A Superior Day—Pine Marten, Red Crossbills, Black-backed Woodpeckers & More

May 4th, 2015

I spent the day up in the Superior National Forest and Echo Trail, north and east of Ely, Minnesota just south of the Canadian border. It was a beautiful “May the Fourth be With You” day…Low about 35 and high in the 50s, sunny and calm. It was good to get out and exercise my shutter finger. And there was plenty to shoot!

Pine Marten Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7940

A grizzled Pine Marten (American Marten) along the Echo Trail, Ely, MN [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f5.6 at 1/500 second at ISO 400; handheld]

World’s Oldest Pine Marten?

Coming around a corner, I spotted a Woodchuck along the road. At least that’s what I thought it was. But when I got it in my binoculars, I discovered it was a Pine Marten! But an interesting looking Marten that had a very white face. Its grizzled muzzle reminded me of an old dog who’s going gray. I got a few “insurance” shots from a long ways away, then eased the van forward. But this old-timer was moving slow, even his bounding gait seemed like that of an old timer who needs a new hip. So I continued the pursuit on foot. As he moved into a recently logged area, I pished and used my predator call to get his attention, but this veteran was too smart for me. He quickly realized I was no threat and continued poking his nose under brush searching for voles. But for a photographer, it was a bit frustrating as he only gave me good looks at his back. Finally he paused very briefly and looked over his shoulder at me. I fired off a barrage of shots. All were sharp but I had “too much lens,” as photographers say. My 400mm f5.6 lens on a Canon 7D is the equivalent of 640mm, and I clipped his tail. In hindsight I should have grabbed a frame that focused lower down and captured his entire tail. He finally had enough of me and loped off into the dense woods. Hope you make it through another winter, my friend.

Red Crossbill Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7882

A juvenile Red Crossbill comes begging for food from dad (Echo Trail, Ely, MN)

Nesting in Winter?

Maybe you’ve heard this amazing fact…Red Crossbills have been recorded nesting in every month of the year! How can this be? Well, this bird relies completely on one food source…the seeds of pines. Even their nestlings are fed regurgitated seeds. So when this wandering species finds an abundant source of food such as a Red Pines laden with cones along Ely’s Echo Trail, their little bird brains do some mental calculations and determine that, yes, there is enough food here to sustain our family, and so courtship and nesting begins. That brings us to this morning and explains what I witnessed.

I put on the brakes for two birds in the middle of the dirt road. It was a male and female Red Crossbill eating dirt. It is well known that all crossbills seem to crave minerals, like salt, that are concentrated in some soils. This was interesting, but what happened next was even more fascinating and something I had not witnessed in years.

The male flew up in a tree and was quickly surrounded by chipping birds. He continued to move lower in the tree and was followed by the striped birds. Then I realized that these were juvenile Red Crossbills begging for food from daddy. Working backwards, I calculated that these crossbills likely nested in these, or nearby pines, in late winter! How does a couple-ounce bird keep fragile and very small eggs from freezing at Minus 20 F temperatures?

Red Crossbill female and juvenile Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7865

Juvenile Red Crossbill (striped bird left) and adult female Red Crossbill (right).

Red Crossbill juvenile May 4 Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7893

I really did not know what a juvenile Red Crossbill looked like until this morning. They are very distinctive with a boldly striped/streaked body. Three young ones were begging from their daddy, and maybe from their mom, but I did not witness that.

Red Crossbill Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7848

Red Crossbill Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7855

Red Crossbills (as well as White-winged Crossbills) are often seen feeding on snow or dirt along backcountry roads. It is known that they crave salt, and they are likely ingesting soil that is saturated with road salt.

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The Snowshoe Hares have almost reclaimed their brown summer pelage, only their legs, feet and belly remain white. While driving down this road early in the morning I flushed a Northern Goshawk from the road. When I got closer I could see that it had killed a Snowshoe Hare and was feeding on it. I wish I would have been paying better attention so I could have watched through binoculars. I lingered, hoping it would return. But I knew it wouldn’t come near when I was only a hundred yards away. Like all raptors, the female Goshawk is quite a bit larger than the male. She is able to easily prey on hares, while the male, being smaller, prefers smaller game like Ruffed Grouse.

boat landing Big Lake Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8003

A classic Northern Minnesota scene. You just have to drive down a road like this to see what’s at the end.

