Thursday, September 22, 2016

Post #76 - Observing behavior to capture better photographs

A few weeks back I was birding at one of my usual Orange County haunts, Huntington Central Library. I wasn't carrying my camera as I wanted to focus that morning on birding, something I sometimes find difficult with camera in hand. Anyway, I hadn't birded the park in a while, and as such I didn't realize that the once-lake in park's center had during the hot summer months evaporated to nothing more than a large, muddy puddle. In that habitat, I immediately and appropriately spotted 2 Solitary Sandpipers, a mildly notable species anywhere in the generally arid confines of Southern California. The two birds were relatively approachable, and I kicked myself for leaving my camera in the car (Murphy's Law, right? Wonder if the same guy discovered Murphy's Petrel?!?!?). The sun was already above where I'd ideally like it to be for morning shooting, so I formulated a plan to return to the area later in the afternoon with the hope that the birds would stick around despite sure and constant disturbance from people and dogs at the heavily used park. 

OK, fast forward 6 hours. I returned to the park to find that the sandpipers were still present. This was the scene, looking east. The sun was behind me, to the west.

Huntington Central Lake, errrrr, Puddle.....

During my morning session, I noticed that the sandpipers favored the western edge of the habitat, the edge just on front of me in this late-afternoon photo. I staked out a position in the reeds just adjacent to this section of the mud hole. As per usual when photographing shorebirds, I got down on my stomach and waited for the birds to return to that favored area. 

Taking cover just off the path.
Crappy iPhone shot, sorry!

I waited, and I waited some more.  Then some extra-special bonus waiting. There was a fair amount of foot and dog traffic just behind my vantage during all this waiting, so the sandpipers stayed on the far shore where I couldn't photograph them as desired. Finally, after over an hour of waiting, one of the birds flew into the staked out area. There were loads of Mallards in that same corner so it was really tough to get an isolated shot of the sandpiper. Luckily, it found, for just a few moments, some clear space in between the ducks where I could get a shot of it without any duck photobombs. I had only a few seconds before another person came along and scared my subject away. Bummer, but I was able to walk out with that I consider to be a serviceable frame of the bird! 

Solitary Sandpiper  - Tringa solitaria
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D2
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 800 (I think)

I think this example helps to illustrate two suggested points with respect to bird photography. First, many birds are creatures of habit, even non-resident migrants like this Solitary. As such there is often at least some degree of predictability to their behavior, particularly their foraging efforts. It is very possible to increase one's chances of obtaining a decent photograph by pausing to observe the sought bird or species before jumping headlong into photographing it. This is the planning half of the equation. Second, once a spot is selected, a commitment to it, even through a prolonged wait, can be fruitful. This is the patience stage. While I have captured some legitimately fortuitous frames over the years, most of my best shots have resulted from a combination of careful planning and exercised patience. Give it a shot. With enough practice, you too can use behavioral observation, proper planning, and patience to improve your bird photography. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Post #75 - I FINALLY have a local patch!

Wow - it has been a while since my last post! Things here have been very hectic between a near-move to San Francisco and the acquisition of Roody, our new rescue beagle. It has been a bit of an adjustment as we establish a routine, but we're getting there slowly. As our neighborhood is basically the epicenter of an endless concrete nightmare, we have struggled to find palatable places to exercise him (always on leash, of course!), particularly within walking distance of our apartment. That being said, we have recently discovered what is fast becoming my new local patch just a short car ride away. I/we can't make it there everyday, but it looks as though once or twice a week might be feasible given my ~9-hour work day and 2.25-hour round-trip commute. Here are a few arial and "in-habitat" photographs to set the stage for you.

Greater Los Angeles Area - the red pin is our apartment.

Medium view of my circumstances. 
Wilderness Park is my new spot.
Yeah, its a bummer to have to drive to walk......

San Gabriel Wilderness Park - nothing wild about it. 
Dry wash to west/left is San Gabriel "River".
605 Freeway is one of the nation's busiest.

The park and one of its two water features.
Resident American Wigeon in foreground.

High voltage power lines loom over all....

Bike path along San Gabriel Ditch to west of park

Ok, all complaining aside, I have had a really fun time walking Roody around this patch park. It's usually fairly well-populated, but always holds at least a few birds. I have now visited half a dozen times, and each visit has produced new species for my running park list. Given my unabashed eBird addiction, its no wonder that I have pulled a few screen shots from the site to graphically illustrate my experiences at the park.

