Thursday, December 29, 2011


Common in the south, Dickcissel is very much a rarity in the north east and can usually be found hanging out with House Sparrows, with whom they are superficially related. This individual was hanging out with a large flock of House Sparrows - 30 or so, at the edge of ball fields at Inwood Hill Park. It was a very skittish flock - perhaps the fence line they were at is a favorite hunting spot for Accipiters, because they rarely spent more than 30 seconds on the ground feeding at any one time.

This bird is a first winter male, aged by the narrow dark streaking on the breast (immature), tapered primaries that don't show in this photo (immature) and the quite extensive yellow on the breast (male). Immatures tend to be the ones to wander - adults much less frequently.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Rufous Hummingbird in NYC

Every few years a Rufous Hummingbird turns up in/around NYC, and this year is one of them. There have been a lot of Rufous in the general region this late fall, and this is certainly an unusually late one.

It was feeding on a remaining patch of flowers outside the American Museum of Natural History Planetarium entrance on the north side of the building with no direct sun. There's no flash used in this image - this is actually from sunlight reflected off a nearby building on the north side of W81st Street. It's an immature female - various tail-spread shots (see the one I added below) are pretty definitive for both age and species and allow separation from the very similar Allen's Hummingbird (yet to be placed on the NY State bird list despite a Central Park example of Allen's in 2002).

Sadly the prospects for this bird are not good - it's lacking in energy and often clings to plants while feeding. It's doubtful it has the ability to migrate south far enough to find more flowering plants, so this will likely be its final stop. Proving me at least partially wrong, it's a tough bird in a mild winter, and it's still there as of Feb 7th 2012, apparently currently in retrix molt.

Unusual Ruddy Turnstone

In the lower image the typical appearance of winter-plumaged Ruddy Turnstone is in the lower left-hand corner. A Purple Sandpiper is in the middle, and this rather atypical Ruddy is at the top right. The top image shows what it looks when it's walking around feeding - demonstrably a Ruddy Turnstone but with no paler rufous fringing and a very extensive breast mark. Although Ruddy Turnstone and Black Turnstone overlap in breeding range in Alaska there's actually nothing in this bird to indicate a Black Turnstone hybrid - it's just a very dark Ruddy and one that really stuck out from all the other 40+ Ruddies that were roosting on the side of Barnegat Inlet jetty. I've considered melanism (or some other color defect) as a possible explanation - it's interesting that at least in the "group" photo the legs are noticeably a darker shade than the other Turnstone.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

EOS-1D X - notsomuch

I'm underwhelmed by the announced 1D X that Canon says will be available as of March 2012. (Nice summary by Rob Galbraith's site). Basically it's an 18 mpix full frame fast-firing pro camera with lots of video extras and rather substantial redesign (again!) of the AF system amongst other things. Given my experience of the 1D III and 1D IV AF performance is less than totally stellar, I reserve judgement and enthusiasm on that part.

Most significant for me is the pixels. There are more pixels than the 1D IV, but it's 18 vs 16 and the move to full frame means that the pixels are larger on the chip. This is great for noise - it should certainly decrease, but pixel density decreases over both the 1Ds III (21 mpix, full frame) and the 1D IV (equivalent density to 27 mpix full frame). Since my wildlife photography is almost always pixel-density limited I'm not going to drop $6K to have the number of pixels on my subject drop by 1/3. That's a very large number and enough to offset any improvements that may be under the hood.

This is probably a recognition that Canon have reached the upper limits of signal/noise for their current chip technology so the only way to lower noise is to drop pixel density. It's going to be very interesting to see where they go with the 5D Mark II and 7D successors - in the latter case the 7D noise level is too high for my taste, but since it has a pixel density equivalent to 46 mpix full frame it can afford to lose 1/4 of them and still be a very interesting upgrade over what I'm getting on the 1D IV.

Upside: this leaves extra cash to consider the new 600/4L II (which is about the same size/weight as my 500/4L).

