The Acorn Woodpecker

Popular Acorn Woodpecker tree
Popular Acorn Woodpecker tree

On a recent trip back to California we went to the Effie Yeaw Nature Center http://www.sacnaturecenter.net–home of the Acorn Woodpecker. It lies north of Sacramento along the American River. My wife and I were there last year and it was so wonderful we just had to return.

This year I was determined to get shots of these woodpeckers on the fly–no easy task since they are small and fly quickly. Another year’s worth of experience taught me that I should pick an “active” tree and set up my tripod at the best spot.  I used my Canon 100mm-400mm lens with Canon’s 1.4X III tele-converter, giving me a focal length of 560mm. Since there was bright sun I was able to use shutter speeds of 1/2000 +.

Off for an acorn
Off for an acorn

These birds gather acorns and stuff them into rows of holes that they drilled into trees. The acorns in the California Oaks are slender, compared with their round counterparts in the East. These birds fly among live and dead trees in relatively open areas, as shown in the first photograph.

Unlike other woodpeckers, these birds congregate in a bevy so there

Transporting the acorn
Transporting an acorn

is no shortage of individuals to photograph. As a result there is a constant flow of birds gathering acorns, inserting acorns, and resting. To photograph them the trick is to keep the lens on them during the insertion of the acorn and then shoot a burst when they prepare for flight. Trying to follow them with the camera as they fly is nearly impossible with a long

Inserting an acorn
Inserting an acorn

telephoto lens. If you would like to see larger images they can be found in my on-line gallery.

Do let me know if you have had any experience photographing these birds and how you might have captured them in flight.

Fall at Hamlin Beach State Park, Lake Ontario

My wife and I made a couple of outings during the second half of October to the beach, hoping to find a range of water birds during migration. All we found were the usual suspects–Canadian Geese and Ring-billed gulls. Here they are “mingling.”

Birds of a feather . . .

Occasionally, the Gulls would take to the air, circle, then land at the same spot.

Descending on the Beach

Geese are highly structured in their ways–here, following the leader into the water.

Goin’ In

Sometimes people on the beach got too close for comfort, causing the birds to launch, only to return a few moments later.

Chaos

Interestingly, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology just announced that Superstorm Sandy has blown a number of migratory water birds, not normally found here, our way. We plan to return to the beach this week-end to see what might be around.

What unusual bird sightings have you observed in the wake of Superstorm Sandy?

Winners, Losers, and Draws

I’m way behind on my posts; this is partly due to my being out shooting in the field. I plan to post more soon! Some of these posts will discuss bird populations. My “How the Bird Photos Were Collected” page highlights not only how I collected my bird photos, but also my rationale for providing the population trend of each bird during the past 30 years or so. I’m in the process of sorting the bird photos by whether their populations are increasing, decreasing, or remaining stable to see what common characteristics each category might have.

Iroquois National Refuge Photo Contest

This photo took 3rd place in the 2011-2012 contest. I shot this from about 150 feet away while partially hidden from the bird’s sight on the boardwalk that crossed one of the marshes. As it approached for landing I held the shutter for a series of shots–this was the best (ISO 640, Canon 100mm-400mm @ 400mm, f/7.1, 1/1600). Everything fell into place, including the sun that was from my right rear.

The bird’s underside appears green from walking through the algae, along with the current reflection off the water. Shortly after landing the bird saw me and flew further off.

Touch-down

Spring Versus Late Summer

Last week-end my wife and I went birding with the Rochester Birding Association at Eastman-Durand Park. We continued to notice what we have been observing over the past several weeks–the woods and fields are rather quiet; when you do hear birds you don’t often see them! We attributed their hiding to the thick foliage of late summer.  Indeed, you need a machete to walk some of the paths that were easy walk-throughs in late spring.

Walking along, hearing one bird after another, I asked why they don’t show themselves.  As is so often the case, we were told it’s all about sex, territory, and reproduction. You see, by late summer the kids (chicks) have “fledged” so the parents are much less active. Since there is no competition for mates, nesting locations, and surrounding territory, the birds eat more, and fly and sing less (singing impresses mates and establishes territory–but takes lots of energy). The result is less bird visibility and more calorie/energy building for the fall migration.

Here are some shots from late spring. Aside from the thinner foliage, note all but the Red-bellied were photographed while singing.

Song Sparrow (Decreasing)
Red-bellied Woodpecker (Increasing)

The great imitator.

Gray Catbird (Stable)

The Thrasher sings a series of melodious phrases, each only about two or three times. It does not imitate other birds, however.

Brown Thrasher (Decreasing)

Turning to the late summer crowd, some birds did reveal themselves and even sat for their photos. Hummingbirds often escape detection because we take them for large insects. Once identified, however, they often return to the same spot, increasing the chances of a photo opportunity.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (female, Increasing))

I call this one “Dropping In.”  Okay, I was lucky. Less singing–more eating. Getting out early in the morning seems to be even more important in late summer if you want to increase your chances of seeing birds–breakfast apparently is their most important meal.

