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!
The 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]
Flight 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 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]
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]
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 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 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]
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]
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]
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)]
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]
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]
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]
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]
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!)]
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]
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]
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]
Yes 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]