2022—Hiding in Plain Sight

The trees in Magee Marsh are just beginning to leaf out. In a week or so, the entire area will be green. This year though, because of the damage from the devastating wind storm last year that felled trees, the canopy that once was high above the boardwalk, will not be overhead but will be at eye level. We were told that the downed trees and branches now covering the ground will still leaf out and they are already beginning to do so. Some roots remain intact that will nourish the branches for a few years to come allowing them to continue to leaf and provide shelter. The birds will still come and fill the area with song. However, instead of looking up for the warblers that crowd into the marsh on their migration north as they ingest the fuel needed to cross Lake Erie, the birds will be at eye level. But, because either side of the boardwalk will be filled with dense foliage from the felled branches and trees, it will be extremely challenging to spot the birds as they flit through the leaves. We got to Magee Marsh just in time this year. The leaves were just starting to leaf out. As the week progressed, the new leaves changed the look of the area and the foliage became denser each day. The patches of dense green were the harbinger of what it will be like at the peak of migration. This Yellow Warbler is singing his territorial song alerting other male Yellow Warblers that he’s in charge here. The tiny bird is just visible on a leafy branch. The blurred green is a hint of the foliage between the edge of the boardwalk and the bird. Despite the overwhelming green, the bright yellow bird stands out, like he is hiding in plain sight.

2022—Even Better Than Expected

Our week in Magee Marsh went by too quickly. When we arrived, we were surprised and shocked that the wildlife refuge had suffered such devastating damage from a severe wind storm last August. We were afraid that the damage would affect the birds arriving during spring migration. While there seemed to be a difference in the patterns of birds arriving we realized that our previous visits were in May, not April. Even though the migration has not yet hit its peak, we saw dozens of species and were able to photograph many of them. One of our most consistent subjects was the delightful Yellow-Rumped Warbler, a black, yellow, and white bird that we saw and photographed each day of our visit. They seemed a bit less camera shy than some of the other birds we encountered.

2022—It’s a Gnatcatcher with a Gnat, or Is It?

When I first looked at this photograph of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher that I took at Magee Marsh a couple of days ago, I thought that the Gnatcatcher had caught a gnat. As their name implies, Gnatcatchers catch gnats. But on closer inspection, I believe this could br a newly hatched Praying Mantis Nymph. Praying Mantises hatch as nymphs in the adult form, but at less than an of an 1/8 inch in size. I think I can see the front praying legs, the head, and the rear legs all protruding from the beak of this tiny bird.

2022—Yellow It Is!

For me, the bird that first comes to mind when I think of Magee Marsh is always one of my favorites, the Yellow Warbler. So far this visit, the Yellow Warbler is again at the top of my list. This colorful and very vocal warbler is easy to see despite its tiny size and it has a loud voice that is readily distinguishable from other birds in the refuge. They come tantalizingly close to us, singing from the tops of the Boxelders that line the boardwalk so they are often just a few feet directly over our heads. However, their proximity does not make it easy to photograph them. Quite the contrary. Much of the time they are close is when they are at the top of the tree branches. But the bright gray sky backlights them and makes the bird a dark silhouette. Consequently, instead of trying to get a photograph, we watch and appreciate the show taking notice where they fly when they leave the tree tops, and hoping they alight in a place where they’re not backlit and where there is some green in the background. The other big reason they are difficult to photograph is they are so very fast. They do not perch for long in any one place as they search the twigs, leaves, and bark for insects constantly moving up and down twigs and branches and over and under leaves and in and out of thickets. I seem to have many more shots of empty branches where they just left than I have shots like this male. But trying to get the shot is fun and challenging and the time flies by. I love Yellow Warblers.

2022—Welcome to Magee Marsh

We came to Magee Marsh Wildlife Area in Oak Hollow, Ohio to see and photograph some of the 150 species of songbirds, including 36 species of warblers, that rest and refuel there before continuing their northern migration. Magee Marsh is a 2200 acre area of marshlands along Lake Erie and it is a critical feeding and resting habitat for migrating birds. We were not prepared for what greeted us this year. On August 10, 2021, severe winds flattened great portions of the forest and severely damaged large sections of the boardwalk that meanders through the area. The boardwalk has been repaired and portions of it have been replaced but nothing can be done to replace the great swaths of downed trees in the once lush forested beach ridge. Nature must take its course. There are still some trees and they are starting to leaf out so we were delighted to be greeted at the entrance to the boardwalk by a foraging White-throated Sparrow. The day was punctuated by drenching downpours that forced us back to the Suburban a couple of times but there are still birds migrating through the area and finding sustenance and resting places, so there are lots more birds to photograph. We are looking forward to see what the rest of the week brings us.

