Location Spotlight: North America’s Most Endangered Ecosystem, Tallgrass Prairie – Part II

So, a week or two after the weekend trip that Steve and I made to SWMO Sarah told me she had a hankering to go on a bird/photo trip to the same area.  She didn’t have to ask me twice.  😉  We loaded up the N.E.V. even though we were getting reports that the world had ended the day prior due to a dumping of snow and ice.  Not really knowing what to expect, I shoveled enough of the ice and snow to back out of our driveway and hit the road.  We were expecting to travel the whole way doing 30 mph or so and we knew we might even be forced to turn back if the conditions were too dicey.  Well, I guess it goes to show how unused to driving in winter weather we have become in this state, because once we got outside StL County, the roads were perfect the entire trip!  We did make our way north for a stopover in KC for some BBQ before heading back home, and they did get a foot or more of that weird white stuff, but by the time we made it there on Sunday, the roads were in pretty fair shape.

Okay, enough about our life, get with the picture making and depressing conservation talk, right?  We arrived at PSP with about a half day’s worth of light remaining to do some birding from the car, watch the bison, shoot some landscapes and visit the visitor’s center.  Dana was there, but he seemed pretty busy so we didn’t stop to chat this time.  The park was beautiful!  They had obviously received more of the “freezing rain” type of precipitation (on the east side of the state it was mostly “sleet” and snow), as nearly all the vegetation was enveloped in ice.  The look of the prairie was captivating as I hope I recorded in some of these images.  The sky was partially cloudy and moving quickly, and every five minutes the lighting changed dramatically pulling the eye this way and that from our vantage point from top of one of the higher hills.  After throwing a handful of fruits, nuts, grains and grubs into my mouth, I put the gear together, jumped onto the hood of the car and made this image…

     IMG_2872

“Welcome Back to Prairie State Park″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 29mm, ISO 100,  f/16, manual blend of two exposures

Sunlight was bouncing around the ice-encased grasses and branches.  The light did very little to battle the frigid temperatures and cruel winds on this lookout.  Sarah shot this closeup of what the prairie looked like.  I can’t say for certain, but I think this made it a little more difficult for the Harriers, Shrikes and Kestrels to catch their rodent prey.

P1070091

“Mighty Mouse’s Fortress of Solitude″

Technical details: Panasonic DMC-FZ50 Camera, 28mm, ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/250 sec, by Sarah Duncan

Don’t think I forgot about the bison.  Although we could watch them from afar during this visit, they were not close enough to the roads to take any photos.  Here’s one from the previous trip.  This is far from an artistic or technically perfect shot.  But, shooting at dusk with a 500mm and getting something usable with 1/40 second is pretty nice.  The rig was on a tripod, there was almost no wind, I used “live-view” and a remote cord to release the shutter.

IMG_0819

“The Inquisitor”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 1250,  f/5.6, 1/40 sec

I’m still astounded by how much the bison will move in a day.  There isn’t a spot in the park that does not show signs of them.  Even though they were quite a distance away, the tracks we found in the snow declared they had been where we stood at least 12 hours previously.

IMG_2889

“The Forgotten Herd”

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 33mm, ISO 100,  f/16, 1/40 sec

I know what you’ll think about this next image.  “Oh my! That pathetic creature must have stood outside under 17F and 30 mph winds for too long.  It must have been a painful death, his face being all contorted in that death-mask.”  Nope.  That is me…smiling.  It’s true.  I’m not sure, maybe it’s too many years of corporate America taking their toll.  Perhaps it’s the self-imposed, lifetime ban on cigarettes, Ben and Jerry’s and pig’s feet, but this is apparently how I smile now.  I’ve tried this in front of the mirror a few times since I saw this, and I’ve decided I won’t be doing it any longer.

P1070101

 “Pathetic Creature″

Technical details: Panasonic DMC-FZ50 Camera, 50mm, ISO 400, f/8, 1/640 sec, by Sarah Duncan

One of the more abundant bird species we observed during our visits in the prairies was the Northern Harrier.  As pictured below, their method of hunting is to fly low over the grasslands while listening for their prey.  These birds have keen hearing and specially developed facial disks like those of owls that help amplify sounds by directing them towards the ear.

IMG_1430

“Icy Heavens”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/6.3, 1/4000 sec

If I could do this, I wouldn’t have those crusty, woolen sleeves on these cold and windy days!  Look closely and you can see an example of something that plagues this herd.  Dana told us that they have a pretty bad time with conjunctivitis.  This has resulted in many of the animals having cataracts in one or both eyes as can be seen in this bull.  Good thing they have poor vision to start with?

