Birds of the Great Confluence – Part One – Riverlands MBS and Confluence SP

The Great Rivers Confluence is the area where North America’s two largest rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi, meet together and flow as the Mississippi.  This confluence is just north of St. Louis, Missouri and provides many opportunities for birds along the Mississippi migratory flyway to find the habitat they need.  These areas provide great opportunities for bird-watchers, hunters, and other outdoors types and go by names such as Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Jones Confluence State Park, Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, Marais Temps Clair CA, and a handful of other public properties that have been given mandates based on conserving the basic habitat that wild birds and our other wildlife kin rely upon for their existence.

I have been bird watching in this region for about five years and taking bird photographs here for the last two or three.  In this post, I will be showcasing six of my favorite images I have made at Riverlands MBS and Confluence SP.  I will feature another group taken at Columbia Bottom CA, which sets on the south side of the Missouri River at another time.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/5.6, 1/800 sec

The bird pictured above is an Osprey, also known as the Fish Hawk and is one of several species of conservation concern that benefit from the types of refuge that Riverlands and the other preserved and well-managed habitats in the confluence region provide.  These birds feed almost exclusively on fish so it is of no surprise that these birds utilize the Mississippi River and surrounding waterways during their migration for their supper.  These birds will use man-made structures, such as telephone poles to build their nests.  At RMBS you can find special structures designed for this specific purpose.  To my knowledge, these structures have not been used but the birds have nested in trees nearby for the past several years.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6, 1/640 sec

Probably the best known group of birds that rely on the habitat of the confluence region are the waterfowl.  In this day and age, hunting has been one of the bright spots in conservation and management of the types of habitat that ducks and swans rely on during migration.  Without hunters and the money they spend we probably would have lost much more land to development along the Mississippi flyway than we have.  The number of waterfowl hunters has decreased over the past few decades, while the number of bird-watchers, nature photographers and other conservation-minded types has increased.  This is somewhat ironical because organizations that have relied on funds generated from hunting to purchase, protect and manage wetlands are now experiencing budget shortages.  Bird-watching, photography and hiking do not, naturally put money back into the system.  If a new method of fundraising is not found, we may be facing a crisis in the management and protection of these wetlands and the chance to procure new properties for this purpose.  An obvious solution would be for private donations to be given by anyone interested in the protection of these habitats.  Anyone can purchase Duck Stamps, which monies go into managing habitats in which migratory waterfowl rely.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/5.6, 1/400 sec

Other groups of birds, the waders, shorebirds, songbirds and others also rely on the habitat found at Riverlands.  This Yellow-crowned Knight Heron, for instance, is a species that is seldomly found here.  One early August morning I came across a group of these juveniles who were making their way south through the Mississippi flyway together.  As you can see, their colors and patterns make them difficult to spot in almost any natural habitat.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 250,  f/6.3, 1/1600 sec

Winter gulls are a very challenging group of birds to identify.  During normal winters, unlike the tropical winter we are experiencing this year, several rare northern migrants can be found along the dam and other man-made structures.  During the dead of winter it is not uncommon to find groups of experienced birders shivering under the frigid temperatures and gale-force winds at the lock and dam at Riverlands looking at hard to distinguish, rather drab gulls through 60X scopes hoping to find that rare gull to add to their year list.  I have done a little of this myself and it can become addicting!  These cute and graceful Bonaparte’s Gulls are rather earlier migrants that favor warmer weather than many other gulls.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6, 1/800 sec

Another challenging group of birds that will have the uber-birder skipping work, church and ignoring family is the shore-birds.  These birds, whom I have recently become enamored with, move through the confluence region mostly during March-May in the spring and August-October in the fall.  These are beautiful, photogenic and biologically fascinating and diverse birds.  The shorebirds are almost strictly a migratory group concerning the confluence region.  These birds have some of the largest migratory routes in the animal kingdom and their routes across Missouri and Illinois vary and can be tricky in predicting.  Farming and other land development practices are hurting this group badly across their migratory route.  Most species of shorebird have pretty narrow requirements or preferences when it comes to the particular habitat and water depth they need to thrive.  Managing a wetland becomes troublesome when the specific needs for a species is considered and skilled management practices are a must.  Unfortunately, almost half of the shorebirds of the new-world are experiencing declining populations, due almost solely to man-made influences.  Serious action needs to be taken to preserve these populations.  You can read more about this by reading the United States Shorebird Conservation Plan.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6, 1/800 sec

