The Great Journey in Photography

Posts tagged “Brown Pelican

Crunchy Thin Shell

Brown Pelican takes flight

OK, so I am going to get all technical on you today. Recently I heard a very informed person mention the Brown Pelican was not hurt by the chemical DDT which was banned back in the ’70’s. While this is technically true in that the birds themselves were not effected by the chemical in the environment, there was, it is thought, a significant impact on the population. I thought another person duped by clever manipulation of the facts. Rather than making the birds sick the chemical is thought to cause significant thinning of the egg shells (about 12%) of many bird species including the Brown Pelican. After a moment of satisfaction on my part, the informed person caught himself and stated just that, but then went on to say that even the thin shell theory is subject to debate. That led me think it may be true that the evil chemical DDT did not cause the thinning of the egg shells either. Let’ take a closer look.

On Nov. 17, 2009 the Department of the Interior removed the Brown Pelican from the Federal list of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. The 29 page document goes into great detail about the measures taken to help the Brown, population changes, and even the impact of global climate change, but I did not find any reference to DDT or any other toxin once thought to be the primary cause of threatening the existence of the Pelican. During the time of protection many steps were taken to support the birds, creation of natural habitats, responsible management of oil spills were 2 large factors. Not only did the government take actions to stop the things leading to population decreases but created factors to increase populations. It worked. Still I thought it odd the main culprits not referenced in the document. A little more research uncovered some facts about DDT and the impact on egg shells.

First of all DDT actually has no effect on the eggshells is in fact thought to be a compound known as DDE (Dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene) a by-product of DDT that is stored in the body fat of raptors and waterfowl. There is a measured correlation of DDE levels and shell thickness but also there is conflicting data. For example the Brown Pelican shells improved with the removal of DDT from the environment but after 40 years of the chemical being banned, California Condors still suffer from thin shells. It is thought that 6-10 years is required to flush traces thought the environment. It is even admitted the DDE damage is a hit and miss effect completely unchanging many bird species, in particular domestic breeds.

So yeah it is subject to debate, not only if it causes shell thinning but also how the DDE is introduced to the birds that are impacted.

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Call to the Wild

Brown Pelican Checking under the hood

300mm f4.5 250iso 1/1,250sec

The other day I was playing around with bird song sounds. For the most part I am not in favor of using manufactured sounds to change the behavior of the animals but I have been curious. It is easy enough to do. The iPad app iBird Pro has call sounds for every bird listed that can be played in a continuous loop. The goal of playing the sounds is to attract birds of the same species by either sending a mating call or some other call that will peak their curiosity. I had a slightly different strategy. I wanted to attract birds that I rarely see, birds that I know are out there in very small numbers. I didn’t get any of those birds to show but it modified the behavior of all the other birds in ways that I never would have thought of. The common birds like sparrows and finches actually gave me the perfect opportunity to photograph them. The stopped eating and hopped up to the strategic branches and just looked around, more birds available to photograph at one time than I have ever seen. Oddly enough, when I did play sparrow and finch song it had little effect.

Passing Time


350mm f6.3 250iso 1/2000sec

snowyEgretatBolsa Chica

420mm f6.3 250iso 1/2500sec

Tuning up with the old Tamron 200-500 lens. I have probably spent the most hours of shooting time with the old Tammy but in the last few years it was rarely used. It appears that as I have become a more mature, experienced bird shooter the old warhorse has become more forgiving and easy to use. maybe it is because it is so light, maybe it really a lot better than I ever believed but whatever the case that piece of glass was a breeze. The first thing I did was go straight to what it does best, short distance portraits. There is no doubt that at short (down to around 7″) focus distances the Tamron works best and also works very well at 500mm focal length. It is the lightest long lens I have  used and all of a sudden that is a serious plus. Sometimes folks it is best to go for what you know.

This one is for you Old Girl. God Bless

This one is for you Old Girl.
God Bless

The “A” Word

Brown Pelican

500mm f9.0 250iso 1/750sec

Aperture. There I said it. Probably the most misunderstood concept in photography and why not, large is small, letters and numbers living together. The world is upside down. It makes as much sense as a politician at confession. Ahh, but it makes perfect sense and maybe that is the problem, logic can be hard to follow at times. First of all large number means a small aperture. Aperture is the size of the opening that lets light into your camera and onto the sensor or film. So why in the world would one want to change the amount of light going into the camera? Wouldn’t it be best to have as much light as possible all the time? That actually makes a lot of sense except for the fact that optics also have the size of the aperture controlling the portions of the scene that are in focus, also known as depth of field. The smaller the aperture, the less light but also the larger amount of area in the scene you are photographing that will be in focus. You can read more about depth of field in my previous post “A fine line Between Clever and Stupid“. Often we hear about a photographer who shoots “wide open” This means that photographer likes to shoot at the widest aperture (small f-number) letting the maximum amount of light in the camera and the least amount of the scene in focus. That tends to lead the viewer right to the subject of the photograph.

