In a word, “WOW”. Now let’s cut to the chase. The reason many bird photographers excitedly anticipated the release of this camera is that we were hoping for three things:
- lightning fast autofocus for birds in motion
- a greater usable ISO range
- more megapixels
- okay I’ll add a forth. Movie mode is a nice add-on.
Let me address each item on our wish list and give my impressions on how the Mk IV delivers
- Not only does it autofocus with lightning fast precision, but after shooting nearly 10,000 frames and looking at my autofocus point selection, I have noticed that even many shots where I (the photographer) messed up and the bird drifted outside of my activated autofocus point, the camera’s sophisticated algorithms was able to predict where to focus next, and STILL nailed the shot. And the real test for autofocus . . . this camera nails birds flying directly at the camera. Yeah, it’s a dream machine. Not once have I ever had my focal point not lock on to a bird. I shoot in AI Servo mode, with the central autofocus sensor activated plus one point sensor expansion activated in the camera’s custom functions. The one point expansion dives just enough margin for photographer error in my opinion.
- I’m real picky about ISO noise. With the MK IV I feel ISO 400 is creamy smooth. ISO 800 is good but takes some minor cleaning. ISO 1600 is decent and takes real cleaning. ISOs 1600 to 3200 are decent but a little noisy for my taste and I rarely use them. So the fact that I feel comfortable shooting ISO 800 is great. On my Canon 50D I hesitated to even use ISO 400.
- 16 megapixels is enough that I can crop out 50% of my image and still have a shot usable for a magazine cover. Nice.
- The movie mode . . . well the movies this thing produces are out of this world beautiful. The only problem is that you pretty much have to manual focus because the live view focus (your only other option) searches back and forth until it locks on so is impractical to use during recording. I didn’t buy the camera for its movie making abilities, but it certainly will be a blast to use from time to time.
Central Florida Workshop Report
Cruising over a calm Florida lake in 70 degree sunny weather sure is a wonderful respite from a cold Ohio winter. Our trip’s goal was to highlight some of the unique birds of Florida, and what a better way to start than by photographing Florida’s only endemic species, the Florida Scrub Jay. As soon as we started walking down a trail through prime scrub habitat, the Jays started landing on our heads!
The afternoon was spent driving the roads around Vierra Wetlands for Limpkin, American Bittern, Loggerhead Shrike, and we were able to photograph all three along with some other waterfowl and wading birds including the seldom photographed Mottled Duck.
Day two we hired someone from the Toho Boating Club to take us out on lake Toho to photograph the endangered Snail Kite. We were able to get within minimum focusing distance to several birds and had many photo opps at both birds in flight and perched.
The real surprise and jewel of the day came when Judd Patterson found a Great Horned Owl Roost in the backyard of our boat captain during lunch break. Thanks a million Judd!
Day 3 started extremely foggy so our airboat captain (Captain Rob with Kissimmee Swamp Tours) let us reschedule our ride for later in the day. We spent the morning photographing a beautiful scene of Sandhill Cranes in the fog and then later found some Red-cockaded Woodpeckers which posed briefly for the group. When it was finally time to hit Lake Kissimmee with the airboat, conditions were perfect – nice warm light, calm wind, and cooperative Snail Kites eating snails in front of us.
hand held from airboat – cropped from horz capture
Day 4 we spent back on the airboat and photographing Loggerhead Shrike on a little setup we put together. This day Scott Vincent and I did a camera trade so we could get a feel for how the Canon Mk IV worked for flight shots vs the Nikon D300 and D2S. After the day’s shooting we concluded the Nikon bodies were great but were no match for the Canon MK IV. The MK IV is really a bird photographer’s dream camera, especially for birds in flight.
All in all, it was a great trip with very productive photo opportunities with a really nice group of photographers.
Snowy Owl Workshop Report.
I did a somewhat last minute set of Snowy Owl Workshops for a few groups of photographers this winter. Snowy Owls are such magnificent birds but are very difficult to find and even when you find them, many are easily frightened. Even if you find an approachable bird they are often on private property with uncooperative land owners. The owls themselves also move around through the winter at times so it took me much research and networking to pull it off, but we had Snowy Owls pose for us all three weekends. We were also able to nourish them to help them survive the winter, and that in turn made for some fun flight photography each weekend. Despite the hard work and cold weather, being around these amazing creatures is very rewarding and I hope to continue shooting these birds in future years as well.
And on the first weekend we also had this unexpected treat: an extremely cooperative Northern Shrike
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Bird Photography Newsletter #9
Announcing the Central Florida Instructional Photo Tour
Dates: January 17, 18, 19, 20, 2010 (Sunday through Wednesday)
Limit: 3 photographers
Includes: Rather large fees for boat and airboat use, licensed boat captains, slideshows and photoshop demonstrations, four full days of shooting in the field.
After going to Florida every winter for bird photography for many years, it’s finally time for me to show people some of the amazing places I have found. Our focus will be on central Florida raptors such as Snail Kite, Crested Caracara, Bald Eagle, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Barred Owl. We will also make it a point to get such Florida Specialties as the Florida Scrub Jay, Wood Stork, Reddish Egret, Tri-colored Heron, Little blue Heron, Anhinga, Whooping Crane, and many more. Instruction will include how to do successful flight photography using a tripod rather than hand-holding the lens. We’ll be going places in Florida that no other workshop has offered. One of the fun things about Florida is that there is just so many tame birds, you never walk away empty handed. Send me an e-mail to sign up and I’ll pencil your name in until I receive the deposit. firstname.lastname@example.org We’ll do everything from air boat rides, driving tours, to perch set-ups to get the shot for this workshop. It should be tons of fun and I can’t wait.
A Word on Focus
While equipment shake may the number one culprit for soft or blurry images, inaccurate focus probably comes in as a close second. I know of no serious bird photographer who, at the time of this writing, still uses manual focus lenses on a consistent basis. Birds rarely stand still, and auto focus greatly increases the number of accurately focused images. Personally, when I manually focus, I only get about 3 in 10 photos with razor sharp focus, while auto focus often nails 9 out of 10. Auto focus technology is simply too advanced and readily available to seriously consider a manual focus lens for everyday use.
