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

Archive for March, 2018

On the lookout

I’m still looking for places where I can either set-up my portable hide, or to use something more permanent to shoot better images of birds and other wildlife. Of course, the number one priority is that there’s sufficient wildlife around to photograph so that I don’t get bored while sitting in a hide for very long. With that in mind, I’m always on the lookout for places, and along with that goes figuring out what characteristics cause wildlife to congregate in a smaller area. That’s proving to be more difficult that I had anticipated.

With my job as a truck driver, I’m always checking out places along the highway where I see wildlife in large numbers to help myself learn what the characteristics are that draw concentrations of wildlife, and so far, I’m as clueless as I was before I began my search.

I see dozens of small ponds, both natural and man-made, lakes, marshes, swamps, small streams, and larger rivers in my travels for work. Some hold large numbers of ducks and other birds almost all of the time, while most of them seldom have any ducks or wading birds around them ever, even though these places appear to the human eye to be nearly identical.

I have to assume that the quantity and quality of food is the driving factor which determines what bodies of water or other places draw wildlife in numbers that would make it worthwhile for me to set-up a hide to shoot photos. However, I’ve not been able to figure out by looking at an area how I can detect places that have the right food for wildlife so that I’ll be able to make wise choices when I sit in one place for very long.

For one thing, I began photographing the birds of the wooded areas, and they tend to be opportunistic feeders that are always on the move, looking for food sources as they flit from one tree or bush to another. Chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and woodpeckers are the species that I’m referring to here, because other than a bird feeder to hold them in one place, they’re always on the move. My preferred way of photographing them was to walk through the woods until I ran into a flock of these birds actively feeding, then getting ahead of the flock after I had determined which direction they were moving. Then, I could wait for individuals within the flock to perch somewhere close enough to me for a good image.

It helps that over the years I’ve learned what types of habitats these woodland species prefer as they search for food, and the behavior patterns of these species.

So, as I drive for work or other reasons, I’m learning which bodies of water have birds in and around them, and which ones don’t, however, the why still escapes me. What really confuses me is that there are several places where the road was built by filling the middle of a small body of water to build the road, effectively dividing the body of water in half. On one side of the road, there’ll be waterfowl and/or wading birds, and on the other side, nothing, even though at one time before the road was built, the now two bodies of water were once one. That’s something that I can’t figure out, since I can’t see anything different between the bodies of water on either side of the road. Obviously, the birds see a difference, when I can’t.

Another thing that I notice is that if even a small body of water attracts birds during migration, then many species seem to be able to find it at various times and make use of it. The example that I have in mind is a small swamp, less than an acre in size, that sits right next to the expressway east of Grand Rapids. I’ve seen wood ducks, other dabbling ducks, various species of herons and egrets, and Canada geese all use that tiny swamp for a day or two, sometimes a week or more, before moving on. In the first place, I was surprised to see that any species of waterfowl was able to find such a small swamp in the woods, but then, the variety of species using it surprised me even more. There are over a dozen other similar small swamps nearby, but only that one attracts birds.

By the way, I’ve considered making that tiny swamp one of the places to set-up my portable hide from time to time, but I find the thought of sitting along side a busy expressway while waiting for the birds quite unappealing. Also, while the north edge of the swamp is within the right-of-way of the expressway, the south side is on private property, so I’d be trespassing if I were to set-up in the best position for photos.

So, I do know of quite a few bodies of water that attract birds, however when it comes to most of them, there’s something other than the birds themselves which precludes myself from setting up the portable hide at any of those locations. Usually it’s due to the fact that where I’d set-up is on private property. Still, even when I’m at the Muskegon County Wastewater facility or any other public place, I’m attempting to learn what causes the birds to concentrate in a small area that would make it a suitable place to set-up a hide.

I am learning that weather plays a role in determining where birds congregate, more so when they’re resting than actively feeding, but even then, weather is still part of the equation. All wildlife, birds included, prefer to be somewhere out of the wind if it’s cold, but where there’s a light breeze if it’s warm for example. I’ve also noticed that some species of ducks seem to prefer to feed in areas where the wind is stronger, maybe the wind and waves make it easier to find their preferred food. Also, I haven’t paid enough attention to specific species in specific types of weather to say anything hard and fast about it, I should be taking notes over time as I study this.

I’ve been using my photos as notes in a way, and to that end, I’ve tried to use the GPS capabilities of my camera for that my last two times out. However, on the first day that I activated the GPS of the camera, it failed to ever make a connection with enough satellites to pinpoint my locations that day. It worked a little better the second day, but it still wasn’t very reliable, I need to use it more often I guess.

I should have tried the GPS sooner, but the battery life of the Canon D Mk II wasn’t great to begin with. Now that I have battery grips that hold two batteries, I finally decided to try the GPS out. I can plot the location of where I shot each photo in the maps section of Lightroom once I get better at using the GPS. That may end up assisting me to find specific locations to return to where I can set-up a hide and wait for wildlife to come to me.

I’ve found three new to me nature preserves all in close proximity to one another, about an hour drive from where I live. I hope to check these out soon when I have a day off from work. That may come this week, but it’s forecast to rain that day, so I haven’t decided if I’ll make the trip there or not yet.

I’m going to interrupt my train of thought at this point for a few photos. I have had my day off from work, and while it was raining in the early morning hours, the rain eventually ended and I was able to shoot a few fair photos of few species of birds either on their way through this area to their breeding grounds further north, or they will stay in the area to breed here.

Canvasback duck

That’s a species on its way further north, here’s one that will be around all summer, although this individual bird may go farther north for the summer.

American coot

You may be able to see the water drops on the coot’s back, it was still drizzling when I arrived at the Muskegon County Wastewater facility.

There wasn’t much light to work with, and only a few species of birds to photograph, so I decided to attempt to learn how to make use of what is known as high-speed flash synchronization. I’m not going to go into the details of how the shutter in a DSLR works, along with how that relates to using a flash, I’ll only say that many cameras limit how fast of a shutter speed that you can use and still use the flash. On my old Pentax film camera, that shutter speed was 1/60 second, or the flash wouldn’t function correctly. On my Canon 7D Mk II, the fastest regular flash synchronization speed is 1/250 second, unless you enable the high-speed flash synchronization.

