Saturday, January 30, 2010

Dovekie Day 2

I went to see the Dovekie for a second time and when I left Westhampton it was clear blue skies (albeit, quite cold).  When I had driven about 5 miles the blue sky was gone - replaced by awful grey clouds which would remain for the rest of the day, absolutely ruining any hopes of improving of my Dovekie portoflio.  The only hope I had was for some interesting behavior (diving shots, preening shots, etc.) but even those shots would be difficult as getting proper exposure and lighting on the eye (by far the most important [fundemental] factor in wildlife photography) without the sun shining is near impossible (save for using an external flash).  Another concern with photographing the bird today was the potential for ice as the temps had dipped well below freezing and virtually all creeks and ponds on the island had froze over night.  Much to my delight, the marina is equipped with aerators (air compressors connected to rubber hoses with holes in them that allow for air bubbles to escape under the water around pilings, thus keeping them from freezing and becoming damaged) so ice was not an issue.  The bird however, was very active and spent the majority of its time moving up and down the marina, diving constantly and swimming underwater in pursuit of fish.  As the water is quite shallow you can follow the bird underwater as a trail of bubbles gives away its location.  This became immediately frustrating and I spent quite a bit of time in my car waiting for the Dovekie to make its way back toward me instead of chasing it up and down.

Patience Pays, Reward is a Video:
Just as I was ready to leave, I saw 3 people gathered in one spot for about a minute and thought maybe the Dovekie had finally settled down so I pulled up and got out and sure enough it was done diving for the moment and decided to putt putt around and preen itself.  Finally a photo op.  Sadly, 90% of my photos are so backlit or at a poor angle that the eye isn't visible.  I did take the opportunity to make a short video of the Dovkie so all of you who have not seen it in person can appreciate how cute and amusing it is.  What's really great about the video is the compressor can be heard running which makes it seem as though there is a motor attached to this little guy (girl?).  What's NOT so great about this video, is it's a little shaky. . . alas I need a tripod if I'm going to get into filming wildlife!

After I had been photographing it at close range for some time (and freezing in the process) a woman arrived and stated she was an Avian Biologist (I have no reason to doubt her, and I surmise that she works for the State or Federal Gov., though she was not in uniform or driving an official vehicle).  She briefly inquired about its behavior over the last few days, then stated that this is not normal behavior (obviously) and that it looked stressed.  Some other people who were present informed her that it had been diving and moving up and down the Marina all morning and only now settled down but she didn't seem to care and exclaimed "I'm going to catch it, it's stressed".  (Okay, I'm not a biologist [I did major in Marine Biology for 2 years though, if that counts for anything?] but if the bird is ALREADY stressed, don't you think catching it with a giant net will exacerbate this? Not to mention, it's a DIVING bird so. . .)  The biologist returned to her car and got on the phone (I presume with a supervisor or other avian expert) and at this moment the Dovekie started to dive again.  Well, I wasn't about to sit and watch her try to catch this bird (although it may have been amusing) and from later reports this afternoon no one mentioned an interaction with her and all accounts are that the bird was still there.

It is not looking good for this bird as the temperatures have dropped significantly and the water is quite cold. It certainly is lucky it found a location that did not ice over, but the cold may get to the bird eventually (though it SEEMS to be quite successful in eating).  Only time will tell.

Dovekie Madness

Great River Dovekie
On Tuesday a Dovekie was reported in the West Marina at Timber Point County Park, in Great River (along the Eastern boundary of Hecksher State Park).  This is an unusual find for several reasons.  While Dovekies are seen off the coast of NE states frequently in the winter (in the Gulf Stream where the water is a toasty 45* F) they are almost never seen from the shore.  What's more is that if a Dovekie is spotted anywhere other than the Ocean it is either dead or about to die and something is seriously wrong.  So, to find one of these birds (alive and well) in a tiny marina at the North end of a bay is extraordinary.  For the past 4 days the bird has been seen motoring around as if it's a windup toy moving up and down the marina, diving frequently for fish and preening its feathers to keep them waterproof.  Meanwhile, dozens of Dovekie's have shown up along the shores of Long Island and surrounding areas distressed or deceased in the past month, with the major influx after severe storms that packed winds upwards of 60 mph.  Events like this are called "wrecks" where large numbers of offshore species end up way off course and it seems that this is the first such instance of a Dovekie wreck in NY in at least 60 years.  Though the number of birds this year are quite low (relative to the thousands of Dovekies about 40 miles offshore) it's still a significant event.  According to Birds of North America Online (ran by Cornell) in the winter of 1923-1933 there were so many Dovekies involved in the wrecks that they literally rained down on the streets of Manhattan (that must have been some sight!)

I have been under the weather this week and was not at work Tuesday and Wednesday.  Well I figured that getting some fresh air and sunshine would help me feel better (which it did) so I made the trip to Great River.  When I arrived I was shocked to see how small this bird was (about 8" in length and less than 1/4 pound) and found it an amusing sight as it moved quickly all around the water in no discernible pattern.  After getting a bunch of backlit unsatisfactory photos I went back to my car and thought about how I could improve my photos as this may be a once-in-a-lifetime chance (literally).  After warming up a bit I talked down to an concrete boatramp and saw a small path along the northern end of the marina which at the very least would allow me to get side lighting on the bird.  Well, to my surprise the Dovekie came essentially right toward me, feeding and swimming and preening (at one point just 3 feet away) and was fully lit up by the sun allowing me to get all of these wonderful photos.  There were several other photographers there who had more expensive (professional) equipment and who obviously were experienced and yet they kept shooting backlit photo after backlit photo.  I guess the idea of using the sunlight to their advantage didn't occur to them - or it was too difficult to move their big huge tripod and super heavy lens and walk off the beaten path.  Either way I'm happy I didn't have any company along the shoreline.

Rescue + Rehab
After the most recent "wreck" 7 birds were brought to the Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays, located at the Munns Pond Preserve along Montauk Hwy.  Two of these birds died overnight and the remaining 5 were being rehabed.  Unfortunately only 2 made it (which were released on Wednesday).  An article was published in Newsday about these birds and their rehab, as well as an article in the Southampton Press (including an amusing video of these birds) which can be seen here: Dovekie Rescues

Additionally, a Dovekie was spotted WALKING along Montauk Hwy (hitchhiking maybe?) in Montauk and was picked up for rehab and was subsequently released in Montauk in early December.  An article written by Mike Bottini can be seen here: Montauk Dovekie

While it is unfortunate that some of these birds did not make it, they are being sent to the NYS DEC for analysis to determine what was the cause of death (which certainly has a scientific benefit) and some of these birds may end up in the archives of the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Winter of the Auks
In addition to the influx of Dovekies, there also have been an unusually high number of Razorbills seen (which unfortunately I have not had the pleasure of photographing).  Last weekend in a few early morning hours approximately 4,000 of these birds were seen flying toward Block Island (with some setting down in the water).  This is an unprecedented number of Razorbills to be seen in one place in such a short time frame.  Additionally, there is the case of the Arctic Race Black Guillemot which was featured in my first blog post.  This bird, aside from purportedly being a NYS record (for the Arctic Race) was found in the unusual location of an inlet into the Peconic Bay.  I e-mailed one of my photos to Bill Maynard, the editor of ABA (American Birding Associations) 'Winging It' publication (which has previously published this Gyrfalcon photo) as I thought it would be of general interest to him and I also included some background information.  He decided to take it a step further, collect some more info and use the photo in ABA's blog "PEEPS".  The blogpost (mostly information which I have already included in this posting) can be seen here: ABA Blog

I will be headed to Great River tomorrow morning to freeze and photograph this bird again (assuming it remains) and will subsequently make another posting (which I'm hoping will have a video clip).  There is some concern that it will not be in the same location (or be seen again) as the temperatures were below freezing today and will continue tomorrow and possibly for several more days which will almost certainly result in the icing up of the marina.  However, the one potential saving grace is that the Suffolk County Marine Bureau has several boats at the southern end of this particular marina and as such the water will remain open.  So, hopefully the bird will just get pushed further to the south and will remain for a bit longer.

Need help Identifying that odd looking bird in the field?  When I'm out taking pictures my photo bag always has a copy of National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Patient Kingfisher

After a long and busy few days, I only had the energy/patience to spend a few hours along Dune Rd.  Unfortunately the tide was quite high, so the odds of finding interesting shorebirds (clapper rails, snipe, etc.) was low but the weather conditions were favorable for interesting birds at the inlet (light wind, clear skies, lots of visibility, etc.).  Well, the inlet had very little to offer - not even a flock of bonaparte's gulls would make an appearance.  So I sat patiently, waiting for a seal to pop up, or some Common Eider to fly by (see below) and enjoyed the company of several Red-Breasted Mergansers diligently diving under the icy water in search of food.