Epigaea repens Trailing Arbutus Echo Trail near Moose River Ely MN IMG_7956

Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens) is a fragrant early spring wildflower found in dry pine stands. It is a member of the Ericaceae  and related to blueberries, cranberries, wintergreen and leatherleaf to name a few. The evergreen leaves are broadly oval with nearly parallel sides, which helps separate them from Wintergreen which has more football-shaped leaves. If you are lucky enough to find a stand of these uncommon beauties, kneel down and take a good sniff of their fragrant blossoms.

snow in woods Echo Trail MN IMG_8037

Though we had a relatively mild winter, some rogue patches of winter snow could still be found in ravines.

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The Red Maples were in peak flower, and the aspen leaves were just opening up.

Cicindela longilabris White-lipped Tiger Beetle Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8028

Boreal Long-lipped Tiger Beetle (Cicindela longilabris)
These half-inch-long beetles are ferocious predators…at least to other half-inch long critters. You can find them along sandy or gravel paths on sunny days in spring and fall. Like their common name implies, they are a creature of the Great North Woods, occurring from New England to the Western Great Lakes and north across Canada from Labrador to Alaska. Found in openings in the coniferous forests. Also at high elevations in western mountains.

Cicindela longilabris White-lipped Tiger Beetle Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8017

The “white lip” is actually the labrum and it is very visible and a good field mark in identifying this tiger beetle. They also have unmarked dark elytra.

Broad-winged Hawk Stoney River Forest Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8033

The Broad-wings are back from their wintering grounds in South America. Millions exit the U.S and Canada in September and October and head for warmer climes. Unlike their mammal-eating cousins such as the Red-tailed Hawk and Rough-legged Hawk, Broad-wings thrive on a diet of reptiles (snakes) and amphibians (frogs). And their timing on returning to the North Woods is no accident…four species of frogs are very vocal and active in ponds now, and the Garter Snakes have emerged from hibernation. The Broad-wing buffet is set!

Broad-winged Hawk Stoney River Forest Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8295

Black-backed Woodpecker Pagami Creek Fire burn Isabella Lake Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8198

Black-backed Woodpecker Pagami Creek Fire burn Isabella Lake Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8239

Mating Game

I found a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers EXACTLY in the same spot I last saw them 7 months ago. Now I don’t know if they are the same birds, but I’d like to think so. The area is in a four-year old burn called the Pagami Creek Fire. The charred Jack Pines are a veritable grocery store for the woodpeckers. Wood-boring beetle grubs invade the dead and dying trees. I watched as the male dug out one fat white grub and one skinny yellowish grub. Yummy!

I ran into photographer friend Jason Mandich and we spent some time with these incredibly tame birds. Interestingly, they seemed to get quite agitated when they heard the nearby song of a White-throated Sparrow.

Several times, the female would perch on an angled branch, more horizontal than vertical, and hold her body parallel to the branch. The male would fly over and approach her. I imagine this was part of their mating ritual, but I did not witness any actual mating.

Black-backed Woodpecker Pagami Creek Fire burn Isabella Lake Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8274

I guess they have black backs for a reason! I wonder if their solid black backs are an adaptation to feeding on the charred trunks of trees in burns. Seems like it would be a handy trait when trying to avoid aerial predators. Note how this guy almost disappears.

IMG_8279 - Version 2

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I loved the pattern of these stacked pulpwood logs with the single needled branch hanging on. I also played with the image a bit to turn it into a more graphic black-and-white illustration.

Coyote hunting MN23 near Skogstjarna Carlton Co MN IMG_8354

Just a mile from home, and in the dim light of dusk, I spotted a Coyote on a hillside. She was hunting actively and I watched her catch two voles from the same patch of tall grass. It was far too dark for good photos but I couldn’t keep myself from taking a couple shots with the lens braced on the car window. She would not have allowed me to get out and set up a tripod. I do like the deep blue dusk sky.

A Winter Drive through Carlton County

WHITE ON BLUE
On a sunny but very cold day in late February, I traveled out to western Carlton County in search of a Snowy Owl that had been reported there earlier in the month. I live in the NE corner of Carlton County just south of Duluth, Minnesota. I knew the odds of finding the owl were not in my favor but it was an excuse to see a part of the county I don’t usually traverse. The theme seemed to be “white on blue” with many white birds showing themselves (and a white church!), all on a backdrop of white snow, blue sky and deep blue shadows.

