Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Post #170 - Photos of the San Francisco Rock Sandpiper. What is 'Image Design?'

I've always held shorebirds in high photographic regard (my collection here), but Rock Sandpiper, a North Pacific example, eluded my lens until this past week. A long-staying representative at Heron's Head in San Francisco glued to the terminus of the park's rocky peninsula for the past three weeks - the same individual I observed by bike on November 3rd and wrote about in my last entry - I decided a second, photographically-motivated visit in order. The bird was very tolerant of birding hoards earlier in the month, so I was optimistic I'd be able to capture some nice shots of the lingering rarity.

I had the end of the peninsula to myself when I arrived at 3pm on November 23rd, a brief search revealing the bird five feet from where I observed it during my first visit. I busted out my 600mm lens and began a leisurely game of cat-and-mouse with the subject sandpiper. It was as approachable as I'd hoped, and my lens quickly proved too much for a bird willing to wander with five feet of me. I swapped in my 100-400mm, that closer-focusing and more-maneuverable option proving a much better choice.

***click images for larger, more detailed views***

Rock Sandpiper - Calidris ptilocnemis
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/1000 at f/7.1, ISO 1000

Obtaining a clean composition between rocks and shadows was challenging, but my patient, hour-long interaction yielded a couple choice opportunities. I avoided shooting the bird on the intermingled chunks of concrete because I don't want man-made objects contaminating my frames, and I thought the above example afforded and an accurate and attractive picture of the bird in its natural habitat. Importantly, I can see the bird's legs and feet amidst the seaweed, a critical consideration for my shorebird frames. I chose to use f/7.1 (versus wide-open and fastest f/5.6) to achieve a bit more depth-of-field across the seaweed. I didn't want to close down more - to f/8 or f/9 - because that would have compromised my ability to generate a smooth background, the water only a few feet behind the subject.

Rock Sandpiper - Calidris ptilocnemis
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/1600 at f/7.1, ISO 1000

For this headshot, I crouched lower to shoot against more distant water; hence the more blurred background. I selected f/7.1 for this shot as well, but for different reasons than the first. In the full-body example, I wanted more depth-of-focus across the seaweed while in this I wanted more depth-of-focus across the bird, the focal plane compressing at this comparatively closer range. It would have been difficult/impossible to achieve critical feather detail on both the face and flank had I used a wider/faster aperture with less DoF.

With the two frames taken just moments apart and under identical lighting conditions, why did I use different shutter speeds at the same f/-stop and ISO? The exposure on the bird should be the same, right? Yes, but I selected the slower shutter (1/1000 versus 1/1600) in the first to get more detail on the comparatively darker seaweed. I could have raised the shadow/darks in the first in post-production had I used 1/1600, but that would have added noise to the lower half of the frame. Adding the extra light to get more detail on the seaweed meant I had to turn down the highlights on the comparatively lighter bird instead, but that is very easy to do in Lightroom and generally comes with little penalty in image quality (assuming the lights aren't completely saturated to start).

OK, enough. The point of all this is to take you through my thought process and highlight the importance of 'image design'. Good photographs don't just happen; they almost always result from creative conception, proper planning, and excellent execution. Having decent gear helps, but no camera is going yield a beautiful, high-contrast, color-saturated images in overhead sunlight, right? For this shoot, rubber boots and crappy pants were probably my most important gear! Proper photography, like hardcore birding, is a commitment!

OK, that's it for now. Hopefully it wasn't technical overload. Happy Thanksgiving either way.....

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Post #169 - An incredible 24 hours of bike-birding!

The weekend of November 2nd and 3rd was epic bike-birding, my wheels put into eventual motion by the discovery of a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (YCNH) on the Sausalito waterfront in Marin County on Monday, October 28. As the species hadn't been reported in the Bay Area during my two-and-a-half-year San Mateo tenure, I immediately consulted eBird for context, my investigation revealing only four records from the extended Bay Area and none since 2005. To put that into paucity into perspective, there are multiple Bay Area records of White Wagtail and Dusky Warbler since the last YCNH sighting.

(L) YCNH range map adapted from this Cornell Lab page
(R) Bay Area YCNH sightings extracted from eBird

I didn't have time for the 65-mile round-trip YCNH chase during the week, but I watched eBird reports roll-in through the next few days, one noting, "residents say the bird has been here for years." That remark floating my hopes until Saturday, I set off at 1pm after leading a morning bird walk at Coyote Point. Lodging secured in Mill Valley, I'd have Saturday afternoon and most of Sunday to find the bird. The ride would be my first bike trip across the Golden Gate, so I'd enjoy initiating the Marin arm of my Bay Area bike list with or without inclusion of the sought YCNH. I'm going to place quick pause on YCNH for a second........

