Monday, July 23, 2012

A Successful Failed Outing

Our local baseball team has blown the lead in so many games this year that I accuse them of a new tactic- snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  It is supposed to go the other way in order to reward persistence.  So, it was for me today.  

I went out for birds this morning.  The first place was a zero. Best to forget it.  Then I went to Cornell's Arnot Teaching and Research Forest.  I spent about 1-1/2 hours along the creek that parallels the entrance road. It was frustrating. There were several Red-eyed Vireos but all too distant. One inquisitive Dark-eyed Junco lifted my spirits with its song and feeding behavior along the creek bank.

I usually see these Juncos mostly in the winter, so I am newly appreciating their summer song. Still, I was frustrated.  Packed up and drove up the road hoping to find birds I could photograph from the car.  Reached the top and not even a Goldfinch. It was turning out to be pretty much a failed outing. Then, I came upon the the foundations of some long gone farm buildings with a large bed of naturalized Day Lilies and Pink Phlox.  A second look spied Tiger Swallowtails.  So, today was now about butterflies, not birds.  Maybe I could get something out of this.

I noted that the swallowtails were all getting pretty tattered.  Still, the combination of hot  colored Pink Phlox plus the feeding swallowtails was a lift to my spirits. I ignored the fact I have these in my house garden.

What more could I expect?  As I was concentrating on a pair of swallowtails some 12 feet away, I gave no attention to what was happening on the flowers very nearby.  After all, these blooms would be too close to focus on.  But, some movement did catch my attention, and I had something to surpass the butterflies.  Have you ever seen these?  Hope so.

It is a Hummingbird Moth, technically a clearwing moth.  They hover to feed  just like their namesake Hummingbird. We discovered them on our pink phlox some years ago, and eagerly await them each year.  They are about 1-1/4 inches long typically.  You can see in the next photo the clearwing.

They are an extreme challenge to photograph. They never stay on a bloom for very long and are erratic in their flight. You have to be fast and have a quick-focusing camera.   The image above has a shutter speed of 1/3200 second in order to stop the motion. No flash can help at this brief shutter opening.

Oh yes, I did see a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird on the phlox, but she was quick to see me and exit. Too bad.

So, somehow this failed outing did turn out to be successful. With that in mind, I passed on a ball game tonight to edit the photos and share them with you.  Hope you enjoyed them.

Paul Schmitt

Monday, July 16, 2012

Scarlet Tanager. Wow!

Fellow photographer Ray Hunt joined me at Newtown Battlefield Reservation near Elmira this morning.  Each time that I go there, I see something different, and often come away with a new bird in my photo collection.  Same today.

I first wanted to find a Hooded Warbler for Ray. Technically, I did that.  Honestly, the bird was not  cooperative and the light was poor. It was a humid morning and I got the feeling that the birds were going to be scarce.  Never saw a single Black-capped Chicadee, and they are real common. But at least we saw one of the warblers and have a photo to prove it. I hope Ray got a better image.

As we moved on along the trail, I kept hearing birds that I was unfamiliar with.  They were high in the trees against a bright, flat white sky. All I saw was a form with no color and no real idea of size. The trail I had chosen is on a hillside with the sun shining towards the downhill side, so eventually we saw some at our eye level and against the distant land rather than the bright sky.  Scarlet Tanager!  I've never photographed them, so this became exciting.

You may ask how I could not see the color against the sky, but even such a bright red is lost in strong backlight. Thankfully, the bird came down lower on a few occasions.  My neck was pretty sore when the bird stayed high overhead. As a technical note, I used fill flash to bring out the colors against the brightly illuminated background leaves. The flash helps reveal the texture of the feathers too.

As nice as the preceding image is, I really wanted the bird to be in full voice.  It shows the energy of the bird. Over time, I finally had the combination of an uncluttered setting and the timing to catch the song in progress. You can see how the lower bill is quivering. It is less distinct than the upper bill. (More often than not, the bird perches behind a leaf or branch, and prevents a useful photo. Birds can be very uncooperative. Patience and luck are key ingredients for bird photography.)

Such a beautiful bird! But, I still wanted it to come lower and show those jet black wings and tail against the brilliant scarlet body. Finally, my wish was granted.

At some point, Ray and I were satisfied.  It was becoming more humid and uncomfortable. We had both forgotten to bring water.  I think we had each captured about 150 images to chose from.  We completed the walk over more trails, but it became really quiet.  We agreed that the heat and humidity had put the birds into rest mode. It was a good morning for both.

