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.  

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Perfect Perches, Part II

Nesting Eastern Bluebirds and Verbascum Mullein      16 May 2010

This male Eastern Bluebird has returned to the nest with a June beetle. He is giving a wing waving display to his mate. 

My search through a decade of my favorite nature photographs continues as I seek those perfect perches, those unusually clean and sharp bird photographs.  One thing all "perfect perch" bird images have in common is that they all required much more planning than conventional bird photographs and consequently led to more time afield, a deeper understanding of the birds' behaviors, and a wonderful, memorable experience of immersion in a natural setting.

Female Eastern Bluebird arriving at the nest with caterpillars

When photographing birds at a nest site, ethics in wildlife photography merge with diligent study of animal behavior and careful observations of the breeding pair.  I began by setting up my camera blind about thirty yards from the nest box after the eggs had hatched and the adults showed an intensified investment in the nest.  I observed the birds from a distance to be sure they grew used to the blind and did not hesitate to feed their young.  Once the parents proved their unfailing dedication to their young and I had determined that the blind posed no threat, I slowly moved it closer and closer to perches used by the adults.  Within two days, I had the blind placed within about ten feet of two primary perches used by the birds to survey the nest before feeding their young.  I only used the blind for a couple of hours before retreating it and eventually removing it completely from the area.

All images were made with a Canon Rebel XTi and a Canon EF 300mm f4 L IS lens mounted to a Bogen tripod.  I used an Ameristep Doghouse blind to conceal myself at the nest.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Perfect Perches, Part I

Northern Hawk Owl and Short-tailed Shrew         27 February 2010

Northern Hawk Owl and Short-tailed Shrew. The Northern Hawk Owl is a true species of owl, but its bodily adaptations and behaviors are more similar to a hawk, with swift flight, diurnal (daylight) hunting habits, and the habit of hunting from a high, conspicuous perch. 

When I was just 15 years old, I was given the Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds for my birthday.  The bird photographs were some of the best ever published at the time, and I remember the strong sensation of imprinting that overcame me as I stared at the vivid hummingbird photographs.  There were a couple of images that combined sharp feather detail, rich color, and perfect perches, all in front of an even, clean, saturated background.  To look at these pictures was to hold a bird closely.  

My passion for bird photography grew quickly, and later that winter,  I bought my first SLR camera with my savings account.  It was a 1970 Minolta SRT 101 with a Vivitar 70-210 Macrozoom.  I shot print film, advanced each frame with the crank of a lever, and within a year, I had made my first "perfect perch" photograph. I had enticed a Purple Finch to perch upon a stick taped to a bird feeder.   In the last decade, I have vigorously rediscovered my desire to make sharp, clean images of birds, well saturated in color, exciting in detail, without distracting elements, clean in background and perfect in perch.   To get such images in a truly natural and wild setting is very challenging.

In February of 2010, a Northern Hawk Owl spent the winter surviving within Fish Lake State Wildlife Area and Fish Lake Meadows State Natural Area in Burnett County, Wisconsin.  It hunted actively and very successfully, and it showed almost no fear of people.  To this bird, I was merely a moose or woodland caribou. This hawk owl was truly a product of  boreal Canadian experiences.

On many separate occasions, I observed the bird as it successfully caught and ate red-backed voles, meadow voles, and short-tailed shrews.  Some of the voles were pounced by the owl nearly at my feet as I walked through the sedges, the rodents flushed out of hiding by my approach.  Photographing this bird had become a symbiotic process. Every effort to get closer to the owl seemed to beat some tiny mammal out of its lair.  Some of the prey was consumed on the spot, but many of the small mammals were cached in the broken tops of oak and aspen.  Earlier in the winter, the Hawk Owl often hovered among big, lazy snowflakes before plunging into the sedges of Fish Lake Meadow.  As the winter season wore on, the hawk owl spent more time hunting from perches, taking shrews from the forest edge and red-backed voles from fallen timber.  Not a visit passed without the bird displaying a story of predatory success, and then, sometime in middle March,the sun high and warm in the sky, the well-nourished bird flew off to the Canadian taiga again.

In all of our encounters, the 27th of February provided my favorite set of images.  On this day, the hawk owl hunted the far northern edge of Fish Lake Meadow, a flooded sedge marsh containing the scattered skeletal remnants of a short-lived forest.  The remaining snags, low to the marsh and encrusted in lichen, provided good hunting for the owl and equally good hunting for the my artist's eye.   It was a day of perfect perches.

Northern Hawk Owl coughing out an owl pellet, the undigested hair and bones of shrews and voles. All images were made handheld with a Canon 30D and Canon EF 300 f4 L IS lens. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Never Forget

My First Unbanded Wisconsin Swan,  Date Unknown, Early Spring, 2003

Trumpeter Swan, in the wild, Crex Meadows, 2003

This photograph is of my first unbanded Wisconsin Trumpeter Swan, a bird that I photographed in 2003, nearly 14 years after the start of the Wisconsin DNR's efforts to restore the species to our state.

European market hunting was once a dangerous and powerful force on the North American landscape.  By the late 1800's, Trumpeter Swans, exploited for their feathers and for their meat, were nearly extinct.  In 1910, there were only about 70 Trumpeter Swans left in the world.  Sumner Matteson and Randy Jurewicz, heading a team of DNR wildlife biologists, collected 40 eggs from the remote wilds in the state of Alaska in 1989. Those eggs served as the renewal of Wisconsin's Trumpeter Swan population.  The thriving Wisconsin population is in its infancy, just 27 years old in a natural system measured by ice ages.

I saw my first Trumpeter Swan in the wild in 1989, at the age of 19, near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. My first wild Midwestern Trumpeter Swans came by sudden surprise in 1992 while surveying night migrant birds through a Noctron night vision scope. In the first years of the restoration efforts, swans were banded and given neck collars with clear identification numbers.  One of those original birds still resides in Burnett County. A bird with a green collar (82K), it is often seen near the Wood River.

We must never forget the mistakes of the past, and we must strive to maintain the hard-fought laws and efforts that have begun to restore our wildlife heritage.  In recent years, the level of respect held for our natural resources and the laws that protect them have declined precipitously.  While the swan's success is celebrated here, I also fear that the youngest generation will never know that this bird is a small miracle.  What seems common in my own neck of the woods is a rare treat for almost everyone elsewhere.  Will our youth strive to protect the habitats that support this bird?

This image was made with a Canon A2, Canon EF300mm L IS lens, and Fujichrome Provia 100 film. For those who do not remember the times when we had no Trumpeter Swans here, photographic images were once captured on the emulsion of a physical substance simply referred to as film. We spent about $7 for 36 exposures, sent it off to a chemical lab for processing for about $4 more, and waited more than ten days to see what successes we had made.  May the treasures of the world find us to be enduring in our patience and long in our vision.  As times change, may we preserve the deepest beauty of a natural Earth. Walk in beauty.