Learning a few lessons
On Sunday, April 14, I drove over to Muskegon for a day of birding, using my new camera and lenses. Since part of the day consisted of photographing waterfowl from my vehicle, drive by birding as I call it, I am going to bore every one to start by heaping praise on my new Subaru.
I Love my Forester! I filled up the gas tank before starting for Muskegon, and with a tailwind on my way there, the display for the fuel mileage was reading just under 32 MPG! Not bad for a small all wheel drive SUV. I say small, because that’s how the Forester is classified, there’s more head and leg room in it than in my old Ford Explorer, and just as much cargo space in the rear. Yet the Forester drives like a vehicle much smaller then the Explorer, as far as how nimble it is. And, getting almost 32 MPG sure beats the 20 MPG that was the best the Explorer ever got.
However, I found out that the extra cabin space was actually a hindrance while trying to shoot photos from inside of the Forester. The old Explorer was so narrow that I could easily open the passenger side window, and stick my lens out when required for photography purposes.
The Forester is just enough wider that I found it extremely difficult to do the same thing in it. But, part of that is the due to the size and weight of the Sigma 150-500 mm lens as well.
Anyway, if you’re in the market for a fun to drive, safe, fuel-efficient, well-built vehicle, you owe it to yourself to at least check out a Subaru. They’re not sexy, but they get the job done.
Next up, the weather report. The forecast called for morning rain/snow showers, with clearing and possible sunshine for the afternoon. The rain/snow was over here in Grand Rapids when I set out, but I ran into it again just as I got to Muskegon. Boy, did I ever, as you will see.
My first stop was the Muskegon County wastewater treatment facility, and just as I pulled in, the snow really picked up in intensity, reducing visibility to less than a quarter of a mile. It was snowing so hard that the ground was soon covered, in spite of the fact that the temperature was above freezing.
In the very first pond that I came to, there was a pair of hooded mergansers taking shelter from the storm. This is when I learned that I couldn’t shoot photos out of the passenger side window of my Forester. So, I drove past them, turned around and came back, and to my surprise, they sat there as I started shooting photos. I was overjoyed! They are such skittish birds, I couldn’t believe it when I could zoom in on them to the point where I could see the water dripping from the male’s bill in the viewfinder of my camera as I was shooting. What I didn’t know, but the birds must have, was that the photos I was taking would come out like crap because of the heavy snow falling at the time.
Believe me, it looked much better through the viewfinder.
So, I drove around the west lagoon, blissfully shooting photos of bufflehead, golden eye, northern shovelers, coots, ruddy ducks, etc. thinking that I was getting some really good photos. Because of the bad weather, as is often the case, the birds were holding tight, not wanting to move from the sheltered areas in which they were holding. What I didn’t know was that I was actually shooting photos of the falling snow as much or more than I was shooting photos of waterfowl. But, I didn’t now that until I got back home and downloaded the photos to my computer.
One lesson I did learn right there at the time was to never shut the camera off. I hate to harp about the position of the on/off switch on the Canon 60D, but the second or two I lose while fumbling for the switch is enough for a bird to take flight, or dive to avoid being photographed. After a couple of instances when I missed the opportunity to take a shot of the falling snow with a duck in the background, I left the camera on except when I was travelling to other areas….
Battery life is good enough to let me get away with it.
I used that last shot for a couple of reasons. One is that the horned grebes are beginning to change to their breeding colors. The second was to show just how hard it was snowing, you can see snow on the grebe’s back because the snow was coming down faster than it would melt off from the grebe.
By the time I got to the back corner of the west lagoon, the snow was letting up, and I managed to salvage a few shots.
There were few waterfowl in the east lagoon, I have no idea why, but that’s the way it was. There were however, dozens if not hundreds of tree swallows skimming over the waterways that ring the lagoons, and connect the ponds together. Feeling really brave, I tried my hand at photographing the swallows in flight, and here’s the best of a half a dozen attempts.
Keeping a 500 mm lens on a swallow in flight is no easy task, this female gadwall proved to be a little easier.
But, I missed the male, darn.
This meadowlark fell victim to camera shake I believe, because I was trying to shoot through the passenger window of my Forester, and couldn’t get into a steady position.
I was able to catch this kestrel through the driver’s side window, some sun would have helped this one out.
I drove around the north end of the wastewater facility, but found nothing special worth photographing. By that time though, the sun was breaking through the clouds. I thought about going around the lagoons again, but I didn’t know how bad the photos I had taken previously were, and I had other stops I wanted to make. That, and more people were showing up since the weather was getting nicer. I looked for the hooded mergansers, they were gone, and I saw several cars working the lagoons, so I doubted if I would get as close to the waterfowl as I had earlier, when I was the only one there.
