Posts from the ‘Bird Photography’ Category

Churchill on Hudson Bay 2017: Northern edge of the Boreal Forest

The Boreal forest blankets a vast area of bedrock across Canada and into Alaska. In the Lower 48, the Boreal forest dips down into Minnesota, Wisconsin and the UP of Michigan and northern New England. If you include the vast boreal forests of Siberia, the Boreal biome is the largest “intact” forest in the world…even larger than the tropical rain forests that ring the equator. It is a MAJOR carbon sink for the planet. But the Boreal forest peters out as it transitions to tundra in colder climes. Churchill area on Hudson Bay is a transition zone from Boreal forest to treeless Tundra.

Characteristic trees of the Boreal forest include White Spruce, Black Spruce and Tamarack…and all three survive around Churchill (White Spruce on the drier ridges and Black Spruce in the wet bogs). Since I’m from northern Minnesota, the birds in this biome are pretty familiar to me, and so the tundra birds of Churchill were a much higher photographic target. BUT…there are several nesting species that I really wanted to digitally capture. Blackpoll Warblers and Orange-crowned Warblers only pass through Minnesota in migration. They are two of the eastern warbler species that do not breed in Minnesota’s vast North Woods. Fortunately they do breed in Ontario and Manitoba and I had good luck finding them in the Churchill area.

Best roads for Boreal forest in the Churchill area are the Twin Lakes Road and the Old Dene Village loop at the start of Goose Creek Road. If someone blindfolded me and parachuted me in to some of these spots, I wouldn’t have known if I was in Minnesota or the U.P. of Michigan or Maine or Siberia! But the staccato songs of the Blackpoll Warbler and Orange-crowned Warbler would have given it away, as this pair of species do not breed in any of the aforementioned locations.

Blackpoll Warbler Goose Creek Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-2
Blackpoll Warbler (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

After I learned the song of the Blackpoll Warbler (they do not sing while migrating through northern Minnesota in spring), I found them in many stands of Black Spruce trees.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/800 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand held]

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Boreal forest along the Twin Lakes Road (note Bonaparte’s Gull in tip top of spruce). Spruces and Tamarack (not yet “needled” out in foreground)

Blackpoll Warbler Goose Creek Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-3
Blackpoll Warbler (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

The orange feet and legs of the Blackpoll Warbler are distinctive…and shockingly bright.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/800 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand held]

Blackpoll Warbler Goose Creek Road Churchill Manitoba Canada
Blackpoll Warbler male (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/640 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand held]

Blackpoll Warbler Twin Lakes Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-3
Blackpoll Warbler plucking an ant off a willow catkin. (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/1000 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand held]

Blackpoll Warbler Twin Lakes Road Churchill Manitoba Canada
Blackpoll Warbler (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/800 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand held]

Blackpoll Warbler Twin Lakes Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-2

Blackpoll Warbler (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 371mm; 1/800 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand held]

Bonaparte's Gull Twin Lakes Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-2
Bonaparte’s Gull (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

A gull that nests in trees?! Yes, absolutely. The Bonaparte’s Gull is a true denizen of the Boreal forest, a mixed up place where flycatchers nest on the ground and gulls nest in the trees! Of course, not all flycatchers nest on the ground and not all gulls nest in trees (Herring Gulls build their nests directly on top of tiny rock islands on larger lakes), but the Bonaparte’s has really taken to “skyscraper living.” Andy why not? A lofty location affords protection from egg and nestling predators of the four-legged kind (fox especially)

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 L lens; 1/250 at f8; ISO 100; hand held]

Bonaparte's Gull Twin Lakes Road Churchill Manitoba Canada
Bonaparte’s Gull (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

One of my photo goals was to get a nice shot of a Bonaparte’s perched in the tip top of a spruce…and I think I did it! I will share some video later.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/3200 at f5.6; ISO 400; hand held]

Bonaparte's Gull Goose Creek Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-2
Bonaparte’s Gull yawning(?) as it loafs on a tiny island in the backwaters of the Churchill River (near the observation platform on Goose Creek Road) (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 371mm; 1/60 at f18; ISO 100; hand held] **NOTE that I had just switched over from shooting video (at the required 1/60 second) and that explains the TERRIBLE settings for this shot. I only got lucky that this is sharp.

Bonaparte's Gull Goose Creek Road Churchill Manitoba Canada
Bonaparte’s Gull plucking insects off the surface of a lake along Twin Lakes Road (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

The Bonaparte’s Gull is named, not for Napoleon Bonaparte (you probably could have figured that out!), but for his nephew Charles Lucien Bonaparte, who made important contributions to American ornithology while an active member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia during the 1820s. This Bonaparte was a contemporary of John James Audubon.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/1600 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand held]

 

 

Gray Jay juvenile Goose Creek Road Churchill Manitoba Canada
Juvenile Gray Jay along the Old Dene Village loop (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

The proposed “National Bird” of Canada! …the Gray Jay (or “Canada Jay”…and I guess I should spell Gray, “Grey”). This is a juvenile as denoted by its very dark gray plumage and pink gape (corner of the mouth). There was a whole family group…2 adults and 2, possibly 3, juveniles…that I “squeeked” in by sucking on the palm of my hand. These are VERY curious birds, and any disturbance in “their” woods, and they will investigate.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/640 at f5.6; ISO 400; +0.66 ev; hand held]

Orange-crowned Warbler Goose Creek Road Churchill Manitoba Canada
Orange-crowned Warbler along Old Dene Village Loop (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

Trust me…they do have an orange crown! But it is mainly visible when they erect their head feathers when agitated.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/800 at f5.6; ISO 400; +0.66 ev; hand held]

Orange-crowned Warbler Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-2
Orange-crowned Warbler along Launch Road (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/500 at f5.6; ISO 250; hand held]

Orange-crowned Warbler Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-3
Orange-crowned Warbler along Launch Road (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

If you click on this photo to enlarge it, you can probably see the “orange crown” for which this mostly drab warbler is named. Its preferred habitat (around Churchill) is wet willowy areas, especially with spruce forest nearby.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/2000 at f5.6; ISO 250; hand held]

American Tree Sparrow Goose Creek Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-2
American Tree Sparrow along Goose Creek Road (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

This is another species that only passes through northern Minnesota in migration. The American Tree Sparrow breeds mostly in Canada and Alaska and winters almost entirely in the Lower 48 (but not northern Minnesota…too cold I guess). Note the rusty red cap and eye line, gray face and single spot on the unstreaked breast.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/1000 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand held]

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Fox Sparrow singing from spruce perch. (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

I only saw a couple of these gorgeous sparrows while in Churchill. They migrate through my land in northern Minnesota in spring, jumping back and forth in the leaf litter below my feeders, scratching up seeds. But alas, they do not breed in Minnesota and continue north to nest in the Boreal forests. Their reddish rusty plumage, velvety gray feathers, and bold breast spotting make them a visual treat. Now who said sparrows can’t be beautiful?!

