Posts tagged ‘Bird Photography’

Churchill on Hudson Bay 2017: Shorebirds in trees!

Shorebirds and Gulls in trees?! On my 1987 trip, I remember how amazed and surprised I was that shorebirds and gulls would perch in the tip tops of stunted spruces on the taiga/tundra. And the Bonaparte’s Gulls nest in spruces…Craaazy!

I must confess that on this trip I didn’t see as many shorebirds in trees, but did get photos of Hudsonian Godwit and Lesser Yellowlegs in the treetops.

Why are shorebirds found in trees on their breeding grounds? After all, they nest on the ground and would want to remain unnoticed. I imagine for the males it is a convenient and conspicuous post from which to watch over your territory and your mate.

 

 


Hudsonian Godwit is aptly named for the bulk of the population breeds in a relatively small area along the south shore of Hudson Bay.

Map of the migration route (yellow) and breeding range (red) of the Hudsonian Godwit. Churchill is located along Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba.


I spotted this Hudsonian Godwit in a tree from about a quarter mile away, so off I trudged onto the very wet and uneven Hudsonian Lowlands (i.e. wet tundra). I approached slowly and stopped a ways away and got some “insurance shots.” After sitting quietly for a few minutes, I’d approach another 1o yards. I repeated this process til I got quite close. Turns out he was watching over a nesting female who sat quietly on a ground nest on the tundra.

Hudsonian Godwit pair fly over tundra along Twin Lakes Road, Churchill, Manitoba.


Lesser Yellowlegs can be identified by their….wait for it….their yellow legs! But to complicate things a bit, they have a larger cousin called the Greater Yellowlegs. But note the Lesser’s thin bill that is only as long as its head; Greater’s bill is longer than its head and more stout.


Lesser Yellowlegs landing on tundra pond.


Red-necked Phalaropes just pass through the Churchill area in late May to mid June; They are on their way to breeding grounds in Nunavut, Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alaska.

They have a very unique way of feeding…they spin around in circles picking insects off the surface of the water.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1000 sec at f5.6; ISO 200; Tripod]


Semipalmated Plovers make their shallow scraped depression of a nest on rocky flats such as this. There could have been a nest here with the female sitting quietly but I was too busy following this one around.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1250 sec at f5.6; ISO 200; hand-held while laying on the ground]


Semipalmated Plover

Crawling on ground covered in smallish sharp rocks is no fun…but it is essential to getting eye-level shots of shorebirds. And eye-level is where its at with shorebirds; a photo taken while standing of a subject on the ground is just not very engaging.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/800 sec at f5.6; ISO 200; hand-held while laying on the ground]


I was constantly trying to position myself so that I could get the tundra birds in front of, or adjacent to, the arctic wildflowers, especially the pinks of Lapland Rosebay. I did not have much luck, but did manage a background of the flowers in this shot of a Semipalmated Plover.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/800 sec at f5.6; ISO 200; hand-held while laying on the ground]


Semipalmated Plovers superficially resemble Killdeer (also a plover), but they are much smaller, have a two-toned black and orange bill, and only have one black “necklace.”

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1600 sec at f5.6; ISO 200; hand-held while laying on the ground]


American Golden Plover is at home on the tundra. This gorgeous shorebird is in full breeding plumage. When we see them in Minnesota, it is in migration and they are often already molting into their blaah non-breeding plumage.

Churchill is the extreme south outpost of the breeding range of the American Golden Plover. Most nest in the vast arctic of Alaska, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavat.

Unfortunately, this is as close as I got to this species on this trip…Next time!

“Short-billed” Dowitcher? Yes, that is their official common name even though they have a very long bill. What gives? Well, everything is relative, and their cousin, you guessed it, the Long-billed Dowitcher, has an even longer bill! The Long-billed nests even farther north than Hudson Bay, breeding along the Arctic Ocean coast in Alaska, Yukon and Northwest Territories.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/500 sec at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand-held]


The last rays of the days sunlight spotlight a single Short-billed Dowitcher, his companions already in the lengthening shadows. I really like this unique shot, but I will frame it differently next time so as not to have the bird right in the middle of the image.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/1250 sec at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand-held]


Three populations of Short-billed Dowitcher inhabit North America; the Pacific and Atlantic populations are not as bright orange and show more neck, breast and flank spotting. The Churchill/Hudson Bay population is of the “prairie” population that extends west to the prairie provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Also found in the southern parts of the Northwest Territories and Nunavit.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/1000 sec at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand-held]


