Posts from the ‘bogs’ Category

Northwest Minnesota—Part 2: Norris Camp & Big Bog, June 12-13, 2016

Heading east from Thief Lake WMA I decided to check out Norris Camp, a remote Minnesota DNR station in the Beltrami Island State Forest that I’d heard had a nesting Black-backed Woodpecker. I was pretty sure that I was too late as most woodpeckers had fledged young already. But I was in luck! And I spent a couple hours with this pair of rarely seen boreal woodpeckers.

Black-backed Woodpecker nest Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1467 (1)Black-backed Woodpecker nest at Norris Camp in Beltrami Island State Forest; Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
The folks at the camp pointed out that this was the same mated pair that nested on the grounds last summer. How did they know? Notice the band on the adult’s leg; they actually banded them last year and both the male and female returned to nest only 100 yards from last year’s nest. Woodpeckers NEVER use the same cavity twice but always excavate a new nest; it may be in the same tree but usually not. In this case, the tree they used last year had blown down since last summer. I don’t know much about site fidelity or mate fidelity in woodpeckers but this was a very interesting anecdote that I will for follow up on.
Also note the male’s yellow cap; the female shows only black on the head. He’s feeding a young male who is already sporting his jaunty yellow forehead feathers.

Black-backed Woodpecker nest Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1380Black-backed Woodpecker nest at Norris Camp in Beltrami Island State Forest; Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.

arctic Macoun's Arctic Oeneis macounii near Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1427 (1)Macoun’s Arctic (Oenis macounii) at Norris Camp, Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
While waiting and watching at the Black-backed Woodpecker nest, I was treated to a lifer butterfly. Not 20 feet away I noticed an orange butterfly that was repeatedly landing on the same fallen log. I finally took a closer look and lo and behold, a Macoun’s Arctic! This species only flies every other year in the North Woods so I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. They are found in openings in sandy Jack Pine forests, and that is exactly the habitat I was in. Males use the same perch as they wait for females.
[Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 184mm and Canon 500D close up attachment; 1/1250 at f7.1; ISO 320; -0.67ev; hand-held]

arctic Macoun's Arctic Oeneis macounii near Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1434 (1)Macoun’s Arctic (Oenis macounii) at Norris Camp, Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
When perched with wings folded, the Macoun’s Arctic is well camouflaged, like just another piece of bark. This species has a fairly limited range in North America extending from the North Shore of Lake Superior west and north to Churchill, Manitoba, British Columbia and just extending north into the Northwest Territories.
[Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 135mm and Canon 500D close up attachment; 1/1600 at f7.1; ISO 320; -0.67ev; hand-held]

blue Silvery Blue Glaucopsyche lygdamus Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1669 (1)Silvery Blue butterfly (Glaucopsyche lygdamus) in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
[Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 100mm and Canon 500D close up attachment; 1/1250 at f7.1; ISO 320; -0.67ev; hand-held]

Aquilegia canadensis Wild Columbine Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1347Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.

Polygala paucifolia Fringed Polygala Gaywings near Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1567Fringed Polygala or Gaywings (Polygala paucifolia) in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.

Corydalis sempervirens Pale Corydalis Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1623Pale Corydalis (Corydalis sempervirens) in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.

Cypripedium arietinum Ram's-head Ladyslipper near Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1543Ram’s-head Ladyslipper (Cypripedium arietinum) near Norris Camp in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
One of my favorite orchids found in the bogs of north central Minnesota, the Ram’s-head Ladyslipper. This small group was past prime as you can tell by the collapsed dorsal sepal on top of the slipper pouch. This may mean that the flower had already been pollinated. It is a very small ladyslipper, maybe 6 inches tall. This group was growing in a Cedar bog.

Cypripedium arietinum Ram's-head Ladyslipper near Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1550Ram’s-head Ladyslipper (Cypripedium arietinum) near Norris Camp in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
[Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 113mm and Canon 500D close up attachment; 1/250 at f8; ISO 250; -0.67ev; tripod]

Cypripedium parviflorum Yellow Ladyslipper Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1709Yellow Ladyslipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) near Norris Camp in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.

