Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Day 2009: Starlings, Cedar Waxwings and Robins

I wish all my visitors Happy Holidays  and productive New Year, one filled with many birding  and photography adventures. It's  been an exciting six months since I wrote my first post, one triggered by my experience of environmental degradation and its devastating effects on bird life. . I read many interesting blogs and got to know some very creative people. I 'd like to thank you for taking the time and extra effort to leave comments.  I am learning from them and welcome also those that offer different points of view and suggestions on how to improve my blog.

Here is my curmudgeon view on the Christmas shopping season, not that shopping is not good for the economy, but don't let the Christmas spirit get squashed:

Santa Claus Express (card designed by German artist Michael Sowa)

This part of New England continues to be cold and quiet, particularly today - almost spooky; all stores closed, parking lots empty, with no scavenging gulls or crows, hardly a car on the road, the sky  a lowering gray.  I went down to the West River trail to give my dog some exercise and distraction. He had been sitting at the end of our drive way listening and hoping for a neighbor's dog to come by. We were alone on the trail.

He amused himself by chasing a green tennis ball on the half-frozen snow of the adjacent field. I heard a Northern Cardinal call, but as soon as I got close enough for a photo he flew away. The Marina Restaurant, a favorite eating spot in the summer, is closed for the winter and looked bleakly shabby and forlorn.

Back of the restaurant. The West River is frozen solid.

I checked on some crab apple trees on the way home. At first nothing, then a large flock of European Starlings descended on the trees, power lines and on the ground, filling the air with their conversational twittering. In the quiet what a welcome sound!

Upon looking around I discovered a large flock of Cedar Waxwings in another tree further off, making forays down into the crab apple trees.

Next I discovered several American Robins also partaking of the fruit..

Cheers to lengthening days and warmer times to come!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

James Wyeth's Ornithological Paintings

Another big snowstorm... I am using this enforced idleness by looking through my collection of art books and rediscovered this book of James Wyeth paintings, which I bought several years ago on a trip to Rockland Maine after visiting the Farnsworth Art Museum and Wyeth Center, based on an exhibition at the center in 2005.

It's a enchanting book. The paintings of gulls, ravens, some domestic fowl and a vulture are breathtaking. It's a pity this book is out of print, although still available from private sellers on at a higher price than what I think I would have paid. Anyway, I have to share my pleasure in looking at these plates and  I am taking the liberty of reproducing some images here, which I believe is permissible under the copyright law if it's done in the context of a book review*.

The book contains many more plates of an artist with a keen insight into bird behavior. These gulls are depicted as individuals and yet are also representatives of their species.  The book also includes essays by Bernd Heinrich on Ravens, by Richard Harris Podolsky on Gulls and by Victoria K Woodhull on Barnyard Birds.

* I will however write to the Farnsworth Art Museum  for permission and remove the images if this is not granted. Since these images have turned up on Google Search and have been downloaded, I have added  "COPYRIGHT PROTECTED" to interfere with the unauthorized use

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Plum Island: the Good and the Bad

The Good: It was a beautiful day on Dec 6 with the sun shining brightly and a few wispy clouds. The thin layer of frosty snow on the paths crunched under my feet. The trees and bushes sparkled with brittle ice crystals; The low-lying winter sun made the pools and wetlands glitter...

The Bad: The harsh sunlight created deep shadows and bright high lights with little in between. The birds on the glimmering water were often just silhouettes. Rafts of ducks were floating far from shore feeding,  heads in the water, showing just their backs, rarely surfacing to catch a breath. I only got a few decent photos of Gadwalls, Northern Pintails and Northern Shovelers out of the several hundred that I took. There were plenty of Canada Geese, Mallards, Hooded Mergansers. Small birds were almost entirely absent except for a few unidentifiable sparrows in a road-side thicket. I saw three Northern Harriers flying near the road, but none giving me enough time for a shot. By late afternoon shortly before the sun went down at 5 PM a few more clouds appeared, too late to make much of a difference in the light situation.

Male Gadwall

Male Gadwalls

Gadwall Pair

Mixed Gadwall Group

Northern Pintails

I got out of the car to try for a picture at a different angle to minimize the sun glare, but as soon as I got out ehe birds turned their back and started swimming away from shore.

