The Great Backyard Bird Count

The current Record’s Reader Photo Challenge assignment of “birds” is halfway done. An event that dovetails (pardon the pun) neatly with this challenge is the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC).

The count, put on by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, was started in 1998 and was the first online citizen/science project which collected data on wild birds. This year the four-day count runs from February 12 to February 15 (The Readers Photo Challenge time frame is from Feb 4-18).

Last year, an estimated 143,000 people participated in the count. To take part in this year’s world-wide event you need to register online ( Then you can enter your list of birds, submit photos (and view previous pictures) and view all the data in near real-time.

Scientists use the data from the count as well as other projects to gather information about bird populations such as how weather and climate change is affecting them, migration patterns, and the affects of disease and more.

The GBBC recommends that you spend a minimum of 15 minutes in a single location on at least one of the days (you can stay longer and do more days and locations if you like).

You then enter your findings online or through a free mobile app (

As many a birder knows, birds are beautiful and fascinating animals. Events like the Great Backyard Bird Count helps us all to know a little more about them.


Rules for the Record’s Reader Photo Challenge:

1. Entries can be emailed to Type in “Birds” in the subject line.

2. Photos have to be shot between Feb. 4 and Feb. 18. Please try to identify the type of bird, if possible.

3. Include your name (first and last), hometown, and the kind of camera/lens you used and where it was taken (ie: “John Doe of Stockton. Canon EOS Rebel Ti with 55-300mm lens. An egret along Pool Station Road and Highway 49, San Andreas.”)

4. If there is a recognizable person in the photo, please identify them (name, age, hometown) and what they are doing in the photos.

5. Please feel free to include any interesting anecdotes or stories on how you took the picture.

6. The deadline for submission is Thursday, February 18. The top examples will be published on Thursday, Feb. 25 with an online gallery of all the photos on the same day.

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January outtakes: 2016

The first month of 2016 has come and gone. We got some much-needed rain and, photographically speaking, it’s been a mixed bag with a little bit of everything. Here are 10 of my favorite previously unposted photos from January.
















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Mother Nature Monday #2: Sunset reflections

12/17/2013: A colorful sunset and tule reeds are reflected in the waters of Lodi Lake in Lodi.

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Readers Photo Challenge assignment: For the birds

The subject for the next Readers Photo Challenge assignment is for the birds. Actually, it is birds.

The trickiest thing about photographing birds of almost any type is that they can be very skittish. It’s very difficult to get close enough to get a good shot of one or even a flock of them. A long lens, 300mm or longer, is recommended. Even then it can still be difficult to get close enough. Some sort of “blind” or camouflage can be useful. Hiding or approaching a bird from behind a tree can help.

Some birds aren’t afraid of a vehicle they way they are of a person. I’ve used my car a few times as sort of a rolling duck blind and shot out of the window to photograph some birds (as I did in the photo above). Any way you to chose to do it, patience is the key. Rushing things will only frighten the birds away.

Capturing birds in flight can be a challenge. Make sure you’re using a high enough shutter speed to stop the motion (1/500th of a second or faster). Make sure of your focusing. It’s easy for autofocus systems to focus on the sky behind the bird. Most cameras are set up to focus at the middle of the frame so make sure that the bird is at the center when shooting.

Most birds are active in the early morning or late afternoon, which is great because that’s when the best light for pictures occurs.

We are in the middle of the Pacific Flyway where many birds migrate to for the winter. This time of year there are many places where you can photograph birds. A simple jaunt out to the Delta can find many flocks of geese, ducks and cranes.

The Woodbridge Ecological Reserve (also known as the Isenberg Sandhill Crane Reserve) on Woodbridge Road west of I-5 and the Cosumnes River Preserve north of Thornton are great places to view all kinds of migratory and native birds. The Micke Grove Zoo’s Gardner Mediterranean Aviary is a walk-in enclosure that offers great views of Waldrapp ibises as well as other species of birds.

You don’t have to go far to find birds. Some are as close as your own backyard, literally! Sparrows, robins, hummingbirds and more are all a part of the urban wildlife world. An easy way to photograph them is to hang a bird feeder outside a window and wait for the birds to come to you.

Close the curtains/blinds so you don’t scare the birds off, then crack them a bit so that you can poke a lens through to get a shot. Turn off lights inside to help eliminate reflections on the window and make sure the glass is clean.

If you can, try to identify the type of bird in the photos you submit. Some are pretty easy. We all know what a red-breasted robin, a crow or pigeon looks like. But, unless you’re an avid birder, there are dozens of species that are harder to figure out. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a great web site that can help you ID many kinds of birds (

As any avid bird watcher can tell you birds are beautiful, majestic, graceful and interesting and, with a little time and patience,they can be great subjects for photographs.


How to enter:

1. Entries can be emailed to Type in “Birds” in the subject line.

2. Photos have to be shot between Feb. 4 and Feb. 18. Please try to identify the type of bird, if possible.

3. Include your name (first and last), hometown, and the kind of camera/lens you used and where it was taken (eg: “John Doe of Stockton. Canon EOS Rebel Ti with 55-300mm lens. An egret along Pool Station Road and Highway 49, San Andreas.”)

4. If there is a recognizable person in the photo, please identify them (name, age, hometown) and what they are doing in the photos.

5. Please feel free to include any interesting anecdotes or stories on how you took the picture.

6. The deadline for submission is Thursday, February 18. The top examples will be published on Thursday, Feb. 25 with an online gallery of all the photos on the same day.

Posted in Animals, Column, Nature, Readers Photo Challenge, Wildlife | Tagged | Leave a comment

Mother Nature Monday #1: Rollin’ down the river

I’ve been participating on social media in something called the “7-Day Nature Photo Challenge.” It calls for people to post on social media one photo a day for a week that epitomizes the beauty of the natural world. I’ve had so much fun with it that it’s inspired me to add a new standing feature to this blog.

Every Monday I’ll be posting a photo of nature, landscapes, animals, insects, etc. from the past or present. I’m calling it “Mother Nature Mondays.”

Here is my first one: I shot this in 2005 near my hometown of Walnut Grove. A boatload of anglers headed out for an evening fishing and were greeted by a fiery sunset that lit up the sky and was reflected the calm waters of the Sacramento River as well.

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Random photo #59: I wonder who got their badge?

Kylie Edwards, 7, left, and Chelby Johnson, 8, react to seeing a tarantula up close at the Bugology event at the Worlds of Wonder Science Museum in downtown Lodi. The girls were a part of Girls Scout troop 209 from Tracy at the event to get their bug badges.

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Readers Photo Challenge: On cloud nine

The current Reader Photo Challenge assignment is clouds. Fortunately we had several cloudy days within the 2 week time period of the challenge. While some readers did some traveling to shoot their pictures, most took advantage of the cloudy conditions close to home. Seventeen readers sent in 83 photos and showed that having one’s head in the clouds is a good thing. Here are some of the best examples.


When shooting clouds patience is definitely a virtue. Mitch Bazzarre of Stockton used a Canon EOS Rebel T5i DSLR camera to photograph a snow-covered Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. He says that he couldn’t even see the peak due to the heavy cloud cover. He waited in a clearing on the valley floor for quite a while until the swirling clouds broke up enough for Bazzarre to catch a glimpse of Half Dome. Despite the cold, wintry conditions Bazzarre’s photo shows that it was worth the wait


Rick Wilmot of Lodi used a Canon EOS 5D MK III DSLR camera to photograph The moon shining through the clouds. The light from the moon refracted through the ice crystals in the clouds and created a circular night rainbow (or moonbow) in the sky.


A cloudy sky is a subject that can look equally good in black and white as well as in color. Pete Silva of Jackson captured grand and majestic clouds over the valley viewed from the foothill town of Martell with his Olympus E-620 DSLR camera. Converting the photo to black and white helps to covey how dramatic the clouds were.


When most people think of clouds they think of grand overall views of the sky. Thinking small doesn’t often come to mind but that’s what Sydney Spurgeon of Stockton did. She found a dandelion growing at the Brookside Golf and Country Club in Stockton, something that most of us would just pass by without giving a second thought to. Using a low angle with her iPhone 6, Spurgeon shot the weed with the cloudy sky as a background.


Clouds and reflections can go hand-in-hand for some photos. Dave Skinner of Stockton visited the Cosumnes River Preserve near Thornton in northern San Joaquin County. With his Nikon D7000 DSLR camera Skinner captured puffy white clouds in a pond at the preserve. The treeline at the far side of the pond are also reflected but appear upside down. It’s a little disorienting at first but once you get used to it becomes eye catching.


Sometimes clouds can be just the right accent to a photo. Joseph Moreno of Stockton used a Sony A6000 DSLR to photograph a scene at dusk at the Stockton Sailing Club at Buckley Cove in Stockton. A single light pole rises into the sky and at the same time is reflected in the still waters of the cove. Graceful clouds float along the horizon and ad a little more interest and mood to the scene.

A new Readers Photo Challenge assignment will be issued on Feb 4.


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A sense of selfie

Be yourself, but always be your better self.” – Karl G. Maeser

The Oxford Dictionary traces the first use of the word “selfie” back to 2002. By 2013 not only did they add it to the dictionary but made it their word of the year.

In a recent post blogger Matt Walsh posted an article on The Blaze web site titled “The World Would Be a Better Place If We All Stopped Taking Pictures of Ourselves.” In it he suggests that we’ve all become narcissists concerned with our own vanity and we miss out actually experiencing life and its beauty in lieu of taking a selfie.

A lot of what Walsh says rings true. Too often we’ve seen selfies of dubious interest posted on social media. Too many times they’re of innocuous or inappropriate places and/or events. How many times do we really need to see someone sitting on their couch or in a bathroom? Do we really need to see every meal or new pair of shoes.

A few weeks ago Lima, Ohio police issued a warrant for 45-year-old Donald “Chip” Pugh for failing to appear in court on a misdemeanor drunk driving charge. Apparently Pugh, unhappy with the mug shot that the police posted of him, took a selfie and sent it to the police (he was arrested near Pensacola, Florida nearly a week later).

Too many celebrities and politicians have been caught up and shamed in “sexting” or nude photo scandals.

While selfies have become synonymous with the Millennial generation the truth is that it runs across almost all generational lines. I’ve seen them taken by young and old alike.

Perhaps it’s a modern equivalent of navel-gazing, an inner exploration to know oneself a little better. But the difference is that it goes beyond self-contemplation when the photos are shared with everyone.

Perhaps the reason it hasn’t happened earlier is that we older folk didn’t have the technology that makes it so easy today. In the past to take a selfie you had to put a camera on a timer and place it on a tripod or give it to a stranger and asked them to take the picture for you (if you gave your camera to someone else could you still call it a “selfie?”).

Some people did do the outstretched-arm technique of today but the cameras back then were heavy and hard to hold. Also you couldn’t see what you taking like you can with today’s cellphone cameras. Focusing and aiming the camera was a hit-and-miss affair.

We take pictures of beautiful sunsets, majestic, snow-capped peaks and thunderous ocean waves crashing on the beaches all with our smiling faces popping up in a corner of those photos. I understand the desire to document the events of our lives and the places we go. Wouldn’t it be better to experience what is happening and just to turn the camera around and snap a shot of what’s in front us?

Now, I’m the last one to discourage people from taking pictures and I like seeing pictures from family and friends’ travels and milestone events. I think the problem comes from too many selfies in such situations. A few are fine but there comes a time where it crosses into self-absorption and self-indulgence. There are too many shots of people at the dinner table, driving in their cars or at their desk at work doing nothing. Maybe all that’s needed is a little self-editing.

Unlike Walsh I don’t think that we should ban all selfies, but I believe that there’s a time and place for everything. Photographs are a way to preserve memories and there are special events in our lives that we want to record or posterity. Taking selifes with friends and families before and after ceremonies and celebrations are completely appropriate. Taking them during those events, not so much.

Whatever you think of sefies they are here to stay. The cameras we use today are simple to use and the ability to post the pictures to social media is even easier. And I have been guilty as any other selfie offender. But perhaps we can show a little restraint, turn the camera around every once in awhile, and capture the experiences and memories around us.


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A camera primer

I’m often asked about what’s best brand of camera to get. I know a lot of people are brand conscious but the truth is that they all work just fine, despite what the camera companies may say. What’s more important is the type of camera and how it suits your needs.

The majority of people use a smartphone to take their photos and that’s fine. The main advantage is that they’re convenient. They’re small, lightweight and nearly all of us have our phones with us nearly all the time. And you can’t beat a cell phone for connectivity. One can post a picture to social media in mere seconds after it was taken.

Early cell phone cameras were rudimentary and the resulting pictures were, at best, passable. Today’s phones have made great strides in improving sharpness and image quality. However, a disadvantage is their small sensor size. While resolutions have increased, sometimes matching some “bigger” cameras (which is a good thing), the sensors remain small. Most phone sensors are in the neighborhood of 6.17mm x 4.55 mm (there are some that are bigger, but not by much). Packing in a large amount of pixels onto a small sensor can cause problems with image noise especially at low light. It’s better for picture quality to have a larger sensor.

The next step up is the point-and-shoot or compact digital camera. Although some cheaper cameras have sensors that are not much bigger than a phone camera, most have larger ones, which is the one of two advantages of a point-and-shoot camera. The other edge that they have is an optical zoom. Most phone cameras have fixed lenses and don’t zoom. If they do, it’s a digital zoom, which may sound impressive but all it does is crop out a smaller portion of an already small sensor, adversely affecting resolution. Point-and-shoots have lenses that mechanically zoom in and out to change the angle of view without sacrificing image quality.

In general, they’re bigger and bulkier than smartphones and they can’t match the phones’ connectivity (though a few haves started including Wi-Fi capability). Compact cameras have a slightly greater degree of control than the phone camera with more options available in their menus. However, if you think that there’s not much of an improvement over a cell phone camera, you’re not the only one. Over the last few years, sales of compact digital cameras have dropped precipitously in favor of the smartphone.

Both smartphone and compact cameras are good for those who don’t want to be burdened with a large bulky camera to tote around. While they have limitations, they can still make some pretty good pictures with some practice and thought.

The top of the heap of digital camera is the DSLR camera. I usually recommend a one to those who want to go beyond causal picture taking and learn more about photography. DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex camera. Their designs are based on the film Single Lens Reflex cameras, which have two main characteristics: They have interchangeable lenses and pentaprisms and mirrors (the bulge at the top of the camera) to allow the user to view through the lens.

The DSLR just trades out most the mechanical film bits for electronic digital ones. The top of the line is the full-frame camera, which has a sensor the same size as a frame of 35mm film (36mm x 24mm). Generally, the larger sensor means a bulkier and more expensive the camera.

Most DSLR cameras sold have what’s known as an APS-C sensor, which is about ½ the size of a full frame one (23.6mm x 15.6mm). The overall sizes of these cameras are more manageable for most people than a full-frame one.

The newest format for a DSLR is the Micro Four Thirds (17.5mm x 13mm), which is about ½ as big as the APS-C sensor. While smaller yet than the full-frame and APS cameras they’re still bigger than the compact cameras.

If someone wants to move up from a smartphone or compact camera but doesn’t want the bulk of a DSLR then a relatively new type of camera may be of use. Mirrorless cameras, as their name indicates, forgo the mirror of a DSLR and project their images directly onto he sensor, which are viewed on a monitor on the back of the camera. They have interchangeable lenses like a DSLR but their size, weight and handling are much like a point-and-shoot camera. Sensor sizes run the gamut from compact to full frame.

When I’m asked by people looking to upgrade their camera on what kind they should get, my first questions to them are “what kind of camera do they have now” and “what do they use it for.” Then I’ll ask if they plan to change how and what they shoot with that new camera. If they plan to expand their picture taking abilities, a new camera may be in order. But if they plan just to take photos the way they did with their current camera and things are going fine with that, well, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? However, if their device isn’t keeping up with what they want to do or if they want to change how they approach photography, then a new camera may the right choice for them.

Contact photographer Clifford Oto at (209) 546-8263 or Follow him at

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A last look at a last look: December outtakes

“December, being the last month of the year, cannot help but make us think of what is to come.” – Fennel Hudson

I must be getting to the age where time flies because it seems to me that 2015 began just a few months ago. Here’s one last look back at the last month of last year.















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    Clifford Oto

    Clifford Oto, an award-winning photographer, has been with The Record since 1984. Through the changes from black and white to digital photography, he’s kept his focus on covering the events, people and life of San Joaquin county. This blog deals ... Read Full
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