Thursday, October 6, 2011

R.I.P. Steve Jobs

All my digital photography processing has been done on a Mac - a succession of G4, G5 Power Macs and iBooks, and intel MacBook, MacBook Pro and iMac. I do research in structural biology using Apple's underlying Unix operating system (open and see what I mean). I have the inevitable iPod (music and image backup while traveling) and iPhones. I'm writing this on my Mac Pro octacore at work. I also owned a NeXT, once upon a time.

So it was appropriate that last night I found out about the very sad news of Steve Jobs death from a NYTimes alert read on my iMac. While not the only visionary in technology he was the most iconic, and it is so sad to lose him this soon. For those of us that remember Apple's darkest days when it was perilously close to bankrupcy (e.g. Wired's "Pray" cover - shown here), Apple's ascendency in the second Steve Jobs era was nothing short of breathtaking. Pray that it continues.

Addendum: Jobs has, in ways small and large, altered the ways I have done things and reacted to technology. The iPhone is iconic and much impersonated because it is both functional and beautiful in ways that enhance using it. However his vision, will and force of personality is also conveyed in the ideas and products he created. That why I had an emotional response to his death, like many other people. However I'm not sure he is someone I would have liked to work closely with - the other aspect to his character, which also made him effective, is nicely illustrated by this piece on him at the PDN site. If you read that, and also his 2005 Stanford commencement address, you get a sense of just how singular a person he was.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Gray-hooded Gull

This is (ostensibly) the second U.S.A. record of Gray-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus) and only the third for North America. Other records were Florida in 1998, Barbados in 2009. Contrary to it's extreme rarity status it's wandering around on the heavily used beach at Coney Island, Brooklyn, NYC. Since this is not a prime birding spot it was found by chance and it took a little while for the word to get out. Since then it's fair to assume that hundreds of people have seen it and probably hundreds more are hoping to. It goes by the name Grey-headed Gull outside the AOU area.

These pictures are from August 2nd.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

AOU 52nd Supplement

Although this is mostly a birding issue, I like to tag my photos with scientific names and common names. In this "splitting" climate for the records committees it can be quite consuming to keep up with things.

Witness the contents of the AOU 52nd supplement, readable at .

Modest changes are:
Split Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) from Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)
Split Snowy Plover (Charadrius nivosus) from Kentish/Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus)
Internal split in Mexican Jay makes it become (Aphelocoma wollweberi)

But the greatest mayhem is in the New World Warblers, where DNA evidence has led to a widespread rearrangement of the genera. While this is pretty much justified some people are going to have a hard time with the disappearance of Dendroica, for example, which turns into Setophaga. Hooded Warbler leaves Wilsonia and heads into Setophaga, Ovenbird breaks from the Waterthrushes (which become Parkesia) etc etc etc. That should only take a few tens of hours to sort out.....

Thursday, July 21, 2011

And another....

The Dennisville saltmarsh Seaside Sparrows seem to be rather further along in nesting than the Great Bay Boulevard ones, at least judging by the number of adults bombing around the marsh and very few singing. This adult was not all that happy I was even in the parking lot, which is why it paused on a phragmites stem to check me out before heading off to the nest.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Seaside Sparrow

Adult Seaside Sparrow, Great Bay Boulevard Wildlife Management Area, Tuckerton NJ. Of course there's no shortage of Seaside Sparrows in the coastal saltmarshes of NJ although they aren't always as cooperative as this individual which perched roadside for me. While not singing, I suspect it's a male since it's really on the males that perch up like this. With its gray and olive plumage and often bedraggled appearance it's a bird best appreciated in its subtlety.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Juvenile Barn Swallow getting fed

Being in the right place at the right time, I was watching this juv Barn Swallow when the parents started feeding it. This is one of the benefits of the 1D IV - this action is happening way too fast to time the shot (much less than 1 second for the entire exchange), so I put the ISO up to 400 and when the adult bird came in I just leaned on the shutter and let the 10 fps deal with the rest. After a little while I went on my way to avoid stressing the juvenile. It was quite capable of flight, since I saw it make a couple of its own loop flights before returning to another phragmites stalk.

Brigantine division of Forsythe NWR, Sunday, using the car as a blind on the auto tour route.

