Monday, November 28, 2016

Post #83 - Russian hacking and Black Friday Birding

First I'd like to say 'thanks' to all my readers, regular and casual! Blogger's built-in statistics feature shows that blog traffic has really picked up in the last two months, so hopefully that means people are enjoying the content and passing it along to others (which I encourage everyone to do). Interestingly, there was another huge but temporary uptick about 3 months ago. Those hits were actually coming from Russia at the time that that country was accused of internet attacks on various government and election websites here in the United States. I doubt it means anything, but the increased hits were significant and the timing very surprising. The more recent increase is due to increased traffic from North America, so I suspect that it represents more bona fide interest in the blog than the previously referenced Russian spike.

"Is this where the Speckled Hatchback reading is happening?"
(A 2am shot of St. Basel's from a trip a few years back)

Enough tomfoolery. As many know this past Friday was Black Friday, an consumer event that I avoid like the plague. I instead spend the day outdoors, predictably birding. My idea for this year was to try to see how many 'black' birds I could see on Black Friday. Birding around San Jacinto Wildlife Area in Riverside County, I found Black Phoebe, Black-necked Stilt, Black-bellied Plover, Red-winged Blackbird, and Yellow-headed Blackbird for a total of 5 black birds. This comically short list was more a by-product of being near a marsh than it was the result of a concerted or active search. I was, as usual, so preoccupied with photography on that beautiful morning that my plan to find black birds kind of got away from me. Curious to know if anyone can best 5? If not, then I'm the reigning "Black" Friday Big Day champion. Nonsense, right? It's still no sillier than what's already out there! I guess I wasn't quite done with the tomfoolery, sorry. Here's are a few shots from Friday morning to bring us back to reality.

Black-necked Stilt - Himantopus mexicanus
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 on EOS 7D2
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Black-necked Stilt - Himantopus mexicanus
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 + 1.4x III on EOS 7D2
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 400

The pink water in these shots was by design. The pond where I was photographing was backed by some rocky hills that the rising sun imbued with a pinkish hue. That color was reflected onto the water where I thought it complemented the species' red/pink legs nicely. It is a bit of a departure from shorebirds in purely blue surrounds. It is also worth noting that these were taken from my knees as opposed to my usual stomach when shooting shorebirds. This was to keep the entire reflection as well as add a bit more texture in the water. So, that's how I did that. Here's another shot where I stayed low; I traded the full reflection in favor of better subject isolation.

American Avocet - Recurvirostra americana
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 + 1.4x III on EOS 7D2
1/6400 at f/5.6, ISO 400

 That's it for this installment, Cheers!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Post #82 - By request, how has my photography changed over time? Long with lots of photos!

I was recently contacted by Light, a new camera and camera technology company. They are developing a cell phone-sized camera capable of competing with traditional SLR camera bodies and interchangeable lenses. In an admitted cross-promotional effort, the company contacted me and asked me to put together a blogpost about how my own photography has evolved over time. That post (or rather this post) would then be used as part of an ongoing series on their website that highlights the work of a number of photographers. I had to admit that I got a bit of a laugh when Light contacted me. I mean, I'm more of a weekend hack than anything else. They nonetheless insisted, and I finally acquiesced. I hope that at least some folks will find what I have to say helpful or informative! 

Let me just say quickly that Light's camera/technology is not designed for bird photography. Their product is very clever and cool, but is suited instead for more general photography, the sort for which an SLR with a 24-70mm lens might otherwise suffice. With that out of the way, I'll dive right into the evolution of my own photography as so requested. 

My entry into bird photography was - unsurprisingly - my birdwatching obsession, and I think my photography reflects this. While many bird photographers shoot strictly hummingbirds, or raptors, or colorful birds, I shoot anything and everything. I am just as stoked about photographing a sparrow as I am a bird of prey. So, while I honestly don't think my photographic style is super unique, my appreciation for all examples avian is more so. I've recently blogged about observing behavior to make better photographs, so for the assignment I'll stick to a few general principles that I have come to rely on since I started shooting birds in 2011. The four points I will touch on are as follows:

1) Collecting natural looking frames
2) Shooting at eye level and getting subject eye contact
3) Balancing subject and habitat
4) Action, action, action!

