Life birds and pretty places

My good friend Steve and I just completed a marathon drive through Washington, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.  I needed to go to Denver to pick up several boxes of items left to me from my Mother’s belongings.  Steve, always one to enjoy an outing, agreed to go along to help with the driving.  Truth be known, he did 90% of the driving and I enjoyed the view from the passenger seat.  We laid out a loop route that would take us to some great locations for scenery and birds – Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge near Brigham City, Utah and Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.  Oh yeah… the loop through Montana was purposeful and under the guise of delivering some stuff to Chad and Devri but we all know it was about seeing them and Kendyl again albeit briefly.

We left Steve’s house in Pasco, WA early on a Saturday morning with intent to get to Brigham City before sundown so we could tour the Bear River refuge for our first time.  We made it to the refuge about 5:00PM and set out to drive the 12 mile auto tour route.  Shortly into the loop we spotted the first group of birds foraging in a slough.  We were both pretty stoked to see Black-necked stilts and White-faced ibis.  There was another small group of 3 birds… two of one species that was unknown to us and a single Killdeer.   We identified the mystery species as Solitary sandpipers… a species that neither of us had a clue about before.  We also identified the ibis correctly after an initial (wrong) ID as “Black iblis” by me.  Thanks very much goes to Sally Hill for confirming the IDs for us.  All of these are photo life birds for me.

Black-necked stilt
Black-necked stilt
White-faced ibis
White-faced ibis
Solitary sandpiper
Solitary sandpiper

We drove on and quickly saw American avocets foraging in the same slough.  I’ve always succeeded in missing the avocets at places like the Malheur refuge so I was really happy to see several of them within lens reach.  Both Steve and I think that these birds are really pretty and interesting to watch as they moved about to eat.  Yes, another photo life bird for me.

American avocet
American avocet
American avocet
American avocet
American avocet
American avocet

As we moved around the loop we saw many more stilts, ibis and avocets but did not see any more sandpipers.  Open water disappeared for quite a distance and, logically, so did the birds.  As we approached a rather large lake we once again picked up ibis but we started seeing both Clark’s and Western grebes too.  I’ve seen and photographed these birds at Malheur before but still brought home several more images for the collection.  One of these days Dianne and I will get to see the grebes dance and run on the water’s surface again.  That behavior is actually on my photo bucket list.

Western grebe
Western grebe
Clark's grebe
Clark’s grebe

As we moved along we saw a few American white pelicans within lens range so we stopped to put some glass on them.   There was a substantial group of what we thought might be terns until we looked at the photos later.  While there is one tern in the group (thanks again Sally Hill) we correctly identified the majority of the birds as Franklin’s gulls… another photo life bird.

Franklin gulls
Franklin gulls

The pelicans were wary and took off as the light began to fade.  I grabbed a few passing shots at high ISO and was pleased to see that I actually got one frame where the bird is sharp and whole bird is in the frame.  I can’t tell you how disappointing it is to me to have a sharp eye on a bird and cut off a wing or leg in the frame’s edge.  Every time out with the camera is a practice session for me.

American white pelican

We drove to Denver the next day to pick up the items that inspired the trip in the first place.  It was nice to see my sister and her husband again and Steve enjoyed the time talking serious train talk with Stan, another serious train guy.  Betsy and I sat and smiled and knodded politely.

The next day we headed to Pinedale, Wyoming to station ourselves for the next day’s journey through Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.  We got into Pinedale with enough time to tour around a bit before dark.  We were hoping to see a moose and Steve spotted one grazing in a marsh area.  I tried to convince him that it was a horse until we stopped and took a good look.  Moose are another species that have evaded me in the past.  Dianne and I saw a mother and baby moose at great distance in the Tetons years ago.  This was my first bull moose and I was happy with some of the photos even if he was just a young male and did not have the iconic antlers yet.


We also saw an osprey nest atop a power pole and pulled in to watch the adult fly off to hunt and retun without food for the anxious youngster at the nest.


We left Pinedale at about 5:00AM the next day and drove through fog and dark to get to Grand Teton National Park in time for sunrise.  My goal was to be on Mormon Row by the famous barns at sunrise.  A herd of buffalo spanning the road slowed us down and I began to fidget as I watched a band of low clouds forming across the midslope elevation of the Tetons.  A cloud to the east was blocking the sun and I knew it would not be long until the place lit up.  We stopped and took a few “safety” shots so that I’d have something even if it did not include the barn.  Then Steve drove on through the bison as I tried to focus and shoot.  Yes, we were close.  The photo below is full frame… no cropping.


