When we moved to Wenatchee, Washington we knew we’d see a variety of birds that inhabit the eastside of the Cascade mountains. We were excited to see new species. What I didn’t think about (at least not much) was the species we’d leave behind. Some birds that we saw commonly at our Portland house or in the area just don’t seem to make it over the hill and this far north. Or so it seems with the Lesser Goldfinch. In Portland we saw a lot of these birds and fewer of the American Goldfinch. Here in Wenatchee we see a lot of American Goldfinch and I have yet to see a Lesser Goldfinch in the neighborhood. Looking at a range map for the Lesser it may be that we are too far north for the Lesser to show up. That could change as climate change occurs.
This photo was taken about 3 miles from our house in Portland. Commonwealth Lake Park is an urban park that has a 0.75 mile paved trail around it. The pond lays in some the highest density urban areas in the state of Oregon and gets a tremendous amount of use by a wide variety of people. I fell into the group of users that showed up frequently, walked a couple of laps (or more) and carried binoculars and a camera. On this day there was a small flock of Lesser Goldfinch hanging out in a sparse tree at the west end of the park. Busy feeding on catkins they seemed unconcerned about me and the camera. This is as close it comes to automatic photo taking – many birds to look at, all fairly low in the tree, unconcerned and perched in even lighting. Click, click, click. Next?
A day alone in the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge north of Vancouver, Washington always reaps rewards. I tend to start such a day with a cup of coffee as I sit near the entry station listening to birds and other sounds come from the marsh and forest cover of the refuge. I take note of birds flying in and out and begin to glass the birds with binoculars. I’ll check the camera settings, position the beanbag on the window and dial in a rough exposure so I am mostly prepared when a photo presents itself. It always presents itself. Ridgefield never disappoints when it comes to birds. I really can’t think of a time when I left the refuge without at least one nice opportunity to photograph a bird, a raccoon or some scene. The place is rich and is a treat to visit any time of the year – mosquitos and other visitors may color the experience but there are always moments when you can be alone with the place and the critters that frequent it. Watching the sunrise over a marsh full of waterfowl, blackbirds and wrens is hard to beat if you want to begin a calm, zen-like day.
The automobile route of the Ridgefield NWR S Unit is about 4 miles long and you are required to stay in your vehicle much of the year. During a few summer months you can exit your car and walk around. It is during this time that the Kiwa trail is open to visitors and offers a wide variety of habitats and avian opportunities. The refuge is typically quiet with the exception of the train movement on the east side of the refuge. Much of the time in the refuge can be a pretty pure “moment of nature” if you want one.
The refuge is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the national network of refuges. As such, activities occur within the refuge. Seasonal waterfowl hunting is allowed. Water levels are regulated. Roads are graded. Vegetation is managed in a minimal way…plantings and weed control. The refuge, like the others, is a busy place. Management is intended to foster habitats to support the wildlife populations that use the area. While there is always debate about what is being done, what should be done or what should NOT be done, the intent is benefit wildlife. Humans are lucky to have access to the area. The value of the refuge is increasing rapidly in my opinion. Housing development on the perimeter has changed the experience and influences the edge vegetation/habitats. I think the development is inevitable and something that I need to come to grips with. I wish there was a nice buffer around the refuge to ease the immediate geographic pressures of houses against native forests and wetlands. That won’t happen now so the value of the refuge goes way up. The refuge is an island of nature in a fragmented landscape. People should recognize and appreciate the treasure they have in their back yard.
I was driving slowly around the loop and making stops when I thought a photo might be possible or when I just wanted to stop and watch, listen and feel the place. At one point I approached a culvert crossing of the road and it looked different to me. It was. Managers had come in with equipment and cleaned the inlet and outlet of the culvert to allow water flow. There was a fairly large pile of what I think was some road gravels that had been pulled out of the water and piled along the road. It was a pile of black sands and gravels and seeds and leaves had begun to accumulate on the surface. There were several Golden-crowned Sparrows hopping around gathering seeds. The light was a fairly bright overcast. I pulled over and parked nearby. As I sat still watching the action, the birds adjusted to my car and me and resumed their work. It’s always work for a bird. Find food, preen and protect your feathers, watch for danger, find a mate… it is nonstop.
