Saturday, November 27, 2010

Silver Lining

Huh. Last time I posted I was planning on heading off for birds, photos and adventure within 24 hours. One poor lunch or dinner decision, (not really sure which), and I found myself spending hours contemplating the decor of my bathroom, if you catch my drift. After shifting a planned Friday off to a Wednesday of recovery and spending a Thanksgiving giving thanks for noodle soup and ginger ale I was ready for some good local birding on Saturday. My guess was that being forced to abandon travel plans was a push towards staying local and going back for closer shots of the national A-list bird, the Ross's Gull which had remained at Cherry Creek Reservoir. Unfortunately, I and many others were unable to relocate the bird today, it has apparently moved on. But, starting a beautiful Saturday in a state park surrounded by nature is never a wasted effort.

I spotted this juvenile Red-Tailed Hawk perched just off one of the roads. I was a ways off, but was able to shoot from my truck and get great looks at those pale irides - which will turn dark as this bird reaches adulthood.

The bird continued to scan the field below it, rather than spending much time looking at me or the other traffic, so I waited hoping to catch a flight shot. It dove, rose back to a perch as I followed the road which looped back below the original perch. Just as I drew near it dove again and caught its meal in some thick grass, just beyond where I had stopped.

The bird definitely knew I was close this time, but it was in deep cover and was not going to do anything other than eat. I stayed put and was thrilled to see the bird so close.

Just goes to show that nature can always provide a silver lining, even when plans and target birds fall through.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Plans and Packing

While running errands at lunch this afternoon a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk was perched on a light post. I had to stop for a minute just to get a couple of shots.

In other news planning and preparation is well underway for my holiday weekend adventure. I am expanding a trip that I did two years ago, just after I had started birding. I'll be hitting four or five states and depending on weather and whims the trip will target a National Wildlife Refuge, a National Monument, multiple National Grasslands and State Wildlife Areas and Parks.

Hopefully I will catch a variety of habitats and species, and little to no precipitation. My previous version of this trip predated the blog by a few months, so I look forward to sharing some stories, checklists and photos when I return.

Take care readers, and if you are heading on a Thanksgiving adventure of your own this weekend go safely and have fun!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ross's Gull

No pictures yet from this weekend, it was fairly busy. Friday afternoon as I was checking out the Snow Goose, reports were circulating about a Ross's Gull that had been seen and photographed at Cherry Creek Reservoir. There was no daylight to check by on Friday evening, and Saturday was the last home game for the Colorado Buffaloes, a game for which I was meeting fellow alumni at 7:00 am, no time for birding there.

I was left to hope that this bird would hang around until Sunday so I would have a chance to go looking for it. I headed out well before dawn Sunday morning, and was one of the first on the swim beach side of the lake. I did a lot of scanning with my scope, but was not having much luck.....there are hundreds of gulls, and picking out one on a large lake is always a challenge. Just as some of the out-of-state'ers began to arrive we found the bird. It was flying along the dam, and occasionally dipping down to the water surface. From that distance I was just scanning with the scope; no camera. Just trying to keep the bird in scope was a challenge enough. Still, at the distance we were able to watch it for some time, banking back and forth and occasionally flashing its wedge shaped tail. When it was close to others you could pick up a hint of pink, but it was far from a dominate feature at our distance. Camera or no, the scope seems to have earned its stripes as far as attracting rarities!

Later I worked around to the Lake Loop on the west side and got looks again with another group of birders. More great scope views, but distant. As a cold front blew through the weather fell apart, whitecaps kicked up and scoping to the far side of the lake became impossible. Counting my good fortune I headed home, only to read later that others had gotten to watch the bird resting on a sandbank yards from their position near the marina.

I am really happy just to have seen the bird. While a photo for the blog would have been nice, getting to see a bird that rarely leaves the Arctic is memorable in and of itself. From what I have gathered Colorado had two other accepted records of Ross's Gulls - and historical records in the lower 48 have been counted in the dozens. So having gotten to see this one definitively was worth it, as 15 or so years seems a safe bet before the next one comes around.

