Chuq Von Rospach is a Silicon Valley veteran doing Technical Community Management and amateur photographer with a strong interest in birds, wildlife and landscapes. My goal is to explore the Western states and working to tell you the stories of the special places I've found. You can find out more on the About Page.
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Category Archives: Birdwatching
We recently had a discussion about finding owl out in the field. The best I could suggest is that the way I find them is to look into the trees for parts of the trees that shouldn’t be there.
And then I went out on a couple of trips and happened to run into Great Horned Owls both times.
Can you see the owls in these trees? Do you see how when you look at the structure of the trees they show up as “not supposed to be there?”
At first glance it’s easy to miss them because they can look to a casual glance to be a branch within the tree; that’s part of their camoflauge. But when you stop and study the tree a bit, it’s easier to see them for what they are.
A daytime owl in a tree tends to be unlikely to flush unless you press them by getting too close, giving you good opportunities to study and photograph them. They’ll typically telegraph their unhapiness at your being around them before they fly off; if you start seeing these signs of nervousness, back off and leave them alone.
One of the things I’m doing for this refuge project is experimenting with video, timelapses and some other capture techniques to find the best ways to tell some of the stories I’m trying to tell. On this weekend’s visit out to Merced I finally got serious about figuring out how to use the GoPro as part of this storytelling. The video sequences I took didn’t work out so well (but I learned a lot) and the audio capture was a complete loss (but also quite instructive as to how I should be doing it.. That build is now in process for the next trip).
But I do like this timelapse, which involves driving the refuge tour path. it’s about a 5 mile gravel road that circles parts of the refuge. One nice aspect is that much of the interesting areas are on the driver’s side of the path, so I stuck the GoPro onto the car and captured a trip around.
Not exactly Oscar material, but if you’ve never visited one of these refuges, it’ll give you a sense of what it’s like to visit one of these places. These refuges aren’t exactly Yosemite in terms of massive beauty, but they have a quiet attraction of their own; we do need to remember the primary purpose isn’t to entertain us, but to help the birds survive the winter.
When we think about the smartest animals, chimpanzees are usually the first to come to mind. Experiments show that they can memorize sequences of numbers, learn the meaning of words and associate particular voices with specific faces. Crucially, previous studies have found that chimps and other apes are the only non-human animals capable of making abstract logical inferences based on cues from their environment. A new experiment, though, might make us recognize that an entirely different species belongs in this exclusive group: the African grey parrot.
I have said for years that the Umbrella Cockatoo I share this house with has the intelligence and emotional reactions of about a four year old child.
Well, a four year old child with a claw hammer and a air horn, but….
More and more data is starting to come out that shows just how smart parrots are. This study is fascinating, but anyone who’s lived with a big bird will read it and go “well, yeah….”
(my bird, among other things, will decide to do something she knows she’ll get in trouble for, and then put herself back in her cage for the time out before I can. She knows she shouldn’t do it, she knows the punishment, and she decides it’s totally worth it. In in that way, she wins the round…. and knows it.)
I finally made it out to look at the eagle’s nest for the first time in weeks. Since it’s June, I expected the nest to be empty, and it was. While as far as I know there’s no absolute confirmation the chicks successfully fledged, the nest looks to be undamaged and empty so I think it’s likely this pair once again fledged out one or two chicks. (my intention was, as usual, to watch the nest more closely than I did. Reality amuses itself by inserting complications…)
This year the eagle’s moved the nest, so it wasn’t in the very visible and well-protected power tower location. I was able to spend some time earlier this year with the biologist who’s doing environmental monitoring of the Calaveras Dam project, and management of the species of concern in the work area and the watershed of the reservoir is a large part of his worry-list — with the bald and golden eagles being very high on that list. Any negative impact to those species could create a problem for the dam project, so they were quite sensitive to potential disruptions of the birds while they were nesting.
They invited me out to the project and we had some time to talk about the area, the eagles and how they were managing the impact of the dam project on the local environment, and they took me out and showed me the location of the nest. Because the nest is (a) on private land in a closed area, (b) and somewhat obscured from view, they were very worried about disclosing the location of the nest because it might encourage birders or others to trespass for better views. On top of that, the biologist twice tried to get a better look at the nest himself and both times flushed the adults off of it at 80 yards or further, so he felt that this pair was at high risk of being displaced off the nest if people started wandering out onto the watershed land to get a better look.
