Saturday, December 29, 2012

Wintery Mix of Birds

A Second Look                                        25 December 2012

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Great light and a great experience always deserve a second look.  There is, of course, some risk in a second look.  Sometimes the fullfillment of a first look is hard to beat.  In the case of a biodiversity-rich place, something new will always turn up.  Setting expectations low and mindset to wide-open will keep every return visit pleasant.  I returned a second day to enjoy this Mississippi River bird feeding wonder.

Northern Cardinal
While the species list stayed consistent, the opportunities for art were surprisingly different.  Blue Jays, more than commonplace in every forested Wisconsin habitat, are extremely difficult to photograph under normal conditions.   The jays, among other birds, are remarkably tame at Goose Island County Park.  Northern Cardinals, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Mourning Doves, normally jittery, nervous camera subjects, do not differentiate photographer from stump or post. Chickadees and nuthatches perched on my hat, and a Downy Woodpecker climbed up my pant-leg.  

Blue Jay

Downy Woodpecker
Swamp Sparrow, winter plumage (very similar to Lincoln's Sparrow in appearance!)
Mourning Dove
May the generosity continue at this remarkable feeding station along the Mississippi River!  If you happen to sleuth out this not-so-secret spot, you must repay the generosity by bringing your own high-quality bird seed.  Stand quietly and observe respectfully with a delightfully smirking smile! It is the gift you receive from more than two decades of dedicated generosity.   It is the gift you pay forward.  It is the gift you feel returned ten-fold when a chickadee perches on the tip of your lens, staring you in the eye from a few fluffy inches away.

Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, and Dark-eyed Junco

All images were photographed with a refurbished Canon 7D and my favorite 300mm f4 IS Canon flourite lens.  If you happen to be visiting the towns along the Mississippi River in search of nature, be sure to tell the people along your economic path (shops, restaurants, gas stations, etc.) that the reason for your travels was the abundance of nature.  Gently remind those people receiving your business that it is the birds that brought them your money.  Remind them that protecting those habitats and scenic beauties that keep the birds will serve to keep their businesses strong.  You vote with your dollars.  How you spend is part of the equation of sustainability.  Vote for the birds as you visit them.  The General Store in Stockholm Wisconsin (Stockholm General) is one great example of a business that is using local products and voicing the importance of protecting scenic beauty to the area's captains of industry. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Favorite Windfall

Wintery Mix of Birds           24 December 2012

Windfall.  Which definition do you prefer?  And do the two meanings come from the same place?
Where I grew up, the perfect use for a wind-fallen tree was to warm us twice.  In August, if I remember correctly, the chainsaw threw chips one direction, and my family carried the firewood the other direction.  We split the big logs, and we loaded the firewood behind the house and into the basement.  A wind-fallen tree was the source of our warmth in the winter.  

Windfall.  To some, it means unexpected wealth.  To us, such a tree was just this.   With a little hard work, Mother Nature’s windfall became our own.  Knowing the woods well enough to understand which trees were ready was an important pre-requisite education.   An oak should fall by natural causes, age for a while, and then head home to the wood stove.  But only some parts should make the journey.  If the stump is standing tall, it should be left as a home to others. The little branches, cast aside into brush piles, could provide shelter for any number of small animals.  A windfall must be shared!
Of course, many wind-fallen trees should be left in their entirety to slowly give back to the land.  Trees store nutrients for decades, and a rotting tree slowly recharges the forest ecosystem.   When left to nature, such a windfall gives back many-fold to the human in the forest.   In the case of elm and cottonwood, morel fungi pop up to greet my basket in rainy days of May.  For the hunter, a sprawling wind-fallen tree is cover for bedded deer, rabbits and grouse.  Should the broken tree sprawl across a deep gully, it becomes a reliable place for squirrels.  Creating an obstacle in the forest, it will funnel traveling animals to predictable locations.

Birds love wind-fallen trees.  They thrive in an abundance of shelter and happenstance food.  Migratory flocks of birds seek brush piles and windfalls.  To the birder and nature photographer, it is a true windfall of diverse colors, forms and personalities.

On this Christmas Eve, I was treated to a rich variety of birds.  Mother Nature provided an amazing show in the woods.  Generous bird feeders added accent to what already amounted to a great place for birds.  Along the mighty Mississippi River near La Crosse, Wisconsin, the sprawling branches of this fallen tree sheltered Tufted Titmouse, Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Northern Cardinal, Mourning Dove, American Tree Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Blue Jay, and American Goldfinch.   A pair of lingering Swamp Sparrows and a Red-winged Blackbird, all too far north for this time of year, offered an odd mystery to the wintery landscape as well.  I was a visitor, a recipient of this wonderful, thoughtful, generous gift.  Windfall!