So now lets bring it all back to bird photography because as you might imagine aperture takes on a different level of importance for us. Some of the time we have little choice. You will have to shoot wide open just to have enough shutter speed to make a shot. Often the case when making birds in flight photos. The silver lining when backed against the wall like this is that you are also rarely very close to the subject and thus a razor-thin depth of field is less of a concern. When shooting slow moving and stationary birds it is important to increase that f-number (making a smaller aperture) to increase the depth of field so that you will be sure to get everything you want in focus. As you get closer to the subject this becomes more important. For example, if you are making a portrait of a Brown pelican and want to have the tip of its bill and the eyes in focus you are going to need to go with a very high f-number for the aperture setting. With a 500mm lens you will need to stop down to about f16-f20 to get the shot you need.

So the moral of today’s post. “There is no set it and forget it” when it comes to aperture so make sure you are confident in knowing how your aperture setting is going to affect your image and be mindful of your f values every time you change the scene.

The Best Medicine

Brown Pelican Portrait

You know, it happens to everyone at some time. Everyone falls into the funk. I’m not talking about Rick James(RIP) at the Roxy either, it’s that thing that prevents you from making great photographs. “I don’t have time, I don’t have the right gear, I can’t do anything right, Blaah, Blaah, Blaah, Funk, Funk, Funk, no one is immune. Well today I am going to give you a sure-fire remedy to kill the funk.

If you don’t have one go out and build a portfolio, no more than six images. Get yourself plenty of time and review every one of your photographs and pick out the best ones and explain to yourself why they are the best then ask What will make it better? Can I process it out better? and is it worthy of a portfolio? If you have a portfolio do a refresh. Since one of the goals of this exercise is to not overwhelm yourself don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you have a large body of work maybe just review one day and maybe just look for one photo that could be portfolio worthy. Take the time to stroll down memory lane, every picture has a story, relive those stories, even if just for a moment. Then work on different ways to process a few photos. Hopefully you will get lost in playing around, seeing things a different way, and just plain having fun. There is only one catch, you have to be sincere in you actions, no biggie, I kind of assume you all are anyway. Chances are you won’t find a suitable replacement but don’t worry about that you are not really looking for that anyhow. what you need is a distraction and something to get you excited about making better photos.


Thanks for reading everyone. If you have an iPad remember to download my new application wildlife HD It’s free for a limited time.

Revenge at Jurrassic Park

White Pelican at Bolsa Chica

420mm f8.0 250iso 1/2,000sec

Between the extremely hot weather and a sudden spike in gasoline prices October was on a whole a dismal month. I was finally able to get out towards the end and was rewarded with a special treat. I have to measure in years the last time I was able to photograph White Pelicans but there it was bigger then you know what, a pair of American Whites cruising down a waterway during an extreme low tide which I had also not seen in a long while. Even during the good times I would usually only see the occasional White mixed in with a bunch of Browns. I heard that the day before there were about two dozen of the huge birds in the very spot I had just been.  I made my business and took off North.  Further down the trail at another clearing I happened upon the balance of the Pelicans, really only about ten or twelve but still something I never seen before, never so many White Pelicans at one time.

I have learned a lot about bird behavior since I had last seen these guys and the very first thing that hit my mind was how much larger than the Browns they were. With out checking I would say they are about one to two feet longer wingspan, up to ten feet, and about one to two pounds heavier. The Brown is the smallest of all pelicans and the White towards the largest so the difference is noticeable. The other and probably as dramatic a difference is the way they feed. Remember the Brown is the only pelican that dives into the water to feed. The others, including the White, just float on the water like a swan popping their heads in the water from time to time and swallowing what ever comes up. Several moments had the big birds flying by me just above eye level. Deep into the olden hour I was able to make some pictures that made up for the entire month. The funnest moment of the day was watching the two species interact, or rather co-exist. The Whites hanging out in groups literally herding the fish popping their heads in and out of the water and taking off every few minutes to stretch their wings and the Browns buzzing right by them just off the deck and splashing almost tumbling into the water to grab a fish. Such a contrast but each with its own air of elegance.

Thanks for stopping by and until next week – Be Good.

