The Plateau

Shortly after we moved to Wenatchee our friends from Medford came to visit. In preparation for their visit I asked some local friends for advice about a driving tour that would show the character of eastern Washington. One recommendation was “the Waterville Plateau”. Good advice in my opinion.

Since that first trip to explore the area I have become quite familiar with the roads, views and places to stop for refreshments. I’ve made many trips over the Rock Island Grade to Waterville and on to Mansfield and down to Bridgeport. I’ve driven in dusty heat, heavy fog and beautiful crisp days. The roads have been rutted, smooth, slick ice/snow and even slicker mud. My time on the Plateau always seems to charge my batteries a bit. I like long, open views. I enjoy that I might see one or two other vehicles over a few hours time. I like that I can get out and walk through the sage on public lands to enjoy the wildflowers of spring.

And then there are the birds. Mountain Bluebirds, Sage Thrasher, Lark Sparrow, Song Sparrows, Horned Lark, Western Meadowlark, Kinglets, Flickers, Short-eared Owls, Snowy Owls, Stilts, Avocets, Pippets, Northern Harriers, Robins, Waxwing, crows and ravens. The list goes on. Today it was the return of the Mountain Bluebirds that excited me most.

Much of the plateau is planted to wheat. It’s a tough life growing a crop on what I think of as harsh, rocky soils. The area is near the famous Palouse but the loess deposits are thinner if they exist at all. It has to be hard making a living on the Plateau. It takes a strong, determined type of person to try. My hat goes off to them.

Which brings me to this photo of an abandoned house near Waterville. It’s one of several on the Plateau and I’ve featured this one in my blog before. It’s an iconic scene that tells the story of hopes, hard work and eventual departure. I wish I knew the real story behind this place. Someday I’ll try to find out.

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Travel photo gear

Camera or travel photography buffs may enjoy this blog entry more than casual visitos. Just warning you – it’s about gear, not moments or thoughts. 

When we traveled to India and Iceland I carried a full size DSLR (Nikon D800) with a Nikon 28-300 mm lens attached.  I also carried a laptop computer and 2 external hard disks for backup creation. With batteries and cables added in the gear filled a small Lowe camera backpack and weighed a little bit more than too much. Carrying the camera and lens over my shoulder or around my neck was not something I really wanted to do since the camera flopped around unmercifully and screamed “here’s a really nice camera for the taking”. It was always awkward to try to access he camera, shoot and then stow it away again. I frequently carried it in my hand which stopped the flopping around but left the camera out and subject to weather and loss.

The photo below shows the gear I am using during our 3 week trip to Europe. Most of our travel is by train but cars, boats, planes, bicycles and feet have all played major roles as we move around.  This gear packs nicely in a small pack and, thanks to the binocular strap, can be carried in front of my chest without flopping around or over my shoulder. The difference n weight between this gear and the Nikon set is a true bonus at the end of the day. The camera went everywhere with me. The Nikon frequently stayed securely stored and not available for photos.

The Fuji X-T1 camera and 18-55 lens is small, lightweight and produces great Raw files. Thrown over my shoulder the camera is accessible and secure. I opted to take a 10-24mm lens thinking about cathedral interiors and grand landscapes. Really, I did not use it but a handful of times. Given the opportunities for decent bird photos I wished that I had brought my 55-200 instead. Next time I’ll likely bring all three lenses if carry on baggage weight limits allow.

In addition to the Fuji I brought along the little Ricoh Theta S 360 camera. A novelty camera but it provides a unique view. I did not use it as much as I thought I might.

I brought along 3 batteries for the Fuji camera. Normally I use the additional battery pack but wanted to save weight and present as small a camera as reasonable. I carried 2 extra batteries with me and had to swap to a charged battery several times near the end of the day.

Storage and backup of files has always been an issue for me. As mentioned, I used to carry 2 external hard disks for backup purposes.  I’d keep one with me and the other n my luggage. For this trip I opted to use memory cards as my primary storage and a Western Digital 2tb “My Passport Wireless Pro” hard disk as my only backup. This device has an SD card reader built in and creates a local wifi network that can be coupled to an iPad or other mobile device.

I carried 4 memory cards: 2-64gb, 1-32gb and 1-16gb. As I write this blog entry I have just put the 32gb card in the camera and have used most of both 64gb cards.  I have 48gb left for the last 3 days of our trip.

