Tuesday
Apr052011

Who doesn't love baby Owls???

While I am sure some of you are watching the live Decorah Bald Eagles nest every second that you can like we are!! I still think you'll enjoy these little guys!  As I mentioned earlier, I found out about a Great Horned Owls nest and plan to follow this little family over the next 7-8 weeks as the babies grow, practice short flights and then leave the nest! The family that lives at the house where the nest is has attached a piece of wood to the tree and has a camera on it to watch the goings on in the nest! While this is pretty cool to watch, selfishly it ruins the photos a little(Or a lot depending on your opinion ;-)

I have learned that Great Horned Owls, don't tend to build their own nests. They usually will inhabit the nest of a other birds, like crow or hawk nests and sometimes even large squirrel nests, and as you will see with these owl, the stumps of trees!



 



Baby Great Horned Owls peeking out of the nest

Peek-A-Boo!!



These two little guys will be carefully watched and feed in the nest for weeks by the parents, until at about 6-7 weeks old, they will take small trips to nearby branches until they will leave the nest for good at the 8-9 week stage. Right now they just sit, sleep, and cry for food:

 



Baby Great Horned Owl yawning

"Faaaa laaa laaa, laaa laaa!!!!



 


Actually I think he was yawning, but it was Soooooo Cute to see!!! They are getting even bigger and more confident even in the week or so I have been coming by to watch and photograph them.




 



Baby Great Horned Owl sticking out of the nest

"Hey Ma! Look how tall I am now!!"



As you can see the parents are out, but they are never very far away, and then come swooping in to keep the little ones warm and bring them food.  As I said before I really, really wish that dumb board wasn't there, but what are you going to do? Beggers can't be choosers, I wouldn't give up watching and photographing these beautiful creatures just because of the board, but how great would this picture have been without the 2x4???




 



Great HOrned OWl landing at the nest

Watch those talons, you could poke an eye out!!


Sunday
Apr032011

Three degrees of Owl separation!!

I learned recently to leverage every one of my friends and acquaintances to put the word out for my wildlife spotting! It was a couple months ago and I was working on a kitchen design with my cabinet salesmen Mike, and a part time designer of his stopped by the office and I ended up showing her my portfolio on my iPad. She saw all my recent hawk pictures and then mentioned that she has a Coopers-hawk that frequents their yard a lot, oh, and we often have Great Horned Owls nesting in the spring!!! Whoa!! I  talked about how I was really looking for owls lately, and she promised to let me know if she saw anything! Well last week I got the text that the owls were nested in a neighbors tree and in should come take a look!!!

Guarding the nest

The light was really bad, but I went anyway and was  so excited as I drove up the first day, but the owl was laying down covering the nest and never moved while I was there, bummer!  The second trip was a gold mine!! I arrived about 1 1/2 hours before sunset and found the parents gone but the owlings were barely tall enough to get there heads above the nest.  The owner invited me in the house to view the footage of a camera they had set up to watch and I saw some great footage of the owls in the nest! I went back outside and as I came off the porch I saw one of the parents in the tree directly across the street, on a branch, sitting in beautiful golden hour light!! My heart seriously skipped like at least three beats!! This Great Horned Owl was such a great model, he sat there while I took lots of pictures, re-composed, took some more, and then when the light where he was perched went too low, and the catch-lights in his eyes disappeared, he actually flew to a new location that was still lit up by the sunset, and this location really made his eyes look amazing!!

 




Great horned Owl in the sunset

 




Just love those eyes!(And NO they were not enhanced in post production!)

At one point he wanted to try some new poses since most owl shots seem to be of the same wise stoic format of sitting upright on a tree branch, and he wanted me to really see how beautiful all his feathers were:

 




Preparing to liftoff!!!

 


 


I actually missed the pre-flight spread on the first lift off, but I had grabbed the tripod and set it up to shoot at the second perch. I made sure the focus was dead on, switched off auto focus, and hooked up my wired shutter release and waited. As he started to spread his wings for flight, I press the button and fired shot after shot of the scene, and came away the beautiful spread winged shot.

Lesson learned for the shot: 1.Prefocus. 2.Wait for the action 3.Fire away at the right moment 4.Come home with a keeper!!


Lesson learned for the day: 1.Tell everyone you meet your a photographer 2. Tell them what your subjects are or what your looking for 3. You never know who they might know or what they might be aware of! 4.Offer to send copies of your pictures to the people, and actually do it!


I am so excited to have the opportunity to photography these amazing raptors, so stay tuned I finally got some pretty cute shots of the elusive babies I will show you next time I promise!!


 


 


 

Thursday
Mar312011

Know your subjects...

I am still really new to the whole area of wildlife photography. One of the first things they teach you is to know your subject! Between work and life and all the other photo stuff in my life I have found it hard to research all these different species that live in our area, so I have kind of learned by watching.  Like when I was shooting the Great Blue Herons the other day I noticed how they would usually circle the tree before landing and always leave in the same direction, so I was soon able to anticipate their flight patterns and make it easier to get certain shots.


Well, at breakfast the other morning my wife mentioned that she just saw a huge hawk fly through the back yard and land in the tree in the neighbors yard, I of course quickly took a look. She said that it flew into the big evergreen tree, well the first thing I thought was "I have never seen a hawk in our yard,much less an evergreen?" I am sure they might stop at them but I have seen probably hundreds of hawks and they are always out in the open on a pole or sign or a bare branch looking down for prey, but never in an evergreen, so the alarm bells went off a little. I grabbed the camera and tried to focus in on where she saw it and all I could see from far away, through the windows was a bigger grey colored shape that didn't really look hawk-like to me! Out the door I went...




Great Horned Owl Hiding in plain sight...


 


After getting out in the yard I saw him sitting in the tree just like this with the hints of the sunrise lighting him up.  I was so thrilled since the only other GHO shot I have gotten was at late dusk and really dark and grainy.  He even gave me a nice side portrait before flying away:


 



He was totally checking me out with the big eye of his!!

 


When I returned to the house my cereal was now soggy and inedible, but I could have cared less! There is something about starting a day by capturing images of one of God's amazing creatures that just makes everything good!!


Stay tuned to the blog since I just had another Great Horned Owl encounter with a new Owl and its......wait for it......Babies!!!  I can't wait to share it with you!!!

Monday
Mar282011

Being in the zone...

 



Heron In-Flight

I know we are all photographers, but have you ever been behind your camera and just felt like for some reason, on this day, at this location, you were in the "zone" and that right then you WERE a true photographer?  I think it can happen again and again, maybe its months in between, maybe its everytime you pick up the camera, maybe its when you finally grasp a technique that you have been trying to understand? Its that moment of clarity when the reading of the blogs and books, the watching of the videos, and the countless hours learning from all the mistakes, all hit the right note like a perfect harmony and you find yourself not having to even think about the settings or techniques, they have become a natural part of your body, an extension of your mind, and the wisdom and learning has been transformed into the capture of images that bring a smile to your face and a peace to the constant struggle of our creative identity and our self worth as an artist!  OK, maybe that was a tad dramatic but if you have been in that zone, you know what I am talking about, and granted everyones sweet spot is different and is also a very fluid destination that is always out there in front of us like mirage that will never reach, but tis still a place and a zone we should all keep fighting to get to!

 



Trees full of Great Blue Herons

All this to say, I had one of these moments the other day!  On this instance I felt like a real wildlife photographer!  I had spotted a group of nests that upon further study revealed a group of Great Blue Herons, and when say group I am not kidding since there were over 25 herons there when I was shooting, which to me was insane since remember I live in Chicago!!  I had scoped the location earlier(the picture above) but came back when I had a better chance for good light.(I give myself 2 photo credits for this since usually I shoot when I have time, not when the light is the best, but This time I actually resisted the temptation to go earlier!) I had to park a short distance away and walk to the nests, I couldn't really walk over and grab something out of the truck so even preparing the gear was important. Since I had an actual agenda, I only wanted to take the gear that was vital for the capture of the images and no more!) So I attached my 70-200 and teleconverter to the camera and connected it to the tripod which was already fully extended. I didn't want to have to be setting everything up on site, the less activity around birds the better!(totally worth at least 1 point! Usually I carry a bunch of extra gear "just in case" and setup the tripod when and if I need it!)  I also knew the area was wet so I switched to my waterproof boots and headed out.  As I walked along the busy road with my tripod over my shoulder I pushed away my normal public bashfulness and raised my chin and thought "Hey, I am a photographer and I am just on a shoot, and these people don't know me, or care what I am doing!" (confidence break through=1 point).


 



Bringing in supplies

I started on the one side of the road, the easy, safer, flat, dry side of the road to get at least a couple safety shots! (these are the ones that you get from a less than ideal distance , and will require a signifigant crop in post to even see the subject, but prove you were actually there and saw what you will claim later to your family and friends! This is a direct response to scaring hawks and ducks away when moving in close to get a shot and coming away with nothing but un-recognizable bird butts!!) I then moved to the other side of the road, closer to the nests and birds.  After crossing, I carefully scouted the entire side to find not the first or easiest spot, but the best spot for capturing the birds.  The primo spot placed me in the ditch, which was filled with water.  I ended up with the tripod legs at least 10" under water and my feet on a semi stable log but still several inches under water(totally worth another 2 points!) I verified my settings, aperture priority:check, f/stop wide open:check, low ISO:check, exposure comp at 0:check. Next I took a few minutes to survey the scene and watch the birds and their behavior before ever taking a shot.  I noticed things like they would nearly always circle the trees once before landing, they would land with this great show of broad wings as the slowed down for final  approach, and that when coming back to the nest they often had a twig in their beaks as the continued to build their nests.  I knew right then what I wanted and a better idea of when to shoot and what to save the buffer for!  (not succumbing to the urge to "spray and pray"=1.5 points!) now that I was ready, I adjusted the ball head until I could easily move the camera around to follow the birds in flight and waited.  Soon a bird came swooping in with nothing in its beak and I practiced my panning but didn't take any shots. Then I saw a large heron approacing with a nice size branch in it's beak and in was ready! I found him in the viewfinder and placed him in a nice position in the frame, achieved focus lock, and started firing all the way to the nest. (seriously I think that's another point right there! A flying bird, with a branch and totally nailed the focus!! Actually when it's written out like that It might even be two points!!)



 


I continued to shoot for another hour or so, and many times I would wait 10 minutes between shots, disciplined to try and only shoot good images!  As it was getting darker I was watching my shutter speed and adjusting my ISO to keep the speed where I needed it to be.  As it got even darker, I removed the tele converter(since it adds 1.5 stops) and was able to shoot wide open at f/2.8.  This gave me less zoom, but faster speeds at lower ISO's.  It's a game you play, balancing lowest available aperture, shutter speed and ISO, and I felt like I played it better than ever before, by adjusting my gear and setting in a constant plan to achieve the best images I could! (2 points for finally having all the learning make it to my fingers to adjust the right things instantly without having to even really thnk about what I was doing!!)


So lets see that 11.5 point!! Pretty impressive for me! It makes up for all those times I came home with a negative score and no presentable images!! The thing is, I didn't feel like I was in that "zone" the next time I was out shooting but this was a step forward, and it was the thrill that keeps getting you out there and trying harder so that those times occur more often and that one of these times everything will align again and not only will you be feeling it, but the images will represent all the hard work and effort too!

Thursday
Mar242011

The definitive moment...

Ever since the first day I got my SLR I have always taken every opportunity to capture any wildlife I saw.  Recently I was thinking about the transition that has taken place in my wildlife shooting. I used to just be happy if the animal was composed correctly and in focus!! Over the years, as I have become more comfortable, and worked hard on finding and approaching the critters I have become much pickier! Now I want them to be doing something interesting, or with a great perch or backdrop.  Like the hawk I posted the other day. I had another really nice shot of him, but he was on a really ugly perch, so it never made the cut, or like when I was on a walk the other day I was capturing some images of the all to common Red-wing Blackbird, but I was only shooting when he was singing and its mouth was open, it made a cliché throw away into a great shot.  I have now noticed how much less I shoot but yet how number of keepers and 5 star picks I have been getting has risen!!

 




Great Blue Heron fishing-Nikon D90, f/4.8, 1/125, ISO 500, 340mm. 70-200/2.8 w/ 1.7 x TC, handheld

 


This was a shot I had just happen to get. The funny part is I was on my way to go capture a huge group of nesting herons when I saw this guy in the pond near our house. I almost drove by but the scene was just too tempting. I knew what he was doing and parked the truck and was able to succesfully sneak up on him and then just waited for that magical moment. So be patient, and be ready for that perfect moment and then fire away!!


BTW, The nesting herons were another great experience that I will share in the days to come!


Also:One of my favorite bloggers and podcasters Scott Bourne stole my thunder :-)) and made it look like I am copying him when he posted about almost the same feelings about the progression of wildlife shots.(and you can ask my wife, she has had to listen to me complain about non-action or bad light for my wildlife shots for quite sometime!! LOL!! )

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