Dunn Ranch Prairie, July – 2013 Post One: Astrophotography

I had been wishing to visit Dunn Ranch Prairie in Harrison County, Missouri for a few years.  Part of the Grand River Grasslands, Dunn Ranch, along with Prairie State Park to the south is one of the two largest contiguous prairie habitats in Missouri.  Fortunately, Dunn is home to about 1000 acres of original, unplowed prairie alongside parcels that are in various stages of prairie reclamation via reconstruction activities by The Nature Conservancy staff.  With help from contacts at TNC (Hi and thanks Amy, Hillary and Randy!) and a recently found twin brother, Steve, who is as willing, able and interested in getting elbows deep in whatever Nature and the outdoors puts in our path, I had that opportunity as part of a five day excursion to the western half of the State.  We made stops to visit other prairie and marsh remnants nearby, but Dunn Ranch and adjacent Pawnee Prairie were our base.  I hope to provide tidbits of information about these endangered habitats and discuss some of the trials that TNC faces in these reclamation efforts and provide hopefully interesting accounts of Steve’s and my excursion in future posts where I plan to discuss birds/wildlife and landscape photography.  This first post is dedicated to astrophotography.


Astrophotography has been of interest to me for some time now.  Being born and raised in urban environments, I can count on one hand how many times I’ve been able to witness a dark, clear sky – relatively free from light pollution.  Making images of this type of sky was one of the major goals for this trip.  Even without the aid of telescopes and tracking mounts, astrophotography with the dSLR can be a fulfilling challenge.  I scoured the web for months prior to the trip, trying to find techniques and tips for success.  With so much to consider, I knew this was going to be a mostly trial and error experience.

The internet is full of great “how-to” articles on how to go about making nice astrophotographs, so I will not go into too much detail.  We were fortunate in a number of ways concerning the environmental conditions for this endeavor.  First, obviously, one needs clear skies.  The first couple of days (and nights) were a bit overcast, but on the night all these images were taken, we had a mostly clear sky.  Second, for taking photos of stars, it is optimal to have little or no moon.  On this particular night, the moon was just a couple days past “new”.  But, that did not matter because the moon was almost in perfect sync with the rising and setting of the sun.  On this night, the fingernail moon was below the horizon by 10:00.  So, we had two important factors in our favor.  Other issues to consider are light pollution from ground sources.  We thought we were on the winning side here, being so far removed from any city of significant size.  What we came to discover is how much the camera’s sensor will pick up artificial light sources.  Even well past midnight, all the images I made show glow from the horizon, illumination that was not noticeable by the human eye.

Startrails Dunn 1

One other potential headache for consideration is aircraft and satellites moving through your frame.  Depending on the specific technique you use to create a star-trail image like the one above, you will either have one long exposure of up to an hour or longer, or a series of shorter images taken in continuous fashion and combined later in the computer.  Either way, in most areas of our country you will pick up the light signatures of these aircraft in your images.  I was quite surprised by the numbers of these trails that were picked up on the camera’s sensor.  In making the two composite-made star-trail images in this post I spent several hours painstakingly removing these by hand from hundreds of individual images used to generate these composites.   The yellowish green lights are trails from lighting bugs that collected over these images.  I decided to leave these alone.


Although it may be pretty, a photograph of the stars alone with normal focal lengths usually holds little lasting interest.  I knew that to make something interesting and to relate it to place, I needed to find something unique and attractive to position in the foreground.  This would make a complete image.

The couple of days or so before this evening, I was checking out the landscape around Dunn, looking for these potential foregrounds and asking Steve to help me remember their locations and the general directions in which they faced.  These cut-steel/iron signs were quite popular with the different ranches in the area and I assume someone makes them locally.  I fell in love with this one on a prairie hillside at Dunn and knew I had to try this.  Unfortunately, this was getting quite late into the morning and I did not have the energy left to give it my all.  I used a longer focal length because of the distance of the sign from the road.  This gives a somewhat pleasant side effect of allowing for star trails to record in less time than it takes for a wide angle composition.  This image is one exposure of about 11 minutes.  If I had known the potential here, I would have given it more thought and probably put together a longer composite series to lessen the horrible noise and IQ observed in the RAW image.  Oh well, maybe next time.  Oh yeah, in this photo, the light pollution from the horizon works pretty well in back-lighting the sign and making some nice silhouettes of the prairie forbs.  We tried a bit of light painting, but it came nowhere close to this.

P.S. Can you name the constellation caught in this image above?

