100 Birds – #86 Horned Lark

Every time I see a bird species for the first time I have to go through a drill to note obvious field marks and to try to remember them long enough to find the bird in a field guide. I always appreciate it when I’m with someone else who knows more about birds than I do and who knows the species when seen.  Such was the case with my first view of a Horned Lark.  I was wildly pointing my camera out the car window trying to compose an image while I made wild guesses about the ID.  My friend, Steve Howes, sat in the driver’s seat and waited patiently for me to finish. When I turned to him he suggested that I look at Horned Lark in the guide.  Bingo. Then he wanted to know why I was taking photos of a bird perched on a cow pie. When it comes to recording a Life Bird, I’m not picky.

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I’ve seen hundreds of Horned Lark since that moment. We see large flocks of them on the Waterville Plateau in the winter.  That doesn’t mean that I’ve had numerous great photo opportunities of the birds.  The flocks tend to mass on the road surface and tend to stay put until the very last moment before getting hit.  To my knowledge we have never hit a Horned Lark as we pass through a flock. At least one of my friends refers to them as “radiator birds” based on her experience with them.

The above photo was taken on November 1, 2018.  We had seen only a couple of Horned Larks previous to this and are expecting the large numbers to form soon. This was a solitary bird that sat on a fence post and let me shoot several poor, back-lit portraits.  It then flew to the other side of the truck and landed on a barbed wire fence. The bird was not only closer to me but it was now positioned in better light.  The background is wheat stubble on the bottom and blue sky on top. I tried to get the camera into different positions to vary the horizontal line between wheat and sky but, for the most part, failed. I shot numerous photos as the bird sat and preened.  I was grateful to see one image showing the bird with it’s beak open a bit. We did hear some faint calls but the bird was mostly silent.

After the bird tired of my antics it flew deeper into the shrub-steppe where it perched atop a small sage plant. At 150+ yards I knew that the photo would be a challenge.  Getting focus on a small bird that far away is more luck than skill.

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The photo above is a very heavy crop of the file to make the bird large enough to see. I’m pleased that it is as sharp as it is. Someday I hope to see a Horned Lark sitting near me in good light and on native vegetation – not on a cow pie or a barbed wire fence.  Someday.  It could happen.

 

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100 Birds – #85 Tundra Swan

Big birds are always engaging. Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, and Sandhill Cranes are all easily seen due their bulk.  Big birds fly with graceful wing beats and call to each other as they go. Sometimes it seems that the bird at the back of a group flying by is the most vocal. Maybe it’s their role to assure the others that all is OK and that everyone is still present.  Maybe it’s just back seat flying.

There are big birds and then there are BIG birds. The Tundra Swan falls into the category of BIG bird. We are fortunte to see both Tundra and Trumperter Swans in north-cenral Washington. They are not present except seasonally and, generally, not in large numbers. Other locations, such as the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge north of Portland, Oregon, receive large flocks of swans as they migrate.  Fall and early winter are prime times to see them at Ridgefield.

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Regardless of where you see them, Tundra Swans are wonderful to watch and photograph. They tend to be distant so photography is benefited by a long lens. Every once in a while you will see one close by.  Don’t miss the chance to record the bird even if you have to use your cell phone camera.

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Tundra and Trumpeter Swans can be easily mistaken. The Trumpeter Swan is bigger and has a flattened forehead as it approaches the bill. The Tundra Swan is still very large, has a more rounded head shape and has a yellow spot at the base of beak.  While it may be difficult to separate the two species, it may not matter much.  Just seeing these great birds on the water or in the air is sufficient.

 

100 Birds – #84 Snow Goose

It is my impression that the Canada Goose is the most common goose species we see in America.  That is, unless you live in an area that receives thousands of Snow Geese during their annual migration. Around Wenatchee, Snow Geese are few and far between.  I recently photographed one at Walla Walla Point Park just to record the siting. I took the photograph at a time when there were thousands of Snow Geese to the west of Wenatchee in the Skagit Valley. Perhaps the single goose was lost or just being adventuresome. The great flocks of these birds draw bird gazers, both viewers and photographers, to witness the extraordinary event. Photo lines form as photographers with thousands of dollars of gear assemble to record the details and dynamics that a flock of birds creates. It can be humorous to watch people jockey for a particular vantage point. Yes, I’ve been there, done that.  The image below was shot in December 2012 as I stood in a photo line of about 3 dozen photograpers watching birds come into shallow ponds for the night.

