100 Birds – #24

You are asked to stay in your car and drive the 4 mile loop road when you travel through the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge’s River S Unit in the winter months.  There are a couple of distinct advantages in doing this – you get to ride comfortably in your car so you stay warm and dry but, more importantly, you are not viewed as a human by the birds and other animals.  As a result, you get much closer to the birds than you would if you were walking. This isn’t to say that they don’t see you and become wary – they do. But they get used to cars moving by and don’t feel nearly as threatened as they do when an upright human is walking nearby.  Believe me, the Ridgefield requirement to stay in your car is NOT a penalty.  It is a benefit even if you have to bend and twist at times to see out a window…a small price to pay to have birds so close.

There is one location along the driving route where you can get out of your car, use the restroom and walk a short distance to a blind overlooking a lake and its associated marsh edges. You walk through a mixed forest of shrubs and overstory trees to get the blind and will frequently see many small songbirds along the way.   For me, the photographic reward of looking out of the blind at the lake is far smaller than what I reap on the short walk out and back.  It is not uncommon to see a variety of sparrows and nuthatch along with kinglets and chickadees.

I was surprised one drizzly day to see a Red-tailed hawk sitting on a branch about 20 yards away from the trail.  It is uncommon to see one of these birds perched so low and so willing to sit as I fiddled with the camera settings to take its photo.  It was wet and did not look all that comfortable but stayed still as I juggled my position to change foreground and background characteristics and click a few portraits.

I always think there is a proper balance between “working the scene” and overdoing it.  I try to get both vertical and horizontal formats on the camera.  I tend to overshoot just to make sure that I have a few sharp images to work with. I know others who shoot more than I do and that’s just fine.  I still think I have too many similar images to sort through at home and try to avoid unnecessary clicks.  I’m rarely successful at limiting my enthusiastic trigger finger.

The image below is one of 45 that I took of this hawk on that cloudy, cool, slightly wet day.  Each file on my computer has a nuanced difference in the pose.  I think that I benefit from having to evaluate such similar but distinct images.  I’ve learned what type of pose pleases me most.  I am also quite aware of how many photos fail due to lack of focus, shadows on the bird’s eye(s), too much stuff competing for your eye or poor exposure.  Lots of experience gained through “failure”.

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First Anniversary

Today marks the one year anniversary of when we signed the papers to become property owners here in Wenatchee, Washington.  Since anniversaries are traditionally times to reflect on events and other notable things that occurred we thought it would be a good time to jot down some of our highlights. Before we get into it, be advised that this is a long text only blog entry.  You’ve been warned.

Our local friend John Barta lead us to a couple of commercial videos that showcase Wenatchee.  If you have 5-10 minutes to spare and want to see why we moved to Wenatchee you could watch one or both of these videos:

 

Now, the house.  We signed the papers and were handed keys and told to wait until the papers had been recorded to enter the house.  We went and had a bite and then sat at the base of the driveway until we got the official call. We’ve walked into a new house several times before so we weren’t entirely new to this.  But this felt a bit different in that we are viewing this place as our “toe tag” house.  We intend to stay here until something happens that says we can’t be here anymore.  So we walked the house and yard that first day and kind of breathed in all the hopes and the reality of the work that awaited us once we actually moved in. A nice bottle of wine accompanied us on our explorations… the first of many to come.

In the last year we have completed two LARGE projects:

(1) Carpet was removed from the great room and hardwoods were put down to merge with the existing hardwoods.  A great job by Artisan Flooring of Cashmere, by the way. We felt particularly good about finding a way to repurpose the carpet rather than have it go to the landfill.  Our thanks to Rick Edwards, a good friend from my Forest Service days, for pulling the carpet and pad for reuse in his son’s house.  I guess it makes sense but we were disappointed that Habitat for Humanity or Goodwill would not take the carpet.  Rick not only took the carpet, he did all the heavy lifting … literally.  Thanks Rick.