Looking at the location and situation, I agreed with him and agreed not to disclose the location until the nesting was done and the nest was empty. Now that this has happened, I’m writing this up as a bit of an info dump on this eagle pair for those interested and so I have this info for future reference.
As it turns out, the eagles moved the nest to a tree nearby the old nest; if you knew exactly where to look, you could see it from the public road. I do know a few of the local birders found it independently. I showed a few birders the location on a one-on-one basis. I had intended to set up a weekend where members of the local birding list could come and get shown the location, but I never had the time to set that up (sorry!).
The general location of the nest is 37Â°27’48″ N 121Â°49’58″ W. The original nest we’ve monitored is in a power tower visible from the road. Two years ago this pair moved the nest to a tree near the tower, but the limb that nest was on failed in a winter storm, and last year they moved back to the tower. This year, they moved the nest again back to the tree they nested in two years ago, on a branch about 10′ higher than the previous nest. The nest is about 40′ above ground level.
I’ve been watching this nest since 2008 (images on flickr here). I believe the first year they nested at this location was 2007. their first successful fledge was 2009 with a single chick. They raised two chicks in 2010, 2012, and 2013, and I believe a single chick in 2011, but I was out of the loop that year.
These maps give a general view of the location. As you drive along Calaveras you’ll pass the old nest on the tower, easily visible. There’s a pasture gate at that location, and just beyond it (driving north) is a pull-out under the trees where you can park. Parking is limited, three cars, roughly, and on a couple of occasions I’ve found it occupied by cows that have let themselves out of the pastures and taken advantage of the shade…
Here I’ve set up the scope about 15′ S of the pasture gate on the side of the road.
Across the pasture is a single large oak tree. When you’re there, you can’t miss it.
Look through that tree, just to the right of the trunk and under the canopy. If you’re in the right place, it’ll frame the view to the nest.
There is some worry that this nest is at risk at going down in a winter storm; it’s heavy, and it’s stressing the limb. I was out there one day in some significant breeze and it bounced around like crazy. We’ll see if it survives the winter and if they re-use it next year.
If you look at the location of the nest, you can see why the dam officials are worried about trespassers. It seems like an easy hike to hop over the pasture gate and wander down for a better view. In fact, just past that first tree there’s a significant bluff and a drop-off, and the nest tree is well down the slope and the nest itself about 40′ off the ground.
Given how skittish the eagles were when the biologist approached, there’s no way someone could get a better view before pushing them off the nest. Beyond the general worries about trespassing on private land and the landowners worrying about legal liability issues if someone got injured while trespassing, none of us wanted the eagles to be disturbed. The old tower nest didn’t have much risk of that, but this new one does.
Beyond the general wish to let the birds nest and fledge their chicks without harassment, the dam project had another worry; if the birds were harassed enough that they abandon this nest and relocate, if they relocated into the work area on the dam project, it could require significant mitigation or a complete stop to the dam work while they’re nesting. That could be a very expensive problem — and there is an older bald eagle nest within the work area that shows that bald eagles have in fact nested at locations that would have required a complete stop to the dam work in recent times. It’s unclear whether that nest was built by this pair before moving to the tower, or whether we’ve had multiple pairs of bald eagles nesting on Calaveras Reservoir at the same time, but there’s a history of nesting at the North end of the lake and the dam project managers wanted nothing to occur that might encourage the eagles to move back there. I can’t blame them.
That’s why we tried to be discrete about the nest location. Now that they’re done for the year and the nest is empty, it’s safe to talk about it in more detail.
When I last talked to the biologist, he’d identified this bald eagle’s nest and three golden eagle nests active in the area close to the reservoir, none in areas requiring work mitigation, fortunately. He also had identified the one unused bald eagle nest (which they got permission to teepee) and a number of unused golden eagle nests, plus many red-tailed hawk nests.
In my limited snooping up there this year, I located two red-tail nests in the area as well as strong evidence of an American Kestrel nest (the joyous sound of chicks screaming for food and a male kestrel flying out from that location). This region is a really strong area in the county for raptors of many types — second only to the Coyote Valley area — and one that isn’t as well travelled, but one that we need to make sure stays protected.
