Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Lucky Shot: Chimney Swift

Chimney swift.

These images may not look like much via the Blogger interface, but I'm fairly happy about them. I shot this gliding chimney swift as he swooped past our birding tower on our second Big Day, May 10.

Normally swifts zip past our tower at high speeds and zig-zag off into the blue, leaving me with a dozen images of nothing but sky. If you've ever tried to photograph a chimney swift, you know what I'm talking about.

But this chimney swift and his two traveling companions made to slow circles of our birding tower, probably checking it and our chimney out as possible nest sites. After their first slow circumnavigation, I realized what was going on and grabbed the camera. This was the only shot I got that had a sizable bird in the frame.

Here it is cropped slightly.
For the first time in my bird photo life, I was as swift as a swift.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Lucky Shot: Black-throated Green

While following colorful, feathered sprites around Magee Marsh last weekend, I managed to score a few lucky shots. This one I especially like. It's a male black-throated green warbler and it looks like he's singing. But if you look closely, you can see he's actually noshing on a small insect.

So there I was, having taking this warbler's picture, and I started thinking about mortality. The thought crossed my mind, as I strolled farther along the Magee boardwalk with insectivorous birds all around me, that if I were to be reincarnated as an insect or caterpillar, I REALLY hope it's not in May on the south shore of Lake Erie. That would be a very short life indeed.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Reality of Warbler Photography

Cameras purchased by bird watchers who want to become bird photographers should come with a warning sticker that says:

Bird photography is not as easy as it looks.
In fact, it's not even close to being easy!

You need to be prepared to be extremely disappointed
in the images you'll be getting despite spending all this money.

Don't say we didn't warn you.
And no, there's nothing wrong with your camera.

That sort of fair warning/truth in advertising would go a long way to helping me feel better about the plethora of warbler images I take that look like this:

Or the ones that look like this:

Or this. Great photo of vegetation, perfectly in focus, hiding a blurry bird.

And then, before you figure things out, the bird bolts. Sweet!

But if the birding gods are smiling, the bird does a 180 and stops to check you out for just five seconds more, and you get this (below), an image which is JUST GOOD ENOUGH to keep you coming back, camera in hand, chasing after colorful fleeting things with wings.

Cropping and tweaking results in an image that is good enough for the old blog, but probably won't pass muster for the cover of National Geographic. Still, what a handsome devil this male magnolia warbler is!

Happy shutter-bugging to every bird watcher who is similarly afflicted.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Finally, a Decent Bird Photo!

It had to happen sooner or later—the happy convergence of a fabulously lovely bird, the rich light from the sun on a clear morning, and my camera with a working battery and plenty of flash card space.

Thank you, Mr. Bay-breasted Warbler, for stopping by our weeping willow tree on the only sunny morning we've had for two weeks.

I did back-to-back Big Days this past weekend. More on that tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the day after that.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Tracking the Timberdoodle

Can't find the woodcock in this photo? It's not there. This was a test shot.

It's the time of year when the male American woodcocks perform their sky-dance courtship displays on our southeast Ohio ridge top. Some nights when it's cold or rainy or both, I wonder how they muster the energy. Lately we've had two or three displaying males each night on various clearings on our farm.

The woodcock is a shorebird that lives in wet woods. One of the folk names of the American woodcock is timberdoodle. 'Timber' is clearly a reference to the species' preferred woodland habitat. And 'doodle?' Perhaps that's a reference to the bird's method of foraging by walking slowly, probing the soil for earthworms. Or maybe it refers to the woodcock's slow, wing-twittering flight? Or maybe it just sounds good to put 'doodle' on the end of 'timber?'


The star performer of our displaying males is a bird who uses the upper portion of our middle meadow path. He starts his display by calling from deep in the woods below the house, down along the spring trail. Peent! Peent! And as soon as he feels the ambient lighting of dusk has reached the preferred number of foot-candles, he flies slowly up out of the woods, taking the stage at a favorite spot in the meadow path.

I'd been watching this dude's show for a few nights when I decided to try to take his photograph. It would be no use trying to sit in the weeds along the path and wait for him. He'd see me and seek a safer stage elsewhere. I'd tried that a few year ago, wanting to get some video of the performance. It was a miserable failure. The woodcocks, with their huge eyes perfectly adapted for seeing well at night, could see me clear as a bell. I could not see them at all, which is a problem when you're trying to videotape something.

But now I had a new stealth-increasing weapon. My Doghouse photo blind, which would (I hoped) permit me to be close to the birds without seeming like a threat to them. I set my blind up in the afternoon, near by the male timberdoodle's favorite peenting spot. That evening, when I heard the male start his warm-ups in the woods, I hurried out to the blind and took up my position.

Now, I know next to nothing about the techniques of good nature photography. I know how to turn my camera on and what peephole to look through—but that's about it. I fiddle with Manual and A/V settings but it's mostly just guesswork. The Auto-Everything setting is my default. Clearly what I need to do it to take a nature photography course.

Anyway, I took a few test photos, prefocusing on the woodcock's favorite spot. I felt ready.

Soon I heard the wing whistle of a flying woodcock and the male settled down on the path. But he was 25 feet farther up the path, not at his favorite spot. The presence of the blind probably made him a bit wary. Craning my body to the left out the blind's shooting hole, I struggled to find the woodcock in my viewfinder. This was manual focus territory and I could not see ANYTHING in the viewfinder. In desperation I pushed the shutter button. Here's what I got:

The ghost of woodcock present.

Then the male took off. He returned, peented, and flew a few more times in the normal course of his evening show, each time taking off before I could managed to take a single frame. I was having a really hard time finding the bird and focusing.

Now the male woodcock was landing and calling from a spot much closer. You'd THINK I'd be able to find the bird and get a decent photo, but the daylight was mostly gone now. It was as if the woodcock knew this and thus felt safer in coming closer to the noisy, cursing human in the dark camo structure tucked off to the side of the path. Finally the camera clicked and I got a few more ridiculously bad images.

