Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Psychologists Call it a Flashbulb Moment

Bald Eagle: A Day Defined by a Single Moment          20 April 2012

Animals are often faithful to a favorite roost, a favorite perch, or a favorite pattern that brings success and some certainty of more days to come. Familiarity with home range is requisite to survival.  As a wildlife photographer, I have become a student of animal behavior. I have learned my own home range, and I have come to know the animals that live there very, very well.  Marry this knowledge to good light, and great images may result.

Whatever regular day-to-day works may have transpired on this day in April would have to be looked up, maybe in a calendar or planner on my desk somewhere.  I’m not sure what it was that day that must have filled the hours.  What made the day memorable was a single moment, a moment of tension, a few seconds where a massive adult female bald eagle flew directly toward me, coming in for a quick look and a defensive posture.  My meddling and wandering path brought my son, daughter and me to a brushy hill near the eagle’s nest.  I had briefed my kids about a strict limit on time and about sticking close and being “one animal” together.  We made a careful, respectful visit.  I just had to show them what I had learned a few weeks before.
As she alighted on the top of a favorite snag, the eagle opened her mouth and uttered a defiant cackle.  My son and daughter were both completely swept up in the moment, wide-eyed and silenced.  Then, almost in unison, they whispered, “Woah.”   The joy of seeing such a magnificent bird so closely was almost as great as seeing it through my children’s eyes.  Reflecting compassion for my own children on the eagle's behalf, I instructed a hasty retreat.  We walked on and gave the growing eagle family plenty of space.

The single moment, a few seconds of unusual perspective, a view not allowed to most humans, was ours.  It was that riveting moment of nature arriving! Getting closer!  The eagle made our day a “forever” sort of day, one that my kids will hold through old age.   Life is about making memories!

The images were made with a Canon 40D set to Aperture Priority, 300mm f4 IS lens opened up to f4.0 (or pretty close to that).  I used autofocus, but I honestly don’t recall if I used IS mode 1 or 2.  I was too caught up in that moment to know.  Whatever I did, I think it worked out pretty well! 
A respectful nature photographer minimizes stress on photo subjects.  Nest visits should be brief, well-researched, or achieved using a blind to which parent birds have been habituated.  Always, the parent bird must be allowed to conserve energy, nurture the young and, of course, win and successfully "drive you away" when perceived conflict arises.  I discovered this eagle nest in March and have visited it exactly four times in nearly two months.  All visits have been brief and were planned for days on which light and wind would be favorable for photography. Instead of putting the cost on the eagles, I put the cost into good planning! 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Who Are We to Judge?

Exploring the Big Beauty in Little Beauties and Ugly Pests Alike  -- May 15, 2011
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  What harm can come in a little beauty? Why do we feel intent on destroying the things that don’t fit our own definition of beauty?  Today’s exploration is a visit to the skewed perceptions of beauty and ugly.
Exhibit 1: The Brewster’s Warbler

First, let me introduce you to a fairly rare hybrid.  It is a mix of two species, the Blue-winged Warbler and the Golden-winged Warbler.  It is called the Brewster's Warbler, and its lovely expression of these combined genes is a veil of beauty concealing a grim reality. Every Brewster's Warbler hybrid is a small genetic step closer to the loss of the Golden-winged Warbler.  Is it beautiful? Perhaps it is.

I have lived 42 years, most of it within a stone’s throw of the Mississippi and Saint Croix Rivers.  I am a lifelong birder and a lifelong “river rat,” so I have long been well aware of the magical nature of rivers in their ability to transport a recharge of nutrients to ecosystems downstream.  At the same time, those rivers that flow from North to South have another, even more magical ability to transport the population ranges of birds in quite the opposite direction.  It is the Saint Croix River’s corridor of habitat that pulls the Blue-winged Warbler northward into the realm of the Golden-winged Warbler.

Blue-winged Warbler

Both warblers are of the same genus, Vermivora, and both warblers have a nearly identical Type-2 song, a staccato buzzing trill that exclaims extremely strong feelings about territory and mate. Both warblers, recently diverged species, seem to find the other species occasionally suitable as a mate.  Hybrids are regular where the two species overlap, and one bird-bander from eastern Wisconsin explained to me that “pure” Golden-winged Warblers with gray feathers of the rump are never banded anymore.  It would seem that all Golden-winged Warblers have a touch of Blue-winged, a firmly embedded chunk of DNA in Golden-winged’s gene pool that results in just a few yellow rump feathers. 

