Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Post #61 - I love it when a plan comes together - Orange County Style!

Whoa! Am I out of shape! My legs are still sore two days after my Sunday birding and hiking outing. Actually it was nothing terribly epic, just a visit to the western edge of the Santa Ana Mountains, the range that separates the more coastal Orange County from the more inland Riverside County. The main motivation for my visit was to find Black-chinned Sparrow and Costa's Hummingbird, two species that I had not yet observed in Orange County. eBird's "target species" feature successfully directed me to the location; It did not, however, warn me that the walk I planned to take would actually turn into a very strenuous hike. The Forest Service road leading uphill from Modjesta Canyon and the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary was equally steep and beautiful. My 500mm lens felt like a lead bar in my photo backpack as I made my way up the mountainside. I was huffing and puffing by the time I reached the point where I took this photo!

Western slope (OC side) of the Santa Ana Mountains

Finding my target species proved painfully straightforward. Photographing them in anything other than a record context proved impossible as the eastern-rising sun was not yet high enough to light up the western facing slopes. It was a gorgeous morning, and I continued to fight my way up the hillside both to get a better view and to kill some time while the sun climbed yet higher. By the time I was 2 linear miles and 800 vertical feet above where I started, the sun was high enough to make photography possible. I turned back down the hill and, with the sun now at my back, focused on finding my most wanted photographic quarry of the morning, the Black-chinned Sparrow.

I eventually found one individual singing not far from the road. Bushwacking a bit, I slowly approached the bird. He was quite cooperative, giving me beautiful binocular views as I readied the camera. A bit of pishing piqued his interest. Shooting down the hill, he and his perch were framed against a perfectly clean and distant background. It was a really good feeling to see and photograph this sparrow this weekend.

Black-chinned Sparrow - Spizella atrogularis
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 on EOS 7D2
1/2500 at f/8, ISO 800

As an incredible bonus, a usually reclusive California Thrasher made a quick appearance towards the end of my sparrow shooting session. Turning my lens his way, I cracked off a few frames before he disappeared into the underbrush. The light was a bit harsh, but I am happy with the results!

 California Thrasher - Toxostoma redivivum
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 on EOS 7D2
1/2000 at f/9, ISO 800
Anyway, nothing too terribly exciting. Just a nice, relaxing morning out in one of the few quiet corners of Orange County. I am sure a return visit will occur in the not too distant future. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Post #60 - I love Shorebird photography!

Why is shorebird photography my favorite type of photography? A bunch of reasons, let's go!

First and foremost, shorebird photos are difficult if not impossible set-up. Shorebirds cannot be attracted or baited as can so many other species. Fish eaters like seabirds, fruit eaters like tanagers, seed eaters like finches, nectar eaters like orioles and hummingbirds, and even meat eaters like hawks and owls can be attracted to the photographer with food. I love hummingbirds, but just about every really good hummingbird flight photo you're ever going to see is so heavily set up as to render it feeling at least a bit rehearsed or contrived. Many lodges in Central and South America have pre-positioned flash arrays with fake backdrops and baited flowers into which visiting photographers can just plug and shoot! That takes half the fun out of it.Think about it - have you ever been to a shorebird feeding station? Never - if ever! Since they can't realistically be set-up or contrived, good shorebird photograph must be earned.

Piping Plover - Charadrius melodus
Old skool from Revere Beach Boston!

Second, good shorebird photography requires the photographer to get down and get dirty. Generally, the most effective bird photographs are those where the photographer is at eye level with the subject. Since shorebirds rarely come up to our level, it is more often required that we get down to theirs. As far as I am concerned, the only proper way to shoot shorebirds is right in the mud with them, on one's stomach. As this is an effort many photographers are unwilling to make, shorebird photography for me helps separate out who shoots from a position of convenience and who shoots to get the shot. Anyone can sit in a shaded blind a photograph birds as they approach feeders. Far fewer will climb into stinky, bug-infested mud.

Sunrise Semipalmated Sandpiper - Calidris pusilla
Also from Revere Beach!

