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.

Creating panoramas

Seneca Lake Sunset

My last few outings have focused on improving my landscapes. I not only enjoy shooting these, I also plan to use landscapes to provide the context for many of my bird photographs. Just as the best bird photographs involve capturing the bird in an action situation, so with landscapes the trick is not only to pick the most aesthetic or dramatic scenes, you also need to take the shot when light and perhaps shadows really set the image off from the run of the mill scene.

Sunsets are always appealing, as they set off a burst of colors.  To take these one step further I thought it would be challenging to create a panorama.  The image above is a series of three photographs, each overlapping about 25%, taken with my Canon EOS 60D camera mounted on a tripod–level. I used the manual exposure setting ( f16 @ 1/15″ , ISO 100, EFS-15-85mm lens @ 15mm). This exposure is based on the center sunset photo.  To get this exposure, I increased exposure with shutter speed until the histogram’s right tail just touched the edge of the histogram’s window (i.e., exposed to the right, ETTR). By keeping the diaphram stopped down to f16 I was able to maximize the depth of field. I stitched the photos together using Photoshop Elements 8. I then brought the resulting .TIFF image back into Lightroom 4 for final image adjustments.  This process enabled me to capture a wide expanse of the largest of the Finger Lakes at Sunset. I included the barrier wall and people (my wife is sitting on the wall) to add depth and interest.

I would be more than happy to answer any questions you might have about this process.

Chimney Bluffs, Lake Ontario

My wife and I were on vacation last week so we took a few day trips to capture some of the countryside. Two of these trips took us to Chimney Bluffs State Park in Wolcott, NY. These dramatic Bluffs were formed from drumlins, which in turn were created by glaciers in the last ice age. The erosive power of wind, rain, snow, and waves—both from above and below—has formed the landscape into razor-sharp pinnacles. Rapid erosion prevents any plant life from establishing on the Bluffs over the many millennia since the ice age.

View of a drumlin from the Northwest
View of a drumlin from the Northwest

We arrived about one-and-a-half hours before sunset hoping to catch a heightened reddish hue to the Bluffs’ faces. I used a circular polarizing filter to deepen the sky and sharpen the other colors.

View from the West

The last image was taken just as the sun passed behind a thin layer of cirrus clouds about 30 minutes before sunset.

Turning the camera to the West: view from the East

We plan to return to photograph some of the birds on their return migration via the Bluffs later this summer and into the fall. Perhaps you have been to Chimney Bluffs, or drumlin fields elsewhere. Please let us know.

Neutral density graduated filters

If you ever tried to photograph a high contrast scene such as a late afternoon landscape or sunset you know that it is almost impossible to get a good exposure of the sky along with detail in the foreground or shadow areas. One way to get around this problem is by using high dynamic resolution (HDR). This process requires photo software to merge several photos, each exposed for a particular section of a scene, into one photograph that is properly exposed in all areas. HDR, however, requires more screen time, something I would gladly reduce.

Neutral density graduated filters provide an alternative for capturing high contrast settings.  By sliding the filter through its lens holder to the point just before any of the foreground starts to darken you will reduce the intensity of the sky so that you can get a more evenly exposed photograph.

I recently purchased a set of Cokin P series filters (H250A). The kit contains the filter holder and three neutral density graduated filters: 121L, 121M, and 121S. The first reduces exposure by 2, the second by 4, and the third by 4 with a more gradual shading from clear to neutral gray (the adaptor ring that connects the filter holder to the lens is extra). The total cost was $105, before tax.

I took a few photographs so you can see their effects (I made no processing adjustments to the photographs, other than applying lens correction to minimize distortion). The photographs were taken in mid-July at about 4:30PM. The first photograph was taken without a filter. Here, I exposed to the right (in this case 1/25 @ f22, ISO 100)–only the partial disk of the sun is overexposed.

In the next photo I used the 121L (ND2) filter (1/20 @ f22, ISO 100). Notice that the sky is a deeper blue and there is somewhat greater detail in the trees’ foliage.

The last photo shows the same scene with the 121M (ND4) filter (1/20 @ f22, ISO 100). Here the sky is darker still, yet with even greater detail in the trees’ foliage. You can also see that I did not lower the filter quite enough, as there is a lighter sky immediately above the trees. Had I lowered the filter more I would probably have even greater detail in the foliage.

Since landscapes are best shot at dawn and dusk, these filters should enable me to produce images with less contrast and more detail. Though I do like landscapes in their own right, I plan to shoot more of these to illustrate the habitats of my bird photographs. By so doing I anticipate providing greater context for describing the birds and the state of their respective populations over the past 30 or more years.

If you have been using neutral density filters in your work I would be happy to hear about your experiences with them.

Lightroom 4–yikes!

After being back-ordered for several weeks through my university, I was one of the first to install, or attempt to install, Lightroom 4 in May. Before ordering I naturally checked to see that my computer met all the usual requirements of memory and so forth, or so I thought.  When I got the disk home and started the install I was shocked to read the message, “Not compatible with this operating system.” What? I thought. I grabbed the box, “Requires Windows 7.” Up until then, everything I bought was compatible with XP, service pack 2. Since I had opened the package I was stuck. Besides, the reason I bought this was not because it could do more with video, but because it automates the insertion of latitude and longitude coordinates from Google Earth into my photos’ metadata. This is of real interest in bird photography, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology encourages the inclusion of these data for photos sent to its site http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=all+about+birds&f=hp –part of its Citizen Science Project. Oh, more thing. Lightroom 4 can produce personally designed photo-books in .PDF format, or printed copies through one of several print services.  Pretty nice features over earlier versions of Lightroom.

So, after running diagnostics on my machine to confirm that Windows 7 would run, I bought a copy, followed Microsoft’s on-line instructions, but could not get the computer to work properly.  I took the machine in to my local provider who reinstalled the system, but I still had problems at home.  They eventually sent a tech to my home, only to find that I had a second computer monitor cable attached, which upset the system.  I have no idea when or why I did this. Thus, the entire reinstall, not to mention loading all my other software, took about two weeks.

However, when all was said and done, and installed, I must say the computer runs better on 7, and Lightroom 4 has worked fine, though I’m just now preparing to use some of the new features.

If you have any comments about using Lightroom 4, I would love to hear them.

Into retirement

It’s been some time since my last post, and I have a backlog of photos from which to select and process for my on-line gallery. My “excuse” is that with late spring I spent more time providing flight instruction, along with wrapping up my academic career. However, as of July 1 I’ll be officially retired, though I’ll be doing some consulting on program evaluation projects.  In any event, I’ll have more time to devote to this blog, with one or two posts per week. Later this summer and early fall will usher in a series of bird photographs and landscapes from the Allegheny National Forest and the New York Adirondacks–I can’t wait!