Friday, January 29, 2010

A Couple of Marks to Beat

Anyone else catch the moon rise this evening? Impressive to say the least here in Colorado. There was just enough moisture in the air to throw a pinkish glow beyond the shadows creeping eastward. I just had to stop by Stearn's Lake to get in a quick look and see if I could get a couple of shots before all the light was gone.
Because it was an unplanned trip I had no tripod, so for the first "Depth of Field shot I leaned into and propped the camera directly against the trunk of a tree. The branch wasn't a photogenic gem, but it does provide some foreground material to show the range of focus.

Next up, selective focus, here the branch becomes the subject, and the moon and sky are just background elements setting the evening feel. This would definitely need some selective cropping to remove the top section of the branch and the little tuft of grass.

Next came another set, I dialed up the ISO a bit and used some cattails and barbed wire for my foreground subject matter.

Functionally sound, but an expanse of ice doesn't really show off the bokeh effect very well.

Here is the same subject, now showing depth of field. I like the composition, and I like the spot, it usually has a few American Avocets hanging around in late spring. Getting it in winter was nice, but I am not sure that the background really shows any degree of focus. If Stearn's Lake has a drawback it is that its westward view towards the mountains is fairly cluttered. Oh well, now there are a few to beat.

Way Outside the Comfort Zone

I am one who believes that without a plan or goal there is no growth or development. It is why so many of us, (myself very much included), find ourselves wondering where the weekend went, and why everything seems to have slipped into a repeatable routine. This blog has been a part of two years of my life where I have attempted to break that pattern, at least in one part of my life. Two years ago I found that too much of my life was slipping by, with highlights being sporting events viewed on tv or social events that too easily blended with one another. Don't get me wrong, I still like hanging out with friends and watching a good football or hockey game, but I needed something to kick me out of the rut, and make the times that I chose to partake in those activities more meaningful by their scarcity.
So year one was all about getting out of the house more and just spending more time in the outdoors. In October of that year I started actually keeping a bird list and dragging a camera around to see what I could digitally capture.
By the beginning of last year I had found that both photography and birding were pass times that I enjoyed, but that if they were going to be anything more meaningful than replacing time spent watching sports with time spent slowly walking and watching for birds I would have to find a way to push myself. I did so in two ways. First, I fired up the old Blogger and started DaveABirding. It gave a purpose to my photography and also exposed me to a higher level of accountability in my birding. In the past year I have been exposed multiple times posting incorrect species identities. I don't mind making mistakes, it is how we learn, but I find it keeps me much more conservative in my assumptions when I know I will have an audience evaluating my finds.
A bit later last year I pushed myself out of the comfort zone again. I started exclusively manually focusing my shots. Sure for the first few weeks I had a lot of fodder for the virtual cutting room floor, and less quality to post, but in the long run it has really helped me grow. Now I can confidently tighten my focus on a sparrow in some brush, and know that I am getting close to focus on the sparrow's eye, not a clear shot of a branch five feet in front of it.
So to continue to grow I have set several photographic and birding areas for improvement this year. The birding has been mentioned several times in the past, developing an improved ear for bird calls. I have an iPod now with iBird, and the Smithsonian Field Guide with calls, so there is a start, and hopefully I will be able to drive myself to rely more on my ear and develop my mental catalogue from which to draw.
Photography is poised on a more painful growth spurt. I enrolled in my first instructor led photography course. Intellectually the material is not new, I get the concepts of Aperture, ISO settings and Exposure Time, but I do not put them to use in the field. So last Tuesday I was back in school:

My assignment for the first week is to get a pair of images, one displaying Selective Focus, and the other showing Depth of Field, both ideally utilizing the same subject. Easy, right? Well I have my plans for an actual session this week to get some solid pairs, but in two quick lunch time trips I have found myself disappointed in my attempts to just get a pair to have in the bank before hand.
I guess that is the part of learning that we all shy away from, the sting when it doesn't just work out the way our plans tell us it should. Even so, I am really excited to develop skills where I have felt limits in the past, and I am willing to endure some shots to the artistic ego to do so. So goodbye good old 'no flash' mode - for now. I am prepared to do some muddling through for the time being for the greater good down the road.
To that end, and to diversify some of my shooting conditions I just opened a year membership at the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster. The opening shot was one of my disappointments early, but there will be many more opportunities down the road.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

