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White Rock Lake
So there I was sitting in my car in the handicapped parking waiting for Anna to buy some shoes or something in Target. I had stopped worrying about finding a new lens for shooting birds and was thinking about breaking out my sci-fi novel, when I hear the patter of fairly large feet on my roof. Then somebody else's. Eventually, they came downstairs and searched the long sloping hood for something to eat.
Leaves didn't have enough nutrition. He kept looking. She landed a little later, looked but also did not find. I hoped to get them both in the same shot, but that didn't happen. Neither of them really held still for long, but they both stayed relatively still for a few moments. Both these — and a bunch of others that were even more boring — were shot using my tiny Canon SD780
I was recently contacted by Cornell University about using one of my photographs in an upcoming book about animal communications. They wanted an image of grackles in the heads-up display that often precedes either sex or a fight. I sent them links to better images, then a whole list of links, which then became The Amateur Birder's Journal Courtship Behaviors page, which I am continuing to expand.
Thought I had her in focus. I'd had plenty of time, to turn the autofocus, which wasn't doing anything good, off and press the lens against the door sill and twist the focus knurl this way and that. But my manual focusing was off by the several feet where her head was when she leapt from the wire and where she is here.
My Sigma 150~500mm that does such an amazing job most of the time has become a problem most of the time. It's always had times when it just would not work, would not focus. Something in there jumps around and spins. The image vibrates or jumps. But till now, those moments were transitory, lasting only a few minutes at most. Then it goes back to its mostly reliable self.
But when I'd tried it earlier and it didn't work, I started shooting on manual focus, so I'd have a chance to get something, anything, in focus. Then she jumped off the wire, and I kept shooting, hoping against hope, it might still be in some kind of focus. Wings not, but face, almost. Close enough. Looks sharp to me.
The closer it got to me — an altogether unusual direction for a kestrel to fly into, is toward the photographer — the less focused it was. This time its tail is but its wings and head is not. The rest of the shots are all smudges.
When I got down to Sunset Bay it was packed with birds and people. Bird species were taking turns occupying puddles in the first island out. Then something would spook them.
Usually took each bird about a minute to settle into the deepest portion of the shallow puddle. Then they'd begin flailing about, slinging water about and settling into the tumult of a serious bird bath.
Almost as if it were saying, "Yee! Haw!"
When the grackles had taken several turns at arriving, settling in, taking each one's turn at bathing, then getting spooked out all of a sudden, then coming back and trying again about a half dozen times, the Starlings began taking their turns. By then my lens was back into focusing phase. I took advantage.
Then something would spook them, and they'd rise like a specter into the air, flying and swooping up and around.
I thought I was photographing so-called European Starlings flying up — some straight up — from the bath area, but turns out what I got was a Greattailed Grackle flying through the rise of starlings. Clicking at five frames per seconds, I'm never exactly sure what I'm going to get. But I've always wanted to capture grackles flying, so here's one.
And here's some more. All being scared away by something.
Here, I've been obsessing about just having to have a big, long, expensive telephoto lens. My failing Sigma cost just under a thousand dollars, and it has never been right in the head. Almost all the ones I've researched that might replace it, are better and much more expensive. Five to eight times more expensive. I dearly want the Sigma to click back into wherever it was doing before, instead of getting worse.
But maybe I need to concentrate on photographing birds and everything else I shoot with the lenses I actually have that actually work fine. See what I can do with those. I've only had the Sigma clunk for a year or so. I still have those old lenses. Birds are everywhere.
I used to think like whatever lens I had at the moment. If I had a long telephoto, I thought long telephoto thoughts. If it was a wide angle, I thought wide angle thoughts, though it probably won't come down to wide angles, I have other, shorter telephotos. I can think like those for awhile till something finds me.
November 24 & 25
My Sigma 150~500mm lens that I used to call my "Rocket Launcher" refuses to focus about 75% of the time, all but ruining all the shots I've taken at the lake the last couple days. I'll probably borrow back my Nikon 70~300mm lens and send the Super Chunk back to Sigma, again, to try to get the stupid thing fixed. Meanwhile, I'm looking at other lenses that I mostly can't afford.