Brewster’s Warbler hybrid preening

Wisconsin holds about 25% of the world’s breeding population of this bird.  In Northwest Wisconsin, where habitat is naturally very good, Golden-winged Warblers are a common sight for the experienced birder.   In marginal habitats, Blue-winged Warblers are quickly replacing them.  The sad anxiety in this situation is that range expansion by Blue-winged Warblers, loss of good breeding habitat for Golden-winged Warblers (alder swamp, young aspen or clearcut in necessarily close proximity to older, mature forest), and loss of productive, species-nurturing reproduction to cross-species hybridization may result in the extinction of the Golden-winged Warbler.  Without proper protections, the Golden-winged Warbler will be in big trouble soon.  Indeed it is already a candidate for Threatened Species status.  While a spectacular comeback story has been written for so many species by the good work of the Endangered Species Act, short-sighted politicians are gunning for the Act just as the Golden-winged Warbler needs it most.

Golden-winged Warbler

So, here it is in all its beauty…the Brewster’s Warbler.  It is proof that beauty has an ugly side.  I waited most of my years and all of my adult life to set eyes upon this wondrous plumage.  I focused my passion on making good images but had to “come up for air” occasionally to tremble and marvel at the spectacular, soft, lemony hues.   I enjoyed every lasting moment with this bird.  And I knew that I was seeing evidence for the destruction of a beloved species of bird all the while.   Paradox is a big part of nature.

Brewster’s Hybrid with Blue-winged Warbler

Exhibit 2: What So Many Fail to See
What is that mouse-like squeak in the trees?  Do you hear it?  I ask the question, intending it to be rhetorical.  But, to my surprise, most people still hadn’t noticed it.   I point their attention to the sound, “squeeeek squeeeeek squeeeeeeek eeeeeeeek” up in the trees.  It is chalky, rasping, high, and quiet.  The mousey squeak in the canopy of a forest… Listen for it, and you will find it.
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher calling with a mouse-like "Squeeeeek"

The sound is found where oaks abound, where some trees are standing, dead snags with some branches, and where lichens grow freely in big, blue-gray scales on knotholes and branches.  It is the sound of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.  This bird, so closely related to kinglets, is a tiny bird, an insect-eater, and a hyperactive dweller of the upper forest canopy.  It takes a forest of complexity to keep a gnatcatcher happy.
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

In Northwest Wisconsin, it is another year of Forest Tent Caterpillar outbreak.  This year, the cabins along Balsam Lake are covered with writhing forms.  Families report using wasp spray, gasoline and even blow-torches to sizzle, pop, poison and destroy the fuzzy baby-blue and yellow-spotted caterpillars.  It is another example of humanity at war with something with little perceived value.  It is also an example of something so small and unassuming as to be unknown and poorly understood by almost everyone…until the outbreak year.  Suddenly, trees are defoliated, and students and parents alike visit my classroom with bags of caterpillars, individual caterpillars, and iPhone images of “tents” in tree branches.  What ARE these things?  They are EVERYWHERE?  How do I get RID of them? 

Forest Tent Caterpillar

While I sympathize greatly (I also try to keep my home in order), I also see the forest tent caterpillar in a very different light.  To me, they are beautiful.   Here are some things that may make them more beautiful to you.
Black-billed Cuckoos follow outbreaks and dine upon the caterpillars.  To cuckoos, forest tent caterpillars mean nesting success!  The forest tent caterpillar is a long-standing partner in a predator-prey relationship.
A parasitoid fly, know by many northerners as the “Friend Fly” will control the populations by laying eggs upon the caterpillars.  The maggots will feast on caterpillars and will likely kill them. The forest tent caterpillar is a long-standing partner in a parasitic co-evolution.
I have seen chickadees eating overwintering (or dead) caterpillars during bitter cold days in January.
…And, oh yes, the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher uses forest tent caterpillar silk in building its nest. This fact alone is enough to bring love of forest tent caterpillars deeply into my heart.  Beautiful birds need ugly pests.  Rachel Carson was right, you know.
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher with forest tent caterpillar silk: An example of Interdependence