1) Collecting natural looking frames
When I first started photographing birds, I shot anything. It didn't matter what the context was, all I wanted was output. As a result of this, I photographed birds on feeders, fences, and a host of other man-made objects. Some of the photos were nice, but, as I gained more experience, I went to greater lengths to keep non-natural entities out of my frames. Now, I won't bother shooting birds on posts or even branches/logs that have been obviously cut by saws. Ensuring that my shots appear 100% natural adds both additional challenge and satisfaction to the process. Avoiding man-made influences in one's frames is as simple as making the decision to do it. There are some really nice frames of birds on man-made objects, but that style just isn't for me anymore.

Brewer's Sparrow and Northern Cardinal (both 2011)

And here is a shot I collected in Colombia just 3 weeks ago. Natural perch looks dope, right? (Slang note for my mom, dope = good)

Blue-winged Mountain-tanager - Anisognathus somptuosus (2016)
Canon 400mm f/4 DO IS II on EOS 7D2
1/320 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

2) Shooting at eye level and getting direct eye contact with the subject bird
In my experience, shooting birds either well above or well below me rarely produces satisfactory results. There are certainly exceptions to this, but I usually go to painstaking lengths to be at the bird's eye level when I hit the shutter. Shorebirds, in particular, require the photographer "get low" so as to imbue the otherwise small, ground-level birds with the sort of gargantuan personality that draws a viewer into the photo. Sadly, I don't have any "high-angle" shots as I have from day on subscribed to the eye level theory. I can, however, illustrate how important the resultant eye-contact is. I was able to get low on both these shots, but the head angle and gaze really makes the second a whole lot better than the first.

The first photo was taken back in 2013. The shot is almost there, but he's not looking directly at me and the shot lacks the desired connection as a result.

Semipalmated Sandpiper - Calidris pusilla (2013)
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 400

This next guy knows I'm there, and he's giving me a nice look as a result. I'm always looking for similar engagement from my subjects. It all hangs on the precise angle of the bird's head and gaze when the shutter is pressed. Sometimes I get lucky and at others I miss by a fraction of a second. That's what makes it fun, right?

Surfbird - Aphriza virgata (2016)
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D2
1/6400 at f/5.6, ISO 800

3) Balancing subject and habitat
This one is really, really tricky. I generally seek clean frames, that is, frames that contain as few distracting elements as possible. The Surfbird above is an example of a really clean shot. However, clean shots often neglect the surrounding habitat and how the bird usually appears in it. This is particularly true for passerines (perching birds). This next shot is from 2012. It's nice, but there are a lot of leaves that muddle up the frame. It does, however, depict the Baltimore Oriole as it is often observed in the field. This is what I might call a nice 'in-habitat' shot.

Baltimore Oriole - Icterus galbula
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/400 at f/11, ISO 400
***I closed down to f/11 to get some of the 
leaves in front/behind in partial focus.

Compare that to the next shot, a clearly set-up shot. By 'set-up' I mean I was in a blind and there was a feeder strategically placed just left of this perch. The bird 'pops' much more against this clean, preconceived background that it does in the admittedly more spontaneous, more natural looking shot above.

Hooded Oriole - Icterus cucullatus
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

I have also generally "loosened" my crops over the years to included more habitat and give my subjects a bit of breathing room in the frame. Balancing subject and surrounds is more of a stylistic preference that anything else. It's also possible to create "birdscapes", landscape shots that incorporate birds. I've recently tried my hand at this, but it is tough to find a situation where it works well. Here is one of my better efforts. I think this shot really shows the habitat and context nicely.

Greater Sage-grouse - Centrocercus urophasianus
Canon 70-200 f/2.8 v2 on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1250 at f/8, ISO 800

4) Action, action, action!
This is pretty self-explanatory; Shots of birds doing things are more interesting than shots of birds just standing there. This is sometimes really difficult to accomplish, particularly when it comes to small birds like passerines that move really fast. Even if it's just something subtle, like the body lean and leg lift in the Hooded Oriole shot above, any amount of action strengthens the shot. Flight shots are surely some of the most prized, but they can be really challenging to acquire. Here are two shots where I think I did OK.

