How I Spent Superb Owl Sunday

For the first time since junior high I did not watch a single down or minute of the NFL this season and I couldn’t be happier for it.  Rape my town three times, NFL – shame on you.  I’ve been pleased to get those precious free minutes back for my Sundays, several of which I found I could spend not dreading the upcoming workweek.

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

When the forecast showed a near perfect meteorological condition for shooting the Short-eared Owls of BK Leach, I figured this could be promising.  While most other naked apes with functioning vision would be in front of the picture box and ingesting mass quantities of wings and beer, I would enjoy the warm and lightly breezy evening in my own kind of chair with friends of a different sort.

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

Of course there is never a sure thing.  Often, when I have expected the best due to light and temperature, the owls don’t show where I set myself.  On this particular day, all conditions came together and I had a super time.

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

I want to give huge thanks for my lovely and talented wife, Sarah, for the special help she gave me this season in getting my best to date SEOW in flight shots.

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

A perfect day ended in the perfect way – with a great sunset on the Lincoln Hills.

Sunset on the Lincoln Hills
Sunset on the Lincoln Hills

Until next time…
-OZB

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A Couple Autumn Days in Forest and Stream

Back in October, Steve and I had the pleasure of spending a couple days doing our favorite things in the Missouri Ozarks.  We made our base at our usual, the cabins at Big Spring SP, our last stay here for at least three years as the cabins will be closed for construction.  For our first day, we decided to take care of something that had been on my list for a number of years, to hike the largest official Wilderness Area in the state – the Irish.  Named after the Irish immigrants who settled in this area in the mid nineteenth century, the Irish was visited and pushed for protection by Aldo Leopold himself.  The Irish was finally designated by law as an official wilderness area in 1984 after close to two decades of work by a number of caring people.  This area was virtually cleared of its timber by the early years of the 1900s, but was replanted with its current deciduous hardwood mix by the CCC in the 1930s.

Ozark Bill in the Irish
Ozark Bill in the Irish

Officially listed as 18.4 miles, the Irish Wilderness loop trail is typically tackled with a night or two of backpacking.  Being the athletic super-freaks that we are, Steve and I put down an estimated 22 miles, with some back tracking and assisting a lost backpacker (a GPS unit with topographic map display is quite the asset here), in about 16 hours.  It would have been more enjoyable with a night or two sleeping in the woods and spending more time, but we had other plans in store as well.  The image below is from an overlook of the Eleven Point River at close to the halfway point of the hike.  I will never forget standing here in the late afternoon light with hundreds of ladybird beetles covered the rocks and filled the air.

The Eleven Point
The Eleven Point

Covering 20 miles in a single day does not leave much time for taking photos.  After getting some much appreciated sleep back at the cabin, we arose early to arrive at Richard’s Canoes to be in the water by ~07:30.  We put in at Greer Spring Access (mile 16.6) and had the day to move the ~12 miles to our take out at Whiten Access (mile 27.6).  The Eleven Point offers a perfect mix of slower moving stretches and deep pools mixed with just enough class 2 rapids to keep things interesting.  Make sure to bring along some wet bags if carrying delicate camera or other electronic equipment.  We were offered autumn views like this around nearly every bend.

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Autumn on the Eleven Point

As if the landscape and feelings of being on the river were not enough, the wildlife opportunity are surely the highlights for a float trip like this, assuming you are quite and keep your eyes open.  This White-tailed buck was moving upstream when Steve spotted him.

Swimming Buck
Swimming Buck

Of course the birds will be abundant along any Missouri Ozark stream at any time of year.  We were thrilled to see this Osprey come in to perch nearby as we floated.

Osprey
Osprey

Within a couple of miles from our take-out point, we were presented with our pièce de résistance for the float, two groups of River Otters!  The images below are the first group, a mom and four pups.  These animals were venturing out of their den to play in the day’s last light.

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Three Pups

The pups seemed not too concerned, but mom kept a close eye on the floating log with ugly heads.

Otter Family
Otter Family
Otter Family II
Otter Family II

These guys will turn anything into a toy… 😉

Playing with a Twig...
Playing with a Twig…

I leave you with a sunset from the nearby Big Spring State Park and eternal thanks to those who worked so hard against heavy opposite forces so that, at a minimum, we have what we have today.

