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

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Odonata ID

Calling all odonataphiles- I think this is a Lance-tipped Darner in its green form, but according to my Dragonflies Through Binoculars guide, there are some potentially similar dragons to rule out. Anyone know for sure? I photographed the critter last weekend at Barr Lake State Park, Northeast of Denver. Whatever it is, I really like the intricate patterning and green coloration theme that this dragonfly has. While we're at it, I have a few unknown damselfly pics from of late, too. Both were at Walden Ponds Wildlife Habitat in Boulder. Seems like there are a few regional guides to these for parts of the country, but none that really cover Colorado well. I found a great web site that probably has them (Odonata Central), but quite honestly I haven't had the time to look through it all. I guess I should buckle down and print all of the damsel pics they have there so I can compile a makeshift guide to flip through when I find unknown damsels. Anyway- here they are. Proves that you don't have to know what they are to enjoy them, but if anyone knows, leave a comment. Thanks!

Line Up for Shorebirds

Why is the crab so crabby? Maybe because he doesn't have a scope!!

Mutts, 8/25/07:
Why am I so crabby? Most of the good shorebirding spots within an hour or so of here (Longmont, CO) are too full of water- no mud = no shorebirds.


Thursday, August 23, 2007

Hummer Battles

Dog Eat Doug, 8/22/07:
That's how I feel, too, trying to keep up with the hummingbirds ripping around my backyard this time of year. The late summer brings a good pulse of hummers through Colorado's Front Range, mainly Broad-tailed, Rufous, and Calliope Hummingbirds. Black-chinned Hummers seem to be expanding their ranges, too, with more frequent reports from around here. When we moved to our house in SW Longmont, I was lucky that the previous owners had planted a few agastache plants that attracted migrant hummers within a month or so of our mid-summer move-in. Since then, I've expanded the perennial gardens to include a healthy representation of these hummer magnets, along with some other plants (several varieties of salvia and a honeysuckle, for example) to bring in the birds. I've been lucky enough to attract all of the above 4 species to my yard, although I haven't had a Black-chinned this year. Not surprisingly, the birds seem to spend more time and energy chasing each other around than they do feeding. Lately, an immature female Rufous Hummingbird has set herself up as queen of the backyard. I got the bright idea to rig up a perch outside my kitchen window, and tonight she was using it as a command post to launch attacks on any inferior birds who dared to try to sip nectar from "her" garden. Here's Her Highness in the evening light, complete with a delicate yellow pollen tiara:
Besides the expected 4 species, you never know just what else might turn up during hummingbird migration. Last Sunday I got a call from John Vanderpoel, a birding buddy who lives nearby in Niwot. He had a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird coming to his feeders, so I grabbed my camera and tooled on over ASAP- this is a really good "get" for Colorado and would be a new state bird for me. When I settled in around 9:30, the morning feeding frenzy had subsided, but after a half-hour or so and many false alarms the star bird appeared, chasing a Calliope across his yard (Calliopes often find themselves on the low end of the pecking order, I fear.) Even better, the bird stuck around for several days, delighting a steady stream of birders. The rare Colorado reports of this species (only 3 accepted records through 1999, with a smattering since then) are usually unchaseable, so having one loiter at feeders within easy reach of the Denver Metroplex made a lot of birders really happy. It turned out to be a first for heavily birded Boulder County, too. John was really generous about letting folks walk around his house to sit and watch the feeders in his backyard- thanks, John! Check out his Advanced Birding Video Series (Hummingbirds, Large Gulls, and Small Gulls), hosted by Jon Dunn- these are great references to have for these tough groups. Anyway, here's the little lost feller:

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Get the Noise Out

I've been avoiding dealing with noise reduction software until recently- I figured that when publishers needed to, they would post-process my unaltered original pics however they needed anyway. Quite honestly, I like taking pics more than I like tweaking them, so my regimen for getting shots ready for the web has been pretty simple- crop, re-size, adjust contrast if needed, sharpen some if needed, and save it for the web. Doing that takes me under a minute per shot, so I can get though batches fairly quickly. Some shots get a little electronic fill-flash, some night shots get red-eye treatment, but mainly that's it. Recently, though, I read a post at The Nemisis Bird about a noise-reduction plug-in that works with Photoshop- it sounded simple so I thought I'd give it a whirl. The software is called NoiseWare, and when you download it and install it ($50 for the standard version) you will find it as an option to apply under the filters menu in Photoshop. (It works with any version- I use Photoshop Elements because it comes bundled with the Leica C-Lux 2.) I've had great luck just using the default setting or the "stronger noise" setting, but it is full of adjustment sliders for this and that (technical, huh?) if you want to fool around with customizing your settings.

