Friday, June 8, 2007

For the Birds

Long ago in a land far away (upstate New York), I was interested in birds. I had received a bird guide for Christmas (or was it my birthday?) and spent many an hour in the woods, identifying birds. I even took a few photos of birds, including one shot of a bird on a telephone wire. Of course, since I was on the ground, and my little 110 camera had only a wide angle fixed lens, I took a picture of a dot on a line in a featureless overcast sky.

Well, at least I knew it was a bird...

I've since lost interest in birds, mostly. I've also forgotten pretty much anything I had learned. But lately I've had my interest rekindled, at least in part due to the wide variety of interesting birds around Stanford. Stanford residents see hawks, herons, and hummingbirds daily. I'm not kidding, I've been seeing the hawks pretty much every day (as the little birds, their meals, chase them around) and the great blue heron has been hanging out a lot lately, eating gophers. Hummingbirds constantly visit, but I've yet to catch one of them on silicon. Soon though, soon...

The Canon 70-200mm F/4 has contributed to this revival -- finally a lens good enough to get some good telephoto shots. It is a really sharp lens, astonishingly sharp. Take the following shot of a hawk... flying overhead... with no sharpening, just RAW conversion:

Did I mention that that is a 100% crop, with no sharpening?

Which brings me to the primary weakness of the 70-200 when it comes to shots of birds: it is not nearly long enough. The opening image was a crop from the full frame shot at right. As you can see, 200mm (320mm with the Rebel XT's 1.6x crop factor) isn't enough magnification to get close enough to small birds. It works well for larger birds (like herons and hawks, if they are near the ground) but nothing smaller.

Quality long lenses cost big money though, so it is unlikely I'll get a birding lens soon. $600 is probably the minimum you'll pay for anything semi-decent that is 400mm or longer.

I borrowed a book on bird photography from the library which has also helped rekindle my interest. Yesterday, while at work listening to KZSU (I need something to drown out my lab-mate when he digs into his crunchy nuts) I heard a public service announcement about birds. I didn't catch all the details, but a quick search found the Birds of Stanford site, a repository of species seen around Stanford. Very informative, and now I have a resource when I see a bird I can't identify (which is most of them).

The site seems to be somewhat abandoned, but I found out a little more info. There's a Stanford Magazine article by Don Kennedy which references the site. There's a set of galleries which includes a small gallery of photos. One of the photos features a great blue heron, and happens to be by one of my neighbors, Carlos Rodriguez-Lluesma. In fact, when I got my heron pictures, I was outside of his home. His son used to be in my son's class! Small world, huh?

No offense to Carlos, but my photo is technically better (his was taken five years ago, so considering digital camera technology, that isn't at all surprising). Since there is a photograph submission form on the site, I figured I'd submit one of my heron images and see what happens. I don't expect much, since the site looks like it hasn't been touched in a few years, but I figured it was worth a try.

I'll keep you posted if I get any interesting bird shots or hear back from whoever is managing Birds of Stanford.

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