The Short-billed Dowitcher is THE dowitcher nesting on the tundra along Hudson Bay. It is a stocky and colorful shorebird that sometimes allows close approach. This one was with a mixed flock of shorebirds foraging along Goose Creek Road, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/800 sec at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand-held]

 


Short-billed Dowitcher along Goose Creek Road, Churchill, Manitoba

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/1250 sec at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand-held while laying on the ground]


The Solitary Sandpiper has a unique place in Minnesota’s avifauna…It is one of the only species of bird that is only known to breed in the Lower 48 in Minnesota. My friend Karl Bardon discovered one of the most recent confirmed Minnesota breeding records when several years ago he found a couple young Solitaries scrambling across a remote dirt road in the far northern part of the state just south of the Canadian border.


Least Sandpipers are one of North America’s “peeps;” a group of small sometimes-difficult-to-identify shorebirds. Leasts can be told by their very small size and greenish-yellow legs. Like most of North America’s peeps, they breed on the tundra of the Far North.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/2000 sec at f5.6; ISO 400; +0.66 ev; hand-held]


Whimbrels are big and bulky birds….but they are still considered shorebirds. Always a treat for me to see, as I only see them every few years in Minnesota…and usually just a glimpse. My last Minnesota sighting was along Duluth’s Park Point on Lake Superior when a flock of seven appeared out of the fog and landed on the sandy beach. This was in May and they were just stopping over to rest on their way to the tundra to breed…Who knows…maybe even on their way to the Churchill area!


I did not find any shorebird nests while in Churchill, but I was a bit early. This pair had set up territory on the tundra though.


Whimbrel

Advertisements

Journey to Churchill Manitoba on Hudson Bay: Bird Photography

June 17-21, 2017

In this first installment about my trip to Churchill Manitoba on Hudson Bay this June, I want to share a bit about the journey to Churchill, logistics of traveling in the Churchill area (lodging, rental vehicle, food, etc), a tour of the town, and the state of the town (due to some recent unfortunate circumstances which I highlight later in this post).

I was also in Churchill in 1987…30 years ago! Hard to believe. Here are the links to those posts:

Churchill 1987: Part 1

Churchill 1987: Part 2


The Tundra on approach to Churchill. Note Hudson Bay in background.

I’ve wanted to get back to Churchill for a LONG time…I love it there. It’s been 30 years, and the itch wasn’t getting scratched. The North is where my heart is…I loved Costa Rica and Mexico and Baja but I’m feel a much stronger pull towards the poles. My trips to Alaska, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland really connected with me. And Churchill is the closest, most easily accessible tundra/arctic to me in northern Minnesota. For several reasons, I had a strong desire to photograph and video the arctic species of birds and mammals. The first trip in ’87 was to see the rare and elusive Ross’s Gull. I succeeded in that, but my photos were not great…two words…film days. This time, bird photography was my goal, The Ross’s Gulls no longer nest here but My “Most Wanted” list was still long! (see photo below)

My “Most Wanted” list of species/subjects to photograph and video. A very long list for 4 nights/5 days trip!

High priorities for me were: tundra birds with wildflowers in the background, Willow Ptarmigan, Bonaparte’s Gulls nesting in spruces, shorebirds perched in trees, close up jaegers, sea birds in flight (Common Eiders, Red-throated Loons), Arctic Hare and Arctic Fox, bog landscapes and Pacific Loons at eye level.


Even though it was June 17, patches of snow still dotted the landscape.

Since the railroad isn’t running right now, the airline (Calm Air) has added flights. I’m not sure if this is the reason, but the price for my round trip airfare from Winnipeg was ONLY $400 US…This is $400 to $800 cheaper than it has been in recent years! I jumped at the opportunity.


I haven’t had a FREE hot meal on a plane (domestic flight) for many years! This was First Air’s breakfast meal on the 1 1/2 hour flight. Great breakfast sandwich. We also were given hot face towels! Luxury!


Chatted with this young Inuit man from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Canada on the flight. He told me stories of fishing salmon, Musk Ox, a white Grizzly Bear that his uncle “caught” (the word they use in the North for “shot”) and showed me how to write his name in the Inuit language. He was doing some training in Winnipeg and was heading back to Nunavut. The flight to Churchill would continue on to Rankin Inlet.


Churchill is the southern edge of the tundra…and the northern edge of the boreal forest.

The view flying in to Churchill


Potholes of the tundra south of Churchill. Note ice on Hudson Bay in background.