City Park Denver - DFO Meeting Birding

Last evening was the first monthly DFO (Denver Field Ornithologists) meeting of the year. I needed to pay my dues, and coincidentally the keynote speech was going to be given by Bill Schmoker. Bill is one of the elite Colorado birders, and a person whose blog really jump started my birding activities when I was still a complete novice and leaning heavily on the Internet for general information and tips. Seeing his photography was a great add to the evening - there were even a couple of shots from the 2008 Boulder CBC that I recognised.
One of the appealing aspects of the DFO meetings for me is that I wrap up my work day at three on Mondays, and so can use the hours before the meeting to do some birding at Denver's City Park. I had just stepped out of the parking lot when I spotted an accipiter cutting across the sky above. I am sure the museum visitors were a bit perplexed by the man with a big camera who suddenly rushed back into the parking lot. Oh well, if they had followed my look they would also have gotten to see this Cooper's Hawk perched above the lot. With all the activity along Colorado Blvd, and in and out of the museum I only merited an occasional glance from the Coop. Of course that was just fine by me, I got my fill of good looks and headed off, leaving the hawk to keep an eye on the lot.

My tantalizing look for the owls that I believe must be around turned up nothing, but a walk along the back of the Denver Zoo took me up to Duck Lake. The cormorant rookery is empty for now, but the lake offered a bit of open water. When I arrived it was occupied by just a handful of waterfowl. I had great relative numbers of Hooded Mergansers and Common Goldeneye, the one on the left below I believe to be a first winter male. While I was looking yesterday I thought it might have been some kind of hybrid with that extra white. I headed on, searching the trees for raptors or owls, and soon from a distance I watched as roughly 2500 geese descended on the valuable watery real estate.

Not all of them had finished grazing though, and I frequently found myself surrounded by large flocks of Canadas, who displayed varying degrees of chill as I passed. Then, I heard a distinct call - almost approaching gullish. I looked over and saw two geese that were not like the others. They were very similar to one I had seen at the park last year, and even commented on at the time. Last year, seeing only a single individual I had dismissed it as a released domestic, as many urban parks attract descendants of former captive birds. This year I looked more closely, and after some more checking this morning am confident that I added two Greater White-fronted Geese to my list. Um-um, that humble pie tastes good! Finding the Greater White Fronted Geese certainly made my walk through large areas of 'goose leavings' and past some less than welcoming individuals worth while. It even helped to console me on not finding any owls last evening. Oh well, there will be several more months, hopefully with warmer dusk temps, before the summer layoff where I may have more luck.

2010 Count: 54
Lifetime: 204

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Rocky Mountain Arsenal Raptors

Every DFO birding trip I have attended has been taught me something, and yesterday's trip to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge was no exception.

The highlight of this trip came early, in the form of Ferruginous Hawks. The more common 'light' form is pictured above. That individual had apparently had a messy breakfast before we arrived. As is often the case though, a well fed hawk is a content hawk, and this one remained perched as our 10 person group got good looks from fairly close range. Just down the road we had another Ferruginous, this one was the first of the dark variety that I had seen.

That one did fly more quickly, giving me a great view through my bins, showing its white tail and wrists on the upper wing, and the light crescent underneath that forms between the Ferruginous' telltale wrist comma, and the dark leading edge of the under-wing present in this variety. Good looks on both, and chances to become familiar with identification points that I knew would come in handy in the future. Little did I know that I would get the chance later on that same trip.

This bird is a juvenile, light, Ferruginous Hawk. One other birder spotted it on distant branch, but its perch was obscured by branches, and we ended up walking a good distance around the tree to get an unobstructed view. We had eliminated immature Bald Eagle and Red-tail Hawk fairly quickly, but were trying to determine if this could maybe be a Rough-legged Hawk - (which would have completed our area buteo trifecta for the day). The light coloring of the head was what was throwing us off, and we couldn't get a look at the feet, or discern the line of the gape as we approached to make an ID. In the picture the gape is visible, but in the field it was not. The bird decided it had had enough of the people walking a semicircle around it, and flew showing us its wrist commas and confirming its identity for us. It was a great chance to practice checking the field marks we had studied only a few hours before.

In addition to the Ferruginous Hawks there were a number of other raptors on display, including Red-tails, Northern Harriers, American Kestrels, Bald and the Golden Eagle above. The pictures of both the Golden and juvenile Ferruginous had to be brightened a bit after the fact, but show id points well. For the Golden, note that the bill progresses from black at the tip, to grey, and then a yellow base. This individual was close to a pair of Bald Eagles and allowed a chance to compare the two species. The Balds perch at an angle, where the Goldens tend to be more vertical and have a shape like that of a perched hawk.

Birding at the Arsenal is always productive, 27 square miles of refuge in an urban area guarantees that. An added bonus of a group trip like the one I joined yesterday was the potential to get outside the small area of public trails and see the Bison herd on the premises. Each time I visit I think too much time has passed since the last, and can't wait for the next. It is one of my favorite spots, and has a story that shows that even the most devastated environments can not only be repaired, but can become treasures for wildlife.

