Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Mama eagle referees food fight

The babies are very big now, pretty much adult size. They still hang out in the aerie together but usually just at dinner time. Mama and papa eagle still regularly check on their youngsters, who will be getting ready in a couple of weeks for their extended camping trip to learn eagle hunting ways.

Mama and papa both hunt for food at least a couple of times a day but I've only seen mama actually dropping food at the nest.

This time, both babies were in the nest waiting for mama. When she arrived, all I could see was a jumble of wings. The only way I could tell mama was still there was seeing her white tail.

 Eventually she was able to extricate herself from the wing huddle.

She watched for a short time to make sure the kids were sharing.

Then she headed back out to the Nisqually delta, probably to feed herself this time.

The youngsters finished their dinner, then wondered where mom went. Brother started pestering his sister. She sparred with him for a few minutes, decided she'd had enough, and flew off to the trainer tree.

It was just another day for the growing eagle clan.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Eagle food fight

When we were a couple of blocks away from the woodland where our neighborhood baby eagles are learning eagle ways, I saw two eagles flying in the direction of the nest. I wondered if it was mama and one of the babies because when we reached the nest, mama was in the trainer tree making sure the youngsters in the nest were eating.

A week ago we saw mama at a distance with another eagle but we couldn't tell if it was papa with her or one of the youngsters. I suspect she's taking them on short hunting trips one at a time. There was lots of wing action in the nest as brother and sister moved into position over dinner, which appeared to be a furry creature, probably a squirrel.

Sister eagle decided she'd had enough of the sharing thing and took off for a nearby tree with a large portion of dinner.

By the size of what she hauled off, it didn't look like she left her brother much. A few minutes later, she still had quite a bit of food while her brother stared at her from the nest. Siblings!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

How to photograph hummingbirds

Kate Lynch self-portrait with Costa's hummingbird-2008
If I had a dollar every time someone admired one of my photographs, then said "what a great camera you have," I would be a very rich photographer. Of course, camera equipment that does what you want it to is important. You have to have good tools and you have to know how to use those tools.

Equally important is knowing how to see and then composing what you see in a rectangular format that the camera sees. And, very often, what we see is not what the camera sees because we have the ability to mentally edit that scene. That's why we're often surprised when we photograph a mountain but don't notice the electrical tower on the left side, that's also out of focus.

These days, I have happier surprises like finding mama eagle's face right below her youngster landing after her first flight. I didn't see her face when I photographed the scene because I was tracking the baby as she flew.

So here are my tips for photographing hummingbirds or pretty much any kind of bird. First, of course, I need to assume you know how to use your camera and have a basic understanding of how a camera responds to light.

Male Anna's hummingbird-Jan. 19, 2012
If you build it, they will come

I couldn't resist using that line from Field of Dreams but it's true. The more reasons hummingbirds have to come to you, the more opportunities you'll have to photograph them.  I have two hummingbird feeders on my front porch that I keep clean (VERY important! You can kill hummingbirds with moldy feeders) and filled year-round. On the west coast and many parts of Arizona, Anna's hummingbirds are year-round residents. The feeders don't keep them here. We have a mild marine climate with flowers that bloom in all seasons and bugs (insects make up 20-50 percent of a hummer's diet). See Feed the Hummers for tips.

My front porch, back patio, and the yard right below my kitchen window are all planted with hummingbird favorites blooming in three seasons: cape fuchsia (Phygelius), true fuchsia, salvia, weigela, columbine, petunia, lantana, crocosmia, and red hot poker. I even moved my tropical hibiscus to the front porch. Unfortunately the plant isn't very happy with our cool summer, so has only bloomed a couple of times. 

Front porch in June includes weigela, cape fuchsia, columbine, petunia.
Planting outside windows gives you a build-in "bird blind." Although hummingbirds get used to people and will come quite close, I find that most birds are suspicious and often threatened by long black lenses that make clicking sounds. To get the best shots, I keep my distance with a long lens 20 feet or more away, or disguised somehow. A car makes a fabulous bird blind, although my neighbors think I'm doing surveillance when I sit in my car with a camera. 

