Land

When I was a boy my dad would to take us to sit on the roof terrace of the E.T. Joshua airport and just watch the four and six seater propeller planes land and takeoff. The airport was in the aptly named Arnos Vale.

The Tuesday Photo Challenge is a weekly theme-based challenge for photographers of all kinds to share both new and old photography. This week's theme is "land".

Saturday

Growing up, Dad had this thing for dragging us kids to the airport. Perched on the rooftop deck of the E.T. Joshua Airport, we'd watch these four and six-seater dual-prop beauties zip in and out. The airport in Arnos Vale had its charm. At home in Dorsetshire Hill, using Dad's trusty binoculars, we'd spot these planes making their way in from the Caribbean Sea right from the house’s south-facing veranda. But there was something about being right there, at the airport. Maybe it was the roar of the propellers or the pungent whiff of jet fuel, but man, it just got to me. I loved every bit of it.

Yesterday was brutally cold and windy, with the mercury dipping to -2°C. The wind chill made it feel more like a bitter -6°C. Despite the weather, I headed over to Princeton Airport, despite the chill. The cold was still biting even under my wool coat, multiple layers, thick socks, gloves, a hat, and a hoodie.

When I arrived, I went straight to the reception at Princeton Airport and met two gentlemen there, Steve and Parth.

Earlier this week, I emailed the airport and got the green light to snap pictures of the planes for the Tuesday Photo Challenge. So, Steve and Parth handed me an airport map, pointing out the safe spots to stand and shoot. They wanted to ensure I didn't get in the way of the student pilots.

From where I stood on the field, I had a clear view of the planes landing. My lens of choice was the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8, but it didn't take me long to realise it didn't have the reach I needed. Through my viewfinder, the planes were like distant birds nearing the runway. With my sightline level with the planes, they practically vanished into the scrubby horizon as they touched down. Safe to say, it wasn't quite going to plan.

I decided to switch it up and moved to the runway's far end, hugging the airport's southern fence. My shots improved, but the lack of zoom was still biting me. I might've been in better shape if I had been nearer the landing strip or had a telephoto lens. Anyway, I did manage to snag one decent shot, which I posted.

Sunday

Dark-eyed junco
Dark-eyed junco · Sunday 5 February 2017 · Nikon D5100 at 1/1000 sec, ISO 250 · AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G at f/1.8

I found myself standing, lost in thought, by the kitchen window. I had just brewed a pot of freshly ground coffee, savouring the distinct taste of South American beans. I watched the small birds zig-zagging between the trees and the pair of bird feeders I had installed some years back. Bhavna often points out that I've now taken on the role of guardian for these feathered creatures, constantly reminding me to keep the feeders stocked.

I wanted to set up a laser-based camera trigger to capture bird photographs. Unfortunately, the Kickstarter project I backed to produce the laser-guided system shut down last week. Their initial project was unsuccessful, and it seems they never bounced back. Consequently, my bird project never took flight (pun intended). I was disappointed and angry.

Bhavna was under the weather this weekend. But this morning, as she awoke, I enthusiastically pointed out the spectacle of about a dozen birds feasting outside our kitchen window. She turned to me and said, "You know, birds make landings too". That revelation astounded me! Why hadn't that thought crossed my mind?

With renewed excitement, I positioned my camera next to the sliding door and started capturing photos. I managed to take around two hundred shots in total, not an easy task considering how swiftly these small birds move. Many of my frames were empty; many images were blurry. I increased the shutter speed and carried on. The focus isn't perfect, and the depth of field is quite narrow, but I captured one excellent image of a bird landing within that hour.

The bird in the picture is a sparrow known as the Dark-eyed Junco. I uploaded the photo to the Merlin Bird ID app for confirmation from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Great Swamp Watershed National Wildlife Refuge

In early November, I visited the Great Swamp Watershed National Wildlife Refuge in Morristown for the first time. The Photografriends meetup group organised a photo walk, and when I left home that morning, about ten people had registered. But only two of us showed up; myself and Howard Hoffman, an amateur photographer from Verona.

