Philosophical Musings

The Bridge: Isolating the Subject

Contrast is what makes photography interesting. –Conrad Hall

Great Egret with Shad, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Great Egret with Shad 1, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. The bird was photographed against a shaded patch of water. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Many consider the complete isolation of the subject to be an ideal in photography. This is often accomplished by photographing the subject against a contrasting, clutter-free backdrop using a shallow depth of field. Ironically, the bridge at Fiorenza Park in southwest Houston allows this sort of image to be taken in several different ways. And depending on the direction you shoot near the bridge, you can capture portraits of birds with remarkably clean backgrounds in a variety of colors.

Cormorants and a Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Green Heron, and a Great Blue Heron typically fish around the bridge, and are about the only subjects you’ll find in this area. The waders stand on the bridge and pluck fish from the water. Sometimes they turn around and eat the fish while standing on the bridge. Neotropic Cormorants (and a few Double-crested Cormorants in winter) fish from the water, often emerging with a wriggling fish in their beaks . . . .

Great Blue Heron with Shad, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas.
The Flip: Great Blue Heron with Shad, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 5DIII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). The action is close enough at the bridge to use a full-frame body without fear of not having enough reach. Shot from ground pod across the bridge from the south. Natural light.
Great Egret with Shad, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Great Egret with Shad 2, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. Here the bird was photographed against a brightly illuminated patch of water from south of the bridge. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

I should note that photographing around the bridge presents a number of challenges in addition to the usual ones nature photographers face. Heavy human foot traffic often spooks the birds–but they return quickly. The bridge itself with its white hand railings is an eyesore that you definitely want to keep out of your shots. Because the cormorants often swim beneath the bridge, the action switches from one side to the other. Using a ground pod clearly helps to photographically isolate the birds, but greatly limits mobility leading to missed opportunities when the action shifts to the other side of the bridge. Finally, there is no shade for a photographer working the bridge. I generally shoot in the early morning before it gets too hot, so I will stand on the east side of the bridge with the sun at my back.

Great Egret with Shad, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Great Egret with Shad 3, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. In this case, the background is the cement walkway of the bridge itself. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

In general, a photographer has a number of choices regarding the bridge. They can position themselves on the sidewalk, or north or south of it. If you stand on the sidewalk when a wader grabs a fish and turns around to eat it, you can capture images like the one immediately above. Shooting slightly downward from a tripod, the sidewalk cement makes a uniform backdrop slightly darker than the bird. Shooting from the sidewalk or south of it allows you to capture images like the others in this post.

Sometimes the waders will have shaded or unshaded water behind them leading to dark green or blue backgrounds. I generally photograph cormorants fishing on the south side of bridge form a standing or kneeling posture and capture a wavy background. From a ground pod, you can achieve maximum isolation of the birds, but with the opportunity cost noted above. If you stand north of the bridge you will generally be at a disadvantage–with one exception. When birds fish on the north side they are very close close to the shore, allowing for some really tight shots . . . .

Now, get out there and photograph some birds!

Neotropic Cormorant with Plecostomus, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Neotropic Cormorant with Big “Plecostomus,” Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. This is a low angle shot (kneeling) of a bird at close range. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Neotropic Cormorant with Shad, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Butter Beak: Neotropic Cormorant with Shad, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 5DIII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Shot from ground pod. Natural light.

©2017 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birds in “Good” and “Bad” Light

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. –William Shakespeare

Double-crested Cormorant with Plecostomus, Fiorenza Park, Houston
Double-crested Cormorant with “Plecostomus,” Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. We Texans may be horrified by the proliferation of these South American armored catfish in our waters, but to cormorants that range far to the south, it still feels like home when they’re around. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

l know there is a great diversity of opinion on this subject, but my favorite kind of Texas photo-birding day is the day after a strong blue norther. The howling winds have died down, and the 40º sky is clear, but for a thin haze of cirrus clouds. This kind of day has been in very short supply for several years now.

