Back in September I was fortunate to join the boat owners club when I picked up a single-seater canoe/kayak hybrid. After my typical dive into researching the best potential model for my usage and pocketbook, I was pretty certain it would suit my needs. Excited to give it a try, my first stop in getting it wet was an early morning vacation day at Creve Coeur Lake.
On this first outing, only minutes from my house, I did not expect the photographic opportunities to be very abundant. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the looks at wildlife and photos I was able to get.
Maneuvering the boat into position while trying to get the photos was a bit of a chore and will definitely take more practice to get right. Facing your subjects is key and in still waters was usually doable before the subjects could complain.
This boat sits very shallowly in the water, allowing me to maneuver easily in the shallows wetlands found at the south end of the lake. I was often moving in less than three inches of water!
This wraps up the best of my keepers from my first day out in the boat. Needless to say I was quite satisfied with this activity and I am looking forward to getting out more often with it.
May seems such a long time ago. I don’t know how I get so behind on photo processing, but, better late than never. Here is the first of what will probably be three videos with stills of the White-eyed Vireo nest found by Miguel Acosta at Weldon Spring C.A. this past spring. I hope you like it.
I typically don’t have very much luck finding caterpillars of the giant silk moths from the Saturnidae family. This past season was a little more successful. I found three polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus) caterpillars and Sarah found the above luna moth caterpillar during our birthday hunting trip in mid-September. Larvae of these two species look very similar, but there are a few easy characteristics than can be used to distinguish between the two.
As usual, I am woefully behind on processing images this year, probably worse than usual actually. I’ve also not put much work into birds this year, a general trend over the past few years. Too much I’m interested in and not enough time. Anyway, here is some avian miscellany from 2020 so far.
My quest is to get the perfect Cerulean Warbler shot. These are not it, but getting closer. Better luck next year.
This pair of Blue-grey Gnatcatchers were also photographed this spring at Weldon Spring Conservation Area.
A pair of Louisiana Waterthrush were usually easy to find in a territory that the trail ran through.
This Horned Lark was found back in March at Riverlands.
I was happy to fins this Hairy Woodpecker nest this past spring, but, unfortunately, the parents never got used to my presence so I didn’t spend much time here.
Back in April, Casey and I visited a hotspot for the small population of Swainson’s Hawks in Greene County. These hawks are rare in Missouri and nesting pairs are limited to the southwestern portion of the state.
While waiting for more interesting subjects, Killdeer can sometimes get close enough to make it worthwhile. This one was strutting in some pretty good light.
Finally, this Red-winged Blackbird was captured establishing his territory outside the Audubon Center in early spring.
Going to the archives to try and wrap up 2019, I want to share a few more birds taken in eastern North Carolina.
For me, the highlight of visiting Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge was visiting the Least Tern nesting colony. They put up a barricade to make sure you do not get to close to the nests and chicks, but it soon became obvious that the birds do a pretty good job at dissuading anyone from getting too close.
It was terrifying watching these birds react defensively, strafing and defecating until I moved back to a point they felt comfortable with. I remember I still had some of their ammunition on my camera body for at least six months before finally cleaning it off.
You have to look really close towards the center of their nesting arena to spot the chicks – the reason for their territorial behaviors.
During a walk along the interior, marsh portion of the refuge, this beautiful Common Tern flew by.
A real treat were my first looks and photographs of Red Knot.
During the same trip, I was fortunate to visit a nice longleaf pine forest habitat at TNC’s Calloway Forest Preserve in Hoke County, NC. Here, along with the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, I got to find one of my southern favorites, the Bachman’s Sparrow.
From the few short trips I’ve been, North Carolina seems to be quite a place for birds and nature.
