Posts from the ‘behavior’ Category

2021 “Top Ten” #5 Bird Behavior

“Is this just another category so you can show more bird photos Sparky?” Why, yes, yes it is! And just so you know…I do include flying as a behavior for some reason. I guess technically everything a bird does is “behavior,” so I’m good!

Bald Eagle and Goldeneyes; February; Mississippi River

I can feel my frozen finger tips by just looking at this photo. So COLD! Most of the Mississippi River was frozen at this point in February; only spots below locks and dams were open…and this spring-fed spot near Buffalo, Wisconsin. Though it appears this young Bald Eagle is preying on the Common Goldeneyes, it is actually plucking small fish from just below the surface. There were several eagles and they made multiple passes each. I just laid down on the snow with my Canon R5 and Canon 100-500mm lens and started tracking them as they approached. The R5 did amazingly well, even in the well-below-zero-F temps. I like the monochromatic blue cast to this image.

[Canon R5 with Canon 100-500mm lens at 500mm; 1/800 second at f8; ISO 100; 0 ev; handheld]

Green Heron; October; Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge

The critical moment. It has always been a thing of wonder to watch birds of all types landing on perches. Can you imagine the vision and motor skills this takes? How about a Great Gray Owl alighting on the tip top of a tiny spruce? It can’t even see the bough when it actally lands! This Green Heron made a perfect two-point landing I am proud to report.

[Canon R5 with Canon 100-500mm lens at 500mm; 1/1250 second at f7.1; ISO 640; 0 ev; handheld]

American Avocets; May; Prairie Potholes of North Dakota

Courtship in American Avocets is highly stylized. This water-thrashing by the male is performed immediately before he mounts the female. The only way I was able to get this behavior shot from such close range was because I was invisible! My floating blind hides the human form which is what alarms much wildlife.

[Canon R5 with Canon 100-500mm lens at 472mm; 1/1250 second at f7.1; ISO 100; 0 ev; on tripod head in floating blind]

Evening Grosbeaks; January; Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota

Not a great photo but kind of fun with all the “bird bickering” going on. This, of course, is common behavior at bird feeders. Evening Grosbeaks are some of the feistiest! Sax-Zim Bog is the best place to find big flocks in winter.

[Canon R5 with Canon 100-500mm lens at 451mm; 1/800 second at f7.1; ISO 2000; -0.33 ev; handheld]

Hooded Oriole; July; Box Canyon, Arizona

It is not only Carpenter Bees (in background) that find the blossoms of agaves irresistable! Hooded Orioles also make a beeline for the blooms where they can feast on nectar.

I waited a couple hours to get this shot. I chose a single blooming agave that was at or below eye level (most others were higher up so it would be a less interesting angle with a blah sky background). A few female Hoodeds came in but I really wanted a male. But I kind of blew it with the autofocus as it locked on the flower and not the bird (so don’t blow this photo up too much!).

[Canon R5 with Canon 100-500mm lens at 500mm; 1/1250 second at f7.1; ISO 500; 0 ev; on tripod head in floating blind]

Wilson’s Phalarope preening; May; Chase Lake NWR, North Dakota

Preening takes up a lot of a bird’s resting time. You’ve got to keep those feathers nice and aligned! The floating blind again worked its magic on this prairie pothole lake in North Dakota as I was able to approach this Wilson’s Phalarope closely…Not unnoticed, of course, it knew a big floating blob was only 10 yards away, but rather completely ignored. It didn’t care that the blob was close since it was not a human- or prey-shaped form.

[Canon R5 with Canon 100-500mm lens at 428mm; 1/1250 second at f6.3; ISO 320; +0.33 ev; on tripod head in floating blind]

Snow Geese and moon; North Ottawa Impoundment, Minnesota

In recent years massive numbers of geese have migrated through western Minnesota in spring. Part of this is due to the creation of the huge North Ottawa Impoundment in Grant County. It is part of a multi-county watershed project that has benefited wildlife immensely.

I noticed the moon and intentionally shot straight up as flock after flock of Snow Geese headed north overhead.

In hindsight I should have shot with a MUCH smaller aperture to make the moon sharper in the image. After all I was only at ISO 200 and I could have got a clean image up to ISO 5000 or higher. [Canon R5 with Canon 100-500mm lens at 254mm; 1/1250 second at f5; ISO 200; 0 ev; handheld]

Wild Turkey courtship; May; Skogstjarna, Carlton County, Minnesota

Human and Wild Turkey courtship have a few similarities: Males strutting their stuff to impress the ladies! The backlit feathers in early-morning light really make this shot.