Friday, July 8, 2011

OR-WA trip: California Quail

California and Gambel's Quails have this strange compulsion to perch up on objects, possibly to survey their territory. This male was sitting roadside on some man-made object early in the morning in Wenas Valley (near Yakima, WA, on the eastern edge of the Cascades range). Not the most natural of perches but a fabulously ornate plumage with that head plume. Now if only Mountain Quail were as cooperative.....

LA-TX trip: Willet

An annoyed Willet (Eastern ssp) over the boardwalk at Sabine NWR in Louisiana. This was on a little side-trip prior to a work conference in New Orleans whose main focus was Bachman's Sparrow and Red-cockaded Woodpecker. The boardwalk passed through fairly typical marshland habitat for an Eastern Willet - it also held Seaside Sparrow - although by this point it's getting close to the edge of this Willet subspecies range. I didn't see a nest or juveniles although since these adults were hovering above me there's no doubt there were some nearby.

Late spring: Grasshopper Sparrow

Spring migration didn't produce an epic flood of photos, and I was between two trips (LA-TX, mainly work with a little birding; OR-WA, birding and photography) when I ventured out into Franklin Twp to check the grasslands. I found this male Grasshopper Sparrow perched up singing away - although not a tall shrub it was the tallest one in the field and this was obviously a frequent singing perch (see the whitewash) from which this male was singing for an extended period.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Summer Tanager

Summer Tanager is a fairly rare "overshoot" species in Central Park, since the breeding range is entirely to the south and south-west of NYC. Sometimes the birds travel a little too far - in fact judging from multiple sightings within the park and around NYC this has been a big year for overshoots. This is a first spring male - it has substantial elements of adult male plumage but the primaries are still green from the original first fall plumage. I actually saw another first spring male Summer Tanager about a week later, making this an exceptional spring for them, and the only year that I've ever seen two in NYC. Most years I don't see any.

This individual was "fly"catching bees in the oaks on the south side of Turtle Pond, giving excellent views to those who stopped to watch.

Cape May Warbler

I tracked this male down by its unobtrusive singing, and it was kind enough to pose for a few photos before it wandered off. In the last few years Cape Mays have been rather less uncommon than have been the case historically, although it's not clear what is causing the trend. Nevertheless an adult male in full alternate plumage is a striking sight.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Blue-winged Warbler

Another male warbler, this time Blue-winged Warbler. A little bit of yellowish veiling on the wing bars and the somewhat pointed tail feathers make me think that it's a first year bird. It's also perhaps a notch below the very yellowest Blue-winged that one encounters in spring. It was pretty vocal. This photo was taken around the same time as the Blackburnian Warbler shot in the previous post.

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

An adult male. April 30th (rather early for a day with multiple singing Blackburnians).

Monday, March 28, 2011

Glaucous Gull

First winter (or perhaps given the late date, better to say "first cycle") Glaucous Gull in rather worn plumage, taken on an NJ pelagic. Although in this case we were very much inshore, perhaps only a mile or three off the coast. The mass of the bird is rather well shown in this instance - chunky body, broad wings, but the tail is in all sorts of disrepair. However the size of the bird wasn't appreciably greater than the multitude of Herring Gulls.

This pelagic was not at all productive for actual pelagic species, but having a Glaucous Gull soar over my head was a decent consolation prize. Other gulls included two Icelands (the immature was the more cooperative of the two) and two Lesser Black-backed.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Painted Bunting

In contrast to the drab Eastern Phoebe this male Painted Bunting is positively lurid. This was taken on the same FL trip, but in West Palm Beach.