We got to the barns while the sun was still lurking behind the clouds to the east.  Surprising to me, there were only a handful of other photographers in place.  One guy commented that we must have slept in as we did not get there before technical sunrise like he must have.  Whatever.  We got there before the bright light hit the scene.  We both took several shots in the subdued light and then repeated them once the sun came out in force.  This is one of the iconic scenes in the Teton Park and I think the reason it is popular is that it just so damn pretty and “western”.  It’s hard to beat, really.

Grand Teton sunrise, Mormon Row
Grand Teton sunrise, Mormon Row

We made one more stop before breakfast back in Jackson.  As we drove into the area earlier we were tempted to stop at a location where there were about 20 people with cameras and binoculars.  This is a typical scene any time that someone sees an animal.  I noticed that none of the photographers were actively taking photos and asked (told?) Steve to keep going.. the barn light was coming.  This time, as we were leaving, we saw a couple of people there but the crowd was gone.  We pulled in and Steve immediately saw a huge bull moose browsing away.  I grabbed the camera and tripod and we both set about taking photos.  Steve was using a Canon point-and-shoot camera with a great zoom range and he was filling the frame with the moose.  This is the best I could do with the 300mm lens and the camera set to DX sensor mode.

Grand Teton Bull
Grand Teton Bull

We made it to Bozeman in time for dinner after driving though Yellowstone National Park.  I had anticipated numerous tourist traffic slowdowns… didn’t happen.  We traveled alone much of the time.  I had anticipated seeing bison and antelope and elk… didn’t happen.  In our entire transect from south to north we saw two bison and one antelope as left through Gardiner.  Go figure.  My friend Barbara reported that she and her family had seen endless bison, sheep, elk and two wolves a few days before.  This was her first trip into Yellowstone and, while I am envious of the wolf sighting, I could not be happier for her and her family.  What a great introduction to Yellowstone they got.

So the trip ended after 3,143 miles on the car and several days with a good friend driving through some of the most interesting and beautiful parts of the west.  We came back with new stories to share and images to remind us of how fortunate we Americans are to have public lands that support great ecosystems in spite of the pressures we place on them.  Oh yeah, and I got to hug and play with Kendyl too.  Can it get any better, really?




Something I rarely do

I’d seen all sorts of coverage about the baby eagle at the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge that I finally succumbed and packed the camera and tripod to pay a visit to the area.  I thought it would be a good chance to try using the 200-400 lens with a 1.4x on it and the CamRanger remote trigger to see if I could get good sharp images from a distance.  Let’s just say that didn’t work out too well.  I did get some nice images of a mature bald eagle in flight but I was hand holding the trusty 300 f/4 lens at the time.  No CamRanger hooked up.  I’ll test the lens and CamRanger again without the 1.4x to see if I can actually get sharp images.  I’m spoiled by the clarity of the images I get from the 300.

As I was packing the car to leave I noticed my friend Carol and her Mom setting off to do their daily hike around the refuge.  What a nice way to get some exercise and have time to talk and enjoy an ever-changing scene.  Go ladies, go.  I couldn’t yell loud enough to get Carol’s attention so I called her cell and they came back to meet me.  We did the ~3 mile loop walk together and they got to tell me all the famous places that they had seen great ducks, egrets, eggs, frogs (big ones) and a variety of other notable fauna.  It was during this part of my visit that I got the in flight shots of the eagle.  As we came down the final bit of trail to our cars I started to notice a bunch of large milkweek heads that looked pretty fresh.  I paused to shoot some images and the ladies moved on down the trail.  As I sat on the edge of the trail and worked on composition I noticed something flying around.. .an insect of some sort.  Turns out to be a wasp.

what's in there?


I rarely use a “selective color” treatment on a photo since it is so “yesterday” and I know that if some folks see this image they’ll laugh themselves silly as they cast me into a deep pit of no talent photographers who resort to tricks.  I just thought it worked to make a point in this image.  So there.

I had no idea that the wasp would be in a photo.  Actually, I got 4 frames with the wasp and this is the most clear.  Dumb luck wins out over gear and technique.  Happens all the time, really.

The zoo

We are gathering images to be used as weekly “postcards” to Kendyl.  We believe that every two year old girl (or boy) likes to get something in the mail that is addressed to them.  Who knows, by the time they leave home the US Mail may be a part of their history.  So, with the goal in mind Di and I walked through the Oregon Zoo to record a few images.

When we went to India in 2011 we did so with high hopes of seeing a wild Bengal tiger.  We saw tracks in the beach sand in Sunderbans.  We witnessed an amazing bit of animal behavior in Kaziranga National Park as wild buffalo compacted into a tight group and the dominant male stood guard a few meters from the group.  All the while the buffalo were tightening their ranks an elephant was spinning in circles, kicking up dust and throwing its trunk in the air.  Everyone in our group knew that “the tiger is here”.  As we lost light we kept hoping to see the tiger emerge from the jungle.  That did not happen but we will never forget the sound that the tiger made as it growled from its concealed location.  The hair stood up on the back of my neck.  Damn… an amzing event even without the sighting.