There are only 10 checklists from this calendar year - 
6 of them are mine.

Birding at the park has picked up in the 6 weeks or so since my first visit. Migrants such as Wilson's Warbler have just appeared, and today featured a surprising 5 species of raptors: Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Osprey, and Peregrine Falcon. Shockingly, this was the first time either Osprey or Peregrine Falcon has been reported in the park. I have now added 5 species to the cumulative park list since I started birding it, and I fully expect my personal total to rise as the more productive winter months arrive. 

eBird data filtered to display species most
recently added to the cumulative park list

Top eBirders for San Gabriel Widlerness Park

It's FAR from the world's most glamorous birding, but its a project on which I can work moving forward. As work and constant f!@#$%^&*ing traffic prevent anything more than this on weekdays, this spot will give me at least something local to do on those days when I can make it home before nightfall. I am really hoping to find something good so that I can share it with LA birding community!

Introducing Roody the rescue beagle!
He's ~6-7 and very friendly and playful.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Post #74 - Renewing my Love-Hate Relationship with Southern California Pelagics (and SoCal Pelagic booking/contact info)

Southern California pelagics have a lot going for them. Pleasant weather and calm seas usually combine to make an enjoyable day on the water, and great distances need not be covered to reach decently productive waters. In summer, Black-vented Shearwater, Pink-footed Shearwater, and Black Storm-petrel are in great supply, and rarities such as Least Storm-petrel, Craveri's Murrelet, Guadalupe Murrelet, Blue-footed Booby, Red-footed Booby, Red-billed Tropicbird, and the newly split Townsend's Storm-petrel can appear at any time. Brown Booby, though once rare in SoCal, is virtually guaranteed on any San Diego or Orange County trip, so if you still need that bird for your ABA list, a SoCal pelagic should be in your future.

All that said, I've now taken 6 SoCal pelagics - 2 from San Diego, 2 from Dana Point in Orange County, and 2 from Oxnard in Ventura County - and have yet to be blown away by any of them. Now don't get me wrong, I had a really nice time on each trip, but they have collectively lacked the excitement that has surrounded my equal number of pelagic trips from Monterey or Hatteras. The biggest difference, as I perceive it, is the volume of birds, or, more specifically, the lack of it. While I have at times been astounded by the number of pelagic birds at other offshore destinations, I have never felt that way in SoCal. There are usually a few shearwaters and storm-petrels buzzing about, but there are equally often painfully prolonged periods (i.e multiple hours) when few - if any - species beyond gulls and terns are observed. I'm not so much writing about diversity as I am total pelagic individuals. As an avid photographer, I'm stoked to shoot even the common stuff, but here in SoCal what birds are around generally don't come close enough to the boast for what I'd consider proper photography. Why I've managed nice pelagic photos everywhere but SoCal is as baffling as it is frustrating. 

Albino Brant's Cormorant on a recent San Diego pelagic

What keeps me coming back to SoCal pelagics are the well-run trips, the on-board camaraderie, the always pleasant conditions, and the ever present chance that a home-run rarity will appear. As a fairly unabashed ABA lister (well, the lower 48 at least since I haven't done Alaska - yet), I do want to add to my ABA list what pelagic species I can during my time here in SoCal. I figure that if I take a ton of SoCal pelagics, I'll see all the usual stuff plus a few rarities along the way. Many of the trips will be underwhelming, but I'll still see more than not going at all. This is why I say I have a love-hate relationship with SoCal pelagics; There is so much potential, but I know I'm going to have to take a lot of trips, many of them very slow, to find the rare birds that I want to see.

Master of Ceremonies Dave Povey let's us know what's up!

This past weekend I hopped aboard a trip of San Diego. I took the same trip last year, but missed my two target birds, Least Storm-Petrel and Craveri's Murrelet. I redeemed the storm-petrel in Monterey a month later, but the murrelet was still outstanding by the time our boat departed. That changed relatively quickly as we promptly found a number of Craveri's on the 9-Mile Bank. The first few pairs we so distant and the looks so poor that they did not meet my own "countable" threshold. However, with patience, we eventually got close enough to one pair for decent looks and record photos. We could even hear the two birds calling back and forth to one another. It was a really nice encounter and saved what was an otherwise slow trip. We had decent looks at the usual birds and a nice study of Leach's (Chapman's) Storm-petrels. This trip was a full 12 hours on the water and only cost $100. It was a really good value. Dave Povey and friends run a great ship; They have my full endorsement and will certainly have my patronage well into the future. 

ABA seen #711 - Craveri's Murrelet!

For those interested, here are some general SoCal pelagic links that might be of interest. - This is the place for information on all San Diego trips. Discounts are given for advanced sign-ups, so look into the trips ahead of time. -  Orange County's Sea and Sage Audubon Society runs 4 trips a year from Dana Point. Mainly geared towards OC listers, they do find some great birds, Red-footed Booby, Craveri's Murrelet, and Red-billed Tropicbird included. These might be the best value in the history of pelagic birding at $60 for the 8-hour trip. I generally take a few of these trips each year since they're so convenient for me. - This is info on the famous 5-day "Searcher" pelagic trips. While I have not done this trip myself, I would imagine it is best for well-seasoned seabirders. These trips are expensive ($1300), but will give a person unparalleled access to SoCal's pelagic birds. All sorts of crazy stuff has been found on these trips (Pterodroma petrels included), so literally anything is possible. - This outfit runs trip to the Channel Islands, most notable Santa Cruz Island where every ABA lister must go at some point if he/she want to collect Island Scrub Jay. I took a combo pelagic and scrub jay trip with Island Packers back in February (you can read about that trip here) that was quite good.

OK, that's it for now. Hopefully someone finds at least some of this helpful or informative!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Post #73 - Arizona bird photos, Field vs. Blind photography

Most readers know that I am equally obsessed with birding and bird photography. As I enjoy both activities, I am much more of a "field photographer" than I am a "blind photographer"; I generally move about the world in search of my subjects while birding versus waiting for them to come to me in a blind. Many of the best bird photographers shoot exclusively from blinds, and for those folks rarity chasing and eBirding don't matter one bit. They are only focused on getting the perfect shot of the sought species. There are advantages and disadvantages of each strategy, but personal style and the desired subject dictate a lot. Shorebirds, for example, can't easily be lured towards blinds with food and as such must be sought more "in-habitat". Field photography is - in my mind - significantly more challenging, but blind and set-up photography certainly has a time and place, particularly when it comes to getting clean shots of passerines and hummingbirds.

Anyway, with that as background, I decided to depart from my usual field photography ways to spend a few hours in a photography blind during my last morning in Arizona. After 4 days of hiking in the Huachucas (much of it in the rain), I decided I needed a break from birding. That last day was the only day with decent morning light, so I figured I would use it to shoot instead of bird/hike. Frustratingly, the nesting Tufted Flycatchers, completely absent during the 4 days I searched Ramsey Canyon for them, decided to reappear while I was shooting two hours away! UGH - them's the breaks. The shots I collected helped soften that otherwise very painful birding blow.

***click images for higher resolution views***

Lucy's Warbler - Oreothlypis luciae
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 800, handheld from blind

Pyrrhuloxia - Cardinalus sinuatus (on cholla trunk)
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 400, handheld from blind

Gambel's Quail - Callipepla gambelii (on dead Cholla)
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800, handheld from blind

Hooded Oriole - Icterus cucullatus (on Ocotillo)
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800, handheld from blind

Monday, August 8, 2016

Post #72 - Arizona dreamin'! And the worst North American bird name is......

Wow, what a week in Arizona! Our time in the Grand Canyon State was simply amazing! We spent 2 days in the Santa Ritas before passing the remaining 5 in the Huachucas, Hereford, and Sierra Vista where I was the keynote speaker at the Southwest Wings Birding and Nature Festival. Though on the smaller side (~140 people, I think), the festival was jam packed with field trips, lectures, and community outreach. It was a very well-run affair and highly recommended for those looking for an introduction to birding in Southeastern Arizona (SEAZ). Incidently, SW Wings also runs a spring festival. Spring is generally better for nesting specialties, particularly nightbirds, while late summer features more hummingbirds and rarities. You really can't go wrong in SEAZ anytime between late-April and early-September, so don't delay if you're thinking about a visit! 

Our general route

It is worth noting that July and August are monsoon season in the desert southwest; Clouds generally gather through the morning before dumping accumulated moisture as precipitation sometime in the afternoon. Cloudbursts can be heavy but rarely last very long. In that respect it's a bit like being in the tropics. As such, the rain usually doesn't disrupt birding terribly. Instead, the rain cools things down and induces a nice burst of late-day bird activity. 