2022—Slow Shutter

When I use the Nikon Z2x teleconverter with the Nikkor Z100-400mm lens, the maximum aperture is f/11 at 800mm. Because I shoot in Aperture Priority, the camera selects the shutter speed, and if I’m not paying attention, the resulting shutter speed might be too slow for some subjects, like moving birds. Hummingbirds are challenging to photograph but because they hover in place without moving their heads for extended periods, it is possible to photograph them successfully, getting the eye sharp, an absolute must for wildlife photography. Yesterday morning the light on a pot of chives caught my eye and I went out with my camera in hand but my attention was quickly diverted by one of the female Anna’s Hummingbirds so I focused on her instead. I had already increased the ISO to 3200 because the shutter speed was too slow in the shady early morning light at a lower ISO. But I failed to increase it again when I was photographing her, something I realized too late when I reviewed the images. I took this at 1/50 second. The minimum shutter speed I usually want for birds is 1/125 and higher is better. But, I like the resulting image and the slow shutter speed revealed the movement in the body, the wings, and the feet while the head remained steady allowing for sharp focus on the eye.

2022—Going Bananas

Bobo is going bananas. She seems obsessed with them. I’m not sure why this started but a month ago, I had to take Bobo to the vet where she spent a couple of nights and came home to a two-week, twice daily oral antibiotic regimen. That is behind us now and she has improved somewhat but she is still not back to her old self. The oddest thing about whatever afflicts her is that her eating habits have changed dramatically. Where she once ate just a few of the healthy bird pellets, a diet that she’s been on for twenty years, she now often empties the bowl. She has always loved dried chili peppers, eating some, using one to scratch her head, and carrying one with her wherever she roams so I could always tell where she’d been because she dropped peppers along the way, her version of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs. Now, she is barely touching them. But it’s the banana thing that really has my attention. She has always liked bananas but she seems obsessed with them now, racing to her bowl to get a slice. Once the banana slice is in her beak she climbs out of her cage to come to the top to eat it. It is fascinating to watch her climb out with the banana in her beak because she uses her beak as a third hand, grabbing onto the cage bars, swinging one foot to the next bar, then moving her beak again. Amazingly, the banana isn’t squashed and remains intact until she’s atop her cage to consume it. At one time when she ate banana slices she’d take a bite or two then drop it. Now she consumes it all, then heads back for seconds.

2022—Raindrops on Roses

Raindrops on roses. What a welcome sight. There weren’t many drops on my Betty Boop rose yesterday morning after a night that dropped but a few hundredths of an inch of rain but but we’ve had such a dearth of rain so far this year that it was good to see any drops at all. We went three months, normally our wettest three months, with almost no measurable rain so a few storms in April have brought us almost two inches in my area of Northern California. The first three months of 2022 were the driest since record keeping began during the Gold Rush. Not a good sign for our dire water situation. But at least I can enjoy and appreciate the sight of raindrops on my roses, however brief it may be.

2022— Blending In

The female Lesser Goldfinches seem to be more cooperative and not quite as skittish as the males so I have been able to capture shots of the females but not the males as they hide in the Photineas when I’m in the backyard. I’ll keep trying. The females are not as bright as the males and blend in easily among the leaves.

2022—Different Day, Different Lens, Different Angle

The little hens and chickens blossoms keep beckoning me. I took this image using a different lens, shooting at a different angle and on a different day and time than what I posted a few days ago. It is the same plant and the same cobwebs, though. And it is still a stacked image using 50 images. I used the Nikkor ZMC50mm macro lens instead of the NikkorZMC105mm lens. The background is the reflection in the bay window of the shrubs along the wall in the back of my garden. The breeze had come up so even using my Platypod to keep the camera still, the mercurial breeze shook the buds ever so slightly. As a result, the blending of the images was not as good as if there were no breeze. But, there is a saving grace. In Photoshop, I aligned the images which wouldn’t have been necessary if I’d brought the plant inside out of the breeze. But,then I wouldn’t have had the background.

