Thursday, February 28, 2013

Composition for Birders

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
Prairie Warbler
In my last post here on Birding is Fun! I described four different types of bird photography that might be useful for a birder: identification, documentation, interpretation, and artistic expression.  I don't shy away from any of these types of photography, but my hope is always to come home with photos that have artistic value--photos I could hang on my wall and be proud of. Attention to composition is one of the best ways to get a documentary photo to double as a form of artistic expression.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
American Goldfinch
I like to think of composition as learning to SEE: Simply, Emphasize, Exclude.  Learn to simplify your composition by emphasizing what's important to you and excluding everything else. Whenever you take a picture, it's good to ask yourself: what am I trying to show?  What am I interested in?  Do what you can to emphasize that and exclude everything that would distract from it. Just this morning I found the above American Goldfinch. When I first found it, it was in a tree surrounded by small branches.  I waited for it to move around in the tree, and it eventually perched on a branch with a nice, clean background.  It's a "bird on a stick" photo, but the composition is simple.  You know what I want to emphasize, and I've done my best to exclude everything that would detract from it.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
Limpkin with Chick
It's not always possible to get a completely blurry background, but that's not always bad.  Sometimes the background behind your subject can be blurred enough that it does not distract much from the interest you have in your subject. There was no way to completely blur the background of the Limpkin photo above, but I blurred it as much as I could to help the Limpkin stand out.  And sometimes the background can complement the subject by adding a sense of the bird's environment. In the photo below, I liked the way the Bay-breasted Warbler perched nestled in the tree--for me the tree adds to my enjoyment of the photo.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
Bay-breasted Warbler
And sometimes your interest may not be as much in the bird as it is in its behavior.  I was far enough away from the Long-billed Curlew below to include the whole bird, but my interest was in the food it had in its bill. I decided the only way to emphasize that was to crop away most of the bird's body so that you could see what it had in its bill.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
Long-billed curlew
Rule of Thirds
Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
Great Horned Owls

To me the only real "rule" in composition is SEEing. Everything else is a guideline that is usually helpful, even if the guideline doesn't always apply.  The "rule of thirds" is that kind of rule.  Imagine drawing a tic-tac-toe grid on your viewfinder or preview screen (some cameras will even let you see it if you turn the option on).  The rule of thirds states that your composition will usually seem more pleasing if you place what interests you on a line or intersection of the tic-tac-toe grid. It doesn't have to be exact, but the grid can help you avoid centered (or bulls-eyed) compositions. My interest in the image above was in the owl that was facing me, so I placed his face near the intersection of the lines tic-tac-toe grid.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
Marbled Godwit
And another helpful rule of thumb.  When you place the bird on the "rule of thirds," choose the side that allows the bird to look into the frame. In the above shot of the Marbled Godwit, I placed the Godwit on the left hand side of the frame so that it would have room to move toward the right.  If I had composed it facing out of the frame, it may seem like its doing all it can to get out of my crappy picture.

Lines and Curves
Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
American Avocets in a "Curve"
Lines and curves can make wonderful compositional aids, especially if you realize that they do not have to be actual lines or curves.  Implied lines and curves can be just as helpful as actual ones.  They produce repeating patterns that can be very interesting and pleasing.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
American Avocets

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
Lesser Scaup in a Curve
Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
Least Tern with Posts making a Diagonal Line
Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
Tricolored Heron
I'm a sucker for a photo of a bird with reflections, and they make reflections of all kinds.  Sometimes they're perfect and pristine; at other times they are wavy and distorted. It's all good.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
Roseate Spoonbills"
Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
Forster's Tern with Background Elements

Often you do not want the bird to be all by itself.  You may want to include some of the other birds keeping your subject company.  Or you may want to include elements of the bird's surroundings.  When you do, you can be intentional about how you arrange these elements to make a pleasing composition.  Where you stand, or whether you stand or sit or lay on the ground can all impact your composition and the arrangement of the elements of your image.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
American Coots
Eye Level
Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
If at all possible photograph your subjects as close to eye level as possible.  Crouch down on your knees or even your belly if you can.  But the more you can get on the level of the bird, the more intimate your portrait will seem.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
Lincoln's Sparrow
Framing and Cropping
Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
Bachman's Sparrow
Since birds often stay far away and they don't make 2000mm lenses for all of us to buy, we have to make due with cropping.  When I know I'm going to be cropping an image significantly, I frequently will put the subject dead in the center of the frame.  Then I'll frame my shot by cropping the image in my computer.  This lets me use the center focusing point on my camera, and it gives me options for framing in the computer.  Do I want the bird on the left side of the frame or the right? Near the top or near the bottom?  I can decide on one (or two or three) of these options when I'm sitting at my computer. In these two Bachman's Sparrow images, I put the sparrow dead center in the frame and the cropped each photo match the position of the sparrows head, so that the sparrow would always be looking into the frame.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
Bachman's Sparrow
Sometimes this isn't an option.  The Great Blue Heron below was so close I had to back up to get all him in the frame.  So I had to make sure I the heron framed as I wanted it because I wouldn't have the option of changing it later.
Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
Great Blue Heron
These simple concepts to keep in mind can enhance any photograph. Have fun with the rules and enjoy them.  Use them or break them at will.  But knowing them can help you think about your compositions in all your bird photography