Tips for Acquiring Accurate Focus:
First, while most modern auto focus lenses are very fast at locking on to a bird when the bird is almost in focus already, most lenses are not very good at searching great distances to find the subject. If your lens is pre-focused at 4 meters and then a falcon flies by 20 meters away, you’ll never find it in the viewfinder in time unless you manually focus to about 20 meters and then the auto focus lock on and do the fine tuning. The first rule for using auto focus is to make major focus changes by hand, but let autofocus do the micro adjustments and lock on. This principal applies no matter what camera you are using. In fact many of my most successful flight shots were made using a Canon Rebel XT. The higher end camera bodies make life easier, but the same principal applies.
Limiting Focal Range
Many modern auto-focus lenses allow the photographer to limit the range of focus. For example, when photographing large birds far away, one could theoretically switch the lens to only focus 20 meters to infinity rather than include the closer ranges. Because auto-focus isn’t very good at quickly searching the entire focal range for the subject, some bird photography teachers advise their pupils to use the range limitation feature on the lens to limit the range of focus in situations like this. The theory is that the lens will only have to search a more limited range to find the subject. The problem with this theory is two fold.
First, these teachers assume that they won’t have a surprise encounter with another bird species. For example if you were photographing a distant heron nesting colony and set your lens range to distant subjects, what happens when a small warbler lands right next to you with no warning? You try to focus but your range is limited to only distant objects. You fumble to switch your range to close subjects but by then the warbler is gone. Or what happens when an osprey starts flying directly towards you, starting in your distant range, but in a matter of seconds moves into your close range? The camera will lock the focus and you’ll miss your shot.
Second, limiting your focal range assumes that the best way to focus is to let the lens find the bird. As we already discussed, we don’t want the lens to do the range searching – that’s not what auto focus is good at. It’s only good at small micro adjustments for locking on to the subject. So if we are doing 95% of the range searching manually anyway, there’s no need to limit the auto focusing range. Keep the range unlimited. Do the major focusing adjustments by hand. Depress the shutter half way and only let your auto focus take over and lock on at the last second.
There are two types of focus confirmation commonly available in today’s cameras. The first is a small beeping noise which sounds when focus has been acquired. This noise is soft enough that it would only bother the most shy of birds. In fact, many birds, if they hear it, are curious and give the perfect head turn towards the camera just as you acquire focus. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s annoying. Once in a while it scares the bird. I usually leave my confirmation beep turned off because I find the noise annoying.
The feature I do appreciate in modern cameras is the focus sensor light. In my sensor array, the sensor(s) which has locked focus turn red for about a half of a second. This lets me know more specifically what exactly the camera is locking on to, and is much less annoying that the beep confirmation.
Another critical factor in producing sharp images is using sufficient shutter speed to stop both the motion of the bird and the movement of the lens. IS and VR (Image Stabilization or Nikon’s Vibration Reduction) helps cut down on the negative vibrations on the photographer’s end, but by no means eliminates lens vibrations. Using the right shutter speed is somewhat of an arbitrary judgment call learned with practice, as every lighting situation, bird movement, and photographer is different. There are, however, some basic guiding principals which are universal.
First, lens length and required shutter speed are directly related. In other words, as lens length increases, shutter speed needs to increase in order to compensate for the “magnified vibrations”. Your own experience will verify this. If you look through a wide angle lens, the image in the viewfinder will appear fairly stable. If you are looking at the same scene through a telephoto lens the image in the viewfinder will appear as if you are violently shaking by comparison – the image is magnified but so are the vibrations. To compensate for these vibrations an increase in shutter speed (i.e. decrease in exposure time) is needed so that the vibrations don’t end up effecting the image sharpness, blurring the image.
Second, amount of subject movement and the required shutter speed to freeze that movement are also directly related. The faster your subject is swimming, flapping, running, or flying, the faster the shutter speed will need to be. I find that most normal bird behavior is frozen at 1/500 second or faster. Most flight shots and wing flaps are frozen at 1/1000 or greater. Hummingbird wings can be mostly frozen anywhere between 1/1500 and 1/16000 of a second, depending on where their wings are in their figure 8 motion and the size of the bird. Hummingbird wings slow down at the full upward and full downward wing positions, but are incredibly fast in between.
Wood Duck Workshop Report
This year we had enough demand for the wood duck workshop to run three weekends, and all three were fabulous. We had to dodge some raindrops on all three but were also rewarded with golden sunlight for at least part of each workshop as well which gave us a nice variety of shooting conditions. The drakes were in tip top plumage and as tame as ever, and put on quite a show.
Even though I have photographed at the wood duck ponds for years now, even I came away with photos of behaviors and situations that were new to me such as this female wood duck preening her mate in early morning light.
This year I taught the ducks a new trick and we had opportunities to photograph them landing on some natural logs around the pond’s edge.While Wood Ducks steal the show, we also had a few opportunities at other species like this little guy:
Most of my 2010 workshops are sold out but aside from the new Florida Workshop, we still do have one space on the Lake Hope Warblers and Michigan Warblers workshops, along with some openings on the Northern Ohio Warblers workshop. I feel bad for some folks who wanted to go but didn’t realize the workshops would sell out so early. I do intend to expand my offerings in years to come but may not be able to until 2012 or later. Visit my website to see the most recent availability www.studebakerbirds.com/tours.html
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Northern Ohio Songbird Workshop 2009 Report
The workshop started with difficult light but great birds. In the first few hours we had a Cerulean Warbler and a Warbling Vireo on our setups. Later we found the one of the most cooperative Indigo Bunting I have ever seen pose for a nice while often only a few feet away.
A great find and a first for me was this Yellow-throated Vireo. This treetop species can be very very difficult to get out of the treetops and in the open and it was one of the few species that breed in Ohio that I had not yet had decent photo opps with up to this time. This individual, full of personality, gave multiple low passes on perches of his own choosing.
On the last day we headed out to Tri-valley and surrounding area to get some of the grassland species. We quickly crossed Grasshopper and Henslow’s Sparrow off the list and found a very nice Blue-winged Warbler. Prarie Warblers eluded us for several hours until we found two cooperative individuals near last light. All in all, it proved to be a very successful trip.
