My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Archive for March, 2016

A new motto to go by, if it’s good enough for Nat Geo

In my last post, I listed a few of the things that I think are holding me back as far as getting better photos.

  • Time
  • Weather (lighting)
  • Getting closer to wildlife subjects
  • Camera gear (and being able to carry it all)

All of these, and more, are inter-related in many ways, and I left what may be the most important thing off from the list, my approach to individual genres of photography. I’ve mentioned this a few times recently, but I’m moving more in this direction every time that I go out to shoot photos, concentrating on only one genre at a time. In other words, if I’m going somewhere to shoot landscapes, then I should only shoot landscapes and not think about shooting other subjects. If I’m going to spend the day birding, then I should only shoot birds, and not think about other types of subjects.

Of course this is easier than it sounds, because you never know when a great opportunity for a photo of any type is going to arise.

I purchased the camera gear that I did with that in mind, I wanted to be ready for anything at any time. However, with all the gear that I have, the backpack that holds it all is too heavy for me to lug around on longer hikes. Well, I can carry it all for 5 miles or a little more, but the truth is, it wears me out. Because of that, I pass on shooting some photos that I should, just because I’m too tired to fool around dropping the pack, digging out the required items, shooting the photos, then putting the pack back on.

I hate to admit that, but I’m no spring chicken any more, and that’s only going to become more true in the next few years as I get closer to retirement.

When I do retire, I plan on spending as much time outside shooting photos as the weather permits, and I’d like to be able to enjoy it, not come home dead tired from lugging excess camera gear around just in case.

Okay then, one thing that I’ve learned over the past few years is that going for longer hikes and shooting “targets of opportunity” so to speak, doesn’t necessarily lead to the best photos, which is why I’ve been breaking up my days doing more specialized photography over the course of a day. For example, generally, the best times to shoot landscapes are around sunrise and sunset. But there are exceptions, an approaching storm, or when the sun pops out after a storm has passed can often yield great lighting for dramatic landscape photos.

When it comes to birds, or any wildlife, generally the best time is shortly after sunrise, when the wildlife is the most active, and there’s enough light to photograph them. Also, the closer that you can get to your subject when shooting wildlife generally produces the best images. At least that’s true when you’re shooting bird portraits…

Male blue-winged teal

Male blue-winged teal

…and it’s really good if you get close enough for a head shot that didn’t need to be cropped.

Pekin duck basking in the sun

Pekin duck basking in the sun

However, what happens if there’s a photo opportunity at the “wrong” time of day…

Male bufflehead at sunrise

Male bufflehead at sunrise

…or if you suddenly get the chance to shoot action shots?

Male bufflehead chasing a female

Male bufflehead chasing a female

That was shot on Easter Sunday as were the others except for the Pekin duck, my best day of photography since Christmas Day, 2015. I’m beginning to think that the Big Guy upstairs smiles down on me when I spend the religious holidays in nature trying to capture the beauty of his creations.

For reasons that I won’t go into, I arrived just a bit late at the Muskegon wastewater facility to get the best photo of the sunrise, as the colors were already beginning to fade.

Sunrise at Muskegon

Sunrise at Muskegon

I shot that one just to remind myself to never be late for a sunrise again! If I had been there on time, I would have gotten a better foreground and even better color in the sky.

It turned out to be a ducky day, as I saw just about every species of puddle ducks at one point or another during the course of the day. Large flocks had just arrived at the wastewater facility, and in the early morning light, I decided to shoot mostly the small flocks of ducks as they were fooling around.

Northern shovelers landing

Northern shovelers landing

 

Male northern shoveler taking off

Male northern shoveler taking off

 

Male northern shoveler in flight

Male northern shoveler in flight

Not only had many species just arrived, but particularly the bufflehead were in an amorous mood as they were pairing up for the spring. I tried to shoot a few photos, and you’ve already seen one taken later in the day, but I decided to attempt a video of them in action.

You may think that I sped up the video, but I didn’t, I don’t have the video editing software to do that, even if I knew how. That’s really how quickly the bufflehead move when their hormones are raging. I wasn’t happy with that first video, so I tried again.

There was a small flock of blue-winged teal flying in loops around one of the storage lagoons, but whenever they were showing their beautiful blue and green wing patches…

Blue-winged teal in flight

Blue-winged teal in flight

…they were so close together that it was hard to pick individuals out of the flock. But, when they were banking away from me…

Blue-winged teal in flight

Blue-winged teal in flight

…then they would spread out nicely, showing me the duller underside of their wings.

I’m going to skip ahead at this point, to mid-morning when the ducks began to calm down and snooze for the most part. I decided to park my brand new pretty blue Subaru next to the east lagoon while I ate lunch to see how close the ducks would come towards it if it wasn’t running.

My brand new pretty blue Subaru

My brand new pretty blue Subaru

I’d better not start telling you how much I love this car already, that could be an entire blog post if I were to get started.

Anyway, a small flock of bufflehead were drifting towards me getting closer all the time. Since I wanted to get a good close-up of one of the males showing their iridescent head, I put the 2 X tele-converter behind the 300 mm lens…

Male bufflehead

Male bufflehead

…with them facing me for a change, instead of swimming away from me.

Male bufflehead

Male bufflehead

Even at 600 mm of focal length, I wasn’t getting as close to the ducks as I had hoped, but that suddenly changed. Their hormones kicked in again, and they were going just as crazy as in the videos earlier, then that 600 mm f/8 lens was too long and too slow…

Male bufflehead chasing a female

Male bufflehead chasing a female

…I was a bit slow trying to keep up with the action as well…

Male bufflehead chasing a female

Male bufflehead chasing a female

…and most of the time, I couldn’t keep both of them in the frame…

Male bufflehead chasing a female

Male bufflehead chasing a female

…although the male did slow down to catch his breath, then he was off again…

Male bufflehead chasing a female

Male bufflehead chasing a female

…overall though, I’m surprised that as many of these came out reasonable well as they did…

Male bufflehead chasing a female

Male bufflehead chasing a female

…as the combination of the 300 mm lens and 2 X extender seems to focus as slow as molasses…

Male bufflehead chasing a female

Male bufflehead chasing a female

…but they tracked the bufflehead well and did a respectable job here…

Male bufflehead chasing a female

Male bufflehead chasing a female

…then, I don’t know if they noticed me, or something else spooked them, but they departed for good…

Male bufflehead in flight

Male bufflehead in flight

…maybe the female was tired of being chased…

Male bufflehead in flight

Male bufflehead in flight

…and so it goes. I probably shouldn’t have posted all of those, but since bufflehead are small ducks ( Just over a foot in length), I don’t have that many good images of them.

You can never predict what wildlife is going to do, making the camera settings/lens selection difficult. If I had known that the bufflehead were going to go nuts as close to me as they were, I wouldn’t have put the 2 X extender on the lens. Although, it worked out reasonably well here, it would have been better if I could have kept both the male and the female in the frame to tell the story by having them both in the frame.

I don’t want to get into he technical details of photography, I’ll just say that neither the lens combination that I was using, nor the camera settings were as good as they should have been to capture the action. That goes with the two examples from my last post, the waxwing feeding frenzy and the downy woodpecker territorial dispute where because of my equipment and settings, I wasn’t able to tell the entire story of what was going on. Then, there’s the fact that shooting video may be the best way to tell the stories that I’d like to tell when it comes to when it comes to wildlife.

I’ve been mentioning things such as wearing camouflaged clothing, or using hides to get closer to wildlife, along with specializing more when it comes to the time that I spend outdoors. It’s time to start putting that all together in the form of a plan.

On a nice warm, sunny day as Easter was, I’d love to sit back in a hide and let the birds come to me. Just as I parked my brand new pretty blue Subaru in a spot where I knew that I’d have good light and that the ducks seemed to like to hang out at, I could have set-up a temporary hide there, and taken two cameras, lenses, and just a few more bits of gear and waited for the ducks to return so that I could have gotten even better images than I did. I’d have one camera set-up for action, the other for portraits. I may even start doing things right by mounting the portrait set-up on my tripod if I know that I have another good set-up ready for action photos ready to go right next to me.

But, I don’t want to completely give up my longer hikes, I do enjoy them, and frankly, I need the exercise, so there’s the weight of my gear to consider.

I think that I have a solution, a better long zoom lens than the Beast (Sigma 150-500 mm lens) for action, and I can use the 300 mm lens with the tele-converters for portraits when I’m in a hide. The new Canon 100-400 mm zoom lens is still a full pound lighter than the Beast, is much shorter and compact, and it focuses as close as the 300 mm lens does for near macros, so I could carry that on longer hikes since it’s so versatile. If that lens had been available when I made the switch from Nikon to Canon, it probably would have been the lens that I purchased rather than the Beast. The 100-400 mm lens is a bit heavier than the 300 mm lens alone, but I always have the 1.4 X extender behind that lens, so the weight difference between what I use now and the new lens is minimal.

Thinking along those same lines, versatility, I have been trying out a few things on my longer walks the past month or so. When the weather is suitable for good macro photography, and I know that I’ll likely want to shoot macros, I’ll carry the birding set-up along with a 60D body and the 100 mm macro lens. On days when it’s windier, or I think that I may shoot a landscape or two, I carry the birding set-up, the 60D body, the 15-85 mm lens, and one or two of the extension tubes which convert that lens to a near macro lens. Since I have learned that software can help almost as much as extra light sources, it works quite well.

Decay

Decay in HDR

I’ve struggled in the past with similar photos, as there would be deep shadows in places in that photo. I’d have to dig out the LED light that I have, and/or the flash unit, set everything up, take a few test shots, then rearrange the lights as needed. By shooting to produce a HDR image, I find that I seldom need to fool around with the extra light sources to kill the shadows that the camera produces in a scene like that one. While that one isn’t a true macro photo, I used the same technique to shoot the crocus flowers recently.

Crocus

Crocus

I guess that you could say that I’m still learning how to get the best out of the gear that I have now.

That still doesn’t deter me from wanting a full size sensor camera body though, no matter how good that I get with my crop sensor gear, it can never match what’s possible with a full size sensor.