May 15, 2011 was a memorable day in nature.  In just a few hours, I had crossed paths with more than a hundred species of birds, insects, and wildflowers.  I had taken the time to notice things, to make some sense of the ecological connections around me.  One of the most important themes in the study of biology is that of interdependence.  Human cultures were once more connected to the urgency of interdependence.  Our lives once depended upon being good students of nature.  Today, we lie to ourselves.  We have found too much importance in things of our own invention and, as we strive for economic improvement, we often forget that our true wealth is in a sustainable ecology.  We cannot continue to expect an economy based on natural resources to grow infinitely.  We must realize the limitations of a planet faced with human population growth and increased appetites among human inhabitants.  True wealth is in finding beauty in nature…even in those things that may be “ugly” to us but life-giving to all.

Yellow Warbler: An insectivore dependent upon healthy populations of aquatic insects

Broad-winged Hawk: A forest hawk that depends upon snakes, mice, and other things “ugly.”

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a beautiful bird often persecuted for destruction of trees, drills sap wells that spur on entire food chains (and food webs).
These images were captured using Canon 30D Digital SLR and Canon 300mm, F4 IS lens. A 1.4X Converter was used some of the time.  All images were captured between 7 and 10 AM on May 15, 2011 when the light was pleasing.  It was a very lucky, good day! Lots of images!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Departing Flight on Runway 10 a New Record?

Buff-breasted Sandpiper   September 3, 2011
I remember how perfect the morning began, with migratory birds feeding and descending with urgency from a long night’s flight.  My young birches were alive with darting, hopping, and hovering forms.  Many of these birds were tropical birds—warblers, vireos, and tanagers with more than a thousand miles remaining on the autumn journey.  Their fueling by day and flying by night is a heroic, romantic feat, and I have often wondered if birds inspired flight or if our own nomadic and migratory roots are so alike that we, too, were destined for flight. 
Chestnut-sided Warbler

Red-eyed Vireo
There is something unique and freeing about a small airplane experience. If you haven’t flown in a Cub, a Citabria, or a sail plane, you may be missing one of the most spectacular perspectives of our planet.  To be a bird, soaring up on thermals, rising just high enough above those mysteries of the forests hidden from terrestrial view, is to be aware, alive in the connections between blocks of woodland, lakes, rivers, low seeps and advantageous rises in the land.  Things make more sense when the blue sky wraps around you and the trees far below are a stunningly rich and luxurious green.  Waterways reflect blue sky or silver dappled sunlight and reveal their courses through the land, enriching ecosystems and touching lives as they pass along.  Turning your head over your shoulder, clearing your turn, banking a wing down low, and pulling the world around you joins you with the minds of hawks and eagles.    Stick and rudder flying turns a human soul into a bird.

Piper Super Cub towing L-23 Super Blanik to altitude
Western Wisconsin’s airports are unique habitats, short grass fields amid a mosaic of forested terrain.   From these small fields I have heard Western Meadowlarks, Horned Larks, Upland Sandpipers, and Grasshopper Sparrows, birds that speak of wide open, wild spaces.  Departing flights of small planes chart out exciting destinations.  A good friend of mine, Chris Prince, keeps his sail plane aloft for nearly seven hours, attempting flights averaging well over 250 miles, sometimes achieving all of this with a short, 1500-foot tow from a bright yellow Piper Cub.  He works the energy of the planet, uses rapidly rising air to thermal, much like a pelican, an albatross, a condor…  His accomplishments are spectacular in their use of the Earth’s abundant solar energy and their blending earth science with old fashion flying by feel.  His example should be an example for the captains of industry, a reminder that we don’t need to be wasteful, that we can power our world in a renewable fashion. 
Buff-breasted Sandpiper

While Chris may hold some pretty impressive cross-country records, other beings have surpassed him.  They are not flying better gliders or playing the winds better.  Indeed they are not human.  They are the birds that may well have inspired our flight and lead us on into the sky.  On September 3, I witnessed one of the longest departing flights from Osceola’s airfield.  The Buff-breasted Sandpipers, departing near Runway 10, were headed to Argentina.  Enough said.

