Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ring-billed Gull

I always thought this ring-billed gull looked a little sharper than the average gull.  Maybe its the posture. It is another example of trying to capture a non-generic stance.  I think it is a first year gull, but I certainly could be mistaken. Personally, I like it when the wings are slightly blurred since it implies motion.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Cyclops

This photo was a happy accident.  I was trying out a new accessory I had gotten for my flash unit called a "Better Beamer."  The attachment allows the flash to be "thrown" much further than with the flash unit alone, lighting up an object a flash alone could not reach.  It uses a Fresnel lens, the same type used in lighthouses.  I decided to see how it worked on gulls since they are so plentiful on the boardwalk at the local beach.  Because of the attachments design, some care has to be taken to ensure that the flash lights up the middle of the subject.  You may be able to tell that I didn't quite have it aligned properly and the wing on right received the majority of the flash.

In conjunction with the Better Beamer, I had set the camera to "second curtain" flash.  What this means is when the shutter is open longer than the flash duration, the flash will go off at the very end of the image capture.  It is essentially like taking two images at the same time: one for the ambient light and one for the flash, which will freeze that aspect of the image.

I had the shutter speed set a little too slow to produce a motionless photo in this image, so I ended up with a non-reproducible image.  Where little movement was taking place (the wings), the image is fairly sharp.  Where a lot of movement was occurring - the tail and head, there is motion blur.  That had the result of producing a one-eyed gull.

Because the flash was not directly on the bird, the eye doesn't appear as it does in most Better Beamer images which is a dead, white-eyed look that I quickly determined I did not like.  For that reason, I don't use it very often.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Condo Row

It can get crazy filming gulls.  They come in from every direction - swooping, landing, turning, gliding, and all of them fussing with each other.  Sometimes, the hardest thing is just picking out one and focusing on it, there can be so many from which to choose.  This one had made a long turn and was coming back along the shoreline.  Usually, I prefer to shoot them out over water or with just sky in the background, both of which are undistracting.  Since I had already put in the effort to track the gull, I decided to go ahead and take the shot despite the background, and I'm glad I did.  It evokes a better sense of place than a non-descript sky would and the slightly off-kilter background and bird give it a certain dynamism.  I was also using my piece-of-junk telephoto which gives things kind of a glow (like the two pilings in the lower center), which I don't mind in this photo.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


A seagull is a seagull is a seagull.  There are entire books devoted to the identification of gulls, which gives you some idea of how hard it can be to identify them.  In the same gull species, you can have what's called first winter, (sometimes) second winter, breeding adult plumage, non-breeding adult plumage and the potential in some species for hybrid crosses.  Then, you may also be looking at a molting bird, half-way between two different phases.  Yeesh!  Kind of makes you want to simply say, "Hey, look, a seagull."

The challenge in filming your generic bird - at least for me - is to catch them in a posture that is not standard. The more I looked at the image I have posted today, the more I liked it, despite it being a little soft around the eye.  Focus seems to be sharpest on the feet and the depth of field was too shallow to include a sharp eye.  But, I like the angle of the bird.  I don't know why, but it reminds me of a photo of some prehistoric bird.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Northern Flicker

There is a woodpecker that you are more likely to see on the ground than in a tree.  It is the northern
flicker, an ant-loving woodpecker.  They are one of the larger of the woodpeckers, roughly as large as a blue jay.  Flickers are very distinctively marked and would be difficult to confuse with any other bird.  I'm not sure why, but we often see them around our yard in late winter.  On the day I took these pictures, there were fifteen or twenty of them on the front lawn probing the ground for food and apparently having success since they hung around for quite a while.  Woodpeckers have tongues similar to hummingbirds which can be extended up to five inches in some species such as the flicker.

This is a male.  The female doesn't have the red marking on the nape of the neck or a gray cap on it's
head.  I haven't been able to see it very often, but the underside of it's wings is a beautiful golden
yellow.  Because of that, they are also known as the yellow-shafted race.  There is another race in the western U.S. called the red-shafted race for the red that replaces the yellow of the eastern race. 

