What does the Fox Say?

One of my favorite things about life in the Ozarks are the random encounters with wildlife. These encounters happen often up on my mountain – songbirds, squirrels, hawks, and deer all circle around the Stonehouse, careful to steer clear of the patrolling terriers in the lawn. A few years ago we had bear sightings up the road. I spotted a black mountain lion passing through one time. These occurrences are alway magical, but not unexpected anymore.

My friend Candy lives about a mile and a half from me on a golf course community called Holiday Island. You may have seen Eric Estrada pitching lots on late night infomercials a few years back. It’s beautiful spot carved out of the wilds of the Ozarks – but it’s considerably less wild than my mountain. They have restaurants, grocery stores, and a club house. One night Candy and I were driving from her house to mine. We were passing the clubhouse when we spotted some visitors. There on the parking lot next to the putting green were three little faces looking back at us. Candy maneuvered the car to give me some light while I took photos with my flash – oddly enough they were not at all bothered by the car, the flash, or me. At one point I was shooting two of them grooming each other when I glanced back and caught sight of the third one sneaking up behind me. Their curiosity overwhelmed any fear they had.

Their manner reminded me a lot of my shy pup Kirby. They were cautious but curious. I almost wanted to just sit on the ground and let them come to me – but we were in the middle of a street in the dark in the middle of the night. After about 20 minutes they tired of us and moved on across the putting green. Something more interesting awaited them in the dark of the golf course.

Since that night I have seen them several times. I spent some time with them at the bank parking lot one evening, but without Candy there to point the car headlights at them I didn’t have enough light to photograph them. I saw them sleeping in a driveway the other day – soaking up the last of the warmth of our Indian Summer.

 

Winter Weary

Old Man Winter has been giving us all he’s got this year. He started in Autumn and it looks like it’s doing his best to drag things out into Spring. Here in the Ozarks, we typically get a light snow before Christmas and we have a cold and sometimes snowy January. This year we’ve been pounded by storm after storm. I’m tired of shoveling and I miss the sunshine. It’s hard on us humans, but I have to tell you that the birds at the Stonehouse are over it. Yesterday when  forecasted “light afternoon flurries” turned into 7 inches of wet sticky snow, I did what I always do. I took out my camera. My friends at the feeders have lost their sweet Christmassy look – gone are the noble poses with perfectly coiffed tufts and wings. Haggard cards and finches continue to feed, but clearly they are over this whole “polar vortex” thing. Don’t worry, my little feathered friends, Spring is on the way – it’s supposed to arrive on Thursday, but don’t count your chicks before they’re hatched.

Click through to see what the diners at the Stonehouse Buffet have to say about Winter 2014:

 

Shutterbug Notes:

I have a weather sealed camera, but my bird lens is not sealed – I use a sandwich bag to give it a bit of protection, while still allowing me to focus in the weather. Shooting birds in falling snow is tricky, your AF will try to lock onto snowflakes so try focussing first on something at the same distance as your subject – I find that nearby branches work well – this makes it easier to fine tune your focus on your subject. When shooting birds I always focus on their eyes and I use the smallest AF target box that by camera has. I think the eyes help to capture their personalities. A motion blur on a wing can add to a shot, but a face out of focus is not a keeper for me. 

Out on a Limb

Winter Storm Cleon has moved east and it’s finally possible to get out of the Stone House and get back to work. It’s still unseasonably cold, and today I got my first mail delivery in almost a week. During the storm I worked from home and stayed warm and mostly dry by the fire. By day two the symptoms of cabin fever were starting to set in. I was getting up every thirty minutes and walking up and down my hallway several times. I constantly stocked the indoor firewood pile. I starting to feel restless and cooped up. I decided that to clear my head that I would take a walk outside over my “lunch hour”.

I put on my Carharts and tucked my weatherproof camera and lens inside my jacket. The activity around the house was extraordinary. Cardinals were hanging onto the branches of the crepe myrtle for dear life. A fallen tree limb over the pergola was a lifeline to a small woodpecker as winds blew snow almost sideways. Birds that typically dart away held fast in hopes of spotting fallen seed below on the patio.

I came in almost soaked through and freezing, but invigorated and ready to focus – on work.

Shutterbug notes:

Shooting birds in the snow can be tricky. Your camera’s autofocus wants to focus on the nearest object in your field of view – I found that if I made my focus point as small as possible and tried to get it to lock onto a bird’s eyes or beak that I could eventually get a focus between flakes. I took all of these shots in shutter mode at 1/400 second and an ISO of 1000. The white of the snow added ambient light that made a moderate ISO setting sufficient. A slower shutter speed would make the flakes look more like streaks – a faster one would require a higher ISO and would create unnecessary noise in a limited light situation.

Trying Something a Bit Flashy

I’ve been working getting a good library of photos built for stock photography sites and it’s been a humbling experience. The sites critique your work and the issues are very plainly stated. The artistic quality of a photo is not considered. It’s all about fundamentals.

Here on this blog I have been talking about pushing my photography in order to accomplish tasks like stopping the motion of a hummingbird’s wings or capturing the joy of an OCD dog in swimming pool. These exercises have pushed me to capture things I never really thought my micro 4/3 system was capable of. This has been great for me as a technician and I feel more capable of shooting things that I had not even considered before. The down side is that it has pointed out the flaws in the give-and-take when you trade shutter speed for ISO – the end result is more noise. Although this might be great for a photo that I would publish here or even one that I would sell a print of, it doesn’t cut it in the stock photography world. Noise is a no-no.

I’m also finding that my artistic leaning towards a very shallow DOF is not what these sites are looking for either – so I have culled my archives to find the best shots where the focus on the main subject is deeper – all-in-all I am starting to find the right mix. My autumn leaves seem to be hitting the mark as well as some wildlife and some flowers.

This whole process got me thinking – is there a way to get a very sharp image of a hummingbird (or any bird) in less than perfect lighting conditions? In motion? Without a lot of noise? I recently attended a family wedding and I brought my portrait lens. As the ceremony moved from a lakeside sunlit venue to a rather dark reception hall I was forced to take out my least favorite piece of photographic equipment – my flash.

I have never liked shooting with a flash. I don’t like the way it can change skin tones and the shadows it can cast. I prefer a fast lens and available light, but as the days start to get shorter, that means I might have to shoot only on weekends with great weather. The hummingbirds are here now – and they’ll be headed south by mid October. Although I find the flash intimidating, the time has come for me to give it a try.

All of the shots that follow were shot in overcast conditions after 6:00pm. Some were shot on the west side of my home where the house casts shadows on my shooting area after 4:00pm.

I’ll start with a hummingbird on a limb. I was concerned that once I fired the flash that my subject would bolt, but my worries were unfounded. I shout about 10 frames of this fellow and he was unconcerned with me. He was in the shadow of the house, backed by a cedar beam.

There is the problem of the flash needing to recharge between shots – so I have to go back to my process of stalking and waiting for a good moment rather than firing off dozens of frames – but I kind of like that.

Of course, there is still the issue of hoping to stop the action of a hummingbird in flight. The flash certainly helps…

This shot was taken at about 6:00 in the evening - I had to get a focus on the bird and wait for it to flutter backwards from the feeder to make the capture. Since a bird does this about 5-6 times when feeding you are lucky to get two chances while a bird is at the feeder with the flash recharging between shots.

This shot was taken at about 6:00 in the evening – I had to get a focus on the bird and wait for it to flutter backwards from the feeder to make the capture. Since a bird does this about 5-6 times when feeding you are lucky to get two chances while a bird is at the feeder with the flash recharging between shots.

There is something else the flash does that I hadn’t really considered. All that extra light assists the camera in getting some pretty tight focus…

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I can see the veins of individual feathers in this shot, but the beak is what really got me. I have never gotten a shot this sharp of a hummer. The flash makes the wings transparent so that you can see her body through it. A shadow is cast of the wing on her left by the one in front.

This whole process has made me think about using a flash when I have plenty of sunlight. Can I get a really sharp image by adding just a bit more light into the mix? Or is that just too flashy?