Since I’m using long telephoto lenses, and shooting subjects that are moving, even if slowly, I need to keep the shutter speed as high as I can get it to freeze the motion of something like the coot in the photo above as it bobbed up and down on the waves. I didn’t use the flash for the photo above though, it took me a while to find all the menu settings required to make the high-speed flash synchronization function. That’s even though I had read the manual for the camera in advance, as I knew that it was a tool that may come in handy at times. Canon does not make it easy to use the high-speed flash synchronization.

I thought that I had it set for this image, but I was wrong, the flash didn’t fire.

Song sparrow

This skunk was too far away for me to attempt using the flash, so I don’t know why its eyes look as if the flash fired.

Skunk

I also tried to use the flash creatively for this photo…

Raindrops on prairie grass

…with limited success, the same is true of this photo…

Unidentified fungal objects

…I should have used a wider lens and gotten closer for that one though.

This sandhill crane was too far away to try the flash…

Sandhill crane

…but it was nice to see that they’ve returned to this area for the summer.

Finally, I sat near a gull and worked out everything that was needed to make high-speed flash synchronization function on my camera.

Ring-billed gull

If you look closely at the gull’s eye, you can see a spot of light reflected from the flash, and that image was shot at 1/400 second, so the high-speed flash synchronization does work.

By the way, I have the flash compensation set to -1 2/3 stops so that it looks like I didn’t use the flash in the final image, other than the reflection of the flash in the eye of the gull. I haven’t used my flash unit often enough to be truly proficient with it, but I have used it enough to know that you need to dial down the flash to prevent getting images where it looks like the flash was the only source of light. All I want the flash to do is to add a little fill light at times, and so that I can keep my shutter speeds fast enough without cranking the ISO so high that I get noise in my images.

I did attempt to use the flash a few times as fill light when I was still using the 60 D camera bodies that I have, but with limited success. Since I now have both of the 7D Mk II bodies dialed in for high-speed flash synchronization, I think that I’ll use the flash more often in tough lighting situations.

Later in the day, I went searching a nearby swamp in hopes of seeing and shooting rusty blackbirds, but I couldn’t find any. I did see a pair of wood ducks, and a few other birds, and that same spot is where I had seen pileated woodpeckers in the past, so I sat there for a while in hopes that the wood ducks would come out of hiding, or that I’d get a chance to photograph other species of birds there. I had no luck as far as birds, but as I was sitting there, I decided to shoot this photo just to show how the trees in the swamp were mostly covered by lichens.

The “lichen tree” swamp

I shot that with the newer 16-35 mm f/4 L series lens, which is the last lens that I’ve purchased. The more that I use that lens, the more that I love it! The sharpness, clarity, and color rendition of that lens are all excellent, a huge step up from the EF S 15-85 mm lens I was using for most of my wide-angle photos, and the 15-85 mm lens is a good lens. It’s just that the 16-35 mm lens is one of the very best that Canon makes. I really need to use that lens more often.

However, using a wide-angle lens is like using the flash unit, I haven’t used either often enough to become proficient in using them. There never seems to be enough time, but if I don’t begin seeing more birds soon, that may change.

I have two more images from this day off from work to share…

American coots taking flight

…not great, but it does give you a little idea as to how far they have to run across the surface of the water to build up enough speed for them to get airborne, and it shows their lobed feet fairly well, although you can’t see how green their feet are.

By the time that I shot this last one, the light had improved to where I didn’t need the flash unit to get a good image.

Killdeer

The weather forecast is looking grim, it may not make it above freezing one or two days next week, even though it will be the first week of April. In fact, they are forecasting well below average temperatures for the first two to three weeks of April, yuck! However, that’s all the whining about the weather that I’m going to do at this point, for just as I learned how to make use of the high-speed flash synchronization on this last day out, there are other things that I can work on until the weather improves, such as learning how to put my wide-angle lens, and other lenses for that matter, to better use.

Also, getting back on track as far as finding other places to go, I have a few more thoughts on that subject.

The Grand Rapids, Michigan area where I live is only about 75 miles north of the state border with Indiana, yet there are several species of birds that are rare this far north in Michigan. I’ve been putting some of the time that I’ve been stuck inside because of the weather to good use, finding the areas where the birds that I’m looking for in the My Photo Life List project that I’m working on can be found in larger numbers than they are here where I live. I’ve identified a few places to the south of Grand Rapids where I’ll stand a better chance of seeing these species of birds. I think that once these species begin arriving for the breeding season, I’ll be taking trips to search for them, and I may find places to sit in a hide as I search for the individual species that I’m looking for. That may allow me to kill two birds with one stone (sorry) by adding new species of birds to my project, and finding good places to set-up a hide. Even if I don’t find places to set-up the hide, at least I’ll have a chance of getting good images the way that I have been up till now.

I knew that the time would come when I had to travel farther from home to find the remaining species that I need to complete the My Photo Life List project of all the species of birds found in Michigan. I think that the time has come, but the places to the south of me that I need to visit are no farther from where I live than Muskegon is, only the direction is different. I have photos of every species of duck except one, the harlequin duck, which is only seen in very limited numbers during migration periods. I’ve made a large dent in the geese seen in Michigan, the rest are also migrants on their way through the area. Between the ones that I’ve found around home and also during my spring vacations around Alpena, Michigan, I’m doing well with warblers also. However, it’s three species of warblers that I’ll be looking for specifically when I travel south, the cerulean and prothonotary warblers, and the Louisiana waterthrush, which is a member of the warbler family.

Just as I spent the past two summers tracking down and getting specific species of birds such as the Virginia rail, marsh and sedge wrens, and a least bittern, I think that this will be the summer that I work on the three species of warblers that I’ve already mentioned. I’ve been researching the exact habitat that each of these species prefers, so that when the time comes for their arrival for the season, I’ll be ready to go looking for them. Of course I won’t limit myself to just these three species, but tracking them down is my goal for the year.

That, and learning other aspects of photography, as I’ve said many times, I don’t use a wide-angle lens often enough to become proficient with them. To that end, yesterday I put the 16-35 mm lens on my camera, grabbed a couple of accessories, and went for a walk around home for the first time this year. The light was crappy, the temperature cool, but at least there wasn’t much wind, yet. It had rained in the morning as I went to bed, but by the afternoon, it was only dark and dreary.