I raised the camera onto the bean bag on my window and started following birds as they feasted on the seeds that had been uncovered during the maintenance or which had fallen since the pile was placed. The setting on the dark pile of gravel/sand was different than anything I’d shot before and I still have mixed feelings about it as a stage for a photograph. But the birds were nearby and happy. I took about 100 photos and departed the area. I selected this photo for presentation here because I like the attitude that the bird is showing. It looks confident, alert and a bit brash…almost challenging. Many photographers prefer the mega-birds for photography – the herons, eagles and egrets or geese. I do too but can’t seem to resist a chance to record a small songbird. The energy and small size of these sparrows adds a challenge to the photo work. The result, though, is that once the photo is on the computer monitor I get to take a close look at the beauty of the feathers on the bird and dramatic display of structure around the eye. So often we see birds fly by and they go virtually unnoticed. There’s a bird. Big deal. Seeing a bird fly by and knowing what it is seems to be the next step in appreciating the complexity and dynamics of our birds. Studying, in an informal way, the variety and complexity of feathers on a single bird is not something that most people can or want to do. Me, I enjoy seeing the patterns and variety of feathers and wondering “Why? How?” Some may say I’m curious. Others may say I’m nuts. I think I’m fortunate.
It has been almost a year since we moved to Wenatchee, Washington and we are just about to witness our first “small town” celebration of Independence Day in the USA. Yesterday’s newspaper was filled with a schedule of events that will occur today. The climax will be a firework show launched from Walla Walla Point Park where we have walked numerous times. The park will be full of activities ranging from a youth circus to a full orchestra presentation during the fireworks. We walked the area this morning and it was quiet. The pyro team was busy making last minute updates and checking things. Some folks had their tents in place at 09:00 and look to be planning to spend the day. The wind has died down enough to remove the Red Flag warning we’ve been under the last two days and the sky is filled with clouds. Temperatures should peak in the mid- to high 70’s. Last year it was about 100 degrees.
I’ve photographed fireworks many times in the past and it takes a bit to get me enthused enough to brave the crowds for more images. But I admit that the feeling of a “small town” celebration caught me up. Part of me wants to throw caution to the wind and get back to the park early enough to get a spot near the fireworks launch point. Another part of me says “stay the heck out of there”. I think we’ve found a decent compromise. We plan to drive over to East Wenatchee and view the firework show from the loop trail. Our view will be into Wenatchee, looking west into town. We will be directly across from the fireworks display and at the edge of the Columbia River. Reflections may be featured if winds and powerboats allow the water to be calm. The end product of the evening, for me, will most likely be a composite image that merges a base image showing the town and hills to the west and several firework bursts. If we get a nice image in one frame all the better. Time will tell.
Last night the local baseball team, the Wenatchee Applesox, played the team from my friend Eric Vogt’s home town – Kelowna, BC. The Sox showed no mercy and handed the Kelowna team a 12-2 loss. It was fireworks night at the game so Dianne and I went about a half mile from our house and watched the display and got a bit of practice with the Fuji and TriggerTrap to prepare for tonight’s “big show”. The wind was blowing about 20-30 mph at times and the images are not all that sharp but we had a good time watching the fireworks and the display on the camera as it cycled through about 100 photos. We’re as prepared for tonight as we can be so it is just a matter of time.
Only four of the seven species of chickadees in North America are likely to be seen. The other 3 species are limited to far northern latitudes or small geographic ranges in Mexico. In the western United States we get to see the Chestnut-backed Chickadee, the Mountain Chickadee and the bird shown in this photograph – the Black-capped Chickadee.
When I first started posting bird photos to Google+ I was told by one prominent site moderator that I’d quickly learn that chickadee images are always crowd pleasers. It reminded me of another saying that I first heard at a workshop with photographer John Shaw. John was talking about the commercial aspects of nature photography when he said “Adorable sells”. The chickadee certainly falls into the group of cute, likeable or adorable birds. They don’t migrate great distances and it is possible to see them all year if you live in a favorable location. Their call is easy to distinguish and their fast, frequent flights around an area draw your eye to them fairly easily. As a photographer I am always happy to see chickadees since they tend to sit still longer than other small birds. I’m not saying that they pose for extended periods but compared to a kinglet or wren the chickadee seems to stay put a bit longer.