Michigan Loons and Warblers 2009 Report
Strange incidents on Lake Nettie caused both pairs of loons to fail their initial nesting attempts this year. One male loon had become entangled in fishing line. The other nest may have been predated. Regardless, everyone walked away with many gigabytes of loons hunting, preening, calling, flapping, yawning, napping, and every other imaginable behavior right next to our boat, sometimes within minimum focusing distance!
Many photographers have been able to do well with the Loons at Lake Nettie, but my research trips in 08 turned up a host of interesting songbird species in the area as well, and during the workshop we were able to photograph some true gems of the forest. One of the highlights was this Pine Warbler who had fallen out of the nest and was being fed by an aggressive mother.
Chris Hominuk left in order for us to be able to get some sweet shots of a Golden-winged Warbler. (inside joke – he often leaves an hour early, and we always seem to nab some great shots as soon as he leaves).
The Perch – Notes on Using Perches in Bird Photography
Nearly all bird species sit on branches from time to time. In fact about 60% o0f all north American bird species fit into the category “passerines”, meaning “perching birds”. True to their name, most passerines spend their lives in trees. It is no surprise then, that the plants birds perch on end up being an integral element in many bird photos.
The perch a bird chooses can make or break a photo. A lot of times, photographing a bird on a beautiful perch is simply a matter of luck and persistence. During the may of 2006 I found several Indigo Bunting males establishing territories in one of my local parks. Like many male birds setting up territories, the buntings chose to sing from the most conspicuous perches around. In this case, early in the spring they chose tall pine trees and ugly, thick dead or bare branches. The few photos I managed to take of these males were less than desirable. I kept track of the males as the spring progressed with out much improvement. Then to my surprise, late that July, I found that one of the main bunting territories had sprouted up hundreds of native sunflowers. These tall beautiful plants proved to be perfect conspicuous perches for the males to sing from, and the blossoms attracted insects for the buntings to eat. The yellow flowers were the perfect complimentary color for the deep indigo of the males. The sunflower field had a small gravel pull off from the main road which allowed me to simply use my car as a blind and wait for the male buntings to use one of the nearby sunflowers for their perch. Luck and persistence paid off.
There are times when luck just doesn’t cut it. For the last 15 years I have made an annual spring visit to Magee Marsh, Ohio’s famous migrant trap. Thousands of Warblers, Orioles, Vireos, Hummingbirds, Kinglets, and Thrushes stop by this area at the tip of Crane Creek State Park each spring before crossing Lake Erie on their way up to their Canadian breeding grounds. While subjects are plentiful, perches and backgrounds are less than ideal. Photographing migrants basically entails following the bird as they flit along from tree to tree hoping that eventually the bird will chose a photogenic perch with a clean background. Seeing so many interesting species at close range is very exciting but good photo opportunities are often days apart. If I get one good image per weekend at a migrant trap like Magee Marsh I consider myself fortunate.
The Set Up
As my photography skills developed, I found myself spending less and less time at migrant traps, and more time finding situations where I could photograph the birds on my own terms, control the perches and background to some degree, and net a higher percentage of “keeper” photographs per day. The thinking photographer can, at times, effect what the bird will land on and get a “shot of a lifetime” with great frequency and precision. Exercising this sort of control over the image is usually referred to as a “set up”.
The most basic form of control involves doing things like walking towards a tame Scrub Jay, coaxing it off a parking lot and into a beautiful field. The next level would be to put peanuts in that field to entice the jay on over. Then the photographer could put the nuts on a rustic, mossy branch in the middle of the beautiful field to try to get the bird to land on the branch. Finally, it they are allowed, the photographer could reposition the branch so that it is lined up with the sun and a beautiful background.
Every photographer exercises some level of control over their images, by acknowledging that some images look good, and others should be discarded or never taken to begin with. There is a constant debate, however, as to how much control should be used beyond careful editing. One photographer may brag that they use some avian attractants and not others, or that they coax birds onto branches but never alter the branch positions, etcetera. In my mind, this sort of bragging is futile, although I hear it a lot both in the field and in online critique forums. Each photographer should exercise exactly the level of control he or she feels comfortable with and not badger or lecture others about it.
Selecting a perch
If a photographer chooses to attempt to get birds to land on set-up perches, there are a number of guidelines for perch selection that can help make the image more successful.
If you do want to create a setup you’ll probably end up having to bring a perch from home or private property with permission. To keep the perch from wilting, pick it as close to the photo session as possible. Always keep the perch in water and if you need to store it overnight, keep it refrigerated.
Most photographers agree that hand picked perches should look as natural as possible. An ideal perch would be a native plant normally found in the bird’s habitat and should not show signs of clipping or modification. I always consider it a huge bonus if I can use a perch which also tells something about the species’ natural history or environment. For example, crossbills and many other northern finch species’ lifecycles are tied to cone bearing pines, so an image with a crossbill on a pine branch complete with pine cones can make for an incredible image.
If you hang around the major bird photography forums online you’ll run across the acronym BOAS meaning “Bird on a Stick”. Heated discussion often takes place as there are some photographers who exclusively use bare sticks for perches their entire careers. Many photographers feel that, while once in a while a simple stick may be the best visual solution, it can get boring. Live branches with leaves, buds, or interesting bark allow the photographer to make a more complex composition with greater color diversity. Also keep in mind your background and bird colors so that your perch colors compliment both.
When using perches with leaves or blossoms, I find it best to make sure they are less than half the length of the bird. Giant flowers or leaves visually overwhelm the bird and disrupt the hierarchy of the image.
Another good rule of thumb is to only use branches that are less than half the width of the bird. Using any larger perch will usually result in the perch appearing to have too much visual weight in the image and will distract from the bird. Usually the smaller the branch width, the more elegant the image will appear.
Setting Up the Perch
Once you have selected the perfect perch you need to decide how to position it. I usually carry a number of tension clamps in various sizes along with a few zip ties and bungee cords in my camera bag. Most of the time I set up an old or cheap tripod and simply clamp the perch securely to one of the tripod legs or tension knobs. When possible, I place the tripod in an open area with a clean background behind it. If I have to set up in an area where there are other perches nearby that the bird would likely land on, I place grass or leaves on the competing perches to make them less stable and desirable. I also place loose vegetation over my tripod handle so that the bird doesn’t land on it. My wife even sewed a sort of cloth “skirt” which fits over my tripod legs and discourages birds from landing on the legs. During very windy situations it may be necessary to tie a weight or anchor the tripod down so that it doesn’t blow over and frighten away your subject.
