American Safari, 7/16/2019

Flying stilts

This will be a (mercifully) short blog. Getting a sharp picture of a flying bird shouldn’t be that hard. Get a camera with a fast frame rate (snaps pictures like a machine gun), brilliant autofocus (gets perfect focus in two nanoseconds)- and maybe artificial intelligence that knows what part of the picture you want to be exposed properly, and you’ll have great flying pictures every outing. And then lend that camera to me, because with my camera none of the above criteria are met.

But that doesn’t stop me from trying. It helps when birds keep flying around me, giving me dozens of chances (doesn’t happen often). But, at some flooded fields in the wilds of the Columbia Basin, some black-necked stilts were very defensive of their territory.

As I sat on the desolate gravel road the birds would start peeping loudly then fly circles around me before landing a distance away. I knew it was defensive behavior but couldn’t see what they were defending. I set the camera at a fast shutter speed (1/2000th to 1/3000th of a second) put the autofocus on continuous, the stabilization on ‘panning’ and took a LOT of pictures.

After a while Janet told me she had found the eggs they were defending. Expertise on her part? Perhaps, but the orange cone and spray-painted arrow pointing to the nest (put there by an obliging biologist, no doubt) made her job easier. At that point we left the birds alone to tend to their future offspring.


American Safari, 7/9/2019


Summer, and the birds vigorously raise their young, scurrying to feed them during the abundant months, limited time to get them strong enough to migrate in the fall. Near our home a western kingbird raises four chicks nearly ready to fledge. Flying in to a great fanfare of excited cheeping from the chicks, the kingbird arrived with insect meals about every 5 minutes.

Farther afield, the Okanogan Highlands are charmingly rural, wooded and possessed of an abundance of lakes. This year we headed out to several favorite lakes of ours east of Tonasket (including Bonaparte & Lost lakes), enjoying a camping getaway with daily pre-breakfast paddles. Bringing our cameras with us to capture the waterfowl, what we encountered were babies- lots of baby chicks.

Take this lesser scaup with her 6 chicks. Not a male scaup in sight to help out with the sextuplet brood, she marshals the chicks in her slipstream to ease their passage through water while keeping an eye out for intruders (like me in my kayak). The lack of male support was a theme for all but one of the waterfowl, as we’ll see.

In the same marshy end of the lake, a common goldeneye herds her group of chicks, also six in number, letting them rest on a log in the sun. (Only five in the photos, but there were six, trust me).

Inadvertently I drifted too close, and she took them away again.

Mallards dominated the census at Bonaparte Lake, again without a male duck to be seen. In a medical lab when there’s a gazillion of one kind of cell under the microscope, you can report it as TNTC: too numerous to count. That’s kinda how the mallard chicks were. Again, a ratio of 6 chicks to each adult would be in line with what we saw (the initial hatches can be bigger, but there’s some early attrition).

We don’t travel to lakes to see mallards; we go to see loons. Common loons struggle in the Northwest to keep their populations stable (so aren’t very common!). Loss of habitat and swallowing lead sinkers from fishing gear account for most of the problems. But there was also a notable demographic difference.

Produced by the eleven adult loons we saw on all the lakes combined were a meager three chicks. Here’s the single chick with it’s parent who attentively kept its body between the chick and me.

Now the ratio of chicks to adults is skewed by the males who stick around to help raise the young. If common loon broods were the same size as the other waterfowl, therefore, we might expect 3 chicks per adult (since half the adults are male). Instead of 33 chicks for eleven adults we found 3. Of course, loons only lay two eggs per clutch. Their reproductive strategy consists of fewer offspring more carefully tended, so hopefully with higher survival. The higher survival depends on available fish in the lakes, limited harassment by humans, and not ingesting lead. Apparently the lakes in the Okanogan Highlands meet the needs of the loons as they are among the few places common loons breed in the entire Northwest.

Look for loons on lakes in the northern tier of Eastern Washington, but keep a respectful distance when you find them. Thanks for reading.

American Safari, 6/25/2019

Hard Times, Easy Times

Getting the bird photograph I envision sometimes takes more patience or ingenuity than I have. This blog is about how recent pictures (this past week) varied from daunting in the diligence it took to get to, well, no effort at all.

