Saturday, February 23, 2008

Raptured with Raptors

Rapture: The state of being transported
by a lofty emotion; ecstasy

As I tried to think of an alliterative word to use with "raptor" this just popped into mind. The dictionary definition confirmed the choice of my subconscious, and now I have the perfect description for the way I feel when I encounter a raptor, especially one in the wild. Our Florida trip added two new raptors to my list, and gave me some great photos of other favorites.
First, the new raptors include a Snail Kite and Burrowing Owls. The brown Kite soared across the marsh and landed on a post, attracting my attention. In the scope, we could clearly see that it was a Snail Kite with a large apple snail in talon. Click this picture for an enlargement and see the snail. I called another nearby birder with a scope, who was just as excited to find the elusive Kite. However, the Kite was more interested in extracting the snail from its shell for lunch than it was in posing so we could get good photos.
The Burrowing Owls lived at the Pompano Beach Municpal Airport - a "gated" community in the best Florida tradition! One area hosted at least 15 burrows, marked with white T perches, both for the benefit of the owls and so the lawn mowers could avoid the area. Again, the scope clearly saw the owl families sitting around enjoying the late afternoon sun before going out hunting. One burrow had two owls, while another had at least three. A jogger directed us to a nest built right against the fence, where we saw these owls face to face. A chain link fence does not add to the quality of the photos, but it does protect the owls. I got down on my belly in the grass to shoot one little guy under the fence. What do you think of this shot?
We see more Red Shouldered Hawks in Florida than we do in Kentucky. This one struggled with something it caught in the water. Later, we saw the same bird in its favorite perch in a nearby tree, watching over the marsh for another snack. In other years we have seen lots of Bald Eagles in Florida, but this year there were none. The marshes and wetlands we visited probably didn't have the deep clear water that Eagles seem to prefer.
Ospreys were everywhere. Hobe Sound NWR was decimated by the recent hurricanes, and only a few pines were left standing on the hillside, surrounded by brush. In my experience, Ospreys aren't as anxious when humans come around as other birds. This male Osprey caught a fish, landed in one of the few trees, and wasn't about to leave when we approached. As always, I started taking pictures as soon as I saw him, then walked a little closer and took some more. Finally, we stood right below the branch where he sat, and he completely ignored us, so these close-ups are really close and not doctored with Photoshop! This American Kestral was the first bird we saw at Hobe Sound.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Total Lunar Eclipse

"Photographing a lunar eclipse is easy and fun," says Mr. Eclipse. OK, sounds good to me. Mr. Eclipse has lots of directions for setting the camera for a night shot, and this will be the last full eclipse for some time. The night is clear and cold. It's not 3:00 in the morning. I can do this. It will be fun! First, crank the ISO setting up. My Panasonic Lumix only goes to 400, so that's the best we can do on that. Get out the tripod. It's old and doesn't move without creaking, but it's better than nothing. Be glad the Panasonic has a swivel on the viewing screen. Since the moon rises higher every few minutes, I kept pointing up to keep on the target. At least I could pull the screen down and didn't have to get on my knees to see through it. Still, for future reference, take a lawn chair out to the driveway, and don't have the tripod fully extended. Better yet, do this in the summer, so your toes don't freeze!

Mr. Eclipse gave explicit instructions for setting aperture and speed, but I had a little trouble reading the guide on the magnitude of brightness of the moon. In other words, the full moon was very bright in the beginning, but got less bright as it moved into the Earth's shadow, and it was necessary to change the settings every few minutes, as well as move to keep the moon in the frame. Just to be cautious, I kept changing both the aperture and shutter speed to take in more light as the evening progressed, and I'm glad I did. Not sure the metering feature was set right, since I'd been experimenting with those settings in relation to photographing white birds. Taking the flashlight outside was a good idea.

