it is an airplane, or an animal might play with a pinecone by batting at it, biting it, chasing it, or by throwing it up in the air. Some toys are produced primarily as collector's items and are not intended to be played with.
I like that definition because it lets me consider anything I "play" with a toy. For instance...

The Guy Noir bobble-head fits the traditional definition of a toy; it was manufactured specifically to provide amusement. And while the teakwood elephant may be considered an objet d'art, in some places in the world, say India, this would be a child's toy.

This object also fits the traditional definition of a toy - a hand-held electronic game of Solitaire. Heh, heh! This is my version of worry beads, something to take my mind off whatever I'm working on that has my mind racing out of control, my version of assuming the lotus position and intoning "Aaaaaaauuuuuummmm." [Note: Does anyone actually play solitaire with real cards any more?]

So let's travel a little away from the traditional definition. This is my collection of flutes. They were made to be played in professional musician activities. Ah, but there's that word "play"! And certainly I play with these flutes as often as I play on them.

And of course the same thing applies to my collection of drums; play is definitely a factor here as well.

So now let's move way away from the traditional definition of the term. Here's my camera, a Canon PowerShot S5 IS; as my mother would have warned me had I picked up something like this when I was a kid: "Be careful with that! That's not a toy." This is a moderately expensive piece of equipment, designed to take professional-quality photographs. But for me, photography is as much play as work. I enjoy playing with it as often as possible, and when I first got it it was my "new toy".

And just to prove the point, my friend Bob (actually Elizabeth, but she was the youngest of a family of all girls, and her father had really longed for a boy) caught me "playing" with two of my then new toys: the camera and the Raynox DCR-2020PRO telephoto lens attached to it. The picture was taken this time last year.

And of course, all of us are here today because we all own one of these "toys." And oh, how we play!

And just to top all this off, how about a little blast from the past? I loved Lene Lovich; I think I have all her albums (yup, on vinyl) here. And of course her song "New Toy" definitely fits today's theme. Enjoy!

Okay, now go play with your toys and have fun!

© 2008 & 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger
portrait of the artist @ work © 2008 by Elizabeth Evans

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Winter Visitors - More Mergansers

The last installment of Winter Visitors - a photo essay on Loons, Grebes, and Geese, will have to wait until Friday. I was out for a bit today chasing rumors of Common Mergansers on the North Pond and actually managed to get shots of Hooded and Common Mergansers, and I wanted to share those while the memory of Mergansers is still fresh in your mind. Plus I'm kinda busy getting tomorrow's Theme Thursday post put together. So without further ado, here are today's finds.

I was standing on Green End Ave. cursing with frustration as this huge raft of Common Mergansers swam right out of range into the sun glare, when I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. When I turned my head, there was this little cutie, a male Hooded Merganser. He swam by as if I wasn't there; he may not have even noticed me. He was pretty far out, but luckily still within range of my telephoto lens. I got lucky!

Farther down North Pond where the dam separates it from Easton's Pond, I came across a small flock of Hoodies, about 5 males and 4 females. Unfortunately they caught sight of me before I could get a decent sight-line on them. But fortunately, I managed to get a shot of them in the air when they took off, and this female Hoodie turned out very well indeed.

And of course, the purpose of today's outing was to get some decent shots of Common Mergansers; males preferably, since I already have a very good shot of a female. As luck would have it, rumor was right and there was a sizeable raft of them out on the North Pond. But I swear they knew I was hanging around, and kept shifting into the sun glare and kept out of range. I'd go get out of sight for a while, and through the brambles and fragmites lining the shore I'd see them shift and start heading back up toward Green End Ave., where I could get a clear shot of them. But by the time I'd get back up there, they'd shift back out of the way again. So I gave up and headed down Aquidneck Ave. to go check out the dam between North Pond and Easton's Pond. On the way down the road I kept checking through the trees and underbrush, and as luck would have it, at one point I actually found a group of males on my side of the pond. I managed to get some shots, and this one below was the best of the lot. The light wasn't the best at this point, and I had to shoot through underbrush, but I finally got at least a recognizable shot of male Common Mergansers in classic profile.

