Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Post #56 - Could birds and birding be in my professional future?

Many of you know at least a bit about my personal history. For those that don't, let's just suffice it to say that I built a reasonably successful career as an academic scientist before, in 2014, leaving that increasingly frustrating trajectory to ride my bike around the country and look for birds. Before I left, I had no idea how the adventure would unfold, nor what the heck I would do to pay my bills when I returned. Since that adventure ended, I have actually returned to academic science as postdoctoral fellow at USC. Part of this was due to economic necessity, part to a lack of other (i.e. biotech) options, and part to the fact that I still do enjoy some aspects of academic research, particularly mentoring undergraduates and graduate students. The problem is that there really isn't anywhere I can go from my current position. Not only did I give up any chance of real advancement when I stepped out of the pipeline the first time, but I still don't want the life that I think that pipeline would prescribe even if it was still open to me. So, at present, I find myself, a hyper-motivated individual, working a stop-gap job with no solid plan for the long-term. It is incredibly frustrating and at times equally unsatisfying.

Now for the good news. What I did not expect is that the bike trip has opened quite a few doors in the birding world, and I am starting to wonder if at some point birds and birding might be my vocation as opposed to something that I do when my vocation and my LA commute to it affords me time. Speaking at birding festivals and similarly bird-centric gatherings has proven to be incredibly enjoyable, on par with birding itself. Guiding, albeit just in the capacity of day outings at festivals, has been very rewarding, giving me the opportunity to share my love of birds with others while coincidently socializing with tour participants. I really enjoy writing about birds and birding. That's the primary reason I try to keep up this blog, simply because I enjoy it. I was recently asked to contribute an essay to the sequel to "Real Birders Don't Wear White", so at least a few people think I can write a level above that of a salamander. Hell, you too have read this far!  Who knows, maybe I can cobble together some sort of eclectic but coherent, bird-centric vocation moving forward. I am so far from being able to transition out of my current situation that I feel a bit funny even discussing this, but hey, this is what's on my mind right now and I think putting my feelings out there every once in a while might interest someone, somewhere.

As for birds, I spent an entire day out on Sunday of this past weekend. I squeezed out 128 species around Orange County. The highlight of the day was the 2 hours I spent chasing this Eurasian Wigeon around a local park pond. I have seen quite a few of these, but I have never been even remotely close enough to photograph decently. One thing I can say is that when I am working with a bird, trying to get that perfect frame, nothing else matters but the subject and my interaction with it. It could have been raining $100 bills behind me and I would never have noticed as long as this guy was in my viewfinder!

Eurasian Wigeon - Anus penelope
Canon 400mm f/5.6 on EOS 7D2
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Post #55 - Super Bird Sunday - seeking ABA #700!

I obtained my first field guide, The Golden Guide to North American Birds, when I was 7 years old. Mesmerized by the diversity and beauty of the birds there depicted, I dreamed that one day I might see every bird in it. As I established my birding roots around Philadelphia and South Jersey during my youth, I came to appreciate that the 700-species plateau was for many North American birders a lifelong goal. I thus at age 10 decided that I too would do my birding best, through whatever means possible, to join that 700 club. By age 12 I had racked up roughly 200 species in my local area. My inaugural trip to Arizona in 1991 took me to near 300 species, and visits to Texas and Washington State in subsequent years helped push me north of 400. Though academics and heavy drinking distracted me form birding during my college years, I reached 500 species while an undergraduate at Stanford, and 600 on a trip to South Texas in 2008 while I was in graduate school at NYU. Since I quit drinking and obtained my Ph.D. in 2010, the past 5 years have seen a steady increase in my birding activity, most notably my 2014 bicycle Big Year, Biking for Birds, that took me nearly 18,000 miles around the lower 48 states on what was certainly the adventure of a lifetime. Bird photography (view at Smugmug and  Flickr) has become my latest addiction, and I now spend as much time seeking that elusive 'perfect shot' as I do engaged in more traditional birding. 

My best shot from this past weekend......
Northern Pintail X Mallard hybrid! 
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 7D2
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 800, Manual, Handheld

Anyway, now that you are up to speed on my birding history, we'll join the present. In the last post, I chronicled my experience at the fantastic Laredo Birding Festival from February 3-6. I arrived at that event sitting at 698 species for North America. I did not expect to add any lifers in the Laredo area, but, as I had made it that far, I decided to use the extra Sunday, Super Bowl Sunday, to run south to the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) to chase a number of rarities that had been reported in the days leading up to and during the festival. As the festival concluded at 9pm Saturday and my flight back to LA left Laredo at 6:30am on Monday, this left me just 12 intervening daylight hours to conduct my birding business. I would in the darkness that surrounded that window, need to drive from Laredo to the LRGV and back. The whole thing turned out to be a whirlwind!

I picked up my rental car at the Laredo Airport at 9:30pm on Saturday night. I sprinted to Mission, arriving just after midnight. I caught a few ZZZs, and by 7am was at Frontera Audubon to search for my first two target birds, the Code 4 female Crimson-collared Grosbeak that head been present for weeks and the just-that-week-arrived Code 4 male Blue Bunting. Accompanied by LRGV birding belle Tiffany Kersten, I managed, after a 3-hour search, a brief but serviceable look at the grosbeak for ABA #699! This species in notoriously reclusive, so that I got any look at it was a cause for celebration. Had it not given its distinctive whistle, there was no way in hell I would have found the stealthy bird. As it was, I did not manage any sort of photograph. The bunting proved painfully elusive, and was left on the table when we left Frontera to head to Estero Llano Grande to pursue the White-throated Thrush, another Code 4 rarity, that had been reported from that location for the past 2 days.

The grosbeak was back in that tangle somewhere!

The search for the thrush was anything but protracted. We parked, walked to the fruiting tree around which the thrush had been hanging, waited 2 minutes, and a BOOM - there it appeared 20 feet in front of our faces! Species number 700 was just too easy! Thirty years in the waiting, I finally joined the 700-club! A quiet celebration ensued but was short-lived as we quickly turned our attention to yet another Code 4 rarity, the Northern Jacana that has been hanging around Santa Ana NWR for the past 6 weeks. 

White-throated Thrush for ABA #700 - Woo Hoo!

Tiffany and I spent the next 1.5 hours searching in vain for the jacana. Our frustrations were compounded by the fact that several other people had seen the bird that morning; Even using their advice, we were unable to locate the stealthy wader in any of the Willow Lakes at the refuge. 

Rather than continuing the jacana battle, we decided to double back to Frontera for a second shot at the bunting. We arrived to miss the bird at its favorite watering spot by 2 minutes, but I relocated it not too far from that spot 10 minutes after that. It gave me a brief but breath-taking view in full sunlight before disappearing into the same impenetrable understory that obscured the grosbeak earlier in the day. Tiffany came over and we managed several brief but serviceable views beyond my initial encounter. I did my best to get a photo, but all I could muster was an OOF (out-of-focus) blue blob amidst the tangle. A better photo would have been nice, but the heart-stopping view the bird initially gave me was memory enough. Bird #701 was secured, buffering me from falling below the 700-line when Hoary and Common Redpolls are most certainly lumped in the near future. The bunting was even more stunning than I had imagined, besting the more familiar Indigo Bunting in the iridescent blue department.
Blue Bunting for #701

With the first 3 of my target birds safely secured, it was time to race back to Santa Ana for one last shot at the jacana. Tirelessly walking the trails around the ponds, Tiffany and I scoured the reedy and marshy surrounds for what would be the fourth Code 4 rarity of the day. We had been birding non-stop for nearly 11 hours at that stage, and, as the sun sank lower into the western sky, it took with it our hopes of finding the jacana. We folded our hand at 6:00pm, in time for me to drop Tiffany at home and race back to Laredo by 9:30pm so as not to incur an additional charge on my 1-day car rental.