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/1000 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand held]

Rusty Blackbird Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-3
Rusty Blackbird (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

There are records of Rusty Blackbirds nesting in Minnesota…but only a handful and they were in very remote wooded swamps in the far northern reaches of the state.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/1250 at f5.6; ISO 250; hand held]

Rusty Blackbird Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-4
Rusty Blackbird female in spruce (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/2500 at f5.6; ISO 250; hand held]

Rusty Blackbird Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada
Rusty Blackbird male (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

“Rusty Blackbird is one of North America’s most rapidly declining species. The population has plunged an estimated 85-99 percent over the past forty years (Greenberg and Droege, 1999) and scientists are completely puzzled as to what is the cause. They are relatively uncommon denizens of wooded swamps, breeding in the boreal forest and wintering in the eastern U.S. ” [from http://www.allaboutbirds.org]

This fact really bewilders me…Like Cornell (owner of the website) says, the decline is puzzling since their habitat is remote wooded swamps of the vast Boreal forest…a habitat that is rarely touched by development (the swamp part, anyway).

What also is curious to me, is how they arrived at this amazing percentage of decline. As far as I can see, the data is from Breeding Bird Survey Routes (VERY FEW routes in their main breeding areas of boreal Canada) and winter Christmas Bird Count data (this data is probably better, but still not very comprehensive).

“Several hypotheses have been suggested to explain the decline.  Loss of wooded wetlands in southeastern wintering grounds is a likely contributor, as over 80% of this habitat has been converted to agriculture and other land uses.  Other possible factors on the wintering grounds include increased competition for food with other blackbird species – such as Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles – as well as increased exposure to an unknown disease to which it has not developed strong immunity.” [from http://www.rustyblackbird.org]

HOW CAN YOU GET INVOLVED TO HELP SOLVE THIS MYSTERY? Participate in the March-April Rusty Blackbird Spring Blitz…Get details here

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/2500 at f5.6; ISO 250; hand held]

Spruce Grouse Twin Lakes Road at intersection with Cook Street Churchill Manitoba Canada-2
Spruce Grouse at intersection of “Cook Street” (just a 2 rut track) and Twin Lakes Road (narrow gravel road). (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

I’ve seen and photographed MANY Spruce Grouse in northern Minnesota, so I didn’t work too hard to get nice photos of this uncooperative guy. Sadly, a photo tour group that really wanted to see and photograph this species could not locate this highly desirable species even after trying for several days. That is the nature of birding…and wildlife photography.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 L lens; 1/100 at f8; ISO 400; hand held]

Spruce Grouse Twin Lakes Road at intersection with Cook Street Churchill Manitoba Canada
Male Spruce Grouse (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 L lens; 1/100 at f8; ISO 400; hand held]

Journey to Churchill Manitoba on Hudson Bay: Bird Photography

June 17-21, 2017

In this first installment about my trip to Churchill Manitoba on Hudson Bay this June, I want to share a bit about the journey to Churchill, logistics of traveling in the Churchill area (lodging, rental vehicle, food, etc), a tour of the town, and the state of the town (due to some recent unfortunate circumstances which I highlight later in this post).

I was also in Churchill in 1987…30 years ago! Hard to believe. Here are the links to those posts:

Churchill 1987: Part 1

Churchill 1987: Part 2


The Tundra on approach to Churchill. Note Hudson Bay in background.

I’ve wanted to get back to Churchill for a LONG time…I love it there. It’s been 30 years, and the itch wasn’t getting scratched. The North is where my heart is…I loved Costa Rica and Mexico and Baja but I’m feel a much stronger pull towards the poles. My trips to Alaska, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland really connected with me. And Churchill is the closest, most easily accessible tundra/arctic to me in northern Minnesota. For several reasons, I had a strong desire to photograph and video the arctic species of birds and mammals. The first trip in ’87 was to see the rare and elusive Ross’s Gull. I succeeded in that, but my photos were not great…two words…film days. This time, bird photography was my goal, The Ross’s Gulls no longer nest here but My “Most Wanted” list was still long! (see photo below)

My “Most Wanted” list of species/subjects to photograph and video. A very long list for 4 nights/5 days trip!

High priorities for me were: tundra birds with wildflowers in the background, Willow Ptarmigan, Bonaparte’s Gulls nesting in spruces, shorebirds perched in trees, close up jaegers, sea birds in flight (Common Eiders, Red-throated Loons), Arctic Hare and Arctic Fox, bog landscapes and Pacific Loons at eye level.


Even though it was June 17, patches of snow still dotted the landscape.

Since the railroad isn’t running right now, the airline (Calm Air) has added flights. I’m not sure if this is the reason, but the price for my round trip airfare from Winnipeg was ONLY $400 US…This is $400 to $800 cheaper than it has been in recent years! I jumped at the opportunity.


I haven’t had a FREE hot meal on a plane (domestic flight) for many years! This was First Air’s breakfast meal on the 1 1/2 hour flight. Great breakfast sandwich. We also were given hot face towels! Luxury!


Chatted with this young Inuit man from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Canada on the flight. He told me stories of fishing salmon, Musk Ox, a white Grizzly Bear that his uncle “caught” (the word they use in the North for “shot”) and showed me how to write his name in the Inuit language. He was doing some training in Winnipeg and was heading back to Nunavut. The flight to Churchill would continue on to Rankin Inlet.


Churchill is the southern edge of the tundra…and the northern edge of the boreal forest.

The view flying in to Churchill


Potholes of the tundra south of Churchill. Note ice on Hudson Bay in background.


The flight from Winnipeg to Churchill was on a 737. Each of the fleet has a different arctic species on the tail; in this case, a Golden Eagle. A front-end loader is the luggage buggy!

I flew out at the 8am flight and returned via the 8pm flight…That way I had two full days of shooting on my “flying days.” But that meant another 2 nights of lodging in Winnipeg, which is fairly expensive.


A sign that is mainly meant for late fall/winter visitors. Few, if any, Polar Bears hang around town in summer. On my visit there were 2 bears around…but I never saw them.


One of the few new buildings in Churchill is the airport.


Welcome to the Polar Bear capital of the World! (Not in summer)


Polar Bear crossing….a winter phenomenon. A section of “the highway” in the background. The only paved road goes from town to the airport. The other 40 miles of road are all dirt or worse.


Main Street of Churchill Manitoba


Home, Sweet Home…Polar Inn

I would highly recommend the Polar Inn. Small and clean and with an amazing breakfast! I stayed 4 nights and the price was reasonable (about $100 US per night)…especially with not having to buy breakfast!

Note the warning adhered to my rental truck…The door hinges were already sprung from someone opening the doors and letting the wind yank them out of the car frame.


