One of the prettiest birds here during the summer is the Indigo Bunting. They are not present all the time and it is always difficult to get them in front of the lens. Last weekend I was lucky and had three of them here. The diffraction of light through their actually black feathers make them look blue and make identification very easy.
In spite of the fact that we still have an abundance of migrating birds around our house at the moment (I promise, I will show more pictures soon!), I went to the Mines of Spain yesterday, the wooded state recreation area south of Dubuque, Iowa. I was hoping to see some neotropical warblers, vireos, and gnatcatchers coming up the Mississippi River Valley and was rewarded with several species that will breed in eastern Iowa during the summer. However, watching them doesn’t automatically mean to capture an image. Warblers are very fast moving birds most of the time, giving the photographer only fractions of a second to frame, focus, and making the click.
The Mines of Spain have two ponds, just separated from the Mississippi River by the railroad tracks. The bushes and shrubs that surround them are an excellent home range for birds that rely on insects. With other words, it is a prime habitat for warblers and other birds and a good place to stick the legs of the tripod into the mud.
It was interesting to see Yellow Warblers, American Redstarts, Common Yellowthroats, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Yellow-rumped Warblers gleaning for insects very close to the ground. The reason might be the relative low temperatures we have. Mosquitos, gnats, or little flies do still not perform much. We humans may like this, but the birds may struggle for survival if this would last. The good news is, the forecast for next week promises warmer weather…
The grosbeaks are here since May 3rd, a little later than usual. Most of them will move on but we always have some that raise their offspring in our woods. They winter in central and northern South America. Many of our migrators, like orioles, tanagers, and the grosbeaks have been here in large numbers during the last few days. It was relatively chilly and the birds use our feeders very frequently, which makes it easy to make a click or two during their presence. It is supposed to get warmer next week and I expect to see less birds.
The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is a good bird to practice long lens photography. They provide mostly good contrast to focus on and even with 600 mm focal length a shutter speed of 1/80s or even slower can be managed.
For two days we had the pleasure to watch this beautiful Red-headed Woodpecker in the woods around our house. He or she is probably migrating further north. This species is actually a native in our area but we see them in our woods only for a few days in May. We have plenty of woodpecker habitat, means dead trees, but five other woodpecker species (sometimes even six) raise their offspring in our valley and on the bluff tops and this is maybe too much competition.
Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM S, Induro GIT 404XL tripod, Induro GHB2 gimbal head, Nikon SB 800 speed light, MAGMOD MagBeam flash extender
We are always happy to see birds that migrate through our woods here on top of the bluffs of the Little Maquoketa River Valley. For a couple days we saw this Hermit Thrush, whose breeding area is in the northern part of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and almost all over Canada. They are in the same family (Turdidae) as the widely known Bluebirds and American Robins. They forage on the ground and in vegetation.
Not as colorful as orioles or the Scarlet Tanagers, but with a little hint of flash I was able to reveal the color nuances in its plumage. My best photo of this rare guest so far and it will make into the bird gallery on this website.
It’s the best time of the year for some early morning or late afternoon bird photography in the “yard studio”. As every spring we see a good number of Baltimore Orioles migrating through and a few will stay here for breeding. Not so common is the Orchard Oriole, but we have seen them occasionally during the last few years. The dark color of the males make them easily distinguishable from the orange Baltimore Orioles. The immature males don’t have the chestnut body in their first summer but the black throat makes it easy to identify them.
Joan and I took a trip along the Mississippi all the way up to Lansing, Iowa. The islands and many banks along the river are still flooded and with more rain in the forecast there seems no end in sight.
I had a tip from another photography friend about a good wildflower location here in the driftless area along the river. We went there already three weeks ago but this was a little too early. Today we found a number of wildflowers, including the Jeweled Shooting Star (Dodecatheon amethystinum). This plant has its habitat in moist shaded areas on north and east-facing dolomite and limestone bluffs in deciduous forests. It is on the list of Iowa’s threatened plant species, a reason why I don’t reveal the location here in the blog.
As you know, I’m not really a flower photographer but wildflowers are part of our natural heritage and they deserve our utmost attention, if we still want to have them around for future generations. Creating awareness is one reason why I make the click anyway.
I was invited this evening by my photography friend Kevin for some photo shooting behind his house on the south side of Dubuque, Iowa. He had set up a tent that served as a blind at the edge of his woods and minutes after we entered it, and had the tripods in place, our shutters were rattling. This is a great location with an abundance of birds. We had wonderful natural light (no flash needed today), and shooting with Kevin is always a great pleasure.
I only have used my car as a mobile blind so far and shooting out of a tent blind was a first for me. The advantage is, you can get really close to our feathered friends. The downside is the partly loss of peripheral vision due to the tent walls and roof over the head. Not a big deal today. We had at least 14 species of birds on site and I was able to capture nine of them during our one and a half hour photo shoot.
Kevin chose the location for the blind very wisely in regards of the incoming light and had prepared the “backyard studio” with good perch facilities for the birds. A couple feeders were placed in a way that we were able to keep them easily out of the frame. Some big trees are in the background and allow to aim the lens at woodpeckers or nuthatches that crack a seed in a gap of the bark.
No, it is no myth, our front or backyards can be some of the best places for wildlife photography. With relatively little efforts a lot can be accomplished within a short period of time, a fact that should be considered by everybody who tries to shave off time during a busy week. Special thanks to Kevin again for this opportunity today!
