Bird of the Day

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Mergansers

 

When you return to the car, a little weary and sweaty after birding you may ask the same questions we often ask.  What was the most memorable bird of the day?  Or maybe, how many species did we see today, or were there any year-birds or life-birds, or did we finally connect a bird with its song?  These are mind games that we birders commonly play.

Great Egret

Great Egret, Ardea alba

I had planned a solo outing to Corkscrew Sanctuary in southwest  Florida, but choking smoke from a controlled burn there chased me to the nearby Bird Rookery Swamp.  The ditch along the gravel access road had been recently dredged and waders in large numbers were apparently feasting on the stirred up fish and crustaceans.  I was already having a great day when the Hooded Merganser pair turned up in the same ditch.

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Lophodytes cucullatus

I find these small diving ducks, sometimes called “Hoodies” or “Sawbills” difficult to photograph.  Not only are they skittish, but the male’s jet black face and head sharply contrasts with the white hood.  One is invariably either under or over-exposed.  The larger female has a more subtle tawny beauty.  The ducks are winter residents here but breed further north, nesting in tree cavities or houses, similar to Wood Ducks.  Its hard to believe but the mother calls the hatchlings to the forest floor only 24 hours after exiting the egg, and leads them to water where they start swimming and feeding themselves.  Literally “sink or swim”.

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser, Lophodytes cucullatus

The teeming ditch also afforded many chances to catch some flying shots as the waders took off and landed.  The Anhinga and Great Egret were my favorite keepers in this category.

Anhinga

Anhinga anhinga

Great Egret

Great Egret, Ardea alba

Finally, parking the car and setting out along the path into the swamp things quieted down.  The gravel path through the wetlands, gators, and Pond Cypresses must be similar to “Old Florida”.  I came across a non-birding couple, obviously out for a power walk, who had stopped and noticed a strange bird just off the trail.  Thinking it was likely just another Ibis or other common bird I stopped.  An American Bittern; great sighting!

American Bittern

American Bittern, Botaurus lentiginosus

Its funny–I’ve never seen this bird on my own.  It has always been sighted by others, usually non-birders, and then pointed out to me.  Once it was a 7 year-old boy who was tugging on my pants as I was chasing warblers high above, trying to get me to notice the strange bird he had found below, just off the boardwalk. This may say something about my observation skills but the bird is stealthy, with vertical striations blending beautifully with the adjacent grasses.  When alarmed the head and neck go straight up, further mimicking the rushes.

American Bittern

American Bittern, Botaurus lentiginosus

This short legged and thick necked wader also has multiple nicknames. “Bog bumper”, “Stake Driver”, “Bog Bull”, and “Thunder Pumper” are among the many, referring to the strange loud vocalization of this otherwise secretive bird.  To me it sounds like a toilet plunger relieving a stoppage.

So what was the bird of the day?  I has to be a dead heat between the beauty of the Merganser pair and the solitary Bittern.  It’s my game–ties are allowed.

Florida in Black & White

 

Fakahatchee

Fakahatchee

 

It’s the twenty-first century and I own a perfectly good camera and expensive lenses.  Why would I want to turn back the clock to the early days of photography and shoot in B&W?  Isn’t bird and nature photography all about color?  I live in colorful subtropical Florida and my species has been blessed with color vision.  Use it and be thankful.  Besides, color is in large part how I identify these beautiful birds and plants.  But then I ran across Clyde Butcher’s amazing Florida portfolio of fine art photography, all in black and white.

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

Clyde Butcher was an architect, sailor, and photographer from the West when he relocated to south Florida in 1983.  Apparently it was not love at first sight.  Florida does not have mountains and Redwood forests, and he initially feared the alligators, snakes, and poisonous spiders of the vast swamps.  The state’s unique beauty, however, slowly became apparent to him, especially after meeting and slogging through the wetlands with Florida native and friend Oscar Thompson.

Eagle Lakes Community Park

Eagle Lakes Community Park

Mr. Butcher’s reputation as a chronicler of Florida’s unique landscapes, flora, and fauna has grown. Some have called him the next Ansel Adams–the photos are strikingly beautiful.  He has two studios in southwest Florida, one at Ochopee in the heart of the Big Cypress National Preserve on the Tamiami Trail, and the other in Venice.  At the former you can view his gallery but also take a guided tour and experience the swamp hip-deep, up-close and personal.  Visit his website at http://www.clydebutcher.com. Be sure to check out his techniques and equipment.  He is not your typical DSLR photographer.

Florida Scrub Jay

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

Blue Jay

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

So, what are the advantages of B&W photography?  I believe there are times when color, especially vibrant shades, can overpower the photo and detract from subtle features.  B&W cancels this and brings out the variations in light, shadows, texture, and tone that you often don’t appreciate in color.  B&W can also set a noirish mood, often melancholy or foreboding, not always apparent with color.

Vanderbilt Beach

Vanderbilt Beach

Harnes Marsh

Harnes Marsh

B&W tends to accentuate the contrast of sunlight and shadows emphasizing chiaroscuro, especially when shooting architectural features with their distinct margins.  The gazebo, fence rails and shadows in the shot from Eagle Lakes illustrates this.  The soft texture of the Pelican feathers contrasts with the sharp, defined, and hard texture of the iron perch.  To Butcher “clouds are Florida’s mountains” and it’s in the clouds where one best sees the variations in tone.  I’ve tried to capture that in the Harnes Marsh and Vanderbilt beach shots.  The B&W mood also brings out the contrast between cloud, grass, and water textures.

