Category Archives: Birds


Broad-billed Hummingbird Sipping Nectar


Like a bee with a buzz with a twist like a top with a sweep with a lunge with a LOUD then stops, right there: Hovering; (Covering); Defending a ground that is Flower that is Food that is Air.

His beak is a lance his wings are a shout: Beware! Of me! Hummingbird!

All of an ounce of anger charges, headlong – Chases everyone away. Even the females of his kind. Sometimes, in a rage he will drive her down, to the dust and leave her spent. And fluttering. Aerodynamics sets the only limits. His right has no respite, has no bounds. Darts and dives and chitters. Intolerance is his nature, his nature, in a crowd? Never calm.

Herons and Egrets with great piercing bills; falcons with talons that crush; the terrible saw-toothed beaks of sea birds; the raking feet and spurs of the great birds of the ground – all of them strive against their own but almost always at a distance. They pretend. Noh drama of no-touch. Balinese shadow-play. And when the curtain falls? All grievances are over, and done with.

For Hummingbird, the size of a leaf the density of a folded pocket-handkerchief the stage is a World and the World is War. Black-chin puffs up the tiny feathers that give him his name into electric purple defiance. Broad-bill all sapphire and emerald brilliant (even his body glares). Broad-tail bringing up the rear – 3grams, no fear.

Only Magnificent Hummingbird ignores the worrying by all these others – by weight, and size, and the rumbling spread of his wings. His starlight-turquoise throat glittering in the leafy morning light, he alone owns peace.

So there it is: Size matters. I am reminded of that barroom adage (a barroom adage on the wing): Big guy knock you down, but a little guy will cut you!

Black-Chinned Hummingbird, Madera Canyon, Arizona

Mark Seth Lender reading Intolerance on Living on Earth (PRI):

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Field Note:
Madera Canyon, Arizona is famous for its great variety of hummingbirds – if you know exactly where to look. I had the good fortune to be guided by local expert Bill Forbes and the results were nothing short of spectacular. Bill designed and now manufactures a high-speed camera trigger called a Phototrap and with the aid of that device and his expertise in flash setups I was able to take the photographs you see here. The birds of course are stunningly beautiful and I was delighted by the sound of their wings. Less delightful (though they were remarkably tolerant of human presence) was their intolerance of each other. Almost every encounter between species and even among members of the same species resulted in conflict. Shawnee Riplog-Peterson is the keeper of the hummingbird house at the Sonora Desert Museum. She tells me that males will sometimes drive an adversary right into the ground – leaving them exhausted to the point where they are unable to fly – and that they will even do this with females of their own species. Why? Hard to say. Perhaps at up to 2000 wing-beats a minute, the energy requirements are so great that every found flower needs to be guarded like a treasure. Perhaps, with their brilliant scales and fierce dark eyes, the hummingbirds think themselves dragons. Or maybe they are dragons…

Magnificent Hummingbird, Madera Canyon, Arizona

Hummingbird Slideshow
Here’s a slideshow I made of a broad-billed male sipping nectar at a cactus flower. The sound track was recorded using a parabolic microphone, at the same time and place but contains, inevitably, the sounds of other hummingbirds, both wing sound and their high, rather angry calls.


Hummingbirds Humming
One last treat. Here is 12 minute long recording of hummingbirds feeding, hovering and alas, giving each other grief. Play for as long or as little as you like.

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Broad-billed Hummingbird in Flight, Madera Canyon, Arizona



Great Blue Heron Pair, Greeting

After years of searching, I found a large great blue heron rookery just off the Connecticut River with more than a dozen nests, and many herons. Over a period of four months I watched them build their nests and hatch their chicks and the chicks prosper and at last take flight on their own. It was wonderful to see, and as usual when I am in the field, I felt a deep sense of privilege. Rhapsody is based on that experience and its effect, like an ancient seal impressed in molten wax.


(C) 2013 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

The dead oaks spread against the sky like mouths, lips thin as a spindle, grey as their own demise. Dry and cracked and begging for rain though they stand in a pond of water, thirsty though they have drowned. And it is not rain that will come to them, that will purpose this long last stand of their being. Although, like rain, it will come from the clouds, and the color of clouds.

In the still air, in guttural blue plumage swirling and shuddering in grey come whispering rolling like fog, Great Blue Herons! And they glide and glide then pull, up straight, waving wide grey-blue arms, and all in slow motion. Then grasp the thin dead branches wingtips spread broad as a balance bar, the tightrope quavering in their light and thin-legged touch. And do not settle but stand tall now in salutation, bright bills up raised each toward the other, mouths open like branches, their necks reaching, Great Blue Herons, lovers never touching as if yearning like a thirst never quenched except in the liquid of the eyes.

For the Herons have no water, but neither have they brought fire. And in their mouths they bring only branches, to be woven like baskets, to hold and caress the Source of themselves. Oval. Perfect. In the shape of the World before it was born and blue as a pale blue sky. Patient and practiced, now until the shell breaks open, it will open like a flower to breathe and unfold the feathers like petals, Great Blue Heron emerging small and imperfect to become, the only real and perfect mirror of the Self. And so continue, until in Time, all this is taken, and Great Blue Herons pass from this place like a whisper in thin in blue in air.


