Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Post #211 -- Some Southern California Photography

Sonia and I are back in the US! There was, however, some serious doubt as to our return from Chile; the Abbott Labs COVID AG-Card tests which we took with us kits were defective, so we had to cobble testing together the night before our flight from Santiago to Dallas (and onto Los Angeles). To compound the drama, Sky Airlines, a Chilean carrier, pushed our final domestic flight from Punta Arenas to Santiago back three hours, a circumstance which cut our connection time in Santiago from five hours to two. We landed in that capital, scampered off the plane, claimed our luggage, sprinted to the international terminal, checked into our American flight, and fought our way through immigration and security. By the time we hauled ass to the terminal's farthest gate, we had only ten minutes to spare. So yeah, getting back was a total circus!

We made it, barely.....

I'll write more about Chile in future posts, but I'm gonna keep it simple this time around and post some photos I captured in Southern California just before we left. Recall that we've rented our San Mateo apartment and become digital/guiding nomads through September. Without a place of our own, we crashed with Sonia's dad in Riverside County for five days pre-Chile. There is some excellent photography to be had in that area, and I'll present a half-dozen shots that I captured across two sun-drenched mornings.

Those who read this blog regularly might recall a post from early-December where I described a choice run-in with Greater Yellowlegs, a common bird that managed to avoid my lens for the eight years since I departed Massachusetts. And wouldn't ya know it? A month after that entry, I had an even better crack at the species!

Greater Yellowlegs - Tringa melanoleuca
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS R5
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 1000

Greater Yellowlegs - Tringa melanoleuca
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS R5
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Besides those, I had mint opportunities at American Avocet and Black-necked Stilt. The color in all these shots is provided by the early-morning light reflecting off the rocky hillsides behind the impoundment. The stilt shot was taken earlier than the others; that's why it's the most color-saturated and dramatic of the bunch. The avocet waded hella close, and the crouched pose was the only way I could get the whole bird and reflection in the frame. Stoked with the water drop bouncing off the surface!

Black-necked Stilt - Himantopus mexicanus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS R5
1/4000 at f/4, ISO 400

American Avocet - Recurvirostra americana
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS R5
1/4000 at f/4, ISO 400

OK, enough shorebirds. Let's finish with two raptors. Birds of prey are a weak-point in my portfolio, so it's always nice to fluff-up those galleries. While I had several nice Merlin shots prior to this awesome encounter, the Red-tailed shot represents my best frame of that species. I'm not sure what the Merlin is eating, but relative abundance and light-colored legs suggest Savannah Sparrow.

Merlin - Falco columbarius
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS R5
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS R5
1/2000 at f/7.1, ISO 1600
*opted for f/7.1 instead of f/5.6 to keep feet in focus when AF point placed on eye

And for those who made it this far, let me point you towards a gallery of my favorite photos of 2021. Several of the shots in this post made the cut, and you'll find a bunch of Chilean birds represented as well. There are 25 images in total.

Here is a link to my phots from Chile. I ask for one good frame a day when I'm traveling -- shooting in new places is really tough, especially without idiot-proof set-ups like in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Colombia -- so I'm super-satisfied with this haul of ~50.

And lastly, there is still space on the following tours which I anticipate leading for Tropical Birding:

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Post #210 - An incredible encounter with Barred Owl

Greetings from the Southern Hemisphere! Sonia and I are eighteen days into our Chile vacation, and I’ll use our flight from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas (Patagonia) as an opportunity to crank out a final blog entry for 2021. Though I’ll write about this trip when I’m back in the US, I’ll summon previous inspiration for this abbreviated installment.

I last saw my Philadelphia-based family in November of 2019, the pandemic and other commitments denying me contact for nearly two years, so Sonia and I headed east for two weeks at the end of October. We spent five days at my parents’ house and used another nine to road trip through New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. While Sonia reunited with a long-time friend in Boston, I headed north for a day of birding on the New Hampshire Coast, an area I hadn’t visited since January 1, 2014 (the first day of my bicycle Big Year). Here’s my ‘Biking for Birds’ blog entry from that kick-off. Damn it was cold!