All images were made with a refurbished Canon 7D and 300mm f4 IS lens. Peace on Earth!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Napping for Tigers

American Bittern                           17 May 2009

Spring is an odd phenomenon in Northern Wisconsin, at least when on the outside, looking in.   It slumbers, lingers, idles, and then, all at once, it erupts with exponential power.  Everything turns green overnight, and shoots and leaves grow at a ridiculous rate.  From the inside, looking out, it makes perfect sense. There is urgency in the growing season up here, and plants make a hormone-orchestrated, weather-calculated physiological dash toward another year’s survival.  It is during this peak growth in green when marsh birds become most determined to complete another year’s mating cycle.  The life of a bittern is much like Spring.

 One of the most fascinating birds of the marsh is the American Bittern, Botaurus lentiginosus.  The bird is a close kin of the true herons and egrets, but it has carved a biological path of its own.  Around here, it is known only from pristine sedge marsh habitats in this day and age, and it is often known only by its resonating, mechanical, pumping call.  Most who hear it cannot fathom that it is a bird, and birders following a call often find frustration in all attempts to locate it visually.  The Ojibwe word for this bird is “Mooska osi” which refers to the call. Archie Mosay, a beloved local Ojibwe-speaking Anishinaabe elder, used to tell of how the bittern and heron were competing for a place to hunt.  While the heron was larger, the bittern was tenacious and drove the heron away.  The bittern’s call said, “Mii sa’iw, Mii sa’iw.”  In Ojibwe it translates to “That’s it.  That’s it.”

There are some tricks to finding a bittern.  First, it must be known that in all of the acoustic artistry, all of the resonance and echo, this bird is closer than you think.   Stand as still as a bittern.  Scan the marsh slowly, patiently, hunting in the foreground as much as the background.  The tiger is there.  Perhaps you will see it.  It is, perhaps, the oddly shaped tussock of sedges just ahead. To find a bittern, you must, at least a little, imitate a bittern.


 Also, there is the little trick of getting to the marsh when the wiregrass sedges are still lying low and the bitterns are newly arriving on territory, displaying aggressively and openly with white plume tufts raised and necks stretched long.   I have seen bitterns defying all camouflage, sticking out to be noticed.

Last, there is my favorite trick of all.  Go out late at night in May when the moon sets mists to a cool gray white and the last sane person has tucked in exhausted.  Your clock should have already passed 1 AM.  There, entranced by nocturnal songs of Virginia Rail, Sora, Swamp Sparrow, Gray Treefrog, American Toad, and, just maybe, Yellow Rail, you will hear the “pumper-lunking” calls deep and reverberating in the marsh.  Mark the spot and know it well.  Tomorrow, at sunrise, you will be exhausted but there again.  Perfect.

Exhaustion is prerequisite to a deep and untroubled sleep in the cramped confines of a photo blind.  Returning to last night’s thunder-pumper vocalizations, now in the early light of sunrise, the car coasts in slowly, stealthily along a gravel road.  The reason for the nocturnal sound-scape has become clear in the growing daylight. An endless sedge marsh, streaked by muskrat runs and deer trails, holds an abundance of animals.   A small drainage ditch at the edge of the marsh holds frogs, small fish, and a hard edge built perfectly for an ambush hunter.   The car rolls up to the very edge of the gravel road, perched on the opposite side of the tiger’s favorite hunt.  The key turns silent, the brake is set, and, in a few moments, the blind is set up.  The tiger’s ambush spot has become my own.  Exhaustion speaks, so I lay back in the rising dust of last year’s dead grasses, I close my eyes, and I enter a deep sleep. 

I awake with a cloudy contact lens and a dry mouth.  I rinse my eye with solution and my mouth with a bottle of water.  A quick side-to-side crack of the neck, a shrug of the shoulder, and I roll up to my hunting stool.  Peering cautiously out of my small window, I quickly realize that it has all worked.  Two bitterns, marshland tigers, are hunting stealthily just a few feet away at the other side of the channel.  I have succeeded at “napping for tigers.”  The only way to beat a bittern at its own game is to “check out” for a while and wait. 

As I count my many blessings and begin to work the opportunity into imagery, I suddenly am astounded to realize my good fortunes.  One is a male.  One is a female.  The male begins to twist his head around in a strange and revolting sort of way, puffing his digestive esophagus full of air. (Want to hear me burp my a-b-c’s?)  With a quick tapping of his mandibles, he begins the magical sound, “Tap, Tap, Tap…Pump-er-lunk! Pump-er-lunk! Pump-er-woo-wooo!”   His white plumes are raised above his shoulders like the epaulets of royalty, and his lores, the naked spots between his eye and nostril, have grown deeply pink.   He stretches his wing, revealing a world of patterned wonder.

