Sunday, September 23, 2012

Late Summer Hummers

As an artist who does art fairs, I talk to a lot of people. I frequently get asked if I have a drawing of this or that animal or bird. I've had some interesting requests--a squirrel, a turkey vulture. One of the more common requests I've had over the years is for a humming bird. I've never drawn one as I haven't gotten shots to work from that I was really excited about.

That all changed a few weeks ago when I went out in our back yard with my new camera and set it up on a tripod aimed at the rose of sharon, which was in full bloom at the time. I had seen as many as three at a time sipping nectar from the flowers so figured I had a good chance of getting something interesting.

I wasn't disappointed.

I was amazed, looking at these images, by how their tiny little toes grip the edge of a petal, giving them a little support and probably making it so they don't have to flap those little wings quite so fast.

Such an impossibly tiny thing!

They are quite aggressive birds, and we often see them sparring over the humming bird feeder on the balcony. But here there was enough to go around, and no fights broke out.

Unbelievable, the iridescence of this bird. How does one capture that quality on paper?

Not one of the sharpest shots, but I love seeing her little feet tucked under her.

It's funny to see such a tiny bird perched on the thick cables and wires. There is a male who in summer sits on the power line that stretches across the driveway, who keeps a very close eye on the feeder. I have not seen him for some time--perhaps he has already headed south. This little lady paused for a few minutes on the cable line.

We still have, as of yesterday, one hummer hanging around. It's getting a bit late, they are usually gone by now. But the rose of sharon bloomed late this year, and perhaps some other plants did too, allowing them to bulk up a bit more for their impossible journey south. I wish them the best of luck.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Sandhill Cranes at Kensington Metropark

Near the Nature Center at Kensington Metropark a breeding pair of sandhill cranes has taken up residence. For the past five or six years these two have raised a brood each year, usually rearing two colts.

By late August this year, the colts were close to being full grown, the color of their plumage the only obvious indicator that they were immature birds.

Sandhill crane colt on left.

Note the lack of the red head and the still pinkish bill on the youngster on the left.

Because these birds have taken up residence so near a busy trail network, they are quite tame and one can get very close to them. I have never known them to act aggressively or even look uncomfortable in the presence of people. This of course provides me with an opportunity to get some great close ups!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Birds and Turtles at Kensington Metropark

Arrowhead with beetle.

Several weeks ago we took a weekend morning and visited Kensington Metropark, a wonderful park not 20 minutes from our house. At 4,481 acres it's a pretty big park. Kent Lake sits in the middle of it, and there's a golf course and 8 mile paved bike path. There's also a farm center, disc golf course, boat rentals and waterpark.

In addition to all of this is a nature center and accompanying nature trails. Wildwing Lake, next to the center, has a heron rookery, and there are birds galore along the nature trails as well as the park in general, an oasis in the midst of urban sprawl.

Male and female red-wing blackbirds at Wildwing Lake.

As is to be expected we generally stick to the nature trails when we visit this park. It sits right off of Interstate 96, and the traffic noise can be overwhelming, especially on the lake. The nature center and trails offer a more secluded and quieter experience.

Kingbird in flight--not bad for a hundred feet or more away! (image is cropped)

A boardwalk with railings provides easy viewing access of the rookery, which is situated on an island in Wildwing Lake. It provided me with a place to rest my camera (this is pre-Canon 60D) to get some shots, since I decided against my tripod. The rookery was empty by this time, of course, but several Eastern kingbirds were putting on a show along the island's shore, gleaning insects.

One common sight on a warm sunny day such as this are painted turtles, sunning themselves on logs and, in this case, water lily rhizomes.

Mr. Grumpy Face!

Another turtle provided a somewhat different view.

As I watched he wiggled and stretched, repeatedly grabbing his shell with his front foot.

Males can be identified by their long claws, which are much longer than the females.

I was excited to catch this cedar waxwing flying over the lake, apparently gleaning insects. I've never seen them do this before, I only know them as fruit eaters.

A female wood duck plied the waters, well hidden in the lilies.

We stopped several times and fed the chickadees. These birds, along with nuthatches, downy woodpeckers and titmice are habituated and will readily come to an outstretched hand with seeds or nuts.

As we made our way around the loop and back towards the parking lot, I caught movement in the understory, and was able to get one quick shot of this bird before it flew off. I had to wait until I got home to identify it. I believe it is a female blackburnian warbler, which apparently is not a common sight at Kensington. I sent the image to the head of the area Audubon Society to see if anyone else comes up with a different bird.

Female blackburnian warbler? We shall see....

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Iridescent Common Grackle

Common grackle.

 I don't think anyone could come up with an uglier name for a more beautiful bird.

These shy and cautious creatures sparkle and shimmer in the sunlight.

