Saturday, December 31, 2011

Tundra Swan

On rare occasion, I have seen tundra swans pass over while filming at the river.  They feed in shallows by tipping up like dabbling ducks, eating aquatic vegetation.  They will also feed in grain fields like geese.  They are on my future "shot list" for pictures of their graceful landings and take-offs.  They are one of the waterfowl that have to run along the surface to become airborne.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Red-bellied Woodpecker II

Unless you are close, the red belly is not very visible.  This close-up photo shows the red-tinged feathers pretty well.  He is perched on the branch I had strapped to the deck (see yesterday's post) as a perch, but also as a stage for taking photos.  That is my photo tip for the day.  Use branches as staging for more natural photos.  But they have to have a reason for being there - a feeder provides a good motive.  I shot the photo through the kitchen window.  Tip two - clean the window.

Almost all male woodpeckers have red on them somewhere.  Why, I'm not sure.  The female red-belly also has red on the head but it doesn't reach the bill in the front and it isn't quite as vivid.  Notice the long toe nails and substantial beak used to chip bark away while foraging for insects.  The red on a male is one of the prettiest reds I have seen on any bird.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Red-bellied Woodpecker

The red-bellied woodpeckers are my favorite of that family.  They seem to have more personality than other members of the woodpecker family.  They are a shy bird and will scold me almost anytime I go out into the yard in the back where the feeder is located.  They readily come to the feeder where we mix our own blend of seeds which include nuts and fruits specifically to attract them.  They also make good use of the feeder in spring when they will come for seeds to supplement the diet of their new offspring until they are able to fly, at which point they bring the newly fledged young to the feeder.

We had a pine break about six feet up and fall over, leaving a stump.  The red-bellied male appeared to be interested in taking pieces of it, for what purpose I'm not sure.  They are one of several woodpecker species that will cache food for later use.  I had a branch strapped to the back deck to use as a perch in which a carpenter bee had drilled a perfectly round hole in the thicker part of the limb and hollowed out the inside.  I happened to see a red-belly one day spot the hole, inspect it, then go to the feeder and get a seed.  He came back and stuffed the seed in the hole for later retrieval - although I doubt he ever returned for it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Oldsquaw or Long-tailed Duck

The duck once known as an "oldsquaw" has had it's name changed in recent times to "long-tailed duck."  Pretty imaginative, wouldn't you say?  I guess you could always say, "There goes an LT."  Oldsquaw is much more colorful.  I'm not sure what prompted the change.  I'll bet a lot of hunters just continue to call them oldsquaw.  They are easily recognized by their distinctive tail, however.  Like the bufflehead, they are also a diving duck, but unlike the bufflehead, they use both their feet and their wings for propulsion.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Kungfu Ducky

Never mind the panda.  Watch out for kungfu ducky!  Notice how well fed he is.  Can you hear the voice of Jack Black?  Wouldn't he make a great addition to a holiday dinner table? Mallards are the largest of the dabbling ducks.  Dabbling ducks are found in environments where they can reach the bottom by tipping up on end.  So unless they are resting, you won't see them out on deep, open water.  The pair in "The Art of Compromise," my post from a couple days ago, were resting out in open water on the Bay before they took off.  That in itself was a little unusual.  On the other hand, stretching is pretty typical behavior for Mallards.  They like to stretch by lifting their feet straight out behind them - unless they are so fat, they can't quite get their foot straight back.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Shipping Out

The eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay (for those of you not from this area) contains a shipping lane which leads to Baltimore Harbor.  Large cargo vessels continually travel in and out of the Chesapeake piloted by professionals specifically licensed for the Bay.  Like an iceberg, most of a vessel can be out of sight.  Sometimes, there may be as little as three feet of clearance in a channel that is fifty feet deep! The vessel had disappeared by the time it's wake finally reached the western shore.

