Philosophical Musings

‘Tis the Season to be (Watching) Nesting

What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.—Werner Heisenberg

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron nestlings at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Watching the Watcher: Yellow-crowned Night-Heron Nestlings at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. A parent hunted crawfish about twenty yards from this nest. From time to time the adult would return to regurgitate food into the nest. The second catchlights are the reflection of the sun off the water below the nest. Natural light. All photos Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC).

Photographing nesting birds has many of the challenges of other types of bird photography–and a few of it’s own. On the technical side, nests are typically made of sticks (although not always) so nest shots often have the “stick-in-face” problem–like the image shown above. Many bird species also nest well above eye-level in trees, so, short of going to extraordinary lengths, you’re not going to get any good nest shots of many species. More significant, though, are the ethical concerns that come up in the course of nest photography.

Once you’ve found a nest, you know where to look for the action. There’s no chasing birds around in the brush! At first, this seems like this will make for getting great photographic results easily. A little consideration, however, reveals that this is decidedly not the case.

Normally when photographing birds one tries to get as close as possible. If the bird becomes annoyed it will simply fly (or run) off. Obviously nestlings can not flee, so the photographer or observer must use personal discipline to keep an ethical distance. And the duration of the observation must also be taken into account. Unless I’m somewhere like Smith Oaks where the birds are used to being observed all day long by large numbers of observers, after a few minutes of shooting, I’m on my way. Furthermore, although there is no evidence that the use of flash injures wildlife, it is logical that it should not used on nesting birds lest parents and young birds be unduly stressed.

Great Egret feeding young at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Great Egret Feeding Young at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Natural light.

One last philosophical point: We must concede that most of the time we do not really know how birds behave in their natural state. If we are observing them (and their perceptions are much sharper than ours), then they know we are watching and are likely behaving accordingly. Ironically, then, it would seem that places like Smith Oaks where many thousands of birders visit during the nesting season may provide the most “natural” viewing experience as birds simply learn to tune out the human throng completely and go about their business.

Roseate Spoonbill Nestling at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Roseate Spoonbill Tending Nest with Nestling at Smith Oaks Rookery, high Island, Texas. Natural light.

As far as I can judge, not much good can be done without disturbing something or somebody.—Edward Blake

©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Transitioning Back into Summer Mode: Hunting Waders with a Camera

Great Egret Nestlings at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Pure Id: Great Egret Nestlings at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. These guys are all about lunch. Natural light. All photos Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC).

Now that spring migration, the most exciting time of the birding year, is almost over, I have to seek adventure where I can find it. This often involves chasing waders around at Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP) as they hunt. Of course, a few of the spring (and summer) spectacles are still playing out–like the frenzy of nesting, breeding, and nurturing young observable at the coastal rookeries. Photographing this profusion of life-energy will be mosquito-bloodied interludes in my late spring and summer studies of wader feeding behaviors at BBSP.

Little Blue Heron with little crawfish at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Little Blue Heron with Little Crawfish at Pilant Lake, BBSP, Texas. High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Although I’ve only been out to BBSP a few times recently, one thing already seems evident: 2014 is shaping up as the Year of the Crawfish. Despite hearing lots of frog song and even seeing lots of frogs jump when alligators move around, I haven’t been seeing waders eating frogs. But crawfish are being gobbled down left and right! Why are frogs not on the menu? Have I just missed them being eaten? Will wader tastes change with the summer?

White Ibis in breeding color with crawfish at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
White Ibis in Breeding Color with Big Juicy Crawfish at Pilant Lake, BBSP, Texas. Natural light.

This is one of the eternal joys of birding: new observations that lead to questions and more questions. Sorting out (or at least attempting to) why some types of prey proliferate some years while others are scarce is an ongoing research problem. Some years there are spiders (terrestrial or aquatic) everywhere and are eaten by hungry birds, and some years there are frogs and tadpoles everywhere and are grabbed, but sometimes rejected. But if you travel this path beware: you may find yourself reading articles about fungal infections of spiderlings or how winter water temperatures affect crawfish populations or . . . you get the idea.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron with little crawfish at Pilant lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron with Little Crawfish at Pilant Lake, BBSP, Texas. Natural light.

Familiar things happen, and mankind does not bother about them. It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.—Alfred North Whitehead

 ©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Where Have All the Red-winged Blackbirds Gone?