Neotropic Cormorant with Plecostomus, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Eye to Eye: Neotropic Cormorant with “Plecostomus,” Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. In this shot, the sun was in the wrong position (or rather I was), leading to too much glare from the water and a backlit bird. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Lately the weather has been wildly variable, with clear, cold days rare. This has meant having to make the most of a wide variety of lighting situations. The two cormorant shots above were taken under what I consider to be “bad” conditions. The sky was mostly cloudy with sunbreaks every few minutes leading to having to constantly chimp settings. When the sun emerged, it produced a blinding, muddy-yellow glare off the water’s surface. Because the fishing behavior documented was happening all around me, the sun was sometimes behind and sometimes ahead—making for an exciting morning of work!

Eared Grebe, Offatt's Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas
Ad Noctem: An Eared Grebe Paddles off into the Fog, Offatt’s Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas. I like the way the wake ends at a veil of fog. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Eared Grebe, Offatt's Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas
Eared Grebe, Offatt’s Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas. Perfect light, but not perfect perspective. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Two recent visits to Offatt’s Bayou occurred during very different optical conditions. The upper grebe and loon immediately below were shot on a gloomy, gray, foggy morning. And the lower grebe and loon were shot on the same glorious, clear, bright morning about a week later at the same place.

This shooting locale (where 61st crosses Offfatt’s Bayou) has only recently become accessible again. Where rickety old docks used to stand, there is now a large raised cement viewing/fishing platform. The problem with the new platform is that it is too high, leading to an extreme shooting angle. The old situation was actually better, assuming you were willing to risk falling into the drink to get the shot. Alas, there’s really nothing to be done about the angle now—except to try and capture some interesting wave forms, colors, reflections, or textures from the surface of the water. Sometimes you have to take what you can get! Progress!

Common Loon, Offatt's Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas
Made in the Shade: Common Loon, Offatt’s Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas. It looks like this bird is swimming in mercury. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Common Loon, Offatt's Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas
Transitional Common Loon, Offatt’s Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas. Images from this locale tend to look better from a bit of a distance, given the raised nature of the observation platform. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2017 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Two Shutterbirds Uncensored

Beauty in art is often nothing but ugliness subdued.—Jean Rostand

Alligator with gar, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Red in Tooth and Claw: Alligator with Gar, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Some of the most memorable photographs in history are unflinching documents of the brutality of the world. Think of Matthew Brady’s images of the American Civil War, or Robert Capa’s slightly mis-framed, slightly out-of-focus photo of a falling soldier, shot dead during the Spanish Civil War (Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, 1936). And who can ever forget Nick Ut’s image of a napalm-burned Vietnamese girl running screaming down a road surrounded by scattered refugees and soldiers?

Little Blue Heron with Tadpole, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Little Blue Heron with Tadpole, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Despite the fact that many images of waders hunting amphibians depict clean “takes,” the process of spearing and eating a frog is usually a messy business. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Nature, like war, offers up some dark and grisly images. As one who is interested in photographing birds, especially waders, in the act of hunting, I often witness and document violent and bloody scenes. Waders, after all, are stone-cold killers. If a sequence of images is taken, a few images are usually relatively tame–the ones I present to friends, or in talks–or on this site. Often, there are others, typically not shared, with jets of blood and streamers of entrails. Is it not right to share these images, too?

Molting Northern Cardinal with Weevil, near Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Molting Northern Cardinal with Large Mashed Weevil, near Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. This bird made a real mess of a great big black weevil. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Similarly, photographers tend to avoid birds in molt or with injuries, diseases, and deformities. But the more time one spends in the field, the more of these not-so-pretty pictures of nature emerge. Of course, these images may have value as documents of the current state of affairs in a particular place or the world in general.

Green-tailed Towhee with Bumblefoot(?), Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Green-tailed Towhee with Bumblefoot(?), Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. A beautiful sparrow miles outside its range, this bird appears to have, sadly, bacterially-infected feet. There is a story here. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

And where nature photographers should document unflinchingly is where they observe the continued degradation and destruction of nature at the hand of man, whether through direct action or through the actions of human-introduced species. Who knows, it may make a difference.

Black Vultures with Feral Hogs, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Black Vultures with Feral Hogs, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Feral hogs are rooting invasives introduced by humans. They wreak havoc wherever they go. Exhibit A: Here stands a nasty mud-wallow where once stood a charming little island. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2017 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

ID Bracelets: For the Birds?

What gets measured, gets managed. —Peter Drucker

Banded Male White-tailed Ptarmigan in Breeding Plumage, Trail at Medicine Bow Curve, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS. Natural light.
Banded Male White-tailed Ptarmigan in Breeding Plumage, Trail at Medicine Bow Curve, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS. Natural light.

Do the leg bands on my subjects ruin the shots for you? Me, I’m on the fence. Generally, Chris and I like to capture an idealized view of nature. We travel to state and national parks, wildlife refuges and nature preserves. We try to avoid shots that include fences, telephone poles, signs and roads. We like our birds au natural.

Nature provides a necessary respite from the human hustle—an escape from the man-made. Perhaps its true for you, too. Alas, the escape is an illusion. Even if we agree that humans are not the center of life on earth, we can’t deny that our influence is all but ubiquitous. How I crave those vistas without a trace of mankind—hard to find when you live in a metropolis. But, peering at the world through a camera lens takes me there. I suspend disbelief with a world view framed by the viewfinder and the silent still images that result.

So, when your subject sports a leg band, it kinda bursts the bubble.

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, Sandia Crest, New Mexico
Banded Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, Sandia Crest, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Many agencies and organizations use bird leg bands for tracking purposes. For example, U.S. federal agency bands are for birds covered by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and state and provincial bands are for game birds (Galliformes). These banding programs are the reason we know what we know about the timing and scale of migration. Some agency programs, such as the North American MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) Program, also produce data on the abundance, survivorship, and ecology of our continental land birds so the conservation community can better address conservation needs.

Banded Female Mountain Bluebird, "The Tree," Upper Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Banded Female Mountain Bluebird, “The Tree,” Upper Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Chris and I sometimes romanticize the idea of time-traveling to the Pleistocene Epoch and experiencing the world at the dawn of man—before we altered the environment so discriminately in our favor. But here we are, in the Anthropocene, deeply intertwined with so many of our fellow species. And, unlike our fellow species, we know what we do. Conservation science through bird banding places our best foot forward to mitigate some of the damage, or at least learn how to considerately coexist.

So, putting aside all fantasies of a better past, I am compelled to celebrate these unwitting research subjects. They carry a burden for their well being—and so must we.

Banded Female Wilson's Plover, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Banded Female Wilson’s Plover, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2017 Elisa D. Lewis and Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Keep an Open Mind About Photo-birding Locations

Sometimes we feel the loss of a prejudice as a loss of vigor. –Eric Hoffer

Wood Duck Pair, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Mated Wood Duck Pair, Botanic Garden, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/300mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

There is no question that human influence has penetrated into just about every corner of the world. To get to a truly wild place, one would have to go the ends of the earth. That said, the level of “wildness” encountered while out photo-birding falls along a continuum. Rarely, we are able to get to fairly remote and wild places (e.g., Gila Wilderness). But like many, we generally find ourselves going to national wildlife refuges, national and state and city parks, bird sanctuaries, and so on because that’s what resources allow. In these places, the birds are somewhat used to humans and may allow approaches closer than one would normally expect in the real wilds.

Northern Shoveler Drake, Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Refuge City Park, Corpus Christi, Texas
Northern Shoveler Drake, Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Refuge City Park, Corpus Christi, Texas. At this park, the ducks are perhaps a bit more tolerant of humans than they should be. But still, one false move or a step too close, and they’re gone. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

On the other hand, in some of these quasi-wild places the birds are less tolerant of people than expected or what is natural. Think about wildlife refuges that allow hunting. In some of these places, we’ve had birds flee at the first sight of us—often from a great distance. In the past, in some truly wild places, the animals have been completely naive, allowing humans to walk right up to them an dispatch them. On some remote islands this is still the case.

