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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January 17, 2018 Falcon Lake State Park, Texas

Female Cardinal and Prryhuloxia
Female Cardinal and Prryhuloxia

The Cold Catches Up with Me

Temperatures last night dropped into the mid twenties and daytime temps only climbed into the thirties, it even spit a tiny bit of snow for a few minutes. So I mostly stayed inside and worked on the computer and took a trip to Rio Grand City to have my monthly bloodwork done and pick up some birdseed at Tractor Supply.

Pyrrhuloxia Pair
Pyrrhuloxia Pair

I had no real desire to venture outside and do any bird photography, but I did feel sorry for the birds in this extreme cold ( for South Texas, not the rest of you suffering from REAL cold a little farther up north ), and so went out occasionally and filled two feeders. Looking out the window, I did observe a lot of activity around those two feeders, with much more concentrated action on my post feeder than I was getting in previous days when the birds had more choices of where to land and feed.

Red-winged Blackbird
Red-winged Blackbird

So, around three in the afternoon, I finally bundled up and grabbed the tripod and camera and set up to take advantage of the flurry of activity, hoping to be able to get some nice action shots.

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

Plenty of action, but unfortunately, because of the leaden gray skies, there was very limited light to shoot by and I was forced to use an extremely high ISO to be able to freeze any action at all resulting in very noisy images not suitable for enlargement or publication.

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

But the great interactions caught in this poor light might make for some good photo references for possible future paintings and I thought I might share them on the blog as well.

Green Jay and Red-winged Blackbird
Green Jay and Red-winged Blackbird

As I wasn’t outside fending off the blackbirds most of the day, they now felt entitled to come in even though I was out there. I absolutely despise these birds, that always arrive in huge numbers, because of all the food they consume and how they manage to drive off all the birds I am usually trying to shoot. But I will have to grudgingly admit that they did make a contribution to some of the better captures I managed today.

Female Northern Cardinals
Female Northern Cardinals

It is supposed to remain frigid tomorrow and then start to return to normal temps by the weekend, so there may be some decent, much sharper action shots  yet to be had.

Female Cardinal and Pyrrhuloxia
Female Cardinal and Pyrrhuloxia

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