Next to the Bald Eagle, the Trumpeter Swan may be the most recognized bird species of conservation concern that calls the confluence region home during the winter.  Upwards of 400 of these birds and lower numbers of the similar, Tundra Swan can be seen in a single day at Riverlands and surrounding area.  These birds are rugged survivors that spend the majority of their day searching the surrounding farm fields for wasted grain and overnighting in the sanctuary’s water bodies.  These birds, the world’s heaviest that are still capable of flight, are a treasure to watch and photograph.

I often tell people that photographing birds is simultaneously the most rewarding and the most frustrating experience I can think of.  For each of these six images that I am relatively proud of there are at least 500 that were unusable.  Fortune favors the prepared photographer who understands not only how to use their equipment, but understands the behavior of the birds they are after.  Getting close is key, but not getting so close as to disturb the natural behavior and sense of security these wild animals should expect to have.  This is often a fine line.

The confluence region where the Big Muddy and the Father of Waters join was once one of the greatest wetlands areas in all the temperate regions of the world.  Farming and urban sprawl have made considerable changes to these natural habitats.  We can do something to maintain and potentially repair some of what has been lost.


Location Spotlight: Piney Creek Nature Preserve – Part Two

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens @ 12mm, ISO 100,  f/16, 0.6 sec

Ten days following my first visit and hike into Piney Creek Nature Preserve I arose early and left the house during one of the two appreciable snowfalls we’ve had this winter in our region so far (I was very sick on the second snowfall and could not enjoy it).  Prior to the temperature drop we had inches of rain during the previous day and I realized that places such as this should have a significant amount of water flowing through their streams and intermittent waterfalls.  Following a careful drive through the snow, I arrived two hours later almost the exact second the snowfall stopped.  This makes photographing a little easier without worrying about the equipment getting wet, but it would have been nice to hike in the falling white stuff for a while.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 24mm, ISO 200,  f/13, 0.8 sec

The image above was the first waterfall I heard.  To get here required a short bushwhack off trail and down into the ravine.  A hiking pole and crampon/spikes on your boots are definitely helpful in doing this.  The rock in this area was extremely slick, with ice on top of algae/slime.  I was very cautious moving on the rocks to set up this shot, realizing that the rock sloped toward the stream and loosing my footing would prove disastrous. Because of the higher water and treacherous footing the available compositions were somewhat limited.  Considering how poorly I function with too many options, this was not exactly a bad thing!

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens @ 21mm, ISO 100,  f/16, 0.3 sec

This cascade pictured above is a section of a longer series of twists and drops found closer to the back side of the hiking loop.  The water here skips shallowly over rock shelves and narrow chutes and takes occasional breaks in what appear to be quite deep pools.  When I made it to this section of the reserve the cloud cover was almost completely gone and blue skies were above.  The sun that would completely melt this fresh snow by the time I drove home this day was just beginning to peak over the bluff.  I realized that I would soon be faced with high-contrast shadows and harsh glare off the landscape scenery and I needed to grab every capture I could in the limited time available.  Sometimes it is also best to work with a deadline.  😉

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 24mm, ISO 200,  f/14, 1 sec

You can see that the previous one to two day rain brought a lot of soil into the stream.  Because of this, I felt most of the images would be presented best in monochrome.  I did want to present what one of these scenes looks like in color, however.  This one had some greens and reds to provide a little contrast between the browns of the water and rocks and white snow.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 24mm, ISO 160,  f/16, 0.8 sec

This place has a lot more to offer than what I present here.  There were at least two other significant waterfalls that I could see or hear, but the terrain with the snow and ice on precipitous ravine sides caused me to think wisely against trying to get within good photography distance.  Definitely something to try during better weather this spring.  I’ll be looking forward to my next visit to Piney Creek Nature Reserve.  Maybe I’ll even plan on paying a visit to the Popeye museum along the way in the town of Chester.

