Friday, August 29, 2008

Chica Chica Boom

My recent fiasco with the Buntings and Bishops sort of awakened my too complacent photographer spirit. It's time to get down to basics. Time to put into practice the principles learned ages ago. Time to look back into past experiences and benefit from them.

When I sallied forth into the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve last Wednesday, my one and only purpose was to photograph birds. Take pictures of any bird, in any situation, then go home and determine if the resulting shots showed any progress in my abilities or not. I did not wear my birder hat that day.

It turned out to be gloomy that morning which did not daunt me at all. After all, I wanted a challenge. And what could me more challenging to a photographer than overcast skies. Right off at the boardwalk, I saw a Black-crowned Night Heron in full breeding plumage, standing motionlessly among the vegetation as it patiently waited for some unwary fish. An unmoving subject would be a good start, sort of to give my confidence a boost, I thought. I mean, how can you go wrong with a bird that stays still under gray skies? That shot went quite well.

Feeling encouraged, I moved on where I encountered a small flock of Western Sandpipers. In contrast to the Night Heron, these are tiny birds that like to scamper along the water's edge. I was now faced with the challenge of focusing at a small, constantly moving object, whose plumage blends with the watery background. Got a good shot there as well.

Farther up the trail where the tide gates are, a group of young Forster's Terns were sallying from the posts and diving into the waters hoping to grab an edible morsel. White flying birds became my next challenge. I must admit that BIF (birds-in-flight) photos are not my forte. The fact that I was using a 300mm with a 1.4 extender (which slowed the auto focusing) made me even more resolved to get these shots right. I was rewarded by a couple of fairly good captures - better than most of my previous BIFs.

But then, I thought that I got the terns when they were hovering - not exactly a BIF. When a Black Skimmer flew by and started doing its unique feeding style - cruising a few inches above the water surface with its lower beak submerged - it presented a true flying bird shot opportunity.

Not long afterward an immature Brown Pelican flew in and displayed its own style of feeding: float on the water looking for prey, fly a short distance and plunge into the water and grab the fish with its enormous bill. For a huge bird, it does this maneuver with grace and agility.

I continued to spend the rest of the morning taking shots of the various birds that I encountered. I felt that I have lived up to the different photographic challenges presented my way with some degree of success. So satisfied was I with my photography that I even switched to videography - capturing the antics of a Green Heron, some Sandpipers and a Black-bellied Plover trying to eat a clam.

Below is the video of the Green Heron. The music is titled "Ay Cosita Linda" which means "what a cute little thingy". It refers to what the heron did towards the end of the clip. :-) Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Bird Too Far

I returned to the Eaton Canyon wash a few days after my disastrous encounter with the birds of the area. This time I was resolute in my purpose to redeem myself. Heck, I even brought a tripod so that my shots will be as steady as can be.
As expected, my target birds were once again there. But they were just a bit too far for my 420mm lens. So even though my photographs were technically OK, the images were tiny and did not do justice to the gaudy plumages of my subjects.

The Red Bishop

At least my two conflicting personalities have now reconciled.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Of Schisms and Bishops

There are birders, there are bird photographers and there are those that are a combination of both. Pure birders would pursue after a rare bird and upon sighting it with their binoculars or spotting scopes would be satisfied and go home elated. Pure bird photographers always make sure that their camera settings are appropriate for the situation at hand taking into consideration the lighting conditions, the backdrop, and various other factors to ensure that the resulting photograph would be worthy to be displayed at the Guggenheim Museum or so jaw-dropping that nature magazines would scramble after it. And then there are those that are quite good birders as well as bird photogaphers. These people are quite adept at identifying birds and at the same time crank out some pretty good-looking avian pictures.

I'd like to think of myself as an average birder and bird photographer. As a birder, I can pretty much identify many of the species I encounter in the field. As a bird photographer, I can say that I've had some good moments where my shot turned out quite nicely. Even passable for publication, if I may say so (although none of of my photographs have been published with an appropriate compensation....yet). Whenever my wife and I go on a birding trip my being a birder and a bird photographer usually are in harmony. Yet there are some rare instances when a deep schism develops between my two hobby personalities. Such was the case last Saturday.