This photo was taken in the backyard of our old house in Portland, Oregon. We put out feeders for the birds and welcomed them to our small patio. I spent way too much time sitting at the doorway to the patio waiting for birds to come in and perch on one of the many perches that were there naturally or on one or more that I’d positioned to provide good photo backgrounds. The perch in the photo is a stick that was located next to a tree rose in a pot on the patio. I was always amazed to see a bird perch on top of the skinny, rough stick when they had smooth, more horizontal perches easily available.
To entertain myself and pursue high quality images I invested in a device known as a CamRanger (http://camranger.com/). This little device connects to the camera which is placed on a tripod and positioned near the perch of choice. The CamRanger makes its own little WiFi network that can be connected to a smart phone WiFi settings. The CamRanger app lets you sit inside and control focus, exposure and remotely trigger the shutter. The fact that a person is not evident to the birds is a HUGE advantage to capturing good photos. Of course there is the limit to the scene that is observed at any given time but controlling focus and exposure while you sit on the couch reading and relaxing has a lot going for it. Since the time I bought the CamRanger they have added a motorized tripod top that allows you to pan the camera as well as control exposure and shutter. Those who know me know that I enjoy such things and can appreciate that there is one sitting in my camera storage area. Someday soon it will come out to play in the Wenatchee area.
I suspect that some who read this post will find the process by which the photo was taken to be unethical or ill advised. Many people resent “baiting” birds for photographs but I don’t know any people who don’t condone bird feeders in their own yards or nearby. So yes, I drew the bird into the area by long term access to feed, I provided it a place to perch that I could use to get a nice photo (IMHO) and I sat in the comfort of my own house watching the screen on my iPhone and reading as I waited for a bird to land in front of the camera. Then it was just a matter of tapping the screen on the bird’s eye to set the focus point and pressing the button to trigger the shutter. Click. Job done. Without this explanation you’d be hard pressed to know that this is not a quick capture in the woods somewhere. The viewing reaction is what is important and I hope you agree that this is a cute little bird. Remember, adorable sells. You can call me or email me. Just kidding… or not.
The spring migration had begun and I was sitting on the patio enjoying a glass of wine with Dianne as the sun began to descend. I’ve learned that I should always have the camera handy as we sit, talk and scan our devices for news or trivia. This White-crowned Sparrow landed in our neighbor’s tree and began to preen and pose. The bird was backlit so the light was a bit flatter than I like. Photographing birds is rarely done under perfect conditions so one makes due with what one gets and then tries to improve the image with post processing.
There’s little more to this story. It is just a fairly simple bird in a simple setting with mediocre light. But, we had not seen many White-crowned in our yard at the time this photo was taken so seeing one was a treat. A few weeks later it seemed that we had been swarmed by them and we’d see as many as 20 at a time as they emptied our feeders. They didn’t stay long though and we haven’t seen one in weeks now. I’m hoping they return during the fall migration. We’ll be ready for them.
Steve Howes and I had been driving the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge all morning and had not come across anything that was terribly unusual. The map below shows the general area that we covered during our day. The little number flags are locations where we stopped for photos. The number in each flag shows the number of photos that I took at each location. It was a fairly slow photo day.
It was lunch time when started up a road leading to the top of a bluff west of Othello, Washington. As we climbed we could hear the song of the Western Meadowlark. I’ve been trying to get a good image of a meadowlark for years. They, as a species, have a couple of characteristics that test my patience as a photographer. First, their call carries farther than almost any other bird I know. The Sandhill Crane is another. These birds can sound like they are right next to you or very near. When you finally spot them they are almost always much farther away than you’d think. Second, attempts to get closer are often nonproductive and I’ve adopted a thought that the Western Meadowlark knows the focal length of my lens and will stay at least 3 times the distance needed for a good photo. I have quite a few images in my library that show a yellow-breasted bird sitting on a wire or fence post in the distance. It’s a bird that I’ve got on my list to always watch for limited opportunity to photograph at a reasonable distance. Some day, maybe.
