Thursday, February 28, 2013

Big Sky

In some ways, landscape photography is easier than bird photography. The time constraint isn't as pressing for one thing. With birds, you often only get one chance and it may only be a split second chance to capture what you are seeing. In landscape photography, you often have the luxury of setting up your camera and taking all the time you need to focus and frame the image. There are certain times when you may have to work rapidly like at sunrise or sunset but, for the most part, it is a more laid back process.

Both of these images are of the same location on different days. The sky was more interesting in the first photograph so I gave it more room in the frame while still including the entire hillside. And there's the tip: include an interesting sky, but if it is not, exclude as much of it as you can. In the second photo, I zoomed in on the same barn as in the first photo. Framing an image is an art in itself - deciding what to include or exclude. It is a little harder for me to describe how to do it. With me, it is more like I know it when I see it, but there is a certain balance between elements that you are looking for in most cases.

A niece of mine commented on how much she liked this image.  I told her she drove past the spot every day on her way to work.  She was surprised, and didn't realize it.  By careful framing, I had excluded all the "landmarks" - those distracting elements - that would help her recognize the place.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Fish Hawk

When you think about it, every bird that eats fish and every fish that is eaten by a bird have to meet at the interface between their two worlds: air and water.  If this catfish had stayed only two feet below the surface, it would not have been within reach of the osprey. But, noooo. It had to get curious about what was at the top of it's world. What business does a catfish, known for being a bottom feeder, have at the top of the water column anyway? Yet, it is one of the most common species of fish I see caught on the river by both osprey and eagle. Unlike cats, catfish don't seem to have nine lives.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Yo, Ho, Ho and A Bottle...

Here is another boat image I took one morning. I've always liked this photo for a couple of reasons. It isn't often you see the captain flying a pirate flag. And the fog that morning completely obliterates any background making it almost impossible to even determine where the horizon is located. It is interesting to me that you have fog concealing the background, but there is none between the camera and the boat. That, and the boat is bathed in sunlight which destroys fog. Put it all together and you would correctly conclude that the fog is about to burn off completely.

One other observation. And I say that tongue in cheek. Because people are so unobservant. How much could there have been for him to see with the fog all around?  Not much. And yet, he never saw me standing out in the open at the end of the dock. I waved but he didn't weave back. I have seen people completely miss an eagle flying right out in front of them or an osprey diving for a fish very close to their location and they never saw it. Here's a test. What color was the shirt/blouse of the last person you spoke to?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Snow Goose

The Snow Goose is slightly smaller than the Canada Goose. They overwinter in this area, migrating from the far reaches of arctic Canada. Although this area is their normal wintering grounds, I have never seen more than a couple of them at a time personally.  Maybe I just don't know where to look for them.

These two showed up one morning in late autumn on the river. It is the only time I can recall seeing Snow Geese down there. They really stand out against the lovely colors of fall.

I never did see them fly.  They swam out of one of the guts in the marsh, leisurely swam down the edge of the river, reversed course after about an hour, and disappeared back into the marsh.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Ode to an Unnamed Flower

Have you ever noticed the human tendency to want to name things and classify them? It was designed into our nature by our Creator on the very day He created Adam and commanded him to have dominion over all the other creatures He had made (Genesis 1:26). In fact, the very first task Adam was given (even though it was for other reasons) was to name all the animals. That implies that he already, on the first day of his life, was intellectually equipped to perform the task.

If you met Adam on the second day of his life, how old would you think he was? He was created with "apparent age" - just like all the rocks that are dated as being millions, if not billions of years old when, in fact, they are no more than a few thousand years old.  But I digress...

I don't know the names of the lovely pink flowers in the first photo or the wonderful little yellow flowers in this image. But the loveliness in their wild settings did catch my attention. Most of our domestic flowers were once wild and still are somewhere in the world. But these were planted with no man's hand. They were planted by the creative hand of Someone so prolific and imaginative that He sows these even where man may never lay eyes on them!

One of the most lovely wildflowers on the river is the rose mallow. I do know the name of this one. This particular one has grown for years where high tide submerges it's feet. And it grows right in the middle of a old discarded tractor tire! On this morning, fog was my friend obscuring the background and allowing the blooms to be the center of attention. Not only do bees love them but so do hummingbirds.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Common Goldeneye

Here is the reddish-headed duck I mentioned spotting the other day that I had never seen before.  It is called a Common Goldeneye. This is a female and it is the only one I saw that day. The lighter tip of it's bill in this photo isn't sunlight; that is actually the way the bill is. Like many other ducks, they nest in tree cavities. That seems a little odd to me with a duck's webbed feet.  They don't construct the cavities themselves, but use old woodpecker nests or natural holes in trees.

The white ring around the neck is more evident in this image. They summer throughout most of Canada and winter throughout most the U.S. The male has a circular white spot between the bill and the eye. I don't think the white spots near the base of the bill are normal markings of this species.

The angle of the light was never right to see the eye as golden. 

I was surprised it was out there alone. Most species are pretty social, sticking together in groups of at least a few birds. It was out there for quite a while. It is also a diving duck and was actively searching for crustaceans, the dominant food in winter.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Long-tailed Duck

In a recent post, I related some of the methods or cues I use to spot bird species I may not have seen before. One was the Long-tailed Duck, four of which were flying by even as I reached the end of the dock. The name of the species was changed in recent times. I suspect the old name was not PC and that is why it was changed. The former name - oldsquaw - I thought was much more imaginative. I mean, why not just call it white-headed duck with brown body. By the way, the ducks pictured in that post with the long tails are all males.  Females don't have the extended tail.

After I got positioned that morning - and let me just mention one other thing that may be helpful. I don't wait until I get to the place I am going to set up my camera before setting up my camera.  What I mean is, I turn the camera on while I am still at the car, check and change any settings I think need to be changed based on current conditions, put the camera on the tripod and carry the whole rig to the spot.  The reason being, if you see something as soon as you arrive, you are all ready to start filming immediately. And, yes, I realize the term "filming" is almost passé, but it sounds so much better than saying, "ready to start digitizing immediately." (I think maybe I have had too much coffee this morning.)

After I got into position that morning - and let me just say also, I check to make sure I have storage medium in place and that the card has been cleared of previous images. My attention was almost immediately drawn to a white-headed duck with a brown body, something I hadn't seen before. It turned out to be a female long-tailed duck. This is probably a first-fall bird because females this time of year generally have a lot more white on their bodies. Males have a pink band of color across their bills. They nest in the far northern territories of Canada as well as Alaska and the arctic.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Red-breasted Merganser: The Eyes Have It

You may have noticed that duck species often have very colorful eyes. In the case of the Red-breasted Merganser, their eyes are bright red. There is a good reason for colorful eyes. The red eyes function to improve their ability to see underwater in cloudy (i.e., murky) conditions. 

In this regard, think of how sunglasses improve your ability to see on a bright, sunny day - especially if they are polarized. In the same way, red eyes allow a bird such as the RBM or Common Loon to see parts of the color spectrum better. Some species that feed at the surface or plunge for food have red oil droplets in the cones of their retinas. This improves contrast and sharpens distance vision, especially in hazy conditions. Birds that have to look through an air/water interface have more deeply coloured carotenoid pigments in the oil drops than other species. This helps them to locate shoals of fish.

To give you an unscientific idea of how this works I have desaturated the same photo so that it is depicted as a grayscale image. If you click on any of the pictures so as to enlarge them on your screen, you can click back and forth between this photo and the next to see the differences between the two images. It works even better if you have a scroll wheel on your mouse to move back and forth between the photos.

This photo also appears to be grayscale, but is actually a copy of the isolated red channel from the image. Any part of the photo which is red (such as the bill) becomes much brighter while the loss of the blue and green channels causes other parts of the image to darken.