Digital Editing Basics

split view Brown Pelican

Before and after basic RAW image processing

I always say that given the choice you should almost always shoot RAW. RAW is a format, usually proprietary  to the manufacturer, that holds much more data than the optional Jpeg format. RAW images however are minimally processed. What does that mean? Well it means that your new image is not tuned, it will almost never look the same as it does on the back of the camera, and sometimes it means that you will pass on processing the photo because it does not look very good. RAW images contain more data though and in the end will process to better quality than Jpeg images. Processing RAW data is a pretty straight forward procedure all you need is some sort of converter. Manufactures often bundle a basic converter with the camera and sell stand alone editing software for additional cost, and there are the big third party processors, Adobe and Apple Aperture. I use two Adobe products Lightroom and Photoshop, they both have Raw image converters built in with software known as Adobe Camera RAW (ACR). I use them both in concert and often use ACR features of both on one image. Allow me to explain.

I always import images into Lightroom, that is an organizational thing, I want my images stored, tagged, and key-worded right off the bat. Light- room has presets upon import and if you want to see your image just like it appeared on the back of your camera you can set it to display that way on import. I don’t often do that because most of the time I plan on processing to a bit more creative level and I am better off starting from the same baseline every time. You can also adjust one image and quickly apply the same adjustments to some or all of the other imported images with the click of a button. I do that sometimes but not really too often. What I do very often is pass the raw image off to Photoshop and start processing in the ACR module. I do this for one big reason, most of the time my bird photos get a dusting of NIK Color Effects Tonal Contrast and that is in Photoshop. Yeah, I know there are other ways to access NIK filters that may seem easier but this is what works best for me. So in ACR I do all the basic stuff, exposure, color temp, blacks, contrast, saturation, I also manually adjust highlights and shadows with adjustment brushes and will often enhance the blues and browns with luminescence adjustment. If the image has a lot of water in it I will usually set the white balance on the cool side at this point, then I save the adjustments and move back to Photoshop. There I will mask and paint in a warming filter on my subject and any highlights that are to be kissed by the sun. Those color balance changes are very subtle and a little bit goes a long way but it can really make a good photo great. Then it is off the the Tonal Contrast, starting at about one third of default settings and then only applied to the subject in most cases. Tonal contrast applied to water backgrounds looks really bad so be sure to use the selection tool to keep those parts original. Then it is back to Lightroom for a few last checks. This is where I will look at vibrance, sharpening, noise reduction, and any minor adjustments to make the histogram just right, then export as needed. This all may sound like a long convoluted way to process an image but I like it because at the end it is loaded in both Lightroom and Photoshop and it is in  Photoshop’s recent items list and that means I can do any additional editing from minor adjustments t big Photoshop projects in a snap, I can also save many of my clean up and color balance adjustments on separate layers that can be changed later. This whole process can be done in just a few minutes once you get it down.

I often hear others say things like “I only allow myself five minutes to process a photo” implicating it is not worthy of processing if it takes longer than that. That is a big load of crap, any one who limits their edit time, for what ever reason, is a fool. It takes as long as it takes and if you consider your work as art you need to work on it as long as it takes till it is finished.

Thanks for reading everyone, I am really glad you were able stop by. Live well.

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Lose the White Shoes

Brown Pelican art

Here in the states Labor day marks the unofficial end to Summer. For me it also marks that time when things start to happen in my bird photography. By now everyone is noticing that the days are getting shorter, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, but may also feel the golden hours are getting just a little more colorful. According to NOAA:

“Because air circulation is more sluggish during the summer, and because the photochemical reactions which result in the formation of smog and haze proceed most rapidly at that time of the year, late fall and winter are the most favored times for sunrise- and sunset-viewing over most of the United States.”

The transition starts in September, weather is changing and birds are on the move. Here in Southern California birds are migrating inbound for the Winter. We were blessed with an abundance of Brown Pelicans throughout the Summer this year, and now that number has doubled in my estimation. One place that I visit on a regular basis has once again become a Winter destination for large numbers of birds. The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve has had significant improvement in the last couple of years. With the exception of the rest room facilities the site is now clean, well maintained, with improved paths and fencing. The end result is clean fresh water, plenty of fish, and private areas for wildlife all of which tend to attract more birds and also lets them be a tad more friendly to humans. I must say that a couple of years ago the place was a dump, with trash and polluted water. Often it smelled of raw sewage. There is no doubt in my mind that the place became toxic to wildlife. I believe there is one school of thought that says that the foliage of the wetlands goes through natural cycles that makes the water undesirable at times, that may be true but at least for now the area is clean and fresh and migrating birds are moving in. I am seeing Big Browns, Blue Heron, Night Herons, Terns of all ilk, Ducks, Snowy and Great Egrets even the occasional Cattle Egret, Hawks, Osprey, and Turkey Vultures, all of whom seem to be just a little bit more friendly towards humans.

Early Sept. is also a great time to plan adventures for the Fall and Winter. It is never too early to book a workshop or tour and right about now is last call for many of the events available. It is also time to get the gear in order. Along with the wildlife Fall landscape photography is right around the corner. It pays to be prepared. I am looking forward to another season of great bird photography, hopefully I will be able to expand my horizons a little bit with trips to Channel Islands National Park, Bosque del Apache, and maybe even an adventure to Yellowstone, Costa Rica or Southern Florida.

