Saturday, August 17, 2013

Least Bittern

At the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center in Port Aransas, there were several least bitterns that were less secretive than other least bitterns I've seen. I saw at least 2 and one stayed right next to the boardwalk to the delight of my fellow shorebird field trip buddies.

I had seen least bitterns here a year or so ago and last summer at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. The one at Anahuac disappeared into the reeds at the sound of my camera clicks.  The ones today gave us good opportunities to look and photograph.  I hadn't realized how large their feet are in relation to their small body size. Least bitterns are the smallest of the heron egret family.  They are found mostly along the coast.  I think they are one of the most beautifully colored of the herons and egrets with the green heron a close second.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Perseid Meteor Shower 2013

Photographing meteor showers means staying awake between midnight and dawn in a dark place far from city lights.  Mason, Texas was my choice this year and my photographer friend, Nancy Damrom joined me in this adventure.

Because this year's Perseid meteor shower peaked on Monday afternoon, we photographed both early Monday morning and early Tuesday morning.

Our location was the Lindsay Ranch which has hunting cabins for rent with access to their 700 acre ranch.

The first night we set up near the windmill.

The second night we wanted to have trees in our composition.

In our night driving and while we sat waiting for meteors we saw ringtail, skunks, armadillos, deer, and burros.  The night was filled with sounds of crickets and tree frogs.

It was well worth shifting the sleep schedule for a couple of days to spend time watching the beautiful Milky Way waiting for meteors to streak across the sky.  God's creation is a wonder to behold!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve

Last Thursday, I finally had a chance to visit the Eckert James River Bat Cave near Mason, Texas.  My friend and I arrived a little before 7:00 and there was already a stream of bats flying over the river valley.  There were three hawks successfully hunting the bats as we watched.  We grabbed our camera gear and headed up the 1500 foot trail leading up the hill to the entrance to the cave. It is an uphill climb, but it is not too steep. A flashlight would be useful if you stayed until dark to come back down.   When we arrived at the entrance, it was such a pleasant place.  Wooden benches provide comfortable seating in a grove of trees for shade.  The cave opens such that an earlier arrival might have given opportunity for the bats to have natural sunlight for better lighting of their small furry bodies.  I am hoping for my next visit to arrive at 6:00 p.m. when the gates open.

We arrived just as the first set of bats were leaving.  While waiting we saw what was identified as a white racer snake  moving along the other side of the small cliff.

 After waiting patiently the next wave of bats began to fly out.  WOW!  The air in front of the seats was filled with bats!  I believe that this is the closest I've ever been to the bats as they leave their roosts.  It felt like they were coming within about 5 feet of us and we could hear the sound of the thousands of wings.

I had brought both my 28-105 mm lens and my 100-400 lens.  The bats were flying so fast that it was hard to get a good focus with the longer lens.  But even with the 28-105 mm lens, you can see the translucent wings and small bodies as the bats circled the entrance to the cave before leaving the area.

The bats fly very close to you. Some even landed in the little bushes in front of us.  Two snakes were hunting these bats in the bushes near us.  From one of my photos, they had success.

I tried a different angle also with the 28-105mm to get both the silhouettes of the closer bats but also the ribbon of bats flying off to feed.

The Eckert James River Bat Cave is either the 2nd or 3rd largest bat colony with both Mexican Free-tailed bats and Cave Myotis. Approximately 4-6 million bats live in a natural cavern only slightly larger than a school bus.   The Mexican Free-tails exit in a swirling circle from the opening near the observation area.  From the docent I learned that the cave myotis exit a different opening and fly in a straight line.  They also exit right at sunset. As we were leaving near sunset, I saw bats that I think were the cave myotis where she had  told me to look.  I had already put away my camera gear and it was dark - so I did not try to photograph them, but I was glad I saw them.

