Posts from the ‘Minnesota’ Category

Lizards in Minnesota? The well-named Six-lined Racerunner

July 20, 2020

Lizards in Minnesota? We have three species that are found in the state: Prairie Skink (Plestiodon septentrionalis) across all of MN except northeast and north central, Common Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) found in extreme southeast MN and along the MN River Valley, and my target for the day—Six-lined Racerunner (Aspidoscelis sexlineata), which is almost exclusively found in the southeast counties bordering the Mississippi River.

Six-lined Racerunner? Yes, this lizard is incredibly speedy (it can run up to 18MPH!) and it has six greenish-yellow stripes…three running down each side of its body (with a darker middle stripe…so it could technically be called the “Seven-lined Racerunner” but nobody asked me).

And this lizard needs that kind of speed to ambush grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, flies and other insects who can be quite quick to take wing at the first hint of danger.

Range of Six-lined Racerunner in the U.S (from NatureServe.org)

Thanks to a tip from a herpetologist friend I searched this spot along the Mississippi River in Houston County, Minnesota (the southeastern most county in MN). He said to only go on a sunny and very warm day since these guys are only active in the heat of midday. In fact, their ideal air temperature for activity is 93 degrees F! (Fitch, 1958). They won’t even come out of burrows on cool days (below 72?). Mid May is when they emerge and they go back underground for the winter in late August.

Check out the unique scales on the Six-lined Racerunner’s tail. They can “drop” their tail if in danger, or if a predator grabs them by the tail, but it is much more unusual than with the skinks.

My first “sighting” was just a line of grass moving as an unseen lizard raced away from me. The site was sandy with a surprising amount of forb cover. I would have thought I’d find them in more open sandy country. A line of jumbled rocks is where they would scurry to for cover.

After about two hours, and about six lizards speeding away from me to the shelter of the rocks, I finally found a Racerunner that wasn’t racing. I was able to sloooowly creep towards him (see below on how I knew his gender) and get a few shots through the grasses.

The blue throat/chin and lime green face tells me that this is a male who is still in breeding “plumage.”

Much of this information about the natural history of Minnesota’s herps was gleaned from Moriarty and Hall’s excellent Amphibians & Reptiles of Minnesota (University of Minnesota Press, 2014). You can buy it here. Or purchase from Amazon here.

In this Blog Post from summer 2019, I searched for the Five-lined Skink along the rocky landscape of the Minnesota River Valley, but instead found a juvenile Prairie Skink.

500-mile daytrip Birding Minnesota June 12: Egret Rookery, Avocets, Western Grebes: Bird Photography

A LONG 500-mile day trip birding in west central Minnesota. Join me on this “Armchair birding tour” as I photograph American Avocets at the North Ottawa Impoundment (find a rare Snowy Egret), get super slow-motion video of Chimney Swifts in flight in downtown Osakis, shoot Western Grebes on Lake Osakis, and visit a Great Egret/Black-crowned Night-Heron/Double-crested Cormorant colony at Adam’s Park/Grotto Lake in Fergus Falls.

I also discover that a NASA astronaut was born and raised in tiny Vining, Minnesota (pop. 63), which is also the home of the world’s largest clothespin.

Slow-motion video with the Panasonic GH5 and Sigma 50-500mm lens.

Virtually Live 4 Birding/Photography Field Trip to Sax-Zim Bog May 4, 2020

Virtually Live 4 Birding Field Trip to Sax-Zim Bog May 4, 2020

The day starts out promising with sunny skies, calm winds and a very cooperative drake Wood Duck, and then it gets even better with some RARE BIRDS for Sax-Zim: the Meadowlark of the prairies, a sparrow not normally found in northeast Minnesota, a surprising warbler on territory, and a pair of grassland-loving shorebirds (Thanks to FOSZB Head Naturalist Clinton and his eagle-eyed wife Kristina!). A very FAT and cooperative “quill pig” is the “Superstar Mammal of the Day,” but what will be the Superstar Bird? Stick around for the surprise procreative ending to Sparky’s Virtually Live field trip!

