Thursday, August 22, 2013

"Batting Practice" for Photographers

Photography takes practice, and bird photography requires the equivalent of baseball's batting practice.  Birds move, and sometimes they do it really quickly. This past Saturday, I had the privilege of visiting the Hawk Creek Wildlife Center in East Aurora, New York. Open to the public only four days a year, this was their annual Photo Day which included a good number of wild birds.  While these are wild animals in some degree of confinement, I strive to create a sense of a natural setting. I'm sharing these with the wish that they provide some enjoyment, no matter how stressful your day has been.

First off were a pair of tropical birds.

Hyacinth Macaw

Buffin's Macaw

 The Hyacinth Macaw had great personality. It's rather an outgoing bird which seemed to be seeking attention.  More subdued was the very colorful Buffin's Macaw at left.  In both cases, I worked for a photo that did not show the leather jesses on their legs. You'll see it was unavoidable to see them on the birds when they were flying.

A good number of the animals are rescues that cannot be returned to the wild. Some of them are capable of breeding as is the case for their Barn Owls.  If you are unfamiliar with this bird, be prepared to be dazzled.

Barn Owl adult

Even more awesome were the two Barn Owl chicks nestled in a bed of straw.  They stare at you and emit this growling hiss that surely would frighten most intruders.

Barn Owl chicks

Another stately member of the Owl clan is the Eurasian Hawk Owl.  (There is a Northern Hawk Owl that sometimes ventures south from Canada in harsh winters, but it lacks the ear tufts of this Eurasian version.)

Eurasian Hawk Owl

It is a bit larger than our native Great Horned Owl which it closely resembles.

The staff spends a large amount of each day attending to the animals needs which include exercise and nutrition.  For the birds capable of flight  --some cannot due to injuries-- there are daily flying sessions.  We were shown several animals flying between staff members. It began with an unlikely example, a Turkey Vulture. (Suppress any negativity to accept that TV's serve a valuable role and are graceful in flight.  Think of what happens in a big metropolis when the sanitation workers are on strike!)

Turkey Vulture

One nice aspect of the TV flight was that they are relatively slow and that makes for good practice before they bring out the other birds.  Next up was a Harris Hawk. 

Harris Hawk

It was a bit faster and more difficult to track and keep in focus.  Good batting practice for me. It was to get better, and  more challenging. This was my favorite flight demonstration.

Barn Owl launching

Gaining speed.

Streaking to the target.

While the event highlighted the birds, there were other interesting animals including a thoroughly tame North American Porcupine that kept pestering the handler, because it smelled her botanical hand lotion and wanted to find the yummy bark that it suggested.  The most unusual was a juvenile Canada Lynx cub that was so tame that we could enter its enclosure to photograph at close range.

Canada Lynx cub

So, what was my favorite.  Hard to choose, but collectively, I was most intrigued by the Barn Owls.  The feather texture is ethereal, the chicks growl is unexpected, and the adult flight is so graceful and totally silent that the overall experience is greater.  The Canada Lynx cub is just cute beyond words.  But, my choice is the large amount of practice I got in one five hour session.  In the wild, I would spend that many hours and only hope for 30 minutes of productive shooting.  It was batting practice before the big game that I'll soon be experiencing in Alaska.  No posting on that until mid September.

Best to you,


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Red-headed Woodpecker behavior

Spend a good number of hours this morning watching the pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers at May's Point on Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in New York. They were very active bring  feed into the nest cavity until around 10 am.  (Have not seen the chicks to date.)  When I got home and downloaded the images, I began to wonder what they were bringing in. Some of the photos clearly showed legs, likely insects, but several were puzzling.  Upon bringing up to full resolution, I saw this:

It appears to be two round objects, deep purple. I recalled two years ago watching a female Wood Duck nearby as it climbed around in wild grape vines and ate the grapes. There are wild grapes on the vines along the road to May's Point today.  So, I looked further into the sequence of images.

Again there appear to be two round berries, and the second one, on close examination, has a blossom bump (for lack of the proper botanical term).

Let's look at the third image.

I've got plenty more images, and they all lead me to conclude they are feeding wild grapes to their chicks along with insects. On my first visit there, I saw one of the adults collecting berries from the nightshade vines at the base of one of the dead trees.  That confirms that fruit are part of the feed. Had not thought fruit would be in the mix. 

There is always something new to discover in the natural world, especially when you stay in one place and let the action unfold.

Paul Schmitt

Friday, August 16, 2013

Waterfalls of Catherine Valley

Catherine Creek is a normally gentle trout stream running northward from Horseheads, New York towards Watkins Glen where it feeds Seneca Lake. Along its twelve mile run, numerous waterfalls drop into the valley, some fairly common cascades and a notable few notable drops.

Near the village of Montour Falls, Havana Glen Creek drops over Eagle Cliff Falls at a town park.

I like this spot because it is almost always quiet during tourist season.  A few locals like to visit the swimming hole beneath the falls on  hot days. 

Now, I mention the quiet because my other favorite place is Watkins Glen State Park.  If I want it to be quiet, I'll be there at sunrise or before.  By 9 am, it is busy and sometimes difficult to work with a tripod.  Still, it is lovely.

On one summer morning, I arrived at 5:45 am to quickly stride up the gorge trail to Central Cascade.  It was in the early time called "civil daylight" before the sun breaks the horizon. By the time I reached my first destination, I found a beautiful soft light absent the harsh contrast of midday.

Some ten years ago, a flash flood roared down this gorge and swept the stone walls off the bridge spanning the waterfall.  That is the sort of event that formed this gorge.

However, my main objective that morning was another level up the gorge at Rainbow Falls.

Rainbow Falls is actually the thin, wispy stream that gracefully forms a curtain over the gorge trail.  It is arguably the iconic scene in the park and a real challenge to render in a fresh way.  The key challenge here is keeping the lens free of water drops, as there are more thin wisps of water right at the best location to photograph. It is lovely here in the early morning without the distractions that come with the volumes of visitors.

Just recently, I returned to Watkins Glen on a busy day. I got the last parking space, so you can  imagine how many were in the park. On this day, I wanted to test some new photographic techniques, so only went as far as the first major waterfall, Cavern Cascade.  It is so named because the gorge trail seen on the left passes directly under the most distant waterfall and then into a tunnel spiraling up to a view above the falls.

While I may prefer the quiet times there, I do meet some very nice people who share my love for waterfalls.  ( I usually encourage them to also visit Taughannock Falls on Cayuga Lake.)  On this day, I met two photographers from Colorado.

While showing the entirety of a gorge waterfall is necessary, there are also smaller scenes that capture the magic of falling water.  I found this midway up Cavern Cascade.

This log has been wedged between the walls of the gorge for at least eight years, placed there by one of the violent flash floods. I expect it to be there until another, even more violent torrent dislodges it.

As I walk the trails in the gorge, I nearly always reflect upon the work of hundreds of Civilian Conservation Corps men during the Great Depression. Without them, the wonders of this place would likely be inaccessible, hidden from us.  Building is a enduring thing, when the work you do outlives you.  I wonder if they thought their labor would be so important to future generations?

Paul Schmitt