Muskegon, December 21st, It is easier if you cheat
Sorry for another post from Muskegon so soon again, since I have plenty of photos from around home to share. However, a few things happened this past weekend that I want to post about while the day is still fresh in my memory.
To begin with, it was a rather slow day as far as birds to photograph. It hasn’t been very cold here compared to our average temperatures or even the way that November was. But, most of the water at the Muskegon wastewater treatment facility has frozen over, meaning most of the ducks and geese, other than a few mallards, have left for down south. With the waterfowl gone, most of the raptors have moved on as well. I did see a few bald eagles and hawks, there’ll be photos later, but really, the only subjects that I saw worth photographing were the snowy owls.
That image was shot about half-way through my day, before I started cheating, which I’ll get to later.
I learned a great many things this day, about snowy owls, photography, editing photos, what other people will do for a great photo, and what I’ll do for a good photo, but I’ll get to those things as I go.
The day began cold, cloudy, hazy, with a strong enough wind to make it feel much colder than it was, which was about the freezing point for most of the day. I didn’t even make it all the way past the entrance drive to the wastewater facility before I spotted the first of five snowy owls for the day. I started out using the Beast (Sigma 150-500 mm lens) by itself for this photo.
I wasn’t that impressed by the position of the owl or the conditions, so it was playtime. I added the 1.4 X tele-converter to the Beast, meaning that I had to manually focus for this one.
Here’s the cropped version.
Not too shabby given the poor light at the time.
I set-up my second camera body with the 300 mm prime lens, the 1.4 X extender, and for shooting action photos, primarily birds in flight. I tested all the camera and lens settings out on a pair of common mergansers that I spooked by accident.
A little farther along the road, I spotted my second snowy owl of the day, but it wasn’t in the mood to have its photo taken.
I tried out my action set-up again on a rough-legged hawk, first, as it landed….
…switched to the Beast while it was perched….
…and managed to grab the action set-up as the hawk took flight.
Some light sure would have helped those, or any of my early action photo attempts.
The white pigeon tried to fool me into thinking it was a snowy owl, but I didn’t fall for it. 😉
Not far from there, I found my third snowy owl of the day, this one was willing to pose for a few photos.
And, here’s the cropped version of the image above.
The chance one takes getting so close to birds is that if they decide to fly away…
…you only get parts of the bird in the image.
That’s for any readers that have a snowy owl foot fetish. 😉
The owl didn’t go far…
…I learned that snowy owls like my Subaru Forester.
I had to shoot a few more photos of the owl as I walked back to my car.
From there, I hit all the typical birding hotspots around the wastewater facility proper, and the surrounding areas within the Muskegon State Game Area, which are considered part of the wastewater facility as they are under the control of Muskegon County, even though it is state land. I saw a pair of bald eagles on the ice of one of the lagoons, but well out of camera range. There were dozens of crows and hundreds of gulls, but little else to see. It may have been the slowest day of birding that I’ve ever had there.
I had planned to also go to the Muskegon Lake channel to look for late season migrating waterfowl, but looking towards that direction, I could see that the clouds were even thicker there, and very few waterfowl have shown up there according to eBird reports.
Instead, I drove back to the man-made hill that overlooks the grassy cells to hang out for a while and see if anything showed up. I’ve had good luck doing that in the past, and hoped that it worked again. I could see the first owl from when I arrived in the morning was still there in the grassy cells, and as I waited, I noticed that the owl hunted in a pattern of sorts.
The owl would perch on one of the pipes…
…or “ridges” that delineate each of the grassy cells…
…in a location where it could look down into two of the cells at a time. It would stay in each location for 15 to 30 minutes, and if it didn’t see anything, ….
…it would zig-zag across one cell to a spot where it could see down into the next two cells.
Watching the owl working its way across the grassy cells one pair at a time, I wondered if I could get in position ahead of the owl without it changing its pattern. The answer is obvious now, from the photos above, it was working well enough. In the photo above, you can see some of the pipes and other objects that the owl was using as perches in the background.
So, once the owl had moved, I would move to a point as close as I dared to get to the next place that I thought that the owl would land the next time that it moved.