Eastern Phoebe

Adult Eastern Phoebe, Everglades National Park. Eastern Phoebes are one of those species whose most hardy incarnations turn up in March in NYC, but more typically opt for a more luxurious winter in the balmier climates of FL and southern TX. This is an adult (as evidenced by tail feather shape, since these get replaced in fall). I've seen Phoebe fledgelings as early as the 3rd week in May, so their hardiness translates to an early start to the breeding season.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Short-tailed Hawk in flight

Pale morph Short-tailed Hawk, apparently an immature based on plumage pattern around the head. There don't seem to be reliable population estimates for Short-tailed Hawk, but the FL population is isolated and probably not all that large. It's also easily overlooked - superficially similar to immature Red-tailed Hawk - quite a few birders don't recognize Short-tailed when they see them, even along Anhinga Trail which is one of the most reliable places to see them in the winter. This bird was circling fairly low over me as it took off from near the Anhinga Trail visitor center at 9am. I saw a total of two pale morph and one dark morph at Anhinga over multiple visits, and one more dark morph at Shark Valley for a total of four on my recent FL trip. In FL the dark morph predominates in the population.

Snail Kite in flight

This is an immature male Snail Kite that I watched hunting at Loxahatchee NWR in western Boynton Beach in FL, at the north-eastern edge of the Everglades. This is about as close as I'd ever come to a Snail Kite as it made regular hunting forays over the wetlands and picked up snails. Snail Kites have highly hooked bills that enable them to work with snails. This individual is banded.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Roseate Spoonbill

Adult in flight at Paurotis Pond in Everglades National Park. The Roseates were nesting amongst a colony of Wood Storks.

Friday, February 25, 2011

American Wigeon

And to complete a hat-trick of duck photos, this male American Wigeon was also taken in TX at South Padre Island, just a lone individual mixed in with the Redheads.


Adult male Redhead, South Padre Island, TX. January 2011. Southern TX is a major wintering spot for Redhead, with thousands of the birds locally - although you can find a few Redhead on open freshwater throughout the northeast. This bird was in relatively shallow water in the early morning off the Convention Center boardwalk at South Padre Island in a group of 50+ Redheads with a few other ducks mixed in. Now if only I can find Canvasbacks that are this cooperative...

Harlequin Duck

Taking pictures of Harlequin Ducks at Barnegat Inlet in NJ is sort of cheating, because this has to be about the easiest place ever to shoot them. In winter through early spring there are perhaps as many as 30 individuals here, and since they are used to seeing people rock-hop along the breakwater they are moderately tame. So it's not particularly difficult to come up with pictures of them and over the years I have taken many thousands. In fact perhaps the biggest technical challenge is that the adult males are especially high contrast birds, so on a sunny day it's tough not to burn out the white markings while keeping detail in the darker blues.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Long-billed Curlew

This was also taken at Laguna Atascosa NWR in January (see the Caracara shot), but back in 2010 on an overcast day. What redeems the shot is the contrast of the yellow foliage with the rich buff of the Curlew. This was shot with my 5D Mark II back in the days before I bought the 1D Mark IV, but the image quality between the two cameras is similar - it's just that the 5D2 has a lot harder time acquiring focus in dark conditions on a mobile subject.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

How do I hate thee Adobe ? Let me count the ways

Every time I see Adobe praising itself over features or design of its products, I wonder if anyone buys into that pile of horsesh*t, or if I'm the only one experiencing issues with Lightroom. Lightroom has a decent UI design, but the underlying code in it does some supremely stupid things at times. I have LR set to write the sidecar files upon modification, and if I start changing the photo location, a favorite thing for LR to do is to interrupt my typing into the next text field (e.g. city) while saving the contents of another location field. It likes to do that by dropping the input focus from the text box and making the characters I've already typed correspond to commands in either the Grid view of the Develop view. Sometimes it'll just drop characters, which is at least less random. Since LR knows I'm typing into the text box, it chooses to ignore that when doing the UI update.

But I don't expect that bug will ever be fixed. Adobe's focus is on hype.

Apparently it's not just me, because I encountered a rant about Photoshop CS5 that is rather analogous to my experiences with Lightroom (which is still young, and therefore rather harder for Adobe to screw up quite as comprehensively).


I work in academia and get Photoshop (I use CS4) and Lightroom on the cheap. I'd be a lot more angry if I have to buy that sort of crap software engineering at street prices.

Alternative ways that Adobe tries to mess with you ? See the Scott Kelby blog about their new "upgrade" policy.

