Photo Essay

Wild Birds I Have Come to Know and Love

sunset eyes

I have always held a deep fascination for wildlife. Since I was very young they have held me under their spell.

I really have no favorites. Each species has their place and purpose which they serve so incredibly well. I often wonder how migrating birds manage to return to that tiny little bit of bush in the middle of nowhere, or in the midst of a huge city to that tree where they fledged the summer before.

Even more intriguing to me is the case of a pair of horned grebes who nested on our pond for three summers in a row. They don`t fly in together.. that would be so much easier. Instead, they meet each other there. The male arrives first, usually.. and in a few days the female joins him. I have witnessed this three years in sequence and it never failed to impress me.

Obviously there must have been some type of arrangement happening there.. or was it just perchance? I don`t know, but it was an incredible strike of good fortune for me that they chose my pond, in the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles away from where they winter each year.

This year the male grebe arrived in May, as usual. But the female did not. He waited for two weeks, eagerly, patiently, and finally with an obvious realization in his gaze that he would be the only one to arrive at their meeting place this year. My heart felt so heavy for him. Having lost my husband earlier in the year I knew how devastating it must be for him. I had such high hopes for their future this summer and the promise of a good hatch and kept checking for her arrival. But it was not to be. And so he left, no doubt to join others in the area and carry on as birds do.

The grebes are the birds I had become most familiar with, having had the privilege of observing them for three summers in a row and the honor of gaining their trust. They gave me so many wonderful photo opportunities and I am so grateful to them for that. Their images are my only lasting contact with them. I doubt the male will return, but will not give up hope.. maybe, just maybe in time he or one of his young will return to the pond.

Come winter the snowy owls return to the area in good numbers. They have a tendency to love power poles, especially those situated along a lonely country road beside the open fields where mice reside and become their main source of food.

For the last three winters I have had the opportunity to become acquainted with these incredible birds. Last winter there were four of them situated not far from where I live. I would head out in the mornings, maybe once or twice a week, in search of them. Usually they were there, perched on a power pole keeping a keen eye out for a mouse that might be travelling far down a field.

They became very tolerant of my presence. I would park a fair distance away, grab my camera with the long zoom and quietly hike over towards them. Often it was very cold and windy.. that`s the best time to find them. So getting a capture was a challenge, but well worth a bit of frost bite. One in particular, a large male whom I called Big Boy, became like a friend to me. I just fell in love with him. He had such a sweet way about him and would watch me walk ever so slowly towards him.. then just as I was about to lift up the camera and try to zoom in on that perfect pose.. he had to turn his head! How many times that happened I won`t try to count, but it was exasperating. They are always on the lookout for food, after all it`s winter and even an owl has to eat :) Between Big Boy, Miss Uppity and a couple other very charming and beautiful snowys I got a lot of shots that I treasure. Mainly I treasure them for the memories. The moments spent communicating silently with a creature that is known to be very evasive and leery of man are incredibly exciting and unique. It was hard work holding up that zoom lens, and it quickly begins to weigh a ton. Getting and keeping a good focus on these birds in temps as low as -30 C is a real challenge. But I wasn`t going to let an opportunity like that pass me by and I had a toasty warm truck waiting for me.

It`s moments like this that make this fascination with wild birds so well worth the effort. Even as I write this that feeling encompasses me.. and I cannot wait for their return this winter, God willing.

18 responses

  • Saroj Swain

    Saroj Swain gave props (24 Sep 2013):

    Beautifully photographed and narrated nicely JanElle, My vote and nomination

  • Heather Mellon

    Heather Mellon said (25 Sep 2013):

    Thank you Saroj for nominating my story, I appreciate it so very much!

  • Andrea Petersen

    Andrea Petersen gave props (25 Sep 2013):

    Your photo essay is written so beautifully and from the heart...Your photos are outstanding also....It is my pleasure to vote for you.

  • Heather Mellon

    Heather Mellon said (25 Sep 2013):

    Thank you Andrea for taking time to view, vote and for your comments. It is genuinely appreciated.