Let there be light

I can't stress enough the importance of good lighting. At the same time, some of my best shots of hummers have been at dusk. That's where a versatile camera comes in handy. In March a few years ago, I spotted a male rufous hummingbird grooming himself on a planter on my front porch. I photographed him through the window at 6:15 p.m. at 1600 ISO with a 200mm lens. The settings were f5 at 1/30 second. 

"Roar!" Male rufous hummingbird-March 28, 2009
So how do you get the shot of a hummingbird with little or no wing movement? Bright sunlight or flash. A hummingbird's wings move at 40-60 beats per second. So part of capturing the wings is shutter speed, although many photographers believe flash is the only way.

That said, I rarely use a flash with bird photography because I think it's disturbing to most birds unless during the day. 

Here are a couple of examples of how the shutter speed can freeze the wing action. Most of the time I actually prefer wings in motion. I also love to photograph hummers sitting or preening. Some of my favorite photographs are of a female rufous bathing in my lawn sprinkler. She even moved when I moved the sprinkler. 

The crocosmia flowers outside my kitchen window have perfect light in the morning. But the hummingbirds can also see me inside the kitchen with my big honkin' lens they don't like. Recently I've switched to the 75mm lens, which is less obtrusive and more forgiving. With longer lenses, it's very easy to have the hummingbird just slightly out of focus, while the rest of the image is crystal sharp.

The images below were all photographed with a 75mm lens at 640 ISO f5.

Photographed at 7:35 a.m. 1/200 second
Mid-morning offers the strongest lighting. The last of these is a photograph from 2009 at the same time of day (about 10 a.m.) in July but at a much higher shutter speed.

Photographed at 9:55 a.m. 1/800 second

Photographed July 18, 2009 at 10:10 a.m. ISO 500 f4.5, 1/4000 second
Look in all four corners of the frame

A lot of times, you have a second or two to react and shoot when a hummingbird comes into view. Sometimes you can crop or edit out undesirable elements in a photograph later. It's always best, though, (and more efficient) to make sure there is nothing distracting from your subject. Here's are some examples. In the first image, there's clearly a distracting car on the street beyond the hummingbird and flowers. In the second image, now that you know there's a car in the background, you'll recognize the background that's blurred out features a wheel. This image is also an example of how selective focusing can leave the hummingbird slightly out of focus, while the flowers in the foreground are very sharp. After I shot these, I went outside and moved the car and pruned the branch that's obscuring the hummingbird.

 W-A-I-T for it

You have to be patient when you're photographing wildlife, especially quick little birds like hummers. I don't know how you spend your weekend mornings, but mine are often spent with a coffee cup nearby and me near the window with my camera. These last photographs were captured in about two hours yesterday morning. It's also important to shoot a lot because often with long lenses, only a small area will be in focus. I remember a sports photographer I knew years ago who showed me two rolls of film he shot at a pro basketball game. Only two out of 60-plus images were usable. Much of what I've learned about wildlife photography comes from many years of photographing events like outdoor festivals, concerts, graduations, and weddings in all lighting situations. You don't have time for a "do over," so you have to get the shot. That means lots of shots, just in case. 

You must be present to win

My final tip is: take your camera. I usually walk the dog every evening and I always have my camera, unless it's dark. If you visit your Facebook page (you don't have to be a Facebook member to see it), you'll see a photograph I also shot yesterday of a chipmunk eating a blackberry. I was about a block from my house with the dog when I spotted a chipmunk. I thought to myself "do I have enough time to get my camera out of my backpack and get a few shots?" I got about six shots of him and he never moved. My problem was there were some kids at the top of the hill shooting fireworks. My dog hates loud sounds and starting pulling on her lead to head home. I haven't seen that old dog move that fast in a year! There are so many incredible things, people, places to photograph. Often, they're right in your backyard or neighborhood. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Eagle dinner time

My favorite eagle family has settled into the kids practicing flight in the woodland around the aerie. Most evenings this past week, one or both juveniles perched in the trainer tree with papa eagle either in the same tree or in the lookout tree on the opposite side of the nest. Papa's role is to make sure the kids are safe while Mama appears to be responsible for the evening feeding. And when she finally appears, the kids immediately fly down to see what's for dinner.

