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Friday, January 20, 2012

Learning DSLR photography

So, I recently acquired a Canon 60D, a 300mm f/4 IS Canon lens, and 1.4 converter. However, I had basically no idea how to use it when I got it. Goal was to learn as quickly as possible, and to get to a point where I have a really nice backlog of copyright free materials at my disposal, and perhaps to start scoring some nice flight shots of birds unlike anything I could do with digiscoping gear.

I am still quite terrible, but I have made enough mistakes that I am beginning to get it, I think. When I was shooting the Purple Sandpiper in a previous post, I was forced to use f5.6 (the largest aperture possible with the 1.4 converter) because of the low light conditions. Little dd I realize that a bird at the close extreme of my focal distance, that the face and wing would not ever be in focus together. Will try not to make that mistake again next time! Perhaps I should have removed the converter and attempted a smaller aperture to allow a greater depth of field and still accomodate a good shutter speed at such low light?

Here are a few shots I have taken recently which are getting slightly better, though I still find myself unhappy with essentially every shot that comes off my memory card. This is going to be a long process!

White-breasted Nuthatch, one of my favorites I've taken yet:
Rare wintering White-throated Sparrow at Richmond Park in Grand Rapids
Black-capped Chickadee (VERY tough to photograph!)
Red-tailed Hawk
I find photography extremely difficult. Perhaps I am not alone?

Monday, January 9, 2012


It has been quite amazing to see that White-winged Crossbills seem to invade the south every winter now, at least in small numbers. They have done so each winter since 2008/2009 when we had the largest invasion in recent decades. While searching for Red Crossbill at local cemeteries this weekend I had what I am almost sure was a Type 1 or Type 2 Red Crossbill fly over, giving the 'toop' call rather than the standard 'tik-tik'. It gave the note 3 times spaced out by 2 seconds+ each time, then was never heard again. It did not land, apparently. Here is the checklist for that day:

So today I returned to check if the putative Red Crossbill might put in another appearance. It didn't, though Randy Vandermolen and I were able to score some awesome closeup experience with a flock of 6 White-winged Crossbills. They clearly preferred the smaller spruce cones (not sure of species, but the cones were 1/3 the length of Norway Spruce cones). Enjoy:

White-winged Crossbills, Elmwood Cemetery, Cedar Springs, MI, January 9, 2012White-winged Crossbills, Elmwood Cemetery, Cedar Springs, MI, January 9, 2012

And finally, here is the checklist from today:

and a hugely valuable resource for those of us wanting to learn the differing vocalizations, bill sizes, and tree preferences of the various types of Red Crossbills:

Saturday, January 7, 2012

It's NOT a misnomer after all

There aren't too many occasions where a relatively common species that I know well produces a revelation. But not only did this happen to me today, it also happened to a compadre of mine with me at the time. Someone sporting a roughly equal resume of bird experience and study.

Let's back up for a second. Ever wonder why Red-bellied Woodpeckers are named as such? Why aren't they called Red-crowned Woodpecker? You not only never see red underneath, and the first thing you notice when you see the bird is the red on the top of the head. So what gives? The answer has to do with the fact that the folks who named them didn't observe them in the field so much as in the museum drawer. And in the museum drawer, birds are laid out on their backs, so that the belly of the bird is what you see when you open the tray. Sure enough, Red-bellied Woodpeckers do have a red belly patch, but it is not something you'll ever see in the field unless you go way out of your way to look for it. There are plenty of other species for which I've always considered the common name to be a misnomer or at least a strange choice, including: Ring-necked Duck (how about Ring-billed Duck?), Blue-winged Warbler (c'mon, there is no blue there), Orange-crowned Warbler (who ever really sees the orange?), Purple Finch (Rose Finch?), etc.

So another bird I'd always considered a member of this list was Purple Sandpiper. Despite the cool name, all of my efforts to establish that "surely this name must have some merit: there must be SOME purple somewhere on this bird" were unsuccessful. Furthermore, I've never even heard anybody say to me that it actually does have it. So it was with a fairly great shock that I looked at my fresh closeup photos of 7 Purple Sandpipers at Pere Marquette Park in Muskegon MI only to see a fairly bright purple iridescence!! Exhibit:

Purple Sandpiper, Muskegon MI, January 7, 2011
And that ain't no pseudo-purple. That is the real deal. Yes, it is clearly an iridescence as opposed to a pigmentation, but wow! Skye and I were totally blown away by this. The coloration is visible on at least the tertials, scapulars, mantle, proximal wing coverts, and even on the crown (!). Here are the other best views of this:

Purple Sandpiper, Muskegon MI, January 7, 2011

Purple Sandpiper, Muskegon MI, January 7, 2011

Purple Sandpiper, Muskegon MI, January 7, 2011

It is really neat to finally know, after all these years, that the Purple Sandpiper really is purple... Who knows what I'll learn next.

(and oh yeah, here is the eBird complete checklist for the site: