Sunday, December 23, 2012

So I decided to take up Birding....

And So It Begins

After being in the US for nearly 6 months now, I've become interested in taking photos of birds.  Here are the reasons:
  1. In the last 26 years in Asia, I've only really seen birds on plates in restaurants or in zoos.  Seeing birds in the nature is a pretty cool experience for me.
  2. I really enjoy taking shots of people and will continue to do this, but taking shots of birds is a whole new experience and is teaching me a lot about my camera and it's capabilities.
  3. It's healthier to be walking about in nature rather than stuck at home on the computer or in the mall shopping (unless it's for cameras!)
Naturally my wife, Christine, is very concerned about me taking up this type of photography, as the cost of long lenses is ridiculous! So I've pretty much committed to do this with the lenses that I have EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM with the Extender EF 1.4X III. I mainly use my Canon EOS 1D X and sometimes my Canon EOS 5D Mark II. The 1D X auto focus functionality is amazing for following birds and I find myself changing between One Shot and AI Servo mode as well as adjusting the Auto Focus area depending on the environment I am shooting in.

My aim is to post one photo of each of the different birds I see each month - hopefully I'll post the right names, but if not, let me know and I will change accordingly.  You can see all the photos of the different birds in my Birding album where I will also tag the birds with the right names.  I currently use the iBird Pro app on my iPhone and iPad to help identify the birds - but don't always get it right!

A Brief Background

My interest in birding started when I took some photos for a friend of mine, Darlene Sillick, on a business trip from China to the States, who works with the Ohio Wildlife Centre, an organization that is a leader in wildlife rehabilitation and conservation education.  Since moving to Ohio in the US, I have subsequently photographed the birds there on a number of occasions and each time became more fascinated by the birds themselves.  Attending a release of a Red Tail Hawk that had been nursed back to health was a wonderful experience and was probably when I first thought about getting involved.

Red Tail Hawk - Release

Recently another friend from work, Matt Erickson, invited our family to his house for Thanksgiving lunch where I was introduced to the hummingbird world and subsequently wrote about my experience on a cold Sunday morning.

Allen Chartier: Banding a Rufous Hummingbird

This was when I decided to get involved in photographing birds.

The Birds - December 2012

American Goldfinch (Winter Plumage)

Blue Jay

Red-bellied Woodpecker (male)

Rufous Hummingbird (Female)

Downy Woodpecker (Male) - Backyard feeder

Downy Woodpecker (Male) - Prairie Oaks Park
Downy Woodpecker (Female) - Backyard feeder

House Finch (Red - Male, Brown - Female), Sparrow (Dark Brown) and a Mourning Dove

Northern Cardinal - Male
One point to note: do not use the the 61-point automatic selection AF in AI Servo mode when it's showing unless you want to see a really pretty display of moving focal points in your viewer :-)

Northern Cardinal - Female

Eastern Bluebird

Carolina Chickadee

Brown Creeper

Red Tail Hawk

Red Tail Hawk
The last photo of the Red Tail Hawk was shot using AI Servo mode and was flying through a wooded area and I took a number of shots while following the bird through the lens and had a remarkable high level of success when you consider the branches in the way!

Other birds spotted but not photographed include:

Please feel free to leave any comments if you have any more information about the birds above.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Big Year - Thanksgiving Style

This is our first year living in the US and we were expecting a quiet Thanksgiving, staying at home watching TV.  Thankfully it was not quiet at all and a good chunk of time was spent with a new crowd of unfamiliar people known as "Birders" on the hunt to find, capture, tag and release a rarely seen species of hummingbird in Ohio called the Rufous Hummingbird.

This whole experience reminded me of a movie I saw last year called "The Big Year", which you can see the trailer here

The adventure began after my colleague Matt Erickson invited our family round to their house for lunch and he asked me to bring a camera to take a "few" photos of a hummingbird that was visiting their feeder on a regular basis.

On the day of the Thanksgiving meal, we had a wonderful traditional Turkey meal with a selection a delicious pies

Afterwards the children went off to play and we got down to business of photographing the aforementioned hummingbird.  Fortunately we didn't have to wait long before the bird appeared which according to Matt was on a 20-30 minute feeding cycle (he was recording the times when the bird visited - apparently it's a birding thing!).

A had setup my Canon 1Dx with the EF 70-200mm F2.8 II on a tripod and was fortunate to capture a number of images...

Humming bird profile sitting on a feeder

The mouth of the humming is definitely not designed to eat a traditional Thanksgiving meal!

I was unable to capture the bird in flight to see it's wings (it was my first attempt at a hummingbird photo). Fortunately the light started to fade and I used my flash, off-camera, to add some light.  Due to the very short duration of the flash on one of these small units (I shot at 1/16th power which is roughly 1/15,000th of a second) I was able to freeze the humming bird in flight.

Frozen in flight

A perfect shot - well my best for the day.
As is frequent with these shoots, something has to happen to make it harder than it should be.  In this case my remote trigger ran out of battery and I was forced to shoot at ISO 20,000 @1/160 and the wings disappeared...
The Canon 1Dx does a very good job at handling high ISO
According to Matt the Hummingbird could be a rarely seen bird in Ohio, but the only way to tell exactly what kind of Hummingbird it was would be to view tail feathers spread, which, we found out later, mainly happens as a sign of aggression when other hummingbirds are hanging around.

Unfortunately we had a passive happy hummingbird who happily kept her tail tucked neatly behind her.

So it was onto plan B: take as many shots of the bird as possible then upload them and have the "experts" take a look.  This is both the beauty and the beast of the Canon 1Dx: beauty because it takes 12 frames per second, beast because I have to sort through the ~350 shots, crop them to get the bird to a decent size in the frame (they really are very small!) and upload them.

4-5 hours later - Done, 223 cropped straightened and adjusted photos (thank goodness for for Adobe Lightroom). My friend Matt then sent out a message to his "Bird Friends" to try and identify the bird. 3,200 page views later and a meeting has been arranged at Matt's house, Sunday morning at 8:30am to formally catch, tag and release the bird.  8:30am on a Sunday morning, hmmmm......

Well in for a penny in for a pound as the saying goes.  Recharged batteries, three Canon 580EX II flashes, Pocket Wizard triggers, light stands, tripod, my faithfull Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, add in a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM for the people shots and my Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM for close ups.  I also packed my Canon 5D MK II as a backup just in case I ran out of battery power or, as the case turned out to be, want to quickly move from a macro close up to a wide angle shot.  I was definitely ready to shoot.

Bags packed, 7:30am Sunday morning I tried to rouse the family, but to no avail. So headed out to see what the morning would bring.  I thought I would arrive early to get my first cup of coffee before I started.  I walked in to Matt's house and found a number of strangers  all with a similar profile - warm jackets, pair of binoculars and at least one item of clothing advertising the particular person bird of choice (flashback to the movie "The Big Year"!).

Binoculars, jackets and un-brushed hair - a common birdie profile
I was surprised to find out that a number of people had driven a couple of hours to attend this catch, tag and release.  The "main man" was Allen Chartier, who is a licensed bird bander and well known in the bird circles, had driven down from Michigan. (NOTE: bird banding is a controlled practice please refer to the USGS website for more details.)
Allen Chartier (middle), Matt Erickson (left) and Darlene Sillick (right)
The above shot was taken with a flash bounced of the ceiling, which for me is now the standard starting position for any on-camera flash.  I'm grateful that Canon left out the in built flash on the the 5D MKII and 1Dx as it forces you to use an external flash and bouncing lights of the ceiling give you a great large light to give you good overall light coverage.  There are occasion when I will bounce a light off a wall or the corner of the wall and ceiling, but my starting position is bouncing the flash off the ceiling with the flash head at a 90 degree angel to the front so that I can easily switch between portrait and landscape.

Back to the story...

I think I'd taken my first or second sip of coffee when the Hummingbird turned up for her routine feed...
Morning feed - I reckon the bird in the image is close to the original size of the bird.

After watching the hummingbird go through her routine, it was a time to get ready...

Preparing for the capture...
The original feeder was replaced by the cage on the floor in the image above.  This cage has a remote trigger that allows the door to be shut when the bird is inside and feeding, keeping it out of harms way.

Next was preparing the band for the Hummingbird, which was incredibly tiny...

No it is not an optical illusion - it really is that small

The band had to be stretched open using a thin knitting needle...
spreading the band on a knitting needle
Both of the above shots used a macro lens, but still used bounced light off the ceiling.  The trick when getting this close is to ensure that you are not blocking the bounced light.  Otherwise you end up with some really ugly shadows.

Finally the number on the band was registered in Allen's bird banding book...
Recording the details

Once the bird was captured it is put in a special bag to take out of the cage (all with great care and expertise).
Careful handling of the bird throughout the process

The following indoor shots were taken with a flash bouncing off the ceiling and show a variety of activities...

Blowing on the breast separates the feathers and gives a view of the breast. This helps is seeing how much fat the bird has... a gauge of overall health



Counting spots on the neck...

Spots on the neck...

Closely examining the beak to see tiny grooves on the bill which can age the bird. They grooves disappear after maturity and can only be seen with 10x viewer in the hand

marveling at the ever changing color of the spots...

Measuring of the tail feathers...

Looking at the tail feathers...apparently they are critical in determining the type of bird

Keeping everyone informed...

and finally weighing of the bird...

After all of the activity it was time to go outside and let the bird fly free...

A few last minutes photos by Allen for reference...

another good look at the tail feathers...specifically the fourth feather from the left

Getting ready to release the bird....

and finally waiting for the bird to leave.
I was a great day and very informative, even for us non birders.

Photography wise it was a challenge to keep moving with the flow, so as not to interrupt the banding or the delay of the release.  Having great cameras, with bounced light kept it simple.

Thanks to everyone who was involved in making this work.

If you'd like to contact me regarding this article (or to correct any birding terms that I am still learning) feel free to email me at