While this is an inexact example, the mergansers eyes give it advantages in hunting for fish similar to how the pictures change in contrast between the latter two.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Spotting the Unusual

When I am out shooting birds, I am always on the lookout for a species I may not have seen before. I thought I would share some of the cues I have learned that have helped me do that. 

Just as I arrived at my friend's dock the other day to shoot bay ducks, I looked over to my right and saw four ducks flying that I immediately recognized as a species I have wanted to capture for some time.  The way they were flying caught my attention, being different than the other ducks I normally see down there. Their flight was very erratic compared to many of the bay ducks that fly straight as a bullet and it turns out that is one of the recognizable features of this species - it's "careening" flight. Unusual flight patterns have allowed me to zero in on other "surprises," the most memorable being a species of duck whose normal range is in Arizona!

As soon as I looked their way, however, I got a second cue to their being different in the long tails that they were sporting. A difference in general features is another quick cue to something you haven't seen before. On the same morning, I saw a duck that stood out because it had a reddish-looking head.  It turned out, this was another duck I hadn't seen before.  But, I'll get to that in another post.

That is how I spotted this American Avocet a couple of years ago. Of all the hundreds of small shore birds that were on the pond that morning, this one came to my attention because of it's unusual long bill. It was only after that I noticed the blue legs.  Turns out, this bird is a rare visitor and is not normally found on this coast. Over recent times, however, it has begun to establish a wintering range on this coast and so has been seen more frequently.

A bird's call being different than anything you have heard before, can alert you to a specie's presence. My attention was drawn to the most beautiful bird call one morning while I was at the river. If you can imagine having a little hollow, wooden box with a hole in it similar to a guitar and a small mallet like the ones used to play a xylophone with which to strike it so that it produced a very acoustic knocking sound - that is about the best way I can describe what this bird sounds like. I could tell by the call that the bird wasn't close enough for me to even spot it, let alone take it's picture. A little while later, however, it landed in the tree right next to where I was standing. Even if I hadn't heard it first, this bird would have stood out as something unusual with the unusual orange lower curved bill and the big white spots on it's tail. Turns out, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo can be found throughout the Eastern U.S., but I had never seen - or heard - one before. Have you? 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Red-Breasted Merganser: Fishing

Here is a photo of a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers in which the differences in plumage can be easily compared. They are such cool (okay, awesome) looking ducks. With the thousands of feathers on a bird, think of the preciseness with which each one has to decode DNA to get those strongly delineated lines between, say, a white feather and a dark green feather that might be right next to each other. Look at that intricate window pane like effect over the shoulder area.

While these photos are great for identifying the species and seeing detail, they do lack one thing. The photos were taken at the height of the day, around one o'clock in the afternoon, so the light was more contrasty than I would have liked.  Actually, the contrast range wasn't as hard to handle as I thought it might be. What really would have been nice would have been to capture them in the magical light of early morning or late afternoon. You cannot overestimate how much of a difference that type of lighting can have on the resulting images. Maybe someday...

The flock was hunting as a unit. As I said a couple of days ago, I wasn't as impressed by them hunting like this as much as I was by a flock of cormorants doing the same, but maybe I should be. Think of the added complexity of feeding as a group as opposed to feeding individually. Someone has to decide to start the hunt and communicate that to the rest of the flock.  They have to decide where they are going and all sorts of other little decisions about when to dive, etc. Whether it is done vocally or through body language or in some other way, it still adds a level of complication far beyond fishing alone.

They were moving around the bay at a rapid pace which was probably set by the fish they were chasing rather than the birds. As the small fish darted away, they would want to keep up with the school to continue to feed on them. Again, you can see how the water is piled up in front of the birds indicating how quickly they were ploughing through the water.

Sometimes I crack myself up. I was going to show you a picture of just water here and tell you they were all underwater.  "Here is a picture where they have all dived underwater..."  Would you have believed me? LOL.  But, here IS a picture where most of them have dived underwater in a coordinated movement. You can see where three have just disappeared and the fourth is on it's way. I don't know about you, but the ability, if not willingness, of members of the animal kingdom to work together to improve everyone's chances fascinates me.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Female Red-breasted Merganser (RBM)

Here is the female version of the species. As with most hens, the general pattern is much more subdued. This is true of females because their mottled feather pattern functions as camouflage during the nesting season, making it harder for predators to discover their nests. Notice how she is ploughing the water because of her speed like the male from yesterday's post.

With the spiked feathers, RBM's give you the general impression that they are very energetic birds. That is not a mistaken assumption. They were constantly on the move as they hunted for small fish. I couldn't determine whether they were driving a school of fish before them or whether they were just hoping to randomly find something to eat, but they were fishing as a unit.

One of the most amazing sights I have seen was a flock of cormorants fishing as a unit. You might think, what is so special about that? When you realize that they normally fish alone or occasionally with one other bird, to organize a coordinated hunt takes it up a notch as far as how they communicate their desire to hunt as a group, where and when they are going to do it and a host of other behavioral questions.

I was less impressed with the mergansers fishing as a unit and I guess it is because I suspect they fish like this a good deal of the time - at least at this time of year when they are flocked up and not spread out nesting as smaller family units.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Very Hip Duck

I was delighted the other day to have the opportunity to film a duck I have long wanted to get pictures of - the Red-breasted Merganser. You have to admit, this is one cool looking bird. I'm not sure what the function of the spiked feathers is, but they give it a very distinctive look. You can get some idea of how fast they swim by the way the water is piled up in front of the duck.

Finding a particular species is most often a matter of finding the right type of habitat. The places I have normally frequent do not "fit the bill" as it were for this species. It wasn't until I tried a new spot with different characteristics that I was able to see them.  In this case, it was a shallow bay where they could chase small fish. They prefer shallow, sheltered salt water.

They dive and chase down small fish, although they will also eat crustaceans, aquatic insects and the occasional frog. Their summer range covers most of Canada and the arctic while they like to winter along the coast of U. S.

When I first spotted them at a distance, I thought it was a flock of scaup. The general body pattern looks similar from a distance. I had stopped just to check out this spot and didn't take my camera out. When I saw the birds, I decided to stay for a few minutes anyway and set up the camera. Once I had the camera on the tripod, the birds moved off and I thought that was the end of that.  There was a trio of Trumpeter Swans in the corner of the bay eating aquatic grass, so I decided to stay for a while. I'm glad I did.  I thought the flock of mergansers were nervous because of my presence and had moved away. It turned out they were simply actively fishing and moving around the bay. A while later, they returned and swam fairly close to where I was standing, allowing me to capture a few good images.

Saturday, February 16, 2013


When I started filming at the Patuxent several years ago, I was hoping to be able to capture good quality images of birds. It didn't take long to realize that wasn't going to happen. Although I had the latest camera, that wasn't enough to get the kinds of images I was hoping for. In addition to a camera body, you also need a good quality lens. And they are not inexpensive. We're talking several thousand dollars. Unless you are making money with your images, it is hard to justify that kind of expense.

Take these images, for example. They are not of very good quality, but you can see that it is a kingfisher with a tiny fish in it's mouth. It was taken with a fairly expensive, though slow, lens on a tripod that doesn't even have a brand name on it (made in China) and a pan head which is not recommended for taking photographs of birds.  Camera magazines are always touting the use of a gimbal head (more than $500) for use in bird photography on a nice sturdy tripod ($300 and up - not including the head). Wouldn't that be nice!

I had to find some other way of taking images if I was going to continue, so I developed my own technique for using a pan head to take photographs of birds in flight using that cheap tripod until I was able to take sharp images more often than not. If you look at this photo, for example, the quality isn't good, but the bird is sharp. That means the technique was adequate, but the lens was the limiting factor.

