100 Birds – #59 Yellow-breasted Chat

I can’t help myself. I posted a photo of a Yellow-breasted Chat on this blog on May 23, 2017 (#27). And here I am with another photo of this vibrant bird taken almost exactly a year later. Both images were taken in Number 2 Canyon within 2 miles of our home. When I know these birds are nearby I can’t resist going up-canyon to try for more photos. No, I really don’t need more but there is always a hope for that image that might make a nice print or be more useful for educational purposes.

Dianne and I went up to a tree where we have seen Bunting, Towhee, Orioles, Chat, Grosbeak and Goldfinch. Parked on the side of the road we wait for the birds to come in. We heard Chat calls coming from several directions. A Lazuli Bunting was the first bird in. It hid behind branches and sang just to torment the photographer and please the birdwatcher. When a second bird flew in we put our binoculars on it. Chat. I moved slowly to a position where I could get a photo. That done, I moved again to get a better framing of the bird by the branches. Click, click.

I’m still waiting for the first images of a Black-headed or Evening Grosbeak this year. We hear them, so it’s just a matter of time. Will I ever tire of photographing birds near our home? Not likely.


100 Birds – #58 American Avocet

I looked at photos of Avocet long before I saw one. I studied the photos because I was stunned by the bird’s beauty. The upward curved beak made me pause to consider “why”? The rich breeding colors on the head and neck added another dimension to a beautiful bird. I went for years like that – looking and wondering.

I was on a Fall road trip to Colorado with my friend, Steve, when we pulled into the Bear River National Bird Migration Refuge near Brigham City, Utah. Shortly after we started around the driving loop we saw our first group of Avocet wading and foraging. The birds moved with few stops. With the tips of their beaks submerged, they moved the beak side to side to stir up insects and invertebrates. I remember being surprised by their size – smaller than I had envisioned. I crept down a bank to sit at water level and proceeded to watch as the birds adjusted to me. I hardly noticed the swarms of mosquitoes as I began to take photos. Any time I have a new bird in front of my camera I’m overtaken by the feeling that I should just sit and enjoy the bird. I don’t do that. I shoot a lot if images simply because I never know if I’ll have another chance.

Utah is a long way to travel to see and photograph these birds. I was happy to learn that Steve was seeing them near his home in the Tri-cities area of Washington. I traveled there to have another chance to see them. It was nice to see them in their breeding colors. More digital files for the bird library. More opportunity to study the bird’s behavior.

Last year I was introduced to a set of small ponds about 1.5 hours from Wenatchee. The ponds were supporting not only American Avocet but Black-necked Stilt, Wilson’s Phalarope and American Pipit. I made many trips out there last year and never tired of watching Avocet.

A few days ago I heard that the ponds had filled again and that the birds were increasing in numbers. Once again, I found pairs of Avocet wading the shoreline to feed. I sat near my truck and watched for about 30 minutes as the Avocet and Stilt adjusted to me. Then I started taking photos. I stayed long enough to fill a 64gb memory card. I wanted more poses and different light. You’d think I would be content. I’m not. I just heard that White-faced Ibis were seen mixed in with the Stilts. I will probably see the sunrise over the ponds tomorrow.

100 Birds – #57 Spotted Towhee

I made a reconnaissance run up Number Two Canyon Road this morning. A week ago there were few birds seen or heard. That was more than a bit disappointing since early May has a history of bringing several bird species to my back door. Things picked up during the week. Today I saw and heard one of my favorite birds – Yellow-breasted Chat. While I couldn’t get close enough for even a marginal image, I enjoyed watching them in my binoculars and hearing their diverse songs.

I parked about a mile up-canyon and immediately heard a Spotted Towhee trill. He was sitting on top of a shrub singing about every 10 seconds. I grabbed a couple of record shots and began working my way closer. I have a habit of spooking birds and always expect a bird to fly off just as I get in position. The Towhee seemed totally into his singing and moved around the bush a few times. I’d stay still and watch the bird, moving closer very slowly. The dance we did ended when I knew I had more than enough images and that the bird needed to be left alone.

This was the closest I’ve been to a Spotted Towhee. While the light could have been better (less bright, more directional) I’m happy with the images. I know that I will be back in the canyon many times in the coming weeks. After all, there are Chat, Lazuli Bunting, Bullock’s Orioles yet to show themselves.

100 Birds – #56 White-crowned Sparrow

When the Junco start to disappear from our backyard, we begin looking for White-crowned Sparrows. I may be partial to them because they are easy to identify. We had a nice collection of them at the feeders this morning. I watch through our office window to avoid things I should be doing. This bird flew to the bath and took many drinks while scanning for threats. I guess the lens didn’t disturb it too much. Simple but sweet moment with a bird making a living, moment by moment. Click, click.

100 Birds – #55 Mute Swan

It was shortly after sunrise as I walked into Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge. I was alone on the trail and with my thoughts. It was cool with no wind. Perfect. I had no idea what would present itself as I moved deeper into the refuge. Honestly, I didn’t care. I was wrapped in the sounds and smells of dawn. Birds called ahead. I moved slowly.

There is a small viewpoint shortly down the trail from the parking area. I’d been fortunate to see harriers and bittern before so I stopped. The view is across an expansive grassland/marsh. There are a few, limited views of the water. I rested the camera on the railing and scanned the area with binoculars. I saw movement at the edge of a pond about 150 yards away. I waited until the mute swan came into view. My rational brain told me ”it’s way too far away”. My emotional mind said, ”what the heck, it’s only pixels”. I rested the camera on the rail and grabbed focus. I followed the swan across the pond, shooting only occasionally. Slow motion. No rush.

The swan began to preen. It was my first time to witness a swan preen. As it swam away it assumed a wonderful posture. The wings we’re upright and arched. It was a nice moment.

100 Birds – #54. American Crow

When is a blackbird not a Blackbird? When it’s a corvid.

Crows and ravens are near the top of the bird intelligence roster. I read an internet post today (so it must be true) that a crow gathered dirty worms and took them to a bird bath, rinsed each and put them on a rock in the bath. Then it ate them. There are many studies about crows and other corvids that document their social behavior, communication and transfer of knowledge to subsequent generations. I won’t even venture into their role in Native American beliefs. These birds are always entertaining.

As a photographer, I am always trying to get close enough to a crow or raven to get a frame-filling photo. They are usually smart enough to carry suspicion of a stranger, so a close approach is usually something I visualize but don’t realize. But every once in a great while, I get lucky.

100 Birds – #53. Brewer’s Blackbird

There’s not much of a story behind this photo. Just a Blackbird on a post.

Well, a bit of a story. About a year ago I needed a photo of a Brewer’s Blackbird for a bird ID poster I was working on. We were in Portland visiting friends and Gerry tells me ” Go to the local Fred Meyer store. They’re all over there.” So, in one of my more weird moments, I chased a few around the lot as people stared. I finally just sat down on a curb and waited for the birds to hop near. I got my photo and managed to drive away before being arrested.

This bird was part of a large flock of Brewer’s at Swanson Lakes near Creston, Washington yesterday. We were a bit surprised to see them “in the wild”. Not a parking lot within miles. Go figure.

100 Birds – #52 Western Meadowlark

Among the birds with loud, great distance-carrying songs or calls, the Western Meadowlark may reign supreme. We are fortunate that the Meadowlark’s song is so pleasant because you can hear it anytime the bird is in your area. It can sound like the bird is very close, like within feet, when it is actually 50+ yards away. I always fall for it. I always enjoy the visual hunt for the bird.

Another redeeming characteristic of the Western Meadowlark, along with its brilliant yellow bib and belly, is that it perches high on sagebrush as it sings its song. At least you stand a chance of seeing a distant bird. They are proud to stand out above the brush. Their song just says that they know they are awesome birds.

This bird entertained me from a distance in excess of 75 yards yesterday. I put the camera’s focus point on the bird hoping that the focus would cover the eye. I squeezed off a few frames and checked the focus. At this distance, I’ve learned that any motion will yield a rotten shot. So I was happy that the images showed a few mostly sharp frames. A great bird, brilliant colors, in good light and a nice background. Very satisfying moment. I hope you agree,

100 Birds – #51 Chukar

Gallinaceous birds are heavy bodied ground feeders. The Chukar, a partridge in the pheasant family, fits right in. Around north-central Washington, Chukars are hunted and, therefore, are very skittish around humans. Rightfully so. These quick birds are found on rocky slopes in our sage steppe foothills. I’ve seen them below Castle Rock and in the Jacobsen Preserve as well as just outside town in Number Two Canyon. Seeing is a lot different than photographing.

I think I have actually slowed down in my approach to making a bird photo. I tend to take more time ensuring that the bird’s eye is in focus. This deliberation is not totally compatible with quick birds that move away as soon as they spot me. My photos of Chukars in the past are awful. The images barely pass as record shots. Photographing a bird in flight or running away at a significant distance is a supreme challenge. Mostly, I’ve been content just to see these birds.

As I drove up the Rock Island Grade yesterday I was once again treated to seeing several Chukars run a short distance to hide in dense sagebrush. A pleasant sight that produced no photos. A short time later I saw another small group moving through sagebrush and away from my truck. They were headed toward a ridge and I expected them to drop out of sight on the far side of the ridge. Two birds stopped and posed. I picked the one that was least obstructed, checked exposure and set the focus. Click, click. Actually, I took about 25 frames before the bird walked out of sight

While I wish the bird was a bit more broadside to the camera to show the prominent barring on its side, I am happy with the image that shows the distinct facial colors and markings as well as the bird in its environment. I can relax a bit in my quest for a decent Chukar photo but I will take any future opportunity to get a better one.

100 Birds – #50 Sagebrush Sparrow

This bird photo is included in this series not because it is a good photo but because it shows another “life bird” added to my list yesterday. Yes, I keep a list of birds that I see for the first time. I thought that I might add two birds yesterday, but my mind kept nagging me that I’d already seen a Brewer’s Sparrow. A quick call to my friend Steve confirmed that we saw one a few years ago. I forgot to put it on the list. Mea culpa.

Yesterday I went to a training session about the Sagebrush Sparrow Survey near Ellensburg, WA. This is a well designed, scientific survey of 3 target species that visit our sagelands: Sagebrush Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow and Sage Thrasher. I’m trying to photograph as many projects that our local Audubon chapter is involved in as possible. This survey is one such effort.

After a brief overview of the project and some GPS training, our group of 23 people ventured out to the sagelands east of Ellensburg to practice song recognition, field observation and note-taking. I blew a great opportunity to photograph a Brewer’s Sparrow at our first stop. Next time I won’t leave the long lens in the car. Duh. I was concentrating on photographing people and habitat, not birds. Regrettable.

We tested our song ID skills as we stood by our cars before venturing out to navigate to the first fixed point observation site. We heard both Sage Thrasher and Sagebrush Sparrow. One person quickly pointed out a nearby Sagebrush Sparrow. Click, click. Again, not a great photo in my opinion. The background leaves a lot to be desired, but the bird is sharp and the photo shows primary field marks – central breast spot, eyeing and eyebrows.

I will be out again and will be ready for opportunities to see these birds. Hopefully, my camera will be as ready.