The flight from Winnipeg to Churchill was on a 737. Each of the fleet has a different arctic species on the tail; in this case, a Golden Eagle. A front-end loader is the luggage buggy!

I flew out at the 8am flight and returned via the 8pm flight…That way I had two full days of shooting on my “flying days.” But that meant another 2 nights of lodging in Winnipeg, which is fairly expensive.


A sign that is mainly meant for late fall/winter visitors. Few, if any, Polar Bears hang around town in summer. On my visit there were 2 bears around…but I never saw them.


One of the few new buildings in Churchill is the airport.


Welcome to the Polar Bear capital of the World! (Not in summer)


Polar Bear crossing….a winter phenomenon. A section of “the highway” in the background. The only paved road goes from town to the airport. The other 40 miles of road are all dirt or worse.


Main Street of Churchill Manitoba


Home, Sweet Home…Polar Inn

I would highly recommend the Polar Inn. Small and clean and with an amazing breakfast! I stayed 4 nights and the price was reasonable (about $100 US per night)…especially with not having to buy breakfast!

Note the warning adhered to my rental truck…The door hinges were already sprung from someone opening the doors and letting the wind yank them out of the car frame.


Breakfast buffet at the Polar Inn was VERY good! I would shoot from 5:30am to 9am and then come back and get some breakfast…egg mcmuffins, boiled eggs, yogurt parfaits, cereal, waffles and good coffee!


When I was in Churchill in 1987, the “store” in town was The Hudson’s Bay Company store. It has now been replaced by the very generic and boring Northern Store…a mini Walmart.


With the train not running, food stuffs were in low supply at the Northern Store (the only place to get groceries in town) …and more costly due to the expense of flying everything in. Milk shot up to $16 per gallon right after the train got washed out…but has since dropped to $7 per gallon. The bread shelves at the Northern Store were quite bare.


Inukshuk sculpture on the waterfront of Churchill


Sparky at the Churchill waterfront with Hudson Bay and a giant inukshuk (Inuit spelling: inuksuk) in the background.


You can’t rent a car in Churchill…but you can rent a beater truck for exorbitant prices (about $800 CDN for a week). But you don’t need luxury to get around on Churchill’s 60 miles of roads…15 miles paved and the rest various degrees of dirt and two-wheel track. This beauty had both door hinges sprung due so you had to be careful when opening the door on a windy day.


On my last two days, I noticed murals getting painted all over town. Turns out I just happened to be in town for the one week when artists from all over the world were painting their art on buildings. It was part of a grant program called Sea Wall: Artists for Oceans. Sea Walls Festival, is a public art program that promotes ocean conservation globally.

The murals explore the history of Manitoba and highlight some of the issues affecting its unique ecoregions: Tundra, Taiga, Boreal Forest, and the Arctic Ocean.

Seventeen artists from Canada, U.S., Brazil, New Zealand, Germany, U.K., Spain, Australia, and Japan as well as 2 Winnipeggers  made up the 30-member mural team.

And the weather was beautiful for painting…Lows in the 40s and highs around 70! Perfect. Lots of energy about town.


I saw this gentleman painting this mural and wanted to know more so I flagged him down and chatted. Turns out he is from Brazil! Arlin Graff is part of the 30-member team of muralists.


Here is Arlin from Brazil’s nearly completed geometric Polar Bear mural.


Another mural…This one of the Northern Lights by Charlie Johnston of Winnipeg.


Another mural in town is in progress


Local boys and the start of another mural.


Local kids playing along the rocks of the “city beach”….Hudson Bay and ice floes in the background.


Sled dogs are common around town, especially at the start of the Goose Creek Road. This cute fella lived in town and greeted every single person that walked down “Main Street.”


An interesting building in Churchill. The population of the town is about 900.


Winter transportation in Churchill


Now that’s a truck! Tundra Buggy Polar Bear tours are big business in Churchill during November and December. One local told me that many of the big tour companies are owned by outsiders who only live here for a few months. And not much money trickles down to the local economy as the tours are self contained….The companies hire their own big charter plane, then the guests stay in mobile housing units out on the tundra, and all food is flown in on the charter. So the local hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, and tourist shops don’t benefit much. Most of the profits heads out of town with the owners in late December.


Cabin on Goose Creek Road

 


Monument on Cape Merry


I’m not sure what goes on at the Caribou Hall but it is a cool old building.


Churchill was formerly a port town where ocean-going vessels picked up wheat. The private company that owns the railroad, also owned the grain elevators (built in 1930) and port, but closed it over a year ago. No ships have come in or out for nearly 2 years.

Then another blow to the town in May: Several huge multi-day blizzards this winter led to a massive melt-off during spring thaw in May, washing out many stretches of the railroad tracks…The only way to get to Churchill overland is by rail…There is no road to Churchill. This was how I got to Churchill in 1987…36 hours ONE WAY by VIA Rail from Winnipeg. My friend Tyler and I sat up the whole way (no sleeper car) in a cloud of smoke from the Indians who were smoking up a cloud. More importantly, this is how supplies, food, cars, equipment get to Churchill…not to mention the small Indian villages along the route. It’s a big deal. I found the locals in good spirits though…and optimistic. Many jobs have been lost due to the Port of Churchill grain elevators closing…and now the railroad jobs are in jeapordy. Surprisingly, very few locals had left for “the South” for other jobs so far.


The renovated Churchill railroad depot now sits abandoned (until further notice!)


No trains have run since mid May (UPDATE: As of August 2017, the tracks have still not been repaired, and there is no plan to fix them.)


Trains sit idle at the Churchill depot…No one has been coming in to, or leaving from Churchill by rail for months.

 


The only gas station in town…and NOT open 24-7.

The only gas pump in town…and I didn’t even bother calculating what the cost per gallon in the conversion from liters…too depressing!


Churchill Weather Station….Evidently a tornado just came through! 🙂


The Eskimo Museum in Churchill is basically unchanged since my last visit in 1987…and that is good. This unique museum tells the story of Arctic Inuit life through carvings made by the people themselves. Carvings of greenstone, Walrus tusk, ivory, whale bone and antler.

Each cabinet has a phone that you pick up and it begins telling you about a specific carving and what is means to Inuit everyday life. A very clever way to interpret the carvings. Most carvings were done between the 1940s and present in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut in Arctic Canada.

 


A really unique set of carvings (made out of walrus tusk) of Pope Pius XII from the 1940s. Catholic missionaries had influence in many remote villages at this time. The green glasses were made of a plastic hair comb.


Another favorite sculpture/carving. This one shows an elder Inuit telling his son (?) stories about the Northern Lights/aurora borealis (cleverly depicted by the tines of a caribou antler.


All the carvings tell a story of Inuit life. Many date to the mid 1900s. This one tells the tale of a curious Polar Bear and a hunter with only a bow and arrow and his dogs for protection.


A creative carving of an Inuit hunter (ivory) spearing a seal below the ice (bone section)


The only “real” Polar Bear I saw while in Churchill was this stuffed mount in the Eskimo Museum. Evidently there were a couple live ones still hanging around east of town. I never saw one (good thing when on foot) but was hoping to see one while I was in the safety of my truck. No such luck. I did have a bell attached to my pack any time I was walking along the shore of Hudson Bay in areas of brush or rock jumbles.


Some old traditions have just morphed to modern versions….Inuit women carried their children in the hoods of their fur parkas…This is a modern summer version (Winnipeg airport on my way home)

NEXT POST: Churchill on Hudson Bay: Cape Merry Merriment!

Best Bird Photos 2015

At the end of every year I look through all the photos I’ve taken in the last 12 months and pick my favorites. Throughout the year, I quickly star-rate my images in Aperture…3-stars are images that I’d like to explore more later. Then in December, I sort by all the 3-stars and upgrade a bunch to 4-star. In my final evaluation round I look for images that really stand out from the crowd. Creativity ranks quite high in my analysis of the finalists. A perfectly composed portrait is a very salable image, but quite boring in my mind. Here are the 20-some FIVE STAR BIRD PHOTOS FROM 2015 (in no particular order). Enjoy!
Barred Owl Peary Road Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_8448The Birch and the Barred
A Barred Owl leaps from its perch in a Paper Birch (Hey, that ryhymes!) It pays to be alert and watch for any sign that a raptor is about to fly. Make sure to have the camera on continuous focus, have a fast enough shutter speed to freeze motion, and hold the shutter down to fire off a bunch of photos.
[Barred Owl; Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/3200; ISO 250; hand-held]

Barred Owl Peary Road near Yellow-bellied Bog Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_7632Flight of the Barred
Continuous-focus shots of birds in flight in a snowfall is tricky business, but today’s cameras are pretty good at staying locked on to the main subject and not getting fooled into switching focus to falling flakes. Of course, the heavier the snowfall the harder this becomes. This is an uncropped image and I barely got both wingtips in the frame.
[Barred Owl; Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/1600; ISO 2000; hand-held]