If Monet painted an American woodcock, it might look like this.

If I were photographing sasquatch or an ivory-billed woodpecker, the photo would look like this.

And then, for a single frame, it all came together. I have no idea how or why. It must have been the photo gods reaching down to tap me on the head (and tweak my camera settings). He is the result: the only photo I took that night that is worth keeping.

Sweet mystery of life, at last I've found you! American woodcock male, between peents.

I'm leaving the photo blind up so the woodcock can get used to it. And I am not touching a single button, dial, or switch on my camera until I get another session with the timberdoodle. Who knows? Next time I might even get two keeper images!

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bee-eaters of Subic Bay

On the afternoon of March 3rd we spent a few hours bird watching around Hill 394 in the Subic Bay Freeport area. Subic Bay served as the location of a U.S. Naval base from the early 1900s until 1992, at which point the land was turned back over to Filipino control. Because of its years as a military base, there are large areas of undeveloped habitat at Subic Bay, and it's become a well-known destination for local and visiting bird watchers.

In the warm, late-afternoon sun, we enjoyed a nice list of birds, but the highlight for me were the encountered with blur-throated bee-eaters. Bee-eaters are specialists in catching flying insects, as their name suggests. In taxonomic terms, bee-eaters fall between the kingfishers and the hornbills and hoopoes. They are colorful birds with long central tail streamers and finely pointed, decurved bills. And they are often seen perched in the open on a wire or fence, waiting for a hapless insect to pass by.

On our final birding stop at Subic we found a nesting colony of blue-throated bee-eaters along the roadway in a residential neighborhood. They excavate their nests in earthen banks and other locations with dry, sandy soil. There were at least 25 bee-eaters buzzing around. I could have stayed there all afternoon taking pictures. Sadly, our schedule would not permit it, so we all snapped a few images (and I took a short video) and we were off to the hotel and dinner.

Such cool birds! Wish we had them in North America!


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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Birding Update from the Philippines

Blue-throated bee-eaters near Subic Bay.

It's been good bird watching here in the Philippines, but the bird photography has been quite tough. This image of a pair of blue-throated bee-eaters is one of the few "worth-keeping" images I got while we were birding around Subic Bay outside Manila.

The light conditions range from super bright to near dusk depending on whether you're inside or outside of the forest and inside the forest, many of the birds stick to the canopy, making lovely bird-shaped silhouettes in the viewfinder.

In the subsequent days I've had a bit more luck—some digiscoping, some with the big camera rig. But the landscapes and seascapes and people here are undeniably photogenic. My new 18–55mm lens is capturing some delightful images of the Philippines.
Sunset near Puerto Princessa, Palawan, Philippines.

It's a huge help that we have some brilliant professional photographers along on this trip, including David Tipling, one of the world's best bird photographers, and Alex Robinson, a travel writer/photographer. I have been picking their brains a bit about photography techniques and field craft.

I've also been lucky to have some of the world's leading field birders for Asia on this trip. Next to them I feel like a beginning bird watcher, looking in the wrong end of the binoculars. These guys know many of the bird calls, can spot the birds deep in the dark forest, and can get a piker like me ONTO the birds. Among the experts I'm following around, and the tour companies they work for: Mark Andrews (WildWings and ), Steve Rooke (Sunbird), Duncan Macdonald of Wildsounds, Chris Harbard of Birdwatch Magazine, and Tim Appleton, one of the creators of BirdFair in the UK. I'm the only Yank on a trip full of Brit birders. It's a struggle also keeping up with the witty repartee.

We've had minimal access to the Internet—mostly due to our ambitious schedule of early starts and long days afield. Thus the infrequent posts here.

Must run again now—we're heading out to try again for hooded pitta in the forest above Puerto Princessa on the island of Palawan. And it just started to rain...

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Friday, February 20, 2009

I Missed a Bird (and I Liked It!)

What IS this bird? Hint: It's NOT a northern harrier.

Earlier this week I flew down to Fort Myers, Florida to give a couple of presentations at events associated with Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. In addition to the fine Florida weather, and some early glimpses at birds we would not see in Ohio for two months, I had one particualr species on my hit list: short-tailed hawk.

I have never seen a short-tailed hawk in North America. In fact, it's one of just a couple of raptor species not yet marked on my life list. Some of the others are: gyrfalcon, California condor, the two "sea" eagles that sometimes make it to Alaska, and Eurasian hobby. Some day I will go after a gyrfalcon. And the Cali condor will be mine the next time I visit the Grand Canyon. The others I don't have any particular urge to see. But the short-tailed hawk intrigued me. So I gathered some intel on this species near Fort Myers and made my plans.

My parents had been sent by a birding friend, Phil, to a place called Harns (sometimes spelled Harnes) Marsh northeast of Fort Myers, in Lehigh Acres, Florida. They scored a short-tailed hawk there in a matter of an hour or so. My hopes were up for similar good fortune.

But fate had other ideas.

I arrived at Harns Marsh after a longish drive in heavy afternoon traffic. It's an out-of-the-way place tucked on the edge of a suburban neighborhood. Several houses on the road in to the marsh still bear the damage from recent hurricanes. I found the marsh itself and got out of my rental car. First bird: Turkey vulture. Second bird: Osprey. Third bird: Black vulture. Fourth bird: SNAIL KITE!!!

I love snail kites and this place was full of them. I kept scanning the skies and scoping the trees looking for my target bird, but my eyes kept falling back to the kites. A lot of beautiful, dark-gray adult males were hunting for apple snails in the marsh shallows. Working my way around the marsh edge to get the sun at my back, I was treated to wonderful looks. Such graceful birds!