From hard to easy. First I was off to a flicker nest to catch the parent feeding the young. The hardest part was finding the flicker nest initially, but Janet had already located one for me. The second hardest challenge was waiting long enough for something to happen. Drilled into a snag, the nest perches on a little ridge composed of small rocks, grass and sagebrush. Hoping to be a smaller presence given the lack of nearby cover meant sitting on a softball sized rock for three quarters of an hour. A malignantly hard and small rock, the best available, meant that my butt had a significant and painful dent by the time the chicks started peering out to see if the coast was clear. (The parents never did make an appearance).

About that time, before I required actual medical care to repair the divot in my derriere, I also got a snap of a pygmy nuthatch nesting in the same tree (sharing, the avian way!).

After that stakeout I was interested in easier targets. Another friend found a red-naped sapsucker nest that one could drive to, setting up to document the feeding visits within a step or two of a car with cupholders and cushioned upholstery. These woodpecker relatives returned every few minutes with beaks full of goodies.

Again and again…

occasionally entering the nest to do some housekeeping, then leaving abruptly.

The 90 minutes spent by this nest qualifies as ‘medium’ effort, since I had to drive and wait around awhile to get a usable shot.

So what qualifies as easy? Walking to our back door during breakfast, propping open the screen door, and getting this posing cedar waxwing.

So unruffled by our presence, it spent minutes trying to figure out what the clicking signified. Thanks for reading.

American Safari, 6/17/2019

One Morning, Four Different Birds

There’s nothing remarkable about seeing 4 different species of birds in one morning. Janet has been with birding groups that identified 75 species in that time. Ah, but did they get good pictures? If you indulge me as to how ‘good’ the photos are, I’ll make my case that one morning last week was pretty special.

First: the Lewis’ woodpecker that wasn’t there. Posts on E bird reported sightings of a Lewis’ woodpecker by the Winthrop cemetery. That’s a special bird in my book, colored differently from all the other Northwest woodpeckers. But there weren’t any. No woodpeckers. As I trailed forlornly along the waist high grass above the cemetery, I saw some commotion in a nearby tree. Magpies.

A common bird, they never let me get close enough. More skittish than their corvid cousins (ravens and crows), they fly away from me when I’m about half way to photo range. Except, the commotion was caused by fledglings. We photographers love to prey on the young, they don’t know how to behave around people yet, and seem more curious than the adults.

Once it was clear that no other birds around the gravestones and their surrounding trees wanted anything to do with me, I decided to swing by ‘Lake Winthrop’ just in case there were wood ducks paddling around in the lagoon. Knowing that waterbirds don’t like humans much, I put a 1.4x teleconverter on a 500 mm lens for extra magnification. If I didn’t see any birds I would at least get some exercise hauling the darn rig around. Luck was with me this time.

My friend Leroy Farmer has a whole flock of wood ducks at his beck and call (south of Wenatchee), but, as for me, I found the experience pretty exciting. Nice looking creature, I’m sure you agree.

Well, it was time for some deliberate exercise. Home to grab the kayak and off to Patterson Lake. Now that’s not the birdiest of lakes (Pearrygin tends to be better-except when the water-skiers play) but I see sandpipers there every time and thought I could sneak up on them this outing. Nothing special, but my efforts produced one shot.

I like these little guys as they bob up and down while looking for food along shorelines.

Then, the big surprise. A whitewater bird, the harlequin duck loves fast moving water where it dines on aquatic insects. I see one every three years or so, in the rushing waters of spring. Here I was on Patterson Lake, not a turbulent stream in sight, and three male harlequins flush in front of me, circle around and land again not 50 yards away. Migrating to the ocean while the females raise the young inland, they somehow ended up on a placid body of flatwater.

I may never see such a thing again. The harsh light of midday did their portraits no favors, but I was happy to get the shots anyway.

Thanks for reading.

American Safari, 6/12/2019

A Failure, then a Success

A photograph should tell a story, or evoke the beginnings of one in the viewer’s mind. I take lots of pictures that are simple recordings of an animal, but the ones that stay with me have a hook, tell me something about the situation that deserves a second look (even if what the photo implies is not in fact true).