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pink-footed Goose

In The Big Year, Bostick aces Stu and Brad out of a Pink-footed Goose sighting at High Island in April, and the two miss it throughout the year before finally finding it together on a (very implausible) mountain top in Colorado for their last new bird of their North American big year.
Brad and Stu celebrating their Pink-footed Goose sighting in The Big Year.
In real life, Pink-footed Geese from Iceland and Eastern Greenland have been showing up each winter for the last few years at scattered spots from Newfoundland to Maryland.
Locations (in purple) of North American Pink-footed Goose sightings (from eBird)
Just like Brad and Stu, it took me several chases before I finally saw one in November 2011 in Pennsylvania.  Then this winter five have shown up in New Jersey--with three making irregular solo appearances in my county.  We know these are separate birds because each one has a distinctive black and pink bill pattern (see photos and IDs of the five here).

Here's the latest one from Clinton, NJ--photos taken last Friday as it was hanging out with a big Canada Goose flock below a dam in the Raritan River.
Pink-footed Goose, Clinton, NJ 22 Feb 2013, digiscoped with HTC Incredible phone and Kowa 883 scope.
Pink-footed Goose, Clinton, NJ 22 Feb 2013, digiscoped with HTC Incredible phone and Kowa 883 scope.
Pink-footed Goose, Clinton, NJ 22 Feb 2013, digiscoped with HTC Incredible phone and Kowa 883 scope.
Pink-footed Goose, Clinton, NJ 22 Feb 2013, digiscoped with HTC Incredible phone and Kowa 883 scope.
This was a fun bird--it first showed up a few weeks ago, then disappeared.  There are tens of thousands of geese in the area, roosting at several lakes and reservoirs, and heading out into fields to forage during the day.  Apparently individual Pink-footed Geese roam around a lot, and the ones around here don't seem to use the same roost site every night.  When I first saw this bird, it was on a foggy and drizzly day and I wasn't able to get very good shots, so I was happy to have it show up on a nicer day for a more proper photo shoot!
PFGO in the rain, Clinton, NJ 11 Feb 2013, digiscoped with HTC Incredible phone and Kowa 883 scope.
If you want to see a Pink-footed Goose in North America, pay attention to eBird or the ABA Birding News listserv digests for word of a Pink-footed Goose sighting.  If you are close enough to go the same or next day, that is often your best bet as these birds may move around a lot.  Otherwise, wait for one that appears to be pretty site stable and go for that one--for instance right now there is one in Tom's River, NJ that appears to be sticking to a more regular schedule of a couple of known locations each day.

Or you can look for one yourself!  If you live in an area with large flocks of wintering Canada Goose, look through every flock you find and maybe someday you will get lucky.  In the meantime, you may find other local rarities such as Barnacle Goose, Cackling Goose, or Greater White-fronted Goose (to name a few of the other rare geese we've seen in NJ goose flocks this year).  While you are at it, you may learn a greater appreciation for variation in Canada Goose plumage and sizes, as well as plumage abnormalities and the occasional banded bird that may let you track the movements of individual geese across your area. Either way, if you have them in your area, make goose chasing and watching a fun and rewarding part of your winter birding scene!

Didn't Dip on the Dipper

In the birding world, it is never a good idea to head out with a previously stated objective. Saying you're going out to find and photograph a particular bird is usually asking for trouble.

Unless of course, you live near Elbow Falls in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, and the bird you're looking for is an American Dipper. Experienced birders who should know better have been heard to guarantee a dipper sighting there, bravely taunting the birding gods with their confidence.

Dipper habitat is listed as clear, fast mountain streams with rapids. To survive in cold water during the winter, they have a low metabolic rate, extra oxygen-carrying capacity in their blood and a thick coat of feathers. If you were a dipper, wouldn't you live here?

A couple of weeks ago a birding friend mentioned he had seen four dippers at the falls. I realized it had been awhile since we'd driven out there, so one warm sunny Sunday I decided we should head out to photograph a dipper. It's about a half hour drive so I could snap some photos, and we'd be back home in time for supper.

We arrived at the falls and spent over an hour looking for a dipper. Any dipper. Anywhere. Just as I was beginning to wonder if I had taunted the gods once too often, I finally spotted one. Before I could even raise the camera, he was underwater. Then he was up again.

