Saturday, April 30, 2005

DVD Reviews

Since I'm going to be away from home for 90 percent of the time through mid-August, I had my cable TV disconnected. But the 10 percent of the time when I am home, it's tough to be without ESPN and the Discovery Channel. The only shows I watch on channels that I can get over the air are NFL Football and The Simpsons, and football it out of season. This weekend I had the benefit of a couple of DVD's that I hadn't viewed yet.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is selling America's Wildest Places - Volume 1, A Video Tour of Eight National Wildlife Refuges. Total running time is two hours, and the price with shipping is a very reasonable $6 each plus $2.50 for shipping. They also throw in a map showing the location of the 500+ refuges in the U.S.

The eight features are:

  • Aransas and Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuges, Texas.
  • Caribbean Islands in Peril, U.S. Caribbean territories.
  • Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge, Alabama/Georgia.
  • Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, Wisconsin.
  • John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, Pennsylvania.
  • Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.
  • Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, Indiana.
  • Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina.

If you are looking for Hollywood, you're not going to find it here. These are the type of videos that you're going to see in the visitor center to introduce you to the place. They are full of the type of information I would like to know before visiting (featured species, trails, driving loops), and there's also the occasional spectacular image. I have not visited any of these refuges, so if I ever do make it to any of them this DVD will help with the planning. Since they named it "Volume 1" perhaps there are more of these discs in the works.

These videos reinforced something I was aware of before: Many National Wildlife Refuges in the lower 48 states do not have a pristine history. In many cases FWS reclaimed agricultural land that had been extensively reshaped. Pocosin Lakes is an example of an area that was abused for a century before it was reclaimed. FWS puts a lot of work into these refuges to provide attractive habitat to wildlife, but that does not mean they restore it to a fully natural condition. Because much of the surrounding land has been developed, it may be impossible to do so. Managing water levels is not natural, but it is necessary.

I have one nitpick – some stock footage was used. I suppose if your refuge gets a lot of warblers and you need video of a warbler as an illustration, you can claim it doesn't matter where the video was shot. The most obvious example was a red-tailed hawk with three chicks shown toward the end of the Muscatatuck video, then again a few minutes later at the beginning of the Pocosin video. Were these hawks in Indiana, North Carolina, or somewhere else? I realize the FWS has a limited budget and these videos aren't intended to be documentaries, but I found it distracting.

The second video I viewed this weekend is Bears, which was originally shown in IMAX theatres. This is a Hollywood (or Burbank) production from Slingshot Entertainment, and it contains the stunning images you expect from an IMAX film. Bear species from other parts of the world are mentioned, but the primary focus is on the black, brown and polar bears of North America.

Bonus features include "Bear Wars" about the controversy surrounding the reintroduction of griz into the Bitterroot Mountains in Idaho and Montana, "Wild on the Set" showing how tame black bears were used for some of the sequences in the main feature, and "Making of" in which one of the suits behind the movie said the shooting plan was to get as much footage of wild bears as possible. Except for the tame black bear sequence, of course. Once again, I nitpick.

Despite these minor points, I would watch these videos 1,000 times each before sitting through any of the disgusting reality shows that pass for "major" network "programming" these days. In summary, two thumbs up!

Wednesday, April 27, 2005


In his last 20 starts, 2004 AL Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana of the Twins is 17-0, three short of the American League record held by Roger Clemens. His most recent victory was 2-1 over the sad-sack Royals last night, a game I witnessed in Kansas City. Jose Lima pitched well for the Royals but got no support. (Strangely enough, Lima also pitched the last game I saw in Kansas City several years ago when he was with the Astros.)

Between the two of them, Santana and Lima struck out 12 but also induced more soft popups than I've ever seen in a game. I think there were two hard-hit balls all night. The game-winning hit was a blooper that got over the 2nd baseman's glove by two inches.

Santana looks like the real deal. I suppose the last time I saw a pitcher dominate like that was when Pedro the Punk was in his prime back in '99.

The Royals though are another matter. The season already seems hopeless and it's still April. I was checking the schedule to see what other games I might be able to make it to this year – the weekend of May 14, the Devil Rays come to town. Plenty of good seats still available, I'm sure. The Rangers and a return visit by the Twins are slightly more promising.

Oh, for the glory days of George Brett and Bye Bye Balboni.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Fat Blackbird

My routine now when preparing for either a short trip or a long detail is to research the National Wildlife Refuges near the destination. My Kansas City summer (17 weeks through mid-August) is underway, and Squaw Creek came across as the most promising of the nearby refuges. I rented a car in downtown Kansas City Saturday and drove 90 miles up I-29 to the Mound City area. The refuge is three miles west of Exit 79 between the highway and the Missouri River.

Fat Blackbird

The best time to visit the refuge apparently would be in late November when an estimated 400,000 snow geese, 100,000 ducks, and 300 bald ealges migrate through. There's southern migration of the waterfowl in the spring, but there were only a few snow and Canada geese around so apparently I was late for that. There were plenty of red-winged blackbirds, and maybe it was my imagination but they seemed to be a lot fatter than the blackbirds I've seen elsewhere.

There is a 10-mile gravel road that loops through the refuge past ponds, fields and woods. There are three bald eagle nests located at the northwest corner of the loop near the intersection of the road to Route 118. One of the three nests is active. It was difficult to see due to foliage, but an adult bald eagle was visible in the nest. The volunteer at headquarters said it is believed there are two eaglets.

I did two loops around the road and also saw a small flock of egrets, herons, a kingfisher, pheasants, woodpeckers, turkey vultures, cucks, coots, a bluejay, a cardinal, and a swallow-tailed butterfly. I didn't take any groundbreaking photos, but I have posted a few to a Missouri gallery that I'll be adding to this summer. All were taken with Canon 1D Mark II and 100-400 zoom. Ideally I convert Canon RAW files using Photoshop CS and make adjustments on my color-corrected monitor, but I don't have those tools available to me today. These are just JPGs with a few adjustments made in Paintshop Pro on a bad monitor. I'll post better versions next week.

Late April wasn't the optimal time to visit Squaw Creek and I'm not scheduled to be here during the waterfowl and eagle migration, but May and August are supposed to be good for shorebirds during their migrations.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Grapefruit Gallery

As I have mentioned, I went to spring training in Florida rather than Arizona in 2003 and 2004. I never posted any photos from those trips, reasoning that Florida is outside the scope of a web site called BaseballArizona. I'm feeling ecumenical now so I dug up some of those images.

Yogi '04.
Kevin Millar.
Kevin Millar '03.

In 2004 the only game I saw was between the Red Sox and the Yankees. I reside in the heart of Red Sox Nation and I prefer that the Bosox win the game (and the bench-clearing brawl) whenever they meet the Yankees, but the only baseball-related photo pinned to my bulletin board at work is of Yogi Berra taken before that spring game. Yogi transcends petty team loyalties.

It was a quick weekend trip and I didn't want to carry a lot of camera equipment. I took my Canon 1v film camera (on its last fling before it was sold) and the Tamron 28-300 lens. Because I hate scanning, I resolved to limit myself to one 36-shot roll of Fuji Superia 400 film, and I stuck by that limit. After visiting the "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, I only had 12 shots left for baseball. The last shot on the roll was Yogi standing next to the batting cage. The photo pinned to my bulletin board is the one that came back from the Eckerd photo lab.

Say what you will about the relative advantages of film versus digital, what finally drove me away from film was the drudgery of scanning. Color slides can be difficult, but color negatives are worse. It's just difficult to get the colors right. That's why I limited myself to one roll, and why I eventually sold the camera. My initial attempts to scan the negative resulted in a blueish Yogi. I set the image aside for two years before making another attempt this weekend. The full-sized version has been posted to a new Florida Baseball gallery along with some other photos I processed this weekend.

Also posted from that roll is Alex Rodriguez taking grounders at third base. Remember that the big story of spring 2004 was A-Rod joining the Yankees and switching to third base. Of course that's Derek Jeter lurking in the background at short.

I took my digital SLR to Red Sox spring training in 2003, so I actually have a lot more photos from that trip than the one in 2004. Pedro the Punk, D-Lo, Nomah and Grady are all gone now, but there's also a couple shots of guys who are actually still employed by the Red Sox two years later.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Is It Art?

One of my goals last month while visiting the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix was to get a few shots of hummingbirds. I saw several and got a few mediocre shots. But I also saw this little fellow hopping around in the underbrush. I got two quick shots before he completely disappeared, and the better of the two is posted here.


I guessed it was some sort of warbler. A couple of nice folks at the Yahoo group Yard Birds identified it as a Verdin. Web research indicates it related to warblers but more closely related to wrens. Verdins are tiny; some species of hummingbirds are larger. I suppose from a technical standpoint there are a few things wrong with the photo. The background is sort of cluttered, and there's a small branch in front of the bird. But the clutter is part of the environment, and it's such a cute little bird! I found a good Verdin photo at Birder's World Photo of the Week. [Link no longer available.] The photographer, John Afdem of Phoenix, got his image on a golf course.

"I simply can't understand how all those golfers can walk around oblivious to all these birds," John says. "Of course, to them, I'm the nut walking around with a camera taking pictures of birds!"

I don't labor under the illusion that I'm posting works of art here. I only claim to have decent camera equipment and some technical proficiency to use it. But there is art here, art created by some force called God or Nature or whatever. The art is in the subject. The past few years, I've tried to take notice of the little things around us and make a record.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Arizona and New Mexico

You figure Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is the place to see birds, and I did get some decent shots of hawks, cranes and geese there. I could claim I snapped this bird at such a locale, but actually I got it at an I-10 rest stop south of Phoenix. The markings on the wings suggest it is a woodpecker, but I have no idea what kind. Update: It seems to be a Gila woodpecker. There's no red spot on the head so it's either an adult female or a juvenile.

Gila Woodpecker

I didn't consider the two weeks in the Southwest (March 12-27) to be a "photo trip," but as usual I ended up posting more photos than expected, more than 50 including baseball. My SLR equipment for the trip was the Canon 1D Mark II, Canon 300 f4, 1.4x extender, and Tamron 28-300. The 300 focuses so close that it is almost a macro lens, and it was ideal in the butterfly house at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. With the occasional use of the 1.4x extender, the 300 did a decent job at Bosque del Apache, but something bigger and bulkier would have been better. "Bulkier" is why I don't have such a lens yet.

The Tamron is the worst lens I own. The optics don't measure up to my Canons, and comparing the Tamron's autofocusing to the 300's is like comparing a '79 Ford LTD to a '99 Benz. But compared to my other lenses, the Tamron is light, compact, and has the widest zoom range. It is capable of producing decent photos as long as I pay attention to the f-stop and don't shoot wide open. Because of the suspect autofocus, manual focusing is a good idea. This is feasible with baseball but would be a nightmare with other sports. All of the baseball photos were taken with the Tamron because I didn't want to lug around the 300. Baseball photos and an account of my first visit to Surprise Stadium appear separately on

I also carried the Canon S45 P&S camera, and the Canon ZR60 videocam. Both of those are useful at times. All the equipment went into my Lowepro backpack as a airplane carryon, but the battery chargers and transformers (five in all) went into a checked suitcase. American Airlines gave me a big scare by losing the suitcase on the way to Phoenix. Fortunately I had planned to spend the first night in Mesa rather than driving straight to New Mexico, so they delivered the suitcase to my motel at 3 a.m. In the future I might consider leaving the battery charger for the 1D Mark II at home. It would cost about $350 to replace, and the Mark II battery life is so much better than it was with the Mark I that two batteries got me through two weeks without recharging.

I'm also planning to get back in the habit of packing a toothbrush and a change of underwear in my carryon.