Posts tagged ‘bird’

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!
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Sparky’s Top-Ten Bird Photos of 2018

 

Okay, I’m cheating a bit on my Top 10 and have selected an extra two photos, so here is my 12 favorite bird images from 2018.

Eastern Kingbird feeding young (Felton Prairie, Clay County, Minnesota) August 16, 2018

I love Felton Prairie. It is a dry gravel prairie on the “Glacial Ridge” of western Minnesota. It is (was?) known as the only nesting site of Chestnut-collared Longspurs in the state. I spent about an hour with this late-nesting Eastern Kingbird family (this was mid August).

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 USM lens 1/1600 second at f5.6; ISO 400; hand-held from inside car.]

Barred Owl on Owl Avenue (Sax-Zim Bog, St. Louis County, Minnesota) April 2, 2018

This photo was taken near dusk on a lonely bog-bordered road in the Sax-Zim Bog. I like the monotone feel of the photo. I also like that the owl is NOT looking at me, but watching (listening?) intently on something out of frame.

[Canon 7D with Sigma 50-500mm lens at 203mm; f6.3 at 1/320 second; ISO 3200]

Mature male Snowy Owl on hay bale (Sax-Zim Bog, St. Louis County, Minnesota) December 17, 2018

The very small size and very white plumage of this Snowy Owl indicates that this is an older male bird. It has been hunting the same fields in the Sax-Zim Bog for about a month. He often perches on hay bales, scanning the countryside for voles. I like the stark contrast between the white owl and the pink sky.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 USM lens 1/1600 second at f5.6; ISO 400; hand-held from inside car.]

Bohemian Waxwing in Mountain-Ash (Two Harbors, Minnesota) November 12, 2018

I’ve photographed many Bohemian Waxwings over the years, but usually in crabapple trees, so I wanted to get photos and video of one in a Mountain-Ash (a native species). I found a small flock in a huge Mountain-Ash (that I’ve looked in many times before) in the town of Two Harbors, Minnesota.

I only shot video, but was able to pull this still-image out of a 4K video clip.

[Panasonic GH5 with Sigma 50-500mm lens

Great Gray Owl (Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota) February 27, 2018

Great Grays are amazing photo subjects…even if they are just staring into the snow. I had spend over an hour just watching this one sit in an aspen…waiting for it do something…anything! Then when I wasn’t ready (of course!), it launched into the air and plunged face first into the deep ditch snow only 20 yards from me. But it didn’t catch the vole on the plunge but it could still hear it under the deep snow. I slowly crawled over to the ditch and laid flat on the snow to get this eye-level shot. The Great Gray in this photo is not really looking into the snow, but rather listening by facing its huge facial disks towards the sound. Ear holes that are a slightly different size and shape can triangulate sound in order to pinpoint prey.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 USM lens 1/250 second at f5.6; ISO 200; pop-up flash; hand-held while laying flat on the snow.]

Sanderling in near-breeding plumage (Park Point, Duluth, Minnesota) May 22, 2018

Shorebirds along the sandy beaches of Lake Superior are one of my favorite subjects. Most are heading to breeding grounds on the tundra of the Far North. This makes them seem more exotic and interesting. Sanderlings are one of the most common shorebirds on the beaches of Duluth’s Park Point and Superior, Wisconsin’s Wisconsin Point.

This one is in near breeding plumage with reddish head and breast. We usually see them in their white plumage as small flocks scoot ahead of us as we walk down the beach. I crawled through the sand to get in front of the Sanderlings and then would remain still as they worked their way towards me. I like this unique head-on angle.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 USM lens 1/640 second at f5.6; ISO 320; hand-held while laying flat on the sand.]

Great Gray Owl in heavy snow (Duluth, Minnesota) January 30, 2018

There was a mini-irruption of Great Gray Owls just north of Duluth last winter. In fact this guy was hunting right in the city limits of Duluth along Old Superior Street. I got to film him (her?) making several plunges into the deep but crusty snow. It was able to break through the crust to get at voles below.

