Saturday, March 18, 2017


As the Ice Goes Off                     14 March 2017

Trumpeter Swans are settling into territories, awaiting open water. Red-winged Blackbird males have arrived on territory as well, defending spots that promise new cattail and fresh red osier dogwood.  In the distance, Sandhill Cranes bugle.  Open patches of water bring eagles and otters to investigate the old, crumpled and frozen bodies of fish that had died and were entombed in the forming ice.  A narrow channel has formed, and the muskrats are now on patrol, exploring greater freedom, venturing further from their mounds and burrows. 

Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) on the edge of the ice- Canon 7D and Canon EF 400mm f5.6L. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Golden Wings

Variations on a Theme            25 May 2016

Golden-winged Warbler, full song

Northwest Wisconsin, my home, is a globally significant region in the conservation of the Golden-winged Warbler. Since moving to the Saint Croix River valley in late 1999, I have become very familiar with the Golden-winged Warbler, and I have come to expect a day in late spring or summer to include at least one.  We share the same overall biogeography, this species and I. Northern Wisconsin supports 25% of the world's population.  Northern Minnesota supports an estimated 50% of the world's population, and parts of eastern Canada and the eastern United States support the rest. They are on the fast track to Endangered status, having disappeared in vast stretches of more southerly breeding habitat, and the accountability in saving this species runs deep.  The Golden-winged Warbler is not merely "our" bird.  It overwinters in much of Central America and northern South America.  While we provide the breeding habitat, survival of the young depends upon safe migration through corridors of good habitat throughout the eastern United States and successful overwintering in tropical America.  Traveling through the Americas, it is said often, and it is worth repeating for the sake of this beautiful bird...we are ALL Americans.  Together, a common goal of conservation biology is paramount to the keeping the beauty alive for our great grandchildren. As cliche' as it may sound, we really, really MUST embrace the common goal and save the birds!

I grew up as a birder, but I didn't actually see my first Golden-winged Warbler until I was 23 years old.  Where I grew up, near La Crosse, Wisconsin, the Blue-winged Warbler ruled the roost.  Seeing this strange and beautiful warbler with its golden wings for the first time, back in 1993, came about through serendipity.  I had been invited to a graduation party for a fellow University of Minnesota -- College of Natural Resources grad.  It turned out that the party was at her family's cabin in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin.  As I arrived in the general area of the party, I became deeply curious about the landscape.  I found myself immersed as a young naturalist in a world of ecological transition. Dumbstruck by the beauty of a land rich in alder wetlands, yellow birch, and conifer-green hints of boreal forest, I explored enthusiastically, banking on being "fashionably late" to the party.  I soon found my first Golden-winged Warbler, and, fifty yards later, my second...and then third, fourth, fifth... In my book, Turtle Lake, Wisconsin had become the Golden-winged Warbler capitol of the world.   My estimation wasn't far off the mark.

In Polk, Barron, and Burnett Counties, the Golden-winged Warbler is a common bird, a luxurious reality that hides its globally delicate hold on survival.  Here, males compete angrily for territories and establish breeding sites in a variety of habitats, all with a common collection of themes.  Golden-winged Warblers need thicket edges, areas of dense, young trees and shrubs, margins of tall grasses, sedges or herbaceous weeds, and a not-so-distant lot of older, mature trees.  These habitats seem to play out best where alder swamps along streams meet with wet meadows and young aspen woodlots in a mosaic of healthy forest.  Less so, but still importantly, managed forests with some clear-cuts and young aspen generation attract Golden-wings.  So long as Northwest Wisconsin has healthy and wild streams cutting through large parcels of wild land, we will have Golden-winged Warbler habitat.  Some active forestry practices sprinkled here and there seem to help plenty too.  Like all things, moderation is key, as the breeding pairs also need adjacent parcels of mature deciduous forest in which to hunt for caterpillars. 

Polk County, my home, provides ample opportunities for the success of this species. Climate change and changing political climates may threaten it to some extent here too.  Vigilance and voice will help stretch the calendar of days for this species, and love for this bird will bring awareness and action.  The Golden-winged Warbler is a spectacular bird.  May it continue to thrive and connect the peace of our nations.

