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The Raven

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, …”

This post was supposed to be about Short-eared Owls, not about the embodiment of a symbolic metaphor for never-ending remembrance.

THE PLAN WAS…
Early yesterday morning as I saw that there was going to be a break in the storms, I thought it would be a great chance to photograph Short-eared Owls at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, near Los Banos. I thought the odds were stacked in my favor given the previous night’s tempest and their crepuscular propensities. I thought for certain there would be several out early enough in the evening to photograph in decent light.

Crepuscular is derived from Latin crepusculum (“twilight”)

I am a firm believer that luck is mostly preparation meeting opportunity. As I was heading out the door, my sister-in-law Julissa commented about the stormy weather. My response was , “it’s all about having clouds in the sky. They can turn a mediocre photo into an outstanding composition!”

I pulled in to the refuge a little before 3:00 PM and sure enough, there were lots of clouds. Large, foreboding nimbostratus clouds with drifting rain sheets were visible in the eastern sky with more coming in from the west.

Google Map Link to San Luis NWR

I initially took the Waterfowl Tour Route, heading first northeast and then circling around clock-wise. My plan was to head around to the Sousa Marsh first and then hit the Tule Elk Route closer to sunset. The sun would intermittently illuminate the landscape with an ominous, almost stygian cloud backdrops.

As I approached the Sousa Marsh at the extreme south east portion of the tour route, the clouds continued to add their own story to the beautiful wildlife narrative, which now also included Tundra Swans.

Well over a hundred of these long-necked, magnificent white birds were scattered around the wetlands. Against such a dramatic, dark background these birds practically glowed and proved to be a challenge to capture digitally.

I completed the Waterfowl Tour Route and decided to take a drive around the Tule Elk Route, as I still had some time to kill before sundown approached. As I drove around this route, the clouds again continually changed in appearance and brightness, at times darkening, and at other times, absolutely glowing as with some inner power or force.

I was able to spot the herd of Tule Elk, which appeared to be settling down for the evening.

After completing that first loop around the Tule Elk Route, I decided to make a second loop and to head  north along the route to parking lot 1, again earnestly searching for Short-eared Owls. This time, as I started the Tule Elk Route, there was a Raven cawing and croaking quite vociferously from the top of one of the giant posts on the Tule Elk enclosure fence line. Black-colored birds against light clouds can be tricky to photograph because feather details get lost. This is frustrating because through binoculars, the rods in our eyes have the ability to define much more detail than a camera can.

I used my car as a mobile blind, and the Raven was not at all bothered by my slow approach. Experience has taught me to bracket my shots, allowing variations in the exposures to hopefully find the best combination of shutter speed and aperture.

According to Wikipedia In photography, bracketing is the general technique of taking several shots of the same subject using different camera settings. Bracketing is useful and often recommended in situations that make it difficult to obtain a satisfactory image with a single shot, especially when a small variation in exposure parameters has a comparatively large effect on the resulting image.

I ended up taking over 60 shots of this obliging corvid. Looking at the images through the LCD panel on the back of my camera, I was NOT hopeful of a happy ending to this opportunity. The edges seemed sharp, but there was little detail in the feathers and around the face and eyes. Sharpness and detail around the face and eyes are very important to a quality bird image.

After my apparent lack of success with the Raven, I headed back north again, slowly driving through the grassland route, searching for a low-flying Asio flammeus (Short-eared Owl) and continuing to marvel at the changing clouds. One of my last shots was this colorful sunset.

Though I was unsuccessful in my effort to find and photograph the owl, this turned out to be an enjoyable jaunt through some marvelous scenery and cloud formations.

AND NOW, THE REST OF THE STORY…

Most bird photographers will admit that the home-processing of photos is as much (or more…) fun as the actual shoot is. As is my custom, I preview every image using a simple photo viewing application, where I zoom in to see if there is good subject placement and sufficient detail and sharpness to warrant an import into Adobe Lightroom. As I mentioned before, a camera does not have the ability to record the details that we can see with our eyes.

