Eastern Fox Squirrels

The eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) is the largest species of tree squirrel native to North America.  Despite the differences in size and coloration, they are sometimes mistaken for American Red Squirrels or Eastern Gray Squirrels in areas where both species co-exist.


Figure 1.  Typical colorations of the Eastern Fox Squirrel.

Typically the total body length measures 45 to 70 cm (17.7 to 27.6 in), tail length is 20 to 33 cm (7.9 to 13.0 in), and they range in weight from 500 to 1,000 grams (1.1 to 2.2 lb).  There are three distinct geographical phases in coloration: In most areas the animals upper body is brown-grey to brown-yellow with a typically brownish-orange underside, while in eastern regions such as the Appalachians there are more strikingly-patterned dark brown and black squirrels with white bands on the face and tail.


Figure 2.  Natural Range of the Eastern Fox Squirrel

We have a native population of the eastern fox squirrel here in Sun City-Hilton Head and I have observed and photographed these animals both here and on Callawassie Island.  The first two photos here are from Sun City-Hilton Head and the last two were taken on Callawassie Island.








These squirrels are fun to watch as they forage for nuts.  When they climb a tree their long “fingers” make them look like monkeys.









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Topaz Remask 5

Several years ago I took a marvelous close-up image of a great egret in full breeding colors during a trip to the Everglades.  This egret was almost tame and allowed me to get really close, so I was able to get a genuine portrait of him.  You know the routine—fine detail, perfect exposure, impeccable focus, excellent framing, and then you notice that background!

20080122_Everglades_057-EditI’m almost ashamed to show you what I brought home, but to make my point I must.  The shot did indeed have all the marvelous characteristics I named above, but my excitement with getting the shot generated tunnel vision so that I didn’t notice the bright green railing and the water and boats beyond until it was too late and I was already far away.

In the years since that bright green railing slammed me back to reality I have learned to look for distracting elements in the photo before clicking the shutter, but I don’t always have time or the freedom of movement to get a shot with a perfect background.  Despite warnings to perform a “border patrol” or to “count the corners” as part of the process of composing the image, sometimes you just have to take what you can get.  In those cases you have only one option, which is to try to clean up the background later in post-processing.

Adobe Photoshop offers the opportunity to replace entire backgrounds if one has the skill and perseverance to work with layers, but this is a skill which requires much patience and lots of practice.  I’ve tried it, but I’ll be honest—I gave up many times on this very photograph.  My hand with a mouse isn’t nearly steady enough to enable me to carve out the egret from this photo, and the margins always looked crude and artificial when I did try it.  I eventually bought a Wacom tablet to attempt finer control of the selection brush, but that method didn’t work for me either.  I found that I tried to use the Wacom pen like I’ve always used a mouse, and I never did unlearn those movements.  Long story short, I sold the Wacom tablet for about half what I paid for it, and I was glad to be rid of it.

But now I’ve found a solution which even I can make work pretty well.  In July I went to a workshop in Beaufort, SC sponsored by the Photography Club of Beaufort and taught by Kate Silvia of Charleston.  Kate demonstrated the Google Nik Collection and a few of the programs in the Topaz suite, and I was particularly taken with the capabilities of Topaz Impressions which I wrote about in my previous blog entry.  She also demonstrated the capabilities of Topaz Remask, and I decided this week that I should give Remask another try.  Remask 5 is a 64-bit program which functions just like Remask 4 as a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom, and Adobe Photoshop Elements.  The big news is that Remask 5 now also functions as a stand-alone program so that it can be used by photographers who don’t have either of those host programs.

20150203-065548I began a 30-day trial of Topaz Remask 5 to see what I could do with it.  After viewing a short You-Tube video I felt that I would be able to use the program, so I began the process.  My first trial naturally involved the egret photo above, and I picked a background image which I had shot at Donnelly Wildlife Management Area in February.

The background is an ordinary image without distinction, showing one of the small islands along the access road.  When I shot this image I was preparing to get closer to shoot some black-crested night herons that were roosting on the island, but I didn’t get any usable photos from that effort.  I kept the image, though, because it was sharp and had a tinge of the sunrise color washing across it.  This became my background for the new egret image.

In a surprisingly short time and with very little effort I was able to remove the distracting background from the original egret photo and replace it with the Donnelly WMA image.  I shifted the Donnelly image around, trying different orientations, and eventually settled on this combination for the final image.  I think it’s a pretty good portrait!


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Topaz Impression

I recently attended a workshop on Nik and Topaz plugins for Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom photoprocessing software, and I became interested in using Topaz Impression to convert some of my images to a “painterly” look.

