100 Birds – #35. California Quail

We had a lot more snow last year. It was cold and with 2 feet of snow every where the quail were regular visitors to our back yard. They typically make 2 trips each day, morning and evening. We were sitting by the front windows when quail left their roost trees across the street. They are fun birds to watch run across an open area and climb the slope in front of our house. Before long they were on our sidewalk and jumping for berries in the nasty barberry plants.

We watched as they scratched at the sidewalk edge and generally clowned around. For us it looked like clowning. We were in a heated house with lots of food available. The quail were in single digit temperatures and trying to make a living. It’s not easy being a bird. You have to get up every day and try to find food without getting poached by a predator.

When it became clear that the group of birds wasn’t in a hurry to move on I grabbed the camera and laid down on the floor. These two California Quail hunkered in next to our sidewalk and begged for a photo. Puff fish quail.

I’m happy with the photo shot through a window. It was our Christmas card image this year. It’s hanging as a metal print in our local Wild Bird Unlimited store (thanks Patrick). Images like this happen. I’m glad I got to save this one.


100 Birds – #34. American Kestrel

It is very rare to have a Kestrel set up shop in our neighborhood. Earlier this winter this one did. I was not going to miss the opportunity.

I saw the bird sitting on top of a neighbor’s tree as I turned onto our street. Figuring I had nothing to lose I grabbed the camera and tripod and set out for the area near a mailbox cluster. The Kestrel was sitting on top of an oak across the street and occasionally flew off to hunt. It kept coming back and I kept clicking.

A neighbor came by to collect his mail after a 2 month trip and I was afraid all the commotion would spook the bird. Nope. I got more than one look from drivers as they went by and I kind of expected to have a cop show up to check me out. I left the area as the bird flew to a distant tree. I would have kept shooting but the house near the bird had the drapes open. Momma didn’t raise no fool.

100 Birds – #33. Common Redpoll

It was an icy trip across the Waterville Plateau from Rock Island to Tichenal Canyon. The Rock Island Grade isn’t easy for many people who suffer from exposure to steep slopes and narrow roads. Starting up the grade I saw a set of tracks that stopped at the edge of a 300 foot drop. That had to be a moment for the occupants of the car. I know that consistency of speed is essential going up an icy grade and I was kind of hoping I wouldn’t see a great bird posing until I got to the top. I got my wish.

At the top I entered fog and drove about 10 miles thanking the plow drivers and snow stakes. I got to see some nice hoar frosted sage and rabbit brush but basically I was driving to get to the top of the descent down the canyon. I was relieved as I made the corner and started down in first gear. I broke out of the fog and was relaxing as I regained paved road. Not the trip I expected but not an uncommon event on the Plateau.

As I headed toward Waterville I saw a house on my right with a big tree nearby. There were a lot of birds in the air and I borrowed the driveway entrance to take a look. Hundreds of American Goldfinch and some House Finch. And something else. I parked more politely so the owner could actually use their drive and left the truck with binoculars to see if I could tell what these mystery birds were.

Even when I got optics on them I was not sure of the ID. The. I remembered my friend, Jenny, telling me to be on the watch for Redpoll. I went back to the truck and grabbed my bird book. Yup, Common Redpoll. Life bird. The camera and I went back out to try to gather proof of observation. Click. I’d totally forgotten about the fog and white knuckles earlier that morning as I headed into town and a cup of coffee.

100 Birds – #32. Hairy Woodpecker

I try to carry the camera with me when we walk. Really, I do. Of all the ways I’ve used to carry the body and lens along – by hand, in a pack, on a strap – none really work well for me. I’m a big fan of Mindshift bags/packs. The Rotation 180 Pro is amazing. The Rotation 180 Panorama is an abbreviated version of the Pro and is my go to bag for hikes. Both are just too big for daily walks along the river. Enter the Mindshift Photocross 10. This sling bag lets me safely carry the Fuji X-T2 and 100-400 lens and provides quick access. It was this bag and camera kit I was carrying when we heard the Hairy Woodpecker shown here.

I swung the bag to the front and off loaded the camera as the bird worked away in a tree next to the path. We stalked and photographed this bird against a variety of backgrounds for about 30 minutes. I was frequently inside my minimum focal distance. Such a problem.

The bird is now a member of our local Audubon bird ID poster. It will be used to help teach bird ID to school kids in our area. A nice reward for the camera and me.

100 Birds -#31. Dark-eyed Junco

I’ve been shoveling snow for 2 days and was pleased to grab the camera and hang out on the back porch for a few minutes today. Our feeders are supporting quite a few juncos this winter. They survive the onslaught of House Sparrows and move aside when the Steller’s Jays arrive. But when the coast is clear the Juncos arrive and feed voraciously.

This bird hopped up on a perch I placed by the fence, jigged around a bit, preened briefly then looked at me with a modified side-eye. Sassy. I swear it winked at me. Really, it did.

100 Birds – #30. The common Mallard

People tend to gloss over the mallard because it is very common duck.  They show up almost everywhere and are resident all year in our town.  We were more interested in the Trumpeter Swans and juvenile swans than the wigeon or geese today until the light on a nearby Mallard made us pause. Take a minute and appreciate the beauty of this bird.  Iridescence is a magical thing and this male Mallard has it going for him. I always appreciate a photo like this that allows me to study the feather detail and facial features. And then there’s those little curly feathers on the tail. I hope the next time you see a common duck you’ll pause and appreciate it.


100 Birds – #29. Rock Island Grade – Waterville Plateau 16 December 2017

It was clearly a crap shoot. The sky in Wenatchee was overcast and it felt like it could snow at any time. I gathered several layers of coats, boots and other winter apparel. I also grabbed the pack with the camera gear, tripods and some audio gear. I’ve learned that if I don’t take it then I will wish I had. If I was hiking things would be different. Today I was alone in the truck and had ample room and time. Why not?

The clouds and ground fog accumulated as I headed up the Rock Island Grade. My real goal was many miles northeast – snowy owl country. You never know what might show up though. I saw a small flock of sparrow-sized birds fly to my left and land in roadside sage and grass. I pulled over and put my binoculars on the very first Gray-crowned Rosy-finch I’ve ever seen. A life bird is always a fun moment. The light was dim but the birds cooperated and I got a few shots.

I moved on and saw a flock of several hundred birds flying in the distance. At first I thought they were Horned Lark but the flight behavior was all wrong. Even with binoculars I couldn’t confidently ID them but figured they had to be more Gray-crowned Rosy-finch. I know the folly of trying to photograph birds at about 200 yards but also know that pixels can be easily deleted.

I climbed out of the fog a few miles down the road. Hoar frosted sage and rabbit brush lit up as the sun came through holes in the high clouds. I parked and walked out into the mixed sage steppe. I just never get tired of being out in such conditions. Some photographers I respect walk, ski, climb for days to find beauty and great light. I’m not against that but I also like knowing that the truck is nearby, a thermos of coffee awaits and that the roads are safely driveable. I stopped many times as the light teased me on the distant Enchantment Range or lit the valley fog below me. A few other vehicles came by but I was mostly alone with the Plateau.

December has been mostly snow free but that will change. Maybe the change will encourage the Snowy Owls to visit.

On the plateau

34 degrees and mostly calm winds. One truck drives by me about 30 minutes ago. The light is pretty flat as I get back in my truck and head north toward Tichenal Canyon and down to Waterville. I’m scanning fences and posts for birds.  Getting closer to the area I think of as “raptor alley” just above the canyon. My view drops down a bit and I slow as a bit of rabbitbrush and sage form a foundation for the Mission Mountains in the distance. Stopping, I sit and watch the scene for a moment. No birds visible or calling. I’d seen 15 chukar just moments earlier and hoped that more would scamper across the flat in front of me and down into the canyon rock. I view the scene through my widest lens and decide I should go exploring.  I stop at road’s edge and level the viewfinder. Click. Click. This is the Waterville Plateau or, perhaps, the Rock Island Plateau since I’m about half way between the two towns. Doesn’t matter to me.  It’s the plateau that has become a favored place to visit and enjoy for a few hours. Quiet time. Plateau time. It’s all good.


