Tag Archives: birds

A Meeting with a Painted Bunting

I had a meeting last week with a painted bunting. I came down from Raleigh; the bunting came up from somewhere in Cuba or Central America, and we met on Bald Head Island. I decided last year that the book I am currently working on about North Carolina’s barrier islands needed a photograph of a painted bunting. They can be quite common on the southern barrier islands of North Carolina, among the maritime forests, hammocks, or shrub thickets. Most people never see them, which is a shame because they are so outrageously spectacular. Some say the males look as if they have just leapt off the page of a children’s coloring book, I presume because young children aren’t encumbered by logic or previous experience when choosing which colors to use.

Since I had never worked with painted buntings before, I had no idea what to expect. I have been very lucky so far with this book, and I have learned that just putting myself in a position to succeed is often the most important thing. So many things are beyond my control that when I do succeed I just have to look to the sky and thank the universe for the gift when everything does come together.

This story began last fall when a workshop participant on Bald Head Island mentioned her friend had painted buntings coming to her feeder the previous summer. I was not interested in photographing birds on feeders, but at least I now knew a place where they would occasionally come down from the tree tops. What was even better about the location was the back porch allowed me to be up at the height the birds were perching, rather than looking up at them from the ground. The owners of the home graciously gave me permission to spend time on their property once the buntings retuned in the spring.

Fast forward to the predawn hours of last week, April 25th. The painted bunting had just arrived a week or so before to establish his three acres of territory for the breeding season. I arrived the night before so I could be on site before dawn. Although I had not worked with painted buntings before, I have worked with enough birds to know they love to sing at dawn, and the image I really wanted was a close-up of a male singing. I followed a boardwalk out to the edge of a maritime hammock and looked out into the salt marsh as the dawn light slowly started to spread across the sky.

Boardwalk to Bald Head Creek

Boardwalk to Bald Head Creek

While I watched the sunrise and waited for the birds to wake up I familiarized myself with the song of the painted bunting using a recording on my phone. You can listen to some recordings of the sweet warble of the painted bunting at the all about birds website.

As soon as light started to fill the sky, the birds started singing; northern cardinals, yellow-rumped warblers, Carolina wrens, house finches, and one painted bunting. I could hear him but I could not see him. I moved to the porch to get a better view over the vegetation. Before long the painted bunting perched in the cedar tree right by the porch and the feeder. I thought photographing singing behavior was going to be difficult, but he was singing in the first photograph I made of him.

Painted Bunting Silhouette

Painted Bunting Silhouette

This image made me laugh because the low sun completely silhouetted the bird against the dawn sky and a silhouette of a painted bunting really seems to be missing the point to me. But it was a good sign that this was going to eventually work. As the morning wore on he was singing constantly. He would perch on top of a tree and sing, move to another tree top and sing, and slowly move around his territory. About once every hour he would end up back in the area of the feeder. He would perch on the live oak near the feeder and sing, fly down to the feeder and sing, eat a few seeds and sing, fly to the nearby cedar tree and sing, and then fly off to patrol his territory and sing some more.

Painted Bunting Singing in the tree tops

Painted bunting singing in the tree tops

While this photograph shows him singing, it is just not good enough for the book; you can’t look into his eye and feel, just for this moment, that you know him.

While I waited the hour for him to come back, I had plenty of time to watch all the other activity in the area.

Green Anole

Green Anole

This anole was proudly displaying his dewlap on the same cedar tree the painted bunting liked to use. I really like the out of focus palmetto leaves in the background.

While watching the anole I noticed a second painted bunting. I could still hear the first one singing behind me so I knew this was a second bird. Unlike the first painted bunting, this one came in low, amongst the shrubs, and quiet, not making a peep. He went straight to the feeder, ate some seeds, and quietly flew off in the direction he came. It was obvious that this feeder was inside the territory of the male I had been photographing, and this second bird knew it.

I had one chance every hour to make the image I was after, but each time the painted bunting came near he was either too far away or obscured by branches. Finally, the sixth time, after about six hours, he perched right in front of me in the nearby live oak. The light was soft except for a shaft of hard light striking the green feathers on his back and his blue face.