IMG_0625

“Blind in One Eye, Can’t See Out the Other”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/6.3, 1/640 sec

On our second day in SWMO, Sarah and I were dedicated to visiting a few prairies that we had not previously visited.  This was tough, because it meant leaving PSP.  But, we rose early and headed about 40 minutes north-east to the town of El Dorado Springs.  Our primary stops were two of the largest, eastern-most native tall-grass prairies – Taberville Prairie C.A. and Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie (Nature Conservancy and MO Dept of Conservation).  Because of the frigid temperatures, our hikes through these areas were limited and we spent most of our time birding from the car.  Wah’Kon-Tah, a term used by the Osage Indians to describe the “god-like” spiritual presence or life force that inhabits all things, was hilly and quite attractive.   A quick morning hike through a portion of Taberville resulted in very few birds, but many tracks were spotted, including coyote, in the fresh snow.

We also visited a couple of smaller prairies that were mere minutes away.  During a detour across snow and ice-covered farm roads to visit the backside of Monegaw Prairie C.A., we found our best bird of the day, a Loggerhead Shrike.  It was actively hunting while moving along a barbed-wire fence.

IMG_1447

“Loggerhead Shrike, February 2013”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6, 1/6400 sec

Another stop was the small, rectangular and down-right charming Schwartz Prairie.  This slice of prairie is owned and managed by the Missouri Prairie Foundation and is named for conservationists, Charles and Elizabeth Schwartz.  The Schwartzes worked directly towards prairie chicken conservation and were a fascinating couple.  Not only were they active conservationists, they were authors, film-makers and illustrators.  Libby and Charles were responsible for the superb field guide, Wild Mammals of Missouri, and Charles was the illustrator of Leopold’s landmark A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There.  I am looking forward to doing some more research on this couple and hopefully picking up some of their harder to find books and videos.  This photo of an Eastern Meadowlark was taken at Schwartz Prairie.

IMG_1444

“Prairie Land Ethic”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6, 1/1250 sec

So, that covers most of the highlights regarding the experiences and images I wanted to share from our recent prairie adventures.  A grand total of three short winter days are not nearly enough.  I am very much looking forward to future visits to the western side of the state, to witness these endangered habitats during the growing season.

“Whatever else prairie is—grass, sky, wind—it is most of all a paradigm of infinity, a clearing full of many things except boundaries, and its power comes from its apparent limitlessness; there is no such thing as a small prairie any more than there is a little ocean, and the consequence of both is this challenge: try to take yourself seriously out here, you bipedal plodder, you complacent cartoon.”

-William Least Heat-Moon-

IMG_2950

“Frozen Oceans of Grass”

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 37mm, ISO 100,  f/14, manual blend of two exposures

Location Spotlight: North America’s Most Endangered Ecosystem, Tallgrass Prairie – Part I

I’m rooted in the prairie four generations deep, and those brown hills make the spirit rise in me.  It’s the land I do my dreaming in, the place where I’ve found peace.  Can you tell me why it is I’m going to leave?

-Candace Savage-

Ozark Bill has been most fortunate during the past few weeks.  I have been able to visit some public prairie lands in south-western Missouri during two overnight trips.  The first, and topic of this post, was a trip that Steve and I took to Prairie State Park, near Lamar, MO.  We had planned on visiting a potential five prairie remnants, but we soon discovered that our 1.5 days was a bare minimum to get to know PSP, so that was as far as we got.  A couple weeks later, Sarah and I made a similar trip.  Back to PSP and as well we visited a few prairies in the El Dorado Springs neighborhood.  That will be the subject of part two of this spotlight.

Did you know?  As the title alludes, Missouri has less than 1% of its pre-European settlement 155 million acres of prairie remaining.  Thanks to John Deere and his insidious prairie-busting invention, 99% of all tall-grass prairie was forever lost in less than 200 years of intensive agriculture.  Most of the land encompassing the 3700 acres of what is now called Prairie State Park is composed of original tall-grass prairie.  The reason it escaped the plow?  For the same reason much of the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas – the top soil contains large quantities of rock, which made it too difficult to plow.  Instead, ranchers have used these areas to graze domestic cattle.  Since we also wiped the American Bison off the map, this was something of a benefit to this ecosystem, as the tall-grass prairie benefits from grazing and fire disturbances.

Okay, enough of the depressing legacy our glorious westward expansion.  There must be something left to celebrate considering we were willing to spend nearly two thousand miles in the car.  Yes there is, and I hope to show what I can of what there is still to find by taking a winter trip to Missouri’s remnant prairies.

IMG_1100

“Betwixt & Between”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/6.3, 1/640 sec

I can’t see a way of knowing the prairie without making multiple trips across the calendar.  Each of the green months will have a totally different blooming forb (more than 800 species in total) composition; similarly, each month of the calendar will have a new wildlife mix as migration consistently shuffles bird species.  The image of the bison above was named for the utterly fascinating behavior that these free-ranging animals demonstrated as Steve and I moved around the trails of PSP.  Signs on the drive into the park kept us focused on the fact that these were in fact wild-animals with unpredictable tendencies and not to get too close to them.  Well, this puzzled me, to say the least.  So, we asked for clarification from the nice fellow named Dana Hoisington, the visitor’s center naturalist. He gave us the detail we were looking for: 100 yards.  Okay, so while we where traversing the hills of the tall-grass, soaking up the breath-taking scenery and doing our best to find some interesting birds, we will gladly steer clear by maintaining the advised restriction from these one to two ton herbivores that can move at speeds up to 35 mph.  If we must.