Rough-legged Hawk flying blue sky Finn Road Carlton Co MN IMG_5355A beautiful Rough-legged Hawk flew up from a field along Finn Road.
It was likely hunting voles, their favorite meal. Though they are nearly as large as a Red-tailed Hawk, they have much smaller talons and a relatively tiny beak for grabbing and eating small rodents. Red-tails on the other hand, can easily take large prey such as cottontail rabbits and so need the larger “equipment.”
This individual’s incomplete belly band tells me that this is an adult male…Females and immatures have a broad black belly band.
They nest in the arctic but move south in winter in search of daylight and small rodents. Minnesota is their “Arctic Riviera.”

Snow Bunting flock CR27 Carlton Co MN IMG_5442

Snow Bunting flock CR27 Carlton Co MN IMG_5430

Snow Bunting flock CR27 Carlton Co MN IMG_5460A DRIFT OF SNOW BUNTINGS
Another visitor from the arctic tundra that makes the northern states its winter home is the Snow Bunting. Flocks of these “snowbirds” feed on weed seeds along roads and railroad tracks and in farm fields. This flock was foraging actively but flew every time I tried to get close. This, unfortunately for the photographer, is the norm for this species.

Hoary Redpoll and Common Redpoll flock Carlton Co MN IMG_5410HOARY SURPRISE
Surprising was a lone Hoary Redpoll feeding with a flock of Common Redpolls along a country road. Hoaries and Commons are two more species that breed in the north of Canada and Alaska but winter in northern Minnesota. They are an irruptive species (like the Rough-leg above) which means that they move south in varying numbers from year to year depending on the supply of food in the north…Alder catkins and birch seeds for redpolls, and voles for Rough-legged Hawks. We are thrilled to have so many redpolls this year!
Hoaries are much rarer, averaging 1 for every 100 Commons. Note her (males would have a pinkish breast) very frosty white coloration and tiny cone-shaped bill (compared to the longer sharper bill on the Common behind her.)

Suomalainen Kirkko E.L.K. 1915 Autumba Carlton Co MN IMG_5330

Suomalainen Kirkko E.L.K. 1915 Autumba Carlton Co MN IMG_5335

Suomalainen Kirkko E.L.K. 1915 Autumba Carlton Co MN IMG_5352SUOMALAINEN KIRKKO
This old Finnish Lutheran church (Suomalainen Kirkko = Finnish Church) from 1915 was saved after its doors were closed. It was moved to this location near Hwy 73 and turned into a cultural center. I love the stark white and simple lines of this vernacular architectural gem.

I drove 95 miles and had a great time.
P.S. I did not find the Snowy Owl

Video of my Bobcat Encounter

Finally finished editing my video of a Bobcat in Carlton County in northern Minnesota. See the previous post for photos from this once-in-a-lifetime encounter at a friend’s cabin. I said it before, and I’ll say it again…truly a beautiful cat! Enjoy!

Pretty Kitty—Carlton County Bobcat

It is good to have a network of friends, and for many reasons—Friends you shoot with, friends who can give you critique and feedback, and friends who give you tips on wildlife locations. And my buddy Gene helped me with the latter. I think the text said something like “the bobcat came back this morning” This was monumental news! How could he state that so nonchalantly? I called him immediately and was set up on his property in a remote part of Carlton County, Minnesota the next day. A mere 25 minute drive from my house, I got there just after sunrise.
On the way up his long winding drive, a movement caught my eye. A winter-white Snowshoe Hare had hopped a few yards but was now sitting motionless. Too bad the Bobcat hadn’t seen this tasty meal. Witnessing a chase scene would have been a once-in-a-lifetime treat.

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3429 1024pxAfter about 45 minutes of sitting quietly, it was an unbelievable thrill when Gene whispered, “Here she comes.” (We’ll call her “she” as her size seems small and features delicate…Plus, what a pretty face!). She cautiously slipped between the hazel brush, slinking her way towards the road-killed deer that Gene had provided.

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3390 1024pxSensing her surroundings with acute hearing and smell and vision, she crept closer, occasionally stopping to sit and relax, making sure the coast was clear. In the nearly 3 hours we sat there, she came in about four times, but retreating after a few minutes.