On the return back to Westhampton, I scanned the marsh and dunes for any of the 3 wintering Northern Harriers but found none.  Perhaps they prefer hunting when the wind is stiffer as they have to put fourth less effort moving miles up and down the beach.  Just when I had about given up, I spotted a Belted Kingfisher along the electric wires where it often perches, peering into the water below looking for a meal.  In my past experience, everytime I've come across a Kingfisher perched like this, it will fly down, then east or west to the next wire as soon as a car approaches/passes but this one seemed content (while keeping an eye on me) and let me get as close as I could while maintaining a decent angle on the bird.  The only problem with photographing this species when it perches along these lines is that they never face the roadway and a side-shot is impossible because the wire blocks most of the bird. So, I'm quite happy for this experience, as the Belted Kingfisher is one of the hardest bird species to get close-up shots of.  I just can't believe with that giant head/bill that they don't topple over when they are perched on a wire like this.

Monday, January 18, 2010

First Sharp-Shinned Hawk

I had to abort my first attempt at Dune Rd. this morning as the high tide mixed with last nights rains flooded the road at the Quogue/East Quogue border.  Having to go up island I decided to give the Trumpeter Swans a visit with the hope of the skies clearing up.  Well, the skies were improved but the Trumpeters were still way North of either public access and weren't going to be cooperative.  On my return trip I thought I'd give EPCAL (Grasslands at the former Grumman Air Force Base in Calverton) a try in the hopes of seeing some Short-eared Owls.  Of course, the grasslands yielded nothing but a surreal scene of a lone white-tailed deer running full speed through the massive grassland area - a bizarre sight to see on Long Island which is so heavily dominated by woods, suburbs and sprawl.  With about an hour left prior to sunset, I had enough time to make another run at Dune Rd., this time from the Ponquogue Bridge side.  As I approached the bridge, my eyes scanned the telephone poles leading to the old bridge as I have seen falcons perched on these poles before and sure enough there was a brown raptor sitting on one of them.  When I got close enough to see/photograph it, I realized it was a Sharp-Shinned Hawk, a species which I've never seen or photographed before.

After getting some good record shots of the bird, I continued on under the assumption the road was no longer flooded (as it was now low tide).  Going over the bridge I spotted a Northen Harrier hunting over the wetlands, and another one hunting over the dunes as I turned West onto Dune Rd.  Unfortunately, the road was flooded out so I headed back hoping the Sharpie would still be around.  When I got over the bridge, it was still there and I parked my car trying to determine how best to photograph it (the sun was behind it, making it rather difficult to get a good photo).  Just then, the hawk dropped from its perch and came screaming toward my vehicle flying about 2 feet off the ground, it was so fast and direct I honestly thought it was going to come land in the passengers seat!  Well, it passed the open car window and continued north eventually landing on a low wooden perch adjacent to the roadway where it was quickly startled by passing vehicle and took off into someones back yard.  What a sight to see.  After reviewing the photos, I can make the assertion that this is a juvenile Sharp-Shinned Hawk, which looks almost identical to a juvenile Cooper's Hawk.  The easiest way to tell the two species apart is size, as the Cooper's is considerably larger, but it can be difficult if it is a female Sharpie (which are always bigger than their male counterparts) especially if there is no reference for scale.  Another way to tell the difference is the tail, as the Sharpie's tail is squared off and the Coopers' is rounded - also when trying to ID these birds you can look at tail length (shorter in Sharpies) and leg thickness (thicker in Coopers).  Here is a photo from last year of a juvenile Cooper's Hawk I found near Tiana Beach which shows how similar they can be:

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Big Finds, Bigger Misses

Seeing is believing: 
Not wanting to spend a lot of time driving or walking I tried to stay close to home - though I did venture out to North Sea in pursuit of an immature Bald Eagle that had been reported (which I of course didn't find).  From others reports, it seems as though I should have just spent my whole day along the fabled stretch of asphalt dripped through the wetlands and marshes of Quogue Village, East Quogue and Hamptons Bays.