Location Spotlight: Rock Between Two Soft Places

The Pinnacles, also known as “Boone County Pinnacles Youth Park” is a Missouri State Designated Natural Area located approximately 12 miles north of Columbia.  The geologic structures know as The Pinnacles formed between two parallel Ozark streams, Silver Fork and Rocky Fork.  These streams running closer and closer to one another have formed this erosional structure (senile ridge) that is approximately 75′ high and 1000′ in length.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 60mm, ISO 160,  f/13, 1/4 sec

The Pinnacles are composed primarily of Burlington Limestone, with a small amount of sandstone to act as a “cement” in some places.  This fact was the inspiration of the title of this post.  These two streams are quite quickly, in a geological perspective, eroding this separation between them.  Limestones are very easily eroded by forces of weather and flowing water.  On this visit I easily found fossil crinoids in the rock, a feature Burlington limestone is known for.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 24mm, ISO 160,  f/18, 1/4 sec

The most recent time I visited here the weather was quite poor.  During one of the sporadic sleet and freezing rain showers I took shelter under one of the windows, or natural arches, that erosion has carved in the rock.  While I was waiting out the weather I was able to take a close look at the composing rock.  The amount of cracks and other signs of erosion was eye-opening.  While I was sitting there, bits and pieces of rock were literally falling off the overhanging arch and landing around me.  It takes little imagination to realize the effects that changing mid-western seasons along with ebbing flows of the streams are having on this feature.  Geologists reckon this rock feature has only a couple thousand years left, so if you plan on visiting, do it soon!

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EFS10-22mm f/3.5-4.5L IS USM lens @ 13mm, ISO 160,  f/16, HDR blend of two images

If you do plan on visiting and bushwhacking your way across the stream and up onto the rocks, take care!  There are numerous spots that one wrong step could potentially be your last.  On top of the risks of being swept away by high water in crossing the stream and falling from the top of one these spires, there is the usual risk associated with the Northern Missouri Ozarks – private property.  Apparently one side of this site is bounded by a stretch of property owned by a particularly cranky old man.  I was warned by a regular visitor to stay clear of that side of the park as he will not hesitate to accost hikers that stray too far.  Unfortunately one of the two shallow spots I have found to cross the stream is located in what seems to be his property.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 28mm, ISO 160,  f/16, 1/2 sec

The eastern red cedar, which is really a juniper, loves limestone.  This species is a long-lived pioneer invader that will be one of the first trees to grow in a disturbed area or any area that other species find undesirable.  Because it will grow in crevices along bluffs and shallow, rocky soils that often lack resources needed to grow quick and large, small trees can often be over 600 years old.  In fact, the oldest documented individual of this species was recorded in Missouri and was found to be 795 years old!  This species is currently taking over much of Missouri’s knob-top glades found throughout the Ozarks.  Cedar is not tolerant of fire and the suppression of natural and man-made fires on modern private land as well as public lands such as the Mark Twain National Forest is allowing cedars to take hold in these habitats where they were historically controlled.  But, this is a subject for another post.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF17-40mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 28mm, ISO 100,  f/16, HDR blend of four images

Just a stone’s throw south of The Pinnacles is a “shelving rock” style of shut-in (not pictured).  This feature was formed by erosional forces of Silver Fork as the creek runs dead-on into limestone bedrock and is forced to make a sharp left turn.  This shelter is 40′ deep, 10′ high and 125′ long.  Although it looks like the shelter is often flooded during high waters, I am sure this was used by pre-Colombian man.

The Pinnacles is another destination for the landscape photographer in the Missouri Ozarks that offers a diversity of photo ops depending on time of day, weather and the season.  It is also a high quality biological habitat even though it is so close to a a major metropolitan area.  With luck and continued proper management this location will continue to be a place visitors can come to appreciate the geologic and natural features that the Missouri Ozarks offers and once offered in much greater abundance.

Much of the information used in this post was found in “Geologic Wonders and Curiosities of Missouri” by Thomas R. Beveredge.  This is a highly prized book in my collection.  I only wish someone would update and revise with GPS coordinates!



Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House

“So, where are we going?  To see Sophey having sex?” my wife questioned me when I woke her early on one of our shared days off during the past holiday break.

No, I replied.  “We are getting up early to get some breakfast and then on to the Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House.  We have to get there by 9:00 to beat the crowds of older and younger people that will surely be troublesome as well as everyone with a camera phone who is trying to take a masterpiece of a butterfly.  We have to get there early so that the butterflies are not fully warmed by the slow winter sun and become too active to shoot easily.”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, ISO 160,  f/14, 1/30 sec

These subjects at this location are definitely a challenge.  What makes it even worse is that on a colder winter day you cannot expect to go directly in to the high temperature and high humidity environment and start shooting.  You will find that your cold equipment has condensation all over it.  Sure, you could try wiping the glass surface of your lens over and over until the condensation is all but gone, but you shouldn’t.  Think about it.  If the moisture is building on the outside of your camera and lens, then any moisture that is suspended in the air inside your equipment will also condense – condense all over the intricate electronic circuits that make up your expensive camera and lens package that you saved for so long to purchase.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, ISO 200,  f/14, 1/30 sec

So what to do now?  Well, if your equipment is much colder or warmer moving from one environment to another you only have a couple of options.  You could do nothing and wait for all signs of condensation to dissipate before powering your equipment, thereby being relatively certain there is no condensation on those electrical connections that you do not want to short.  Or, you can seal your equipment in a zip-lock bag.  Leave your equipment in the bag and allow it to reach the temperature of the new environment.  The air in the bag will not be nearly as humid as the air in the greenhouse, or whatever warmer environment you have moved to.  Once the equipment has reached the same temperature, take it out of the bag and you will not see the condensation.  This second option would be the most desirable, if you remember to pack appropriate-sized zip-lock bags.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, ISO 320,  f/16, 1/40 sec

There are many techniques and equipment combinations one can use for macro photography and I have used several different combinations and techniques.  For insects, distance is obviously important and focal length and focusing distance should be a primary consideration when making your decisions about what equipment to purchase.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, ISO 200,  f/11, 1/40 sec

I would love to see the Butterfly House have one or two “photographers hours” a week.  I picture a day where they open the house early for an hour or so for only photographers.  There would be no school groups, no kids trying to rip the animals wings off.  This could be a great opportunity for us to get some great practice in for the summer insect season.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, ISO 320,  f/16, 1/60 sec

Location Spotlight: Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park

Located near Graniteville in Reynolds Co, MO Johnson’s Shut-Ins is one of the largest and pleasingly aesthetic shut-ins found in the state.  This is another spot found in the geologically intriguing St. Francois Mountains of the Missouri Ozarks.  Formed by one of the meandering forks of the Black River, cascades, chutes and potholes have been formed in Taumsauk rhyolite, the ~1.5 billion year old rock that makes up the majority of this spectacular geologic feature.  This rhyolite, which is a cousin to granite, is extremely hard and resistant to wear, so the water acts mostly upon joints or fractures in the rock and carves these areas down smooth to form the Ozark’s recreational fun zone that many people enjoy today.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM lens @ 17mm, ISO 100,  f/16, 0.6 sec

Unfortunately, this park was irreversibly changed following the December 2005 disaster when a wall of the Ameren UE hydroelectric reservoir failed and a resulting 1.3 billion gallons of water ravaged the Johnson’s Shut-In SP and surrounding area.  This water rushed down the hillsides in less than 12 minutes.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM @ 105mm, ISO 100,  f/13, 2 sec

A true example of an anthropogenic induced disaster upon nature, the water scoured everything in its path down the Profit Mountain slopes to clean bedrock.  This resulted in the loss of near pristine habitat that made up several officially designated Natural Areas, but has given geologists an interesting, uninterrupted view of the granites, rhyolites, sandstones and dolomites that are the primary rocks of the St. Francis Mountains.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 17mm, ISO 100,  f/16, 1/8 sec

Do a web search to view images immediately following the disaster and you can see it is amazing that the area was able to be cleaned up and facilities rebuilt to the current state that they are about six years later.  There is a boulder field near the current entrance to the State Park.  I was told by a Park official those boulders weigh in the neighborhood of three to 30 tons a piece and that none of them are close to the same place they had been prior to the disaster.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 38mm, ISO 100,  f/16, 0.3 sec

I’ve seen some amazing photographs taken before the reservoir collapse contrasting the shut-ins against maple trees in brilliant autumn foliage.  It seems most of the maples around this spot are gone and there hasn’t been a very good autumn show here in the four or so years I’ve been interested in nature photography.  This is a real shame.  However, when I think about these types of disasters, whether man-made or natural I try and put it into a geological or biological perspective.  In these perspectives this type of disaster is a temporary change or setback.  In the equivalent moment of a breath of the earth this type of activity will be erased from the landscape and nothing but the slightest evidence or mere suggestion of this event shall be evident.

Of course, with the continuing onslaught of the human landscape, these events, multiplied over small number of generations are leading to devastating changes to the biosphere and are adding up to what looks to be one of the six largest extinction events in history.  Considering the primary purpose of this reservoir is to provide extra power to the St. Louis Metropolis, it makes me wonder how long civilization will continue to take and take from the commons without giving serious consideration to the important things.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 17mm, ISO 100,  f/18, 1/4 sec

Do I have to say this is a location I will be visiting for as long as I’m able?

A Winter’s Touch of Color in the St. Francois Mountains

“Harbinger of spring” is a common name given given to a spring ephemeral wildflower, which among other places throughout the Eastern United States, can be found in bloom as early as February in our Ozark woodlands and forests.  Ozark witch hazel, pictured below, is a species of shrub found in the St. Francois Mountains that begins to bloom in early January.  These images were taken on January 7th at Lower Rock Creek Wilderness in Madison County, MO.  These plants are incredible and I seek out their blooms every year during their January though April flowering period.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, ISO 320,  f/14, 1/40 sec

These blooms can last in the middle of the harshest winter for up to six weeks under temperatures as low as 0 deg F.  When temperatures get much below freezing the long petals will curl up and then uncurl during sunny warm weather.  When warm these blooms emit a very pleasant, vanilla-like scent.  I spent a good amount of time yesterday napping in the sun on a rhyolite shelf of Lower Rock Creek listening to the rushing water and having the scent of these fresh blooms waft by me with a gentle cool breeze.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM lens @ 35mm, ISO 160,  f/9, 1/10 sec

These plants are also noteworthy for the variability in color of their flowers.  I’ve found plants side by side that held flowers completely of red, oranges and reds, or like the plant below, nothing but yellow.  Typically the sepals of these plants will be a lovely burnt, orange/red and the strap-like petals will be lighter shades of orange and yellow.  It has been suggested by some that these colors may change over the course of the individual flower’s life, over the course of a season, or even over the course of the plant’s life.  I do not know the answer to this.  As you can see below, these yellow flowers are fresh, crisp and new.

Every year I wonder about the specific pollinator(s) that service this species.  I’ve read that it may be early emerging species of bees or flies.  I saw a few insects and other arthropods moving about around the water, but never witnessed a visit to the flowers while I was shooting them yesterday.  Flies can be very ephemeral and advantageous about when they will emerge over the course of a season.  It would not surprise me that flies fill this role, at least until March or April when more insects are up and about looking for their duty.

My visit to this special place exemplifies that to study biology-to study nature is to study exceptions.  I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard a “rule” or “absolute” by expert or professional in the realm of biology that turned out to be truly universal.  If there is a niche to be filled or an opportunity to thrive, natural selection will see to it, as long as it makes sense for the time and place.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, ISO 400,  f/14, 1/20 sec

Limitless Composition

I’ve been paying a lot more attention to Elephant Rocks State Park lately.  I am seeing there is a never ending supply of potential terrific photographic compositions (not that the one below is one of these).  Add all the potential compositions with all the variables that light can bring to this place and throw in the different seasons and potentials for weather and you wind up with a place I should be visiting at least once a week!  I need to find out how to make this happen.  😉

This image was obviously taken with a wide focal length and is a composite of a couple different exposures so that I could keep some detail in this amazing autumn sky.  Some oak leaves contribute with lichen and the natural texture of the rocks for some foreground interest, and a dark lead-in line is present created by what I believe is a path water has drained off this shelf for who knows how many years?

While visiting one of my favorite places in the St. Francois Mountains, Lower Rock Creek Wilderness, I met a father and son visiting the Ozarks for the first time from Wisconsin.  I was able to give them suggestions for other places to see during their short visit, Elephant Rocks being one of them.  Needless to say they thought this location was fascinating and them, I and many others finished the day by watching a spectacular sunset amongst the boulders.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens @ 11mm, ISO 100,  f/16, 1/15 sec