Two Buff-breasted Sandpipers enroute to Argentina

Monday, May 7, 2012

Mother Bear, True Grit

Thank You Bear. I’m walking away now.   28 June 2009
Miigwetch Makwa.  Indanimose’ noongoom. 
The average assumption about a field ornithologist is that the person would be…, well,….sorry… scratch that thought.  I don’t really know what the average assumption would be.  I AM a field ornithologist, and I’m in no position to judge what others would think.   I know what I am.  For the month of June, I am rugged, muddy, stinky, tough-and-tumble, unshaven, sleep deprived, and driven…downright driven…absolutely DRIVEN to be successful at everything I set out to do.  This drive accompanies my work seven days per week, from pre-dawn to the end of protocol and through the scouting and confirming work that follows.  Birds are my passion.  Conservation is my vision.  Hours spent observing Neotropical birds become my dream.   I take the term “Nerd” as a compliment.  If someone has the insight to recognize me as a “Geeky Nerd” I am deeply impressed.  To be called “Geeky Super-Nerd” is to have met somebody who really understands.   To reach such a level, one must be able to smirk at 90,000 mosquito bites (the number I estimate have stolen a blood meal from me in four years’ field seasons), the 500 linear miles walked and 125 linear miles of data collected in four years’ field seasons, and the 1000 ten-minute bird surveys completed in those field seasons.    My hope is that the work never ends and that my body, mind, and ears are able to do this for an eternity.  It is true grit, spectacular living.  Sometimes, full stride into a scientific pursuit afield, things go in the unexpected direction.  This is, after all, the wild.  This unfolding story is just one of those days…

First, I’d like to introduce you to some feelings:  Riveted, so alive, adrenaline glands freakishly destroyed, mind overjoyed, elevated and crushed at once, humbled, relieved, want to leave, want to return, to see more, to remember everything, knees shaking, courageous, conflicted…conflicted… totally alive in the moment of the wild.  She was a mother bear, and I was a backcountry human, wet, full of stink.  She wanted safety for her cubs.  I didn’t know.

What do you do when you don’t know the right direction in a timeless wild?  What do you do when you have all of the answers except the one you really need?  Which tree holds her cubs?  You hang in there and find the answers out the hard way. 

It was about 9 PM when I called Cindy from my tent.  A gentle rain fell, and I missed her.  I had a strange and absurd adrenaline rush going.  It was insane.  It was like something that would happen if somebody fell asleep dispensing anhydrous caffeine at a beverage company while working on the batch I had purchased.  I don’t know what it was, but I have proof it was real.  Cindy remembers.   I called her and I told her, “I feel like I’m going to meet a bear tomorrow, and this time it’s going to get serious.  I’m sorry if I’m worrying you, but I want you to know.”   I didn’t hit the pillow and go “lights out”.  I stayed up.  I turned on my laptop. I watched an epic, sweeping drama on DVD, a story about a man finding his life amid war and times of turmoil, a film with the kinds of battle scenes that build false courage.  I barely slept, but I was now prepared to meet my destiny.  

“I believe a man does all he can until his destiny is revealed to him.”  The words echoed in my head.  It was good, dramatic stuff.  Epic.

I awoke at "O-Dark-Thirty" to the sound of delays afield.  Gusts of wind joined the hard pattering of rain on my tent.  A real soaker, the rain kept falling.  I reset the alarm for 4:30 AM…for 5:15 AM…for  6 AM…for 6:45 AM.  The rain had eased to a gentle drizzle, and the winds had calmed.  I put in my contact lenses and slipped into my boots and polar fleece at 7 AM and headed afield.   The rain had stopped as I entered the cold soak of waist-high grasses and ferns.  I slipped into a forest of middle-aged aspen and maple and moved far from the fragment edge, into the middle of contiguous habitat.   I punched the first GPS point and began my first bird survey of the morning.   Data flowed from birdsong to brain, from brain to pencil.  The community of birds moved onto the paper, their moment preserved for an eternity.  Just two minutes into the survey, I heard a loud pop of a breaking branch.  It was close.  “Bear,” I told myself.

