Archive for the ‘Birding’ Category

The Elegance of Vultures

December 3, 2012

TV -1We had our first “up close and personal” meeting with a Turkey Vulture this weekend. She is a rescued bird who cannot be released into the wild and so is kept by our local wildlife rescue facility as an educational bird. We had a special shopping/fund-raising event at The Fat Finch over the weekend and the wildlife rescue folks brought several birds for our shoppers to see.

As is my custom when photographing portraits, I spent a little time getting to know her before hauling out my camera. (Knowing something about your subjects is critical if you are do them justice in a portrait.) Surprisingly, after watching her for a little while I realized that the word that kept arising in my mind to describe her was “elegant”.

Somehow most of us don’t associate vultures with elegance. But the grace with which she moves, the gentle brilliance of her eyes, and her centered calmness all add up to elegance. Think Cary Grant or Grace Kelly in feathers.

Of course, I’m not the first to note fine qualities in Turkey Vultures. Here is Edward Abbey,

Let us praise the noble turkey vulture: No one envies him; he harms nobody; and he contemplates our little world from a most serene and noble height.

TV 2-1And I shouldn’t have been at all surprised with her down-to-earth elegance. I’ve spent many happy hours in my life watching vultures soar on thermals high with hardly a feather stirring as they ride on outstretched wings. Elegantly.

But they are the eaters of death and I suppose that is why we don’t usually associate them with elegance. We have a New Yorker cartoon refrigerator magnet in the store that shows two vultures sitting on a tree talking to one another. One vulture says to the other, “Of course dead is important but taste matters too.”

And I must say that after meeting her I agree entirely with Abbey who, before dying, made arrangements to feed his death to the vultures. He wrote,

If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture–that is immortality enough for me.


The Fat Finch’s Bird and Photo Walk

February 27, 2012

Thanks to Sandhill Cranes, Canada Geese, and various ducks, our Fat Finch photo/bird walk last Saturday was a success. Four of us took out a group of twenty people for hints and tips on bird photography and we thought you’d like to see some of the results. For this post we’ve selected three photos that illustrate some of the suggestions we made last time in Eight Steps to Great Bird Photography.

First up is a crane in flight, taken by one of the leaders, Tomas Spross.

Tomas Spross 2012

For those of you interested in the finer points of photography, that photo was taken with a 300mm f-4 lenses set at f-11 and 1/2000th of a second. Notice the diagonal created in the photo by the bird’s body. Diagonal compositions often create a dynamic sense of movement in photographs and this photograph conveys the energy and speed of flight. Triangles have the same effect, illustrated here by the triangle created by the bird’s wings that leads your eyes directly to the bird’s eye which is at one of the Rule of thirds intersections. (More on that below.)

Next up is a fine photo of a Green-winged Teal taken by another of the leaders, Bosque Bill, as he likes to be known. This horizontal composition conveys the calmness of the duck. Note that the duck’s eyes are not at either side of the photo, so the viewers’ eyes aren’t led out of the photo before they notice the blue-green reflection on the water of the duck’s head .

Bosque Bill 2012

The other two leaders of the group, Linda Rockwell and Kent Winchester, never got around to taking any photos. We are waiting for participants to send us examples of their photos.

We end today’s post with a photo made by Matt Bruno, a participant who is ten years old. Matt was unable to go with us after the introductory talk at the Fat Finch store but he sent along three photographs he made earlier in the month. We’re using only one today, a shot of an American Kestrel that perfectly illustrates another point about composition.

Matt Bruno 2012

We have here another diagonal composition, the tree limbs beginning in the lower left and ending with the kestrel. Although the kestrel is perched in this photo, the diagonal gives you a sense of its kinetic energy, waiting for release when it swoops down on its next bit of food.

Rule of Thirds

Note the location of the kestrel’s eyes – precisely on one of the intersecting points resulting from the Rule of Thirds. (A subset of the Golden Ratio used by artists and architects since at least the time of ancient Egypt.)

Thanks to all who participated. It was a great morning of wild birds and photographers.

Eight Steps to Great Bird Photography

February 24, 2012



The absolute best way to find birds to photograph is to go out with an experienced birder. No field guide will reliably get you to birds as rapidly. If you don’t know a good birder, join your local Audubon club or call a birding store and ask about local birding hot spots.  And, even when you’re out without a birder, stop anytime you see a group of people with binoculars and spotting scopes. Birders share their delights.

Field guides are the second best way to find birds to photograph. Most field guides have been reduced for your smart phones and computer tablets and they show it. Get the real book. National Geographic’s is the most comprehensive, followed closely by Sibley’s and by Ken Kaufmann’s. Not only do they show you the bird and tell you where it lives and travels, they tell you about its habits. Birds, like all animals, are creatures of habit. More about that in a moment.


For the best telephoto lens, take ten steps forward.  Wear dull clothing, use trees, bushes, grasses, and other natural obstacles to sneak up on the birds. If necessary, crawl, don’t walk. The sooner you forget your natural dignity, the sooner you’ll get fantastic photographs.


You have, as Wendell Berry puts it, come into “the peace of wild things.” Find a likely habitat, sit down, and be silent. The birds will come to you as soon as you are at peace.


Create a bird photography station in your backyard. All you need are feeders, bird seed, and a comfortable place to sit. You can even sit indoors, next to a window.



You are in place, quietly waiting for the birds. Now is the time to check your camera. Is it turned on? Lens cap removed? Are the settings correct? If you are shooting with a modern digital camera, 90% of the time its automatic setting will deliver acceptable photographs. Beware:  It has a built-in bias for a wide aperture and fast speed, meaning that the depth-of-field – the area in focus – will be limited. If you can, manually set the ISO to 200 (Good light) or 400 (Bad light) to minimize digital “noise.”


Ready to shoot? Take three more seconds to compose the photograph. In your mind’s eye divide the scene you are looking at through the camera into equal thirds, vertically and horizontally. Adjust the camera so that the bird or, even better, the bird’s eyes are at one of the nine points where the lines intersect. Don’t put the bird in the precise middle of the frame. That results in a static, boring composition.

Unless you are waiting for the bird to look directly at the camera, leave space on the side of the photograph where the bird is looking. Otherwise, your viewer’s eyes will leave the photograph before seeing all the photograph. And even though almost all birds’ eyes are on the side of their heads, your photographs will be more interesting if the bird is looking toward the camera. Include some habitat that is in focus. (That will be difficult or impossible if you are shooting with large telephoto lenses which have severely limited depth-of-field.)

There is nothing wrong with photographs of perched birds, but action will add interest to your photographs. Try to get shots of take-offs and landings.

Birds telegraph their take-offs. Cranes and shorebirds often stare in the direction of take-off before starting their take-off runs. Birds usually take off and land into the wind. Raptors and other mid-sized birds will crouch just before leaving their perch. Almost all birds defecate in the seconds before take-off. Focus on the bird’s head when you see this behavior and start clicking the shutter at the first move.

Birds in flight require forethought. If you wait until the bird is flying by you, it’s going too fast for your camera’s automatic focus system to keep up. Predict from where the bird will come, pre-focus by depressing the shutter button part way, and wait for the bird to reach that point before taking the photo. If your camera allows burst shooting, take several shots, increasing the odds of getting one that is sharply focused. And remember that a photograph with a bird flying directly toward your camera will emotionally make your viewers participants; not observers.


You’re almost ready now. The only thing left to do is focus, focus, focus.


For bird photography the old maxim of documentary photography, “F8 and be there” works best. You can substitute F5.6 or F11 aperture settings for F8. Modern digital cameras allow you to substitute “automatic” settings.

There is no substitute for being there.

Finally, and most important, remember why you are there.


Kent Winchester


Super Bowl Sunday 2012 – For the Birds

February 7, 2012

Sandhill Cranes Scoring a Touchdown

When we first saw them, the Raven was negotiating with the Golden Eagle about the carcass of a Snow Goose upon which the eagle was perched. Too far away to be certain, we supposed that the raven was explaining to the eagle that contributions would be gratefully accepted. The eagle appeared disinterested.

That was the tail end of our annual Super Bowl Sunday birding trip and was one of the highlights. The juvenile Western Meadowlarks added spice and the Black Phoebe and Says Phoebes weren’t bad either. And we saw numbers of Northern Harrier Hawks at work even though it was a Sunday. Northern Harriers lack religion.

We missed, by two days and three miles, the latest Aplomado Falcon visit. But several Kestrels made up for that, hovering like the best of helicopters and swooping down faster than any helicopter. Two Towhees rearranged last autumn’s leaves, White-crowned Sparrows posed, and Snow Geese swirled for no apparent reason. Except for the time the Harrier glided into their territory. That caused political unrest.

Snowing Geese

And 8,400 trumpets in the orchestra of evolution trumpeted. Aldo Leopold was right about Sandhill Cranes. They played several concerts during our sunset/sunrise visits. They go to bed earlier than the Snow Geese and begin their morning commute after the geese. The geese are last in, first out and the Sandhills don’t care. Sandhills aren’t as excitable as Snow Geese and they worry less. If Sandhills are the trumpets of evolution, Snow Geese are the violins and are, accordingly, more high strung.

We wanted to show you a photo of that Raven and Golden Eagle discussion but, as we set up the shot, a cretin who works at the refuge careened into the field in his big white pick-up, scared the eagle and the Raven away and stole the goose carcass for himself, unceremoniously pitching it in the back of the pick-up, leaving us with only back-lit photos of the eagle and raven flying away and leaving both of them without lunch. A strong letter of protest to the refuge will be dispatched. If that man needed the goose for food, we’re not paying him enough; if he dislikes Golden Eagles, he ought to have a desk job. Either way, good manners required that he wait for me to make my photograph before scuttling the negotiations between the eagle and the raven.





Mountain Bluebird

November 7, 2011

The origin of bird names often is obscure. Sometimes it is difficult, if not impossible to discern what Adam was thinking. A “Bananaquit”? A “Lapwing”? How about “Bushtit”? Where did those names come from? The list of obscure bird names stretches across many pages of field guides.

But sometimes a name is perfectly obvious. For instance, “Mountain Bluebird.” The bird is blue and it lives in mountains. According to Kaufman, they, “Hover in midair before dropping to pick up insects from the ground.” One is hovering in this photo. See if you can spot it.

Hovering Mountain Bluebird

Here is a close-up.

On the recent day I was in these mountains, several hovered on the breeze blowing up from the river canyon below the ridge where I stood. I actually thought they might be eating insects that were floating on that breeze, not picking them off the ground, but who am I to argue with Kenn Kaufman who, I am certain, has forgotten more about birds than I will ever know. And they were dropping to the ground, relaunching, and hovering, so they probably were eating insects off the ground; stocking up for winter I imagine. It snowed in those mountains two days later.

Of course, many bird species are named for their habitats. Mountain Bluebirds are not alone in that regard. Cactus Wrens nest in cacti. You’ll find Seaside Sparrows exactly where you’d expect. Ovenbirds are brown and live in ovens.

The Big Year

October 18, 2011

The Big Year is in movie theaters everywhere now. Well, maybe not everywhere. I understand that movies aren’t big in Somalia right now and the little town in New Mexico where I grew up no longer has a movie theater, but aside from minor exceptions like that, the movie is playing everywhere. And why not? It has Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson in it and it’s a major movie about birding.

You read that correctly, a popular, well-funded, star-studded movie about birding. Based on the book by the same title by Mark Obmascik, the movie chronicles the unofficial competition between three men after a non-existent award for the most bird species seen in a single year in North America. Some human interest comedy has been added for the movie, but otherwise, it is a reasonably accurate portrayal of the book.

Of course, as usual in these matters, the book is better. And, if you live in Albuquerque, you can win an autographed copy for free. All you have to do is listen to KHFM (95.5), our local classical radio station and call in when you hear the ad for The Fat Finch. Not only can you win a copy of the book, you can also win a gift certificate for use in the store.

The birds are mostly accurate, even though a few are digital versions of their real-life counterparts and the flip book of birds at the end of the movie, during the credits, are the best reason to sit still until the lights come up. And this is a movie where the jokes are about non-birders instead of birders.

But the best reason to see the movie and to see it on the big screen is to reward all the people involved in it. Here is an attempt by Hollywood to show us something of the wild world and why we need to get out in it from time to time. Here, from the New York Times review of the movie is a sentence I wish I had written:

Birds are evidence of the miraculous and protean work of evolution and, more important, emblems of wildness in an overcivilized world.

It’s good to see a movie about them. And, after you’ve seen it, you’ll want to read the book again, either for the first time or for a re-reading. Then you’ll want to put on a good pair of hiking shoes, grab a pair of binoculars and go see some wildness.


Here are links to two reviews, one from serious birders at Cornell and the one from the New York Times.


PS. We’ve been away awhile and are glad to be back. Thanks for staying with us. This post is the 400th in the blog’s history and we just recently passed 800,000 views. Thanks to all our readers.

Springtime Babies

May 13, 2011

Peregrine Falcons, the fastest animals on earth, are among our favorite birds. Which is why we look askance at the only two species that are a threat to the falcons: Humans and Great-horned Owls.

But it’s impossible to be dubious of babies of either species, which is why we enjoyed discovering this nest on a trip to Northern California recently.

We discovered the nest by using one of the most effective bird spotting techniques yet developed by humanity: We spotted a group of bird watchers looking at a tree; so we stopped the car and asked what they were looking at.

Here is a photo of what the birders found in the nest.

That’s Mom in the background and two Great-horned babies in the front of the nest.

Grandchild of Chuck?

February 7, 2011

This winter brought us a new roadrunner visitor. He or she exhibits many of the same traits as our old friend Chuck. Long-time readers will remember Chuck, the injured roadrunner who we kept in mice for some time before he disappeared. (For the full story of Chuck, go to “Categories” on the lower right of this page and select the “Roadrunner” category.)  Enough time has elapsed since Chuck’s disappearance for this new roadrunner to be a grandchild. Certainly this bird seemed to know that if he sat on our fence long  enough mice would appear for his dining pleasure. That raises the question whether genes develop memory over the short span of a single life. Could Chuck have passed on the knowledge that this yard was a good place to stop by in the winter for supplemental food through his genes?

We don’t know the answer but we thought you would like to see a portrait of our latest roadrunner passer-by whom we like to think is a grandchild of an old friend.

A Snowy Visitor

February 1, 2011

It’s snowing here today and we’re not certain this visitor is all that happy about it. As we’ve noted before, when you’ve been looked at by a raptor, you know you’ve been looked at.


Sharp-shinned Visitor



A New Albatross for Midway

January 28, 2011


Short-tailed Albatross -Photo coutrtesy of Jlfutari at en.wikipedia

The New York Times reported a bit of good news this month. A Short-tailed Albatross was born on Midway Atoll. Midway, the atoll about half-way between San Francisco and Tokyo – and near where the Battle of Midway was fought during WWII – is now a wildlife refuge protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Midway is the home base for millions of Laysan Albatrosses, but very few Short-tailed Albatrosses.


That’s because Short-tailed Albatrosses were almost extirpated from the earth in the late 19th century. People liked their feathers, you see, and hunters killed them in vast numbers to supply the market.


Midway Atoll in 1941 (U.S. Navy Photo)

They were not the famed “Gooney Birds” of Midway that caused so much trouble to airmen stationed on the Atoll during WWII. By the early 1930’s short-tails were known to breed on only one Japanese island and, by the end of the War, were thought to be extinct. However, a few hardy birds wisely spent WWII at sea, survived, and returned to the Japanese Island in 1949. Until this month, not one pair was known to have bred on Midway, despite the fact that millions of its cousins Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses do breed there.


Around the same time humans were mindlessly hunting the short-tail version into extinction, we also began laying the first undersea cable between North America and Asia. Some of that work was done by an American cable-laying consortium which set up an outpost on Midway. Its workers promptly brought many non-native species to the Island to “improve” it. They improved it with canaries, cats, dogs, deciduous trees of all kinds, and – best of all – cockroaches, termites, and centipedes. When we humans set about improving a place, we do the whole job, not just a part of it.

When this “improvement” of Midway was brought to President Theodore Roosevelt’s attention, he promptly sent twenty-one marines to Midway with orders to hold the atoll for the United States and stop the “improvement” before it killed all the birds. After almost a century of use as a Naval air station, the atoll became a national wildlife refuge in 1988 and is now safe for the albatrosses.


Improving Enewetak Atoll


It is fitting that the United States protects Midway and has now hosted a new short-tailed baby. Short-tails used to breed on another Pacific atoll, Enewetak. We touched off forty some odd nuclear bombs on that 2.5 square mile atoll where the Short-tailed albatross once bred. We took care to remove all the people, but I imagine a great many birds were turned into elementary particles during the time we used the atoll to conduct nuclear tests. We’ve improved it too. We scraped off as much radioactive soil as we could, buried in a big hole on the atoll, and covered with a huge concrete mound. People have returned but, if I were a bird, I’d be hesitant to believe that we’re through with our improvements. Besides, as you can see, the concrete bunker doesn’t leave many good nesting sites.

Enewetak Today ( DOE Photo)

So, welcome to a new citizen and may he or she have a long life soaring over northern Pacific waters, knowing it will have a home on Midway to come home to in a few years when it’s time to breed.


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