The 70~300 is much lighter and faster focusing, so that'll be a big relief, but shooting far away just won't happen for awhile. Last time this happened, I just let the idiot Sigma rest a couple days, and it started working again, but I've already tried that and it still does not focus, so it's Sigma or nothing, and as close as that race is, I'll try again. Meanwhile, no new bird pix. Maybe I can sort back through previous shoots and come up with some greatest hits I passed over the first time.
Today's epistle is about gooses. The two Canada Geese that are currently in residence at White Rock Lake are a recent addition to our wildlife scene. First one came, a comparatively tame goose I started calling Can-can, then another of the species, apparently more wild and less adapted to humans, whom Charles named Cant-cant. (Eventually I took the hyphen out of their names; I don't think they'll mind. Then I dropped Cantcant's apostrophy.)
This photo is somewhat instructive in that it shows the major, immediately difference between the two — the way they carry their wingtips (which many mistake for their tail, which is usually beneath the tips of their wings when they are folded over their backs like this. The other slight difference is the configuration of white and black feathers on their cheeks — often called a "chinstrap." One has a more distinct black on white point. The other's point seems more rounded. There are probably a good many other differences I haven't discovered yet.
The best other web page I've found about Canada Geese is Wikipedia's. And they are Canada Geese, not Canadian geese, although many live there.
I believe this is Cancan. Note the similarity of this goose's cheek feathers and the image somewhat below on this page showing it, before the wild one arrived to be its friend, perhaps mate.
Like many gooses, Canada Geese eat grass and a lot of it. Charles says it comprises about 3/4 of their diet. The Birds of Texas says "Feeding: grazes on new sprouts, aquatic vegetation, grass and roots; tips up for aquatic roots and tubers." Note that at different times, Cancan's black point is more or less defined. I shot this when there was only one Candada Goose in Sunset Bay. Wiki says that, in the wild, their lifespans are 10-24 years. So maybe this pair will return here someday.
Since I don't yet know which is male or female, I'm using "Can" as a generic term for both. Closer examination indicates this is the wild addition. Actually, both are essentially wild. But when I first found Cancan, it was immediately willing to approach me for food — like someone who had previously experienced humans who fed it, and was happy enough for that opportunity. This other Canada Goose is much more stand-offish, more leery of the other gooses and especially of us humans.
My Lone Pine Birds of Texas says that Canada Geese are commonly 21-48 inches long with wingspans of 3.5 to 5 feet. According to their map, both of these Canada Geese (gooses is proper only for plural of goose of differing species) are migratory, so I expect that sooner or later, both will fly off north in spring. Coots are 13 - 16 inches long.
At first I assumed this and the next shot were of the same Canada Goose, but upon closer examination, I see at least two distinctions. I already knew about the pointy black feathers into the white cheek area, but I suspect that may be an individualist trait, having nothing to do with gender. Then I noticed the dark squiggles down from its neck line between black and white feathers on its upper breast. Which may also be individualistic. I suspect how they carry their wingtips, however, may be to do with which sex they are. But I am often wrong in these unfamiliar territories.
No squiggles — or at least not much. A little less complicated way to tell them apart, if you can see the front, bottoms of their necks. Wikipedia states, "The male usually weighs 3.2–6.5 kilograms (7.1–14 lb), and can be very aggressive in defending territory. The female looks virtually identical but is slightly lighter at 2.5–5.5 kilograms (5.5–12 lb), generally 10% smaller than its male counterpart, and has a different honk."
We have noticed that one stands taller than the other, so that is probably the male. Swimming or nestled into the earth, however, they are very difficult to tell apart. The trick is to get them to stand together facing the right direction.
* * *
And now we switch back to our more domestic varieties of gooses. These particular gooses have been frightened by something. I don't know what, but it doesn't take much. A dog in the neighborhood, a noise, a truck, gosh it could have been anything they didn't expect.
Not that this running across the water is all that usual. It's not. I have only seen them doing this mobile panic mode a half dozen times in the last six years I've paid attention.
So of course I clicked away as they ran away. In the past, I have learned that the grays can actually fly, but it really takes an impending fear — like a fast paddling kayak or motor boat to get them actually in the air — and then only for a few seconds.
You may have noticed that, as usual, the Canada Gooses are not participating in this goose game. They — definitely — can fly, and don't need to run. But I didn't see them escape at all. Perhaps they are a little more sophisticated, and did not take fright from whatever cause. Or maybe they had already flown away.