Friday, January 22, 2010

So worth the drive!

I had the great opportunity to take a few hours today and head down to see the Snowy Owl which has been hanging around the town of Peyton, Colorado. The owl has been the talk of the COBirds listserve, and has attracted the attention of the local media as well. Birders far more experienced and knowledgeable than I have debated the reasons for periodic Snowy Owl irruptions, and the prognosis for individuals that have wandered so far from their normal range.

I was just happy to find that this fellow, (consensus of the experts seems to fall on a 2nd year male), seemed to be doing fairly well to my novice eyes, and was content to remain until I had a chance to make the trip. The most fun thing I noticed about this bird were the feathered feet. The bird's feet and attitude reminded me of the Sesame Street monsters I watched as a kid. I guess the big eyes and soft texture led to that comparison. I enjoyed the sight for about 25 minutes while the bird treated us to a few steps as it walked up to the apex of the roof. It alternated its attention between the group and a pair of joggers that passed at one point, the birds and dogs in the neighborhood, traffic on the highway, and once it comically looked up and backwards to watch a low flying plane fly overhead.

The Snowy Owl was perched on a rooftop just off the road, and when I arrived there were already several cars and a handful of birders watching from the far side of the road with scopes and bins. I got a couple of shots and realized that this was an ideal situation to attach my rarely used 2X extension tube to my telephoto lens. Extension tubes cancel the Image Stabilization that allows me to hand hold my camera while hiking and get passable shots. To get extension shots requires a setting that facilitates a tripod or stationary base. Today I used a monopod mount with the extension tube and my lens fully extended to its 400mm. It actually helped when shooting a white bird in harsh light because the extension tube will darken images to some extent. Unfortunately the tube had a couple of dust specks, which led to a bit of post production cleaning on some of the backgrounds.

I was really just happy to get some shots that weren't completely washed out. The timing being what it had to be for me to see the bird I was happy with witness quality shots, but these were a step above. Not perfect by any means, but certainly ones that I will enjoy as a memento of this cool sighting.

Finally it left its perch to move to a different rooftop, treating me to the series of flight shots as it went.

Update (1/27/2010): I found a good site Views Infinitum - Finding the Spirit hosted by Scott Thomas. It is featuring 6 assignments this year, the first of which is WHITE. Consider getting out there and shooting something white, due date is Feb. 3.

2010 Count: 38
Lifetime: 203

Monday, January 18, 2010

Just another Red-tailed Hawk

Not that there's anything wrong with that, but based on my previous post, and the revelation that I was looking for the Red-shouldered Hawk, that has been seen near Windsor, Colorado I am a bit disappointed to have this as my featured bird in this post.
OK, not really. It was a gorgeous bird in the still early light, and the visit to the Kodak Watchable Wildlife Area was worth the drive. I just did my walking in the wrong half of the area, and (as noted) my time was not all my own this past weekend, so I didn't have the time to explore the area where another birder reported seeing the bird. Hopefully I will be able to get back up there soon.
On to more important, and less birdy matters! The Minnesota Vikings, (American Football Team), won their first playoff match up in convincing style and advance to the NFC Championship game next week. Don't worry Colorado readers, I am still a Bronco fan, as I have been for my adult life, but the Vikings were the team of my childhood, and until Minnesota gets its Superbowl monkey off its back myself and millions of Minnesotans will be quietly hoping that this could be the year. Of course history has taught us, and outwardly we will brace for, yet another calamitous collapse - but needless to say yet another week will go bye where birding will come second on Sunday.
More important, in a values sense, is that today is my Bonfils blood donation day. Many birding blogs have noteworthy charitable organizations associated with them, and I made a decision a while back to promote the importance I place on giving blood and organ donation. I have been doing this for a couple of years now, and gladly follow in my Dad's footsteps as he donated regularly as I was growing up. With the recent tragic earth quake in Haiti the decision to give blood is more visible than ever. In my area Bonfils handles the local Blood supply for Colorado, but in many areas in the US and internationally that responsibility is met by the Red Cross. While your blood donation may not be sent directly to Haiti, keeping your local blood supply full allows excess blood to be shared with regions hit by unexpected crises. So if you, like I, have been moved to make a financial charitable contribution on the heels of the suffering that we have all seen, please also consider making one additional donation before the media blitz ends.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Frustrations of being a 9-5er

I count my blessings every day that I have a job, and that the job I have is rewarding, varied, and filled with people, who while not my dearest friends are certainly enjoyable coworkers and good people to spend time with.

