One new photograph, almost every day of the year

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2018—Water Lily Roses

A Swallowtail was flitting about the Butterfly Bush in my backyard at noon.  That, of course, triggered me into photographer mode and I attached the 300mm lens to my Nikon D500, my “birds in flight” combo of choice, and walked out in the midday sun.  There was a distracting clump of bay leaves in the foreground so I sat down to wait for the butterfly to find another flower on which to feed.  As I surveyed my yard to determine how much work I need to do to make my garden presentable, my eyes lit on a pair of rose blossoms on Judy Garland, a potted hybrid tea rose tree that had been my mother’s and that I have managed to keep alive for 3 years.  With the bright midday sun shining on the flowers, the background all but disappeared and their shapes reminded me of water lilies floating on a pond.

 

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2018—The Blue Bird of Happiness

Great Gray Owls in Oregon remained elusive for us.  Despite our efforts which included arriving each morning by 5AM so that we would have the best chance of locating their nesting sites, we never found any more nesting platforms let alone nests with owls on them.  But, Great Gray Owls are, after all, wild creatures.  They don’t have a schedule and they certainly weren’t fitting into our schedule.   We were all disappointed that we couldn’t locate our target bird but we were not defeated.  Owls weren’t the only birds in the forest.  All week we watched Western Bluebirds flying around us, often in mated pairs, so it was only a matter of time before we located one of their nests.  Late on our last afternoon, we found  a Western Bluebird nest cavity.  We were happy to have a new target to photograph.

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We set up our tripods and long lenses and one by one carried them across the road and set up as close as we dared without disturbing the birds.  The Bluebirds watched us from the nest which was near the top of a tall snag of a tree.  They had young in the nest and they took turns carrying food and, as with the Pygmy Nuthatches, removed the fecal sacs to keep the nest site clean.    The male Western Bluebird has brilliant blue wings and tail, a paler blue head,  and a rusty breast.

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The female is drab compared to the male.

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On a low perch jutting out from the grasses near the nest, the male sang to his mate while he surveyed the area for grubs and bugs to bring to the nestlings.  We didn’t get nearly enough time with these cute little birds because the sky darkened and the rain returned.  But, for me, this male was the bluebird of happiness.  Because of him, we ended our trip to the Blue Mountains on a high note.

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2018—Pygmy Nuthatches

With Spring Creek Great Gray Owls remaining elusive, we changed our strategy Saturday evening to one used by many who were able to find Great Grays to photograph: serendipity—hoping that an owl will just suddenly appear.  While we continued to search for nest platforms and evidence of Great Grays, and the odds were good because we were in an area where Great Grays are known to nest, we trained our lenses on a Pygmy Nuthatch nest in the cavity of a Ponderosa Pine snag.   There were thunderheads in the area and it was sprinkling when we arrived at our destination late in the day but the rain eventually gave way to occasional sun as we photographed our subjects until the sun went down.

The Pygmy Nuthatch is a very small nuthatch that has a strong enough beak to drill into the trunks of dead trees to build its nest cavity.  Pairs usually hatch five to seven eggs in a clutch and the first few weeks are spent feeding the voracious nestlings an almost endless diet of bugs and spiders often gleaned from the needles of branches near its nest.   We watched in fascination as a pair of nuthatches performed what appeared to be a well choreographed dance with one bird landing at the edge of the nest hole with a grub or spider or centipede in its beak as the other peeked out, then exited often carrying what is called a fecal sac, excrement from the nestlings, removed by the adults to keep the nest site clean.   The most charming scenario was when the bird arriving with the food transferred its treasure to the waiting partner.  Moose suggested that was the photograph we might want to try to capture.

We were quite close to the nest and because the birds had nestlings to feed, they were not deterred from their responsibility by our presence.  The minimum focusing distance for my 600mm lens is 14.5 feet and I think we were just about at that limit.  The high speed crop function in my Nikon D5 got me even closer.   The four of us created kind of a scrum as we settled our tripods onto the meadow near the stump and jostled for position.  We had to scrunch together for optimal viewing distance and uncluttered background.  Because we were so close, just a few inches right or left made a big difference in what appeared in our viewfinders.  I got a little more tree trunk than some of the others who were able to get more of the muted green background.  And, of course  in my attempts to capture the various gestures of these birds, I struggled with focus, switching between manual and auto with some disastrous results.   Mastering the skill of manual focus with certain wildlife subjects is a challenge for me and one I must make myself practice more than I do.

