Posts from the ‘ice’ Category

Churchill on Hudson Bay 2017: Tundra Wildflowers & Landscapes

Though the main purpose of my trip was to photograph and video the birds of the tundra, I also got in a bit of landscape and flora photography. Lapland Rosebay (Rhododendron lapponicum) was by far the most dominant wildflower (actually a dwarf shrub) in the landscape. The showy purple-pink flowers dotted the tundra and edges of the boreal forests. At only a few inches high, it is funny to think of this as the same genus of the much larger Rhododendrons and Azaleas that are more familiar to us in “the south.”

I learned that the Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens makes a pretty darn good macro lens due to its amazing close focusing ability. You’ll see many “telephoto macro” images below using this lens.

I also used the iPhone 7+ for several landscape photos. Post processing them with Snapseed on the phone.

Oversized inch-long catkins dwarf the willow they belong to. I believe this is Salix arctica or Arctic Willow. [Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay]

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 287 mm; 1/320 sec at f5; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; handheld]

Edge of the boreal forest on a road off of Goose Creek Road. [Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay]

[iPhone 7+ and post processed with Snapseed on the phone]


An interesting phenomenon I witnessed was the mirage of icebergs on Hudson Bay. Low floating pans of ice appeared to be giant walls of icebergs or a glacier when viewed through the heat shimmer of midday. [Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay]

Willows, dwarfed Spruce, water pools and scoured bedrock dot the landscape along the shores of Hudson Bay. [Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay]

Quartz veins on bedrock decorated with lichens. [Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay]

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 100 mm; 1/400 sec at f10; ISO 640; +1.33 ev; handheld]

Lichens [Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay]

Lapland Rosebay at the base of a lichen encrusted boulder. [Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay]

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 135 mm; 1/250 sec at f11; ISO 640; +1.33 ev; handheld]

Lapland Rosebay (Rhododendron lapponicum) is actually a dwarf rhododendron shrub that enlivens the tundra in early summer (mid June).

[Sony A6500 with Rokinon 10mm lens; 1/160 sec at ??; ISO 320; handheld]

The dwarf rhododendron called Lapland Rosebay (Rhododendron lapponicum) is only a few inches tall (3 – 18 inches around Hudson Bay), but it has spectacular purple-pink blossoms. It is in the Family Ericaceae along with other small shrubs including blueberries, cranberries, Leatherleaf, Bog Rosemary, Bog Laurel and azaleas.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400 mm; 1/640 sec at f5.6; ISO 200; -0.33 ev; handheld]

Lapland Rosebay and spruce. This dwarf shrub grows around the world at farn northern latitudes. [Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay]

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 100 mm; 1/100 sec at f13; ISO 400; +1 ev; handheld]

Lapland Rosebay and spruce. [Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay]

An island of Lapland Rosebay on the edge of the boreal forest along Twin Lakes Road. [Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay]

[Sony A6500 with Rokinon 10mm lens; 1/160 sec at ??; ISO 320; handheld]

Lapland Rosebay and Reindeer lichens. Caribou in winter paw through the snow to get at and feed on Reindeer lichen, which is also known as “Caribou Moss.” [Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay]


Lichen pattern


The white flower with red speckled petals is Saxifraga tricuspidata or Prickly Saxifrage (a.k.a Three-toothed Saxifrage), one of the most common Saxifrages in the Arctic. It is a colonizer of bedrock, taking hold in cracks. Its Inuktitut name is kakilahan.

Northern White Mountain Avens (Dryas integrifolia) ?? Not quite sure. The leaves below are not Dryas leaves, but maybe from another flower?

Interesting boulder with more resistant quartz veins.

The tundra is extremely colorful in the fall, but equally so in June in spots.

