Pileateds Getting Ready for Spring Breeding

Just a brief post to say that we found two Pileated Woodpeckers drilling on a tree not too far from the edge of a field. One flew off shortly after we stopped to watch them. The other continued working on another hole–to what is likely to be their nest. Pileateds often have two or more exits to their nests. I moved to a second location for a shot of the hole that the bird in the first photo had been working on. These are new holes going deep into the tree so it is clear they are not just feeding. Pileateds nest only one season in the same nest. After that, other residents move in.

I’ll have regular reports as I visit this location on a weekly basis, perhaps even some video of the future fledglings. Stay tuned!

The Red Crossbills

Red Crossbill (male)
Red Crossbill (male)

We went on an automobile caravan field trip with fellow members of the Rochester Birding Association in mid-January (each with a hand-held two-way radio). It was one of those winter overcast days so common here on the Great Lakes. These trips are always a bit frustrating for us bird photographers because the true birders are happy to spot with binoculars and high-power spotting scopes.  In contrast, I’m limited to my 100-400mm auto-focus lens, which extends to 560mm with the 1.4X tele-converter (without auto-focusing). The result is I get far fewer bird opportunities.

Red Crossbill (female)
Red Crossbill (female)

As we drove down a farm road someone spotted a flock of birds high in the trees so we all pulled over.  Shortly afterwards one person announced that it was a group of Red Crossbills feeding, with a few Pine Siskins mingling among them. Female Crossbills have no red, instead consisting mostly of olive-green. Found mostly across southern Canada Red Crossbills fan out to the Northwest Territories and into Alaska.  They wander irregularly, depending on the availability of cone crops. What we saw was an irruption into the northern U.S.; sometimes they fly to the deep south. Their population has been stable over the past several decades.

Since cloudy skies reflect more light than blue-skies I over-exposed by +2/3 to minimize silhouetting. The settings for the shot below are: 1/500 sec. @ f / 11, ISO 500.

Red Crossbill with Pine Siskin
Red Crossbill with Pine Siskins

High Acres Nature Area–Heron Sequence

wpid928-HANA-6574.jpgI’m way behind on my image processing and blog posts.  I guess this is okay since most photography articles tell us to spend most of our time getting the shots and as little time as possible in front of the computer.

We visited High Acres for the first time in early November, located in Penfield, NY. Surrounded by suburban development, it is nice to see the towns setting aside and maintaining nature areas. It was a nice fall day, though it was a bit chilly at 35º (but nothing like the 10º that we are currently experiencing during the day). We saw several hawks above, along with the usual crows.  On the ground we saw Greater Yellowlegs and Great Blue Herons. As you can see in the photograph, above, there are several trails, most of which we hiked over a period of about 2 1/2 hours.

Most of the herons we saw on the ground were standing (you know, doing their mime acts) atop muskrat houses. Since I have countless shots of Great Blue Herons I decided to see if I could shoot a launch sequence.  On the one hand, Great Blues are easier to catch taking off than songbirds because herons are so much slower.  On the other hand, who knows when they will go? So I got the idea that if I set up my camera at the end of the levy bordering the pond where the heron was located and had my wife then cross it, that would cause him to vacate, much as was the case earlier with the other herons in the area.

Well, wouldn’t you know, she crossed and it just stood there.  She returned, he continued to stand still. My wife even waved her arms–to no avail.  Clearly, this was an avian plot to thwart the photographer.  I ended up standing behind my tripod for about half an hour. Then, he crouched–okay this is it! The heron has departed! I pressed and held the shutter button, and the proofs  of my success are below.

The launch sequence
The launch sequence

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We also saw a few Greater Yellowlegs. One bird was relatively near and “agreed” to pose for some shots before taking off.  Here is its best pose:

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Greater Yellowlegs

Shortly afterwards, it left to join a couple of its associates further out, but I managed to capture its lift-off.

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One of the features I’ve yet to take advantage of on my Canon 100mm-400mm L lens is the image stabilization setting for panning shots. The problem is that when panning shots on the wing occur, there is little time to reset image stabilization from stills to pan.  Perhaps you have developed a strategy for switching IS modes?  If so, please let me know.

My next post will feature the return of the Red Crossbills.

Braddock Bay’s Common Redpolls

Braddock Bay Beach at the base of the spit
Braddock Bay Beach: Northwest
Looking west
Looking east

We went to the “spit” for a morning walk at Braddock Bay looking for Snow Buntings in late December.  It was one of those typical lake effect days, without the falling snow. Lake effect clouds are produced by cold air blowing across the relatively warm Great Lakes waters. These clouds hang over the lakes’ downwind side about 1500 to 2500 feet above ground level, with tops anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 feet. Often, we don’t see a sunny day for weeks at a time within 40 miles of the western New York shores, as shown in the following two photographs at the right, taken at the outset of our walk.

