In Search of a 5-Star Rated Vermillion Flycatcher Photo

After seeing several recent excellent photos of the returning Vermillion Flycatcher by Doug Krajnovich at Lake Yosemite County Park In Merced County, CA., I decided I ought to try and track it down and shoot it. Digitally that is!

ABOUT THE PARK

Lake Yosemite is a freshwater reservoir built in 1888 for irrigation purposes and is currently owned and operated by the Merced Irrigation District. It is located about 5 miles east of Merced, CA.

Lake Yosemite Park Entrance
Lake Yosemite

VERMILLION FLYCATCHER BACKGROUND

Doug Krajnovich first discovered a first fall male Vermillion Flycatcher on 10/10/2019 at the south end of the park along the Fairfield Canal. Generally, they are rare across the Central Valley, but they seem to be occurring more frequently in Merced County over the past 20 years. At one point last year in the winter of 2020/2021 up to 3 were seen at the same time at Lake Yosemite County Park.

Vermillion Flycatcher at the Merced NWR 1/17/2021

THE DIGITAL MEDIA EXPLOSION

When I first started photography, shooting images often came at a steep price and as a beginner I found myself in a quandary. Did I use Ektachrome 100, Kodachrome 64, or Fujichrome Velvia 50 when in the field? It was expensive to buy and then develop. And the worst part was not knowing if you nailed the shot or not until you got them back several days later. With the advent of more reasonably priced equipment and an almost endless number of images that can be captured on one SD Card, I often take upwards of 500 images in a morning’s outing. The challenge then becomes one of which image is the best.

RATING A PHOTOGRAPH

As a birder turned photographer, I strive to both capture an image that will serve to document a bird sighting and to satisfy my artistic expectations of a high quality reproduction. This typically involves taking the first image at a distance and steadily getting closer and capturing more and more images.

eBird Ratings

eBird is an online database of bird observations providing scientists, community scientists, researchers and amateur naturalists with real-time data about bird distribution and abundance. Today, the vast majority of birders record their location sightings using eBird. Along with recording numbers of each species encountered, users can submit images, audio recordings and video snippets to help document what they found. Each image that a user submits can be rated to help with the greater community science needs. According to their website, “Ratings increase the utility of Macaulay Library media for everyone, enabling the best images, audio, and video to be discovered and used in projects such as Merlin and Birds of the World, as well as Illustrated Checklists and external research applications.

From my perspective, getting a good image has helped me to either cinch or reject the identification of a challenging or unusual bird species.

They use a 5-star rating system, with 5 stars being the highest quality. They specifically state that the ratings should be strictly technical in nature and not to take in account the rare status of a species. A great photo of a common, drab bird should still be 5 stars and a poor photo of a very rare or hard-to-photograph bird could still be only 1 or 2 stars.

Drab, common 5-Star Northern Mockingbird

Key Points to Consider When Rating a Photograph for eBird

From the eBird Support Site “How to Rate Media

Sharpness: Is the primary subject in focus? Is the image blurred or grainy?
Visibility of bird: How well can you see the bird? If the bird is very small, partially obstructed from view, or backlit in the photo, the rating should be lower than it would be otherwise.
Size of photo: Lower your rating of any photo that has a noticeably small resolution. Uploading full resolution files is always encouraged.

Descriptions of star ratings for photos: (Remember the rating is a technical rating and does NOT take into account the rarity of the bird.)
1 Star: Very poor quality. Very low resolution or very poor focus; bird may be very small or obscured in the frame or have extremely bad exposure. In general should only be uploaded as record shots, if still identifiable.
2 Stars: Poor quality. Could be a good image but at a noticeably low resolution, or high resolution but with significant flaws. Lighting might be severely backlit or poorly exposed. Image might be good but the bird is extremely small in the frame or mostly obscured.
3 Stars: Decent quality. High or medium resolution with decent focus. Lighting might be less than ideal; bird might be smaller in frame or somewhat obscured. Might have several factors that prevent it from being rated higher.
4 Stars: Very good quality. High resolution and in good focus, at least decent lighting, and bird reasonably large in frame. One or two of these factors may be less than ideal and prevent from achieving 5 stars.
5 Stars: Excellent quality. High resolution and in sharp focus. Lighting should be good and the bird at least fairly large in the frame and not significantly obscured.

HUNTING MY PREY

After downing my morning latte, taking the dog out to use the front lawn and double-checking that I actually had a charged battery this time… I was off to the park. I made a brief circle around to the back of the park and then parked near the entrance. I soon spotting the famous, aforementioned Doug Krajnovich peering intently into a tree not far from the Fairfield Canal. We exchanged salutations and he promptly informed me that he had not yet found the target bird, but he was full of optimism that we would find it eventually. We split up a bit and I went east and he west. I took photos of a California Scrub-Jay, an Osprey and a Black Phoebe while I worked my way back towards Doug.

