All posts by pssquared

Photographer of the natural world. Active in the Cayuga Nature Photographers.

See ’em ducks? MR knot ducks, MR ponies. MR no ducks right now.

The Thanksgiving weekend at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia is billed as a waterfowl weekend to celebrate the huge numbers of migrating waterfowl that come to the Chesapeake Bay. Evidently, the waterfowl did not get the announcement this fall. So, absent them, what to photograph?  Well, wild ponies.

The ponies spend most of the year on the Assateague Island except in July when the firemen round them up, and swim then onto Chincoteague to select out a number of yearlings for auction, and to provide veterinary care. Otherwise, they are pretty much on their own to survive.

Having come to see thousands of Snow Geese and such, the ponies were only mildly interesting though the majority of visitors seemed to get really excited to see them. Obviously not birders.

There are, of course, resident birds that are pretty accustomed to people.  I’ve found that an auto is an excellent “blind” for bird photography.  My wife, Pam, is becoming proficient in positioning the car for me, and I set up in the back seat with a bean bag on the window sill to support the heavy telephoto lens. Moving the car just a little can greatly  improve the background and more clearly define the subject.  Being in the backseat, I can shoot to both sides.  Well, the first resident bird for us was a Great Blue Heron very intently fishing along the road to the beach.

One of the enjoyable aspects of photographing birds is learning to recognize the signs that a bird is ready to take flight or to strike at prey.  When your reaction time is added to the shutter delay of around 45 milliseconds, it is key to press the shutter before the main motion is seen.

The action is so fast that I am not generally sure if I have captured the event until I get the images downloaded to my laptop that evening. The camera’s screen did not clearly let me see the small minnow in the bird’s beak.

Adding to the difficulty is keeping the bird’s eye in focus. The autofocus has to recognize the movement and shift focus in the milliseconds involved.

All of this was on a section of the beach road where a canal parallels road so you can be close to the birds.

While there, I was out of the car anticipating a fly-over of some egrets or an ibis that were nearby. Did not happen.   As I chatted with another photographer, I saw a Belted Kingfisher fly down the canal towards a wooded patch some 200 yards away. Great Blue Herons are interesting but Belted Kingfishers are much less approachable, and I was excited.  I’ve not previously had any good images with them.  So, I gathered up my gear, set up the bean bag in the back seat, and Pam moved me into position.

The result was pretty encouraging. This little Belted Kingfisher helped me forget how few waterfowl were on the marshes. I realized how small they are as I watched it for about a half hour.  It preened, and stretched, and then began some serious watching for prey.  I was disappointed that it never dove for a fish, but still it was a high point for the weekend.

You’ll note the nice background.  That came about from a shift of only 5 feet in the car’s position.  If you are going after improved photos, pay serious attention to the background.

This was pretty much the high point of the weekend. We searched widely for more subjects but what I saw was not equal to images I already had of waterfowl. Still, we had an enjoyable time observing bird behavior with our binoculars.

There were a few Tundra Swans on the fresh water pools. We found one immature foraging very close to us on Sunday afternoon (after most of the weekend visitors had joined the exodus home). As the bird foraged, I realized how powerful they are.  It was pulling water plants out by the roots, and would vigorously twist and strain to gain the plant.  Their long neck allows them to feed at a greater depth than competing geese or ducks.  Their size convinces the smaller waterfowl to stay distant.

Of course, Sunday evening was very quiet in town and the sunset along the channel was colorful.

We decided to skip the refuge in the morning and head home with a stop at Bombay Hook NWR where we found American Avocets, Northern Harriers, Pintails, Northern Shovelers and huge mixed flocks of Starlings, Grackles, and Redwing Blackbirds swirling about their roost trees in liquid waves called “murmurs”. ( The volunteer receptionist at Bombay Hook was from Ithaca.  Small world, again.)

I expect to see on some bird blog that the waterfowl arrived on the Chesapeake in a few days. It will be tempting to try again, but I’ll first check with some local contacts. Overall, the weekend was enjoyable with some good practice on birds.  The Kingfisher saved the weekend from being a loss.