Most of these photos don’t belong in my blog, but they were shot as I tried various ways of composing scenes…

The “S” curve as a tool in composition

…playing with the aperture to change the depth of field…

Depth of field testing

…and in general, learning how much that shooting a scene with a wide-angle lens expands a scene.

Making a short bridge look longer

When shooting the images above, I was surprised by how far I could open up the aperture, which results in less depth of field, and still get what I wanted in focus to be in focus. However, when shooting a very close range, depth of field remains an issue, just as it does when I use a longer lens, such as my 100 mm macro lens.

Lichen on a knot in a fence rail

I think that I was also dealing with camera shake, as I was shooting at very slow shutter speeds due to the lack of light. I suppose that I could have used a flash if I had thought that any of these images would be any good. However, my main goal was learning how to see through a wide-angle lens. The 16-35 mm lens does have image stabilization, however the IS isn’t as good in that lens as the IS in the 100 mm macro lens that I have, at least not for close-up work.

I worked hard on the composition of most of these images, I was very surprised at how much small changes in my position made huge differences in how the final images looked…

“Waterfall”?

…even when I knew that I’d never get the composition that I really wanted as I surveyed a scene. The only way that I could have shot that last photo exactly the way that I had in mind was to have gotten into the stream and kept the camera just a few inches above the water. However, it tells me that I’m on the right track.

I should have used a polarizing filter for that image to reduce the glare off from the water, but my shutter speed was already so low that you can see motion blur in the water.

I also could have used my tripod for these photos, in fact, I should have. However, I don’t have the patience to set-up the tripod, view the scene as it appears at that precise spot, then move the tripod a matter of a few inches, to recheck how the scene looks from that vantage point. Not for these images anyway, but I did learn that’s what will be required if I’m going to get serious about wide-angle photography. For example, as I was shooting the wooden fence in the photo above, I found that just an inch or two change in my position made a large difference in how much I liked the resulting image.

If I were a really patient person, I’d also use focus stacking software to get everything in a scene such as this…

British soldier lichens

…in focus and sharp, but that was one of the first images that I shot yesterday. It was a learn as I went kind of day. And, I don’t have the patience to shoot dozens of images, moving the focus ring of the lens a minute amount between images, that’s required to use focus stacking software effectively, maybe someday. As bad as that image is, I still like the colors and the three-dimensional effect that I was able to get. I could have gotten straight on to the lichens…

Unidentified lichen

…but then I would have ended up with a flat looking image like that last one.

I find that when I like a scene that I’m shooting…

Patterns in some tree bark

…that I’m willing to put the extra effort required to get a good image of the scene.

I did see some flowers, and they were a welcome sight…

Crocus about to bloom

…but I wish that they had been fully open.

Overall, the few hours that I spent with the 16-35 mm lens were wonderful, getting back to shooting subjects other than birds…

White pine cone opening

…and seeing the smaller things in nature, such as the purple color of the inside of this cone again.

The 16-35 mm lens is definitely a winner…

White pine flower?

…even though it is like a 25-56 mm lens on my 7D Mk II with its crop sensor. That’s okay, as it gives me some idea what it will be like to use the 24-105 mm lens that I plan on purchasing on the 5D Mk IV camera body that I’m also going to purchase. I now have a better idea of how wide the 24-105 mm lens will be on the full frame 5D, and what I can expect from using them together.

I need to get out and do what I did yesterday more often, both for the different subjects that I shot, and learning to use my camera gear more effectively. Once I have purchased the 5D Mk IV, I’ll definitely have to repeat this type of outing a few times, as the 16-35 mm lens will produce very different images on a full frame camera than it does on the crop sensor 7D that I’m using.

By the way, one of the accessories that I took with me and used was the set of extension tubes, which is the poor man’s way of doing macro photography. I did use an extension tube behind the 16-35 mm lens a few times, and it does allow me to get closer to a subject. That method of macro photography isn’t as good as using the 100 mm macro lens, but it helps me decide which gear is essential if I do a longer hike, and what gear I can leave behind.

It’s funny how a few lenses that weigh two or three pounds each, along with all the rest of the gear in my photo backpack add up to over twenty pounds if I carry everything that I own with me. That’s too much, so I’m looking for ways to minimize what I bring on hikes and still shoot the photos that I’d like to be able to shoot. So, even though I didn’t shoot any great images, the images that I did return with taught me a great deal, so I consider the day a successful one.

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

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Watching to learn

Since I haven’t been out to shoot any more photos since my last post yet, I’m sorry, but I’m going to begin this post with more boring talk about photography.

First of all, I lied, the Canon 5D Mk IV doesn’t have two stops of improved high ISO improvement over my 7D Mk II, it’s almost three stops better, 2.76 stops to be precise. That will be a huge benefit when I’m shooting in low-light. I will be able to shoot at ISO 3200 with the 5D and get less noise than I do with the 7D set at ISO 800 as an example. At ISO 800 with the 7D, I see very little noise, and I’ve never used Lightroom to decrease the noise at that setting. ISO 3200 is a different story with the 7D, by then, noise is very noticeable, and I have to use Lightroom to reduce the noise. That means a loss of detail as the software can’t differentiate between details and noise perfectly. Not only that, but I lose color depth and dynamic range when shooting at that high of an ISO setting, which won’t be as noticeable if I switch to the 5D.

For the heck of it, I compared those two bodies to the new Canon 6D Mk II, and while it has almost the same increase in higher ISO settings as the 5D does, the 6D MK II has no improvement in dynamic range at all over the 7D Mk II.  The 6D also has a weaker auto-focusing system than the 7D does, so there’s absolutely no reason for me to consider the 6D Mk II at all as a full-frame camera to complement my current 7D bodies. It’s no wonder that the 6D Mk II was panned by the critics when it was introduced. It’s hard to believe that Canon just introduced a new version of a full frame sensor camera with no improvement in dynamic range over a 3 to 4 year old crop sensor camera which is what the 7D Mk II is.

