Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dark-morph Rough-legged Hawk

Nikon D300s 300 f4 + 1.7X TC, f/7.1, 1/2500s, ISO 800

I made it to EPCAL after work today and worked the Western runway with virtually no birds save for a Northern Harrier along the eastern woodline.  Frustrated and with the window of sunlight quickly closing I headed to the Eastern runway which I have seldom visited.  A gorgeous juvenile Northern Harrier (below) was resting near the runway but was spooked by my approaching vehicle and took off.  Still frustrated in the lack of birds I continued on to the southern end of the runway where I saw a large very dark bird chasing a Northern Harrier which eluded the larger hawk.  The Hawk then turned and flew near my vehicle where I photographed it and assumed it was a dark-morph Rough-legged Hawk which I later confirmed by consulting Jerry Liguori's Hawks from Every Angle: How to Identify Raptors In Flight.  Based on Jerry's descriptions, it's almost certain this is a Adult Male roughie which is darker than the female.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Book Review: The Ultimate Guide to Digital Nature Photography

I previously reviewed National Geographic's: The Ultimate Field Guide to Photography which is a wonderful publication that illustrates the ins and outs of photography, I wanted to take the time to review a book that is much more specific to Nature Photography which is where my passion lies.  So I pulled out my copy of The Ultimate Guide to Digital Nature Photography which was put together by the Mountain Trail Photo Team.  While you may have never heard of the "Mountain Trail Photo Team" if you are a lover of fine art nature and wildlife photography you almost certainly have seen their work.  The team consists of a 10 professional photogs, including the very skilled Ian Plant and one of my favorite landscape photographers, Marc Adamus and is a modern day photographic version of the Rat Pack.  They combined their skills, knowledge and experience into an amazingly helpful guide to Nature Photography.

New Welcome Banner

As the loyal readers will know "Birds of Long Island" has undergone a major visual overhaul in recent weeks which was long overdue.  One of the final pieces to be put in place was the "Birds of Long Island" banner you see at the top of this page.  It's something I've been meaning to do for a long time but for a while didn't have the skills to do it - and for a long time didn't have the motivation.  Well, I'm glad I finally got around to doing it (even if it took awhile).

This was Version #1

I asked for feedback from other photographers I know, as well as my family and my fantastic assistant/girlfriend.  Some of you may have briefly seen the first banner (directly above) I made that was up for about a day but which I decided needed to be changed based on the input of others.  I made a 2nd version (below) which never made it on the site and then a 3rd which you see at the top of the blog.

Version 2 was quickly scrapped

I have decided to update the banner approximately every 3 months to keep things fresh and cycle in new designs.  Any suggestions or input as to what you would like to see in the future is greatly appreciated.  My opinion matters just as much as the opinion of my readers (probably less!).  Thanks for the support and know that I'm always open to ideas from my audience on how to improve the look and function of Birds of Long Island.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Eastern Bluebirds and Rough-Legged Hawk

NIkon D300s 300 f4 + 1.7X TC, f/8, 1/800s, ISO 500

I was able to make it to EPCAL before the sun went down late this afternoon and was happy I did.  In addition to a Turkey Vulture that spent a little time perusing the grasslands looking for a snack and a grey ghost (male Northern Harrier) that was briefly spotted, 4 Eastern Bluebirds were singing and flitting around the center grass median while a Rough-legged Hawk was busy catching a vole.  (Learn how to ID rough-legged hawks from afar by reading Jerry Liguori's Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors)  It was certainly one of the more productive visits to EPCAL in recent weeks - and as I left I noticed a herd of at least 60 deer to the North of EPCAL on the adjacent grasslands piece.  Seeing all of those deer grazing on native grasses is such a rare sighting on this island you simply have to see it to appreciate it.  (Above: Male Eastern Bluebird / Below: Female Eastern Bluebird)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Rough-Legged Hawk at EPCAL

Nikon D300s 300 f4 + 1.7X TC, f/8, 1/2000s, ISO 640
Dune Rd. yesterday was sparse with only a few Northern Harriers and an Adult Black Crowned-Night Heron being of note.  So in an attempt to salvage the day I took a trip to EPCAL with my girlfriend riding shotgun as a spotter in hopes of getting something of interest.  EPCAL was surprisingly sparse - but it wasn't long before my spotter saw a hawk circling above which I identified as a Rough-legged Hawk thanks to the brown patches on the underwing.  We were able to observe the Hawk for some time hovering low and high over the snow covered grasslands in pursuit of food.  It landed a couple of times but never came away with food.  As the sun was setting and the Hawk headed further from us we called it a night and left.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"All About Birds" Featured Photographer!

