Posts from the ‘Yellow Rail’ Category

My Top Ten Bird Photos 2019

I’ve already posted my favorite “Bird-in-the-Landscape” photos, and Top Twelve Mammals of 2019, so now it is time for my Best Bird Portraits of the year. It is a fun exercise going through all the photos from the year and coming up with the best of the best…especially when you didn’t think you had such a great photographic year.

Gambel’s Quail (near Portal, Arizona)

I hadn’t been birding in Southeast Arizona for many years, so this June I headed down to reacquaint myself with birds of the Chihuahuan and Sonoran desert. Even the very common Gambel’s Quail was a treat to see after these many years. Their call (as this guy is performing) is memorable and distinctive.

Western Grebe (Lake Osakis, Minnesota)

What I really wanted this day was a photo of a mated pair of Western Grebes performing their courtship “run-across-the-water” dance performance. But the water was too choppy for that, but I did get a nice portrait of a spectacular bird.

Sandhill Crane adult and colt (Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota)
Canon 7D with Sigma 50-500mm lens at 500mm; 1/320 second at f6.3; ISO 250; hand-held from window of car]

Any time I can get birds in a field of flowers it is almost surely going to make a pleasing image. This adult and colt was molting into their winter gray from their iron-stained summer plumage.

Forster’s Tern (Upper Rice Lake, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/3200 second at f5.6; ISO 400; hand-held from kayak]

A kayak provides an eye-level vantage for photographing hard-to-reach water birds …but it is also a difficult platform to work from since the kayak tends to spin once stopped. But I was able to get this shot of a Forster’s Tern on its nest with its reflection in the water.

Rivoli’s Hummingbird (Mt. Lemmon near Tucson, Arizona)

I like the leading line of the branch and how the hummingbird’s wing is almost an extension of the sweep of the branch. The Rivoli’s Hummingbird’s iridescent feathers show well in this image high up in the Arizona Mountains.

See more Arizona hummingbird photos here

House Finch on Ocatillo (southeast Arizona)

It is only a House Finch, but I like the shape of the Ocatillo’s stalks and how the red blossom stalks match the bird’s plumage. The blue sky doesn’t hurt either!

House Finches are native to the western U.S. but were introduced to the East Coast in the 1940s (?). The arrived in Minnesota by the late 1980s but are still not extremely common.

Greater Prairie Chickens (Polk County, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/1600 second at f5.6; ISO 640; tripod in blind]

Males battle on the dancing lek of the Greater Prairie Chickens. Battles are brief and often end in an aerial skirmish. I was in a blind from well before sun-up until all the males left at mid morning.

See more photos from my morning at the Prairie Chicken lek here

Yellow Rail (McGregor Marsh, Aitkin County, Minnesota)
[Sony A6500 with Canon EF 70-200mm f4 L USM lens (Metabones adapter); 1/60 second at f5/6; ISO 1600; flash; hand-held while holding flashlight]

Not much of a photo huh? No it’s not technically a good bird photo but I included it because it is one of North America’s most rarely seen bird, and taken at 11pm in complete darkness in a cattail/sedge marsh with about a million mosquitos around my head. Plus, I was holding a flashlight in one hand and my camera in the other!

Read more about this adventure here (and see the video).

Spotted Owl (Hunter Canyon, Arizona)

Talk about well camouflaged! I have other photos that are tighter and more portrait-like, but I like this photo because it shows how their spotted plumage hides them in the dappled sunlight.

See more Spotted Owl photos here

Gambel’s Quail family (Portal, Arizona)

How cute are these little guys? I like their tiny top knots. One of the fun things to do in Southeast Arizona is to sit at a feeding station and just wait and see what comes in. I probably saw 25 species of birds in a couple hours while sitting in a lawn chair.

Elegant Trogon (near Portal, Arizona)

Another Southeast Arizona bird I hadn’t seen in ages…the Elegant Trogon. I was tipped off to a nest location so I spent a fair amount of time watching mom and dad come and go. The nest cavity was hard to see and I only had one tiny opening to get a photo. This is about the only decent image I got, but I did get video as well.

See more photos from the Cave Creek/Portal area of Arizona here

Greater Prairie Chicken (Polk County, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/800 second at f5.6; ISO 2000; tripod in blind]

Another image of a Prairie Chicken battle. I like the blurred wing and unusual pose of this male.

See the VIDEO of my morning at the Prairie Chicken lek here

Red-necked Grebe and babies (Upper Rice Lake, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/3200 second at f5.6; ISO 400; hand-held from kayak]

Too bad I wasn’t a bit closer when I took this photo. It is highly cropped. But I love the two baby Red-necked Grebes…especially the one peaking out from its mom’s wings.

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!