Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Seafood Feast at Low Tide

This past November, my husband and I spent some family time in gorgeous Longboat Key, Florida. One of my favorite spots to photograph and view birds is at Quick Point Nature Preserve. This lush hidden treasure is located on the southeast end of Longboat Key. Throughout my holiday visit, I checked the tide charts to see when low tide(s) would occur. A receding tide offers excellent feeding opportunities for the wildlife in the area. Below are a few birds seen taking advantage of the ebbing Sarasota Bay waters.

A Yellow-crowned Night Heron displays intense concentration when hunting for prey

A powerful strike!

Did this stalker succeed in capturing its intended meal?

Success! A tasty crab treat for this skilled fisherman

A light toss of the leggy crustacean and down the hatch it goes

A yellow-slippered Snowy Egret pulls up quite the fin-flapping fish from between the craggy rocks

Not the most attractive creature, but it will certainly satisfy the appetite

A squiggly eel should slide easily down the throat of this Great Egret

... or perhaps not

Meanwhile, the Yellow-crowned Night Heron continues its splashy food search

Will it strike gold with this forceful head plunge?

Ooh, quite the delicacy! Stone Crab will serve as a fabulous entree choice

It's time for some serious crab crunching!

The beautiful Snowy Egret continues to fare well hunting with this neon blue-striped catch

An elegant Great Egret is victorious in its foraging technique

A little fish flipping is necessary ...

for a seamless swallow

A majestic Osprey consumes the remains of its prized catch

If you are ever near the Sarasota area, be sure to visit Quick Point Nature Preserve at low tide. There are plenty of glorious sights to be seen!

Posted by Julie Gidwitz 

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Warbler Guide App

Scott Whittle and Tom Stephenson have been cooking up some really hot stuff for warbler lovers over the last couple of years. They are releasing a new app for The Warbler Guide, featuring filters that let you combine both audio and visual qualities, 3D models of every warbler, and a complete, playable set of vocalizations.

Be among the first to see this video preview about the song feature in the app only here at today:

Unique new app-only features:
  • 3D models of birds in all plumages, rotatable and pinch-zoomable to match field experience of a bird
  • Intuitive, visual, and interactive finders with filters for possible species based on audio and visual criteria chosen by the user
  • Playback of all songs and vocalizations with sonograms makes study of vocalizations easy
  • iPhone® and iPad® versions let you take these useful tools into the field
  • Selectable finder sortings grouped by color, alphabetical order, song type, and taxonomic order
  • Interactive song finder using objective vocabulary for fast ID of unknown songs
  • Simultaneous visual and song finders makes identifying an unknown warbler even easier
  • Half-speed song playback allows for easier study of song structure
  • Comparison species with selectable side, 45 degree, and undertail views
  • Features 75 3D images
  • Covers 48 species and 75 plumages
  • Includes 277 vocalizations, 156 songs, 73 contact calls, and 48 flight calls

Continue to follow The Warbler Guide blog tour this week. Tomorrow's stop takes us to the UK's 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Photographing Birds in Flight Tips

Pileated Woodpecker

Roseate Spoonbill

Bald Eagle, larger birds are easier to photograph in flight.

Groups of birds, such as these Black Skimmers, are fun to photograph in flight. When photographing them, increase your depth of field.

American Robin. Zero in on one bird in a flock.

Snow Bunting

Upland Sandpiper flying over Kennebunk Plains WMA, Maine

Tree Sparrow. Focus on your bird feeder and anticipate when a bird will leave.

Red-shouldered Hawk, juv.

Great Shearwater, a pelagic species you need to go out on a boat to see. It's challenging taking flight photos from a moving, rocking boat, so it helps to brace yourself against the boat.

Tree Swallow in flight over our fields. Swallows, with their erratic flight, are a challenge to photograph.

Cedar Waxwing. Pick up a bird when it is quite distant and track it with your camera's auto focus and start shooting as it gets a little closer. If you wait until it's upon you, you will never get the photo.

Roseate Spoonbill, coming in for a landing.