Platanthera hookeri Hooker's Orchid near Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1607Mosquito on Hooker’s Orchid (Platanthera hookeri) in a Cedar bog near Norris Camp in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota

Platanthera hookeri Hooker's Orchid near Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1577Hooker’s Orchid (Platanthera hookeri) in a Cedar bog near Norris Camp in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
[Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 104mm and Canon 500D close up attachment; 1/100 at f6.3; ISO 400; -0.67ev; tripod]

Big Bog sign IMG_3441

My last stop was Big Bog State Recreation Area (SRA) near Waskish, Minnesota on Red Lake. This is the largest patterned peatland in the lower 48, and massive in size. It was once home to Minnesota’s last wild Caribou herd which disappeared in the 1930s and 40s. Their trails can still be seen from the air.
The boardwalks is one mile long and a very pleasant hike. MANY interpretive signs highlight the human and natural history of the Big Bog.

Big Bog Boardwalk IMG_3443A portion of the mile-long Big Bog SRA boardwalk near Waskish, Minnesota.

Tamarack cones IMG_1758Tamarack cones along the bog boardwalk.

fritillary Bog Fritillary boardwalk Big Bog SRA Beltrami Co MN IMG_1779Bog Fritillary (Boloria eunomia) on the Big Bog SRA boardwalk.
This was my lifer Bog Fritillary! Unfortunately I mistook it for a different, more common species, and I didn’t take the time to get a really good photo. Oh well, just a reason to go back!
I was going to camp overnight in the area, but I got a text message on my phone that a Calliope Hummingbird had shown up in Duluth…in breeding plumage! This is a bird of the mountain west that has only been recorded in Minnesota a couple times…and never in its stunning breeding plumage. This was reason enough to head for home.

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Five Hours in a Fen

I was able to combine business and pleasure yesterday (July 1st)… Well, It was really all business and a complete pleasure! I had heard of a bog near Cable, Wisconsin that held many Calopogon tuberosus orchids (Swamp-Pink or Grass-Pink) and I was hoping to get video of their ingenious and devious pollination method (read more below).
This particular peatland is actually classified as a fen. What is the difference between a bog and a fen? Bogs are usually stagnant water with very acidic waters. Fens have some water movement and are more basic in pH and richer in nutrients.
Calopogon tuberosus Swamp Pink orchid IMG_2153 Calopogon tuberosus (Swamp-Pink or Grass-Pink orchid) is a delightful mid summer orchid that grows in the floating mat of bogs and fens. Its flowers are “upside down” as the lip is actually on top. The insect-enticing yellow hairs are just a ruse…They fool insects into thinking that they are pollen-tipped or hold nectar, neither of which is true. If a heavy enough bee comes along, it gloms on to the yellow-tipped hairs and tries to extract some pollen. The flower has a built in hinge that collapses and drops the bee on to the sticky pollen packets below. The startled and frustrated bee flies off to try his luck at another Calopogon, and the scenario is repeated, though this time pollination is completed. Devious and Delightful orchid!
Calopogon tuberosus Swamp Pink IMG_2095
Note that on the middle right flower the hinge has already been collapsed by a visiting bee. Though I got video of several small syrphid flies visiting the orchid, none heavy enough to collapse the hinge paid a visit with my camera rolling. Oh well, a reason to go back!
flag spruce IMG_2207Believe me, I was shin deep in water and sinking fast as I took this image. This is an example of a “flag” spruce… A growth form that is very common in the subarctic lands. The “flag” is the upper branches while the nonexistent middle branches were scoured by winter winds and failed to thrive. The sprawling mass of branches low down on the trunk survived because they were protected by deep blanket of winter snow.
Elfin Skimmer male Nannothemis bella IMG_2109
Elfin Skimmer Nannothemis bella IMG_2114Elfin Skimmer male (Nannothemis bella)
A wonderful surprise! Just days after Jim Lind and Dave Grosshuesch found many Elfin Skimmers at the Sax-Zim Bog BioBlitz III (a new species for Sax-Zim!) I got my lifer dragonfly! This is the smallest dragonfly in North America at a tad over 3/4 inch long…and the second smallest in the World (one in China is a bit smaller). The male is pruinose bluish and almost appears to have a clubbed abdomen when in flight.
Elfin Skimmer Nannothemis bella IMG_2087Elfin Skimmer Nannothemis bella IMG_2080Female Elfin Skimmers (Nannothemis bella) are very different than the males. They show a ringed black and yellow abdomen. Both the males and females perch often and only move a short distance when disturbed. These were found hunting around a bog pool mainly on the floating mat.
Pogonia ophioglossoides Rose Pogonia IMG_2048Another orchid was just coming into bloom… the Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides) a delicate beauty of floating bogs. Genus name Ophioglossoides is from Greek meaning “snake tongue,” and I guess you’d have to use your imagination on that one, but the lower lip may resemble a fuzzy tongue to some.
Okanagana Cicada IMG_2134Okanagana Cicada IMG_1949A very exciting find was not one, but two singing Okanagana Cicadas. The male of each species produces a unique sound with their tymbal organs on their abdomen which vibrates and resonates in a cavity inside their abdomen and thorax. The Okanagana’s sound is a fast and steady high-pitched buzz.
Crimson-ringed Whiteface Leucorrhinia glacialis IMG_2146Crimson-ringed Whiteface (Leucorrhinia glacialis) is a bog-loving dragonfly of mid summer.
Lincoln's Sparrow IMG_2000Lincoln’s Sparrow was the most obvious avian bog dweller today, singing its beautiful hollow-can, echoey song from stunted Tamaracks and Spruces. Other birds seen in the bog included Nashville Warbler, Eastern Bluebird, Red-tailed Hawk and Eastern Kingbird. The oak-maple covered hills surrounding the fen held Pileated Woodpeckers, Scarlet Tanagers, Ovenbirds, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Eastern Wood-Pewees and other deciduous species that would have no use for a bog.
Rhynchospora alba White Beaksedge rush IMG_2019Rhynchospora alba or White Beakrush (or White-beaked Sedge) was very common surrounding the bog pools.
Sarracenia purpurea Pitcher Plant leaf IMG_1900Is there a lovelier leaf in the world? Yes, the “pitcher” of the carnivorous Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea) is actually a modified leaf. Inside a deadly mixture of rain water and enzymes can drown and dissolve the unwary insect. The plant is able to absorb important nutrients such as Phosphorous from the tiny carcasses with special cells low inside the pitcher. Good thing these guys aren’t six feet across!
Utricularia cornuta Horned Bladderwort IMG_1952One more carnivorous plant was super-abundant at this fen, Horned Bladderwort (Utricularia cornuta). The related Common Bladderwort is a predator that has dozens of tiny bladders on its underwater leaves. The hair-triggers on the bladders are set off when a tiny aquatic insect blunders by and sucked in to the bladder in a rush of water. The bladder now becomes a tiny stomach and the insect is dissolved by the plant.
IMG_1929Mystery sedge/rush.
IMG_0338If you do swing through Cable, Wisconsin, be sure to stop at their impressive Cable Natural History Museum. Among other treasures, they have an actual stuffed Passenger Pigeon! More info at http://www.cablemuseum.org
IMG_0328

