Sunday, October 31, 2010

Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge

I visited with a lady at Cape May who recommended Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge. It is located just north of the amazing Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.  There are actually two wildlife refuges here - Eastern Shore and Fisherman Island.  Because of their location at the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, it is an important place for migrating songbirds, monarch butterflies, and raptors.  

I was up and out for the sunrise and my first priority was to choose a sunrise spot with reflecting water.  Unfortunately the place I chose had restrictions I wasn't familiar with - and I was told by the person in charge that I had ten minutes to do my sunrise photography.  I had chosen the boat ramp area that apparently is exclusively for fishermen - commercial and recreational.

 I did the best I could with my ten minutes and went on to the bird blind at the top of a small rise. It was a beautiful morning. I saw a sharp shinned hawk and a bald eagle. I saw small unorganized flocks of songbirds finishing their night migration flight.  I saw another flock with more organization that I thought might have been blue jays, but they never got close enough for me to be sure.   The photography blind was great, but I'm not sure the openings were large enough for my Sigma 300-800mm lens to fit through.  

This area deserved more of my time, but the need to have time in fall foliage before the trip was over was weighing on me.  So after spending some quiet time at the blind we moved on south.

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

I first heard of Chincoteague when the North American Nature Photographer's Association held two regional events there.  I knew I wanted to visit and this trip was my first trip anywhere near coastal Virginia.  

I had heard that the auto route was only open after 3:00 P.M. so we planned for that.  It was cloudy when we arrived and lighting was not good for photography. 

When I saw the ponies, I wanted memory pictures at least so I set up my big lens.  This great egret was feeding and gave me a good opportunity to get a portrait.

 I'd been seeing yellow rumped warblers so when this one started hopping around the bushes where I was standing, I attempted to get his portrait as well.  He never gave me a clear shot.

 This double crested cormorant also swam by.

The ponies were grazing peacefully, seemingly oblivious to the people on the road. They were fenced into their pasture and separated by a canal of water as well.

 I heard something and looked up and saw a drama.  At the time I thought perhaps a predator had spooked these two. But when I looked at the pictures later, I realized that it was horse politics.

One pony was chasing the other trying to bite it.

And it was determined to get the other horse, both were racing.

Their hooves were pounding.

The horses closer to me raised their heads in curiousity and I suspect to see if there was reason for them to take flight as well.  However, they only paused a moment before returning to their grazing.

 There are two sets of wild horses here - one on Assateague Island and one on Chincogeague.  Legend says the horses arrived when a Spanish galleon carrying wild mustangs sank nearby.  Perhaps they are descendants of horses turned loose by early settlers.  Through the years, penning became an annual event with historical records dating from 1835. Pony Penning is still an annual tradition with the ponies being herded up to swim the Assatague Channel.  Beginning in 1925, a carnival was held and colts sold to raise funds for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company.  This tradition continues each year in July when over 50,000 people watch the horses swim and colts are still sold to keep the herd at manageable numbers. 

Marguerite Henry wrote three books which made the Pony Penning known throughout the world. I read the first after I got home.  "Misty of Chincoteague"  is a sweet book about two children who do odd jobs to save money to buy the pony of their dreams, Phantom.  There are two others in the series that I'm going to order from Amazon as my local bookstore only had the first.

I would like to have had more time to spend at Chincoteague. There were many trails that beckoned, a lighthouse to explore, a beach to enjoy, but we were beginning to run out of time and I had more places that I wanted to explore this trip.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Bombay Hook National WIldlife Refuge

Our first visit to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge was in April of 2003.  One of the first sightings was a pair of ring neck pheasants.  As I rounded the bend to the first pool, the air seemed filled with flying egrets, herons, etc - giving it a primeval feel.  The ponds had many varieties of ducks and wading birds.  One of my favorite sunset sequences was shot on that visit:

Our first destination after leaving Cape May this fall was to Bombay Hook.  While we weren't there in time for sunrise, we were there early in the morning.