Northern White Mountain Avens (Dryas integrifolia) is a member of the rose family. It is a circumpolar species and is found across Arctic Canada into Alaska and west through Siberia. It is also found at high eleveations in the Rocky Mountains. This species exhibits “heliotropism” as the flower faces and tracks the sun as it moves across the landscape. This may be more attractive to insects as it creates a warmer microclimate. [Launch Road tundra; Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay]

[Sony A6500 with with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 286 mm; 1/320 sec at f6.3; -1 ev; ISO 100; handheld]


Northern White Mountain Avens (Dryas integrifolia) range map

Northern White Mountain Avens (Dryas integrifolia) had gone to seed in the warmer parts of the Churchill area. Styles of the pistil elongate, twist and become fluffy heads from which the feathery seeds disperse in the wind. [Cook Street off Twin Lakes Road; Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay]

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400 mm; 1/250 sec at f5.6; ISO 200; +1 ev; handheld]

Northern White Mountain Avens (Dryas integrifolia) [Cook Street off Twin Lakes Road; Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay]

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 263 mm; 1/400 sec at f5.6; ISO 200; +1 ev; handheld]

Gulls, jaegers, terns, loons, sea ducks…All can be seen at the tip of Cape Merry (remnant ice chunks float in the background). [Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay]

Speedboat in the Arctic? No, just a wonderfully shaped ice floe drifting past Cape Merry. It upended and sank a minute later. [Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay]

Ice chunks on Hudson Bay and steel gray skies greeted me as I arrived in Churchill on June 16th.

Ice floated in and out of the shoreline areas of Hudson Bay during my entire visit (June 16-20). [Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay]

“Flag Spruce” dot the tundra in clumps such as this. They are shaped by the harsh winter conditions; snowpack covers the lower branches, protecting them from the strong ground winds that carry ice chunks and scour the middle trunk of all its branches. The tip of the spruces still carry needle-bearing branches (the “flag”) as they are above the effects of the ice-scouring forces. [Launch Road, Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay]

[iPhone 7+]

You may recognize the blueberry type pink flower of this ground hugging shrub. This is likely a species of Vaccinium but I’m not sure which.

Net-veined Willow (Salix reticulata) is a ground-hugging dwarf willow that span less than the diameter of a quarter on the tundra. [Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay]

[Sony A6500 with with Canon 50mm f1.8 lens; 1/320 sec at f4.5; ISO 100; handheld]

A pair of large willow catkins greet the start of another tundra summer.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400 mm; 1/1250 sec at f5.6; ISO 640; handheld]

Monochrome Swans

I drive over the bridge that spans the St. Louis River at Fond du Lac nearly every day…And the scene is rarely the same. And this day was no exception. With temps in the 60s and even 70s recently, the snow has melted and the river is opening up. And when the river opens up, the migrant birds appear instantly. Often my first spring Robin, Red-winged Blackbird, Northern Flicker, Common Merganser, Hooded Merganser, and Trumpeter Swans are seen/heard from the bridge. On this day, dense fogs created a dreamscape of gray and white. The silhouetted trees and islands really make the shot. I like the shape of the sweeping horizontal limbs on the right. It took many shots to get both Trumpeter Swans with their heads up since they feed almost constantly, heads submerged. I also like the 3 Canada Geese just loafing on the “iceberg.” I tweaked the color balance to the blue side to add a bit of a feeling of winter turning to spring. Moody!

[Note: This image looks better the larger it is, so click on it once to see a larger image, then click again to see it at its max size.]

Canon 7D, Canon 70-200mm f4 lens, tripod

Lovey Dovey River Otters

Well, it is Valentine’s Day after all…and the pair of River Otters appears to be a cuddly couple, nuzzling, hugging, rolling around together. But now the romantics may want to quit reading and just watch the video, as the lovey dovey couple is probably a female and last year’s pup. Males and females don’t stick together very long after mating. Most groups of multiple otters we see are probably mom and offspring. Sorry.

But their behavior is quite interesting. You see quite a bit of preening and allopreening (mutual preening in social animals that helps maintain bonds). Otters must preen often to keep their fur waterproof. They dry it off by rolling in the snow or ice, then “comb” the fur with their claws, and rub oils from their underfur into the hairs. They are also rather vocal…”talking” with chortles, snuffles, snorts, huffs, and growls. You’ll also see them munching minnows…On this day I didn’t witness them eating any other food.

This video was shot last week on the St. Louis River only about 7 miles from my house. I cross the river every day on the way to preschool/work and there are often River Otters lounging on the ice near open leads.

Sparky’s Top Ten 2011

I really enjoy the exercise of picking my Top Ten from the previous year. As I peruse the “4-star” files, it gives me a chance to reflect on the adventures and misadventures, the misses and successes from the previous year. While the duties of being the father of a 3-year old and 1 1/2 year old has kept me close to home, I’m still fairly satisfied with the results. My point? You don’t really need to travel to Africa, Antarctica or Alaska to make stunning images. Start in your own backyard! The sunflower/raindrop shot was taken 20 feet from the front door!
Nine of the Ten were taken within 85 miles of home (Wrenshall, MN)
Six of the Ten were taken within 35 miles of home
Three of the Ten were taken on our land or in nearby Wrenshall

Here they are in reverse order (Hey, you’ve got to build excitement!)


This is the only photo of the bunch that was taken further than 85 miles from home; This perturbed Canada Goose was defending territory on my mother-in-law’s pond in Galesburg, Illinois. The light was perfect, it is tack sharp, and there is behavior. The goose’s open beak makes the shot. It also shows that common and familiar birds can still make great subjects.


Okay, I didn’t actually click the shutter of the camera for this shot…It was taken by my Bushnell Trophy Cam trail camera. And it’s not that great of a shot…BUT, I included it because 2011 was the Year of the Trail Camera for me…And this Bobcat was only 100 feet from the house. I’ve never seen a Bobcat on our 5 acres but the trail camera has recorded them on more than a dozen nights/days. It just goes to show how many subjects may be near by but never seen.


Another oddball choice, but I really like this picture. It is a HDR (High Dynamic Range) image created from 3 separate photos taken at different exposures. I’ve always loved vernacular architecture—old buildings, gas stations, city halls, school houses, barns—so this abandoned farm caught my eye as I was taking a “long cut” home through Pine and Carlton Counties.


I got very wet taking this images of a Le Conte’s Sparrow in the Sax-Zim Bog 40 miles NW of Duluth. It was just after dawn and this guy was singing away, intent on attracting a female even though it was late in the breeding season. Dew covered every blade of grass and I got drenched as I made my way closer and closer to the songster in the old hay-field. Le Conte’s Sparrows are not common so I was thrilled that he let me get within 20 feet. In fact, he was still singing when I backed off and returned to my truck.


A surreal landscape (icescape?) of bushes encased in a thick layer of ice on Stoney Point between Duluth and Two Harbors on Lake Superior. Taken at sunset but looking east…I much prefer the pink and blue of the eastern vista at sunset to the gaudy 🙂 oranges and reds of the west.


I love the position of the wings in this shot of a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk. Yes, I wish it was an adult, red tail and all, but I’ll take it. Hawk Ridge; Duluth, MN


Pine Grosbeaks only visit the “tropical south” of northern Minnesota in winter. They nest in Canada. Their pinkish red feathers are stunning in the snowy woods. But this was actually taken in our local city park only five miles from home!


It is possible to have flying birds and the moon in focus without resorting to Photoshop! Taken in late October at Crex Meadows, Wisconsin…a major stopover in their migration south.


A very rare phenomenon…the “wavebow” was captured along the North Shore of Lake Superior in March. I just happened to be driving by and saw this scene. I pulled over and scrambled down the embankment to fire off a few shots before it disappeared. It is in the latest issue of Lake Superior Magazine as a two-page spread.