Unusually, we experienced quite a bit of sustained rain during the first four days of our trip. We managed to get in at least some birding between downpours. The most notable bird for me was my ABA lifer Plain-capped Starthroat (ABA seen species #710) at the Santa Rita lodge in Madera Canyon. The continuing Tufted Flycatcher in the Huachucas, however, eluded me. It was completely absent on the 4 days on which I searched for it but reappeared the day that we returned to LA. #$%^&*!!! That's the way it goes, right? Showing Sonia her lifer Spotted Owl and Elegant Trogon surely softened the blow of that painful miss. As for other animals, we found Black Bear, Black-tailed Rattlesnake, Bobcat, Coyote, Coati, and the usual assortment of jack-rabbits and such.

 Plain-capped Starthroat - record shot.
(Left - female Black-chinned Hummingbird
Right - male Broad-billed Hummingbird)

Coyote - Canis latrans
Not sure if he just caught the roadrunner!
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/640 at f/4, ISO 1600, handheld

 iPhone record shot of Black-tailed Rattlesnake on the road.
These are very docile and often permit quite close approach.

A friendlier boa of some sort at the festival's 
vendor, art, and educational fair

OK, with that I would like to propose what I think is the worst name for any North American bird. There are quite a few odd or awful names out there (American Black Duck - it's not even black, Hepatic Tanager - liver colored tanager?!?) but Broad-billed Hummingbird does one of our most beautiful birds simply zero justice. I have no idea from where this oh-so-boring name came. Internet searches revealed some suggestions, but none really made much sense to me. Blue-chested Hummingbird, Sapphire-chested Emerald, Fiery-billed Emerald, or Red-billed Gemstone would all be better monikers for this Central American species that reaches Southeastern Arizona in summer. I mean, c'mon, Broad-billed Humingbird? For real?!?!?! If anyone has other names that drives him/her crazy, I'd love to hear your thoughts via comments or emails.

Broad-billed Hummingbird - Cynanthus latirostris
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 7D2
1/640 at f/8, ISO 1600, handheld

Anyway, that's my two cents for this post. There will certainly be more from AZ in the next few days, so please stay tuned!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Post #71 - Summer birding doldrums, pelagics, festival plans for next few months....

I was really hoping that my most current photography would be able to drive content for this blog. Unfortunately, in the metro-nightmare that Los Angeles has proved to be, I have had an incredibly tough time finding publicly accessible places to shoot than aren't overrun with people (the greater LA now has over 20 million people, SoCal nearly 30 million, counting legal and illegal). With inland temps at the yearly highest, the mountains and coast are packed with people seeking more moderate temperatures. So, not only is birding on the slow side, but moving around is even more difficult than usual. 

As frustrating as I find life in crowded Southern California, the easy access to pelagic birding is really, really awesome. Last weekend I took a Sea & Sage Audubon trip from Dana Point in Orange County. It was a relaxing day on the water, highlighted as much by socializing as by birds. I spent much time gabbing with Olal Danielson, one of two Big Yea Birders who already already surpassed Neil Hayward's 2013 ABA Big Year record of 749 species (the other is John Weigel). Olaf has an entertaining blog that can be found here. As for birds, we did have decent looks at the usual sheartwaters, Brown Booby, all 3 jaegers, and loads of Black Storm-petrels. Most of these were well out of what I consider acceptable photo range, but I collected a few distant shots anyway. The highlight of the trip was certainly my lifer Blue Whale! The huge beast surfaced very close to the boat. My 400mm was way too much!

Blue Whale, or at least part of one.
That bump is his/her blowhole.

Black Storm-petrels
Long-wings, light Carpel Bar, notched tail.
These have slower, deeper wingbeats, and a more buoyant flight 
than other dark Pacific Storm-petrels
Quick pelagic photo quiz - answer at bottom of post!

Right now I have a number of additional California pelagics scheduled for the upcoming months. Hopefully some exciting stuff will show up! My currently scheduled trip right now are below.
August 21 - San Diego
September 9 - Monterey
September 10 - Half Moon Bay
September 11 - Monterey
September 17 - Dana Point, Orange County

Luckily, I'll also be headed to Southwest Wings Birding Festival in Southeastern Arizona as the keynote speaker next week! I'll be birding Southeastern Arizona before and during the festival, so I'll hopefully have something exciting to report after that. Fingers crossed.

View of the Santa Rita Mountains (from the south)
An old shot from the bike trip, May 2014
No people! No Traffic! Can't wait!