What I found :
- American Bittern
- Clapper Rail
- 3 Northern Harriers
- Great Blue Heron
- Brant
- Black Ducks

What I missed:
- Cooper's Hawk
- Common Goldeneye
- Northern Gannet
- Razorbill
- Dovekie
- Black-legged Kittiwake
- Bonaparte's Gull
- Blackheaded Gull

Aside from the Bonaparte's, Goldeneye and Cooper's Hawk, I've never photographed any of those bids, and seen them either once or never.  This is why wildlife photography (and particularly avian photography) is so addicting.  It's all about being in the right place at the right time, which is what lead to me seeing and photographing an American Bittern.  This bird really "should" be further south, as Long Island is outside of its wintering range, but for whatever reason a few always hang around throughout the winter.  I was aware the bird was in the area as it had been seen and photographed by a former boss of mine earlier in the week along Dune Rd.  Fortunately, it was relatively out in the open when I first spotted it.  In fact, it was so close, and so out in the open that I had to take off the teleconverter in order to get well composed photos as the ~500mm focal length was too much.  One of the things that makes a good wildlife photographer a better wildlife photographer is knowing their subject.  As with the Clapper Rail which I had photographed earlier this month, the American Bittern will rarely take flight when spotted, and instead will stand still and stretch its neck in an attempt to camouflage itself.  One of the 2 times I've seen this bird prior to today I was at Jones Beach, at the Coast Guard Station, and the Bittern did such a fine job of hiding that I literally walked within five feet of it without noticing it, only to hear its unique and loud call as it flew off once I had passed it.  So, with that information in mind I knew I had some time, though the bird surprised me by going for a walk in an attempt to "get away", which clearly, it did a poor job of:

Harrier Sightings:
Continuing east on Dune Rd. I encountered a Northern Harrier, which I wasn't going to put any effort into trying to photograph as they are so difficult and I really didn't have the patience to follow it up and down the road, but it was going in my direction and as I looked ahead there was another Harrier so I thought it would be worth a shot.  I drove a ways down, parked along the road and waited for one of the hawks to get close enough.  It seems that right when they appear to be ready to fly past you, they will bank and head in the other direction, which is what this one did, but not before I captured this photo:

Full disclosure on the above photo is that I clipped the ends of the very bottom wingtips, and thus there was no "sky" beneath it either.  This, however, was probably my best Harrier shot to date (mostly because of the focus/catchlight on the eye, and angle of the bird which allowed for great look at the entire body) so I brought it into photoshop and did a little surgery.  As I continued down Dune Rd. I saw another Harrier perched on a post along Shinnecock Bay. I'd seen this once before last year, but was at quite a distance.  Northern Harriers rarely will perch on anything other than the ground, so to see it up and "exposed" like that is great.  The problem is there is a lot of vegetation in the way, and it's near impossible to get a decent photo of it, so I had no such luck.  Later in the afternoon, I was presented with the same situation, and again came up with nothing.  I did however spot the same Harrier moments before lounging around in the marsh (as they commonly do).  The focus isn't tack sharp, but it's the first photo I've gotten of this bird not in flight so I'll take it. Following this, I went down to the inlet which was eerily vacant of ANY birds.  I guess all of the interesting species that showed up later in the day were trying to make up for lost time. . .

(Elusive) American Kestrel:
 As I made my way to North Sea, I thought I'd take a chance to see if I could spot the American Kestrel I had photographed a few weeks ago at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Course.  As I drove up the hill past the famous clubhouse, I looked at a pitch pine tree to the east, at the end of a gravel parking lot and thought I saw an unusual shape at the end of a dead branch (I had seen the Kestrel briefly perched here last time) and as I drove by I thought I better turn around and take a closer look.  Well, as I pulled into the driveway I saw the Kestrel leave its perch and hover briefly looking for prey below, before flying south out of sight.  I continued on my North Sea/Watermill foray which yielded some Black-Crowned Night Herons perched in an eastern red cedar tree at the headwaters of Conscience Point (seen below) but came up with nothing of particular interest.  On the way back I wanted to try again for the Kestrel.  Once I got into the gravel parking lot I saw it was not there and figured it was long gone.  As I drove back south toward County Rd. 39, out of the corner of my eye I saw the Kestrel perched in a tree right next to the road and I quickly turned into the service entrance to the golf course.  After I turned around I couldn't find the bird - it had flown off again.  Not only had I driven past it when I entered the course, but it flew off within the second it took me to turn around.  This is quickly turning into one of those situations where the photographer is always 1 step behind his/her nemisis bird.  At least I know where to look next time. . .

