Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Overlapping Home Ranges

Back to the Bog                                  23 February 2013

Home range, for most animals, is different than territory.   Territories are defended, sometimes with great hostility, but home range is a wider span.  Home range is a land of wandering and exploring that an animal comes to know well.  Home range is not restricted to the core of the animal’s life.  As large mammals, humans are peculiar in territory and home range.  We are more like birds.

Evening Grosbeaks

Common Redpoll

Boreal Chickadee

Gray Jay

We travel in social groups, our home ranges overlap significantly, but we retire to our small dwellings, homes we defend vigorously and seldom invite others into.  Our nesting territories are tiny in comparison to our home ranges, and there is significant overlap in the places we seek our favorite resources.   Like flocks of waxwings and winter finches, birders and photographers sometimes migrate for the good stuff, congregating together to feed up on a temporary treasure.  We tolerate each other in large groups, we respect each other, and we enjoy each other, laughing, sharing, learning, and building our flock.  It isn't perfect, but it works.  

Brown Creeper

Bald Eagle

Wildlife photographers are usually less like humans, less like birds, and more like wolves.  If birds at all, we are more like eagles and less like social flocks of finches, more like camouflaged certhids, scouting and probing things out alone.  We hold more territorial turf in our home ranges, jealously guarding the secrets that help us make art. We spend countless hours scouting and roaming the back wilds and undiscovered wildlife. We are usually alone or in a small pack.  But we cannot escape our own humanity.  There are times we flock together with great joy.  And there are some who are so generous, so giving of their secrets, that the rest of us can migrate long distances and land with certainty within a few feet of a rare Boreal Chickadee or a Hoary Redpoll. These generous people are scouts and artists who freely invite others to feast from their own territories. We treasure them greatly.

 Hoary Redpoll

Common Redpoll

I once cheered aloud when Steve Martin uttered three special words in the movie, “The Big Year.”  He said, “Sax Zim Bog”.  Maybe it was Owen Wilson, or maybe it was Jack Black uttering the magic phrase.  Whatever the case, a celebrity read a line that spoke of a place I know and love.  It is a place where I was once a wolf, a loner in a lonely wilderness.  It is now a treasured destination for thousands of birdwatchers.

 Brown Creeper

Boreal Chickadee

The etiquette has change a lot in 20 years.  Birders politely follow ABA protocol and keep the opportunities for others alive and well.  It is less thigh deep snow, less bitter cold challenge,  and far more certain.  Thanks to some very dedicated birders, the bog now has permanent feeding stations that draw rare birds to plain view.   Less work, less solitude, more birds.  It is a social experience now, and, while vastly different from what I once knew, I’ll gladly take it.  

Great Gray Owl

Admiral Road, Owl Avenue, Spruce Road, and other rustic, gravel road places among the bog trees make for some outstanding wildlife photography, birding, and nature observation.  All images were made with a refurbished Canon 7D and my usual Canon 300 f4L IS lens.  The day began and ended along the North Shore of Lake Superior.  As the season draws dangerously close to the end, I can say with a smile that this has certainly been a REAL Winter! 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Weekend Warrior and the GBBC

Big White Birds and More                     16 February 2013

GBBC? Great Backyard Bird Count.  It is a global Citizen Science effort held by the Cornell Labs of Ornithology each year.  Google it.  You will find out lots! Participate, and you'll learn even more.  To me, it is a day or two to collect data and submit my checklists.  Sadly, it is also a day when I see another Winter season (we only get a few dozen in a lifetime) bowing down to longer days and warmer sun.  My hands are just now resistant to frostbite.  My face no longer feels the sting of a windchill.  Bring on the birds, and let Winter linger well into March!

Winter's grip sets in during January.  The world freezes and slows.  February brings all of winter's charm with less of the pain as days grow longer and cold temperatures are warmed by the sun's rays.  Animals become more active.  The snow is clean and pure, and the light is very nice.

It is about this time of the year that I begin to hope for a long winter.  Things are just getting interesting, and now, old friend Winter, we are getting ready to say farewell again.   These days are worth more than most, and each February day with good light will find me clawing for freedom.

The snow and cold are masterful in sculpting scenery for interesting creatures and adding drama with mists and a sense of place. When so fortunate to find the animals I seek, the mysterious winter places come to life, revealing volumes about the struggles and adaptations in these overwintering lives.

As a dedicated classroom teacher, I am a slave to the calendar and have become a winter-hardened weekend warrior.  May there always be great light on Saturday!  Cheers!

All images were made with a refurbished Canon 7D and Canon 300mm f4 IS lens.  More and more, I am shooting from a tripod.  To make these images, I flattened the tripod and lay prone in the snow.  I was able to endure more than two hours this way by dressing in Gander Mountain Guide Series bib overalls, polar fleece coat, and winter parka.  I worked with the gloves off most of the time but was able to warm my hands against my body within the parka and bibs.   The clothes make the man, right?  There is no such thing as cold, only being under-dressed.  