I was a little trigger happy in anticipation of capturing a bird flying away from the nest cavity.  Sad to say, I took far too many shots of a nuthatch poking its head out of the hole and none of the desirable gesture of the food exchange at the nest cavity that were in focus.  Once again I was reminded I must be more discriminating when I press the shutter release.  The two photographs below are two of my favorites from the afternoon.  I like the first shot because this scenario could have resulted in the gesture I sought but the bird on the left never turned around to offer its prize to the other bird.  The final frame I got of this scene was the bird from the cavity exiting at high speed behind the other bird that never turned around.  The second photograph shows the bird (probably the same bird as in the first) with a still-wriggling creature in its beak.  The bug writhed through several frames before the bird disappeared into the nest and gave his prey to the nestlings.

 

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2018—Mule’s Ears

It’s late spring in the Blue Mountains of Oregon and it is beautiful.  I’m here to photograph Great Gray Owls but they are elusive creatures.  And, so far, despite having a Forest Service map that indicates possible nest sites and despite walking more than seven miles in a day and a half on dirt roads, dusty trails, and across wildflower covered meadows in search of some of the possible thirty nest platforms installed by the Forest Service and the owls that might be using them, we have come up empty.  We have discovered four out of thirty nest platforms in the area, only three intact, and those were empty.  Discovering the nest platforms on Saturday after finding nothing on Friday has inspired us.  The only other evidence we have found so far is a fallen stump with remnants of an owl nest some years in the past, and a single feather from an owl branchling —a branchling is what young owls are called when they leave the nest but have  not yet fledged.

Although we haven’t seen, let alone photographed, any Great Gray Owls, we are enthused about our mission and awestruck by the beauty and serenity of this place.  Wildflowers are sprinkled across the meadows and birds sing surrounding us with their melodies.  Columbine, wild rose, blue and yellow lupine, larkspur, yarrow, and mule’s ears are everywhere.  After about five hours criss-crossing meadows and forests in search of the owls, we decided to go to breakfast.  We’d been at it since 4AM and needed a break.  But, we decided we couldn’t leave without taking some photographs so instead of going to breakfast right away, we spent another hour photographing the Mule’s Ears. I used my 10.5 mm fisheye with my Nikon D500 for a different perspective on these rather ordinary, daisy-like flowers.

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2018—The Pit Crew

There we were, rounding the turn on Road 21 heading into the straightaway when Eric asked Moose to stop to investigate a noise.  “Left rear tire’s flat,” Eric said.  It was the morning of our first day in search of Great Gray Owls at the Spring Creek Management Area of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in the Blue Mountains of Oregon.  Our mission to find the Great Gray Owl hit a snag.  Our rental vehicle, a Chevy Tahoe, was disabled and wasn’t going anywhere and time was at a premium.

The Pit Crew sprang into action.  Moose took charge and started loosening the lug nuts.  Eric worked on removing the spare from its cradle underneath the vehicle.  Richard wrestled with the jack housing but eventually prevailed and managed to wrench the jack from an almost inaccessible well in the back but not before threatening the engineer who designed the jack storage system with unprintable mayhem.   I felt helpless but offered the vehicle’s operating manual, only to be rebuffed with the words, “We’re men.  We don’t need manuals.”  I knew that was said in jest so  I laid it on the bumper in full view.  When they finally realized the manual was the only way to figure out how to jack up the vehicle, I got my camera to record the crew in action.

From flat to fixed was less than 30 minutes, a darned good record for changing a huge tire in an unfamiliar vehicle on a rural dirt road.  Kudos to The Pit Crew!  It probably didn’t rise to the level of Indy pit crews, but I was sorry I didn’t have a big bottle of milk to dump over their heads to celebrate.

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2018—Charmed by a Goose

I was really taken with the Nēnēs, Hawaii’s state bird, also known as the Hawaiian Goose, when we photographed them the other day.  It was thrilling to see this flock of endangered birds float down directly in front of us in the most perfect setting imaginable.  Our long lenses created a dreamy background and the patch of tiny white flowers made the perfect foreground.  The golden light from the sinking sun kissed the birds’ tawny feathers.  We stopped shooting when the light disappeared but we stayed until we had barely enough light to walk out because we didn’t want to disturb the flock or cause them to flush.  I never thought I’d be charmed by a goose, but charmed I am.   I hope they flourish again.

