Posts from the ‘gulls’ 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]

Top Ten 2016 Creative Wildlife Images

I get bored with pretty portraits of wildlife, but I often fall into the routine of just filling the frame with the critter and not paying attention to composition, landscape and other creative ideas to pump a little life into my wildlife images. And I must admit, I didn’t make creativity a priority this year (2016). Let’s hope I can do better in ’17. But here are my “Top Thirteen” favorites…

bighorn-gardiner-river-yellowstone-national-park-wy-img_5287-1Bighorns play King of the Hill; Yellowstone National Park.
One of the wondrous things about Yellowstone is that you can observe wildlife going about their lives as if you were invisible. A century of protection has allowed critters the luxury of not being fearful of man. And so it was with this bachelor herd of Bighorn Sheep. The big old rams were laying down, resting, but the younger rams were playing “king of the hill,” taking turns knocking each other off this bluff-top boulder. By moving low, and slow, but in plain sight, we were able to get close enough to get some shots (and video) and enjoy their antics. Even though it was mid-April, many months removed from the rut, it was obvious that they were all still vying for position and dominance.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM at 400mm; 1/1250 sec at f5.6; ISO 400; Manfrotto tripod with Wimberly Sidekick]

bighorn-gardiner-river-yellowstone-national-park-wy-img_5989Bighorn; Yellowstone National Park.
Kind of an Escher-esque image…It would be perfect if the left Bighorn was a couple inches farther right…But it’s unique enough as is. I like it for some odd reason.

bison-teddy-roosevelt-national-park-medora-nd-img_6336Bison; Teddy Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.
I’d say this is my favorite image of 2016. Ryan and I were shooting along a backroad of “Teddy” before the sunrise, getting some cool subtle silhouettes…then the sun rose and we assumed we should move on so we would not be shooting into the sun. But It was a cool morning and I saw the breath from this Bison backlit and knew it would be a neat shot. So I hustled into a position where the Bison’s body would block the sun and backlight all the breath and steam coming off his body. I tweaked the white balance to add some “sunrise gold” color into the scene.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM at 158mm; 1/2000 sec at f22; ISO 200; Manfrotto tripod with Wimberly Sidekick]

rough-legged-hawk-along-cr29-sax-zim-bog-mn-img_9069-1Rough-legged Hawk, Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota.
Mid October is a beautiful time in the Sax-Zim Bog…the Tamaracks are at their peak yellow-gold color and migrant hawks can be seen overhead. This bird-in-the-landscape photo captures both these fall highlights. Rough-legs breed in the Arctic, but move south in late fall. They hunt small rodents by hovering and watching…and that is exactly what this Rough-leg is doing. Sometimes the small-bird-in-big-landscape shot works well, and I think it does here.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/1250 at f5.6; ISO 800; braced on car window frame]

black-tern-thief-lake-wma-marshall-co-mn-img_1105Black Tern and Cattails; Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area, Marshall County, Minnesota.
Did you do a double-take when first seeing this image? The cattails are only a reflection in a dead calm pond.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/1600 at f5.6; ISO 250; handheld]

bohemian-waxwing-wrenshall-city-park-crabapples-wrenshall-mn-img_2010Bohemian Waxwing; Wrenshall, Minnesota.
Kind of a blah photo straight out of the camera…but I saw some potential in it. I turned the gray skies into a dramatic white background by blowing out the whites in Aperture and Photoshop…then I “erased” a stray branch to strengthen the composition.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/4000 at f5.6; ISO 1000; handheld]

coyote-yellowstone-national-park-wy-img_5688Coyote; Yellowstone National Park.
How often can you say you laid in the middle of the road to get a shot of a Coyote running at you? I wanted to get the canid right in the middle of the yellow lines so I laid right in the middle of the road. Strange composition but kind of fun.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM at 400mm; 1/500 at f6.3; ISO 160; handheld]

img_1103-1Ducks and rushes, Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area, NW Minnesota.
I reduced this image to its most important elements…the shapes of the rushes and the ducks in flight. I simply converted the image to black-and-white and clipped the whites in Photoshop.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/1600 at f5.6; ISO 250; handheld]