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3339 1024pxBobcats have increased in Minnesota over the last few decades. In an article titled “Bountiful Bobcats” in the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer Jan/Feb 2014, the author quotes “From the 1970s up to about 2000, bobcat population numbers were fairly low and stable, according to John Erb, furbearer biologist for the Department of Natural Resources. But starting around 2000, the bobcat population increased rapidly. It grew for about eight years and now appears to be stabilized at about 5,200 in spring and 8,200 in fall. (That’s well above the levels observed from 1977 to 1997—about 1,700 in spring and 2,300 in fall.) Erb and other wildlife managers hope to better understand the causes and potential implications of this bobcat resurgence.” See the entire article here

Snowshoe Hare Gene Letty's homestead CR104 Carlton Co MN IMG_3279Snowshoe Hare that greeted me on my way into Gene’s cabin…A rare sight!

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3373 1024pxThe Volunteer article goes on to say, “An adult is roughly 3 feet long including its short, “bobbed” 4- to 7-inch tail. Adult males, or toms, can weigh more than 30 pounds and occasionally over 40. Adult females usually weigh 20 to 25 pounds.”

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3414 1024pxWhy are they increasing? John Erb is the MN DNR’s furbearer biologist…”Erb suspects multiple reasons for the recent bobcat population explosion, although he stresses the need for more research to winnow out the causes. One possible factor is the changing climate. Minnesota is at the northern extent of bobcat distribution in North America. Bobcats are less efficient deep-snow predators than are Canada lynx, which have thicker fur, longer legs, and oversized paws.”

“Milder winters might be aiding survival rates, particularly for younger animals,” Erb says. “Female bobcats might also be coming through winter in better condition, so they might be having better reproductive output and survival of kittens.”

“Forest management could also be playing a role. Erb says disturbed and younger forests often provide dense cover and abundant edge habitat, which bobcats and some of their prey prefer. He believes this habitat has expanded due to increased logging that began in the mid-1980s, accelerated in the early 1990s, and continued until recent years. He points to a similar pattern of young forests, plentiful deer, and booming bobcat populations in the 1940s and ’50s, following turn-of-the-century logging, fires, and other forest disturbances.” From the article by Jacob Edson “Bountiful Bobcats” in the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, Jan/Feb 2014

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3376 1024px“Another factor that could be affecting bobcat populations is the increase in deer and turkey populations. Bobcats prey on deer, particularly fawns, and scavenge on dead deer, especially during winter.” Surprisingly, Bobcats are also able to take down adult deer.

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3434 1024pxOne researcher has also noted that Fishers are declining in the core Bobcat range in Minnesota. Is it because they are competing for some of the same prey? Bobcats will also kill adult Fishers.

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3528 1024pxForested parts of Minnesota may harbor one Bobcat per six to seven square miles. Lynx, which are better adapted to deep snow, replace Bobcats in the Arrowhead region.

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3440 1024pxThis fact really surprised me. Did you know that Lynx on average weigh less than Bobcats? They rarely top 25 pounds while Bobcat Toms can top 40 pounds! It is the very long legs and large feet of a Lynx that gives us the impression of a larger animal.

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3306 1024px

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3530 1024pxFeeding daily on this carcass for nearly a week, she still is cautious when approaching her “prize.”

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3422 1024pxI’ll post a video of her in the next blog post.

[Most images shot under low light with heavy overcast skies; Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f5.6 at 1/250 second at ISO 1000. Firmly locked on tripod!]

[The two images of the Bobcat actually feeding at the deer carcass were taken at f5.6 at 1/160 second at ISO 1600]

Superior Snowy Owls

Snowy Owl Superior Middle School Superior WI IMG_1567
Snowy Owl Superior Airport Bong Superior WI IMG_1497
[Continued from previous post]…There have been no Snowies in the Sax-Zim Bog this year so Dave and I headed to the urban “wilds” of Superior, Wisconsin (Duluth’s neighbor in the “Twin Ports”). We found two Snowies but they were not equally photogenic. One had been banded and painted by researchers so it could be identified from long distances. We got a few “insurance shots” and continued our search.

Snowy Owl Superior Middle School Superior WI IMG_1562Snowy Owls have been wintering in the industrial areas of Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin for many years. When I was in college at the University of Minnesota Duluth in the early/mid 1980s, we would go down to the Port Terminal in the harbor (where all the warehouses and shipping docks were) and we could easily find a half dozen. There were probably a couple dozen wintering between there and Superior’s docks.

At that time, the harbor was a brushy mess crisscrossed by railroad tracks and dotted with junk piles and open garbage cans. It was the perfect environment for rabbits, pigeons, pheasants and rats…all great Snowy Owl food.
[All owl-in-flight shots taken with Canon 7D and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens set at Shutter Priority 1/1250 second and auto ISO. ISO ranged from 640 to 800 and f-stop ranged from f5.6 to f8]

Snowy Owl Superior Middle School Superior WI IMG_1559
Less than a mile away, we found this stunning female/young male (You can’t really tell, but in general, the darker the bird the younger it is and more likely a female). Don’t get me wrong, I love the nearly pure white adult males, but the speckled patterning on this bird was very pleasing.

Snowy Owl Superior Middle School Superior WI IMG_1561
Of course she sat on every ugly perch she could find…telephone pole, chain-link fence, scoreboard (see below). So we waited until she pooped. Why?, you might ask. Raptors always seem to “jettison” excess waste which is weight they don’t need to carry with them when they fly. Then she did and I held down the finger on my Canon 7D with the Canon 400mm f5.6 set to AI focus so the lens would continue to focus on the flying bird.

Snowy Owl Superior Middle School Superior WI IMG_1569 FLATI couldn’t resist a little fun when I saw this Snowy land on the middle school’s baseball scoreboard. After all, she is a “guest from the tundra,” just with us for the winter!

Northern Owls in a Hoar Frost Wonderland

When I left my house this morning (Dec 11th) I was a bit bummed as the skies were gray and the light flat. But when we started gaining elevation out of Duluth, a hoar frost wonderland began to appear. Every single bud, branch, needle and twig on every single tree was coated in a feathery frost. Spectacular! Now if we could only find some subjects! I was traveling with Dave Shaffer from Spooner, Wisconsin (one of the best Black Bear photographers in the country…see his images (all taken in the wild) at http://www.bearwitnessimages.com) and we were after one thing…Owls!

Most birders and photographers who love boreal birds have heard of northern Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog. It is a Mecca for those searching out lifers or photos of northern birds such as Boreal Chickadee, Black-backed Woodpecker, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Ruffed Grouse, Pine Grosbeak, White-winged Crossbill, Evening Grosbeak, Common Redpoll, Hoary Redpoll and, of course, owls. Great Gray Owl and Northern Hawk Owl are regular nesters and can be found easily most winters. Boreal Owls, Snowy Owls and Northern Saw-whet Owl are much more rare.

Great Gray Owl hoar-frost Admiral Road Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_1794[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f5.6 at 1/400, ISO 400, aperture priority]
Great Gray Owl atop a tiny Tamarack cloaked in hoar-frost, Sax-Zim Bog MN
After a couple hours of unfruitful searching, we spotted a dark blob far down the road. I knew instantly that it was a Great Gray…the Phantom of the North! This was Dave’s first ever Great Gray…a “lifer” in birder parlance. And what a bird! This guy (girl?) kept on hunting for over an hour as we watched and kept clicking the shutter.

This is probably my favorite image from the day. I lover the graceful curve of the Tamarack tip and the “bird in landscape” feel. It really gives you a sense of the boreal haunts of this magnificent bird. I tweaked the white balance to give it a more cool (blue) feel. Though these are the tallest owl in North America (30 inches tall!) they are all feathers and rank third in weight (behind Snowy and Great Horned).

Hoar frost Tamaracks Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_1986Hoar Frost is relatively rare in the North Woods, but when it happens you better grab your camera and go! Here is a definition from http://www.weatheronline.com.uk
“Under clear frosty nights in winter soft ice crystals might form on vegetation or any object that has been chilled below freezing point by radiation cooling. This deposit of ice crystals is known as hoar-frost and may sometimes be so thick that it might look like snow. The interlocking ice crystals become attached to branches of trees, leafs, hedgerows and grass blades and are one of the most prominent features of a typical ‘winter wonderland’ day. However, the fine ‘feathers’, ‘needles’ and ‘spines’ might also be found on any other object that is exposed to supersaturated air below freezing temperature.

