Posts from the ‘Superior National Forest’ Category

Spruce Grouse in the Superior National Forest

It is very fortunate for birders and wildlife photographers that Spruce Grouse like to forage along roadsides. If we had to blindly wander around the bogs and boreal forests of the North Woods in search of them, we may never see one! In fact, in fall they become even more visible along the dirt byways of the Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota. I’m not saying you can count on seeing one on every outing, but put on enough backroad miles during early morning hours, and your odds are pretty good.

These photos are all from late September and early October in the Superior National Forest of northern Minnesota.
Winter buries the landscape and Spruce Grouse adapt quite nicely to the new and harsh conditions. Sprouting scales on their toes, the grouse effectively double the surface area of their feet, which is a great aid in walking over deep fluffy snow. Their food preference changes from bugs, buds, leaves and berries to a strict diet of spruce and jack pine needles.

Spruce Grouse male Stoney River Forest Road Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_2492[Male Spruce Grouse, Superior National Forest, Lake County, Minnesota]
I found this cooperative male while he was foraging along the road edge. I got a few “insurance shots” from a distance, then slowly worked my way closer. I crawled on my knees then would drop down to my belly to get eye level shots. I repeated this about every 10 feet until he filled the frame!

Spruce Grouse male Stoney River Forest Road Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_2474[Male Spruce Grouse, Superior National Forest, Lake County, Minnesota]
I just used my pop-up flash to fill in some shadows and reveal the true colors of the bird. Sometimes when a bird is in the shade, and your camera is set to auto White Balance, your photos (including the bird) will look quite blue. Flash helps this. You may have to fix the eye reflection later in Photoshop, but that only takes a few seconds.

Spruce Grouse male Stoney River Forest Road Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_2486[Male Spruce Grouse, Superior National Forest, Lake County, Minnesota]

Spruce Grouse female hen Sawbill Landing Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_2509[Female (hen) Spruce Grouse, Superior National Forest, Lake County, Minnesota]
Hen Spruce Grouse are arguably as attractive as the males…albeit in subtler tones.

Spruce Grouse female hen Sawbill Landing Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_2595[Female (hen) Spruce Grouse, Superior National Forest, Lake County, Minnesota]
After a passing hunter in a truck spooked her, she only flew a short ways up into a nearby spruce. She let me photograph and video her for quite a while. A fantastic treat!

Spruce Grouse female hen Sawbill Landing Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_2609[Female (hen) Spruce Grouse, Superior National Forest, Lake County, Minnesota]

Spruce Grouse female hen Sawbill Landing Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_2588[Female (hen) Spruce Grouse, Superior National Forest, Lake County, Minnesota]

Spruce Grouse female hen Sawbill Landing Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_2573[Female (hen) Spruce Grouse, Superior National Forest, Lake County, Minnesota]
A portrait can really be enhanced with a touch of color. I positioned myself so that some background yellow aspen leaves would make a colorful blob behind the hen’s head.

Spruce Grouse Stoney River Forest Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_0921 Logging trucks are a real hazard to foraging Spruce Grouse. Their trusting nature often keeps them on the roads longer than they should.

A Superior Day—Pine Marten, Red Crossbills, Black-backed Woodpeckers & More

May 4th, 2015

I spent the day up in the Superior National Forest and Echo Trail, north and east of Ely, Minnesota just south of the Canadian border. It was a beautiful “May the Fourth be With You” day…Low about 35 and high in the 50s, sunny and calm. It was good to get out and exercise my shutter finger. And there was plenty to shoot!

Pine Marten Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7940

A grizzled Pine Marten (American Marten) along the Echo Trail, Ely, MN [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f5.6 at 1/500 second at ISO 400; handheld]

World’s Oldest Pine Marten?

Coming around a corner, I spotted a Woodchuck along the road. At least that’s what I thought it was. But when I got it in my binoculars, I discovered it was a Pine Marten! But an interesting looking Marten that had a very white face. Its grizzled muzzle reminded me of an old dog who’s going gray. I got a few “insurance” shots from a long ways away, then eased the van forward. But this old-timer was moving slow, even his bounding gait seemed like that of an old timer who needs a new hip. So I continued the pursuit on foot. As he moved into a recently logged area, I pished and used my predator call to get his attention, but this veteran was too smart for me. He quickly realized I was no threat and continued poking his nose under brush searching for voles. But for a photographer, it was a bit frustrating as he only gave me good looks at his back. Finally he paused very briefly and looked over his shoulder at me. I fired off a barrage of shots. All were sharp but I had “too much lens,” as photographers say. My 400mm f5.6 lens on a Canon 7D is the equivalent of 640mm, and I clipped his tail. In hindsight I should have grabbed a frame that focused lower down and captured his entire tail. He finally had enough of me and loped off into the dense woods. Hope you make it through another winter, my friend.

Red Crossbill Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7882

A juvenile Red Crossbill comes begging for food from dad (Echo Trail, Ely, MN)

Nesting in Winter?

Maybe you’ve heard this amazing fact…Red Crossbills have been recorded nesting in every month of the year! How can this be? Well, this bird relies completely on one food source…the seeds of pines. Even their nestlings are fed regurgitated seeds. So when this wandering species finds an abundant source of food such as a Red Pines laden with cones along Ely’s Echo Trail, their little bird brains do some mental calculations and determine that, yes, there is enough food here to sustain our family, and so courtship and nesting begins. That brings us to this morning and explains what I witnessed.

I put on the brakes for two birds in the middle of the dirt road. It was a male and female Red Crossbill eating dirt. It is well known that all crossbills seem to crave minerals, like salt, that are concentrated in some soils. This was interesting, but what happened next was even more fascinating and something I had not witnessed in years.

The male flew up in a tree and was quickly surrounded by chipping birds. He continued to move lower in the tree and was followed by the striped birds. Then I realized that these were juvenile Red Crossbills begging for food from daddy. Working backwards, I calculated that these crossbills likely nested in these, or nearby pines, in late winter! How does a couple-ounce bird keep fragile and very small eggs from freezing at Minus 20 F temperatures?

Red Crossbill female and juvenile Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7865

Juvenile Red Crossbill (striped bird left) and adult female Red Crossbill (right).

Red Crossbill juvenile May 4 Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7893

I really did not know what a juvenile Red Crossbill looked like until this morning. They are very distinctive with a boldly striped/streaked body. Three young ones were begging from their daddy, and maybe from their mom, but I did not witness that.

Red Crossbill Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7848

Red Crossbill Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7855

Red Crossbills (as well as White-winged Crossbills) are often seen feeding on snow or dirt along backcountry roads. It is known that they crave salt, and they are likely ingesting soil that is saturated with road salt.

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The Snowshoe Hares have almost reclaimed their brown summer pelage, only their legs, feet and belly remain white. While driving down this road early in the morning I flushed a Northern Goshawk from the road. When I got closer I could see that it had killed a Snowshoe Hare and was feeding on it. I wish I would have been paying better attention so I could have watched through binoculars. I lingered, hoping it would return. But I knew it wouldn’t come near when I was only a hundred yards away. Like all raptors, the female Goshawk is quite a bit larger than the male. She is able to easily prey on hares, while the male, being smaller, prefers smaller game like Ruffed Grouse.

boat landing Big Lake Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8003

A classic Northern Minnesota scene. You just have to drive down a road like this to see what’s at the end.

Epigaea repens Trailing Arbutus Echo Trail near Moose River Ely MN IMG_7956

Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens) is a fragrant early spring wildflower found in dry pine stands. It is a member of the Ericaceae  and related to blueberries, cranberries, wintergreen and leatherleaf to name a few. The evergreen leaves are broadly oval with nearly parallel sides, which helps separate them from Wintergreen which has more football-shaped leaves. If you are lucky enough to find a stand of these uncommon beauties, kneel down and take a good sniff of their fragrant blossoms.

snow in woods Echo Trail MN IMG_8037

Though we had a relatively mild winter, some rogue patches of winter snow could still be found in ravines.

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The Red Maples were in peak flower, and the aspen leaves were just opening up.

Cicindela longilabris White-lipped Tiger Beetle Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8028

Boreal Long-lipped Tiger Beetle (Cicindela longilabris)
These half-inch-long beetles are ferocious predators…at least to other half-inch long critters. You can find them along sandy or gravel paths on sunny days in spring and fall. Like their common name implies, they are a creature of the Great North Woods, occurring from New England to the Western Great Lakes and north across Canada from Labrador to Alaska. Found in openings in the coniferous forests. Also at high elevations in western mountains.

Cicindela longilabris White-lipped Tiger Beetle Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8017

The “white lip” is actually the labrum and it is very visible and a good field mark in identifying this tiger beetle. They also have unmarked dark elytra.

Broad-winged Hawk Stoney River Forest Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8033

The Broad-wings are back from their wintering grounds in South America. Millions exit the U.S and Canada in September and October and head for warmer climes. Unlike their mammal-eating cousins such as the Red-tailed Hawk and Rough-legged Hawk, Broad-wings thrive on a diet of reptiles (snakes) and amphibians (frogs). And their timing on returning to the North Woods is no accident…four species of frogs are very vocal and active in ponds now, and the Garter Snakes have emerged from hibernation. The Broad-wing buffet is set!

Broad-winged Hawk Stoney River Forest Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8295

Black-backed Woodpecker Pagami Creek Fire burn Isabella Lake Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8198

Black-backed Woodpecker Pagami Creek Fire burn Isabella Lake Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8239

Mating Game

I found a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers EXACTLY in the same spot I last saw them 7 months ago. Now I don’t know if they are the same birds, but I’d like to think so. The area is in a four-year old burn called the Pagami Creek Fire. The charred Jack Pines are a veritable grocery store for the woodpeckers. Wood-boring beetle grubs invade the dead and dying trees. I watched as the male dug out one fat white grub and one skinny yellowish grub. Yummy!

I ran into photographer friend Jason Mandich and we spent some time with these incredibly tame birds. Interestingly, they seemed to get quite agitated when they heard the nearby song of a White-throated Sparrow.

Several times, the female would perch on an angled branch, more horizontal than vertical, and hold her body parallel to the branch. The male would fly over and approach her. I imagine this was part of their mating ritual, but I did not witness any actual mating.

Black-backed Woodpecker Pagami Creek Fire burn Isabella Lake Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8274

I guess they have black backs for a reason! I wonder if their solid black backs are an adaptation to feeding on the charred trunks of trees in burns. Seems like it would be a handy trait when trying to avoid aerial predators. Note how this guy almost disappears.

IMG_8279 - Version 2

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I loved the pattern of these stacked pulpwood logs with the single needled branch hanging on. I also played with the image a bit to turn it into a more graphic black-and-white illustration.

Coyote hunting MN23 near Skogstjarna Carlton Co MN IMG_8354

Just a mile from home, and in the dim light of dusk, I spotted a Coyote on a hillside. She was hunting actively and I watched her catch two voles from the same patch of tall grass. It was far too dark for good photos but I couldn’t keep myself from taking a couple shots with the lens braced on the car window. She would not have allowed me to get out and set up a tripod. I do like the deep blue dusk sky.

Tamarack-ulous!

It is the time of year when almost all the deciduous trees are past peak and many have lost all their leaves. But there is one amazing tree that is just coming into its full glory…The Tamarack. This is our only deciduous coniferous tree. What? It means that though it has needles like spruces, fir, pine, they all drop off the tree every fall (deciduous)…But before they do, they turn an amazing yellow-gold, making the bogs blaze with color.

Tamarack Reflections Lima Mtn Road Cook Co MN SparkyStensaas 778_7861 (1)Sadly, this scene will never be repeated…These perfectly situated Tamaracks along the Lima Mountain Road in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest have all succumbed to the Eastern Larch Beetle.

FUN TAMARACK FACTS
1. The name “tamarack” comes from the Algonquin people of eastern Canada and means “wood used for snowshoes.” The Algonquins also gave us the name “moose.”
2. Also known as “larch” and “hackmatack”
3. Grows from Labrador to the Yukon and Alaska, south to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan east to Indiana, New York, Maryland. But the largest pure stands in the Lower 48 are in Minnesota.
4. Latin name is Larix laricina
5. Extremely cold tolerant! Can survive winter temps down to MINUS 85 F!
6. Also very rot resistant…In fact, when we built our house, our builder suggested Tamarack for the front porch. We had a local mill saw it up for us.
7. Eastern Larch Beetle (Dendroctonus simplex) is a native enemy of the Tamarack. Outbreaks in the Sax-Zim Bog of northern Minnesota have been quite severe in recent years. A bane to the trees, is a boon to woodpeckers, bringing in irruptions of Am. Three-toed Woodpeckers and Black-backed Woodpeckers who flake bark from the trunks to get to the juicy grubs beneath. These rarely seen birds also bring in throngs of birders to see the birds.

