Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ice Flows and a Walk in Beauty

Trumpeter Swans on a Winter Saint Croix River             29 December 2014

Trumpeter Swans on a "go around" landing approach

A distant sound catches my ear, and, for a minute, I am convinced I am hearing anthropogenic, industrial noise pollution.   Isolated from the modern world, it takes me a while to figure out what I am hearing.  It is not some kind of mechanical destruction, not some internal combustion machine, but the sound of nature's power and changing fury.  I am hearing the sound of a giant ice raft colliding with the frozen fields of ice between island and channel.  I am hearing the power of a wild river.

Trumpeter Swans among the ice flows

Most of the river is frozen, but the wild and swirling currents here maintain open water year round. An unusually warm stretch in middle December has allowed much of the river to open up again this year, but the more recent cold weather has hastened a second freeze.  With gathered power, the larger rafts of ice now crash into previously frozen and stationary ice.  Splinters of ice continuously slide over the top of smooth, glassy surfaces.  The millions of smaller events together, intermingled with the occasional giant crash of two huge ice masses, echo in the river valley.

The open waters of the river have invited a large congregation of Trumpeter Swans, more than thirty of them on this Polk County stretch of water.  Many family groups have shared this section of river since the late autumn.  It is refreshing to see their great numbers, since the hot summer droughts of Northwest Wisconsin had recently exposed many of the swans to old lead shot from decades gone by, lead that had been too deep, too far out of reach to pose a threat.  In recent years, lower water levels introduced the old lead as a new threat.  Swan mortality was high.

As I walk along the river in bitter cold air, feet moving silently in fresh powdered snow, my eyes are focused on the new snow.  It is perfect tracking snow, and it tells me many truths.  The deer have been very active since the snow fell less than forty-eight hours ago.  Squirrels have been out and about only sparingly.  Otters and fishers have wandered here and there.   Grouse have been working at the sumacs, walking around in the stands of small trees, flying up into the berries, littering the snow with a history of their busy feeding forays.  The white-footed mice have been out only sparingly, much like the squirrels, but the rabbits have had at least one very busy night.  As my eyes drift downward, my mind is mesmerized by the jazz ensemble of trumpeting swan voices drifting up from the river.

Swan music, warm breath, cold air...

Otter tracks and ice, Saint Croix River

I cross a small, shallow, frozen channel and sneak out to a favorite island.  Wearing camouflage from head to toe, I nestle into the sprawling limbs of a giant silver maple tree.  The show is free, and within a few minutes, the Trumpeter Swans add visual artistry of dance to the jazz brass they play so well.  The air is cold, but I am warmed to the core.

As the beauty of the late afternoon sun drops below the western treeline and crowns of bur oak, white pine and silver maple stood out as black silhouettes against a frozen blue-black and orange sky, I move east to the forested hills and continued tracking along favorite deer trails.  In the silence of the forest, I can still hear the distant crashing of ice flows and the echoing music of swans.  A flash of movement draws my eyes to the snow laden forest canopy.  A Barred Owl perches upon a limb and makes preparations to leap to higher boughs. The forest is strangely warm and calm as night settles in.  I head home with my mind in good order and my heart invigorated by a winter walk in beauty.

All wildlife images were made with a Canon 7D, Canon 300mm f4L IS lens, and layers of fleece and Gander Mountain Guide Series camouflage bibs and coat.  The otter tracks and ice patterns were made using my Nokia Lumia 928 smart phone.      

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Over the River and Through the Woods

Red-tailed Hawk and November Snows             26 November 2014

This image was made with a Canon 7D and Canon 300mm f4L IS lens along the Mississippi River as a gentle snow fell upon the surrounding forest.   A beautifully plumaged adult Red-tailed Hawk surveyed the changing landscape, and its patience with me helped to create an image I have been pursuing for more than two decades! 

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Sense of Everywhere...

