Patience and Perseverance Paid Off
Juvenile Bald Eagle Scratching Chin With Talon
What’s the back story? What is the lesson learned?
For the past five years, a pair of Bald Eagles have nested in the Redwood Tree in front of Curtner Elementary School in Milpitas, California. At the school, there are three large Redwood Trees. The tall middle one is the nest three-quarters the way up. Over the years, they have built a large platform of sticks a top of some of the side branches.
First, it was Junior. Then, as the pandemic hit came Covid and Corona. Last year, they raised Pfizer, and this year this juvenile bald eagle is called Booster. There is a Facebook page dedicated to these eagles. Photographers come from all parts of California to photograph these eaglets.
Back of the school is some water treatment ponds that attract Black-crowned Night Herons, Snowy Egrets, Canadian Gooses, and an assortment of ducks. Northern Rough-winged Swallows also breed around these ponds. Near the school side is a boundary where two levies separate the treatment ponds from the school’s sports fields. Between the levy is a canal, a marshy wetlands area, and probably a former river that drains into San Francisco Bay.
A bridge crosses over the canal and goes to the levy on the other side, providing access to the water treatment ponds. There are several eucalyptus trees around the ponds, so the eagles favorite these trees, so they can watch the activity and occasionally take a fish out of the pond. They also hunt California Ground Squirrels on the levies around this area.
Now that she fledged and is flying, Booster spends a lot of time around these settlement ponds. One morning, I was across the bridge photographing Booster down by the pond’s edge. When Booster took off, she landed on the bridge. Then, this curious and adventurous eagle hopped up and flew to the bridge railing.
Here I was blocked from crossing back over the bridge and, most notably, on the wrong side of light. I was stuck on the ugly backlit side. There are fences along the levies, and the bridge is the only direct way across. A photographer on the same side as me took off and circled the ponds into the neighborhood. She went around the ball fields and the tennis courts at the back of the elementary school. She eventually returned to the bridge’s other side and began photographing Booster with the nice 9:00 am light behind her.
I stayed and tried to make a good outcome from a bad lighting situation. From my first position, I had some green deciduous leaves reflecting light off their waxy surface. With my 600 mm lens, I had these ugly shining green and white unfocused rings in my background. I didn’t want to put the blue sky behind the eagle if possible. Then, I noticed next to these green leave deciduous trees were a group of some fir or pine. I moved to my left a few steps, and these ugly green and white rings disappeared. My background was now a smooth forest green, not harsh, and with no distractions.
Now I was ready. Booster didn’t disappoint. She started scratching its chin with her mighty talon. I captured the behavior that was my goal.
Booster rolled back its nictating membrane to protect its eye and sight. This image captured the movement of the nictating membrane covering the eye. However, the nictating membrane wasn’t opaque as you usually see it.
I took hundreds of images as Booster was scratching her eye, with many horizontal frames and some verticals. I also used some exposure compensation to tone down some bright rim light from the backlight.
I created an exciting nature story image by standing put and making the best of a bad lighting situation. The moral of my story is that my friend did not see Booster scratching her chin with her talon because by the time she got to the other side of the bridge. Booster had stopped this activity; she missed this behavior. My patience and perseverance paid off.
Canon 5D camera body, with a 600 mm f4.0 IS lens and a 1.4x III teleconverter, at ISO 2500, 1/1600 sec at f5.6, Evaluative Metering, Aperture Priority, on a 1325G Gitzo trip using a Wimberley Tripod II
Using the above tripod, selected Canon’s CR3 raw file format, using Canon’s animal eye-tracking autofocusing. And with Case #2, the autofocus tracking sensitivity is set at zero, with Accel./Decel set to minus one.
I selected the 5 x 4 framing to eliminate extra space on the left side of the image and better balance the subject within the frame. I used digital dodging techniques to reduce the bright rim highlight areas on the head feathers and the talon’s bright edges. I used my standard Topaz DeNoise application set on the motion blur mode; applied one of Topaz sharpening modes on a different Photoshop layer, masking the background or the subject as appropriate.