On joy


Some time ago a visiting friend caught me by surprise while we sat comfortably, talked, laughed and waited for the night to mature enough to go to bed. It was a nice evening with friends and pleasant conversation. Then, out of the blue, he asked me “What gives you joy, Bruce?” I am sure he expected, or at least wanted, a deeper and more thoughty answer than what I gave him. Initially I thought I could respond with my usual sarcasm and escape having to go beyond the surface of my thoughts at the time.  I almost said “World Peace would give me joy”. Or perhaps “an extended time when loved ones don’t suffer from disease or pass away to leave another void in my life.” Both of these are true statements but they really don’t give any insight to my particular being and emotional state. So I punted.  I pointed to a framed photo of Northern Pintail ducks in flight  above him and said “That picture”. Now, I know I could have opened a deep conversation that Freud and others would have enjoyed.  I’m sure my response disappointed my friend so he politely asked me “why”? I’ll try to explain.

The photo above is NOT the print which we used to frame our ensuing discussion.  The image above shows an explosion of Snow Geese at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and certainly qualifies as one that “gives me joy”. I remember the scene like yesterday even though the image was taken in 2007.  My friend David was with me as we toured this remarkable refuge after a morning of photography involving a sunrise, tens of thousands of Snow Geese and several thousand Sandhill Cranes. Emotionally I was on a high.  Warm weather allowed us to shed our jackets and gloves after a prolonged morning of frosty fingers and numb toes. I was with a good friend who enjoyed the spectacle of the birds and appreciates the art of photography as much as I do.  We weren’t rushed and simply drove around looking for something of interest.

Snow geese at the Bosque tend to follow farmers’ plows as they disk the fields.  Fresh forage turns up and the birds know where they can find what they need. They flock in large numbers and work the field alongside the farmer.  We saw a large concentration of geese at the edge of my lens’ reach and stopped.  We stood by the car and watched and waited. We enjoyed the contented calls of the geese and an occasional crane in the distance. Red-winged blackbirds, dominantly female, swarmed the sky, swooped and dove in a brief aerial display before landing again. A soft breeze moved the air.  It was 10:43 in the morning and the light was already hard – bright and contrasty. We readied our cameras by setting exposure and focus, double checked shutter speed and just waited for some action. While I was not thinking so at the time, I was experiencing a deep joy of the moment. The setting, the friendship, the warmth… all worked together to reward my being.  They gave me joy.

When it happens, it happens rather quickly. The birds rise as a group that smears itself across the sky.  The noise level goes WAY up as the contented feeding calls transition to flight calls and, perhaps, alert or danger calls.  The sky fills with a pandemonium of white and black birds all trying their best to avoid one another and still get into the safety of a crowd in flight. We looked but saw no bald eagle and were left to wonder why the geese had lifted off. The same question goes through my head at sunrise as I watch thousands of geese swimming contentedly on a lake only to erupt like a gunshot without any apparent provocation. Why do they do that? Answerless, I’m left to just feel my joy and lifted spirits as the birds perform a naturally dramatic act. For a short time, the frantic swarm of birds fills my mind and, hopefully, my camera’s frame. For the birds it is what they do.  For me, it is as good an expression of my understanding of “spiritual” experience” as any other I can express. Another close friend, Steve, accompanied me on my first trip to the Bosque. As we left the area that morning we were both quietly absorbing the morning’s experience.  We had seen massive numbers of birds exploding in front of a sunrise sky. We froze our fingers and toes and still felt warm. As we drove away my friend looked at me and said “that was spiritual”. I couldn’t agree more. It gave me joy.

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.