Thursday, June 22, 2017

Following an Osprey Nest

Ospreys have made a dramatic return to the Finger Lakes where the fishing can be very good. They are a graceful bird that is fun to watch.

A favorite nest site is the top of an electric pole.   If the pole has double crossbars, Osprey can erect a pretty stable structure.  Last fall I was on a bicycle trip with friends along a local river with no thought to birding; I looked off the elevated road to find an Osprey nest in the field below.  The road's elevation put me right at eye level to a nest. Usually nests are too high to see into. I made a note in my calendar and went back in early March.  There was a lone male Osprey beginning to rebuild the nest with new sticks.

Through March, I returned to see if he had found a mate.  He would call "Pee-Pee-Pee-Pee-Pee" with added excitement if the passing bird was another Osprey.  He got no takers.  By April, I wondered if he lacked charisma and I checked less often. Returning on May 14, I spied a female in the nest.  Finally!

On May 26, I could finally see a tiny head in the nest of sticks. Below you can see the female deep in the nest just after the male brought in a small fish.  The chick's head is the little dark object at the female's bill.  How many chicks?  I could finally see a head with my binoculars.  This is getting interesting.

The pair's duties are pretty well divided.  She is on the nest nearly always, and he is fishing for the next meal or perched nearby on guard.   As I watched the nest, I wondered what would happen to the remains in the nest.  It was answered maybe fifteen minutes later when the male returned (without another catch), and within a few minutes carried the rest of the bullhead away.  They've got the details figured out.

 Two weeks later, the chicks were considerably larger.  And, I could see three.  Beautiful!

You may wonder how I can be so sure of which is male or female.  See below the two adults on the nest.  The female is always larger, and the size difference is pretty substantial. 

Observation tells me that the female runs the show.  When the chicks are hungry, and the male is perched nearby, she rather emphatically tells him to get fishing.  Yesterday, when he flew over the  nest with no catch, her calls were almost to the alarm volume.  His duty is catching a fish.

In the photo above, the male had just brought in a fish and she is  inspecting it.  (Note the chick just in front of her legs.)  She moved it to the right side of the nest.  That seems to be her feeding station.  Seen below, the male quickly leaves to resume his fishing.

Now it is time to feed the chicks.  It seemed to follow a pecking order, with the dominate chicks always getting fed first.  The third chick seemed to rarely get much.

Occasionally, the female does fly away.  Twice, it has been to return in only a few minutes with fresh nest material.  Yesterday, she returned with what looked like dead corn shucks.

I wish I could close with images of the young Ospreys testing their wings and taking a first flight, but my calendar commitments suggest I will miss those moments unless their timing goes a bit slow.  I wish them a successful first flight.  Hopefully they will survive the year to begin their own nesting.  I'll never tire of capturing an Osprey in flight.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Spring Highlights

For the nature photographer, spring is an onrushing torrent.  It has consumed me to where posting to a blog has become lost.  Time to make amends with my highlights (so far) of this season.

It has been a wet and sometimes cool spring, so the waterfalls have at times been roaring. Taughannock Falls has been emptying huge volumes into Cayuga Lake.  It is the tallest straight drop east of the Mississippi easily dwarfing the tiny observer at the base.

In March, some waterfowl return beginning with the diving ducks after the ice clears from streams were they can fish.  Here is a Common Merganser male that came streaking past me in the canal at Montour Falls.

As soon as there is duck weed or other aquatic plants to feed upon, the male Wood Ducks arrive.  They are so beautiful, and their chatter is a sure sign of spring.


Like the mergansers, the Great Blue Heron only needs open water and fish to appear. The adult scored a triple!.

Early spring also brings forth the wildflowers such as this Trout Lily, also commonly called Adder's Tongue.  It holds its petal tightly closed until a warm sun appears, so its pollen is only available when insect pollinators are active.

Mixed in with the early wildflowers are the first wave of warblers such as this colorful Palm Warbler.  It's a ground hugging insect eater that can frustrate the photographer seeking a clear view.

Another sure sign of spring are the Trillium.  Here is Trillium erectum, Purple Trillium.  It is also nicknamed Stinking Willy because it has a strong, foul odor helpful in attracting flying pollinators. 

The other Trillium is Trillium grandiflorum. Oddly, I find it typically more erect on the stalk than the one given the name T. erectum.  I love them both and have them in my flower beds for enjoyment.

A final favorite wildflower for me is the Wild Geranium.  This one caught my attention because of the alignment of the three blooms and the well-presented leaf. The challenge is often not finding the plant but locating a good setting and stature. This is actually portraiture.

A welcome migrant in spring is the Song Sparrow.  Wow, does it ever sing a lot.

The Pine Warbler has been my nemesis for years.  Why?  It seems to exclusively forage on the tiptop level of pine trees, tall ones. It is a major cause of "warbler neck" - which is a sore neck from looking nearly directly overhead for a long time trying to see a tiny bird.  Got smart this spring and found some short pine trees. Bingo!

Another brilliant warbler is the Yellow Warbler.  It, too, is a strong singer, and thankfully found closer to eye level.