The relative humidity in supersaturated air is greater then 100% and the formation of hoar frost is similar to the formation of dew with the difference that the temperature of the object on which the hoar frost forms is well below 0°C, whereas this is not the case with dew. Hoar frost crystals often form intitially on the tips of plants or other objects.”

Great Gray Owl hoar frost Admiral Road Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_1954
Great Grays are powered by voles—both Meadow Vole and Red-backed Vole. Some studies have shown that their diet is 97% voles. Their talons are tiny compared to Great Horneds which eat much larger prey (rabbits, squirrels). And voles must be in good supply as this guy caught two back to back within minutes.

Great Gray Owl hoar frost Admiral Road Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_1592

Great Gray Owl hoar frost Admiral Road Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_1592 - Version 2The two images above are just different crops of the same original image. Which do you like better? [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f5.6 at 1/320, ISO 400, aperture priority, tripod]

Great Gray Owl hoar frost Admiral Road Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_1739[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f5.6 at 1/320, ISO 640, aperture priority]

Great Gray Owl hoar frost Admiral Road Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_1882 (1)[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f5.6 at 1/125, ISO 500, aperture priority, tripod]
At dusk we found another Great Gray along McDavitt Road, about a mile or two from the other bird (as the raven flies). Thankfully Great Grays often pick photogenic perches in this stretch of road that has NO power poles or fence posts!

Great Gray Owl hoar frost Admiral Road Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_1850[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f5.6 at 1/125, ISO 640, aperture priority, tripod]
The spruce boughs in the background hint at this bird’s wild far northern haunts.

11 Tips for Fantastic Fungi Photos

Sure the wildflowers are mostly done blooming but the mushrooms are peaking. Now is the perfect time to search out some of our mycological wonders. But put on your grubbiest jeans because to get really fantastic fungi photos, you need to get LOW…usually laying on your belly.

Boletus edulis King Bolete Eckbeck Campground SNF Finland MN IMG_0024991Getting eye-to-eye with “The King”… The King Bolete (Boletus edulis), Superior National Forest, Minnesota. August 26th. [Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens with 1.4x tele-extender; f5.6 at 1/250 second, ISO 800; flash at -0.5ev]

1. GET DOWN AND DIRTY
There are a few species that grow on standing trees, some even sprout conveniently at head-height (Sulphur Shelf, Oyster Mushroom, Shelving Tooth, Birch Polypore) but the vast majority are on the forest floor or very low to the ground on fallen logs.

2. WIDE ANGLE FUN
If I find a relatively large mushroom in an uncluttered setting, I often like to play with a WIDE view to show the habitat of the fungus. I use a 10-20mm Sigma lens on a 1.6x crop-factor camera so the equivalent would be 16-32mm lens. This is WIDE.
Now get LOW and CLOSE to your subject. Use a very small aperture to get a very large depth-of-field…f11 to f22.
Wide angle views can be very interesting but you need to have a large specimen and get VERY close to it. Fly Amanita (Amanita muscaria) Hawk Ridge, Duluth, Minnesota. October 3
Hericium fungi Jay Cooke State Park Carlton Co MN IMG_0000935Comb Tooth (Hericium sp.) [Canon EOS XTi with Sigma 10-20mm lens at 10mm; f22 at 1.3 seconds, ISO 400; on tripod] Jay Cooke State Park, Carlton County, Minnesota; October 4th.
Suillus sp. BWCA wide IMG_0066900Suillus sp. [Canon 7D with Sigma 10-20mm lens at 10mm; f13 at 1/100 second, ISO 800; flash at -0.33ev, handheld with camera braced on ground] September 26th.

3. GROUNDSKEEPING
This is rule 3 because almost every mushroom growing on the ground or on a log is surrounded by distracting elements—twigs and branches in the background, leaves covering part of the fungus, grasses and pine needles sticking up and into the frame, dirt on the cap, etc. A little harmless “groundskeeping” can help your images immensely. First, explore camera angles by moving around your subject with your camera in your hand. Once you’ve found the ideal view, put your camera on the tripod. Set your exposure with adequate depth of field (often f9, f11, f13 with small mushrooms). Now look through the viewfinder while using your depth of field preview button (if your camera has one). Do you notice any distracting elements in the frame? If so, we need to remove them. I don’t go as far as bringing tweezers and brushes, but I will pluck grasses, leaves and twigs from near the subject, brush away dirt from the cap with my hand, …For larger plants that are in the way, I’ll either hold them back with a log or small clamp. If the background is hopelessly cluttered, I may bring in a mossy log or some green leaves and prop them up about a foot from the subject.
Amanita white ungroomed IMG_2731Note the distracting grasses behind this lovely Amanita, and the debris on the cap. These are easily plucked and will improve your image 100 percent.

IMG_2736The “landscaped” version with distracting grasses and cap debris removed. Cloquet Forest, Carlton County, Minnesota [Canon 40D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 126mm; f7.1 at 1/25 second, ISO 200; flash at -1.0ev, tripod] August 30th.

4. USE A TRIPOD
There are several issues we’re trying to solve by using a tripod. Consider the following scenarios:

a.—You find a beautiful Amanita muscaria on the forest floor. It is a big mushroom and you want the stalk and cap in focus. You’ve forgotten your tripod so you have to hand-hold the shot. In order to even get 1/200 of a second, you have to crank up your ISO to 3200…a very “noisy” setting. But when you look at your photo on the camera’s LCD, you see that only a small portion of the fungus is in focus. You then see that the camera had to be at f5.6 to get 1/200 second. You really need f11 to get all in focus but now your shutter speed falls to 1/30 of a second and far too slow to hand-hold. Bummer.

b.—In scenario two, you’ve remembered your tripod…Hallelujah! Now you can shoot at f11 at a noise-free ISO 200 even though your shutter speed is now very slow. Unlike wildflowers that shake in the slightest breeze, mushrooms sit quite still and you can use very long exposures. Problems solved.

5. TELEPHOTO
My workhorse “fungus lens” is a Canon 70-200mm f4. Usually I am putting the Canon 500D close-up lens to the front of it for macro work or shots of very small mushrooms. But occasionally, for larger mushrooms, or clusters of specimens, I will use the lens without the close-up attachment at the 200mm end. This also helps reduce background clutter because details quickly go out of focus at longer focal lengths.
Marasmium rotula Pinwheel Marasmius near Eagle River WI 246_4636Pinwheel Marasmius (Marasmius rotula) near Eagle River, Wisconsin.

Pholiota squarrosoides Sharp-scaly Pholiota Cook Co MN IMG_0050This cluster of newly-emerging Pholiota squarrosoides (Sharp-scaly Pholiota) was the perfect subject for a telephoto lens shot. The background blurred nicely. Cook Co MN [Canon EOS XTi with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 104mm; f8 at 1/30 second, ISO 800; flash; Superior National Forest, Cook County, Minnesota. August 21st.

6. FUNGI IN THE LANDSCAPE
This is related to the tip above, but your specimen/s are often farther from the camera and the surrounding habitat becomes a major part of the subject (and is in focus).
Northern Tooth Climacodon septentrionale Rock Pond Duluth MN IMG_0024873 Northern Tooth or Shelving Tooth (Climacodon septentrionale) is a large fungus growing on old (and dying hardwoods). I backed up and got the fungus in its natural habitat…Northern Hardwood Forest. Rock Pond, UMD, Duluth MN [Canon 7D with Sigma 10-20mm lens at 10mm; f13 at 1/10 second, ISO 400; flash at -3.0ev, tripod] August 24th.

7. DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
Often just portions of your fungus subject can make for interesting photos. I’m talking about photogenic details here, not details that aid in identification (We’ll discuss that next post).

Fly Amanita (Amanita muscaria) [October 3; Hawk Ridge, Duluth, Minnesota]A close up of the scales on the cap of Fly Amanita (Amanita muscaria), Hawk Ridge, Duluth, MN. October 3rd. [Canon XTi with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 78mm with Canon 500D close up lens attached; f10 at 1/200 second, ISO 400]

Lenzites betulina Birch Lenzites Jay Cooke S.P. Carlton Co MN IMG_0026896I love the under-cap maze-like pattern of Birch Lenzites (Lenzites betulina). I cranked up the contrast by clipping the blacks and whites in Levels in Photoshop. Jay Cooke State Park, Carlton County, Minnesota

Gyromitra esculenta Conifer False Morel BWCAW Cook Co MN IMG_0008811The “Brain Fungus” is one name for Gyromitra esculenta, the Conifer False Morel. It is a spring species that lives up to its name…This close up view is quite brain-like! BWCAW, Cook County, Minnesota.