Apparently, snowy owls hunt in a pattern that one can use to get into a better position to get good photos, one of many things I learned this day. The next thing that I learned is that snowy owls, at least the one I was watching, have a low success rate while they are hunting.
I was fine tuning how I was positioning myself anticipating the owls moves as the day went on. At one point, the owl took off, I didn’t save any of those photos, but the owl dove down into a cell, and didn’t come flying out the other side as I expected, so I went to see why…
…the owl kept digging for whatever it had missed, for so long that I switched over to shoot video for this.
If I’d have been smart, I would have kept the camera rolling, for the owl took off a few seconds later, which would have been great, until I lost the focus since I have to focus manually to shoot video.
But, I had another piece to the puzzle that I was putting together to get good action shots of the owl. It wasn’t long before the owl took off and tried for another rodent.
I was shooting in high-speed burst mode, and had already learned that shooting in RAW filled the buffer of the 60D much quicker than shooting jpeg. So, I would shoot a burst when the owl was at its closest to me, then stop. Bad move, because I missed the owl pouncing.
That was a split second after the owl had hit the ground. Once again, it had missed whatever it had been after.
It seemed to be having trouble figuring out how to get out of the reeds…
…until it remembered that it was a bird and could just fly out.
I was quite pleased with the way that my plan was working, I was getting fair shots of the owl both as it was flying, and as it was perched.
I was shooting in RAW so that I could edit the photos I was shooting, but up to this point, none of the photos have been edited other than being cropped. Being nearly all white, getting the exposure correct on the snowy owls can be tricky, especially as the background changes behind the owls as they fly. I wasn’t completely happy with the white balance either, snowy owls aren’t blue…
…but if I changed the white balance of my camera from cloudy to shade, then the owl and especially the background came out orange.
So once I was home, I played with the editing features of the Canon software that came with the camera for this one, and I got the white balance as close as I could come. In some ways I prefer the warmer colors of the “orange” owl, but this next one is as close to neutral, and real life, as I could get.
This was my first real attempt at any type of editing other than cropping, and I found out that using the Canon software is very tedious, but worth the effort at times to change an image from just a so-so one into something better.
Who would have thought that I’d be tweaking the white balance or exposure of my images as I have done with some of the rest of the photos from the day?
It’s becoming clearer to me all the time that no matter how one sets up a camera, there are limitations to how well the images will look as they come out of the camera. It was late summer when I lamented that I couldn’t adjust the exposure compensation in one-quarter of a stop increments, as one-third of a stop sometimes seemed to be too much at times. Software adjustments allow me to make those small exposure adjustments that can’t be done by the camera. Or, to fine tune the white balance when the weather on a particular day doesn’t match up exactly with the camera settings available to use.
Maybe it’s because my skills as a photographer are improving that I’ve come to realize the limitations of what a digital camera can record as matched against what my eye sees as I press the shutter release. A year ago, I would have said that the editing that I’ve done to some of the following photos was cheating, now, I see it as overcoming the limitations of my gear, allowing me to capture what I saw.
But, there’s almost cheating by editing photos, and then there’s real cheating.
I had been following the one snowy owl around for a couple of hours, and was getting good at positioning myself to get some good photos. One other vehicle had stopped by at one point, the occupants shot a few photos then left the owl to me again. I was quite pleased with myself for having learned how the owl hunted, being able to predict the best position to get to ahead of the owl, and the photos that I was shooting. I did wish that there had been more light so I could have shot at a faster shutter speed so that the images would have been sharper…
…but overall, I thought that things were going well. All that was about to change.
Some of you may remember the first time that I posted about the snowy owls, and the guy with the BIG LENS that was a real jerk. I was afraid that I would be seeing a rerun of that episode, but in some ways, this day was worse. This guy with the BIG LENS set-up his gear….
…the type of gear that I can only dream of owning, unless I win the lottery. 😉
Since the owl had just moved to another spot to look for food, I looked around, and picked out the next perch that I thought that the owl would use as it continued to hunt in the grassy cells, and positioned myself to wait for the owl to come to me. It all went according to plan, and even the light began to improve, for it wasn’t long before the owl took off, and I was able to shoot these.