Painted Bunting

Painted Bunting

I was only able to make two images before he started singing. It turns out photographing him not singing was the difficult thing. He lifted his head to the sky and let out his sweet warbling song. When he lifted his head he moved it out of the shaft of hard light that was striking his face, rendering more feather detail and more saturated color. His posture seemed to mirror the way I give thanks to the universe in moments like this, when months of planning, serendipitous conversations, and 6 hours of constant vigilance all come together to make an image. You will have to wait for the book to see the image of him singing, but this last image gives a sense of the intimate connection I was trying to capture.

2012 Bald Head Island Photography Workshop Results

I thought I would share some of the images I made during the Bald Head Island photography workshop last week. When we arrived at Cape Fear Point just after 4pm the sun was too high to make dramatic landscape light but it was making interesting shadows with the sand fences.

Sand Fence

I’m not happy with this image but it is the best I was able to do under the circumstances. I would have preferred to find a perspective without any grass so I could make a more abstract image of just the fence and the shadows on the sand.

As the sun moved closer to the horizon it started to light the sand in interesting ways, especially near the point where the tide had sculpted repeating patterns in the shore. Eyes are naturally drawn to the sun as it sets but it is important to look around you at what the light is doing.

Tide Sculpted Sand Patterns

I made this image to demonstrate how the setting sun was causing the sand to glow and to show the colorful effects of mixing the warm light of the sun with the cool light of the shadows lit only by the blue sky.

Tide Sculpted Sand Patterns

The moment the sun dropped below the horizon I swung the camera around and started shooting in the opposite direction of the sunset. Here the sky is often lit by a range of pastel colors. Water and wet sand easily pick up this color.

Some participants did not have tripods and as the sun dropped below the horizon it became more difficult for them to hold their camera steady enough in the fading light. Rather than fight the slow shutter speeds I suggested they use it to their advantage and make intentionally blurred images.

Abstract Seashore

I made this image to demonstrate for the workshop participants the effect of panning the camera horizontally with a slow shutter speed to create an abstract painterly effect.

The next morning we returned to Cape Fear Point before dawn to photograph the sunrise. There were a lot more pelicans, terns, and gulls to photograph during the morning session.

Three of the participants at the Bald Head Island photography workshop photographing the sunrise from Cape Fear Point.

Sunrise over Cape Fear Point

I liked the curve of the shore and the sun reflected in the wet sand but not quite enough to make an image. When the pelicans flew through the scene it added some additional interest.

One of the participants photographing birds in flight.

Brown Pelicans

Brown pelicans and terns over Frying Pan Shoals.

But the coolest images I made were at night. I invited all the workshop participants to join me at Cape Fear Point for a bonus free session to photograph the peak of the Orionid meteor shower from 3 to 6 am. No one took me up on that offer so I had the beach to myself, except for a fox that hung out with me for a while. Somehow, in the light of the milky way, I noticed the silhouette of a fox trotting down the beach. I watched it trot to within about 30 feet of me where it sat down as if this was the exact spot it had been determined to reach. We sat there together for about 5 minutes, looking south toward the milky way, but the fox evidently had a busy night and could not stay long.

Orionid Meteor Shower

The Peak of the Orionid Meteor Shower from Cape Fear Point. This is a composite image of 34 minutes of exposure time resulting in 29 captured meteors. Some of the more faint meteors are not visible in this low resolution jpeg.

After making the meteor image I noticed the planet Venus rising within the almost vertical band of zodiacal light. It is difficult to describe the feeling of standing on the edge of the sea, bathed in starlight, with the universe wheeling overhead, but I think this last image captures something of that feeling.

Venus Rising in Zodiacal Light

Venus rising in zodiacal light. Click the image to see a larger version.

Wild North Carolina Outtakes: Carolina Dark-eyed Junco

I’ve been very busy lately putting the finishing touches on the new book. What little time I have had for photography has all gone into improving images for the book or creating images we realized we needed as the last details came together. The book content is all wrapped up now and it looks like everything is on schedule for spring 2011 publication. We also have a title, Wild North Carolina: Discovering the Wonders of our State’s Natural Communities.

Animals are an important part of natural communities but including them in the book was a challenge. Not just because they are difficult to photograph but because they tend to move around the landscape, making it difficult to associate an animal with a specific natural community.

At first glance the Dark-eyed Junco might seem like an unlikely candidate for including in the book. Juncos are common birds seen across North Carolina in winter. They migrate here from their breeding grounds in New England and Canada and can be found in many different natural communities as well as lawns and at feeders.