The Western Digital hard drive is working perfectly for my purposes.  When I insert an SD memory card into its reader the images automatically copy to the WD hard disk.  Before we left I was unable to figure out how to access the RAW files stored on the WD disk so I shooting both RAW and JPG.  I can easily see and move JPG files from the WD drive to my iPad using the WD app on the iPad or iPhone.

The iPad has taken the place of a laptop. It is vastly smaller and easier to use for photos or email. I’m writing this blog entry on it.  Yes, I would prefer to use Lightroom but a variety of iPad apps provide a robust set of editing tools. I have been using Snapseed and PhotoGene apps to process JPG files for posting to social media as we travel. I use the RollWorld app to generate the “little planet” mages I’ve posted. While I enjoy these weird views I realize that most people just wonder what the heck they are looking at. I try to use them sparingly until I get more experience shooting images that translate into impactful photos. 

Another aspect of my travel photography involves keeping track of where images are taken so details can be researched later. Shooting 50 images from a train doing 90 mph between Passau and Munich Germany is one thing.  Being able to know where that castle is once I get home is totally another thing. I’ll write up a blog soon to let you know how I did the location-photo synchronization.  Stay tuned.

I’ll close by saying that this gear has performed well. The Fuji shutter speed/exposure dial combination is gummed up somehow and I am forced to shoot in aperture priority rather than manual. Not a loss really but it requires more thought by me since it is not my normal way of doing things. I am anxious to get the RAW files into Lightroom, append GPS data and get key wording completed. Lots of work ahead but the trip’s photos are valuable to us and worth every effort.

100 Birds – #9

I really cannot remember if birds were a big thing for me as a kid or whether they were just something that was taken for granted and, therefore, not seen.  I knew that there were common birds around but they meant nothing special to me.  They were just part of my world… like sunshine and wind. I’m trying hard to inspire interest in birds in my youngest grandchildren and it is fun to sit with them and watch birds come to their feeders or fly overhead.  Next month we’ll see hummingbirds back at their flowers and feeders I hope.  I’m just hoping that they learn to appreciate birds at a much younger age than I did.

I really can’t tie down a date when I can say that I was interested in photographing birds.  I can honestly talk about the first time that I purposefully set out to see birds of interest and to photograph them  It was February 2, 2004 and my friend Steve Howes and I had traveled to New Mexico for a business meeting in Albuquerque that began at 1:00 PM on that date.  I had decided to go a day early, rent a car for personal use and rise early on Monday to drive to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge south of Socorro, New Mexico.  I talked to Steve about my general plans and he surprised me a bit when he said that he’d go early as well. Little did I know that he and I would become travel companions for frequent birding trips today.

Our goal was to find the refuge before sunrise and be in a position to witness the “flyout” of thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes at or near sunrise.  I’d seen a photo of this flyout somewhere that struck me as something I wanted to see.  Steve and I met in the hotel lobby at 04:30, jumped in the car and headed south to the refuge.  We found the entrance and drove to an area known as “the flight deck”.  Thankfully, the refuge provides a decent map and directions.  We could hear the birds and saw a few other cars in the parking area.  We braced for the cold, grabbed the camera and tripod and walked out to the deck that looks to the east across a broad swamp.  We reacted to the sound of the birds.  We knew we were in the right place and all we could do was wait.

It was cold…probably in the low 20’s. I asked Steve to record some audio on my little Palm Pilot device and he bravely bared some fingers to make the device perform.  We waited, talked to each other and the other folks on the deck.  We waited some more.  Then it happened.  I don’t know if it is known what inspires a great flock of geese to lift off like they do but it is one of the most amazing sights one can see. The sound is rolling and loud as the numbers of birds pull off the lake and ascend. The geese came right at us and barely cleared our heads as they passed over.  Oh my… what a sight.  What sounds! We looked at each other after the geese were out of sight and just smiled.  We had just seen one of the most amazing natural events one can see. Thrilling.  There were still several hundred Sandhill cranes on the water and they began lifting off in groups of 2 or 3 or 4.  The call of the cranes got etched into my mind and soul that morning.  The crane call is one that carries great distances and is unmistakable once heard. We watched until the lake was nearly empty and headed back to the warmth of the car.

