Monday, January 25, 2010

Case Study - Don't Forge The Gear

I am convinced I am a solid novice photographer, but I do enjoy time spent with my camera. That said, I won't lie - I sometimes DON'T like it when I forget to bring some important gear and the weather isn't cooperating.

Case Sudy #1

Yesterday, I, with my good friends Don and Natalie, headed out to do some birding (hmmm, imagine that - me birding with friends....). Anyhow, after dipping on the Iceland Gulls at the Visteon Pond (but securing two Glaucous Gulls instead), we opted to check some hotspots for winter owls. They have been sorely lacking this winter here in Metro Detroit.

One of those hotspots includes Oakwoods Metropark. Knowing that Michigan Memorial Park, right across the river, has some good habitat too, we opted to check it out. Imagine our excitement when we confirmed the raptor sitting on the crucifix was a Merlin!

While I was able to "save" the picture (positive exposure compensation and some minor Photoshopping), the whole situation was almost a complete loss. The skies were much darker gray than what the picture shows (the exposure compensation (+1) blew out the gray and made it almost white) and the sun was getting closer to the horizon with every passing minute so my situation was not going to improve. Plus, the bird and the post were very dark. Unfortunately, taking a picture of a dark subject on a brighter background can be a tough. What could have helped me with the shot? My external flash with the Better Beamer. So why didn't I use it? Like a bonehead, I left it on my kitchen table. Had it been with me, I could have put some light on the bird, limiting my need to overexpose, thus keeping the background a more realistic gray instead of that fake white.

Note to self - bring all your camera gear. Don't leave parts behind.

Case Study #2

Today, solo, I went back over to the boneyard with flash in hand. No Merlin. Fine. Heading back to my place, I spied a Kestrel hunting a field not far from my place (a half mile away, to be exact). I basically crawled halfway out of my sunroof and got the pic below. What a difference a flash can make a gray day.

Granted, both images are stunningly sub-average, but you can really see a difference, can't you? Now, if I can just get these small darlings to perch on something eye-level 30 feet from my driver's side window in front of a pleasing background with good lighting and no traffic of any kind.

Is that asking too much?

Three In The Freezer

Three for me in the freezer! Three what? Three pheasant - some of the best eatin' game birds I have ever had!

Saturday morning was a chance for me to do hunting with my buddy Kevin. Every year, his church gets the guys together for a pheasant hunt. He has been gracious enough to invite me even though he knows I am a much better shot..................

So after breakfast at Bob Evans in Dundee, the seven of us shot (um...sorry) over to the Sexy Pheasant. For a very reasonable price, they will release the birds (Ring-necked Pheasant and Chukar) on the hunting tract and then clean them for you when you are done.

Now wait a minute. I know what you are thinking (I have ESPN). You must be thinking how unfair it all is. You pay to have them released and them shoot them? Yes. But first, there are few pheasant left. Numbers are certainly way down in the past few decades. Walking two miles of fields would be pointless if nothing were there. Second, just because they were just released does not mean they are stupid. With zero snow cover and plenty of beans to hide in, those birds were invisible. We missed 'em and the the dogs were missing 'em, too At one point, I almost stepped on one! Third, you have to be ready when they take off and shoot straight. It was not, um, like shooting fish in barrel. No way. Keep in mind, too, that both birds are not even native to North America. Why were they brought here? Yup, you guessed it. Hunting.

One of the highlights of the day is watching the dogs. Really! Claire and Gabe were working pretty hard. Zigging. Zagging. Stopping. Turning around only to take off again. You could tell they were fired up and ready to go the minute they go out of the truck. Claire (pictured at left) was certainly showing some signs of her age beyond the gray in her face. By the end of the hunt, she was so pooped. But she didn't let that stop her! Gabe? Well, I'm no huntin' dog pro, but he was a bit "wet behind the ears." At times, he got a little ahead of us, but so what right? Any way you look at it, I tip my hat to Dave for taking all the time to train 'em!

Unfortunately, more of the bird action was on the opposite side of the line (Kevin anchored the extreme left and I was next to him). Plus, I am sad to say, I was not shooting well. I can only account for two birds. In both cases, using military fighter pilot parlance, they were "partial kills". Kevin got the "other parts", plus some of his own.

Ultimatley, in the true sense of hunting and sharing, who really got what is not the issue. The birds are totaled at the end of the hunt. 24 birds among 7 hunters is basically 3 each. I'm looking forward to just breasting 'em out, flouring the daylights out of 'em and browning 'em up in butter.

Awesome. Trust me.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

#692 - 694


That is your word for the day. Yup, naked.

Have you ever thought about all the ways it is used? Take the sentences below, for example. All are valid uses of the word, but are, by no means, the only uses:
- He spoke the naked truth. In this case, it suggests a bluntness or honestly.
- The trees were suddenly naked of leaves. It suggest bare or destitute.
- It was the naked reality of the situation. Suggests plain and simple.

So, please hang in there while I roll some of these into my thoughts about a beer I had last night:

Buck Naked (#692) , a lager from the Big Buck Brewery, is junk. To my eye (yes, my naked eye), I could tell this beer was not going to cut it. Pale straw in color, any sense of carbonation was minimal. It was limited to the pitiful, little bubbles along the edge only- no head of any kind. On the subject of "no", there was no taste, no body, no finish, no character, life, pizazz, spunk, or any other adjective that might suggest "good" or even "tolerable". Realistically, it is difficult to say why it is bad because there was nothing there to be bad. So, if a lack of characteristics in beer is a bad thing (and it is....) then this beer is total junk. How anyone could even ponder drinking this drool is beyond me. 1 out of 5. If my scale went lower, this would anchor it.

Ah, but all was not lost. As you can see from the pic above, (showcasing my fancy-shmancy slate cheese serving plate) it was a beer and cheese night. Smoked Gouda, Gruyere, and Goat Cheese got the call. The second and third samples were much better. Red Bird Ale (#693) was a spectacularly average ale with a pretty standard profile - caramel tones, ruby red color (makes sense with the name, huh?) but the malty aspect was a bit off. Of course, this was heaven compared to that naked junk in the previous glass. The Steelhead Scotch Style Porter (#694) from the Mad River Brewing Company was, hands down, the best beer of the evening. Smooth and dark, it was a pretty solid beer. Unfortunately, the alcohol tones were a bit much in the both the aroma and body. It was bit distracting. Plus, the finish was a bit off, too. 3 out of 5, but it goes good with gouda.

So, three sampled beers brought me three steps closer to beer #700. Two were fair while one was naked in just about every sense of the word.

There it is. The naked truth. You heard it here.....

Saturday, January 16, 2010



After taking a few trips past car washes and abandoned steel mills, I finally got it - a picture of Jim the Mockingbird.

For those of you familiar with the area, head north out of Trenton on West Jefferson. Between King Road and Sibley, you need to keep your eyes peeled, especially around Jim's Garage and the Pine Fresh Car Wash. Watch for him on the wires, trees, and utility poles. This pic (which I will admit is not really that good) shows him on the corner of a building. That grunge on his beak? Snow. I am not telling you he was eating snow, but I can say it appeared he was eating the snow...

Interestingly, my first Northern Mockingbird (my very first one...) was also in Trenton. During the 1994 Rockwood Christmas Bird Count, a Mocker was found in Elizabeth Park. I went up to see it on December 30, 1994. I recall distinctly heading up there after the new year to see him again. Yeah, it was a new year so I started a new list with the same bird. It's a birder thing.

Anyhow, the distance between the two sites is exactly two miles according to Google Earth. It is so easy to imagine this bird showing up in the Park and then moving up the road a few miles to finally set up shop. That said, I think the park would have been a nicer place. There is just something about abandoned steel mills. Not very picturesque......