(2) We knew that the driveway would likely be an issue once it started snowing.  The drive was STEEP.  By that I mean over 40% at its steepest.  And it had a curve that meant you could not back straight down from the garage.  We thought we’d live with it and adjust as needed.  Well, between our Accord high centering (slightly) at the top of hill in front of the garage and the snow (more about that in a minute) we realized that something had to happen to minimize the shortcomings. We took advantage of anyone who stopped by the house and all our neighbors to talk about options.  After a couple of months I came up with a design that simply lowered the top of steep hill coming from the street where it flattened to enter the garage bays.  We removed the  curved eco-block stairs and replaced them with “poured in place” stairs with a handrail. The new drive now allows straight egress from the garage and there is no high center dragging of our cars or others.  It looks like other drives in the area.  It’s still steep but it isn’t “stupid steep”.  Yes, we thought about this a lot before buying the house.  Yes I tested the drive with our CR-V before we bought the house. No, we did not test the drive with the Accord…ooops.  Yes we are happy to have the project done. It took a week of excavation and layout and pouring but the end result is vastly more useful and should not present too much re-sale liability when it comes time.  Whew.

Those were the big projects.  We have also painted the ceiling and walls of the great room and begun the design of the backyard bird/yoga sanctuary.  Our goal is to create a space with a variety of native shrubs and trees to provide habitat for birds and that is consistent with the “fire-wise” emphasis of Wenatchee.  We will incorporate a platform/pagoda area for Dianne to use for yoga and which will serve as a bird photo blind as well.  All this with the criteria of maintaining our view of Castle Rock as we sit on the patio in the evenings. There is little doubt in my mind that the wonderful evenings we have spent sitting on the patio with Portland friends Jenn and Gerry has greatly influenced our thinking about what a treat it can be to have your own bird patch that brings constant entertainment and variety to your doorstep.  We planted a chokecherry, 2 elderberry, a mock orange and dwarf almond (all natives) and are hoping they all make it through the heat of the first summer. We planted a dogwood tree as a centerpiece tree only to learn that the species does much better if it is under some other trees.  We’ll monitor this tree closely and make any adjustments needed. Along with the planting we’ve been making good headway on removal of crabgrass and clover.  The grass looks alive now rather than miserable. The irrigation system is working and we appreciate having a flat rate irrigation supply for outside use.

We shoveled a record amount of snow off the drive and sidewalks this last winter. Even the long time neighbors were talking about how the snow was unusual.  Since we were raised in Colorado and lived in Bend, Oregon for 9 years, shoveling was not a new thing.  I quickly realized that we have the longest stretch of sidewalk in the neighborhood.  And the steepest driveway.  The snow was all present during the time that the original steep drive was in place. My first shoveling experience had to provide the neighbors a good show.  Slipping and sliding is not efficient when the goal is to remove snow.  So, we invested in boot chains which allow us to walk safely on the drive when it is white with snow…no small thing.  Believe me.

We spent a lot of time exploring the area and walking or hiking nearby and remote trails.  We were frequent visitors to Walla Walla Point Park that runs along side the Columbia River about 3 miles from our house. The park has a paved path and the Chelan County PUD built and maintains the park.  It’s a great place that is well cared for and offers a nice diversity of habitats for birds and venues for people to play. We were frequently the only ones walking during the winter and now share the park with visitors to town and lots of locals. Lots of activity in the area: speed boats, canoes, shells, kayaks, swimming, cycling, running, walking, sitting.  It’s a nice place and we feel fortunate to have the easy access we do.

We have been wearing Garmin smart watches since last October to monitor our steps goals and sleeping. I see that I have walked over 1,140 miles since  October 2015.  That’s over 2.2 million steps.  I’m guessing that about half of that qualifies as exercise.  The other part is incidental steps around the house or town.  There is a lot of room to do better but the statistics are still kind of impressive to me.

Birding takes us out to explore. Beside seeing 26 species in our yard since we moved in, we have seen 138 species in Washington State.  We are learning to appreciate the quail waking us up in the morning even if it is a bit too early most days. I’ve picked up 11 new life birds in Washington since we moved. I still look forward to time out with our friend Steve Howes as we explore areas with the pretense of finding birds. Traveling backroads with Steve is always enjoyable and educational.