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Glossy Ibis, Plegadis falcinellus

White Ibis

White Ibis, Eudocimus albus

I’m still experimenting with bird photography in B&W.  With monochromatic birds it seems to work well.  I don’t think I lose anything with the Crow or flying Ibises.  The jury is out regarding the Jays.  What do you think?

American Crow

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

There is a technical debate whether it’s best to shoot RAW in B&W or shoot in JPEG color and then convert to B&W.  All the photos in this post used the latter technique.  Some claim that it’s best to do your post-processing in color mode, bringing out the subtle tones, and then convert to B&W.  In any case you should shoot with the lowest ISO possible to minimize graininess.  Don’t be afraid of cloudy days, shadows, and low light situations which often add drama to your monochromatic images.  I direct you to the website of a fellow blogger, Victor Rakmil at http://www.rakmilphotography.wordpress.com.  He discusses many of these issues and displays gorgeous B&W photos.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

Don’t get me wrong–I have not become an exclusive B&W photographer.  In fact I primarily still shoot in color, but experimentation is one factor making this hobby so enjoyable.  Mr. Butcher and others have shown the importance of tone, texture, contrast, and light that can only enhance one skills and results.

Birding Your Patch

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My Patch

 

Birders, primarily British birders or “twitchers”, often refer to their “patch”.  A patch is a fairly small, personal birding location that one visits and revisits often.  I’m not talking a few times a year.  A genuine patch is walked several times a week so one develops an intimate knowledge of its fauna and flora.

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Tufted Titmouse, Baeolophus bicolor

The familiarity fostered by frequent visits adds a historical and seasonal dimension to your observations.  That shrub is where a Carolina Wren often hides, and that fruit tree is where the Robin nests each year.  Or that perch is where the Sharp-shinned Hawk sizes up the bird feeder and plans his surprise attack.  The large oaks along the cove are where the Great Horned Owls calls many winter nights, the one that I have still not yet seen.

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Laughing Gull, Larus atricilla

You learn the seasonal changes specific for your patch; when the Eastern Kingbird leaves and the Tree Swallows return.  Are they early or late this year?  Will the Martins use their house this year or find the apartments already occupied by the House Sparrows?  You observe and learn the subtle behaviors of your common patch birds, enhancing your birding skills.  The unexpected visitor or migrant may add some excitement, but this is usually low-key and quiet birding.

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Neighbor’s freshwater pond

A patch may or may not be your yard.  Its obviously best to choose a “birdy” location close to home with mixed vegetation, some low level shrubs and taller trees, some open space, and preferably a nearby fresh water source.  It could be a local park but the highly pruned and manicured variety are not ideal.  It may be nothing more than your tree-lined street with neighbors’ foundations plants.  The goal is to find one close-by and convenient.

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Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

If your patch is your yard, as mine is, you have some unique advantages.  You can plant bird-friendly flora and set out houses, feeders, and baths, strategically located to be visible from your windows.  Your birding becomes informal and practically non-stop.  You see the Osprey swoop down for a fish while you’re dining and the Chipping Sparrow greets you at the end of the driveway when you retrieve your newspaper each morning.  These incidental sightings all add to your yearly patch-list growing on eBird.  Mine just hit 100 species with the addition of a Golden-crowned Kinglet and Yellow Warbler this fall.  For me the record-keeping is part of the joy of patch birding.  My first entry was a Red-breasted Merganser in April 1996.

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Brown Thrasher, Toxostoma rufum

When we bought our building lot in 1995 it clearly had potential, but needed some work to become a patch.  The land was a subdivided farm on a tidal tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.  It was mainly a grass field with just a few large Oaks and Honey Locusts at the water’s edge.  The shoreline was caving in and receding, silting the bay.  There were few submerged grasses.  I did see some wading birds, Killdeer, and a hunting Northern Harrier at the site, but passerines were virtually absent.

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Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Dendroica coronata

Twenty year of management have transformed the lot into a birdy patch.  Even before building we planted 25 sizable Loblolly Pines and a hedgerow of 300 sapling Red Cedar, Pine, Russian Olive, and Black Cherry trees along the property line.  We later added Red and Silver Maples, River Birch, Weeping Willow, Willow Oak, Sycamore, Crape Myrtles, and flowering Crab Apple trees.  Happily there is a fresh water pond at the nearby neighbors.  We’ve let the grass grow high, only keeping a manicured lawn close to the house.  The shoreline has been stabilized with stone hauled in from Pennsylvania; there are no rocks on the Eastern Shore, well south of the last glacial advance.  Salt water grasses have returned along with more wading birds.  The Passerines have given us a vote of confidence and are back.  Its been fun creating our patch.

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Building lot in 1995

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Same location in 2016

The concept of patch birding was introduced to me by two British blogs I follow.  One describes a patch within the city limits of London at Wanstead Flats and the other, a more rural patch at Hethersett in the county of Northfolk.  Their websites are:  http://www.iago80.wordpress.com and http://www.hethersettbirdingblog.wordpress.com.  Visit them and be inspired to begin your own patch birding.

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Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis