Ancient Seas, Megagrazers and Naked Apes

The story this landscape could tell.  The limestone, cherts and flints found in these hills were laid down by shallow seas which covered much of North America during the Permian Period.  Winds and waters then sculpted this landscape. The Flint Hills were not much affected by glacial activity.  Easy to erode shales and limestone were the primary building block of the shallow soils now found on these hills, while limestone and flint now remain.  Much of this soil washed down the hills and collected in lower areas like in the Kansas River valley seen here below.  The first grazers to feast on the prairie grasses and forbs of these hills were the Mastodon and Mammoth, followed later by the bison.  Crops like maize and squash were first grown in this river valley by the Kansa Indians and now this fertile land is used to grow modern mono-cultures.  This was my first visit to Konza, and I’m not sure why the tall grass of the tall-grass prairie was not very present in the spots that I found myself.  This could be because of the drought, it could be because of livestock grazing system, or maybe I was in areas dominated by the “short-grass” species, found more typically in the western plains.

“Dawn on the Kansas River Valley″
Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM lens @ 33mm, ISO 160,  f/16, manual blend of two exposures

Flint Hills of Kansas: The Konza Prairie

Last weekend Sarah and I took a trip west and found our way to the Little Apple – Manhattan, Kansas.  Destination: The Konza Prairie of the Flint Hills, some of the only existing virgin tall-grass prairie left on earth.   Less than 1% of the estimated 250 million acres of this ecosystem remain intact today, most of it lost to the plow before the year 1900.  In this pano it is somewhat obvious why this area escaped agro-man.  The fertile soils of the Flint Hills are shallow and contain a matrix of limestone and flint gravel.  Homesteaders learned quickly that their sod-busting efforts were best spent elsewhere.  In the valley you can see some gallery forest, supported by an early branch of King’s Creek, a tributary that feeds the Kansas River.  Click on this image to view it full-size in Flickr.  Starting my six mile hike about an hour before sunrise, this series was shot just as the first light of dawn was striking the hills.

“Flint Hills of Kansas″
Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF50mm f/2.5 compact macro lens, ISO 160,  f/14, 1/13 sec, 13 images stitched

My Country ‘Tis of Thee

Part of my Missouri Ozarks grist mill series, this image shows the Dillard Mill in late afternoon light, watching over the Huzzah Creek as the small river works it’s way through a series of man-made impoundments.  There has been a mill structure on this location since 1853, the current building was completed in 1908.  This was the last stop of the day in a day trip Sarah and I took this spring.  Although warm, the setting was perfect.  The quaint, old, warm structure set against last years hay bales in the field immediately behind, the contrasts in water as it rushed down rocky barricades, stopping in motionless, clear ponds, and the chatter of birds like the Belted Kingfisher made us hate to get back into the car and take the drive back to the city.

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 32mm, ISO 100,  f/14, manual blend of three exposures

Dawn in the Garden

After a long hiatus from blogging, I decided to try this again.  I was able to load this image with no problems.  Hopefully this will continue and I can keep making posts.

This is probably my favorite image made during Sarah and my trip through the Shawnee region of southern Illinois this spring.  Seeing some spectacular images online of this place, I couldn’t wait to get here.  Garden of the Gods is located on the eastern side of the Shawnee, so this was our “final destination” as we progressed further from StL.  And although we did see some nice spots, like Bell Smith Springs and Burden Falls, during this rather dry spring, GoG turned out to be the paramount stop.

We arrived with less than 30 minutes of light left during the first evening.  We only saw a limited view of the exposed rocks and watched a pretty nice sunset, but had no real time for or notion of how to set up for a photograph.  We drove back to the very nice cabin we had located near Eddyville, about a 30 minute drive from GoG, and stayed the night.  I got up well before dawn and arrived back at GoG about a half hour before sun rise.  Although I was not fortunate enough to be able to capture a spectacular sunset or sunrise during our brief visit, I was happy with the light presented the morning I made this image.

What I found fascinating is the apparent remoteness of this spot.  Even though it is only about 30-45 minutes from some decent sized towns, this spot seemed more remote and “out of the way” than most spots I visit in the Ozarks.  The morning I made this image I was alone except for one young man who seemed to be in his early twenties.  I saw him in the parking lot with nothing but the clothes on his back.  There were no other vehicles and he was pacing around acting oddly.  I wondered if I should ask him if he needed some assistance or a ride, but something about him was weird.  He didn’t seem to acknowledge me, so I didn’t confront him.  I’m not sure if I did the right thing or not.  I watched him lay down on a bench as I drove away.

As I believed I mentioned before, the one nice thing I learned was how close many of these spots in the Shawnee are to StL.  GoG is only about 2.5 hours from our front door.  For some reason I expected these spots to be a longer drive.  I’m definitely excited to make some more visits to these spots and keep tracking that sweet light.