I took this photo a little after sunrise.  The glint of the sun on the bow attracted my attention.  I like it more than I thought I would with the complimentary colors and different patterned zones.  The birds are mostly buffleheads.  I know that because that was about all that was out there that morning.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Born in a Barn

Everything surrounding the birth of Christ is so antithetical to how man would have told the story.  That the Creator, Who made all we have ever known, would choose to enter the world He created in the form of a helpless child is astounding in itself.  That He would also choose to be born in a barn when even the poor were probably born into less humble conditions is no less amazing.  As astonishing as all this, however, is the truth that he came to chiefly rescue the fallen human race, and if you, dear reader, were the only one, He would have still come for you.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Art of Compromise

Photography is mostly the art of compromise.  Rarely are conditions just right - in outdoor shooting anyway - for an exceptional shot.  So, when you see one, know that the photographer either put in a lot of time, or was exceptionally fortunate.

At first glance, this photo of a pair of mallards I took recently looks pretty good.  But the devil is in the details.  Look at it more closely and you begin to notice the lack of detail and soft focus.  I may be more tolerant of those things because I spent my first thirteen years thinking that was normal - until I finally had an eye test and discovered a world of clarity I never knew existed.

There are three settings that control how much light enters the camera to record an image: aperture (how large the opening is to let the light in) [f/6.7], shutter speed (how long the camera is open) [1/350 sec.] and ISO (which amplifies the signal recorded on the image sensor) [640].  Most shooting in broad daylight can be controlled with the first two, but on early mornings, if you still cannot get enough light, you have to raise the ISO.  The higher the ISO, however, the less detail and sharpness in the image.  And that was the compromise made on this image.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Male Bufflehead

Buffleheads are the smallest of all the ducks.  Like wood ducks, they nest in tree cavities, often in the former nest site of a woodpecker.  From a distance the males appear to have a black head with a large white spot on the back of the head.  In reality, though, the head is not black, but a dark iridescent green which can also change to other colors depending on the light.  Males seem more cautious than females and will rarely come very close to where I am standing, while the females seem less wary.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Male Escort Service

Male buffleheads are fiercely competitive for the attention of females this time of year.  While the female (the lowest bird) may not appear to be in the lead, she is calling the shots.  Wherever she goes, they will follow, until she finally settles on a place to land.  Normally, their flight is very straight and very fast.  When they are following a female, however, their flight becomes very lyrical as they fly in tight formations back and forth, reminiscent of species like sandpipers.  This photo may appear to be black and white, but it is not.  Believe it or not, the head of the male is not actually black.  I'll show you one tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Blowin' in the Wind

I mentioned yesterday how I like to watch and film geese landing, but conditions are not always ideal for getting nice graceful shots, as this image attests to.  Sometimes it is all they can do to keep from flaming out and crashing.

I set the camera one full stop above the normal setting for this photo, otherwise the geese would just be black forms against a bright sky.  At one point, I needed to shoot two full stops above the camera's suggested exposure.  It was only at that point you could see detail in the geese.  Contrast can be very difficult to try to control.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Crazy Canadians

I stopped on the edge of a field the other day where a large flock of geese was resting in a pasture with a farm pond.  I like to watch/film geese landing, paragliding in and dangling their feet to create drag and teetering back and forth if its windy.  Flock after flock kept coming in to join the couple hundred geese that were already in the field.  There was a farm pond there and after a while I realized there were some unusual antics taking place in the water.  The geese were treating it like a big bathtub where they would pile in to take turns bathing.  I don't recall ever seeing geese take a bath, but they were doing some amazing things.  I thought I would post a few of the photos because I'm not sure you would believe me if I just described it.

You can see, they throw up a whole lot more water than other birds, I guess because they are so large.  Note the one in the middle with it's foot straight up in the air!

It must have been infectious because at times, they would all get crazy.

Here is another one going over upside down.

Look at the water this one is throwing off!

Yes, the two on the left are actually diving underwater.  Some would go completely under.

Another upside downer.

If you compare this photo and the last one and look just to the right of the second bird from the left, you will see a disturbance in the water.  In the last photo you can see that it is the wing of a bird just re-emerging from being underwater.

I could post many more, but you get the idea of how enthusiastic they are about bathing.  Who knew?

