Content & Photos © Bill Schmoker unless noted otherwise. Thanks for visiting- drop me a comment!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Birds in the Funnies- Caffeinated!

Hummingbird + Caffeine = Trouble!! I wonder if the artists that produce Brevity are birders, or at least bird watchers- seems like they have some good insight into the hyper world of hummers. Already on near-constant red-line, a strong cup of joe might just put a hummer over the edge, indeed!

Good timing on the comic, too- a few folks are already reporting the first Rufous Hummingbirds coming through the Front Range of Colorado. They breed far to the NW of here and the males skadoodle right after breeding- no paternal duties for these love-em & run dads. So these are fall migrants, just a few days past the summer solstice! I'll be watching my hummer-friendly flowers (I've got lots in my Longmont yard for this very reason) but I won't put out a feeder for a while. Even when I do, the hummers I get mostly feed on my salvia and agastache. I've also got a new honeysuckle that is kicking out lots of tempting-looking flowers. I hope it becomes a hummer magnet! I've had 4 species in my yard (in rough order of abundance: Calliope, Rufous, Broad-tailed, and Black-chinned.) Species #5 is going to be a good one!!

Brevity, 6/24/07:

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Burst Mode is My Friend

Here's a quicky from the Colorado Field Ornithologist's Convention in Craig, Colorado a couple of weekends ago. I co-led a trip to Dinosaur National Monument and we spent some time in PiƱon-Juniper habitat working on the specialty birds found there. One such bird was this cooperative male Black-throated Gray Warbler. It was ascending a juniper, probing the needles for insects and singing as it climbed. When it got to the top I knew it would fly out, but timing such events can be very hard. I try to look for signs of impending takeoff, but often the bird is in the viewfinder one second and gone the next without any apparent warning. Anyway, when I think a bird might launch I often shoot lots of long bursts, hoping to get the initial flight captured. Getting something usable is tough, and often I'll miss the event entirely, but this time I got a nice frame of the bird launching itself to the next tree.

Birds in the Funnies- Flamingo Day

Weird coincidence today as two strips in my morning paper featured flamingo gags. Wish I saw one in the wild instead of in the funnies!

F-Minus, 6/19/07:

Bound and Gagged, 6/19/07:

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Another Photo Mash-Up

Sometimes when I get strings of flight shots, particularly when the bird is beyond ideal range for good enlargements, I like to make a composite shot showing the various aspects the bird takes on in its flight. The last one I posted was of a sky-dancing Northern Harrier. This time the subject is a White-throated Swift taken on The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch property west of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I was there on a trip during the Colorado Field Ornithologists' annual convention out of Craig, Colorado. (Click the pic to enlarge.)
The concept is pretty straightforward- first, shoot lots of frames as fast as your camera will fire (in my case, 5 frames per second.) Then, at home I pick shots that show the different aspects that I'd like to include. Out of these, I try to pick one with suitable room around it (although if I run out of room I can enlarge the "canvas" in Photoshop and clone in more sky for background.) Then, I crop out the bird in each additional frame I'll use, and use the "duplicate layer" function in Photoshop to copy it onto the master frame. Then, I use the magic wand tool to select the sky in the copied layer and cut it out (just using the "edit-cut" command), leaving only the bird in that layer (sometimes having to adjust the tolerance level so it selects the right amount of sky, leaving only the bird behind.) Then I can move the layer with the bird in it until I get it where I want it in the sequence. Occasionally I'll rotate the layer to fit the sequence as well- I can't always keep a level frame of reference since I'm not shooting off of a tripod. Plus, my sequences are really photo illustrations, not necessarily sequential shots showing exactly where the bird was in each successive frame, and I nearly always leave out frames for various reasons. In fact, sometimes I put them together in different order than the shooting sequence because it tells the story better, in my opinion. By their very nature, swifts are tough to photograph so I was pretty pleased to get those shots, even at a distance. Frustratingly, when nimble, fast birds like these are closer in and have much better potential for detail, they are also much harder to track and focus on. I did get a couple of cool closer shots, though. This one isn't tack-sharp, but the bird is about to nab a bug in flight (total serendipity- didn't see the bug 'till I got home), as swifts are wont to do. By the next frame 1/5 second later the bug was already gone- yum!! And one more parting swift shot... The day wasn't all about swifts, though. Led by Ted Floyd (editor of Birding Magazine and birder extraordinaire), we tallied 95 species entirely on foot (us, not the birds), walking about 8 miles around the amazing property on the Yampa River. Fortunately, the mileage was mitigated by a near-total lack of climbing. Our steepest challenge was to get up onto and later back down off of the railroad grade. Otherwise the section of the Yampa Valley where we birded is forgivingly flat. In typical Colorado fashion, there was frost on the railroad ties as we began our hike at dawn and by lunch we were enjoying temps in the 70's. Our remarkable big-walk total was due to the convergence of many habitat types, including mid-elevation riparian, wet meadows, arid brushy hillsides, and coniferous forest. Here are a few other photo highlights from the day. Peace out- Bill

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Ain't Red Shorebirds Grand??

