WGNSS Nature Photo Group Outing – Swans of RMBS

ƒ/8, 1/1250 sec, ISO-320, 1120 mm focal length equivalent

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?

ƒ/8, 1/800 sec, ISO-250, 1120 mm focal length equivalent

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.

ƒ/5.6, 1/1600 sec, ISO-160, 594 mm focal length equivalent

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.

ƒ/5, 1600 sec, ISO-200, 272 mm focal length equivalent

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.

ƒ/5, 1/1600 sec, ISO-400, 216 mm focal length equivalent

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.

-OZB

White-tailed Deer

Something is in the air

Until this autumn, I never considered targeting our abundant white-tailed deer as a photo subject. When my friend, Miguel, brought up the idea along with a place with a lot of potential, I asked him to lead the way. We set up in a copse of trees located near the center of a scrub field in an area that does not allow hunting and Miguel’s predictions of worry-free males still on the hunt came to fruition.

Buck and Foxtail

Although I cam ill-prepared, leaving my tripod and any other means of support at home, the light was just sweet enough to allow for proper hand-holding the big 500mm. Once I took off the unnecessary teleconverter, it worked even better.

Spike

We counted at least two larger bucks that patrolled the area, but found this young spike buck as well. He was not quite as confident as the other two.

Doe

Females walked the area as well, but were more skittish. The bucks were more curious when they first heard the sounds of our shutters slapping and picked up our sent in the light morning breeze. The does, however, tended to trot away at first sign that something different lurked in our copse.

White-tailed Deer

This spot turned out to be quite nice. With the rising sun to our backs, the trees at the far edge of the field provides for a nice backdrop for that warm light to hit against. These guys have probably, or will soon be dropping these nice racks. With any luck we can try more of this next year.

Thanks for paying a visit!

-OZB

 

Back to the Prom

A Wilson’s Promontory Hillside at Sunset

It has been a while since I’ve shared some photos from Wilson’s Promontory National Park, along the southern coast of Victoria, Australia. This is definitely one of my favorite places I have ever visited and today I want to tell an ecology story of a special plant that I had no idea existed until making this trip in December, 2017.

Sawtooth Banksia (Banksia serrata)

The Banksia are a highly adapted plant that are found along a number of coastal habitats surrounding Australia. Wilson’s Promontory has four recorded species, two small to medium tree type forms, Banksia serrata and B. integrifolia and two smaller brush/shrub forms, B. marginata, and B. spinalosa (1). The most abundant species on the Prom and the only one I had sense in taking photographs of is the sawbank banksia, B. serrata. 

Current (sides) and past (center-back) year’s inflorescence of Banksia serrata

Banksia are easily identified by their bottlebrush-shaped spike inflorescence, which can contain hundred to thousands of of tiny flowers. Typically, only a few flowers will produce a hard and woody follicle that may hold the seed enclosed on the inflorescence “cone” within the canopy for as many as ten years. Although hard fires will cause the death of established Banksia, it is a necessity for most Banksia to remain stable in their habitat. Wild fire causes the woody follicles to dry and allows the opening of the hinges that releases the seeds within and promotes their germination (2).

A Banksia serrata loaded with years of “cones”

The photo below shows a very old “cone” that is still being held on the plant despite the seed having been released due to fire-induced desiccation.

Banksia serrata “cone” that has released its seed

The Banksia are well-adapted to fire as the next photo attests. Collin and I found this recent cut along a trail access. The thick and furrowed bark helps to keep fire from destroying living cells underneath.

Banksia serrata limb crosscut

There is a great case for describing Banksia as mutualist keystone species. Nectar produced at the base of the flowers was used by original native peoples, the Gunna and the Boonwurrung, to sweeten their water. This nectar also feeds a wide variety of important insect and bird pollinators during the day and mammals, like the eastern pygmy possum, at night. Birds such as Spinebills, Wattlebirds and Lorikeets have tongues adapted with brush-like tips that helps them specialize in feeding primarily on nectar and pollen (2). The photo below shows a Rainbow Lorikeet that I was able to capture in the act of feeding.

