Thursday, February 9, 2017

Golden Wings

Variations on a Theme            25 May 2016

Golden-winged Warbler, full song

Northwest Wisconsin, my home, is a globally significant region in the conservation of the Golden-winged Warbler. Since moving to the Saint Croix River valley in late 1999, I have become very familiar with the Golden-winged Warbler, and I have come to expect a day in late spring or summer to include at least one.  We share the same overall biogeography, this species and I. Northern Wisconsin supports 25% of the world's population.  Northern Minnesota supports an estimated 50% of the world's population, and parts of eastern Canada and the eastern United States support the rest. They are on the fast track to Endangered status, having disappeared in vast stretches of more southerly breeding habitat, and the accountability in saving this species runs deep.  The Golden-winged Warbler is not merely "our" bird.  It overwinters in much of Central America and northern South America.  While we provide the breeding habitat, survival of the young depends upon safe migration through corridors of good habitat throughout the eastern United States and successful overwintering in tropical America.  Traveling through the Americas, it is said often, and it is worth repeating for the sake of this beautiful bird...we are ALL Americans.  Together, a common goal of conservation biology is paramount to the keeping the beauty alive for our great grandchildren. As cliche' as it may sound, we really, really MUST embrace the common goal and save the birds!

I grew up as a birder, but I didn't actually see my first Golden-winged Warbler until I was 23 years old.  Where I grew up, near La Crosse, Wisconsin, the Blue-winged Warbler ruled the roost.  Seeing this strange and beautiful warbler with its golden wings for the first time, back in 1993, came about through serendipity.  I had been invited to a graduation party for a fellow University of Minnesota -- College of Natural Resources grad.  It turned out that the party was at her family's cabin in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin.  As I arrived in the general area of the party, I became deeply curious about the landscape.  I found myself immersed as a young naturalist in a world of ecological transition. Dumbstruck by the beauty of a land rich in alder wetlands, yellow birch, and conifer-green hints of boreal forest, I explored enthusiastically, banking on being "fashionably late" to the party.  I soon found my first Golden-winged Warbler, and, fifty yards later, my second...and then third, fourth, fifth... In my book, Turtle Lake, Wisconsin had become the Golden-winged Warbler capitol of the world.   My estimation wasn't far off the mark.

In Polk, Barron, and Burnett Counties, the Golden-winged Warbler is a common bird, a luxurious reality that hides its globally delicate hold on survival.  Here, males compete angrily for territories and establish breeding sites in a variety of habitats, all with a common collection of themes.  Golden-winged Warblers need thicket edges, areas of dense, young trees and shrubs, margins of tall grasses, sedges or herbaceous weeds, and a not-so-distant lot of older, mature trees.  These habitats seem to play out best where alder swamps along streams meet with wet meadows and young aspen woodlots in a mosaic of healthy forest.  Less so, but still importantly, managed forests with some clear-cuts and young aspen generation attract Golden-wings.  So long as Northwest Wisconsin has healthy and wild streams cutting through large parcels of wild land, we will have Golden-winged Warbler habitat.  Some active forestry practices sprinkled here and there seem to help plenty too.  Like all things, moderation is key, as the breeding pairs also need adjacent parcels of mature deciduous forest in which to hunt for caterpillars. 

Polk County, my home, provides ample opportunities for the success of this species. Climate change and changing political climates may threaten it to some extent here too.  Vigilance and voice will help stretch the calendar of days for this species, and love for this bird will bring awareness and action.  The Golden-winged Warbler is a spectacular bird.  May it continue to thrive and connect the peace of our nations.

All images were made with a Canon 7D, Canon EF 400mm f5.6L lens, and a Gitzo Basalt GT1932 tripod with an Induro BHD1 Ball head.
Hey! Saturday, May 27th, 2017 is the date set for the Polk County Early Bird Whip-poor-will Bird Hike.  We are meeting at Straight Lake State Park's southern parking lot at 8:30 AM! Located near, Luck, Wisconsin, we meet a couple of miles north of the intersection of Hwy 48 and Polk County GG.  The hike is sponsored by the Gaylord Nelson Audubon Society.  This hike is a virtual guarantee for Golden-winged Warbler viewing and photography!   Early birds can also meet us at 4AM at Lion's Park, Saint Croix Falls, Wisconsin on that day to caravan to the Sterling Barrens, a managed forest landscape rich in bird life (especially Golden-winged Warblers).  We depart for Straight Lake from there at 8AM sharp to meet the Straight Lake crew by 8:30.  Check out Luck, Wisconsin's downtown area after the hike! I am a big fan of Cafe Wren, Morley's Maple Syrup, Natural Foods Co-op, and VanMeter Meats!  Good Birding!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Hushed Calm, Perfect Light