I'll be the first to admit that some of my favorite shorebird sightings involve red birds. Maybe it is because most shorebirding I do here in Colorado involves dull fall birds and often the most red I get to see is the little racing stripe in the scapulars of Western Sandpipers or some vestigial red in Red-necked Phalaropes that come through. The first Red Knots and Curlew Sandpipers I saw were fall birds, pretty gray although still very exciting. Then I went to Cape May in the spring and saw nice red versions of both- danged cool, especially a deep red Curlew Sandpiper along with a more pinkish companion! Well, on Sunday I upgraded my previous Red Phalarope sightings (all of which involved gray fall birds) by picking up a drop-dead gorgeous breeding-plumage female. A friend and fellow Boulder-area birder, Bill Kaempfer, was leading a trip to the Pawnee National Grassland and danged if they didn't find the bird on a little muddy ephemeral pond near the Wyoming Border, probably no bigger than an acre and a few inches deep. I couldn't make the hour's run on the Saturday when they found it, but I headed up on Sunday morning. Initially scanning the playa with my bins as I pulled up, it appeared to be birdless- Noooooo! But the pond sits back a way from the road, and when I combed it more carefully with my scope I found the red beauty against the far side, sleeping in emergent vegetation. WOW!
The bird seemed pretty healthy and content, considering it was thousands of kilometers away from either the pelagic or arctic tundra environs where I would expect it. It was successfully feeding on invertebrates, some quite large. I wasn't sure what could be in an ephemeral pond out on the shortgrass prairie like that, but a couple of knowledgeable correspondents (Henry Armknecht and Steve Larson) suggested that they were probably Fairy Shrimp &/or Tadpole Shrimp. I did some brief online research and both seemed plausible and indeed likely. While I didn't go into much depth in my studies, I found that both reside in ephemeral ponds, the eggs and/or embryos of both can survive complete desiccation for long periods of time- years if necessary (in fact they many species' eggs require drying before they will hatch when the water returns.) They can also survive extremes of temperatures while dried out. Some species of both groups can grow to decent size in short periods of time, with some reaching several centimeters long in just a few weeks. There are many species in these two invertebrate groups (both are crustaceans in the class Branchiopoda, Tadpole Shrimp in the order Notostraca and Fairy Shrimp in the order Anostraca), some with very narrow ranges and even endangered status and some quite common. It seems that in many settings Tadpole Shrimp will eat Fairy Shrimp, along with about everything else animal or vegetable they can find in their ponds, including each other! I did notice that some of the prey items the Red Phalarope captured were eaten quickly and pretty easily, while others required a lot of effort (dashing, lashing, thrashing, bashing, crashing, smashing and occasionally just giving up and trashing.) Perhaps the Fairy shrimp were the easier prey and the Tadpole Shrimp the troublesome items?? I did get one blurry series of the bird with a critter in its bill. I wasn't sure what I was looking at until I compared it to Tadpole Shrimp pictures, when I realized that their horseshoe crab-shaped carapace was almost certainly what I was seeing. Another acquaintance with lots of ecological experience and knowledge of invertebrate biology, David Leatherman, confirmed that the victim in this picture is indeed a Tadpole Shrimp (click on the pic to enlarge.)
While there, I also enjoyed the vigorous singing, skylarking, and chasing behaviors of many shortgrass prairie birds. Horned Larks ruled by numbers, but Lark Buntings seemed to be everywhere, too, seconded by McCown's Longspurs. But one song amongst the cacophony tweaked my radar and I turned my attention north of the pond to find a Mountain Plover skylarking, giving its display song as it glided above the horizon. A bit later, three Mountain Plovers blew by me in a heated chase, giving their little wherrt calls as they went, which took them all around the perimeter of the pond and then out of sight beyond the road to the NE. I wonder if males of the species chase females- it appeared that one bird was being pursued by two followers. After that, one of them, or another Mountain Plover, snuck in from my right to the pond's edge and walked around to where the Red Phalarope was hanging out again near the west shore in emergent vegetation. Maybe I was imagining things, but it seemed like the Mountain Plover walked down to take a look at the weird red thing that was in its pond... Sorry that this pic isn't real sharp but there was a lot of bad air to shoot though across the whole lake. I had to try, though- after all, when was the last time you saw a picture of a breeding Red Phalarope and Mountain Plover in the same frame?I digiscoped these pics through my Leica APO-Televid 77 using a 32X WW eyepiece and Digital Adapter 2 with a new camera I got last week- a Leica C-Lux 2. I had been using the C-Lux 1, which I loved, but the great folks at Leica upgraded me to the current model. It sports a little better resolution (7 MP) but perhaps more importantly, the new sensor has a bit less noise at high ISOs. Other than re-positioning my shutter release bracket a bit, I can still use my same digiscoping rig with this camera. It shoots pretty cool video, too- I'll leave you with a little compilation of some scenes that I shot of the bird in action. The preening clip almost seems speeded up but that is just the frenetic phalarope's pace, I guess. Enjoy- Bill