2019—Taking Up the Challenge

After listening to Moose Peterson’s Podcast #135 I took up the Self-Assignment challenge he describes in that podcast, one he had years ago in photography school:

Each day for a week, take a new photo of a salt and pepper shaker, with no two photos alike except that each photo must include the same salt and pepper shaker.

I thought this was a great way to challenge myself to improve my photography, and, as he put it in his podcast, to compete against myself, not others. I used three different lenses (105mm f/1.4; 105mm f/2.8 Micro, and 70-200 f/4); manual mode so I could completely control all aspects of exposure; a tripod because the shutter speeds were slow, ranging from 1/30 second to 4 seconds; and except for the first and last shots, one or more flashes. I had a great time planning and executing each shot but the challenge forced me to stretch well outside my comfort zone. The challenge helped me better understand placement of external light sources to achieve the effect I sought. It forced me to figure out what it takes to create certain optical illusions. It illustrated the need to think “outside the box” so that the photographs would be unique and perhaps provocative. For all but one of the photographs, I had to create a “studio” setup instead of using a natural setting and natural lighting as I normally do.

Here, then, is my take on “A week in the life of Salt ‘n’ Pepa:”

Day 1 (Nikon D850, Nikkor 105mm f/1.4 )

Day 2 (Nikon D850, Nikkor 105mm f/1.4, SB 5000×2 )

Day 3 (Nikon D850, Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 Micro, SB 5000)

Day 4 (Nikon D850, Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 Micro, SB 5000×2 )

Day 5 (Nikon D850, Nikkor 105mm f/1.4, SB 5000×3 )

Day 6 (Nikon D850, Nikkor 70-200mm f/4, SB 5000×2 )

Day 7 (Nikon D850, Nikkor 70-200mm f/4)

2019—Bullock’s Oriole

South Texas is home to lots of beautiful and colorful birds. This is a young male Bullock’s Oriole. Mature adult males are orange. Females are also yellow but they lack the black patch under the beak. Its colors make a striking contrast to the whitish leaves of the plant it perches on. I am not sure what this plant is. My searchs of native shrubs and trees in South Texas came up empty.

Nikon D5, Nikkor 500mm PF

2019—Menacing, But Drab

This juvenile Crested Caracara extends its talons to grasp onto a dead branch as it comes in for a landing in South Texas a couple of weeks ago. Juveniles lack the bright orange coloring on their faces and legs that adults have, so this bird looks rather drab by comparison. Menacing, but drab.

Nikon D5, Nikkor 500mm PF lens.

2019—Spot of Yellow

At Magee Marsh, the bright and colorful Yellow Warblers were easiest to spot in the busy brush surrounding the boardwalk and I was most successful photographing these tiny birds. This is a male Yellow Warbler that I photographed on our last morning at Magee Marsh. It was one of the last photographs I took before we packed up and left for the airport on Saturday.

Nikon D5, Nikon 1.4 Teleconverter, 500mm PF lens.

2019—Black Vulture

Black Vultures are very similar to the Turkey Vultures that I’m used to seeing where I live but without the red skin on their faces. The gray skin makes them somehow less repulsive than Turkey Vultures. This Black Vulture just landed near our blind in South Texas. The vultures compete with Crested Caracaras for carrion and road kill.

Nikon D5, Nikon 1.4 Teleconverter, 500mm PF

2019—Water Draws

One of the distinguising features at the blinds at the Santa Clara Ranch in South Texas is that each blind has a watering hole. The area is so dry and parched that water is a prime draw for all of the wildlife in the area. Mammals like Eastern Cottontails, Thirteen-lined Squirrels, Coyotes, and Javelinas come to bathe and drink and of course, local birds are drawn to the water feature as well. This male Golden-fronted Woodpecker, a bird that lives in Texas and south of the border, spent quite a bit of time slaking his thirst at the water hole. Every other time I saw this bird, he was in a tree, usually hammering on a tree trunk, so watching him drink was quite interesting. A storm was coming in so the wind was ruffling his feathers.

