Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Another Book Review: Digital Photography

Back in September when I first bought my Canon Rebel Xsi, Red loaned me a book she had bought and read after purchasing her Canon 40D. The title is Mastering Digital SLR Photography (second edition) by David Busch. Its subtitle is: the serious photographer's guide to high-quality digital SLR photography. I seem to grin when I read that. That's because I really don't consider myself a "serious" photographer. I don't plan on being a professional; I just like to take pictures of what strikes my fancy. Mostly I like to take photos to have a record of what I have seen and enjoyed around me, and something to remember it by.
But back to reviewing the book. I would definitely recommend this book if you want to learn more about high quality photography and to learn more about your digital camera's features and quirks, if you own a Nikon or Canon. Other brand names were not mentioned very often. On a personal level I found the book more technical than what I would want to read and learn about my camera. Mr. Busch got into mirror size/design and pentaprisms which did not interest me. But he did have several chapters that were worthy -- like the chapter on a camera's buttons and menus and what each of them are capable of doing and when it's best to use a certain mode, like aperture-priority or shutter-priority or using manual focus. Another chapter I liked reading was about the various lenses one can use and which lenses are best for landscape or macro photography, etc. The chapters on action photography and close-up photography were good, too. Mr. Busch is a professional photographer, so he does give some excellent tips on composition and depth of field, too. Overall, if I had to rate this book on a 1 to 5 scale I would give it a "4." A lot of my photography is learning by doing, or even better yet asking my daughter (Red) about certain buttons and when to use them. She may not always have the patience with me, but she also knows that experimenting with one's toy is the best way to get to know it. Happy picture-taking everyone!

Monday, October 27, 2008

From Dark to Dawn by Elizabeth Charles

Last Tuesday evening was the first meeting of our Women's Book Club. There are some women in our church who are interested in reading a book as a group and then meeting to discuss what their thoughts were regarding the book. Our first book for discussion was titled "From Dark to Dawn" originally written by Elizabeth Rundle Charles and originally titled "The Chronicles of the Schoenberg-Cotta Family." "From Dark to Dawn" was edited and revised by James & Stacy McDonald. This book is an historical fiction of a family who became acquainted with Martin Luther in his youth and became friends. Each journal entry is chronicled with each family member's depiction of what it was like to be a Christian in the years preceding and following the German Reformation. The timing of our club's meeting to discuss the book was perfect since yesterday we celebrated the anniversary of The Reformation, as we do each year.

The book was originally published in 1863 and the time line for this historical novel was the 16th century. So the English language in the book, at times, seemed a little "foreign." But this edition provided a glossary in the back of the book, along with a timeline graph of the 15th and 16th centuries. Inside the book jacket it says, "Mrs. Charles masterfully marries historic truth with intriguing fiction in a way that draws the reader into the days of knights, plagues, indulgences, and political upheaval....leads the reader to contemplate the same theological truths that led to Martin Luther's famous posting of the 95 Theses."

I highly recommend this book for those who are interested in church history and would prefer reading about church history that is presented in a more "personal" presentation, even if it is fictional.