On a recent visit to the City of Albuquerque Botanic Garden during the middle of the day, we were delighted to find an associated pond with a variety of waterfowl, including Wood Ducks, Canada Geese, Ring-necked Ducks, American Wigeons, and Mallards. Some of these species are typically shy, at least around the Texas Gulf Coast. On the off chance we see Wood Ducks at Brazos Bend or Anahuac NWR, for instance, they are off in a flash. Used to being around humans (and perhaps hoping for a handout) the Albuquerque ducks paddled right up to us. As in the “wild,” the American Wigeons were still distrustful of humans and generally kept their distance, though.

Realizing that in an hour or two the light would be beautiful, we went back to the car and got our gear. For the next few hours we blazed away and collected some nice images. Is this nature photography? Probably not. Technically, these are still wild birds—or wildish birds. In a world of ever-dimishing nature, sometimes you have to take what you can get.

Wood Duck Drake, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Wood Duck Drake, Botanic Garden, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/300mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2017 Elisa D. Lewis and Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Looking for Something Special (in a Shot)

Listen in time
Taken so high
To touch, to move
Listen to life —”Going for the One” by Jon Anderson (as recorded by Yes)

White Ibis with Muddy Face, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Lookin’ for Mud-bugs: White Ibis with Muddy Face, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Ibises plunge their bills right up to the eyebrows into crawfish burrows. This image clearly shows the extent of this bird’s probing. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

I was highly flattered when long-time friend M.P. wrote to me saying that he thought there was something special in just about every one of my images. Thinking about it, I guess that’s what I have been trying to achieve, even if it was often being done subconsciously.

Calling Great Blue Heron, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend Stgate Park, Texas
I Object! Calling Great Blue Heron, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. I was hoping this bird would start on a siren hunt, but instead it started calling when another Great Blue flew past. I see (and hear) Great Blue Herons calling occasionally, but usually in flight. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Because we work, we can’t travel as often as we’d like. We generally frequent the same half-dozen local birding sites again and again. This is good and bad. I’m not seeing the species diversity I’d like, but it forces me to look for those special little behaviors that really provide insights into avian lives.

I’m willing to sit and watch a bird for hours if I suspect that it will do something that not seen in many images. Feeding, singing, calling and courtship rituals provide many of these special moments.

Blue-winged Teal with Strand of Algae, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas.
It’s Green and Gooey, and it’s What’s for Lunch: Blue-winged Teal with Strand of Algae, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

There are so many photographers out there these days, the chances of catching something unique are slim. But documenting scenes slightly out of the ordinary is very doable, even for someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to spend in the field. Perhaps someday I’ll have time to really go for the one.

Neotropic Cormorant in Flight withCatfish, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Crunchy on the Outside: Neotropic Cormorant in Flight with Armored Catfish, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. I will happily stand on a hill at Fiorenza Park for hours waiting for a bird with a fish to fly past—especially if the fish is weird! Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x). Natural light.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Kiss Summer Goodbye, Already

When I go to a party, nobody says hello. But when I leave, everybody says goodbye. –George Gobel

Hunting Least Sandpiper, lagoon behind Bryan Beach, Texas
Last Shot of the Swelter: Hunting Least Sandpiper, lagoon behind Bryan Beach, Texas. It was a real trick keeping trash out of images this day. As far as I can tell, Texas beaches have never been filthier than this summer. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Last weekend we were on our knees on a hot, humid mudflat getting chewed up by sandflies photographing Least Sandpipers as they plucked insect larvae from the sand–when it started to pour warm rain. I looked up to see blue skies overhead. Noting the trajectory of the rain drops, I noticed that they were being blown at about a 45 degree angle from a small gray cloud coming up behind us from the Gulf. Geez. One good thing: We’re likely not far enough south to contract leishmaniasis from the fly bites!

