Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Close to Home

Sometimes you find the most rewarding images close to home and without much effort. I've got a bird feeder in a friend's woods.  It is a bee hive of activity, mostly Black-capped Chickadees.  They are one of my favorite birds- tame, always active and sweetly voiced.  They are extremely quick, and I've often tried to catch that instant when they take wing.  It required more anticipation than reaction.  If you fire the shutter when you see motion, well, it's always too late.  

So, when I am refilling the feeder I try to take a few photos in the hope I will get it right.  Finally, I hit it spot-on and got this delightful image:


Monday, February 6, 2012

Winter at Chincoteague

I've been eager to get some good bird photography to test a new camera.  So, when the weather opened up for three sunny days, off I went to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia.   When most people think of the refuge, they think of Assateague ponies and large flocks of waterfowl driven south to Virginia by hard northern winters. Well, this has not been a hard winter, not so far. There have been some positive reports on the birds at the refuge, and I could always move north to Prime Hook and Bombay Hook NWRs in Delaware.

The drive is a good five hours, so I could arrive about two hours before the Wildlife Loop opens to cars.  Photographing from the car can be very nice because the birds do not react as they would to a person standing outside.   The main refuge road leads out to the ocean beach, and usually you will see some of the ponies along the way. Be wary of cars containing small children. They'll make sudden stops to pile out and  take photographs, usually of the kids with ponies in the background.  Admittedly, photographers do make the same sudden stops, just for different reasons.  And, they usually hang around for a longer time.

Moving on from the ponies,  I saw little on the causeway to the ocean or at the seaside.  A  visit to the visitor center confirmed the best was likely on the wildlife loop.

It was Monday, the quietest day of the week, so I got in line at the gate for the 3 pm opening.   It was nice to be first to claim a nice spot, first near a pair of Pintails. They are just beautiful.   I've found it good to just sit and let things develop. So many see the bird, snap a photo and rush on. I don't, and think I see more.

The best of the afternoon was the Tundra Swans towards the middle of the loop. On the next day neither Pintails nor Tundra Swans were on the Wildlife Loop. 

I've put a couple of nice Pintail photos in  my waterfowl gallery at:


I ended the day watching a pair of Tundra Swans silhouetted against the orange sky's reflection at the end of the loop.Perhaps the best aspect of Chincoteague in late January is the absence of insects.  If you've been there in summer, you really appreciate the difference.

Tuesday dawned beautiful, if cold. But it warmed quickly.  A large part of my early morning was watching a Great Blue Heron fishing along the causeway to the beach.

The Strike
The Catch- a Double

 In watching dozens of heron strikes that morning, I only saw one that might have come up empty.  Wish I could have been that successful fishing.

I decided to explore the refuge's Woodland Trail.  I'd been seeing quite a few warblers while watching the herons, and the trail seemed a good choice to find some to photograph closely.  Did not see any warblers, and the male Northern Cardinals were pretty skittish, but I was seeing  the endangered Delmarva Fox Squirrel.  I was seeing them running across the asphalt pavement of the trail.  Not good by my  measure. Then, near the end of my walk, I spotted a single squirrel high in a pine tree just beneath a huge mass of debris, likely a nest. They are significantly larger than the common Grey Squirrel.

There was a side trail, the Bivalve Trail, that went to the tidal flats.  I discovered that these flats are open to oyster cultivation and harvesting. It seems to have been an accommodation to the local fishery when the refuge was established. I can tell you that I had the most delicious pan fried oysters at dinner and heartily support any access for oyster harvesting.

Now, when the Wildlife Loop opened on Tuesday, it was pretty much a bust.  No Pintails, Swans or such anywhere near. I saw a flock of Willets lift off and head seaward, so I changed the plan and hoped I would find shorebirds in the surf.

Well, I was in luck. Dozen of Willets were probing the sand for small snails and periwinkles.  The wind was perfect for them to wing past me with the sun nicely bathing them in warm evening light. And there were gulls too.

This is a Herring Gull, but I also had some Great Black-backed Gulls working in among the Willets and Herring Gulls. It was nearly 50 degrees, but a 20 mph wind made my hands numb.  I could not think of trudging back through the soft sand for gloves, only to get back when the light was gone.

I was to return home on Wednesday.  Deciding I had exhausted the subjects at Chincoteague, I made a very early start to reach Prime Hook by 8:30 am.  I found a beach road and there were some very nice waterfowl close to the road including a very stately pair of Pintails. Thankfully, the road was very lightly traveled and I could pull over safely for long periods of time.
So, on the final day, it is a balance between getting the photos and getting home. I'd seen some flights of Snow Geese but they were high. Two more beach roads were empty.  The final stop was Bombay Hook.
Rounding a road at its intersection with the apply named Thirteen Curves Road, there was a pair of Snow Geese only ten feet from the pavement.  Surprise!

Driving on, I came upon a winter wheat field literally covered with Snow Geese.  I think it best to quantify them by the acre, not the thousands. Just too many to put a number on. Still, they were not close enough for mid range images.   

 The noise is one of continual cacophony with a mix of goose vocalization plus the wing noise. I imagine they can strip a field in a day.

Entering Bombay Hook NWR, I only found the most common waterfowl, generally too distant plus one male Bufflehead.  He was too distant for a really good image.  Looking at the clock, it was time to leave if I was to make it thru Philly before rush hour. 

I pulled into the refuge visitor parking, safely stowed the gear in the trunk, and thought about where to get a lunch before beginning the drive.  However, just 1/2 mile out of the refuge at a cross road, I spotted several acres of Snow Geese right alone the quiet road.  Easy to photograph from the car.  Change of plans.  Pull out the big lens, drive near and give it fifteen minutes. They were so "tame" I could get out of the car and rest the camera on the trunk deck.

The new plan was to skip the diner, get a sub sandwich and hit the road.  Home  by dinner and facing over a thousand images to cull down to the best seventy.  Happy man.

Obviously, there are many more good images, all in higher resolution, to enjoy. I've put a few more on my Flickr page at:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/pschmitt_at_flickr/

I've posted the best high resolution images in the Bird Galleries of  webpage.  Seek out the sub-galleries for Waterfowl and Shore & Wading Birds. Go to: http://pschmitt.smugmug.com/

I hope you find these images enjoyable and that you too have the opportunity to enjoy Chincoteague in the Winter.  I'd love it if you find this  something to share with your friends.

Thanks for visiting my blog.

Paul  Schmitt

Finding the Snowy Owl

The winter of 2011-2012 has brought an irruption of Snowy Owls to the Finger Lakes of New York. Normally a resident of the far north, this brings the birder a rare opportunity to see a remarkably beautiful bird. So, when I read a posting that a Snowy Owl was a forty minute drive away, I loaded both camera and binoculars for a Sunday  morning foray.

We arrived at the New York Chiropractic College mid-morning and headed to the tennis court/soccer field area.  From the paved road, it appeared that the field was empty except for a white plastic bag tangled in the supports of a small set of bleachers. But, looking thru our binoculars, we saw THE BIRD!  Oh, wow! Even having looked in the field guide, I was not ready for the striking beauty of this stately bird.

The markings indicate this is a first year juvenile bird. Noting the height of the bleacher seats, this juvenile is still a big bird, likely 20 inches or so in height.

The upper seat  has a regurgitated pellet; that would be the indigestible bits of hair, bone and tooth that will not pass thru the birds system. We later found four of them indicating the bird has been there awhile,and hunting successfully. Given that the birds are here because of a food problem in their normal range, this is a hopeful sign it will survive.

There were Crows in the area, and shortly it moved to a nearby soccer goal.  At one point, not in this photo, it shifted to reveal its claws.  Like any owl, they are formidable.

Anyway, this was a nicer, clearer image of the bird and although in both cases, the owl is resting on artificial features, I liked this image because of cleaner background.

Now, Crows love to harass any bird of prey, and the owl showed some nervous attention to them as they came closer.

 Shortly, the owl took flight again.  The wingspan is huge. My Sibley field guide suggests  52 inches.  This is one really big owl.

Well, I am not sure the move to a nearby tree line was a good one. Perhaps the tree branches did keep the Crows a little more distant. About a half dozen Crows would take turns swooping down on the owl as they screamed insults.

When a Crow came really close, the owl would open its beak widely and probably hiss back a threat.  At other times when the pass was not too close, the owl seemed to ignore the harasser.

It seemed after 5 or so minutes that the Crows had satisfied their need for sport, and began to drift off, still expressing their anger. The owl did seem to quiet down over the next few minutes.

I noted thereafter that the owl was craning its neck downward repeatedly, seeming to be following something on the ground.  Maybe we were to see it strike? The answer is, maybe.
The owl lifted off and flew away into the adjacent farm field. The view was very limited.

It was past noon, and we were hungry.  After finding a nice diner, we returned. The Snowy Owl was still in the field, sitting next to a fence post at a distance too far to photograph.  Hopefully, it had made another kill and would make another step towards surviving the winter to return north.

So, a few words should you be inclined to look for this bird.  The college security person suggested that if was okay on weekends to drive onto the gravel road near the soccer field; probably not okay on weekdays. The gravel road is actually posted against unauthorized vehicles but weekends are pretty quiet.  If you stay in your car on the gravel road, you will minimize the birds reaction to your presence. On weekdays, I would park next to the maintenance building and glass the bird from there or a short distance on the gravel.

Photos with Nikon D300s, lens at equivalent of 780 mm and cropped from that.

Other photos at:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/pschmitt_at_flickr/