Earlier this fall, my wife Kerry and I took a trip up to Redwood National and State Parks in northern California. As we got up to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, we stopped at Elk Meadow, a popular spot to see one of the few herds of Roosevelt Elk that survive in and around the Redwood parks.
As it was fall, we were treated to witnessing rutting season, the time of year where bull elks assert their dominance in the quest for female attention. It was readily apparent who the big, dominant bull was, decoratively adorned with straw hanging from his antlers. The regularity of his bugles told us that he had a high opinion of himself!
Exhausted from his efforts of showing off, he took a bit of a snooze in the grass.
Roosevelt elk is the largest of the four surviving subspecies of elk in North America. Today Roosevelt elk in California persist only in Humboldt and Del Norte Counties, and western Siskiyou County. Seven elk herds call Redwood National and State Parks home, although at times these herds become loose aggregations of smaller groups. Although this is a pretty easy large mammal to see in North America, I always delight at their antics, whether it is during the fall rut or the spring calving season.
Winter is coming to the SF Bay Area, and so are the wonderful variety of wintering birds. I set out on a recent afternoon to see what the winds have brought in, and to capture some of these winged denizens in beautiful golden light. Looking back through the day’s photos though, I realized that most of what I saw were year-round birds. Oh well, even if I didn’t see a typical winter’s variety, the winter months always tend to be a bit more “birdy” around here.
My patience with this commoner was rewarded with some decent take-off and flight shots. Birds in flight are more than a little difficult to shoot with my 800mm beast. So I always give a thank you to those who take off slowly, giving my ample time to track them with autofocus.
Green herons are pretty common around my house, but are usually seen only by the most avid birders. You wouldn’t think it from the photograph, but these guys can really blend into the rocks and vegetation surrounding the water channels. If they aren’t moving, they are very hard to spot, even when scanning a shoreline with a scope. Therefore, it is always a treat when I do see one and can get close enough for decent photographs.
Fox sparrows have a wide range, which includes both breeding and wintering in the Bay Area. However, I’ve seen them more commonly in the winter. These guys are definitely more rare than some of the most common sparrows, and I was happy to catch one on camera as it stopped for a few quick seconds on a branch.
I’m always happy to see these wrens flitting about. They are uncommon enough to warrant excitement, and it was nice to capture one in a natural environment. I have a family of Bewick’s wrens that visit my front yard, but photographs of bird feeders are relegated to my stock collection.
White-crowned sparrows are very common during the winter along the bay, but are not seen here in the summer months. However, they are year round residents just over the hill along the coast. Seeing white-crowned sparrows often reminds me of the diversity of San Mateo county and how you can see an entirely different ecosystem of birds by traveling a few short miles.
Finally, I rounded out my afternoon with the big daddy of the marsh, the great egret. They are very common, but also beautiful. Here I found a nice looking specimen so I spent a little time photographing him. Overall, it was a pretty birdy afternoon – I’m looking forward to the influx of wintering waterfowl that will bring great visual variety to the area.
On a trip to Ontario Canada a while back, I was able to spend some time photographing some of the area’s local birds, knowing that many of what I found there would be new species to me. I quickly found a few local residents, but as my time was short, I wasn’t able to get all of them without man-made elements in the frame.
The first such local was an eastern kingbird. He was perched right next to a country road, at perfect eye level with my lens, which was resting on a bean bag sitting in an open window. Often bean bags are the best supports from which to shoot from a vehicle, especially if you want the opportunity to shoot out both sides of the car. Often Kerry is kind enough to drive slowly (and as quietly as possible) down country roads while I keep the back seat to myself and move back and forth between the rear windows as required.
I usually try to capture birds in more natural environments, but there were no trees nearby, there was a perfect distant background, and I had no time to wait for a better perch.
The second bird I photographed in the same area (and yes, perched on a similar wire fence to the first bird) was a female bobolink. I saw several males in the area as well, but they stayed farther from the road and I didn’t get any worthwhile photos of them. It is always difficult identifying female species as the coloring can be quite different than the males. Since males typically have more differentiating colors, species are usually described using the males’ attributes instead of the females. To identify female birds, I often troll through hundreds of photos after guessing at the species, or at least narrowing down the family of bird.
I also got some decent photos of a mute swan, and finally without distracting “hand of man” elements! Mute swans are native to Europe and Asia, but have established sizable populations in the coastal areas of the Great Lakes. I felt lucky to see one in the wild, as I’d never find one on the west coast of the US.
My last bird for the day was not a new species for me, but who can’t marvel at a beautiful osprey in flight? The local area had erected several nesting towers to encourage the birds to raise their young here. This osprey had chicks in the nest, and gave me lots of great flight shots as it flew to and from the nest.
Here the osprey is perched at the edge of its nesting tower, looking majestic.
It is always fun to travel to new areas for nature photography. While landscape photography dictates that you continually visit new areas, bird and wildlife photography can often be done closer to home. Closer to home, you often have much more time with an animal, but with traveling, nothing beats the thrill of seeing what’s around the next corner.
On my last trip to India, I was fortunate enough to have some great sightings of India’s national bird, the peacock (or rather more correctly, the Indian Peafowl (to be fair to both sexes))! In the United States, these birds are often relegated to free roaming status in zoos, so it was nice to see some in their natural habitat.
One thing that became apparent as soon as I started photographing was that these wild peacocks were extremely skittish and agitated. Any time I tried to approach on foot, they would scamper off into the jungle.
Only by shooting from the window of a car was I able to get close. The “mobile blind” technique often works well with many types of wildlife, though it is essential to have an experienced driver who knows how to slowly creep up on the subject without spooking it.
When you can catch the peacock feathers in the right light, the brilliant colors almost glow. Here you have to be careful about light angles, because at the wrong angle, you can get unwanted glare from the reflective surface of these iridescent feathers.
I looked for opportunities like the shot above to showcase peacocks off the ground. Here the males can let the full glory of their tail feathers hang to the ground. This was taken at a meditation center in southern Tamil Nadu that doubled as a sanctuary for these wild birds.
While I photographed many peacocks over the course of three days, one shot I wanted but didn’t get was that of a male displaying to female. I did see this display in action, but wasn’t able to photograph it well as the birds were stationed behind a wire fence. I figure its always good to want more – all the more reason to keep me coming back in the future!