Blue river with snow on both shallow banks, small mountain in the background.

New Year Snow 2015

Scenes of a riverbank and nearby fields January 2-5, 2015. Soundtrack from “Relaxing Music” by Sławomir Królik, chafer on SoundCloud (https://soundcloud.com/chafer). Hear the full version embedded below.

The first two nights of the New Year, 2015, we had heavy snowfall in Ritto City, Shiga Prefecture, Japan. Nearby fields and the Yasugawa riverbank were covered with nearly 30cm of snow, the most we have seen in more than 30 years. Each day it was warm and sunny and nearly silent, with few cars and trains running slowly. January 2nd and 3rd were the quietest days that I have experienced here in Ritto City.

Birds were quite active. Pigeons, wagtails, starlings, and sparrows were feeding wherever vegetation appeared through the snow. Black kites were soaring, and cormorants, egrets, herons, and a kingfisher were catching fish as usual.

There were only a few signs of other wildlife. I saw the tracks of a fox and and a weasel, but, other than small birds and a little egret in a field, the only other tracks were made by a few humans and dogs. In the deep snow on the riverbed below Yasugawa Ohashi, the Japan Route 8 bridge, the only tracks I saw were mine.

Production notes

Photos and video clips were taken with an Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera and a Tamron C001 14-150mm zoom lens.

Postproduction was done on a Lenovo ThinkStation S20 running the CentOS 7 operating system. Software included:

  • Audacity (audio editing)
  • digiKam (photo management and editing)
  • FFmpeg (video file processing, driven with shell scripts)
  • GNU Emacs (text and shell script editing)
  • OpenShot (video editing)

Relaxing Music by Sławomir Królik (chafer)

Audio-Technica BP4025 mic and Tascam DR-70D recorder at a window at night

New Year 2015 Temple Bells and Fireworks

Since there was a light rain this New Year’s Eve, I recorded from my house by placing a stereo microphone in a window facing North toward the nearest Buddhist temple. Nearby houses reflect sounds, so the sense of space may seem distorted in the recording.

The view north from my house in Ritto City

The view north from my house in Ritto City

This was my first time to use a new audio recorder, a DR-70D. This recorder is designed for DSLR video recording, so it works well on a tripod, with or without a camera, and it offers a variety of input and output options.

I bought this recorder rather than its 2-track sibling (DR-60DMkII) because it can record four tracks at the same time, and it has a dual recording mode, which creates two stereo files from one stereo source. I fed the stereo output from an Audio-Technica BP4025 microphone to tracks 1 and 2 and used tracks 3 and 4 for a second stereo file recorded simultaneously at a lower level (in this case -12dB). I expected loud fireworks at midnight, so I kept the input levels somewhat low (mic sense high, input level knobs at about 10 o’clock); however, I had no way to know how loud the fireworks would be. Fortunately, I did not need the second file because the highest level was -2.2dB. If I had set the input levels slightly higher, I would have needed the second file.

The sonic environment in Japan often covers a huge dynamic range, with relatively quiet scenes punctuated by extremely loud sounds of thunder, fireworks, drums, street vendors, noisy cars and motorcycles, etc. For example, you can search my posts for fireworks.

We cannot fully reproduce the great dynamic range or the visceral experience of hearing thunder or large taiko drums, but in this extreme sonic environment dual recording capability greatly eases the anxiety of field recording.

Kingfisher on a branch at Yasugawa in Ritto City, Japan

Kingfisher Movie

This movie includes video clips and still photographs of a kingfisher at Yasugawa in Shiga Prefecture, Japan. All scenes show the same bird photographed in Deba, Ritto City, December 21-30, 2014. (Actually, the bird may be hunting in Yasu City since it’s on the north bank of the river.) Nearly every day I walked to the river and spent at least two hours waiting for the kingfisher to appear. Now and then I searched for the bird along my side of river, but most of the time I sat quietly.

Until this month I could not have imagined spending several hours a day trying to photograph one little bird, mostly sitting quietly and waiting. As you know if you follow me on Twitter (https://twitter.com/glpjp/), I experienced much more than I had anticipated, including hours of watching wagtails, Eurasian wigeons, and black kites, and even an encounter with a nutria.

I grew up on an apple orchard along the Okanogan River in North Central Washington State (USA). For half a century I’ve known that sitting quietly and vigilantly near a river can bring great rewards, but it’s easy to forget such childhood lessons as concerns of the human world desensitize us to our natural environment. I can see that clearly among the people who walk along the riverbank. Every day at least a dozen people take walks there every afternoon, some with dogs and some for their health. Nearly all of those without dogs appear to look straight ahead as they walk.

