Birds of the Great Confluence – Part Two – Columbia Bottom Conservation Area

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

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 a previous post I showcased six of my favorite images I made at Riverlands MBS and Confluence SP.  Today, I will feature another group of bird photographs taken at Columbia Bottom CA, which sets on the south side of the Missouri River.

These areas may seem very different to us bird watchers because it is about a 15-20 minute drive between the two.  The birds, however can literally move between the two locations in 20-30 seconds.  Such was the case with this Red-tailed Hawk, which is pictured above.  This guy was present in the confluence area for three weeks or so and I had several great opportunities to photograph it.  This is probably my favorite bird photograph to date.  My wife and I were doing a drive through CBCA and in one of the smaller gravel parking lots here was the bird perched atop a post.  I slowly pulled within about 25 feet or so from her going as slow as possible so not to flush her.  The bird cooperatively sat still for maybe five minutes before another car flying by a nearby road caused her to take off.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 250,  f/5.6, 1/1000 sec

One of the great things about birding the confluence region is that every season brings with it a different species composition.  On a monthly basis you will find that some species have arrived and some have left in the ever ongoing event we call migration.  The bird pictured above is a Horned-Lark and he is found in about equal numbers year round.  They are a little more noticeable in the winter season, however, because they tend to aggregate in small flocks – most likely to make finding food easier and potentially spotting predators quicker.  Starting in early spring they will slowly form the mating pairs that will spend the breeding season together.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6, 1/250 sec

This relative of the Cardinal is the monotypic, Dickcissel, and is very much a summer visitor.  These guys arrive en masse to the confluence area around mid-May and following the breeding season leave just as abruptly to their over-wintering homes that lie from southern Mexico to northern South America.  These guys are usually very numerous, but their population in recent decades are facing pressures.  Dickcissel are grassland specialist, seed eaters.  As such they have found there are easy pickings in agricultural areas.  In their off-breading homes in Latin America, where there are fewer regulations against such things, farmers are using very dangerous poisons that have been documented in the killing of thousands of these birds as well as other non-targeted species.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/5.6, 1/320 sec

The widely distributed, Black-crowned Night Heron is the quintessential marsh associated bird.  These guys are perfectly adapted at catching and consuming a wide variety of animal prey items that they come across in wetlands across the world.  I very much enjoy watching and photographing these birds.  They can be found in the confluence region during the warmer months of the calendar.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/6.3, 1/1000 sec

In bird photography nothing beats a typical, perfect, “documentary” style shot.  You know, the photograph in which you were actually able to get close enough to your subject to come close to filling the frame, acheive a perfect exposure and obtain sharpness that will make your eyes bleed?  That is definitely nice, but just as much, I appreciate the “bird as art” image; the photograph in which, with intent or not, you are able to show the subject and/or its environment in a way that looks different than a mere documentary of what the species “looks like”.  The image above of a Great Egret is probably somewhere in between these two image styles.  I wanted to exaggerate the length of this bird’s neck by cutting it from its body.  The shallow DOF separates the bird from the background to further emphasize the subject and its lengthy proportions.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 250,  f/5.6, 1/1600 sec

The Cadillac driving, fancy-pants of the duck world, the Northern Pintail is probably my favorite of the waterfowl.  Much like any photographer who can’t afford to own $10K in glass that will reach, I always struggle to get close enough to ducks.  I made this image just this weekend and it’s probably the closest I’ve ever been able to get to this species with a camera.  The Confluence area lies almost directly in the middle of these guys range.  We are near the northern limit of their wintering range and the southern limit of their breeding range.  Their presence is hard to predict in this area.  Typically they will start to arrive in early spring, but they are not uncommon to find any time during the winter when unfrozen water is present in marshy habitats.  They typically are not found here in the summer as northern Missouri has only a small number of breeding pairs on record.

Folks who give a darn about things other than economic concerns have recently saved the confluence region from an environmental threat.  The development that was proposed would have threatened and endangered many of the birds that rely on this region of the Mississippi River Flyway.  I have attached a few links below for those of you who may be interested in this story.


Location Spotlight: Hughes Mountain Natural Area – Devil’s Honeycomb

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 35mm, ISO 100,  f/16, 0.3 sec

Three miles from the small old mining town of Irondale, along the north-western side of the St. Francois Mountains lies Hughes Mountain and the 1.5 billion year old rock that forms its namesake, the Devil’s Honeycomb.  As the precambrian rhyolite cooled near the surface it formed polygonal columns composed of four to six sides, 8-10″ in diameter and up to three feet exposed above the surface.  These fractures/joints in the rock are analogous to mud drying in the sun.  Looking upon these columns grouped together reminds one of a honeycomb pattern facing the heavens, hence the name – Devil’s Honeycomb.