Singing Dickcissel, Cheyenne Bottoms, Kansas
Summer Songster: Singing Dickcissel, Cheyenne Bottoms, Kansas. Birdsong is one of the true joys of summer. Canon EOS 50D/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. Hand-held. Natural light.

Elisa beat me back to the truck. Once I got there, we mopped off the equipment with my handkerchief. We sat there, in silence, grimy and soggy with rain and sweat. And then, suddenly, I announced that I was finally done for the summer . . . . I will return to the field only after the the first blue norther, maybe in a week or two (or three).

Summer has many wonders: singing, nesting, and baby birds, flowers, and zillions of cool insects. But enough is enough. Texas, you finally beat me.

Canada Gosling, Jackson, Wyoming
Canada Gosling, Jackson, Wyoming. Wyoming is paradise in summer. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (1.4x TC). Natural light.

A friend who has long since retired and moved from Houston to the hills of Tennessee explained why September is the most trying month in Texas. He found it tough looking at the news and seeing the cooling temperatures and changing colors of the leaves up north—when it is still 95 degrees in the shade here. Houston summers, though, give a great excuse for travel!

Young Yellow-headed Blackbird, Jackson, Wyoming
Female Yellow-headed Blackbird, Jackson, Wyoming. In summer, the marshes of cool temperate North America come to life. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

In about a month, there will be a few nice days per week. In two months, it will be nice almost all the time. In three months . . . I will be in love with Texas again.

Weevil, Lake Livingston Sgate Park, east Texas
Jack Frost Says Your Days Are Numbered: Blue Green Citrus Root Weevil (Pachaeus litus), Lake Livingston State Park, East Texas. Elisa captured the above image of this weird little character. Charming, but . . . these guys are pests. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8 L IS Macro. Natural light.

©2016 Elisa D. Lewis and Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

With a Whimper

Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass . . . . —T.S.Eliot, The Hollow Men

Brewer's Blackbird, Shell Mound Park, Dauphin Island, Alabama
In Shadow: Brewer’s Blackbird, Shell Mound Park, Dauphin Island, Alabama. Brewer’s Blackbirds are tolerant of humans and their activities. Perhaps they will survive the unfolding anthropogenic mass extinction. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

I think I once read that T.S. Eliot, when asked if he would again write his poem’s famous last lines about the end of the world, replied that he would not have written a word. His rationale being that victims of aerial bombing during the Blitz never heard a thing before impact . . . . If the story’s not true, it should be.

Perhaps it’s because of working on my other website (trilobiteseas.com) that deals with an entirely extinct group, perhaps it’s because of what I keep seeing (and hearing) in the field while photo-birding, but I’ve got the end of the world on my mind. Of course, as humans in the early 21st Century, we’re experiencing the end of a world, not the end of the world. Without getting into the semantics of to whether humans are part of nature or not, the world that is ending is the natural biosphere, and it is ending with a whimper, not a bang. Songbird populations are collapsing everywhere, and human fingerprints are on their demise.

Cape May Warbler on Bottlebrush Tree, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama
Male Cape May Warbler on Bottlebrush Tree, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama. Bottlebrush is an Australian plant. Birds around the world love them, but are we harming birds and other aspects of the environment in ways we don’t understand by offering up such weird food sources? Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Fact is, wherever I go in the Lower Forty-eight, I am hard-pressed to find a completely natural scene.

Always there is the hand of man. Roads, trash, roadkills, and everywhere invasive plants and animals brought in by humans. A colleague at work who is quite knowledgeable about wildlife recently showed me some images of birds from her backyard feeders–because she had never seen anything like some of the birds before. They were Scaly-breasted Munias, exotics introduced into Texas from Asia. Those birds were eating someone else’s lunch!

While driving through southwest Oregon recently I saw weird, huge, orange flowers growing by the side of the road. What in the hell are those? I thought. Turns out they were red hot poker plants. Like the Bottlebrush, this plant is a big favorite of birds . . . in southern Africa where they come from! Perhaps some North American bird species will find a use for them.

