A Day at Deer Creek

October 6, 2011

I has been a while since I have updated this Birding and Photography section of the website. When I first started it I was hoping to add something more regularly. Over the past year several trip reports, lens reviews, and other ideas have fallen by the wayside.  A couple of days ago, October 6, 2011, I went to Deer Creek and decided to take a photo with every lens I own, which currently number 6. That's not really that far out of an idea, but it's something I don't think I've ever done. I usually head out with the camera or binoculars and just do one thing all day it seems. It turned out to be a lot of fun. With the peak of colors in Ohio around the corner, I hope to do it again in a forest this month.

Southern part of Deer Creek State Park
Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 24mm f1.4L II lens
f5.6, 1/160th sec., ISO 250

My first stop at Deer Creek early in the morning was the state park beach to see what birds might have been roosting there. Along with a few assorted shorebirds and the usual gulls was a Laughing Gull, an uncommon wanderer into Ohio. It was foggy and I had already photographed a juvenile Laughing Gull on the beach here before, so I passed on that to start the day with the camera. Along the entrance road the lone colorful maple sapling caught my eye. There is nothing fancy here. I chose the composition here that I did to keep the maple above the horizon. I tried some verticals also to include more foreground, but the horizon ended up in the middle of the frame, and this looked better to me. Since getting this 24mm lens a couple of years ago, it remains one of my favorites. It is really fantastic indoors and out. It's such a natural perspective to me on the 1D Mark IV as an effective 31mm lens. In the past year I tried a couple of copies of the Canon 24-105 f4 L IS zoom. One was really terrible at the wide end, and one seemed pretty good stopped down, but ultimately I didn't want to replace this lens, or feel the need for a zoom.

Sedge meadow in early morning fog
Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 70-300mm f4-5.6L IS lens at 140mm
f16, 1/80th sec., ISO 250

The main birding attraction at Deer Creek in early October is the beginning of the sparrow migration with the Ammodramus species in the wetlands being the ultimate targets for both my binoculars and camera. The low depressions were very foggy before the sun was well up, but that offered some good photo ops. This meadow was carpeted in webs and was a good subject for my 70-300L. Until last fall I owned no lens between a 100mm macro and a 300 f2.8 and really wanted something in that range for general nature photography. When Canon announced the new 70-300L I immediately knew this was the one. The size, weight, range, and quality all fell into a perfect Goldilocks zone for me. By now there tons of reviews on the web for this lens. All those that I know of who own one like it as much as I do. It's extremely sharp, light, and small with amazing IS.  I also owned the new Canon 70-200 f2.8L IS II lens for a while. While it is every bit as fantastic of a lens as it is reported to be and takes the new Canon teleconverters well, it is the size and weight of a small brick in my camera bag. I really didn't want to lug it around or need the speed since I already have f2.8 available with my 100mm macro and 300mm lenses. The 70-300L is the one that I kept with no regrets.

Dew on web
Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 100mm f2.8L IS macro lens
f7.1, 1/400th sec., IS0 400

The webs themselves offer all sorts interesting compositions for a macro lens. I used the same technique here that I have used on the ice patterns that I have posted. With the amazing IS on the 100mm macro I hand hold the lens and shoot in AF servo mode to compensate for any slight variation in backward or forward movement from me. The only challenge here is to keep everything on a parallel plane since the depth of field is so narrow.

LeConte's Sparrow
Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 600mm f4L IS lens + 2x
f11, 1/800th sec., ISO 400

The fog didn't linger for long once the sun was up and it was time for some bird photography. The first bird that popped into camera range was none other than a LeConte's Sparrow, my first ever at Deer Creek. I had only seen them in Ohio a few times before. While they are fairly easy to find and photograph on their breeding grounds when giving off their faint buzz of a song, they are very scarce migrants through Ohio and difficult to detect as they silently hide in dense wet grasslands. LeConte's Sparrows have always ranked amongst my very favorite bird species with their buff coloration and fine markings. I was glad to get the above photo, but I really hate the out of focus cattail leaf behind the bird's head. Some people might be bothered by the bright green area on the right side of the photo, but it doesn't bother me much. It could be toned down fairly easily anyway. My eye always goes to the bird's eye in a bird photo, so that cattail leaf really interferes with the photo for me. At least it is dark and out of focus, but it would be better if it wasn't there at all. Since it is a LeConte's I can deal with it, but if it was a Song or Field Sparrow I probably wouldn't take a second look at this photo.