For the next three hours I watched the birds of Harns Marsh. Sandhill cranes garroo'd, wood storks glided past, a peregrine, then a kestrel flew over. Ducks and blackbirds and limpkins and fish crows all made themselves known. It was a peaceful afternoon. So peaceful, in fact, that I was not disappointed about never seeing anything resembling a short-tailed hawk.

Oh well. I'll be back.

Here are some imags of the kites that I was able to capture.

Snail kite taking off. Note the bright orange-red feet!

An adult male snail kite.

Portrait shot of an adult male snail kite. See the elongated bill with the bodacious hooked tip? This is their escargot utensil.

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Monday, February 09, 2009

White Ibis Sunset

On my final trip around the Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island NWR near Titusville, Florida, I was standing along the road with a few friends at sunset when a passing bald eagle scared every bird nearby into the air. Nearest us was a flock of white ibis. These birds burst into the air from an impoundment to our east, flapping frantically past us, headed west into the sunset. I tracked them with my camera and took about 25 photos of the flock as it wheeled left and right.

Then the birds were gone, disappearing over the trees on the western horizon.

Here are the highlight images of those few moments when the ibises were in the air.

The white ibis flock as it took off—the low light turned the fast-moving birds into blurry figures.

Turning to head northwest, the white birds took on the pink of the sunset.

Just enough light to discern some detail.

Well above the bright western horizon, but a hint of the sun's color comes through the ibises' primaries.

Turning back from north to west.

To my eye these scimitar shapes look more like skimmers or bulbats than ibises.

Dropping lower on the horizon now, against a tangerine sky.

The requisite palm tree helps us know this is Florida..

The flock changes its collective mind and wheels northward again.

Every child has drawn the M-shaped birds in pictures created with lots of sky space. Now I know why.

My camera loved the palms as much as my eyes did. Birds are still passing.

The final frame. Lead birds are setting their wings to land.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Photographing Tree Swallows in Flight

Have you ever tried to do something that you knew was next to impossible and yet you could not stop yourself from trying anyway?

On my recent sojourn to east-central Florida's Space Coast region, I noticed large flocks of tree swallows foraging on the wing in several different birding spots. I was both bird watching and taking bird photographs, two activities which, in order to be done well, should be mutually exclusive. You can't enjoy birding if you keep dropping the binocs to grab your camera. And if you're trying to take the best possible photographs, you'll only get frustrated by all the shots you miss when you drop the camera for the binocs. This is one of the immutable laws of the universe.

As I was driving around Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island NWR on fine day, I found that the sun had climbed to its highpoint and the bird activity was beginning to slow. The daylight was getting a bit harsh for photographing water birds, so I moseyed along to a point where a tree swallow flock was slicing the air into a million pieces. The birds seemed to be taking advantage of some large hatch of tiny insects.

I stood and watched for a few minutes, mesmerized by the swooping of swallow wings (wasn't that a Joni Mitchell album?) and noticed that some of the birds were following a somewhat repetitive flight pattern. Oh it was camera time, baby! This would be my chance to totally nail a great shot of a flying tree swallow!

To dream the impossible dream.....

Over the next half hour I took approximately 650 shots. Most of these contained only grass or sky, digital frames completely innocent of the slightest hint of swallow. Some contained a tiny sip of swallow—a tail tip or wing edge.

A very few captured entire birds and were close enough to being in focus that you could even tell what kind of bird it was. These I will share with you here and now.

Photographing birds in flight is a thrilling challenge. Large birds are easier, obviously (see yesterday's post). Small, supremely gifted and speedy fliers like tree swallows are almost impossible to photograph well, unless you are patient, lucky, and in the right place at the right time with the right camera settings and light conditions. And you are not holding your binoculars. And your camera's lens cap is not still on.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Osprey Fly-by

Merritt Island NWR near Titusville, Florida is a world-famous birding hotspot. But it's perhaps even more popular among bird and nature photographers for the opportunity to burn up film—or electrons—on glamorous creatures such as wood storks, bald eagles, roseate spoonbills, American alligators, plus large numbers of herons, egrets, shorebirds, and waterfowl.

Early and late in the day, Black Point Wildlife Drive is busy with vehicles full of folks seeking that perfect nature image. The cars, trucks, and vans drive along very slowly, with all manner of optical and photographic gear poking out of the open windows.

I was standing next to my rental car on Merritt's Black Point Drive one fine morning in late January, when a male osprey came up off a nearby impoundment. He was not carrying a fish. He was carrying nesting material. It was a part of a palm frond, soaked and heavy from the water. The osprey labored low across the water, then along the shore next to me, passing so close that I could hear the air in his wings. At his nearest point, he was too close for me to get a photo with my 300mm lens.

We eyed each other and I gave him the thumbs up for his obvious industriousness. It made me wonder if ospreys pairs understand the concept of the "honey-do list"?

Here's the series of images that I did manage to get.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Florida Louisiana Heron

When I was a kid, this bird was called the Louisiana heron. And dinosaurs walked the Earth.
Now it's the tricolored heron. And the dinosaurs, except for me (and a few of my friends), are gone.
I am in Florida for a spell, digging the bird scene, working the room, pressing the flesh, watching out for mouse ears, driving 35 mph in the fast lane 'cause that's how they roll here in the Sunshine State.

I hope you are warm and toasty wherever YOU are.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

More 2008 Eye Candy

Clouds of feeding Wilson's phalaropes at Antelope Island State Park in Utah.

Here, in no particular order, are images for another installment of Eye Candy of 2008. I think I've even got one more set in the archives here, but it's a bit hard to sort out since I lost a laptop hard drive about a month ago, and a lot of images went with it. Many were backed up, and I certainly got some back in the recovery process.

Anyway, I am still looking back over the year just passed, and remembering some wonderful bird encounters as I ogle these images. I hope you like them too.

Tussling bald eagles over the Platte River in Nebraska in March. Immatures can be SO immature.

