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Posts Tagged ‘Pine Warbler’

I still remember the first time that I travelled to Austin, Texas.  Running through O’Hare Airport to catch my plane to Florida, where I would spend a couple of weeks with my parents while my husband looked for an apartment.  Being aware, but not afraid, that flights to Florida were being hijacked to Cuba.  The flight to Houston on a jet and then the final leg to Austin on a small prop plane.  It was 1968 and I was 8-months pregnant with my first child.  A month later, my son, David, would be born at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin.

Me shortly before and just after the birth of my son David in 1968 I think the photos were taken at Bastrop State Park.

Me shortly before and just after the birth of my son David in 1968 I think the photos were taken at Bastrop State Park.

This trip in March 2017 was much easier.  I just got in my Subaru Outback and drove to Austin.   The purpose of traveling to Texas this time was to visit Trissie, mother of Dave’s daughter, Amber.  Sadly for me, Dave and Trissie are no longer together.  Dave is still in China, but Trissie is now in the US and engaged to Mike.  Trissie is familiar with my birding addiction from our time together in China, so I knew that I could combine birding with a family visit.

My road trip skills are improving, although I still have much to learn about planning and finding birds.  The first day on the road, I drove through heavy storms for much of the way, but it was clear when I got to Nashville.  I didn’t have time to go to the park that I had originally planned, but I found J. Percy Priest Dam just a couple of miles from my hotel.  I’m easily entertained, so I enjoyed the cutest mongrel Mallard that I’d ever seen, studying the feet on the coots, and watching a Common Loon try to choke down a very large fish.

On day two, I drove to Texarkana and stayed the night on the Arkansas side.  My planned stop near Little Rock hadn’t worked out, so I decided to find some Arkansas birds in the morning before driving into Texas.  The next morning was magical – sunny, perfect temperature, no wind – and Alex Smith County Park proved to be one of my favorite stops of the entire trip.  A dirt road passed the official park, a lake, and a wetland on the way to the river.  A couple dozen Gadwall were on the lake.  When they flew from one side to the other with their white speculums gleaming in the sunlight, I thought that I’d never seen anything so beautiful.

Hermit Thrush basking in the sun at Alex Smith County Park in Arkansas.

Hermit Thrush basking in the sun at Alex Smith County Park in Arkansas.

I drove on to Austin, where it was great to see Trissie again and meet Mike.  On Saturday, our first full day together, my hosts indulged me with a trip to Balcones Canyonlands, where two endangered species, Golden-checked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo, breed.  It was a bit too early for either species, but the landscape was beautiful and I hope that Trissie and Mike found a beautiful place for hiking.

Male Ladder-backed Woodpecker, a species that I saw at Commons Ford Park and again later at Pedernales Falls State Park.

Male Ladder-backed Woodpecker, a species that I saw at Commons Ford Park and again later at Pedernales Falls State Park.

Andrew Dickinson, the son of friends, lives in Austin and we had arranged an outing for Sunday morning at Commons Ford Park.  Trissie and Mike were good sports and got up early to go with me.  It was a nice introduction to Travis County birding and exciting that Andrew found an early Northern Parula.  I also saw my first western birds here – Spotted Towhee, Black-crested Titmouse, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers.

That afternoon, we toured the Texas state capitol because it seemed like something that tourists should do.  We were all a little surprised at how interesting we found the capitol and how much we enjoyed the tour.

Great-tailed Grackles were abundant on the Austin capitol grounds.

Great-tailed Grackles were abundant on the Austin capitol grounds.

Monday was one of my favorite days.  Mike had to go to work, but Trissie took the day off and we went to Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.  A volunteer immediately greeted us and pointed out a Great Horned Owl on a nest right above the entrance to the courtyard.  “Athena,” as she is called by the staff, has nested in the same location for 8 years!  She just sat there watching all the visitors look at her and take photographs, but she must have felt safe from predators.

Look carefully under the sotol to see Athena's eyes just peeking over the edge of the planter.

Look carefully under the sotol to see Athena’s eyes just peeking over the edge of the planter.

I especially enjoyed the butterfly garden where I found a new butterfly, White-striped Longtail.

I especially enjoyed the butterfly garden where I found a new butterfly, White-striped Longtail.

