Songs Gone Silent

Male Northern Cardinal
© 2013 Bruce Finocchio — Male Northern Cardinal

Songs Gone Silent

Each morning a bird call awakens me. Its song is familiar yet unknown. I have not been able to identify it yet, to come know what species makes its familiar call. It’s bothering me not to know. Nevertheless, it is very pleasing to hear each morning–like hearing an old friend’s voice again after a long absence.

Imagine the world without songbirds–without bird songs to wake you in the morning. The world would be diminished, and Rachel Carson’s vision of a “Silent Spring” would be realized. How sad would that day be, not to hear the thrilling sound of birdcalls? Have their calls only remembrances in our dreams!

© 2013 Bruce Finocchio --Immature Male Vermilion Flycatcher
© 2013 Bruce Finocchio –Immature Male Vermilion Flycatcher

Songbird populations across the world are in trouble. From the pesticides that worried Rachel Carson, “to the feral and domestic cats catching many birds in their claws, to those who die in collisions with skyscrapers, communication towers, wind turbines, and even glass windows and doors of suburban homes.”(1) Just the other day, I found a female Lesser Goldfinch outside of my glass back door lying dead on my backyard porch. It happens more than you realize.

Habitat fragmentation is a great concern as our world becomes more commercialized for our needs. Our exponential growing populations place greater demands upon the natural world. As more of wild nature succumbs to our human environments and less and less is left for wild creatures including songbirds. As we pave over, build our structures, and alter the world’s surroundings to meet our needs and wants. There simply are fewer and fewer places for songbirds to live and flourish.

Black-crested Titmouse On A Mesquite Branch
Black-crested Titmouse On A Mesquite Branch

Bird populations are falling fast; we have lost almost half the songbirds that filled the skies forty years ago, by some counts over a billion birds.(1)  Year by year more songbirds become endangered of going extinct. One of my large bird books has a picture of a passenger pigeon. An artist drawing of a beautiful bird of subtle pastel colors. Wow, I say to myself when I see this picture. I would have loved a chance to see one alive. However, it is extinct, and no long possible to see one fly in the sky, yet over a hundred and fifty years ago, millions blotted the skies of the eastern North America.

© 2010 Bruce Finocchio --Male Mountain Bluebird
© 2010 Bruce Finocchio –Male Mountain Bluebird

Ultimately, I think it comes down to a choice. Our generation and the next must decide to save and protect our natural world, preserving the diversity of life on our wonderful living planet.  Now we alone hold the future of life on earth in our hands. We must change our thoughts and actions from one of domination to one of coexistence.

Evolve enough to understand, I am because of you; I am because of other life forms. (2) Relearn that humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web; we do to ourselves. All living things are bound together. All living things are interconnected and dependent on each other for survival. (3)

Beautiful Male Cassin's Finch
Beautiful Male Cassin’s Finch

Otherwise, if we don’t relearn and absorb these lessons, take it to heart; it will be very bad and a very sad hour for mankind. No more melodic birds’ songs will grace the airways and bring music to our ears each every morning we awaken to greet a new day. Truly, their songs of life will go silent for the last time.

Nature has incredible restorative powers. Life has an indomitable spirit. If we make the right choice, then there is optimism. Hope for mankind and for a better future. Eventually, my singing songbird will come out of the dense tree foliage, and I’ll have my identification. I will have kept at it; the way mankind must persevere in the coming decades.

Bruce Finocchio is one of the WBB photographers who images are currently showing at the Art Ark Gallery in San Jose, California. Meet Bruce and the other WBB photographers at the June 3 reception from 5:00 to 9:00 PM, and hear their incredible stories of photographing wildlife all over the world, and how they take their work from “Beauty to Deeper Understanding”.

Register for the Reception: Register Here

 

(1) 1,000,000,000 Birds – Just Gone by Austin Baily, Daily Kos, 5/20/16

(2)Boyd Varty, Ubuntu, I am; because of you.

(3) Paraphrasing Chief Seattle’s famous words

 

 

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What Goes Into a Spectacular Wildlife Portrait?

What Goes into a Spectacular Wildlife Portrait?
(5 Essential Ingredients)

Gray Fox Portrait
Gray Fox Portrait

Subject:

A portrait without a great subject just doesn’t work; there is nothing to catch and hold the eye, nothing to draw and elicit emotions from the viewer.  Some would think a green lynx spider is a great subject, it can be, for spiders and insects strike a chord in some. Yet, sea otters who have a human baby like face, and other attractive animals especially cats and members of the dog family, are more popular subjects and really strike the emotional heart of humans. Young mammals have that “cute” factor that always touches people and produce that “ah” and “wow” response.  Many nature photographers capitalize on this reaction and develop much of their efforts in photographing the young of many mammal species.  Yet, I still believe that any wildlife subject photographed extremely well can be a great portrait.

Background:

How clean is the image? Are there distractions? Where does the eye go to? Whatever the subject is it cannot stand out or sing, unless the background is clear and clean. Ultimately, a complex and busy background will draw the viewer’s attention away from the subject itself. The background’s color, line, and content need to compliment the subject and add to the overall impact of the image, not detract from the subject. Sometimes the background is just as important as the subject.

Light:

Another significant factor is light. Light is the key to any successful image. A great image must have great light. For inherently, photography is essentially capturing light. Many types of light can be used in portrait making. Side lighting can be effective, and with human subjects, the use of flash gives the photographer lots of control over the overall quality of light. The classic Rembrandt technique with its two to one ratio give classic human portraits. Window lightening is also a very simple yet effective light source in the hands of a competent photographer. For outdoor wildlife portraits, my favorite light is diffused light: soft and not harsh, and rendering colors to their most vibrant essence. Not the thick gray clouds of rain, nor the dreary gray of fogging days, but just the thin clouds just obscuring the sun’s direct and bright light–a big giant softbox obscuring the sun.       

Life:

Another factor is the spirit of life. That twinkle in the eyes that reflect back the spirit and personality of the animal. Black and dull eyes mean lifeless eyes. Without good illumination, you have a stuffed animal look that doesn’t capture the mystery and wonder of life.  Eyes must be sharp in focus. As they say, eyes are windows to the soul!

Composition:

The final element is composition. Like a great painter, you must draw the observer in. Create a three dimension space from a two dimension medium. Diagonal lines are more powerful and less static than horizontal or vertical lines. Use s-curves, color, form, and texture to keep your viewer engaged. Study great art! The composition principals are the same in both mediums. Keep the composition simple, for simplicity clarifies the structure and purposes the image-maker intend. Whereas complexity visually clutters the eye and leaves a general disinterest and disappointment with the viewer. Great composition means a powerful impact that engages on an emotional and spiritual level. Hauntingly drawing the viewer back time and time again, to see with fresh eye once more.    

In summary, you need an interesting subject that sparkles with life and engages the viewer with its own unique personality.  Where all the elements contribute and enhance the subject. Keeping the background simple and clean lets the subject captivate the viewer and tugs at the strings of the heart. Photography is an evocative art. The making of a great portrait image is accomplished with distinct and interesting illumination and with a creative composition that ties in all the elements together.

Adding a little behavior could also enhance the overall impact, educating the viewer, providing a glimpse or window into the lives of these animals. Here for my example, a fox with a prey animal in its mouth. Yet other than serendipity, this requires lots of time in the field, much studying their behavior and patience and more patience. However, the reward could be outstanding, a portrait with behavior.   

Applying these ingredients over time, with practice and dedication, you will develop a style, and furthermore, your vision and unique way of seeing the world will come through in your images, in your body of work, and that’s the making of great art! 

Here is a particular wildlife portrait I really love. It’s one of my gray fox images taken at my beloved ramrod ranch from a photo blind. It’s just incredible to watch a wild gray fox come into drink not ten feet away from you. It’s a humbling and spiritual experience. I just love the diffused fall colors in the background. Especially, the diagonal flow of the top part and the subtle warm circular colors in the bottom left. Love also the expression of life in this young gray fox’s face. It’s so alive and alert… One of my best wildlife portraits!!!

This image was taken at the Ramrod Ranch where I offer bird blind photography each spring and fall. Not only do birds come to water, but so does many other animals like this beautiful gray fox.

For more information click the link below:
https://dreamcatcherimages.net/bird-blind-workshops-at-the-ramrod-ranch/

Essential Tips for Bird Blind Photography

Essential Tips for Bird Blind Photography
(Blinds, Ponds, & Perches)

Bird photography starts with some kind of concealment because most birds do not tolerate close presence of people. To take bird images of exceptional quality that sing with their beauty, you must get close. With small birds that means within ten to fifteen feet, even with large lenses and the digital multiplication factor of some modern digital camera sensors.

A popular blind that offers the advantage of portability is the Rue Ultimate Blind, these blinds offer set-up times within minutes and they can be easily moved to different locations. However, I prefer the hunting blinds from Ameristep; these offer the portability of the Rue blinds but offer greater visibility with their window versus snout style. Their mesh window coverings in various degrees can be Velcro attached to conceal the photographer. Also, the bottom is free of the spring steel rods that are sometimes bothersome with the Rue style. The Ameristep blinds also fold up like reflectors and diffusers and fit it a small back pack for easy carrying. Pocket or cloth blinds are another type that can be used, although I found that these types are also difficult with vision, compared to the Ameristep hunting blinds.

All these blinds can be moved from one location to another, from one feeding station or pond to others. Permanent blinds, of the wood type, do allow even shy bird species to become completely accustom to the blind. The portable blinds mentioned above if move or placed at different locations for short periods of time don’t always allow very sensitive species time to completely accept the presence of the blind. Each bird species has its sensitivity. Some species are very shy while others easily tolerate the presence of a blind.

If you provide feed and water, birds will come. Many types of feeders are available, and hummingbird feeders are also very popular. The main point is to be consistent, and keep feeding them once you start. You can set up feeders for bird photography in your backyard, simply hanging them on a favorite tree. An extra step would be to create some kind of pond for them. Something as simple as a drip system will attract birds. Birds like to bathe and keep their feathers clean. A fresh water pond would provide opportunities to take bathing and drinking images from a well placed blind.

Rural Ranches or properties in the suburbs offer more possibilities for attracting additional species to a pond and feeding station. With the extra acres and/or close proximity to parks or natural wilderness, many backyards and ranches offer the ideal habitats to bring birds within range of your camera. Many ranches and properties across the nation are now creating such locations for photo blinds and bird photography, and offer the possibility of photographing many different species of birds. The southwest and Texas where water is precious, many permanent blinds are set up around ponds or water tanks, especially designed for bird photographers. These places charge fees, and also sometimes offer different photographic seasons, where nesting, young birds, migrates, and adults in breeding plumage can be photographed usually during the spring or fall season.

If you are creating your own little bird habitat for photography, one benefit to consider is to create and use your own perch sticks. Birds coming into feeding stations need a place to land. A place to land free of the feeder itself, so you can create natural images of birds. Although, bird images on feeders are good to round out a story, and for products that cater to the bird feeding industry. With your own perch sticks you can put the bird in the right place photographically–using many types of perch sticks for many types of looks. Also, by using perch sticks from the natural areas surrounding your location, you can create realistic and natural images. You would not want to use evergreens from the Pacific Northwest for perches around a Texas hill country blind and watering station. Perch sticks with lichen offer pictorial elements to a scene or image. Green, yellow, or orange lichen, can create a perch image that is pictorially a notch above an image made with boring or ugly branch. Select your perch sticks with care, finding natural ones that enhance your images. In this way you’re actually designing your image, creating an image that sings with beauty and can be published by a magazine.

By knowing birds and their habitats, you can fit the perch sticks to the species. And even go as far as planting natural plants and trees specific to your area for your own backyard bird photographic habitat. Another advantage of perch sticks is that you can place them wherever you want around the feeder or pond. Tying or taping them to existing tree limbs works well. Hanging them over ponds as stopping areas before the birds land next to the water works well too. Placing them close to the feeder and having them different distances from the feeder will create many different landing and photographing points as the birds come in for food. A third advantage to perch sticks is they can be set up around cavity nesting bird nests. Images of parents returning to the nest with moths, butterflies, and other insects can be captured. Special care must be used in these situations as not to cause the parents to abandon the nest. As with all nature photography, the animal or bird’s welfare must be consider first, and no harm or detrimental behavior changes should be caused by any actions of the photographer.

You also must keep in mind the lighting situation of these perches. Bird photography usually relies on front lighting to identify birds and show off their beautiful feathers and plumage. Fill flash is also a great way to add a touch of light to make our feathered friends stand out and sing with beauty—adding the light particularly to the eyes to show the light of life. It fact, for all these reasons, fill flash is an essential tool for bird blind photography, a tool that I use all the time. By using a flash extender that attaches to the end of my flash head I get that extra extended reach from my flash. In addition, using an external battery pack helps recycle flashes quickly, and extends flash battery life. This means more successful fill flash images, for birds are always moving, and are rarely stationary for long periods. Another area to pay strict attention to is the background when placing perch sticks. Perch sticks placed in dense foliage will create a busy background and a busy unexciting image. Backgrounds are just as important as the subject, clean diffused, simple natural backgrounds are best. A scarlet red house in the background, even diffused, is not the type of background color for your natural looking bird images. Dark greens and browns are colors that work best—the colors of nature. Light colored backgrounds draw the viewer away from your subject bird, and make it difficult to see birds with dark plumages.

With a portable blind and a rain tarp you can photograph in any weather, getting those dramatic winter images that you see in bird magazines. Take advantage inclement weather, and of the beautiful diffused light of cloudy days that we loved from our film shooting days. With some planning, preparation, and a little hard work over time you can create your own little bird oasis right in your backyard. Feeders and ponds will bring birds to you, and perches properly placed will give you the opportunity to make great lasting images of our avian friends.

Everlasting Moments in Nature

Sometimes when you least expect it, something appears out of nowhere and brightens your life, and leaves you with an incredible moment that will stay with you forever. This is the world of nature, and nature photography, special moments, indelible, forever imprinted within your mind as treasured memories. This morning one of these moments happened to me.

California quail were all around me, cackling and chuckling, in the brush around the pond. From both sides of the little breeze way that separates the brush from directly behind the pond and the sea of brush that leads up the slopes of the hills, I could hear them and occasionally see them as they scurried across the breeze way to the shelter of the thick brush.

I was in my photo blind with my 600 mm lens and digital camera body ready and waiting for them to get up enough courage to come into water at the little pond eight feet in front of my lens. In the early days of July, the mature parents had lots of young ones with them, still with the juvenile markings: a dash of brown and white striped patterns with just a touch of a top notching.

All of a sudden the cackling and chuckling increased in volume, more intense, more urgent, and seemingly coming from all around me, as I sat in my blind waiting. In the back of my mind, I knew something was different about the increased level of noise. Yet, I didn’t react or increase my level of awareness; I just contentedly and patiently waited for the quail to get over their fright and nerves, waiting for them to come on out of the brush and into camera range and view.

Then, it was there, right in front of me: a beautiful gray fox. Yes, not eight feet away, a gray fox. I can’t begin to describe what a beautiful animal it was. This was why the quail were making so much noise. After a moment’s hesitation, it went to the pond and started drinking. It happened so fast, one moment nothing was there, and the next moment it was there before my eyes. The photographer in me started to kick in gear, should I reach back in the blind and grasp my other camera body with my 100 to 400 zoom lens. I did not want to take my eyes off this splendid animal. So when it bent down for a drink, I just started shooting with my 600mm, subconsciously knowing that my f-stop might be too high, and my resulting shutter speed too slow. And what was I doing on ISO 500?

But nothing mattered for the moment as I focused on the gray fox’s head lapping up the precious life giving water. It looked up at me, my flash was going, and would it scare it off? God, I was so close, too bloody close, I couldn’t even keep the ears in the frame as it look at me. Then, in a moment it was off, heading back into the brush. One last look back at me, I switched to vertical, and composed a couple more images, praying that I was in focus. Then, the moment that would last me a lifetime was over, the beautiful gray fox slipped back into the sea of brush where it came from, twenty or thirty heart pounding adrenaline seconds it was over.

Did I compose the images correctly, was I focused on the eyes, did I get enough depth of field, at that moment.  All these thoughts were secondary, for I just witnessed a beautiful animal at home in its environment. For a brief time it shared its life with me, we were connected, and somehow forever joined. I will carry those eyes as it looked back at me and its life spirit with me always in my mind as an everlasting memory.

Upon later reflection, as a friend reminded me, the gray fox too had courage and understanding, courage to come forth out in the open knowing that I was there, and trusting and understanding that I meant no harm.