100 Birds – #82 Acorn Woodpecker

In addition to owls, I’m a sucker for woodpeckers. It’s a broad class, woodpecker. The woodpecker family, Picidae, has 240 species. In North America, we get to see 17 woodpecker species, 7 Flicker species, and 4 Sapsuckers. 28 species out of 240. A little more than 10% of the total. I need to travel more.

Around north-central Washington, we see Downy and Hairy woodpeckers fairly frequently. I’ve seen one Red-breasted Sapsucker along the Columbia River here in town. Beyond that, I need to travel to see other species. I could head to most of the areas burned by forest fires in the recent years to see Black-backed Woodpeckers. If I wander into forested areas around Leavenworth I can find White-headed Woodpeckers. I hear that Pileated Woodpeckers are fairly common around Lake Wenatchee. All three of these species are on my woodpecker bucket list. I’ve seen all three species but have no photos to prove it. A bit of dedicated exploration will fill that void.

Trips to the Medford, Oregon area in the past have allowed me to see and photograph both Lewis’s and Acorn Woodpeckers. None of the images are worthy of showing publicly but they testify to my seeing the birds. I am, however, always anxious to improve photo quality and try to stay alert to opportunities to get good photos.

We recently traveled to Medford again to see long-time friends. Barb and Jon have appeared in previous posts about birding and always accommodate my requests for more time out with the birds in their area. One species that is almost a sure thing to see in the Medford area is the Acorn Woodpecker. The place to be is the TouVelle State Recreation Site. Jon and Barb have taken me there at least 2 other times and I’m always amazed at the action in the park. An abundance of soft pine trees and oaks provide both a place to cache acorns and a bottomless supply of the nuts. This trip was no exception. A park ranger estimated that there were 30-40 Acorn Woodpeckers in the area.

We got out of the car and found a bird busy sizing a hole in a Ponderosa Pine to fit another nut. It was the first of many photo opportunities.

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Jon and I went back the next day to shoot some movies. My goal was to get at least 30 seconds of video to use in an Audubon presentation I will make in a couple of weeks. I set up at the aforementioned pine tree and waited for the birds to return. They did, but stayed high in the tree, avoiding the perfect habitat shot of them working on holes on the bole of the tree. Jon wandered off to scout areas that had been productive the day before. He saw several birds in good photo areas and let me know. We walked to the edge of the forested area and saw birds preening on an old snag and hammering away at holes on another tree as they moved nuts around and secured them with vigorous taps. I now have several nice images of Acorn Woodpeckers in ideal habitat. I got the video footage that I wanted. I’m content. Sort of. I’m sure that the next time I visit Medford I will visit TouVelle Park to see if the Acorn Woodpeckers are doing well and if they might just land in sweet light on a gallery tree, pose nicely and let me grab a few more images.

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100 Birds – #81 Sora

Photography of wading birds can be challenging. Small wading birds move constantly and are always moving their heads into and out from the water as they feed. Fast shutter speeds and good panning technique along with a camera and lens that will find and maintain focus are key ingredients to getting a good photo of these small birds.

Movement is a common characteristic of wading shorebirds but it isn’t the only thing that makes them hard to photograph. Some shorebirds simply don’t want to be seen. You can hear them as they move through riparian vegetation. You can see the movement of the vegetation and follow the bird as it moves about. Sometimes patience is rewarded with a fleeting look at the bird, half concealed by the reeds and deep in shadows. Often, though, you watch and listen but do not see the bird. I’ve stalked Rail and Sora for hours without ever pushing the shutter button. At times like that, it is best to remember that it is a privilege to be outside and enjoying nature.

Dianne and I made a quick trip to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge recently. Dozens of trips to this refuge in the past prepared us for the inevitable. Ridgefield always produces some great moments with birds or wildlife. We weren’t hurried and drove slowly into the heart of the area. Cattail marshes that commonly host Red-winged Blackbirds by the dozens were silent and bird-free. We saw several Great Blue Heron, a staple at Ridgefield, early on our drive. Song Sparrows were hopping on the road as they took seeds and small gravel. But, basically, the refuge was pretty quiet. The ponds were dry or nearly so. Roadside vegetation had grown to a height that made scanning the canals challenging. Mallards and one female Wood Duck were all we saw as we proceeded south. These same areas have shown us Hooded Merganser, Gadwall, geese, teal, snipe, warblers, finch and a great variety of birds. The summer doldrums had arrived.