Northern Hawk Owl NHOW-SS (Friesens Test)Ryan Marshik and I found this Northern Hawk Owl on a early November foray to Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog. It was perfectly teed up on a Black Spruce with a background of slightly-past-prime Tamaracks. Ryan quickly and graciously loaned me his Canon 500mm f4 and 1.4 extender and we were able to get this shot out the window of the car.
[Canon 10D, Canon 500mm f4 lens w/1.4x tele-extender, f5.6 at 1/160 second at ISO 400 (taken in 2004)]

Tamarack Yellow Motion Blur Toivola Swamp Sax-Zim Bog MNA very windy day in the Toivola Swamp adjacent to the Sax-Zim Bog. I decided to interpret the Tamarack gold in a new way…Leave the shutter open for a longer exposure and let the wind do its thing. And the amazing thing is that I like the result!
[Taken in the “film days”…Can you believe it?! …Probably with a Nikon FM2]

Gray Jay in gold Tamarack Admiral Rd Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_8946Taken just a few days ago in the Sax-Zim Bog as the Tamaracks were approaching peak color. This curious Gray Jay came in to my squeaks. I like the fact that the Jay shares the starring role with the wispy yellow Tamarack foliage.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/250, ISO 400, Canon 420EX flash (without Better Beamer)]

Tamaracks McDavitt Rd Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_9306Tamaracks and a brooding sky, Oct 21, Sax-Zim Bog.
[Canon 7D and Tamron 60mm f2 lens]

Hairy Woodpecker in gold Tamarack Admiral Rd Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_8934A bit of yellow Tamarack foliage adds nice contrast to the primarily black-and-white Hairy Woodpecker. The red bar on the back of his head makes this Hairy a He and not a She. Sax-Zim Bog, MN.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens]

Top Twenty Images of 2012

2012 is gone and I’ve had a chance to look at all my images from the year and pick my favorites. Time helps clear your vision. Some images I was crazy about right after I took them, are no longer exciting to me. Here I present my favorite images of 2012 in reverse order…Maybe not the most saleable nor necessarily the best portraits (which can be boring), but the shots that I kept coming back to..the ones that intrigued me…or were difficult to get…or were the most creative. And this last bit about creativity brings me to my big announcement for 2013…I will be releasing a new video: GET CREATIVE: WILDLIFE IMAGES BEYOND THE PORTRAIT this year. Stay tuned!

near Saginaw, Minnesota St. Louis County #20—The surprise image of the year…I was perusing photos from my June work for the Minnesota County Biological Survey when I found this very underexposed, blaah image. But then I saw the potential as a high-contrast black and white image. The result was a very graphic silhouette of a foraging Pine Warbler amongst the long delicate needles of a Red Pine. St. Louis County, Minnesota.

07-Best2012 Ruby-throated Hummingbird female and Liatris Skogstjarna Carlton Co MN IMG_0064370 #19—I spent much quality time with our backyard hummers this summer. We mainly hosted females but occasionally a bully male would show up…but never when my camera was in place. I was using flash and a Better Beamer to throw light onto the hummer but in this shot the flash did not fire. But I like the resulting softer look…No harsh light blasting the tiny bird. My home in Carlton County, Minnesota.

11-Best2012 blurred leaves Rock Pond Duluth MN IMG_0067511 #18—Fall leaves always seem to vex me…I have a hard time creating interesting images of the stunning scenes around me in late September/early October. On this windy day I used a tripod and a very slow shutter speed to render the leaves a colorful blur while the trunks remained relatively still. I like the contrast of white vs. orange and blur vs. sharp. Rock Pond, UMD, Duluth, Minnesota.