True, they are a nuisance.  When they return in the spring I have to put away the sunflower feeders and the suet. Teaming up with the red-winged blackbirds they blast through a suet cake in a day.

The peanut feeder suits them better, makes them work a bit harder for their meal.

They are loud and bossy, and for a few weeks in July and August there is a brain-rattling cacophony while they bring their young to the feeders. But they are people-shy, and it is surprisingly difficult to get photographs of them. The slightest movement sends them scattering.


I have been remiss in ignoring this bird. Such a colorful pallete, such a striking gaze, eagle-like.

He works at another peanut...

...then is spooked and gone.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Our Real Life Bambi

A few posts back I showed you some photos from our trail cam. In one of them was a doe with a fawn. The doe looked pretty beat up, but the fawn looked OK. Since then, we have been seeing a lone fawn hanging around our place, no sign of a doe anywhere. We checked the trail cam the other day, and while there were pictures of the fawn, still no doe.

We appear to have our very own real-life Bambi.

The little fella is pretty unafraid. He'll be in the front yard while we are unloading groceries from the van, hangs out by the back door or the chicken coops. The other day I was out on the back deck shucking corn and I looked up to see him grazing about 40 feet away, behind the propane tank. I tossed some squishy tomatoes in his direction but he spooked and ran up the hill. But I could hear him walking around in the brush, and he emerged five minutes later near my studio. I snuck in the house to get my camera while he munched on grass and young trees.

Of course I worry about him. While I know he will grow up simply to become the target of a hunter's gun, I feel a strong desire to take care of him. I've been leaving food otherwise destined for the compost bin in certain spots around our property, and took all the corn cobs and dumped them in front of the trail cam to see what's up. We had some heavy rain overnight a few days ago, and it got quite chilly, and I worry that he may succumb to the cold--he looks pretty thin. I might buy some deer feed--corn or carrots--and put that out too.

While I watched, our neighbor's dog started barking. The fawn's ears pricked up and he listened for a moment...

...then he started walking towards the sound. Interesting, you'd think he'd move away from the sound of a barking dog.

He eventually moved behind my studio and I decided not to follow him. I haven't seen him for several days now, but if he shows up again I will get some food and put it right here by my studio so I can keep an eye on him!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Pearl Crescent Butterfly

I went out this evening for a quick photo shoot to play a bit with the new camera. I will sit down and read the manual, and maybe watch the DVD that came with it to learn a bit more about what it can do and how to use it (I understand it takes great video!) but for now I'd rather just play.

I was chasing butterflies around when I stumbled upon this pair of pearl crescents fornicating atop a spotted knapweed flower. Knapweed is an evil plant but it sure is pretty.

The male, I believe, is above, larger and more strongly marked. They are called pearl crescents for the pearly white crescent on the underside of the lower wing, seen pretty clearly here on the male.

I am once again pleased with the results of the 60D. I had to manually focus these but that's OK--either I have the diopter adjustment on the eye piece correct or the focus is more accurate with this camera, truer to what I see. With my Rebel it always looked like the image was in focus but then the images were never quite right, the focal point usually too far forward.

After a bunch of shots from the side I moved around behind them for a different view. According to the range of this butterfly is large, but we are on the very northern edge of it here.

I love it's little up-turned snout.

This image has nothing to do with the butterflies, but I liked it so here it is. Milkweed pods up close, they remind me of pollen under a microscope.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

New Camera! The Canon 60D

I finally did it.

After years of having camera envy, I have finally gotten myself a decent camera. Back in the days of film, the camera body itself was of less importance than the quality of the lens and the film you used. The camera body just held the film in place, and the biggest difference between models were the bells and whistles each one had.

Today, with digital cameras, the camera body may be more important than the lens. Now, instead of film, you have a digital sensor, and the quality of that sensor can make all the difference in the world when it comes to the quality of your images.

I have been shooting Canon Rebels, (which are basically a cheap line designed for those making the change from point and shoot cameras to SLR's), since I switched to digital. I went with Canon because I felt there were better options down the road, especially when it came to wildlife photography, than Nikon or Olympus or the other major brands offered. I actually really liked my first Rebel, which I bought in late 2005 primarily to take pictures of my artwork to make prints from.  I bought a second one almost two years ago to get a higher resolution (for bigger prints) and to have a second camera body to eliminate switching lenses back and forth while on the trail.

I have not been nearly as enamored with the second Rebel (a T1i) as I was with my first Rebel. I don't know if it is the T1i line or if it's my particular camera but I have fought with the exposure with it since I got it. I have to manually adjust nearly every shot since to leave the exposure at normal usually means shots are overexposed by at least one stop. So I set the camera to underexpose everything, which is fine until I try to shoot something in dim light and forget--I have missed countless shots because of this.