Here is a photo of one I caught in flight last winter where you can get some idea of the yellow on the wings.  The white rump on the tail is also distinctive to this woodpecker.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Red-bellied Woodpecker

This is one of my favorite images of a red-bellied woodpecker.  I had set up a branch directly across from the kitchen window to film birds landing on it before going to the feeder.  Red-bellies are pretty shy birds, however, and he didn't even like me standing at the window watching when he came around.  So, he would always peek to see if I was in the window before going to the feeder.  Notice how setting up the branch against a distant background creates a pleasing blur and directs attention directly to the subject.  I'm not saying it is always possible, but that is the photographic goal.  It is also important to try to get a catchlight in the eye of the subject which makes them look more alive.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

To Drink

Have you ever wondered what birds will do for a drink of water in the dead of winter when everything has been frozen up for days?  I have wondered that myself.  As far as bodies of water go, a gurgling creek might stay open in a deep freeze - at least in some spots.  I witnessed a solution to the problem that never occurred to me one winter when everything had been frozen for days. 

Even when the air temperature stays below freezing, the sun's rays can be strong enough to allow sap on the sunny side of a tree to rise.  If the tree also has some type of injury to it's bark, the sap will weep out and run down the outside of the tree.  You probably have seen trees like this.

On this particular day, I watched bird after bird take turns going to a tulip poplar that was oozing sap to slake their thirst.  The photos are admittedly not very good, but they do clearly depict how the birds solved their problem.

Red-bellied woodpecker

White-breasted nuthatch

Tufted titmouse

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Mourning Dove

My wife and I always have a pair of doves that claim our yard as their territory.  They are, perhaps, the most gentle birds I know.  Doves form bonds that can last through several mating seasons.  They have been known to have as many as four or five broods in a season, which is why they number in the hundreds of millions across the continent.  Tens of millions are taken through hunting each year.  The addition of some corn in the feeder attracts them.  Most other birds will not eat it, but drop it under the feeder where the doves can get to it.

In the winter of 1986-87, when we lived in another county, I was probably putting out a little too much corn.  After a while, it became a contest to see how many could be attracted.  The dove numbers kept building each day until in January, I counted 53 in the mulberry tree where the feeder hung.  Ha!

I like the limited color palette of this photo, also taken when the pine tree fell on the deck.  Without that information, you might think the photo was taken in a remote wood.  That is the value of staging.  I took the photo through the kitchen window, staying warm on a very cold day.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Nest Building II

Gray squirrels don't spend one continuous stretch of time building their nest.  They add a little to it each day.  It may have to do with where the nests are located.  Usually, they are 25-30 feet straight up.  Bringing in nest building materials would be something like a man having to carry all the materials from the road a quarter mile to the construction site by hand.  Even though they are adept at climbing, all those trips up and down the trees has to take its toll of energy.

They start by selecting suitable dry leaves.

Taking a mouthful, they will head for the nest. 

Most of the time, they will stop a branch or two below the nest.  This may be to rest and catch their breath or it may be to watch to make sure no predators are around.  Either way, they almost never go directly to the nest.

When the nest is this far along, the leaves are taken inside where they take some time weaving them into place.  Sticks are also used in the nest's construction.  If a nest was just a pile of leaves, it would quickly be blown away, but they have to be able to withstand both wind and, occasionally, snow pack.

I am not certain whether both the male and female participate in building the nest. I tried to determine that the other day but, since they look alike, I was having trouble keeping them separated.  They do both sleep in the nest overnight.  I have often watched them both climb to the nest and enter just at dusk.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Squirrel Nest

Gray squirrels breed twice in a year.  Locally, they have their first litter in February.  Nest building begins after most leaves have fallen.  Some squirrels will nest in tree hollows, but most seem to prefer to build a drey, or leaf nest, in the forks of trees.  Nests are not haphazardly built anywhere, but appear to be constructed at carefully chosen sites.

In the active nest shown here, the squirrel has chosen a heavy limb, giving it a strong floor.  If you look closely, you can see that there are also small branches that the nest has either been built around or perhaps have even been incorporated into the structure.   These branches help the nest remain securely in place in the high winds common at this time of year. 

The trunk of the tree is to the left of the image and it appears that the nest's entrance is on that side but, in fact, it is to the right of the nest.  If a predator were able to make it's way to the nest, it would still have to negotiate to the outer end of the branch to enter the nest.  If you look closely, you can also see some of the cambium used as nesting material from branches on the left hand side of the nest.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

What it Is?

When we first moved to our present home, which is surrounded by woods, I began to notice white branches which seemed to appear in the dead of winter every year.  For several years, I could not figure what caused it.  They appeared to be completely stripped of their bark - and they were.  I finally discovered the cause one winter when I observed a squirrel out over the deck strip a long piece of bark off a branch of a sweet gum.  It started at the far end and stripped it all the way back to the trunk in one long piece, then took quite a bit of time to ball it all up and make sure there were no hanging pieces that might trip it up as it jumped through the trees.  Once it was secured, the squirrel climbed up to it's nest in a nearby tree.

Note how this branch has been stripped of bark.

After watching this same thing over time, I began to realize that squirrels don't pick just any branch, but evaluate them based on how many smaller branches are attached.  (Notice how the branch above has no secondary branches.)  The fewer the branches, the easier it is to strip them back.  And these are the ones they appear to choose.  It raised my estimation of their abilities.

You would think bark would not make very soft nesting material, but an abandoned nest blew down out of a tree onto the lawn a couple of years ago and I had a chance to examine it.  I'm not sure what happens to the outer layer, the woody part of the bark, but they appear to use only the cambium, or inner tissue which is much softer and makes an ideal bedding for new babies.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A New Respect

Have you ever seen a squirrel burying a nut in the lawn and thought, Fat chance he'll ever find that again? Yeah, I use to think that too.  Until one winter snowstorm when a squirrel taught me an amazing lesson.  The snow had piled up at least several inches deep when I decided to throw a couple of handfuls of peanuts in the shell out on the deck.  There were no squirrels around when I did it and the snow continued to come down, finally ending in a snowfall of close to two feet.

I passed by the French door out to the back deck at some point the following afternoon when something caught my attention.  I stopped and looked and all I could see was the tip of a squirrel's tail sticking out a tunnel that it had dug down to where the peanuts were.  The only conclusion I could come to was that the squirrel had smelled the peanuts through almost two feet of snow.  So, what is an inch or so of turf over a nut when you can smell that good?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The "Ahhh" Moment

I strap tree branches to the deck posts.  Is that crazy, or what?  Crazy like a fox.  They make great staging for photos of wildlife.  If you try it, make sure whatever is in the background is far enough away that it appears as a simple blur, leaving only the animal in focus.  It will help draw the viewer's eye right to the main subject. 

Another tip: almost any animal is attracted to peanut butter, that being especially true of squirrels.  To draw them in to photograph them, I smeared small dabs of peanut butter on the back side of the branch so it would not seen in the pictures.  To avoid the frustration of a long wait, you may want to do this for a few days beforehand.  It takes a few days for them to catch on and start looking for it.  At that point, they are ready to be photographed. This squirrel was enjoying the fragrance of a dab of peanut butter before devouring it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Eye for an Eye

We have a lot of squirrels around our home.  And when I say "a lot," I'm talking around a dozen almost all the time.  Although there weren't as many around last spring when our yard was part of the fox's regular milk run.

A pine fell over in the back yard a few years ago.  It wasn't even the wind; it just fell over.  One evening late, there was a loud boom and I went out to see what caused the noise and discovered it.  I hadn't realized it was so thoroughly dead.  It fell right across our deck.  Amazingly, some of the limbs drove into the ground and stopped the trunk from taking out the top rail by only about two inches.  The insurance company (I didn't make a claim) would have called it an act of God, and I would have agreed.  It was so perfectly laid out over the deck with absolutely no damage.

Call me crazy, but I left it there for several months.  Ask my wife.  She'll tell you.  I finally cleared it out after several months, but not because my wife was pressuring me to do it.  I just was afraid the neighbors would start to think I really was crazy.