When we were there in April, the snow geese had already left, but for this October visit, the snow geese had arrived!  It is amazing to be there when the snow geese are flying.  The patterns they make in the sky are beautiful, and they are all calling to each other, so it is a beautiful cacophany of sound.  We paused and watched with wonder as they flew directly overhead.  

We drove the Auto Route, but most of the other birds that I was expecting had apparently already flown south for the winter.  Different season, different feel - much quieter, except for that first flight of geese overhead.  

I want to come back to Bombay Hook again in the spring when the other birds have returned, but since I had new places to visit, we regretfully said "good-bye" and headed on down the road. 

Cape May Sunsets

A cape is a pointed piece of land jutting out into a body of water.  Therefore, you have opportunities for both sunrise and sunset on the water.  Sunset Beach is on the western side of the cape and is a wonderful place to enjoy the sunset.  There are some lovely benches set up on the beach as well as the Sunset Beach Gift store and The Grille.

Also at Sunset Beach is an interesting shipwreck.  During World War I, about a dozen ships were constructed out of concrete because steel was scarce. One of these ships, the S.S. Atlantus, was docked at Cape May after the war. A 1926 storm ran her aground at Sunset Beach.  What is left of her hulk rests out in the water. 

As I was waiting for sunset, I chatted with folks sitting on the benches with me.  One of them introduced me to Cape May "diamonds."  She even gathered some for me from the beach while I was photographing the sunset. I realized after the fact that I had captured some of these "diamonds" during my sunrise shoot.  These "diamonds" catch the light of the rising or setting sun and when they are wet, they glow.  The reality is they are water polished quartz about the size of pearls.  You can buy polished ones at the gift store at Sunset Beach, but I treasure my gifts from a generous stranger.

I shot different angles and exposures trying to capture the setting sun and the waves whipped up by the wind that day. I suspect other days have much smaller waves hitting the beach, but I had a beautiful, tranquil sunset to capture with my camera and to enjoy.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Prayer for Travelers

At our hotel today, I read this poem that was on the desk in our room.   I thought it worth sharing - it was a great way to start my day!

To Our Guests

In ancient times there was a prayer for 
       "the Stranger within our gates"
Because this is a human institution to serve people and not solely a money making organization, we hope that God will grant you peace and rest while you are under our roof.
        May our place be your "second" home.

May those you love be near you in thoughts and dreams.  Even though we may not get to know you, we hope that you will be comfortable and happy as if you were in your own house.

May the business that brought you our way prosper. May every call you make and every message you receive add to your joy.  When you leave may your journey be safe.

We are all travelers. From "birth 'til death" we travel between the eternities. May these days be pleasant for you, profitable for society, helpful for those you meet and a joy to those who know and love you best.

                             Author Anonymous

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Cape May - Raptor Banding Demonstration

Certain days of the week there is a raptor banding demonstration near the Hawk Watch at Cape May.  I found it most interesting. Since they started banding hawks, they've banded over 132,000 and gotten data back from over 2000. One of the more interesting stories was of a chick that was banded in the nest Greenland and captured at Cape May a mere three weeks later! Amazing!

Most of the time, the birds are captured, banded and immediately released. For the demonstration, the raptors are put in these tubes because it calms them down.  They are only kept in these tubes a very short time, long enough for the visitors to see these amazing creatures up close and to learn about them in a way that would not be possible otherwise. The birds are released unharmed to continue on their journey south.

In order to capture the raptors to band them, you must set a trap using bait birds. The bait birds used are pigeons, starlings, and house sparrows. However, it is amazing how these bait birds are treated. They have flack jackets tailored for each size bird. The pigeon's protective gear is made from Lexus leather car seats.

The sparrow's is made from leather jackets. The sparrow one was so tiny and actually cute.
 We got to see  sharp shinned hawks,

a Cooper's hawks,

and a peregrin falcon. 

He showed us how their feet are specially made to capture their prey and how their heads don't move during flight so they can find their prey easier.

The crowd was fascinated, as was I.  I hadn't brought my big camera, but I couldn't help myself - I pulled out my iPhone and was shooting snapshots for memories.