2022—Etherial Motions

John James Audubon once described the Ruby-throated Hummingbird with these words: “…the etherial motions of its pinions, so rapid and so light, appear to fan and cool the flower, without injuring its fragile texture, and produce a delightful murmuring sound….” The same could be said about its western counterpart, the Anna’s Hummingbird. I have never seen a Ruby-throated Hummingbird but I love the Anna’s who live year-round in my garden. Recently, with no male Anna’s Hummingbirds in sight, the two rival females seem to be able to spend more time at the feeders. Although one tends to be a bit more aggressive than the other, they seem to reach a truce every so often. They don’t drink from the feeders at the same time but one hangs back and watches from the security of the Photineas as the other sips the nectar. Sometimes, one will be at a feeder and the other will be feeding at the Pineapple Sage on the other side of the garden at the same time. Although I am used to seeing swarms of hummers surrounding the feeders in Madera Canyon, Arizona, I am always amazed when I see photographs of feeders from my area crowded with hummers. Not at my house. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen more than one or two hummers in the yard at the same time. But, I’m lucky that the Anna’s stay year round. Now that the live oak in my front yard is gone, I don’t know the fate of the Black-chinned Hummingbirds that used to live there and that occasionally visited my feeders in the back.

2022—My Nemesis

Meet my nemesis. This is an eastern fox squirrel, an introduced species in California and one that seems to thrive in suburban backyards like mine. From what I’ve read, they are nearly as ecologically flexible as rats and I am getting to hate them almost as much as I hate the rats that occasionally appear. The larger native Western Gray Squirrels are rare around here. I’ve seen only one in my garden, and that was two years ago. I’ve posted photos similar to this of the fox squirrels in my garden, as they look at me from atop the pergola. Lately, I’ve aimed a high powered water gun at them and more often than not, the gun hits the target, drenching the squirrel in a cascade of water. I’m not sure that it’s deterring their presence, though. They are extremely destructive even chewing and apparently consuming (there is no telltale debris) my resin Adirondack chairs. Most recently they have discovered that they can jump onto one of the hummingbird feeders and have destroyed the bee guards on it. A few days ago one of them knocked a potted Jade Plant off a table, shattering the pot and breaking off several large branches. Usually the squirrels run when I open the door and I aim the bright red plastic water soaker at them. This day, I had my camera already in my hand, standing in the open patio doorway and hoping to photograph a male Lesser Goldfinch in its bright yellow plumage. Instead, this face stared defiantly back at me, not even flinching. It knew I was unarmed.

2022—Little Details I Didn’t Notice

Macro lenses are made to photograph small things or details of things. The resulting photographs often reveal information about the subject that is normally difficult to see with the naked eye. Case in point is this cluster of buds on a small echeveria plant (aka hens and chickens). I didn’t notice the cluster of buds until I was taking macro photographs of a ladybug that was on an echeveria leaf near it. Each of the buds on this cluster is less than half an inch with the smallest barely a quarter inch. But they were quite visible with the naked eye, just obscured slightly by other leaves. It was all the tiny webs I didn’t notice until I did some focus stacking. The tiny webs created by tiny arachnids were barely visible, just slight wisps. In the final stacked image they jump off the page, almost like bolts of lightning. I was astounded that there were so many stringy webs covering the fleshy leaves and dangling from them. It makes me think I need to start dusting my flowers.

2022—Ladybug, Ladybug

Ladybug, ladybug
Fly away home!
Your house is on fire,
Your children shall burn.

I have never understood this nursery rhyme but I have recited it since I was very young whenever I see a ladybug. Yesterday while I was in my backyard photographing small birds hiding in the shrubs, I had to go inside for something. I noticed a ladybug on the edge of the window by the patio door. Of course this nursery rhyme began to play over in my head. I’ve always wanted to photograph a ladybug and have never been successful so I took advantage of their somewhat docile nature and scooped it onto a business card and deposited it on a succulent on the patio table. I would have had it crawl onto my finger but it was too close to a spider web and I opted for the business card in case a spider was lurking nearby ready to pounce on me. I had the Z100-400mm lens on the Z9 so I exchanged it for the ZMC105mm macro lens and grabbed my tripod. I discovered that the extremely shallow depth of focus of the macro lens made it a challenge to acquire focus on the eyes. The auto focus immediately jumped to the black spots on the orange shell so I manually focused. I also changed the aperture from wide open to f/11 which expanded the focus area just enough so that I was more successful getting the eyes in focus. Because of the angle of my shot, I was relying on the LCD screen to compose and focus instead of looking through the viewfinder. I really needed some reading glasses to see it perfectly but before I went inside again to get them, I remembered that I could just increase the size of the image on the LCD using the plus sign and then easily manually adjust focus on the much larger image. The ladybug seemed content to stay on the succulent and never did fly away. I hope there wasn’t a fire at home.