2010 Count: 208
Lifetime: 249

Friday, November 19, 2010

Digiscoped Snow Goose

Driving home this evening I caught a glimpse of white among some feeding Canada Geese in the Broomfield "field". After wondering while waiting at the next light whether I had seen a plastic bag or a bird I decided to take the chance and head back for another look. I pulled into the conveniently located historical farmhouse parking lot and had a great look at a smallish white goose.

Fortunately today was the first day I was ready with a new bit of technology. A spotting scope and adapter now allow me to join the ranks of digiscopers - hopefully giving me an opportunity to get more detail on distant birds, and as a result some more tricky ids in the future.

In the field this evening I was leaning to calling this bird a Ross's Goose. It was smaller than the surrounding Canadas, and appeared to have a small bill. Glad I had pictures! Note the forehead of this bird. A Snow Goose's head continues up from the bill along roughly the same angle as the bill itself. For a Ross's Goose the forehead rises more sharply from the top of the bill and shows a bit more angle. The other solid field mark for a Snow Goose is a grin patch on the bill. The grin patch is a dark area on the bill itself that gives an impression of an opening. The low light of the evening didn't really allow the feature to show, but I believe close zooms reveal it to be there. From all this I come away with the feeling that this is a Lesser Snow Goose.

As my first white goose in my home county I am glad to have seen it. Had I not been ready with scope and camera I would have likely walked away with an incorrect id, or at least doubts about the details I had missed.

Not everything had been quite as smooth on my scope rig's inaugural day. I woke early this morning and was in position on Baseline Reservoir at sunrise. After a 3/4 mile walk with tripod, scope, camera and bins I was ready for some great shots - but realized that I had left my memory card back in the truck. Fittingly, as I stood trying to bask in the beautiful morning, just binocular birding and not worried about getting shots I had three loons approach. Two were Common Loons, and the third was a ...Pacific Loon. All three came right up to shore at the point where I was watching. So, I regret being unable to share pictures of the best loon looks I have gotten; but trust me they were a great way to start the day.

The scope rig requires a more manual photographic approach, so there will probably be some additional growing pains along the way. Hopefully there will be more looks to share soon though, so check back in the days and weeks to come.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Louisville Arboretum

Little ol' Louisville has an arboretum. It isn't as fancy as say Denver's Arboretum, but is a nice little area in an open space near my work. I had a few minutes to waste after a haircut, so I stopped by on the off chance that something was hanging out in the now bare trees. I had heard the Blue Jays in the pines as I arrived, but I looped wide to get them on my return with the sun at my back.

At first the only birds in the open were House Finches.

This little lady has her cherry red lipstick on. They were really working on the leftovers of some decorative cherry tree's crop. They look like maraschinos to me.

As I worked back towards the lot a lone brave Blue Jay tolerated my presence as it flipped through the wood chips on the ground.

I'm not sure it was finding much, but it was working hard, swinging its bill from side to side and flipping a chip on each pass.

I realized that the bird had several companions in the pines, one of which I captured in the lead photo. Blue Jays, along with the other corvids, have a reputation for intelligence, and did not remain perched on an open branch of a tree when a long lens is aimed in their direction. I was trying to catch one exposed, when a bird exploded from a closer pine and passed within inches of me a knee level. I instantly thought it was another jay, but it buzzed an American Robin on the ground and then perched atop a barren sapling. A glance at the perched bird was all I needed, an American Kestrel.
I was amazed that it would perch in a pine just feet off the ground, that it would even bother to buzz a Robin, and that it seemingly used me for cover. Always something new out there to be seen. For a small suburban arboretum this sure packed a big punch.

