Posts from the ‘Shooting with Sparky’ Category

Place it, and they will come. Belted Kingfisher

Belted KingfisherWith apologies to Kevin Costner and the creators of the movie, Field of Dreams, I have modified the phrase “Build it and they will come.” to “Place it and they will come” and by “it” I’m referring to a convenient perch for a bird.
In this case, I had often seen and heard Belted Kingfishers at a nearby marsh. But they were usually perched far out in the water (Where there were perches!). Not great for photos. Plus, Kingfishers are one of the most spooky of all birds…Meaning they fly at the first sight of a human. So I found a spot on the edge of the marsh where I could get a clear view of the water. I found a good looking perch in my woods at home, hauled it to the spot and stuck it in the mud. I set up my pop-up blind about 20 yards away and waited….But I didn’t have to wait very long as a Belted Kingfisher found the perch within 15 minutes!

SHOOTING WITH SPARKY: PLACE IT AND THEY WILL COME. Join Sparky in the field as he shoots Belted Kingfishers.
Note the series of photos where the Kingfisher misses the perch and makes an amazing recovery!

Belted Kingfisher Kimmes-Tobin Wetlands Douglas Co WI IMG_5801I froze the second she landed ….I did not want to spook her…so I waited until she was relaxed and fishing. Then I started shooting. My leg fell asleep and my neck got stiff from trying to remain motionless in the blind.

Belted Kingfisher Kimmes-Tobin Wetlands Douglas Co WI IMG_5809

Belted Kingfisher Kimmes-Tobin Wetlands Douglas Co WI IMG_5828I knew it was a female because of her orange breast band…Females are actually more colorful than the males…Rare in the bird world!

Belted Kingfisher Kimmes-Tobin Wetlands Douglas Co WI IMG_5851

Belted Kingfisher Kimmes-Tobin Wetlands Douglas Co WI IMG_5852
[All shot with Canon 7D and Canon 400mm f5.6. Aperture-priority f5.6 and ISO 320 so shutter speed would be 1/1600 or 1/2000 and I could freeze any action]
[Wide angle video shot with Canon 7D and Sigma 10-20mm lens]

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Dream Come True: Witness to a Great Gray Owl nest

Great Gray Owl nestlings in nest Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_6410Two Great Gray Owlets await mommy or daddy from their lofty nest in a large Tamarack.

I had the great fortune of having a good friend who was willing to share the location of a Great Gray Owl nest he had found recently. Kim Risen is a professional bird guide based out of Tamarack, Minnesota, who leads birding trips across the globe, from South Africa to South America to Costa Rica to Mexico and even in his ‘backyard’ of northern Minnesota. Kim found this nest on a June trip with a client. He’d seen young in this general vicinity several times over several different years. He graciously shared the site with me.

I first visited the Black Spruce/Tamarack bog with Kim and his wife Cindy on June 18th and made several more visits, the last on June 28th. Two owlets were in the nest until at least June 24th, then must have “flew the coup” around June 27th or 28th when we found them on the ground.

VIDEO SHOWING BEHAVIOR & COMMENTARY ON FAVORITE PHOTOS (7 MINUTES)

You can see more of my wildlife videos HERE

Great Gray Owl nestling Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_7396Note mom in the bottom left corner of the image…She was never very far away. The young were generally silent…until they saw an adult when they gave a loud screech (can hear it late in the video). But the female often gave a rising “Whoop!” call. Robert Nero, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Great Gray Owls, says this call “is often given by the female on the nest as a means of communicating with the male.” Robert Taylor, author of The Great Gray Owl: On Silent Wings calls this is “food request call” and it is given more frequently during years of low vole supplies. It likely helps the male find the female too as he delivers the food to her so she can feed the owlets. May this also be the female’s form of communication with the owlets?…”You’re okay…I’m right here.”

Great Gray Owl nestling Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_7390On June 28th I went to photograph the owlets from my blind…But I saw no action in the nest. Just as I was contemplating this, I simultaneously heard my cell phone ring as well as a screech from ground level. I assumed the screech was one of the owlets who’d left the nest. It was Kim on the phone and he was in the bog and had seen the young on the ground. As he was talking I found one of the owlets ‘teed up’ on a stump… “Found one! Gotta go.” I set up my tripod and folding chair, then draped camo netting over myself and started shooting. The owlet stared at me for 20 minutes without taking its eyes off me, though its posture relaxed over this time. Then when he/she was comfortable that I was not a predator, the owlet started to look around, and even stretch.

Great Gray Owlet stretching_0002STREEEEETCH! FRAME EXTRACTED FROM VIDEO CLIP. The young Great Grays often stretched like this…Working their flight muscles I imagine. Fortunately he was facing me head on and gave me this unique perspective. [Note that when you extract a frame from a HD video clip you only get a 1920x1080pixel image to work with…and it’s shot at 1/60 second…and its basically a jpeg. Very limited use, but fine for the web].

Great Gray Owl nestling Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_7389Though the owlets can’t fly at this age, they sure can get around! They will walk across the bog then climb leaning trees and stumps by using their talons for grip and using their beak to grab branches like a parrot, pulling themselves up, wings held over their back for balance.

Great Gray Owl nestling Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_7390 - Version 2 (1)The ticket to not alarming wild critters is to move slowly, stay low, avoid eye contact, and talk to them in a low soft voice (don’t whisper!). And stay in plain sight so you are not mistaken for a sneaky predator. I got very close to this owlet…Close enough to use my 10-20mm lens with full flash. I love the low angle and wide perspective which really puts the owl in its habitat.

Great Gray Owl nestling Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_7343

Great Gray Owl nestling Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_7302Eye-level shot with Canon 400mm f5.6. I WISH I’d put my big flash and Better Beamer on! The images looked okay on the LCD but there is a weird greenish cast from the light filtering down through the canopy. Live and learn!

Great Gray Owl nestling Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_7410The sibling to the owlet on the stump, is this fuzzball. I found him/her on a comfy cozy patch of super-soft Sphagnum moss. I laid on my belly, crawled towards her (got soaking wet!) and inched to within a foot of her/him. He/she began bill clacking, an alarm signal, so I snapped a few photos (full flash) and backed off.

I wish this little family well and hope they find many fat voles!

[All photos and video taken with Canon 7D and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens or Sigma 10-20mm lens, Canon 580EX flash, Cabela’s Lightning Set pop-up blind, Manfrotto tripod]

Subzero Swans: Shooting with Sparky video

Trumpeter Swans 2 landing backlit sepia Monticello MN IMG_0073484

Trumpeter Swans 3 landing backlit Monticello MN IMG_0073480
Heading north from my parent’s home I decided to stop by Monticello, Minnesota to photograph Trumpeter Swans wintering on the Mississippi River. Tucked into a suburban neighborhood on a cul-de-sac is a tiny lot-sized city park. Hundreds of swans winter here. The attractions for the swans are the Mississippi kept open by the discharge of a nuclear power plant and cracked corn. Sheila the Swan Lady began feeding a handful of swans years ago…and word got around the swan world. Now over 1500 Trumpeters winter here! Sheila has passed away, but her husband carries on, scattering hundreds of pounds of corn each day. Please put a few bucks in the donation box at the park to help support this feeding project.

It was cold…zero degrees…and I was plenty early, 45 minutes before sunrise. While dancing around to keep my feet warm, I set up my heavy tripod and got to work. You must stay behind a split rail fence so you are forced to shoot down on the subjects. Not the best angle. Eye level almost always gives animal images more impact. But occasionally swans will fly in at eye level. As the morning progresses, there is behavior and birds everywhere…a swan battle here, wing-flapping there, a flock of Goldeneyes rocketing past, a Bald Eagle overhead, a lamentation of swans flying in (yes…lamentation!). It is hard to swing the tripod head around fast enough to catch all the action.

Trumpeter Swan battle Monticello MN IMG_0073397

As the sun rose the light turned the river steam a very nice gold, silhouetting swans and trees. Several small flocks were flying by. I set Shutter Priority to 1/60 of a second and panned at as they flew past. I’ve had great luck with this on previous trips. But today I preferred my 1/1000 of a second motion-stopping images…Swan feathers translucent and back lit against the blue river.

Trumpeter Swans 2 flying backlit Monticello MN IMG_0073469

Trumpeter Swans 3 landing backlit Monticello MN IMG_0073476

The noise…hundreds of Trumpeters trumpeting…has to be experienced to be believed. It is the highlight of any visit. And to me personally, the whole experience is unbelievable. I never would have believed this day would come. When I was in high school in the late 70s/early 80s, Trumpeter Swans were extirpated from Minnesota, which had not had a breeding pair since 1885. I remember seeing some captive Trumpeters at Elm Creek Park Reserve. Then the MN DNR and began a reintroduction program, bringing in eggs from South Dakota, Montana and Alaska. In 1987, 21 2-year old swans were released at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge in Becker County. Today, the Minnesota population is over 2400 swans. An amazing success story.

More and more swans arrived, flying in towards the feeding area. But by now the light was getting “hot” and their white sunlit feathers were blowing out. The histogram was clipped on the white side. Not good. I packed up the gear and just enjoyed the cacophony of trumpeting Trumpeter Swans before heading home. Like they say, or if they don’t say it somebody should, “Any day shooting is better than a day in the office.”