Fox sparrow at Indigo Hill in late spring.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker at Indigo Hill in October.

Trio of dickcissels on South Padre Island, Texas in March.

Marbled godwit near Pipestem Creek in North Dakota in June.

Male yellow-rumped warbler on Hog Island in Maine in June.

Molty American robin, Hog Island, Maine, June.

Male Cassin's finch, Snowbird, Utah, June.

Courting western grebes, Bear River NWR, Utah, June.

California gull, Antelope Island State Park, Utah, June.

Male mountain bluebird, Hidden Peak near Snowbird in Utah, June.

Male eastern bluebird, Indigo Hill, Ohio, March.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Return of the Death Rocket

The sharp-shinned hawk has been visiting our feeders once every other day or so for the past few weeks. We watched him sit on our brushpile for about 20 minutes, waiting for the feeder birds to
return to the trees around the feeder. He watched them very intently. Not a single bird flew past or landed within his field of view that he did not stare holes in, wanting to chase, catch, kill, eat.

I want to do a longer post about his sit-and-wait hunting technique. But I am out of time for today. More soon, I promise.

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Monday, January 05, 2009

Chilly Titmouse

We've had single-digit temperatures on several recent days here in southeastern Ohio. On one such frigid morning, I took this photograph of a fluffed-up tufted titmouse, visiting the suet dough tray on the front porch.

It was so cold... (How cold WAS it?)
It was so cold, that you could actually see the bird's cleavage.

I could go on, but won't, in the fast-fading spirit of the season.

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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

End of Year Eye Candy

Here are a few of my favorite bird pix from the first half of 2008.

Wishing you and yours a happy, healthy, prosperous, peaceful new year.

Diademed tanager from Brazil—maybe my fave bird I got to photograph during 2008.

Chukar in Utah—my only North American lifer in 2008.

Atlantic puffin, Hog Island, Maine in June.

Male blue dacnis, Brazil in July.

Male Baltimore oriole, South Padre Island, Texas in April.

Male Cape May warbler, South Padre Island, Texas, April.

Sky full of snow geese, Kearney, Nebraska in March.

Montezuma oropendula, Guatemala, March.

Tricolored heron, Guatemala, March.

Ocellated turkey, Tikal, Guatemala, March.

Collared aracari, Tikal, Guatemala, March.

Blue-naped chlorophonia, Brazil, July

Frilled coquette, Brazil, July.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fiery-throated Hummingbird

The male fiery-throated hummingbird on his favorite perch.

I've focused the last few BOTB posts on the first days of my recent Panama trip. During those initial field trips in Panama (a new entry on my Countries I've Birded In list) the best bird we saw (for me anyway) was the fiery-throated hummingbird. There was a very cooperative male fiery-throated coming to the feeders at the upper cabin owned by Los Quetzales Lodge and Spa in Volcán Barú National Park near Guadalupe in the province of Chiriqui. This was one of the stops on our birding tour of Panama, courtesy of Panama La Verde Birding Circuits.

There were dozens and dozens of other hummers there at the Los Quetzales cabins—and perhaps 10 or more different hummingbird species. But it was the fiery-throated hummingbird male that captured the attention of the avid photographers on this field trip. The challenge of course was getting a good photograph. In the low light conditions of the cloud forest, under not only a thick canopy of trees, but also under a sheltering roof, there were two choices: use a flash unit or open your camera way up and hope that a tripod offered enough stability to compensate for the slow shutter speeds. I opted for the latter strategy, sans flash.

Now I know just enough about the finer details of digital camera settings to fill a thimble halfway. And I try not to think about all the great photographic opportunities I've blown by being such a digital photo doofus. (Note to self: Ask Santa for a photography workshop for Christmas).

Lucky for me this male hummingbird had a penchant for a certain perch when he wasn't visiting the feeders, so I (and my more talented fellow camera-wielders) got ample opportunity to take pictures, check the results (LOVE that about the digital era!), change settings, and shoot some more. As I mentioned before, both Jeffrey A. Gordon and Mike Freiberg gave me some sage advice. Later on, at the David airport, I paid them back by buying them rounds of a Panamanian beer that made Budweiser seem like fine French wine, but I digress...

Everything on the male fiery-throated hummingbird seems to be iridescent.

We took turns stepping into the best spots for photographing the fiery-throated. Then we'd edge closer. Every few minutes the male would fly up to the feeders and we'd head back under the porch roof to await his return. Eventually, just before we had to leave, I got close enough to get some decent, frame-filling images of his fieriness.

In low light, when he faced to the side, the fiery-throated hummer looked like just another small, straight-billed, dark hummingbird.

In low light, facing to the side, only two gorget feathers of the male fiery-throated offer any hint of the colorful plumage.

But when any part of his head, breast, or gorget faced directly at you, a blast of color went right to your eyes.

When he turned slightly toward me, the colors began to appear.

After taking a bunch of images I decided I needed to see the bird better with my eyes, so I got the keys to the Land Rover and ran back down the muddy trail to fetch my spotting scope. Back at the cabin, scope set on the male on his favorite perch, I blissed out (despite my panting from the run down the hill and back) just watching the little guy sit, preen, snooze, and chatter at passing rivals.
Every so often I got lucky and captured a blast of iridescence.

This is one individual bird I am going to remember for a long, long, time.

Fiery-throated seems like an appropriate name for this little dude.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

More Panama Cloud Forest Birding

There's a reason they call this the cloud forest.

On the morning of Day 2 in Panama we headed back up the mountain to the distant, off-the-grid cabins operated by Los Quetzales lodge. These cabins are inside the Volcan Baru National Park and are reached via a very rugged and rocky road, winding upward, crossing several streams. Our group loaded into two Range Rovers for the drive to the cabins. I am not sure I've ever been on a less vehicle-friendly road, and yet the Range Rovers got us there—over seemingly impassable rocks and through (literally) rushing streams.

