Barred Owl ------------   

Tonight the Barred Owl used our roof ridge as a perch for its hunting efforts. I could see the silhouette against the evening sky. It was quiet and peaceful and while I watched this magnificent bird, mother raccoon ransacked the suet feeder on the balcony at the other side of the house… Did I say it was peaceful…? 😏

The photo of the Barred Owl is from last week. This is how I found the bird Friday morning in a tree at the edge of our woods. I took the time to get the tripod out. With good support I had no problem to shoot at ISO200 and 1/80s.

I’m taking a break from posting here in the blog for a little while. I’ll be back soon. Enjoy the warm and sunny weather, always take the camera with you, and don’t miss the opportunity to make the best photo of your life!


Garter Snake -------

I have been possibly pointed in the right direction about my suspicion over the dramatic decline of snakes in our area by Pamela, who is also a member of the Dubuque Camera Club, today. Thank you Pamela! The cause could be snake fungal disease (SFD) and if you are interested to learn more about it, here is a useful link for you: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5095536/ . Oddly enough, Joan found a Garter Snake at the edge of our woods  yesterday, the first we saw in a long time. The snake just rested in the grass and gave me plenty of time to get the camera.

So how do we get a good image of a snake lying in the grass? I don’t know! I tried a low angle but din’t like the outcome. There was always a blade of grass that covered part of the head. I finally went for a picture from above, using the coil of the reptile and the soft evening light as my means for the story telling.

In a close-up view of the photo I can see that the skin of the snake is kinda flaky, however, not really visible in this size-reduced image of my blog. I will send a larger file to the people that do research on this disease and will either learn that this Garter Snake is healthy or help to pinpoint the spread of this fungus. This is all very concerning, knowing about what impact the Chytrid Fungus, in particular Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis or “Bd”, has done to amphibians, wiping out more than one third of the world’s frog species. Just reading a lot about it today, the threat to these reptiles seems to be not less…

Nikon D750, Nikon Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm, f/4G ED VR


Yellow Warbler ------------

I have 3 photos of warblers for you today. All have the word “yellow” in the name but each is of course from a different species. As always, you can click on each photo for a larger image on your screen. It was a gray Sunday but the temperature started rising again. Early in the morning I saw a couple warblers here near the house and with warmer temperatures insects started flying again. I figured out it would be a good day looking for migrating or mating warblers around the Deere Marsh at the Mississippi River in Dubuque and at the end of the day I was not disappointed with my encounters.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Taking pictures of birds against a gray sky or with water in the background that reflects the sky is usually a no-no, but rules are there to be broken sometimes…😉 To bring out the colors of these little neotropical birds requires to send a hint of flash in their direction. The light will be reflected and this takes care of the dull appearance under an overcast. I used the trusted MAGMOD MagBeam flash extender (click the link if you like to see it http://www.exnerimages.net/gear ).

Common Yellowthroat

Some of the pictures were made from the tripod and a flash arm was used. Others were made out of my car and in this case I mount the flash directly to the hot shoe of the camera. This is a little awkward at times because of the limited height of the car window but I haven’t found a better way yet. Don’t take me wrong, I still think a gray background does not lead to a real good photo but going out shooting beats the alternative, staying home… 😊


Female Scarlet Tanager -------

We had two very cold and wet days and I feel bad for the birds that just arrived here a week ago. The Scarlet Tanager spends the winter in the tropical forest of northwestern South America. During the last years we always had a pair or two here during the summer but it is a very secretive bird and we usually see it only in May or June. I don’t know if it is the cold weather only, but right now we see up to six male and three female tanagers in the “front and back yard studio”. They use our suet feeders or eat from the oranges we put out for the orioles very frequently and this gives me a lot opportunities to make a click while they are waiting for their turn in our trees and bushes. We can only imagine how hard it is for the birds after such a long journey to replenish their energy and the cold temperatures (yesterday it was 46ºF / 8ºC) are not helpful for sure.

Male Scarlet Tanager

The brilliant colors of both sexes make it very inviting to take their pictures. The dark overcast we had most of the time requires shooting with relatively long exposure and not every click leads to a sharp photo. Wind and the movement of the birds play a role as well. I shoot the SIGMA 150-600 wide open at f/6.3, 600 mm, and ISO set between 200 and 400 at the most. The exposure time was mostly between 1/60s and 1/200s but there were a few shots as far down as 1/25s.


