Posts tagged ‘winter’

A Winter Drive through Carlton County

WHITE ON BLUE
On a sunny but very cold day in late February, I traveled out to western Carlton County in search of a Snowy Owl that had been reported there earlier in the month. I live in the NE corner of Carlton County just south of Duluth, Minnesota. I knew the odds of finding the owl were not in my favor but it was an excuse to see a part of the county I don’t usually traverse. The theme seemed to be “white on blue” with many white birds showing themselves (and a white church!), all on a backdrop of white snow, blue sky and deep blue shadows.

Rough-legged Hawk flying blue sky Finn Road Carlton Co MN IMG_5355A beautiful Rough-legged Hawk flew up from a field along Finn Road.
It was likely hunting voles, their favorite meal. Though they are nearly as large as a Red-tailed Hawk, they have much smaller talons and a relatively tiny beak for grabbing and eating small rodents. Red-tails on the other hand, can easily take large prey such as cottontail rabbits and so need the larger “equipment.”
This individual’s incomplete belly band tells me that this is an adult male…Females and immatures have a broad black belly band.
They nest in the arctic but move south in winter in search of daylight and small rodents. Minnesota is their “Arctic Riviera.”

Snow Bunting flock CR27 Carlton Co MN IMG_5442

Snow Bunting flock CR27 Carlton Co MN IMG_5430

Snow Bunting flock CR27 Carlton Co MN IMG_5460A DRIFT OF SNOW BUNTINGS
Another visitor from the arctic tundra that makes the northern states its winter home is the Snow Bunting. Flocks of these “snowbirds” feed on weed seeds along roads and railroad tracks and in farm fields. This flock was foraging actively but flew every time I tried to get close. This, unfortunately for the photographer, is the norm for this species.

Hoary Redpoll and Common Redpoll flock Carlton Co MN IMG_5410HOARY SURPRISE
Surprising was a lone Hoary Redpoll feeding with a flock of Common Redpolls along a country road. Hoaries and Commons are two more species that breed in the north of Canada and Alaska but winter in northern Minnesota. They are an irruptive species (like the Rough-leg above) which means that they move south in varying numbers from year to year depending on the supply of food in the north…Alder catkins and birch seeds for redpolls, and voles for Rough-legged Hawks. We are thrilled to have so many redpolls this year!
Hoaries are much rarer, averaging 1 for every 100 Commons. Note her (males would have a pinkish breast) very frosty white coloration and tiny cone-shaped bill (compared to the longer sharper bill on the Common behind her.)

Suomalainen Kirkko E.L.K. 1915 Autumba Carlton Co MN IMG_5330

Suomalainen Kirkko E.L.K. 1915 Autumba Carlton Co MN IMG_5335

Suomalainen Kirkko E.L.K. 1915 Autumba Carlton Co MN IMG_5352SUOMALAINEN KIRKKO
This old Finnish Lutheran church (Suomalainen Kirkko = Finnish Church) from 1915 was saved after its doors were closed. It was moved to this location near Hwy 73 and turned into a cultural center. I love the stark white and simple lines of this vernacular architectural gem.

I drove 95 miles and had a great time.
P.S. I did not find the Snowy Owl

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Pretty Kitty—Carlton County Bobcat

It is good to have a network of friends, and for many reasons—Friends you shoot with, friends who can give you critique and feedback, and friends who give you tips on wildlife locations. And my buddy Gene helped me with the latter. I think the text said something like “the bobcat came back this morning” This was monumental news! How could he state that so nonchalantly? I called him immediately and was set up on his property in a remote part of Carlton County, Minnesota the next day. A mere 25 minute drive from my house, I got there just after sunrise.
On the way up his long winding drive, a movement caught my eye. A winter-white Snowshoe Hare had hopped a few yards but was now sitting motionless. Too bad the Bobcat hadn’t seen this tasty meal. Witnessing a chase scene would have been a once-in-a-lifetime treat.

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3429 1024pxAfter about 45 minutes of sitting quietly, it was an unbelievable thrill when Gene whispered, “Here she comes.” (We’ll call her “she” as her size seems small and features delicate…Plus, what a pretty face!). She cautiously slipped between the hazel brush, slinking her way towards the road-killed deer that Gene had provided.

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3390 1024pxSensing her surroundings with acute hearing and smell and vision, she crept closer, occasionally stopping to sit and relax, making sure the coast was clear. In the nearly 3 hours we sat there, she came in about four times, but retreating after a few minutes.