All smiles, even minus the jacana.
It's tough to argue with 3 Code 4 rarities in a single day!

The entire day was a huge success. It was a great way to record species number 700; That I recorded two other, equally rare species on the same day made it all the more memorable. Tiffany was great company and very patient in helping me chase down the birds I needed, sometimes even ahead of the Blue Bunting that she needed for her own ABA list. Reaching 700 species felt incredibly good, but has only whet my appetite to continue birding and photographing. I have not yet birded Alaska, so that's a destination with loads of new birds and photographic opportunities that is certainly in my future. Sonia, my fiance, has become an increasingly capable birder, and I cannot wait to see what amazing things we will find together in out future travels! Right now my "Seen with Sonia" list might be my most fun!

I want to thank everyone who has helped me in any aspect of my birding over the years, as well as you readers who tune in to hear where my birding has recently taken me. At the end of the day, its the fellow birders that imbue our birding experiences with their most indelible colors. Without the people, birding is, well, for the birds.......

The next life bird bird I'll seek will be Scripps's Murrelet on a February 28th pelagic out of Ventura. Stay tuned, much more birding, photography, and associated nonsense coming your way!

(As a quick aside, I count only well-seen birds on my ABA list. I have heard both Black Rail and Buff-collared Nightjar in the ABA area but neither is included in my total. The Red-legged Honeycreeper from Texas in 2014 is still pending, as is the Gray Thrasher that I observed in San Diego in August of 2015. So, who knows? Maybe I'll be at 703 without having to lift my binoculars!)

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Post #54 - Laredo Birding Festival! Thoughts on a birding lobby.....

Yee haw!!! Greetings from Texas! Well sort of. I am actually back in LA after spending Wednesday through Saturday of last week in Southern Texas at the Laredo Birding Festival (LBF). This was only my second true birding festival, but boy was it a good one! The little brother of the much larger and well-known Lower Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (LRGVBF), the LBF provides an equally good opportunity for participants to view many of the South Texas specialty birds including kingfishers, orioles, flycatchers, and jays. This year, the LBF was limited to 110 participants, almost all of which stayed at the fantastic La Posada Hotel. This made for a very intimate experience as field trips included a maximum of just 10 participants. I presented a lecture on the second night of the event, and I functioned as a birding guide for each of the three days. In short, I had a blast. The weather was perfect, the birds plentiful, White-collared Seedeaters generally cooperative, and the attendees enthusiastic. For those folks thinking about a trip to Texas, the LBF might be the perfect opportunity when it rolls around again next February!

La Posada courtyard

Birders at Salineno

Birders at private ranch north of Laredo

Here is the log book from Salineno. I last visited Nov. 24, 2014
during my bicycle Big Year in 2014!  It is organized by state, hence
everyone on this page was from MA. This time I signed the CA page.

One interesting fact about Texas is that only 2-4% of the total land area (depending on who you ask) is held by the state or federal government. Stated another way, roughly 97% of the land in Texas is privately owned. This means that it is critical for conservation entities to liaise with local landowners if anything is to be accomplished. The LBF itself works closely with local ranchers to secure access  to private land that is otherwise restricted, and it is this access that really makes the festival special. Much of the land I birded is open only during the festival, and I felt quite privileged to have been able to bird many of the amazing ranches surrounding Laredo. Several of the cooperating ranchers even attended the closing dinner on Satuday night. Beyond the incredible company and birding, I think the LBF serves as a model for how birding entities should interact with the communities in which they operate. 

Closing dinner. I was the "churro assassin", consuming
at least 8 of the sugary treats on top of an equally absurd
number of tostadas.

