Wildlife photography from a boat

A Great Egret poses in front of early autumn colors.

Back in September I was fortunate to join the boat owners club when I picked up a single-seater canoe/kayak hybrid. After my typical dive into researching the best potential model for my usage and pocketbook, I was pretty certain it would suit my needs. Excited to give it a try, my first stop in getting it wet was an early morning vacation day at Creve Coeur Lake.

The “Discovery 119” hybrid – very stable and easy to move to and from the water.

On this first outing, only minutes from my house, I did not expect the photographic opportunities to be very abundant. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the looks at wildlife and photos I was able to get.

A Great Blue Heron, usually quite timid, was easy to get close enough to capture with a 400mm lens.

Maneuvering the boat into position while trying to get the photos was a bit of a chore and will definitely take more practice to get right. Facing your subjects is key and in still waters was usually doable before the subjects could complain.

A Great Egret grabs a quick bite.
A quick flip to align and down it goes.

This boat sits very shallowly in the water, allowing me to maneuver easily in the shallows wetlands found at the south end of the lake. I was often moving in less than three inches of water!

Green Herons tend to have a strong tolerance for humans in more populated settings, often allowing close looks.
It’s not every day that you can get this close to a juvenile Little Blue Heron.
The boat was stable enough for me to handhold track this LBHE in flight.
Birds were not the only ‘reptiles’ I was able to get close to on this outing. This is an age-induced melanistic male red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) who was bold enough to stay on his sunning perch after his smaller conspecifics had fled to the water.
This northern watersnake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon) was showing opaque eye scales, indicating it will be shedding its skin within a few days.

This wraps up the best of my keepers from my first day out in the boat. Needless to say I was quite satisfied with this activity and I am looking forward to getting out more often with it.

Great Egret

Thanks for visiting!

-Ozark Bill

White-eyed Vireo Nest – Part One

May seems such a long time ago. I don’t know how I get so behind on photo processing, but, better late than never. Here is the first of what will probably be three videos with stills of the White-eyed Vireo nest found by Miguel Acosta at Weldon Spring C.A. this past spring. I hope you like it.

-OZB

The Ruff

Ruff (Calidris pugnax)
Camera settings: f/8, 1/1000 sec., ISO-640, 1120 mm focal length equivalent.

Never have I worked so hard to get mediocre photos of such an ugly bird. The sky was clear, the air cool and this combination created a terribly turbulent atmosphere over the mud flats the bird was foraging in, making it near impossible to get the sharpness desired in a photograph.

Ruff (Calidris pugnax) Camera settings: f/5.6, 1/1250 sec., ISO-400, 1120 mm focal length equivalent.

The Ruff is a bird that is native to Eurasia, visiting North America somewhat regularly. There have been sightings of this species in Missouri and Illinois in the recent past (at least three during this spring), but this is the first one I’ve been able to track down and photograph. Josh Uffman happened to discover this bird near Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary on April 18th while we were in the area. I want to thank Josh who turned on the St. Louis birding community to this special visitor from overseas.

Ruff (Calidris pugnax) Camera settings: f/8, 1/1000 sec., ISO-640, 1120 mm focal length equivalent.

The Ruff is a member of the Calidris genus of shorebirds. Local members of this group include many of the sandpipers we are familiar with, like the peeps, Dunlin and Red Knot.

Ruff (Calidris pugnax) Camera settings: f/5.6, 1/1000 sec., ISO-200, 1120 mm focal length equivalent.

I know I called this particular bird ugly earlier in the post. However, if you are not familiar, look this bird up on the internet or your favorite bird guide. The birds in breeding plumage are absolutely stunning and their behavior on leks makes them a very special bird.

Ruff (Calidris pugnax) Camera settings: f/5.6, 1/1250 sec., ISO-400, 1120 mm focal length equivalent.

These were just a few of the couple thousand or so photos of this bird taken on that day. Most were boring shots of the bird foraging in the flooded farm field. Perhaps one day I’ll be fortunate enough to see these guys on their leks.