Monday, October 20, 2008

My New Toys

Now that I have the Monterey Bay Birding Festival posts complete, I can let everyone know that while attending the festival I had a new toy to try out. I have enjoyed using my Kodak DX7590 Easy Share, 5.0 MP, 10x zoom for the past 4 years. But there were times when I couldn't get the camera to focus quickly enough to suit me. And there were times when I felt certain photos should have resulted in something crisper and more vibrant looking. Frustration set in and I started looking around thinking if there was a better point-and-shoot camera.... Two things they have over SLR cameras is their portability and video capability. They are so easy to just drop in one's purse or bag. But I have seen the photo quality of SLR cameras and that won over the portability advantage of point-and-shoots. When I started researching on the internet I checked to see what each camera's features were. Then when I looked at the prices my heart sank. But I kept checking on each cameras best features and considering what I really wanted in another camera, knowing you generally get what you pay for. When I narrowed down the field I found that I wanted a Canon Rebel. I heard many positive remarks about the camera; and it certainly offered everything (and then some) I was looking for. I then checked with my daughter Red since she is a semi-expert in photography. I did not realize that she had a Canon. I also found out that my son has a Canon. In retrospect I vaguely remembered they shared lenses. Both son and daughter highly recommended that I get a Canon. When I mentioned the Rebel to Red she thought it was an excellent choice for me. So I decided to take the plunge and invest in a Canon EOS Rebel. At first I had planned on buying the "xti" 10MP model, but there was a special running for the "xsi/450D" (12 MP) model. And I've been snapping away and enjoying my new toy ever since. I have managed to take almost 700 pictures since I purchased it, and I've had it only a month. The lens that came with the camera is EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS. This is a great lens for photos of the kitties/cats, our dogs, even close-up. It's also great for landscape photos and photos of flowers, etc. Luckily, I can "borrow" one or two of Red's lenses. Most or all of them are interchangeable between her camera and mine. She's been letting me use one of her old lenses that she had when she had a 35mm Canon. That one is an EF 80-200mm f/4.5-5.6 and I can get closer shots of birds, etc. The downside is that it isn't an IS (image stabilizer) lens. But, hey, beggars can't be choosers. I've been eyeing the 70-300mm IS lens, but I think I'll need to put that on my wish list. It's almost as expensive as the camera.
My other new toy is a Vortex Stokes Sandpiper spotting scope. I ordered it way back in late July, but it was out of stock at the time. I finally got it around the first of October and I really haven't had much of a chance to use it. A couple weeks ago Red and I went to Palo Alto Baylands to try it out, but that's the only time I actually used it. I've tried it here at home, but there isn't much to focus on in a residential neighborhood. This scope has a 15-45x power - so it isn't a really strong scope, but it will be fairly easy for me to carry around. Another investment I will need to make is getting a tripod for it. For now I'm using Red's that came with her camera. It's not a good quality, but at least it's useable for now. I had also bought a car window mount for my scope, and I plan on using it when my husband and I attend the Crane Festival in Socorro, New Mexico next month. I'll be able to set it up to use while driving on the auto tours.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Birding Festival - part 5 - Sunday's field trip

Sunday's field trip was to the east side of Pinnacles National Monument, located within the Gabilan mountain range, in San Benito county. This side of the park is where the visitor center and campgrounds are located. We drove down to Watsonville where we checked in with those in charge. Once we were all accounted for we were told which roads/highway we would take to get to Pinnacles. But first we wanted to stop and get ourselves a lunch for later. We stopped at a Safeway in Hollister and bought some ready-made sandwiches and some fresh fruit. Red and Dave also wanted to fill up their mugs with Starbucks coffee, which was located at a kiosk within Safeway. The rest of the birding group planned on stopping somewhere in Panoche Valley to pick up another person or two who were registered for this field trip. Meanwhile, we continued on to Pinnacles. When we arrived at the visitor center/campground nobody was there yet. So while waiting we walked around the area to see what there was to see. One of the first things I saw was a yellow-billed magpie (lifer!). Don't forget to click on the pictures to get a larger image.
Isn't this bird beautiful? He really didn't mind posing for me, especially after he realized I kept trying to get a closer shot of him every few seconds. He was perched on the fence surrounding the campground's swimming pool.
As for flora around the area there really wasn't that much. This is sacred datura, aka western jimson weed. It closes up in the daytime/sunlight and actually blooms at night. Click on the link to read more about this plant.