Every stream on the mountain was rushing from the heavy rains.

These cabins are rustic but cozy and are on the Panama itineraries of several birding tour companies. Our very own trip companion Jeffrey A. Gordon had helped to lead groups here several times in the years he was working for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. Jeff gave us an idea of what to expect.

One of the two cloud forest cabins operated by Los Quetzales in Volcan Baru NP.

The weather continued in its own rainy and cool way—on this day we would not get any sunshine, but the rain, at least, was intermittent. And despite the precipitation we got birds.

After arriving at a pull-off, we hiked up a narrow trail, across a couple more small streams to the cabins. There, our guides Ito and Abel opened up the doors, started a fire in the fireplace and spread out a mid-morning snack for us and some mixed seed for the birds. Within minutes we had slaty finch, large-footed finch, and yellow-thighed finch coming in for the seed. There was a pair of common bush tanagers in the —yes—bushes. And the hummingbirds started visiting the newly refilled feeders.
Large-footed finch.

Aside from a short hike up a nearby road, we'd spend the next several hours watching the hummingbird action at the feeders hung under the porch roofs of the two cabins. Both the birds and the birders were happiest under the sheltering roofs as the rain became heavier. Had the light been better, the photographers among us might have passed out from sheer image exhaustion. The birds were just feet (sometimes inches!) away when at the feeders, and most had favorite perches to which they returned repeatedly. Jeff Gordon, Mike Freiberg, Kees van Berkel, and I took turns at the best photo spots. I also bombarded my fellow shutterbugs with questions about camera settings and adjustments. [I know almost nothing about such things and realize that a photo workshop needs to be in my future.]

The lighting was a challenge for photography.

A couple of times, the rain let up and we'd organize a short walk down the trail. Someone would yell that they had a good bird, and we'd all hurry to get there in time. Among the other cool birds we found at the Los Quetzales cabins were prong-billed barbet (freaky!), and a warbler-meets-wren-meets-thrush-like bird called a zeledonia (sometimes also called wrenthrush).

The group scans the canopy for a long-tailed silky-flycatcher.

Birding was good right near the cabins.

We also had other birds, many of which I could rattle off here, but, frankly, I mostly remember the hummingbirds.
Male white-throated mountain-gem.

All the hummers we saw at the cabins were fabulous, but one was more fabulouser than the others: the fiery-throated hummingbird. I got lots of photographs of white-throated mountain gem, and a few of green-crowned brilliant, stripe-tailed hummingbird, and violet-crowned woodnymph. But my attentions were primarily focused on the fiery-throated and, thanks to good photo advice from Jeff and Mike, I actually got a few keeper images of this bird which is the very definition of iridescence. I will share those images with you in tomorrow's post.

I'll close out today's post with a few of my favorite non-fiery-throated shots.

Green-crowned brilliant, one of the many hummingbirds visiting the feeders at the cabins.

A closer look at the green-crowned brilliant's head.

Female white-throated mountain-gem—I like her reflected colors in the rainwater.

I took hundreds of bad shots of this male white-throated mountain-gem. Better flash gear needed.

He flew right at me (really at the feeder near me) looking slightly satanic.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Sky Full of Goose

Saturday, March 8, Kearney, Nebraska. Care to guess at how many species are in this photo?

I've seen some skies full of birds in my lifetime of birding, but I'm not sure I've EVER seen a sky quite as full as this one.

East of Kearney, Nebraska, near the famed Platte River migratory corridor for waterfowl and sandhill cranes, we came upon a gravel quarry absolutely filled with geese. The birds were resting on the water and on the islands between the quarry ponds, literally covering the surface. The noise of all those birds calling was the very definition of ear-splitting.

We had no idea how to estimate the number of birds present, but it seemed like several hundred thousand—and perhaps more than half a million.

Mixed goose flock containing Canadas, cackling, snow, Ross', and greater white-fronted geese.

We went back the next day and the flocks had almost entirely moved on to some other place. Ephemeral spectacle.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008


This morning dawned sunny and cool—almost springlike if you just looked and listened out the window. One step outside, however and the chill in the air was easily felt. The weather forecast was for winter to reassert itself this afternoon, so I decided to get a little outside time in before the arrival of the next weather front.

We've been having some fox sparrows around the yard. They always show up in earliest spring, hanging around for a few days on their way back north. Earlier this week, Julie counted seven fox sparrows at one point—nearly enough to make a fox sparrow fur coat—not that we'd actually DO that. But isn't that a good term of venery for this species? A fur of fox sparrows?

I spent the morning in the Doghouse. By that I mean the Doghouse photo blind I use to get close-up images of our flighty feeder birds. These visiting fox sparrows are a shy lot, so the blind worked its perfect magic. I am surprised each time at how quickly the birds seem to accept the blind's presence and return to their normal business.

Here are some of the images I captured this morning of our foxy-brown migrants.

At first the fox sparrows stuck to the brushy edges of the yard, unwilling to be the first visitors to the newly scattered corn.

Three birds kept to the shadows beneath the spruce on the north border. Their spot-breasted plumage must help them blend in under dappled light conditions on the woodland floor.

One of the fox sparrows finally came out into the light long enough to be photographed.

Classic fox sparrow pose: eating while scratching with its feet for more cracked corn.

I'm glad I got out to take some pix while the light and weather were in my favor. It's now snowing and sleeting and the wind is picking up—classic Easter weather for SE Ohio. Our kids wouldn't know HOW to look for their Eastern baskets if it were warm and sunny. They'd be completely lost without mud boots and down coats and mittens on Easter morning. They'd squint at the bright yellow light, flail their pasty-white arms, and run around in circles squealing confused squeals.

Happy holiday weekend everybody!

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Tropical Bird Parts

We're up to our caruncles in sandhill cranes and snow geese in Nebraska in addition to giving talks and playing music, so it's been hard to keep up with my BOTB responsibilities. Here's something to chew on--it's a headless shot of a bird from Tikal. Do you know what it is?