Paul Schmitt

Waxwings on a blustery day.

Thought about driving to a mountain known to be good for migrating Golden Eagles, but decided to stay home and begin the day with a nice walk around the neighborhood.  Seemed like a poor day for photos and too much uncertainty about whether I would even see birds.

So, off I went for a brisk morning walk.  Rounding the last corner on my way homeward, I spotted Robins and Cedar Waxwings eagerly feeding on small crab apples.  Rushed home, added some extra layers before assembling the camera on tripod with a flash. The birds were feeding in a determined manner and cared not that I was only 20 feet way.  Neighbors on their morning walk stopped to chat without any effect on the birds.  They were just hungry on this windy and cold day.  Best two photos of the day were:

Acrobatic Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing feeding.

I lasted about 1-1/4 hours before the finger tips got sluggish.  Really happy with this, in large part because the birds are so quick.  You have to anticipate the image; waiting until you see the pose will give you a photo of something that happens 1/4 second later.

Pushed the ISO to 800 and used luminance noise reduction. Exposures were as slow as 1/100 second with fill flash to help freeze the motion.

More photos of Cedar Waxwings and Robins in the Perching Birds gallery of SmugMug. Select the gallery in . Hope you enjoy.


Paul Schmitt

Near or far ?

There is always the feeling that the best photo opportunities lie some distance away and close to home the subjects are limited.  This weekend was an example to challenge that.

I’ve long wanted to get to Hawk Mountain near Allentown, PA because of its storied reports of large raptor counts on peak days. This place is central to the story of raptor protection and the Audubon Society’s history.

I could not get there earlier last week, and had  to stay close to home. On a neighborhood walk on Wednesday, I’d stopped to chat with a new neighbor when a flock of Cedar Waxwings quietly invaded his crab apple trees with their faint piping calls. They’ve been on my  list of difficult birds to photograph.  So, I gathered my long lens, tripod and flash with some eagerness.  It was only two houses away, but by the time I returned, they’d had their fill and were gone. Returning Thursday afternoon a little before the time when they’d appeared before, I waited and was rewarded with my long sought opportunity. The big challenge is finding them low enough to see something but their bellies.

Meeting with this success, our departure on Friday for Hawk Mountain seemed destined for more success.  After all, the weather report was for brisk north winds of the sort that deliver large numbers of migrating birds, maybe even Golden Eagles. We arrived about 11 am and hiked out to the first overlook on Kittinny Ridge. It is a beautiful vista.

I only carried my 70-200mm lens, knowing it unlikely the birds would come very close, and knowing the weight of the big lens would too much for the rocky trail 3/4 mile from the parking lot to the best overlook.  It turned out to be a slow day only highlighted by the sight of a Northern Goshawk folding its wings and going into a power dive.  Not one bird photograph.  I was reminded that the Cedar Waxwings were only two houses away from my front door. Still, the views and the wonderful birders we met were some reward.

Saturday’s forecast was for another north wind; cold early for sure.  Had colorful male Ringneck Pheasant on the highway as we drove in. By noon it was clearly a bust.  We decided toabandon the watch  for the warmth of the visitor center.  We noted a raptor program scheduled for midday with a few of their captive birds and decided it would be interesting.  The volunteer had a Great Horned Owl and a Redtail Hawk. It was a nice program and afterwards we stayed to talk and I got a few close images of the birds that made the day less of a disappointment.

Great Horned Owl-  I moved in close so the handlers glove was not shown.

Redtail Hawk- The bird’s right wing is injured, so I positioned the camera to leave that detail unseen.

So, was it worth the trip?  … or would I have done just as well at home?  Well, yes and yes.  I made some new friends, found a good wildflower location for spring, and can plan a return trip with prior knowledge.  Just as the Cedar Waxwings were not predictable, it is not predictable as to when the raptors will move past Kittinny Ridge.

More photos at my Flickr page:

Redtail Hawk fly-by.

Paul Schmitt