Breakfast buffet at the Polar Inn was VERY good! I would shoot from 5:30am to 9am and then come back and get some breakfast…egg mcmuffins, boiled eggs, yogurt parfaits, cereal, waffles and good coffee!


When I was in Churchill in 1987, the “store” in town was The Hudson’s Bay Company store. It has now been replaced by the very generic and boring Northern Store…a mini Walmart.


With the train not running, food stuffs were in low supply at the Northern Store (the only place to get groceries in town) …and more costly due to the expense of flying everything in. Milk shot up to $16 per gallon right after the train got washed out…but has since dropped to $7 per gallon. The bread shelves at the Northern Store were quite bare.


Inukshuk sculpture on the waterfront of Churchill


Sparky at the Churchill waterfront with Hudson Bay and a giant inukshuk (Inuit spelling: inuksuk) in the background.


You can’t rent a car in Churchill…but you can rent a beater truck for exorbitant prices (about $800 CDN for a week). But you don’t need luxury to get around on Churchill’s 60 miles of roads…15 miles paved and the rest various degrees of dirt and two-wheel track. This beauty had both door hinges sprung due so you had to be careful when opening the door on a windy day.


On my last two days, I noticed murals getting painted all over town. Turns out I just happened to be in town for the one week when artists from all over the world were painting their art on buildings. It was part of a grant program called Sea Wall: Artists for Oceans. Sea Walls Festival, is a public art program that promotes ocean conservation globally.

The murals explore the history of Manitoba and highlight some of the issues affecting its unique ecoregions: Tundra, Taiga, Boreal Forest, and the Arctic Ocean.

Seventeen artists from Canada, U.S., Brazil, New Zealand, Germany, U.K., Spain, Australia, and Japan as well as 2 Winnipeggers  made up the 30-member mural team.

And the weather was beautiful for painting…Lows in the 40s and highs around 70! Perfect. Lots of energy about town.


I saw this gentleman painting this mural and wanted to know more so I flagged him down and chatted. Turns out he is from Brazil! Arlin Graff is part of the 30-member team of muralists.


Here is Arlin from Brazil’s nearly completed geometric Polar Bear mural.


Another mural…This one of the Northern Lights by Charlie Johnston of Winnipeg.


Another mural in town is in progress


Local boys and the start of another mural.


Local kids playing along the rocks of the “city beach”….Hudson Bay and ice floes in the background.


Sled dogs are common around town, especially at the start of the Goose Creek Road. This cute fella lived in town and greeted every single person that walked down “Main Street.”


An interesting building in Churchill. The population of the town is about 900.


Winter transportation in Churchill


Now that’s a truck! Tundra Buggy Polar Bear tours are big business in Churchill during November and December. One local told me that many of the big tour companies are owned by outsiders who only live here for a few months. And not much money trickles down to the local economy as the tours are self contained….The companies hire their own big charter plane, then the guests stay in mobile housing units out on the tundra, and all food is flown in on the charter. So the local hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, and tourist shops don’t benefit much. Most of the profits heads out of town with the owners in late December.


Cabin on Goose Creek Road

 


Monument on Cape Merry


I’m not sure what goes on at the Caribou Hall but it is a cool old building.


Churchill was formerly a port town where ocean-going vessels picked up wheat. The private company that owns the railroad, also owned the grain elevators (built in 1930) and port, but closed it over a year ago. No ships have come in or out for nearly 2 years.

Then another blow to the town in May: Several huge multi-day blizzards this winter led to a massive melt-off during spring thaw in May, washing out many stretches of the railroad tracks…The only way to get to Churchill overland is by rail…There is no road to Churchill. This was how I got to Churchill in 1987…36 hours ONE WAY by VIA Rail from Winnipeg. My friend Tyler and I sat up the whole way (no sleeper car) in a cloud of smoke from the Indians who were smoking up a cloud. More importantly, this is how supplies, food, cars, equipment get to Churchill…not to mention the small Indian villages along the route. It’s a big deal. I found the locals in good spirits though…and optimistic. Many jobs have been lost due to the Port of Churchill grain elevators closing…and now the railroad jobs are in jeapordy. Surprisingly, very few locals had left for “the South” for other jobs so far.


The renovated Churchill railroad depot now sits abandoned (until further notice!)


No trains have run since mid May (UPDATE: As of August 2017, the tracks have still not been repaired, and there is no plan to fix them.)


Trains sit idle at the Churchill depot…No one has been coming in to, or leaving from Churchill by rail for months.

 


The only gas station in town…and NOT open 24-7.

The only gas pump in town…and I didn’t even bother calculating what the cost per gallon in the conversion from liters…too depressing!


Churchill Weather Station….Evidently a tornado just came through! 🙂


The Eskimo Museum in Churchill is basically unchanged since my last visit in 1987…and that is good. This unique museum tells the story of Arctic Inuit life through carvings made by the people themselves. Carvings of greenstone, Walrus tusk, ivory, whale bone and antler.

Each cabinet has a phone that you pick up and it begins telling you about a specific carving and what is means to Inuit everyday life. A very clever way to interpret the carvings. Most carvings were done between the 1940s and present in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut in Arctic Canada.

 


A really unique set of carvings (made out of walrus tusk) of Pope Pius XII from the 1940s. Catholic missionaries had influence in many remote villages at this time. The green glasses were made of a plastic hair comb.


Another favorite sculpture/carving. This one shows an elder Inuit telling his son (?) stories about the Northern Lights/aurora borealis (cleverly depicted by the tines of a caribou antler.


All the carvings tell a story of Inuit life. Many date to the mid 1900s. This one tells the tale of a curious Polar Bear and a hunter with only a bow and arrow and his dogs for protection.


A creative carving of an Inuit hunter (ivory) spearing a seal below the ice (bone section)


The only “real” Polar Bear I saw while in Churchill was this stuffed mount in the Eskimo Museum. Evidently there were a couple live ones still hanging around east of town. I never saw one (good thing when on foot) but was hoping to see one while I was in the safety of my truck. No such luck. I did have a bell attached to my pack any time I was walking along the shore of Hudson Bay in areas of brush or rock jumbles.


Some old traditions have just morphed to modern versions….Inuit women carried their children in the hoods of their fur parkas…This is a modern summer version (Winnipeg airport on my way home)

NEXT POST: Churchill on Hudson Bay: Cape Merry Merriment!