Song Sparrow

I was unable to find either a reported Golden-crowned Sparrow or a flock of Evening Grosbeaks yesterday at North Teller Lake in Boulder County. This Song Sparrow tried hard to make up for the lack of more scarce species.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sights from Sunday Morning

While looking for loons at Chatfield State Park.

I found no loons, but this Townsend's Solitare was posing nicely.

As was this Downy Woodpecker.

A Black-capped Chickadee just looked cold, although those little birds move so much I don't think the cold would ever get a chance to catch them.

This juvenile Bald Eagle was just curious enough to let me approach along the shore. I think the hundreds of Coots just below him were happy to have me there.

2 for 1 Finds

Above is a picture of a Wood Thrush taken this morning. A birder who lives in close proximity to my work had reported it yesterday and was good enough to invite interested birders to come by this morning. I was fortunate to get several good looks, both with the naked eye and through bins, and four pictures that are at least good enough for identification. What a great way to start a work day.

As if a state rarity wasn't enough, we also had a White-throated Sparrow hopping around while the Wood Thrush was under cover. White-throateds are more common in Colorado, but this was a first in Boulder County for me.

It was with some House Finches, picking grit or seed off the driveway. The White-throated Sparrow has those awesome little golden tufts on its head, and in the early morning sunlight those and the white of its throat really shined.

I thought it was interesting how the different species approached the smooth concrete surface. The House Finches kept their bodies low, while the White-throated stood up tall as it searched.
One more shot of the Wood Thrush as well. It stands out from Colorado's more common Hermit Thrush by having bright white undersides with highly-contrasted,large black spots. Its head and upper back had a distinctive reddish brown color which was more apparent when watching it than what was captured in my pictures.

So two more birds for this year's list added in a few short minutes a stones throw from work, one of which was a lifer as well! I also added a Clark's Grebe over the weekend.

2010 Count: 206
Lifetime: 247

Friday, November 12, 2010

Shooting for School

Here is one of my assignment attempts. Same Warning: if you aren't looking for a photo study at the moment skip on to another blog - but be sure to check back. I will try to get some more birdy subject matter in the days to come. After rereading the instructions I saw that they described recomposing the image of the subject to break the rules - much less conducive to wildlife photography than capturing images of rules being followed and broken, but oh well. Last night I captured this image as a rules broken/rules followed example.

The trees are placed in the upper-right intersection, and the field largely composes the lower two-thirds of the image. However, the field lines lead the eye to the distant hill, through the field cluttered with random weeds. There are also no dark tones in the foreground to balance the trees. At the time I had no tripod, way too little light, and no idea that I needed three images of the same subject, so it currently stands alone. If I have a chance before next Tuesday I will try to return and complement this image with two others in different light. For now though on to one set that I have gathered, it is not my ideal but I want to get something that I can build from if better opportunities allow.

These cherries, or dwarf crab apples, or whatever they are, were a bright spot on my walk this afternoon. I thought they were a good way to illustrate the passing of the seasons as they remained hanging on the bare limbs. In the image above the fruit is placed in an image that breaks all the rules. The main clump is centered, but not well defined from others. There are distracting foreground leaves, and the branch above vies for the eye's attention. While some of the branch lines pull the eye to the focal subject, others lead away - creating conflict. Also the leafy branch is placed to far above the subject to serve as a strengthening frame element.

In the image below I recompose the image to follow several rules while continuing to break others.

Here I have tightened in on the branch with the red fruit, simplifying the subject. The fruit hangs from a diagonal branch that connects clumps located at opposite intersections. However the background is still cluttered, and full of branch lines that pull the eye out to the borders without any return curves. That image does convey to the viewer that the berries are hanging on while the rest of the tree has gone bare.

Finally, I recomposed by aiming the camera at an overhead branch and switching to vertical. The branch now creates a strong leading line drawing the eye towards the fruit. The few smaller offshoots show that the leaves have indeed fallen from the tree, leaving the unpicked fruit behind. By shooting up the background clutter has been removed, allowing the light to show more depth between those that remain.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Overdue Weather

Mid-November is finally acting like late fall. This week has had several rounds of light snowy weather intermixed with brief periods of sun. This morning even the Ring-necked Ducks looked gloomy under over-cast skies and wind driven flurries.

The rest of this post is a bit of a dive into the conscious decisions made when I process images. If you are a reader looking for more birds, or good detailed bird pictures I recommend checking any of the blogs to the right. If you do read on and have recommendations please feel free to add them in the comments below.

This week was the first of my continuing education classes at the local community college. This class is less technical, more focused on the artistic elements of photography. I am a bit torn. The concepts behind composition and form are ones that I am fairly familiar with, and I do attempt to apply them in whatever cropping, or other processing I perform on my photos before posting or printing. On the other hand, weekly assignments help to force me out of the bird specific routines I settle into.

Typically the shots I post are cropped versions of the images I capture. The one above is an exception. It conveys the feeling of the morning as is - fairly birdless, and miserable - but doesn't really create a strong image. When I prep an image for posting I generally crop with several of the composition 'rules' in mind. For my birding photography the ones that are forefront in my thoughts are:
  • Simplify the subject, crop tightly
  • Eliminate background clutter
  • Utilize the 'rule of thirds' to place focal points
  • Balance tonal or physical elements
  • Spacing around the subject and enough room in frame for a moving subject to continue
  • Avoiding mergers
  • Leading lines

Of course when shooting spontaneously while hiking there is a lot of making do with what was captured, so often many of the above aren't applied. The assignment for this week is to present three photos, one that displays 4 'rules', one that breaks four rules, and one that shows two while breaking two others.

Looking at the image above I would critique it with the following, the subjects while simple are lost in a lot of empty space. Neither is anchored within the frame. There is nothing to draw the eye towards the ducks, or to cycle back between them. A slight leading line follows the wake of the ducks, but it is not on a diagonal and leaves the eye 'restless' looking ahead of the lead duck.

Here a tighter crop on the same image gives it a bit more strength. The subject is now larger in frame, and has more definition. Using the rule of thirds the Ring-necked Duck is anchored in the lower right intersection - a place that the eye is naturally drawn to. The bird has room to swim into the frame, with enough of the open, grey water to convey the atmosphere at the time of shooting. Obviously there is still nothing to balance the duck in the upper-left, but with the tighter crop the open space is less distracting. The high ISO required for the dark day makes noise an even greater annoyance on any tighter crop, so going tighter on the duck doesn't make sense.

Just a few thoughts on what goes into how an image is cropped when I am doing the chopping. They wont make a dull image like this into anything spectacular, but hopefully putting a bit of thought into what gets posted helps to make the final images more appealing. As I will be contemplating this and other aesthetic concepts in the next few weeks please feel free to offer insight - I am always looking to improve.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Weekend Update

Pretty quiet actually. A Common Loon on Baseline Reservoir Friday morning was the highlight of the birds. I did have a couple of hours late Friday, so I took a nice walk at Adams County Regional Park. The Platte was still quiet - only Mallards at the moment, but I did have a nice hen Ring-necked Pheasant explode from the brush at my feet.

A first day of skiing didn't produce any notable birds - one potential Gray Jay was just a silhouette. Birding now switches to mornings while that light lasts, and forecasts indicate that wintry weather may be headed to the area in a few waves over the coming days. I guess we are due, but 70 and sunny is tough to trade in for highs in the 50s tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Evening at Stearn's Lake

Two subjects at Stearn's Lake this evening, different sides of the trail, a few minutes apart and completely different photographic challenges. The Western Grebe was brightly lit by direct light just before the sun dipped behind the mountains.

I tried a low ISO setting, and dialed back the exposure value to keep the white in the bird's face from being blown out.

On the other side of the trail a Great Horned Owl was perched in the open just after the sun had set.