For the most part the photography part of the exercise was a bust.  I was inexperienced and did not have the knowledge of how to capture the event well. Lots of blurred birds.  Shooting into the rising sun doesn’t help matters.  I pointed the camera and flailed away, burst after burst.  The photo below is one semi-sharp image taken that morning.  No good shots of the geese lift off.  Few decent photos of the cranes standing in the lake.  Really, a totally rookie performance.  None-the-less, it was highly educational and a thrilling experience.  As we left the refuge to get back to Albuquerque in time for our meeting Steve looked at me and said “that was spiritual”.  I’ll never forget that moment and could not agree more.

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BRUCE MCCAMMON

We stopped at the Owl Bar and Café in San Antonio, New Mexico for their famous chili cheese burger. We figured that we might never have another chance to eat this burger made famous by Charles Kuralt’s pronouncement as “the best chili cheese burger in the west”. We just figured it was an early lunch.

Since that day with Steve I’ve been back to the Bosque 3 other times.  Once with friend David Gibson, once with Dianne and the last time with friend Eric Vogt. I’ve learned a lot about cranes and bird photography since my first visit but the experience of watching the liftoff remains on the top of my list of great ways to freeze your butt off and watch a marvelous natural event.

So it was on February 2, 2004 that the bird photography bug latched on to me and it has not let go yet.  I continue to enjoy time out alone or with Dianne or friends under the pretense of “birding”. Honestly, I tend to think of these trips more as “avoiding chores”.  Cranes are always a bonus when I can see them and grab a photo or two.  Just the other day I paid a short visit to the Cherry River Fishing Access area in Bozeman, Montana and was thrilled to see three Sandhill cranes foraging in a field near the trail.  These birds are wary even though they are large.  One bird will always have its head up to watch for danger.  Any others in the group forage and occasionally look up to see what’s going on.  I took some photos and moved in closer.  The birds were calm.  I got as close as I thought reasonable and took a few more shots and left the area to the birds. Their rust color shown in the photo below is a characteristic of young birds. I needed to ask for some help on this from my friend and expert bird counsel, Gerry Ellis, since the tail feathers looked very robust to me and I was thinking that they might be stained adults.  “Nope” Gerry says… young birds.  I am such a rookie.

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As I left the area one of the birds began calling.  I stopped and watched the bird lift its beak straight up into the air and call and call and call. I could feel the same sense of wonder that I felt during my first visit to the Bosque with Steve.  Like Steve noted… it’s still a very spiritual experience.

 

Spring in the Gorge

It has been quite some time since I ventured into the Columbia River Gorge with a camera, a tripod and time to dally.  My hiking partner was under the weather this morning and encouraged me to go alone.  Our plans had been to visit a couple of waterfalls and get some hiking in before the summer crowds descend. I went east with more than a bit of guilt festering in my head.  I decided I’d alter our original plans and work my way through the waterfall series from west to east and end at Wahclella Falls.  Fewer steps but more variety.

First stop was the ever-popular Latourell Falls.  This was the first time I had a real scene on which to use the new 10-24mm lens on the Fuji X-T1.  I was not anxious to get a bunch of spray all over the front element so I headed to an area that was a bit more protected from the gusty down canyon winds.  It is such a treat to use a smaller, lighter camera that can produce such high quality files.  The new lens worked well IMHO.

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I tinkered around with some native bleeding heart blooms on the way back to the car but none of the frames will find their way to this blog.  More practice is called for… and less wind.

I drove east and went right by Shepard’s Dell, Bridal Veil and Wahkeena Falls.  Past experience has jaded my view of these falls – at least photographically.  I pulled into Multnomah Falls and was pleased to see that there were few people around.  Being one of the most photographed scenes in Oregon my goal here was not to produce a bit of wall art but simply to get some experience with the new lens.  What would the scene look like compared to the ones I’ve shot with the Nikon gear…. over and over and over.

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After sitting for a short time to just enjoy the scene at a time when there were not tens or hundreds of people swarming the viewing deck I moved on toward Wahclella Falls.  It really is note worthy when you have Multnomah Falls to yourself.

I parked at the nearly empty trailhead for the short hike into Wahclella Falls.  One other car.  Again, an unusual experience at one of Portland’s favorite family hikes.  I set out for the one mile trip into the falls stopping a couple of times to record some views of the creek.  It’s a beautiful time of year with the greens being saturated and fresh. Everything was wet from fog and dew.  Unfortunately, the light was not really the best to show the scene.  Still, quite nice though.