Soon I could see him waving frantically at me. Alas, the hunt was afoot! As luck would have it I heard those too often vocalized words, “You just missed it!” SIGH… But the morning was young and I was keen on capturing my prey. Barely 5 minutes passed and I saw movement in a tree about 60 yards away and I was certain that I had seen a flash of red! Now the adrenaline was kicking in and I promptly noted the best sun angle and I slowly crept at an angle with my back to the sun while I scanned the tree for further movement. Then I saw it. For certain this time! As most birders that are photographers do, I wanted to get that first 1-Star, record shot. Something that would prove that I had seen it. Click, click, click and I was sure I had to have gotten some type of record. Well, I did, but as you can see below… YUCK!

1-Star Record of Vermillion Flycatcher

Before I could get closer, it flew off, caught an insect and moved farther away. Using my most predator-like stealth techniques, I slowly and quietly moved in for the kill. Killer shot I mean. It allowed me to get a little closer and I snapped off some more images (OK, so maybe a lot more!). But hey, they’re free.

REJECTS VS KEEPERS

When I post an image online, viewers don’t ever see how many never make it to the Keepers folder on my computer. In reality, I may only edit 5 % of the images I capture. However, for your entertainment, here are a few of the typical shots that viewers will never see.

So Far Away… 2-Star Rating
Baby got Back
Peek-a-boo
Peek-a-boo From the Other Side – 3-Star Rating
I’m Hiding – 4-Star Rating

FINALLY – I GOT MY 5-STAR PHOTOGRAPHS – Click to view full-size

No Butts About it, Merced NWR is for the Birds

I decided that today was a great day to drive down to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge to see what was hanging around there. The temperature looks a bit chilly (31 degrees) but there’s no fog and no rain until later on in the week. My target bird for the day was a reported and well-photographed Eurasian Wigeon a couple of weeks ago.

Map Link to the Merced NWR

As I pulled in to the refuge, the first bird that posed for me was a Loggerhead Shrike, sitting on a refuge sign.

Loggerhead Shrike on refuge sign

Loggerhead Shrike

These tenacious little predators can take on some pretty large prey, including snakes, insects and even other birds. They have earned the nickname “Butcher Bird” for their habit of impaling their prey on thorns and on the barbs on barbed wire. Their tiny perching feet just don’t compare in grasping efficiency to the other hawks and falcons. I edged a little closer to get a better shot, and as birds often do before taking flight, he let loose a white liquid nitrogenous deposit that is quite visible in this image.

Loggerhead Shrike on refuge sign

Loggerhead Shrike

I first learned about this refuge back in college while taking Biology courses at CSU Stanislaus (actually then it was just a college). I would tag along with Wally Tordoff and Dan Williams when they would come out the the refuge and to the greater San Luis Complex to meet up with the staff management and biologists, Gary Zahm and Dennis Woolington. It is one of my favorites to visit as there is no hunting in the vicinity of the auto tour route. It now sports two sets of outhouses (very clean and well maintained) and two observation platforms along its 4 1/2 mile driving route. A quick look at the sun’s position told me I needed to get to the south end of the loop so as to get the best lighting, looking north into the wetlands.

I could see lots of waterfowl way at the back and flying about the middle of the refuge, but there wasn’t much nearby, at first… I took an obligatory shot of the distant geese, because, why not?

Snow Geese flying over the refuge

Snow Geese

I noted more diving ducks than usual at this location; Canvasbacks, Ring-necked Ducks and Bufflehead.

As I looked up ahead to the south observation platform, I saw another stalwart photographer braving the cold morning air.

South Observation Platform

As I got closer, I took a few shots of American Wigeon, Black-necked Stilt and a pair of Northern Pintail.

I parked at the platform and tried walking quietly up the walkway, hoping to not scare away any birds this guy was photographing. Well, I did pretty much scare everything away and I was feeling kind of bad for the photographer. He was all bundled up for the cold weather with a camo jacket, hood and gloves. He looked kind of familiar, so I asked, “You from around here?” He replied, yes and I knew it was Gary Zahm, the refuge manager I met way back in the early 80s! We chatted a bit and I was glad that the birds started coming back in closer. I took a few shots of the waterfowl and seemed to be getting a lot of BUTT-SHOTS. I guess they call them dabbling ducks for a reason!

BIRD BUTT QUIZ – How many could you ID?

It was a truly beautiful morning with great views of snow on both ranges and lots of geese, ducks and cranes. In fact, the Sandhill Cranes were putting on a jumping contest.

Here’s a few more images of the bountiful wildlife easily observed on this natural oasis. In all I tallied 60 species in 2 1/2 hours of birding. Link to ebird species list.


From the Merced NWR website:

“Wild beasts and birds are by right not the property merely of the people who are alive today, but the property of unknown generations, whose belongings we have no right to squander.”
Theodore Roosevelt — American President, outdoorsman, naturalist, and leader of the early conservation movement.

Female Gadwall

Gadwall – female

Male Gadwall

Gadwall – male

Northern Pintail pair with Gadwall pair

Northern Pintail and Gadwall

Green-winged Teal

Green-winged Teal

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

American Avocet

American Avocet

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt

Killdeer

Killdeer

Northern Shoveler pair

Northern Shovelers

Great Egret

Great Egret

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.