Although we did not get any shots of Snow Buntings, we did run into a small flock of Common Redpolls. These birds are about the size of Sparrows, though a bit chunkier; they breed in the sub-arctic woods. They winter further south, we are

Path along the spit
Path along the spit

right about at the southern end of their range.  They are unwary birds, so they were not at all put off by our presence. We found them on the path running down the spit, shown here in the photograph on the left.

Not the most experienced birders, we were not sure what we were looking at, so we just followed them along, snapping away with the 400mm lens, as they moved through the trees, feeding.

Common Redpoll
Common Redpoll
Upside down Redpoll
Upside down Redpoll

We continued further down the spit to the end.  Finding little else, we started our walk back.  Sure enough, these guys were still at it; I shot a few more photos. Then, one landed on the path, followed by others. I snapped more photos. Then, gradually, they started working their way towards me–coming as close as six feet away-shown the photograph, below.

Posing for the camera
Posing for the camera

There are about 30 million of these birds in North America, though not considered “vulnerable,” their population has been declining over the past 30 years.

When you go out on a cold, bleak day it is quite gratifying that it paid off. Next, we’re off to pursue those Snow Buntings, before they return north. If you’ve spotted any, let me know what type of settings you found them in.  If in fields, was the flock relatively near the road?

Losers: Declining and Uncertain Populations

I have been busy re-tagging all my images since it turned out that Cornell’s All About Birds site was not up-to-date on its populations trends. I realized this when I began noticing differences in their information compared with Partners in Flight. Cornell told me to rely on Partners in Flight and that they would have their site updated in January. You may have noticed also that I updated my earlier Winners page in accord with my updated tags.

Birds whose populations are declining include: American Kestrel, Baltimore Oriole, Barn Swallow, Blue Jay, Brown Thrasher, Brown-headed Cowbird, European Starlings, House Sparrow, Indigo Bunting, Little Blue Heron, Long-tailed Duck, Mallard, Northern Flicker, Northern Harrier, Northern Mockingbird, Northern Shoveler, Oak Titmouse, Red-winged Blackbird, Short-eared Owl, Song Sparrow, Western Meadowlark, and Wood Stork.

Species whose populations are uncertain are: Downy Woodpecker, Green Heron, and White-throated Sparrow. Declining and uncertain populations are not necessarily a sign that the species is threatened with extinction, since several of these species have very large populations to begin with.  Nevertheless, they bear watching.

The Loggerhead Shrike

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This is an interesting bird because it feeds on other song birds, among other things. Although it has no talons, it has a hooked beak that it uses to kill insects, lizards, mice, and birds. It then impales them on thorns to hold them while it rips them apart. We found this bird along the open marshes frequented by Sandhill Cranes and other water birds near Lodi, California.  It has a wonderful song; it repeatedly swoops down from high trees or wires, then back up to is perch. This bird is in decline.

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Loggerhead Shrike

Dead Salmon Society

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American River

The American River runs along side of the Effie Yeaw Nature Center where we saw Gulls (Increasing), Turkey Vultures (Increasing), a female Merganser (Increasing), a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Stable), and a Western Scrub-Jay (Increasing). The first photograph shows an island where water birds tend to congregate and feed. If you imagine walking along the shore to the right, we positioned ourselves to the right side of this island, where I took the second photograph.

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Lunch

Here, Turkey Vultures had acquired a dead salmon for lunch, eagerly sought by another fellow scavenger–the Gull. Unfortunately for him, he was out-numbered and held at bay from this delicacy.

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Dead Salmon Society

Speaking of salmon, there were numerous dead salmon in the river–apparently expired after spawning. We decided to drop in to the “Dead Salmon Society” to see what was going on, as shown in the third photograph–not much.

I was able to photograph a Common Merganser cruising along the shoreline by the feeding vultures. This is one of the diving ducks. As she swam, she would occasionally submerge her head to locate her prey, then dive to catch it.

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Common Merganser (female)

Among the numerous land birds we saw, I was able to photograph the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. They feed on insects as well as seeds and fruit by quickly moving through bushes and trees, much as do warblers. Fortunately, I was able to capture a few good shots, one shown in the next photograph.

Although we spotted their ruby crown occasionally through

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Ruby-crowned Kinglet

the binoculars, I had no such luck with the camera.  As with Red-Wing Blackbirds, these birds have control over when to display their red feathers.

Finally, last year I could not get an unobstructed view of a Western Scrub-Jay. This year, however, I was able to get several.

Here, one is shown holding an acorn in his bill.

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Western Scrub-Jay

When all was said and done, we had a pretty successful outing.

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.