Here’s my example. I saw these two painted turtles sunning on a log, and was attracted by the disparity in size.

A third very small turtle was to the left of the larger turtle. I saw I could get a shot of the smaller one overshadowed by the large one. This could convey ‘child turtle protected by its mother’ (probably not true, but hey, we see patterns in things that aren’t real all the time), or ‘look what I’m going to be when I grow up’ or ‘Holy Moly that other turtle is HUGE!’. Remember, though, I’m in a drifting kayak, hand holding a telephoto lens with very limited depth of field. For you camera buffs, I shot this at f16.

In spite of my best efforts the photo doesn’t quite convey the feeling I wanted: the ‘mother’ turtle is too out of focus, and it takes too long to figure out what the photo wants to show.

Although I had to give up on this pair, I did see a different gathering of turtles with an amusing grouping:

For me this shot is much more successful, although the ‘story’ is harder to put into words (Yertle the turtle, perhaps?). The delight I feel in looking at the pile of turtles doesn’t require a text to explain it like the previous shot.

An unrelated pair of variably successful photos, a polyphemus moth showed up on our bedroom screen one morning last week. I tapped the screen on the inside and the moth dropped to our deck and didn’t move. (Clearly alive, just cold, as it later flew away).

While the first photo is fine as far as it goes, the seam in the deck distracts a lot from a complete picture. What I most wanted to see in a photo was the exotic antenna. Grabbing a macro lens I used a technique I haven’t used in nearly a decade: focus stacking. Using manual focus I took 7 shots, each one focused a little more toward the rear of the moth. If I had the patience I could have taken another dozen and gotten the wings of the moth in focus, but that wasn’t what I was after. Software does the rest (Adobe Photoshop).

Because of the stacking technique I can fill my computer monitor with just the antenna, and they are still sharp.

Bugs are so weird- and fascinating! Thanks for reading.

American Safari, 6/8/2019

Daffy Duck

Birds would find many human courting rituals familiar. Offering food to a prospective mate, for example, or dancing with (or for) one’s object of desire; or, of course, showing off one’s physique. In contrast, us humans find some of the bird courting rituals positively bizarre. You don’t have to go to Papua New Guinea to find such behavior- there’s a common daffy duck with a ritual all its own. I have talked about the ruddy duck male’s unusual method of attracting females, but I haven’t gotten such a clear photo series of that behavior before.

The male struts with its head and tail bolt upright, blue beak and white cheek patch prominently displayed.

At intervals it bobs its head very rapidly, beating its chest with its bill to produce a froth of bubbles in front of it. You can tell that the female is interested, swimming over to get a better look.

Then it proudly toots its pleasure at what it has done.

Somehow, in spite of her evident interest, he fails to bed the female and proceeds, like a dude who keeps boasting in a bar until everyone loses interest, to repeat the whole procedure, now facing away from her somewhat.

At which point she swims away. Come to think of it, having seen numerous examples of the whole chest-beating bit, I have never seen a female show sustained interest in the display. But then, flexing muscles in a bar doesn’t work that well for human males either…

American Safari 5/30/2019

Hometown Birds

Well, you can’t see a moose every day. On the other hand, I settle happily for some of the local spring birds visiting local ponds, woods, and our back yard. First, I stalked the black-chinned hummingbird by our deck.

Since it vigilantly patrols its territory (which includes, not incidentally, our hummingbird feeder), returning often to one of three perches from which to spot competitors, getting photos was easy.

Less easy: getting him to look at me while his throat collar was gleaming purple. No matter how I moved trying to get that deep color to show, it only did so when he tucked his head to look down.

At least I can prove that black is not black in all circumstances.

Another obliging bird visiting us for the first time, the black-headed grosbeak has color to spare.

Within walking distance of home, adjacent to a pig sty, cinnamon teals find the weeds growing in the runoff to their taste. Here, the male.

The color shows off even better against a green background.

Further afield, if more mundane, hooded merganser females float serenely on the Beaver Pond,

a flicker calls repeatedly, deciding it can tolerate our approach to call a few more times,

and a Bullock’s oriole finally lands on a low enough bush to photograph.

Spring is a great time to be a bird photographer!