We decided to walk the short Kiwa Trail. Visitors to Ridgefield NWR are required to stay in their vehicles much of the year . That’s a good thing for the birds and for the bird photographer. During summer months, when there are fewer birds around, the refuge allows you to get out of your car and walk around. The Kiwa Trail offers some new habitats and birds so a walk around is always a good idea.

We encountered another couple as we started our walk. They had binoculars and a camera strapped on so I used my favorite line to say hello and pry information from them – “see anything exceptional?” They paused and the lady said, “not too much other than several Yellowlegs and 2 Sora”. SORA! My pulse quickened and I was anxious to move on. She had seen 2 Sora. Think about that. Not just one, but two. And the keyword was “seen”. The birds were visible. Unimaginable in my experience. We walked with a bit of purpose after that.

Most of the area was dry and we saw some more sparrows on the path. I knew that the trail would loop back to the south soon and that the likelihood of seeing open water was best at that point. As we made the turn back toward the car we saw a small pond on the west side of the path. There were 5 Yellowlegs harvesting tadpoles and minnows. They seemed to be having a very good day. Then I saw a small, darker bird on a small mudflat. After looking through my binoculars I quietly said “SORA” to bring Dianne’s attention to the bird. We both studied the bird for about a minute as it walked among small plants and occasionally moved into taller reeds and reappeared.

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We were surprised to see another Sora on the other side of the pond. It was more visible since it was in the water and not on land. Neither of these birds was close but I knew I needed a record shot of the species. I’d seen one before but had no photos. The air was very hazy due to wildfire smoke as I tried to focus on the closest bird. Distance, haze, and reflections made focusing a challenge. Click, click. Several dozen files were on the memory card when we left. I remember saying “this doesn’t happen” and “this may never happen again” while I was shooting. I hope I’m not right. I’d love to have another chance to photograph Sora in a better light and closer to me. Until then I’ll be the one patiently watching the reeds move and listening to the Sora call. Waiting and watching. Waiting and watching.

100 Birds – #80 Rufous Hummingbird

After the Costa Rica hummingbird series, I made a half-promise to avoid any more hummingbird images for the duration of the 100 Birds series. Then I found myself at Calliope Crossing on Badger Mountain again.  Jenny and her husband, Wayne, were not home and I was the only one there.  I sat on the shaded patio and studied the array of hummingbird feeders that were full of nectar.  I watched the Rufous and Anna’s hummingbirds for about 15 minutes and learned some of their behavior.  I found my photo stage and went to get set up.

I found a small twig in a brush pile near the patio and carefully threaded it through a trellis that sat immediately adjacent to a very popular feeder.  It took about 30 seconds and a male Rufous perched on the twig.  Perfect.  I retreated and grabbed the camera and tripod.  Sitting in a comfortable, shaded chair, I focused on the twig and waited.  It didn’t take long and the birds came back in to feed. All I had to do was wait for a bird to land somewhere in the zone. After a few miserable attempts to fine-tune the focus, I finally found the sweet spot.  Click, click, click.

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The camera was pointing up at the bird and sky became the background. The dark spots in the background are tree branches on a slope outside the house. The bird was in somewhat directional light and lit up pretty well without blowing out. I wish you could see the detail in the breast feathers like I can on the monitor. The spots on the neck are common but I’m not sure what’s going on with the small patch of brighter green (I think) feathers near the bottom-right part of the neck. Maybe Jenny or someone with better skills will let me know in the comment section.

UPDATE:  Peter Bauer just let me know that the female Rufous commonly has “jewelry” on their neck.  He sent me a great photo of a female Rufous that shows the patch of orange (can’t prove it by me) on the base of the throat.  Cornell Lab also talks about it. Live and learn.  Thanks Peter.

100 Birds – #79 Wood Duck

It’s great to have friends who understand the peculiarities of a bird photographer. Play a short fanfare as Jon and Barbara Brazier enter the stage. These two have been close friends for over 20 years and have patiently led me to many bird photo opportunities, notably, Upper Klamath Marsh (eagles, Ruddy Ducks), TouVelle State Recreation Site (Acorn Woodpeckers), Agate Lake (Lewis’s Woodpeckers).

The first outing of the series started when I mentioned to Jon that I would like to photograph Wood Ducks. As he is known for, he took about 5 nanoseconds and replied “Lithia Park in Ashland”. So, at our first opportunity we drove to the Park with purposeful intent. That meant that 3 patient people got to twiddle their thumbs for a couple of hours while I crawled around amazed by the number of these beautiful birds and how close I could get.