Tips for shooting swans
1. Get there early! White swans in sunlight equals difficult exposures. Feathers tend to blow out to detailless white. I would even suggest getting there 30 minutes before sunrise. Any “steam” on the water may light up to a beautiful yellow-orange when the sun first peeks over the horizon.
2. Choose a lens that will bring the action closer but leave enough breathing room around the bird so sudden wing-stretching or flapping or fights will not leave part of a wing out of the frame. A 400mm on a crop-sensor camera works well as would a 500mm on a full-frame camera. But even a 300mm lens can yield very nice images. I also like to use my 70-200mm for some “bird in landscape” shots.
3. To stop the action, set your camera to Shutter Priority 1/1000 of a second and your ISO to Auto (if you have this feature).
4. Experiment! Pan with swimming birds as well as flying birds…1/80 to 1/60 second work best. Try some fill flash. Zoom. Use a wide angle lens for an “animal in the landscape” shot.

Trumpeter Swans flying blur panning Monticello MN IMG_0073429

Resources:
Trumpeter Swans at Monticello, Minnesota: Hundreds of Trumpeters, Canada Geese and ducks winter along the Mississippi River in Monticello, Minnesota. A tiny city park buried in a suburban neighborhood is access to the swans. Visit http://www.MonticelloChamber.com for more info and a downloadable pdf brochure.

Trumpeter Swan checking on young one Monticello MN IMG_0073411

All photos taken with Canon 7D and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens.
Flight shots taken at 1/1000 second on Shutter Priority with auto ISO

Mallard albino Monticello MN IMG_0073451Leucistic Mallard blends in well with the white adult Trumpeters and gray and white juveniles.

Moose! Called in to 30 yards: Shooting with Sparky

My hand was actually shaking…I eyed my “escape route” one last time, wondering how fast I could really climb that birch…Because I could hear large branches breaking and the deep guttural grunt of a bull Moose getting closer. I calmed myself and found the very tall dark blob through the vegetation in the viewfinder, focusing until the blob became the sharp image of a bull Moose. He was staring straight into my eyes…or the singular “eye” of my lens… I couldn’t tell which. His nostrils flared, trying to catch the scent of a cow Moose, and drool dripped from his mouth. Now was the critical time when he had to decide if he should come closer or retreat. He circled around me to get a better look…Maybe to actually get a better smell, since their eyesight is not great. As he shook his back and head violently, morning dew flying off his hump, his ears making audible flapping sounds, one could get a glimpse of the strength and power these animals possess. After another stare down, he moved off towards the west, grunting a few times as he departed. Sorry buddy…Hope you get lucky next time.

I’ve called in Moose before (see this post about a 2-Moose Adventure), but each time it is a rush…a thrill. Of course there are many unsuccessful attempts that make the successes so much sweeter. It was just a good day to be in the woods and there were many more highlights to come…a male Spruce Grouse feeding on the road, a Timber Wolf that appeared about 40 yards from me but then disappeared silently before I could get a shot, a Goshawk streaking through the trees. Then the most bizarre encounter…I drove a remote 2-track road a couple miles to a little used trail head…I’d only seen a couple grouse hunters all day…but there was a car here…odd, I thought…then my friend and fellow wildlife photographer Jason comes out of the woods on the trail. Crazy! We talked wildlife encounters for about an hour before my day-ending hike into the Boundary Waters Bog Lake. Yeah, a good day.

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.

Shooting with Sparky Video: Wisconsin Point Shorebirds & Warblers (& flies!)


Sanderling in mainly white winter plumage on Wisconsin Point, Lake Superior

In this episode of Shooting with Sparky we travel to Wisconsin Point to photograph migrating shorebirds and warblers. In the video you’ll see that I find a cooperative pair of Sanderlings, a small shorebird that commonly winters on the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf Coasts but only breeds in the farthest reaches of Arctic Canada and Greenland. Flocks stop off to feed on the beaches of Lake Superior on their way North in late spring. Note that one of the Sanderlings has very white feathers (winter plumage) and the other has more reddish-brown feathers (getting its breeding plumage). The whiter one seems to have only one functioning leg, but his buddy won’t abandon him and sticks close. I was able to crawl through the sand to get some frame-filling shots and then put it in reverse and leave them foraging on the beach surfline without flushing them…The goal of all wildlife photographers; leave your subject as you found them. Enjoy the video!

Watch this 3-minute video to see just how glamorous wildlife photography really is!


Colorado Potato Beetle


Gray Catbird


Sanderling fluffing its feathers


Sanderling getting its reddish breeding plumage

All with Canon 7D and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; Most at ISO 200, f7.1 at 1/250 with fill flash from Canon 430ex; most handheld and braced on binoculars.