Copyright of Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All Rights Reserved
If you have been into birds for any amount of time, you certainly have stumbled upon (or spent significant portions of your free time perusing) Cornell's Lab of Ornithology "All About Birds" website.  This site is a phenomenal resource on every bird found in the U.S. with photos, range maps, descriptors, vocalizations and other anecdotal information.  There are dozens of informative articles and so many birding tips.  Additionally, if you sign up to be a member (as little as $40 / year) you receive their Living Bird magazine and their BirdScope newsletter in addition to having access to detailed, in-depth biological breakdowns of each species.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Book Review: Waterbirds, by Theodore Cross

Today's book review is on a magnificent collection of beautiful images and exciting adventures in pursuit of birds - compiled by the late Theodore Cross whose life accomplishments would be proud achievements for a college's alumni, let alone one person.  He was an advisor to the White House, a distinguished professor on minority economics and law at Harvard, Cornell and the University of Virginia.  He was a trustee for the NAACP legal defense fund and Amherst college and still found time (a lot of it) for birds.  Perhaps he was trying to play catchup as he paid little attention to our feathered friends for the first 40 years of his life (not unlike author Luke Dempsey).  But once he "caught the bug" he literally went to the edges of the world to pursue their beauty.

I was fortunate enough to receive Waterbirds as a gift for Christmas from my thoughtful brother and his wife.  He had heard an interview on NPR with Mr. Cross (listen / read here: Extreme Birding) about this book and promptly went out and purchased it for his budding photographer brother.  I must say, it's one of the best presents to date I've received and easily the best book I've unwrapped on Christmas morning. This collection is massive (in depth and weight - reading this book is an exercise for the mind and the arms!) and covers decades worth of birding adventures - each of which is accompanied by amazing photos.  When I say that the photos are amazing - there is no exaggeration.  I'd be happy to stamp my name on any of them, but when you consider the vast majority were taken in the pre-digital, pre-photoshop, pre-memory card days you begin to understand how much talent and passion was really involved.

Theodore's favorite type of birds are the water lovers and livers (hence the title).  From Snowy Egrets to Snow Geese, from the understatedly beautiful Willet, White Tern and Whimbrel to more showy and aptly named Reddish Egrets and the Purple Gallinule, if a bird was dependent on water for life, Theodore Cross would stop at nothing to see and photograph one of God's wonders.  While many of the pages are filled with a beautiful image matched with a brief but in-depth description of the species, the author takes many opportunities to tell the stories behind the photos.  The most incredible story and adventure involves the Ross's Gull.  For those of you who don't know, you may think what could be so "incredible" about a Gull, well I'll leave it up to the author to lead you down that path as he is a much better story teller than myself.  But his pursuit involves helicopter rides in Eastern Siberia, mosquitoes that could suck you dry in minutes and 100 degree temperatures - the ending of this story is a hard irony which many of you will be able to relate to (almost certainly on a much smaller scale).

I can only hope that at the end of my life journey I will have a collection of photos that could be compared to that of Theodore Cross's.  In this entire volume there are pictures that would make you say, "Oh, that's a nice picture of that species".  There are no ID photos - no snapshots.  No, each image is a work of art that can stand on its own, which is wildly enhanced with Mr. Cross's words.  He makes Great Blue Herons look as wild and rare as a Crested Auklet.  If there was ever one book to buy it would be this one.  Don't be surprised if you find yourself spending hours staring at the images... turning the giant pages in excitement to see what is next. The price of the book is steep - but this is the type of book that will hold a prominent place on your book shelf and not collect dust under a pile of tired and worn old field guides.

