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.

The Lost Photos—Wolf Pup, Waxwings, Wild Rice, Water-Marigold

Timber Wolf pup off Arrowhead Trail near N Swamp River Cook Co MN T5184x3456-15777Last August I escaped for a weekend to explore the Swamp River in a remote corner of Cook County in far northeast Minnesota. My goal was Moose and rare flora. But the highlights turned out to be a Timber Wolf pup that was playing along a dirt road near the canoe landing, and a feasting flock of Cedar Waxwings.

I took hundreds of photos and several videos (including playing otters) during those two days…some pretty good, I thought. After I got home, as usual, I downloaded them to an external hard drive. But before I could even really look at the photos, the hard drive crashed! I had duplicates of all the photos on the drive EXCEPT the most recent ones, including those from that weekend up north.

Fortunately, a computer guru was able to recover almost all of the images…Unfortunately, it cost quite a bit. But worth it! The lesson? YOU REALLY DON’T HAVE ANY PHOTOS UNTIL THEY ARE BACKED UP IN AT LEAST TWO PLACES. Ideally, every image should be backed up at home in two places, AND a full-size version should either be in the Cloud (Photoshelter, CrashPlan, BackBlaze, Carbonite, etc), or an off-site location (in case your house burns down). Do I follow this myself? I try, but I’m behind on backing up to the Cloud. I put my best stuff (as full-size jpegs) on Photoshelter at my http://www.sparkyphotos.com site.

Timber Wolf pup off Arrowhead Trail near N Swamp River Cook Co MN T5184x3456-15772

Timber Wolf pup off Arrowhead Trail near N Swamp River Cook Co MN T5184x3456-15796Pups this time of year often can be seen near roads. The adults are likely nearby and may still be feeding the young. NEVER feed wolf pups! The last thing we need is a wolf getting acclimated to humans. If it ever approaches a human or dwelling in the future, it will probably be “removed.”

Timber Wolf pup off Arrowhead Trail near N Swamp River Cook Co MN T5184x3456-15784

Cedar Waxwing Gunflint Trail Brule River Cook Co MN File0113The following morning I canoed part of the Brule River off the Gunflint Trail…Once again, skunked on Moose. But the Mountain-ash berries (Sorbus sp.) were ripe and the Cedar Waxwing families were chowing down!

Cedar Waxwing juveniles Brule River Gunflint Trail Cook Co MN File0130Two juvenile Cedar Waxwings feast on Mountain-ash fruit.

Zizania palustris Wild Rice male flowers? Swamp River Superior National Forest Cook Co MN File0042Did you know grasses can have beautiful flowers? This is the bloom of Wild Rice (Zizania palustris). Ducks feast on this grass during their fall migration.

Megalodonta beckii Water-Marigold Swamp River Superior National Forest Cook Co MN T5184x3456-15827 (1)Here is an interesting wildflower that grows in slow moving waters…Megalodonta beckii …Beck’s Water-Marigold

Megalodonta beckii Water-Marigold Swamp River Superior National Forest Cook Co MN T5184x3456-15832 (1)…But it is even more interesting when you lift it gently out of the swamp! The finely divided submerged leaves encircle the stem. Very neat plant.

White Water Lily leaves Lima Mountain Rd Cook Co MN File0171PacMan convention

White Water Lily Lima Mtn Grade Cook Co MN File0173I got down very low to get this image of a White Water Lily and its reflection along the Lima Mountain Grade. I then increased the contrast in Aperture.

Gotta go now…Time to backup some photos!

Event 50 years ago changes my Life: Anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act & Boundary Waters Wilderness

Aerial lake BWCAW August 1985Fifty years ago this week, September 3, 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the landmark Wilderness Act which forever protected 54 wild areas totaling over 9 million acres, including the 1 million acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). I was 13 months old, but this landmark act would change my life.

That’s a grandiose statement but it does have elements of truth. In high school I discovered birds and became a fanatical naturalist. I started to get “all granola-ey” and began reading the books by Sigurd Olson about the canoe country (Open Horizons, Listening Point, Singing Wilderness, Reflections from the North Country). My first week-long summer canoe trip to the Boundary Waters with my church youth group in 1979 was a bit of a let down. I didn’t see and feel everything Sig had written about. Seemed like the BWCA was nothing but rocks, trees and water. But a two-week expedition in 1980 really got me hooked. We really became immersed in the wilderness, experiencing some of the “timelessness” that Sig often wrote about.