Tips and How-Tos

AUDUBON The Dos and Don’ts of Editing Bird Photos
End up with the best image possible—without compromising its integrity.

IMAGE DEVELOPMENT
My job, using Lightroom, is to make the image appear as similar as possible to what I could see with my eyes. I never add to or remove any content from my images (sometimes called photoshoping); rather, I enhance or reduce the highlights or shadows to bring out detail. I may adjust the contrast or add a smidge of vibrance to give an image a little more pop. It may be necessary to apply some luminance adjustments to reduce the amount of pixilation that can occur in low light. The last step of my photographic process is to make sure the subject is where I want it and that the horizon is level. This is done by a simple cropping and rotation.

Just as Ansel Adams was the master of the subtleties of negative development and photograph exposure, today’s photographers use processing tools to produce their masterpieces.

So I chose one of the images that looked like might have potential and looked at it using the Windows Photos app, and it looked exactly like this.

After a little cropping, adjustment of highlights and shadows, some honing of contrast and exposure with a fine-tuning of luminence, my image turned into this.

So once again, even though my hunt for the owls turned out to be fruitless, I ended up with a matchless experience in nature and found that Ravens are as entertaining as owls. Well, almost.

The Case of the Mysterious “Might-be-a-rare-bird”

Birders as a whole, can be quite passionate about their bird lists. While we still thoroughly enjoy the activities of our common sparrows and finches, it’s the rare birds that really fuel our obsession. We live for that next new addition to our beloved list. The subtleties and nuances that separate a rare species from the more common ones, can provoke a splendid detective case where every detail becomes a critical piece of evidence. As the case for a rare bird is built, the facts can sometimes be obfuscated by what we want to see. Sometimes the facts may be not be as relevant and we suspect them to be. This is especially true when photographic records are obtained second-hand.

JIM! – Check your email…

The game is afoot.
And so it began, a text with 4 short words. A text that would result in 3 1/2 hours of field work, and a few more hours of research and detective work behind the computer.

Map Link to the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

Some birders, new to the obsession, had noticed an unusual bird mixed in with the usual suspects out at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, west of Modesto. The bird in question superficially looked similar to a regular winter resident of any wet habitat, the Greater Yellowlegs. But this bird just didn’t look like the others nearby. It didn’t have the long, pointy-tail look, the legs were a bit off-color (peachy) and the base of the bill seemed pale. They knew enough to try and get some good photos of it and then to send them to someone that had more experience. And so, the novice birders sent their evidence to a veteran valley birder.

As in a court case, the images were now second-hand evidence, as the veteran birder had not actually seen the bird. While images of a bird can be quite helpful, there are some caveats to this value. Distant birds, combined with low quality lens’s or digital zooming can distort size and color. As can the position of the sun relative to the photographer and the subject. The experienced birder knows the importance of when to broadcast a rare-bird sighting and when not to. Birders have been known to immediately book flights to chase down the rarest of sightings and the miss-reporting of a rare species can deal a blow to the reporter’s reputation (not to mention the waste of money…). In this case, the evidence seemed sufficient to warrant a limited broadcast to some of the locals in hopes they might gather more evidence to support a potential rare bird.

Photograph of birds in the wetlands

With only the location known and two poor images, I raced out the door, yelling to my wife, “be back later…” In route to the refuge I got a phone call from Salvatore Salerno explaining a little more about “the bird.” First a little background about the usual “Tringa” sandpipers vs the rare ones.

Greater Yellowlegs belong to the Genus Tringa and are common throughout the valley in any wetlands, ponds, lake shore or flooded field from August through May. Less common is the Lesser Yellowlegs which is more of an uncommon spring and fall migrant, with a few individuals sticking around in winter. The rarest of Tringa shorebirds include the Spotted Redshank, Marsh Sandpiper and Wood Sandpiper, and it was the possibility of the mystery bird being one of the latter that got us all motivated.