Drumroll please….NUMBER 1

Probably the photo that took the most time to get…I shot hundreds of images over a two week period to get this shot…And I finally got it right outside our front door! The time between a raindrop/dewdrop building up to critical mass and falling from the petal is milliseconds. The editors at the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer also liked it and it ran in the Nov-Dec 2011 issue.

If I get motivated I may do more “Top Tens” of landscape, birds, mammals etc. But I do hope this motivates you to do your own Top Ten images.

Top Ten Winter Photo Tips

Okay, so much of the U.S. is snowless, but it won’t last. We will get snow and cold soon enough (fingers crossed). Here are some ideas to jump start your winter photography and get you out of the brown-gray-white-season blahs.

I will look at each tip in more depth in coming blog posts. Here they are in no particular order (paraphrased from David Letterman).

Winter is a very graphic season. Elements of the landscape are softened and simplified. Isolate patterns for a winning image. [frost feathers on my Subaru’s door window against the sunrise; “pinkened” in Aperture]

Winter is NOT just black and white (or brown). Seek out color to enliven winter shots. [Willows in late winter turn bright red and yellow]

Okay, I just told you to seek color. But monochrome winter shots can also make stunning black & whites [Jay Cooke State Park, Minnesota]

Maybe tolerant is a better word. Many of the northern/boreal birds that move south from Canada and winter in the northern U.S. are quite tolerant of humans. [Northern Hawk Owl]

High Dynamic Range images are ideal for winter images where the contrast is too great to record in a single image. In this image of Lake Superior’s Split Rock Lighthouse, I took three images of different exposures and combined them in a program called Photomatix to get this interesting image.

The sun stays low all day long so use it to your advantage with dramatic shadow images.

Ice comes in many forms…icicles, lake ice, coatings on trees and bushes, icebergs…to name a few. Though usually clear or blue, try shooting ice at sunrise or sunset to add a bit of dramatic red/orange to the ice.

Some interesting weather phenomenon occur in winter…like the “sun dog” pictured here…or sun pillars, steam from unfrozen lakes in cold temps, ice fog, etc. [sun dog over Canal Park lighthouse, Duluth, Minnesota]

Winter is when most of us feed birds in our backyard (we start in early November when the local bears go night-night). Try setting up a blind to make natural looking bird images within feet of your house. [Brown Creeper on its way up to my suet cage]

Night comes early in winter. Use it to your advantage. Star trails, full moon shots, aurora borealis, comets and more. [aurora borealis, Jay Cooke State Park, Carlton County, Minnesota]

Upcoming Events—Artist’s Reception Sat. 9/24 and more…

Gallery show with 21 other photographers…including Craig Blacklock, Jay Steinke, Layne Kennedy. Gallery owners, John Gregor (also of Cold Snap Photography) and Val Doherty were kind enough to include me with this amazing line up of photographers…To quote Wayne’s World, “I’m not worthy!”

Each photographer was asked to pick one photo from one of their favorite Lake Superior locations…My favorite place on Lake Superior in winter is wherever there is accumulated ice——whether sea caves studded with stalactites in the Apostles, or ice-encased cliff-clinging spruces at Tettegouche, or surreal blue shards jumbled up on Brighton Beach as in this photo.
Waterfront Gallery
Two Harbors, MN
September 24-November 5, 2011
Opening Reception Saturday September 24th, 3-5pm

More info here…

OWLS TO ORCHIDS—Magic & Mystery in our Northern Bogs
Audubon Center of the Northwoods, Dinner by the Lake
Sandstone, MN
Saturday October 22, 2011

More info here…

OWLS TO ORCHIDS—Magic & Mystery in our Northern Bogs
Minnesota River Valley Audubon Chapter
Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center
Bloomington, MN
Thursday October 27, 2011

7:00 pm: Socialize with coffee and cookies

7:30 pm: A brief MRVAC business meeting followed by the featured speaker

Are bogs really dark, dank, mosquito-infested swamps? Birders know better and through Sparky’s HD video and still images we’ll explore our northern Black Spruce and Tamarack Bogs! Meet the bird that grows snowshoes, the devious orchid that outsmarts bumblebees, and the death-defying frog. The stars of the show will be some cooperative Great Gray Owls and Northern Hawk Owl families caught on HD video.

Sparky Stensaas is an author, naturalist, photographer, publisher, writer. He is the longtime compiler for the Sax-Zim Bog CBC. Sparky’s latest venture is Friends of Sax-Zim Bog ( a non-profit aimed at educating the public about the natural history of bogs and dedicated to creating a Sax-Zim Welcome Center.

Where: Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center 3815 American Blvd E, Bloomington. Take Hwy 494 to 34th Ave. Go south to American Blvd; turn left and go 2 blocks. Center will be on your right.

More info here…

Duluth Audubon
Duluth, MN
January 12, 2012

More info here…

Lake Superior Icescape

Since I’m daddy-daycare on weekday mornings, I don’t get out for sunrise shooting as much as I used to. So when I get a chance, I like to take it. Though we had a cold winter, not much ice formed on Lake Superior this year. This has more to do with the water temp going into winter and the wind over the Lake in winter, than just cold temps. But with recent northeast winds, some ice had blown in to the “Head of the Lake” which is Duluth.

Huge frozen “drifts” of solid ice formed about 100 yards off Park Point. These form where open water splashes and crashes into shore ice. Some may be ten to twelve feet high. Most are crescent-shaped. On this particular morning, the chunks of ice had rounded off from jostling each other in the swells. Not quite “pancake ice,” which are perfectly rounded ice chunks.

Fortunately there were clouds in the sky when I arrived well before sunrise. This may seem counterintuitive, but landscape photographers live for scattered clouds. If completely cloudy, no sun will peak through and there will be no color in the sky. Completely clear and there will also be no color in the sky…just a brief moment at sunrise when there is a chance for atmospheric color. Today the sun rose above Superior and lit up the clouds with hints of blue, purple and orange. I used a 2-stop Neutral Density filter to hold back the sky which was several stops brighter than the ice.

When I got home, I discovered that I had several nice images of the sky, and several with a better composition with the foreground ice, but no single image that really popped. I decided to combine my favorite sky with my best foreground. I did this with Layers in Photoshop. Easy to do in this case with a relatively level horizon. The Eraser Tool, Levels, Curves and Saturation completed the work. Technically, this image is a photo-illustration since it is two photos combined into one. It can not be entered into competitions unless there is a category for such manipulated images. But I don’t care, as this one is just for me…and I like it!

Canon 7D, Sigma 10-20mm lens at 10mm, f16 at 1/25 second, ISO 320, tripod, 2-stop Galen Rowell Graduated ND filter

Encased in Ice

In the previous post I talked about the blizzard-without-snow that attacked northern Minnesota with 50mph winds out of the northeast yesterday (March 22nd-23rd). I knew I had to get to Tettegouche where the waves would be awesome. In the parking lot, a fellow photographer turned me on to a fairyland of ice sculptures created by the coating of every needle, branch, shrub and tree …Continue Reading—>

Spraybows & Epic Waves

I’m one of those kooky northlanders who hates to see winter succumb to spring. So I was very excited about the blizzard that was predicted to blow in with 35 to 50 mph winds and hurl 6 to 10 inches of snow sideways across the Duluth area. But, as is so often the case, the snowfall didn’t live up to the hype. We in “County Carlton” only got about 3 inches of snow which was Continue Reading

Ice Art on Stoney Point

My photographic mind has not been thinking about landscape images lately…It has been focused on film making and bird photography…and mainly up in the Sax-Zim Bog.

But an email tip from Paul Sundberg about the ice-covered trees up the North Shore at Tettegouche State Park got me thinking about landscapes again. It was the “best ice in 10 years,” Paul said. But, alas, Continue Reading