Saturday, January 31, 2009

Morning Wood

Of all the waterfowl that can be found in Utah, the wood duck is perhaps the most sought after photographically. Nowhere near as common here as in the hardwood forests back East, it's always a lot of fun to find small populations of wild birds. The sun was out this morning, the air was clear, and I really enjoyed watching these beautiful birds.

More common, but still intricately marked and highly detailed in their plumage is the mallard.

Where waterfowl are really at home, however, seems to be in the air. They are streamlined, powerful, high endurance birds in flight and it's always a challenge to capture them at speeds of over 50 miles per hour on the wing.

Thanks for dropping in!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Stream & River Access Rights in Utah

When I was growing up and learning to fly fish, my Dad and I would sometimes encounter areas where a stream or river crossed private land. I can remember him explaining to me that through the wisdom of lawmakers that had gone before, the right to access the water and make use of this valuable public resource had been preserved by law. While he taught me the importance of respecting private lands, many times he mentioned how the scarcity of water in a desert state had been prudently safeguarded so that the wealthy few could not prohibit access to tremendously valuable public waterways.

I was surprised in the year 2000 when a man by the name of Kevin Conatser along with some of his family members were cited by a local Sherriff for trespassing after they floated a rubber raft down a public river that crossed private land. I then felt as if the public’s collective cheese had been left hanging in the wind when a lesser court upheld the charge, citing of all things a Wyoming law!


Happily this was appealed to the Supreme Court, which threw out the ridiculous ruling of the lower court and clarified that the public had an easement to access rivers and streams (which are public property) and to use the State’s waterways for recreation. (

It is my understanding that legislation will likely be introduced shortly to change the law in order to circumvent or invalidate this ruling. If you believe as I do (that water in a desert state should be a public resource, not a privilege enjoyed by the wealthy few) then follow this link and contact your representatives accordingly:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bird Photography Made Easy

Why is that when viewing an excellent painting you never hear someone say, “The artist who made this must have had one sweet set of brushes”? You also never run into people who go out and purchase the most expensive brush set available, made from the belly hairs of unborn civet cats, who fully expect to paint a masterpiece simply because they own the best tools for the job.

About 9 times out of 10 when a great photograph is seen I hear comments such as “The guy who took this must have had one Hell of a zoom” or “It’s amazing what you can do with a $5000 camera.” There are also a slew of individuals who believe that if they throw down the kind of money that buys a black market kidney, fantastic photos will distill upon them like morning dew upon the lily.

The secret to capturing a great image lies with the photographer and not the equipment. The right tools, however, do make the job easier as well as provide for more consistent success. Now the question, what do you “need” to get started in wild bird photography?

It turns out that the main challenge in photographing birds is not saving up for the Dirk Diggler of telephoto lenses or the latest and greatest camera body. The trouble is simply getting cozy enough. Distance is the most significant technical obstacle that must be overcome. I have owned, borrowed, or sold my body to the night for some very large lenses over the years and what never ceases to surprise me is exactly how close they DON’T get you to birds.

You need to close the distance to about 25 yards to get good quality photos with most lenses. How can this be done? One method is the blitzkrieg, which I observed taking place this past weekend. Upon seeing a resting raptor, an aspiring National Geographic type jumped in his Honda Accord and raced in using a controlled 4-wheel drift in the hopes of getting off a one-handed shot of the bird’s rectum as it fled the scene.

The blitzkrieg offers the excitement of drifting, but fails to deliver results. The easiest solution to the problem is frankly to scout out places birds WANT to be, and then go there and wait. Roosts, resting perches, areas of open water where prey animals are likely to be, or routes to/from such places are your best bets.

Take an initial trip with a good pair of binoculars and locate spots the birds are using. Later, go to those places and be as unobtrusive as possible.

Remember that skittish animals like raptors are often less frightened of vehicles than argyle-clad primates of indeterminate species. If possible, remain in your vehicle. If not, conceal yourself as best as you can. Birds can see color and have excellent eyesight, so pay attention to detail.

Equipment: The Bad News
Birds enjoy appearing as tiny black flecks fleeing wildly into the distance in photos. Camera companies like Nikon and Canon happily provide giant zoom lenses costing from $5000 to $10,000 and beyond in order to aid wildlife photographers in overcoming this proclivity.

To get quality results, you should use lenses with a minimum focal length of 300mm, with 400mm being better, and 500+mm preferred. For still images, the aperture size of the lens is less important. If you want to capture birds in flight, however, a shutter speed of 1/1250 is all but required. Usually this is the territory of the SLR, or single-lens reflex camera. High shutter speeds, especially in less than ideal lighting conditions, typically necessitate aperture sizes of f/4.8 or larger. Sounds expensive, right?

Equipment: The Good News
Digital SLR bodies rapidly depreciate as new models become available. Models such as the excellent Nikon D70 and D70s, for example, can be found slightly used these days for about $300. That is less than the price of many point-and-shoots.

If you have the SLR, what lens should you pick? My favorite is the 300mm f/2.8, coupled with a 1.7x teleconverter because it delivers a 510mm f/4.8 and can still be reasonably hand held. Lightweight and affordable options are the Canon 100-400mm IS and the Nikon 80-400mm VR, which both have a maximum aperture of f/5.6 @ 400mm. These are good choices when there is plenty of light.

Then come the "boomsticks." Canon and Nikon both offer 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, and 600mm f/4 options, all of which are roughly the size of the Hubble Space Telescope. These lenses all cost upwards of $7000, so what’s the good news? You don’t have to own them. Local places like Pictureline ( or online resources such as allow you to rent high-end lenses. Professional caliber gear like the 300mm f/2.8 are available anywhere from $38 to $60 per day.

In other words, there are plenty of ways to access the best tools if you want them. Master getting close and you can get by with what you’ve got.

In the field, it really helps to be familiar with your camera equipment and the settings needed to get good results. Visit the Tracy Aviary ( or any number of municipal parks like the Layton Commons Park where birds and waterfowl congregate and are semi-tame. You can get excellent results at these locations and improve your chances at success in the wild.

To Bird, or not to Bird?
Wild bird photography consists of hours of boredom interspersed with moments fleeting opportunity. It is important to go into the process with realistic expectations. Normally you are fortunate if you spend a half day in the field and come away with 1 or 2 nice images. If you enjoy challenges and have the self-deprecating nature needed to tolerate repeated failures punctuated by a small number of wins then get out and click the shutter. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Up in the Sky

What do you do in the winter when you live in Utah? Days are short, and nights are both long and butt-numbing cold. The obvious answer is providing orthopedic specialists and chiropractors with a high standard of living by participating in mountain impact sports such as skiing and snowboarding.

High on the list is cultivating a case of black, hairy lung from breathing in the toxic air trapped by the notorious Wasatch Front temperature inversion that is perpetual in January and February.

Yet another attractive option is spading a cubic hectare of snow from your driveway and sidewalks, resulting in a double hernia and a semi-permanent hunchback posture.

What else is there? Despite living within minutes of one of the region’s largest wetlands, most residents of the Salt Lake valley are oblivious to the fact that a significant migration of bald eagles passes through the area during the darkest, coldest part of winter. Some areas hold concentrations of as many as 80 of these majestic birds.

At the time of this writing, the build-up has already started. Over a dozen eagles have arrived in the particular area of Davis County that I frequent, and the numbers are increasing almost daily. The first 2 weeks of February should be prime time for baldies.

In the meantime, a wide variety of raptors can be seen during scouting trips. Northern harriers, several species of owls, kestrels, merlins, and other birds of prey become concentrated where open water can be found.

The clock is ticking, and just around the corner the annual avian extravaganza will be in full swing. Here are a few photos from this year’s scouting trips so far.

Meet the Pups

I am already feeling the pressure to add another post, so it's time to meet the "kids." Bird dogs are a big part of life for me, and here are some shots of the clan.

The First Post

A blog with no posts looks rather naked, and no one wants to see that on a dude's site.

I'm a guy of the male gender, so clearly I love to fly fish. Here are a few of this season's photos to cover the nakedness.