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