San-Fran Safari 2010!

San Francisco Bay Area
October, 2010

This is the blog for my five-day birding trip to the San Francisco bay area in October, 2010.  I have many fond memories of birding this area in July of 1997 (while attending a conference at Stanford) and again in June of 2006 (while visiting colleagues at the University of California at Davis).  On my first visit in 1997 I fell in love with the stilts and avocets at the Palo Alto Baylands, but had only binoculars with me, and hence couldn’t take any photos to immortalize my birding experiences.  On my 2006 trip to the Sacramento area I brought along my brand-new 6 megapixel DSLR camera and 80-400mm zoom lens and took thousands of photos at a number of sites both inland and along the coast.  Unfortunately, the image quality of those photos left much to be desired.  (In fact, they were quite horrible).  Hence, I was again left with only faded memories in an analog brain.  Not ideal.

California Quail (Callipepla californica) at Point Reyes, October 2010
1/300 sec, 840mm, f/9, ISO 100, manual flash

This summer I therefore decided to revisit all of the sites that I birded in those previous two trips combined, but with my new, top-of-the-line bird photography gear, which consists of several Canon professional cameras and lenses (see below for equipment info).  My hope was to capture as many high-quality bird photos at these sites as possible, to serve as a substitute for the digital images I wish I had been able to take on my 1997 and 2006 trips.  Unfortunately, the demands of my day job kept me from traveling, so I had to wait until October to make the trip.  I wasn’t sure if this would be an ideal time to visit the bay area for birding, but I didn’t want to wait until next summer and risk being too busy again.

Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) in Davis, CA, 2010
1/300 sec, 840mm, f/11, ISO 200

Now for some details.  I stayed in a tiny town named Dixon (outside Davis, which is close to Sacramento) each night and drove my rental car to each of the listed sites daily.  It would have been more economical to stay in hotels close to each site, but my itinerary changed daily as I assessed each location for its birdiness and decided which site to visit (or re-visit) each day.  Note that the traffic around the San Francisco metropolis can be horrendously painful during rush hours (much like my old home town of Washington, DC).  Also, gas was quite expensive on this trip: around Sacramento I paid around $3/gallon, whereas in some of the remote regions I was gouged to the tune of $3.50/gallon or more; back home it was only $2.65.  Airfare from North Carolina was around $600 plus baggage fees ($60 each way, plus an overweight charge of $50), tolls were around $10 per day, parking fees (at the airport and elsewhere) totalled $76, and park entrance fees totalled $10.  I stayed at a cheap motel, which cost about $60 or $70 per night.

Abbott’s Lagoon, at Point Reyes
This is not an HDR image, but the apparent dynamic range was enhanced
via the use of manual tone mapping, which you can read about in my book,
"Secrets of Digital Bird Photography", at www.DigitalBirdPhotography.com

In finding my way around I depended entirely on my iPhone.  Unfortunately, in some of the remote coastal areas there was no cell reception (though GPS still worked—sometimes).  More limiting was the fact that the cigarette lighter in my rental car didn’t work, so my iPhone charger didn’t either; by 3pm each day my iPhone’s battery was totally depleted (I soon found that putting the phone in
airplane mode solves this problem).

Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) in Davis, CA, 2010
1/300 sec, 840mm, f/9, ISO 125

I took a total of 5171 photos on this trip (though this is before filtering out the images that were out of focus, poorly exposed, affected by motion blur, or otherwise unacceptable for artistic reasons).  Based solely on number of photos taken at each site (normalized by time spent there), the most productive site was the Palo Alto Baylands, where I took 1626 photos on the first of my two days there—a pretty respectable number for my shooting style.  The least productive site was Point Reyes, which was exceptionally poor (for the purposes of close-up bird photography) on both days that I spent there. 

Equipment used on this trip:
Canon EOS 1D Mark III cameras (2)
Canon 600mm f/4L IS lens + 1.4x TC (840mm total)
Canon 400mm f/4 DO IS lens (for close-ups and flights)
Canon 30D + Tokina 12-24mm lens (for landscapes)
Gitzo carbon fiber tripod + full Wimberley head
Canon Speedlite 580 EX II flash (2)
Lots of caffeine (180mg/day)

October 10
Wildhorse Golf Course / Yolo Wildlife Area / UC Davis Arboretum
1149 photos taken / 10 hours (115 photos per hour)

I decided to begin my photo safari at the Wildhorse golf course in Davis (just outside Sacramento), because this is the site where I had previously enjoyed—indeed, immensely enjoyed—photographing burrowing owls in June of 2006.  The owls nest around the periphery of the golf course, and there’s a jogger/biker trail that borders the strip of land where they nest.  Only a few weeks ago my contact who lives in the adjacent housing development informed me that there were many owls present at the site.  Unfortunately, in the intervening weeks the juveniles seem to have dispersed, and the adults have become a bit reclusive.  Most of my shots were of the variety illustrated below (i.e., a bird gazing at me cautiously from the entrance to its nest hole):

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) at Wildhorse
1/300 sec, 840mm, f/7.1, ISO 250

Rabbits can be found in abundance in the grassy area where the owls nest, so I took some shots of those in lieu of the shy owls.  In the early morning the rabbits seem to enjoy sitting motionless facing the sun, presumably to warm up before they get down to business munching grass.  The cottontail photo below features a bit of rim-lighting, since the subject was back-lit.  In the past I’ve tended to avoid back-lit subjects entirely, but I’m finding that rim-lighting can sometimes impart an interesting mood to the photo, being substantially more contrasty than a front-lit scene, but less extreme than a full-fledged silhouette shot:

Desert cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii) at Wildhorse
1/300 sec, 840mm, f/7.1, ISO 200

Around mid-morning the bird activity picked up quite a bit.  I found meadowlarks, red-shafted flickers, various sparrows, and a variety of hawks, including buteos (mainly red-tails), accipiters, falcons (kestrels), and harriers.  Few of these were approachable enough for a frame-filling shot with the 600mm lens, however, even at 840mm using the teleconverter.  By late morning all activity had halted, except among the sparrows, hummingbirds, and a few flycatchers.

Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya) at Wildhorse
1/300 sec, 840mm, f/7.1, 160

The hummers were quite active, striking various interesting poses in the course of their vigorous interactions with conspecifics:

Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) at Wildhorse
1/300, 840mm, f/9, ISO 125

Around noon I drove to the Yolo Wildlife Area off route 80 between Davis and Sacramento.  Some Audubon members had suggested this site, indicating that activity was rapidly picking up among migratory shorebirds.  During my 2006 trip in June it was truly spectacular here.  Today it was fairly awful.  Though there were certainly birds present, most were too far for frame-filling photographs.  At the far end of the long gravel road (near Parking Lot G) there were many hawks working a section of fields, including red-tails and harriers.  Below is one of the red-tails, photographed at 840mm, hand-held (!).  Because the huge 600mm lens is a monster to hand-hold, the images of the hawks turned out a bit blurry, and were mostly back-lit.  But that was the best I could do at the time, since grabbing the tripod from the trunk and assembling it would have wasted precious seconds (and it can’t point straight up).

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) at the Yolo Wildlife Area
1/640 sec, 840mm (hand-held), f/7.1, ISO 500

Most of the pools at this site were bone-dry, though some are managed to maintain a minimal water level for the benefit of the birds.  With a fair amount of effort I was able to photograph a greater yellowlegs, a few killdeers, a pair of northern shovelers, and some coots—all species I could easily photograph back home in North Carolina.  The waterfowl here were extremely shy, perhaps due to the fact that hunting does occur here (or nearby) at certain times of the year.  I had the most luck when shooting from within the car, by resting the 600mm lens on the window sill.  The only problem with that is that my flash unit doesn’t fit in the window (especially with my enormous flash extender).

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) at the Yolo Wildlife Area
1/2500 sec, 840mm, f/7.1, ISO 800

In the late afternoon I decided to hit the UC Davis campus, in search of scrub jays and magpies.  I paid the $6 for parking and walked around the arboretum.  I saw no magpies, and the scrub jays were very hard to lure into the open, though I did eventually get one very reluctant individual to pose for about five minutes.  The use of strong flash was necessary due to the dark shadows cast by the foliage:

Western Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica) at UC Davis
1/300 sec, 840mm, f/9, ISO 160

I had also wanted to shoot the night herons I’d seen here in 2006, but apparently they’ve been officially discouraged from congregating in the arboretum, due to their effect on the health of the trees (the excrement from large heron flocks can, over the long term, kill entire groves of trees).  In the pond at the arboretum I found several types of waterfowl, including cormorants, mallards, and wood ducks.  The pond is small enough that it’s sometimes possible to find an angle in which the foliage on the far side reflects in the water, adding some nice color.  This is a trick I often use at Duke Gardens back in North Carolina, though I prefer to do it when the leaves are changing color in the fall so that the reflected colors include more than just shades of green (as below).

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchus) at UC Davis
1/300 sec, 840mm, f/7.1, ISO 500

In the hour before dusk I returned very briefly to Wildhorse to see if the owls might become more active as darkness approached, but I didn’t see any of them. 