Virtual Field Trip 2— Birding Sax-Zim Bog April 21, 2020

Our second Friends of Sax-Zim Bog Virtually Live birding field trip. April 21, 2020. On this outing Sparky Stensaas nearly drives right by a Great Gray Owl, finds cooperative pairs of Sandhill Cranes, photographs late Snow Buntings and Northern Shrikes and more. We wind our way around the Sax-Zim Bog from 6:20 am to 11:15 am with stops at Stone Lake, Sax Road, St. Louis River, Arkola and more. Superstar bird of the day is ????

“Moosey & Sprucey” Trip to the Superior National Forest: Shooting with Sparky episode

Come along on a wildlife photography and video day trip in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest (April 17, 2020). This Shooting with Sparky episode takes you along as I search for Moose and displaying Spruce Grouse. Guest appearances by drumming Ruffed Grouse, Red Crossbills, Saw-whet Owl, Red-tailed Hawk, Hairy Woodpecker, Black-backed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Trailing Arbutus and more. Enjoy this virtual field trip!

Birding with Sparky: Virtually Live Field Trip to Sax-Zim Bog — April 14, 2020

Hi all, This is video 1 of a series we are doing at my non-profit Friends of Sax-Zim Bog. Since we all have to practice social distancing, we decided to bring our bog buddies along on some “Virtually Live” field trips.

I bird the Sax-Zim Bog (northeastern Minnesota) in the morning from sunrise to noon, then race home (1-hour drive) to download and edit the footage. The goal is to upload it by that evening.

I had a blast! And hope to continue this weekly through May. Come along and enjoy a day of birding in Sax-Zim!

Bird the Bog with Sparky: April 14, 2020

Favorite Creative Wildlife Photos of 2019 (Top Ten)

Creative photos of wildlife are often my goal, but rarely realized.

When we encounter an interesting critter in the field we first take a “record” shot (basically a snapshot). Now we at least have an identifiable image of the animal. Next we try and get a decent portrait. And once we have that, we can play around with exposures (silhouettes?), shutter speeds (often longer for blurs), wider angles (including some of the surrounding landscape) and different perspectives.

This is when it really gets fun! It is low percentage shooting to be sure, but the results are often much more interesting than another “bird on a stick” photo.

Common Raven breath (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming) October 2019
[Panasonic GH5 with Sigma 50-500mm lens; 1/400 second; ISO 200; hand-held]

I’ve tried to get a photo like this with Red-winged Blackbirds and Sandhill Cranes, and always failed miserably. But when Ryan and I came upon the resident pair of Raven beggars in the Hayden Valley in October, I saw my chance for redemption! The sun was low and the ravens vocal…a perfect combo for the “backlit breath” shot. Only one problem…the wind was very slightly blowing…and in the wrong direction…so their breath was blowing behind their heads. And also, the biggest puff of air usually comes after the Raven is already closing its bill. This one was the best of the bunch.

Bald Eagle in snowstorm (Carlton County, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 70-200mm f4 lens at 200mm; 1/500 second at f7.1; ISO 250; hand-held]

I like the monochromaticity (is that a word?) of this image. The heavy snow softens the distracting maze of aspens. I did lighten the whole image so that the whites of the snow were just blowing out. The Bald Eagle is waiting for its turn at a deer carcass.

Greater Prairie Chicken on lek (Polk County, Minnesota) April 2019
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 70-200mm f4 lens at 73mm; 1/15 second at f4; ISO 1600; hand-held]

You have to crawl into the photo blind at grouse/prairie chicken leks about an hour before sunrise in order not to spook the birds. But what do you do while you wait for enough light to take action shots? Well, you can record audio of the “booming” birds…or you can take long (and I mean looooong) exposure panning shots.

I really like how this one turned out. The bird is sharp enough, and I love how its orange eyebrows and air sac contrasts beautifully with the blues of the predawn grass.

Tundra Swans (near Nashua, Minnesota in Wilkin County) April 2019
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f4 L USM lens; 1/1250 second at f5.6; +1.66 ev; hand-held]

I had several nice “high key” images in 2019. I like this one of a flock of Tundra Swans winging their way through western Minnesota towards the tundra of northern Canada. I intentionally blew out the whites to make a more graphic image.

Bison herd at sunset (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming) October 2019
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f4 L USM lens; 1/500 second at f9; ISO 800; tripod]

I really do have more than enough Bison shots after 10 years of shooting in Yellowstone. But when we rolled up to this herd along Fountain Flat Drive I saw a scene developing. I decided to back off on the focal length to create a “wildlife-in-the-landscape” shot. And as the sun sank, the grass began glowing and the rimlight on the shaggy beasts was perfect. Of course I do wish more had their heads up, but that is wishful thinking with grazing Bison.

Common Ravens (Carlton County, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 70-200mm f4 lens at 70mm; 1/500 second at f7.1 ISO 400; hand-held]

Not sure anybody else will agree with me here, but I love the feel of this image. It is just 3 Ravens in aspen woods in a snowstorm, but it evokes something in me. Can’t describe it…I’ll have to ponder this more.

Red-tailed Hawk (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming) October 2019
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 70-200mm f4 lens at 73mm; 1/125 second at f5.6; -0.33 ev; hand-held]

Can you find the hawk? Just a small silhouette of a Redtail contrasting with the stark dead tree silhouettes and backed by a gorgeous post sunset purple glow.

Northern Hawk Owl (Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f4 L USM lens; 1/320 second at f5.6; ISO 100; +1.33 ev; hand-held]

Another “high key” image where I increased the exposure and adjusted the levels to clip the whites to create a more graphic image. I like how the Hawk Owl’s yellow eyes and beak, rusty plumage and green lichens pop on the white background. The overcast sky was just a gray blah background so this is one trick to salvage such images.

Zebra (San Diego Zoo, California) August 2019

Just a zebra in black and white. The zebra was in the sunlight, but its shelter was heavily shaded. Maybe not the most creative shot, but I love the graphic nature of the image…and what a striking animal!

Mule Deer and aspen leaves (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota) Oct. 2019

I increased the exposure and elevated the whites, and also decreased the contrast by opening up the shadows in Lightroom.

Bison (Badlands National Park, South Dakota) October 2019

The photo of the Bison is a result of me playing around with Lightroom controls and experiencing a “haccident”… a happy accident. By sliding the Luminance slider to 100 and the Detail slider to 0 under the Noise Reduction panel, you reduce the detail in the image and it creates a painterly quality to the photo. No Photoshop filters here! You will either love or hate this photo.

Snow Goose blur (western Minnesota) April 2019

It was a stunning and unexpectedly massive goose migration in western Minnesota this April. I sounded like an old-timer telling Bridget and the kids about my experience…”You should’ve seen it…clouds of geese in the air. Skeins of geese overhead constantly. The air was filled with flocks!”

I played with some longer exposures while keeping the camera still. I did okay but the trees in the background aren’t as sharp as I’d like.

Trumpeter Swans (Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota) April 2019

I was taking landscape photos and video with a DJI Phantom 4 Pro when I passed over these early-returning Trumpeter Swans. The ignored the “whirring bird” over their heads completely. You don’t often see wildlife from above. I also like the colors in the water.

NEXT UP…Top Ten Landscape photos of 2019

Top Ten Mammal photos 2019

Here are my favorite mammal photos taken in 2019. It was a pretty good year for locating and photographing the “four-leggeds.”

Prairie Dogs (Badlands National Park, South Dakota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; f5.6 at 1/640 second; ISO 100; -0.33 ev; tripod]

I call this the “Group Back Rub.” This is from October when Ryan and I were enroute to Yellowstone. I took this while we were waiting for a Burrowing Owl to poke its head out of a prairie dog hole. Let’s just say that Ryan doesn’t appreciate prairie dogs or their high level of cuteness. If its his turn to drive, I really have to plead for him to stop for a prairie dog colony. I love photographing them and their antics.

Bobcat (Sax-Zim Bog)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; f5.6 at 1/250 second; Flash; ISO 640; -+1.0 ev; hand-held braced on car door]

Due to the deep snows and cold temps of the winter of 2018-19, many critters had a tough time finding food. At least 9 Bobcats were seen in the Sax-Zim Bog including a mom with 2 young. This was likely one of the young who camped out at a road-killed deer (note ribs in background). Bobcats are gorgeous and cute at the same time. A flash helped make this image Uber-sharp on a heavy overcast day.

Bison in snowstorm (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming)

This is the start of the snowstorm that closed Yellowstone down for 36 hours at the start of our time in the park. These three ruled the road between Madison and West Yellowstone.

Ermine (Short-tailed Weasel) at Warren Woessner Bog Boardwalk (Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/2000 at f5.6; ISO 250; hand-held]

While guiding a group from Outward Bound along the Warren Woessner Bog Boardwalk at the Warren Nelson Memorial Bog, this little guy popped out of a snow burrow and immediately emerged from a nearby hole. They are unbelievably fast critters! They hunt voles in their subnivean tunnels (their long thin body shape helps in this pursuit) but also feed on carcasses.

Ermine is the name for Least Weasel, Long-tailed Weasel and Short-tailed Weasel when in their winter white coat (this is a Short-tailed Weasel).

He stayed still for approximately 1.5 seconds but I was able to snap off a couple shots. It will be in the MN Conservation Volunteer magazine next month.

Baboon baby and mom at San Diego Zoo

Something a bit different…an image from a zoo of a mama Baboon gently grooming her baby. Just darn cute!

Red Fox hunting a snowy field (Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/1250 at f6.3; ISO 500; +0.33ev; hand-held]

This is a real “mammal in the landscape” photo. But I think it works because of the Red Fox looks sharp with the red of the willows, both of which contrast with the white of the symmetrical aspens.

Mule Deer (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM; 1/1000 second at f5.6; ISO 1000; hand-held]

Arriving in Teddy Roosevelt National Park we were greeted with this young Mule Deer buck browsing on some roadside shrubs. An early October snowstorm provided the backdrop.

Canada Lynx (Superior National Forest, Minnesota)
[single video frame plucked from 4K video]

Not a great photo…so why is it included here? Because it was the first Canada Lynx I’ve seen in the daylight…and I got some images! I lucked into this mellow cat up in the Superior National Forest in late March and got to spend a few minutes with it as it sauntered through the forest, then sat for a while before moving on in its never-ending search for Snowshoe Hares.

Read more and see the video HERE

Grizzly eating Rose hips (Wyoming)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6L USM lens; 1/250 second at f5.6; ISO 6400; hand-held]

Sometimes trying to predict where a wild animal might intersect with our own path pays off. We saw this Grizzly making its way across the North Fork of the Shoshone River just outside Yellowstone. She went into the woods so we moved up the road to a pullout and waited. And, believe it or not, she came out of the woods and headed in our direction. But it was not us she wanted to investigate, but rather a stand of Wild Rose whose hips were in full ripeness. It was a joy to watch her delicately plucking the fruits from the bush a couple at a time. Not once did she look in our direction, and when she was filled, she moved off.

Read more of this story HERE

Red Fox pups playing (Carlton County, Minnesota)
[Sony A6500 with Canon EF 400mm f5.6L USM lens attached with Metabones adapter; 1/500 second at f5.6; ISO 800; hand-held]

On may way to photograph Loons one early summer morning I stumbled across a trio of romping Red Fox pups. I stayed with them for nearly an hour and enjoyed their antics. The loons could wait.

It seemed that only two would wrestle at a time, never all three. I took many photos and quite a bit of video.

Leaping for Lunch; Red Fox (Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/1250 at f6.3; ISO 250; +0.33ev; hand-held]

This mellow Red Fox tolerated my presence for about 10 minutes as it hunted for voles along a minimum maintenance road and a farm field in the Sax-Zim Bog. Occasionally it would hear the sound of a vole under the crusty snow; its ears would rotate forward towards the sound, it would then rock back on its haunches, then launch high into the air to get enough force to break through the crusty snow to get a the vole.

Pine Marten (Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; f5.6 at 1/500 second; ISO 200; tripod

Pine Martens LOOOVE peanut butter! And suet. And carcasses. So they are occasionally attracted to bird feeding stations in the Sax-Zim Bog. They use this food to supplement their normal diet of Ruffed Grouse, voles and squirrels. There were at least two, and possibly three coming to this feeder. They ignored the nearby birders and photographers for the most part. It is ALWAYS a treat to see these guys.

Swedes Forest: Lizards & Cactus—Minnesota River Valley July 2019

July 23, 2019

Did you know that within the border of Minnesota lives 3 lizard species and 4 species of cactus? On this quick trip down to the western portion of the Minnesota River valley I hoped to see several of these rare species.

Panorama of Swedes Forest in Yellow Medicine County, Minnesota

My first stop was Swedes Forest Scientific and Natural Area (SNA). This site was protected because of its unique rock outcrops, which were historically in a prairie setting. But over the years, Bur Oaks and other trees have grown up and shaded the rocks. The periodic fires of pre-White-Settlement times kept the landscape as mainly prairie, but with the fire suppression of the last 100 years, the forest has encroached. It is time to try and bring back the open grasslands here. On the day I arrived there was a crew cutting down these trees in order to restore the ecosystem.

A view from the exposed bedrock of Swedes Forest SNA.

I headed right to the most obvious rock outcrop south of the parking area. My main goal was to see the very rare Five-lined Skink, but I also knew there were Prairie Skinks here as well. After about 15 minutes I saw a couple-inch long skink start scurrying across the reddish rock. It stopped barely long enough for me to get a few shots. The first thing I noticed was its blue tail…but that doesn’t help identifying the critter since both the Prairie Skink and Five-lined Skink juveniles show this tail color. But by the head and back stripes and markings I could tell it was a young Prairie Skink. Still very exciting because I have never seen one before.

Juvenile Prairie Skink (Plestiodon septentrionalis)
Juvenile Prairie Skink (Plestiodon septentrionalis)

My only skink for the day (despite looking under many rocks) was this juvenile Prairie Skink (Plestiodon septentrionalis). It’s blue tail is one clue but you really have to check out its back and head stripes to separate it from the similar, but much rarer, Five-lined Skink. This youngster was only a few inches long.

I nicknamed this jumping spider the “scary Halloween mask spider” for its unique abdomen pattern, and texted a photo to my kids. I thought I had a rare species at first, but later learned from Minnesota spider expert Chad Heins, that this was simply a young female Habronattus decorus, a jumping spider which I have photographed the very different looking male several times.

Have you ever seen a shiny green, red and blue beetle before? I hadn’t either…until I found this one foraging on a shrub. This is Calleida punctata, a species of ground beetle.

The Coral Hairstreak is a beautiful butterfly of mid summer. I rarely get to see them as they are never found in large numbers.

Talinum parviflorum (Small-flowered Fameflower or Rock Pink)
Talinum parviflorum (Small-flowered Fameflower or Rock Pink)

Shallow depressions in bedrock outcrops on the prairie create one of Minnesota’s rarest habitats. These low spots catch and hold rainwater since they have no outlet. One specialist in this microhabitat is Talinum parviflorum (Small-flowered Fameflower or Rock Pink) as show in the 2 photos above. I was a bit late to see it in full bloom unfortunately, so I guess I’ll have to come back!