Topz Impresssion makes this a simple process, providing many starting points (presets) which can then be modified at will, once the user learns the bells and whistles available in this software tool (toy?).  I applied the tool to several of my photos as a learning exercise, and here are some of the results.


Blue umbrellas at Folly Field Beach, in the style of Renoir


Blue umbrellas at Folly Field Beach, in the style of Monet.









Great Egret in the style of Cezanne


Great Egret in the style of Monet








Sailboat in the style of Cezanne


Sailboat in the style of Monet

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Herons I have known

Since coming to the Lowcountry I’ve expanded my circle of friends in the heron family.  Although I already knew the largest member of the family, I only recently became more closely acquainted with some of the smaller and less-well-known herons, including those sporting immature plumage.

GBH at Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, SCGreat Blue Heron.  This stately sentry met Billie and me at the entrance to Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge on our first visit there.  He stood at attention, just like the Palace Guards in Athens and London, while being photographed and he was still standing there when we left him to explore the island.  Unfortunately he had moved on when we returned.  Every time I visit Pinckney Island NWR I look for this heron, but I haven’t seen him since that first visit.

We see these wading birds fishing the lagoons in Sun City and I’ve seen Great Blues everywhere I’ve lived as well as in the UK.   Recently I licensed this photo for use on a wellness website in the UK.

Green HeronLittle Green Heron.  
I first met the Little Green Heron at Pinckney Island NWR, but since then I’ve found others in Boone (NC) at the Mayor’s Park, at Lake Somerset here at Sun City-Hilton Head, at Savannah NWR, at the Port Royal Wetlands Park, and on HHI at the Audobon Preserve.  Although much smaller than the Great Blue, this heron is just as beautiful and is a joy to watch as it intently hunts for a meal in the shallows.



Little Blue Heron (mature)Little Blue Heron.  This heron is found almost everywhere in the Lowcountry and in many locations elsewhere.  I’ve seen this heron in Costa Rica as well.  It is interesting to note that often the sightings of this heron are recorded incorrectly by novice birders because the immature Little Blue Heron is white.  Little Blue Heron (immature)Identification depends upon correctly noting the dark tip of the beak and the greenish legs of the white bird, thus distinguishing it from the white-bird-yellow-beak-black-legs Great Egret. Confusion of the two is easily (and often) done.



Yellow-Crowned Night Heron-1Yellow-Crowned Night Heron.  I met this heron last June at Fish Haul Beach Park on HHI as it was foraging for its breakfast among the skittering fiddler crabs.  This heron seems to be partial to these small crustaceans, and the feeding process is fascinating to watch.  Yellow-Crowned Night Heron feedingAs the heron selects its next victim it deftly bites off the large “fiddle” pincer before swallowing the rest of the morsel whole and then it quickly moves on to the next one. This process is well-practiced and proceeds quickly as the heron eats its fill.

I first met the Yellow-Crowned Night Heron in Costa Rica, but I didn’t observe any feeding habits of the bird there since I only saw it perching in a tree along the canal.  There is also a Black-Crowned Night Heron (with obvious differences in the plumage on its head), but I have not yet seen one.


Tri-colored HeronTricolored Heron.  I find the Tricolored Heron much less frequently than the other birds named here, but it is always thrilling to see this beautiful heron emerge from its stealthy hideout in the shallows along Fish Haul Beach Park or on Pinckney Island NWR.  It is not as large as the Great Blue but it is certainly striking to see the reddish head and neck, the blue-gray of the back and wings, and the white underbelly of this bird.  It’s one of my favorites.

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Snowy Egrets

We visited Fish Haul Beach Park yesterday afternoon, hoping to see some interesting birds or animals on the receding high tide.  It’s probably the wrong time of year for fiddler crabs and other tiny things, but we lucked into a few interesting snowy egrets and a tri-colored heron.

Frisky Snowy Egrets-1Just after we arrived at the observation deck we noticed a white wading bird in the shallows and, thinking it was an immature little blue heron, we watched a bit as it foraged.  Suddenly a pair of white waders came storming in and landed near the feeding bird, and a ruckus followed as the larger of the birds seemed to be chasing the other two.  The behavior seems to be classic courtship behavior of the birds, and I suppose that is exactly what is on the mind of the large bird.

Frisky Snowy Egrets-2

Frisky Snowy Egrets-3 Frisky Snowy Egrets-4 Frisky Snowy Egrets-5 Frisky Snowy Egrets-6

This behavior went on for a time while we watched.  The egrets jumping out of the water enabled us to identify the “golden slippers’ of all three egrets, a classic identification characteristic.



The smaller egrets, which we presumed to be females,  were quick to get out of the way of the big dude.




The plumage of the egrets was quite showy, and we felt very fortunate to have found this group.




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Foggy Cypress Tree

I was intrigued by an image of a cypress tree on our lagoon taken on a recent foggy morning, especially since it seems to render better in black and white tones than in color.  I have been trying different processing techniques using Lightroom 5.3 and the Google Nik Software Suite plugins for Lightroom, and the range of possibilities is actually quite large.

20140209-NIK-AEP-ClassicCameraThe original image was hampered by a second tree on the left which limited the available space to that side, so the composition was not ideal.  I couldn’t take the image again (at least not until there is another foggy morning), so I processed it with a severe crop on the left.  I used Lr 5.3 for the original conversion to b&w, and then I used Nik Silver Effects Pro and Nik Analog Effects Pro to achieve a “classic camera” look.  This image was posted on the web in several discussion forums where it got some positive comments, and the resulting image is pleasing but clearly would be stronger if the full tree were able to “breathe” on all sides.  Without a doubt the tree needs to be rid of that crowded feeling on the left, so I set out to remove the offending second tree.

20140209-Lr5.3BWI used Adobe Photoshop CC to clone out the  smaller tree, carefully removing branches which overlapped with the main subject cypress tree.  I settled on a 1:1 (square) crop for the image, and then adjusted exposure and contrast to produce a pleasing (to my eye) image which I then developed further using the Nik Software Suite.  This suite of plugins includes Silver Effects Pro which is designed to enable b&w processing much like the wet darkroom provided for film images, and I am learning to appreciate the range of possibilities available using this tool.

20140209-NIK-SEP-19-FineArtOne of my favorite features of the Nik Software is that it provides a large selection of presets which quickly give images with a particular look to them.  The image to the left was produced using the fine art preset, and while this image seems almost identical to the one produced in Lr 5.3, it is different in subtle ways with a smoothness to the foggy background which I like very much.  Incidentally, each of the images posted here can be seen in larger size simply by clicking on the image, and a larger image will open in a new window.








The two images above are produced using the soft sepia (left) and dark sepia (right) presets.








And these two images were produced using the Wet Rocks preset (left) and the Full Contrast and Structure preset (right).

Perhaps my favorite preset for this image is the Antique Plate preset, which produces the sepia-colored monochrome image below.


If you do your own image processing, I recommend that you try some b&w processing for appropriate images, and I recommend the Nik software Silver Effects Pro for processing monochrome images.  Give it a try–you’ll be carried back to memories of the days of stained fingers from your own chemical darkroom, but this time without the smell and stains!

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Cormorant Fishing in Sun City-Hilton Head

Recently The Atlantic ran a feature on the ancient Chinese custom of cormorant fishing.  Although now a dying art, Chinese fishermen have for thousands of years used trained cormorants to fish local lakes and rivers.  Today the practice is more and more restricted to performances for tourists, but I observed a fascinating example of this art just this week here in Sun City-Hilton Head (SC-HH).

The cormorant is very common here in the Lowcountry, and this time of year these water birds flock to the lagoons in SC-HH to feed as a group.  They are efficient fishers, swimming underwater to pursue fish they spot there.  Apparently the cormorant’s beak is the end for almost any fish in the lagoon, and I have heard from local fishermen that a flock of cormorants will “fish out” a lagoon in a week if not in just one day.  The interesting part of the story is that we humans aren’t the only ones to have noticed the cormorants’ efficiency as a fisher.  Large wading birds that routinely fish these lagoons from the shallows have learned to recognize that these visiting flocks of cormorants present a golden opportunity to get a good meal with relatively little effort.

As the cormorant flock moves from lagoon to lagoon within SC-HH they are 20140117-092030followed by dozens of great egrets and great blue herons, watching the cormorants and eagerly flying over the flock to seek out a catch that might be stolen.  Yesterday I observed the usual complement of egrets and herons accompanied by a pair of bald eagles, all watching the show and many of them looking to steal a meal from the master fisher cormorants.  The usual theft method involved surprise: herons and egrets would fly in a low approach over the flock of cormorants, watching for an unsuspecting cormorant to surface with its catch.

20140129-142043Many times the flyover yielded no steal opportunity, but when the lucky approach coincided with the surfacing of a cormorant with a large fish in its beak, the fun really began!  The lucky thief snatched the fish from the cormorant on the fly and was gone before the cormorant could react, but not before other herons or egrets could give chase and try to steal from the thief.  It was quite a show!