October 11
Palo Alto Baylands
1626 photos taken / 8.5 hours (191 photos per hour)

Today I decided to go straight to the Palo Alto Baylands, since this was one of my favorite birding locations during my 1997 visit.  The baylands are located at the southwest corner of the San Francisco bay.  They feature wide-open spaces punctuated by shallow pools that long-legged waders frequent during the high-to-low tide transition.  It’s quite literally one of the best birding locations I’ve ever visited.

Just One Section of the Palo Alto Baylands
(Look closely and you can see some stilts at left)
Canon 30D + Tokina 12-24mm zoom
Manually tone-mapped in Photoshop
1/80 sec, 24mm, f/8, ISO 125

I arrived at the Baylands as the tide was going out and the birds were starting to actively forage in the shallow water.  My main focus here was in shooting the black-necked stilts and american avocets.  Both of these birds feature both bright whites and dark blacks in their plumage, which severely complicates exposure (since I then have to choose whether to sacrifice details in the bright areas or the dark areas).  I opted to expose for the whites and therefore sacrifice detail in the blacks.  Note that the avocets were in their white winter plumage, which I personally like as much as the red breeding phase.  In the photo below you can see that at low tide even the mud at the Baylands looks interesting:

American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana) at the Palo Alto Baylands
Notice the unsightly underbelly shadow, due to lack of fill flash.
1/2000 sec, 840mm, f/11, ISO 800, no flash

Notice in the above photo that the bird’s ventral side is hidden in shadow, due to the lack of fill flash.  When this photo was shot I was primarily concerned with freezing the quick foraging motions of the birds, and had therefore turned off the flash so I could increase the shutter speed above the flash-sync speed of my camera (1/300 sec).  Later on this trip I’ll revisit this decision by engaging high-speed sync mode (HSS) and cranking up the flash to maximum power to overcome the loss of flash intensity in HSS mode.

Below is an example of a stilt shot in which I was able to retain a fair amount of detail in both the whites and blacks; though I exposed for the whites, the bright sunlight induced enough feather glare in the blacks to result in a fair amount of visible detail.  In this case I also separated out the black parts of the bird’s plumage in Photoshop and boosted their brightness to further bring out the detail in those regions:

Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) at the Baylands
 1/1600, 840mm, f/8, ISO 320

Other birds sighted here included willets, marbled godwits, gulls, shovelers, mallards, a single white pelican (though no brown pelicans), and a possible long-billed curlew.  Unfortunately, the terns seem to have migrated already—they were very cool to watch here in 1997.  By late afternoon most of the foraging activity had halted entirely.  A few stilts foraged for a bit in the small pool next to the parking lot, but they soon retired to the back of the pool to preen or sleep.

Before leaving for the day I checked out the far end of the main road, which I’d pretty much avoided during my 1997 trip.  I was very happy to find a pair of Clark's grebes, though I wasn’t able to get any frame-filling images of either, due to the extreme distance (below is a heavily cropped image of one of the birds from far off):

  Clark's Grebe (Aechmophorus clarkii) at the Baylands
Heavily-cropped image from a 10 MP camera.
 1/300, 840mm, f/10, ISO 100

October 12
Point Reyes National Seashore

687 photos taken / 9 hours (76 photos per hour)

During my 2006 trip I had mixed success in finding birds at the Point Reyes National Seashore.  I decided to give the site a try during this trip, primarily because other birders had recommended it, and because I recalled getting some exceptionally nice views of harriers gliding around at Abbott’s Lagoon in the morning mist.  Unfortunately, Point Reyes park is enormous and the birding hotspots tend to be fairly spaced out.  Hence, most of the 9 hours
in the field here were actually spent driving either between locations within the park, or between Point Reyes and Bodega Bay (an hour north of Point Reyes). 

White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) at Limantour
1/1600 sec, 840mm, f/10, ISO 640

Most of the sites I visited today were either devoid of birds (other than assorted common sparrows or great blue herons, which I can photograph to my heart’s content back home) or featured birds that were far too distant for frame-filling shots.  The saving grace in many cases was the delectable backgrounds that one can find in many of California’s open spaces, as this photo illustrates:

Palm warbler (Dendroica palmarum) at Abbott’s Lagoon, Point Reyes
1/300, 840mm, f/10, ISO 160

A bit frustrated by the scant offerings at Point Reyes, I decided to gamble on making the hour-long trip to Bodega Bay, which several birders had heartily recommended.  The first site I encountered on the highway was the local park at the south end of the bay, which charges an entrance fee.  The ranger at the booth indicated the park was indeed very popular with birders.  Unfortunately, when I arrived the birds were mostly preening and napping (I believe the tide was fairly high at that point):

Marbled Godwits and Willets at Bodega Bay
1/800, 840mm, f/8, ISO 250

From the highway that runs along the eastern edge of the bay I was able to find some oystercatchers perching on several high promontories far out from the road, but little else bearing feathers was visible.  So far I wasn’t terribly impressed with Bodega Bay at high tide, so I quickly navigated the curvy, mountainous roads
back to Point Reyes with as much care and speed as I could.