Dropping In
House Sparrow (Decreasing)

Again, a tougher shot than the spring–this Red-bellied was much higher in the tree than many we saw during the spring.

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Increasing)

What’s been your experience with spring versus late summer for birding?

Oatca County Park

This has to be one of the best spots around Rochester to view birds.  Aside from one large mowed field and a recreation building for summer events, the park is  undeveloped,

Stream through Oatca

with a large stream coursing through. It’s flanked by wooded areas and open wooded areas further out. The following photo shows the stream in the late afternoon this past July. This is a favorite spot of fly fishermen who can easily stand mid-stream with waders.

One of my goals this season has been to photograph an Indigo Bunting. However, since their population is on the decline they are less likely to be spotted by us non-expert birders.  Our more expert colleague, Jim Adams, sees far more varieties than my wife and I, since we don’t always know exactly where to look (you’ll find the link to Jim Adam’s site on my sidebar). In any event, my wife spotted a male Indigo Bunting in thick bush in the open woodland area (exactly where you would expect to find them). I maneuvered for a clear shot and managed the following the images in low light.

Indigo Bunting–this way (Decreasing)

Here he is looking one way, and then, with his head turned. Needless to say, I’m quite happy with the shots, but I want to get one of these birds in an action shot.

–that way

However, one of my most spectacular shots is of a juvenile Great Blue Heron that allowed us to get close enough for a whole series of shots with the 100-400mm lens at 400mm. Here he is taking off. It was late in the day, note how the light strikes his under-belly. I printed a 13 X 19 of this shot for mounting and possible submission to a local photo contest. Please let me know if you have any tips for increasing the likelihood of locating these Indigo Buntings.

Great Blue Heron (juvenile, Increasing)

Peaks Island, Maine

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Peaks Island is located off the coast of Portland, Maine in Casco Bay.  Once arriving into Portland, it’s off to catch the ferry for the fifteen minute ride. We’ve been going to Peaks for about 25 years to visit our friends, Debbie and Dave, among others. Our last trip was this past Memorial Day week-end. Dave and I went into Portland to shoot some photos (shown below). On our way back along the unimproved dirt road leading back to their cottage I noticed a bird in a tree overlooking a small pond–a Black-crowned Night Heron. These birds typically feed at night. There I was with only my 15-85mm lens, not the ideal equipment for bird photography.  The camera was set for aperture priority but I figured I should take the hand-held shot before the bird decided to fly, then reset the camera to shutter priority to assure a sharp shot.  Sure enough, the bird bolted. Nevertheless, the photo came out great–at 1/20 sec!

Supertanker

Portland is a deep-water harbor, enabling large vessels to come in.  As a result, a lot of crude comes in from the Middle-east–Portland can unload 4 supertankers at one time.

Long gone
The Porthole

Front Street runs along all the piers in Portland.  Although there has been substantial gentrification, including several investment houses for the New Yorkers and Bostonians who summer on the islands, there are several “seedy” areas still to be had.  Many of them provide the best atmosphere and food, such as breakfast and lunch at the Porthole.

Gentrification

The last photo shows one of the examples of gentrification, new condominiums located across from old the warehouses of the past.

Action birds

My wife heard that the Batavia water treatment plant was a pretty hot spot for birding.  And why not? Birds are attracted to water and most of these facilities are not open to the public, or only with special permission, so wildlife get a fair amount of privacy.  However, this facility is open to the public seven days a week from 7:30 AM to 3:00 PM (longer if you want to park your car outside the gate that closes at 3:00 PM). You do have to sign-in, however. This plant is also different from most in that it uses natural bacterial processes to treat the water before it is re-introduced into the environment.  Since this is a much slower process, the facility is huge with several man-made ponds. Surrounding many of these ponds are marsh areas along with their tall marsh weeds–providing perfect hiding for many wildlife species.

Each pond is ringed by a gravel road in addition to the gravel road the goes around the entire facility. We drove down to what appeared to be a good area to get out and have a closer look. We immediately spotted several Green Herons, not to mention Great Blues that occasionally flew over. There were also what appeared to be dozens of Swallows (both Tree {Stable} and Barn {Decreasing} varieties) darting around snapping bugs from the air. I’ve tried to photograph these birds on the wing in the past–to no avail. They are too small, too fast, and quick maneuvering, turning 90 degrees or more in an instant.

Nevertheless, I decided to try my hand (and camera) at this again since I’m getting better at understanding the best settings to use and my panning technique is improved. As with sports photography, the name of the game is to skillfully shoot and hope 2 or 3 percent of your shots produce a “winner.” I set my Canon 100mm-400mm zoom lens to 300mm with a shutter speed of 1/2000 secs.