For a quick obituary from NPR click here: Ted Cross - White House Advisor / Birder

For a short overview of the book from the NY times go here: "Waterbirds" by Theodore Cross

To purchase the book and read more reviews, please click the image/link below.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Clapper Rail gets the Worm

NIkon D300s 300 f4 + 1.7x TC, f/6.7, 1/50s, ISO 1250, -.67 Exposure Compensation
I'm starting to get a little tired of looking at this Short-Eared Owl and not finding it (it was seen again today along Dune Rd.) but each time I take a trip I happen upon something of interest (Merlin drying off, Cooper's Hawk trying to stay warm) and today was not an exception.  A Clapper Rail (a species which has been reported sparingly along Dune Rd. in recent weeks) was out in the open hunting for food in the cold, rainy afternoon.  Photography wasn't a great option because the lighting was so bad and Clapper Rails don't do a lot of standing in one place, so I thought I'd try a little video clip and got lucky when it caught this clam worm.  Enjoy.

While I was patiently watching the Rail I noticed this Greater Yellow Legs a short distance away working the same stretch of water.  Though it's not unheard of to find a GYL at this time of year, it is a bit surprising.
Nikon D300s 300 f4 + 1.7X TC, f/6.7, 1/80s, ISO 1250, -.67 Exposure Compensation
You can probably see that the quality of these two images is not up to my normal standards.  Given the severe lack of lighting, and the combination of my 300 f4 lens and a 1.7X TC (magnifier), the maximum aperture (f-stop) I could use was f/6.7 which limits my shutter speed.  If I had a 500mm f4 lens for example, these exact same images could have been taken at a shutter speed 2 "stops" faster (approximately 1/320s or so) which would have resulted in a sharper image.  Or, I could have kept my 1/80s shutter speed and used a lower ISO (around 640) which would have produced a more detailed (and less noisy) image.  But alas, I don't own a $7,000 lens so I had to settle for lower quality images!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk

f/8, 1/1000s, ISO 400, Full Frame
I skipped out of work a little early to enjoy the sunshine (since it's been such a rare event this winter) and try and find a Short Eared Owl which has been seen sparingly along Dune Rd. in recent weeks.  Well surprise surprise no owl (I've yet to find one while in the act of pursuing one) but my trip was salvaged by a cooperative juvenile Cooper's Hawk perched on a telephone line directly north of the Tiana Beach parking lot.  The bird hungout for a little but when I tried to drive past it and continue east it took off into the thickets not to be seen again.  (Below is a quick video - not terribly exciting!)

I'm far from an expert on birds but it seems to me that there has been an increase in the number of Cooper's Hawks seen along Dune Rd. during non-migration times which is not their standard habitat.  Certainly during fall migration, Cooper's Hawks are seen in good numbers at places like the Robert Moses Hawk Watch but I find it interesting that these birds are frequenting the Dunes and marshes of Hampton Bays and East Quogue and competing with the likes of Northern Harriers, Merlins and Peregrines for prey.  If anyone knows more or wants to weigh in feel free to leave a comment.  In my opinion Cooper's Hawks have been expanding their range to include the barrier beaches at least on a very local scale.  Below are two images from last winter of an Adult Cooper's Hawk chasing off a Northern Harrier about 1/4 mile West of where the above bird was seen.

 Full Extension from the Cooper's:

For those looking for a good book to help you ID birds (and not just raptors) I use a few but to nail down the ID of this particular juv. Cooper's Hawk (which can be tough given their similarities to Sharp-Shinned Hawks) I used Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America which I highly recommend (book review to come!)


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

EPCAL Grasslands Safe for....

A Northern Harrier taking a break
... at least Two more years! According to today's Newsday (February 2, 2011), Riverhead has hired the consulting firm of Vanasse, Hangen Brustlin Inc. of Watertown Mass. for just shy of a half million dollars to review EPCAL (Enterprise Park and Calverton). The consulting group will conduct a comprehensive study to come up with a new zoning plan for the property which has mostly languished for the past 12 years since the Town of Riverhead received ownership of the property from the Federal Government.  Recently two mega projects have fallen through the cracks, with the Rechler's (a dynamic cousin duo with deep pockets and a penchant for holding local governments hostage over development plants) backing out after being told they could not construct housing on site, and the infamous "Riverhead Resorts" plan (which called for an indoor ski resort, among other things) was finally shot down by the Town after a long lapse in payments.  The fact that the Town strung Riverhead Resorts along for so long was pretty pathetic with the developer looking like someone owing a mobster a big debt and "promising" to pay next week.  Well thanks to these ineffective business plans, the grasslands at EPCAL and the 1,200 plus acres they cover are safe for a few more years.