I went on to work five summers, a fall and a winter in the BWCAW. Mainly as a canoe guide and naturalist. Wilderness Canoe Base on Fishhook Island on Seagull Lake became my second home (certainly my spiritual home) for a long period. My friend Chris Evavold and I even built a log cabin for the camp. It is really where I fell in love with wildness and winter; boreal forests and bogs; Moose and Marten; paddling and snowshoeing.

Old Fisher Map Boundary Waters BWCA map SMALLI loved the old Fisher Maps. Believe it or not, this is what we used to navigate by; the red dots are campsites…fire grate, tent pad, G.L. (“government latrine”…basically a wood box in the woods).

The BWCAW’s million acres extend nearly 150 miles along the Minnesota-Ontario border, butting up to Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park on the north and to Voyageurs National Park on the west. The BWCAW encompasses OVER 1,000 LAKES, 1,200 miles of canoe routes, 11 hiking trails and approximately 2,000 designated campsites. Truly a vast roadless area.

Moose Antler BWCAW Oct 1996A shed Moose antler returning to the earth near Alpine Lake (until I picked it up…It now hangs on my friends outhouse!)

Stensaas-portage Little Indian Sioux BWCAWTravel in the Boundary Waters is primarily by canoe. Portage on the Little Indian Sioux River, BWCAW.

Peter Lake BWCAW MayA peaceful evening on Peter Lake, BWCAW.

Little Indian Sioux BWCAW MN SparkyStensaasLittle Indian Sioux River, BWCAW.

Larch Lake BWCAW Cook Co MN IMG_0008505Larch Lake, BWCAW

Gray Jay [Winter; BWCA Minnesota]Gray Jay comes to visit our campsite on a winter Boundary Waters trip. I learned that they’ll eat all your gorp…except the M&Ms!

Laurentian Tiger Beetle Cicindela denikei Seagull River BWCAW Cook Co MN IMG_0010481A rare Laurentian Tiger Beetle (Cicindela denikei) shimmers emerald green on its substrate of Saganaga granite. Lake Saganaga, BWCAW.

Common Loon calling BWCAW IMG_002475Nothing says wilderness in Minnesota like a calling Loon. Their haunting cries echo across still waters. Twin Lake, BWCAW.

Stensaas-BWCA1 IMG_0008672We owe those who fought for this wilderness a great debt of gratitude. If not for them, there would likely have been “a road to every lake” and a plethora of cabins and resorts, each with a boat, jet ski and other silence-busting contraptions.

Fog and canoe Bower Trout Lk BWCAW Cook Co MN IMG_0008630Floating on a cloud. Dense fog creates a surreal scene on this solo paddle on Bower Trout Lake, BWCAW.

BWCAW lake sunrise BWW-105Sunrises somewhere near Brule Lake, BWCAW.

Seagull River BWCAW Cook Co MN IMG_0010373Rushes along the Seagull River create a dramatic pattern.

Blue fog Bower Trout Lk BWCAW Cook Co MN IMG_0008653Blue Fog on Bower-Trout Lake, BWCAW. A cartographers mistake led to the name…It was supposed to be “Lower Trout Lake.”

Common Loon Blue Fog Twin Lake Cook Co MN IMG_002870Common Loon in blue dawn. Twin Lake, BWCAW.

Erin-Jon-Sam-BWCA winter copyA winter camping trip out of Ely into the Boundary Waters. Back to front: Sam Cook, Jon Farchmin, Erin Dewitt. Summer isn’t the only time to experience the “B-dub.”

Timo & Red Pine_Seagull Lake BWCAWThe ancient ones. These 400-year-old Red Pines originated from seeds in the 1500s! Timo Rova inspects an old fire scar. Sadly these pines are now all gone. The 4th of July Big Blowdown in 1999 and the two forest fires since then, have finished them off. Seagull Lake, BWCAW.

I hope some of the seedlings scattered by the 2006 Cavity Lake Fire and the 2007 Ham Lake Fire will flourish and grow into Red Pine monarchs that will still be watching over canoeists in the year 2414. Happy Birthday BWCA!