Startrails Dunn 2B

The image above I believe is my favorite of my astrophotography attempts.  I wish I could say I did my homework and knew exactly where the north star was and positioned it oh so perfectly between the gate posts.  Steve and I could not say for certain (Do you know how many stars there are up there!?).  All I did was try my best to center the gates in the middle of the frame as best we could in this dark night.  I wish I could say I knew exactly how long (how many exposures) I wanted/needed to get the rotating perspective seen here.  All I did was decide that I would try and fill an entire eight gig memory card.  This equated to about 350 13-second exposures for a total “exposure time” of about 75 minutes.  I did not even know how I was going to stack these together in the computer.  I knew there were a few specialty software as well as a manual option in PS.  I tried three different freeware apps and discovered the last one I tried, “Startrails” gave me the best results.  Anyway, this image will always remind me of sitting in the road with the camera doing its work, enjoying a couple of good beers with Steve and listening to wildlife: coyotes howling on three sides of us in the distance, Henslows Sparrows singing like it was the middle of the day and a presumable deer that walked just off the road past us less than 10 feet away.  I have no idea if the deer could see us or knew that we were there.


I say with all sincerity that I would trade the benefits of living in a large metropolitan area just to have the privilege of viewing night skies like this on a regular basis.  How did we agree to give this up?  I guess this issue ranks up there with the question of my foreskin.  Nobody ever asked me and I’ll likely never have the opportunity to get it back. ;=)

Anyway, this was one hell of an experience and I can’t wait to give it another try.


Steelville Natural Bridge

Located mere feet from the Meramec River in Crawford County, I came across this natural bridge – named “Steelville NB” in Beveridge’s “Geologic Wonders and Natural Curiosities of Missouri” while visiting Zahorsky Woods.  An adjoining lot’s owner invited me to hike his trails and gave me directions to it’s location.  I’d love to go back following a heavy rain.


Fast Action Photography

No, I do not mean catching a bird on the wing or some split second sports action in camera.  Sometimes the landscape photograph has equal timing requirements and this one will serve to remind me of what could have been and to be ready and prepared whenever in setting.  I hiked to the top of Hughes one early spring evening with the full kit.  Arriving at the top, I was a bit disappointed in the lack of clouds for a potential sunset shot, but I can never be in the dumps at this location no matter what nature is presenting.  So I just decided to sit and enjoy the silence and see what may come my way.  Not paying much attention I suddenly noticed a fairly small, beautifully pastel-colored cloud popped out of nowhere and was positioned in the perfect place, just in a perfect frame along with blooming Service Berry in the foreground.  Of course the gear was where it was nice and safe – all wrapped up in the camera bag.  I could tell this cloud was ephemeral and sprang into action.

Pulled the tripod off and extend the legs, unzip, pick lens, attach lens to camera, attach polarizing filter, attach shutter release cord, attach camera to tripod, shoot, I forgot the graduated neutral density filter, which one do I need, OK, how to compose?  Compose? Just hurry up!  By the time I had everything ready and was hitting the shutter the cloud has diminished by more than three fold and lost all of that wonderful color.  I then identified that irritating high pitch noise I was hearing.  I was screaming.


Falling Spring

Twenty years from now…

…you want me to tell you that story that happened that night at Falling Spring?  You sure?  Alright, it’ll be your sleepless night.

 Me and my cuz were giggin’ frogs down in that beaver pond one spring night when out of the blue we saw a fella wearin’ a strange hat walkin’ alone.  We asked him what he was doing out here all alone and where he came from.  He answered he came from a place with tall buildin’s and he was searching for answers that nobody had. 

He stood there, the palest, most pathetic creature you’d ever seen.  Paler than the moon standin’ above us, when all of a sudden eery red lights started comin’ from inside that old mill shack!  Now, we had been standin’ outside there fer hours and hadn’t seen a soul inside or out.  Before we could think, a sound that was louder and more fierce than a 10′ tall hoot-owl started and the trees began moving back and forth, even though there tweren’t a bit a breeze on the air to be had!

My cuz and I had grabbed our poles and slowly backed ourselves out to the road and the safety of the truck.  We looked over to where the stranger had been and noticed he was walkin’ towards the old shack!  We shouted something to the effect of what the Sam Hill are you doing?  He replied that he was going to see if the agnostics were right.  I couldn’t get at what he was sayin’, and we couldn’t get him to stop movin’ towards that obvious poltergeist.

The last question I asked was what his name was.  He said something like Beelzebub, Bufford, Ozark Bill, or somethin’ like that.  The last time I saw him he was walkin’ inside and stripping down to the suit he was born in.  The lights got brighter and hotter.  So hot and bright I had to turn away.  We heard a screech worse than a Tom cat trying to mate with a pot belly stove and all of a sudden everything went back to normal.  

