Monday, November 12, 2012

Home to roost for the holidays

Brother eagle returns to a favorite roosting spot in mid-October.

It's hard to believe–this is the first exhibit of my work in a year! If you live in the area, stop by DuPont on Saturday, November 17. All that shooting means that I've spent the past couple of months producing prints and ordering my new favorite presentation: archival metal prints.

My favorite eagle pair have been engaged in hunter education with the kids down on the Nisqually delta. So how do I know that's where they've been? I've been observing their flight patterns for several years. They have two favorite water hunting areas and occasionally pick off an unsuspecting squirrel or chipmunk in the tall trees along the Hoffman Hill ridge. Last summer, I managed to get down to the delta during several "minus tides" which is the only time it's possible to get close to where many birds hunt. My Low Tide Gallery includes several of my favorite eagles hunting.

These eagles fly up the ridge from the Nisqually delta below, then fly low–less than 100 feet and sometimes about 10 feet above–either across the golfcourse to the north or directly west of us to the grove of old growth trees on the Fort Lewis golfcourse to the east.

The photos above were taken from my front lawn. Sister eagle was about 20 feet above me. I got this image with a 70mm lens. You can see her in the second image about mid-right.

I estimate that my favorite pair are about 12-13 years old. Bald eagles are mature at about 4 or 5-years-old, when the head and tail are fully white. The neighbors whose yards back up to eagle territory tell me the nest has been active for about eight years.

Sometimes they drop food (accidentally?)-like a half-eaten fish. This one was on the sidewalk about a block from my house, near our mailboxes. I decided the fish looked like a Japanese sumi painting, so I posterized it in grayscale. All that's missing is my red "chop."

In late fall and through the winter, I often see one of the eagle mates or their offspring flying over my house. I'd like to think they know me but I also know that we live in the flight path of many wild birds.

I will likely spend the rest of Darkember (that would be the period that we're not in Daylight Savings Time, which means sunrise about 8 a.m. and sunset about 4:30) editing and selecting photographs from the past year. I invested in a 400mm lens, which is really the only way to see what's going on in the nest, which is about 50 feet up and at least 100 feet away from where I can photograph easily.

What's next is finding a venue or two to exhibit this work. I'm also working on a book about my observations with (of course) lots of photographs. My latest work can always be found on my Kate Lynch Photographs website, where there are also links to my posts on Facebook and where to special-order framed and unframed prints.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Peregrine the wanderer

The wanderer
Our local eagle clan must be on an extended trip because there are few sightings on the ridge or below in the delta. I'll post some images of flight practice among a congregation of five bald eagles later this week. For the past few years, we've observed groups of adults and juveniles together on the east edge of Hoffman Hill. There's another bald eagle nest on Red Salmon Creek below the hill.

I've been seeing lots more activity in the heron community and among peregrine falcons. I photographed a peregrine in the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in the spring. On a trip there last weekend, we spotted and photographed three juvenile peregrines on the Nisqually River side of the refuge.

Falco peregrinus means "wandering falcon. Peregrines have made a comeback in the west. In Washington State, they were downlisted to "threatened" from "endangered." They are still considered to be endangered in the eastern U.S.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the peregrine falcon as the fastest bird on earth, able to reach speeds up to 70 miles per hour when pursuing prey, typically birds but sometimes rodents. Peregrines are also the largest falcon and will take on even large birds like cranes.

Like bald eagles, osprey, and other large raptors, peregrines were nearly wiped out between 1950 and 1970 because of DDT pesticide use. Now they have lifespans of about 15 years, some living to 20.

They live among us, often nesting on skyscrapers and bridges. The Port of Olympia has a nest on one of their large cranes that now has a nesting box to keep birds and port workers safe.

 The falcons in these images are all juveniles. Adult peregrine falcons are gray above and white mottled below – like a shark.

I wondered if the falcon on this snag was carrying what looks like nesting material on purpose, or if he/she just picked it up in her travels.

We watched this spectacular bird at close range (about 30 feet) for about 40 minutes, including a dramatic swoop into the brush to catch a mouse. Let me know your favorites. I'll be adding to my Talons Gallery later this week.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Eagles return to the ridge

Two juveniles soar thermals along the ridge over Puget Sound
The skies have been quiet for the past couple of weeks. My theory is that nesting eagles and their fledglings are off on a summer excursion to get those hunting skills down before winter. It seems that the eagle code of conduct includes keeping a respectable distance from nesting/roosting areas. We've spotted an occasional juvenile in the area but nothing like the activity when the youngsters were in the nest.
Two eagles practice air dancing, something common in courtship and fighting.
The past couple of evenings, we've seen congregations of four or five eagles over the eastern section of Hoffman Hill above the Nisqually delta. They've been mostly backlit, so it's tough to figure out if they are adults, juveniles or a mix. Last night, it was clear that there were two adults and three juveniles. Could they be our eagle mates and their youngsters from this year and last?