  • Christy Popkes

    Christy Popkes said (25 Sep 2013):

    Loved it !! The great photos and the heartfelt way you tell a story --- Loved it !! --- Voted !

  • Heather Mellon

    Heather Mellon said (26 Sep 2013):

    Thank you Christy!

  • Cindy Romero

    Cindy Romero gave props (2 Oct 2013):

    I can feel your heart in this story, JanElle, and the photos are wonderful and love-drenched. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  • Andrea Petersen

    Andrea Petersen gave props (8 Oct 2013):

    I would love to see this as photo essay of the week.. and you have my vote and nomination.

  • Heather Mellon

    Heather Mellon said (9 Oct 2013):

    Thank you, Cindy! And thank you, Andrea, for the nomination. It is very much appreciated!

  • Shelley Tucker

    Shelley Tucker said (3 Nov 2013):

    lovely! :)

  • Marjorie Goertzen

    Marjorie Goertzen said (27 Sep 2014):

    Hello from northern Canada, JanElle! Like you, I have enjoyed watching the breeding cycle of horned grebes over several years, and am in the process of writing a story about them. I could never distinguish the males from the females, and am wondering how you determined that the males arrive in the nesting area first.

  • Heather Mellon

    Heather Mellon said (27 Sep 2014):

    I based this assumption on the time of the bird's arrival and the fact that in many species of birds the males arrive at a nesting site first in order to establish their territory, which is one of the primary roles of the male of the bird species. Horned Grebes are highly territorial birds.. most of the larger water birds are.. plus red-winged blackbirds and most song birds.. and even house wrens provide a great example of the role the males play during the nesting season. In the time that I had the opportunity to observe the horned grebes at close range I noticed that the female was slightly smaller and more demure in nature than the male.. and since it was she who laid the eggs on the nest that I could easily observe.. I was able to identify her in comparison to the male.

    Now my observations may not be written in stone correct.. but I wasn't about to kill one and do an autopsy on it in order to establish such a fact. So in the end.. maybe I'm wrong, but based on the logic of the bird world that is how I identified what I believe to be the difference between them. It should be noted that there is really very little information available on these secretive and territorial birds. The fact that I was able to observe them several years in a row was a rare opportunity.

    Another thing that should be noted is that the horned grebe's status is becoming endangered. Their already sparse population is becoming more and more threatened by loss of habitat due to industrial spills, agricultural clearing and urban sprawl. In my opinion that is what really matters.. that those of us who have come to know and love these birds do what we can to ensure that they have a future. They are fascinating birds.. and when the adult pair leaves their nesting waters their young are left behind to fend for themselves and hopefully survive into maturity. They always seem to depart at night and it is my understanding that they are indeed night flyers.. which only adds to the mystery and fascination I have for these beautiful birds.

    Would love to read your book when it's complete. I'm a Canuck, too.. from Alberta, and look forward to a great read about a species of bird that I truly love!

  • Marjorie Goertzen

    Marjorie Goertzen said (27 Sep 2014):

    Thank you for your detailed reply, JanElle! Your logic sounds good to me! I share your love for the horned grebes. I am aiming to turn my story into a Picaboo album (, and will be glad to send you the link when I have it finished.

  • Heather Mellon

    Heather Mellon said (27 Sep 2014):

    Thanks for asking, Marjorie, and for viewing my essay. I am always pleased to share my limited knowledge of the bird kingdom.. they are often elusive and secretive.. but always fascinating, aren't they. Good look with your book, I would love to receive a link. All the Best, Sincerely, Heather

  • Andrea Petersen

    Andrea Petersen gave props (16 Feb 2015):

    This is an extraordinary photo essay on your love for wildbirds and your nature images are outstanding ...I admire your dedication and am nominating it for the second time!

  • Heather Mellon

    Heather Mellon said (16 Feb 2015):

    Thank you Andrea! You have a portfolio of truly exceptional wild bird photography and I genuinely appreciate your nomination.

  • Andrea Petersen

    Andrea Petersen gave props (23 May 2017):

    I am back to nominate your photo essay...

  • Heather Mellon

    Heather Mellon said (23 May 2017):

    Thank you for the nomination, Andrea! It is very much appreciated!

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