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Lovebirds, Part III

There are two boat ramps at this spot on the river, both of which are on two different pieces of private property.  I have graciously been given permission to use both.  The two ramps are perhaps an hundred feet apart.  So, back to yesterday's story...

At the point (yesterday) where the great blue heron jumped back into the air, the second bird was about two-thirds of the way across the river, so it was easy to correct it's flight and follow the other bird.  While I expected both birds to disappear down river in swift flight, I was surprised once more as the lead bird dropped down and landed at the other ramp, no more than a stone's throw from where I stood, quickly followed by the other.

They stood there for a brief moment, each one seemingly wondering what just took place, then one turned to the other, looking annoyed, as if to say, "I told you it wasn't safe to land over there!"  What followed seemed to me then to be an argument, but which I now realize was something quite different.  Both birds became very animated, bristling their neck feathers, raising their crest and wings and parrying with their bills like two sword fighters.  Even their beaks became flush with more intense blues and oranges.  They may have been making sounds, but I was too intent on filming the event to notice.  However, thinking back, I don't believe they made any noise.  With each standing it's ground, they weaved their heads and necks back and forth with their bills open.  At times, one's bill would almost be inside the other's. 

Just as suddenly as it started, it broke off and the two just stood there.  Silent.  Looking out over the river.  Then, I didn't see what instigated it, but they started back at each other one more time and this second ritual lasted as long as the first and ended just as abruptly.  After standing there for a time, ignoring each other, one began looking around as if it hoped it might find a stray frog or dragonfly.  Then the pair took off, this time flying far downriver, as I had expected them to do earlier.

Looking at the time code from my camera, the ritual, from the time they had landed until they left, had taken almost exactly eighteen minutes, but felt more like an eternity.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Lovebirds, Part II

The two herons (see yesterday's post) seemed like a couple of nervous Nellies.  The lead bird always seemed indecisive about where it wanted to go (which strikes me as a very feminine trait) and the other seemed like it didn't really want to follow - but neither did it want to lose sight of the other bird (which seems like a typical love-sick male).

When I film birds, as I have said before, I make no attempt to hide my presence.  I stand on the shore or on a dock (I was on the shoreline this day) out in the open.  There are a couple of reasons for this: first, I don't want to be restricted by a blind (although I own one) from filming in any direction I need to and, secondly, I am unconvinced it changes the behavior of the birds I am filming.  I don't hide, but I don't make any loud noises or animated movements either.  I simply stand behind the camera waiting for something interesting to happen.

So, what happened next really surprised me.  Instead of landing across the river, the lead bird turned and flew directly at me.  You have to realize, I am using a 400 mm telephoto lens; not the longest lens, but it still makes something distant look relatively large.  As I was watching the heron through the lens, it kept getting larger and larger.  I began thinking, "This bird has got to see me.  It is not going to land where I am standing."  But it kept coming until I could only see parts of the bird through the lens.

I guess you have to look at it from the bird's perspective.  As it was flying toward me, it didn't see a human bean, it saw something unrecognizable with five legs (three for the tripod) and one big eye (the lens).  That is, if it could make it out to be anything other than an unmoving object near where it wanted to land.  It simply did not recognize me and landed right next to me.  I could have shook it wing.

As soon as it did recognize me, it freaked and got right back up in the air.  I thought it would keep going and leave the area, but I was in for one more surprise.  More about that tomorrow.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Enter the Lovebirds

Continuing with yesterday's post -

I thought when the great blue heron returned to the dock that that was the end of it.  But, almost immediately, two other herons I had seen together all morning, appeared out of nowhere to also inspect the dying fish (which I think was dead by this point since it was no longer splashing around).  They didn't come down directly over the fish as the first heron had, but circled around looking at it from maybe fifty feet above. 

During the summer, after the nesting period is over (this incident occurred in June, so it was well past nesting season), I have found it unusual to see two herons in close proximity that weren't trying to kill each other (and I am speaking strictly from personal experience, which may not align with any study of the heron's life cycle).  So, to see these two constantly following each other that morning was unusual in itself.  There is no difference in the plumage between a male and female, so it was anyone's guess which was the male and which was the female.  I think males are suppose to be slightly smaller.

Once they decided they were not interested in the fish either, they headed for the far shore directly across from where I was filming.  I thought they were going to land there, but the lead bird seemed indecisive and, instead of setting down, they next did something completely unexpected.  More about that tomorrow.

Friday, December 16, 2011


When I saw the dying fish in yesterday's post drifting upriver with the tide, I realized that the great blue heron standing on a dock a couple hundred feet away would, in all likelihood, see it and fly out to investigate it's edibility.  At least that is what I was hoping.  So I double checked my camera settings to make sure everything was ready and thought through what I anticipated would happen.
In filming many subjects, it helps to know enough about it, to anticipate what will happen next.

There are few things in the world of nature more boring than a great blue heron in it's normal flying posture.  Neck folded over in an S, feet dragging straight behind, frown on it's face, flap, flap, flap.  I had long before swore I would never take another picture of one like that.  On the other hand, a great blue heron on a mission can be very animated.  I hesitate to say "graceful," but they will go through a lot of posturing to hover over the water, which is difficult to do for a bird of this size.  That is what I was hoping for when the heron spotted the shad and I was not disappointed.

On espying the fish, the heron flew out over the river without hesitation to inspect the fish.  (An osprey won't eat a dead or dying fish.  A great blue heron won't.  An eagle will eat anything.)  To fly slow enough to stay over the area, it had to do things like drag it's feet, and I was able to capture a number of interesting images.  In this photo, the fish can be seen almost directly below the tip of the heron's bill.

When the great blue heron dismissed the idea of retrieving the fish, it turned and went back to the dock.  I thought that would be the end of it but, as it turned out, we were just getting started. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

To Catch a Fish

How do you capture a fish jumping out of the water?  Well, first, you have to have a good idea where they are going to jump and then, you have to be pretty sure when to press the shutter.  One morning on the river a couple years ago, there was a concentrated area out in front of me of maybe a couple hundred feet square where dozens of fish about 8-10 inches long were jumping out of the water.  This went on for several minutes and I thought it wouldn't be too difficult to capture at least one frame in which I had caught one or two jumping.  Despite the constant jumping, I was completely unsuccessful.  So how did I capture this photo of a jumping shad?  The truth is, the fish was in it's death throws and only appears to be jumping.  But this fish was the beginning of a chain of events that were some of the most interesting moments I have experienced while filming on the river.  I'll relate that over the next few days.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Snowy Egret

Continuing with the idea of capturing something unintended from yesterday's post - here is a photo of a snowy egret hunting in which a small fish was caught jumping out of the water when I pressed the shutter.  This took place in a marsh pond which held a unbelievable amount of fish around the size of the one in the picture.  On most mornings, there would easily be an hundred, sometimes two hundred, snowy's and other species all feeding on fish at the same time.  Pictured is one of at least three different strategies a snowy uses to catch fish.  I watched a snowy on one occasion eat eleven fish about the size of this one until I got bored and turned to something else.  He was eating before I started watching him and continued eating after I stopped, so I'm sure he ate more than eleven.  Suddenly, the feeding frenzy would end and some birds would fly off to unknown places while others stood around and preened and yet more would doze.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

An Unplanned Bonus

Sometimes, unplanned, you get more than you bargained for.  I was focused in on a bufflehead female eating a mollusk of some kind that she had found on her last dive.  I happened to press the shutter just as another female was re-emerging from her dive so that her head was just breaking water.  A third female had just dived in the upper left.  I have occasionally caught a fish jumping out of the water while filming something else. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Buffalo Head

Bufflehead is an adaptation of their scientific name which means buffalo-head.  In this photo, notice how the female has fluffed out the feathers on her neck, which gives the appearance of the head and neck being much larger than it actually is.  While they are not in the family of stiff-tailed ducks like the ruddy duck, I suspect they do use their tails as an aid in diving.  Here, the female has her tail in a position often seen in the ruddy duck.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Going In 2

I find the split second after yesterday's post, when the bufflehead's head parts the water, to be more interesting, mostly due to the pliability of the water and the unique shape it takes with each dive.  It is as though the duck had stuck it's head into a trumpet flower and was sampling the nectar.  Notice also how each feather on the tail has carved the water into separate ridges as the duck pushes down with it's back end, her webbed feet relaxed and ready to go into action once she is below the surface. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Going In

One of the movements I have been trying to capture is the split second when a diving duck's bill is just breaking the water as they go in.  I thought it would be an intriguing shot, but it is very difficult to capture because there is absolutely no tip-off that they are going to dive.