[Canon R5 with Canon 100-500mm lens at 500mm; 1/1000 second at f8; ISO 320; -2.0 ev; tripod]

American Avocets mating; May; central North Dakota

Prairie potholes aren’t just for ducks! Shorebirds benefit greatly as well. American Avocets mating in the prairie pothole region of North Dakota.

[Canon R5 with Canon 100-500mm lens at 472mm; 1/1250 second at f7.1; ISO 500; +0.33 ev; on tripod head in floating blind]

Western Grebe; May; prairie potholes of North Dakota

This Western Grebe is not just getting a drink; it is actually performing part of its courtship ritual. “Dip-shaking” is when one grebe faces another, extends its neck and dips its head in the water, lifting it slowly, water dripping from its open mouth. This behavior occurs just before “rushing,” in which both birds race across the water in a vertical position. [Canon R5 with Canon 100-500mm lens at 428mm; 1/1250 second at f6.3; ISO 320; +0.33 ev; on tripod head in floating blind]

Black-throated Hummingbird and Agave; Box Canyon; Southeast Arizona

Ready for take-off! Black-throated Hummingbird showing its true colors (Shouldn’t they be called “Magenta-throated Hummingbirds??)

[Canon R5 with Canon 100-500mm lens at 500mm; 1/1250 second at f8; ISO 800; +0.33 ev; handheld but braced on car door frame]

Broad-billed Hummingbird; Madera Canyon, Arizona

I simply like the vibrant colors (and blurred wings) of this Broad-billed Hummingbird feeding on garden flowers in Madera Canyon in southeast Arizona.

[Canon R5 with Canon 100-500mm lens at 300mm; 1/320 second at f6.3; ISO 1000; 0 ev; handheld]

Black Tern; May; Stutsman County, North Dakota

Black Tern cruising over a prairie marsh in North Dakota.

[Canon R5 with Canon 100-500mm lens at 200mm; 1/1000 second at f5.6; ISO 320; 0 ev; handheld]

Yellow-headed Blackbird; May; Arrowwood NWR, North Dakota

Male Yellow-headed Blackbirds showing off his white epaulets during his courtship song. Interestingly, Yellow-heads are dominant over Red-winged Blackbirds.

[Canon R5 with Canon 100-500mm lens at 500mm; 1/3200 second at f7.1; ISO 1000; +0.33 ev; handheld]

American Avocet courtship; May; North Dakota

[Canon R5 with Canon 100-500mm lens at 451mm; 1/1250 second at f6.3; ISO 400; +0.33 ev; on tripod head in floating blind]

Northern Shoveler; May; prairie potholes of North Dakota

Birds MUST preen their feathers in order to keep them in top shape. Preening aligns and locks the barbules on each feather. It also cleans the feathers and removes parasites. They also rub a waterproof substance from a body gland on the feathers to keep them from soaking through.

This Northern Shoveler was so busy preening that it paid my floating blind no attention at all.

[Canon R5 with Canon 100-500mm lens at 500mm; 1/1250 second at f7.1; ISO 500; +0.33 ev; on tripod head in floating blind]

Birding with Sparky 3: Virtually Live from Sax-Zim Bog: April 28, 2020

Tuesday, April 28, 2020.
Join Executive Director Sparky Stensaas on a 5 hour birding, photography, video tour in northeastern Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog. We visit Nichols Lake, the Warren Woessner Bog Boardwalk, Admiral Road willow flats and the Welcome Center. Wild Turkeys in full display, slow motion video of Wilson’s Snipe doing their aerial courtship display, Porcupine eating willow catkins.

NOTE: If you view in highest possible format, you can actually see the stiff outer tail feathers of the Wilson’s Snipe vibrating. The air rushing through these specially adapted feathers is what creates the “winnowing” aerial courtship display sound.

Favorite Creative Wildlife Photos of 2019 (Top Ten)

Creative photos of wildlife are often my goal, but rarely realized.

When we encounter an interesting critter in the field we first take a “record” shot (basically a snapshot). Now we at least have an identifiable image of the animal. Next we try and get a decent portrait. And once we have that, we can play around with exposures (silhouettes?), shutter speeds (often longer for blurs), wider angles (including some of the surrounding landscape) and different perspectives.