Black Tern Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0205Picky Eater
Black Terns are a dainty cousin to the gulls. They feed by plucking insects and small fish from the surface or just under the surface of freshwater marshes. Quite rare in northern Minnesota, they were very common at Manitoba’s Oak Hammock Marsh north of Winnipeg (see my post about this wonderful place here)
[Black Tern; Oak Hammock Marsh, Winnipeg, Manitoba]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/3200; ISO 250;-0.33ev; hand-held]

Dunlin Wisconsin Point Superior WI IMG_1030 Peep Peek
Stalking shorebirds is frustrating work. You crawl on the sand down the beach, sometimes only to have the flock change direction and move away from you. But sometimes they cooperate quite nicely. This Dunlin even felt comfortable enough to take a quick cat nap right in front of me!
[Dunlin; Wisconsin Point beach on Lake Superior; Wisconsin]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f7.1 at 1/1250; ISO 200 -1.33ev;hand-held]

Golden Eagle immature Hawk Ridge Summit Ledges Duluth MN IMG_4158 Gold on Gold
Choosing the right location at the right time of year is critical to getting great wildlife photos. And with migrating raptors, it is also crucial to know what weather will bring the birds closer to you. In this case, I knew that strong NW wind days would force the hawks and eagles and falcons to funnel down the shore of Lake Superior and right over Duluth’s Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve. The strength of the wind would keep the birds relatively low (distant colorful trees make a more pleasing background than boring blue sky). I also had a plastic owl on a pole to attract the curious and furious raptors. It all came together when this immature Golden Eagle not only came in, but came in BELOW us! This rarely happens. And I got to share this moment with several other birders.
[Golden Eagle, immature; Hawk Ridge, Duluth, Minnesota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/2000; ISO 320; hand-held]

Great Gray Owl Admiral Road Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_3912 Great Gray Stare
Though Great Gray Owls hunt mainly with their incredible hearing, their bright yellow eyes is what captured my attention. I also love the symmetry of their face, including the big facial disks that collect sound like radar dishes and focus it on their ear holes. And some are incredibly tame, allowing close approach and letting me get this close up portrait.
[Great Gray Owl; Sax-Zim Bog; Minnesota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/60; ISO320; hand-held (this exposure was a mistake as I had just switched from video, which must be shot at 1/60 second)]

Lincoln's Sparrow backyard bird pool Skogstjarna Carlton Co MN IMG_1077 Lincoln Bathed Here
I picked this photo because it represented success with a new idea I had this fall; I made an eye-level pond out of a couple saw horses, some plywood and a couple 2x4s (upcoming spring blog post). As I sat in my blind, I wondered if I’d ever get anything better than the frequent goldfinch bathers…then this gorgeous Lincoln’s Sparrow showed up…and even better, he got in the pool and started bathing. And the light was perfect! Success!
[Lincoln’s Sparrow; Skogstjarna; Carlton County, Minnesota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/250; ISO 320; flash; tripod]

Northern Goshawk immature Hawk Ridge Summit Ledges Duluth MN IMG_4068 Gos Attack
Fortunately this young Goshawk is attacking my plastic owl, Earl, and not me. Gos are fierce defenders of their nests and you don’t want to agitate a brooding mama. This technique is much safer. I placed the owl on a pole along a known migration route and waited. Most raptors dislike Great Horned Owls and they will readily harass a sitting owl. Focusing on a torpedo-like bird is a challenge, but sometimes you get lucky!
[Northern Goshawk; Hawk Ridge; Duluth, Minnesota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/2000; ISO 320; hand-held]

Pied-billed Grebe Stone Lake Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_2272 Stone Lake Silhouette
Canoeing at dawn on a wild lake often produces some great photo opportunities. This morning on Stone Lake in the Sax-Zim Bog was quite foggy. But I like the silhouettes you can make on such mornings, and the graceful arced rushes add much to the composition.
[Pied-billed Grebe; Stone Lake; Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f10 at 1/800; ISO 100; hand-held]

