A Quick Trip

I couldn’t help myself. I was halfway there and the car just kept going. My fingers were itching to try out the new lens at the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge complex. I had been to the mountains half-heartedly checking to see if any morels were out yet, everything in the valley being at least a month early. I had gotten as far as Lake of the Woods and found no mushrooms and nothing to photograph so there seemed to be no other choice than to make a quick trip to the Klamath Basin. It was 3pm, I could be there by 4, a couple quick loops around the auto tour routes at Lower Klamath and Tule Lake. Done by 6 and back over the hill by 7 while it was still light. Yeah right, but more on that later.

I did make it to the Lower Klamath refuge by 4pm or just a little after. The first thing I noticed was the abundance of mosquitos. I could hear their little bodies dying against my windshield, tink, tink, tink, tink. Good thing I bought those new windshield wipers so I could clear away the carnage periodically.

Bufflehead.jpgDriving into the Lower Klamath auto tour the first thing I noticed was how empty it seemed. I did see a female pheasant skitter across the road into the sage brush but she was too fast for me. When I was last there the ditches along the road were filled with Bufflehead ducks. There were still a few and I did finally manage to get one to hold still long enough to photograph. There were coots, of course, there are always coots. I think when all the other birds have gone extinct there will still be coots. And there were a fewCanadians.jpg Canadians still lounging along the ditch banks. But the killdeer that had been everywhere last time had also seemed to disappear.

The cranes were gone, I didn’t see any snow geese and, not unexpectedly, there were no more eagles. The red winged blackbirds that had been everywhere earlier in the month were also now few and far between. I did see one hawk but it took off before I could wrestle the camera with its new 5lb lens into place.

Nshoveler_flight.jpgI finally found some Northern Shovelers as I headed north around the last leg of the loop. They were a bit skittish and kept flying off before I could get a shot. This one was a little slow as he took off just as I tripped the shutter.

So, I rolled out of Lower Klamath feeling a little disappointed as once again the pheasants that had been feeding along the entry road skittered off into the sagebrush before I could even think of stopping the car, let alone pick up the camera. And they were very good at hiding. I was wondering at this point if this had been a bad idea but I turned right on State Line Road determined to check out Tule Lake while I was in the neighborhood.

It was now approaching 5pm so I zoomed past the visitor’s center assuming it would probably be closed by now on a Sunday afternoon. I looked longingly at the cliffs but decided to save raptors for another day and go straight to the lakes. I couldn’t even see many birds near the first viewing spot so I drove on by though I had thought to set up the tripod in the semi-blind shelter.

As I got away from the main highway I started to see more and more ducks and a fewPelican.jpg grebes but still far fewer than in early March. Then I saw them. Big white birds that could only be American White Pelicans swimming quite close to the road and in full breeding plumage. I got some pretty good shots before they swam away to safety. And yeah, I’d say the Tamron lens is sharp enough. Later on I saw a whole flock of Pelicans fishing together. All diving in unison. I read later that this is typical pelican behavior. They work together to round up the fish, then, all together now, dive in for lunch.

White_fronts.jpgAs I got further into the refuge I saw great flocks of some brown goose looking birds I had never seen before. For the most part all I could get a picture of was their tails as they swam away from my car. I later learned from David Allen Sibley that these were white fronted geese, probably resting on their way to the Arctic coast of Canada for the summer. Gathered near but separately from the white fronts were some large flocks of Snow_Geese.jpgsnow and Ross’ geese. They preferred to fly away as my car approached.

As I was about to roll out of the refuge on the Lava Beds end I had to slam on the breaks and put it in reverse. For there in a clump of old cattails was a bird I had read about in the bird list for the Klamath Basin, but never seen before. A yellow-headed Yellow_head.jpgblackbird. It’s always exciting to add something new to one’s life list, especially after 25 years of hanging out in wildlife refuges. I hope this won’t be the last good picture I get at Tule Lake. Because as I was leaving the refuge a flock of coots elected to run in front of my car and when I slammed on the brakes to avoiding hitting them, the camera and lens that had been sitting on the passenger seat went flying to the floor. Damn coots.

Well, I forgot to figure in time to stop and shoot so it was well after 6p.m. by the time I hit the tarmac to head home and I still had a good 30 miles just to get back to Klamath Falls. So, I’m racing the clock and the light and praying that I won’t hit a deer going over the mountains. I saw one little black tail bounding off into the forest having crossed the road just before I got there. I hoped that was a sign that someone had been listening to my prayers.

By the time I got to the Greensprings summit it was full dark. Then I saw his brown form in my headlights and slammed on the brakes. A suicidal Jack Rabbit jumped out of nowhere in front of my car. But he made it safely across the road and I knew then that I would make it safely home too, now that the universe had had another good laugh at my expense.  Aside from the flatlander going 30 mph down the mountain in front of me the rest of the trip was uneventful and I made it home by 8:30pm. It was a quick trip but the new lens is now well tried and baptized by coots and I’m looking forward to spending a few more days in the Klamath Basin in a couple of weeks. And hoping the cold snap we are now enjoying will take out a few more mosquitos besides the ones now plastered all over the front of my car!

A Rant on Telephoto Lenses for the Uninitiated

If you are going to shoot wildlife you have to have a telephoto lens. Period, end of discussion. But how long is long enough? How fast does it need to be anyway? What about tele-extenders? To zoom or not to zoom? And who can afford to pay $12,000 for a lens anyway? Ah, grasshopper, you have much to learn.

In the very first photography workshop I ever attended, back in 1989, I was given the sound advice that when purchasing photo equipment I should buy to my frustrations. In other words, I should spend my limited photo dollars to eliminate my greatest frustrations. On my recent photography expedition to the Klamath Basin to shoot birds it became very clear to me that my greatest frustration was my seven year old Canon 100-400 mm zoom lens which just never seems to be quite long enough even on a Canon 7D whose ASP-C Hawk2015.jpgsensor makes it effectively equivalent to a 160-640mm lens in the 35mm film or full frame sensor world.

Yes, I have taken some great photographs with that lens, including this hawk taking flight, but there always seems to be something more out there just beyond my reach and I’ve had to do some heavy cropping to fill the frame. Same with the Western Meadowlark. The photograph of a hunting coyote, below, was taken with that lens but is the result of some seriously heavy cropping and has been judged to be just not sharp enough to win a competition, which kind of soured me on wildlife photography, not to mention competitions, for a while because I thought it was such a great shot. (All three of these photos were taken at Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge near Las Vegas, New Mexico).

A few years back I purchased a 1.4x extender thinking this would solve all my problems. But, it turns out, (and I had toWestern_Meadowlark.jpg learn this the hard way so pay close attention) that the auto focusing system on a Canon lens shuts down with a tele-extender if the effective maximum aperture is less than f 4.0 (2.8 for a 2x). (For a full explanation of this see: www.learn.usa.canon.com/resources/articles/2014/ef_extenders_pt2.shtml.). But do I really need f4.0 or f2.8 to shoot wildlife, outside, on a tripod? Yes, sometimes at dawn and dusk but with today’s ISO capabilities…  I don’t know, not for $10,000 I don’t.

Yes, I am capable of manually focusing the lens but 1) I’m spoiled, 2) I’m not getting any Coyote2015.jpgyounger and my eyesight never was that great in the first place and 3) some of those birds move pretty fast. When you are in a wildlife refuge using your car for a blind, trying to shoot out the driver’s side window while putting the car in park, hoping the bird doesn’t fly away before you get stopped, having to focus manually with a steering wheel in your way is just the last straw.

So, I went looking for solutions. Knowing that the next step up in Canon lenses was going to cost me at least $10,000 I knew that that wasn’t going to be an option until my trust fund comes through. I thought I might be able to rent a lens and, in fact, I could get an 800mm Canon lens from the creatively named Borrowlenses Company. But it would cost me nearly $500 for one week’s rental. That would probably be a good option if I were taking a once in a lifetime trip to Africa or Antarctica. But, I decided, for my current purposes I should probably try manually focusing my existing lens while sitting in a real blind first. I thought maybe I should get a 2x extender and try manually focusing that too.

The same photographer who advised me to buy to my frustrations also advised me to stick to my camera manufacturer’s lenses. The reason we buy Canon and Nikon is not because they make great cameras (not that they don’t) it is because they make the best and sharpest lenses. At least that was the case in 1989. A lot has changed in the quality of optics and the capability to design and manufacture precision optics since 1989. So, when in all my researching I stumbled across the Tamron SP 150-600mm lens I decided it was worth further investigation. (SP, by the way, I learned, is short for Super Performance. That sounds good.)

I also stumbled across a site that compares lenses on sharpness, vignetting and distortion (www.dpreview.com) on my very own camera body. So, after punching all the appropriate links I was able to compare the Tamron 150 to 600mm to my seven year old Canon 100-400mm lens and found that it is similar in sharpness, possibly a little better away from the center of the lens and there also wasn’t much difference in the other two categories. I then compared the Tamron to Canon’s more advanced lenses and learned that what I get for my $12,000 is not only superior sharpness and larger apertures, but consistency across the full lens. Ah, grasshopper, so much to learn.

Spotted_Towhee.jpgAs for whether to zoom or not to zoom I have to say that I have always been a fan of the versatility of the zoom lens but you do lose quality when you ask a lens to do too much. Back in the day, it was a well-known fact that a zoom lens was never as sharp as a single focal length lens. Again, times have changed, zooms have gotten much better as have optics in general. Given my druthers, on a long telephoto, I would probably opt for a single focal length if it were in the budget. In my case, it is not. And the answer to the how long is long enough question, in case I need to spell it out, is as long as you can afford.

When all was said and done I decided that for somewhat less than the cost of two weekly Scrub_Jay.jpgrentals and a 2x extender I could afford to take a chance on the Tamron 150 to 600mm zoom, at least until my trust fund comes through. I ordered the lens from B&H on Monday and UPS was on my doorstep Friday morning. The last two images, of a Spotted Towhee and a Western Scrub Jay are from my first test drive. Both were shot at North Mountain Park in Ashland, Oregon.  Yes, I did have to crop a little to get the composition I wanted, but not nearly as much as before. Both birds are sharp and I was standing a good 50 to 100 feet from each of them.

To quote Dewitt Jones, “So far, so good.” (That’s an inside photography joke, anyone who was at the last NANPA Summit in San Diego will get it). At this point I am very happy with the Tamron, it looks like a reasonable step up from the Canon 100-400mm and I can’t wait to get it out to the Klamath Basin.

Introduction

This is a photo blog I have set up to share with you my adventures and some of my photos from a project I have assigned myself to photograph in the Wildlife Refuges of the Klamath Basin once a month for at least a year. I’m excited about this project and I hope you will come along with me on this journey. The header image at the top of the page was taken by me on my first visit to the refuges. This one was shot at Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge and captures the beauty of Mt. Shasta in the background as some Snow Geese fly by. Read more about the project and my intentions on the About page.

I’ll be reporting on what I found on my first trip in the next post but first I wanted to say a bit about the refuges. The Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex consists of six wildlife refuges in Southern Oregon and Northern California. Of the six, the most user friendly are Lower Klamath and Tule Lake, each of which have well developed auto tour routes. These two are located just on the state border and only about 10 miles apart between highways 97 and 139. There is a visitor center at the Tule Lake NWR where you can pick up maps and brochures.

The northern most refuge, Klamath Marsh refuge, about halfway between Chiloquin and Chemault on highway 97, has some limited access via public and Forest Service roads. Upper Klamath refuge on the northwest end of Upper Klamath Lake is primarily accessible by canoe, though there are a few places to look into the marshlands in the Rocky Point area.  Bear Valley and Clear Lake are closed to the public but provide habitat for species that visit some of the more accessible refuges.  In addition, the Klamath Wildlife Area, off highway 97 south of Klamath Falls is managed by the State of Oregon and, of course, birds can be found outside the managed areas throughout the Basin including in the city parks of Klamath Falls itself.

I’ll add more on the individual refuges as I go along, maybe inserting some extra blog posts in between my trip reports. I may also do some posts on individual species as I go along.

March

My first visit to the Klamath Basin, at least with wildlife photography on my mind, was March 4-6, 2015. It was meant to be a sort of scouting trip just to see what the basin had to offer and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. In fact, I was so excited about the potential I found that I decided to come back every month for at least a year to see how things change and what new species show up.

Now, you have to understand that I recently moved back to my native Southern Oregon, having spent the past 8 years in New Mexico. There, I made frequent visits to the Bosque del Apache and had come to think of it as the standard by which all wildlife refuges should be measured.Bosque_Eagle.jpg

Well, just to give you some perspective, I shot the image of a Bald Eagle on the left  on my last visit to the Bosque. Yeah, I know, I’m embarrassed to show it but I’m trying to make a point here. And that’sBald_Eagle3.jpg about as close to an eagle as I ever got at the Bosque and in over 10 visits it was about the second time I had seen one. By comparison, I shot the image of a Bald Eagle on the right on my first visit to the Klamath Basin and it was only one of about 5 pretty decent shots and I lost track of how many sightings. Let’s just say I am no longer concerned about leaving the Bosque behind.

March is pretty quiet in the Klamath Basin . Most of the spring migrants have not yet arrivMorning_fog.jpged and many of the winter visitors have already left. It was a good time for a scouting trip too, as I pretty much had the place to myself. Aside from Bald Eagles I saw a fair number of Sandhill Cranes though they were mostly too far off the road to get a good shot. But, you know, I have Sandhill Crane pictures up the wazoo from my many trips to the Bosque del Apache.

MtShastawSG2.jpgLanding.jpgThere were also several flocks of snow geese. Since it was a scouting trip, and before the switch to daylight savings time, I didn’t make the effort to get up before sunrise. But I thought these geese flying in front of Mt. Shasta made for a pretty good shot. And here are a few more coming in for a landing with the sun backlighting their feathers.
Other birds I saw in abundance were pheasants. More than I have ever seen in one place before. But they were shy and my lens was too short to get a good shot at a distance they felt comfortable. I also missed out on the tundra swans I saw in the distance and I fear I will have to wait until next fall as they will likely be gone by the time I go back in April. I also saw a few white pelicans but it was early for them so I hope to get a better shot next time.

Killdeer.jpgKilldeer were everywhere and happy to pose. Hawks were very plentiful and I got at least one of the rough legged variety to hold still long enough to get his portrait made. I came close on a red-tail in flight but he just wasn’t quite sharp. I will try, try, and try again.

 

Rough_leg.jpgNorthern_Pintail.jpg

The lakes seemed mostly empty but without having a comparison I’m not sure if that was normal. I suspect there will be more birds competing for space next month. Ducks were plentiful and I captured a few, including these pintails.

There were also Northern Shovelers in abundance. Lots of Buffleheads but they were sure nervous. Canvasbacks were also seen swimming away and I even saw a Mallard or two. But my favorite water birds were the grebes. I’ll be gunning for them in the future.

Western_Grebes.jpgCanadian Geese were everywhere and I could get almost close enough to get a good shot before they flew away. Also abundant but shy were the red wing blackbirds. I was excited to see a Great Blue Heron at Tule Lake but the lighting was all wrong and I have much better shots of Great Blues in my files so you won’t be seeing one here. And it’s not just about the birds. These ladies and a few of their friends strolled in front of my Mule_Deer.jpgcar one morning. I sighted two coyotes hunting in the fields but that 100-400mm just couldn’t cut it.

These images were all captured at Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife refuges, mostly from my car hand holding said medium telephoto zoom lens. Gotta love image stabilization. I’m going to be looking into renting a longer lens one of these trips. I am also going to check out the photo blinds next time.