When fastening the perch to the tripod, I try to tilt the leaf surfaces towards the camera to better see the leaves. I also try to place branches at a slight diagonal angle. When branches are exactly parallel or perpendicular (at 90 or 180 degree angles) with the edges of your image frame, the image tends to look somewhat static and lack movement.
Getting a Bird to Land on a Perch
Selecting a beautiful perch and setting it is relatively easy compared to actually getting a bird to land on it. One of the most effective methods involves placing your perch next to a bird feeding station. Even better yet, attach your perch directly to the bird feeder. This gives the birds a sort of landing zone before proceeding to feed. Placing a perch over a bird bath or water drip can be especially effective in areas where fresh water may not be readily available for miles. In the eastern US and Canada such areas are few and far between, but nearly the whole southwestern US qualifies. A bird photographer can also use other attractants near the perch like mealworms or song recordings. Getting a bird to land just where you want it takes a lot of practice and patience, but the rewards are sweet. The learning process can be a long one. It took me years to consistently get the results I wanted. Seeing an experienced photographer go through the setup process and then successfully attract a bird can cut down on the learning time, which is why my workshops which deal with setups (especially my warbler workshops) are my most popular instructional photo tours.
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Southern Ohio Workshop – Shawnee Report:
The weather was beautiful. The birds were cooperative. The forest was in peak bloom. In a word, it was perfect. Birds we had land on our perches included Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, Ovenbird, Eastern Towhee, Cerulean Warbler, plus we were able to photograph many other forest species.
This Yellow-throated Warbler kept landing on a car mirror in the parking lot and looking at himself, so on our final evening we put this perch up over the mirror and sure enough, he just loved it.
Eastern Towhee on Redbud. This species is incredibly difficult to photograph with a clean background and on a simple perch. This bird was quite cooperative for his species and gave us many good opportunities.
We had this Ovenbird on our perches but I also loved this more natural shot of him in a nearby redbud tree. We usually try to put a set up perch near an attractive natural perch so that even if the bird doesn’t go on our setup, we still get great shots. On occasion, I like the natural look better than the branch we put out.
Southern Ohio Workshop – Lake Hope Report
While the weather was not terribly helpful (dark and drizzle), we still had lots of cooperative birds and the clouds allowed us to shoot all day. Staying in the forest cabins is always so much fun. They are quite spacious, modern, and convenient, plus I love waking up to the sound of Scarlet Tanagers singing! Here are some favorite images from the trip:
Summer Tanager – again we had this bird land on a set-up but I ended up choosing the natural perch behind him as my favorite. I loved the loose but more complex composition. A big thanks to Bill Norton for spotting this guy. This species is fairly uncommon in Ohio.
Pine Warbler – he just loved hopping up on the pine cones on our perch. How perfect to photograph a Pine Warbler on pine cones. Another uncommon species to breed in Ohio, but Lake Hope has the most dense population of any Ohio forest.
Indigo Bunting. The sun peeked out briefly at the very end of the day to give us some warm colors on this bird.
Prothonotary Warbler – I love the over the shoulder look from this species because it shows off the yellow to green to blue transition on their back.
My switch to a 600mm Lens
Side by side comparisons of 600mm f4 IS to 500mm f4 IS.
Many photographers wonder if the 600mm lens is really worth all that extra money. 500mm is equal to 10x optical magnification, while 600mm is equal to 12x. Aside from the price tag, the 600mm is also much heavier, and more difficult (impossible for some) to handhold effectively. So why did I switch?
By switching to the 600mm it made it easy for me to wean myself off of tele-extenders. I have been shooting extender free for 5 months now and the quality of my images has improved dramatically. You might not be able to see the difference in a 600x400px image on my website, but I notice quite a difference in the full sized images. While the difference may not be huge for field guides or web use, for a full page print or magazine cover the difference is obvious. The motivation is not primarily commercial though, I simply very much enjoy seeing all that detail in my images. I would feel strange using a converter, putting huge amounts of time and effort into making an image, knowing it could have been a good deal sharper had I not used an extender. True, sometimes the birds are smaller in the frame when shooting without an extender, but even still there is so much more detail that I don’t mind cropping a bit more, or even better yet, leaving more environment in the image when possible. That’s not to say that I may encounter a situation when I simply can’t approach a bird as close as I need to and will at some point use my 1.4 extender. I still carry it in my backpack, but I am certainly only using it as a last resort. When I do use an extender (as I did all the time with my 500mm) my magnification will indeed be noticeably greater, especially with my 1.6x crop factor. (500mm x 1.4 x 1.6 = 1120 equivalent) while (600mm x 1.4 x 1.6 = 1344mm equivalent). It’s possible that I may re-nig this anti-teleconvertor position in the future, but for now, my lens is bare.
Using a 600mm also produces a cleaner background than a 500mm. The angle of view is narrower, so the backgrounds are automatically less in focus.
As far as the 600mm being difficult to hand hold, it’s actually not a big deal. First of all, I have no difficulty holding it for short periods of time. Second, even for fast moving subject matter, I usually prefer to keep the lens mounted to a tripod rather than hand holding. This allows me to have a more fluid, steady movement when tracking a bird, which in turn allows me to keep the central focusing sensor dead on the bird, which tends to yield a greater rate of sharply focused images, especially when shooting with non-pro camera bodies like the Canon D series I usually use.
Would I recommend everyone who is currently using 500mm to switch? No way. Both are outstanding lenses and each has advantages and disadvantages, but the general rule of thumb for bird photography is: the longer the lens the easier it is to make good bird photos. Not terribly eloquent, but you get the idea.
actual field test to show image size increase from 500mm to 600mm lenses with and without 1.4 teleconvertors.
Simulated Comparison. The very smallest box simulates what I would get in pixel increase if I were to switch from a Canon 40D to a 50D – something I think I will probably do soon.