20140117-094611The only defense the cormorants have is to move on, and that is what they do.  It is a moving spectacle, with the shores of the lagoon lined with wading birds stretching their necks, watching for their opportunity to share in the harvest provided by the cormorants.  As the flock moves on, so do the dozens of wading birds that follow the flock to the next lagoon and so, presumably, do the eagles.  I did not see an eagle attempt to steal a fish from a rising cormorant, but the pair certainly demonstrated a keen interest in the spectacle in our lagoon.  This was, incidentally, only the second time I had seen a bald eagle flying over our home and it was quite exciting to see a pair of them, wheeling about the lagoon and just above our patio.  I was so enthralled with watching them that I forgot to take a picture!

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A New Year!  New calendar pages, new opportunities, and new friends to meet.

Billie and I have had a whirlwind 2013 in which we dealt with many new emotions.  We came to grips with the loss of our brother-in-law Fred, we sold our home in the North Carolina mountains and we bought a home here in Sun City after renting through the past winter.  And on top of all that turmoil, we spent two weeks in the summer cruising the Rhine-Main-Danube River system in Europe and then welcomed our first granddaughter in September.  That’s a lot to ingest in one year, and we need to take a deep breath as we welcome this New Year.

As I’ve stated in a recent post here, we are beginning to embrace the Sun City lifestyle and we find it very much to our liking.  Lots of activities take up time on our calendars, and we find it easy and convenient to maintain our exercise regimen.  We walk 2.25 to 4 miles almost every day, depending on the route we chose to follow, and Billie is a devotee of Ray’s yoga classes at the Lake House Fitness Center.  We have lots of new friends, and as we participate in club activities we are meeting more new friends each week.

Here’s to a Happy New Year in Sun City!

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Whirlwind Tour

Billie and I went on a whirlwind tour of North Carolina recently, visiting Charlotte, Hildebran, Blowing Rock and Asheville in just 4 days.  Our tour included a family wedding shower, an overnight visit with our grandson Jacob (and his parents Peter and Amy), a visit with knitting buddies in Blowing Rock, a tour of the leaf displays along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and an overnight stay with friends in Asheville.

01-Jennifer-Luke-CakeThis beautiful cake was the centerpiece at the wedding shower for Jennifer Rhyne and Luke Williams.  We were happy to be able to attend this event because Jennifer has been special to us since she attended App State and came by our house on a regular basis while she was in Boone.  We wish Luke and Jennifer every happiness in their coming marriage.



In addition to lots of good food, the shower featured Jennifer and Luke opening gifts on the stage while family and friends looked on.  Everyone had a great time talking and catching up with acquaintances while the ribbons were being cut.  We hope that our gift, a portable picnic basket/backpack with service for four,  will be used for many an unplanned picnic by Luke and Jennifer.



Next stop on our tour was Hildebran, where we went to spend the night with our grandson Jacob and his parents Peter and Amy.  Jacob was really excited that we were coming to spend the night, and he gathered up favorite books to show us.  After a good night’s sleep we were served a delicious breakfast of gluten-free pancakes.



Peter and Jacob had been spending some father-and-son time together before we arrived, and this photo of them playing together seems to capture some of their relationship from that weekend.  They really enjoy their time together.  After visiting with them through the morning we all went to Mellow Mushroom in Hickory for a pizza lunch before we headed for Blowing Rock and the “leaf-looker” part of our tour.


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Settling In to the Lowcountry Experience

Billie and I have begun to breathe more easily now after a whirlwind few months.  It’s pretty incredible that in this calendar year we have sold our home in the North Carolina High Country, bought a home in the South Carolina Lowcountry, moved our household things to Sun City-Hilton Head, and welcomed a new granddaughter into the world.

Our new home is located almost exactly half way between our grandson Jacob (who lives in Hildebran, NC with his parents Peter and Amy Rhyne) and our granddaughter Lyra (who lives in Winter Park, FL with her parents Ben and Lucy Littler).  We have easy access to both grandchildren via I-95 and connecting roadways, with both being only about 300 miles away.  We plan to visit each of them fairly regularly, and the 5-hour drive has not been much of a problem so far.

Billie and I are enjoying our new home here in Sun City-Hilton Head and we have found many outlets for our energies.  We have joined several clubs and interest groups, and our social engagement calendars have been filled with meals shared with new friends we have met here in SC-HH.  We belong to a Friday Night Gourmet Dining Group which we thoroughly enjoy, and we both belong to the Bird Club.  Billie has joined the local knitters’ group in the Sew What Club, and I have joined the Computer Club and the Photography Club.

Now that things are settling down a bit, I plan to resume posting to my blog, so look for news of our new life in the SC Lowcountry here.

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