Closer to the Wild Than You Thought!                    November 6, 2014

A mouse of the genus Peromyscus

My students and I have been compiling population information on small mammal populations for fourteen years in the same ten acres of old-field, forest, and bog.  This year saw an unprecedented jump in the population of white-footed mice.  In "Boom" years, mice use every corner of available habitat and begin spilling into adjacent habitats of poorer quality.   Our Mark-and-Recapture estimates of the Peromyscus mouse population indicated densities of roughly 85 mice per acre.  To put that into perspective, let's imagine the mice are evenly distributed throughout the forested acre. Since an acre is roughly 4047 meters square, that leaves approximately 48 meters square per mouse. Some familiar math, we take the square root of 48, and, Presto! That is an area of just under 7 meters by 7 meters.  That is an area of about 23 feet by 23 feet.  Put yourself in the middle of such a square, and you are at most just twelve feet away from a mouse!  A quiet, frozen, and seemingly empty woodlot is teaming with unseen life, potential beauty for the most astute observers!

This image was made opportunistically with a Nokia 928 Lumia Smart Phone and its Carl Zeiss optics.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Fields of Gold

A New Autumn                                                                 28 September 2014

Sandhill Cranes, Crex Meadows, Wisconsin

Even in July, the leaves of the elm and the oak lose their luster and mature into a deep and older green. Fall has been hinting, reminding us of life's ephemeral nature.  Goldenrod grow tall along the forest edges.  The prickly ash fruits wither.  Now, as so much of summer has lived its life, that quiet lull that follows the late spring's mad rush, autumn greets us with sudden and almost merciless pace. Life is a fast track, and every day must be savored for its meaning. In a few short days, the leaves give up the green, roll to yellow or brilliant orange, and begin the slow drift downward to the forest floor.

Paper Birch and a veil of bluestem

Wetland plants shimmer from pale green to yellow and golden brown, glowing as fields of gold. Senescence is not just death. It is preparation for new life, dormancy that delivers resilience, promise of future, strength and resolve, wise living, and investment in continuity.  Death of parts gives life to the whole, the roots living on.  In all that it does, the autumn senescence also builds the great stage on which great migrations play their scripted dramas.

Quaking Aspen grove

Migrating birds echo a strength of preparation.  Small songbirds, the North American sparrows and wood warblers, fill the cool, clear night skies with delicate contact calls, sweet voices from invisible lives just above, hidden in the blackness and endless stars.  To the unaware, they are not there.  To the aware, the gentle sounds ring with brilliance, color, and memory.  They are out there, even if we can't see them, even if we can't be with them.  They are just out of reach, just beyond what we can know. They are there.

With such a vigorous and heroic story unfolding in the night sky, I imagine the morning light will bring hundreds or thousands of feathered travelers, all of them letting down to the safety of the trees below.  Now, in broad daylight, I find the hen of the woods, the Grifola fungi, delicious and meaty, to be growing near the base of a favorite oak.  Sugar maples glow on the hillsides, prickly ash turn brilliant yellow in places, and basswood quickly turn over from green to yellow to brown.  The quaking aspen dance between lime green and golden yellow.  Everywhere I look I see the signs.  Life is traveling by so quickly. Autumn has arrived, and it has done so quite suddenly.  The cranes will be gathering.  It is time to visit old friends.

All images were made with a Canon 7D, just purchased as used in excellent condition and with the best of all custom settings! Thanks Bruce and Tamy Leventhal (www.btleventhal.com). The lens was my usual Canon 300mm f4L IS lens mounted to a Gitzo Reporter tripod with Gitzo ball head.

Trumpeter Swans, early morning light.  Can you find all five swans?

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Tribute in Water

Watershed Repose                  16 August 2014

It has been said and said often in this day and age that the quality of water is indicative of the quality of the human relationship with the surrounding land.  This is an undeniable truth.  A watershed collects the local (and not so local) history of the land, both ancient history and recent history.  From glacial silt to nutrient run-off, the water speaks to the character of the land. 

I believe the quality of a human life is relative to the person’s relationship with water.  My father has taught me this all my life.  He has shown me the song of the canoe paddle, the little whirl pools that roll to each side of the blade of the paddle, and he has taught me everything about where to find good water in the wild.  As a kid, and even now as an adult, there are some places where water for drinking is collected from the surface of a lake, a few dozen paddle strokes from shore, skimmed from above a tall, cold column of clear water.   The aim is not just to drink the water.  It is also to keep it clean enough for the next drink or the next drinker.  Conscientious behavior on shore is a discipline that ensures water for the future. Perhaps there is more poetry in this than can be written.   When we sit on shore, we can only imagine what the water looks like below the canoe, out there where it is clean and deep. But our lives on shore pay tribute and respect to every dip of the pan into the top of that distant water.  We know it is out there, just a few paddle strokes away. We are mindful of it, even when we don’t see it.     When we forget to dream about that distant water, the water suffers in our forgetfulness.  To forget that distant water is to impair our well-being.  As we sit on shore, tending to those things done on land, we must remember how cool and clean the water can be.   Perhaps cold, clean water is dependent upon hope. As water would understand it, the quality of a human life is relative to the person’s hope.

Water moves over the landscape like the passage of a person’s life.  It picks up and collects and tumbles random material about, shifting and resorting the meaning of the land.  It rolls into plunge pools, pulling life-giving oxygen down into unseen spaces, nourishing the unexpected.  It pulls at the soil as it rolls on through, changing the course of the lives it passes.  It provides a steady current that brushes and touches all who thrive in the water.   Water speaks to us as it moves, laughing, reassuring us that we are here, that we love, that we live.  We can follow the course of the water, watch it bounce and roll along, dance and splash.  Eventually, we are asked to see it off to sea.  Water is a journey, sometimes placid, sometimes turbulent, sometimes deep and mysterious.  The sun leaps and plays on shallow water, inviting and clean, wild and joyful.   When the sun dives to the west in my favorite northern haunts, the wind grows still.  Expanses of clean water flatten out and become placid perfection, a flat, smooth mirror that gathers in the eternal night sky and wraps it all around my floating canoe.  I sit for a moment, surrounded by eternity, stars above and below, suspended over cold and clean, seeing out into forever. I am embraced by the quality of hope.

All images were made with a refurbished Canon 7D, an EF 28-135mm lens, and a Gitzo basalt “Reporter” tripod.  

Friday, July 11, 2014

Boggy Margins

Big Beauty So Small                                         27 June 2014

Grass Pink Bog Orchid

The end of June often finds me walking in bogs, usually in search of bird data, but sometimes in the quest for a simple photograph, perhaps some dew or raindrop accenting one of the bog's many seldom-visited, little-known beauties.

Ruffed Grouse hen

In the Black River State Forest, the boggy pay-out is a wealth of grass pink bog orchid, genus Calopogon. The grass pink go unnoticed for most of June, and then, in the second half of the month, the bloom takes off and takes us by surprise.  The bogs, wet this year and rich in ericaceous leaf out and sphagnum mosses, have been hiding this secret.  Now, to the delight of  polinating bees, perhaps the adoring eye of the bog's Nashville Warblers, and to the joy of this ornithologist, the green and watery expanses explode to carpets of purple, lavender, pink, and white blossoms.

Crawling around low to the ground gives a unique perspective, making orchids into giants, bringing a human face to face with other low-to-the-ground animals.   Surprised by a short-tailed weasel, I squeaked with kisses on the back of my hand and lured the cautious weasel back for a curious peek.  As the weasel approached, intently studying my alluring sounds, I could only detect its approach by an occasionally nodding sedge.  Finally, the weasel eased into view, inconvenienced from its original intentions by a few moments. I made just a few images and watched it skulk away.

Short-tailed Weasel

All images were made with a refurbished Canon 7D, a Canon 300mm f4L IS lens, and a Gitzo Basalt tripod. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Proof of Life, Another Year Turns at the Heronries

Spring Migration                          11 May 2014

Great Blue Heron

Bruce greets me enthusiastically at the landing, and, as the sunrise breaks into scattered clouds, the bow of my canoe slips sharply through glassy waters.  Bruce studies the light as I guide the canoe to our favorite roost. A master photographer, Bruce Leventhal sees things in the light that I still do not, understanding exposure microcosms, the nature of reflected light, and the unusual phenomena that arise when color, texture, and light play between each other. When he discusses light, my ears perk up. We gently tie the stern to a flooded snag and hover motionless within a swift river current.  Each year we have practiced this unique photo shoot, and each year we get smarter.  With the sun behind us and herons ahead of us, we are ready. We study the birds intently as the sun climbs higher and clouds move in subtle waves through the river valley.

Great Blue Heron and Baltimore Oriole

All around us, herons make hasty preparation for a short growing season.  Evidence for their resilience, we hear chicks in some of the nests, proof that they incubated through the howling snowstorms of April. This year, the heronries are roaring with life, the tall silver maples holding more than eighty active Great Blue Heron nests, more than two dozen Great Egret nests, and more than a dozen Double Crested Cormorant nests.  For such a tiny piece of floodplain forest, the birds are really packed in this year.

Double Crested Cormorant

Great Egret

Great Blue Heron

In the time Bruce and I have worked with these nesting colonies, I have moved from a Canon Rebel to a Canon 30D to a Canon 40D and, now, to a Canon 7D.  I have learned essential lessons in maintaining dust-free sensors, using my autofocus, and I have run experiments with and without a 1.4X teleconverter.  Each year, the rookery changes as well, with an ebb and flow of breeding pair populations and a steady increase in egrets and cormorants.  As the river levels change with each winter's snow accumulation, every year's natural history is unique.

In the silver maples above, eight male Baltimore Orioles give chase to a single female.   A golden-yellow Prothonotary Warbler sings in the distant flooded timbers, shining brilliantly just above the dark waters. A Yellow Warbler pulls insects from low willows.  The tropical rainforests are arriving by wing in Wisconsin, arriving long after the ice-tolerant herons.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Yellow-rumped Warbler in red osier dogwood

Spring warms into summer.

All images were made with a refurbished Canon 7D and Canon 300mm f4L IS lens.  A seventeen-and-a-half foot Wee-no-nah Canoe helped put the cameras in position.  The herons paid no attention.  It was a very good day. To see Bruce Leventhal's excellent photographic expressions, be sure to visit www.bruceleventhal.com   A dynamic team, Tamy Leventhal offers a different perspective and her images sometimes accompany Bruce's images in their blog.  

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Secret Among the Cypress

Art-form in Nature                                         15 March 2014

Anole lizard, Six Mile Cypress Swamp, Florida
Canon 7D and 300mm f4LIS, Gitzo Basalt Tripod

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Our Little Ice Age

A Change of Plans                                 17 April 2014

Wilson's Snipe, snow, and ice...pause to ponder.

More than a foot of snow has fallen, and an equally giant blizzard of migrating birds has fallen from the sky. Giant flocks of shorebirds, North American Emberizid sparrows, Lapland Longspurs, and waterfowl are socked in, risking everything to cling to patches of protective habitat and sources of food.   April Showers are here again--in the form of driving snow and falling birds.  It seems Wisconsin is in the clutches of a Little Ice Age.

Killdeer alighting on frozen pond

Wilson's Snipe

I was writing this stuff here last year, this same time of year, writing about these unprecedented April showers.  But "the writing" has been there on the wall for some time now.  The freeze-up and snowstorm of April 12, 2008 was, perhaps, the looming foreshadowing.   From the hot and dry scalding droughts of July and August to the brutal and lingering winters, the patterns of last year and this year are remarkably similar.   April Showers now refer to heavy, even dangerous winter storms in the western Great Lakes region.   Those May flowers are delayed.  Migrating birds meet walls of brutal weather head-on.   My pattern-seeking human mind enters a realm dominated by cavitations of thought.  Like those gurgling and erupting and collapsing bubbles from a motor-boat's prop having been suddenly thrown in reverse, I generate agreement between data and hypothesis and, just as quickly, lose the agreement to new evidence.   Mother Nature is feeling our growing pains, shifting heavily to find comfort and balance. 

