A big thanks to the Duncan’s for inviting me to their home, to photography winter songbirds at their bird feeder.
A cold winter day is perfect for curling up by your living room or you can stock your bird feeder, get your camera, a turkey chair and check out the activity at the feeder.
Here’s a quick rundown of the most common backyard birds, I saw while spending an afternoon at my friend’s bird feeder.
House finch – love Nyjer seed, often mistakenly called thistle seed. Offer it in tube feeders or net bags, and watch these colorful birds swoop in for a visit.
Woodpeckers – In the winter, beef suet is an energy-rich substitute for the insect fare that downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers feed on during the summer. Other bird species such as jays will also eat suet, but it’s…
Miguel and I headed south early on Saturday morning. We arrived at Amidon Memorial Conservation Area in Madison County, MO long after first light, but early enough to get some good from what would turn out to be a very dynamic sky over most of the day. Castor River Shut-ins was our main target, as I knew we weren’t too far following some significant rainfall in the area and there was a fresh snowfall from the day before. Unfortunately, the total snow fall was nowhere near the forecast 3″-5″ that was supposed to blanket the Fredericktown/Farmington area. However, as a nature photographer knows, you take what you find.
What turned out to be a very nice day of hiking and photography was nearly the complete opposite. On our way down to the river to make the above image, yours truly, normally as sure-footed as an Ozark billy goat, got one leg caught between two narrowly separated boulders while slipping with his other foot. As I went down, nearly landing on my face, I twisted my leg at just the right time and likely narrowly avoided snapping both my tibia and fibula in the caught leg. I also lost control of the tripod with the camera attached. Thankfully, most of the impact was to a small spot on the camera’s L-bracket, avoiding disaster again. Very-slight damage to the equipment and some bruising and scrapes to my leg – I will live with that when I think about the potential alternatives.
For whatever reason, I find myself drawn to vertical compositions at this location. We had nice and light cloud clover which typically provides the perfect scenario for capturing water and can make it easier to include the sky in a composition.
Here you can see Miguel hard at work nailing his composition.
I think the light yesterday was perfect in helping me avoid a problem I often have at this location, getting the color balance perfect for capturing the real colors of the rocks that make up this geological feature. Of course, those colors don’t show up the same as they do in direct sunlight.
After we had our fill at this location, still having the entire place to ourselves, we headed to Silvermines Recreation Area. Here we were primarily focused on the large defunct dam that is one of the famous features for which this location is known. We were faced with a more broken sky, but I noticed the thin cirrus/cirrostratus clouds were moving with extreme speed. Always on the lookout for a reason to use my neutral density filters, I pulled out my heaviest one and made the image below with a 30 second exposure.
Unfortunately, we weren’t in a good place and time to take advantage of a fantastic sunset. But, we made some nice images, memories and left a few calories behind on the trails.
The WGNSS Natural History Photo Group had a fun field trip in January, when we headed north up the Mississippi to the riverside town of Clarksville. Here at lock and dam #24, we were fortunate to be alongside ~75 eagles of various ages that took turns in catching the stunned shad that is their primary winter food source along the great river. We arrived early in the morning and made a day of it, experiencing wide shifts in weather from grey and snowy to partly sunny skies. I’m not an expert in aging these eagles, but I believe the bird picture above is a subadult II, which means it is 2.5 – 3 years old. In this photo you can see several retained juvenile secondaries on each wing.
The long and pointed secondaries make me think this bird is probably a year younger than the bird in the previous photo. I would guess this bird is 1.5 – 2 years old. The temperatures on this day were cold, but not too severe. We arrived with the car’s thermometer reading 16°F. There was a light wind most of the day, but not nearly as bad as there could have been.
With patience, there were some opportunities to capture a bird’s profile as it came to pick up a poor stunned fish.
The majority of prey captured in this way is small enough to be eaten immediately on the wing in a single “bite”. Sometimes, however, the bird is forced to retreat with its groceries and eat in seclusion.
The bird pictured above is much closer to looking like an adult bird, showing the mostly white head and tail. I estimate this bird as being 3.5 to 4 years old.
I noticed this in previous years, that it seems like the juveniles spend more time fishing than the adults. In the photo above, you can see a juvenile with an already full crop is pulling another fish from the river.
This is just a few I have processed so far. We have something in the works that may produce something much more in terms of eagle photography. Until next time.
I don’t usually like to discuss gear on this blog, but once in a while I think there are some things new or interesting enough to talk about, particularly when I think they may be critical for producing the best possible results. I have been wanting to test and compare the 2 latest Canon teleconverters (Canon Extender EF 1.4X III, Canon Extender EF 2X III) in a head to head test for sometime and this past weekend found me with an opportunity to do so. To be clear, this was not the optimal situation to make this test. The light was poor and the subject was probably too far away and not covering enough pixels to make a relevant comparison. But, I thought I’d give it a try.