Top Ten Bird Photos 2016

This is an exercise I do every January…Pick my favorite nature images from the previous year. And I obviously don’t limit it to 10 images…It’s just too painful. So here is my “Top Eighteen” bird images of 2016. I’m also going to do a “Top Ten” for my favorite Creative Wildlife Images and Mammals.
I’m not saying these are the images that YOU are going to like best…nor are they images that are technically perfect, but they are, for various reasons, my favorites. So here they are in no particular order…

northern-cardinal-male-in-flowering-crabapple-mom-and-dads-house-new-hope-mn-img_6658Northern Cardinal, New Hope, Minnesota.
Do red and pink compliment each other? …or clash? I don’t mind the color combo of the red Northern Cardinal and pink-flowered crabapple in this photo…but I do think the touch of blue sky helps.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/400 at f5.6; ISO 320; handheld]

american-goldfinche-img_8038American Goldfinch, Skogstjarna, Carlton County, Minnesota.
Would you be surprised if I told you I took this from the comfort of a camp chair in my yard? Well, I was in a blind, and the “pond” is actually a pool made from a 4×8 sheet of plywood and some 2x4s….an infinity pool for birds! I love how the yellow of the sunflowers matches the Goldfinch’s plumage. I was hoping for a better pose and head position but I’ll take it.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/200 at f5.6; ISO 320; tripod]

barred-owl-cr18-near-hebron-cemetery-aitkin-co-mn-img_1504Barred Owl, Aitkin County, Minnesota.
Okay, to be honest, I was looking for Great Gray Owls when this Barred Owl appeared along a remote stretch of road. And unlike usual encounters with Barred Owls, this guy stuck around…He was very intent on some unseen rodent below the roadside snow. So I sat and watched. He finally plunged down but was unable to get the vole, but he paused long enough to get his portrait in early morning light.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/2000 at f5.6; ISO 800; handheld, braced on car window frame]

wild-turkey-in-snow-skogstjarna-carlton-co-mn-img_2148Wild Turkey, Skogstjarna, Carlton County, Minnesota.
I never dreamed that I’d have Wild Turkeys in my woods in northeast Minnesota. In fact, I had to go to the extreme SE corner of the state in the 1980s just to add one to my state list…That’s about 300 miles south! But 30 years later, I have upwards of 30 that stop by my feeding station to load up on cracked corn. This guy seems to be wondering what that white stuff is falling from the sky.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/50 at f7.1; ISO 500; handheld, and taken through living room window]

black-backed-woodpecker-nest-norris-camp-beltrami-island-state-forest-lake-of-the-woods-co-mn-img_1405Black-backed Woodpecker nest, Norris Camp, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
Note how Black-backed Woodpeckers peal all the bark from around their nest hole…this is NOT done by Hairy Woodpeckers or other 4-toed woodpeckers. They also prefer living conifers with heart rot. I watched these busy parents and constantly begging young for a couple hours.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/320 at f5.6; ISO 320; fill flash; Manfrotto tripod with Whimberly Sidekick]

black-bellied-plover-break-wall-wisconsin-point-superior-wi-img_7314Black-bellied Plover, Wisconsin Point, Lake Superior.
Shorebirds hold a special attraction for me. Partly because of where I live…in the middle of the country, but close to the “inland sea” of Lake Superior. I often scour the sandy beaches of Duluth, Minnesota’s Park Point and Superior, Wisconsin’s Wisconsin Point. I found this breeding plumaged Black-bellied Plover on the orange-lichened boulders of the Wisconsin Point breakwall. I like the contrast of the black and white bird, orange lichens and blue sky.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/1000 at f5.6; ISO 100; handheld, braced on rock]

broad-winged-hawk-nest-with-2-nestlings-welcome-center-owl-avenue-sax-zim-bog-mn-img_5139Broad-winged Hawk nestlings, Welcome Center, Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota.
Jessica Dexter and I found this nest during our Friends of Sax-Zim Bog BioBlitz in July. What alerted us was a splash of whitewash on the shrubs along the path…We looked up and Bingo! They both fledged successfully and many folks got to watch them through a spotting scope from a safe distance.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L with 1/4x teleconverter; 1/180 at f8; ISO 200; fill flash; Manfrotto tripod with Whimberly Sidekick]

calliope-hummingbird-male-park-point-duluth-mn-img_1964-1Calliope Hummingbird, Park Point, Duluth, Minnesota.
This was only the second Minnesota record of a Calliope Hummingbird…and the other was a late fall blah-plumaged bird. This male was in all his summer splendor! He flared his gorget when a “rival” Ruby-throated Hummingbird would come by. Many folks got to see this stunner over a couple days along a dune boardwalk at the Duluth shore of Lake Superior.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/125 at f5.6; ISO 1600; fill flash; Manfrotto tripod with Whimberly Sidekick]

forsters-tern-agassiz-national-wildlife-refuge-nwr-marshall-co-mn-img_9758Forster’s Tern, Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge, Minnesota.
Several Forster’s Terns were making a circuit along this creek outflow. And the fishing must have been great, for they frequently plunged head-first into the water, and like this one, came up with beakfuls of small fish. I like the graceful swoop of the tern’s long tail.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/1250 at f5.6; ISO 320; handheld, braced on car window frame]

gray-jay-family-owl-avenue-sax-zim-bog-mn-img_9304-1Gray Jay, Owl Avenue, Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota.
Gray Jay taking flight from a small spruce.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/1600 at f5.6; ISO 1000; Manfrotto tripod with Whimberly Sidekick]

great-gray-owl-admiral-road-sax-zim-bog-mn-img_8922Great Gray Owl, Admiral Road, Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota.
I do have 100s of decent Great Gray Owl photos, but I like this one because it places the owl in its favored habitat…Black Spruce-Tamarack forest.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/500 at f5.6; ISO 400; handheld]

mountain-bluebird-yellowstone-national-park-wy-img_4505Mountain Bluebird, Yellowstone National Park, Montana.
Boring pose but I love the merging of blues from Mountain Bluebird to sky…Someone famous once said (can’t remember who), “the bluebird carries the sky on its back.”
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/2500 at f6.3; ISO 200; Manfrotto tripod with Whimberly Sidekick]

northern-saw-whet-owl-near-burntside-lake-ely-mn-img_7214Northern Saw-whet Owl, near Ely, Minnesota.
My friend Bill Tefft found this nesting Northern Saw-whet Owl in an old Pileated Woodpecker cavity…and I jumped at the chance when he offered to escort me there. World’s cutest owl?
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/250 at f5.6; ISO 250; fill flash; Manfrotto tripod with Whimberly Sidekick]

northern-shrike-cranberry-road-lek-sax-zim-bog-mn-img_3277Northern Shrike, Sax-Zim Bog.
In early spring, the willows blush with bright red bark. A fantastic backdrop for this lingering Northern Shrike who will soon head north to its breeding grounds in northern Canada. The blue sky helps the shot as well.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM at 400mm; 1/800 at f5.6; ISO 250; handheld]

pine-grosbeak-male-welcome-center-owl-avenue-sax-zim-bog-mn-img_9632Pine Grosbeak male, Welcome Center, Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/320 at f5.6; ISO 800; Manfrotto tripod with Whimberly Sidekick]

