Fame is Fleeting, But Knowledge Through Teaching Can Last At Least An Hour

May 9, 2013

It has been exactly a year – well exactly 11 months, 15 days, and four hours – since I found the two Indigo Buntings in the Walnut Creek Open Space. For that bit of luck, I received approximately 6 minutes of the 15 minutes of fame promised by Andy Warhol in 1968. (I wish I’d said that: I might have actually gotten 15 minutes of fame.)

It’s been a year, and little has happened to me that would bring a kudo or two.  I’ve thought a lot about that. What a waste of time. Striving for fame cuts into more productive endeavors such as this world-unknown blog and my prize-winning photos that haven’t won any prizes yet. It’s like winning an Oscar. Quick! Who won the Oscar for best Actress in 1958? Ehhhh! Time’s up. If time wasn’t up, you’d be wasting time looking for someone else’s fame.

I deserve fame, but I’ll sell my chances for that and becoming a Congressman for a buck. (Sucker. I would have settled for 50¢ – that would be 50p in England I think. You get the idea.) So here’s what I’m asking you. On my web site with the clever URL of ethanwinning.com, I want you all to leave comments about my best pictures, but I want you do it figuratively with your hands tied behind your back, i.e., you cannot use the following words: fantastic, wonderful, marvelous, amazing, awesome. If you use “awesome,” you’re either 15 or would like to be. If you need help with adjectives, look at any comic book first. “WOW!” is perfectly acceptable. “Phantasmagorical” is even better. For those of you outside of North America – like Venus or Saturn – use something in your native language like supercalifragilisticexpealidocious.

If you feel moved to leave behind a comment, make sure that’s all you leave behind. Uh, no, that’s not what I meant. If you feel inclined … then you’re not on the level. No, that’s not it. If you want to comment on a photo, please try to choose a photo that I like.

You all know I love this shot of the Anna’s Hummingbird at a Mexican Salvia. Save you best new adjectives for that. Don’t waste them on some photo that is incidental like … (hold on, WordPress has changed how you add a picture) this one which everybody, being a clever lot, would call “Bottoms Up.”

Well, this is pretty bad. WordPress won’t let me insert a photo where it should be, and I have a hunch, they’ll all be together at the bottom of the post. Therefore, let the chips fall where they may. Use your formatting imaginations.

As I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself. Take some of my newer phenomenal shots and comment about those. Unless, of course, you consider some of my worst shots to be phenomenal. And then you can say “Phenomenal” when in your own mind you think “phenomenally bad, but why ruin his day and lose another point toward sainthood for myself.”

When I started my sojourn into the world of birds if not “birders,” every new species was a marvel. What I really couldn’t comprehend was what had changed. The birds had always been there – well, except for the Indigo Bunting which we all know hasn’t really shown up here in 250 years, not with his brother anyway – but I hadn’t noticed them. Think about it: normally, we notice things that are part of our landscape until one day, they’re not there any more. What happened to that Robin? Or, “it’s Spring and I haven’t heard a Robin.” Or, “What’s a Robin look like? Batman I know, but Robin…” A new acquaintance of mine – an author of neat (oh, how she’ll love that adjective) mysteries set in Oregon on the Columbia – just said this morning that she just saw a Yellow-rumped warbler, and she’d never noticed them before. They’re residents or, if really huge, residence (isn’t English great) yet she’d never seen them before. Well, until 5 years ago, I was so involved in making it to retirement that I didn’t know a Scrub Jay from an Ash-throated Flycatcher.

Five years later, I can be a real pain because I can explain the difference between a Nuttall’s and a Downy Woodpecker. Twenty months ago, I saw a female Nuttall’s excavating a nest. Two weeks ago, I saw the chicks emerge, and two days ago they were gone, but at least I noticed they were gone.

The unknown They have said that the best way to learn is to teach. So I taught my wife (and a few others) how to use the point-and-shoot Canon (forget I mentioned them: they’ve never reciprocated) camera, and in the process I learned more about birds because I could no longer say, “Look over there! A tree swallow!” First I had to show her what a tree swallow looks like, and then I had to explain what “over there!” meant. And then I learned that there’s a huge difference in perspective when you’re 4’11” tall or 6’2″ (on a really good day). I might well be at eye level with that Bullock’s oriole, while she’s looking up at any angle. And saying, “Over there!” has got to be adjusted to “third branch from the bottom, about five feet from the top of that sycamore and maybe 12:20.” Of course by the time you say all that, the bird has gone. All 9 of my bird guide books are now on my wife’s desk along with my favorite bird app. (Nope, no credit there either. Oh, okay. The only app or guide written/developed by a birder who lives on the West Coast and cares enough to include the aforementioned Nuttall’s Woodpecker – a strictly California bird – is iBird2. You’ll find that all the rest of those folks don’t seem to care about what’s on this side of the Rockies.) Anyway, my wife has learned a lot about some species of birds, but there is the factor of recency: if you don’t use this knowledge on a regular basis, all you can remember is what bird you saw yesterday.

One day about 18 months ago, my friend Peeter – a birder, I mean a true honest-to-Pete BIRDER – said to me that the birds were not migrating through as they should or normally do, and I said to him, “Why don’t you take pictures of butterflies and dragonflies and anything else that flies to tide you over?” And he did, but then where he identified birds for me for the the first four years of my birding and now for the tough old birds like gulls and Madonna, I became the identifier of dragons and damsels and butterflies. Let me tell you that there are 10,000 species of birds in the world, but there are 17,000 species of butterflies. In other words, except for gulls that molt 200 times a year and are identified as a “First winter, third spring, semi-palmated, juvenile Heermann’s Gull” I got the tougher job, but I can now point out the Acmon Blue and the Funereal Duskywing.

Finally, in the process, I’ve learned behaviors and migratory routes and stuff like that. The first think I taught my wife and another friend Stan is that a Phoebe – in essence, a flycatcher – flies from a perch, catches the insect, and usually returns to the same perch. So, if you focus on that perch (known as a pickeral in some parts of the country), you’ll probably get a good shot of him on the return. There are disappointing lessons to be learned as well. The Belted Kingfisher will always be on the other side of the island from where you’re standing! It’s absolutely true!

My stream of consciousness and effects of drugs has come to an end. If you got anything out of this, thank my friend Timm who lives where all the birds of paradise and poison frogs and gorgeous butterflies are along with 97% humidity: he said in an email yesterday that he’s waited long enough for another blog post. In addition to teaching Biology, Herpetology, and all things buggy (and macro/micro photography), is also fairly good at providing guilt trips. So, Timm, this was for you!

Bottoms Up

(And now you can’t even remember why these photos are here…right?)

Bottoms Up
Anna's Hummingbird at Salvia

Anna’s Hummingbird at Salvia


If You Thought 2011 Was Weird, How’d You Like 2012?

December 23, 2012

2011 had 12 months. Other than that, it was just plain weird, well from a bird/photo/season standpoint – which is actually three standpoints, but we can let this pass. I’m 357 days late for this blog, so let’s move along before it becomes the 2013 Christmas newsletter.

The reason 2011 was off-kilter was that in California we had very little rain. I could go to any horse trough (you mean you don’t have any???) and get pictures of juncos, Western bluebirds, herons asking “Where the heck are the fish and frogs?”, phoebes, sparrows….you get the idea. Birds go where they can drink. I have friends like that, too, but they don’t go to horse troughs and I don’t want pictures of them anyway. In late September, my wife and I went to Mt. Rainier National Park in the state of Washington (some things have to be put in because this has become a worldwide blog, not that some of the aforementioned friends would know where Mt. Rainier is or the state of Washington for that matter), and came back home on the rollercoaster we call Route 1 or 101.

We knew this was going to be a field day or field week because at Baskett Slough in Oregon, we saw all kinds of shorebirds, and they were just hanging out at a pond that was evaporating hourly. Earlier in the year, the drought had brought us all kinds of birds (remember the horse or cow troughs), and we didn’t pay any attention to the fact that it might throw migration patterns and schedules off kilter. Well, we got to Rainier, and all there was was about 6 species of birds (two that I had never gotten a good picture of before), one 55 pound Hoary marmot and one bear that we saw 20 times or 20 bears that we saw once.

     Here’s one of the Western BBs, a picture that was taken on December 31, but it was January 1 in Australia, so that’s why it’s in the 2012 blog. A few months after that – and I don’t care what others think, it’s the best pic of a female WBB ever taken – I was coming round a bend from Buckeye Ravine, and there in the mustard field, was a blue bird. Not a Bluebird, but a blue bird, and it turned out to be a wayward Indigo Bunting. (Read previous blogs about the lack of recognition I didn’t receive for spotting one of the rarest birds to ever land in that particular mustard field on that particular day, AND he brought his brother!)

      So, back to the end of September. So many great shots – two of them ending up in the Golden Gate Audubon Society’s 2013 calendar ($21, but write to them). One is the Northern mockingbird eating a prickly pear cactus, no not the whole thing, just the fruit. She became Miss November. My Rock wren – which I actually had to work for, climbing one 45 percent grade (Buckeye Ravine – some of you just don’t pay attention) every day for six weeks, became a postage stamp post-it note in July. But it’s one of the singularly outstanding photos of a Rock wren ever captured. A companion pic is one of the same Rack Wren face to face with a Western Fence Lizard. You can see both pictures somewhere on my web site. The reason I’m not posting the URL is that I’m having so much trouble with this program today that I’m afraid I’ll lose everything. Anyway, try, “Birds,” then “Wrens,” then “Rock,” then “with Lizard” and you’ll find it. The Rock Wren is over there — to the right.

So, 10 months goes by. I have BBs and wrens, and marmots (See “Rainier” Gallery), and even my first tack-sharp hawk in flight (to the left … and we’re walking, and we’re walking…). Not only did I get the hawk in flight, but I got it while I was driving through Ft. Bragg taken left-handed through my rear-view mirror where things may appear smaller than they actually are, and I was so proud that I was thinking of giving up photography because how could I possibly improve? I mean, really, how??? Well, I was in for a real surprise.

   Some of you may remember that I got a shot of an Anna’s Hummingbird between two branches of a Mexican Salvia bush. Well, I not only got one, but a month later, I got that little sucker again, only this time he was inside a glass of lemonade that I had on the picnic table near that same bush!  Now I ask you, what are the chances of that? I knew I should have bought a ticket for the lottery. Let’s see those competitors in SmugMug beat that. Even the guy who swears that his shot of a Golden Eagle on Mt. Fuji in the Yukon Territory at sunset with the shadow of the mountain completely covering Honolulu can’t beat that. And, though he says he didn’t use Photoshop, we all know the truth, don’t we.

     Well, let me tell you that none of the pictures you will see in this blog were Photoshopped, First, I don’t own it. Second, when I did, I didn’t understand it even though all those Apple-type people said it was as intuitive as an iMac – which I also never understood.

And then, the year darn near came to an end. No more birds. October, November, and so far December have been a bust. My friend Stan has taken to using an Elph (appropriately) to take pictures only of mushrooms. Stan is not nuts, but my thesaurus is at a loss for a description of his euphorically insane view that all is right with the world which is formed by reading only headlines in papers.

      Meanwhile, a year ago, I wrote a review of my Canon SX40 for Amazonians. Little did I know that the whole world would start buying them – not that Canon has ever thanked me, and if they do it will probably be with a dozen rolls of film – and all of a sudden I became an instructor in a correspondence course on how to use the thing. My star pupil is Frank from Cork. Not knowing anything about him and his sensitivities or lack thereof, or whether he was taking pictures stereotypically (i.e., from a bar), I wasn’t sure how to critique his first set of photos he emailed. With all the aplomb of a bomb, I told him that it looked like he was taking pictures on a rainy day, through a window, at ground level, and probably from the inside of a bar. And, lo and behold he emailed back and told me that I was a prescient as the Oracle at Delphi which made no sense at all, because #1 I don’t predict, and #2 I don’t like Larry Ellison.

   As time passed, Frank stood up, did what I told him to do, never went out on overcast days because Canon’s lies when it says that all of their Powershots take pictures in low light, and not only mastered the darn thing, but as of last week, started surpassing me in almost everything except hawks in rear-view mirrors and hummers in lemonade! His shots are really great.

   Another of the 26 people known to have bought the camera because of my review was Evanne in South Africa. She even came to visit (yeah, she did) so that I could give extra lessons. Unfortunately, the week before she showed up at my front door, she fractured her ankle at her son’s wedding in Reno (yeah, she did), and so we only got 100 yards from my back door. And we don’t have any troughs near my back door. Oh, and she brought me a present, a snake! (Okay, it’s a SA beaded snake with real beads, some of which may have been used to purchase Manhattan, and I just had a thought: Evanne, if you’re reading this: take pics of the snake, preferably a blue one. It won’t move, and if it comes out yellow, you have to get that camera fixed.) Anyway, she is a willing student, but so far without much luck. I’m beginning to feel that all the birds in SA live in tall grass and really are chartreuse. But as I told her, and will now I will reiterate to all six of  my students, if you take 3,000 pix with or without burst mode, you will probably only want to keep 5 or 10 and, once you get the hang of it, pix you thought were great three years ago, you’ll now be erasing from your hard drives. And, no Dave, you can’t use white out.

Now, with 2013 upon us, I don’t want to start up the old argument about DSLRs versus my little point and shoot with which I am very happy 80% of the time. (The rest of the time, the animals won’t cooperate or I’m in low light or that *^!*&# Indigo Bunting has told all the other birds on this migratory path that there’s nothing to be seen here except weird people with camera and binocs and shorts and knobby knees and Birkinstocks [well, this is outside of Berkeley] and funny hats who all crowd together and then yell at photographers to get out of the way because they can’t see 1,000 yards ahead when people with cameras are trying to focus on a Savannah sparrow 35 feet in front of them. Besides, they will tell you, “We’ve already seen a Harlan’s hawk [no they haven’t – only I have!], and we scratched it off our list so it’s of no consequence [it isn’t on their list because the Bird Society hasn’t decided whether it’s a RTH or a separate species].

     Anyway, last January, April sent me the following summery of the attitude “real photographers” have toward we who use pea shooters. I’ve kept it all this time, because it tells the whole story so succinctly:

That should tell you, if nothing else, that I never throw out an email, so watch what you say. Which brings me to the Photoshoppers out there. I honestly don’t use PS. I sometimes would really like to have it and learn how to use it, but I’ve got enough trouble with my new Windows 7 computer (and the loss of all those games that I could play on XP). I have never used it, nor has the aforementioned Frank. But Frank has a friend who made up this card … which is pretty neat:

I always give credit where credit is due, and Frank, you have a very talented friend. However, nothing is too good for my friends, readers of this blog, members of the Mt. Diablo and Golden Gate Audubon Societies, The Rangers of the Walnut Creek Open Space Patrol, iBird2, and assorted flotsam and jetsam  (Hi Pat) that enter and leave my life every so often, so I went out and set up a blind so that I could get the right picture in the middle of the night when the Acorn Santa visits all good little boys and girls and leaves stuff on their windshields for Christmas. It took hours and hours and hours. I had one shot. 2:15 AM. There he was! And although Canon’s are terrible in low light, they’re fantastic in complete darkness. The rest is up to “Shadowing” in ACDC.


Who Needs PhotoShop When My Brother Bob Has It, And This Acorn Woodpecker Came to Him With The Hat?

Birding for Normal People

May 22, 2012

On Friday, May 18, 2012, I saw what I thought was one of my bluebirds (known as Western Bluebirds to birders) in a field of mustard (known as a mustard field to plant and condiment people). I was finishing up a mini-hike to find my Variable Checkerspot (known as a butterfly to everybody except lepidopterists) and on my way home when I spotted that speck of blue which turned out to be an Indigo Bunting (known to everyone who is not a birder as “a pretty blue bird but I don’t know what kind so I’ll call it a jay or bluebird or an oriole because I’m close enough just knowing it’s a bird.”

First, yes I got my Variable Checkerspot (for those with short attention spans, that’s the butterfly) we were just talking about. Of the 50 I saw, I know that this was a female. Howso?

I’ll explain. I love birds, but I love butterflies, too. And some fish so long as I don’t have to eat them. And flowers, and bugs (true bugs), and bunnies, etc. etc. etc. In other words, I would have made a hell of a zoologist if they didn’t require Latin, Scientific German, and chemistry when I was in college. The shame is that, had I remembered more than Test Tuben and Bunsen Burnerin and that hydrogen and oxygen is even better when you add coffee to it, I would have just retired as a professor of zoology from Humboldt State, and would now be taking walks with no purpose other than sheer enjoyment.

So, I asked myself, why does that butterfly light on grass and rarely on flowers – especially the buckeye which no self-respecting butterfly can ignore? The answer is that they lay their eggs on grass which is what this Checkerspot was doing.

You can always tell a Variable Checkerspot, you just can’t tell them much.  They have a red leading edge on their wings. After that, they’re not called “variable” for nothing. If you want to see a VC just out of the cocoon and unfurling it’s wing, go here. If you don’t live on the west coast of the U.S. or Canada, don’t try looking for them. They like coastal weather and left politics.

Now, as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, so I see what appears to be an Indigo Bunting, and sure enough, it’s the first one to be seen in California or west of the Rockies or northwest of Las Vegas since 1540 when Sir Alfred Drake was in “Kiss Me Kate” aboard the Golden Hind. (They really knew how to name ships in those days!)

Now this is where I made my mistake. I called a couple of members of the local Audubon Society, thinking that I was entitled to 3 of my 15 minutes of fame, but it turns out that in just four days 6 million Californians were the first to spot this Indigo Bunting, something like the 72 million who saw Ted Williams’ last at bat when he hit a home run and was awarded 5 bases for keeping the Red Sox profitable.

Two days later, I along with Ranger Dan spotted two IB’s (that should cause apoplexy in a few birders, but they’re not typing with two fingers and a thumb), both males, and today (Tuesday) after telling Hugh from Audubon exactly where the mustard field was, there were thousands of people with scopes and one with a camera and a dog who came to see MY find.

Obviously, this is going to cost me ’cause now I have to get a T-shirt with this IB photo and on the back, “I Saw Him First!”

Fame is fleeting. Lack of fame lasts forever. But I want my due. Either that, or I want to be able to name birds or butterflies or flowers because there are some real doozies out there, name-wise. On the other hand, how would you like to be the guy who got the job of spelling out bird calls for all the field guides???? According to iBird Pro2, the IB song is “sweet-sweet, sweeter-sweeter, here-here.” Whoever came up with that has probably been institutionalized. The best way to find out what a bird sounds like is to have someone point to a bird and say, “Listen!”  Sure enough, it sounds the same the next day.

Note in the above photo, that the dog seems to have a different attitude to the activity than the four people who are looking for a bunting and the photographer (used loosely) who is taking pictures of leaves in the oak tree that look like birds.

All I know is that I got to check off another bird on the “What’s Left of My Life’s List,” and I was thrilled to find it. Not find it as in the mustard field; find it as in “Grossbeaks and Buntings” on the free checklist that the Mt. Diablo Audubon Society gives you when you join. Having no other grossbeaks and buntings, I found that they’re genetically related to finches, so that’s the gallery where I put all of my photos of the bird. You’ll also find Goldfinches, Goldsteins, and Goldfarbs there, another system that I have devised for identifying the unidentifiable.

Now, I want you to know that my heart skipped a beat when I discovered I had an Indigo Bunting. This beat-skipping is different than the kind that I get when I see a bobcat or a cougar at 20 paces, and it’s a little less than the screaming that accompanies Stan’s heart beat when he sees a Western Rattlesnake six inches from his foot, but there is something special about seeing a new bird, and a good-looking one at that. Let’s face it non-birders, it’s much easier to get excited over a Great Blue Heron than a Nightjar which looks like a lizard with wings. But if y’all will just enjoy nature, then you can also get excited about The Fairy Lantern (aka Golden Globe Lily) which is only found in the whole world in a 68 mile radius of Mt. Diablo … okay, maybe 100. And then there’s our local orchid the size of your thumbnail, the Elegant Clarkia.

Elegant Clarkia


Fairy Lantern


What a shame that using common names drives purists nuts, while Latin names make no sense whatsoever. Well, that is with the possible exception of Bunting Ethan Winningis.

Gotta go. I have to do my weekly census of Sialia mexicana, Myiarchus cinerascens, and Tachycineta biocolors eggs, fledglings, and nests in my part of the Walnut Creek Open Space. Who could not want to see the profusion of these species if we could only limit that other one, Homo sapiens.

Sialia mexicana aka Western BB

How To Use a Point and Shoot Camera, Part 26

February 27, 2012

I wrote a review of the Canon SX40 for some Amazons, and lo and behold, having built a better review the unknown They came. By the droves. By Calistoga wagons. By Mayflowers and June flowers. They came out of the woodwork. Evidently my explanation of the SX40 was not sufficient even for those who commented, “This review is jest too long, and I ain’t a’readin’ anything that’s longer than whatshername’s miniskirt.”

I started getting email from all over the globe, even two from Walnut Creek where evidently email has supplanted the phone or is part of the phone or old people don’t know how to text which is fine with me ’cause I don’t know how to receive a text and being “texted” sounds really uncomfortable and somewhat salacious which in turn sounds like something my doctor has been telling me to cut down on which in retrospect is just part of a whole host of things I’m supposed to cut down on and which I am wont to do unless there’s an upside to cutting down other than living three days longer.

Included in my Mentorites, i.e., people being mentored, not those things that are worth millions when found in the Australian Outback – the real one, not the steakhouse – and have visited us from outer space and are light years ahead of human beings, but that’s for my other blog – are people from Ireland, France, Croatia (where we have definitely a failure to communicate worse than Cool Hand Luke), South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and then the foreign countries like Alberta, Ontario, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida, Rhode Island, and California. I know that 90% of the latter are foreign countries because the phone company has classified them as such in their billing. Apropos of nothing (my epitaph), I should think that, since my father was born in Canada before Arizona was a state, the phone company should grandfather all Canadians in as local calls, and they should not have to prove their identity if they end any sentence with “eh?”

So for this class which will never meet, I was answering individual questions with the same answers until I finally figured I could just send off a pat answer to all questions. Evidently, these people don’t like Pat answers – well with the exception of a goat at the ranch but that is really another story.

Principles of buying a point and shoot camera.

  • Don’t expect to point and shoot it and come out with birds in focus and Uncle Harry having feet and a head at the last birthday party. Uncle Harry always loses his head at parties, but not usually to the “photographer” du jour which is one of three people: the one with a $7,000 Nikon who has photographically emasculated everyone, women included. Next we have the one with the iPhone who has just argued that s/he has 2.1 mp and can take perfect pictures although the only things she’s shot so far was a belligerent passenger on Delta Airlines and then tried to sell the video to an Atlanta TV station which declined, stating that they have received more than a million of such videos and, “What are we, Publisher’s Clearing Home?”
  • Read the manual. Yes, in this case, it is probably the worst manual ever translated from English to English and still not made sense, but no one will answer your questions unless you start your email by saying, “I’ve read the manual, but…” For the Canon SX40 manual, it throws in technically obtuse stuff that wasn’t even related to their reality proving, once again, that programmers and tech reps do not know the definition of “end user.” Even their Mother Ship wouldn’t be able to navigate through this monster (also available in Spanish, Hindi, and I think Cyrillic taking a cue from California’s voter’s ballots and driver’s license handbooks. (Ah, Frank, Thorsten, Niles, and Gwen, that would be “Licence” – but it means the same thing. For other words that you may not understand, put in the “u” as in humour and flavour, but not in your because that would be ridiculous.)
  • Now email me. And here’s what I’ll tell you:

Thank you for thinking that I know more than I do. After 65 years of taking pix (or pics), I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m good at it. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Fitzgerald told me so.


How do I get so close to a bird? I sneak up on it. I use other photographers in camouflage distract them. After all, have you ever seen anything as distracting as Jimages and his anti-aircraft lens?

Arnold always asks how I get so close. Well, considering that the camera has an 830mm zoom on it, it got easier. The other thing is that, I often wait 6 minutes in one spot and see if something other than Jim will come close. Then I have to wait another 10 minutes until they find a branch that is acceptable. Then I take 1,400 shots and come back for the next 5 weeks hoping to get something acceptable. Sometimes, “acceptable” takes 3 years, but almost all my emailers skip over that part. “I spent good money on this camera. They should be flocking to my door,” to which I respond, “Then you’ll be complaining about what a mess a flock can make.”

I tell all who go to my web site that for every photo I post, I delete at least a thousand. And ever since I read the manual and found that I can take pix or pics in “burst mode” at 8 frames per second, I now delete about 8 times as many pix as before. It also takes five times longer to determine that, if one is good, they’ll all be good, and if one is bad, there might be one that’s good and that’s time consuming. This was purposely done by camera companies to keep retired folk busy.

I also respond with my disclaimer: I don’t know from technical. Can I shoot in RAW? I suppose I can even shoot in the nude, but nobody wants that. What’s the aspect ratio in macro? I don’t know. I thought aspect was a spice. How do you take a macro? I use the LCD when I can bend over and kneel on the ground when there’s a possibility I can get up again. That is a 1:1000 ratio, so most of the time I use the zoom and get within three feet of the bug or whatever it is.

Then I give them the secret that they really need: Turn off the digital zoom! It’s a scam. Canon and Nikon and all the rest of them want you to think  that you can take pictures of a moose from three miles away. Well, there are two problems with that. If you move the camera 1/4 of an inch, the moose will be seen in another country. Second, you may live in a mooseless location.  And image stabilization doesn’t work in digital zoom. The very word “digital” comes from the Latin, “digitalis,” which means that you’ll have a heart attack trying to steady the lens in digital. Basically, the camera companies are giving you the digit, a universal concept for which you don’t need a manual.

I almost always shoot with the shutter priority. That’s “Tv” on the top knob. Once in a while I use Manual, but I don’t know how it works. My math teachers would tell you if they weren’t dead that I often try solutions without a notion as to how they work.  Why, with that method, I coulda put a man on the moon in 1965! Couldn’t get him back, but it’s just a notion. (Age test: Do you remember department stores having Notions Departments?)

I tried – and you should – all the other settings like “Av” and “M” and even C1 and C2 (I have no idea) and “Auto” before settling on Tv. But you have to learn how they interact. If you set your Tv to 1/200th of a second, what channels can you get from a rabbit ear antenna? It could be important, especially if you want to pick up The Big Bang Theory.

Next, don’t even think of going outside if the sun comes out every four months. Point and shoot pea shooters, even with new CMOS, don’t work well in low light. Take the time to read the manual and email me. CMOS comes from the operating division of  Sony where the head of the department is a guy named “Ollie.” In 2011, the company even admitted that CMOS stood for “Cameras Make Ollie Sick,” knowing full well that potential professional photographers using unprofessional equipment are mesmerized my initials … even their own.

Okay, those are the basics, and I’m getting to the point where some of you have passed the length of the Miniskirt Rule of  … Thumb. So, what have I been able to get in the last week? Well there was a migraine. And a really good pizza. And 5000 email asking the same things, so I gave them the settings for my camera:


Continuous (burst mode)
12M 4000×3000 the highest reolution


AF Frame = FlexiZone
Digital Zoom = Off
AF-Point Zoom = OFF
Servo AF = Off
Continuous AF = ON
AF-assist Beam = Off
MF-Point Zoom = Off
Safety MF = On
i-Contrast = Off
Spot AE Point = Center
Safety Shift = Off

But what’s it mean? I don’t know, but it took three months to find those settings, and here are photos I took in the last four weeks. If I can do it, so can you … maybe. After class, I’m open to more questions such as “Why doesn’t Canon pay you since you sold 17 SX40s in the past 3 months?”

Hooded Merganser

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

Black Phoebe


Snowy Egret or Two

Inland Scrub Jay

Oak Titmouse

Female Western Bluebird

Ring-necked Ducks at 2 Miles

Male Western Bluebird

Red-shouldered Hawk

These were all supposed to come out in album form. That’s okay. They all can be seen at full resolution in the lobby of my web site.

Anyway, last advice for the P&Ssers out there. Start by taking shots of flowers. Flowers don’t move … usually … and you can learn how not to blow out whites and yellows. And you might get a flower with a bug on it, and then you can brag about your new skills with macros even if you used the zoom. If you’re out to ultimately photograph birds, stealth helps. Seeing the bird helps more. Go out with your local Audubon Society. Then stand in front of the guy with the largest binoculars, and plan on being on your own for the next … lifetime.

Oh, and get the iBird Pro2 App and learn about the birds in your neighborhood (they come in Europe, North America, and South American flavors), and then write to them and tell them I have better pix of the Red-shouldered Hawk, Redwinged blackbirds, and Scrub jays. I don’t want a career. All I want is recognition.

And now, it’s dinner time. I can no longer eat anything I’ve named. Let that be another lesson for you. Fortunately, I named the last head of broccoli, “Brad.” Oh, too bad. Now I can’t eat broccoli. And cauliflower is “Chris.” And that steer I saw last week, I call him steak.

A Note From The Patron Saint of P&S

December 23, 2011

Warren ended his comment on “Lens Envy” with, “Merry Christmas to the Patron Saint of Point and Shoot.”

Well, Warren, and all the rest of my fellow photo freaks frequenting this blog, a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Considering that many of you won’t be reading this until I complete it (’cause that’s the way these things work), and others may not get around to it until the new year, the caption of the photo may be changed to Did You Hear What I Heard, and if so, how long have you been hearing these voices?

Okay, now don’t crowd in. There’s plenty of room for everyone, especially if you line up single file alphabetically according to weight. No pushing, and no cutting in front of the line.

I Can't See!

Now, back to Warren. I’m pleased that you have named me Patron Saint of Point and Shoot. First, I like the minimal doctrine of your “church” for sainthood. Second, it seems befitting that, having had nothing but one brand of digital camera since 2003, I have in a way been Canonized. (And Canon should pay me for all that I’ve done for the pea shooters.) Fifth, I am very thankful that in order to be the PS of PS, I don’t have to be dead since even for saints getting a shot of a Bullock’s Oriole is made so much more difficult without breathing.  These are my assumptions since Warren did not provide a handbook, “The Dummies Guide to Sainthood.”

BEST OF 2011: Last year, I had my 10 best pix of 2010 displayed. It was a fairly easy process since I had 10 good photos in 2010. Well, 2011 is a little more difficult. I have about 30 that are deserving of a Pullet Surprise, and it’s going to be difficult to get them down to 10.

Further, I’ve improved tremendously over the past year. Though many think that being good leads to sainthood, being really good comes with sainthood. Rank has its privileges and benefits. I’ve learned much … like Patience if not her twin sister, Prudence. I have studied these birds, bugs, butterflies, and sons of Bs. When it did indeed take 7 weeks to get a good shot of a Bullock’s Oriole, I studied their flight, nesting, and landing patterns. Then one day in the 7th week, one landed on some barbed wire 10 feet away. So the next lesson to be learned is that sometimes it’s just plain luck.

I hiked, trekked, and trudged the Walnut Creek Open Space. From March to October, I put in 700 miles in 2726 acres spilling into Castle Rock and Mt. Diablo state parks. Basically, if it moves and it isn’t people, I’ll take a picture of it if I have the necessary stealth. I’ve not been known for my stealth. In fact the local Audubon Society has banned me from their hikes, and will only allow me to take a bird count in my back yard – and I live in a condo.

This year I actively looked for several species of several animals, and I found some without looking at all even though it’s been three years since I saw the first one (e.g., the Black Saddlebags Dragonfly), and didn’t capture it until this year.

So, let’s go to #1,  the California Quail:

California Quail

Over a year ago, I got a family of quail on Mt. Diablo. Unfortunately, they were sitting in front of a fence, and most of you could not excuse the existence of a fence from the PSofPS. One day while tending to the bluebird boxes, one male sat on a branch of a tree and, after taking that portrait, moved to this post from where he could keep an eye on his harem. The female with the larger rump was a Kardashian, but I digress.

#2is an Anna’s Hummingbird at a Salvia Bush. I staked out that and a neighboring bush for 3 weeks on a daily basis. I shot in burst mode while he was keeping his Dr. Pepper schedule of 10, 12, and 2, and I got blurry bursts. I must have taken 1500 shots. The light was wrong. Too much junk in the way. A branch in front of his face. And then, one day, I got three fairly decent shots, and all quite different. Please note that if the Patron Saint needs 1500 shots, my disciples can expect to double that number or just quit.

Anna's Hummingbird


California Ground Squirrels

I was hiking a trail I’d hiked a 100 (okay 6) times before, and these ground squirrel pups, having paid no attention not to accept candy from strangers, came out of their burrow to say hi. I just happen to like this photo, and two are always better than one which is why

#4 is this mating pair of my favorite bird, the clowns of birddom, the acorn woodpeckers:

Acorn Woodpecker

I have an entire gallery devoted to these guys.

#5 just for color and the discovery of how beautiful little bugs can be, here’s the

Fork-tailed Bush Katydid Nymph on a California Poppy to Boot

Kinda the ugly duckling of insects although there are always butterflies, but I couldn’t believe that this was a katydid in the making. But bugguide.com said that’s what it was, and I just ran across it on another trail. Most people wouldn’t even have seen it which is another thing I learned this eyar. Keep your eyes open. Otherwise, you could fall off a cliff.

#6 the Ash-throated Flycatcher which is shy and skittish.

Ash-throated Flycatcher

I was “the patron saint and house cleaner” for 17 Western Bluebird nest boxes, two of which were occupied with Tree Swallows, and two with ATFs. I was getting to the point when I didn’t think I’d come up with a decent shot of an ATF, and there mama was on the next bush over from the California Quail. Sometimes, you just have a good day. (None of you seemed to appreciate this shot. Those who continue with this set of nonbeliefs may have to leave my sect.)

#7 is the Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk, though he could easily be #3 if he just acted more mature.

Cooper's Hawk

#8 The Black Saddlebags Dragonfly which I’ve been looking for for two years,  and while hiking Shell Ridge, I saw one flying (very distinctive pattern), and then land on a tree not more than 4 feet from me. This is a zoom, not a macro:

Black Saddlebags Dragonfly

#9 is the Nuttall’s Woodpecker Morph

Nuttall's Morph

I seem to be the only one who’s impressed with this photo and its subject. This is an anomaly, a female Nuttall’s Woodpecker that is not black and white, but brown and white, and confirmed by Cornell University as a morp which means that her feathers were naturally brown, and didn’t become so from drilling into trees or coming into contact with tanin. Whether or not she’ll return in in morph form or as a “regular” Nuttall’s, I don’t know. I think she’s gorgeous.

#10 Oak Titmouse

Oak Titmouse

This little guy and the wave started off 2011.

There are so many others that could have made the list like Skippy, my Western Rattlesnake, or a couple of my male Lesser Goldfinches, or other Acorn Woodpeckers. And I have lizards and Tommy the Tarantula, and great White-breasted Titmices, and a couple of realllllly good butterflies. In fact, one of them has to get an honorable mention or even knock out the Bullock’s. I’ll leave it up to you…

Sydney, One of My Wife's Favorites

The Coast at Monterey

It’s just not easy when you’re the patron saint of P&S. Besides, what goes into judging a photograph is different for me than you. Each has a history, the thrill of the find and then the chase and capture, and the degree of difficulty. Just remember, I never use a tripod. I only use “Auto” when my stick shift doesn’t work. There are probably 40 more pix I could have added here like the violet-green swallow, a lowly scrub jay, and all manner of animals from Yosemite, Sequoia, and even Bullfrog Pond.

I’ll let you be the judge. Take a look at “MY Favorites” and “Walnut Creek Open Space,” or just browse. Leave a comment. Even saints should be praised!

P.S. My apologies for any ads that WordPress may have added. Since I only do my quarterly blogs on an annual basis, I don’t want to upgrade to “pro.” Same as my photography. Remember, once you become a pro, your hobby becomes a job.

Talking To Myself Because I’m Good Company

September 23, 2011

I left you in June, having sent the bluebird kids off to wherever bluebird kids go, and from what I’ve seen, they stick close to home where all the bugs is. This one guy became a greeter at the Open Space, having failed miserably at Wal-Mart because he can’t point.

Anyway, in three months, I have hiked the hills around here on a daily basis. More than 600 miles of talking to myself which isn’t all that bad unless I talk politics. I infuriate myself when I talk politics with me. So, I try to keep it simple, asking questions such as, “Why am I doing this?” It’s hot. Well, this summer has been cool. But it’s hilly, really hilly. And the big choice for the day is, do I want the worst uphill at the start or at the end? I always choose the latter, the 14% grade, and I do that because if I don’t make it, at least I didn’t have to do it.

That's A Lot Of Steps

When I get home – and so far, I’ve managed – I take a look at my pedometer, and I start a whole new discussion. “Would you, on a day when it was 96°, choose a trail that is almost 10 miles long??? That’s 5 miles of hills half-way, and once you get to the half-way point, you have to do the same thing over again! Isn’t that the definition of insanity, do the same thing over and over, and expecting different results?

Doesn’t matter because I have a better question for me: “Would you do this if you knew that is going to be almost 26,000 steps!” No way. Ten miles…eh. Twenty-six thousand steps? That’s a death march.

And for what? Because I have a blood pressure problem? Nooooo. At 26,000 steps, I’m liable to end up with no BP at all. To please my doctor? What has he done for me? He charges me for me to abuse me. To get into my old clothes? No! I lost inches around my chest; I gained inches around my calves; my waist remains the same! I look like the “Before” and “After” but no one knows of what.

Other than conversing with myself, I have pets along the way. Turns out that our Open Space has a diversity of wildlife that I try to keep secret ’cause we have enough people and their horses and dogs and other people. These are MINE! What “these?”


Well, there’s “Skippy,” my Western Rattler whose taken up residence in an old squirrel hole. Sometimes, Skippy’s home. Sometimes he’s out moulting. Skippy just moulted last week. He’s beautiful, a deep brown and tan pattern. Reminds me of a boss I once had, but not as slick.

Down by Bullfrog Pond, there are three more rattlers, Manny, Moe, and Jack. They were there for three months, but they’ve sublet their place or just moved because of all the humans who stopped by daily to see if they were home. After they disappeared, I had a week’s discussion with myself as to where and why, and then moved on to a new discussion of where the bullfrogs go when the pond dries up. I haven’t found any remnants, so as the King says in “The King and I,” “Is a puzzlement.”

What’s kind of neat is that, in most dry ponds are California Toads. They’re teeny.


Now, I know what you’re thinking: If you kiss it, does it become a prince? No, it becomes a throat lozenge. Their cousins will give you a frog in your throat. (Quit you’re groaning. This isn’t about what you enjoy. I get a kick out of myself just like ventriloquists. Never thought of that, did you?)

What? No birds in this post? Well, I discussed that with myself, and found that they migrated really fast. I had 7 weeks to get one good shot of a Bullock’s Oriole. (They didn’t make it to the playoffs either.) So, for 7 weeks, if it squawked or “rattled,” I went running.

And then, one day after at least 40 cumulative miles of running after sounds, I got 30 pretty good pix without breaking a sweat. I was conflicted. If I had sat in one place, maybe they would have come to me. Why am I working so hard at pleasure? Maybe it’s because they’re so pretty, and I compete against myself every year to do better?

Bullock's Oriole

And this isn’t even the best one. If I can do better and better, then it was time to get an Ash-throated Flycatcher. A snap! Took less than a month.

And then, at mile 200, I discovered an old – okay, dead – oak tree that Acorn Woodpeckers were using as their winter’s cache. (Scrub Jays were stealing from them which prolonged the antics going on in the tree.) The Acorn Woodpecker is a clown whether it realizes it or not. I’ve seen them hop, spin, back flip, hang upside down, look down at an acorn one dropped and spent a second or two deciding whether it was worth the effort. They’re noisy – so you usually know where they are – they’re beautiful, and they’re gregarious. Last year, I managed five decent shots. This year, I have over 500, and getting rid of some or just not posting has become a problem. So I gave them their own gallery.

I Told You They Hop

Along came September. Not a good month. Migrations ceased except for a few butterflies. The only thing that kept me going was my own company, the acorn woodpeckers, and finding a king snake eating a gopher snake.

I Can't Say 'Ahhhh' Right Now

So much for the excitement of summer. It ended on a sour note anyway. I had found seven monarch caterpillars, and Sharon* and I photographed them daily, hoping to get to the stage where they pupate and form a chrysalis. Then last Monday, all 7 were gone. I’m sure someone stole them even though there’s a post online that they can move 100 feet away for protection. But 100 feet away is all grass, and I don’t think they’re going to do that…unless…in addition to eating all that milkweed silk, they smoke grass. That discussion has kept me going for three days, and will probably last longer ’cause I’m already at the sentencing phase once I prosecute the thief.

Nom, Nom, Nom

Summer’s over. I’ve been reduced to Milkweed Bugs, butterflies, wasps, and wondering whether I should set my pedometer to 48-inch steps. That way, I could do 700 miles without ever leaving my driveway.

My mother would be saying, but you’re only fooling yourself. Well, who else is there? Nobody else believes me anyway.

Milkweed Bug. I'm having a contest in my head as to what to name him. First prize is all the frozen Kodakchrome in my freezer.


*I taught Sharon and a friend, Stan, how to use the SX10 camera. After a whole summer (two for Stan), I now have two people who reverted to “Automatic” and one whose willing to push the ISO to 3600 because “A night baseball game is okay when it’s grainy.” This is enough to make one talk to himself!

Life Is Uphill Both Ways

June 10, 2011

A conundrum is not what prevents having kids. It’s what keeps my life interesting. For example, I was visiting a local ranch a couple of months ago, and the ranger (Dan. Ranger Rick is long gone) asked if I’d like to volunteer looking after 17 Western Bluebird nest boxes.  Bobb – yes, he spells it with two “bb”s – is in charge, and was standing there, but Ranger Dan was the asker. And he tacked on, “if you think you’re physically up to it.”

Well, that’s just not fair. Even if the nests were on the “lower” trails, what goes down must come up (like lunch), and I knew that the half-mile down wasn’t the problem. The problem wasn’t even coming back up. The problem was that in between, some of the nests were waaaaay up on these not-so-gently-sloping hills. So, I immediately said “yes.”

That was about 7 weeks ago, and now is the sadder time when most of the kids have become fledglings, and 90% of the fledglings have flown the coop. Mama no longer scolds me from a branch while I’m taking a beak census. It’s going to be lonely on the lower trail.

There’s still some new finds on my route: Tree Swallows and Ash-throated Flycatchers (ATFs) have had broods in four boxes, and I get to watch them though they’re almost done now, too. The tree swallows are extremely protective and have attacked anyone near their nests, but I’ve been able to get within 5 feet. But then, I don’t want to upset them. What if they have itty-bitty heart conditions or high BP like hummers? So, I keep my intrusions to a minimum.

Meanwhile, although my beak census has trickled, my walks up and down the hills have extended to 3, 4, even 5 miles. The 5 miler is actually 37 miles. You’ve heard of the Imperial gallon? Well, this is the Ethan mile.

My weight has dropped, but then everything below my neck has dropped. And the laws of nature still prevail. For every uphill, there’s a downhill, unless it’s all uphill. In either case, my knees are killing me, but only when I sit. So, I have to keep walking. It’s straight out of Greek mythology!

There is another problem. I tried for 7 weeks to get a good shot of a Bullock’s Oriole. I finally succeeded. Way back in November, I wanted a good shot of a California Quail. I got a perfect portrait in May. In fact, I got 129 perfect shots in May. I wanted a Tree Swallow. I now have 300 photos of tree swallows.

And every time I get a good picture, I think I should print it. I’ve spent $1,100 on ink. So I put a stop to that … except for the exceptional ones which, as it turns out six months later, aren’t that exceptional. Which leaves another problem: what do I do with all these pics? I can only enjoy my own slide show 10, maybe 50 times. And then it gets old.

So I have to go and get my perfect Violet-green Swallow and Western Kingbird. But why? Because they’re there and I don’t have them. It’s a people sickness. Ogden Nash once said, “People are a peculiar lot, Always wanting what they have not…” But I really need a Violet-green and a Kingbird.

And if I get them? Well, there are 600 species left on the list. And then there are insects (I mean, look at this grasshopper/cricket thingie), and mammals, and snakes, and dragons. Oh, yes, there are dragons!

Well, I came across this dragon on the path (the uphill path) the other day. He was just sittin’ there, so I picked him up, and petted him on his little head, and I says to him I says, “Funny, you don’t look like a Western Fence Lizard.” And when I ran into Ranger Dan, he says, that’s a Southern Alligator Lizard. They bite, and they don’t let go. Besides, if they get scared, they drop their tails and then they don’t get to mate with females who really like tails on males.” Ah, man, I just set back Mother Nature by 107 years in lizard years.

There’s so much to learn. The first thing I’ve got to do is learn to say “no.” Just as soon as I get my kingbird, swallow, a rattlesnake with his tongue out, hairy marmot, whistling marmot, jack rabbit, jill rabbit, and blue-tailed skink…

Lens Envy

January 16, 2011

When I first met Jim, he was just an average Joe. He kept telling me most people call him “Jim,” but his real name was … Jim. Anyway, he was so average that he was in the 50th percentile of average people.

But as average people go, Jim, gave 115% of himself to his hobby, photography. The other 70% went to birding. This was a dangerous combination. Unlike football players, all of whom give 185% to da game and their English is a tertiary language course, birding photographers are stretched so thin that they have nothing left to give to the Salavation Army at Christmas.

Jim was born to carry a pea shooter, but Jim wanted a real camera, something that Arnold Schwatzenegger would need his Hummer to carry. Jim desperately wanted a lens so big that he’d need a manhole cover as a lens cap or, in polite society, a personhole cover because, if nothing else, Jim is always politically correct albeit inaccurate.

Jim was a joy to be around if you could stand him. At barely 5 feet, he was of impressive stature and, as most 5 footers do, he walked like he had a purpose and the purpose was to get to some unknown destination as quickly as possible. He spoke like James Cagney or the 1970’s FedEx commercial guy, like gunfire from a P38 machine gun, spewing out numbers like f5.6, f8, ISO 200, 400, 4200, and D50, 5000, and lighting from the southwest at 4:21 PM PDT. However, there was no context, so it was like an MIT graduate school course in spherical trigonometry, or texting between two economists discussing the state of the Iceland’s money woes in 148 characters or less.

Jim was like the actor who, at 70, wants to have children and is heir minded but not heir conditioned. And so, while the rest of the world – that would be me – is content to take pictures with a pea shooter, Jim is so consumed by lens envy that he’s determined to trade in his p-shooter for a tank. He isn’t content to mind his p’s and q’s. He jumped right over the p’s and minded his r’s and s’s.

He starts speaking in signs like “No parking, “No fishing,” and “2% Off With CVS Coupon.” He goes from Craig’s List to Amazon to J&R, the latter because being located in New York, speaks his language and knows where to get a good corned beef on rye.

The process of going from his Kodak Pony to Canon D7000 body with the Canon’s 1200mm f/5.6L EF USM Autofocus Lens is difficult, but he finds one second hand for $99,000! But Jim is appalled by the shipping for UPS Ground, and now he’s in a Quandary which, for those of you who know Florida is just south of the Viera Wetlands. He gets them to drop the sales tax, and agrees to pay $4,000 shipping and handling, but only if they include two free Shamwows which he intends to use as lens cleaners.

I says to him, I says, “But Jim, you’re going to need a tripod that won’t even fit in your car.” And he says to me, he says, “To heck with that. I’m joining 22 Hour Fitness, and I’m going to work at it 24/1, and I’m going to bulk up this 125 pound Charles Schwab body, and I’m going to have arms like Arnold!”

“Swartzeneggar,” I ask?  No, “Stang,” he answers.

Who am I to argue? I always listen to reason when I listen at all which, according to my family, last happened in 1997.

Still he has to have this lens. But first…he needs binoculars. You can’t go out photographing birds without a good set of binoculars. He’s a little disturbed. Period.

Oh, no, he’s quite disturbed that they don’t come in a camouflaged model, and he almost goes off the deep end when he finds out that his 1200mm lens doesn’t either.

What if a bird spots him? So, he goes to the Army Surplus store and buys two tents and has a seamstress, Betsy Rossmoor, make an outfit that will make him invisible except to the International Space Station. On the other hand, with that outfit and a pair of Levi’s, he stands out like a sore thumb to any bird with better vision than he has. That would be all of them.

But now, he’s ready. He’s armed with over $500,000 worth of equipment on a $239 body. He gets up, he hefts and swings his new camera into position. Centrifugal force carries him 100 yards, sends him into low orbit, and then he falls over.

We’re not sure we can move him. As his unlicensed attorney, I know that his will calls for him to be buried with his lens, but the funeral home says that there’s no room for Jim and he’ll have to walk along side the hearse. I would say, “Rest in Piece,” but there’s no rest for a Photo Phanatic for they always want one size bigger. Jim survives, but now he has a hernia that requires a truss the size of Alberta – the Province, not his girlfriend – and all of his pictures have to be taken on his back.

He is not lonely. There are several thousand others who have been in the same predicament, so many that they actually moved Jim up to the 61st percentile of average.

In the meantime, I have figured out that if a lens is self-focusing, who needs a photographer? So I stick with my P&S and though I rarely get anything in flight, I always have the vision of Jim trying to take pictures.


"Help, I've Fallen and I Can't Get Up. And, I think I've Gone Blind!"

My 11 Favorites of 2010

January 1, 2011

I spent the first half of 2010 complaining that there were no birds. I spent the summer complaining about the cold and lack of butterflies. I spent the other two-thirds of the year complaining about the fact that I can’t get a shot of a bird in flight, a dog without gray-eye, or a ruby-crested kinglet, period. And during the last six weeks, I complained that there were too many cormorants, herons, egrets, belted kingfishers, and red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks. That’s a lot of running around the ponds.

One would think with nothing to shoot (until December), I couldn’t come up with 11 favorites for 2010. One would be wrong. In fact, I have 23 favorites, but I’m only going to post 11. Oddly, none of my favorites include the four that were published this year in Birder’s World or the local Audubon Society’s society pages.

Worse, none of my favorites compare to the fantastic photos of my two “mentors,” or some of my more creative friends in WA, CA, and FL – the latter, all women. Who woulda thunk that women would be willing to carry 50 pounds of lens just to take pix? Weaker sex my … foot! Some of ’em even slog and snake through marshes and snow and snowy marshes just to get photos of snakes and bear and bare snakes. The world has certainly changed since the days of Bella Abzug!

Anyway, I chose my 11 favorites based upon humor, color, still life action, pathos, Athos, Aramis, and D’Artagnan.

In no particular order except alphabetically according to height, here they all are (click on each to see the original or go here and click on XLarge):

And the absolute best of my 2010 photos…


No, I still don’t know whose dog this is, but he was watching me carefully, and so I figured why not, and that was a one in a thousand shot. All photos of dogs are one in a thousand. They’re like grandkids except that grandkids won’t pay attention for two Cheerios.

I may not have become a really good photographer, but boy what I’ve learned about nature. Redwing blackbirds can raise their epaulets independently from the rest of the wing. Johnson jumping spiders which are maybe a half-inch long will attack a size 10½ shoe. It takes four hours for a praying mantis to lay her eggs, and then they won’t hatch for six months. Male mallards have no mating manners or morals, but the female puts up with it. Acorn woodpeckers are oblivious to the fact that their stores are raided by crows and squirrels within 10 minutes of hammering them into the hole. And all American Kestrels will face away from the sun and any photographer who gets close. They will also sit on a wire rather than a tree branch because they know how ticked off it makes me! Last, nature will call when one is 10 miles from the nearest bathroom and just when the burrowing owl decides to stand guard because 29° F has no effect upon his bladder and he couldn’t care less about yours.

Basically, good or bad, all photography is luck. Yep, all of it. How so? Well, there isn’t one photo that I’ve taken that wasn’t taken between 1/60th and 1/1000th of a second. A second later, and it wouldn’t be the same photo. The bee would be gone. The dog wouldn’t be “smiling.” The lighting would have changed, and the pond wouldn’t reflect those trees. I might have even gotten something in flight! Fat chance. And that “tiny” snowy egret would have been done shaking what must be a thousand feathers. Who knew that a 2 pound bird was over a pound of feathers? (I used to be but after 50, I put on baby fat.) And, by the way, the redwinged blackbird – which is in my top 3 – would have been gone. That was one of over 600 photos I took of redwings blackbirds.

I’m happy that I keep on improving, but then I look at others’ photos, and I do what everybody does in private: blame my camera. If only I had a longer lens! But then I wouldn’t be able to boast of my point-and-shoot achievements. If only there was more light. But then I couldn’t blame my P&S for being lousy in low light. If only I were 20 years younger. But then I wouldn’t have an excuse for not getting down to the duck’s or dog’s eye level. Hey, eye-level with a duck means getting wet if you’re using a PowerShot. Now if you have a $7,000 USD lens … you’d probably miss several mortgage payments and have to let the maid and butler go.

If only. If only I had played the lottery. Oh, that’s right, I did. If only I had picked the right numbers! If only I had all the money and none of the calories of all the candy I’ve bought since I was 5! Ah, now there’s a real “if only!” I wouldn’t be any better at photography, but I’d be filthy rich.

There are two photographs (reproduced here with permission) that I use as examples or samples. The first always makes me smile. The second gives me something to shoot for. Here are two of my all-time favorites, my favorites, but not my photos. They come from Gilles Archambault of Ontario:


We’ll see what 2011 has in store.

[You’re all wondering, why 11? Why not?]

How To Screw Up a Great Hobby and, Oh, Have a Merry Christmas

December 13, 2010

I had only one thought for this particular blog, but I figured, what the hell, at the same time as exposing you to my brain leakage, I might as well wish you all a Merry Christmas, having completely forgotten Flag Day and whatever else you people are celebrating while dancing around a May Pole which I used to think was a hot breakfast cereal. (These blogs are definitely a test of age.)

Oh, my original thought. I guess if you’ve come this far, you might actually want to know what it had to do with what (can’t end a sentence in a preposition). It started a couple of years ago, but then I took this picture and the results really bugged me:

Unburrowed Burrowing Owl

You’ll note that there’s a construction berm (look it up; “berm” comes in handy in flood zones) right behind this bird. I drove 60 miles to get a shot of this burrowing owl, and the best I could do was a photo of him outside his burrow, but with that *&*#@ berm right behind him. I drove out to the site 3 times. That’s more than 137 miles, and that’s the best shot I could get.

Now, within the photographic community, there is a highly suspicious element, suspicious in every sense of the word. There are 30 or 40 groups of dubious characters. The first is the most honest: these are people who, right off the bat would say, “Why don’t you use Photoshop and get rid of the berm.”

The second group would, if it was their photo, simply Photoshop (Photoshoppe was the old English first edition) the darn thing and think that nobody would notice. And there are some people who can do such a fantastic job – like my brother and my kids – that you’d never know unless they made a mistake (see photo version #3). I’m very sorry, but if I’m going to cheat and not tell anyone about it, I want monetary rewards. But this second group invariably says nothing, and swears that just because the Dodo is extinct doesn’t mean that they couldn’t get a picture of one last week in Central Park which, come to think of it, just might be true but in a different context.

My First Attempt

The third group is the honest Photoshop group: they admit to it, and will tell you how long it took to diddle with a photograph. If it comes out really well, they will call it “Art.” If it comes out badly, they’ll call it “Stan.” However, the diference between Art and Stan is highly subjective.

After 3 years of people getting after me, I found a free program (PhotoPro I think is the name) and got rid of the berm. Admittedly, this unburrowed Burrowing Owl looks better, but it’s fairly obvious that his surroundings have been diddled. What to do? Well, if you’ve got a SmugMug page, and you delete the original, you also lose all the congratulatory remarks (see below) that you worked so hard for since you’re not going to make a dime off a hobby. And, fair warning, as I well know, once you make money from this, it is no longer a hobby. It’s work! “Work, work, work. Work, work, work. Hello boys!” to borrow from Mel Brooks.

Comments have changed over the past 3 years.  Three years ago, they were along the lines of,  “This is the most remarkable shot of a one-toed buzzard I’ve ever seen from a point-and-shoot camera!” Later, the same author would leave the point-and-shoot part out, but it’s implied. More recently, old friends and acquaintances are now saying, “Superb!” “Fantastic!” “Great capture!” That is not bad since after 3 years, you kinda run out of adjectives. So, when you want to be sure that the recipient understands that you’re sincere in your praise, you put in the word, “Honestly” as in, “Honestly, I’ve never seen another photo this good.” I say that to my brother every time he posts another cigar smoking 106 year-old woman in front of her Southeast Asian home … which can be seen on “House Hunters International.”

Back to my burrowing owl, or more precisely, back to my thought about PhotoShoppe. I really must go back further to the fact that I’m strictly a point-and-shoot photographer. P&S has definite disadvantages. These cameras are notoriously bad in low light, and I’m not talking about just the kid blowing out his birthday candles or Aunt Bess getting her hair caught on fire from blowing out the conflagration on her’s. I’m talking about an overcast day. You push the ISO to 400, and you get noise (the scientific esoteric you’re-not-in-my-club word for grainy).

Then, as a friend pointed out last week, you should be at eye-level when taking photos of dogs, cats, or anything else that probably won’t bite and isn’t poisonous like their owners. Well, this isn’t my camera’s fault, but at 91 years old (on Tuesday and Wednesdays), I can’t get down to their level and I’m not going looking for Great Danes just to get pix of slobber. So, I need telephoto shots which looks like I’m at eye-level with a duck or a raptor who just happens to be sitting on a branch 12 feet away at 6 feet off the ground … in which case, it’s stuffed.

Of the thousand photos I have on my site, I’d say that 941 are “decent,” and 42 are fantastic. Four have been published. Trouble is that not one publication said, “Taken by E. A. Winning, the best P&S nature photographer we have in North America excluding the Dakotas where they have the whole winter to perfect their skills, albeit indoors.” And so, what I get in the comments section is, “You must have a 1,000mm lens!” Why people don’t believe that I’m lazy and weak is beyond me! I can’t lift a 1000mm lens. Nooooo. What I get comes through hard work, lots of walking, sometimes trotting, persistence, forgetting that I have ADD if only momentarily ’cause ADD does that to you, and lots of good hard luck.

Wikileaks Owls Are All Around

I’d rather be a lucky P&S photographer than one who can go out and take 500 shots from 300 yards and come up with a dozen good ones. First of all, it cuts down on deciding which ones I throw away. Secondly, if I used PhotoShop, then it would no longer be P&S, and I’d probably get carried away, and then I’d have to lie. I swear to you, that owl had four others spying on me!

At least I know my limitation (I only have one but it’s a beaut!). I use a very small copyright mark on most photos. I figure, somebody can always use Screen Shot to capture the image, and what’s the sense in lousing up a good image with a copyright mark the size of Rhode Island?

Mitzi is Mona's Sister

Therefore, having my final say, I wish you all a Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year, and may all your photos look like what you could swear was there in your 2-inch LCD when you took it!

BTW, Many thanks to those who really have helped over the past 3 years. You know who you think you are.

A California Autumn

November 1, 2010

Although there are photo fanatics “back East” who refuse to believe that we Californians had a weird summer, I have the perfect lack of proof: no pictures. I mean, there were no migrants coming through, not the Painted Ladies (the butterfly, not the ones on the way to Virginia City, NV), not the egrets, and not even as many Canada Geese. You could tell because, you could walk through the local park rather than tiptoe.

No Holdup Zone

I was reduced to taking pictures of signs, like this “No Holdup Zone.” I wasn’t the only one. Other nature photogs were taking pictures of … me!


Other than the usual dragonflies – meaning the Blue Dasher and Flame Skimmer – there was nothing of interest. Well, there was the guy in kilts playing the bagpipes, but who doesn’t have a shot of that? And that’s not exactly a hawk or eagle or even a robin. I would have settled for a good shot of a scrub jay!

And then came late September and mid-October – well separated by a few days because otherwise, that would really be odd –  and California was awash with little beasties. Egrets and herons, fiery skippers and Gulf fritillaries, and praying manti.

It really “started” last night, Halloween. Other than the California Pumpkin, Pumpkinis Californium, there was a female Praying Mantis, Mantium Presbyterium (although it could have been a Mormon like the Cricket), on our front gate, laying eggs, a five hour process. And, if you put your ear close, you could hear her screams: “OMG, will it ever end?” and “Think of the tuition and books!”

She couldn’t have chosen a worse place, the space between our gate and its latch, and on Halloween when we have literally … 5 or 6 kids show up. [The kids loved it and, along with my lecture and slide show, I made a buck and a half. The parents freaked out, mostly about the buck and a half.] Anyway, “Matilda” spent five hours huffing and puffing (it was really cute except for the occasional “eeeeeeeek” and her saying to herself, “Breathe, breathe, breathe. Tomorrow, you’re going to Disneyland”).

Anyway, the egg sac does contain up to 1,000 eggs, and they’ll be ready by late April or, if this was Denny’s and you get Lori as your waitress, August 2011.

Egg Sac, 2¢ a Gross

You’ll be happy to know that Matilda is on her way to find another mate in Disneyland – at least that’s what I think she said because she kept mentioning “That green dwarf, Dopey” – and her egg sac has been tenderly removed to another spot in our garden where they’ll be safe until they hatch. Then, it’s every teri hatcher for itself.

If Matilda was the harbinger of normality, then today was the beginning of the real migratory-fall breeding-apple growing-Snickers and Milky Way season. I could tell because all along the two mile walk I went on today, I saw baby Snickers and Milky Way blankets. Anyway, I also saw and photographed a red-shouldered hawk, a yellow-rumped warbler, a fiery skipper, a cabbage white, and a covey of quail, a parliament of owls, a tiding of magpies, a liar of lenders, and a corruption of politicians.

Pumkinis Californium

By the way, THAT is really the way our pumpkins grow. You know they’re ripe when the cotton comes out of its ears. It’s also the way we know our kids are ready for school, but that’s another blog. Anyway, as I moseyed (yes, in the West, we mosey except for Jan – hi Jan – but that’s another blog) over to the pond, I saw all the sign (singular) of a California fall. You see, unlike the East, we don’t look for trees changing colors. We look at individual leaves. Trees don’t have different colored leaves. They’re all yellow, or all red, or all over the back yard.

But other than leaves, as I said when you were still paying attention, there were warblers, and lark sparrows, and hawks, and carneys, and all manner of clowns. That’s what tells us election day is here, and elections always take place in the Fall. In fact, that’s why they call it “Fall.”

And now, rather than bore you, here are some links where you can see and read the rest of what I’ve been talking about – click on the underlined word:

Collective Nouns for birds like a murder of crows

Matilda’s collective photos

Matilda’s portrait

Gulf Fritillary

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Lark-sparrow which is just to the left of the warbler.

Acorn Woodpecker

Red-shouldered Hawk

And all other signs of fall


August 15, 2010


Okay, be honest. Is there any one of you who, when you were a kid – and perhaps up to the age of 50 – didn’t pass a pasture filled with cows, and yell out the car window (or from a bicycle seat), “Mooooooo!” And what did you expect in return? You thought to yourself, “Stupid cows,” but the cows were probably thinking, “Dumbass people.”

By the way, “Moooo” is the only global sound that an animal makes. Well in Canada and parts of Minnesota, it’s “Moooo-eh,” but this whole thing is an unnecessary aside except that I find all my asides necessary and often side-splitting.

Anyway, imagine you almost grew up to become a “natural” photographic nut, i.e., one who takes pictures of nature, probably birds in particular. How many of you don’t have this shot which you probably titled, “Bottoms Up,” thinking “how clever of me.”

Bottoms Up

Same thing as the cows. I’ve been through many galleries on line, and only the “more professional” don’t have a photo of a duck with its rear end up. Well, that’s how they feed, and having seen some people at a buffet, no difference.

700mm at 20 Feet

But lately things have been getting out of hand. I was taking many, many shots of my baby herons over a two week period. I saw weird things like someone with a 700mm lens taking shots at 20 feet, and that’s about all he was going to get – feet.

The other day, I passed this guy who was handing his cell phone to one of the herons saying, “It’s for you.”  Now, everyone knows that herons refuse to use cell phones, much preferring a wing-free Bluetooth land line after a day of fishing. Anyway, the heron simply responded, “Tell them I’m not home.”

It's For You

I don’t know what it takes for these really old coots to realize that a cell phone in the hands of a juvenile is asking for nothing but headaches and large bills or beaks as the case may be. I guess he thought that “Tweets” were somehow relevant to a green heron, but then they would have been called “Grawkks.”  Besides, herons are notoriously bad spellers.

And then… You’ll notice that Chick and others are wearing shorts. That may have been the last really warm day in this part of California. I don’t know what the hell happened to summer, but we’re running 15-22° below normal. Instead of 100°, we’re running 78, and for that we have to wait until 4 PM. Until then, we keep getting coastal fog over the hills and all the way into the Delta.

Usually we get hot air from Sacramento, the seat of our “government,” and fog from San Francisco, the seat of discontent and nutty supervisors. Not this year. We’re getting fogged by both, and because instead of global warming, we’re having the next ice age (Al Gore probably blocked out the sun when he visited), the birds’ migratory patterns have changed, and even dragonflies are hiding out in warmer, muggier climes. I don’t know why. A dragonfly can still get mugged here.

Anyway, because of the dearth of wildlife and the plentitude (yeah, you look it up) of lowlife, we decided to head for the Pacific coast and get some shots of shorebirds. It couldn’t possibly be worse than the lack of them here. The only picture I took is of this sign, obviously posted by the dyslexic attendant.

Dyslexia of the Lack or Creative 1's?

By the way, that was two weeks ago. Gas is now at $3.44 a gallon. (I’d go greener, but my feet hurt.) The point is that, if this was my shot for the day, what am I going to do if things don’t improve. The black-capped night heron hasn’t replaced the little green heron as it always does in July. The snowy egret came and went in three days. The great egret hasn’t shown itself at all. And the only things we saw at the coast – through the fog – were turkey vultures, probably feeding off the carcasses of photographers who decided that a 7 mile hike down from the peak at Pt. Reyes wasn’t too much for them. I might go back next week and see if anybody left a lens or two for salvage.

For those of you who were wondering what happened to Stephanie (see last month’s blog), I got her back from the police property department, none the worse for wear although she’s been recalculating an awful lot lately. I will have to take her in for some sort of counseling ’cause all of a sudden she’s picked up an attitude. After she says “Recalculating,” there’s an implied “you idiot” at the end of the sentence.

I was going to trade her in, but the only GPS we saw has the following screen which remains constant:


Note that “405 Accident” is the actual name of the photo which comes from Toyota. They’re not wrong, and in L.A. you can’t go wrong with just one screen. There’s always an accident on The 405.* I just happen to live 400 miles north.

*Know how to tell the difference between a Southern Californian and a Northern Californian? Southern California freeways all begin with the word, “The.” The 405. The 110. The 605. In Northern California, we simply say 80, 280 all the way up to 980. Our problem is that 580, for example, does not just run East-West as even numbered highways are supposed to. 580 also runs north and south and in two sections. Since she was dumped from the car, Stephie can’t seem to handle this, and we may ultimately have to 86 her.

Trauma After a Photographic Outing

June 17, 2010

I’ve been helping a friend, Stan, learn how to use his Canon SX10. Stan wants to know, not only what Av, Tv, M, and P do, but he wants to know about the other 45 functions that are of no use whatsoever. But they enticed him to upgrade his camera, so they actually did have a function … for Canon.

Anyway, so Stan and I go out to Castle Rock State Park to get the Black Meadowhawk dragonfly which lives around “Bob’s Pond.” Birds are scarce right now, so we have to concentrate on other things that fly.

We park in the nearby lot, bypass “Bob’s Pond” (named by a guy who staked a claim to a 20 foot in diameter swamp in the name of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, and for all we know, is buried there like a dinosaur in the LaBrea Tar Pits). It’s bordered by several bridal paths where the brides horses have left other things on the aisle so it’s just as well that we took a detour in our search for the Black Meadowhawk.

After three hours of getting mostly butterflies including a relatively uncommon Edith’s Checkerspot (Bob’s wife perhaps) and no Black Meadowhawk, we came back to the parking lot. There are three police cruisers, and four cops from the East Bay Regional Park District Police Department. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t take park police that seriously. After all, what could go on in a regional park that contains “Bob’s Pond?” Of course, Bob’s Pond might contain Jimmy Hoffa. But these officers were armed with tasers and Glocks and real bullets. “Is that your car,” asked Officer Castededa? And I said, “Yes, but mine had windows when I left it.”

And after looking inside, I see that a pair of binoculars, a frizbee, a pound of marzipan, and an MP3 player have been stolen. But worst of all, they’ve kidnapped Stephanie who lives in my Garmin GPS. They took her suction cup and power supply, too, but most of all, they took Stephanie!

Now Stephanie and I have had our disagreements. She wants me to take Crow Canyon to get to 580 W, but everybody knows that that extends the trip by 15 minutes. And I argue with her, and pass Crow Canyon, and she says, “Recalculating,” and I think she says it with exasperation. There’s definitely an attitude, and she’s definitely calculating. I think she’s after my money which reminds me, there was an “emergency” $20 bill taken from the car, and it’s going to be hard to identify it as mine. I’d ask Stephanie, but pay attention, she’s been taken hostage as well.

That was Wednesday. Thursday morning, I get a call from a very nice lady at the Property Department of the Concord PD. “Based upon the addresses, we’ve found your GPS.”

“That’s fantastic,” I exclaimed. “How’s Stephanie?”

Without missing a beat because obviously, either the officer or everyone whose lost a GPS understands, she replies, “Well, I haven’t talked to her, but I’m assuming she’s okay.”

“Well, could you turn her on – so to speak – and find out if she still knows where her satellites are?”

“We can’t get reception in the PD building. I’m sure she’ll be able to tell when you get her back, but that’s probably going to be two weeks.”

“Two weeks! By that time, she’ll probably need counseling, and I’m sure the insurance company won’t accept the claim.”

“Sorry, but it’s the best I can do.”

This just doesn’t seem right. What if she loses her sense of direction? What if she becomes disoriented without being outside for that length of time. What if she loses her sense of reality?

I start thinking that maybe I should replace her, but that seems heartless after what’s she’s been through. For all I know, the robbers threw her out the window as they escaped. Who knows what trauma she suffered, and how she might react if I were to keep her as a spare or give her to one of my kids in Sacramento where Stephanie knows only one street, Truxell. Stephanie thinks that Truxell is the best route to anywhere even with its 22 stop lights.

No, I can’t claim her as a loss. That would be cruel after she’d been held for at least 20 minutes by three legal aliens. She probably couldn’t understand anything they said as they were figuring out how to dispose of her. She should have been able to understand them. After all, she’s been cooped up in that Garmin with Jacques, Juan, and Jeeves. The only one she’d have trouble with is the guy from New Zealand who pronounces “Truxell,” “Truchelle” as though he’s been sampling a case of brandy before taking on the job.

Meanwhile, Stan is in bad shape. I have my work cut out for me. Stan thinks that, not only has the whole world changed, his trust and serenity have been shattered. And I ask him where he’s been living for the past 20 years. But he says, nobody’s ever broken into his car in a parking lot or anywhere else for that matter, and not only did they break into my car, but they stole his SX10 manual! Even with my help, how’s he ever going to be able to understand how to use his camera?

This makes Stan unique in soooo many ways! First, he doesn’t know that he isn’t safe anywhere. Second, he doesn’t see a state park’s dirt parking lot — 15 miles from anything but a bunch of horses ridden by people whose nearest encounter with reality is 15 bedrooms and 7 baths and whose encounters with crime were watching “Hopalong Cassidy” and “Crusader Rabbit” when they were kids — as a prime location for breaking and entering. And third, he actually has read the manual that came with his camera!

Now, not only do I have to get counseling for Stephanie, I have to spend time explaining to Stan that there are dangers in a hobby that takes you out of your house. I only hope he doesn’t find out that Mt. Diablo is home to the Western Diamondback and cougars, neither of which is related to the Black Meadowhawk dragonfly. Maybe, if he watches TV, he believes that Cougars are women who look for younger men to date in which case, Stan needs somebody who’s in her 80s.

In two weeks, Stan and Stephanie willing, I’m taking them both to try and find the Bleached Skimmer which kinda describes the look on Stan’s face right now.

Ralph, the Smiling Spider

May 17, 2010

You may not have noticed, but the bird season – such as it is – is in a lull. I’ve been to my four favorite haunts as well as the three places I go to photograph birds, and the redwing blackbird broods are already brooding and begging for food from their overworked parents, the Western bluebirds are feeding the kids like there’s no tomorrow, and there’s neither hide nor rump of the yellow-rumped warblers.

This redwing bluebird chick is as demanding as Oliver without even so much as a “Please, Sir, I want more.” And the Western Bluebird parent is harried what with three kids, nesting materials, books, cable, and community college funds.

And so it was that, last Wednesday … or maybe Thursday … I had to find new subject matter, and I figured since the bluebirds and blackbirds of all stripes are catching all manner of bug, it was time to go look for damsels and dragons. No, it’s not a new game, damselflies and dragonflies. I’d had about as much luck getting one on the wing as the Redwing Blackbird last year, and I was determined. So, off I went. Within the first three hours, I had made my first “capture,” a blue darner in flight, and a beauty, too. But it made me very nervous because if it was going to be that easy, what was I going to do until the summer avian wave came through.

Not to worry. I got the blue darner, but I hadn’t gotten the female meadowhawk, the red darner or cardinal meadowhawk in flight, and the other 18 species of dragonflies. That doesn’t even include the 229 species of damselflies all of which seem to be blue and identical except to experts. (Experts in such things are currently housed in the California Psychiatric Center for the Criminally Buggy in Vacaville, but that’s another story.)

This, by the way, is a Blue-eyed Darner in flight. According to the FAA, it has a spotless record of on-time service, and has not lost a bag since last summer when it dropped one and picked up another, much to the dismay of its equally horny mate.

And, now the story of Ralph! On the second day out, which was the day after whichever day it was that I started this insect excursion – during which by the way, I met a gopher, a gopher snake who was having a hawkish problem of its own, and several other critters which, those of you who followed Li’l Abner or the Beverly Hillbillies would recognize.. oh, where was I? Oh yes, as I was leaving my front door, my eagle eye spotted a spider no bigger than a quarter-inch in length. As I got the camera focused and finally had to turn to macro which I’m not terribly good at, I noticed he was smiling at me.

You don’t believe me, do you? Well, here’s the only smiling spider I’ve ever met. He was sitting on a geranium , I believe doing a soft-shoe, but maybe he just had to go to the bathroom and, for all I know, he was at a spider stadium where the bathrooms are as crowded as at a Yankee’s game (Click on photo and meet him real close up and personal):

That said, here’s the story of “Ralph, the Smiling Spider.”

I was so excited, but it doesn’t take much nowadays.  It’s the kid getting his Red Rider BB Gun. It’s like the Looney Toons frog that can sing! It’s like Wiley Coyote with brains! I just had to tell the “kids.”

The “kids” are my two daughters, Jennifer (who is usually OTFL when I get done), Amy who chuckles, but sometimes I can get a rise when she isn’t tending to her food blog, my two sons-in-law, Paul who’s theatrically funny, and Jay who’s the one who sends stuff like this via email with cryptic notes.

There’s also my brother and sister-in-law, the latter of whom (who?) doesn’t like phones, and my brother who is still trying to get the hang of hands-free on the Ventura Freeway in L.A. And, to my nephew Charles, who is rarely part of these discussions and said I wouldn’t remember him, Hello, Charles!

In the following, “I,” “Me,” and “Ethan” are all the same person, albeit with split personalities, each of which has split personalities which makes tracing the family tree extremely difficult. I tried it once, but the tree kept coming up with root rot, and none of the personalities was a horticulturist, so we decided to only speak to living relatives insofar as that could be determined. Besides, the living members of the family, both by blood and through barter, are difficult enough to cope with because they all have blogs, Facebook pages, and they tweet a lot, although “tweeting” has different connotations.

Considering that landlines went the way of  the Corvair and Oxydol, we figured we might as well email which is, in our own way, a slow form of texting. Texting, meanwhile, can be anything from an essay to 196 characters which brings us back to the family tree give or take a few characters.

Here’s the email that went out to all corners of California – Sorry the preface was so long, but I already explained that:

Me: Tell me this spider isn’t smiling. 1/4 inch long on the geranium beside the garage. Name’s “Ralph.”

Jennifer:  As creepy as he is; he’s kinda cute.

I: How can you call anything named “Ralph” creepy? He even offered to spin me a sweater.

Amy: I don’t care if he has his own comedy routine, I would still tell Paul to kill him.

Ethan:  You’re mean. He’s already got a name.

Jeffer:  LOL.  This is very funny.

Me: Not to Ralph. Amy’s got a contract out on him!

And that’s where we left it. Paul and Jay were obviously not going to get involved in a hit, and Bob and Jan were strangely. That’s it, just strangely.
I came downstairs, and told Ralph. He was terribly upset, turned on all six heels and left.

And that’s the story of Ralph, the smiling spider. And now it’s back to the swamp, the marsh, the reservoir in search of just about any wildlife with wings although preferably one who can sings and dance.
2010, Ethan A. Winning, Prop.

People: What Makes Photographing Animals Alone So Enjoyable

May 6, 2010

Preface: Last month’s blog was met with such enthusiasm that you just knew there had to be a sequel. One of my electronic friends, Werner, read my blog to his parents, and then took this picture to show the phenomenally joyous response. I just couldn’t disappoint them, so welcome to May!

The “pond” where I go to get at least half my bird and bug pictures is within walking distance of our house, but in order to get there, I have to cross a very busy street. The other day, as I was about to cross saw a woman in a huge Mercedes, and it looked like she was going to make a left and run me over in the bargain. Her window was opened as she waited, and so I yelled over to her, “Did that car come with turn signals or were they an option?” She replied that they came with the car, of course, and I said, “Then why the hell don’t you use them?”

Such a direct demeanor is what makes me so popular. I must be popular: people keep talking to me, whether I want them to or not.

Undaunted, she took off like a shot…without signaling!  This is the same kind of person who uses PhotoShop, puts in two rainbows which end at a bank on Wall Street, and swears it was a natural phenomenon. I am not opposed to Photoshop. I just want to know when it’s being used, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

If you’re reading this, it’s probably because I sent you an email and, if I sent you an email, I assumed that you have or used to have a sense of humor. (Nothing is forever. Who knows, you may watch the news or read the papers.) Assumptions can be very dangerous. First, you should never assume anything about people you have met very briefly at a stop light, or electronically online. There could be something lacking, like native intelligence. I watch enough “House Hunters International” to know that there are people who will buy a 600 year old castle in Italy that is € 30,000 over their budget because they believed a realtor who said that, although it doesn’t have a bathroom, it has a beautiful view. “Look, you can see Capri over there, and on a clear day you can see Forever” which, it turns out is the name of another island.

Anyway, when I don’t go to the pond or reservoir , I go to a salt marsh in a nearby town where people invariably feed the gulls and geese and ducks with stale bread even though there are many signs that say, “Please do not feed the wildlife.” It must be the term “wildlife” that throws them, and most must think it refers to their wives after 10 PM on a Saturday night. Having seen their significant others, there is no question but that alcohol plays a part.

The signs at both places at says, “No fishing, swimming, or feeding the animals.” And I, having saved one gull with a hook in its beak and fishing line around its wings, become the de facto game warden. That’s when I also become the tour guide. Since you would never want to take anybody by the hand never knowing where that hand has been, you crook your finger and they often follow to one of the twelve signs that says, “No fishing etc.”

“But,” said one guy with his wife and grandchildren, “I want to show my kids how much fun it is here.” “Then,” says I, “take them to the kids park away from the marsh and explain why they shouldn’t fish or feed the birds.” I ask if they would ever swim in this place, and they look at me incredulously. “You gotta be kidding, Man. You know what those birds do in this lake? And have you seen the mud and stuff that the birds fish in?”

“Well,” I said, “they would do less of it if you wouldn’t feed them bread and crackers, and let them go about fishing and eating crayfish and frogs.”

And then, several have asked, “What are you, the bird police?” That’s a tough question. I’m standing in shorts, with a golf cap, and a camera, and a T-shirt that says, “Even if I was retired, I wouldn’t talk to you.” So I tell them, “Yes.” And they grumble and walk away mumbling something about being a veteran of the Civil War, Jimmy Buffet, and that they used to pay taxes, all the while having a bout of arthritic middle fingers.

For reasons I will discuss next week or month, I prefer going on my extensive photographic expeditions alone. Unfortunately I’m almost out of birds and bugs at these two places. I got my Redwing Blackbird in flight, and I just got my dragon fly in flight, quite a feat for P&S. I got so good, I even got the proctologist’s view of the Blue-eyed Darner dragonfly.  (You’ll have to go to the Insect Gallery to get a front view.) This means new places and new people to meet, and I do so with apprehension.

A couple of days ago, I was taking photos of the darner and a Double -crested Cormorant, and a woman came over to me and asked, “What choo doing?”

It’s not easy stating the obvious, so I said that I was hired by the state to take a census of all the polywogs in the pond. Mistake! “What’s a polywog?” I told her that it’s just as important to count potential frogs as it was people in this census year. In the meantime, I lost sight of what I had come to photograph and had to refocus. In that time, I lost out on a couple of great photo ops where I could have gotten my Common Yellowthroat. (I don’t know why every bird that starts with “Common” is one I’ve never seen before.)

I did get an iffy picture of a Common Yellowthroat, but it doesn’t meet my new standards, and so I will have to tramp back to the salt marsh for many visits just trying to get one of that bird. I did get a Brown-headed Cowbird (see above) which acts just like the cuckoo and replaces the Yellowthroat’s eggs with their own, and where there’s a cowbird, there’s going to be a Yellowthroat. (Amazing what I’ve learned.)

But then I think, “Why should I care? I don’t have a life list of birds I have to have.” I don’t really have an answer. I just know that, all of a sudden, it’s important to get better and better pictures, and it seems to matter that they be of birds, butterflies, and bugs, none of which are cooperative although the other day, I found a soldier beetle that actually picked up the language.

What cha doin?

A Rose is a Rose is a Duck

April 17, 2010

A double whammy: I’ve got little direction and am easily distracted. Therefore, when I head out to get some photos of birds, that doesn’t mean that I won’t be distracted by a rose, even a rose I’ve been photographing since 2008. Right now I’m trying to get Redwing Blackbirds in flight. I think I finally have an idea as to how to improve my chances: Male RWBB’s always light on the tallest thing in the meadow, and almost always take off into the wind after “singing” three to five times to attract a mate.

So, if I remember to take the camera off the center focus setting, aim a half-inch to the right (depending on wind), I stand a pretty good chance, right? Well, it’s a good thing I stopped using film 10 years ago. I’ve done everything in my power to improve on my in-flight movies … so to speak. Results are in this prize flop.

Well, there’s always tomorrow although it might be overcast. Okay, I’ll give it another half-hour. Remember, this has been going on since my lucky shot last year. I’ve probably spent 100 hours standing in a field of wild mustard and goldenrod and godknowswhatelse, and oooooo, look a spider!

How neat. It’s only a quarter-inch long, and it’s attacking my shoe! That’s chutzpah, but maybe that’s why it’s survived for 20 million years, and my shoes have only lasted one photographic season. It’s a Johnson Jumping Spider, probably because Johnson jumped first. Awfully pretty, red and black and the usual problem of getting the eyes to show up in the shot.

Hmmm, Redwing Blackbirds, a red and black spider… Could there be a pattern to my likes and dislikes? Nah. Back to the RWBB’s. Just have to get that shot. Maybe if I switch to the other end of the field… HONK!!!!

Look up there! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no it’s a bird: Just another Canada Goose heading to Sacramento. Pay attention! Redwing Blackbirds, remember. Man, maybe I do have ADDHDTV. Nah, I wouldn’t have gotten C’s in all my classes for so long. “C’ is for “Consistent,” no? Let’s get back to the RWBB. And remember, when a Canada Goose goes over, don’t look up! I wonder if there’s a commercial use for Canada Goose poop? I coulda made a fortune. I coulda been a contender! Where’d that come from. “Blazing Saddles?” No, “Rocky” I think. Or maybe “Raging Bull.”

“Flamingo Kid?” No that was about gin rummy. I wonder where there are flamingos in California other than on suburban lawns? Love to get a picture of one of those. Hey, there’s a duckling. Pay attention. Cute little guy, though. And boy what his mother went through for that. Those mallard males are just plain mean. And he’s liable to grow up to be half-drowned during mating. Mother Nature is sometimes a bi…polar… Boy, I’d love to see a polar bear in the wild.

Darn, missed another RWBB taking off. There ought to be some sort of announcement: “Now leaving off Post 410, RWBB Flight 12987 to that tree to your left.” “No, your left, my right.” “No, you’re not getting this right.” Oh, just point and shoot. That’s how they sold you the camera.

That could be it! I hope it’s in focus. I hope I got the eye. It looks like it in this…what’s that called again? LCD? It’s not a monitor or, if it is, it’s the world’s smallest. Trouble is, what looks like it’s in focus in the LCD is usually blurred on the monitor at home. That’s okay. Most people aren’t as critical as you. Well, not critical of their own shots. Ah, what do they know? The family will rave. Friends won’t tell you the truth. They’re all getting out their thesauruses looking up new words for “fantastic,” “great shot,” and “beautiful.”

Not as satisfying as getting it right. But you can always use the excuse that it’s a point-and-shoot. Hey, the roses are in bloom. Yeah, but anybody can take a picture of a flower. Flowers don’t move. Yeah, but there’s still the question of composition. What’s to compose? “The Third Piano Concerto” was composed! This is just a rose.

One o’clock! Redwing Blackbird at One o’clock! Take the picture already. Redwood Blackbird at 12 o’clock high! Take it, take it!

Got it! Ah, it’s too small. I’m just going to have to keep trying. Yeah, but in the meantime, tell everybody how tough it was. You got that cumulus cloud on the bottom! That’s different. Tell them that you rented a plane and took the picture at 10,000 feet! At least those who think you’re lazy will think you’re not. But then they’ll think I’m rich. And if I can afford to rent a plane, I can buy a digital SLR.

But I don’t want a digital SLR. I like the challenge. Even if it’s a rose or a duck. After all, a photo is a point in time that can’t be duplicated by someone else, no matter what kind of camera they have. Oooo, that’s deep! You’ve never been known for depth. Just length and verbosity. Oh, what do you know?

Well, one thing I know is that we’re going to have this conversation again tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. Creeps in its petty pace from day to day. Dickinson? Shakespeare? Shakespeare. Good enough. He’s said everything. Too bad he didn’t tell you how to get a Redwing Blackbird in flight.

Time to go home. Gotta upload all these brilliant shots. Oh, look. Groucho Marx on the rear end of a duck! Where, where? Right there. You think I make this stuff up?

Duck © by a mallard. The rest is © by me, E. A. Winning, 2010 and beyond

Photographers, Birders, and Normal People

April 7, 2010

When I was a kid, if someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said a zoologist and, for those of you who think that that means I wanted to clean out pens in a zoo, I suggest you look up the word. I loved (and still love) animals. Any specific animals? Yeah, dogs, but they didn’t qualify. My Dad gave me a 35mm camera in 1953, but putting toads in a bucket was easier than capturing them on film.

That’s really not here nor there. What I’ve found is that most “adults” have hobbies, and most hobbies consist of collecting things. Photographers collect specific photos of their “specialities.” Once I had a macro and long lens, I no longer had specialties: I liked flowers and bugs, and bees, beetles, spiders, birds, scenery, and I thought I was pretty good. The only things I couldn’t capture were my kids and my pets because, as anyone without drugs can tell you, kids and pets neither pay attention to you, not pose without looking posed, come when called, or keep eyes open or look slightly away from the camera. Since digital, I’ve expanded my horizons, but have recently been caught up in the most difficult aspects of nature photography, birds and insects. More later.

Jay Leno collects cars. Warren Buffet collects art. I have an uncle who collects dust. Birders, not all, but most real birders collect life lists. A real birder starts a list of all the birds he or she has seen and preferably photographed, until they have seen every bird in Canada, then North America, then the world. There are over 10,000 species of birds in the world, so it’s best to start locally and have a plan. (My plan is to stay local and wait for promiscuity or a strong wind to bring them to me.)

Photography and birding have three things in common: (1) They can be tremendously enjoyable and fulfilling, (2) they can be tremendously expensive, and (3) they can be frustrating. Now you may think that traveling all over the world to complete your life’s list of birds is more expensive than photography, but it isn’t true. While digital photography doesn’t use film, it uses ego which calls for equipment and sometimes one or more equipment bearers. One hundred pounds of stuff is not unusual for a photographer, and that’s just to go to the park. Within days of getting their first camera body and lens, they have to hire an equipment bearer and a guide named Guido.

Photographers: Let’s start with photographers. First, if they belong to SmugMug or Flickr, they all think they’re going to sell their photos, and some think they’re really going to make money from this hobby. The operative word is “hobby.” But they’re so sure that they’re going to sell their stuff, they cover their photos with a copyright mark that obscures the entire picture. Half the time, it looks like they’re selling their logo.

No, you probably will not make money. Go for blue ribbons. Or a compliment. Typical nature or bird photographers look like these guys: They look like photographers, but actually. they are equipment collectors. Because the peripherals such as extra batteries and brushes and motor drives and Guido take up so much room, this is the way they dress no matter what the weather. After all, the photographers greatest friend is more pockets than a pool table.

I happen to know these two photogs. It would seem that the one on the right has the longer lens, but in actuality, it is a missile launcher and his motto is that “size matters” because you may never know if you have to take down a turkey vulture in order to then take his picture. The guy on the left is only carrying one of his twenty lenses, but that too is not a lens. It’s a flask that holds about a fifth of vodka which serves two purposes: (1) it keeps you warm in winter even though this photo was taken in August, and (2) after consuming the contents, you don’t give a hoot what you’ve got a picture of, it’s going to look good to you!

To make certain that you can indeed come back from the “field” with something to show for it, both of these gentlemen (and I will give them that – they are both polite even if slightly off their respective rockers), they have motor drives that can shoot 15 photos per second, so they’re bound to get something. So far, Tony got the flu, but that’s another story.

The other thing I’ve found is that two photographers together are absolutely oblivious to their surroundings. While I was taking their picture, they missed a great blue heron, a green heron, California quail, two coyotes, a partridge in a pear tree, and Christmas. They were too busy discussing the merits of their lenses and what they got last week.

Another peculiarity is that photographers like to take pictures of other photographers. While at the Martinez Marsh, I caught this photographer taking my picture, so I reciprocated: I don’t know the purpose of this sub-specialty of the hobby, but I have a hunch that it’s to make sure that your lens is not bigger than his.

Oddly, both birders and photographers have the same idiosyncrasies. They will ask you what you’re taking picture of or what birds you’re out to capture, and one of you will have already gotten that bird two days ago elsewhere. They will also tell each other what they missed at another location, what a great shot they got and just happen to have on their i-Touch or MP3 Player, and that every single one of those birds just migrated to some other part of the globe. Then when you talk to one of the photogs or birders, each will tell you that the other guys talks too much, and they couldn’t wait to get away so that they could continue on they quest for the very rare quetzalcoatl which is half man, half bird and lives in Mexico, BUT which his Uncle Javier saw last week after finishing off the remnants of his fermenting cactus which he carries with the rest of his equipment.

Birders: Birders are slightly crazier than nature photographers. Whether their life lists are for a continent or even a Canadian province, they will go to extremes to check off another bird from their list. You think I jest, but I highly recommend the book, “The Big Year” by Mark Obmascik, an absolutely fascinating “competition” between four men who spent thousands to see and photograph (as proof) every species in North America. The only caveat I’ll give you is that this was prior to 2001, and could be done because it was easier to get a flight a moment’s notice and go from Phoenix to the Arctic Circle in search of a rare booby or some such, and then head to Florida to go through the swamps to catch another rare species and all this to check off another bird on the list. This, too, is a hobby.

This is what separates hobbyists from fanatics. I am a hobbyist. I like the comforts of home. My two Ontario friends who are really combinations of birders and photographers (although each a little more one than the other) have suffered through below freezing weather for hours – if not days – to get a photo of a snowy owl or a Lapland Longspur, the first to subsequently enter and win a photographic contest (and richly deserved) and the second because he’d never seen a Lapland Longspur. That it made them both happy may separate them from me and my philosophy.

I am new to birding, and I don’t have a life list because I plan on never getting on a plane again or even leaving the Western U.S. and Canada. Further, I’m old enough to be everybody’s father, so I’d have to hurry to get these birds, and I don’t hurry the way I used to. And I love birds, and love to photograph them, but I do it with a point-and-shoot camera, and I really do that for two reasons: (1) it always leaves me wanting a better shot, and (2) almost anyone with a 400mm lens and a motor drive can capture a bird he sees. I’m pretty good with my P&S so I’m told, and I’d rather be pretty good with a P&S than mediocre with $7,000 worth of equipment that I can barely lift to get 300 pictures and be able to pick out one that is what I would consider fantastic. Now, if you had to suffer a bit to get that picture, I have a lot more respect.

As I said, I like my creature comforts. I ran across this guy the other day the other day, knee deep in muck because he was determined to get the first of the new crop of damselflies in which he specializes. I admire the fact that he specializes in damsels and dragonflies as well and I really admire the fact that he can tell the difference between species, but even though he had shoes on, you ain’t going to see me in muck for any reason. One has to draw the line somewhere. Muck is the first line. Cold is the second, and I’m thinking of my Ontario friends sitting in -30° F to get some prize pictures. And I have the perfect excuses for all of this: other than being a pseudo-intellectual who prefers an armchair to a tent, what can I possibly do with a point-and-shoot camera?

Okay, if  I’m not a birder and have no life’s list, and just a P&S camera, what am I? Well, I’m an often contented person who takes pictures of flowers in the Spring, birds, insects, and sometimes a mammal like a muskrat or coyote, and then whatever else Mother Nature puts in my path.

But, as I have often heard from both groups, you don’t get the prize winners! Ah, but I do. Consider this 16 inch-tall bird (snowy egret right) with more feathers than all the pillows on my bed. That’s my prize. Or the favorite of those who come to my site which happens to be a Redwing Blackbird in Flight which I have been dissatisfied with for the past year: I’ve been dissatisfied, and then after a year of trying, today I captured the shot I thought I was looking for. It must have taken me 30 trips to that meadow – that’s 45 miles of walking for this once-in-a-Springtime chance – to get this shot in flight over the meadow: And guess what? I’m not as happy with it as I was at four o’clock this afternoon. I want something sharper and the Redwing Blackbird should be flying slightly toward me, or … wait, wait… how about two males fighting for territory within 20 feet of me???? Now you see. With my little point-and-shoot, there’s always something a little bit better (although some of my flowers – which don’t move and therefore leave lighting and depth of field and mood and color and beauty as my objectives) that I can get another time. If I ever win that much sought-after grand prize for nature photography, there may be no challenges left. And so, I’m part-birder and part photographer, but mostly just someone who enjoys these marvels of nature. I don’t care if I sell anything, but I wouldn’t mind on my last day to have won the supreme nature photo prize, THE PULLET SURPRISE!

Where Did All The Birdies Go?

March 19, 2010

Originally, I was going to advise people on what kind of cameras they should get, but this is a blog, not a 1200 page book, and I’m a rank amateur (I will take a bath on Saturday), and came to realize that all I know are two kinds of  Canons and one Olympus. As time goes on, I will give some helpful hints to taking great (well, good – the rest is up to you) photos with a point and shoot digital camera. For example,  just because you can point and shoot doesn’t mean that anything will show up on your memory card. You may have left the lens cap on. Don’t know what a lens cap is? I’ll even get into that before my time is up.

Right now I want to know something from those of you who may actually know something. About five years ago, I “got into” photographing birds when I realized that if you chummed for them with seed, they will come. They will bring all their uncles and aunts and even a few squirrels, the latter becoming a major source of entertainment for birding magazines, British television, and a few PBS stations in the U.S. Okay, so my most popular (by your vote) photo over the past five years is of a praying mantis, it flies, so for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s a predecessor to the bird.

Most photos that go back this far (see also half of the flowers) were taken with the Canon A620 OR even a very limited Olympus Camedia 3.2 MP digital. In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve become enamored of birds. They’re tiny; they’re huge; they’re bland; they’re extremely colorful; they fish for food – really fish; they snatch their prey out of the air faster than I can capture the shot; they come and they go; and when they’re gone, I really miss them. And they have unique body parts that enable them to … well, perch, for one thing. Did you know that the American Kestrel has a “plastic handcuff” ratchet device in each foot that lock into place when they perch, and release the locking cogs when taking off. Neat! I’ll bet some of them have Velcro slippers when nesting that we haven’t discovered yet.

So, from A620 to S3IS to SX10 IS and the longest lens – but still not missile launcher, each camera has brought me closer to and given me a great appreciation of things that fly, starting with the butterfly (which is often just as tough to capture on memory card as any bird), the mantis, and the bird. If you were to go to my bird galleries, you would notice that some photos were taken with feeders. Good pix, but I still felt that I was cheating. Then I moved onward and sideways to perching birds like “Harry,” my hummer who has, for at least four years, chosen the same highest branch of the same tree right outside our front gate. Unfortunately, the tree has grown at least 12 feet since last year, so a new lens provided me with no advantage and a great deal of frustration. (I may even have to jury-rig a hummingbird feeder just to get something close to what the DSLR people are getting.)

And then, I got a belted kingfisher at a distance, and a Western bluebird at a distance, and a yellow-rumped warbler at a distance. And by the time I studied them and their migration routes, Spring was gone, summer was almost over, and the birds had taken off for Spokane, Baja, and Sacramento or wherever they go for Spring break regardless of season. So, I waited, and waited and waited, and Spring came two weeks ago!

Holy mackerel, in one week, I had gotten my Western bluebird with all the glorious plumage (which by the way contains no pigment, but special cells that collect and, like a prism, gives off those vibrant blues), redwing blackbirds (two subspecies right here); male and female mergansers, greater scaups in breeding plumage and bills (blue beaks!), yellow-rumped warblers by the hundreds, Anna’s hummers building nests, snowy egrets having their fill of crayfish, Oregon Juncos (aka, dark-eyed Juncos), and on and on. I was shooting as many as 400 photos in one day and posting them, reluctantly taking 80 percent oft hem down when my advisers (more of that later) said that too many detract from the really good few. Two days ago, there were at least 15 bufflehead ducks and hundreds of … damselflies! I knew it! I saw duckweed forming and algae, and when that occurs, damsels and dragons can’t be far behind. And that means that the green heron should be back soon.

Why, I even had a song sparrow come right up to me and belt out “That’s Amore.” It’s Spring, and the sparrows and finches are in fine fettle. I have come to the conclusion that the “duller” the wardrobe, the better the songbook. So the sparrow and oak titmouse have great repertoires, and the redwing and goldfinch have the suits.

That was Wednesday. This is Friday. They’re almost all gone. Even the redwings have dropped to a trickle at both the pond and the saltmarsh. But the damselflies promised! What if they don’t come back? What if they come back when it’s 110 degrees, and I have to drag my sorry butt through wadis and oases and other things out of a Peter Arno cartoon?

Three years ago, I started a calendar that announces the first time I saw a particular bird, and then where and when a whole bunch (symphony, flock, covey, gaggle, etc.) showed up. I don’t know where these birds went, but by mid-April and May, they should be back. The only ones who don’t disappear are the Canada geese, whose plural – as any golfer will tell you – should be a “Crapper of Geese.” I’m sorry, but these rather stately birds, are like flying Chihuahua with stomach flu.

The answer to my question about where did all the birdies go may be simply that Spring came very early this year. Wings and breasts and rumps weren’t quite ready, and music lessons hadn’t concluded. These then became practice sessions for what will happen in the middle of the real Spring! What do I do in the interim? Well, I continue to go to my two favorite haunts because I don’t have the “perfect” (or even a “very good” – which is now “acceptable”) oak titmouse. Nor a redwing blackbird in flight other than this, the second most popular photo I’ve ever taken with a P&S… I don’t think I’ll take any more pictures of flowers: there are already over a thousand on the site. I might separate out the wildflowers as soon as I find out what they are.

No, this is the time to go visit other favorite amateurs. There’s my brother, Bob, who likes to take pictures of old women in Southeast Asia smoking cigars, and lots of buildings and architecture. But his cigar-smokers are prize winners. A change of pace from birds, every so often I go visit my brother’s bizarre bazaars. There’s my daughter who is using my A620 for photos of food (a sub-specialty in photography), who’s getting pretty good, too.

My two “advisers,” both in Ontario and worlds apart, Gilles, whose photos are phenomenal, but who “specializes” in snowy owls, one of which won the all-Canada competition in 2007; and Peeter, who is my identifier, who has a “life list” (a subject for another blog), but who is not only a great photographer, but also one hell of a wood carver of birds.

There is Dave who take the mundane and makes it dane, and last, a husband and wife team, Chuck and Paula, Chuck who makes things funny and who I secretly think of as the hillbilly of digital photography, and Paula who experiments with PhotoShop and other special effects but whose real gems are her scenics and still-lifes like Chuck.

Next week: “Constructive Criticism, Does It Really Exist You Neanderthal,” and for those who feel uncomfortable leaving a comment like, “You shot that bird real good,” a complete thesaurus of “photo, shot, capture, composition, wonderful, and fantastic.”

Point and Shoot Nature Photography – Part 1: Don’t Talk To Strangers With Big Lenses

March 6, 2010

I’ve been taking pictures for 62 years. Does that make me good? Absolutely not. I know some people who, after 60 years of photographing others, still can’t get a whole person into a frame. Everybody in their worlds is disabled. No feet. No head. That the subjects have been able to survive is astounding.

More amazing is that about half of those “photographers” have spent thousands on their equipment. They have all manner of lenses and if into birding, a telephoto that allows them to see the Hassleblad left on the moon. They have motor drives the size of a VW, but often forget batteries. They have tripods, monopods, peapods, and for what? By the time they get set up, their subjects have moved, raised families, fallen asleep, left to get something to eat. Birds have had three broods and have molted twice. Mice have become rats, and rats have become politicians. That’s how long it takes them to take one really bad picture. Combat photographers can finish a whole war by the time most amateurs fill up the SD card that came with their digital camera. You think I jest? Just look at this fella who uses binoculars to find his telephoto!

These same “photographers” are the only ones who have ever tried to use the self-timer. Not once have they made it into a shot. The Christmas family photo was finally printed at Easter, and no matter what the setting, all you’ll see of Uncle Rudolph is his leg coming into the frame from the right.

My greatest fault when it comes to photography is that I’m lazy. It’s also my greatest asset. How can that be? Well, when I moved to digital photography, I decided no more schlepping 35 pounds of camera equipment with me. Nope. I was going light, and I’ve actually done it for ten years now. My only camera today is an  SX10, a 10 MP, 20x optical zoom camera with bells and whistles I’ll never use although at my age, I might hear. The camera weighs just over a pound, and that’s it!

No tripod because I am trying to shoot birds and other wildlife, most of which moves, hence “wild life.” You can’t go up to a Phoebe and ask her to sit still while you take her picture. In fact, you can’t go up to a Phoebe at all. Either nature comes to you or you go and chase it, but you don’t do it with a tripod and a 35 pound pack.

What has changed over the years is that starting four or five years ago, I actually read the manual that came with the camera. Oddly, digital cameras still come with a manual. The manual cannot be understood, but you might  glean just enough to screw around for six months before you get some decent photos. It takes at least six months to figure out what you’ll never use. In the process, you find out how to use what little you will.

The manual that came with my latest point-and-shoot camera came in seven languages, none of which I read of speak. The English portion was written by Chaucer and subsequently translated into olde German because it has numbers in it. It has charts and color pictures in black and white, but I gave it my best, and left the house after 15 minutes and started shooting pictures of everything in every mode. Av, Tv, M, HDTV, ADD.

The first thing I noticed about digital photography was that, since there is no film, you can shoot a thousand pictures and it costs nothing. Experience is, then, at no additional charge. That you spend $70,000 in ink for your $85 printer is another story which I will definitely cover in another blog. The reason that digital photography is such a great hobby is that it’s so time consuming after you get home! You have to decide what to keep and what to get rid of. For some, I would suggest getting rid of the camera, but that is cruel and tactless another hobby which gives me additional hours of pleasure.

In the spirit of keeping it simple, I only use the LCD for taking pictures about five percent of the time. I use it for hard to get at subjects like those very close to the ground; I use it for many macros though I’ve found that with 10 MP and 20x zoom, I don’t use the macro as often as I used to; I use it when I have to take a picture of a subject that I can’t see because somebody or some thing is in my way; and I use it to preview shots that I’ve just taken ‘to see if adjustments in aperture or speed are necessary. Once that is determined, I usually break for lunch.

I use the viewfinder about 95 percent of the time. My viewfinder has a thumb wheel for adjustments for those of us who wear glasses, making the viewfinder much easier and faster than it ever has been before, and much, much easier than the LCD. This is no Speed Graphic: it’s a point-and-shoot. (And if you know what a Speed Graphic is, you might actually be older than I.)

So how do I get any decent photo of a bird?  (Oh my God, he actually got around to the subject!) As I say in my very brief bio , I look, I listen, and I read, not always in that order. This photo of a Cedar Waxwing was in the very first group of pictures I took with an S3, the first camera with a decent zoom:

When we had our little Cairn terrier, Alex, I’d walk him at 7:00 every morning and in the process, I took note more and more about what was going on around me. I had nothing better to do. Alex had his purpose, and now I had mine. I saw that these birds roost in trees near pyracanthas, and I found out they got stoned by eating so many of the berries. Since even cedar waxwings know you shouldn’t drink and fly, they’d roost, and what better time than to take pictures of waxwings then when they’re half-zonked out on the branch of an alder? (The word “passerine” comes from the Latin, to be schnockered.)

So, knowledge is the first trick. Looking up or down is the second. (Down is especially important during Canada geese migrations.) The third – if you’re looking for birds – would normally be to listen, but I’ve never heard a waxwing sing or even hiccup.

One would think that a flock of waxwings would be easy to see, but in fact, they’re well camouflaged.  And so reading about your subject is an essential step in nature photography. Then, listen for the song which allows you to differentiate between a crow and a Delta jet (another clue is that the crow has more leg room). Last, look, and since you read the book, you know where to look. Some birds nest in trees, others on office buildings. If you have trouble with that concept, you might want to pick up a copy of Audubon’s “Office Buildings of North America.”

Of the 1,700 photos I’ve posted, many are good enough to publish. Two people have told me that. Unfortunately, they’re not publishers. Most of us are our own toughest critics, although that could just be the berries talking. But the effort to sell a photo should be tempered by the fact that there are 6 million “photographers” out there who think that they are professionals (specializing in headless ducks). Nature photography should be enjoyable, and part of the enjoyment is improving in capturing the shot with a perfect background and a subject with all its limbs. As soon as you make it into a business, it’s serious stuff and not so much fun anymore.

If you really have an appendage problem, try landscapes or seascapes or skyscrapers (after you buy the Audubon book). But then, you might want to learn more about composition. Next month, in addition to getting off the subject of birds, I might touch on second grade composition. In the interim, and considering the earthquakes of late, please visit a stationary stationery store and buy a composition book.

Next week or month or Tuesday –  “Real Tips for Pointing-and-Shooting,” or “When to Use PhotoShop, and When to Just Go Shopping,” or “Patience: Stalking Just Because You Have a Life List.” Or “What to Wear That Will Attract Animals But Not Buckshot.” Or, “You Can Always Tell a Photographer; You Just Can’t Tell Him Much.” We’ll see.

Ethan Winning

Author of “When Someone Yells ‘Duck!’ First Consider the Group You’re With”

New Site for Nature Photography

March 17, 2009

Lesser Goldfinch

More than 1,700 of my best photos have been moved to our new URL: http://www.ethanwinning.com. This WordPress site will now become my photo blog, dedicated to point-and-shoot nature photography.

Take a look at the galleries of photos divided into Birds, Flowers, Scenics, Other Nature, Roses, and My Personal Favorites. I’ve been at this for a long time, and have some standing in the nature photography community – whatever that means. (It means I’m really good, but it’s not polite to tell you just how good I am.)

Ethan Winning