Saturday, February 27, 2010

Coots, Ducks, Kingfishers and Dueling Hawks

Coots and a Gull to Boot:
Lake Agawan was free of Northern Shovelers, but the 3 Coots from last weekend were still hanging out along the western side.  I was able to sit down on some concrete along the Lakes edge and waited until the Coots swam by.  Since they seem to come quite close to me, I'll try the 105mm Macro + 1.7X TC next time around to try and eke out a little more detail.  One advantage to overcast skies is it really can bring out details that otherwise wouldn't be seen because of the strong glare of the sun.

The Gulls were fighting over bread that people were feeding them.  This one had lost the fight and was flying back to where the action was happening, lucky for me it was right in front of my camera:   

Lots of Ducks:
A stop Mecox Bay produced Canvasback Ducks, Greater Scaup and Hooded Mergansers, all of which were quite shy and scared easily.  The Canvasback Duck is similar to the Redheaded Duck, and at a distance it is tough to distinguish the two.  Redheads are smaller with a shorter bill and a golden eye, whereas the Canvasback Duck has a red eye.  Additionally, the male Canvasback Duck has a mostly white body, compared to the grey body of a Redhead.

The Greater Scaup is also another species which can be tough to ID at first.  It looks nearly identical to the Lesser Scaup as well as the Ring-Necked Duck and if you're really far away it could be confused with a Goldeneye.  The easiest way to tell the difference between the Greater and Lesser Scaup is by looking at the iridescence on the head which is purple in the Lesser and Green in the Greater.

Shinnecock Canal:
I've never stopped at the Shinnecock Canal to photograph birds before, but as I drove over Montauk Hwy. I noticed a lot of gulls, many of which were feeding and thought perhaps there would be an unusual species (not liek I could pick it out as they all look so similar).  Well, none of the gulls stood out to me, however I did find this female Red-breasted Merganser fighting the ripping current in the canal.

Dune Rd. produces again:
The Shinnecock Inlet seemed to have less action than the canal, however it DID have 8 surfers and body borders hoping to catch some of the wild incoming waves that poured into Shinnecock Bay.  While this isn't unheard of, it's pretty unusual to see and by the looks of it they weren't too successful.  On the other hand, it was a much easier go than surfing the ocean which was a mess from this latest storm.  (sorry for no photos of the surfers, but this is a bird photography blog!)

ALMOST the 2nd Best Photos I've Ever Taken:
As I continued along Dune Rd. though, I found a kingfisher and the sun was trying to peak out so I parked the car and tried to take some shots when it took off and landed on this log.  I was hoping for a photo akin to the female kingfisher shot I had back in early January that was calling out in the foggy air - but my autofocus  was off a little and none of the shots came out as sharp as I would have liked.  The Kingfisher eventually took off and started flying west which is where I was headed anyway so I drove along the flooded Dune Rd. keeping my eyes peeled for Harriers.  I saw one on the south side of the road and stopped as it landed on the ground.  As I took my camera out it flew into the air and I heard the kingfisher calling.

At first I thought the kingfisher had flown to the south side of the road and caught the interest of the Harrier when I saw a 2nd Hawk (which I presumed to be a harrier as well) take off and attempt to spar with the first.  I kept my finger on the trigger hoping for the best, when the first Harrier broke off and started flying west which I then put myself into a position to photography.  It's not unusual to see Northern Harriers get into these types of arguments, particularly along Dune Rd. where 3 or 4 of them spend their winter.  When I got home and looked at the shots (aside from being disappointed at the quality, deleting most of them) I realized it was not TWO Norther Harriers, but a Cooper's Hawk and a Northern Harrier.  What's more is the Cooper's Hawk was chasing off the Harrier!  Talk about unusual.  Cooper's Hawks generally hangout in the woods (or along the fringe of the woods) and are a rare sighting along the ocean like this.  Also the hawks are both about the same size (the Harrier has a slight size advantage), but I would speculate the Harrier is the better flier and certainly it was THERE territory, not the Cooper's.  Either way, an interesting interaction that I was happy to witness and photograph.  