I headed up to the headquarters for the Muskegon State Game area, to do some walking rather than driving. I learned another lesson there.
The Sigma lens came with a very nice carrying case, complete with strap. I had the Sigma on the camera, but had placed the Canon 70-200 mm lens in the case to make it easy to carry, I thought. The strap on the case is too short to go over my head and carry over my shoulder that way, I can only put the strap on my shoulder. The strap kept sliding off my shoulder as I walked, so I ended up carry the case and spare lens in one hand, and the camera and Sigma lens in the other, not a great arrangement. That’s one instance when I should have tried that at home. 😉 On one of the rainy days this week I’m going to have to rearrange the dividers in my camera bag to hold the Canon lens I have so I can carry it with me. I’ve been so busy buying and learning new equipment that I haven’t gotten around to that chore yet. I’ll wait until I pick up the EF S 15-85 mm lens so that I can rearrange the dividers to hold both Canon lenses, then find a way to attach the Sigma lens case to my camera bag solidly.
Anyway, it didn’t matter too much, I only walked a few hundred yards down the trail when I came to a large flooded area, with no way around it. I headed back to where I had parked and set off in the other direction, only to go a short way before coming to another flooded area. So much for this spot.
I drove down to the Messenger Road parking area to try that. I had never been there before, but had heard it was a good spot for birding. As I entered the parking area, I wasn’t holding out much hope, as it turned out to be on the edge of a very large marsh, hundreds of acres of marsh. With all the rain we had, which flooded the birding trails at the headquarters, I didn’t think that I would find a place to walk at all. But, there’s a dike there that controls the water levels in the marsh, with a trail along the top of it. It looked high and dry, so I set off down the trail.
It wasn’t long before I saw this raccoon hunting for food on the edge of the dike.
When it spotted me, it took off swimming through the swamp to a tree to safely climb.
I made it almost a mile from my vehicle when I came to a spot where the dike was being washed away by the flood waters, so much for this trail.
I turned around and headed back to my vehicle, pausing long enough to shoot this kingfisher.
Yeah! With some sun, the Sigma really does the job! That extra reach sure came in handy for those.
OK, so I wasn’t having much luck looking for a place to walk, as everything was flooded, so I headed to the Muskegon Lake channel, as I knew that would be high and dry. I went to the north side this time, in Muskegon State Park, as it was now late afternoon, and I would get good lighting on either side, but the north side was a shorter drive.
I got to the channel to find the wind blowing out of the east in excess of 30 MPH, with three-foot swells (at least), and no birds other than gulls in sight. I felt a moment of letdown, then saw some wind surfers doing their thing at the entrance to the channel. I thought “What the heck, shooting them will be a good test of the lens and camera”.
So, I walked down to where I had a good view of them, and shot away.
One is a little blurry, but I would say not bad at all. The windsurfers were moving at a pretty good clip, and I think that they were a good test of my new gear. But, I was after birds, so I thought that I would go to the snug harbor access area in the State Park to see what I could find there.
Oh, before I forget, the wind was so strong there that every time I set the case holding the spare lens down on the ground to take photos, I had to be careful that it didn’t blow away, or into the channel. That held true when I spotted this female red-breasted merganser that appeared out of nowhere.
She did her best impression of a submarine periscope for me.
Then I got a good shot of her while zoomed in all the way between waves!
Her mate wanted nothing to do with having his photo taken.
I started walking back to my vehicle, when this also appeared out of nowhere!
After the loon dove, I never did see it again, and believe me, I looked for it!
I did however find another horned grebe in the process of getting its breeding plumage.
And, I shot a few more of the windsurfers for the heck of it.
They were catching some serious air in that wind.
I did stop at snug harbor, and shot a few of a great blue heron in flight, with and without swans.
Nothing great, other than the heron, but it was good practice with the new camera and lens. Seeing them here, I’m tempted to put them in full resolution, as they are sharper than they appear here, but you’ll have to take my word for that. I still need to conserve the free space that WordPress provides for photo storage, and if I started posting full resolution photos, I’d never stop, and would soon run out of space.
Oh, and the swans in the photos are all young swans that haven’t reached breeding age yet.
Anyway, I also got some very good photos of red-winged blackbirds to finish off the day.
I saw a couple of eagles as well, and there were many smaller waterfowl hanging out with the swans too. All too fay away for a good photo even with the Sigma lens.
All in all, a very good day, despite the early crop of bad snow photos, but that’s how I learn. I feel I made some real progress as far as getting used to the controls on the camera and Sigma lens, I didn’t have a chance to work with the Canon 70-200 mm today, its time will come. I am also learning their capabilities, and how to adjust to overcome their shortcomings, not that they have many I didn’t know of when I purchased them. The Sigma is a bit slow for action shots, other than in good light, I knew that going in.
That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!