This is when it really gets fun! It is low percentage shooting to be sure, but the results are often much more interesting than another “bird on a stick” photo.

Common Raven breath (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming) October 2019
[Panasonic GH5 with Sigma 50-500mm lens; 1/400 second; ISO 200; hand-held]

I’ve tried to get a photo like this with Red-winged Blackbirds and Sandhill Cranes, and always failed miserably. But when Ryan and I came upon the resident pair of Raven beggars in the Hayden Valley in October, I saw my chance for redemption! The sun was low and the ravens vocal…a perfect combo for the “backlit breath” shot. Only one problem…the wind was very slightly blowing…and in the wrong direction…so their breath was blowing behind their heads. And also, the biggest puff of air usually comes after the Raven is already closing its bill. This one was the best of the bunch.

Bald Eagle in snowstorm (Carlton County, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 70-200mm f4 lens at 200mm; 1/500 second at f7.1; ISO 250; hand-held]

I like the monochromaticity (is that a word?) of this image. The heavy snow softens the distracting maze of aspens. I did lighten the whole image so that the whites of the snow were just blowing out. The Bald Eagle is waiting for its turn at a deer carcass.

Greater Prairie Chicken on lek (Polk County, Minnesota) April 2019
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 70-200mm f4 lens at 73mm; 1/15 second at f4; ISO 1600; hand-held]

You have to crawl into the photo blind at grouse/prairie chicken leks about an hour before sunrise in order not to spook the birds. But what do you do while you wait for enough light to take action shots? Well, you can record audio of the “booming” birds…or you can take long (and I mean looooong) exposure panning shots.

I really like how this one turned out. The bird is sharp enough, and I love how its orange eyebrows and air sac contrasts beautifully with the blues of the predawn grass.

Tundra Swans (near Nashua, Minnesota in Wilkin County) April 2019
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f4 L USM lens; 1/1250 second at f5.6; +1.66 ev; hand-held]

I had several nice “high key” images in 2019. I like this one of a flock of Tundra Swans winging their way through western Minnesota towards the tundra of northern Canada. I intentionally blew out the whites to make a more graphic image.

Bison herd at sunset (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming) October 2019
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f4 L USM lens; 1/500 second at f9; ISO 800; tripod]

I really do have more than enough Bison shots after 10 years of shooting in Yellowstone. But when we rolled up to this herd along Fountain Flat Drive I saw a scene developing. I decided to back off on the focal length to create a “wildlife-in-the-landscape” shot. And as the sun sank, the grass began glowing and the rimlight on the shaggy beasts was perfect. Of course I do wish more had their heads up, but that is wishful thinking with grazing Bison.

Common Ravens (Carlton County, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 70-200mm f4 lens at 70mm; 1/500 second at f7.1 ISO 400; hand-held]

Not sure anybody else will agree with me here, but I love the feel of this image. It is just 3 Ravens in aspen woods in a snowstorm, but it evokes something in me. Can’t describe it…I’ll have to ponder this more.

Red-tailed Hawk (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming) October 2019
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 70-200mm f4 lens at 73mm; 1/125 second at f5.6; -0.33 ev; hand-held]

Can you find the hawk? Just a small silhouette of a Redtail contrasting with the stark dead tree silhouettes and backed by a gorgeous post sunset purple glow.

Northern Hawk Owl (Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f4 L USM lens; 1/320 second at f5.6; ISO 100; +1.33 ev; hand-held]

Another “high key” image where I increased the exposure and adjusted the levels to clip the whites to create a more graphic image. I like how the Hawk Owl’s yellow eyes and beak, rusty plumage and green lichens pop on the white background. The overcast sky was just a gray blah background so this is one trick to salvage such images.

Zebra (San Diego Zoo, California) August 2019

Just a zebra in black and white. The zebra was in the sunlight, but its shelter was heavily shaded. Maybe not the most creative shot, but I love the graphic nature of the image…and what a striking animal!

Mule Deer and aspen leaves (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota) Oct. 2019

I increased the exposure and elevated the whites, and also decreased the contrast by opening up the shadows in Lightroom.

Bison (Badlands National Park, South Dakota) October 2019

The photo of the Bison is a result of me playing around with Lightroom controls and experiencing a “haccident”… a happy accident. By sliding the Luminance slider to 100 and the Detail slider to 0 under the Noise Reduction panel, you reduce the detail in the image and it creates a painterly quality to the photo. No Photoshop filters here! You will either love or hate this photo.

Snow Goose blur (western Minnesota) April 2019

It was a stunning and unexpectedly massive goose migration in western Minnesota this April. I sounded like an old-timer telling Bridget and the kids about my experience…”You should’ve seen it…clouds of geese in the air. Skeins of geese overhead constantly. The air was filled with flocks!”

I played with some longer exposures while keeping the camera still. I did okay but the trees in the background aren’t as sharp as I’d like.

Trumpeter Swans (Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota) April 2019

I was taking landscape photos and video with a DJI Phantom 4 Pro when I passed over these early-returning Trumpeter Swans. The ignored the “whirring bird” over their heads completely. You don’t often see wildlife from above. I also like the colors in the water.

NEXT UP…Top Ten Landscape photos of 2019

Top Ten Mammal photos 2019

Here are my favorite mammal photos taken in 2019. It was a pretty good year for locating and photographing the “four-leggeds.”

Prairie Dogs (Badlands National Park, South Dakota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; f5.6 at 1/640 second; ISO 100; -0.33 ev; tripod]

I call this the “Group Back Rub.” This is from October when Ryan and I were enroute to Yellowstone. I took this while we were waiting for a Burrowing Owl to poke its head out of a prairie dog hole. Let’s just say that Ryan doesn’t appreciate prairie dogs or their high level of cuteness. If its his turn to drive, I really have to plead for him to stop for a prairie dog colony. I love photographing them and their antics.

Bobcat (Sax-Zim Bog)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; f5.6 at 1/250 second; Flash; ISO 640; -+1.0 ev; hand-held braced on car door]

Due to the deep snows and cold temps of the winter of 2018-19, many critters had a tough time finding food. At least 9 Bobcats were seen in the Sax-Zim Bog including a mom with 2 young. This was likely one of the young who camped out at a road-killed deer (note ribs in background). Bobcats are gorgeous and cute at the same time. A flash helped make this image Uber-sharp on a heavy overcast day.

Bison in snowstorm (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming)

This is the start of the snowstorm that closed Yellowstone down for 36 hours at the start of our time in the park. These three ruled the road between Madison and West Yellowstone.

Ermine (Short-tailed Weasel) at Warren Woessner Bog Boardwalk (Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/2000 at f5.6; ISO 250; hand-held]

While guiding a group from Outward Bound along the Warren Woessner Bog Boardwalk at the Warren Nelson Memorial Bog, this little guy popped out of a snow burrow and immediately emerged from a nearby hole. They are unbelievably fast critters! They hunt voles in their subnivean tunnels (their long thin body shape helps in this pursuit) but also feed on carcasses.

Ermine is the name for Least Weasel, Long-tailed Weasel and Short-tailed Weasel when in their winter white coat (this is a Short-tailed Weasel).

He stayed still for approximately 1.5 seconds but I was able to snap off a couple shots. It will be in the MN Conservation Volunteer magazine next month.

Baboon baby and mom at San Diego Zoo

Something a bit different…an image from a zoo of a mama Baboon gently grooming her baby. Just darn cute!

Red Fox hunting a snowy field (Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/1250 at f6.3; ISO 500; +0.33ev; hand-held]

This is a real “mammal in the landscape” photo. But I think it works because of the Red Fox looks sharp with the red of the willows, both of which contrast with the white of the symmetrical aspens.

Mule Deer (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM; 1/1000 second at f5.6; ISO 1000; hand-held]

Arriving in Teddy Roosevelt National Park we were greeted with this young Mule Deer buck browsing on some roadside shrubs. An early October snowstorm provided the backdrop.

Canada Lynx (Superior National Forest, Minnesota)
[single video frame plucked from 4K video]

Not a great photo…so why is it included here? Because it was the first Canada Lynx I’ve seen in the daylight…and I got some images! I lucked into this mellow cat up in the Superior National Forest in late March and got to spend a few minutes with it as it sauntered through the forest, then sat for a while before moving on in its never-ending search for Snowshoe Hares.