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I sat for a minute and thought about what Stephen Gingold would do with such a scene.  Close in on the details of the small falls?  Change the shutter speed?  Process differently?  I know I admire his images of water and flowers a great deal and always try to imagine how he shoots and processes for presentation.  Some day I’ll try to shadow him on a photo outing.

Once I arrived at the falls I set out to find a composition I enjoyed.  Typical of waterfall shooting, one gets wetter as you get closer to the falls.  I don’t mind being wet but I do tire of trying to keep the lens dry and spot free.  I was fussing around with the tripod when I noticed another man had arrived.  He too was shooting with a Fuji camera so we shared our praises of the cameras and tried to stay out of each other’s frames as we both went about shooting.  It is always nice to meet random people who share the photographic interest.  Some of my friends were introduced during chance encounters with our cameras.

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This view was shot while standing on a foot bridge that crosses the stream.  The setting is far enough away from the falls that most of the mist is not a worry.  It’s a bit of a luxury to be able to stand on a solid surface and make a photo.  All too many times I’m standing or kneeling on a precarious perch, steep slope or vulnerable to a variety of mishaps.  Not so here.

There is another classical view of this falls that requires one to hike up a hill to a higher vantage point.  The site also lets you incorporate an intermittent falls into the foreground of the frame.  Not today.  The hillside above me was bathed in bright light and I knew that shooting into the sun would only end with files being discarded once home.  On I went along the trail back toward the car.  But I got interrupted by a couple of small views on the return hike.  I stopped to admire the stream and had the luck to look down.  There were numerous small groups of mushrooms at my feet.  I switched lenses to the 55-200 and dropped the tripod down to ground level.  Another advantage of the Fuji is the tilting LCD screen.  With the camera mounted to the tripod and hugging the ground I was able to sit comfortably and view the scene without laying on my belly.  This is not a trivial thing as I age and, er, expand?

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Then, a short distance down the trail I ran into a small group of emerging flowers.  I’m not sure what these are but I enjoyed the new growth and bright colors.  The image feels almost “Gingold-like” to me.  A bit too much clutter in the background perhaps but the blossoms are quite nice.

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The quiet of the hike was over as I headed down-trail.  Lots of people hiking in.  A young couple, each with a front kid carrier passed by.  Another man holding the hand of a young girl who I guessed to be about 4.  A group of dreadlocked guys stopped to admire a banana slug working its way across the trail.  Other groups passed by with head knods or a polite greeting.  I thought to myself… what a lovely place to be.  Then I thought about my ailing wife back home and picked up the pace to get back into cell range so I could check on her.  She greeted me with good news about feeling much better.  My guilt about enjoying the day without her was tempered a bit but not totally gone.  I pulled the car back onto the freeway and headed west into the city of crazy drivers that we call home.

The photo line

My first experience with a “photo line” was at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near San Antonio, New Mexico.  The line is a semi-orderly arrangement of people who are all trying to take a unique photo of a common scene.  Good luck with that.  At the Bosque it looks something like this.

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Quite an assortment of people and gear.  Overall, they respect each other and get along well.  There is a fair amount of banter and the group has always seemed to be enjoying the camaraderie.  Proof that Nikon and Canon shooters can get along in an unsupervised setting.  There is no danger to these people other than getting smacked by a careless tripod movement or turning an ankle.  It’s a safe situation for all.  No cranes were hurt by anyone taking photos.

At the Sumpter Valley Railway Photographer Weekend it was different in many ways.  First, there were fewer people.  Second, there was personal risk involved a great deal of the time.  Third, because of the risk it was a quasi-supervised group.  The photo coordinator did a good job of explaining that we were on a train and that it doesn’t stop or start quickly, it weighs a lot and it is always a good idea to give it a wide enough berth to prevent getting hit.  Seems intuitive really but we are a group of impassioned photographers and sometimes forget where we are… just sayin’. Some of the group had done this many times before and spoke the language.  Some of us were studying and learning our way around.  We were all walking on and over loose stones that had been piled up by the gold dredge decades ago.  Footing was anything but sure and the chance of a turned ankle or fall was real.  Gratefully, no one took too big of a fall and everyone walked off under their own power at the end of the day.

