Sunday, March 10, 2019

Stalking the wild garganey in West Sacramento #birding #eBird #iNaturalist #birdphotography #nikonD500

So - I did a thing today.  A new thing for me.  I officially became a bird nut.  For the first time in my life, I went on an outing to see a rare bird that I read about online.

I went to West Sacramento, to a pond there, to see, and hopefully take pictures of, a garganey.  What, you ask, is a garganey?  It is a kind of duck.  According to Wikipedia:
The garganey (Spatula querquedula) is a small dabbling duck. It breeds in much of Europe and western Asia, but is strictly migratory, with the entire population moving to southern Africa, India (in particular Santragachi), Bangladesh (in the natural reservoirs of Sylhet district) and Australasia in winter,[2] where large flocks can occur. This species was first described by Linnaeus in 1758. Like other small ducks such as the common teal, this species rises easily from the water with a fast twisting wader-like flight.

So - kind of boring in some sense.  Just another duck right?  But the key for my outing today is that it is not a normal resident of Wast Sacramento, or Central California, or California, or North American even.  It is, as my National Geographic bird field guide says in a colonialist phrasing "An old world species" 

So when one was spotted a few weeks ago in the West Sacramento area, the birders got very excited.  And they started to share information about it on Facebook, and eBird (which is where I heard about it) and Twitter and such.  And it even made the news: Bird Watchers Flock To West Sacramento To Catch A Glimpse Of Rare Bird

So why, you may ask, did this interest me?  Well, I have been a birder, on and off, since I was a kid.  Birds, and birdwatching, are what got me into nature, which then got me into natural history, which then got me into biology, which then got me to where I am now.  For example, my first science job, doing field in the summer of 1988, involved studying hummingbirds in Colorado at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory with Bill Calder from Arizona.  

More recently, I have rediscovered birding and bird science.  From a birding point of view, I got back into birding when we went on a trip to Costa Rica a few years ago.  For that trip, I got my first good pair of binoculars (Leica Trinovid 8 x 42) I have ever owned.  And I got my first digital SLR camera (a Nikon D80) and a nice lens (a Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8).  This was a great set up to have. although I confess I never fully learned all the ins and outs of using it for photography.  I mean, I used it a lot, but I never learned how to do much other than leave it on auto settings and use some of the "scene" settings to vary things up.  I wrote some blog posts about birding in the area on and off too and also started to spend a lot of time in Yolo Bypass nearby Davis.  See for example:
I even made some collections of my better pics. For example see

From a science point of view, I have been slowly trying to do more bird work in my lab.  And since I study microbes, the easiest thing to do seemed to be to study bird associated microbes.  I tried to get a project going on microbes of Darwin's Finches and to jump start this I even helped sequence one of the finch genomes.  See Nice timing: Our paper on the Darwin's Finch genome is out today on Darwin's birthday.  But we never got funding to work on the finch microbiomes (though am still interested in that).  But I have gotten involved in a few bird microbiome projects recently and am doing a few more now and looking for others.  See for example  The cloacal microbiome of five wild duck species varies by species and influenza A virus infection status and Community-level differences in the microbiome of healthy wild mallards and those infected by influenza A viruses and Genome Sequence of a Multidrug-Resistant Strain of Bacillus pumilus, CB01, Isolated from the Feces of an American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

And I should note that I also have been going on and on and on about how microbiologists could learn a lot from birders and how I think we need a "Field Guide to the Microbes."

So, yeah, birds and birding were and are bigs parts of my life.

Anyway, back to the garganey.  Why was I checking out eBird reports and following reports of bird sightings?  Well, because I REALLY rediscovered birding in the last two months.  This happened because after about two years of pondering, and about 1 year of serious research, I got a new camera and lens specifically to do more bird photography.  In order to choose what camera to get, basically, I looked and looked and looked and finally found someone online who made recommendations for bird photography that I really trusted.  This person is Mark Smith.  And I found his recommendations via the oracle of Google and then watched a series of his videos on Youtube about comparing and contrasting different set ups for bird photography.  Especially bird in flight photography.  This had been my bane in a way.  I just felt like with my current birding set up I was not able to get close enough to birds or get good pictures of them in flight. And Mark Smith's videos showed me how I could get to the next level.  Based on his videos I finalized my choice to a Nikon D850 w/ a crazy fancy lens (for more than $10,000) or a Nikon D500 with a Nikkor 200-500 mm lens for about $3000.  I decided on the $3000 option both to save money and because I was not sure I would really use the rig enough to justify $10K.  So here is what I got, based on Mark Smith's guidance:
All purchased from B&H photos.