ivory-gull-juvenile-canal-park-duluth-mn-img_9439Ivory Gull, Duluth’s Canal Park, Minnesota.
A very rare bird in front of a very famous lighthouse. A bird-in-the-landscape photo with a twist. The Ivory Gull is an elusive small gull of the High Arctic…It is rare even in its breeding range! But sightings in the Lower 48 are very rare. And last winter there were TWO in the area. Birders came from all over the country to add this bird to their “Life List.”
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L at 98mm; 1/250 at f7.1; ISO 200; +2/3 EV; handheld]

little-blue-heron-st-louis-river-western-waterfront-trail-duluth-mn-img_7487Little Blue Heron, St. Louis River, Duluth, Minnesota.
Does something look strange about this photo? It should…It’s upside down! I like the painterly quality the flipped reflection gives this image.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/1000 at f5.6; ISO 320; handheld]

red-tailed-hawk-and-moon-yellowstone-national-park-wy-img_3979Red-tailed Hawk; Yellowstone National Park.
This Red-tailed Hawk ruined my image of the moon! Just kidding…
[Canon 7D with Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM at 400mm;

trout-hatchery-durango-colorado-img_3558Trout, Durango, Colorado.
A slow shutter speed makes for a stylized photo of a swimming trout at the hatchery.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L at 200mm; 1/6 second at f32; ISO 100; handheld]

wild-turkey-skogstjarna-wrenshall-mn-img_2903Wild Turkey, Skogstjarna, Carlton County, Minnesota.
To get this extreme wide angle shot, I set my camera with a 10mm lens on a mini-tripod outside my back window with a remote trigger attached. When the turkeys came in for some cracked corn, I remotely tripped the shutter (from the comfort of my easy-chair!). Note the displaying Tom in the background. I have not yet perfected this idea, but hope to work on it more in 2017.
[Canon 7D with Sigma 10-20mm f4-5.6 lens at 13mm; 1/100 at f8; ISO 400; remotely triggered from inside the house]

Northwest Minnesota—Part 1: Agassiz & Thief Lake WMAs, June 12-13, 2016

My first stop on this mid June excursion was Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge in far northwest Minnesota. It was a gloomy, windy, rainy day in the aspen parklands but I had to make the most of a photographically-poor situation. Down a side road on the refuge I found a spot where Forster’s Terns were making pass after pass above a flooded creek/drainage ditch. At first I simply cranked up the ISO and took many shots to freeze these elegant birds in flight. But the gray skies got grayer, and the gloom got gloomier, so I altered my technique; now I switched to Shutter Priority mode and attempted to get some slow panning shots. My favorite Forster’s photos are below.

Forster's Tern Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge NWR Marshall Co MN IMG_9943Forster’s Tern diving for fish in Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge.
I used Manual exposure setting as I wanted the image exposed properly for the white bird. And since the background was changing as the bird flew (from light sky to dark green leaves) I couldn’t trust Aperture Priority to get the right exposure.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1000 second at f5.6; ISO 320; panning hand-held]

Forster's Tern Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge NWR Marshall Co MN IMG_0497Forster’s Tern in Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge.
I desaturated the background in Aperture for a more dramatic look.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/60 second at f8; ISO 100; panning hand-held]

Forster's Tern Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge NWR Marshall Co MN IMG_0131
EIGHT small fish in ONE DIVE! An amazing feat to accomplish in a head-first plunge that lasts one second max. There must have been very tight schools of fish to be so successful.

pelican IMG_0571American White Pelican at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge.

van and tent IMG_3428Camping at Thief Lake WMA (My late great Honda Odyssey that lost in a battle with a rogue White-tailed Deer just weeks later)

Thief Lake WMA landscape IMG_0762Dawn at Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area in northwest Minnesota.
I love this place in late spring/early summer. It is secluded, has tons of bird life, and a very cool “observation mound” from which you can scan the ginormous cattail marsh.

Red-winged Blackbird IMG_0708Red-winged Blackbird at Thief Lake WMA.

Thief Lake WMA observation mound IMG_3430Observation Mound at Thief Lake WMA.
[iPhone panorama]

Black Tern and cattail reflection IMG_1105Black Tern and cattail reflections.
This photo was a real surprise success..and I didn’t realize it until I got home and viewed it on the iMac. I really like the odd “M.C Esher-esque” juxtaposition of the bird and the “upside down” cattails (reflection). It was also a very pleasant surprise that the Black Tern’s wings mimicked the angle of the cattails without overlapping with them.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1600 second at f5.6; ISO 250; hand-held]

ducks and reeds b&w IMG_1103Ducks flying across Thief Lake WMA.
This image was just begging to be converted to black-and-white; the strong shape elements of the graceful reeds and silhouetted ducks don’t need color to enhance.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1600 second at f5.6; ISO 250; hand-held]

Franklin's Gull Thief Lake WMA Marshall Co MN IMG_1069Franklin’s Gull in flight over Thief Lake WMA.
My number one goal on this leg of the trip was to photograph what I consider to be one of the most beautiful gulls in North America…the Franklin’s Gull. I love the mat black head, white eye-ring and blood red bill. And the fact that they are not a gull I see that often makes them even more special.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1600 second at f6.3; ISO 250; hand-held (for birds in flight, especially overhead, you almost HAVE to hand-hold your camera…a tripod restricts your movement too much]

Franklin's Gull Thief Lake WMA Marshall Co MN IMG_1199Franklin’s Gull catching flying insect on the wing.
Flocks of Franklin’s Gulls forage in neighboring farm fields during the day. This flock was making repeated flights to catch aerial insects. I did not notice the bug until I got home and viewed this image large. I used Shutter Priority in order to make sure I froze the motion of the flying birds (though, this image is a bit soft due to movement so I should have used 1/2000 or 1/1600 second)
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1250 second at f6.3; ISO 125; hand-held]

Marsh Wren IMG_0816Marsh Wren at Thief Lake WMA.
The Marsh Wren is a rare bird in northeast Minnesota, so I’m always thrilled when I can get a good shot of this cattail dweller. They are feisty little guys!
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/500 second at f6.3; ISO 640; hand-held]

Sharp-tailed Grouse in crop field near Thief Lake WMA Marshall Co MN IMG_1331Sharp-tailed Grouse in soybean field near Minnesota’s Thief Lake WMA.

tractor burnt IMG_0561Burned tractor.
Wish I knew the story behind this “roasted” tractor!

Gulls in my Face! How to make gulls look sexy!

I love a couple things that most people dislike…gulls (no such thing as a “seagull”) and dark overcast skies for photography. And today I wanted to combine these two to create an artistic, out-of-the ordinary image.
How did I get so close to the gulls? Remember, these were all shot with a 10mm-20mm lens…So you need your subject to be VERY close in order to appear somewhat large in the frame. The answer is stale bread! Once in a while I buy a large bag of unsaleable bread products from the local day-old-bakery. They call these “wildlife bags” and for about $5 you can have lots of fun. The disturbing part is that this particular loaf I was using today was about 6 months old (It had been in my car all summer) and there was not a speck of mold on it! I just shudder to think what we are putting in our bodies. But gulls have stomachs of steel.
The look I wanted was a dark and gloomy sky with the gulls lit in flight with a flash. But to get this “cold-warm” look you need a special technique. First you set your camera’s white balance to “tungsten,” this makes the dark gray sky a pleasing blue. But if you just used straight-up flash on the gulls they would also look bluish. So you need to “warm up” the light from the flash. To do this, I velcroed on two 1/2 CTO gels…These are orange gels that turn the light from your flash a very warm hue…It would be the equivalent of setting your camera’s white balance to “shade.” for example.
I then enticed the Ring-billed Gulls to very close range with scraps of bread, bagel and english muffin. Most would come within 3 feet on foot…Not quite close enough. So I tried throwing the scraps in the air…that worked much better. So I’d throw the bread in the air and then hold the camera at arm’s length and just keep shooting. Fresh batteries allowed the flash to recycle fairly quickly but even so I lost many images to the flash not firing. The result is that the gulls white feathers are neutral to slightly warm instead of bluish…A much nicer look.
Flash is great fun…but it is not often used creatively on wildlife. I had a blast with this and if you want to be further inspired, read Joe McNally’s “Hot Shoe Diaries,” “The Moment it Clicks” or any of his flash books.

