Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Boom Town in Brule

An Economy of Birds                       29 June 2015

Black-and-white Warbler, female, gathering food to feed her fledglings

Every once in a while, optimism triumphs over the ever-present specters of global climate change. A perfect summer, a perfect breeding season for insect-eating, forest-nesting birds, has come and gone. Last summer, for an entire month, I conducted breeding bird surveys in the Brule River State Forest.  In the "kick off" year of the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II, I lingered well into July, finishing around the 12th.  Birds were abundant, and one beautiful fact continued to rise to the top--the conditions in the Brule had been perfect.  Every species of Neotropical migrant bird seemed to have fledglings to feed.  It seemed that none of them were parasitic cowbirds. Warblers used their energies in raising their own young. Small flocks of bombarding fledglings told of success well beyond the grasp of the predators.  Wood warblers were vigorous and in great numbers.  A particular tent site along the waters of the Brule had, in a single moment, wood warblers of five different species, all of them feeding three or four fledglings of their own.  Wonderful birding mayhem!  A float down the river revealed the same--fledgies everywhere!  Life in abundance!

The thrashing of the caterpillar...

Pine Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler

Nashville Warbler

Those birds hatched and raised have already flown south, setting up winter territories from the Gulf Coast to South America.   This Holiday Season, I have a hope for the birds, a greeting or wish for our neighbors closer to the Equator.   My wish is for the bounty of our perfect summer to be with you now, nurtured and nurturing, thriving and growing in strength, readying for their return in the Spring time.  Hopefully, come Spring and Summer, our climate up here will care well for them again! May the abundance continue to grow and the strands of the ecosystem hold strongly!  Let's hope for another boom town of birds in the Brule!

Red-breasted Nuthatch, recently fledged and very close to the 300mm lens!

All images were made with a Canon 7D and a Canon EF 300mm L IS lens, a camera and lens that found their way to the bottom of the Brule. ...But that is another story...

American Woodcock at the end of a busy day...

Monday, December 28, 2015

Clean, Sharp Birds

Composition and Focus in a Moving World               27 December 201

White-breasted Nuthatch and a community of lichens

Let's run a quick thought experiment in life using a photographic platform.  First, we begin with a goal.  I have decided that I want a very sharp, clean bird photograph.  On the 26th of December, I am nestled in a wintry paradise, family together, visiting with my Mom and with Tim. We are enjoying peaceful time in their remote woodland home at the end of a one-mile driveway. We have slipped quietly into a property nestled within thousands of acres of public forest land, but it isn't just the location that brings the calm and comfort.  It is also the beauty of what has been created here. Tim is a potter, and both my Mom and Tim are artists.  They see beauty on so many levels, and they have created a gallery space that connects the outside wild spaces to the mind's artistic places.  There is something magic here that invites creativity.  With feeders well stocked and birds abundant and conditioned behaviorally to the food source, this place has a lot of potential.   My creative energies are drifting toward those feeders, and Tim has supplied me with a few zip ties, perfect for affixing natural perches to the peaks of the various props and supports holding bird feeders aloft.  The running joke with my wife and kids is that "I went to the woods to find a stick."  Within a few minutes, I have returned with something that works.

Purple Finch, male

Soon the old feeder perch is remembered only as practice.  By the end of my December 26th photo session, I am pleased with my results and have figured out some things with exposure theory. In this "pea soup" overcast light, I am overexposing a full 2 stops above the meter's suggestion. Yes, the unpublished pictures from the 26th are very nice, but they are not here.  I have worked in comfort, but I have fallen into that comfort. All of my images look pretty much the same, boring and "same."  The living has been good, and it has been easy.  Birds have landed on my fabricated perch for a few seconds each and every minute. But I have simply taken pictures of birds on a stick.  When you have a good thing going, stay at it, keep working it, and repeat it. This is how we arrive successfully at a second effort on December 27th.

Purple Finch, female 

As I gave it a second run on the 27th, I was wary that the repetition of "same perch, new bird" would give my images less flexibility,  I was also painfully aware that my original perch lacked character. I went on a new woods-walking quest for a better perch.  I found a softer stem with good color,complete with a little snow and ice, and I constructed a new studio with little effort at all. Within a few minutes, the living was good, and, as before, the photography was easy.

Learn, fabricate, and repeat. Learn, fabricate, and repeat.  As students of patterns, we humans can plot our lives with a little ingenuity.  We can build a degree of predictability between ourselves and nature, and we can learn how to create some prosperity and safety in our lives.  Maybe this is the "Part I" of this lesson, this thought experiment.  But there is a "Part II".

American Goldfinch, winter plumage male

With only about twenty minutes left in our visit, the need to travel back home calling us, I had a strange impulse to drop everything, hit the woods, and find one more perch.  My mind must have been working on problems in the subconscious, and I put in another burst of woods-walking energy. While in great spirits, I was frantic in lack of time, frantic to find the best stick ever! I needed more than a bird on a stick.  I needed an ecosystem, an image that would be clean, but an image that would be complex, speaking to the intricacies of a biological community.  I happened to look into a brush pile in time to find a perfect branch, already decomposing, completely covered in lichens.  With only a few minutes to spare, I erected the perch and made just a handful of images with a cooperative White-breasted Nuthatch. A sudden and final bonus, an American Goldfinch landed for a moment just as the nuthatch left. I made short work of the improvements and stayed true to the hoped-for schedule maintained by my family.  So there is the "Part II."  Work at something for a while, and then give it a rest.  You will be amazed at what comes to the front. Be prepared for a sudden and impulsive bout of energy.  Your experiences in the main body of work, given some time to ferment, will result in new creativity and critical thinking, often arriving at unexpected times.   But then, all said and done, there is a Part "Part III."   It has a lot to do with the unexpected times.

White-breasted Nuthatch and the "Lichen Branch"

"Part III" is serendipity.  While I have labored on to talk about good planning, all of my business in setting up the perfect perch to get the perfect "clean" shot of a bird, there is an unseen beauty in such preparation.  Maybe the lesson here is to remain prepared when the work is done.   Unexpected things often follow in the wake turbulence of good energy.   Following the Upper Mississippi River on our journey home, we found ourselves suddenly surrounded by soaring eagles.  A kettle of nearly two dozen adult and immature Bald Eagles soared overhead, and others flew at eye level and even below us over Lake Pepin.  The brisk and cold winds carried them north, and to me, this looked like a sudden and rare event inspired by weather.  My creativity grew as I began to sleuth out meaning, and I began hunting in the realm of opportunity.  Remarkably fast, many of the eagles seemed to be nearly keeping pace with us, but we were traveling fast enough to put a mile or two of separation between us by the time I was able to stop at the historic pullout at Maiden Rock.  I pulled the camera out of the bag, switched out the memory card, and, within seconds, welcomed the soaring eagles as they continued north.  When the eagles had all left, I began scanning low around the lake, hopeful that birds might be flying lower, closer, offering better photographs.  To my surprise, a young Red-tailed Hawk drifted through, flying very low but also away and into a wooded valley. No photograph...  The eagles had been thermaling there, so I kept my eyes on the hawk.  Soon, the bird caught a quick thermal, found a different groove, and started sailing quickly north again, back toward my lens.  I began practicing the focus and checking exposure in preparation for the bird's arrival.  A few seconds later, and for only a few seconds, I made a rapid burst of images.  Crisp, clean birds.

Red-tailed Hawk, first year bird (immature)

Bald Eagle, immature 

Bald Eagle, immature, flying over Maiden Rock, Stockholm, Wisconsin

All images were made with a Canon 7D Mark 1 and Canon EF 400mm 5.6L lens.  For the perched passerine birds, I used a Gitzo Carbon tripod and an Induro ball head.  
Part I: A goal, an idea, and preparation; Bend the odds 
Part II: Let it ferment and prepare for inspired thought
Part III: Carry the energy of success and seek opportunity

Here is a quick gallery of "second looks"!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Autumn Colors

More Than Just Leaves                           18 October 2015

Common Loon, winter plumage, and Autumn colors

Sitting just above 45 Degrees North Latitude, the change of seasons is always dramatic here. Each year brings the comfort in seasons and the adventure of seasonal nature.  Each year also brings a unique surprise, a dynamic shift in the usual balance, some kind of unexpected treat.  Autumn is a very long dance in nature, with first hints of energy storage, energy conservation, and preparation for harder times beginning as early as July.  By late August, the work of autumn is obvious everywhere, but it takes until nearly the end of September for the season to firmly declare its presence to all.

Double-crested Cormorant

Autumn is known to most by the changing of leaves, peaking in early October.  Make careful time to notice the other changes in nature.  The widespread biological pulse in plant scenecense, the death of cells and shedding of leaves in preparation for dormancy, is equally matched in the animal world. Preparations are underway, frantically sometimes, for hibernation, migration, change in metabolic presence, and even breeding among some mammals.  Birds often wear autumn adult and youthful juvenile plumages, sometimes making them difficult to recognize.  Deer have gone from red to smoke gray. Carnivores are filling in with luxurious winter coats, the weasels turning white.  The song of the Spring Peeper tree frogs now sound raspy, like the scraping of slate.  These are the other autumn colors.

Bonaparte's Gull and autumn leaves

When captivated by the beauty of autumn leaves and landscapes of color, take time to savor the moment, to be still in a flurry of change.  Be mindful of what is happening all around you.  Then make equal time or greater time to watch the story the animals, to see what autumn colors mean to them. 

All images were made with a Canon 7D and Canon EF400mm 5.6L lens.  Thanks to Matt Berg for a great day working on the water!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

An Autumn Bouquet

Nashville Warbler, Goldenrod, Sumac and Carpenter Bee      20 August 2015

A flurry of migration, the warblers are on the move!  Autumn is in the air!

Image taken using Canon 7D and Canon EF400mm f5.6 L lens


Early Autumn Timing in the Circle          12 August 2015

Ruby-throated Hummingbird and orange spotted touch-me-not

One of the most important themes in Biology is that of interdependence.  The evolution of an ecosystem's complexity, the harmony in its parts, is built upon the many relationships between those parts.  It takes more than a complex enumeration of the members of an ecosystem to approach understanding. To truly begin to grasp an ecosystem's living harmony is to seek an understanding of intersections between key life history events, the flowering, the pollinating, the migrating, the birth, the death, the mating, the growing... These events do not just intersect in space.  They also intersect in time.

The spotted touch-me-not, known to many as jewel weed, may not have any name at all in the universe of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, but it has a deeply entrenched meaning to the bird.  As summer's days grow short, cold northern weather patterns increasingly bring azure skies and a brisk chill to the morning dew.  Even the latest nests of hummingbirds are fledging their young.  As the young grow in strength and the breeding season becomes a fact of the past, hummingbirds ramp up in their determination to migrate south to the tropics.  It is during this time that the jewel weed are blooming, the nectar fueling hummingbird migrations, the hummingbirds actively and incidentally transporting the jewel weed pollen.  For the hummingbird, the jewel weed signals the end of the breeding season and the urgency of migration.  For the jewel weed, the hummingbird migration brings a promise of genetic diversity and a boost in sexual reproduction.  The two are entwined in the story of survival, mutualism and urgency in new life.  The two represent production and growth in a time of year when so many species are tucking away in preparation for winter.

All images were made with a Canon 40D, Canon EF400 mm f5.6 lens, and a Gitzo basalt tripod. And where would somebody go to find spotted touch-me-not?  A beaver pond, of course!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Looking the Part...A Way of Life

Bald Eagle and Blood-stained Feathers                     16 June 2015

This Bald Eagle was feeding on a deer carcass.  Normally bright yellow, the feet are a strange hue of orange, an accent of dried blood.  The blood on the feathers of the face is more recent, as you can see a full crop on this well-fed bird!   Canon 7D and Canon 300mm f4L IS lens.  

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Brewster's Warbler

Musings About Habitat               25 May 2015

Brewster's Warbler singing in prickly ash

The Brewster's Warbler is a hybrid, the outcome of a mating between a Blue-winged Warbler and a Golden-winged Warbler.  The two species are very recently diverged, sharing some similarity in basic song and nearly identical Type II aggressive song. Though it is clear a number of events have caused them to be two distinct species, hybridization still occurs when ranges overlap.  While Brewster's Warbler hybrids lack the black throat of the Golden-winged Warbler, each one seems to be unique. Some are pale yellow with a white face.  Others are largely gray and pale, like a Golden-winged Warbler, but with splashes of lemon yellow on the breast.  Some are not easily distinguished from the Blue-winged Warbler except for a pale gray cheek.   Check the face, the back, the breast, the wing patterns, and it becomes clear that there are many plumage possibilities at play!

Brewster's Warbler in young burr oak

 Both nest in younger, brushier habitats, though ideal habitat for each species is really quite different, the differences being felt better than described.   To me, Blue-winged Warbler habitat is found near young farm forests, mowed walking trails bordered by dogwood and prickly ash, the thickets within a stone's throw of a bluebird house trail, maybe even older upland forest adjacent to a wide and marshy clearing with a stream, dead trees, and a margin of sun-dappled grape.  In Blue-winged Warbler habitat, the red fox slips by just out of view, cows bellow in the distance, and elements of the wild are woven amid neatened rows of agriculture and forgotten back field edges. A lazy "tzeeeeeee bzzzzzz" rings out while Field Sparrows, Gray Catbirds, Common Yellowthroats, and Eastern Towhees join the song chorus.

Golden-winged Warbler habitat is a little more stoic, a picture of "up north" wild.  To me, Golden-winged Warbler habitat is found in a grove of young aspen at the edge of flooded wiregrass sedge, a broad finger of alder running far out into a wild and timeless wetland criss-crossed by deer trails.  It may be, perhaps, a wide clearcut patch of county forest stumps, brush and young chokecherry adjacent to a deep and dark forest of oak, birch, maple, and white pine,  Wolves have marked the sand road with their droppings here, and bears keep cool in the shade of older trees just down the slope.  Scarlet Tanagers, Nashville Warblers, Sedge Wrens, and Chestnut-sided Warblers provide the background ambiance to the invigorated "beee-bzzzz-bzzzz-bzzzz-bzzzz". 

A problem emerges in my habitat generalization, of course.  I have found Blue-winged Warblers in equally wild land.   But I also have found a common player where ranges overlap--European Honeysuckle.  My realization is just tantalizing enough as a hypothesis to maybe find its way into research.  As I write this, I find myself looking into the research of the Golden-winged Warbler Working Group to see if they have had a common thought... Could a European exotic provide ecological stimulus to influence hybridization?

Brewster's Warbler in young white oak

Brewster's Warbler lurking behind the honeysuckle flowers

Foraging in the honeysuckle

A wonderfully wet May, all around life is flourishing.  Time moves along relentlessly, and for just one month each year, Wisconsin shares nearly the same climatological data as a Costa Rican rain forest. The birds are here, back from the tropics, joining our resident birds, and they are busy!

Belted Kingfisher and beaver pond

Tree Swallow and overcast sky

All images were made with a Canon 7D, Canon 300mm f4L IS lens, and a lot of drizzle, fog, and cloud. A beautiful, tropical day along the St. Croix River!  Spend a little time afield with the Brewster's Warbler here at my YouTube channel!  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xcsjcRIjaU

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Back When There Was Film...

Sedge Wren and Aggressive Display                     Date: UNKNOWN

There is a certain beauty to film.  Only a few years ago, we loved the different grains and the character given to an image by its imperfection.  We chose films for their colors.  I was a big fan of Velvia and Provia for their "Spring and Summer up at the Lake" kinds of colors, but I also loved the look of Kodak Lumier S.  The "S" stood for "Saturated".  The saturation leaned toward "warm."  Perhaps the greatest beauty to the film was the simple fact that we could get away with just a little more imperfection in our craft.  A razor-sharp look at a bird's eye was still ideal, but there just wasn't enough information in the protein-and-chemical matrix to cause us to throw out a shot if we loved it. I have grown to love the sense of anonymity in time presented by my old film.  There is no digital stamp, no record of travels in a series of numbered files.  A lone slide in a sheet of twenty archived favorites is at high risk for sliding into mystery, giving up its exact time and context to the aging memory.  This Sedge Wren was photographed amid the alders on the south end of a dirt road in Burnett County, Wisconsin.  I still know the exact spot.  The dirt road still exists as a levy, and the wire-grass sedge and alder lowland still beckons me to explore.  This Sedge Wren sang a territorial song there one year in late May, perhaps June.  It was after 2003 and before 2007.  It was a beautiful day that I remember well, but I really don't remember when it happened.   Sometimes the joy in a memory is the strength of the grain and the imperfection in the image.

This image was made with a Canon A2E that I purchased in 1999.  It was made with a Canon 300 f4L IS lens that I purchased in 2003.  The film was, most likely, Fuji Provia 100.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Life on the Lonely Lek?               20 April 2008

Sharp-tailed Grouse male, displaying

Brushland prairie is rare, valuable stuff.  Very few places in Wisconsin have the right sands, a history of wild fire, and the right landscape to promote the Sharp-tailed Grouse.  The places that remain tend to hand wildlife biologists plenty of challenges and mysteries.  Piles of grouse feathers were scattered in piles about the lek in 2006. Perhaps it was the work of a talented harrier, a grouse lek picked apart by predation?  And what about the nests and the continuing promise of new birds?  Overrun by nest-dumping Ring-necked Pheasant, perhaps?  By 2008, this dancing ground held only a single bird.  He was determined, but, on this day, he danced alone.

All images were made with a Canon Rebel XTi and Canon 300mm f4L IS lens.  It seems like yesterday, but these images were made nearly seven years ago!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Keep Looking Up!

A Change of Perspective                         3 January 2015

Trumpeter Swans, soft sunrise, photographed with Canon 7D and 300mm f4L IS

Trumpeter Swan photographed with GoPro Hero 3+ Silver, set to time lapse once every 0.5 Seconds.  Eventually, a shot makes the hit!  

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Peculiar Case of a Missing Fox Squirrel

Roll Call and Life Without a Favorite Species                 28 November 2014

White-tailed Deer buck, momentarily taking center stage amid missing biodiversity, Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge, Wisconsin

Where have my favorite fox squirrels gone? With no photograph to describe it from this 28th of November, I will paint a picture for you using some carefully chosen words.  The fox squirrel, Sciurus niger, is the largest squirrel in the Great Lakes states, a plump, pumpkin-orange-bellied tree squirrel.  While it is has the same general build as a gray squirrel, it is larger, sometimes nearly twice the size of a gray squirrel.   It is not the tiny, hyper-active red squirrel of the pines.  It is a slower, laid-back and stately squirrel of bottomland forests, open oak forests, and equally at home in weedy groves of box elder trees adjacent to corn fields.  My grandfather used to hunt them as he walked through corn stubble.  I hunted for them in old groves of bur oak in floodplain forest.  While some gray hairs adorn the back of this squirrel, the overall impression is a reddish-orange pelt.  The fox squirrel wraps itself in a luxurious tail flanked by long hairs tipped in orange.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, showing the red of the belly, Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge, Wisconsin.  The red crown on this bird often lends to its being confused with the less common Red-headed Woodpecker.   While both species are in the same genus, Melanerpes, the two species have very different field marks.  Like the fox squirrel, the Red-headed Woodpecker is missing from this bottomland forest gallery today. 

About twenty years ago, fox squirrels were abundant in all of the lowlands containing bur oak and swamp white oak along my favorite stretches of Wisconsin and Minnesota's mighty Mississippi River.  In many places they greatly outnumbered the gray squirrels.  As I write, I am convinced I will need to spend a few days sauntering through those hardwood swamps of my younger years to collect some anecdotal data.  I sincerely hope I am wrong. To the best of my observation, the fox squirrel has all but disappeared.

The wildlife images in today's post were made in an area that used to gain its character from the presence of Red-headed Woodpeckers (gone) and Fox Squirrels (gone).   The nature of this lowland hardwood forest is still rich with many other beautiful spirits.  It seems obvious to me that such biological treasure could allow just about anyone to see through the phantoms of yesterday's biology.  In all of its apparent completeness, this ecosystem now lacks two of my very favorite animals.  

Northern Cardinal...

Attention-getter! A Tufted Titmouse brings beauty to the bottomland hardwood forest. 

A little digging in my memory, roaming to the buried acorns of my past, I can recall harvesting fox squirrels with regularity.  I harvested with care and respect, bringing about ten or fifteen to the table each year.  Just ten or twelve years ago, I could expect to see a ratio of nearly one fox squirrel to every five or six gray squirrels while I bowhunted for deer in the hardwood prairie edges of Saint Croix County's public land.  Two years ago, I saw a fox squirrel in the middle of a country road just a few miles from my home.  I have not seen one since then. Is this merely observer bias?  Maybe my habits have changed just enough to put me out of step with the fox squirrels of our abundant fields and forests.   My stepfather, a man who has lived in an important coulee country ecosystem for fifty years, has noticed the decline as well.  While they are still around as a species, I feel I am witness to a widespread regional decline.   If the decline goes unnoticed, it may also go without remedy.

All images were made with a Canon 7D and Canon 300mm f4L IS lens.  All images were made while feeling sadly aware in the mysterious absence of familiar forest friends.