In a situation like this, it becomes challenging to put the bird against a clean background. I’d shift around and contort myself to get the camera into a position that gave the bird a good look. Now, years and thousands of bird photos later, I understand how those minor efforts were simple first world problems. It doesn’t get any easier to photograph a bird, really.

So I took my own sweet time and shot a couple of hundred images. I’d look up occasionally to see Jon watching and, seemingly, enjoying the moment. Dianne and Barbara walked around and reported back frequently. I always feel badly when others are with me when I am out to photograph birds. I honestly think I do best when I’m alone with the camera. Second best is being with long-standing friends who tolerate my dilly-dalliances. I’m confident that Jon and Barbara, Dianne and Steve Howes will let me know when they’ve had enough. Until then I will continue to take advantage of their patience and friendship as I keep tinkering with settings and taking photos.

100 Birds – #78 Mallard

Let’s get the collective “it’s just a Mallard” groan out of the way. I understand. These beautiful birds seem to be everywhere. Yes, they are prolific. This one was photographed at Commonwealth Lake Park in Beaverton, Oregon. It could easily have been here in Wenatchee, in Ireland, at Sloan’s Lake in Colorado. It’s a simple formula – pose bird, add light, click. But, let’s pause a moment and look at this bird. Do you see the greens when you run along the pond path? How about the blue? Did you see the fine detail in the feathers on the belly and breast? Yes, it’s a common bird but it deserves a bit of a shout out for just being so darn bright. As you might guess, I feel pretty much the same way about European Starlings and the American Robin.

What does it take to become a common bird to the degree that most people look, shrug and move on? To become common you have to survive and reproduce. I remind people all the time that birds don’t get a day off. Rain? Heat? Ice? Drought? Fire? Birds need to get up each day and go forth to make a living. That means finding food and water, mating and caring for the kids. All that and not being killed by another bird, animal or accidental interaction with a car or gun. Life is not easy for birds.

Mallards have adapted. They successfully nest and raise their young in urban ponds and in more remote water bodies. They produce many young from each nesting. They, like all birds, are alert to danger and can quickly retreat to the reeds and water nearby. They endure nest flooding or habitat loss by moving to a new site when possible. Sometimes it doesn’t work out and the brood is lost. At this point, sheer numbers make it more likely that the Mallard will endure. Time will tell.

I close with a couple of requests. First, stop and enjoy a Mallard the next time you see one. Enjoy the vibrant colors and feather variety and details. Move slowly and get low. They will let you and your kids get closer than you think.

Second, if you must feed the ducks, don’t give them bread. There is no nutritional value in the dough and the birds fail to find food that does support them. Take them some corn, lettuce, seeds or peas. The goal is to enjoy interacting with a wild bird. Your kids will enjoy throwing peas as much as they enjoy throwing bread. Help the Mallard survive. Please.

100 Birds – #77 Great Egret

A Great Egret is a large bird that almost demands that you pay attention to it. Their bright white feathers, yellow beak and black legs stand out in almost any setting or any light. And they are big.  While they are smaller than a Great Blue Heron, the Great Egret still stands about 40 inches tall and has a wingspan of nearly 5 feet.

Great Egrets were pretty common sights when I lived in the Portland, Oregon metro area. A small pond in our high density, urban neighborhood frequently hosted an egret or two. We could see them almost any time at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge north of Portland. I’ve seen as many as 20 egrets in one small area in southeast Washington. I’ve come to expect them almost any time I venture out.  That is, until I moved to Wenatchee.  While Great Egrets do grace our little town on occassion, they are not at all common.  Birders and bird photographers in town get pretty excited when one or two visit our ponds or the river. Count me among the excited.

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This photo was taken in January, 2014 between Hillsboro and Forest Grove, Oregon.  When you zoom in on the Fernhill Wetlands in Google maps, they are clearly labeled “sewage lagoons”. Birders are frequent visitors to sewage ponds since these areas commonly host birds that are not seen elsewhere in urban areas.  Water and lots of forage means that birds come in to rest and feed. Add some riparian shrubs or trees for cover and the mix is almost irresistable to the birds. The Fernhill ponds started as sewage lagoons but the area has been turned into a very attractive recreational area. And the birding there is great.