I had to delete all but these 2 shots, which aren't that spectacular from a technical standpoint, as my focus and shutter speed were both inadequate.  This is NOT the same problem I had experienced last week, and in fact was a result of the poor lighting conditions, fast action and wrong settings (as I didn't anticipate needing a SS of 1/2500+).  Last weeks problem seems to have been solved as it appears the connection between the lenses was a little loose - hopefully it won't rear its ugly head again.  I continued to photograph the Harrier which gave me a few close ups and these are by far the sharpest photos I've gotten of this Hawk.  I can't wait to see what Dune Rd. produces next time.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Afternoon deLIGHT

Lake Agawan:
After my first blog posting I couldn't sit around and waste the sunshine and relatively warm temps outside and so I headed back to Lake Agawan in Southampton Village in hopes of utilizing the light better than this morning and was certainly successful, however the N. Shovelers weren't as close and were spread out across the like.  Fortunately for me though, a group of Coots let their curiosity bring them close by as I got a nice low angle from the lakeshore.  For the photo below, I experimented with my onboard flash to try and bring out some more detail in the blacks and I think it worked well - however it was badly overexposed so I had to make the correction in Adobe Camera Raw and bring back the details.

Water Mill:
I checked out Mill Pond again for the Grebes but nothing was present and headed back over to my other Water Mill location were some American Wigeon were hanging out, along with a few more Hooded Mergansers.  Unfortunately a vehicle drove by way too fast and spooked the ducks which were feeding along the shoreline.  All of these ducks flying caused the rest of the birds to fly up and around and I lost track of the Wigeons, but was able to get some photos of the Hooded Mergansers playing in the muck:

Back to Dune Rd:
A return trip down Dune Rd. lent me some more great views at a Northern Harrier.  While these are some of my better images (the late day lighting helps a lot) my camera was acting up and not exposing several shots (including shots in the middle of a burst) properly.  I'm a little concerned about this, but think it is related to the Teleconverter.  Hopefully it's as simple as cleaning the contacts but it was frustrating to miss some really great shots because of this.

A Little Bit of Everything

Yesterday was a beautiful late winter day but was rather light on photography subjects.  Low tide (which is best for finding and shooting wading most species along Dune Rd.) is very early in the morning and very late in the afternoon and I was unable to take advantage of either.  I did some wandering along the shoreline of Shinnecock Bay in East Quogue and picked up the Song Sparrow and Double-Crested (DC) Cormorant seen below.  Additionally, I had a flock of house finches perched in a tree, but the angle and distance were too much for good photos.

Shinnecock Inlet:
I was up early this morning to take advantage of low tide and had some errands to run but Dune Rd. produced nothing so I had to head to the inlet to try and get some decent shots before an appointment.  While the Harlequin Ducks haven't been reported in about a week, I was hopeful for something unusual or rare to be hanging out in the relatively calm inlet - but only found some Common Loons.  I headed to the northern end got some close looks at (below) male and female Red-Breasted Mergansers (the most prevalent of the 3 merganser species on Long Island during the winter months) as well as a surprise sighting of a seal.  Notice on the photos of the Mergansers how far back the feet are (which aid in diving) and the serrated bill which is useful in holding onto prey caught at depths and in currents.  When I turned back toward the south I spotted 4 Brant foraging on algae along the rocks of the inlet.  This sighting was unique as Brant are almost always seen inside the bay and not the inlet or open ocean.  The Brant unfortunately spooked, but only flew a small distance with one of the Brant making an extra loop allowing me to get the photo seen below:

Points East:  
A little later in the morning I made my way out to Water Mill which has 2 locations that have historically produced good birds for me at a close distance.  My first location (along Mill Pond) has recently been iced over but I was excited to find it almost all open water - I was even more excited to find 2 Pied-Billed Grebes in the water which are an extremely secretive and shy bird.  The first one I spotted looked at my wearingly for a bit before swimming out of view, while the second (less than 10 yards away) slipped beneath the water for a second, popped back up a little closer, gave me the once-over and disappeared for good.  These birds, when threatened, simply dive beneath the surface and swim away underwater instead of flying off or trying to quickly scurry away, making them that more difficult to photograph.  The photo below is from the same location but back in early winter as I was essentially shutout on photos of this bird today.