Stories & Photos from the Floating Blind (Floating Hide): Sparky’s Article in e-zine Wildlife Photographic

Sparky in floating blind Krenmueller farms resaca Lower Rio Grande Valley TXSparky in a floating blind on a resaca in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas (photo by Ryan Marshik)

I subscribe to very few photo magazines, but the one that inspires my photography the most is WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHIC.
It is an e-zine that comes out every two months. I ordered it through the Apple app store/iTunes and view it on my iPhone or iPad. The photos look AMAZING on the Apple screens!

If you are at all interested in wildlife photography (and have an iPhone, iPad, iPod), you should invest in this

Here is a LINK TO WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHICS in the app store

Wildlife Photographic issue_6_cover

SPARKY’S FLOATING BLIND ARTICLE
In the July/August edition I have an article on using and building a floating blind; tips and tricks for getting unique photos of birds (and other critters!) from eye level.

Sparky STensaas floating blind Tobin-Kimmes IMG_0060817

…AN EXCERPT FROM MY ARTICLE IN THE JULY/AUG WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHICS
GET INVISIBLE! USING A FLOATING BLIND/HIDE
by Sparky Stensaas

It was a gorgeous June afternoon in northern Minnesota…Absolutely clear, sunny, and about 70 degrees. I knew I had to get out in my floating blind (“floating hide” in Britain and Europe). So Bridget and I picked up the kids at daycare and grabbed a take-out pizza on the way home. This greatly expedited the usually lengthy dinner circus so I could get out in the blind before sunset.

ALL DRESSED UP AND SOMEWHERE TO GO
Fortunately for me, we live only five miles from one of the best and most expansive cattail marshes for many miles around. Ironically it is manmade, a string of wetland mitigation ponds created by the state. I stepped into my new neoprene waders that Bridget got me for Father’s Day—luxurious compared to the last few pairs of leaky hand-me downs—and pulled on my camouflage mask and eased the PVC floating blind into the water.

There’s a few things you seem to conveniently forget between your floating blind trips…
1. Swamp gas really stinks!
2. Leeches thrive in these ponds
3. Muck and aquatic weeds are not easy to crawl through
4. Cold water ALWAYS spills over the top of your waders just as you’re leaning over to take an award-winning shot.
5. Every object your leg bumps into under water MUST be a feisty Snapping Turtle (or so your mind thinks!)
6. …and Wood Ducks are notoriously spooky!

[READ MORE (and see MORE PHOTOS) IN THE E-ZINE WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHIC]

Ring-necked Duck pair Tobin-Kimmes Douglas Co WI IMG_000900 copyShooting this pair of Ring-necked Ducks at eye-level from the floating blind creates a pleasingly shallow depth of field.
[Canon XTi with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens and 1.4x tele-extender, 1/640 at f8, ISO 200]

Common Loon pair Tobin-Kimmes Douglas Co WI _MG_3307 copyYes, it takes a lot of gumption to get up before dawn and slip the blind into the cold water. But the rewards can be amazing. Common Loon (Great Northern Diver) pair silhouetted in the morning mists of sunrise.
[Canon XTi with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens and 1.4x tele-extender, 1/4000 at f8, ISO 200, -1.0 ev]

Bufflehead flight Tobin-Kimmes Douglas Co WI IMG_0019478 (1) copyWhen a male Bufflehead (or any bird) bursts into flight and is winging past the blind, it is good to have a camera with a high burst rate. The Canon 7D can do 8 frames per second and I used all of them as I held down the shutter button. In situations where I know action might be occurring any second, I turn the camera to Shutter Priority 1/1000 of a second (or faster), Auto ISO, and choose Continuous Focus option (AI Servo in Canon and AF-C in Nikon) to ensure a sharp flight shot.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens and 1.4x tele-extender, 1/1000 at f8, ISO 400, -0.5 ev]

Virginia Rail juvenile drinking Kimmes-Tobin Wetlands Douglas Co WI IMG_0060791 (1) copyA juvenile Virginia Rail feeds along the cattails of a Wisconsin cattail marsh. A floating blind is one of the only ways to get an eye-level shot of this rarely seen species.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/250 at f5.6, ISO 400, -0.67 ev]

