Saturday, February 28, 2015

Post #12 - All it takes is one good bird, good behavior, Boston bound!

For the first time in a few weeks, I was actually able to escape Manhattan. I spent last night out Long Island. I had planned to sleep on my friends' inflatable bed, but a few swift chomps by their bulldog punctured it. Bulldogs are apparently in no danger of being too smart for their own good. Luckily, I had a camping pad in my car that I have been keeping at their house. It wasn't the best night's sleep, but the story more than makes up for it. 

I spent the most of the day at Jones Beach. There were the usual sea ducks, gulls, a few raptors. I saw at least 4-5 Rough-legged hawks. It has been an incredible year for those around New York, at least as far as I can discern. A few Horned larks and Snow buntings made cameos, and the usual gaggle of finches and sparrows was scurrying about as well. 

The bird of the day was the certainly the Northern saw-whet owl to which some nice folks directed me. The bird has apparently been in the area for a few days, but it doesn't roost in the same spot every night. There were a lot of people birding the area today, and it seemed like everyone who was there was able to see the owl. Somewhat surprisingly, everyone was on perfect behavior. All too often people get so excited about owls that they scare them off by approaching too closely. The owl today was perched ~8 feet off the ground (saw-whets often perch around eye level). Great views were had by all from just 10 feet away. Saw-whets are notoriously tame and approachable. Although this distance might seem like an encroachment, it is a perfectly acceptable distance for this species. For other species of owls, notably Snowy, a much wider radius must me respected. The bird today never looked agitated or fluffed his wings like he was readying to fly away. He hardly opened his eyes as he dozed. As it only takes knucklehead to scare the bird off, it was really refreshing to see everyone respecting the owl's boundaries today.

Northern saw-whet owl - record shot - no technical details provided

I am excited to be visiting Boston for a few days this next week. I should be able to squeeze in one day of birding at my old haunts. This would be my first Bay State birding since I biked out that freezer in January of 2014! The winter birding in Massachusetts is by far the best in the Northeast. There are also several places (Gloucester, Provincetown) that are incredibly photo friendly. I have yet to find anywhere on Long Island that rivals either of those two spots from a photography standpoint. If I can manage some decent shots, I'll be sure to them posted just as soon as I can. In case I strike out completely, here's a Thick-billed murre from my vault of Massachusetts bird photos!

Thick-billed murre, Provincetown MA

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Post #11 - West Coast Bound!

No real bird news for the moment, but I wanted to inform everyone that Sonia and I will be moving to Los Angeles in the next few weeks. We have no idea if this a temporary arrangement or a permanent transposition. I will say that I am VERY much looking forward to the year-round, high quality birding and photography that Souther California affords. As I will have both a car and endless good light, I am very excited to hone my photography skills in a way that NYC just does not permit.

I will be in NYC for at least another month. Hopefully warming temps will permit a bit more birding than have the freezing temps and snow of the past month. There will be a bit of time in Boston this next month, and there will also be a lengthy cross-country drive to reach LA. I will be certain to do some birding along this route. Perhaps I will make a stop for some displaying grouse out west!

OK, that's it for now. Just a quick update to let you know what's ahead - lots of birding for sure!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Post #10 - Lonely in NYC, birds as new friends, lots of photos

I am currently staying in my dad's apartment in New York City. He works overseas, and when he is in the country, he spends his time with my mom in Philadelphia; I can squat here until Sonia and I make our next move (i.e. we both secure work in the same place). She has been in California for the past 2 weeks, and due to some family business, will likely be there for another month. What this means for me is that I am very lonely at the moment.  Reading, writing, walking, cooking, and eating are all done alone. I spend 20 hours of each day in the apartment - all alone. Without a car, escaping Manhattan is not a viable option. As a result, Central Park has been my only convenient escape. 

Each morning, much like an Emperor Penguin traversing the Antarctic ice, I shuffle over to the Park to take attendance. There is the usually expansive collection of White-throated sparrows rummaging around on the tundra beneath the feeders hung in Evodia field section of the Ramble. There numbers are so great that if any one of them either froze to death overnight, his absence would go forever unrecognized. The same can be said for the hoards of grackles that jostle with these sparrows for prime position under the ramshackle feeders. Chickadees and titmice are lured right to the hand with seed or bread; Peanuts suffice for Blue jays. A lone Common redpoll inevitably makes a breakfast cameo at the thistle feeder, and an individual American tree sparrow and a seasonally rogue immature chipping sparrow intermix with the ever-shifting group of White-throated sparrows. Cardinals, goldfinches, robins, starlings, nuthatches, Fox sparrows, and juncos round out the quorum. A lone Pine sisken, my first of the year, unexpectedly joined the milieu this morning.

