Posts from the ‘bogs’ Category

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.

NW MN part 1—Firetower Flyby & Big Bog Boardwalk

March 21, 2012: Promise me that sometime in the next year or two you’ll go visit the relatively new Big Bog State Recreation Area (SRA) up near Red Lake in northern Minnesota. It’s not as far as you think…a quick 200 miles from Duluth. And they have a brand-spanking new visitor center with some great displays about the ecology of Black Spruce bogs. And a flock of Sandhill Cranes “flying” overhead down the main corridor. But the highlight at the Waskish site for the young and young-at-heart is the renovated firetower.

I climbed up the ever-smaller and steeper steps to the top. Calm on the ground, it was howling wind up at the top. Spectacular views over Red Lake (the largest lake completely in the borders of MN and 16th largest in the U.S. at 443 sq miles!). I recorded a short video segment while hunkered out of the wind at the top, hoping out loud that a Bald Eagle would fly by. And within 10 minutes, one did! These images were shot through the fencing at the very top of the firetower. The eagle was so close that I couldn’t fit the entire bird in the frame! But I still think it works. (Don’t tell anyone, but I like the plumage of immature’s more than adults…Scandalous!) Note the eagle’s nictating membrane is closed over its eye in image 2.

Located about 13 miles north of the visitor center is the crown jewel of the park—a one-mile long Bog Boardwalk that lets you experience a Black Spruce bog without getting your feet wet! But it took me awhile to get started on the trek because the dirt parking area was alive with early-emerging butterflies and moths. Thanks to a very mild spring, several Mourning Cloaks, Commas, Red Admiral, and tortoiseshells were out of hibernation a bit early. I also got my best-ever photo of the stunning Compton Tortoiseshell, a large holarctic species, that is also among the longest-lived species at 10 months or more.

For someone who’s tramped a fair number of bogs in rubber boots and headnet, access to the bog itself was not the highlight. The most interesting part to me was the ample natural history signage located along the boardwalk. Most fascinating was the fact that this bog was home to the last remaining herd of Woodland Caribou in Minnesota…and that they hung on to the 1940s. Of course, this was also a scouting trip to examine the boardwalk itself, as this is the type Friends of Sax-Zim Bog ( would like to construct to give birders access to boreal bog birds. It is also built so that the bog underneath will get enough sunlight and moisture and continue to thrive.

Stay tuned! More installments of my NW Minnesota trip coming up.

Lazy LeConte’s Sparrow?

Individual birds, like humans, have different personalities and tolerances. Today, I met a rare LeConte’s Sparrow who was extremely tolerant of this lumbering, fleece-clad and bug-dope-laced human. Turns out, the LeConte’s wasn’t lazy at all, just focused on finding a mate through song and willing to share his space with me.

It was 5-something in the morning and the sun had not quite cleared the horizon’s spruce trees in the Sax-Zim Bog when I heard the soft “tick-zheeeeeeee” of this colorful sparrow (colorful for a sparrow, that is!). I quickly put my 400mm on the 7D and attached a flash with the Better Beamer (a flash attachment that concentrates the beam of the flash by use of a plastic Fresnel lens).

Slowly I sloshed my way into the very wet meadow. I took a few “insurance” shots (like the wide image below) just in case he flew. But he held his ground. I would move about ten feet and then stop, kneel (to get eye level with him…Always better for a more intimate portrait) and take some photos. When I felt he was at ease, I’d move closer. I noticed I was shooting at an angle where a blade of grass was between me and the sparrow, so I shifted right and got a clear shot. Eventually he let me get within about 15 feet…Near the close-focusing minimum of my lens! I shot mostly when he was singing…The open beak adds some action to the image.

The best part? I retreated without the LeConte’s ever leaving his perch. He was still singing away as I turned and left. This may be the ultimate goal in wildlife stalking…Getting close, getting the shot, not disturbing the subject, and leaving the animal in the exact state in which you found it.

Here is a little wider interpretation…I like it because it places the LeConte’s in its habitat…wet, sedgey, grassy swales. I also like the contrast of the Purpletop grass with the yellow sparrow and green stalks.

This sparrow is highly sought by birders because of its very limited breeding range in the United States. Most come to north central Minnesota or central North Dakota to add this species to their life list. Sax-Zim Bog between Duluth and the Iron Range is one of the best places to find them. A guide often helps in the search because they can be tough to find and even harder to hear. Their song is very soft and high-pitched. I remember one client that was watching a male LeConte’s sing through the scope I set up…but he couldn’t hear him…Right there and then he realized he’d lost his hearing in the upper range.
The LeConte’s was named by John James Audubon for his friend John LeConte of New York, a famous entomologist.

A portrait showing the beautiful face pattern and back markings. Also note the sharp tail feathers. A pop of the flash helps bring out the colors in this “pre-sunrise” image.