2022—Bath Contortions

Watching birds bathe fascinates me. Each species seems to do it a little differently. The tiny Anna’s Hummingbirds rival the enthusiasm of the rambunctious Bushtits when it comes to bathing. The big difference is that the Anna’s usually bathe alone. The flat surface of my millstone fountain creates the perfect bath for tiny birds like bushtits and hummingbirds. When I saw this female Anna’s rolling in the thin pool of water, I grabbed my Z9 and walked out and sat down a few feet away from the fountain. She didn’t interrupt her bath even to chatter at me that I was invading her space. I had the Nikkor Z100-400 and the Z2X teleconverter already attached to the camera and DX crop engaged so I was able to focus very close to her. With the contortions she went through, splaying flat onto the millstone, twisting, fluttering, splashing, she was able to bathe her entire body. Except, her beak. Despite pushing it into the water, her beak remained covered with pollen from feeding at the Cigar Plant and the Salvia before her bath.

2022—Back to the Hummers

My garden is thriving despite my neglect. Potted perennials are putting on new growth and beginning to flower offering fresh nectar to the Anna’s Hummingbirds. This Cigar/Firecracker plant, (botanical name Cuphea) has bloomed, albeit sparsely, almost continually throughout the fall and winter and the hummers seem to love it. There are two rival female Anna’s Hummingbirds in the garden right now. No males in sight lately. I’ve never found a hummingbird nest in my yard but there are plenty of hiding places for them and one of the females seems to emerge from the same general area in shelter of the Photineas so I’m hoping there’s a nest in there. The Cigar plant has grown leggy and the leaves and flowers grow only on the ends of long bare stems that create a distracting background. My plan this week is to visit the nursery and replenish and replace what needs to be replenished and replaced so the hummers will have fresh nectar as well as the feeders and I’ll have more opportunities for better photographs with fewer distracting backgrounds.

2022—Chive Talk

The chives are in full bloom. A welcome scrim of clouds diffused the harsh sun that suddenly turned our mild spring into what seemed like a hot midsummer day. The light was perfect for my plan to create a stacked image of the chive flower with the green chives creating the soft background. I took 50 images to create the final stacked image. And, I did it while hand-holding the Nikon Z9 with the Nikkor ZMC105mm lens. Phew! I sat on an outdoor ottoman and braced my arms on my knees while I faced the strawberry jar that holds the chives. However, I was really shooting blind because once I focused on the closest part of the flower and clicked “ok” to start the camera on its “focus shift shooting” assignment, the viewfinder and the screen went black until all of the images were rendered. I was outside and there was just the slightest breeze which has, in the past, always stymied any outdoor macro photography for me. And, despite bracing my arms against my knees, I was so aware that I needed to keep perfectly still that I think I willed myself to start vibrating and twitching. I should have used a tripod but that would mean going back inside, attaching a ball head to the tripod, and attaching the L-bracket to the Z9. I was afraid the beautiful light would suddenly turn harsh again if I left, even for just a few minutes. So, I persevered. I rendered the final image using Photoshop to align and blend the layers. My first focus position turned out not to be the closest petal to the camera so in the final rendition, some of the front petals are not in focus. But, still, I was pretty happy with the results and the Z9 once again came through, overcoming my introduced vibrations with its ability to reduce camera vibrations. The Z9 made it appear that I had sat perfectly still.

2022—Iridescence on Display

The Boat-tailed Grackles were everywhere on Lake Kissimmee in Florida a couple of weeks ago. It’s springtime and this male was displaying, his iridescence shimmering in the sunlight. As we made our way among the bulrushes and reeds on the lake, our airboat brushed by quite a few intricately constructed grackle nests. Most seemed not to be occupied, remnants of a previous breeding season but there were plenty of them, constructed a couple of feet above the water and attached to reeds and cattails. I didn’t know it when I took this photograph but apparently Boat-tailed Grackles establish harems and only some males achieve status through their displays allowing them to mate with the females in their harem. I’m not sure if this male had a harem of if he was just a wannabe. He looks quite studly, though.

2022—Ready to Pounce

In the last hour of our last day on Lake Kissimmee, we spent time with this male Least Bittern who was very intent on finding its next meal. In most of my images of him, he is partially obscured by the reeds and the lily pads. The Least Bittern is the smallest heron at 3 ounces and about 12 inches in length. This male can easily hide among the lily pads, seen behind him, and blend in with the reeds that match the colors of his feathers. He briefly emerged in an opening and I was able to capture his intense concentration without reeds or lily pads obscuring him.