Thursday, August 8, 2013

Roadside Birding in Greer--Something is Not Right

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've got quite a bit of material coming from a recent two-day birding jaunt in the White Mountains. Most of the sightings and photos came from a day-long excursion, during which Tommy D and I explored many different birding hotspots in the White Mountains area, crossing between Apache and Gila County, over mountain streams, between meadows and forests and, somewhat less excitingly, over streets. It was overcast and rainy all day, but we still came away with lots of great stuff, both in terms of sightings and photographs. In the first category, here's one of several hundred elk we drove past in the predawn. I've never seen so many. There were literally hundreds in the first fifteen minutes.  

The pristine and lovely north shore of Crescent Lake gives one an idea of the White Mountain's allure.

Osprey were numerous around the mountain lakes. They were some of the first birds active in the morning, followed closely by a few Bald Eagles eager to steal their breakfast. My bird buddy Tommy was telling me he read a report that found Osprey have an 85% success rate when they fish. That absolutely astounds me--I've never heard of any species with such a successful hunting rate.
This fellow posed nicely in front of the multicolored Greer woodlands just after daybreak. 

Over the course of the day, I experienced a peculiar inversion of the normal natural ordering of bird photography. We drove through many different habitats, stopping at every opportunity to photograph any proximal birds along the way. As in southeastern Arizona and other concentrated birding hotspot sites, one usually has to park and hike to find the specialist species, but there's also cool stuff to see in the mean time and in-transit.
Usually, roadside/car birding/safari-style birding is one of the most reliable ways to attain nice photos. In general, birds tend to tolerate the approach of a vehicle more so than people, especially when they inhabit roadside meadows and the like, thus acclimating themselves to vehicular traffic. 
But for whatever reason, I started to have serious issues getting any crisp shots from the car. 

Sure, sometimes the birds were distant (and Meadowlarks are always a pain for me to shoot anyway) and the cloudy weather was an impediment, but we actually had excellent photographic success during our hikes. After rocking it at Mt. Baldy (post to come later) we drove by an entire family of American Kestrels. Two adults and successfully fledged at least two chicks, and all four birds were active in a little roadside aspen grove. This little bugger was just camping out and I took about 50 shots, none of which were better than the below photo.

I'm not looking for a pity party, saying it's the worst photo ever, or plaintively trying to get more attention. I know I'm spoiled for sunlight, living in Arizona, and am being whiny, but this Kestrel should have been NAILED. In fact, it was only thumb-tacked, at best. Some days, you get the bear, and some days...the bear eats you after you take a blurry picture of it. The usually reliable safari-birding threw me a curveball, as I took junk shot after junk shot.

A little roadside pull-off proved to be very birdy, with Western and Mountain Bluebirds popping up from the grass while Vesper and Savannah Sparrows imitated grasshoppers nearby. Again, distant-looking, hazy, unjust to the bird...yuck.
The Vesper Sparrow I'm actually somewhat pleased with, though mostly because my only other Vesper shots are more so no bueno.

Again, I took hundreds of photos, and it was one blurry trash bin shot after another, regardless of setting changes, breath-holding, or using flash grenades. After a couple minutes, all of the grassland songbirds hit the deck. A Swainson's Hawk (very nice find in the area), one of two in the vicinity, had brought his terrifying presence to the little pull-off. Gorgeous to look at? Absolutely. Successfully photographed? I would say not. This guy was like thirty feet away from the car. I curse my name, and you should too! You, dear reader, could've had beautiful Swainson's photos, and I let you down...

Again, it wasn't heartbreaking or anything--most of these birds I've photographed more successfully at other times (except for stupid Meadowlarks), it was just weird, because in retrospect we were totally killing it elsewhere. 
The safari-birding gods took the day off, or else Greer is outside their jurisdiction. So, what is the remedy when nice bird sightings won't translate to nice photos? Why, a nice, big, steady, cooperative landscape!

Nothing restores a photog's confidence more than a beautiful lake--in this case Lee Valley Lake, perhaps the highest lake in Arizona. It won't fidget, fly away, or in any way defy your desires. Come hell or high water, this lake will always be beautiful, and it'll patiently let you fill your memory card until you get something nice. On a fun side note, this 9,000 foot lake is also a favored little locale for breeding Spotted Sandpipers, of which we saw (but didn't photograph) a couple.

Now that my musings, moanings, and groanings have been heard, I can move on and share the other cool stuff from the a couple days. My wife and I are moving this weekend so there'll be a blogging hiatus for a bit. Here's one last poignant statement about how the roadside birding went in Greer (and again, the trip was great, just not the roadside photography). A Western Bluebird, forlorn and lacking in detail, getting soggy in the rain.