Friday, October 23, 2015

Amazing Galapagos Birds

A single visit to Galapagos can never come close to seeing, much less photographing all of the exciting birds one sees. Here are a few that bring back good memories of our week.  One has to begin with the Blue-footed Boobies.  They just make me smile.  My one regret is never capturing one of these in the ferocious dive they make into the sea.  Could that justify another visit?

There is also the Nazca Booby that fishes farther out to sea.  It did not exhibit any courting, but its stately appearance was memorable.

Catching the birds in flight is a passion of mine. One day we landed on South Plaza Island, where we hiked to the top of a high cliff to watch the seabirds barrel in to land on their cliff-side nests. Amazing.

Two birds were particularly fun to track in an attempt to capture the moment.  The first was the Swallow-tailed Gull seen at left.  It is the only fully nocturnal gull, feeding on squid and other fishes that are active after dark.  Notice the rather hook shaped bill that may aid in grasping prey.

Another exceedingly beautiful bird seen at South Plaza was the Red-billed Tropicbird.  I'd seen it from the boat at a distance, and I approached the cliff with a determination to capture one of these in flight.  Seen below, the Tropicbird has a long trailing tail, plus a distinct face with brilliantly colored bill and dark eyebrows. 

They came roaring in from the sea with a strong tailwind. It was difficult to keep the bird in the viewfinder. But it only got more difficult as the bird did a U-turn into the wind and bounced about approaching the cliff face below.

I could have spent an entire day at this location and never lost interest, but that is not allowed and the rest of the party would have intervened.

One afternoon we landed about three hours before sunset with the objective to see an albatross rookery, but one should be open to surprises.  Early on the trail we saw the Galapagos Dove perched on some rocks. It's a beautiful bird.

Not far up the trail we saw a group from another boat intent on something, and it was truly special.  A Galapagos Hawk was feeding a single chick atop some rocks.

We continued on toward the rookery, where we hoped to find Waved Albatrosses.  Albatross are huge (7-1/2 ft. wingspan),  graceful seabirds that soar effortlessly over the ocean for most of their lives, only coming to land to breed. They are considered a vulnerable species, with Espanola being their primary breeding location worldwide.

Much like Blue-footed Boobies, the Waved Albatross couple performs several rituals, such a bill-circling and tapping, bill clacking, bowing and raising their neck to make a Whooing sound.  While this was not a huge rookery, we did see some pairs courting.  The bird's name derives from the wave-like pattern in the feathers around the neck.

Breeding, like is the case for the boobies, seemed to be in several stages simultaneously. There was one nest with a large chick watched over by a parent.  At other nests, a parent was sitting on an egg.

One morning we were up before sunrise to land as early as possible.  It proved to be worth the effort. Quietly approaching a brackish pond near our landing beach, we saw Pink Flamingos peacefully feeding near our opening.  Another boat came ashore an hour later and found the birds on the distant side of the pond.  Yes, the early start was best.

Flamingos are one of those birds that is always exciting to see.  Not likely to turn down a chance to see yet another one in a wild location.  So it was, that days later we landed for a walk on another island, and were surprised to see a few more that were unusually approachable.

I'll end this with two of the more elusive birds seen.  First is the Woodpecker Finch. It's small and not seen around the seaside, but rather, in our case, found up in the highlands of Santa Cruz while we were visiting a ranch that has many Giant Tortoises.  Did not expect this little bird - likely one of the more unusual of the Darwin finches.  Look at that bill!

The Storm Petrel is not uncommon in the Galapagos. Actually, it was unusual not to see them trailing the boat as we cruised to another location.  They are the smallest of seabirds. The birds are swallow-like as they dip and dive near the water's surface picking up planktonic life - crustaceans and small fish. The challenge for me was to capture that elusive and brief instant when they dip down to the claim their food. It was steady entertainment to watch them from the stern of the boat.

So, there you have my highlights of the amazing birds we saw in the Galapagos, and you have another reason to put this on your bucket list.



Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Make Your Autumn Photos Special

I confess that I have had a love-hate relationship with autumn.  It is arguably the most difficult season to really capture in photos.  Are you surprised?  Blame it on how our brain builds a collage of the scene.