March 2020 seems so long ago. Back at the beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic, when we were all getting used to social distancing, I remember watching this nest with a few other photographers. I only made it to the park on a few days and unfortunately did not cover much of the course of the two chicks’ development. But what little time I did have with them I managed to capture a lot of interesting behavior. I’m sorry if this one is a little long, but I had a hard time cutting things out. Scenes where mom and the chicks are looking horizontally or up and mom is giving her best defensive display was in response to a pair of Canada Geese that would sometimes buzz the nest, apparently interested in potentially taking over that prized knot hole for their own nest. Then there is another sinister enemy that I won’t spoil for you… 😉
I hope you will find this as entertaining as I do.
Never have I worked so hard to get mediocre photos of such an ugly bird. The sky was clear, the air cool and this combination created a terribly turbulent atmosphere over the mud flats the bird was foraging in, making it near impossible to get the sharpness desired in a photograph.
The Ruff is a bird that is native to Eurasia, visiting North America somewhat regularly. There have been sightings of this species in Missouri and Illinois in the recent past (at least three during this spring), but this is the first one I’ve been able to track down and photograph. Josh Uffman happened to discover this bird near Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary on April 18th while we were in the area. I want to thank Josh who turned on the St. Louis birding community to this special visitor from overseas.
The Ruff is a member of the Calidris genus of shorebirds. Local members of this group include many of the sandpipers we are familiar with, like the peeps, Dunlin and Red Knot.
I know I called this particular bird ugly earlier in the post. However, if you are not familiar, look this bird up on the internet or your favorite bird guide. The birds in breeding plumage are absolutely stunning and their behavior on leks makes them a very special bird.
These were just a few of the couple thousand or so photos of this bird taken on that day. Most were boring shots of the bird foraging in the flooded farm field. Perhaps one day I’ll be fortunate enough to see these guys on their leks.
I have traveled to Kaskaskia Island, IL at least 7 times in the past four years in hopes of being fortunate to find these beautiful birds in close distance to a road. Most visits result in being able to find them, but most often they are a football field or more away. Back in early January 2020, Sarah and I finally won the lottery.
We found these birds quite close to the road and actively foraging in the permanent drainage canals of this river valley farming area.
Whooping Cranes are still endangered; however, thanks to the USFWS/USGS captive breeding and reintroduction program, this species has come back from the brink of extinction. In 1941 the species was down to only 21 individuals due to rampant conversion of natural habitat to farmland, coastal development, and unregulated hunting. The captive breeding program was initiated in 1967 and today there are now more than 800 birds in the wild.
Captive breeding and reintroduction has now been transferred from the federal institutions to a good number of other organizations who will continue towards the goal of making the Whooping Crane self-sufficient again. This efforts is not completely without problems as there have been and continue to be problems associated with getting the reintroduced birds to migrate, interact and successfully nest.
A case in point may be the recent history of these birds in the state of Missouri (only the 8th record in MO since 1953). The first reports of a four-bird cohort observed in Columbia MO was in May, 2016. These were the same birds observed over-wintering in Kaskaskia Island, IL. These four birds were from a release who then strayed from their population that was following the traditional Wisconsin to Florida migration route. Since then at least two of the original four birds have died. Hopefully these two (I have been told, but have not yet been able to confirm that this is a sexual pair) will get back on track one day and do their part in propagating the species.
In December, 2018 the WGNSS Nature Photography Group met at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary with hopes of making some memorable images of our giant white residents that spend their winters here. Trumpeter and Tundra Swans will spend their evenings at roost in the bodies of water at RMBS and will then typically leave to forage in surrounding agricultural fields, picking up the wasted grain from harvest.
A good strategy for placing yourself in the most appropriate position for making photographs of these birds is to pay attention to the direction of the sun. If the birds are found in Ellis Bay during the golden hours of morning light (during winter in St. Louis, this can be up to three hours after sunrise), then getting close to the shore with the sun behind you can produce some satisfactory results. Try getting closer to the ground and shooting the birds from a low angle. This will give your photographs an eye-to-eye perspective that is a much more intimate view into the birds’ world. Shooting at low angles will also tend to provide a more pleasing, out-of-focus background to your subject that will cause the bird to appear to be larger than life. We photographed both species of swan as they lounged in Ellis Bay for the first couple hours of the morning. Can you pick which is the Tundra and which is the Trumpeter Swan in these first two images?