Middle Creek Wildlife Area

Fellow photographer, Cynthia Sperko told me to be sure and include Middle Creek Wildlife Area Kleinfeltersville, Pennsylvania on the Lebanon-Lancaster County line as a place to take bird photos during spring migration.  Middle Creek is in Kleinfeltersville, Pennsylvania. According to one website, the snow geese show up the first week in March. They are always an amazing spectacle to watch as thousands of them take off simultaneously.  The state website mentions the beautiful tundra swans  that stop by in the fall in November and in the spring in late February and early March. 

The Visit Lebanon County website mentions nine walking trails. Are We There Yet website  also has a good article about Middle Creek.

The tour road is open from March 1st to mid-September, weather permitting.

It turns out that as we drove through Pennsylvania, we stopped for lunch at Lancaster.  If we'd only known, Cynthia works very near where we stopped. I missed a chance to meet one of my online photography friends.  Sounds like I need to go back into her neck of the woods during fall or spring migration.  Check out  Cynthia's website to see more of her beautiful photography.

Thanks, Cynthia,  for the heads up about Middle Creek!

Cape May - Sea Bird Watch

The Cape May Bird Observatory counts many different kinds of birds during the fall migration. Up at Avalon along the seawall, they have a sea bird count. They have a presentation at 2:00 where they show you how they identify these birds from such a great distance.  

This is Atlantic City in the background. This image was taken with my 300-800mm at 800 mm.  That bird in the center is a northern gannet.   I've left this as shot so you can see what the bird counters are seeing.  Yes, they identify these birds when they are just specs.  It is amazing!

I've cropped down so you can see it better.  To identify northern gannets here you look for large white birds with these black tips on their wings.  The body shape is much more elongated and sharp both the body and the wings than a white pelican would be.  The smaller dots are greater black-winged gulls (which are the largest gull), so you can get an idea of how large these gannets are.

 Double crested cormorants fly by in large flocks.  They are identified by the patterns the flocks make. While they sometimes do get into a V shape, they never maintain it.  They are always rearranging the pattern and snaking out.

Here is a closer look as they flew overhead - note the elongated head and still a different pattern in the sky.

I did crop this one down so you could see the three birds in the distance - they were surf scoters. You really need a scope to make the id between white winged scoters, black scoters and surf scoters.  The sea bird counter has a high powered scope to see more detail on the wings and face to make a good id for the count.  They have a different counter for each bird that they click as they see them.

This young gull was hanging out,  not bothered by the birders nearby. 

I spent about an hour two different days at the Sea Bird Watch and saw:

Double crested cormorant
Black duck
Black bellied plover
Ring bill gull
Great black-backed bull
Black scoter
Surf scoter
Herring Gull
Northern Gannet
Greater Scaup
Brown pelican

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Cape May - Songbird Morning Flight

One of the daily events at Cape May during migration is the "Songbird Morning Flight."  There is a tower at Higbee Beach with an interpreter and on top of the nearby hill is a person who is counting the songbirds.  Officially Morning Flight begins at 8:00 A.M.  Songbirds migrate at night, so they fly in and get ready to forage and rest for the day.

I got up and out twice for morning flight. The first morning was right after the front had come through. It was pretty and sunny, but the wind was fierce.  There was only one other person besides me and the interpreter on the platform.  A few other people came and went Because of the wind, the interpreter was not expecting us to see much. The small songbirds were just getting bounced around too much. However, the large great black-backed gulls seem to sail with ease through the gusty wind.  The smaller hawks were visibly fighting against the wind. The first morning I saw the greater black-backed bulls,  yellow rump warbler, sharp shinned hawk, cooper's hawk, and a peregrin.

The second morning was a much calmer day in terms of the wind. I got to the tower at 8:00 A.M. and it was filled with people.  There were definitely more small birds in the air.  We had two interpreters in addition to the counter on the hill. I was actually a little relieved to see that even these "pros" couldn't identify all the little birds as they went zipping by.  They did identify a blackpoll warbler by its call as it went by.   The counter on the hill is expert at identifying the warblers, but apparently even so the count includes large numbers of "unidentified" warblers. We saw a number of northern flickers, a flock of kildeer.  and a lot of yellow-rumped warblers.  Crossing along the bay were double crested cormorants and a brandt.  I especially enjoyed seeing the common loon fly over us.  Two bald eagles passed over when I first arrived.  Good sightings of sharp shinned hawks and cooper's hawks.

People came and went from the platform during the hour or so I was there the second morning.  One group was an Audubon society tour from New York City.

My bird list for both days:

Yellow-rumped warbler
Black poll

Sharp Shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Peregrin Falcon
Northern harrier

Dark eyed junco
Swamp Sparrow

Ruby Crowned Kinglet
Golden Crowned Kinglet

Double crested cormorant
Great black-backed gulls
Common Loon (in flight)

Great blue heron

Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
American Robin
Mourning dove

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cape May

We spent 4 nights at Cape May.   I was enchanted from the first day.  We started the first morning at sunrise at Cape May Lighthouse. 

The lighthouse is tall and stately, and the beam still shines brightly.  

I always try to look around at my surroundings when I'm photographing. I noted the sky away from the lighthouse was filled with these lovely pink tinted clouds. So I'm playing with a composition taken before the sun was up, with the light shining and the pink clouds.  All true to what was there that morning, but I think this version still needs work.

After taking care of trying for dawn and lighthouse shots, I headed over to where the Hawk Watch was going on.  For several years, I've heard  and read about hawk watches. During the fall migrations, people pick places with high numbers of passing raptors and count them as they go by. Some are volunteers, some are paid.  It was on my list of things to attend sometime because you can learn so much about identifying raptors when you have so many passing over you in one day. But more importantly, you are surrounded by folks who really know how to identify hawks even when they are far away and only specs in the sky. 

While the day started sunny, there was a cloud bank coming in.

You could see getting larger and larger and filling the sky.

Before too long, it was dark and hard to see the hawks.

I did have a couple of people who were helping me identify the hawks and other species flying by. I think the most amazing thing was when the gentleman next to me spotted and identified a flock of blue jays just by the way the flock was grouping as they flew.  And . . . I had NEVER seen a flock of blue jays - only individuals. The tree sparrows also came by in large flocks and looked ever so much like a swarming bunch of gnats as they crossed the sky.  The raptor identification was still hard, but I saw a sharp shinned hawk, a Cooper's hawk, a merlin, and a peregrin that morning.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cuttalossa Mill

I have had the opportunity to meet some of my online photography friends this trip. We stopped in Doylestown, Pennsylvania to meet Ruth Taylor.  She does beautiful images of her home county, Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  She and her husband also run the Photography Contest.

While I was really just planning to meet her and have a short visit, she took me out to Cuttalossa Mill where I got a chance to take some photos of this lovely mill.  What a great way to spend the afternoon!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Minister Creek

We've been seeing some beautiful fall foliage as we go along, but I haven't been finding those ideal photographic compositions. We chose to go through the Allegheny National Forest as we crossed Pennsylvania.  It beautiful, but a little past the peak of color. I was so glad to find Minister Creek, I could hardly wait for the car to stop to hop out, grab the camera, and rush over to the creek.  At first glance, I was concerned, because I could tell it was going to be challenging to get a good camera angle. My first try was looking down on the creek:

I didn't like this camera angle, so I started looking for a way to get down to the creek level.  After finding a spot where I could sit on one rock and work my way down, I found that I had an old grapevine hanging down into my composition as well as a leaning tree.  Luckily I was wearing my river sandals and the water was shallow. I waded in and removed the offending, unattached, dead grapevine and put it on the bank. Taking my next shot, I still wasn't happy with that leaning tree:

The water was shallow enough that I could wade in  a little more. My feet and the bottom of my jeans were definitely wet, and my toes started getting cold quickly.  But I wasn't about to rush out of the water until I had done my best to capture this lovely place.


Presque Isle State Park, Pennsylvania

When I was walking the Magee Marsh, I ran into several people and we chatted about other birding areas.  One of the recommendations was Presque Isle State Park in Pennsylvania.  I was intrigued because Michigan has a Presque Isle River in the Porcupine Mountains that is a wonderful place. So as we planned our route south and east, we chose to visit Presque Isle State Park.

