Rich Ditch's Photography Blog

November 18, 2012

Orchard Oriole at Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Filed under: Birds, Boyce Thompson Arboretum, favorite places — richditch @ 6:20 pm
Orchard Oriole

Orchard Oriole

I received a call on Saturday from my contact at Boyce Thompson Arboretum reporting that birders had discovered a female Orchard Oriole and a juvenile male Rose-breasted Grosbeak at a pistachio tree near the lower parking lot. Both species are vagrants from the East in AZ. I had seen each species twice before in AZ – one of the grosbeaks was even seen at Boyce. But the oriole was a new species for the arboretum.

I arrived at 8:00 am just as the arboretum was opening this morning and immediately headed to the lower lot. This particular tree has attracted interesting birds in thre past, including this Rufous-backed Robin that I photographed a few years ago.

Within the first 40 minutes both vagrants showed up to feed on ripe fruit – first the grosbeak, and after it left the oriole. My friend Steve Ganley called me over to his side of the tree when he saw the oriole and I was able to get off only two quick shots. This is the first frame!

I’d had the camera set up for the darker shaded side of the tree at ISO 800, and there was no time at all to monkey with the camera settings. This brilliant morning light didn’t require that high of an ISO, but I’d rather be too high than too low and I’m glad I didn’t miss the shot while fiddling with that setting. I simply set down the tripod and swung the lens to point at the oriole, depressed the use-defined button on the front of the camera to switch in the spot meter, and took two shots.

I did manage to get a few documentary images of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, even showing the diagnostic red feathers under the wing that distinguish it from the very similar juvie Black-headed Grosbeak. So, not a bad couple of hours of birds and photography, and I didn’t even need to hike the trails with all my heavy gear.

Nikon D300, Nikkor 300/2.8 AF-S pus TC20E III (2x), Gitzo tripod with RRS ball head and Sidekick, ISO 800, 1/1600th second at f/8


October 15, 2012

Warbling Vireo

Filed under: Birds, Boyce Thompson Arboretum, digital benefits, favorite places, light — richditch @ 6:43 pm
Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireo

Nikon D300, Nikkor AF-S 300/2.8 plus TC20E III (2x), ISO 1600, 1/60th second at f/5.6, tripod

When I lived in NJ so many years ago as an active birder I used to think of Warbling Vireo as the species whose best field mark was the lack of any field mark – Warbling Vireo in NJ is a very plain gray bird. So I was surprised when I met the western form here in AZ – a bird with colors and patterns more like the Red-eyed Vireo of the eastern US than the plain species I thought I knew well.

Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireo

Nikon D300, Nikkor AF-S 300/2.8 plus TC20E III (2x), ISO 800, 1/250th second at f/8, tripod

These photos were taken at Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior, AZ, on the morning of September 18, 2012 at two locations in the Demonstration Garden just off the lower “picnic” parking lot. There are two water features in the Demo Garden that are magnets for desert birds. One of these is a short slow “stream” that begins at a small stack of stones against a short wall, and this is usually the better (and harder) place to shoot. Light is difficult, coming over the wall early in the day making backlit conditions for many of the shots. It is also quite dark here because of the low shrubs clustered by the water and wall. The top image is from this spot – note the high ISO of 1600 and the low shutter speed of 1/60th second even with the lens wide open at f/5.6. I would never have managed to get this image in the days of film where going to ISO 400 was rare as it took a big toll on image quality.

The second image was taken at the water “bowl” a little farther west in the Demo Garden. This is a more open location with much better light. But the flowers growing near the bowl (and it’s obvious manmade appearance) make it less desirable for my photography. THe more abundant light can be deduced from the shooting data: IDSO 800, 1/250th second at f/8.

Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireo

Nikon D300, Nikkor AF-S 300/2.8 plus TC20E III (2x), ISO 1600, 1/80th second at f/5.6, tripod

The final image was taken at the same location as the first shot with very similar shooting parameters. I’ve had to crop the mage a bit more to eliminate other branches that distracted from the composition. But I like the resulting image with the nuthatch-like posture of the vireo as it works its way down the angled branch.

September 21, 2012

Willow Flycatcher (I think)

Filed under: Birds, Boyce Thompson Arboretum, favorite places — richditch @ 11:44 am
Willow Flycatcher

Willow Flycatcher

Nikon D300, 300/2.8 AF-S Nikkor plus TC20E III (2x), Gitzo tripod with gimbal head, ISO 800, 1/125th second at f/8, spot meter

The Empidonax flycatchers present a real challenge to birders trying to identify birds in the wild. They are a group of closely related birds that look very similar and require skill, experience, and good looks at the bird in question. All the field guides I own have variations on the same cautionary tale: these birds are best separated by call and breeding territory, two clues that are useless for almost all migrant birds who don’t call.

I learned most of what I know about birds and their identification when I lived in NJ and was an active birder for over 20 years. I knew the calls of each breeding species and through the excellent network of active birders I learned where most could be observed in breeding season. I tried to learn the subtle visual differences but even with years of practice I mostly passed on trying to id migrant birds, calling them simply “empids.”

When I came to AZ in 1994 I was confronted by a different mix of empid species that are seen primarily as silent migrants and I’ve never felt confident in any of my identifications of these birds.

Willow Flycatcher

Willow Flycatcher

Nikon D300, 300/2.8 AF-S Nikkor plus TC20E III (2x), Gitzo tripod with gimbal head, ISO 800, 1/80th second at f/8, spot meter

The subject of this post is an empid that I photographed at Boyce Thompson Arboretum on Tuesday, September 18, 2012 around 9:00 am in the Demonstration Garden.

Identification begins with classifying the bird as a flycatcher from general size, posture, activity, and overall color. The predominant greenish-yellow tones eliminate pewee and phoebe and put this bird in the difficult category of empid. The wing bars are good for empid, as is the two tone bill. Most empids have prominent distinctive eye rings; this bird has a very minimal eye ring. That, plus the buffy yellow color of tghe wing bars as seen in the top image, lead me to label this bird as a Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii).

Willow Flycatcher

Willow Flycatcher

Nikon D300, 300/2.8 AF-S Nikkor plus TC20E III (2x), Gitzo tripod with gimbal head, ISO 800, 1/60th second at f/8, spot meter

But I’m still not 100% sure and I’d love to have comments from anyone explaining why they think it is or is not a Willow Flycatcher.

July 29, 2012

Boyce Thompson Arboretum Variations


Cottonwood @ 135mm

Nikon D300, Nikkor 70-300 AF-S VR @ 135mm, ISO 400, 1/100th second at f/11 on 7/20/2012 @ 7:01 am

l my recent hot weather outings have been to Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior, AZ, where the temps are a few degrees lower than at Phoenix. Although my primary objective on any visit to the arboretum is to look for birds, I also enjoy the other fauna, the flora, and the scenic views.

My favorite view is of these cottonwoods in Queen Creek canyon as seen from the switchback trail that passes below Picket Post House. The morning sun lights up the foliage of these trees and I find them irresistible when seen against the the hard rock of the canyon.

I usually am only equipped with my bird gear – my trusty 300/.2,8 lens and matched 2x converter mounted on a camera body and a large tripod, and even when I remove the 2x so I am using only the 300 it is a bit too much focal length for a good composition as seen in this image:


Cottonwood @ 300mm

Nikon D300, Nikkor AF-S 300/2.8, ISO 400, 1/160th second at f/8 on 7/6/2012 @ 6:59 am

Although this composition with the 300 shows he light on the leaves to advantage I’m not satisfied with the way I had to cut off the bottom of the trees.

On my next visit I decided to squeeze my 70-300 zoom into my aqua pack along with all the other gear I carry just so I could shoot a bit wider when I got to the canyon view.


Cottonwood @ 195mm

Nikon D300, Nikkor 70-300 AF-S VR @ 195mm, ISO 400, 1/125th second at f/11 on 7/20/2012 @ 7:01 am

I  like this composition better than the shot at 300mm as it lets me include some of the hard rock formation in front of the trees as well as more of the trunks. The wider view also introduces some foliage in shade near the right edge of the frame, keeping the bright leaves from “spilling out” on the right side of the image.

Thinking this image was as much about the light as anything else I tried a B&W conversion:


Cottonwood – B&W Conversion

Nikon D300, Nikkor 70-300 AF-S VR @ 195mm, ISO 400, 1/125th second at f/11 on 7/20/2012 @ 7:01 am

Although I used to shoot a lot of B&W in my film days and like this image it just doesn’t hold up compared tot he color version.

The image at the top of this post was also taken with the 70-300 zoom but set at 135mm and is my favorite of the images I’ve processed from this trip so far.


July 22, 2012

Cooper’s Hawk, Again

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

To fight “cabin fever” here in way too hot Phoenix I’ve been visiting Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior, AZ, about 60 miles east of where I live. My two recent trips have been chases (“twitches” as British birders call them)  after reported rarities discovered by others: the first on July 10 for a Thick-billed Kingbird well north of its usual range; and July 20 for Big-horned Sheep (last seen at the arboretum in 2002). For the record I saw neither the kingbird (a one day wonder) nor the sheep (refound by friends as I was about to depart and gone by the time I got back to their location).

My consolation prize on the July 10 visit was more time with the juvenile Cooper’s Hawks that I’d seen a few days earlier. They were in the same location and I was prepared for them.

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

For this pair of images I increased my ISO to 1600 – a value that is less an ideal from an image quality standpoint  but still quite useful and remarkable compared to what we could do in the days of film.

Whenever a subject cooperates I like to get variations on framing and overall composition if at all possible. I love this setting, with the normally fierce accipiter surrounded by soft white flowers. I had some difficulty fining a completely clear view but did my best to keep the greenery from blocking the eye. In the first image (the horizontal composition) I was so concerned by the eye that I inadvertently clipped the tail at the bottom of the frame.

A minute later I was able to get a somewhat clearer view of the eye and face, and I also went to vertical to include the tip of the tail. I like both images but prefer the first one by a slight margin as it shows more of the soft setting. I”d be interested in hearing your preferences between these two images.

Nikon D300, Nikkor 300/2.8 AF-S plus TC20E III (2x), tripod, ISO 1600, 1/125-1/160th second, f/8, spot metered

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