Technical details: Panasonic DMC FZ50 camera, ISO 100,  f/9, 1/60 sec

In the image above you can see some of the details presented in the rock, the typically pink colored rhyolite is often stained with whites, yellows, greens and tans from the lichen that cover these exposed rocks.  This mountain was named after John Hughes, the first settler of this area who ran a grist mill from a nearby stream in the early 1800’s.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM lens @ 40mm, ISO 100,  f/16, 0.25 sec

Only a handful of places on the planet have geological features similar to those shown here, Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming being one such place.  I feel this place has a lunar landscape kind of feel and I tried to capture that in the photo above.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM lens @ 20mm, ISO 100,  f/18, 0.25 sec

Walking from the car towards the summit one moves through a typical mixed oak/hickory woodland/forest found in this section of the Ozarks.  As you walk the ~ mile towards the summit the soils gradually become shallow and exposed rock becomes more and more noticeable.  Dry woodland, dominated by blackjack oak, eastern red cedar and black hickory, interspersed with glades become the dominant habitats toward the summit.  When you reach the top you are suddenly aware there is no more soil; the entire summit is a cap of igneous rock formations.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens @ 17mm, ISO 100,  f/16, 0.8 sec

I can’t think of a better spot in the Missouri Ozarks to watch the sunset/rise.  I have hiked up this mountain at least ten times and have yet to get that beautiful, 50%-cloud covered sky that creates that furnace of a sunset that everyone looks for.  I hesitated to publish this post without that image, but who knows when I’ll have that kind of luck.  I do think that these five images show the diversity that the season, weather and time of day can provide your eye and images at this location.  There really is no bad time to make a visit here.

I really look forward to spending time on the summit during a summer thunderstorm, a January snow, a warm-Indian summer autumn day with changing colors, and of course that breathtaking sunset.  I wish you and yours the best in your natural outings wherever they may take you this coming weekend.  Get out there and think about something else beside the daily grind.





Location Spotlight: Turner’s Grist Mill & Spring

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF17-40mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 21mm, ISO 160,  f/16, Photomatix-HDR blend of 6-images

Turner’s Mill Spring lies deep in the Missouri Ozarks in Oregon County near the town of Winona.  The mill building and the whole supporting town of Surprise no longer exist; the ~25 foot tall overshot wheel, gears and concrete flume are the only obvious signs this location was ever inhabited.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF17-40mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 17mm, ISO 200,  f/13, 1.3 sec

The immensity of the wheel and gears lying on the creek floor stirs the imagination into dreaming of what it took to get these materials to this rugged area in the middle of the 19th century.  I believe the area was dramatically cut and major roads (for the time) were installed.  The area now has been taken back by the forest and is a beautiful part of the public land of this area that includes the nearby Irish Wilderness, Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri’s second largest spring – Greer Spring, and much more.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF17-40mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 35mm, ISO 160,  f/16, 3.2 sec

How did the town of Surprise get its unusual name?  It was named because of Mr. Turner’s astonishment that the petition he made for a U.S. Post office in his little dream town was approved.  The spring was used to power the area’s grist mill(s) from about 1850 until 1940.  Following the retirement of the mill the town of Surprise rapidly dispersed and Mother Nature quickly took over.  The image above shows the effluent about 500 feet or so from the exit of the spring’s mouth as it escapes down the side of a rather steep hill.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF17-40mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 27mm, ISO 160,  f/14, 1.6 sec

Here you can see the outlet of the spring as it flows at an average rate of 1.5 million gallons per day from the mouth of a cave.  This cave, which is located at the base of a 460 foot bluff is another reason that this area is a must-visit.  The lighting and other circumstances did not allow me to make any good photographs showing this steep bluff, but I look forward to trying to capture this one day.  If you look closely you can see some of the rock and concrete work that was used to shape the flume as well as the metal gate just inside the cave to keep modern knuckleheads from hurting themselves and the natural delicacies that reside within the cave.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF17-40mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 20mm, ISO 160,  f/14, 1/15 sec

A very quick walk following the creek that this spring creates takes you to this location where it empties into the Eleven Point River.  This river is a favorite of fishermen and float trippers and is an example of one of the prime waterways that can be found in the Missouri Ozarks.  The Turner Mill Recreation Area is a high quality habitat where an abundance of spring wildflowers and wildlife reside.  A day or weekend visit to this location is definitely worth the travel and I cannot wait to pay another visit.