While it was there, though, it created a great stage for all kinds of birds and, of course, squirrels.  The tree made a great background for natural looking pictures.  One of my favorites is this rather abstract photo of the eye of a gray squirrel.  I was able to shoot through the kitchen window over the sink without the animals being aware that I was there.  I was using the piece of junk lens I have mentioned before, but I don't even mind that in this particular case.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Common Grackle

Every winter, we have large mixed flocks of black birds pass through the area.  You've probably seen them too.  I have never heard a good explanation of why they flock up in such great numbers when it would seem like food is in shorter supply at that time of the year.  The competition to eat must be far greater than if they were out foraging in smaller groups. So there must be some other advantage to this behavior. I'm not even sure they migrate out of the area. Grackles commonly make up a good portion of these flocks.

Grackles have a beautiful iridescence that isn't readily visible until seen close up and in good light.  There isn't too much difference between male and female, although males are little more colorful.  They aren't a common visitor to the feeder (thankfully - because they can clean one out pretty quickly), but snow was covering the ground, which made this food source more attractive.  I kept shooing them off at first, but then decided to film them when they would land.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Eastern Towhee

At one time, this beautiful bird was called a Rufous-sided Towhee.  It is a rather secretive species related to sparrows.  I had never seen one until we moved to the area nearly twenty years ago, but  we have at least one pair around our home almost every year.  Their two-note call is distinctive and easily imitated.  I have been able to occasionally call one in when I've heard it in the distance by imitating them. This is a male.  The female is patterned exactly the same but, where the male is black, the female is a warm brown.  If you look carefully, you will see that his eye is actually red.  They use a method of foraging called a hop-scratch where they jump on leaves with both feet at the same time, and then jump back, pulling the leaves with them to reveal insects and worms and the like underneath.  They will visit our feeder once in a while, but prefer to eat seeds that have fallen to the ground rather than get on the feeder itself.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Black-capped Chickadee

Chickadees are small, seemingly joyful birds that are easily attracted to feeders.  Their sweet nature is very similar to the tufted titmouse and they tackle seeds in much the same way, placing them between their feet and breaking them open.

Although it sounds counter-intuitive, pictures of these birds taken on a cloudy day when the contrast between their dark and light areas isn't as great will usually come out better than those taken on a sunny day.  Another good time to film them is when there is snow on the ground as was true in this picture.  The reason for this is that the snow lightens up the shadows.  Snow can act as a huge lightbox, softening the shadows and creating much more visually engaging photos.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Tufted Titmouse

Titmice are highly sociable little birds.  We tend to ascribe human characteristics to our feathered friends.  Titmice are both polite and generally unselfish.  They don't chase other birds away from the feeder like some do and they are perfectly content to take turns retrieving one little seed from the feeder, flying to a nearby branch and eating it there, instead of just sitting on the feeder, keeping others from taking a turn.

Their tufted crown makes them look very conical from the front.  Their sturdy little bill is conical also.  They will place the seed between their feet and hold it there with a pigeon-toed grip while they peck the shell open to get to the seed.  They are more attracted to open woodlands so you may not see them if you have a lot of lawn around you house.

Friday, January 13, 2012

White-breasted Nuthatch

You might think that it is only large birds that interest me, but that isn't true.  Small birds are actually harder to film.  You have to employ much different strategies to successfully capture their images - especially close-up photos like this white-breasted nuthatch. 

My wife and I have a bird feeder on a railing of the deck in back which attracts a great variety of birds throughout the year.  Since it is there year-round, they are very comfortable visiting the feeder.  Many will gather on the branches above the feeder awaiting a turn to grab a seed.  Many of the branches are level with the second floor windows.  On this day, I had taken the lower sash out of the bathroom window and was shooting birds as they landed on the branches.   If I had tried to go out on the deck, they would have scattered, but they are use to seeing us in the windows occasionally, so it doesn't frighten them, although they do get curious about the clicking of the shutter.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

It a Small World After All

Having written this blog for the better part of a year now, it has amazed me to see how I have gained readership from countries all over the world.  There have been readers in ten countries so far, the U.S. providing the vast majority, but I have regular blog visitors from Russia, Germany, India, Mexico and Canada as well as a few hits from places like the Ukraine and Latvia.  How amazing is that?  You might want to think about a blog of your own.  Google blogger makes it easy to get started, so check it out.