Oh yeah, it appears Jim's efforts have paid off. Mrs. Jim has been sighted in the area....

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Eagle Day

With the day off, I managed to sneak out for a bit of birding and shooting (cameras, not shotguns). For the record, the Bald Eagle viewing at Lake Erie Metropark the last few days has been great! I had 62 birds this morning!

The bird below is, of course, an adult bird. White head and white tail, right? There is no telling how old it is!

This one is a Bald Eagle, as well. It just belongs to a different age class. That brown belly tells us it is in juvenile plumage. The bird was born in the spring of 2009.

The final eagle is what is called Basic III by some authors. Notice the mostly while head? It is one year short of being an adult. Full grown, yes, but not an adult. It was born in 2006.

So with over 60 eagles on the river, what keeps them there? There has to be food somewhere! If you get a count on the all the ducks in the pic below, let me know...

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Contrary to popular belief, big racks on big bucks are not for fighting. They are mainly for show. If a monster 12-point finds himself on the same piece of real estate as a 4-point,there will be no fight. The 4-point knows his place and moves along. If ,however, the 12-point faces another 12-point, oh, look out. It could be a quite a show!

So, if one looks at the logo of Big Buck Beer from the Big Buck Brewery, you wouldn't have to be a follower of the Pope and Young Club to appreciate that beast, right? The girth at the base of of those antlers are as big as my head, Pete's Sake! And how many points are there? 16 maybe? So, one might think with such a massive animal on the logo, the beer would be full of big taste, impressive aromas, and other aspects suggesting mammalian hugeness.

Guess again.

On the pour, the head never formed. Never. I even aggressively tipped the bottle trying to screw it up and get it to "over foam." It didn't work. While a pleasant golden yellow color, everything was down hill. The aroma, while slightly suggesting apples, was lifeless . The body was thin. The taste was basically gross with a finish that was even more gross. Get the idea?

There is absolutely nothing happening with this beer that suggests the monster on the logo. Instead of an impressive animal ruling the woods, it was more like roadkill on a back country two-track...

1 out of 5

Friday, January 8, 2010

Feeling Drafty

2009 was pretty good to me. Lets keep the streak going, right? So, I hit the road to do some local driving and get a start on my 2010 bird list. I was not up for walking (no particular reason) so if I could not see it from car, I wasn't interested.

I covered Lake Erie Metropark and the fields to the west of Pointe Mouillee State Game Area. I thought Elizabeth Park was worth a cruise. For that matter, I knew I could rely on Jim the Mockingbird to be at The Garage; he has been there since the Hoover Administration so far as I can tell. Bishopp Park in Wyandotte. Check. Oh, hell, lets just drive all around the Grosse Ile and look for waterfowl. Ya never know what you might turn up...

While I had visions of Snowy Owls or perhaps a bonus bird like a lost Varied Thrush, it was not to be. I did manage to get, what I think, were some nice pics of Horned Larks in the farm fields. I had the fella just across the road, only feet away! Awesome! At the garage, Jim the Mockingbird was exactly where he was supposed to be. While he was on the building the photos are the best I have taken of his to date.

So, you might be wondering why I am not showing you these pics. Trust me, I would love to do it.

But, I can't.

After getting back, I tried to start up my main computer (I need it to process my RAW photo format. The netbook I am using now can't cut it). Nothing. Apparently, there is this PBR thing-a-mah-bob that my computer understands but I don't. Re-start it. Nothing. Re-start it again, swear, then nothing.

Okay, I got it. Re-start it, swear LOUDLY, and.......nothing.

Oh, wait wait wait..... Check the internet on my iPhone. Yeah, should do it! What is this PBR thing all about? Apparently, a harddrive has partitions so it can...well, do whatever it needs to do. Just put your CD in the drive and follow steps from this website. Yeah.

Didn't work.