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3339 1024pxBobcats have increased in Minnesota over the last few decades. In an article titled “Bountiful Bobcats” in the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer Jan/Feb 2014, the author quotes “From the 1970s up to about 2000, bobcat population numbers were fairly low and stable, according to John Erb, furbearer biologist for the Department of Natural Resources. But starting around 2000, the bobcat population increased rapidly. It grew for about eight years and now appears to be stabilized at about 5,200 in spring and 8,200 in fall. (That’s well above the levels observed from 1977 to 1997—about 1,700 in spring and 2,300 in fall.) Erb and other wildlife managers hope to better understand the causes and potential implications of this bobcat resurgence.” See the entire article here

Snowshoe Hare Gene Letty's homestead CR104 Carlton Co MN IMG_3279Snowshoe Hare that greeted me on my way into Gene’s cabin…A rare sight!

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3373 1024pxThe Volunteer article goes on to say, “An adult is roughly 3 feet long including its short, “bobbed” 4- to 7-inch tail. Adult males, or toms, can weigh more than 30 pounds and occasionally over 40. Adult females usually weigh 20 to 25 pounds.”

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3414 1024pxWhy are they increasing? John Erb is the MN DNR’s furbearer biologist…”Erb suspects multiple reasons for the recent bobcat population explosion, although he stresses the need for more research to winnow out the causes. One possible factor is the changing climate. Minnesota is at the northern extent of bobcat distribution in North America. Bobcats are less efficient deep-snow predators than are Canada lynx, which have thicker fur, longer legs, and oversized paws.”

“Milder winters might be aiding survival rates, particularly for younger animals,” Erb says. “Female bobcats might also be coming through winter in better condition, so they might be having better reproductive output and survival of kittens.”

“Forest management could also be playing a role. Erb says disturbed and younger forests often provide dense cover and abundant edge habitat, which bobcats and some of their prey prefer. He believes this habitat has expanded due to increased logging that began in the mid-1980s, accelerated in the early 1990s, and continued until recent years. He points to a similar pattern of young forests, plentiful deer, and booming bobcat populations in the 1940s and ’50s, following turn-of-the-century logging, fires, and other forest disturbances.” From the article by Jacob Edson “Bountiful Bobcats” in the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, Jan/Feb 2014

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3376 1024px“Another factor that could be affecting bobcat populations is the increase in deer and turkey populations. Bobcats prey on deer, particularly fawns, and scavenge on dead deer, especially during winter.” Surprisingly, Bobcats are also able to take down adult deer.

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3434 1024pxOne researcher has also noted that Fishers are declining in the core Bobcat range in Minnesota. Is it because they are competing for some of the same prey? Bobcats will also kill adult Fishers.

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3528 1024pxForested parts of Minnesota may harbor one Bobcat per six to seven square miles. Lynx, which are better adapted to deep snow, replace Bobcats in the Arrowhead region.

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3440 1024pxThis fact really surprised me. Did you know that Lynx on average weigh less than Bobcats? They rarely top 25 pounds while Bobcat Toms can top 40 pounds! It is the very long legs and large feet of a Lynx that gives us the impression of a larger animal.

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3306 1024px

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3530 1024pxFeeding daily on this carcass for nearly a week, she still is cautious when approaching her “prize.”

Bobcat Lynx rufus Carlton Co MN IMG_3422 1024pxI’ll post a video of her in the next blog post.

[Most images shot under low light with heavy overcast skies; Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f5.6 at 1/250 second at ISO 1000. Firmly locked on tripod!]

[The two images of the Bobcat actually feeding at the deer carcass were taken at f5.6 at 1/160 second at ISO 1600]

Gray Foxes from 20 Feet! Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota

Gray Fox pair Welcome Center Owl Ave Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_3716Twenty years ago, the Gray Fox was rarely seen in the North Woods of Minnesota. But they have now arrived! This is the second and third Gray Fox I have photographed in the Sax-Zim Bog in the last year. The first one I photographed was along the Creek Road in summer of 2013. I had seen something cross the road up ahead, and I thought it might have been a Pine Marten. I stopped the van, got out and gave a few calls on my predator mouth call. Within seconds, a Gray Fox burst out of the woods, looking, presumably, for the source of the call. I got a decent shot, but I was not really prepared. The first proof I had of a Gray Fox in the Sax-Zim Bog was one I “caught” one on my Trail Camera in the winter of 2011-12, very near where these two were photographed.

Gray Fox pair Welcome Center Owl Ave Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_3770I first became aware that the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center feeders were being visited by this rare animal back in December. I found some scat that I couldn’t immediately identify. It was canid-like, but composed of sunflower seed shells and rodent hair. The only winter mammal I know that eats both is the Gray Fox.

Gray Fox pair Welcome Center Owl Ave Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_3647Then in early February, some visitors got glimpses of a Gray Fox towards dusk. My friend Jason Mandich even managed to photograph one. The next day, our Welcome Center host, Heather-Marie, discovered that there were TWO Gray Fox coming to the feeders. The next afternoon, I was there…Ready and waiting…INSIDE the Welcome Center.

Gray Fox pair Welcome Center Owl Ave Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_3703Then before 3pm, one arrived! …and then a second! Must be a mated pair as they seemed to get along quite well, feeding under the same feeder for quite a while. We barely breathed as we stood inside the Welcome Center. Then one headed our way, making its path for the feeder closest to the building. I shot through the windows of the Welcome Center, crouching down so I could shoot eye-level to the small fox.

Gray Fox pair Welcome Center Owl Ave Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_3717FUN GRAY FOX FACTS: These very small canids are about two feet long, plus the 12 to 15 inch long bushy tail. Adults weigh from 8 to 14 pounds…the weight of a large house cat! They are found across the southern and eastern U.S. and south through Mexico, Central America to Columbia and Venezuela in South America.

Gray Fox pair Welcome Center Owl Ave Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_3755A fox that can climb trees? Yes, the Gray Fox is very adept at climbing tree trunks, either for food or safety.

Gray Fox pair Welcome Center Owl Ave Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_3751What do they eat? Well, we’ve established that they will eat sunflower seeds (Note this guy’s got a shell on his face). My friend Karl Bardon recently watched on eat for over an hour at his feeder. The scat I found at the Welcome Center is filled with sunflower seed shells and rodent hair. They are also reported to eat Cottontails, newly-dropped White-tailed Deer fawns, mice, voles, fruit and insects.

Gray Fox pair Welcome Center Owl Ave Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_3710The MN DNR website says that “breeding occurs in late winter, and gestation (time required for the young to develop) is about two months. Litter size averages four, and the young stay with their mother until autumn. Red and Gray Fox do not cross-breed in the wild.”

Gray Fox pair Welcome Center Owl Ave Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_3700

[ALL IMAGES SHOT THROUGH WINDOW GLASS! Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t shoot great wildlife shots through your windows. But you need to remember a few things:
1. Make sure your windows are clean! No smudgy kid finger and hand smears. Glass cleaner and crumpled newspaper works great.
2. Shoot straight through the glass…Make sure your lens is perpendicular to the glass. Shooting at an angle through windows often results in lower image quality.
3. Pray your subject is in good light…full morning or late afternoon sun, or high overcast. Deep shade reduces contrast and sun-dappled light makes for difficult exposures.

[all with Canon 7D and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, Most at ISO 400, f5.6 at 1/640 second, AI Servo AutoFocus mode (to track the moving subjects).]

New e-zine! Wildlife Photographic

If you are even remotely interested in wildlife photography, this new e-zine (electronic magazine) is a must-get purchase. Okay, I do have an article in this month’s issue (and the cover shot!), but that’s not why I’m excited about Wildlife Photographic.

Craig Orr from the U.K. has put together a slick e-zine with articles from some very big names in wildlife photography…
Allan Murphy (famed backyard songbird set up artist)
Juan Pons (Digital Photo Experience podcast)
Sparky Stensaas (Creative Winter Silhouettes)
…wait! I don’t belong in that list.

There are also very cool embedded videos, such as New Zealand wildlife photographer Chris McLennan’s video “Car-L Meets the Lions” in which he built a remote control 4wd platform to mount his camera. He then drove it near Lions in Africa…The results are funny, amazing, and not good news for the poor remote control vehicle!

screen568x568

seo_cw_productSparky’s cover shot os a Bison at dawn in Yellowstone to illustrate my article “Creative Winter Silhouettes” (Converted to sepia)

“Wildlife Photographic is your bimonthly magazine dedicated to wildlife photography. Providing tips, tricks and inspiration to photographers, while enjoying the amazing beauty of wildlife across the globe.

Thanks to Apple’s amazing newsstand platform, we can feature not only great articles, but also video and interactive content as well. Viewing magazines has never been so enjoyable!

While our main focus is on photography, at Wildlife Photographic we love and respect the animals we share our planet with. With this in mind, each month we put the spotlight on different nature conservation orginizations working to preserve wildlife and their habitats.

Subscribe to Wildlife Photographic and receive a huge saving of 25% off the cover price.

Wildlife Photographic Subscription Available:
A single issue for $3.99 (non-subscription)
Bimonthly subscription for $2.99 (every two months), automatically
renewed every two months until canceled

Currently this e-zine is only available through Apple’s iTunes for the iPhone and iPad.