Top: Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f6.3 at 1/400; Auto ISO chose ISO 800; hand-held
Middle: Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f6.3 at 1/500; Auto ISO chose ISO 1600; hand-held
Bottom: Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f6.3 at 1/250; Auto ISO chose ISO 800; Canon 430EX flash with Better Beamer: hand-held

Tame and Terrified: A Tale of Two Birds

I spent the afternoon up in the Sax-Zim Bog hoping to find some teams participating in our (‘our’ = Friends of Sax-Zim Bog organization) 2011 BRRRRDathon. While I did not find any teams, I did find two of my favorite North Woods birds—the Black-backed Woodpecker and the Northern Goshawk.

Normally, Goshawk sightings are a blur of grayish blue as they zip by, or over, or behind you and disappear into the woods. Shy and secretive, most encounters make you feel like you’ve terrified the poor bird. They flush as soon as you stop the car. It is because of this that I’ve never been able to photograph a Gos away from Hawk Ridge in migration…Until today. An immature bird was hanging out a farm that has ducks and probably chickens and certainly pigeons…all acceptable Gos food. He/she flushed several times but always perched again, sometimes surprisingly low to the ground. I only got a couple distant shots.
They make their living by ambushing Ruffed Grouse, Snowshoe Hares, Red Squirrels (and pigeons, chickens) in deciduous and mixed forests in the northern states.

Later I followed a foot trail to a logged area that has hosted both tridactyl woodpecker species—American Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpecker. Both are extremely ‘tame’ birds…often allowing approach to within a dozen feet.
There were several Hairys but no Black-backeds. I did hear the sound of flaking bark a hundred yards further in, beyond where the packed foot trail ended. I’d forgotten my snowshoes but decided to forge on anyway…It turned into a heart-pumping slog through several hundred yards of knee to thigh-deep snow, tripod slung over my shoulder. But I was rewarded with a very close encounter of a male (yellow cap) Black-backed Woodpecker busily flaking bark from a dying Tamarack. He was trying to locate the larval grubs of Larch Beetles that have infected many Tamaracks (“larch”) in Minnesota.

I shot from 15 or 20 feet, filling the frame. He barely acknowledged this lumbering five-toed creature that was pointing a black thing at him. He looks pot-bellied but this is an illusion created by the fluffing of his feathers to keep his extremities warm. Note his three toes…Most woodpeckers have four toes, two pointing forward and two pointing back. I shot lots of video, some in slow-motion 60fps. This was the best still image.

Male Black-backed Woodpecker; Canon 7D w/Canon 400mm f5.6, f5.6 at 1/250, ISO 400, pop-up flash, tripod

Happy Hawk Owl

Happiness is a sunny day in the Sax-Zim Bog with a happy Northern Hawk Owl. I say he’s happy because he caught several voles in the brief time I spent with him (her?) and cached every one. There must be an abundance of voles around under the 20 plus inches of snow on the ground to have such hunting success.

Caching is fairly common amongst boreal avian predators in times of plenty. Great Gray Owls do it, Northern Shrikes do it, Gray Jays do it, and so do Hawk Owls. I watched as he fluttered near an old aspen snag evidently trying to put one vole in a crevice. Once he dropped the vole and had to fly down to the snow and pick it up and try again. And another time he knocked a big piece of bark off as he apparently tried to cache it between the bark and the stump. In the deep freeze of winter the voles will stay good for a long time. And when hunting is slow, the hawk owl can go to the “fridge” and get a volesicle!

On a couple occasions he flew over 100 yards to nab a vole. Jumping off his favorite perch at the tip of a 60 foot Quaking Aspen, he rocketed straight for the unsuspecting rodent, making his final approach only a few feet off the ground, wings set as in the photo. The flight trajectory was not a straight line but rather an inverted arc.

Northern Hawk Owls are diurnal raptors, hunting in daylight hours. This makes them very viewer/birder friendly. Add to this the fact that they are generally unfazed by human presence and you have a very charismatic species. They are about the size of a football with a tail (the long tail gives them their “hawk” name); a wingspan of 22-28 inches. I dare say that if this owl was as large as a Great Gray, it would be even more legendary.

This owl is a circumpolar species, breeding across the boreal forest and boreal/hardwood transition forest of Canada, Alaska, Scandinavian and Siberia. But their breeding range only dips into the U.S in northern Minnesota. During low cycles of voles in Canada, they can irrupt into northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and other northern states. On my Sax-Zim MN Christmas Bird Count in December 2004 we had 42 (!) Hawk Owls in a 15-mile diameter circle.

Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 400mm f5.6, f5.6 at 1/3200 TV, ISO 400

Return of an Old Friend

It had been a long time. I hadn’t seen my old friend the Great Gray Owl in nearly six months…until today. I was up in the Sax-Zim Bog knocking around, the old Subaru pushing through four inches of unplowed snow, when a Great Gray flew up from a small meadow, a vole in its talons. I stopped as quickly as I could, and pulled over as far as I could, and got out as quietly as I could. Gone.