Ideal habitat for LeConte's and Nelson's Sparrows
Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 24mm f1.4L II lens
f13, 1/320th sec., ISO 400

The area above is where the LeConte's Sparrow was photographed in the extreme south end of the Deer Creek Wildlife Area. Except for the big oaks on the distant horizon, it looks like it was transported right out of a National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota where these birds nest.

Song Sparrow
Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 600mm f4L IS lens + 2x
f11, 1/800th sec., ISO 400

Song Sparrows are present all year long in the Deer Creek wetlands and might get taken for granted, but if one pops up for a quick pose of course I'll take its photo. As always, my old reliable 600 f4 produces a sharp photo with dead on focusing with a 2x attached. Last year I sold the first 800mm lens I had and bought another. I used it for a few months, but eventually gave up on it too. The 800mm was great by itself, but at close range with a 1.4x attached I could never trust it. It was excellent for larger birds at a distance, but up close for small passerines it would sometimes front focus terribly and on occasion it wouldn't. The first 800mm lens I had also had that same characteristic. After one particlarly frustrating outing last April for warblers I vowed to never use an 800mm lens again. I sold it and the money is ready and waiting for Canon's new 600 f4 to be realeased in a only a couple more months. It will be 3 pounds lighter than my current lens with improved IS, closer focusing, and, according to the MTF charts, better optics with the new Canon teleconverters. I can't wait. All in all I think that the 600mm lens is a better choice for general bird photography anyway. 800mm is sometimes just too long and you can't always just back up to get the angle you need. I'm thinking here about climbing around on rocky jetties such as Barnegat Light in New Jersey or working near the cliffs on Saint Paul Island in Alaska for puffins and auklets. The 600mm with a 1.4x focuses a lot closer than a bare 800mm does. The new Canon 600 focuses even closer than the current one does, about 5 feet closer than the 800mm. Adding a 1.4x to the 800 gives enough magnification to fill a frame with a small bird like a warbler, but without the 1.4x you're at the edge and  need an extension tube to feel safe. My experiences with adding tubes to the 800 have been even worse than the teleconvertrs when it comes to reliable focusing and I would never want to have to rely on it. Of course the 600mm with a 2x is an f8 1200mm lens and an 800mm with a 1.4x is an f8 1120mm lens. That makes a big difference, especially for photos like the sparrows in open areas above. Having to move one giant step closer can make all the difference in the world between getting a portrait of a sparrow instead of a blur of tail feathers as it flies away. After my experiences with 800mm lenses, I'm still glad to be lugging around my now 12 year old heavy 600mm, but I definitely won't complain when the new one arrives, especially if it proves to be as excellent and reliable over the years as the lens I have now. (Update - Nov. 2011 : The release of the new 600mm lens has been delayed and I have since had the opportunity to get another 800mm lens. I am still interested in trying the new 600mm when it is widely available, and I have no idea what I will end up deciding to use as my main bird lens a year from now.)

Nelson's Sparrow
Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 600mm f4L IS lens + 2x
f11, 1/1250th sec., ISO 400

After finding and photographing a LeConte's, the rest of the morning was spent working on that other wetland migrant Ammodramus sparrow. I find Nelson's Sparrows to be the most difficult sparrow to photograph in North America. No other one comes close, not even its former conspecific cousin the Saltmarsh Sparrow. I am I happy with the photo above? Of course not, but it is typical of what you get when you try to photograph one of these birds. They're just as hard to photograph on their breeding grounds as in migration as they hide in cattails in usually inaccessible places. Unlike LeConte's which can be quite abundant locally on their breeding grounds, Nelson's seem to be fewer and further between in the northern Great Plains. In Ohio Nelson's are far more common as migrants, but they're still scarce and hard to find. If you're willing to spend a whole day during peak migration periods in the fall in Ohio trudging around wetlands, chances are good you might find a small number of them, but the same can't be said of LeConte's.  I'm still looking for that perfect profile portrait of a Nelson's in nice light perched atop a cattail with no distracting background looking me right in the eye. Their migration period this fall still has a few weeks left to go and I hope to visit North Dakota again next year, so the quest will continue.

Canon 1D MarkIV, Canon 300mm f2.8 L IS II lens + 2x
f8, 1/1600th sec., ISO 400

Orange Sulphur
Canon 1D MarkIV, Canon 300mm f2.8 L IS II lens + 2x
f8, 1/1600th sec., ISO 400

Canon 1D MarkIV, Canon 300mm f2.8 L IS II lens + 2x
f9, 1/1250th sec., ISO 400

At mid day the birds were hunkered down and the light got too harsh for bird photography, so it was time to pull out my newest lens that I have only had for a few weeks. I recently replaced my trusty 300mmf2.8  L IS lens with the new version II, and I have been having a blast with it. The previous lens was certainly great optically, but the new version has much better IS and focuses much closer. The new lens is also lighter. The weight difference is only a half a pound, not the radical 3 pound difference that the new 600 will have, but the new 300 is better balanced being less front heavy. The tripod collar is also greatly improved over the previous model.  Little things like the positioning of the lugs for the strap that attaches to the lens just make it a more ergonomic lens than the older version. I was never entirely happy with the performance of a 2x on my older 300 until the new Canon 2x version III came out late last year. That worked wonders on my old 300. Surprisingly the 2x III makes little if any difference at all on my 600mm lens which has always been excellent with the 2xII.  After finally having a 300 2.8 that I was happy with with a 2x, it was important that that be the case with the new one. The first copy of the 300 2.8L II that I tried was great alone and with the 1.4x, but not as good as my older lens with the new 2xIII. I sent it back and wanted to try another copy. The second lens I got was fantastic from the get go alone and both new teleconverters. It's unbelievably sharp with the 2xIII when stopped down only a little bit and better than just usable wide open. For me at least there is no point in owning a 300 2.8 if it isn't great with the converters to give you a 300mm, 420mm, and 600mm lens in a light compact package. Sports photographers really do need the speed wide open at 300, but for me that isn't as important, although it is appreciated when I do want it. Although the main use for this lens is for photographing birds in flight when a tripod isn't practical or possible (like on pelagic trips), the new improved IS, close focus, and lighter weight has opened up all sorts of new uses for it. In the past I usually left the old 300 at home in Ohio, and used it mainly when traveling. That won't be the case anymore. As I said, the position of the lugs for the new straps makes it comfortable to carry the lens around all day over my shoulder, even when just out birding with the binoculars. With the 2x on the 1D MarkIV the new minimum focusing distance gives and magnification of close to 0.5x. With the new IS I have gotten razor sharp photos at 600mm handheld as slow as 1/125th sec. That's pretty radical stuff to me. It becomes the ideal set up for photographing butterflies. They were all over the place in the warm early afternoon at Deer Creek.  So far I'm absolutely thrilled with the new 300f2.8L IS II and it gives what I hope is a glimmer of what the new 600f4L IS II will be in a couple of months.

Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 100mm f2.8L IS macro lens
f10, 1/640th sec., IS0 400

Of course for small insects 0.5x doesn't cut it, so it was time to pull out the macro lens again which goes to 1x (actually 1.3x on the 1D). The 100mm macro is great for general close up photography as well as being an excellent portrait lens, but it's probably not the ideal focal length for this kind of stuff. You really have to be very close to the subject to get maximum magnification. If Canon ever comes out with an updated version of their great 180mm macro with the same hybrid IS that this lens has it will be tempting. Photographing insects isn't a serious pursuit of mine, and this light little lens serves me perfectly well. Even though a longer macro lens would isolate the subject from the background better in addition to giving more working distance, you have to admit that the bokeh in the somewhat cluttered background here is very nice from the 100mm L IS macro.

Sedge Meadow
Canon 1D MarkIV, Canon 14mm f2.8L II lens
f8, 1/400th sec., ISO 200

By late afternoon I realized I had used all my lenses except my fun one, the 14mm. I really should have come up with something more interesting with this lens, but I went back to this spot from the morning where there weren't a lot of options. This is the same meadow at the end of the day where the second photo from the top of the page was taken earlier in the day covered with webs. One thing with ultrawides to try to avoid is including your shadow in the photo. To avoid that and show the grasses I had to get my feet wet and wander into the mess, flushing some Soras along the way. It looks like an area where a Yellow Rail could potentially turn up too.

North End of Deer Creek Reservoir
Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 70-300mm f4-5.6L IS lens at 177mm
f9, 1/50th sec., ISO 400

One last shot at the end of the day in the last rays of sunlight on the way home passing by the north end of the reservoir. Trees have just started to turn colors here. The reservoir is still completely full with no mudflats yet appearing. This scene will look a lot different in a month. If you're looking at this wishing for more reflection in the water, you're not missing anything. I tried some photos like that here but there was too much flotsam and jetsam in the water for that nice serene look.