Besides nostalgia, my recent New Hampshire brush gave me an wonderful window to Barred Owl, a species I hadn’t seen since Sonia and I moved to California in 2015. My bladder pushed to its limit while I was birding in Rockingham County, I ducked into wooded patch to relieve myself. I'd barely entered the trees when a large bird took unexpected flight from ten feet above my head. The commotion scared the hell out of me, but I fought-off premature evacuation as the startled owl fled. I took care of bathroom business, walked deeper into the woods, found the owl perched on an exposed branch, and raced back to the car to grab my camera.

The bird was incredibly trusting as I crept closer, and I was able to capture a bunch of frames as the arboreal noble watched curiously. The blur at the top and bottom of the frame in the first shot is deliberate; it was created by shooting through a thin veil of leaves which separated me from the subject. I think it lends a sense of secrecy, like I’m spying on the bird in its forested surrounds. 

Barred Owl - Strix varia

Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS R5

1/200 at f/4, ISO 3200

I don’t think I’m a particularly creative bird photographer, my work being mostly technical/editorial, so it was fun to try something different with this cooperative subject. How cooperative? Just check out this second shot. While Image Stabilization reduced motion blur, I also braced myself against a tree to further ensure a sharp result with the slow shutter.

Barred Owl - Strix varia

Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS R5

1/80 at f/4, ISO 1600

I left the owl snoozing after twenty minutes, the photos an enduring memorial of an amazing intersection. Take a leak; find an owl. Doesn’t get much better. 

Interestingly, the New England leaves changed color very late this year; some to whom I spoke suggested that the delay was caused heavy summer rains. Regardless, you can see this patch of New Hampshire woods was still completely — and unusually — green at this late-October juncture.

Cheers for now!

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Post #209 - A few photos from Coastal Texas

As per my last post, Sonia and I have rented our Bay Area apartment and will be traveling for the next ten months. We're currently staying with my father-in-law in Riverside County in Southern California, and we leave for a month in Chile starting on Wednesday, December 8th. I'll blog as our adventure unfolds, but I'm going to dip into the past for this post.

A few weeks ago, in early-November, I served as a guide at the Rio Grande Birding Festival in Harlingen, Texas for the sixth time in seven years, the 2020 installment cancelled because of the pandemic. I'm responsible for leading morning field trips on each of the five festival days, but I have the afternoons to explore the vendor fair, go birding with other guides, or sneak off for photography. I had some great luck with the camera on South Padre Island, and I'll use this post to share those results with you.

Let's start with this Greater Yellowlegs. I regularly see these birds around the Bay Area and beyond, but they're always too far away or in situations/settings which won't yield pretty pictures. I haven't had a decent opportunity at this bird since I moved out of Massachusetts at the end of 2013, so I was hella stoked when this cooperative individual strode through my viewfinder while I was belly-crawling on tidal flats. #crushed!

Greater Yellowlegs - Tringa melanoleuca
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS R5
1/6400 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Greater Yellowlegs - Tringa melanoleuca
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS R5
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

I've done better with Ruddy Turnstones and Dunlin over the years, but I'm happy to add these two frames to my collection. I particularly like the curious head tilt in the first and the exaggerated bokeh (blur) in the second.

Ruddy Turnstone - Arenaria interpres
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS R5
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Dunlin - Calidris alpina
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS R5
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

As much as I love shooting shorebirds, this White Ibis stole the show because I'd never had a decent photographic crack at the species. This example favored water that was 6 to 8 inches deep, so I had to be very careful to keep my lens dry as I crawled/floated/maneuvered into shooting position between the bird and the setting sun. The ruffled feathers in the first shot result from breeze blowing across the bird's left side. I don't know the identity of the prey in the second shot, but it was thrashing around like a worm or small eel.