The day is almost upon us when canoe travel will consist in paddling up the noisy wake of a motor launch and portaging through the back yard of a summer cottage.  When that day comes canoe travel will be dead, and dead too will be a part of our Americanism…

-Aldo Leopold-

Wild Horizons
Wild Horizons

 

 

 

 

Return to Squaw Creek NWR

I have posted about Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge before.  One of the prime birding locations in the state, I asked Steve to accompany me for a Thanksgiving week’s trip.  Nothing is assured during this time on the calendar in Missouri, and we knew that there was a chance the entire refuge could be frozen over, pushing the 500,000 snow geese that could potentially be visiting to warmer, more southerly locations.  The weather that week was barely below freezing so we were optimistic that the refuge would be mostly open and the birding would be good.  Arriving in Mound City after dark, we were forced to wait until the next morning to check out the refuge.  Being the proper naturalists/photographer/birders that we are, we arose in plenty of time to fill ourselves with coffee and roughage, pack up the car with optics and winter gear and make it to the refuge before first light.  Driving around the well-placed road, we could hear little but wind.  At one point we left the car and Steve through a rock into the black.  The response was quite an unusual sound that was definitely not the plash expected of liquid water, but could only be the vibrations of a rock on a large flat ice sheet.  As the light grew we could see that most of the refuge was indeed frozen (>90%).  We would not get to see the numbers of snowies that could potentially be visiting, but we would see 10,00-20,000 birds that were using the two small ice-free spots.  Steve seemed impressed, nonetheless.

Presented first is an image of a few geese flying with the wind between us and the moon.  Any nature photographer worth their glass would have pre-visualized this and remembered to have taken a sharp capture of the moon in focus and then combined that with the in-focus geese to make a much nicer final photograph.  One of these days…

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We were subjected to a few flybys of large groups of geese as they moved from the refuge to surrounding fields to feed on spent grain.  Collisions do occur, but when looking at it this way, it’s a wonder they don’t happen more regularly.  Of course, I was pooped on. 😉

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The image below really shows the difference between the lighter, “snow” and the darker, “blue” phases this species comes in.

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Red-tailed Hawks were quite common in this area of the state, but were very much different than the typical plumage seen from the eastern subspecies from the opposite side of Missouri.  This is what I believe should be considered the “western” subspecies, but can be difficult to distinguish from “Harlan’s” subspecies in winter.  The ABA has a nice article on this variably-plumed raptor.

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The beauty of Squaw Creek is the potential for all sorts of bird species and other wildlife one is likely to find.  The snow show is definitely the main attraction this time of year, but other migrants are likely to be found as well.  Taking the ~10 mile auto route allows for close-up viewing in a variety of wetland habitats.  Across a canal, in some warm winter grasses we found a couple of familiar heads sticking up.  Two Sand-hill Cranes!  I got out of the car as silently as possible and set up the tripod and big lens.  They did not seem too concerned with us.  As they foraged we watched and I took photos.  A couple in an SUV pulled up not too far down the road and were not as considerate.  This seemed to be too much for the pair, who took to wing.  Luckily, I was prepared and was somehow able to squeeze this keeper.

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Sunrise and sunset are the times to be in a wetland.  The lighting is perfect and the birds are most active, heading into open water for roost.  It really does seem that many birds on the wetlands fly around for the sheer enjoyment.  Trumpeter Swans are a favorite of mine to watch.

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As we watched the show, we hear a familiar and longed-for music.  I can’t explain it better than Aldo… “High horns, low horns, silence, and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks, and cries that almost shakes the bog with its nearness, but without yet disclosing whence it comes.”  Travelling south passed a group of Cranes.

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The warm temperature of the light near sunset betrays the senses.  The skin knows the eye is false.  Even so, watching this show makes it all worthwhile.

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Marsh grasses, muskrat mounds and loess hills.  Can you imagine a more satisfying landscape?

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I’m not sure I’ll get there next year or not, but it goes without saying that I can’t get enough of Squaw Creek.

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Dunn Ranch Bison

Here are a few of my favorite images of Buffa Bison that make their home at Dunn Ranch Prairie.  These were taken during Steve and my trip there this past summer.

 

Young had been born just a couple months before our arrival.

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Oh no, run!  It’s Ozark Bill!

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I’m continuously amazed by the speed of these guys.  They slowed down for the youngsters a little, but not much.

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Moving up and over the hilly landscape is no problem for these guys.

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What could possibly be more satisfying than watching that hot globe fall out of a large open sky with a view like this?

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Big Spring Trip – Autumn, 2013

For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life — the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value.

-Claude Monet

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“Ageless Banks”

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“Amber Mists”

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“Changing Time”

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…

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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 “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.

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“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?

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“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.

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“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.

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“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-

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“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

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