We drove to the top of the bluff and stepped out to the winds of eastern Washington. We heard meadowlark calls from several directions. I set off on foot to see if I could find a bird that sounded like it was just over a small rise. I try to walk slowly, not look directly at the bird and to zigzag my approach with frequent stops. I’ll usually pause to take an insurance shot of the bird and then try to get closer. As I reached what I figured was the limit of my proximity to the bird I was pleased to see it still singing away and, apparently, at ease. I raised the camera to my eye and watched the bird fly away through the viewfinder. Drat. The dance had begun – the bird lead and I followed I followed along and approached the bird a second time. This time I was more cautious and took several shots along the way. The bird held for about 20 seconds and I got a few shots. The image below is not a prize winner by any means but it represents the closest I’ve ever gotten to a meadowlark on foot or in a vehicle. This image is still a 50% crop. Hey, I’ll take it.
Oh, and here’s an interesting bit of info…as I type I can hear the call of a Western Meadowlark somewhere on the flanks of Castle Rock – teasing me from about a half mile away. Drat.
I posted a photo of a Bullock’s Oriole on May 20, 2016 (100 Birds – #13). At the time I was thrilled to not only see the bird but to get a decent photo showing its beautiful colors. I’ve talked many times about how it is challenging to get a sharp shot of a small bird in variable light and cover. At the time I thought Bird #13 was going to be THE Bullock’s Oriole in this collection of 100 birds. Then I got a gift.
I was sitting on the edge of Number 2 Canyon Road about 2 miles from our house. I had been listening to a wide array of bird calls and was practicing my song ID as I watched a few birds move around in the distant shrubs and trees. I’ve learned that sitting still in an area with birds will often give you a surprise as a bird pops up from out of nowhere. That’s exactly what happened. I saw this Bullock’s Oriole land in the shrub about 15-20 feet from my car. The sun was at my back and bathing the bird. It was bright but there sat a beautiful bird. It sang a few bars and twisted around as it scanned for threats or food. It hit what I consider to be the perfect pose… one with good exposure of the bird’s body, decent view under the bird, a clear view of the legs and then, to top it all, a twist of the head into the light to present a beautiful catchlight in the eye. Go ahead and snicker but that little bright spot in the eye is what makes a mediocre photo move up a notch or two. I had already set the camera’s exposure and it was just a matter of focusing and composing. 30 clicks later the bird was gone and I sat there feeling like a little kid that had just gotten a free ice cream cone – just a very simple feeling of gratitude. This photo may be my second favorite bird photo ever taken. Time will tell.
I’ve been asked by some about how photograph birds. It’s not exactly an easy question to answer nor do I feel like I am a good source of education about the subject. I can tell what I know to be true for me with full realization that “the times they are a changing”. So, with an apology to anyone who did not ask or who does not care, here’s a short bit on bird photography and camera wizardry.
Bird photography is a learned skill. I understand that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill – or some say. I’ve not kept track of the time I’ve spent but I know that I’m nowhere near close to the mark. Yet I know that I have adopted a pattern or behavior when trying to get bird photos. When I switched from shooting Nikon to using a Fuji mirrorless camera I needed to change some of my habits. I now shoot using the Fuji 100-400 lens coupled with a 1.4x extender. When used on the Fuji X-T1 body the combination results in an 840 mm equivalent if shooting with a full frame sensor such as my Nikon D800. That’s a lot of focal length and something I’ve never really had in the past. And yet the birds still seem so far away!!! I enjoy the fact that I can easily hand hold the camera and lens. The lens stabilization helps a great deal but I still try to shoot at 1/1000 second. By putting the 1.4x on the lens I lose light and the lens moves to an f/8 lens when zoomed out to 400 mm (where I am almost all the time). This is not a “fast” lens at this point so I appreciate having good light on the bird at the time of the photo. I shoot in aperature priority and set the lens to be as wide open as possible which varies from f/5.6 to f/8. I also shoot using Auto ISO to make the exposure. I will dial in exposure compensation when needed and love that I can see the effects of any changes directly in the viewfinder or on the LCD screen. I don’t worry about high ISO values much anymore. I’ve found I can shoot at ISO 1600 quite confidently with the Fuji. It’s not uncommon to have the camera select ISO 3200 to maintain the 1/1000 sec shutter speed.