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2018—Light on the Lighthouse

We spent several hours on two different days photographing Red-tailed Tropicbirds and Laysan Albatross at the Kīlauea Point Lighthouse.  The lighthouse itself is quite charming but with my 300mm lens and the 1.4x teleconverter, I couldn’t get anything but extreme detail closeups of the lighthouse.  When we stopped on the way back to the hotel late Friday afternoon, quite a different view of the lighthouse presented itself.  Instead of the D5, I used the D850 and because we were pretty far away, I still wanted to use a long lens so I used the 300mm without the teleconverter.  I took this shot just as a sunbeam stabbed though the clouds and hit the white lighthouse, bringing it to life.

 

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2018—Red-tailed Tropicbird

Red-tailed Tropicbirds soared around Kilauea Point by the Lighthouse, seeming to play in the drafts.  It was a delight to watch these beautiful tern-like birds, so graceful and so beautiful.

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2018—Not So Gooney

Aviators stationed in the Pacific nicknamed the albatross Gooney Birds.  They are anything but gooney.  They are large with a 6 to 7 foot wingspan and graceful and they stay aloft for hours without flapping their wings.  The Laysan Albatross is a summer resident in Hawaii, nesting on the islands and soaring on the Trade Winds.  We watched at least one as it circled the Kilauea Point Lighthouse near where we believe it had nested.  It is so large and flew so close that I had difficulty keeping it in the frame without clipping wings because I had my Nikon D5 and 300mm lens with the 1.4x teleconverter.  We visited the point twice and these photographs were taken on different days.  The birds are banded.  Sometimes its easy to read the band, other times, not.

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2018—Red Flower and Red Bird

Wednesday afternoon and again Thursday morning we made the 90 minute drive from the east side of Kaua’i where we stayed, and followed the winding road with its countless hairpin turns to the west side of the island and up to Kalalau Lookout at an elevation of 4000 feet.   The lookout is above the Na Pali coastline with its stunning views of the rugged mountains and water below.  We were not there for the views, though.  We were seeking Hawaii’s endemic red honeycreepers that despite their bright color are not easy to find.

The grassy lookout area is surrounded by the ʻŌhiʻa (Metrosideros polymorpha) an evergreen tree with brilliant red flower tufts that feature stamens covered with nectar.  It is one of the most common native plants throughout Hawaii.  According to Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the dark red-flowered ʻŌhiʻa is the primary food source for the two red honeycreepers that we sought, the I’iwi and the Apapane.  We never saw an I’iwi which is endangered but we had lots of sightings of the Apapane.  The problem was photographing an Apapane with an uncluttered background, having it close enough, and out in the open.

The first afternoon, we spent more than an hour watching and waiting with little success.  Moose recommended that instead of chasing the bird from tree to tree, we should stake out a promising cluster of the red flowers and wait.   After a while, we were able to determine their patterns and we were hopeful as they returned again and again.  Although several Apapane visited the trees and flowers I watched, it was always on the far side away from the camera where no photograph was possible.  We left without any successful photographs of the Apapane that afternoon.

Thursday morning, we returned to the Lookout.  What a difference a day makes.  The sunny skies and beautiful view was entirely obscured by thick fog.  We were periodically engulfed in clouds and our cameras and us misted by them.  Then it turned to rain.  This was the only day of the trip that I needed to wear my rain jacket although it rained on us every day.  Because out gear is all weather sealed, it is protected from all but the worst and we always carry a white towel to occasionally dab off the accumulated water from the camera and lens.  So, the rain did not deter us.  Moose’s philosophy is that as long as he can take the pummeling of the rain, so can the gear.  When he can no longer stand it, he calls it quits.    On Thursday, we spent almost two and a half hours watching for the elusive Apapane and alternately being drenched with raindrops.  We staked out specific clusters of flowers in the hopes that the bird would go to that cluster.  When it was spotted, someone called out the bird’s progress and position in the tree and which direction it was heading.   We were patient and persistent.  While our reward was not huge for the effort, I did get one useable photograph.  And, it is a reminder about how difficult it can be to find and photograph a specific subject.

This is the Apapane in its native habitat, at its preferred food source, the ʻŌhiʻa.    I used the SB5000 flash on a bracket not to change the exposure but to highlight the color of the bird.  Because of the mist and the rain, we had to be careful that the flash did not fill our photographs with specular highlights reflecting off the droplets.  I used the D5 with my 600mm lens and the 1.4x teleconverter and still needed high speed crop to get this photograph.

 

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