The woodpeckers have certainly starred this past week. I have now worked out the approximate expanse surveyed and patrolled by two handfuls of individual birds representing four species (DOWO, HAWO, RBWO, and YBSA). By learning their individual patterns and proclivities, I have been able to put myself in position for some really nice shots of a few of them.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - Sphyrapicus varius
Central Park, New York City, NY, 2/16/15
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 1600, Manual mode

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - Sphyrapicus varius
Central Park, New York City, NY, 2/16/15
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 1600, Manual mode

Red-bellied woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus
Central Park, New York City, NY, 2/16/15
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/640 at f/5.6, ISO 1600, Manual mode

Red-bellied woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus
Central Park, New York City, NY, 2/16/15
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/640 at f/5.6, ISO 1600, Manual mode

Red-bellied woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus
Central Park, New York City, NY, 2/16/15
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/640 at f/5.6, ISO 1600, Manual mode

Red-bellied woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus
Central Park, New York City, NY, 2/16/15
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/640 at f/5.6, ISO 1600, Manual mode

Although limited in number and diversity, these winter residents have kept me company during these two, solitary weeks. They have become part of my routine, and I look forward with great anticipation to the few hours I spend with them each day. They ask so little, and they give so much. They really help with the solitude.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Post #9 - Photographing a friendly Yellow-bellied sapsucker

I will confess that birding and photography has been painfully slow recently. I guess it's understandable given the weather and the fact that Central Park is about the only place I go these days. Being in NYC without a car is really tough from a birding standpoint. I just can't get anywhere worth going right now. Pelham Bay and Jamaica Bay can be accessed by train, but they are both long train rides followed by long walks in what is seemingly always extreme cold. Its just not worth carrying all my stuff on public transportation for what would amount 1-2 hours each way. I would rather continue what has so far been an incredible productive few weeks of book writing. I may as well accomplish as much as I can on this front before the weather and the birding start to heat up again. I will be in Boston for 8 days at the end of the month, so, if the snow behaves, maybe I'll be able to make it out for a few days there (I'll have the car then).

Anyway, today I went for an afternoon walk in Central Park. Most of the activity right now is centered on the collection of feeders in the famed ramble. There are always tons of chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, sparrows, and grackles at the feeders. There has been what we all assume is a single redpoll hanging around as well. Unfortunately, the way the feeders are arranged and hung makes them essentially useless for photography. I refuse to take pictures of birds on feeders. There are always a number of Fox sparrows hopping around, but they are always bait far off and often right on the seed on the ground. Seed spread on the ground is something else I work hard to keep out of my shots. Basically I am trying to avoid any signs of human interference (feeders, paved paths, cut logs, fences etc) in my photographs. This makes the shots look natural and really adds to the challenge of the process.

The star of today was unquestionably a cooperative Yellow-bellied sapsucker. I heard this bird calling from behind me, and I sauntered over to check it out despite the backtrack. After all, I had nowhere to be. For the next 1 hour 15 minutes I watched this guy as he repeatedly checked each and every sap-oozing hole he had drilled into the tree. He was very active, and at times he had to defend his food source from thieving chickadees and titmice. A particularly exciting moment was when a Red-tailed hawk actually made a pass at the sapsucker. The raptor flew right into the tree trunk with its talons fully extended. Luckily, the sapsucker managed to fly off just as the hawk's feet hit the tree. The hawk cleared out and the sapsucker returned for yet more foraging. By watching his movements for an extended period of time, I learned his patterns and was able to obtain a few nice shots of him. It was really nice to slow down and work with one cooperative bird for an extended period of time today. I had to use the teleconverter on the zoom lens, so I lost a bit of touch of feather sharpness compared to some of my other shots. I'm still very happy with the result though.

Maybe 8-9 years ago, there was a Scott's oriole that spent the winter in Union Square Park here in NYC. That bird survived by following a resident sapsucker around. All you had to do listen for the sapsucker and you'd find the oriole close behind!

The weather is going to be atrocious the next few days, but once it clears up early next week I'll probably go back to the sapsucker spot with the big rig. There's too much sap on that tree for him not to hang out there all the time! 

Yellow-bellied sapsucker - Sphyrapicus varius
Central Park, New York City
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 v1 + 1.4x Teleconverter III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/800 at f/8, ISO 1600, Manual mode

Yellow-bellied sapsucker - Sphyrapicus varius
Central Park, New York City
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 v1 + 1.4x Teleconverter III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1000 at f/8, ISO 1600, Manual mode

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Post #8 - First bird chase of 2015.....a short good one with photos!