Dark-eyed Junco

A dark-eyed junco that frequented my feeder last winter.

 

But there is a subspecies of Junco called Junco hyemalis carolinensis that breeds in the high mountains of the Southern Appalachians and does not migrate like the more commonly seen juncos from the north.

 

Adult Carolina Junco feeding a fledgling in the Roan Highlands.

Adult Carolina Junco feeding a fledgling in the Roan Highlands.

The Carolina Junco breeds in the spruce-fir forests on top of high mountains and migrates down slope for winter.  Carolina juncos are the only juncos here in the summer, but you can distinguish them from their northern relatives in winter by their stouter white bill.

Bill differences between juncos that migrate to North Carolina for winter and those that breed in the high mountains of North Carolina.

Bill differences between juncos that migrate to North Carolina for winter and those that breed in the high mountains of North Carolina.

 

Nuthatch Couple

A few days ago I spent a morning at the top of a 20 foot ladder photographing a brown-headed nuthatch couple building a nest. I made about 200 photographs trying to catch those moments that tell their story.

Brown-headed Nuthatch Pair

Brown-headed Nuthatch Series.

Clouds softened the early morning light for the first two images in the series above. I concentrated at first just on capturing a typical nuthatch pose next to the nest cavity. After a while the clouds parted and direct sunlight fell on the nest. The brighter light allowed me to use faster shutter speeds so I could capture some of the action. Instead of just dropping wood chips out of the hole, one of the birds would carefully perch at the opening and flip its head several times back and forth in a complete circle flinging the wood chips in every direction. It was very funny to watch but almost impossible to catch in a photo because it all happened so fast. At one point one of the birds took a break from excavating the cavity to just take in the morning, and perhaps to wonder what that human was doing on the ladder. This image made me laugh because the feathers on top of the birds head were all messed up from the work it had been doing down at the bottom of the cavity.

A little later some high thin clouds diffused the harsh sunlight and provided the perfect amount of contrast. It was bright enough to use the base ISO on my camera and still have enough shutter speed to avoid motion blur.

Brown-headed Nuthatch Pair

Brown-headed Nuthatch Pair

Finally, everything came together. While one of the birds was excavating the cavity, the other one was stuffing it with dried grass. It seemed to me that it would be better to wait until the excavation was finished before bringing in the grass but no relationship is without its challenges. Anyway, at one point the removal of wood chips and the bringing of dried grass coincided so that both birds were at the nest hole at the same time. At this moment the light was perfect, bright, diffuse, and warm, and I was ready.

Florida Birds

I recently returned from a bird photography trip to the east coast of Florida. I spent most of the time at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge just north of Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. This is a huge undeveloped area teaming with wildlife.

Salt Marsh and Palm Hammock

Salt Marsh and Palm Hammock

 Well, you can’t see any animals in that picture but trust me, they are in there!

My friend Lee invited me to join him on his trip to the Space Coast Birding Festival. I used to work with Lee in forestry at NCSU before he retired. Lee has more money than most people I know, yet uses coupons to save ¢50 on a hamburger. This works out well since I have less money than most people I know, and I could not afford to hang out with him if he lived closer to his means. On the drive down he suggested we split a $5 foot long subway sandwich. Lunch for $2.50, even I can afford that!

Each day Lee went on one of the festivals birding tours, and he let me borrow his Saab. The weather was perfect, and I had good luck finding and photographing animals.

I had a great time photographing the large wading birds. Each species has a different personality, resulting in behavior that I find visually inspiring. I can really identify with the little blue heron. They hunt just like I make wildlife photographs. They wait patiently, methodically, hardly moving until the time is right.

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron

You get a sense of the bird’s patient stillness in this photograph. I had to wait for it to move a little to create the circular ripples in the water.

The reddish egret looks similar to the little blue heron but has a completely different hunting style. This bird chases fish by running at full speed through shallow water, sometimes flapping its wings and spinning around. This reminds some people of drunken staggering, but I think it looks more like unbridled enthusiasm.

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

You can get a sense of how fast this bird is running from the forward leaning posture and the wake it is leaving in the water.

The green heron is a much smaller bird and likes to hunt from a branch over the water, especially when the water is too deep to stand in.

