Sunday, February 18, 2018

Eye on the prize, Little Blue Heron at Bunche Beach

Little blue heron ready to strike at Bunche Beach, Florida

With no recent trips to pull from, here are two frames from a fantastic trip to southwest Florida I had a few years ago. I spent two mornings at Bunch Beach Preserve in Fort Myers, and came back with so many images (many of which are still waiting to be shared). That area is truly a bird photographers haven!

Little blue heron snatching a fish from the tidal pool

I watched this little blue heron hunting in a shallow tidal pool for over a half an hour. It strolled back and forth through the water, constantly searching for prey, and I saw it pull a surprising amount of fish from the small pool. When the image above is viewed at 100%, you can see the small fish caught in its bill behind the splashing water, which it shows off quickly below before swallowing it down.

Little blue heron with a fish in the bill

Monday, February 12, 2018

Harsh realities of being small, Piping plover at Sandy Point

This piping plover wraps up my belated posts of the stories behind my five favorite photographs from 2017. In a typical year, the goal would be to blog about the photos long before the annual summary -- but I've ended up trying things in reverse this year. Anyway, it was a beautiful day on this late spring trip to Sandy Point State Reservation with moisture-rich clouds adding color to the sky and providing nice diffuse light and a handful of piping plovers scurrying around the beach. Really, it's hard to ask for much better conditions, at least between the intense gusts of wind blowing across the water.

Piping plover walking slowly across the beach at Sandy Point State Reservation

I was laying in the sand with this friendly plover, enjoying the chance to watch it rest and preen. But when the wind started to blow, the sand fiercely ripped around. While walking around the park that day, the sand steadily pelted my face whenever the wind blew. But while laying prone in the sand, I could really feel the intensity of the higher density of sand near the ground. While my sand blasting was optional, it was a hard lesson to realize that these tiny shorebirds have to deal with this every time a stiff wind blows!

Piping plover in lightly blowing sand in Massachusetts

In this series of photographs, you can see how when the intensity of the wind picks up, the bird is heavily obscured by the sand, even from my relatively close observation point. It was apparently intense even for the bird, who closed it's eyes against the wind. I found the plovers to be fairly resilient though, as well as opportunistic in seeking shelter. I observed them scurrying behind any small windbreak they could find, including this tiny "dune" formed by a small collection of leaves and wrack.

Piping plover obscured by blowing sand in Massachusetts

Eventually, this bird realized that it's wind break just wasn't cutting it, so it stepped out and leaned into the wind as it sought better shelter. I really love how this last frame came together -- with the stoic look of the bird boldly walking into the sandstorm against the streaks of individual sand grains -- leaving me with one of my favorite photos of the year.

Piping plover facing a stiff wind and walking into blowing sand


Submitted to Wild Bird Wednesday -- follow the link for this week's posts!

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Backlit sanderlings, Ogunquit Beach

A flock of sanderlings feeds on Ogunquit Beach, Maine

As I mentioned in my previous post, the conditions weren't ideal for photography on my fall trip to Southern Maine -- but when I find a flock of friendly sandpipers, it's worth making the most of it! As the rising tide continuously pushed the flock to different positions around me, I had to settle for some angles looking directly toward the morning sun. When this happened, I pulled my eye away from the viewfinder and just enjoyed the lively scene of this energetic flock of shorebirds. Thankfully, there were some high clouds passing through, so when one slipped in front of the sun, I'd go back to the camera and work what I could. At the time, I didn't have much faith that any of the images would turn out. This proved to be mostly true when I reviewed the images later, but this frame stood out to me with the pattern of the three feeding birds and enough details in the shadows. It's not my typical style of shorebird photography, but it's fun to take advantage of a new challenge when the opportunity presents itself.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Sanderlings in Maine

Sanderling walks along the waters edge at Ogunquit Beach in Maine

Maine is not synonymous with shorebirds for me -- as most of our experiences in coastal Maine, since moving to Massachusetts, have been in Acadia. While there are probably shorebirds around that area at certain times of year, I haven't had the pleasure of seeing any on our summer trips. This fall we took a short weekend trip to southern Maine, and a priority goal was to hit the beach at sunrise to search for some peeps. I checked the eBird recent sightings, and judged that Ogunquit Beach would likely be my best chance. It just so happened that we traveled there during "OgunquitFest" weekend, and I was surprised at how many other folks were out strolling the beach for the sunrise. I can't blame anyone for ever wanting to enjoy the sun rising over the water, but the density of people out early on the beach meant that my chance to encounter a friendly flock of sandpipers had greatly decreased. It was a still a delight to take a long morning stroll through the exposed sands of a low tide, but not a single shorebird was out along the way.

My luck turned though as I made my final approach back to the parking lot. Down at the far end of the beach (in the opposite direction of how I walked) was a small flock of maybe 50 sanderlings. Even though the good light had faded, I wasn't about to pass up my first chance in months to share space with some shorebirds. The direction of the beach made getting a good angle tough, and the light was only reasonable when I cloud passed over the sun, but it was fantastic to hear their exuberant peeping as they probed the sand being covered by the rising tide.

Sanderling feeds with reflection at Ogunquit Beach in Maine

With less than ideal conditions, including having to put the rising tide at my back, I didn't fully commit to a true eye-level view of the birds -- which has been my preferred technique over the last few years. Keeping my camera on the ballhead a few inches above the ground worked out reasonably well though when they approached the saturated sand, giving me the chance to capture some reflections. Even if I didn't come away with any portfolio level images, it was still fun to add a new state to my shorebird catalog.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Serenity in a salt marsh, Parker River National Wildlife Refuge

Snowy egret standing in shallow water with salt grass in Parker River NWR

"What good is a salt marsh?" asks the sign at the long pull-off area next to the salt pannes in Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. I love this sign with its catchy title, and it shares important natural features of these awesome ecosystems. For me, the essence of a salt marsh goes even further. There's something about this ecosystem that just pulls me in -- far enough that I studied them for my Ph.D.! The sights, the smells, just the feel of a breeze flowing over them, it's all unmatched for me. Photographically, I haven't made that many images that attempt to capture some of that magic. I'm usually distracted looking for wildlife, like this snowy egret, rather than focusing on all of the interesting details that abound.

Snowy egret stretches its wings at sunset

On my drive out of the refuge as the sun was dropping fast toward the horizon, I pulled off the road to watch this delightful snowy egret hunting in the shallow water. Its feathers were drenched in the warm glow of the falling light, and it emphatically leapt from panne to panne as it searched for a meal. I followed it with my lens, having to roll the car forward a few times to keep up with its exuberance. Egrets are a marvel to watch as they hunt, darting this way and that, shading the water, and seemingly dancing their way through the process. I was happy to observe its show near the road, and after a few minutes, it flew further back into the marsh. The golden light was caressing the salt grass and casting low shadows, and everything fell into place when the egret landed and set off a wave of small ripples, leaving me with one of my favorite photos from 2017.

Peaceful scene of a snowy egret in salt marsh at sunset

So what good is a salt marsh? The list of benefits is long, but at the top for me is the warm feeling that overcomes my consciousness when I'm able to soak in a scene like this.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sprint and stop, Piping Plover at Sandy Point State Reservation

Photo of a running piping plover on the beach in Massachusetts


As I mentioned in my favorite photos of 2017 post, this very friendly piping plover gave me a lot of great looks as it sprinted across the sand and then stopped on a dime. It's an interesting behavior -- I'm not sure if it's related to finding prey or to evading predators, but its certainly common among the piping plovers I've had a chance to observe. After I positioned myself in the sand, the plover kept working its way closer, giving me wary but seemingly curious looks along the way. It continued to close the distance between us, with the frame below being taken at 270mm on my telephoto zoom. Eventually, it came close enough that I could no longer attempt to focus on it (my Tamron has a minimum focusing distance of 8 feet), so I pulled back from the viewfinder and just enjoyed the chance to observe a gorgeous shorebird at close range. It's always special to earn the trust of a wild animal and the opportunity to share space with it on its own terms!

Curious piping plover at Sandy Point State Reservation, Massachusetts

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Protection from the world, Sandy Point State Reservation

Photo of a piping plover protecting its chick from the blowing sand in Massachusetts

I led off my favorite photos of 2017 post with this handsome piping plover and its chick set against the lush green backdrop of the dunes. On its own, that image (the last in this post) warms my heart with a tender moment between a parent and the most important being in the world to it (something I can now relate to!). I think the full context of this image is interesting to show as well. It was a reasonably nice day on the beach, but there was an occasional stiff wind ripping over the inlet and across the spit of sand at the tip of Sandy Point State Reservation. The strong gusts were pelting us with blowing sand, and this noble adult was attempting to shelter its chick from the elements.

Photo of a piping plover protecting its chick from blowing sand

But when the winds settled down, the chick was ready to go again, and quickly pulled away from the warm embrace of its parent.

Piping plover pulling out from beneath its parent

It paused for a moment, leaning in for reassuring touch before darting across the sand on its own. I can empathize with how I imagine the parent must have felt, left behind to watch its offspring cutting out on its own -- still needing protection and assurance, but also the chance to explore the world independently. No matter how much we want to, there's only so much we can do to protect our kids, and at least mine still has a while to go before he's charting his own path across the beach!

Photo of piping plover parent and chick in Massachusetts

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Favorite Photographs of 2017

2017 was an exciting year for me, though not as much for photography. We welcomed our first child to the family, and it has been so much fun being a new father. This, of course, has left my free time pretty limited -- though I did make a few pre-baby trips to Plum Island to look for piping plovers, and I had a chance to spend time with a small flock of sandpipers on our first trip with the baby to Southern Maine.

I enjoy reflecting on the images I've taken each year, and even with only a handful of photographic opportunities this year, I was still able to come home with a few noteworthy photos. I'm far too late to submit to Jim Goldstein's Annual Blog Project -- but it remains an inspiration for this yearly endeavor. Here are my five favorite photographs from 2017.

Plover parent and chick, Sandy Point State Reservation
This is perhaps my favorite of the year based on the context of my own 2017. While waiting for the arrival of my son this summer, I was able to get away for a short outing to look for baby piping plovers at Sandy Point State Reservation on Plum Island. Two years ago, I had a handful of very productive trips there and there seemed to be plover chicks all over the beach with some parents watching over as many as four at a time. Unfortunately, this was one of only three chicks I saw on the beach this year, and it was the single chick in the clutch for this parent. While it was disappointing to see so few nesting plovers, it was special to observe this parent watching over it's chick -- especially when I knew that my own son would be arriving soon. While humans have our own set of challenges as new parents, at least our babies aren't born mobile and running around on the beach evading predators from day one!
Photo of piping plover parent and chick in Massachusetts


Running piping plover, Sandy Point State Reservation
On a spring trip to catch the sunset on Plum Island, there was a dearth of sandpipers around, but I did have a nice encounter with a handful of piping plovers cruising the tidal flats. It's always special to be able to observe a threatened species, and this particular adult gave me a lot of nice looks as it probed the sand looking for a late meal. They have such an interesting rhythm as they run in short bursts of speed before stopping on a dime, then running again. Here, this friendly plover was sprinting straight toward my lens (eventually getting within my minimum focusing distance before scurrying off in a different direction.)
Photo of a running piping plover on the beach in Massachusetts


Snowy egret in a salt marsh, Parker River National Wildlife Refuge
On my drive out of the refuge as the last of the sun's rays were slipping past the horizon, I saw this lone egret working the salt pannes of the Great Marsh. Wetlands are by far my favorite ecosystem, and yet I've struggled to create many meaningful images of them. This one came together nicely for me -- with the low golden light, a beautiful white bird causing waves of ripples, and the lush greens of springtime salt grass. Taking in a scene like this with a deep cleansing breath is food for my soul.
Wildlife Photography by Pat Ulrich: Herons & Egrets &emdash; Snowy egret in salt marsh at sunset


Harsh realities of being small, Sandy Point State Reservation
The wind was really whipping on this trip. My face was scoured by sand while walking along the beach, but when going down to ground-level, I could get an even stronger feel for how tough it must be to live in this harsh coastal environment. I was able to create a series of interesting images with the sand blurring out the scene, and the plovers finding any small shelter they could on the beach. But in this one, the steadfast strength of the small bird pushing forward into the driving sand speaks to me.
Photo of a piping plover walking through blowing sand in Massachusetts


Backlit sanderlings, Ogunquit Beach, Maine
We took a weekend trip to Southern Maine in the fall to introduce my son to the coast. He had a blast on our afternoon visit to the beach, and I sincerely hope we're able to pass to him our love of the coastal environment. The next day, my wife graciously made me get up before the sunrise to seek out some shorebirds. I took a long walk along Ogunquit Beach with the rising sun and found none. Then, as seems to happen far too often, as I was nearly back to my car the birds were hanging out in sight of the parking lot! The contours of the beach and rising tide limited my ability to get a good position with the sun over my shoulder without getting soaked. But the birds were extremely friendly, so I tried to make the most of the situation. I attempted some more stark backlit silhouettes with reflections in the wet sand, but this composition worked best in a fleeting moment when a cloud passed over the sun.
Wildlife Photography by Pat Ulrich: Sanderlings &emdash; Backlit sanderlings in Maine

Thanks for taking a look through my favorites from the past year, and all the best to you for 2018!