In early May, marshes fill with male Red-winged Blackbirds.  They stake out territories with loud calls and aggressive behavior to the neighboring males. They can really get worked up into a frenzy.  Look at how the reddish-orange wing bars fluff up when he is excited.

As the weather warms, insects begin to appear and agile insect eaters follow naturally.  One with real character is the pugnacious Eastern Kingbird. They won't even yield to a Canada Goose.

A more colorful insect eater is the Yellow-throated Vireo. Like other vireos, it can be a steady voice in the woods.

A bird of the big woods is the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Easily missed, it is usually quiet but does have a somewhat deep-throated song easily recognized to match its  name.  Isn't it distinctive?

Now, for my favorite image of the spring so far, here is an Indigo Bunting gracefully perched on a branch.

So, that is my spring to date.  I'm working on an Osprey nest, plus another pair of nesting birds with hopes that they yield distinctive images.   I would love to know which of these images is your favorite.

Best regards,

Paul Schmitt

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Flowers as Portraiture

This summer, I am offering a two-day photography program called Flowers as Portraiture.  Through the ages, flowers have often been interpreted in terms of human emotions. Composing a photo to reflect your emotional response undoubtedly creates an image with a "hook" for the viewer. 

I've begun to build my teaching examples this winter with trips to three greenhouses - the Liberty Hyde Bailey Conservatory at Cornell University, the plant production greenhouses of the US Botanic Garden and a wonderful orchid exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum of the Smithsonian in Washington.

So, let's begin at the Bailey Conservatory with a luscious cluster of Bougainvillea. I see them as a group of happy ladies, smiling for a group shot.  Greenhouses are typically pretty cluttered. After all, they are not art galleries. For this portrait, I used a tripod and put the camera on a shutter delay.  After triggering the shutter, I quickly positioned a piece of black cloth to simplify the composition. 

Again at the Bailey Conserv-atory, I selected a Passionflower as a subject.  The red is bolder and the flower itself is pretty fancy.  It seems to me like a masked male figure on a Mardi Gras float.  Now, there was a metal rod on the left edge, and I could not get the black cloth between it and the flower.  The solution was to take a dead stalk and wrap it around the rod.  That is the yellowish stalk along the left side.  It looks natural, and being out of focus, it doesn't pull much attention from the masked person.

For both of these, I shot in manual so the predominate dark tones didn't push the exposure too bright.

At the US Botanic Garden, the challenges were greater. It is a production facility open only  once a year. Moving any plant is out of the question, and tripods are not allowed. A black cloth was not possible.

The large single bloom orchids are, to me, straight captures of human faces.  Yellow is bright and cheery.  The orchid seems to be smiling with a little tilt of the face.  The tilt seemed to add a little engagement with the viewer.   I got low and shifted around until there was a uniformly bright background.  It was a sunny day, so I kept a polarizing filter on the lens to reduce the shine on the flower and leaves.

Let me emphasize the importance of the background.  Once the subject is identified and you have a composition that carries the "hook", you need to seek the background that does not distract from the character of your subject. The fuzzy greens (above) complement the bloom and the gray metal structures in the back are not identifiable . I clipped the left side to keep some ugliness from intruding.  Cutting out the tip of the left petal is not important.  You know there is an end to the petal even if not shown.

The Hirshhorn is a museum of contemporary art and culture, so their exhibit Orchids: A Moment is a welcome acknowledgement of the artistic character of nature, and especially of these highly sensuous flowers. The plants are rotated in on a weekly basis to ensure that all are at peak condition.  The display is clutter-free; I was able to create clean portraits without greenhouse clutter. 

This simple cluster of buds with a pair of open blooms seemed like an environmental portrait of delicate youth. The off-white background had a slight bluish tint that made the creamy white petals.  The pink in the blooms is complementary to the yellow-green buds.  Note that the top flower faces into the frame and the lower one looks at you.  There is just enough in the image to tell you about the bloom, the leaves and the stalk with no distractions.  Isn't that a hallmark of a good portrait?

Another orchid captured my imagination as a noble personage sitting for a portrait.  The flower is angled away just slightly to reveal some  curvature that suggested depth in a two-dimensional medium.

Often I see various lady's slippers standing in a cluster that suggests a family portrait.  I see the   lower petals as tresses of hair and the top one as a bonnet. These are --by my interpretation-- the Three Sisters. A key action for this situation is to use a smaller aperture so that all three are reasonably sharp.  I typically focus on the closest bloom and adjust the angle, so that the back flower  is not too distant, and make sure the blooms are not looking away from the viewer.

While my workshop is presented as botanical photography, it is reasonable to gain comparable skill in people photography by following two points. First, be able to describe the message in your photo in a simple sentence.  (Message:  Shelly is a happy and outgoing young girl.)  Second, once you have the message formed into a composition, give a lot of attention to the background so that your message does not get muddled by distractions.

Paul Schmitt

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Chaos and Creativity

We live in a chaotic world. This is true in both our Mother Earth and in humanity.   Order is only occasional.  I have set aside time this winter to explore the creative side of my photography.  Perhaps the lessons learned will be useful or, at the least, entertaining.