I’m in no hurry though, since Canon introduced the 7D Mk II, they’ve upgraded the 1DX, their top of the line camera, to match all the capabilities of the 7D, such as the dual Digix 6 processors, the better metering system, built-in intervalometer, and so on. I don’t think that it will be long before they upgrade the 5D Mk III to include those features as well.

Then, I have to think about lenses, actually, I’m thinking about that now. I had two wide-angle lenses picked out, but I’ve changed my mind. That’s where the new motto comes in.

In the videos that Michael Melford did, he listed the gear he used, and one of the lenses he used a lot before he switched to Nikon was the Canon 24-105 mm L series lens. I’ve also noticed that many of the professionals who do the online tutorials on Lightroom or Photoshop use that same lens, even though it is getting long in the tooth.

It’s easy to understand why, that’s about the ideal focal length range for an all around lens unless one is into specialized subjects, such as wildlife or macro photography. The 24-105 mm lens goes from wide enough for most landscapes, to enough of a telephoto lens for portraits, still life photography, and subjects such as flowers. In fact, it was one of the lenses that I considered early on when I bought the 60D camera, but that’s a crop sensor camera, and the 24-105 mm becomes a 38.4 – 168 mm lens on the 60D, not wide enough for what I wanted on the crop sensor body. That’s why I chose the EF S 15-85 mm lens, because it is to a crop sensor camera what the 24-105 mm lens is to a full size sensor body.

But, the venerable 24-105 mm lens is getting old in the tooth as I said, and it’s never had a reputation for being extra sharp. But, the way I’m looking at things now, if it is good enough for the professionals, then it’s good enough for me. Or, to put in a slightly different way, if the photos that it produces are good enough for Nat Geo, then it’s good enough for me.

Since my goal is to shoot photographs that come close to the ones that I’ve seen in the National Geographic, I’d be a happy camper if I could achieve that goal.

Canon is currently updating both their cameras and lenses, maybe they will update the 24-105 mm lens soon. That would make that lens a sure bet, but I’ll probably purchase the old style if that’s all that’s available.

So, what I’m thinking of in the future on my longer hikes is carrying the 7D Mk II with the new 100-400 mm lens on it for birds, wildlife, and near macros, maybe even a landscape now and then. I’ll carry the full frame camera with the 24-105 mm lens on it for landscapes, still life photos, and so on, and I’ll have the extension tubes with me that weigh next to nothing to convert that lens to a macro lens. I’d be able to cover all the bases pretty well without trying to carry a full studio around with me as I’m doing now.

If you think that the rest of the gear that I’ve purchased so far will go to waste, it won’t, it will get used when I go on the more specialized photo outings. But, rather than pack it all, all the time, I’ll just take what the specialized outing calls for.

Okay then, back to Easter Sunday at Muskegon. I said that it was a ducky day, and that I saw a wide variety of species there, so here’s the photos of them.

Pie-billed grebe

Pie-billed grebe

 

Male greater scaup

Male greater scaup

 

Snow goose in flight

Snow goose in flight

 

Lesser scaup pair

Lesser scaup pair

 

Horned grebe

Horned grebe

 

Redhead ducks

Redhead ducks

 

Female or juvenile ruddy duck

Female or juvenile ruddy duck

 

Northern pintail ducks in flight

Northern pintail ducks in flight

 

American widgeon

American wigeon

 

American widgeon

American wigeon

 

American coot

American coot

 

Female common goldeneye

Female common goldeneye

But the stars of the day were the bufflehead, there were hundreds of them, everywhere, so here’s three more photos of them, even though this post has been full of them so far. These are more artistic images, the species doesn’t matter as much as the lighting…

Bufflehead in flight at dawn

Bufflehead in flight at dawn

…the angle that I shot the image at…

Bufflehead taking flight

Bufflehead taking flight

…or capturing the shot at the right moment.

Bufflehead taking flight

Bufflehead taking flight

I also spent some time adding to my collection of photos of gulls in flight, here’s just one of them that I shot on Easter.

Ring-billed gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

Gee, I posted so many photos of the bufflehead that I don’t have room for the snowy owl, I guess those photos will have to wait until the next post. That’s okay, this snowy was in no mood to pose for me, so the photos aren’t that good, and it’s no big deal if I hold off posting those.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!


Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis

The black-necked grebe (Podiceps nigricollis), known in North America as the eared grebe, is a member of the grebe family of water birds. It occurs on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.

The black-necked grebe is 28–34 centimetres (11–13 in) long. The adult is unmistakable in summer, with a black head and neck and yellow ear tufts. In winter, this small grebe is white with a poorly defined black cap, which distinguishes it from the crisper-looking Slavonian grebe (horned grebe in America).

This species breeds in vegetated areas of freshwater lakes across Europe, Asia, Africa, northern South America and the southwest and western United States. The North American subspecies, P. n. californicus, is known as the eared grebe (or “eared diver”). These birds migrate in winter, mostly to the Pacific Coast where they range south to El Salvador on a regular basis; vagrants may occur as far as Costa Rica.

The black-necked grebe is an excellent swimmer and diver, and pursues its prey underwater, eating mostly fish as well as small crustaceans, aquatic insects and larvae. It prefers to escape danger by diving rather than flying, although it can easily rise from the water.

Like all grebes, the black-necked grebe nests on the water’s edge, since its legs are set very far back and it cannot walk well. Usually two eggs are laid, and the striped young are sometimes carried on the adult’s back.

The black-necked grebe is essentially flightless for most of the year (9 to 10 months), and is one of the most inefficient fliers among avifauna. Generally, it avoids flying at all costs and reserves long-distance flight exclusively for migration. However, when migrating, it will travel as much as 6,000 km (3,700 mi) to reach prosperous areas that are exploited by few other species.

 

On to my photos:

These photos were shot at the Muskegon wastewater facility back in June of 2015.

Male Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis

Male Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis

 

Female Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis

Female Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis

 

Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis pair

Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis pair

 

Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis pair

Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis pair

 

Male Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis

Male Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis

 

Male Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis

Male Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis

 

Male Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis

Male Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis

 

Male Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis

Male Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis

 

Male Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis

Male Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis

 

Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis pair

Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis pair

This is number 191 in my photo life list, only 159 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

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Now’s a fine time

Spring is here, it officially arrived in the early hours of Sunday morning. However, it felt nothing like spring as I nearly froze my fingers off shooting poor photos of a ho-hum sunrise at Duck Lake. More on that in a few, but first, I need to apologize in advance for more of my babbling about my photography and gear.

I’ve been taking a long hard look at the quality of the images that I’m shooting now, I can see that I’ve made a good deal of progress in improving my photos. That always happens when it’s been a while since I shot what I consider to be a really good photo that stands out well above the average photos that I shoot. As my average photos improve in quality, it’s harder to shoot a photo that does stand out as being exceptional for me.

Give me a willing subject that asks me if I’d like it to pose for me…

Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee

…then I do reasonably well…

Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee

…if only all my photos turned out as well as these, minus the branch in the background of this next one.

Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee

At least the branch isn’t growing out of the chickadee’s head. 😉 And, I do continue to get better photos of species that I’ve photographed often.

Tufted titmouse

Tufted titmouse

Okay, I’ve watched a few more “how to” videos, mostly about shooting birds, but also one on flowers, and another on landscapes. Even though I didn’t pick up many useful tips, seeing great photos is always helpful, and watching those videos gives me a target to shoot at while I compare my images to those shot by professionals. I realize that when it comes to small birds that spend all their time in trees and bushes, that getting a good photo of one completely out in the open is mostly a matter of luck, or perseverance I should say, waiting for one of the birds to land in a spot were a very good photo is possible.

The same applies to photographing the birds in full sun, as were the photos so far. I’ve been shooting in high-speed burst mode more often lately, shooting away as the smaller birds twist and turn even as they’re perched to eventually get an image with no harsh shadows on the birds. I think that I shot around ten photos of the titmouse to get the one good one.

However, even on days when the light is about as close to perfect as it gets, with just a few high clouds diffusing the light, yet with enough light falling on the subject to allow me to keep the ISO down, there can still be shadows, although not as noticeable as on a completely sunny day.

Cedar waxwing

Cedar waxwing

Of course, there’s the busy foreground and background in that photo which preclude it from being excellent, it’s just a good photo of the waxwing. On top of that, there’s the bright white background caused by the cloudy sky. Okay, so I catch one of the waxwings a bit lower in the tree so that there’s not the white background…

Cedar waxwing

Cedar waxwing

…and there’s still all the twigs, branches and berries in the scene. I also had to edit that photo quite a bit to bring out the waxwing’s eye, as there was still a shadow from a branch right across its eye. When it turned…

Cedar waxwing

Cedar waxwing

…the shadow was gone, replaced by a twig, argh!

I’ll get back to the waxwings in a second, but for now, I should stop comparing my photos of small birds in the brush to the images that I see in the videos of much larger species of birds that are also much easier to photograph.

Juvenile bald eagle and red=tailed hawk sharing a thermal

Juvenile bald eagle and red-tailed hawk sharing a thermal

By the way, that was shot with the camera pointed nearly straight up through the moon roof of my brand new pretty blue Subaru. If you’ve ever wondered just how much larger an eagle is than the much more common red-tailed hawk, that photo should clear things up.

In analyzing that image, on the plus side, the settings that I have programmed into the second rear focusing button on the 7D work great on a sunny day like that. I didn’t have to adjust the shadows slider in Lightroom at all, the exposure compensation that I have dialed in worked well to get the under-wing details of the birds very good as they circled directly above me. On the downside, I forgot to turn off the image stabilization, so that image isn’t as sharp as it could have been, due to the “ghosting” that I get with the IS on, and the birds directly overhead of me.

Now, before I get even more sidetracked, back to where I was going with this. When it comes to birds, the videos I watch to learn how to shoot better photos deal with lager birds, herons, egrets, raptors, and so on, very seldom do the photographers show any species of birds smaller than a duck. While even the larger birds are no piece of cake to photograph well, small songbirds in the wooded areas of the eastern United States are an entirely different ballgame. Photographing a three-foot tall bald eagle perched in the top of a tree…

Bald eagle looking regal

Bald eagle looking regal

…is much easier than photographing a three-inch tall goldfinch perched in a similar tree, and, trying to hide.

American goldfinch

American goldfinch

I’ve gotten better shots of goldfinches in the past, my reason for posting this one is that he’s about halfway through molting into his much brighter yellow summer plumage, another welcome sign of spring!