The hard work of a morning’s nap has paid off.  I have been treated to a show that is only possible when one lives the laboriously slow life of the bittern long enough to see that such a life is filled with moments of riveting drama and deep meaning.  It has slumbered like Spring.  It has raced to action with exponential fervor.  I never knew they had those pink lores.   
The color and energy of Spring errupts on the wings of birds.  Cape May Warblers visit the sap wells on my weeping willow, and Chestnut-sided Warblers busily declare territories from the budding hazel bushes.   White-crowned Sparrows skirt the Great Lakes as they move onward to Canada.   As I see the pink blossoms of crab apples, I am reminded of secret colors in the lores of my tigers of the marsh.  I can't help but feel smug in knowing such a secret.

To learn more about the Great Lake’s wonderful Ojibwe heritage, be sure to purchase a copy of Anton Treuer’s book, “Living Our Language.”  To use his and his brother’s terminology, Anton is a precious person in my community, and he has done wonderful things to preserve the memories and the language of Anishinaabe elders.  These images were made with the Canon Rebel XTi in 2009.  I used one of my trusted Canon 300mm f4 IS pro lenses, and some images were also made using a Canon fluorite 1.4X converter.  The nap was free.  Miigwetch Mooska’osi! Mino giizhigad, geget! Asema biindakoojige nimiigwetchiyag!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Snowed In...Thankfully!

Pine siskin            9 December 2012

A beautiful and peaceful day, we were visited by a flock of Pine Siskins. 

In the natural world, autumn is a time to think about winter, to prepare for quiet days of snowed-in feasts.  As the first major snow fell in Northwest Wisconsin, we were thankful to find ourselves somewhat prepared.   I put bird feed out by the lilacs and settled in for a quiet day.  Snow shoveling is done by muscle here, so I took some time to gather up power in the comfort and warmth of the house.   Cindy saw the importance of getting the cross-country skis down from the garage loft.  Finally, we had an excuse to stay home, to stay put, to be silent and still.

Perhaps it is now cliché to talk of a cleansing snow, but it is the solitude and silence that cleanses the mind and soothes the heart.   Time is granted.  Precious time. 
I waited for the chickadees and the nuthatches, but they didn’t arrive.  Fluffed out on a branch or piled into a bluebird box, perhaps, the local birds were gathering up power too.   In a flurry of busy wings, a flock of 17 Pine Siskins descended upon our feeder and provided an afternoon of entertainment. 

They fed in phases, digesting and preening and drinking snow between feasts. Our lilac, laden with snow, became a windbreak and a place of refuge for the birds between feedings.  Tame and from the wild north, they allowed us to view them from the deck, just an arm’s length away, and without a care in the world.


Pine Siskin drinking from the snow...

All images were made with a beautifully refurbished Canon 7D and Canon 300mm f4 IS lens mounted on a Gitzo tripod. The 7D allowed me to shoot confidently at ISO 800 in the dark and overcast snowy conditions.  I opened up and overexposed 2 stops to add light to the siskins and to allow the snow to be exposed as white instead of gray.  In post-processing, I added some saturation and a pulled the shadows just a hair.  I made these images from the comfort of my kitchen table, the sliding door open, my tripod legs at the edge of the deck, and a pair of mocassins keeping my toes warm.  Outside, everything was muffled and quiet.  Peace on Earth.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Sands of Time...

A Gallery Tour in Nature             10 May 2009

Art is significant, giving humans chances to reflect, dream, and create direction in life.  Nature’s art is no different.   A walk through a natural landscape, slow and sauntering with senses tuned in to the surroundings, reveals an endless pallet of textures, colors, sounds, and meanings. 

Northern Cardinal

On this day, the old were joined with the new.  Saint Croix River fossil beds mingled with migrating birds, and I picked up a very deep sense of time in the day’s gallery.   All moments in nature have meaning, and it is the accumulations of these vast meanings that result in the day we have.  This is true on many levels from genetic molecule to multi-cellular organism to our own sense of place in the universe.  The fleeting moments of a living bird, thriving, migrating, or declaring territory depict the urgency of the new day.   The fossils afoot are a reminder that time is vast and that we are both witness of time’s continuum and caretakers of today. 

 Nashville Warbler
Live richly and be inspired.  There is no boredom.  The gallery is just outside.  Rich biological diversity exists on many levels…and in many ages.   Look closely.  When you discover something new, it often becomes a common and beautiful reality, accessible for the rest of your life. 

Yellow-rumped Warbler
The fossils depicted are from an ancient sea cliff and sea bed dating back more than 400 million years.  To touch the smooth shell of a brachiopod and to realize that its preserved likeness is almost a half of a billion years old is staggering to the mind.  Looking up into the trees to see migrating warblers, to be scolded by a nesting Northern Cardinal, to see the dance of light in the wings of a female Yellow-rumped Warbler, and to see a Nashville Warbler amid freshly unfurling maple leaves, I am reminded to remain bewildered and fascinated by my own gift of time.

I captured these moments in time with a Canon 300mm F4 IS lens and a Rebel xTi.  The light was warm, and the baby leaves helped diffuse it and keep it sweet.