16-Best2012 Bald Eagle from firetower at Big Bog SRA Koochiching Co MN IMG_0055770 (1) #17—Eye-level Bald Eagle shots are not easy to come by! And this one has a story…It was taken 80 feet up in a firetower! I was visiting Big Bog State Recreation Area in far north central Minnesota and decided to climb the tower to get a bird’s-eye view of Lower Red Lake and surrounding forests. Some distant eagles caught my attention and I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if one flies past me in my aerial perch…And the miraculous part is that one did! It was not a gleaming white and black adult but rather a dramatically patterned youngster. I panned with the bird and amazingly it came out razor sharp.

18-Best2012 Swans geese St. Louis River fog Fond du Lac MN IMG_0055161 #16—I cross this bridge over the St.Louis River on the outskirts of Duluth every day on the way to work. It has many moods and this hazy spring afternoon created a bucolic and blue still life of swans, ducks, ice and trees.

IMG_0070171 #15—My youngest son, Bjorn, shows great promise as a wildlife photographer…At least he looks good in khaki!

19-Best2012 Cedar Waxwing Gunflint Trail Brule River Cook Co MN File0113 #14—Not a set-up! A fortuitous find that resulted in a very nice portrait with a little behavior too. This very rarely happens but it did this August morning on the Gunflint Trail. I’d just returned from a early morning paddle on the Brule River, loaded up the canoe and was pulling out of the dirt parking area when I spotted the foraging Cedar Waxwings in a heavily-fruited Mountain Ash.

15-Best2012 water lily File0169 #13—Just a very pleasing composition (to me anyway)…a water lily on dark water taken from a low angle to get the reflection. I also love the purplish lily pads. Cook County, Minnesota.

04-Best2012 Lower Yellowstone Falls IMG_0067608 #12—A very long exposure with my 10mm Sigma lens was made possible by a 9-stop ND filter. I love the soft ethereal feel of the powerful Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, belying the thunderous roar. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

17-Best2012 Snowshoe Hare Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_0002136 #11—I had to include this portrait as I have been trying to get a decent winter Snowshoe Hare photo for years! And on this snowy Sax-Zim Bog day, I succeeded! The hare really felt it was invisible and stayed put as I crawled closer and closer through the snow.

12-Best2012 Abandoned house and tree Itasca Co nr Northome MN IMG_0055660_59_58_tonemapped 88-0-7-4-10 #10—Seems like I always slip in a non-nature subject. I really enjoy photographing vernacular architecture, including abandoned buildings like this farmhouse. A HDR image and sepia color finished it off. Itasca County, Minnesota.

10-Best2012 Polyphemus Moth Antheraea polyphemus detail Skogstjarna Carlton Co MN IMG_0057753 #9—Abstract macro image of a Polyphemus Moth’s wings turned upside down to create a strange “face” complete with big blue eyes and a puckered mouth. My home in Carlton County, Minnesota.

05-Best2012 Swinging bridge flood IMG_0058741 #8—The banner headline of 2012 for us Duluthians/Carltonians was the Great Flood of June. It affected all of us dramatically. But my most powerful image was this shot of the raging St. Louis River taking out the historic and much loved Swinging Bridge of Jay Cooke State Park. Read more here.

08-Best2012 Sharp-tailed Grouse Carlton Co MN IMG_0056142 #7—A rite of spring, the congregation of Sharp-tailed Grouse at their dancing grounds or leks, is an event I hate to miss. But it is always difficult shooting. They are most active just before sunrise when the light is poor…And it is April so the weather is often cloudy and windy. Visibility in the cramped blind is not great either. This time I resorted to a slow shutter speed and panning. I love the shot as it conveys the manic intensity of the males as they dance, pursue females, and chase off rival males. Carlton County, Minnesota.

09-Best2012 Moose bull called in Dumbell Rd Superior National Forest MN nr Isabella IMG_0066747 #6—One of the few straight-up wildlife portraits in the collection, but I had to include it. Much has been made of the dramatic decline of Moose in Minnesota…and it makes me very sad. They are one of my favorite mammals. I learned to call Moose years ago…imitating the sound of a female. After a several-year dry spell, I was able to call this young bull in this fall. Intense moments followed as he was deciding whether I was a cow Moose or some stupid human. Thankfully he came to the right conclusion! See the video here.

14-Best2012 abstract river rocks IMG_0069193 #5—Can you tell what this is? Colorful river rocks below a Yellowstone National Park stream. It’s funny…I really don’t like abstract painting but I love much abstract photography.

