Season of the Short-eared

I’ve been hunting and trying to photograph Short-eared Owls in Lincoln County, MO for nearly 10 years with mixed success. The past three years or so have been particularly challenging with lower numbers than typical, often without seeing a single owl on several outings. We hypothesize that a year or two of bad flooding in these areas adjacent to the Mississippi River have caused dramatic declines in the small rodents that these and other birds of prey need in order to spend their winters here.

Whatever the reasons, this winter (2021/2022) we are seeing incredible numbers of these long-winged beauties. Although primarily nocturnal, this species also exhibits diurnal and crepuscular habits and this is another area where we have been fortunate. I have spent close to 25 afternoons and evenings with these birds over the past six weeks, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends. On most of these days at least one or two owls were seen flying with the sun still well into the sky. This makes for excellent opportunities for observing their behaviors and working on better strategies to get the meaningful photographs we are after.

I have probably kept way too many photographs that will require purchasing new external drives much sooner than I anticipated and I have probably processed too many as well. Still, I plan on sharing many of these here over the course of the next several weeks. Hell, the season isn’t over. I’ll probably try for more before they head back to the great north for the breeding season.

Green Heron – From the Canoe

On my last trip out with the canoe, back in September, I came across this most cooperative Green Heron. It did not care at all that I was hanging out watching it hunt. It was a fun challenge, maneuvering around as quietly and methodically as I could in order to get the right light on the bird and the best background possible.

The benefits of wildlife photography from a boat.

Thank you for stopping by.


Canon R5 Video – First Look

Recently, I jumped into the world of mirrorless cameras by trading in for the Canon R5. I plan on writing a post in the near future about the pros and cons of switching to this new technology. For now, I will say that this is the beginning of a new photography paradigm, not just because they removed the mirror box and much of the remaining mechanical systems in the camera, but because of a lot of other technology that has been introduced in the latest generations of cameras. I’ve only had a few opportunities over the past ten days or so to try out the new camera. Like any new tool, it will require some time and practice before it becomes second nature but I am confident that, in time, this will be a great benefit in my nature photography.

One of the big benefits for me about the Canon R5 is that it will unify my process. Previously to the R5, I used a full-frame camera for landscapes and macro work and a cropped-sensor body for wildlife/birds (due to the extra reach these types of cameras provide). With the Canon R5, the 45mp full frame sensor allows me to shoot all the subjects I am interested in with just this single body.

On top of this, 4K video taken at 120 frames per second is now an option. This may be the most overlooked feature of this camera/technology. In my opinion, this slow-motion photography is the pinnacle of nature photography. You have the perfect blending of the freezing action of stills but with the increased action that video story telling provides. I know, this is nothing compared to the jaw-dropping speeds and quality achieved by the folks at the BBC but I really like having this option and I hope to do more of this in the future.

Photography Details
First, I want to share some of the details behind capturing the two completely different subjects and scenes in this video. Neither were taken at optimal conditions. The fish is Senator Scales. She is a long-eared sunfish that we have had for a little more than two years. She is currently sharing the tank with Major Mad Tom, the slender madtom catfish. I photographed her using the R5 and a 500 mm f/4 lens handheld. The only light was the poor old florescent in the aquarium hood fixture. I was shocked this turned out as well as it did. The Ring-necked Ducks were photographed this past weekend in Pike County, MO. These videos were shot with the same kit. Some of the panning is not very smooth because I shot on a beanbag from my car window and not a smooth gimbal head. I’m glad to see that autofocus in videography is now a legitimate option in this camera whereas it really wasn’t with dSLRs.

Technical Details
I originally setup the camera for video based on a few recommendations from photographers on YouTube. For the most part, these were right on and what I was used to from shooting video on dSLRs. However, after discovering I could not find a player or editor that would run these, I knew something was amiss. My computer is relatively new with a processor that should be more than adequate, so I was pretty sure that it could handle the large 4K files. The problem turned out to be the fancy-pants new c-log codec that everybody was talking about. I won’t go into unnecessary details, but this codec allows for better video compression and extra dynamic range in the neighborhood of one to three stops. However, what I have come to realize is that 95% or greater of the video cards and software are not built to support this codec. Because I did not know this at the time, I was forced to create a ‘proxy’ by converting the duck videos into smaller, 1080p versions. Therefore, these videos are not up to 4K standards. After troubleshooting things, I discovered that by turning off c-log, the files behaved as expected on my machine.

Did I say “as expected?” Not exactly. My usual video editing software, Power Director, would still not properly play the 4K, 120 fps clips. So, I thought this might be the perfect time to finally learn the incredible (and free!) DaVinci Resolve editing program. Definitely a step up in video editing, DaVinci is not as straight forward as what I was used to. But, after a couple very well done tutorials on YouTube, I was up to speed on the basics of the program in no time. There are tons of features in DaVinci, most of which I’ll probably never use. I can say that I’ll probably never open Power Director again! Da Vinci Resolve is that good.

Anyway, I hope this rambling wasn’t too boring and perhaps made some sense to those who might be in a similar position of learning the video side of things. Without further ado, here is the first videos I have taken with the R5. I’d appreciate any comments or questions you might have, especially if they serve to educate me!

Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)

Eastern Newt

Casey, Dave and I found this nice little eastern newt eft in Lincoln County, MO in mid-October of this year. Did you know… Newt species like this one have a variety of options in their life stages and reproductive strategy. Typically, newts will have three stages in their development, starting with an aquatic larvae, then changing into a terrestrial juvenile, or eft, and finishing as an aquatic adult. There are examples, however, of some populations that stay and breed in both the aquatic larval stage and as efts.