We left the visitor’s center no more than an hour of arriving at PSP, hiking up the hill of what looked to be a pleasant, long hike.  In less than five minutes we came across two groups of the herd, both on opposite sides of the trail we were traversing.  The larger group comprised nearly 40 animals, the smaller came to about 10-15.  How aware they were!  They watched us with what appeared to be great curiosity, never lowering their gaze.  As we headed up the hill, in between the two groups, we noticed they were slowly moving towards us.  Curious.  They did not seem spooked, defensive or aggressive, so we decided to make our slow but steady progress up the hill, away from the visitor’s center.  We quickly realized that we would probably not be able to make it between the two groups before their progression would result in the three of our groups “meeting up”.  We decided to move back the way we came a bit, thinking that maybe the two groups were uncomfortable with the idea of being “split up” by two bipeds carrying too much optical equipment.  Imagine our increasingly apparent consternation at the fact that the two groups were now both moving towards us, NOT towards each other!  It seemed like someone forgot to tell the bison the 100 yard rule!  We increased our pace back to the visitor’s center at the same time that Dana was climbing the hill to assist us!  He told us this was very odd behavior that he had not observed before.

IMG_0649

“Tons of Fun”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/6.3, 1/800 sec

The shot above was taken right before we really decided it was time to retreat.  They did not seem aggressive at all, but down right fascinated.  It would have been an irresponsible experiment, for sure, but I would love to have known what would have happened if we stayed still and let them continue towards us.  We eventually made our way around this coalesced herd and were able to get a nice walk through a good portion of the park.  The real puzzling part of their behavior is that during other instances of walking towards similarly sized groups, they had a totally opposite reaction of running.  Yes, running, galloping, I’m not sure the correct name, but wow.  After observing this, the silent question each of us had about what would we do if these limber bulks decided to charge us became mostly academic.  I do not believe there would be much that could have been done.  Ideas did come up: raise arms and tripods over head and yell with deep voice, play matador and dodge at last minute, roll into ball and protect head….  After seeing these guys slowly trod between feeding stations at places like Lone Elk Park, I am still astonished at observing the speeds at which they can move!  Next time I will need to remember to watch “Dances with Wolves” before I do this.

IMG_0724

“Terrestrial Thunder”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/6.3, 1/1000 sec

Being able to witness the sound and feeling of small numbers of these animals thundering across the hills makes one wonder what it would have been like to observe endless thousands doing so across the great plains 200 years ago.  Shortly after spooking this group we came across the skeletal remains of two bison, minus the skulls.  It was interesting to observe the elongated vertebrate, located in the hump, that help support the huge, muscular neck of these animals.  An adult male bison’s head can weigh up to 500lbs, so it seems obvious the need for such support.

IMG_1097

“Harris’s Sparrow, February 2013”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/7.1, 1/200 sec

Harris’s Sparrow winter’s in a narrow band across the great plains and is rather common in western MO.  We were able to spot what must have been near 50 around PSP during our visit.  This was a new one for my bird species photograph list and a lifer for Steve.  The animal pictured above is a juvenile and does not yet have the characteristics black mask of the adults.

When we thought of the birds we had a chance to find and photograph during this visit an obvious short list came to mind: Greater Prairie Chicken, Prairie Falcon, Merlin, Rough-legged Hawk, Short-Eared Owl, Harris’s Sparrow.  For me, two species were at the top of that list, GPCH and PRFA.  I thought that at this time of year and the relative scarcity that we would have less than a 2% chance of finding Prairie Chicken and a much smaller chance at making photographs.

With a statewide population that once was a million or more birds, the GPCH flock in Missouri is now an estimated 500 birds.  The historical range of this species ran from the Atlantic coast, north to the lake states and well into central Canada, south into the Arkansas Ozarks and as far south as Texas.  The current range is now mostly centered around the middle plains states, including the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas, and the species as a whole is estimated to be around 450K birds and considered vulnerable.  The Atlantic coast race, known as the “Heath Hen” went extinct in 1932 and the TX coast race, “Attwater’s Prairie Chicken” is now known as the most critically endangered bird in the United States.

