Monday, July 22, 2019

A Golden Delight- American Goldfinch

It's now the end of July and the male American Goldfinches are flashing their brilliant yellow form as they fly over weedy roadsides, overgrown fields and woodland edges.  I love it. They swirl through the sky with a bobbing up and down flight pattern.  Hardly any females are to be seen.


The Goldfinches have finally begun to nest.  They're a seed eater, and wait until their food supply is peaking to start nesting. July is the time, and the females are sitting tight on the nest. In the last week, I have only seen one female.  

The male is now responsible for harvesting seeds and taking them back to feed the female.  She'll stay firm on the nest to protect their four to six eggs from rain and excess heat, or a marauding chipmunk. 

Right now, their preferred seeds seem to be on low thistle plants.  It is really easy to watch them.  I find a remote country road with thistles close to the roadway and safely park on the side near the thistles.  Sit still for a while and soon their piping song announces their presence. This male Goldfinch has landed on a thistle stalk with a mature seed head.

The male forages through to find the best heads, and begins a two-step process.  First, he'll open the head to find a good seed.



Then he'll strip away the outer chaff to reach the heart of the seed.  Their beak is very dexterous in peeling away the chaff.


The males waste no time with a seed head that is not perfect, and will quickly move to sample another plant.

You've got to be quick to keep up with their movements.  When their crop is full, they're off to feed their female.  Right now, they can quickly find enough seeds and the feeding is not continuous.  Once the eggs are hatched, the males are feeding their partner plus up to a half dozen small chicks. Feeding will pickup with the females initially staying on the nest, and then as the demand of the growing chicks increases, I will see females joining in the harvesting of the seed. 

Overall, it will be about four weeks from the start of incubation until the nesting is complete and large flocks of Goldfinches will then appear.  It's truly a whirlwind from start to finish.  By autumn all the adults will have molted, and there will be no brilliant yellow finches to be found until next spring.

Paul Schmitt



Tuesday, June 4, 2019

More Birds of Spring

Here are a few more beautiful birds I found this spring. Perhaps some of these are new to you, and you'll now watch for them.

Let's begin with a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Many people list this as their favorite bird.






This male posed for me after singing his flute-like song.  Most birds throw their beak wide to cast a loud voice, but grosbeaks barely crack their beak.  Soon, the male jumped out to an end branch of this walnut tree and twisted about like a corkscrew to pick out a tiny larva.  I love it when I see some behavior like this.

The  next bird is an entirely new sighting for me.  I happened so quickly that I only got this one image of the Wilson's Warbler.  It was very secretive and uncommon. Hope to find him again.


A few days later I was walking a woods trail in a nearby state park and happened up several Ovenbirds.  Like the preceding  warbler, it was in deep shade.  Unlike the grosbeak, it opens up wide to make its song carry.


Just today I found a number of American Redstarts along an abandoned railroad track bed.  The sun really catches the ribbing on the black feathers.  They rarely stay on a given perch for long, so I have to be fast to line up the shot.


Overall it has been a productive season, although several subjects have been difficult to locate or hidden inside deep cover. That is just the nature of bird photography.

Paul Schmitt

Monday, May 20, 2019

Signs of Spring

After being away for most of May in 2018, I vowed to stay close to home for the spring of 2019.  It's been a good month in terms of birds, and of blooms. Here a few of the birds that offered good views.

Orchard Oriole singing.  Male first spring
































I've learned that a large number of birds feed on the blooming Crab Apple trees. Black-capped Chickadees hang upside down when feeding on the lower flowers.

Black-capped Chickadee.
Another participant in the feast is the Yellow Warbler.

Yellow Warbler, male



Away from the apple trees, another striking bird that arrives in May is the Scarlet Tanager.  They are a bit more difficult to locate since they prefer the extreme treetops.

Scarlet Tanager,  male
Enough of the birds, the blog is also about "blooms".  Besides, wildflowers are much easier to photograph - only if the flowers happen to be in good bloom (and the winds are calm and the light is good).  I have a list of wildflowers for which I  need a better example.  Highest on the list was Blue Cohosh.

Blue Cohosh in bloom



























The colors are really challenging to get correct, and the Cohosh has a tall, spindly stalk that moves in the slightest breeze. 