I had planned to purchase Canon’s 24-105 mm lens to go with the 5D Mk IV body, and I still plan to. However, my original plan was to purchase the lens first, then the camera. That’s what has changed, thinking about how much my images could be improved if I use the 5D Mk IV versus the 7D with the long lenses that I already have and use. I think that I’ll save up for the camera first, as I can put it’s better image quality to use immediately. If I were to purchase the 24-105 mm lens first, it really wouldn’t do anything for me until I got around to purchasing the full-frame body anyway.

Sigma also offers a 24-105 mm lens in their art series of lenses which is sharper and transmits more light than the Canon lens, however, there are two drawbacks to the Sigma lens. First, it isn’t weather sealed the way that Canon’s lens is, and it takes a different size filter than what I currently have. The Sigma lens is cheaper than the Canon lens at first glance, but when you add the cost of purchasing the required filters, then the price difference goes away. And, while sharper is better, I’m afraid that I’d end up ruining the Sigma lens since it isn’t weather sealed the way that the Canon lens is. I’ve already gotten some dust in my EF-S 15-85 mm lens, I’m afraid of the same thing happening to the Sigma lens if I chose it over the Canon. And, while I’ve never shot photos in a rainstorm, I have taken photos in mist and drizzle, along with misty conditions near many waterfalls, so weather sealing is an important feature to me.

It hasn’t been only camera gear that I’ve been thinking about, it’s also been how can I put the gear that I have to use. I’ve written a lot about wanting to shoot more videos, but there are other types of photography that I’m interested in other than strictly nature photography. Related to video is time-lapse photography, something that I can do in camera with my current 7D bodies. I’ve done one or two versions of time lapses in the past, but I don’t remember if I posted them here in my blog or not.

One thing that holds me back from trying more time-lapse photography is the fact that the camera and lens used are tied up for the entire time that it takes to complete the series of images that make up the completed time-lapse movie. Not only that, but I’m tied to one location for as long as it takes to complete the series of photos for the time-lapse. That is, unless I’d be willing to leave my camera unattended out in the woods somewhere, which isn’t likely to happen.

With the addition of another camera body, that will free up one of the cameras that I have to set-up and shoot the sequence of images that make up a time-lapse movie. If I were to find a slime mold for example, I could set-up to shoot a time-lapse of it in hopes of showing how they move. Even though they’ve been done many times before by others, I could shoot a time-lapse of a flower opening, or a sunrise, or sunset.

That takes me to the main point of this post as I’m starting it. The main reason that I haven’t shot many videos or time-lapse movies is that I’ve normally been on the move while I’m shooting photos. My hikes may have been getting shorter over the past few years, but I’ve still been hiking. There have been only a few times when I sat somewhere for any length of time, and even then, when I sat, it was part of a hike for the day.

I learned a great deal as I sat at the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve shooting the images that are in my last post. I’ve known for some time that sitting and letting the wildlife come to me would result in better images than trying to stalk a bird or critter that I’ve seen in the distance. But, I’m also learning that sitting and observing wildlife is a better way to learn the behaviors of the wildlife than watching the wildlife at a distance.

If I’m just sitting someplace, and have the camera gear to do it, then I’ll also be able to shoot more time-lapse movies in the future, as I won’t have to worry about leaving an expensive camera and lens unattended while the camera records the images that make up the time-lapse.

Another example of something that I’d like to record is how a bird goes about building its nest. I’ve always wondered how birds know instinctively how to construct a nest, since it isn’t as if adult birds hold classes for their young to teach them how to construct a nest. Also, many species of birds build quite complicated nests in layers of different types of materials, I’d like to be able to record that as well.

Finding places to sit and observe wildlife, and shooting just still photos, time-lapse movies, and videos is really beginning to appeal to me. It must be because I’m getting older that I now feel that I have the patience to do that, rather than what I have been doing in the past. It’s also driven by a desire to show others the things that I see in nature, in a way that’s understandable to them. I could describe such things, but the use of imagery, in one form or another, is a much better way of passing along the things that I see. Sometimes still images will be the best way to tell a story, but I have to include videos and time-lapse movies in the mix for may of the things that I’d like to show people.

However, it may be a while before I sit in one place anywhere outdoors, as the cold and snow have returned. Not the bitter, bone-chilling cold of the dead of winter, but cold enough so that some snow remains on the grass on most days, and most of the lakes and ponds still have at least a partial covering of ice.

On my last day that I wasn’t scheduled to work, some one else called in sick, and they asked me to fill in for that person. Since it was cold and snowy that day anyway, I agreed, thinking that I may as well make some extra money as to sit home staring at the computer screen all day.

That trend continues, I did make it out for my next day off from work, but I may as well have worked that day. There were intermittent snow squalls driven by winds howling out of the north, mixed with what were times with fairly good light. However, there were very few birds to be found. I never saw a red-winged blackbird, robin, or any of the other early arrivals to the area that I saw on my previous day off from work. I don’t know if those birds continued north, I doubt that, since there’s still snow cover not too far north of where I live. I believe that those birds retreated back to the south to wait for the weather here to improve.

I shot very few photos, and most of those were of gulls. I was so bored that I spent most of my time checking out the huge flocks of gulls that have returned to the Muskegon County wastewater facility, looking for species of gulls other than the ring-billed and herring gulls that number in the thousands there. I had no luck on that count.

It’s a funny thing, I can sit there and entertain myself shooting photos of gulls for hours, either in flight or perched. However, I hate going through those images at the end of the day, and even more, I hate posting any more of them here. It’s all about practicing various things while I’m shooting the images, getting super sharp images with a good background behind the gull, but I’ve shot so many excellent photos of gulls that it’s boring to me other than the act of shooting the images in the first place. Still, I know that it’s helpful to practice, so I shot away even though I knew that I’d end up deleting most of the images in the end.

Ring-billed gull

 

Ring-billed gull in flight

 

Ring-billed gull in flight

It isn’t just myself that’s having trouble finding more species of birds this year, when I look at the birding reports from the area on eBird or other sources that I know of, there are very few species of birds being reported by even the top birders in the area. I hope that it changes when the weather finally improves here.

I did find a few northern shovelers…

Northern shovelers

…but only a few, when they usually number in the hundreds when they’re at the peak of migration. I also found a lone female wood duck…

Female wood duck

…which speaks of how few waterfowl that are around, if a young female wood duck is all alone when it’s the time of the year for them to pair up for the breeding season, then you know that there aren’t many wood ducks around, at least not males.