Great efforts are being put forth to help save Missouri’s GPCH flock; however, many believe it may likely be too little, too late.  Hunting has been banned for nearly 100 years, so why the problems?  Loss of habitat.  Tall-grass prairie and similar ecosystems are what these birds require and they need a minimum of between 10,000 and 20,000 acres of unfragmented native prairie habitat.  There are simply no contiguous tracks of private or public prairies in MO that will provide this kind of area needed.  In addition, a series of well done investigations from Kansas State University discovered that most GPCH hens would avoid nesting or rearing young within 1/4 mile of power lines and trees and 1/3 of a mile from roads.  Considering most prairie tracks in MO are less than 2500 acres and that most of these are cut with roads or interspersed with private farm or ranch lands, it is no wonder that the flock has continued to dwindle.

Not all hope is lost for the future of the GPCH in Missouri!  Proper management of habitat is currently ongoing at the Nature Conservancy’s Dunn Ranch in north-west MO.  Combined with the nearly 8000 acres of the nearby Neal Smith NWR across the boarder in Iowa, this mostly contiguous prairie stretch may keep the GPCH nesting in the Show-Me State for future generations to witness.

So, did we find the birds?

IMG_0944

“Greater Prairie Chickens in Flight, February 2013”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 1000,  f/5, 1/1000 sec

Yes!  Hiking through a rather nondescript section of the prairie, all of a sudden we flushed a couple of birds.  As I mentioned earlier, I did not really expect that we would be fortunate enough to spot them during winter, so I tried to turn them into anything else.  Quail, doves, anything but GPCH.  As Steve and I talked it through and looked at my first batch of crappy images I was able to shoot off, it seemed more and more unlikely they could be anything but GPCH.  As we closed within 100 yards or so we stopped to see if we could find them using the scope and my big camera lens.  I felt our chances would be very slim here as well.  What would the chances be of finding these birds that can camouflage so well in the prairie vegetation?  In a relatively short time I was shocked to hear Stephen proclaim, “I think I found one!”  This was a great job from someone not completely accustomed to using a scope for birding.  I was able to find the bird in my camera and squeezed a few shots and discovered the bird was watching us!  Can you find him in the photo below?

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ozark_bill/8511090731/in/photostream/lightbox/

“Where’s Waldo?”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 1000,  f/5, 1/640 sec

This cover’s some of the highlights and a few images made during our brief visit.  I will continue to post images from this trip on Flickr and I will look forward to sharing stories and more photographs from the trip Sarah and I made back to this region a couple of weeks later.  Much of the information I presented in this post and further reading can be found in these great publications:

  • “Public Prairies of Missouri 3rd Ed” 1999. Free Publication by the Missouri Department of Conservation.
  • “Prairie: A Natural History” 2004. Candace Savage. Greystone Books.
  • “Save the Last Dance: A Story of North American Grassland Grouse” 2012. Noppadol Paothong. Noppadol Paothong Photograpy LLC.

Location Spotlight: Bryant Creek Watershed

Located in the south-central Missouri Ozarks, Bryant Creek drains approximately 600 square miles, nearly half of which is comprised of high quality pine and deciduous timberland.  As is much of this part of Missouri, the remainder of this geography has been clear cut for use as cattle ground.  Bryant Creek is a fascinating little waterway and makes a great companion to the North Fork of the White River, its nearby companion to which it ultimately feeds.  I have not seen nearly enough of Bryant Creek or this section of the White River.  Both Ozark streams provide homes for river otters and the critically endangered Ozark Hellbender population.  Considered a losing stream, Bryant Creek is robbed of its limited water supply by the karst topography and several sections are often dry.  Reversely, major flash floods can be a threat during heavy rains and this stream is often sought out by lovers of white water.  During our autumn vacation, this view was along the roadside not too far from Hodgson Mill.

IMG_1836

“Bryant Creek, Autumn 2012″
Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 24mm, ISO 100,  f/11, 1/4 sec

One of the major sources of water into Bryant Creek and later, the North Fork comes from the discharge of the Hodgson Spring.  Listed in the top 20 most productive Missouri springs, this spring powered the restored grist mill pictured here.  Although no longer a working mill, its likeness is still used to sell stone ground, whole grain flours under the name Hodgson Mill.

IMG_1832

“Hodgson Water Mill – Autumn 2012 II″
Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 33mm, ISO 100,  f/11, 1/4 sec

Big Spring 2012 – Autumn

This year Sarah and I timed our autumn trip into the Missouri Ozarks perfectly.  The autumn colors were near their peak and more spectacular than I can ever remember.  As is one of our favorite customs, we reserved one of the cabins at Big Spring State Park, located within the Ozark National Scenic Waterways.  Built in the 1930s by the CCC, rustic is the perfect description for these cabins and the nearby lodge.  We were a week or so earlier than normal this year and the cabins were a bit more full than usual, so we were not able to get a choice cabin that does not have a long flight of stairs.  Once I got all the unnecessary equipment and supplies we carry up these stairs and inside the cabin, we were ready to have some fun.