In addition, I have been wanting something that produced sharper images. I don't necessarily need tack-sharp shots for what I do, but, well, I was envious of others' images and wanted those results for myself.

Enter the Canon 60D. While it is a huge step up from the Rebel, it is still not considered a true professional camera. That's OK--pro cameras are big and heavy, and really, really expensive. We picked this one up at Costco--I love Costco--as a kit that came with an 18mm to 200mm lens. As soon as it was home I popped the lens on and ran outside to try it out.

The first thing that I noticed was the addition of a spot meter, something the Rebels do not have. Your meter determines your exposure, and when you are shooting something like a small bird in a tree, how the camera meters the subject is vital. Even with center-weighted metering, too much of the sky is metered and your subject (here some pine cones) will be under-exposed.

(None of the following images have been adjusted except for cropping and sharpening, which I do with all my images. No color/brightness/contrast adjustments were made.)

Center-weighted metering reads too much light from the sky, causing the subject to be underexposed.

My film cameras had spot metering, and I didn't realize how much I missed it until now. What a difference!

Spot metering uses only the very center to take a reading, exposing only for the subject.

I continued around the yard, shooting in different lighting conditions and different subjects. I left the camera on fully automatic and let it do all the work--determine ISO speed, shutter speed, f-stop, even auto-focus, which I never do with my Rebel. I wanted to see what the camera was going to give me without me fiddling with any settings.

Daddy longlegs on black-eyed Susan
We have a new brood of chickens who were out and about, so I used them as test subjects.

Pretty little silver-laced Wyandotte pullet.

So the second thing I noticed about this camera is how accurate the exposure is. Colors are very true, as is the light. I can see that for the most part I will be able to just let the camera do its thing, and not have to second guess every change in light. What joy! You learn to live with the pain until it's gone, and then you utter a long sigh of relief.

Red Star pullet. Generally a cross between a Barred Rock hen and a Rhode Island Red rooster.

I walked around the property, finally ending up at the huge pokeweed growing at the bottom of a hill. No trouble with focusing, metering, or color. Yay!

Pokeweed, one of my favorite plants. Just gorgeous!

The third thing I noticed about this camera is that you can shoot up to ISO 6400. ISO is the equivelant of film speed. The lower the number (say ISO 100) the slower the "film", but the smaller/tighter the grain. Slow ISO means that you need a slow shutter speed to make a proper exposure. The grain is very small so each grain collects very little light. It's great for landscapes and anything that will be blown up really big because it won't be grainy.

The higher the ISO the lower the lighting conditions you can shoot in. Also, it allows for a faster shutter speed so that motion can be stopped (including, of course, photographer motion from hand-holding a long lens). The trade-off is that the image will be grainier. The higher the ISO, the more light-sensitive each grain must be, so they get bigger the higher the number gets.

Shooting at 1600 with the Rebel usually resulted in pretty poor image quality. What I had heard about the 60D was that the grain structure was much better, resulting in better quality images at higher ISO's. So this morning I got out my 300mm and the 1.4x extender to do a little bird photography in the early morning light.

Goldfinch, shot at ISO 5000. At least as good as the Rebel at 1600.

Chickadees make willing subjects, unafraid of me sitting inside the doorwall, the camera clicking away.

ISO 1600 at 1/1000 of a second. Depth of field is short, head is out of focus, but nice tight grain!

Close cropping starts to expose some abberations in color and grain at ISO 1600--notice the sunflower seed. However, the change from the bright white cheek to the dark background is pretty clean, just a tiny bit of ghosting. Since I am using images to draw from this is really an non-issue, just noting what this camera can handle.

A young male ruby-throated hummingbird stopped by for a visit. This is cropped pretty close too, and you can see some noise in the background at ISO 1600 as the grain becomes apparent. This image starts to look pretty soft but again, I need detail and properly exposed images to work from, not necessarily tack sharp images. 

Morning light colors this hummer pink.

Being able to get good quality, properly exposed shots at a high ISO is gong to make a big difference for me and what I can reasonably expect to shoot--thinking primarily birds in motion, being able to hand-hold the camera, shooting in low-light conditions and capturing back-lit subjects. I'm really excited to get out and shoot some more!

*Note: I have to make a correction to a statement I made in this blog, that the Rebel T1i doesn't have spot metering. I was just looking over the settings on the Rebel and see that it does indeed have spot metering. How I never knew this is beyond me--I guess that's why you should always read the manual. What's frustrating is that I would swear I looked for it and didn't find it, but it's right there in the menu. Very silly, really. Can't imagine how many shots I missed because I had to mess with the exposure, or had it set wrong. Ah well, live and learn!