Thanks so much for reading the blog. I am so happy to see that more of you are stopping by every week. I am blessed and I thank you.

You can see more of my work at

About-The Brown Pelican II

BrownPelican at Bolsa Chica

So every one know that the best time to photograph Brown Pelican is during breeding season right? Well yeah it is the best time but it is not the only time. Mating season is from Jan. through March but you will see breeding colors before and after those dates as nesting season can last up to eleven months. Juveniles are easily identified because they are pretty much all brown all the time with kind of fish scale look on the underside.

Browns have a couple of thing going for them as far as photography goes. They are easy to approach, they are large, and they are rather slow in flight except when diving. Probably the biggest problem when photographing these birds is the extremely long bill. It is the most distinctive feature and usually you will want to have the entire bill in the frame. With long lenses it is difficult to have the entire bill in focus along with the eyes. If you are interested in making a portrait head on, you are going to need to stop down to past f16 maybe around f20 and focus about one-third up the bill, otherwise you are best off to photograph with the bill in complete profile. That way depth of field issues are minimized. Aside from breeding plumage adult Browns tend to be rather grey and “washed out” to photograph. There are a couple of things I like to do to overcome that washed out look. I will generally compensate exposure by about -0.7, this will get those shadows a bit darker and minimize blown out highlights on the back of the neck (non-breeding), top of head, and feather edges. Also, try to photograph against blue colored backgrounds like water and blue sky. Overcast, clouds, soil, and foliage backgrounds just don’t compliment Pelicans so I say avoid them in general especially at non-breeding times.

A few other features that are interesting to photograph on these birds are the large webbed feet with four toes, spiked mohawk looking hair on the top of the head, tremendous wingspan, and interesting feather contrast on the underside. Then of course there is the legendary head throw that pelicans do. Preceding the throw Pelicans will squat down a bit and wrap their bills around its neck. A bit hard to describe but when you see it you will know it, and then the bill goes straight up in the air. It all happens remarkably fast and you will need to be trained in on the bird before it starts or you will be out of luck. Brown Pelicans also flap their wings at a deceiving fast rate. While the flight is slow the ends of the wings move up and down at a fair clip. Bif’s with shutter speeds of 700-800sec will often yield motion blur at the tips, 1,000-1,600sec will freeze the action.

As always thanks for reading and I hope you found this little bit about Brown Pelicans useful.

You can see more Pelican images at

About-The Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican take off

300mm f6.3 250iso 1/1,000sec

Every month or so I like to do an “about” post where I go into a little bit more detail about the behavior and photography tips for a specific bird. A few days ago I went rummaging through all my old post looking for the about post for the Brown Pelican to find some info for another project. Much to my surprise there is no about post for the one bird that I have photographed and studied far more than any other. Today I preset the Brown Pelican a bird that has been in existence since the time of the Dinosaurs.

Once on the brink of extinction in the 1970’s the Brown Pelican population dwindled to just a few thousand mostly due to the chemical DDT. DDT did not harm the birds outright but led to the females laying eggs with thin, fragile shells. They were put on the endangered species list in 1972 and since then have grown in numbers to over 650,000 and were removed from the list in 1988. Big Brown gets its name because it is the only Pelican that is not white in color, of course it is brown for the most part but in breeding plumage turns dramatic shades of red, green, orange, and brown. They are found on both coasts of North America in largest numbers toward the South. Here on the West coast most of the Brown Pelicans nest in Mexico, Baja California to be specific, with a select few breeding in the Channel Islands near Santa Barbara California. They are also the only Pelican that dives into the water to fish sometimes from heights of over twenty feet. Pelicans can hold over 2.5 gallons of liquid in their bill so all the others just sort of scoop up a bunch of water filtering out the fish and swallowing them. Browns are good-natured. You will rarely see them fighting or in competition and are fairly approachable to photograph. There is usually one in every crowd that you can get almost close enough to touch.

They very large bird by most standards often with a wingspan over 8 feet, but actually are the smallest of all Pelicans. By the way, there are a total of 8 different named Pelicans around the world. The largest is the Dalmatian Pelican of Greece that has wing spans up to 10 feet. Big Brown eats only fish, preferring menhaden, so you will only find them around large bodies of water and they are unmistakably a sea-bird with large webbed feet that literally walk on water for a short time when taking off. The very long bill and pouch are the most striking features of Pelicans and for the Brown, the most colorful. In breeding season you will see a green and red pouch with white, red and yellow bill.

Brown Pelican at Lajolla Cove

Next week-It’s all about photographing the Brown Pelican so check back in 7 days.

Until then, Caio.