American Oystercatcher - Haematopus palliatus
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/2500 at f/8, ISO 400

Great Gray Owl -  Strix nebulosa
Canon 400mm f/5.6 on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1000 at f/5.6, ISO 400
***in hindsight I have no idea why I was at ISO 400.
I probably shoudla been up at 800 or 1600 given the cloud cover.

If there's a criticism I have of my own photography, its that all of my shots are similarly structured and proportioned. The bird occupies a similar part of the frame with some space and perhaps some amount of habitat for context. My shots are a bit formulaic, but the formula exists for a reason (because it generally produces nice photos!). I really haven't transitioned to making more creative, artful photographs at this point in my photography "career". Part of that is that I am a birder, and I do like seeing all the relevant field marks on my subjects. I would like in the future to break away from some of the conventions on which I still rely. Maybe I'll have an update a few years from now.

A special thanks to Light for inviting me to participate in this project. It was quite a bit of work to put this together but was an equal amount of fun!

Until next time, be good to each other, will ya?

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Post #81 - A return to bike birding! Am I a hypocrite? Bonus humminbird video.....

Trying to stay apolitical.
Trying harder to stay apolitical.  
Must remain apolitical!
Damn, this is hard...... 

This past week I traveled to Harlingen, Texas for the 23rd annual installment of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (RGVBF). This was my second trip to the internationally recognized birding event. Last year, I gave the keynote talk and led 2 bike-based field trips, one at Bentsen State Park and the other at Resaca de la Palma. Those outings were the first biking trips the festival had ever run, and the feedback afterwards was so positive that this year the festival organizers scheduled me for 4 trips! This year's installments were no different, and participants really seemed to enjoy themselves on the bikes. If you are on the organizing committee for any birding festival, please do consider adding a bike trip or two if at all possible. It is a great way to bird, and it offers participants a nice break from the driving and walking that necessarily characterizes the vast majority of festival field trips. 

Anyway, rather fortuitously, an Amazon Kingfisher appeared at Zacate Creek in Laredo just 2 days before the festival commenced. The individual represented just the 3rd ABA record, the first being from that same Zacate Creek in 2010 and the second being from north of Brownsville in 2013 (red dots, above map). The species is thus a really rare bird in the ABA area, and, as it stuck around for following few days, I rented a car one afternoon and drove to Laredo to collect the wayward individual for my ABA list. The round-trip drive drive was 365 miles and took about 6 hours. I had stunning views of the bird, and I used an entire tank of gas in the process of getting there and back.

Amazon Kingfisher - ABA seen species #713 -
A heavily cropped record shot in questionable light

A participant on my field trip the following morning inquired about a potential disconnect between my bike-birding and my bird-chasing. The implication was that my bird chase was not in-line with my environmentally-sustainable birding tendencies as exemplified by bike-birding. It was a completely valid question, asked without prejudice, and I did my best to answer it. First, let me say that I fully acknowledge that bird-chases such as the one in which I engaged are certainly not eco-friendly as they suck up a fair amount of gas. That being said, I rarely - if ever - drive during the week. I actually go out of my way to take public transportation to work every single day here in LA so as to offset the driving that I do while birding. So yes, while a bird chase such as the one above might seem incongruous with my own environmental goals, the reality is that no one is petroleum or carbon neutral. I do what I can to minimize my daily impact and, on rare occasions (3 times in the last year), drive long distances in the name of bird chasing and/or listing. The questioner felt satisfied with my answer as did the other 7 field trip participants. I figured I would share the exchange with you as I found it a worthwhile discussion. I'll leave it up to you to decide if I'm a hypocrite or not.....

Lastly, here's a fun video from Colombia last week. The first bird to appear is a Great Sapphirewing, the second largest hummingbird in the world. When it departs, a smaller but no-less spectacular Golden-breasted Puffleg appears. It was an incredible thrill to have the birds feeding right in/on my face!

Whew, made it - no politics. Amazing.