Back at work after two weeks off, and getting back into the swim of things. It was nice to completely unplug for a bit and recharge the batteries. I definitely needed it…
One thing I did was what I like to call a “long day” out birding and doing bird photography; up early (4:30AM) so I can get out so San Luis National Wildlife Refuge around sunrise, and I spend part of the day there, and the rest of the day at Merced NWR, one of my favorite places. I seem to do this once or twice a year during the winter birding season, and it’s not unusual for the day to end back home around 8 or 9PM. Definitely long.
This year, the alarm didn’t go off and I got a couple of hours extra sleep; I got hit by the IOS notification bug. On the other hand, I still got to San Luis NWR only 90 minutes behind schedule — to clear 35 degree weather, sleeping birds (do you blame them?) and generally slow birding. A number of the still ponds were skinned over in ice, and frankly, the only thing I like LESS than central valley tule fog at dawn is black ice, and given the slow start to the morning, I was a lot more productive sleeping and being a bit more rested. So no complaint.
While at Merced I ran into a hawk I wasn’t sure how to identify. In those cases I’ll grab photos, and rather than ID in the field, I’ll come home where I can spend more time thinking it through. That process, and then getting the ID corrected by the birding communities, turned out to be an interesting teaching exercise about how you can run through all the proper steps of ID — and still get it a bit sideways.
Me, get an ID wrong? never. never ever. I’m perfect.
No, really, I’m a lot more of an enthusiastic birder than a great one. And I’m cool with that. The amount of time and energy to do more than slowly get better is just time and energy I don’t have these days. But it sure is fun to try (birding is so damn analog. that’s what makes it a challenge — and fun). And if you aren’t pushing your limits and making mistakes, how are you growing yourself? So I don’t worry about getting it wrong. I worry instead about not putting the energy into doing the right things to try to get it right. If I do — and still miss — that’s how you learn.
When I saw the bird initially, my reaction was “coopers hawk. No, wait…” — it wasn’t a cooper’s, it wasn’t a sharpie, but I wasn’t sure what it was. In that case, if possible, I’ll grab photos and defer a final decision until I get home and can study it more carefully. (if I can’t get photos, I’ll stop in the field and try to decide on an ID via my e-guides and then see if I’m comfortable with it when I get home; it not, it stays in “wish it was a…” category).
So when I got home and fired up the photos, “like a cooper’s…” was still in my head, and that’s a key here. Firing up the iBird guide, my first reference for what it might be was to bring up their cooper’s entry and look at their similar birds listings. They list six: Northern harrier, Broad-winged hawk, Northern Goshawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Merlin, and American Kestrel.
I can throw out harrier, Merlin and Kestrel. I’ve already decided it’s not a Sharpie. colors are wrong for Goshawk (and I know that’d be a major rarity), so I pull up broad-winged. Looking at the images within iBird, and focusing mostly on the head of the bird (since that’s what keyed me onto “not a cooper’s” in the first place) I think it’s a maybe.
And that’s where I went sideways — looking at the images today and the whole bird (instead of focussing too closely on the aspect of the bird that was ‘different’ it’s clear at a glance the chest pattern and the wing primary feathering don’t match. But at the time, I didn’t do that). I still wasn’t sure about the tail, the bird in question had a grey on white banding.
There had been a previous report of this bird at Merced and I had in fact tagged that message since I was planning to head out there, but then I forgot all about it until after I’d submitted my ebird report (so I don’t think it influenced my ID attempt). some of the email I got last night indicated the previous report didn’t get photos and there was some discussion about it being a red-shouldered. If nothing else, I’m glad I was able to (I presume) refind that bird and clear up this question…
So I went off to flickr, searched on broad-winged and checked out images. I ultimately came on some images that I felt confirmed what I was seeing, and that’s when I made the call.
Right now, a bunch of birders are looking at the image above and yelling “you idiot! that’s a….” to their computer screens. And they’re right.
So now today, where someone has said “hey! think red-shouldered!” I’m looking at the image and going “well, duh!” and I in fact saw another red-shouldered at Merced that day, an immature. Most of my ID experience with that species is immature, and for some reason, at the time the bird triggered a thought towards Cooper’s, not red-shouldered. But as soon as someone suggested it, suddenly the bird kicked into view, and it’s obvious what it is.