Book Review: The Ultimate Field Guide to Photography

 National Geographic: The Ultimate Field Guide to Photography
Since I don't have any new images to post I'll do another book review from the stack I have sitting next to my desk.  I received the book National Geographic: The Ultimate Field Guide to Photography as a Christmas gift a few years ago when I was just starting out and rather unfamiliar with photography and it was a bear to try and decipher all of the new lingo through wikipedia and photography websites.  I was lost and frustrated - a bad combination when at the same time you are so anxious to go out and produce fine images.  Being that the book comes from Nat Geo you can be sure that the quality of images and advice you get is top notch - the book takes you from buying your camera to digital corrections and how to get creative with things like panoramic shots and compilations.  This particular version is a little outdated and as such if you are interested you should go for the revised version which can be found here: National Geographic Ultimate Field Guide to Photography: Revised and Expanded (Photography Field Guides).

This book gives a solid overview of how to consistently produce good images by following the "rule of thirds" learning proper exposure, selecting the correct aperture (or f-stop) and understanding the feedback your camera gives you (with histograms for example).  For me, being the new owner of a DSLR at the time, I was easily confused by all of the lenses available and the numbers associated with them (their f-stops and mm ranges).  I was under the impression that if 200mm brought my subject a lot closer than 55mm did, then a 300mm lens would be a huge improvement.  Well, for anyone who has used a 70-300mm lens for example knows that there is a small difference between 200mm and 300mm.  This book explained the different size and types of lenses (fish eye, wide angle, macro, zoom, telephoto, super zoom etc.)

What makes this book most helpful from a photographers point of view is that the main points of the book are illustrated beautifully with photos from Nat Geo photographers.  So when the book discusses wide-angle lenses, there is a photo taken with an extreme wide angle lens to get the point across.  There also are diagrams explaining different aspects of photography in detail - like the excellent section on aperture and "controlling light".  After read this section and studying the diagram, I was 100% confident in knowing how your aperture affects the amount of light that hits the sensor (and subsequently, your shutter speed).  In the section of the book that covers flash photography - a handful of images are presented to demonstrate how flash can effectively (and not so effectively) be used.

Another cool thing about this book is that it is written by a number of different photographers.  While the basic stuff is pretty cut and dry for professionals of this level, it's the creative sections of the chapters that let the authors transfer their photographic skills into words.  While one author writes a section on making an image tell a story (something that a photojournalist certainly would have experience in) another writes about how to use a remote camera setup (which a wildlife photographer would find very useful).  There is no generic feel with this book that you may get from other instructional titles - and the images are all gorgeous unlike other books that rely on cheapo stock images to fill their pages.

While there is a lot of good in this book - there are a few flaws (which may have been addressed in the updated version, I cannot speak to that).  The book covers a lot which can be a little overwhelming for a nubile shutterbug (though it is called the ULTIMATE field guide, so what should one expect?).  The section of film is a waste - we are well into the digital age and if you want to shoot film you need to buy some old books that really let you learn about it - not read 1 chapter that skims the basics.  The same can be said for the section on scanning for the most part.  While there may be some readers who are interested in scanning their original slides that is probably a true minority and this book would be better without it.  Some of the advice can be a little hokey (like the section on making your photos into cupcakes and cookies - yes, that's actually a section in the book) for a field guide that is supposed to take amateurs to the next level.

So, if you have been interested in photography for awhile but feel like you can't makes heads or tails when it comes to understanding ISO, aperture, lenses, focal length and shutter speeds and you want a comprehensive book to lay it all out for you this is an excellent title.  The authors are tried and true professionals and the pictures are nothing short of top-notch.  For the price, this book is a must.  If you are a more advanced shooter and consistently shoot your DSLR in Aperture Priority you're best saving your money for another title.  Click the link below to check out the newer version of the book - you won't regret adding this to your bookshelf.