As we were making dust away from that place I heard a really sweet, low and soft voice singing…

‘Way down in Missouri where I heard this melody
When I was a little feller on my mommie’s knee
The old folks were humming the banjos were strumming so sweet and low


A Flooded St. Francis

Early this May, Steve and I had the good fortune to visit a couple spots along our St. Francois Mountains the day after a front brought about three inches of rain to the area.  One of these spots was the Einstein Dam at Silvermines Recreation Area (St. Francis N.A.).  The power of the water surging through the breaks in the dam was mesmerizing.  A sense of near vertigo became apparent as I stared into the sheet of water that dropped nearly ten feet downstream.  I knew Steve would have almost no chance if he slipped into this torrent, but my photo needed some scale!  So I asked him to have a seat on the edge.


We arrived with little light left, but tried to take it all in while I made a few images.  We had visited the previous autumn when the water was much lower


Imagine dropping into this in your kayak?  We pondered if this would be advisable or not.  If you think it doesn’t look all that bad from this photo, be sure to watch this.

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Water moving in every conceivable direction!

Enjoying the Gems Under Your Nose

I have often said I am more interested in the places the Ozarks have to offer compared to the possible visits to iconic destinations in the rest of the country.  I know I would love and appreciate those spots, of course.  But the millions of photographs generated are probably enough without my lousy contributions.  I am more interested in showcasing the animals and habitats that can be found in the Show Me State, the places with names that so many who live here have never even heard.  I’ve come to realize lately that I am guilty of ignoring a few places less than an hour’s drive from my doorstep that have a lot to offer, passing them by on my three hour drives to more exotic Ozark locations.  These places include Castlewood, Washington and Babler State Parks, Emmenegger Nature Park, Bush Wildlife and a handful of other Conservation Areas.  The place I’ve gotten to know much better this spring is the location spotlighted in this post, St. Francois State Park.

St. Francois SP, located just north of Bonne Terre, MO, has a lot to offer the nature lover.  I have now hiked the three primary trails and they each offer unique features that should satisfy any true Ozarker.  Sarah and I enjoyed a nice hike on the Swimming Deer Trail a couple weeks ago and stumbled across the best bunch of Bluebells I have seen personally.  I did not bring the camera on that hike, but later that week we took a few days break to travel south and made sure we stopped back here again.  I was hoping the show would still be ongoing and I was not disapointed.  We were even fortunate to have a nice overcast sky and relatively little wind.  So the poor photography is my own blame.  Picking out compositions that worked was more trouble than I anticipated, of course.


“Bluebells and Limestone″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 23mm, ISO 320,  f/13, 0.3 sec

This trail also contains the largest number of Ohio Buckeyes that I have seen at one location in Missouri.  These trees and their emerging, distinctive leaves were found everywhere.  Along with Pawpaws, these small trees fit in perfectly beneath the larger oaks and hickories that dominate the upper canopy.  Pictured below is one of the larger buckeyes I found on this day.


“Bluebells and Buckeyes″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 70mm, ISO 320,  f/18, 0.5 sec

Along with this great display of wildflowers and trees, the Swimming Deer Trail offers nice views into the Big River valley from atop tall bluffs that are adorned with the characteristic Eastern Red Cedars who are so adept at holding on to cracks and crevices to get the best possible looks as the seasons fly by.


“Bluebells and Woody Vine″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 24mm, ISO 400,  f/16, 0.4 sec

I apologize for so many vertical compositions.  I once read a photography e-article that suggested this tendency was more typical of the “stand up, aggressive, masculine” (male) photographer, whereas women photographers (and painters I assume), who are assuredly the “weaker sex” are more apt to produce horizontal landscapes, obviously the more passive and prostrate the compositional choice.  If there is any truth to this hogwash, I wonder what it says about the artist who prefers the square ratio?  😉

Anyway, back to the nature stuff, right?  Well, any nature photographer who still cares to keep his union badge has to shoot the cliched Bluebell macro shot, right?  Here it is.


“Nature Porn″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, ISO 160,  f/8, 1/10 sec

Of course, anywhere in the Ozarks at this time of year is going to be heaven for any birder who is worth their salt.  St. Francois SP is definitely no exception.  During my several visits over the last month, I loved listening and watching the nesting wood warblers and other songbirds as they busily setup their territories, build nests and feed themselves.  I used to think the Romanticists’ metaphorical descriptions of spring as a bunch of overly sentimental hogwash.  Now I find myself just as captivated by this line of interpretation as I do the underpinning that natural history presents.  What heaven is spring!

A week or so following Sarah’s and my trip, Steve gave me a guided tour of the last trail I had yet explored at St. Francois SP: “Mooner’s Hollow”.  A beautiful sloped-shelf waterfall, rocky outcrops and wonderful examples of spring ephemeral wildflowers along the river bottom of Coonville Creek Wild Area were the expected highlights.  What we were not expecting was the fortunate stumbling upon of a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher’s nest!  The second smallest bird in the state, these guys build a nest that is similar in size and construction to that of the state’s smallest, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  In the picture below you can hopefully get a look at the construction materials of plant fibers, spider webs, fur and lichen, which is used so beautifully to camouflage the nest.

