Shooting Birds on the “Snake Road”?

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!

Prothonotary Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler

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.

Prothonotary Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler

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 Warbler at Nest
Prothonotary Warbler at 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.

Prothonotary Warbler Removing Fecal Sac.
Prothonotary Warbler Removing Fecal Sac

The next photo shows what I am assuming to be mom instructing dad to find an even bigger insect next time.  😉

Parents
Parents

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.

Timber Rattlesnake
Timber Rattlesnake

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.

Timber Rattlesnake
Timber Rattlesnake

 

 

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Mondays are for the Birds – White-Crowned Sparrow

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.

IMG_9341

“The Unstoppable Coppertop!”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/5.6, 1/800 sec

Mondays Are For The Birds – Great Black-backed Gull

I know it’s not Monday, but it is the first day back after a nice holiday break.  Same thing, or even worse…

This GBBG was spotted this past September during the local Audubon Society’s pelagic seabird trip to Carlyle Lake.  The species is the largest gull found on the North American continent.  They will eat any protein source they can find, including carrion and prey upon anything they can overpower, including smaller birds.  This striking guy is a first-year bird and this species will not breed until their forth year.  Interesting is the differences in behavior among these often difficult to distinguish gulls.  This guy almost always flew solo and higher than the flocks of Ring-billed that constantly followed the boats.

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“Great-Black-backed Gull, Autumn 2012”

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

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Did you know…?

The YBSS can be identified from other woodpeckers by their drumming?  Sapsuckers have a stuttering, Morse-code like cadence to their drumming.  Listen for this the next time you are in the woods.

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“Yellow-bellied Sapsucker”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 800,  f/5.6, 1/200 sec

Ostwald-Liesegang Supersaturation-Nucleation-Depletion Cycle

Ha!  You thought I was going deep into some high-level physics, right?  This long title is the fancy term for a precipitation process that is the current best hypothesis for the why these structures pictured below form in sedimentary rock.  Known as Liesegang rings, these are composed of precipitating iron oxide embedded in sandstone.  This image was taken at Garden of the Gods in the Shawnee region of south-eastern Illinois, a wonderful place for finding Liesegang rings, but I have also found them on the western side of the state on the sandstone bluffs carved by the Mississippi River.  It’s hard to believe that in this day and age science does not have a firm answer as to why a phenomenon like this occurs.  Do a quick web search and you can find and read multiple hypothesis suggested by chemists over the past century.  This phenomenon has chaos written all over it as there is still no model that can predict every nuance and anomaly despite the work of computer scientists and physicists.  Maybe the answer is not random patterns due to the unpredictable chaos of the natural world.  Maybe there is a hand in this design.  Can you find the depiction of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio?  😉

“Liesegang Rings″
Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF17-40mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 22mm, ISO 160,  f/8, 0.3 sec

Dawn in the Garden

After a long hiatus from blogging, I decided to try this again.  I was able to load this image with no problems.  Hopefully this will continue and I can keep making posts.

This is probably my favorite image made during Sarah and my trip through the Shawnee region of southern Illinois this spring.  Seeing some spectacular images online of this place, I couldn’t wait to get here.  Garden of the Gods is located on the eastern side of the Shawnee, so this was our “final destination” as we progressed further from StL.  And although we did see some nice spots, like Bell Smith Springs and Burden Falls, during this rather dry spring, GoG turned out to be the paramount stop.

We arrived with less than 30 minutes of light left during the first evening.  We only saw a limited view of the exposed rocks and watched a pretty nice sunset, but had no real time for or notion of how to set up for a photograph.  We drove back to the very nice cabin we had located near Eddyville, about a 30 minute drive from GoG, and stayed the night.  I got up well before dawn and arrived back at GoG about a half hour before sun rise.  Although I was not fortunate enough to be able to capture a spectacular sunset or sunrise during our brief visit, I was happy with the light presented the morning I made this image.

What I found fascinating is the apparent remoteness of this spot.  Even though it is only about 30-45 minutes from some decent sized towns, this spot seemed more remote and “out of the way” than most spots I visit in the Ozarks.  The morning I made this image I was alone except for one young man who seemed to be in his early twenties.  I saw him in the parking lot with nothing but the clothes on his back.  There were no other vehicles and he was pacing around acting oddly.  I wondered if I should ask him if he needed some assistance or a ride, but something about him was weird.  He didn’t seem to acknowledge me, so I didn’t confront him.  I’m not sure if I did the right thing or not.  I watched him lay down on a bench as I drove away.

As I believed I mentioned before, the one nice thing I learned was how close many of these spots in the Shawnee are to StL.  GoG is only about 2.5 hours from our front door.  For some reason I expected these spots to be a longer drive.  I’m definitely excited to make some more visits to these spots and keep tracking that sweet light.

“Dawn In The Garden”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 24mm, ISO 160,  f/13, manual blend of three exposures

 

The Dutchman’s Lesser Known Brother

“Squirrel Corn”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens. ISO 160,  f/11, 1/8 sec

Leaving my Missouri Ozarks this weekend, I found myself visiting some of the places I’ve been wanting to visit in the equally desirable Shawnee National Forest region of Southern Illinois.  Towards the end of the day I wound up at Giant City State Park, known mostly for its rock outcropping features, but just as bountiful in spring-ephemeral wildflowers.

The plant featured above is called squirrel corn and is in the same genus as its more famous sibling, the Dutchman’s breeches.  Unlike Dutchman’s breeches, squirrel corn is pretty rare in the Missouri Ozarks, having been found in only a handful of counties.  Along a trail in this state park, the two were found in almost equal abundance.  It was very nice seeing the two flowering in synch within inches of one another. The density of wildflowers here was bewildering.  Colors littered the ground everywhere I looked and the possibilities for composition seemed endless.

With failing light and late afternoon winds, it was challenging for macro photography.  I had not yet photographed this species, nor had I even seen another species that was just beginning to bloom here – the white trillium.  So, I pulled out the macro gear and went to work with sounds of recently arrived songbirds advertising their newly acquired real estates and small streams funneling their light charge of the previous day’s rain down the sandstone steps.  This, unfortunately was broken too often from the idiots pounding large plastic containers against rocks for some reason.  State Parks.  I love them and hate them.