I was really patting myself on the back for having been able to shoot that series of photos, and the owl had even gotten a mouse to eat as you can see. But, I didn’t know that owl and the I had gotten some help from the other photographer.
The owl soon took off from the post, and headed back to where it had come from.
I thought that it was odd that the owl went back, but I reasoned that it had been successful, and maybe it had seen or heard more mice in the same area as it had captured the first. So, I sat and waited, and it wasn’t long before the owl came back towards me. This time, I had even a better idea of the route the owl would take, and was able to get better photos.
The owl had even gotten another mouse, but this time, it had been a white mouse. Wait a minute, something fishy is going on here, there are no white mice in the wild that I know of.
I had been watching the owl intently all of the time, and not paying any attention to what the guy with the BIG LENS was up to. The owl quickly returned to the spot from which it had started the previous two flights, and this time, I watched what the guy with the BIG LENS was up to.
After a few minutes had gone by, I watched him get his camera gear all set, then reach into his Jeep to get something out of it. He walked out into the edge of the grassy cell, held out one arm for the owl to see, then tossed something, a mouse, out for the owl. It didn’t take long for the owl to react, it took off right away.
The guy with the BIG LENS must have had the BIG LENS set to shoot photos of the owl as it took off, and he must have triggered that camera remotely. He used the shorter lens to photograph the owl as it flew.
Even though I had seen the mouse thrown out into the grassy cells for the owl, I couldn’t resist shooting another batch of photos.
It was almost like shooting fish in a barrel, as this time, I was 95% certain of the exact route the owl was going to take. I knew about where the owl was going to rise up above the mound that forms the grassy cell, so I pre-focused on that spot, and caught the owl just as it appeared in my view again.
I knew that it would probably drop back down into the second cell, so it was easier to follow the owl in flight.
And, I knew almost with certainty where it would land, so I pre-focused on the post with the reflector, and waited for the owl to appear in the viewfinder.
Yes, it’s a lot easier to get better photos if you cheat and use bait to get an animal close to you, and to have it do something that you’re prepared for!
I debated whether I would even post those last three series of images, since the owl had been baited by the guy with the BIG LENS. I believe that it is unethical to use bait while photographing nature, and while I wasn’t the one throwing mice out for the owl, I benefited from it, especially in that last series when I knew what was going on.
On the other hand, I had been watching the owl all afternoon, and had positioned myself where I did based on having watched the owl, and getting to know how it behaved as it hunted. There was a high probability that the owl would have landed on the fence post with the reflector the next time that it had moved, even if the guy with the BIG LENS hadn’t come along to toss mice out to the owl. But, that would have been a one time deal, not something that the owl repeated several times for me to learn its exact flight path in order to be prepared for when the owl took that flight.
In case you’re wondering the guy with the BIG LENS got some fantastic photos and a video of the owl, I know that because a few of them have been posted on the web site of the Muskegon County Nature Club, so I know who the guy with the BIG LENS is.
I decided that I would use those photos that I shot for several reasons. One, they are a record of what I saw that day, including the guy baiting the owl. Two, I had invested most of a day in learning how to get close to the owl as it hunted, it wasn’t my fault that some one showed up to bait the owl just as the light got better. I shot over 400 images of the owl and many of them are close to being as good as the last three series of photos from when the owl was being baited. The photos from earlier in the day would have been as good or better than those that I shot as the owl was being baited if the light had been as good earlier. And, like I said, I chose where to position myself based on having learned the owl’s habits, not on the fact that some one started tossing mice out to the owl.
Still, it is an ethical issue that I’m still having trouble coming to grips with. At the time, I was so disgusted with myself, that I went over to shoot this crummy shot of two bald eagles that I had been keeping an eye on as I was watching the owl as a way of atoning for the sin of having photographed the owl that had been baited.
Well, that all took place a week ago. I haven’t had much time to work on this post, as I was either working long hours the first three days of the week, or out walking trying to get a few good photos despite the constant gloomy weather that’s been in place here. I still haven’t come to terms with having photographed the owl even though I knew some one else was feeding it, I may not ever. But, I’ll have more about that in future posts, right now, it’s time to stick a fork in this one, as it’s done.
That this is it for this one, thanks for stopping by!