ruffed-grouse-snow-carlton-co-mn-img_1106Ruffed Grouse, Carlton County, Minnesota.
Falling snow can be the bane or a boon to a wildlife photographer. The trick is to not use too fast a shutter speed. That will create distracting blobs of white. It is better to slow the shutter down a bit and get some motion in the falling flakes. Here I used 1/320 of a second.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/320 at f5.6; ISO 500; braced on car window frame]

savannah-sparrow-at-my-pool-skogstjarna-carlton-co-mn-img_2465Savannah Sparrow, Skogstjarna, Carlton County, Minnesota.
Another visitor to my backyard bird pool set up. This Savannah Sparrow is enjoying a bath on a hot summer afternoon. I like the splashing water droplets.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/320 at f5.6; ISO 500; Manfrotto tripod with Whimberly Sidekick]

spruce-grouse-male-spruce-road-superior-national-forest-lake-co-mn-img_0659Spruce Grouse male, Spruce Road, Lake County, Minnesota.
I was guiding a couple from England when we found this male Spruce Grouse in far northern Minnesota…It was a lifer for both of them…the only one we got that day. He posed for us for quite awhile. They are a grouse of the boreal forests of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, Alaska and Canada.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM at 400mm; 1/125 at f6.3; ISO 400; handheld]

Early Spring in Yellowstone 1—April 16-19, 2016

rental car hit deer ND IMG_3698 (1)
Ryan Marshik and I decided to make a break for Yellowstone…We’ve been there many times…in May, September, October…but never April. We timed it so we’d arrive the day after some of the roads opened up for spring traffic. During winter, only the road from Gardiner, MT through Mammoth, to Cooke City is open. Now, on April 15, the roads to West Yellowstone, Old Faithful, and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (Artist’s Point, Lower and Upper Falls) would be open. Granted, one of our favorite routes up the Hayden Valley remained closed, but we could live with that.
So we packed up and left Duluth at 3pm sharp (actually 2:50pm) because we knew we’d arrive 16 hours later at the North Entrance at Gardiner, MT at dawn, ready to shoot. No daylight wasted! Of course, we’d be exhausted, but our modus operandi is to shoot until noon, find a campsite, set up our tents, and take a 2 hour nap, then shoot until dark.
Unfortunately, a kamikaze Mule Deer nearly ruined our perfect plan. Sometime after midnight in western North Dakota a Muley ran out on to I-94, paused and then bolted again, having a fatal encounter with a mid-sized SUV going about 60mph (we’d been doing 80, but slowed a bit before hitting her). Lots of front quarter panel damage, broken headlight covers, high beams taken out, but it was drivable. Thankfully Minnesota law states that all residents renting a vehicle are covered with their own insurance, avoiding the need to purchase rental car agency pricey insurance.

So, we made it just fine, Ryan was even able to bend the bottom of the door a bit so it wouldn’t make a horrible grating sound every time we opened it (and thereby scaring any nearby wildlife). Though a bit cold and windy, it turned out to be a fantastic wildlife-laden trip. I will have 4 blog posts about this trip..Yellowstone 2, Bighorns, Teddy Roosevelt (our usual overnight stop on the way home to Duluth). Enjoy!

Coyote Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_4652 (1)Leaping for Lunch
While there was no snow in the Mammoth area (including our campground), as soon as you got above a certain elevation, there was plenty. Several cars were pulled over along the road to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and we soon saw why…A very oblivious Coyote, going about its search for voles under the snow. I didn’t have time to get my tripod out, but managed to snap a series of shots handheld. He leaped high but was unable to break through the crust of this wind-packed snow. We watched him (her?) for another hour or so and he caught at least 3 voles.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 227mm; f7.1 at 1/4000 second; ISO 200; handheld (no time to get my tripod out!)]

Yellowstone landscape IMG_5834 (1)Mountain Vista Yellowstone
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 100mm; f8 at 1/200 second; ISO 100; tripod]

Sparky Yellowstone IMG_5387 (1)Sparky scanning for….Anything!

Red Fox Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5554 (1)Red Fox Hunting
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 400mm; f7.1 at 1/1000 second; ISO 100; -0.33ev; handheld]

Red Fox Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5536 (1)Red Fox with Vole
We got to watch this “famous” Red Fox hunt near the Yellowstone Picnic Area for over an hour. She’s been a regular here for a couple years. I guess she even lost some of last year’s pups (or kits or cubs…all equally correct names for baby fox) to a marauding Badger. She was sleeping when we got to the picnic area (only alerted to her presence by local photographer Steve Hinch…Thanks Steve!). Eventually she hopped up and started hunting,paying no mind to the growing long-lens laden crowd. Here she is about to end the brief life of an oh-so-cute Meadow Vole, the staple food of many North American predators.

Red Fox and Bison Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5509 (2)Buddies? Not Really
My 5-year old son, Bjorn, had me print this photo so he could take it to school and show his music teacher. Perplexed, I asked, “Why?” He told me that they were learning a song about “unlikely animal buddies.” How cute is that!

Mountain Bluebird female Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5440 (1)Lady Mountain Bluebird
This was just a “grab and go” shot out the window of the car, but when I got home and saw it on the screen, I liked it! Not as gaudy as the males, the females still have their own beauty.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 400mm; f5.6 at 1/1250 second; ISO 320; -0.67ev; handheld, braced on car door window frame]

Mountain Bluebird Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_4466 (1)Bluebird tipped Sage
Whoever came up with the saying that the bluebird “carries the sky on its back” must have been talking about the Mountain Bluebird, as our Eastern Bluebird back home in Minnesota, is a much darker blue. I think the Mountain Bluebirds had just returned to the Yellowstone area and insects at this time of year are a bit scarce.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 400mm; f6.3 at 1/2000 second; ISO 200; handheld]

Mountain Bluebird Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_4505 (1)Blue Sky Bluebird
I stalked this foraging Mountain Bluebird along the Old Yellowstone Road. He was busy moving from perch to perch, nabbing insects on the ground. After about 10 minutes, he landed on this rock and I laid down on the prickly and dung-covered ground (mostly dried elk dung) so I could shoot up and get the blue sky as the background. It would have been a bit better shot if he was facing away and looking over his shoulder at me, but I’ll take it.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 400mm; f6.3 at 1/2500 second; ISO 200; handheld]

Coyote Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5708 (1)Coyote on the Run
It’s funny…every Coyote we see in Yellowstone seems to have its own personality. Some head for the hills when they see a human; some are methodical and slow listen-and-leap hunters; and some, like this little girl (who knows?) are speed hunters! She hunted while moving at a veritable sprint…more of a fast trot. But the technique worked, and we saw her catch 3 voles in the three miles or so that we followed her. And she often hunted right along the main park road. I panned at 1/40 of a second and picked this image as the best of the series…the eye is very sharp! But the composition is a bit tight on the bottom.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 400mm; f14 at 1/40 second; ISO 100; panning handheld (a bit slow and therefore riskier panning shot…better might have been 1/60 second)]

Coyote Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5688 (1)Yellow-line Coyote
Same “Speedy Gonzalez” Coyote as I talked about in the photo above. I laid down in the middle of the road to get this “below-eye-level” shot. A unique perspective but not a great shot.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 400mm; f6.3 at 1/500 second; ISO 160; handheld while laying on ground]

Mule Deer rim light IMG_4266 (1)The Rock has Ears!
Mule Deer backlit on the “American Serengeti” of Yellowstone National Park.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 300mm; f5 at 1/640 second; ISO 160; -1ev; tripod]

 

….More to come! Three more blog posts about this trip coming (Yellowstone 2, Bighorns, Teddy Roosevelt)

The Barred of Aitkin County & the End of Winter?

