Category

Birds

Photographing Birds at Bill Forbes Place, The Pond at Elephant Head

Arizona, Birds, Wisdom

I recently spent a couple days photographing southern Arizona critters at the Pond at Elephant Head and the Upper Madera Drip with the help of Bill Forbes. Bill is the inventor of the Phototrap, a device for remote camera triggering using infrared beam, perfect for capturing difficult images of wildlife behavior. (For some stunning examples of what can be accomplished with the Phototrap, see Scott Linstead‘s website. Scott was kind enough to give me lots of good information about what to expect at Bill’s place.)

Northern cardinal, male, Cardinalis cardinalis, Amado, Arizona

Northern cardinal, male.
Image ID: 22891
Species: Northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis
Location: Amado, Arizona, USA

Bill Forbes owns a small ranch south of Tucson, Arizona. On his ranch the visiting photographer finds Bill’s workshop, which is overflowing with tripods, flashes, snakes, wires, birdseed, electronics equipment, along with everything he needs to build the Phototrap. You name it: if it is part of small critter photography it is somewhere in his shop. In the back of his property Bill also keeps a small pond, surrounded by two in-ground blinds and several movable blinds. The pond is known among photographers as “The Pond at Elephant Head“. The pond is maintained year round, so all the local wildlife, both nocturnal and diurnal, comes by seeking water constantly. It is a real magnet for animal life. I spent a few sunrise and sunset sessions at Bill’s pond, alone in a blind at the edge of the tiny pool, photographing springtime migrating and resident birds as well as several small mammals. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. A few minutes after I entered the blind, birds would arrive and begin lighting upon the many movable perches that I had set up around the pond. A little later, rabbits and squirrels would show up too. Periodically I would get out of the blind to stretch my legs, put out some bird seed or pieces of fruit, or move perches around. The animals would flush, but would return in a few minutes once I went back into the blind. It was amazing to me how much wildlife Bill has in his backyard, and I only saw the daytime visitors. (Bill uses his Phototrap to shoot stunning images of several species of bats that visit the pond at night, something I would really like to see one day.)

Greater roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus, Amado, Arizona

Greater roadrunner.
Image ID: 22902
Species: Greater roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus
Location: Amado, Arizona, USA

Photography around the pond is a morning and evening thing. During midday it is too hot for my taste, and the light is too harsh for good photography. I arrived each morning at Bill’s about 5:30am to be ready for the first animals’ arrivals at 6am sunrise. I would shoot until 10am or so, then break until about 3pm to get some lunch in nearby Green Valley. One day I drove up at lunch to the nearby observatory in the mountains for some sightseeing. If desired, during the midday hours one can also shoot hummingbirds, provided it is the right season (spring I think). Bill had a hummingbird setup, with four strobes, a feeder and a colored backdrop, in the shade of his workshop while I was there. The setup was perfect, but the day I was there not many hummers came by. I only managed a few keeper frames, however, I did learn much from seeing how Bill set his equipment up and listening to him speak about how to best use it. He is a wealth of information for those so inclined to learn.

When shooting from the blind, I was using a 500mm lens and 1.4x converter on a full frame camera body. I would have preferred a 600mm or 800mm lens for the small birds, but the 500mm was sufficient and I am pleased with the many “bird on a stick” photos I got. Not long after sunrise one finds that the light gets harsh. By this I mean that shadows begin to appear strongly on or around the subject. Even when the photographer has his shadow pointed directly at the subject (easy to accomplish with the lightweight movable blinds!), the height of the sun above the horizon will still result in increasingly contrasty images as the morning progresses. The solution is to use fill flash. I put my strobe on a Wimberley off-camera pedestal, and put a Better Beamer in front of the flash. The Better Beamer effectively doubles the throw of the flash, or conversely can be thought of as effectively lessening the strobe’s recycle time. The perches are elevated, most of them right about eye level when sitting on a chair in the blind, so there was no real need to lay on the ground for bird shots. For some of the mammals (rabbit, squirrel) I might have improved my images be getting a little lower.

For sunset on my second afternoon with Bill, I decided to forgo his pond and instead shoot at a “drip” that he maintains on private property in nearby Madera Canyon. At about 5,000 feet, the drip attracts a different species than one sees at Bill’s pond. Madera Canyon is famous for the number of different hummingbird species that can be found there in spring, and sure enough when I got up into the canyon there were dozens of bird watchers walking along the road with binoculars and ID books. Bill’s “Upper Madera Drip” is about the size and height of a pool table. It is a basin of water surround with natural rocks, set in a clearing with plenty of movable natural perches that one can position around the drip in infinite variety. Once the perches are setup properly, one enters a lightweight, movable blind and waits a few minutes for the birds to arrive. While the pace of activity at the drip was less than what I observed at Bill’s pond, it was a pleasure to see the different species. I even had wild turkey and mule deer walk right up to the drip, although too close for the 700mm lens I had on at the time. I could have had a second camera setup with, say, a 300mm on it, but in the spirit of keeping life simple I used only the 700mm and that was great for both the pond and the drip.

I should mention that Bill has a spartan but comfortable bunk house on his property that is available for photographers wishing to stay there rather than in nearby Green Valley. I opted to stay in Bill’s bunk house for a night.

Thanks to Ron Niebrugge and Scott Linstead for their comments in helping me decide to visit Bill Forbes and his Pond at Elephant Head, and for making sure I had enough batteries to keep up with the fill flash. I shot about 3500 images in two full days, and kept about 200, of which about 20 are appealing enough to go into my gallery of bird photographs (the good stuff!). The 28 species I saw in those two days, none of which I had photographed before, were:

At the Pond at Elephant Head
Harris’ antelope squirrel (Ammospermophilus harrisii)
Black-throated sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata)
Gambel’s quail (Callipepla gambelii)
Cactus wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus)
Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus)
House finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)
Greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus)
Bullock’s oriole (Icterus bullockii)
Hooded oriole (Icterus cucullatus)
White-sided jackrabbit (Lepus callotis)
Gila woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis)
Bronzed cowbird (Molothrus aeneus)
Brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater)
House sparrow (Passer domesticus)
Horned lizard (Phrynosoma)
Canyon towhee (Pipilo fuscus)
Round-tailed ground squirrel (Spermophilus tereticaudus)
Desert cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus audubonii)
Curve-billed thrasher (Toxostoma curvirostre)
White-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica)

At the Upper Madera Drip, in Madera Canyon
Mexican Jay (Aphelocoma ultramarina)
Bridled titmouse (Baeolophus wollweberi)
Acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus)
Wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)
Black-headed grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus)
Arizona woodpecker (Picoides arizonae)
White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)

plus a couple of hummingbirds I have not yet identified. Not bad for my first time shooting from a blind!

Photo of a Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger), San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Birds, California, San Diego

Don Hill recommended a few spots in San Diego for me to see fall seabirds. Inspired by Don’s great shots I drove down to take a look and was pleasantly surprised by all the bird life in the bay. This black skimmer (Rynchops niger) was photographed in the San Diego Bay. Very cool birds, the way they skim.

Black skimmer forages by flying over shallow water with its lower mandible dipping below the surface for small fish, Rynchops niger, San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Black skimmer forages by flying over shallow water with its lower mandible dipping below the surface for small fish.
Image ID: 17418
Species: Black skimmer, Rynchops niger
Location: San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge, California, USA

Western Gull, Larus occidentalis

Birds, California, Seabird, Wildlife

The Western gull, Larus occidentalis, is a large white-headed gull common along the western coast of North America. The Western gull ranges from British Columbia to Baja California. It is exclusively marine, and nests on offshore rocks and islands. While offshore it feeds on fishes and invertebrates that it can take at the surface (it cannot dive), and will scavenge carcasses and shellfish while foraging along the shore. It is known to predate upon other smaller birds. Western gulls have a lifespan up to about 25 years, although 15-20 years is more common.

Western gull, early morning pink sky, Larus occidentalis, La Jolla, California

Western gull, early morning pink sky.
Image ID: 18394
Species: Western gull, Larus occidentalis
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Western gull, Larus occidentalis, La Jolla, California

Western gull.
Image ID: 26465
Species: Western gull, Larus occidentalis
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Western gull, Larus occidentalis

Western gull.
Image ID: 03766
Species: Western gull, Larus occidentalis

Western gull, adult breeding plumage, note yellow orbital ring around eye, Larus occidentalis, La Jolla, California

Western gull, adult breeding plumage, note yellow orbital ring around eye.
Image ID: 15114
Species: Western gull, Larus occidentalis
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Western gull, open mouth, Larus occidentalis, La Jolla, California

Western gull, open mouth.
Image ID: 15553
Species: Western gull, Larus occidentalis
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Western gull, flying, Larus occidentalis, La Jolla, California

Western gull, flying.
Image ID: 15559
Species: Western gull, Larus occidentalis
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Western gull, courtship display, Larus occidentalis, La Jolla, California

Western gull, courtship display.
Image ID: 15556
Species: Western gull, Larus occidentalis
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Keywords: Western gull, Larus occidentalis

Boobie Photos

Birds, Galapagos Diaries, Seabird

For some reason many visitors to this web site have been searching for boobie photos. We simply do not understand the intense interest in photos of boobies, or in boobies in general. Boobies are just a bunch of seabirds and not even particularly rare. The blue boobies seem to elicit the most interest — visitors seem amazed that they come in a deep blue color, naturally with no cosmetic alteration necessary. (They also come in brown and red, and some even have masks!) In spite of all the boobie traffic, however, nobody buys the boobie photographs, they just furtively look and move on. We have yet to license one of our boobies to anyone, until today when we finally sold a boobie photo, a fine art print in fact. So we are no longer amateur boobie photographers. We can honestly say that we proudly photograph boobies all over the world, professionally. You know the look: beautiful boobies, endless white sand beaches and glamorous island settings. Big ones, small ones, perky ones, drab ones, bodacious ones. We’ve been thinking of starting up a specialty website, www.firstclassboobies.com or www.worldsbestboobies.com.

Blue-footed booby, courtship display, Sula nebouxii, North Seymour Island

Blue-footed booby, courtship display.
Image ID: 01791
Species: Blue-footed booby, Sula nebouxii
Location: North Seymour Island, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Blue-footed booby, courtship display, Punta Suarez, Sula nebouxii, Hood Island

Blue-footed booby, courtship display, Punta Suarez.
Image ID: 01797
Species: Blue-footed booby, Sula nebouxii
Location: Hood Island, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Blue-footed booby, Punta Suarez, Sula nebouxii, Hood Island

Blue-footed booby, Punta Suarez.
Image ID: 01801
Species: Blue-footed booby, Sula nebouxii
Location: Hood Island, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Blue-footed booby with chick, Sula nebouxii, North Seymour Island

Blue-footed booby with chick.
Image ID: 01808
Species: Blue-footed booby, Sula nebouxii
Location: North Seymour Island, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Keywords: boobies, boobie photos, boobie pictures, boobie photographs

Photos of Atlantic Puffins at Machias Seal Island

Birds

Machias Seal Island is one of the best places in the world to observe Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica), and is certainly a fun place to get to. Machias Seal Island, near the US border with Canada in the Gulf of Maine, is accessed by a short boat from the easternmost tip of the United States, using services at either of the Maine coastal towns of Jonesport or Cutler. This is a beautiful section of the Maine coastline, worth a visit in its own right to see what “downeast” Maine looks and feels like away from the more touristy and crowded areas, but for wildlife enthusiasts the likely chief attraction will be a visit to Machias Seal Island to see sea birds. There are approximately 3000 breeding pairs of Atlantic puffins at the summer breeding colony on Machias Seal Island, and good times to visit are late May through September, with the peak numbers of birds somewhere in the middle of that period.

Atlantic puffin, mating coloration, Fratercula arctica, Machias Seal Island

Atlantic puffin, mating coloration.
Image ID: 03135
Species: Atlantic puffin, Fratercula arctica
Location: Machias Seal Island, Maine, USA

Once on the island, visitors take turns walking through the breeding colony to permanent blinds (actually small huts with tiny windows). Once you are inside your blind — and presumably invisible to the puffins — the small birds resume their normal activities and you can observe them from very close range. This is a special opportunity, since Atlantic puffins are now gone from many of their former island breeding colonies, due to historic hunting and continued predation by several species of gulls.

Atlantic puffin, mating coloration, Fratercula arctica, Machias Seal Island

Atlantic puffin, mating coloration.
Image ID: 03118
Species: Atlantic puffin, Fratercula arctica
Location: Machias Seal Island, Maine, USA

Atlantic puffin, mating coloration, Fratercula arctica, Machias Seal Island

Atlantic puffin, mating coloration.
Image ID: 03139
Species: Atlantic puffin, Fratercula arctica
Location: Machias Seal Island, Maine, USA

Atlantic puffin, mating coloration, Fratercula arctica, Machias Seal Island

Atlantic puffin, mating coloration.
Image ID: 03145
Species: Atlantic puffin, Fratercula arctica
Location: Machias Seal Island, Maine, USA

I have taken the 90 minute trip to the island with Barna Norton of Jonesport. His small boat was crowded with passengers, but the trip was short (by my standards) and pleasant enough with enthusiastic talk and anticipation amongst the experienced birdwatchers (of which I am not) being the pursuit on the way to the island, and quiet reflection (i.e., napping) the name of the game on the way back.

Bold Coast Charter Co. in Cutler, Maine offers a similar boat trip to the island, with nearly identical cost. The drive to Cutler is longer than the drive to Jonesport, but the reward is a shorter boat trip from Cutler to the island than from Jonesport.

BirdingAmerica.com and Mainebirding.net both offer great summaries of what a visit to Machias Seal Island is like, from a birdwatcher’s point of view.

Keywords: Machias Seal Island, Atlantic puffins, puffin photos, Fratercula arctica, Maine, Jonesport, seabird, sea birds, Arctic tern, photo, photograph.