Ruddy Duck Horsehead Lake Kidder County ND IMG_1084 Marsh Ruddies
West Central North Dakota is a spectacular place for prairie breeding birds. I spent a couple days there in June photographing the western specialties, including this pair of Ruddy Ducks. I don’t get to see them that often in northeastern Minnesota, so it was a special treat. I chose this photo simply because it was a beautiful photo of a beautiful duck in a beautiful setting (I really like the yellow bladderwort flowers that add a little something extra.)
[Ruddy Duck pair; Horsehead Lake; Kidder County, North Dakota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f22 at 1/60; ISO 250; braced on car door frame (exposure was a mistake as I had just switched from taking video, which must be shot at 1/60 second)]

Barred Owl Peary Road near Yellow-bellied Bog Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_7695 - Version 2Perfect Perch
The sun barely peaked out from behind the clouds to cast some interesting light on this Barred Owl. And could you ask for a better perch?!
[Barred Owl; Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota]

Ruffed Grouse silhouette fall colors Hilpiper Rd Douglas Co WI IMG_0581 Stepping Out
This is one of those “G & G” (grab-and-go) shots that I NEVER thought would become one of my favorites of the year. I was just driving down a dirt road on my way to my “real” destination and preconceived photo goal, when I saw this Ruffed Grouse crossing the road. I stopped to get a shot out the window but was disappointed when she walked right into the deep shadows. But then I noticed the sun-lit fall foliage in the background and I had an idea. I dropped out of my van and lay on the road to get a low angle on the bird. I wanted to silhouette her against that fall color. I underexposed by a couple stops to make sure she went black. Success! Pays to keep an open mind when on a photo excursion, and be open to whatever happens in front of you. Zen and the Art of Wildlife Photography?
[Ruffed Grouse; Douglas County, Wisconsin]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/320; ISO 400; -0.67ev; hand-held while laying on ground]

Snowy Owl adult male Menards Superior WI  IMG_4580 - Version 2 Landing Gear Down!
Was this photo taken in the Arctic, just as this adult male Snowy Owl was about to land on a snow-covered tundra hummock? Or was it preparing to touch down on a light pole at the Menards Store in the middle of Superior Wisconsin? I’ll let your imagination decide!
[Snowy Owl male; Superior, Wisconsin (oops! I just gave it away)]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/1600; ISO 200; hand-held]

Snowy Owl Menards Superior WI IMG_3701 High Key Snowy
I really do love playing with photos in Aperture (or Lightroom) and Photoshop. I make no apologies for it. You are either going to hate or love this photo. I turned it into a “high key” image, where the whites are blown out intentionally. I did this to show off the stunning yellow eyes of this Arctic visitor to the northland.
[Snowy Owl male; Superior, Wisconsin]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f6.3 at 1/320; ISO 500; hand-held]

Sora Admiral Road Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_8809 Rail Cool
To get a photo like this, you have to sit for hours in a wet marsh, soaked from foot to forearm and just hope this secretive bird emerges from the cattails. But since I didn’t have this much time or motivation, I simply sat on the edge of the road and played the call of a Sora on my iPhone. Cheating? Maybe, but far more efficient. I do always keep the bird’s welfare in mind, and don’t overdo the playing of calls.
[Sora (rail); Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/400; ISO 320; hand-held]

Spruce Grouse female hen Sawbill Landing Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_2573
Spruce Grouse female hen Sawbill Landing Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_2588 As Pretty as her Spouse (Both Photos Above)
Once you actually find a Spruce Grouse, they are incredibly trusting and allow close approach. The trick is finding one! I photographed this hen from my belly while she picked for grit on a dirt road in far northern Minnesota, then she flew up to eye-level in a nearby spruce (how convenient!). Fortuitously there was also some yellow birch leaves in the background. I think female Spruce Grouse are as attractive as the males.
[Spruce Grouse hen; Superior National Forest; Lake County, Minnesota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f7.1 at 1/80; ISO 1250; tripod (only way I could get away with this exposure!)]

Swamp Sparrow Horsehead Lake Kidder Co ND IMG_1295 Flight of the Swampy
Flight shots are low percentage shooting….meaning you get very few “keepers” (shots that are sharp and in focus). But in this digital age, we have nothing to lose! In the film days, this show would have cost me $20!…$10 for a roll of Fuji Velvia and $10 for processing the 36 slides…OUCH!
[Swamp Sparrow; Horsehead Lake, Kidder County, North Dakota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; braced on car door frame]

Turkey Vulture sun bathing wings spread Tofte dump Cook Co MN IMG_9670Bathing Beauty?
Vultures often “sun bath” to dry their wings, but you don’t often get them doing it on such a nice perch in such nice light. Of course, this was at a municipal dump, but you can’t tell it from the photo!
[Turkey Vulture; Tofte Dump; North Shore of Minnesota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f8 at 1/1250; ISO 400; braced on car door frame]