All images were made with a Canon 7D, Canon EF 400mm f5.6L lens, and a Gitzo Basalt GT1932 tripod with an Induro BHD1 Ball head.
Hey! Saturday, May 27th, 2017 is the date set for the Polk County Early Bird Whip-poor-will Bird Hike.  We are meeting at Straight Lake State Park's southern parking lot at 8:30 AM! Located near, Luck, Wisconsin, we meet a couple of miles north of the intersection of Hwy 48 and Polk County GG.  The hike is sponsored by the Gaylord Nelson Audubon Society.  This hike is a virtual guarantee for Golden-winged Warbler viewing and photography!   Early birds can also meet us at 4AM at Lion's Park, Saint Croix Falls, Wisconsin on that day to caravan to the Sterling Barrens, a managed forest landscape rich in bird life (especially Golden-winged Warblers).  We depart for Straight Lake from there at 8AM sharp to meet the Straight Lake crew by 8:30.  Check out Luck, Wisconsin's downtown area after the hike! I am a big fan of Cafe Wren, Morley's Maple Syrup, Natural Foods Co-op, and VanMeter Meats!  Good Birding!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Hushed Calm, Perfect Light

Barred Owl Portrait                                16 July 2017

Barred Owls are largely nocturnal, but July is a month of hungry fledglings.  While participating in the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II, I happened to catch a glimpse of this Barred Owl hunting for small mammals along the forested edge of a small lake. Backlit by the rapidly rising sun, I knew the owl would present some exposure challenge.  Luckily, the owl was not at all worried about me and remained cooperative!  To make the exposure, I used my Canon 7D's Live View mode and spot metered on the owl's face. The spot-metered reading resulted in overexposure of the "average" by 1 and 2/3 stops.  The deliberate overexposure kept the owl nicely exposed, and it also kept the image free of digital noise at ISO 800.  Despite a very long time spent with the bird, I only managed to make a couple of truly meaningful images.  I feel the character of the light, and the beauty of the trees really make the image work.  Rim-lighting, apparent on the leaves and some of the larger branches, can be very pleasing and makes a back-lit subject a refreshing change from a world of direct front-lighting norms in wildlife imagery. While photographing this bird, the forest around me echoed in the Neotropical songs of Yellow-throated Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Hermit Thrush, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Scarlet Tanager, and Pine Warbler.  Perhaps the quality of the light and old character of the tree speak to those songs as well.

The image was made with a Canon 7D, Canon EF400mm f5.6L lens, Gitzo Basalt GT1932 Tripod and Induro BHD1 ballhead.

Reflections on Capturing the Invisible

Winter Waterfowl                               21 February 2016

Mallard hen bathing and making a splash

From nearly fifty meters, the large open hole in the Saint Croix River ice sparkles mid-morning light toward me, and I wince slightly, placing my gloved hand over my eyes like the brim of a baseball cap. From where I approach, I must walk with the sun in my face, so there is no secret kept from the animals of this place.  They will see me in full sun, and those that stay have accepted that I pose no threat.  I hear the occasional hissing, tinkling rush as a floating raft of ice is jostled from upstream and bounces its way into the open pool.  It passes by a crowd of mallards, geese and swans without raising as single feathered eyebrow.  The birds are calm.

Trumpeter Swan, ready for a nap

As I approach, the mallards raise a slightly alarmed chortle and begin swimming.  While I sit at the edge of the ice, laying my gear in the snow, the whole gang calms again.  Some birds are adjacent to me on the ice, but most remain in the safety of the water.  All around, I see mid-winter life, a pulse in a cold and desolate landscape, warmth radiating in color of feather and busy personalities.  The swans swim toward me, curious about me, and, upon reaching a certain distance, they pause to rethink the choice.  I extend the legs of my tripod and clamp my Canon EF400 to the head. 

Trumpeter Swan

I look through my lens and survey the pool of open water.  I have positioned myself to get the sun as much to my back as possible, but there is some compromise.  Finding perfect light would require a foolish dance across thin ice.  At its best, the sun is glancing, the lateness of the day casting harsh blue tones and robbing me of the warm tones so often important to good wildlife photography.  There is no doubt I have arrived too late to this place.  I have missed the light.

