Saturday, September 29, 2012

Looking for a woodpecker

So, it's been way too long since I've posted anything.  I can offer a few excuses, one that I've been working on a badass project that I can let you in on in a few months.  Suspense!  The other is that I've been kind of off and on sick over the last few weeks.  The perils of working at a children's hospital.  Anyways, the only significant outing I've had was a trip to the Houston/Galveston area primarily to visit my sister, brother-in-law, and niece, with some opportunities to get out and look at birds as well.  I usually try to hit some places near their area when I visit, and they're always super accommodating to my nerdy endeavors.

W.G. Jones State Forest

So I left Austin super early to get to W.G. Jones State Forest by sunup.  The obvious goal was Red-cockaded Woodpecker, a Picoides woodpecker that has suffered from habitat loss in the southeastern United States.  The timing of my trip was less than stellar as the breeding season had already wrapped up and the birds would be much more difficult to find.

The birding actually started out rather well, with a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers calling and flying around.  I walked the trails for about 4 hours, finding Red-headed Woodpeckers, Brown-headed Nuthatches, and several Downy Woodpeckers that initially got me excited for RCWO.  I spent the last hour and a half staked out around the marked trees where the RCWOs had nested, hoping that I may find one foraging.  No luck. It's actually no big deal, as dipping on the bird affords me the opportunity to visit again in the spring.  The Forest is really nice, especially coming from central Texas as I'm not too used to walking around under tall pine forest.
RCWO nesting tree
I somehow convinced my sister and brother-in-law to load up the fam for a trip to the "beach", really Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary.  I thinly veiled it as a fun trip to the beach for my niece, and I snuck away, tripod in hand, to check out the birds.  It was a late afternoon trip, and the birds were not necessarily abundant.  The expected birds were there in numbers: Laughing Gulls, Royal Terns, Sanderlings, Black Skimmers, Brown Pelicans, and Neotropic Cormorants.  I also had a few Tricolored Herons, some Black-bellied Plovers, Marbled Godwits, Willets, and a White-tailed Kite.  It's rainy here in Austin right now, and I may try to get out this evening or tomorrow morning.  

Laughing Gull - juvenile

Black-bellied Plover - juvenile

Marbled Godwit 
Neotropic Cormorants
Tricolored Heron, among others

White-tailed Kite
Now that I'm at the end of this post, it occurs to me that despite the topic of the last post, this one is 90% photos.  To be fair, I like most of them.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Birder vs. The Photographer

So this is a relatively common issue that arises, and I've discussed it at length with numerous friends.  What is the priority and main interest: watching, studying, and learning about birds, or trying to get beautiful photos of them?  Are the two mutually exclusive?  Obviously, the answer is relative to the bird observer.  Some people never carry a camera in the field, and argue that photography takes attention away from the pleasure and challenge of finding, identifying, and appreciating the birds.  A good friend and birding mentor suggests that no matter how good of a picture you take, there are thousands of better pictures readily available on the internet.  He would argue that the main benefit of carrying a camera in the field is to document rare sightings.  Photo documentation is an incredibly important part of reporting rare birds, and many sightings will not be accepted without photo documentation.  However, these photos normally lack an aesthetic quality, and normally just show enough diagnostic field marks to rule out any other species.

Shitty, but diagnostic photo of Western Tanager 

On the other side, many bird photographers invest thousands of dollars in "bazooka" cameras with high powered telephoto lenses and invest hours of time photographing one or two individual birds.  Often, the output is remarkable and almost unbelievable.  But what is the cost?  Is the ordinary bird photographer less skilled in the "art of birding"?  In field outings and on internet forums, I've had multiple experiences in which a bird photographer has captured a beautiful image of a species, but has had no idea what the bird is or any knowledge as to its normal distribution and status in time/place.  So, is that a problem?  I guess not.  If that's what you're into, go for it.  I appreciate looking at your beautifully composed art, and I've learned quite a bit by studying it.  The Crossley ID guide is a good example; however, to me, the most beneficial aspect of that guide is how Richard Crossley has done such a wonderful job in documenting species, age, sex, and molt.  I've learned quite a bit by studying his guide.

Quality photo of Long-billed Curlew (if I may be so bold)

So why do some birders take such offense to bird photographers?  Well, I guess one argument is that some photographers have a tendency to miss the forest for the trees.  But who's to say that's actually the case?  Neither the birder nor the photographer can claim that their preferred endeavor is better than the other.  I'll admit, I have my opinions, and I'm pretty damned pretentious about them.  I know it makes me an asshole, but I feel that my taste in music, art, food, and other trivial things is much more informed than many others.  And if I've had a few beers, I'll expand on my theories like a pretentious dick.  But you know what?  That's my problem.  All these opinions are relative (note that I say this now, at 11:00 in the morning and not midnight at the bar).  So, I guess it doesn't really matter.  The only other main argument from birders against photographers is that there have been instances where a photographer has negatively impacted both a birds well-being by harassing it and a birders opportunity to see and appreciate a bird.  Here is a particularly damning example of a dickhead flushing a Snowy Owl.  But who's to say birders don't do the same thing?  Playing tape, pishing, accidental flushing... many birders are certainly guilty of some of these practices, although I think it's usually less overt and harmful than some photographers interventions.

Shit photo of amazing experience: food transfer between adult and immature Golden-cheeked Warblers

So, where does that leave us with the initial question?  Fuck if I know.  I guess it's really no one else's business how somebody prefers to spend their free time.  Birders may think that photographers interests are a bit misguided, but honestly, that's a pretty pretentious view.  I should say that some of the finest birders I've seen have been amazing photographers.  I've seen photographers in the field recognizing call notes of warblers far away while keeping an eye in the camera, focusing on a separate subject.  Where do I fall in the scale?  I would definitely argue that my main focus is birding, however I appreciate an opportunity to get a good shot.  I take my camera (an Olympus super zoom point and shoot) into the field with me every time I go birding.  If I see an opportunity to get a nice shot, I'll spend quite some time trying.  If it's super birdy out there, I usually leave my camera on my shoulder and just look at everything.  It just depends.  The main thing is that it's my choice.  Yes, that means that I've taken the chickenshit way out of answering my initial question.  But isn't that how it goes?  There are no absolutes in life, especially in something as nerdy and trivial as birding.

All that being said, I've complied some of my photos into an album.  I wanted to put one example of each species I've photographed into an album, in taxonomic order.  Some pictures are crap, some are good, but it was a shitload of fun, both seeing the birds and taking the pictures, and isn't that kind of the point I've been trying to make?  No?  Well, fuck it.

Here you go.  (Note that I also put a link on the sidebar of this blog).

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Brown F*cking Booby!!!

So, a Brown Booby showed up at Canyon Lake this week.  Seriously.  It really did.  I don't think anyone has any idea why.  There have been Brown Boobys reported near Dallas and in Arkansas very recently, and it seems as though it's just a crazy season for inland Brown Boobys.  Regardless of the reason, I am very grateful for the opportunity to look at that bird.  I went down bright and early Saturday morning, several days after it was first reported.  As I walked onto the dam where the bird was being seen, I realized that my status as champion early riser was in jeopardy; there were at least twenty other birders set up on the dam, scopes and bazooka cameras focused on the lake.  I was a bit worried when the bird was not on the concrete jetty where it has been frequently perching, and a bit more worried when I realized that it was actually nowhere in sight.  We all started keeping a close watch on the far end of the lake, and after about 45 minutes, the booby appeared and was making a beeline for the jetty.  The bird teased us by circling underneath the jetty for a couple of minutes before heading back out to fish in the lake and eventually, out of sight.  

Brown Booby
We all remained patient and the bird was spotted again about 30 minutes later.  This time it showed no signs of coming anywhere close to the jetty, fishing far out in the lake.  I was able to focus my scope on the bird and followed it for about 45 minutes; it was a beautiful sight.  So sleek, so strong, and so streamlined for its (usual) life on the open seas.  The bird would fly effortlessly over the lake, abruptly pull itself up, and then dive down into the water.  Fucking magnificent.  After about 3 1/2 hours on the dam, when it seemed that the bird was getting further and further away, I made the tough decision to head out and see what was happening over at Warbler Woods.  On my way out, I ran into a couple of Austin birder friends, Amy T. and Ken W.  I told them that the bird was present but had not perched in the time I was there, and wished them luck. Scope loaded in my car, I started to pull out of the park when I got an e-mail from Ken. "Hi.  Bird is perched.  Ken."  Badass, Ken.  I owe you a beer.  I booked it back up to the jetty and sure enough, that beautiful damn bird was hanging out on the concrete structure.  I snapped some pictures and studied the bird through the scope.  That animal is a designers dream.  Crisp lines of contrasting brown, white, and yellow, beautiful, tapered angles, all put together in the most efficient way possible.  Thanks, evolution.  I'm very appreciative that I was afforded extended looks of the bird both perched and flying.  So, I watched the bird for a bit and headed out.  Hell of an experience.  I could've looked at her all day.

Brown Booby
Afterwards, I made my way to Warbler Woods, as did quite a few of the Brown Booby visitors.  Birds were nice, good looks at Yellow-breasted Chat and Common Ground-Dove, and I stayed for a bit before heading home for a much needed nap.  On the way out, I met an extremely cooperative Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly.

Common Ground-Dove

Two-tailed Swallowtail
Earlier in the week, I made a few bird outings, mostly dipping on the things I was looking for. The most fascinating spectacle I saw was a Red-shouldered Hawk carrying, and then munching on a White-winged Dove.  I took a bad picture, but you can kind of get the gist.  

Red-shouldered Hawk with dinner (White-winged Dove)
Awesome week.  We'll see what September holds.  Dig it.