Dicerca pugionata – Witch-hazel Borer

Dicerca pugionata (Buprestidae) photographed at Victoria Glades Conservation Area, Jefferson County, MO.

Many thanks to Ted MacRae for introducing me to another stunner of a beetle. On more than one occasion Ted has taken me and others out to the field to find one of the strikingly beautiful and rare beetles that he knows so well. This time the treasure we sought was the jewel beetle, Dicerca pugionata (Buprestidae), also known as the Witch-hazel Borer. Witch-hazels (Hamamelis spp.) may be the preferred host plant but they are also found on alders (Alnus spp.) and ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius). In this opportunity, we went to a specific patch of ninebark at Victoria Glades where Ted had found them previously.

Dicerca pugionata (Buprestidae) on its host plant, ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)

The Golden-legged Mydas (Mydas tibialis)

This past August while visiting the Weldon Spring Site Interpretive Center in St. Charles, County MO, I stumbled upon one of my favorites that I have not seen since taking entomology at the University close to 20 years ago. When first encountering this insect you immediately think it must be one of the spider wasps or perhaps the great black wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus). For those who don’t immediately flee the area and instead look a little closer, you will see this is actually a very special species of fly.

Mydas tibialis, the golden-legged mydas nectaring from one of its favorite food sources, the blossom of Eryngium yuccifolium (rattlesnake master).

Mydas tibialis (golden-legged mydas) are Batesian mimics, meaning they are harmless mimics of a potentially harmful species, such as wasps. The adult form of mydas flies are purportedly short-lived. They spend the most of their lives underground where they feed on grubs in the soil.

In order to truly appreciate the size of a mydas fly, one must see them in person. If you are familiar with the size of a typical rattlesnake master inflorescence, then you might be able to appreciate this from these photos.

After doing a short bit of research, there doesn’t seem to be nearly enough known about the life history of our mydas flies. This is a shame. Not only are they fascinating animals with much waiting to be discovered but it also looks like they can be good biocontrol agents. Hopefully it won’t be another 20 years before I find one again.

Mydas tibialis, the golden giant of the Dipterans.

Bee Flies – Exoprosopa brevirostris

More from Sand Prairie Conservation Area. These members of the bee fly family (Bombyliidae) were owning this patch of blooming Stylisma pickeringii (Convolvulaceae). Be sure to check out the image of a male coming in to spit game at a female that was not giving him the slightest bit of attention.

Green-eyed Wasp (Tachytes sp.)

This summer I finally got to spend a little quality time wandering through Sand Prairie Conservation Area in Scott County, MO. Within and bordering the dunes one walks by large numbers of Stylisma pickeringii (Convolvulaceae) and Polygonum americanum (Polygonaceae), the later called American jointweed. If you arrive at or near sunrise there does not seem to be a lot of interest in regards to pollinators. Wait until the day heats up, say around 9 or 10 am, and then things get hopping. I saw all sorts of insects I had never seen before, mostly in the Hymenoptera. One of these was the green-eyed wasp (Tachytes sp.). Of course, when everything is warmed up, getting the photographs you want of these small and active insects becomes an epic story of frustration. But, try and try again and you might get something you’re happy with. The following pics aren’t as nice as I had hoped but I think they show this splendid little wasp as you might find them in situ.

A green-eyed wasp (Tachytes sp.) nectaring at a blossom of Polygonum americanum (American jointweed) as the gracious photographer works.
With a head that is almost all eyes, the green-eyed wasp (Tachytes sp.) is always wary and alert to potential threats.

Synchlora aerata (camouflaged looper)

Back in mid-June I discovered a number of Synchlora aerata (camouflaged looper, wavy-lined emerald moth) that were using our coreopsis as host. Not only are these spectacular adult moths in the family Geometridae, but they are obviously special while in the larval phase as well. These caterpillars are known for attaching bits and pieces of the plant tissues they feed on (often flower petals) to their backs as means of camouflaging against their predators.

The Synchlora aerata, on Coreopsis sp. in a suburban wildflower garden in St. Louis County, MO, USA
I often find these guys with their camouflage dull, dry and not very attractive. You can change this pretty easily by placing them in a container with a fresh native flower of your choice. Hopefully within a day or two the caterpillar will have adorned itself with a fresh and colorful coat!

Awesome Armadillos!

The nine-banded armadillo invasion of Missouri is over. Armadillos have now been found near the Missouri-Iowa border and in the St. Louis metro area they are now almost as common roadkill as are racoons. I find these animals fascinating and Sarah and I once kept one as a pet for a brief time. Casey and I found several armadillos digging up plant bulbs in the fields of Peck Ranch while looking for elk last winter.

One of several nine-banded armadillos we found at Peck Ranch C.A. during mid-December, 2020.

There are all sorts of interesting bits of information that can be shared about these guys. Here are a couple of my favorites. 1) Twenty five years ago you would not find armadillos anywhere in the state. 2) The armadillo is the only other known animal, besides humans, to carry the disease leprosy. These two factoids are related because they likely have the same underlying cause behind them – the lower body temperature of armadillos. Armadillos have a lower working body temperature than most mammals, maintaining it at about 89 °F. The increasingly warmer winters over the past few decades has allowed the armadillo to get through the previously limiting winters, allowing their northward expansion. Their lower body temperature also allows them to be carriers of the bacteria (Mycobacterium leprae) known to cause leprosy. This bacteria thrives in tissues of lower temperatures, such as the tips of our noses and fingers and within the armadillo.

Much like most mammals in our state, the nine-banded armadillo has famously bad eyesight. They rely primarily on their keen noses to sense the world around them.