It’s Swan Season!

Trumpeter Swans - Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, St. Charles County, MO
Trumpeter Swans – Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, St. Charles County, MO

 

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Trumpeter Swans – Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, St. Charles County, MO

 

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Trumpeter Swans – Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, St. Charles County, MO

 

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Trumpeter Swans – Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, St. Charles County, MO

A Tale of Three White Giants

Trumpeter Swans
Trumpeter Swans

Missouri is home to three giant white swan species that can be difficult to distinguish without a bit of training or education.  All three swans belong to the genus Cygnus and rank among the largest waterfowl on the planet.  The first species we will consider is the Trumpeter Swan (C. buccinator).  Ranked as both the largest waterfowl species in the world and the largest flying bird of North America, the Trumpeter Swan is considered a conservation success.  Beginning in the 1600s the birds were collected for their meat, skins and feathers.  This unregulated slaughter lasted until the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which provided the species some protection. Their population rebounded from a level as low as 32 birds documented in 1932 to 15,000 – 20,000 estimated today.  Trumpeter Swans only winter in Missouri, spending their summer nesting season from the upper great plains up to Alaska.  As many as 600 birds have been counted at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary during a winter season.

Trumpeter Swans
Trumpeter Swans

The Tundra Swan  (C. columbianus) are more widespread across North America compared to its larger relative, the Trumpeter.  And, although they far outnumber the Trumpeter in total population, the Trumpeter is actually the more abundant winter resident in Missouri.  For reasons unknown, this winter we have seen an unusually high number of the comparatively rare Tundra, giving birders something to be excited about.

In single species groups, especially at a distance, the two species can be challenging to tell apart.  However, when seen up close and spaced closely together, the differences are more easily identified.  On average, the Tundra is 1/3 to 1/2 the size of the Trumpeter.  In addition the border of the black color surrounding the bill is different in the two species and the Tundra usually has a yellow spot on the lores, near the base of the bill.  I’ll guide you to your favorite field guide for more specifics.  With this information, can you spot the four Tundras in the image below?

Mix of Swans
Mix of Swans

Here is a closeup of the two species in flight.  Easy to spot the Tundra here.  Right?

Trumpeter : Tundra - 2.1
Trumpeter : Tundra – 2.1

It was such a treat being able to watch a group of Tundras carrying on…

Tundra Swans
Tundra Swans

Finally, our last (and quietest) of Missouri’s Cygnus – the Mute Swan (Color).  The Mute is native to the old world and exists in North America as a naturalized resident.  Still raised and sold on the captive market, the Mute is typically a year-round resident in these parts, moving only to find open water in the dead of winter.  These birds are easily recognized by the large, orange-collored bills, often with a bulge at its base.  I photographed this pair at Binder Lake S.P.

Mute Swans
Mute Swans

There you are, a quick overview of the Missouri’s white giants.

Thanks for the visit.
-OZB

A Random Five

Hello again and happy holidays.

These five were all taken at the confluence, either at RMBS or CBCA.

Rough-legged Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk

This gorgeous juvenile light-phase Rough-legged Hawk spent nearly a week at the confluence recently.  These infrequent winter residents nest up north, far north, like arctic circle north.  One of my favorite birds, it is always a pleasure to find one of these guys.  Sarah and I very much enjoyed this bird, nearly the size of a Red-tailed Hawk, as it hover-hunted much like what is seen by the American Kestrel.

The Rosses Came to Town
The Rosses Came to Town

Steve and I were tipped off to these Ross’s Geese at Teal Pond by a kind birder.  I can’t imagine a cuter bird.  Well, maybe a few.

The Marsh Hawk
The Marsh Hawk

This has really been my year with the Harriers.  I don’t know if it is luck, patience, or what.  This one drifted by closely yo me at CBCA recently.

Harlan's Hawk
Harlan’s Hawk

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, the dark-phase Red-taileds invaded the confluence area.  I do not believe I have ever seen such a dark RTHA on the eastern side of Missouri before this one.

American Kestrel
American Kestrel

This handsome young Kestrel was quite cooperative in posing for me recently at RMBS.

 

Nesting Birds of Missouri – Warbling Vireo

At riverine locals like RMBS, the warbling song of the Warbling Vireo can be heard all day long throughout the summer.  However, they have always given me grief when it came to getting a photograph – lurking shyly among the leafy branches of the Cottonwood.  This year, I hit a trail where I know they set territories for nesting.  Early in the spring, before the leaves expanded, I was able to follow this guy as he made the rounds and get some photos.

