Photographing the endangered Ae’o, also known as the Hawaiian Stilt, at the Kawai’ele Waterbird Sanctuary was a challenge. There were only two or three pairs that we could easily see and they were foraging on the far side of the shallow pond at the Sanctuary. We had to carry our tripods and long lenses (Nikon D5 and Nikkor 600mm f/4 and 1.4 X TC) on our shoulders across the sandbars to approach them and there were eight of us so we were not inconspicuous. We advanced slowly, keeping our eyes on the birds as we walked. As we got closer, to make ourselves the least disruptive as possible, we moved one at a time and, instead of carrying the tripods slung over our shoulders, we held the heavy hrigs extended in front of us, legs down, ready to quickly set them down in case we disturbed the birds. It was a slow approach.
Female Ae’o, identified by brown back
It was also mid afternoon and the temperature was in the high 80’s maybe low 90’s with humidity to match. We would have welcomed a rain shower but there was none in sight. We finally got close enough and the birds cooperated by moving toward us. We took advantage of the opportunity we had to photograph these endangered birds despite less than ideal conditions with harsh, midday light and heat shimmer.
Male Ae’o, identified by black back
At one point, one of the Ae’os moved out of the water onto a sandbar, showing all of the stilt’s incredibly long pink legs. He strutted proudly across the sandbar. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the stilt has the longest legs, compared to body size, of any other bird species. Those long legs are on parade, so to speak, in the photograph above.
When clouds briefly obscured the sun, giving us a few moments of relief, this Ae’o took the time to preen.
While we watched them, the Ae’os spent most of the time wading and probing and watching for invertebrates under the water. The Ae’o above sees something to investigate in the water.
When we could no longer tolerate the punishing heat and humidity, we slowly backed away from the birds the same way we came in and made our way back across the sandbar to the vehicle. By our slow approach, making no sudden movements, and keeping our eyes on them to know whether they were bothered by our presence, the birds were not upset and we were rewarded with time to spend observing the fascinating, endangered Ae’o.
The Hawaiian Stilt, known in Hawaii as the Ae’o, is an endangered species and was one of the birds we sought to photograph on Kauai. We found a few of these long-legged shore birds at the Kawai’ele Waterbird Sanctuary. As the sun was setting, we turned our lenses toward the birds to silhouette them against the water that had turned orange from the sunset.
In the days of sailing, the frigates were sailing ships that were swift, agile, and because of this, were often used for raiding commercial ships. The Frigatebirds got their name because of their speed and agility and their penchant for pirating the catches of other birds. At Kilauea Point on Kauai, we watched over and over as the Frigatebirds pursued the Boobies and the Tropicbirds in an effort to snatch the fish they had just caught. It was fascinating to see these high speed chases skimming over the waves as the feathered pirates tried their best to steal their next meal.
I took these photographs using the Nikon D5, 300mm PF f/4 lens, and the 1.4X TC/
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.
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.
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.
The female is drab compared to the male.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.