Cynthia and I went to the Eaton Canyon Wash in Pasadena. This is the place where after some heavy rain, the waters from the San Gabriel mountains end up as some sort of mini lake. During summer though, the place is very dry with a few patches of vegetation surviving. A grove of eucalyptus trees stand tall on its perimeter offering refuge to the local avifauna. An earlier encouraging report that says this place has become quite birdy made us decide to see for ourselves if it was indeed.Of particular interest was the mention of Lazuli Buntings inhabiting the place. This beautiful blue, orange and white species has been on our most wanted to photograph list. We have had prior experiences with this Bunting but the results had not been satisfactory.

It was already hot and humid when we started our trek - our destination about three-fourths of a mile over uneven rocky and sandy terrain. Just as we entered the "wash" we were met by two very young, scraggly Rock Wrens. They hopped alongside our trail, once in a while hiding behind a rock and then suddenly popping out again greeting us with a couple of bobs with its brown body.

When we reached the place where most of the vegetation were concentrated we could tell that the place was in fact quite birdy. I concentrated on the thicket while Cynthia stalked the nearby eucalyptus trees. It wasn't long when the Lazulis responded even to my pathetic pishing. I was still doing my crude pishing tactics when a brightly colored bird flew into my line of vision.

"Red! Red!" was all I could tell my wife, all the while pointing to the bird that was eyeing us curiosly.

"Shoot! Shoot!" my wife replied curtly as she herself started to photograph the brightly colored bird.

As a birder I knew that we have chalked up another lifer, the Northern Red Bishop, a weaver-bird normally found in Africa. These are probably the descendants of some escaped caged birds and now have established themselves here in Southern California. They are gorgeous - not really red - but more deep orange and black and about the size of a sparrow. Needless to say, we were both so excited at this unexpected treat.

It was when we were home and I was uploading our pictures to the computer that the schism I was talking about happened. I blew it as a bird photographer. Big time! The birder in me who was able to easily identify this very uncommon bird hated the bird photographer in me who failed to get even one decent shot of our lifer. Apparently sometime between the Rock Wrens and vegetated area, for some reason that totally escapes me, the settings of my camera have been changed. For one, the IS (Image stabilization) feature was turned to off. Now without a tripod and trying to focus at a tiny object 500 feet away with the heart beating wildly due to excitement, the IS is a must. Not one photograph came out sharp. None of the Bishops, none of the Lazuli Buntings, none of the half-dozen or so other species that we saw. I have committed a mistake that no self-respecting bird photographer ever makes - not checking the camera settings before each photo op.

Cynthia, on the other hand, was a little luckier. At least her IS was on. However, with the Red Bishop she was standing much further than I was from the bird. And like me, she had only the center focus point on thus getting a bead on a tiny, moving bird with shaky, excited hands was quite difficult. At least with the Lazuli Buntings, she had better success, albeit with the drab, brown female.

Lest I suffer the opprobrium from the bird photography community, I shall not post the picture of the Red Bishop.
It will be a while before the birder in me forgives my bird photographer side.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


I have to go birding! It has been more than two weeks that I haven't done so. Domestic matters precluded me from pursuing my hobby for the past fortnight. So now I must bird. I must satisfy the growing need to go out once again under the hot summer sun and feast my eyes and point my camera on the feathered creatures that I hope to encounter.

My destination of choice was Peck Road Water Conservation Park, better known to birders as Peck Pit. Based on recent birding news, I purposely set my expectations to low. This has not been a very good year for birds here in California where even the regular summer visitors were quite sparse. Scanning the lake, I only saw a couple of cormorants, a few gulls and some mallards. The picnic area was devoid of birds except for a murder of crows and a flock of domestic rock doves.

Moving closer to the edge of the lake, I saw a single Western Gull feasting on a dead catfish.

Suddenly, a Green heron flew by and landed on dead tree branch.

A pair of skittish Cooper's Hawks did not stay long enough for a photograph and simply vanished as I approached.

At any given park or birding place in Southern California, the birds most likely to be seen are Mourning Doves,

Northern Mockingbirds

and Black Phoebes.

And so I was a bit surprsised when I saw some Band-tailed Pigeons perched on the telephone wires. These large birds normally inhabit higher elevation forests and to find them at this low altitude was unusual.

Another unexpected sighting was a Lincoln's Sparrow which is a very secretive and somewhat nondescript brown bird.

After about an hour, my birding spirit has been appeased but my gastronomical need was starting to make itself noticeable. It was only proper that I now return home.