However, I believe that I’ve been concentrating too hard on getting technically good photos, and forgetting that the general public doesn’t care that much about the technical quality, they want to see pretty or interesting things. Here’s an example of what I mean.

Fox squirrel

Fox squirrel

Technically, that’s a great photo, I got the exposure correct, the squirrel’s eye is in sharp focus, I got down to the squirrel’s level, the composition is good, and there’s nothing distracting about the background. However, I think that it’s a boring image because the squirrel is staring at me with a blank look on its face. I have dozens of photos of squirrels that I like better, even though they may not be as good technically, because the squirrels were up to something at the time that I shot them, most of the time it was something humorous. The photo above doesn’t tell a story, it doesn’t show the squirrel’s personality, and it isn’t artistic. So, just because a photo is technically good doesn’t mean that much. I prefer this one more…

Grey squirrel dozing in the spring sun

Grey squirrel dozing in the spring sun

…because I caught the squirrel as it was snoozing in the warm early spring sun. At least the second one tells a bit of a story.

Of course I’d love to do both, get technically good photos that also capture the personality of the subject, tell a story, are artistic, or simply capture the beauty in simple subjects.

Pine needles in the early morning sun

Pine needles in the early morning sun

So, in taking a hard look at the quality of the photos that I’ve been shooting, there are several impediments that are standing in the way of my shooting better photos all the time and they are, and this list applies to all the genres of photography that I shoot, not just wildlife in general, or birds in particular, except for the third item on this list.

  • Time
  • Weather (lighting)
  • Getting closer to wildlife subjects
  • Camera gear (and being able to carry it all)

I’ve listed them in the order of their impact on my photography, I believe that the lack of time is now the major thing holding me back. That’s unfortunate, as there’s not much that I can do about that at the current time. Because of my work schedule, I have two days, Sundays and Mondays, each week that I can devote to being outside for longer periods of time, and possibly two to three other days each week when I may be able to sneak in a quick walk through the local park if I have a short day at work.

In many ways, the second items on the list, weather and lighting are related to lack of time, since I have only the two full days off from work each week, I have to photograph in whatever weather that there is for those two days. I debated listing weather and lighting separately, as I can often work around bad lighting. What I can’t work around is weather so bad that I can’t find anything to photograph with all the wildlife having found shelter, flowers being beaten by the wind and rain, or temperatures so cold that I’d rather not risk frostbite to shoot a few photos.

For wildlife photography, getting closer to your subject is almost always better, and it’s in this area that I have the best chances of doing things differently to get better photos. I’ll expound on this more shortly.

You may have noticed that I listed camera gear last, as I’ve got some very good cameras and lenses already. I may not have been able to afford to buy the top of the line stuff, but I was able to purchase items that perform well for what they cost. The Canon 7D Mk II is an amazing piece of technology, and the more that I learn how to take advantage of its abilities, the more amazed I am at what it can do. For example, I was walking in the local park last week on a cloudy day. I spotted one of the resident red-tailed hawks coming towards me, and coming from the direction that the sun was in at the time. To make the set-up even more difficult, the hawk was flying lower than the tops of the trees, so there were tree branches to contend with. I got a focus lock on the hawk, then let the 7D do its thing shooting in high-speed mode for these.

You can see that the hawk passed in front of branches…

Red-tailed hawk in flight

Red-tailed hawk in flight

…behind branches…

Red-tailed hawk in flight

Red-tailed hawk in flight

…yet the 7D kept tracking it…

Red-tailed hawk in flight

Red-tailed hawk in flight

…and the hawk eventually came to a small opening in the branches for that last photo. I suppose that I could spend a few hours in Lightroom or Photoshop removing all the branches from that image, but I’d still be left with the blown out sky as a background. But, as I’ve said before, with the limited time available to me, I’d rather be outside taking photos than inside editing them.

My workhorse lens set-up for wildlife has become the 300 mm L series lens with the 1.4 X Tele-converter behind it. While the Beast (Sigma 150-500 mm lens) is a good lens, it’s too heavy for me to carry when I’m trying to also carry my other photo gear, and I’ve never been able to get good photos of birds in flight with it on a reliable basis. The 300 mm lens and extender also have the advantage of being a near macro lens for shots like this.

Pussy willows

Pussy willows

Still one can’t help but wonder if some other lens may be the magic bullet that help improve their photos, and I’m guilty of that.

In a way, I miss using the Beast, as I could zoom out to find a bird and get it in the frame, then zoom in for the photo. Trying to find a marsh wren flitting around in an ocean of cattails and reeds while looking through what becomes a 420 mm lens is no easy task. In fact, it was so difficult that I never managed to pull it off, despite my standing there for a good 30 to 45 minutes. Talk about frustrating, the wren was singing the entire time, and I’d catch occasional glimpses of it once in a while, but by the time that I’d get it in the viewfinder, it was either partially hidden, or already on its way to the next spot to sing from.

Another frustrating event occurred while I was shooting the photos of the cedar waxwings that you saw earlier in this post. There had been just a few of them in the tree, when I was suddenly surrounded by an entire large flock of them that were arriving to eat the berries that had fallen from the tree. It was a feeding frenzy that I wish that I could have photographed much better than what I did. Even as I was bringing the camera up to my eye, I was wishing that I had a shorter lens on the camera so that I could capture more of the waxwings as they scarfed down the fallen berries as quickly as they could. I’ve gotten close-ups of one waxwing swallowing a berry before, but even as tight as the 300 mm lens and extender are, I got three, with two actually in focus, although I cut the beak off from one of them.

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

It was a crazy scene, that lasted all of about thirty seconds before some one walked out of the apartment building nearby and spooked the birds off, but here’s a few more of the photos that I shot.

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

They apparently were hungry…

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

…and more arrived all the time…

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

…but in the end…

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

…I settled for trying to get a good photo of one of them, because I knew that I couldn’t get all or most of them.

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

At the time that I was shooting those, I had one of the 60D bodies with the 100 mm macro lens on it in the holster bag that I use to carry extra gear while walking around home. It would have been a better choice to use, but the camera was turned off, and set-up for landscapes. The feeding frenzy would have been interrupted by the time that I had removed the lens cap from the lens, and made all the adjustments to the camera that would have been needed. If I’d have had it ready, I would have been able to show you how large the flock was, and due to the increased depth of field of the shorter lens, most of the birds would have been in focus.

Come to think of it, there was another time this past week when I wished that I had a wider lens on the camera, I caught a pair of female downy woodpeckers in a territorial dispute. Even though they stayed close together as they went from branch to branch threatening and even dive bombing one another, I was so close to them that I could only get one in the frame…

Female downy woodpecker

Female downy woodpecker

…as she watched the other fly over her…

Female downy woodpecker

Female downy woodpecker

…until the second woodpecker landed on a branch above the first…

Female downy woodpecker

Female downy woodpecker

…and in this photo, you can see just the tail of the second woodpecker.

Female downy woodpecker

Female downy woodpecker

Here’s the rest of the one on the upper branch.

Female downy woodpecker

Female downy woodpecker

They moved to a different tree, where I could get them both in the frame, sort of…

Female downy woodpeckers displaying to one another

Female downy woodpeckers displaying to one another

…until the one on the right attacked the other one.

One female downy woodpecker attacking another

One female downy woodpecker attacking another

Doesn’t it figure, when I had a clear view of the woodpeckers, they were so close that I could only get one in the frame at a time. When I was able to get both of them in the frame, it was just barely, and the birds were partially obscured by the vines and branches in front of them.

I began this post by saying that I had gone to Duck Lake State Park to shoot a ho-hum sunrise. It was below freezing when I arrived, and to make things worse, I was feeling a bit under the weather that day. Still, I hauled most of my camera gear with me, and set-up the 60D body with the EF S 15-85 mm lens on my lightweight tripod to capture what I hoped would be a good sunrise, it wasn’t.

Frosty Duck Lake sunrise

Frosty Duck Lake sunrise

I took the rest of my gear to the Lake Michigan side of the bridge, and after shooting this song sparrow…

Song sparrow

Song sparrow

…I set the 7D up with the 70-200 mm lens on my good tripod in hopes of improving on a photo that I shot the last time I was there. Since there was little color in the sky, that didn’t pan out either.

Another sunrise over Lake Michigan

Another sunrise over Lake Michigan

Part of the problem was that the 70-200 mm lens wasn’t wide enough to compose the scene exactly how I wanted it to look. My only other option would have been the 10-18 mm lens, and that would have been too wide for that scene.

When that view didn’t pan out, I played around shooting alder catkins with the light hitting them from different directions. These next four photos should demonstrate why you should try different lighting on the same subject.

Alder catkins back lighting

Alder catkins back lighting

 

Alder catkins front lighting

Alder catkins traditional front lighting

 

Alder catkins side lighting

Alder catkins side lighting

 

Alder catkins slightly backlit

Alder catkins slightly backlit

Even if the sunrise itself was a bust, it was still fun to explore the possibilities, including getting a better shot of the glowing rocks from an earlier post that I did.

Glowing rocks again

Glowing rocks again

I think that I can do that last scene even better, we’ll see. This is the scene where the 70-200 mm lens would have been the correct choice. Still, it’s a good example of why I like getting out before sunrise, and photographing in the warm early morning light as the sun climbs above the horizon.

Even if I made some poor choices that morning, I still learned a great deal from my mistakes, and that’s always a plus. Having all my gear with me was a good thing as well, but it’s too much for me to carry on longer hikes, as much as I hate to admit that.

Another thing that I hate to admit is that I made some poor choices when it comes to the lenses that I have purchased, sort of. Things have changed a great deal since I began to get serious about my photography, as manufacturers continue to introduce new lenses all the time.

Take the Beast (Sigma 150-500 mm lens) for example. When I switched to Canon equipment, the two affordable zoom lenses on the market for birders were the Beast and Canon’s 100-400 mm lens. While the Canon lens may have produced slightly better images, it was also known as the dust pumper. The way that the zoom mechanism worked, the lens would draw dust from in the air into the lens, requiring that the lens be sent in for cleaning if it got much use. I’ve run into people who used that lens, almost all of them have had to send the lens in for cleaning, and that doesn’t come cheap. So at the time, the Beast seemed to be the best choice.