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Boreal Memories

A Tribute to Kodak Lumier S               9 February 2013

Perspective.  I am still a kid.  I’m 43.  I was 20 just a few days ago, and I still feel 20 when I’m in the woods with a camera in my hand.   I’m young.   I haven’t been around that long at all.  But…

Boreal Owl, Aegolius funereus

Back in the old days when there was film, a time only a few years ago, a time hundreds of years’ images ago, we had some serious limitations.  It cost lots of money, at least ten bucks to make each set of 36 exposures, and lots of things went wrong. In the wilderness, we often ran out of film. Unexpected things happened when the last roll was spent (film came in canisters we called “rolls”).  Print film had more exposure latitude, but slide film was very unforgiving.  There were all-time greats like Fuji Velvia 50 and Kodachrome 64, and there were those early E-6 cheapo slide films that disappointed each and every time.  Somewhere around 1998, yes, way back then, I can almost remember that a spectacular film with pretty high speed and pretty good grain came around, and it was called Kodak Ektachrome Lumier. If it was ISO 100, I always “pushed it” to ISO 200 for a couple of bucks extra in processing.  If I am accurate in my distant recollections, there was a saturated variety called Lumier S and Lumier SW (saturated well), and these films did things Fujichrome didn’t.   While Fuji Velvia bedazzled with its rainbow cool saturation, Lumier punched with warmth, red tones that came out best on cloudy days.  Lumier could turn a pea soup sky into a real photo studio, and I loved it for that.

Flash to the present.  Digital is all that is left.  Kodak, sadly, is saying farewell, no longer making film or cameras.  We’ll miss Kodak, the innovations, the legend, and even the red and yellow logo.  Those of us old enough to know Kodak are sad to see it go.   Kodachrome film, except in the museum vaults of photographers’ archives, has gone extinct.   The end of an era.

A winter trip to the North Shore, chasing owls, stopping at Stony Point near the Alseth road in search of birds and landscapes, brings the whole story full circle.  My first winter owling trip to the North Shore of Lake Superior was in the winter of 1991-1992.  I shot Kodachrome 64 and Agfachrome 100 on that first trip.  I had my first truly good glass, and I got my first ever professional results with a camera.  Great Gray Owl was my subject on that day in December of 1991.  I have been at it off and on for 21 years.  In that time, I have learned to understand light as much as the owls.  I have grown in my awareness of the birds, and I have seen the shift in the Sax Zim Bog from lonely wilderness to bird photography mecca.   Every trip seems to end up around Knife River, and every trip brings the wondrous aromas and rich, delightful flavors of Russ Kendall’s brown sugar cured and maple smoked lake trout and salmon. 

Today, I was in search of Boreal Owls, a small and rare owl that nests in aspen cavities and sometimes hunts from an exposed perch at the tip of a spruce.  I stopped in to Russ Kendall’s to buy fish. As I told the clerk that this marked my 21st year as a customer, I had a rush of memories.  My eyes filled with the memories of film, hundreds of encounters with owls, and the few successes that were captured in the emulsion.   Today, the sky was threatening pea soup with a soft halo of white light slipping through the thin spots in the overcast layer.  It would be hit and miss.  I’d sure like to have my Lumier.  And that’s when it hit me. “Shoot it RAW, shoot it open, and add a little extra light.  You can make Lumier of it when you get home.”   

The Boreal Owl was a rare find, though I had help.  There is currently a Boreal Owl irruption along the North Shore.  While I arrived pre-dawn in search of the Boreal Owls that had been seen, I was only finding Northern Shrikes.  Scouring the branches of literally thousands of spruces and aspens, I turned up empty.  I exchanged phone numbers with other birders on the prowl, and, as I was taking a break to buy lake trout, my phone rang.  Owl found!   As we watched, it hunted, caught and ate a vole, preened, and hunted some more.  Despite the grim reality that irruptive movements by owls are a response to starvation, this bird was healthy and strong.  We quickly fell in love with the little owl.

 All images were made on my Gitzo tripod using a Canon 40D and a refurbished Canon 7D. Lenses were the Canon EF 28-135 IS and the Canon EF 300 f4, IS.   Landscapes were usually ISO 100, and Boreal Owl images were shot at ISO 200, 400, and even 2000.   