Whenever I get an ID wrong (not that I ever do, of course) and then get the correct ID, I like to go back to what I did to see how I came to the decision, where I went wrong (so I can be more accurate later) and whether the mistake was preventable (and how). I thought I’d go through it because I think there are some interesting details here, especially since I’m guessing whoever made the other report of this bird travelled down a similar path.
The tool I used didn’t nudge me back down the path towards red-shouldered. that’s not the tool’s fault, but my over-reliance on its advice. I should have taken one step further back and asked myself what hawks should I be considering here, not just what hawks iBird was suggesting. That’s my bad (but I can see why I did it. won’t do that again). And yeah, I can see how if you walk down the iBird path with the mindset of “which of the birds similar to Cooper’s is this?” How you end up at Broad-wing. All very logical. Just wrong.
But I don’t feel too bad being wrong here, all things considered. And there are some good lessons to learn to help me (and hopefully, others reading this) from this mistake later. And ultimately, it all got sorted out which is what’s really important, and I’m trying to make sure that final info gets out to everyone so we’re all back in sync. I’d hate for someone to go chasing this bird because the corrected info didn’t get passed on.
There are a couple of learning points here:
First, don’t be overly reliant on your tools. I let iBird steer me down a path that was a little too convenient. Tha’s not iBird’s fault. Should red-shouldered be one of their similar birds? Well, where do you draw these lines? Put too many birds on the list, the list stops being useful. Use the list blindly as a definitive resource? that’s the problem.
Second, when ebird flagged the rough-winged ID as not just rare, but really, really, almost-unprecented rare, that should have been the clue for me to take a step back and ask myself what birds I should have expected there that I didn’t consider. If I’d gone in and taken a look at all of the local common hawks — if I’d looked up red-shouldered in the guide, the chest feathering would have likely triggered me onto the species. Since I had in fact seen a different red-shouldered immature on site as well, I really should have stopped to think about what other hawks it could have been. But I didn’t.
Third, I got too focused on the parts of the bird (head and tail) that weren’t Cooper’s hawk, and stopped looking at the entire bird. This is not uncommon with ID attempts where a birder gets too attached to one field mark and ignores others that would define the ID properly. Which is what I did. The head was wrong for Cooper’s so find a head that matches. then look on flickr and find a matching tail. Done. Except one look back at the chest feathering, you see it’s wrong for Broad-Wing. Not even close. But I stopped looking at it. Bird ID is wonderfully difficult, and when I watch some of the senior birders make it look easy, I just sit back in fascination at how they do it. And just when you think you understand bird ID, toss in females (especially female ducks), shorebirds, juveniles, eclipse plumage, feather wear and fading…. For fun, go to the beach and start sorting out all of the 2nd cycle immature gulls… Me, I’ll go have another drink and pretend I tried.
Fourth, every birder — every damn one of us — wants to find that really exquisite rarity. The more novice a birder you are, the more likely you are to assume what you’re seeing is a rarity. One key aspect of maturing as a birder is getting your head away from that. But when something wanders in that triggers that “SCORE!” in the back of your head, it can be tough…
That is, by the way, an absolutely gorgeous red-shouldered hawk. Stunning bird.
but it’s not a broad-winged hawk. But it comes with a couple of other consolation prizes. One is that by finding it, making this mistake and reporting it and getting corrected, I saved some other birders the time they were planning to go try to find that OTHER report of a broad-winged hawk. We’re all pretty sure that other birder went down a similar logical path to this mistake — only I had pictures that the experts could look at.
And I was at Merced the day after the CBC, and found a couple of species that weren’t found during the CBC. Those become what’s known as count-week birds, which supplement the report and help us understand what’s going on with the birds in that region. One of the, a wintering Wilson’s Warbler, just made my day. There are always a few that winter here in Northern california, but finding one is a nice catch, and the birds are cute as a button. As soon as I catch up on my image processing, I’ll post some cute pictures of it…
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. Â 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. Â I struggle whether I should stop myself at times, because Â 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 fromÂ Annette Herz on theÂ 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 youÂ and them. Respect their spatial needs. If the animal interrupts its behaviorÂ (resting, feeding, etc.), then you are too close and must distance yourself.
2. Never force an action. Be patient! The most beautiful photographsÂ result from natural action.
3. Never come between a parent and its offspring. Iâ€™ve seen tiny bearÂ cubs distressed, treed then separated from their mother by a throng ofÂ tourists eager for a closer look. This is unacceptable behavior.