Female Red-winged Blackbird at Myakka River State Park, Florida
Female Red-winged Blackbird in winter at Myakka River State Park, Florida. Many references state that Red-winged Blackbirds are one of the most abundant birds in North America. But is this still really true? Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

A sighting of two female Red-winged Blackbirds eating cautiously from the seed feeders at the Edith L. Moore Sanctuary in west Houston on the afternoon of February 27 reminded me of what I saw recently in the north woods of Wisconsin and Minnesota. These suspicious birds were likely hungry migrants on their way north, to perhaps the very same Great Lakes region habitats I visited last summer.

After that trip, I wrote about ecological changes I observed  birding the woods of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. One of those changes was an apparent drastic reduction in the number of Red-winged Blackbirds in a variety of habitats relative to what I remembered from childhood. Rather than large flocks in cattail marshes and around the margins of lakes and rivers, I saw only scattered small groups of fewer than ten birds.

In 2009 APHIS, part of USDA, says it poisoned 489,444 red-winged blackbirds in Texas, and 461,669 in Louisiana.—Martha Rosenberg,

Further reading after these observations substantiated impressions of massive population losses. Ever since that time, I have kept an eye out for these birds wherever possible. I am aware, however, that reports based on anecdotal evidence will likely convince no-one, especially those with a vested interest in denial.

Singing Male Red-winged Blackbird at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas.
Singing Male Red-winged Blackbird in winter at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The “famous” taxpayer-supported USDA program of mass poisoning of icterids (blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds) and other agricultural pest species like magpies and European Starlings called “Bye bye blackbird”  is probably just the tip of the iceberg of officially sanctioned avian extermination. I say famous because this is a well-known program widely reported on in the blogosphere—but never (to my knowledge) in the really “big time” popular media outlets, the ABC Evening News or the PBS Newshour, for example. (Sidebar: Why is this? Why must we look only to elite publications like Audubon’s  “Common Birds in Decline” or National Geographic ‘s “Last Song for Migrating Birds” for reports of the destruction of the environment and the slaughter of its innocents? I guess it would take time away from reports of Justin Bieber’s latest brush with the law and interviews with random passersby about the weather.)

Furthermore, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (part of the Department of the Interior) has issued a directive, a so-called depredation order, that anyone can kill any number of pest birds they suspect of causing economic damage or posing health risks (sometimes with avicides like Starlicide and administered by professional contractors in the form of poisoned brown rice baits). These private activities are perhaps more disturbing than the USDA programs because of the much larger potential scale of the killing–and the USDA kills birds by the millions! In the eyes of the federal government (and many farmers) icterids are apparently vermin of no worth whatsoever—despite detailed agricultural studies showing that as a result of insectivorous blackbirds, farmers can use 50% less pesticide.

For me, the bold, difficult to describe call of the Male Red-winged Black-bird is the sound of a marsh. Males perched atop cattails with females poking around in the brush below is what a marsh is supposed to look and sound like. Should the Red-winged Blackbird go the way of the Passenger Pigeon, marshes across North America will lose some of their most defining characteristics and aesthetic qualities—the experience of visiting a marsh will be immeasurably degraded.

Perhaps the plight of the Rusty Blackbird will focus some more attention on systematic, deliberate avian extermination. Rusty Blackbirds have suffered an estimated 85-98% reduction in population over the past 40 years likely due, in part, to agricultural poisoning by the government and private individuals. The Rusty Blackbird (along with the Mexican Crow) has been removed from the depredation order—at least taxpayers are not paying for the extermination and protection of the same species. Perhaps that’s all we can hope for in the current Age of Dysfunction—although I fail to understand how Rusty Blackbirds and Mexican Crows will be kept from eating the poisoned rice.

Male Great-tailed Grackle at East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
A Male Great-tailed Grackle Intimidates Rivals Over a Seagull Carcass at East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. According to the federal government such birds are vermin and can be killed with impunity. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs.—Joseph Addison, The Spectator

©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Longing for Spring (Sort of)

Great Egret on nest at High Island, Texas
Great Egret Preening over Nest with Eggs at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural Light.