The first of these to turn out, sharp at least, was a Barn Swallow swooping low over the water. Not only do you have to get the bird in the viewfinder, you’ve got to get one of the nine auto-focusing points superimposed on the bird to lock in the focus. Then press the shutter, letting the camera rattle off at 5 frames/sec.

Low Swoop: Barn Swallow

However, the “Gold” goes to the Tree Swallow image; here the bird is about to swallow what looks like a bee.  The subject was about 70 feet away as it raced towards me.  I had no idea he was closing in on breakfast. Pretty amazing–especially for me!

Intercept: Tree Swallow

After about a couple of hours we drove to Iroquois National Wildlife Preserve. It was getting to be mid-day and hot!  Not the best time for bird photography. We set out along the Kanyoo trail to one of the ponds and marsh areas.  There we saw Green Herons galore on the ground, in the air, and in trees. Unfortunately, my shots were only of documentary quality. I tried several flight shots, but I was not able to get a single one come out as anything but a blur.

Iroquois: Southwest–from the boardwalk along the Blue Loop

I did, however, get several excellent Great Blue Heron (Increasing) shots–the best one, below. Note the green undersides, this is the result of light reflecting off the heavily green-slimed water. The bird is landing in the central portion of the scene, above.

Touch-down
Touch-down: Great Blue Heron

Right now I’m behind on my image processing, however, more of these and other photos will be appearing in my gallery and other blog posts over the coming weeks.

I’ll be spending the second week of September in Adirondack State Park to capture birds on their return migration, along with some great landscape shots of their environment.

The Pileated Woodpecker (Revisted)

For those of you who stayed tuned since my last post, I’ve revisited the secret location of the great Pileated Woodpecker. Closely resembling the likely extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but smaller with a black bill, they are most common in the southeast, but found in the northeast and across Canada.  They feed mostly on carpenter ants that they find in dead trees.

As you may recall, he (you can tell it’s a male because the red covers his full crown) was driven off by this guy, Bubba the Squirrel.

When I returned to the site on the following Friday, the Pileated was again driven off by Bubba, this time with the help of two of his friends–Bootsy and Kicksy. It seems to me that this giant woodpecker could have easily dispatch these squirrels with his powerful bill.  In any event, closer examination of the tree suggested that the dead spline on which he was drilling was a source of food, rather than the beginnings of a nest.  The tree’s spline did not look substantial enough to house these woodpeckers, nor did we ever see two, which you would expect in the case of nest-building.

I returned a third time this past week. My wife and I were no sooner set-up that the bird landed at the same exact position on the spline! How thoughtful. This photo shoot was almost like doing studio work. I took the shots and when I was done–he flew off, this time without any hassle from Bubba and his friends. Here is the Pileated in full regalia.

I told one of our Rochester birders about how easy it is to approach these birds on some occasions, and how difficult on others.  He said that if they have a good feeding spot they are pretty tolerant of people. But if they are drilling as a means to establish territory during the mating and breeding season, they quickly fly off when approached, due partly to the fact that they have to get to the next point in their perimeter to announce their presence.

If you have any stories to share about observing Pileateds I’d love to hear them.

Return of Spring

Yes, the flying Vs are back, this time headed North, more or less. We were recently out at Braddock Bay, Lake Ontario when I took this photo. We’ve been out a number of times, but the bird scene had been mostly limited to the usual winter suspects. There are, however, a number of Red-Wing Blackbirds that have returned to stake out their territories.

Meanwhile, every year we witness the attempt of House Finches to build a nest at the top of the column of our front porch and this year was no different They inevitably fail (how do they ever reproduce?)! They are then followed by the Robins who seem to have no problem at all building their nest–even though they appear to be far too large, given the available space. We’ve concluded that Robins are simply smarter at nest-building.

We’re anxiously awaiting the onslaught of the Warbler crowd, due into our area by the end of April, more or less. We’re on high alert! Last, but not least, we heard a Pileated Woodpecker drilling in the same location on two successive week-ends. The second time around, we decided to bushwhack our way to the sound of the drilling, stopping periodically, hoping to find the bird’s location. We suspected there were two birds drilling a hole for a nest, which can take up to several weeks. Sure enough, I found her/him. As I raised the camera with my 100-400mm lens, the bird flew off. We moved in closer, and low and behold, the bird returned–only to be driven off by a squirrel! We set the camera on a tripod and waited for nearly an hour–but no return. Meanwhile, the squirrel remained on guard. We weren’t sure if it was lying low because of us or trying to prevent the bird from returning.

If this hole is indeed for a nest, we figure the bird will be back. I plan to return early Friday morning to find out. If so, and not commandeered by the squirrel, we expect to go there regularly for what I hope to be some great Pileated shots, and perhaps the fledging of their young later this season.

Of course, just as true of fishermen, I won’t divulge this location since I want the exclusive on this hopefully developing story.

Stay tuned!