Northern Pintails

Even at a distance Pintails are recognizable by their "pin tail" butts

A group of Northern Shovelers had congregated near the center of the pool

 Northern Shovelers

These were probably Lesser Scaups with  the wind ruffling the feathers on the back of their necks

I had printed out Tom Wetmore's list of recent sightings and was particularly interested in ocean sightings but the surf was too high for any birds. They were either staying farther out at sea or had  taken refuge in a quiet cove elsewhere. At any rate scanning the ocean with my binoculars I didn't see any birds except for a  few gulls.Still the ocean's turmoil was awe inspiring and the low-pitched roaring of the waves gave an indication of the formidable might of the sea. One could hear the waves' thunder long before traversing the dunes.

 I made a recording of the ocean waves. Here is a 45 sec clip.

The sun was going down

Last picture at Ocean 1 near sunset at 5 PM when the refuge closed. .

Next time I'll pick an overcast day, but still  it was wonderful,  one of those soul-cleansing days.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

City of Light

Yesterday evening downtown Brattleboro was lit up for the monthly first Friday Gallery Walk, a chance for local artists and craftspeople to show their work. Because of the coming holidays this was a particularly festive occasion. The sidewalks packed with revelers and street musicians were filling the air with their music.

This is a view down from a parking lot on the lit-up Centre Congregational Church on Main Street with the post office parking lot in the foreground. The sky reflects the bright lights from the streets and buildings. Taking this photos was a bit tricky as the dark areas required a slow shutter speed.  I balanced my camera on a chain link fence and in order to prevent camera shake used a remote control cable l to take the three photos for this composite.  I am pleased with the result: the dark sky as well as the highlights on the building and the white postal trucks are showing good detail.

Tomorrow I am planning to get back to birding, will take a trip to the coast if the forecast for sunshine tomorrow holds. Right now it doesn't look very promising with first-of-the-season light snow falling.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Continuing my experiments with HDR

There is not much going on right now, birdwise I mean; so am continuing my experimentation with HDR photography. These photos were taken during a walk along the West River Trail this morning. The sky was clear initially but then became populated with heavy rain clouds. Fortunately the rain held off until we got back home.

This is an image of the cornfield by the Retreat Meadow behind the Marina Restaurant. Great for birding most of the year: sparrows along the perimeter, indigo buntings in the corn plants, ducks and geese in the puddles and shallow ponds along the far side, raptors overhead, crows any time of the year..

The trail is an old abandoned railroad track. It is broad at first but then narrows for a stretch as it passes beneath the I91 bridge over the river. .

These curlicues are spray-painted on a cement bridge abutment. I have no idea who did it or why but was intrigued by the three-dimensional feel of it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

HDR Images from Newfane, Vermont

Here are some images from Newfane, Vermont, using HDR imaging

It's one of those picturesque Vermont towns - you'd think this is the way it must have looked like in the 18th century, except for the cars and the ubiquitous overhead electric cables.

The West River off Rte 30 on the way into Newfane

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Black Scoter

Thanks to JoAnne Russo, who posted a report in the VTBird list,  I was finally able to see and take a photo of an adult male Black Scoter which was swimming around by himself on a small pond in Newfane, VT. It's another life bird for me and I had been looking for one all  fall after reading various reports in the VT, NH and Mass birding lists.

The water was clear enough to show his big paddle-like feet

Well, enough. It's off for the holidays!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Trying HDR photography and saying good-bye for the year to a Great Blue Heron

I have been experimenting with HDR (High Dynamic Range) imaging. It's a technique of fusing several images taken with different exposure, i.e. over-, under- and correct exposure, resulting in an image which contains a wider range of very dark and very bright areas than would ordinarily be possible. Since there is always a small delay between each exposure the images are best taken with the camera on a tripod. Handheld images, like mine,  usually result in some ghosting and are never quite sharp.

Here is my first effort, a view from our deck on the wetland next to our house. I used a demo version of Photomatix. The sky often comes out gray and has to be corrected in Photoshop. In fact most images require further editing in Photoshop:


Here is a landscape taken in late afternoon sunlight:



A mall in Keene:

The technique is derived from 3-D imaging in video games and many of the images on the net are still reminiscent of a toy-size model set-ups. One give-away of an HDR image is the appearance of a sky with unusually dramatic cloud formations. Here is a site that explains the technique and has some good examples along with  tutorials: Stuck in Customs. I am not sure how far I am going to go with this. I generally prefer more natural-looking images but it might be fun in the winter when there are not many birds around.

While walking on the railroad trail behind the shopping mall in Keene a Great Blue Heron suddenly appeared overhead. It was the same one I had been observing for much of the summer and fall, first as a juvenile and now as a grown bird. He'll soon be off going south.

Good Birding! And Happy Thanksgiving. For us it's off to Michigan again for a week to visit family..