Flash with CTO gel in place.

25 Years Ago—Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson’s Bay: Part 1


Sparky and Tyler (right) on Hudson’s Bay

Hard to believe but 25 years ago this week, my college/volleyball buddy Tyler Nelson and I jumped on a Via Rail train in Winnipeg and settled in for a 36 hour train ride to the far north outpost of Churchill, Manitoba.
Via Rail train

These Cree Indian girls were fascinated by our hairy legs…A very non-native American trait!

The soggy tundra and permafrost requires tripods to support the power lines.


It was snowing pretty good when we rolled into Churchill on June 18, 1987… And the Bay had just broken up so there were mini-icebergs everywhere. On the way up, I had told Tyler (a non-birder) that we were on the lookout for a small and very rare gull called the Ross’s Gull. I showed him the illustration in my Peterson’s Field Guide highlighting its black neck collar and pink belly.

And here is the hero bird! The Ross’s Gull. At the time, Churchill was the only known nesting area in North America as it was really more of a Russian/Siberian species. They nested right on the edge of town in the “granary ponds.” Unfortunately, they no longer nest in Churchill and birders don’t go there as often.

Shorebird in a tree? This was the first time I’d witnessed such a thing. This is a Hudsonian Godwit perched in a stunted “flag” spruce. Many species of shorebird nest in the Churchill area..and some even nest in trees!

The tundra around Churchill was not as treeless nor as dry as I expected. It was very wet and with many stunted Black Spruce. This is the most typical tundra we saw.

Of course we couldn’t afford to rent a car so the owner of the Kelsey Motor Lodge said we could use his pickup to get around. The only caveat was that we needed to drop him off and pick him up at work every day. So we did. The funny thing was that his work was only a couple hundred yards from the “Lodge.” He said nobody walks in Churchill because of the Polar Bears.

I think we were a bit ignorant or just foolhardy because we hiked many places where Polar Bears could be lurking. Normally far to the NW by now, a couple had been seen near town. Thankfully (?) we never saw one.

Sparky juggling snowballs…in mid June!

Stay tuned for part 2 coming in the next few days!

You’ll Probably HATE these Photos

You’ll probably hate these photos…But I love them!

It is a dilemna photographers deal with all the time…What do you do when you have a subject but the light is horrid? Well, you can go home…You can shoot regular images that you’ll probably throw away soon after downloading…Or you can put on your creative thinking cap and experiment!

First, I must confess that I love “seagulls.” I am a birder who’s been birding for over 30 years and I’ve seen most of North America’s regular species. Birders love a challenge and gull identification is a challenge! Most species have three or four plumages and many more variations. Lake Superior attracts quite a few species including some rarities from the Arctic and Siberia.

So one gloomy fall day, while scoping the gulls at the Superior Entry (between Duluth’s Park Point and Superior’s Wisconsin Point), I decided to start a feeding frenzy by chucking old Wonder Bread (old, but disturbingly not moldy after a month in my car) into the canal. Ravenous gulls converged on the soggy snack. I slowed the shutter to 1/15 or 1/8 second just to see what would happen. Instant impressionistic art! I love the motion of the gulls wings and the splashing water. At home, I played with the colors in Aperture…I tried black-and-white but it did nothing for me…But the pastel aquas and pinks I got by super saturating the images created a pleasing look.

There is no right or wrong in art. If it pleases you, the creator, then it is good. I know most of you will not like these at all…But for me they are a really interesting and pleasing result from a gloomy day.