Barred Owl Portrait                                16 July 2017

Barred Owls are largely nocturnal, but July is a month of hungry fledglings.  While participating in the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II, I happened to catch a glimpse of this Barred Owl hunting for small mammals along the forested edge of a small lake. Backlit by the rapidly rising sun, I knew the owl would present some exposure challenge.  Luckily, the owl was not at all worried about me and remained cooperative!  To make the exposure, I used my Canon 7D's Live View mode and spot metered on the owl's face. The spot-metered reading resulted in overexposure of the "average" by 1 and 2/3 stops.  The deliberate overexposure kept the owl nicely exposed, and it also kept the image free of digital noise at ISO 800.  Despite a very long time spent with the bird, I only managed to make a couple of truly meaningful images.  I feel the character of the light, and the beauty of the trees really make the image work.  Rim-lighting, apparent on the leaves and some of the larger branches, can be very pleasing and makes a back-lit subject a refreshing change from a world of direct front-lighting norms in wildlife imagery. While photographing this bird, the forest around me echoed in the Neotropical songs of Yellow-throated Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Hermit Thrush, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Scarlet Tanager, and Pine Warbler.  Perhaps the quality of the light and old character of the tree speak to those songs as well.

The image was made with a Canon 7D, Canon EF400mm f5.6L lens, Gitzo Basalt GT1932 Tripod and Induro BHD1 ballhead.

Reflections on Capturing the Invisible

Winter Waterfowl                               21 February 2016

Mallard hen bathing and making a splash

From nearly fifty meters, the large open hole in the Saint Croix River ice sparkles mid-morning light toward me, and I wince slightly, placing my gloved hand over my eyes like the brim of a baseball cap. From where I approach, I must walk with the sun in my face, so there is no secret kept from the animals of this place.  They will see me in full sun, and those that stay have accepted that I pose no threat.  I hear the occasional hissing, tinkling rush as a floating raft of ice is jostled from upstream and bounces its way into the open pool.  It passes by a crowd of mallards, geese and swans without raising as single feathered eyebrow.  The birds are calm.

Trumpeter Swan, ready for a nap

As I approach, the mallards raise a slightly alarmed chortle and begin swimming.  While I sit at the edge of the ice, laying my gear in the snow, the whole gang calms again.  Some birds are adjacent to me on the ice, but most remain in the safety of the water.  All around, I see mid-winter life, a pulse in a cold and desolate landscape, warmth radiating in color of feather and busy personalities.  The swans swim toward me, curious about me, and, upon reaching a certain distance, they pause to rethink the choice.  I extend the legs of my tripod and clamp my Canon EF400 to the head. 

Trumpeter Swan

I look through my lens and survey the pool of open water.  I have positioned myself to get the sun as much to my back as possible, but there is some compromise.  Finding perfect light would require a foolish dance across thin ice.  At its best, the sun is glancing, the lateness of the day casting harsh blue tones and robbing me of the warm tones so often important to good wildlife photography.  There is no doubt I have arrived too late to this place.  I have missed the light.

Resting Trumpeter Swan, stretching a leg

Mallard pair, resting on the ice

As I study the situation, I begin to notice that the water is acting like a reflector of sunlight, bouncing the light upward into my face.  I reason that if it is bouncing into my face, then maybe it is bouncing up into the feathers of the birds. 

Subtle light ripples dancing on the wing of a swan...a first clue!

Light dancing on feathers... Perhaps, then, the better light would be found if I were to be under the birds, looking up at them rather then above them looking down into scattering light!  I pull my Canon EF400mm lens off of the tripod and lay absolutely flat on the ice and snow.  What I see is beautiful.

Mallard drake, rousing

Trumpeter Swan

I am an icy pancake.  Neck muscles soon stiff, I take long breaks, laying my stocking hat on the ice and using it as a pillow.  I rest my ear on the hat and watch the world of waterfowl from their eye level or even just below. I study the light and the dozens of enthusiastic personalities.  They are mostly doing the regular sorts of things, and I don't immediately see anything too interesting.  They are loafing, swimming, feeding, and occasionally bathing.  In a strange moment, a slow-motion moment of sudden insight, I see water trickling down the side of a mallard.  She has been bathing, and, having spent so long just watching, I begin to realize that the duck is far from static, far from just a mallard hen, far from just a portrait. She may be fairly static now, but when she bathed, she splashed. She created millions of dynamic moments that were free for the taking, spectacular moments that could only be captured at 1/2000th of a second.  Excited by the opportunity, I eagerly search out a bathing mallard.  It is time to capture the invisible!

All images were made with a Canon 7D and a Canon EF400mm f5.6L lens.