A gorgeous Texas Spiny Lizard.

A gorgeous Texas Spiny Lizard.

Trissie became engrossed in the beautiful books that were available for browsing and we both enjoyed the film about Lady Bird Johnson.  She was an amazing woman who accomplished much good and I now have an increased appreciation for her numerous environmental contributions.

Trissie enjoying the arboretum at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Trissie enjoying the arboretum at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Next it was a trip to the Alamo for Trissie and me.  It’s a place that everyone should go once, but once is enough for most, so Mike was happy that Trissie could go with me.  We enjoyed being tourists and walked the river front after touring the Alamo.

I went to Pace Bend Park by myself on Wednesday and could have spent days there.  I foolishly did not read eBird reports before I went, so I missed a lot of birds, but did find the only Canyon Towhee of the trip, more Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays, and several pretty butterflies.

'Olive' Juniper Hairstreak

‘Olive’ Juniper Hairstreak

That evening Carlos Ross, a new friend made on Facebook, met us at Commons Ford Park to look (well, actually listen) for Common Poorwill.  It was a lovely evening and the four of us were the only people at the park.  We talked about the mysteries of birds and life while we waited.  And, then I heard the soft “Poor will, Poor will” in the distance.  Yay!  This was my only life bird of the trip.

Female Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Female Golden-fronted Woodpecker

I had planned to leave on Thursday, but I couldn’t tear myself away from Texas birds, so Trissie and Mike invited me to stay with them another day.  The volunteer we had met earlier in the week at the LBJ Wildflower Center had shown us some beautiful photos that he took at Pedernales Falls State Park, so we decided to go there on our last day together.  We walked into the bird blind at the park and my jaw dropped.  The bird area contained a large pool/fountain and several tree stumps stuffed with suet – all designed to draw in the birds.  And, did it ever draw them in!  Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers up close.  A flock of Cedar Waxwings in the pool.  Good looks at Spotted Towhee and Lincoln’s Sparrows.  We saw only 16 species, but some like Bewick’s Wren were birds that I had not seen anywhere else on this trip.

Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay

Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay

The next day, Friday, I really had to start heading home, so I reluctantly said goodbye to Trissie.  But I was greedy and drove two hours west to Pedernales Falls before heading east.  The difference from the previous day was astonishing.  It was so quiet that I could hardly believe it was the same place.  But it was still nice to do my last Texas birding at such a wonderful place.

Pine Warbler at an I-30 rest stop in Arkansas.

Pine Warbler at an I-30 rest stop in Arkansas.

The drive home was uneventful.  I have learned to pace myself by not driving too far each day.  I stopped at nearly every rest area and walked around for 20-30 minutes with my binoculars and camera.  I usually didn’t find anything more exciting than robins or chickadees, but sometimes I got lucky as with a lovely male Pine Warbler in Arkansas.  I will definitely be doing more road trips.  One of them is sure to be to Texas again to visit Trissie and Mike and see more Texas birds and butterflies.

Texas Indian Paintbrush

Texas Indian Paintbrush

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Photographing birds is fun and it’s a great way to create wonderful memories of special birds and birding trips. It’s also a good way to learn more about birds. I’m not an expert, but I would like to share what I’ve learned. I just use a “point-and-shoot” camera, but these basics also apply to DSLR cameras.

I got my current camera (a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150) about two years ago and I quickly learned that I rarely got good photographs with auto mode. I switched to program mode so that I could set the focus to a single area. This is probably the single most important thing to do – put your camera in any mode other than auto and use a single focus area. That’s all I did until recently and I got nice photographs of easy birds under good conditions.

American Woodcock. Program mode. Camera stabilized on the boardwalk railing. Image cropped, but no other editing.

American Woodcock. Program mode. Camera stabilized on the boardwalk railing. Image cropped, but no other editing.

Recently, I’ve become interested in improving my skills, so I had photography lessons with Tom Dunkerton  at Merritt Island NWR on my last trip to Florida. Tom set me in the right direction, made it fun and easy, and gave me confidence. I also found some great online tutorials on bird photography and bought a book. I’ll give links to these resources at the end of this post.

Green Heron. My favorite photo taken the day after my lessons with Tom Dunkerton.