Mama drops dinner off, then flies up to branch above the nest in the trainer tree.


For the most part, the kids share although they do seem to take turns rather than both eating at the same time. But other times, they complain that the other one is getting more and one will take a challenging stance.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Flight sentry

Mama and papa eagle often flank the nest tree and talk to each other and the kids from there. Last week, mama would station herself about mid-tree below an area that would cushion her youngsters when they leave the nest for the trainer tree.

The nest tree is about 50 feet below the trainer tree on the left and the lookout tree on the right. Below is a larger view with mama circled in the trainer tree and one of her youngsters in the nest tree.

Both youngsters are taking turns in flight practice. We haven't seen both of them in the air or both out of the nest yet. Mama and papa encourage the kids but let them decide when it's time to rest and when it's time to spread their wings.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Hanging with papa eagle

We were blessed with seeing one baby eagle's first flight. We heard her brother from somewhere in the woodland but didn't see him for a couple of days. For the past week, mama and papa eagle have stationed themselves in trees flanking the nest tree while the babies take turns flying to the trainer tree, which is perfect for practicing balancing on branches and moving from branch to branch.

Sister watches her brother and papa in the trainer tree from the nest.
This time brother eagle took center stage while his sister watched from the nest. The eaglets will be practicing short flights in the woodland and maybe to the ridge over the next few weeks.

By mid-August, the parents will begin coaxing them to hunt for themselves. In the meantime, it's been really entertaining to watch them interact with each parent and with each other.

Tomorrow: sister eagle hanging with mama eagle.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

First flight

Female juvenile bald eagle on left. Male juvenile is at far right. 7-5-2012 photo.
Padme the wonderdog and I have been checking on our favorite eagle's nest every evening to see how pre-flight practice is going. I think she'll be happy when the babies have left the nest, so we'll go back to our walks through the cool woods, now that it's getting warmer here in western Washington.

Male juvenile watches his sister practice lift off (7-7-2012).

Yes, she did land on him.
For the past week, the two siblings (a female and male) have taken turns practicing short takeoffs and landings in their massive aerie. Either mama or papa, sometimes both, are nearby to help them correct course. They also take turns hanging out on a long sturdy branch on the right side of the nest that appears to be the chosen site for first launch to the "trainer tree" to the left of the nest tree. The trainer tree has well spaced branches with several that will cushion youngsters on their inevitably rough first landings.

The nest was very active last night with both siblings moving around the nest, eventually poised on the liftoff branch.
The young female takes off for the trainer tree. But where's mama? Last year mama was midway down the trainer tree for her youngster's first flight. I didn't see either parent in that tree or any of the lookout trees.

I didn't spot mama until I downloaded these photographs. On the way home, I wondered where she was. Surely she wouldn't miss the first flight? I didn't think the babies would leave the nest without coaxing from one or both parents. Usually the parents start feeding them less and less to give them motivation to fly. Can you see her in the photo above? 

It took about 20 minutes from pre-flight checkout to landing in the trainer tree. Mama picked a landing spot that would cushion a potential rough landing. Smart mama eagle! Mama and sister then watched brother, who didn't look really interested in doing anything on that branch except clean every one of his feathers. Perhaps he took off after we headed home.

Brother eagle planning his flight.
This fledging is almost a month earlier than last year's baby. I posted photos from that first flight on August 5, 2011. A photograph of the trainer tree adjacent to the nest tree is in my August 10, 2011 post. I'm curious about whether both juveniles can manage first flights together or not. One of the first images of bald eagles I captured on Hoffman Hill was seven years ago and my first observation of their cooperation. There were four juveniles perched in a snag and four adults flying overhead talking to them.