Yet Another Oriole - Audubon's

Audubon's Oriole is - for me at least - one of the main attractions of the Salineno feeders, since it's relatively hard to come up with elsewhere. In the Rio Grande Valley I only remember seeing one at the San Ygnacio feeders, back when they were maintained. On this visit to Salineno the Audubon's were as active as I think I've ever seen them, and particularly enthusiastic about the oranges put out.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Altamira Oriole

Keeping with the oriole theme, these are two male Altamira Orioles seen during my recent TX trip. Both these shots were at the Salineno feeders maintained by Cheryl Longton. The feeders have all three species of oriole (Hooded, Audubon's, Altamira) and are by far the most reliable place to see Audubon's in the Rio Grande Valley. Altamira is, however, the most widespread - and largest - RGV oriole and not especially difficult to find at many locations (e.g. Bentsen SP in Mission or Frontera Audubon in Weslaco or Laguna Atascosa NWR out toward South Padre Island). They're also the most numerous at these feeders and by the looks of things these are two different adult males.

Black-vented Oriole

This was taken while the bird was feeding on a Coral Bean tree at the Bentsen RV Park (although it was also seen in the neighboring state park). This is the 9th US record for this species. I only got a few shots of this bird in otherwise good lighting, due in large part to a bird "photographer" literally dragging his rattling metal tripod around in front of this bird to change viewpoint. The downside of digital SLRs and viable telephoto lenses is that every tom, dick and moron then runs up and chases birds. It was more civilized in the days of film, where it was a tougher prospect and helped keep the idiot level down.

The 600mm shrinks

I've carried the Canon 500mm f4L-IS in preference to the bigger/heavier/more expensive 600mm telephoto for some time. I use it in Central Park and like it in particular for its short minimum focus distance. Now Canon have formally announced the successor to both the 500mm and 600mm supertelephotos:

and the first thing I noticed is what I suspected might happen - the new 600mm has become as light as the old 500mm and has the same minimum focus distances as the old 500mm. Of course this new 600mm will be very expensive for a while even after it hits the streets, but it is going to be a very attractive lens. In the meanwhile I think I'll try using the 800mm plus extension tubes and see how that goes, although the 800mm will be too large a magnification for some of the bigger species of birds at it's minimum focus distance.

Spec for the old 500mm is here:

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

An unanticipated problem with Vermilion

Vermilion Flycatcher males are so intensely red they positively glow in the sun, which ultimately led me to have a very big problem with getting a decent image of them. Basically the red channel saturates and blocks up quite quickly, especially in situations with a lot of contrast between the sunlit head and the shaded breast, like the above. And once the red saturates too far Lightroom (and probably most other RAW processors) map the overexposed red to white. I did a little bit of masking on the head to get around this problem (which otherwise makes the bird look glossy).

The other thing I noticed is an apparent reduced level of detail compared to what I was expecting. This probably has a lot to do with the saturation of the red color in the first place, but I'm not sure if the Bayer sensor (which is RGGB, and therefore may be less accurate with pure reds and blues than it is with greens) had a role to play in this too. Ironically, I got better feather detail from shots in more overcast conditions than I got in sunlight. But with Vermilion Flycatcher I will take what I can get - they do not seem that willing to let me approach them very much, and they are quite a small bird.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Orange-crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warblers apparently have a sweet tooth. While I saw lots of Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped down in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas recently, it was the Orange-crowned visiting the grapefruit, oranges, nectar feeders and these bottle brush plants at the convention center at South Padre Island. Yellow-rumped seemed fonder of peanut butter. This bird is probably a first winter immature (flight feathers not seen well).

Crested Caracara

Crested Caracaras usually watch me long enough to stop the car and then exit the scene. This undoubtedly reflects the tendency of bozos to shoot at them. So of course this especially tame adult at Laguna Atascosa NWR in Texas was actually a little too close for my 800mm lens, and I couldn't quite cram all of it in the frame. Nevertheless the amount of resolved detail in the full-size image is startling (not so obvious in a smaller JPG like this).