Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Finally... some time behind the camera...

I had the good fortune to make it out to the bird blind at San Angelo State Park this morning. I say good fortune because my ability to make it out been very limited. The Hunnadew list was longer than anticipated, weather has been uncooperative, and I've had a small health issue or two that made it uncomfortable to get out and make images.

But I was able to get out today and it was really nice to be back in the park. Light was horrible--it was perfect at about 7am when I was out walking the puppy. But by the time the park opened at 8am the light was very bright and shadows were significant. The weather conditions of course were made that much worse by the orientation of the blind. It is very workable in the summer but during the winter the angles are not at all good for making images. Hopefully when the new blind is put in this will be evaluated and taken into account.

Likely the images from the morning will be of limited use, but it was a very relaxing morning. Due to other commitments, I had to leave by about 9:15, but it was good to get in a little over an hour in the blind.

Species spread was better than expected. Most of the usual suspects were around: Northern Cardinals, House Finches, House Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, Curve-billed Thrashers, White-winged Doves, Mourning Doves, and Black-crested Titmice were all out in abundance. No woodpeckers or Northern Bobwhites this morning, but there was a Meadowlark that ventured into the area.

No images right now--I travel very light these days and my netbook is not capable of running any respectable form of image processing software. If anything worked I'll have the images up in the next week or so.

Monday, December 7, 2009

I'm still breathing...

...but there are days I really question whether I am or not.

Life has been awful busy in this neck of the woods, but unfortunately it has not been with a camera in my hand. But it is as it should be--a graduate degree is not supposed to be easy and I can assure you this has been anything but easy.

I did have the good fortune to get to listen to Arthur Morris (of Birds as Art fame) a few weeks back, but my studies kept me from being able to take in his full day workshop the following day.

The extent of my photography pursuits has been going through old images and posting them to my site over at SmugMug. Going through old images and reworking them is not nearly as fun as getting behind the camera and making new images. But a 30 minute sanity break away from my studies to work in Lightroom and Photoshop is easier to justify than 4-5 hours away from the house making new images.

This blog has been reasonably quiet because honestly there hasn't been a lot of news to report. San Angelo State Park's plans of putting up a second blind have been slow in coming, but that was to be expected. Bob Zeller has been making some good images out of the existing blind and I wholeheartedly recommend reading his piece of the web as often as possible. And yes, Bob, when I'm back in the area I will be dropping off my 20# bag of sunflower seeds, even though you guys decided to have the party without me ;)

I heard in the last couple of days from Sharron at Block Creek Natural Area with news about some great workshops coming up in the spring. I spoke in an earlier post that David Cardinal is coming out in late April to do a workshop. Also coming up in the new year will be workshops by Kathy Adams Clark in mid-January, and a Photographer's Alliance Workshop (PAW) run by Jeff Wendorff and David Middleton in early May. Great photographers with much to share.

As my academic term finishes up in the next few days I'm hoping to pull the camera off the shelf and make some images over the holidays. Time for you to go out and make some as well.

Image: Northern Cardinal (female), San Angelo State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Blog of Interest: Texas Tweeties

A friend and fellow photographer in the San Angelo area has started a new blog and I invite you to check out his new blog.

The blog is called Texas Tweeties and it is written by Bob Zeller. Bob and I (along with his bride, Ann) have shared more than a few mornings together at the blind in San Angelo State Park. Bob makes some outstanding images of many things, but his bird photography is the best of what he does. Please take a couple of moments to visit his piece of the web.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Great News!!! New blind planned for San Angelo State Park

Great news to share this morning. I received an e-mail last night from Ruth Jordan, president of Friends of San Angelo State Park's advisory board, that a proposal to build a 2nd bird blind at the park has been approved.

There are still hurdles to clear before this becomes a reality. A site has to be located and that site needs to be approved by Texas Parks & Wildlife. Money needs to be allocated or located for the project. And a design needs to be made for the new structure.

While those hurdles are significant, I have no doubt that these can be overcome and we'll have a second place to watch the birds and make some more beautiful images. A big thanks to Ruth, Gary, and all who shepherded this project through its initial steps and fingers crossed that things move smoothly to make this happen. Wouldn't it be great if by spring migration a new structure were ready to go?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

September 14th Report - San Angelo State Park

One final opportunity on this trip to spend some time out at the park. The weekend was a total washout when it came to photography and birding. Not that I am complaining--there is no such thing as bad or unwelcome rain in West Texas, especially as dry as it has been this year.

But come Monday the liquid sunshine went away and after getting the kids off to school (a special treat), I went out to the park for some much needed down time after driving back and forth to Dallas and before getting ready to hop on the plane and head back to Ohio.

The rain from the weekend was still very evident. The walk up the road was squishy--not quite mud everywhere but certainly the presence of soft ground. In the blind area there was still a little bit of standing water, but not much.

There was more color present than at my previous visit. Doves still dominated the landscape, but the first bird of the day was a Black-chinned Hummingbird. At one point there were three hummers flying around the area, but the light was minimal and I wasn't able to get a fast enough shutter speed to do justice with the images.

Still no Brown-headed Cowbirds or Red-winged Blackbirds. I'm guessing they're foraging elsewhere. House finches were few and really were towards the end of the visit.

A few Northern Cardinals were in the area--primarily one family unit but there were a couple of strays here and there. One Ladderbacked Woodpecker was doing some work on Tree D in the blind area. Also of note was a Curve-billed Thrasher. Both the Cardinals and Thrasher were in reasonably obvious signs of molt--out with the old and in with the new.

But the show stopper of the day was the Yellow Warbler. I had seen this bird last year and got a brief glimpse of it on my last visit. But this time it put on quite a show for me, giving me my best images yet. I would have killed for a 500mm or 600mm to get things even bigger, but I was happy with the end results.