Warbling Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Warbling Vireo

 

Kid ‘n Play

This image is from a series I took early this summer at Colombia Bottom Conservation Area.  These two dancing birds were among a large group of Great Egrets competing for standing room only space in a shrinking pool that was loaded with fish.  These moves reminded me of the dancing and rhyming styles of that old hip hop dynamic duo of my youth, Kid ‘n Play.  If I ever get around to processing all the keepers from this series, you will definitely not want to miss the shot I took of the bird I was able to get to wear a “Kid wig”.  😉

Ain’t Gonna Hurt Nobody… We Just Dancin’ Ya’ll!

“Kid ‘n Play”

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

Summer at the Confluence

This weekend I spent both mornings at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, arriving near dawn and walking around the trails for a few hours before the extreme heat of the day took over.  Sarah got up early and came with me this morning. Saturday morning I was fortunate to spot this guy feasting on carcases of fish that succumbed to the poorly oxygenated waters of the shrinking, heated pools of the wetlands.  This was my first opportunity at shooting a raccoon.  Even at such an early morning hour, the back-light serves to give a sense of the heat and humidity that were already noticeable.

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

One of the photographic challenges of this location is trying to get shots of the song birds that live among the tall grasses.  They usually stay pretty far from the trails and are usually hidden low in the vegetation.  This Common Yellowthroat Warbler was close enough and partially obscured by the grasses.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/5.6, 1/1250 sec

One of the pleasure one can get from a summertime visit to RMBS is watching the Least Tern.  I love watching these guys fish.  This one is beginning the plunge into the water off of Ellis Island to grab a little fish.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 250,  f/5.6, 1/1600 sec

Kudos to Sarah, who took a closer look at these guys.  What looked like a bunch of tadpoles gulping at the surface of one of these rapidly vanishing pools was actually a nice-sized school of small catfish.  If rains do not come soon, these guys have no chance.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 800,  f/5.6, 1/400 sec

Sarah also spotted this thistle in early bloom and asked that I take its picture.  I haven’t done a lot of macro style shooting with the 400mm, but I know that using the super tele’s to do this can work magic.  The focus isn’t perfect, but I was actually fighting the minimum focus distance.  I need to try this with dragonflies and other large insects.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 800,  f/5.6, 1/400 sec

This morning there was actually a bit of cloud cover over the sun.  I decided to try a little panning blur and thought this was an apt image to go along with the record breaking heat we’ve been experiencing.  Stay cool everyone.  I am sure looking forward to all the time I’ll have to spend in the greenhouse this week.  ;=)

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 100,  f/14, 1/125 sec

Birds of the Great Confluence – Part Two – Columbia Bottom Conservation Area

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6, 1/640 sec

The Great Rivers Confluence is the area where North America’s two largest rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi, meet together and flow as the Mississippi.  This confluence is just north of St. Louis, Missouri and provides many opportunities for birds along the Mississippi migratory flyway to find the habitat they need.  These areas provide great opportunities for bird-watchers, hunters, and other outdoors types and go by names such as Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Jones Confluence State Park, Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, Marais Temps Clair CA, and a handful of other public properties that have been given mandates based on conserving the basic habitat that wild birds and our other wildlife kin rely upon for their existence.

I have been bird watching in this region for about five years and taking bird photographs here for the last two or three.  In a previous post I showcased six of my favorite images I made at Riverlands MBS and Confluence SP.  Today, I will feature another group of bird photographs taken at Columbia Bottom CA, which sets on the south side of the Missouri River.

These areas may seem very different to us bird watchers because it is about a 15-20 minute drive between the two.  The birds, however can literally move between the two locations in 20-30 seconds.  Such was the case with this Red-tailed Hawk, which is pictured above.  This guy was present in the confluence area for three weeks or so and I had several great opportunities to photograph it.  This is probably my favorite bird photograph to date.  My wife and I were doing a drive through CBCA and in one of the smaller gravel parking lots here was the bird perched atop a post.  I slowly pulled within about 25 feet or so from her going as slow as possible so not to flush her.  The bird cooperatively sat still for maybe five minutes before another car flying by a nearby road caused her to take off.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 250,  f/5.6, 1/1000 sec

