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!

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!

Bufflehead Duck, In the early 20th century shooting had reduced Bufflehead population numbers significantly, but between 1955 and 1992 surveys indicate that numbers more than doubled, despite large year-to-year fluctuations.

Unlike Mallards, these birds are more wary of humans, so don’t expect to get too close. According to Cornell’s All About Birds http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/bufflehead/lifehistory/ac#at_consv :

  • The Bufflehead nests almost exclusively in holes excavated by Northern Flickers and, on occasion, by Pileated Woodpeckers.
  • Unlike most ducks, the Bufflehead is mostly monogamous, often remaining with the same mate for several years.
  • The Bufflehead lays eggs more slowly than most other ducks, commonly with intervals of two or three days between eggs.

The takeoff sequence was shot at Braddock Bay, which is a major stop-over on the eastern inland migration flyway. It is located on the south shore of Lake Ontario. Upon reaching this area, most birds will continue northward by circling the Ontario shoreline in an easterly or westerly direction since there are few updrafts over the lake, resulting in the expenditure of more energy.

1/500@f/11, ISO 250, EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM +1.4x III, 560 mm, Canon EOS 60D

 

On which paper to print

Until now, I’ve been using Epson papers. These include their Ultra Premium Matte, Premium Semi-Gloss, and Ultra Premium Luster. The Matte finish seems to be good for high quality black and whites, while the Luster provides good detail and color rendition for bird photographs. The slightly rough surface does not show fingerprints. The Semi-Gloss is a mid-range paper at somewhat lower cost. Overall, I can say that I’m generally satisfied with all.

Still, there are so many other papers and surfaces out there worth trying. I went to one of our few remaining local photo stores and asked them about different papers and their quality.  He said that once you focus on the quality papers, the best one to use is based on how it will be presented (e.g., framed under glass or exposed and more prone to handling, etc.) and what kind of aesthetic look you want.

Okay, so this information was good to know, but I still could not decide with which paper to experiment. Well what do you know?  Several vendors have variety packs; the salesman suggested I try MOAB, by Legion Paper. It contains 13 pairs of stock including rags, fiber, velvet, canvass, and metallic — all for $16 in 8.5 X 11. I’ll let you know what I think as I print with this stock