While my YCNH plans were crystalizing through the week, Richard Bradus found a Black-and-white Warbler (BAWW) in Alta Plaza in downtown San Francisco on Thursday, October 31. A follow-up  report on Friday suggested I swing through the park en route to Marin and the YCNH on Saturday, a decision rewarded when the high-contrast passerine revealed itself without ten minutes of delay. Like Chestnut-sided Warbler from the last post, BAWW is a common stray from the Eastern US, one I hadn't chased previously but knew I'd intersect eventually.

(L) BAWW range map adapted from this Cornell Lab page
(R) Bay Area BAWW sightings extracted from eBird

Digi-binoc'd Black-and-white Warbler - Bay Area bike Bird #295

The bonus BAWW ticked, I rolled through the Presidio and across the Golden Gate Bridge. This was only my second time biking across the famous span, the first occurring on the San Francisco leg of my 2014 bicycle Big Year. Like that first crossing, my second was graced with blue skies and killer views!

Touching down in Marin, I descended through Fort Baker, dodged tourists through Sausalito, and rolled into the waterfront community the YCNH had frequented since its discovery - and possibly longer if the quoted resident is correct. I hadn't dismounted my bike before spotting the heron standing on porch railing, the bird basking in the afternoon sun for the next half hour. I was joined by some other folks, and we enjoyed point blank views after the bird flew over the shoreline we occupied. After watching a ~10 year old girl walk with six feet of the bird, I totally buy the claim the bird has been around for a while. It literally couldn't care less about people. It's crazy to think this amazing bird lurked unreported (though not entirely undetected) for so long. It will be interesting to see how long it sticks around. Departing the heron, I spent the remaining 1.5 daylight hours exploring the Sausalito Shoreline, Bothin Marsh, and Bayfront Park before retiring to Mill Valley for the evening.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron - Bay Area bike bird #296
Very obliging for digi-scoping....

My plan for Sunday was to explore Tennessee Valley, Rodeo Lagoon, and the Marin Headlands before re-crossing the Golden Gate in the early afternoon, but a late-Saturday report of Rock Sandpiper (ROSA, found by Teresa Ely and Ben Dudek, 1st SF record) from Heron's Head Park in San Francisco demanded attention. A mostly-Alaskan species, ROSA reaches down the coasts of British Colombia, Washington, Oregon, and California in winter. The Bay Area represents the extreme southern end of that non-breeding range, and the species had not been recorded in the area since I moved here in May of 2017 (there was one Farallon bird in that time - and another last week).

(L) ROSA range map adapted from this Cornell Lab page
(R) Bay Area sightings (all) extracted from eBird

I decided I'd bird in Marin Sunday morning while I awaited news of the ROSA - I didn't want to quit Marin without knowing the sandpiper was present - but an early 6:30am confirmation sent me scampering towards the Golden Gate right at sunrise. Reaching the bridge at 7:10, I was informed both Golden Gate foot/bike paths would be closed until 10am because of a running race. As I was unwilling to utilize the courtesy bike shuttle to cross the bridge - gotta keep it 100% self-powered - I suddenly found myself with three hours to kill on the Marin side. Dropping to Rodeo Lagoon, I enjoyed beautiful and productive coastal birding while I awaited the 10am opening, all the while hoping the ROSA stayed put.

Rodeo Lagoon

Rodeo Beach

With my time at Rodeo, I was able to run my virgin Marin County bike list to 81 species. (I saw ~140 on a Marin County bike Big Day with Josiah Clark and others in April, but I had to drive from San Mateo for that event, a circumstance rendering those birds excluded from my fully-green Bay Area biking project.)

The bridge finally opened, I fought through traffic lights and fended-off weekend drivers to reach Heron's Head at 11am. There wasn't much drama, the ROSA sleeping at peninsula's terminus as half-a-dozen birders gazed onto it. This was only my second encounter with the species, my first on the Humboldt Jetty in January 2011, and it was fun to observe this individual at such close range. The bird spend most of its time resting, but I had a few quick full body views as waves occasionally forced the bird to reposition itself. The close views were a great cap on an awesome weekend on the bicycle.

The end of Heron's Head Park. Bird was on
shoreline directly over my handlebars.

Rock Sandpiper - Bay Area bike bird #297

So, a ride conceived around (a potentially very long-staying) Yellow-crowned Night Heron additionally yielded Black-and-white Warbler and Rock Sandpiper. A pretty solid hat trick.....

~80 miles with doubling back and screwing around

Those birds leave me three species shy of 300. Upcoming travel will probably delay reaching that plateau into the New Year, but it will be a great feeling when it does finally happen. I'm amazed I've been able to find (and by find I mean 'chase') enough new birds to generate blog content through the summer and fall. I'll have to get more creative as new birds become fewer and farther between. Cheers!