I have LOTS of shots of bird parts to share and a few that are actually not so bad. Looking forward to having some time to get back into my blogflow. Now if the glacier of snow that's buried Ohio would melt just enough to permit safe travel, I'll be a campy happer.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ruddy Turnstone Convention

Ruddy turnstones along the causeway beach.

Ruddy turnstone in winter plumage.

There's a place along the causeway from Titusville, Florida to Merritt Island NWR, just after the drawbridge, on the left, as you head toward the refuge, where there's a seaweed-covered bit of bay beach you can drive along. There are always large resting flocks of gulls and shorebirds there. And a few wading birds, too. The thing is, the birds are really close. You can drive right up to them and sit there taking photos or scanning with your binocs while they feed and snooze and loaf.

This place always has several budding bird photographers there with their cameras and long lenses, working the flocks. Even when the light is poor you can get really great bird photos because the birds are so dang close.

As I drove up to the spot on Thursday morning last week, I noticed two winter-plumage ruddy turnstones in the grassy strip between the sandy shore and the sandy parking lot where the cars (including mine) were parked or inching along at 2 mph. I stopped the car and tried to focus on the turnstones. But they came closer and closer until I could no longer focus on them. Then they went under the car! I moved the driver's-side rear-view mirror and saw that the turnstones were feeding in the wet tire tracks I'd made in the sand. It must have disturbed the sand enough to expose some food items. The turnstones fed in the tire tracks for a minute or so then ambled back across the grassy strip and down to the water line. Clearly these two turnstones were tuned in to this unusual foraging opportunity.

I drove 50 feet farther down the beach and another turnstone came out and circled around my tires, poking and picking in my car's tracks.

Smart birds—or at least very opportunistic.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

My Year in Bird Photos

Northern harrier, near Pingree, North Dakota, June.

I've got a love/hate relationship with those year-in-review, best-of lists. Normally I LOVE them because I miss a lot of good stuff in the course of the year (new music, movies, books, etc) and it's nice to see what other people pick as their favorites or what is chosen as the year's best whatever.

I tried to make my own 'best of' list this weekend: My Best Birds of 2007. That crazy train quickly ran off the rails. What, after all, constitutes "best"? Life birds? I got two in 2007: Florida scrub-jay in January in The Sunshine State, and American three-toed woodpecker in November in New Mexico. Those two birds pushed me into the mid-to-high 600s on the old life list (I really need to update that). But I also got loads of lifers in my three trips outside the U.S. this year. How do you fairly compare the relative merits of an Andean cock-of-the-rock with a LeConte's sparrow? I decided to limit this initial list to the continental U.S.

Were the best birds the rarest ones I saw? Or the most challenging to find? Or the most cooperative? Most beautiful?

Because I was blogging about this list, it would be useful to include on the list birds I had photographed. That's IT! My Best Bird Photos of 2007!

Still, the hair pulling was not over. I have images stored in several places on at least two different computers. I lost a lot of good images from North Dakota in an iPhoto crash. And how do I choose the bird photos? Sharpest? Largest in the frame? Rarest? Most cooperative? Aaaarrrrrgggghhhhh!

I woke up at 4:45 this morning determined to get this post finished. It's now 10 am and I'm still looking through images. STOP THE MADNESS!

Folks, I done did my best. I'm leaving a lot out, but I'm also saving you from seeing every single shot I took (somewhere in the neighborhood of 7,000 images).

I hope you like the images I chose. Please feel free to send along your comments.

Happy Holidays to you and yours!

Female anhinga landing in a snag. January, near Titusville, Florida.

Limpkin, Viera Wetlands, near Titusville, FL., January,

Florida scrub-jay. Merritt Island NWR, Florida, January.

Digiscoped. Hybrid drake blue-winged x cinnamon teal. Viera Wetlands, near Titusville,FL. January.

Willet, Merritt Island, NWR, FL. January.

Turkey vulture, Merritt Island, NWR, FL. January.

Eastern bluebird male, Whipple, OH, February.

Ringed kingfisher, Anzualduas County Park, near McAllen, TX. March.

Tern comparison: Forster's tern (left) and common tern (right) Muskingum River, Marietta, OH, May.

White-eyed vireo, Whipple, OH. May.

Prairie warbler, singing male, Whipple, OH. May.

Blue-winged warbler, singing male, Whipple, OH. May.

Wood duck pair, Mohican State Park, OH. May.

Alder flycatcher, Allegany State Park, Salamanca, NY. June

Chestnut-sided warbler, male. Allegany State Park, Salamanca, NY. June

Displaying upland sandpiper, near Pingree, ND. June

Wilson's snipe, near Carrington, ND. June

Sora, near Pingree, ND. June

Black tern in flight, near Carrington, ND. June

LeConte's sparrow, Arrowwood NWR, ND. June

Barn swallow on antler. Carrington, ND. June

Chestnut-collared longspur, singing male, near Lake Juanita, ND. June

Eastern kingbird, near Carrington, ND. June

Wilson's storm-petrel, near Eastern Egg Rock, MA. June

Northern parula, male, Hog Island, ME. June

Atlantic puffin, Eastern Egg Rock, ME. June

Common eider, male, Hog Island, ME. June.

Yellow-throated warbler, male, Whipple, OH. July

Sedge wren, Whipple, OH. June.

Orchard oriole, male, Whipple, OH. July.

Ruby-throated hummingbird, male, Whipple, OH. August.

Ruby-throated hummingbird, female, Whipple, OH. August.

Cape May warbler, fall plumage, Whipple, OH. September.

American dipper, Taos Ski Valley, NM. November.

Black-billed magpie, Arroyo Seco, NM. November.

Snow geese at Fly-out, Bosque del Apache NWR, San Antonio, NM. November.