I did see a few bufflehead, with the males doing their courtship displays for a female. I tried to shoot a video, but with the wind howling the way that it was, and how far the bufflehead were away from me, the videos aren’t worth posting here.

I have one last photo from the day, of one of the many snow squalls in the distance as it approached.

Snow squall in the distance

I’m going stir crazy, or I should say, I’m suffering from a severe case of cabin fever. It doesn’t help that I’ve come down with a cold, my second of the winter. I know that I’ve been repeating myself in these posts lately, but at the current time, planning for the future is all that I’m able to do.

I don’t want to make it sound as if the snow is continuing to pile-up outside, but we’ve gone over 6 feet of snow for this winter, and Muskegon is up over 8 feet for the winter so far. The snow and warmth seem to have reached an equilibrium, with the fallen snow melting at about the same rate that new snow falls. As you can see in the last photo above, there’s really no snow on the ground, but it continues to snow here off and on with each new snowfall melting when the snow let’s up. It’s the cold and the wind that are keeping me indoors more than the snow itself.

You may have read or heard of the series of storms battering the east coast of the United States, maybe you even live where the storms have been occurring. Michigan, being close to 1,000 miles to the west of where the series of nor’easters have been wreaking havoc, is on the back side of those storms. That means a strong north wind most of the time, pulling cold air from Canada straight down over Michigan. As an example, yesterday, a wind gust of 49 MPH was recorded in the area, and that wasn’t an unusual day this spring. Last week or the week before, a wind gust over 50 MPH was reported. If the actual air temperature has been warm enough for me to venture outside, the winds have kept me inside.

A typical day has been to wake up to a freshly fallen layer of snow covering the grass, with temperatures well below freezing. While it warms up enough during the day to melt the new snow, with the near constant strong winds, it hasn’t been pleasant to spend any amount of time outside. While there was no snow on the ground this morning when I got out of bed, the temperature didn’t rise to the freezing mark until around noon.

It’s just my theory, but I believe that it’s been the winds that have been holding up the migration of many of the birds, as much as the cold and snow. Whatever the reason for the lack of birds this year, I hope that it ends soon. I was spoiled with one day of beautiful weather at the end of February, and while I won’t be holding out until we get another day as nice, tolerable would be a big step forward. This weekend is forecast to fit that definition, however I have to work. For my next scheduled day off, the weather looks good, but not great. I hope that the forecast holds, and that I can even find a few more birds to photograph.

As I said, I’ve been checking out the bird sightings online, and all the numbers are down this spring, both in number of species, and the number of any one species of birds that are being seen.

Well, I’ve been working on this post for so long that the weather has improved slightly, and a few more birds are returning to this area as they migrate north. Yesterday was the first day of spring, and I had the day off from work. Even though it was still cold enough for there to be ice…

Ice on the first day of spring 2018

…and snow left on the ground in places, it did warm up to above freezing in the afternoon.

I did see more birds in both overall numbers and in the number of species, but the darned birds were very uncooperative, except for the gulls of course.

Ring-billed gull portrait

That was shot towards the end of my day, as I had gotten bored and searched through the flocks of gulls looking a new to me species of gulls. I shot that one and included it here because I was practicing getting the gull’s eye in sharp focus with the short depth of field that you get when you’re that close to the subject, and the subject has a long bill protruding toward you that the auto-focus would rather focus on rather than the eye. It looks easy in the still photo, put the focus point on the bird’s eye and shoot, but the gull was doing what most birds do most of the time, swiveling it’s head all around looking for predators and watching the other gulls in case they had food, or were trying to dislodge this gull from its preferred perch.

I did find this gull…

Unidentified gull

…which may be a young great blacked-backed gull getting its adult feathers, or it could be an oddly colored young herring gull, or possibly a hybrid of those two species. I’m not sure how often gulls produce hybrids, but that gull looked too small to be a great black-backed, and too dark to be a herring gull. Exactly what it is doesn’t matter though, so I’ll leave it as an unidentified gull at least for now as I know of no other species it could be that I haven’t already gotten photos of for the My Photo Life List project that I’m working on.

I said that the birds wouldn’t cooperate, here’s a couple of examples.

Male northern harrier in flight in front of an irrigation sprayer

That’s the only shot of the harrier that I was able to get that you can see its eye in.

Butt shot of a sandhill crane in flight

There was a stiff wind blowing out of the northeast, which is always a cold wind around here this time of the year, and I believe that because of the wind, most of the birds stayed low as they were flying. That could have been a good thing, however, most of the time the birds were right on top of me before I saw them coming. On the rare occasion that I was able to get into position to take advantage of the fact that birds tend to take-off or land into a strong wind, then I was shooting towards the south meaning that the birds were on the wrong side of me as far as the sun.

Greater scaup in flight

Also because of the wind, the waves on the two storage lagoons made photographing swimming ducks more difficult.

Male bufflehead preening

The slightest change in the way that the sunlight strikes a bird with iridescent feathers changes the way that the bird looks in a photo taken at that instant. With the larger waves that you can see in these photos, even though the bufflehead wasn’t moving, the light was constantly changing as I shot these.

Male bufflehead preening

You can see in the photos that the bufflehead’s feathers on its head changed colors as how the sun hit those feathers changed. That’s another thing that I’ll have to take into consideration, just like getting the gull’s eye sharp in the earlier photo, once I find places to sit and have the birds come very close to me.

And, since I use a relatively slow shutter speed to shoot portraits, the movement of ducks caused by the waves made it more difficult to get sharp photos that also showed their coloration as well as I hoped.

Male greater scaup

I took some time to move to another location in search of rusty blackbirds that have been sighted in the area, but I wasn’t able to find them. However, in the swamp that I was searching for them in, there were a few pileated woodpeckers around and a pair of hooded mergansers circling over me.

Hooded mergansers in flight

Not a very good image at all, I had to wait until the mergansers entered a small opening between the trees in the swamp, and the auto-focus didn’t have time to lock onto them in the short amount of time it took them to fly through the opening in the trees. Also, I waited far too long for one of the pileated woodpeckers to show itself in range of my camera and lens, but I never did get a good clear look at any of them, stationary or in flight.