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

May 4th, 2015

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

Pine Marten Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7940

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

World’s Oldest Pine Marten?

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

Red Crossbill Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7882

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

Nesting in Winter?

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

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

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

Red Crossbill female and juvenile Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7865

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

Red Crossbill juvenile May 4 Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7893

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

Red Crossbill Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7848

Red Crossbill Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7855

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

IMG_7825

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

boat landing Big Lake Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8003

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

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

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

snow in woods Echo Trail MN IMG_8037

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

IMG_7981

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mating Game

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_8279 - Version 2

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

Coyote hunting MN23 near Skogstjarna Carlton Co MN IMG_8354

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

Dream Come True: Witness to a Great Gray Owl nest

Great Gray Owl nestlings in nest Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_6410Two Great Gray Owlets await mommy or daddy from their lofty nest in a large Tamarack.

I had the great fortune of having a good friend who was willing to share the location of a Great Gray Owl nest he had found recently. Kim Risen is a professional bird guide based out of Tamarack, Minnesota, who leads birding trips across the globe, from South Africa to South America to Costa Rica to Mexico and even in his ‘backyard’ of northern Minnesota. Kim found this nest on a June trip with a client. He’d seen young in this general vicinity several times over several different years. He graciously shared the site with me.

I first visited the Black Spruce/Tamarack bog with Kim and his wife Cindy on June 18th and made several more visits, the last on June 28th. Two owlets were in the nest until at least June 24th, then must have “flew the coup” around June 27th or 28th when we found them on the ground.

VIDEO SHOWING BEHAVIOR & COMMENTARY ON FAVORITE PHOTOS (7 MINUTES)

You can see more of my wildlife videos HERE

Great Gray Owl nestling Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_7396Note mom in the bottom left corner of the image…She was never very far away. The young were generally silent…until they saw an adult when they gave a loud screech (can hear it late in the video). But the female often gave a rising “Whoop!” call. Robert Nero, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Great Gray Owls, says this call “is often given by the female on the nest as a means of communicating with the male.” Robert Taylor, author of The Great Gray Owl: On Silent Wings calls this is “food request call” and it is given more frequently during years of low vole supplies. It likely helps the male find the female too as he delivers the food to her so she can feed the owlets. May this also be the female’s form of communication with the owlets?…”You’re okay…I’m right here.”

Great Gray Owl nestling Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_7390On June 28th I went to photograph the owlets from my blind…But I saw no action in the nest. Just as I was contemplating this, I simultaneously heard my cell phone ring as well as a screech from ground level. I assumed the screech was one of the owlets who’d left the nest. It was Kim on the phone and he was in the bog and had seen the young on the ground. As he was talking I found one of the owlets ‘teed up’ on a stump… “Found one! Gotta go.” I set up my tripod and folding chair, then draped camo netting over myself and started shooting. The owlet stared at me for 20 minutes without taking its eyes off me, though its posture relaxed over this time. Then when he/she was comfortable that I was not a predator, the owlet started to look around, and even stretch.

Great Gray Owlet stretching_0002STREEEEETCH! FRAME EXTRACTED FROM VIDEO CLIP. The young Great Grays often stretched like this…Working their flight muscles I imagine. Fortunately he was facing me head on and gave me this unique perspective. [Note that when you extract a frame from a HD video clip you only get a 1920x1080pixel image to work with…and it’s shot at 1/60 second…and its basically a jpeg. Very limited use, but fine for the web].

Great Gray Owl nestling Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_7389Though the owlets can’t fly at this age, they sure can get around! They will walk across the bog then climb leaning trees and stumps by using their talons for grip and using their beak to grab branches like a parrot, pulling themselves up, wings held over their back for balance.

Great Gray Owl nestling Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_7390 - Version 2 (1)The ticket to not alarming wild critters is to move slowly, stay low, avoid eye contact, and talk to them in a low soft voice (don’t whisper!). And stay in plain sight so you are not mistaken for a sneaky predator. I got very close to this owlet…Close enough to use my 10-20mm lens with full flash. I love the low angle and wide perspective which really puts the owl in its habitat.

Great Gray Owl nestling Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_7343

Great Gray Owl nestling Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_7302Eye-level shot with Canon 400mm f5.6. I WISH I’d put my big flash and Better Beamer on! The images looked okay on the LCD but there is a weird greenish cast from the light filtering down through the canopy. Live and learn!

Great Gray Owl nestling Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_7410The sibling to the owlet on the stump, is this fuzzball. I found him/her on a comfy cozy patch of super-soft Sphagnum moss. I laid on my belly, crawled towards her (got soaking wet!) and inched to within a foot of her/him. He/she began bill clacking, an alarm signal, so I snapped a few photos (full flash) and backed off.

I wish this little family well and hope they find many fat voles!

[All photos and video taken with Canon 7D and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens or Sigma 10-20mm lens, Canon 580EX flash, Cabela’s Lightning Set pop-up blind, Manfrotto tripod]

Top Twenty Images of 2012

2012 is gone and I’ve had a chance to look at all my images from the year and pick my favorites. Time helps clear your vision. Some images I was crazy about right after I took them, are no longer exciting to me. Here I present my favorite images of 2012 in reverse order…Maybe not the most saleable nor necessarily the best portraits (which can be boring), but the shots that I kept coming back to..the ones that intrigued me…or were difficult to get…or were the most creative. And this last bit about creativity brings me to my big announcement for 2013…I will be releasing a new video: GET CREATIVE: WILDLIFE IMAGES BEYOND THE PORTRAIT this year. Stay tuned!

near Saginaw, Minnesota St. Louis County #20—The surprise image of the year…I was perusing photos from my June work for the Minnesota County Biological Survey when I found this very underexposed, blaah image. But then I saw the potential as a high-contrast black and white image. The result was a very graphic silhouette of a foraging Pine Warbler amongst the long delicate needles of a Red Pine. St. Louis County, Minnesota.

07-Best2012 Ruby-throated Hummingbird female and Liatris Skogstjarna Carlton Co MN IMG_0064370 #19—I spent much quality time with our backyard hummers this summer. We mainly hosted females but occasionally a bully male would show up…but never when my camera was in place. I was using flash and a Better Beamer to throw light onto the hummer but in this shot the flash did not fire. But I like the resulting softer look…No harsh light blasting the tiny bird. My home in Carlton County, Minnesota.