Rio Grande Leopard Frog Sick Dog Ranch TX 903_0315 Sparky Stensaas copyBirds aren’t the only critters in the pond. It took a stealthy approach and a change of lenses to get this unique perspective of a Rio Grande Leopard Frog in south Texas. Bring a couple shorter lenses (maybe a 70-200mm and a macro lens) in a waterproof container for these type of unexpected opportunities.
[Canon 10D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens and Canon 500D close up lens attachment, 1/200 at f16, ISO 400]

Common Loon Tobin-Kimmes Douglas Co WI _MG_3412 Sparky Stensaas copyCan you really ever have enough Common Loon photos? Their blood red eyes and striking plumage make them a favorite subject. Plus, they are very curious creatures and will often approach a floating blind. Minnesota’s very appropriate State Bird!
[Canon XTi with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens and 1.4x tele-extender, 1/800 at f8, ISO 200, -0.33 ev]

Least Bittern at nest[April; Krenmueller Farms, Lower Rio Grande Valley, Texas]Least Bittern in a resaca near Texas’s Rio Grande River nabbing a minnow with a lightning-fast strike. More than half the fun of a floating blind is getting access to a private world that most folks never witness.
[Canon 10D with Canon 500mm f4 lens, 1/1000 at f4, ISO 400, -0.5 ev, flash]

HERE IS A LINK TO MY OTHER FLOATING BLIND POST (WITH VIDEO)
HIDE & SEEK WITH THE FLOATING BLIND: RAIL-A-PALOOZA

The Home Life of Woodpeckers

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nest St. Louis Co MN IMG_3194Usually I don’t recommend photographing birds while at the nest. This is especially true of songbirds who are easily disturbed and may even abandon a nest with eggs if the photographer is too intrusive. But woodpeckers are a bit more tolerant, especially once you can hear the young begging and calling from the cavity. At this stage, mom and dad are making frequent trips to the nest just to keep the babies full and happy. You don’t even need a blind as they will usually tolerate your quiet presence. But don’t overstay your welcome! A half hour to an hour or so is probably plenty. After that, the parents may become annoyed with the unwanted attention.

EQUIPMENT and TECHNIQUE
Ideally you’ll find a nest that is not too high in the tree. Eye-level would be wonderful but this rarely happens. Cavities up to about 20 feet in the tree are workable. Look for an angle that is more of a side-view than a straight-on shot that will only get you many “back shots.” Then look for an uncluttered background. For me the perfect scenario is a background mix of blue sky and green leaves that is a fair distance away so they blur nicely into green and blue blobs of color (see the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nest photo below).
A flash is essential in many situations. Dappled sunlight is a very tough photographic situation and most nests are deep in the woods. A flash alone will be better than no flash, but a flash with a Better Beamer attached will throw your light much farther. Grab your tripod for rock solid shots. Since you know exactly where the action is going to happen, it is easy to set up your tripod/camera combo in exactly the perfect spot. Then, when a bird comes in, you don’t even have to look through the camera, just press and hold the shutter. And since with flash your shutter synch speed will likely be 1/200 or 1/250 of a second, the tripod will help keep your images sharp.

Northern Flicker nest nestlings Skogstjarna Carlton Co MN IMG_3474A Northern Flicker pair decided to nest right along our driveway this summer. And they chose an interesting site. They excavated a hole in a “widow maker” …a large branch that had broken off the main tree but was still hanging by a “thread.” But the branch stayed intact and they survived. It was fun to watch them feed the young ones. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f8 at 1/250 second, ISO 1600, Canon 420EX flash and Better Beamer, hand held]

Golden-fronted Woodpecker peeks out of nest cavity Krenmueller Farms LRGV TX IMG_0136Golden-fronted Woodpeckers are the southern cousin to our Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Note their golden yellow nape and the red atop the head (only the males show this mark).This male in a nest cavity in south Texas near the Rio Grande River was not calling, just yawning. Raising kids is tiring work! [Canon XTi with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens and 1.4x teleconverter, f8 at 1/125 second, ISO 400, -1.0 ev, tripod]

Northern Flicker nest Carlton Co MN IMG_0020496Northern Flicker in nest cavity, Carlton County, Minnesota. Flickers often excavate nest holes in living aspen trees, though most trees likely suffer from heart rot. The [Canon 40D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/2000 ISO 400, braced on car door]

Northern Flicker feedin young Cook Co MN sky added IMG_0009408Northern Flicker feeding young in nest along the Gunflint Trail, Cook County, Minnesota. Cavity is in a pine that was amidst a burn following a forest fire. [Canon 40D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f7.1 at 1/250 second, ISO 400, Canon 420EX flash and Better Beamer, tripod]