I guess that you could say that it was the theme for the day, I stayed in several locations hoping that I’d be able to get some really good images by sitting and waiting for the birds to come to me, but I never found a good spot to just sit and wait. However, it was a nice day overall despite the cold wind blowing, as it was good to see a wider variety of birds for a change.

Northern shovelers

 

Northern shovelers

 

Male common merganser

 

Male gadwall

Now then, I’ve been going on at length about sitting and waiting more often, but I’ll never fully stop moving around at times in search of interesting things to photograph. If I hadn’t been on the move at the time, I would have never captured this series of photos that show a crow burying food for later.

American crow burying food for later

When I first saw the crow, it had food in its beak, but by the time I got into position to shoot this series…

American crow burying food for later

…the crow was gathering bits of dried grass to use to bury the food it had found…

American crow burying food for later

…carefully making sure that what it was burying didn’t show.

American crow burying food for later

I knew that many other species of birds store food for later by hiding it, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a bird as intelligent as crows are would also cache food for later. Now, not only have I seen a crow doing it, I have captured most of it in photos.

A little later, I saw something else that I’d never seen before, a mink out in the open on a sunny day.

A mink on the run

I’ve seen many mink in the past, but they tend to be out in low light situations, or stay as hidden as possible in vegetation.

A mink on the run

I don’t know if this mink had a run in with a predator, or if it had been injured in a fight with another mink…

A mink on the run

…you can see a wound on the back of its neck, and that it’s missing some fur on the end of its tail. Mink are extremely territorial, and one of the least sociable creatures on Earth. A male mink will not tolerate another male mink in its territory, and will seldom allow a female to enter its territory other than in the breeding season.

They live in burrows that they either dig themselves, or take over from a muskrat or rabbit, which begins as a meal for a mink in the first place.

A mink entering its burrow

Mink may look like rodents, but they are related to weasels, ferrets, and otters.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get photos of many of the returning species of birds that I saw in the distance, nor a photo of a northern shrike that I saw. It was one of those days when getting close to anything was tough, I think that the wind plays a part in that. On very windy days like this was, all the vegetation sways in the wind, making it harder for animals to spot the movements of possible predators. Also, the sounds of the wind mask the sounds that a predator may make, which also tends to make all wildlife more skittish.

Anyway, I’ve prattled on long enough, as my next post will probably be long on words and short on photos again. My next scheduled day off from work is forecast to be warm, but with an all-day rain, so I don’t know if I’ll even venture out.

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


Virginia Rail, Rallus limicola

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.

Virginia Rail, Rallus limicola

The Virginia rail (Rallus limicola) is a small water bird, of the family Rallidae. These birds remain fairly common despite continuing loss of habitat, but are secretive by nature and more often heard than seen. They are also considered a game species in some provinces and states, though rarely hunted.

Adults are mainly brown, darker on the back and crown, with orange-brown legs. To walk through dense vegetation, they have evolved a laterally compressed body and strong forehead feathers adapted to withstand wear from pushing through vegetation. Virginia rails have the highest ratio of leg-muscle to flight-muscle of all birds (25% – 15% of body weight respectively). They have long toes used to walk on floating vegetation. Their tail is short and they have a long slim reddish bill. Their cheeks are grey, with a light stripe over the eye and a whitish throat. Chicks are black. Juveniles are blackish brown on upper parts with rufous on the edge of feathers and brownish bill and legs. Their underparts are dark brown to black, while the face is grayish brown. Both sexes are very similar, with females being slightly smaller. Adults measure 20–27 cm, with a wingspan of 32–38 cm, and usually weigh 65-95 g.

The Virginia rail lives in freshwater and brackish marshes, sometimes salt marshes in winter. Northern populations migrate to the southern United States and Central America. On the Pacific coast, some are permanent residents. Its breeding habitat is marshes from Nova Scotia to Southern British Columbia, California and North Carolina, and in Central America. It often coexists with Soras.

The Virginia rail often runs to escape predators, instead of flying. When it does fly, it is usually short distances or for migration. It can also swim and dive using its wings to propel itself.

This bird has a number of calls, including a harsh kuk kuk kuk, usually heard at night. It also makes grunting noises. In spring, it will make tick-it or kid-ick calls.

The Virginia rail probe with its bill in mud or shallow water, also picking up food by sight. It mainly eat insects and other aquatic invertebrates, like beetles, flies, dragonflies, crayfish, snails and earthworms. It can also eat aquatic animals like frogs, fish and some small snakes, as well as seeds. Animal preys constitute the biggest part of this bird’s diet, but vegetation contributes to its diet in the fall and winter.

Courtship starts around May. The male will raise his wings and run back and forth next to the female. Both sexes bow, and the male feeds the female. Before copulation, the male approaches the female while grunting. Virginia rails are monogamous. Both parents build the nest and care for the young, whereas only the male defend the territory. The nest is built as the first egg is laid and consists of a basket of woven vegetation. The nest is made using plants like cattails, reeds and grasses. They also build dummy nests around the marsh. They nest near the base of emergent vegetation in areas with vegetation creating a canopy above the nest.

This birds lays a clutch of 4 to 13 white or buff eggs with sparse gray or brown spotting. The eggs generally measure 32 by 24 millimetres (1.26 by 0.94 in). They are incubated by both parents for a period of 20 to 22 days, in which the parents continue to add nesting material to conceal the nest. When the eggs hatch, the parents feed the young for two to three weeks, when the chicks become independent. The young can fly in less than a month. The pair bond between the parents breaks after the young become independent.

 

On to my photos:

These images were shot during the summer of 2016 during the course of several visits to the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve and over the course of several weeks. What is also notable about these images is that they were all shot with my Canon 7D Mk II, 300 mm L series lens, and with the 2 X tele-converter behind the lens.

Virginia Rail, Rallus limicola

 

These birds are very secretive and difficult to see as they never venture out into the open, this is a more typical view of one.

Virginia Rail, Rallus limicola

But, through perseverance and awaiting for the birds to step into more open areas, I was able to shoot a few good images of them.

Virginia Rail, Rallus limicola

 

Virginia Rail, Rallus limicola

 

Virginia Rail, Rallus limicola

 

Virginia Rail, Rallus limicola

 

This is number 207 in my photo life list, only 143 to go!

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

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I was a bit rusty, but I loved it!