We then moved on to another place within the refuge that the Swans can often be found on winter mornings. At Heron Pond, these birds are typically too far away from the observation areas to get closeup photographs while roosting. However, the patient photographer on the ready can often be rewarded by standing and waiting around. During this morning, the Swans were a tad tardy in lifting out of Heron Pond, so our group was in the right place at the right time. Getting proper positioning with the angle of the sun is a bit more difficult here in the morning but is still critical. We placed ourselves in the best places available on this busy morning and took advantage of the swans as they left the pond, which often flew right over our heads.
Photographing these mostly bright-white birds on a bright sunny day is not necessarily simple. While on the ground or the waters of the bay, it is common to have the camera’s light meter expose for the darker and more prominent background. This will often lead to the white feathers of the birds being overexposed. Remember to check the histogram of your camera and use the “blinkies” while reviewing your images to ensure you are not clipping your whites. If this is the case, make the proper adjustments to your exposure. Saving your whites may result in your blacks and shadows being bunched up at the other end of the histogram. Since the big white bird is your subject of concern, this should be nothing to worry about.
Changing directions and the angle of sunlight are challenging for proper exposure. Get as close as you can in the field – much can be recovered in post-processing.
Shooting these large birds in flight presents a different set of challenges. Although these birds move relatively slower than most other birds during flight, the photographer will still want a relatively fast shutter speed. This is particularly true the closer you are to your subject. I recommend no slower than 1/1000 of a second. Start at this setting and increase shutter speed if you notice blurring or softness to your image due to subject movement. As these birds get closer during flight, they will naturally fill more of your frame, thereby increasing the number of pixels seeing the bright white values. This can often lead to a case of the camera’s meter overcompensating, thereby causing an underexposed image. In this case, the birds may come out looking grey instead of white and the black colorations of their feet and faces will be much too dark and lack sufficient details.
In the above image, a swan can be seen with a significantly crooked neck. I typically see one or two birds with this condition every season. I do not know how it affects the birds or what their ultimate fates may be.
In the case of constant sunny skies, fully manual exposure settings are most called for. Here I will present a good starting point for setting the exposure for capturing swans in flight. Shutter speed – As I mentioned earlier, start with a minimum of 1/1000 sec. This may likely be too slow to capture a sharp image, depending on what position the bird’s wings were captured. Often, shutter speeds of up to 1/2500 sec or higher might be necessary. Aperture – This will depend on how close you are to the swan. Remember, these are large birds and when shooting at a profile there is a lot of distance from wingtip to wingtip. If the bird is significantly close, or if you have multiple birds in the frame, you will be unlikely to capture the entire subject(s) in critical focus if shooting wide open. I recommend no wider than ƒ/5.6 – you may need to stop down significantly smaller. However, always remember that getting the animal’s eye in sharp focus is critical. Many images will work fine if other parts of the bird are not in critical focus. ISO – Remembering that photography is a compromise, shooting at a fast shutter speed and smaller apertures might require that a higher ISO value be needed to obtain the proper exposure. Several latest digital camera models have a useful “auto ISO” setting. I know, technically this is not fully manual, but ISO does not necessarily have the input it once did. Know the highest ISO setting for your camera that you are comfortable with and don’t be afraid to shoot there. This will vary by camera model and by the photographer’s taste.
Here is a photo of “crooked neck” as it flew directly over my head. In cases like this a telephoto-zoom lens is really beneficial for capturing birds in flight.
The majority of this material was originally published in Nature Notes (The Journal of the Webster Groves Nature Study Society) February 2019, Vol. 91, No. 2.