Fountain Bluff Petroglyphs – Part Two

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 32mm, ISO 160,  f/4, 1/25 sec

Reading into the Mississippian/Woodland periods suggests that birds and other animals were very important in the belief systems of the cultures in the mid-western United States.  Rock art showing birds in a multitude of forms is found throughout Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 47mm, ISO 160,  f/4, 1/25 sec

This definitely looks like a raccoon track and it most likely is.  Being a nature super-freak, naturalist, hippie type, these periods of history or world cultures that existed then and now fascinate me.  Almost every single experience these people were exposed to was set in nature and the only explanation there was for any phenomena they encountered was embodied in nature.  Sure, via their myths and imaginations they thought up “super”-natural explanations, but there was no other answer that led these folks from nature as the true alpha and omega.  These days people in most of the world can go their entire lives without knowing nature except for the resources it provides that sustain them in their daily grind.  I get so tired of the apologists whose response to anything that counterpoints “progress” is by saying something like “humans are a part of nature as well”.  At one time in human history this was the case.  I believe that with 99% of contemporary people, this is no longer true.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 45mm, ISO 160,  f/5.6, 1/25 sec

Another natural representation, a star is often represented in pre-colombian rock art.  It is thought that sites with astronomical representations mean this was an important spiritual location for those that made them.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 75mm, ISO 160,  f/4, 1/25 sec

Petroglyphs and pictographs.  What’s the difference?  Pictographs were simply painted on the rock surfaces, while the less frequently encountered petroglyphs are carved or chipped into the rock.  I have read that these were originally painted over in a red-colored paint and that this helped maintain their condition over the centuries.  The petroglyphs pictured here were mistreated by those who were attempting to preserve these artifacts and most of the original paint is now missing.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 32mm, ISO 160,  f/7.1, 1/25 sec

Well, that’s all I have from the Fountain Bluff Petroglyph site.  As I was commenting to a friend of mine recently, I never come away from my first visit to a location with the images I really want.  To get what I find are the best compositions it seems that I need to visit a location several times to get to know it better.  I also realize I did not see all the artifacts at this site and I look forward to exploring more around these bluffs.

Fountain Bluff Petroglyphs – Part One

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens @ 10mm, ISO 100,  f/16, 0.4 sec

Today we are taking a trip to the eastern Shawnee region of southern Illinois.  A un-glaciated area of tall limestone bluffs, hilltop pine and deciduous forests, riparian forests and woodlands and swamps all created and arranged by the vision of the Father of Waters, our mighty Mississippi River.  Underneath an overhang at the bottom of a particularly beautiful bluff called Fountain Bluff lies an ancient art gallery, in which the aborigines of the Archaic/Woodland/Mississippian cultures carved their art into the tough sandstone.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 24mm, ISO 160,  f/4, 1/25 sec

These petroglyphs lead one to ask all sorts of questions.  I’d say we know very little of the meaning of these images and the people who created them, although it is fun to speculate on the who, why and how these works were made.  Instead of rehashing the information we do know from another source, I will point you to the following location to find out more about this site:

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 24mm, ISO 160,  f/4, 1/25 sec

I find this to be one of the more interesting petroglyphs at this particular location.  From what I’ve read, some experts on this subject matter  think this is a spirit or deity while others believe it is simply an artistic representation of a bird in perched repose.  Whatever the truth, it is a gem of this type of feature in this too-often overlooked region.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 24mm, ISO 160,  f/4, 1/25 sec

This is another of the more famous scenes at this spot.  It looks to be a white-tailed deer and a dog or wolf on either side of a crossed/quartered circle.  I find the quartered circle very interesting.  Reading a bit on the subject of pre-columbian art work, I discovered that petroglyph analysis is a very subjective science.  There are numerous theories as to what exactly the quartered circle represents.  These theories range from representations of stars, the directions of the compass, the earth itself, the earth-wind-fire-water elements, the four seasons, directional markers that depict spiritual locations, and even symbols depicting an early form of Christianity.  It seems to me we have no idea what these symbols represented in these cultures.  What really fascinates me about these forms is that they were found across North America in time and space.  Seemingly unrelated cultures from northern Canada to southern Mexico were known to use the quartered circle in petroglyphs and pictographs.  This may be coincidental, or as the Cahokia Mounds metropolis location shows, the trade routes of the Mississippian culture were quite large.  Cultural icons, along with trade goods were likely exchanged across surprisingly large distances.

Forgive me if I seem to know nothing of what I am discussing.  It’s only because I don’t!

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 28mm, ISO 160,  f/5, 1/30 sec

The petroglyph in the image above might be my favorite.  I am of the opinion, I think, that the face seen on the head of this bird is likely do to the changes in time that this spot has seen.  However, once you see the the face, looking down and to the left of the frame, it is impossible to not wonder if this was a deliberate carving.  If so, this is one intimidating form.

I want to give my unlimited thanks to Taylor Reed, a fantastic landscape photographer from the Shawnee region, for providing me directions to this location.  Please visit Taylor’s web site and consider buying several prints of his to decorate your walls.