The Eckert James River Bat Cave is owned and operated by the Nature Conservancy. Richard Phillip Eckert and Virginia Eckert Garret donated the land on the condition that the cave remain open to the public.  The cave is open from mid-May to early October Thursdays through Sundays from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.  Once a month it is open at dawn to view the bats' return.  Cost is $5.00.  It is a good idea to bring exact change.  To reach the bat cave from Mason on the James River Road it is necessary to cross the Llano River.  It is a fun crossing, but use caution and be alert for flash flooding. While most times it is not deep, I recommend a high ground clearance vehicle.  During a rainy time or in doubt, take the back route. Remember turn around, don't drown!

Friday, July 05, 2013

Fireworks - Old Settler's Park - Round Rock, Texas 2013

We got to the park early with a picnic dinner from Golden Chick. The park was crowded and most parking areas were full. By the time we got settled, I feared I was too far away from where I had seen the setup to get what I wanted. But it was fun to watch other families get settled in with their chairs, blankets, and toys for the kids. I especially enjoyed the toddlers, imagining my grandson, Tobyn, exploring his world next year.

4 sec, f/16, ISO 100    

Doing one's homework in advance is usually a good thing, but since I had been to the Old Settler's Park fireworks before, I didn't look it up.  But as it got later I checked Round Rock's website. The fireworks weren't scheduled to begin until 10:00 p.m.  They were going to synchronize with the Dell Diamond fireworks after the ball game.  

When they started, I was ecstatic, because I had a wonderful position.  When zoomed out with my 28-105 lens the bursts overflowed my frame. 

4 sec, f/16, ISO 100

I had to zoom out to get the full displays.  

3.2 Sec, f/22, ISO 100

My experiments with focus blur did not do as well.  My usual technique for photographing fireworks is to use a distant light as my focus with autofocus. Then I change it to manual focus so that I don't have to wait for the camera to refocus on moving fireworks for each shot.  Trying to do the focus blurs from  I mentioned yesterday from  required leaving the camera on autofocus and then trying to change the focus mid shot when I was only shooting 4 second shots.  I ended up with camera motion which while intriguing did not produce the look I was trying for.

Here are a couple of the shots where I was trying for focus blur. 

3.2 sec, f/22, ISO 100

3.2 Sec, f/22, ISO 100

I tried setting a longer shutter speed for one shot.  I probably should have tried more choices in longer shutter speeds.

13 sec, f/22, ISO 100

But the fireworks were happening too fast.  I didn't want to miss the captures I knew how to do since I had such a good photographic angle this year. So I went back to my standard methodology - fixed focus with manual settings for exposure for consistency.

4 sec, F/16, ISO 100

4 sec, f/16, ISO 100

I did change my exposure by changing my f/stop giving me my best Grand Finale photos.

3.2 sec, f/22, ISO 100

3.2 sec, f/22, ISO 100

3.2 Sec, f/22, ISO 100

Fortunately, the Dell Diamond shoots fireworks after every game.  I should go back and try again for the focus blurs.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Photographing Fireworks

As a photographer, I think about photographing fireworks each year.  In going back through slides that we took 30-40 years ago I found fireworks photos.

The first year I took digital firework shots, I researched on the internet and got some ideas. The nice thing about digital is that you can shoot a test shot early in the evening to make sure you aren't over exposing.  You can make adjustments that will last until the time for the Grand Finale.  

From 2004, here are some of my firework images along with their settings.

2 sec, f/16, ISO 100, Canon 10D

2 sec, f/16, ISO 100, Canon 10D

In 2010, we were in Breckenridge and I tried to get shots that showed the fireworks over the sweet town.  

3.2 sec f/13, ISO 400, Canon 5D

I had tried the same thing back in 2005 when I was visiting Debra in Malibu, California.  The fireworks were launched from barges in the ocean.  This one captures the ocean, beach and an observer.

From professional Kathy Adams Clark's blog is another new way to photograph fireworks.  Since I happen to love motion blurs, I am going to try this tonight.  Have the focus sharp at the beginning of the burst and then change the focus during the exposure.  Click here to see some examples.  The article with more information is at, Make Unique Fireworks Photos Using Focus Blur.  