Northern Harrier Hawk
Northern Harrier Hawk | Sunday 6 November, 2016 | Nikon D5100 | 150-600 mm f/5-6.3 @ 250 mm | 1/1250 sec at f/5.3 | ISO 320

Howard and I hung out at the visitor centre for a few minutes, discussing which part of the refuge might be interesting this time of the year. One of the staff at the visitor centre warned us that due to a severe drought affecting the northern part of the state, the water level was shallow. The Great Swamp Watershed creatures would be hard to find, and that the birds had a tough time finding fish and other food.

Northern Harrier Hawk
Northern Harrier Hawk | Sunday 6 November, 2016 | Nikon D5100 | 150-600 mm f/5-6.3 @ 600 mm | 1/1250 sec at f/6.3 | ISO 100

If you know what type of birds these are, please respond in the comments.

Getting up close to wild animals without spooking them is difficult and, in some cases -- e.g. bears -- not recommended. A photographer needs a long-range zoom for nature and wildlife photography that provides a broad focal range to capture subjects at a great distance. I don't own such a lens. For this field trip I rented a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary for Nikon. On my Nikon D5100, the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary offers the near equivalent focal length of a 225-900mm lens on a 35mm full-frame body. The Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens is heavy! It was a coincidence, but Howard owned this lens and had it attached to his camera. I explained my inexperience, and he patiently offered a quick tutorial on using the lens.

The most popular places to see birds and mammals are Pleasant Plains Road and the wildlife observation blinds at the Wildlife Observation Center. For viewing reptiles and amphibians, the boardwalks at the Wildlife Observation Center is the best area. Given our limited time, Howard and I decided to try the drive along Pleasant Plains Road.

On our first stop, we noticed someone spotting through binoculars, so we stopped hoping for something. It took a long time, but we spotted a bird hunting something in the brush far away along the tree line. I struggled to operate the lens while tracking the bird and pushing the shutter button.

Northern Harrier
Northern Harrier Hawk | Sunday 6 November, 2016 | Nikon D5100 | 150-600 mm f/5-6.3 @ 600 mm | 1/1600 sec at f/9.0 | ISO 1100

We waited at this spot for a while before continuing our quest, moving onward a little further down the road. We had much better luck finding birds, but I still struggled using the lens. It's heavy; birds move quickly, and with my inexperience, I could not track and shoot as well as I had hoped. It was a very windy day, and most of the birds were flying into the wind. We were downwind, so I did not capture many "facial" images.

We found a field where a flock of small birds flew back and forth between a set of trees. Occasionally they would disappear into the brush. I can only assume they were feeding on some insects.

I had promised to see Marvel's Dr Strange with Shaan and Kiran, and I was tired and started to shiver from the chill wind. Around noon, Howard and I agreed to quit. We either had keepers or junk, but I think we both enjoyed sharing the experience.

I think Bhavna and the kids might enjoy a visit to the Great Swamp Watershed in the spring. I hope to be back with the camera, a lighter lens and improved skills.

Northern Harrier
Northern Harrier | Sunday 6 November, 2016 | Nikon D5100 | 150-600 mm f/5-6.3 @ 600 mm | 1/1600 sec at f/9.0 | ISO 900

Opportunity and preparedness

The planet Hoth must have sent a terraforming device to New Jersey last night. I'm not a big fan of snow, so I intended to go outside (except later to clear the driveway). Taking a photo of the bird feeder hanging above the deck in the backyard seemed a great idea.

I read somewhere that keeping a feeder during the winter helps the smaller birds. Hopefully, they will feed here in winter, remember, and return in the spring.

As I fired off a shot or two, I noticed a bird sitting on the branch just above the bird feeder. Opportunity and preparedness?

Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis
Dark-eyed Junco · Wednesday 21 March 2018 · Canon EOS 5D Mark III at 1/1000 sec, ISO 800 · EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM at 200 mm at f/6.3