Monday, February 15, 2010

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.  

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