I watched the nest for a couple of hours.  In this little time I noticed the pair did not stay at the nest, which makes me believe there were not yet any eggs.  The pair stopped at the nest for no more than 60 seconds.  During this time one of the pair would enter the nest, add a bit of lichen or other material they had brought, do a little manipulation and then they would leave again.  This would be repeated every 15 – 20 minutes.  I hope to visit the nest soon to see if eggs, or perhaps even chicks might be found.


“Not Just Gnatcatching”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/6.3, 1/320 sec

This spring I have been fortunate to spend a fair amount of time in the rugged, karst topography that is so unique to the Ozark Highlands.  This continues to bring to mind what it must have been like to travel and exist in this country before ‘modern conveniences’ were introduced to muddle the experience.  A great series of roads can take you to within a ten mile hike or less to basically any spot on the map in Missouri.  For now, I leave with a great quote from that Confederate bushwhacking bastard, Sam Hildebrand.  This is in reference to a cave that is apparently located within or nearby St. Francois SP.  A reason for further exploring some day.

“We passed quietly through Butler County, along the western line of Madison, then through St. Francois and across Big River to those native hills and hunting grounds of my boyhood, known as the Pike Run hills.  The reader must bear in mind that these hills possess peculiar advantages over any other part of the country between St. Louis and the Arkansas line.  They look like the fragments of a broken up world piled together in dread confusion, and terminating finally in an abrupt bluff on the margin of Big River, where nature has left a cavern half way up the perpendicular rock, now known as “The Hildebrand Cave,” mouth to which cannot be seen either from the top or bottom.”

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“Fragments of a Broken Up World″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 24mm, ISO 100,  f/14, 1/8 sec

Bill & Steve’s Excellent Adventure, or On Quest to find an Overland Route to Jam Up Cave

I had read about and viewed photos of Jam Up Cave along the Jacks Fork River for a number of years.  Every source I could find made specific mention that the only way was by boat along the river.  The case being that I am still most comfortable and knowledgeable on my lug-soled boots, I figured it would be a while before I got a chance to see it.  Then, in one of the recent cover stories from the MDC’s Conservationist, Brett Dufur highlighted the Upper Jacks Fork and mentioned Jam Up Cave that lies at the confluence of Jam Up Creek and the Jacks Fork.  This prompted my friend Steve and his father to find an overland route via the Jacks Fork Natural Area.  Within a few days of their visit Steve graciously showed me the way.  I have marked what I believe was our general route to the cave from a small pullout.  County Rd OO 491 can be accessed off of OO north of Hwy 60 just east of the town of Mountain View.

Jam Up Cave Route

The hike was not too long, but it deserves highest marks in terms of the difficulty of the terrain.  We bushwhacked our way mostly along ridge tops but enjoyed the burn of moving up near 500 vertical feet.  I had my first look at the end of Jam Up Creek, a losing stream that vanishes underground among boulders and rubble of the karst topography that dominates this watershed.  We then entered the rear of the cavern where we were treated to views like these.  Can you find Steve in this one?


“The Grand Perspective″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, Sigma 15mm f/2.8 EX DG, ISO 400,  f/8, manual blend of three exposures

This next one is a bit deeper into the cave looking towards the front entrance across the forbidden pool.  The drop from this side to the pool would have been near 30-40 feet.  From both sides of the pool, impressive looks can be had of an underground waterfall.  Try as I might, I could not find an interesting way to make a photograph of it.  Did we find Smeagol?  We’ll never tell.


“The Forbidden Pool″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 25mm, ISO 320,  f/11, manual blend of three exposures

From here we made the climb out of the cave and up to the top of the bluff that offers great views of the Jacks Fork as it bends its way around the bluffs.  The ancient cedars attached to the edge of the bluffs were quite impressive and are not easily forgotten.


“Jacks Fork Lookout″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, Sigma 15mm f/2.8 EX DG, ISO 100,  f/11, 1/100 sec

The “front door” of Jam Up Cave is this cavernous maw, the roof of which stands at over 100 feet high and nearly as wide.  This opening funnels into a much narrower tunnel that leads through a rubble field for ~500 feet to the other side of the forbidden pool that I discussed above.  This is a classic karst feature of the Missouri Ozarks and should rank up there with Grand Gulf, HaHa Tonka, the classic Ozark Springs and Devil’s Well.


“Cavernous Maw″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, Sigma 15mm f/2.8 EX DG, ISO 100,  f/11, manual blend of three exposures

On the way out of the cavern we saw this impressive site and decided to give it a bit more sense of perspective by putting a certain pathetic creature into the scene.


“Jam Up″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 47mm, ISO 160,  f/11, manual blend of three exposures