I will not respond to email to provide directions to this location from people I do not know.  This site is relatively well known and can be found with enough research.  There are other petroglyph spots along this same bluff that I have not yet found.  It is a gorgeous set of bluffs with other geological features and I can’t wait to get down there again to do some more exploring.

Location Spotlight: Devil’s Shadowbox

Early European settlers and pioneers of the Missouri Ozarks were said to be tough, rugged and individualistic.  The Ozarks were and still are a difficult place to “make a living”, especially  based on traditional agricultural methods.  I will suggest that these settlers had little imagination when it came to naming the geologic and other natural features of their newly found homeland.  In “The Geologic Wonders and Curiosities of Missouri”, Beveridge lists no fewer than 80 features with Devil in the title.  This includes 25 “Devil’s Backbones” and close to ten “Devil’s Den’s”.  Beveridge makes the interesting comparison of the Missouri Ozarks naming conventions to those of the south-western United States which use Angel in a large number of their names for geological features and rarely use Devil.  This is likely due to the cultural differences between the settlers of the Ozarks, largely Scots-Irish, and the Latin/Spanish influences of the American south-west.  Beveridge accounts for no named surface feature in Missouri with Angel in the monicker.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 24mm, ISO 160,  f/14, 1/3 sec

My goal for this particular winter’s morning was to find a “Devil’s Den Hollow” purported to be found in Warren County in the northern Ozark area.  I believe I was pretty close to finding the location, with several runs of rapids and waterfalls so excellently described in Beveridge’s book, but ultimately gave up because it seemed to be surrounded by private property.  I was able to find this little feature presented in this post.  I am unsure whether it has an existing name of its own, but I am calling it Devil’s Shadowbox to continue our Ozark naming convention.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 65mm, ISO 100,  f/14, 0.8 sec

Devil’s Shadowbox was also on private property but was literally feet from the road.  I decided to beg forgiveness if necessary and spent an hour working the scene.  I didn’t see another person the entire time I was there.  The water level was low enough that I could stroll through the creek with my Gortex-lined hiking boots.  My feet did stay dry but the water had to have been close to the freezing mark and my feet where painful and numb by the end.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 32mm, ISO 100,  f/16, 0.8 sec

This relatively un-flashy feature actually had a few small pieces that came together nicely.  Above you can see a short (4-6″) shelf that crosses the stream.  This shelf lies just downstream from the hole/natural arch.  There may be some potential here depending on what the spring foliage looks like.  Too much water, however may take something away from the geology that is visible under these conditions.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 24mm, ISO 160,  f/14, 1/5 sec

I really do try and respect the rights of the property owners while out on my expeditions.  The problem is finding out who owns the property in question and how to contact them to ask permission.  From what I’ve read, in most circumstances the owners of the property have no problems allowing hikers, photographers and explorer types access to their property.  If you have any familiarity with this feature or have any knowledge concerning Devil’s Den Hollow in Warren County, Missouri please let me know.  I will be forever grateful to find out anything else that would help me find and make a lawful visit to the waterfalls and other features this place promises.

Bill Duncan:

Migrating to What End?

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 100,  f/5.6, 1/320 sec

The Snow Goose ranks right up there with the warblers, in my opinion, in a peculiar sector of the natural world that lie conspicuously under the noses of the vast majority of our neighbors who have no idea they even exist.  Take one of your friends outside for a spring-migratory birding experience.  Explain to them that the population of the bird we call Snow Geese stands at more than five million and that the majority of these birds travel twice a year through the Mississippi River Flyway Migratory Corridor, which ranges from eastern Nebraska and Kansas to Eastern Illinois.  In February and March, find a nice open piece of high land within 50 or so miles of either side of the Mississippi River and let them watch with binoculars or scope as groups of birds ranging from 50 to 5000 birds or more travel back to Canada for their nesting season.  Similarly to the beautifully colored and tiny wood warblers who travel through Missouri northward bound mainly during the months of April and May, your friend or neighbor will most likely tell you that they had no idea these beings even existed, much less spent some time in the trees or skies right outside their own front doors.

The Snow Goose population may actually be a harbinger of things to come for the human species.  Low numbers of traditional predators combined with the fact that these birds are both extremely difficult to hunt (compared to other water fowl) and are not a source of desirable meat are resulting in this species’ increasing population to a critical mass.  These birds taste for a particular diet in their nesting grounds and as stated above, low levels of predation, are pushing this species very close to a population crash.  Current research is showing that Snow Geese are currently experiencing increased levels of starvation and disease incidence.

In my opinion, this could be analogous to the human population’s pace of continued growth with too little concern for population control and resource management.  As long as political “leaders” focus the majority of their efforts on up to the minute economic concerns, rather than the long-term prosperity of our planet and the resources of the commons, we will continue towards a similar state.