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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Spanish Bird of the Week #12: Grey Wagtail

By James

Robert and I had been chasing down the Bachman’s Sparrow all afternoon. Robert heard the elusive bird deep in the shrubby forests of the Carolina Sandhills, and I decided to go in after it. I got a few distant looks as the bird flitted about on downed pine trees, but my efforts had yielded me nothing but dark, blurry, grainy shots. I was about ready to admit defeat. The Red-cockaded Woodpeckers we looked for earlier were nowhere to be found, and the Bachman’s Sparrow was proving to be quite camera shy.

Despondent, I worked my way back to the sandy road, when Robert announced that the bird seemed to be moving closer. Seconds later the subtle sparrow flew in to within a matter of feet from me, though he was backlit and obscured by pine needles. I shifted over a few feet, slowly of course to make sure not to spook the small bird. All of the sudden I had an open shot, and I got what is undoubtedly one of my favorite of the 416 bird pictures I’ve taken over my birding career. The sun lit up the pine needles, framing the Bachman’s Sparrow that decided this small branch was the perfect spot to burst into song.

A shot like this needs no caption. Except for that one... damn.

After reviewing my pictures that day, and seeing that I got the shot, elation and relief washed over me. Moments like these are why I still love bird photography. It’s undoubtedly a frustrating and challenging hobby. To get a really great picture, you need so many things to go your way, and unfortunately most of these things are out of your control. First off, you need perfect weather. Some people like an overcast day for photography, but I prefer a cloudless sky. Only perfect sunlight really makes a bird’s color truly pop.

What if he had been in the shade? Simply not as good.

Secondly, you need the bird to cooperate. I have seen Blue Jays countless times, but it’s a bird that simply refuses to show itself well when my camera is involved. In addition, you need your camera to cooperate. I realize that it is probably a combination of the steadiness of my hands and the amount of dust on the lens, but I swear that sometimes my camera has good days and sometimes it has bad days.

One of these days we'll find a Blue Jay that's not a total coward...

Lastly, you, the photographer, need to be on your game. If you plan on getting a good picture of a Canada Warbler you need to be able to move and aim your camera just as quickly as those small Parulids can flit about. Some days everything comes together, and you get a picture like the one Robert and I got last summer when an Indigo Bunting sat up singing just a couple feet away from us.

Pretty much the best look I've gotten of any bird. Ever.

Unfortunately, the Grey Wagtail does not have such a glorious conclusion. A quick run through my checklist for perfect bird photography reveals the culprit. Weather? Sunny, not a cloud in the sky. Cooperative bird? Yep. As I walked down the river to my favorite birding haunt, I saw a bird wandering around next to the cement bank of the Guadalquivir River. I assumed it was a House Sparrow when I spotted it in my peripherals. However, as soon as I actually got clean look, from not more than fifteen feet off, I quickly realized the bird's true identity. 

So was it my own photography skills? The Crested Lark and Booted Eagle shot from the day seem to suggest that I had steady hands (da best!), and I had the bird well exposed and in the center of the frame. Which means the camera’s processor had ONE JOB TO DO.

And it failed miserably...

Unfortunately the camera elected to focus on the water behind the bird. Before I got a second opportunity, the wagtail flew off. Luckily, I managed to chase it down and get a somewhat decent shot, but it decided it no longer wanted to be photographed and flew off before I got to within fifty feet. I elected to delete the missed picture (simply too painful to keep) and not toss my camera deep into the Guadalquivir River (why can’t a $400 camera have 35x zoom and produce DSLR quality pics? Jeez.) Of course, if it was always that easy, it wouldn’t be any fun. C’est la bird photography.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Species Spotlight #21: Eastern Garter Snake

Back when I was a kid, I only knew a couple kinds of snakes. Copperhead was one. I had to be careful of Copperheads – they were poisonous, after all. But I also knew the Garter Snake. Back then I didn’t know better, so I thought pretty much everything was a Garter Snake. Brown Snake? Nope! Juvenile Garter Snake. Water Snake? Nope! Garter Snake in the water. It took me a long time to get over this preconception. It took even longer to find an actual Garter Snake.

I’ve never actually caught a Garter Snake. Not yet, anyway. They’re supposed to be quite nasty, and the first one I ever identified was slithering along a white picket fence at my parents house. My dog, curious as always, stuck his nose in the face of this foreign creature, and it struck at him time and time again. My dog, a rather stupid and oblivious creature, continued to sniff it.

One day last summer, James and I decided to visit the Korstian Division of Duke Forest. We saw great birds that day, but also plenty of snakes – Eastern Hognose and Northern Water being the highlights. But on the way down to the creek, we found this Eastern Garter Snake slithering across the path, and boy it didn’t want to be messed with. James took this long-distance shot, but as soon as he moved in for a macro, the snake began to ferociously strike the camera. Apparently that’s just how Garter Snakes are. They’re not too common, but I’ve never gotten up the courage to catch one if I see it. I’m prepared to get bitten if necessary. Next time.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Spanish Bird of the Week #11: Booted Eagle

By James

Even before I became a birder, I was fascinated by birds of prey. Though I didn’t know exactly what I was looking at, I’ve always been excited to see a hawk flying overhead. Now that I have become a birder, little has changed. Sure I’m able to differentiate a Red-tailed Hawks from Red-shouldered Hawk, and Cooper’s Hawk from Northern Harrier, but I still enjoy seeing large predatory birds soar across the sky. During my stay in Spain, the most common bird of prey I saw I was the Booted Eagle.

I found the Booted Eagle very interesting, especially for an eagle. Eagles are supposed to be majestic flyers, the most powerful birds in the sky. But in reality, the Booted Eagle is a relatively small bird, far closer in size to a Red-tailed Hawk than the large Golden and Bald Eagles that frequent this side of the pond.

Just like the Red-tailed Hawk, I rarely if ever saw one perched. Instead, the small eagle simply soared directly overhead, catching thermals and circling high into the sky. Thankfully, one day I got a great look. While walking down the Guadalquivir river towards Parque Alamillo, I saw a large bird flying straight at me. Finally, instead of getting an awkward overhead shot, I got a real look at this awesome bird. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Species Spotlight #20: Green Frog

I hear it all the time. Every time I pass a pond rife with duckweed, or a stagnant canal, or a streamhead. A distinct sound, like the bottom string of a banjo struck by an untrained student. Bonk! Always once, never in succession. This is the sound of a Green Frog. And they are hard to find!

A month or so ago, Ali and I found a small pool that had a Green Frog calling from it. There was nowhere to hide, no nooks, crannies, or thick vegetation. We found a large Bullfrog vocalizing from a low-hanging branch, but still the Green Frog called, and we couldn’t find it. That’s when we found a long tunnel dug into the earth, flooded with water until there was barely any space to rest. Still the Green Frog called.

We were never able to find that specific individual, but I’ve seen Green Frogs before. When James and I visited Howell Woods last summer, the resident park ranger spun a yarn about a Bullfrog that would sit at the edge of an artificial pool, waiting for hummingbirds to come and drink before striking with deadly force. Of course I didn’t believe the story, but once I looked down into the pool, I saw a very similar individual – a Green Frog lay among the lilies.

It’s a difficult identification, and it’s no wonder the park ranger didn’t note the caudal ridges that differentiated this individual from the closely related Bullfrog. It’s a frog that’s often heard but rarely seen. Yet they’re always present, hidden in the pond scum or under a muddy ledge. Still the Green Frog lives, oblivious to all these troubles.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

It Has Begun...

It’s getting to be that time of year – birds breeding in the north are starting to meander their way down, stopping every so often before heading for tropical climes. Included among these migrants are some of my favorite birds, the shorebirds. I look forward to shorebirding season every year once the water levels at the major reservoirs drop low enough for expansive mudflats to form. But it’s still early in the season, and the mudflats haven’t quite formed yet, so James and I decided to check out the next best thing – the drying beds at the local water treatment plant.