Most of my egret images are static portraits of the bird standing in shallow water as it feeds. A few of the images show egrets perched in trees.  And some show the great birds in flight. This one was low enough to create a nice reflection as it flew by me. The photo above is almost a full frame shot with very little cropping.  The bird was close.  Click, click, click. Multiple images of the bird flying by allow me to select one in which the wings are in a dynamic position. I generally prefer to have the wings up to expose the bird’s body.  In this instance, the reflection overshadows (pun intended) the wing position.

I’ll be one of the people with cameras along the river here in town the next time a Great Egret shows up. One can’t get too many images of such a great bird.

100 Birds – #76 Yellow-headed Blackbird

May 5, 2017.  6:45 PM.  The light is fading slowly but the marsh is full of Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds.  I’m standing in a small parking lot next to the trail system that skirts the marsh and ponds near I-90 in Bozeman, Montana. There is only one other car in the lot.  I pan the camera across the cattails and see this male Yellow-headed Blackbird doing what it’s born to do at this time of year: calling for a mate. The light on the bird is beautiful.  Because the sun is setting, the light is directional and warm allowing the feather detail to stand out. Textures are enhanced by light coming from the side. I move my tripod a few feet to get a bit closer to the rail fence.  The bird keeps singing.  It’s a song that I know but one which really doesn’t make me smile.  Coarse and harsh sounds are all around me. The birds are busy.

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I barely see the bugs in the air as I stand patiently.  I’m trying to time my shots so the bird is at a peak moment in its calling. The bird tilts its head back and lets go with a raucous call.  Click, click, click…. 10 images are written to my memory card. I move to another location along the fence and scan for other birds. After I record about 10 more birds in different settings I head for home.

Later, after the images are loaded to my computer’s hard drive, I begin to process the files. I stop scanning thumbnails when I run into this sequence of shots. I pull one up to view full screen. I smile when I seee that the bird is sharp and the background is clear. This image epitomizes the Yellow-headed Blackbird in spring. The cattails give the bird an environmental context.  You know you are at a marsh. The yellow head draws your eye in to the bird. But it’s the bugs that make this photo special for me. Other images that night do not show the insects flying around like this photo does. The bugs complete the context. A happy, healthy bird sitting in a healthy marsh surrounded by insects and bathed in pretty light.

I used this image as my monitor’s wallpaper for several months and always enjoyed seeing it as the computer woke up each day. I can hear the bird calling.  I can feel the warm air and smell the marsh. It was one of those moments when the camera recorded an experience that is forever locked in my memory. An image like this, and the memories it inspires, are what keep me looking for birds in sweet light.

One theme of this blog series, 100 Birds, is that the backstory of each photo deserves to be told. This image sits near the top of my personal favorites – ever. It meets every goal I had in mind when I started the series.  I think it is time to reinstall it as my monitor’s wallpaper for another few months.

100 Birds – #75 Violet Sabrewing

If you follow this blog series you are likely to be happy to learn that this is the last hummingbird photo from Costa Rica.  While is not necessarily the best, it is, without a doubt, the largest hummingbird I saw there.  This bird is roughly 6 inches long (end of tail to tip of beak) and weighs about 0.4 ounce. Yes, that is still a very light bird but it is four times heavier than the Magenta-throated Woodstar (bird #74).

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I could hear these birds coming into the feeders.  The sound was not so much their chirping call.  It was their wing beat. While other hummingbirds have a buzzing wing sound, the Violet Sabrewing has a distinctive, low-frequency sound.  It’s more of a “whump, whump, whump” than a buzz.  It’s a big bird with a big sound when flying.

The bright white tail feathers were clearly seen as a bird flew to a feeder and flared it’s tail to slow for landing. The distinctive “decurved” bill is another signature field mark for the species.

My intuition told me that a bird this big would rule the feeders when it was in the area. Memory says that was not the case.  I saw Violet Sabrewing feeding alongside other, smaller species.  I attribute that to the numerous feeders placed around the deck. If food was scarce I think the bigger bird would need to exert its bulk and take control of the feeder or flower.

I am unable to select a favorite hummingbird from the species I saw at Monte Verde. They were all great and new to me. I spent a lot of time just watching the birds interact, feed and perch. Now that I have time to reflect on the time I spent on the Hummingbird Deck, I realize that I squandered time that I could have spent at different elevations to see other hummingbird species. Knowing this, it seems clear that a return visit to Central America is needed.  Stay tuned.

100 Birds – #74 Green Violet-ear

The Green Violet-ear was the most common hummingbird I photographed while on the Hummingbird Deck at Monte Verde Cloud Forest Reserve in March, 2014.  My photo library has about 200 “keepers” of this species and my task here was to pick one that illustrates the bird. Not an easy task.

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This photo was taken using an on-camera flash. I used flash fairly frequently to boost colors and show feather detail.  My goal was not to blast the bird with a bunch of light. Rather, I set the flash to a very low power to both shorten the flash duration and decrease the amount of light hitting the bird. I made an effort to watch how a bird reacted to the flash and adjusted accordingly if I thought the flash was adversely affecting the bird.

Using multiple flash units, premade backgrounds and staged flowers is a common practice for guides leading bird photography tours in the tropics. You can find many examples if you Google “multi-flash bird photography”. The practice is not without controversy.  Some people staunchly believe the use of flash to be “bad form” and potentially harmful to the bird. Most credible bird organizations, such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, do not condemn the use of flash but offer advice on how to minimize potential negative effects. I did a survey of guides who brought their groups to the Hummingbird Deck to learn how they felt about the use of flash.  9 out of 10 encouraged their visitors to use the on-camera flash to improve their photos of the hummingbirds. Only one guide came out strongly opposing the use of flash. As I said, the practice is not without controversy.

The photo above would not have been possible without the use of a weak flash exposure. I suppose that I could have raised the ISO on the camera to gain a bright exposure of the bird sitting in deep shade. The camera I was using (Nikon D800) does not perform well at ISO above 3200. The flash allowed me to shoot at ISO 800 while creating an exposure that shows the birds’ wonderful colors and details.  I will continue to use limited flash when it improves a photo of a bird or until it becomes a practice that is not permissible or condoned by leading bird organizations. Hopefully, camera technology will continue to advance to allow low ISO and high shutter speeds to be used without excessive noise in low light photos.

100 Birds – #73 Magenta-throated Woodstar

Hummingbird sizes vary widely.  The last two posts talked about two medium-sized hummers – Green-crowned Brilliant and Purple-throated Mountain Gem. In reality, I’d consider the Mountain Gem to be noticeably smaller than the Brilliant. Compared to the Magenta-throated Woodstar, both the previous hummingbirds seem large.  The Woodstar seemed, at the time, to be about the size of a large bumble bee. My bird book tells me that the Woodstar is 3.5 inches long (beak tip to tail end) and weighs in at 0.1 ounce. Out of curiosity, I found that 9 kitchen matches (Diamond brand, long) weigh 0.1 ounce.  Go ahead and find your box of matches and count out 9.  I’ll wait for you.

If you have the opportunity to be in an area with a variety of hummingbird species coming to feeders, you may learn to detect and identify a species just by the way they sound. The Violet Saberwing is a very large hummingbird and it sounds like a very large helicopter … whump, whump, whump. The Brilliant and Mountain Gem wings sound like the beaters of an electronic mixer on medium to high speed. The Magenta-throated Woodstar sounds insect-like.  Its sound is more of a buzz. All this is somewhat relevant when standing among dozens of hummingbirds and trying to photograph them. It became a game for me as I tried to concentrate on one species or feeder and keep track of the species next to me or behind me.

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If you have a hummingbird feeder you know that it is hard to predict which opening a hummingbird will approach to feed. I suppose that there is some scientific study that clarifies what, to me, seems to be a random process. The random nature of a hummingbird feeding also includes the angle at which the bird approaches the feeder or blossom.  I mention this trivia because it is the crux of my story about this tiny bird.

Some of my time on the Hummingbird Deck at Monte Verde Cloud Forest Reserve was spent with my camera on a tripod and pointing at a specific feeder opening. I was trying to prefocus on a spot that would place the approaching bird against a good background and, hopefully, exclude the feeder. With most of the species, I learned that they would come in at random angles, take some nectar and then back away at another random angle. The idea that I could focus on a single plane and get a shot with the bird in focus was just another dream of mine.

But the Magenta-throated Woodstar is different.  I could not predict which feeder port the bird might approach but once it chose a port it would feed, back straight out and then reapproach the same port along the same line.  Amazing.  They rarely failed to be consistent. The steady pattern increased my odds of a sharp photo to something greater than slim or marginal. Working with very limited depth of field (fractions of an inch) meant that, even though the bird appeared to back straight out, any slight variation in the angle of the path and the bird would be slightly out of focus. Out of my dozens of attempts, only a few were sharp. While I wish I had a higher success rate, the few sharp images I have will always remind me of the time I spent watching and learning about this amazing little bird.