“Big Spring Cabin – October 2012″
Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 50mm, ISO 160,  f/11, 0.3 sec

Located a few miles from the town of Van Buren, Big Spring is in contention for one of the largest springs on the continent, pouring an average of 286 million gallons (13 cubic meter/sec) a day into the Current River.  I have never visited the spring without being mesmerized by the beauty and sense of peace that the spring presents as it flows from the base of the limestone bluff.  Autumn and spring time are by far the best times to make a visit.  The cool blue waters that seem to come from nowhere contrast nicely with the warm autumn colors displayed by sycamores and other trees that take hold along the bluff.  The image below showcases the watercress that is found here and in most of the large springs of the Missouri Ozarks.  Although watercress is an exotic species, it is now naturalized across most of the country, and does not seem to present much of a problem with the delicate ecosystems that these springs create.

“Watercress Garden″
Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 23mm, ISO 160,  f/9, 1.6 sec

Placed nearby the spring is this early Ozark settlement period structure.  These maples frame it nicely.

“The Autumn Homestead″
Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM @ 121mm, ISO 160,  f/11, 2.5 sec

As I have told anyone who has had the patience to listen, my idea of a perfect morning, one I could relive every day until the end of my days is getting up and hitting the trails surrounding Big Spring before sunrise.  The temperature is quite chilly, the air saturated to the point of a nice fog and I am usually greeted with the the crepuscular greeting of a Barred Owl.  Who cooks for me?  Why, Sarah will have some of the best french toast imaginable to go with my cup of french-press when I get back to the cabin sometime around mid-morning.  I better get to hiking these hills so I can burn some of those calories 😉

The morning this image was made was definitely memorable.  I actually carried my bird/wildlife lens along with my landscape gear.  Just past the confluence of the spring effluent, where those crystal-blue waters flow into the lazy Current River I eagerly watch the eastern sky.  Will this finally be the morning I see some color?  Yes indeed!  However, just after setting up the gear and getting ready to capture this scene, an Eastern Screech Owl starts vocalizing maybe 20-30 yards up the wooded slope directly behind me.  What to do!?  Go after the owl in attempts to finally get a photo of that bird or take the sure thing of a quickly changing landscape?  I decided to be satisfied with leaving the bird alone and concentrated on the sunrise while listening to one of the most beautiful songs imaginable.  There was no real fog, but what a morning!

“Current River Sunrise″
Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 40mm, ISO 320,  f/14, manual blend of three exposures

I also joke that I always take the same composition every time I visit the spring.  Here it is from this occasion.  I can’t help it and I won’t apologize.  I will hopefully get an original idea one of these years, but until then…

“Eternal Composition″
Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 24mm, ISO 100,  f/14, manual blend of two exposures

So, there is a bit of detail and a few of my favorite images from this autumn’s Big Spring visit.  It is surprising that so many people in the StL area have never even heard of Big Spring.  But I’m not complaining.  Let them take their expensive vacation to the popular destinations.  If I can have this place to myself, as I almost always do on these morning hikes, I’ll be satisfied and want for nothing.  Until the next time, I’ll be pining for my next visit home.

“Sarah & Bill – October 2012″
Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 32mm, ISO 160,  f/9, 1/5 sec

Location Spotlight: Devil’s Icebox Cave

Located within Rockbridge State Park, just south of Columbia in Boone County, Missouri lies the Devil’s Icebox.  This name generally refers to a collapsed section, or sinkhole of this cave system.  One of the largest caves in Missouri, there is an estimated seven miles of caverns, tunnels and sinkhole surface connections.  The geologic features found here were carved of the same Burlington limestone that formed The Pinnacles found a few miles to the north.  This is also one of the most biologically active and diverse cavern systems in Missouri, being home to two endangered species of bat and a very cool species of pink planaria (flat worm) that is found nowhere else on the planet!  I’ve only had the pleasure of two brief visits to this location, but when water levels are low, like we have now, the underground streams and pools drop and allow for relatively easy access to exploring the caves.  Apparently a good sized section is considered easy to explore and a couple of good headlamps are all that is required.  A summertime visit is the perfect time of year to find out first hand why this place got its name.  The temperature seemed to drop about 40 degrees F during our visit this past weekend.  I can’t wait to get back here and explore some more!

“Devil’s Icebox″
Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 28mm, ISO 400,  f/11, manual blend of two exposures

Location Spotlight: The Canyon-land of Ferns and Waters – Hickory Canyons Natural Area

Today’s post spotlights a few images I took recently at the least well-known, but perhaps my favorite, of the Ste. Genevieve trio gem locations found in south-eastern Missouri, Hickory Canyons Natural Area.  The other two nearby locations are Hawn State Park and Pickle Springs Natural Area.  Much of the exposed rock in this area is known as LaMotte sandstone and was deposited around 500 million years ago under the Paleozoic sea, which covered this region except the igneous knobs of what are now called the St. Francois Mountains.  Unlike the other sedimentary rocks – like dolomite and limestone that compose much of the Ozarks, sandstones are generally much more resistant to erosion.  This results in rock features that are often quite spectacular to the eye and the canyons, bluffs and other exposed sandstone bedrock have become favorites for hikers, rock climbers and other travelers to this region.