Where to Photograph Birds in Ohio in May:
Anywhere! May is the best time for photography in Ohio – birds are everywhere.
Magee Marsh/Crane Creek – The best place to find lots of migrant songbirds up close including warblers, vireos, orioles, virtually any eastern migrant. Also check the road into the park for marsh birds like Black-crowned Night Heron, Great Egret, Virginia Rail, Blue-winged Teal, Marsh Wren, and more.
Conneaut, Ohio – towards the end of the month you can find a few shorebirds but nearly all will be strutting around in excellent breeding plumage. Save yourself a trip to the arctic – photograph at Conneaut in late May.
Any large forest or grassland will contain a sample of representative breeding species of Ohio. Usually the larger the habitat, the better. Ohio’s largest public forests are: Tar Hallow, Shawnee, and Zaleski State Forests. Some forests that have huge potential but little is known about them include Hocking Hills State Park and Tar Hallow State Forest. The deep ravines of Mohican State Park and Holden Arboretum also deserve more attention, for they contain northern breeding species such as Magnolia, Canada, and Blackburnian Warblers.
Your backyard or local public bird feeding station: Look for Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Purple Finches, Orioles, and Hummingbirds passing through, stopping by your feeder for a quick bite on the journey north.
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Wood Duck Workshop Report
The Wood Duck Photography at North Chagrin Reservation really couldn’t be more pleasant. Sunny fall days in the 60’s with a beautiful calm woodland pond in front you filled with tame Wood Ducks, and wonderful company to photograph them with: that’s my idea of a fun/relaxing time. Demand for the Wood Duck workshop is increasing so we ran the workshop two separate weekends this year. The weather was miraculously cooperative booth weekends. We had lots of ducks in perfect plumage. The fall colors were quite nice this year as well peaking sometime between October 10th and 17th.
Over the past 4 years I have made approximately 30,000 images of Wood Ducks and I still find my self excited to photograph them and get new and original images on a consistent basis. With all that experience I am able to almost read the ducks’ minds and predict their behavior. My experience with the ducks at North Chagrin along with my three months of fight photography last winter really paid off (ducks flying at the Cleveland Power Plants and Canadian owls). I was able to make a few high action shots of the drakes this season which I have always wanted but never was able to pull off in the past. Along with over a dozen Wood Ducks, we also were able to photograph a Ruddy Duck, American Black Duck, and a Cooper’s Hawk during the workshop. While the park is cracking down on the no feeding rule and expanding that to “no manipulating the bird’s behavior in any way” we still had plenty of photo opportunities and several of the participants remarked how they don’t remember shooting so many frames in a single day.
Other Bird Photography Career News this Month
Look for my work to be published in Birding Magazine (Eastern Wood Pewee on cover), a Cerulean Warbler to be used by the North American Catholic Diocese for their annual Calendar, and the Ohio Ornithological Society, and many more.
Where to Photograph in Ohio in late Fall/early Winter
Late Fall and early Winter is truly the slow time for bird photography in Ohio . I typically consider it the best time of year to catch up on image editing and website updates, or get out of the state and head south. There are however, a few exceptions. Duck migration is in full swing and if you stay tuned to the rare bird alerts, you may be able to find such rarities as Cackling Geese and stray hummingbirds from the western states. The only place in Ohio which I find consistently and predictably offers good shooting at this time is the duck pond at Castalia. With a little patience and a sunny day, you should be able photograph American Wigeon, Northern Shovelers, American Black Ducks, and maybe some other species especially after some of the other local ponds start to freeze up for the winter. This is also a good time of year to double your backyard bird feeding efforts. As natural food resources become scarcer, a good feeding station can both offer great photo opportunities for the photographer, and help the birds survive the colder weather as well. Good bird photography for most winter birds (snow buntings, longspurs, owls, diving ducks, rare gulls, Merlin on winter territories, winter finch invasions) won’t begin until January or February. Last but not least, this is the perfect time of year to call in Screech Owls. If anyone has a predictable bird, let me know, as this is one of the few species in Ohio I have left to photograph in digital!
Arizona Songbird Workshop Update – April 4-8, 2009 – Price will include all group meals, in-field instruction, and mid-day slideshows and Photoshop demonstrations. The first part of April is peak migration and as well as the most pleasant weather of the year for this location. We’ll be changing the workshop up just a bit this year by starting our trip near Sierra Vista at a ranch known for its migrants and regular visits from Scaled Quail. We’ll then target some higher elevation species in the beautiful Santa Rita Mountains and finish with a generous amount of time at a desert water hole near Green Valley , Arizona . The species diversity should be spectacular and we’ll easily walk away with 25-40 species landing on our perches and coming to the water and hummingbird feeders we will offer. My favorite and most predictable species will include Broad-billed and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Hooded and Bullock’s Orioles, Gila and Acorn Woodpeckers, Roadrunner, Gamble’s Quail, Lucy’s Warbler, Pyrrhuloxia, Mexican Jay, and many, many others.
2009 Workshop Schedule Online
My workshop schedule and details can be found here: www.studebakerbirds.com/tours.html
- April 4-8, 2009 Arizona Songbirds
- April 25-26 Southern Ohio Warblers and More – Shawnee Forest
- New May 2-3 Southern Ohio Warblers and More – Lake Hope
- May 9,10,11 Northern Ohio Warblers and More Full
- New June 17-21, 2009 Loons and Warblers of Michigan
- August 15-16, 2009 The Shorebird Workshop
- October 17-18, 2009 The Wood Duck Workshop
Brief Florida Trip Report
Lake Kissimmee, FL | Nov 29, 2008 | Hand-held from airboat
Canon 40D | Canon 600mm f4 IS | 1/2000 f5.6| ISO 200 | cropped from horz capture
Visiting Family in Florida a couple weeks ago I only had a few hours for photography. My primary goal was to photograph Snail Kites in the most cost effective and efficient method possible. I started talking to over a dozen local tour leaders offering boat trips into the lakes in Florida which coincide with the extremely limited range of the Snail Kite. Almost all tours used noisy air boats which I was worried to use. I didn’t think the birds would tolerate the noise and doubted the most of the leader’s ability to distinguish between SEEING a kite and what it takes to make a good PHOTO of a Kite. Others were very expensive. One tour leader, Rob Murchie (www.kissimmeeswamptours.com) used air boats but also actually seemed to have an excellent working knowledge of local wildlife. He also worked with photographers quite a bit and had even taken film crew of the BBC out to photograph the Kites. When he told me he could put on a male Snail Kite in good light within 4 minutes of me hiring him, I flat out told him I didn’t believe it, but had to give it a try. Captain Rob delivered all I was hoping for and then some, netting many over-the-top fantastic Kite shots in under three hours, along with outstanding opportunities at American Bittern, Limpkin, Bald Eagle, Purple Gallinule, herons, egrets, etc.