Two juveniles and two adults. A third juvenile was just out of view.
Two adult eagles air dancing.
Check out photos from the past two years of eagle-watching in my Talons Gallery.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Late summer eagles

I've spotted my favorite eagle pair at low tide on the Nisqually delta beach. Several people have asked how I know it's the pair I've been documenting for the past year. And, if this is the pair from the nest up on the hill, where are the kids?

Mama eagle on the south side of the delta.
My theory is that the parents show the kids several favorite hunting grounds but keep the flats on the north side of the delta for themselves. I'd love to know where the kids are. From observations in the past few years, I suspect that a few of the youngsters gather in close proximity while others go off farther away.

Papa eagle on the north side of the delta in direct line from the aerie.
Eagles are spectacular in flight but spend a lot of time roosting. I observed one of the juveniles from this year's nest sitting at the top of the trainer tree for several hours. When I was down on the delta during low tide last weekend, these two eagles didn't move except to clean their feathers for a couple of hours. I'm going down again this week during one of the minus tides...and when it's not raining. In the meantime, check out my Low Tide Gallery with favorite shots from the past month.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Gift of a feather

August 2-juvenile bald eagle
Not only are my favorite eagle family not hanging around the nest, I haven't seen any eagles in the area for the past week. At the end of July, I saw one youngster flying low over the nest area, followed by mama. They both flew toward the delta. The other juvenile spent long hours at the top of the trainer tree over a couple of days.

Mama heading back to the nest from the delta - August 2.
I'm going to try to get down to the beach at low tide next weekend to see if that's where they headed. Last year's baby was in the nest area until about mid-August. Bald eagles have about three months to get the whole hunting thing down before cold weather sets in and food sources dwindle.

I suspect that mama and papa are doing some intensive hunting lessons down in the Nisqually delta. Last year, I saw a lot of juveniles along the Nisqually River about this time of year. I spent several hours during a minus tide in the delta and saw both mama and papa eagle. I've posted some images from that trip in a Low Tide gallery. A friend asked how I could be sure they were my favorite eagles. Because mama caught something a flew up the ridge, which she does a couple of times a day. If you missed that post, you can read it here: Eagle Hunting Grounds.

One evening during the last week of July there wasn't much activity at the nest. When we got to the intersection near the golf course, I spotted mama eagle flying directly toward us, about 20 feet above. It was getting dark, about 8 p.m., and I was shooting directly west. So the resulting images are lower resolution. She looked right at me and dropped something. I felt badly because I thought she had dropped food she might have been carrying. When I blew up the image on my camera screen, I realized that she dropped a feather!

Of course, collecting eagle feathers is illegal unless you are a member of an Indian tribe. When I told a good friend who works with Washington Tribes and is married to an Indian, she looked surprised and said, "That's a very special gift!" Then she asked if I found the feather. I looked around the area but didn't see anything that even looked remotely like a feather. Maybe mama eagle knows that, so I have her gift recorded in a photograph. My friend offered to get a group together to go search for the feather, but I already have my gift. I'm blessed to be able to experience this remarkable family of urban eagles.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Eagle hunting grounds

Directly below the Wilkes Observatory trail in DuPont (formerly the perimeter road for the old DuPont explosives factory) is the wreck of a cement boat or barge. It sits at the edge of the Nisqually flats, the shallow area of the Nisqually River delta that becomes a salt marsh during low tides with a bounty of shellfish, crabs, and fish easily caught.

There isn't much information about it, other than it's been in this spot for at least 40 years. Even the DuPont Museum has sketchy information about it. I've photographed the boat from the Wilkes trail. In the winter, dozens of harbor seals and sea lions haul out during high tide on the boat like it's their private island.

I've wanted to hike down to the wreck during one of the very low, or minus, tides we experience in the summers here. One of my neighbors told me there are starfish and lots of other sea creatures under the boat. More on the hike there later this week.

Low tide brings in lots of hunters, especially great blue herons, seagulls, kingfishers, and bald eagles. I recognized my favorite eagle pair. I often see them fly over my house or the golf course toward this area, so it was a treat to see them away from the nest.

I suspect this is where they'll bring the kids for their hunting training. Last year, they were gone from the nesting area from about mid-August until early October.

I saw papa fly in and find a hunting spot. Because it was low tide, there was no need to fly and hunt. Lots of choices in the shallow channels of the delta.

Then I spotted mama eagle scoping out breakfast possibilities.

She tried a couple of spots, found breakfast, and headed back to the aerie to feed the kids.

Fish for breakfast

Mama eagle crests the Wilkes trail.
Meanwhile papa was hanging with the herons who seemed to find a bounty of breakfast possibilities.

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.