On a recent trip  to Adirondack Mountains,  I never drove past this barn without seeing one to three cars stopped to photograph it. It is dull. Our brain sees the distant colors and cancels out the dull reds of the barn and the fading grasslands.  Only a small portion of the photo really has colorful trees.  But, that dull red barn is the introduction to the story our photo is telling.  Do you read a book with a dull first chapter?  Not often.

So, I am going to share some ideas for transforming your autumn photos from average to very interesting. First, you should be able to describe what a photo is saying in one sentence. This photo said to me:

It was worth the half-mile hike on a cool fall morning to see  the rich colors at Round Pond.

It has some interesting shoreline in the foreground to lead the viewer toward the colorful trees, and then to the deep blue sky with wisp colds.  As a bonus, the trees and sky are doubled up as reflections on the mirror-like water.  Compare it to the first photo that has only mediocre foreground, modest color and a modest blue sky with no clouds to add interest.  Here are the first two concepts to make better fall photos:
  • Put something of interest in the foreground.
  • Only show the sky if it is interesting.
Yes, cut out the sky if it is  uniform.  Here is a photo on a day with a flat white sky, but putting colorful beech leaves in the foreground told a story of a rocky ledge on a mountain brook in fall.

This image also introduces a third concept:
  •  Use selective focus to identify the photo's subject and control where the viewer enters the scene.
The beech leaves are our introduction, as the eye begins exploring the scene. We see color and know the season.  The background does not have to be sharp for the mind to understand the setting. With a large aperture (meaning low f number), the depth of focus is shallow and the leaves are sharply delineated.  If you are not sure which aperture to use, shoot a range of values and pick the best when you get home.

Selective focus goes in hand with another key concept. 
  •  Make a range of shots just like the movies where they have eight different shots defined.
We can compose shots that  range from the extreme wide angle --Think the barn photo that I began with.-- to a close up which may only have an actor's face.  My version of the close up at right tells the story of a red and orange maple leaf, whose fall landed landed on a tiny branch.  Again, see how selective focus started the viewer on the leaf, and the background is understandable, but not competitive. Do this when you show people in the scene. Put them close to the camera with a pleasing background that is not competing with them.

While I did travel to the Adirondacks for the first two images, it is not necessary to make a long drive. The maple leaf photo at left was on a nature trail only a few miles from my home.  Also, you do not need to have the so-called peak colors to capture autumn.  This photo was made past peak, when I looked as much on the ground as into the tree tops.

This brings me to another idea for really seeing all that autumn can offer for photography.  It is not just about colorful trees.  There is much more that is happening. On yet another walk near home, I traveled an abandoned farm road looking for migrating birds.  I saw none, but a wandering eye saw the milkweed in the process of casting its wispy seeds into the wind. This, too, is the season.

So often there is just too much going on, both in our daily lives and in the photos that we make. That introduces another concept for both:
  • Tell a story.  
Telling the story of an autumn day when I stopped at an orchard needed two photos. The first about the fall harvest, and how we celebrate the season.

The second photo, well simplified, is why I was at the orchard.

Another concept is about keeping your photos real.
  • Keep the colors real.  Don't overdo the colors.
Colors in a photo are like the music at a concert. If the band is always blasting away at full volume, there is no place for subtlety nor real beauty.  Yes, use a polarizing filter if your camera will accept one, but resist the temptation on your computer to over saturate the photos into a fake. The reflections on this pond could have been overdone, but then the gentle mood would have been lost.  (My short sentence to describe why I wanted the photo was "rockin' colors". )

Finally, I offer a word on weather.
  • Love damp, rainy days.
In addition to those brilliant blue sky days with big puffy clouds, the wet days offer special opportunities to really show the colors of autumn. The clouds keep the light uniform and free of those shiny highlights that blind the eye.  The leaves are damp and revealing richer color.  This absence of sun means does not dark shadows.  It's perfect to show a rich mix of colorful leaves draped around a fallen birch tree. Absent a real downpour, damp days are perfect to add intimate photos that only miss the rich smell of fall.  Don't stay home. Get out and explore.

I appreciate your interest and hope these concepts make for special fall memories in your photo collection.