Autumn colors shine at Sunset Bay like they do in few other Dallas places. After this shot, I followed this bird up and down the shrubs along the bay, never once getting as close or as focused a shot.
About two dozen Monk Parakeets sucked seeds out of the autumn grass at Sunset Bay today. They were almost heedless of marauding photographers, so I was able to get unusually close. They were also very noisy.
Much more demure were a flock of so-called European Starlings, who looked like they were after the same feed as the 'Keets.
This one looks very familiar. Wish I could check back through my own pages using some sort of pattern-recognition software. I'm sure it's in there somewhere, because I have the uncanny feeling someone's helped me identify one like this before. But I don't recognize it, and I can't find it in any of my bird I.D books.
Reader Taylor Cotten to the rescue. He suggested it was a young Yellow-rumped Warbler, and after Googling that name, I have to agree. No wonder it looked so familiar.
In the trees west of the pier toward Winfrey from Sunset Bay, I saw several black and white woodpeckers with patches on their heads. I wanted this one to be a Hairy Woodpecker instead of the Downy it probably is, because of its longish beak. The Lone Pine Birds of Texas and Peterson's don't differentiate them particularly, but Sibley's Guide to Birds points out the "conspicuous tuft" — the beard-like gathering of small feathers at the back of its beak on the Downy and an inconspicuous one on the Hairy, so meet Downy in one of the best shots I've ever got of these quickly flitting little birds.
These are two of the 68 rapid-fire shots I made of these little birds today. The other shots either blurred the bird or missed it entirely. I'm certain, however, that there were at least two of them, because one has this red patch on the back of its head, and the other does not.
So, what I had been photographing, was likely a pair of Downies, which I began identifying as Downies almost immediately.
Because I developed a crush on this Canada Goose's mate before this one flew in from the wild, I was honored by the Bird Squad to get to name the earlier-arriving Canada goose, who is much more at-home with the more domestic United-Statesian gooses who gather daily in Sunset Bay. That one is now, semi-officially, "Can-Can." Charles, who feeds all the birds, formerly in Sunset Bay but now at The Bath House, because that's where the gooses wind off into every evening just before Charles does that, named this one Can't-Can't, which I think should be shortened to CantCant.
Can-Can is the gregarious one who better assimilates into our goose clan. Cant-Cant watches at a watery distance lest it looses its wild characteristics. Neither comes up to me for food or succor anymore. Probably because they now have each other.
As usual, pelicans drew me to Sunset Bay. The hope of pelicans. Although they really weren't doing much today.
Taking baths is interesting to watch and listen to, flump-flump-flump wings cupped splashing into the surface. Great sound, unlike most others there.
Waaay out into the bay were an armada of cormorants, gulls and a few pelicans splashing, crashing, and flapping for fish.
Gulls and cormorants as big a part of the melee as anybody. Only a few pelicans seemed hungry enough to fly out of Sunset Bay to join the floating party.
I'm sure they were catching lots of fish, but they were way too far out to see the fish. I could see splashing and all those birds in the air and wings galore. We just assume the fish.
And when a pelican got filled with fish, they'd fly back across the bay and rejoin the others on the peninsula, doing not much of anything. But watching them fly is their own special joy. My camera was acting up. Maybe because of the cold. Often today it simply wouldn't focus. Luckily, it let me do the focusing those times, and sometimes I managed. The other shots of this sequence were, unfortunately, not in focus.
Cormorants dive under for fish, get thoroughly wet, and spend hours drying their wings in the sunlight. Soon, both Sunset Bay and Cormorant Bay will be inundated with Cormorants. Blessed few now though.
Scaups look like ducks, but they're a special species apart. We mostly get males. Then a few weeks in the winter, one or two (literally) females visit for a week or so, then they fly off, and we only have males again.
Seeing American White Pelicans in ones and twos and fives or sixes is not all that unusual, arranged nearly in random. They are very gregarious birds who tend to flock together.
But when they lined up in a long straight formation, I knew something was up. They were getting organized for what they get organized most to do. Go out a ways, then ...
Come back in, careful not to let any major gaps let what they're organized to chase back in doesn't get away.
Using their large, stretchable pouches of theirs, they're scooping up fishes they've rounded up and chased into the shallows.
Then, following, more schools of more fish, they chase them down.