That being that, birders can make you frustrated at not already being happily retired at times. I have been reading reports of people who have enjoyed hours of watching a Snowy owl in a subdivision well south of Denver, and here I am fulfilling my obligations and getting in a bit of lunchtime birding on a few occasions. Today I was skunked for photography. At least I walked away with decent contrast on the Slate-colored Junco above.

The Juncos seemed to be working the edge of the receding snowpack for food. This seemed similar to the high alpine behavior I witnessed in Rocky Mountain National Park this summer when birds could be found around the isolated snow drift edges. There they are reportedly catching insects as the emerge from the ice, I would think the same was happening here. Even with that stretch for insight my walk today was beautiful, but quiet.

Despite having an oncall weekend rotation I may try for an early morning look at the reported Red-shouldered Hawk in Weld county. I am going to have to hope that the Snowy is content to hang around for another full week if I want to take my chance with it. Although based on the uproar between pro and anti birder residents, and the same between well behaved and rotten egg birders, and the cumulative effect they are all having on one another I wouldn't blame the owl if it packed its bags and headed back north before then.

Well it will be another weekend of hoping that good luck shines on my limited opportunities, even if it doesn't the trying will be well worth it! Take care all, and if you find yourself out birding please consider the effect your presence may have on the lives around you, both animal and human.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Spring Fever

It is way too nice for the 12th of January. I spent my lunch in a short sleeved button down shirt, and was warm, standing still in the shade on a snowy trail. Snow will fall again soon enough, but today was so worth it.

There is a very mild bit of rodent steak visible at the end of this post - so little I hesitate to add a warning - but some are grossed out by the realities of nature - you have been over warned!

I headed to the South Boulder Creek Trail today and didn't ever make it far from the Bobolink trailhead. A male Belted Kingfisher posed for me above the bit of open water emerging from the overpass. Most of the creek is solid, but won't be for long if these temps remain mild.

After a few hundred yards of mostly quiet going I found the birds. It was springlike. I was in the midst of a group of finches, both House and Goldfinches, with a number of Juncos and the lone Downy Woodpecker (above) joining in for good measure.

All of the species were singing, and with the mild temps it was nice to just stop and watch them all busy moving about the underbrush. It truly was one of those days when playing hooky would have been all to welcome, but responsibility does tend to win out, and I left group to its own devices.

As I neared the parking lot on my return I was looking up to id a poorly lit flicker, when movement caught my eye from the next tree along. I found something enjoying a big old lunch!

This American Kestrel was more distant and naturally posed than the one that was so cooperative on Saturday. Fortunately, the feeding shots more than made up for the lack of clarity and harsh light. Kestrels are fairly common, and seeing them hunt and consume critters like grasshoppers and crickets is something I have been able to do in the past. I know that they also add small rodents such as mice and voles to their diet, but seeing this little guy consume a prey item that appears to be half its size was impressive.

Beware, in nature the colorful face that you note for its beauty one day may be the hunter, noted for its ferocity, the next.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Whole Mess of Mergansers

On my two recent visits to the South Platte river's course through Denver I have made an effort not to be sucked in for looks at the Barrow's Goldeneye, that is the locale's star attraction at the moment. Sure I have sought him out, and have successfully located him each time. It wasn't until I read another birders report from the area that I realized I might be missing something while I was there. Unfortunately I can't relocate the email or I would give due credit, but someone reported seeing all three Merganser species on their visit. I have seen two fairly regularly, both Common and Hooded Mergansers. Hooded Mergansers (female above and male below), were documented in my Collateral Duckage post from last month. Last weekend they were still present and I recaptured both, with the male showing a relaxed view of his hood this time.

Common Mergansers were there as well, and present in the most numbers. The female below shows the white neck and cheek that help to confirm her identity. Also of note on this individual is the mismatched length of her bill, which seems to have been due either to some past accident to her upper, or an abnormal growth on her lower mandible.

Here, two male Common Mergansers were shooting the rapids near the Florida Ave bridge. Mergansers are long and low slung anyway, so when they get in the rougher sections they practically disappear between the wave crests. For these guys note the plain white lower body, which runs unmarked from neck to tail. From a distance they can seem a bit like a Goldeneye, except for the long orange bill. That mistake is one that I have gotten well past, but what I learned yesterday is that I had been making a different oversight and not even realizing it.

Here was a picture that I snapped of the celebrity Barrow's on Saturday, swimming along with his Common Goldeneye girlfriend. What I overlooked at the time, and even on my first review of the shots, was that the Merganser swimming behind them was not Common at all.