Pileated Woodpecker Gooseberry Falls S.P. MN IMG_012497Thanks to Paul Sundberg for sharing this Pileated Woodpecker nest location a few years ago. It was in a very photogenic Paper Birch too! Look closely and you can see that the male (red “mustache”) is doing some “house cleaning” by removing the young’s fecal sacs from the cavity. He will fly off and dump them away from the nest so as not to advertise its location to predators with a pile at the base of the home tree. [Canon XTi with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/640, ISO 400, Canon 420EX flash and Better Beamer, tripod]

Pileated Woodpecker Gooseberry Falls S.P. MN IMG_012467 (1)Male Pileated feeding the crew. The female lacks the red “mustache.” Abandoned Pileated nest cavities (the birds never reuse a nest hole) are readily adopted by many species including Flying Squirrels, Red Squirrels, Pine Marten, bats, nesting ducks (Wood Ducks, Common Merganser, Hooded Merganser, Bufflehead), nesting owls (Boreal and Saw-whet), other woodpeckers (Hairy, Northern Flicker) and Kestrel. Pileateds are true “keystone” species in the North Woods…a species that is very important to the habitat and to many other species.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at nest Skogstjarna Carlton Co MN IMG_0022246A few years ago we had a nesting Yellow-bellied Sapsucker near the house. This female (no yellow on throat) brings a beak full of ants to the youngsters. I like how the blue sky and green leaves background blurred in this shot. A Better Beamer on my flash lit up the bird nicely.

Hairy Woodpecker baby peeks out of cavity CR8 Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_0036982A juvenile Hairy Woodpecker boy begs from his aspen home (aspen tree, not Aspen, Colorado!) Baby woodpeckers can be LOUD when hungry. This is usually how I find the nest cavities.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nest St. Louis Co MN IMG_3235

Northern Flicker nest cavity Alango Twp? CR25 St. Louis Co MN IMG_2350The Northern Flicker was actually my “trigger bird” many years ago. A trigger bird is the one that got one excited about birding. As a kid I was a fanatical collector of many things—baseball cards, beer cans, barbed wire, to name just a few. When I was 13 I saw a strange bird land on the light pole in front of our house. It had many field marks—spots on the breast, a red mark, a black “moustache”, and lots of yellow. I somehow found out it was a Yellow-shafted Flicker (now called Northern Flicker) and I wondered how many other birds were around. I basically started “collecting” bird sightings. This led to a lifelong fascination with birds, and eventually wildlife photography. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/640, ISO 1000, braced on car window]

Northern Flicker nest cavity Alango Twp? CR25 St. Louis Co MN IMG_2332My flash had run out of batteries and dusk was approaching, but I didn’t want to miss the shot. What to do? I simply cranked up the ISO to 3200 and kept shooting. I was even able to freeze the action as this Flicker fluffed her feathers. Sure its “noisier’ than if I would have shot it at ISO 200, but I still got the shot. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/1250, ISO 3200, braced on car window]

Black-backed Woodpecker feeds young Fond du Lac State Forest MN IMG_012381Black-backed Woodpeckers are a bird of remote boreal forests. Then NEVER come to bird feeders and rarely leave their Black Spruce/Tamarack bogs. You can usually tell their cavities by the ring around the hole that has been completely debarked. This female is feeding a young male (note his yellow cap). Interestingly, the following year another Black-backed nest was occupied just above this one in the same Tamarack. Was it the same adults? Or one of the offspring? Black-backeds often nest in living spruce, tamarack and pine near water or other openings in bogs, burns, and upland spruce-fir forests.

 

 

 

Cactus in Minnesota?—Blue Mounds State Park: Part 2

Prickly Pear Cactus 3 1024x
CACTUS IN MINNESOTA?
Yes, actually two species of Prickly Pear Cactus occur in southwest Minnesota…Opuntia fragilis and Opuntia macrorhiza. And Blue Mounds State Park is a great place to see them for yourself. No, not giant cartoon-type cactus but a low-growing cactus with GORGEOUS and HUGE yellow blossoms. They should be blooming now! To make sure, call the park office in advance.
Purple Prairie Clover? 234_3452 copyIf you squint, you can almost imagine a time when tallgrass prairie covered the endless landscapes of southern and western Minnesota. And Purple Prairie-Clover (Dalea purpurea) was part of that rich mosaic of prairie wildflowers.
This species is a legume with a taproot that may reach down 6 feet into the soil! This root system helps prevent soil erosion. It is a true prairie plant that has evolved with fire, and does not tolerate shade. Pronghorns are even known to eat it.