And scoop them up, too.
Then, after all that organization, for awhile there, it's every pelican for itself.
While other pelicans not involved in the fishing expedition go on about their daily tasks, the fisher-birds go after every morsel.
Meanwhile, other birds, who have gone off fishing in other parts of the lake or at other lakes, return to their encampment in Sunset Bay.
Changing forward motion into vertical drop, a pelican shows off its prodigious aerial skills among autumn's lilting colors.
Sifting in the gentle breeze, the pelican hurtles toward landing.
And lands — or waters — in a long splashing skid.
Looks like more fishing, but the pelicans have eaten about as much as they need, and are up to a little playtime.
And blowing off steam playing Keep Away with another colorful water bottle barely visible in the crisscross of beaks in the image just above, silhouetted here in the stretched out lower mandible of the one who's got the object now. But that will soon change in this simple game.
Village Creek Drying Beds
We visited the Village Creek Drying Beds this coolish day after a cold night. We did not get there at the crack of dawn, but we got there, and we found plenty different species to photograph. Usually grebes are way too far away. This one was in ideal range of my big lens.
Not sure why, but I don't think it was our presence. Just suddenly they became all agitated and streaked across the surface and flew away. I'm still not sure whether they ran or hopped, but they skee-daddled. I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've seen them do that. I lost focus the farther they went.
I really really thought it was a Meadow Lark, I just wasn't sure if it was an Eastern or a Western. But it seems to have an orange beak and no black chevron swash across its breast. So what is it then? Hard to say. Maybe Anna knows. She saw it just down into the top of a tree, and it let us sidle up close in my quiet newish car, till I got it this close and sharp and all.
So I looked back at Meadowlarks on these pages in December 2008, February 2009 and May 2009, and found the exact same birds in similar habitat, and I called those Eastern Meadowlark, and that's when I had semi-professional bird I.D.-ing, so that's what I'll call these, too.
Killdeer are some of the species who bob their heads up and down while they stand there, looking for food. Must be a reason besides that, but I don't know it. I used to think it was to be able to see farther, but it's such a twitchy twich, I'm just not sure. But what Google found seems to indicate that's all it is, a food-searching quirk.
I am slowly becoming able to identify Greater Yellowlegs.
Got a lot of blurs and shots of the mystery birds on the left staring off in the other direction, but I eventually tracked down the Common Snipe on the right by its colorful stripes on its head and peculiar stripe patterns on its wings and back. And yeah, it has long beak. I need to spend some time on the coast, so I will begin to recognize all those shorebirds on sight.
Closer and more distinct.
The two on the right are Red-eared Sliders. I don't know the ones on the left, but they look like color differences of the same thing.
The Pintails are the two on the left. The two, smaller appearing ducks behind the ones with their heads turned around who are facing right together are the Green-winged Teal. The Other ducks are all the rest of them, at some distance from us and the shore.
Must be the season of the hawk. I keep seeing Redtails.
But this is something I either haven't ever seen before. Or it's been a while. But I wanted for reasons unkonwn, to call it a Phoebe, so I looked those up on this site, and found birds that sure looked similar, so I can say now with some sense of actually being right, that that's what these are. Notice the tiny mustache-like feathers above and behind its beak, that help it catch bugs. It is, after all, a Flycatcher. We found it perched in a tree-like object off to the side of the road but not out in the pans. And it let us get remarkably close. Then suddenly, it was gone.
Village Creek Drying Beds Info: aerial map, open times, birds sightings by month
White Rock Lake
Photographing pelicans flying is why I keep going back to White Rock Lake in the autumn and winter and spring. They're not always there, and they're not always flying. But when they do, I take notice.
For awhile, I was afraid these two shots of this one pelican who took the notion to take to the sky all the way out across the lake and off into the south, would be the only one I'd see fly today. From then till the next bunch of shots, I photographed other birds on other missions. There's always something to do, talk with friends, watch and learn, befriend a Canada Goose — something.
This cool day, I was about to leave after well more than an hour in the warm sun and cold shade at Sunset Bay, when I saw the sky pocked with little black and white shapes, coming back in a great pattern, swirling slowly across the near sky, gyring down and eventually landing out by the logs and closer.
I ran to the edge of the water, pointed the big lens up and kept firing until every one of the thirty or so American White Pelicans had landed, often well out of direct vision, behind trees, etc.