Upland Sandpiper on fence post Kidder Co ND IMG_1500 Take off!
You can only take so many photos of an Upland Sandpiper standing on a wooden fence post. So then you wait…and wait…and wait for it to do something else, like stretch or yawn or …fly! I was ready this time and just held down the shutter as it leapt from its perch.
[Upland Sandpiper; Kidder County, North Dakota]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f5.6 at 1/2000; ISO 500; hand-held]

Virginia Rail Kimmes-Tobin Wetlands Douglas County WI IMG_0222Yes Virginia, You are a Rail
I’d never managed to get a good photo of an adult Virginia Rail. I once had lots of fun with a juvenile Virginia from my floating blind (see blog post and photos here}. But this May day was my Lucky Day and it appeared from the cattails in perfect light…a gorgeous bird that is rarely seen. By the way, they are called “rails” because their body is incredibly thin when viewed head on, and this is actually the source of the phrase “thin as a rail.”
[Virginia Rail; Kimmes-Tobin Wetlands; Douglas County, Wisconsin]
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; f6.3 at 1/500; ISO 1/1000; -0.33ev; hand-held]

Superior Snowy Owls

Snowy Owl Superior Middle School Superior WI IMG_1567
Snowy Owl Superior Airport Bong Superior WI IMG_1497
[Continued from previous post]…There have been no Snowies in the Sax-Zim Bog this year so Dave and I headed to the urban “wilds” of Superior, Wisconsin (Duluth’s neighbor in the “Twin Ports”). We found two Snowies but they were not equally photogenic. One had been banded and painted by researchers so it could be identified from long distances. We got a few “insurance shots” and continued our search.

Snowy Owl Superior Middle School Superior WI IMG_1562Snowy Owls have been wintering in the industrial areas of Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin for many years. When I was in college at the University of Minnesota Duluth in the early/mid 1980s, we would go down to the Port Terminal in the harbor (where all the warehouses and shipping docks were) and we could easily find a half dozen. There were probably a couple dozen wintering between there and Superior’s docks.

At that time, the harbor was a brushy mess crisscrossed by railroad tracks and dotted with junk piles and open garbage cans. It was the perfect environment for rabbits, pigeons, pheasants and rats…all great Snowy Owl food.
[All owl-in-flight shots taken with Canon 7D and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens set at Shutter Priority 1/1250 second and auto ISO. ISO ranged from 640 to 800 and f-stop ranged from f5.6 to f8]

Snowy Owl Superior Middle School Superior WI IMG_1559
Less than a mile away, we found this stunning female/young male (You can’t really tell, but in general, the darker the bird the younger it is and more likely a female). Don’t get me wrong, I love the nearly pure white adult males, but the speckled patterning on this bird was very pleasing.

Snowy Owl Superior Middle School Superior WI IMG_1561
Of course she sat on every ugly perch she could find…telephone pole, chain-link fence, scoreboard (see below). So we waited until she pooped. Why?, you might ask. Raptors always seem to “jettison” excess waste which is weight they don’t need to carry with them when they fly. Then she did and I held down the finger on my Canon 7D with the Canon 400mm f5.6 set to AI focus so the lens would continue to focus on the flying bird.

Snowy Owl Superior Middle School Superior WI IMG_1569 FLATI couldn’t resist a little fun when I saw this Snowy land on the middle school’s baseball scoreboard. After all, she is a “guest from the tundra,” just with us for the winter!

Florida Part 2: Beach Life

Fort Myers Beach panorama SMALLFLORIDA. I wish I could post the full-size photo of this panorama combining 4 images in Photoshop…It is 45 inches long! …and very sharp. Taken during a brief appearance of the sun near sunset along Fort Myers Beach. Handheld with the Canon 400mm f5.6 lens.

