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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was busy for several weeks this summer observing and photographing a Ruby-throated Hummingbird and her nest. I collected a lot of behavioral data and took way too many photos and video. Here is part one of what will likely be a three to four part video that summarizes the experience.
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.
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!
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).
I hope these photos make it obvious why hunting these cats can become quite addictive.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
The WGNSS Photography Nature Group met at Cuivre River State Park on Saturday the 2nd in hopes to find members of Limacodidae (slug moths). Perplexing to me, we struck out in the same time and place I found them in numbers and diversity a year ago.
It was still a good time. We found a number of other macro subjects and explored a couple of new places. I also got to give a first spin to my new lens. A wide-angle macro – the Laowa 15mm f/4 Wide Angle Macro. A rather new lens design and one with a pretty steep learning curve, these photos are really just practice. With time and strategy, I think I can get better at this.
Two areas to focus on in improving with this lens:
1) Getting a better handle on exposing for the environment (background) while getting the right amount of light from the flash to properly expose the foreground macro subject. I think this should be easier to predict with practice. I’m not at all sure that I can ever get it on a first try.
2) Figuring out how much dof is just right. Sometimes getting more detail in the background will be desirable. Other times, it is best to blur it out to bring focus on the primary subject.
This is a funnel web or grass spider (Agelenopsis spp.) that we found protecting her egg sack on the leaf of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). She will likely guard the eggs here until the winter takes her.
One of the nice finds of the day was this Black-waved Flannel Moth (Megalopygidae – Lagoa crispata (4644)). One of the key features of this lens is being able to focus close enough to the primary subject for macro-level detail while capturing so much more in the subject’s environment. In this case, I tried to give the perspective of what it may be like for the bug when being discovered by entomologists or nature photographers. Pictured left to right are WGNSS members Rich Thoma, Dave Seidensticker and Casey Galvin.
After the group disbanded at Cuivre River SP, Miguel Acosta and I decided to visit and explore Little Lost Creek Conservation Area near Warrenton. We hiked about 6 miles and I camped there the following evening. I took a quick photo hike in the morning and found these two Brown Stink Bugs (Pentatomidae – Euschistus servus) in copulation. They didn’t like that lens being so close and kept moving to the opposite side of the boneset (Eupatorium) blooms.