-OZB

Whooping Cranes visit Missouri and Illinois

Whooping Cranes
Camera settings: f/6.3, 1/3200 sec., ISO-320, 700 mm focal length.

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.

Whooping Crane
Camera settings: f/8, 1/2000 sec., ISO-250, 700 mm focal length.

We found these birds quite close to the road and actively foraging in the permanent drainage canals of this river valley farming area.

Catching crayfish.
Camera settings: f/8, 1/2000 sec., ISO-250, 700 mm focal length.

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.

Catching frogs in January Camera settings: f/8, 1/2000 sec., ISO-320, 700 mm focal length.

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.

Whooping Crane
Camera Settings: f/6.3, 1/2000 sec., ISO-250, 420 mm focal length equivalent.

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.

Whooping Crane Camera Settings: f/8, 1/2000 sec., ISO-125, 700 mm focal length.

Thanks for visiting.

-OZB

Photographing the White-tailed Deer Rut

This post is a modified article that was originally published in the Webster Groves Nature Study Society’s journal, Nature Notes (February, 2020, Vol. 92, No. 2).

The alarm on the phone sounds off at 4:00 am. You have a quick, light breakfast but no coffee. Making moves required during the act of recycling that coffee would be detrimental to your goals this morning. You’ve packed the car the night before, so you simply need to wash your face and throw on the required number of layers it will take to stay warm enough during your several hours sit. This requires some critical thought as morning temperatures during the rut can often be in the teens or twenties.

You arrive at the site by 5:30 am and are under cover at your pre-scouted location by 6:15 am — first light. Sunrise and the golden-hour will come in about 30 minutes. You picked this location due to heavy deer traffic signified by sign such as tracks and scat, scrapes and rubs. You put your back to the rising sun to take advantage of the beautiful golden-hour light that will be splashed across the scene. You also considered the potential background for your photos. You made sure there is plenty of space between your subjects and a natural, potentially autumn-colored background to get that creamy, out of focus quality that helps your magnificent subject stand out. Remember, the key to improving your nature photography is to make the photo, not simply take the photo. Previsualization and planning are often critical!

Arriving prior to first light brings the best potential for being unnoticed in your blind. However, deer are often just as active at night and sometimes you may find your spot is already occupied by your subjects! Don’t worry too much; you may spook those deer out of the area, but there are plenty of others who will likely visit these hangouts before the morning is over. Where you choose to photograph will be important in this respect. Take advantage of photographing in areas that are closed to hunting, like parks and sanctuaries. Here the deer are very accustomed to people and our scents, showing little fear. Often, during the rut, younger bucks may be curious and will move closer to you. You will typically need to work harder to get closer to the wearier does and old, veteran bucks who have been around the block a few times. In non-hunting areas, you can often get close enough to your subjects to make meaningful photographs by simply having an early-morning walk around with a longer telephoto lens (e.g. 300-600 mm focal length).

Like clockwork, at 6:30 am every morning, large flocks of blackbirds move overhead from the west, chasing the rising sun in search of feeding grounds. Photographing the rut is very similar to hunting. Deer hunters in our area typically use tree stands. This higher elevation provides advantages in being able to see greater distances, being out of direct eye-line of the deer and aids in dispersing your scent, which is frequently a give away of the pursuer. When hunting with a camera and lens, you need to stay on level ground and shoot the deer at eye level or lower.

A method Miguel Acosta and I like to use is hiding in a blind (we like the portability of ‘throw-blinds’) along well-established deer trail or nearby communal rub or scrape areas. This will require using camouflage, blinds or similar methods to break up the human form. In the types of areas described above, you need not worry too much about your scent. Deer have very strong sense of smell and in the middle of an unpopulated forest, your odors can very easily give you away. But, in areas like parks where people and deer are often found in close proximity, your own scent is less likely to alarm the deer and thereby allow you to get much closer.