Paul Schmitt


Friday, July 13, 2012

Sometimes a simple camera will do..

I am excited at the prospect of a full class tomorrow for my first workshop on smart phone photography. Preparing for the class has really advanced my understanding and skill with this minimal camera.  I am at times amazed at what this iPhone4 will produce and only hope I can inspire others to explore their possibilities with the smart phone camera.

So, in finalizing the material this morning, I needed a few more photos and did not have time to go further than my backyard.  I chanced upon a very bold Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on the coneflowers. With some editing on the computer, I achieved two reasonable image of one of my favorite butterflies. I was only about 5 to 6 inches from the subject!

The nectar must have been powerfully sweet to overcome the butterfly's aversion to people.

I only hope that I can cover 16 people when we are in the herb garden at Cornell Plantations.


Paul Schmitt

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Hooded Warbler!!

After posting the five bird photos from the Newtown Battlefield Reservation last night, I got the energy to go back this morning to see if I could fill in the missing photos of the Hooded Warbler.  The image of the Hooded Warbler was so strong  in my mind that I had to try.

Going back to the exact location where I saw the bird over a week ago, I was not very hopeful.  But chance must have been on my side.

Hood Warbler, male

If you were unfamiliar with this bird, you might have wondered at my high interest.  Now you can see for yourself. The bird looks like it is wearing a balaclava hood. 

Hooded Warbler in full song

The bird was actually very vocal and I began to suspect there was  a second male nearby, but it always stayed under cover. Their eyesight must be extraordinary.  Sometimes it would interrupt its song to dash under some oak leaves and catch some prey. I concluded the bird was fully aware of me, but like a House Wren, comfortable with my closeness. At one point, it was about five feet over my head and another time it was less than ten feet away at eye level.  Amazing.

So, continuing on my request to pick your favorite photos, would anyone want to change their vote?  I really appreciate you comments because it helps me select images for an exhibit I have scheduled next year.


Paul Schmitt

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Birding Hotspot near Elmira

I so often find myself chasing the latest bird hotspot on the internet and wondering what I am missing close to home.  So, I've recently explored  the Newtown Battlefield Reservation State Park near Elmira.  First, it is extremely quiet so I felt like I had the park to myself each time.  That makes for undisturbed birds. 

Second, it is a very good woods for breeding birds.  The first time, I hiked without camera to get a maximum distance explored.  The high point was a Hooded Warbler some fifteen feet away.  (.. and no  camera!) Also had juvenile Wood Thrush being fed by a parent, vireos, veeries, and many other warblers.

The last two times, I photographed from my car and never had a single vehicle pass me.  I could have parked in the middle of the road had it been necessary to get the right position for the photograph.   Birds come very close to a car without locating the person inside.

Here are a few of the many birds I photographed.

Red-eyed Vireo

 As I listened to the nearly constant singing by the vireo, I realized which bird the nearby Gray Catbird most often was imitating, the Red-eyed Vireo.  So, I have to include a Catbird singing.

Gray Catbird

Next was arguably  the most  precocious warbler in the woods.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Near the stone obelisk there is a parking lot edged by rows of bushy cover, mostly Rosa palustris and Elderberry.  It was alive with several birds.  First were the large and rowdy Brown Thrashers.

Brown Thrasher

The Thrashers seemed to alternate between foraging inside the rose bushes and on the mowed lawns.  

My attention was suddenly pulled away to a surprise visit on the Elderberry bushes. A Cedar Waxwing came in to feed on some of the unopened flower buds.  What a surprise!

Cedar Waxwing

My final visitor was a Northern Cardinal male that perched in a very artistic setting.

Northern Cardinal

I've learned that it is impossible to anticipate the one incredibly short moment when the bird's eye has the little highlight and the beak is holding the tiny berry perfectly poised with a clear background.  But, at four frames a second, I  have a chance to get the perfect shot.  These five images represent the select few of  more than 450 images. This is only possible with a digital camera and a very big memory card. But, I also had to be up just a little after 5 a.m. It was worth it.

Further bird images are on my SmugMug website at:

Gallery of Perching Birds

My next visit will be on one of the side-hill trails where I can be level with the tree tops.  My thinking is that I can get images of the small warblers that prefer to feed in the upper tree level.   Wish me luck.

Paul Schmitt