The canopy of all the trees around is closing very quickly now, making it harder every day to get a clean shot of our Barred Owls. As you can see in my second picture below from two days ago, I finally had a chance to photograph the owlet. I’m not happy with the picture because I had to employ a speed light as my main light source but I saw its silhouette against the evening sky and the only way to make the click for this documentary shot was to use flash. It was so dark already that I’m surprised that I got away with a halfway sharp image.

A day earlier, last Monday morning, I witnessed some drama in our woods. I heard and saw both adult owls and they were celebrating a successful hunting effort. One of them had a bird in its talons and as far I’m concerned it may have been a young Blue Jay. While it flew out of sight to a different tree the other owl sat kinda proudly in best morning light in a tree across from my office. The picture above was made shortly after while a Blue Jay attacked the owl and tried to scare it away. I have seen this behavior before. The Blue Jays are pretty fearless and hit the owl with their wings, hoping that this predator goes away, but in this case it was obviously too late.

Young Barred Owl


Garter Snake, Mississippi River, Mud Lake Park, Iowa --------

I have a hard time keeping up with my visual story telling about things that happen in nature right now around here. It is an eventful time. So, let me talk about the Mississippi River again. The river was above flood stage during the last few days but reached its high today. Some of my usual shooting locations and places where we give also our dog Cooper his exercise were under water. Yesterday I was down at Mud Lake Park and the picture below tells you how this recreation area looked like.

Mississippi River, Mud Lake Park, Iowa

Ok, so what has that to do with the photo of a beautiful Garter Snake? During the last few years the number of snakes has dramatically decreased in this area. Years ago I could make a picture of a snake every day in our backyard and found them at many other places. This is not the case anymore. I have a hard time to find any snake at all and last year I saw only a single Garter Snake, which were usually abundant. I talked to many people, like rangers from the DNR or biologists. Everybody observes the same trend but nobody has really an answer what causes the decline. I still hope it is a temporary thing but my fear grows that pesticides or other aggressive treatments of mother nature play a role. 

The high water level of the river and subsequent flooding have obviously effected the habitat of some critters and this Garter Snake was out in the open. A dangerous place since many predators, like herons, egrets, or owls may not hesitate to have them for dinner…


Groundhog (Marmota monax), also known as the woodchuck ---------

The groundhog, also known as the woodchuck, is a rodent and belongs in the group of large ground squirrels known as marmots. They are common down in the valley of the Little Maquoketa River and we have seen them many times sitting next to the highway, near the river, or in the ravines that lead into the river. In all the years since we live here we have never seen one up on the bluffs, until today. The photo was made right from my office window and it looks like this guy was smiling at me while I pressed the shutter release button of the camera…


Barred Owl ----------

Today’s nature story from our woods here above the Little Maquoketa River Valley can’t be told with a picture due to the lack of light. The photo above is from April 26, and is just supposed to support my story. As the avid reader of my blog already knows, we have watched a pair of Barred Owls this spring and finally saw yesterday an adult owl delivering a chipmunk or mouse to a big cavity in a hickory tree only ~25 yards away from our house. We had suspected that the nest was there but didn’t really have a proof until yesterday.

This evening, sitting on the porch with a glass of wine after sunset and enjoying the mild weather, I heard a subtle whistling call and saw the owl flying away from the nest site. Looking again at the tree we saw the silhouette of a small owl. No doubt, this is an owlet who just started its branch hopping period in life. I can’t wait until tomorrow and hope to get a glimpse of this young owl. The rapidly coming out leaves will make it more and more difficult to spot an owl in the trees every day that passes by and my hope is that the owlet is at least tomorrow still nearby. Otherwise it will be like searching for a needle in a haystack…



This little finch is actually more of a winter guest here but we don’t see it very often in our woods, maybe due to the lack of conifers. However, this female hangs around with the American Goldfinches since about two weeks, who are currently present in large numbers. I don’t have very many photos of a Pine Siskin and most of them were made with the bird at a feeder or at a bird bath. I’m happy to have finally some shots without any men-made items in the frame.