It is a Red-breasted Merganser! I did notice the brilliant red eye, but thought it was just catching more glare in the midday sunlight. As I looked closer another difference became evident. Look closely below the neck!

The dark coloring dips forward, giving this merganser its name worthy reddish breast. I am now left to wonder if I have been overlooking these guys for a year, or if this was one that I can chalk up to hiding in plain sight, behind an even greater rarity. Either way, my first life bird of 2010 is in the books, the Red-breasted Merganser.
2010 Count: 34
Lifetime: 202

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Big Birds

This morning I had a couple of hours before friends were coming over to my house, so I decided to head east and see what I could track down in Adams County. I ended up at the Adams County Regional Park, and walked through a portion of the Nature Preserve they have along the South Platte. Even before I had looped back to the parking area I had located the juvenile Red-tail Hawk in a tree just next to the road.

It waited while I parked, and let me approach on foot before it took off across another clear blue sky. Later, I spotted the intermediate Red-tail below. In all I counted 5 individual red-tails, all calling to one another in my short 2 mile hike.

If my first visit was any indication this is going to be a phenomenal place to visit. My birds of prey seen included Red-tails, a Kestrel, and a Northern Harrier - the Kestrel and first Red-tail before I had even approached the actual Nature Preserve. Just as I entered the preserve section a couple gave me the common tip that there was a Bald Eagle in the area this morning.

I found two sharing a branch, but they weren't in a mood for posing.

Bald Eagles are always a fun sight. While common in Colorado in the winter, people who see me with camera will usually tell me all about their last eagle sighting. I am glad that their symbolism and positive recovery story, coupled with their immediately recognizable appearance make them a species that can be appreciated by anyone, birder or not. I can't help but wonder if the couple would have recognized this youngster as a juvenile Bald Eagle as well.

I'm not too familiar with aging eagles, but this one would seem to fall into the sub-adult I category. The dark head and tail combo, extended secondary feathers, and light belly all seem about right. What I am not sure of is whether that puts this bird in its first or second winter. My guess would be first, but if anyone knows for sure please feel free to comment or shoot me an email.

I can't wait to get back and check this area out again. It is definitely a place for late afternoon and evening, as the river was choked with waterfowl, but they were all directly in line with the sun at that time of the morning. Although, with so many eagles, hawks and other great species around I don't believe there could be an uneventful visit, regardless of the time of day.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

South Platte Saturday

I returned to the stretch of the South Platte river this morning to see if I could relocate the Barrow's Goldeneye that has remained in the area. Nature often has a way of presenting its own agenda, and today was no exception. Today the star of the show was this American Kestrel, who was waiting in the parking lot when I returned and was willing to pose, unconcerned, as I approached and got a fun series of shots.

Urban adjusted birds are just fantastic! Why worry about a guy with a camera when trains, trucks, and heavy recreational use are a part of the everyday environment? I was able to approach quite close as the bird focused on joggers, and other activity in the area.

The Barrow's Goldeneye was still around, and seemed to be enjoying the warmer temps with his special Common Goldeneye lady friend. There were a number of birders along the river, and I hope they were able to track him down as well. I finally found him back where I started, just north of the Florida Avenue bridge.

All of the usual waterfowl were present, and in some cases seemed to be around in even greater numbers than the last time I had visited. The Killdeer above was calling its name loudly, letting me know that there were more species to be seen than just waterfowl.

One more shot of the Kestrel, poised for takeoff! Enjoy the weekend everyone!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Improving Temps and Targets

Today's lunch excursion was met with high hopes, a cleaned lens, cleared memory card, and many fewer layers. Of course after cleaning the sensor my camera was once again left in 'artsy' mode - aka black and white. Oh well, appreciate the contrast and highlights of the White-breasted Nuthatch!

I got my gear sorted out, and started getting a few captures of Chickadees against the clear blue sky, when I spotted something moving up high in the tree. Could you see it in the picture above?

Here is a tighter crop, a Brown Creeper! One of my better shots of these well camouflaged and always moving acrobats. While this one taught me something about looking for these trunk dwellers at the treetop level I was not surprised to see it hang inverted several times as it spiraled the branch it was on barber pole style. It was also so good as to give me one solid call to reinforce its distinct style as I watched it. All the better as I had heard several on the CBC, but had not gotten more than a passing look that time.

Of course Chickadees were everywhere, and this one happened to catch the light as well as any.

On the way back I followed some old Nordic ski tracks and was rewarded with a good flock of Juncos, most that I saw were Pink-sided, and some House Finches. They were returning to the trees I passed in the open space between visits to a local house with well stocked feeders.