Dune Rd., Take II:
After heading home and looking at my photos for the morning, I couldn't sit inside and waste away the sunshine and (relatively) warm weather, especially with the forecast of rain over the next few days.  So, back in my car I was, headed for Dune Rd. with the promise of Harriers, Bitterns and who knows what else.  Sadly, the Bittern had been replaced by a Great Blue Heron, which attracted several (idiot) photographers who were SO excited they couldn't even pull off the road and were essentially sitting ducks.  Whenever I am photographing from my car along Dune Rd. (or any other road) I make sure I have my flashers on, that I'm pulled well off the road, and that I'm not interfering with anyone or anything - if only others could follow my lead.  As I continued east, I kept an eye out for the Peregrine I had seen earlier in the week, along with the Clapper Rails.  One of the rails was cooperative and was out feeding in the fading winter sunlight paying no attention to me.  It was incredible to watch this bird wade through the icy cold water, weaving in and out of the marsh grasses and finding some prey (a mud crab, seen below:)

As I continued, I spotted some more Harriers, as noted above, and found one perched on the ground that let me get some half decent flight shots as it flew toward the setting sun.  Another good day.

Trumpeter Swans in Yaphank

The pair of Trumpter Swans which spent the better part of last winter in Yaphank have returned this season (as early as December from what I hear).  Here is a photo I took the morning of December 28, 2009.  The quality is pretty bad (by my standards anyway) but because of the ice and presence of Mute Swans on-site the Trumpeters have been spending a lot of their time on the Northern end of the lake.

In the photos (click to see larger view), the pink line along the beak is visible, which is the give-away for this species which can be tough to differentiate from the Tundra Swan at a distance.  The Tundra Swan however has a yellow spot near its eye, and also will often be seen in agricultural fields feeding.  The Trumpeter Swan is predominantly dabbler and is usually seen feeding in the water.  Here is a photo of one of the swans from LAST winter:

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Peregrine Surprise

The Peregrine Falcon is the fastest species on the planet, with the ability to top out at 200 MPH during a dive (or  stoop) using gravity to aid its speed.  During straight flight (pursuit or otherwise) it can reach speeds as high as 70 MPH, and regularly cruises above 25 MPH.  The Peregrine, like all falcons, is built for speed and its diminutive size, sleek pointy wings and light frame make it the king of all flyers.  While in pursuit of the Clapper Rail seen in the previous post, I came across this beautiful Peregrine (males and females are virtually indistinguishable other than size) just south of where I had spotted the rail.  This was only my third definitive encounter with this species, with both prior occasions occurring on Dune Rd., and with my best look at this species taking place about 100 yards West of this bird, perched on a lightpost in February of last year.  It took a bit of stalking and careful walking on the frozen marsh to get in a good position (in regards to background/sunlight) to get the photos I wanted, but it was well worth it.  Unfortunately with the bird so out in the open there was no way of getting closer, and as such these are about 50% or greater crops.  The bird was seen again today, so I can only hope it will be a more common sighting along Dune Rd. this winter.

I did see 1 of the 2 Clapper Rail, however I didn't stop because it wasn't where I'd seen the other one and was hoping for a better photo-op, which is when I stumbled upon the Peregrine.  When I went back for the Clapper Rail I couldn't locate it (i.e. couldn't remember where I saw it. . . ).  Not wanting to pass up a chance to go to the Inlet in the hopes of seeing something unusual, I headed down there with a about 45 minutes left of sunlight but all that was willing to be photographed was this Cormorant, which is truly the best look I've gotten.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Clapper Rail