Historical records of the three rare Tringa species are
– San Joaquin County has a record of Spotted Redshank (5 total CA records)
– Marsh Sandpiper (2 CA records) one in the valley, and
– Wood Sandpiper (3 CA records) with none in the Central Valley.

Photograph of a Marsh Sandpiper

Marsh Sandpiper – Photographed in Yolo County

There were three pieces of evidence from the photos that seemed to point to the possibility of a Spotted Redshank; short-primary projection, light-base of the bill and peach-colored legs. Fortunately, the weather was beautiful and it was a short walk from the parking lot to where the bird was seen. As a photographer, I have many “Squirrel” moments and am readily distracted by any bird that will pose long enough for me to snap a few shots. Today was no different and as I walked to the flooded field, I couldn’t help but stop and shoot a couple dozen images of the Sandhill Cranes as they were constantly flying around the area.

I made a mistake when I ran out the door to get here as quickly as possible, and I failed to grab my telescope. I knew instantly that this was going to be a tough stake-out. There were dozens of Greater Yellowlegs as well as one or two Lesser Yellowlegs. And they were all a bit too far out to get good photos of.

Photograph of a Greater Yellowlegs
Greater Yellowlegs

I scared up a flock of Green-winged Teal as I walked around the pond.

Photograph of Green-winged Teal in flight
Green-winged Teal

A short time later, Sal appeared (no telescope either) along with Daniel Gilman who fortunately did have one. As were continuously looked at first one yellowlegs, and then another, and another, we delved into a discussion about the possible rarities, and what we needed to observe to make a solid case of identification. Using the Sibley iPhone App, we looked at images and listened to each suspect’s call.

Photograph of Sal Salerno and Daniel Gilman watching birds

We never saw anything that resembled what we thought could be a rarity and after a bit, Sal and Daniel departed. I decided to take advantage of the gorgeous weather and I walked as far as I could along the nature trail. I was serenaded by California Towhees, California Thrashers and Wrentits.

Photograph of the Pelican Nature Trail
Pelican Rd Nature Trail

I couldn’t go very far down the trail as the refuge staff had posted closed signs a short ways down the trail. I’m not sure if this is permanent or a by-product of the government shut-down.

Photograph of the Pelican Rd Nature Trail with closed signs
Area Closed

On the way back to the parking lot I had a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher make its buzzy call right next to me and I got a decent shot of it.

Photograph of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

On the ride back into town, I got a call from Sal commenting that more in-depth analysis of the photos revealed that the mysterious “Might-be-a-rare-bird”, was after all, not quite so rare. It was deemed to be a first winter Lesser Yellowlegs. A winter sighting of a Lesser Yellowlegs was definitely uncommon, but not something to be added to the great list of rarities.
While I didn’t get to add a new rare bird to my list, I had a very enjoyable walk in nature, got a few photos and learned a lot about the rare Tringa shorebirds of California.

Photograph of the riparian woodlands on the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

A Walk in Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Gardens with Chiggers

After a pleasant drive down from Miami, we stopped for an afternoon stroll through the beautiful Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Gardens. I have been there twice before and I remember it being quite an active birding spot with Black-whiskered Vireos, Swainson’s Warblers and more passerine species. The weather was slightly warm and muggy with patchy clouds. Initially it was very quiet with nothing much moving or calling. I decided to explore the furthest reaches of the back trails which were overgrown with exposed roots, grass and other vegetation wearing shorts and sandals.

Photograph of the overgrown trail at the Key West Botanical Gardens
The Trail

I ventured off the trail several times in pursuit of birds that were chipping out-of-sight.Gradually the bird activity picked up and I was able to see and/or photograph 23 different species. The first birds were at the big pond at the entrance with an Anhinga, some Common Gallinules and a pair of Green Herons. One of which flew across the pond and literally crashed-landed on the other side.

Photograph of flying Green Heron
Green Heron

Pretty soon I was able to see a Gray Catbird, Black-and-white Warblers, Northern Parulas, a Magnolia Warbler, multiple Palm Warblers, a Prairie Warbler and two Black-throated Green Warblers.

