Sunday, January 12, 2014

Whitewater Draw 2014!

Yesterday saw us finally getting to Whitewater Draw for the first time this Winter.  We've been there and posted many times, and is always a fun day trip for us, about a 2 hour drive to the southeast of Tucson.  It is amazing that the high desert of the Sulfur Springs Valley can host such an amazing variety and number of birds, especially the sandhill cranes, which winter here after migrating down from northern Canada.  We announced our intentions to the astronomy club last weekend and had 7 people in 3 cars meet us there.  I understand that last year they had some issues with irrigation pumps, with some of the ponds bone dry, so it is always a bit of a surprise what you will find there.  But it looks like all is well, there was a goodly amount of water in all the ponds, though a distinct lack of plants, so not a great food source for smaller waterfowl.  We were gratified that there was a good supply of cranes though...

A couple of our group were there for the first
time, and it is always fun to see it through their eyes - I think they were impressed!  We got there about 2:30 and stayed until well after sunset, perhaps 4 hours.  There was a good initial supply of cranes, but not particularly close to the viewing stands, perhaps 75-80 meters away.  I was ready for that by packing in my William Optics 11cm F/7 refractor (770mm focal length) telescope, which zooms in on them pretty well.  The disadvantage, of course, is that it is manual focus, and with birds there just isn't time to use live view for critical focus for every frame.  But by carefully using live view and making sure the adjustable diopter lens on the viewer was set properly, I got a good percentage in decent focus - perhaps 40% or more on non-moving targets.

Because at the "near" distances involved, the telescope provides a pretty shallow depth-of-field.  One bird might be in perfect focus, but one right behind or in front might be blurry with the 700+mm focal length.  I like learning new techniques and methods, and as I posted a week ago, I learned about focus stacking to improve depth of field.  Multiple images are taken at different focus settings and the images blended in Photoshop.  As shown here at left, a single image shows some birds in sharp focus, but those behind are quite blurry.  In this case, I took 4 frames in quick succession while racking the fine focus slightly.  Blending them together in Photoshop provides the image at right with a better focus range.

Similarly in this shot of a single bird, while it is in sharp focus, I wanted the reflection in the water, the bird and the stalks behind all in focus.  Taking 3 images at various focus accomplished it.  There are some artifacts in some of the blends, especially in high-contrast areas near the crane necks in the image in the preceding paragraph.  I'll need to get more experience to see if it can be minimized, but it isn't too objectionable...

I shot a couple things besides cranes - here is buddy Bernie who came down with us on his first visit to Whitewater.  He got a new Canon 6D the other week, so was having fun with his new camera system.  When he got far enough away I could focus on him with the WO telescope, I snapped him.  At right is a long-billed dowitcher, which we saw in Mexico a couple weeks ago, and I think we've seen it at Whitewater before too.

Always up for a good challenge, catching the cranes in flight with the telescope, especially when focusing manually, seems to be a nearly impossible challenge.  But that didn't stop me from trying.  As it neared sunset, the cranes that were in the shallow water mostly departed for nearby fields for some late-afternoon feeding, providing lots of chances.  In the fading light, mostly guessing at focus, panning along their path, if you can catch the iris in their eye, you must be living right!  The only unfortunate thing is that the wing position is identical in both of these...

Sunset came and went, and the birds stayed away
- visible in hay fields a couple miles to the west - thousands and thousands of them.  Only a few hundred remained anywhere near us, at left visible silhouetted against twilight colors in a multiple-frame panorama.  We waited, knowing that they would eventually return.  Whether their delayed return was due to the warm temperatures ( at near 70F, I think it was the warmest I'd ever seen there in January!) or perhaps because of the nearly full moon, I don't know, but finally nearly a full 45 minutes after sunset, with nearly all hints of the sunset gone, their increasing rattling calls finally signaled their return.  The western sky filled with their hordes, though it was too dark to do much with the cameras.  For this last exposure I switched to the kit lens, shot at full zoom of 85mm for a tenth of a second. 

Our intrepid band of observers caravanned to Tombstone where we rejoined for dinner at the Crystal Palace, finishing our meal just as a LOUD band was starting to play.  It was a nice way to draw a great day to a close...  We'll try to get down again before they leave in another month or 6 weeks.  It is always a fun trip on a slow weekend!

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