Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category
The migratory songbirds, the Passerines, have arrived. And they are dying by the thousands, a victim of Interior Alaska’s non-spring. If you’re a birder, it’s a real bummer.
If you are like WC, you have complained about the weather. Snow – a blizzard, really – on Friday night. And Saturday afternoon it might have been 30 degrees. But if you are a songbird, it’s a lot more than depressing. It’s death.
Imagine being a Hammond’s Flycatcher, an early-arriving, bug-eating bird.
But because of the late spring, there are no bugs. It’s tough times for flycatchers. WC saw 20 or more grubbing for food along a neighborhood road.
Why should you care? Even if you don’t care very much about birds, WC doubts you are fond of mosquitoes. Fewer fly catching bugs means more mosquitoes. And mosquitoes around longer. This weekend’s blizzard and our glacial spring will have consequences all summer and, depending upon how badly reproduction is impaired, perhaps for more than one summer.
The birds who are generalists are doing better. Thrushes, the family of birds that includes the American Robin, are omnivores.
A Swainson’s Thrush can eat last fall’s berries and rose hips, seeds and even spring buds, as well as do some clumsy fly catching. Despite its generalist strategy, Swainson’s Thrushes seem to be in decline throughout the boreal forest, including Alaska. Birds of North America (pay wall) reports, “Swainson’s Thrush populations declined in North America at a small annual rate (0.8%/yr) during 1980–1996. In some regions, trends for last 17 yr have reversed from increases in earlier decades.” It may be caused by habitat loss in the migration corridor.
As WC writes this post, there are reports from across the Interior of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of dead migratory songbirds. Swallows, another insect-eating family of birds, and sparrows, that rely upon snow-free ground to forage for food, seem to be especially hard hit.
So as we whine about the late spring, and being short-sheeted on summer, have a thought for our feathered friends.
Shot by Mrs. WC, using a Canon SX-50 point and shoot camera.
Unfortunately, the sound of WC’s camera shutter drowns out the subtle sounds the male makes as he performs his dance.
One other note: the dancing is incredibly hard work. You can see the male panting between episodes. Which may be one of the reasons females use dance performance to pick their mates.
WC has no idea if there is some correlation between our strange, delayed, on again/off again spring and the rare birds turning up in Interior Alaska. But there are certainly rare birds around.
This Swainson’s Hawk (originally misidentified as a Red-tailed Hawk) was along Barley Way, southeast of Delta Junction on May 5. WC actually saw and photographed this bird twice. Swainson’s Hawk, a bird of the Great Plains and Rockies, is rare in Alaska. The species is highly variable; this is a dark morph. But you can see the wing tips extend beyond the tail, the white undertail coverts and the white mustache and nares make a certain identification.
Another, different Swainson’s Hawk turned up in Fairbanks recently and has been hanging around the south side of Fairbanks International Airport.
This photo was taken with WC’s point-and-shoot camera, a Canon SX-50. It has a pretty powerful telephoto and while the image quality isn’t on a par with the Canon 1D-X, it’s perfectly acceptable for documenting birds. You can see that this is a different bird, lacking the white edges on the chest feathers. Which means at least two Swainson’s Hawks in Alaska.
Finally, while Tundra Swans are pretty common, the Bewick’s Swan, the Eurasian race of Tundra Swans, are rare.
The field mark for Bewick’s is that large yellow patch on the upper bill. The Tundra Swans we see around here have a small yellow eye drop; the Bewick’s has a big yellow blotch. Note that this photo is a very heavy crop, 15% of full frame; there’s some detail lost.
Readers may remember that a Eurasian Wigeon and leucistic Canada Goose were here earlier.
WC suspects that even as he writes this post there are some hard core listers who are buying tickets for a trip to “get” these birds for their life lists. WC isn’t much of a chaser, although he does keep a life list. Still, it’s pretty cool… No, that’s a poor choice of words for this freezing cold spring. Let’s say instead it’s a delight to find these rarities.
Several of you have emailed WC, asking for the location of the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek. WC thought his post this morning was pretty clear about this: it’s pretty easy to disturb a lek. And when disturbed, the males take their act elsewhere. So, sorry but no.
But WC will go so far as to offer a photo taken by Mrs. WC, showing the location of the lek at one point was on the hood of the pickup.
And that WC had doughnuts for breakfast.