My favorite type of bird photography is photographing birds in flight. Above are a few of my photos and here are some tips.

How do photographers get such photos? Many of you are already excellent at photographing birds in flight and have your own ways of doing so. For those still learning, here are a few tips I have found useful. Here's what you need:

High speed digital SLR cameras like the Canon 7D, or 1D Mark IV or Canon 1D X (which I have). The faster, and the more continuous frames per second your camera will shoot, the better. Get a camera the shoots at least 5 frames per second, preferably more. Know your camera dials and settings very well. For most flight photos you need to have at least 1/500th of a second shutter speed, preferably 1/1000th or more. 

Set the ISO high enough to attain this shutter speed. Set the camera on continuous shooting mode. Most people use auto focus for birds in flight. Set the camera focus mode to AI Servo AF. This allows you to focus and lock on the bird as it moves, by depressing the shutter half-way. Put the camera dial on AV (aperture priority) to give enough depth of field to have the whole birds in focus. Most people use an aperture of f/8 in good light, but may go to an aperture of f/5.6 in duller light. To take the photo, depress the shutter all the way.

- A good telephoto lens that is at least 300mm long, or preferably 400mm or more (some, including me, add a 1.4 teleconverter to a 300mm lens.) Some photographers use longer lenses, such as the Canon 500mm or 600mm IS lenses for flight photos. If you have those, you need a good tripod with a smooth moving head, such as those made by Whimberly, Bogen or Kirk Enterprises. A few strong photographers can actually hand hold the 500mm lens. If you are using a tripod you lack some mobility, so it helps to shoot at a good location, such as that at Ding Darling NWR or other national wildlife refuges, where a lot of birds fly in, in a predictible flight route. Set the lens AF/MF switch to AF (auto focus.) Some recommend setting the minimum focusing distance of the lens to its furthest setting.

- Many people are now using the new super zoom point-and-shoot cameras. I use the Canon SX 50 (do not get the SX 60 it is inferior to the SX 50). The Canon SX 50 has a setting called "Sports Mode" which is excellent for birds in flight, just point the camera at the bird and click, the camera does the work for you. Find out more about it here.

- Good situations for photographing birds in flight, such as open areas of water or open sky where you see birds coming from a distance and can get on them early with your auto focus, plus you will have a clear blue background. Keep the sun at your back. Try to shoot with the birds moving along a predictable flight path that is perpendicular to the front of your lens.

- Good eye-hand coordination and fast reflexes. Find the bird by spotting the bird when it is at a distance, and I mean very distant. Do not wait until the bird is close, because by then it will be moving too fast for your to get on it. After you spot it, raise your camera to your eye and lock the auto focus on the bird. Most photographers set the camera's auto focus selection point (AF point) on the center point because it is the most sensitive of the points and allows you to keep focused on the bird. Also your camera will be less likely to lock onto the background as you try and stay on the moving bird.

- A willingness to practice lots and take lots and lots of photos, only some of which will turn out. (At least with digital you are not paying for film.)

- A strong motivation and desire to take flight photos.

- The expertise and programs to process your digital photo to make it look its best. Most photographers use programs like Adobe Photoshop.
My advice is even if you don't have all or some of the above, try anyway. You might find it addictive like I do.

Most importantly, have fun!!!

Lillian Stokes,
Stokes Birding Blog

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Immature Herons

The weather radar indicated that a cold front accompanied by showers was moving slowly down the Florida peninsula, so we did not want to take a chance on being caught by the rain a mile out in our local birding patch. Therefore we decided to walk the 1/4 mile boardwalk at nearby Chapel Trail Nature Preserve in Pembroke Pines. If we saw the rain approaching we would have time to rush back to the parking lot.

Here is the Chapel Trail boardwalk on a mild morning earlier this year:

Chapel Trail boardwalk 20140528

Chapel Trail boardwalk 2-20140528

It was a good move. Minutes after we started walking out, we spied two white herons. One was a Great Egret, and the other, an immature Little Blue Heron which suddenly flew up and roosted on the boardwalk railing. It is distinguished from the egrets by its green legs and dark-tipped bill. Its feathers are also slightly off-white. By the time it is a year old it will molt into the dark adult plumage.

