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Posts Tagged ‘Green Heron’

Derek and I spent Monday and Tuesday driving around the north end of Lake Champlain, first north up through Vermont, then across Quebec and finally south into New York.  Our first major stop on Monday morning was Dead Creek WMA IBA in Vermont.  We hoped the birds we saw there would include shorebirds, but this stop was the first of many that was not what we expected.  It was beautiful, but we did not even see any shorebird habitat.  We tallied only 13 species, all birds that we see at home in North Carolina or Maryland – robins, goldfinches, an Osprey.

We saw shrubs with red berries everywhere like this one with a Song Sparrow at Dead Creek WMA IBA.

We saw shrubs with red berries everywhere like this one with a Song Sparrow at Dead Creek WMA IBA.

Our next stop was Charlotte Town Beach which proved to be an even bigger surprise.  This tiny beach on the edge of the lake with more trees than sand is an eBird hotspot with 226 species reported from over 2,600 checklists.  It is renowned by the local birding community as one of the best places on Lake Champlain for lake watching.  A Little Gull had been reported here recently and I need it for a life bird.  However, we saw just a few Ring-billed Gulls and only four other species.

The view from Charlotte Town Beach. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

The view from Charlotte Town Beach. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

The north end of Lake Champlain contains several islands and we thought it would be fun to drive through them.  Again, we were surprised and mildly disappointed as the islands were so large we could not see water except when crossing the bridges from one island to the next.  Our longest stop was at South Hero Marsh Trail.  We had our first of several experiences trying to track down the bird making sounds that we could not identify.  After ten minutes of careful searching, we found the source of the sounds under dense vegetation on the edge of a wetland – a chipmunk!

Green Heron in the swamp along the South Hero Marsh Trail

Green Heron in the swamp along the South Hero Marsh Trail

A real bird that we saw was a Merlin who flew in as we were heading back.  She landed on top of a snag and began eating dinner.  We waited until she was finished before we continued along the trail so that we would not flush her and cause her to lose her meal.  Later scrutiny of our photos showed that her “dinner” was only an appetizer or dessert – a dragonfly!

Merlin on the South Hero Marsh Trail

Merlin on the South Hero Marsh Trail

We finished the day with an American White Pelican at Campbell Bay, a rare bird for Vermont.  We were lucky to get good looks at the bird in intermittent drizzle and still enough light that we could see Canada across the bay.

On Tuesday morning, we birded at St. Albans Bay Town Park, Vermont.  We finally found a few shorebirds, two Least Sandpipers and five Semipalmated Plovers.  This helped me reach my goal of 50 species for Vermont.

Semipalmated Plover in early morning light at St. Albans Bay Town Park

Semipalmated Plover in early morning light at St. Albans Bay Town Park

 

American Redstart at St. Albans Bay Town Park

American Redstart at St. Albans Bay Town Park

We continued north into Canada where our first birding stop was Philipsburg Bird Sanctuary, just across the border.  The entrance to the park was so overgrown with weeds that I drove by it twice before I could find it.  The parking area and trails were also overgrown, but this mostly boreal forest park is beautiful.  We observed a good variety of birds ranging from southern birds such as Red-bellied Woodpecker to more northern breeders like an American Bittern that Derek found.  We also saw an Osprey and our only Bald Eagle for the trip so far.

Part of a beautiful large field in the middle of Philipsburg Bird Sanctuary

Part of a beautiful large field in the middle of Philipsburg Bird Sanctuary

A quick stop at Parc Jamison to look for shorebirds produced no shorebirds, but surprised us with a Great Egret.

McFee Brook Interpretive Center was next, with signs only in French “Centre d’interprétation du ruisseau McFee.” This was a small park with a long boardwalk over a wetland.  I imagined that it must be an excellent place to see birds on a spring morning.

A Great Blue Heron in a small pond at McFee Brook Interpretive Center

A Great Blue Heron in a small pond at McFee Brook Interpretive Center

We had lunch at Cantine Lolo in Lacolle before leaving Canada.  We ate a simple meal while we sat outside at a picnic table and added a few more birds to our Canada list.  The menu was in French only and the person taking our orders had poor English language skills.  However, another customer overheard Derek placing our order and came to his aid.

After eating we turned south and back into the US.  Beekmantown Rest Area provided a nice welcome home with clean restrooms and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak at its feeders.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (male) at a New York rest area. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (male) at a New York rest area. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Our last stop of the day and was Noblewood Park where we looked for a Little Gull that had been reported.  This park is almost directly across Lake Champlain from Charlotte Town Beach where we had looked for the gull the previous day.  The entrance is through thick woods and after parking it’s about a half-mile walk to the beach through more trees.  The gull had been seen much closer here but we did not see one among the 180 Bonaparte’s Gulls resting on the sand bar not too far from shore.  Little Gull is an uncommon but annual visitor to the lake, so I still hope to see one before the trip is over.

The sandbar seen from the beach at Noblewood Park. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

The sandbar seen from the beach at Noblewood Park. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

We finished the day with a drive to Tupper Lake, deep in the Adirondacks, where we would spend the next four nights.