Identifying the location of the lek area, as seen through the windshield, is left as an exercise for the reader.
 And in the words of Peter Mulvey, “The windshields in this town have all seen better days.”
It’s not appropriate to anthropomorphize birds. There’s not a lot of room in that peanut-sized brain for deep thoughts.But WC, photographing Sharp-tailed Grouse at a lek near Delta Junction, imagines the male’s thoughts going something like this.
These are five of perhaps 300 photos WC took at the lek. After giggling helplessly for a couple of minutes at the incredible antics. All were taken using the truck as a blind. The secret, of course, is finding a Sharp-tailed Grouse lek. Can you keep a secret? So can WC.
It’s been a particularly fine spring migration for raptors, with all of the resident and regular transients present in substantial numbers.
As WC has noted before, Rough-legged Hawks don’t breed in Interior Alaska, but pass through the Interior en route to the foothills of the North Slope. The numbers of Rough-leggeds moving through the Interior this spring were the highest in WC’s memory.
By contrast, Red-tailed Hawks do breed in the Interior. Their densities are low, but a nest or two can usually be found around Fairbanks. Red-tails are variable colored. The most common is the dark phase, called a Harlan’s Hawk (they were originally thought to be a separate species). UPDATE: This, however, is a rarity, a Swainson’s Hawk.
There are four species of Falcons in Interior Alaska. One of them is the Merlin. This bird has prey, specifically a Lesser Yellowlegs. It’s hidden in this shot.
There were a lot of Northern Harriers around, and this guy was very worried one of those big birds would take his prize away, so he flew off, with the long yellow legs of his prey dangling below.
To give you some idea of the strength of this little Falcon, the Yellowlegs weighs about half the weight of the Merlin, 2.8 ounces against 6.0 ounces.
In addition to the species shown here, on Thursday night, May 9, we also saw American Kestrels, Peregrine Falcons, Bald Eagles, Short-eared Owls and Northern Harriers. And more than ten thousand Sandhill Cranes. It’s enough to leave even a non-birder rapt.
There aren’t many moments in WC’s birding career that he can describe as epic. But Sunday night in the barley and hay fields southeast of Delta Junction was one of them. It started in the morning with long lines of Trumpeter and Tundra Swans flying in from the Tanana River.
If you look carefully, you can see multiple lines of swans flying in from the North, presumably after spending the night on the Tanana River. The birds settled on a barley field.
Why so many birds in one field among the dozens of mowed fields in the area? WC has no idea. But the field also held Greater White-fronted Geese, Canada Geese, Sandhill Cranes and hundreds of North Pintail ducks.
Periodically a raptor, usually a hawk but sometimes a Bald Eagle or a Peregrine Falcon, would fly over the fields and put up hundreds, soemtimes thousands of birds. These Northern Pintails lifted in response to a flyover by a Peregrine Falcon.
The eastern Alaska Range was out on a perfect day, tempting WC to attempt photos of the birds in front of the snow-covered peaks. These Canada and White-fronted Geese are in front of Meteor Peak.
But mostly WC was content to listen and watch. It was both a visual and a sonic treat. The sounds of all those birds made a nearly-endless winter nearly worth it. This is one of nature’s truly great spectacles,, millions of birds flying thousands of miles. It’s awe-inspiring and glorious. WC is very grateful for having been in the right place at the right time. May your spring bring you equal moments of joy.
(WC will have more photos from his epic day in future posts.)
UPDATE: WC’s buddy Ronn Murray shot a short video clip, with sound, that give you some idea of what was going on down by Delta.
Interior Alaska only gets two species of Goose regularly. Both are present at Creamer’s Refuge now, bringing with them the faintest hint of spring.
The Greater White-fronted Goose has to be one of the easiest IDs in birding. No other Norther American bird has orange legas, and orange bill and a white ring where the bill meets the head. The broken horizontal stripes on the belly give the bird its other name, “Speckle Belly.”
Canada Geese – not “Canadian Geese,” thank you – are so common that it takes unusual behavior to get WC to even click the shutter. The symmetry of the wings and reflection is a lucky accident; WC was working on autofocus for birds in flight and landing.
These otherwise fairly pedestrian shots benefit from the early twilight; hence the title of the post. If you’ll excuse WC, he’s off to photograph birds now. Before it starts snowing again.