[Sony A6500 with Sigma 50-500mm f4.5-6.2 lens at 500mm; 1/250 second at f6.3; ISO 1250; hand-held]

Male Bufflehead (St. Louis River at Fond du Lac in Duluth, Minnesota) April 23, 2018

Every year when the ice goes out on the St. Louis River I try and get some eye-level (ice-level?) shots of waterfowl in their spring splendor. The ice went out quite late this year as this photo was taken in late April. Buffleheads are really difficult to photograph because they dive frequently. And it is very hard to capture the iridescence of their head feathers. They usually look all black and white. But the sun angle was just right for this photo to reveal the rainbow iridescence.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 USM lens 1/2500 second at f5.6; ISO 500; hand-held while laying on the shoreline ice]

Eastern Kingbird catching grasshopper in mid-air (Felton Prairie, Clay County, Minnesota) August 16, 2018

I honestly just got lucky with this shot. I love images of grassland birds on old fence posts or rusty barbed wire fences (both of which are disappearing from the rural landscape) so I took some photos of this Eastern Kingbird. But I decided to wait patiently

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 USM lens 1/2000 second at f5.6; ISO 400; hand-held from inside car.]

Three immature Bald Eagles (Douglas County, Wisconsin) April 9, 2018

A perfectly-arranged trio of subadult Bald Eagles in northwest Wisconsin. It takes 3-5 years for a Bald Eagle to attain its pristine white head and tail feathers. The bottom bird is probably a 2nd year bird, and the tip bird may be a 3rd year bird due to its Osprey-like face mask. The middle bird is also probably a 3rd year bird. I’m sure there was a road-killed deer somewhere nearby.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 USM lens 1/2000 second at f7.1; ISO 320; hand-held from car window]

White-faced Ibis (Yellowstone National Park) April 30, 2018

I rarely get to see these birds but they migrate through Yellowstone National Park in the spring. This one was feeding on a newly-thawed pond. The sad part of this story is that I dropped a rented 2x teleconverter out of the car while trying to get out and photograph this bird. The fall put a scratch in the lens. I then had to buy the 2x from lensrentals.com. But I guess I’m glad to own this high-end teleconverter.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 200mm f2 IS USM lens with 1.4x teleconverter;  1/250 second at f2.8; ISO 400; hand-held]

Snowy Owl (South Superior, Wisconsin) January 5, 2018

If I’d shot this photo with a wide-angle lens, you would have seen a gravel pit, railroad tracks and car repair place in the frame. This Snowy Owl was hunting in a semi-industrial area of Superior, Wisconsin. I waded through the deep snow to reach the spruce and began filming. The owl completely ignored me, but after about 10 minutes some distant movement caught its eye and off it went. I like the wing position as it lifts off.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 USM lens 1/2500 second at f5.6; ISO 320; -0.66ev; hand-held]

 

Top Ten Creative Wildlife Images 2013

It’s that time of year to take stock of our shooting fortunes from the year past. For me, it was a mixed bag. I wanted to do more wildlife video but didn’t find the time for much. 2013 was also the year of the “Feathered & Furry 500,” my attempt to photograph 500 species of animals in Minnesota in one year [More on this in a post in the near-future]. And I did rack up a pretty big list…including over 220 species of birds. But I was also trying to be creative in my shots….More than the usual perfect light portrait.
In the next few days I will also post more “Top Tens” from 2013…Stay tuned!
Here are my favorites in no particular order:
American Crow CR4 Carlton Co MN IMG_7002American Crow in snowstorm. Taken near my house on the way to the gas station to get some milk for the family…The lesson? Always have your camera in the car. I really didn’t do much to the photo as the scene was already extremely contrasty. I did tweak the Levels and Curves to clip the whites and blacks in Aperture. Carlton County, Minnesota.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/640, ISO 160, handheld but braced on car window]

Black-capped Chickadee landing on feeder Skogstjarna Carlton Co MN MG_0074299Chickadee landing on feeder at dawn. I “previsioned” this shot but just had to wait for the right morning and get up the gumption to shoot in the cold of a winter morning. I underexposed by nearly two stops in order to put the backlit wing feathers in a medium tonal range. Yes, it could have been better if part of the bird wasn’t blocked by the feeder. My house, Carlton County, Minnesota.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/2500 second, ISO 3200, Handheld]

European Starlings Aerial Lift Bridge Canal Park Duluth MN IMG_9944European Starlings and Aerial Lift Bridge. I was photographing gulls in Duluth’s Canal Park when a large flock of starlings spooked from the bridge. I instinctively threw up my camera and started shooting. I really like the pattern and composition of this very “graphic” image, especially how the steel girders are all kind of converging in the center. The birds are nicely spaced too. Check the color version/variation below. Canal Park, Duluth, Minnesota.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f9 at 1/400 second, ISO 800, Handheld]

Bald Eagle CR4 Cemetary Rd Carlton Co MN IMG_0075809Bald Eagle Landscape. I didn’t “see” this composition when I clicked the shutter…I just pointed my lens out the window when I saw and eagle land there. Only later did I see the nice composition of vertical aspen trunks contrasting with the blueish background of distant pines. A bird-in-the-landscape shot that works. Carlton County, Minnesota.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/800 second, ISO 640, Handheld but braced on car window]

Herring Gulls lighthouse sunset Canal Park Duluth MN IMG_9938This is one of 3 images in this Top Ten that were taken within minutes of each other (the others were the startling/bridge silhouettes). Fortuitously, the gulls all perched in perfect locations to make this interesting silhouette. Duluth, Minnesota.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f18 at 1/400 second, ISO 800, Handheld]

Common Redpoll Admiral Road Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_0076238Common Redpoll on snowy road. I laid flat on a snow-covered road to get this unique portrait of a Common Redpoll, a winter visitor to northern Minnesota. I blew out the whites to improve the high-key look of this shot. Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/1600 second, ISO 200, Handheld while laying on ground]

Trumpeter Swans 2 landing backlit sepia Monticello MN IMG_0073484Two Trumpeter Swans landing. Sepia tool in Aperture really helped this shot…The color version wasn’t bad, but the colors were a bit weird. If this happens to you, try and play with black-and-white or sepia color. Mississippi River, Monticello, Minnesota.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/1600 second, ISO 250, Handheld]

European Starlings Aerial Lift Bridge Canal Park Duluth MN IMG_9946 (see details on similar photo above)
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f9 at 1/400 second, ISO 800 Handheld]

American Crow CR4 Carlton Co MNIMG_7004American Crow in snowstorm Wide. Taken only seconds after the image at the top of the post but with a 10-20mm lens instead of a 400mm lens! I like the simple composition of 3 stark tree silhouettes and one bird tiny in the frame. Carlton County, Minnesota.
[Canon 7D with Sigma 10-20mm, f6.3 at 1/640 second, ISO 160 Handheld]

Mallard blurIMG_0074579Mallard blur. A very slow shutter speed to portray frantically feeding Mallards on Lake Superior. Duluth, Minnesota.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f20 at 0.6 seconds, ISO 100 Handheld]

Sharp-tailed Grouse Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_0072674Two Sharp-tailed Grouse in Tamaracks. One of my favorite images of the year (You may certainly disagree!) But I just love the composition of the one distant bird more obvious, then the closer bird more hidden in the trees. I wish I could say I designed this shot, but it was just a “haccident” (happy accident). Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/1000 second, ISO 160, tripod]

Boreal Owl Bonanza!

First of all, let me say that Boreal Owls are the cutest bird in the entire world! About the size of a Kleenex box, nearly as wide as they are tall, the Boreal has bright yellow eyes with two black “tear drop” marks and a face framed by black. Immaculate white spots dot the forehead. This has been a great winter to see this most elusive of all owls in northern Minnesota.

Roughly every 4 years there is an increase in Boreal Owl sightings in Minnesota. Usually, late in the winter, a few may be spotted hunting in the daytime, which often means that they are hungry!…possibly starving. You see, Boreals are normally nocturnal hunters. So when voles are at a low cycle further north, the Boreals need to move in search of food. In late January of 2013 they started showing up in Sax-Zim and along the North Shore. Guide Chris Wood found SEVEN in one day along the Scenic 61 highway north of Duluth. This has been a huge IRRUPTION! (yes, irruption is the right word).

And since Boreal Owls are rarely seen, this influx of day-hunting Boreals is big news. Most of the folks I guide still need it for their life list. So irruption years become BUSY years for the local guides (and I’m no exception!). In fact, the tiny owl hadn’t even been recorded nesting in the Lower 48 until the spring/summer of 1978 when a Boreal Owl pair took up residence in a nest box in Tofte, Minnesota.

Here is a compilation of video from 4 different Boreals taken between January 27th and February 8th.

Boreal Owl Scenic 61 nr Stoney Point Duluth MN IMG_0074437
Boreal Owl preens nr Stoney Pt Scenic 61 St. Louis Co MN IMG_0074883
Boreal Owl Dodges Log Lodges Scenic 61 Lake Co MNIMG_0074823
Boreal Owl Dodges Log Lodges Scenic 61 Lake Co MN IMG_0074782
Boreal Owl sleeps Dodges Log Lodges Scenic 61 Lake Co MN IMG_0074762

All photos taken with Canon 7D and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens. BUT note that the top photo was taken with the 400mm AND stacked 2x and 1.4x teleconverters! Don’t let anyone tell you that you should NEVER stack teleconverters…I did and the photo turned out all right I think.

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.