Fox Sparrow, a boreal forest bird, a harbinger of Spring

Dark-eyed Junco, the "snow bird"...

Hermit Thrush seeking insects amid open holes in the ice...

As I watch the birds, I sense their urgency.  Things are not going as planned.  In this moment, they seem strangely human, as if they had read our calendar and made some sort of expectation about just what sort of weather is usual.  They have blundered forward.  In their response to an ancient, genetic calendar, they have been duped. Yes, the days are now long and the sun high, but Winter is still here.

Great Blue Heron

The birds aren't alone in the confusion. Just three or four years ago, maple syruping in the Great Lakes landscapes had become a game for the wary and watchful.  Those who studied the snow and the trees and tapped the maples in February had syrup, while those who merely read calendars failed to produce.  It wasn't long before some local tree-tappers were talking about the new and permanent reality of an early sugar bush.   Now, just a couple of years later, the winters have shifted the sugar bush to mid-April, as distantly late as it had been early .  Many of the elders around my neck of the woods talk about "Late March" as the historically common time to harvest the sap.   In four years, we have seen a two-month swing of the season.   Extremes and unpredictability are the new normal.  Fortunately, the birds are collectively more like the watchful tree-tappers and a little less like those who study paper calendars.  They are resourceful and tough, and they are seldom caught completely off-guard.  But each extreme event is a new trial.  There are more and more of these trials.  Even the toughest birds cannot consistently produce young and continue to survive when "extreme trial" is the new normal. My thoughts continue to cavitate.

Wilson's Snipe flock descending to find food and shelter on a frozen marsh...

Weather, the caution reads, is not climate.  But the frequency of weather events leads to the notion of climate, and the overall trend of weather is, indeed, climate.  The trend is changing.   Climate change is upon us, and, whether anthropogenic or otherwise, we should consider the importance (with haste) of erring on the side of caution.  We do, indeed, live in a time of consequences.   While most of the world has been hotter than average, this little spot of planet Earth has become an icebox. And then, in the middle of summer, the land scalds under an angry sun. If the grass turns brown and dry and the soil becomes as hard as cement again in another brutally hot July, I will predict another brutal winter.  This seems to be where we are headed here--long, cold winters lasting into May and extremely hot and dry summers.  Evidence for Climate Change abounds!  I sure hope I am wrong.  I would rather my pride is damaged than the ecology of the Earth.

Birds are champions of survival.  They live in the moment (and sometimes they die in the moment...another cavitation of my thoughts).  Usually, they prove to be resourceful, durable, patient, tolerant, and persistent.   Most of these April migrants are year round residents to North America, many the evolutionary result of Ice Ages.  I watch the Wilson's Snipe in awe as a single bird manages to catch an annelid worm through the icy slush with its long, sensitive bill.  Suddenly, it catches a second worm, and, to my amazement, a third.  A small flock of Eastern Phoebes has congregated around the edge of the ice and seem to be skimming nearly microscopic insects from the air above a small patch of open water.   American Robins, Hermit Thrushes, Fox Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and a mixture of other migrant sparrow species are forming "super flocks" sometimes hundreds of birds strong.   These flocks comb through the thick brush and rifle through sand, grit and gravel along the rural roads.  They are finding food.

Eastern Phoebe hunting for winged insects

While the Trumpeter Swans have still failed to show up on most of their traditional breeding territories around here, the Sandhill Cranes have established their pair bonds.   A familiar old friend with a crooked beak is back for another year and displaying vigorously for his mate.  The air smells fresh and ozone-clean. The snow and ice put a solid chill into the air, fighting the lingering daylight. A small group of Fox Sparrows press on toward the boreal.  Longspurs bounce along above open fields, heading for the Arctic.  The cranes dance and bow on territory.  I find a strange beauty to this frozen landscape, and the optimism of the crane wrestles down my fitful thinking and puts me into a singular moment.  This is what it is, here and now.  I am witness to a spectacular moment in nature.

Sandhill Cranes, Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks

All images were made with a refurbished Canon 7D and a Canon 300mm f4L IS lens.