Being from Minnesota, I am usually only reluctantly looking forward to spring in Texas—mainly because the summer swelter soon follows. But this winter, the weather (mostly drizzle, fog, mist, clouds; rain) has been so appalling that I am definitely looking forward to spring more than most years. In addition to watching out for migrants, primarily at the migrant traps like Lafitte’s Cove, High Island, Sabine Woods, etc., we’ll be on the lookout for nesting birds, eggs and babies. And the Texas Gulf Coast is a great place for rookeries . . .

Roseate Spoonbill on nest at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Roseate Spoonbill on Nest at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

One of the best rookeries for observation and photography, of course, is the Smith Oaks Rookery on High Island. I have not been there since buying our 600mm f/4L, though. Some of the nests at Smith Oaks are just a little too far for optimum results with a 500mm lens, so I am looking forward to what can be gained with the extra focal length.

Unfortunately, two problems exist at Smith Oaks: crowding and mosquitos. Although not quite as bad  as a shopping mall the day before Christmas, High Island can be quite crowded and not all birders are quite civilized. Some birders seem insistent that photographers stay in the “designated tripod photography areas, ” while some others feel free to stand around in those areas without taking pictures. In any case, listening to the snarky comments while swatting mosquitos may be amusing. Or not.

Juvenile Reddish Egret near Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Juvenile Reddish Egret near Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. By early summer, there are generally lots of young birds out and about near the many coastal rookeries. Photo taken from a boat. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.—Joseph Campbell

©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Mottled Ducks: Threatened by Man and Nature

Female Mottled Duck at Rockport, Texas
Portrait: Female Mottled Duck at Rockport, Texas. Male and female Mottled Ducks are quite similar looking. Females have an orangish bill (often with varying degrees of black mottling, especially near the base), whereas males tend to have more yellowish bills without black mottles. This female’s bill is relatively free of black mottles. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash.
Male Mottled Duck at Rockport, Texas.
Portrait: Male Mottled Duck. Male Mottled Ducks are sometimes described as having “cleaner” faces than the females. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday we took a short road trip to Corpus Christi and environs, specifically with the hopes of seeing ducks, waders, and shorebirds. At Rockport, Texas I observed a small group of Mottled Ducks hanging around in the shadows under a dock. We see Mottled Ducks from time to time, but seeing these birds up close got me to reading more about them: they are unusual for a number of reasons. These dabblers are rather drab and show little sexual dimorphism relative to some other ducks. They are also non-migratory and reproduce in Southern marshes, rather than at higher latitudes like most other North American ducks.

Their status is of “least concern,” although their estimated numbers are only in the tens of thousands in Texas, a major part of their range. Mottled Ducks do have an unusually limited geographic range, essentially around the Gulf of Mexico, across Florida, and with an introduced population in South Carolina. There are actually two subspecies of Mottled Ducks: Anas fulvigula maculosa (Alabama to Veracruz, Mexico) and A. f. fulvigula (Florida). Numerous references suggest that Mottled Ducks, like many species, are under threat from habitat destruction such as the draining of marshes. Conventional wisdom has it that habitat destruction is more of a threat than human hunting—although seeing internet images of piles of shotgun-blast killed Mottled Ducks leads me to question that. Apparently some duck hunters collect bands, and Mottled Ducks are a heavily banded species (about 5%) thus making them a popular target.

Mottled Ducks are part of the “Mallard complex,” a group of approximately 20 closely-related species and subspecies of ducks. As a result, Mottled Ducks face another unusual challenge: gene flow from feral introduced Mallards. These “pen-raised” released and escapee Mallards generally do not migrate to northern breeding grounds. Naturally sexually aggressive male feral Mallards are interbreeding with local Mottled Ducks, thus undermining the genetic isolation of the latter and producing infertile hybrids. This problem is most significant in Florida, leading some to fear for the extinction of the Florida subspecies, although there are reports of hybrids from other areas, including Texas.

Only time will tell if the relentless crush of human ecological trouble-making will spare these lovely creatures.

Mated pair Mottled Ducks at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas.
Are their best days behind them? Mated Pair of Mottled Ducks at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Male and female Mottled Ducks are easy to tell apart at a distance. In addition to different bill color, females tend to have a darker, more distinct eye-line and sometimes a more distinct black “fleck” just behind and below the eye, which at a distance can almost resemble a tear-drop. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

I want to interpret the natural world and our links to it. It’s driven by the belief of many world-class scientists that we’re in the midst of an extinction crisis… This time it’s us that’s doing it.–Frans Lanting

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Adventures in Macrophotography (or What to do When the Birding is Bad)

Prickly Pear Cactus flower, Balcones, Central Texas
Prickly Pear Cactus Flower, Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, Central Texas. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS macro with high-speed synchronized flash.