We arrived late in the afternoon and after looking at the map on our iPad, we chose to drive the perimeter.  Once again, we had found a place with many opportunities. Near the city of Erie, it has many opportunities. We saw joggers and bicyclists. There were opportunities for sailing, canoeing, and kayaking on Lake Erie.  There were both shoreline, pond, and forested areas for birding.  It is the only surf sand beach in Pennsylvania. Because of the many habitats, it contains the greatest number of the state's endangered, threatened and rare species than any other similarly sized area in Pennsylvania.

To my delight, we discovered a lighthouse!  It was late in the day and the sun was obscured by clouds. I knew the lighting wasn't the greatest, but I try to be disciplined in my photography.  So I shot both horizontal and vertical, changed positions, and shot for HDR.

Here is one of the original in the sequence I shot for HDR:

Nik has just come out with new HDR software, HDR Efex Pro and since I do a lot of HDR, I bought it the day it came out. This was my first chance to play with it.  

HDR Efex Pro program is a photoshop plugin. You choose which images and it combines them. There are 33 preset choices as well as manual choices so you have a lot of control as to how your final image will look. Here is my first attempt. I liked the stormy day look and I wanted the sky and clouds to be dark enough that the light from the lighthouse would show. This is how the image emerged from HDR Efex Pro:

I usually play with my Topaz plugins: BuzSim and Topaz sharpen. Here was my first attempt and I think I went too far with the BuzSim:

Here is my second attempt using the same HDR conversion - less strong effects, but still enhanced with Topaz BuzSim & Topaz Sharpen. I didn't add the lens flare on this one that made the other light shine more.

 Since I like to play with several choices when I'm doing HDR, I went over to Photomatix and used a different set of images, vertical this time and created this image. Once again I went beyond the Photomatix and used the Topaz BuzSim and Topaz Sharpen for artistic effects.

 Here is a different version on roughly the same original images, using Efex Pro but without adding Topaz.

I don't know yet which of these will be my finished images. I suspect when I get home with my larger calibrated screen and more time, I will revisit these and perhaps start over until I decide which ones I like the best. I suspect that I'll have more than one finished product - a dark brooding look and one with a bluer sky.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge & Magee Marsh

I headed to Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge because I was wanting to visit as many National Wildlife Refuges as I could find along our route.  As we left Detroit, I knew I wanted to revisit Bombay Hook in Delaware, and I knew I wanted to visit Chincoteague in Virginia.  Since we didn't have a set itinerary for this trip, we could stop and explore new places. But because we didn't have a planned itinerary, I hadn't done much research about places we would be visiting. 

We got to Ottawa NWR later in the afternoon.  I was excited because the following day was the one day of the month that the auto route was open and I was looking forward to viewing parts of the refuge that are normally closed to the public.  

When we arrived, I learned quickly that Ottawa is a refuge where you hike to get to the best parts. There are also two adjoining state wildlife management areas. I stopped and chatted with other people walking the refuge. I was asked, "How does this compare with other refuges you have visited?"  I must confess I didn't have a good answer, because I had just gotten there and because I hadn't done the research to know what was the best "season" to visit. One of my favorite wildlife refuges is Bosque del Apache. If you go in the winter, it is an incredible places with thousands of geese, ducks, sandhill cranes, and many wintering raptors.  In the summer, the Bosque is quiet.  On my first fall afternoon visit, Ottawa seemed quiet - lovely, but quiet.  I got to see a bald eagle soar by a couple of times, the ducks were apparently on a pond a farther walk than I had time for.  My bird list was short, because my walk was short: white crowned sparrow, blue jay, golden-crowned kinglet, ruby-crowned kinglet, Canada geese, Great blue heron, great egret, American robin, and red wing blackbird.  

We drove over to Magee Marsh Wildlife Area right at twilight and I found the marsh boardwalk. That would be my dawn destination.  Magee Marsh is owned and managed by the state of Ohio.  