Here's an example, using a Great Horned Owl that landed on a rooftop behind my house at dusk a few evenings ago. The owl seemed content to hang around some, so I got my digiscoping rig on it and fired away. These types of shots are prone to more noise because I used a high ISO (800) and a long exposure (1/8 second) with+.3 exposure compensation, and bumped up the levels in Photoshop later to get the image looking "right". After that, the image looked like this:

Not bad, but when you click the picture to enlarge it you will see the noise that I'm talking about. Newer cameras sensors are much less prone to noise at high ISOs than they used to be, but you'll see it, especially in dark, clear areas like the sky or in dark foliage. Even when I was using cameras with much more noisy sensors I'd bump up the ISO when I needed to get a faster shutter speed, because I'd rather have a sharp shot with noise than a soft one that was more "quiet."

So now, I go to the filter menu in Photoshop and pick "Noiseware Standard" from the options:
Then it opens this window. I usually just push OK, letting it apply default settings. Or, you can run down the options that are pre-configured (like "Stronger noise"), or you can create your own recipe from the host of adjustable variables:After that, I work the pic per usual (crop, size, adjust contrast, & sharpen), save it for the web (quality 70), and I'm done:
Toggle back to the un-noise-reduced version to compare the two- a pleasing difference, I think!

Now, I'm guessing that it is best to do the noise-reduction filter at first, working on the high-res side. However, it really cleans up older pics I have, too, even though I've done everything else including saving them for the web first. I could go back to the originals, but to have time for that I'm going to need a clone...

Here's an example of that. This Boreal Owl was photographed at really high ISO (1600) since I just had the built-in flash of my first DSLR body, a Nikon D100. The first shot is what you'll find on my web page, and the second is with the post-post-production step of applying the "stronger noise" filter:

If you've been using this filter and have some tips on getting the most out of it I'd love to hear from you- leave a comment!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Disapproving Pika

The Bird Chick's buddy Cinnamon has a lot to disapprove of these days, but this pika disapproves of being left out of the Disapproving Rabbits book. After all, pikas are lagomorphs, too- what's up with this Rabbit-centric attitude? (For more on lagomorphs, see the Camera Codger's treatment on the subject.) It's all in the pika's mind, you say? Then where are the hares? What? I didn't think so...
All in jest, of course- congrats on the book, Cinnamon (& Sharon.) Looking forward to it.

Like other lagomorphs, pikas don't hibernate despite living year-round on the arctic tundra in places like Mount Audubon, Colorado, where I snapped these pics. Instead they gather plant clippings all summer and make hay, piling them up to dry in talus patches and stuffing them away to dine on all winter in their rocky abodes drifted under insulating snow. We also saw three snowshoe hares in their summer-brown coats on the drive in, but photography was out of the question since they were in the pre-dawn headlights and then gone. Guess to work on them I need a camera trap like the above-mentioned Camera Trap Codger- that guy nails secretive mammal photos like no other!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Get Up and Dance!

And now, for your viewing pleasure, sit back and enjoy our dance selections for today. Both feature mash-ups blending original footage with songs that originally weren't matched to the choreography.

First, we start with the moonwalking manakin (Red-capped Manakin for those keeping a birds-on-blogs list) busting a move to Michael Jackson's iconic Beat It.

Then we compare the avian fancy-stepping with a dance number featuring Gwen Verdon on the Ed Sullivan Show, re-mixed with the Unk hip-hop anthem, Walk It Out.

Judges, who's the winner??

Saturday, August 04, 2007

There's More Than One Way To Skin A Cat...

...but we're not going to be skinning any cats around here. We might want to do some more dragonfly photography, though!

I had this cooperative Band-winged Meadowhawk in my garden the other day. It had a favorite perch where it based its hunting operations for much of an afternoon, giving me a chance to fool around with some different photographic techniques. I've made a little commentary on each, and summarized a few advantages, disadvantages, and tips for each method.

First of all, I snapped a bunch of shots with my DSLR rig. My favorite lens (200-400mm f/4 VR, usually with 1.4x teleconverter) is off to Nikon for maintenance, so I used my smaller telephoto zoom, 70-200mm f/2.8 VR with a 1.7x teleconverter. I've had a lot of luck using telephoto zooms for dragonflies. They seem to usually have a comfort zone, and as long as you stay out of it they'll stay perched. The limit of this comfort zone is often within range for crippling shots with anything over 400mm equivalent. (Don't forget that most digital bodies have about a 1.5x enlargement factor over 35mm film.)
DSLR (digital single-lens reflex camera) system summary:
  • Advantages: Quick to get on target, hand-holdable even at high aperture/low shutter speed with image-stabilizing system. Lots of flexibility & creative control.
  • Disadvantages: Cost (can quickly get into 5 figures.) Heavy weight to bear when you carry around large telephoto lenses. Some people most comfortable using tripod with large lenses, even those that are image-stabilized.
  • Tips: Get the aperture to f/10 or above to try and keep the wings and body focussed. This can be tricky since these parts are usually at right angles to each other!