Resting Trumpeter Swan, stretching a leg

Mallard pair, resting on the ice

As I study the situation, I begin to notice that the water is acting like a reflector of sunlight, bouncing the light upward into my face.  I reason that if it is bouncing into my face, then maybe it is bouncing up into the feathers of the birds. 

Subtle light ripples dancing on the wing of a swan...a first clue!

Light dancing on feathers... Perhaps, then, the better light would be found if I were to be under the birds, looking up at them rather then above them looking down into scattering light!  I pull my Canon EF400mm lens off of the tripod and lay absolutely flat on the ice and snow.  What I see is beautiful.

Mallard drake, rousing

Trumpeter Swan

I am an icy pancake.  Neck muscles soon stiff, I take long breaks, laying my stocking hat on the ice and using it as a pillow.  I rest my ear on the hat and watch the world of waterfowl from their eye level or even just below. I study the light and the dozens of enthusiastic personalities.  They are mostly doing the regular sorts of things, and I don't immediately see anything too interesting.  They are loafing, swimming, feeding, and occasionally bathing.  In a strange moment, a slow-motion moment of sudden insight, I see water trickling down the side of a mallard.  She has been bathing, and, having spent so long just watching, I begin to realize that the duck is far from static, far from just a mallard hen, far from just a portrait. She may be fairly static now, but when she bathed, she splashed. She created millions of dynamic moments that were free for the taking, spectacular moments that could only be captured at 1/2000th of a second.  Excited by the opportunity, I eagerly search out a bathing mallard.  It is time to capture the invisible!

All images were made with a Canon 7D and a Canon EF400mm f5.6L lens. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Go Where No One Will!

A Change in Perspective Through Blood, Sweat, Tears...            15 October 2016

Sandhill Crane, low and slow glide path

For years, I have photographed the beauty of Autumn migration as punctuated by the mass gatherings of Wisconsin's Greater Sandhill Crane.   Each day, the cranes feed in agricultural fields and shallow wetlands.  As the sun sets, the cranes fly into massive roosts, protected from the night's predators by open water.  Where vast wetlands of wiregrass sedge mingle with significant pockets of open water, cranes pile in by the thousands.  In the early morning, the cranes depart for the fields in wave after wave after wave.  A little observation, and a photographer can figure out where to get some images.  Keen observation puts the light in the favor of the camera.   For years, I have sought these roosts, filling my soul with the ancient symphonies of crane song, that wild chorus of enthusiasm and focused energy stirring the oldest memories of my DNA.   For years, I have pulled a seemingly endless variety of images from this reliable natural pattern, the light, the flight, and the season providing some surprise diversity, some accent or refreshing spice.  Eventually, though, the inevitable stagnation occurs.  In 2016, I felt as though my creativity here had been tapped.  It was time for something new.

Where most people find them, the Sandhill Cranes are completely protected from intrusion and easily viewed from levy roads.  The very best roosts are within the restricted Refuge boundary at Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area in Burnett County, Wisconsin.   In quite a few places, however, the cranes stage for their migration in smaller numbers but in areas accessed by duck hunters, muskrat trappers, and bowhunters.  It is these areas, open to the public, that have captured my eye.  To leave the road, to endure the depths of a wetland, to take on that long wading challenge, kayak in tow, is to find those open wilds so proclaimed in the voice of a crane.

To take my crane photography to a new level, I loaded my kayak with gear, put on a life vest and pair of chest waders, and I towed the kayak a half mile out into a flooded floating mat of Northern wet sedge meadow.  In the summer, this is the haunt of breeding Virginia Rails, Swamp Sparrows, Le Conte's Sparrows, and Trumpeter Swans.  During the fall migration, it is a place of constant action, a place where ducks feed up and geese and cranes put down for the evening.  To see any of it, even for an instant, I needed to skulk into a small clump of willow and spend nearly a half hour camouflaging myself from the sharpest avian eyes.

