Take Better Bird Photos

the handbook of bird photographyWhat’s a birder to do, once we’ve checked off all the easily seen local birds? I, for one, can’t afford endless trips to exotic places. I don’t have time to chase rarities (which is why I missed the Red-necked Rail at Bosque last month). And I don’t keep year lists, or county lists (or even state lists).

How do you maintain your interest in species you see trip after trip? I turned to photography. There’s always the possibility of a better photo—a different pose, interesting behavior, surreal lighting. The more I practice, the better I get, although I have a long way to go before my photos are gracing the cover of National Geographic!

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Please Imagine…

Pine Grosbeak_EchoLake-MtEvans_CO_LAH_5957I just came back from an exciting day of birding and photography. Our local Audubon chapter organized a field trip to Mt. Evans, which reaches 14,265 feet above sea level. Our target birds included White-tailed Ptarmigan and Brown-capped Rosy-finches. We were also looking forward to some alpine relief from the hot summer weather.

The morning was clear and sunny as we climbed into the Rockies along I-70. Taking the turnoff at Idaho Springs, we headed back south toward the mountain. First stop: Echo Lake, just before the toll road entrance.

Lincoln's Sparrow_EchoLake-MtEvans_LAH_6138A variety of chirping birds greeted us as we piled out of our cars for a quick look-see. Goldeneyes floated on the lake, we got a quick glimpse of a Lincoln’s Sparrow (right) in the willows, and a male Pine Grosbeak (above) posed for us in a tall spruce. It was going to be a great day! Wasn’t it?

Our next stop was misnamed Summit Lake, nestled against the cliffs at “only” 12,830 feet. Although it was a week day, the place was busy, with hikers, photographers, and even some nuns in their habits. Kids were running around on the tundra, right past the signs telling us to stay on the trails, while their parents shrugged and looked the other way.

SummitLake-MtEvans_CO_LAH_6011A few patches of snow still remained on the north side of the mountain, perfect habitat for Rosy-finches. And, sure enough, there it was—a single Brown-capped Rosy-finch singing far across the lake. We tried to get closer, but it remained a tiny speck in my binoculars. Please close your eyes and imagine the lovely photo I wasn’t able to take.

Back in our cars, we climbed higher. The switchbacks meant we alternated between hugging the inside lane against the cliff and teetering on the outside lane next to the sheer drop-off. The asphalt was crumbling from the extreme climate at this altitude. I tried to focus on looking for birds.

Yellow-bellied Marmot_MtEvans_CO_LAH_6097Reaching a pull-off that could accommodate all three cars, we stopped by the side of the road to look for ptarmigan. Pikas chirped at us from atop the orange granite boulders, then disappeared underneath when I approached to photograph them. Yellow-bellied Marmots lazily warmed themselves in the morning sun (left). A few Common Ravens soared overhead, and American Pipits hopped over the rocks far below. Please imagine the White-tailed Ptarmigan we didn’t see.

After searching for perhaps 20 minutes, we noticed the sun disappearing behind some menacing clouds. Lightning flashed across the valley, thunder rumbled. Yikes. If we wanted to reach the summit, we had better hurry!

Once again we scurried back to the cars, and this time headed straight up the steep road. A herd of Bighorn Sheep stared as we motored past, but we couldn’t stop for photos. Mountain Goats munched the alpine flowers, their kids frisking from rock to rock, but we had to reach the summit—because it was there.

Finally, we crested the final rise and found ourselves in a crowded parking lot. The sky grew black. Lightning flashed, followed immediately by deafening thunder. Big drops started to fall, then more, and more. The heavens opened and we were deluged by a waterfall of pounding rain, quickly followed by graupel, then sleet. Well, we wanted to escape the heat….

MtEvans_CO_LAH_6064-1Eventually, the storm began to abate as the clouds moved east. We cautiously opened the car doors and climbed out. The sheep and goats were long gone; they were smart enough to avoid a 14,000 foot mountaintop in a thunderstorm! Wind whipped through our summer jackets and numbed our noses. We didn’t stay long. Please imagine the lovely wildlife photos I didn’t get.

Back down we went, and again I tried to ignore the crumbling pavement along the precipitous cliffs. We stopped once more to look for ptarmigan, but had no luck.

SummitLake-MtEvans_CO_LAH_6008We had passed the gardens at Mt. Goliath (part of the Denver Botanic Gardens) on our way up, so we stopped on our way back. The wildflowers were gorgeous, but it started to rain again, so we didn’t stay long. It was also too wet to linger at the hummingbird feeders at the bottom of the toll road.

We did make a final stop at a bridge to look for American Dippers in the stream below. It took a while, but we finally spotted the bird wading in the rushing water. It was hard to see with all the riparian foliage in the way, and the eleven of us crowded along the guard rail, trying to get a peek. Please pretend that I got my turn in front in time to take a photo before the bird flew away.

Not all trips produce the birds and photos we hope to find. Still, it’s hard to beat a day in the Rockies, no matter what we don’t see.

Mountain Plover Photography

Instead of an interesting and informative article on gardening or birding, today I have a shameless advertisement for my photography business, Mountain Plover.

I usually sell my prints and blank cards in person, either at a speaking engagement or at a one of the craft boutiques so prevalent this time of year. However, I’m also happy to ship greeting cards and matted prints anywhere in the United States. (Overseas? Contact me.)

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Fall Photo Fail

lion_zoo-idahofalls-id_lah_8928In an attempt to improve my skills, I’ve signed up for a Wildlife Photography class at our neighboring community college. I have starry-eyed visions of rutting elk, growing grizzlies and other impressively large mammals adorning the paneled walls of our family room, not to mention the pages of Outdoor Photographer or National Geographic.

Our first assignment is to take four photographs of wildlife (defined as including insects, but excluding naked party-goers). I spent all week on this. What have I got to show so far?

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Mid-Summer Abundance

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July is not the best time to go birding. The sweat drips from under your floppy hat and smears the view through your binos, and there’s a puddle soaking your shirt under your sling/backpack/fanny pack. It’s a challenge just carrying enough water to stay hydrated.

The birds aren’t cooperating, either. Most of the males have stopped singing now that they have their mates and their territories. Soon they’ll be molting out of their breeding plumage into something much duller and harder to identify. Some are already thinking about heading south, although they won’t actually leave town for a few more weeks.

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Fieldtrip Re-run

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I’ve gone on this same field trip every year for the past five years. It’s always the first weekend in March. A dozen or so of us follow a series of barely-used back roads out onto the plains, searching for hawks, falcons, and other birds. Some years the snow falls, the wind howls, and the birds hunker on the ground. We see very little. Other years the weather is delightful, and the sky is full of soaring raptors.

The lead car gets the best view. Red-tails and Rough-legged Hawks perch on utility poles, kestrels balance on the wires, and Northern Harriers skim the short-grass prairie. The rest of us eat dust and catch glimpses of the back-ends of startled birds.

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Eagle Days 2011

gyrfalcon_lakepueblosp_lah_5104-1I’ve learned the lesson once again. If you stay home, you won’t get any photos. If you go out, you may still come up empty handed—or you just might be surprised.

The forecast was for snow and cold, but Lake Pueblo State Park was celebrating their 15th Annual Eagle Days. We couldn’t miss that! So I layered a jacket over a sweatshirt over a thin turtle-necked top over long underwear, piled about 30 pounds of camera gear into my pick-up, threw in a ham sandwich, hat, gloves, binos, field guide, and notepad, and headed south.

As I drove through the quiet early morning streets, I eyed the clouds boiling over the mountains to the west. I figured that the odds for getting photos worth keeping were pretty low but at least I’d enjoy the day with some birding friends.

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