That’s the exposure…now on to focus. Focusing using an electronic viewfinder is a very different beast from the clear view of a high quality DSLR body like the D800. Like most things, there are pluses and minuses. The viewfinder is bright but has a lag when actually shooting. Combining a high burst rate of 10 frames a second and continuous focus results in a burst rate that varies and never comes close to 10 frames a second. Very frustrating. I want that burst rate to be reliable and consistent. Even for birds perched on a stick I want the fast burst to get multiple frames from which to select a pose. A very slight tilt of the bird’s head can add or remove a catchlight in the eye. Yes, I want a lot of frames from which to pick. So I’ve learned a new trick or two. My approach now is to find the bird with my binoculars or bare eye, bring the camera up to find the bird in the center focal point and at 100 mm. Then I zoom in on the bird by pushing the lens hood forward rather than twisting the zoom ring (thank you Mr. Barta). I have found that if I stay with manual focus set on the camera that the burst rate will always max out for me – never fails. So I use back-button focus to get in the ball park and then manually focus the bird. The Fuji excels at this because when I touch the focus ring on the lens the camera automatically zooms in to show a 10x magnification. Magic. Touch the shutter button and the magnification goes away. Perfect. Also, I have my manual focus set to use “focus peaking” which allows me to easily see exactly what is in critical focus. It takes a bit of getting used to with all the high contrast edges jumping at my eye but the results speak for themselves. None of this is quick for me at this point but I’m getting better. Other photographers are probably shaking their heads and wondering about my sanity. Their “big boy” camera bodies are miracles of technology and I still enjoy using my D800 and 300 f/4 lens. But the fact remains that no matter what body you use or which lens, when the bird is sitting in nice light and is open to view except for that one or two branches in front of it, the camera is most likely to focus on the branch and not the bird. With Nikon’s lenses I can manually override the autofocus…another miracle. But I bet that any bird photographer can talk about lost shots due to the camera’s autofocus finding the foremost object or the one with the most contrast. Just sayin’.
There are many reasons I enjoy the Fuji camera. Cost, weight, control but a subtle and highly valuable characteristic that often goes unnoticed is the color palette the Fuji sensor and electronics create. That may sound weird from a color blind guy but the colors I see on my monitor are richer and more pleasant to my eye. I like the Fuji for portraits, landscapes and birds. I have my wishlist and hope that some will show up in the X-T2 if and when it is released. If so, I will need to evaluate the merits and make a choice. I can’t wait.
I needed to drive in August 2013 from Portland, Oregon to Denver, Colorado to pick up some family keepsakes that were being stored at my sister’s house. If one Google’s the route you find that it is about 1,250 miles or 18-20 hours of road time depending on the route you take. Most direct routes takes you through the Salt Lake City, Utah area. Since Dianne was working I recruited my frequent travel friend, Steve Howes, to travel with me. I enjoy traveling with Steve because he shares many interests and has an abundant knowledge of places and routes in the western United States. One shared interest is looking at birds. We planned our route to allow a short visit to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge located just outside of Brigham City, Utah and a loop back through Jackson Hole and the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. We also worked in a visit to my son’s house in Bozeman, Montana to get some hugs and check in on the family. All in all it was a marvelous road trip with many great moments and photo opportunities.
Bird #16 in this series, a Snowy Egret, was photographed at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge as we made a late day drive around the refuge. This short drive netted me 3 life birds: American Avocet, White-faced Ibis and Snowy Egret. The Snowy Egret was a bit of a surprise to me and one which I welcomed as the mosquitos feasted on my and Steve’s flesh.
There’s a bit of a process I undertake each time I see a bird that I’ve never seen before. First, I question my fledgling ID capabilities and fall into denial that it could be a new bird. Then, as the field marks start to take hold, I quickly try to get a photograph. Even a crappy photo is a record of the bird that I can hopefully use to confirm the ID later. Once I have the record shot I begin to try to get a photo(s) that are more valuable in terms of presenting the bird to others. The period of time a bird gives me to mess around with the camera and compositions varies widely and this bird did not seem to want to hang around too long. We got to watch the egret forage against the reeds for about 2 minutes and then it took off. I was thrilled to get some sharp shots that showed the egret walking and in which its yellow feet were clearly visible. The Snowy Egret is a fairly small bird when it comes to herons and egrets. That was my first clue that I was looking at an egret I’d not seen before. The yellow feet locked in the ID.
