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"!