The photo line at one of our stops looked like this:

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You can see the steam from the locomotive rising above the dredge pile on the upper left.  Everyone is placed to get the best view possible with hope to get a reflection of the engine and cars as it moves by.  The video guys are front and center and holding claim to the prime locations…. fast walkers those guys.  Some people like the guy on the right in the gray shirt and with the crossed camera straps always seemed to just fit in and find a way to shoot.  We all did really but he never really made a point of trying to get positional advantage.  By the way, he came from Vermont for this tour and a few others earlier in the week.  He was, shall we say, not terribly impressed with Oregon’s fall colors.  Go figure.

This group was also pretty well behaved.  There was some sense of irritation by one video guy when he got tired of a still photographer bursting away near his microphone.  I’ve mentioned that before and it was really the only bit of upset in the group over two days.  People with a common objective do seem to be understanding and tolerant as they all strive to get the shot.  This is what one of mine looked like.

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I will post more traditional train images in the coming days.  Please stay tuned.

Sumpter Valley Railway – morning long exposures

I had the good fortune to spend last weekend with my good friend Steve Howes at the annual Photographer’s Weekend hosted by the Sumpter Valley Railway in Sumpter, Oregon.  Steve is an avid rail buff and seems to have a never-ending knowledge base about every thing railroad… track lays, locomotives, stations, people… it goes on.  He has mentioned this annual weekend opportunity to me several times but I never made it before this year.  He was a bit concerned that I’d be bored or put off by the cast of people who show up for these events.  Let’s just say that railroad buffs are PASSIONATE.  It was really interesting to me to see the variety of camera gear people brought along.  Everything from point and shoot to multiple DSLRs.  My personal favorite was a man who had 3 film cameras along and frequently mounted them side-by-side or stacked them one above the other.  Judging from the polished lens barrels he used I know that he has been at this a LONG time.  He told me he started about 1969.  There were a handful of videographers along with the still photographers.  Two of these chaps had traveled from North Carolina and worked as a team to get different views of each train “pass by”.  We all learned that the video guys would really prefer that everyone else be as quiet as possible and they bristled a bit when someone (aka, me) made some rocks roll or clicked a camera too close to them.  I appreciate that their chosen method to record the train has differrent and demanding needs but I can’t bring myself to think that they are the priority since we all paid the same entry fee.  We tried to be accommodating but sometimes the space was limited, the best view angles were always in high demand and sometimes things just happen.  Anyway, it was an interesting mix of people and gear.

Saturday started at 06:00 with coffee and sweet rolls along with juice and fruit.  People bantered among themselves as they prepared for the day.

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Engine 19 rolled into position at the depot to allow people to load.  We had about 15 minutes in which the locomotive was stationary as the sun started to come up.  I, along with a few others, lined up for a few shots of the train as it warmed up and the light matured.  The image below was shot for 10 seconds using the Fuji.  There is movement in the cab as the engineer prepares and the breeze caused the steam to drift backward.  I have digitally modified the image to remove power lines and poles.  Some purists will undoubtedly take issue with this treatment but I think the image is vastly better without the clutter.

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We spent Saturday moving up and down the 4 mile track following much the same sequence:  train stops, conductor gets off and puts a step for others to use as they leave the train, video guys rush to the front so that they can get the best sight angle, others get off and find their way to the photo line, the photo coordinator radios to the engineer, aka “19”, that all are clear and the locomotive should move up the track to begin its “pass by” run, coordinator tells them to go heavy on smoke and at a certain pace, engineer complies, photographers shoot, video guys wonder how much chatter will be in their audio, repeat 2-4 times then reverse the drill to get everyone back on the train for the next location.  We started shortly after 06:00 and ended about 16:00.  Approximately 800 images found their way onto my memory card.

