April 27, 2018 Cheyenne Bottoms, Kansas

Cormorant with Bullhead
Down the Hatch

A Trip to Quivira NWR

With some very nice weather the last few days I have had to postpone my editing of images from my Prairie Chicken adventure in favor of getting out and exploring this part of Kansas. Quiver NWR is located forty plus miles to the south of where I am presently camped at Cheyenne Bottoms, so I took advantage of the nice weather and made two trips down there this week.

Horned Grebe
Horned Grebe

Quivira has a series of salt water ponds and marshes as well as extensive grasslands and is a major stopover point for migratory birds along the Central Flyway.

Lesser Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Killdeer
Killdeer
Ring-necked Pheasant
Ring-necked Pheasant
Ring-necked Pheasant
Ring-necked Pheasant

The refuge burns off it’s grassland areas with controlled burns to keep invasive plants and brush down …

Ring-necked Pheasant Pair
Ring-necked Pheasant Pair

… as well as to promote vigorous new growth of native grasses.

Wilson's Phalarope
Wilson’s Phalarope

Wilson’s Phalaropes were a new bird for me …

Wilson's Phalarope
Wilson’s Phalarope
Wilson's Phalaropes
Wilson’s Phalaropes

… and I got a kick out of watching their feeding behavior.  They continually walk in rapid small circles stirring up small prey from the mud below with their feet. When you see a group of 20 or 30 birds doing this non-stop in close proximity with each other, it’s a rather interesting sight.

Wilson's Phalaropes Mating
Wilson’s Phalaropes Mating

Even when feeding as described above, they are never too occupied to take care of business during mating season.

American Avocet
American Avocet
American Avocets
American Avocets

Lots of American Avocets at Quivira.

White Pelican Takeoff
White Pelican Takeoff
White Pelican Takeoff
White Pelican Takeoff
White Pelicans
White Pelicans

I estimated about 250 White Pelicans gathered here, quite a distance from the auto road through the refuge.

White Pelicans
White Pelicans

But it was my good fortune to have them all take flight and head right towards me …

White Pelicans
White Pelicans
White Pelicans
White Pelicans
White Pelican
White Pelican

… eventually flying directly overhead.

Cheyenne Bottoms Campsite
Cheyenne Bottoms Campsite

Cheyenne Bottoms

I am staying at the free primitive camping area on the west side of Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve. There are five rough campsites along a gravel road that leads into the refuge. This is a rather rough camping area, level grass, actually dirt with some grassy areas, but there are picnic tables and a fire ring at each site. No water, electric, dump station, restrooms, or trash receptacles here.

I actually enjoyed my stay here since it was very quiet, there is no lighting of any sort, and only one or two other campers stayed her during my weeklong stay. Fortunately, it didn’t rain here during my stay since it looks like the place would get very muddy when it rains.

Maltese
I’ll Come when I’m Ready

Pearl is now four months old and seems to really enjoy this lifestyle. Still very independent and afraid of nothing … but the dark. When I take her out at night, she is all ears, staring warily at the tall grass and brush just across the road, and hurriedly does her business and races back to the motorhome door to be let back in. During daylight hours I have a job convincing her she needs to go back inside, since she delights in exploring and racing around, running loops around the motorhome.

Maltese
Kinda Windy here in Kansas

Still delights in tormenting poor old Sam, but Sam now does at least a couple of serious play sessions with her every day, careening around the limited confines of the motorhome, bouncing off walls and furniture, hopping up and down out of the dog bed and my recliner. They also now can be found sleeping in close physical proximity almost all the time.

Red-winged Blackbird
Red-winged Blackbird

Cheyenne Bottoms Birds

Since I am staying within the confines of the refuge, I do make a morning and an afternoon trip around the refuge roads every day.

Red-winged Blackbird
Red-winged Blackbird

Lots of Red-winged Blackbirds doing their thing hanging off the reeds and cattails along the roadsides, as well as a few Yellow-headed Blackbirds, of which I have not managed to get a good shot.

Cormorant with Bullhead
Cormorant with Bullhead

A bit of luck encountering this Cormorant just as it surfaced with a bullhead ( or some kind of small catfish ). The bird spent a good deal of time maneuvering the fish just so before gulping it down.

Cormorant with Bullhead
Down the Hatch

Luckily one of the series of shots I took happened to catch the fish being tossed up to ensure that it went down head first.

White Pelicans
White Pelicans

As at Quivira, lots of White Pelicans here also.

White Pelican
White Pelican

The weird, knobby growths on the bill have something to do with breeding season I believe.

American Avocet
American Avocet

All kinds of small wading birds here including Avocets, Plovers, Dowitchers, and more but it is difficult to get any decent shots because of their small size and the ability to get close enough here to get any good shots.