Adding to my already burgeoning file of ripple pictures, this is an American Dipper ripple. Really, he was just there.

I realized at this point that seeing a dipper is one thing. Taking their photo is apparently a whole different kettle of fish. These birds are fast. I thought warblers were quick, but they don't disappear under the water and come up again fifteen feet from where they went under. Out of my camera range.

I had fuzzy dipper pictures, dipper butt pictures, half-a-dipper pictures, little dipper pictures...

It was like trying to photograph the wind. There he - is no he's gone -there he is again - no he's gone again.

Finally we hit upon a solution. I had the camera at the ready, focused on the spot where we had last seen the bird. With my husband standing right beside me saying he's up, he's down, he's up to the left, he's down, he's 6 feet to the right etc, I struggled to find him with the camera and get something in focus. The ravens were trying not to laugh.

Either the dipper took pity on me, or tuckered himself out as he finally let me get some half decent photos.

The dipper, or Water Ouzel, feeds on insect life in mountain streams. Where water is deeper they dive into the water and run along the bottom with half-open wings. The water here is so clear I watched one bird 'swim' underwater, but was so fascinated by this behavior I didn't even take any pictures. Birder first, photographer second, obviously.

Elbow Falls is less than 40 miles, as the crow flies, from its headwaters at an elevation of 7,237 feet. That water is cold. It's a mystery to me how any insect life could survive at those temperatures but the dipper was showing no hesitation about entering the water. He even looked like he was having fun, as I stood there in my winter coat and gloves, trying to take pictures.

On your mark...
Get ready...
Get set...
By the time we left, we had either seen four dippers, or one very hyperactive one working his way up and down the river. My head was spinning, my hand was cramping and my feet were cold. I think I'll go back to photographing ducks.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Eurasian Collared-Dove Expansion Update

My fascination with the Eurasian Collared-Dove range expansion continues. Perhaps it is because the Eurasian Collared-Dove invasion of North America has been so dramatic and has happened right before our very eyes. If you're 15 years old or older and paying attention, you've likely witnessed it for yourself. Check out the animated eBird sightings map below in five year intervals. Pretty amazing!
Now some of the dramatic effect of these animated maps is due in part to the increased use of eBird during this same time period, but the EUCD expansion is probably still close enough for citizen science purposes. Too bad we didn't have eBird back in the 1800's to have followed the range expansion of European Starlings and House Sparrows. Did their expansion happen as quickly?
Anecdotal evidence is mounting that the EUCD's are displacing native species...perhaps not when it comes to feeding or nesting, but certainly in people's yards where EUCD's have taken over and are thus less inviting to the former regulars. Any young ornithologists out there researching this?!

Eurasian Wigeon...a common rarity

The Eurasian Wigeon is a handsome duck. It appears to be most abundant (or most frequently reported) in northern Europe, especially in Denmark, the UK, and Iceland. Japan appears to host them in good numbers too. The Eurasian Wigeon is also a regularly occurring vagrant in North America. Considering how frequently they are seen on the east and west coasts of North America, it is surprising that we have yet to discover a mating pair in the new world. They are sometimes known to hybridize with their American Wigeon (anas americana) cousins. Also interesting to note that eBird shows no records of anas penelope in the southern hemisphere of our planet. 
Every fall/winter, Boise area birders begin the "Where's Waldo" game of searching through huge flocks of grass gobbling American Wigeons in search for "The Red-headed One". We always seem to find a couple to a few each year and they seem to be found consistently in just a handful of locations. We sometimes wonder if they are same birds coming back to visit us each winter.
Always curious about the history of words and names, a little Googling led me to some hints as to the history of the scientific name anas penelope.

Latin anas = duck
Greek penelops = duck
Penelope, the faithful wife of Odysseus pene = weaver, also - The Greek duck called “penelops" was said to have rescued the famous Penelope when she was an infant.

So the Eurasian Wigeon is a duck so ducky that it had to be called "duck-duck" by the scientific community?

I asked Rick Wright about any history he might know of the name anas penelope. Here's what he says:
"It's very complicated, and I don't think there's an answer. The naming of a duck after a woman named after a duck suffers from catachresis, and even if Linnaeus had meant to do it, we'd have to figure out why he named that particular species for her. Linnaeus gives us no clue in his original description. The story about the infant Penelope and the seabirds (not identified necessarily as ducks in all the antique glosses) is probably better understood as a secondary attempt to explain a Homeric name that had become etymologically opaque. I much prefer the readings from Greek pene meaning "weaving," which of course is what Penelope the character is all about. William Camden's Remains of 1605 says that the woman Penelope "loved and fed" "birds with purple necks" called penelopes. Doesn't sound much like wigeon. Choate throws up his hands, too, in this case, so I'm in reasonable company in not being able to get any farther with this question--a good one indeed."
Old world and new world cousins during their winter family reunion.