One of the great things about birding the confluence region is that every season brings with it a different species composition.  On a monthly basis you will find that some species have arrived and some have left in the ever ongoing event we call migration.  The bird pictured above is a Horned-Lark and he is found in about equal numbers year round.  They are a little more noticeable in the winter season, however, because they tend to aggregate in small flocks – most likely to make finding food easier and potentially spotting predators quicker.  Starting in early spring they will slowly form the mating pairs that will spend the breeding season together.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6, 1/250 sec

This relative of the Cardinal is the monotypic, Dickcissel, and is very much a summer visitor.  These guys arrive en masse to the confluence area around mid-May and following the breeding season leave just as abruptly to their over-wintering homes that lie from southern Mexico to northern South America.  These guys are usually very numerous, but their population in recent decades are facing pressures.  Dickcissel are grassland specialist, seed eaters.  As such they have found there are easy pickings in agricultural areas.  In their off-breading homes in Latin America, where there are fewer regulations against such things, farmers are using very dangerous poisons that have been documented in the killing of thousands of these birds as well as other non-targeted species.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/5.6, 1/320 sec

The widely distributed, Black-crowned Night Heron is the quintessential marsh associated bird.  These guys are perfectly adapted at catching and consuming a wide variety of animal prey items that they come across in wetlands across the world.  I very much enjoy watching and photographing these birds.  They can be found in the confluence region during the warmer months of the calendar.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/6.3, 1/1000 sec

In bird photography nothing beats a typical, perfect, “documentary” style shot.  You know, the photograph in which you were actually able to get close enough to your subject to come close to filling the frame, acheive a perfect exposure and obtain sharpness that will make your eyes bleed?  That is definitely nice, but just as much, I appreciate the “bird as art” image; the photograph in which, with intent or not, you are able to show the subject and/or its environment in a way that looks different than a mere documentary of what the species “looks like”.  The image above of a Great Egret is probably somewhere in between these two image styles.  I wanted to exaggerate the length of this bird’s neck by cutting it from its body.  The shallow DOF separates the bird from the background to further emphasize the subject and its lengthy proportions.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 250,  f/5.6, 1/1600 sec

The Cadillac driving, fancy-pants of the duck world, the Northern Pintail is probably my favorite of the waterfowl.  Much like any photographer who can’t afford to own $10K in glass that will reach, I always struggle to get close enough to ducks.  I made this image just this weekend and it’s probably the closest I’ve ever been able to get to this species with a camera.  The Confluence area lies almost directly in the middle of these guys range.  We are near the northern limit of their wintering range and the southern limit of their breeding range.  Their presence is hard to predict in this area.  Typically they will start to arrive in early spring, but they are not uncommon to find any time during the winter when unfrozen water is present in marshy habitats.  They typically are not found here in the summer as northern Missouri has only a small number of breeding pairs on record.

Folks who give a darn about things other than economic concerns have recently saved the confluence region from an environmental threat.  The development that was proposed would have threatened and endangered many of the birds that rely on this region of the Mississippi River Flyway.  I have attached a few links below for those of you who may be interested in this story.

http://missouri.sierraclub.org/home.aspx?/emg/sierrascape/s2009m10/05_casino.html

http://www.savetheconfluence.org/

http://blogs.riverfronttimes.com/dailyrft/2009/11/conservation_area_casino_faces.php

Birds of the Great Confluence – Part One – Riverlands MBS and Confluence SP

The Great Rivers Confluence is the area where North America’s two largest rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi, meet together and flow as the Mississippi.  This confluence is just north of St. Louis, Missouri and provides many opportunities for birds along the Mississippi migratory flyway to find the habitat they need.  These areas provide great opportunities for bird-watchers, hunters, and other outdoors types and go by names such as Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Jones Confluence State Park, Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, Marais Temps Clair CA, and a handful of other public properties that have been given mandates based on conserving the basic habitat that wild birds and our other wildlife kin rely upon for their existence.

