Monday, November 14, 2016

Go Where No One Will!

A Change in Perspective Through Blood, Sweat, Tears...            15 October 2016

Sandhill Crane, low and slow glide path

For years, I have photographed the beauty of Autumn migration as punctuated by the mass gatherings of Wisconsin's Greater Sandhill Crane.   Each day, the cranes feed in agricultural fields and shallow wetlands.  As the sun sets, the cranes fly into massive roosts, protected from the night's predators by open water.  Where vast wetlands of wiregrass sedge mingle with significant pockets of open water, cranes pile in by the thousands.  In the early morning, the cranes depart for the fields in wave after wave after wave.  A little observation, and a photographer can figure out where to get some images.  Keen observation puts the light in the favor of the camera.   For years, I have sought these roosts, filling my soul with the ancient symphonies of crane song, that wild chorus of enthusiasm and focused energy stirring the oldest memories of my DNA.   For years, I have pulled a seemingly endless variety of images from this reliable natural pattern, the light, the flight, and the season providing some surprise diversity, some accent or refreshing spice.  Eventually, though, the inevitable stagnation occurs.  In 2016, I felt as though my creativity here had been tapped.  It was time for something new.

Where most people find them, the Sandhill Cranes are completely protected from intrusion and easily viewed from levy roads.  The very best roosts are within the restricted Refuge boundary at Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area in Burnett County, Wisconsin.   In quite a few places, however, the cranes stage for their migration in smaller numbers but in areas accessed by duck hunters, muskrat trappers, and bowhunters.  It is these areas, open to the public, that have captured my eye.  To leave the road, to endure the depths of a wetland, to take on that long wading challenge, kayak in tow, is to find those open wilds so proclaimed in the voice of a crane.

To take my crane photography to a new level, I loaded my kayak with gear, put on a life vest and pair of chest waders, and I towed the kayak a half mile out into a flooded floating mat of Northern wet sedge meadow.  In the summer, this is the haunt of breeding Virginia Rails, Swamp Sparrows, Le Conte's Sparrows, and Trumpeter Swans.  During the fall migration, it is a place of constant action, a place where ducks feed up and geese and cranes put down for the evening.  To see any of it, even for an instant, I needed to skulk into a small clump of willow and spend nearly a half hour camouflaging myself from the sharpest avian eyes.

I pulled along for nearly a half mile.  I was more than five hundred meters into the heave-ho towing of my kayak along muskrat runs and knee-deep deer trails, a few dicey moments of "end of the world" step-offs from floating mats to chest-deep holes, and a few long pauses to get oxygen in and lactic acid out before I had my first exciting reward.  I stepped out into a large pool of open water and was delighted to find it was only knee deep with secure, firm footing.  Everywhere I looked, crane feathers floated on the water.  Every hummock wore the decoration of at least one pile of crane droppings or goose droppings.  My mid-day workout painted a spectacular image of the evening to come.  The adrenaline helped me finish the job.  In short order, I was tucked in to my willows, kayak covered in vegetation and camouflage netting, tripod set on sturdy hummocks, my life vest placed on the kayak deck as an improvised seat.

As I sat and waited, the big open spaces, the gently waving golden sedges, rich organic smells, and warm west winds blended together within me.  Peace and Harmony. This was good living.  All around me, beauty.  Comfort.  A new view.  Anticipation.  Joy. I breathed in deeply, hoping for time to just stand still...  Such peace in the early moments! Soon the peace would be replaced with the exhilaration that comes with all of the wild heading straight in.  To see such power, so many incredible beings, so urgent and vital, and to see them arriving, not fleeing is to feel so alive! It is life captured in that unique and rare perspective shared with the stones, grasses, and willows, a feeling I call "Grandfather Rock!"

As the sun grew low enough to warm the light, that first moment of true "butter light", I heard the first cranes.   The waves of migrants were on the way.  Soon, cranes were whooshing over me, landing around me, living their lives and sharing their space with me.   I put the sun at my back, I leaned into my camera, and I watched in awe as a living world spread wings all around me, tucked me in, and breathed life into me from above and all around.

All images were made with a Canon 7D Mark 1 and Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L lens, with the exception of a couple from the Samsung S7 phone.  The kayak is a Guide Series Elite 10.4.  The muscles are vintage 1970, and I could really feel them the next day... The walk out was done in moonlight, coyote music lighting up the western horizon, a din of cranes in protesting response.

The Elite 10.4 kayak as seen before camouflage and "vegging in"...

The shiny nose, also vintage 1970 goods, just before hiding it under the face mask...Note the homemade camouflage sleeve covering the Canon lens. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Perfect Perches, Part XII

King of the Boreal Forest                                              24 June 2016

The Black-throated Green Warbler is a beautiful representative of the boreal forest, most often requiring mature, tall conifers such as white spruce, black spruce, balsam fir, or white pine for nesting and foraging.  While they are mostly dependent upon the conifers for nesting, Black-throated Green Warblers are most abundant where deciduous trees such as quaking aspen, sugar maple, red maple, paper birch, and yellow birch outnumber the conifer component.  Perhaps this deciduous habitat provides the most consistently rich insect prey.  In some places, such as Sugar Camp Hill in the Brule River State Forest, this warbler is a common and successful breeding bird in a landscape strongly dominated by hardwoods and with surprisingly few conifers. For the most part, however, you should be expecting to hear its "zeee zee zee zoo zee" song in a classic mixed boreal forest with tall conifers, aspen and birch.

Like so many species of boreal birds, and like so many species of warblers, the Black-throated Green Warbler is a tropical migrant, departing for Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and northern South America in September.  Many Black-throated Green Warblers make a complete migration over the open expanses of the Gulf of Mexico, and they are known to complete miniature migrations in pursuit of insect prey over their wintering grounds, sometimes moving laterally from the Pacific to the Atlantic and up and down mountain elevations.

In both boreal and tropical forests, Black-throated Green Warblers form close feeding associations with permanent resident species.  As a long-distance migrant, there is great efficiency in paying attention to the locals.  John Muir has provided an excellent model of thinking concerning boreal birds and their relationships with a large and continuous landscape in his famous quote, "When one tugs on a single thing in nature, he finds it is connected to the rest of the world."

This image was made using a Canon 7D, Canon EF 400mm 5.6 L lens, a Gitzo Basalt tripod, and an Induro ball head.   

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Perfect Perches, Part XI

A Little Fireworks: Mourning Warbler                                     4 July 2016

I made this image of a male Mourning Warbler on a lichen-encrusted branch using a Canon 7D, Canon EF400 f5.6 L lens, a Gitzo basalt tripod, and an Induro ball head.  I shot the image at 1/400th of a second and opened it up about 2/3 stop to avoid underexposing the bird against a cloudy sky. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Perfect Perches, Part X

Accents on the Bird, Beauty in the Environment                        7 May 2016

Yellow-rumped Warbler, ferns, and deadwood, Houston County, Minnesota

This image was made from an Ameristep Doghouse blind with a Canon 7D and Canon EF400mm f5.6 Lens mounted to a Bogen tripod.  

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Perfect Perches, Part IX

A Quest for Resplendent, Scintillant, Magnificent Perches               17 July 2013

Resplendant Quetzal, male, near the nest tree

The first picture here represents a dream come true all by itself.  Not only is this an iconic bird of tropical cloud forest, but Costa Rica's Resplendant Quetzal is biologically distinct as a population. As is true for this entire blog, every picture featured in a single post is from a single day in nature. The 17th of July in 2013 was incredibly generous, as is the nature of tropical cloud forest and the habitats protected by the Savegre Hotel, Natural Reserve and Spa of San Gerardo de Dota, Costa Rica.

Resplendant - very impressive in richness of color and ornament; stunning, attractive -- as in Resplendant Quetzal.

Scintillant - Of sparks, brilliant or tiny flashes; sparkling -- as in Scintillant Hummingbird.

Magnificent - Striking, complexly beautiful, awesome and breathtaking, extravagant, striking -- as in Magnificent Hummingbird.

All of these species have been aptly named.  The sparkling iridescence and endless depth of color, the deep and mysterious habitat realms of the cloud forest, make these birds biological treasures. These birds convey the essence of deep fog, lush green foliage, and crystal clear, clean, cold cascades fed by mountain springs and reliable rains.  These birds give a true sense of place.

Some places on Earth are richer than others in biological diversity.  In this place, the wealth of diversity is astounding, mind-blowing, riveting.  To see such diversity amid this beauty of landscape is to feel small, grateful, humble, and wonderfully alive.

Every day brings some rain in the cloud forest.  It is an ecosystem rich in epiphytes, diverse communities of mosses, and lianas.  The rain brings abundance, and life seems to network through all kinds of structural levels.  No longer can we apply the simplicity of thought in ground layer, shrub layer, subcanopy and canopy.  There are vastly more structural levels to the forest, with layers moving in all directions, dense vegetative volume creating opportunities for insects, birds, mammals, reptiles, fungi, and flowering plants from the ground to the supercanopy trees.

Birds occupy a baffling number of niches, and examples of competition, co-evolution, and adaptive rule-bending can be seen running along nearly vertical trunks, rippng open the nectar tubes of flowers, and fluttering out into the misty, open spaces.  A moment through the lens, I find myself focused on a single, small bird. A tiny mite crawls out onto the bill of the Scintillant Hummingbird, Costa Rica's smallest hummingbird. The tiny arthropod reaches the end of the beak, turns around, and crawls all the way back to the warmth and security of feathered skin.  The bird rouses, flies off for a second, and returns to the same perch.  I recompose and make an image...

The day has been spent in search of exceptional bird photographs, images clean and sharp, interesting in line, dazzling in color.  I have sought to capture that mysterious sense of place, to blend the lush cloud forest mystique with the iridescence of feather.  While I may have succeeded to some degree, there is nothing that compares to being there, senses fully involved in the fresh, clean, humid smells, the great height of the trees, the deepest of greens, and the gigantic, sweeping expanses of forest veiled in mysterious cloud.

To visit an eco-lodge in Costa Rica is to support habitat protection and wildlife conservation.  It is the best use of travel money, immersing yourself in the life-changing beauty of a new place while enjoying the double duty of the dollars as they directly support land trust and positive reward for preservation.  In short, the money is well spent as it empowers the people who care most about keeping Costa Rica's wild places and spaces intact and often vastly wild!

All images were made with a Canon 7D and Canon 300mm f4 L IS lens.  All images were made on a Gitzo tripod with Gitzo ball head.  I used a digital cable release for the images to reduce camera shake.  Working in a cloud forest means making the most of low light.  A tripod and cable release are essential gear. 

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Perfect Perches, Part VIII

White-breasted Nuthatch and Blue Sky             18 May 2008

White-breasted Nuthatch and Ironwood

I made this image in my second year as a digital photographer, not so long after I had parted ways with film.  Parting with film was frightening, as I doubted the permanence of electronic media.  In the previous year, I had learned that digital could be friendlier than film in many ways, especially forgiving with exposure latitude, remarkably inexpensive, and allowing for in-the-field evaluation of technique and exposure.  This photograph of a White-breasted Nuthatch is a long-time favorite.  It combines good light, a perch with character, and the bird in a posture for which it has gained fame. The old trees in the far distant background made the clear blue sky of early morning more friendly as well by creating a subtle vingette.  

This image was made with the Canon digital Rebel XT, my first digital SLR, and a Canon 300mm f4 L IS lens and Canon flourite 1.4X converter. 

Friday, March 4, 2016

Perfect Perches, Part VII

Imperfect Perfection and Black-and-white Warbler                  8 May 2010

Black-and-white Warbler in Ironwood

One of the most important differences between a nature photograph and a truly wild experience in nature is the difference in dimension.  Since our best memories from the natural world usually involve huge open spaces and often some kind of close up encounter with a living personality, perhaps a fleeting moment in time that is worth its weight in days, the memory may be defined by its depth, distance, and the size of spaces.  We remember our feet in the soil, the smells in the air, the temperature and humidity upon the skin.  We can be haunted by the echos from a nearby ravine or the way sound moves across placid water.  To match the experience with an image is a tall order.  A good nature photograph can almost hold that fleeting moment forever, conveying the feeling of the place and time.

Sometimes an image is helped along by a sense of depth imparted by blurred foreground images.  In the case of this favorite bird photograph, I didn't wrestle with my own opinions about the ironwood leaves obstructing the warbler.  To me, they make the image.  I feel the forest all around me when I look at this picture, and I am always happy that the warbler chose that perch and that I was standing right where I was.  The colors of the leaves hint at the first truly warm burst of spring. The foreground reminds me that I am there in the woods, the low brush and young ironwood brushing my arms.  I am immersed.

This image was made handheld with a Canon 300mm f4 L IS lens, Canon flourite 1.4X converter, and a Canon 30D.  

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Perfect Perches, Part VI

River Ice as Perfect Perch for a Young Bald Eagle             13 March 2009

Bald Eagle and Saint Croix River 

To photograph this cooperative, immature Bald Eagle as it picked from some fish remains frozen into the river, I crawled out onto the ice on my belly.  It had been a cold winter, and the river ice was safe, but I did push my luck a little, given the late calendar date. Laying out on the ice distributed my weight across a greater surface area, and it may have also made my behavior, form, and approach much less recognizable to the bird as "human."   The eagle was healthy, but it still allowed an unusually close approach. Perhaps my benefit was in the bird being naive. Perhaps the wild and scenic river had not yet taught the eagle to fear humans. My approach was always indirect, and I took a path that portrayed indifference, an indirect and zig-zag path made on my belly.

Photographing another living being down low, at eye level, is captivating and intimate. It creates a lot of interest for the viewer of the image, and, while this idea is commonly taught by advanced nature photographers, it is also seldom observed.  Taking this a step further, photographing animals from ground level, water level, or, in this case, ice level, creates an almost surreal image and gives a perspective of nature seldom experienced by people.  Photographing in this way can be physically challenging, making the eyes crossed, the neck stiff, and the body wet, muddy, or scraped, but I have always been startled by the successes of such images.  Making an effort to find a new perspective is always worth it, and the low approach will often allow a closer approach to wary wildlife.

All images were made with a Canon 300mm f4 L IS lens, Canon flourite 1.4X teleconverter, and Canon Rebel XTi digital SLR.  The great stage for this series was the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway. 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Perfect Perches, Part V

Blue-winged Warbler and Ironwood                         9 May 2010

There is something wonderful in the colors, textures, and sense of place that ironwoods lend to the Saint Croix River valley.   As the land begins to receive its annual influx of enthusiastic Neotropical migrant birds, the baby leaves of the ironwood elegantly unfurl and begin powering the photosynthetic life station of our river valley's contiguous forest.   To capture this image of the Blue-winged Warbler, a species at the northern extent of its breeding range along the Upper Saint Croix, and to pair that bird with the river valley's characteristic ironwood, is to portray the essence of this place and time.

This image was made using a Canon 300mm f4 L IS lens, Canon flourite 1.4X converter, and Canon 30D digital SLR.   

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Perfect Perches, Part IV

Juvenile Green Heron on a Wild Lake                       18 July 2016

Green Heron and Water Lily

I made these images of a juvenile Green Heron from a kayak on a wild lake with an undeveloped shoreline while conducting a volunteer loon survey for the Sigurd Olson Institute's Loon Watch.  Because the bird was so young, it was equally naive, allowing my close approach and exhibiting a full range of natural, uninhibited behavior.

Green Herons are the second smallest heron in Wisconsin (the Least Bittern is smaller), and, while they are commonly seen foraging and flying, it is rare to find a nest.  In Polk County, I find their loosely constructed stick nests in groves of young white pine (10 to 20 year trees), but they will also nest in willow thickets near water.   In the absence of a nest, I was happy to see the tiny tuft of down on the bird's head as proof of successful reproduction nearby.

Photography from a kayak can be very rewarding.  In general, I start early, before sunrise, so that I can scout the area from the water and begin to visualize what kinds of images I am hoping to make. Being low to the water allows excellent perspective, being eye-to-eye with wildlife, and it also seems to help in isolating clean perches and adding drama to the subject.  Light reflecting from the water plays on an animal's textures and colors and seems to borrow extra time for the morning's best photography hues.

If I am to bring camera gear into the confines of a kayak at all, I need to keep it small. My favorite kayak kit is a Canon 300mm f4 LIS with an older, less expensive Canon body.  I keep a small rain jacket folded on the floor of the kayak as well as a small hand towel, and I travel from place to place with the camera stashed in a waterproof duffel bag originally designed for motorcyclists (Mad Water Waterproof Bags).  I don't use a tripod from the kayak seat, but I use body position in an effort to brace my shots.

All images were made with a Canon 40D and a Canon EF300 f4L IS lens. My platform was a Gander Mountain Guide Series Elite 10.4 kayak. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

Perfect Perches, Part III

Birds of the Bog           16 January 2010

Pine Grosbeak in the Sax Zim Bog

Living in Northwest Wisconsin has its ecological privileges.  At 45 degrees North Latitude, I live on a famous ecological tension zone.  My own home rests neatly between eastern deciduous forests dominated by sugar maple, black ash, and basswood, the southern reaches of boreal forest characterized by white pine, paper birch, tamarack, and spruce, and the northern extent of prairie bluestem and oak savanna.  Just two hours to my north, influenced by Lake Superior, a truly boreal forest community exists, complete with balsam fir, black spruce, moose, wolves, the occasional Canada lynx, and the birds so characteristic of the taiga.   Every year, I try to make at least one trip into the Sax Zim Bog to enjoy the flavor of the North American Taiga.

Gray Jay, a bird of the boreal forest

The Perfect Perch quest continues as I search through the last decade of my own work for good, sharp, clean birds on perfect perches.  All of these images were made with a Canon Rebel XTi and a Canon EF 300mm f4 L IS lens.