Posts from the ‘boreal forest’ Category

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.

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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.

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:

King of the Fungi

Have you ever eaten a King Bolete? I never had…until today. They can be hard to find, but once you do, there will likely be several others in the vicinity. Today I was coming home from a book sales trip and decided to detour up Hwy 1 to Finland. I thought I might net some dragonflies along the Baptism River, but along the path to the river I found “the King.” It was a huge specimen—Nearly 8 inches tall and 8 inches across—but the beetles had already gotten to it. But nearby, under a canopy of spruce and aspen, I found a couple classic King Boletes. Note its bulbous stem, warm brown cap (this color can vary) and the net-like reticulations on the upper third of the stem. Like all members of the Boletaceae, this fungi has pores instead of gills. Spores fall from tubes under the cap.

But the really wonderful thing about Boletus edulis is its edibility. It is probably the most highly revered food fungus in Europe where it also occurs. So I brought a few home. Remember, picking a mushroom is like picking an apple; You’re just picking the fruit of the plant. In fungi, the main body is the underground mycelium. Tonight I cut up the cap and stalk and sauteed in butter until soft (but not mushy). The taste was nutty…unlike the tasteless grocery store mushrooms. I couldn’t help myself and ate a bunch right out of the pan. Later we made a homemade pizza and put some on top…A real August treat!

CAUTION! Please learn to identify edible mushrooms with the help of an expert. Books can help but the best way to learn is in the field with an experienced mushroom picker.

The photo was a real production. After I picked the King Bolete I placed it in a shady spot without grass to interfere. I also did a little “vegetative grooming” by removing some stray grass blades, leaves and twigs. I used a reflector with a gold surface to bounce warm light onto the fungus. A sprig of spruce and Large-leaved Aster tell the habitat story. I layed belly down in the grass to get an eye-level shot creating a nice out-of-focus background (shaded vegetation).

Canon 7D, 200mm f4 lens, tripod, f5.6 at  1/250, ISO 800, reflector, flash at -0.5ev

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.