Didn’t Your Mama Ever Teach You Any Table Manners?

Mid summer is a time when the Bird Buffet is inundated with fledglings – last week I wrote about a titmouse who was unwilling to cut the apron strings. I’m glad to report that I witnessed him opening and eating his own sunflower seeds today. Still, his screeching for his mama continues unabated. I have the feeling he’ll be living at home until his student loans are paid off.

Todays subject on Fledglings Behaving Badly, is not a mischievous titmouse, it’s a youngster from a fine upstanding family, known for their fine manners. They don’t screech, they don’t fight, they don’t hand upside down from the chandeliers. The Downy Woodpecker is the very picture of a well-mannered bird.

This is a Downy being a Downy - walking along a tree limb looking for bugs.

This is a Downy being a Downy – walking along a tree limb looking for bugs.

Downies are sweet birds, they become accustomed to humans very quickly and even share their feeders easily. They are likable little birds – the kind who grow up to be upright citizens. Every once in a while there’s a bad apple, a bird that no amount of parenting and discipline can manage – a hellion that upsets the whole neighborhood.

This kind of behavior cannot be tolerated at the Buffet! I suppose she thinks that if it’s alright for the hummers to dive bomb each other over this feeder that she can do whatever she likes, well she’s wrong – dead wrong (not really, I could never hurt her).

Click through this next gallery to see our stop action surveillance of the perpetrator.

After this incident, the youth in question was seen hanging upside down on the woodpecker feeder. She was last seen leaving the Buffet on a motorcycle with a sketchy looking bluejay.

She's gonna have one heck of a hangover in the morning.

She’s gonna have one heck of a hangover in the morning.

Parents – tell your fledglings about nectar. There’s nothing sadder than a young woody throwing her life away for a sugar high.

No Bird Left Behind

When sorting through my shots with an eye towards putting together a blog post, sometimes I find that some of my favorite images just don’t find a place. I have never really liked posting a single image – I like making sets, so what do I do with these shots? Today I decided to put the orphaned shots together into a set of my favorite leftover shots of the Spring of 2013.

Not all of these are perfect or in focus, with wildlife sometimes you take the shot because it just happens. Where a shot fits into a previous post, I have placed a link into the text.

Precision extraction

Precision extraction

I adore nuthatches, but almost all of my shots are upside down or their swooning pose. These are really adroit birds and can climb almost any surface. I like this shot because it shows off his dexterity. He will take that single seed and fly to a secure perch where he will carefully open and eat it.

Rainforest Cafe

Rainforest Cafe

Robins are everywhere and I loved seeing them in the rain forests of Washington. They are usually spotted on the ground looking for worms – I like the chance to see one at eye level.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas down there…

Our local hardware store has a facade covered with signs that the house sparrows nest in. They hop all over the roof and barely take notice of customers passing below them. I though it was interesting to see how this little guy has made use of even the Christmas light brackets as a perch. Ho Ho Ho!

Talking with his mouth full

Talking with his mouth full

The red-bellied woodpecker is one of my favorite birds. They can be shy, but once they get used to your proximity to the feeders they stick around unless you make sudden movements. I love it when they look back at me.

Off balance

Off balance

This hummer prefers to drink from the feeder with no perch, sadly she almost falls off every time she sits up after drinking. She flaps her wings to regain her balance before drinking more. I rarely get a good image of the wing structure of a hummer. She reminds me of a gymnast trying to stick the landing.

Out on a limb

Out on a limb

This male goldfinch was the first to return with his new yellow summer outfit. He is unflappable. Dogs barking and racing below his feeder don’t bother him. Yesterday a crow zipped by and almost carried him away – I watched in horror as the collision happened right in front of me. He did a tumble and landed on his feet on the porch – I saw some white down float upward. He took a perch a few feet off the ground and caught his breath. 10 minutes later he was back on his perch feeding. As I have said before, goldfinches are badasses.

Hunkered down

Hunkered down

There is just so much going on when you look at the feathers on a peacock – stripes, eyes, shimmer – I liked getting a shot of most of it happening in one spot.

