A Weekend for the Birds

While most of America is still in the full throws of spring (or at least the beginnings of it I hope), in Southern California, we’re quickly progressing into summer. Many of the flowers have finished putting on their show, the rolling green hills are starting to turn gold, and the migratory birds are beginning their trek up north, stopping by various Southern California destinations on the way.

Earlier this week I made a quick trip to the Tehachapi Mountains, and found a lovely spot to catch the sunrise thanks to a tip from a local, and some exploring on Google Earth. After a three hour nap, I got up at 5am to find my spot, and was treated to a delicate, fickle, but soothing sunrise. When I stare at a scene like this I just feel at peace, filled with the freedom and solitude to just roam. Ironically, however, that freedom can only be enjoyed visually: these hills, and nearly all of them like this, are laced with barb wire fences to keep the cattle in check. You will of course want to see this one bigger – click on it to see the details!


“Freedom of the Hills” ~ Tehachapi Mountains, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, tripod, 2-stop hard GND
Exposure: iso 200, f/14, 1/8th sec
Notes: I shot this as a 3 exposure panorama, and stitched the files in PTGui.

So, now that you’ve seen the state of the season in Southern California, we can move on to the birds. At Eaton Canyon they are hard at work, collecting food for their young ones, and singing their little hearts out.


California Towhee ~ Eaton Canyon, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 500mm + 1.4x tc, monopod
Exposure: iso 800, f/8, 1/125th sec


Spotted Towhee ~ Eaton Canyon, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 500mm + 1.4x tc, monopod
Exposure: iso 800, f/5.6, 1/125th sec

For those bird fans out there, this is your lucky day, I finally got to do some more birding over the last few weeks. The migrants coming through makes things more exciting of course. It’s not quite Ithaca in warbler season, but the light and backgrounds available here more than make up for it. I try to include more habitat (and in an artistic manner) than most bird photographers out there, I hope you like the results. And if you are yourself a bird photographer, I urge you to look for opportunities that are more than just ‘a bird on a stick’. Sometimes when I’m out birding with the big telephoto lens (I usually don’t take any other gear with me), I’ll see something else that catches my eye. Here’s two such scenes that caught my eye. The first is ‘just’ tree bark – usually a cliché – but the dappled light and singular variation in color made it stand out for me. The second was photographed under entirely natural conditions, with very little processing besides the black and white conversion – the sun directly illuminated this scene, while the background was in deep shadow, creating a ghostly reverse silhouette.


“Cracked Skin” ~ Eaton Canyon, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 500mm + 1.4x tc, monopod
Exposure: iso 800, f/5.6, 1/125th sec


“Ghosts” ~ Eaton Canyon, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 500mm + 1.4x tc, monopod
Exposure: iso 800, f/16, 1/200th sec

This past weekend I made several short trips, each with great success thanks to good timing and valuable research. This first image is from near Anza-Borrego State Park. I had scouted out this location on one of my previous trips, and knew it would be perfect for an exciting sunrise. Since then I kept an eye on the weather, looking for the tell-tale ‘mostly cloudy’ overnight and ‘mostly sunny’ the following day. Such change-ups in weather often provide a very good chance at at least something exciting happening. In fact, I went to the hills above under the same predicted conditions – two for two this week! This spot is called ‘the pumpkin patch’, and is technically in the Ocotillo Wells Vehicular Recreation Area. To protect the weird formations from the dirt bikers and thieves, there’s a big fence surrounding the relatively small patch of ‘pumpkins’. There aren’t many compositions possible without getting too much of the fence in the frame, this was one exception, though I did have to clone out a few fence parts way off on the horizon – the wide angle lens perspective made them relatively insignificant and you probably wouldn’t even have noticed them at this size. It’s believed that the ‘pumpkins’, more technically mud concretions, were formed underground by sand and mud cementing themselves to small particles like a sand grains, or shell fragments. Then as water and wind eroded the surrounding matrix away, the strange mud balls were revealed.


“The Pumpkin Patch” ~ Near Anza-Borrego
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, 2-stop hard GND, tripod
Exposure: iso 200, f/14, 1.3 sec


The ugly side of the pumpkin patch – the fence surrounding it to protect it from dirt bikes and thieves.

After my brief, but colorful, morning in Anza-Borrego, I made my way to the Big Morongo Nature Preserve, a truly amazing bird magnet of the desert. This is a little oasis with lots of Cottonwoods, Palms, and even a Marsh! Not surprisingly, the birds love this place, and all the migrants make sure to make a stop. It’s almost like being in the tropics, what with the colorful tanagers, warblers, and flycatchers! Of course, then you realize that it’s not a humid heat, no, it’s a dry heat that will soon reach 110F on a daily basis. But for now, it truly is a little paradise.


Vermilion Flycatcher ~ Big Morongo Nature Preserve, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 500mm + 1.4x tc, monopod
Exposure: iso 200, f/5.6, 1/250th sec


Baby Bluebirds ~ Big Morongo Nature Preserve, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 500mm + 1.4x tc, monopod
Exposure: iso 800, f/5.6, 1/400th sec

For a few more birds, slightly less artistically inspired, see here.

Since I was on a roll with the birds, I decided to pay a visit to an American Dipper nest I had heard about thanks to a friendly Pasadena Audubon member. After a 5 mile bike ride in a lovely little canyon I got the to place – a truly lovely setting to have your home! So wonderful, in fact, that it seemed as though these dippers were busy building a second home! I don’t blame them, I doubt there’s a better spot you could ask for (at least, in the San Gabriel’s, where idyllic scenes like this are very rare). The American Dipper is America’s only aquatic songbird, and they full fill their niche with style. Allegedly John Muir’s favorite bird, these little songbirds will swim through swift currents, dive into little ponds, and cling to slippery surfaces with (relative) ease (I did see them slip a couple times). They aren’t by any means restricted to living in balmy places like the foothills around LA, I’ve seen them diving for bugs in small holes of ice in the dead of winter in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. But this pair must have it good in their little fairyland.


The Dipper’s fantasy home.


American Dipper ~ San Gabriel Mountains, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 500mm + 1.4x tc, tripod/sidekick
Exposure: iso 3200, f/5.6, 1/125th sec


American Dipper ~ San Gabriel Mountains, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 500mm + 1.4x tc, tripod/sidekick
Exposure 1: iso 3200, f/5.6, 1/160th sec
Exposure 2: iso 400, f/7.1, 1/13th
Notes: I blended the bird from the high iso fast exposure, and the water from the longer exposure. The water in the shorter exposure was too distracting – neither frozen nor smooth and watery.

For a few more of the dippers, including a close up of their nest above the falls see here.

That’s all the images for this week, hope you enjoyed the more than usual number of birds that graced this edition of my blog.

The show two weeks ago here in Pasadena went really well, thanks to all those who came out! There was a lot of great art hanging from the walls, and it looks like there’s future shows in the works. Several of my prints are still hanging in the window of the building on Raymond St., near Colorado Ave across the street from Dick Blick’s Art store – if you missed the show and find yourself in Old Town Pasadena, make sure to check them out. Calendars will soon be available for pre-order, so start counting your friends in need of gifts this year!

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2 Responses to A Weekend for the Birds

  1. Laurent says:

    Bravo pour ton blog, vraiment de magnifiques photos et très instructifs sur tes conditions de prises de vues. Encore Bravo.

    Congratulations for you blog, really nice pictures and very interesting comments on your “making of”.
    Congratulations again.

  2. Rúben Neves says:

    Hi… wonderful work.
    Already seen your site, but the “how to” really puts some other interest here.
    Well done.
    Congratulations!

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