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Shorebird Workshop Report
On our annual shorebird workshop we took advantage of classic good shorebird shooting conditions with a species list which included a Solitary Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, 2 Black-bellied Plovers, 3 Stilt Sandpipers, a few Short-billed Dowitchers, and 5 Pectoral Sandpipers along with the usual suspects. An American Avocet flew around taunting us several times but never gave us a chance to photograph him. Our lecture/slideshows included shorebird ID tips, shooting strategy, and Photoshop demonstrations. When a thunderstorm rolled through in the afternoon of the last day, everyone except Alex Mody left. Alex and my persistence paid off as soon the rain departed and a family of Sora rails started wandering out of the cattails chasing each other over the mudflat for the remainder of the evening. Then a black-crowned night heron landed and ate some dragonflies while the evening light turned the whole scene into a study of golden browns.
Here are a few of my favorite shots from our two day workshop at Conneaut:
Black-crowned Night Heron
Photo by Alex Mody on the Shorebird Workshop
Approaching Birds in the Field -
Excerpt from my forthcoming book 2009 “The Complete Guide to Digital Bird Photography” (unedited initial version)
People frequently see me in the field with my long lens and make comments like, “Wow, you could photograph a hummingbird a mile away with that lens!”. Little do they know that with my 500mm lens and matching 1.4x converter I would actually have to be within twenty feet of a hummingbird to get a decent shot. Bird photographers constantly struggle to approach their subjects within photography range. Some photographers wait in blinds for hours, others belly crawl on the ground to make their profile less intimidating. Although close approaches are required even with large telephoto lenses, with proper technique and sensitivity towards avian body language, a photographer can learn to approach most any bird with out scaring them away.
Conneaut, Ohio | Canon 40D | Canon 500mm f4 IS | 1/800sec f5.6 | ISO 400
Take care not to unnecessarily frighten birds. Birds need to be spending every possible minute feeding, sleeping, and defending their territories, so if they are at any time diverted from these purposes for our benefit, we should keep it to an absolute minimum.
Some nature enthusiasts believe that even a single second of time diverted from a bird’s daily routine is ethically unsound. I however, disagree. Knowledgeable and considerate bird photographers may occasionally take a few moments of a bird’s time. Producing good photographs of nature allows others to experience and value species they may never have cared about otherwise. I believe for any major conservation effort to be successful, it must be supported by the general public. How are we to expect voters to set aside prime tracts of real estate for a rare warbler, for example, if they don’t even know what a warbler looks like?
Unfortunately, most bird photographers are less likely to error on the side of caution, than to unknowingly harm their subject or their reputation. That is why I emphasize that good bird photographers must first be knowledgeable ornithologists. Most ethical lapses occur accidentally when a photographer gets so excited about a potential photo opportunity that they forget to use common sense. Here are some common mistakes bird photographers make:
- Trimming foliage around nests to get a better shot.
- Accidentally causing a bird which is attending a nest to leave the nest for a time period causing the eggs to decrease in temperature or exposing young birds in the nest to possible predators.
- Scaring away rare migrants, ruining opportunities for other nature enthusiasts to see them.
- Playing recordings of bird calls too loud and too long on a bird’s breeding territory.
- Disobeying park rules to get a photo (feeding, going off trail, etc.).
- Walking up behind another bird photographer to get a shot, not knowing how long it took for that photographer to get close, risking ruining their photo opportunity.
- Stepping in front of bird watchers to get a shot (especially easy to do on boardwalks).
- Holding up traffic to get a photo out the car window.
- Using a perfectly harmless technique in front of others who may not understand the technique or know how to do it properly. This especially applies to using recordings or using live bait. For example I would advise against trying to feed an owl a mouse in front of anyone ever. Too many people will fell sorry for the mouse and make a huge issue of the practice.
Unfortunately there seems to be a growing sense of “us verses them” in the birding community. This must stop. We are on the same team, we enjoy the same animals, and fight for the same conservation. There is much crossover between birders and bird photographers: Many birders take photographs and nearly all the best bird photographers are also birders. Each photographer must do their part to preserve their reputation and their right to access important birding areas.
Me, Alex, and Richard photographing a Short-billed Dowitcher
Photo courtesy of Michael Lustbader http://lustbaderphotoblog.blogspot.com/
Learn to Read Body Language.
When approaching a bird, by paying attention to the bird’s behavior and movements, it’s fairly easy to know whether you are at risk of frightening the bird. Very few birds suddenly stop what they are doing and fly away without warning. Before taking flight, they open their eyes wide, stretch out their necks, cease all movement, and look directly at their perceived threat. If you approach a bird and they exhibit at least two of these signs, stop what you are doing, stand perfectly still, and wait for the bird to break eye contact and resume whatever it was they were doing. Then proceed slowly.
Act Like a Cow
Have you ever seen birds in a field next to grazing cattle or deer? Birds trust these large animals mostly because these animals mind their own business. When I was just starting to learn bird photography I spent over an hour trying to approach a Blue-winged Teal feeding in a canal next to a jogging path. Every time I would get close to photo range it would retreat. Then along came several women doing their daily exercises and the duck allowed them to walk right by it without even looking at them. I soon realized that I was acting like a predator by constantly staring at the duck and moving directly towards it. The walkers, however, never even noticed the duck and consequently the duck never perceived them as a threat. Now when approaching a flighty subject, I bring to mind the behavior of cattle grazing next to flocks of birds. I try not to make unnecessary eye contact. I move randomly and slowing rather than in a direct line, building the bird’s trust, letting them get used to my presence. I stay as low to the ground as possible, and make no sudden movements. In this manner, the birds begin to trust me. After I have gained their trust, I am much more free to move about and reposition myself.
