Monday, December 15, 2014

Redeemed by a Rental Lens

After a disappointing day of equipment failure yesterday, I found myself spending most of my morning running back and forth between different camera stores. Indeed I will be shipping my new 600mm lens back for service. The worst part about this is that I have a big bird watching trip planned for the Sax-Zim bog area on this coming Thursday! The mere thought of not having my lens with on this trip is heart-wrenching. So my next best option was to rent a lens. National Camera had just one of the very same model for my Nikon camera and today I took the rented lens to Palmer Lake Park. I was simply amazed at how well this one worked! In fact it was hard to remember when my own lens ever worked this well. Things were in focus and the vibration compensation feature was a dream. It makes me wonder if my own lens was slowly getting worse over time. Anyway, I was happy to have a working lens back this afternoon as I spotted a Pileated Woodpecker who was contently working on an Oak tree not far above me. This was on the paved trail on the north side where the majority of the Oaks are located in the park. I shot a LOT of photos of this male –note the red, not black "mustache" behind the bill– and enjoyed watching him for quite a long time. It's not often that I see them in the park and to be able to photograph the bird properly gave me such enjoyment. I was already experiencing bird photography withdrawals just knowing that I might not have as good a lens as I'd gotten used to. In fact I was having fun just pointing it at anything and seeing how sharp a shot I could get. Again it was dreary and misting today and everything was wet so the raindrops clinging to the trees were catching my eye. With most of our snow now gone from high temperatures (I believe we hit 50º today) I decided to hike out along Shingle Creek heading downstream. Here my friend had photographed a Mink earlier in the day. Indeed I did spot one running across the only thin ice that was left on the creek. But I was behind too much brush and could not get a clear shot. There was also a Doe followed by a younger Deer out in the field to my right. It was getting quite dark by this time but I had set my camera to 1250 ISO and then later to 1600 to try and compensate for the poor lighting. Earlier I also saw a large flock of Cedar Waxwings, a few Chickadees and I could hear what sounded like Tree Sparrows somewhere behind me.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

7 Hours, 3 Owls and 1 Broken Lens

This Saturday I was determined to track down and photograph an elusive species of Owl. Two years ago a birder friend of mine alerted me to the presence of Long-eared Owls at the park. Back then we successfully found not just one but five of them and I even got a great photo. But since getting my new camera lens I've been wanting to find one again. I searched in an area I thought might be good and indeed I did "bump" one right away. But these particular Owls are masters at blending in. So much so that even experienced bird watchers often don't spot them until they are just mere feet away. After an epic four hour attempt at finding one perched somewhere where I could take a photo, I gave up. Never once did I see perched anywhere, though I saw it fly to different roosts numerous times. On my way out of the woods I ran into another birder friend of mine and we decided to hike around together for a bit. We intended to head towards the bridge over the creek on the north side but never quite made it there. Instead we wandered up the far north paved trail near the big Oak trees that still have rust colored leaves. Here we were hoping we might spot a Great Horned Owl but to our surprised we found a Barred Owl instead!
This is the very first Barred Owl I've seen in the park since May of 2013 –a spotting that I remember well. The Barred was perched above a drainage ditch and was very interested in something below it. To say the weather today was dreary would be an understatement. But around 4:30pm the sun made a brief and glorious appearance. And this was the same time that we stumbled across the Barred Owl. It was a picture-perfect scene with the Owl out in the open and the evening sun shining on him! I immediately put my camera on him and started taking photos but noticed that something seemed off. My camera or lens or something wasn't behaving like normal. So I looked at the 15 - 20 photos I'd just taken and they were incredibly blurry! I thought "I must have a wrong setting" and proceeded to fidget with it, trying different settings. To my horror, nothing was working. I even leaned against a tree and still got terrible shots! I was more confused than upset at the time. Of dozens and dozens of attempts, this was the only "saveable image" I could muster up. Upon arriving home and experimenting and testing, it appears that my lens' "vibration compensation" feature is no longer working. Talk about frustrating. I've only owned this new lens for roughly 5 months and now I am looking at shipping it back to the manufacturer for repair. All I can say is ugghgghhhh. On our way back to our vehicles, we did finally spot a Great Horned Owl, then a second one. By now it was mostly dark and I didn't even try for a photo. I'd spent close to 7 hours at the park today but I was able to see 3 different species of Owls which I think is a personal best for me. But man am I upset about my camera lens. It's hard to imagine now being without it as it allows me to take images that I'd never dreamed of getting years ago. I guess I will be hiking with my old 300mm lens in the near future until mine is repaired or replaced.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Warming Trend for December?

Believe it or not, 20 degrees above zero feels pretty good about now. After having an unusually cold and snowy November, we are apparently in for a steady warming up over the next couple of weeks. Highs of 40 and even 50 are predicted –but I'll believe it when it happens. Though it was still below freezing this morning when I arrived at the park the sun was out and there was no wind. I actually didn't see much for birds however for quite a while into my walk. But when I arrived at the "duck pond" on the southwest corner, I spotted an unusual one. Being that 100% of it's plumage was snow white in color, I would think it would likely be an albino, though I never quite got a good look at it's eye which should be pink in color. I remember seeing a pure white duck here in the exact same spot in the past so I wonder if it could be the same one? After the pond, I hiked up the wood chip trail and started to finally see a few birds in an area of thick Buckthorn bordering a field of cattails. I decided to hike in and realized it was an area of the park I'd never visited before. Here in one small area I saw 7 species including; Dark-eyed Junco, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Cardinal, Black-capped Chickadee, American Tree Sparrow, American Goldfinch and House Finch. So it seemed that all the birds were in one place today. Every time I'd move forward on the sun-drenched, icy snow it would creak and crack below me making it tough to get close. But I managed to grab a photo of a male House Finch which made me happy simply because I don't have many good photos of them. Later on another Woodpecker was busy up above me and posed briefly against the nice blue sky. I know for sure this one is a female as she lacks any red coloring at the back of the head. However, I thought for sure that this was a Hairy Woodpecker and not a Downy. The reason being is that the outer white tail feathers on a Hairy should appear white with NO dots –just like this photo shows. However in looking at a photo from another angle I can see dots on the underside of those white feathers! So now I'm second guessing my ID and thinking this is actually a Downy Woodpecker. It was quite small in size and also has the smaller, thinner bill of a Downy I believe. Later on the north side I decided to go up the extra paved trail just a bit. There are actually lots of Oak trees here that make very good hiding places for Great Horned Owls. I walked up and down the short stretch not seeing anything. But just as I was about to meet up with the main trail, a large dark blob caught my eye. I walked backwards a few steps, looked through my binoculars and sure enough, one was perched here facing the other way. I was quite literally behind the Owl and so I decided to hike in a ways then turn left, hoping to get a view from the front. Well I did just that and found myself almost right underneath it! It was a little closer than I wanted to be and immediately after I took this one photo, the Owl took off for a new perch. I didn't want to chase after it today –especially after bumping it once already. But it is always nice to see one at the park.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

15 Birds, 2 Mink and Some Insects!

I can hardly believe it is only late November now as the weather we've had since our first snow on the 10th has felt much more like December or even January. We've already dipped below 0º and had a couple more snowfalls and it's not even December! This Saturday was slightly warmer and I was anxious to hike around the park. I started tallying up the number of bird species that I spotted because it is just so slow this time of year. After watching some Chickadees and Juncos moving back and forth from the cattails, I spied a small group of Cedar Waxwings picking at the Buckthorn berries. The light wasn't so good and especially shooting upwards like this but I like this picture non-the-less. When I got over to the "duck pond" I started to see all sorts of birds including a few House Finches and Goldfinches. I always enjoy seeing or hearing Goldfinches in the wintertime as they remind me very much of Summer. I'm guessing this one might be an adult male in his winter-time plumage since he shows a bit of very bright yellow still on his face. The Mallards have been slowly growing in numbers since the first snow and I always stop to check out the group just in case there's a stray duck of a different species among them. So far now luck. I did try my hand at catching a picture whenever one would bathe or stretch it's wings and this was the best of the bunch. I'm still no good at catching movement and not having it appear blurry. My very best photo of the day however would be taken just minutes later after I spotted a handful of Cardinals –males and females– moving around low in some dogwood. I crept closer very slowly and positioned myself perfectly on this male somehow without spooking him. He had clearly just eaten something as evident by food left on his bill, so he must have been content just to sit there for a while. So I took advantage and popped off numerous shots and got a couple of very sharp ones. For me, a decent photograph of even a common bird can make my whole day of bird watching well worth it. And at this time of year when everything outdoors starts fading into black or white, a bright red Cardinal is very appreciated! In a short while later I spotted another flash of red, this time being on a Red-bellied Woodpecker. It was here in this same area on the wood chip trail bordering the duck pond that I spotted the majority of the birds I saw today. I believe I had roughly 15 total including:
1. Dark-eyed Junco
2. Black-capped Chickadee
3. American Crow
4. Mallard
5. Blue Jay
6. Northern Cardinal
7. Cedar Waxwing
8. Downy Woodpecker
9. Hairy Woodpecker
10. Red-bellied Woodpecker
11. House Finch
12. American Goldfinch
13. American Tree Sparrow
14. American Robin
15. White-breasted Nuthatch
Aside from these birds, I actually spotted not one but two different Mink! One nearly ran into my foot as I hiked along the wood chip trail on the south side of the park. I could hear shrieking in this area and at first I thought a Raptor had caught a rodent of some kind. But I quickly learned it was indeed a Mink moving through the cattails at a hurried pace –possibly with another one chasing it, though I only saw the one. Then on the complete opposite end of the park, I spotted another one. This time bounding up the banks of the drainage ditch under the northern most paved trail that leads out of the park. Neither one stayed put long enough for a photo of any kind. However it was here that I spotted something interesting –flying insects! There were 2 or 3 of them flying through the air and landing on dried Goldenrod plants. I could hardly believe what I was seeing considering how cold it has been. Simply amazing what nature can withstand.