11-Best2012 blurred leaves Rock Pond Duluth MN IMG_0067511 #18—Fall leaves always seem to vex me…I have a hard time creating interesting images of the stunning scenes around me in late September/early October. On this windy day I used a tripod and a very slow shutter speed to render the leaves a colorful blur while the trunks remained relatively still. I like the contrast of white vs. orange and blur vs. sharp. Rock Pond, UMD, Duluth, Minnesota.

16-Best2012 Bald Eagle from firetower at Big Bog SRA Koochiching Co MN IMG_0055770 (1) #17—Eye-level Bald Eagle shots are not easy to come by! And this one has a story…It was taken 80 feet up in a firetower! I was visiting Big Bog State Recreation Area in far north central Minnesota and decided to climb the tower to get a bird’s-eye view of Lower Red Lake and surrounding forests. Some distant eagles caught my attention and I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if one flies past me in my aerial perch…And the miraculous part is that one did! It was not a gleaming white and black adult but rather a dramatically patterned youngster. I panned with the bird and amazingly it came out razor sharp.

18-Best2012 Swans geese St. Louis River fog Fond du Lac MN IMG_0055161 #16—I cross this bridge over the St.Louis River on the outskirts of Duluth every day on the way to work. It has many moods and this hazy spring afternoon created a bucolic and blue still life of swans, ducks, ice and trees.

IMG_0070171 #15—My youngest son, Bjorn, shows great promise as a wildlife photographer…At least he looks good in khaki!

19-Best2012 Cedar Waxwing Gunflint Trail Brule River Cook Co MN File0113 #14—Not a set-up! A fortuitous find that resulted in a very nice portrait with a little behavior too. This very rarely happens but it did this August morning on the Gunflint Trail. I’d just returned from a early morning paddle on the Brule River, loaded up the canoe and was pulling out of the dirt parking area when I spotted the foraging Cedar Waxwings in a heavily-fruited Mountain Ash.

15-Best2012 water lily File0169 #13—Just a very pleasing composition (to me anyway)…a water lily on dark water taken from a low angle to get the reflection. I also love the purplish lily pads. Cook County, Minnesota.

04-Best2012 Lower Yellowstone Falls IMG_0067608 #12—A very long exposure with my 10mm Sigma lens was made possible by a 9-stop ND filter. I love the soft ethereal feel of the powerful Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, belying the thunderous roar. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

17-Best2012 Snowshoe Hare Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_0002136 #11—I had to include this portrait as I have been trying to get a decent winter Snowshoe Hare photo for years! And on this snowy Sax-Zim Bog day, I succeeded! The hare really felt it was invisible and stayed put as I crawled closer and closer through the snow.

12-Best2012 Abandoned house and tree Itasca Co nr Northome MN IMG_0055660_59_58_tonemapped 88-0-7-4-10 #10—Seems like I always slip in a non-nature subject. I really enjoy photographing vernacular architecture, including abandoned buildings like this farmhouse. A HDR image and sepia color finished it off. Itasca County, Minnesota.

10-Best2012 Polyphemus Moth Antheraea polyphemus detail Skogstjarna Carlton Co MN IMG_0057753 #9—Abstract macro image of a Polyphemus Moth’s wings turned upside down to create a strange “face” complete with big blue eyes and a puckered mouth. My home in Carlton County, Minnesota.

05-Best2012 Swinging bridge flood IMG_0058741 #8—The banner headline of 2012 for us Duluthians/Carltonians was the Great Flood of June. It affected all of us dramatically. But my most powerful image was this shot of the raging St. Louis River taking out the historic and much loved Swinging Bridge of Jay Cooke State Park. Read more here.

08-Best2012 Sharp-tailed Grouse Carlton Co MN IMG_0056142 #7—A rite of spring, the congregation of Sharp-tailed Grouse at their dancing grounds or leks, is an event I hate to miss. But it is always difficult shooting. They are most active just before sunrise when the light is poor…And it is April so the weather is often cloudy and windy. Visibility in the cramped blind is not great either. This time I resorted to a slow shutter speed and panning. I love the shot as it conveys the manic intensity of the males as they dance, pursue females, and chase off rival males. Carlton County, Minnesota.

09-Best2012 Moose bull called in Dumbell Rd Superior National Forest MN nr Isabella IMG_0066747 #6—One of the few straight-up wildlife portraits in the collection, but I had to include it. Much has been made of the dramatic decline of Moose in Minnesota…and it makes me very sad. They are one of my favorite mammals. I learned to call Moose years ago…imitating the sound of a female. After a several-year dry spell, I was able to call this young bull in this fall. Intense moments followed as he was deciding whether I was a cow Moose or some stupid human. Thankfully he came to the right conclusion! See the video here.