For the next bloom, breeze is again a challenge; however, just getting extremely low and finding a clear, uncluttered view is added. So, I checked bellwort off my list.

Large-flowered Bellwort






















And, there are some whose beauty just drives me to get a new result.  Once again, my knees got dirty getting low for the trillium.

Trillium grandiflorum


I never tire of photographing trillium. 

So, May has been a good month for photos, and there is still time to add some more.  There's a small warbler that I am researching now for a good setting.

Thanks for your interest.

Paul Schmitt



Thursday, May 9, 2019

Patagonia and a Bit More in Chile

The drive from El Calefate, Argentina to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile is pretty much a full day over a mix of paved and gravel roads.  No reason to hurry, and anyway, the day began pretty wet.  Our hotel, Rio Serrano, was a welcome sight.  It was pretty luxurious and very near to the south entrance of the national park.  The next morning, breakfast was early; you could quickly take a short walk from the hotel to the Rio Serrano for a sunrise view of the Paine massif.

















A long exposure transformed the flowing river into a smooth mirror reflecting the mountains' sunrise colors. El Chaltén is to the right peeking through a gap in front range of mountains. It was going to be a good day.

We wasted no time getting underway in our autobus. (Think miles of washboard roads.)   Once through the park entrance, the road heads directly for the massif.  The first stop offers a beautiful view with clear reflections of the mountains.  It was a must stop for all visitors entering the park.  (What draws people to this view?  There are multiple subjects - the massif, its reflection, foreground grasses and an expansive mid-range plain.  Oh, be sure to keep it level. )

























This was a quick stop, and we moved on to a closer view with a fascinating foreground that resulted from massive wildfires a decade or more ago.  The compositions here were endless. Loved it.

























While the burned trees at our feet were compelling,  there was a message of the sheer brutality of Torre del Paine.  Taking out a longer lens, the granite peak to the right deserved singular attention.  It is simply a smack-down to the viewer seeing the mountain for the first time.  That vertical wall of granite seen in the preceding image as a rather minor part of the composition is on a level with images from Yosemite in California.


Patagonia is not just about mountains, there are also birds, for instance, that thrive in this place.  At our lunch break, the Chimango Caracara appeared looking for food. It is common from southern Bolivia all the way down to Tierra del Fuego.
























Later in the afternoon, another notable bird made an appearance, the Andean Condor.  Think of a bird with a wingspan of 10.5 feet (3-1/4 meters) and weighing up to 30 pounds, that can soar with little effort.  This was one of the most exciting sightings of the trip. It's a bird I'd never expected to actually see, and it was really close.  There were several condors, but this one made a low pass on a nearby ridge.  Wow!




























After the excitement of an Andean Condor's fly-by, it's hard to engage subjects in the same way.  Guanacos are not unusual, so what's of interest?  The markings flowing bands of cinnamon and white are attractive.  Also notable to me is their steady alertness. The head pops up often, checking for any sign of danger from Puma. Looking closely I noted that the wind has blown up hair tufts on the back. The animal is feeding downwind, so its nose is alert to scent carried from the rear, and the eyes are aware of  the trail ahead.  Alert fore and aft.  Clever.

We ended the day with a calming sunset, plus another great dinner. 

It was quick to bed for very early departure to photograph the night sky before sunrise.  As Mario negotiated the washboard sections of the road that morning, he abruptly stopped to the shouts of "Puma!"  In the headlights' beam we counted four cubs working across the road.  No photos, just memories. Once on location, we had to carefully set up in the darkness while being very aware of a sharp drop-off in front of us.

Even after my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could not see what the camera captured at 25 seconds.  An hour later, the early morning light presented a more typical vision.




















We were seeing yet another composition of the massif.  Notice that the two spires at the left are black tipped.  In some cases, the granite is topped with remnants of older rock.

Did we ever tire of the views?  No. It did become confusing as the arrangements shifted, and perhaps that creates something analogous to a musical composer's themes, such as J. S. Bach's Goldberg variations.  And, of course, the reflections in these two images create variations.

After a rest stop at a different entrance to Torres del Paine National Park, our leader, Randy Hanna, spotted a sheep ranch offering a wonderful foreground fronting the spectacular mountains.  We exited the bus eagerly to explore the many compositions presented.  Here is the one I chose as my favorite.



