I leaned back and craned my neck around.  No bear.  I continued collecting data.  A second branch popped, this time very close.  I looked over my left shoulder and saw, as if a dream, a large, mature bear stepping into a small clearing less than thirty yards away.    She strolled up to me, sat within twenty yards, and she began to pop her jaws at me.

I reached into my pocket, turned on my digital point-and-shoot camera, set it to video, and began recording the bird chorus.   I guess, at that moment, I was bound and determined to finish the bird survey, and the video evidence later would help me to fish out any birds I had missed when my nervous system was acting under less-than-optimal conditions.   I finished the ten-minute survey.  She was still there, popping her jaws and raising her head.  I finished the brief habitat survey.  She was still there.  By this time, I had been less than twenty yards from a 200-plus pound bear for more than ten minutes, and she had been sharing her absolute displeasure with me all the while.  But I really had no idea which direction through the woods held salvation and which held disaster.  Every effort I had made to detect her cubs had failed.  She knew something important, and I didn’t have any way to learn the answer except by trial and error.  Oh, well.  This left only one recourse.  Pull out 300mm of lens, underexpose for “black” -2/3 stop, and shoot as many pictures as possible while the getting was great.  Shoot many exposures and hope for some that aren’t blurry.  Get a good one. Don't get mauled.

A bear, chomping her jaws at you, is very imposing, unnerving, daunting.   For a while.  Then, it starts to become sort of silly.  A big dog has peanut butter stuck to the roof of her mouth and can’t lick it away.   Then, the lack of fences, the sense of place and space, the size of the animal in close quarters brings reality home.  “This could be medically embarrassing,” is the next thought.  If she does charge, she could really hurt me.  I’ll have holes in me, bone-scraping gouges.  I’ll need all kinds of stitches, irrigations, boosters, antibiotics.  This is really going to suck.

I put the camera away, cinched up the pack, and lifted my metal clipboard.  I turned the edge to an aspen tree, and I slammed the clipboard into the tree repeatedly.  She turned and took a single hesitant step before running off through the bracken fern.  Thirty or forty yards later, she stopped.   As I took my first step, she turned back to me and walked toward me, getting even closer.  Again, she began popping her jaws.    Now, it was serious.  I had to choose the next move.   I chose North-west.  I chose wrong.  In a splinter of time, she sneered, hissed and exploded through the forest green, straight at me, a black blur.  My own instincts kicked in at that moment and I found myself charging back, stomping a foot and yelling, deeply, gruffly, “…AY!”  Less than ten yards away, she was suddenly a twisting, writhing, leaping form, hovering above the ferns, cat-like in the air.  She landed facing the other direction, running away, full speed ahead. 

She stopped abruptly.  She turned.  She began to walk back to me.  She sat down in the same place, her launching point for the first attack. She kept raising her chin up, up, up, as if sniffing for her cubs.  Under my breath, I swore.  I looked away from her, tearing my eyes away, lifting my head skyward into the aspen canopy.  There, high above me, I could see two beautiful little bear cubs, clinging for safety so precariously high.  I had my answer.  I was suddenly aware of feelings of guilt, remorse and sadness for a dedicated, patient, courageous, worried mother bear.    I had caused her nothing but trouble.    I spoke to her, calmly.  I thanked her and backed away from her.  When I was a hundred yards away, I turned my back to her.  I sang, for reasons still unknown to me, “This old man came rolling home,” all the while walking on, out of her life, out of her way.  My song was her beacon, her reassurance that I was history. 
I completed some great bird surveys that day and saw some spectacular country.  As is so often the case, it was a very, very good day!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Ever Building, Great Blue Heron Nests

Old Friends, New Times, Great Blue Herons    8 April, 2012
I took my first trip of awareness through a Great Blue Heron rookery in 1982, a rookery along a Mississippi backwater, the location of which was handed to us by a Prairie du Chien fishing guide following a bit of inquiry.  I still remember my Dad and the bait shop owner talking over the map.  Funny how things go, my first trip was really my third. Memory and understanding got in the way.  The first visit to a rookery occurred by canoe along the Sauk River, but I was too young to fathom the significance. It did plant a seed.  The second visit was just out of reach along the Kickapoo River, and it was the Prairie du Chien trip that gave meaning to the odd, duck-like cackling we heard during much of the Kickapoo float.  I was a kid then, and I didn’t know much at all about one of my favorite birds.  I did learn quickly that the canoe is the best way to travel and that sweat, mud, and mosquitoes are a pre-requisite to most things worthwhile.