Around mid-morning a Red-shouldered Hawk, perched above our location, vocalizes and a mixed-species flock of songbirds moves into our copse of trees. Since we have our large lenses, we try our hands at photographing Chickadees and Titmouse. Although scent and wind direction may not play an important role in this setting, being quiet is important for getting those close and intimate shots. I recommend doing everything you can to keep your noise to a minimum. Try and chose gear without Velcro or other noisy fasteners. Keep your voices to a minimum and try not to move frequently. If available on your camera, choose the “silent shutter” setting. Many dSLR cameras have this setting that lowers the volume of the mirror flapping. Consequently, this will lower the frame rate of the camera, but this is preferable to spooking your subjects before you get your shots. New mirrorless cameras lack the mirror box of their older brethren and can shoot very quietly at high frame rates.

Later in the morning I awake from a nap to the sound of Wild Turkeys vocalizing. I quickly realize that a small flock have wandered near our location and Miguel is offering them some verbal enticement to come a little closer to our shooting lane. It didn’t work, but the fact they were within ten yards of our location offers further proof that our blinds and technique work to get us closer to wild animals. Until recently, I had never given our North American game species much thought as a subject of natural history study. I’m sure that not growing up as a hunter or outdoorsman has had an influence on this. Over the past couple of years, I have fallen hook, line and sinker into learning everything I can about white-tailed deer and finding ways to best capture them with the camera. Miguel and I have much to learn and we are eager in making more photographs, capturing their different behaviors and at different times of the year.

For recommended reading about the rut and other aspects of the lives of white-tailed deer, I recommend reading any books you can find by authors Leonard Lee Rue III and Mark Raycroft.

For those just getting into photographing the rut, grabbing your camera and walking around the right park can yield some satisfying results. Photo by Bill Duncan.
It was once believed that spike bucks were always the young bucks of the year. Now most believe that genetics and nutrition play major roles in antler development. Photo by Miguel Acosta.
Most of the bucks that came near our blind were likely 1.5-years old. This bruiser, despite his relatively weak rack is likely older than this. Photo by Miguel Acosta.
A cleared patch of ground known as a ‘scrape.’ Urinating and depositing materials from different scent glands, deer use these as informational signposts. Photo by Bill Duncan.
Antler rubs are also important means of communication by bucks. Setting up near active rubs and scrapes can be very productive when hunting deer with camera or weapon. Photo by Bill Duncan.
This inquisitive buck, that I have taken to calling “Bright Eyes”, is often available for posing for our cameras. Here you can see him using his most important sensory organ, trying to figure out the strange scents coming from our direction. Photo by Miguel Acosta.
During the rut, bucks will often increase their typical home range. In mid-November, this buck was found just outside the author’s back door. Photo by Bill Duncan.
Even the little guys get worked up during the rut, trying at every opportunity. This doe, however, wants nothing to do with this pathetic creature. Photo by Bill Duncan.
Photographing in a blind can be a great way at getting much closer to your subject. At times we wondered if the deer might walk over top of us! Photo by Bill Duncan.
Whether you hunt with a weapon or camera, all hunters are looking for their own particular trophy. Photo by Bill Duncan.

Eastern Collared Lizard

Eastern Collared Lizard – female. 520 mm focal length equivalent, f/11, 1/160 sec. ISO-200

These photos were taken on a WGNSS Nature Photography Group field trip into the St. Francois Mountains in early June, 2019.

Eastern Collared Lizard – female. 520 mm focal length equivalent, f/8, 1/200 sec. ISO-160

Along with a couple of female eastern collared lizards, we found quite a few other herps of interest.

Eastern Collared Lizard – female. 406 mm focal length equivalent, f/6.3, 1/320 sec. ISO-200

These lizards are really great photographic subjects. They are relatively easy to photograph, allowing for watching while they bask in the sunlight of a clear day without much manipulation or interference necessary.