This image has two good teaching points.  First, isn't the image better when there are some clouds mixed with blue sky? This is a reason to savor changeable weather.  The second point is to avoid confusing intersections.  Notice the many buildings in the fore- ground of the image above.  Randy used this as a teaching example where the objective was to have separation between each.  For example, the barn in the front should not intersect with the ranch house to its right. If it did, the viewer would be confused as to what is there. Shifting around to get separation was a challenge but it yields a clearer image.

Here is another example where an interesting sky adds more interest to complement the two mountains that also have different textures.  The cloud blowing off the rear mountain catches some evening light too.


Soon, it was time to leave Torres del Paine. Arriving in Puerto Natales, it was extremely windy with occasional rain.  We had some time before dinner to explore.  I'd yearned for a coffee americano that would be closer to my coffee at home. All the coffee I'd had so far needed a little hot water to bring down the strength.  We wandered into a tiny coffee shop, and this guy knew just what I wanted.  He moistened the grounds for two minutes and then slowly poured the remaining hot water into the cone.  Perfect.

The next morning we visited a boat yard adjacent to the fishing harbor before continuing to Puerto Arenas.  The yard was a resting place for worn-out boats.  It was a feast of interesting relics.

How many years did this boat fish the sea?
 How did this pilot house get this graffiti?
























What does AUX.STA.NORMA mean?  Perhaps it is a dinghy for the Norma.

























The boatyard is a graveyard for the smaller boats of the local fishermen displaced by larger commercial operators.  It paints a dismal future for fisherman such as this man now living in the hulk a small boat.  

We departed Puerto Natales on our way to a final night in Punta Arenas before departing Chile.  Once in Punta Arenas, Mario headed the bus farther south on the route to El Fin del Mundo, the end of the earth.  It is the farthest south one can drive on the South American continent.  Pulling into a small fishing harbor, we had arrived as two fishing boats were unloading their catch of sea urchins from a ten day outing.  What good fortune!

Every plastic crate in the dinghy was full of sea urchins picked  individually by a diver and hoisted to the surface in a basket.

 
 They were filling a large truck with tall stacks of crates.



My last view was of a line of small fishing boats tied up in a row and tethered to shore by a spread of mooring cables.

























The next morning we spread our wings to return from a dream trip.

Thanks to all who made it such a grand adventure.

Paul Schmitt





Sunday, May 5, 2019

Patagonia from the Argentinian Side

Patagonia has been described as magnificent desolation.  Still relatively isolated, the geographic upheaval from the collision of two tectonic plates created awe-inspiring mountains.  Situated at roughly 49° south latitude, it is the only land mass facing a wind track that circles the earth.  So, it faces weather with frequent severe winds and punishing precipitation, all coming from the west.  The combination of mountains and strong weather creates incredible scenery.




In early April, I participated in the Muench Patagonia Workshop with seven other photographers. It was led by Randy Hanna and Cecilia Costa.  The eleven day trip would not have been possible without their expert leadership, nor without our skilled driver Mario. The weather is always changing, and their expertise kept us aimed at fruitful locations.

We flew into El Calefate, Argentina to begin our program. The next morning we were at the entrance to Perito Glacier when the park opened.  The glacier thrusts itself into Lago Argentino, sometimes reaching the near shore to create a dam holding back water entering from the left. 

This is a fast moving glacier which is frequently booming and snapping. It offers many "faces".  There is deep blue ice, gravel laden seams and lustrous whites.


 The top of the glacier can appear like a frothy meringue atop a freshly baked pie.

With days to spare and steadily changing weather, the images offered could fill a photo exhibit.

Our early arrival was wisely scheduled since the views of Perito Merino draw large crowds later in the day.

iPhone panorama 





After a wonderful lunch in the park, we headed for El Chaltén at the base of the Cerro Torre.  Along the way the sky cleared offering hope for good views of Cerro Torre. We made a few roadside stops such this one to get a look at a group of Guanaco and Rheas.  We would see many more Guanacos.

Another stop was made to explore views of an isolated barn in the middle of nowhere.  It was good to get out and move around. Randy offered some excellent ideas on composition in terms of avoiding distracting intersections of the three major elements - daisies in the foreground, the barn in middle ground and the distant hill.

The mix of clouds and sun encouraged me to expect the same when we arrived at the massif in El Chaltén.  Foolish me.  Here is what I shot with my phone as we approached the massif.