14-Best2012 abstract river rocks IMG_0069193 #5—Can you tell what this is? Colorful river rocks below a Yellowstone National Park stream. It’s funny…I really don’t like abstract painting but I love much abstract photography.

06-Best2012 Ring-billed Gull Duluth MN tungsten w-2 1-2 CTO gels on flash IMG_0065801 #4—Two icons of Duluth in one shot! The Aerial Lift Bridge and a Ring-billed Gull. Not your typical wildlife shot but one that is certainly unique. In this technique I learned from flash/lighting guru ??? you set your camera to tungsten white balance (to turn the dark brooding sky blue) and then use a flash with an orange CTO gel to throw a very warm light on the subject, in this case, a Ring-billed Gull.

13-Best2012 IMG_0068269 #3—Often times I’ll get home from a trip and when viewing my images in Aperture, I’ll come across an unexpected prize. It’s like Christmas as a kid! I thought I knew what my favorites would be from viewing them in the field on the back of my camera…but I’m often wrong. This is one such image. It was taken into the sunlight to backlight the Bison’s fur…but it was mostly a “G&G” shot (grab-and-go)…No premeditation, No tripod…Jump out of the car and “snap.” But after converting the image to sepia, I really loved it. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

02-Best2012 Monarch IA IMG_0065536 #2—I really concentrated on wide-angle wildlife this year and this may be my favorite. Crawling on my knees for hours on an Iowa prairie in September finally netted me this image. Read the whole story here. Northeast Iowa.

01-Best2012 Great Gray Owl peek-a-boo McDavitt Rd Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_0058141 #1—Drumroll please…My personal favorite from 2012. Read the whole story of this bog encounter here. See the video here. I like the Great Gray Owl’s furtive glance around the trunk of a spruce…It lends an air of mystery. It is very “Brandenburg’s-wolf-peek-esque” if you’ve ever seen his famous photo. Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota.

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.

Gray Morning Great Gray

Great Grey Owl

On Memorial day, I got up very early to make a quick trip to the Sax-Zim Bog. It was a gray, misty morning but calm. And the resident birds seemed energized after several days of heavy rain and thunderstorms.

And at 9am I got a wonderful surprise…A Great Gray Owl was hunting voles along McDavitt Road. This probably means that this owl has a nest full of begging beaks somewhere in the vast Black Spruce/Tamarack bog. I was able to get some video and photos as he/she hunted the wet ditch sides. Not very concerned with me, she eventually flew deeper into the bog. I was able to get this photo from the car window by bracing the 400mm lens on the door frame.

I tried to maneuver the car a bit to minimize background clutter and this is the best I could do. I don’t really mind the background branches as much as I thought I would…And I love the lichen-festooned branch the owl is sitting on. Ninety-plus percent of Great Gray photos you see were taken in winter, mainly because that is when they are more visible as they hunt open meadows and roadsides. Summer usually finds them hunting deeper in the bogs. This image has a warmer feel than those.

Also note that my camera was ready to go in the seat next to me when the Great Gray appeared; It was preset to Tv (shutter priority 1/400 second and auto ISO. This way I knew I could shoot handheld and still get a sharp image…And I can live with the noisier image at ISO 1000. If I’d had my camera on aperture priority f5.6, I may have ended up shooting at a slow shutter speed and getting an unsharp and unusable image.

Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens at f5.6 1/400 sec at ISO 1000, handheld but braced on door frame of car.

Elsewhere in the Sax-Zim Bog I had some interesting birds. Though no “wolf whistles” of the Upland Sandpipers were heard, a very surprising Western Meadowlark was singing; Easterns are more common here. In the same field, a lone Sharp-tailed Grouse sat atop a wooden fence post. Nobody told him the party was over three weeks ago! Magpies foraged in hay fields along CR229. Bobolinks had also arrived.
I flushed a group of 6 American Woodcock from a clump of hazel…likely a family group as they nest early and stay together for a while.
In the Black Spruce bogs Connecticut Warblers were found at several locations including a couple males singing on opposite sides of one road. Blue-headed Vireos were at several sites. Winter Wrens and Sedge Wrens were in full song. And Yellow-bellied Flycatchers have returned to their bog breeding forests. Lincoln’s Sparrows sang from the scrubby taiga-like bogs.