The world lost a great wildlife photographer yesterday…
and I lost a mentor and a good friend.
Internationally renowned wildlife photographer Ron Austing died peacefully yesterday at the age of 82, with his daughters, son and close friends at his bedside, after a hard-fought battle with lymphoma.
Ron Austing was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1931. His interest in wildlife began as a child, after his family moved to a suburb of Cincinnati called North College Hill. At the time, much of that small village was an undeveloped woodland, surrounded by small farms. This gave Ron the opportunity to observe nature relatively undisturbed. By the age of twelve he had become intimately associated with birds of prey: the hawks and owls, which initiated a lifelong passion with these birds. His other passion was baseball, and he spent several years working in the dugout of the Cincinnati Reds. He remained an avid Reds fan throughout his life.
Ron’s desire to remain close to nature led to his career as a Park Ranger with the Hamilton County Park District in Ohio; essentially, the parks in and surrounding Cincinnati. In his thirty years with the Park District he saw the parks grow from some three thousand acres in 1953 to over sixteen thousand when he retired as a Park Ranger in 1983. After twenty-four years as a Park Ranger, with the rank of Captain, he became disenchanted with law enforcement and resigned, but he was immediately appointed to be the Park District’s first Wildlife Manager, a post he retained until he ultimately retired. In 1982, Ron was awarded the Ohio Conservation Achievement Award by the State of Ohio and the Department of Natural Resources.
Beginning at a relatively young age, Ron combined his knowledge of wildlife with his skill as a photographer, and he became an internationally recognized wildlife photographer while in his teens. He published his first illustrated article while he was still in high school. Since then, his photos have appeared in literally thousands of publications, including National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Audubon, National Wildlife, Ranger Rick, Birder’s World, Bird Watcher’s Digest, as well as countless other U.S and European publications.
In addition to the many articles, books and field guides featuring his photography of birds, Ron authored several books of his own. He wrote his first book, I WENT TO THE WOODS: the Autobiography of a Bird Photographer, while he was still in his twenties. He followed with THE WORLD OF THE RED-TAILED HAWK and THE WORLD OF THE GREAT HORNED OWL.
Birds were always Ron’s primary subject, especially birds of prey, Kirtland’s Warbler, neotropical migrants in general, as well as the nesting activities of a tremendous number of bird species. The more than fifty thousand transparencies, terabytes of digital files and hundreds of hours of video footage in his collection also include insects, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, trees, and flowers. The majority of subjects are representative of Eastern and Midwestern regions of the U.S., with some Western species and a limited number from the Canadian arctic, Ecuador and the Galapagos, Mexico, Africa and India. As the official photographer of the Cincinnati Zoo for many years, Ron’s photo collection includes controlled conditions or studio images of many internationally rare and endangered species.
I met Ron 31 years ago in the Education Department of the Cincinnati Zoo. We spent many wonderful years together working on wildlife photography projects in the U.S. and Canada. Ron was my Best Man at my wedding, and I was at his bedside when he died. A small sample of Ron’s work can be viewed on our website here and is available for licensing. I plan to provide a much larger selection of Ron’s work in the near future, and I will assist his family in keeping his photographic legacy alive. You can view more of Ron’s work on the website that he used for photographic print sales: www.RonAusting.com.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to the following organizations that Ron supported:
Audubon Society of Ohio
3398 W. Galbraith Road
Cincinnati, OH 45239
Cincinnati Bird Club
2928 Saddleback Dr.
Cincinnati, OH 45244
P.O. Box 4172
Lawrenceburg, IN 47025
961 Barg Salt Run Road
Milford, OH 45015
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
159 Sapsucker Woods Rd
Ithaca, NY 14850
An open gathering for family and friends will be held on Monday, June 30 from 5 pm until the time of the Memorial Service at 8 pm in the High Plains Shelter at the Miami-Whitewater Forest.
Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology’s quarterly, award-winning Living Bird magazine has just published an article on Cuba in the current issue (Winter 2014) called “Cuba After Fidel Castro,” by George Oxford Miller and it features my photos on Birds of Cuba. The print version has been mailed to subscribers and it looks great! The layout is stellar, the images are generally very big, and the article itself is very informative. I have a few minor nit-picks with the article – there are now 26 endemic bird species in Cuba, not 21 – but the gist of the article is that the future of Cuba’s wildlife is up in the air – a point that is certainly not in dispute. The online version of the magazine is always one issue behind the print version, so you can look for it online in about three months, or better yet, check out the magazine and subscribe now!
If you are wondering which seven images were selected by Living Bird, they are included within this big gallery here. (i.e., I’m not telling!)
I’ve made a ‘top ten list’ of endemic birds that I have photographed in Cuba while surveying birds for the Caribbean Conservation Trust - well, make it the top 12! Several are highly endangered, others just look great. Here they are, in no particular order:
Looking for more? You can see a portfolio of large images of Cuban birds here. This link also works well for iPads, as iOS doesn’t support the Flash-based links used above, and the portfolio is color managed (even on wide-gamut displays!). You can also check out my other posts on endangered / endemic birds in Cuba.
I just returned from my second two-week trip to Cuba with the Caribbean Conservation Trust to survey and photograph the avian fauna of Cuba. Once again, my guide Raydali O’Farrill was fantastic, as were my local guides Osmany in Guanacahabibes, Caesar in San Diego, and Angel and Orlando in Zapata.
This trip was taken prior to the usual tourist season, and it was still the rainy season in Cuba. The first few days in Guanacahabibes were pretty wet, as a storm passed through, and it was decidedly un-birdy, with the exception of a lot of female and immature Bee Hummingbirds. The consensus among all of the Cuban guides I spoke with on this trip is that the male Bee Hummingbirds molt and lose their gorget color after the breeding season, which is very interesting. I’m not familiar with any other hummers that do this. The males of the Vervain Hummingbird in Hispaniola (almost as small) have no throat color at all. I’m curious what’s different in Hispaniola and Cuba that results in these differences from other hummingbirds. According to the local guides, the best time to see/photograph male Bee Hummers in breeding plumage is in March-June, when the gorget is in full color.
We did not find any migrants at Cabo San Antonio, but it was nice to go to the western-most tip of Cuba. In fact, on this trip in general we found very few migrants: predominantly a few Broad-winged Hawks and a handful of warblers. That will change decidedly in November! With thanks to Osmany, we took many excellent landscape shots of this most unusual habitat, and I also got my best Cuban Tody shot to date.
I turned Raydali into a photographer on the trip with my backup camera and some brief instruction – she did incredibly well! She is a quick study and she has a good eye. She used my backup Nikon D800E and we frequently swapped lenses – it was easier for me than carrying everything. Ray spotted and photographed the only deer that Osmany has ever seen or heard of in Guanacahabibes – very cool! She also got excellent shots of Cuban Tody and others. She’s a natural.
In San Diego, I got excellent photos of Cuban Green Woodpecker and a few other endemics, but we struck out on Cuban Grassquit, even after two attempts. Raydali saw the Grassquits once and got a nice “record shot.” Caesar tells me that March-April are fantastic for this species (and many others). He was also frustrated at not locating many Cuban Grassquits, but we made good efforts – the birds were just not there in significant numbers. The resident Kestrel was once again present across the road from El Mirador Hotel, giving Raydali lots of opportunity to practice taking photos. In fact, we saw more than a dozen Kestrels on roadside power lines in the area. A bonus in this area was a male Olive-Capped Warbler.
Zapata was a gold mine, as expected. Angel in particular knew the light I was looking for, the direction I needed to shoot from, etc. He and Orlando did a great job locating Cuban Pigmy Owl, Cuban Screech Owl, Fernandina’s Flicker, Blue-headed Quail-Dove, Grey-headed Quail Dove, Bee Hummingbird, and others. We had more difficulty with Zapata Wren, until we took a boat through the Zapata Swamp at Santo Thomas. The wren insisted on maintaining a position where it was primarily back-lit, but I was still able to obtain a few excellent shots. The swamp itself is absolutely magnificent!
Perhaps most incredible was a trip to La Salina. It was decidely different from last November, when the water level was low and Flamingos were seen by the thousands. This time, the road was nearly always covered with water and wading birds! The van was like being in a boat going down a channel. The birds were primarily located on the water-covered road or in the vegetation on the edges of the road. Notable were many species of egrets, Cuban Black Hawk, a Roseate Spoonbill, and several Wood Stork.
I now have a lot of editing / keywording to do to prepare images from this trip, but I’m anxiously looking forward to a return trip next year.
Cuba is home to at least 26 endemic bird species — birds found no where else in the world — including the Bee Hummingbird (the smallest bird on our planet), the Cuban Screech Owl and Cuban Tody. The Zapata Sparrow is the only sparrow endemic to the West Indies. Nine of the endemic species of Cuba are endangered or vulnerable, and a dozen or so endemic subspecies have the potential for full species status. This high level of endemism alone signifies Cuba as a globally important place for birds. Cuba is also one of the most important wintering and stopover sites for North American migrant birds, and over 100 North American nesting species winter in or pass through Cuba on migration. If you are interested in traveling to Cuba and participating in an ongoing scientific survey of the birds of Cuba, including both endemic and migratory species, I highly recommend that you contact Gary Markowski of the Caribbean Conservation Trust.
A quick update on November 19 – I have now uploaded about 170 images of endemic / endangered birds from Cuba and surrounding habitat shots that can be viewed as a portfolio from this link (with big images) or you can browse the images in a gallery here:
I’m planning a return trip to Cuba in September/October 2013 to continue photographing the endemic birds of Cuba. I thought I would check to see if I might catch the legendary Buena Vista Social Club while I was there, and to my amazement, they’re beginning a U.S. tour next month, starting in Tucson! Incredible!!! I postponed my Cuba trip a few days to make sure I would not miss these legendary musicians.
The 15-member lineup includes Latin Grammy Award winners Omara Portuondo and Eliades Ochoa, the incredible trumpeter Guajiro Mirabal, and laúd virtuoso Barbarito Torres, all of whom are original members of Buena Vista Social Club. Opening for the Orquesta will be one of Havana’s most highly praised pianists and one of the hottest rising stars on the international music scene, Roberto Fonseca. Performing with his quintet, Fonseca has just released his latest album Yo.
Here’s a great interview of Fonseca:
Eliades Ochoa is a legendary tres player and singer. He is considered one of the most important Cuban ‘soneros’ of all time and guardian of traditional Cuban music, and he plays regularly to sold-out shows worldwide.
Barbarito Torres provided one of the many unforgettable musical moments on The Buena Vista Social Club album, namely, his laúd solo on the classic “El Cuarto de Tula.” The laúd is a 12-string instrument of the lute family, emitting, especially on its high register, a piercing, metallic tone that is perfect for fast, single-note improvising.
Good times!!! For more information on the U.S. tour, click here:
After our recent trip to Cuba, Janet Ruth and Bruce Neville made an interesting observation: we probably saw a lot of male Bee Hummingbirds (Mellisuga helenae) in nonbreeding plumage. Like males of most other hummingbird species, Bee Hummingbird males in breeding plumage (“Definitive Basic Plumage”) are easy to identify – they have fiery metallic/iridescent pinkish-red feathers on the gorget and head that are lacking in females and juveniles of both sexes. Distinguishing the age and sex of non-breeding-plumage males gets more complicated…
I initially assumed that the hummingbird shown below was a female Bee Hummingbird; there is a gray-white breast and no fiery red gorget or head feathers (i.e., “helmet”). Given the location (Cuba), it is unquestionably a Bee Hummingbird. But is it a female?
In Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba, Garrido and Kirkconnel describe the Bee Hummingbird as follows:
Male: iridescent deep blue to green above, gray below. Head, chin and throat fiery iridescent pink or red. Tail iridescent blue, very short and rounded. Non-breeding males lack a gorget and so resemble females but have black-tipped tail. Female: larger, with bluish green back and gray underparts. Tips of outer tail feathers white.
The Spanish-language version of the same book contains descriptions of the (identical) plates that the English version lacks, and the Spanish text purportedly has fewer errors than the English-language version (Orlando H. Garrido, 2012, personal communication). On the description page for Plate 30 (Lámina 30), the Spanish version of the book describes the juvenile Bee Hummingbird as:
“Similar a la hembra. La plumas externas de la cola con bordes en blanco” or
“Similar to the female. The outer tail feathers with white edges.”
Careful examination of the admittedly small plates appears to show white tips on the retrices of the “immature” (labeled male, English version) and “Juvenil” (sex not identified, Spanish version) Bee Hummingbird. Therefore, from these descriptions it appears that both females (adult and immature) and immature males have white-tipped outer retrices.
There is very little original research specific to the Bee Hummingbird plumage and molt patterns that I am aware of; therefore, closely related hummingbird research might be helpful for further clarification. Other members of Mellisugini (the “Bees” clade – see McGuire et al) are the most appropriate comparators. The ‘‘Bees’’ include the following monophyletic assemblage of genera: Archilochus, Calliphlox, Calypte, Chaetocercus, Myrtis, Rhodopis, Selasphorus, and Stellula. Although Mellisuga was not included in these recent phylogenetic studies, not surprisingly, the Bee Hummingbird would likely be nested within this monophyletic assemblage based on size, plumage patterns, soft-part coloration, etc.
Anna’s (Calypte anna) is perhaps the best studied of the Bees. The Birds of North America description of Anna’s “Appearance” describes the molt strategy of Anna’s Hummingbird as Complex Basic Strategy; the most relevant portion is extracted here:
“First Basic” or “Basic I” plumage according to Humphrey and Parkes (1959) and later authors; see revision by Howell et al. (2003). Present primarily Aug-Jul. Indistinguishable from Definitive Prebasic Plumages, sex for sex, in most birds following complete Preformative Molts. Some males in Formative Plumage can be identified by having one or more retained juvenal rectrices with white tips, incomplete throat and (especially) crown gorget feathering, and/or reminents of white in the tips of the formative rectrices (Pyle 1997, Pyle et al. 1997). Females may also retain rectrices but similarity in color patterns make it difficult to confirm if retained feathers juvenal or not.
So with Anna’s, it seems clear that the lack of white-tipped retrices is only found in males, and juvenile males may retain white-tipped retrices.
What about other “Bee” species? There is some nice comparative data on the plumage of Selasphorus species (Stiles 1983). With even a cursory examination of the figures in the paper, it is immediately clear that “white tips on retrices” is a predominant trait of females and immatures, and the presence of any white on the retrices of adult males varies by species. All-black retrices on females do not occur.
So what about the “female” Bee Hummingbird that I presented earlier, or other hummers that I (and other photographers) photographed on this trip? Careful examination of contemporaneous images shows new iridescent red feathers starting to appear on the head, as well as a probable gorget. Furthermore, all of the images of these birds show black retrices, and none of the retrices have white tips. In other words, none of these birds are females. They are likely
adult males in non-breeding plumage juvenile males in Preformative (First Prebasic) molt. Janet and Bruce, you nailed it! (And thanks to Sheri L. Williamson for her comments below.)
I just returned from a fantastic two week trip to Cuba with the New Mexico Ornithological Association and the Caribbean Conservation Trust to survey / photograph the avian fauna of Cuba. It will take some time to edit the images from the trip, but overall, the trip was a smashing success, as shown by this image of an endemic Bee Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world!
Travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba is currently difficult, and it was certainly a privilege for me to join the NMOS and the CCT on this trip to Cuba. The U.S. Department of Treasury has provided a license for conducting bird conservation work in Cuba to the Caribbean Conservation Trust, Inc. (CCT), a U.S. based organization committed to the conservation of endemic and migratory birds and their habitats in the greater Caribbean region. The primary objective of the CCT is to enhance the ability of North American and Caribbean ornithologists, naturalists, resource managers, conservation organizations, institutions, and local citizens to conduct research and initiate programs to help conserve the birds of the Caribbean and their habitats. The CCT is dedicated to bird and habitat conservation through education and relationship building and, as a result of its work and research findings, is in compliance with a U.S. Treasury licensure for travel to Cuba. Gary Markowski runs the CCT, and his 16 years of experience in organizing trips to Cuba resulted in a flawless trip and a remarkable experience for all participants.