Photograph of a Northern Parula
Northern Parula
Photograph of a Palm Warbler
Palm Warbler
Photograph of a Prairie Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Photograph of a Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler

On the way out we got good looks at the Anhinga again, as well as a Great Egret and some Common Ground-Doves.

Photograph of an Anhinga
Anhinga
Photograph of a Great Egret
Great Egret
Photograph of Common Ground-Doves
Common Ground-Doves

As the park was about to close, I looked up and saw a bird I have never seen before (referred to as a “Lifer”). Soaring slowly across the sky was a SHORT-TAILED HAWK. I snapped as many photos as I could and quickly texted Maria to look up. I caught up to her and made her look at it with my binocs!

Photograph of a White-tailed Hawk
Photograph of a White-tailed Hawk
Short-tailed Hawk

Now, the title of this post includes a reference to Chiggers. Apparently as I was traipsing through the vegetation, I was also collecting some microscopic Chigger larvae which all decided my legs and feet would make a great home. It made the next couple of days much more memorable, to say the least.

Photo of lower leg with multiple Chigger (insect) bites
Chigger larvae bites

Exploring the Green Cay Wetlands

1/7/2019
Today was our traveling day to Orlando and we opted to stop at the Green Cay Wetlands on our drive north.
Green Cay Wetlands is a 100-acre nature preserve located north of Fort Lauderdale in Boynton Beach. The preserve was converted from farmland into a county water reclamation facility in 2004 and naturally filters millions of gallons of water each day.

Map Link to Green Cay Wetlands

Photograph of the Green Cay Wetlands

A raised boardwalk provides a 1.5 mile walk through several habitat types with outstanding access to many species of birds and close-ups of alligators and turtles.

Photograph of an American Alligator at the Green Cay Wetlands
American Alligator

According to ebird, over 250 bird species have been recorded here. The first bird we saw, a Wood Stork, was actually flying directly overhead.

Photograph of a Wood Stork flying
Wood Stork

As we started along the boardwalk, we were greeted by an Anhinga, a Green Heron, multiple Common Gallinules and a young Gray-headed Swamphen.

Photograph of an Anhinga
Anhinga
Photograph of a Green Heron
Green Heron
Photograph of a Common Gallinule
Common Gallinule
Photograph of a young Gray-headed Swamphen
Gray-headed Swamphen – young bird

The boardwalk was very busy with lots of senior citizens completing their morning walks. At one point we passed through a dryer spot with lots of trees and many warblers. I was most excited to get a decent photo of a PINE WARBLER, which was not a true “lifer” for me, but was a “life photograph” of one.

Photograph of a Pine Warbler
Pine Warbler

Other songbirds included Yellow-throated, Palm, Black-and-white, and Yellow-rumped Warblers, American Redstart, Northern Parula and Blue-headed Vireo. I think the Black-and-white Warbler image turned out quite well!

Photograph of a Black-and-white Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler

As we circled the wetlands, we were treated to more incredible views of Egrets, Herons, ducks, and ibis.

Photograph of the boardwalk and Visitor's Center at Green Cay Wetlands
Photograph of a Tricolored Heron
Tricolored Heron
Photograph of a pair of Blue-winged Teal
Blue-winged Teal – pair
Photograph of a Glossy Ibis
Glossy Ibis

The pièce de résistance had to be an adult Gray-headed Swamphen displaying its full brilliant coloration. Stunning!