“Addressing the Optimates”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 89mm, ISO 320,  f/20,  0.4 sec

Two short hikes are available at Hickory Canyons N.A.  Both offer great views of the rock formations, including wet-weather waterfalls like the one shown below.

“The Bath House”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 70mm, ISO 320,  f/16,  1.3 sec

The overhangs and cracks created in these box canyons, gorges and cascades provide opportunities for ferns, mosses and lichens.  In fact, these three spots mentioned above in Ste Genevieve Co are the only place the fern enthusiast need travel to in Missouri.  The well-draining, sandy and acidic soils found here are perfect for species like wild-rose azalea, hay fern and rattlesnake orchid.  White oak, hickories, sugar maples, short-leaf pine and flowering dogwood are the primary tree species found at this location.  A few trips during spring time are definitely worth it to find some of these fantastic plants in bloom set against these dripping canyons and ephemeral cascades and waterfalls.  The wild-rose azaleas bloomed about six weeks early this spring and I missed them.  Oh well, something to look forward to next year.

“The Senate”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 28mm, ISO 160,  f/16,  2.5 sec

“Floralia”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 93mm, ISO 250,  f/16,  1 sec

Virere Candere

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 24mm, ISO 160,  f/16,  1.6 sec

Arboris Relictus

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, ISO 160,  f/16,  0.5 sec

As the glaciers of the last major ice age retreated, species that required lower temps and had higher water requirements moved back north as well.  These canyons provide cooler and wetter environments for relict species like the one pictured above, the partridge berry.  This evergreen vine-like tiny shrub can be found throughout the canyon and hollow floors along with lichens and mosses.

Location Spotlight: Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge

“Traditional Boundaries”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/10, 1/1250 sec

I’m finally taking a few of the images I made during my first visit to Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge last autumn and putting them into a blog post.  Living within miles of the Mississippi River Flyway – an ancestral route many migratory birds follow in their north-south seasonal movements – I have all sorts of options in visiting well-managed wetland areas to watch and photograph waterfowl.  Of all these locations none has the opportunities for getting great looks at numbers and diversity of bird species that can be found at Squaw Creek NWR, located near Mound City in north-western Missouri, not too far from the Nebraska Border.

“Cacophonic”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 1600,  f/5.6, 1/125 sec

The big stars at Squaw Creek around Thanksgiving and surrounding weeks are the Snow Geese.  For years I had read about and seen images of the more than one million birds that pass through this location every fall.  At peak times more than 500,000 birds can be counted on the reserve at one time.  I had images in mind that I hoped to make if I could find the birds present in these kinds of numbers.  I really had little clue of where and when I needed to be set up and if I had the ammunition (lenses) to make the images I had in mind.  I feel the photos I was able to get are of mixed success due to several reasons.  I was quite lucky in the numbers of birds that showed up.  A week before my visit the counts were only a little more than 10,000.  The day I arrived the latest weekly count suggested there were more than 250,000 on the reserve.  This is shy of the 500-600K that can be found during peek times, but for my first visit, it was quite a treat!  Of the 1.5 days I had to spend here, one full day was very cloudy and dark, making bird photography particularly troublesome.  Around noon on my last day the sky cleared and I was able to get some nice light.  Hopefully I can spend a few days more during my next visit.

“Let My Army Be The Rocks And The Trees And The Birds In The Sky”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/8,  1/1250 sec

Snow Geese are not the only waterfowl that can be found in good numbers here.  In almost every one of these types of images Greater White-fronted Geese, Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Mallards and more can be found as well.

“The Snow & the Mist”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 1600,  f/8,  1/100 sec

Squaw Creek NWR and its 7500 acres was established in 1935 just in time.  Close to 98% of the original marshes and related wetlands that border the Missouri River in the state of Missouri have been destroyed or permanently altered – mostly for use as farmland.  Thankfully sportsmen realized the importance for providing habitat for migrating and over-wintering waterfowl and a series of these man-made marshes were built near Kansas City, Columbia and St. Louis.  This image is actually a composite of two separate photographs – the foreground and the background, both taken in extremely cloudy and grey conditions.  I was surprised by how well this blending worked and I feel it represents what it was like on this first day, the geese constantly taking off in large groups and others taking their place in the marshes.

“Squaw Creek Eagle”

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

Waterfowl are not the only birds or wildlife that utilize the reserve.  Although you can see more Bald Eagles in spots along the Mississippi River, I have never been able to get as close to these birds perched as I did during this visit.  This is true with the wildlife in general.  The auto-route roads were set perfectly in the reserve, in my opinion.  Getting close enough to the wildlife can be troublesome from the roads at other places I visit, but here the roads are much better situated near the pools and the wildlife never seem to be overly stressed.  During the time of my visit with cloudy weather and poor light, I was able to get closer to several duck species than I have ever been able to before.