Mississippi River and bridge at Palisade MN Aitkin Co MN IMG_1479Mississippi River at Palisade, Minnesota.
With temperatures predicted to be in the 50s (!) on Monday March 7th, I decided to take a cruise around Carlton and Aitkin Counties and see what I could find. The woods were still covered in snow, but the fields were pretty bare. I also included photos from March 11, 12 and 13 here. [UPDATE 3-14: We may be getting 2 to 7 inches of snow this week! Maybe the “End of Winter” title was a bit premature!]

Barred Owl CR18 near Hebron Cemetery Aitkin Co MN IMG_1489Barred Owl about to pounce.
While cruising an Aitkin County bog for Great Gray Owls, I found this very focused Barred Owl. It was about to pounce on an unseen mice or vole along the road ditch.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/400 second at f5.6, ISO 800; braced on car window frame]

Barred Owl CR18 near Hebron Cemetery Aitkin Co MN IMG_1493
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/640 second at f5.6, ISO 800; handheld]

Barred Owl CR18 near Hebron Cemetery Aitkin Co MN IMG_1504Barred Owl in golden light.
The Barred did indeed pounce, but alas, came up empty-taloned. No meal for this guy/gal this morning. Normally nocturnal, the Barred Owl will hunt in the daylight when very hungry…and at this time of winter, many northern critters can be fighting hunger.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/2000 second at f5.6, ISO 800; braced on car window frame]

IMG_1560Horned Larks [Aitkin County]
One of the first spring migrants in northern Minnesota is the early-nesting Horned Lark. Often showing up in late February or early March they are usually the first songbird migrants. Trumpeter Swans, Bald Eagles, Killdeer, American Kestrels, Canada Geese are other early movers in the Northland. Horned Larks nest in farm fields and short grass pastures.

IMG_1679Trumpeter Swans
A flock of 18 Trumpeter Swans rest in a central Minnesota field recently bare of snow.

Canada Goose pair Crex Meadows Grantsburg WI IMG_1693

Canada Goose pair Crex Meadows Grantsburg WI IMG_1697Canada Goose
Crex Meadows near Grantsburg, Wisconsin is a major staging area for Sandhill Cranes in spring and fall (April and October) so I thought with the early spring that maybe, possibly some may have returned. But no. The only migrants amongst the completely frozen marshes was this Canada Goose and about 30 or 40 Trumpeter Swans, some of whom had already paired up and staked out nests.

Allocapnia Winter Stonefly St. Croix River at WI 35 WI IMG_1729Winter Stonefly
On warm March days, the Winter Stoneflies (Allocapnia species) often emerge from cold, clean fast flowing creeks and rivers. They are flightless and forage atop the snow for bits of algae.

IMG_1767High Falls of the Black River [Douglas County, Wisconsin]
A hidden gem in northwest Wisconsin…and only a dozen miles or so from our house. The Black River tumbles for 165 vertical feet over Big Manitou Falls forming the highest waterfall in Wisconsin. It is in Pattison State Park.

Rough-legged Hawk light morph Carlton Co MN IMG_1838Rough-legged Hawk, light morph [Carlton County, MN]

Rough-legged Hawk dark morph Carlton Co MN IMG_1867Rough-legged Hawk, dark morph [Carlton County, MN]

Rough-legged Hawk dark morph Carlton Co MN IMG_1876Rough-legged Hawk, dark morph [Carlton County, MN]
March 11th was a GORGEOUS spring day and the raptors were on the move north! I tallied 1 American Kestrel, 1 Merlin, 3 Northern Harriers, 7 Bald Eagles (2 immatures and 5 adults) and 6 Rough-legged Hawks including this light morph and dark morph birds. The Rough-legs are heading back to breed in the Arctic of northern Canada.

Wild Turkey Skogstjarna Carlton Co MN IMG_1934Wild Turkey Toms Displaying [Carlton County, MN]

Wild Turkey Skogstjarna Carlton Co MN IMG_1939Wild Turkey Toms Displaying [Carlton County, MN]

Wild Turkey Skogstjarna Carlton Co MN IMG_1926Wild Turkey Toms Displaying [Carlton County, MN]
We’ve had Wild Turkeys at our bird feeders for a number of years now…and every mid March the Tom’s start strutting their stuff. On March 10 and 11 I saw a Tom half puff up his feathers, but no full blown display..until the morning of March 12 when I took the three photos above. It is fun to watch them slowly erect their feathers when they notice a hen nearby, and then slowly strut and turn to show off their iridescent feathers and bright red wattle.

Northern Harrier with vole CR229 Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_2020Northern Harrier with Vole [Sax-Zim Bog, MN]
Northern Harriers are back in town. These raptors are one of the earliest to return to the Sax-Zim Bog in NE Minnesota. They float over hayfields, marshes and meadows searching for mice and voles. This female has caught one. Males are a very striking white, gray and black. They were formerly called “Marsh Hawks.”

Bohemian Waxwing Wrenshall City Park crabapples Wrenshall MN IMG_1973Bohemian Waxwing [Wrenshall, MN]
One of our winter visitors from the Canadian North, the Bohemian Waxwing will soon be heading out of the area. A flock of 7 to 30 have been hanging out in my town’s city park for the last week, feasting and fueling up on crabapples.

Bohemian Waxwing Wrenshall City Park crabapples Wrenshall MN IMG_2010Bohemian Waxwing [Wrenshall, MN]
With a blah gray sky as a background, I tried to make the photo more interesting by turning it into a “high key” image. I blew out the whites so it would almost look like the bird has been clipped from the background.

 

Best Bird Photos 2015

At the end of every year I look through all the photos I’ve taken in the last 12 months and pick my favorites. Throughout the year, I quickly star-rate my images in Aperture…3-stars are images that I’d like to explore more later. Then in December, I sort by all the 3-stars and upgrade a bunch to 4-star. In my final evaluation round I look for images that really stand out from the crowd. Creativity ranks quite high in my analysis of the finalists. A perfectly composed portrait is a very salable image, but quite boring in my mind. Here are the 20-some FIVE STAR BIRD PHOTOS FROM 2015 (in no particular order). Enjoy!
Barred Owl Peary Road Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_8448The Birch and the Barred
A Barred Owl leaps from its perch in a Paper Birch (Hey, that ryhymes!) It pays to be alert and watch for any sign that a raptor is about to fly. Make sure to have the camera on continuous focus, have a fast enough shutter speed to freeze motion, and hold the shutter down to fire off a bunch of photos.
[Barred Owl; Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/3200; ISO 250; hand-held]

Barred Owl Peary Road near Yellow-bellied Bog Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_7632Flight of the Barred
Continuous-focus shots of birds in flight in a snowfall is tricky business, but today’s cameras are pretty good at staying locked on to the main subject and not getting fooled into switching focus to falling flakes. Of course, the heavier the snowfall the harder this becomes. This is an uncropped image and I barely got both wingtips in the frame.
[Barred Owl; Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/1600; ISO 2000; hand-held]

Black Tern Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0205Picky Eater
Black Terns are a dainty cousin to the gulls. They feed by plucking insects and small fish from the surface or just under the surface of freshwater marshes. Quite rare in northern Minnesota, they were very common at Manitoba’s Oak Hammock Marsh north of Winnipeg (see my post about this wonderful place here)
[Black Tern; Oak Hammock Marsh, Winnipeg, Manitoba]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/3200; ISO 250;-0.33ev; hand-held]

Dunlin Wisconsin Point Superior WI IMG_1030 Peep Peek
Stalking shorebirds is frustrating work. You crawl on the sand down the beach, sometimes only to have the flock change direction and move away from you. But sometimes they cooperate quite nicely. This Dunlin even felt comfortable enough to take a quick cat nap right in front of me!
[Dunlin; Wisconsin Point beach on Lake Superior; Wisconsin]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f7.1 at 1/1250; ISO 200 -1.33ev;hand-held]

Golden Eagle immature Hawk Ridge Summit Ledges Duluth MN IMG_4158 Gold on Gold
Choosing the right location at the right time of year is critical to getting great wildlife photos. And with migrating raptors, it is also crucial to know what weather will bring the birds closer to you. In this case, I knew that strong NW wind days would force the hawks and eagles and falcons to funnel down the shore of Lake Superior and right over Duluth’s Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve. The strength of the wind would keep the birds relatively low (distant colorful trees make a more pleasing background than boring blue sky). I also had a plastic owl on a pole to attract the curious and furious raptors. It all came together when this immature Golden Eagle not only came in, but came in BELOW us! This rarely happens. And I got to share this moment with several other birders.
[Golden Eagle, immature; Hawk Ridge, Duluth, Minnesota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/2000; ISO 320; hand-held]

Great Gray Owl Admiral Road Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_3912 Great Gray Stare
Though Great Gray Owls hunt mainly with their incredible hearing, their bright yellow eyes is what captured my attention. I also love the symmetry of their face, including the big facial disks that collect sound like radar dishes and focus it on their ear holes. And some are incredibly tame, allowing close approach and letting me get this close up portrait.
[Great Gray Owl; Sax-Zim Bog; Minnesota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/60; ISO320; hand-held (this exposure was a mistake as I had just switched from video, which must be shot at 1/60 second)]

Lincoln's Sparrow backyard bird pool Skogstjarna Carlton Co MN IMG_1077 Lincoln Bathed Here
I picked this photo because it represented success with a new idea I had this fall; I made an eye-level pond out of a couple saw horses, some plywood and a couple 2x4s (upcoming spring blog post). As I sat in my blind, I wondered if I’d ever get anything better than the frequent goldfinch bathers…then this gorgeous Lincoln’s Sparrow showed up…and even better, he got in the pool and started bathing. And the light was perfect! Success!
[Lincoln’s Sparrow; Skogstjarna; Carlton County, Minnesota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/250; ISO 320; flash; tripod]

Northern Goshawk immature Hawk Ridge Summit Ledges Duluth MN IMG_4068 Gos Attack
Fortunately this young Goshawk is attacking my plastic owl, Earl, and not me. Gos are fierce defenders of their nests and you don’t want to agitate a brooding mama. This technique is much safer. I placed the owl on a pole along a known migration route and waited. Most raptors dislike Great Horned Owls and they will readily harass a sitting owl. Focusing on a torpedo-like bird is a challenge, but sometimes you get lucky!
[Northern Goshawk; Hawk Ridge; Duluth, Minnesota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/2000; ISO 320; hand-held]

Pied-billed Grebe Stone Lake Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_2272 Stone Lake Silhouette
Canoeing at dawn on a wild lake often produces some great photo opportunities. This morning on Stone Lake in the Sax-Zim Bog was quite foggy. But I like the silhouettes you can make on such mornings, and the graceful arced rushes add much to the composition.
[Pied-billed Grebe; Stone Lake; Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f10 at 1/800; ISO 100; hand-held]

Ruddy Duck Horsehead Lake Kidder County ND IMG_1084 Marsh Ruddies
West Central North Dakota is a spectacular place for prairie breeding birds. I spent a couple days there in June photographing the western specialties, including this pair of Ruddy Ducks. I don’t get to see them that often in northeastern Minnesota, so it was a special treat. I chose this photo simply because it was a beautiful photo of a beautiful duck in a beautiful setting (I really like the yellow bladderwort flowers that add a little something extra.)
[Ruddy Duck pair; Horsehead Lake; Kidder County, North Dakota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f22 at 1/60; ISO 250; braced on car door frame (exposure was a mistake as I had just switched from taking video, which must be shot at 1/60 second)]

Barred Owl Peary Road near Yellow-bellied Bog Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_7695 - Version 2Perfect Perch
The sun barely peaked out from behind the clouds to cast some interesting light on this Barred Owl. And could you ask for a better perch?!
[Barred Owl; Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota]

Ruffed Grouse silhouette fall colors Hilpiper Rd Douglas Co WI IMG_0581 Stepping Out
This is one of those “G & G” (grab-and-go) shots that I NEVER thought would become one of my favorites of the year. I was just driving down a dirt road on my way to my “real” destination and preconceived photo goal, when I saw this Ruffed Grouse crossing the road. I stopped to get a shot out the window but was disappointed when she walked right into the deep shadows. But then I noticed the sun-lit fall foliage in the background and I had an idea. I dropped out of my van and lay on the road to get a low angle on the bird. I wanted to silhouette her against that fall color. I underexposed by a couple stops to make sure she went black. Success! Pays to keep an open mind when on a photo excursion, and be open to whatever happens in front of you. Zen and the Art of Wildlife Photography?
[Ruffed Grouse; Douglas County, Wisconsin]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/320; ISO 400; -0.67ev; hand-held while laying on ground]

Snowy Owl adult male Menards Superior WI  IMG_4580 - Version 2 Landing Gear Down!
Was this photo taken in the Arctic, just as this adult male Snowy Owl was about to land on a snow-covered tundra hummock? Or was it preparing to touch down on a light pole at the Menards Store in the middle of Superior Wisconsin? I’ll let your imagination decide!
[Snowy Owl male; Superior, Wisconsin (oops! I just gave it away)]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/1600; ISO 200; hand-held]