After the 6 mile hike in Montauk which was less than satisfying as far as photography goes, I decided to stay close to home in hopes of getting some more Harrier photos.  There also was a chance that I'd be able to locate one (or both) of the Clapper Rail or American Bittern that had been seen near Dockers Restaurant on Dune Rd. in East Quogue.  The ditch just to the east of Dockers is quite productive in the winter and has been host to Black Ducks, Red-Breasted Mergansers, Wilson's Snipe, Black-Crowned Night Heron, Great Blue Heron, and now Clapper Rail.  I spotted the bird feeding in the mudflats (it would be unlikely to find this bird at high tide due to the depth of the water and size of the bird) and parked nearby.  I trekked over the frozen marshland (which was helpful, as when there is no ice it's quite spongy and difficult to walk across) quietly and snuck up on the Rail who was not alarmed by my presence.  After a good showing the Rail walked to the bank of the creek and poked its head curiously in the grasses and in the blink of an eye slipped between the grass and mud bank.  Gone.  No wonder these birds are so tough to photograph!

Long Island is the nothern extreme for this birds wintering range.  Clapper Rails (along with other Rails [King, Virginia]) have a diet consisting of fish, crustaceans and invertebrates.  In this photo it appears to be eating a sand shrimp that it stirred up in the mud.

And here it is in its typical habitat:

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The End. . . and Back.

The Beginning:
I arose at 7 this morning to make the long trek to Montauk in pursuit of hauled out seals.  Certainly if seals is what I wanted, I could simply drive the 15 minutes to Cupsogue, but Montauk would afford much better views, and the avian life out there would be considerably better - or so I thought.  On my way to the beach I walked down a 4X4 access road which joins up with a hiking/horse trail.  At the head of this trail is a sign that specifically says "No vehicular access beyond this point".  Well, some people don't like to follow the rules, and this is what happens when you don't:

I would have loved to have been on the receiving end of that phone call at the towing company and considering the remoteness of the location, the truck must have been sitting there stuck for quite some time.  If only he had looked at some aerial's before making his venture, he would have seen that the trail is always flooded there.  I also found it interesting that the truck had this bumper sticker (not sure what the meaning is):

The wind was out of the NW and that made for a very rough north shore with white caps everywhere.  There would be no seals this morning, so birds got my attention.  Unfortunately, aside from the gulls meandering the winds above and several hundred ducks in Oyster Pond, the only birds I saw before I reached the Point on my hike was a dead Northern Gannet (at least it offered a close up view of a fascinating pelagic bird) and a dead Common Eider Drake.  I couldn't help but think about all the miles both of these birds traveled from their breeding grounds to spend their winters in the relatively warm Hamptons, only to meet their demise.  After I got to the point I decided not to spend too much time photographing the many Common Eider as I already had plenty of their photos and wanted to push on in pursuit of other species, but I couldn't resist this female trying oh so hard to get in a meal.  The surging waves gave this Eider a lot of trouble, but she seemed to be a pro.  As soon as the surge would start she would change positions to ride out the wave, then use her feet and tail as a rudder when the water was drawn back out and steer her beak back to the algae on the rock to continue eating.

The Southside:
As I continued on my 6 mile hike, I started to question the wisdom of trying to walk along the cobble beach which is rather unforgiving and can be daunting at times compared to the nice sand trails found elsewhere on Long Island. I kept hoping for a reward - a surprise - something I wouldn't get otherwise, and then I heard the unmistakable peep of the Purple Sandpiper:

This was my first encounter with this species, a unique wintering shorebird as it has the northernmost wintering range of all the North American shorebirds.  This corresponds with it being the shorebird that breeds at the northernmost location in North America, at the upper reaches of the Canadian Arctic.  There classic habitat and behavior is seen here, congregated on rocks in the swash zone dodging waves while busily feeding.  Because of the need to see the incoming waves, so as to not get swept into the sea, the birds never faced me for long, but they still offered some interesting photographic opportunities which I was pleased to take advantage of.

Camp Hero:
When I finally got off the cobble beach and headed up a nice wide dirt road, I was feeling a bit better about not seeing any seals, or interesting seaducks, but was still hoping for something more.  When I turned down a path that cut through Camp Hero I spotted several Black-Capped Chickadees who had no fear of my presence. I stopped on the trail and watched as they flitted from tree branches down to the snow covered ground searching for food.  I'm not sure if this one was eating snow or what, but I was thrilled to get this shot:

The End:
On my return back West, I stopped at the inlet to Lake Montauk in the hopes of seeing some interesting ducks, but all that was around were 2 Common Loons, both at a considerable distance, so my last hope of the day would be Dune Rd. Some interesting things had been spotted in the wetland ditches near Dockers Restaurant in East Quogue (Clapper Rail and American Bittern, both of which I've never photographed) and it's always a good location for Northern Harriers, which are a Threatened Species in the state of New York.  Well, only the Northern Harriers were present, and as usual they were giving me a difficult time.  One of the unique things about this hawk is they have a facial disk similar to owls which lets them hear there prey.  As such, they hunt in a different style than other raptors and often let the wind push them practically sideways over their hunting grounds, making photography extremely tough.  What I have learned about taking this species photo along Dune Rd., is that they hunt both the ocean dunes and the marshes along the fringe of the bay.  Because they utilize both of these habitats, they must cross over the road which is the best chance at getting a shot off and is exactly what happened today.  While it wasn't a perfect scenario, as the sun was BEHIND my subject (thus backlighting it) it was bright enough that I could make the appropriate adjustments in my camera (dialing in positive exposure compensation) to get enough light on my subject.  In my haste I over-did it, but was able to recover the proper exposure in post processing.  I would have liked more shutterspeed to get the details a bit sharper, but for now I'm satisfied.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Snow? Yes. Snowy Owl? Not so much.

Bonaparte's Gulls
A walk along the ocean gave a reprieve from the relentless wind and gave me a chance of seeing the (a?) Snowy Owl perched on the beach, away from the wind.  Well, no owl, but I did see/photograph some Horned Grebes (at a considerable distance) in the Atlantic Ocean.  I also saw a black and white bird that was sitting on the beach, spot me, then take off straight up into the air and fly away at an impressive speed.  No idea what it was, but quite a few species can be ruled out (Loon, Grebe) because they are not capable of walking onto shore and would not be able to take off like that.  I'm leaning toward either a Dovekie or a Black Guillemot which do have the ability to walk on shore, but I don't know if they can take off straight up in the air like that.  There were several Bonaparte's Gulls hanging out close to sure and not minding my presence, which allowed for some nice close shots of them (still crappy lighting though) compared to the awful photographs I got of them yesterday.  When I got back to my car I was quite cold and cursing my laziness in not properly searching for the Snowy Owl yesterday.

Surprise Northern Harrier
While cruising Meadow Lane I saw on the bay side a Northern Harrier hunting.  I stopped the car and grabbed the camera, only to see that my view was rather "foggy".  Turns out the cold camera, when brought into the warm car, resulted in the glass fogging up . . . I quickly tried to clear off the lens but didn't really have the right equipment and lost sight of the Harrier.  As I continued to drive East along Meadow Ln. in disappointment, I spotted the bird again.  I grabbed my camera and lowered the window (the lens had cleared up) and followed the hawk as it zigzagged across the road going from the Ocean Dune's to the flooded marshes.  At Rd. D it made a pass at a large group of Robins and Starlings that were feeding away, but continued East.  I knew there was a parking area up the road along with an expansive marshland that came right up to the road and figured this would be my only chance.  I got there before the harrier, and as the snow blew in my face I locked onto the hawk as it gave me a quick fly by - the wind pushing it toward me before it used its wings to overpower the natural forces and fly out over the bay.  The lighting was terrible, the shutterspeed was a little slower than I would like, and there is some noise, but these are easily the best Northern Harrier shots I've taken.  

The rest of the morning didn't yield much, some Hooded Mergansers along Sebonac Inlet Rd. (I didn't put any effort into spotting the Black Guillemot) as well a pair of Immature Mute Swans currently feeding in my back yard in Beaver Dam Creek.  Tomorrow's weather looks awful, so I'll have to wait until next weekend.  

Friday, January 1, 2010

A Great Start to 2010

A Good First Sign
Happy New Year to you all.  I started my day at EPCAL in Calverton, with the hopes of seeing a Short Eared Owl which was spotted earlier in the week.  The weather was supposed to be partly cloudy by mid-morning, but it was dreary and cold when I drove around the former air base, not seeing anything.  Trying to make the most out of my morning, I figured I'd check up on the Guillemot as it's been a while since I'd last seen it and I was interested in getting some unique photos of it.  Driving along Sebonac Inlet Rd., I kept my eyes peeled for Bluebirds (which were spotted today again, but unfortunately not by me) and anything else of note, when I heard the unmistakable rattle of a Belted Kingfisher.  It was perched on an Eastern Cedar tree, and as I pulled over to try to photograph it, the female bird (the orange on the breast distinguishes it from the more plainly plumaged male) flew to a sign post, and then to leafless Tree-Of-Heaven, as seen below.  This photo has been a long time coming, as the Belted Kingfisher is one of my (and many photographers) nemisis, so I particularly appreciate the open beak.