Green Heron

Green Heron

You can’t see its long neck in this photograph because it is coiled up preparing to strike. Just seconds after I made this photograph, it caught the fish it was watching and flew away.

I also had an interesting interaction with an anhinga. These birds swim under the water and spear fish with their sharp bill. They often swim with just their head and neck visible, the rest of their body submerged. This behavior gave them one of their common names, “snake bird”. I was surprised to see this one swimming toward me. It made for a very elegant composition to illustrate this type of swimming behavior.

Anhinga

Anhinga

After I made the photograph it just kept swimming toward me until it climbed up on the bank just a few feet from where I was sitting. I could not figure out why he was being so friendly until I noticed what was swimming right behind him.

American alligator

American alligator

I guess the anhinga felt safer on the shore with me than in the water with the alligator. After the alligator swam away, the anhinga started drying his wings.

Anhinga Drying its Wings

Anhinga Drying its Wings

A woman was nearby explaining to her daughter how these birds are not very well adapted to their environment because they have to dry their wings after swimming. I am always glad to see parents teaching their children about nature but it irks me when they just make stuff up. These birds are perfectly adapted to their environment! By absorbing water they become less buoyant and can stay under water without effort. Most birds that dive trap air under their waterproof feathers and have to constantly expend energy to stay under. As soon as they stop swimming they pop up to the surface like a cork. The anhinga can stay under without effort as it chases fish; the only downside is it can’t fly until it dries out a bit.

On the last day of the trip Lee and I planned to spend a few hours at dawn in the wildlife refuge before driving back to North Carolina. We were late getting out to the refuge because Lee discovered the hotel had slightly overcharged him. By the time he got that straightened out the sun was already up. This turned out to be a good thing. For the past three days I had driven past a marsh with palm hammocks on my way to the refuge. This is the same place pictured in sunset light in the first photograph. The light before dawn at this location was not interesting the previous three days. But this time the sun was up as we drove by the marsh and the light shining through the early morning fog was spectacular.

Sunrise over a Palm Hammock

Sunrise over a Palm Hammock

We spent a few more hours in the refuge and then headed back to North Carolina; on the way we shared another $5 foot long subway sandwich.

Red-cockaded Woodpeckers

Red-cockaded woodpeckers are unlike other woodpeckers in that they build nest cavities in live pine trees. Other, seemingly more sensible woodpeckers excavate their nest cavities in the softer rotten wood of dead trees. It is difficult to build a nest cavity in a live pine tree, and as a result, young red-cockaded woodpeckers often stay with their parents for years rather than move out and excavate their own cavity. This means the parents have some help raising the next set of young, but it also means there are fewer birds raising their own families. These extended families often forage together, constantly calling back and forth to stay in contact with each other.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Red-cockaded woodpeckers prefer to build their cavities in old growth longleaf pine trees. These trees often have heart rot that makes the core of the tree soft and easier for the birds to excavate once they hammer through the hard, sticky sapwood. Old growth longleaf pine has all but disappeared from the landscape, making it difficult for these birds to find suitable nesting and foraging sites. With their preferred nesting trees all but gone it is no surprise that the red-cockaded woodpecker is on the endangered species list.

It might seem like these birds are making things difficult for themselves by insisting on nesting in live pine trees. This was a good strategy hundreds of years ago when the frequent fires that maintained the longleaf pine savannas would have burned away any dead trees. In just a few hundred years we have changed the landscape to suit our needs by eliminating fires and converting the savannas to other uses. Some animals have benefited from these changes; the red-cockaded woodpecker has not.

Go with what works

Brown-headed and red-breasted nuthatches have been visiting my suet feeder for the last few months, and I have been looking for an opportunity to photograph them. Just as I was working out a way to do it, a yellow-rumped warbler decided to claim the suet as his own and defend it against anyone smaller or with less attitude. This included, unfortunately, all the nuthatches.

At times like this I try to remind myself to just go with what works. The nuthatches were chased off when ever they came into the yard. The warbler, however, was present constantly as he chased the other birds with his tail feathers flared. I made lots of photographs of him over several days but I like this one the best because of the way it shows his attitude. I get the sense from this photograph that he is starring right at me and I am next on his list! Can you really blame him though? I mean, wouldn’t you develop an attitude if people kept calling attention to some obvious feature of your posterior?

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler with an attitude