As I was leaving the riverbank on December 29th, a neighbor lady asked as she approached, “Did you catch any fish?” I said, “No, I’ve been watching a kingfisher.” She’d thought I was fishing because I’d been sitting quietly next to the river, and she was surprised to hear that a kingfisher lived nearby. I tried to show her the bird, which was then a little orange spot on the other side the river. She said, “Oh, sorry, I don’t have my glasses,” as she hurried away.

The beautiful music soundtrack, “Romantic Music – A Magic Morning” was composed and performed by Lionel Schmitt (http://soundcloud.com/lionel-schmitt). The music seemed to be such a perfect match that I adjusted the video track to match the duration of the piece (2:08). Thank you, Lionel, for sharing your creative work! Lionel Schmitt’s music and the movie are both released under Creative Commons Attribution (CC-By) licenses.

Great white egrets in Yasugawa

Great White Egrets

On 22 December 2014 I spent the afternoon at Yasugawa near my home. A chilly southwest wind and a clear sky made the winter light very nice.

At first there was no activity besides a few crows and a kingfisher that flew along the river and disappeared in some bushes along the bank. For over an hour I saw only some sparrows and wagtails, a couple of Eurasian wigeons, and a Northern shoveler.

I was thinking about leaving when I saw some great white egrets (Egretta alba) about 150 meters upstream. As I was focusing my lens, the birds flew away. Then I saw five of them circling overhead. I remained motionless, and four of them landed in the river right in front of me.

As one of the egrets walked toward me, it nearly filled the frame of my viewfinder as it turned and faced south.

Two stood closely together, also facing south for a while.

As the sky became overcast, they flew over to the Yasu side of the river, where some cormorants and herons were standing. One stayed behind for a few minutes and finally flew to join the other birds.

When I left my house, I was determined to make video recordings of the kingfisher that I’d photographed the day before (Kingfisher in Flight). I saw the kingfisher briefly, but it did not go to its its hunting spot.

The great white herons were a wonderful surprise. The few that remain in this area usually stay very close to the riverbank, too far away to photograph. Once again nature has blessed me and rewarded patient vigilance with great and unexpected beauty.

Kingfisher emerging from Yasugawa with fish

Kingfisher in Flight

In a previous post, Waiting for a Kingfisher, I wrote that I wanted to photograph a kingfisher in flight. On Sunday, 21 December 2014, the bird reappeared at its hunting site, and I was able to take a few photos.

This bird typically hunts from a rock along a shallow stretch of Yasugawa a few hundred meters upstream from Yasugawa Ohashi, the Japan Route 8 bridge between Ritto City and Yasu City in Shiga Prefecture, Japan. It sits for a while, from a few seconds to twenty minutes or longer, and then suddenly flies up over the river, darts to the left or right, and hovers. Just as suddenly it dives into the water, eyes on its prey as it falls.

Catching a kingfisher in flight presents two interesting challenges. First is just finding the bird after it leaves its resting spot. So far I’ve been unable to predict the direction the kingfisher will take after it rises up to begin hovering. First it goes straight up, and then it sometimes darts to the right, sometimes to the left. It seems to rise to a similar height each time, so I am learning how far to tilt the camera. Panning is harder to anticipate.

The second challenge is trying to keep up with the bird’s dive and catch. The transition from hover to dive can occur suddenly at any time. On December 21st I was able to take photos of two catches after the bird emerged from the river, but I saw only one dive.

I took these photos with an Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera and an old (1986) OM-System Zuiko Auto-T 300mm/f4 manual focus lens with an OM Adapter MF-2. I tried a few shots with the digital teleconverter, which effectively doubles the focal length, but I could not follow the bird at that magnification. Most photos were taken at ISO 200 although I had to use ISO 400 when the sky became overcast. Exposure was 1/400 sec at f8 or f5.6. I prefer to use this lens at f11, where it seems sharpest, or even f16 for a more forgiving depth of field. The camera is mounted on a Velbon Sherpa 545 II tripod with a Velbon FHD-65D fluid head made for DSLR video. The fluid head enables me to tilt and pan while keeping the camera firmly mounted and level.

I think the next challenge is a full action sequence: resting, rising, hovering, diving, entering the water, emerging with a fish, flying back to base, eating, and back to resting. For that I may need to shoot movies. Probably it will take a while.