All images: Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM S, Induro GIT 404XL tripod, Induro GHB2 gimbal head.
…we are always looking forward to every spring. Finally four more bird species arrived from the south. About three days later than usual we had “first of the year” sightings of male and female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, two male Baltimore Orioles, a male Scarlet Tanager, and a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird. After the snow last weekend I expected a delay in their arrival time and being away almost the whole week, I’m happy they waited for my return from a business trip. I had the camera out on the porch this evening and at least the oriole and the tanager gave me a chance to take their picture.
We had a slight overcast that sucked up a little bit of the light but at the other hand made it soft overall. The MAGMOD MagBeam flash extender came out of the photo bag and was the essential tool for making the colors of the bird’s feathers pop.
Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM S, Sigma APO Teleconverter 1.4x EX DG, Induro GIT 404XL tripod, Induro GHB2 gimbal head, Nikon SB 800 speed light, MAGMOD MagBeam flash extender
As predicted, the snow from last Saturday melted away yesterday very rapidly. Despite some frost during the night, it looks like all plants, shrubs, and trees survived the drop in temperature without much damage. The flowers of our Maple Tree in front of the house looked beautiful this evening and when the setting sun created some magic light, I had to get the camera out and capture it. Over the years I took many photos of maple leaves in gorgeous light during autumn, but I don’t think I ever told a story about this maple tree in spring.
So what were the choices in order to make this click? I could have had every maple flower in focus, or at least nearly sharp, by closing the aperture down and have more depth of focus. The price to pay would have been the increase to a very high ISO value and as a result the introduction of a lot of noise in the picture. Instead I chose to shoot wide open (f/4 @ 1/640 s, ISO 400, and 200 mm focal length). Only a few maple flowers are sharp but capturing the mood of this scene and separating the subject from the background was in my humble opinion the better choice.
I was traveling the whole week and came back full of hope for a nice and warm weekend. Right now all the leaves come out and end of April is usually the arrival time for many migrating birds here in our woods. But it came totally different today. It rained and snowed all day long and as I’m writing this we still have some snow cover.
But there is always a story to tell in weather like this and that’s what I tried to do when I went out with the camera in hand. The combination of fresh green and flowers with the wet snow made for a good target. Three Chipping Sparrows were the only birds beside our American Robins that were present this evening. The male House Wrens arrived this week but except for the early morning they kept hidden during the day.
Tomorrow it is supposed to be warmer again and I’m sure the layer of snow on the ground will be history soon.
It all comes together right now on this Easter weekend, the wildflowers in the woods behind our house can be photographed in great light as long the sun is out. Going out early in the morning or during the late afternoon gives the best chances for a good quality of natural light. Going down low to the ground with the camera or using the topography of our steep slopes for a good perspective is mandatory, but other than that, it is an easy click.
Wishing all of you a wonderful Easter weekend!
Nikon D750, Sigma 150mm / f2.8 APO EX DG HSM, @1/1000 s, f/5.6, ISO200
Here is another image from last weekend. This was shot at the John Deere Marsh, right beside the road, and about a kilometer away from the main channel of the Mississippi River. This young muskrat had absolutely no fear and kept chewing on fresh grass tips even after I just parked my car right beside it. 200 mm focal length was enough to make this picture and I employed the Nikon Nikkor 200 f/4 on the D750. I made a slight crop in post for esthetic reasons. Too many bleak sticks after the winter distracted from the subject, this beautiful little muskrat. Their fur looks great when it is dry. I saw and heard an adult calling from down below the river bank but this little bugger gave a dam and kept chewing on the first fresh grass. Some people are put off by anything that is called a “rat”, although this rodent is not a member of the genus rattus. Muskrats are smaller than beavers and they share quite often the same habitat. Their diet is 95% plant materials.
Yesterday I spent the last two hours before sunset in the Green Island Wetlands. The water level in the Mississippi River has dropped a little bit but many areas are still flooded. The sun came finally out and it was a good evening for wildlife observations and photography. The first Greater Yellowleg has arrived and was searching for food in one of the muddy fields that are part of the area. I saw the first pairs of Wood Ducks and numerous female Red-winged Blackbirds have joined the males , who were already present since several weeks.
But the star of this evening was the first and only Great Egret I watched this season so far. First I saw him standing almost motionless for several minutes between some flooded small trees along the dyke. After a while the bird started moving its neck forth and back and stirred the water with its feet. It was clear, the egret was hunting for a fish. It had his head turned to the east, means the setting sun lit just the back of the head. I made a few clicks anyway. Suddenly the bird turned around, now facing the sun, and moved a few feet to an area where not so many branches were obstructing the view. And than it happened very fast. The clouds opened up a little more and at that moment the egret caught a fish. The metadata of my pictures reveal, from the moment he got it out of the water until the fish was going down its throat only 9 seconds had elapsed. A piece of weed was hanging over his head. Happy egret and happy photographer!
Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm/f5-6.3 DG OS HSM S, @600 mm , 1/500 s, f/6.3, ISO200
The Meissen Cathedral has many interesting architectural details. When I was ready to leave one of the chapels and stepped into this spiral staircase, I knew immediately I had a picture. The light that came through the small window and from the room behind me was complemented with light from a small lamp in the staircase. The mix of daylight and incandescent light from the bulb were actually well taken by the camera (white balance was set to Auto), but I knew only the development of the photo in black & white will do justice to the subtle impact of all three light sources.