In the dark and the cold, I somehow managed to turn on the AutoBracket feature. Not only did I not know what it was for, I couldn't get it turned back off again. It kept taking three shots each time I pushed the shutter. Now I've looked it up, and learned something new about my camera. Setting the delayed shot timer helped to reduce any shake from releasing the shutter myself. At one point, I thought I'd re-position the tripod - big mistake. I couldn't find the moon again, and it was just reaching totality. Turned out I didn't have the zoom all the way out, and the dot I thought was a star, was actually the red moon after all. Whew! See, my telephoto can actually reach 239,000 miles!
Why is the moon red during the eclipse? Mr. Eclipse answers this. During a total lunar eclipse, the Earth blocks the Sun's light from reaching the Moon. Astronauts on the Moon would then see the Earth copletely eclipse the Sun. (They would see a bright red ring around the Earth as they watched all the sunrises and sunsets happening simultaneousely around the world!) While the Moon remains completely within Earth's umbral shadow, indirect sunlight still manages to reach and illuminate it. However, this sunlight must first pass deep through the Earth's atmosphere which filters out most of the blue colored light. The remaining light is a deep red or orange in color and is much dimmer than pure white sunlight. Earth's atmosphere also bends or refracts some of this light so that a small fraction of it can reach and illuminate the Moon.
Ah well, it was really fun, my fingers and toes got cold, but I enjoyed going where I've never gone before (as they say). One really good shot out of about 90. Not too bad... it could have been none at all. Carpe Diem (or Nitem, in this instance)!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Wait for it....

The sign on the boardwalk at Wakodahatchee Wetlands advertised a Nature Photography Workshop in just two days. What an opportunity! Well, it was vacation, so we decided to skip the 6:30 am session, and called to sign up for the 8:30 am class instead. Claudine Laabs, a veteran nature photographer of some 20 years, was our guide and inspiration. The class included a range of photographers from very experienced to one person who didn't understand what an f-stop is, or that she couldn't zoom her point and shoot camera. Many of the things Claudine said were just common sense -- understand how your camera works and how to change the settings, be ready with extra memory and and another charged battery, and the mid-day sun isn't as good as early morning or evening sun angles. Going for action shots, she recommended a shutter speed of at least 1/500.

The key phrase of the day was "Wait for it..." Patience, of course, is a given among nature photographers, whether going for action shots or just a good pose. However, Claudine emphasized that you need to know the behavior of your subject. What will that Great Blue Heron do as it's ready to spear a fish or take off into the air? If you are going for courting behavior, what do you look for? How do the parents feed their young? Does the baby stick its head down the parent's throat or does the parent just drop a fish on the baby's head? Know that the Purple Gallinule will slide down to the end of a slender branch to eat the flowers and has a tendency to fall in the water. Some ducks have to run on the water before taking flight.

Her advice was "I know you are worn out from the excitement, but let's wait 10 more minutes," and 10 more would stretch out to 25 more. Focus where you expect something to happen, and hold your finger down on the shutter until the golden moment occurs. Oh, and while you are doing that, compose your picture to be sure to avoid a building or person in the shot, while insuring that the bird's natural environment is included. Wading birds are patient by nature, and the casual photographer can get pretty bored waiting for them to make a move!

To catch a bird in flight, you have to see it coming, and be ready before it gets too close. I got lucky when we saw a Belted Kingfisher hovering over one spot for some time, and burst mode captured it in several wing positions. Lead the flying subject, because you won't be able to see through the view finder as you are actually taking the shot. Be prepared to discard lots of empty sky shots. These Snowy Egrets were so fast, they swooped out, dipped in the water, and landed on the perch again before I could press the shutter.

Florida has lots of white birds, and getting a good light exposure on them is a challenge. The white tends to get washed out by most automatic settings, which give an average reading - good enough for all the other things, but too much for the white bird - and you lose the definition in the feathers. She talked about meter settings and I had to look it up again online when I got home. Apparently you need to set the camera for spot metering, and aim it at the white bird. We looked at some shots she had of Great Egrets, and her feathers were very distinct. My question now is, if you use that setting, what will it do to non-white birds? I'm not comfortable yet with changing the setting fast enough for a white bird here and something else in the next shot. Oh well, next time I go to Florida, I'll have to experiment with it.