8. FLASH…RIGHT-SIDE-UP & UPSIDE-DOWN
The vast majority of fungi photos need a little lighting help. Dark woods, messy backgrounds, contrasty, sun-dappled light or flat light, can all be cured with some additional light. Flash also makes your images look sharper. It is rare that I don’t use flash, an off-camera LED light, flashlight, or reflector to add light to an image. The pop-up flash on your camera is OK, but quite weak. I recommend a higher-powered flash that attaches to the hot shoe of your DSLR.
Suillus cavipes Hollow-foot Hollow-stemmed Suillus CR52 Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_7081This first shot of Hollow-foot or Hollow-stemmed Suillus (Suillus cavipes) is okay…but notice that the flash created a shadow from the cap that blocks up all the detail of the stem. I think we can improve this.

Suillus cavipes Hollow-foot Hollow-stemmed Suillus CR52 Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_7092By turning the camera upside down with the flash now on the bottom just above the moss, I was able to illuminate the stem AND cap. A much better photo.

9. LORD OF THE RING-LIGHT
LED ring lights are different than flashes. They emit a constant light via LED bulbs. You can use them either on your camera or as a stand-alone light source. They are not nearly as powerful as standard hot-shoe flashes, so you need to be very close to your subject. But they do offer a couple advantages; you can see exactly what your light will illuminate; and exposure is simple. I often use the LED light in conjunction with the reflector. Mine is the Polaroid Macro LED ring light (About $50 on Amazon)

ring light LED Pholiota mushrooms Leimer Rd Jay Cooke State Park Carlton Co MN IMG_7940This Pholiota mushroom cluster was photographed deep in the dark woods of Jay Cooke State Park, Carlton County, Minnesota. I absolutely needed additional light on these gorgeous ‘shrooms. See the next photo on how I did that. [Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 176mm; f5.6 at 1/160 second, ISO 1250; ring light LED] September 10th.

Pholiota mushrooms Leimer Rd Jay Cooke State Park Carlton Co MN IMG_7931I wanted side light in this case, so a flash on the camera would not achieve this. To get the sidelighting, I placed my Polaroid Macro LED ring light off to the side. It has its own power so I could use it off the camera. You can control the power of the LEDs as well.
Blue Stain Skogstjarna IMG_6468I used the LED ring light to illuminate these tiny Blue Stain fungus cups. It was quite dark on the forest floor but I placed the ring light very close to these guys and also bounced some light in with a reflector. [Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 113mm and Canon 500D close up lens attached; f16 at 1/1000, ISO 1600; hand held (This is a case where I did not have my tripod with me (bad Sparky!) If I had a tripod, I could have shot at a much slower shutter speed and much lower ISO for a cleaner image); Skogstjarna (my land) Carlton County, Minnesota. August 25th.

10. BOUNCE IT, BOUNCE IT!
On sunny days when working in the dappled light of the forest floor, a reflector can really work wonders.
IMG_7251
Ramaria species Coral Laveau Bike Trail Jay Cooke S.P. Carlton Co MN IMG_8374This is how this beautiful cluster of Coral fungi looked without any additional light. It is an okay image.

Ramaria species Coral Laveau Bike Trail Jay Cooke S.P. Carlton Co MN IMG_8376After doing some groundskeeping (adding a few more photogenic dead leaves to the upper left corner to hide some grasses and “black holes”), I reevaluated the shot. It still needed some “punch.” The coral fungus was in the shade, but I noticed a spot of sunlight hitting the forest floor off to my left. I unfolded my 24″ circular reflector and played with where I needed to place it to get light on the corals. Since my camera was on a tripod, all I had to do once the light was right, was press the shutter button. Bouncing some sunlight into the scene with a reflector creates a pleasing light and gives depth and dimension to the coral fungus cluster. [Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 109mm; f16 at 1/4 second, ISO 200; 24″ reflector; tripod]

11. FUNGI FUN
Don’t forget the fun shots either! They can add much to a talk, presentation or article.
Chanterelles and King Boletes on a home made pizzaMy homemade pizza with freshly picked King Bolete and Chanterelle mushrooms.

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