Toys tomorrow, and the rest of our Winter waterfowl on Friday. Don't touch that dial!

© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Winter Visitors - Mergansers

Mergansers have their own subfamily (Merginae) among the larger duck family. They're built slimmer, more streamlined, they have narrow beaks with serrated mandibles (the better to chew fish with) rather than the usual duckbill, and... they don't quack. They make grunting or croaking sounds, but they don't quack. Go figure.

I love Mergansers because they look so elegant gliding across the water. And they're just so exotic-looking. The crests on the male Hooded Mergansers are like nothing else. These are the elite socialites of the duck world; when I see them I think of sequined gowns and dry martinis. So cool!

This is a female Common Merganser swimming with the Mallards on Gooseneck Cove. I've never been able to get a shot of a male Common, and they're the really elegant ones. Mergansers are people-shy generally, but Common and Hooded Mergansers seem to be the shyest, and they're very hard to photograph.

This is a female Hooded Merganser on Easton's Pond. We'll be looking at a whole flock of Hoodies at the end of this post, but I had to include this lone female shot because this is the closest I've ever been able to get to a Hoodie, male or female, so I'm fond of the shot.

This is a pair of male Red-Fronted Mergansers. Red-Fronts are the most common of the Merganser family in the Newport area; they're everywhere - in Newport Harbor (where this shot was taken), in the ocean off the Cliff Walk and Ocean Drive, in Narragansett Bay, and even on Gooseneck Cove.

And this is a female Red-Fronted Merganser. Same punk haircut, different colors. I'm more likely to bump into a female in certain areas, like here on Gooseneck Cove, whereas I see more males in Newport Harbor. On the ocean waters they're about even. I suspect that they like to form stag groups out of breeding season.

And speaking of breeding season, we now come to the central tale of today's post. Last March I was on the Cliff Walk, having been on a futile chase after some Harlequins. I figured I'd wasted an afternoon and was heading home. Just after I'd come out of the tunnel under Sheep Point and was heading around the little half-moon bay to the tunnel under the Chinese Tea House, I heard some odd noises, and looking down to the water, I saw the oddest sight. There were two Red-Fronted Merganser couples on the water, and the males were definitely making some strange moves. What I had done was stumble across a Merganser courting ritual, and the males were strutting their stuff before the females!

You know those fake birds that you perch on the lip of a water glass and it goes into that dipping motion? That's what this move looked like, although they were less smooth about it, making fast, jerky pecks at the water with their necks stiff.

The Merganser Limbo - How low can you go! how low can you go!

By the way, those gawping beaks weren't producing any more sound than an occasional croak. I guess the gaping maw is yet another Merganser love-lorn look.

"I'll take the high road, and you take the low road, and I'll get to Scotland afore ye!" I guess these guys were fans of Robbie Burrrrns.

"Stayin' aliiiiiiive!" What moves! John Travolta, eat your heart out. And just look at the adoring babes looking on; looks like nobody's going home alone after this dance.

Okay, after all that frenzied dancng, it's time to slow things down and cool off. So I'll leave you with this nice Autumnal shot of a flock of Hooded Mergansers on Gooseneck Cove, taken in November of 2005.

© 2005 - 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Monday, February 23, 2009

Winter Visitors - Saltwater Ducks

Yesterday I showed you freshwater ducks. Today we'll look at saltwater ducks. But first I'd better explain something. The "freshwater" ducks from yesterday can often be found on salt water as well; Mallards are everywhere, for instance. But they are found primarily on fresh water; I've never seen Teal or Ruddy Ducks, for example, floating on anything but fresh water. Today's ducks operate under the same caveat; some of these will be found on both salt and fresh water (American Blacks and Scaup) but all of these will be found primarily on salt water. Onward!

This is a male Bufflehead. I love these little guys. They're very small and very active, and they move so fast they leave a wake. They often gather in large rafts of 50 or more birds, and when they're together like that they're always playing!