The final factor is luck. No matter how well prepared you are, some days you just won't get that outstanding shot, no matter how long you wait. Other times, you may catch that hovering Kingfisher or the Red Shouldered Hawk catching something in the marsh, and actually get the focus perfect. Persistence, patience, and lucky timing make all the difference.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Birds' Eye View

My new photo venture is focusing on just the head and eyes of the birds I find, and I got some good results. Have you ever seen a bird's tongue before? Now you can say that you have, and what an unusual looking tongue this Black Skimmer has.
When birds are ready to mate and breed, not only do they get beautiful feathers to attract a potential mate, but the the "lores" around the eyes of some birds change colors too. Birds cannot act coy and just flirt without being serious. When your eyes change colors, all the birds of the opposite sex know you are ready to mate. Both male and female Anhingas have turquoise eyes when courting. Is this where people got the idea for eye makeup? Brown Pelicans aren't just brown during mating season. This guy looks like he was partying all night and his eyes are a little bloodshot this morning!
I try to read feelings into the eyes and feathers of the birds too, although I know that is probably not a good thing to do. Birds probably don't even have feelings like people do, but the behavior implies feelings to me. This Osprey had been eating a fish on a branch of the sole remaining pine tree at a Hobe Sound NWR hillside. The wind blew his feathers, and we kept walking closer and closer. Yet he was determined to finish that fish no matter what happened. I imagine him trying to remember where he caught this fish so he can go back again tomorrow. The Green Heron had just been chased out of the lilypads by something, and he was mad about it. He squawked loudly while trying to climb back up out of the water, and his top feathers made these feelings very clear to anyone watching.

The Glossy Ibis looks dark and, well, glossy, from a distance. If they sun shines, it appears iridescent, otherwise a dark brownish-black color. The closeup shows that his head feathers are actually brown and white, and he has a distinct white mark outlining the edges of his beak. Do you notice this from a distance? Usually not. Since I don't have one of those 18 inch, mega-telescopic lenses, I use my converter (Panasonic says it gives the equivalent of 714 mm), set the camera for 8 megapixels, and shoot. When I get home, Photoshop lets me zoom in for those nice head shots, and crop out the excess foliage. I'm content with the results, and really have no desire to carry around 30 pounds of equipment and a tripod every time I go out.

The colors to be found in a bird's eye fascinate me too. Most mammals will have brown eyes, and people of course, have a variety of colors. Some bird eyes are a solid dark color, while others are red or yellow, and the pupil stands out. This Tricolor Heron has red eyes, while the Osprey's eyes are yellow as are the Green Heron. I wonder if there are any studies about this difference? Does it improve the vision? Is there some survival factor to red eyes? And how in the world would any scientist ever be able to come up with a reliable answer to these questions? See, birding can broaden your mind!

Friday, February 15, 2008

By the Sea, By the Sea

How relaxing the beach can be. If you are a birder, though, you still take binoculars and camera when sunbathing. You never know when a wonderful photo op will present itself!
The beach for our condo in Pompano Beach hosted a steady population of Black Skimmers, Sanderlings, Willet, Ring Billed and Herring Gulls, some Ruddy Turnstones and Black Bellied Plovers. I thought the birds were vacationing at their timeshare too, since they congregated at the same spot on the beach every day, along with the two legged winter visitors. If a strolling tourist came too close in their walk along the beach, the birds might walk a little faster themselves, or take wing for a quick flight to circle around the intruder. Once the person was gone, they quickly reclaimed their original spot. I don't think they used much sunblock though!
At first glance, the Sanderlings and the Black Bellied Plover resembled each other. The Sanderlings spend all day running back and forth before the waves, probing into the wet sand. Those short legs can really move! The Black Bellied Plover looks nothing like the field guide picture since it is in winter plumage - a challenge for winter birding trips. The black belly is gone, but when they take flight, you do see the distinct black spot under their wings, validating a tentative identification. Also, a real size difference is apparent when they are closer together. The Ruddy Turnstones were unafraid of people along the beach. Their darker brown coloring blended in so well with the brown of our beach. Also, they foraged along the kelp and other debris washed up with the high tide, blending in even more. In fact, as I reviewed the photos, it was hard to find one without a bit of manmade trash in it. The taller Willet is a solitary visitor, rather than a sociable bird, and hides a striking black and white pattern under its wings, until it takes to the air. The Black Skimmers preferred standing around, soaking up the sun and gossiping with each other. When someone chased them away, they settled back down again quickly. While in flight, their large bills pointed down, as if too heavy to hold up. I asked the beach concession person, who spends every day on the beach, what time he saw the skimmers feeding, sinceI wanted to get some photos of their unusual fishing method. He laughed and said he never really saw them feeding on this beach at all. They must go somewhere else for their fishing!
Gulls are sometimes difficult to distinguish since immature gulls have different colors than the adults. Gulls and Terns may also display different plummage in the winter. Herring Gulls are the largest, no matter what color, and they can be aggressive with the others. The Laughing Gull loses his black head as do the Royal Terns, who just look bald! If I go back in the Summer, I'll have to learn a whole new image for them.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Wetlands and Water Treatment

