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.

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