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Silicon Valley veteran doing Technical Community Management. Photographer with a strong interest in birds, wildlife and nature who is exploring the Western states and working to tell you the stories of the special places I've found.
Author and Blogger. They are not the same thing. Sports occasionally spoken here, especially hockey. Veteran of Sun, Apple, Palm, HP and now Infoblox, plus some you've never heard of. They didn't kill me, they made me better.
Person with opinions, and not afraid to share them. Debate team in high school and college; bet that's a surprise.
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Category Archives: Photography – Birds
A common bird around here, wandering in large flocks around the shorelines and marshes and nesting in many locations. It tends to act as the fire alarm for an area, being a noisy, nervous bird that is the first to react to predators or threats. My nickname for this species is “Marsh Poodle”
I walk out the door to go to work and I hear the distinctive sound of a woodpecker, and I see it move on our neighbor’s tree. I grab the binocs, then the camera out of the car. And sometimes your timing is just right.
White-Crowned Sparrow, Morro Bay Harbor, California.
One of my favorite birds, these little sparrows arrive in the fall and winter here in California, Easily found wandering bushy areas eating seeds, they’re arrival is a sign winter is coming, and their leaving tells us Spring is here.
At a glance, the white-faced ibis looks like a fairly unremarkable, brown bird. Let the light hit them right, though, and they show a fascinating set of iridescent colors that make them truly beautiful. This one, seen at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, just grabbed a snack. Life is good.
The two on the left are younger birds in non-breeding plumage, the one on the right is an adult in breeding plumage. Radio Road Ponds, Redwood Shores, San Mateo County, California
A happy Valentines day to you and yours from me and mine. May this day be a day free from stress and one that leaves you with kind thoughts and smiles.
Apologies for the semi-abandoned look to the blog. I’d planned on being back on a blogging schedule by now, but a couple of things have been going on that have sucked up free time. Memo to self: when you open up the hood on something and look inside, try to resist uttering the phrase “as long as I’m doing these other things, it shouldn’t take long to fix this other stuff that I’ve wanted to do….”
Ooops. And right now, I’m crunching to be ready since I’m headed to Morro Bay for a couple of days with the camera as I head out to Piedras Blancas in search of interesting Elephant Seal photos.
In the meantime, please amuse yourself with last weekend’s outing. Laurie and I finally got out to Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, north of Sacramento. It was a 400 mile day trip, long, but interesting and I’m glad I finally got out to that preserve — it’s gorgeous. The primary subject for photos that day were Greater White-Fronted Geese, who put on a rather nice show.
You can see more images from that trip by visiting this flickr slideshow.
The reason for the Piedras Blancas trip is that it’s a good time of year for action as the bulls are looking for females and are in their “really grumpy” mood. This weekend may be interesting because there’s a high tide that’s going to compress the animals onto a smaller part of the beach, which would encourage grumpiness. And hilarity may ensue. or at least a lot of smelly, huge beasts making lots of noise and fury.
And the other attraction? They’re uglier than I am….
You can see images from my previous visits to Piedras Blancas here.
I normally don’t post entire articles when I reference them, but I think it’s important to get these rules in as many eyeballs as possible. It seems like we have a discussion about once a year or so on one of the birding lists I’m on (and disclosure: I’m one of the moderator/owners of South Bay Birds) when we run into someone who’s getting too close or causing stress to the animals or birds they are looking at or trying to photograph.
In this case, from reading the list, someone took the photographer aside and talked to him, and he was understanding and cooperative. That’s not always the case, unfortunately, and sometimes, the impact of the visits isn’t visible to you at the time, but is only obvious later — read, for instance, this story of the loss of a burrowing owl nest in Utah from being loved to death. Unfortunately, that’s happened here in the Bay area as well, where nests have been abandoned due to our enthusiasm for the birds.
Most of the time when I’ve run into these situations, the photographers or birders involved just aren’t thinking about the impact of their actions. Once in a while, I’ve run into someone who doesn’t care, as long as they get their shot. If I see bad or negligent behavior, I’ll typically take some reference shots and if I can, engage the person and try to help them understand why they should back off. If they turn out to be a “get the shot” idiot, if I have images that can identify them, I’ll usually get those to a Ranger if I can. On SBB, we’ve had discussions about whether to ban someone from the list for this kind of behavior, but since the list archives are open (and should be), we haven’t done that. I’ve been tempted, though.