My initial interest in macrophotography flowed from my interest in birds. Often, I would see birds eating the fruit or seeds, or even drinking the nectar, of unfamiliar plants. I would then take a few pictures of the fruit or flowers for identification purposes.

This process has been helpful in understanding the habitats and habits of birds, and forced me to learn some macrophotography. It also got me thinking about efficiency and getting the most out of life.

It takes effort to go into the field. Now when no birds are around, rather than think about the day as a waste, I immediately start looking around for other interesting photographic subjects. Although, for me, photographing a flower is not as therapeutic as photographing a warbler, it is still an interesting and valuable exercise in the study of nature.

Witches' Butter fungus (Tremella mesenterica) at Brazos Bend Sate Park, Texas
Witches’ Butter Fungus (Tremella mesenterica) at Brazos Bend Sate Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS macro. Hand-held, high-speed synchronized flash.

Our first efforts in macrophotography utilized an inexpensive Canon 55mm macro (the so-called “compact macro”), and were generally unsuccessful. (Sidebar: Whenever I speak to professional photographers I typically ask for advice, and a common piece of advice is: never buy cheap equipment.) Shortly thereafter we bought the Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS macro which is simply a superb lens, and one of the sharpest around.

After talking with a naturalist and photographer about the importance (nay necessity) of using flash in macrophotography given the intense light requirement of shooting at high f-stops, we bought a ring flash and were off and running. Now when the birds are not out, but there are interesting plants and small, non avian critters around, I fish out the macro and go to work. Once in a blue moon, one has the exciting opportunity to turn a macro lens on a bird–as you can see below.

Juvenile Brown Pelican at Corpus Christy, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. Hand-held, natural light.
Juvenile Brown Pelican at Corpus Christi, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS macro. Hand-held, natural light.

All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my closeup.

–Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard
©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or photos may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding the Future

Pencil drawing of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird by a young artist.
Trepp’s interpretation of my Ruby-throated Hummingbird image. Nature illustration is one of many ways young people express their interest in and curiosity about the natural world.

We don’t often see children out birding. Frankly, as high school teachers, we inked that feature into the “pros of birding” column when we were auditioning feasible hobbies. Children, it seems, neither make happy birders nor birders happy.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeds from a lantana flower cluster at Lafitte's Cove Nature Preserve on Galveston Island, TX.
A Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeds from a lantana flower cluster at Lafitte’s Cove Nature Preserve on Galveston Island, TX. Notice the dusting of pollen on his head
Portrait of Chris Cunningham in pencil by a young artist
Trepp captured Chris discussing our camera set-up during the HANPA April 2013 meeting.

It may seem ironic but, we were pleasantly surprised to see two young visitors to our “Behind the Blog” presentation at the Houston Audubon Nature Photography Association (HANPA) meeting in April. (Willing students are always appreciated!) Brothers Richard and Trepp, eight and six, stayed as long as their bedtime would allow. We were impressed by the quality and depth of their questions and received several wonderful sketches capturing parts of the program. Encouraged by this passionate interest at such a young age, I was reminded that birders need to cultivate the next generation of birders if bird conservation – let alone nature conservation – is to have a future.

Flashback to the late 1990’s when Chris and I lived in Austin: We were the only “kids” in the creek beds during school-term weekends.  We were re-living our childhood–where were the real kids spending theirs? Was this a generational shift to the indoors or a shift born of crime statistics, real and imagined?  My parent friends tell me it was fundamentally the latter. Computer activities were (and presumably still are) the safer option. How do we foster exploration and conservation if the great outdoors needs a chaperone?

It’s up to us. How will you bird the future?


“The future depends on what you do today.”

— Mahatma Ghandi

The Dangers of Birdwatching

I would be interested to learn just how dangerous birdwatching is statistically relative to other hobbies–say rail dragster racing, extreme fighting, or chainsaw juggling. But seriously, from time-to-time major dangers do present themselves. I’ve been in the mountains with lightning bolts dancing around me, and large (or venomous) animals have moved in my direction from time to time. The crack of a nearby hunter’s gunfire has also gathered my attention on several occasions.