You’ve already seen one of my images from my last outing, but it will appear here again, along with my thoughts on how I went about shooting it. It was shot on the second to last day of February, the first really nice day that we had around here when I also had the day off from work. And, what a glorious day it was! Not only did it warm up to near 60 degrees (15 C) in the afternoon, but there was great light for most of the time while I was out. That would have been enough for the day to be a memorable one, but on top of those things, the early migrating birds have begun to arrive, and some of them were singing already.

Red-winged blackbird in full “song”

That is, if you call the noises that the red-winged blackbirds make songs. Still, it was a great start to the day, hearing the early sounds of spring after such a long cold winter.

Actually, I was a bit disappointed in that image the way that it came out of the camera. I’m not sure why, but the red patch on the blackbird’s wing was too orange, not red as it looked to me as I shot the image. I used Lightroom to shift the color of the red patch from the orange cast that it had to begin with, more towards red as it appears in the image that you see above.

I’ve had the same thing happen to me before, the red patches on the red-winged blackbird’s wings often look too orange compared to how they look in real life. I’m not sure why, but I think that it has to do with the lack of dynamic range in the sensor of my 7D Mk II, but only time will tell about that. I probably should have worked on the sky in the background as well, since the sky was a deeper blue than the way that it appears in this image.

Anyway, with no clouds to block the sun for a change, most of the critters were out enjoying the sun and the warmth, none more than this muskrat.

Muskrat

I shot photos of another muskrat basking in the sun, but it was partially hidden in the weeds, so I’m not going to post any of them, I have enough photos for the day as it is.

One thing that I noticed soon after I began shooting photos was that I was a bit rusty, and I found it hard to get the subject in the viewfinder. My hand to eye coordination was off a bit because I’ve only shot a few photos this year so far. I missed what could have been good photos of a snowy owl in flight, almost directly overhead and in good light, but I couldn’t track the owl because of my being rusty. So, I did what I always do when I feel the need to practice that aspect of photography, I found some gulls to shoot.

Ring-billed gull in flight

And, I couldn’t resist a portrait shot of a gull as well.

Ring-billed gull

After I had practiced shooting gulls in flight with my 400 mm lens, I had an idea to try, switching to a wide-angle lens to get a large number of flying gulls in the frame at one time. So, I put the 16-35 mm lens set to 35 mm on the camera, and shot away. By the way, that lens at 35 mm on my crop sensor camera is 56 mm of effective focal length, about what our eyes see.

Gulls in flight

Not bad, I thought to my self, so I continued shooting with the wide set-up, notice the gull in this next one, slightly to the left and below the center of the frame, attacking the gull below it.

Gulls in flight

Finally, I got the type of shot that I had in mind when I first thought of trying the wide set-up.

Gulls flying in formation

I probably should have used a polarizing filter on the lens, I did think of it at the time, but I prefer to take one step at a time. Since this was my first attempt at using a wide-angle lens for birds in flight, I wanted to keep things as simple as possible. I also could have zoomed out to get even more gulls in the frame as well, but as I said, one step at a time, I’m pleased with how these images turned out. I will keep these images in mind the next time that I’m close to a flock of birds in flight.

The only other notable things about the time that I spent at the wastewater facility were seeing four snowy owls within sight of one another…

Snowy owl number 1

…all perched on the remaining ice…

Snowy owl numbers 2 and 3

… which I’m sure that they did to keep the zoo which is still following them around at a distance…

Snowy owl number 4

…but, I didn’t shoot a photo of the zoo.

The other notable thing was the lack of birds, there were few waterfowl around other than Canada geese and even very few mallards, no eagles in sight, and very few smaller birds other than a few horned larks.

Horned lark

By the time that I shot that photo, it was warming up nicely, so I decided to move to the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve (MLNP) to shoot small songbirds.

That’s when I shot this image from my last post.

Black-capped chickadee on a bird feeder

I don’t want to cast dispersion on others who photograph birds at a bird feeder, but I find it too darned easy to shoot really good images like that one when you know where the birds will be, what they’ll do, and how to position one’s self for great lighting. I can see how shooting photos of birds at a feeder could be a pleasant hobby, and it is a way to get great images of the birds. Although, there’s not much difference between shooting the birds actually at the feeder and what I did for most of my time at the MLNP. I did sit on a picnic table near the feeders, catching the birds…

Dark-eyed junco

 

Dark-eyed junco

…and the squirrels…

Red squirrel

 

Red squirrel

…as they came to the feeders to chow down.

I can’t think of many ways to spend an afternoon as enjoyable as the one that I had. The sun was warm, I was out of the nippy wind that was blowing in from over the still very cold waters of Lake Michigan and still frozen Muskegon Lake, and there were birds singing all around me.

Male northern cardinal singing

I sat at the picnic table most of the time, however there were a few times when I’d have to stand up to get the best view of a bird, with the best background that I could have in an image. However, for the most part, I just sat and observed what was going on around me, shooting photos when I had a chance to get a good one. Of course, the feeders being nearby meant that I had plenty of wildlife around me all the time, if that was always the case, I could easily get into the habit of sitting in one spot for as long as there were things to photograph regularly.

One of the things that I observed was a red squirrel lapping up the sap that was flowing down a small tree.

Red squirrel drinking sap from a tree

I think that I’ve posted similar photos in the past, but I don’t remember if I got an image where you could see the squirrel’s tongue before. Anyway, if I’d have thought about it, I should have gone over and tasted the sap myself, to see what it tastes like. My guess is that it’s sweet, something like unprocessed maple syrup, but I could be wrong about that. Since I often see squirrels drinking sap, it must be something that they enjoy.

On the other hand, this gray squirrel was content to scrounge for seeds that birds had dropped on the ground.

Gray squirrel

There were several squirrels around, including a black morph gray squirrel, but I wasn’t able to get a photo of that squirrel. Every time that it approached my position, one or both of the other gray squirrels would chase the black morph squirrel away. I was able to shoot a few good photos of the regular gray squirrels though…

Gray squirrel

…including this one that really shows off the colors and details of the fur of the squirrel’s tail, although I blew out the highlights of the squirrel’s ears.

Gray squirrel

Did I mention that it was a wonderful early spring day?