When practical, I do nest photography.
Some bird photographers won’t. Some sites and publications won’t accept nest photos. I sympathize with those positions; I wish more sites were more active about the ethics of taking nest photos. I struggle whether I should stop myself at times, because I worry that out of context, my images my encourage someone else to try it without understanding the limitations you need to put on yourself to keep this work safe for the birds.
My self-imposed rules for dealing with animals at any time are pretty simple and strict:
If the animal or bird acknowledges my presence (by turning to look at me, or stopping whatever it’s doing or changing behavior), I stop and freeze. If it is watching me, I’m too close and it’s defense mechanisms are kicking in. I do not immediately retreat because I don’t want MORE movement until I see how they react. Many times they’ll settle down. If they don’t, I retreat. If I can, I’ll try to move into cover or out of direct view so I’m not triggering their defense mechanism. Once I hit this point, under no circumstance do I move closer once I see where their distance limit is for comfort. ( side note 1: If I’m stopped in place and they come closer to me, I do what I can not to make movements that’ll surprise or scare them, but I don’t retreat, because that typically makes things worse. Doing nothing is always a good option. side note 2: if whatever I’m photographing or watching can EAT ME, I ignore everything I just said about not retreating if I think it’s appropriate to ignore it)
If I flush a bird or animal, I immediately back off. Depending on the situation, I might give it time to settle down and return to its normal behavior and then try again for a shot, or I might decide it’s too stressed and leave. If I flush a bird or animal a second time, that ends any attempt to photograph it. My photo always loses to the welfare of the animal.
If I’m approaching a nest, I’m much stricter. As soon as I see a bird on a nest react to my presence, I back off, and under no circumstances go any closer to where I was when they reacted. And if I flush a bird off their nest, I leave. Period. A bird on a nest only leaves if it feels significant danger, because it’s potentially abandoning it’s eggs or young. You can kill eggs if you keep a bird off the nest too long. there is no photograph worth that risk.
My view on this is simple: watch the animal. It will tell you when you’re too close. If it’s watching you, that’s as clones as it feels comfortable, so that’s as close as you should get. If it’s changing its behavior, you’re too close. If you’re too close, stop, and get further away.
There is no photo worth putting the animal you’re photographing into jeopardy over. It’s easy to get so tied up with getting the shot (believe me, I know the feeling) that you stop paying attention to what the animal is saying. But trust me, they will let you know if you get too close. IMHO, there’s no excuse. All you have to do is pay attention to the animal as much as you do your camera.
We snagged this list of wildlife code of ethics from Annette Herz on the SBB Listserve and liked it so much we wanted to share it with our readers too:
Wildlife Code of Ethics
1. First and foremost, view wildlife from a safe distance for both you and them. Respect their spatial needs. If the animal interrupts its behavior (resting, feeding, etc.), then you are too close and must distance yourself.
2. Never force an action. Be patient! The most beautiful photographs result from natural action.
3. Never come between a parent and its offspring. I’ve seen tiny bear cubs distressed, treed then separated from their mother by a throng of tourists eager for a closer look. This is unacceptable behavior.
4. Never crowd, pursue, prevent escape, make deliberate noises to distract, startle or harass wildlife. This is stressful and wastes valuable energy in needless flight. The impact is cumulative. Consider that you may be the 65th person to yell “hey moose” at that animal that day while it’s attempting to tend to its young.
5. Never feed or leave food (baiting) for wildlife. Habituation due to handouts can result in disease or even death of that animal and injury to you.
6. Never encroach on nests or dens as certain species will abandon their young.
7. Never interfere with animals engaged in breeding, nesting, or caring for young.
8. Learn to recognize wildlife alarm signals and never forget that these animals are NOT tame no matter how docile or cuddly they appear. No one would argue that you should not try to pet a bull yet there have been numerous instances where a tourist attempted to have his/her photo taken next to a bison with disastrous consequences.