Back at Point Reyes, I did spot a black-shouldered kite at Abbott’s Lagoon—about a mile distant, and obviously too far for useful photographs.  At Limantour (still within Point Reyes) I finally got some decent photos for the day.  I was lucky enough to stumble upon a flock of quails on the sandy path that parallels the beach, and I happily worked them for over an hour.  By lying on my belly I was both able to put them at ease and also get a nice angle, resulting in a series of images showing the bird at eye-level:

California Quail at Limantour
1/300, 840mm, f/9, ISO 100

In time these birds got so used to my presence that they walked up to within 2 feet of me.  Speaking to them in a low, soothing voice seemed to help, as they approached further whenever I spoke to them (which is not what many other birds will do).  The trail is only 1-to-2 feet wide in most places, and as I lay along one edge of the trail, they quickly scooted along the other edge, just one or two feet from me.  These birds are very fun to photograph!  Just hanging out with them for an hour was a real treat for me.

California Quail
1/300 sec, 840mm, f/9, ISO 100

October 13
Palo Alto Baylands / Don Edwards Refuge / Bayfront Park / Coyote Hills
1282 photos taken / 8.5 hours (151 photos per hour)

Being less than satisfied with Point Reyes yesterday (notwithstanding the great time I had shooting the quails), I decided to return to the Palo Alto Baylands today.  The traffic this morning was horrendous, so it ended up taking 3 hours to get there from Dixon.  Fortunately, the tides worked to my favor this morning.

My goal today was to try to get some sharper images of the birds than what I had gotten two days ago.  The problem is that I like to use strong flash, but shooting at my camera’s sync speed (1/300 sec) leaves too much room for motion blur to occur with frantically foraging birds.  I decided to try using high speed synch (HSS) on these birds with full flash power (1/1).  I rarely use HSS, because it severely reduces effective flash output when shooting at high speeds.  I decided to try a compromise of 1/1600 sec (which is only moderately fast) with full flash power.  Using the flash at full power risks burning out the flash head, and slows the recharge rate of the flash
s capacitors.  My results from today show that HSS can work well with close subjects and moderate shutter speeds (recall that flash intensity falls off quadratically with distance).  For birds further out I simply turned off the flash entirely.  Notice in this avocet image below that the underside of the bird is fairly well-lit (due partly to flash and partly to sunlight reflecting up from the water), in contrast to the avocet photo from my blog entry two days ago:

American Avocet at the Baylands
1/1600, 840mm, f/8, ISO 320, HSS flash at full power

In mid-afternoon I turned off the cameras and just watched the birds for a while through my Swarovski 8x32 binoculars.  The color and lighting at the Baylands are so exquisite that just watching the birds through a wide-angle binocular is sheer joy.  No mere photo can substitute for that firsthand experience! 

Black-necked Stilt at the Baylands
1/1600, 840mm, f/8, ISO 400

In the late afternoon I crossed the route 84 bridge that spans the bay to reach Coyote Hills Regional Park and the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge (both on the outskirts of Fremont).  Before crossing the bridge I stopped briefly at Bayfront Park.  There were a few birds here, but the lighting was harsh and people were swarming all over like ants, so I continued over the bridge.  Coyote Hills cost me $5 to enter and I didn’t even get out of my car.  Don Edwards, however, was more productive.  I instantly recognized this site from my 1997 trip.  Because it was getting late in the day and I was tired, I mostly stayed in the parking lot area and chased around the pair of western scrub jays that were collecting nuts. 

Western Scrub Jay at Don Edwards NWR
1/300 sec, 840mm, f/7.1, ISO 1000

There were many sparrows at this site as well (a ranger informed me that Lincoln’s sparrow can be seen here).  At the top of the hill I did see a western towhee, but didn’t get a photo.  I was told that the place was normally excellent for hawks (including not only red tails, but also northern goshawks), but with no wind today they hadn’t shown up.  In 1997 I spotted a black-shouldered kite here.  Not today.

October 14
Point Reyes / Route 37 pulloff
427 photos taken / 8 hours (53 photos per hour)

On the final day of my San Fran Safari I decided to give Point Reyes another chance—which really means that I wanted to spend some more time with those cool quails that I met up there the other day.  On the way I stopped at a pull-off on route 37 (on the way from Vallejo to Novato) where a large flock of stilts and avocets had been present on Tuesday; they were there again today, and I did get some different angles and backgrounds from what I got at the Palo Alto Baylands:

American Avocet at the route 37 pull-off
1/1600 sec, 840mm, f/7.1, ISO 250

Getting good backgrounds requires being flexible in the field—as well as being opportunistic.  At the route 37 site, in some cases I specifically timed my shots to coincide with the passing of a colorful tractor trailer on the adjacent highway; with the natural ripples in the water these sometimes looked like reasonably natural background reflections.  For the photo above, however, the color came entirely from the dry grasses growing at the edge of the pool.  At typical shooting angles, these only show up in the water when the birds are foraging close to the edge of the pool.  The trick is to get them when they’re close enough to the edge to allow for nice reflections, but far enough from the edge to allow the frame to include only water.  Thats not always easy.

For the photo below I was happy to get something other than sky reflecting in the background, but was disappointed to see all of the detritus floating on the surface.  It’s possible that I might be able to fix this at some point in Photoshop with a smoothing filter, though some care would be needed to avoid obliterating the natural ripples around the bird’s legs.

American Avocet at the route 37 pull-off
1/1600 sec, 840mm, f/7.1, ISO 250

I only spent about twenty minutes at this site before continuing on to Point Reyes.  I immediately went to Limantour, the site within Point Reyes where I’d gotten the quail photos two days ago.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find any quails—not a single one.  And that surprised me, because they’d seemed so at-home foraging along the trail.  After walking the entire length of the trail several times I noticed that the grassy areas off the trail were riddled with micro-trails that wound among the endless bunches of tall grass, where the diminutive quails could probably forage just as happily as along the wider human trail where I with my bulky equipment was confined to roam.  Maybe I just got lucky on Tuesday when I found them on the wide hiking trail.

Out on the beach I found a few marbled godwits and sanderlings, but none of them would let me approach for a photo (and both are common back home anyway).  Following a tip from an elderly gentleman, I made the half-hour-plus drive to the northern tip of the spit to look for elk, but didn’t find any.  I returned to Limantour and again walked the trail where I’d seen the quails, but to no avail.  In the parking lot I was consoled by some very cooperative white-crowned sparrows, which I shot on my belly with the big 600mm lens:

White-crowned Sparrow at Limantour
1/1600, 840mm, f/10, ISO 640

I called it quits at about 5:30 and started to head out of the park.  On a whim I checked out the park headquarters, where I’d seen quails on my 2006 visit.  As luck would have it, I found a quail sitting atop a bush about 15 feet from a bench where a man was waiting for a bus.  I frantically parked my rental car, popped the trunk, and extricated my huge lens.  As soon as the bird saw the massive device it hopped down to the sidewalk and began rapidly walking across the parking lot toward a bush on the far side.  I followed it with as much reserve as I could muster.  The bird stopped a few feet from a bush and waited to see what I would do.  As I lifted the camera to my face, two park employees came around the far side of the bush and prompted the bird to slip into the impenetrable maze of leaves and twigs.  I waited for some time, circled the bush twice, and then retreated to the car to drive up and down the lot several times.  At about 6pm I gave up and started the long drive back to Dixon.

California Quail at Limantour
Notice the 600mm lens in the background!
I shot this on Tuesday with the 400mm lens
while lying on my belly.  Once the birds had
gotten used to me, they showed little fear of
me or my enormous equipment.

All-in-all, I did enjoy my trip to the San Fran area.  However, considering the very considerable expenses incurred, I think I got much more bang for the buck during my winter Florida trips and my spring Ohio trips.  October is clearly not an ideal time to visit the bay area for bird photography.  Nevertheless, my experiences during my 2006 trip attest to how exquisite this area can be during the summer.  I hope to return to the area this coming June or July and try again.  My experiences on that forthcoming trip will be reported here, so stay tuned!

Many thanks to the following California birders for help with identifying western species: Alvaro Jaramillo, Bob Power, Jeri Langham, Dan Kopp, Jon Aull, Ed Whisler, David Johnson, Doug Herr, John Sterling, Chuq Von Rospach, Tim Manolis, and Susie Nishio.

You can see many more photos at:
Third Bird From The Sun . com

See also my free, 900-page, online instructional manual:

Secrets of Digital Bird Photography