Flight ecstasy, a new Rebel, and a quantum leap in awareness

Click image for larger version - please!

How can I explain it? Yes, this is about a new camera – but much more. As I examined these pictures on my computer – the first taken with my new CAnon EOS Rebel T2i, I found myself transported to a new level. Oh don’t get me wrong. I’m not bragging about the pictures, nor trying to sell Canon cameras. In the final analysis neither is important. What’s important is they suddenly gave me one of those break-through moments – one of those quantum leaps of insight where you reach a new, and frustratingly ineffable, level.  In short, they made me appreciate these shore birds I’ve been photographing lately in ways that had escaped me before.

I have always considered myself a casual birder – one who likes to know whose environment he’s sharing at any given moment, but I don’t go out walking to see the birds, nor is taking photographs my main goal. My goal is always the same – to somehow shake the sleep-walking mode that seems to dominate my life and move to a level of much deeper awareness. I know no magic formula for achieving this and I really didn’t expect it to come through application of new technology – but it did on this trip.  What has taken me by surprise – and I suspect it has been building for a while and just broke – is that I am really, really fascinated by the birds and particularly fascinated by their flight patterns as captured by the high shutter speeds and “burst mode” of the Rebel where 3-4 high resolution pictures are taken each second.

The result is that their poetry of motion gets frozen in time and you can study it line by line – feather by feather. I suppose if you also know a little bit about the dynamics of flight – how airplanes do it – then it might help. You can see flaps, and ailerons, rudders and elevators all at work and all wonderfully controlled by what we are silly enough to call in a disparaging way, bird brains.

I had had the capability to capture this to some extent with the original Rebel – but it also had a frustrating flaw. It had great difficulty in focusing on a fast-moving bird. What happened all too often was when I aimed at a bird in flight the camera’s auto-focus just went crazy, zooming in and out and I lost sight of the bird entirely, seeing nothing but a blur in the viewfinder. I developed several work arounds but they worked around the problem sporadically.  Then the original Rebel went black and so I rushed out to get a new one, having crammed on reviews overnight.  It was a painful expenditure I really didn’t want to make. But when I came home and looked at this first batch of pictures, taken on a walk this afternoon, the pain vanished and a deep joy set in – not simply because the camera did it’s job and did it very well – but because the pictures brought me insights into the lives of these birds of Gooseberry,as well as a deep sense of awe and joy.  You can’t put a price tag on that!

I don’t say it will do the same to you. You may find them boring.  But I post them here for my own enjoyment and with the hope that some others will find them – the birds – awesome as well.

Right out of the box the first thing I wanted to try was some pictures of a bird in flight just to see how the new Rebel handled the focus issue.  Afterall, there was seven years of rapidly advancing technology between my first Rebel and this one. I’d say the new camera got an “A” on the first “quiz,” a blackbacked gull that cruised effortlessly down along the bay side of the causeway on a brisk southwest wind. I quickly grabbed several shots. Here are two. As with all images in this post, I think they are more pleasing when enlarged. Simply click on any image to get a larger version.

Great black-backed sails by.

Focus seemed to hold pretty well at different distances - and yes, I think gulls are awesome.

That was a satisfying start.  Though I didn’t examine my results at the time,  what I saw in the viewfinder seemed to indicate success. I  moved on and at the other end of the causeway I encountered  some semipalmated sandpipers crusing just above the wave line.

Semipalmated sandpipers.

And they were followed by my first encounter of the day with ruddy turnstones – though I must say it was low tide and the beach was teeming with life – unlike the day before when the tide was much higher at the time of my visit.

Ruddy Turnstone lining up a landing approach. Yes - the plumage is changing some, but still very beautiful. (And yes, this is the same picture as at the top, but it's part of a sequence, so I wanted to repeat it. )

Ruddy turnstone in glide - I think of this as flaps down mode.

Ruddy turnstone encounters a little traffic - a semipalmated plover on the runway ahead. No problem!

Ruddy turnstone - ok captain, landing gear down and locked!

You can almost here the engines straining as the thrust is reversed for slow down - aren't his markings gorgeous?!

Another safe landing - now just taxi over to the terminal . . .

What comes next? Really, this is one of those quick-draw things. I’m in one of my favorite shorebird areas – the rocky northeast beach and it is low tide and this means to expect the unexpected. In this instance out of the corner of my eye I caught something much larger than what i had been seeing suddenly taking off. These images aren’t as sharp as I like – there was really no time to focus on focusing but theys erve one of my primary purposes which is to photograph anything even a little unusual so i can later identify it.  This series does the trick. I’ll leave the answer to the end, just in case you want to test your skills.

Hmmm , , , think I’ll put a little poll at the end.  I’ll number each of the images below.  When you feel you have identified this mystery bird, note which number image sealed it for you. Then take the poll.  (Remember – you can click on any image for a larger version.)

1 - Take off of something that looked larger than the sanderlings and semipalmated plovers and sandpipers I had been seeing. Probably a bit larger than the ruddy turnstones as well.












The first clue to this bird was the size. The second was the mottled black on the underside – it is between breeding and non-breeding plumage. Another clue was the black in the arm pits – which remains even when completely changed to non-breeding plumage.  what I learned from examining these and “The Sibley Guide to Birds” closely was how to be sure it is not an American Golden Plover. Standing they can look much the same. In flight the white tail is a giveaway. Both top and bottom are white – with the American Golden Plover they are dark.

OK – not all birds fly well all the time. Sometimes they’re downright ungraceful. And sometimes they’re just fun.

Hey buddy - you want to see aneta way to keep your feet dry when the waves come in? Watch!

First you line up very carefully so as not to get your toes wet - timing is everything.

And you hop! That's all there is to it.

This next sequence is again of the ruddy turnstone.  These images are from behind and I believe show the wonderful pattern of the top side of their backs to good advantage. You also can watch the maneuvering of the various “control surfaces.”

Ruddy Turnstone.

Ruddy Turnstone - touch and go landing.

Ruddy Turnstone.

Ruddy Turnstone - looks like the elevator (tal) is being twisted just a little to maintain balance - something planes don't do!

Ruddy Turnstone.

Ruddy Turnstone - lowering landing gear.

Ruddy Turnstone - ooops - a bit off balance. Must have been a microburst!

Ruddy Turnstone - yipes - congestion!

Ruddy Turnstone - OK, we can handle this.

Of course the birds aren’t in the air all the time- they spend most of the time on the beach.  And I really liked this view of a young sanderling as it walked towards the sun with a spent wave lapping just behind it.




OK – here we go again with a mystery bird. We saw one like this earlier and it had me scratching my head while on the beach. I was still scratching when I got home and look at this picture, though the size comparison was clear here since the first picture includes a semipalmated plover which is about 7 inches. So – do you think you know this bird? We’re going to do the numbered picture thing again with a poll at the end. You decide at what point you know what bird this is.

1 - Unidentified larger bird with semipalmated plover in foreground.









As I said, this one had me puzzled. it could be a blackbellied plover in nonbreeding plumage. I really needed the flight shots to work this out. The give away there is the streaked breast. The black arm pit, short bill, and size (about 11.5″) all say blackbellied plover. The white rump/tail separate it fromt he American Golden Plover.

As i was walking near the parking lot I began thinking that the real test of the focus is a lone bird against a blue sky – and quite distant – so I began to look out for one. As i entered the parking lot I saw an osprey that must have been 100 yards off – maybe more. I aimed the telephoto and started clicking. The result was my favorite photo of the afternoon – favorite because it says I can now grab this kind of picture at least some of the time! (I didn’t know about the fish until I got home and looked at the picture.)

Osprey packing lunch.

Shortly after I caught this sequence over the beach near the causeway of a pair of sanderlings joining up with another.


One of the birds that has frustrated me this summer is the tern. I recognize them, but I don’t know the specific type and I haven’t – until now – been able to get some decent photos.  They appear quickly and are usually gone as quickly – and, of course, there’s the old focus problem aggravated by flight speed and size.  I got one shot near the start of the causeway on Gooseberry – then as I got in my car at the other end, a couple others appeared.

Common tern.

Common tern - note the black near wing tup.

Common tern.

And since I began this session with a gull, here’s two views of the same mature herring gull – in fact the same photo.  I just wanted to see how the flight image would stand up to zooming in the computer.

Herring gull.

See you soon at Gooseberry!

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