Male Orchard Oriole -------

This is the most exiting time of the year in our woods here on the bluffs above the Little Maquoketa River Valley. One bird species after another who breed here during the summer arrived within the last 96 hours. The day starts early with the chatter of the House Wrens. The Hummingbirds take possession of the feeders hanging from the porch and defend them against their fellow hummers. Several male and female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks visit our sunflower seed feeders and at least five Baltimore Orioles recover from the long journey of spring migration. One of the highlights this morning were three Indigo Buntings who joined the numerous American Goldfinches that hang out in the trees and come to the house for sunflower seeds. The king in my books was that male Orchard Oriole I show you today. The red color tells that it is an adult bird but I wonder if that is the same male who was here last spring, at that time still wearing the plumage of a juvenile bird. While the Baltimore Orioles come here every spring since we moved in our house in 2004, the Orchard Orioles are not so common and have been seen only a few times during migration.


Song Sparrow, Green Island Wetlands, Iowa -----

It is not difficult to find Song Sparrows and take a picture of them. We find them mostly along the edge of water and marshy land and I have seen them in many of my favorite shooting locations along the Mississippi. Spring is here and this is of course mating time and most birds look at their best right now. Last Sunday I couldn’t resist to make a few clicks when this little guy made for a great display in some old stems from last year and sang his heart out.


Green Island Wetlands, Eastern Iowa

Here is a couple pictures from last Friday. I’m not 100% sure about my identification. Could have been a Greater Yellowleg, at least in one of the pictures. It doesn’t really matter since both images represent the environmental portrait I prefer for my wildlife photography. Means the bird is shown in its habitat and the behavior is captured as it would occur even if I was not there.


Green Island Wetlands, Iowa

Only once before I have seen a Black-crowned Night Heron in the Green Island Wetlands and that was already five years ago. As hunters they have great endurance and can stand still for a long time until a small animal passes by. I saw this heron this afternoon sitting on this branch at the edge of the water. Using my car as a blind the bird didn’t feel bothered by me much and even closed his eyes a few times. I came back 90 minutes later in hope for some softer light and the heron was still on the same branch. I would call this true patience…😉


Sora, Mississippi River, Pool Slough, near New Albin, Iowa -----------

I drove to the extreme northeast corner of Iowa today, to New Albin, just south of the Minnesota border. At first came a little disappointment due to the fact that the gravel road across Pool Slough, a wildlife sanctuary in the backwaters of the Mississippi, was partly closed because of high water level. I guess the snow melt from the last few weeks comes down the river now. The road ends at a boat landing that is usually very popular among fishermen but the water made me stop a mile earlier already. With water, marsh land, and mudflats on both sides, the road is a great place for bird watching and photography not only at this time of the year. I didn’t give up and scanned the area with the binoculars. There were ducks and geese, eagles, coots, egrets, and herons but no small wading birds, as I was hoping for. The mudbanks were covered with water and that changes the food supply for sandpipers and other shore birds.

The real fun started when I heard the “whee-hee-hee-hee-hee” call of a Sora right next to me and it was answered from other places around. These rails are very small and it is not easy to spot them. For the next hour I was busy to capture the story of this little bird, how they walk with their big feet on floating debris, how they feed, and how good they can hide. The Sora feeds mainly on insects, mollusks, snails, seeds of plants, and duckweed. They rake floating vegetation with their feet and even pull it aside with their bill and search for food visually. Well, no sandpipers today, but I still have images from yesterday that I may post during the upcoming week. So please stay tuned…! 😊


It was a very windy evening today but this didn’t stop me to visit the Green Island Wetlands once more. I knew there wouldn’t be many small perching birds around. The water level is still lower than the last couple years and this is great for shore birds and waders who need shallow-water or mudflat habitat. The wind didn’t seem to bother them much, the light was soft, and I was glad that I went out.

If you think identifying gulls is a difficult task, you haven’t tried to identify sandpipers yet! It wasn’t the first time that I had a ‘fling’ of Pectoral Sandpipers in front of the lens but other species are very similar and sometimes I have some doubts left about my findings. It helps to have a good library of bird guides, printed or digital. The Pectoral Sandpiper breeds on arctic tundra from western Alaska across far northern Canada to the Hudson Bay. They spend the winter in South America. I watched about a dozen birds in front of me feeding, bathing, and preening. At times they all took off together, flew with rapid wing beats a few rounds but returned to the same area.