06-Best2012 Ring-billed Gull Duluth MN tungsten w-2 1-2 CTO gels on flash IMG_0065801 #4—Two icons of Duluth in one shot! The Aerial Lift Bridge and a Ring-billed Gull. Not your typical wildlife shot but one that is certainly unique. In this technique I learned from flash/lighting guru ??? you set your camera to tungsten white balance (to turn the dark brooding sky blue) and then use a flash with an orange CTO gel to throw a very warm light on the subject, in this case, a Ring-billed Gull.

13-Best2012 IMG_0068269 #3—Often times I’ll get home from a trip and when viewing my images in Aperture, I’ll come across an unexpected prize. It’s like Christmas as a kid! I thought I knew what my favorites would be from viewing them in the field on the back of my camera…but I’m often wrong. This is one such image. It was taken into the sunlight to backlight the Bison’s fur…but it was mostly a “G&G” shot (grab-and-go)…No premeditation, No tripod…Jump out of the car and “snap.” But after converting the image to sepia, I really loved it. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

02-Best2012 Monarch IA IMG_0065536 #2—I really concentrated on wide-angle wildlife this year and this may be my favorite. Crawling on my knees for hours on an Iowa prairie in September finally netted me this image. Read the whole story here. Northeast Iowa.

01-Best2012 Great Gray Owl peek-a-boo McDavitt Rd Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_0058141 #1—Drumroll please…My personal favorite from 2012. Read the whole story of this bog encounter here. See the video here. I like the Great Gray Owl’s furtive glance around the trunk of a spruce…It lends an air of mystery. It is very “Brandenburg’s-wolf-peek-esque” if you’ve ever seen his famous photo. Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota.

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.

Spruce Grouse video (check out those sexy red “eyebrows”!)

Birders and photographers from across North America put the Spruce Grouse high on their list of highly desirable target birds. Many of the folks I guide in winter would love to add this grouse to their life list. We usually cruise Superior National Forest roads at dawn hoping to catch a glimpse of one picking grit along the shoulder. And we pray that no logging trucks have already spooked (or smashed) the birds before we get there. Like many boreal birds, it is not rare, but rather rarely seen, due to the inaccessibility of their remote boreal forests and bogs in Canada, Alaska, Maine and Minnesota. Lake County has a reputation for being THE spot to find them (They do not occur in the Sax-Zim Bog).

I found this male Spruce Grouse picking grit along a remote dirt logging road in northern Minnesota’s Superior National Forest a few days ago (early September 2012). He was a long ways down the road but I thought I’d get some “insurance shots” anyway. So I eased out of the car, put the camera on the tripod (set to its lowest level) and threw some camouflage netting over me and the camera and started stalking. I’d shoot some video and some stills and then move about 15 steps closer…slooowly. Then I’d sit for a while until he began feeding again. Initially I had stacked a 2x and a 1.4x telextender on the 400mm to get enough reach, and had to shoot at ISO 3200 (noisy!), but eventually, after getting much closer, I was able take off the 2x telextender and reduce the ISO to 800.

You can turn the HD feature on or off depending on the speed of your computer.

He flew up into some Tamaracks and began feeding on the needles. In summer they eat insects, blueberries, leaves, fungi and other berries. In fall and winter they switch to a diet of conifer needles. Tamaracks are utilized in fall before they lose their needles in mid to late October. Black Spruce and Jack Pine needles are the preferred winter food. They can store up to 10% of their body weight in needles in their crop. The slow digestion of this food during the long northern nights helps keep them warm. The grit picked from the road helps the gizzard break down the needles. I once found a road-kill Spruce Grouse and dissected it. I found that that individual only picked white/clear quartz stones for its grit….Maybe it instinctively knew that the quartz is very hard with sharp corners and would be a great needle grinder. Oh, and by the way, I ate that road-kill Spruce Grouse after dissecting it! I had to prove/disprove the myth that “spruce hens” taste like pine needles. In fact, it was as tasty as any Ruffed Grouse I’d ever eaten. Myth busted!

Shot with Canon 7D and Canon 400mm f5.6 and 1.4x telextender on tripod. Camo netting over me and camera for stealthy approach.