Bison foursome Blue Mounds 153_5345 copyA looming thunderstorm provides a dramatic backdrop to these grazing Bison. Don’t let me mislead you…There is a fence around the entire herd, and they are not always visible to park visitors.

Bison run blur Blue Mounds State Park Luverne MN _MG_5157 copyIn 1961, the park added three bison from the Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge near Valentine, Nebraska to start the present bison herd. Today, the Blue Mounds’ herd is maintained at more than 100 bison.

Coneflower Blue Mounds Rock Co MNNotice the deeply cut leaves and extemely reflexed ray petals of the Pinnate Prairie Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) (sometimes called Gray-headed Coneflower). To emphasize the incredible five-foot height of this prairie native, I crouched down with my wide angle lens and put the flowering heads “in the clouds” so to speak. This photo would not have had much impact if taken at “eye-level” with the flowers.

Gray Partridge near Blue Mounds State Park Rock Co MNGray Partridge, the bird formerly known as Hungarian Partridge, are not easy to find…anywhere. So I was very fortunate to run into this breeding-plumaged male near the park. They are one of the few birds that utilize seemingly barren crop fields that surround the park. I lost the original of this image when I dropped a hard drive years ago, but fortunately I printed a 4×6. This is a scan of that 4×6 print.

Turkey Vulture Blue Mounds State Park landscape Rock Co MN IMG_9978A Turkey Vulture soars over the prairie at Blue Mounds State Park. This is the same tree and Sioux Quartzite outcrop as in another photo in this post.

Great Horned Owl cliff, Blue Mounds S.P. MN _MG_5237Cliffs can be habitat too. This Great Horned Owl has made a home of the Quartzite cliffs on the east side of the park. Hiking trails parallel the cliffs along the base and also on top of the bluff.

GHOW-SS in flight, Blue Mounds S.P. MN _MG_5240We rarely see Great Horned Owls in flight during the day. So when this guy took off, I held down the shutter. He/she then obligingly banked to reveal the full spread of its large wings and a full tail fan. The fact that he/she peeked over his/her shoulder at me was a bonus.

Rock Wren BlueMoundsSP-Stensaas (1)RARE FIND
I found this singing Rock Wren at the top of a cliff several Junes ago. The closest this western bird regularly breeds to Minnesota would be the Black Hills of South Dakota, over 300 miles away! Unfortunately, this guy did not find a mate here and likely moved on.

Tree and Sioux Quartzite Blue Mounds State Park Rock Co MNSome outcrops of Sioux Quartzite are more red than others, and this one also has excellent patterning with crusted green lichens. This scene is near the drive up to the Interpretive Center. The Box Elder (I think it’s a Box Elder) adds to the composition that might be a little boring without it.

Bison Rainbow Blue Mounds-Stensaas copyA dawn rainstorm spawned a sunrise rainbow. The clouds, 180 degrees from the rising sun, lit up a beautiful pink color. In order to get the entire arc of the rainbow, I used my 10mm lens (equivalent of a 16mm lens as it was on my camera with a 1.6 crop factor) and placed the Bison underneath. I tried everything I could think of to get him to lift his head, but to no avail. I still like this unique image.

Minnesota’s Wild West—Blue Mounds State Park

Blue Mounds State Park has always been a favorite place of mine. The expansive prairie, Bison herd, rocky cliffs, and Dakota Indian history add to the exotic flavor and very “western” feel in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Located in extreme southwest Minnesota, the park is part of the Prairie Coteau (Coteau des Prairie) landscape; A plateau that rises a couple hundred feet above the surrounding prairie in parts of eastern South Dakota, North Dakota and western Iowa and Minnesota.

I camped here over the Memorial Day Weekend. I was down with my folks for my cousin’s wedding but squeezed in a few hours of photography.