Time slows when pelicans are aloft, and I tend to speed up, so I got lots of shots of them descending. These are the best.
Usually, AWPs are elegant in the air and clunky on the ground. Sometimes a little of the latter shows through in the former.
Coming or going, pelicans are the biggest and best flyers around, and photographing them is my joy.
Skid splash landing. Beautiful.
The rest of today's program concerns ducks. Not our usual Mallards and domestic ducks, these are either early visitors or parts of the hundreds of Ruddy Ducks — two-tone heads; females have cheek stripes — and those others with the scallop brown feathers and out-of-proportion beaks, are Northern Shovelers. The Ruddy Ducks will stay with us well into the winter. Hundreds of them will float off the shore along the Arboretum or on the other side of the lake, depending upon the wind, I think.
Most of the Shovelers are just here for whatever they're diving for in these photographs. They may already be gone. It's unusual to see more than a couple at White Rock at any one time, and here were suddenly dozens. And not just Shovelers.
Ruddy Ducks are supposedly ruddy in color — reddish, but that's rarely obvious. How they're generally identified by that long, straight tail sticking straight out. As Peterson's says, "often cocks tail at an angle."
Not sure yet who these other guys are. I keep checking back through Petersons's (nice big pictures) and Sibley's (more varieties) to find them, but they're hiding. I'm pretty sure the third from the left is a female Ruddy and the next one is a female Northern Shoveler. I'm pretty sure.
Three female Shovelers. One male flapping wings, and another female. Like they just dropped in for the meal, then ...
Rose up en masse and flew off somewhere.
Glad I caught them while they were here. Wish they'd come a little closer.
Another great day of birds at White Rock Lake. But this time with actual sunshine. I started off to the right of the pier at Sunset Bay thinking today would be about pelicans, since they were all parked so close to the shore, out on that peninsula. But all those pelican shots looked the same as they usually are.
To get to the place closest to the pelicans, I waded through a bunch of gooses, including that really cute Canada Goose I've been photographing lately. When I arrived on the scene, it came right up to me as if asking for a little something to eat. I wondered if the Bird Squad had been feeding it. Or maybe it had been a pet, then got too big, and somebody just left it at the lake by people who think that's a wild area, and it would get along fine there. That often happens. The really small ones often don't make it, but this one is large enough to, if not really blend in, at least stay awhile before moving to a wilder neighborhood.
After I finished photographing the goose, I got a Coot showing off its feet, then I wandered over to the pier, from which I spied a hawk on top of a far tree. I ran over to its vicinity, crossed the creek in a single bound, and slowly snuck up under it, shot few dozen exposures. Then it jumped into flight, allowing me to photograph it from the side and underneath, and it flew off east and disappeared into — or over — the trees.
As he flew off toward the east, then east-southeast, I saw three noisy Parakeets fly into a tall tree on the edge of the creek. I stared and stared and stared, but I never caught sight of them again. Until a woman who was shooting over there, came up to me and told me about a parakeet on a branch — she showed me just which one — across the creek, that I could probably get easily with my long lens, but she just couldn't get magnified enough with hers.
I don't know trees a lot worse than I don't know birds, but I know these birds and have often visited their home nests in The Big Hum near the Old Pump House. At first, I assumed the white was flowers, but then I noticed the keet chewing on them and spitting some out. They looked like pills or popcorn. I'm pretty sure this is the best and most interesting portrait of a parakeet I've ever shot. Thank you, Lucy Rogers.
I shot lots of images of Coots today, and nearly none of them were exposed right or sharp. I just kept at it, then got interested in them showing off their feet sometimes when they dove underwater for food. This one shows those big clod-hopper feet I am so amazed by. I've watched coots use those feet in a variety of ways. One day, couple years ago, I really believe they were spinning their feet as they dove under, almost like propellers.
I slowly and methodically stepped through the goose squad east of the pier, I didn't want to rile the gooses — several varieties of Farm Gooses strewn about along the area by the picnic tables and park benches, trying to get photos from various angles.
The trick was to capture the young, I think, Canada Goose's dark and white parts in sunlight, so we could see its eyes and other features without its brighter parts going full white. I don't use flash very often, but this may be one of the few.
