Thursday, December 31, 2015

Post #49 - 2015 Recap, My Favorite Photos of the Year

Well, I suppose I may as well put a bow on 2015. It has been a year of incredibly transition for Sonia and me. Three huge changes dominated this year. First, I returned from the bike trip; I am now doing a fair amount of travel telling people about it. Second, we unexpectedly moved to Los Angeles when we thought we'd be in Boston. Lastly, and most excitingly, Sonia and I got engaged! As you can see a lot happened!

Common Redpoll - New York - January

Since this post will be a bit on the long side, I'll break it into sections to make it more manageable. That way you can skip the stuff you find boring! I'll mix in a few of my favorite photos from the year to keep it interesting.

1) What is this blog? What will it be moving forward?
2) The move to LA, first impressions, adaptation
3) Photographic set-backs
4) Rise of eBird, patch birding, county listing
5) Birding friends/festivals
6) What to look for in 2016?

Iceland Gull - Massachusetts - March

1) What is this blog? What will it be moving forward?
Right now this blog is functioning a bit like my birding journal. I have absolutely no idea if anyone finds it at all interesting, but that's what it is at the moment. I am hoping in the future to have more time to offer more objective and directed commentary on birds, birding, the environment, and current environmental policy. The problems is that between 2 hours of commuting and 10 hours of work each weekday, what little remaining effort I have is being put into writing my book; That project should be completed in 2016. I will then have more time to generate content here. In the meantime, I hope that my birding adventures, and particularly my photography, will inspire others to get out there and enjoy birds and everything else out-of-doors!

Greater Prairie-chicken - Colorado - April

2) The move to LA, first impressions
LA has admittedly been very frustrating, but it is slowly getting better. There are certainly lots of good birds here, but I have to do a lot of driving to get to them. I am clearly not a fan of the freeways and constant congestion. The other confounding factor is the number of people that live here is Southern California. The sprawl seems to go on FOREVER! It's very difficult to find personal space, particularly for photography, which is difficult to do properly when anyone else is around. It has taken time to adjust to birding patch parks and generally developed areas; I simply cannot get the feeling of isolation without driving for a few hours to get out of the sprawl. In Boston, I used to be able to bird/shoot on weekday mornings and still make it to work by 10:30 or so. No more. Getting around LA is just such a incredible headache. I am now, sadly, relegated to the weekends when places are overrun with people. I think, after 8 months here, I finally have at least a basic idea of how to approach birding here. It's just really different....

Greater Sage-grouse - Colorado - April

3) Photographic set-backs
My photography really, really suffered this year. There birding areas here are generally so heavily trafficked that its tough to properly work with birds as photographic subjects. Shorebirds are my aboslute favorite, but there really isn't a good, publically accessible estuary unless I go down to San Diego (which is too far unless there's something else going on down there). Malibu Lagoon is OK, but again, small and heavily trafficked. So much of the coastline is either private, developed, or military that access is very frustrating. There are loads of water birds at Bolsa Chica and San Joaquin, but I'm not allowed to leave the dikes to get low along the water. Shooting down on ducks or waders is waste of time; You have to have your lens at their level to get a decent shot. I completely understand why the rules are the way they are; There are simply so many people here that the habitat would get wrecked otherwise. If I am willing to drive 1.5 to 3 hours (one way) I can reach areas with what I consider the requisite space I need for proper shooting. If I could shoot mid-week it might be a different story. I took some nice pictures this year, just not at many as I would like (but I guess that's every photographer's biggest complaint!).

