Untamed Images Blog

    Adventures in Nature Photography

    Browsing Posts in Birds

    A burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) perches in a tree to better survey the area surrounding its burrow.

    Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF500mm f/4L IS USM at 500 mm, 1/250 sec at f/5, ISO 400

    I don’t know precisely what it is, but I sure do have a soft spot for owls. This beautiful burrowing owl was photographed on a recent trip to Florida where I spent eight days in the field with my pal Judylynn Malloch. Judylynn was kind enough to take me to one of her favorite locations in Broward County where burrowing owls have nested in prior years. We spent a very productive afternoon photographing multiple owls, but as daylight began to run short, Judylynn suggested we concentrate on a burrow near a small tree with relatively sparse foliage. She predicted that as sunset approached we might see the owl fly up and perch in the tree.
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    An 'I'iwi pauses briefy while feeding on the nectar-rich blossom of the 'ohi'a lehua tree.

    Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF500mm f/4L IS USM +1.4x at 700 mm, 1/800 sec at f/5.6, ISO 800

    A critically endangered Palila feeds on seed pods of the Mamane tree.

    Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF500mm f/4L IS USM +2.0x at 1000 mm, 1/400 sec at f/11, ISO 800

    On several recent visits to Hawaii’s Big Island, Alison and I have made efforts to see as many of the endemic forest bird species as possible. With significant amounts of driving and hiking we have managed a fair degree of success. So, perhaps with an inflated sense of confidence, on a recent trip to the Big Island I brought my big lens and other assorted camera gear with the goal of capturing some of these tropical gems in photographs. While none of the target birds were particularly cooperative — most of the time either they remained hidden, stayed way up high in the trees, or moved constantly behind a tangle of vegetation — I was fortunate to create a few images that I consider “keepers.”
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    A male Pacific Golden-Plover (Pluvialis fulva) pauses briefly while hunting insects in Hawaii.

    Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF500mm f/4L IS USM at 500 mm, 1/640 sec at f/4, ISO 400

    Pacific Golden-Plovers are an abundant winter visitor to the Hawaiian Island. I photographed this male bird, still in its breeding plumage (note the black breast feathers), in the resort area of Mauna Lani on Hawaii’s Big Island. I felt rather silly lying on my belly on one of the manicured roadside lawns as countless tourists sped by looking at me quizzically, but having hauled my 500mm lens all the way to Hawaii I put my pride aside and went after this handsome plover. It took a few minutes for my subject to become accustomed to my presence, but once he did, he posed cooperatively between short sprints as he searched for tasty insects.

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    Common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) drake engages in courtship display.

    Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF500mm f/4L IS USM +1.4x at 700 mm, 1/2000 sec at f/8, ISO 400

    Yesterday I spent the morning at Shoreline Lake in Mountain View, California with the goal of photographing the Goldeneyes exhibiting their courtship display behaviors. While the level of courtship activity (other than feeding activity) was surprisingly low, I did manage to capture this image of a Common Goldeneye drake pulling off a head toss. Rather than trying to impress a female as one might expect, the pictured male duck struck this pose in response to another male’s encroachment into its feeding area. A male/female pair of Barrow’s Goldeneyes have been reported on the lake within the past week, but if they were still present yesterday they both escaped my notice.

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    A Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) raises its crest in a regal pose.

    Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF500mm f/4L IS USM +1.4x, 1/1250, f/8, ISO 400

    Around mid-morning on my second full day at the Laguna Seca Ranch in Linn, Texas, this Greater Roadrunner approached the water feature with its partner for a drink. After drinking its fill, the roadrunner stood at attention within point-blank range. I quickly added a 1.4X teleconverter to my 500mm lens and concentrated on getting a nice head shot of the bird. The roadrunner cooperated by showing off its profile while intermittently shifting slightly to angle its bill towards the camera. Only a few seconds had passed before it raised its crest as well, allowing me to take this handsome portrait.

    I captured this image from the Bulldog Pond blind. Like several of the blinds at LSR, this blind is recessed several feet below ground allowing the photographer to position his or her camera comfortably at ground level.

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    Two great horned owlets find new perches as they roam further from their nest tree.


    Over a span of nearly three weeks this spring, I regularly visited the Madrone Picnic Area in Stevens Creek County Park in Cupertino, CA to observe and photograph a family of Great Horned Owls. I felt incredibly privileged to spend time in the presence of these engrossing creatures. Even when conditions were poor for photography, the family of owls was fascinating to watch. On most visits, I was the only person there with the owls, and for the most part they went about their business while completely ignoring me. Sometimes I would be joined by birders or other photographers, and on several occasions I had the pleasure of pointing out the owls to picnickers or hikers passing by.

    As the weeks passed I was able to witness the three owlets wolfing down meals supplied by their parents, engaging in spirited tussles, testing their wings and taking short flights with awkward and sometimes violent landings. The adults and young owls also kept my attention with their wide range of vocalizations, including screechy begging calls by the owlets, the characteristic hoot-a-hoot, hoo-hoo call of the adults, and a strange guttural barking sound that one of the adults made repeatedly each evening shortly before leaving to hunt.

    I have posted a collection of my favorite images of this owl family on my main website. To navigate to the gallery click on the following link: Recent Images. In addition, I have posted several High-Definition video clips of these owls on my YouTube channel which you can find by clicking this link: Untamed Images YouTube Channel.

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    Two great horned owlets stand shoulder to shoulder within an oak grove in Stevens Creek County Park.

    Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF500mm f/4L IS USM +2.0x, 1/125, f/10, ISO 3200

    I captured this image on April 14th, 2011 on my second visit to visit a family of great horned owls in Stevens Creek Park. Upon arrival at the Madrone picnic area, I quickly located all three owlets and one of their parents. None of the owls was in a very favorable position for a photograph, being situated very high with multiple obstructing branches. A bit of patience paid off, however, as I was surprised to find out that the owlets moved from branch to branch frequently, rather than just snoozing the day away as I had been expecting.

    Even though the owlets had not been out of the nest much more than a week, they were surprisingly mobile as they climbed around their treetop perches using their massive talons to grip the oak branches, assisted by the occasional wing flap. Finally, two of the owlets settled very close to one another on an branch that afforded me a clear view. By now it was nearly seven in the evening, and in the densely forested oak grove the light was becoming quite dim, though because the sun had dipped below a hillside to the west, harsh shadows produced by direct sunlight were no longer an issue. With my Canon 1D Mark IV, I can confidently shoot at high ISO values (ISO 3200 in this case). The low noise signature of this camera combined with the powerful noise reduction algorithms in Adobe Lightroom 3 RAW file converter allow me to make gorgeous prints without sacrificing detail.

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    Two young great horned owls, having recently left the nest in Stevens Creek County Park in Cupertino, California, stare with rapt attention at their off-screen sibling.

    I shot this video April 14th, 2011, on my very first visit to see this family of great horned owls. As early as March 17th, I had read a post on the South Bay Birds mailing list describing the owls and their location. The initial posting said that the owls were still in the nest, but several weeks later a follow-up post announced that the owlets had left the nest. Figuring that if I wanted to see (and possibly photograph) these owls, I had better not waste time lest they disperse. Little did I know that these owls would remain in roughly the same area for nearly a month, all the while providing incredible viewing opportunities and some (occasionally) great photo opportunities.

    The owls were located in an oak grove adjacent to Stevens Creek Park’s Madrone picnic area and proved rather easy to find. While the lighting conditions left much to be desired, with harsh sunlight coming from behind the owls, it was a pleasure to watch the owls high in the treetops. Since the light wasn’t cooperating for still photography and each of the owls was at least partially obscured by branches and/or leaves, I instead decided to shoot some HD video of the owls’ behavior.

    This video clip shows two owlets staring intently at their third sibling, who is out of view, but whom you can hear calling if you listen closely. The owlets also demonstrate head-bobbing, a behavior performed by great horned and other owls to better estimate the distance to an object or animal.

    NOTE: Since this post contains the first video clip on this blog, I thought it would be worth mentioning that it is possible to view this video in high definition. (Unless you have a slow internet connection, I think it is worth it to view the HD version.) One way to watch the clip in HD is to click on the Full Screen button in the lower right-hand corner of the YouTube player window, then click on the Play button on the lower left to start playing the clip. As soon as the video begins playing, a button will appear at the bottom of the screen labeled 480p. Click this button and select 720p or 1080p to switch to the HD version of your choice. Depending on your download speed, you might need to give the video a bit of a head start before playing it all the way through to the end.

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    An American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana) pauses momentarily while feeding in a former salt pond in Alviso, California.


    Thanks to a message posted the Bay Area Bird Photographers (BABP) mailing list by Peter LaTourrette, I recently decided to check out the shorebird action in Alviso. (If you would like to join BABP, click here for membership information.) Peter’s message told of “breeding-plumaged Dunlin, Western and Least Sandpipers … swirling about and feeding in good light” in a former salt pond. I checked out the pond near Alviso Marina County Park over the weekend and, as I had hoped, there were good numbers of the promised shorebirds. The birds tended to be rather cautious, but I was able get a number of quality wading and flight shots to add to my portfolio.

    Unfortunately, upon returning to the salt pond yesterday at dawn, the numbers of Dunlin and Sandpipers had dropped significantly, and their caution had been transformed into fearful avoidance of my general vicinity. The only consolation for spending my morning sitting in the mud on the edge of the pond was the very cooperative American Avocet pictured above. As the avocet fed, it moved along the pond’s edge, passing right in front of me without a moment’s hesitation.

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    A male Lazuli Bunting (Passerina amoena) perching among mustard flowers.

    Over the past two weeks while hiking in Rancho San Antonio County Park I have been greeted by the spring song of the lazuli bunting. As they have done for many years, in mid- to late-April, male lazuli buntings appear near the water tank on the north side of the Coyote trail. This year has been no exception. I first photographed lazuli buntings in precisely the same location in April of 2003. On April 23rd, 2004, I photographed the singing male lazuli bunting shown in this photograph, again in the same spot. Last year, on April 24th, I captured the image featured in this post in beautiful light just as the sun began to rise.

    The same location has been reliable for house and Bewick’s wrens, song sparrows, violet-green swallows, western bluebirds, and occasionally ash-throated flycatchers. But for me, it’s the lazuli buntings that always steal the show.

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