The next morning began the same way only we’d lost a few people from the day before and gained some new folks.  Locomotive 19 pulled into the depot as before and I was ready for the morning light.  It was colder than the day before and frost was forming on the ties.  The light came up as I shot, this time using the D800.  Steve and I had gone through the previous day’s images and critiqued them.  I learned that I shot at too slow a shutter speed, focused too high and did not allow the locomotive to get close as I shot.  The Fuji files are really quite nice but I still am a bit perplexed trying to use the mirrorless camera to follow a moving subject.  It works and the images are sharp but I don’t have 100% confidence while shooting.  I know my way around the D800 thanks to all the bird photography I’ve done in the last few years.  A train is vastly easier to photograph compared to a bird… you know exactly where it is going to be and it is not subject to random and rapid changes, the speed is much slower, the train is MUCH bigger, the contrast for focusing is much better.  Really, there is little reason for not getting a good photo if you mind some fundamentals.  For me that meant shutter speeds of at least 1/360 but more frequently 1/500th, f/8, continuous focus, manual mode and ISO as low as I could go and maintain the speed and aperature I wanted.  With birds I almost always shoot Auto ISO but this train gave me a lot more flexibility.  Plus, as an added bonus, the train backs through the scene to prepare for its run and you get the chance to view the scene, think about composition and test exposures.  Then when the train comes through you shoot so that composition is maximized.  This means that you want to minimize the amount of brush or weeds that are obstructing the wheels and getting the steam engine and the tender car both into the frame.  I found it interesting that before the train came through it was common for someone of the verteran photographers to go out and pull weeds, trim brush or, on occassion, fall a sapling to make sure the view is unimpeded.  I guess that a railroad right of way is different from my work experience on public lands.

I will post several more images of the train in the coming days but the image below was taken Sunday morning as the train sat waiting for passengers to load and for the sun to begin lighting the scene.

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And the sun did come up.

20141019_072050__DSF6343What a wonderful way to spend a perfectly glorious weekend.  With a good friend doing something new, outside in great weather.  Life is good.

More to come….

 

Portland waterfront

I have been working to learn the ins-and-outs of the Fujifilm X-T1 camera and am gaining confidence in it each time I pick it up.  It’s a remarkable little bit of gear and I understand now why it is so popular.  Since I had not tested it in low light or with long exposures I jumped at the chance that Eric Vogt offered me when he called to see if I’d be interested in going downtown to shoot sunset.  I charged a couple of batteries and packed the camera, 2 lenses and the tripod for the shoot.  We headed for the eastside esplanade which offers a nice view of downtown Portland across the Willamette River.  We arrived in plenty of time to catch the sunset and set up our gear and framed our compositions.  Eric, who is known for his enthusiasm when out with a camera, has been trained (OK, I asked him nicely once) to let me know when the colors are “nice” or “pretty”.  I don’t see the subtle pinks and reds or oranges and Eric provides a sense of reality for me.  He did this last night and, at one point, told me that the sunset had to be one of the best color situations he’d seen from the waterfront.   I trust him and shot away.

I am working on a blog post that needs some quality control before I post it here.  So… this post is NOT about the peak color we saw and photographed although the color in the photo below seems pretty nice to me.  This photo was taken late after sunset and just prior to our packing it in for the night.  Neither of us had seen the abandoned boat hull before and I thought it added a nice balance to the colors in the foreground as well as anchoring the bottom of the frame.  This is a 30 second exposure at f/16, ISO 200.   I think the little camera has a future for me.

Portland, Oregon

Common Yellowthroat

Bird photography is not easy and it is not something that appeals to everyone.  I understand that.  I chafe a bit when another person, especially a photographer, derides the genre as “bird on a stick” as if it isn’t worthy of time or energy.  Perhaps their initial efforts did not yield good results and they gave up trying while adopting a bit of a superior attitude.  Hmmmmm.

Personally, I find the challenge of finding a bird and identifying it quite rewarding.  I’m new at the birding thing and make a lot of mistakes on ID and pester my friends with questions about proper ID and the way they know one bird from a very similar one.  It’s one of the most challenging things I’ve imposed on myself in a long time.  And that’s just the first stage of bird photography.  Granted, you don’t need to know what species the bird is to take a good photo and you really don’t need a good photo just because you see a bird and know what it is.  I find that I value my photos first as a means to stop the motion of a bird so I can identify it at my leisure and with references available to me.  Having a photo also helps a lot if I ask a friend about identification.  For me, photography and learning about birds go hand-in-hand.  Pursuit of good bird photos comes from my novice skills as a “birder”.  And, like I said, I like the challenge bird photography offers and the fact that I get to wander around wonderful areas, meet people along the way and hone my skills as a photographer.  These same skills pay off when I’m tasked with shooting some other quick moving object… like a bike race, rowing or soccer.  At least I can rationalize the time I spend photographing birds as valuable practice.

Within the bird world warblers are known for their beauty, wonderful songs and fast movement.  They can be just darn hard to find since they spend a lot of time in dense vegetation.  I usually don’t take the time to just stand in one place for an extended period of time and, as a result, don’t benefit from the birds becoming used to my presence and relaxing enough to go about their day.  Yesterday I returned to Steigerwald Natonal Wildlife Refuge near Washougal, Washington intent on getting a photo of a beautiful warbler, the Common Yellowthroat.  I had seen Yellowthroat several times but I had failed to get any photos other than a blurry butt shot or a dinky bird in a big frame of competing stuff… branches, bright spots, etc.  The Common Yellowthroat, like the Cedar Waxwing, is a bird that sat at the top of my list of desired photos.  Recent trips to Steigerwald built a level of frustration because I could hear the Yellowthroat songs all around me but rarely saw them.  Views were very brief at best.  My trip yesterday allowed me to stand comfortably along the trail for an extended period as I watched about 5 or 6 Yellowthroat “work the area”.  I learned their patterns of movement and favorite perches.  I tried to position myself so the light would be in my favor relative to the perchs and just stood there, waiting for a bird to show up.  They did.  It’s rare when I got more than 10 seconds to find the bird in the viewfinder, catch focus and shoot.  Exposure was pretty stable since it was overcast and a bit drizzly.  Still, the challenge of finding focus on a bird against a pleasing background was enough to make me mutter a bit more than I normally do.  A few short visits with folks walking through added a bit of variety and did not seem to interfere with the bird behavior.  It was a very enjoyable 90 minutes even if it might be relegated to the lowly “bird on a stick” category.

Here are a few of my favorite shots from the visit.  All were shot with a Nikon D800 using a Nikon 300 f/4 lens and a 1.4 telextender.  The camera was set to DX mode to provide an equivalent focal length of 630 mm.  Shots were made in manual mode using Auto ISO to get a consistent shutter speed of 1/640 or 1/800th of a second at f/6.3 or f/7.1.20140627_122745_DSC_0927

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Cedar Waxwing

I’ve been trying to increase my time spent walking lately and the camera almost always goes along.  While I can’t really call my forays out as “exercise” the time still counts as time outdoors and not in front of the computer.  Steps are steps I guess even if I stop frequently to put the binocs on a bird(s) or to take a photo or two.  Lately I’ve been visiting a new (to me) wetlands area that offers some of the most diverse bird habitat of any area in my expanded neighborhood.  The Jackson Bottom Wetlands  encompasses 635 acres of mixed habitats including ash forest, ponds, large ponds with good exposure of shores, native plants galore and a wide variety of trail access to the majority of the area.  The area is owned and maintained by Clean Water Services and is a reclaimed waste water area.  Judging from the number of people I see there it is well known and well used.  I really appreciate a company making the investment in nature and for making the area accessible to the public.  I know I will be back there many times as the seasons bring in new birds and changes to the vegetation and water levels.  While it seems that American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) are the most common bird in the forest and shrub communities at Jackson Bottom right now I have also found several Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), one of my favorite birds…ever.  Their smooth feather pattern and colors make them a really pretty bird.  During mating season you get to watch as a pair of waxwing play “pass the berry” as they sit on a limb and literally pass a berry back and forth for several minutes.  They might hop around a bit on the branch but their energy and attention are on the berry and each other.  It’s really fun to watch if you have the opportunity (and time).

For any of you who watch my Google+ page,  my apologies.  You’ve seen these photos before and heard my story in abbreviated form.  It seems that everywhere I go lately I run into Cedar Waxwing.  These birds, slightly smaller than an American Robin, travel in flocks and tend to stay high in the trees or bushes.  Their call is a nearly inaudible high pitched warbled “zeeet”.  The call is quiet but very distinctive.  I’ve learned to pick their calls out of the ambient noise of an area and soon find birds after stopping.  Sometimes you can’t miss them.  The other day I saw a group of 30 sitting in the bare limbs of a tree at our neighborhood park.  Often, though, they are hidden in deep foliage and can be hard to see until they move or fly off.  But occasionally they present themselves in open light and seem to beg for their photos to be taken.  If the camera is along I can’t seem to resist trying for a photo that presents the bird well so that its beauty is revealed.  I have about 200 images of waxwings so far this year and will likely add a few more as I wander around.  I won’t say I’m addicted but I will admit to being weak-willed when opportunity knocks.

