Saturday, June 22, 2013

Clapper Rail Takes a Swim + Belleplain Hike + How Most of the Photos in This Blog Happen

[This Clapper Rail was trading squawks with another, then emerged from the Spartina to swim down a channel at Forsythe NWR, NJ yesterday. Notice how plain the back looks, unstreaked compared with the obviously streaked back of King Rail, which has been reported in the west pool at Forsythe this week. Click to enlarge photo.]

This morning I mustered the ambition for a 5 a.m. departure and an 8-mile trail hike at Belleplain State Forest, NJ. Why? Well, for one thing I'm off to Montana next week for some wilderness training, and the hike was a too-little-too-late effort to remind my legs what covering ground at a faster than birding-crawl pace feels like. Also, I wanted to find out the state of the 17-year cicadas, and see and hear some breeding birds and their babies.

The cicadas have really wound down, with just a few individuals calling, but as to the bird babies, I was not disappointed. I think my favorite was the dark-eyed White-eyed Vireo fledgling  following Dad from branch to branch at close range, scolding at me while Dad occasionally sang. I had the camera, but it was in the daypack and stayed there for this "serious" hike, which means I got no pictures of the vireos, nor of the cuckoos, or the young Ovenbird, or the Summer Tanagers . . .

Which was dumb, carrying a camera where you can't get at it, and leads me to a rumination. People occasionally ask me how I get the photos I get, but most of the time when they're asking that they really want to know what kind of camera and lens I have. I'll tell you what kind of camera I have in a minute, but the most important answer to "How do you get your photos?" is, "I carry my camera ready all the time, and usually remember to have it set correctly for the conditions." Well, that and I get out in the field as much as I can, and get close to cool birds!

Take the Clapper Rail photo in this blog. I'd heard the bird, and knew it was close, but wasn't exactly expecting it to slip into the channel and start swimming in front of me. When it did, there were about 10 seconds of time when it was in a good spot for a pictures, and in those seconds I managed to draw my camera and shoot a dozen or so frames. The reason that worked out is because the camera hangs at my side on a Black Rapid strap pretty much whenever I'm in the field, and because my basic favorite bird settings for my set-up are programmed into the "U1" user-defined presets bank, which is how I leave the camera set when I'm not expecting a flight shot (for which I have programmed the "U2" presets bank, which I can switch to with a twist of a dial).

About the camera (even though it's NOT about the camera), for birds I use a Nikon D7000 body,  most often with a Nikon 300mm F4 ED lens, and most often with the Nikon 1.4X teleconverter. This is not the set-up I would use if I were rich, but I'm not rich and if I were rich I'd probably cripple myself trying to carry around more lens, length and weight-wise, than I really need. A wise person once said that before you buy the $10,000 lens, buy $200 worth of camouflage clothes and some waders. . .

Let's go back to Belleplain, it's much more interesting there than in the camera store. My e-bird list is below. I tried to be careful estimating numbers during the hike, but over the 3 hours or so it was admittedly difficult to remember. I also don't think the numbers necessarily reflect how many of each species were present as much as they reflect how often birds of different species were singing. It seemed to me, for example, that Worm-eating Warblers were singing with a high frequency, which led to a high count. I certainly don't really think there were more cuckoos than Red-eyed Vireos, yet unless I "listened past" a bunch of singing vireos, they just weren't very evident this morning, unusual for this very vocal species.

I hiked basically from Belleplain Headquarters to Route 347 and back again, mainly on the north and south branches of the East Creek trail. 90% of the birds detected were heard-onlies. Here's the list:

Wild Turkey  1
Turkey Vulture  1
Yellow-billed Cuckoo  7     Actual count
Ruby-throated Hummingbird  1
Downy Woodpecker  6
Hairy Woodpecker  1
Eastern Wood-Pewee  5
Acadian Flycatcher  3
Eastern Phoebe  1
Great Crested Flycatcher  5
Eastern Kingbird  1
White-eyed Vireo  7
Red-eyed Vireo  5
Carolina Chickadee  3
Tufted Titmouse  7
Carolina Wren  1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  6
Wood Thrush  9
American Robin  2
Gray Catbird  1
Brown Thrasher  1
Cedar Waxwing  6
Ovenbird  15
Worm-eating Warbler  11     Careful estimate
Blue-winged Warbler  1
Black-and-white Warbler  3
Prothonotary Warbler  1
Hooded Warbler  1
Pine Warbler  18
Yellow-throated Warbler  6
Eastern Towhee  5
Summer Tanager  2
Scarlet Tanager  4
Blue Grosbeak  1
Indigo Bunting  1
Common Grackle  15
Orchard Oriole  2


  1. I am currently bidding on D7000s on eBay...really looking forward to those presets (among other things).

    The Blackrapid strap is great. Can't imagine going back to an old-fashioned one.

    1. I love the D7000, and boy are those presets great for being quick in the field. But the new d7100 is tempting. My number one gripe (small one) is the focus speed on the D7000, which is light years better than the d300 but the D7100 has the D4's focus system, even better. Plus the D7100 has the 24mp sensor. Like I say, tempting, but Nikon will probably release a D400 the day I buy the D7100. . .and besides, it's really not about camera. I'm enjoying your posts from the island!