Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Post #214 - My Extended Absence Explained

For those that don't know, my wife (Sonia) and I are pet-sitting our way around the US this year ( Her employer (Airbnb) lets her work remotely, and my employer (Tropical Birding) doesn't care where I'm based because they need to fly me in and out to lead tours regardless. The map below attempts to illustrate our movements. The blue dots represent our house/pets sits, the yellow dots represent personal stops in between those responsibilities, and the green trace is our simplified driving trajectory. So what the heck are the black lines? Well, those are the various flights I've taken to lead the indicated tours. The lines from Kansas City to Denver to Houston and onto NW Arkansas might be confusing, so I'll lay that bit out verbally. We finished our sit in Kansas City on April 5, and I immediately flew to Denver to lead a tour April 5-16. When that tour ended, I flew to Houston to lead a Texas migration tour April 16-21. When that tour ended, I flew to Bentonville/Fayetteville in NW Arkansas and joined Sonia at a sit which she started on April 12 (while I was in CO).

Think that's confusing? Our current sit in Asheville runs May 3-14, but I will be leaving on Saturday the 7th to fly to Detroit to lead another tour through Michigan, Ohio, and Kentucky which runs through May 19th. Sonia will finish the Asheville sit, spend May 14-18 with her sister outside Knoxville, then drive to meet me in Nashville on the 19th where we have another sit which runs until May 28. Our subsequent sit is in Chicago runs June 4 to 14. Then we fly to Philly to see my family for a week. Then back to Chicago. Then we have 3 days farm sitting outside Milwaukee. Then back to Chicago. Then I go to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia for another tour June 27-July 8. Sonia sits in Omaha on those days and we rendezvous in Denver on July 9. We then sit in Denver July 10-15. And then it's off to Africa for six weeks on July 16 (more on that later). Hell, planning six weeks through South Africa and Namibia is its own challenge, but do it on top of everything else we're doing and it's beyond hectic!

And that's why haven't written a thing since February. I am doing a lot of birding in the areas we're visiting, but the blog has really taken a backseat to logistics, pet-sitting, and pet-blogging ( I've also done very little photography this year. It takes time to learn new areas, and we're moving around so fast that I don't learn anywhere well enough to shoot it efficiently; I'd rather just go birding since it's easier. I did take some really nice photos on my Colorado Grouse tour, so I'll try to get those up in the next few weeks.

So, that's what's happening with me at the moment. I hope to have more time to write later in the year, but please know that communication will continue to be sporadic for the next few months.

OK, planning and dogs call. Later!

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Post #213 - Waterfowl photos from Arizona

Our nomadic year of pet-sitting continues! Last time I recapped my bike-birding exploits in Henderson, Nevada, and this time I'll share a few photos I captured while we were in Prescott, Arizona. Although we were there for ten days (Jan 16 - 26), I didn't discover Fain Park (pictured below) until our second-to-last morning. It's nothing remarkable, just a man-made pond surrounded by hillsides and rudimentary trails, but the small sample of wintering waterfowl which it held were remarkably approachable; accustomed to being fed, the ducks swam towards me as soon as I lay prone on the frozen earth. The scaup, in particular, spent a lot of time inside the minimum focusing distance of my 600mm f/4 IS II lens (14.75 feet), so I had to shoo them back at several points! I shot from the blue shoreline with the morning sun rising behind me to the southeast. That big wall in the foreground is the dam which creates the lake.

Let's start with this male Lesser Scaup. He was very confident in his approach, this image being nearly full-frame, and the golden water results from the reflection of the backing hillsides. With zero wind at this moment, the surface was as flat as a Trump electroencephalogram (aka EEG).

Lesser Scaup (male) - Aythya affinis
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS R5
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Since the female wasn't as contrasty as the male, I raised my lens a few inches so that I could capture a bit of texture on the water. I really like how the browns, tans, golds, and yellow blend together in this frame.

Lesser Scaup (female) - Aythya affinis
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS R5
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 640

This male Canvasback wasn't present on my first visit, but I nearly crapped my pants when the stunning bird dropped into the park pond on my return the next morning. I've only had one other opportunity at this species, at Alondra Park near Los Angeles, but a concrete lip on the urban pond prevented me from getting my lens as low as I would have liked. Without similar impediment this time around, I was able to isolate this guy in super smooth surrounds.