Third, and to make things even more difficult, shorebirds are usually very spooky. It can be incredibly difficult to get close to them. However, connecting this point to second, one can get quite close if he or she is willing to get low and dirty. Lying and crawling in the mud, I have literally be able to reach out and touch White-rumped sandpipers, Dunlin, and Least Sandpipers. Stand up though and POOF - gone!

March of the Dunlin - Calidris alpina
 Blurred for artistic effect
Lastly, there are so many different species that it would be nearly impossible to exhaust the array of possibilities even in a lifetime of shooting. From oystercatchers to jacanas and from stints to curlews, the there are so many permutations of the shorebird theme that it is almost unimaginable.

Anyway, I bring this up as shorebird photography has been painfully difficult here in SoCal. Between a lack of local estuaries, ever-present beachgoers (and dogs), and military-occupied coastline, there really aren't many places to shoot shorebirds around here. There are lots of shorebirds at Bolsa Chica and San Joaquin, but since you are confined to the dikes at those spots, it doesn't make for pretty pictures when you have to shoot straight down on such tiny birds.

This past weekend, however, I spent some time photographing Surfbirds on a set of local jetties that I did not know existed until the weekend. Late in the day, I basically hd the jetty to myself. For a few brief moments, I actually forgot that I was in crowded SoCal. Wading in thigh deep water in the boat channel, I captured what I think are some very nice frame of these guys as they picked and poked their way around the rocky jetties. In this instance, I dropped to their eye level by wading (and almost swimming when big boat boats created big wakes). Like I said, whatever it takes!

 Surfbird - Aphriza virgata
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D2
1/500 at f/7.1, ISO 400

This past weekend, however, I spent some time photographing Surfbirds on a set of local jetties that I did not know existed until the weekend. Late in the day, I basically hd the jetty to myself. For a few brief moments, I actually forgot that I was in crowded SoCal. Wading in thigh deep water in the boat channel, I captured what I think are some very nice frame of these guys as they picked and poked their way around the rocky jetties. In this instance, I dropped to their eye level by wading (and almost swimming when big boats created big wakes). Like I said, whatever it takes!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Post #59 - Colombia, part 2

Well, I am back in Los Estados Unidos after 9 days in Colombia! This trip was just fantastic, introducing me to many new birds, places, and people. Recall that I was part of a press trip designed to highlight the birding opportunities along the Northern Colombia Birding Trail, a multilateral venture designed to boost the economic standing of the the region through ecotourism, specifically birdwatching. Anyway, I can report that the project looks like it has a ton of potential, both for visiting birders and the residents of Caribbean Colombia. I will actually be writing a series of in-depth blog posts about our time in the region for the National Audubon Society website in the next few weeks. As a result, I am going to keep this update rather brief so as to avoid double-posting, self-plagiarizing, or violating some otherwise obscure aspect of copyright law should I write the same thing both on this blog and the Audubon blog. Also, the Audubon Society has kindly requested that I save what photos I took on the trip for their website. The plan is to cross link what blogging I do for them here so that my regular readers won't miss anything. There is a nice photo teaser at the end of this post to set the stage though!

Area around Santa Marta, days 3-5
(days 1 and 2 were spent slightly farther east,

map on previous post)

We spent a total of 5 days in Caribbean Colombia. These were split between coastal estuaries, dry forest, lowland forest, and higher elevation cloud forest. Briefly, I will say that the geography of the Santa Marta area and adjacent Guajira Peninsula is particularly interesting. Pico Cristobal Colon (bottom right in above picture) is roughly 19,000 feet high. As the peak is located just 30 miles from the coast, nowhere else in the world can such a high peak be found in such close proximity to the ocean. What this means for birders is that a large number of habitats can be experienced in a very small area. Waterbirds were present in large numbers along the coast, and hummingbirds, trogons, tanagers, hummingbirds, woodcreepers, and parrots were expectedly in great supply in more forested areas. We put much effort into finding species endemic (restricted) to the region and were largely successful on that front. A notable find were 3 Blue-billed Currasows at Tayrona. With a population estimated between 200 and 500 birds, it is certainly one of the rarest birds on the planet. We otherwise recorded in excess of 200 species, all of which but the water birds (shorebirds, herons) were life birds for me.