The name, Wakodahatchee, is derived from the Seminole Indian language and translates as "created waters." The created waters at Wakodahatchee Wetlands are an example of people giving something back to nature. Fifty acres of unused utilities land have been transformed into a wetlands ecosystem. Every day, the Palm Beach County Water Utilities Department's Southern Region Water Reclaimation Facility pumps approximately two million gallons of highly treated water into the Wakodahatchee Wetlands. By acting as a natural filter for the nutrients that remain, the wetlands work to further clense the water. As always, click any picture to see a larger version.

In addition to providing educational and recreational opportunities for the public and habitat for wildlife, the Green Cay Wetlands naturally filter several million gallons of highly treated water each day from Palm Beach County's Southern Region Water Reclamation Facility. The wetlands also help to recharge groundwater resources and keep water in the earth's water cycle. To accomplish this, Green Cay incorporates 86 different species of trees, shrubs, grasses and aquatic vegetation on a former vegetable farm.

Palm Beach County government takes care of water treatment and provides much needed wildlife and bird habitat at the same time. Boardwalks through and around both wetlands provide an unprecedented opportunity for birders to see and photograph a large variety of birds including wading birds, raptors, and migrants, along with multitudes of turtles, fish and, of course, alligators. Small islands with trees are filled with nesting Anhingas and Great Blue Herons. Even non-birders are amazed at the birds easily seen and heard and appreciate a little help from someone who knows the names of those beautiful birds. How often will a visitor, in Florida for only a week, have an opportunity to observe courting and nesting behavior of wetlands birds? You could traipse out into the wilds of the Everglades on an airboat, and still not have a good chance. At Wakodahatchee, however, several small islands provided a rookery with nestlings of various ages and development levels. It makes a mother appreciate the efforts of other parents, and be glad that she can feed her babies with a spoon, and not by regurgitating fish for them. At least the Anhinga doesn't have to wash dishes or change diapers! This Anhinga couple are still courting, and their eyes change colors to show their readiness to mate. Big Kudos to the Palm Beach County Water Utilities Department for some wise decisions. Imagine, supporting the environment, wildlife and tourism at the same time! It can be done. This baby Great Blue Heron and I thank you!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Birder's Paradise - Palm Beach County

We just returned from a fantastic week in Florida, birding every day. I dowloaded 772 photos to my computer, and had deleted at least another 80 or so from the camera directly each night while we were there. That's the delight of digital photography - take lots of pictures, and don't worry about the ones that don't turn out right. I hardly know where to start.
We added five new birds to our life list. Well run nature preserves provided large numbers of birds to photograph while standing on a boardwalk. One preserve sponsored a Nature Photography class that we attended and got some great pointers from a 20 year veteran nature photographer. It's breeding season, so some birds were in their courting feathers, while others tended their babies.
The Purple Galinule (where do they get these names!) did not show itself in Alabama, so I was specially glad to find it now. They have iridescent feathers, and bright yellow legs with long toes. Climbing up and down the branches nibbling on flowers, they hang upside down and can run across the lily pads. The Sora is a shy marsh bird, with beautiful brown feathers and a yellow bill. Snail Kites are found only in South Flordia, and eat only apple snails. This one landed across the marsh with a snail to eat, so we didn't get a good view of it's head, since it was concentrating on lunch.

You meet such interesting people on the beach, and one birder from New York told us were to find the Florida Burrowing Owl. It digs burrows in the sand, preferring places with short grassy areas, such as parks and airports. The Pompano Municipal Airport has an area with at least 15 burrows, just inside the fence. It looked like a prairie dog village! Most of them were visible through the scope, but not the camera. They watched the cars going by for entertainment, turning their heads quickly from right to left. A passing skater advised us to move down a bit to see a burrow right against the fence. The fence itself interfers with the pictures, so just ignore it. The little birds were the cutest things!
We are well acquainted with the Mourning Dove and it's quiet cooing. Florida is being invaded by the Eurasian Collared Dove. Although it resembles the Mourning Dove, they act like they are on steriods - very agressive, chasing other birds around and sounding like Ninja Doves.