Here are a few of my favorite Cedar Waxwing images from this year’s collection.  These were taken at the two locations I frequent the most at this time of year… Commonwealth Lake Park in Beaverton, and Fernhill Wetlands in Forest Grove.   I’ve seen numerous waxwing at Jackson Bottom too but the photos are not good.  You’ll notice that Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge is not listed.  At this time of year I tend to avoid Ridgefield due to mosquitos and the fact that people can get out of their cars and wander around.  I enjoy walking the Kiwa Trail but generally find seeing people out walking around in an area I think of as “car visit only” is a bit “off-putting”. The birds are more skittish and fewer in number.  It’s just me I suppose.  I’ve seen and photographed waxwing at Ridgefield but my time is now spent looking in other areas.

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20140522_164755_DSC_756220140529_162551_DSC_8204The last photo shows the red wax-like tips on the secondary feathers.  These red feathers complement the yellow tips of the tail feathers.  The black mask gives the bird a bit of marauding character and its crest feathers, when displayed, add a lot of character to the bird’s appearance.  I am always amazed at the variety of feather pattern and structure in bird photos I take and study.  The overall smoothness of the waxwing breast, neck, head and wing feathers is a standout to me.  All in all, one of the most eye catching birds we get in these parts.  I’m very happy that my history of striking out on photos of Cedar Waxwing has come to a close and my library of images of these birds is growing.  OK, maybe I am addicted…. I can live with that.

 

Priceless

The wonders of nature are amazing to this old man.  I recharge when I get out in nature to walk around at various times of day and times of year.  There’s high value in natural solitude for me.  Yet I always enjoy sharing nature with young eyes as much as I do having time alone outside.  My youngest granddaughter, Kendyl, has given me the chance to experience what may seem to be common things through young eyes and a vital, fresh mind.  Kendyl just turned three years old and we are sharing a week with her in Bozeman, Montana.  Being a Montana girl and the daughter of two very outdoor-oriented parents, Kendyl is at home walking in cold and wind and snow as well as swinging in bright sunshine.  She confided that she likes the wind and we talked about how we can’t see the wind directly but we know it’s there when we see trees bend, flowers sway or when we feel it on our faces.  I don’t know why but having that kind of talk with a 3 year old seems valuable and rewarding to me.  It’s just an example of the many short conversations we’ve had about birds, waterfalls, flowers, bugs…. it goes on.  I honestly don’t remember having such discussions with my sons as they grew up but I suspect they had to endure some “nature talks” by Dad.  I do know that I won’t forget these talks with Kendyl and I look forward to doing the same with her soon to be born little brother.

You have to enjoy the great outdoors to live in Montana.  I’d live here in a heart beat if it didn’t have winter.  Dianne and I always appreciate our short visits during the warmer times of year (even if the ground was covered by snow this morning).  We were thrilled when we asked to take Kendyl to Yellowstone and were told “of course” by her parents.  Oh boy!  She knows all about “ooouy gooey geysers” and buffalo but had never seen either.  Our goals were set…. show her bison and walk her through some nice geothermal features of Yellowstone.  If we saw a bear, elk, coyote, deer or other wildlife it would only be a bonus.  Off we went.  Up the Gallatin River canyon to West Yellowstone.  She and Dianne talked all the way.  Shortly after entering the park we saw goal number 1… the bison.  We’d talked about how we could not get too close and how big these animals are.  We talked about what it means to be a wild animal that lives out here all year and why it isn’t good to feed wild animals.  She was ready to get involved.  We unloaded her from the car seat and walked out to the shoulder of the turnout.  The wonder of a young girl rendered speechless as she took it in is priceless. I could sense her excitement in her body language.  I stood by with the camera and waited for “the moment”.  Here it is…

Kendyl's first bison
Kendyl’s first bison

She wiggled and giggled.  She bounced and pointed. She encouraged us to look.  Moments like this happen just once and we value it more than I can say.

We watched the buffalo for quite awhile and finally agreed that it was time to move on toward Old Faithful.  We knew that there were several opportunities to see fumaroles and small geysers along the way.  We pulled into a parking area and began our walk out the boardwalk trail into the steam and the smells of geothermal features.  Kendyl was as interested in the knots in the boards on the trail as she was in the geothermal features.  As we walked along we found out that other tourists were as interested in her as the natural features of the park.  What fun to have so many smiles directed at us as we escorted Kendyl on a 0.75 mile loop hike.  Maybe the photo below will explain what I mean and, if I’m lucky, the way I feel about being able to help Kendyl see and learn something new.  What a treat.

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