When the end is near, that great crescendo of fireworks is a challenge. It is very important to reduce your exposure significantly when it starts.  In the excitement of the moment, I've never gotten it quite right. The finale happens so quickly so you don't have much time to make adjustments as you shoot.

Don't forget to enjoy the fireworks themselves.  Step away from the camera every now and then to appreciate the beautiful show.

I'm finishing this blog with photos from other years and other cameras.  

I wish for you a Happy Fourth of July!  

1 sec, f/13, ISO 400, Canon 5D

4 sec, f/16, ISO 100, Canon 5D

2 sec, f/13ISO 200 Canon 5D MKII

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Comet Pan-Starrs

Night before last we sat out on our front porch and found the comet Pan-Starrs with our binoculars.  We've been comet watching before but this was by far the easiest to spot of any we've seen.  By the time the sky is almost dark, it is still high enough to be visible.  Each night it is farther from the moon, but it is at about the 5:00 position about 30 degrees above the horizon.  

Tonight I wanted a cleaner view of the sky - so we went to Chandler Road just west of Toll 130.  This happens to be one of my favorite places to photograph lightning.  The city lights are far enough away that they are not too distracting.  There is also a nice paved area that is out of the way of traffic.

I've cropped these photos - and used Adobe Camera Raw to brighten the exposure and darken the sky.  

 I photographed these with my Canon 5D MK III and my Sigma 300-800mm lens at 800mm.

Sometimes you know that  you're not going to get award winning photos. For this one, I had to focus on one of the light towers in the distance and then set to manual focus to keep the focus.  The wind was gusting which makes a bigger difference with a big lens even on a sturdy tripod.  And . . . I couldn't see the comet through the view finder - which meant I was guessing each photo and then repositioning to try again.

The comet was eventually obscured by a small clump of trees.  But even if these are not award winning photos - they are nice memory photos - and another small adventure for Henry and me.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Birding Hornsby Bend

Hornsby Bend is a name associated with many things - a sewage treatment plant, a Biosolids Management Plant . . . and . . . an amazing place to see many species of birds!  

in 1959, G. Frank "Pancho" Oatman noticed ducks flying across the Colorado River.  Following them, he was the first birdwatcher to explore the sewage treatment facility.  He found waterfowl in large numbers, several that had not been recorded in Travis County.  

Today, many birders frequent both the roads around the ponds and the trail along the Colorado River.  A birding visit to Hornsby Bend never disappoints.  While the species of birds varies through the seasons - there is always a wide variety.  

I spent time around the ponds today.  Here are some of the Highlights:

There were hundreds of northern shovelers, possibly 1000. Some resting on snags, others basking on the shore, while others use that amazing beak to forage.  They were everywhere.  Sometimes they form large groups that spin like a pinwheel stirring up the surface of the water to find food.


There were both male and female lesser scaup to enjoy.

There were several eared grebes. A couple of them gave me good photo opportunities.

There are always shorebirds.  I am still working on learning to identify this large group of birds.

Least sandpipers are usually found in flocks of 10 or more.  They are a small shorebird and they fly off and land together.  Note the green legs.  They also have a characteristic posture in how they insert their beak in the mud to find their food.

I think this is a spotted sandpiper. I have yet to see one in all of its fine breeding plumage.  Out of breeding season it is much plainer without the spots. It does have a characteristic behavior - bobbing as it forages.  

Today I saw 14 species and this was just from around the ponds.  One of these days I need to take the trails through the woods to the Colorado River. I've done it once - and there are even more bird species to see.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Changing Bird Songs - the Savannah Sparrow

Henry sent me an interesting link this morning.  Science Daily has an interesting article in how bird songs have changed over the last 30 years.  I would have thought that bird songs would remain constant over time, but instead a study showed that savannah sparrows songs changed much like human dialects change over time.