My 2nd Water Mill local has also been iced over, but often times provides me with a wide variety of birds.  I have seen Wood-Ducks, Pied-Billed Grebes, Hooded Mergansers, Ruddy Ducks, Buffle Heads, American Wigeon, American Coot, Green-Winged Teal, Sharp Shinned Hawk, Hooded Merganser and some of the easiest Mallard Flight Shots possible.  The only thing of interest however was a Hooded Merganser asleep on the ice at a good distance.  Hopefully when the birds start moving north again for Spring some more interest species will make an appearance.  Below is a shot of an American Coot from this location shot earlier in the winter:

Lake Agawan Surprise:
For the better part of the winter, a healthy number of Northern Shovelers have been seen at Olde Fort Pond in Southampton Village.  However, this pond iced over some time ago and I have not seen the birds since and have continued to wonder where they had moved too.  As I drove back West I took a drive down Pond Ln. in Southampton Village which takes you along the northwestern edge of the pond.  I know people feed ducks at this location and thought perhaps something interesting would be around and lo and behold, I found where the Shovelers had moved too.  Unfortunately for me, this location doesn't really afford a low angle as there is a fence around the ponds edge, and worse yet the angle of the sun was against me making it difficult to properly expose these birds and/or get nice lighting on their faces.  I made do with the conditions and am simply happy I was able to get this close to this unique species.

Dune Rd, Take II:
A return trip along Dune Rd. produced a Northern Harrier that was cooperative in that its flight pattern was predictable, but it of course was on the "wrong" side of Dune Rd. and was backlit the entire time.  I rolled the dice and setup at the eastern end of the Tiana Beach Parking Lot hoping it would follow the lines of the dune and pass right by me.  Well, it got relatively close but never what I had hoped for.  In addition, my AF wasn't working as well as I would have liked (one of the trade-offs of pairing a 300 f/4 lens with a 1.7X TC instead of a 1.4X TC which it was designed to be used with) but I still got a handful of acceptable photos of this nemesis species.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Reliable Redheads and Two New Birds

Eventhough weather conditions were PERFECT for seeing seals at Montauk, I chose instead to go for the Redheads at Lake Orowoc in Islip as the ducks would be a "guarantee" and the lighting was optimal.  I also was eager to try out my 105mm f/2.8 micro Nikkor (macro lens) which has seen basically no use since its (expensive) purchase in January. When I arrived at the McDonalds parking lot I was shocked to find the Redheads weren't there waiting for me - however there was a rather large group of ducks (mostly Ruddy Ducks) on the East side of the pond so I trekked through the snow only to find the group was only Ruddy and Ring-Necked ducks.  But, I'd made the trip here and I wasn't about to give up, so I waited and it wasn't long before I saw a male redhead fly in and land on the West side of the pond.  Shortly after a family started throwing bread into the pond which attracted the ducks, swans and gulls and the remaining Redheads (2 drakes and 4 hens in all, see below) made their appearance.  I moved back over to the "seawall" to start getting photos hoping to move to a location along the lake front that would provide the low angle I had missed out on previously.

One of the ducks seemed to be in a rather playful mood:

The macro and teleconveter makes an excellent pairing:

I also took the opportunity to use the macro on a Mute Swan that was essentially right in front of me:

One last Redhead hen to round out the trip (this was taken with the 300 f/4 + 1.7x TC):

Dune Rd. Produces Again:
When I made it back East, I went straight to Shinencock Inlet in hopes of seeing the Harlequin Ducks again but struck out.  They were reported earlier in the day, however they were on the other side of the inlet and I wasn't about to chase them.  I was about to leave when I saw something bobbing in the middle of the inlet that was black and white.  At first I thought Loon (Common or Red-Throated) but as I took a longer look I realized it was a Horned Grebe (below). I had hoped it would be a much more rare Western Grebe (which have shown up in decent numbers in the NY metro area this winter) but it lacked the long neck and long bill.  Unfortunately the bird was at quite a distance, but this is rather close as far as this species goes.  Additionally, it is a bit odd that it was seen INSIDE The inlet, as opposed to the open ocean, but the wind was whipping strong from the WSW which likely pushed it further inland.  

Sparrow Surprise:
I left the inlet as it was freezing cold and headed toward Dune Rd. where I was almost certain that I would see one or two of the Clapper Rails I have been so lucky to observe and photograph recently.  I stopped at the first location and got out scanning the water and edges and came up empty.  A little further down the road there is another mosquito ditch (these ditches were dredged out by Suffolk County in an attempt to DRAIN the wetlands to reduce the number of mosquitoes. . . however there was nowhere for the wetlands to drain, so the ditches remain) just to the East of Dockers Restaurant.  Again I got out and searched, seeing no sign of the Rail even though the tide was low and perfect for feeding.  Out of the corner of my eye though I saw a bird flitting from one bank to the other.  My first thought was Wilson's Snipe which I've seen and photographed at this location last winter - but I quickly realized it was too small to be a Snipe.  Instead it turned out to be a Saltmarsh Sparrow (specific species to be determined).  While this isn't the first time I've seen this species, it's the first time I've had the chance to photograph it as it is extremely shy and equally fast.  I wasn't as close as I would like, but I'm satisfied with it being my first real chance and look forward to more photos in the future.