Quartzite cliffs of Blue Mounds State Park Rock Co MN IMG_0214The escarpment of Sioux Quartzite at Blue Mounds rises vertically about 100 feet from the surrounding prairie. Local lore insists that the Lakota (i.e. Dakota, Sioux) used to use the cliffs to their hunting advantage, stampeding herds of Bison off the edge and to their deaths, then collecting the carcasses at the bottom. Locals claim that early settlers found huge piles of Bison bones at the base of the cliffs. But the MN DNR claims that no evidence exists to substantiate this scenario.

Quartzite cliffs of Blue Mounds State Park Rock Co MN IMG_0210

Common Nighthawk near Interpretive Center Blue Mounds State Park Rock Co MN IMG_9935The best place in Minnesota to see Common Nighthawks in their natural habitat and performing their “booming” courtship flights is the parking lot area of Blue Mounds Interpretive Center off CR8. A startlingly loud “WHOOSH” comes from the sky just above you. Looking up you see Nighthawk going into a dive, air rushing over the leading edge of its arched wings to create the sound. The booming is used to attract mates, signal territory and possibly to drive off intruders. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, handheld]

Common Nighthawk near Interpretive Center Blue Mounds State Park Rock Co MN IMG_9920Nighthawks are neither nocturnal nor a hawk. What they are is a member of the Caprimulgidae, or “Goatsuckers”, another unfortunate and inaccurate name. A possible story on how this name came to be may be rooted in European lore. There are relatives of this bird in England, and they will feed on aerial insects kicked up by herds of livestock. Maybe a shepherd 150 years ago noticed these birds flying around his goats one evening, then just by chance they gave poorly (milk) the next day. The shepherd puts 2 and 2 together and comes up with 5…The birds must have sucked the milk from his goats! Of course this is a ridiculous idea and not true in any aspect. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, handheld]

Common Nighthawk near Interpretive Center Blue Mounds State Park Rock Co MN IMG_9939And here is the Nighthawk in flight! Though it is hard to believe that this bird’s tiny bill will open up to reveal a large gaping mouth, it is essential to their feeding style. At dusk and again in the morning, Nighthawks take to the air to feed on flying insects. They dive and perform aerial acrobatics as they inhale hundreds of mosquitos, midges, flies and other insects. Aerial Vacuum Cleaners! [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, handheld]

Blue Mounds State Park Sioux Quartzite and Wild RosesThe rosey Sioux Quartzite compliments the pink of the Wild Roses.

Blue Grosbeak near Interpretive Center Blue Mounds State Park Rock Co MN IMG_0423 The Blue Grosbeak is a rare bird in Minnesota. Blue Mounds State Park (especially near the Interpretive Center of CR8) is the best and easiest place to find them in the state. Here is a highly cropped image of a male..They are not easy to get close to! Minnesota is at the far northern edge of their U.S. range. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, Canon 430EX flash and Better Beamer, handheld]

Wilson's Phalarope Hardwick Sewage Ponds Rock Co MN IMG_0324I took a side trip to the nearby Hardwick, Minnesota Sewage Ponds. Even though it was Memorial Day weekend, I found a very late Greater White-fronted Goose and this male Wilson’s Phalarope preening peacefully. Of course, we always want to get eye-level with our subjects so I had to crawl on the goose-poop laced grass of the sewage pond to get the shot. Who said wildlife photography is glamourous? [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, handheld]

Warbling Vireo near swimming beach Blue Mounds State Park Rock Co MN IMG_0164I do not have many photos of Warbling Vireos (fairly uncommon in northern Minnesota) so I took the opportunity when there were several near the swimming beach defending their territories. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, Canon 430EX flash and Better Beamer, handheld]

Orchard Oriole near swimming beach Blue Mounds State Park Rock Co MN IMG_0146Not the Baltimore Oriole we are all familiar with, this is the smaller cousin, the Orchard Oriole. Found in wooded edges, farmsteads, groves, and backyards across southern Minnesota. This is my first semi-decent photo of one. I’ll take it! [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, Canon 430EX flash and Better Beamer, handheld]

Canada Goose family sunset silhouette Blue Mounds State Park Rock Co MN IMG_0088I can never pass up a good silhouette. This Canada Goose family was swimming on the small reservoir at sunset. I underexposed by a couple stops to create the silhouette and rich colors in the water. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, handheld]

Next time, more photos from past trips to Blue Mounds State Park in extreme SW Minnesota.

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