Next trip into the blind will probably be around Christmas time unless business takes me back to San Angelo sooner.

Image: Yellow Warbler, San Angelo State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller

Thursday, September 10, 2009

September 6th Report: San Angelo State Park

As I mentioned a while ago, I still will have a couple of opportunities to head back to the old homestead to take care of business, spend some productive time with the family, and also get the opportunity to visit the blind.

While home for some planned medical issues, I had the opportunity to go back to San Angelo State Park and spend some quality time in the bird blind. Before I got out there I was lucky enough to meet up with one of the park staff that I dealt with regularly while a member of the board of Friends of SASP. He had a couple of moments and was nice enough to give me a sneak peek at a new structure going into the park. I won't go too much in depth because the final pieces have not been worked out yet. But suffice to say that I am very happy with the direction that things are going in at the park and the new structure, once put in place, will make photographers very happy.

As to the visit in the blind... I spent about an hour or so in the blind. It wasn't nearly as long as I would have like to have spent, but again there were other priorities for the trip and the fact I had any time to spend in the blind was amazing.

A recent heavy rain had added some life to the place. A couple of things caught my eye as to the state of the area. First was that there was a veritable plethora of doves, both Mourning and White-winged. This bodes well for the upcoming hunting season in the Concho Valley.

Second was the significant lack of cowbirds, both Brown-headed and Bronzed. This seems to be reasonably typical of this time of year, but I'm hoping that the efforts by the park to thin out the ranks by putting out the rolling trap have been successful.

There was not a lot of color in the blind. Most of the yucca plants have reached the end of their blooming cycle and the salvia appears to have been trimmed back quite a bit. Add this to the fact that this year there is no hummingbird feeder up, and the predictable results is that there was only one Black-chinned Hummingbird making the rounds. I saw but one Northern Cardinal pair during my time in the blind. Actually a mating pair and a youngster, but they didn't spend much time there--my presence may have spooked them. No woodpeckers, no Pyrhulloxia, no orioles, no Painted Buntings.

I was also surprised at how few house finches were around. I am hoping it was either just a time of day thing or just luck of the draw.

Black-crested Titmice were making the rounds as well. During my drive for my "preview of coming attractions" I saw both a Greater Roadrunner and a number of Turkey Vultures.

It was awful good to be home again and hopefully I'll get the chance again soon.

No images yet--I'm only traveling with my netbook and it doesn't have the power necessary to run Lightroom or Photoshop. Guess the images will just have to wait until I get back to Ohio. It should be interesting to see where my level of skill is given that I have shot less than 100 images in the last three months.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Block Creek Natural Area: 2010 Workshop and Upcoming Fall Season

My friends over at Block Creek Natural Area have provided two nuggets of information to pass along.

The first is that David Cardinal, renowned nature/travel photographer and workshop facilitator, will be doing a workshop on their ranch next spring. David's work is "on display" so to speak with an image of a Leopard in the current National Wildlife Foundation calendar. Tip top stuff considering that other photographers featured in the calendar include Art Morris and & Art Wolfe.

Dates for the workshop are from April 25th to May 1st--prime season for both the migrating birds as well as the year-round residents. Cost is $2250 and includes the workshop and local transportation. More information about this opportunity can be found on his page devoted to the workshop which includes a series of 20 images he made during the scouting trip for the workshop in late April this year. Mr. Cardinal is also doing a workshop in the Rio Grande Valley the week prior to the Block Creek workshop at some of the Lens & Land properties.

Additionally, Block Creek has opened their booking calendar for the fall season. With the ongoing drought in Texas and hundreds of thousands of birds migrating from North to South, food will be scarce. This should make places where food and water are available very active as the birds stock up on needed energy for their trip to Winter grounds. Sounds like a perfect storm for some outstanding photography opportunities.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Petersen Ranch

It is with great disappointment that I have to share that the Petersen Ranch is no longer available for photography. I visited the ranch last spring and had an incredible time. Bob Petersen is an outstanding steward of the land and an even better host. But as the saying goes, Life is what happens when we're making other plans.

And speaking of other plans, if you had plans of looking for a ranch to shoot at in that basic neck of the woods, there are a number of other fine ranches in that basic vicinity that all fall under the Hill Country Nature Photography alliance. Visit their website for more information.

American Goldfinch (Male), The Petersen Ranch, © 2008 Jim Miller

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

San Angelo and South Llano State Parks Update

A good friend & fellow blind photographer passed on the following information regarding these two shooting locations:

San Angelo State Park: Heavy numbers of doves (assuming that it's both White-winged and Mourning), though there are quite a few juveniles making the rounds. Specifically Northern Cardinals and Pyrrhuloxia, but also a young Curve-billed Thrasher. Also present in the blind area have been orioles and Northern Bobwhite Quail. This makes me happy as there were good numbers of juvenile quail from last year that were making the rounds before I left and I'm happy to hear that they're surviving the summer.

South Llano River State Park: The only thing really said was that the Painted Buntings are thick this year.

Thanks for the updates, Bill, even though in both cases it makes me yearn for home...

Image: Juvenile Northern Cardinal (male), San Angelo State Park (Sept 2008), © Jim Miller

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Where has the time gone? And where have I gone? And why am I talking in the 3rd person?

Okay, I've neglected this blog quite a bit, but I do have a reason (or an excuse). Back in early January I mentioned in this post that I took the Graduate Review Exam® and did really well. Well, for the purposes of this blog, I did too well. But for my life in general I did well enough, thank you. I was accepted for a very selective graduate degree program up in Ohio--one of 9 people in the country to get picked up for the program. No, it wasn't an MFA program in photography--that will have to wait for another few years...

