American Safari, 4/11/2019

80 Minutes with One Bird?

Why, or how could you spend that much time photographing one bird? Wouldn’t it just fly away? And if it didn’t, wouldn’t you just get all the pictures you wanted in 5 minutes? No and no. Let me explain. We don’t live where there are roadrunners, but we have traveled to roadrunner territory on a number of occasions. I got this satisfying shot

of a roadrunner 6 years ago, and hadn’t gotten close since. So roadrunner was definitely on the photographic menu. Janet didn’t have a single usable photo, and hadn’t ever even gotten a good look at one.

That is, until our Southern California trip last month. We had had a disappointing time looking for birds at the Salton Sea, a saline lake slowly drying out, so we headed to Palm Desert for civilization and a decent motel. Janet noticed some birding reports from a small park in Palm Desert. We decided to visit for a bit before dinner time. 5 acres, 2 in grass and three in desert scrub comprised the entire park. At our assigned rendezvous time, Janet didn’t appear, so I went looking for her. Finding her shortly, she started to describe a brief, unsatisfying encounter with a roadrunner when my jaw dropped and I pointed. The roadrunner hopped in to view 20 feet away!

This bird was hunting, and not too concerned about humans (this was, after all, a city park). It would dash behind a bush, and we would run along parallel to it, trying to guess which side of the bush it would come out of. Always staying about 30 feet away (except for the few times it ran toward us having spotted possible prey our direction), we criss-crossed the desert part of the park a dozen times as the roadrunner occasionally gobbled up some insects, leapt on rocks for a better view,

or twice, leaping 7 feet in a single vertical jump to get in to a tree for another vantage point.

The crest went up and down, the tail raised and lowered, signals of its internal state too opaque to decipher. We kept trying more shots because 1) We don’t know what will come out from a fast moving bird until later, 2) It’s hard to compose the background when you’re chasing a bird like we were, so we took lots hoping a few would not have sticks running through the birds head, 3) We wanted to get crest-up (or maybe down),

tail-up (or maybe down) and red spot behind eye visible (best seen when it turned away from us, which made getting a complete photo difficult). Also, we kept trying because the bird cooperated, reappearing frequently, never seeming too disturbed by our presence. Since it kept posing, we kept shooting, until finally, light fading, we lost track of it. .

You would have been entranced, too. Picture yourself giggling with glee and getting sand in your shoes.

Thanks for reading.

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American Safari, 4/3/2019

Red Bird, Blue Bird, Old Bird, New Bird

When Janet and I find a colorful cooperative bird, we feel gratitude, and determination not to waste the opportunity. Our personal record, I believe, is 1 hour 20 minutes following the same bird (more about that on another post). A close second happened while in Morongo Valley Nature Preserve near Palm Desert, California this past month. I had heard of vermillion flycatchers, but hadn’t laid my eyes on one. While wandering the trails of Morongo Valley a friendly photographer told us where to look for one. Intermittently it would appear, a flash of deep red, and flit from tree to barbed wire fence.

Although we prefer birds on natural structures, the tree limbs the bird flew to were all in shade and high up, so those photos got deleted. It did have the ironic sense to land and admire my camera from this sign:

As for blue birds, well the Methow Valley has some to brag about. One can’t go wrong finding the sassy Stellar’s Jay, a striking and confident bird, shockingly blue in sunlight. This isn’t sunlight, but I was happy to have it land near me long enough to snap its picture.

And, of course, our yearly spring visit from the Western bluebirds that occupy the bird box 60 yards from our house.

With a big bird lens and a sunny morning, this vivid bird makes for a smiling day!

When it comes to ‘old’ birds, no bird has as long a history with my cameras as the reliable redwing blackbird. As we all know, they have a characteristic ‘Cooka-REEE’ call that is easy to time, catching the bird in full cry, red epaulets ablaze in breeding hopefulness.

This picture is not cropped. There is such a thing in bird photography as having too big a lens, or being too close. Rare, but it happened here.

