100 Birds – #69 Barred Owl

I was enjoying a quiet morning with coffee and some classical music when I heard a murder of crows making a ruckus as only crows can. We were still living in Portland at the time and I was waiting for my friend, Steve Howes, to arrive from his home in Pasco. The crows persisted so I went to see what the commotion was all about.

As I opened the front door a very large bird flew off the brick facing on the front of the house. I was startled by the size and the quick motion. I really did not expect to see a Barred Owl sitting on my house. The bird flew across the street and landed in a neighbor’s tree. I grabbed my camera, a Nikon D800 at the time, mounted the 300 mm lens, and walked across the street to stalk the bird.

The owl was sitting calmly about 10-15 feet up. It looked at me as I took photos and moved closer. We bonded and I felt confident that the bird would tolerate my presence. It was probably pleased that my presence was keeping the crows away.

Steve drove in and I greeted him with “grab your camera and long lens and follow me”. He did that and we both approached the owl. Click, click, click. We agreed we had more than enough images of the owl and retreated to the house for coffee. The crows instantly reappeared to harass the owl and it flew off to the neighboring heavy conifer stand. It had been a great intersection of bird and photographer. The fact that it was fall and the background was a Japanese maple made it even more pleasant.

I made a print of this image and gave it to the neighbor family. I figured that was only right since I’d borrowed their trees for the only Barred Owl images in my photo library. They were astonished and were talking about frames as we went our own ways. I was happy to impact them with a sight they never saw but knew they were part of. The power of photography.

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100 Birds – #68 Cedar Waxwing

On of the first bird’s that really made me slow down and appreciate their beauty is the Cedar Waxwing. I honestly don’t remember when I first saw one of these amazing birds. I’ve seen several hundred in the last few years. I’m always amazed at the soft smoothness of their feathers, the pastel beauty of their breast, the paint-dipped red tips of the wing feathers and the yellow band at the end of the tail. And then there’s the cocky little spiked crest and that black mask. Really, they’re spectacular little birds.

Cedar Waxwing will appear in flocks and swarm a tree that is laden with berries. I watched them cover a mountain ash tree and pick it clean in just a few days. I’m always impressed with the antics mating birds exhibit to win a mate. Male Cedar Waxwing will hop along a branch toward a female to win her attention. I sat in a park in Portland and watched a pair pass a berry back and forth for several minutes. It’s an important ritual if the birds are to survive.

This bird was photographed at a created wetland near Forest Grove, Oregon. I had been watching and photographing Great Blue Heron and American White Pelicans when I heard the high pitched call of Waxwing behind me. I turned my attention to them and left only after the sun began to set. They were content to eat berries and flirt. I was quite content to watch and take a few dozen photos. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

100 Birds – #67 Mountain Bluebird

I am guilty of under-appreciating bluebirds. I had little experience with them until we moved to North Central Washington and I discovered the Waterville Plateau. Miles of bluebird boxes line the road across the top and down into Waterville. The first spring and summer woke me up to the beauty of the Mountain Bluebird.

These birds stay near their nest box once they set up shop. I’ve spent many hours watching their comings and goings to set up the nest or feed the babies. Time like that is zen-like and quite rejuvenating – not that a retired guy needs a lot of recovery time, right?

The bird in the photo above has a story. We had been photographing hummingbirds at Calliope Crossing for a couple of hours and it was time to head home. Our gracious host, Wayne Graevell, walked us out to our truck. As we approached the truck he said “I’m sorry”. They have a bluebird box along the drive and the male bluebird seems to have a thing for mirrors and shiny surfaces. It was sitting on the passenger side window frame and arguing with itself in the side mirror. The whitewash on the door told us it had been there awhile.

I moved closer and snapped a couple of silly record shots. The bird flew off the truck and headed for its nest box. As I turned to the truck Dianne alerted me to bird behind me. I turned to see it posing on top of this stem. Nice light and a background that was a few hundred yards away. I heard the camera go click. Several times. Sometimes the birds just present themselves for a photo. Not often, but when it happens, it’s magic.

100 Birds – #66 Burrowing Owl

I think that all owls are remarkably charismatic. The Burrowing Owl, however, may take the prize for antics and personality. I have not seen them anywhere but Washington State but I’ve read accounts and seen photos from other parts of the country where they seem to be fairly common and accepting of humans. The birds will put their heads into strange positions as they struggle to gain perspective and determine the distance to something or someone.

My first photograph of a Burrowing Owl was made on the Arid Land Ecology Reserve in southeast Washington. Thanks to my friends, Steve Howes and Heidi Newsome, I was working as a volunteer with the Mid-Columbia Wildlife Refuge to monitor artificial dens that had been placed to support Burrowing Owl nesting. I was with Steve and another volunteer, Keith, to monitor presence and nesting status in several clusters of artificial burrows. A male owl exited one nest and flew a short distance. I took a crappy photo as it stood and looked at us. It flew immediately after my photo.

Flash forward about three years and I am seeing many photos of Burrowing owls near Othello, Washington. The photos I saw showed adults and babies in a particularly ugly location with bare soils, weeds, and broken irrigation pipes.

After several weeks of resisting the impulse to join the throng of photographers, I succumbed. I wanted to see the birds and a sighting would be a life bird for Dianne. We drove to the well publicized site one evening and had the opportunity to see many owls and photograph the one perched on a stake near the west side of the road. We never left the truck, took several photos and departed.

The birds continued to bring photographers to the site. It is really unfortunate that some felt the need to walk or drive to the nest area to force a bird to fly so they or others could get a flight shot. Ridiculous. Repugnant. Illegal.

I’m glad to have this photo but I think I will always look at it and feel regret that the bird had to endure abuse by fellow humans.

100 Birds – #65 Prothonotary Warbler

My inaugural visits to areas that are famous for seasonal migration of birds has always been a mix of excitement, education and exhilarating photography. Such was the case in 2004 when my friend Steve and I first experienced the famous Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Seeing thousands of Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes lift off still pond water at sunrise is an experience I credit with my interest in birds and a desire to become proficient with a camera. I’m more interested in birds today than ever before. I continue to work on becoming a decent bird photographer.

I truly enjoy the times I get to spend with my brother-in-law, Vince. We worked together some 50 years ago and I have the good fortune to be married to his oldest sister, Dianne. Vince and Marianne farm some acreage in upstate New York. I think of their place as my “safe house”. A beautiful and relaxing place to hang out. When we first talked about going to Magee Marsh, a location that is famous for seasonal warbler migration, I didn’t know if the idea would develop or not. We’d visit on the phone or by email and kept the possible trip alive. We both got a bonus when we finally got around to setting dates to be at the marsh. Vince’s youngest daughter, Amy, and her husband, Ian, wanted to join in. I was thrilled to be planning a trip with 4 people I really enjoy.

The motivation for the trip was to see warblers. Magee Marsh sits on the southern shore of Lake Erie between Toledo and Cleveland, Ohio. During their spring migration north, a wide variety of Warbler species stop at the marsh to rest and feed in preparation for their push across the lake. Local weather conditions determine when and what species arrive at the marsh. As always, it’s a crap shoot. We got lucky and the winds and rain brought high numbers of birds to entertain us.

The marsh is one of those places that will draw huge numbers of visitors. It’s a Mecca for birders. Photographers wander around with gear ranging from point and shoot cameras to top of the line professional cameras and lenses. It can get crowded. While we experienced periods of “way too many people”, we were able to move freely and without obstruction most of the time.

We started in late afternoon after we all got together. The 6 of us wandered the boardwalk loop trail and were amazed at the birds. We got the lay of the land so that our early hour visit the next day would be more familiar. We planned to spend much of the day at the marsh, arriving near sunrise and staying until lunch. We’d return later in the day and stay until we felt it was time to call it for the day.

We all studied warblers before visiting the marsh. I had one particular species I wanted to see and photograph – the Prothonotary Warbler. I knew I’d see all sorts of other great warblers but the Prothonotary was my ultimate target. We did not see any our first day. The following day we were visiting with a couple who were photographing and watching the birds like we were. I mentioned my desire to see the Prothonotary Warbler and they asked if I’d seen the one just a short distance away. My ignorant look must have cued the to offer to show me where. I love it when people share knowledge.

The bird was in low shrubs and moving from shadows to full light. As with other warblers, this one moves fast. One has to be quick with the camera to get a decent shot. I did my best. Click, click.

100 Birds – #64 Black-necked Stilt

I knew that time was limited. The ephemeral ponds southeast of Mansfield we’re sure to dry substantially while I was off touring Ireland and Scotland. Such a first-world problem. I’d had good results at these ponds last year but my friends with cameras we’re noting that they were late to fill and smaller this year. I took my only real opportunity and drove out there with intent to arrive early.

As I drove south on Heritage Road I was pleased with the early hour and the light. The road seemed to have been bladed recently and was damp enough to limit dust. I saw the abandoned house on my left and passed it by knowing that I’d be back to walk the shrub patch to see about Long-eared Owls. My target was American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt and Wilson’s Phalarope.

I approached the ponds and slowed to a stop. With the sun low and to my left, the largest pond was shimmering with sun spots. Any birds we’re backlit silhouettes. I glassed a pair of Eared Grebe and regretted that the photos would be washed out and a waste of time. Someday I’ll see these great birds in good light.