Rainbow Lorikeet, Trichoglossus moluccanus, feeding on Banksia serrata flower nectar

Only the largest of seed-eating birds, like the Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo, can use their strong curved beaks to break into the woody seed pods of Banksia to feed on the seeds within.

Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus funereus) are one of only a few potential bird species that can prey on Banksia seed on the Prom

B. serrata and B. integrifolia are among the tallest of trees in heathlands and similar habitats where they are found in the Prom. Because of this, they are important architecture for perching and nesting birds as well as providing shelter for small mammals. This male Fan-tailed Cuckoo is one of a few birds we found using the Banksia.

Fan-tailed Cuckoo (Cacomantis flabelliformis) – One of many birds that “nest” on the Prom

Until next time, have a good day, mate.

 

 

 

You Have to Look Under a Lot of Leaves to Find a Slug

Pin-striped Vermilion Slug Moth – Limacodidae – Monoleuca semifascia (4691)

The WGNSS Nature Photography Group met on September 1, 2018 at Don Robinson State Park in Jefferson County, MO, with the goal of finding slug moth caterpillars and whatever other macro subjects of interest we could find. Overall, I think we had good fortune on this hot and muggy, late-summer day, finding quite a few interesting caterpillars. The slug moth caterpillars were a little scarce, but we did find a little something extra special – the pin-striped vermilion slug moth (Monoleuca semifascia) (Hodges # 4691). In four summers of looking for slug cats, this is the first one I have seen. It is a southern species and I assumed it would need to be found in the south-western part of our state where the open barren woodlands and savanna type environments this species prefers are more common.

Pin-striped Vermilion Slug Moth – Limacodidae – Monoleuca semifascia (4691)

This is the 14th of 15 species of slug moth caterpillars that are found in Missouri that I have been able to see and photograph. One more to go!

Pin-striped Vermilion Slug Moth – Limacodidae – Monoleuca semifascia (4691)

Slug cats can be found on virtually any species of woody plant in the state. Although oaks and hickories seem to be the preferred host plants, this animal was found on an eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis).

Pin-striped Vermilion Slug Moth – Limacodidae – Monoleuca semifascia (4691)

I hope these photos make it obvious why hunting these cats can become quite addictive.

Finding Snow in April

Snowy Owl – BK Leach Conservation Area

A huge thank you to Danny Brown, without whom I most likely would have stayed at zero Snowy Owls for the great Snowy irruption of the 2017/2018 winter. Because of travel and just poor luck, I had missed out on finding the Snowy Owls that had salted the state this winter and would never have imagined that we would have another chance a week into April. But, since the weather to date  suggests little of spring, I suppose we should have not been too surprised.

Snowy Stretch

The birding on Saturday was seemingly great everywhere and Steve, I and others were having good luck finding interesting species at RMBS when we received the messages from our phones about Danny’s find. I think Steve and I would have been satisfied with our usual views from a football’s field or two away, but were ecstatic to find the bird perched at an optimal viewing distance, resting after a nice meal that others had documented earlier in the day.

Snowy Yawn

We left the bird still on its perch shortly after sunset. On the way out of the conservation area we had a Short-eared Owl and American Bittern flyovers. Thanks again, Danny.

Birds of Australia – Masked Lapwing

Masked Lapwing

I had come across Lapwing species in Brazil. These are pretty interesting birds – often colorful, loud, large and not too off-put by human activity. They are classified in the family Charadriidae that includes the plovers and they always remind me of our Killdeer.  Most birds in this group use alarm calls and maybe injury feigning to protect themselves and their nests and offspring. These guys have similar tools, but look closely at the next image. Can you see their special weapons?

Masked Lapwing

Yes, these guys pack a little something extra in those wings. Also known as the Spur-winged Plover, the Masked Lapwing uses those spurs in territorial conflicts with one another as well as against potential predators that may be after their nests and developing chicks. Humans have been known to be struck by these not-so helpless birds.

‘Spur-winged Plovers’