As for ‘new’ birds, I have to confess I am reluctant to choose between the next two. They are both marsh birds, seldom seen, more often heard as they skulk invisibly behind reeds, often feet away and yet completely hidden. One is truly new, a ‘life’ bird for me (the Virginia rail),

while the other was the third time it appeared for me (a sora). I’ll call them both ‘new’.

You can tell by their coloration and big feet that they are related, or evolved for the same habitat, at least.

Next time, I’ll post about the hour and 20 minutes with a single bird. Thanks for reading.

American Safari, 3/29/2019

Bills, Bills

OK, I have a confession to make as a bird photographer. I have a hard time getting excited by most shore birds. They come in a bewildering assortment of beige, off white, ecru and light brown with an occasional daring foray into gray. But at least the larger ones do some creative design work with their bills. In the Tijuana Slough we saw four impressively different bill adaptations to eat similar foods in the marshlands.

First we’ll start with the widespread willet, a modest raven-sized bird seen on most US shorelines. Straight bill, plain jane bird (although it does have cool striping under its wings (not shown)).

Next in the lineup of straightish bills comes the marbled godwit, with a bill long enough to fence with.

The other two birds in this lineup have curved bills, saving them from bending their necks as much, I guess. The whimbrel sports a pleasantly long downward bending bill.

Lastly, I offer the aptly named long-billed curlew, the winner here in ungainly long mouth adaptation.

Thanks for reading.

American Safari, 3/24/2019

White Birds, Brown Birds

When you’re a mostly retired guy in the Methow Valley like me, mud season definitely makes you get up an go…elsewhere. This last trip, more abruptly planned than usual, was also motivated by a shoulder injury. Why watch others enjoy the last great week of skiing when I could be getting a tan at 85 degrees in Southern California? So, we went, attracted by tales of birds at the Salton Sea and the promise of Palm Desert sunshine. First stop: Tijuana Slough. In spite of the name, we were still north of the border.

I really enjoy snowy egrets, elegant, self assured, fierce hunters, and possessing surprising yellow feet. Also, jealous. Here a dominant snowy chases a meeker bird from a prime fishing area.

It returns to take command of the site.

Two notes to add. First, for photographers. If you want the feathers to appear other than blank white, like a sheet of paper, you have to underexpose the image (negative exposure compensation-see your camera manual). Second, all the extra feathering on the chest and back of head seen in this last photo develops for breeding season. Fall birds won’t have it.

We then moved on to the Salton Sea, an anomalous saline body of water created by flooding of the Colorado River in 1905 and shrinking for the last 40+ years. Normally there are lots of birds here, most in mid winter, but the increasing salinity of the lake as it shrinks has killed the tilapia, so there’s less to eat. Sadly, that means many fewer eared grebes, an attractively decorated water bird I’m sorry to see take a hit. Instead, we were hoping to see burrowing owls, often observed along the irrigation canals of the agricultural lands surrounding the lake. We succeeded, braking the car hard in a cloud of dust when a pair appeared by the side of the road. All pictures taken from the car, which birds often tolerate better.

Actually, we first noted one adult. Hadn’t seen one change it’s facial shape like this as it moved from one perch to the adjacent one.

Then the juvenile, we think.

And lastly, the pair of adults, I’m guessing. Discussing the annoying photographers, perhaps?

Thanks for reading.

American Safari, 3/8/2019

Mount Vernon #2: Water birds

After eagles, most of the other birds we saw in the Mount Vernon area were water birds: birds that spend the bulk of their summers, at any rate, in water. There was water around for sure,

mostly salt water, but the water birds seemed to be favoring dry land. Correction: wet mud.

Green wing teals, small ducks with attractive coloring for the males (sorry gals) ate in a fashion reminiscent of shore birds like sanderlings. Probing rapidly through the mud, they displayed a sewing-machine type motion with their heads. Sanderlings have pointy flexible bills with sensation at the tip for blindly finding food. I would have bet good money that ducks can’t do that. Wrong again.

By sheer numbers, snow geese won the census count. They are comical in small groups, heads pointed in all directions.