I had planned to spend yet more time writing today, but my friend Tom today managed to twist my arm into taking a ride with him and his wife, Ann.  We had been talking about birding Shawangunk Grasslands NWR in Ulster County at some point this winter. This is a traditional winter spot for Rough-legged hawks and Short-eared owls. These species are seen on a near-daily basis at this location. I saw both of these species during my last midwinter visit 3 years ago. What motivated the trip on this particular day was a Gyrfalcon that had been reported in the area for each of the last 2 days. We figured we would take a ride to look for the hawk and the owl, and if the falcon materialized for us, then it would be a nice bonus.

Shawangunk grasslands NWR are a now defunct army airport that the grasses have reclaimed. Managed by the US Fish and Wildlife service, this ~565 acre area is the summer home to Eastern Meadowlarks, Bobolinks, and Grasshopper sparrows. In winter, the habitat can hold dozens of raptors. A refuge volunteer told us that he has recently observed upwards of a dozen Short-eared owls hunting over the area a one time! As we approached the refuge, Tom nearly drove off the road as he shouted "Gyrfalcon!". The bird had rifled right over the car and quickly disappeared over a wooded patch and hill to the left side of the car. Only Tom saw it, and he hypothesized, based on our geography, that it was heading for the area from which it has been reported the last two days. We decided to leisurely bird our way in that general direction.

Our first stop at the refuge proper yielded 3 Rough-legged hawks (2 light, 1 dark) and 3 Red-tailed hawks. All the birds were perched in trees right along the edge of the grasslands. We gave the area a few scans, before deciding that we should head down to the Blue Chip Farms area where the bird has been seen. As this spot was only a mile down the road from the grasslands, we figured we could bounce back and forth between the two areas depending on that the birds at each were doing.

As soon as we arrived at the farms, we saw a guy with a large lens looking at something on the right hand side of the road. I immediately saw the Gyrfalcon perched in a pine tree relatively close to the road. We piled out of the car for incredible looks at the bird. I was not optimistic about the prospects of finding, let along photographing this bird. I was caught unprepared and I had to quickly assemble my camera. I managed to do this just as the bird lifted off from the pine tree. My camera was in manual mode from a midweek walk over to Central Park, so I had to go into complete scramble mode to get the settings right. I normally take a series of test shots to establish the correct exposure before worrying about composition. I managed to do both in one quick hit today, and I walked away with two marginal shots. These are VERY heavy crops. I am normally hope to keep at least 1/3 (33%) of the frame, and this is at the extremely low end. Greater than 1/2 (50%) normally produces the best results. Given the scarcity of this bird anywhere, particularly in the Lower 48, I am happy with these results. Light was obviously terrible!

Gyrfalcon (cropped to 7% of original frame)

Gyrfalcon (cropped to 18% of original frame)

Scattered birders quickly coalesced. After lifting off from the roadside pine tree, the bird cic=rcle the field one before landing in a leafless deciduous tree at the back of the field. Here is sat, roughly 200 yards back from the road, for the next hour. Dozens of birders from surrounding states (NY, NJ, CT) had nice scope views of the huge white bird as he relaxed and preened. We left the bird after aout 50 minutes to head back to the grasslands to look for Short-eared owls. We managed to find 2, although distant, to complete the target bird hat trick for the day. As snow was moving in, we turned tail, closed up shop, and headed back to the city. 

Gyrfalcon stared in pine on left, then flew to and perched in
trees all the way at the back of the field.

Gathering crowds

I have seen Gyrfalcon on only 1 other occasion. That bird spent part of the winter of 2001-2002 in downtown Boston. I was able to observe that bird at its favorite downtown haunt, the Boston Design Center right alongside the cruise ship terminal. The large population of gulls around the harbor apparently kept that bird well fed for weeks!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Post #7 - Central park, patch birding, one of my birding dreams......

I am currently holed up at my family's NYC apartment. Sonia is actually away for an extended period of time right now so for now it's just me, the snow and ice, and book writing. I apologize if posts are not as forthcoming as normal. I am doing so much writing at the moment that I often lose steam by the time I get around to the blog. Again, you can always sign up for email notification when new posts go up (top, right hand side under banner photo). 