Learn more about these birds and others by picking up a copy of my favorite guide to have in the field, National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America 

Harlequin Ducks and the Great Comorant

Great Cormorant:
When I got back from my Owl adventure, I checked the listserv to see what I "missed out" on by going upstate (again, there are no guarantees when it comes to wildlife photography, so even if I had stayed back I may not have seen what others did).  Two species which were new to me were spotted, the Harlequin Ducks (which I didn't spot when I scanned the inlet that morning) and some Great Cormorants (which MAY have been there, but I wasn't looking for them).  With those birds in mind, I headed out to the inlet in mid-morning (when the Harlequin's had been seen) and was happy to find some birders and another photographer present at the jetty.  They pointed me in the general direction of the birds, but I couldn't find them with my camera (probably because of their diminutive size).  I was also pointed in the direction of a juvenile (note the white on the breast) Great Cormorant perched on the lightpole at the end of the jetty which gave me a good flight shot (see below).  The Great Cormorant is the bigger cousin of the Double-Crested Cormorant and is quite rare in these parts - often times staying offshore with Long Island being the southern extreme of their winter range.  After searching for the ducks I decided to take a risk and drive to the other side of the inlet (about 20 miles roundtrip, 1000 feet as the crow flies [no pun intended]) in hopes of getting Harlequin shots.  There were quite a large number of Bonaparte's Gulls along the Eastern jetty which would have provided a good photo-op anyway so I would be content with that as a consolation prize.  

American Crow Feeding:
When I reached the other side I began my mile long round-trip hike through the snow and sand I noticed 2 American Crows eating the scraps of something.  I've never actually gotten a successful photo of this species because the exposure is so difficult (pure black with almost always a light background) but I wanted to give it a try.  So I positioned myself between the sun (or what remnants of the sun there were, as it was very overcast) and knelt down to get a good angle.  The crows were eating but kept a good eye on me (they are often times bullies, but will vacate their food if a larger animal comes along) and eventually took off. I had to dial in quite a bit of exposure compensation as the camera tried (incorrectly) will try to compensate for the vast areas of white, often rendering snow grey.  Unfortunately I didn't get the exposure spot on and had to bump my 'recovery' to 100% in Adobe Camera Raw to get some detail in the snow back.  After the Crows left, I inspected their prey and concluded their midday meal was a Common Eider Drake.  

Harlequin Ducks!
After my American Crow adventure, I realized that all of the Bonies were gone.  In about 30 minutes they ALL disappeared from the inlet.  This was rather disappointing as I was weary of seeing/photographing the Harlequins and now my consolation prize was gone. As I walked down the jetty I admired the seals that kept popping up for air, looking at my wondering what the heck I was.  I admire them for their enthusiasm even during the cold nasty days of winter.  As I got to the end of the jetty, I finally found my prize.  Four Harlequins amongst some much larger Common Eider.  I don't know why I thought the ducks would be larger, but I was quite surprised to see how small they were in comparison.  In my excitement (and caution in navigating the icy/wet jetty) I missed the focus on many photos and left rather disappointed.  As I tried to get in a better position, the gulls resting on the jetty around me screwed me as usual.  I cannot believe how many times Gulls will scare off my photography subject because they all decide to fly at once when there is no real threat.  Due to the lighting I was unable to get a good flight shot off (which is a true shame as they were SO close to me) and I didn't know they were about to take off, until the gulls spooked. The flight shot seen below was taken at a very slow shutter speed (SS) 1/250s and my exposure compensation was unfortunately set to +1 when -.33 would have served me better and provided for a quicker SS.  Before that, the Harlequins were truly indifferent to me (again, another possible example of birds seeing humans for their first time as they travel down south for the winter) but with everything else flying away, they figured they better get out of there and flew BACK to the West jetty where I had started.  

Eagles? Check! Owls? Well. . .