Next, I set up my digiscoping rig on my Leica APO-Televid 66mm scope and 26X WW eyepiece. I recently was upgraded to Leica's C-Lux 2 camera, and I've been super happy with this micro-sized powerhouse. I crept my tripod up to about the inner limit of the scope's close focus so I could keep the camera zoom down to about 2x for the best quality images. One really nice thing about this camera is the ability to adjust critical controls like the flash mode (turn it off for digiscoping) and the exposure compensation with their own dedicated buttons instead of going through menus. As the background changed I could quickly compensate down a bit to keep the bright insect parts from blowing out. The monitor on this camera is amazing- it covers almost the whole back of the camera and is bright, even in direct sunlight.
Digiscoping system summary:
  • Advantages: Modest cost if you already own a scope. Even if starting from scratch, cost is comparable to mid-level DSLR telephoto zoom systems and more affordable than big-lens systems. More magnification potential than any DSLR system. Camera much smaller and simpler to operate than DSLR.
  • Disadvantages: Must shoot from stable tripod for best results. A bit bulky and more complex to get working "right" than a DSLR system. Fewer creative controls than DSLR.
  • Tips: Can be a God-send when you can't approach targets freely due to access (like on boardwalks), environmental issues (like walking through endangered orchids), or if the target is just skittish and won't allow close approach. Get a camera that won't vignette, top scope optics, a wide-angle fixed-power eyepiece, and a solid digiscoping adapter for best results. A remote shutter release can be a real help, too.
Finally, since the dragonfly was so cooperative, I decided to try photographing it with just my C-Lux 2 camera on the macro setting. Luckily, when I blew it and moved in too fast, sending it off its perch, I could retreat and it would come back and re-set on its mark. Amazingly, after several attempts and some very slow movement I was able to get the camera within a few inches of the critter, first by walking in towards it low and slow and then by extending my arms reeeaaaaalllllly slowly to get the camera up in its grill. In my experience most dragonflies won't tolerate this, but if you are patient many butterflies will. Some dragonfly paparazzi will first net one and then chill it in a cooler before posing it. They then have a little window of opportunity before the predator warms up and flies away.
P&S (point & shoot) camera, macro mode summary:
  • Advantages: Great potential for detailed photos. Most affordable option and least bulky- most P&S cameras now will fit in a shirt pocket. Works very well on cooperative subjects including in-hand birds at a banding station, many reptiles (but I prefer telephotos for the ones that bite), and sessile targets like flowers or dead things. Can use same camera on the scope for digiscoping as needs dictate- in fact, some cameras seem to work best using their macro setting when digiscoping.
  • Disadvantages: Doesn't work very well for skittish subjects. Not good for most bird photography situations. Must get very close to subject.
  • Tips: Be patient and learn to move slowly and unobtrusively when approaching anything that can fly, run, or swim away. An image-stabilized camera like the C-Lux 2 gives you much more leeway with shutter speeds as you extend your arm towards target, a less stable position but one less likely to spook the bug.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Common Whitetail

I hate the "Common" adjective in bird names, and it isn't much better in dragonflies. C'mon, animal-namer-people, get a thesaurus and try a little harder, will 'ya? Instead of Common Whitetail, how about something like Pied Whitetail or Zone-winged Skimmer?

I had this striking dragonfly in my backyard a couple of weeks back. Interesting to see how lining it up with different backgrounds changes the overall feel of the shot. The trick with the darker backgrounds was to avoid overexposing the bright abdomen. On the pic with the darkest background I had to compensate -1.0.

Birds in the Funnies- Dance Lessons

Ah, PowerPoint.
Loose Parts, 8/2/07:

So did the lessons work? Lets see...

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Birds are Good for Trees

There's a neat article out in this month's Ecology detailing a University of Colorado study showing the beneficial effects of birds on pine forests.

I don't get Ecology and the online site doesn't have the August issue up yet so I haven't read the technical article, but CU did a press release about the study- here's the opening line to give you a taste:
Chickadees, nuthatches and warblers foraging their way through forests have been shown to spur the growth of pine trees in the West by as much as one-third, according to a new University of Colorado at Boulder study.
So yesterday a CU publicist emailed me to see if they could use a Mountain Chickadee picture to send out with their press release. As an alum (I got my master's degree there in '01), I happily obliged, sending them a couple to choose from.

Well, imagine my surprise when I pulled my Denver Post out of its orange plastic bag this morning and saw my chickadee pic on the front page, with an accompanying article about the study! Here's a link to the online article by the Post, featuring a couple of my Mountain Chickadee pics. I wonder where else they might turn up?