But the time frame that I had to leave in was incredibly short. So short that I left the blog sitting idle while I got moving north and have been up to my neck in it since I arrived.

So what happens to the blog? Awful good question. Obviously my weekly trips to San Angelo State Park just aren't going to happen, though I am working some things in the background to hopefully make things better for y'all in the coming years.

I will be making semi-regular trips back to West Texas to take care of business and financial matters. And when I go back, undoubtedly my camera and tripod will be in tow. I expect that after I complete this degree program and meet the contractual obligations that came with it that I will be back somewhere in west Texas, most likely in San Angelo.

I have a small circle of photographer friends who have offered to periodically feed me information about what is going on in the blinds, but I am actively looking for others who will tell me about their experiences. You can always contact me through the address for the blog: No need to be as verbose as I have been over the last year or so. A quick description of conditions at the blind and a list of what you saw and I will do the rest and provide you credit and a mention for your web site or online gallery (i.e. Flickr, Smug Mug, etc) to show off the images that you made.

I have also put the offer out to a number of the private ranches that offer blinds that I will publicize events going on at their ranches or even do status updates of what is showing up to their blinds at no cost. I'm a big fan of these folks and if I can add a little free advertising for these folks, all the much better.

I will also, as I come upon them, highlight similar birding structures where I am in Ohio and venturing into Indiana and Kentucky since both are very close. I have a line on one bird blind near Cincinnati and I am still exploring other possibilities, though admittedly my free time is very limited.

So stay tuned and send in your info...

Image: Green Heron, Eastwood Metropark, Dayton, Ohio ©2009 Jim Miller

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Workshop Opportunity - April 30th-May 3rd

Sean Fitzgerald is putting on a photography workshop at the Fennessey Ranch, just north of Corpus Christi, during the extended weekend of April 30th to May 3rd. I'm a big fan of Sean's work and I've heard outstanding things about Fennessey Ranch. The blinds are outstanding and undoubtedly some of Sean's magic will rub off over the time of the workshop. Sadly other obligations will keep me from attending (more on that in the coming days). You can find more info about the workshop here. Price is just $675 for the weekend and it comes with a certificate for an additional day of shooting in the blinds at Fennessey Ranch.

Monday, March 23, 2009

March 21st Report - San Angelo State Park

Good morning in the blind. I had hoped to get out and about this weekend to someplace other than the same old thing, but family obligations and a very sore wrist kept me from traveling very far. I'm scheduled for another appointment for the wrist sometime in the next couple of weeks so hopefully we'll get to the bottom of that one--it's eating into my photography time ;)

But since I was more or less stuck in San Angelo (though happily stuck, may I add), and the light looked to be perfect, I headed out to the park to see what I could see.

Light was outstanding. Maybe a little bright at first and certainly the quality of the light changed often during my time in the blind. But it was almost universally good and only my impatience and knowing I had other things to accomplish on Saturday kept me from staying longer. Start time of actual shooting was around 8:25 and I stayed exactly 2 hours. Body count of the images was just south of 270 images and most of them were very good. The only significant mistake that I made was that I went to ISO 400 early in the morning because the shutter speeds were getting below 1/80th. As things brightened I did not go back to drop the ISO back to 200. With the 30D this is not a huge issue--noise is minimal at ISO 400. But at 200 it is far better.

First image of the day was a male Northern Cardinal. Last image was a Red-winged Blackbird. In between was a good variety of the standard late winter/early spring birds. The Orange-crowned warbler made his appearance and the small covey of Northern Bobwhites made an appearance as well with at least 5 being in the blind area at once. Pyrrhuloxia were out in large numbers as well, probably outnumbering the Northern Cardinals which is a very unusual occurrence. House Sparrows are becoming more abundant, though White-crowned sparrows are still out in force. If last year is any indication, the White-crowns should be starting to make their way elsewhere over the next few weeks. No repeat performances though from the Greater Roadrunner or the Golden-fronted Woodpecker and I haven't seen the Ladderbacks in weeks.

Again, a good shooting experience in the blind--well worth being stuck in town again.

Red-winged Blackbird (Female), San Angelo State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller
Pyrrhuloxia (Male), San Angelo State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller

Thursday, March 19, 2009

So what do you shoot with?

I've been putting off this discussion for a long time, but I'd be a poor blogger if I continued to procrastinate on this one. After all, this is a blog about photography.

The question I get asked the most often when I'm at craft fairs or other venues where my prints are being displayed is, "What do you shoot with?"

I hate answering the question because there's a lot of folks who think that the camera is the key to everything that is important, and the dummy behind the camera doesn't really do much. So honestly, I talk down the equipment that I shoot with. I will talk about how old it is or that it's not the biggest/baddest thing on the block and that the camera itself is not that important. I'm not believed very often, even though it is true that I shoot with a relatively modest setup.

I also used to emphasize that a camera was just a box that we let light into and it really didn't matter what you were shooting because it was that dummy behind the camera that did the work. And I can't say that this is always the case.

Yes, that sounds contradictory, but it's not. Let me explain.

The advances that we've made in clarity, speed, and ISO sensitivity in the last 10 years of digital photography is incredible. So much progress has been made that it allowed for the near total extermination of film camera production. There has not been a significant pro or prosumer level camera put out in over 5 years. In the early days, the word was we'd need somewhere between 24-30 megapixel cameras to match the quality of film images. We now do with 6-8Mp that which we said was impossible--make a 11x14 print that compared favorably with a print made from Kodak Gold 100 or Fujichrome Velvia 50. Cameras have gotten that good.

But at the same time, I will tell you that you can no more give a fine set of brushes to a first year art student and expect them to make a gallery quality painting than you can give a top end camera to a novice and expect that image to be on the front of Sports Illustrated.

I will tell you that a photographer with a modest amount of experience using solid photographic technique will create a much better image with my Canon 30D than with my Canon 10D. ISO and sensor performance between the two cameras was incredible. Both will make good images and up to a certain size print (probably 8x10) it would be tough to tell the difference between the two. But look at it on a PC and the difference will be painfully obvious.

But at the same time, hundreds of thousands of dollars were made with images made from the 10D. Hundreds of thousands probably continue to be made with images made from the 30D even though it is now nearly 3 years old and the 50D has nearly double the megapixels. These cameras make awesome images.

So what do I shoot with? My camera body is a Canon 30D. I bought the battery grip after the fact and am very happy I did.

More important is what lens do I put in front of that camera. And for that you'll have to wait for the next installment. And eventually I'll even get to why it's important to the art of shooting from a blind.

March 15th Report - San Angelo State Park

Another weekend happily stuck in San Angelo. Concho Valley Photography Club has their meetings on the 2nd Saturday of the month. Another organization that I'm a member of has their meetings on the 3rd Sunday of the month. This year March just happens to combine those into one happy stew. February did as well, but due to a scheduling issue they ended up on different weekends, but I digress.

So with a weekend that would be San Angelo bound, and with some work related things keeping me relatively close to home, it was definitely going to be San Angelo State Park for my weekend visit.

I went out relatively early Sunday morning and after doing some volunteer-related items I was able to get to shooting at about 8:30am.

The light was kind of tricky to work with. It started with significant overcast, but with enough light to work at 400 ISO. As the morning progressed it became more of a hide and go seek approach where the light was good, then too bright, then okay, and then very subdued all over a very short period of time.

My biggest issues Sunday morning was a lack of warm clothing and a lack of patience. Temps inside the blind were in the low 40's and I had not adequately planned for the outing, making it very uncomfortable. This lack of warm clothing likely added to my lack of patience as I spent less than an hour and a half in the blind. But even at that I made some nice images.

Species spread was good. No wrens in the blind and only 1 of the 2 woodpecker species (Golden-fronted) made a visit in. But cardinals were running pretty good and there were numerous Pyrrhuloxia visitors. We also had visits by both a male Northern Bobwhite and a Greater Roadrunner, though the Roadrunner was far more camera shy than the Bobwhite.

Hawks continue to make the rounds at the blind, causing massive fly-offs and periods of inactivity at the blind lasting 10-15 minutes.

No physical laundry list--I left my copy in the blind.

Brown-headed Cowbird, San Angelo State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller
Northern Bobwhite, San Angelo State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller

Sunday, March 8, 2009

March 7th Report - San Angelo State Park

After getting my car out of the shop this week I had every intention to go to South Llano River State Park. But as I've quoted on this blog before (with respect and credit to Robert Burns), "The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry." I won't go into the particulars, but it involved both my normal Monday to Friday job and my photography sales side gig.

But, as luck would have it the weather was perfect for the sun-challenged blind that is the blind at San Angelo State Park. Saturday's forecast called for mostly to completely cloudy skies and the weatherman did not disappoint.

I got out to the blind at about 8:00 and after taking care of some things in the blind area under the auspices of my relationship with Friends of San Angelo State Park, I was ready to rock and roll.

First bird into the camera was a Curve-billed Thrasher. Unusual for a first bird, but I wasn't complaining. As the morning went on it was obvious that there was not one but two Curve-billed Thrashers making the rounds in the blind. Since there are minimal differences between the males and females and since Curve-billed's aren't exactly the most flock-like species, my guess is that they are a mating pair. Again, that's my guess. I'm not an ornithologist nor do I play one on TV.

No laundry list for this visit. Very narrow species spread. No titmice this time around. Cardinals and Pyrrhuloxia were around but were not in huge numbers. Lots and lots of Red-winged Blackbirds.

I made just under 200 exposures in my two hours out at the blind.

White-winged Dove, San Angelo State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller
Curve-billed Thrasher, San Angelo State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller

Monday, March 2, 2009

February 28th/March 1st Report - No birding :(

Ugly weekend I'm afraid. Weather was not going to be conducive to bird photography at the blind at San Angelo State Park--no clouds at all to help diffuse things. Saturday I was thinking that Sunday I'd go back down to South Llano River State Park and hit something other than Blind #4. And then while running errands Saturday morning the check engine light illuminated on my vehicle's dashboard. I won't repeat the word or words I was thinking (I do try to maintain a G-Rating here), but I thought I still might make the run down on Sunday and take my chances. And then after getting the car home it would not stay running. More of those words that I can't use.

Needless to say, the weekend was a bust all around. Vehicle is back with me today in working order ($240 later). Hopefully it will continue to run through the rest of the week and I'll be making weekend plans...

Sunday, March 1, 2009

February 21st Report: South Llano River State Park

Okay, back to our normally scheduled program talking about photography enjoyed from inside blinds...

Last weekend I made my way back to South Llano River State Park. The plan was to go early in the morning as I had done in the past. Unknown to myself, I had been scheduled for a mid-morning photographic shoot in San Angelo. Given that I couldn't be two places at one time and commitments come before wants & plans, I stuck to the commitment and took care of business. Fun time had...

Okay, so my previously scheduled ends around 11, other small tasks (to include taking advantage of Office Depot's 8Gb Ultra II CF for $24) kept me in town until about 1pm. On the road I go and roll into South Llano River SP around 3pm.
The last time I had been in one of the blinds after 12 o'clock high had been mid-August last year, and even then it had only been to one of the four blinds and on a day that was horribly devoid of light. With clear skies and mild temperatures, I took the opportunity to hit all four of the blinds.

The Reader's Digest version of things is that I can say without a doubt that I'm glad that I found things to take pictures of outside of the bird blinds. I went in reverse order from #4 to #1.

  • Blind #4 (Acorn) was mostly under shade when I was shooting (3:15-3:45). Light was good at the back section of the blind (primarily fence area) and the species selection was very light. Mostly sparrows with a couple of dark-eyed juncos. No cardinals and no Wild Turkeys in the blind area. Not a satisfying stop--definitely a much better morning blind.
  • Blind #3 (Juniper) was lit up reasonably well, but 420mm effective focal length was not nearly enough to get the job done. This blind was also Cardinal Central as there were probably 2 dozen making the rounds. A 500mm or a 600mm would have probably done some good in this blind, but with the slope down of this blind and no close perches, it was a waste of my time but thankfully only a few frames.
  • Blind #2 was reasonably more promising, though admittedly my patience was pretty much shot by that point and I believe mornings may be workable this time of year. Got a couple of decent shots in the blind, to include the Black-crested Titmouse pictured here.
  • Blind #1 had serious potential, but again it had been a long day and my fellow travelers by that point were tired of waiting for me so I made it an abbreviated stop. Black-throated Sparrows were the highlight here though there were also plenty of cardinals and other things. Big change with this blind was that the wire cages that "protected" the seed were removed since the last time I was there. I'm hoping this is a permanent thing because it made for more photographic opportunities.

The highlight of the day were of the mammal variety. Specifically Armadillos. Again, I'm not a native so the only armadillos I'd seen prior to this visit were very stationary and had all of the tell-tale signs of having a bad case of P215/70R14 disease. On this trip to the park I saw not one, but two possums on a half-shell. In both cases I had far too much lens to make the images I wanted to, yet at the same time the armadillos were in places where man-made structures conflicted with my attempts to make images. Encounter #1 was down the trail from Blind #3 and yielded the better images (better backgrounds). Encounter #2 was in the parking area just outside of Blind #2. Awesome time had by all.

Black-crested Titmouse, South Llano River State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller
Black-throated Sparrow, South Llano River State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller
Armadillo, South Llano River State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller

Saturday, February 28, 2009

RIP - Paul Harvey 1918-2009

"Hello Americans, this is Paul Harvey. Stand by for news."

I don't go off-the-format too much with this blog, but I feel I need to note the passing of radio legend Paul Harvey, who completed his earthly duties today at the age of 90. For those of us who lived in rural America, Paul Harvey was a voice of reason that entered our homes and vehicles as he read the national news interspersed with small town values. For those like me who grew up on our Pacific coast and listened to AM radio, his voice was one that you could count on finding anywhere. And I do mean anywhere--whether it be on the 50,000 watt powerhouse stations like KOMO in Seattle, KGO out of San Francisco or KMJ out of Fresno, or the countless small 1,000 watt stations like KPRL in Paso Robles, California where I was privileged to work for about a year. You knew first thing in the morning and at lunch time you could hear the news as he saw it.

He never pretended that his broadcast was straight news--there was always a comment or two seemingly on each story to give his perspective and often to prod you into thinking about the topics of the day. Add to that a small dose of humor at the end with For What It is Worth (more on this later), and he'd knock out 12-15 minutes of the most engaging AM radio of the last few decades.

That was his gig for just short of 58 years, minus a couple brief and not so brief absences as health issues kept him away from the microphone. And a gig that reportedly he was paid $100 Million for in a 10 year contract signed in 1990. Not bad for 30 minutes of airtime 6 days a week.

The part of his show that I loved and hated the most was his For What it Was Worth segment at the very end of the broadcast. It always featured a news oddity that was making the rounds that day off of one of the wire services, often with him delivering a pregnant pause at the end right before he got to the punchline. I hated it often because I was listening to it on Armed Forces Radio on my way into work and listening to it meant that I was going to be a minute or two late reporting to duty (and undoubtedly would catch hell for it). But favorite because it was the little dose of humor that we needed no matter where "where" was to get our day started in the proper perspective.

My favorite of these stories was when he noted that in some small town while the police were out at a call somebody had come in and stolen all of the porcelain bathroom fixtures at the police station. Something to the effect that the police were baffled for at this point they had nothing to go on.

My father also speaks of a time when his local sheriff's office in rural California was highlighted on the show because they had seized what in the day were called stag films (probably at best soft core pornography today) and to ensure that indeed the movies were obscene the entirety of the department watched the films multiple times.

And the classic Paul Harvey quote, which melts it down to the essence of humanity and male egos, "Gonads are useful for their intended purpose, but they are no substitute for brains."

He reported the news, highlighted the idiotic, and did so always with a bit of a spin towards his politics but never in the blow-hard style that we come to expect from both sides of the political spectrum.

My nightly guilty pleasure during my short stint in commercial radio was wrapping up my show, moving the satellite feed to Mutual Broadcasting and Larry King's overnight radio show, and then stepping into the production room to pop in the lunch time version of the show while I bulk erased the tape cartridges that the morning guy would use for his show. His words made the time fly by--thank God we hardly ever had any local commercials for Larry King--they never would have gotten played on time if we did.

Mr. Harvey, you will be missed but undoubtedly you've reached Page 5 and have been reunited with the Angel that you married 60+ years ago and left this world for Page 5 just 9 months ago. We'll continue to stand by for news, but for now Mr. Harvey, Good-day.

Other accounts:
ABC News coverage

Friday, February 20, 2009

Preliminary Report - Lost Maples SNA Blind

On my last trip down the South Llano River State Park, I stopped for a quick bite to eat in Junction at Sonic and then headed down the road to Lost Maples State Natural Area (SNA). I had learned a number of months back that Lost Maples SNA had a blind and I received some input from a couple of the readers here about the place. But I figured that if I'd all ready driven 2 hours to Junction, another almost hour in the car to Lost Maples was worth the trip, even if the light available was not going to be good light.

First off, the staff at Lost Maples SNA were very friendly and responsive to my questions and needs. Great folks, but then again I've rarely had anything other than that to say about TPWD staff at any park, SNA, or WMA.

The blind was only a short distance from the front gate. Make the first left and follow it to it's termination. There is a full-fledged parking lot very close to the blind. This is both good and bad. Good that I didn't have to carry my equipment very far. Bad in that there seemed to be a constant level of noise from the parking area to include folks playing music way too loud. Not what I go to a state park for, but I guess we can't always keep civilization out of paradise.

The other thing that does not help this blind is that it is right next to a trail head with no barrier between the trail and the bird perches/food.

The blind itself has a wide face but is narrow. There is a large wide window on either side of the blind with nearly the same level of tilt as you find at South Llano River State Park's 4 blinds. As such, shooting from behind these windows is next to impossible.

There is a trap door in the middle of the blind. The trap door is more than big enough to get my 300mm f4 through and I have nearly full range of the blind area from this open trap door. Seating is okay, but far from comfortable from that middle spot.

Other readers have told me that it is possible to shoot from outside and I found that to be the case as well. The birds are reasonably used to the humans.

Despite the challenging conditions, I'm convinced that this could be a very productive blind to shoot from, whether it be inside the blind, out in the open, or perhaps a small pop-up outside the blind.

Perches and attractants were plentiful and generally natural. I'm looking forward to a mid-week early morning visit to the park so I can see how this blind works out. Probably towards late April or early May.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

February 16th Blind Report: San Angelo State Park

It's always good to have a Monday away from the office to go out to "the other office." Saturday was a lost shooting morning due to Concho Valley Photography Club. Always a blast and a great learning experience, but I can't shoot and be at the club meeting. Sunday's light was horrible--no sense wasting my time on bad light.

So Monday rolled around and it was heavily overcast. I wasn't holding my breath on getting great shots, but I knew that this would be better than my lack of opportunity on Sunday.

I made it out to the blind at about 9AM. A phone call on my way into the park slowed me down by about a half hour or so. Light was cold and minimal when I got out there, but as the morning progressed so did the light. Started out shooting at ISO 200 with exposures of 1/40th to 1/60th of a second at f/6.3 and by the time I left, depending on the direction I was shooting, exposure times were 1/150th to 1/400th of a second at the same ISO and f-stop.

Image opportunities were good. Multiple opportunities on Red-winged Blackbirds. They were darn near at invasion levels from time to time. A small smattering of Brown-headed Cowbirds made their return as well. I'm never pleased to see them, but have to report what I see.

There were a couple of oddities. Pyrrhuloxias, who normally are not exactly people friendly, made much closer passes to the blind. I think I matched my all-time favorite male shot on this photo opportunity. Also reasonably rare was the orange variant of the House Finch. I'm told that this is not a subspecies, but just a rarity. Whether through genetics or diet is an open debate. Regardless, got a couple of decent images of him as well.

No laundry list--my copy of my notes did not make it between the car and the house.

House Finch (Male) - orange variation, San Angelo State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller
Red-winged Blackbird (Male), San Angelo State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

February 8th Blind Report - San Angelo State Park

As mentioned on my February 8th entry, I made the choice to travel on Saturday and stay local on Sunday because the weather on Sunday had the potential to be really bad. As it turned out, it was a good decision to stay local.

I got out to the blind a little bit after 8:30 and the cloud cover was pretty significant. Temperature was reasonably warm, but the wind was blowing pretty well. After I took care of some volunteer-related activities, I settled into the blind and was joined by another of the regulars to the blind.

The theme of the day was spurts. We'd go 10-15 minutes of big numbers of birds, and then all of a sudden a hurried departure and no birds for 5-10 minutes. The cycle went through a few times and our guess was that there was some form of predator making the rounds but we weren't sure what it was. At about 10AM we got our answer--a hawk flew across the face of the blind chasing one of the house finches. The weather was starting to get even more windy and the light was quickly disappearing so it was a good time to pull stakes and get out.

The only real surprise of the day was not bird but mammal--a skunk wandered in around the blind looking for some water. He found a little bit and then away he went. I didn't get what I would consider wall-worthy material, but certainly something that I'll be able to use in the near future.

No laundry list on this visit.

Image: Golden-fronted Woodpecker (Male), San Angelo State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller

Sunday, February 8, 2009

February 7th Blind Report - South Llano River State Park Blinds #1 (Loma) and #4 (Acorn)

I stepped completely away from taking pictures last weekend. Weather locally was too clear and I had some projects staring me directly in the face that kept me from getting in the car and traveling elsewhere. So I took the time to take care of business and put off any travel to this weekend.

So Saturday I went down to South Llano River State Park. Easy choice to make. Weather was supposed to be dicey on Sunday so I figured a road trip Saturday and then fingers crossed on a couple of hours on Sunday at San Angelo State Park. Plus, if I was going to be at South Llano River I would also make a quick scouting trip to Lost Maples SNA.

I started once again in Blind #4 (aka Acorn). Weather was considerably warmer this weekend as compared to 2 weekends ago. I was able to leave the gloves and ski-style mask in the car this time around. It was very comfortable with just a poly-pro shirt and my standard camouflage outershirt without need for a jacket. Skies however were mostly cloudy, which certainly knocked down the available light, but it diffused things nicely.

Species spread was a little smaller than last time around. No Downy Woodpecker and no Inca Dove. But pretty much everything else showed up. Goldfinches and sparrows seemed to be more numerous. Northern Cardinals were less numerous. Quite a few Pine Siskins wandering around. The Wild Turkeys which had made their visits the previous week were back again, too. All in all it was a good time.

As I started to head out of the park I decided to take advantage of the favorable sky conditions and stopped at Blind #1 (aka the Loma Blind). This blind is not nearly as cozy as Blind #4. Also, in my haste to leave the house I left my portable stool behind so it was going to be an uncomfortable photo shoot. There was a much more narrow species spread in this blind, but there were White-crowned Sparrows present here where they were not present in Blind #4. Light was good with the cloud-cover, even though it was nearly 11am.

Wild Turkey, South Llano River State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller
Bathing Female Northern Cardinal, South Llano River State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller

Sunday, January 25, 2009

January 25th Blind Report: South Llano River State Park Blind #4 (Acorn)

Downy Woodpecker (Female), South Llano River State Park, ©2009 Jim MillerThe weather forecast was showing nothing but sunny skies in the San Angelo area. As you as a loyal reader know, clear sunny skies in the middle of winter make for lousy images at the San Angelo State Park blind. So rather than go a full weekend without any images (heaven forbid that would happen), I got a road trip pass from my significant other and headed down the road to South Llano River State Park. Darn good decision...

I arrived at the park a couple minutes after 8am, took care of the administrative issues of getting my permit as well as confirming with the park rangers that with the winter closures that I could still get to my favorite blind, Blind #4 (aka the Acorn Blind). Large portions of the park are closed to visitors this time of year to give the Wild Turkeys a chance to do that voodoo that they do so well so that their population can return to historical levels. If you're going to make a trip for the blinds, let it be known that all four blinds are open and available even with the restrictions. In the case of at least #4, access is blocked beyond that point. Blind #1 does not allow access beyond the blind and all of the area surrounding it is restricted. I would assume that #2 and #3 also have some degree of restrictions around them but I did not check them out.

I physically got into the blind at about 8:15 and let the good times roll. The blue skies are not a show stopper in this blind this early in the morning. The left side of the blind is nearly completely in play while the right side is workable, though with really slow shutter speeds.

First bird photographed: a Spotted Towhee. I'd been waiting all winter to see one in the blind at SASP so I guess it took a 90 minute drive south to South Llano to see my first of the season.

Dark-eyed Junco, South Llano River State Park, ©2009 Jim MillerNorthern Cardinals (male and female) were very much present when I first arrived along with a few different sparrows. But then things got interesting. Two dual-listers. That is, both a Life List addition (first time I'd seen the bird) as well as a Portfolio List addition (first time I'd gotten a good image of that species). First was a female Downy Woodpecker (top picture). Second is to the right of this paragraph - a Dark-eyed Junco. Honestly, I spent a long time trying to figure out what species this bird was. A Black Phoebe was my first thought, but the bill was way wrong. Another hour of looking and I finally figured it out. Twas a good feeling, but it sure made me feel dumb.

The rest of the day was a steady stream of Black-crested Titmice, sparrows of many different types, lesser goldfinches, house finches, wrens, and a chickadee or two. Oh yes, and the three or four Wild Turkeys that flew over the enclosure and landed hoping the find a morning meal.

Things picked up significantly after the volunteers came in and refilled the water feature and added some seed to the equation. And yes, the Turkeys came back and weren't all that irritated that I was there. Light started to get to bright and harsh so I packed it up around 11am.

No laundry list--still trying to identify a couple of the birds I shot. Likely another list addition or two in there. Overall 411 images shot, with about 35 that I've set aside to do a little magic to. Hoping to print 5 or 6.

The 322RC2 behaved admirably, though most of my shots were at eye level or below. I found myself taking the camera off in a couple of instances, but that's par for the course in this blind anyway. Still searching for the replacement for the 322RC2, but we'll live with this one for now.

Downy Woodpecker (Female), South Llano River State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller

Dark-eyed Junco, South Llano River State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Bogen/Manfrotto 322RC2 - First Impressions

As mentioned in a previous blog entry, my Bogen/Manfrotto 3265 tripod head failed on me a few weeks ago. I will not blame Bogen/Manfrotto--when I bought the tripod/head combination 4 cameras ago I never envisioned I'd ever have as heavy of a setup as I have today. I busted the max weight on it by about a half pound as it turns out, and while it survived a few months it finally went kaput on me. Awesome head, but not for the rig I'm running with these days.

After somewhat of a search and with a desire to keep the same quick release system that I have on my monopod, I went with the 322RC2. The thought process was I love the trigger system that the 3265 had and the 322RC2 seemed to meet the need the best.

The head brand new runs about $110, but through Texas Photo Forum's Buy & Sell section (w/the assist of one of my regular readers to this forum--Thank You), I was able to find somebody who was trying to part with his at $80. For $80 I was willing to take a chance.

My first impressions are generally good, though the head is not everything that I had hoped it would be. The head is solid. Darn solid. The Quick Release plates work exactly as they should, snapping in solidly and without hesitation, yet coming out with a reasonable amount of force. When the trigger is pressed, the head loosens up without hesitation. When you release the trigger, it locks up tight and stays in place.

However, the motion on this head is significantly different from the motion I'm used to with my old 3265. I do not have nearly the vertical travel with the 322RC2, and I really have to tweak the legs on the tripod to make sure I have the mobility that I desire. For the ground birds, this is not an issue--I have plenty of downward motion. But for the birds in the trees it does not work nearly as well.

I like the purchase and I'm happy with it. It will be the head that moves when I go carbon fiber in my next set of tripod legs. I'm sure I'll get used to it with time--I used that 3265 for an awful long time.

Northern Cardinal (Female), San Angelo State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller

Sunday, January 18, 2009

January 17th Blind Report - San Angelo State Park

Very fine morning of shooting in the blind. Polar opposite of my last visit in the blind...

As those of you who read the page regularly know, my typical day out to the blind is Sunday. My significant other and I do not share a specific common faith belief, so she takes off for a traditional church and I take off for my 2-3 hours of meditation and reflection.

But Friday night, looking at the sky conditions here in San Angelo I got to thinking about how Saturday might look. So a quick run to and the hour-by-hour forecast showed that Saturday morning was going to be mostly cloudy. Bingo. Guess we'll have an extra session of meditation and reflection on Saturday. It was a genuinely good call.

Light was perfect Saturday morning. Very cloudy to start with, but the clouds were not so thick to obscure all of the light. Sure, at ISO 200 I was at f/5.6 and between 1/50th and 1/100th at the very beginning, but I resisted the urge to step it up to ISO 400. I find that ISO 400 is very printable with the Canon 30D, but old film habits die hard and I always try to shoot with the lowest ISO possible.

As the morning progressed the light did get better and I eventually settled closer into the f/8 range with more manageable shutter speeds.

The shoot started very unusually--a Golden-Fronted Woodpecker was the first bird I was able to get an image of. First time in all of the times I've shot at the blind that this was the case.

Bewick's Wren, San Angelo State Park, ©2009 Jim MillerHere is the laundry list. Very good species spread. In addition to what is posted, there is an another sparrow that I've not seen before and I'm asking for some guidance amongst the local birding community. Update (Jan 19): The sparrow that I could not previously identify was a Lincoln's Sparrow. I will share the image in a future blog entry.

Some highlights: My first somewhat decent image of a male Pyrrhuloxia, though I would have preferred that he was perched on anything other than the terracotta feeder. Cardinals were running strong. The more ground-type birds (i.e. Greater Roadrunners and Northern Bobwhites) were nowhere to be found, but I did see a Roadrunner outside of the park as I was making my way to the blind.

I did get a life list entry. I saw my first Eastern Meadowlark. Okay, for those of you who grew up in this area you're probably scratching your head and going "Huh?" But I did not grow up in this area and while I've seen a Western Meadowlark, I've never seen it's eastern cousin.

Overall, this was an outstanding morning in the blind.

Pyrrhuloxia (Male), San Angelo State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller
Bewick's Wren, San Angelo State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller

Friday, January 16, 2009

January 11th Blind Report - San Angelo State Park

Yes, I know this report is long in coming, but to be very honest with you I didn't even bother pulling the images out of the camera until this evening. Temps were a little warmer than last weekend, but the sky was incredibly devoid of cloud cover. As such, the light was horribly bright and horribly stark. I shot for a grand total of 25 minutes... it actually took me longer to get out to the park, get setup, and then pull things down and go home than the amount of time I spent in the blind. Experience told me that there was nothing that could be done with the light conditions.

Having opened up the images tonight, I can assure you that this is the case. The images are generally awful, which is too bad because the bird species swath was as wide as I've seen it in weeks. Cardinals, Pyrrhuloxia, Sparrows, Bobwhites, Thrasher, Woodpeckers--the whole normal crowd and in good numbers. But with the awful light I struggled to get one image to put up here.

The upside was I got that 25 minutes to play with my 322RC2 tripod head that showed up earlier in the week.

Fingers crossed for a better light this weekend. I really want to put that tripod head through it's paces...

Image: Northern Cardinal (Male), San Angelo State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Great Backyard Bird Count - February 13-16

The Great Backyard Bird Count is the weekend of February 13-16 (okay, so it's an extended weekend). Here's an awesome opportunity to give a little bit back to the birder community who typically has been at the heart of the facilities that we borrow for short periods of time to make images out of.

The instructions are simple and the benefits are great. Please consider taking part in this year's count.

Image: Northern Cardinal (Male), San Angelo State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller

Sunday, January 4, 2009

January 4th Blind Report - San Angelo State Park

Northern Mockingbird, San Angelo State Park, ©2009 Jim MillerIt was awfully good to get back into the blind this morning. Last weekend was ruined by a lousy experience trying to take my Graduate Review Exam (GRE) and having their network drop 2 tests into the 4 test sequence. Very frustrating. That was followed-up with a Sunday that just didn't work the way I wanted to.

This weekend was a much better set of circumstances. I was able to get back to Abilene yesterday and take my GRE with a very positive test result (no, I'm not going to share, but let's just say I'm a very happy camper). The plan was to get out to the blind today and everything worked the way it was supposed to. Only two things were not that great. First was that it was mighty cold and mighty windy and I did not dress for the occasion. Second was that I'm still shooting without a good tripod head and my hand started to fatigue very quickly. As such I only stayed in the blind for a couple of hours, but they were very productive hours.

Lots and lots of color today. Plenty of Northern Cardinals, House Finches, and assorted sparrows. Both Golden-Fronted and Ladderbacked Woodpeckers made visits into the blind, though in both cases not for very long and not in places where I could get a good shot of them. Sparrows were running very strong with House, White-crowned, and Rufous-crowned varieties being very prevalent. Mourning and White-winged doves were present in large numbers, though White-winged were far more common. No bobwhites this morning, but looking back at the last couple of visits, they didn't usually show up until later in the morning.

Northern Cardinal (Male), San Angelo State Park, ©2009 Jim MillerNo laundry list this morning. The blind was out of sheets, I didn't remember to bring a new supply, and in the big picture I don't think I could have gripped my pencil well enough to make good notes anyway.

Northern Mockingbird, San Angelo State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller
Northern Cardinal (Male), San Angelo State Park, ©2009 Jim Miller