Sunshine On My Shoulders Makes Me Happy

Hi everyone.  It’s an absolute gorgeous Saturday here in the northern Ozarks.  I hope the weather is to your liking wherever you are reading this.

This post is dedicated to my grandmother, Genny, who is currently recovering from a health crisis.  Sarah and I are so glad you are getting better and we wish you all the best in a speedy recovery.

Today’s post is a result of one of the magical times I spent recently at Ellis Island at Riverlands.  During an evening hike I noticed I was in the middle of a huge mayfly hatch.  There seemed to mayflys in the millions.  This rang the dinner bell for migrating passerines for miles around the confluence!  This was definitely one of the coolest bird experiences ever for me.  The bird pictured below, a Yellow Warbler, was one of near 50 of this species I came across.  Also in huge abundance were Black and White Warblers, Empidonax Flycatchers, Red-eyed Vireo and many others.  Thirteen total warblers, four vireos and a large handful of other species were all gorging on this insect feast.  The swarm, so thick the flies were perching on me, lasted until sunset and unfortunately I had limited opportunities for getting decent lighting for photographs.  That was frustrating, but being able to watch this natural wonder was reward enough.

This is one of those species that I’ll always remember the first time I found.  It was a springtime male perched on a dead branch singing his heart out and touched by the morning sun.  I never truly saw the color yellow until that morning!  The image bellow does that guy no justice.

Enjoy the weekend and remember, in Missouri, dove and teal are in season so hunters will be out there doing their thing.  There are places nature watchers and hunters use in close proximity, so be careful and considerate.

“Sunshine On My Shoulder”

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

King’s Realm

In the field, the brief views I was fortunate enough to get suggested to me this was a Virginia Rail.  The Virginia is only about half the size of the King and this obvious difference should usually make the identification quite easy.  Unfortunately my brief, distant and mostly obscured view of this bird did not allow me to get a good estimate on the bird’s size.  Once back home with the photo and field guides open I began to doubt my original ID call.  I listed as many reasons to feel KIRA as VIRA.  I quickly realized I needed help and rushed the photo and my thoughts to the three wise men of the birding community I knew would love the challenge.  The single photo was less than the smoking gun I was hoping it was.  All three agreed it was most-likely a King Rail, but there is still room for doubt.  Although a photo of a Virginia Rail would have added a new species to my bird-photo-life-list it always makes me happy to find and watch a bird of conservation concern, as is the King.

You can see in this “bird in habitat” photo just the sort of habitat that rails and other waders need.  Rails love to be in water about up to their knees with plenty of vegetation to use for cover.  Most shorebirds like the mud, while larger waterfowl, obviously like a little more water.  Heron Pond at RMBS is being managed to provide the habitat these groups of birds need.  Check out a few images of young KIRA I took a while ago.

“King Rail”

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

The Marsh Chicken

This post/photo is dedicated to Paul Bauer, master birder, bird photographer, and steward – a responsible agent in the development and management of Heron Pond and other features of Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary.  Thank you, Paul, for leaving something worthwhile.

The Sora, or as I like to call them the Marsh Chicken is a small but quite abundant rail.  They definitely are one of the easier to view rails to be found during migration, but I found out how common they can be during a magical morning spent recently at my usual haunt at RMBS.  Arriving just before dawn I wandered the slow hike to a nice spot to watch the marsh of Heron Pond while waiting for the ol’ Sumatra brew to kick in.  I had the entire place to myself for most of the next two hours, standing still and counting the birds.  Besides being reminiscent of a chicken, I think Pete Dunn’s description of their bill as “candy-corn-shaped” to be quite fitting and a good field mark for identification.  These guys are often vocal and at certain times of the year their whinny-type calls and grunts can be heard all day long.  Being a rail these guys are definitely timid and spend a good amount of time hidden within the vegetation.  However, I have found these guys to be much more willing to spend time on the open mud in search of food, making a run back to the greenery at the first sign of trouble.  My total count for this particular morning was 62 birds!  Looking around the pond it seems that you would not be able to run through the vegetation without kicking one of these guys with every step.  Standing relatively still allowed me to catch this guy in a photo probably no more than 15 feet from where I stood.

“Sora”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/5.6, 1/320 sec

As Noisy as a Mouse

More often heard than seen, this quite secretive wren rarely is found more than a few feet off the ground.  Like a mouse, these guys spend a great deal of time low in the tall grasses and sedge of wet meadows/prairies.  In July and August taking a walk in this type of habitat within their range will certainly guarantee you will hear their consistent staccato vocalizations as they work to define their small territories and keep rival males at bay.  Trying to lay the glass on these birds is much more difficult.  These guys rarely will respond to pishing, and if driven out of their particular patch of grass they will simply skirt above the grasses for a second or two before dropping back into the bush, yielding partial, unsatisfying glimpses at best.  To get this shot, I admit, I used a vocalization playback.  I played just a few bars and waited.  This guy was not happy with that!  He raced out of his hiding whole and began singing forcefully in attempt to send the potential usurper out of his territory.  I was happy with the few quick bursts of the shutter I was able to get and that was that.  He may have been a bit stressed, but I bet the burst of testosterone he received from successfully defending his kingdom more than made up for it.

“Sedge Wren”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6, 1/1250 sec

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

Alluvial Furnace

This image was taken on a chilly October morning as I was driving to make my first visit to Tower Rock Natural Area in Perry County near Altenburg, Missouri.  I am always looking for a nice composition I can capture that features fog or mist.  This rarely happens because it takes so long to drive from the city to a pleasing spot like this where fog may form.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens @ 19mm, ISO 100,  f/14, 1/80 sec