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

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Post #69 - The hidden cost of being human.....

First, a quick news flash; My leg is slowly getting better! I have been putting weight on the leg this past week, and I am able to walk around in my walking boot, albeit still with the support of crutches. I even made it out for a few hours of birding this weekend, my first in over a month. It was an incredibly welcome break from my recent confines. I will continue to maintain a cautious approach as I do not want to re-injure the leg before it heals, particularly in light of an 8-day trip to Southeastern Arizona in early August.

A brief warning moving forward: This post is not filled with rainbows, smiles, and ice cream. It is instead a rather sobering mediation on what I will call the hidden costs of being human. I try to take my inspiration from where I can, and today this is what the world gave me.

As has been recently required by the bum leg, Sonia, my wife, yesterday morning drove me to the train station. One her return trip a Western Scrub-jay crashed head on into the windshield of the car, coming to rest in a lifeless heap at the base of the windshield. I immediately received a very teary photo call from Sonia describing the collision. She was unscathed but terribly upset about the episode. She managed to snap this photo for me as I was immediately moved to write something about it.

Scrub-jay - Rest in Peace....

Sonia's experience is not unique; Tens of millions of birds die at the hands of motorists each year. Numerous as these deaths are, they pale in comparison to those caused by window collisions. Cats are estimated to kill billions of North American birds each year. Poisoning contributes. Then of course there's the inexorable march of habitat loss and climate change. A recent Audubon Society study suggests that climate change puts at risk between one-third and one-half of North American bird species. Another study from the World Wildlife Federation suggests that we have lost half of all global wildlife in just the past 40 years. Predictably, none of the predictions are optimistic.

Minus the comparatively negligible, deliberate toll than legal hunting and illegal poaching take, the referenced mortality is almost exclusively incidental in nature. Windows are not designed to kill birds and driving is generally a necessary evil in 21st-century America; Most people see Fluffy the kitten as cute household pet, not a future bird-killing machine. Beyond whatever individually responsible decisions we make and what protective legislation we enact, humans still run-up an immeasurable environmental bill that Mother Earth will somehow have to pay. Every new house built, every trip to the train station, every outdoor cat, and even every human birth has an environmental cost to it. These are what I call the hidden costs of being human, and we usually ignore them in the course of our daily lives. It often takes an episode like yesterday's to remind us that every single one of us, no matter how "green" we are or claim to be, is costing the planet something each and every day. If we acknowledge that undeniable fact, then we're in a much better position to design effective minimization strategies moving forward. What those precise strategies are I'll leave for another day. I'll instead leave you with a hopefully image, a Least Tern chick perched on the edge of possibility, a huge, unfamiliar world beyond.

Least Tern - Sternula antillarum
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/2000 at f/7.1, ISO 400, handheld

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Post #68 - IN YO FACE! Headshots of birds....

First, a leg update. It is feeling better, so I guess that's a step, errrrr, a crutch in the right direction. I had an MRI yesterday to confirm the diagnosis of a partial/slight tear of my lower calf muscle. I'll find out for sure once doc looks at the scan results later this week. As I am still crutching everywhere in my protective walking boot, this post will come to you live and direct from the comfort of my couch. Don't worry - I've got some cool stuff for you anyway!

Headshots are often overlooked in favor of more interesting compositions or more action-orientated frames. I completely understand this, but a photographer generally has to work with what the bird gives him. Sometimes, a headshot can salvage a shot where none otherwise existed. For example, I photographed this handsome guy in Vancouver a few weeks back. The entire duck was shaded except for the head; Trying to shoot a bird so unevenly lit would have resulted in painfully under- or over-exposed areas in the final image. I decided instead to use the facial lighting as an opportunity to snap this portrait.

Wood Duck - Aix sponsa
Vancouver, Canada
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 on EOS 7D2
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 800, handheld

Here is another example of where I saved a frame with a headshot. I posted this on this blog when I took it last fall, but it is worth reposting in the context of this discussion. This bird was found along one of the agricultural fields surrounding the Salton Sea. He was standing on an ugly, concrete drainage ditch, and, as I try to avoid any signs of human-made objects in my shots, I decided to focus on his upper body so as to omit that unnatural eyesore. The close-up really puts the focus on his amazing eyes. The eyes are KEY when it comes to headshots - the bird MUST be looking at or very near the photographer for the image to have any impact. 

 Burrowing Owl - Athene cunicularia
Salton Sea, California
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 on EOS 7D2
1/3200 at f/8, ISO 1250, handheld

Headshots also work when the bird won't give you any behavior. In the following example, the lighting and open sandy beach were perfect, but the bird just wanted to stand there doing nothing. By creeping a bit closer, I was able to crack of this frame that shows all kind of detail on him. It's still a static shot but its a lot more intimate this way.

Dunlin - Calidris alpina
Plum Island, Massachusetts
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/4000 at f/7.1, ISO 400, handheld

Sometimes, headshots allow the photographer to show common birds in uncommon ways. Both Great blue Herons and Herring Gulls are notorious for their shark-like appetites. I think that these two photos show nicely the sometimes greedy nature of these two species.

Great blue Heron - Ardeas herodias
Dauphin Island, Alabama
Canon 400mm f/5.6 on EOS 7D
1/8000 at f/5.6, ISO 640
Herring Gull - Larus argentatus
Boston, Massachusetts
Canon 400mm f/5.6 on EOS 7D
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 400

And......sometimes it just fun to see exactly how close you can get to a bird, particularly a rarity or a notoriously shy species! Note: I was the only one on the beach with the stint, so I wasn't worried about scaring it off. A peregrine took care of that for me!
Little Stint - Calidris minuta
Chatham, Massachusetts
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/800 at f/8, ISO 200, handheld

Virginia Rail - Rallus limicola
Concord, Massachusetts
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 on Canon 1D Mark IV
1/500 at f/8, ISO 800, Fill flash, handheld

And a few more, just for fun!

Red-tailed hawk - Buteo jamaicensis
Boston, Massachusetts
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 + 1.4x III on EOS 7D
1/1000 at f/8, ISO 400, Tripod

American Oystercatcher - Haematopus palliatus
Boston, Massachusetts
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1600 at f/8, ISO 400, Handheld
Great gray Owl - Strix nebulosa
Ontarion, Canada
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/800 at f/5.6, ISO 800, Handheld

Well, there you have them. Hopefully I've sold you on the merits and beauty of the avian headshot. I've got a few more that might surface at some point - hopefully not over another injury!