We have new friends in Wenatchee.  We’ve met people who share interests in birds and photography. We have new friends who specialize in local flora and fauna. We took a bird ID class to meet people who enjoy birds and to find out about local bird hotspots. Dianne is now working part-time at Ila, the local yoga studio and is gathering a new set of yoga friends. I frequently share a Thursday morning breakfast with friends from my Forest Service days.  All of these guys have been remarkably helpful to me/us as we learn our way around.  Learning the history and culture of Wenatchee is a lot easier when you get to talk to people who have been here a long time. Local Facebook friends lead us to new local resources and provide everything from advice to plants that favor hummingbirds. Our network is growing virtually and literally.

Without doubt, our greatest pleasure has come from the times we’ve shared with visitors to our house.  We’ve had 15 visitors in 11 months.  They’ve come from as far away as Germany (Ricky and Klaus) and Medford, Oregon (Barb and Jon). We’ve been used as a place to meet and enjoy by friends coming from Montana and Portland to share a weekend here (Audrey and Vicke). We have had the pleasure of showing new birding areas to our dear friends Jenn and Gerry.  Steve Howes has been here a couple of times. We enjoyed a musical visit from Ross and Carrie. Last year we photographed the wedding of Lynn and Lyle in Butte, MT and they came for a weekend now that they are living in the Seattle area. We’ve had family from Montana twice…always a treat. Friend Stacia stopped by for a night as she returned from Chelan. We are looking forward to a visit from long time friends Dave and Mary next month and from KT, coming from Kentucky, in September. We’ve tried to cajole visits from others from New York to Colorado and hope that they will be able to travel west sometime soon. All the visits have given us an excuse to explore new areas and we thank our guests for their patience and flexibility.

In review, we would give our first year in Wenatchee a solid A grade. We enjoy the slower, easier life of the smaller town.  We miss our family and friends in Oregon and having access to things like good bread and a greater variety of groceries. But it’s fruit season now and we are enjoying fresh cherries, apricots, peaches and blueberries. Apples are on the horizon. What we could not find here we have found on Amazon or Wayfair. We feel mostly complete and the projects are lined up for our energy as we deem fit. Our visitors have all left with smiles and an appreciation for our town and what it offers.  We are healthy and have all our doctors, lawyers and such in place. We’re here for the duration and welcome anyone who wants to stop by to visit.  We’ll leave a light on for you.

100 Birds – #23

The Belted Kingfisher is the only kingfisher species in the majority of North America. The Green and Ringed Kingfishers have very limited ranges in southern Texas so most Americans won’t see anything but the Belted Kingfisher.  What a shame!  When we visited the Sunderbans area of India in 2011 we saw six species of kingfisher in the first hour we were on the boat. Wow.

These birds are not easy to get close to as they typically sit where they have an open view and tend to be pretty cautious when humans show up.  Many is the time that I’ve seen nothing but the bird’s back end as it flies away to another favored perch. They will perch on a branch above or near water and scout for fish.  When they see prey they will dive and catch the fish or prey in their distinctive beak.  After they get the catch they fly back up to the perch for a snack. Kingfisher seem to want to make sure that you know they are in the area.  Their call is loud and distinctive.  “Look at me”, “over here”, “LOOK AT ME”.

Belted Kingfisher are fairly common here in Wenatchee.  We walk the river path frequently and it is a rare day when we don’t hear or see a kingfisher.  Do I have any contemporary photos of a kingfisher?  Nope.  It seems that every time I see a kingfisher within distance to photograph it is on a day when I was lazy and left the camera at home. Dianne is nice to me and doesn’t chastise me for leaving the camera behind.  Really, she doesn’t have to since I do enough by myself.  This photo is a heavy crop of an image taken back in Oregon as the bird perched above Commonwealth Lake Park.

