Waiting for Spring

Despite the mild winter, I am, as always come February, longing for the greens of early Spring.  The tips of Day Lilies are already showing on the sunny side of the house. Buds are swelling on the trees earlier than usual.

Taughannock trees

Most look for the tell-tale Robin to signal Spring’s arrival. I’ve found that the arrival of the Turkey Vultures in the gorge behind our house as an equally dependable sign.

turkey vulture

The woods of early Spring are often as beautiful and colorful as Fall. The new green is more intense than any other. And the trees glow against the contrast of nearly bare branches that still await new foliage.

spring woods

backlit trees

squirrel cornSpring blossoms arrive with colors that have been absent for what seems far too long after months of monochrome winter.

The forest floor soon comes alive with new life and the warmth of the Spring sun fills the gorges and fields. The frost is gone, the morning dew is heavy, and I am inspired by the awakening of the earth.

pink dogwood

Post written by George Cannon.

Snowy Owl

The birders’ listserve for Ithaca has been buzzing with various sightings of Snowy Owls.  Headed up to the New York Chiropractic College in Seneca Falls this morning to look for the most recent reported bird and found it on the soccer fields behind the tennis courts.

You can tell by the height of the bleacher seat that this is a pretty large owl.  There were Crows in the area, and the bird moved location after a while, taking a perch on one of  the soccer goals.

It moved again as the Crows became vocal, retreating to some small trees in the fence row that divides the college athletic fields from adjacent farm fields.

The Crows seemed to take increased interest in the owl and began to dive past it.

This lasted for maybe 5 minutes after which the Crows seemed to tire of their sport.

As it quieted, I noted the owl was looking intently at the surround ground beneath it.  Possibly at prey? After a few  minutes, the owl swooped down into the farm field, mostly hidden.  We went to lunch, and when we returned the owl was out in the farm field beside a fence post.  It was not at a suitable distance for a photo.

The road back to the soccer field is posted but the nice security guard inferred that on weekends, they were not concerned as long as you stay on the gravel.  It is much less disturbing to the owl if you stay in the car. During the week, I would observe the owl from the maintenance building parking area.  This assumes that the owl remains in the location.

Paul Schmitt

Look at the Bright Side

For those wanting to photograph Bald Eagles or waterfowl, the winter of 2012 has been frustrating.  The mild winter has failed to push the birds south or to concentrate them. For  me, it has also been hampering my need to test a new camera body.  So, earlier this week, my patient spouse agreed to a two-day visit to the Delaware River around Lackawaxen.  We saw Bald Eagles but never close enough for any interesting images. We met some nice people and stayed in a delightful B&B in Lackawaxen, the Roebling Inn on the Delaware.

So, on the second day I camped at the Lackawaxen boat launch, camera ready  and waited for the resident Bald Eagle pair to swoop down to the river.  They were up on the  mountain side in a roost tree. Waited until noon. Never happened. We headed home with a stop at the Mongaup blind. Waiting inside for eagles, I heard a faint “pip-pip” and found a lone Northern Cardinal just outside the blind.  Try finding a small bird in a 400 mm lens at the closest focus possible!  After  10 minutes, hunger overrode any vain hope for eagles. It was 3 days later that I recalled the Cardinal image.

So, was the trip fruitless?  Not really, just not as fruitful as hoped.  We had a nice time together including an evening by the fireplace reading peacefully.  The  breakfast was wonderful.  The other photographers I met were a source of good intelligence for future trips.  I did get useful practice on birds-in-flight, just not frame filling.

As I write this, the wind outside  is blowing wickedly and there is a meager cover of snow.  Like a frustrated skier, I am hoping this weather will bring reports of concentrated birds.  My experience fits into the old saying “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”.  I will keep trying.


The End of the Free Lunch, Bald Eagle Style

There are a pair of Bald Eagles regularly seen perched on the Chemung River where I-86 comes along the river.  The location is commonly called the Pressware Pool because of the glass plant the sits to the south of the pool. –This is where Corning’s Corelle dishes were developed.–  I found this pair’s nest this summer about 2 miles upriver and watched their fledglings testing their wings.  The location was inaccessible for photos.

This week, I found a boat launch ramp at Pressware that allows me to follow the eagles from my car. Call it a photo blind on wheels.  On Friday, I parked with my beanbag hung over the window sill and a long lens ready, and simply waited for birds.  After about a half-hour, an adult Bald Eagle mysteriously appeared, likely while I was scanning downriver with my binoculars.   I shot a few photos, but there really was no interesting behavior.  In another half hour, the bird went about 300 yards downriver to a perch in a tall pine tree a scant one hundred yards above the busy highway.  I could watch the bird in my binoculars, and in time saw it launch in a long shallow approach to the opposite bank in what appeared to be a strike at prey.

To my surprise, the bird headed not to that distant perch, but back upriver to the tall willows opposite me.  Such luck!  I could not see if it had a fish even with binoculars, but was also quickly switching to my camera.  Once on the perch, it obviously was tearing a fish apart. Now that is interesting.

Each time I get a close look at a Bald Eagle, I am impressed with their broad shouldered, brawny build.  They are so much heavier than the Osprey such that there is little danger of confusing them.

I never got a good look at the fish. It must have been small.  But, I could at times see that the eagle’s beak was soiled a rich red.

After a while, the eagle seemed to slow its feeding.  Perhaps as its hunger was met, it took a more measured meal. It’s posture was often upright in an attentive pose.

Soon, I noted a change in the bird’s posture on the perch.  Eagles assume a more horizontal form when preparing to take flight. This is a tip-off to prepare to take photos.  But, this bird had food. Why would it be leaving? In a short minute, it took off in a strong, deliberate flight downriver.

Quickly, the reason became obvious.  There was a thief in the neighborhood.  Sometimes the thief is in the family, so to speak.

I had not seen this immature Bald Eagle, and can only presume it was out of my binocular range, or in a hidden perch.  The adult was in no mood to share. The encounter developed rapidly, with no false posturing. The adult just went straight into the target,  driving it into the tree branches.  Amazing to see!

The immature quickly turned tail, and retreated downriver.  Some time later, I saw an immature soaring along the steep hillside some  one-half mile away. It never came back within range.

The situation corrected, the adult returned to it’s perch.

This is an interesting window into Bald Eagle behavior.  When hatched, the young are helpless to feed themselves, just like humans. Once fledged, they still are inexperienced at fishing.  The adults feed them, but at some time they have to fish or fail.  So it is with our children too.  At sometime, they need to be pushed out into the world to survive.

I’ve seen elsewhere where an adult, returning to its perch with a large fish, is robbed by an immature. When in flight with a heavy load, the adult is at a big disadvantage.  I assume this adult knew that the best solution was to drive the immature away at a distance rather than defend the fish from a static position.

Considering that this eagle pair will likely start a new cycle of nesting in early March, their first need is to come through the winter in good condition.  The free buffet for last year’s brood is over. Time to prepare for the next.

Photo Details:  Nikon D300s, 1/800 sec. f/6.3 @ISO 1600, 825mm equivalent; processed Lightroom 3 with noise reduction

Paul Schmitt

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  http://pschmitt.smugmug.com/ . 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

Autumn Lotus

The robust leaves of the lotus are slowly changing color and fading. They will soon be brown after the frost and will decompose in the pond over the winter. This truly amazes me because there is a huge amount of leaf biomass in the pond behind my house.  There must be about 500 plants that bloomed this summer and will renew their growth in the spring.  Here are a few samples of the leaves as they are found in October.

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