Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tamron/Sigma 150mm-600mm Reviews

As some of you may know I have been using the Tamron 150mm-600mm for about six months. I am often asked how it performs. I have had some great results with the lens especially on long walks or when shooting out of the car window.
I have just one issue, occasionally the lens refuses to focus. I have spoken to a number of other photographers and they say the same thing. My solution is to just turn off the camera, uncouple the lens and start again. It has occured twice in six months. It hasn't caused me to lose any shots yet but it is a little discerning. I try to keep all the electrical contacts clean both on the lens and camera and hopefully the problem will vanish.

Merlin shot from 30 metres away and handheld. 

I love the lens for its compactness compared to my larger lenses, I plan to use it when I travel. Remember when handholding try to keep the lens length close to the shutter speed. For example if you are using it at 500mm then the recommended shutter speed should be at least 1/500sec. The VR function works really well so use that when needed. Remember it is harder to handhold the Tamron compared to a 300 F2.8 with a 2x or even 500mm F4 purely because of the weight factor, the heavy lens gives better balance and more stabilty.
Below I have included a link to some other reviews as well as one for the new Sigma 150mm-600mm a lens I haven't tested.
Here is a pic of a Western Tanager from a walk I took as part in with a group of birders from Langley. I wouldn't have been able to keep up with them and grabbed this shot had I had a big tripod and heavy 500mm F4 lens to carry over my shoulder. In terms of great pictures and sheer enjoyment the investment has already paid off. Try out both lenses and make your own decision, we really are spoilt for choice these days!

Western Tanager Tamron handheld 150mm-600mm at 600mm

"It's never too late to start birding"

John Gordon

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Road to Catbird Slough

Dec 15 2014 Grant Narrows Sunny morning and cloudy afternoon 5c

I have to admit, I had only ever seen one Bohemian Waxwing before so when the news broke that there was a flock at Grant Narrows I decided to search them out. I was lucky, Monday morning was sunny and a cancelled appointment left me the whole day to bird.

The road to Grant Narrows.
This is the last corner before the straightaway to the car park, the location of the waxwings.

The very first subject was this juvenile Northern Shrike. I photographed it from out my car window with the shift stick digging into my ribs.
Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor)
Catbird Slough was alive with American Robins, a flock of Varied Thrush, another adult Northern Shrike and a large flock of Purple Finch. It was a spectacle, the mountains in the background made for great viewing.

Catbird Slough

Finally after driving all the way to the parking lot I found one Bohemian, alas it flew off as soon as I stopped my car.
An hour later I finally caught up with the flock and had a few minutes with them before another photographer stopped to talk and flushed them.
Here are a some of the results;
Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus)
 These birds spent an equal amount of time eating berries and hawking insects.

The rufous under tail coverts differentiates it from its close cousin the Cedar Waxwing.

"It's never too late to start birding"

John Gordon

Management takes no responsibility for any typos and glaring grammatical errors.

Some Winter Birds

Dec 14, 2014 Boundary Bay Regional Park Sunny 5c
Every Lower Mainland birder knows the parking lot at the end of 72nd Ave. It's an especially busy place in the winter when the owls return. If I turn right onto the dyke I could join the hordes photographing the Long-eared Owl.
However, if I turn left out of the parking lot I have the dyke pathway almost to all to myself, except that is for a few joggers and Sunday afternoon walkers.
I have a few hours to see what will turn up. Song sparrows are most common species followed by distinctive Marsh Wren's territorial cry tektuk tektuk.  
Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris)
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
Often overlooked, the Song Sparrow as the latin name implies has a beautiful song.
Next up and not too far from the parking lot a small flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers were hawking insects from a bush. It was enough warmth for a hatch of some kind but I couldn't identify any of the insects. Yellow-rumped Warblers are one of the few warblers who can switch to berries when its too cold for insect life.

Yellow-rumped Warbler  (Dendroica coronata)

Further along the dyke was one of the 'target' species I had hoped to photograph. Among a flock of White-crowned Sparrows was an American Tree Sparrow. Note the bi-coloured beak, one of the field markings to separate it from the immature white-crowned which it can be easily confused with.
American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea)
The light was failing, the sun setting on a glorious afternoons birding. I thought to make a little detour before going home, commonly referred to by photographers as 'one more shot' 
Anyway, everyone had gone home, the dyke was deserted and the light was fading. I had to crank the ISO up to 3200 then 6400 for the Cooper's Hawk, a far cry from shooting birds on Kadachrome 64. Digital has been boon for photographers with the gap between 'professional' and hobbyist narrowing each year.
Cooper's Hawk (Accipter cooperii)
 The light was getting quite low when I spotted this Cooper's Hawk eying something off in the distance. Ten minutes later I stumbled on the same bird at a different location. I had to use ISO 6400 and slow shutter speed, as the bird busily tore apart a duck.
Cooper's Hawk with prey
As the day ended I turned to salute the sun, just then a Northern Harrier flew by patrolling the fields for its next meal.

Northern Harrier (Circus cynaeus)

It's never too late to start birding
John Gordon

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Lull* in the Weather

Tuesday Dec 9, 2014 Blackie Spit. Sunny and clearing 13c.

The rain came down all night and into the morning. The day looked to be a complete write-off. Unexpectedly the sun made an appearance and the skies cleared. I had just finished decorating the Christmas tree and had a few hours to pop down to nearby Blackie Spit. I was hoping to see the Bohemian Waxwing, alas for the second time I just missed it. I did however see a female Belted Kingfisher hunting and chattering. There were a few flocks of Purple Finches and numerous American Robins, all of which were gorging on Pacific Crabapples.  Around one corner a Cooper's Hawk was eyeing its next meal. I quietly approached, fired one shot and then a passing Seattle-Vancouver train tooted its horn and the bird took off.

 Juvenile Cooper's Hawk (Accipter cooperii)

  •                  * Lull, the time of year named from between Christmas and the new year

"It'd never too late to start birding"

John Gordon

Monday, December 8, 2014

Monday Morning: Before the Deluge

Monday Dec 8th 2014 Blackie Spit Nature Park. 9c Overcast with sunny breaks.

The weather forecast predicted rain for the week, up to 30 cms, a month's worth in three days. However Monday morning was warm and a little sun did manage to peek through the looming storm clouds. It was perhaps the last opportunity to bird for the next few days.
The tides were high, in places flooding over the spit. Gone were the ever-present Common Loons and the Long-billed Curlew, only a few Green-winged Teal and Mallards were left to battle the waves.
Overhead six Bald Eagles sparred for partners, one with a large stick in its talons headed towards its nest. A Merlin flew past at speed. A Golden-crowned Kinglet flitted from branch to branch. A pair of crows drew my attention to a tree where in it a Sharp-shinned Hawk was eying its next meal.
Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipter striatus)
This bird was hunting songbirds near the pump house.

I have cropped this image to lose as many of the distracting elements as possible. I have the left hand side anchored by the tree while the branch exits the frame at the top right. The bird is placed in a frame within a frame. Just some of the thought processes us photographers try to apply to our work to make it more interesting to the viewer.

House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)
What drew me to this bird? The delicate way it posed on the bush. The catchlight of the sun in the eye, the Pacific crabapple (Malus fusca) on which it feeds tells a story. There was no need to zoom in and lose the context.

When I first got hooked on bird watching and bird photography I had seen House Finches but never a Purple Finch. I took as many bird walks as possible including one with expert birder Larry Cowan. During one such tour I saw my first Purple. I'll never forget what Larry said to our group.
The difference he said was the Purple Finch looks like it has been "dipped in strawberry jam"

A few metres along the trail a flock of the similar looking Purple Finch, four females and one male were also feeding on the crabapples.
Male Purple Finch (Carpodacus purpureus)
This male Purple Finch has an unusual colour to it. The yellowish hue comes from shooting through a tangle of branches with the aperture wide open. There were till a few yellowish leaves left on the branches. By shooting at the largest aperture i.e. F2.8 or F4, close-by obstacles like shrubbery can be softened and almost made to disappear.
I learnt this trick when I used to shoot baseball for the newspaper. I would stand behind the fence just looking over the shoulder of the catcher and batter and focussing on the pitcher. By shooting wide open the fence wouldn't show up and it looked like there was no obstacle in my way as the pitcher threw. I would catch the ball leaving the pitcher's hand. Try this at F8 and the fence would to show. The other upside is that a wide open aperture tends to give the photographer a higher shutter speed, perfect for bird photography.
As for the photograph above, the end result is an image that I might not have thought about attempting had I not used this technique elsewhere. 
The next shot the female was in the open.
Female Purple Finch

Soon after I returned home it began to rain and rain and rain!

It's never too late to start birding!

John Gordon

Lazy Sunday Afternoon

Sunday Dec 7th 2014, Boundary Bay 72nd Ave. Cold, cloud and sunny breaks 5c

I just couldn't handle being indoors anymore. I had promised myself a lazy Sunday afternoon watching a few games of 'footy' from England. Then on the spur of the moment I decided to forsake my Sunday paper and comfy chair and go birding. The logic behind the sudden change of plans were two fold.
First, I glimpsed a thin band of blue sky in what was otherwise a pretty dreary day and secondly and most importantly, the wife had decided to have a long, long afternoon nap. No other incentive was necessary. I quickly put the roast in the oven (with instructions not to burn the house down) and made my way to 72nd Ave.
I was hoping to find an American Tree Sparrow or two. The cunning plan was to be home just in time to make the gravy, wake up the wife and have a pleasant Sunday evening.
Arriving at 72nd I bumped into Liron, we chatted about our respective birding adventures when the two of us noticed a group photographers pointing their lenses at what turned out to be a Long-eared Owl. It was the same bird as my previous blog. This time it was in a slightly better position so I spent a few minutes photographing it again but with a clearer view. This time I was also armed with a 500mm prime lens so in theory I would get a sharper shot. The previous blog I used the 150mm-600mm Tamron. I include an un-cropped image and a tight crop to show off some of the interesting features of this beautiful owl.
Blooger's algorithm unfortunately doesn't do these images justice they seem to be a little soft on my screen. I'll post them to my Flickr to see if they look better.

Long-eared Owl (Asio otus)

Oh yeah, the roast was delicious as was the Yorkhire pudding!

"It's never too late to start birding"

John Gordon

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Cold Snap Birding and other Musings

Dec1-2 2014 Reifel/Sumas Prairie/Boundary Bay Sunny -5c.

The Lower Mainland and Vancouver area is/was in the midst of a cold snap with night time temperatures plummeting to minus 5c. It isn't Saskatchewan yet but it's still really cold for us on the coast. During the day the warmth of the sun and cobalt blue skies made it perfect for a birding. It sure beats the grey skies and rain!


Sometimes we see another photographers personal take on the natural world and wonder why on earth we didn't see that ourselves.
That was the case last year when I saw a fantastic image of an American Coot photographed by Jim Martin. Among other photographic projects, Jim supplies most of the excellent images for the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuaries quarterly magazine Marsh Notes. I think the coot was on the front page but the image really spoke to me and got me thinking. The picture encouraged me to search out my own version for which I needed a frozen pond and a good stretch of cold weather.
Jim had photographed an American Coot during a similar cold snap. For his shot the Reifel ponds were frozen and there was his amazing shot showing the Coots strange looking webbed feet as it stood on the icy pond. This is something we don't often see as the coot spends most of its time in the water and the feet are often hidden.
Here is my humble take on the subject. Now thanks to Jim I am going to take more attention to what is happening in front of the lens!

American Coot (Fulica americana)

Next up was a trip to windy and bitter cold Sumas Prairie. The goal was to search out some of the numerous raptors which make their home in and around the farmer's fields each winter. The birds are spread out over kilometres of roads and farmland. They can be hard to find. Distances travelled can be high so car pooling lessens the carbon footprint, if only a little. Car pooling is something I encourage others to try as much as possible.
The first bird on the agenda was the Gyrfalcon. What a splendid name for a bird of prey, sounds like something out of a Harry Potter book. Anyway, not only did I see the Gyrfalcon hunting I and others watched in awe as a Peregrine Falcon and a Bald Eagle chased the gyrfalcon, eventually forcing it to drop its catch. Such is life on Sumas Prairie. Below is my humble effort to show two of the fastest birds on the planet in an acrobatic aerial display.
Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) and Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) clash.
The blue bar on the right of the picture is an irrigation pipe.

Avery distant ID shot of a first year Dark Morph Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
Next up was a dark morph Red-tailed Hawk. This picture is taken from quite a distance but shows just enough of the colouring to correctly identify it. Red-tailed Hawks have an incredible amount of variations. Last year I photographed a Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk, a rare sub species on Sumas Prairie.

Below is a flock of two hundred Trumpeter Swans. Hard to imagine that this would have represented the entire worlds population less than fifty years ago. Hunting and lead poising decimated the population. This flock had found a field with plenty of potatoes and were busily chomping way, oblivious of the passing farm machinery.

Trumpter Swan (Cygnus buccinator)
One of the Trumpeter Swans with tag 200K. Anyone where to send this info?

After the Sumas Prairie I decided to take a break from the cold winds and try out Boundary Bay. Having photographed Great-horned and  Barn Owls last week I was lucky enough to stumble on a Long-eared Owl that had drawn the attention of a group of photographers. When I arrived the sun was still strong but a blackberry bush was casting a strong shadow across the bird making it a less than ideal shot. I decided to wait and come back when the light was waning thus softening the shadows. Below is the image just as the sun set. Shot at 3200 ISO on a tripod with the Tamron 150mm-600mm. Why 3200 ISO, a speed I normally never use? I wanted to try out the auto ISO function and that is what I got. I have the images, it looks fine plus I'm not ever going to print it so i'm happy.
Long-eared Owl (Asio otus)

The last three images were taken with the Tamron 150mm-600mm. I did a quick test shooting the same bird at 500mm and 600mm. I couldn't see any discernible difference.
The coot and Sumas Prairie shots are taken with a 500 F4 and D300s or D7100.
Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

While waiting for the Long-eared I walked a few hundreds metres along the dyke. I waited until the Northern Harriers and Short-eared Owls began hunting. The owls usually come out around 3p.m. the harriers hunt all day. Again this is a huge crop of the Short-eared Owl and works well as an ID shot. 
For those thinking about moving up from just scoping to actually photographing birds. The Tamron or the Sigma 150mm-500mm or the Nikon 80mm-400mm are all good low cost options to try out  before deciding to go for one of the "Big Guns" and the associated cost and weight.

Moonrise and Yarrow/ Boundary Bay
It had been an amazing few days of birding, a week of blue skies, the birds and the weather, a real treat those of us on the Pacific Northwest.

                                                    It's never too late to start  birding"

                                                                      John Gordon