I already showed a photo of a male cardinal singing, there were several in the area. However, as I was observing the squirrels and other birds in the area, I was somewhat surprised that the male cardinals didn’t seem very interested in visiting the feeders there. If they weren’t singing, they were simply perched in the lower vegetation, looking around.

Male cardinal

It also dawned on me eventually that I wasn’t seeing any female cardinals. It turns out that I wasn’t the only one hanging out near the feeders for birds to show up, the male cardinals were also, but they only had one specific bird that they were waiting for, female cardinals.

Female northern cardinal

Whenever a female cardinal would approach the feeders, the males would all fly over towards her, trying to woo her into being their mate for the year.

Female northern cardinal

I guess that the females weren’t ready to pick their mate for the year yet though, as most often, they flew away from the pressuring males without ever visiting the feeder. I did find it amazing that the males seemed to know that the lure of food would attract the females though, and that they all seemed to be hanging around waiting for a female to show herself. The female in the photos above left shortly after I shot those photos, as the males were all perching close to her at the time that I shot the images. Cardinals are usually very territorial during the nesting season, however the chance of finding a mate caused the males to not fight over territory, but to spend their time actually finding a mate.

By the way, all of the images that I shot at the MLNP were shot using the 100-400 mm lens and 1.4 X Tele-converter behind it. Working at close range as I was, the 300 mm f/4 prime lens with the 2 X tele-converter would have been an even better set-up to use. I would have been a few mm closer, and I think that the 300 mm lens and extender is a tad sharper than the 100-400 mm lens and 1.4 X extender, but only up close. The 400 mm prime lens doesn’t focus close enough for me to have gotten some of the images that I shot, like this one.

American tree sparrow

That does bring up something that will require more thought if a spend any time at all just sitting to shoot small birds, what set-up will work best. The 100-400 mm lens is the best lens I have to use while moving around, it will focus up close, and for a few of the squirrel photos, I actually zoomed out a little to less than the 560 mm that I get while using the extender.

The 400 mm lens is the sharpest long lens overall that I have, but its minimum focusing distance is 11 1/2 feet, which isn’t close enough for they type of shooting that I did on this day at the MLNP. I’ve found that I can add an extension tube behind that lens to get down to around 8 feet, but then I can’t shoot at longer distances if needed, as when I shot this photo.

Common grackle

The 300 mm lens works very well up close, but it gets softer as the distance to the subject increases, with or without an extender behind it. I’ve used that lens with the 2 X extender in the past, and up close, it’s still as sharp as a tack. This image is from the summer of 2016, but it shows how sharp the 300 mm lens and 2 X extender are when used for subjects close to me, and in good light.

Virginia Rail, Rallus limicola

I can see myself sitting in one place with all three set-ups ready to go depending on the situation. That seems more than a little silly, but each set-up has its own strengths and weaknesses that I have to take into account. Maybe some day, a lens manufacturer will produce the ideal lens, but I doubt if I could afford it if it was ever on the market.

Anyway, a few more photos from the time I spent at MLNP.

Rock dove or pigeon

 

American tree sparrow

 

American tree sparrow

 

Female downy woodpecker

 

Mourning dove tightrope walking

 

Mourning dove

Have I mentioned that I thoroughly enjoyed sitting in the sun, listening to the birds singing, shooting a few hundred photos of the more common species of birds and squirrels around here?

One other thing that I should mention, I have finally bitten the bullet and begun to add a small amount of color saturation to my images. Ever since I began shooting in RAW, I’ve had my cameras set to record with nothing added to the images as the camera records them. So, I get the true RAW images in Lightroom, and over time, I’ve noticed that even with a little added vibrance in Lightroom, the colors in my images seem to be a bit drab compared what I see in real life, and in the images shot by others. That’s especially true on a magnificent day such as this one was, the light was as close to perfect as it can get, and yet the colors in the images that I shot seemed to be washed out a little. I didn’t have to add much saturation to the colors to bring these images closer to what I saw through the viewfinder as I pressed the shutter. And, I’m not about to push the saturation slider over to the point where it’s obvious what I’ve done, with unnatural colors and artifacts in the image caused by pushing the color saturation too far. Subtle is still my way of processing my images in Lightroom. That also applies to sharpening, and for that matter, all of the adjustments in Lightroom. I want my images to appear as natural as I can get them, and I’ve found over time, that includes boosting the color saturation just a tad.

As close as the day was to being perfect, my images should reflect that, and not look as though people were seeing an old, faded photo of the things that I shot.

I tried to pay attention to the background while I was shooting, but you can’t always get a clean background when shooting smaller birds.

American robin

And, you can’t always get a clean foreground either, as these images show.

Male house finch

However, since this day was all about enjoying the day and shooting some fair photos of common species, I think that the day was a success.

Male house finch

If only this chickadee didn’t have a twig growing out of its head. 🙂

Black-capped chickadee

If not for the twig in the background, that image would be every bit as good as the one of the chickadee on the feeder. I suppose that I could edit the twig out of the photo in Lightroom, but I’m too lazy to spend that much time on this image.

This week, I took delivery of a tripod collar and quick release plate so that I can mount my 70-200 mm lens on the gimbal head that I have to shoot videos when that lens is the correct one to use. While that set-up doesn’t balance as well on the gimbal head as I had hoped due to the battery grips that I have on the 7D, it will still be better than handholding the camera and lens when shooting video.

With the return of nicer weather, better light, and all that goes with those things, I’m really looking forward to this coming year. While I should know better than to make many plans, I do hope to experiment more this year, as I did when using the wide-angle lens to shoot the gulls in flight.

Despite the negative tone of my last post, things are going well for me this year, other than the weather, and that is already changing for the better. The new job is going well, and I’m much better off financially than I was just a few short months ago before I made the change. Once I get used to dealing with the erratic nature of the scheduling there, I’ll have more time to get outside to play with my camera gear.

I would like to find a spot close to home for those days when I have the time to get out for shorter periods of time than it takes me to go to Muskegon, or one of the other places that I know of now. That’s one of my goals for the year.

Since I plan on doing some experimentation, some scouting, and a few other things that I have in mind, I’m not sure how often I’ll be posting, but I know that it will be more often than it has been the past three months. I can fill a post with images that I shoot in a single day if the day is as nice as this one was.

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