Monday, January 31, 2011

Book Review: A Supremely Bad Idea

Magnificent Frigatebirds circle above 'Bird Island' in El Salvador
In my efforts to expand the reach of this blog to more people, I've started to do some book reviews for nature and photography related titles.  The first unofficial review was for John Turner's latest book Exploring the Other Island: A seasonal guide to nature on Long Island which features a dozen of my images and is an excellent alternative field guide to Long Island an essentially New England and New Jersey (that review can be found here: Exploring the Other Island.  This post will focus on the wildly entertaining book by Luke Dempsey entitled A Supremely Bad Idea: Three Mad Birders and Their Quest to See It All.  In an interesting twist, John Turner's book has several photographs from NY's own Lloyd Spitalnik who is also an acquaintance of Luke Dempsey and is mentioned in A Supremely Bad Idea.  The birding world is a small one!

I bought this book prior to my summer visit to El Salvador and Guatemala - figuring there would be a good amount of down time that would allow me to relax and read.  To be honest, I'm not much of a reader and it's rare that I buy a book - even more so that I buy a book about birds but when I skimmed through A Supremely Bad Idea at the store I saw that Mr. Dempsey was NY based and I guess I subconsciously enjoy supporting other artists named Luke.  The book focuses on Mr. Dempsey's entry into the birding world and his subsequent whirlwind tours of the hottest birding spots in the Country with a married couple who are wholly responsible for getting him addicted to birding.  The couple is from the NY area but assume rather amusing pseudonyms in the book to protect their identities.  The authors ability to mix humor, real life, travel and birds together is truly impressive.  I caught myself laughing out loud throughout the book but to be sure there are a few moments that will tug on your heart strings.  For Mr. Dempsey, birding becomes an escape from his exceedingly stressful life.  While it kills him to not have control over his personal life, he relishes in not being able to control the natural world in pursuit of the rarest birds North America has to offer (though he does an excellent job of masking this with splashes of profanity and plenty of British humor).

Nikon D300s 18-200mm VR @ 200mm f/5.6, 1/1600s, -.33 EC, ISO 320, El Salvador
One of the things I enjoyed most was the picture that he paints with his descriptions from his birding adventures.  This certainly was amplified by the fact that I read the majority of this book on a hammock a stone's throw from a major roost for Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Pelicans.  Reading about his experiences, then looking up to the sky to see thousands of these birds circling overhead was a really cool experience that enhanced the literature.  In the middle of the book are several pages of pictures taking during the author's jaunts around the country.  While the quality may not rival mine (how could it?) they add to the personal flavor this book has.

For anyone looking for a good book, a good laugh, or an interesting read about birding and birders, you absolutely must purchase this book.  I hope one day to have the pleasure of meeting Mr. Dempsey and thanking him for writing such a wonderful book.  Perhaps I will be fortunate enough to run into him in the field while photographing some exceedingly rare bird - how fitting would that be?  For those interested - click the link below to check it out on

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Belted Kingfisher

Nikon D300s 300 f4 + 1.7X TC f/10, 1/800s, ISO 500, 50% of original
The Belted Kingfisher is one of the hardest birds to get in photography range in the U.S. - they have a penchant for taking off from their perches right when you get into position and mock you with their unmistakable rattle call.  Dune Rd. is almost always good for at least 1 Kingfisher - usually perched along the power lines peering down into the mosquito ditches that border the road and today was no exception.  A male and female were both present but it was the Male who put on the show.  He made quite a few dives into the water (though I couldn't discern if they were successful) and a few times it hovered above the water waiting to strike which allowed me to photograph it from my car.  These pictures are a big improvement over anything I have but still a long ways from what I want.  A blind and set-up will probably be required to fulfill that desire - but for now I'll take these!
Nikon D300s 300 f4 + 1.7X TC f/6.7, 1/1250s, ISO 640, 25% of original
Here is the female - notice the rust coloring:
Nikon D300s 300 f4 + 1.7X TC 1/1250s, ISO 640, 65% of original
And here's a different pose:
Nikon D300s 300 f4 + 1.7X TC f/6.7, 1/1250s, ISO 640, 25% of original

A juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron was skulking around the marsh looking for food in the areas of open water:
Nikon D300s 300 f4 + 1.7X TC f/8, 1/2000s, ISO 400, Full Frame
Moving around:
Nikon D300s 300 f4 + 1.7X TC f/8 1/1250s, ISO 400, Full Frame

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Merlin Manicure

In search of Owls I found this Merlin along Dune Rd. near the Ponquogue Bridge.  At first I thought it was a Peregrine because they are more prevalent along Dune Rd. then Merlin's (especially during winter) but when the bird moved into better lighting I realized it was a Merlin which proceeded to preen itself before taking off likely in pursuit of food.

Here is a video of the bird hanging out:

Back to the photos:

Cleaning the Talons:

Spreading those feathers:

If you have trouble identifying raptors or simply want a little more info on them, check out the excellent book by Jerry Liguori entitled: Hawks from Every Angle: How to Identify Raptors In Flight.  This book covers all the Raptors that migrate through the US and has information and details you simply can't get from standard bird books.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

My Camera Equpiment

While a few of you are familiar with what gear I use to take my photos - the vast majority are in the dark as this blog tends to focus on the pretty pictures and bird sightings rather than the technical photography aspect.  Well that's about to change - I'm going to expand the scope of this blog a little bit and try to include a little more detail on how the image was made for those who are interested.  Let's start with what I use in the field.