There are a couple of local photographers that I have visited with enough that I presume I can now refer to them as friends.  John Barta and his wife Linda are frequent visitors to the Walla Walla Park area where we like to walk.  Frank Cone is a prolific local photographer that I see less frequently face-to-face but with whom I communicate on Facebook.  Both John and Frank have been posting a number of kingfisher photos lately.  I enjoy their work and have a bit of kingfisher-envy.  My lesson is that I need to be out there if I am to expect to get a photo.  Oh yeah, and it helps to have a camera along… makes it a lot easier to take a photo if you have one.

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100 Birds – #22

 

When we moved to Wenatchee, Washington we knew we’d see a variety of birds that inhabit the eastside of the Cascade mountains. We were excited to see new species.  What I didn’t think about (at least not much) was the species we’d leave behind.  Some birds that we saw commonly at our Portland house or in the area just don’t seem to make it over the hill and this far north.  Or so it seems with the Lesser Goldfinch.  In Portland we saw a lot of these birds and fewer of the American Goldfinch.  Here in Wenatchee we see a lot of American Goldfinch and I have yet to see a Lesser Goldfinch in the neighborhood.  Looking at a range map for the Lesser it may be that we are too far north for the Lesser to show up.  That could change as climate change occurs.

This photo was taken about 3 miles from our house in Portland.  Commonwealth Lake Park is an urban park that has a 0.75 mile paved trail around it.  The pond lays in some the highest density urban areas in the state of Oregon and gets a tremendous amount of use by a wide variety of people.  I fell into the group of users that showed up frequently, walked a couple of laps (or more) and carried binoculars and a camera.  On this day there was a small flock of Lesser Goldfinch hanging out in a sparse tree at the west end of the park.  Busy feeding on catkins they seemed unconcerned about me and the camera.  This is as close it comes to automatic photo taking – many birds to look at, all fairly low in the tree, unconcerned and perched in even lighting.  Click, click, click.  Next?

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100 Birds – #21

A day alone in the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge north of Vancouver, Washington always reaps rewards. I tend to start such a day with a cup of coffee as I sit near the entry station listening to birds and other sounds come from the marsh and forest cover of the refuge. I take note of birds flying in and out and begin to glass the birds with binoculars.  I’ll check the camera settings, position the beanbag on the window and dial in a rough exposure so I am mostly prepared when a photo presents itself.  It always presents itself.  Ridgefield never disappoints when it comes to birds.  I really can’t think of a time when I left the refuge without at least one nice opportunity to photograph a bird, a raccoon or some scene.  The place is rich and is a treat to visit any time of the year – mosquitos and other visitors may color the experience but there are always moments when you can be alone with the place and the critters that frequent it. Watching the sunrise over a marsh full of waterfowl, blackbirds and wrens is hard to beat if you want to begin a calm, zen-like day.

The automobile route of the Ridgefield NWR S Unit is about 4 miles long and you are required to stay in your vehicle much of the year.  During a few summer months you can exit your car and walk around.  It is during this time that the Kiwa trail is open to visitors and offers a wide variety of habitats and avian opportunities. The refuge is typically quiet with the exception of the train movement on the east side of the refuge. Much of the time in the refuge can be a pretty pure “moment of nature” if you want one.

The refuge is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the national network of refuges.  As such, activities occur within the refuge.  Seasonal waterfowl hunting is allowed.  Water levels are regulated.  Roads are graded. Vegetation is managed in a minimal way…plantings and weed control.  The refuge, like the others, is a busy place.  Management is intended to foster habitats to support the wildlife populations that use the area.  While there is always debate about what is being done, what should be done or what should NOT be done, the intent is benefit wildlife.  Humans are lucky to have access to the area. The value of the refuge is increasing rapidly in my opinion.  Housing development on the perimeter has changed the experience and influences the edge vegetation/habitats. I think the development is inevitable and something that I need to come to grips with.  I wish there was a nice buffer around the refuge to ease the immediate geographic pressures of houses against native forests and wetlands. That won’t happen now so the value of the refuge goes way up. The refuge is an island of nature in a fragmented landscape. People should recognize and appreciate the treasure they have in their back yard.

