Thursday, October 20, 2016

Post # 79 - My desire to photograph every bird, Rock Wren included!

One of the things on which I pride my photography is my desire to shoot every species regardless of how magnificent or ordinary it appears. I imagine that tendency stems from my birding background, where I have over the years probably spent more time sorting out the identification of small brown birds than I have anything else. A species is a species, after all, and each has it own evolutionary history, behavioral trivia, and identifiable field marks. Beyond a challenging and rewarding endeavor unto itself, I have found that photography, and particularly photography of those usually less magnificent species that are more difficult to identify, has actually made me a better birder. Its tough not to learn the birds better when one spends as much time as I do staring at them on my computer screen!

Anyway, I bring this up as I was last weekend doing some general LA County Birding at the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area when I heard a Rock Wren calling behind me. I took a few steps towards the source only to see a small bird come flying directly at me. The curious bird lit on a rocky slope and began actively foraging just 20 feet from me. He was quite approachable, and, with nice light even in the later morning, proved to be a very nice photographic subject. I had photographed this species well only once before (in Colorado in 2014), so I seized on the opportunity to follow the bird around for the better part of 15 minutes. It was really a lot of fun, and I am very happy with a few of the shots that I captured. Though not a particularly flashy bird, he is perfectly at home in rocky habitats that discourage many other species. I particularly like the close-up shot as it affords a perspective on this species that isn't often appreciated.

For these shots I really went to great lengths to keep distracting background elements out of the frames. Though sometimes I like to have a bit of habitat context, here I wanted all the focus to be on the bird. My hope is that such clean shots of this Rock Wren will forever etch the species into your birdbrain the way they did into mine.

Rock Wren - Salpinctes obsoletus
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 7D2
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Rock Wren - Salpinctes obsoletus
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 7D2
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Oh, as a last aside. I actually put together a gallery-collection of my favorite headshots on my website. I know some folks really enjoyed my headshots from a few posts back, so I decided to collect more of them in an organized form on my photography website. For those who are interested, you can find that gallery here.

Til next time!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Post #78 - The HUGE thrill of finding rare birds

While I am not a no-holds-barred-sort of ABA lister, I certainly enjoy the occasional or indulgent foray into the sometimes taboo pastime. Rarity chasing injects a distinct sort of excitement into the birding process, and it almost inevitably yields some memorable or funny story irrespective if the sought bird is found or missed. For example,I have chased 3 would-be ABA lifers in the last year: Gray Thrasher, Streak-backed Oriole, and Marsh Sandpiper. I was - thankfully - successful on each occasion, but the California Records Committee later tossed out the thrasher on grounds of questionable provenance. Regardless, each of the chases was a fun and exciting exercise and will be forever a part of my birding memory.

However, the excitement of chasing rarities, "poaching" as I often refer to the process, pales in comparison to finding rarities for myself. The feeling when I realize that I am looking at something totally unexpected simply isn't replicated by chasing previously reported birds. The last time I had that feeling was the 1st ABA record of Red-legged Honeycreeper that I helped find and document during my 2014 bicycle Big Year. I bring all this up as I, alongside Orange County birder Roger Schoedl, found a fantastic rarity in Central Park in Huntington Beach this past Saturday. Roger initially spotted the bird low in the lake bed, and I soon picked the same bird as it made its way towards me.

 The mystery bird appeared along that scrubby
edge on the far side of the muddy lake bed

We didn't really have any solid leads on what the bird could be as it had so few field marks. Its eyeline and overall brown color were really all we had to go on. We kicked around a number of possibilities, mostly in the warbler and vireo realms, but nothing really fit given our brief views. Finally, the mystery bird sat still long enough for me to get a decent photo.

