Posts from the ‘snow’ Category

Bird Photography from a Snow Blind/Hide: Ancient Skills for a Modern Use

Snow Blind—Making a Photo Blind / Photo Hide out of snow for bird photography.

Sparky and Ryan put ancient skills to a modern use…A quinzhee is a type of snow shelter used by the Ojibwa in the North Woods and it is a perfect shelter for hiding the photographer.

Sparky’s kids also put in a cameo!

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Teddy in the Snow— Theodore Roosevelt National Park

October 10-11, 2019

After getting kicked out of Yellowstone (due to the heavy snow, closed roads, and the park shutting down), we thought we would breeze over to Teddy Roosevelt and shoot there for a few days.

But after being forced to leave the park via the West Yellowstone entrance, which already adds a couple hours onto our drive, the conditions worsened. Heavy snow, slush, ice-covered roads, strong winds creating some near white-outs all made travel very slow….But it was about to get much slooowwwwerrr.

We were thrilled to make it off the side roads and on to the freeway. But Google Maps showed a “15-minute” delay red bar on the I-90 stretch just west of Livingston, Montana. Not too bad. Except that that “15-minute delay” turned into an excruciating 2 1/2 hour back up. There was a point where we did not budge for an hour! Talk about frustrating! We heard that two semis had an accident and were blocking the road, so all traffic had to detour through the side streets of Livingston. It was getting dark by the time we were allowed to exit the freeway, and we were NOT about to drive on icy roads at night. So, we got a motel in town.

Early October snow (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)

We did finally make it to Teddy Roosevelt, but got the bad news that only 11 miles of the 36-mile wildlife loop was open. And no one, not the rangers nor the maintenance workers we flagged down, could tell us why. They thought it was because it had not been plowed, but there was only a couple inches on the ground. There was a landslide that blocked the last few miles, but that had been closed since summer. Frustrating.

Mule Deer young buck (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]

But we did find some cooperative Muleys right near the start of the park road. Just a small buck, but he stuck around for a while.

Mule Deer young buck (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM; 1/1600 second at f5.6; ISO 1000; hand-held]
The opposite of “hot dogs”…”chilly dogs” (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM; 1/640 second at f5.6; ISO 100; hand-held]
Cottonwood leaves and October snow (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)
Mountain Bluebirds in snowstorm (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM; 1/1250 second at f5.6; ISO 400; hand-held]

We chanced into this large flock of 50 or so Mountain Bluebirds sheltering in some fruit bushes and feeding on the wet pavement. But they would sit on this nearby barbed wire fence. They were mostly Mountain Bluebirds with a few Eastern Bluebirds and American Robins mixed in.

In hindsight, I should have used a tripod and a smaller f-stop to expand the number of bluebirds in focus. Also, I should have slowed the shutter to 1/60 second so the snow would blur a bit.

Mountain Bluebirds in snowstorm (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)
Mountain Bluebirds in snowstorm (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM; 1/2500 second at f5.6; ISO 1000; hand-held]
Mountain and Eastern Bluebirds, and American Robin, in snowstorm (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM; 1/5000 second at f5.6; ISO 1000; hand-held]

It was a conundrum on which side to shoot them from. They are most colorful from the back or side when you can see the sky blue. Shooting from the front is a better angle photographically, but there breasts are not as bright blue as their back.

Golden Eagle hunting (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)
Feral Horse or “Wild” Horse (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)
White-tailed Deer buck (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)

While Mule Deer are the most common deer in the park, White-tailed Deer, such as this buck are occasionally seen.

Mule Deer doe (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)
snowy road and yellow line (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)
Mule Deer and yellow leaves in snow (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 70-200mm f4 L USM at 81mm; 1/400 second at f8; ISO 2000; hand-held]
Great Idea! Wildlife Petting Chart (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)
Mule Deer young buck (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM; 1/2000 second at f5.6; ISO 1000; hand-held]
Mule Deer in snow (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)
Cooperative Hunting! Two Coyotes and Badger (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)
Cooperative Hunting! Two Coyotes and Badger (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)

After watching a single Coyote and Badger cooperatively hunting in Teddy a few years ago, I didn’t think I’d ever witness that again. But, lo and behold, my “three Coyotes” turned into two Coyotes and a Badger when Ryan took a closer look. They were indeed cooperatively hunting this same Prairie Dog village. At one point the Badger took off on a dead run and investigated a hole. The Coyotes kept a keen eye on their Badger buddy.

Mule Deer buck (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)

Little did we know that the next three days would top the previous two on harrowing driving. And getting stranded in Jamestown, North Dakota.

Next up….A video highlights (and lowlights) reel of this crazy photo trip.

The Snow cometh —Yellowstone Day 4

October 9, 2019

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

We awake to a couple inches of snow at our Madison Campground…but despite having to cook breakfast in the cold, dark, wet conditions, we are pumped! Snow in the landscape always makes for moody wildlife shots, and we were headed to a spot where two bull Moose had been spotted the day before.

But before we even made it to Norris, we were turned around by a ranger who said the mountain passes were closed with 18 inches of snow already. We turned around and headed for the geyser basins south of Madison. And now it was snowing HARD. After a look-see we saw nothing and then were turned around by another ranger. It was clear that we weren’t going anywhere today. A female ranger greeted us back near Madison Campground and said the park was closing and ALL of Yellowstone’s roads would be shut down for at least a day and a half.

Chinese tourist bus slides off the road (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming)
Ryan and the Madison River (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming)

Our choices were to stay at our campsite for 36 hours (not!) and freeze (temps were predicted to be below zero F. that night) OR shoot on our way out the West Yellowstone park entrance. We decided to pack up our tents and head towards Teddy Roosevelt. With only two-full days of shooting in Yellowstone, it was our shortest trip to the park ever.

Elk along the Madison River (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming)

The snow continued to pile up as we spotted this herd of cow elk along the Madison River.

Ryan (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming)
Firehole River (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming)

A “car window” shot at 40 mph. No self-respecting photographer would post this shot, but I kind of like it in black and white. It reminds me of my early darkroom print days. It has a vintage feel to it.

Bison (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming)
Bison (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming)
Bison (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming)
Bison (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming)
Bison (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming)
Bison and Ryan (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming)

We were finally told by the rangers to just keep moving, so we had no choice but to exit the park and head for Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Little did we know that the real adventure of this year’s trip would be just getting home! But more about that in the next post.

Spring Snowstorm & early-returning Birds

On April 11-12 a ferocious spring blizzard hit Minnesota and affected most of the state. Winds in my home county (Carlton County) exceeded 50mph and created whiteout conditions. About 7-8 inches of snow fell but it was wet and windblown. The world was white again!

Some early migrants had already arrived in northern Minnesota. Males often arrive before females in order to set up shop in the best territories before the females arrive. But there is a great risk in arriving early in the North. You may get a great territory, but you’ll have to survive cold snaps, snowstorms, and lack of abundant food.

I decided to explore southern Carlton County to see how some of the migrants were faring. I drove along the thawed and flowing Kettle River, and also visited the brand new Wildlife Management Area called Firebird.

Red-tailed Hawk on wood fencepost in falling snow. Redtails vacate the North Woods in winter, avoiding the deep snow and bitter cold.

A pair of Sandhill Cranes arrived and began looking for food and a suitable nesting site.

[Firebird WMA; Carlton County, Minnesota]

A Roughleg catches a vole! There must be an abundant population of these plump small rodents here, because there were many hawks; I saw 3 Roughlegs perched on 4 consecutive power poles! Also Northern Harriers and American Kestrels were out hunting here. I even saw an American Crow swoop down and catch a vole!

[Firebird WMA; Carlton County, Minnesota]

At least 6 Rough-legged Hawks hunted the fields and meadows of Firebird Wildlife Management Area the day after the storm. This large buteo nests in the Far North tundra and eats only lemmings. In their winter range in the northern U.S. they eat mainly voles. Though roughly the size of a Redtail, they have a much smaller beak and feet due to their dependence on small rodents such as voles. No rabbits for them!

This is the last fueling stop before heading back north for the breeding season.

[Firebird WMA; Carlton County, Minnesota]

Red-tailed Hawk in the landscape of Carlton County

Eastern Phoebe in a snowfall. Surprisingly, this flycatcher will eat fruits and berries if no insects are available. I think this guy was catching early flying insects (midges?) along the open and flowing Kettle River.


Carlton County, Minnesota’s Kettle River.

Common Merganser along the Kettle River. His mate was just out of frame. ALL the lakes in the county are still frozen (even as of April 18), but rivers have opened up and this large duck is taking advantage of that.

Wilson’s Snipe on ice. These “shorebirds” don’t need a shore, only wet, waterlogged ground where they can probe for worms and other inverts. But they are extremely hardy and have been known to linger in the North even into December (if there is some open water to search for food).


Hermit Thrushes are the SECOND thrush to return to the North Woods in spring. American Robins are the first. Both can survive on berries just fine…No need for worms and insects now.

Hermit Thrush along the Kettle River

Killdeer wondering where its snow-free fields went.