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Galapagos: Discovering the Shore

Our floating hotel for our week in the islands was the Yolita II, a comfortable 110' yacht hosting 14 visitors, trip leader, birding guide,  naturalist, and a crew of 8.  It was a comfortable accommodation with an efficient, and always helpful, crew.

At the appointed time for each shore landing, we donned life vests and boarded the two zodiacs for our trip ashore - sometimes a wet landing and other times a questionably dry one. Tide and wave height can make the dry quite wet.

Often, the trip to our landing was in itself an event, as when we toured this bay with its distinct volcanic features.

Every day was characterized by intense equatorial sun.  Sunscreen and a good sun hat were perhaps as vital as a good (dry) camera.

On Espanola Island,  there was a skeleton of a Humpback Whale with one of the endemic Mockingbirds perched atop.  

The bird was not really being friendly. There is scant water on the island, so these birds were constantly trying to mooch water from people. Human visitors are not to alter the balance on the island; it was expressly forbidden to offer them water.

The Sally Lightfoot Crab is often seen in great numbers.  The name reflects the  speed with which they can move. Common from Florida to Chile, they eat algae plus whatever else can be found.

Any trip to the Galapagos calls for considering some of the thirteen species of Darwin finches. Their adaptions to the differing conditions among the islands have been a mainstay of evolutionary studies over the years. They are frequently seen near the beaches in the low shrubby growth.

At the left is a Small Ground Finch. (But it could be a "medium" GF. I'm no expert).

One of the more interesting birds we saw was  the Cactus Finch seen below. (There are both Large and Small Cactus Finch species.) They are thought to have evolved from ground finches to more effectively feed on the Prickly Pear Cactus, eating  insects in the flowers and the fruit itself.

The Galapagos visitor sees new animals that create a certain amazement, and some quite familiar ones.  So, it was with some surprise that I saw this bright yellow warbler, called a Mangrove Warbler.  Looks everything like what I see here in New York. It's a bit involved, but the New World warbler species Setophaga petechia has about 35 sub-species of which our American yellow warblers have six, and the Mangrove Warbler has twelve.  One difference is that the Mangrove Warbler comes very close to humans.

Another familiar bird was the Green Heron. The major difference observed was that in North America the Green Heron is very shy and hard to observe closely. The ones in  Galapagos seemed unperturbed by people, and provided interesting observation.

Contrast that with the fascination one feels when watching the Land Iguanas. The males are boldly colored, and rather like bulls looking to show their strength to other males.  The claws are impressive.

Marine Iguanas are often seen sunning to regain body warmth before returning to the cold ocean water to harvest seaweed.  They don't seem to have the personality of the land variety. They impressed me as being something from a prehistoric era, even more so than the Land Iguanas.

The reader can appreciate that on our tour of Galapagos, our group's observations were certainly more thorough than some.  A pause on the beach revealed the tracks of a Marine Iguana, as it emerged from the sea.

We were often on shore for three hours or better, wherein other boats making the same landing came ashore later and returned to the boat sooner, accounting for at most half of our time.  Many seemed to be in a race to complete a trail. This can perhaps be attributed to our deep interest in our surroundings, and to a birder's penchant for seeing the details.

As a result, we also took
pleasure in some typically overlooked details, like the Spotted-wing Glider at left and the Large Painted Locust at right.

Other groups also missed the small Lava Lizards, and in particular the orange cheeked males, that would appear when a person would slow down and allow them to become active. Truly, the less you move, the more you see.
There is a common misconception that all animals on the Galapagos are fearless of humans and, while this often seems true, there are examples where survival demands fear.  Again, slow and thorough observation revealed a Santa Fe Rice Rat.  They are wary and secretive.  This one ventured out from cover to chew on the edges of a Prickly Pear Cactus. It's really only about 2-1/2 inches long at the most.  Non-native species have decimated their numbers.  It was special to just see this animal.

So, this is my recap of what a Galapagos island landing might reveal on any given day.  The return to the Yolita II always included a large tray of freshly squeezed fruit juice and some freshly baked treat. After as much as three hours(or more) in the equatorial sun, this was a real boost.

In my next installment, I will get to some of the amazing birds that we saw.

Kind regards,