I tried different strategies beginning with simply shooting a burst of images when I thought that a duck might dive.  My camera can shoot six frames in a burst, but then the buffer fills up and the camera will slow to capturing a single frame as another clears the buffer.  If the duck doesn't dive within a second or two of shooting a burst, you can blow through a lot of images very quickly — and still come up empty.  I came up empty, but with a full card.

The next strategy was to wait until the initiation of a dive but, it happens in a split second and my reaction time wasn't fast enough.  I have lots of very nice images of duck rumps disappearing beneath the surface.

Another technique I tried was to, not fire a burst, but just keep taking one frame at a time steadily, hoping I would catch one at the right moment.  That didn't work very well either.

Finally, I noticed that when they would swim in groups of three or four, they would all go down one right after the other with just a split second between each one's dive.  With this knowledge, it was just a matter of keying in on the right duck (usually the last) and shooting a burst.  In this way, hopefully one of the frames would contain the exact moment when the duck's bill broke the surface.  Notice the watery disturbance above and to the left of the bird in this photo.  That is where it's companion had just gone in.

This technique worked better than any of the others.  It turned out, however, after spending a lot of time trying to get this shot, that the split second is singularly unremarkable.  Perhaps if they went into a higher arc as they dove it would look more interesting.  Much more interesting, in my opinion, is the split second after this one.  I'll post that tomorrow.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Layout Boat

Definition: A one person boat in which the hunter lies flat in middle of a decoy spread. Usually used in big water with a tending boat nearby.

"A sense of life's purpose is concentrated in the precious few moments when the unseen sun has blued the firmament and wood-sculptured wooden ducks lure their living kind from the dark skies above.  Tucked in a layout boat, the dog between your knees, trembling with the cold and anticipation, you watch a pair of black ducks move like wraiths over a shadowy landscape.
One hundred yards away, the birds start to settle, then rise and turn, eager for food, but, eager too, for the presence of other birds to indicate 'all's well.'  You cannot call, for the slightest movement will be seen, and you fear to breathe lest your frosty exhalations flare the ducks.

The Complete Book of North American Waterfowling: A Handbook of Techniques and Strategies— George Reiger

These hunters were out in front of me a couple hundred yards the other morning. The fog had cleared considerably by this time.   The tending boat is the closer one.  You can see birds flying in the top photo, but I think they were gulls.  I had never seen this method of hunting before.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Buffy the Blue Crab Slayer

This female duck is so cute, it could be a cartoon character without much alteration to it's looks.  It is smallest among the diving ducks found in North America at little more than a foot long.  They nest in tree cavities similar to wood ducks.  Often, it is in an old nest that a northern flicker has built.  Loss of trees due to logging in the boreal forest of Canada reduces their nesting sites.  There are not many on the Bay yet, but soon there will be large rafts of birds spending the winter on coastal waters.

They dive in five to ten feet of water looking for crustaceans and mollusks and maybe small fish.  I have seen some eating things that were hard to identify, but every once in a while I have seen the easily identified legs of small crabs sticking out of their bills.