The Great Blue Heron, an old friend, pointed my bow in the direction of conservation, stewardship, and all things “bird.”  Herons were my inspiration for nature photography with their dramatic lines and bold colors.  My dedicated following of a single species of bird for so long quickly taught me lessons about human perceptions in conservation, and my sense of innocence about the world grew into Aldo Leopold’s “penalty for an ecological education,” the sense of being “alone” in a world of human-inflicted “wounds.” These wounds upon the delicate patterns and relationships I had grown to love felt as wounds to my own body and soul.   I had become an environmentalist and a conservation biologist in the making.

As a photographer, I have returned frequently to the herons of my youth.  For three years running, Bruce Leventhal (another old friend) and I have strived to capture the impossible sum of all lines, motions, colors, and meanings found in a single event, the Great Blue Herons’ Springtime quest to assemble a worthy stick nest.  We have spent more than a dozen hours of “go time,” perched behind our lenses, floating amid the rookeries in spectacular light of early morning.  We have pursued our ever-changing artistic vision, allowing the light, the flight, and the environment to transform what it is we seek.    

Each visit is different.  There is biology in this art form.  This year, with the early spring and early arrivals by herons, with drought thirsting the river levels, the action was less urgent.  Herons were able to find sticks within a few meters of favored nesting trees, and the window of opportunity, the birds’ own growing season, was clearly extended by two weeks.  While the birds’ numbers were strong, their behaviors were fewer and farther between.   We stayed focused and began to see new images taking wing.

Great Blue Herons are normally intolerant of human intrusion in Wisconsin and Minnesota.  This location, one of my “secret spots,” has been frequented by bass fishermen for years.  The birds seem to be fully aware that we are harmless primates with soft hands and no weapons.   If only they knew the greater truth.  As it is, I am glad for their na├»ve and nonchalant stance.  It makes our visit unimposing and the opportunities to make images simply spectacular!

These images were made from a canoe with a Canon 40D and 300mm lens, hand-held with Image Stabilizer on and set to panning mode (#2).  I shot with Aperture Priority and often compensated by opening up 1/3 stop.  Shooting at ISO 200 allowed for high-speed shooting.  The image of the heron picking up a stick from the forest floor was overexposed by nearly a stop and corrected in Canon Digital Pro editing software.  As I have learned from Bruce, it is better to overexpose a digital image than to underexpose.  If you don’t burn any areas out in the image, you can always pull it back to the right exposure.  Underexposure, by contrast, leads to digital noise on the image, a subtle cross-hatching that looks like a cheap matt print from the late 1980s.  We paddled gently, and we paid careful attention to the herons’ behaviors at each nest.  If a heron looked nervous or seemed ready to bail out, we retreated or halted our approach.  Respect for the photo subject is job number one.

A Distraction, A Display

Nesting Killdeer, 4 May 2012
The Killdeer is named for its call.  While this is common in the bird world, the name, Killdeer, has done much to help many forget that this bird is a plover, a shorebird, a not-so-distant relative to gulls and sandpipers.  The bird, in its own adaptation and survival, has done much to forget this fact as well.   It is now a bird of lawns, pastures and gravel landscaping projects, even nesting on the flat gravel of school rooftops.  Still, it is often the first shorebird I see teetering around the mudflats of Northwest Wisconsin in early March before ice has left the lakes.  The sight of such a plover flying low under rolling, gray, overcast skies snaps a naturalist to attention and hints of this plover’s relatives migrating toward the vast wetlands of the Arctic and beaches of inland seas.  As soon as it calls out with the sharp and rising “Killdeeeee, killdeeeee,” my heart has left the imagined Arctic and comes back ‘round to Holsteins, swing sets, and kickball games amid cropped grass and sandburs. 