Field Note:

Great Blue Heron Rookery

Great Blue Heron rookeries are frequently found in beaver ponds. The trees that drown as a result of the beaver’s enterprise provide perfect nest sites, sometimes two and three nests to the tree. But only ponds that are wide enough and deep enough to provide a sufficient separation from the shore – and thereby safety – will do. And such places are increasingly uncommon. The reason for the rarity is the great antipathy some of the human abutters feel toward the beavers. When the beavers construct their damns the humans are often faced with drowned lawns and water in their basements. Having built too close to streams, it is more convenient to blame the animals. The benefits – flood control, great diversity of wildlife, the pristine beauty of the pond (and the very source of great blue herons) – are ignored. Great blue herons are their own justification. But for us they beg a larger a question: What is the quality of human life without them?


Mark Seth Lender reading Rhapsody on Living on Earth (Public Radio International) :

Great Blue Heron Gliding

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Sound Bite

Great Blue Heron about to feed begging chicks

in the early morning a great blue heron rookery is filled with birdsong and the occasional basso profundo “Clunk!” of a bullfrog. But when the heron nests are crowded with hungry mouths and a parent is spotted en route with a crop full of food the rookery erupts with a primordial roar. I made the recording below in June at around 5:30 AM. Most of what you hear for the first minute and half is the chicks. Towards the end (at 1 minute 50 seconds) the deep throated Graaaahk! of an adult punctuates the rattling voices of her offspring. Close your eyes and perhaps like me you will imagine dinosaurs, plodding through a swamp, or grazing the salt marsh adjacent some warm inland sea. In fact there were dinosaurs on this very spot. And what we are listening to may not be that different from what they heard 100 million years ago of a summer morning.

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Farthest North #5: Eternity

Farthest North, Log 5: Eternity Glacier

© 2013 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

Southbound along the Greenland coast. The morning fog clears slowly, and then its mountains and pinnacles and eskers and peaks all along the way. Upon the vast snow fields and below the hanging glaciers the white is raked with dark rills, the tracks of many small avalanches (and some not so small). The peaks run upwards of two thousand meters, small as mountains go, but because they start at the sea they have the aspect of a range many times that high. At the mouth of a fjord we drop anchor again, and take to the small boats.

This is Evidghedsfjorden, “Eternity Fjord.” At the apex, an aging glacier, all blue ice fractured and crevassed in vertical lines 50, 60 meters overhead. And threatening to cleave away. The resident flock of Black-legged Kittiwake own the floating ice. They stand on the small glassy flows and only take off when you are so close you can read the bright of their jet black eyes. On the narrow shore and the dark bare cliffs that close in on the glacier from either side, it is the Glaucous Gulls that rule. Many are in that halfway plumage of summer molt, mottled brown and creamy white. But a distance it is more their pale pink legs that set them apart from the Kittiwakes. In flight, against the glacier’s face and in the air above it they both provide scale which otherwise is almost impossible to judge. Not very big as glaciers go it is plenty big enough.

Mike Beedell is at the Zodiac’s helm. He is a nature photographer’s photographer, the kind of guy who will sit there eaten by bugs or freezing his tail off for the sake of a Decisive Moment He knows wildlife and its landscape with an intimacy only decades of experience can buy, and easily points out where to look, what we are looking at, and always lines up for the best shots. With all, he keeps a safe distance. If one of those bad boys decides to break away you want open water between you and where it drives down, and plenty of it. Fjords run deep, and it’s a long, long way to the bottom.

Stresses in the ice snap like gunshots. Ba-BAM! BAM!

Nothing happens (You relax thinking “False Alarm”)

Without warning a chunk lets go…

It hits the water in fragments, not with a splash but concussion. The slurry of ice that follows goes on and on. It sounds like running water. There is that here too, glacier-fed waterfalls that hiss all the way down the worn granite faces between ice and sea. An eider duck flies over the glacier’s fragmented white top. We must have startled him up, I did not see from where. A big bird, against this landscape he is very small. And again, that sense of scale and how tiny we are. Glacier; Arctic; Greenland; I can’t get used to it, have to keep reminding myself of the reality of the place. Well the place is real enough. The reality of me – here –that will take time and reflection.

Special thanks are due to Jillian Dickens of Adventure Canada and without whom none of this would have taken place.


Male Alligator Bellowing


© 2013 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

Spring clings to the Spanish moss. Comes up from the swamp in sheaves of mist. It brings the nesting herons home. And raises the blood in an ancient’s bones.
Breaking out.
Wake up from the wintery mud where they sleep alone. Slide into that swamp they call their own. They stretch, halfway out of the water and expand their throats like over-stuffed pockets. And all around that water starts to dance. Like spit on a griddle. Like ants in your pants. Like boiling oil. It doesn’t have a choice – the bigger the gator the deeper the voice.
But down where the dancing starts it’s only silence humans can hear. I know. I’ve ducked my head below where a person ought not to go, and listened: The only thing that greets your ears is the scrape and the rake of alligator toes. Only another gator knows what all that dancing means…
She hears (what you can only see) and moves on over to the Alligator of Her Dreams.
Ignited by her cold-blooded heat he burns, and bellows all the more. Her emotions bulletproof, close to the vest, but when all is said and done she leans her head upon the leather-studded back above his massive chest. Completely still. You can barely see her breathe, or him.
Possession is a two-way street when all the lovers are armed to the teeth!


Field Note
The St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park at 100 years of age has a name too old to change even though, nothing Prada, no Gucci boots find their origins here. They never did. There is instead a large and well cared for collection of rare reptiles and a gem of a swamp, the only one left in the entire area. Not only alligators abound but hundreds and hundreds of nesting egrets, herons, storks and even roseate spoonbills. That swamp is their moat, and the gators are the posted guards. Nest robbers read them like a neon sign:

Trespassers will be eaten!

While true it is also too much the Hollywood version. In the movies. On TV. And consequently in our nightmare dreams. We think we know Al the Gator but we don’t. His hunger portrayed as ravenous is only occasional. His temperament quite variable. This I say from personal experience.
You can turn your back on the gator St. Augustine’s calls Bob. Sipowitz? Not so much. And both of them know their names. Each will slowly swing his head around and look at you if you call to them. And after a while, you will see clearly that each face is unique and identifiable. Which leads to the presumption that the alligators also recognize and distinguish their individual selves and quite likely us one from the other.

Alligators keep a military order. The penalty for Little Gator eating what Gig Gator believes to be his can a crushed head. Likewise the snowy egret who ventures incautiously close to water ends badly. Yet Alligators, male and female, cold blooded though they be, have a tender heart. Once they choose each other they are loyal and gentle. This in their own terms. Not like us. And not so different as we might have thought.

If you plan to visit St. Augustine bring a camera. A telephoto lens (between at least 300 MM up to 500 MM) plus a good medium zoom like the Canon 70-200 would be the ideal combination. However, the birds are close enough – and the gators big enough – that consumer cameras are sufficient for most people. Spring is an exceptionally good time for birders as the plumages are spectacular, the behavior rich, and baby birds loud and plentiful. Not to mention, the gators will be bellowing.

Sound Bites

Here’s what bellowing alligators sound like, up close and personal:

Alligators BELLOWING (MONO – Short #3

Mark Seth Lender reading Bellows on Living on Earth(PRI)


Alligator Gallery

Low Rent High Price

Roseate Spoonbills Compete for a Perch

The Alligator Farm in St. Augustine, Florida has its very own gator-filled swamp. In spring that swamp is also home to as many as 600 pairs of nesting egrets, herons, wood storks and roseate spoonbills. The gators keep the birds and their nests safe from a host of predators but, there is a price to be paid.

Low Rent high Price

Birds of Many Feathers weave and dance and settle in to guard their fragile eggs. All these nests: of many shapes fastened to branches thick and thin high and low. Hidden in the tropical green of cypress. Sequestered in the cup-shaped pockets where palm fronds join their prehistoric trunks. In plain sight upon the topgallant of a great live oak where only the widest wings set sail, or touch down. The swamp below is a remnant, reduced to a vanishing point reptilian and dark. The canopy above is where the wealth resides, shimmering like the many-colored light of planets and stars – Birds among alligators, by the hundreds of pairs! Danger is the rent. When rent is due, there will be no partial payments made.
Soft soft silent s-curve of tail in sans serif lower case, only a ripple for a wake. Only eyes and nostrils show, no more remarked than a shelf of water-worn stones when water is low.
Ancient grace.
Drifts at the gate.
Waits… waits… waits…
Snowy Egret dips too careless and too close, wingtips clipping water. Better to thirst. Better heat than trip those golden feet to cool in the sulfurous spring where an ancient device lies ready to be sprung… All is undone.
Roseate Spoonbill on wings hued of sunrise, so confident in color and in form, the clapping bill a rounded gentleness, glides down to an untimely end. Jaws like vice grips, clamped in that unchanging Alligator grin.
Bobcat and Raccoon will not set foot here. Nor Climbing Possum, Creeping Snake. Every would-be robber of the nest fears the cut Alligator takes. Thus Great Egret finds repose here, Wood Stork and Spoonbill find retreat. Safe from the thieves they fear the most dear, while the Doorman only charges what he eats. Symbiosis by the bite dear, wing beat by wing beat

When the rent is due...


To hear Mark Seth Lender reading Low Rent High Price on Living on Earth (PRI) please click the player below:

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Snowy Egret

Learn the “Backstory” of Low Rent High Price. Listen to an interview of Mark Seth Lender by Living on Earth Senior Editor Eileen Bolinsky

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