Rabbit with Gambel's Quail
I don’t take many photos of the birds in our back yard, preferring birds in more natural settings that I come into contact with in random encounters. But we like having birds around and we’ve been feeding birds in our yard since we moved to Phoenix in 1994, and for the 26 years we owned a house in New Jersey.
My wife Carol’s philosophy is that every bird and creature that shows up needs to be fed, and fed often and in great quantities. In NJ we had a number of seed feeders out and the amount of money spent on black oil sunflower seed was astonishing – it takes a lot to feed some species and on one memorable winter day with a raging storm I estimated 600 Evening Grosbeaks at ther feeders and in the trees around the yard waiting a chance to feed.
Here in AZ our feeding strategy is less complicated – I simply spread cheap birdseed in the yard each afternoon for the doves, sparrows, and quail. All the backyard regulars know the sound of the patio door and the sound when I scoop up the seed to spread. The doves fly in from their perches on the edge of the yard and the quail cluck exictedly from under their protective bush in the corner.
Recently we have been surprised to see one of the resident rabbits has learned the feeding drill and now joins the quail to feed on the scattered birdseed. We haven’t figured out if the rabbit uses the same audio cues as the birds or if it simply sees the birds gather and joins them, but the rabbit joins the frenzy almost as quickly as the birds come in.
I shot this with limited depth of field placed on the ears and eye of the rabbit with the mass of quail surrounding it. The subject is the rabbit, not the birds for a change.
Nikon D300, Nikkor 300/2.8 AF-S lens with TC20E III (2x), tripod, ISO 800, 1/800th second at f/6.3, through glass of patio door.
Northern Pintail preening
I’ll be the first to admit that ducks are seldom my first choice of subject for my avian photos, and it has been that way since I started in photography in New Jersey where ducks were a lot more common than they are here in Phoenix. But there are advantages to duck photography in the desert: a lot of species spend the winter here and can become tolerant of human activity in close quarters in the many small ponds and lakes scattered throughout the urban landscape.
The Northern Pintail above was taken at the Gilbert Water Ranch on February 10, 2012 in late morning. I like the way the wings mimic the position of the tail. Pintails can be tricky to expose properly, with large expanses of white feathers that blow out easily. In this case I used the spot meter with -2/3rds stop compensation to end up with an exposure of 1/1250th second at f/8 with ISO 400.
Ring-necked Duck female
Male Ring-necked Ducks have some of the same exposure problems as pintails, but I can avoid that be concentrating on the females as in this image, taken February 7, 2012 at the Gilbert Water Ranch. I like to use the reflections on the water to add interest to my compositions – here I like how the swirls on the water harmonize with the colors of the duck. I was set up on a floating walkway on the freshwater pond so I kept the ISO higher at 800 to give a shutter speed of 1/100th second at f/8.
Mallard in the rushes
Mallards are so commonplace and widely distributed that it is easy to take them for granted and ignore their beauty. In this shot, also from the Gilbert Water Ranch, I’ve tried for an intimate view and used the setting to show more habitat. Taken January 20, 2012, at ISO 800, 1/200th second at f/8.
Mallard on the railing
The final image is another Mallard, also taken at the Gilbert Water Ranch on the same floating bridge and date as the Ring-necked Duck above. The duck is standing on the railing of the bridge which gave me an opportunity to showcase the orange legs and feet. ISO 800, 1/1000th second at f/7.1. All images taken with Nikon D300, 300/2.8 AF-S Nikkor lens with TC20E III (2x) on Gitzo 1325 tripod with Really Right Stuff BH-55 ball head and Sidekick.
Anna's Hummingbird male
Nikon D300, AF-S 300/2.8 plus TC20E III (2x), tripod, ISO 800, 1/200th second @ f/8, 2/7/2012, 60% of frame
One of the treats of living in Phoenix is year-round hummingbirds. The most common is the Anna’s Hummingbird which can be encountered in many places and habitats.