Photograph of an adult Gray-headed Swamphen
Gray-headed Swamphen

On the way out we stopped to watch the birds around the bird feeders and got glimpses of White-winged Doves, Common Grackles and female Painted Buntings

Photograph of a White-winged Dove
White-winged Dove
Photograph of a Common Grackle
Common Grackle
Photograph of a female Painted Bunting
Painted Bunting – female

Looking for Snail Kites

1/09/19
So, we were in Orlando, as a family, with plans to take our son to play the new Kingdom Hearts III Demo at Disney Springs and had a little time to kill before they opened. So of course I took the opportunity to try and see if I could espy one of my target trip life birds; Snail Kite. According to eBird, there was a county park (Brinson Park) at the northeast corner of Lake Tohopekaliga that seemed to show regular sightings of it. So I plugged the coordinates into my Apple Play and off we ran. As we reached the park, it became obvious that this was not going to work today as it was closed due to construction. I was a bit angry as this was my only chance to look for one on this trip. But since I still had time to kill, I decided to see if there was some spot to pull over and scan the lake. I noticed a sign for Brownie Wise Park and decided to give it a shot. I did not see it listed on ebird so I was skeptical that it would be any good.

Entrance sign to Brownie Wise Park

WOW, WAS I EVER WRONG! As we were entering the park area we saw an adult Bald Eagle off to the side.

Photograph of adult Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle

I parked in the parking lot and walked a short distance to a platform and after 30 seconds of scanned, spotted a SNAIL KITE about 300 yards out, sitting in some vegetation.

Photograph of a distant Snail Kite
Snail Kite

It was too far away to get the kind of photo I wanted, but since it was a LIFER I was pretty excited. I waiting 20 minutes hoping it might fly in closer, but it never did. I could see two other quite distant Snail Kites across the lake. We left and headed in to Disney Springs where my son had a blast playing his video game demo

My son playing a video game demo for Kingdom Hearts III

After lunch we decided to head back down to Brownie Wise Park to see if we could get better looks at the kite. It wasn’t there at first, but shortly flew in and then lander. This time much closer!

Photograph of a Snail Kite
Photograph of a Snail Kite in flight

I spent the next hour wandering around the wetlands and inlets taking photos of Sandhill Cranes, Palm Warblers, Fish Crows and the Bald Eagle we had seen earlier in the day.

Photograph of a pair of Sandhill Cranes
Sandhill Cranes
Photograph of a Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Cranes
Photograph of a Palm Warbler
Palm Warbler
Photograph of a flock of Fish Crows
Fish Crows
Photograph of an adult Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle

The Stanislaus “Skulky” Swamp Sparrow Search

1/20/2019
It all started with a phone call from Harold. You know immediately when a call comes in from Harold on a Sunday that he’s got a good bird. The adrenaline kicks in, and my heart rate picks up as I answer, “Hey Harold.” And sure enough, he’s on a Swamp Sparrow over at the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park. I quickly posted the news on the Stanislaus listserve, not sure whether to run out to try and photograph it. So as I’m eating my sandwich, Maria asks what Harold called about (knowing that it had to be a “good” bird somewhere) and I explained “the bird” and that they are only seen about once every five or six years in the county and they are notoriously skulky (hard to see). She promptly replies with, “So, what are you doing just sitting here eating your sandwich? GO GET IT!” (I love how she supports my obsession!)

Ceres River Bluff Regional Park entrance sign
Ceres River Bluff Regional Park entrance sign

Map to the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park.

I pull in to the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park on Hatch Road, Ceres expecting to be able to drive down to the usual parking spot at the bottom of the bluff. This park got a lot of attention by birders lately when Harold Reeve discovered Stanislaus County’s first ever record of a Black-throated Sparrow here, as well as hosting a Chipping Sparrow which can be hard to find on the valley floor.

Photograph of a Black-throated Sparrow
Black-throated Sparrow – Photographed at the Park October 17, 2017

This time though the drive down to the lower parking area was closed, and as I parked, I noticed Ralph Baker’s car right next to me. I eventually caught up to him and Kathy Rasmussen and they were standing with Harold and Sherrie Reeve. They had been watching the bird off and on for a while and pointed out to us the different spots they had seen it at. After about twenty minutes of fruitless searching, they decided to head out and the three of us remained, quietly listening, watching, listening and watching in vain for another hour. The pond area is quite scenic with reeds, willows and oak trees.