“White Ibis”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6,  1/640 sec

This White Ibis was actually a very late bird for this part of Missouri and it made a bit of noise in the MO birding community.  This was also one of my best looks at this species.  I had found it the day before and took some rather poor photos.  I was happy to see it still in the same pool the next day when light was better.

“Snow Geese on Loess”

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 150mm, ISO 100,  f/10,  1/200 sec

This image is probably my favorite from this trip.  To me, it really captures the essence of the place and I believe this is what this area looked like when Lewis and Clark first laid eyes to this part of the country.  The bluffs in the background are known as loess hills and are formed by the actions of glaciers.  Along with draining the natural wetland habitats along the Big Muddy, European settlers also got busy destroying many of the impressive loess hills, using the fertile soil for numerous development and farming projects.  Many of these features are still being harvested and destroyed to this day.

There are several more nationally well-known reserves like this throughout the country that scores of photographers, nature lovers, biologists and sportsmen flock to every year.  I can’t imagine a spot being more suited for these activities than Squaw Creek NWR.  I hope to make an annual pilgrimage to this location on Thanksgiving week.

If you make the visit and are looking for a nice place to eat, I highly recommend “Klub”.  This is a great place to enjoy a late dinner after spending the day at the reserve, which is only about ten minutes away.  They have a great menu using a lot of fresh, local ingredients.  I ate here twice during my visit and I was quite surprised to find such a quality establishment in such a little town like Mound City.

Thanks for paying a visit.  You can find more photographs taken from this location by visiting my Squaw Creek Flickr Set

Location Spotlight: Black Mountain Cascades

This post features one of my favorite places to visit and photograph in my beloved St. Francois Mountains. Black Mountain and these cascades that tumble down more than 400 vertical feet in a series of steps lie southwest of Fredericktown and can be found literally alongside Highway E.  The waters run under a drainage pipe in the road and travel another few yards before dumping into the St. Francois River. I was first turned on to this place by a fantastic landscape photographer of the Missouri Ozarks named Mark Karpinski.  I highly suggest looking him up and buying a bunch of his photographs for your walls.  His images are the best I’ve seen of this region.

“Rivers or Veins”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens @ 12mm, ISO 200,  f/13, 0.5 sec

As I mentioned in previous posts, this “winter” brought out possibilities for photography that I would normally be taking advantage of in the warmer months.  These images were taken in early February following a couple of rainy days.  These cascades run out completely in dry times, so you must carefully plan a visit following rainy periods.

“Roll of Ancient Thunder”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens @ 10mm, ISO 160,  f/13, 0.4 sec

Before you make plans for a visit, listen to warning.  There are no trails here – it is just bush-whacking up the slopes.  Sometimes you will need to go up leaf-littered hills and sometimes you must climb hand and foot over rocks and the cascades.  There are all sorts of risks here.  The rocks are extremely slippery.  I highly suggest the use of felt-bottomed shoes or waders and take all precautions against water and your camera equipment.  You will get wet!  In the growing season I have been to few places with as much or worse concentrations of poison ivy.  If you visit in mid to late summer, cover yourself head to toe and then burn your clothes afterwards.  And ticks!  In early February I hadn’t given a thought to ticks.  This day I received a tick bite and found another three on my pants.  I learned my lesson to pay attention to the temperature and not the calendar.

“Crash of Molars”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens @ 20mm, ISO 200,  f/11, 2 sec

I’ve been fortunate enough to have spent some great days on this mountain.  I have visited on 50% chance of rain days and was able to spend a few hours of cloudy, but relatively rain free weather – perfect for this type of photography.  If you are in shape and have the determination to make the hike to the top, the view of the St. Francis River valley below is sure worth it.  Pack a picnic basket!

“Firing Diamonds At Boots”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens @ 16mm, ISO 200,  f/13, 0.6 sec

The titles of the images in this post I stole from the lyrics of a song called “Buried in Teeth” by Mariee Sioux.  I can’s stop listening to this song or Mariee’s music in general lately.  I realize this may be considered IP infringement, but I have trouble with titles and I also wanted to  try and give her some props, so to speak.

“Swallowed Into the Gut of Centuries”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens @ 11mm, ISO 200,  f/16, 0.8 sec

Thanks for visiting the blog.  You can find more of my photos from this location here.  If you decide to make an excursion to this spot or anywhere else into the St. Francois Mountain region, please be careful, enjoy yourself, leave only footprints and take only photographs!

