I was fortunate to have some great photo opportunities with Snowy Owls a few years ago. Between then and now it’s been a dry period with respect to seeing or photographing another of these great birds. That changed last night.
Many people have recently posted photos or tales of Snowy Owl sightings on the Waterville Plateau about 60 miles from Wenatchee. I’m prone to chasing a bird if it has a special charisma. The Snowy Owl qualifies. I went on two winter bird tours with groups led by very experienced birders. Both times we knew that it was possible to see a Snowy Owl but the probabilities of a sighting were low. Both tours produced great sightings of other birds but no Snowy. I went up to the area where the owls were being seen and spent a couple of hours hunting with binoculars and a scope. Nothing. Dianne and I went up and repeated the survey, again with no owl. We made another trip to take Portland birding friends to the area. Heavy snow and gale winds did not help us see anything that day. A post on Facebook by a Chelan-based friend told me that the owls were still up there on March 6. Her observations were that the owls (she saw 4) were more active as the sun started setting so I timed my visit last night to be in the area about 1.5 hours before sunset. It was overcast and my photographer brain was telling me that it would be tough to get a photo under cloudy skies at dusk. And yet I persisted.
I stopped east of Mansfield, WA at the intersection of Road H and Hwy. 172 to set up the camera, get my binoculars ready, start my GPS tracker for geotagging photos if any happened. I headed north on Road H and stopped to view every hummock, rock, erratic and clump of vegetation for the next couple of miles. Nothing. I turned around to head south on Road H feeling like it was not to be my year to see a Snowy Owl. As the light started to really decline my goal was just to get a look at an owl. Photos had become a fairly low priority.
Heading south the landscape looked different due to the light angle. I repeated my process of driving along at 3-5 miles per hour and stopping to look for anything big and white on top of a rock or hunkered in at the base of a hummock or hill. Nothing. I try to look as far ahead as possible to detect anything of interest in my next segment of travel. I saw an unusual looking blob on top of a rock on my left side. It was white. I drove forward a bit and put the binocs on it. Snowy Owl! Awesome. I had met my goal. Another year bird for the list and the nemesis bird was no more.
I edged forward and angled off the highway to get as decent an angle to the bird as I could. You need to understand that, even though the traffic on this rural road is very light, there is occasionally a car or truck that goes by. The shoulders are not solid and it is easy to find yourself stuck. So I was somewhat hampered in how I positioned myself. And I was excited. I held the camera above the side view mirror and took a few shots. After I adjusted the exposure I proceeded to take many more. The owl did not seem at all upset and frequently settled into a position and stayed there for many seconds. I was thinking about flight shots but then decided to shoot some video. I switched the camera and began shooting video knowing that hand-held work would be pretty awful. The owl started swaying and moving its head through an arc. I was interested in the behavior and somehow thought that it might mean that owl was about to take off. I scrambled to reset the camera to still images. I looked down to find the switch to continuous focus so I’d be prepared when the bird left. As I looked up the owl was flying in front of my truck and heading off into the snowy fields to the west. All I could do was watch the owl fly away. What an amazing sight. The bird was a brighter white than the snow covered wheat fields it was over. It was beautiful to watch.
When I secured the camera and began the drive home I felt enriched for the few minutes I had with this bird. Few people have the chance to see what I had just witnessed. I was content knowing that the images would be OK but not great. I didn’t care. I had proof of the experience and more memories of one of the great birds that visit north-central Washington.
When I began this series I intended to highlight photos of birds that were on my disk and more or less ready to go. Birds have a way of changing direction.
I went to one of our local parks today to get outside and away from a monitor. I had no real expectations and, frankly, didn’t care. I had a couple of hours that were my own. What better way than to sit among the birds and see what happens.
As is common at this time of year, American Wigeon are present in large numbers along the still water at the river’s edge. The park slopes gently into a small lagoon that waterfowl enjoy. Wigeons, Bufflehead, Mergansers, Mallards and Coots are frequent visitors. Killdeer work the edge. Canada Geese are numerous despite the attempt to keep them away with fake coyotes.
Being a park, there is a lot of grass. Wigeon, mallards and geese graze incessantly. I saw a large group of Wigeon on the grass near the lagoon. They were between the path people and pets walk or ride on and the lagoon. If the birds spooked they would fly to the lagoon. It was just a matter of waiting.