Little Blue Heron immature 2-20141118

The heron scratched an itchy chin:

Little Blue Heron immature 20141118

It was so close that I had to back away to fit the entire bird in the viewfinder of my telephoto lens:

Little Blue Heron immature head 20141118

All herons have an elongated sixth vertebra in their upper neck which is attached to its adjacent vertebrae at right angles and acts like a double hinge. See a drawing of the neck bones in this earlier postThe above photo shows the resulting"Z" shape it creates. This allows herons to strike at prey with sudden force, but also permits them to preen their feathers in areas that would be otherwise inaccessible:

Little Blue Heron immature neck 20141118

An adult Little Blue Heron flew in, still with green legs and dark-tipped bill, but otherwise presenting a markedly different appearance from the immature:

Little Blue Heron adult 20141118

Almost as if providing a second movement to the theme established by the Little Blue Heron, an immature Tricolored Heron arrived and settled down in the Spike Rush:

Tricolored Heron immature in flight 20141118

Also in its first year of life, this bird had mostly rusty brown upperparts:

Tricolored Heron immature 2-20141118

Yes indeed, this really happened-- an adult Tricolored Heron then moved in, as if to show off its contrasting wardrobe:

Tricolored Heron adult in flight 2-20141118

Tricolored Heron adult 2-20141118

The adult now took center stage, flying up to the railing and once more causing me to back down the boardwalk in order to take its photograph:

Tricolored Heron adult 5-20141118

I especially liked this pose, which exhibited its plumes:

Tricolored Heron adult 20141118

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Birding Tikal National Park

Slaty-backed Trogon
 As birders, we tend to enjoy areas away from the major tourist attractions. But sometimes a tourist location is so epic that it can't be avoided. Today, we're going to take a trek into the magical Tikal National Park outside of Flores, Guatemala.  So bring your camelbak and snack bars as we explore this incredible tourist and ebird hotspot!

A Spider Monkey lazily collects dew drops from the leaves
 The first time I visited this park was back in 2006.  But I had a problem.  I wasn't a birder! So back in 2013, I returned with my wildlife training.  What would I discover with my new abilities?

Red-brocket Deer
 Tikal is a high tourist/birder traffic spot and the secret to visiting this Mayan gem is to go early before all the tourists get there.  When the loud tourists arrive later, move opposite from the crowd.  That's where you'll find all the birds.  Some don't mind the people, but there are others that do. Or another strategy is to join the crowd later on and explore the historic landmarks. 

Emerald Toucanet-one of THE MOST DIFFICULT BIRDS to spot because of its coloring!
 Not only will you learn about the ancient Mayan civilization, you'll also discover one of Guatemala's protected wild spaces.  

Prepare for mosquitoes and some muddy hikes if you go during the wet season.  This park is well worth the visit.  If you have a bucket list, this place should be on it. I felt safe hiking with all my camera gear out, and I was able to relax a bit with other park officials around the area who could help me out with bird ID questions.   

Montezuma Oropendula
 Back in 2013, I discovered the benefits of researching areas before visiting them. Before I would just go and see what there was to see. But as I've been adding new life birds to my list over the past several years, I've really had to focus my searches.  My passion for birding becomes an obsession! 

Howler Monkey
 There are two types of similar looking falcons that reside in this park.  A birder may find the more common Bat Falcon and if they study up on their falcons well, they may also discover the rarest of falcons...the Orange-breasted Falcon. Keep your eyes open for these extremely rare birds while you walk around the sacred pyramids.  

I noticed several falcons going after the hanging Montezuma Oropendula's nests.   Tourists walked past me not even caring.  I had no idea how rare this bird was in the wild.  I stood and watched it go back and forth thinking to myself, "This isn't a Bat Falcon."  A park official noticed me observing the bird and was kind enough to share with me some park data they had on the OBFA.  