American Oystercatcher stare Fort Myers Beach FL IMG_3995 - Version 2
American Oystercatcher preening Fort Myers Beach FL IMG_4000 - Version 2
American Oystercatcher fluffing Fort Myers Beach FL IMG_4003 - Version 2The above images were just “G&G” images for me (“grab-and-go”)…I was walking the Estero Beach Lagoon when I saw these AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHERS lolling about. I didn’t put much effort into stalking them or even setting up my tripod because the light was FLAT and the only background was blah, colorless white water. Not a very interesting background. BUT when I got home and looked at these on the computer, I knew that they were my best photos of the trip. I really like the monochromatic water background…It is a nice contrast to the brown-black and orange of the oystercatcher. By the way, yes, oystercatchers do “catch” and eat oysters! (and many other bivalves including mussels and clams)

Frigatebirds 1 composite SMALLWhat a great name!…MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRD. For me the name conjures up visions of the Caribbean and the tall ships that plied these waters centuries ago. An early naturalist likely noted that the birds often came to rest on the masts of these vessels far from any land and named them “frigate birds.” These are HUGE seabirds that effortlessly float in the sky, gliding on stiff Caribbean winds, wings that span nearly EIGHT FEET(!) firmly set. They can glide like this for HOURS, never once flapping their wings. You’ve probably seen them in some nature program before…They are the birds with the red air sacs on their throat that they inflate like a balloon during breeding and courtship. But on this trip I only managed a few flight silhouettes, distinctive as they are, under gray sky conditions. But I decided to get creative and combine 5 images of the same bird into one, making my own flock of five flying frigatebirds (say that 3-times fast!). A dramatic increase in contrast helped the final image pop.

Great Egret breeding face Fort Myers Beach FL IMG_3838In the North Woods of Minnesota, we rarely get to see a Great Egret (found south in the state) and NEVER get to see them with their breeding plumage including their green facial skin. Snuck up on this guy at Estero Beach Lagoon.

Sandwich Tern flying Fort Myers Beach FL IMG_3538SANDWICH TERNS always remind me of my birding friends Parker Backstrom and Don Kienholz. Back in the mid 80s they were birding the Duluth Port Terminal on a gray, rainy, foggy May day when they spotted a strange tern with a yellow-tipped bill. It was a very-far-from-home Sandwich Tern, and a first state record for Minnesota! Dirt common in Florida as they hunt (fish) the ocean shorelines for small fish, plunging beak-first into the water.

Least Tern flying Fort Myers Beach FL IMG_3581LEAST TERN is the smallest and cutest tern in North America. I completely associate it with the Gulf Coast but amazingly, they also nest on braided, sandbar stretches of the Upper Missouri River in South Dakota (only an hour SW of the MN border), North Dakota and Montana.

Snowy Egret high key Fort Myers Beach FL IMG_3824
Snowy Egret stalking beach Fort Myers Beach FL IMG_3601SNOWY EGRET stalks critters along a busy Fort Myers beach. I didn’t think much of either of these photos UNTIL I made it a “HIGH-KEY” image, overexposing, and even blowing out completely the whites. I like the monochromatic effect and the contrasting black bill, legs and yellow feet.

Brown Pelican Fort Myers Beach FL IMG_3636Who doesn’t love pelicans? And BROWN PELICANS are the native pelican in Florida. This adult was lazily flying along the beach, but would then suddenly plunge head-first into the surf and more often than not, come up with a fish in its pouch.

Common Ground-Dove Fort Myers Beach FL IMG_3807COMMON GROUND-DOVES, like many of North America’s doves and pigeons, are taken for granted. But when you really study them, many have quite beautiful plumages, some with delicate scaling and subtle iridescence. This dove is native to the southern fringe of the U.S. from South Carolina to Florida to Texas, Arizona and S. California. When it flies, it reveals its stunning rusty red underwings.

Cicindela hamata lacerata Tiger Beetle Estero Beach Lagoon Fort Myers Beach FL IMG_3863
Cicindela hamata lacerata Tiger Beetle Estero Beach Lagoon Fort Myers Beach FL IMG_3866A lifer TIGER BEETLE! This beach tiger was a new one for me—Cicindela hamata lacerata. I love tiger beetles! Fast and furious, they pursue insect victims, pouncing on them in lightning fast attacks. And it really helps to be colored like the sand you hunt on.

Wilson's Plover Fort Myers Beach FLFunny story…WILSON’S PLOVER is a sand-colored shorebird restricted to the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast states, Virginia to Florida to Texas, BUT I’d just seen one the week before on Minnesota’s own version of an ocean beach—Duluth’s Park Point on Lake Superior. My friend Karl Bardon had found this lost wanderer, only Minnesota’s THIRD state record. Interestingly, I myself had found Wisconsin’s FIRST STATE RECORD of this species back in 2004(?) and just a few miles from here on Wisconsin Point. Anyway, good to see a Wilson’s in its native habitat for a change!

[All images taken with Canon 7D and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens handheld]

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.

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.