4. Never crowd, pursue, prevent escape, make deliberate noises toÂ distract, startle or harass wildlife. This is stressful and wastes valuableÂ energy in needless flight. The impact is cumulative. Consider that you mayÂ be the 65th person to yell â€œhey mooseâ€ at that animal that day while itâ€™sÂ attempting to tend to its young.
5. Never feed or leave food (baiting) for wildlife. Habituation due toÂ handouts can result in disease or even death of that animal and injury toÂ you.
6. Never encroach on nests or dens as certain species will abandon theirÂ young.
7. Never interfere with animals engaged in breeding, nesting, or caringÂ for young.
8. Learn to recognize wildlife alarm signals and never forget that theseÂ animals are NOT tame no matter how docile or cuddly they appear. No oneÂ would argue that you should not try to pet a bull yet there have beenÂ numerous instances where a tourist attempted to have his/her photo takenÂ next to a bison with disastrous consequences.
9. Do not damage or remove any plant, life form or natural object. DoÂ pack out trash.
10. Acquaint yourself with and respect the behaviors and ecosystems of theÂ wildlife you may encounter. By doing so, you will enrich your experienceÂ tremendously.
11. Finally, and most significant, remember that the welfare of the subjectÂ and habitat are irrefutably more important than the photograph.
It’s early March, and that means spring is springing in the bird world. The red-tails were building nests when I was down in Panoche valley, the Mockingbirds have arrived here in the neighborhood as they do every spring, the oak titmice are singing their lungs out, and it looks like the Bald Eagle pair near Calaveras Reservoir is nesting again.
Okay, technically, they are way above Calaveras reservoir, in the top of a high tension power tower. I’ve been watching this pair when I can since 2008; I believe their first year nesting here was 2007. In 2008, the nesting failed as far as we can tell. In 2009, they fledged one chick, in 2010, they fledged 2. In 2011, they abandoned this nest and built a new one down in the treeline nearby; my life at HP was strange enough that I basically had no time to watch them, so I have no idea if they successfully fledged. and here in 2012, they’re back in their original nest and starting again.
Typically they’ll work on the nest in late January and early February. Egg laying seems to happen in late February or early March. There was a report by one birder that they were working on the nest earlier in the week; when I checked in on Friday, as you can see, she (assuming it’s the female, she spends ~80% of the time on the eggs, her mate covers the other 20% but does most of the hunting) is in it. In the 40 minutes or so I watched, she never left the nest. This isn’t absolute proof they’ve laid — Â I was talking to an expert today and eagles can have false incubations — but we believe, especially given their track record, that she’s laid and is sitting.
Incubation is about 35 days. If all goes well, at the end of March or (more likely) early April, they’ll hatch. Bald eagles can lay one to three eggs; they rarely fledge three chicks, typically, the weakest chick is ejected by the others at some point. If food is somewhat scarce, the strongest chick will prevail. The third egg is essentially an insurance policy in case something happens to one.
The parents will care for them; early on, dad is the primary hunter, as they mature, mom will be able to spend more time away from the nest and do more hunting. Bald eagles are typical fish hunters, but this pair is a pair that has adapted to the local area and hunt primarily ground squirrels, which number in the zillions in this area (the Benito County eagle pair does the same).
By mid-May, the chicks will be testing their wings. By early June, they’ll fledge and leave the nest, and the cycle will be done for another year. This pair is bonded, they will likely be together and nesting unless one of them dies. They’ll continue to breed throughout their lives, as long as 30 years if all goes well.
Here’s some video I shot of them in 2010 with the chicks close to ready to leave the nest.
My hope this year is to monitor them every couple of weeks until the chicks hatch and then every week or ten days or so through fledging. And get some much better video when I can. And probably borrow a bigger lens, since they’re far enough away that the 420mm setup I use just isn’t enoughâ€¦ The good news is the nest is nicely visible from the roadway for those that want to look, but visitors can’t really annoy or interact with the birds. the bad news is that you need good binoculars or preferably a scope to get good looks, and even my birding photo gear has trouble getting quality images at this distance against the wind and a common bit of heat shimmer that will show up when things warm upâ€¦
Doesn’t keep me from working at it, thoughâ€¦
You can see some of my photography of these birds from earlier years here.
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.
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.