Brittle Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia fragilis)
Brittle Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia fragilis)
Brittle Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia fragilis)
Brittle Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia fragilis)

Some may be surprised to learn that cactus grows natively in Minnesota. The above four photos are of one of the smaller species called Brittle Prickly Pear (Opuntia fragilis). It is fragile as its Latin name implies, but it packs a painful prickly punch if you accidentally touch or kneel on one!

The tiny, but large for its family, Galgupha Ebony Bug is so shiny that you can see my reflection, and that of the sun, clouds and blue sky, on its smooth exoskeleton.

Plains Clubtail dragonfly (Gomphus externus)

Dickcissels are only irregular visitors to my home territory of northern Minnesota, making summer irruptions every 4 years or so. But they are abundant breeders in the scrubby grasslands of Southern Minnesota.

**All photos taken with Canon 7D and either Canon 70-200mm f4 lens or Canon 400mm f5.6 lens. Macro photos with Canon 500D attached to Canon 70-200mm lens. Panorama photos taken with iPhone 7+.

Yellow Rail—Midnight Madness in the McGregor Marsh (VIDEO calling, preening, sleeping)

YELLOW RAIL in McGregor Marsh, Aitkin County, Minnesota. June 13, 2019

Okay, so I was home and in my own bed by midnight, but “10:44 pm in the McGregor Marsh” isn’t quite as catchy as the title, “Midnight Madness.”

It has been about 30 years since I’ve actually SEEN a Yellow Rail (one of Kim Eckert’s multi-birder late-night Yellow Rail “round up” in the 80s). 

Yellow Rails are one of the most secretive birds in North America, and only nest in localized sedge marshes in MN, ND, Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan (and a few other isolated spots). Seven were calling last night (June 13). The rails are only the size of a softball, and they walk around under the cattails…usually. A tape of another male, or clicking two rocks together to imitate their call can elicit a vocal response. But they are used to semi-close neighbors so you have to be in the heart of their territory for them to come out from beneath the sedges/cattails.

Access to the McGregor Marsh is difficult, but an old railroad grade (now an ATV trail) runs through it off MN65. It is a vast sedge marsh, which is the vegetation Yellow Rails prefer.
First glimpses of the elusive YELLOW RAIL. They are only the size of a softball and usually scurry around like mice UNDER the downed layer of sedges and old cattails.

Thanks to my friend Kim Risen who suggested a place in the Marsh to start listening. He has heard and seen many more in the area this spring/summer. Good year for Yellow Rails! They are dependent on proper water levels.

I waded into the marsh at sunset (about 9:15pm) wearing knee-high rubber boots with rain bibs over the top. One bird was calling just off the trail but quit. The McGregor Marsh is a floating mat of sedges and cattails in ankle- to calf-deep water. Good thing I’d laced myself with Deep Woods Off (25%DEET) since the mosquitos were thick.
This rail was calling on and off (sometimes as close as 6 feet away!) but it took 1.5 hours to actually see him in the sedge marsh (in the full company of mosquito hordes, and stumbling around in waders). A powerful flashlight aided in the search. I would sit in the marsh, click my rocks and wait. If he called, I’d sweep the area briefly with my flashlight. 
It was very dark by 10:30 pm when I started photographing him. This Yellow Rail was so calm that he called, preened, and even tucked his head into his back feathers and slept all within 15 feet of me. I only stayed with him for about 15 minutes.

SEE VIDEO OF YELLOW RAIL CALLING, PREENING, SLEEPING HERE

But it took me 15 minutes more to find my backpack (including my car keys!), which I had left laying in the marsh when I started tracking this Yellow Rail. Home by midnight!

Sony A6500 and Canon 70-200mm f4 lens; f5.6 at 1/60; ISO 1600; pop-up flash and flashlight for illumination.

Yellow Rail male in northern Minnesota’s McGregor Marsh; June 13, 2019; 10:15-10:45pm
This little guy got so comfortable with me only 10 feet away that he actually would preen and even tuck his head in his back feathers and fall asleep!