Those dark eyes often tone-merge into its dark face, then contrast too brightly with its white cheeks. This is just about the perfect blend.
I think I'm having a crush on a baby goose. When it came up to me for food, then walked away looking disappointed, I explained my theory that it was probably better if it learned to catch or find its own food. Still, I promised to bring some wheat bread next time, although I don't know how I'll keep from riling the older, more established gooses all around it.
Have been photographing Kestrels for about five years now, and this was one lucky day. I managed to get several in-flight shots pretty close to in focus. Mostly just from wildly almost aiming and just letting it happen — as if I could have done anything else. Blue's replacement (It hasn't developed a name yet.) doesn't shake and shudder, so I can hold the long lens more securely now, though the window, this splattery day, was usually wet.
Most of the time I spent shooting up at her on the wire looking down on Sunset Bay from the parking lot behind the Winfrey Building. That car's run silent run deep quiet and non-nervousness sure helps zero in and capture focus.
So here's one of those rare times I managed to capture the first nanoseconds off the bar, and what do I get but a butt shot. Then it dives down, past the trees down the hill and I get this:
Not always in focus, but this is unprecedented detail for me and Kestrels. I'd desperately needed to get away from my current big project, putting together three dozen photos and gobs of words about the recent EASL (a nonprofit organization that provides money for area artists in emergency situations) Heist (a glorified auction). Been hassling with that the last several days.
Then suddenly this afternoon, I heard the call of the wild whatevers, and coasted around Lawther, down off Winfrey Hill and around Garland Avenue to Buckner to Poppy Drive to Sunset Bay. Glad I escaped. Amazed to capture a pair of Kestrel hunting together off the high wire over Winfrey.
Less sharp from more speed. Every time I follow one down and actually capture something — anything, I am amazed. Three times today. I've shot hundreds of images before of this same action, often in better light, and got less than one. Dark, rainish day. I had the ISO up to a grainy 800, and still managed to capture these fleeting feather balls.
I've watched the whole flock of pelicans patiently wait for the gooses to settle somewhere — out on the sometimes peninsula or along the shore west of the pier or wherever, then join them. But I don't remember ever seeing just one pelican join the goosey games. But this one did.
One of those mysteries of American White Pelicans is where their feet go when they squat on the ground. Here's one disappearing into its feathers along the side, back where its tiny little duck feet are.
Then it settled in, tucked its beak into its feathers between its folded wings on top, and rested into a nap. When I first came upon it, I was being gentle among a bunch of noisy gooses warning each other of the impending human. For a change, I wasn't talking back to them with my own version of goose noises. Then suddenly, I saw this one with the long beak. I stopped in my track, excused myself, and backed off, so I could fill my long lens with it. Click.
Then when I was angling for yet another view of the pelican, I came upon this unlikely guy. Canada Gooses are not all that uncommon around White Rock Lake. I've photographed them in rich people's yards and fairly often at the lake proper. A couple years ago, a pair came to visit, then stayed months. Until somebody goose-napped one of them, probably for a big meal, although they are also excellent lawn mowers.
Guess today is about feet.
Sooner or later, every large, puffy bird I saw, settled into its most comfortable position and nodded off to sleep. I wanted to do the same, but I needed to walk, so I did. Fairly long way, but no other birds for awhile.
Before I left I caught the pelican doing much the same thing in the same position.
I love the meek, mild Coots for their big, clodhopper feet and what they can do with them — run across the water when their skitterish, often jumping into the air once they get their speed up. This is one of those times when I couldn't watch fast enough and just held down on the trigger in the general direction of the escaping coot. And actually caught it on silicone.
Like I say, and amazing day. And about feet.
Until today, crows have mostly this year, been elusive. Today, sliding along in my new-to-me car-car, they let me close, didn't mind posing doing crow things. Hardly noticed me.
A crow thing. Wish I knew what it was saying.
Channel 13 has been running and re-running and re-re-running a great documentary on how smart crows are. I've seen it twice already, and may have to watch it a couple more times. I keep learning about our smart little fellow creatures.
Always nice when someone gets away with it.
text and photographs copyright 2010 by J
All Rights Reserved. No reproduction in any medium without
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My favorite answer is, "I don't
am, after all, an amateur.
I'm not kidding. I've only been birding for three years,
although I've been photographing professionally since 1964.
Thanks always to Anna.