GET SUBSCRIPTION INFO HERE

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]

Christmas Coyote

Coyote called in St. Louis River Fond du Lac Duluth MN IMG_1439
CALLING IN A CANID
I drive over the bridge spanning the St. Louis River at Fond du Lac/Duluth (MN) at least 4 times a week, and I always check for eagles, otters, or whatever else might be utilizing this wild stretch of river. A couple days ago, I spotted something running along the far shore…but I was driving and it was so far away that I couldn’t tell if it was an otter, fox, coyote or wolf. I stopped and backed up so I could get the binoculars on it. But it was gone. Not sure why, but I decided to give a few calls on my Johnny Stewart predator call (that I always keep in my car). Almost instantly a Coyote came around the bend in the river, running towards the bridge on the frozen river.

I hustled back to the car, grabbed my camera with 400mm lens (which is also ALWAYS in my car) and hid behind the snow bank up against the bridge railing. Conveniently there was a hole in the snow bank where I could look through the bridge railing. She was coming fast and I tried to start shooting but my lens had frosted over. Frantically I tried to scrape the ice off the front of my lens with my glove (not usually a recommended practice!), then I tried shooting again but the lens would not focus! I found that I had the camera set to AI Servo focus mode and quickly switched it to Single Shot focus, which worked. In the process, I had breathed on the viewfinder and fogged it up…And now I couldn’t find the Coyote while looking through the camera! All this happened in a few seconds and by now the Coyote had slowed to a trot. I gave a few more calls (imitating what, I’m not sure!). A quick swipe of the viewfinder allowed me a passable view and I quickly started shooting, trusting that my autofocus was doing its job!

Well, that Coyote never saw me and came to a stop right underneath me, trying to figure out where the “wounded rabbit” was. I couldn’t resist a couple shots looking straight down on her from 40 feet above (NOT a good angle for wildlife photography!). And as I peeked over the top of the snow bank, she saw me and trotted off, turning back a couple times to make sure she hadn’t missed an easy meal. I really wished I had a dead rabbit to throw to her. As you can see, she was a beautiful animal. (Not sure if the Coyote was a male or female, but I choose to call it “her”)
Coyote called in St. Louis River Fond du Lac Duluth MN IMG_1424[Taken looking straight down from the bridge…40 feet (?) above the river]
SHUTTER PRIORITY SURE THING
This was the perfect scenario for shooting with Shutter Priority. It was fairly early in the morning and overcast. I knew I wanted sharp Coyote images. If I’d had my camera set to Aperture Priority, I may have ended up with slower shutter speeds and the Coyote would be blurred. Yes, the image might be less “noisy,” but I’d rather have a sharp, useable, noisy image, then a blurred, un-useable, cleaner image that I’d delete anyway. So I set the camera to Shutter Priority 1/400 second (a compromise, to be sure, as it would freeze a walking/trotting Coyote but not a running Coyote) and Auto ISO. The camera automatically keeps the aperture at f5.6, 1/400 and lets the ISO range up and down…In this case from ISO 1000 to 1600. These settings allowed me to get sharp images in low light. This portrait was taken at ISO 1600 on a Canon 7D—a camera not known for its high ISO capabilities…and you don’t even notice the digital noise.

Coyote called in St. Louis River Fond du Lac Duluth MN IMG_1428

Coyote called in St. Louis River Fond du Lac Duluth MN IMG_1384BIONIC HEARING
When I got home that evening, I calculated that the Coyote had heard my mouth call from 1/3 of a mile away! Never underestimate the senses of wild critters…Deer hunters know this very well! I do feel bad that this Coyote expended energy on a “wild goose chase,”…and I will not use this call on a Coyote in this area again this winter. I really only use the Johnny Stewart predator call when I see a critter duck into the woods and I try and get them back out into the open. My success rate is probably 2 to 5%.

Coyote called in St. Louis River Fond du Lac Duluth MN IMG_1401

Coyote called in St. Louis River Fond du Lac Duluth MN IMG_1432HIGH KEY IMAGES
In these two images, I blew out the whites in Photoshop. I didn’t really need any detail in the snow and I like the look. So I moved the right slider in the Levels palette to the left until it completely clipped the whites.

Coyote called in St. Louis River Fond du Lac Duluth MN IMG_1381

Coyote called in St. Louis River Fond du Lac Duluth MN IMG_1446I really like “Animal in the Landscape” shots. These two are examples of that. It places your critter in its habitat and maybe tells more of a story than a “head and shoulders” shot.

[ALL IMAGES: Canon 7D, Canon 400mm f5.6 (handheld but braced on snowbank), Tv (Shutter Priority) 1/400 second at f5.6. Auto ISO (ISO ranged between ISO 1000 to 1600 for these images)]

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.