White Ibis - Eudocimus albus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS R5
1/4000 at f/7.1, ISO 640

White Ibis - Eudocimus albus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS R5
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

And lastly, we have this Piping Plover. I don't waste time taking pictures which include man-made stuff -- feeders, metal perches, roads, etc -- because it's lazy photography, but I make exceptions for banded birds because 1) reporting the band to this website helps researchers and 2) it's fun to learn the bird's story. The leg tag might be difficult to read in this wide composition (chosen for dramatic/creative effect), but it's sufficient to identify the bird as 48F. The banding folks sent me a certificate of appreciation for my submission, and I've added it to my running collection as displayed on my photo website. Hopefully, I'll find and photograph more banded birds in the future!

Piping Plover - Charadrius melodus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS R5
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 1000

It took several hours on my belly to capture all these frames, but the water was so warm that a pair of ratty old short was all the clothing I needed. I did catch a few birders watching me through their binoculars and scopes while I was crawling around, so I hope like hell that they've erased the image of my pasty white body from their memories! 

Cheers for now!

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Post #208 - My final Bay Area bike chase and big plans for the future.......

No, I'm not retiring from the glory-sport that is bike-birding, but I will be vacating the Bay Area for the next 10 months. Airbnb is permitting Sonia to work remotely through next September, and Tropical Birding will fly me from wherever I am to wherever my tours run. So, with that flexibility, we've decided to rent our apartment and hit the road! We're going to Chile for all of December, and we're planning to spend the remaining winter in CA, NV, AZ, and NM once we've returned. We've not visited OK or AR, so we'll hit those states en route towards LA, hopefully in early-April. From the bayou, we'll follow the Mississippi River north through May. We'll explore Ontario and Quebec in June and July, and we're planning on camping in Norway, Finland, and Sweden in August before returning to the US, picking-up the car in Philly, and recrossing the country in September. Throw my tour schedule (TX, FL, NC, MA, WY, Newfoundland) on top of that plan, and it's going to be a very hectic year. I'm optimistic we'll have room for my bicycle on the US and Canadian legs, but there should be plenty of blog material regardless!

Given the necessary preparations ahead of our departure, bike-birding has recently been curtailed. I did, however, put a pause on planning to pursue a Gray Catbird (GRCA) which was found in the San Francisco Botanical Garden on November 1st. I'd missed the mostly-Eastern species (range map below) on two different occasions -- once in San Francisco's Presidio in September of 2018 and again Half Moon Bay in August of 2019 -- so I was keen to avoid a third strike when I mounted up on the morning of November 4th.

The 19.5-mile ride to the Golden Gate Park was painless (~85 mins). Half-a-dozen birders hadn't observed the bird by my arrival, so I settled into the search for the next hour. And then another. And then another. Nancy Palmer caught a glimpse of something promising as the fourth hour arrived, but it took another 30 minutes before a clearer view confirmed her initial suspicion, the bird finally perching in the open for all to see. It was a great 'get' given that I was ready to fold the search five minutes earlier!

Gray Catbird - Bay Area bike bird #343 (SF bike bird #252)

39 round-trip miles

The ride avenged my previous misses on this species and wrapped-up my Bay Area biking with a savory victory. I'll miss my adopted home these next ten months, but I know there will be plenty of biking and birding when we return next fall.

Here are some numbers since we moved to San Mateo in May of 2017.