There were a few uncommon birds at Creamer’s Migratory Wildlife Refuge on Saturday night.
First, there was an unusual leucistic Canada Goose.
It’s certainly the palest Canada Goose WC has ever seen. On Saturday night, it was in the southeast corner, near the fence, if you live in or near Fairbanks.
Leucism occurs in many species of animal, not just birds. It’s not really visible against the bright snow, but the neck was dark grey and not jet black.
There was also a migrant from Eurasia, a Eurasian Wigeon.
The white stripe against the ruddy face and neck is an unambiguous identification mark for this species. This bird was a long ways away; this photo was taken with a 600mm lens and then cropped to 10% of the original. A lot of detail is lost, but it’s a clear confirmation for ID purposes. Last night it was in the far north pond.
Here’s the very common American Wigeon, for comparison, for WC’s readers who aren’t experienced birders:
You can see how very different the head is; the bold green eye patch in contrast to the ruddy head. Both have the white stripe on the head.
Creamer’s Refuge is a treasure. It’s common to see cars with NRA and Save ANWR stickers parked side-by-side, the drivers out with identical smiles on their faces, taking in the sights and the sounds of spring migration. It is very good to see it filling up with birds.
A cautionary note.
Last night as WC was taking some of the bird photos that are in this morning’s post, he was asked, “What does it take to be a bird photographer?”
Every word of Mia’s answer is absolutely true. Be warned.
Interior Alaska’s, ahem, glacial spring migration is inching along. There are Trumpeter Swans at Creamer’s Refuge.
Trumpeters, Cygnus buccinator, are North America’s largest waterfowl, and at 25-26 pounds, among the heaviest flighted birds. Powerful elegant and graceful in the air, their presence is good evidence there is liquid water somewhere around here, despite the freezing 15 mph wind out of the north.
They get respect, too. You can see the Mallard drake scurrying out of the landing zone. Landing into the wind, the birds were almost hovering. You can see from the attitude of their wings they aren’t stalling as they approach the small puddle.
And it was cold. In this photo you can see the ice rim that has built up on the bird’s bill from foraging for barley in the puddles.
Of course, a 15 mph wind is nothing to a bird that migrates a thousand miles or more. But WC hadn’t thought a hat would be necessary on, you know, May 1. A mistake, you’ll agree. Especially if you were outside after 7 PM. So while the swans are a good sign, it’s not spring just yet.
These photos were all taken with the new Canon 1D-X, a 300mm lens with a 2.0 teleconverter and hand-held. With some practice, WC thinks this camera is going to work out pretty well.
WC probably should have known better. The snow squalls might have been a clue. The low-20s temperature was a tip. But WC nevertheless headed to Delta Junction in hopes of finding signs of spring bird migration.
Note the tire tracks in the fresh snow are all from folks sensibly leaving. The day alternated near-blizzard, near-whiteout conditions with flat white light and the occasional watery sunbeams. Difficult conditions and light for bird photography. But there weren’t any new birds to photograph anyway. Spring migration is now officially two or three weeks behind schedule.
There were Rough-legged Hawks everywhere. The increasing wind out of the northwest had them pinned down, as well as the irregular snow squalls. The big rolls of hay were favorite posts, especially the leeward sides.
This is part of a flock of 250-300 Snow Buntings foraging in the wind-blown fields southeast of Delta.
The Snow Buntings and the Rough-leggeds are North Slope breeders; they are the first arrivals in Spring Migration and, three weeks in to the process, are pretty much the only ones present in numbers. Sure, there are some over-excited Canada Geese and a handful of Trumpeter Swans. WC found a few Red-tailed Hawks and two Northern Harriers. But nothing like the numbers of the variety we should have at the end of April.
The inch of snow in the forecast isn’t particularly encouraging. Yes, WC knows, spring will come. Spring birds will arrive. But at this point they are going to be seriously late. And Spring is going to be seriously messy.
Sometimes just as you try to photograph a bird, it decides to leave. Mostly, the bird flies away from the photographer. Sometimes you get lucky and the bird flies towards you.
And sometimes, if you are very lucky, you get some interesting interaction that causes the bird to fly towards you.
Readers will note these are both early spring migrants. Happily, waterfowl should be arriving very soon. Waterfowl are more placid and approachable.
It can’t happen soon enough.
WC and Mrs. WC visited the Delta Barley Project for early-arriving hawks and waterfowl in spring migration. In gorgeous weather, the first real day of spring, we rattled and bumped along the backroads. WC thanks whoever ran the dozer along Barley Way to Hanson Road. The road would be impassable for another couple of weeks without that neighborly gesture.
Some Bald Eagles winter in the area, along the Delta Clearwater, a spring-fed stream that is partially open all winter. But those Bald Eagles are pretty scruffy-looking by April; this handsome fellow is more likely a recent arrival. You see a lot of photos of Bald Eagles because they are approachable.
Here’s a bonafide migrant, a Rough-legged Hawk, en route from southern Arizona to the North Slope. The distinctive black “wrist” patches are definitive for this species. We saw seven Rough-leggeds altogether, not the peak of migration yet but enough to make clear migration is under way.
If you looks very carefully, you’ll see a Northern Hawk Owl in the upper right corner, perched on top of an aspen. WC offers this image to give you some idea of the challenge of filling a frame with a bird. The snow drift in front of her is five or six feet deep. You can’t get closer, and it would create an unacceptably steep angle anyway. It takes telephoto; lots of telephoto.
The angle is still pretty steep, and the bird’s position isn’t flattering, but the size gives you some idea of the kind of magnification that’s required.
This was the first Northern Hawk Owl of the year for us. The last few winters have been tough on birds that hunt by plunge-diving. The rain creates a frozen layer between the birds their vole prey, under the snow. It’s very good to see a healthy-looking, handsome fellow.
Hawk owls are generally winter residents, although some years they irrupt to more southerly latitudes. So not necessarily a migrant. But very good to see all the same.
Finally, a Delta Barley Project specialty, in a moderately unusual place.
You’d have to ask a ground-dwelling Sharp-tailed what it’s doing on the top of a spruce tree, other than playing Russian roulette with migrating hawks. But then there’s not a lot of room for brains in that little head. But another bird it’s always great to see.
WC spent some time looking for spring migration Saturday, but apart from a few Bald Eagles and Snow Buntings, and glimpses of two Buteos, WC found only ungulates.
There were two herds of about 25 animals each. The dark animals in the bright sunlight on bright snow don’t photograph well. I ended up using averaging metering; selective exposure on the Bison blew the whites; selective exposure on the snow left black blobs. The dynamic range of the best sensor remains inferior to the human eye.
There were at least three small herds of Caribou. These animals were at the base of Windy Ridge. They were already shedding, despite the -15 F temperatures. Perhaps it is time to sunlight and not temperature. These guys were very spooky; clearly they associate humans with hunting.
Moose re the big mammal that Interior Alaskans know best, of course. This one was in a thicket along Sawmill Creek Road, down the Alaska Highway.
This bull was in an abandoned barley field along Tanana Loop Extension. Note that his antlers are already budded. The mark on his left shoulder appeared in WC’s binoculars to be puncture wound, possibly a bullet wound. It didn’t seem to interfere with his movement.
It’s still winter out there, folks. Spring migration birds were limited to a handful of Bald Eagles (some of which may have wintered over along the Delta Clearwater) and two Snow Buntings.
Ungulates are a minimally acceptable substitute, but, WC hopes, not for much longer.
And the temperature remains in single digits. Negative single digits. It’s enough to make a fellow surly.
Hey, it’s kind of a bird. Last year this time WC was photographing raptors down Delta Junction way.
This year, not so much.
If you’ve been reading Wickersham’s Conscience long, you know of WC’s increasing frustration with Olympus’s failure to keep up with camera technology. That frustration spilled over into a seriously overheated credit card and some new equipment.
Yes, Canon. Specifically, a Canon 1D-X Digital Single Lens Reflex Camera, a 300mm f2.8 super telephoto with a 1.4 and 2.0 teleconverter, and a basic 28-135mm general purpose lens. Canon versus Nikon was a hard choice, and WC thanks all of his photographer friends who patiently answered his querulous questions and general pestering.
The 1D-X isn’t the top of Canon’s line, but its autofocus, especially in low light, and image quality at high ISO are vastly superior to the Olympus E-5.
It will be a steep learning curve. The 1D-X has far more features, options and controls than the E-5, all of them organized differently, with on-camera controls in different places. So this first shot qualifies as a mere snapshot.
Even with the default settings, the tonal range of this difficult, side-lit shot is superior to the E-5. WC will doubtlessly miss the Zuiko 300mm f2.8, truly marvelous glass. But Olympus’s DSLR division has committed suicide. It’s time to move along.
In Connection with the Start of Spring Migration
The Snow Bunting is the first species to arrive in spring migration. WC is long past ready for spring migration to begin. So, have you seen this bird?
The bird’s bill may be black later in the spring.
This species usually travels in
gangs flocks of ten to one hundred birds. Sometimes more.
If you see this bird in Alaska, notify WC immediately. Provide the date, time and place of the sighting.
Warning: this species is
armed winged and dangerous perambulant.
And Happy April 1, everyone.
These are the very slow days for birders and bird photographers. All the photos from the trips to the tropics are processed, yet it’s too early for spring migration. And you just can’t stand to take another photo of a Common Redpoll.
As a result, bird photos fall off at Wickersham’s Conscience. But WC, at least, needs a break from economic disasters, carbon dioxide crises and the lunacy in Juneau and Washington, D.C. So let’s spend some quiet time with the most modest of bird families, the sparrows.
WC probably has several hundred photos of White-crowned Sparrows, by far the most common Interior Alaska sparrow. Here’s another shot.
WC has seen White-crowneds in most Alaska habitats; only on the North Slope do they become scarce. It’s also one of the bird species whose song contains its name: “Hey-look-at-me-I’m-a-White-crowned-Sparrow.” During the peak of spring breeding season, it’s hard to be outdoor and not hear a White-crowned Sparrow singing.
Another common Interior Alaska sparrow is the Savannah Sparrow. The distinctive yellow eyebrow or supercilium doesn’t occur in all races of this species, or in juveniles, but the adults in Alaska generally have the yellow eyebrow.
This is another species that is a generalist, breeding in a wide variety of habitats, form the scrub willow of high elevation to swampy interior valleys.
The chunkiest sparrow in Alaska is probably the Fox Sparrow. Highly variable, Alaska races tend to a bit darker, and the Alaska coastal species are almost sooty.
The rufous in the butt and tail and the size, as well as the heavy streaking in the breast are good field marks for the Alaska races of Fox Sparrow. This bird has a behavioral key, too: a distinctive, two-legged hop and kick to turn over leaves and debris looking for food.
Another larger sparrow in Alaska is the American Tree Sparrow. Unlike the three mentioned earlier, the American Tree Sparrow does prefer trees, or at least large bushes, and is rarely found at high elevations where there aren’t alder and larger willow shrubs.
The dark dot on the center of the chest is a definitive, easy field mark. You’ll see this species singing in the willows along the higher elevations on the Denali Highway, but if you get away from the disturbed areas supporting the willows, out on the open alpine tundra, there are no Tree Sparrows.
Finally, a species that is uncommon in Interior Alaska but fairly common along the coast, the Song Sparrow.
Another variable species, but the large grayish eyebrow is a good field mark, and the streaked breast is against a white color and not the reddish-grey of the Fox Sparrow. The tail tip is generally rounded, although you wouldn’t know it from this photo. The strong dark streak behind the eye and dark malar stripe against the white throat make this usually a straightforward identification. Unlike the other four, this species will sometimes hang around in the winter, foraging in the wrack along the seashore.
It’s still a few weeks before the first sparrows – Snow Buntings – arrive in Interior Alaska. For now all WC can do is look over previous photos. But not too much longer now.
This is a close-up shot from “Hunting Dragons,” the kind of spectacular detail and realism WC has come to expect from Steve Brice’s work.
The scales on the dragon – they extend over its entire, twelve foot long body – represent an astonishing amount of work. The layout didn’t let WC photograph the entire sculpture, but here’s two-thirds of the Brice-Cox Artist’s Choice prizewinner:
Less classical but still very impressive Is “Extreme Ice,” by Qi Feng and Di An, Julio Martinez and Aubrey Newton, which won the Governor’s Cup.
The trees, in particular, were very well done.
All in all, an excellent set of sculptures. These are just two of the eighteen multi-block entries, and WC’d photos can’t begin to capture the beauty of the work. They’ll all be water in a few weeks, but as transient art they are nothing less than wonderful. If you are in Alaska and don’t stop by for a look, you’re making a mistake. Although you may want to wait for the present 25 mph wind, with gusts to 40 mph, to die down first.