The Killdeer has precocial young, meaning that the young hatch from the eggs ready to run.  They arrive into the world sort of drip-dry ready, wearing camouflage patterns and with comically long and able legs.   The killdeer’s nest is a perfect adaptation to open, rocky areas.  Like all other plovers, this is a bird that builds a simple nest in a depression in the ground.   The eggs are so well camouflaged that direct observation of a nest may involve moments of loss and searching.   The eggs are mottled gray and black.  They match perfectly the many shades of pea gravel, interwoven grass thatch, granite rock, sand or silt.

Aiding in protection of the nest, Killdeers have become famous for a wing-dragging display that mimics injury and entices predatory animals to follow the adult bird far from the nest.   I have found it to be more wonderful and complicated than this.   There are a variety of strategies in the Killdeer’s bag of tricks, and it seems that a Killdeer is intent on trying all of them, trial and error.    First, the bird sits tight on the nest and tries not to move.  The bold, banded pattern of the throat and the sharply bi-colored brown-and-white dorsal and ventral coloration makes an amazing break-up camouflage. 

 If the Killdeer feels it is detected, it will begin to sound an aggravated alarm while fluffing its feathers and revealing the orange rump.  Once its calculating bird brain (or is it stress hormone?) is convinced that the predator is locked on, the Killdeer stands and tries one of two strategies.    One strategy is to splay the brightly-colored tail, drag a wing, and limp off, away from the nest, leading the predator on a futile mission, a wild Killdeer chase.  

The other strategy I have just now grown to respect is the Killdeer’s threat posture.  It is so similar to the “broken wing” display, but it involves a head-on, confident approach with both wings out, feathers fluffed, and lots of vocalizing.  When this Killdeer’s “broken wing” display failed to entice me, it returned to confront me.  Of course, during the nesting season, this big, bad thug of a bird won and “frightened me slowly away.”  It is important to let a nesting bird “win” every single time.

The sun faded behind clouds this afternoon, and, while this killdeer met over 120 students over the course of my teaching day, the light was best when I had the bird all to myself, sharing it only with my own two kids.    I shot most of these images at f4.0, handheld, using a Canon 40D, 300mm lens, and shutter speeds around 1/500th of a second.  I tried to shoot low to the ground for most of the images, as it is often important to be at eye level with your photo subject.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Night Out in the Wild, 2 May 2012

Gray Treefrog (Hyla versicolor)
Last night’s southern breezes and thunderstorms brought a summer-like day today. I awoke to chorusing birds this morning, including a Nashville Warbler and a Red-eyed Vireo, home from the tropics at last.  For amphibians, the day brought some new trigger temperatures.  What had been cool-weather frog choruses dominated by Spring peepers and chorus frogs were suddenly transformed into a spectacular din of gray treefrogs, American toads, Spring peepers and chorus frogs joined by the occasional leopard frog.   For the aware and careful, our nighttime roads became a slalom course of frog avoidance.  In just a few miles, I had avoided nearly a hundred amphibians of four species.   No time to lose, I returned home, picked up my camera, and traveled some favorite “class B” backcountry roads in search of a photo subject.  I made the use of a little extra energy on a work night, and I photographed frogs from 11PM to midnight.
Among the dozens of frogs I gently guided my vehicle around, I chose to pick this gray treefrog (Hyla versicolor) from the road.  I immediately found the perfect studio of deadfalls, and I perched the frog proudly on a single branch.  I made the second image as the frog leapt to freedom and was momentarily hung up in a bouquet of bedstraws and other forest greens. While the first image shows the effective camouflage of the treefrog, the second image shows those dashing yellow leg patches so seldom seen when this species is in a natural pose.  Note the turned head, toe pads and flexible grip of this expert climber! The true frogs, genus Rana, are unable to turn their heads or grip with their toes.

To make these images, I used my Canon 40D, Canon 300mm and a Gitzo “Reporter” basalt tripod with ball head.   The pop-up flash worked nicely on the 40D, and I used the Live View function on the 40D to achieve the finest focus (Bruce Leventhal taught me this technique last winter.  Check out  I shot at f-stop 11 to allow for greater depth of field.  My source light for focus and composition in the dark of night was a mini-Mag flashlight.  Barred Owls provided plenty of entertainment with their “Who Cooks for You Alllllllll” calls as I set up my shots.  A very nice night out!