2017: ~700 (estimate since I didn't keep track or know how obsessive I'd become)
2018: 2,001 miles
2019: 2,086 miles
2020: 2,940 miles
2021: 2,080 miles
Total; ~9,800 miles

Species totals by county:
San Mateo            292    (408 checklists)
San Francisco       252    (137 checklists)
Santa Clara           229    (71 checklists)
Alameda               194    (29 checklists)
Santa Cruz            117    (17 checklists, all on same overnight swing)
Marin                    138    (11 checklists spread across six visits, mostly Rodeo Lagoon)
Monterey               95     (6 checklists, all on one morning as part of 5-day trip)
Stanislaus              73     (3 checklists, all on one day as part of 5-day trip)
San Benito             62     (6 checklist across an afternoon and morning as part of 5-day trip)
San Joaquin           59     (4 checklists across one summer morning as part of 5-day trip)
Contra Costa          51    (4 checklists, all on one summer afternoon as part of 5-day trip)
1,562 county ticks representing 343 species

***These totals include widespread and ABA-countable introduced species like European Starling and Eurasian Collared-Dove but not Red-masked Parakeet (observed in SF), Mute Swan (the pets at SF palace of fine arts), Mitred Parakeet (observed in Palo Alto), Northern Red Bishop (observed in SF), Chilean Flamingo (observed in Alameda), and so so.

Particularly notable birds:
Tufted Duck (SM)
Broad-billed Hummingbird (SF)
Black Rail (heard-only in SC)
Hudsonian Godwit (SM)
Bar-tailed Godwit (SM, Ala)
Ruff (SM, SC)
Rock Sandpiper (SF)
Parakeet Auklet (SF)
Sabine's Gull (SF, SC)
Slaty-backed Gull (SM)
Laysan Albatross (SM)
Red-footed Booby (SM, SF)
Northern Gannet (SM)
California Condor (SB)
Yellow-green Vireo (SF)
Dusky Warbler (SM)
Brown Thrasher (SF)
LeConte's Sparrow (SM)
27 New World warblers including Canada, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Prairie, Yellow-throated, Lucy's, Worm-eating, and Ovenbird.

OK, enough. More from the road in the near future. Cheers!

Monday, November 1, 2021

Post #207 - A few recent photos

I've really struggled with the camera this calendar year. The closure of my local photo spot for major construction has been a crushing blow, and I've been reticent to travel for personal purposes during the pandemic (though that's about to change - big time). I have done some traveling while guiding for Tropical Birding, but it's virtually impossible to do my own shooting while I'm pointing out birds to clients or helping them take their own pictures. That said, I have managed a handful of decent frames around the Bay Area in recent months, and I'll use this post to present them and say a few words about each. 

First up is this Snowy Egret. I had way too much lens when this subject sauntered into my view on the SF bayshore, so a tight headshot was the best I could hope for given my proximity. The bird was very focused on a school of baitfish, but a quick whistle was enough to get it to look up for a brief moment. I'm a huge fan of the feather detail which these close-cropped frames reveal, and I find that it easy to connect with the subject when peripheral distraction is minimized, the yellow eye and lores attention-grabbing in this instance. I like this shot be because it's an uncommon look at a common bird.

NOTE: I sold my Canon 1DX Mark II and have been relying on my 7D Mark II while I raise funds to buy the mirrorless R5. It's been nice to dust off this older body and see what it can do! 

Snowy Egret - Egretta thula
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/4000 at f/7.1, ISO 400

Next up is this Golden-crowned Sparrow which I intersected while birding outside San Jose. I rarely bother carrying the camera while I'm birding because I'm too focused on bird-finding and identification to worry about taking artistic photos, but I was stoked to have my walk-around rig with me when I spotted this subject at Vasona County Park. High overcast minimized midday shadows, and I consciously positioned the bird against some distant, low-hanging branches to suggest the Autumn season at the moment of capture. Sparrows don't get much photographic love, particularly in their winter plumage, so I was really happy with this colorful image of an under-appreciated species. 