These tests were setup as equally, but not scientifically, as possible. For these first two images, I processed as normal and tried my best to be equal in all capture and processing steps. I cropped to make the bird approximately the same size in both images, so obviously, the photo made with the 1.4X tc was enlarged more than the one made with the 2X tc. I then resized each to make them 1000 pixels on the horizontal. The purpose here was to see if there is a discernible difference in sharpness and image quality between the two. The 2X tc often gets poor reviews, but just as often gets raves by those who claim to know what they’re doing. Many claim that the better results are made by using a 1.4X tc, or native lens and cropping in post to obtain better results than those obtained by using the 2X tc for an optical zoom.
Open the two images above in separate tabs to see a roughly equal comparison. In my opinion, I was pretty pleased with the results of the 2X tc in sub-optimal conditions. Both photos are fine for sharing on the web, although the IQ would limit print size. Like I said, the conditions were poor and the bird at a great distance. However, I think I would give a slight edge to the photo made with the 2X converter. This edge might just as well be due to differences in how I processed or with changing conditions within the few minutes between captured images.
Let’s look next at the “100% crops” of both photos. This simply means that these photos were both cropped at the same dimensions (4″ x 6″) and not resized. These examples were NOT sharpened.
Again, with this comparison, I find the two very close. Either one would work well enough, but if your goal was to maximize print/display size, I would probably go with the 2X tc. I guess this has surprised me a bit. I was expecting that, under these sub-optimal conditions, the 2x tc would fall behind the supposedly sharper combination of the 500mm + 1.4X tc.
What do you think? Did I make any major blunders in my comparison or analysis? Please let me know. I do hope to make this comparison again under perfect light and optimally placed subject sometime in the future.
Miguel and I have been trying to get some better in-flight shots of the Short-eared Owls that use the wet prairies at BK Leach CA for their winter homes. Tonight, preparations and fortune came together and we wound up with a few that we can be satisfied with. The lighting wasn’t great, as the nice sunlight was blocked by heavier and heavier clouds as soon as the action began, but sometimes you take what you can get.
A few of us headed up to Montrose Harbor on the north side of Chicago yesterday in search of a rare and late shorebird visitor. There has been a Piping Plover that has intermittently been using the beaches here since October. We visited following approximately four straight days that the bird was sighted and the weather forecast was great for this time of year. Unfortunately, the bird was a no-show for us on this day. Since the Lincoln Park Zoo was almost directly across the street, we checked to see if they had a Piping Plover in their collection. This is the female bird in winter plumage pictured above.
The harbor held a decent number of waterfowl that we were able to get close enough for some shots. See below.
Seven of us made the long drive to our destination on the morning of the 23rd . The week of
Thanksgiving can be an excellent choice for visiting Loess Bluff NWR, but always depends on the
weather. We were a bit concerned with the early cold snap our region experienced this autumn.
However, in the week or so preceding the trip, the weather warmed so we were not hampered by ice
that can completely cover the shallow waters of the wetlands. Having open water affords very close
views of our photographic subjects and the primary reason we drove such a distance – the blizzard.
Typically, one million to two million Snow Geese will make this location a stop over during spring
and autumn migration and numbers of over 500,000 birds on a single count are not uncommon.
During our visit, the official counts were slightly over 100,000 birds, but the feeling with the group
was that this was grossly underestimated.
If conditions allow, getting the moon behind the Snow Geese can make a nice composition.
On our first day of the trip we were faced with mostly cloudy weather. As I told the group, this provides an opportunity to more easily try panning motion shots like the one pictured below. This is not my most successful attempt at such an image, but I wanted to share it here to demonstrate the multitude of opportunities for a diversity of photos to be made.
Snow Geese are not the only subjects that make this trip worthwhile. The refuge also provides
important habitat for birds such as Bald Eagles, sparrows, a variety of ducks and wading birds, as
well as mammals like white-tailed deer and muskrats. On our initial entry to the park, Dave and Bill
found a Merlin on a relatively good perch above the road. We spent some time photographing the
bird, but regretted that the rest off our party were on the other side of the refuge and would not
likely be able to get the looks we did. Fortunately, a Merlin – likely the same bird, was spotted on
our second day and was viewable by all.
With subjects in the hundreds of thousands to the millions, making a purposeful image can be challenging. It is quite natural to want to shoot at everything that moves, but try and focus. Finding smaller action scenes is one way the photographer can focus on the individuals and their stories that make up the grander scheme.
Although we experienced skies with periods of heavy overcast, we were presented with fantastic
sunsets on both days. Being able to make the birds part of the story made these images all the more special.
The WGNSS Photo Group is committed to an overnight trip to this and similar locations within the Midwest on Thanksgiving week. If you’d like to join us next year, please let me know!