These are Harlequin ducks, the male in the foreground and the female in the background. Aren't the male's colors and markings fantastic? These guys are almost as small as Buffleheads and just as playful, especially when they gather in large rafts out on open water.

This is a male Goldeneye. They're about the same size as Harlequins, but they're a lot less gregarious than Harlequins or Buffleheads. I've never seen rafts of them, and I think the largest group of them I've ever seen was three males off Sheep Point (along Newport's Cliff Walk) four years ago. You can see why they're called Goldeneyes!

A male Greater Scaup. These guys can be found in large rafts on open salt water, and individually on freshwater ponds, etc. They're fairly people-shy and stand well off in your presence, but if you're still long enough they'll come at least within telephoto range.

American Black ducks. These are nearly as ubiquitous as Mallards. In fact, they're the same size, hang out with Mallards, and male Mallards often breed with American Black females. So you can imagine the identification issues you can run into in the offspring. But Blacks hang out more often on salt water than Mallards, and actually like to hang out on beaches.

A male Common Eider. Isn't that the oddest beak you've ever seen? These are big birds, not quite Goose size, more the same size as Loons, but definitely bigger than any of the other ducks. Eiders are purely saltwater ducks, and cold saltwater at that. They've been hunted for millennia both here and in Europe for their down (as in eiderdown quilts, pillows, etc.), which is especially adapted to protect them from arctic waters.

This is a female Common Eider. Same weird bill as the male. And look at the patterning on the feathers! These are truly gorgeous birds.

And last but not least, here's a trio of male Ring-Necked ducks. I'm still trying to figure out the name; I've never seen a ring on their necks, but those bills are certainly ringed. And like all the other ducks who winter here, their colors and markings a truly beautiful.

And there are our saltwater ducks. Next will be Mergansers, who although they are ducks, are a different family from the others. And I have a great series of shots of Red-fronted Merganser males going into their mating dance in front of their mates that I captured last Spring that I just have to include. Until then!

© 2006, 2008. and 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Winter Visitors - Freshwater Ducks

We get a pretty exotic mix of waterfowl wintering in the Newport area. Ducks, geese, loons, grebes... It's quite the United Nations of birds around here. So I thought I'd do a brief series of posts about our Winter visitors, starting with the freshwater ducks (and believe me, there's a greater diversity than I'm showing here; these are just the ones I've managed to photograph myself).

From a distance people will often mistake the Green-Winged Teal for an undersized Mallard. But when you actually get close enough, there's a big difference. Aside from the smaller size, the Teal also has a greater variety of color and markings than the Mallard. Of courese, the other way to tell the difference is that around people the Mallards will come right up and cadge a handout, while Teal are content to observe from a distance.

Ruddy Ducks are very small and seem to spend an awful lot of time asleep with their heads tucked under their wings. Have you ever noticed that ducks actually seem to move around from place to place on the water while asleep? Well, Ruddies are masters at it. Of course. come Spring they get a little more active.

Now this fellah is very interesting. A casual glance would ID him as a Mallard, but there's enough odd about him that you'd do a slow take. Yup, that beak is blue. And there's that weird pointy tail. and something's just not exactly right about the colors. That's because this isn't a Mallard; or at least he's not all Mallard. He is, in fact, a Mallard-Northern Pintail hybrid. We call him Blue Beak, and he's been hanging out on Gooseneck Cove the last couple of Winters.

See, here's Blue Beak with a normal Mallard male. Now you can see the actual difference. And it turns out that there are a lot of Mallard mixes with other duck species; Mallards really are terribly promiscuous, and mate outside their species almost as often as they stick to their own kind. It's no coincidence that Mallards are the direct ancestors of the domestic duck.

And speaking of Mallards, in Newport in the Winter they're ubiquitous. Here is a nice Mallard group portrait on the shores of Gooseneck Cove.

Next time we'll look at saltwater ducks (excluding Mergansers).