I pulled along for nearly a half mile.  I was more than five hundred meters into the heave-ho towing of my kayak along muskrat runs and knee-deep deer trails, a few dicey moments of "end of the world" step-offs from floating mats to chest-deep holes, and a few long pauses to get oxygen in and lactic acid out before I had my first exciting reward.  I stepped out into a large pool of open water and was delighted to find it was only knee deep with secure, firm footing.  Everywhere I looked, crane feathers floated on the water.  Every hummock wore the decoration of at least one pile of crane droppings or goose droppings.  My mid-day workout painted a spectacular image of the evening to come.  The adrenaline helped me finish the job.  In short order, I was tucked in to my willows, kayak covered in vegetation and camouflage netting, tripod set on sturdy hummocks, my life vest placed on the kayak deck as an improvised seat.

As I sat and waited, the big open spaces, the gently waving golden sedges, rich organic smells, and warm west winds blended together within me.  Peace and Harmony. This was good living.  All around me, beauty.  Comfort.  A new view.  Anticipation.  Joy. I breathed in deeply, hoping for time to just stand still...  Such peace in the early moments! Soon the peace would be replaced with the exhilaration that comes with all of the wild heading straight in.  To see such power, so many incredible beings, so urgent and vital, and to see them arriving, not fleeing is to feel so alive! It is life captured in that unique and rare perspective shared with the stones, grasses, and willows, a feeling I call "Grandfather Rock!"

As the sun grew low enough to warm the light, that first moment of true "butter light", I heard the first cranes.   The waves of migrants were on the way.  Soon, cranes were whooshing over me, landing around me, living their lives and sharing their space with me.   I put the sun at my back, I leaned into my camera, and I watched in awe as a living world spread wings all around me, tucked me in, and breathed life into me from above and all around.

All images were made with a Canon 7D Mark 1 and Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L lens, with the exception of a couple from the Samsung S7 phone.  The kayak is a Guide Series Elite 10.4.  The muscles are vintage 1970, and I could really feel them the next day... The walk out was done in moonlight, coyote music lighting up the western horizon, a din of cranes in protesting response.

The Elite 10.4 kayak as seen before camouflage and "vegging in"...

The shiny nose, also vintage 1970 goods, just before hiding it under the face mask...Note the homemade camouflage sleeve covering the Canon lens. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Perfect Perches, Part XII

King of the Boreal Forest                                              24 June 2016

The Black-throated Green Warbler is a beautiful representative of the boreal forest, most often requiring mature, tall conifers such as white spruce, black spruce, balsam fir, or white pine for nesting and foraging.  While they are mostly dependent upon the conifers for nesting, Black-throated Green Warblers are most abundant where deciduous trees such as quaking aspen, sugar maple, red maple, paper birch, and yellow birch outnumber the conifer component.  Perhaps this deciduous habitat provides the most consistently rich insect prey.  In some places, such as Sugar Camp Hill in the Brule River State Forest, this warbler is a common and successful breeding bird in a landscape strongly dominated by hardwoods and with surprisingly few conifers. For the most part, however, you should be expecting to hear its "zeee zee zee zoo zee" song in a classic mixed boreal forest with tall conifers, aspen and birch.

Like so many species of boreal birds, and like so many species of warblers, the Black-throated Green Warbler is a tropical migrant, departing for Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and northern South America in September.  Many Black-throated Green Warblers make a complete migration over the open expanses of the Gulf of Mexico, and they are known to complete miniature migrations in pursuit of insect prey over their wintering grounds, sometimes moving laterally from the Pacific to the Atlantic and up and down mountain elevations.

In both boreal and tropical forests, Black-throated Green Warblers form close feeding associations with permanent resident species.  As a long-distance migrant, there is great efficiency in paying attention to the locals.  John Muir has provided an excellent model of thinking concerning boreal birds and their relationships with a large and continuous landscape in his famous quote, "When one tugs on a single thing in nature, he finds it is connected to the rest of the world."

This image was made using a Canon 7D, Canon EF 400mm 5.6 L lens, a Gitzo Basalt tripod, and an Induro ball head.   

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Perfect Perches, Part XI

A Little Fireworks: Mourning Warbler                                     4 July 2016

I made this image of a male Mourning Warbler on a lichen-encrusted branch using a Canon 7D, Canon EF400 f5.6 L lens, a Gitzo basalt tripod, and an Induro ball head.  I shot the image at 1/400th of a second and opened it up about 2/3 stop to avoid underexposing the bird against a cloudy sky.