Gray Thrasher - Potential ABA 1st - California - August

4) Rise of eBird, patch birding, county listing
With photography on life-support, I have become obsessed with eBird. I now create checklists for every birding stop I make. The eBird cell phone app has largely replaced my camera, and I find myself birding patch parks and local reserves with incredible diligence so to find every possible species. It's really a ton of fun, and the data is actually useful for birders and scientists alike! I would be lying if I said I wasn't at all competitive about it either. I love seeing my species totals at my various haunts rise with each visit. I have also found a nice number of good birds, something that rarely happened when I was so camera-centric. My rather short Orange County life list (204 species!) is now something I really enjoy building up. Just this morning I added Hooded Merganser, Glaucous-winged Gull, and Eurasian Wigeon. All of these birds just popped up in the course of casual birding and failed photography!

Elegant tern - California - September

5) Birding friends/festivals
My attendance at the Lower Rio Grande Birding Festival was awesome! Not since I attended the Victor Emanuel Nature Tours youth camps did I feel such energy and comraderie around birds and birding. I met tons of folks, saw a few birds, and had ton of laughs in so doing. It was just fantastic! I cannot wait to attend and speak at both the Laredo Birding Festival in Texas February and the Southwest Wings Festival in Arizona in August. Unsurprisingly, many birders now recognize me as the "guy on the bike" and strike up conversation as a result. I love these interactions and, unless I have my camera intently pointed at something, welcome any approach people want to make!

Snowy Egret - California - September

6) What will 2016 hold?
Getting married and finishing my book are my two top priorities. Luckily, the wedding won't suck up too much time we're getting married at a roller skating rink and having the reception at a pizza place! The book will eat up a lot of my potentially free time, but will be incredibly rewarding when it finally comes to fruition.

Phainopepla - California - November

Otherwise, reaching 700 ABA birds is a major focus right now. I'm at 698 (696 lower 48, I've not birded any of Alaska) after adding 3 lifers this year (Least Storm-petrel, Fork-tailed Storm-petrel, and Streak-backed Oriole). Red-legged Honeycreeper and Gray Thrasher are still pending though. I should get Scripps's Murrelet on a February SoCal boat trip, and I could get 3 Pterodroma petrels (Cook's Hawaiian, Murphy's) on a cruise ship pelagic in May if I can make that work. Otherwise, I'll have to wait for rarities to show up here in California. Anyway, 700 birds was a goal I set at like age 10, so it should be a good feeling when it happens at some point next year - especially w/o Alaska!

Merlin - California - November

Though she will never admit to it, Sonia is actually quite the budding birder. She is learning identification basics, but more importantly just enjoys being outside. I hope to encourage and support her as she continues to develop her own bird interest. Being able to enjoy birds and birding in her company would be fantastic!

Lastly, I hope to simply enjoy birds. The best part of my day today was watching Buffleheads and Eared Grebes swimming under the boardwalk at Bolsa Chica. Its amazing how well adapted they are to underwater pursuits, particularly the grebes. 

Lesser Scaup - California - December

OK, that's it for now. I hope 2016 is bird-filled for everyone!

The End! (Dovekie from 2013)

Monday, December 28, 2015

Post #48 - Wind storm birding, Streak-backed oriole!

I hope everyone had a nice holiday. Mine was spent with Sonia's family here in Southern California where, I must admit, I take Christmas even less seriously than I did when I lived in the Northeastern United States. At least in that region of the country the prospect of a white Christmas lends a bit of authenticity to the cold-weather bravado that seems to characterize the holiday. Christmas songs such as "Frosty the Snowman" and "Jingle Bells" make even less sense than usual in the context of palm trees. Anyway, I'll stop before the full extent of my inner Grinch comes to light. Sonia is working on me, but it's an uphill battle. Humbug, suffice it to say!

On the bird front, there was quite a bit of excitement this weekend. Needing a break from the holiday cheer, I at 8pm on Friday (Xmas) checked the rare bird alerts to find that a Code 4 Streak-backed Oriole had been discovered in Yuma, Arizona two days earlier, on December 23. Most likely, this is the same bird that was originally eBirded as a seasonally rare Hooded Oriole on the 16th (I think). The bird had fallen into a relatively predictable pattern, and I decided it was time for my second bird chase of the year. The only other bird I chased this year was the potential ABA 1st Gray Thrasher that appeared in San Diego in August. I hoped this chase would be as successful as that one (see below). I was super excited since Sonia decided to join me on this run. It would be her first, so I hoped we would meet with success so as to ensure continued participation in the future. Though Sonia claims she isn't a bona fide birder, he behavior suggests decidedly otherwise.

Potential ABA 1st Gray Thrasher, San Diego, August

Though the oriole had shown well for 3 consecutive days, huge winds on Saturday the 26th, injected unwelcome uncertainty into the equation. Wind build from 15 MPH during our drive to a steady 30 MPH by the time we arrived in Yuma. I was not terribly optimistic about our prospects given these conditions. We arrived at Riverside park to find half-a-dozen other birders present. The bird had appeared briefly at 9am, but had been absent for the previous 2 hours. We milled about, chatting, and eventually took shelter in the car to shield ourselves from the gusting winds. Sand was blowing everywhere. Much of it ended up in my teeth, a most unsavory experience. During conversation, Sonia spotted the oriole as it flew into a fruiting palm tree 50 feet from our car. Other birders had seen it as well and expeditiously emerged from their vehicles. The bird bounced around for a bit before settling into a particular fruiting tree where it spent the next hour slowly and methodically foraging. It never fully emerged, but I was able to get a few shots as it delicately picked its way between the branches of the heavily leafed tree. Here is the best of them!

Streak-backed Oriole - ABA bird #698!
* Red-legged Honeycreeper and Gray Thrasher still not counted,
so I might actually be at 700 without seeing another bird!

There was unsurprisingly much rejoicing by all present. Sonia managed to capture a few shots of some of the other birders, for documentation purposes only. All in all it was a really great outing. We had a nice trip, found our bird, and made a few new friends in the process. Dave and Trudy actually followed the Biking for Birds blog last year, so it was great to meet yet more of my loyal readers from that adventure!

L > R : Random dude, Sonia, Me, New friends Trudy, Josh, and Dave

Lastly, here is a video that Sonia and I made on the car ride home. This should give you an idea of exactly how strong the wind was. I was really amazed the bird showed at all. I should have made a video of the trees swaying as the bird bounced around them. Oh well, next time.....

I'll try to crank out one last post on New Year's Eve to close out and recap the year. Stay tuned for more Speckled Hatchback in 2016!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Post #47 - Christmas Count, with a twist

This past week/weekend I was in Austin, Texas to present two talks. The first of these was for the local Audubon chapter, Travis Audubon. It was very well attended and seemed as though it went very well. No one threw anything at me while I was on stage, so I guess that was a good sign! The second talk was at The Lost Pines Christmas Bird Count. Wait - what? Speak? At a CBC? CBCs are about counting birds, not talks or lectures, right? Well, the Lost Pines folks have added their own, very interesting twist to the traditional CBC model. The way that it works is this. Saturday is filled with birding workshops and informal birding talks, and Sunday is the actual bird count. The goal of the weekend is to introduce novice birders to both birds and birding on the first day before sending them out with more seasoned observers for the CBC on the second. The format seems has worked well for the previous 5 years and appears that it will continue to do so into the future. 

Bastrop County - Lost Pines Resort is off Route 71,
near Wyldwood (between Austin and Bastrop)

Another interesting aspect of this count is that it is hosted by the Hyatt Lost Pines Resort and Spa. This resort and conference center is located roughly 20 miles east of Austin and encompasses 400-some acres  in eastern Bastrop County. The resort graciously absorbs the costs of hosting the festivities; There is no registration fee for the weekend. They also cover the travel costs, speaking fees, and lodging of the presenters. Many of the participants stay at the hotel since its exceedingly convenient to be able to bounce between the rooms, the resort, and the presentations and field trips. The resort has everything a person could possibly need, so there's no need to rent a car for the weekend. Transportation to the count on Sunday is also provided, again free of charge.  I found this very refreshing, and I wanted to publicly applaud the resort for their continued commitment to this annual event. I think the whole idea of combining education and outreach with a CBC is a great idea, one from which I think other counts might benefit. 