If you want to get bummed out, read birding accounts from the 1950’s . . . .

Red Hot Poker Plant, Southwest Oregon
Red Hot Poker Plant (Kniphofia sp.), Southwest Oregon. The orange “petals” inflate into Digitalis-like flowers. I was taken aback the first time I saw this plant in the wild. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. Natural light.

Man’s deleterious influence on the wild is always, always moving inexorably ahead altering and killing as it goes. Cars, buildings, cats, windmills . . . all slaughtering birds in the billions. Introduced invasives are replacing natives all around us. And although some of the introduced plants and animals are pretty, the havoc they’re causing in ecosystems isn’t!

What should we do? What, if anything, can we do?

Crow, Cape Arago, Oregon
American Crow, Cape Arago, Oregon. Crows, like grackles, pigeons, and starlings, get along fine with humans. They probably have a bright future. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Reflections on the Impending End of Summer

Is there a reason for today?
Is there a reason for today?
Do you remember? –Gail Collins/Felix Pappalardi, “World of Pain” (as recorded by Cream)

Bathing Western Gull, Oregon
Bathing Western Gull, Sunset Bay State Park, Oregon. This bird was bathing in big waves as they came rolling in. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

As I write this, I have less than a week remaining of my summer vacation. As a teacher, I, of course, look forward to summer every year. The two-and-a-half months off give us a chance to travel, and me a chance to get caught up on house repairs and maintenance. I usually go into summer with a long list of things to accomplish, and I’m lucky if half gets done. The prospect of being able to go out every day photographing plants and animals is exciting. But usually after about a month or so of shooting frequently, the grind of the Texas heat starts to take the edge off the enthusiasm at bit, productivity trails off, and I start to long for the first blue norther of fall.

Briza maxima (greater quaking-grass), Oregon
Briza maxima (greater quaking-grass), Coos Bay, Oregon. This lovely plant is native to southern Europe, western Asia, and north Africa, among other places—but not North America. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS. Natural light.

Summers off for students and teachers is a holdover from an agrarian past. Objectively, summer off is obsolete, and I would love to see the school calendar changed. Nine months of instruction is fine (unless you want to expand content, but no one but the most hard-core AP teachers want that), but summer vacation should be at most a month long lest student knowledge and skills tank. The additional time should be distributed throughout the year—longer mini-vacations in fall, winter, and spring. Of course, as a birder it would be wonderful to be able to travel to see major birding hotspots at the proper time of the year. Big Bend for Colima Warblers in May, anyone? Cape May for waterfowl in November? Anyone? Remember: The birds always decide when it’s the right time to be somewhere.

Bank Swallow, Oregon
Bank Swallow, Nesika Beach Bank Swallow Colony, near Gold Beach, Oregon. It takes some effort to see this colony: A half-mile hike through deep sand is required. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

During this summer, like every other one, I tried to cram as many new experiences as I could into available time. As the clock runs out, I always ask myself: Was the time as well-used as it could have been? The answer is almost always a resounding no. But as a life-long learner, that failure gives something to aspire to next time.

Snowy Plover, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Male Snowy Plover (Breeding) at Dawn, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Snowy Plovers are “declining” and classified as “near threatened.” We saw them for the first time on Galveston Island this summer. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Black Terns, East Beach jetty, Galveston Island, Texas
Black Terns (Transitional) at Dawn, near East Beach jetty, Galveston Island, Texas. Black Terns are classified as “vulnerable” and a real treat wherever you find them. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Trilobites: A Shutterbird Launches a New Website

Why has not anyone seen that fossils alone gave birth to a theory about the formation of the earth, that without them, no one would have ever dreamed that there were successive epochs in the formation of the globe? –Georges Cuvier

Phacops speculator, Devonian Period, Morocco
“Phacops speculator,” Devonian Period, Morocco. Could the pebbly exoskeletal surface texture has have helped conceal this animal in a sandy paleoenvironment? Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/4L IS Macro. High-speed synchronized macro ring-flash.