Grizzly Bear in the Lamar Valley YNP, Wyoming
Grizzly Bear in the Lamar Valley Sagebrush Country, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Black bears and Grizzly bears can be surprisingly difficult to tell apart. I think this is a young Grizzly given the small, rounded ears, concave face and slight shoulder hump. Also, five minutes before we saw a classic black Black Bear that looked quite different–although not all Black bears in a given area are necessarily similar. I invite comments from anyone who knows better, however. In any case, one should always bring a change of underwear when photographing bears, black or brown.

On the other hand, a host of less dramatic, but real threats await the birder. Poisonous plants like poison ivy and oak can cause significant misery–as can a cactus thorn through the foot. Biting and stinging arthropods may be a significant aspect of being in the field, depending on location. Africanized “killer” bees, lyme disease-carrying ticks, and West Nile virus-carrying mosquitos are not to be scoffed at.

Animals (except man-eaters, typically injured large felids) seem to know that humans are a menace instinctively and flee or keep a safe distance at the approach of man. When an animal does not flee, or even approaches people (especially during daylight hours), one of two things is usually the case: people have been feeding the animal, or it is sick. Rabies, the most terrifying of the zoonotic diseases with its extreme virulence in mammals, is the worst fear. Even the cure is a nightmare.

Sick raccoon near the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston
Not cute, MP: This raccoon is sick. It showed no fear of humans and marched right toward person after person. At first I though people had been feeding it, but the dull, lifeless mucous-encrusted eyes suggested illness, probably canine distemper. Elisa called animal control. Photo taken hand-held with Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS USM under natural light.

As fearsome as some animals can be, the most dangerous animal in the woods is almost always man. It is sometimes difficult to assess just how dangerous any particular human is to other people without access to their rap sheet. Thankfully I have not crossed paths with any truly dangerous individuals (that I know of). I have, however, been made extremely nervous a few times by other humans. This nervousness has led me to acquire a set of walkie-talkies so that I can periodically check on Elisa’s safety (and she on mine).

Gaping alligator at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas Gulf Coast
Gaping Gator: no match for a man with a gun. Alligators are dangerous, no question. But, unlike bears and big cats, I do not fear them. Only one has come after me in the field–and it was my fault. I was standing ankle-deep in a patch of water hyacinth, so engrossed in the birds around me that I missed the submarine threat.

Although birdwatching can be dangerous, the benefits (especially health benefits) clearly outweigh the risks. The minute I step into the field I can feel the stress melt away. By the end of the day the little nagging headache is gone, and I can think clearly–no more of the mental fog, the result of daily trials and tribulations. One old-timer I met on a catwalk across a subtropical forest canopy said: “Go birding, you’ll live longer.” Unless I lose my balance, I thought.

In any case, just like the old joke about the really dangerous part of skydiving being the drive to the airport, I am confident that the real danger in birdwatching lies in getting to the park or sanctuary via our Texas highways.

Bathing Kentucky Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas.
Bathing Kentucky Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Warblers are not dangerous: approach with confidence. Photo taken in a drizzle on a dank, gloomy morning with high-speed synchronized flash.

Human beings are not the natural prey of tigers, and it is only when tigers have been incapacitated through wounds or old age that, in order to live, they are compelled to take to a diet of human flesh.–Jim Corbett, Man-eaters of Kumaon

 ©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Low Quality Encounters with Humans and Security on the Web

Thus far I have avoided discussing the technical aspects of maintaining a bird photography blog site for a number of reasons. I am definitely interested in neither computers nor the Internet per se, being far more excited about ornithology and photography, and only working my way through the technical computer aspects as needed. Teaching myself to use IBM PC’s in the early 1980’s with their ghastly manuals, monochromatic green screens, and volatile storage media (“floppy diskettes”) left an indelible dislike and mistrust of computers. Not being interested in or knowledgeable about computer science, I have usually deferred to Elisa, who is more of a digital native, on many computer matters.

One technical aspect of the blog that I have taken the slight lead on, however, has been in the area of Internet security. Because I live in a major city and work with the public, I see the world as a vaguely hostile spider web of mostly low quality encounters: spammers, panhandlers, handbill passers, junk mailers, telemarketers, litterbugs, maniac drivers, people who bring crying babies and loose dogs to bird sanctuaries, etc., are all around–and they are up to no good! And so it goes on the Internet. Spam and near-spam vastly outnumbers legitimate e-mails just as junk mail vastly outnumbers letters from beloved friends and relatives, hundreds or thousands to one. Thank heavens for robust spam filters!