Here's a view of some higher peaks seen from the visitor center/campground.
Did we see any California Condors? Well, sort of. Way off in the distance in this pine tree are 3 condors. Click on the photo so you can see a larger image. And about halfway down you can see three dark spots near the main trunk. This was the best I could get with my camera. Some folks had scopes and I did get a better view. One woman had a 45x and I could make it out that there were 3 large birds in the tree. Another woman had a 60x and it was so much better. I could actually see the ID tags on each of the birds. That was really cool to see the birds. I just wish I could have seen them flying. But maybe next year, or another time when Red and I can go visit the area on our own.
Most of the group chose to hike up a trail I think was called Bear Gulch trail. A couple miles up the road would be a picnic area where we could stop for lunch. There were a number of bird species spotted along the way, but I was never able to get any pictures. Once we got to our destination we were greeted by a few stellar's jays and California ground squirrels. My pictures of the squirrels came out too dark, but I did get a few good shots of this stellar's jay. This was my best shot. Now this bird is NOT a lifer for me because I used to see them all the time when my husband and I used to live in Colorado and go camping on weekends in the Rocky Mountains. We used to see plenty of Clark's Nutcrackers, too, as well as hundreds of chipmunks.
While walking back down the trail toward the visitor center we encountered a couple of deer. I wasn't standing in the right place at the right time, so this was the best I could get. As the photo shows, this doe was grazing. Once she saw several of us she moved on.
Once we got back to the parking lot we were tired and wanted to call it a day and head back home. The scenery on the way home was so pretty. The picture below is a glimpse of part of the Gabilan range, possibly north of the Pinnacles. In the foreground you can see vineyards growing on the rolling hills.
Here is another view of part of the Gabilan range looking southwest, possibly looking in the direction of where the Pinnacles could be. And in the foreground there's a freight train heading south. Again, you can see the "golden hills" of California behind the train.
As you can see in this view, a beautiful blue clear sky, with the dark green off to the right which is another vineyard at the base of more "golden hills." And way out in the far distance is the southernmost part of the Hamilton range. The Hamilton range is the set of mountains to the east of San Jose (aka Silicon Valley).

Overall, we really enjoyed this birding festival. There is such a variety of geographic possibilities which gives one a wide variety of bird species to be found. I recommend this birding festival to anyone who plans on visiting central coast California in late September. And almost guaranteed great sunshiny weather.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Birding Festival - part 4 - Saturday's events

Saturday's events were another coastal field trip and then a couple of workshops in the afternoon back in Watsonville. Our coastal trip was to be Waddell Beach and Rancho del Oso located north of Davenport (which is north of Santa Cruz, CA). Now as a reminder we were traveling back home for the night and getting up around 5 a.m. each morning and driving in the dark. We drove all the way down to Watsonville to "check in." Then we are told we will meet our leader at Waddell Beach at the parking lot across the road from Rancho del Oso at 7:30. These two spots are located north and west of where we live. So that was another 45-minute drive north whereas I would have preferred to save a little time and mileage. Oh well. This birding festival is only in its fourth year. I do believe they have more organizational matters they need to learn and work on. This festival does cover a lot of geographical area, but I do think there should be various check-in areas so "locals" don't have to drive all the way to Watsonville and then drive back north again.

The photo below is what greeted us at 7:30 on Saturday morning at Waddell Beach. It was so different from Friday morning's beautiful sun shiny views. Cold, gray, and foggy. We were supposed to see or hope to see shearwaters, petrels, and/or marbled murrelets. But as you can see visibility was to be desired. The black "dots" you see out in the water are not birds of any sort, they are surfers, crazy surfers.

[Click on the images for a larger view]

I turned around away from the waves and wind and looked east and this is what I caught a glimpse of - the sun trying to burn its way through the fog/marine layer. This was also looking toward the area called Rancho del Oso where we were headed next.

Rancho del Oso is located on the coast (CA Hwy 1) as the western portion of Big Basin Redwoods State Park. This riparian area includes chapparel, coastal scrub oak and Monterey pines with Waddell Creek winding through. Birds we could expect to see were wrentits, band-tailed pigeons, CA thrashers, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and woodpeckers.

There were several birds we did get to see at quite a distance, and a few others in such thick bushes it was difficult to get any pictures. I finally got to see a wrentit (lifer) and was surprised at the bird's size. I was expecting something the size of a chickadee, but this bird was as large or larger than a house finch. Below is a tree "dressed" in Spanish moss. I thought it was quite pretty and graceful looking. I guess it's not a parasite per se, it's considered an epiphyte. I would consider it more symbiotic where it needs to live on oak trees (and other trees) in a humid locale. I was surprised to learn that it is part of the Bromeliad family.
As we were hiking up a portion of what is known as the Skyline Trail I was able to stop and admire what was below. As you can see in this photo there are agricultural fields all around on the flatter parts. The Pacific Coast is ideal for many vegetables grown here in California.