I have been bird watching in this region for about five years and taking bird photographs here for the last two or three.  In this post, I will be showcasing six of my favorite images I have made at Riverlands MBS and Confluence SP.  I will feature another group taken at Columbia Bottom CA, which sets on the south side of the Missouri River at another time.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/5.6, 1/800 sec

The bird pictured above is an Osprey, also known as the Fish Hawk and is one of several species of conservation concern that benefit from the types of refuge that Riverlands and the other preserved and well-managed habitats in the confluence region provide.  These birds feed almost exclusively on fish so it is of no surprise that these birds utilize the Mississippi River and surrounding waterways during their migration for their supper.  These birds will use man-made structures, such as telephone poles to build their nests.  At RMBS you can find special structures designed for this specific purpose.  To my knowledge, these structures have not been used but the birds have nested in trees nearby for the past several years.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6, 1/640 sec

Probably the best known group of birds that rely on the habitat of the confluence region are the waterfowl.  In this day and age, hunting has been one of the bright spots in conservation and management of the types of habitat that ducks and swans rely on during migration.  Without hunters and the money they spend we probably would have lost much more land to development along the Mississippi flyway than we have.  The number of waterfowl hunters has decreased over the past few decades, while the number of bird-watchers, nature photographers and other conservation-minded types has increased.  This is somewhat ironical because organizations that have relied on funds generated from hunting to purchase, protect and manage wetlands are now experiencing budget shortages.  Bird-watching, photography and hiking do not, naturally put money back into the system.  If a new method of fundraising is not found, we may be facing a crisis in the management and protection of these wetlands and the chance to procure new properties for this purpose.  An obvious solution would be for private donations to be given by anyone interested in the protection of these habitats.  Anyone can purchase Duck Stamps, which monies go into managing habitats in which migratory waterfowl rely.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ozark_bill/6135882341/in/set-72157622457983078/lightbox/

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/5.6, 1/400 sec

Other groups of birds, the waders, shorebirds, songbirds and others also rely on the habitat found at Riverlands.  This Yellow-crowned Knight Heron, for instance, is a species that is seldomly found here.  One early August morning I came across a group of these juveniles who were making their way south through the Mississippi flyway together.  As you can see, their colors and patterns make them difficult to spot in almost any natural habitat.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 250,  f/6.3, 1/1600 sec

Winter gulls are a very challenging group of birds to identify.  During normal winters, unlike the tropical winter we are experiencing this year, several rare northern migrants can be found along the dam and other man-made structures.  During the dead of winter it is not uncommon to find groups of experienced birders shivering under the frigid temperatures and gale-force winds at the lock and dam at Riverlands looking at hard to distinguish, rather drab gulls through 60X scopes hoping to find that rare gull to add to their year list.  I have done a little of this myself and it can become addicting!  These cute and graceful Bonaparte’s Gulls are rather earlier migrants that favor warmer weather than many other gulls.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6, 1/800 sec

Another challenging group of birds that will have the uber-birder skipping work, church and ignoring family is the shore-birds.  These birds, whom I have recently become enamored with, move through the confluence region mostly during March-May in the spring and August-October in the fall.  These are beautiful, photogenic and biologically fascinating and diverse birds.  The shorebirds are almost strictly a migratory group concerning the confluence region.  These birds have some of the largest migratory routes in the animal kingdom and their routes across Missouri and Illinois vary and can be tricky in predicting.  Farming and other land development practices are hurting this group badly across their migratory route.  Most species of shorebird have pretty narrow requirements or preferences when it comes to the particular habitat and water depth they need to thrive.  Managing a wetland becomes troublesome when the specific needs for a species is considered and skilled management practices are a must.  Unfortunately, almost half of the shorebirds of the new-world are experiencing declining populations, due almost solely to man-made influences.  Serious action needs to be taken to preserve these populations.  You can read more about this by reading the United States Shorebird Conservation Plan.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6, 1/800 sec

Next to the Bald Eagle, the Trumpeter Swan may be the most recognized bird species of conservation concern that calls the confluence region home during the winter.  Upwards of 400 of these birds and lower numbers of the similar, Tundra Swan can be seen in a single day at Riverlands and surrounding area.  These birds are rugged survivors that spend the majority of their day searching the surrounding farm fields for wasted grain and overnighting in the sanctuary’s water bodies.  These birds, the world’s heaviest that are still capable of flight, are a treasure to watch and photograph.

I often tell people that photographing birds is simultaneously the most rewarding and the most frustrating experience I can think of.  For each of these six images that I am relatively proud of there are at least 500 that were unusable.  Fortune favors the prepared photographer who understands not only how to use their equipment, but understands the behavior of the birds they are after.  Getting close is key, but not getting so close as to disturb the natural behavior and sense of security these wild animals should expect to have.  This is often a fine line.

The confluence region where the Big Muddy and the Father of Waters join was once one of the greatest wetlands areas in all the temperate regions of the world.  Farming and urban sprawl have made considerable changes to these natural habitats.  We can do something to maintain and potentially repair some of what has been lost.