Canvasback (male) - Aythya valisineria
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS R5
1/3200 at f/7.1, ISO 800

He kept his distance at the outset, but he eventually swam a bit closer. I'm a huge fan of close-cropped headshots, so I was stoked with this result. Craned neck a definite plus!

Canvasback - Aythya valisineria
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS R5
1/2500 at f/7.1, ISO 800

And lastly, I present this male Common Goldeneye. He wouldn't come as close as the others, so I had to slap the 1.4x teleconverter (TC) onto my lens.  TCs can degrades the images when they're used on crappy lenses, but I don't have to worry about that with my 600 prime.

Common Goldeneye - Bucephala clangula
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS R5
1/2000 at f/7.1, ISO 800

I also did a fair bit of bike-birding around Prescott. Our pet-sitting gig (red pin on below map) was close to Willow and Watson Lakes, and I enjoyed a trio of long-staying Tundra Swans on the former and several Wood Ducks on the latter. Exploring farther afield, I caught up with Williamson's Sapsucker and Pacific Wren (pictured below, poor digibinoc) at Granite Basin Lake. All four of those were state birds for me, so it felt great to grow my Arizona list under my own power. Since Prescott is at 5,400' of elevation, I was really sucking wind on the 1,000' climb up to Granite BAasin. It felt like 2014 all over again! I visited the highlighted sites on different days, but I've shown them as one ride to streamline the imagery and give you a global view of where I explored. The bottom image is a view of the northern part of Watson Lake.

Things have been really hectic since we left Prescott. I spent a week in Albuquerque, flew to Minnesota to guide a six-day owl/finch tour, and returned to ABQ yesterday. I have three additional days around ABQ, then Sonia and I drive to Denver in Super Bowl Sunday, hopefully in time for the game. We're there for 3 weeks while we execute back-to-back pet-sits, but I'll disappear for five days in the middle of those to guide another winter tour, in Massachusetts. I'm not sure how I got suckered into leading all the cold weather tours for Tropical Birding, but I'm sure I'll survive (I really don't mind the cold). Plus, if the 2014 Polar Vortex didn't break me while I was on the bike, nothing will!

That's it for now. Later......

Monday, January 31, 2022

Post #212 - Biking for Birds in Nevada

Regular readers know that Sonia and I are traveling the US for at least the first half of 2022, but I haven't revealed our exact motivation/purpose until now! Our plan to exchange pet-sitting for lodging while home/owners travel might sound insane, but allows people to do exactly that. I kept this news on the down-low until now because Sonia and I wanted to get a second blog, A Tail of Two Sitters, up and running before we let the cat/dog/whatever out of the bag. While we have a loose itinerary of places/states we'd like to visit in upcoming months, we're generally going to allow the pet-sitting winds take us where they will. And that's how we landed in Henderson, NV from January 13-16. I did a bit of birding while we were in the area, most of it by bike, and I'll use this post to highlight some of the places I visited. Here's how we're carting the bike around!

Among three Henderson sites which I visited on my bike, the Henderson Bird Preserve on the east side of town was the best. The impoundments hosted a great number and variety of waterfowl, and desert birds like Costa's Hummingbird, Crissal Thrasher, Vermillion Flycatcher, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Abert's Towhee lurked in the surrounding bushes. Over 300-species have been recorded at the reserve, and I tallied 60 across two morning visits, a breeding plumage Hooded Warbler an unlikely highlight. Beware - the HBP has very strict hours. Please consult this webpage for info. If I had only one morning to bird in the Las Vegas area, the I'd use it at HBP. Images of reserve below.

Neighboring Clark County Wetlands hosts similar species, but not in the same numbers as HBP. A series of trails winds through scrub and impoundments, and I think it's worth a quick pass even if it's a distant second to HBP.  Same for Sunset Park. Though urban and heavily-visited, the park pond was loaded with waterfowl. The ducks are fed constantly, so super close views of Ring-necked Ducks, Canvasbacks, Redheads, Lesser Scaup, and American Wigeon were afforded. I hit the place on a cloudy afternoon, but it could be great for photography in the right conditions. Here is a map to show the relative locations of these HBP, CC Wetlands, and Sunset Park. It was easy to move between the three locations on the bike given our central location.

