American Avocet - side view
Since American Avocets nest at the Water Ranch in Gilbert, AZ, where I do most of my bird photography these days, I’ve got a lot of shots of them in various poses and settings. But almost all of them are of breeding plumage birds with colorful heads, so I was happy to get some good images of winter plumage birds with their pale gray heads. I believe in diversification in a portfolio so I’m always looking for ways to add some variety to collections of birds I already have.
It was about 30 minutes past sunrise on September 17, 2009, and a few avocets came into a shaded part of one of the ponds. Although the avocet was in shade, the water was reflecting the vegetation on the far side of the pond that was already lit by direct sun. Such mixed lighting would be difficult if I was shooting with film, but auto white balance helps a lot in digital. And what helps even more is post processing with Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop where white balance can be easily adjusted.
For this image I ignored the reflections and paid attention to the avocet, making sure I’d compensated for the blue in the shaded light. That made the reflection even warmer.
American Avocet - head on
When I have an interesting opportunity like this I try to get multiple compositions. You seldom know in advance what is going to work out the best, and as I’ve already mentioned I think diversity is a good thing.
Of these two images the traditional side view will please more viewers. But I also like the head-on version for the way it shows the eyes and bill.
When processing multiple images from a single time and place like this it is advisable to keep the adjustments the same on all images – otherwise they will look unusual together. You can do this by using batch processing or grouping images in Adobe Bridge, but I like to work each image separately and take more time with each one. So, I use the “previous conversion” setting with Adobe Camera Raw for sequential shots like this. And in Photoshop I usually just drag adjustment layers from the .psd file of a completed image onto the most recent converted image. That way I apply the same Levels, Saturation, and Curves values to related images. That’s another good argument for doing as much in adjustment layers as possible.
Once again I’ve got too many priority demands on my time, so this is a quick post without any real message behind it. I think this is a female Roseate Skimmer dragonfly, but I don’t have time to look for my DF book. Perhaps my friend Pete will stumble on this and provide an Id in a comment.
Taken at the Gilbert Water Ranch a few days ago, with my customary bird rig: a D200, a Nikkor 300/2.8, and a matched 2x converter. Exposure: 1/640th second at f/8, ISO 400 in natural light. I could have used more depth of field, but I didn’t want to make the background loose its smooth color. BY keeping the camera plane parallel to the plane of the wings I did my best to keep them as sharp as possible.
We’ve finally started seeing double digit highs in Phoenix, and along with the sub 100 degree weather we are also seeing migrant birds and the arrival of some of the local wintering species. Lower temps also mean I’m more inclined to actually get outside again and see if my “muscle memory” still lets me set my camera controls properly.
I took advantage of the mid 70′s morning temperature on 9/24/09 and visited my usual Water Ranch in Gilbert, AZ, for almost three hours of walking, looking, and photography. I saw a nice variety of species, and I also missed a couple of major rarities seen by others that I found out about that evening.
I also got lucky with a resident Black Phoebe that greets me almost evening visit around a picnic pavilion just off the main parking lot. Black Phoebe is the western counterpart to the Eastern Phoebe and has many similarities to it. For instance it loves to be near water, and they can be found in AZ almost anywhere there is water. But although I see them here a lot, I find them difficult to photograph. They tend to like high perches, and they seldom stay put for very long.
Yesterday I managed to meet the phoebe in its usual spot when the dawn light was just reaching this post and the bird decided to soak up some light and heat. Soft light is an advantage when trying to get detail in both the black and the white plumage on a bird like this phoebe.
Even at ISO 500 I could only get 1/40th second at f/5.6, so I took a few frames in rapid sequence to improve my chances of getting a sharp image. This one frame came out fine.
Our temps are supposed to climb back up to 105 or so over the next few days, but that shouldn’t last too long now that the nights are getting cooler. So if my other obligations ease up I’ll likely be out again soon enjoying the double digit temps and the birds.
With the weather finally changing in Phoenix we’ve been seeing some welcome changes in the birds as migrants move through the area. There has been a surprising number of Vaux’s Swifts reported from all parts of AZ in the past couple of weeks. One person has already found a couple White-crowned Sparrows at the Gilbert Water Ranch. The first Mountain Plover of the season has just been reported. Swainson’s Hawks are on the move.
Warbler activity has been good at the Water Ranch, with more Nashville Warblers around than I’m used to seeing. Unlike in the eastern states (my formative birding was done in New Jersey), the migrants here in AZ occur in smaller numbers and seem to hang around in select spots rather than continuously move around. Fewer birds, but more predictable for follow up.
Unfortunately, my tripod-based 300/2.8 plus 2x converter isn’t the best rig for small active birds – I takes too long for me to get into position. I would be better served by a 300/4 with a 1.4x that I could use hand held – that’s about as close as I can get in the Nikon system to the old manual rig I used in my NJ film days. That was a manual focus 400/5.6: a marvelously light and compact lens that I could carry around on a shoulder strap all day long as I hiked about the woods looking for warblers.
This image isn’t perfect, with a clipped tail, mottled light, and a lot of clutter. but its the best I could do with my slow rig.
I’ve written here before about head shots. I don’t do very many of them, especially of small birds, since I prefer seeing the entire bird and some habitat. This shot was basically a test of what I could do with my first digital camera (a Nikon D70) shortly after buying it. At that time (December 2004) we had a couple Bendire’s Thrashers coming into our yard, and it was a good opportunity to compare them closely to the more common Curve-billed Thrashers we see in the yard every day.
This test shot was made with flash, and what seemed miraculous after a lifetime of shooting film – an ISO of 640. I was (and still am) impressed with the quality that digital delivers.
I was motivated to dust this off and post it following a discussion about an image of mine used in the quiz on a science blog: a fledging Curve-billed Thrasher also photographed in our yard. Everyone who named the bird in the posted image identified it as a Bendire’s Thrasher. I was surprised, since there’s usually someone who nails the ID.
It illustrated the difficulty of separating these two species in the field, and the state of information on this ID problem in the field guides. Most field guides caution that juvie curve-bills can resemble Bendire’s, but they seldom include good illustrations.
So, look closely a the bill of this Bendire’s Thrasher and note the way the lower mandible is a paler color at the base (closest to the head), along with its relatively modest size. Now, compare the size and color to that of an adult Curve-billed Thrasher (or any other in my previous posts – just use the search function).
What confused the viewers on the quiz site was the pale gape of the fledgling curve-bill, but it is not really like the lighter color on a Bendire’s.
For an extended discussion of the fine points in this pair of look-a-likes see Kevin Zimmer’s The Western Bird Watcher, or his more recent book that has taken its place.