One of the lowest quality encounters, of course, is the theft of your material. There is no question that if someone wants to steal your images (or flood your site with rubbish e-mails and thus steal your time), then they can. All you can really do is make your material a slightly harder target than the next guy’s. Some easy, common sense techniques to protect your images include:

1) Signing images in the file names (within the theme) as well as on the image itself (in Photoshop or similar program). I reject watermarks as image-destroyers, and adopt the signing philosophy of W. Majoros in his fabulous Secrets of Digital Bird Photographynamely, inconspiculously and stylishly, often blending in places, and in a shade of the local color.

2) Resampling, resizing and web-optimizing (in Photoshop or similar program). Making the file size from about 150 to 250 kB in size allows it to load fairly fast and isn’t high enough resolution to be much worth stealing. If someone wants a higher quality version, then they can ask.

3) Using a right-click disable plug-in. Only people with more than a modicum of computer ability can get around this.

4) Do not link to the image within the theme. This can render some right-click disable programs useless.

5) Copyright notices in every post and page and in the margins at least informs would-be thieves that you care about your material and may fight back.

6) Google yourself from time-to-time to see if anyone has stolen content.

7) Try to maintain a sense of humor.

Muscovy Duck at Hermann Park, Houston
This duck had a low quality encounter with a human: on an otherwise lovely spring morning, a human took his picture. Muscovy Duck Portrait taken at Hermann Park, Houston. Photo taken hand-held with a Canon EOS 7D/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. This image has been resampled, resized, and web-optimized in Photoshop Elements 9 to a size of 205.3 kB. The original file, of course, is many times this size. “Muscovy Duck” is a name that makes no sense and is of obscure origin. Strangely, Muscovy Ducks are native to Mexico and parts of Central and South America (not the Moscow region). Feral and domestic populations are scattered across the U.S. and southern Canada.

“Nature photography is not easy. If it was, then everyone would do it.” –C. Cunningham

© 2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.


New Article: The Rules of Composition

Compositional rules apply to all the arts, and they are critical to producing interesting photographic images. Many rules exist, but a handful are simple and powerful. In this article, I discuss the rules I implement to produce my favorite images of nature.

Sparring American Bison at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Sparring American Bison at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. This image utilizes several major compositional techniques. Rule of thirds: the action (the butting of heads) lies along a vertical and horizontal line about one-third the way from the bottom and right of the frame. Filling the frame: no wasted space. Negative space/background: triangular regions around the animals “point” the way to the action. This was actually a dangerous shot to get. Shortly after this photo was taken, the rest of the herd started pouring into the valley, literally chasing us out. Bison are the most dangerous animals in Yellowstone NP: they injure about three times as many humans as bears do.

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

To Flash or Not to Flash, That is the Question

American Goldfinch at the Edith L. Moore Sanctuary, Houston.
American Goldfinch at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston. American Goldfinches seem to largely ignore flashes–especially if there is significant ambient light. Photo taken with high-speed synchronized flash: Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4 TC)/600EX RT flash.

It took me quite a while to try flash nature photography, and I am still a bit uneasy about my decision to do so. The decision: to use flash on a very limited basis, only when no other technical solution is possible, and when I am sure that the animals are not too upset by it. Some bird photographers consider flash absolutely necessary, and others vehemently reject it. I come down somewhere in the middle, but tending toward rejection in many cases.

To be clear, I know of no evidence that flash photography harms birds–if I did, I wouldn’t use flash. Period. We have all had our pictures taken with flash, and I know that I have not been injured by it. The question of whether or not birds (and other wildlife) are upset (i.e., stressed) by flash is a different matter, and I know that some species are clearly annoyed by it. Of course, many species of animals are stressed simply by humans being in the wild. In many cases, birds react no more strongly to the flash than they do when I move an arm or click the shutter. This is probably because I use the high-speed synchronized flash setting with a fast shutter speed (1/800-1/1250). This “fill flash” approach means that the flash output is much lower than it would be if the flash were used as the primary light source. In general, it seems that birds notice the flash less when there is a significant amount of ambient light–which makes sense.

