How I Spent Superb Owl Sunday

For the first time since junior high I did not watch a single down or minute of the NFL this season and I couldn’t be happier for it.  Rape my town three times, NFL – shame on you.  I’ve been pleased to get those precious free minutes back for my Sundays, several of which I found I could spend not dreading the upcoming workweek.

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

When the forecast showed a near perfect meteorological condition for shooting the Short-eared Owls of BK Leach, I figured this could be promising.  While most other naked apes with functioning vision would be in front of the picture box and ingesting mass quantities of wings and beer, I would enjoy the warm and lightly breezy evening in my own kind of chair with friends of a different sort.

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

Of course there is never a sure thing.  Often, when I have expected the best due to light and temperature, the owls don’t show where I set myself.  On this particular day, all conditions came together and I had a super time.

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

I want to give huge thanks for my lovely and talented wife, Sarah, for the special help she gave me this season in getting my best to date SEOW in flight shots.

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

A perfect day ended in the perfect way – with a great sunset on the Lincoln Hills.

Sunset on the Lincoln Hills
Sunset on the Lincoln Hills

Until next time…
-OZB

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Return to Squaw Creek NWR

I have posted about Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge before.  One of the prime birding locations in the state, I asked Steve to accompany me for a Thanksgiving week’s trip.  Nothing is assured during this time on the calendar in Missouri, and we knew that there was a chance the entire refuge could be frozen over, pushing the 500,000 snow geese that could potentially be visiting to warmer, more southerly locations.  The weather that week was barely below freezing so we were optimistic that the refuge would be mostly open and the birding would be good.  Arriving in Mound City after dark, we were forced to wait until the next morning to check out the refuge.  Being the proper naturalists/photographer/birders that we are, we arose in plenty of time to fill ourselves with coffee and roughage, pack up the car with optics and winter gear and make it to the refuge before first light.  Driving around the well-placed road, we could hear little but wind.  At one point we left the car and Steve through a rock into the black.  The response was quite an unusual sound that was definitely not the plash expected of liquid water, but could only be the vibrations of a rock on a large flat ice sheet.  As the light grew we could see that most of the refuge was indeed frozen (>90%).  We would not get to see the numbers of snowies that could potentially be visiting, but we would see 10,00-20,000 birds that were using the two small ice-free spots.  Steve seemed impressed, nonetheless.

Presented first is an image of a few geese flying with the wind between us and the moon.  Any nature photographer worth their glass would have pre-visualized this and remembered to have taken a sharp capture of the moon in focus and then combined that with the in-focus geese to make a much nicer final photograph.  One of these days…

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We were subjected to a few flybys of large groups of geese as they moved from the refuge to surrounding fields to feed on spent grain.  Collisions do occur, but when looking at it this way, it’s a wonder they don’t happen more regularly.  Of course, I was pooped on. 😉

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The image below really shows the difference between the lighter, “snow” and the darker, “blue” phases this species comes in.

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Red-tailed Hawks were quite common in this area of the state, but were very much different than the typical plumage seen from the eastern subspecies from the opposite side of Missouri.  This is what I believe should be considered the “western” subspecies, but can be difficult to distinguish from “Harlan’s” subspecies in winter.  The ABA has a nice article on this variably-plumed raptor.

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The beauty of Squaw Creek is the potential for all sorts of bird species and other wildlife one is likely to find.  The snow show is definitely the main attraction this time of year, but other migrants are likely to be found as well.  Taking the ~10 mile auto route allows for close-up viewing in a variety of wetland habitats.  Across a canal, in some warm winter grasses we found a couple of familiar heads sticking up.  Two Sand-hill Cranes!  I got out of the car as silently as possible and set up the tripod and big lens.  They did not seem too concerned with us.  As they foraged we watched and I took photos.  A couple in an SUV pulled up not too far down the road and were not as considerate.  This seemed to be too much for the pair, who took to wing.  Luckily, I was prepared and was somehow able to squeeze this keeper.

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Sunrise and sunset are the times to be in a wetland.  The lighting is perfect and the birds are most active, heading into open water for roost.  It really does seem that many birds on the wetlands fly around for the sheer enjoyment.  Trumpeter Swans are a favorite of mine to watch.

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As we watched the show, we hear a familiar and longed-for music.  I can’t explain it better than Aldo… “High horns, low horns, silence, and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks, and cries that almost shakes the bog with its nearness, but without yet disclosing whence it comes.”  Travelling south passed a group of Cranes.

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The warm temperature of the light near sunset betrays the senses.  The skin knows the eye is false.  Even so, watching this show makes it all worthwhile.

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Marsh grasses, muskrat mounds and loess hills.  Can you imagine a more satisfying landscape?

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I’m not sure I’ll get there next year or not, but it goes without saying that I can’t get enough of Squaw Creek.

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Finding A Sunset

Columbia Bottom Conservation area, where this image was taken, and Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary across the river are famous for the birds and other wildlife they support.  I have enjoyed birding these places, located at the confluence of North America’s two greatest rivers- the Missouri and the Mississippi, for more than five years now.  But, there is another reason I love being able to visit these locations.  These are two of the closest places near St. Louis to see open skies, open skies without hills, trees, building or too many power lines and utility poles.  I love shooting sunsets here because of the amount of sky that can be captured.  True, I did not cover much sky in this image.  This was due to the limited clouds in tonight’s sky.  If there were more clouds throughout the sky I would have loved to have let the sky cover two thirds or more of the frame.

 

It always saddens me when I’m driving to or from work and see one of the many spectacular sunsets or sunrises from the car and know I can’t be out in nature trying to experience that moment and capture it in a lasting image.

 

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens @ 16mm, ISO 100,  f/16, manual-HDR (7-images)