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My relationship with Snow Geese goes back to the very beginning of my bird photography habit. In fact, the Snow Goose is behind my interest in birds and bird photography. Before I saw the birds in person I saw images of thousands of Snow Geese lifting off a pond at sunrise at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. The images really appealed to me and I made a point to visit the refuge in January 2004.  I was fortunate to be joined by my friend, Steve Howes, for this trip. We stood, freezing, on an observation deck before sunrise and listened to birds we could not see. As the day brightened, the geese lifted off. The noise, visual chaos and beautiful setting was all I had hoped for – and more. We both left with a much deeper appreciation of the value of such an experience. In Steve’s words, “that was spiritual”. We were hooked.

I’ve been back to the Bosque del Apache several times to obtain better images of Snow Geese and their seasonal partners, Sandhill Cranes. I’ve shot dozens of images at sunrise and during the day as the geese forage in grain fields and lift off when disturbed. I’ve shot images of geese leaving ponds as the morning light gets bright and when the sun is setting. While I have several images that please me, I’m still looking for that one image that captures it all – chaos, color, dynamics, moment. Can a still image do that?  I think so.  I also have new capability to create high quality, 4K video. Who knows what that may inspire.

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Currently, Steve volunteers for the McNary National Wildlife Refuge and gets to try to count huge numbers of Snow Geese as they visit the refuge. I occassionally get to join in and am always excited to see the birds doing well and being supported by refuge managers as they make their way during migration.  I hope to be able to see another sunrise liftoff and, once again, wonder what inspires 1000’s of geese to take to the sky at the same time. If you ever have the opportunity to witness the event, take it. Get up early and go. You won’t forget it.

 

100 Birds – #83 American Pipit

The American Pipit was new to me in 2014 when I drove through the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge with a friend. Being much more accomplished at finding and identifying birds, he pointed out 10 tiny specks on the far side of a distant pond.  Really? I could barely see them through my binoculars. Nonetheless, I took credit for seeing a new bird.  It wasn’t exactly cheating but I have never really felt good about taking credit when the siting was only a mediocre one.

I visited some seasonal ponds near Mansfield, Washington in 2016.  After scanning the ponds for avocet, stilt and other shorebirds or waterfowl I saw a group of small, buff-colored birds on the far shore. They acted like shorebirds, running along the edge of the water as they probed the shoreline surface. Many people consider the Pipit to be kind of bland looking bird. I’m not sure why but their coloration makes them stand out well for my color blind eyes.  I took a few images and went to retrieve my bird guide.  After a short search, I settled on American Pipit.  Finally, I had a better than a mediocre view of the bird. I went back to photography but the images were only suitable as record shots.

My two sightings of American Pipit left me with the impression that the species would be associated with water like shorebirds. I was surprised when I found a large flock of Pipit foraging in dryland wheat fields and roadsides on the Waterville Plateau this fall. My strong association of the birds and water confused me at first. I took several photos of birds on the road surface and in the ditch line.  Consulting my bird guide I confirmed that they were, in fact, American Pipit. Live and learn.

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I’ve seen several large flocks of  American Pipit on the plateau this fall. I’ve gotten better about picking them out of small bird groups.  It’s been common to find them grouped with White-crowned Sparrows and Horned Larks.  While I was traveling with my friend Steve, we saw a few Pipit in the Enterprise, Oregon area. These were at high elevation in a coniferous forest setting. Observing them in wheat fields and sagebrush, pond shorelines, and coniferous forests has left me with a better understanding of the bird’s habitat and behavior. Their buffy color and strong eyering are the first field marks I see.  The streaked breast and the bobbing tail follow shortly after that. The American Pipit still feels like a new bird to me. I hope that they will hang around a while longer so I can gather some images of them perched on native vegetation rather than fence posts or barbed wire. I can hope.

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.