Pine Warbler at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary
Pine Warbler at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston. This beautiful little bird found the flash interesting and actually came closer to investigate.

I began using a ring flash for botanicals and macro. I shot a variety of herps with the flash on the high-speed synchronized setting and saw no reaction whatsoever . . . until I tried shooting an Ornate Box Turtle (Terrepene ornata). This fellow startled every time the flash went off: no more flash photos of ornate box turtles. Indeed, no more flash photography of any terrestrial chelonians (turtles and tortoises). Aquatic turtles apparently ignore flash.

When flash can be used ethically, it provides an incredible expansion of possibilities for bird photography. For example, It allows photography throughout the day, especially in dark or contrasty heavily-wooded areas–where many of the most exciting and challenging species are to be found. I no longer feel confined to the optimal shooting times in the early morning and late afternoon (the “golden hours”). On the down side, it is very easy to blow out whites or to make the bird appear as though it was suspended in a cave, surrounded by a severely underexposed background. Despite numerous technical challenges, I look forward to exploring the possibilities in the world of avian flash photography.

Red-bellied Woodpecker at Edith L. Moore Sanctuary, Houston, Texas
Red-bellied Woodpecker at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston, Texas. Image taken with high-speed synchronized flash. This bird reacted negatively (startled/flinched) to the flash, although not as strongly as Red-headed Woodpeckers. I don’t plan on using flash with these two species again.

 © 2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Appreciating Galveston

Eastern Meadowlark at Galveston Island State Park, Texas
Eastern(?) Meadowlark at the Prairie Trail, Galveston Island State Park, Texas.

In keeping with new year’s resolutions, we struck out this three-day weekend for Galveston in search of new areas to explore for birds. We scouted the northern edge of San Luis Pass, Lafitte’s Cove, and several trails we had not visited before at Galveston Island State Park, especially the Prairie and Freshwater Ponds Trails. We were lucky to see a group of about twelve Red-breasted Mergansers in a tidal channel at San Luis Pass. The Freshwater Ponds and Prairie Trails produced White-tailed Kites, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, a Barn Owl, Eastern(?) Meadowlarks, Savannah Sparrows, a Palm Warbler, Marsh and Sedge Wrens, Orange-Crowned Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, American White Pelicans, and Buffleheads, among others.

On this trip the conditions were just what the doctor ordered: clear and dry, upper thirties in the early mornings and warming into the low sixties by afternoon. Over the past several weeks unusually nasty weather had keep us indoors, and our photographic skills atrophied. On this trip I got to practice my in-flight, hand-held technique with the 300mm f/4L IS and tripod work with the 500mm f/4L, including tracking swimming birds with IS Mode 2.

American White Pelican at Freshwater Ponds Trail, Galveston Island State Park
American White Pelican at the Freshwater Ponds Trail, Galveston Island State Park. These majestic creatures allowed me to practice my swimming bird tracking technique.

We were excited to discover a man-made  “water feature” in a wooded area at Lafitte’s Cove, specifically designed for bird watchers and photographers. This feature is very similar to the one maintained by the Texas Ornithological Society at Sabine Woods Sanctuary. Although I have never experienced anything but the utmost in civility at Sabine Woods, apparently photographers and binocular users can’t get along with each other at Lafitte’s Cove. Like at the Smith Oaks Rookery (where squabbles and hard feelings are common) there are posted time limits for spots and separately designated areas for binocular users and tripod photographers/spotting scope users. We’ll find out during spring migration if both groups can respect posted rules, avoid hogging the best viewing/shooting spots, and refrain from snarky comments . . . although a “night of the tiny fists” type encounter as described by the late Gore Vidal might be amusing to witness.

On the way home we visited the Skillern Tract of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, where we were treated to a pair of Greater White-fronted Geese in one of the eastern fields near the tract entrance. During most of this trip to Galveston and environs I had the feeling that the birds were warier than usual. The frequent crack of gunfire in the background–not to mention yahoos in ATVs crashing through the marshes, music blaring–may hold the key. During the drive back along the White-knuckle Express (I-10), where I was treated to many interactions with maniacs and nincompoops, I had time to reflect upon the wonderful effects humans have had on the biosphere.

Greater White-fronted Geese at Skillern Tract, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge
Greater White-fronted Geese at the Skillern Tract, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. These geese were extremely wary of humans. I wonder why.

© 2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.