While we're on the topic of festivals, I should report that I'll be back in Texas for not one but two more festivals in the next year. The first of these will be my second go round at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen during the first week in November. This year I'll be leading four bike-birding field trips. The two iterations that I lead last year were so much fun that participants requested more this year! Its really nice to see that bike-birding is catching on with others.

Clay-colored Thrush - Turdas grayi
An old shot from December 2014 during the bike trip, Texas
 Canon 400mm f/5.6 on EOS 7D
1/200 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

And...excitingly, I yesterday finalized plans to be the keynote speaker at the Wings Over the Hills Birding Festival in Fredericksburg, Texas the last weekend of April 2017! I love birding the Texas Hill Country (no crowds, lots of open space), so I am super stoked to make a visit to that region next year. If you've never visited the area, I'm sure the festival would be a good introduction to the region's birds. It'd be a great way to tick the two endangered songbird species, Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked warbler, if they're still missing from your life list! I biked through Fredericksburg in 2014, and I can attest that it is a really nice little town. You can read my account of that visit here.

Greater Roadrunner - Geococcyx californianus
 Canon 400mm f/5.6 on EOS 7D
1/1600 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Also, since proper photography is so slow around here right now, I have kept photo-engaged by adding a few fun things to my photography website. The most notable of these is a collection of ABA rarity shots that I have seen in recent years. It by no means includes every rarity I've ever seen in the ABA area, just the ones I've been able to document since 2010 (when I started photographing birds regularly).

Photo is a mostly leucistic Black-vented Shearwater. We saw several leucistic types among the roughly 5000 Black-vents we saw last weekend. 

Until next time, try not to let the election coverage make you mad!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Post #70 - Who cares about this silly blog?!?! Red-legged Honeycreeper news!

First, honestly, who cares about this blog? Its little more than my own birding diary with a few photos thrown in for laughs. Well, as I am sure many of you are aware, this has been a particularly rough few weeks to be an American. It seems like its one bad news story after another: shootings, bigotry, racism, campaign rhetoric, etc. Facebook is overrun with opinions and squabbles; It sometimes seems like there is no escape from the noise. It is from that cacophony that I hope my little blog offers at least some amount of refuge (and hence why I keep it apolitical). I hope it's simply a 5-minute diversion from life's usual chaos. At some point I think it will morph into something more, but for now I hope it's enough to keep you coming back - even if only once in a while. Now on with the birds and such!

I am happy to relay that the Red-legged Honeycreeper that I observed at Estero Llano Grande in South Texas on Thanksgiving day in 2014 has been deemed ABA countable! This means that my 2014 bicycle Big Year total now stands at 618 species - woo hoo!  For those not familiar with this species, it is usually more tropical, generally residing in the Caribbean and Central and South America. Prior to our 2014 sighting, there were several sightings in Florida, but these were presumed to be escaped caged birds (South Florida is infamous for escapees). Our bird, a hatch year female, was accepted by 7-1 to by the ABA records committee and thus represents the the first accepted record of the species for North America. It was just one of those "right place, right time" moments about which birders universally dream. Here is the official ABA announcement, complete with my photo of the bird!

Red-legged Honeycreeper range
But wait...there's more! In its annual update, the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) has decided to split Western Scrub Jay into California Scrub Jay (Pacific Coast) and Woodhouse's Scrub Jay (interior). As I observed both then-subspecies during my Big Year, this counts as an "arm-chair" tick two years after the fact. So, with the addition of this new species, I guess that runs my total, on top of the honeycreeper, to 619 species. I say "I guess" as the 618 that I found during the year will always hold a special place in my heart. Asked moving forward how many species I saw during my Big Year, 618 will be my answer. For those that are interested in the other changes to the AOU checklist this year, please look here.

Last bit of news is that I this week I walked without the aid of the walking boot for the first time in nearly 6 weeks! As I have a incredibly difficult time sitting still for even short periods, it was a tremendous liberation to get out birding after such a long absence. Mid-summer birding on the SoCal coast is quiet. The Elegant Terns at Bolsa Chica have kept me busy. Right now there are something like 30,000 of them there. It is really quite impressive. I visited on a good day for photography last weekend, the light and tide perfectly aligning. More photos coming as the leg heals!

***Click images for full size versions***

Elegant Tern - Thalasseus elegans
Canon 400mm DO IS II on EOS 7D2
1/5000 at f/8, ISO 800, handheld

Elegant Tern - Thalasseus elegans
(This bird is shaking off after a dive!) 
Canon 400mm DO IS II on EOS 7D2
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 400, handheld