Milpitas Bald Eagles–Lessons Relearned


Storyline:

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.


Lessons Relearned:

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

Purposeful Persistence

California Gull Shakes Feather Off While Bathing

My PSA Nature Study Group Image for August

Title: California Gull Shakes Feather Off While Bathing.

Goal: I belong to three Bay Area birding lists or groups, East and South Bay, as well as Peninsula Birder’s Group. I receive email postings by members as to rare and unusual sightings. Birders also just publish their adventures and sightings to share with other birders. Its focus is birding, but many bird photographers use these postings to find and photograph rare and uncommon species. I am no exception! However, there is a big difference between birders and bird photographers. One obvious difference is that birders take pictures mostly for identification, whereas bird photographers are trying to create art. Another one is photographers need to get close, very close to make compelling beautiful imagery. I could go on with the differences, as I have in a previous blog post.

The point is that I was following a lead to find and photograph phalaropes in Sunnyvale, in the South Bay. When I saw the poor digiscope camera image from a birder; I knew that I was chasing a “wild goose”. Yet, because of his effort to tell me where the phalaropes where, I went anyway. I tried hard by putting my big 600 mm lens and tripod on my Rolle cart and got about a mile out, but the phalaropes were way out there another couple of miles. Too much for me to physical at this stage in my life. I decided to head north on the west side of the bay instead. I ended up at Atascadero in Palo Alto, here not that far from my car I found a shallow pond that must have been fed by some underground water source. It was July, not April and most or practically all non-tidal water had disappeared. I noticed a large collection of gulls in this pond, and I notice the center area seemed to be a little deeper and flowing or upwelling with water. The gulls were taking advantage of this relatively fresh upwelling and flowing water by bathing.

Even though it was still hard to get close to them because the water surrounded by a dry pan and the levy I was on was still farther away than I liked. Nevertheless, I had the reach with my 600 mm lens and a 1.4x tele converter and a cropped sensor with my 7D Mark II camera body.

The light was working for me; the sun was setting in the west behind me. Perfect conditions for creating painterly nature images. I kept waiting for them to bath and then jump up in the air which is their typical behavior, not all the time, but most of the time. I also took a few flying in and out images as well. Trying to take advantage of the beautiful photography conditions in any way I could.

You are waiting for the moral of the story or the point. Well, I could have given up twice: once by not going at all, second throwing in the towel after my researched location was a bust, but I didn’t give up and persisted in my efforts. As a result, I think I was richly rewarded. Nature is full of surprises, and it never disappoints if you’re opened to its secrets and its mystery!

Equipment/Source: 600 mm IS f4.0 lens, 1.4x tele converter, 7D Mark II camera body, on a Gitzo 3025 tripod. Shot Information: 1/6400 sec; f7.1 aperture; ISO 1000, Aperture Priority Shooting Mode, and Evaluative Metering, No Flash.

Technique: The light was so good I didn’t do much to the raw capture file. Some slight cropping targeted noise reduction and sharpening. Also, I did a mid-tone contrast enhancement technique using the RGB channels layer.

There is one point or criticism of the image that I know of, but it couldn’t be helped. I am interested in seeing if anyone mentions it.

My Response To My Fellow Study Group Participants Critiques:

California Gull Shakes Feather Off While Bathing

Bob Brown correctly pointed out the flaw or possible flaw depending on your viewpoint. I took the photo from a top of a levee. I was higher and above the gull and the bathing area. Ideally, I would have like to be at eye level, for the possibility of a more dramatic image. Looking down on a subject is condescending and implies an inferior place or position. However, since I was so far away, my angle of view above eye level was minimized with my 600 mm and 1.4x teleconverter. David is right there is a slight very slight tilt of the horizon to the left.  Also, if I tried to get lower, picking my way through the tule reeds covering the bank, I would have disturbed the birds, causing them to disperse and possibly abandon the bathing site. In this situation, the view angle above couldn’t have been helped.

Yes, I would like a little more room on the bottom too. However, I purposely left more space above as the gulls would jump up a lot of the time after bathing. I didn’t want to miss or crop out parts of the bird, especially its wings. If you don’t pre-plan for the jumping out of the water, you are going to have a lot of images where the wings will be clipped. I don’t have a 50 MB camera body. Thus, no option to crop post capture by using a smaller sized lens or less magnification.

The water disturbance made for a poor reflection, more important to me was to contain the image of the gull in the frame.

As far as cropping, I did want to include the concentric rings of the water at the legs and the jumping off point. Cropping this out, I think would take something out that is contributing to the nature story. It’s a third or four element that adds to the story and the composition, not subtracts. I am pretty tight as is, as Steven says.

I hope this helps in the understanding of the choices I made here and gives you a feel for what is necessary to think about when you are faced with a wildlife moment.

* I changed the names to protect the privacy of my fellow nature study guide participants.