Mystery bird

When I reviewed the photo on my camera, I immediately felt my mind turning over the possibilities. I knew we had something, REALLY good in front of us. I said to Roger, "Dude, call me crazy but I think this might be something from the Old World, like a Dusky Warbler." This was as around 8:50am. We watched the bird for another 5 minutes or so before it vanished into a large and impenetrable tangle of reeds, branches, and bushes. We immediately called a few birders who we knew were nearby. Two of them arrived in time to see the bird when it resurfaced 40 minutes later. That second appearance was painfully brief but enough for Brian Daniels, familiar with the species from time in Eurasia, to confirm the ID. At that point all alarm bells were sounded. Birders gathered through the afternoon, but the bird never resurfaced. Dozens of people searched all day Sunday, but the bird wasn't refound on that day either. So, it was apparently a one day - nay a hour hour - wonder! It was super exciting to find such an incredibly rare bird (ABA Code 4) during what I thought would be a pleasurable but otherwise routine swing through one of my usual haunts. You never know, right? That's a big part of why most of us love birding!

Ironically, Dusky Warbler was on my radar screen as one had been found in San Francisco just last week. I decided against chasing that bird as SF was too far and chasing migrating passerines is usually a losing proposition. I did look at a lot of the photos of that Dusky, so those images were fresh in my mind when our bird appeared. It is, of course, tempting to speculate that out bird and the SF bird are one and the same. The SF bird could have easily made its way to Huntington Beach during the intermittent week or so. There's no way we'll ever know for sure, but it's fun to consider the possibility. As rare as Dusky Warbler is, we probably miss a hundred for each one we find. I find it amazing that our bird (and the other CA birds) migrated to the correct latitude on the wrong side of the Pacific!

Alaska sightings from Gambell, Pribiloffs, and Attu.
All other North American sightings from CA.

Dusky Warbler sightings in California.
Orange pins are from the last month.
Ours was the first in SoCal in 20 years.

So, that's the story of how ABA seen species #712 joined my list. It was really, really sweet! Felt kinda like this.....

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Post #77 - An apology, photo edits

First, I must apologize. I am sorry, I have been TERRIBLE about responding to comments that you readers have been kind enough to contribute to this blog. In reviewing some of my older posts, I can see exactly how bad I have been, so bad, in fact, that one comment politely and appropriately pointed this out to me. It really means a lot to me when people leave me notes as those words reassure me that the content is actually resonating with people. I should take the time to acknowledge these comments as I am sure that those people that post them would like to know that I read what they took the time to write. So, moving forward, I am going to be much better about responding to your kind (and even your nasty!) blog comments. Hopefully that will spur a bit more dialog between us moving forward.

OK, now that we've dispensed with that, let's get to some bird stuff. Migration is in full swing here in SoCal, and it is the best birding of the year right now what with eastern vagrants and whatnot. For reasons that will become clear in coming months, I have actually been doing a bit more birding in Los Angeles County in recent weeks. I have in the past month visited, beyond my new local patch, other sites in LA County including Legg Lake, Peck Water Conservation Area, Whitter Dam, Santa Fe Recreation Area, Frank Bonelli County Park. If hit early enough on the weekends, these areas can be quite pleasant and productive (sadly, I can't bird during the week). After 11am , most of them turn into unbirdable nightmares complete with blow-up bounce houses and loud music. I am really looking forward to exploring beyond the heavily populated coastal areas of the county, specifically in the San Gabriel Mountains and the desert north of that range. So, do please stay tuned as I do a bit more exploring of my home county.

LA county - I live at the little yellow star (south and central)
4,750 sq miles, 10,000,000 people, 534 recorded bird species

Lastly, I though it might be fun to show exactly what can be done with decent photo editing software. I use Lightoom for the vast majority of alternations, but I will occasionally use Photoshop as an extension should I need to do something beyond the usual minor tweaks. This is a photo that I took last weekend. It is interesting as all of the illumination was provided by an external flash (the trunk/bird were in full shade). Flash is best when used to highlight detail on subjects rather than as the sole lighting source. I normally avoid flash altogether, but I figured I could use some practice with the technique. Since I suck at flash, the photo needed some serious work in order to be serviceable. I think I got it to a decent place, but I had to do quite a bit to get it there.

Acorn Woodpecker - Melanerpes formicivorus
Canon 400mm /4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/500 at f/7.1, ISO 1600
Original of left, edited on right

OK, that's it for now. SD pelagic this weekend - stay tuned!

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