Readers of Two Shutterbirds may know me as an obsessed photo-birder who traipses around the country doing his best to master his birds and bird photography. A few of my readers know that before my ornithology obsession, I was an obsessed fossil-nut who traipsed around the country (often with Elisa, too!) hunting for fossils, especially trilobites, trying to learn how these fascinating creatures lived their lives so many millions of years ago.

I have enjoyed our Two Shutterbirds blog so much and have felt it has lead to so much personal growth in ornithological knowledge and photographic capability, I have decided to take a similar approach with trilobites. It has been years since I have thought seriously about these creatures, and I hope preparing articles about and taking photographs of trilobites, as well as corresponding with whomever chooses to write me on this topic, will get me back into the trilo-world. So, without further ado, I launch Trilobiteseas.com: Paleobiology of a Paleozoic Icon for the Collector and Enthusiast with a new article, Cryptic Strategies in Trilobites. Enjoy!

Just to reassure: Devoted twoshutterbirds.com readers should not fret. My trilobitic escapades should in no way hinder the flow of bird-related images and prose. Cheers!

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Photo-birding Serendipity

Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.—Louis Pasteur

Photo-birding Rufous Hummingbird in Flight
Rufous Hummingbird in Flight, Franklin Mountains State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4c TC). High-speed synchronized flash.

Pasteur’s brilliant and famous expression above (“Chance favors the prepared mind” in streamlined English translation) is undoubtably one of life’s great truths. Ultimately, seeing a particular bird species or avian behavior is a matter of chance. In all the singular sightings of difficult-to-see species (Tropical Parula, Red-faced Warbler, Clay-colored Robin, Black Rail, etc) that I’ve made, I realize that had I been looking in a slightly different direction for a fraction of a second, I would have missed the bird entirely. But being in the right place at the right time to even have a possibility of making the observation in the first place is decidedly a matter of preparation (and effort), not chance.

Photo-birding Immature Golden-fronted Woodpecker with Giant Walkingstick, Estero Llano Grande State Park, Texas
Immature Golden-fronted Woodpecker Tearing Apart a Giant Walkingstick (Megaphasma dentricus), Estero Llano Grande State Park, Rio Grande Valley, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Photographing birds is even more subject to the vagaries of chance than simply seeing birds. A passing cloud, a wind gust, a stray blade of grass in front of the subject, stepping in a hole or ant nest, or getting stung in face by a nasty bug at the precise moment a shutter should have been activated can all doom a photo that, a fraction of a second before, held great promise. The fact that rare, unpredictable natural events can be captured at all is sometimes a matter of some amazement to me given the difficulty of the problem. I think, for example, that after thousands of hours of photo-birding I’ve seen birds eating walkingsticks a total of three times in my life, and, incredibly, I was able to photograph it each time! On the other hand, I’ve never captured a single decent image of some species of birds I’ve seen dozens of times!

Photo-birding Reddish Egret, Bryan Beach, Texas
Canopy-fishing Reddish Egret with Beak Breaking the Surface, lagoon behind Bryan Beach, Texas. Surprisingly, to me at least, Reddish Egrets keep their eyes open during the impact with water. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

From time-to-time, I talk with photographers who have quit trying to photograph birds, or are at least considering quitting. They cite the difficulty and not getting any good results. What they seem to be hoping for is serendipity, or at least great good fortune. But after slogging through swamps and jungles, being pelted by rain and blasted by the sun from deserts to plains and mountain-tops, and shooting tens of thousands of images, I’ve started to doubt that serendipity or even good luck is much of a factor in photo-birding. I think that there are only drive and statistics. If you want some bird photos, then clear your calendar, break out the sunscreen and bug repellent, and get out there and photograph some birds (and enjoy the process)!