"Blue" Ross' goose, Bosque del Apache NWR, San Antonio, NM. November.

Ross' goose (left) and snow goose, Bosque del Apache NWR, San Antonio, NM. November.

Greater roadrunner, north of Socorro, NM. November.

Lewis' woodpecker, Arroyo Seco, NM. November.

Sharp-shinned hawk, Whipple, OH. December.

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

White Geese Galore

Why do thousands of bird photographers go to Bosque del Apache every November? Well the light is amazing. The vistas are wide open. And there are hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes, snow geese, Ross's geese, and just about every kind of duck you can find in your field guide.

Furthermore, the birds are somewhat acclimated to humans along the refuge's causeways and the birds tend to have routines that they follow. This allows nature photographers, with their lenses as long as a Cooper Mini, to get in position to take some really, really, really nice bird pictures.

For bird photography pikers like me, Bosque is a paradise, too. I can take some shots of a cooperative bird, change my settings wildly, take some more pix, change again, check them out on the camera's screen, take some more. You get the scoop.

We had an afternoon off late in our week at Bosque and just when the light was perfect, we turned a corner on the Marsh Route and found a newly flooded field chock full of resting, foraging snow and Ross's geese. So we joined the skirmish line of bird photographers already in place, snapping away.

Soon the geese took off in a sudden fright. Then they returned. They kept coming and going for the next hour and I thanked the gods that I was not shooting film because I took more than 500 frames.

Here are some of the more acceptable results.
The flooded field with resting geese. Mostly snows with a few blue geese and a good number of Ross's mixed in.

Spooking into flight.

A great chance to compare Ross's goose (L) with snow goose (R).

Coming back around to land in the flooded field again. This looks to me like the shots of the imprinted birds in Winged Migration.

Coming in for a landing. White birds with black primaries! How beautiful.

Splashing down.

Each bird created its own wave as it splashed to a landing.

And then they were up again. A coyote scared them into flight. Cottonwoods providing the backdrop.

As the flock passes overhead, you do NOT want to look up with your mouth open.

Droplets of water still clinging to the belly.

A beautiful blue morph snow goose.

Same species, different color morph.

While leading a trip on the first full day of the Festival of the Cranes, our groups spent some time scanning a flock of snow geese. I wanted to point our some Ross's geese to our vanful of birders.

While scanning with my spotting scope, I noticed a blue morph bird that looked quite small by comparison...

It was a blue morph Ross's goose--a very rare bird. I'd seen this morph before here at Bosque, but not for a while. Everybody was really excited to see this bird. We radioed the other van and got them over to see it.

A closer look at the rare creature. Check out the tiny head. Note, too, the head of the snow goose in the foremost foreground, showing the black grin line on the bill. Most of the other white birds in profile in this shot are normal Ross's geese (sans black grin lines on their much smaller pink bills).

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Running into a Roadrunner

On the way down I-25 southbound to Socorro from Albuquerque, there are some large impoundments off to the east that give a visiting birder his/her first taste of what's to come farther south, at Bosque del Apache NWR. At these impoundments, there are usually several dozen sandhill cranes there as well as a nice mix of waterfowl--northern shovelers, northern pintails, gadwall, mallards, and a few coots. Harriers course low over the cornfields. Chihuahuan raven and American crows are black spots on the always blue sky.

We usually pull over and glass the ponds from the highway which is neither safe nor satisfying. But this year, with a little extra time on our hands, we decided to head off the highway to try to get closer to the action. Once of I-25, we immediately missed the hard left turn onto the frontage road, so we continued east to see what we could see. While turning around in a dusty patch of gravel we saw a roadrunner, largest of our North American cuckoos, moving through the brush.

I LOVE roadrunners. They seem to be part bird, part dinosaur, and part snake. Like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland roadrunners always seem to have somewhere else they've gotta be, right now. They rarely linger for a bird watchers to get a binocular full of them.

Roadrunners can also be fairly shy. But unlike most other roadrunners I've ever encountered, this one came toward us.

We grabbed our cameras and here's what happened.

Running out of the brush. Not sure it sees us yet.

The roadrunner stops to survey the scene. It clearly sees the humans in the funny hats with large, shiny tubes making clicking noises. And oohing and ahhing.

It decides it's OK and starts to walk methodically past the front of our car.

Stopping again to ensure we blow maximum megapixels on its back-lit beauty.

Time to scoot. And no, it did not go BEEPBEEP!

And then it was gone. Off to snag, smash, and gobble some poor, too-slow lizard.

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Bird Images of a Weekend

Our Bird Spa has a very powerful bubbler that pumps water up through a hole in a fake rock. Birds cannot resist it.

I spent some time in the photo blind this weekend watching the birds coming to the water feature and got a few usable images. By 1 pm on a hot summer day, there are always birds at our water feature. But bathing birds, being wet and less able to fly, are putting themselves in a risky spot, so they are wary and skittish. There's no sneaking up on them. But the photo blind seems to conceal just enough to make it possible to take images of bathing birds.

I did not get anything stellar. A few images of goldfinches, a few young, naive cardinals. I'm still learning how to use this camera and lens.

A female goldfinch comes in for a drink.

Then slips into the water for a dip.

And starts splashing water over its plumage.

It must feel good to get totally soaked on a hot day.

This young cardinal was attracted to the water but never did bathe.

One image that I did NOT get from the blind was this shot of a young male Baltimore oriole. He was attracted to the water feature while I was inside the house replenishing my liquids.
This young male Baltimore oriole hung over the bath for 10 minutes but never went any closer.

Ain't that how it always works? You leave the photo blind because the sun has come out and it's 437 degrees F in there, you are dizzy and careen wildly toward the shade and air conditioning of the house, and THAT'S when the oriole shows up. Quick like a bunny I grabbed the camera at my side (it had actually melded itself onto my polyester disco shirt) and snapped off a few frames through the studio window.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

In the Doghouse

One recent morning I spent a few blissful hours in the Doghouse.

I don't mean the doghouse--like I did something wrong--I'm there often enough.
No, I mean the Doghouse photo blind that I got for Christmas last year.

Before the summer sun got the temps high enough to bake a pie, I set the blind up near the garden on the north side of the house. This garden is in full bloom these days, thanks to the green thumbs of Farmer McZickefoose. While I was futzing around with the blind, three different ruby-throated hummingbirds came by to slurp some nectar. That was a good sign.

I set up the blind in a strategic place and waited. Here are a few of the images I got.

Female ruby-throated hummingbird up to her lores in a salvia flower.

Male ruby-throated hummingbird at rest. Note how 'molty' he looks.

He keeps one eye on the hole in the blind as he probes the blossoms.

The Mad Hummingbird.

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Glimpsed Lately Around the Yard

A territorial chipping sparrow, scolding me away from nest or fledglings.

I was hoping that I'd get some decent sunlight for bird photography this weekend but it was not to be. What we did get was almost three inches of much-needed rain and the associated clouds, thunder, and lightning. After the cleansing renewal of the downpours, that familiar summer-in-SE-Ohio humidity settled in. Oofta!

So I have nothing very new to share here. These images were all taken in the past 10 days. Then, the sun shone, bathing the farm in lemony light and making my photography work much easier.

A head-on view of Gene Simmons, the familiar hummer, perched in the Japanese maple that serves as first base for whiffleball.

This male indigo bunting teases me by letting me get just close enough to take a really bad photo.

Cedar waxwings are in the yard eating the wild cherries.

This Adelie penguin was WAY off course. It's hanging around, though, so I tossed it some frozen shrimp tonight.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

More NoDak Kodak Moments

Feeling the need to share some more images from the Potholes & Prairie Birding Festival. This time I'll include some birds, too.

If it's OK with you, I'll let the images do most of the talking. ---BOTB.

Both western (above) and eastern kingbirds are present in nearly equal numbers in summer in east-central North Dakota.

Eastern kingbird.

Marsh wren male singing about the great nest he just built in a slough near Pipestem Creek.

This pair of barn swallows nested about the kitchen window in our house at The McCreary Place. These antlers were their fave perch.

The barnies were pretty used to humans.

This male house sparrow built a nest inside this cliff swallow mud gourd. Pretty opportunistic of him, huh?

This might be my favorite shot of all 1,300 I took in North Dakota. It was pure luck to catch this northern harrier wheeling over a fenceline.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

North Dakota Images: Landscapes

I went to North Dakota to watch birds, to show other people birds, and was hoping for a bit of extra time--a few hours--to take some bird photographs.

Once I got there, to the prairie pothole region surrounding Carrington, ND, I remembered, as I do on every annual visit, that the landscape in North Dakota is every bit as captivating as the birds.

Here are some of the images that captured me during my stay in the Land of the Bison.

Prairie potholes dot the landscape, left here by glaciers millions of years ago.

Around these potholes, nature is abundant, even amid signs of humanity's impact on the land.

Some of the less rocky areas have felt the cut and turn of the plow. Once broken, the soil is never the same again.

Where native prairie still exists, many landowners prefer to raise bison (instead of cattle) to maintain a more natural balance.

Old farmhouses and barns dot the landscape, lonely reminders of broken dreams from long ago.

Skeletal remains of windmills are here and there. They made the water flow until the wind achieved a final victory.

Sunset over a slough with a million insects in the air

Along this 'road to nowhere' we found birds in great numbers.

On the bison tour to Oren & Connie's ranch, we experienced prairie life as it was for eons, up until about 100 years ago.

Rocky soil and stony outcrops have denied the plow its path, leaving behind untouched native prairie.

Far from flat, the coteau region of North Dakota undulates like the waves on the giant inland sea that once lay here.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Meet Our Prairie Warbler

Our spring–summer resident prairie warbler got in early on Tuesday morning, after spending the winter in the Sunny Tropical Southland. He shouted out his glorious song, rising up the chromatic scale, from halfway out the meadow--the same place he held a territory last summer.

Zick and I sallied forth with our cameras hoping for a bit of luck. The words of our friend and master digiscoper Clay Taylor echoing in our heads: "Prairie warblers are the hardest songbird to photograph! I've NEVER gotten a good shot of one!"

The prairie warbler as we first saw him.

The western edge of our meadow is covered in the kind of brushy, scrubby stuff prairies love. It's got multiflora rose and sumac, saplings of several tree species, Japanese honeysuckle, and grape vines. And the middle-aged woods rise up behind this messy edge, tall tulip poplars, aspens, oaks, and maples, creating the perfect blend of buggy paradise, thick cover, and exceptional nesting and singing spots for songbirds.

A few minutes after tracking our singing male prairie, we found him about 25 feet high in a sumac/honeysuckle tangle. He sang as he foraged, seeming to ignore our movement closer to him as easily as he ignored our pishing.

Then, as if possessed by a magic spell, he came closer, then closer still. All the while he sang and foraged. And we went into full photo-monger mode. Our cameras clicked and beeped as we choked back our giggles at our good fortune.

Crouching prairie, hidden cloacal protuberance.

It lasted just a few minutes, then he was gone. But he'd given us a memorable show. We shared views of our images, high-fived a few times. Then I headed back to the house to work on a book project and Zick headed out to the orchard to continue to try her shutterbug luck.

Here are a few of my best shots from the morning. Check out Julie's blog for her excellent pix.

Spring is here, at long last.

Perhaps a bit curious about the clicking and beeping of our cameras.

Singing for all he's worth from an apple branch.

Prairie warbler badonkadonk. Dig the red neck! He fits right in here on the farm!

Is THIS his best side?

Or is THIS his best side? Or is it the badonkadonk?

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