Males, as seen in the top image, have brilliant rose-red feathers on the head – at least when the light strikes them at the proper angle. In the wrong light these feathers appear almost black. This image was at the Gilbert Water Ranch under hazy late morning light when the hummingbird turned his head to the perfect position to light up the feathers. I used spot metering as I was concerned the overly bright setting would lead to under exposure.
Anna's Hummingbird female on nest
Nikon D300, AF-S 300/2.8 plus TC20E III (2x), tripod, ISO 800, 1/50th second @ f/8, 2/5/2012, 48% of frame
Females are much duller than the males, and it is often safest to not assign a species to a female hummingbird without careful scrutiny. But Anna’s females often show some color on the throat as seen in this image of one on an active nest at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum. Light was minimal for this shot because the nest is on a branch in a thickly foliated tree. Even at ISO 800 my shutter speed was only 1/50th second – but with my solid Gitzo carbon fiber tripod and all the head movements locked down the only motion I had to worry about came from the hummingbird. For me thaat’s a much better choice than blasting the bird with electronic flash.
I’ve been getting out to shoot as much as possible lately to take advantage of the tolerable temperatures. These images of an immature White-crowned Sparrow were made Tuesday, February 7, 2012, at the Gilbert Water Ranch just before 8:00 am, about 30 minutes after sunrise.
This was a chance encounter: no bait, no tape, no set-up. Just a random walk-about with my Nikon D300, AF-S Nikkor 300/2.8 and TC20E II (2x) mounted on my tripod with gimbal head. I was thrilled when this juvie bird landed on a wonderful branch off trail to my right and stayed there long enough for me to set down the tripod and poi nt the lens at it for a few quick frames. I keep things ready to shoot as I walk about so I don’t usually need to think and make camera adjustments. the ISO was set to 800 to give more flexibility in the soft hazy morning light. The lens was set to f/8 (one stop “down” from wide open). The camera is always on aperture preferred auto exposure, but for this situation I switched in the spot meter with a dedicated function button to guard against underexposure from the bright background. The combination of settings and light yielded a shutter speed of 1/500th second.
As with any photo op I try to get more than one shot to increase my chances of a keeper. I also try for variations in the position or activity of the subject, and that is shown here in these two very similar images. Basically the sparrow turned its head so I was able to catch it looking to the left in one frame and to the right in another. I like both versions, but who can predict which will be better without taking both?
Also note that I’ve framed these two images a little differently by making sure there’s more space in the composition in the direction in which the sparrow is looking. I didn’t do this at the time I made the exposures; rather this decision was made during post processing simply by cropping each frame differently. Both shots are 81% of the full frame. I crop most of my photos to fine tune composition – I find this necessary when working with wild subjects in natural settings where the bird decides where to be. But in the interest of image quality I do my best to limit cropping and keep as many pixels of the original as possible.
Abert’s Towhee (Pipilo aberti) is a southwestern desert specialty closely associated with the Colorado River and its tributaries. It is easy to overlook due to its understated colors, its preferences for feeding on the ground and under bushes, and its limited range. I saw my lifer when I was still a New Jersey birder on a quick side trip to the Salton Sea that I tied to a business trip in San Diego.
Within its range it is rather common, and see them on most visits to parks around Phoenix, They’ve even moved into our urban back yard where they work hard to get their share of the handouts my wife provides for the thrashers and mockingbirds.
The best place to see one (or many) that I know of is the Gilbert Water Ranch, where I spend a lot of time taking photos like these three images taken February 2, 2012 after the gate was unlocked.
They have a distinctive “peep” call a little like a whistle, and they give it a lot even from cover so they are easy to locate once you know what to listen for.
For these photos I simply set up my usual avian rig (Nikon D300, AF-S 300/2.8 lens with TC20E III 2x converter, tripod with gimbal head) near a spot with good morning light where the White-crowned Sparrows were coming to feed and waited.