Golden-crowned Sparrow - Zonotrichia atricapilla
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/800 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Moving right along, I'll offer this Pomarine Jaeger, an oceanic species which spends the vast majority of its life many miles from land. We regularly intersect 'Poms' on pelagic trips, but those encounters are usually transient, the powerful fliers rocketing by the boat at high speed. It was therefore very unusual that this representative spent a week frequenting a public beach in Half Moon Bay. The bird flew around a good deal on my visit but eventually put down on the sand and allowed close approach. Unfortunately, the beach was covered with ugly-ass seaweed, so I decided to go with a headshot to keep the frame clean. I never imagined I'd be so close to this striking species. The light was super muted (see next photo for explanation why), but I like how that rendered the frame more contrasty than colorful.

Pomarine Jaeger - Stercorarius pomarinus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/1600 at f/7.1, ISO 800

Now for the best one! Snowy Plovers love to hunker in human footprints along the edges of the dunes, a behavior which doesn't lend to striking/memorable photographs, but circumstances suggested that I get creative when this incredible opportunity presented post-jaeger. While some lazy, fake-ass photographers have taken to swapping-in prefabricated backgrounds instead of working to obtain a real result, this one is totally legit, it generated as the setting sun shone through forest fire smoke which had drifted onto the Pacific. Though I was hundreds of miles from the inferno, the scene was a striking reminder of the challenges California will continue to face as the impacts of climate change compound. This is a bird photograph, but it's the surrounding negative space (beach and sky) which renders the frame memorable.

Snowy Plover - Charadrius nivosus
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Cheers for now!

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Post #206 - The bike giveth, the bike taketh away.......

Williamson's Sapsucker (WISA) is common in California's Sierras but makes only rare appearances at lower, coastal elevations; between May of 2017 and September of 2021, eBird shows just three records from the Bay Area (blue pins on right map). All were single-observer encounters with flying/transient birds, so there was zero opportunity to initiate a pursuit in each instance. Given that scarcity and pattern, I was curious when Carter Gasiorowski reported a beautiful male at Vasona Park in Santa Clara County on October 4th (orange pin on right map). When the bird frequented the same small grove of trees through that day and the next, I decided to ride for it on the morning of the 6th. At 72 round-trip miles, it promised to be an exhausting undertaking.

WISA range (left) and Bay Area sightings 2017-2021 (right)
Map adapted from All About Birds

I departed San Mateo at 7:15am, battled heavy traffic and uncooperative lights south to Redwood City, and reached Palo Alto before joining Foothill Expressway and rounding the outskirts of San Jose. Reaching the park at 9:55, I intersected a dozen disappointed birders and photographers, the sapsucker absent all morning. Disregarding their dejection, I scoured the favored grove and surrounding with hopes of a midday reveal. No sapsucker in evidence and my stomach begging for sustenance by 1pm, I folded my search, grabbed a quick lunch, and started home. I assumed that task would consume three-plus hours given the northwest headwind which had built through the day, but I completed the inbound leg in the same 2 hours and 40 minutes which the outgoing required. Checking my phone after showering, I learned the WISA had shown for several observers at 3:30pm. Ugh - at least it was a nice day for a ride.

75 miles including a detour for Vesper Sparrow in San Carlos

That miss behind me, I turned my attention to the Ovenbird which Kaia Colestock and Elias Elias found at Salesforce Park on October 11th. Ovenbird is an eastern species which makes occasional cameos in California, usually during fall migration, but I'd not seen one anywhere in the state since moving from Boston in April of 2015 (6+ years). 

Ovenbird range

Huge northwest wind prevented a pursuit on the bird's discovery day, but positive reports on the 12th coupled with calm conditions to suggest a pursuit on that second afternoon. I'd knew nothing of the urban oasis when I arrived after an 85-minute ride, but it turned out to be a pretty neat place. I had no idea it was built on top of a transit center. It's not everyday I get in an elevator to go birding!

Salesforce Park in downtown SF

There was zero drama on this day; a horde of observers pointed me towards the Ovenbird five minutes after I arrived. It was very approachable/cooperative, and I was able to snap a serviceable digi-binoc pic as the bird poked about the understory. 