Another thing I discovered while filming birds was what they were doing was of such interest that getting high quality images didn't always matter. I'm not saying I wouldn't like to have high quality images. But even if I wasn't able to capture them, my low quality images were depicting behavior that was interesting in it's own right.

One thing I don't like about Kingfishers is the little white spot on their head that gives the illusion of being their eye at this distance. It always looks as though they have dead eye because you have blown out the eye with too much camera exposure.

I have lowered my standards somewhat when I go to film on the river. I may take (I hate to admit it) three or four hundred images, but I am happy if I come away with one that I feel is superior to the rest. I don't always take that many but if something interesting is going on, believe me, it is not hard to do. A high-speed burst can produce six images just like that.

So when I see something like this series in which a kingfisher catches this tiny little minnow on the other side of the river and expends all this energy to fly all the way across the river to a dock on the other side, what do you think I should do?  Just watch?  Or take images even though I know they aren't going to be worth much?

And so, because I continued to film this incident, I learned that a kingfisher will sometimes beat the crap out of a little fish to subdue it so that it can swallow it.  And now, you have learned that too.

Kingfishers have been particularly difficult to take photographs of.  They are fast, they're wary, and they seldom land any where close to where I am.  In five year or six years, this was the only time one landed close enough to get halfway decent images. Note the white spot forward of the eye.  It is thought that this spot actually has a function in helping the bird successfully catch fish.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Heron and the Eagle

One day on the river, I thought I was seeing things. Was that an (immature) eagle and a Great Blue Heron (GBH) standing together on a mud bar? Why, yes it was!

Would an eagle kill a GBH? There have been reports of that happening. I have seen an eagle that greatly unnerved a GBH when it made a number of passes, flying just a few feet above it's head. But the eagle was actually interested in a carcass I suspect it had eaten earlier a little ways down the shoreline. The tide was coming in and the carcass was about to disappear and the eagle wanted to pick around on it a little more. With telephoto compression, these two may not be as close as they appear to be - although they do look close. This mud bar is one of the few areas where I have seen an eagle on the ground and most of the time, it is sub-adults.

The GBH seemed unfazed even when the eagle was flying around.

This shot was taken a while later after the heron had moved on. In context, you can see there were actually a rather large congregation of herons (5) which, for them, is an unusual number close together with the exception of the nesting period (when they nest in colonies) and shortly thereafter, as they teach their young to feed themselves. Once the immature young attain adult size (which is only a few months), it is hard to differentiate between them and the adults.  At least, at this distance.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Caspian Tern III (Continued)

Questions arise in my mind about whether a Caspian Tern will drop the fish accidentally or whether it is intentional. They seem highly confident that they can re-acquire the fish before it reaches the ground - or the water. Since objects fall at the same rate of speed, the tern has to have some means of increasing it's speed over the normal rate of fall. That would be the wing position shown in the opening photo. If you notice in the photos, every time it is actually trying to catch up to the fish, it wing's are in this position.

Another question that comes to my mind is whether there is any real advantage to letting the fish fall and grabbing it again. Any fish is going to be heavier in front so that a fish in free fall is going to be falling head first.  Yet, the tern is coming from behind where it would probably grab the back end first so that it is no better off than before the fish was dropped.  That makes me think that dropping the fish is really not intended and the fish just gets away from them when they are struggling to get it headed in the right direction while it still has it in it's bill.

It appears the tern finally got the fish in the right position and is swallowing it, but something wasn't right. It ended up dropping it a few more times. While there are gaps in this series where I didn't post all the pictures, these are in chronological order. As you can see in the next image, the fish REALLY got away from the tern. In fact, the fish (which has probably already expired) made it all the way to the water.

I'm not sure what causes a fish to float. Maybe the fish isn't quite dead. Fish that are dying will float, but I can think of at least one occasion where I dropped a fish that had recently expired back into the river (from a boat) and the fish went right to the bottom. 

I took a total of 49 photos in this series. The first was at 9:04:50; the last was at 9:09:40 - almost exactly five minutes. That is an eternity for a incident like this.