Also all kinds of ducks, lots of Northern Shovelers, Blue-winged Teal, and Ruddy Ducks, with a few Mallards, Pintails, and others found throughout the refuge, but I haven’t bothered concentrating on these since I already have an extensive library of duck shots from other refuges where the conditions for flight shots are much better than here.

Snowy Egrets
Snowy Egrets

Late one afternoon I came across a lot of Snowy Egret activity at the outflow of a culvert under one of the refuge roads. Water was being released from an area on one side of the road to a large pond on the other side of the road. The rapidly moving water, tumbling over some large pointed rocks was apparently stunning the small fish caught up in the rushing water, and the Snowies were taking advantage of this bonanza.

Unfortunately, the only vantage point from which to shoot this scene was looking directly into the sun, resulting in just impossible lighting conditions to catch the action. I snapped a few shots anyway and then just sat there watching the action as as many as a dozen of these Snowies bounced around the stream jockeying for position. I vowed to come back in the morning and hoped the water would still be flowing and the birds would still be there ( it was and they were and I did, and wait til you see those shots! ).

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January 30, 2018 Falcon Lake State Park, Texas

 

Red-winged Blackbird and Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird and Northern Cardinal

Three Weeks at Falcon Lake

Altamira Oriole
Altamira Oriole

It took two weeks to finally entice the Altamira Orioles to visit my campsite feeding setup, but I was never able to get them to drop down and let me get them feeding on the post, so this shot of one of the pair checking out the scene before dropping down to feed on one of the oranges I had impaled on a lower branch will have to do. When I was hosting at the Salineno Birding Site, these guys would eagerly feed on the peanut butter/lard/cornmeal mix ( as well as on oranges and nectar ), but not here this year for me.

Mockingbird and Brown-headed Cowbird
Mockingbird and Brown-headed Cowbird

This Brown-headed Cowbird ( a new arrival ) wandered in with the pesky Red-winged Blackbirds and was quickly discouraged from returning by the Northern Mockingbird.

Over three weeks, at my campsite, I was able to attract:

  •  House Sparrow
  •  Olive Sparrow
  •  Verdin
  • Bewick’s Wren
  • Black-crested Titmouse
  • Orange-crowned Warbler
  • Eurasian-collared Dove
  • Inca Dove
  • Roadrunner
  • Altamira Oriole
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Brown-headed Cowbird
  • Green Jay
  • Long-billed Thrasher
  • Curve-billed Thrasher
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Pyrrhuloxia
  • Great Kiskadee
  • Northern Bobwhites
  • Great-tailed Grackles

Not bad for a temporary feeding site!

Photo Setup
The Setup

And this is the final setup used to get my action shots of these colorful birds. The first few days here I set out multiple feeders, hung orange halves on the bushes, and spread cracked corn and sunflower seeds on the ground to let the birds know I was here and that there were easy pickings for them here at my campsite. Once they started coming in numbers I removed all the feeders but the feeder post to concentrate the action on just one spot. I did continue to put out smaller amounts of corn on the ground and left a couple of oranges up to attract the orioles.

The birds had no problem using only the post feeder and I had pretty consistent action any time I wanted to take shots from my covered picnic table patio. The post was located about 30 feet from where I was seated ( just the right distance for my Nikon 200-400mm lens ) and was just far enough away that my presence didn’t frighten the birds.

As I mentioned in a previous post the only way to capture these small birds in motion is by shooting at shutter speeds of 1/2000th of a second or faster. With limited light during most of my stay this meant shooting at an aperture of F4 almost all the time, meaning I only had a very narrow depth of field in which to catch the action. And that would be the reason for the two 2×2 posts you see on either side of my feeder post. I had to position the posts just a very small distance behind the feeder post in order to get the birds’ flight path down to the feeder within that very small area of my depth of field if I was to get them in focus. Autofocus simply does not work fast enough to capture this incredibly fast action so I was forced to manually focus of a specific spot, or area, that I assumed the birds would be in when I took the shot. These 2×2’s provided the birds with a convenient spot to perch while the feeder was occupied and more than 50% of the approaches to the feeder were from these two perches.

Now, why would someone dig a hole to place the feeder post in? Well, it turns out that the height of the feeder and the height of the two perching posts ended up being too close to the same height so that the birds were initially just hopping over to the feeder seldom needing to use their wings to to break their descent, thus yielding only shots with wings tucked to their sides. I didn’t have any other ( taller ) 2×2’s so I had to lower the height of my feeder post so that the birds would have to use their wings to slow their drop to the post, thus giving me the wings spread shots.

Roadrunner
Roadrunner

This guy came in regularly to see if he could grab anyone for dinner.

Roadrunner
Roadrunner

When I dug a spot for the post feeder, he had to check that out to try and figure out what that crazy photographer was doing to his hunting grounds. I never did see him grab anybody, though he did spend a considerable amount of time semi concealed, laying flat on his stomach just under the edge of the bushes around the feeder. Any time he was around, the action on the feeder was really slowed down, with only the Thrashers and the Green Jays daring to venture in.

I never had any aerial predators show up such as Sharp-shinned Hawks, but one morning all the birds present screamed out of the area as if one had come through and I did think I saw some movement in the bushes to my left, near the campground loop road. About a minute later, a Bobcat sauntered out of the bushes, only 20 feet away, and casually strolled across the road and through the occupied campsite across the road from me. It happened too quickly for me to get a shot since my camera was mounted on a fixed tripod, in manual focus, and aimed at the post feeder. Only would have been a Bobcat butt shot anyhow! Pretty surprising to see a Bobcat amongst all these people in broad daylight, but I guess he must be quite used to a human presence in his territory.

Great Kiskadee and Pyrrhuloxia
Great Kiskadee and Pyrrhuloxia

Over three weeks, I can’t even guess at the number of shots I must have taken … thousands for sure. But even with only a very small ( really tiny ) percentage of them being keepers, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of really nice shots I was able to come away with. Patience, practice, patience.

Great Kiskadee
Great Kiskadee

I never did get the Great Kiskadees to discover me until my final few days here. They are without doubt the most entertaining of the local birds, diving at the feeder post to grab, or, most often simply dislodging a chunk of food, whereupon they immediately circle back and pluck it out of midair or drop quickly to the ground to retrieve it. All the while screeching at every turn on the wing. Without question, they put on a very interesting aerial show.

Northern Bobwhite
Northern Bobwhite

A small flock of four pairs of Northern Bobwhites came in a few times a day to gobble up whatever was on the ground around the feeder post. I delight in listening to these very wary guys as that waddle around the feeding area clucking and peeping to each other. On my final day here this one female discovered where all that food on the ground was coming from when she hopped up on the feeder post and began gorging herself, with all the rest of her flock below gathered at the base of the post grabbing the seeds she was knocking out of the post as she fed.

Green Jay and Long-billed Thrasher
Green Jay and Long-billed Thrasher
Green Jay and Pyrrhuloxia
Green Jay and Pyrrhuloxia
Cardinal and Pyrrhuloxia
Cardinal and Pyrrhuloxia
Green Jays
Green Jays

As I mentioned in a previous post, all the different species here were very territorial when it came to sharing time on the post, providing me with all the great action shots as they defended their position on the post or were driven off by a more aggressive bird. The only exception to this were the wonderfully colored Green Jays, often finding a way to crowd as many as four of their group on the post at the same time. But as the shot above shows, there were exceptions among them from time to time as to that sharing rule.

Cardinal and Pyrrhuloxia
Cardinal and Pyrrhuloxia

All told, I would have to chalk up my three weeks here at Falcon Lake as  one of the more enjoyable, and successful, stays I have had in my now five years of doing this full-time thing. Now it’s on north up the coast of Texas to Port Aransas.

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January 26, 2018 Falcon Lake State Park, Texas

Pyrrhuloxia and Long-billed Trasher
Pyrrhuloxia and Long-billed Trasher

Sorry, Just More Birds

Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal
Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal

I had intended to only stay here at Falcon Lake for a week or so, but the iffy weather farther north where I am heading and the phenomenal good fortune I have had in attracting colorful birds to my campsite setup, have kept me here for three weeks now.

Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal
Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal

Shooting small birds in action is always a bit of a challenge, but with patience and practice, I have been able to get some pretty nice shots here and so I am hesitant to leave since I can’t duplicate this setup elsewhere. Several of these birds do not venture much farther north than right here and I have yet to find anyplace like this as far as the number of colorful birds go.

Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal
Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal
Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal
Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal
Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal
Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal
Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal
Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal

The main attraction to me has to be the Northern Cardinals interacting with the Pyrrhuloxias. I find the females of these two species to be as attractive as the more brightly colored males.

Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal
Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal
Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal
Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal

As you can probably sense from these photos, sharing a feeding spot is not something these birds tend to do. About the only birds that will willingly share the post feeder are the Green Jays. For everyone else, there is always a bit of a tussle to see who commands the perch alone.

Pyrrhuloxias
Pyrrhuloxias
Green Jay and Great Kiskadee
Green Jay and Great Kiskadee

Now into my third week here, I have finally had a pair of Great Kiskadees find my setup. These are the largest of the flycatchers and are very interesting to observe as they prefer taking their food on the wing rather than sitting down to dine.

Great Kiskadee and Pyrrhuloxia
Great Kiskadee and Pyrrhuloxia
Great Kiskadee and Pyrrhuloxia
Great Kiskadee and Pyrrhuloxia

While in flight, they will jab their beak into the peanut butter/lard/cornmeal slathered on the inside of the post, either getting a chunk or knocking it out onto the ground, where they instantly drop down to pick it up before someone else may notice it. All this action is accompanied by a shrill shriek with every change of direction.

Red-wing Blackbirds and Pyrrhuloxia
Red-wing Blackbirds and Pyrrhuloxia

At times the action is quite hot and heavy with several birds making a run at the coveted perch on top of the post. Near collisions occur regularly, but I have yet to ever see any two birds actually collide.

Pyrrhuloxia, Ladderback Woodpecker, and Curve-billed Trasher
Pyrrhuloxia, Ladderback Woodpecker, and Curve-billed Trasher
Long-billed Trasher and Red-winged Blackbird
Long-billed Trasher and Red-winged Blackbird

I find it interesting to observe the hierarchy as to who defers to who. The thrashers appear to be top dogs, not hesitating to knock anybody off the perch, followed closely by the Mockingbird, then the Green Jays. The Kiskadees will make a run at the Jays on occassion but remain perched in the bushes when the Thrashers or Mockingbirds are seated on the post.

The Cardinals and Pryyhuloxias challenge each other regularly, seemingly based on just the individual bird’s dominance or submissiveness. All the really little guys like the Orange-crowned Warblers, Black-crested Titmice, and The Bewick’s Wrens defer to everybody and just dart in only when the post is not occupied.

And then there are the #%&*# Red-winged Blackbirds that will challenge anybody when they charge the post in numbers, driving off the birds I am trying to photograph.

Green Jay and Mockingbird

Green Jay and Mockingbird

Long-billed Trasher and Mockingbird
Long-billed Trasher and Mockingbird
Pyrrhuloxia and Red-winged Blackbird
Pyrrhuloxia and Red-winged Blackbird

My success rate for these images is at best maybe one nice capture ( that I would bother to post ) out of maybe every 70 – 80 shots that I take. There really is no way that one can use autofocus on these little guys since the action is so fast so I have found that I have to manually focus on a point where I hope the action occurs and turn auto focus off. Thus it really is pretty much hit or miss. How the scene is setup determines how successful I might be ( more on that next post ).

Pyrrhuloxia and Long-billed Trasher
Pyrrhuloxia and Long-billed Trasher

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January 19, 2018 Falcon Lake State Park, Texas

Northern Cardinals with Prryhuloxia
Northern Cardinals with Prryhuloxia

A Little Rough Weather

Rainy Day Bird Watching
Rainy Day Bird Watching

Ran into a short stretch of cold, dreary weather the last few days that curtailed my birds in action photography. I managed to keep an eye on them through my window that just happens to be at eye level with the roof of the picnic table shelter at my campsite. After taking several days to draw in the birds, I didn’t want to quit feeding here even though I couldn’t do any photography due to the lack of light ( and the fact that it was a little uncomfortable with temps only in the 40’s ).

Prryhuloxia and Cardinal
Prryhuloxia and Cardinal

By late this afternoon, the rain stopped though the skies remained gray with no sunlight coming through the overcast skies. There was enough light to do some shooting and the abundance of birds in here today forced me outside to take some shots.

Prryhuloxia and Cardinal
Prryhuloxia and Cardinal

Actually the gray skies provide some of the best diffused light allowing the birds colors to really pop without having to worry about blown out highlights.

Prryhuloxia and Cardinal
Prryhuloxia and Cardinal

I always get a kick out of watching the many disputes these guys have over feeder rights.

Prryhuloxia and Cardinal
Prryhuloxia and Cardinal
Prryhuloxia and Cardinal
Prryhuloxia and Cardinal

I included this shot simply because I have a really hard time trying to figure out exactly what position the cardinal is in. Quite the contortionist!

Catbird and Mockingbird
Catbird and Mockingbird

The catbird was a new visitor today.

Green Jay and Mockingbird
Green Jay and Mockingbird
Green Jay and Red-wing Blackbird
Green Jay and Red-wing Blackbird
Green Jays and Prryhuloxia
Green Jays and Prryhuloxia
Catbird and Cardinal
Catbird and Cardinal
Male Prryhuloxias
Male Prryhuloxias
Northern Cardinals
Northern Cardinals
Northern Cardinals
Northern Cardinals

The many male Cardinals are always squabbling over who gets to occupy the feeding post, they do not share.

Northern Cardinals
Northern Cardinals
Northern Cardinal and Curve-billed Thrasher
Northern Cardinal and Curve-billed Thrasher

A couple of nice sunny days are in the forecast this week, so I will be trying yet more of this type of shot, hopefully with a lot more light so I can use a little lower ISO and maybe get a little more depth of field.

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