Since then, several manufacturers have introduced better zoom lenses in that focal length range that would have been a better choice for me, if they had been available at the time.

At the same time, I didn’t think that I would get as serious about photography as I have, I thought at the time that there was no way that I’d ever need more than a crop sensor camera. But, as I’m trying to shoot more landscapes, a full frame sensor camera is beginning to make sense. The problem with the lenses that I purchased is that they were designed to be used on only crop sensor cameras.

That’s not all bad though, as I do quite well with those lenses on the 60D, but the more that I shoot sunrises and sunsets, the more that I see that I could use a second wide-angle set-up, rather than trying to rush around changing my set-up all the time. One thing that I’m learning is that sometimes I luck out and a great scene presents itself in such a way that it photographs well without putting much thought into the photo, but most of the time, I’m much better off taking time to think through everything before I press the shutter release.

So, I’m developing some plans for the future which I’ve hinted at before. Some of those plans involve the purchase of more camera equipment, but most of them have to do with the way that I go about photographing the things that I do. The good thing is that as I change the way that I approach photography, I’ll learn more about what it is that I really need, although I can already see some of the things that I could use right now.

Since this post is too long already, I’ll continue into the future in my next post.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!


Black-billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

Black-billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

The black-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus) is a New World species in the Cuculidae (cuckoo) family. It is very similar and overlaps in range with the closely related yellow-billed cuckoo. A distinguishing characteristic of family Cuculidae is laying eggs in the nests of other birds. Although many cuckoos are obligate brood parasites, C. erythropthalmus often incubate their own chicks.

Standard Measurements

Length 280–320 mm (11–12.6 in)
Mass 45–55 g (1.6–1.9 oz)
Wingspan 440 mm (17.5 in)
Wing 132.9–140.9 mm (5.23–5.55 in)
Tail 147.4–159.8 mm (5.80–6.29 in)
Culmen 20.2–23.9 mm (0.80–0.94 in)
Tarsus 21.1–24.1 mm (0.83–0.95 in)

 

Adults have a long, graduated brown tail and a black, slightly downcurved bill. The head and upper parts are brown and the underparts are white. The feet are zygodactylous. Juveniles are drabber and may contain some rufous coloration on the wing. The adults have a narrow, red orbital ring while the juveniles’ is yellow. Black-billed cuckoo chicks have white, sparsely-distributed, sheath-like down that contrasts heavily with their black skin. They also have complex, creamy-colored structures on their mouth and tongue, which may appear like warts or some type of parasitic infection however they are normal for the species.

Black-billed cuckoo may be found in a variety of habitats. They are most commonly found around the edges of mature deciduous or mixed forests and much less frequently in coniferous forests. They can also be found in much younger growth forests with a lot of shrubs and thickets. Wetlands with a lot of alder and willow are another prime location to see them. Lastly, they can also inhabit more open areas such as abandoned farmland, golf courses and residential parks. Whatever the habitat may be, they are usually quite well hidden and tend to stick to the edges of these habitats. The chosen habitat must also have a water source nearby such as a lake, river, marsh or pond. On their wintering grounds in South America, they can inhabit tropical rainforests, deciduous or semiopen woodlands as well as scrub forests.

When breeding, the species is distributed in wooded areas across much of the United States, east of the Rockies. Their range just barely extends into North Carolina, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. They are not present to the south of those states when breeding. They can also be found in southern regions of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. They’re also present in the maritime provinces of Prince Edward Island, eastern New Brunswick and western Nova Scotia. When migrating in spring and fall, they can also be seen in southern United States as well as all of Central America. They migrate to northwestern South America in the fall, where they will spend the winter. Although they are mainly an eastern North American species, there have been confirmed reports of them in British Columbia, Washington and California. The species is also a rare vagrant to western Europe and Greenland in fall.

These birds forage in shrubs or trees. They mainly eat insects, especially tent caterpillars, but also some snails, eggs of other birds and berries. It is known to beat caterpillars against a branch before consuming them to remove some of the indigestible hairs. Remaining hairs accumulate in the stomach until the bird sheds the stomach lining and disgorges a pellet in a manner similar to owls.

Invasive gypsy moths may also serve as an important food source for black-billed cuckoos. Most birds cannot consume gypsy moth caterpillars because of their hair-like setae however, cuckoos can consume them because of their ability to shed their abdominal lining. During outbreak years of these insects, the abundance of black-billed cuckoos increased on Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) routes. This increase is not due higher reproductive rate because then the black-billed cuckoo populations would only increase the next year. The abundance is higher because the cuckoos flock towards the outbreak areas. This is supported by the fact that cuckoo abundance is actually lower than average in the areas surrounding the outbreaks, suggesting a large influx of the birds towards outbreaks. They are able to find these areas due to post-migratory nomadic behavior. Once reaching their breeding ground, they search vast expanses of forest for the most suitable breeding area, in this case, where there is an abundance of food. Similar patterns have also been observed during outbreaks of tent caterpillars, fall webworms and cicadas.

When they are a couple days old, the chicks can make a buzzing sound that resembles an insect and a few days later, they can make a low barking call when disturbed. The call of this species is 2-5 sets of “coo” notes that are high-pitched, rapid and repetitive. There is a slight pause between each set. The phonetics are often written “coo-coo-coo-coo, coo-coo-coo-coo, coo-coo-coo-coo, …”. Adults usually call during the day when breeding however they begin calling at night, in the middle of summer.

Prior to copulation, the male lands on a branch near the female with an insect in its beak. The female will then flick her tail up and down intermittently for about 15 minutes while the male sits there motionless. The male then mounts the female, with the insect still in its mouth, and the two copulate. The male then either eats the food item or gives it to the female for her to eat.

Females usually lay 2-3 blue-green eggs, sometimes 4 or 5, which may take on a marbled appearance after a couple days of incubation. Adults incubate the eggs for 10–13 days. The young black-billed cuckoos, as well as others cuckoos in the genus Coccyzus, leave the nest 7–9 days after hatching, which is quite young when compared to other birds. The young are not able to fly right away however they can still move quite large distances by jumping between tree branches. During this period, they are more vulnerable to predators because they cannot fly away as the adults could. Due to this vulnerability, the juveniles can slowly assume an erect posture to conceal themselves. They stretch their neck out and point their bill upwards, while keeping their eyes open and remaining motionless. If the threat starts to back off, the cuckoo will relax its pose.

Outbreaks of tent caterpillars can have a positive effect on black-billed cuckoo populations. During these outbreaks, the adults begin laying eggs earlier in the season. They can also produce larger clutches and may even increase their parasitic activities.

Black-billed cuckoos are known to lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. They can lay eggs in the nests of other black-billed cuckoos, called conspecific parasitism, or in the nests of other songbirds, known as interspecific parasitism. The females will usually parasitize nests in the afternoon because the nests are often unguarded at this time. This cuckoo species is thought to have a laying interval of about a day so if two eggs show up in a nest on the same day, you can rightfully assume that one is a parasitic egg.

Many cuckoos are obligate brood parasites, meaning they only lay eggs in other birds’ nests and never take care of their own young. Birds that do this, such as the common cuckoo or the brown-headed cowbird, lay relatively small eggs because their expected hosts are usually smaller birds. Cuckoos in the genus Coccyzus, lay relatively large eggs even though they still parasitize smaller birds. Yellow warblers are the smallest birds recorded caring for black-billed cuckoo eggs. In experiments, these wood warblers were found to accept the cuckoo eggs 63% of the time even though their own eggs are only a quarter of the size. Even with the size difference, the warbler parent is often still able to raise the cuckoo as long as it can provide the chick with sufficient nutrition and incubation.

On to my photos:

These photos were shot while walking home from Creekside Park, near my apartment during the spring of 2015.

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

 

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

 

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

 

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

 

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

 

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

 

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

 

This is number 190 in my photo life list, only 160 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

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I learned a new trick!

If you’re into photography, one thing that you learn is that certain colors are often difficult to photograph well, when that color makes up most of the “scene”.  The two colors that come to mind quickly are red and yellow, two of the warmer colors. They can throw off a camera’s metering system for some reason, although how much the camera misses is dependent on the camera, which I’ll get to shortly.

When it comes to flowers, another problem that I’ve had in the past is that I get deep shadows that are a result of the way that cameras increase contrast in a scene. Well, that’s a problem when photographing far more than flowers, since it was something other than a flower that I photographed which eventually led me to try something when photographing flowers.

I had shot a photo of a nicely colored tree trunk, and I paused to review the image using the screen on the camera. In the image, there were deep shadows across the tree trunk, so since I hadn’t moved from where I had knelt down to shoot the photo, I looked at tree trunk again, no deep shadows. In fact, I had to look at the image and the real life scene several times before my eyes picked up faint shadows on the tree trunk in real life. The shadows that I saw in the image ruined it for me, if I had used that image as it came out of the camera, for the shadows were too dark, far darker than what I saw in real life.

That’s not the only time that shadows have ruined what I thought was going to be a good image, but it really hit me that day as I compared the image in the camera to what I could see right in front of my face.

That’s a function of the sensors and software in a modern camera, they emphasis any shadows in a scene, far more than we see with our eyes. Sometimes we can fix that using Lightroom, or a similar editing software, but I’ve never had much luck in softening shadows on flowers when I shoot them. It was another Aha! moment as I work to capture what I see with the camera.

So, since the crocus have begun to blossom here, and I’d like to get a really good photo of them, I tried something new. I used auto-bracketing of the exposure, then blended those images into a HDR image using Photomatix Pro software just as I would if I were shooting a landscape.

Crocus HDR

Crocus HDR

Whoa, true colors and soft shadows, just the way that I saw scene when I was looking through the viewfinder!

That was shot using the Canon 60D camera and 100 mm macro lens. In the past, I’ve had to adjust the exposure compensation of the 60D down by at least a full stop, then, play in Lightroom using the luminance and saturation adjustments to attempt to get the colors close to correct. Even after spending what I think is a considerable amount of time editing my images of yellow and other flowers, I was never completely happy with them, as the colors were still off a little. In addition, I’d often do some dodging and burning in my attempts to make an image look like what I saw. I don’t want to spend that much time at the computer, I want to spend more time outside.

But wait, what about the 7D Mk II, I’ve raved about its metering system, and how I seldom have to adjust the exposure compensation no matter what color the subject of a photo is. Well, that’s true, the 7D does do a much better job of automatically compensating for warm colors.

Crocus, 7D Mk II, not a HDR

Crocus, 7D Mk II, not a HDR

I’d be happy with that one, even if the colors are off slightly. But, you wouldn’t know that if I didn’t tell you, or post this HDR image of the same flower.

Crocus, 60D and HDR

Crocus, 60D and HDR

Some people may prefer the more intense colors produced by the 7D, but the colors in the HDR image are very, very close to what the flower actually looks like in real life. It’s also much better than the base image of the three used to create the HDR image.

Crocus, 60D and not HDR

Crocus, 60D and not HDR

You can see that in the non-HDR image, the yellow is over-powering the camera’s sensor, and because of that, it lost almost all of the definition between the shades of yellow, so the image doesn’t look as sharp. In fact, it’s almost hard to believe that the last image was one of the three used to create the HDR image above it.

Personally, I prefer the subtle beauty of nature, and I believe that the HDR image captured that the best. If I wanted the more intense color as the 7D produced, I could increase the color saturation to get the same effect. But, why would I want to? I think that the HDR image best captures the delicate beauty of the flower that I saw when I pressed the shutter release. You can see all the details in the petals, and how they are almost translucent, which the 7D didn’t capture as well.

But, what about other colors, especially a cooler color such as blue?

Blue crocus, HDR

Blue crocus, HDR

Not only does the HDR image produce more realistic colors, but it softens the shadows, or I should say, undoes the harshness of the shadows created by the camera.

Blue crocus not a HDR

Blue crocus not a HDR

Actually, there’s a lot going on between those two images. The first one is brighter, which I could replicate by adjusting the exposure in Lightroom, but then, the orange pistols and stamens of the flowers would be blown out if I did that. The Photomatix software does an excellent job lightening the cool blues of the petals without blowing out the warmer oranges of the pistols and stamens, while at the same time, softening the shadows that the camera itself produced in the image. Once again, the HDR image is much closer to what I saw when I shot that photo.

You can still see the shadows that were there…

Yellow crocus

Yellow crocus

…for example, you can see the shadows cast by the pistols and stamens, but they are a natural looking shadow, without the harshness produced normally by the camera.

Not only did this trick work with wider shots as I’ve shown so far, it really helped when I moved in closer…

Blue crocus, HDR

Blue crocus, HDR

…and closer…

Blue crocus, HDR

Blue crocus, HDR

…and closer still, until I was approaching the limits of how close the macro lens can focus.

Blue crocus, HDR

Blue crocus, HDR

That’s a shot that I’ve struggled with in the past, getting a good, sharp, properly exposed image that shows both the warmer oranges and yellows of the pistols and stamens and the cooler blues of the petals well.

There are downsides to trying to shoot three images to be blended together to produce the HDR images, if the wind moves anything in the frame, the HDR image is ruined, as you may well imagine. But, another upside is that I learned more about how the 60D body operates, and that’s never a bad thing. I knew that if I used the two second delay when I had the camera set to auto-bracket the exposure, that the 60D would automatically shoot all three photos in rapid succession, rather than it requiring me to push the shutter release three times. What I didn’t know was that 60D also shuts off the auto-focusing system while the three images are being shot. If that wasn’t the case, I doubt if the HDR images would have come out as well as they did, especially when I was very close to a subject.

Another downside is that I had to lay down in the mud to get the photos that you’ve seen so far. A way to get around that was to use the 7D with the 300 mm lens and 2 X tele-converter for 600 mm of effective focal length that I used to shoot these.

Blue crocus, 600 mm

Blue crocus, 600 mm

That way, I could stand up and still get close to the crocus.

Blue crocus, 600 mm

Blue crocus, 600 mm

 

Blue crocus, 600 mm

Blue crocus, 600 mm

There are many experts that will tell you that image quality suffers too much to use a 2 X tele-converter, and there’s probably an equal number of experts that will tell you just the opposite, that a 2 X tele-converter is an essential part of any serious photographer’s gear. Given the right conditions, and on the right camera body, I’m able to produce good, sharp photos when using the 2 X tele-converter. The kestrel photo from my last post…

American kestrel

American kestrel

…along with the crocus from this post should prove that.

That brings me to another point that I’ve touched on before, on almost everything about photography, there are experts on both sides of every issue. Some of that relates to subject matter that the experts shoot, some of it relates to the choices in gear that they use.

So, what’s a budding photographer to do when it comes choosing which experts to listen to when it comes to this or any other question? The first thing that I do is question the source. There’s a lot of experts that make their money selling camera gear, opinions, or opinions on camera gear. Then, there are the experts that make their money actually selling their photographs. I give their opinions much more weight. If some one who works for the National Geographic magazine says that he uses a 2 X tele-converter, and that Nat Geo has published those photos, then that’s good enough for me.

Would I recommend a 2 X tele-converter for every one? No, I wouldn’t, you need to use one behind a good lens to begin with, and on a camera body that is capable of dealing with the loss of light that occurs when using one.

That’s what most of the decisions that we have to make about gear comes down to, what are we going to be shooting, and how are we going to be combining our gear as we shoot the things that we do. No expert knows that, it is up to us to educate ourselves, and make the best possible choices that we can.

Last summer, I posted a few photos of water striders that I shot with the 300 mm lens and 2 X extender, and they were pretty good. Still, I wondered how well that I could do if I used my 100 mm macro lens. To do so, meant that I had to lay down on the edge of the creek, nearly sliding headfirst into the cold water, but I gave it a shot.

Water strider

Water strider

Several shots in fact.

Water strider

Water strider

Besides being careful not to slip into the water, my biggest problems were lighting, and trying to catch moving targets as they drifted with the current, or skated on the surface of the water. But eventually, I got this one which isn’t cropped at all.

Water strider

Water strider

Still, I think that I can do better, after I clean the hair off from my camera’s sensor. 😉

In my last post I had a video that I created from a slide show that I created in Lightroom of a blue jay playing with its food. While it turned out very good, it used the full resolution photos from Lightroom, so it used more bandwidth to view the video than it would have if I had posted just the lower resolution photos that I post on my blog. I’m working on a solution for that, I may need to export the photos out of Lightroom in the lower resolution format, then, re-import them into Lightroom again to create the slide show, then upload that to You Tube to be turned into a video. I don’t have time to play with that now, so instead, you’re going to see a series of photos of a black-capped chickadee in action.

I saw a pair of chickadees on a Friday after a short day at work, and it looked to me as if the one was hollowing out a tree to use as a nesting cavity. Here’s two of the images I shot then.

Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee

I’m including these because I had the light just right and the chickadee was so cute.

Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee

On Saturday, I returned and came up on that spot from the other side so I could see if they were hollowing out the tree, and the answer was yes, they are. The light may not have been as good, but I was able to see the hole in the tree and get a few good shots of the chickadee even in the reduced light.

Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee

From the photo above, you wouldn’t think that the hole was very deep…

Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee

…but it was…

Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee

…and getting deeper with every beak full of wood chips removed.

Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee

I had to shoot several burst with the 7D to catch the chickadee with its mouth full of the wood chips, they move a lot quicker than did the woodpecker that I posted a similar series of photos of a while back. So quick that I never did catch the chickadee spitting the wood chips out. But, at least you can see that they do excavate their own nesting cavities rather than using the ones left by woodpeckers.

My bank account may not think so, but I was very fortunate to have worked only eight hours both Friday and Saturday, as they were the two nicest days this week. The temperature has been great, but it was cloudy and rainy off and on most of the other days this past week. On Sunday, it began raining just before dawn, as I was headed out to do my grocery shopping, and there was a steady moderate rain all day long. I should have gone for a walk anyway, but I didn’t feel like getting soaked, and I had other things to do that kept me busy. Note to myself, it’s time to replace my winter parka, as it’s no longer waterproof, and it has seen better days.

It has been a great week as far as the weather though, just last weekend there was still snow on the ground…

Spider on the snow

Spider on the snow

…and in just a week, the snow is gone, things are beginning to green up, and the geese are back and mating.

Canada geese after mating

Canada geese after mating

Flowers are starting to open…

Maple flowers

Maple flowers

 

Another type of maple flowers?

Another type of maple flowers?

…and the birds are singing again.

Male northern cardinal singing

Male northern cardinal singing

It’s very early on Monday morning as I’m typing this part of this post, and in a few hours, eight to be exact, I pick up my new Subaru Forester! Once I have my brand new pretty blue Forester, I’ll be almost all set for my vacation this May. I should get a few more higher capacity very fast memory cards before I head up north for a week, as I’m positive that I’ll fill my existing cards in two or three days. When I went on vacations in the past, I had a laptop computer to take along, so I could transfer the photos that I shot each evening after a day of shooting. I suppose that I could bring the old Windows laptop with me, but then I’d have to get the photos from it onto my iMac somehow or another, and that sounds like more work than swapping memory cards.

I’ve been giving the idea of buying a full frame sensor camera lately, and I’m still undecided. There are advantages to a full frame sensor, better low light performance with less noise, and being able to produce larger prints. On the other hand, the downsides are that I’d have to purchase two wise-angle lenses to replace the two EF S lenses that I have now, since they will only fit a crop sensor body, and the cost of purchasing a full frame body.

The 7D Mk II has certainly spoiled me, it isn’t that the image quality is that much better than what I can get out of the 60D body, I still shoot almost all of my macro and landscape photos with the 60D. It’s the other capabilities of the 7D that I seldom get to use that has me considering another camera body. I could list them all, but I won’t, I’ll just say that there are times when I have the 60D set-up on the tripod, and I’m using the 7D for other subjects, that I think that maybe I should be doing it the other way around, having the 7D on the tripod, and using the 60D for other subjects. But, that wouldn’t work well either, since most of the time, it’s in a low-light situation, where the 7D is the much better choice to use handheld, because its low-light performance is so much better than the 60D.

There are two other possibilities, purchasing the add-ons that would give the 60D the capabilities that I desire, but that means more stuff to lug around. The second alternative would be to purchase a second 7D Mk II, then I could have one on the tripod to shoot time-lapse sunrises and sunsets, or star trails, and the other body set-up for handheld use on other subjects.