While leading one of my first shorebird photography workshops, I demonstrated this technique of acting like a large grazing mammal much to everyone’s amazement. We had over 8 species of shorebirds feeding in a small mudflat including Red Knots, Stilt Sandpipers, and a Short-billed Dowitcher. At first, the birds would raise their heads and sound an alarm call with our slightest movement. But after acting like large herbivores in about 30 minutes the birds were totally used to our presence. Least Sandpipers were walking around us in circles; Red Knots were feeding inside our minimum focusing distance, etc. After we had gained their trust we could even carry on normal conversations and get up slowly to get new batteries or cards from our vehicles as so forth. Now I demonstrate this technique on workshops whenever the opportunity arises.
Sora (Adult in not too shabby plumage out in the open at sunset. That pretty much made my day!)
Conneaut, Ohio | Canon 40D | Canon 500mm f4 IS |
Disguise Your Form
If a direct approach is necessary, try to keep trees, poles, dunes, buildings, and other large objects between you and the bird. Even after passing the object you used to mask your approach, keep yourself lined up with it so that it hides your silhouette. Another way to disguise your form when approaching birds is to drive up to them in your car. Some birds seem to not recognize humans or see them as much of a threat when we are riding in a vehicle. Cars make excellent mobile blinds – simply photograph out an open window.
Predictability is your Ally
Birds often set up routines and have favorite places to eat just like humans. Songbirds will usually have several favorite branches to sing from. Ducks or shorebirds often favor a small shallow area in a pond. Raptors may choose a favorite tall perch to hunt from. By sensitive observation of your subject, you may discover their favorite hang out, and then set up your camera accordingly. Even if the bird is temporarily frightened away, it will probably return soon. A blind may be especially useful or even necessary in order to make the bird feel safe to return and continue using its prized location. Some birds use a favored resource every few minutes (like hummingbirds to hummingbird feeders), others only every week (such as raptors and a hunting perch). If you set up nearby and the bird doesn’t return at the next likely time during its routine cycle, back off and try something else. If the bird is forced to vary from its routine for long, it may expend unnecessary time and energy to find a replacement resource which may compromise its ability to survive or reproduce.
New Workshop Focusing on Loons and Warblers of Northern Michigan
While in Churchill , Manitoba I fell in love with the Pacific Loon family who accepted me as one of them and let me spend many hours in the crystal clear northern lake while they dove around me. While I won’t be able to run a Churchill workshop this year, I found an even better loon photography opportunity right here the Great Lakes area. I have worked out an agreement with the famed Nettie Bay lodge to run a workshop which will include the cost of lodging, amazing meals cooked by Jackie, and use of a pontoon boat designed for photography and operated by Mark who has a great deal of experience helping photographers get into the perfect position on the lake to photograph their loons. We’ll time the workshop so that the loons will be feeding their downy-feathered young providing incredible opportunities for every manner of loon image imaginable. During my research and boat rides with Mark, the loons were diving right under our boat and practically yodeling in our ears – amazing! As you know there are a couple other workshops from Nettie Bay , so why take mine? Reason #1 – I only schedule four participants. Other workshops schedule 8 people and make them take turns. We’ll essentially get twice the shooting time per session. Reason #2 – I’m very experienced with songbird photography. It’s my forte; it’s what I do best. The songbird sessions won’t just be filler while you’re forced of the loon boat half-way through the afternoon, and we won’t be photographing chickadees. I’ll take you right to the best photo opps for warblers and help make world class images of some of the most difficult species to photograph on the continent. As always, we’ll be shooting for quality over quantity with the warblers and northern songbirds.
Common Loon with Bass
Northern Michigan | Canon 40D | Canon 500mm f4 IS
Common Loon Underwater
Northern Michigan | Canon 40D | Canon 18-55mm |
Common Loon in Mist
Northern Michigan | Canon 40D | Canon 500mm f4 IS
Other Bird Photography Career News this Month
Look for my work to be published in the forthcoming field guide Birds of North America published by Dorling Kindersley of London and New York
Equipment for Sale
I certainly don’t need two, and may upgrade to the 600mm soon.
Where to Photograph in Ohio in September:
-Check your local mudflat for shorebirds. Classic mudflats in Ohio include Berlin Reservoir, Hoover Reservoir, Ottowa National Wildlife Refuge, and Conneaut. Be ready to get dirty.
-Ceder Waxwings often stage on dead logs overlooking open water or marshland.
-Hummingbirds are finishing their migration south and my reach peak numbers at local feeders at the beginning of the month.
-September ushers through large numbers of neotropical migrant passerines like warblers, along with many raptors. Photographing migrants is a challenge, but with persistence and lots of time can be accomplished at migrant traps like Magee Marsh. Another method for photographing these migrants is to set up a water drip and possibly set out mealworms or grubs for birds such as bluebirds. The Maslowski Brothers in southern Ohio have had luck with both techniques.
Conneaut, Ohio | Canon 40D | Canon 500mm f4 IS |
Wood Duck Workshop Update – there is still one spot open on each weekend of the wood duck workshop should anyone wish to join us.
Weekend of October 11-12, one spot left
Weekend 18-19 one spot left – $600/Weekend includes all group meals, in-field instruction, and mid-day slideshows and Photoshop demonstrations.
Perhaps the nation’s best location for Wood Duck Photography – visit as the foliage around the ponds turn the water into crimsons and oranges while the ducks swim close enough to touch.
New URL – My Website Dilemma
While moving into my new house my old URL www.matthewstudebaker.com expired and was purchased by an online casino to take advantage of my site traffic without my knowledge (my hosting company was unable to reach me). I will not be able to reclaim this old URL for a full year, so my new URL for bird photography will be www.studebakerbirds.com. Sorry for the inconvenience, please update your internet browser bookmarks accordingly. It might be a little while before all the pages in the gallery section are updated as I have to edit the html page by page (a process I need to revise and streamline – any ideas anyone?).