© 2006, 2008, and 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Sights Seen on Saturday

I've been on a quest to find a phantom flock of Snow Geese for a while now. One person told me they were on Brenton Cove, so that's where I went last week (hence the Brenton Cove shot in my Coves post). They weren't there. This week someone else told me no, no, no, the geese were in the fields at Hammersmith Farm (which is next door to Brenton Cove). So that's where I went today. Still no Snow Geese, but I did spot some other interesting things.

Last October I did a photo shoot in Battery Belton, an abandoned gun battery on the grounds of Fort Adams, and posted a photo essay on it for an "urban decay" group on Well, Fort Adams is right next door to Hammersmith Farm, so while on my wild goose chase I passed by Battery Belton again.

And going up close, I saw this pillbox/observation post, which I totally missed last Fall. And what's worse about missing it is that it's outside the fence surrounding the battery proper. So this time I got some shots.

As you can see, somebody's been using this as a bit of a hideaway. I suspect it's fishermen using it as a place to picnic out of the hot sun in Summer. The Narragansett Bay is about 100 yards out that window, and that stretch of shoreline is a very popular fishing spot.

On the way back to town I passed this ram in Hammersmith Farm. I saw him on the way in, but he ignored me then, being preoccupied; he was rump up and snout down chowing on the grass. But when I came back he was up and alert. I sear he saw the camera and knew what it was for, because he immediately started posing. This shot and the shot below are the best of the session.

Ah! Another productive Saturday!

© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Friday, February 20, 2009

Ghosts of Newport Past - Still In the Works

For those of you who might be wondering where the promised series on Newport's graveyards is - it's a-comin'! There's just so much material to collate, which is my euphamistic way of saying I've taken a boatload of graveyard and gravestone pictures over the years and I'm still trying to get them organized. In the meantime, I'll let you gaze at this gorgeous angel from the gravestone of Mary Gibbs in Trinity Episcopal's churchyard.

© 2008 & 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Theme Thursday - Library

I've spent my life in libraries. I'm a book-aholic, and as you've seen from some of my photo essays here, I have a decent personal library. But public libraries offer a wider range of reading, and they're a great place to hang out, too. Plus nowadays you can check out CDs and DVDs, and even work on computers; sometimes an idea hits me while I'm out walking, and if the library is closer than my home, I go there and hop on Google to look something up.
The best of my education has come from the public library... my tuition fee is a bus fare and once in a while, five cents a day for an overdue book. You don't need to know very much to start with, if you know the way to the public library.
~Lesley Conger
So here's a tour of libraries here in Newport. Yes, we're not a very big town but I did use the plural. You'll see why below.

This is the Redwood Library and Athenaeum. It's the oldest lending library in America, and the oldest library building in continuous use in the country. It was founded in 1747 by Abraham Redwood and 46 of his friends and associates. Although it's not free - there's a yearly membership fee - it is open to membership to anyone, thus keeping it in the "public library" category.

Here's a different angle shot, showing off more of the architecture. The architect was Peter Harrison, a native-born American architect who introduced the classical style to the colonies. He also designed Newport's Touro Synagogue as well as Boston's King's Chapel and Christ Church in Cambridge, MA.

This is an earlier Newport public library building - known as the Newport People's Library (some of the books in the current library still have that stamp on them). It's right next door to the current public library; now it serves as the offices of several city departments.

And now I give you - today's Newport Public Library!
This is the view from up the hill behind the library, viewing the parking lot entrance. The block to the left in the picture is the original building. In 1999 and 2000 the entrance area and the block to the right was added; the library desperately needed to expand. Part of the expansion was a thoroughly up-to-date computer lab, as well as expanded public meeting rooms on the ground floor (you're actually looking at the second floor from this side - the building is on a hillside - which is the main level).

This is the Spring St. entrance to the library. I've always loved the lines of this architecture, and using a wide-angle lens to get this shot exaggerated the line very nicely!

Ah! Here we are! The whole point of having a library, after all: Books! This is part of the fiction section, which runs around the outer wall of the adult and reference areas.

And more books. This is looking down one of the aisles in adult non-fiction to the reference section. Books, books, books and more books! What more could a book-aholic need!

© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger