Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Year in Review

Northern Cardinal (Female), San Angelo State Park, ©2008 Jim Miller
I hope that your Christmas was merry and safe and you are ready to ring in the new year as I am most certainly going to in this neck of the woods.

19,237--that's the number of frames that I shot with my Canon 30D this year as of the writing of this entry. That means that I was fortunate enough to get to a lot of places this year and fire off a lot of frames. At this rate, I will likely be able to justify my 50D just as the 60D is starting to come out about this time next year.

Again, I was very fortunate to get out and take a lot of pictures. But equally as fortunate to meet some awfully nice folks and share some time talking about birds, butterflies, flowers, and photography.

Right at the top of the list, I need to thank the entire membership of the Concho Valley Photography Club. They put up with seeing a small collection of my images once a month and provide some constructive feedback on the images that I bring to the party. Especially big thanks go out to Bruce, Bill, Chris, Ernie, and Andrew. Since my arrival they have welcomed me with open arms and allowed me into their circle. Thanks guys.

I need to also thank the Friends of San Angelo State Park for not only providing my favorite bird blind and some awesome trails, but also welcoming me into their family as well. Special thanks go to Ruth and Gary, though for completely different reasons.

At a bare minimum, I also need to thank the following people:

- Bob & Ann Zeller, for the great conversations in the blind as well as Bob's help in getting me my show at Crockett National Bank
- Laura West at Crockett National Bank, for allowing me the opportunity to borrow some wall space for a couple of months
- Terry with San Angelo Birding Club for providing me with numerous bird identifications over the year
- The staff, management, and volunteers of South Llano River State Park
- The staff, management, and volunteers of San Angelo State Park, with special thanks going to Kurt & Pat
- Dan & Cathy Brown at the Hummer House
- Earlene at Cedar Gap Farm
- Bob Petersen from the Petersen Ranch for a great day of shooting back in April
- River Bend Natureworks in Wichita Falls for allowing me time inside of the butterfly exhibit to make some outstanding images
- The Services Division of the 17th Force Support Squadron for an outstanding 2008 Santa's Market experience
- mPix
- B&H Photo
- Adorama
- Sam's Club San Angelo
- And you the readers for helping me out with some identification information, new places to hang out, and otherwise provide me with additional encouragement and/or direction.

2008 was an outstanding year, but I can't wait to see what 2009 has in store for me. You will join me, won't you?

Image: Northern Cardinal (Female), San Angelo State Park, ©2008 Jim Miller

Sunday, December 21, 2008

December 21st Blind Report - San Angelo State Park, And Equipment Failure...

Paint Rock Pictographs, Paint Rock, Texas, ©2008 Jim Miller
A morning of frustrations in the blind. Yesterday I was out at a field trip to Paint Rock--an area about 35 miles east of San Angelo that has Native American Pictographs. It was a field trip with the Concho Valley Photography Club. As it turns out, the light was much more favorable yesterday for bird photography than it was today--slightly overcast with good diffused light. Today it would have been better to be out at Paint Rock--directional sunlight to highlight the Winter Solistice rock/painting effects. Oh well, stuff happens.

Frustration number two was the death I had in the family. My Bogen/Manfrotto 3265 tripod head has died. For those that are not familiar, the 3265 is a pistol grip style ball head. It is rated for 5.5 pounds. The 30D with the battery grip, the 300mm f4 IS, and the 1.4x extender is about 5.2 pounds. This morning I noticed that the head had almost no rigidity to it. My guess is that with the passage of time, and a little bit of abuse and/or overweighting with my current setup that I destroyed part of the internal mechnaisms. She has served me well, having survived four years in Iceland and another nearly 3 years here, though admittedly I've used it far more often here than I ever contemplated using it in Iceland. It helped me through a very dry period of photography for me when I couldn't hold my camera due to a broken wrist. She will be missed.

Because I've bought into the RC2 system, I will likely replace it with another RC2 compatible head. I'd like to replace it with a 322RC2, but I'll probably end up with the 488RC2.

Traffic at the blind is very good. Ladder-backed Woodpecker was back out today and spent a good portion of time in and around the blind. Many Northern Cardinals were also making the rounds.

The Northern Bobwhite invasion continues. At one point today I counted 14 at once. One thing I'm confused about (and perhaps one of my loyal readers can help me with this onLadder-backed Woodpecker (Male), San Angelo State Park, ©2008 Jim Millere). One of the theories that floats around is that in dry years the quail population gets mighty tiny. This year, if media reports can be trusted, was supposed to be a bit of a dry year. Yet we have a veritable Bobwhite invasion at the bird blind and on another occassion I saw a pretty large brood over on the North Shore of the park. Any thoughts?

No laundry list today. Didn't take any notekeeping material out to the park. My hope is to get out there at least once more before the New Year.

Paint Rock Pictograph, outside Paint Rock, TX, ©2008 Jim Miller
Ladder-backed Woodpecker (Male), San Angelo State Park, ©2008 Jim Miller

Sunday, December 14, 2008

December 14th Blind Report - San Angelo State Park

Northern Bobwhite Invasion
My plan was not to go to the blind this morning. My plan was to go to the Audubon Christmas Bird Count that was going on today. Unfortunately my Saturday night extended into Sunday morning in a less than positive way and I ignored my alarm clock when it went off early this morning. So the next best thing was to drag myself out of bed around 8 and head out to the blind. Good 2nd choice, me thinks...

The blind was very active with lots of color. The laundry list is posted here.

The most amazing part of the morning had to be the full-on invasion of Northern Bobwhite Quail. Now I've seen Bobwhites at the blind before. During most of the spring and summer the norm was to see a mating pair make the rounds, though occassionally I'd see a 3rd (usually a male). Today there was an onslaught of about a dozen. The photographer sitting in the blind with me mentioned that he saw one off in the distance behind the water feature. I agreed and said I thought I saw a couple more. Within seconds that couple more ended up with the dozen or so that walked through.

Woodpeckers were very active this morning. A male Golden-Fronted was making frequent trips into the blind, hitting the seeds that were out there both in perched areas well as on the ground. I'd never seen ground-feeding behavior from the Golden-Fronted so that was a little bit of a surprise. Male and female ladderbacks were in the blind as well and spending a large amount of time close. Admittedly I did not see the female ladderback--the photographer who was in the blind with me took a shot and I confirmed on the photographic evidence he sent me. That also was the first time I've had evidence of a female visiting the blind.

The other surprise sighting of the day was a Greater Roadrunner. Not that they are necessarily unusual, but I've just never seen one in the blind this time of year.

Fun morning in the blind and I hope to make it out again soon.

Image: Northern Bobwhite Invasion, San Angelo State Park, ©2008 Jim Miller

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Busy Busy Busy

White-crowned Sparrow, San Angelo State Park, ©2008 Jim Miller
It has been incredibly busy in my neck of the woods of late, but sadly none of it has been in a bird blind.

Last trip out to the blind at San Angelo State Park was October 26th. It was more of a sanity/blood pressure drop trip than a serious photography trip. Santa's Market was 2 weeks away, work had been, well, work, and it was a good morning to be out and about. The camera hasn't been touched since.

Santa's Market was a lot of fun. Great folks, great conversations, and a worthwhile weekend out and about.

Greater San Angelo Craft Guild show is the weekend of December 6th/7th. I am supposed to be at that show, though I've not received full confirmation.

Image: White-crowned Sparrow, San Angelo State Park, ©2008 Jim Miller

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

October 18/19th Report - San Angelo State Park / Full Disclosure...

No report this week from the blind. I spent a total of 9 hours this weekend for various projects associated with or in the park and it left little time for fun in the blind taking pictures of birds. Hoping to make it out this weekend to knock some points off the blood pressure.

As to the full disclosure... I have recently been elected to the Friends of San Angelo State Park Board of Advisors for 2008-2009. This is not a position I sought. Heck, I'm still a big fan of the old Grouch Marx line of (and I'm paraphrasing) refusing to be a member of any club that would have me as a member. But as I've volunteered a significant amount of time in the park to their events and I have benefited from the work others have put in over the years on the bird blind, it was an easy offer to accept.

No, I can't see this coloring my view of the park--I'm pretty darn happy with it to begin with. But this now lends a little louder voice to the photographers who frequent the park.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Shameless Self-Promotion

Turf Church at Núpsstaður
As mentioned in Monday's post, I'm going to slather in some shameless self promotion. My show/exhibit schedule for the next few months is as follows:

Now through the end of October: Gathering Places - Country Churches of Iceland at Crockett National Bank in San Angelo. Twelve of my favorite images from my time in Iceland covering a wide range of church styles and time periods. This is an exhibit only, though if you'd like to buy one of the framed & matted 11x14 images we can certainly talk.

Month of November: Concho Valley Photography Club's annual exhibit at Angelo State University. We're sharing space this year with a photo exhibit from the university much as we did for our November 2006 show. Also an exhibit only.

November 15/16: Santa's Market at Goodfellow AFB. I will have a number of products for sale to include framed prints, matted prints, raw prints, and picture cards. All but the picture cards will be available in sizes up to 11x14. This year most of the images will be nature related, though I will have some of my Icelandic images available as well as any framed images from the Gathering Places show that have not been previously spoken for. This was a really good show last year and I'm looking forward to my return visit.

December 6/7: Greater San Angelo Craft Guild Christmas Bazaar at the Wells Fargo Pavillion (on the San Angelo Fairgrounds). I've been to this show to visit a couple of times, but this year I think I have enough material to make it worth my while.

Image: Turf Church at Núpsstaður, Southern Iceland, ©2008 Jim Miller

Monday, October 13, 2008

Lost Maples SNA Blind Update

Tony was nice enough to send a quick e-mail to fill me in on some more details about the blind at Lost Maples SNA. In short, the blind itself is not very photographer friendly, but the birds are accustomed enough to humans that shooting from the picnic tables directly outside the blind is workable. He provided a list of birds that he caught last spring and there were enough birds that I do not have images of (in particular the Indigo and Lazuli Buntings) that this will be high on my list of places to go next spring.

Thank you again, Tony for the information. Expect an initial blind report sometime in the spring.

October 13th Report - San Angelo S.P.

Male House Sparrow, San Angelo State Park, ©2008 Jim Miller
Slow but interesting morning in the blind. Actually a very late start for me compared to my normal routine. I was all ready to go out at 8 AM but as I was getting things into the car it started to rain a bit. Had the same thing happen Sunday morning and the rain kept going pretty good for a while so I called it off. Besides, I had work to do to get ready for Santa's Market in about a month so I spent the morning (and afternoon and evening) putting together my display wall and assembling cards (yes, a little shamless self-promotion...expect more soon).

This morning I assumed the same thing would be happening, but within 30 minutes all was better but by then I had completely stood down on trying to make it out. 20 minutes later I was out the door and 20 minutes later I was in the blind.

An aside, and completely off-topic, Happy 40th to my favorite Occupational Therapist... Saw the sign outside work. I'm sure there was hell to pay when the work day was over...

As for the bird blind. Things were very slow at first, but things picked up by about 10 AM. Again a smaller species set as compared to the summer but that is to be expected. What made me very happy (though I did not get a good picture of it) was the return of the White-Crowned Sparrows. I saw 2 or 3 but never did get a good angle on them. Lots of House Sparrows and House Finches. Red-Winged Blackbirds were also plentiful. As usual, White-Winged Doves outnumbered Mourning Doves. Only a couple of Brown-headed Cowbirds. No laundry list for this visit.

Image: House Sparrow (Male), San Angelo State Park, © 2008 Jim Miller

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Texas Bird Blind Map Updated

I've made a small update to the Google Map for Texas Bird Blinds. The link for the map is on the right part of the screen. I became aware of a bird blind at Lost Maples State Natural Area. This is the busy season for Lost Maples SNA, and as I do not have any days off during the middle of the week I'm afraid that this will be a mid to late Spring trip on my list of things to do for 2009.

If you have been to the blind and want to provide me some insight regarding the species and photography opportunities, please fire me an e-mail and I will share your info and provide you with 15 seconds of fame...

Sunday, September 28, 2008

September 28th Report - San Angelo State Park

An interesting and frustrating morning in the blind. Frustrating because the light was harsh and nasty and while there was a good number of birds in the area, the lighting made it almost impossible to get anything worth bringing home.

Interesting because of the species that were out. Specifically, I cannot remember a time when there were more Northern Mockingbirds and more Pyrrhuloxia than there were today. The place was covered in both species. The Mockingbirds were being very territorial and the Pyrrhuloxia were being camera shy. Hope that this is a preview of coming attractions as we get deeper into Autumn and the Pyrrhuloxia are more willing to take chances to take food.

The laundry list is posted here. A couple of surprises, though. Only 1 Northern Cardinal all morning. No hummingbirds. I've still been seeing hummingbirds pretty regularly at my house in the evening, so it may be a case of the morning was too cool (mid 50's) for the hummingbirds to come out. There were quite a few Lesser Goldfinches first thing this morning.

Image: Lesser Goldfinch, San Angelo State Park, ©2008 Jim Miller

Friday, September 26, 2008

September 7th Report - San Angelo State Park

Black-crested Titmouse, (c) 2008 Jim MillerNote: This is the last of the catch-up articles for now. I still need to do an equipment entry, but that's coming later...

Interesting weekend of shooting. Yes, the entry is only for my Sunday services out in the park, but I was out on Saturday as well. Weather was predicted to be mostly clear all weekend so I spent Saturday with wildflowers and part of the Official Texas Longhorn Herd.

Sunday morning I went out to the blind for a fairly productive morning. Light was somewhat harsh but I was able to work around it.

I ended up spending about 2 hours in the blind and had a pretty wide range of birds come through. I won't go into the laundry list because I've once again misplaced the laundry list. But Longhorn Cattle, (c)2008 Jim Millerfrom the images there were a few notes and quotes.

- Quite a few juvenile Northern Cardinals. Most were looking for some supplementary feeding from Mom & Dad
- Brown-headed cowbirds were numerous. Kind of disappointing...
- A male Bullock's Oriole was playing games with me throughout the morning. I was lucky enough to get a couple ID quality images off, but there was always a branch or something in the way
-Some of the male House Finches are taking on almost a pink hue around their head. Not sure if they're juveniles getting their colors in or if it's something with the season.

Overall it was a good visit with about 300 shots in 2 hours. Couple of keepers in there...

Black-crested Titmouse, San Angelo State Park, ©2008 Jim Miller
Longhorn Cattle, San Angelo State Park, ©2008 Jim Miller

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

September 21st Report: San Angelo State Park

Curve-billed Thrasher with stained beak, San Angelo State Park, ©2008 Jim Miller
Mixed day in the blind. Bird action was slow and continues to slow as the birds who are migrating out leave and the birds that are due for their winter stay show up.

The positive for the day was my first blind siting of a Blue Jay. I see a few Blue Jays now and then at my house, but the habitat is more conducive to Blue Jays. Better food sources for them and more amenable vegetation. But I'd never seen one within the confines of the blind. I had noticed on my visit during the week to clean the hummingbird feeder that somebody had listed one, but to borrow a quote from one of my favorite movies, I thought somebody was pulling my lariat. But sure enough, he showed up in one of the upper branches long enough to be seen and then take off. I have a couple of images, but they're at best good for identification/confirmation purposes. I've modified the blank checklist and it is online in the resources to the right.

The laundry list is posted here. Some scattered notes:

- A couple of Northern Cardinals, though nowhere near the numbers of a couple of weeks ago. Saw juveniles, but they were fending for themselves but were squawking for Mom & Dad who were unwilling to provide additional assistance. Apron-strings have been cut.
- Titmice took forever to show up, but eventually did make it in
- The Curve-billed Thrashers (pictured) have found the prickly pears and are stained up.

For about 2 hours in the blind, it was under 100 images shot. Hope the migrants show up soon.

Image: Curve-billed Thrasher with stained beak, San Angelo State Park, ©2008 Jim Miller

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

August 30th/September 1 Report: San Angelo State Park

Curve-billed Thrasher, San Angelo S.P., ©2008 Jim Miller
Note: This is a catch-up entry. I have one more to go...

Labor Day weekend at San Angelo State Park was relatively positive. For a 3-day weekend, I worked really hard and played really hard. I was finishing up my framing jobs for the exhibit at Crockett National Bank (see my August 24th entry). It was the first time I'd put together so many frames for one project, so I had to space it out over a number of sessions. That weekend's sessions (which took most of an afternoon) was attaching the hanging wires and doing final quality assurance checks. But enough about business.

I took some chances with the blind over the weekend. I had not spent much if any time in the late afternoon at the blind. I had done it a couple of times last year with poor results and I had pretty much given up on the blind being anything other than a morning blind. Then one of my fellow photographers pointed out that light wise, theoretically, the blind could be very much a light neutral blind. The blind is pointing a few degrees off of due South. So depending on the strength of the light, late afternoon had some potential.

Mornings remain the more productive time. The light is very usable in the morning and the numbers of birds seem to be much better. But evenings at this time of year seem to have a little bit of potential. I need to experiment with a fill-flash, though the color temperature thing worries me a bit.

Image: Curve-billed Thrasher, San Angelo S.P., ©2008 Jim Miller

Sunday, September 14, 2008

September 14th Report: San Angelo State Park

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, San Angelo S.P., ©2008 Jim MillerFirst a quick note. I have blind reports that I need to catch up on for the previous 2 weeks and I hope to have those out in the next day or so. As has been the norm, it's been a long year this month.

Strange morning in the park. I had high expectations for the light as I was leaving home for the park, but by the time I got there the skies had gone more overcast than I had hoped. As such I was regularly shooting in the beginning at ISO 400, f5.6, in the 1/30-1/50th range. Certainly not good for stop action for some of our more active birds (i.e. Black-crested Titmice).

Traffic was reasonably slow up until about 20 minutes before I had to leave. Species spread was very tight--only 13 different species. Last week the number was at about 20. The laundry list is here--I've decided that from this point forward for San Angelo State Park I will use my blind checklist and put it into a new PDF rather than trying to type all of the information.

The highlights and lowlights...

Highlight: Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. A couple of males were hitting the feeder. I got some perched shots but the light was not strong enough for me to attempt an in-flight shot. I saw my first Ruby earlier in the week in my backyard, but these were the first pictures I was able to get of them. Awesome looking birds.

-- No Northern Cardinals this morning. Not a one. The place was flowing with them last week with males, females, and juveniles, but today not a one. May have been the overcast skies or it may be that they have again made a switch in foods back to proteins to get ready for the winter. I did spot one on my way down FM 2288 towards the South Shore entrance.
-- Very few house finches. Maybe a couple all morning
-- Cowbird population is down a bit from last week

Titmice were the most frequent visitors this morning. Both White-winged and Mourning Doves are understandably spooked this time of year and were not their normal heavy feeding selves.

Decent morning in the blind. Looking forward to more next week.

Image: Ruby-throated Hummingbird, San Angelo S.P., ©2008 Jim Miller

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

New Feature: Checklists

I've been working on this off and on over the last couple of weeks, but I think it's ready for prime time and your scrutiny. I have made available a checklist of birds seen in the blind at San Angelo State Park.

This checklist is specifically for birds in the blind. There are certainly more birds in the park. The O.C. Fisher shore has a couple dozen additional species on it that are not included, plus there are other species I have seen elsewhere in the park (Summer Tanager for one) that I have not included in the checklist. This site is aimed towards photo blinds and as such I wanted to keep the list towards things I've actually seen in the blind.

Weather permitting, I will be out either Thursday night or Friday afternoon to put a small stack on the wall and see how they work out. As the story goes, no plan (or checklist) survives first contact with the target audience.

While I'm at it, I am offering an open invitation to users of public blinds (South Llano River S.P. comes to mind) as well as land/ranch owners who offer blinds for rent: If you have a checklist or would like to establish a checklist, I'm more than happy to post it here. Contact me and we'll talk.

Monday, September 8, 2008

August 23/24 Report: San Angelo S.P.

House Sparrow (Male), San Angelo State Park, ©2008 Jim Miller
In between getting pictures assembled and hung at the bank and a silly thing called work, I went out to the blind on the weekend of August 23rd and August 24th.

Interesting set of days at the blind. When the light was good, I didn't have much bird action. When the light was bright and harsh, I'd have plenty of birds. An ornithological Murphy's Law situation, I'm guessing. For the two days in the blind I'm showing a hair under 450 images shot. When birds are flowing well (and the light is good), I can shoot more than that in one day.

I won't do a laundry list because honestly I cannot find my laundry list from this particular visit. Anecdotal evidence from the pictures I shot shows a large number of Northern Cardinals, White-winged and Mourning Doves, Sparrows, Curve-billed Thrashers, and Black-throated Hummingbirds. The hummingbirds were nice enough to perch themselves on the trees near the recently moved feeder, and those porvided some unique shots.

I see some pretty good shots in and amongst the ones I've highlighted in Lightroom and these are likely ones that will make their appearance at Santa's Market and the Greater San Angelo Craft Guild show in November and December respectively.

Image: House Sparrow (Male), San Angelo State Park, ©2008 Jim Miller

Saturday, August 30, 2008

August 15/16 Report - South Llano River S.P.

Inca Dove, South Llano River State Park, © 2008 Jim Miller
Sorry for the delay on this one. Would have been much more helpful to get this out quicker, but life is what happens when you're making other plans. The species shift is quick this time of year so more timely would have been better, but...

Circumstances allowed me to get out to South Llano River State Park on August 15th & August 16.

The visit on Friday the 15th was late afternoon under challenging conditions. There was pretty solid cloud cover and not nearly the light I would have hoped for. With three possible blinds to choose from based on previous notes and with a limited amount of time, I went with Blind #1.

There wasn't a lot of traffic at blind #1. Probably the weather, likely also the lack of seed. 95% of what I saw was Northern Cardinal. I saw a Carolina Chickadee and another bird that I'm awaiting positive ID on. I think it was a female Western Tanager, but I'm going to let my friends who know more about this than I give me my grade on my bird identification test. (Update: The verdict is female Summer Tanager but possibly a young male who is starting to turn into it's telltale red)

The visit on Saturday was much more productive. I went to Blind #4, located in the powered camping area near Buck Lake. I had never been in that blind early in the morning--the last time I had been there it was towards mid-day and it wasn't overly productive. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great.

This visit, however, was very good. Sadly the adult male Painted Buntings had all ready moved on for parts south, but other species were in full bloom. The laundry list:

Bewicks Wren (Probably...maybe Carolina)
Black-Crested Titmice
Carolina Chickadee
House Finch
Inca Dove
Ladder-backed Woodpecker (immediately outside the blind)
Lark Sparrow (Adult & Juvenile)
Lesser Goldfinch
Northern Cardinal (Male, Female, & Juvenile)
Painted Bunting (Female, I think...)
Wild (Rio Grande) Turkey (Outside the blind)
White-winged Dove
Yellow-throated Warbler

The Yellow-throated Warbler is a life list entry for me and I managed to get a couple of good shots. I was able to add good images of Inca Doves, Carolina Chickadees, and Lark Sparrows to my photo library. I also got a shot of Lark Sparrow adults feeding their young. Very entertaining.

The visit also confirmed that this can be a very productive morning blind and I was very happy that I found my way down there.

Overall it was just an awesome morning in the blind.

Image: Inca Dove, South Llano River State Park, © 2008 Jim Miller

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Preview of Coming Attractions...

Bronzed Cowbird, San Angelo State Park, © 2008 Jim Miller
Busy times in my neck of the woods lately. I have two reports coming, but I don't have the time to do them right over the next couple of days. I have a site report from South Llano River State Park from last weekend and a site report from San Angelo State Park from the last couple of days. I also have a quick blog entry running through my mind on equipment essentials.

So why am I being such a sloth? Two primary reasons.

First, and the biggest time sink of them all, I'm hurriedly getting ready for a 12 image show at Crockett National Bank in downtown San Angelo. And no, not of birds but of Icelandic Churches. For as much work as I've been doing on living things, it was nice to go back and look at images I shot over some extended visits to Iceland in the late 90's and early in this decade. Iceland's churches were my first love when it came to photographic subjects and the folks at the bank were nice enough to remind me that I've got some pretty darn good images sitting in the archives. The show begins on September 2nd and for reasons that I'd rather not explain, assembling the exhibition items was not as easy as I'd hoped.

Second reason is that last week was entirely too busy in the evening and this weekend, after getting some much needed photography in, was even busier with paint and other implements of home improvement.

I'm on the road again for part of this week, but where I'm staying has a good Internet hook-up so maybe if I'm lucky I can pound out the blind reports. If not, it may be early into next week before I have the time.

Image: Bronzed Cowbird, San Angelo State Park, © 2008 Jim Miller

Monday, August 18, 2008

Initial Description(s): Abilene S.P. Blind and Cedar Gap Farm

A couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune to work a triangle day of shooting. The plan was to go up to Abilene State Park to visit the new blind that Big Country Audubon Society and Earth Share of Texas has constructed, and then go across to Cedar Gap Farm and check out that site. Rather than do the standard Initial Description post, I am going to give an abbreviated version.

Abilene State Park is located on Texas Highway 89, about half-way between US 287 and US 83/84. The nearest town is Buffalo Gap, and the park is about 20 miles from downtown Abilene.

As is the norm, the TPWD staff at Abilene S.P. were outstanding and provided very accurate directions. The blind is in the area that on the official map says "CLOSED AREA." There is a restroom near the trail head. Park there and walk down the trail. It is only a short walk from the paved road/trail head to the shelter.

I was warned by the president of Big Country Audubon that the facility is still a work in progress. She is right, but they're moving in the right direction. They are having problems with reflections off of the windows in the blind and their water feature is not getting enough juice from the solar panel to work the way that it is supposed to.

Those things aside, they've done some very good things to get the blind running. Birds are certainly coming, though at this point the variety band of species in the blind was very narrow based on the morning I visited. I counted Northern Cardinals, Black-Crested Titmice (Adults and Juveniles), Carolina Chickadees, and Hummingbirds of an unidentified species (I believe they were Black Chinned but my images did not turn out well). Add a couple of squirrels and a fox, and that was the full listed of vertebrate species.

There are ample feeding stations in the blind, both seed food and hummingbird friendly. While the water feeder may not have been working correctly, the water that was there was being consumed dutifully.

I think with the adding of some tree stumps in such a way that they're close enough to be stopping points for birds but far enough away from the feeders to deter squirrels will increase it's usefulness for photography.

The biggest detriment to photography is the way that they are trying to discourage bird collisions with the plate glass windows in the blind--strips of tape run vertically down the front of the window. It may be a good stop-gap way to protect the birds (and I'm 110% in favor of protecting the birds from human-made obstacles), but it kills all of the photographic angles from the normal sitting areas. I hope that the more permanent solution will take both the birds and photographers into account.

There is a single open window and I found it to be workable, though not ideal. The Rolling Stones were right when they said you can't always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.

This blind has the makings of a good blind for photography, but it's going to take some time. Based on the angle of the light, I'd say late afternoon is going to give the best photographic light. I'll try again in the spring.

I then wandered down the road to Cedar Gap Farm. Cedar Gap Farm is located off of US Highway 83/84 near Abilene. If headed towards Abilene from the south, make a right hand turn at County Road 150, and then a left hand turn onto County Road 563. Follow the signs and it will be difficult (though not impossible) to miss it.

Cedar Gap Farm is a great place for sitting in a large air conditioned room and watching birds. Huge numbers of Northern Cardinals (Adult and Juvenile), Titmice, Painted Buntings, Sparrows, and a number of other species (lost my notes from the trip). In addition to the bird watching room, there is a nature trail and a wildflower garden.

I cannot fully judge how good the photography is going to be there. I got there near high noon and did not have the patience to stick around for better light in the afternoon. But given that one of the photographer from the Abilene area that I admire greatly has done some outstanding work there, I'd say that the photographic possibilities are good. This again will likely be an early May '09 trip as by this point in the season it is likely that the prime reason for me to go up (the Painted Buntings) will have made their migration south. But I may go up just to drop a couple of dollars in the donation box and scout the light for future trips.

This is an interesting place and I had the good fortune to talk for a spell with Earlene Hutto who keeps the place going. It finished up a good morning of photography.

Both places deserve and will get a full write-up next spring.

August 16th/17th Report - San Angelo S.P.

No report for this weekend--Mother Nature has been kind in dropping some much needed rain on the Concho Valley. Two-thirds of an inch on Saturday and over another half inch on Sunday made it for not so favorable bird watching/photographing weather. Too much liquid sunshine for me.

Outlook for the week from the National Weather Service has some degree of rain through Thursday. Depending on how things are going I'll likely go out sometime during the week just to see how the species are starting to shift.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

August 10th Report - San Angelo S.P.

Canyon Towhee, San Angelo S.P., ©2008 Jim MillerInteresting morning in the blind. With the cowbird mystery solved, it was interesting that the first bird of the morning was a Brown-Headed Cowbird.

Good morning for a couple of reasons. First was that we filled the front row of the blind with 3 photographers. A very unusual circumstance indeed.

Second, the bird mix was very interesting with a new life list entry for me, though I didn't get a very good picture.

I had a laundry list written, but of course I lost it on the way home--didn't bring out my notebook like I usually do and my scrap of paper blew away.

My big highlight was seeing my first Orchard Oriole. Didn't get a great shot of him, but good enough to confirm what I saw. A mating pair of both of Canyon Towhees and Cactus Wren were in the blind area as well.

Northern Cardinals continue to spend time in the blind area, both mating pairs, singles, and juveniles. Pyrrhuloxia came through as well. Red-Winged Blackbird numbers are down, and what are around appear to be this year's crop of juveniles with glimpses of yellow still at the leading edges of their feathers.

Most of the other usual suspects were also around. House Finches and House Sparrows, Curved-Bill Thrashers, and both the Golden-Fronted and Ladder-Backed Woodpeckers were visitors.

The light could have been better, but I came away with about 2 dozen usable shots.

Image: Canyon Towhee, San Angelo S.P., ©2008 Jim Miller

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Outstanding Birding Resource: Birds of Texas

I rely heavily on the Internet for bird identification. This is mostly because I've yet to find a good comprehensive guide to Texas birds. There are some good general bird books, but I hate wasting my time thumbing through them when most of what I am finding is not what's in the area. I have 2 or 3 guides that concentrate on Texas, but each of them have significant weaknesses that make me reach for Google before I reach for them.

This weekend the luck changed. I wholeheartedly recommend Birds of Texas by Dr. Keith A. Arnold and Gregory Kennedy, published by Lone Pine Publishing (ISBN: 9768200189). Nearly 400 separate species are covered in detail with a single page for each. Outstanding detail on each of the species, as well as a description of similar species to help with identifications. Another 80 species or so are noted in pictures. There's also a 6 page checklist with just about every bird that can be found within the borders of the great state of Texas.

Why this book beyond others? The thoroughness of species is mind-boggling. Sparrows, as an example: There are 24 pages of sparrows. Another book on my shelf (which will likely now gather dust or become a donation) has only 6.

The only weakness: Hummingbirds. There are only 5 listed in great detail.

List price is $21.95, though Amazon has it cheaper. I got my copy at Waldenbooks in San Angelo and with my Borders Rewards semi-regularly distributed 25% off coupon, I got it with tax under $18.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

San Angelo S.P. Cowbird Mystery Solved

Brown-Headed Cowbird, San Angelo S.P., (c) 2008 Jim Miller
Okay, maybe that's a hair over-dramatic. But as noted in previous posts the number of Brown-Headed Cowbirds have been almost zero over the last couple of weeks. As also noted, I'm not complaining. I have a significant level of contempt for Brown-Headed Cowbirds. They are parasitic breeders--they lay their eggs in other bird's nests getting those birds to raise the young cowbirds, often causing the death of the host fledglings. And since each female can have up to 10 broods a year of 4-5 eggs each, their potential for havoc is enormous.

Walking into the bird blind this morning, a large sign was up from Texas Parks & Wildlife Division explaining the presence of cages on the grounds of the park that effectively act as traps for cowbirds. Once captured, the Brown-Headed Cowbirds are put down humanely. This thins the numbers in the area, allowing other species to recover.

My only complaint would be that this would have been best done in early spring rather than late summer so as to stop the cascading effect of cowbirds being raised during the summer. But it is at least a start. Fingers crossed that this will help restore some order in the ecosystem for native species.

Image: Brown-Headed Cowbird, San Angelo S.P., (c) 2008 Jim Miller

Thursday, August 7, 2008

August 7th/8th Report - San Angelo S.P.

Northern Bobwhite Quail (Male), San Angelo S.P., (c) 2008 Jim Miller
Good couple of mornings in the blind. After having me home for a few days taking care of some family business, my spouse finally told me that I needed to get out of the house for a few hours. So I obliged her on Wednesday and Thursday.

Overcast skies on Wednesday made for ideal conditions though bird population was slow. Partly cloudy skies on Thursday made the light more difficult but upped the number of birds and there were enough opportunities where the light diffused out behind the clouds that I was happy.

Noticeably missing again were all species of cowbirds. Based on my images from last year, we had Brown-Headed Cowbirds as late as September last year, so I'm at a loss to explain why they have disappeared so quickly this year. I'm not necessarily complaining, I'm just reporting the news.

I will again not give the laundry list. Except for the cowbirds, all the other usual suspects were around.
  • Sparrow traffic seems to be picking up.
  • White-Winged Doves still outnumber Mourning Doves in the AM hours.
  • No wrens and no Ladder-Backed Woodpecker.
  • Saw a Golden-Fronted Woodpecker on Thursday.
  • Northern Bobwhite Quails were out both days, with a single Male out on Wednesday and a mating pair on Thursday. Thursday's birds were very good photo subjects.
  • A Greater Roadrunner made multiple trips into the blind, both before I arrived and a couple of times while I was present.
Image: Northern Bobwhite Quail (Male), San Angelo S.P., (c) 2008 Jim Miller

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

August 3rd Report - San Angelo S.P.

A truly miserable day in the blind. Really, it's been a long week. Was in North Texas earlier in the week attending to some family medical issues (all went well, but still...). Got back late Friday and had a lengthy honey-do to knock out Saturday morning. Light couldn't have been better, but obligations are obligations.

Sunday morning, however, stunk for light. No clouds and very bright sunshine. I shot a couple hundred images over three hours, but when I got them home I found I had about 10 that were worth looking at further, and at that it will be an extensive amount of time in Photoshop to make them right.

No laundry list, but some basic impressions: Species count was way down. No woodpeckers of any type. 2 or 3 Cowbirds (and no Bronzed). Hummingbird activity is still good and I saw my first Rufous Hummingbird (though my image is pretty bad--wrong side of the light). A single Northern Bobwhite Quail made it in. The baby Titmice seem to have either grown up or gone elsewhere because all I saw were adult-looking and -behaving birds. Good mix of Mourning and White-Winged Doves and there were a few cooperative Red-Winged Blackbirds.

A bad day shooting is better than a good day doing just about anything else, but I'd rather have a good day of shooting than a bad one...

Image: White-Winged Dove, San Angelo S.P., (c) 2008 Jim Miller

Sunday, July 27, 2008

July 27th Report - San Angelo S.P.

Quiet morning in the blind. Most of the usual suspects but a couple of extras...

Species List
Black-chinned Hummingbird (Female)
Black crested Titmouse (Adults & Juveniles)
Brown-headed Cowbird
Bullock's Oriole (Juvenile)
Curve-billed Thrasher
Golden-fronted Woodpecker (Juvenile Male)
House Finch
House Sparrow
Ladder-Backed Woodpecker (Male)
Mourning Dove
Northern Bobwhite Quail (Mating Pair)
Northern Cardinal (2 Mating Pairs and Juveniles)
Northern Mockingbird
Painted Bunting (Male)
Pyrrhuloxia (Male)
Red-Winged Blackbird
White-Winged Dove
Yellow-Billed Cuckoo
Turkey Vulture (Overhead)

I was kicking myself this morning. The light yesterday was incredible but I had made a previous commitment to do something with Concho Valley Photography Club that, while was photographic, did not involve taking pictures. It was still a great morning and I very much enjoyed the company and the task that we were working, but the promise of nice soft morning light was awful tempting.

This morning was bright, sunny, and hot. The triad of what could be a miserable morning in the blind. After my initial bounce through I had approximately 1 out of 20 shots that I wanted to look at later. With yesterdays light my guess is the number would have been closer to 1 in 10. Life is what happens when you're making other plans.
  • Northern Cardinals were in full force this morning.
  • Hummingbird activity is dropping a little bit, but I had one female Black-chinned perch on "A" tree for about 5 minutes. Must of have been a busy morning for her
  • Brown-headed cowbird activity was down significantly
  • Good to see the Pyrhhuloxia in the blind this morning. Photographs definitely point towards a male, though it might be a juvenile
  • Painted bunting was awful nice to see. Standard behavior--went to the water, drank some, and then took off.
  • Bobwhite Quails didn't show up until I got ready to get up and leave. Really I had left but I remembered I had left a water bottle in the blind. As I walked back in I noticed that they had shown up. Very depressing, but given the light conditions and the time of day, it really didn't make that much difference.
All in all, it was still a good morning, but...

Image: Black-Chinned Hummingbird (Female), San Angelo S.P., (c) 2008 Jim Miller

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Initial Blind Report: Bird Blind at Fredericksburg Nature Center

I visited The Fredericksburg Nature Center on July 5th. I had read about the bird blind and went with high expectations. I left disappointed with the blind, but found many things in the Nature Center that were very positive and worthwhile of a visit. All who I encountered who were part of the Nature Center, to include a lengthy e-mail, were very positive and friendly.

Location: The Nature Center is located in Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park in the southern part of Fredericksburg, theoretically about a mile from the airport and the fairgrounds but really the end of the runway is not far from the visitor center.

Fee: There is no fee to go into the park nor is there one to visit the nature center.

Setup: The blind is set up in about a 3/8th's octagon. It is covered and there are openings at three different levels. These openings are big enough to get my 300mm lens w/77mm filter size through with no difficulties. However, directly outside of the blind there is a steep drop-off so most if not all of your shots will be on a weird focal plane. Trees surround the back sides of the blind and have a thick, light-robbing canopy.

Perches/Attractants: There are plenty of places for birds to find food of very many varieties. Water is available to the birds as well. Beyond the wires that hold up various food dispensers, there are no perches besides the trees inside the blind. There are few branches that are close to the feeders.

AM/PM: Based on an e-mail with the folks at the Nature Center, during the summer there really isn't a good time, morning or afternoon. The canopy of trees does not allow in photographically pleasing light. When winter comes and the leaves thin out, then morning will likely be the best time to try out the blind. I plan on making a return trip to see what winter brings to the park.

Species: The Nature Center publishes a list of species that can be found in the park. The species spread I found in the blind was pretty thin--White-Winged Doves, a male Northern Cardinal, a couple of hummingbirds (likely Black-Chinned), a House Sparrow, a Carolina Chickadee, a Black Crested Titmouse, and probably a Bewick's Wren.

Lens Requirements:
300mm w/1.4x teleconverter was not enough to get anything resembling intimate shots of the birds. Having to shoot at f5.6 and often in the 1/60th range did not do much for sharpness.

Other Photo Ops: While the blind was not all it had hoped to be, there were plenty of other photo ops inside of the Nature Center. They boast of over a mile of nature trails and I found the butterfly and colorful/non-biting insect population to be very good photo subjects. There were some other birds along the trail, but my choice of time of day did not lend itself to great images. I did well in the butterfly garden, getting my first usuable Giant Swallowtail image and a couple of nice Queen butterfly images. I found these butterflies both in the butterfly garden near the bird blind and on the trails.

Just a few miles outside of town, though is Wildseed Farms. Spend the $5 and go to the Butterfly Haus. Goodness gracious I could have spent all afternoon in there. I will recommend that you go with something smaller than my 300mm/1.4x combo as it was very difficult to shoot in that intimate setting. I would recommend (and I will accomplish next time) a 300mm/macro extension tube combination. Technically I probably could have slapped on the macro tube with the 300mm/1.4x combo, but in an attempt to walk around light I left the photo vest in the car (doh).

Final Thoughts: I had a good time at the Fredericksburg Nature Center. The bird blind was a disappointment and if the only thing that twists your dials is bird photography in a blind, then this is not a trip for you to make.

Having talked via e-mail with the folks who run the place, photography was not the basic consideration when they put the blind up. And for the purpose(s) it was put it up it meets that requirement and then some. It has been optimized for the set of solutions that they were trying to achieve and they did an outstanding job with it. These are some outstanding folks with some outstanding volunteers providing a service to their community and to all who visit the center.

This may sound bad (and if it does, I apologize ahead of time--no offense is intended), but seeing the setup of the blind put me through the paces as a photographer as to why it doesn't work for photography. And knowing why something doesn't work is the springboard for understanding why other things do work. And that's often what photography is about--playing the mental game to think through the process and consider what is missing.

Again, the folks who I dealt with in-person and online were outstanding and talked with me about my concerns and explained why things are the way they are. I respect that and congratulate them on building and maintaining an outstanding 10 acre facility under difficult conditions over the last couple of years. I plan on making a return trip in the winter when the light may be a bit better.

Image: Unidentified Butterfly, Fredericksburg, Texas, (c) 2008 Jim Miller

Sunday, July 20, 2008

July 20th Report - San Angelo S.P.

John Lennon is quoted as saying that life is what happens when we're making other plans. This describes my Sunday visit to the blind at San Angelo State Park. A slightly later start than normal coupled with a number of things that didn't get done yesterday when I was out taking pictures elsewhere cut my time down to no more than about 90 minutes available to me. The laundry list...

Species List
Bewicks Wren
Black-Chinned Hummingbird (Male & Female)
Black Crested Titmouse (Adults & Juveniles)
Bronzed Cowbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Curve-Billed Thrasher
House Finch
House Sparrow
Ladder-Backed Woodpecker (Male)
Mourning Dove
Northern Bobwhite Quail (Mating Pair)
Northern Cardinal (2 Mating Pairs and Juveniles)
Northern Mockingbird
Painted Bunting (Female)
Pyrrhuloxia (Male)
Red-Winged Blackbird
White-Winged Dove
Yellow-Billed Cuckoo

On the walk into the blind I saw a Greater Roadrunner, an Eastern Cottontail, Turkey Vulture, and a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. I heard a Golden-fronted Woodpecker in the parking lot.

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo spent time in the blind a couple of times. The first time he perched on D tree in the same place where I've had nice pictures of Doves and Sparrows, but by the time I got myself oriented to take an image of him he moved on. He did enjoy the mister below Tree D as seen in the picture about.

Not really any other words of wisdom. Again, it was a quick trip in and out because I had other things to do today.

Image: Yellow-billed Cuckoo, San Angelo S.P., (c) 2008 Jim Miller

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Initial Description - South Llano River S.P. Blind #4

I had the good fortune to visit South Llano River State park on April 17th and followed-up with a 2nd visit on May 8th. As was the case the first time, park staff & volunteers were very friendly.

This is the 4th of 4 entries on this park to go with the 4 blinds that are in the park. Thank you for your patience while I've struggled to get all 4 of these entries up.

Park Location: South Llano River State Park is located about 5 miles south of the city of Junction off of US Route 377. It is approximately 120 miles west of San Antonio or 295 miles southwest of Dallas.

Blind Location: Inside the park, Blind #4 is not as easy to find. It took me well into my second trip to the park to find it. There are 2 ways to get to the blind. The way that I went is to park in the day use parking area that is technically north of the park headquarters and hiking about a mile to the blind. The easier would be to park in the parking area near blind #3 near the walk-in camping area and walking around the loop of powered camping spots to near space #41 and then walk just a short distance (likely no longer than 100 yards). Remember if you are coming into the park for the first time that day you must first pay the entrance fee at the park headquarters.

Setup: This blind is completely different from all of the other blinds that are in the park. Instead of wooden benches, this blind has padded chairs that are similar to older/traditional theater seats. There are two windows in this blind. The window furthest from the entrance has a padded seat to sit in. The window closest to the entrance is setup as a handicapped access spot and has no seat. Please, if there is a disabled person that wishes to come into the blind, give up this spot and either wait for a spot to open or shoot over the fence.

The blind itself is, well, unique. It is completely fenced in with reasonably low fencing material. This provides a much more intimate view of the birds. The birds don't seem to mind. Neither did the field mouse that I saw the morning I was in this particular blind.

Perches/Attractants: This was a much more natural looking blind than the rest when it came to places for the birds to perch. No chicken wire enclosures for the seed here. Granted that there was not as many perches as I would have liked, but there hardly ever are. By the time I found the blind the sunlight was starting to create issues for me.

AM/PM: This is probably best as an early morning blind. As logistics would have it, I found the blind after 10 and the sunlight was all ready starting to become to harsh for my needs. That being said, my favorite image of a painted bunting was shot at about that time so it just made it more of a challenge.

Species: I spent about an hour in the blind in May. The species I saw inside this blind included: Lark Sparrow, House Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Painted Bunting, White-Winged Dove, and Lesser Goldfinch. And one pesky field mouse. The dominant species were the doves on that particular morning. Your mileage may vary. Again, a full species list for the park and surrounding area can be found here.

Lens Requirements:
The 300mm L IS USM lens worked very well. I'm looking forward to getting back and trying out that lens with the 1.4 teleconverter.

Other Photo Ops: As noted, the Walter Buck Wildlife Management Area adjoins the park. In all reality, it dwarfs the park in terms of overall size. Miles of hiking trails are available in the WMA. Three additional blinds are located in the park as well as a number of hiking trails near the South Llano River and Buck lake. Outside of the park there are
additional wildlife viewing possibilities are listed on the Great Texas Trails - Llano Loop

Image: Painted Bunting, South Llano River S.P., (c) 2008 Jim Miller

Monday, July 14, 2008

July 12-13th Report - San Angelo State Park

What an outstanding weekend of birding and bird photography at San Angelo State Park.

Saturday morning I skipped my usual Concho Valley Photography Club meeting and went to the Adult Bird Adventure in the park. This is put on by San Angelo Birding. Met some nice folks and took a few pictures. The special birds that we found that morning was a fledgling Bullock's Oriole (still had much of it's down on it), a number of shore birds at the lake, and a Yellow-Billed Cuckoo that was sitting in the area that should be being misted right now in the bird blind but for whatever reason is not.

As good as the birding was (and it was good), the company was even better and I thank Terry and the good folks who went with us for a fine morning.

After the bird adventure I went back to the blind and did a little bit of shooting. By the time I got back the light had gone away, and in all honesty it wasn't that good of light to begin with--no clouds to diffuse the bright sun. It was good to touch bases with one of the local photographers who was also in the blind with me.

Sunday morning was another matter all together. The skies started as "fair" and it got progressively cloudier. But the clouds were not so thick to kill of the light. On the contrary, the light was very good because of the diffusing and I got a lot of images shot.

Species spread was pretty good and what was there was very photographic. The list this time is a combination of Saturday and Sunday and as always only covers what is seen inside of the blind.

Species List
Ash-Throated Flycatcher
Bewicks Wren
Black-Chinned Hummingbird (Male & Female)
Black Crested Tufted Titmouse (Adult & Juvenile)
Bronzed Cowbird
Brown-Headed Cowbird
Bullock's Oriole (Female)
Cactus Wren
Curve-Billed Thrasher
Golden-Fronted Woodpecker (Juvenile Male)
Grackle, Great-Tailed
Greater Roadrunner
House Finch
House Sparrow
Ladder-Backed Woodpecker (Male)
Mourning Dove
Northern Bobwhite Quail (Male only)
Northern Cardinal (Mating Pair[s])
Northern Mockingbird
Pyrrhuloxia (Mating Pair)
Red-Winged Blackbird
Turkey Vulture

Western Kingbird
White-Winged Dove
Wild Turkey
Yellow-Billed Cuckoo

Sunday's highlights...

-- There were two Western Kingbirds who hung out in the blind for a long period of time. They perched well and I got some good images.
-- The Northern Cardinals exhibiting their ritual feeding behavior was very cool. I had seen it in weeks past, but did not have any luck capturing it. As seen above, I'm guessing I did a pretty good job.
-- A Greater Roadrunner came all the way into the blind for the first time since I've been coming out. Roadrunner started by coming from the east and climbed up a tree between A and B trees. It then made it's way into B tree and glided down from about 15-18ft to the ground. From there it looked around a bit before jumping onto the water feature and eventually took a few drinks.
--A no-kidding Cactus Wren sighting. Both my photographer friend and I did a double take and it took until I got the images home to verify it. We assumed based on it's shape it was a Wren. But the photographic evidence proved it.

Red-winged Blackbirds were way down on Sunday as were the house finches and house sparrows. Hummingbirds are also decreasing a bit in population, but that could have been as much the weather as the normal shift in things.

Saturday there was a Wild Turkey that made a few passes into the blind but never really stuck around long. Same could be said for some Bullock's Orioles that wandered through on Sunday. They hung out in the trees on the outside of things but never really did stay long enough for a good shot.

And our friend Peter Cottontail made his first visit inside of the blind, sticking around for the better part of an hour or so, helping to knock down the green grass inside the blind area.

Northern Cardinals (mating pair), San Angelo S.P., (c) 2008 Jim Miller
Greater Roadrunner, San Angelo S.P., (c) 2008 Jim Miller

Friday, July 11, 2008

July 6th Report - San Angelo S.P.

A very good day in the blind. Species spread was really good, but even more importantly I had really good company in the blind as well who pointed me towards a few more places to shoot. So to the couple from Eldorado, I say Thank You Very Much again. Now, the laundry list...

Species List
Black-Chinned Hummingbird (Male & Female)
Black Crested Tufted Titmouse (Adult & Juvenile)
Bronzed Cowbird
Brown-Headed Cowbird
Bullock's Oriole (Female)
Curve-Billed Thrasher
Golden-Fronted Woodpecker (Juvenile Male)
Grackle, Great-Tailed
House Finch
House Sparrow
Ladder-Backed Woodpecker (Male)
Mourning Dove
Northern Bobwhite Quail
Northern Cardinal (Male & Female)
Northern Mockingbird
Red-Winged Blackbird
Turkey Vulture

White-Winged Dove
Yellow-Billed Cuckoo

The juvenile Black Crested Tufted Titmice were out in force. Towards the end of the morning I was seeing 2-3 at a time, eating seed and starting to mimic their parent's behavior (grab, eat, come back).

Hummingbirds also continued to run strong. But as the numbers go up, so do the territorial tensions. There is one artificial feeder in the blind area and a couple of other plants that are hummingbird friendly.

The Yellow-Billed Cuckoo was unusual to see in the blind, but a welcome visitor. Of course it wasn't too helpful to me as a photographer, but it was nice to see.

Red-Winged Blackbirds seemed to be a little more numerous and the White-Winged Doves far outnumbered their Mourning Dove brothers.

No return visit from the Ash-Throated Flycatcher this time, but my fingers are crossed for next time around.

Image: Black Crested Tufted Titmouse (Juvenile), San Angelo S.P., (c) 2008 Jim Miller

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Paid Blind Review: The Petersen Ranch

First a couple of notes. This is the first of my paid blind reviews. My goal is to give an unbiased account of my experiences. These reviews are going to run longer than my normal initial blind reports for a couple of reasons. First, unlike other places where there are multiple blinds, there's no good way to separate them. And second, and probably most importantly, I look at a trip to one of these areas as an investment both in time and money and I want to be more detailed in my descriptions.

Full Disclosure: I paid the full advertised fee for this blind visit. I did not disclose prior to the visit that I would be doing a review, though I have mentioned it in the weeks after the visit. I have no financial relationship with any photographer mentioned in this blog entry nor with the Petersen Ranch.

Location: The Petersen Ranch is located in the heart of the Texas Hill Country. It is located between the towns of Fredericksburg and Blanco. A general location is listed on their website. When you pay your deposit you get a more detailed set of instructions on how to get there.

Fee: The fee for the day is $125 for use of the blinds. This is in line with all of the members of the Hill Country Nature Photography Alliance. An additional fee is required for a guide if you're going to be hiking the canyons or heading down to the springs--check the ranch website for more information. Workshops are also done at the ranch with the cost of the visit to the ranch built into the workshop fee. Photographers such as Kathy Adams Clark and Larry Ditto are just a couple of photographers who have offered workshops on the ranch.

Lodging: At the time of my visit, lodging was not available at the ranch. Lodging is available in the nearby communities of Fredericksburg, Blanco, and Boerne. I chose to stay near Blanco at the Ghost Creek Ranch Guest Cabins. If I'm traveling alone I'm more of a "Give me 4 walls, a bathroom, and a door and I'm happy"sort of person. But my traveling companion is more upscale than I and we went with Ghost Creek. It turned out to be an outstanding choice and if circumstances are similar the next time I go out to the area we will be sure to utilize these facilities again.

Visit Date: I visited the Petersen Ranch on April 19th, 2008.

Blind Setup: Actually the answer is blinds set up. There are 4 active blinds at the Ranch. These were designed by Sean Fitzgerald, a professional photographer who has been out to the ranch numerous times to include during his involvement during the 2006 Images for Conservation contest.

Blind Station #1 is the Carrion Blind. It is setup with the intention to catch vultures and other scavengers for a meal of dead mammal. Bob was at work nuking that morning's "meal" when I arrived at the ranch and he put it out when he got me into the blind. That morning a combination of lack of early birds and lack of patience resulted in no shots from the blind, though by the time I got done with Blind #2 the meat had been consumed over at Station #1. There is room for theoretically up to 6 photographers at this station.

Blind Station #2 is the Morning Blind. It is set up for 6 shooters in two separate blinds. Directly in front of the blinds in the photography area is a number of natural perches for birds to land on, a water area for birds and animals to drink from, seed feeders, and the remnants of a tree that has small holes bored in it for a protein mixture for woodpeckers and others that will feed from that type of food. The key with this blind is that everything is close. The camo covering the sitting area is a necessity and allows for very intimate portraits of the birds.

Blind Station #3 is the Afternoon Blind. It is set up very similarly to blind #2 but is pointed in an orientation that is best for afternoon light.

Blind Station #4 is the Pavilion blind. Really this is a really big deck with camo type curtains and a number of places for birds and other animals to feed from and perches for them to land on. My guess is that you could probably get most of a small photography club into the pavilion and this is where many teaching professionals will gather their students because it is so conducive to teaching. Seed, nectar, grain, and protein feeding stations are situated around the pavilion to bring in a large range of bird and mammal species. What was most outstanding about the Pavilion blind during April was that there was a flock of Wild Turkey that came out both in early morning and late at night to feed and otherwise show off. We're not talking one or two but closer to a dozen. I'd never seen that many in one place in my life and they were reasonably tolerant of me.

Bob Petersen reports that additional blinds will be put up next year.

Other Photo Opportunities: There are over 800 acres on the Petersen Ranch. 800 acres in the heart of the Texas Hill Country--what a playground! Unfortunately when I visited I was still recovering from a broken wrist so I did not feel comfortable hiking through the backwoods. The mammal, reptile, flora, and landscape possibilities are nearly endless. I'd recommend looking both at the picture archives on the ranch website as well as Sean Fitzgerald's site to get a wider view of what's available (take a look at the "30 days, one texas ranch" portfolio).

Equipment Used/Recommended: I carried both my 10D (with 70-300IS mounted) and my 30D (with 300mm f4 IS USM L mounted). I carried/used both my monopod and tripod. I brought and used my circular polarizer. I could have used a longer lens than my 300mm and/or had my teleconverter, but I did okay with 300mm.

I had not purchased my LensCoat gear for the 300mm f4 L IS USM so I'd be curious to see another time how much of a difference that made with my wildlife shots.

I brought my laptop but spent most of the day shooting so I didn't use it until I got back to the room.

Observations/Lessons Learned: First and foremost, the trip to the ranch was outstanding. Easily in the top 5 of my lifetime photo shoots in terms of being rewarding photographically and teaching me about myself as a photographer. The ranch owner, Bob Petersen, is an outstanding host and steward of land.

You need to work up to a day or more in the photo blind. I shot from day break to 11 am or so, moved to another spot to relax a bit, and then shot from about 3 pm until I had completely lost the light at 8pm or so. I was so tired by the time I got on the road back to Ghost Creek Cabins that I stopped for about ten minutes in Blanco to make sure that I was safe to drive the next 15 minutes or so to my destination.

The more I thought about it afterwards, the more I favorably compared the mental strain of composing each shot and contemplating f-stop/shutter speed combos and any necessary exposure compensation to a marathon session of computer programming. The primary difference is that the code will wait for you while you down some Dew or Red Bull. The birds won't.

Species spread was very good on my visit. The most photographically inclined birds were Mourning Doves, American & Lesser Goldfinches, Purple Martins, Ladder-Backed Woodpeckers and the Wild Turkeys. I saw many other species of birds, but there had been a shift in the omnivores from strictly seeds to almost strictly protein sources (insects) as the insects started coming out in abundance. Plenty of wildflowers to be seen as well, even in the off year for flowers that we've experienced in this part of the world. A few butterflies, but that's really pretty early in the season for a good show of them.

Easily, I'd do this again.

Image: American Goldfinch (Male), The Petersen Ranch, (c) 2008 Jim Miller

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

July 2nd Report - San Angelo S.P.

I thoroughly enjoy being able to get out to the San Angelo State Park on a non-weekend day. Obvious those of us who have normal jobs don't get the opportunity very often, but when compensation time hits a certain point there is a push to get out of the office and burn those hours before they are forgotten or turn into something the boss doesn't like.

So with that in mind, I took the morning of July 2nd off and went out to the bird blind. As mornings go in the blind, this one was reasonably prosperous. Light was not outstanding, but it was workable. But the species variety and more importantly some of the variations in terms of age of the species we see all the time was approaching outstanding.

Here's the laundry list:
Species List
Ash-Throated Flycatcher
Black-Chinned Hummingbird (Male & Female)
Black Crested Tufted Titmouse (Adult & Juvenile)
Bronzed Cowbird
Brown-Headed Cowbird
Bullock's Oriole (Female)
Curve-Billed Thrasher
Golden-Fronted Woodpecker (Juvenile Male)
House Finch
House Sparrow
Ladder-Backed Woodpecker (Male)
Mourning Dove
Northern Bobwhite Quail (2 Males)
Northern Cardinal (Male & Female)
Northern Mockingbird
Painted Bunting (Female)
Red-Winged Blackbird
Turkey Vulture

White-Winged Dove

House Finch (Male), (c) 2008 Jim Miller -
Some things of note... Two male Northern Bobwhites was horribly unusual. The norm is a mating pair. The 2 males were understandably staking out who's area was who's.

Good to see the Painted Bunting again. I marked female, but after some additional instruction lately it is very possible that it is a juvenile male vice a female. Tough to tell at the distance I've been shooting at.

Unusual sightings:
-- Ash-Throated Flycatcher. First flycatcher that has spent any time in the blind area
-- Juvenile Black Crested Tufted Titmouse. Took re-examination of the pictures to spot it.
-- Juvenile Golden-Fronted Woodpecker. A surprise, but given the other Golden-Fronted Activity I've seen it is not out of the unusual.

Hummingbird activity is way up with multiple hummingbirds present most of the time in the blind area. Of course, food availability is limited, so they're fighting over what is present.

Not as much mammal life lately. Hoped the cottontails would make it into the blind by now, but no such luck.

Image: House Finch (Male) San Angelo S.P., (c) 2008 Jim Miller

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

So Much For Catching Up

I hope that your Independence Weekend was as safe and prosperous as mine was. However, as Robert Burns once wrote, (and Vin Scully regularly quotes) the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. How correct he was.

My four day weekend snipped down to nearly nothing. So did my chances of getting a lot of work done on the blog. What is in the queue in the next few days:

The Petersen Ranch review
South Llano River State Park Blind #4 Initial Review
July 2nd San Angelo State Park Blind Report
July 6th San Angelo State Park Blind Report
Fredericksburg Nature Center Photo Blind Initial Review
Hummer House Photo Blind Initial Review

The first two are written and will go out over the next 4 days. The Blind Reports should be pretty easy to put together and will follow immediately thereafter. The FNC and Hummer House Reviews will take longer.

And, with any luck, I'll be able to finally get some progress made on cleaning off my desk at home...

[July 10th Edit-- I've delayed publishing the South Llano River Blind #4 to sometime next week and the Fredericksburg Nature Center review is temporarily on hold while I await some additional information...]

Image: Ash-Throated Flycatcher, San Angelo S.P. (c) 2008 Jim Miller