“Dawn In The Garden”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 24mm, ISO 160,  f/13, manual blend of three exposures


Promise of a New Day

“Dawn at Shaw Nature Reserve”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 92mm, ISO 160,  f/18, 1/13 sec

First of all, I hope the title of this post doesn’t give too much away about my love for everything Paula Abdul.  ;=)  My hope for this post is to  present the possibilities of experiences that Shaw Nature Reserve offers the nature lover, hiker, birder, artist, or anyone trying to escape the confines of modern culture and everyday life.  SNR is located in Gray Summit, MO, about 30 minutes outside the St. Louis metropolitan area.  It is an easy to get to spot to find yourself in a well-managed and diverse range of native Ozark habitats.

I love spending the early morning hours at SNR.  I have spent many a Saturday morning, having arrived before first light, with the entire reserve to myself.  I try to have a plan for those ephemeral golden hours where I can pretend I am the only person on the planet: macro photography of wildflowers, a hawk’s nest, a particular landscape image, etc.  More often than not the weather or light or my desire to put some miles on the trails forces me to forget my plans and try to take advantage of the best available opportunity.

Everything in nature seems to be fully awake at dawn and just like the opportunities for the photographer the stimulus for the senses at dawn are almost infinite.  During this morning the frogs were still advertising, song birds – Towhee, Field Sparrow, Carolina Wren, and Redwing Blackbird are singing their unique songs, the Barred Owls are talking to one another.  The light and colors of early morning are constantly changing and the brisk temperatures and fog in the air are pleasant on the skin and a joy for hiking.

Being a little windy on this particular morning I knew that my goal of photographing spring wildflowers would be a bit frustrating.  I also felt that need to walk so I started on the trails knowing there would be ample opportunities for some early morning landscapes. This section of this trail emerges from denser woods to a savannah-like habitat with a cattail pond.  I tried several compositions and focal lengths and this one was one of my favorites with a Redwing Blackbird perched facing the sun.

So, please join the crowds and make a visit to Shaw after 10:00 in the morning.  Maybe I’ll see you on my way out.  ;=)

More Snipe than You Could Fit in Your Bag

“Scolopacid Dawn”

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

I arrived at CBCA well before dawn.  I knew from a visit a week earlier that a large amount of waterfowl, specifically Pintail, were using the habitat here and my hope was to catch some early morning photos of these birds flying by.  In one of the large pools alongside the road I saw nearly 50 of these bizarre birds with a bill almost as long as their bodies.  They were not very flighty at all, allowing me in my “mobile blind” to easily get within distance for some decent shots.

Members of the Scolopacidae family of shorebirds include the traditional Sandpipers, the beautiful Phalaropes, the Curlews, the Dowitchers, and several others – including the bird pictured above, the Common Snipe.  The Scolopacids are well known for their complex and diverse mating behaviors.  Not as complex or developed as the Passerine songbirds, this group also uses extensive advertisement vocalizations, most likely evolved to be well understood on their vast tundra breeding grounds.

Similar to its cousin, the Woodcock, the Common Snipe uses a “winnowing display” to attract mates.  These birds will fly high into the air and plummet towards the ground while fanning their tail feathers, which make a distinctive winnowing noise as the air rushed rapidly over them.

Looking closely at the length of a shorebird species’ bill gives a great clue to what the bird feeds on and how much water they typically forage in.  With the great diversity in the morphology of these birds, the specific depth of water and vegetation these species are accustomed to and food sources they utilize, it is no wonder that habitat management programs can be quite complex.  What works great for waterfowl or a particular species of shorebird may not be useable at all for another species.  CBCA has come a long way in providing the diversity of habitat and the managers seem to be doing a great job in their management practices, especially considering the unpredictable weather patterns we have had in this region the past several years.

Winter’s Bone

I found this spot on a recent scouting trip in Warren County over the holiday break.  When I was driving on the higher main roads the outside thermometer on my all-wheel drive all the time Subaru Forester read 33 degrees.  When I reached this spot down near the bottom of the holler, it read 16 F.  This was probably the coldest weather I experienced in this so-called winter we are having.  I saw the frost-touched post, barbed-wire and vegetation with the forested hill and the sun rising beyond that and of course I had an opportunity to try my new graduated ND filters.  If you’ve ever tried to do intricate photography or any other kind of work in such temperatures then you know how challenging this can be.  Overall, this trip yielded some interesting images even though I discovered my main sought after location looks to be surrounded by private property and I did not press my luck in getting there.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 35mm, ISO 100,  f/14, 1/10 sec

“The sky lay dark and low so a hawk circling overhead floated in and out of clouds.  The wind heaved and knocked the hood from her head.  That hawk was riding the heaving wind looking to kill something, rip it bloody, chew the tasty parts, let the bones drop”

-Daniel Woodrell

“Winter’s Bone”