Nikon D500, 500mm PF Lens.

2019—Whirling Dervish of the Skies

One of the most amazing and entertaining spectacles that we witnessed from the blinds in South Texas was the mating flight of the Bronzed Cowbird. One of the less charming characteristics of cowbirds is a behavior in which cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other species and leave the other birds to incubate and rear their young. I was surprised to find their elaborate mating displays with its ritual movements are almost charming enough to overlook their distasteful breeding behavior. I was lucky to photograph this event twice while in Texas. Seeing the male Bronzed Cowbird start to puff his head and shoulder feathers in the presence of a nearby female signaled me to get my camera ready. The male bird rises up a foot or two off the ground and whirls like a Dervish all the while keeping his eye on the female. The ritual lasts about 8 to ten seconds and then he drops out of the air. I was impressed. But, in both instances I photographed, the female just walked away. His efforts were for naught.

Here’s a sample of the ritual flight. Nikon D5, 500mm PF

2019—Green Jay

Among the main bird attractions at the Santa Clara Ranch in South Texas are the Green Jays. In fact, the stylized logo of Santa Clara Ranch features a Green Jay. I have always loved jays for their gregarious nature, their intelligence, their devilish behavior, and their beauty. Green Jays are stunning to look at, the most colorful of jays. And, they are jays, through and through. At least one pair was building a nest nearby but they were secretive about it. Although I saw them with nesting material, I never saw where they took it to work on their nest.

Nikon D5, Nikkor 500mm PF

2019—Narrow Depth of Focus

My newest lens is the AF-S Nikkor 105 f/1.4E ED. Right now, Nikon has some super deals on cameras and lenses. Since I’ve been thinking about getting this lens for a while now, I decided now was the time to spring for it. The 105 f/1.4 is a beautiful lens and wide open, at f/1.4, the depth of focus is so narrow that only about an inch or so of the subject is in focus. My Red-lored Amazon Parrot, Bobo, was my first test subject and in most of the shots I took, when her beak faced me, while her eye was in focus, the beak was was out of focus. In this shot, she turned slightly so that her eye and her beak are in the same plane so both are in focus. The light is window light from the left side of her cage and I wanted the cage to disappear as much as possible so I set a minus exposure compensation to get this effect.

Nikon D850, Nikkor 105 f/1.4

2019—Cape May

On our first morning at Magee Marsh, Cape May Warblers were everywhere and throughout our week there, they continued to be one of the dominant species of warbler that we saw. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Cape May Warbler was so named because it was first observed in Cape May, then, ironically, it was not seen there again for more than 100 years. This male in full breeding plumage, rests on a willow branch.

Nikon D5, Nikon 1.4 Teleconverter, Nikkor 500mm PF.

2019—Not Just Warblers

Magee Marsh is known for the abundance of warblers that stop there to refuel on their way north but it’s not just warblers that visit. This Great Crested Flycatcher stopped long enough for me to take his portrait. Nikon D5, Nikon 1.4 Teleconverter, 500mm PF lens.

2019—The Challenge of Magee Marsh

After spending a week at Magee Marsh on the south shore of Lake Erie photographing migrating warblers, I was reminded how challenging this kind of bird photography can be. Not only are these birds very small, less than 5 inches including tails, they are not easily seen because they are hidden among the branches and twigs of willows or the fallen leaves and twigs on the forest floor. Most stay higher in the trees so it is necessary to lean back and crane one’s neck to locate them. Hours of this activity can result in a common complaint experienced by Magee Marsh visitors called Warbler Neck. It is so common among birders, the Audubon Society has even published a video that shows exercises that might help prevent this painful condition.