 

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News flash – I just saw my 600th ABA bird! Please pardon this interruption to my series of Alaska posts, but this is just too exciting to not share now. Birders, feel free to skip ahead while I attempt to explain to my non-birding friends just what an “ABA bird” is. ABA is the American Birding Association, a wonderful organization that serves birders with publications aimed at improving birding skills, promotion of conservation, summer camps for teens, and lots of other fun and important birding stuff. It is also the official keeper of LISTS. Avid birders love lists and ABA members can report theirs for comparison to other birders. The “ABA area” is basically all of North America north of Mexico. So, a birder’s ABA list is the list of all the birds that he or she has observed in the ABA area.

Green Heron - The ABA

Green Heron – The ABA “Bird of the Year” for 2015

Back in the 1960s, it was quite an accomplishment to join the “600 Club.” But, the Internet, email, listservs, eBird, Facebook, and cell phones have totally changed birding from a few decades ago. Now, news of a rare bird travels fast and within hours dozens of birders may see a rarity. This rapid communication has enabled many to see 700 species in the ABA area and some have even observed over 800 ABA birds, but that achievement requires a lot of time, money, energy, and ambition. To put these numbers in perspective, there are only 671 regularly occurring birds in North America and many of those are found only in small numbers in particular locations. Another 308 species are rare and many of those have been observed in North America only a few times.

Whooping Cranes. Photo: International Crane Foundation.

Whooping Cranes. Photo: International Crane Foundation.

I was getting close to 600 ABA birds when I left for Alaska in June. I needed 42 more and there were 42 birds on last year’s trip list that I had not seen. I had a chance! But, birds change from year to year and I got only 40 ABA birds in Alaska. I needed two more birds. And, then I learned that the non-migratory Whooping Cranes that I had seen in Florida last year were now countable. I needed only one more bird! Of course, I was excited about the possibilities, but this wasn’t going to be easy. I would figure out a plan for #600 later.

On August 11, I left for Gainesville, Florida, for a family visit. I planned to just drive down, visit family, and drive back home. I didn’t even take my scope or hiking shoes. Since I got back from Alaska a few weeks earlier, I had not paid much attention to what was happening outside my home county. But, after I got to Florida, I discovered that Smooth-billed Anis were being reported at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge every day. There was mention of a nest, so I expected the birds to continue to be there for a while. I had seen Anis in Ecuador, but not in the ABA area. This could be my #600! I altered my plans so that I could drive to South Florida and see the Anis after visiting with my family.

Smooth-billed Ani

Smooth-billed Ani

I didn’t know if a scope was required or not, but I wanted to be sure that I’d have the best views possible. Fortunately, Angel & Mariel Abreu of Nature Is Awesome Birding & Wildlife Tours were available for the day. They would also try to help me get Black-whiskered Vireo for #601 and we could spend the remainder of the day looking for South Florida specialty butterflies.

On August 16, we arrived at Loxahatchee at 9:00 AM and found two Smooth-billed Anis right away. They could not have been more cooperative and we had fun watching the birds preen and fly around a little, but never out of sight. We could see detail in every feather with the scope and we got good photos.

Mariel and I celebrating my 600th ABA bird

Mariel and I celebrating my 600th ABA bird

We also saw the first two of six new butterflies for me that day, Phaon Crescent and Ruddy Daggerwing.

Ruddy Daggerwing

Ruddy Daggerwing

Phaon Crescent

Phaon Crescent

Finally, we tore ourselves away from the Anis and drove down to Key Largo to look for the Black-whiskered Vireos that Angel and Mariel had scouted the previous day. They both saw three birds after just a few minutes, but it took over two hours for me to get a satisfying look. Angel and Mariel never once complained while we stood there in the August heat. Finally, I got a good enough look at one of the birds and we moved on to look for more butterflies.

Florida Purplewing

Florida Purplewing

We went to an area of the Key Largo Hammocks State Botanical Site that requires a backcountry pass, which the Abreus had obtained the previous day when scouting for the vireo. We saw a few birds and a Florida Purplewing, a rare butterfly that is officially listed as a “Species of Special Concern” due to its declining population and disappearance from most of its historic range. I’m sure that the beautiful Purplewing was the highlight of the day for Angel and Mariel.

Florida Purplewing

Florida Purplewing

Our last stop was at a pine rockland preservation in Homestead. At first glance, it looked like any other Florida pine forest with saw palmetto understory. But, as soon as we stepped off the path and carefully walked through the rocks, I could see how different this was. Pine rockland exists only in southern Florida and parts of the Bahamas. It is typically a savanna-like forest on limestone outcroppings with a canopy of Florida Slash Pine and a diverse understory of shrubs and herbaceous plants. Pine rocklands are home to a significant number of rare plants and animals found in no other habitat, including several Federally Endangered plants. Its delicate beauty becomes apparent once you really look at the life it hosts. Sadly, pine rockland is an endangered ecosystem with only a few fragments remaining in South Florida and some of those are slated for development.

Baracoa Skipper

Baracoa Skipper

Ceranus Blue

Ceranus Blue

Butterflies we found there were Baracoa Skipper and Ceranus Blue.

Curve-lined Cydosia Moth

Our last sighting of the day, just before dark at that same location, was the Curve-lined Cydosia Moth in the photo to the left, which is found from southern Florida south to Argentina. This beautiful moth is not very common and it was new to all of us.

I could not have asked for a more cooperative or interesting bird for ABA #600.  Thanks to Angel and Mariel for another fun day. As always, I left South Florida looking forward to returning again soon.

My next post will be another on Alaska.  Follow along with me on more birding adventures.

Angel Mariel and me

Angel, Mariel, and me

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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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