My lodgings at El Dorado Lodge in the El Dorado cloud forest

After 5 days on the Caribbean Coast, we flew south to Cali where we attended the Colombian Bird Fair for the final 3 days of our trip. Styled much like and American birding festival with field trips during the days and talks at night, it was a huge success. Colombia is really doing its best to sell itself as the next big ecotourism destination, and the fair did a great job of doing exactly this. With 1,900 species of birds found within the country, it shouldn't be tough to lure birders to Colombia!

Collared Trogon - Trogon collaris
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D2
1/200 at f/7.1, ISO 1600
(f/7.1 to get whole bird in focus, 1600 since light was quite bad)

Monday, March 7, 2016

Post #58 - Colombia introduction and happenings!

Greetings from Colombia! I arrived in Bogot√° late Saturday night, and, after a quick sleep, my group of 11 boarded our flight to Riohacha on the Caribbean Coast. This small beach city is the last significant outpost as one moves northeast towards to the Guajira peninsula which Colombia shares with neighboring Venezuela. It is also right now the eastern end of the Northern Colombia Birding Trail, a joint venture between several US agencies, the National Audubon Society included, and a number of Colombian entities designed to boost birding and ecotourism in the region. The hope is that birding will bring much needed revenue to that particular part of the country while giving local people a valuable stake in the preservation of the various habitats that span the trail's length. To this end, much time and effort has been spent training local bird guides in the last year. There is now a wide knowledge base to accompany the many birding opportunities that the region holds. I am actually part of a press tour that is designed to spotlight these precise opportunities. With representatives from the America Birding Association, National Geographic Society, National Public Radio, The National Audubon Society, and a host of Colombian media outlets, I am quite honored to be a part of the fun.

Where in the world is Dorian?

The rough area we've covered in our first two days

Without getting into too much detail right now, let me just say that I have been thoroughly impressed with what I have seen in just the first two days I have here been. Both birds and local guides are plentiful, and there seems to be a real ground swell within the local communities we have visited. Just today, our group knocked into at least 4 other groups, each of which was being taken around by one of the program's guides. It is already looking as though connecting communities through birding will provide them a valuable economic base while coincidently providing the incentive to conserve the resources on which that base is built. I will say that this part of Colombia is decidedly third world. Cinder block dwellings are commonplace and resources are understandably limited. That being said the residents have been very friendly and accommodating, and I felt nothing but warmth from the communities we have visited. The food is fantastic, and, by American standards, incredibly inexpensive. Lodging has been equally amazing. Skeptical? Here's where we're staying tonight!
Casa Barlovento

I understand that Colombia has a bit of a checkered past, but the country has really stabilized in the last decade. The Colombian half of our contingency is simply wonderful. I had a particularly nice time talking about Boston with one woman who studied policy at Harvard for 2 years. What preconceptions many might have about the country are exactly that, preconceptions. Yes, there are goats running around in the streets in the rural areas, but that's how much of the world lives outside of the bubble that is the US of A. Traveling here in Colombia has proven no different than in Costa Rica as far as I am concerned. Colombia still lags well behind Costa Rica in developing a full-fledged ecotourism program, but with 1,900 bird species in the country, there is a heck of a lot of potential! I'll be spending 3 more days up here on the Caribbean Slope before heading down to the southern end of the country for 3 days in Cali. I'll have more bird-related programming at some point, but for a first pass I really wanted to give folks a ground's-eye view of what things look like. 

Our group with local guides 
(yellow shirt, back, and red shirt, front)

Kids being, well....kids. Its the same the world over.
The colors in Colombia are simply beautiful.

The universal symbol for "I'm cool"....
Suffice it to say we've seen orioles, hummingbirds, antshrikes, antwrens, saltators, tanagers, parrots, spinetails, tody-flycatchers, puffbirds, and a host of other typically tropical families. The opportunities really are endless! There will be lots of birds at some point, so please stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Post #57 - Birding the Channel Islands, and HUGE NEWS for next week!

I added an ABA bird to my life list this weekend (#702!) and that's still not even close to the biggest news coming out of The Speckled Hatchback this week! OK, OK, keep your pants on. We have to dispense with some other exciting business before I can let the big cat out of the bag!