Has it ever occurred to you that a loved one, half a continent away, can look on the same moon you gaze upon at the very same moment, even though you cannot see each other?  It makes it feel like you're closer somehow.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

If You Think That's Big, You Should See the Nest

Nest building is not limited to only springtime for ospreys.  They are opportunists and, if one sees a good branch floating by, it will retrieve it and take it back to the nest.  I have also seen males bring new branches to the nest while young were in the nest being cared for by the female.  Anyone who has seen the ground underneath an osprey nest knows they are not particularly skillful at actually getting branches into a nest.  I saw one attempt one time where the male clubbed the female with a branch and she thought it best to leave the nest for a while.  With them, nest building is a year-round task - at least until they migrate south for the winter.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Rorschach Chart

Conditions that produce a morning like this might come along only once or twice a year.  Usually, it is in late summer or early fall when the water is still warm, but the night air has begun to cool significantly.  Fog usually won't develop in the presence of wind and neither do good water reflections, so a lack of wind is almost essential.   Then it is a matter of deciding how best to portray it.  A photo with the horizon line exactly centered is in danger of producing a very static photo.  But, to not have included the reflections from the clouds would have been to only tell half the story.  After all, you need an entire Rorschach chart to be able to tell what it is.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Three Musketeers

A flock of crows is called a murder of crows.  (Speaking of which, the movie by the same name was really good, if you haven't seen it.  Starring Cuba Goodings Jr.  Speaking of which, what ever happened to him?)  Anyway, a flock of geese is called a gaggle, and almost anything living, seen in groups of three, are called musketeers.  (You do know I'm kidding, right?)

I chose this image to again point out that almost any mundane subject can be improved by dramatic lighting.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Dramatic Lighting II

Here is another image with similarly dramatic lighting as the post from yesterday.  The sun had just risen on the Bay to the left of this group of snowy egrets.  The bird with it's crown feathers raised is upset with one or more of the other birds.  That is actually somewhat rare to see as they get along in crowded conditions surprisingly well.  Also, note the bird below it with it's wing outspread has a fish in it's mouth.  Here again, the birds were lit, but the water had not yet seen the sun, so the water appears dark - although the sun is reflecting off a building out of the picture in the background.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Dramatic Lighting

The great blue heron was in an ideal location for dramatic side lighting and all I had to do was wait for him to do something.  He didn't disappoint.  At first light, there is a spot on the river where the sunlight shines onto the river but doesn't light the trees in the background, creating conditions that are ideal for dramatic lighting.  The contrast between dark and light is what makes the image stand out.  Then, when the arc of water coming off the birds feet is added to the mix, it makes it a riveting shot.  It hasn't happened very often that there is a bird in this spot at the right time.  It is a shot for which I waited a long time.  It is one of the classic types of lighting and location to look for when you are filming animals.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Mallard or Black Duck?

Both of these species share a similar habitat, hang out together and freely crossbreed, producing hybrids which sometimes make it hard to determine which species you are looking at.  This female appears to be a female mallard, but the dark bill gives me pause.  Female mallards are suppose to have an orange bill while black duck females have a olive colored bill.  The leading white edge of her wing feathers (called the speculum) also makes me think it is a mallard.

At any rate, it was the golden, low-angled early morning light that motivated me to take the photo.  That, and the fact that she is facing into the light so her face was not in shadows.  It is always a bonus if you can catch a glint in their eye, which makes them look more lively.  Sometimes, it is a matter of just waiting a bit longer for the bird to turn it's head at just the right angle to capture a glint.  And, sometimes, they never do, which is always frustrating.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Geese and Their Cygnets

This bonded pair of Canada geese were raising their young at a farm pond.  They occasionally will nest in an old osprey nest or on a ledge.  Generally, though, they build their nests on the ground.  The average clutch is anywhere from four to ten young, so this pair with only two is not the norm.  It may be that there were more siblings that fell to predation.