I saw a few Avocet near the road but, again, backlit. I shifted my attention to the pond on the west side of the road. Several dozen Northern Shovelers we’re clustered in the distance. Nice to watch but no photos. No Harriers were cruising the fields and marsh edges. I couldn’t find a photo so I moved on.

Heading east to another pond I scanned roadside trees and saw a nesting Swainson Hawk. The light was miserable so I left the bird and continued east. Turning north gave me the advantage of light being behind me as I scanned the pond on the west side of the road. The birds were here. I watched several Phalarope in the smaller pond to my right but didn’t take a photo. I parked the truck next to the west side of the road near the pond’s middle. I made myself comfortable on the pond bank as I leaned against a tire. I sat still for several minutes as the birds adjusted to my presence. It’s always a magical feeling for me when birds are comfortable and seem to pay little attention to me and the camera. I stayed there for an hour as the birds waded by, reversed and went back. Some would fly out and be replaced by others. There were minutes when Yellow-headed Blackbirds perched on cattails 20 feet away. Click, click. I love the quiet sound of an electronic shutter. The quiet camera operation helps keep the birds calm.

Another first-world problem faced me when I got home and loaded the images into my catalog. Which to choose? Shooting in bursts means that I end up with several nearly identical images. I sort based on the picture clarity and the bird’s pose. Sometimes a nuanced turn of the head results in a nice catchlight in the eye. Sometimes the eye disappears behind a membrane. It takes awhile to sort out the prizes from the others. That is all time well spent in my mind. I get to relive each moment. It kind of pains me to hit the ”reject” key. I shrug and proceed. This Black-necked Stilt passes all my tests. An active posture, good focus and a beautiful bird in context with its environment. Check.

100 Birds – #63 Western Wood-pewee

A seasonal visitor, the Western Wood-pewee shows up in late Spring and stays through the summer. I get used to seeing them sitting in the tops of trees or shrubs along the Columbia River. As is usually the case, I hear them before I see them. Their call sounds like an electric trill….’bezew’. I realize that isn’t all that helpful. You can visit http://www.xeno-canto.org to search for and listen to the song.

I am fortunate to live at the mouth of a shrub-steppe canyon that fills with birds in the Spring. It’s not uncommon for me to find an hour and drive up the canyon for 2-3 miles. This canyon gathers all sorts of people with ill intent. People dump their crap out along the road or in the turnouts. It gets ripe in places as deer carcasses rot along with dumped trees and garbage. I’m grateful that the county comes in and hauls this stuff out occasionally but I truly wish they didn’t have to. And then there are the shooters. There’s a gun club just inside the canyon but it requires people to pay for a membership. Some people don’t think twice about driving by the gun club, stopping and taking some of their cans or junk out into an opening and then blowing it full of holes. Of course, they leave it there when they depart. I admit to feeling vulnerable to ricocheting bullets as I drive by. It’s not a good thing. But the birds don’t seem to react to the shooting nearly as much as I do.

There’s a certain tree about 1mile beyond the highest area used for shooting. It sits near the road and has a great set of dead branches in the top. It seems to be a favored spot for birds to perch so it is common to see several species land for a few minutes and then move on. Evening sun plays nicely on the perches and makes the photography easier than many other locations. I can sit in my truck beside the tree. Using the truck as a blind has a lot of advantages. I’m comfortable, have water and my gear handy. I just sit, wait and take what birds show up.

So it was with this Western Wood-pewee yesterday evening. I was focused on a Yellow-breasted Chat and hoping it would move a bit to be more open. I saw movement and lowered the camera to see the pewee sitting near the top of the shaggy top. It started calling…a good sign that it would be there awhile. I adjusted the exposure, framed the bird, caught focus and went “click”.

100 Birds – #62 Western Bluebird

Since I am color challenged (red-green color deficiency) I tend to gravitate to birds that are yellow, blue, white or any colors other than red or green. I can’t easily find a bright red bird among green vegetation.  It is always a bit of a mystery to others who are with me when I can’t see a brilliant male Northern Cardinal that is sitting on a branch 20 feet away. I always rely on their finger-pointing and hope the bird moves. Then my challenge is to keep the bird in view as I raise the camera. Sometimes I am successful.  Many times I am not.

But give me a bird that is dominantly blue with a touch of red and I can almost always see them and frame them in the camera. Recognizing this, I have developed quite an affection for bluebirds. One of my favorite routes to bird is to loop up onto the Waterville Plateau via the Rock Island Grade then drive toward Waterville. The first time I did this I saw numerous bird boxes on posts adjacent to the road. I was really uninformed about bluebirds and the many efforts in the high desert of Washington and Idaho to provide nesting boxes for them. I was really quite thrilled when I saw my first pair of Mountain Bluebirds foraging and bringing food to the nest. I stayed at one box for about an hour just to watch and learn about the bird’s patterns and behavior.