Snowy Owl Menards Superior WI IMG_3701 High Key Snowy
I really do love playing with photos in Aperture (or Lightroom) and Photoshop. I make no apologies for it. You are either going to hate or love this photo. I turned it into a “high key” image, where the whites are blown out intentionally. I did this to show off the stunning yellow eyes of this Arctic visitor to the northland.
[Snowy Owl male; Superior, Wisconsin]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f6.3 at 1/320; ISO 500; hand-held]

Sora Admiral Road Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_8809 Rail Cool
To get a photo like this, you have to sit for hours in a wet marsh, soaked from foot to forearm and just hope this secretive bird emerges from the cattails. But since I didn’t have this much time or motivation, I simply sat on the edge of the road and played the call of a Sora on my iPhone. Cheating? Maybe, but far more efficient. I do always keep the bird’s welfare in mind, and don’t overdo the playing of calls.
[Sora (rail); Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/400; ISO 320; hand-held]

Spruce Grouse female hen Sawbill Landing Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_2573
Spruce Grouse female hen Sawbill Landing Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_2588 As Pretty as her Spouse (Both Photos Above)
Once you actually find a Spruce Grouse, they are incredibly trusting and allow close approach. The trick is finding one! I photographed this hen from my belly while she picked for grit on a dirt road in far northern Minnesota, then she flew up to eye-level in a nearby spruce (how convenient!). Fortuitously there was also some yellow birch leaves in the background. I think female Spruce Grouse are as attractive as the males.
[Spruce Grouse hen; Superior National Forest; Lake County, Minnesota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f7.1 at 1/80; ISO 1250; tripod (only way I could get away with this exposure!)]

Swamp Sparrow Horsehead Lake Kidder Co ND IMG_1295 Flight of the Swampy
Flight shots are low percentage shooting….meaning you get very few “keepers” (shots that are sharp and in focus). But in this digital age, we have nothing to lose! In the film days, this show would have cost me $20!…$10 for a roll of Fuji Velvia and $10 for processing the 36 slides…OUCH!
[Swamp Sparrow; Horsehead Lake, Kidder County, North Dakota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; braced on car door frame]

Turkey Vulture sun bathing wings spread Tofte dump Cook Co MN IMG_9670Bathing Beauty?
Vultures often “sun bath” to dry their wings, but you don’t often get them doing it on such a nice perch in such nice light. Of course, this was at a municipal dump, but you can’t tell it from the photo!
[Turkey Vulture; Tofte Dump; North Shore of Minnesota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f8 at 1/1250; ISO 400; braced on car door frame]

Upland Sandpiper on fence post Kidder Co ND IMG_1500 Take off!
You can only take so many photos of an Upland Sandpiper standing on a wooden fence post. So then you wait…and wait…and wait for it to do something else, like stretch or yawn or …fly! I was ready this time and just held down the shutter as it leapt from its perch.
[Upland Sandpiper; Kidder County, North Dakota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/2000; ISO 500; hand-held]

Virginia Rail Kimmes-Tobin Wetlands Douglas County WI IMG_0222Yes Virginia, You are a Rail
I’d never managed to get a good photo of an adult Virginia Rail. I once had lots of fun with a juvenile Virginia from my floating blind (see blog post and photos here}. But this May day was my Lucky Day and it appeared from the cattails in perfect light…a gorgeous bird that is rarely seen. By the way, they are called “rails” because their body is incredibly thin when viewed head on, and this is actually the source of the phrase “thin as a rail.”
[Virginia Rail; Kimmes-Tobin Wetlands; Douglas County, Wisconsin]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f6.3 at 1/500; ISO 1/1000; -0.33ev; hand-held]

Spruce Grouse in the Superior National Forest

It is very fortunate for birders and wildlife photographers that Spruce Grouse like to forage along roadsides. If we had to blindly wander around the bogs and boreal forests of the North Woods in search of them, we may never see one! In fact, in fall they become even more visible along the dirt byways of the Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota. I’m not saying you can count on seeing one on every outing, but put on enough backroad miles during early morning hours, and your odds are pretty good.

These photos are all from late September and early October in the Superior National Forest of northern Minnesota.
Winter buries the landscape and Spruce Grouse adapt quite nicely to the new and harsh conditions. Sprouting scales on their toes, the grouse effectively double the surface area of their feet, which is a great aid in walking over deep fluffy snow. Their food preference changes from bugs, buds, leaves and berries to a strict diet of spruce and jack pine needles.

Spruce Grouse male Stoney River Forest Road Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_2492[Male Spruce Grouse, Superior National Forest, Lake County, Minnesota]
I found this cooperative male while he was foraging along the road edge. I got a few “insurance shots” from a distance, then slowly worked my way closer. I crawled on my knees then would drop down to my belly to get eye level shots. I repeated this about every 10 feet until he filled the frame!

Spruce Grouse male Stoney River Forest Road Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_2474[Male Spruce Grouse, Superior National Forest, Lake County, Minnesota]
I just used my pop-up flash to fill in some shadows and reveal the true colors of the bird. Sometimes when a bird is in the shade, and your camera is set to auto White Balance, your photos (including the bird) will look quite blue. Flash helps this. You may have to fix the eye reflection later in Photoshop, but that only takes a few seconds.

Spruce Grouse male Stoney River Forest Road Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_2486[Male Spruce Grouse, Superior National Forest, Lake County, Minnesota]

Spruce Grouse female hen Sawbill Landing Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_2509[Female (hen) Spruce Grouse, Superior National Forest, Lake County, Minnesota]
Hen Spruce Grouse are arguably as attractive as the males…albeit in subtler tones.

Spruce Grouse female hen Sawbill Landing Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_2595[Female (hen) Spruce Grouse, Superior National Forest, Lake County, Minnesota]
After a passing hunter in a truck spooked her, she only flew a short ways up into a nearby spruce. She let me photograph and video her for quite a while. A fantastic treat!

Spruce Grouse female hen Sawbill Landing Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_2609[Female (hen) Spruce Grouse, Superior National Forest, Lake County, Minnesota]

Spruce Grouse female hen Sawbill Landing Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_2588[Female (hen) Spruce Grouse, Superior National Forest, Lake County, Minnesota]

Spruce Grouse female hen Sawbill Landing Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_2573[Female (hen) Spruce Grouse, Superior National Forest, Lake County, Minnesota]
A portrait can really be enhanced with a touch of color. I positioned myself so that some background yellow aspen leaves would make a colorful blob behind the hen’s head.

Spruce Grouse Stoney River Forest Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_0921 Logging trucks are a real hazard to foraging Spruce Grouse. Their trusting nature often keeps them on the roads longer than they should.