A second 7D Mk II actually makes the most sense, that camera has all the capabilities that I really need, and having a back-up in case one fails may not be a bad idea. Other than purchasing accessories for the 60D, it would also be the least expensive alternative, as I wouldn’t need any new lenses either.

I have plenty of time to mull all this over, and things may change by the time I’m ready to make a decision one way or another.

I know, camera talk bores many of you, but here’s an example of why it’s important to me.

I had just finished shooting the macro photos of the water striders that you saw earlier in this post, and was standing near the creek getting ready to move on. When I looked up the hill and saw a herd of deer running across the park, I grabbed the 7D with the 300 mm lens which I had sitting on the railing of the bridge that I was standing next to in order to shoot this.

Whitetail deer on the run

Whitetail deer on the run

Having one camera all set-up with the right lens and settings ready at all times is what got me that photo, even if it’s not that great. If I had been swapping lenses and settings, which I would have been doing about then if I didn’t have two cameras, I would have missed that photo for sure. And while that photo is nothing special, there may come a day when being ready at all times nabs me a killer photo.

Enough babbling on for now, time for some more photos.

Cedar waxwing

Cedar waxwing

 

Cedar waxwing

Cedar waxwing

 

Cedar waxwing

Cedar waxwing

One of these days I’m going to catch the pussy willows opening on a sunny day when I can have blue sky for a background, rather than a dull grey sky, but for now, this will have to do.

Pussy willow

Pussy willow

 

Fox squirrel

Fox squirrel

More signs of spring…

American robin

American robin

Most of the cones on the white pine trees are fully open.

Pine cone fully open

Pine cone fully open

As are these tiny blue flowers. I tried to get a good macro of one, but I decided that the one I have isn’t good enough, I’ll try again.

Tiny blue flowers

Tiny blue flowers

To wrap this one up, more HDR images of the crocus.

Crocus

Crocus

 

Crocus

Crocus

 

Crocus

Crocus

Well, I’ve picked up my brand new, pretty blue Subaru, and I absolutely love it! Between the styling changes made by Subaru, and the extra trim that I ordered, it’s much better looking on the outside, but it’s the interior that’s the biggest change. Not only does it look much more modern, it has all the latest gizmos and gadgets, like Bluetooth connectivity to my phone, and a back-up assist camera. The best part, it’s even more comfortable than my old one, and rides even better as well. I’m sure that you’ll be hearing more about in the future, although I’ll try to limit my enthusiasm as much as I can. 😉

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!


Philadelphia Vireo, Vireo philadelphicus

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

Philadelphia Vireo, Vireo philadelphicus

The Philadelphia vireo (Vireo philadelphicus) is a small North American songbird in the vireo family (Vireonidae).

Standard Measurements

Length 4.5–5 in (110–130 mm)
Weight 12 g (0.42 oz)
Wingspan 8 in (200 mm)
Wing 65.4–70 mm (2.57–2.76 in)
Tail 45–52 mm (1.8–2.0 in)
Culmen 9–11 mm (0.35–0.43 in)
Tarsus 16–17 mm (0.63–0.67 in)

Their breeding habitat is the edges of deciduous and mixed woods across Canada. They make a basket-shaped cup nest in a fork of a tree branch, usually placed relatively high. The female lays 3 to 5 lightly spotted white eggs. Incubation, by both parents, lasts up to 14 days.

These birds migrate to Mexico and Central America. This vireo is a very rare vagrant to western Europe. They are unlikely to visit Philadelphia, except in migration.

They forage for insects in trees, sometimes hovering or flying to catch insects in flight. They also eat berries, especially before migration.

The songs and calls of Philadelphia vireo are three to five notes, “weeezh wheeze weeezh”, very similar to those of the red-eyed vireo.

On to my photos:

These photos were shot in Creekside Park, near my apartment during the fall of 2014.

Philadelphia Vireo, Vireo philadelphicus

Philadelphia Vireo, Vireo philadelphicus

 

Philadelphia Vireo, Vireo philadelphicus

Philadelphia Vireo, Vireo philadelphicus

While I was only able to nab two photos of this species, at least they were good enough to make a positive ID.

This is number 189 in my photo life list, only 161 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

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Big changes on the way

I’ll start with the big news, my new Subaru Forester has arrived, and I should be able to pick it up in a week or so. I’ll learn more on Monday March 7th, after I’ve seen it and talked to the dealer. I’m actually getting excited about it, although making the purchase has to do more with long-term planning for my life than any immediate desire to replace my current Forester.

But, the arrival of the new vehicle comes with some extra work, not only the time it takes to complete the financial transactions, but I want to keep my new Forester in the garage. To that end, I’ve already begun to clean out the stall that I have here at the apartment complex, but I need to find someplace to store my canoe. I have my kayak slung from the rafters now, so that’s up high enough that I can park under it, and I’ve brought some things inside my apartment that I used to keep in the garage, but there’s still more to be done.

Also changing is the weather pattern, thankfully! The last two weeks have been something else. Large amounts of snow, the two biggest snowfalls of the winter, and very cold during the middle of the week. The one saving grace has been that the temperatures moderated for the weekends, or I’d still be hibernating. The extended forecast is for spring! I’m loving the forecast, but the reality is that the first week of warm weather will be a wet, sloppy mess. We’ve had nearly two feet (60 cm) of snow the past two weeks, and combined with the rain in the forecast, there’s going to be a lot of water that has to go someplace. Fortunately, this is Michigan, the Gravel State, and I doubt if there will be much if any flooding, but it will limit where I’ll go for a short time.

For the newer readers of my blog, I live in Michigan’s lower peninsula, which was formed by the glaciers during the last age, as were the Great Lakes. All the sand, gravel, and loose rocks that the glaciers carried with them as the moved south were deposited here in lower Michigan as the glaciers melted. While the Upper Peninsula of Michigan has much more rocky terrain, especially in the western part, lower Michigan is a huge pile of the rocks, sand, and gravel that was left by the glaciers, so water soaks into the ground very quickly in spring or when we get a heavy rainfall. It’s like a natural water purification machine, especially when you consider the lake effect snow that we get.

Water from the Great Lakes is picked up by the cold air crossing the lakes in the winter, come spring when all that snow melts, it soaks down into the soil here and is purified by the soil as the water eventually makes its way back to the lakes from where it came. That’s just one of the reasons the water in the Great Lakes has remained so clean, other than Lake Erie, which is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, and became very polluted back in the 1960’s. But, I’m getting sidetracked already.

Soon, I won’t have to dig back into the photos that I saved from last year to show photos like this one.

Goatsbeard

Goatsbeard

Or this…

Milkweed bug

Milkweed bug

…because I’ll be shooting photos of them as they appear throughout the spring and summer. That’s a change that I’m really looking forward to!

I hate to brag, but I was quite proud of most of the images that I shot at Duck Lake State Park last weekend. I am going to continue to work to improve my photos to get them as good as they can possibly be, while at the same time, concentrate more on capturing the behavior of critters when I see something that strikes me as interesting. In other words, I’m going to attempt to combine those two goals, good images and interesting animal behavior at the same time.

However, there’s one problem with that, too many photos of the same subject, which some people may find boring, and that also limits the variety of subjects that I can display in any one post. So, I think that I have come up with a way to do that, as the following slide show demonstrates, I hope.

Warning, this slide show has too many photos and takes two minutes to run.

The blue jay had nothing in its beak when it landed, but by the time that I got into position to shoot the photos, you can see that it had a green beetle in its bill. I don’t know if the jay had cached the beetle earlier and had returned to check on it, or if it had just found the beetle as I watched it. Also, I don’t know if the jay was killing the beetle as it held the beetle in its bill, or if it was deciding whether to eat the beetle then, or save it for later. But, I found it fascinating to watch as the jay carefully tucked the beetle under the bark of the tree, looking around to see if any other birds were watching, and then making sure that the beetle was completely out of sight before the jay flew off.

Blue jays are a member of the corvid family, considered to be some of the smartest birds of all. It just so happens that I found another article about how smart crows, a cousin to the blue jays, are.  Here’s the link to the article if you’re interested.

As for me, I need to work on my slide show editing skills. 😉

I think that most people would agree that this is a very good photo of a kestrel.

American kestrel

American kestrel

That was shot on Sunday, March 6th, on my way back home after having spent the day along the Lake Michigan shore, looking for harlequin ducks, which I never did find.

One thing that I’m doing to improve my images is to shoot more photos of fewer subjects. The kestrel wasn’t being very cooperative when I first spotted it, that’s the second to last photo of a series of 25 or so that I shot. In the first few images, the kestrel was in the wrong position as far as where the sun was, so it was in its own shadow. I’d move, the kestrel would move also, putting me right back in the poor light again. Eventually, I got into a good position, and the kestrel hung around for a few images like the one above, before it whirled around and took off for good, which was the last image that I shot. Too bad that I wasn’t quicker, but those kestrels are really quick when they decide that they’re leaving. I was also hindered by my equipment, I was using the 2 X tele-converter behind the 300 mm L series lens, and the auto-focusing is as slow as molasses with that set-up, and it couldn’t stay locked on the kestrel as it turned and flew off. Of all the photos of the kestrel that I shot, that’s the clearly the best.

But, in other cases, when I have to decide whether to post a photo or not, the decision isn’t as clear-cut. One of my earlier stops that day had been Lake Harbor Park, where I found very few things to photograph, other than the flock of mallards that hang out there. Even with a cloudy sky, I decided to do a little practicing.

Male mallard drying its wings

Male mallard drying its wings

A few clouds, or a thinner layer of clouds is often a good time to shoot photos, but as thick as the clouds were then, I couldn’t get the shutter speed fast enough to freeze the mallard’s wings. Still, I like that photo, because other than not freezing the wings, I did a pretty good job of getting that image. The same applies to this one as well.

Male mallard in flight

Male mallard in flight

If there had been more light, I would have used a polarizing filter to cut the glare coming off the water, but other than that, it’s a pretty good photo, as it wasn’t cropped at all, and I got the composition right for a change. It’s hard keeping up with a mallard as it’s landing, as this next photo shows.