Since then, I’ve taken a lot of photographs of Mountain Bluebirds. As the library of images grew, I realized that I was not seeing any Western Bluebirds. I knew that there were many Western Bluebirds being seen and photographed near Ellensburg, Washington so Dianne and I took a short road trip to the area. We enjoy exploring new areas around us and are gradually getting familiar with roads, habitats and the variety of birds we get to see.  We drove several miles along Umptanum Road and were rewarded with many nice observations of Western Bluebirds. Once we found an area that was accessible (not posted for trespassing) we stopped and I walked a short distance into the sage. I really enjoy the clean background behind this bird and the contrast of the blue to the sage and background.  Heck, I can even see the red on the bird’s breast and side.

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100 Birds – #61 Calliope Hummingbird

Worldwide, there are about 300 species of hummingbird with most occurring in the tropics. All these birds are mystical and magical. People can’t help themselves when they get a glimpse of a hummingbird. They pause and gape. The fast but well controlled flight and hovering creates a bit of awe. They can fly backwards as easily as forward. Their small size makes one wonder how they survive. How fast are those wings going? What is the heart rate of a hummer in flight? How do they survive the cold? So many questions, most of which have scientifically proven answers.

The number of stunning hummingbird photographs on the internet is mind numbing. The variety of colors, feathers, beaks and sizes is mind boggling. Add in instantaneous iridescence and these small birds are, simply put, magical. I study every hummingbird photo I see. First, to appreciate the bird and, second, to reverse engineer the photographic technique used to get the photo. Are the wings blurred? How many catchlights are seen in the eye. Where are the shadows. All these things are clues to photographic understanding.

There are two primary ways to photograph hummingbirds. One is to use natural light. For me, the ultimate goal is to show sharp wings. This requires a very fast shutter speed (1/5000 to 1/8000 second). Below these speeds and the wings will be blurred. This is not a bad thing and can actually impart a sense of motion in the photo. But f you want sharp wings you need a short shutter speed. That frequently means the use of high ISO and a possibility (certainty?) of digital noise. It’s always a balance.

The other photographic technique is to use controlled flash. Some people consider the use of flash as “bad form”. The key to using flash that does not adversely affect the birds is to use very low power. Using flash that have the power dialed way down (1/16th to 1/64th power) shortens the light burst to 1/10,000 second or faster. This is a sure way to make sure the wings are sharp. Multi-flash setups are a common technique for photo tour guides.

We are fortunate to have friends who own a home on Badger Mountain east of Wenatchee. At this time of year 4 species of hummers visit their feeders: Anna’s, Calliope, Rufous and Black-chinned. Why not try to get a decent photo?

The setup for this photo was simple. We took some fresh flowers with us and set them out among the feeders. I mounted the camera (Fuji X-T2) and lens (100-400mm with a 1.4 extender) on a tripod. The exposure was set at ISO 10,000 (gulp), 1/8000 second and f/8. No flash. I set the camera to continuous focus mode, set a coarse focus and waited. And waited. And waited. When this female Calliope started exploring the flowers I started following it in the viewfinder and urging it to move into the position where it would be against a clean background. It did. I got 5 frames, 2 of which are nice renditions of the bird doing what it does. I wish the image showed a male Calliope in full display but this female is the best Calliope image I have. I’ll try again in a few weeks when there will hopefully be more birds.

100 Birds – #60 Violet Green Swallow

To be totally upfront with you, I prefer to photograph birds when they are actively doing something. If the bird s perched, I prefer it when the bird is sitting on something that is natural. Generally, a bird sitting on a wire isn’t something I go out of my way to photograph. But, there’s always an exception.

Photographing swallows of any species is a nightmare if they are in flight. Identifying them on the wings is quite possible but grabbing a photo is a huge challenge. I was wandering around the Sleeping Lady Resort area earlier today when this Violet-green Swallow flew in and sat on a wire directly above me. It chose a spot with light on it. I was in a pretty mellow mood and enjoying my walk and the cool temperature. I had all the time I could ask for. I shot a few shots and moved around to see about a better vantage point on the bird and to declutter the background. The bird sat and watched my antics. I try to not put words in their heads but it almost seemed that the bird was telling me “hurry up, try over there, does this light make my beak look big?” I took my time.

While this image violates many of my preferences for “good bird photo”, it is a nice rendition of a bird I rarely get to see. I just wish it was on a branch. Next time. Maybe.