To capture the colors and as much detail in the owl as I could, I dialed up both the ISO value and exposure compensation. Then I used a fence post as an impromptu tripod to steady the camera for the longer exposure time.

As the days shorten and evening photography opportunities become fewer the adjustments to make the most of opportunities that do arise are crucial. Hopefully more opportunities for practice present themselves!

Beating Traffic

I left work a bit late yesterday, and rolled the dice hoping the traffic on Highway 36 from Louisville to Broomfield would have released. Oops, seeing nothing but taillights ahead I ducked off the turnpike and headed for the dead-end road in western Broomfield to see if any birds were about as daylight faded and the traffic cleared.

Just as I turned onto the quiet road I was buzzed by a large white raptor. It cruised low along the ground and stopped on the small hill a couple hundred yards away and directly in line with the setting sun.
Earlier in the day area birder Paula had likely ID'd a large light bird as a possible Ferruginous Hawk in Louisville, but hadn't gotten 100% confirmation. These shots, while bad, do confirm that a large, light morph Ferruginous Hawk was in the area yesterday.

Was it the same bird? We'll never know for certain, but whether there were one or two in the area yesterday they are certainly fun to see. Hopefully they'll hang around long enough to offer a few better pictures in the days or weeks to come.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Failed Plans and their Rewards

Last Friday night was a bummer. With no work obligations and a free place to crash the plan was to head up to the mountains, get a couple of runs in at Arapahoe Basin before the crowds on the two open runs made the lift line unbearable, and then get back down the hill in time for costume prep. As I finished loading my gear into the truck; I grabbed my new boot - and bammo! The strap fell off. This was a brand new boot....Argh! I attempted to reattach, but the reason why it had fallen off became clear. The bolt was too short, and only the first turn of thread on it could reach the female side, leaving the connection dicey at best. I made a desperate call to the ski shop in Boulder to see if they could just supply me with two longer bolts and have them waiting if I raced up before closing, but a long hold time on the phone prevented that. So my plan was shot, my next morning was free, and I turned to the reports on COBirds to see what goodies were about. A Curve-billed Thrasher had been hanging around the feeders at the Red Rocks Trading Post, and seemed just right.

The little garden behind the Red Rocks Trading Post is a great spot for birding. Several feeders keep crowds of birds around, and its location at the base of the foothills seems to make it a good place for infrequent visitors to stop by, and a nice place for more common birds as well. I was able to relocate the reported Curve-billed Thrasher. Supposedly both a Golden-crowned and a White-throated Sparrow has been in the area as well, but they didn't appear while I was watching.

As I had not seen a Curve-billed Thrasher previously I had done a bit of reading on it before heading out, and while I don't have any of my guide books around to quote the description of its call I can say that, 'watery' or 'liquidy', were used. (Most likely it was 'watery' as 'liquidy' fails spell check and therefore wouldn't seem to get published much). Just before heading back I got to hear the bird call, and it was very impressive - 'watery' seemed fair. Having read the description before hand I knew that what I was hearing was the bird I had just seen - very cool.

The drawback of the trip was that the early shots I got of the bird were taken just as the sun was clearing some clouds - driving down I was treated to one of the most spectacular sunrises I have seen - and I was a bit overexposed when the bird popped out. I made a bit of an adjustment to compensate, but will just have to hope for another run-in with this species in the future for better results.

After a roundabout trip to Boulder, to fix the boot - (New gear failing before what was to have been my first ski day of the season is frustrating, but better to get it out of the way in October than before a big powder day mid-season! They even gave me a second bolt for the other boot as well.) - I swung back past Plaster Reservoir in Broomfield on the way home. The fall/winter ducks are returning in force, and the Gadwall above was happy to stay perched close to me, showing off that subtle-but-deep texture on its breast.

Moral of the day - rare birds and common birds are both good ways to get over the annoyance of failed equipment and plans, and the boots are ready, better than ever for the next chance to get up to the mountains.

2010 Count: 203
Lifetime: 246