I was driving slowly around the loop and making stops when I thought a photo might be possible or when I just wanted to stop and watch, listen and feel the place. At one point I approached a culvert crossing of the road and it looked different to me.  It was.  Managers had come in with equipment and cleaned the inlet and outlet of the culvert to allow water flow.  There was a fairly large pile of what I think was some road gravels that had been pulled out of the water and piled along the road.  It was a pile of black sands and gravels and seeds and leaves had begun to accumulate on the surface. There were several Golden-crowned Sparrows hopping around gathering seeds.  The light was a fairly bright overcast.  I pulled over and parked nearby.  As I sat still watching the action, the birds adjusted to my car and me and resumed their work.  It’s always work for a bird.  Find food, preen and protect your feathers, watch for danger, find a mate… it is nonstop.

I raised the camera onto the bean bag on my window and started following birds as they feasted on the seeds that had been uncovered during the maintenance or which had fallen since the pile was placed. The setting on the dark pile of gravel/sand was different than anything I’d shot before and I still have mixed feelings about it as a stage for a photograph.  But the birds were nearby and happy.  I took about 100 photos and departed the area. I selected this photo for presentation here because I like the attitude that the bird is showing.  It looks confident, alert and a bit brash…almost challenging. Many photographers prefer the mega-birds for photography – the herons, eagles and egrets or geese.  I do too but can’t seem to resist a chance to record a small songbird. The energy and small size of these sparrows adds a challenge to the photo work.  The result, though, is that once the photo is on the computer monitor I get to take a close look at the beauty of the feathers on the bird and dramatic display of structure around the eye. So often we see birds fly by and they go virtually unnoticed.  There’s a bird.  Big deal.  Seeing a bird fly by and knowing what it is seems to be the next step in appreciating the complexity and dynamics of our birds. Studying, in an informal way, the variety and complexity of feathers on a single bird is not something that most people can or want to do. Me, I enjoy seeing the patterns and variety of feathers and wondering “Why? How?” Some may say I’m curious.  Others may say I’m nuts.  I think I’m fortunate. 20140221_104015_DSC_7395

Happy Fourth of July

It has been almost a year since we moved to Wenatchee, Washington and we are just about to witness our first “small town” celebration of Independence Day in the USA. Yesterday’s newspaper was filled with a schedule of events that will occur today.  The climax will be a firework show launched from Walla Walla Point Park where we have walked numerous times. The park will be full of activities ranging from a youth circus to a full orchestra presentation during the fireworks. We walked the area this morning and it was quiet.  The pyro team was busy making last minute updates and checking things. Some folks had their tents in place at 09:00 and look to be planning to spend the day. The wind has died down enough to remove the Red Flag warning we’ve been under the last two days and the sky is filled with clouds.  Temperatures should peak in the mid- to high 70’s.  Last year it was about 100 degrees.

I’ve photographed fireworks many times in the past and it takes a bit to get me enthused enough to brave the crowds for more images.  But I admit that the feeling of a “small town” celebration caught me up.  Part of me wants to throw caution to the wind and get back to the park early enough to get a spot near the fireworks launch point. Another part of me says “stay the heck out of there”.  I think we’ve found a decent compromise.  We plan to drive over to East Wenatchee and view the firework show from the loop trail.  Our view will be into Wenatchee, looking west into town.  We will be directly across from the fireworks display and at the edge of the Columbia River.  Reflections may be featured if winds and powerboats allow the water to be calm.  The end product of the evening, for me, will most likely be a composite image that merges a base image showing the town and hills to the west and several firework bursts.  If we get a nice image in one frame all the better.  Time will tell.

Last night the local baseball team, the Wenatchee Applesox, played the team from my friend Eric Vogt’s home town – Kelowna, BC.  The Sox showed no mercy and handed the Kelowna team a 12-2 loss. It was fireworks night at the game so Dianne and I went about a half mile from our house and watched the display and got a bit of practice with the Fuji and TriggerTrap to prepare for tonight’s “big show”.  The wind was blowing about 20-30 mph at times and the images are not all that sharp but we had a good time watching the fireworks and the display on the camera as it cycled through about 100 photos.  We’re as prepared for tonight as we can be so it is just a matter of time.