We continued on the end of the loop and a mediocre dinner in town. We would have many more great moments along our trip route but this one was a great start. It is hard to beat a life bird when you are with someone who shares the passion for birds. I know Steve is grateful for the opportunity to be along on this trip but I am also quite grateful for his companionship and help. Life is good. Friends and family matter. Life birds enrich our lives whether or not you count them. I have many more to see.
This photo of a Black-headed Grosbeak was taken about 2 miles from our house in Wenatchee, Washington. The canyon near our house may be named “Number 2” because it is the second prominent canyon with a stream flowing into town if one starts counting from the north end of town. I’m going with that rather than the childish reference to bodily functions even though places in the canyon are littered with garbage and debris. The canyon road runs about 4 miles west and turns to a dirt road and enters the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Someday soon we will hike the road as we have heard repeatedly how special a place it is up there – beyond the asphalt is almost always quieter, less trampled and more inviting.
The Black-headed Grosbeak is a fairly common bird in Oregon and Washington during migration. While this photo was taken in north central Washington I learned the most about the bird and how to identify their call from Gerry Ellis and Jenn Loren when we birded with them at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge just north of Vancouver, Washington. There were calls all around us and I thought they belonged to a robin. The songs are quite similar to the untrained – a category into which I easily fall. Gerry forced me to listen closely. The robin’s song is broken between notes and the grosbeak’s is not. Some say the Black-headed Grosbeak’s song sounds like a drunken or tipsy robin. Now that I know this about the song it is possible to pick out the grosbeak song from a chorus of robins. I didn’t say it was easy but it is certainly possible.
This particular bird was one of several species that flew into a dead shrub next to road as I sat watching one evening. Usually birds would fly in and take a look around and then depart. It was great to see Yellow-breasted Chat, Bullock’s Oriole, American Goldfinch, Western Tanager and a Pewee make short visits. It was great photograph practice for me and I continue to learn how to efficiently zoom, compose, focus and photograph birds. I was all warmed up photographically when the grosbeak made it’s debut. Surprisingly, the bird landed and stayed in the same general area for over 15 minutes. I laughed a bit when I returned home and told Dianne that it was the first time I’d ever gotten “shooter’s cramp” while photographing. Must be age creeping onward.
You will likely see other photos in this series in which the bird is using this perch. Does it mean I have too much spare time when I not only know a specific tree but also a favored perching site within the tree? Many species seem to like this limb. Yes, I’ve spent a bit of time on the side of the road. Gone to the birds I have.
My original thought about this series of 100 bird photos and their stories was that I’d rely entirely on images that are already in our library of birds. As it turns out, moving to a new area and experiencing our first spring migration is giving us many new birds and new photos. So, there will be a surge of more contemporary bird photos in the series as we add them to our local and life lists.
This was a surprise. Dianne and I went up to the plateau at the top of the Rock Island Grade east of town to look for Mountain Bluebirds. As we were watching an active bluebird nest on the west side of the road I saw anther sparrow-like bird fly onto a fence line nearby and to the east. It was too far away to photograph and it flew before I could get the binoculars on it. I dismissed it as a “LBB” (little brown bird) and went back to watching the bluebirds. After a few minutes the bird returned but landed closer to us. I pointed the camera at the bird and snapped 6 frames. Looking at the images on the camera’s LCD did not help me identify the bird. I’d never seen one before and was, therefore, clueless. We looked at the beak and other obvious field marks. Dianne was searching our new copy of the Sibley’s guide and I was scanning the iBird Pro app on my phone. Nothing seemed to fit. It was another case of a bird that stupefies my meager brain. We moved on.
When we got home and downloaded the images to the computer we could more easily see the bird and its details. Not that this helped me identify the bird though. I was still thinking this bird was a sparrow as I sent a small JPG file to my expert birder friend, Gerry, with a couple of guesses about the ID. He quickly replied with the proper ID: Sage Thrasher. It turns out that the Sage Thrasher is the smallest of the thrashers and is fairly common in our area. We are better prepared to identify the species in the future. This is a life bird for me and I’m happy to have the files to show the bird.