The seldom used railroad tracks at Centerway in Corning offer the order of the track's gauge.

Consider the art of music.  In music, like the rest of life, we yearn for order.  Melody presents order over cacophony. That is why I like Dixieland jazz, but have often found it necessary to leave modern jazz performances at intermission.  Some of it lacks the order of melody. It just runs scales.

A composer of music gains acceptance by a fresh progression on new melodies that explore new forms. They exhibit an absence of prejudice.  So it is that I pushed myself to seek new subject matter on a few winter days.  Dead grasses have not been one of my preferred subjects.

In recent days, I have sought subject matter outside my usual preferences.  Globs of half melted snow on a small outdoor statuette offered an unexpected composition; I don't usually think in monochrome.  It just seems to simplify the message.

I also have a prejudice against blah winter skies with no color nor texture.  Overcoming that brought me to use negative space to show the naked form of a deciduous tree.

So much of winter seems better in black and white.  Color does have a place, such as this cluster of oak leaves clinging to the branch in spite of harsh winds. Telling that  message with clarity meant paying more attention to the background than the leaves.  Busy "stuff" in the background would confuse the message.

I finished today's photo exploration outside the headquarters building of Corning Incorporated.  The black reflective glass walls offer an orderly facade to reflect the hard winter scene in the adjacent park. I prefer this reflecting wall in summer when it includes strolling visitors against a backdrop of leafy green trees and blue sky. 

I had to overcome my unfavorable opinion of the scene.  My preference is to photograph elements of the natural world such as bird behavior, flowers and landscapes, always in color. I will continue preferring this, but I believe the exercise has led me to approach each day without prejudices on what will be offered of merit. 

Paul Schmitt

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Best of 2016

Here is a summary of what I consider my best of 2016.  One regular theme in my nature photographer's group is the importance of picking one's best image of a subject.  It's a great discipline.  I will admit it is difficult to eliminate a photo when some special attachment is there, but, here goes.

 This is at Circle B Bar Reserve near Lakeland, FL.  The adult Barred Owl on the right was preening its fledgling owlet. The behavior was so tender. Unforgettable.

 The white morph of the Reddish Egret reminds one of a ballet dancer when it prances across the shallows scaring up small fish.  The wings are raised high to reduce glare on the water.  Photographed at Fort DeSoto Park near Tampa, FL.

 The Roseate Spoonbill acquires its pink color from the shrimp it eats.  They are a large, graceful flyer.  Photographed on Tampa Bay.

From a distance, I saw two large male Wild Turkeys  escorting a flock of hens at Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains. Judging their direction of travel, I hurried to the middle of a large meadow and waited. They came very close to me.  As the boys trailed the hens,  they were displaying their vigor to each other.  Eventually, the other tom could not flare his tail feathers completely. He had lost the contest and retreated, leaving this male to control the flock.

I staked out a favorite perch for this Belted Kingfisher at a nearby marsh.  When the bird arrived, I locked the tripod on my composition and fired a burst of exposures at the first hint of movement.  With two good images separated by only 0.1 second, I layered them to show the dynamics of how the bird launches towards its prey.

The Eastern Towhee is a prolific songster in the spring.  I was attracted by the way his orange sides are echoed in the newly spreading leaves beneath his breast.

I have a love affair with wild orchids, and it began with Pink Lady's Slippers. They are so sensuous and completely wild, not allowing man to cultivate them from seed.  I treat them as an anthropomorphic portrait.

Capturing a Bald Eagle in flight to  me is something on the level of hitting major league baseball pitch. Well, maybe a little easier, but its close.  No time to hesitate and a lot to consider - flight path, head angle, frontal lighting, perfect focus on the eye, accurate tracking and a really fast shutter speed.  Add a little luck and when it works, it is rewarding.

Wild Columbine present a very simple color set - red, yellow and green.  Not exotic like the orchids, but a delightful wildflower to erase the memory of winter.

I spent much of the summer stalking Green Herons on the nearby river. They are shy and unpredictable.  I was finally able to stalk this bird due to his strong focus on a school of small fish. This was my only image with its crest raised.  He appears to have caught a small walleye.

Went to see Pennsylvania's elk herd this fall during the rut.  On a foggy morning I located this huge bull.  I called him Big Nasty.  When he came out of the woods, the force of his bugling formed a cloud of steam.

Autumn is a challenge to me. The expansive landscapes just don't capture the season.  Here, the colorful leaves, the rushing water and the massive boulders  present three contrasting elements of fall in the Great Smoky Mountains.

As autumn turns into winter, the Bald Eagles congregate in large numbers on the lower Susquehanna River. Tracking the acrobatics as the birds bank to locate the fish is great practice and sometimes rewarding.  They certainly are a powerful animal.

The Finger Lakes region is rich with waterfalls.  In the fall, they are decorated with autumn's leaves.  A fortunate placement of a dead tree adds more interest as the upper falls seems to pour onto the arch of the tree.  Just like real estate, it's location, location, location.

So, these are my favorite images of 2016 minus one that I saved for last. 

This is ....  the end.