After receiving permission to lift the huge metal gate, we began our drive past large vats of what I can only assume is water being treated (for what, I’ve got no idea). Despite the expanse concrete, we found plenty of birds – a Blue Grosbeak sang from a nearby field, and a huge mixed flock of European Starlings and Brown-headed Cowbirds of all ages whirled and whipped around as they foraged along the roadside. Barn Swallows and Purple Martins dipped low over the water hunting for various insects, but I tried to push them out of my mind. Those weren’t the birds we were looking for. Then I heard a couple of high-pitched screeches pierce the air. Shorebirds!

At first I could only see a small flock of Killdeer, vocalizing loudly each time they took to the air. But then I began to notice a couple smaller birds with them, and once they landed on a nice concrete ledge, I found myself looking at my first true migrant of the season: a nice Solitary Sandpiper, and then a second, working their way down the line, looking for prey down below. Between them, pumping its short tail the entire way, ran a smaller Spotted Sandpiper, already bereft of its namesake breeding plumage.

If they're called Solitary Sandpipers, how come I'm always finding them in twos and threes?

Both of these species are easy to find during both migrations, and the seasons last so long that it seems there’s only a couple weeks out of the summer where I can’t find one of these sandpipers. James and I were searching for those exclusively fall migrant shorebirds, the harbingers of the year’s end. While I was getting an eyeful of an extremely cooperative Solitary Sandpiper, I noticed a head pop up behind tufts of grass that grew between cracks in the concrete ledge. There’s no way I could mistake it – I see hundreds, if not thousands, each shorebirding season. The Pectoral Sandpipers were back in town!

And still as aggravating to photograph as ever....

We inched the car closer, trying to keep it in neutral so we could use it as a photography blind. But the Pecs weren’t having any of it. Before we got too close, they took off with a couple of Killdeer and headed for one of the drying beds on the far side. You won’t find two more skittish shorebirds than these, and pretty soon they’ll be the bane of my shorebirding, taking huge flocks of birds with them when they flush a hundred feet away from you. For now though, I’m just happy the shorebirds are back. Here’s to three fruitful months of poring over peeps in worn plumage, trying to check the leg color on far-off pipers, and exploring the minutiae between specks in the distance. Here’s to shorebirding!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

#55: Cooper's Hawk - Famosa Slough, CA

I’ve mentioned before that I found a different suite of raptors in California than I see out east. For example, Turkey Vultures and Red-tailed Hawks are extremely uncommon out there (I only found one of each). But if there’s a day in North Carolina where you don’t see at least one of these magnificent birds soaring overhead, you know something’s wrong. I also found American Kestrels fairly common out west, and I’d often see one hovering in overhead even in the middle of the city. But I found myself most surprised by how many times I saw Cooper’s Hawks in San Diego.

Not only did I find a whole bunch of Cooper’s Hawks, but I also got great views each time. I remember one day at Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma when I stood on a scenic overlook that jutted out from a cliff that ran down into a chaparral valley. A stiff breeze blew from the Pacific Ocean into San Diego Bay, and an immature Cooper’s Hawk took this opportunity to fly into the wind, soaring at eye level as he searched for prey down below. I even got to see them perched, like this immature individual who would fly low over the reeds at Famosa Slough.

Out east our Cooper’s Hawks are different. If you see one, it’s probably flying from one section of dense forest to another, passing over the path for a brief moment while just a couple feet off the ground. My best look at this species came while I was driving home from work one day. I saw a bird following the contours of the empty road, maybe six feet in the air. I sped up until I was going way faster than I should have been (not recommended), matching the hawk’s speed. For a split second, right outside my window, I watched an adult Cooper’s Hawk fly like not many people ever have. A hell of an experience, to say the least. And a hell of a bird.