2009 Workshop Schedule Now Online
My workshop schedule and details can be found here: www.studebakerbirds.com/tour.html
- April 25-26 Southern Ohio Warblers and More – Shawnee Forest
- New May 2-3 Southern Ohio Warblers and More – Lake Hope
- May 9,10,11 Northern Ohio Warblers and More
- June 2-6 Arizona Songbirds
- New June 17-21 Loons and Warblers of Michigan
- August 15-16 The Shorebird Workshop
- October 17-18 The Wood Duck Workshop
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Churchill Manitoba Research Trip Report
My small prop plane touched down in Churchill , Manitoba , Canada through dense clouds and sleet. My goal for the trip: to find and photograph northern nesting species of birds and assess the town’s potential for future photographic workshops. The humble village of Churchill situated near the arctic treeline bordering the Hudson Bay seemed very severe and lifeless with dead tundra grass and small mudflats stretching to the horizon, only occasionally broken by small groups of stunted spruce trees.
Ice finally breaking up on the Hudson Bay, halfway through my trip
Strong winds blew sheets of frozen rain into my face as I lugged 100+ pounds of camera equipment from the plane to the tiny airport. I found more than adequate lodging through a private hotel which offered me a rate of only $20 per night. Although it was June 14th, the Hudson Bay was still frozen solid and the Churchill River still harbored many giant sections of ice. It turned out that the spring there has been abnormally cold and the progression of migrants, foliage, etc is about a week behind schedule.
By my second day there, the snow clouds departed and it warmed up to 60 degrees ferenheit. Giant cracking noises and thunderous booms sounded from the bay as the ice began to break up. Baluga whales were seen by the dozens entering the river mouth, flowers started to show up on the tundra, and yes, the birds began nesting.
Willow Ptarmigan in Lapland Rosebay
The bird life was not readily apparent and required days of searching and a lot of disappointing hikes to finally find the best photographic opportunities such as locating nest sites for Pacific Loon, Common Eider, a Horned Grebe, Parasitic Jeager, Whimbrel, American Golden Plover, and Semi-palmated Plover. Spending lots of time in the field paid off. There are miles and miles of desolate Tundra before a few isolated patches of active bird areas show up, at times quite a ways from the main rd. (the best Golden Plover nest I found was ¼ a mile hike off the rd).
American Golden Plover
Even though some of the species I photographed were fairly common as migrants through Ohio , by the time they actually show up in Ohio their plumage is either basic winter or severe molt. It was quite amazing to see and photograph these birds in their full and perfect breeding plumage. Other good discoveries included finding places where Willow Ptarmigan wondered out of the dense forest south of town to feed on the tundra flowers which were blooming in great numbers by the end of the week. There were almost no insects until my last day of research, June 20, when it became necessary to wear latex gloves and an insect net hat, preventing the mosquitoes from reaching my skin (a very effective method, I didn’t get a single bite despite hundreds of insects swarming at the hottest portion of the day).
In mid June in Churchill the sun doesn’t set until 10:30 at night and rises at 4:30am . For the photographer who wants to maximize good light angles, that means sleeping four hours at night and four during mid-day. The schedule was difficult the first day but then my body adapted and it became an easy schedule to follow.
All in all, the trip was amazing. Not only am I happy with my photo results, but just having the experience of wading in the Hudson Bay between chunks of ice the size of houses, seeing American Golden Plovers run through tundra flowers, and gaining the trust of a Pacific Loon family as they dove right next to me in crystal clear lake water will be times I’ll never forget.
It’s very likely that I’ll want to share these experiences with other photographers and lead a workshop to Churchill sometime in the next few years.
Excerpt from my forthcoming book “The Complete Guide to Digital Bird Photography”
Tech Tip: One Image, Different Files (this is an unedited version and will be revised for grammar and syntax in my final version)
If an image is worth the effort of processing, it deserves to be saved as a least five separate files.
1. The Original File (RAW or JPEG) - Keep this file directly from your camera in its unaltered state, whether you shoot in RAW mode or shoot JPGs, This file is like your negative in the days of film.
2. The Work File (TIFF) – Even the best photos can usually use a least minor tweaking. I try to save each correction, as much as possible, in separate layers in a TIFF file so that the corrections can be undone with out reworking the whole file. Work files can take up a lot of hard drive space, but they save me hundreds of hours each year. Back in the archaic era of film, photographers used to call these “work prints”, and would mark them up with pen or sharpie markers to show intended adjustments to be made for the final print. In the digital age, you’ll only need one master work file, but sometimes if your editing choices lead you in two different directions and you can’t decide which one to chose, go ahead and create two or more work files and save them as TIFFs. I recommend inputting all your meta data for the file at this stage of editing, as it will be the parent file for all the others that get created in the future.
3. The Final Copy (TIFF or JPEG) – this is the full-sized, perfected version of your original image. It’s usually nothing more than a work file that has its layers flattened. This is the file you send to magazine editors, contests, and so forth.
4. The Resized Work File (TIFF) – every time a file is resized, it usually requires additional adjustments, namely sharpening. If saving for the web, many photographers also add some copyright text and website URL. If you don’t save this file and post the image on the web on a critique forum or simply want to go back and change it later, you’ll be very glad you have this file. I go back to about 25% of my files and change them at some point; many photographers go back to nearly every single one, so it’s worth the extra few seconds to save the resized work file.
5. The Resized Final Copy (JPEG) – once a file has been sharpened and adjusted for printing or the web, this is the file that actually gets printed or uploaded to a website. For printing, sending to editors, contests, and saving for the web, I always use high resolution jpg files if a TIFF is not requested.
Other Bird Photography Career News this Month
Look for my work this summer published in Birder’s World, Birding Magazine, and a forthcoming book, “Important Bird Areas of Ohio”.
Where to Photograph in Ohio in Late Summer:
-Grassland Birds are still on territory, in fact, late nesters like Sedge Wrens and American Goldfinches may have just laid their first eggs of the year. The Wilds, Egypt Valley , Tri-valley, and Woodbury Wildlife Areas are wonderful places to check.
- Late July through August is a great time to find early fall migrants. Shorebirds, while few in number, may still be in decent breeding plumage. Conneaut , Ohio is a good place to look.
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