Ovenbird - Bay Area Bike Bird #342 (SF #251)

OK - remember the Williamson's Sapsucker from above? Well, it was seen on seven consecutive days following my failed attempt. Non-birding responsibilities and wind prevented redemption through the 13th, but I decided to give the bird another crack on the 14th. I couldn't have asked for a more perfect day -- sunny, no wind, mid-60's -- but the goddamn thing failed to show (again) despite my 5-hour vigil. It was a demoralizing defeat, and the return 36 miles miles took close to 3 hours when it was all said and done. And the worse part? The bird reappeared the following day and continued through the 20th! It seems to be most regular in the late-afternoon, but that timing doesn't work on the bike because I'd need to spend the night down there afterwards. So, the bird will remain one of my greatest misses unless it decides to stay into November, when I return from the East Coast.

72 miles direct, without detour for Vesper Sparrow as on 10/6

That's it for now. Cheers! 

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Post #205 - The Bay Area Bike-birding hits keep coming!

Locals have found so many great birds around here these last few weeks that I'm wondering if my legs are ever gonna get a rest! I guess there are worse problems to have, and I'm fortunate that breaks in my writing and guiding schedules have coincided to allow regular pursuits. I will recap one particularly involved chase in this post.

Black-throated Blue Warbler (BTBW) is an eastern species which makes rare cameos on the West Coast. One was found in Robertsville in Southern Santa Clara County in October of 2017, but it was out of my range (45 miles each way) in those early Bay Area bike-birding days because I was still recovering from a torn calf suffered ahead of my May move. As that was the only regional record across the last few years, I was stoked to learn that Nina Bai found a beautiful male in the San Francisco Botanical Garden on Saturday, October 2nd. Spotting on an Alvaro's Adventures pelagic on that day and locked into family stuff on Sunday, I had to delay my pursuit until Monday the 4th. Fortunately, the bird stuck, and a mini-mob pointed me towards it ten minutes after I arrived. Pro-tip: make sure you put the battery in your camera before leaving the house so that you don't have to resort to digi-binocs when your SLR is powerless. It was so dark in the understory that I was just happy to get anything with the phone.

Black-throated Blue Warbler - Bay Area Bike Bird #341 (SF #249)

With that first target secured, I hustled over to Crissy Field on the Presidio waterfront to look for the female Bobolink which others had reported for the previous ~3 days. Bobolink is another eastern species, but it reaches farther west than BTBW; it is therefore a more 'common' stray in California. 

Bobolink range

I spent 90 minutes stomping through wet grass but was unable to locate the field-loving bird, it clearly departed as suggested by additional negative reports from that day and the next. I did add a previously-reported female Blue-winged Teal (BWTE) on the lagoon as consolation (SF bike bird #250). That duck is regular around the Bay, but there's very little habitat for it in San Francisco. The female Blue-winged Teal can be differentiated from the very similar female Cinnamon Teal by the better defined eye-line and light patch at the base of the bill (among other subtle field marks). Note - the second/front bird in the below photo is NOT a female Cinnamon Teal, it is a female Green-winged Teal (GWTE). The confusion never ends......

Golden Gate Bridge from Crissy Field

Female BWTE (with female GWTE front) - SF Bike Bird #250

From Crissy, I proceeded east along the water to Fort Mason. David Assman's Lark Sparrow (LASP) had continued for the previous ~10 days, but I wasn't able to find it despite two hours of searching. The bird wasn't reported on that day -- October 4th -- or any day after, so I was clearly looking for another departed example. I can live with missing birds which aren't present because they've moved on, but over-looking a bird which others later re-find sucks. I have LASP on my San Mateo and Santa Clara County bike lists, and I'm sure I'll get it in SF eventually.

My route on October 4th - 50% ain't bad.......

I already have a backlog of content for you, so I'll try to crank additional entries in the next few days. Good birding until then - cheers!