On the Hunt

Recently I was asked, or rather challenged, by a friend at a local wildlife refuge to try and get a photo of a new critter that they suspect has been hanging out there.  So I agree and take a day off my “real job” to sit in the weeds and stare at dirt.  It’s not as bad as it sounds.  A day out in nature will almost always beat a day stuck in a cube.

I headed out early on Friday morning, parked my vehicle, and began the mile hike to my spot.  It is early November, but did I get a nice cool day?  No!  As with the rest of the weather the past couple of years, we are pushing a record high for this day in November in North Texas.  I believe it got up to 89 degrees, and the sun was in my face all day.  On the other hand, I got a nice tan on my face as I was seated facing south from sun up to sun down.  I headed back out for a second try on Saturday and was able to stay until after sundown in hopes that the critter would come out then, but again no luck.  But does that mean I shot no pictures?  Of course not.

I caught this Great Egret on Friday morning while sitting there enjoying the early morning sun.  It flew past me over the marsh with the sun highlighting the wings and illuminating the feathers from behind.  A beautiful sight to see.

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Several time that day I could hear and see a kingfisher flying over the marsh looking for a meal.  It was great watching it hover over the water and then diving down to catch a small fish.  Hard to catch it doing that with a big lens though.  That little thing is fast!  I was finally able to catch a shot of this Belted Kingfisher when it landed and tossed the fish into the air to swallow it whole!

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And as I was leaving the area, I shared the trail with an armadillo.  It was walking right towards me.  Of course, they are mostly blind and rely on their sense of smell to warn them of other creatures.  I guess I didn’t have much of an odor because it walked almost right up to me.  I was able to lower myself to get a decent shot as it raised up on its hind legs as if to scare me away.  I remained calm and it went on its way without incident.

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So, even if I wasn’t able to get a shot of the new critter, there will be other days.  New trails are being built now and I can’t wait to get out there and see what kind of critters I can spot!

Back to LLELA

Continuing on my quest to find and photograph a Painted Bunting, I returned to my local wildlife center, the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area.  I knew these guys were there because I could hear them singing in the tree tops most of the time I was there hiking around the woods.  They were very stealthy though and I never actually got to see one.

So I arrive early, close to 7am and begin the hunt.  Again, I can hear them, but I see nothing.  Hiking down the Cottonwood Trail, I catch a glimpse of a hummingbird, but it is gone before I can get my lens on it.  Then I come across something a bit slower that I can warm up with.

This “garden spider” was about the size of my hand, but it was just hanging out on the side of the trail waiting for some insect to come along.  It didn’t bother me so I just made a photograph and continued on, hunting the elusive bunting.

Continuing on, I came to the beaver pond where I saw several herons and egrets.  I’ve got lots of pictures of them, but I did notice this young Great Blue Heron flying by and took the opportunity to practice my bird-in-flight photography.  Pretty happy with how this one turned out.

I completed the trail with nary a Painted Bunting to be seen.  I heard them, but they remained out of my sight.  Then, as I was checking out some scissor-tailed flycatchers on the power lines, a LLELA worker stopped and talked with me.  I told her what I was looking for and she suggested I try the Bittern Marsh trail.  I thanked her and headed that way.

Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, perhaps you remember that this is the trail where I ran into (almost stepped on) Mr Cottonmouth.  This is someone I do NOT wish to run into again.  But the call of the Painted Bunting is strong so I push my fears aside and head down the trail.

I get no farther than a couple hundred yards down the trail when I see a “stick” across the path up ahead of me, except this stick is pretty smoothly curved.  I stop!  Then I look through my telephoto lens and see this.

Okay, I know enough now to realize this is not a cottonmouth, but a “harmless” variety of snake.  Still I wait, then approach very slowly.  Finally, it notices me and slithers back into the grass.  Sorry I disturbed its sunbathing, but not sorry it’s now off the path.  I continue.

I come to the beginning of the marsh area and see a Great Egret “fishing” in the water.  Thanks to some local Eagle Scouts, there are now benches on the boardwalk, so I sit and observe for a while.  It’s now over 100 degrees, but in the shade and near the water, it actually isn’t that bad.  Still, I’m glad I packed water with me.  I watch the egret and make several photographs.  I enjoy the white bird and its reflection against the green water.

I’m not saying that I was scared or anything, but I just wasn’t ready to go to the part of the trail where the “incident” occurred.  I head back on the trail the way I came.

Then, about a hundred yards from the trail-head, I hear the song of the Painted Bunting.  Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I see a bright red flash!  I stop and stand very still.  I scan the trees, and then, just to my right, I see a Painted Bunting sitting on a branch, just watching me!  Of course, before I can turn the camera, it is back into the trees.  I have just made my first personal sighting of this bird and I’m not ready to give up.

I wait.  I even use my Android to play the bird’s song in hopes to lure it out of the trees.  I’m waiting.  I have my camera ready and aimed to where I think it will come down.  Nothing.  I wait some more.  Nothing.  Now it’s starting to get hot.  I turn around to check my surroundings (I’m not far from where I spotted the snake earlier).  Then, I see it.  BEHIND ME!  It’s just sitting there on a low branch, watching me.  Slowly, I turn the tripod around, aim, and FIRE!  I was able to get about 6 shots before it flew away back into the trees.  Then I notice that my flash had somehow gotten bumped to a higher power than it should have been.  Luckily, with the help of Lightroom and the fact that I shoot the RAW format, all was not lost and I was able to recover most of the photo to a decent degree.  So, after about five months and hunting and watching for a Painted Bunting, and five hours of this day in the heat, I present to you, my first!

Not a perfect shot, but for now, I’ll take it!

Now for the next challenge: the Bobcat!

Photos created with the Canon 7D and Canon 600mm f/4IS lens

An Eventful Trip to LLELA!

Saturday was a beautiful day!  Temperature in the low 80s, no rain, no clouds.  So with schoolwork for the week done, I decided to head over for a hike and see what birds were around.  With all the rain lately, surely there would be plenty out and about, especially in the mark area.  I was really looking forward to this.

The first thing I see as I’m getting my equipment together is a 4-wheeler carrying my new friends Owen and Lynn Richards.  Owen was nice enough to pose for me, but by the time I got the camera pointed in the right direction, he was seated back down.  Smile

As I begin my trek toward the Bittern Marsh area, I hit my first obstacle.  With lots of rain, comes lots of water.  The lake is full and they are letting out a lot of water into the river.  Consequently, the west side of the trial heading to the marsh was flooded.  No problem, I’ll just take the high ground and take the east side of the loop.  Perhaps I can find another way past the flood on the way back on the west side.

As I enter the wooded area, I realize that I’m not seeing a lot of wildlife today.  I also notice that in the woods, the breeze is not blowing and the humidity is pretty high.  No problem, I brought along three bottles of water.

Finally, I spot a Hairy Woodpecker up in the trees, just on the north side of the marsh.  The trail doesn’t go near the tree it is in, but I still manage to get a few semi-obscured shots with the 600.

I continue on, around the east side of the marsh, and then realize the trail on the south side is flooded as well.  No problem though as there is an alternate path on a higher piece of ground, so I take it.  In the mean time, I’m realizing that I’m really glad I wore my water-resistant hiking boots because by now, my tennis shoes would be soaked!

Finally make it around the south side and up to the marsh, when I realize that with the exception of about 4 or 5 American Coots and another couple who were headed out to the boardwalk over the marsh, the marsh is empty today.

Drats!  Okay, I’ll admit it.  By now, the tripod, 7d with the 600 attached, and the 5d2 with the 24-105 attached were starting to get a little heavy.  But hey, that’s one reason I’m out here, for exercise and staying in enough shape to lug all my equipment around.  So, time to head up the west side of the trail back to the parking lot.

Hmm, where’s all that water come from?  Yep, the western path to and from the marsh is flooded all the way down to here.  Can’t even make it to the boardwalk without some serious wading.  I’m scouring the trees, but still no sign of egrets or herons, or much of anything for that matter.

Resigned to the fact that the path is blocked, I head back the way I came.  Of course, this hike just got about 1.6 time longer than I had expected, but hey, like I said, that’s one reason I’m out here.

On the way back, I decide to take a few environmental shots.  May as well use the time I’m having in nature to enjoy the scenery.  I stop at a footbridge and notice this very peaceful scene, and down a half a bottle of water.

A little farther up the path, and I see this barbed wire, looped and hanging on a tree branch.  Reminds me of something out of an old western, so I take a photo.

Back the way I came.  By now, I’m through two bottles of water and my shoulders are really feeling the weight of the equipment.  As I approach the area where I had seen the woodpecker earlier, I’m searching the trees to see if it is still around, and if it has any friends.  I stop and set the tripod down to scan the trees and reset my shoulder.  It sure is peaceful… and quiet… except for a strange rustling noise.  That’s strange.  I wonder what that could be.  I listen again.  Surely that’s not a rattle snake.  I start looking out in the woods beside the trail, searching for anything that might be slithering along the leaves.  Then I look straight down… and my heart stops… if only for a brief second.  I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I was suddenly about 10 feet away looking at this, right where my foot was just seconds before!

Well, it took a bit, but I slowly calmed down enough to gather my thoughts, even though I was still shaking a bit.  But then I noticed that it wasn’t moving.  Had I stepped on it without knowing?  It’s head was all thrown back and it’s mouth was side open, so I slowly approached.  As I got closer, nope, it was still alive.  It’s mouth opened even farther and it tail began to vibrate.  I didn’t see any rattles, and I’m admittedly not real familiar with snakes so I’m thinking maybe this was a young rattle snake that just hadn’t grown its rattle yet.  So I get my shot, and realize just how close my foot was to this thing.  I spend about 10 minutes there wondering if I should do anything or not when I hear voices approaching.  The couple from the boardwalk.

As they approach, I holler and let them know that there is a snake on the trail.  To my surprise (and relief actually), the gentleman tells me that he is the ex-president of the North Texas Herpetological Society (they study reptiles) and he slowly approaches the snake.  I told him I thought it was a rattle snake because it was shaking its tail, but he informs me that it is “just a water moccasin.”  I’m thinking to myself, “and that’s supposed to make me feel better?”  But knowing that there was someone present that knew about snake was a great relief.  (It is funny how God can orchestrate things so that needs are met at just the right time.)

Long story short (I know, too late), we talk a bit and then I follow my new friend and his girlfriend out of the woods like scared school-boy hiding from a bully behind the teacher.  As we are walking, I find out that his name is Jeff Justice and he is the staff photographer at a local hospital!  So not only did he know about he snake, he could have given me first aid if needed!

We finally make it out (alive) and exchange information.  While I didn’t get the shots I went in looking for, I came out with a new friend and a shot I never thought I would take.  You just never know how your day is going to turn out, so be prepared for anything.

Keep shooting (and be careful)

All shots made with the Canon 7D & Canon 600 f/4 IS + 1.4x and the Canon 5d2 & Canon 24-105 f/4

Cedar Waxwing

This weekend I was treated to a beautiful bird, the Cedar Waxwing.  This is the first time I have photographed these birds in my local area, but certainly not the first time they have been here.  The truth is that until I became more interested in wildlife photography, there were a lot of critters in my area which I just never noticed.

Saturday, Karen and I returned to LLELA once again for some hiking and photo practice.  I can’t allow myself to get out of the habit of lugging that 600 around or when the time comes, I could end up face-down in the mud on a paid vacation (ouch).  Instead, I’ll take every opportunity to go out and hike and practice.

On this day, the wildlife (birds) were pretty scarce.  We saw a few robins and cardinals that were simply too quick, and I saw some form of a woodpecker, but it was too far away for me to capture adequately so I’ll save it for another day.  But after finishing one trail and about to begin a second, I noticed a bunch of “flitty” birds doing what they do, flitting, around a couple of trees near the pavilion.  As I focused my lens on them, I realized they were cedar waxwings!  As they flitted around  here, I managed to capture a few decent frames of them.  They were really going after those berries on the trees.

Not bad, but photographically, very cluttered, and a bit too far away from the subject.  All those twiggy branches distract from the beauty that is the cedar waxwing.

After spending some time there clicking away, trying to get a better shot, we headed down the next trail.  This trail was shaded and therefore has a little less harsh light, and we were greeted with more waxwings.  What luck.  A second chance with better light.  After chasing a couple of them around the branches for a while, I finally got some shots that I was happy with.  This shot was my favorite of the day.

The darker background, along with some fill flash, helps bring out the bird more clearly in this photo.  And while I liked how it is looking at me over its shoulder, I really wanted a more front-facing shot.  That however, was not to be.  They kept their back to me, no matter which direction I came at them from.

Could this shot have been better?  Sure.  I could have done without the twigs coming out of the bird’s head and the berries could have been more in focus, but the beauty of the bird makes up for some of that.  Some days, you take what you can get.  For all the faults of this shot, it is still one of my favorites.

 

New Years Day: Northern Harrier

I began the year with a drive over to the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area (LLELA).  Karen planned on some hiking, but I planned on shooting something while I walked, so I brought my big gun with me!

For the most part, the walk was void of any photographable wildlife.  We walked the Redbud trail, hoping to catch a look at some hawks hunting in the open field area, but all we saw were some vultures flying high and far away from us.  So, we diverted over to the Cicada trail which is more wooded.

On the Cicada trail, there were plenty of birds, mostly Cardinals, but they were very flighty and just were not sitting still long enough for me to focus on them.  By the time I spotted them, they were flying into the woods.  At one point we heard a woodpecker but it remained hidden from our view.  But from the sounds of the hammering, I’m betting it was the last of the Ivory-billed Woodpeckers!  At least that’s my story until I actually see it.  That $10,000 reward will buy some nice new photo equipment someday!  Smile

After shooting a few sparrows and a robin, we continued hiking and finished the trail.  We were considering aborting the rest of the day and heading home.  I was beginning to regret bringing the heavy lens when we we saw what appeared to be a raptor making lazy circles over the grass of the Lewisville Lake dam.  As we waited in the parking lot, it got closer, and I exit the vehicle and the 600mm lens comes back out as this beautiful Northern Harrier  begins hunting in the grass right in front of us.

As we watch, this beautiful creature goes up and down the dam getting close and going far.  I take the opportunity to practice using the big lens, firing away trying to hone in on the proper technique for capturing birds in flight.  Normally it doesn’t seem that hard, but when you are shooting with a lens then big, and the bird is actually this close to you, following the action is harder than it looks.  Finally, when all was said and done, I did end up with a few keepers.

So, never think the day is over until the day is over.  Had we just gotten in the vehicle and drove off, we would have missed this beautiful sight.  You just never know what God is going to place right in front of your eyes.  Don’t blink and miss it.

All photographs taken with the Canon 7D and Canon EF 600mm f/4 IS USM, and Canon Extender 1.4X II, mounted on a Manfrotto 055XPROB tripod and Jobu BWG-HD gimbal head with Really Right Stuff long-lens support package.