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Independence Day

On July 4th I headed to the beach to check on my Least Tern chicks.  It had been a couple of weeks, and I knew that my cute little puffballs would have grown almost to full size and be celebrating their own independence.  When I arrived, though, I was surprised.  I found only one fledgling!  Most of the terns were still hanging around the colony, but they didn’t care that I was there.  So I laid down on my stomach and photographed the one fledgling.

Least Tern Fledgling

Least Tern Fledgling

It’s amazing how quickly the babies grow up!  The fledgling is almost as big as Mom. His feathers have already changed to resemble those of his parents, although the juvie has more brown and black speckles on his back.  For comparison’s sake, I photoshopped a picture of the juvenile with a photo I’d taken of a chick just a few weeks before.  Look at the difference!

They Grow Up So Fast!

They Grow Up So Fast!

In the hours spent lying on the sand, I did spot one other chick running around at the back of the colony.  This bird was probably about a week old.  His mom flew in occasionally with a fish, but for the most part, he spent most of the morning by himself.  I loved the “bird in the environment” feel of this photo.  You can see how well the baby blends in with the beach.

Least Tern Chick

Least Tern Chick

Right in front of me, the fledgling was getting lots of attention from Mom.  It takes a lot of fish to keep a growing bird fed!  I learned to focus on Junior and listen for his excited calls when he spotted Mom flying in.

Food on the Way!

Food on the Way!

He’d dance like this for about a second or two before Mom arrived.  Then she’d land, hand off the fish, he’d gulp it down, and Mom would fly off in about a split second.  It’s very different than the tiny chicks’ protracted attempts to swallow a whole fish.

Breakfast Handoff

Breakfast Handoff

This hungry juvie seemed like he could basically take care of himself, with one minor technicality – he hadn’t yet figured out how to use those wings!  I have a feeling that he was within a few days of soaring over the ocean to find his food all by himself.

Flight of the Fish!

Flight of the Fish!

A year-old bird kept walking around Junior to offer him a fish.  I think the older bird was practicing courtship behaviors and didn’t understand why the weeks-old bird wasn’t responding.  Our Junior only took food from Mom! At one point, Mom flew in with a fish for Junior and had to chase off the year-old suitor.  I had to chuckle when I realized I had a shot of both birds with fish in their mouths.

Mom, I'm Hungry!

Mom, I’m Hungry!

This was my last visit to the Least Tern colony this year.  It was a spectacular year!

My Sunset Project

For the past couple of years, I’ve been doing a little “Sunset Project” in the backroads near my house.  I’ve read that the best way to study light is to make the same photograph every day for a whole year and observe how the light falls and the shadows change.  Well, I couldn’t commit to a 365 day project with my work schedule, but I did try to get out there at least every couple of weeks.  I’ll share them in an extra-long blog post to show how the landscape changes over the course of a year.

In the early spring the fields are green with fresh rainfall, but the grass isn’t very high.  Cows roam on these fields to help keep them mowed.  Sometimes the best sunset conditions are with some clouds, which catch the light of the setting sun and glow pink and blue and purple.

Sunset Project - Sun Sets Over the Fields (May)

Sun Sets Over the Fields (May)

Sunset Project - Grassy Sunset (May)

Grassy Sunset (May)

The grasses out have golden tops that glow as they are backlit by the setting sun.  Sometimes the rays come down at a gorgeous angle and set the entire fields a-glow…

Sunset Project - Afternoon Light - May

Afternoon Light – May

Here’s a close-up of one of the grasses.

Glowing in the Wind

Glowing in the Wind (May)

Of course, it’s not always bright and sunny, not even in Florida!  For the first couple months of my project, I went out only when I thought the weather conditions would be good.  Then I realized that I should try some cloudy days, and I might be surprised at the results.  I was!  Some of my best images were from really poor weather days…

Clouds at the Sunset (August)

Clouds at the Sunset (August)

On this particular day, I learned an important lesson: Carry a cloth with you in your camera bag so you can wipe your lens when it starts to rain!  Some of my best images from this day had huge water drops in the middle.  Oops!

This next image looks over-processed, but the colors that night truly were this vivid.  I was photographing one of my favorite trees and a break in the clouds started to glow.  It was spectacular.

A Streak of Color (June)

A Streak of Color (June)

I tried making some vertical compositions, too. When the clouds stretch high into the sky, the verticals can be very dramatic.

Sunset Project (October)

Sunset Project (October)

But I think I preferred the horizontal, which showed more of the sunset skyline.  I didn’t have enough good foreground elements to create “leading lines” into the vertical shots.

Sunset Project (October)

Sunset Project (October)

The lenses that I’m most comfortable with tend to be my telephoto zooms.  Ask any of my photography friends – I love to zoom in.  I’ll have my 2x teleconverter on when Michael is complaining that he has too much lens with no teleconverter at all!  So it was a challenge for me to get comfortable with the wide angle lens.

Sunset Project (March)

Sunset Project (March)

You would think after photographing the same place so many times, I’d get bored with it.  Not so much!  If anything, this project taught me to see differently and look for a new angle in the familiar.  For example, after photographing this tree all summer, I realized in the following spring that I could frame the sunset as the rays burst through the holes in the tree — but that shot is only possible in the early spring.  After the late spring/early summer rains start and the tree leaves flush, the tree fills in to the point where this shot isn’t possible.

Sunset Project (December)

Sunset Project (December)

In December, when it’s frozen and snowy and icy in the rest of the United States, I’m fortunate to live in Florida where the grass is still green.  I remember coming home from college in Pittsburgh and drinking in the green Florida landscapes on my Christmas vacations.  But still, the photograph above shows how even the Florida landscape shows the effect of cold fronts and freezing temperatures.  The fields aren’t as lush and the color of the light is different than in summer.

Sunset Project (December)

Sunset Project (December)

These December images were taken a day before the winter solstice.  I hadn’t explicitly tried to go out on the solstice, but as I realized that I was so close to one, I wished I’d gone out on each solstice that year!  Note to self for future projects… :)

By March, the fields have started to green up, but the trees haven’t yet filled out.  A slight change in position makes the image look very different.

Sunset Project (March)

Sunset Project (March)

Hmm.  I wonder how these fields would look covered in snow.  Probably a sight I’ll never live to see!!

Sunset Project (August)

Sunset Project (August)

The blue-sky days started to turn boring.  It felt like I was making the same image over and over again.  So I started looking for new takes on the same landscape, and I pulled out my trusted telephoto lenses to do so.

Sunset Project (August)

Sunset Project (August)

On this particular night, the sky was devoid of clouds except at the horizon.  The sun glowed brilliantly as a giant orange orb as it slipped beneath the treeline.

Sunset Through the Trees (April)

Sunset Through the Trees (April)

Here I used The Beast to silhouette several trees on the far horizon against the sun setting behind the clouds.  These details would have been lost in my wide-angle lens.  Here I walked along until I found just the right position to make a pleasing composition, with the sun filling a gap in the trees.

Golden Light (April)

Golden Light (April)

On other days, I tried to capture the golden light as it shone on the rippling grasses in the fields.  I’ve yet to capture an image that accurately portrays the twinkle of the grasses as they sway in the breeze and catch the light of the fading sun.  I’ve learned to use HDR post-processing techniques on my images to give them some “pop”.  I try hard not to overdo that effect.  For some images, like the “streak of light” photo from June, HDR is just the trick to getting the image on your screen to look like what you saw in real life.

Grassy Sunset (April)

Grassy Sunset (April)

Here I used my Beast again to frame the setting sun with the grasses in the foreground.  Yay for the clouds that covered the sun and for LiveView that helped me compose the image quickly without looking through the viewfinder!

Sunset Project (June)

Sunset Project (June)

As my project came to a close, Rich asked me if I would continue going out there for sunset.  I admit I haven’t gone as much, but I’m certainly ready to go.  I’m curious to play with my 10-stop neutral density filter and see what I can do with some really long exposures.  For that, the best day might be a really gray, nasty day!

Sunset Project (September)

Sunset Project (September)

This project is all the more special to me because the landscape is changing so quickly.  Land is being cleared and cookie-cutter houses are going up faster than I can shoot a burst of continuous photos!  The last time Rich and I drove down Highway 429, I looked around in disbelief, quoting Tolkien as I said to Rich, “But these trees were my friends!  I’ve known them since nut and acorn!”  I’m not sure how long my sunset paradise is going to last.  But at least I have some beautiful images and great memories to share…

Sunset Silhouette of a Burrowing Owl

Sunset Silhouette of a Burrowing Owl (Yep, you knew I had to sneak a bird in somewhere! ;-)

Tiny Cardinal Fledgling

Last weekend I was doing yardwork and I noticed the loud persistent call of a baby cardinal coming from our oak tree.  Boy was that bird annoying!  He fussed the entire time that I was outside mowing.  The next day, I went out to clean out my birdbaths.  Rich looked up in surprise as I burst back in, grabbed my camera, ran back outside, and started crawling on my belly in the mulch.  The baby cardinal had fledged and flown to a bush in the backyard.  He was pretty well hidden in the leaves, but I was able to find an angle where I could see him.

Fledgling Cardinal

Fledgling Cardinal

What a cute little guy!  Look at the feathers just coming in around his eyes.  He didn’t yet have a tail.  He hung around in the bush and continued to fuss for Mom.  I’ve seen several cardinal families in our yard this year, and we have a couple of generations of babies flying around.  This guy is the youngest that I’ve photographed.  He’s so friendly, not yet afraid of people.  It’d be fun to get to see them when they first hatch, when they are tiny and naked in the bottom of their nest.  We do have a mockingbird nest in one of our crape myrtles this year, but I think the birds abandoned it before they even laid eggs.

Well, this little guy had something to say.  A lot of somethings, actually.  I was a little concerned that Mom and Dad weren’t taking care of him.  Play the video above to hear the sound of a baby cardinal. ;-)

A week later, I’m glad to report that this little guy is doing well.  I’ve yet to see an adult cardinal come in to feed him, but he’s stopped the incessant begging, so I know he’s getting enough to eat.  He’s gotten very good at catching bugs in mid-air.  He has also grown a nice tail.  He loves to hang out in the vines on my bird blind.  I’m glad I’m not the only one who likes the blind!