The closing dinner was held in a local arts center. Local school children contributed all of the artwork you can see in the photo, and festival organizers, local artists, and members of the city council were on hand to award prizes to particularly outstanding pieces. One point that was repeatedly hammered home was the economic impact of the festival on the community. I think that this is a consideration often ignored by birders, that is that our collective financial worth actually matters to the communities that we visit. While I am not advocating the creation of a "birding lobby" it would be very interesting if birders found a way to throw their collective weight around more than we currently do. Birding is one of the most popular hobbies in the country, and our contribution to local economies is many instances is significant. National organizations like the Audubon Society certainly carry come amount of clout, but even I as a seasoned birder feel disconnected from most of them. Maybe at some future point I will ponder how might we birders might better nucleate to effect changes that benefit both birds and the communities connected to them. 

I'll leave you with the best photo that I grabbed during the festival. Most of my time was focused on making sure attendees got their target birds, but I did grab a few seconds to myself to grab this frame!

Altamira Oriole - Icterus gularis
Canon 400mm f/5.6 on EOS 7D2
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Post #53 - Birding? Cancelled! The interply of aesthetics and apertures in bird photography....

First, the Ignite Channel put together a nice piece about my 2014 adventure. Please give it a click and take a look, before or after your usual Speckled Hatchback fix. Now, on with the usual nonsense, errrr show, umm, whatever!

You know that feeling when the universe feels as though it is actively conspiring to stop you from doing whatever it that you want to do? Yeah, that was this past weekend. Originally forecast as crystal clear, Saturday morning was cloudy. This crushed any hope of quality photography. Light rain in the afternoon forced additional route and strategy alterations, but the worst was still to come. Transiting along the Pacific Coast Highway between Newport and Huntington Beach, our admittedly already testy car decided right then would be the perfect place to die completely! We coasted into a roadside parking lot from where Triple-A was called, a tow truck summoned, and birding, like our car, declared dead-on arrival. We had "Petra" towed to out usual shop where she would stay for the rest for Sunday and Monday. Heavy rain Sunday would have effectively crushed birding even if Petra had been functional, so yeah, like I said, birding seemed doomed from the start. I guess its tough to get too upset about rain anywhere in California, these days, right?

Birding fail! (note rain)

This is how Saturday felt....

So, in lieu of fanciful birding tales from the weekend, I'll flip into photo mode for a short while. Photographers often use the term "bokeh" to describe how a lens or particular lens settings render out of focus points of light and, by proxy, structures. What do I mean by this? Here is a photo of a Ring-necked Duck that I took a few weeks ago and have held off sharing until a slow birding cycle!

Ring-necked Duck - Aythya collaris
Orange County, California
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D2
1/3200 at f/4, ISO 400

The bokeh here is the blurred water both in front of and behind the subject duck. It helps to frame the subject and to smooth out what could be potentially distracting elements in both the foreground and background. In this particular shot, I have strengthened the effect by taking a very low perspective on the subject. This leaves only a thin focal plane through which the subject in swimming; The rest of the image is a blur, or bokeh.

Photographers generally manipulate two parameters to obtain to correct exposure and artistic rendering in a photograph: aperture and shutter speed. Aperture is the size of the hole through which the light is focused onto the sensor, and shutter speed is the time that the hole is open. Bird photography is generally done at very wide apertures so as to freeze, without motion blur, whatever action in being captured. Luckily for me and my particular shooting style, wide apertures are generally the best at producing bokeh as they render out-of-plane light and structures more strongly out of focus or blurred. One thing to note is that large apertures are designated by smaller f-stop (f/) numbers; Hence f/2.8 lets in more light and creates more out-of-focus blur than f/8. 

Aperture range of a standard lens. Moving 1-stop either
halves or doubles the amount of light the hole lets in.

 Larger apertures (small f/) produce better background blur

Every photographer has a different style. I personally really like strong bokeh as it helps, in my opinion, to focus the viewer's directly attention on the subject. For those that prefer including more habitat, they generally close the lens down a bit so as to get more depth of field on the surroundings. While I sometimes like that style, it is tough to argue with beautifully blurred backgrounds! Here is one of my old photos that I particular like!

Pectoral Sandpiper
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on Canon 1D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/4 ISO 400