9. Do not damage or remove any plant, life form or natural object. Do pack out trash.
10. Acquaint yourself with and respect the behaviors and ecosystems of the wildlife you may encounter. By doing so, you will enrich your experience tremendously.
11. Finally, and most significant, remember that the welfare of the subject and habitat are irrefutably more important than the photograph.
I have acquired a strong fascination with the cranes and geese that visit California’s central valley in the winter. There are a number of places you can go to take them in, but one of my favorites is Merced National Wildlife Refuge, which is roughly halfway between Santa Nella and Merced. It’s about two and a half hours of driving from home, so it’s not a trivial drive, but it’s very much something I can do as a day trip.
The cranes and geese start arriving around the end of October, and start leaving in February or March. I’ve gotten into the habit of trying to get out into the central valley three or four times a winter to visit and photograph the birds and the area; more if I can. Some of those trips Laurie and I do together and make it an outing, but sometimes, it works best for me to go solo and just focus on trying to get pack as much into the trip with as much intensity and focus as I can.
There is just no way to be enthusiastic when the alarm goes off at 4AM. The best I can muster is not turning it off and rolling over; a quick hot shower and I’m off after clothes stashed in the other room, because my one goal right now is letting Laurie get back to sleep. Some mornings, you walk out the front door and look up into the dark sky and realize you’re screwed, and you might as well go back to bed. It’s 4:30, it’s 40 degrees, and it’s clear skies.
South to Gilroy, I find the open Starbucks (thank you, bless you). Over the hills, and down into Santa Nella and Los Banos. And into the fog. Now, I’m worried; I might arrive and be fogged out. The fog is playing games with me, though, as Tule fog can; sometimes it goes away. sometimes it’s impenetrable and you’re driving by braille. Outside of Los Banos, it lifts, but only about 20′, so it’s as if I’m driving in this weird grey tunnel. It’s a weird feeling, with the air completely clear around you, but when you look up, you can see nothing.
I make it to the refuge at 7:15, beating sunrise by about ten minutes. The fog is there, but not heavy. When the sun hits, it’ll build a bit, then it should burn off before too much time passes. I pull into the refuge to set up the cameras and get ready for the show. I can hear the geese stirring in the distance. My car thermometer reads 35 degrees. I reach for my coat, and realize I left it at home. All I have is my in-car denim jacket that lives there for these kinds of situations. It’ll help, but it’s really not heavy enough.
I’m the second car into the refuge. One has already headed up the auto tour a bit. I’m in the entrance area, unpacking gear and setting up the car the way I like it for these trips. A lone bird flies through. It turns out to be one of the few glimpses of an Ibis I’ll see today.
Those who have a fantasy that the life of a nature photographer is a glamorous one, set the alarm for 4AM, drag your butt out of bed, and go sit on a bench in the local park for a few hours and wait for something to happen. Maybe something will, maybe it won’t. That, in a nutshell, is nature photography. As you get better at picking locations, the chances something interesting will happen goes up, but it’s never guaranteed. Hours of prep, minutes of opportunity. Maybe.
Some people like to visit a lot of places. Get to know a few places well, rather than see lots of places superficially. You can go overboard on that, become too insular, too “cocooned”, but for me the attraction is to understand a place, not just see it. To watch as it changes over time and through the seasons.
This trip to Merced is my “new job vacation”; instead of taking time off and going somewhere, I took the accrued vacation and put that money into gear. It’s also my first “serious” trip to start learning how the gear should be used in the field. I’m consciously experimenting more with the wide angle, forcing myself to use it and not get so heavily into the rhythm of shooting at 400mm and seeing everything in that mono-vision.
I am going to have fun today. I don’t intend to let the cold stop me. Or the fog. Or even doofuses. Those are all things to work with, and around, they can only be excuses if you let them. Early on, the fog makes bird photography tough, putting everything into soft focus. I spend more time thinking about how to bring the refuge to those that can’t be there.
Opportunities do exist, of course.
A loggerhead shrike sits up for a portrait session. This has been one of my nemesis birds; I have lots of so-so images of them. I don’t have many I’m proud of.
Now I do.
I spend the afternoon with the geese, alternately trying to figure out how to show what it’s like sitting out in a marsh with 10,000+ birds, and trying to get some good flight and landing shots.