Yellowstone Grizzly Encounter
It had been a long time since I was in Yellowstone National Park. My two previous visits were in the winter, November 1999, and February 2001—a long time ago. Therefore, I was excited to take a workshop or photo safari from wildlife photographer Brent Paull.
This would be my first fall visit to Yellowstone. We would also spend three days in Jackson Hole National Park. A National Park I had never visited before. Even though it was early October 2020, the Yellowstone landscape was parched. No measurable rainfall had fallen for quite a while, mirroring the rest of the Western United States. The park air was hazy and thick with smoke, coming from the fires burning in California and some other local fires.
We only had one grizzly bear encounter while in Yellowstone. We were driving back from the Beartooth pass, passing through Silver Gate and Cooke City at the Northeastern entrance to the park. We were coasting down the Soda Butte Valley heading to Lamar Valley when we saw a group of cars parked on the side of the road.
Our practice was to see what the congregation of cars was about. What wildlife were they seeing? As we arrived by the parked cars, we slowed down. A group of young ladies in a passenger car responded to our question of what wildlife are you seeing? One girl, in particular, standing through their sedan’s sunroof, said she saw wolves in the distance across the sagebrush toward Soda Butte Creek. Brent stopped our car and went out to look for himself with his binoculars. As he got his first look, the girl standing up in her car, exclaimed “bear”, and Brent agreed with her new species call.
The girls had foreign accents and long dark hair with dark eyes. Later, I began calling them the “Italian Girls”, because their accents sounded Italian, although they could have been from Portugal or Argentina, or any other Latin country in Europe, Central or South America.
Brent planned our course of action, as the bears, a sow with two cubs, were quartering closer, heading to where we were previously, so we reversed course and drove back to the last pull out behind us. This was so we could get photos of the bears walking towards us. The bears had just crossed the Soda Butte Creek coming from the other side of the valley, and their fur coats were wet from the river crossing.
I wish I had taken the time to change my camera body, from my old Canon 7D Mark II to the new Canon R5 body, that I had just received one day before I left on this trip. If I had, the quality of the raw captures would have been better, resulting in images of better technical quality.
Everything happened so fast, so quick. Brent got out of the car but told me and his other clients for safety to stay in and shoot through the windows, as the grizzly family was fast approaching our car.
It was hard shooting out of the window from the passenger side, moving around to get the best view was difficult because of the cramped conditions. As more vehicles stopped, the approaching grizzly bear family sensed the people and cars along the road. At one point, all the grizzly bears stopped and stood on their hind legs. I tried to concentrate on one, this cub with the more blond fur coloring around its face and head. Thus, I missed all three briefly standing up at once, as Brent mentioned later—a shot he captured.
It was mid-day when this encounter happened; it shows that even at 2:45 PM, you can see animals moving around and active. The more time you spend looking for wildlife; the more you increase your odds of seeing something. Here many would have been persuaded to head back to the hotel because of the warm mid-day temperatures and smoky skies, believing that no wildlife would be out and moving around during this time of day.
Even though this encounter was less than fifteen minutes, it will be a moment I will never forget. It will be forever engraved on the viewscreen of my mind. To see this grizzly bear family up close and to share a moment in their lives is something special, so incredible; it’s hard to describe and to put into words.
All the hours of patiently searching for wildlife and driving the roads of Yellowstone paid off in ways more numerous to quantify. I was blessed with this sighting and encounter, and these images will always bring back those moments I shared with this grizzly bear cub, its sibling, and its mother. It was a spiritual experience.
*More information about Brent Russell Paull’s Wildlife Safaris can be found on his website, by clicking on this link, Brent Paull Photography | American West Photo Safaris
1. FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF THE NEW CANON R5 CAMERA:
As an aside, I believe Canon has come up with a great mirrorless camera body. In the R5, the autofocus and eye-tracking feature, in particular, is outstanding. Even my old Canon lenses like the 100 -400 mm IS lens II and even my older original 600 mm f4.0 IS lens, first produced in 1999, have autofocus capabilities that are so much faster and accurate, than with my Canon 7D Mark II camera body. The files are noticeably sharper and clearer, with much detail, even in the new compressed raw file format. The extra 45 megapixels compared to the 21 megapixels of the older camera body, will make enlarging subjects by cropping so much easier and more successful.
2. OVERALL SHOOTING GOALS:
Goal: My goal was to capture images of grizzly bears exhibiting some kind of behavior.
Equipment/Source: Canon 7D Mark II Body, EF100—400 mm f4.5-5.6L IS II lens with a 1.4x teleconverter, at 189 mm, 1/2000 of second, f8, ISO 1600, Aperture priority, Evaluative Metering.
Technique: Hand holding lens and camera body while resting arms on the car’s window ledge.
Post Processing: Nik Dfine 2 noise reduction on the out of focused sagebrush, plus a mid-tone contrast adjustment, and cropped down from a horizontal format to make a vertical frame for the bear cub images. Selective darkening of lighter sagebrush areas. Lightening of the bear cub’s fur and some highlight reduction in camera raw. Nik Pre-sharpening on the bear cubs subjects. A little work on the bears’ eyes, with a paintbrush set to the Overlay blending mode, with very low settings of 8 opacity and 14 flow, using white to lighten and black to darken its pupil.
Milpitas Bald Eagles–Lessons Relearned
Bald Eagles and Ospreys are making a comeback around the San Francisco Bay. Recent environmental regulations, the 1960s movement to “Save The Bay”, and the ending of DDT and other pesticides have made an impact. They are now fish, particularly Striped Bass in the Bay, for these raptors to feed on. The parents also bring them ducks and other waterfowl, and ground squirrels that inhabit the canals around the south bay.
My goal was to capture a recently fledged Bald Eagle in flight. This juvenile eagle was born this year with another chick in a nest in a large redwood tree. This was the fourth year that the parents had nested in this redwood tree. The nest is in a grove of redwood trees in front of the Curtner Elementary School in Milpitas, CA. This location is on the southeastern side of San Francisco Bay.
There were 50 photographers around the July 4th weekend. However, it pays to get there early. I have been getting up at 4:30 AM to be at the location at 6:00 AM. Few photographers were this early.
This morning, the juvenile, named “CORONA” or its sister named “COVID” circled the nest and the group of redwood trees. The first pass was just before the rising sun hit high up on the top branches. These images lack life and the eagle subject was dark. During the second pass around the trees, the first rays of light hit this juvenile bald eagle. The light changed this fast, fast as it took time for another circle. I got the forward circular thrust of the wings, the call and cry of the juvenile, and just a touch of the first rays of sunlight!
Many of us have been going to this location for a few years. The comradery, the getting to know each other better, have filled in the boredom of waiting for the parents to come back with food for these juveniles. We wear our masks and practice social distancing. Sometimes it’s hard to hear each other through the masks. It’s something we all have gotten used to in the world of Covid-19.
We have a lot of feelings for these two sisters’ bald eagles: Covid and Corona. It seems they might make it on their own. I haven’t been there since Friday, because they are ranging farther afield and the photographic opportunities are less and less, as they move away from the safety of the nest. I might check in there tomorrow morning and see how they are doing. It was incredible to see them soar for the first time; they used the thermals to go high into the sky. These juvenile bald eagles just need to learn to hunt on their own, and they too like their parents can grace the skies of the south bay.
1) It was hard tracking the eagles, even though they are big birds. I relearned that I need to make sure my lens’ distance focusing range setting was set to the “distance” setting of 16 mm to infinity, for focusing farther away. Limiting the focusing range was key to locking focus on the flying eagles. This way my camera did not have to go through the whole focusing range of the lens and “hunt” for the subject.
If I am in a blind shooting birds at close distances, then I set my focusing range on my telephoto lens to the minimum range of 5.5 meters to 16.2 meters (For A Canon 600 mm f4.0 IS lens). I adjust the focusing range depending on the photographic situation and how far my subjects will be from me. For the eagles flying at distance, I set the lens focusing range to 16.2 meters to Infinity. My auto-focusing tracking was much better, and I was more able to stay focused on the eagles in flight.
2) I also change my focusing setting in my Canon 7D Mark II camera body, specifically the AF tracking and locking on the subject settings after purchasing Glen Bartley’s 7D Mark II guide. With these new settings, my focusing locks on better and gains focus quicker. Therefore, more quality keepers. These are the settings he recommends for the Canon 7D Mark II. Yet the principals apply to other Canon models and other manufacturers’ camera bodies.
a) Tracking Sensitivity: If the AF point is tracking one subject and see another, how will it respond to the new subject? It’s best to stay “locked on”, set tracking sensitivity to “-1” or “-2”.
b) Accelerating/Decelerating Tracking: Set to “0” for steadily moving subjects. Set to “1” or “2” for subjects that have more stop-start characteristics.
c) AF Point auto-switching: How fast does the camera switch from one point to another point as the subject moves around the frame? If using over one point like Zone AF or Expand AF, for Birds in Flight, it’s best to lock early on the subject and hold focus as the bird approaches, set to “0” or “1” if using Expand AF area with 4 points. For small birds with erratic flight, using Expand AF area with 9 points, use a setting of “2”. So, if the camera’s focus loses one point, the AF focusing can switch to another point easily. *
3) Getting up early and seeing this gorgeous early morning light jogged my memory and brought home the realization that low angled early morning and late evening light is sweet light. This light can make an image glow with beauty. Being a primary factor and the difference between a good image and a great one. As a night person, I am discovering the treasures of getting up early!
*AF Tracking Information in 2a, 2b, 2c came primarily from Glenn Barkley’s Canon 7DMark II camera guide. You can purchase here for $5.00 http://www.glennbartley.com/Canon7DmarkIISetupGuide.html
Wildebeest Calves — “One In And One Out”
This image is from my February 2019 trip to East Africa. We were staying at the Ndutu Safari Lodge, at the southern edge of the great Serengeti plains, and one morning heading south we saw a birth of a Blue Wildebeest calf. I didn’t catch the birth, but this is the moment after when the mother turned around and first greeted her newborn calf.
Later in the day, further south, at the Ubuntu pans, a pack of wild dogs (Painted Wolves) was hanging around the muddy water there. Unfortunately, they had a very young Wildebeest calf just walk right up to them, and the temptation was too great. They just literally torn the calf apart and we watched and photographed the whole violent seen. Good for the dogs, but not for that poor Wildebeest calf.
So that day, and afterward, we kept saying to ourselves, “one in and one out”. That’s how it goes sometimes for the Wildebeest calves.
Cranes And Their Mystic And Plaintive Calls
One of the most primal sounds in nature. Cranes calling out as they fly overhead. Their sounds strike something deep in your being and essence, resonating and stirring your soul. I went to Merced National Wildlife Refuge several times during the months of January and February. Every time I hear their plaintive call, I am struck by how their sound affects me. How much more I feel connected to them, to the earth, and to the web of life.
Crane species all over the world are critically endangered. Please let us take care of their wetland habitats, so we never lose their primal call, so their calls will still reverberate within our beings. If we don’t, we will have lost something special and diminish our connection to the natural world. I hope this image brings back to your memory their mystic and plaintive sounds.
Western Bluebirds And Feeling Blue
I had a very unsuccessful day, this past Monday, for I didn’t get any photographs of the Channel Island foxes. I spent 3 ½ hours walking up and down Santa Cruz Island carrying my camera equipment, over 18,000 steps on my Fitbit Blaze watch, that’s over 7 ½ miles. No photos, and only one sighting 10 minutes before the boat left! Therefore, I drove the long 4 hours back to my ranch, feeling very tired and mentally depress with extremely sore leg muscles.
The next day, stiff and sore, I spend time cleaning out my ponds from last winter’s debris. The cabin pond was clean now and filled up with fresh water. At the end of the afternoon, I decided what the heck, I’ll photograph. Postponing the many chores, I need to complete before I left the ranch and headed home.
At the end of the day, as the sun had set behind the mountains, sitting in my blind, the male and female Western Bluebirds came into the pond and bathed. It was as if they were thanking me with providing them with clean fresh water, and offering their bathing activities as a great opportunity to photograph them. They seem to know that I was feeling a little blue and down, having missed capturing images of the Channel Island foxes.
They brighten and uplifted my spirit, and left me very humbled. This image is one I captured of the male bluebird, expressing his joy by cleaning his bright blue feathers, spraying water everywhere. The Ramrod Ranch always delights me and continues to provide wondrous wildlife moments. I love the place because of moments like this!
Not Listening To The Voice Of Doubt
I was late… Sunday at the Post Office, there was even a line at the self-service postage machine as I tried to mail out my Costa Rica Hummingbird calendars to my nieces. This put me behind schedule and meant that there was not much light left in the day to get from the East Bay to Coyote Point. When I got there after 4:00 PM, I found that it was extremely low tide. I was initially disappointed because there was no water for ducks or shorebirds.
Knowing I only had about 45 minutes of beautiful light at best, I let go of my feelings of disappointment and just decide to see what nature had to offer. Out in the mudflats, there were two Snowy Egrets in the small ponds left by the receding tide. As I watched, I noticed that there were feeding, and in a fleeting moment, this Snowy Egret pulled a tube worm out of the mud from the bottom of one of these small ponds.
If I hadn’t set aside my preconceived thoughts of photographing ducks and shorebirds, I wouldn’t have been open to what nature had in store for me. I also could have taken one look and said to myself, nothing here, not much time left of extraordinary light, so I could have left and gone home.
If I did listen to all these voices of doubt, I would not have gotten this incredible image.
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Conquering My Fear Of Heights
Conquering My Fear Of Heights
I have always wanted to go see the Ancient Bristlecone Pines. Seeing other photographer’s images from there only heighten my desire to do so. Only one little item held me back; it’s the fear of heights. As a young boy, I would always close my eyes and pray, as my parents would drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. Mountain roads with steep drop-offs would especially terrify me.
One time in the middle of the night my two amigos and I, in separate cars, were heading for Mono Lake on the dreaded Tioga Pass road. I was behind them as we started down the steep backside toward Lee Vining. Soon they were out of sight as we headed down. I, on the other hand, was slowly hugging the inside part of the road, the part that normally automobiles use for going up the pass to Yosemite National Park. At 1:30 am, I didn’t think anyone would mind me using the wrong side of the road. Well, I let a big breath out, as I got down to the Mobil Gas Station parking lot near the bottom. As I got out of the car, my two friends mercilessly teased me about making them wait for me. “Where have you been”, they demanded!
I feared the road to the Ancient Bristlecone Forest would be just like the Tioga Pass road down to Highway 395. In my mind, I imagined it to be so. This always held me back. Finally, last week, with a little trepidation, I push these fears aside. Every time I would feel the urge to turnaround and go back, I would tell myself to relax and say to myself that it can be all that bad.
When I got to the Schulman Grove Visitor’s Center in midday. I bought a nice green sweatshirt with an ancient Bristlecone Pine emblazoned on the front as to always remind me I can indeed conquer my fear of heights and steep mountain roads with big drop-offs.
I climbed up the Discovery Trail looking for a particular pictorial Bristlecone Pine. As it happened, I found the one stitched on to my sweatshirt just like the park service employee at the visitor center said I would. However, I had a problem; it was four o’clock in the afternoon. I had over three hours to kill before the stars would come out and show themselves in the sky.
To idle the time away, I sat down and watched a few cars down below me, coming back and going to the other Bristlecone Pine Grove—the Patriarch Grove. I also spend some time examining the intriguing small little “purple” pine cones. Mostly, I would walk back and forth along a small stretch of the trail underneath this giant Bristlecone Pine. Other times, I would take some images of the late sunlight striking its hard-dense branches that reach for the sky.
Finally, it was a night, a few days before the full moon. I was a bit disappointed because there was so much light; I wouldn’t be able to capture a starry sky behind the Bristlecone Pine.
At home many days later, after reviewing my images, I am proud and happy. Proud that I conquered my fears, and happy with the image I created. I realized my dream; I “didn’t let my music die within me”. This beautiful image will always be a testament to my perseverance.
What do you think? Does this image stir your soul like it does mine?
The Dichotomy Between Lion Cubs And Cell Phone Photographers
It was our first full day in Serengeti National Park. We spend the morning cruising the tree line river beds, of the Central Serengeti, looking for Leopards in the riverbed trees. When our driver and guide received a message on the safari guide’s short-wave radio that a pride of lions had killed a Cape Buffalo just north of our area. It was about a forty-minute drive from our current location. And yes, the Serengeti is an enormous place, so this location was relatively close.
We decided to change our plans and head there. Soon we began to see other Land Rovers also heading that way. When we top the final rise, it was easy to spot the kill because there were at least twenty-five vehicles surrounding the feeding lions.
Then, the dance and jostling for vehicle position began. I was disturbed by how close some Land Rovers were to the lions. The vehicles formed a semi-circle around the lions. More and more vehicles kept coming in, as we finally found a clear space to view the lions feeding around the kill. It wasn’t easy, specifically; we found a small window to shoot through the sea of vehicles, and yet the kill was still a decent distance away.
For us with large telephoto lenses, it wasn’t necessary to be that close to the lions. Other safari vehicles with only cell phones viewers seemed overly aggressive pushing ever closer to the lions to get a better shot. In some cases, close as five feet away. I find this human behavior stressing to the lions and other wildlife of the Serengeti. No matter how important getting a close portrait image is to the photographer, nothing justifies getting this close and alternating their natural behavior and adding stress to their hard and difficult lives.
Maybe, I am being too hard on the paparazzi and human beings, by having some expectations that people have ethics and will take the right action, like putting wildlife first, before themselves. Let’s face it, I too am part of this dance. I am taking part too, and this sickens me. I want this changed, for it gives photographers a bad name and puts the negative spotlight on all of us.
I am digressing and giving some background information. This image of a lion cub above taking a momentary break from feeding was captured later in the day close to evening. After our late morning encounter with the feeding lions, we left, and late in the day, decided to go back. I am glad we did because in the middle of the day there were no lion cubs at the carcass. We also thought there would fewer vehicles there around the feeding lions. In reality, there were fewer, but still a lot of vehicles.
There were other members of the large pride now including at least three, four-month-old cubs, which were feeding on the buffalo carcass too. What was so amazing was that they were actually feeding inside of the abdominal cavity of the buffalo while adult lions’ mouths were feeding inches away from them. We could barely see them, and at times they were completely inside of the belly of the buffalo. It was a wonder that one of the adults didn’t bite down on the bodies of these cubs, as the adults moved their eating positions and their chewing mouths.
I captured this image as one of the cubs came out of the belly of the buffalo to take a momentary break from the feeding frenzy. This scene of the cub’s side by side with the feeding adults, disappearing into the abdominal cavity for their share is something I won’t forget. The determination of these little lion cubs and their audacity to get their share was something to behold.
The desire for life is strong and here it was so clearly visible with these cubs. A remarkable moment and a life lesson, which observed has the power to change and affect your own life. The dichotomy of how we behave, with the actions of the vehicles, ever crowding closer and closer for some hungry connection to these wild animals, to the purity of how they live their lives is very striking. And I am afraid, not a good or shining example of mankind’s behavior and not best actions towards the natural world.
It is my sincere hope that my lion cub image can put your heart in the right place, and all of us can do more to save this iconic species before it is too late and another species goes extinct at the hands of man.
There are other places in Africa that place limits on the number of vehicles around an animal. I know for a fact, Londolozi, in South Africa, has a three-limit vehicle rule. If a fourth vehicle wants to view the kill, this vehicle must wait until the first vehicle or one of the three leaves the scene, before it can approach the sighting. Maybe, three isn’t the appropriate or right number for the number of vehicles traversing the large Serengeti. Ten perhaps? Or maybe establishing a 75-foot rule, where no vehicle can come closer than this distance, is a better solution.
In Ndutu, there is a plaque on the lodge wall stating this 75-foot rule for Cheetahs. I believe this policy should apply to all large African mammals, especially for the big cats. There is room too for common sense, and judgment based on how the animal reacts and whether the animal is accustomed to vehicles. If the animal closely approaches you and the vehicle peacefully you need to stay put, be silent and let the mammal pass—panic doesn’t help either cause.
If the truth is told, while on safari and expecting to get portrait images of lion cubs, a telephoto lens is required, and you can’t rely on a cell phone for these types of images.