Everything showed up in early January.  And I started to try to learn how to use everything.  And things were slow at first.  I went out for a few weeks taking pictures using auto settings. And, well, it was nice, occasionally.  But the pics just were not as good as I thought they would be. It all came to a head when I went on a local little outing with Jim Koenigsaecker.  And he kept asking me about all the settings I was using.  And I kept saying "blarg" or something like that (actually, I said mostly I was using just the automated settings).  And when I went home from that day, I had some good pics.  And a lot of crummy ones.

So then I decided to consult the oracle again.  Google that is.  And I found Mark Smith had a bunch of videos on how to set up the Nikon D500 for shooting birds in flight

And I watched these. A few times. And then set up my camera with those settings.  And I went out again that afternoon.  And BOOM.  The pics were way way way better.

See for example these.

Anyway - more about my pictures from the past another time.  Back to the garganey.  As part of taking better pictures I started wanting to share them more.  And I started being able to ID birds better and in some cases also wanted help confirming IDs.  So I started using iNaturalist and eBird more.

See my iNaturalist posts here.
See my eBird posts here.

And I signed up for notifications about bird sightings via eBird.

And this is FINALLY where the garganey comes in.  A few weeks ago I saw that some people had reported a rare bird on eBird - a garganey.  I also saw these were reported in the West Sacramento area, near the deep water channel and near where UC Davis students do crew and sailing.  So this stuck in my head somewhere for a few weeks.  And I talked about possibly going to check it out with some birding friends like Mei Yamaguchi. And then, a few days ago my friend from TIGR Karla Heidelberg contacted me and told me she was going to be in the Davis area this weekend since her daughter would be racing in two crew regattas.  So yesterday we met up to see Captain Marvel with my wife, daughter, mom and step dad.  And Karla came with her son, who it turns out, is getting interested in bird photography.  And while chatting before or after the movie I asked where her daughter was going to be racing Sunday and she said "somewhere near West Sacramento".

And then the bells went off and I said something like "Well, I could come meet you there and maybe your son and I could go look for this rare bird that was posted right near where the regattas are held". And they said that could be fun and Karla said she wold text me information about where the event was later in the PM.  And when she texted me the location I then looked up on eBird where everyone was reporting the garganey and it was literally right near by the regatta.

So this AM I got up.  Had some coffee.  Got my camera gear together and headed out to West Sacramento.  And when I got there I put on a dark jacket over my red one (just in case that freaked out the birds somehow) and walked towards the pond where the reports were coming from.

Bridgeway Island pond in West Sacramento

And I knew I was in the right place when I saw all the people with scopes and binos and things.

Some birders at Bridgeway Island pond in West Sacramento

Panoramic View of Bridgeway Island Pond in West Sacramento 

And so I asked them - was this the garganey club.  And they said - yes - it is out there on this spit just hanging out apparently asleep.

Panoramic View of Bridgeway Island Pond in West Sacramento with position of garganey labelled 

Well, with my new camera, maybe I could get a few decent pics.  So I got it out.  And attached it to my tripod and took a few pics.  Yes, there was indeed a garganey there.  But it was hard to see key features given that it appeared to be snoozing.

Garganey snoozing

Zooming in on the pic on my camera confirmed what it was.

Close up of Garganey snoozing

A garganey.  Woo hoo.  I got a pic of a rare bird.  It was cloudy and dark out and the pic was not great but it was a pic of a garganey.  So then I waited, hoping either the light would change or it would do something.  And I took a few more pics.  And waited.  And the bird did nothing.

So I chatted with the other birders as we all waited.  We wondered, why was it doing nothing?  Was it sick and that is why it was in a weird place?

Then I got distracted by the other birds at the site.  And so I took some pictures of them.

Like avocets.

Avocet butts

Well, that was their butts.  But also got some good pics of other parts of them.


I just love avocets.

And then I got worried about missing something so, after moving positions slightly, I swung back to the garganey.  And boy was it exciting.

Garganey still snoozing

Zoomed in again digitally just to get a look at it again.  Yup, still a garganey

Garganey still snoozing

And so I moved a little bit over again to try and get a profile pic.  And took another few pictures

Garganey still snoozing

Garganey still snoozing

A little bit better but still it was not doing anything.

So back to the avocets.




Avocet pair

They were a lot closer so the pics were better and, well, they are just really cool birds.  But then I freaked out again that I would miss something.  So panned back to the garganey.  And, well, same thing.

Garganey still snoozing

So - back to the avocets.

Avocet in action

Ooh - then I saw some other birds going near the garganey.  This would definitely get it going right?

Garganey still snoozing

Garganey undisturbed

Garganey undisturbed

Garganey oblivious

Lots and lots of action by the other birds. But the garganey just frigging sat there.  Snoozing away.

So then I got distracted again.  Did we hear a song sparrow?  I think so. Ooh -- it might be that one over there.

Song sparrow

Cool.  And then there was a whole big Canada goose activity session.  Common birds.  But at least they were doing SOMETHING.

Canada geese

Canada geese

Cool. And then out of the corner of my eye I saw something happen.  The garganey moved.

Garganey finally up and moving

It moved.  OMG.  It moved. So I took a LOT of pics.  And the lighting was little better too so they zoom better.  Here are some.

And I got a profile shot so I knew I had something to show people.  And I kept shooting.

And so it even went for a swim.  Waking up I guess.  Maybe it was just on daylights savings time.

And then it even turned around.  Woo hoo.

And went back to some of its friends

Ooh wait - was that a merganser flying by?  Yes it was.

OK back to the garganey - that was why I was here right?

Then got distracted for a bit again by some geese.

Uh oh.  I missed some garganey action as it started to stretch its wings and I was not quite set up for the pics but took them anyway.

And thankfully the lighting was getting even better.  But I noticed my storage card was running low so I thought about switching it out but of course, just then, the real action happened.  The garganey took off.  And, well, I thought I got some good shots of this and when I got home realized, well, I did.

See these two especially:

Well, these were definitely worth the wait.  And then the garganey cruised around by itself for a bit.

And then my card ran out.  Fortunately I had one ready right in my jacket pocket and switched quickly and picked up the garganey now in a group with some cinnamon teals.  And I got some good pics of them flying around before landing.

And then the garganey stayed in the water, pretty far away.

I was pretty sure I had gotten some good pics of it.  And so, I closed the book on the garganey.  And Karla and her some took off.  But they got to see it in action which was great.  And I did not leave immediately since I wanted to snoop around and look for other birds for bit.  So I walked around the pond and to the levee to get a look at the Yolo Bypass from the East side.   And got a few more good pics of other birds.

See some below:

Anyway - stay tuned for lots more about birds and birding.  Going to try to keep posting about my adventures learning to take better bird pics and learning more about birding.

UPDATE - Made some gifs of the garganey in flight - see this one for example

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jonathan,

    Many lovely shots there, I've been following you on Instagram for a while now. I have a Nikon D7200 and a manual focus 300mm lens from the 80s that also has a learning curve. There's a rule of thumb that you want your shutter speed to be at least the inverse of the focal length, so at 500mm a shutter of 1/500th or less, which I think works well at normal ranges but does not scale to long zooms. For my 300mm (which on my smaller sensor works out to more like 420mm) I find I have to be at 1/2000 or faster to get a nice result. The other thing I've found with this zoom is the depth of field at wide apertures is quite shallow, so if you're set at f5.6 for example only a few inches of the depth will be in focus. I get substantially nicer results at f11 or f16, however that wants to slow down the shutter speed. So I end up using manual mode (M on the dial) and underexposing a couple of stops if necessary, and then bringing back that detail in post. Plus I set the ISO max to about 6400 I think to avoid too much noise in the monochromatic sections. Here are some shots from a political thing I went to last summer, this is where I learned that people at a podium moved back and forth too quickly to use an aperture larger than f8:

    And here is a parade at the capitol, lots of light made it easy to shoot fast enough to capture motion crisply. I do photograph things other than leftists but, well, it's a small sample.

    I'd be happy to discuss more; I don't think I can stop using Nikon at this point as I finally know where most of the menu options are. See you around.


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