A bit farther afield, Red Rock Canyon on the west side of Las Vegas is totally worth a visit. It doesn't hold diversity or numbers of birds, but the landscape is amazing. There are loads of trails, and it would be easy to spend a full day exploring the area. The two dogs which we were watching loved scrambling over the stratified geology! Birds were few and far between, but I did find Rock Wren, Phainopepla, and Peregrine Falcon. 

The bottom line is that there's an unexpected amount of birding and hiking to be done in the greater Las Vegas Area. While most who visit the city do so for other reasons, birders and outdoor enthusiasts will find plenty to occupy themselves over a three- or four-day stay.

We've already completed our second sit -- in Arizona -- but I'll save my Prescott birding thoughts/experiences until the next post. Cheers!

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Post #211 -- Some Southern California Photography

Sonia and I are back in the US! There was, however, some serious doubt as to our return from Chile; the Abbott Labs COVID AG-Card tests which we took with us kits were defective, so we had to cobble testing together the night before our flight from Santiago to Dallas (and onto Los Angeles). To compound the drama, Sky Airlines, a Chilean carrier, pushed our final domestic flight from Punta Arenas to Santiago back three hours, a circumstance which cut our connection time in Santiago from five hours to two. We landed in that capital, scampered off the plane, claimed our luggage, sprinted to the international terminal, checked into our American flight, and fought our way through immigration and security. By the time we hauled ass to the terminal's farthest gate, we had only ten minutes to spare. So yeah, getting back was a total circus!

We made it, barely.....

I'll write more about Chile in future posts, but I'm gonna keep it simple this time around and post some photos I captured in Southern California just before we left. Recall that we've rented our San Mateo apartment and become digital/guiding nomads through September. Without a place of our own, we crashed with Sonia's dad in Riverside County for five days pre-Chile. There is some excellent photography to be had in that area, and I'll present a half-dozen shots that I captured across two sun-drenched mornings.

Those who read this blog regularly might recall a post from early-December where I described a choice run-in with Greater Yellowlegs, a common bird that managed to avoid my lens for the eight years since I departed Massachusetts. And wouldn't ya know it? A month after that entry, I had an even better crack at the species!

Greater Yellowlegs - Tringa melanoleuca
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS R5
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 1000

Greater Yellowlegs - Tringa melanoleuca
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS R5
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Besides those, I had mint opportunities at American Avocet and Black-necked Stilt. The color in all these shots is provided by the early-morning light reflecting off the rocky hillsides behind the impoundment. The stilt shot was taken earlier than the others; that's why it's the most color-saturated and dramatic of the bunch. The avocet waded hella close, and the crouched pose was the only way I could get the whole bird and reflection in the frame. Stoked with the water drop bouncing off the surface!

Black-necked Stilt - Himantopus mexicanus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS R5
1/4000 at f/4, ISO 400

American Avocet - Recurvirostra americana
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS R5
1/4000 at f/4, ISO 400

OK, enough shorebirds. Let's finish with two raptors. Birds of prey are a weak-point in my portfolio, so it's always nice to fluff-up those galleries. While I had several nice Merlin shots prior to this awesome encounter, the Red-tailed shot represents my best frame of that species. I'm not sure what the Merlin is eating, but relative abundance and light-colored legs suggest Savannah Sparrow.

Merlin - Falco columbarius
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS R5
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS R5
1/2000 at f/7.1, ISO 1600
*opted for f/7.1 instead of f/5.6 to keep feet in focus when AF point placed on eye

And for those who made it this far, let me point you towards a gallery of my favorite photos of 2021. Several of the shots in this post made the cut, and you'll find a bunch of Chilean birds represented as well. There are 25 images in total.

Here is a link to my phots from Chile. I ask for one good frame a day when I'm traveling -- shooting in new places is really tough, especially without idiot-proof set-ups like in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Colombia -- so I'm super-satisfied with this haul of ~50.

And lastly, there is still space on the following tours which I anticipate leading for Tropical Birding: