Spring Songbirds are Everywhere

I do love my day-long trips to the coast or the even longer five-day trips to Malheur or Sacramento, but it’s still the short trips to Theler Wetlands, Port Orchard, or, even, Ruston Way that get me through the year. Even in the middle of winter I usually find one day a week when it’s not raining. The birds at Theler may not be as numerous or as exotic as those I see on longer trips, but I can’t remember a disappointing walk there. Late winter/early Spring days often bring birds I don’t see in the middle of winter, like this Downy Woodpecker

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that I located while trying to locate a bigger woodpecker that was making a much louder banging than this little woodpecker was capable of producing. The woodpecker I was looking for instead turned out to be a Red-Breasted Sapsucker that was amplifying his pecking by pounding on this birdhouse.

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I’m quite familiar with Red-Shafted Woodpeckers who use anything they can find to amplify their mating “calls,” but I had no idea that Sapsuckers used the same trick.

Our recent warming has led to an influx of songbirds like this Golden-Crowned Sparrow.

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I particularly enjoy trying to capture shots of small songbirds because they are much more challenging than Geese, Great Blue Herons, or most ducks. They constantly flit about; when they’re not flitting, they’re usually perched in shrubs that make it difficult to focus.

Of course, occasionally you get lucky and they’ll land on a single branch just above you, like this female Purple Finch

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and this Black-Capped Chickadee both did.

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Of course, you hear a lot more songbirds than you ever see; there’s been a virtual chorus of songbirds my last few visits to Theler.

Nothing Is Ever Just Black and White

Although it was “bright” while I was in Santa Rosa, it was never sunny. It was actually the perfect light for portraits, but less than ideal for action shots. As it turned out, though, it was nearly perfect light for at least two of my subjects.

As I’ve complained before, it’s really hard to capture both the subtle whites and blacks of male Bufflehead. 95% of the time either the whites or the blacks get totally washed out, and you end up with a silhouette. This is probably the best shot I’ve ever gotten of a male Bufflehead, with details in both the blacks and the whites,

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though I’ll have to admit that I had to tone down the highlights further than seemed realistic to get the details. In real life, the white seems brighter than this and yet, somehow, manages to maintain details.

There was another black and white duck that I have also struggled to capture in photos, a male Common Merganser.

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This guy was actually standing in fairly heavy shade, but it’s one of the few “closeups” I’ve ever managed to get of one out of the water so I like it quite a lot. As a result, the blacks were a little to dark to draw details from and the whites also lost details trying to correct the blacks.

Here’s a shot of a male Common Merganser in brighter light.

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At this angle it’s clear that the head really isn’t solid black as it appeared in the previous shot, but is really a very dark green that shimmers in the right light. The trade-off, and there invariably seems to be one, is that there is a loss of detail in the white areas.

In an ideal world, a male Common Merganser would have stood upright and flapped its wing like this female did, but I long ago accepted the fact that I don’t live in an ideal world and was grateful that this female Common Merganser provided a little action for the day.

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Of course, since it was slightly overcast the shutter speed wasn’t quite fast enough to prevent blur in the wings, but that’s okay to me because they actually appeared blurry when I saw them beating, too.

Of course, these shots would benefit from HDR, the method I use almost automatically on scenic shots nowadays, but there’s no way to combine three shots at different apertures when the subject is in motion. RAW format is the best you can do at capturing what the eye really sees.

Lake Ralphine Swan

There’s no doubt that one of the highlights of visiting Lake Ralphine in Santa Rosa is the chance to photograph the swans closeup. Although I occasionally see migrating swans in Washington, I’ve never had the chance to shoot them up close. Of course, the year-round swans in Lake Ralphine are hardly “wild,” but their beauty more than makes up for any lack of wildness.

I can’t resist the beauty of shots like this.

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Eventually, though, beauty, at least “accepted” beauty, is not enough. You begin to search for new ways to see your subject. For instance, it’s probably the expressive curve of the swan’s neck that sets it apart from most birds, but a closeup like this shows better just how long that neck really is.

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Seen in isolation, that neck reminds me a lot of an ostrich, not a bird that’s ever struck me as particularly “beautiful.”

Seen from a different angle, the swan’s beak seems quite remarkable,

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even more so if you click on the picture to enlarge it and examine the rows of “teeth.” In the end beauty, indeed, seems to follow function.

That long, graceful neck and unique beak make it possible for the swan to find food where smaller birds would find it difficult if not impossible.

A Whirlwind Trip to Santa Rosa

After disappearing into Dragon Age Inquisition and nearly two weeks of solid rain, I gladly agreed to go with Leslie on a whirlwind trip to Santa Rosa to visit her brother Jeff and to handle some legal documents last week even though two long days of driving seems excessive for a five-day trip; our usual trips are 7 to 9 days long, and even those often haven’t seemed long enough.

Still, I managed to get in two walks around Spring Lake, one with Jeff and Leslie, and another Friday afternoon after Jeff and Debbie had taken off for home. It seemed auspicious that the first bird we saw on our walk was an Acorn Woodpecker, a bird only rarely sighted in the Pacific Northwest. Even better, the day was sunny and we were walking downhill, so the woodpecker was only slightly above us.

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Although they’re not my favorite “poses,” these shots did manage to capture more detail than most of the ones I’ve taken before.

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I still haven’t managed to wade through all the shots I took in California, but apparently we managed to drag some sunshine back with us so I had to walk Theler today. Not sure what’s planned for tomorrow, but if it as sunny as the weather forecast calls for I doubt I will be able to sit in front of a computer working on photos. After all, I’m sure there’s lots of rain left this winter and spring, the best time to sit inside working on a computer.

Fog, Even at Port Orchard

I was surprised when Friday’s forecasted sunshine hadn’t appeared by the time I reached Port Orchard on my way home. Usually the “morning” fog has burned off by the time I get there for lunch. But not this time, and, as a result, the shots I liked best didn’t turn out as well as they would have with better lighting, and there wasn’t even enough fog to create the effects I got earlier in the day ( like the ones on the previous post.)

This is the only shot I took of a female Goldeneye

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that flew nearly straight at me that turned out because the lighting was so low I couldn’t use a fast enough shutter speed to eliminate blur. Still, I’m fond of this shot because it somehow reminds me of myself when I waterskied, though the duck didn’t follow with my usual face plant.

The lack of sunshine was most frustrating in taking shots of this male Red-Breasted Merganser that I’ve been taking shots of for several weeks now.

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This is the closest I’ve gotten so far this year, but almost all the images are noisy and lack the crispness and rich colors needed to really show this bird off to its best.

Still, even poor lighting can have it’s advantages. For instance, it would have been a great day for portraits with no harsh shadows or shiny spots on faces. It even proved quite good for this shot of a male Hooded Merganser,

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a bird notoriously hard to get the right exposure on because of the dramatic blacks and whites. More often than not you end up blowing all the whites out on the fine feathers. But since this guy was mere feet away I managed to capture those all important white details, and even some details in the black areas, for good measure.

A Monday Morning at Theler Wetlands

With rain again predicted for most of the week, I spent Monday at Theler Wetlands and Port Orchard. There were a lot of birds, but mostly the usual suspects, Great Blue Herons and ducks. Large flocks of Widgeons and Northern Pintails rose up from the wetlands and moved to new feeding areas.

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About the only unusual birds I saw were a pair of male Common Mergansers resting in the heavy shade near the end of the trail.

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I didn’t see much all the way back, either. When I heard a Pileated Woodpecker’s cry, I immediately thought of Ruth Sullivan’s saying when I started birding, “ All we need is one Good Bird.” Since I have often heard this particular woodpecker at Theler but very seldom see it, I didn’t really expect to see it.

I should have been more ready, because not long after I saw the bird right next to the trail. Of course, by the time I pointed my camera at it, it had moved further away.

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Still, considering the lack of light, I was quite pleased with this shot, certainly one of the best I’ve gotten in years. I had my “one good bird” and was ready to head to Port Orchard.

Fortunately, though, I ran into John after missing him at the Salmon Center. We talked awhile and I thought I’d walk part way back with him before heading out. We hadn’t gone very far when he spotted a Northern Shrike at the top of a tree near the pond.

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It’s even rarer than the Pileated Woodpecker around here; so I actually ended up with “two good birds” for the morning.

Back to Nisqually

I don’t think I’ve been to Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge for nearly a year, even though it’s the only place I can get my favorite Torta. Truthfully, I’ve never felt the same about the refuge since they replaced the 5 mile loop around the perimeter of the refuge that I walked two or three times a week. There are still lots of birds to be found at the refuge, but I can’t help but remember all the birds and wildlife that I no longer see.

I did see a number of birds I have not seen since I walked Nisqually the last time, like this Golden Crowned Kinglet

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and this Brown Creeper.

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I was a little surprised to see a small flock of, I think, Least Sandpiper in winter plumage.

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I couldn’t resist taking a series of shots of this Hooded Merganser pair. They were calmly paddling down this slough when I pointed a camera at them and simultaneously a shotgun blast echoed from across the river.

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They took off so simultaneously that I didn’t even realize there was two birds in several of my shots

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until I looked at the last shot in the sequence.

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Sometimes I think it’s too bad that I walked Nisqually for so many years before they changed it; new visitors I meet often seem to be enthralled by the place. Strange how the mind subtly controls our perception of a place and how hard it is to overcome that perception, no matter what the reality.