Swear loudly, Not because it should make the computer work, but because it can make you fell better!

So, instead of posting some photos that I think I might really like, I unhooked my machine. Tomorrow, instead of enjoying my day, I get to go the computer store.

For now? Ugh. Yeah, everything is backed on a external harddrive, but I still feel like I have an ulcer. Remember that dream from your childhood where you went to school but forgot to put on your clothes? We've all had it. There are different interpretations of it, but, for now, I think that works here. I feel rather uncomfortable... like I am missing something important.....

Does anybody have a robe? It feels kinda drafty around here....

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Super Day

Breakfast on Thursday would have been like any other breakfast in Paradise, Michigan (cheap, artery clogging, and damned good!) if my phone did not go off. As we were ready to leave for the bog, a text message came in from Don, the Kentucky birder we had met yesterday, that a Yellow-billed Loon was at the Soo Power Plant.

Stop the presses, folks.

That would be a Yellow-billed Loon - as in a first state record. But, it would not be a life bird for me, though. On June 27, 2004, while standing on the shores of the Chuckchi Sea in Barrow, Alaska, a Yellow-billed Loon in breeding plumage, zipped by. Life bird #562.

So what did we do? We did what any rational person would have done. We went to go find Gray Jays! We were only a few minutes out. Get the Jays, and head out to the Soo. A solid plan and it worked.

Upon arriving at the Hulbert Bog, we saw a suet bag hanging in tree. That basically marked the location. We dumped some seed, played the Gray Jay audio loop on my fancy-shmancy iPhone and within a few minutes, the 'ole Camp Robber sallied into the view. Beautiful bird, huh?

With that, for the second time in as many days, we were off to the Soo Power Plant. En route, we actually crossed paths with Don and company. After a quick pow-wow on the shoulder of M-28, we saw the pics. Yup, the real deal. But, by that point, the identity had already been confirmed by others. Don had taken a picture of the LCD screen on his camera with his phone and sent it out to a buddy of mine. The pics were posted on a blog. That sent birders into chase mode. We were already en route. 45 minutes to the waterfront.

After a quick search of the water from the east side of the power plant, we moved over to the west side (per Don's suggestion). Within a few minutes, we were looking at Michigan's first Yellow-billed Loon. Diving. Swimming. Preening. Basically, everything expect flying and copulating. At one point, a freighter came by when it was beyond the middle of the river and displaced the bird well into Ontario waters. I have to count the bird for my Ontario list, too. Sad, huh?

Sure, I took some pics, but they honk. The bird was just too far out (1/4mile +) for my gear. You would do yourself a favor by checking out Don's site here. They had the bird within a few yards of the shoreline. Literally. Notice the yellow bill, beautiful brown tones, scalloping on the back, white throat and breast, and that weirdo bump on his noggin. Oh, and it is a huge bird - over three feet long. Go ahead and put a yard stick on your desk. It ain't no Mallard duck, people!

We opted to stay for a while and keep an eye on it. Admittedly, we got impatient. As we were packing our gear, another birder arrived. He was the first of many...

Interestingly, it is totally possible the bird was there the day before. We were there but the fog was too thick, remember? It would have been so easy to miss..............

After a quick bagel, it was back to the fields. Oh, a Great Gray Owl would have been sooooo nice, but it was not to be. We did manage a somewhat cooperative Rough-legged Hawk. The snow was blowing a bit again making the lighting a bit rough, but you can get the idea, I think. Such a beautiful bird. Such a mediocre-to-poor picture.

I was interested in getting some good pics of the Hawk Owl from the day before, but he was not cooperating. At one point, I was on the phone with a birder. Guess where the owl was? Yeah, on a pole a few feet out. I get off the phone and what happens? Yeah, he tears off to the distant woodlot. Go figure.

Oh, but I got my shots. After driving further down the road, a second Hawk Owl shot in front of us and landed on the wire. What a cooperative bird. For all intents and purposes, we did not exist to him. He looked this way and that and preened a bit. We easily spent 15-20 minutes looking and shooting pics.

Unfortunately, all good trips must come to an end. With the GPS set for home, off we went. As we approached the Mackinac Bridge, I recalled a story from a buddy of mine. He had seen a Gyrfalcon sitting on the railing during one of his many winter crossings. Recognizing anything can happen, we kept our eyes peeled as we started to cross the bridge. My window was not even up after paying the toll booth attendant when we realized that "funny gull" on the first light post was a Snowy Owl! How cool is that?

A few hours later, we opted to check the non-smoking section of the Big Buck Brewery in Gaylord for Boreal Owls. No such luck. I did not find the place all that great, really. First, it was that generic "up north" feel. What do I need to feel "up north" for when I'm up north? I never understood that. Second, it was too bright. Yeah, the antler chandeliers where okay (overrated, but okay) but there is something simple here - a dimmer switch. I can install 'em. I'll do it. Dim the lights. Really. Oh, and get rid of the sky blue walls. Sky blue? Barf. Earth tones, people, earth tones! The slatted chairs have to go, too. Think about it. When your dinner arrives, don't you slide your bum forward across the chair to get ready to eat? Yeah, well the slats (slats?! Yeah, that's comfortable!) are perpendicular to your butt so you can't slide forward. Firewood anybody?

I did, however, knock off a new beer. #690, the Festivus Ale, was spectacularly gross. It looked like a Coke. Yeah, fine. It was a bit light bodied. Yeah, fine. The orange zest, cardamom, and ginger they talked about in the menu collided on the palate and basically tasted like...well, anything bad. I finished it, sure, but it was not a good beer. A solid 2 in my book. If I can't finish it, I give it a 1.

By 11: 20, I was home. By 11: 21 I was asleep. No, I did not stay up to watch Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year'e Eve. First, Dick, bless his heart, died in 1979 and the network simply brings him back via computers and holograms. Second, Jennifer Lopez doesn't rock. But hey, whatever....

All in all, it was a successful trip. I can't complain. Some lists now stand as follows:
Chippewa County, Michigan - 107
State of Michigan - 340
Province of Ontario -247
Lower 48 States - 600
Canadian Provinces - 263

Now We're Talkin'

So after a quick breakfast on Wednesday morning, we shot over to visit the Power Plant. Unfortunately, for us the warm water and cold dry air created a huge bank of fog. Visibility was less than one-tenth of a mile. Ultimately, that meant that we were unable to check most of the river. There could have a been a state record bird sitting out there and we would not have seen it! For our efforts, we secured a Common Goldeneye. Yippee.

Off to the fields!

Back and forth. Back and forth. Endlessly. Checking trees. Checking fence posts. Barns, too. If a bird could sit there, we checked it. One stop was very productive. The Dunbar Forest Experimental Station, at the mouth of the Charlotte River (at left) bagged two good winter birds: Bohemian Waxwing and Pine Grosbeak (below). The waxwings were a life bird for some people in the car. The Grosbeaks put on a extraordinary show. I was literally 15 feet away while they munched on berries. Not a care in the world!

Back and forth, we continued. Up this road. Over a road. Down the next one. A Raven here. Another Rough-legged Hawk there. Ho-hum, another Shrike. Off in the distance? The top of that tree? Ooooh, that needs another good look. Yup, a Northern Hawk Owl! While it was not a new bird for anybody, it is ALWAYS worth checking out. At one point, it was perched on a post a few feet away from the car. Unfortunately, no pics were taken. By the time I got the camera ready, it was off zippin' around the fields again. When it did land, it was too far for any real photo.

It was at this point, by the way, that the course of Michigan bird records changed. While checking out the owl, a truck with Kentucky plates came onto the scene. Don, Robbie, and Travis where doing some winter birding, as well. Appearing to be the only two teams in the world birding the Soo, I asked if he was interested in exchanging phone numbers. If anybody found anything extra-juicy, the other team could get there. Cool idea, huh? Earth-shattering in less than 24 hours.....

They mentioned multiple Snowy Owls in Rudyard. We did not see any the day before. They mentioned Gray Jays at the Bog. We didn't get any, right? Ahhhh, but we had Shrikes out the wazoo and they had not seen one yet. So, like witnesses spilling their guts in a traffic report, we spilled everything. Intersections. Numbers. Times. Anything that could help the other team find what they were looking for....

With daylight slipping (the gray overcast clouds didn't help), a return trip was made to Rudyard. Two Snowy Owls were found with in minutes.

But, now it was decision time. Three options. Head back to the Soo for the night and re-run the route tomorrow. Or, head back to the Soo for the night and then go to the Bog at first light (one hour away) for the Gray Jays and then come back to the Soo. Or, head back to Paradise for the night, do the bog at dawn, and then return to the Soo area for the remainder of the day. Only one work plan really made sense. There is a cool song by Green Day. By 7pm, the title fit the situation - "Welcome to Paradise."

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Whiteout Day 2

Okay, so it had sort of been my intention to blog about the trip every night, but that just did not happen. I'm sure you figured that out, right? Nevertheless, I thought I would bring you up to speed on how the trip ended. It ended well. Trust me....

So what did we find when we woke up on Tuesday morning? More snow. Go figure. After scraping off the car (easily 4 inches) and snarfing down breakfast, we headed off into the boonies hoping to locate that damned, elusive Boreal Chickadee. Driving. Hiking. Dodging snowmobiles. Getting dizzy with rotten exhaust. How about the feeders at Whitefish Point? No. How about Vermillion Road south of the point? No. Lots of chickadees everywhere. No Boreals. All the while, gray skies, light blowing snow and moderately slick roads. Are we having fun yet?

By mid-afternoon, the whole Boreal Chickadee/Gray Jay plan was dumped. Forget it. We could have looked for days with no promises, so it was time to unload that part of the plan and move along. On to Sault Ste. Marie!

So what is the plan when you bird Sault Ste Marie in the winter? Drive and look for birds. Sound easy? It is. A simple rules might include keeping your eyes peeled. It would certainly be in your interest to pay attention to signs, too. The somewhat slippery roads and the on-again, off-again snow squalls made for an interesting drive. Basically, good driving practices and you should be set.

A nice look at a Rough-legged Hawk at Rudyard was cool (at left). It was the first of at least six or seven we saw on the trip. Another fair bird was a Northern Shrike. It is not a bad bird at all. It is simply that we did not drive over 350 miles to see one! We had other birds we were hoping to see! We never did figure out why those two Hairy Woodpeckers froze like statues on the tree by the feeding station. Usually when they do that, death, in the form of a predator like a Cooper's Hawk or Northern Goshawk, is very near. They freeze so they won't be seen. I was half waiting for a one of them to explode like a firework of feathers as the raptor carried it off, but, nope, nothing happened. We never saw anything.

It was at sunset that we got a chance to appreciate the precarious business of what had to be a combination of "bad decision making" and this thing called "winter driving." We saw this car, right? It was stuck. I don't mean stuck - I mean stuck stuck, as in "How in the hell did they do that?" It was so bad, the farmer, with a monster tractor and the mother of all snowblowers hanging off the back, was blowing the road clean so the car could follow him out. It was a seasonal road! How in the world that guy got his car so far down a snow-covered road in the dead of winter is anybody's guess.

Dinner was Antler's just east of the downtown. What a freak show that place is! Whew! Taxidermic mounts of just about everything are crammed into every available place. It is actually quite the place to test your wildlife i.d. skills. Food? Fair. The Tuesday night trivia host? Get out the 80's, man! Music spans entire decades! Not just the decade of mullets, leg warmers and headbands! Come on!