That being said, I have fallen into a nice routine this week. Most mornings I go for an extended walk in Central Park before settling down to write for the rest of the day. The morning activity helps me to focus when I actually start writing. I am actually carless at the moment, so my birding options are a bit limited. Central park is certainly my main destination. Just about everything is frozen over at the moment. A nuclei of landbirds hangs around the well-maintained feeders in the ramble, while another of waterbirds, mainly geese and gulls, resides on the almost completely frozen reservoir. 

A snow-covered path through the wooded Ramble

Central Park Reservior (Mt Sinai Med Center on right)

It likely goes without saying that species diversity is very low right now. I think I have tallied ~30 species or so. The most exciting bird was certainly the Common redpoll that appeared at the feeders on Tuesday. A seasonally aberrant chipping sparrow has also been in the area, as have numerous Fox Sparrows. Otherwise it is the normal feeder birds: woodpeckers, titmice, chickadee, grackles etc. Today, a huge female Cooper's hawk made several stealthy passes through the feeders looking for breakfast. I am hoping to get a shot of her in action at some point. Fox sparrow is also high on my wish list. Stay tuned on that front. 

I will say that after a year where I birded different areas each day, there is something totally relaxing and even comforting about walking through Central Park each day - even when birds are a bit thin. It would be really cool to spend 2 hours in there every day for a whole year to see how things slowly changed over the seasons. I think I would take great satisfaction in knowing a single place so well that I could detect even small shifts in what the birds did each day. I think this is the essence of patch birding. I am not sure I'll be here long enough to see the whole year through, but for right now its enough. 

I hope an some point that Sonia and I will own at least a small piece of property. Then I'll finally have my own little patch that I can watch for at least a short time each and every day. My pipe dream is to have a yard with a feeder array that attracts some huge rarity (Fieldfare, Brambling)  during Super Bowl week. Everyone could come over and watch the game while we wait for the bird. Maybe one day.......

Monday, February 2, 2015

Post #6 - Super Bird Sunday

I managed to make it out for a very nice morning of birding and photographing yesterday (Sunday). It started out very cold but quickly warmed to near 40 degrees. By recent standards, this was downright tropical. I arrived at Jones Beach near sunrise. I was hoping to find, among other things, one or more of the 5 Lapland longspurs that had been reported from the location on the previous day. Zero longspurs were observed in my 4 hours at the beach. I did observe the usual gaggle of gulls, sea ducks, and Snow buntings. Despite my best efforts, the buntings avoided the barrel of my 500mm lens. My experience photographing this species tells me that finding lone birds or very small groups affords the best chance of closely approaching this very skittish ground dweller. The large (~80 individuals) group today wanted nothing to do with me - or my lens. 

The highlight of the morning was a flock of 15-20 Common redpolls that was feeding right on the dunes trail at the west end of the beach. I really nailed one bird as he fed on some plant that my minimal botany skills prevent me from identifying. I always say that all I want from each day out is a decent amount of birds and at least one really good photo opportunity. This was the only interesting bird that was within my "photography radius" all day. It took a bit of maneuvering to avoid out-of-focus reeds in the foreground, but I am very happy with the results. The crop is a bit awkward, but I didn't have much frame with which to work.

Common redpoll - Carduelis flammea
Jones Beach, Long Island, New York
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 + 1.4x Teleconverter III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 1600
+1 stop using Evaluative metering
This is ~39% of the original frame

Birding was admittedly a bit slow. I did find the 3 continuing Harlequin ducks and a handful of Common eiders floating around the jetty. Here is what that scene looked like.

If you look just behind my gear, you can see what looks like a sheet of ice. Upon closer inspection, I found all sorts of miniature ice formations. I spent a bit of time playing around with them. This is the result I like best.

Ice on beach, Jones Beach, Long Island, New York
Canon 17-40 f/4L at 40mm on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/400 at f/22, ISO 800
Full frame

I often get so wrapped up looking for birds that I forget to stop and appreciate the other things I might find. If the birding is super hot then it is completely understandable. However, when things slow down it can be jet as rewarding to see what else you can find. This is surely why so many birders have picked up butterflies as a complement to their primary avian interest. I also spent a bit of time looking at shells and other bean debris. It was nice to slow down for a bit and just appreciate where I was on a slower birding day. As I left Jones beach midmorning, I saw perhaps the most beautiful Rough-legged hawk I have ever seen. It floated long the roadside before landing in a snag in the marsh. He escaped the gaze of my lens as there was not a good place to pull over to photograph him. I'll have to live with the redpoll shot as a consolation!

As a final note, I also found 4 Winter wrens and 2 American woodcocks along a stream in Farmingdale. The woodcocks flushed before I could get any shots of them. As a shorebird fanatic, I am anxious to add this woodland variant to my photo collection.