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Who Cooks for You Alllllll

Barred Owl                                2 February 2013

A perfect and simple evening.  Smoked whitefish, a visit to over ten thousand acres of frozen brushland prairie and northern sedge meadow near my home, and a return home along the Saint Croix River made this a simple appreciation of a still and frozen winter day.  I hiked out into a vast and open landscape that is almost always soggy bog and floating hummock.  Today, all was ice and snow, solid footing and brittle brown sedges and bog laurel.  I looked at the little details and learned the secrets of this expansive wetland, finding a high spot with a single bonsai tamarack struggling for nutrients but never competing for sun.  Another high spot, and I found a smaller, older bonsai jack pine with fascinating, miniature serotenous cones.  As the sun ducked low to the western horizon, I began my journey home.

I encountered a Barred Owl, silently and anxiously greeting the end of the daylight, perched at the edge of a pine grove to listen intently for rodents under the snow.

The owl was tolerant of my approach, and I made just a few images and a short video before giving the owl the space it needed to hunt.   The weather has been very cold. This owl has likely been losing valuable body weight and now stays just one step ahead of winter's grip.

I photographed the Barred Owl from a Gitzo basalt tripod with Gitzo ball head.  I used a refurbished Canon 7D and 300mm f4 IS Canon flourite lens.  Always mindful of the animal's needs, I packed up after just a few minutes and tried to not confuse or tease the owl.  Every move this owl makes this time of year could be the difference between life and death.  Fellow hunter, be well!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Have Feet Will Travel

Sly Fox                                       12 April 2008

It looks like sage wisdom, a problem solved from a distance, from an ever-calculating mind.  It looks like pure genius.  A fox, it would seem, has sat back on his haunches and watched with delight as the gentle greens of early spring have fallen victim to the icy grasp of a late winter storm.  The water has been open for weeks and is now frozen solid.  The nests of geese have no moat to protect them.  The fox, it would seem, has made a great plan and sets out in search of eggs.

How does this fox know? Is it experience?  It couldn't be, since events like this are very rare and foxes too short-lived to have archived such a memory.

Is it the ability to conceptualize, to think of the system and come to a conclusion? Is this the result of reasoning? It would certainly be an impressive task of reasoning.

I think it is all in the feet.  Foxes are masters of their territories, learning every in and out, every escape, every napping spot, every changing texture, and they do the work of mastery in all four seasons.  Foxes trot for hours, and they go where they can at every opportunity.  It has been said that "Luck is when opportunity meets preparation."  I'd like to add that it is what happens when opportunity comes of perseverance.

Once the path across the ice reveals an angry goose, a nest, an egg, the fox is quickly conditioned to the nature of the hunt.  One egg is all it takes, and the reward invites the behavior over and over again.  In short order, the fox ransacks the marsh.   The weather has turned on the geese, and it invites the predator to do double trouble.

More than it can eat in one meal, the fox caches the eggs under fallen oak logs high up on the sandy hills.  One egg at a time, the fox returns to explore the frozen bounty, pushing geese to their feet and stealing a version of the future from them, giving this future instead to itself.  Life necessarily is built in the taking of life.  Today, the fox lives on.

The temperatures have been bitter cold, and the wind and snow blow fiercely across the open landscape.  For spring arrivals, this is a terrible April Fool.  The Sandhill Cranes protest in cackling calls. The Hermit Thrush and the Fox Sparrow are durable and can take the cold.  They perch among the pussy willows and a paradoxically false promise of a warming Spring. Sharp-tailed Grouse enthusiastically dance on the lek, invigorated with the length of the day and the hormones that follow.  The geese, well armored against the deepest cold, must still battle the rapid freeze of the water.  

Somehow, an adult goose has died.  The fox may well have killed it while battling for eggs, but this seems just out of reach of the fox's ability.  Maybe a lucky shot, a sharp canine through the neck, dodging angry wing spurs, the fox may well have earned this meal by fight alone.  Perhaps the goose was partially frozen into the lake, seeking the last open water for cover and staying too long.  The fox feasts on the goose and strips meals to run ashore and bury.

Two wings, two oaks.  The fox buries the meat and feathers near to the hidden eggs, covering the catch in a mix of snow, sand and branches.  The show has lasted more than an hour, and the fox, satisfied with the day, trots far to the east and out of view into the confusion of drifting snow, giant falling flakes, and the alders, pussy willows, and hazel brush.

Trumpeter Swans hail and bugle the triumphant return of Spring.  It is obvious in their voices but nowhere else, nowhere near, nowhere I can think of in the deepening snow.   The fox must be smirking, and, maybe a little inspired by this hunter, my own mind drifts on to thoughts of roast venison and a hot drink.  I head for home.  Miigwetch Waagosh!

All images were made with a Canon Rebel XTi and Canon prime 300mm f4 IS flourite lens.  The Sandhill Cranes were pretty good guides for this trip, leading me to the fox in their own behaviors.  When you see something out of place, even a bird's behavior, it is as much a trail as a track in the snow.  May the geese return each and every Spring, and may the odds be tipped to them from time to time too.