Read more and see the video HERE

Grizzly eating Rose hips (Wyoming)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6L USM lens; 1/250 second at f5.6; ISO 6400; hand-held]

Sometimes trying to predict where a wild animal might intersect with our own path pays off. We saw this Grizzly making its way across the North Fork of the Shoshone River just outside Yellowstone. She went into the woods so we moved up the road to a pullout and waited. And, believe it or not, she came out of the woods and headed in our direction. But it was not us she wanted to investigate, but rather a stand of Wild Rose whose hips were in full ripeness. It was a joy to watch her delicately plucking the fruits from the bush a couple at a time. Not once did she look in our direction, and when she was filled, she moved off.

Read more of this story HERE

Red Fox pups playing (Carlton County, Minnesota)
[Sony A6500 with Canon EF 400mm f5.6L USM lens attached with Metabones adapter; 1/500 second at f5.6; ISO 800; hand-held]

On may way to photograph Loons one early summer morning I stumbled across a trio of romping Red Fox pups. I stayed with them for nearly an hour and enjoyed their antics. The loons could wait.

It seemed that only two would wrestle at a time, never all three. I took many photos and quite a bit of video.

Leaping for Lunch; Red Fox (Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/1250 at f6.3; ISO 250; +0.33ev; hand-held]

This mellow Red Fox tolerated my presence for about 10 minutes as it hunted for voles along a minimum maintenance road and a farm field in the Sax-Zim Bog. Occasionally it would hear the sound of a vole under the crusty snow; its ears would rotate forward towards the sound, it would then rock back on its haunches, then launch high into the air to get enough force to break through the crusty snow to get a the vole.

Pine Marten (Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; f5.6 at 1/500 second; ISO 200; tripod

Pine Martens LOOOVE peanut butter! And suet. And carcasses. So they are occasionally attracted to bird feeding stations in the Sax-Zim Bog. They use this food to supplement their normal diet of Ruffed Grouse, voles and squirrels. There were at least two, and possibly three coming to this feeder. They ignored the nearby birders and photographers for the most part. It is ALWAYS a treat to see these guys.

Hunting with a Great Gray Owl: Shooting with Sparky video

Great Grey Owl, Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota

What are the odds? I took a compass bearing to head straight through the center of a large Black Spruce bog last week, hoping (but not really believing) that I’d possibly, just maybe, hear a begging young Great Gray Owl.

Less than a hundred yards into the bog, I stopped dead in my tracks; There was a hunting Great Gray only about 50 feet from me and only 10 feet up in a spruce! She barely looked at me, and continued hunting. See how the adventure unfolded in the video below:

Join me as I enter the dark and haunting bogs of the far northern Minnesota wilds in search of the elusive and giant phantom of the north—the Great Gray Owl! (How’s that for drama!)

I especially like this Great Gray Owl photo because of several factors:
a. It was NOT shot along a road…like 99.9% of all Great Grey Owl images.
b. She is NOT looking at me…She (or he?) is busy hunting…too preoccupied to worry about a mere human.
c. I love the out of focus wispy Tamarack branches…Lends an air of wildness and hints at their bog habitat.

All photos taken with Canon 7D and Canon 400mm f5.6 (sometimes with 1.4x or 2x teleconverter), tripod, processed in Aperture.
All video shot with equipment listed above at 1/60 second and processed in iMovie.

Great Gray Owl Behavior— Erect Alarm Posture

Here is a single frame from some video I took of a Great Gray Owl trying to melt into his background but still keeping an eye on the intruder…In this case a fly-over Common Raven. Looks very different than the “fat and fluffy” appearance of a relaxed or hunting Great Gray.

In this video I show footage from two different incidents in which a Great Gray Owl detects an “enemy”…in one case a Bald Eagle, and in the other a Common Raven. Note how the owl stretches itself vertically to become “skinny,” (concealment posture or erect alarm posture) and then backs up to be next to the trunk (presumably to blend in) and then presents its narrowest profile towards the raven or eagle.

So the question is, Why would a Great Gray not want to be detected by a raven or an eagle? The well-known Canadian Great Gray Owl researcher, Robert Nero, wrote a neat book about a captive Great Gray called Lady Grayl: Owl with a Mission. In it he says that he’s only witnessed it once in the wild and that was when an immature Bald Eagle flew a hundred meters over a perched Great Gray. He goes on to say that even though Bald Eagles rarely bother Great Grays, this bird was probably not responding to the species of raptor, but rather the raptor image…”Better to be safe than sorry!”

Filmed in the Sax-Zim Bog of northern Minnesota. Ironically, the eagle incident was filmed on March 3, 2011, exactly one year before the raven footage.

Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, tripod