Out with Old Friends: Acorn Woodpeckers

(Check out all of the images)

Last Friday I took some time to get out into the hills behind Milpitas and do some birding. This is an area I’ve been exploring and visiting for years, and we’ve had a bald eagle pair nesting on Calaveras reservoir since at least 2007. I’d done a quick look in early February to check the nest and it seemed empty but this was my first chance to go back and check again, and unfortunately, it seems they’ve abandoned their nest there this season. In doing some checking with others it seems there is an eagle pair that is likely nesting in the Sunol Wilderness area further east (which would be Alameda County, not Santa Clara) but the location of the nest isn’t identified by anyone I’ve talked to, and we don’t know if that presumed pair is the same one relocated or if this is a new pair.

The eagles aren’t the only attraction in that area, though — the area overlooking the nest has long been home to an Acorn Woodpecker family, and that was a good reason to hang out and spend some time renewing my acquaintance with them and working on getting used to the Sigma 150-600.

I continue to really like that lens, but it’s not without challenges out in the field because of its size and weight.

The Canon 70-200 F/2.8L IS II, which (with the 2.0x teleconverter) has been my go-to birding lens for a while, is not a small lens. It’s 3.25 pounds, plus almost another pound for the teleconverter. Add another 2 pounds for the camera body, and so we’re talking about 6 pounds to hold and aim and keep steady. The Sigma 150-600 is six pounds, a full 2 pounds heavier, raising the weight by a full 2 pounds.

I find I can still hand-hold that, but it’s a lot more tiring and I have to focus more on technique, and some things I could take for granted, such as shooting across my body to my right, are simply not possible; I have to be a lot more aware of positioning and not trying to shoot from the hip, so to speak.

While processing the images, I’m finding that out of the camera I’m seeing more chromatic aberration than with the 70-200, especially greens, but which the basic, automatic removal available in Lightroom almost always removes without me having to think about it. Turning that on by default as part of an import preset makes it effectively a non-issue. I’ve had a couple of images where I’ve had to go in and manually tune the chromatic aberration tool but overall it’s completely correctable. I’m finding that I prefer a bit more luminance noise reduction on these images than from the 70-200 at the same ISO.

And that’s pretty much my critique of the lens compared to the Canon L glass. The image quality isn’t the same as with the canon “L” glass, but I’m not implying it’s worse; down in pixel-peep land I can see differences but the final images are great. The Sigma lens seems to have a bit less contrast but that’s manageable in post, and the speed and accuracy of the autofocus on the 7dmkII is amazingly good.

I continue to be impressed with both the 150-600 and the 7dmkII body, unless I’m having to carry the damned thing around. Maybe I’ll hire an intern, or a sherpa.

The Sigma 150-60o is a definite keeper, and that lens I think we bird photographers have been looking for (and wishing the Tamron had been); it’s a worthy successor to the venerable 100-400 with better reach than Canon’s newer (and quite good but pricey) 100-400 II. This Sigma’s only signficant limitation is the weight, and guess what? 600mm of lens is going to be big and heavy.

As long as you know that and what the limitations are, that’s perfectly okay. Given the capabilities of the image stabilization, I’m finding I can shoot good, crisp shots at 600mm down to about 1/500 seconds hand-held, which if you stop to think about it, is pretty crazily amazing — but I have to be both careful and a bit lucky on the camera shake. 1/1000 works a lot better, but this implies higher ISOs, which implies some camera noise, but with the 7dmkII sensor and a modern Lightroom processing the images, it’s all very manageable. For this shoot I was at ISO 1600 in fairly deep shade much of the time, and I found the camera could almost pull out sharp shots of stationary birds down to 1/250 at 600mm. Almost…

That said, and I almost feel silly saying this, this is a lens that really prefers being on a tripod — and my forearms and shoulders much prefer it on a tripod as well. When I’m out at the refuges using the car as a blind, the 600mm simply isn’t usable out the passenger side due to the weight, and I’ve picked up a beanbag to use as a brace out the driver window when I’m in those situations.

One of the open questions I’ve been trying to answer is “do I still need the 70-200 or can I use the Sigma 150-600 as a replacement?” and now I can answer that easily: unfortunately, the answer is no, because there are just too many shooting situations where the 150-600 is too much lens and too unwieldy to rely on: hand-held flight shots are frankly a crapshoot. I’d have much better success with the lens on a gimbal (I’m using the Opteka and liking it more than I expected to at the price), but that means I now have to figure out when to kit out with one or the other lens or how to carry it all — and no, we aren’t going to just get a bigger backpack and wander around wth 50 pounds of camera gear on our backs.

What I decided to do with the Sigma is to house it in a Think Tank Glass Taxi, which is designed to hold a big lens like this. It gives me a dedicated carry bag that holds the 7dmkII, the 150-600, batteries, memory and a strap, so I can just grab the bag and go if I want.

My other bag (A Think Tank Airport Accelerator) holds my Fuji gear, plus the Canon 70-200. It may seem weird splitting the Canon across the bag, but my plan for sometime in the next couple of weeks is to test Fuji’s new 100-400 lens on the XT-1, and if it works the way I think it will, sell off the 70-200 and buy the new Fuji lens to replace it. That way I could set up the fuji for either landscape work (with the wide angles) or as the 2nd body for birding (with the 100-400), allowing me to have a hand-held camera while using the Canon with the 150-600 primarily on the tripod.

What I don’t know yet is how much I’ll like that lens on the Fuji and how well the Fuji XT-1 will work for flight shots and the other kinds of things I’d want a 100-400 to do. If it works, though, it’s another nail in Canon’s coffin as far as my camera bag is concerned, and if you notice, my Canon gear is now relegated to the “other” camera bag, not the main one. Sad but true, Canon continues to slide towards irrelevance for me.

I’ll let you know how the tests go once I get a chance to try the lens out. Oh, and the Fuji lens is about a pound lighter than the 70-200+2Xtc combo… I won’t complain much about that….