Black Guillemot Continues
Bullshead Bay Inlet was placid, flat calm.  Not a hint of wind, but the skies were sadly still dim and overcast.  A few "birders" were down there searching Peconic Bay for the bird, but I knew better.  I parked where I had seen it recently, by the dilapidated bulkhead and set out on trying to put myself in a good position for photography.  I was able to nestle in against the bulkhead, between 2 breached areas which allowed for me to get nice and low and rest my arms and the camera lens on the bulkhead, stabilizing my shots.  The air was so quiet and still I could hear the Black Guillemot slip into the water each time it dived.  Since the light was terrible, I wouldn't be able to improve on the shots I already have gotten of this species, and with it constantly diving, I figured I should try and get some interesting Dive shots, which I was quite successful in doing.  I'm certainly not getting tired of watching this bird, and I hope you aren't either.

Shinnecock Inlet
A trip down to Shinnecock Inlet was sure to produce some Bonaparte's Gulls which I have never seen/photographed before.  This is one of the more attractive Gull species, with its pinkish legs/feet, black sideburns, and diminutive size.  The gulls were feeding in the middle of the inlet (a tease) so I focused on a herring gull that found a sea star to eat which made me quite happy.  Just the other day I had seen a shot (with much better lighting) of a gull with a sea star and thought "how come I never get to see something like that?", well, now I have.  A Bonaparte's Gull gave me a good fly-by (seen below) and there was plenty of activity.  The Bay was flush with hundreds of common Eider and 3 Eiders gave me a nice fly by.  Just when I was about to leave, I checked the NY Bird Listserv and saw a fantastic posting - a Snowy Owl had been spotted on the other side of the Inlet!  I scanned the other side (known as Shinnecock County Park East) and came up with nothing. . . until I noticed what appeared to be a seal hauled out on the rocks just on the north side of the park.  While I wasn't crazy about driving all the way back to Southampton (A 40 minute round-trip drive to get somewhere that was literally 1,000 ft. across the inlet, I had to take the chance and would possibly be rewarded with a Snowy Owl photo.

Seal, Yes.  Owl? Not so Much.
A Common Loon greeted me upon arrival, sitting quite close to the shoreline, while some Red-Breasted Mergansers were a bit more wary.  As I walked further West, what appears to be a Harbor Seal (though it could be a Harp Seal) was hanging out on the rocks, hauled out waiting for some sunshine to warm it up.  While it was a little nervous upon first seeing me, it quickly settled down as I sat still a ways away until it got used to me.  Just when I was about to make a move a few feet toward the water to get some more photographs (I had only taken 3) a truck came rumbling by, keen on seeing the same thing I was looking at, which promptly scared the seal into the water. . . Quite a few seals however were coming up for air in the inlet on the Eastern Side, keeping there eyes and interest on me, but nothing too great, and the lighting was pretty bad so I just watched the Bonaparte's divebomb the water as if they were terns.  As I left, I debated walking South to the ocean and scanning the dunes and snags in hopes of seeing the snowy, but I figured I would have seen it by now, so I headed back to the bay side and watched the seal who had been scared off swam about 3 feet from the shoreline debating if it should haul out again or not (it didn't).  As I write this, I see a report that the Snowy Owl was still present at 3:15, about an hour and change after I left.  I need to stop being so lazy when it comes to this. . . Hopefully the bird will be there tomorrow.  Here's a shot from December 1, 2008 of a Snowy Owl (my first and only encounter) at Rd. I on the West Side of the Shinnecock Inlet.  Can't wait to see what tomorrow (and the rest of the year) brings!

And a few more images from today:

 A Herring Gull with its hard-won meal

Three Common Eider Drakes.  The first 2 are in "Eclipse" plumage while the last one is in Breeding Plumage 

Black Guillemot with picture perfect diving form

And now showing off the red legs - Notice how far back they are set on the bird.