In bigger numbers, if startled a chain reaction runs through the flock. First the ones closest to the alarm source rise,

then the air fills as they all ‘panic’.

The other prolific white bird, almost as indifferent to mud as the teals, grazed in field after field: trumpeter swans, with their lovely warbling bugle sound.

They are more elegant in still water, reflection doubling their size. But that’s not where we found them, so muddy venue is what you get.

No visit to watery terrain is complete without a great blue heron stalking fish.

And the last day we got excited finding pintails, large elegant looking ducks. That tail gives the bird away, not to mention the distinctive vertical stripe on the neck of the males.

As usual, the females are camouflaged for survival. Thanks for reading.

American Safari 2/7/2019

Winter Birds

(Apologies if you also follow me on Facebook, this post is largely similar. The post is for those who aren’t on Facebook as well. I thought this was already published, but the WordPress program tells me it hasn’t been.)

The winter has proved to be an overachiever, exceeding expectations after a warm month with middling snow. Now it is cold, bright, with very good skiing, which is, after all, why many of us live here. The birds I like to photograph have not enjoyed the winter with the same enthusiasm: posing for me hasn’t been high on their to do lists.

First there were reports of full birdfeeders unattended by actual birds. While ours got a fair menagerie by mid December, the light failed to, well, light much, with overcast somber clouds the theme. During this period the Bohemian waxwings arrived for an unprecedentedly short time: 15 minutes max, instead of hours distributed over consecutive days. I got one shot:

I still get excited when the waxwings come. They are pretty birds, after all. But perhaps in my attempt to get the ‘perfect’ waxwing shot I’m just taking the same picture over and over again.

Another visitor I’ve shown already in this blog: the varied thrush. After that post though, one posed in the back yard in the afternoon. The crucial difference, sunlight enlivened the shot.

Pictures in full shade have their place, but not as the only option.

I never set out to take a picture of a junco. These days they swarm our birdfeeders as if auditioning for Hitchcock’s The Birds. Hardly a rare or striking bird. But, if I sit still, huddling to ward off the 20-degree cold, they will sometimes pose so near as to show every feather.

You’re forgiven if you think I’m wasting my time with them. I kinda agree. But then, if they hold still ten feet away…

Lastly, we’ve been pleased to see the male pileated return to our neck of the valley for a second winter. The male, as you probably know, has more red on its head and face, which adds to its photographic appeal.

The raised crest isn’t too shabby either. Thanks for reading.

American Safari, 3/1/2019

Mount Vernon #1: Eagles and Harriers

Sometimes, no matter how good the snow is, you have to do something other than ski. Now, that time wouldn’t have come yet for me except that I overused a shoulder, and was on mandatory rest for a few days. “Janet”, I said, “let’s go to Mount Vernon and see some birds.” The fact that it was 5 PM and a snowstorm was predicted for Stevens Pass didn’t dampen my urge to use the window of convalescence to get to the Skagit Valley, so we went.

There were a lot of birds there. More surprising to me (I can be easily surprised) were the eagles, sitting on posts and in trees by houses like so many forgotten Christmas tree ornaments. We have eagles here in the Methow Valley, but I haven’t ever gotten so close. The raggedy juveniles are often more picturesque than the adults.

While walking through a nature reserve a fellow visitor pointed out a snow goose standing still in a bramble bush.

She had seen an eagle grab this bird, then somehow drop it, whereupon the wounded bird hid in the bush. The eagle knew it was there and landed in the field immediately adjacent.

Later we saw the eagle ten feet away from the snow goose, still out of reach in the bushes. By the next morning the snow goose was gone. and no pile of feathers to mark its demise, so perhaps it survived.

The other raptor that appeared frequently over the farm fields was the northern harrier. In this blog previously I have noted how elusive that bird can be for photographers: often seen, hard to photograph. I had more luck in Mount Vernon.

The brown birds are the females. For some reason, the gray males seem much rarer to me, but I finally saw one as well.

Next week: Mount Vernon water birds. Thanks for reading.