It was also getting windy, but Mario was keeping us steady on the road.  We stopped at a scenic view for a clear view of Cerro Torre just before entering El Chaltén and found it necessary to shelter along a stone wall to photograph. A tripod was not going to be steady in that wind.  It was difficult - poor light, wind.  Best treated as black and white, the resulting image does capture the strength of the mountain.

El Chaltén means Smoking Mountain, alluding to the frequent cloud that forms around the peak.

The next morning in El Chaltén, we were up early to be at the ideal location for sunrise, but rain kept the mountains obscured.  Arguably the best sunrises come amid breaking weather, but sometimes those magical circumstances don't happen. So, we were ready on the next morning.  Again, it was windy and cold. 


What you are seeing in the warm morning light - to right of center- is the spire of Torre wrapped in a cloud with the lesser peaks to the right of Egger, Herron and Standhardt.  A powerful set of peaks, right?  There are more subtle features on the mountain face to the left of Torre. Note the shadow of another set of peaks rising up to the east; they are Fitz Roy-Chaltén, Poincenot, Rafael Juárez and Saint-Exupéry.  (Hope I've got those names right!)  This only aligns twice a year.

To put it together, here is an image make minutes later when the warm light had  disappeared.  Torre is at the extreme left, El Chaltén stands strongly to the right.  It really is simply awesome.






















This all happened quickly, and afterwards, for kicks, we took turns laying on the highway's center-line to make a rather campy photo of the long highway stretching to the massif.  (Yes, someone was always facing away to warn of approaching cars.)


Then it was back to the hotel for a delayed breakfast to prepare us for a ramble around the massif, exploring its many faces plus some smaller bits of eye-candy.

From a more southwest direction, El Chaltén still stood massive with snow and ice fields sending melt water to a icy river also swollen by heavy rains just before our arrival.  At times, we heard small avalanches.  The mountains are so large that is is difficult to judge their distance.


























The heavy rains had also revived some nice waterfalls along our route.  This one, Salto del Anillo, fascinated me because of the huge tree that echoed the route of the track of the falling water.  As large as the tree was, the actual height of the falls was much greater.


Waterfalls often present smaller features to explore, and this one qualified as it cascaded down in many small steps.



As we approached the river's source, there was a series of cascades below a 5 meter drop.  The fascination with this was abruptly halted by the appearance of a Black-crowned Night-Heron hunting on the stream's shore. My interest switched to showing the heron as it captured some aquatic prey.  It repeatedly cocked its neck ready to strike, but time ran out for me.  No magical images resulted. That would have been the perfect end for a full day beginning before sunrise.

The next morning was a pre-dawn hike for a final sunrise view of the massif.  Lacking clouds it was another quick shot of warm sunlight, and yielded a single panorama of the massif.  El Chaltén, again, dominates it all.


















After a late breakfast, we began our trek back to El Calefate with another dose of falling water. Truthfully, I never get bored with waterfalls.  We arrived at the falls as early as possible and within a half hour were swamped with people.  With patience, we got some nice photos and were on our way to an exciting stop at a ranch.

As the few hours passed on the road, I reflected on the remoteness of Fitz Roy/El Chaltén.  The paved highway is a new feature opened about 2009.  Most important is that the paved road brought the modern bridges. Most of  Chaltén's population growth has been in the last two decades. 


The gaucho is a national symbol of Argentina, personified as riding as one with the horse.  So, at La Leona we were welcomed by two horsemen eager to display their skills at the river.  First, they rode towards us as we faced the sun.
























Notice between the gauchos the El Chaltén is seen, still prominent at a distance of 50 miles.  Even at that distance the massif dominates.

We then shifted direction for a sun lit approach.  They  swept past quickly with the water flying.   Great fun.  There was one more treat with the horses speeding down gentle sand dunes.



By then we were hungry; we feasted on a traditional lamb barbecue at the ranch.  Awesome.

Before saying our farewells, there was time at the stables for some portraiture of our gauchos and their tack.



We spent the night back in El Calefate before taking a day to relocate on the Chilean side of Fitz Roy/El Chaltén.  I will close with the promise that the mountains will offer a fresh view from Chile, and you will finally see a really notable bird.

Paul Schmitt