The thick woods create backgrounds that are busy and distracting. The gray skies that pierce the leafy canopy like bright polka dots add another distraction. Then there are the people who crowd the narrow boardwalk, eager for a warbler sighting and who jostle and bump those around them and cause the walkway to shake and vibrate. However, these drawbacks aside, seeing these small, lovely birds, hearing their warbling songs, and enjoying the moment is an unforgettable experience. There are even a few warblers, among them the Yellow Warbler, that are so brightly colored they stand out from their surroundings and are easily seen. Fortunately, Yellow Warblers were abundant on our visit. This male Yellow Warbler paused on a nearby perch in the open and looked over his shoulder as if to tell me he was ready for his closeup.

2019—Fueling Stop

Welcome to Magee Marsh on the western basin of Lake Erie. The marsh provides the perfect stopping grounds for warblers and other songbirds as they migrate north to their breeding grounds. In late April and into May, these birds “pile in” to the forested beach ridges that comprise Magee Marsh and rest and refuel to regain energy for their final push across Lake Erie. The area is the perfect site to view many migrating warbler species for a brief few weeks in the spring.

This is a male Yellow Warbler. Photographed with Nikon D500, Nikon 1.4 TC, 500mm PF lens. Hand held.

2019—Determined and Menacing

Crested Caracaras are members of the Falcon family but are very unfalconlike.  They are scavengers and feed mostly on carrion and road kill.  They are also cantankerous and take their road kill meals quite seriously.  This adult Crested Caracara has just landed with a determined and menacing look. Best not to mess with this guy’s meal.

Nikon D5, Nikon 1.4 Teleconverter, Nikkor 500mm PF lens.

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When a few Eastern Cottontails visited the watering hole near the blind in South Texas, I was reminded of the novel Watership Down by Richard Adams.   I was intrigued by that tale of a colony of rabbits forced to leave when their warren is destroyed.  The book tells the story of the perilous odyssey to their chosen new home.  At the time I first read it 45 years ago, my co-workers harrassed me endlessly when I told how moved and fascinated I was by this book. But, their taunts didn’t deter me and Watership Down remains one of my favorite books to this day.  This young Eastern Cottontail made me think of Hazel, the hero of the story.

Nikon D5, Nikkor 500mm PF lens.

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2019—An Elegant Painting

Painted Buntings are considered among the most elegant and colorful of songbirds.  They are also localized and uncommon to see.  They are found in brushy lowlands and the native scrub vegetation at the Santa Clara Ranch in South Texas makes a perfect place for these gorgeous birds to live.  We saw both the brightly colored male and the more subdued green female each day on our visit there but on the third day, the hottest at 100°, we were treated not only to a lengthy display of bathing behavior but to a few moments while the male rested on

the most photogenic and closest of the nearby perches.  In this photograph, this male Painted Bunting is not singing but rather is cooling off in an avian version of panting.

Nikon D5, Nikkor 500mm PF lens.

2019—But How Do You Pronounce It?

There are lots of birds here in South Texas that I have never seen until this trip.  One of those birds has a name that is for me, impossible to pronounce.  The name is easily butchered and that hasn’t helped me with its proper pronunciation.  We’ve seen the bird every day but on the first day, I couldn’t pronounce its common name and kept referring to it either as a pierogi or a pyracantha.  When I mentioned to Chuck that its name must be some sort of fiendish combination of Pyrex and Clorox, I decided I’d better figure out how to pronounce Pyrrhuloxia correctly.  According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary it is pronounced pir-(y)ə-¦läk-sē-ə, or for an even more decipherable pronunciation, pir-uh-lok-see-uh.  Webster explains the common name is derived from combining the bird genera for bullfinches (Pyrrhula) and crossbills (Loxia) which are derived from the Greek words pyrruos, meaning “flame-colored or red,” and loxuos, meaning “crooked.”  I’m now making an effort to pronounce it correctly but it still sounds all “Greek” to me.

The Pyrrhuloxia is similar to the female Northern Cardinal, with the shape and color of the beak as the primary way that non-experts can distinguish the two species.  Another common name is Desert Cardinal which is clearly much easier to pronounce.  This is a male Pyrrhuloxia, photographed from a blind at the Santa Clara Ranch in South Texas. Nikon D500, Nikkor 500mm PF lens.  

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