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Wenatchee, Washington July 3, 2016.  3 shot composite

100 Birds – #20

Only four of the seven species of chickadees in North America are likely to be seen.  The other 3 species are limited to far northern latitudes or small geographic ranges in Mexico. In the western United States we get to see the Chestnut-backed Chickadee, the Mountain Chickadee and the bird shown in this photograph – the Black-capped Chickadee.

When I first started posting bird photos to Google+ I was told by one prominent site moderator that I’d quickly learn that chickadee images are always crowd pleasers.  It reminded me of another saying that I first heard at a workshop with photographer John Shaw.  John was talking about the commercial aspects of nature photography when he said “Adorable sells”. The chickadee certainly falls into the group of cute, likeable or adorable birds. They don’t migrate great distances and it is possible to see them all year if you live in a favorable location.  Their call is easy to distinguish and their fast, frequent flights around an area draw your eye to them fairly easily. As a photographer I am always happy to see chickadees since they tend to sit still longer than other small birds.  I’m not saying that they pose for extended periods but compared to a kinglet or wren the chickadee seems to stay put a bit longer.

This photo was taken in the backyard of our old house in Portland, Oregon.  We put out feeders for the birds and welcomed them to our small patio.  I spent way too much time sitting at the doorway to the patio waiting for birds to come in and perch on one of the many perches that were there naturally or on one or more that I’d positioned to provide good photo backgrounds.  The perch in the photo is a stick that was located next to a tree rose in a pot on the patio.  I was always amazed to see a bird perch on top of the skinny, rough stick when they had smooth, more horizontal perches easily available.

To entertain myself and pursue high quality images I invested in a device known as a CamRanger (http://camranger.com/).  This little device connects to the camera which is placed on a tripod and positioned near the perch of choice. The CamRanger makes its own little WiFi network that can be connected to a smart phone WiFi settings. The CamRanger app lets you sit inside and control focus, exposure and remotely trigger the shutter.  The fact that a person is not evident to the birds is a HUGE advantage to capturing good photos.  Of course there is the limit to the scene that is observed at any given time but controlling focus and exposure while you sit on the couch reading and relaxing has a lot going for it.  Since the time I bought the CamRanger they have added a motorized tripod top that allows you to pan the camera as well as control exposure and shutter.  Those who know me know that I enjoy such things and can appreciate that there is one sitting in my camera storage area.  Someday soon it will come out to play in the Wenatchee area.

I suspect that some who read this post will find the process by which the photo was taken to be unethical or ill advised.  Many people resent “baiting” birds for photographs but I don’t know any people who don’t condone bird feeders in their own yards or nearby.  So yes, I drew the bird into the area by long term access to feed, I provided it a place to perch that I could use to get a nice photo (IMHO) and I sat in the comfort of my own house watching the screen on my iPhone and reading as I waited for a bird to land in front of the camera.  Then it was just a matter of tapping the screen on the bird’s eye to set the focus point and pressing the button to trigger the shutter. Click.  Job done.  Without this explanation you’d be hard pressed to know that this is not a quick capture in the woods somewhere.  The viewing reaction is what is important and I hope you agree that this is a cute little bird. Remember, adorable sells.  You can call me or email me.  Just kidding… or not.

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100 Birds – #19

 

The spring migration had begun and I was sitting on the patio enjoying a glass of wine with Dianne as the sun began to descend. I’ve learned that I should always have the camera handy as we sit, talk and scan our devices for news or trivia. This White-crowned Sparrow landed in our neighbor’s tree and began to preen and pose. The bird was backlit so the light was a bit flatter than I like. Photographing birds is rarely done under perfect conditions so one makes due with what one gets and then tries to improve the image with post processing.

There’s little more to this story.  It is just a fairly simple bird in a simple setting with mediocre light. But, we had not seen many White-crowned in our yard at the time this photo was taken so seeing one was a treat.  A few weeks later it seemed that we had been swarmed by them and we’d see as many as 20 at a time as they emptied our feeders.  They didn’t stay long though and we haven’t seen one in weeks now.  I’m hoping they return during the fall migration.  We’ll be ready for them.