We got up early enough that I was on the boardwalk as the sun was coming up.  I was traveling light - my iPhone, my binoculars, and my Sibleys.

As I walked the boardwalk, I could hear skittish waterfowl relocating.  I was pleased to see and identify a swamp sparrow in the brushy area by the waterline near the boardwalk.  A downy woodpecker was working his way up and down a nearby tree.  The redwing blackbirds were on the reeds across the water.  I saw another bird working its way up the tree - after looking in Sibleys - a brown creeper.  I finally caught a glimpse of the waterfowl I was spooking - a winter plumage wood duck.  

The wonderful thing about this boardwalk is that there are plenty of benches - places where you can sit, wait for the birds to come check you out and where you can savor your surroundings. I saw another set of birds that I don't usually see - so had to look them up - thrushes, both Swainson and Hermit (I'm pretty sure I saw both species.) As I scanned the boardwalk in front of me, a house wren appeared to check out who was coming. In the one of the water pools was a great egret and I could hear Canada geese in the distance.  Another bird appeared along the boardwalk, a wren for sure with that upright tail, but oh so small. When checking Sibleys - a winter wren - a life bird for me. And it stayed around long enough for me to get a good look see.  Another bird appeared requiring another search in Sibleys - a juvenile yellow bellied sapsucker.  As I finished my walk, I saw a ruby crowned kinglet and a Carolina wren.

I spent so much time savoring the boardwalk that we were later getting to the auto route at Ottawa.  Even so, my list:  blue jay, great egret, white crowned sparrow, great blue heron, Canada geese, redwing blackbird, northern harrier, pied bill grebe, coot, mallard, greater yellowlegs, white throated sparrow. At one of the ponds was a mix of waterfowl, too far for me to make good id's with just my binoculars. 

We headed back to Magee Marsh and I added dark eyed junco, ring billed gull, trumpeter swan, and brown headed cowbird. What a wonderful day it had been!

In the evening I was researching Ottawa NWR and Magee Marsh and found this incredible article from the American Birding Association: "Magee Anatomy of a Migrant Hotspot."  I knew I had found another "magical" birding spot. It had been wonderful on my fall walks, but it is a place I really MUST come back to during its high season in May.

I went back a second morning to Magee. At the first bench area, I found myself surrounded by golden-crowned kinglets and ruby crowned kinglets. I got another good look at a winter wren (I think my favorite bird here.) And farther down, I was surrounded by thrushes eating the berries.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

iPhone4 Camera

When I went bird watching at Magee Marsh, I knew it was a long boardwalk and I wanted to concentrate on seeing the birds without hauling camera and tripod. I was carrying my iPhone4 to make notes on what birds I was seeing.  But, being a photographer, the morning sunrise and the boardwalk seemed to cry out for me to take their picture to remember the beauty here.

I'm really impressed with iPhone4's 5-megapixel camera.  While technically a point and shoot, it has features that let you go beyond.  With the tap to focus, the camera can changes the exposure as well as the focus, allowing you to capture the beauty in lighting situations that need thought as to exposure.  And, the live view gives you an idea of whether you have tapped correctly to get the finished look you were hoping for.  In addition, they have built in a HDR (High Dynamic Range) function that shoots multiple images and combines them at the time of the capture.  How cool is that?

This image was taken at Burlington of the Mississippi River at flood stage from the restaurant. Note the blown out details in the trees along the river and the sky.

Using tap to focus, the exposure adjusts and I got the view of the river with the tree in silhouette which was my goal.

At Magee Marsh, the sunrise was beautiful. Using the tap to focus I was able to get the details in the sky to capture the delicate colors of sunrise.

I was pleased to even get the "rays,"

The fall colors along the boardwalk were also memorable. Here is an image taken not using the tap to focus. Notice how the sky and foliage and foliage are blown out, because the lighting is so different between the shaded boardwalk and the sunlit foliage.

Here is the same image using the tap to focus and the built in HDR. What a difference!

Then taking the image into photoshop:

While the iPhone4's camera doesn't match the quality of my Canon 5D MKII, it is still a great way to capture moments when I'm walking, doing bird watching or don't have the big camera with me.