So, we came home from India without any tiger images.  One of our stops at the zoo was the tiger area.  I’ve been there many times in the past and never came away with an image that was anything but mediocre.  We saw 3 tigers laying in a cave area at the back of the display.  There was a lot of foreground vegetation blocking the view so we hunted and hunted for a small exposure for a shot or two.  I continue to love the reach that the 300mm f/4 lens on the D800 provides me.  Combined with good image quality at high ISO and the ability to haul the lens and camera around without bother… what a gift the setup is.  I was using a monopod and shot a couple of sequences as one of the tigers slowly raised its head and looked at me.  I’m sure that if it had let out a full growl I would have dropped the whole kit and looked for the exit.  I still have very mixed feelings about zoos and captive animals but I do appreciate the opportunity to photograph one of nature’s greatest creatures.

Oregon Zoo, Portland Oregon
Oregon Zoo, Portland Oregon


I was unpacking from a quick trip to photograph Gina playing lacrosse when I heard a bird near by chirping up a storm.  I homed in on it and found this junco sitting in our new dogwood tree.  What is a guy to do?  The lens was mounted and the monopod was at the ready.  I fired off a few shots just as the bird hit a peak in its singing.  Bonus shots I guess.


Anndee and I met at a class on studio lighting a couple of years ago.  We’ve stayed in touch and get together every once in awhile to do some photo shooting.  She and I were talking the other day and she told me that they had a new puppy named Maddy.  Eventually we agreed to get the lights out and see if we could get some shots of this 3 month old “retrievadoddle” (I think).  I had thoughts that a puppy would be very challenging due to their energy and general “free spirit”.  Couldn’t have been more wrong, really.  Maddy is one of the most docile and calm pups I’ve ever petted.  Getting her to stay on our little stage was not too challenging.  Snacks help but she was really quite cooperative.

After a series of shots on white we thought we’d do some on black.  The idea of black on black was intriguing and we quickly switched in a new background cloth.  I rather like the effect shown here.  I wish her head was looking a bit more down and more toward camera but all in all I think this is a pretty nice portrait of a cute, calm pup.

Thanks for the challenge Anndee.  More to come…

Take out

Sometimes even a simple take out meal can get complicated.

And, in another part of the refuge, a different hunt goes on

And overhead yet another hunt is in progress…

We’re spoiled with the easy access to food we humans in America have.  Personally, I’m rather glad that the hunter/gatherer phase for humans is mostly over… at least in the USA.

You know how this ends

Di and I had a neat family portrait session this morning in the area below the Audubon building on Cornell.  Great trails, great weather, great people.  We said our good byes to the Hoffmans and headed our separate ways.  As I was driving home I was struck by the fact that it was a beautiful day and we both knew that these kind of days won’t last long in the early days of a Portland winter.  I suggested that we take a ride to Ridgefield to see what it looked like with a crowd and with bright skies.  I hoped that Di would be able to see the peregrine and I hoped we’d both see the Vermillion Flycatcher that Dave and Sally Hill and many others have seen recently.  We got home, changed camera gear, grabbed some energy bars and water and headed out.

Not to disappoint, Ridgefield was BUSY. We started the loop and cautiously passed cars parked on the side of the road.  Lots of binoculars and a few cameras.  Not much to report on the first part of the loop.  We found a few Great Blue Herons, a staple at Ridgefield, and paused to shoot an immature bald eagle.  But we kept on moving.  Cars were kegged up at marker 11 … all were looking for the Vermillion Flycatcher I think.  We pulled in and waited about 10 minutes before I lost patience and drove on.  As we made the corner heading toward “three trees” we saw a coyote working the field on our right.  We stalked this animal for some time and came away with a lot of nice portraits.  We were both trying to catch the “leap and bound” behavior and got a few decent frames.  We also got some really nice fairly close portraits of this stealthy animal.

As we neared the end of the loop we noticed cars parked and knew that something was happening.  T’was another Great Blue Heron with a snake it had just caught.  In the next 15 minutes we burned a few hundred frames of the dance between the snake and the bird.  Like I said in the title, we know where this is going but we have to say that it was pretty interesting to watch the snake try to defend itself by tying itself in a knot, holding onto the ground somehow or just trying to stare the bird down.  It all ended with a satisfied bird and one less snake.  We headed for home with an unexpected topic for conversation.