Quinzhee Photo Blind

A quinzhee is an old Ojibwa Indian hunting shelter. When men were out hunting big game in the winter, they necessarily traveled light and brought no shelter with them. The quinzhee could be built in a few hours. First you mound up a huge pile of snow (We did it with a grain scoop; the Ojibwa did it with their snowshoes). Then a few hours later you hollow it out. Continue Reading

Hunting Hovering Hawk Owls

I published Duluth naturalist’s David Benson’s Owls of the North a few years ago…Great little book, if you haven’t seen it. Fascinating info on all our northern owls…including the Northern Hawk Owl. Here is an excerpt about Hawk Owl hunting:

Hawk Owls hunt from a convenient perch, searching for prey by sight and then swooping quickly down for the kill. They will chase prey short distances, and sometimes they hunt from perch to perch, dropping down for prey and then swinging up to a nearby perch if they fail to catch their target. Hawk Owls have also been seen hovering over potential prey—unusual behavior for an owl [see photos this post—Sparky]

Alone among owls, Hawk Owls have a falcon-like notch in their bill to sever the spinal cords of their prey. Owl species often use their bills in a similar way, and presumably the notch helps the Hawk Owl to do this with more efficiency.

Congruent with their daytime activity, Hawk Owls rely on sight more than hearing for hunting. Their ears are symmetrical, so they apparently do not need the kind of precision hearing used by most other owls. When scanning for prey, Hawk Owls lean forward almost to the horizontal and pump their tails (a most “un-owly” posture). When they strike, their drop off the perch can look almost like and accidental fall until they begin to glide to the kill.

—from Owls of the North by David Benson (Stone Ridge Press, 2008, ISBN-978-0-9760313-4-5)

Wishing you a Beauty-filled 2011

December 27th, 2010 Fillmore County near Spring Valley, Minnesota.

An inch of hoar frost covering every trunk, branch and twig turns this old barn, silo and windmill into a wondrous winter landscape.

First Staying Snow?

Well, a couple weeks after Duluth had 8 inches of snow, we got what may be our first sticking snow of the winter. Duluth was blessed with 11 inches of snow on the hill (and zero down by the lake) and we had about 5 or 6 inches. Cold temps are predicted for this week AND we are possibly getting another snowstorm this coming weekend so this snow may very well stay until March/April.

After church, Bjorn and I went out shooting (He was very helpful by sleeping soundly in his car seat for over an hour…I was even able to listen to the News from Lake Wobegan!). Six inches of wet snow stuck to every tree trunk, branch, twig and blade of grass creating a winter wonderland. I love driving backroads after a heavy snow. Snow simplifies normally blaaah landscapes, sometimes turning them into stunning scenes.

Our first stop was for a perched Bald Eagle on Spring Lake in Carlton County. Her interest was likely directed at several small flocks of Hooded and Common Mergansers that swam near the shore. Eagles are opportunistic, and a crippled or weak duck would make a nice early winter meal. She was a long ways away but one look through the 400mm convinced me that it would be a cool “bird in the landscape” photo. I had to position the tripod so the bird didn’t meld with the background dark spruces. She needed to have snowy trees behind her to be able to see her in the final image. I present two versions of that scene here. The horizontal image would look great printed large…It may be a bit disappointing viewed small as in this blog.

Barns and farm panoramas are also an interest of mine. I love the simplicity of this farm combined with the White Pines, red barn and white snow. I actually desaturated all other colors EXCEPT red in Aperture (not that there was much color anyway). Barns are disappearing and scenes like this may be difficult to find for the next generation of photographers.

Eagle images: Canon 7D, Canon 400mm f5.6, 1/500 at f8, ISO 200, tripod
Barn image: Canon 7D, Canon 70-200mm f4 at 70mm, 1/350 at f8, ISO 400, handheld

One Year Ago Today: Snow on Leaves

I’d been waiting for this day for a long time…A fluffy white snowfall on red maple leaves at the peak of their color. It happened one year ago today…October 10, 2009. I think Duluth got 2 inches of snow…In the Nemadji Valley we maybe got one inch; But it was enough to create a strange juxtaposition of snow on the ground with colorful leaves on the trees.

This October 10th has been quite the opposite of one year ago; The peak of color is long over—the maples peaking nearly two weeks ago, and it was over 70 degrees today!

While perusing my natural history journal last week, I came upon last year’s October 10 entry about the snowfall. I remembered I had driven through Jay Cooke State Park (Carlton Co., MN) and into Douglas County, Wisconsin looking for images. I’d never really looked at them, so had fun editing them today. These are my two favorites (plus a shot of our house). The red Sugar Maple leaves were in Jay Cooke and the yellow Quaking Aspens were just outside of Oliver, Wisconsin.

Maple leaves: Canon 7D, Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 200mm, f9.5 at 1/90, ISO 400, tripod
Quaking Aspen: Canon 7D, Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 200mm, f9 at 1/250, ISO 400, handheld