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100 Birds – #18

Steve Howes and I had been driving the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge all morning and had not come across anything that was terribly unusual.  The map below shows the general area that we covered during our day. The little number flags are locations where we stopped for photos.  The number in each flag shows the number of photos that I took at each location.  It was a fairly slow photo day.

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It was lunch time when started up a road leading to the top of a bluff west of Othello, Washington.  As we climbed we could hear the song of the Western Meadowlark.  I’ve been trying to get a good image of a meadowlark for years.  They, as a species, have a couple of characteristics that test my patience as a photographer.  First, their call carries farther than almost any other bird I know.  The Sandhill Crane is another.  These birds can sound like they are right next to you or very near.  When you finally spot them they are almost always much farther away than you’d think.  Second, attempts to get closer are often nonproductive and I’ve adopted a thought that the Western Meadowlark knows the focal length of my lens and will stay at least 3 times the distance needed for a good photo.  I have quite a few images in my library that show a yellow-breasted bird sitting on a wire or fence post in the distance. It’s a bird that I’ve got on my list to always watch for limited opportunity to photograph at a reasonable distance.  Some day, maybe.

We drove to the top of the bluff and stepped out to the winds of eastern Washington. We heard meadowlark calls from several directions.  I set off on foot to see if I could find a bird that sounded like it was just over a small rise.  I try to walk slowly, not look directly at the bird and to zigzag my approach with frequent stops.  I’ll usually pause to take an insurance shot of the bird and then try to get closer. As I reached what I figured was the limit of my proximity to the bird I was pleased to see it still singing away and, apparently, at ease.  I raised the camera to my eye and watched the bird fly away through the viewfinder.  Drat. The dance had begun – the bird lead and I followed I followed along and approached the bird a second time.  This time I was more cautious and took several shots along the way.  The bird held for about 20 seconds and I got a few shots. The image below is not a prize winner by any means but it represents the closest I’ve ever gotten to a meadowlark on foot or in a vehicle.  This image is still a 50% crop.  Hey, I’ll take it.

Oh, and here’s an interesting bit of info…as I type I can hear the call of a Western Meadowlark somewhere on the flanks of Castle Rock – teasing me from about a half mile away.  Drat.

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100 Birds – #17

The Gift

I posted a photo of a Bullock’s Oriole on May 20, 2016 (100 Birds – #13).  At the time I was thrilled to not only see the bird but to get a decent photo showing its beautiful colors.  I’ve talked many times about how it is challenging to get a sharp shot of a small bird in variable light and cover.  At the time I thought Bird #13 was going to be THE Bullock’s Oriole in this collection of 100 birds.  Then I got a gift.

I was sitting on the edge of Number 2 Canyon Road about 2 miles from our house.  I had been listening to a wide array of bird calls and was practicing my song ID as I watched a few birds move around in the distant shrubs and trees.  I’ve learned that sitting still in an area with birds will often give you a surprise as a bird pops up from out of nowhere.  That’s exactly what happened.  I saw this Bullock’s Oriole land in the shrub about 15-20 feet from my car.  The sun was at my back and bathing the bird.  It was bright but there sat a beautiful bird.  It sang a few bars and twisted around as it scanned for threats or food. It hit what I consider to be the perfect pose… one with good exposure of the bird’s body, decent view under the bird, a clear view of the legs and then, to top it all, a twist of the head into the light to present a beautiful catchlight in the eye.  Go ahead and snicker but that little bright spot in the eye is what makes a mediocre photo move up a notch or two. I had already set the camera’s exposure and it was just a matter of focusing and composing.  30 clicks later the bird was gone and I sat there feeling like a little kid that had just gotten a free ice cream cone – just a very simple feeling of gratitude. This photo may be my second favorite bird photo ever taken.  Time will tell.

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I’ve been asked by some about how photograph birds. It’s not exactly an easy question to answer nor do I feel like I am a good source of education about the subject. I can tell what I know to be true for me with full realization that “the times they are a changing”.  So, with an apology to anyone who did not ask or who does not care, here’s a short bit on bird photography and camera wizardry.

Bird photography is a learned skill.  I understand that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill – or some say. I’ve not kept track of the time I’ve spent but I know that I’m nowhere near close to the mark. Yet I know that I have adopted a pattern or behavior when trying to get bird photos.  When I switched from shooting Nikon to using a Fuji mirrorless camera I needed to change some of my habits.  I now shoot using the Fuji 100-400 lens coupled with a 1.4x extender.  When used on the Fuji X-T1 body the combination results in an 840 mm equivalent if shooting with a full frame sensor such as my Nikon D800.  That’s a lot of focal length and something I’ve never really had in the past.  And yet the birds still seem so far away!!! I enjoy the fact that I can easily hand hold the camera and lens.  The lens stabilization helps a great deal but I still try to shoot at 1/1000 second.  By putting the 1.4x on the lens I lose light and the lens moves to an f/8 lens when zoomed out to 400 mm (where I am almost all the time). This is not a “fast” lens at this point so I appreciate having good light on the bird at the time of the photo.  I shoot in aperature priority and set the lens to be as wide open as possible which varies from f/5.6 to f/8.  I also shoot using Auto ISO to make the exposure.  I will dial in exposure compensation when needed and love that I can see the effects of any changes directly in the viewfinder or on the LCD screen.  I don’t worry about high ISO values much anymore.  I’ve found I can shoot at ISO 1600 quite confidently with the Fuji.  It’s not uncommon to have the camera select ISO 3200 to maintain the 1/1000 sec shutter speed.

That’s the exposure…now on to focus.  Focusing using an electronic viewfinder is a very different beast from the clear view of a high quality DSLR body like the D800.  Like most things, there are pluses and minuses.  The viewfinder is bright but has a lag when actually shooting. Combining a high burst rate of 10 frames a second and continuous focus results in a burst rate that varies and never comes close to 10 frames a second.  Very frustrating. I want that burst rate to be reliable and consistent.  Even for birds perched on a stick I want the fast burst to get multiple frames from which to select a pose.  A very slight tilt of the bird’s head can add or remove a catchlight in the eye.  Yes, I want a lot of frames from which to pick. So I’ve learned a new trick or two.  My approach now is to find the bird with my binoculars or bare eye, bring the camera up to find the bird in the center focal point and at 100 mm.  Then I zoom in on the bird by pushing the lens hood forward rather than twisting the zoom ring (thank you Mr. Barta). I have found that if I stay with manual focus set on the camera that the burst rate will always max out for me – never fails. So I use back-button focus to get in the ball park and then manually focus the bird. The Fuji excels at this because when I touch the focus ring on the lens the camera automatically zooms in to show a 10x magnification.  Magic.  Touch the shutter button and the magnification goes away.  Perfect. Also, I have my manual focus set to use “focus peaking” which allows me to easily see exactly what is in critical focus.  It takes a bit of getting used to with all the high contrast edges jumping at my eye but the results speak for themselves. None of this is quick for me at this point but I’m getting better. Other photographers are probably shaking their heads and wondering about my sanity.  Their “big boy” camera bodies are miracles of technology and I still enjoy using my D800 and 300 f/4 lens.  But the fact remains that no matter what body you use or which lens, when the bird is sitting in nice light and is open to view except for that one or two branches in front of it, the camera is most likely to focus on the branch and not the bird.  With Nikon’s lenses I can manually override the autofocus…another miracle. But I bet that any bird photographer can talk about lost shots due to the camera’s autofocus finding the foremost object or the one with the most contrast.  Just sayin’.

There are many reasons I enjoy the Fuji camera.  Cost, weight, control but a subtle and highly valuable characteristic that often goes unnoticed is the color palette the Fuji sensor and electronics create.  That may sound weird from a color blind guy but the colors I see on my monitor are richer and more pleasant to my eye.  I like the Fuji for portraits, landscapes and birds.  I have my wishlist and hope that some will show up in the X-T2 if and when it is released. If so, I will need to evaluate the merits and make a choice.  I can’t wait.