Here is a shot of looking down at the trail. This photo shows that it was still foggy while we were hiking. Some other birds we saw on this field trip were Black Phoebe, band-tailed pigeons, chestnut-backed chickadees, oak titmice, scrub and Stellar's jays, and a few woodpeckers.

The afternoon was back in Watsonville for a couple of workshops we signed up for. Both were given by Jon Dunn who has been an editor for all 5 editions of "Field Guide to the Birds of North America" published by National Geographic Society. The first workshop was "Honing your birding skills - identifying large shorebirds." The second workshop was "Honing your birding skills - identifying small shorebirds." Mr. Dunn had a slide presentation for each workshop with excellent photos he has taken of various shorebirds. I personally feel that more advanced birders probably enjoyed the presentations more than I. I felt much of what he presented was "over my head." I also feel that it would have been good to have some type of handout to point out the differences between similar looking species. Each workshop was only 90 minutes long, so we were home bound by 5 p.m.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Birding Festival - part 3

Our third destination for the day was Pinnacles National Monument. Pinnacles has two entrances, the west side and the east side. Friday afternoon we were to meet the group at the west entrance to Pinnacles. We got separated from the group when our "fearless leader" suggested stopping by a winery in the town of Gonzales, and he didn't try to keep us all together. We already knew where we were going, so no need to caravan with the group. So we chose to find a place to stop for lunch where we found a McDonald's there in Gonzales. After a refreshing lunch we were on our way again, headed for Pinnacles. When we reached our destination and entered the park, we paid the fee and proceeded to the parking lot where we found a few folks from our group also hanging around wondering where our "fearless leader" was. After waiting an extra half hour it was the consensus to leave the park and slowly drive down the road where we came in, hoping to see the rest of the group including the leader.
[To see a larger image, click on the photos]
These photos were all taken around the Pinnacles area. The countryside is so beautiful. Apparently this whole area located in San Benito county, also known as the Salinas River Valley, has vineyards all over. Even though this whole valley looks quite dry they must have a decent water table to accommodate all these vineyards. Most every vineyard we came across used the drip irrigation system.
Nevertheless, birds around here were few and far between. Most of the birds we saw (while still looking for the birding group) were what I would find locally in the Silicon Valley -- lesser goldfinches, scrub jays, house finches, etc. Below is a scrub jay hanging around this "water tank." It was fun watching all the finches darting in and out of the "spout." That's the area below the scrub jay where the tank is showing white where it was dry and black where it was still wet from the water spilling out. Visit Red's blog to see more photos.
By the way, this was the area where we finally ran into our "fearless leader" and the other birders. The group that had been driving around with us told the others that there were more birds up around the vineyard we had just come from. We chose to leave the group at this time, since they wanted to go back up to the vineyard and we were running very low on gas -- and it was about 10 miles to the nearest gas station, luckily downhill all the way. Overall, the best and most birdy part of the day was at Moon Glow Dairy. But it was a lot of fun going from Zmudowski Beach (wet, watery, oceany) to Moon Glow Dairy (Elkhorn Sough, mudflats, riparian) and then on to a much drier and warmer locale, Pinnacles/Salinas River valley area. We definitely saw a lot of varied geography as well as a variety of birds. Our next post will be about Saturday's events.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Birding Festival - part 2

This is MoonGlow Dairy. Click on the link to read more about it. They are situated on the south side of Elkhorn Slough, just off of State Highway 1, near Moss Landing. This is my concept of what met us at the end of the road -- these cows are eating artichokes. I couldn't pass up this photo op with the tree and part of Elkhorn Slough in the background.
[Don't forget to click on the photos to see larger images.]
Another first that I saw was this nest. Any guesses what bird made this nest? I haven't a clue, but it was quite large, so my guess would be a raptor of sorts.
As we walked down the trail we saw several birds in the pond. They all looked like the bird in the photo below. This was the best shot I could get. I recommend going to Red's blog to see better photos. Anyway, Red has informed me that this is a red-necked phalarope. And there were at least 30 of these birds in the pond. This is apparently their winter plumage and definitely a lifer. Now I wonder if I would recognize these same birds in their breeding plumage.
A little farther down the trail we came to a clearing where we could see quite a bit of Elkhorn Slough. We saw some folks enjoying themselves kayaking. I sure hope I get to do it one of these days. It looks like a lot of fun, and you can certainly see a lot more wildlife up close and personal.
Great egrets abound, and so do brown pelicans. Here is a shot of a great egret that seemed to pose for me. In the background you can see pelicans (well actually they are too far away) about midway (horizontally) in the photo.
The grebe in the center of this photo is a Western grebe. The other two I couldn't ID. But we were told that both Clark's and Westerns are all around in Elkhorn Slough.
These two are pie-billed grebes -- more common birds found in the area. Nonetheless, I think they are cute.
And here is my shot of brown pelicans flying low over the slough. Red has better shots of the pelicans.
Here's another shot of more pelicans flying over the slough. It was funny to watch these birds because they chose to fly only over the slough. They would not necessarily fly over the land, only the water.
Here is another shot of grebes. This one I could better identify them. The farthest left and the farthest right are Westerns. The second grebe on the right is a Clark's. As you will note from a field guide the Western grebe's black cap extends over the eye and has a greenish-yellow bill. The Clark's grebe has a black cap that stops just above the eye and has an orangey-yellow bill. Now just to let you know, if you look closely at the grebe on the far left it has the cap that says "Western." But if you look at the color of the bill it's the color of a "Clark's." Could it be a hybrid? I've heard that it does happen.
Farther down the trail there were fewer birds, but different species we didn't see earlier on the trail. This bird is a long-billed curlew, another lifer.
Another solitary bird -- this is a marbled godwit. I think it's funny this bird was being a loner because I have seen marbled godwits before (at Palo Alto Baylands) and they are found in large flocks. According to Stokes Field Guide these birds are found among moist grasslands in the summer and they winter along the coast. They certainly have an interesting diet -- worms, mollusks, crustaceans, grasshoppers, and pondweed and sedge seeds and tubers.
Now this photo you'll have to take my word for it -- there are many Western Sandpipers in that sandy area. Apparently they have a similar diet to the marbled godwit. But I thought it was strange they were just laying around on the ground. Maybe they decided to sun themselves. They didn't look like they were searching for food. Any other thoughts to why they were on "land" rather than on a watery mudflat?

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Birding Festival - part 1

My apologies for not posting sooner. This has been a very busy week, plus I am trying to read three books at the same time, keep up with reading my birding magazines, keep up with a daily two-hour podcast (Issues, etc), and finding time to spend with the kittens, much less the other pets in our household. I know, whine, whine, whine. But something's gotta give. I have also been disappointed in the quality of my photos. So I am going to ask that you visit Red's blog; she has better quality photos she has posted.

Our first event on Friday was a full day's trip to various places in the Monterey-Watsonville area. Our first stop was Zmudowski State Beach. And it's obvious this was a place where we should have seen mostly shorebirds, but could also see other birds farther out to sea as well as other birds to be seen and/or heard on the dunes.

When we parked our cars in the lot we had a 1/4-mile walk to get to the beach. Between the parking lot and the beach and all around us was agricultural land. Below is a photo I took of some farm workers out in the field for the day.
[Don't forget to click on the photos to see a larger view.]
Once we arrived at the beach we could look all around us and see quite a variety of birds. Looking back toward the dunes I was watching this great egret while others were looking farther north or south or even west (out toward the ocean).
Looking north one could see the beautiful mountains in the distance and we could see a variety of shorebirds out in the lagoon in the foreground. The birds I could ID out here were mostly double-crested cormorants and gulls (for lack of properly identifying them). There is even a male mallard on the sandbar, too. Other folks chose to walk around the dunes and look for other species. In the distance I could hear a California quail calling from the dunes. Only a few folks in our group got the opportunity to see the quail.

As for sea birds we could have seen Sooty or Pink-footed Shearwaters, or Ashy or Black Storm-Petrels. But anything we saw flying out and about beyond a few hundred yards was quite difficult to identify. Even some of the good birders were finding it difficult to determine what was out there. Meanwhile, closer to us within our eyesight we saw many brown pelicans among the many gulls.
Once everyone felt they saw all they wanted to see at and around the beach the group headed for the next stop, Moon Glow Dairy.


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