Monday, November 28, 2011

Autumn Staples

Visit any Phoenix pond between October and May, and you're likely to see 3 kinds of waterfowl. Mallards are year-round residents and are always well-represented. American Coots are also found throughout the year, but their numbers swell quite noticeably in the fall and winter months. In my experiences, the third most common waterfowl, and certainly the most numerous migrant, is the Ring-Necked Duck. I seldom take Mallard pictures anymore, but the Coots and Ring-Necks provide some difficult photographic challenges, and I always find them to be interesting subjects.

With the stark contrast between the dark head and yellow eye, and also between the black and white on the bill, the Ring-Necked Duck provides a significant challenge in getting the proper exposure. Too much light and you lose the detail in the eye and in the white stripes. Too little light and you lose the detail on the head, neck, and tip of the bill. With the proper angles, lighting, and exposure compensation, you can capture all of the facial contrasts, as well as the subtle purple iridescence of the head, and reveal what a visually complicated bird the Ring-Necked Duck really is.

Waterfowl often provide excellent photographic opportunities for a number of reasons. They tend to be larger, slow moving (except in flight), and not especially skittish. The physical aspects of their surroundings also provide for a fun photographic environment. Capturing the bird's reflection always adds another dimension to the image, and it's also pretty cool to capture the water coming off the bird, or congealing on its back.

This angle here afforded me a rare opportunity to actually see part of that infamous neck ring. I've often thought that Ring-Billed Duck would be the more appropriate label, and maybe someday I'll get enough signatures for a congressional overturn of the official name. When visible, the ring is a nice sort of cherry wood brown, providing a slight interim color between the black breast and dark purple on the head.

If you take enough pictures of a bird, eventually it'll have to blink! Generally they're much better about not blinking in pictures (especially compared to people!), and in fact it's pretty cool when you can catch them in the act. Like many waterbirds, the Ring-Necked Duck has a transparent eyelid. I assume this lets them see underwater, to an extent, without overly exposing their eyes to the murk.

By happy coincidence, this nearby Coot was in a blinking mood as well. I like how the closed eye, along with the leaning posture and bill slightly ajar, make this Coot look like its swimming in ecstasy.

Coot beaks present a similar problem to the Ring-Necked Ducks'. They're an alabaster white, with a bit of black. The Coot's slate-black body demands plenty of light to catch the details, but then, as you can see here, the beak often gets whitewashed.

It's a piercing red eye. When combined with the red shield on the forehead, it gives these birds a somewhat dinosauric look. In my opinion, their 'chirbb' call is also somewhat reptilian, as are their feet. Despite these interesting features, Coots are pretty mild birds. It's always fun and calming to observe them dinking around the city ponds.

They're not exotic, but these reliable pond squatters are always around to provide an easy and entertaining birding outlet for the urban birder.