Shinnecock Inlet
I was off from work on Friday thanks to the birthday celebration of the fantastic President, Abe Lincoln.  Now, while the rest of the country is satisfied with combining Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays into a "President's Day", my employer gives each former leader equal respect!  I began my very long day by rising early and shooting over to Shinnecock Inlet where 5 Harlequin Ducks had been reported the previous day.  While the weather conditions were perfect, the birds were no where to be found.  I know now that they WERE in fact there (albeit later in the morning) and I may have simply missed them as I had expected them to be larger in size than they really are (more on that in the next posting).  I photographed some Red-Breasted Mergansers (below) as well as a Black Scoter while searching for the uncommon ducks.  After 15 minutes of searching, I hopped in my car and headed to Syosset to pickup the rest of my crew (Vinny Pellegrino and the President of the Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon Society, Stella Miller) before heading to Croton-On-Hudson for Bald Eagles which had been reported as plentiful.

Croton Point Park
Let me preface the remaining photos with this:  These TECHNICALLY shouldn't be on this "blog" as they were not photographed on Long Island, but. . . they're close enough!

As soon as we got off Rt. 9 the first Baldie was spotted which was sure to set the tone for the rest of the morning.  When we got to Croton Point Park a few Bald Eagles were flying overhead but quite a ways away.  It was a nice mixture of Adults and Juveniles in the area, but the river was mostly free of ice so nothing was to be spotted on the ice floes.  While scanning for eagles, Vinny spotted an American Tree Sparrow in front of us that was nice enough to pose for me.  We next headed to the adjacent RR station where a Red-Headed Woodpecker had recently been seen as well as a flurry of Bald Eagles.

North Croton Harmon Train Station:
The parking lot of the train station was rather productive, with a multitude of duck species (redheads, mergansers, buffleheads, etc.) and a Cooper's Hawk cruising in the distance.  After a short wait, an adult Bald Eagle flew from the south and I got excited hoping it would give me a fly by but it quickly perched in a tree WAY far away and was content sitting there.  Another photographer had arrived but was as ill-equipped as I for photographing it.  He was also smoking, which I found a ironic since it kind of takes away from the natural experience when you are sucking on a cigarette. . . and I doubt he properly disposes of all of his butts, but I probably shouldn't make assumptions like that.  Aside from the WAY off Baldie (see the below, uncropped photo), I got some VERY close photos of a Song Sparrow that was more than curious:

Find the Bald Eagle!

Georges Island Park:
The next stop was Georges Island Park for more Bald Eagles.  As soon as we arrived there were two photographers who had spotted a juvie Baldie flying above (the first photo on this entry, see above) that was circling.  This was the best look that we got this morning and was certainly better than anything I'd gotten on Long Island where Bald Eagles are still fairly uncommon, however their numbers seem to be steadily increasing, especially this year.  Fair numbers of Adults and Juveniles have been spotted on the East End as well as the around the Carmans River and Forge River.  Perhaps it will only be so long before they begin nesting again as they did in the pre-DDT days.  Other than the aforementioned Eagle (which seemingly subsequently perched quite a distance away) there was a (tentatively ID'd) Red-Tailed Hawk that caused a some confusion between the 5 of us that were present there.  I was content calling it a Red-Tailed based on the barring on the chest combined with the white breast, as well as the brown head and shape.  Others were almost certain it was a juvie bald eagle, and were concerned with how dark it was for being a Red-Tailed (which, however, are HIGHLY variable in plumage), so here is the photo, cropped to 100% and you can be the judge.

Pelham Bay:
Now it was Owl time at Pelham Bay in the Bronx where Stella had been quite successful in her last 3 trips this winter, spotting Saw-Whet and Long Eared Owls and getting great looks at them at that.  We began by hiking into the Pine Grove area of Pelham Bay Park.  On our way there were quite a few birds including White-Breasted Nuthatches and White-Throated Sparrows.  Once we got into the Pine Groves we searched and searched but came up empty, however there were plenty of Downy Woodpeckers to keep me occupied, including this male (note the red on the head) I caught preening:

We checked two more nearby locations which had historically provided Owls to Stella and came up with nothing.  One location, it should be noted, was occupied by a Black Squirrel (apparently a common thing in the Bronx) which may have spooked the Saw-Whet.  While the trip didn't produce any Owls, it got me outside and I saw some things I wouldn't have seen in the Hamptons and you never know unless you go.  It also helps if you go with the "right equipment" as these folks did the very next day.  Guess I'll need to pickup a radio transmitter!