Juvenile Orange-breasted Falcon
I was thrilled to chance upon this unexpected bird, but the find didn't hit me until after I got home and did more research on my newly acquired life birds. Unfortunately, this falcon is losing much of its habitat.  Illegal poaching, by falconers who steal the nest eggs, has also reduced the numbers of this bird in the wild.  I won't go into much detail, but it was a several month process verifying this bird with Ebird. And I'll leave it at that. I had the pic examined by several professional bird guides from the area to make sure that I ID'd the bird correctly. When an unknown bird pops up on my list, it really gets exciting.  This was probably my best discovery last year.  I hope that Tikal National Park continues to provide a safe haven for this bird for years to come. 

We continued to trek through the rain forest.  I was answering my friend's questions about the Mayans and Tikal, when I felt my spider sense go off.  Something was watching us from the canopy of the forest. 

Crested Guan
 What in the world was THAT bird??!!!!  Was it the infamous "other" turkey of the world found in Tikal National Park?  No, no....just a Crested Guan!!!!  Then my eyes noticed another colorful bird clinging to the branches next to the Guan......

Keel-billed Toucan
It's amazing how this large park will go from quiet to noisy within a few hours of the tourists arriving. Again, the rule was to counter opposite the large crowd. People are talkative pack animals! I bird by ear and if I can't hear, I get frustrated. This understanding has helped me out a lot while birding in congested areas like Southern California or the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Thankfully, Tikal is a big place so it's easy to escape the crazy. Anyhow, there were some very LOUD tourists that numbered in a pack of about 40 people coming our way.  All of them of course were yammering at the top of their lungs.  So here's my two cents....

White-nosed Coati

 If you've done some independent travel before and don't mind reading the signs, following the paper map they give you etc, skip the tour guide and group that goes with it. If you'd like a little wildlife with the history, get yourself the guide.  All of us bird differently and this should be an experience you will enjoy. Just keep track of your time.  You don't want to miss that last shuttle back to Flores:) 

We chose the independent route. I never get any of my "work" done with people around because I too can be social and distracted easily:)  Bring plenty of water.  I had my camelbak on the entire time. I think that was my only real concern while on this trek. 

So here's another tip.  Go during the cooler times(which is now until April).  Now I know the word "cooler" means various things for each of you in your own part of the world, but generally the summer (June-August) is a balmy cool in the morning to a lovely hot moist by afternoon. It can be downright uncomfortable. Rain happens mid to late morning in the summer.  Sometimes it will come and go....and come again.  Photography can be a real trick in Central America. I had to change my ISO settings often due to poor lighting conditions. I should also mention that my camera lens liked to fog up while exiting the A/C run shuttles or hotels while entering the humid world outside. This was one of the greatest challenges of our trip during the summer months. Tropical bird activity also adapted to the constant weather fluctuations making the birding a challenge.  There's nothing quite like getting stuck in the middle of a rain forest with your camera gear exposed:)  A rain poncho is important but should be lightweight so it doesn't weigh down the hike. 

Collared Aracari
Finally as we exited the park, my buddy and I felt like yet another bird was following us.  And indeed, when we turned around, this inquisitive Collared Aracari had been spying on us. Then came the loud yappy tourists and off the bird went. 

White-collared Seedeater
 And while eating lunch at their restaurant, we watched this White-collared Seedeater in the grasses flutter up and down. Where would we like to eat?  Outside of course!  You miss all the good birds if you eat inside:)

Social Flycatcher
 The Social Flycatcher was of course very social.  And just to make sure we didn't miss out on any life bird, the infamous Ocellated Turkeys showed up around the parking lot.  There are only two turkey species in the world.....the North American Wild Turkey(which includes the various subspecies like Gould's and Merriam's, etc) and the near threatened Ocellated Turkey from the Yucatán Pennisula. 

Ocellated Turkey
Tikal is a magnificent place to bird.  Just get there early and beat the tourist traffic.  You're going to love it!  Our next stop will take us into the Río Dulce region along the Caribbean side of Guatemala. For my latest birding treks, you can find me at my own blog Las Aventuras.  Until next time friends.....