First a guy and his wife walked their purse-puppies near the flock of Wigeon and herded them closer to the lagoon. Behind me I heard a family approaching. The two kids were chasing geese and feeling pretty dominant. I’ll admit that I want to rush dogs or kids that chase birds just to see how they feel when threatened by a bigger animal. It was an effort to let the kids continue without intervention.
The kids saw the group of wigeons I had pre-focused on as a new game. I waited. The birds came up with gusto as the kids ran into them. I was thinking how great it was to see the kids stop and falter at the sight and sound of 100+ birds taking flight. I hope they remember the spectacle – the wings, the sounds, the dynamics – rather than the feeling of scaring birds into flight. I certainly will.
I’m conflicted. I guess it had to happen sometime but I’ve not felt quite this way before. Basically, I share info about birds of interest with friends that I know will respect the birds and let them live life. I’m always appreciative of information people give to me about a bird of interest. These little birds are giving me cause for introspection and assessment of my own behavior and how I share in the future.
It seems that this is the year of the Saw-whet. I’ve almost lost count of how many I’ve seen and photographed this winter. Sometimes I’ve been on group bird tours and other times I’ve been alone or with a dear and trusted
owl finder friend. I enjoy the hunt and the opportunity to photograph these great little birds. But I admit that I’ve been uncomfortable with my intrusion at times. Lately the owls I’ve photographed have been sleeping, a good indicator that the bird could care less that I was there. But there have been times when more experienced birders have made comments like “we have an upset owl here”or “when the bird extends and stretches out it is time to back away”. I suppose that I could say that this is how I learn and I appreciate the gentle way the information was conveyed to me and the others in a group.
Which brings me to this bird. Located along a road I have driven frequently in the last couple of weeks and easily accessed after parking a car, this little owl has gotten too much of my attention. I think. I’ve led others to the bird and encouraged hem to go for a look. I’m seeing many photos of it on social media. Yes, I’ve posted a few as well. My point is personal. How much is too much? Like I said, I’m conflicted. I know the owl will bail out if it reaches a point of feeling threatened or if it can’t get what it needs as the result of the attention.
So, I’m assessing my behavior and fervently hoping that the bird can get on with life and thrive. I’m hoping people who stop for a look will understand that the bird is what’s important. Share or don’t share? How much is too much? Do I know the signs that a bird is anxious due to my presence. Will I act appropriately when I see the signs? These are questions I need to ask and answer.
Kestrel are amazing, small birds – America’s smallest falcon. I’ve posted other Kestrel on this blog but this one is unusual in a few ways. First, the bird is not sitting on a wire or a metal sign. Highly unusual. Second, this one is eating a rat it just caught. Awesome. I’m not a big fan of rats. Third, the bird is in a tree that is about 20 feet from a heavily used, paved path and there are about 10 people staring at it. Most would have walked right on by but some guy pointing a camera up toward a tree seems to at least make people slow down to wonder what the old guy is doing. It finally tired of us, grabbed its lunch and took off.
I’m tempted to take credit for bird numbers 41-65 but can’t quite bring myself to do that.
I’m working on an immersive media program to allow kids to experience the beauty of birds. This started when my youngest granddaughter sat with me and looked at a few hundred bird pictures. It was a very nice experience. “What’s that bird, Grandpa?” “What does it sound like.” Oops, I could tell her the name but had to switch to an app that had the appropriate bird song. “How big is it?” The questions were not unexpected but I failed to respond as quickly as I thought I should. What if I had an app that she could navigate by herself? It turns out that it isn’t as easy as one would hope.
This is the DRAFT splash screen for my program that I hope to complete in a few months. Using an app called Ingage by Scrollmotion I am designing pages for about 100 birds that show the bird as an illustration, play an audio file of the song/call and gives some basic info about the bird. It’s kind of an exciting project and I have a couple of kids who I expect will be willing to give me very direct feedback. Can’t wait.
I had never seen a Western Tanager before we moved to Wenatchee. OK, maybe I had but I didn’t know what I was looking at. The first summer here I saw a lot of Bullock’s Orioles, also new birds for me. I saw 2 Tanagers but got dismal photos. Last summer it seems the numbers of species were reversed – many Tanagers and few Orioles. Just because I saw Tanager frequently doesn’t mean that I got a lot of decent photos. Most of the time my images were complicated by foreground vegetation or poor execution, it happens all too often.