You can't sneak up on geese - which is why hunters will use blinds and decoys and stay put.  When I arrived at the pond, this pair had already seen me coming and were in the process of ushering their young to the other side of the pond.  I didn't have enough time to make adjustments to the camera and fired off a few frames, called "grab shots" by photographers.  It is a shot you don't want to miss, but on which you would spend more time composing - if you had the time.  You always hope that you will get a second chance after you are all set up.

As it turned out, I didn't get another chance.  The main problem with this photo is the film speed was too slow, and it suffers from some blurring of movement (especially in the heads).  If it had not been for that, I think this would have been a wonderful family shot - despite them swimming away from the camera.  I always marvel at the swirls of water in the foreground and reflected trees in the background that look more like a painting than a photograph.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Of all the photographs I have taken, this image of rosemallow on the Patuxent is one of my favorites.  This bush has been there for years, with it's feet underwater at high tide.  Someone put a huge tractor tire over it at some point in the past.  Last year, however, it looked as though it was dying.  Bees and hummingbirds both routinely visit for it's nectar.

During the film era, there were a multitude of filters that could be used to correct color problems (e.g., the greenish colorcast from shooting under fluorescent lights could be neutralized with a magenta filter).  Most filters are no longer needed because camera settings can be changed "on the fly" without changing the film.  These days, if you own only a polarizing filter, almost all other photographic problems have "work-arounds."

There are still one or two filters that do not have an easy work-around, though.  On this image, I used another filter that is not easily simulated in post processing - a blue and gold polarizer made by Singh Ray.  Depending on how you turn the filter, either hues of blue or yellow are enhanced while also absorbing stray light reflections.  The filter was used in this photo to intensify the blue of the water without effecting other colors in the image.  You can see how the warm white blooms are unaffected by the use of the filter.  When scanning through photos looking for something in particular, I always linger a little longer over this image when I come across it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ruddy Duck II

A couple of characteristics are readily apparent in this photo of a ruddy.  They are a member of a family called stiff-tailed ducks and why is evident from the photo.  They are also a diving duck and, much like the bufflehead, their legs are set far back on their body to aid in underwater propulsion.  In fact, their legs are set so far back, they are all but helpless on land.  There have been cases where ruddies mistook a wet road for a river and, after landing, could not get airborne again.  Since they are a nocturnal migrant, it is not difficult to see how they could mistake a shiny road surface for a river. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

Ruddy Ducks

I like the simplicity of this photo of a flock of ruddies passing the boat that was tending the guy in the layout boat (see the December 9 post).  If you look closely, the hunter sees them.  The ducks are recognizable by the head pattern and the fairly long tail.  They are stiff-tailed diving ducks, only slightly larger than a bufflehead.  I'm not sure if it is the mild weather, but there seems to be a dearth of ducks on the Bay this year.  While I have seen the occasional merganser or loon or scoter, the large rafts of birds seen last year have been absent.  Maybe it is still too early.  Or maybe it is other factors such as the loss of habitat and pollution. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Still Apologizing to Georgia O'Keeffe

I thought I would start the new year with something different.

I love backlighting a flower blossom.  It allows the delicacy of a flower to shine through.  I don't manipulate many photos - and what I mean by that is I don't move them or remove a dead leaf and that sort of thing.  I like to film things just as they are.  This petunia was in a hanging basket on the porch and, if I remember right, I had gotten bored with waiting on a hummingbird to come back to the feeder when I noticed how the sun was lighting the interior of certain blossoms.

I was already using a 100 mm macro lens, which also doubles as a very nice short telephoto, so I didn't even have to change lens.  Since I was filming the bloom in place, I couldn't use a tripod (it wasn't tall enough), and so I handheld the camera.  I also shot at -1 EV (exposure value) so that the light in the throat of the flower would take center stage.  I wouldn't mind seeing this printed large.