I will close by saying that it was really nice to have Dianne along for this trip.  Mostly I sneak out during the week when she is working or I go with Eric or other friends.  Di hears all my comments and looks at the pictures.  Today we mounted the 28-300 on her D90 and she shot like she was back at the Bosque.  I loved hearing the rapid fire shutter click from the back seat.  What a fun way to spend time with your best friend.

Getting to know you...

One more time… 3 times around

It felt like a morning that deserved to be used roaming with the camera.  There were reports of a Vermillion Flycatcher at Ridgefield and after some research about what this bird looked like I grabbed the gear and headed north into… wait for it… pea soup fog. It did not look like the light would come up all morning or at all today.  I had a quarter tank of gas, a cup of coffee, the cameras and time.  Off I went.

The first lap was mostly just recon.  Like others have reported, the raptor population is increasing along with the herons.  I saw a group of about 15 swans for the first time this year and a single egret.  Harriers were working the back stretch and seem to be always 10 car lengths ahead of me.  Lots of sparrows on the roadside and in the bushes.  One bald eagle flew by and scattered a vast number of geese.  Shovelers, coots, mallards… all present.  What I did NOT see were nutria and red-winged blackbirds.  Interesting.  I did see a racoon for the first time in all my visits to Ridgefield.  It was very busy digging for something along the bank of one of the canals and kept its butt pointed at me for the whole time except for about 5 seconds.  I’m proud of my restraint in that I did not shoot what would have been a remarkable shot of a tail and butt.

As I approached the famous “3 trees” location I slowed, set the camera on the bean bag for looking way up  and moved cautiously beyond the trees to see if the peregrine was hanging out on the dead branches.  Yup.  There it sat quite content to be viewed against a perfectly boring blank gray sky.  It had its back to me and turned its head for profile or direct viewing only on occasion. I took a bunch of shots once I got the exposure pretty well dialed in.  After other cars started piling up behind my road block I moved off so they could get their turn.

The second lap was more of the same.  I took some shots of a great blue heron against some relatively nice water.  These birds still amaze me with their patience and stealth.

As I exited the ash forest I pulled alongside a car parked at the back end of a string of 3 other cars.  He immediately asked if I was there to see the Vermillion Flycatcher.  Well, yeah!  So he tells me that it is in the tree about 50 yards away and going to the ground on occasion.  I thank him and find a place to pull in and see if I can get lucky.  I waited for about 30 minutes without seeing anything.  As I left I noticed that the other cars were still parked and people were scanning both sides of the road.  I hope someone gets a decent shot of this rare bird.  I moved on and found the peregrine still posing.  A few more shots and I finished the loop, grabbed my sandwich and started lap 3.

The number of cars cruising the loop had increased quite a bit and I dawdled along behind people as they scanned the area for birds or other things of interest.  At one point I found myself sitting and waiting so I pointed the camera at a shoveler that just looked like it didn’t have a care in the world.  Just cruising and doing what it does.  Just like me.

I finished lap 3 without seeing the mass of cars looking for the flycatcher.  The peregrine was off somewhere exerting its dominance.  I was content to just stow the gear and head for home. These trips are always interesting and varied.  Some day I hope to be able to ID all the birds I see or hear at Ridgefield.  Someday…

A morning with familiar friends… and a twist

I struck out for Ridgefield this morning anticipating fog and magical light.  Didn’t really get either one but it was great to see the bird populations surging.  There were geese every where, the red wing blackbirds are more numerous, the great blue herons were abundant and cooperative.  I saw a few harriers and eagles too.  No swans as reported by friends who visited Ridgefield last Sunday.  I had high hopes to see the peregrine falcon that has been seen for several days now.  So, with 3 laps under my belt I give you some of the fruits of my excursion.  What a great way to start a day.  Now I put studio gear away after a fun maternity shoot with friend Eric and his lovely and very pregnant wife, Traci, last night.  The camera has been pretty darn busy lately… a good thing.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

A trip to Burns for the Forest Service gave me an opportunity to take a day of my own time and explore the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.  We have had numerous invitations to join our friends to bird and hike in the Refuge and on Steens Mountain but have never taken them up on the offers.  This was my first time on the Refuge where I had my own schedule and no pressure to be anywhere.  I knew ahead of time that the birding would be only so-so at this time of year so I had no great expectations. Still I saw many species including white pelicans, ibis, hawks, quail, pheasants, humming birds, yellow headed blackbirds, and crows.  The birds are skittish, the wind was howling much of the time and the sky was barren of clouds.  I spent the day looking at landscapes and getting oriented for a return trip in a few months time.

The images are on the computer now and it looks like there could be some nice ones in which the clouds did show up to perform.  But for now I’ll post one image of one of the smaller species I saw.  Believe it or not, it was shot with the 200-400 and manually focused.  It helps that it was sitting still most of the time.  More to come.