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.
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.
The 275th bird species I have photographed in Missouri and contiguous states turned out to be a special one. This Eastern Screech Owl is definitely the current most famous bird in the bi-state area. Many thanks to Miguel Acosta for the information. A long time coming.
Way back in April Steve and I visited Larue Road, AKA “Snake Road”, to visit the swamps of western Shawnee National Forest. We came up mostly short on snakes and found way to many naked apes on this particular Saturday, but we were pretty certain to find a good feathered reptile show, and we were not disappointed.
The Prothonotary Warbler is a staple of southern swamps and this area sure has its share. We were pleasantly surprised to find a number of these birds foraging along the road, without a care about what we were up to. This allowed for some very nice looks and photographic opportunities.
The image above shows how these guys (and most warblers) go about making a living. They know better than any entomologist that the best opportunities for finding caterpillars and spiders is to look under leaves and inside the folds and crevices of new leaves and flowers.
We didn’t find a nest cavity of one of these monks during this visit, but they were undoubtedly tending nests and potentially caring for eggs. If only this area were not a three hour drive!
Lastly, at one end of the road we were greeted by a gang of Coots feasting on Coon’s Tail.
In case you have not heard, Missouri had it’s first documented visit by an Ivory Gull this past month. This species is typically found north – way north. We’re talking fighting with Polar Bears for scraps north. Once in a while a species like this gets way off track and can be found far from home. This bird was found in the marina and lock and dam areas at Quincy Illinois and Missouri.
Folks flocked from as far as Texas and Florida, to the Carolinas and New England. This was a potential once in a lifetime bird, unless you took a trip to their normal range.
Although we were not fortunate enough to get super close looks in great light, Steve and I were thrilled with watching the bird for several hours over the course of an extremely cold and windy Sunday.
At least one photographer paid a local to motor him past the gull to get a closer shot. A truly surreal experience.
Being almost solely interested in “herps” (reptiles and amphibians) for a couple decades of my life, a place in southern Illinois known as LaRue Road, or more legendarily – “Snake Road”, has long been on my list of favorites to visit. Years ago, before becoming interested in the reptiles with wings and feathers, I barely took notice that this location was swarming with all sorts of life. Upon becoming a more rounded nature enthusiast, I have since discovered this simple road is located within a special zone of multiple habitats. Whether it be herps, birds, plants, insects, etc., this is a special area of biodiversity that is celebrated by those lovers of life who are fortunate enough to have found it.
So enough with the flowery description. What makes this area so special? LaRue Rd. is located on the western edge of the Shawnee National Forest; this particular portion of the forest is called the LaRue Pine Hills. Where the flood plains of the Mississippi and Big Muddy Rivers meet these hills, bluffs of up to 200 feet have formed. At the base of these bluffs, the rivers have helped form some very special swamp and marshy habitats. Between the mixed hardwood-pine forests and the wetlands lies – Snake Road. Okay, so what of that? Well, this explains the moniker. Twice a year, snakes move en mass – from the hills to the swamps in spring, and vice versa in autumn to find a high, dry and safe place to overwinter. To do so, they must cross a gravel road.
Anyway, snakes were not even the quarry in mind when Steve and I decided to take the journey. Being so late in the season and relatively late in the day, I didn’t give credit to any dreams of finding a legless squamate. Our goal was to find and grab an exceptional photograph of a Prothonotary Warbler. I’m not sure of the latter, but we were sure able to find them!
A slightly shallower depression in the road often afforded mostly unbroken looks into the marsh, and opportunities to find these ancient clerics soaking up the sunlight that gives them their spectacular color. Once finding a male, a little bit of playback brought out more and more, coming to get a look at the particularly pathetic naked apes. This guy did a bit of preening following a bath.
Getting great looks at several of these spectacular animals was more than we could ask. Walking a bit farther we were fortunate to find an active nest!
Prothonotary Warblers nest in shallow cavities in trees, often old Downy Woodpecker nest holes. Below, one of the parents can be seen removing a fecal sac from the nest.
The next photo shows what I am assuming to be mom instructing dad to find an even bigger insect next time. 😉
Remember when I said we were not expecting to find much of anything besides the birds on our trip down “Snake Road”? There, in the middle of the road, we discovered the guy you see in the next image, and I discovered I made another huge mistake. On more than two occasions now I have been in a circumstance of not being able to make a photograph, or the photograph I had envisioned, because I did not bring the necessary equipment. On this day, my only equipment was a 500mm lens on a 1.6 crop body and my iPhone. After contemplating throwing myself on the viper to end my pathetic existence once and for all, I decided to give a shot at shooting a snake with an equivalent focal length of 800mm! On a partly cloudy day with lots of tree cover, I knew that lighting the subject would be difficult. Of course, I had no artificial light source either. Shooting wide open, depth of field was nearly nonexistent. This was the result of my first attempt.
So, not a complete disaster, but something like a 70-200mm would have been more desirable. We then decided to get him in a little more natural setting with hopefully a bit more light. We gently moved the snake just off the road and I remembered a trick I could use to get a little closer than the lens’ close focusing distance of 15 ft. I put an extension tube between the lens and the body. Although I still had pathetically little DoF (as long as I get the eye in focus, right?), I was able to get somewhere in the range of 10-12 feet from the subject, allowing it to look a little more prominent in the composition. I must apologize for the oh-so-distracting leaf petiole in this image. I asked Steve to please remove it gently with his fingers, but he replied with some of his medical jargon, going on about rhabdomyolysis, hypotension, necrosis; whatever, it sounded like cop-out to me.
Compared to it’s close relative in the Zonotrichia genus, the White-throated Sparrow, the White-crowned Sparrow is a bravado. These guys, especially the juveniles like the one pictured here, are quite curious and bold. They will readily fly to the tops of the vegetation they are hiding in to get a better look and are quite responsive to pishing. I find White-throats to be cowardly in comparison and quite a bit more difficult to get a clear photograph or looks at. Happy snowy Monday.
“The Unstoppable Coppertop!”
Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 640, f/5.6, 1/800 sec