Friday, November 29, 2013

White and Brown Pelicans

During our summer visit to Mustang Island, we saw a number of Brown Pelicans.  On our winter visit, we continued to see many more both on the gulf and bay sides of the island. Here is a group which we saw while walking the beach. The pelicans were having a good time feeding in the waves at the Fish Pass Jetty in the state park.
Canon SX50 HS - ISO-200, f/5.6, 1/160s

The large group below, we found gathering at sunset on Shamrock Island. We reached this by kayaking about a quarter mile out into Corpus Christi Bay from the end of Wilson's Cut. This island is a bird preserve and boats are not allowed to beach there.

Canon SX50 HS - ISO-80, f/5.6, 1/250s
Over the summer we had not seen any White Pelicans, which are primarily here only in the winter. While watching the feeding frenzy in the first picture, we did see a flock of twenty or so flying inland. We finally ran into a half dozen on the ground resting on a sand bar at the mouth of Pink Shack Cove. I love the bird on the right peeking out at us over its back.

Canon SX50 HS - ISO-80, f/5.6, 1/800s

After a couple of the birds flew to the other side of the cove, I watched one of the remaining birds doing a funny set of stretches and hops ... I managed to put together a short animation sequence.

Canon SX50 HS - ISO-80, f/6.5, 1/250s

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Great Blue Heron Aggression

In the salt marshes of Mustang Island, Great Blue Herons abound.  Here is one slowly trolling through the shallows along Wilson's Cut looking for prey.

Canon SX50 HS - ISO-400, f/8, 1/1600s
We almost always see these as lone individuals, though sometimes in the company of egrets or smaller herons. On a walk along the bay north of Fish Pass, we were to see why. We came across a pair of herons displaying to each other by holding their beaks straight up and clapping them. Apparently, this display is called the Stretch and is a mark of territorial aggression.

By the time I got my camera set up, the pair had progressed from the "stretch" to the "drown that bastard" display, as neither was backing down. The animation below captures a few key moments in the final action.

First, one of the herons climbed up on the other heron's shoulders and was pushing the latter into the water as the bottom heron strained to keep its neck up. It looked like they were trying to drown each other, and they both ended up struggling at the surface of the water. The weaker one finally broke out from under the other and made its escape to find a different marsh.

All the while, a group of Marbled Godwits and Long-Billed Curlews looked on, unconcerned by the drama.

Canon SX50 HS - ISO-400, f/6.3, 1/400s

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Roseate Spoonbills and White Ibis

Having grown up in the Chihuahuan Desert, I find coastal water birds fascinating, especially the exotic-looking one like spoonbills and ibis. On this trip, our first glimpse of a spoonbill was on the observation tower at Aransas NWR, watching a pink bird feeding in the salt marsh a quarter mile away. For reference, when fully zoomed to 215mm, the framing is equivalent to a 750mm lens on an APS-C DSLR.

Canon SX50 HS - ISO-640, f/6.5, 1/320s, 215mm
The best flock we saw was in the marshes around the Cape Velero neighborhood in Rockport.  We parked well away from the homes and stayed on the road, so we were still not very close to the birds. The shots of the Roseate Spoonbill with wings extended show how strongly colored the underside is. It was very common to see small egrets, spoonbills and ibis grouped together. Possibly a commensal feeding arrangement?

Canon SX50 HS
Canon SX50 HS
Again, kayaking proved to be the way to observe more closely. Getting closer with an excitable Labrador on board is not very practical. Before getting the camera out of the dry bag, I always beach the kayak so there is no chance of the electronics going into the drink. I took this shot from the opposite shore of a small cut at about 100ft from the birds.

Canon SX50 HS - ISO-400, f/6.5, 1/400s

Monday, November 25, 2013

Red Tail Hawk at Big Tree

While observing the Whooping Cranes on the property near the Big Tree, north of Goose Island State Park, we got distracted by several Red Tail Hawks on the power lines down the street.  This one was claiming the spot at the top of the telephone pole and screeching at the others. 

Canon SX50 HS - ISO-125, f/6.5, 1/160s

Whooping Cranes on the Coast

On this winter trip to Mustang Island SP, one of our hopes was to catch sight of the Whooping Cranes in and around Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Earlier this fall, we had seen a large flock of Sandhill Cranes flying over the Canyon of Eagles campground but had no luck finding them on the ground. In this post, I summarize our crane adventures on this trip.

November 25 - Near the Big Tree - Our first and best sighting actually happened by accident.  The weather at the beginning of the week was far too cold to kayak, so we had driven up to Goose Island State Park to see what bird life we could find by the fishing pier. We did see an Oyster Catcher and a few Willets but, otherwise, not much.

After getting "kicked off" of the pier for having our Labrador with us, I was fuming and hinting at going back to the coast, but Danielle suggested we go see the Big Tree, which we missed on our last trip. While viewing the impressive tree, Danielle pointed out two cranes flying overhead through the tree cover; I couldn't get an identification for them in that brief glimpse.

We then went exploring around the neighborhood and spotted a small group of what looked like cranes milling around on one of the properties in the distance.  Binoculars convinced us there was a good chance we had found Whooping Cranes! We walked the quarter mile to the spot on 8th Street shown below and found the cranes gathered about 400 ft away from us.

The properties were all marked with "No Trespassing" signs, and we stuck to the road with a few other bird-watchers. We were glad to have our little super-zoom camera. We both observed with binoculars and took pictures for about an hour.  Below is a shot of all of the birds in one frame.  

Canon SX50 HS - ISO-400, f/5.6, 1/125s
There are a total of seven Whooping Cranes and three Sandhill Cranes. The bird on the far left had a pair of leg bands; none of the others did.  Here is a close-up of the leg bands as seen from behind

The tan and white mottled crane second to the right is a juvenile Whooping Crane.  We were impressed by how large the Whooping Cranes are!  This is especially evident in comparison to the Sandhills. This location must be a common hang out for the cranes since we saw several bird blinds set up (see one at the tree line below) and met a number of other folks driving by to check on them.

Here is a close-in crop of one of the cranes.

Canon SX50 HS - ISO-500, f/6.5, 1/160s

We especially liked this next image, which shows the juvenile accompanied by two adults.  I don't know if these are the parents or not.

Canon SX50 HS - ISO-500, f/6.5, 1/160s
We tried to get some shots of the cranes flying or spreading their wings, but the little camera was not up to the task on this overcast day.

November 26 - Aransas NWR Observation Tower - The next day, we set out to find more cranes at ANWR, where we had originally expected to find them. Our first stop there was the observation tower at the southern end of the park. This observing platform overlooks a wide expanse of salt marsh as shown in the map below.

Close up, the only birds we saw were Turkey Vultures roosting in the trees below us.  At home, we always see these above us.  The change in perspective merited a picture!

On the distant marsh we saw a Roseate Spoonbill and a few Great Blue Herons. We also saw two Whooping Cranes.  Though far away, this observation was fun because we got to watch them feed in the water, dunking their head under like egrets. This shot below was taken from 1700 ft as measured on the map! Wow, without binoculars, I could barely see the birds. We did not observe bands on either of these cranes.

Canon SX50 HS - ISO-1250, f/8, 1/320s

November 26 - Aransas NWR Heron Flats - Our second encounter was along the Heron Flats trail, the lower portion of which was open.  Access from the upper parking lot was not possible. This was a great trail and yielded views of egrets, herons, ibis, and ducks. This time, the flock of cranes was about 800 ft out and consisted of a pair of Whooping Cranes amid a couple dozen Sandhills. We heard the Sandhills long before we saw them; their natural camouflage is pretty effective.

Here is a shot of some of the Sandhill Cranes on the marsh as the sun was setting.

Canon SX50 HS - ISO-1600, f/7.1, 1/200s

In this shot, we tried to capture some of the Sandhill Cranes displaying to each other in some sort of "kick boxing" posture. Interesting that the two species don't really engage each other. Again, we did not observe bands on either of these Whooping Cranes.

Canon SX50 HS - ISO-250, f/6.5, 1/160s
Though very grainy at high ISO, a view of a crane with wings extended

Canon SX50 HS - ISO-1600, f/6.5, 1/320

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Catching ISON at Dawn

After a week of trying, Danielle and I finally got a glimpse of Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) at dawn this morning. Over the weekend, we set up the tracking mount in the front yard since the trees obstruct the eastern horizon from the backyard observatory.  Every morning since then has been cloudy, and last night, with another overcast morning forecast, we took the mount down.  This morning at 5am, when Danielle got up briefly, she noticed that the sky was clear and woke me up.  We were able to find ISON in 8x42 binoculars (faint fuzzy), despite the nearly full moon which was just past zenith and the streetlight in front of our house. We could not spot the same comet 2 weeks ago in binoculars under dark skies.

We also got a camera/tripod shot but there was too much star trailing. Wishing the equatorial mount was still set up, we decided to quickly redeploy it, mount the camera and large lens, and do a rapid polar align.  We finally got everything working at about twilight and grabbed a couple dozen frames before it got too light to see anything.

This image is composed from a stack of 21 frames with separate processing of the coma and stars. The image is cropped down considerably.

Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON), Nov 19, 06:15 CST - Canon 60Da, 400mm, f5.6, ISO-800, 21 x 5sec.
This is a further crop of the image to center on the comet itself at full resolution.

Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON), Nov 19, 06:15 CST - Canon 60Da, 400mm, f5.6, ISO-800, 21 x 5sec.
What is interesting to me is that the level of detail is similar, or a bit less, than the images from 2 weeks ago. However, these are 5sec exposures and the previous ones were 3min exposures. Hopefully, the comet will survive perihelion on Thanksgiving and we will be able to take some more dramatic shots of the tail.

We also saw Comet C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy) in the binoculars. The coma was clearly larger than that of ISON. We did not have a chance to image that comet.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Red Tailed Hawks at Canyon of Eagles

During our Comet ISON camping trip to Canyon of Eagles, we saw these raptors flying over the plain which is usually Lake Burnet (when we are not in a drought).  I am fairly certain that these are a color variety of Red Tailed Hawk.

Red Tail Hawk - Canyon of Eagles - Canon 60Da, Canon EF 70-200mm/f4L ISO-800 f4

Sandhill Cranes at Canyon of Eagles

We awoke in the campground at Canyon of Eagles, TX. to the sound of what, at first, I thought were migrating geese.  On closer inspection, we found that a flock of Sandhill Cranes had risen from the river plain and were circling overhead, gaining altitude above the campground.  I don't know if these were in residence or migrating through, but the sight was awesome.

Part of a mass of hundreds of Sandhill Cranes over the campground

V-formation of cranes heading off

This view of the cranes captures each at a different point in the wing-stroke within the formation.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Second View of Comet C/2012 S1 ISON

This weekend, at Canyon of Eagles, we stayed up to the early morning hours and imaged C/2012 S1 ISON for the first time since last winter.  The star in the image is Sigma Leonis at magnitude 4.  The comet head is about magnitude 10.

No telescope this evening, only camera lenses.  Image is a stack of 12 frames, each 300sec with separate stacking for stars and comet head.

Canon 60Da, EF 70-200/f4L,  ISO-1600, f/4, 200mm, 12 x 300s

On this trip, we also took a few deep sky images:

NGC-6992 West and East Veil Nebulae

IC1848 Heart and Soul Nebulae