Project Chekov: Zenaida Macroura

With a slight tear in my eye I must declare we’ve made it to the end of Project Chekov.  It’s been an incredible ride but time to make the final post and declare victory.  It isn’t often that I’m able to close out a new resolution so early in the year, but as mentioned at the beginning of this project there was a sense of urgency.  This little project literally allowed me to jump about a year ahead in the posting queue which I would never had been able to do at the standard pace.  Admittedly there were a few jumps even further than that due to some unforeseen circumstances but worth it to keep my commitment to the project (I generally hate failing at something unless I’ve given it all I had).  There will probably be a summary post to put a bow on the project, so for now let’s get to the star of the post.

For those in the States, this should be a pretty common bird – the Zenaida Macroura.  You would think that such a common bird would have a more common name .. well it does.  Their non-scientific name is Mourning Dove and to my utter surprise, they are also called Turtle Doves!  That brings a completely new understanding of the 12 Days of Christmas song… okay, maybe not but now at least know what they are referring to.  By the way, from a composition and execution perspective, the shot above is one of my favorites.  Similar to the one below, but the foreground branch is a little more invasive there.  If you are curious, this one was “rainbathing” – Wikipedia claims they can keep this outstretched wing position for up to twenty minutes.

According to our friends over at Wikipedia, these birds are monogamous and form strong pair bonds.  In alignment with that, these birds are usually seen around the feeder in pairs and are often found sitting in a tree next to what I assume is their mate.  They are prolific breeders having up to 6 broods a year with an average of 2 eggs per brood.

Hit the jump to read more interesting facts and view a few more shots of the Mourning Dove!

Continue reading Project Chekov: Zenaida Macroura

Project Chekov: Yellow-Rumped Warbler and Yellow Finch

If you would been around LifeIntrigued headquarters today you would have seen one very panicked owner tearing his hair out.  Things were going so well and we could see the end in sight for Project Chekov.  Just a couple more posts and the featured birds were already worked up in the digital dark room and ready to go.   Just a little bit more work and pop that bottle of Moscato…. and then the wheels fell off.  I went to research some details on the Yellow Finch which was the targeted featured bird of the day.  A few clicks later and a dash for the reference books informed me that there really IS NOT a Yellow Finch.  They are really named American Goldfinches.  Since I’ve been a little kid I’ve always referred to them as Yellow Finches – WTF.  Hell, they certainly are not Golden – they are YELLOW.  Panic, sweating, shaking .. was this all for not!?!

Then it hit me, there may be a way out, but it was going to take some digging to find TWO shots out of the entire collection of Yellowstone National Park shots taken last May.  There was a chance encounter with a bird – a fleeting moment I was able to capture in the tin.  An hour or so later I was staring at this:

Every photographer has a few shots that he or she will look back on with a huge grin on their face.  This is one of those for me.  We were with our friends (Dr. Giselle and David) on a trail coming back from photographing a waterfall.  All of a sudden an intriguing bird flew in our direction and landed on a nearby branch.  Instincts took over, the Beast was pressed into action, settings manipulated in a flash of an eye and the shutter was pressed.  I had time to press the shutter one more time and that bird was gone baby gone.  If you haven’t worked with big glass before you probably do not understand what a miracle it was to get a single crisp shot under those conditions much less two.  Based on the coloring, I was pretty sure what it was at the time but made a mental note to get back and verify it as soon as possible – that mental Post-It-Note must have flown off on the way back to the car because I forgot about it until today.  The yellow word was a double reminder for “Yellowstone” and the “Yellow” bird that we found there.

A little bit of digging in the reference book brought a huge sigh of relief from me – sure enough it was Yellow-Rumped Warbler.  Now that was close – a 5 second encounter on a trail out in the Wilderness had saved nearly a month long project.  For the curious, this appears to be the Audubon variety based on the strong yellow marking on the neck and missing the white eyebrow.  It was located in their Summer/Migration spot so guessing it had just arrived being that it was May when we were there and still pretty cold in the area.  All I can say to that bird is thank you thank you thank you for a brief but project saving encounter.  Oh, and of course another check mark in the birding list (technically there was a poor shot while covering a previous Yellowstone shot but we’ll consider these better shots as the official sighting).

Hit the jump to read about the originally planned featured bird

Continue reading Project Chekov: Yellow-Rumped Warbler and Yellow Finch

Project Chekov: Xanthocephalus

This guy totally lucked out on Project Chekov.  When planning this project I was a little worried about two postings – specifically the 21st and the 24 (which happens to be this one).  There was nothing in the tin for a Sabine’s Gull or a Terek Sandpiper.  By the looks of their regions it doesn’t look like we’ll be getting either of those anytime soon.  But there was one option still left … one long shot that might just save me, but that would require me to go digging through the pictures taken during a side trip out to Yellowstone last May.  Ladies and gentlemen, we have success!

On our way out West, Linda found a birding preserve not too far off the path.  I’ll go into where that was when I finally get around to posting about that trip, but there was a number of memorable finds there that stuck out.  This particular bird was one of those – without further delay, please welcome Xanthocephalus Xanthocephalus to the blog.  One second while I add a new check mark to the birding list….

Cornell’s website states they are Migratory across Illinois, but I have never seen one here (for that matter anywhere until then) so not buying that – for the record, Wikipedia does not indicate it hangs out in Illinois either.  I would not forget a bird sporting this distinct of a color palette.  To save some typing let’s just call it by its non-scientific name, the Yellow-Headed Blackbird (Mr. Obvious bird namer strikes again).  It was pretty easy to tell from the behavior that this was a close relative of the Red-Winged Blackbird based on it’s aggressive behavior and nonstop squawking.  It just replaced the red wing highlights with a bright yellow hood – well, at least the males.  The females and juvis all sport the boring brown.

I went ahead and added this next picture to the set even though it was slightly soft.  It showed the white markings which is generally only visible when it is flying – it was windy that day and was doing its best to stay balanced on the cattail.

Big thanks to Linda for finding that location.  We were the ONLY ones there and had the entire acreage to ourselves – well, ourselves and a ton of birds both on land and water.  I could have spent the entire day there but eventually we had to get back on the road again – that and the mosquito repellant was running low.  Look for more shots to come from that shoot, but for now we’ll call this another successful entry in Project Chekov.

Project Chekov: Wren and Woodpecker

Greetings everyone, we are back on the highly underestimated Project Chekov.  Definitely having fun doing it, but it is a struggle to stay on top of.  Speaking of that, this little bird on top of a birdhouse has caused a little bit of a headache.

Back in June 2011 (told you I was behind) Linda and I went to one of our favorite local birding sites in Jubilee College State Park.  They have a pond there that tends to attract a wide variety of birds and dragonflies and animals and hell spawn MOSQUITOES – all good things come at a price I guess.  While we were there, this little bird decided to come out and pose for the cameras.  Want to know beside Sparrows what other birds I have difficulties with?  … you guessed it, this bird!

They are small and brown with some gray – yeah, normally I would call it a Sparrow and move along but these are smaller, have a more tapered/thinner tail and probably more distinguishable thin down turned bill.  This is the point where I throw up the Wren sign instead.

Hit the jump to see a few more shots of this Wren and the other featured bird for this post!

Continue reading Project Chekov: Wren and Woodpecker

Project Chekov: Vulture

Okay, we are kinda back on track with Project Chekov.  The last post took us a little out of our targeted  region.  The good news is we are back in North America.  On the disappointing front, I must have been drinking heavy in the digital darkroom one day based on the set of images that were planned for this post.  In the pre-upload check it became apparent that every single one of them was beyond acceptable crispiness – translated, very soft and fuzzy.  The entire set went into the trashcan!  Every once in awhile a benefit pops up from having such a large backlog of shoots – there’s plenty of other bird images to choose from.  Knowing we had taken a number  of shots of this bird while out in Texas, I popped back into the digital darkroom and worked up a few replacement images.

If you are from the Midwest at least, you might recognize these gruesome birds.  That is if you happen to spot them when they are not cruising circles high in the sky.  This hard to look at without grimacing bird is the Turkey Vulture.  The bird is not new to the blog having been featured in a Wisconsin post (link here) and an Indiana post (link here).  The posts from Wisconsin show the more common shots of them in the sky.  The odd thing is they look pretty normal from below and their wing markings from underneath look pretty cool with the white nicely contrasting with the darker wing fronts.  Now when they get on the ground it is a completely different story.  The one above is trying to dry the grease and gunk on the wings collected from playing in whatever dead carcass they happened to find that day.  Think this was mentioned in the previous post, but they even piss on their own legs to help kill the bacteria … yeah, imagine what it feels like to look at these creatures in the big glass.

If you can get past the wings, you still have the face to deal with.

From afar the detail is lost, but up close you can see they have a face only their mother could love.  It is not surprising they have very few predators eesh.  Here is something I didn’t know about the Turkey Vulture.  According to our friends over at Wikipedia – they do not have the common bird vocal organ (syrinx), meaning they can only make hisses and grunts.    It did indeed get its name from the face similarities to the Wild Turkey although it is sometimes referred to as a Buzzard (hmmmm is that due to all the flies that buzz around their food source – just may have to look that up).  Wanna guess how it defends itself..?.. if you said it regurgitates on their enemies you win a prize

Take special note of that beak – their feet are poorly adapted for ripping and tearing the flesh and organs out of carrion – they literally stick their heads into the rotting carcass and rip and tear it apart with that fierce looking bill.  Okay, this is making my stomach queasy so better end this post.  Don’t get me wrong, these birds serve a valuable purpose in the circle of life, but some things are better left in the dark!

Have a good one and catch you again real soon.

Project Chekov: Where are yoU

And today’s featured bird is none other than Urocissa Erthrorhyncha. This is actually a member of the Crow family and make their home in mountain forests.  They also have tail feathering that can grow upwards of 17 inches long.

The more common name for this intriguing bird is the Red-Billed Blue Magpie.  Apparently they like to feast on insects and fruit as well as small mammals like snakes, lizards, centipedes and snails.   They will also prey upon the eggs of other birds – bad Magpie, veeryyy bad Magpie.  I must say they are one of the more colorful birds featured on Project Chekov but that may be due to another key aspect..

They are not a North American Bird.  Sure, we have some Magpies like the Black-Billed ones (link here).  Unfortunately, that one couldn’t be used.  Thanks to a total lack of available birds species I’m forced to punt.  I didn’t want to leave you hanging so went with a preview of a future post from when I was shooting in Cambodia.  Wait, my mistake, I meant visiting the Saint Louis Zoo back in June of 2013.  Didn’t exactly execute on it, which is one of the reasons I’m throwing it out early.  Just surprised at this point I had a bird I could use!!!

Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Note, this makes 21 straight posts without a comment –  to quote Pink Floyd – “is there anybody out there?”

Project Chekov: Turkey, Thrasher and Titmouse

A Turkey, a Thrasher and a Titmouse walked into a bar.  The bar tender goes “Sorry, we don’t server T’s.  Okay, okay, not as funny as three men walk into a bar, the fourth one ducked, but I gave it my best shot.  Like the last post this one brings you not one, not two but Terree (in my best Monty Python imitation) birds.  Unfortunately, unlike last time it is short of images – a measly one per species, weak.

First up is the Wild Turkey. These birds definitely differ from their domesticated brethren in that they can flight.  Not very well, but they can go short distances and launch themselves into the trees if need to escape from danger.  Typically you will see them hanging out on the ground at the edges of tree lines looking for berries, insects and snails (per Cornell’s dietary information).  Cornell also mentions they have made a comeback of sorts and now can be found in every state but Alaska.  Likely easier to just go down to the local Walmart and grab one out of the freezer than stalk these quarky birds in the wild.  According to Wikipedia they actually got their name from the country Turkey (as a result of Britain bringing us the domesticated version) – did not know that.

I have found them to be very aloof and not wanting to be around humans at all.  Whenever we spot them they usually turn and head for the woods almost immediately.  The one above is a female that has been hanging out in the woods near a ravine not too far from the house.  While we were building our house we discovered a group of Wild Turkeys living there and did our best not to disturb them too much – one had actually laid about 8 to 10 eggs at the time.  Soon after they were hatched, the mother took them to another location – our builder mentioned the Tom’s will kill them if they find them.  Guessing it has been this female that has been hanging around here each year.  This year she was hauling around two offspring!  She brought them to the feeders twice but each time she saw me with the camera she gathered them up and high tailed into the woods.  Glad to see at least two of them made it to juvi status – maybe those will take up residence next year as well!  I was surprised to find that the Wild Turkey hasn’t made it to the Blog yet – chalk up another check mark.

Next up.. the Brown Thrasher.  Now this bird has made a showing on the blog.  The previous two showings were in my own backyard (link here and here).  This new sighting was at Banner Marsh in a Mulberry tree along the side of the road partway to the marsh.  While taking pictures of another bird, there was a rustling in the tree behind me.  Turning to investigate this Thrasher was staring right at me.

That began a 15 minute battle to try and get a clear shot of that damn bird.  Pretty sure it knew I wanted it in the tin so it purposely kept itself partially hidden.  jumping form branch to branch as it circled the tree away from me.  I’d stop it would stop on the other side of the tree – move left it went right, move right it went left and when I moved into the center of the tree it just went to the top.  Extremely frustrating.  Kind of feel bad for Linda having to hang out in the car watching me dance around this tree.  This is the ONLY shot worth showing from that battle.  All in all, not too bad if I say so myself.  Again, the journey was more than the destination.  Something about these birds make it seem like they are always pissed off (probably because humans keep disturbing them with their big glass).  Guessing it is the yellow eye, but not sure on that.

Hit the jump to see the final bird in the set

Continue reading Project Chekov: Turkey, Thrasher and Titmouse

Project Chekov: Sparrows, Swifts and Swallows

Today is one of those difficult days in the birding realm.  If you have spent any time with this blog you probably know by now that when it comes to Sparrows I generally throw in the towel.  There just isn’t enough differences discernible in the field to really come out confident on what you have in the tin.  There are also difficulties when it comes to the Swallows and Swifts so figured it was time to get them all out of the way.

Let’s start with the Sparrow.  Now, throughout this post please keep in mind that the identification can be freely debated and if you know specifics please share!  With that, this is a small brown and gray bird so we’ll tag it with Sparrow.

Admittedly, this on is a little darker hued that we see and it has some darker tones in the under feathering along the neck.  One cause may due to the fact that this shot (and the one below) were taken in a storm which may have deepened the colors from either the wetness or the clouds.

I do like the picture and why I tell everyone there is no reason to get down if their designated day to hit the field turns out dreary.  Sure, you’ll need to tap that ISO dial up a bit and probably even back off the shutter speed but you have one thing going for you.  The rain tends to slow down the birds and cause them to spend a little more time on their perches (under cover of leaves of course).  For the hyper birds this is a godsend when it comes to getting shots of them.  UPDATE: By the way, while doing  quick search for one of the pictures below I stumbled on the House Sparrow which does match the neck coloring – pretty darn close in my opinion so let’s go with that for now.

Here is another Sparrow likely taken in a similar setting.

If I had to take a guess, the reference books tend to point to a Chipping Sparrow with that rust cap and eye-line.  Small, brown, gray … it’s a Sparrow in my book – any finer classification is just icing on the cake.  Again, I do like how the composition came out on these two shots – the branches seem to push the viewer’s eyes right to the desired focus of attention – granted it is just Sparrow.

Hit the link to read more about this difficult to identify set of birds.

Continue reading Project Chekov: Sparrows, Swifts and Swallows

Project Chekov: Red-Winged Blackbird and Robin

Now you gotta give me props for my clever Blackbird and Robin title! Here we are with another entry in Project Chekov. I may have underestimated this little project but no good project comes easy. As you know by now, this post features two birds. Neither of these birds are technically new to the Blog and therefore sans check marks. However, it does give me a chance to significantly improve my offering of the following bird:

That there is the cleverly (okay, maybe not) Red-Winged Blackbird.  These shots definitely up the game from the distant branch cluttered shot from before (link here).  I bet that if you live anywhere in North America you have seen this particular bird and per Wikipedia one of the most abundant and studied birds in these parts.  With that stated, you would think there would be more interesting information readily available on them.   Pretty weak in that area across both Cornell’s bird site and Wikipedia.  There is one key behavioral aspect that they lightly touch upon, but in my opinion understate.

These birds are downright aggressive on intruders.  Get to close to their territory and they’ll start puffing themselves up, displaying their wings in an aggressive manner and get to squawking something horrible.  If that doesn’t get your attention they’ll commence dive bombings.

hit the jump to read a little more about this blackbird and the other featured bird of the post

Continue reading Project Chekov: Red-Winged Blackbird and Robin

Project Chekov: Quiscalus

Quiscalus, oh where art thou Quiscula?  I’ll tell you where it is.. sitting right there on that der braunch staring at the wild blue yonder.

Okay, okay, to be honest, we are technically looking at a Quiscalus Quiscalu… and why are we looking at a Quiscalus Quiscalu?  Well, for a couple of reasons.  First off all, my Quail pictures “were found wanting”.  Turns out a set of Quails that I was planning on featuring were moving a little to fast for my settings.  Then my fall back set of Quails turned out too grainy thanks to taking them in questionable light.  Thank god I had a few Quiscalas laying around.  Okay, so I’ve gamed the system a tad, but you go with what you have and this is ALL I have at the moment – just for foreshadowing purposes, this will happen again.

So, I’ll stop being all scientific on you.  Quiscalus Quiscalu is the scientific name for the Common Grackle.  It does give them a little more air of importance.  This is good because when I see a Common Grackle I get extremely annoyed – basically I rank them in the category of outright nuisance.  They tend to congregate into flocks and proceed to make such a racket they’ll give you a headache.  To top it off they’ll basically push over any other smaller birds in the area that get in the way of their foraging.  Bad Grackle, very very baaaad Grackle.   Now the Grackle has appeared on the blog previously (link here).  If you go to that link you may pick up on the fact that this set might be from the exact same shoot as that previously featured Grackle.  Desperate times call for …. shopping!  There are actually different frames so I didn’t cheat you there, but I decided to try out some quick shopping – I openly admit that I do standard improvements on my shots but that generally equates to fixing some exposure issues, touching up some small blemishes and compensating for noise when lighting conditions were less than ideal.  What I generally do not do is alter it dramatically – not because I can’t, but just because it seems a little shady.  Whenever I do something a little more than the standard digital darkroom I’ll be sure and let you know – don’t want to lose your trust like some devious photojournalists over the years.  Now, this is not my best work by any means, but we recently upgraded to Photoshop CS6 and wanted get some quick practice in.    Here was a mid shop shot which gives you a feel for what I was dealing with.  Waaaaay too much clutter in that shot which should have been fixed in the field.

Trust me, it started out a LOT worse.  In fact, the following shot gives a good idea of how crappy the composition was.  Annoying branches cutting through the key focus of the scene, branches encroaching on the subject and lost detail in the Grackle itself which is the most interesting part of this bird – beyond the cool eye of course.

I did not spend enough time on the clean up to do anything crazy like print it or blow it up, but for web purposes, I have to admit I like the first shot much better than the others.  I know there’s haters out there but they’ll go on an on about how great Ansel Adams was, oblivious to the fact he was shopping the hell out of his product as well – he just had to work a LOT harder in the darkroom.  Again, I’ll let you know when I’m doing major cosmetics so don’t get too concerned.

All of this discussion on shopping allows me to skip the specifics on this annoying bird.  They are foragers, have a tendency to destroy crops, steal food from other birds and squawk up a storm.  The only real thing they have going for them is their plumage is somewhat iridescent and shimmers in the sunlight in combinations of purples, greens and blues.  They do have a cool yellow eye, but not cool enough to want to see them around the feeders.

Qui”See”cal”You”s later