View of resort from top of golf course

Riverside woodlands

More mixed woodlands

The count circle is centered just north of the resort and encompasses all of the property as well as all of the adjacent McKinney Roughs Nature Park (1,100 acres, administered by the Lower Colorado River Authority). I volunteered to cover the resort property as I thought it would be cool to be able to hand my hosts a complete list of birds species that I found on their property, wooded golf course included. I scraped out 56 species, Bald Eagle among them. My personal highlight was when I had 3 stunning examples of Zonotrichia sparrows (White-crowned, White-throated, and Harris's) sitting on the same branch. I guess Golden-crowned to complete the "Zono-slam" would have been asking too much! I did on this weekend leave my camera at home. It was very nice to bird without any photographic distractions!

I hope to make it out for some post-Christmas birding and photography, so stayed tuned as the first year of The Speckled Hatchback comes to a (hopefully) exiciting close!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Post #46 - Balancing birding and photography, a sometimes tricky task....

For some, birdwatching is a hobby, a distraction from all things real world, a chance to commune with nature. For me, its a more like a incurable disease, a passion that consumes me at many points in my day, online if not in the field. I have been birding since age 6, and minus a significant lull during my nightlife-oriented 20s, the interest has generally grown as have I (I turned 37 last week). Five years ago I discovered bird photography for the first time. It has since become my latest addiction, surpassing even birding as my primary focus. Birders can't find enough time to bird, and photographers can't find enough time to photograph, so you can imagine how I struggle to balance the two related but often mutually exclusive pursuits! Here I'll shed a bit of light on the difference between birding and photography and offer a few suggestions for those folks trying to manage a similar juggling act. 

How I like to photograph shorebirds!
Can you identify the circled bird? Hint - its a good one! Answer at end.....

Wait. Stop. What's this rubbish he's talking? How can birding and bird photography be mutually exclusive? I see birders carrying cameras AND binoculars all the time! Well, it's actually quite simple to explain. Here we need to draw a casual distinction between photographing while birding and dedicated bird photography. Let's use an two photos that I took last weekend to illustrate this point. This first was taken while birding Mile Square Park, one of my now frequent Orange County haunts. I was looking for a previously reported Orchard Oriole when this guy popped out of the underbrush. 

Varied Thrush

Recognizing it as a Varied Thrush, a notable bird as far south as Orange County, I did my best to grab a few serviceable frames, mainly for documentation purposes. As you can see, the frame is muddled with branches, strongly backlit, and heavily cropped. In short, it is far from a wall hanger. This was taken with my 400mm f/5.6 lens (on my EOS 7D2), an ideal lens for photographing while birding. Other people use 300mm or 100-400mm lenses for similar purposes. The point is that these lenses can be easily carried with both binoculars and a scope. After I snapped this photo, the bird flushed and I continued my birding without major disruption. Birding was my primary purpose in this instance.

This second shot is of a Lesser Scaup. It took 2 solid hours of patience and maneuvering and several hundred less-stellar frames before I acquired this clean, sharp, full framer. My arms ached from handholding my 500mm f/4 (it weights 8.5lbs, 10lbs with 7D2 attached), and my back was stiff from contorting myself to get as low to the water as possible. At one point, with the camera resting on the ground, I put my chin directly into fresh, mushy goose crap in an attempt to get even lower than I already was. It was a very unwelcome feeling, but ultimately worth it! During these hours my binoculars were in the car. Had any notable bird flown over, it would have done so undetected. In this instance, getting this shot was my primary purpose. Proper bird photography requires equal amounts of planning and patience. It's not so much the fancier, longer lenses (though they really help!), as much as it a dedication to getting the desired shot while ignoring more peripheral distractions. 