Green Heron. My favorite photo taken the day after my lessons with Tom Dunkerton.

The first thing to work on is getting sharp, well-exposed images. As mentioned above, use a single focus area. On most cameras you can control the position of the focus area (it doesn’t have to be in the center of the image) and the size of the area. Focus on the bird’s eye. If the eye is in focus, the photo will generally be pleasing. Aperture mode is usually recommended for photographing birds. A wide aperture (low number) will increase the shutter speed, helping prevent blur caused by movement of the subject. It will also help to get a sharp image of the bird, but keep the background softly out of focus. Unless you are trying to create a shot showing bird habitat, a sharply focused background is distracting.

Red-bellied Woodpecker in my backyard. The light in the bird's eye makes this photo work.

Red-bellied Woodpecker in my backyard. The light in the bird’s eye makes this photo work.

It is also important to hold the camera as still as possible. Experts recommend using the electronic viewfinder rather than the LCD screen. That allows you to use your body to stabilize the camera. I’ve never been able to do that, so I put the camera strap around my neck and hold the camera away from my body so that the strap is tight. I hold my left hand under the camera to add additional stability and press the shutter with my right hand. Even better than hand-holding the camera is using a tripod, monopod, or some other stationary object to support the camera. Experiment – see what works for you.

Three things affect exposure – aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. A good basic ISO setting is 400. However, if you are shooting in low light, you may want to increase the ISO. When using aperture mode, the camera will automatically set the shutter speed. This works fine for most birds with good lighting conditions. But, white birds and very dark birds are more challenging. You may also need to make some adjustments if the light is not ideal. The easiest way to make adjustments is to use exposure compensation. To do this effectively, set your camera to display a histogram and learn to read it. It’s actually very easy and provides instant feedback on your exposure. It simply displays the tones in the image, usually from dark on the left to the lightest tones on the right. The goal is to keep the graph within the scale, as evenly distributed from left to right as possible, but not “hitting the wall” on either end. If the graph goes off the left end, the photo will be underexposed and details lost in the shadows. If it goes off the right end, some areas of the photo will be pure white and no post-processing can recover the blown highlights.  If the graph is too far to the left, increase the exposure compensation.  If it’s too far to the right, decrease the exposure compensation.

There is much more to learn about photography, but these basics will go a long way towards helping you get some nice photos that will add to your enjoyment of birds.

This Snowy Egret was a white bird with a dark background. An exposure compensation of -1 kept the details in the white feathers.

This Snowy Egret was a white bird with a dark background. An exposure compensation of -1 kept the details in the white feathers.

Here are a few more miscellaneous tips that I’ve recently learned.

  • Study your bad photos to determine what went wrong. Also, study your good photos to see what went right.  Use the EXIF data embedded in each photo to see the settings you used and how they affected the image.
  • Try turning off “image stabilization” in good light. I was amazed, but my images were sharper after I turned this setting to “off.”
  • Use burst mode. Any camera movement caused by pressing the shutter won’t be evident in the second and subsequent photos. It may also help you get the bird in a more pleasing position if it moves.
  • Take lots of photos. It’s not film. It’s free to shoot photos with a digital camera.
  • Use photo-editing software. Sure, you want to capture the best image that you can, but don’t be afraid to improve it with a little editing.
Pine Warbler (female). Even a simple image can be pleasing. This photo works because the background is out of focus.

Pine Warbler (female). Even a simple image can be pleasing. This photo works because the background is out of focus.

A few resources for bird photography:

  • The user manual for your camera.
  • Bird Photography Tutorials from Mike Atkinson.
  • Many excellent books on digital photography are available. I just bought The Beginner’s Photography Guide ($15.18 from Amazon) and I’m finding it to be extremely helpful.
  • Ask for help.  We have several skilled photographers in Forsyth County who are willing to answer questions, offer suggestions, and provide additional help.

Below is an example of learning more about birds through photography. I photographed this male Common Merganser in California a couple of years ago. When I looked at the photo, I was fascinated by the pattern on the breast. I never would have noticed or remembered this detail from just looking at the bird with my binoculars. Since then, experiences like this have been repeated many times.

Common Merganser (male)

Common Merganser (male)

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