I "doctored" the photo to look a little more illustrative.  The white patch on the side of the head is a distinctive recognition feature.  Note the stiff-looking tail which I'm not sure isn't used as a diving aid.  In watching them dive, I wonder if they don't thrust their tail much like a blue whale or a manatee kicks their tail when they submerge.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

When Push Comes to Shove

When you think about it, how easy can it be to swallow something that big and - here's the caveat - using only your mouth?  I guess I would be trying to use anything for leverage to get it into position to swallow too.  The great blue heron used the dock to push it into position.  It took him several attempts, but he finally was able to choke it down.  He probably increased his body weight by 20% in one fell swoop!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Stuck on You

The great blue heron's bill was driven so far into the catfish several times that it had a hard time getting it off (see yesterday's post).  He would shake his head back and forth trying to extract his bill.  I saw this same bird catch a fish one day along the shore and after he caught it, he dropped it on the shore and speared it one time.  Then he turned his back and went back to fishing without eating it.  After a while, he flew off, at which point I went over to see what kind of fish meal he had turned down.  It was an eight inch rockfish!  The following day, I saw him catch and immediately release another fish — and it wasn't an accident.  I didn't know picky eaters extended to the animal kingdom.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Spearheading the Catch

Once the great blue heron returned to the dock, it was time to dispatch his catch.  Much like drawing a bowstring taut, he would pull back his neck, then launch his head forward to spear the catfish. I lost count of how many times he speared the fish, but I know it was upwards of thirty times.  In this image, notice it is only the head that is blurred.  The catfish looked like a piece of Swiss cheese when he was done.  Some people seem to enjoy watching something like this, but I am not among them.  I console myself with the thought that every animal has to eat.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Record Catch

I couldn't believe the size of the catfish the great blue heron was carrying back to the dock.  I saw the same bird catch a catfish the day before that wasn't nearly as big, but as he flew back to the dock, he dropped it — and complained loudly all the way back to the dock.  So things were tense as it was flying back to the dock.  And that was just me!  He managed to make it without dropping it and seemed so proud of his feat.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger

No, he didn't!  Yes, he did!  This great blue heron flew out to the middle of the river, dropped down and picked up this huge catfish and flew back to the dock.  I didn't know they could do that to begin with.  How does something that big not spook a fish swimming near the surface?  He actually had it in his bill sideways, so it was touch and go whether he would drop it before getting back to the dock.  But he made it.  Then, he killed it by spearing it thirty times or more with it's bill.  Sometimes, his bill would get stuck in it and he would have to shake it to loosen the fish.  Finally, using the dock for leverage, he pushed it down his throat until he could swallow it.  Look how proud he is of his catch?

Friday, December 2, 2011


This photo represents one of the few times I went looking for the bird rather than waiting for the bird to come to me.  Nothing was happening and nothing had happened for quite a while.  I became impatient and saw this great blue heron down by the bridge.  I decided to walk down there and try to get a few shots of him.  The road parallels the riverbank in this stretch so it was easy enough to do.

I had gotten to know this bird and he knew me.  He pretty much claimed that area for himself and would defend it aggressively from other herons.  After seeing him in each of the past several years, I didn't see him down there this year and I'm pretty sure he died.  Their life span can be twenty years or more so he may have been quite old.

Anyway, he wasn't scared of me, but he was annoyed that I had taken an interest in him.  I wasn't really even that close, but an animal can sense things.  If he was scared he would have flown in the opposite direction but instead, he flew almost directly at me and up and over the bridge into the marsh on the other side, complaining all the way.  I recorded three nice shots of him before he got away.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Sense of Peace

Have you ever noticed how every TV in a store looks different?  Some are brighter, some more colorful, others washed out.  That same problem is true of computer screens.  What looks good on my computer may not look so good on yours.  So photos are shared with some trepidation.

Hopefully, this image is not so dark on your computer that the cormorant fails to show up very well.  At the time I took this picture, I overlooked it.  It wasn't until quite a bit later I came across it and was attracted to it.  I knew I had taken it on the Patuxent, but I didn't recognize the location.  That really bugged me.  I thought I knew every inch of the entire river in this spot.  It wasn't until I purposely panned the area with my camera that I found where it had been taken.

I am attracted to photographs that could as easily be a painting and I think that is probably why I like this photo so much.  That and it depicts an animal that is at one with it's environment.  It is a very peaceful image and I always stop to study it whenever I come across it. It never fail to leave me with a sense of peace.