The Pond

As we waited I photographed some of the Canada Geese that were swimming around us.

pair of Canada Geese
Canada Geese
Canada Geese swimming
Canada Geese

Eventually I commented that I would need to leave in 20 minutes. They jokingly replied, “Well, then we will leave in 25 because it will pop up right after you leave!!!” I played a few calls off my Sibley’s Bird app. Not realizing that I had stopped the audio, Ralph asks, “Are you still playing the calls because I can still hear it calling…” I wasn’t sure if what we were hearing was a muffled Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped Warbler or our target bird. I walked out to the point and played the calls again. Ralph yelled out that a sparrow flew right over to where I was playing the call.

Swamp Sparrows belong to the Genus Melospiza which include the more locally common Lincoln’s Sparrow and Song Sparrow and can be a challenge to correctly identify. They are notorious for keeping in the shadows and “skulking” behind the vegetation.

Sure enough, the bird gradually walks out from the weeds, towards the back of a bunch of vegetation. I yelled at Ralph and Kathy and started trying to focus through the vegetation on the bird in the shadows. The angle was bad and the lighting poor, but I managed to get a couple of decent shots of the bird. It was a LIFER for Kathy and a Stanislaus County bird for Ralph.

Here’s a link to the list of the top Stanislaus County listers

Photo of Swamp Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Photo of Swamp Sparrow hiding in reeds
Swamp Sparrow hiding in reeds
Photo of a Swamp Sparrow on a branch
Swamp Sparrow
Photo of Swamp Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow

HOW TO ID A SWAMP SPARROW
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a winter, non-breeding (what birders refer to as basic-plumaged) adult has a white throat with a gray-washed breast and extensive reddish-brown in the wings (primary coverts). Here is an example of just such a bird from their website.

In Search of… Pink Birds

Today (January 10th, 2019) we were heading back down to Pembroke Pines and it would be our last opportunity for birding. One of my promises to Maria during our Texas vacation last year, was that we would see Roseate Spoonbills. When she and I had first visited Texas back in the late 90s, seeing Roseate Spoonbills was one of the most awesome encounters of the entire trip. Unfortunately, we struck out in TX. I was very hopeful that they would be present along the Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island NWR as they had been reported pretty much every day the past week.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge sign

As we turned on to the road, off to the side was a nice Tricolored Heron working its way slowly along the side of the road.

Photo of Tricolored Heron
Tricolored Heron

As luck would have it, barely a couple of minutes along the road was a single Roseate Spoonbill. I yelled out to Maria, “PINK BIRD ALERT, PINK BIRD!” We all jumped out of the car (me forgetting to put the car in park…) and got decent looks at one that wasn’t too far away, but it was directly into the sun.

Photograph of Roseate Spoonbill
Roseate Spoonbill

I am always looking for yet better images of birds that I already have an image of, but I am especailly looking for “Life Photograph” birds. Those birds that I have seen, but never photographed. The next target was a bird that I had fair photos of, but nothing I would feel comfortable sharing with anyone other than my mother. REDDISH EGRET. This bird was in perfect morning light, with the sun at my back this time, not in my face.

Photograph of Reddish Egret
Reddish Egret

The next bird on the road was actually one of those “Lifer photo” birds, a WOOD STORK. We watched it walk along the channel and then fly across the small pond.

Photograph of Wood Stork
Wood Stork

Then we hit the jackpot. I knew something was happening ahead because there were a dozen cars stopped and some folks with really big lenses pointing to some birds right along the side of the road. The next several images can say more than my words ever could.

Photograph of White Ibis and Roseate Spoonbill
Whie Ibis and Roseate Spoonbill
Photograph of White Ibis, Snowy Egret and Roseate Spoonbill
White Ibis, Snowy Egret and Roseate Spoonbill
Photograph of Roseate Spoonbill
Roseate Spoonbill
Photograph of White Ibis, Wood Stork and Roseate Spoonbill
White Ibis, Wood Stork and Roseate Spoonbill
Photograph of Roseate Spoonbill
Roseate Spoonbill
Photograph of Roseate Spoonbill flock
Roseate Spoonbills
Image of Roseate Spoonbill