Photo-birding Gull with Needlefish, Hans and Pat Suter City Wildlife Park, Corpus Christi, Texas
Laughing Gull (Nonbreeding) with Needlefish, Hans and Pat Suter City Wildlife Park, Corpus Christi, Texas. Elisa recorded this interaction at dusk one Thanksgiving. I’ve never seen one of its kind again. I’ll keep looking. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Reversed-lens Macrophotography with Legacy Glass

Nostalgia is not what it used to be.–Simone Signoret

My father had an interest in German optics and occasionally used a twin-lens medium format Rolleiflex with Carl Zeiss lenses at work. He also had a Rollei SL35 (with Schneider-Kreuznach glass) and a Leica R8 of his own. I inherited his camera equipment last year. A few years ago, Elisa also inherited some nice old Canon equipment from her grandfather. With my collection of old Contax/Yashica stuff, we now have access to a variety of quality glass from the 70’s through the present available for reversed-lens work.

Purple Pea Flower, Houston, Texas
Henbit Dead-nettle Flowers (Lamium amplexicaule), Houston, Texas. Flowers of this invasive are approximately 90mm tall. Canon EOS 7DII/reversed Carl Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 Planar/Canon 600 EX-RT flash in strong natural light. Hand-held.

Oklahoma artist Thomas Shahan has achieved some spectacular results with pretty modest equipment, namely a Pentax DSLR and old manual focus lenses mounted in reverse on extension tubes for macrophotography. Inspired by Shahan’s work, I’ve started experimenting with old glass, rigged for macro.

My recent tentative macrophotography experiments have involved reversing old lenses with an adapter, Fotodiox or Promaster. These adapters are available from Amazon for about ten bucks. This reversal process essentially turns a short focal length lens (in the normal range) into a powerful macro lens.

Disappointingly, my dad’s Leica 90mm f/2 Summicron-R will not form a focused image on a Canon EOS 7DII when reversed. The focal length is likely too long. In contrast, my old Contax/Yashica-mount Carl Ziess (Japan) 50mm f/1.4 Planar from the 90’s worked very well reversed (for both Elisa and me). Likewise, I had Elisa’s grandfather’s Canon FL 55mm f/1.2 from the 70’s taking pretty nice images in a matter of minutes—but the Planar has a slightly greater depth of field. Incidentally, along the way I thought I had a brilliant idea by buying an inexpensive ($35) LED video lighting panel for outdoor macro work, but it simply is not bright enough. I went back to flash.

Hemipteran with parasitic mite, Houston, Texas
Hemipteran with Parasitic Mite(?), Houston, Texas. This bug is about 3 cm long. Canon EOS 7DII/reversed Canon FL 55mm f/1.2/Canon 600 EX-RT flash in strong natural light. Hand-held.

As an informal comparison, I also shot some images of similar-sized objects (from a few millimeters to just under a centimeter) under identical conditions with our 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro plus 12mm extension tube II. The 100mm Macro is, of course, easier to use with autofocus and metering. My sense is that the Planar, despite being almost twenty five years old is very sharp and has better color than the 100mm f/2.8 L Canon Macro. It also produces a dreamy, Leica-like quality not present in any of the other lenses.

On the other hand, the Canon 100mm is a really nice lens and a real workhorse with great functionality over a range of sizes and distances. If I needed to get a shot, it’s what I would reach for. The Planar, however, seems to have potential for making some really gorgeous images, albeit with lots of effort and trial and error. The results with the Planar were encouraging enough for me to order a Fotodiox reverse adapter for my dad’s old Rollei Schneider 50mm f/1.8 from the 70’s. We’ll see.

In our throw away society, it’s nice to find a way to use and derive unique benefit from some “obsolete” technology. Can’t wait for the warm buggy and flowery Texas weather! With lots of practice I hope I can at least get in the same ball park as Mr. Shahan.

Buttercup, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Buttercup (Ranunculus sp.), Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. These flowers are quite small: perhaps 2.5 cm across the petals. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro (+12mm extension tube II). Natural light. Hand-held.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.