This weekend Sonia and I hopped aboard the Island Packers now annual combination inshore pelagic and Island Scrub Jay boat trip. The idea was to cruise around the Channel Islands before stopping on Santa Cruz Island for a few hours to find the Island Scrub Jay, a species that prior to 1996 was considered conspecific with both the Western and Florida flavors of Scrub Jay. I have actually seen the Scrub Jay on 2 previous trips to Santa Cruz Island (one in 1996 and one in 2009 - see photo), so my main target on this weekend's trip was Scripps's Murrelet, a small, black-and-white alcid/auk that breeds on the Channel Islands. I had managed to miss that bird on several other SoCal boat trips, so I hoped to redeem those past dips this weekend. 

Sonia and I visiting the Channel Islands in 2009.
We had been dating for 9 months at that stage.
Why she didn't run for the exit then I have no idea.

The entire day was perfect, seas and weather included. Birds were plentiful, and we had a number of nice bonus finds on top of the usual suspects. First, we saw upwards of 80 (yes, 80!) Brown Boobies on Anacapa Island. This generally more tropical species, once cause for birding alarm bells in SoCal, has become effectively resident in the last 15 years. We do not know the exact reason for this northward range expansion, but higher water temperatures due to global warming are a prime suspect. Anyway, mixed in with the Brown Boobies was a single Blue-footed Booby (BFBO), a fantastic find for SoCal! Everyone on board was stoked when this guy appeared! Interestingly, I saw ~50 BFBOs in SoCal in October of 2013. That was a monumental invasion, but not a single bird of those I saw on that trip was a blue-footed adult. The bird this weekend was a real treat!

Anacapa Island from the boat

Hiking on Santa Cruz Island
BF Booby! Decent despite terrible backlighting....
I did finally collect my Scripps's Murrelet. After many distant and disappointing views, a few pairs floated close enough to the boat to permit decent views and record photographs. The boat was pitching around quite a bit by that stage of the afternoon, so that I got anything was a source of celebration. A huge flock (~1000) of Surf Scoters, a couple Mew Gulls, a single Island Scrub Jay, hundreds of dolphins, several Gray Whales, and a breaching Humpback Whale rounded out a fantastic day on the water. For those that want to tick the Scrub Jay, I would highly recommend this particular boat trip. Island Packers runs daily trips to and from Santa Cruz Island, but only on this late February trip is the boat utilized explicitly for the purposes of birding (hence the pelagic component). I actually saw Scripp's Murrelet, then Xantus' Murrelet, on my 2009 trip, but the boat kept steaming along since it wasn't a birding specific trip. My view was so poor I decided not to count that bird, hence it was a lifer this weekend.

Scripps's Murrelet! ABA bird #702!
Not bad considering terrible midday light

Periscope up!
This is not the most technically sound shot, but I think
it perfectly represents how alcids are most often observed.

Now for the really BIG NEWS. I have decided who I will support in the 2016 presidential election! Just joking! I'm not even going to touch that topic here. I will admit that's it sometimes difficult not to comment on the insanity that is American Politics, but I hope to continue to make this blog a refuge from that particular brand of noise. 

So without further ado, I will tell you that The Speckled Hatchback will be coming to you live and direct from Colombia next week! That's right, South America here I come! I have been invited to join a 10-day, National Audubon Society-, Calidris-, and Colombia National Parks-sponsored trip to Colombia that will highlight ecotourism possibilities and sustainable resource management in the recently stabilized country. I will be functioning as a photographer and writer, specifically blogging about the trip on the Audubon Society website once I return. I post live snippets on this blog when internet access permits. I leave Saturday so updates will start to flow in sometime after that.  We will be visiting the Caribbean Slope, Santa Marta, and Perij√° regions before moving south to Cali for the 3 day Colombia Birdfair. For those interested in some background on birding in Colombia, please see this recently published feature article in Audubon Magazine. We will be recapitulating much of this itinerary, so it should be amazing. Here is a link to a video of the Northern Colombia Birding Trail, a project designed to included locals in the development of a birding and ecotourism industry.
With 1,900 bird species, the most of any country, Colombia should be at the top of every birder's "someday" list.

It all starts in 5 days, so please check back in soon!