One day I had all the stars align and had multiple shots at Tanager posing nicely, in the open. I was thrilled. I processed the images and exported a set of high resolution JPG files. I’m really glad I did because somehow I succeeded in deleting the original RAW files. Huh? It’s the only time in 10+ years that has happened. I ran to my backup disk and found the JPG files – no RAW. Small consolation that I had the JPGs. Writing this confession is part of my penance program. So, with more than a small amount of chagrin, I present a beautiful Western Tanager. I’m hoping they give me another chance in a couple of months.
There is little doubt when a Steller’s Jay is near. They are loud. Their call borders on obnoxious to some and seems pretty benign to others. I enjoy listening to them around the neighborhood as they cover their circuit looking for food. We put out peanuts and the jays are here within minutes. They’re smart birds and can remember where they stash the nuts they haul off.
Around here most people I talk to call them Blue Jays. Well, they are blue but they are not Blue Jays. I’ve pretty much given up trying to offer the proper name after getting a couple of “whatever’s” from neighbor’s. Whatever.
This Jay was photographed at Calliope Crossing on Badger Mountain earlier this month. Just one of the great mix of birds that visit this place. I’m anxious for spring and the chance to see some young birds learn the ropes.
Sometimes I take the easy route to a photo. In this case I mounted the camera to a tripod and prefocused on a hummingbird feeder as I sat and enjoyed a nice evening and a glass of good wine. Rufous hummingbirds are seasonal visitors to our yard and I enjoy the competition between them and our year-around Anna’s.
This is a tight crop of the image to remove the feeder but it allows you to see the great feather detail on this 3 gram (0.1 oz) bird. Feel free to offer a caption.
A few weeks ago I went along on Mark Johnston’s winter bird tour. We had a great day trying to find birds in fog that ranged from thick to thin. It’s always nice to be with someone who has the experience and wisdom to adapt and reroute a tour in order to up the odds of actually seeing great birds. One of our last stops was in the Bridgeport Bar, a brand new area for me. The short walk into the Columbia River gave me a few First of Year Birds including a Townsend’s Solitaire. I sure didn’t expect that one.
We stood on the river bank and glassed the water. Coots (of course), Common loon, Mergansers, scaups, geese…all expected and common. We heard the Kingfisher and finally located it sitting at river’s edge. Way to far away for a photo so we continued to observe the many birds within sight. Kingfishers are notoriously elusive birds unless one has the location and patience to set up near a nest or frequent hunting area. My experience is Kingfishers that are too far away and/or that fly when 2x my focal length range. We heard the bird call as it took off. For once I was ready and able to grab focus before the bird got within a decent distance. Click, click, click. This isn’t print-worthy but it does show that mirrorless cameras can, in fact, accomplish bird-in-flight photos.
I’ve recently gotten to be friends with a lady who I think of as one of the best birders in the area…or in the State. Dianne and I took a birding class the first winter we came to Wenatchee. We did this to meet people with similar interests and to learn about birding hot spots. Jenny was one of the two instructors.
I didn’t have contact with her in the next year but then found her on Facebook. We are now officially friends. I learned that a Jenny and her husband own a house on Badger Mountain about 20 miles and 2000 feet higher than here. The property name is Calliope Crossing. I kept seeing posts from people who had visited and exclaimed about the beauty and the birds. I asked Jenny for access and she quickly said ‘sure”.
My first trip to Calliope Crossing was uneventful. Jenny was out of country and the feeders she maintains were empty. There were birds around but not what I expected. The other thing I didn’t expect was a sign at the parking area that said “Birders Welcome”. On my third visit to the area there was about 18″ of snow but the feeders were working. I was alone so I walked into the area with the camera and tripod. I saw a large’ish bird hammering away at some suet. I knew I knew the bird but did not have any photos. That issue got resolved quickly as the Clark’s Nutcracker posed frequently on the suet feeder. I confirmed the ID and knew that I had good images of the bird. But the setting was dark and the bird was hanging on a feeder. I wanted something a bit more artsy.
Two more Nutcrackers showed up and they began jousting for position. That meant that one or two would fly away to a safe perch, plan an approach and dive back in. The good news was that the safe place was in a tree behind me. A natural perch with a bit more light. Sweet. Click.