How do you describe 10,000 birds visually in an image?
That seems a good start. It’d be a better image if it was a panorama, but I didn’t want to get out of the car and risk spooking them to set up for a formal pano, and the handheld one wasn’t very good. Some days they work, some days they don’t.
Geese, everywhere. Never quiet, and there’s always motion.
Every time I visit a refuge, I want to do video, I want to do audio. I want to try timelapses. I now have most of the gear I need for these, but haven’t had time to practice the setups. Next visit, hopefully.
Then the geese explode; they’ve been spooked. The entire flock hits the air at the same time. The noise is intense, almost as intense as the visual chaos. Birds are flying everywhere. I don’t know how they avoid collisions, but they do.
And then it’s quiet, and empty. The geese have gone in to settle for the night. I can feel the first tendrils of fog seeping back into my It’s time for food, something hot, and the drive over the hill home. Until next time.
I had a comment posted on one of my photos, and I’ve been meaning to follow up on it. With the weather outside, it’s a good day to do some catching up.
This photo is incredible! I have a 40D and shoot a lot but don’t think I could have gotten this kind of sharpness and the highlighting on the subject, especially considering that it was moving and you presumably couldn’t get that close to it.
What kind of lens were you using? Tripod? Photoshop techniques?
This photo was shot handheld with my D30 and the 100-400 IS, my standard setup for wandering around.
Down at Morro Bay harbor, there’s a fish cleaning station. As you might imagine, when the fishermen are cleaning, this can attract a number of gulls, but there’s also a group of pelicans that have figured out that this is free-meal city.
The result for photographers is that you have really good, close access to these birds because they are habituated to humans. I was generally no more than 8-10 feet away, and these shots were taken at betweeo 100-150mm at F5.6 in aperture mode.
It’s not really a good situation for the birds, because this level of habituations isn’t healthy. Beyond the problems of becoming dependent on humans for food, this lack of wariness for the birds can lead to everything from dog attacks to being hit by cars, because without some fear of humans, the brids simply don’t think to stay out of harms way. Their aggressiveness — literally coming within a foot or two of the fisherman, sometimes inches — is risky, too. The fishermen we were watching used a hose to discourage the pelicans, but stories of more drastic action (including cleaning knives) appeared when I discussed this with the Morro Bay photogs. There aren’t many good answers here, but perhaps cleaning stations like this need canopies or some other covering to restrict access to these begging birds.
This isn’t necessarily a good situation for the fisherman, either. As you can see from, the Brown Pelican foot is webbed, but still has some pretty significant claws as well. Not something I want landing on my shoulder…
The repeated attempts by the birds to snag lunch and the fisherman to make them leave is what set up this shot. I realized the pelicans were flying away, circling around and coming back in for another try. That gave me the ability to set up anticipating that flight. I had a choice between good light or a clean background, and I decided to shoot for the light and blur out the background as well as I could. Looking at the results, that was the right choice, the texture in the features is very good and the pelican stands out from the background well.
Post-processing? Very little. This shot basically made itself. I might have darkened the background a bit, but that’s pretty much what I started with.
Pelicants are one of the birds that first attracted me to birding — I remember a trip back in the mid-90′s where we were in Arcata near the harbor watching the Pelicans fish and thinking what awesome birds they were. Many years later when I started birding Pelicans were an early interest, and I still photograph them at any opportunity.
That led to this series of photos, which I’ve set up as a slideshow. At Shoreline lake one morning, there were some brown pelicans fishing. When I watch birds, one of the things I enjoy is studying their actions and behavior. With these birds, it was fun to watch their fishing and flying habits. When a pelican takes off from the water, they start by flapping the wings, but they also push off with their webbed feet. Two or three of these “hops” happen before they have enough speed to leave the water, and then the landing gear come up.
When they’re fishing, they’ll take the hops, and if they see a fish or something in the water, suddenly abort the takeoff, pull in the wings and flip foward into the water beak first. If they don’t see anything after a few hops, they’ll stop. This is a lower-energy fishing style than they’ll use other times when they’ll take off and fly across the water about 15 feet up looking for prey, then tuck the wings and dive in beak first after it.