Lesse Scaup - Aythya affinis
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D2
1/4000 at f/4, ISO 400

So, how do I balance my desire to see loads of different birds with my desire to photograph a few birds particularly well? The answer is light; I let the sun make virtually all the decisions for me. On any given outing, I am photographically oriented from sunrise until the time the sun gets about 35-40 degrees above the horizontal. At that time the light is usually too harsh for my taste.  I pack up the big camera, and break out the smaller lens and more general birding gear. I bird through the middle part of the day before breaking the big camera out again towards sunset. If the day is overcast, I skip photography all together for two reasons. First, once you get used to shooting in good light, it's tough to motivate to shoot in overcast conditions (unless its high overcast). Second, the clouds give me the excuse to bird! In this way, I do my best to balance the two pursuits. Do I miss some shots since I forgo shooting when it's cloudy? Sure. Do I miss some good birds when I am totally focused on photographing the common ones? Of course, but, hey, there's no such thing as a free lunch, right? This is just my approach. Hopefully someone out there will find it helpful and/or interesting.

As for the highlighted bird in the firs shot, here is how I saw that Little Stint (in Massachusetts!)

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Post #45 - Black Friday Birding, teamwork photography, book progress....

Instead of shopping, Sonia and I went birding on Black Friday and overnight into Saturday. We hit a number of spots around Riverside and Orange Counties during our two days out. It was thoroughly enjoyable, and I can appreciate that winter - or at least the Southern California interpretation of it - has finally arrived. Raptors and ducks were plentiful everywhere we went, and my photos from our excursion certainly reflect this. My photo portfolio is generally weak in these areas, so I am hoping to round out my collection with shots of these families in the next few months. The first two were taken from an elevated boardwalk that unfortunately prevented me from getting a lower angle on the subjects. Despite the lack of action, the birds are so attractive that I am happy with the results anyway.

Surf Scoter - Melanitta perspicillata
Orange County, California
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D2
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Lesser Scaup - Aythya affinis
Orange County, California
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D2
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Photo of weekend honors surely go to this lady kestrel. There is actually kind of a funny story behind it We drive a 1999 Volvo. Let's just describe it as "well-loved". Among its more charming features are not one, but two - YES, TWO! - front windows that don't roll down. We live in sunny California and we can't roll our front windows down. Kinda sad, right, RIGHT??!?! #fail. Anyway, many people will appreciate that a car provides a fantastic - and moveable - blind from which to photograph birds. For reasons I do not fully understand, a huge car poses little apparent threat to many birds. Open the door and take one step towards the bird and it's generally over though. Given the limitations of out current vehicle, I cannot, when I head out alone, use the car as a mobile blind because of the front window limitations. Enter my personal chauffeur, Sonia. With her driving and me sitting in the back seat, we were a bird photographing force.With result like this, she might be pressed into service more in the upcoming months! 

Female American Kestrel - Falco sparverius
Riverside County, California
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D2
1/1250 at f/8, ISO 400
 Closed lens down to get whole bird in focus

This is the last notable photo of the weekend. I am not terribly sure how I feel about it. It was taken in rather crappy light against a clearly overcast sky for a background. The painting-like quality of the shot is kinda cool, but I'm just not completely sold on it from a purely photographic standpoint. Any thoughts, positive or negative, are welcome!

Merlin - Falco columbarius
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 7D2
1/800 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Lastly, for those that are curious, my book is slowly moving along. I have received some very solid feedback from publishing folks in New York, and I think that while I have a very good first draft (~93,000 words, or ~340 pages at 375/words page), it will be at least another 6 months before I'll have a more polished second draft ready for further critique. I do not have a publisher yet, but I am honestly not concerned about my ability to publish this book. I am more concerned with producing the best book that I can; I am sure it will get published in some capacity or other. I have thorough enjoyed the writing process, and I am looking forward to tackling the suggested revisions. Stay tuned!