Then, as I was about to walk (i.e. shuffle dejectedly) back to the car, the owl was right there. How could I have missed him? He was perched twenty feet up in an aspen, listening intently, paying me no mind.

A passerby rolled up in an SUV, “Anything good?” he said. This is the standard birder greeting when coming upon another birder. “A Great Gray” I returned. He pulled right over. We watched the Great Gray for the next half hour. He hovered a few times but didn’t make any more plunges. At one point a flock of Chickadees found him and let the huge owl know that this was THEIR woods. The owl was unfazed.

Video was my main goal but I did have the presence of mind to snap a few frames before it got too dark. I didn’t think too much about the photos because it was the same old image—a Great Gray perched upright in an aspen—I have dozens of these. So back at home, I decided to play around with the color balance to accentuate the blue colors of dusk while keeping the owl its natural gray. I also reduced the contrast to emphasize the owl. It’s a little weird …but I think I like it.

Canon 7D, Canon 400mm f5.6, f5.6 at 1/180, ISO 2000, tripod

This is the original image before any work was done in Aperture or Photoshop:

Wide Angle Wildlife

We all naturally gravitate to the longest lens in our kit when shooting wildlife. It’s a natural reaction…But it can be a creativity killer. During this amazing session with a family of Northern Hawk Owls in northern Minnesota, I completely forgot about the wide angle lens in my bag. In fact, I was even putting the crappy 2x teleconverter on my 400. But I realized this bird perched in a scraggly Black Spruce would make a great silhouette. I intentionally underexposed to make the bird and trees black and then converted the image to a warmer white balance to increase the orange color, simulating the sunrise. Turns out, I really like this image! It is better than 95% of my telephoto shots from this morning. It shows the perching behavior and, more importantly, the habitat that these day-hunting owls make home.

The lesson? The wide angle lens can be a wonderful wildlife photography tool.

Northern Hawk Owl family

Some days you just get lucky. And today was one of those days. I awoke very early to be up on the Stoney River Forest Road in the Superior National Forest by dawn (Lake County in northern Minnesota). Unfortunately  the day dawned foggy and I struggled to find photo subjects. Driving slowly through a Black Spruce/Tamarack bog I spotted the delicate pink blossom of a blooming Bog Laurel. As I stepped out of the Subaru I heard a familiar sound—the begging call of a young owl. Sure enough, there were THREE juvenile Northern Hawk Owls calling from three different Tamaracks. I doused myself in bug dope (10% DEET!), put on my rubber boots and trudged into the bog. Long story short, I spent two hours watching, waiting and photographing this family. Mom (dad?) would come in every 20 to 40 minutes or so with a big, fat, juicy vole. She would fly in to one juvenile but instantly the other two would race to her to get their share…Talk about sibling rivalry!

This photo is the result of patience and luck. Most of the time the young birds were high up in the tippy tops of Tamaracks…with a gray sky background. Patience rewarded me with this bird only six feet off the ground. Luck had it that at some point mom/dad must have given a signal for the chicks that danger was near (and it wasn’t me because the adult ignored me). For at least 10 minutes all three youngsters froze…No begging, no looking around, no moving at all. I used this to get within 10 yards. Note that this guy has a precious vole clutched tightly in its talons…probably a gift from mom or dad.

I chose a vertical orientation to include the photogenic perch.

Canon 7D, 400mm f5.6 on tripod with Wimberly Sidekick, f5.6 at 1/250 at ISO 200.


I had the privilege of spending time with a very responsible Great Gray Owl today. On a little used dirt road in southeast Itasca County I stumbled on a hunting Great Gray right next to the road. If I was a northern owl in search of suitable habitat that reminded me of my ancestral Canadian home (any assumption that this owl had its genetic roots north of the border is purely speculation on my part), then this would be a bog for me. Monospecific stands of Black Spruce rooted in deep sphagnum moss bordered both sides of the road. We (the owl and I) could have been in northern Canada for all we knew.

I parked well up the road and hoofed it back towards him with camera and tripod and flash. It was a quiet and heavy day; fog and thick mist in the air. As is typical of northern owls, the Great Gray hardly acknowledged me. I started shooting. He ignored me; Eyes wide open searching the moss with his ears. After a few false alarms he settled back and seemed to relax. His eyes drooped more and more until they shut. Instantly his eyes snapped open and he seemed to pull himself erect…It was a perfect imitation of a sleepy man in church during a long boring sermon. I could read his mind, “I’ve got three hungry mouths to feed back at the nest…I have to stay awake and capture dinner…No relaxing…The little lady will be upset….Why else would I be hunting at midday?” This scenario repeated itself several times before he flew back into the bog. Unable to fly, I fairly skipped back to the truck with dozens of fun photos of a responsible owl father, a rarely seen denizen of the North.

Canon XTi, Canon 400mm lens with 1.4x teleconverter, tripod, f6.3 at 1/250, ISO 400