Female mallard landing

Female mallard landing

She was coming in hot, as you can tell by how much water she displaced when she landed. I missed the composition slightly, but I still like that photo because of the expression on the other mallard’s face as she photobombed the landing mallard. She was so cute, I decided to include a portrait of her.

Female mallard

Female mallard

I know, too many mallards, but the practicing that I do on them leads to this…

Male red-breasted merganser in flight

Male red-breasted merganser in flight

…which with a little luck, leads to images like this one.

Male red-breasted merganser in flight

Male red-breasted merganser in flight

I worked all day on my skills at hiding from the waterfowl that I saw, and that isn’t an easy proposition. They have excellent vision and hearing, and even hiding in the brush, I think that this pair of mergansers spotted me or heard my camera.

Common merganser pair

Common merganser pair

But, I stayed put, and eventually the male came a little closer for this one.

Male common merganser

Male common merganser

I thought that the photo above would be the best of that species that I would get for the day, but later on, I used the same approach, hiding in the weeds to shoot these…

Male common merganser

Male common merganser

…and even though its head is turned slightly the wrong way, this photo shows how their feathers grow on the backs of their heads…

Male common merganser

Male common merganser

…and those two photos led to this one.

Male common merganser taking flight

Male common merganser taking flight

But, I was just a tad slow on that last one, and since I was too close to be able to crop the image at all, I missed the correct composition slightly because of being slow. I am learning that not only do you have to learn how to identify birds, you have to learn how they take flight as well. Some waterfowl, like mallards, green-winged and blue-winged teal, explode out of the water nearly vertically when they take flight. Others, such as bufflehead, ruddy ducks, and the common goldeneye…

Male common goldeneye

Male common goldeneye

…need a running start…

Female common goldeneye taking flight

Female common goldeneye taking flight

…before they can get airborne.

Male common goldeneye taking flight

Male common goldeneye taking flight

The common mergansers take a path somewhere in-between running across the water and exploding nearly straight up. No matter which approach that they take to get airborne, it helps to know which one that they use in order to be prepared to move the camera quickly, because it doesn’t take any of them very long to put a good deal of distance between themselves and a photographer that has spooked them.

Even when it comes to a common subject for me, take squirrels as an example, it pays to take multiple photos of them,  to catch them at just the right moment. I would have been happy with this one…

Fox squirrel eating an acorn

Fox squirrel eating an acorn

…but the photos became better when the squirrel turned towards me…

Fox squirrel eating an acorn

Fox squirrel eating an acorn

…and I think that this one is the best one of all, catching the squirrel with its mouth open and looking happy. And yes, that’s my reflection in the squirrel’s eye, I was that close to it.

Fox squirrel eating an acorn

Fox squirrel eating an acorn

It’s now Monday afternoon, this morning I went to the Subaru dealer to look at my new Forester, and to finalize when I can pick it up. Next Monday at 10 AM!

It sure is pretty, I much prefer the blue that I’m getting to the black one that I have now, and the little extra trim that I got on the new one does spiff it up a bit. The biggest changes are to the interior, the new one is less spartan along with being even more comfortable. I’m going to love it! Best of all, because Subarus hold their value so well, the trade in value of mine was more than the lease buy out cost. So, I’ll be getting a newer car, better equipped, with the full warranty and three years of free roadside service for less than $15 more a month than I’m paying now.

It’s an absolutely perfect early spring day, I should be outside soaking it up even more than I did earlier, but it’s time for me to get something to eat. I did go for my walk, taking my time as I did, but I didn’t take many photos, the weather was too nice! There were birds singing everywhere, but I didn’t have the heart to disturb them by trying to get close enough for a good photo. I got to the gate at the entrance the park, and sat down on the gate listening to the birds singing and the snow melting while wearing just a heavy long-sleeved T-shirt. As much as I’ve been looking forward to the arrival of spring, I had forgotten just how wonderful it is when it does arrive.

It sure didn’t feel like spring on Sunday morning when I arrived at Grand Haven, Michigan just before dawn, to shoot the sunrise if it looked good, and to search for a pair of harlequin ducks that had been seen there on Saturday.

The Grand Haven breakwater before dawn

The Grand Haven breakwater before dawn

I waited to see what the sunrise was going to look like, not worth photographing, then once it had gotten light enough, I head out onto the breakwater.

The lighthouse at Grand Haven, Michigan

The lighthouse at Grand Haven, Michigan

Here’s a close up of the ice on the side of the lighthouse, it had the appearance of an animal with its mouth open.

Ice on the lighthouse, or some prehistoric beast?

Ice on the lighthouse, or some prehistoric beast?

Being extremely careful of the ice on the breakwater, I went to the other side of the lighthouse to shoot this, hoping that the 15-85 mm lens was wide enough, it was.

The lighthouse at Grand Haven, Michigan

The lighthouse at Grand Haven, Michigan

You can see that it was a very cloudy day at that point, the clouds stuck around until mid-afternoon, not at all what the forecast called for, which was for a sunny day. It had been perfectly clear when I left home, I could see stars lighting up the early morning sky, but by the time I got to the lake, the clouds had rolled in. There were a few ducks around, but in the low light, the photos that I shot aren’t good enough for posting, and I never did see the harlequin ducks. On my way back to land, there was one sliver of color to the sunrise, as you can see here.

Just after sunrise on the Grand Haven breakwater

Just after sunrise on the Grand Haven breakwater

From there, I went to the north breakwater at Grand Haven and Harbor Island, but shot no photos worth posting. Then, it was on to Lake Harbor Park between Grand Haven and Muskegon, where I shot the mallard photos that you’ve already seen, plus these of a golden-crowned kinglet. After the good photos of one from last week, I probably shouldn’t post these, but the kinglets will be headed north soon, and I won’t see them until next winter.

Golden-crowned kinglet

Golden-crowned kinglet

 

Golden-crowned kinglet

Golden-crowned kinglet

I also shot this landscape photo while there, I hope that it’s the last one that I shoot that has snow in it for a while.

One of the trails at Lake Harbor Park

One of the trails at Lake Harbor Park

As I was leaving Lake Harbor Park, I spotted this red-shouldered hawk with a short-tailed shrew it had captured.

Red-shouldered hawk with lunch

Red-shouldered hawk with lunch

 

Red-shouldered hawk with lunch

Red-shouldered hawk with lunch

An interesting sidetone, the short-tailed shrew is one of the few species of mammals that has a venomous bite. While their venom isn’t very strong, it is enough to cause a human some distress if bites by one of these shrews. It’s amazing what birds can eat.

As you can see, the lighting was horrible, but I could not resist posting those, since I don’t get many chances to photograph red-shouldered hawks.

I suppose the same is true for this photo as well, it’s a small flock of white-winged scoters that I saw at Muskegon.

White-winged scoters

White-winged scoters

The only reason that I posted that crummy image is that I probably won’t see that species of duck again until next winter. The same applies to these two, taken the week before, the long-tailed ducks are already heading north for the summer.

Male long-tailed duck

Male long-tailed duck

 

Female long-tailed duck

Female long-tailed duck

I thought that it was the case, but I just checked to make sure, the harlequin ducks are the last species of duck that I need as I work on the My Photo Life List project that I began three years ago. It looks like I’ll have to wait until next winter to add them to the list. Oh well, I’m making good progress on the list, and if one species of ducks is all that I have left from the duck family, so be it.

That’s all the photos from the lakeshore that I have to post, so now it’s time to move closer to home. This is what it looked like around here just before the last big snow storm…

Creekside Park before the storm

Creekside Park before the storm

…and here’s the storm approaching.

The approaching storm

The approaching storm

It didn’t look like much then, but it sure did drop a lot of snow around here, nearly a foot. I didn’t make it out to shoot any photos right after the storm, but I “stole” this one from the Internet to show you what it looked like as a county snowplow cleared one of the roads after the storm.

After the snow

After the snow, March 2016

As for me, I was looking for the light at the end of the winter tunnel…

The light at the end of the tunnel

The light at the end of the tunnel

…and hoping to see a few more signs of spring.

Male red-winged blackbird

Male red-winged blackbird

 

American robin

American robin

 

Red squirrel

Red squirrel

It made 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15 C) here today, and it’s supposed to be even warmer tomorrow! The downside is scattered rain showers in the forecast for most of the coming week, with the possibility of heavier rain Tuesday and Wednesday. Between the weather, my work schedule, and the things left to be done before I pick up my new Forester, I doubt if I will make it out for a walk during the week. It was a wet, slushy, sloppy mess today, despite the fine weather, and it will only be worse if we do get the rain that’s predicted. Hopefully it will have had a chance to dry up a little before next weekend, but there’s more rain in the forecast then. We’ll see, but no matter what, not freezing my fingers off is a change that I welcome!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!


Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum

The grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum) is a small American sparrow.

These small sparrows measure 10–14 cm (3.9–5.5 in) in length, span about 17.5 cm (6.9 in) across the wings and weigh from 13.8 to 28.4 g (0.49 to 1.00 oz), with an average of 17 g (0.60 oz). Adults have upperparts streaked with brown, grey, black and white; they have a light brown breast, a white belly and a short brown tail. Their face is light brown with an eye ring and a dark brown crown with a central narrow light stripe. There are regional variations in the appearance of this bird.

Their breeding habitat is open fields and prairie across southern Canada, the United States, Mexico and Central America, with a small endangered population in the Andes of Colombia and (perhaps only formerly) Ecuador. The northern populations migrate to the southern United States, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Like many grassland birds, this bird’s numbers have declined across many parts of its range, including a 98% drop in New York State.

The nest is a well-concealed open cup on the ground under vegetation. They forage on the ground in vegetation, mainly eating insects, especially grasshoppers, and seeds.

This bird’s song is a buzzy tik tuk zee, resembling the sound made by a grasshopper. Unlike some other members of the Ammodramus family of sparrows, they will readily sing from open and exposed perches.

On to my photos:

These photos were on several occasions, on the edges of the farm fields that surround the Muskegon wastewater facility during the summer of 2015.

Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum

Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum

 

Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum

Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum

 

Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum

Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum

 

Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum

Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum

 

Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum

Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum

 

Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum

Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum

 

Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum

Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum

 

This is number 188 in my photo life list, only 162 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

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So much for that idea

In my last post, I was contemplating taking an early retirement, but continuing to work most of the year after that, until I reached the full retirement age for me, 66 years and two months. While the calculator on the Social Security website had me believing that it could work, reality has set in. If you take an early retirement, you are locked into the lesser benefit amount for the rest of your life. By working while you’re drawing those benefits, you can increase the benefit after you do fully retire, but only for a few years, then the benefit drops back down. That’s where I went wrong, the online calculator didn’t go out for very many years, so I assumed that the higher benefits continued out for life. They don’t, they would eventually drop back down to a level that I know wouldn’t be enough for me to live on. Darn!

So, it looks as if I’m stuck working full-time until I do reach full retirement age. However, that wouldn’t stop me from saving enough money to take a leave of absence from work, to use as a longer vacation. The company that I’m working for now prides itself on giving people time off when they want it, or so they say, I guess I’ll see if that’s true, or just another one of their lies to get people to come to work for them. I’ll also say that if I die before I’m 70, I’ll regret having not taken an early retirement.

Okay, enough of that. This post will be about two trips that I took to the Muskegon area the past two weekends. I shot very few bird photos during either trip, and saved very, very few from the first trip. Yesterday’s trip was more productive, as I went to Duck Lake State Park to shoot the sunrise, and then hiked one of the trails there. I had the 60D with my 15-85 mm lens on it set-up on my good tripod to shoot the actual sunrise over Duck Lake, but I wished that I had brought everything with me from the parking lot to where I set-up, for I could have used a second tripod, camera, and lens to shoot in the opposite direction to have gotten a better photo than this one.

Lake Michigan sunrise

Lake Michigan sunrise

I shot that one with the 7D and 300 mm L series lens handheld at too low of a shutter speed, and too wide of an aperture for the shot that I really wanted. Because of those limitations, I didn’t get the beautiful pink color of the sky as well as I would have liked. But, as I said, the camera mounted on the tripod was busy capturing this image at about the same time. I spent the time right around sunrise running back and forth between Duck Lake itself, and the Lake Michigan beach there just a 100 yards away to the west.

Duck Lake sunrise

Duck Lake sunrise

You can tell by the ripples on the lake that it was a very windy morning, the ripples show even though that image is a HDR image, three long exposures blended together. Once I had shot that one, and decided it was the best that I would get, I raced under the bridge to try to get a better version of the first photo, but by then, it was too late, most of the color in the sky had faded and I settled for this one to remind me of what could have been.

Almost full moon over the Duck Lake channel

Almost full moon over the Duck Lake channel

In fact, all during the duration of the sunrise, I was shooting sunrise photos with the tripod mounted camera from time to time, and shooting other photos with the 7D and 300 mm lens handheld. I like keeping the bird/wildlife set-up with me all the time, because I never know what I’ll see. When I first got to where I set-up to shoot the sunrise, I could see raccoon tracks in the sand, and I could also see spots in the sand from water dripping off from the raccoon and they were still wet…

Raccoon tracks and water drops

Raccoon tracks and water drops

…which meant that the raccoon had passed by just before I had arrived. I may have even frightened it away as I approached in the near darkness at the time, which is why I prefer to always be prepared. However, these next photos could have been better if I had shot them correctly.

Early morning sand 1

Early morning sand 1

 

Early morning sand 2

Early morning sand 2

 

Sunrise over Duck Lake long

Sunrise over Duck Lake long

 

Rocks glowing in the sunrise

Rocks glowing in the sunrise

Yes, all four of those would have been better if I had shot them correctly, but that’s a quandary that I run into all the time. My backpack which holds all my gear is very heavy, but it was a cold, windy morning, so I didn’t want to have to bother with everything. Besides, I don’t feel comfortable leaving that much camera gear sitting in one spot while I wander around shooting other things with the second camera, like those photos above, or the gulls flying overhead in the early morning light.

Ring-billed gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

I shot dozens of photos of the gulls flying past me, but these are the only two that I’ll post from sunrise.

Ring-billed gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

In fact, I have too many photos of flying gulls as it is, but the only way to stay good at bird in flight photos is to practice all the time, and gulls are easy practice subjects. I watched another online tutorial about bird in flight photography that reminded me of that fact. While I have the 7D dialed in so that it works extremely well for birds in flight, if my technique isn’t correct, then I’ll miss shots like this one.

Male mallard in flight

Male mallard in flight

That was taken later that same morning at the Bear Lake channel, but for right now, it’s back to Duck Lake just after sunrise. I waited around for a short time hoping to catch some magical light hitting the dunes there, this is the best that I came up with.

Duck Lake dune

Duck Lake dune

I went back to my vehicle after that to warm up and decide what to do next. Since I had seen many birds there while hiking the trails, I decided that a hike was called for again. Maybe it was because of the wind, but I saw very few birds, and didn’t shoot any photos of them until I was almost back to the parking lot. However, the ones that I did get…

American tree sparrow

American tree sparrow

…sort of made up for the lack of quantity…

Golden-crowned kinglet

Golden-crowned kinglet

…for these where cropped just a little for the purpose of composition more than anything…

Golden-crowned kinglet

Golden-crowned kinglet

…and it isn’t easy to get that close to a kinglet. I tend to forget just how much practice it takes to keep up with the very small birds in the brush, especially birds that move as quickly and as often as the kinglets do. I have half a dozen photos of them that are blurry because they were moving when the shutter went off. I finally remembered to limit myself to trying to keeping one in the frame, and let the 7D do all the work of focusing while shooting away in burst mode. If I had tried to time that last shot, I would have missed it, for the kinglet only fluffed itself like that for a split second before it turned around and flitted away.

Actually, I should have come up with a title for this post that had something to do with practice, for it seems like a long time since I’ve been out taking photos. I needed to practice to get the kinglet. I also shot some practice landscapes there at Duck Lake other than the sunrise shots.

Duck Lake birch trees

Duck Lake birch trees

 

Duck Lake pines

Duck Lake pines

And, I also practiced shooting some of the smaller things that I saw.

Colorful tree trunk

Colorful tree trunk

 

Mossy branch that looked like a turtle

Mossy branch that looked like a turtle

 

Lichens and moss

Lichens and moss

 

Looking up a hollow tree

Looking up a hollow tree

 

Moss and fungi

Moss and fungi

All of those are HDR images shot with the 60D body and 15-85 mm lens as I try tried to bring out the colors, along with getting depth to my photos. I think that the playing around in my apartment during the winter paid off. When I see these photos, they look almost exactly as I saw the scenes when I shot them.

Seeing a chipmunk…

Eastern chipmunk

Eastern chipmunk

…I practiced stalking it so that I could get closer and to have better light.

Eastern chipmunk

Eastern chipmunk

And I practiced keeping my eyes open to the other things in nature which I have not been paying enough attention to lately. I was seeing many partridge-berry plants, and I found a few that still had berries.

Partridge berry

Partridge berry

I have no idea what this next plant was, but there were a few of them growing in a ring which leads me to think that they are a parasitic plant that grew on an old tree stump underground, but I didn’t check that theory.

Unidentified once flowering object

Unidentified once flowering object

The next one is simple, it’s the edges of two chunks of ice that were floating on the lake.

Ice on Duck Lake

Ice on Duck Lake

I have no idea what this is, it could be just trash for all I can tell. However, it looked like it was emerging from the ground the way that there’s dirt on the top of it.

I have no idea

I have no idea

That wraps up my time at Duck Lake. My next stop was the Bear Lake channel, where I stopped to eat my lunch, and to watch the mallards and Pekin ducks there. Just a few quick shots of the ducks there…

Pekin ducks

Pekin ducks

…told me that the light was “dead” and that there was no reason to attempt the perfect shot of a mallard. Still, while I was there eating my lunch, whenever I had a chance to catch a mallard in flight, I did. I was attempting to fill the frame without cropping…

Male mallard in flight

Male mallard in flight

…but keeping a fast flying mallard coming in for a landing…

Male mallard in flight

Male mallard in flight

…in the frame without clipping its wings off was tough.

Male mallard in flight

Male mallard in flight

It’s obvious that I need more practice. It may have worked better if I didn’t have the camera beside me as I ate, grabbing it when a mallard took flight, as this one did, coming straight at me.

Male mallard in flight

Male mallard in flight

 

Male mallard in flight

Male mallard in flight

After playing with the ducks for a while, I headed over to the wastewater treatment facility to see what I could find there. The only thing of note was that a few of the northern shovelers had returned as they’re migrating back to the north.

Male northern shoveler

Male northern shoveler

That really didn’t surprise me, the prior week while I was there, I found very few things to photograph, and because of the light, what photos I did shoot…

Rough-legged hawk taking flight

Rough-legged hawk taking flight

…weren’t very good. That was shot just a few minutes after sunrise though…

Sunrise over the lagoon

Sunrise over the lagoon

…and as you can see, it was going to be a cloudy day. I did get a bad photo of a golden eagle though…

Golden eagle

Golden eagle

…and any day that you see a golden eagle is a good one, no matter how poor the photos of it turn out. I suppose that the same could be said of this one as well…

Red fox on the run

Red fox on the run

…but I still kicked myself for not getting a good shot of the fox. I caught it napping in the early morning light, what there was of it, but by the time I got into position to shoot a photo, it had noticed me and taken off for a safer place to sleep the day away.

I still have a few other photos from both of the trips, but I’ll save them for later, except for this one, my best image from the first trip.

Horned lark

Horned lark

I may not make it out for a walk again this week, because of the weather. Last week, we got nearly a foot of snow during the middle part of the week, but by Sunday, we set a record high for the date. It would have been a perfect early spring day, except for the winds pushing the warm air into the region. By Sunday night, it was snowing again, and we’re in for another snow storm for overnight tonight. Then, it’s supposed to warm up for next weekend, I sure hope so. This pattern that we’ve been in, with snow and cold part of the week, and warm temps for the other part is getting old. It’s better than the last two winters with just snow and cold, but I’m ready for spring. I’d like to be able to spend some quality time outside, just sitting and observing the wildlife, rather than freezing, or worrying if sand is going to be blown into my camera gear as I switch lenses.

March is coming in like a lion, this storm starting tonight is forecast to bring us another 6 to 8 inches of snow. I sure hope that this month lives up to the old saying and goes out like a lamb.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!