Location Spotlight: Elephant Rocks

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 28mm, ISO 160,  f/14, 1.3 sec

Today we’re traveling back south to my favorite region for landscape photography, the rugged and beautiful St. Francois Mountains.  This location, known as Elephant Rocks, is located in Iron County and lies about six miles north of Ironton and two miles west of Graniteville.  By the names of these towns can you figure out what the principle economic activities of this area were historically?  The primary features of this location, the elephants, are easy to see in the image below.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF17-40mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 17mm, ISO 100,  f/16, 1/6 sec

So what are these “elephants” and how did they get there?  Well first of all these rocks are composed of a pink-colored, Graniteville Granite, or more affectionately known as “Missouri Red Granite”.  Geologists discern between different types of granite based on mineral grain-size and color.  Missouri Red is actually one of the younger granites of the St. Francois Mountains, coming in at a mere 1.3 billion years.  Missouri Red, collected from quarries surrounding this feature was used as paving stones that covered most of St. Louis near the turn of the 20th century.  It was also used in parts of the Eades Bridge, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the Missouri Governors Mansion in Jefferson City and in important buildings across more than a dozen cities in the United States.  It is still quarried today and used mostly for tombstones and counter-tops.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens @ 10mm, ISO 100,  f/16, 1/6 sec

So, if you are reasonably educated in the discipline of geology and you were forced to guess how these boulders managed to be found here your first answer might be to suggest those great marble movers – the glaciers must have moved them here from up near Canada, right?  Sorry, the southern limit of intrusion of those sheets of ice was about where the Missouri River now flows about 150 miles or so to the north.  Hints upon the excepted mechanism of formation can be seen in the image above.

These boulders were formed by a process known as “spheroidal weathering”.  Before you reach for that tube of Preparation H, let me try to explain.  Sometime in the Pre-Cambrian molten rock was forced into the earth’s crust.  As the rock slowly cooled it formed long, nearly vertical joints, or fractures.  As time passed these rocks were covered with younger, sedimentary rocks.  When the Ozark Plateau was forced upward the resulting streams cut their way through this younger rock and eroded much of it away.  Erosional ground waters acted on the corners and edges of these granite joints quicker than on the surfaces and gradually increased these joints.  When the rocks were later exposed to the surface, erosion and weathering acted much quicker in forming the clean and rounded features of the boulders.  Plant life (tree and grass roots, lichen, etc…) also helped to chip away at the surfaces of these future boulders.  Eventually a tor – an exposed mass of bedrock, was left with these elephantine boulders now widely separated.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens @ 10mm, ISO 100,  f/14, Photomatix-HDR blend of 9-images

Above you can see one of the more famous pachyderms who make this site their home, “Dumbo”.  This guy measures at about 27 feet tall, and with the incredible density of this granite (~160 lb per cubic ft) weighs close to 680 tons.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM lens @ 19mm, ISO 100,  f/16, 1/6 sec

Not even the people of the “it will never run out” period of western U.S. expansion would destroy something as unique as Elephant Rocks.  Although there has been mining of granite, iron, lead and other minerals throughout this area, Elephant Rocks still looks pretty much as it did 200 years ago.  When a quarry worker reached “master stonecutter” status they would carve their names here upon the boulders and bedrock.  This gives the place an interesting human historical aspect.  Today, this location is protected as a Missouri State Natural Area and a State Park.  There is a very well done ~mile paved “braille trail” that circles through many of the features of the park.  The trail’s meandering allows the blind to feel some of the geologic features and braille signs are posted to explain what the person is experiencing.  I find this to be a fantastic development.  In my opinion our country does nowhere nearly enough to help the blind and these people are often forced into greater dependence and exclusion because our government refuses to take the smallest of steps.  Ever notice how the US paper currency is all the same size?

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens @ 12mm, ISO 100,  f/16, 1/10 sec

The tinajita, or panhole like those pictured above are more evidence of the weathering this exposed porphyry is being subjected to.  The process of seasonal freezing and thawing as water seeps ever deeper into minute cracks forms these shallow depressions that fill with water in wetter times allowing for animals like insects and frogs to have places to breed.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens @ 15mm, ISO 100,  f/16, manual-HDR blend of 2-images

Elephant Rocks.  It comes as no surprise to those who live in the region – everything in the mid-western United States, but particularly the Ozarks is often overlooked in favor of the grand natural spectacles of the Rockies, the Appalachians, the South-West’s deserts and canyons, etc…  Well, Elephant Rocks is one location that should be on the bucket lists of any tourist, any rock-star landscape photographer or nature enthusiast.  It is a location deserving of being voiced-over by a James Earl Jones, Alec Baldwin or Brangelina in the nature documentary of the week.  I hesitate to scream too loudly, however. I have loved the times I’ve been able to spend hours here without seeing another bipedal ape and hope for many more

I’ve called this the place of unlimited compositions.  I have been fortunate enough to make a few images I really like and I look forward to many more visits over many more years to come to see what other compositions the place is hiding.

You can view more of the photographs I’ve taken at Elephant Rocks.      

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.