The one constant of course is the camera.  I started my foray into wildlife photography with Nikon's D60 DSLR (which has since been phased out) which was a nice starter camera that gave me full control but included some real user-friendly features that made jumping into the DSLR game easy.  It came with two kit lenses - the 18-55mm and the 55-200mm.  Both of these offered a nice range but fell well short of what I needed to photograph birds.  Anyone who is interested in starting photography on a more serious level would do well with these lenses but you will likely quickly outgrow them.  The 18-55mm is an excellent little lens for photographing things that don't move (like flowers) or people while the 55-200mm offered a nice range for some bigger birds (like egrets and herons) as well as allowing me to get a little closer to things like dragonflies and butterflies - but to photograph 90% of the birds out there, I needed something "bigger and better".  So I went out and purchased the...

Nikon D300s camera (linked below) which had just been released as an update to their D300 (the S stands for speed!).  Moving up to this camera allowed for more control and what every avian photographer covets - increased fps (frames per second).  With the D300s I can hold the shutter down and rip off 8 shots per second for a few seconds which really comes in handy when I'm photographing a bird in flight or trying to capture an egret catching a fish.

I paired this camera with the Nikon 300mm f/4.0D ED-IF AF-S Nikkor Lens which is plenty fast and tack sharp (both extremely important features).  This combo is good for shooting larger things like deer, seals or gulls that don't mind you getting close - but to get really close to the small warblers, sparrows and shorebirds I still needed more length, which is where Nikon TC-17E II (1.7x) Teleconverter AF-S, came in.  When matched with the 300 f4 lens, I now have 500mm of focal length to work with (and on the cropped sensor of the D300s we are working with a 750mm equivalent lens - not bad!).  The negative to this combo is it slows the autofocus a bit on the 300 f4 and lets in less light but it's an easy tradeoff when the other option is a 500mm lens which costs a whooping $6,000 more!

Exploring the Other Island - By John Turner

I have been meaning to do this for awhile and since I'm headed down to Florida for a few days I figured I'd take the opportunity to finally get around to talking about John Turner's latest book, Exploring the Other Island - A Seasonal Guide to Nature on Long Island.

Mr. Turner (whom I have the pleasure of working with daily during my day job) has just released his 2nd edition of his nature guide to Long Island.  I was honored that he asked me to contribute some of my photos and after a many months long process, the book finally went to print and it looks great.  While not all of my photos are of birds (there are a few mammals and plants mixed in there), you will see a few familiar images while flipping through the pages.  Other talented photographers were used as well including, New York's very skilled and well known birder/photographer Lloyd Spitalnik.

This book describes the natural beauty, wonders and secrets Long Island has to hold in surprising detail.  It's an easy read and a page Turner (pun intended) packed with tons of helpful information like plant descriptions, when to look for certain animals and what public parks and preserves they can be found at on the Island.  I know many of my blog readers are not from Long Island, but rest assured this book will have you covered for nearly anywhere in New England (and New Jersey) as the species and habitats discussed in the book are found throughout the region.

I had the good fortune of reading the book before it went to print and it was a refreshing break from the usually tedious field guides - you don't even realize you're learning all about all of Long Island has to offer with John's easy style and eloquent flow.

Below is a link to the book on where it can be purchased (which I highly recommend!).  Just a note, I do not receive any money for copies which are sold - I'm writing this mini-review because I'm proud to be a part of it and I want to get the word out because it truly is a good book.  I also want to mention that a significant portion of the book's profits will go toward three important conservation organizations: the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, the American Bird Conservancy, and FLAP (Fatal Lights Awareness Program); designed to reduce bird mortality from collisions with windows and buildings.

So click the link, read some other reviews and buy a book!

Winter Snipe

This afternoon after leaving a Dr. appointment I headed to Dune Rd. in hopes of utilizing the fresh snow.  Not spotting any Bitterns I was ready to leave when a Wilson's Snipe flew into a little watering hole (the same location I photographed the previous Wilson's Snipe).  I would have preferred it to have been a little closer or had a better angle but was pleased to get it with the snow and ice.

 Trying a new spot:

 Moving around:

Great Blue Heron's beautiful birds and can be quite elegant - but they are so ubiquitous (as heron's go) that they have been photographed to death and I almost always pass on photographing them (especially because their prey around here consist almost exclusively of small fish which doesn't make for a terribly interesting photo).  But, when the conditions are right like this afternoon, I'll happily shoot away!  

Searching for a fish:

In hot pursuit:

This is just a throw-in shot obviously a massive crop.  I saw this Peregrine blazing from West to East until it perched on this pole.  Another Peregrine was in the immediate area and continued East with this bird following.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Lark Sparrow

A trip to EPCAL (which if you are a follower of this blog, is quite a familiar location for me) turned up 50% success.  I missed out on the LeConte's Sparrow even with a good deal of patience (I spoke to some birders who were there when I arrived and they said it was just scurrying around there feet along the runway... ah to have been there earlier).  I guess that was foreshadowing though, as I headed nearby to look for the Lark Sparrow and found it quickly (it sticks out well against the Junco's and smaller Chipping Sparrows).  With a little time spent watching it, the bird began feeding on the roadside.. and these are the results.  So, 1 new species and 1 missed - maybe later this week.  

 I was able to use my strategically parked car as a blind for these shots:


 This last shot shows the significant size difference between a Chipping Sparrow and the out of focus Lark Sparrow:

Monday, January 3, 2011

American Bittern

This afternoon between appointments I had some time to shoot down to Dune Rd. where I quickly spotted this American Bittern directly across from "Sand Bar Beach" (just West of Neptunes Beach Club).  Was certainly happy to get a bittern for a 2nd time in a matter of days.

On the move!