That boy's wearing polka-dot panties

That boy’s wearing polka-dot panties

If you’ve read my blog before you may recall that I have recently discovered a northern flicker near the grocery store where I shop. I am officially his stalker now. I know where he lives and I know where he likes to eat. Kinda creepy, I know, but he’s the one with the silly underwear.

Solar lighting

Solar lighting

These late spring evenings have been producing some interesting lighting – as the sun sets behind the trees at the Stone House the light breaks into pieces – when that combines with iridescence it can make for some interesting shots. I love how the feathers on this guy’s throat switched from black to this amazing bronze as he turned his head.

Covert operation

Covert operation

The pileated woodpecker was shot through a window, he’s so shy that it’s taken me a year to get an in-focus shot of him, and as soon as I moved closer to the window to frame a better shot without the pane showing, he bolted. Lesson learned, always take the shot before improving your position.

Mohawk

Mohawk

My goldfinch friend reacts to me whistling – often they will cock their head in an effort to catch the sound in one of the earholes they have on either side of their heads, but this time he just puffed up his head – I’ve never seen that before.

Puff Daddy

Puff Daddy

This male hummer is guarding his feeder. As intruders approach he leaves his post, flying sortis to defend his position. When he lands back at base he puffs up to add to his intimidating presence.

Krishna in the grass

Krishna in the grass.

My friend Krishna is a little camera-shy these day. The lawn has been cut down at the Grange Hall and he is lacking cover, so he heads off towards the woods. Sometimes a man needs to be alone with his thoughts and away from the prying eyes of the paparazzi.

Seeing red

Seeing red

Another shot of that late evening sunlight – for just a moment the sun shone right through the red bottle and onto the hummer – this is one of those you wish you could get another crack at – in low light focussing is more difficult. Imperfect or not – it was an unusual moment.

Focused on his next meal

Focused on his next meal

I rarely get a shot at a hawk near the house. I spotted this guy yesterday on my drive home. The woods here are so thick that I almost never see one in flight, but he passed right in front of my Jeep. I pulled up and turned off the motor. Shooting through thick woods made focussing tricky but I finally dialed in on his eyes and then he took off – an encounter of seconds. I love his intensity, but I am glad that he feeds far away from my feeders.

Bliss

Bliss

This photo is the one that made me decide to write this post. I almost posted it alone, but decided to give the library another once-over after deciding against it. Who knew that hummingbirds have eyelashes? I rarely suggest clicking on an image, but I do on this one – the structure of this birds eyelids are amazing! I occasionally get a shot of a bird in the process of blinking – and I typically discard those, but this one seemed different – serene, graceful, poetic – and none of those things have to do with me and a camera. It was just a moment and I happened to snap at just the right time.

So far the springtime has been amazing – birds are singing, I am shooting, and all is well with the world – at least it is here at the Stone House.

The Sentries

As we move into summer here at the Stone House, there is a battle raging. Volleys are launched from every side. Airstrikes, dive bombs, there’s chatter in the wind. The fighting is fierce, but before summer is over one will reign supreme…

Back off!

Back off!

…over the Hummingbird feeder.

Today I salute those bold men and women on the front lines – staking their claim to that sugary water and holding off all comers.

Here’s to the heroes of summer – the sentries.

Looking skyward

Looking skyward to face the enemy

Fending off an alien invasion

Fending off an alien invasion

Keeping watch over his prize

Keeping watch over his prize

Watching for an areal assault

Watching for an aerial assault

Keeping the enemy in her sights

Keeping the enemy in her sights

Out on a limb to protect his supply line

Out on a limb to protect his supply line

Going the extra mile to spot the threar

Going the extra mile to spot the threat

Stalking the enemy

Stalking the intruders

Staring down the enemy

Staring down the enemy

Ducking for cover

Ducking for cover

Tracking the enemies movements

Tracking the enemy’s movements

Arial reconnaissance

Aerial reconnaissance

Preparing to strike

Preparing to strike

Holding onto the high ground

Holding onto the high ground

The summer skies belong to you – the bold, the fierce, the hummers.