Our trip was limited only by the 14 day travel limit imposed by the license issued by the Treasury Department, and the time constraints of travel within Cuba. Regardless, thanks to the impeccable planning by NMOS President and trip leader Dave Krueper, we surveyed a significant range of habitats within Cuba, as shown on the map below:
The group recorded over 150 species of birds – specific counts will be forthcoming. Photographic highlights of Cuban birds included the Bee Hummingbird, Zapata Sparrow, Cuban Crow, Cuban Trogan, and Cuban Green Woodpecker, among others. Our group cultural experience in Cuba was fantastic, due in large part to our guide, Raydalie Pérez O’Farrill. Ray (pronounced as in “rye bread”) is a jewel of Cuba, and is knowledgeable about the history, politics and culture of Cuba, as well as natural history and birding. Thus, not only did we find over 150 species of birds, we also toured a local Guava processing plant, where men labor over fiery caldrons of Guayaba – processing raw guava fruits into delicious bars of guava preserves. The guava was sampled along with local fresh cheese – a true delicacy! Behind-the-scenes support was handled by Osmery Arzuaga and her fine staff at Havanatur.
Check back during early December, when I expect to have a significant number of images from the trip edited, key-worded, and uploaded to our website.
I recently returned from a fantastic three-week trip to Panama, where we photographed critically endangered sea turtles like the Leatherback and Hawksbill as well as lots of other wildlife. We were there during the rainy season, so overcast skies and daily showers were not uncommon, although showers occurred more frequently at night. The potential impact of rain showers and humidity on equipment has always been a concern of mine when working in the tropics, even going back to my Nikon F3 days, when the biggest problem was condensation within lenses. There were times when it would take 2 – 3 hours for my 400mm f2.8 or 17-35mm lenses to “clear up” in the morning when camping in the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica. But in general, everything always kept working. Wow, how things have changed in the digital era!
Near the end of our trip to Panama, while shooting hatchling Hawksbill sea turtles that were crawling quickly down the beach and out to sea, I was unexpectedly struck by a large wave. (The surf was huge at times – there were some world-class surfers there for a few days of filming.) I shielded the camera with my body, and not a drop of water hit the front lens element. Part of the splash did hit the camera body and lens as well as the SB-900 flash that was attached to the camera (used for shooting the hatchlings in the shade of trees near the nest site). I dried/shook off the water on the camera and kept shooting for another 20 minutes, until the D800E camera body went berserk. It started firing rapidly without touching the shutter release, and continued even after the camera was turned off. I quickly pulled the batteries to stop the shutter from firing and then continued to shoot with a backup D7000. The camera was wiped down with damp (freshwater) towels to remove any salt residue and then dried and packed away for return to NPS.
Here’s what the “event” looked like. By chance, Margie had stopped shooting turtle hatchlings for a moment and captured “The Wave.”
(Click to enlarge, back-arrow to return.)
After returning to the States, the camera was immediately shipped back to Nikon for anticipated cleaning and repair. One week later, the news:
“Service Repair Rank B2
BEYOND ECONOMICAL REPAIR. SEVERE WATER DAMAGE, CORROSION ON PG PCB, DC BACK COVER, TFT MONITOR, TOP COVER, HOT SHOE AND CCD AF SENSOR.”
Wow, a $3,300 camera, several weeks old, transformed into a brick? It looks fine!!! Apparently, the insides do not. An insurance claim was filed and the replacement D800E just arrived, thanks to NPS. Anyone looking for a slightly used but non-functional D800E, cheap??
This is certainly concerning, because although I have multiple camera/lens rain covers, not infrequently I get caught in a sudden, unanticipated downpour. Salt water is tough on equipment, but this seemed like a minimal exposure. In the previous week, the same camera with a 200mm Micro lens was nearly drenched by a sudden downpour while we photographed mating Red-eyed Tree Frogs. The sudden, unexpected downpour terminated the shoot. Fortunately, the camera and lens did not suffer any damage at that time, although everything did get wet.
My impression is that the older “pro” Nikon camera bodies were better protected from the elements. Although the D800E is placed in the “advanced amateur” category by Nikon, a more weatherproof “pro” camera body that provides a comparable image does not yet exist. Therefore, be forewarned – the D800 is not weather-proof, and it is certainly not water-resistant. I do hope that Nikon will improve the weatherproofing of high-end cameras with future models. Even so, the D800E is a great camera, and I’m glad to have a replacement so quickly.