Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!!!

Gran Via Lights, Madrid, Spain. 2009.
Las Ramblas Lights, Barcelona, Spain. 2009.

At a Secret Pond continued...

As mentioned in the previous blog, there are other birds at this location but no doubt, the Wood Duck is the most colorful. But the others that have their own charm and were also close-shots first for me as the American Widgeon above. This duck is widespread in the USA and one of its identifying marks is the emerald green eye mask and the light brown forehead.

Another first time close shots I got are those of the Hooded Merganser. This duck is usually common in the winter time and is also seen in the marsh areas in the Tidewater Area of Virginia where I live but not easily to approach. This is really another unique bird with a white crest that he can raise and lower when threatened or during courtship.

The Hooded Merganser dives and swims underwater looking for fish. At times after returning to the surface wobbles its head up and down, this behavior that I had never seen before the visit to the Secret Pond.

A surprising find at the pond, was a Black Crowned Night Heron, it is a fairly common. It patiently waits for small fishes swimming nearby and seldom misses the prey. These herons are more active at nighttime as the name implies, but this one may have been suffering from insomnia.

The ring-billed duck was another addition to my collection of close-up photograph of waders. I was fortunate to get images of both the sexes and I let you guess who is who.
This duck nest in the boreal areas and in winters in the south mostly in fresh bodies of water. Notice the difference in color of the eyes between the male and the female below

One duck that does not get much attention due to its abundance is the Mallard duck. But the male has wonderful iridescent green and blue feathers under the right lighting conditions.

The female mallard is not as colorful. In New Mexico, where these photographs were taken, there is also a subspecies of the mallard ducks (diazi) called Mexican ducks that are very similar. The female has a less contrasting plumage and a greener bill. This is definitely not Mexican as defined by the orange-yellow bill.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

At a Secret Pond

There is a pond in New Mexico easily accessible and open to the public where common ducks lives year round and wild waterfowl visit in winter. I was sworn to secrecy by Virginia’s “non-plus-ultra” wildlife photographer, who took me there, not to reveal its location. The beauty of this place is that many species of ducks that I have chased for years, finally were accessible photograph. The Wood Duck was one of those ever eluding dreams but no longer.

As in most bird species, the males are usually the most colorful, this is to attract females. In turn these are dull in color due to their camouflage to blend with the surrounding when nesting and to protect the young. But in their own right, they are beautiful too as seen above.

We spent basically a whole day at the pond due the unusual photo opportunities
and to take advantages of light changes as the day advanced. Another advantage of spending time there was that various species of birds arrived and departed throughout the day, giving an opportunity to get different ones photographed.

One of the challenges of photographing any subject with white color is blowing away the highlights. And in the case of bird with white feathers or other parts, getting the right exposures becomes difficult, so exposing for the white areas may result in an overall darker picture.

There is a need to underexpose to get the highlights right. But digital cameras this is no longer an issue if one keeps and eye in the histogram by keeping the right end of the curve inside the chart. In the photo of the female Wood Duck, even though I reduced the exposure, the white around the does not show much detail in the image above. But additional exposure reduction would have resulted in the rest of the image looking a bit darker…all is a compromise.

Wood ducks are perhaps the most colorful ducks in North America and due to their lifestyles and habitat hard to photograph. They were there of their own desire and not captives, and enjoying the pond disregarding the presence of humans.

I am limiting this blog just to the Wood ducks but in upcoming ones, I will address other exotic waterfowl which I never had the opportunity to approach so close at this no so secret place.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bosque del Apache II

Although Bosque is better known for the large winter migrant concentrations of Sand Hill Cranes and Snow Geese, there are other winged creatures that are considered locals, but not less spectacular. This White-Crowned Sparrow was photographed on the grounds of the Refuge Headquarters. Its range is widespread and also seen back East. It is one of those beautiful little birds that receive little attention due their abundance

The second day that I was there, I happened to go to one of the observation decks with my camera. All of a sudden a Ring-necked Pheasant flew from left to right and I was lucky to be at the right place, at the right time, with the right light conditions and with the camera settings correct for capturing the image below.

My first encounter with Gambel’s Quails. These are very shy and not easy to photograph but at Bosque’s Headquarters, there is a cactus garden where these birds are easily seen with a bit of patience. The seem to follow trails and where there is a clearing, they can be photographed. Above is a male, which as in most occasions among birds, are better dressed than the females.

The female Gambel’s Quail is less colorful but also wears a tuft of feathers on the head. These
birds are abundant in the Southwest in desert and canyon areas.

One day we found a long-eared owl perched on a tree next to the road. This owl appeared to have no fear of humans and could be easily approached. First saw the owl one early morning and when I returned in mid-afternoon, it was still perched in the same location. I am sure this was the most photographed bird in the park that day.

The Canyon Towhee was also a new bird for me. It is kind of a non-descript bird or rather not exotic. But as all towhees makes a living searching for food in the underbrush.

This image of a warbler perched on a dried up thistle seems ideal for use as a Christmas
postcard. I do not know its name, so please me know if you know what it is.

During the winter months, the abundance of wildlife at the park attracts digital hunters by the hundreds. They can be seen all over the refuge with their big telephotos but it appears
that the birds s are not concerned with these optical hunters. I was surfing the web earlier and there are hundreds of posting by photographers from all over the world who visited in November.

And finally as another day closes, there is a wonderful sunset with the Magdalena Mountains as a background. This final image is an HDR composite using 5 images.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Bosque del Apache

This refuge along the Rio Grande is the home of thousands of Sandhill cranes and snow geese migrate here during the winter in New Mexico. During peak season it has been estimated that more than 100,000 cranes, ducks and geese winter at Bosque. It is easily reached by flying to Albuquerque and driving south to San Antonio for about 50 minutes, a one traffic light sleepy town. There are two major eateries in town, the Owl and Buckhorn, tried both famous for their Chili Burgers and Fries and the later was featured in Food Network early in the year. Socorro is the bigger town about 8 miles of San Antonio where some of the Festival’s events take place. The image below does not have the best colors but that is due to the early morning light.

The refuge is a man-made complex of wetlands and farm fields where corn is raised to attract the birds. The Bosque del Apache is kind of a misnomer since there are not forests (Bosque means forest in Spanish) and no Apache Indians to be seen. It borders the Rio Grande that farther south becomes the boundary between the USA and Mexico that empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Aldo Leopold who is considered the father of wildlife management, started his career here back in the early 1910’s.
By coincidence, I arrived there Monday the week of the 22nd when the annual “Friends of Bosque de Apache” festival was taking place and departed on a Thursday just as huge flocks of of bird watchers and photographer were arriving. The event included sales of art by the local artists, tours of the refuge as well as bird seminars conducted at the Refuge Headquarter.

In the way back to Albuquerque later in the week, I stopped back at the refuge for the sunset incoming flights of geese and cranes into the water impoundments just south of the Refuge Headquarters in Highway 1. Parking was hard to find as well as a choice location to photograph in the shoreline. There were more long telephotos at this location that there were at the recent Olympic Games in China. Unfortunately the incoming flights were not as heavy as I saw early in the week.

Among the birds there the Sandhill cranes were the largest birds while the Snow geese probably the most numerous. There were several species of ducks and birds but these were not easily photographed.

The cranes were the most interesting since they seem to be in pairs with some siblings trailing alone. It was funny early in the morning since it appears that the cranes legs got frozen into the pond’s surface ice and while trying to brake the ice, they loose their equilibrium and after breaking loose, they appeared to skate on the ice and slipped all over. Some will stump the ice with the legs to break the ice to move on while others waited later into day for the ice to melt. When taking off, one could see like a ring of ice in the legs (see image below), they would beat the wings and run to get air speed and would slip, slow down and try again.

Why are they called Sandhill cranes? I research this but could not find an explanation as well as why the young ones are called colts. Fortunately one of the blog visitors provided insight into the name; it is due to the sandhills in the Platter River, I was further educated and told that the proper name is Greater Sandhill cranes or scientifically Grus canadensis. Paired cranes engage in synchronized conversation and it is said that the female calls twice for each one call of the male…how do they know this since both sexes look the same? I found out that there are 6 subspecies of which 3 are not migratory and found in Mississippi, Florida and Cuba. Below is an image at the end of the day and these group just landed to spend the night. I was told that the reason why they sleep in the impoundments is for protection against predators. While in Bosque, I witnessed coyotes trying to capture cranes while these were feeding in the cornfields with no sucess.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

HDR Images from South West Virginia.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) is a fairly new method of photographing a subject various times using different exposures and then overlaying/merging them into a single digital image. HDR application results in images that cover most of the light dynamic range visible to the human eye. Basically a static subject is selected and photographed with a camera in a tripod to avoid any shake of the camera will result in blurry images. Once the subject is framed and the lens manually focused, several exposures are made by using the same f stop but changing the shutter speed. The number of exposures varies and depends on the photographer’s preference and the dynamic range of the subject. I usually take 5 images for example at 1/500, 1/250, 1/125, 1/60 and 1/30 but may select from 3 to 5 of those to compress into the final image. It is possible to create a HDR image from just one photograph by changing the exposure of the images by +/- one f stop from the original. Then these images are compressed digitally into one and further manipulated in Photoshop or other image software. I use a full frame sensor camera for HDR.

The Appalachian Mountains in southwestern Virginia offer unlimited photographic opportunities particularly in the autumn when the tree leaves change colors. I was probably 10 days late for the colorful show; it is still a great time to go. I drove around the back roads and stopped whenever I saw some scenery appropriate for HDR. I first stopped in Narrows a small town in Rt. 61 close to border with West Virginia. It has a small park where Wolf Creek is impounded creating a small lake across which there was the red barn above. I was attracted to it by its red color and the reflections in the water.
About 1000 feet downstream, the spillover for the dike that forms the lake is located.
I decided to see what results the moving water would create in the HDR image so I tried
with the results were more pleasant than expected.

That afternoon I drove to Mabry Mill in the Blue Ridge Parkway but the lighting was not
right so decided to return the next morning. I was greatly rewarded with ideal lighting conditions as seen below.

The mill goes back to the early 1900’s, started as a blacksmith shop, then a sawmill, and finally as a grist mill by 1914. This mill according to the information is the most photographed item in the Blue Ridge Parkway. Notice the difference in color between this image and the previous one; lighting conditions were the same but the images had different dynamic ranges and were processed differently. Could I repeat the process? No.

In the way back home down Rt. 8, I passed by several covered bridges near the village of Stuart and photographed 3 of them. I found Bobwhite Bridge the most attractive; it is an 80-foot truss construction bridge over the Smith River built in 1921.

Other African Mammals.

The Vervet monkey is a very common and found widespread in Kenya and Tanzania. These monkeys have developed the habit to flock to tourists asking for or stealing food. In the process they have become at times aggressive and known to entering vehicles in search of food or other items of interest. Despite of their size, they are very powerful and can inflict terrible bites. A human without weapons is really no match for these cute creatures.

The baboons have developed same patterns of behavior as the Vervet monkeys and due to their larger size, more dangerous. They tend to move in troops along the fields looking for seeds and insects. Despite of their size they are very fast and will take on hyenas and leopards as a group. There was a famous leopard named Half-Tail that I met back in the early 1990’s in Leopard Gorge in Kenya who lost her tail to a baboon bite. This one could be a dentist’s dream—so many teeth, so little time to drill!!!

The Rhinoceros along with his other two cousins, the elephants and the hippopotamus, are the largest mammals in Africa. The one above was photographed in the Mara. Back in late 1990’s while I was in the Mara, the last naturally occurring Rhino was poached and the location where it was killed named Rhino Hill. Curiously, about 20 years later none of my guides knew as to where this hill was or knew about that event. Now there are 12 Rhinos brought from South Africa that seem to be thriving and having babies. There are white and black rhinos and their names have nothing to do with their color. The major difference is that the black rhino has a pointed upper lip that allows them to grab and browse on twigs and leaves of trees while the white one has a square mouth and grazes. Can you tell if the one above is a black or white Rhino?

The Dik-Dik is among the smallest of the antelopes at about 14 inches in height and weighting around 10 pounds. Very elusive, fast and difficult to photograph. The have huge eyes and very tiny horns and are usually found in pairs. Although not obvious, they can extend the nose as a small proboscis to assist in grabbing leave or twigs; kind of a mini-elephant trunk.

They stand in their hind legs to reach higher branches. This behavior reminded me of those of goats and gerenuks that exhibit the same behavior.

The gerenuks are my favorite gazelles due to their long necks and limbs and color pattern. The name gerenuk means giraffe-necked; those long necks and legs allow them to browse in tall brushes when standing in their hind legs. They use their front legs to pull branches down for easier grazing. Their horns are ringed and uniquely curved but are lacking in the females.

These giraffe-gazelles as they are also known. live singly or in small families. The male had a harem of two which were very inquisitive and nervous while I was photographing them. It said that like the Dik-Diks, they do not require to drink water.

The Waterbuck is a large antelope with white circular ring round the rump; this marking is unique to this animal. It is among the most common antelope living in herds. As their name implies, like to go in the water and feed in the aquatic vegetation. Above we have a female with a young one that came to the waterhole to wade and drink.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


Elephants are pachyderms that also include the rhinoceros and hippopotamus; the word pachyderm means “thick skinned”. There are arguments as to who are the closes relatives of the elephants and among them the manatees and the hyraxes are listed. Who are really these animals that have amazed, entertained and decimated because of their ivory. By the way, the word elephant is derived from the Greek word for ivory.

Are they really thick skinned? It does not appear so since they tend to cover the skin with dirt or mud for protection from insects and the heat of the sun. And this leads me to ask what the color of an elephant is? It is easy; it is mainly that of the soil that they are in. As you can see from the various images in this blog, they are gray which I think is their prime color and the yellows, blacks or reds are just those of the soil that they use as make-up.

These animals are the most interesting I have encountered and their interrelationships are governed by a matriarchal society fully focused in the raising and protection of the young. What wonderful childhood it would be if I would have been raised by elephants…constant attention, no day care centers, not having to go to kindergarten, and free to wonder around.

The proboscis is the definite anatomical structure of the elephant. No other animal has such a wonderful tool that works as a nose, hand, snorkel, signaling flag, weapon, water hose, hugging and hand shaking device. It will take too long for me to elaborate in the various tasks that the proboscis is used for I must mention to what I refer by signaling flag.

The elephants can communicate their state of mind by the position of their proboscis; if you get to close they will raise and lower it giving you a warning to keep your distance, at times they want to get close, the proboscis relaxed and dragging the ground, or they just stand there watching you with the proboscis resting in one of their tusk, which reminds me or Rodin’s statue of the Thinker.

Since I mentioned “Thinker”, this implies intelligence as expresses by their care of the young, defense of the herd, social stratification, inter/intra species communication, grief when faced with death, playing, recognition and greeting of siblings, etc. Are they intelligent? I say they are…and probably due to their proboscis as ours are due to our hands.