The vegetation here on the bluff tops and down in the valley has passed its prime and finding a patch of ferns, flowers, or herbs that isn’t fading becomes difficult. It was a rainy Sunday and during a walk with our dog Cooper in the valley I kept my eyes on the ground, always looking for a little light that may make a difference. Using black & white as the medium to tell the story about what’s left from the beauty of these ferns seemed right to me.
I have been at least once every month during the summer in the Green Island Wetlands, next to the Mississippi River, and today was probably my last summer visit. Other events lie ahead of us this month and before we know it will be duck hunting season. Although part of the wetlands are a preserve, the access to these parts is limited and already today the dyke that has often the best photo locations was closed for cars. Sure, I don’t shy away from hiking, even with tripod and heavy camera and lens combination on my shoulder, but water fowl, egrets, or herons will most likely fly away before someone even comes close. The “mobile blind” is the best way to go, with other words, stay in your dam car if you like the make a photo that makes halfway sense ;-)
It was obviously a productive season. I saw quite a few juvenile Wood Ducks and dozens of Killdeer tried to find food in areas with short vegetation, like the parking lots of the wetlands.
The Great Egret is the easiest to spot but not every bird stays in place when a car gets relatively close. There was very little direct sun today, which is ideal for shooting these beautiful egrets while they stand in the water and hunt for fish, frogs, or aquatic insects.
One of the easiest birds to photograph here in the Mississippi Valley is the Great Blue Heron. I think it is the perfect subject for someone who just starts with wildlife photography. Not that they all stay in place if you come close, but their large eye makes it easy to focus on. Even more important, the pattern on their chest provides great contrast for locking on the focus sensor. The eye has to be sharp or the picture goes to the trash can. Remember, the chest and the eye are almost in the same focal plane. If you can’t focus on the eye, use the chest to get a sharp image of the bird.
I usually consider August not a great time for bird photography, mainly because the light may not have always the best quality. Here in Iowa it is hot and humid and most of the time with this kind of weather comes a haziness that is sometimes difficult to work with. Going out on the Mississippi River by kayak during the last hours of daylight can be a game changer, although coming back with just a good spirit and maybe a Red-winged Blackbird on the memory card is not uncommon. But this is part of the process. If you don’t practice the shooting technique with a heavy camera and lens combination, handhold from the boat, you may never be ready when the magic moment unfolds in front of you.
The photos of the Green Heron were made during such a moment. This bird is very skittish and usually takes off long before I come close. Light, background, and gestures were all there and finally I had my chance to make the environmental portrait of this bird I had in mind since a long time.
My prediction about the departure of the young House Wrens from the nest I made yesterday was correct. Early this morning, still at dawn, the mother called them repeatedly and at 7:30AM the gourd with the nest inside was empty. We wish them well and can’t wait until next spring when the first males arrive back from the south. Our nest boxes will be ready again for another nesting season.
While I took the pictures of the young wrens yesterday afternoon another summer guest showed up in our front yard. We can hear the distinctive song “pee-ah-wee” and the calls “pe-e-e-e-e-e” of the Eastern Wood-Pewee all summer long. This small flycatcher feeds on flying insects, like flies, bees, butterflies, wasps, or beetles. They start mostly from an exposed perch to capture their prey in midair but take occasionally insects from vegetation or the ground. Most of the time they sit too high on a perch for a good photo but yesterday the pewee used briefly one of our shepherd hooks that holds a bird feeder. Pretty soon this bird will also head south to the tropics, where it spends the time during our cold season.
There is a good chance these might be the last pictures of the little House Wrens for this season. As you can see they are sticking out their neck very far to be the first one who gets the food and we expect them to leave the nest as early as tomorrow morning. The adult female was calling them already today. The photos reveal that there are at least two juveniles in the nest but it would be no surprise to have even 3 or 4 young birds. After they leave the nest they might be still around for a few days and will be still fed by the mother. Their departure sounds the bell for the last part of summer. We don’t know why the male House Wren hasn’t been present during the nesting time. Usually we have seen males guarding the nest and supplying food. He may have been the victim of a predator. If I have a chance to see the bay wrens leave the gourd that contains the nest, I will stop in my tracks and try to make a click.
All images: 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, Impact Quikbox Micro Softbox
It has been already a week ago when these photos were created. “Dubuque- All That Jazz” is a free Friday night concert series, taking place once a month during the summer on Main Street, right at the clock tower in downtown Dubuque, Iowa. The sad part of the story is that I haven’t been there for almost two years, the good part is that I enjoyed it as much as any time before during the last decade.
The FINAL MIX Show Band rocked the place last Friday and their mix of R&B, Jazz Fusion, Blues, Hip-Hop, and Rock’n Roll was a solid performance, enjoyed by the kids as much as by the older folks.
The avid readers of my blog know me mainly as a wildlife and landscape photographer, with the occasional excursion into architecture or technical stuff with historical relevance, like airplanes or cars. To be honest, the only time I enjoy photographing people (beyond family memory photos) is when they are at creative work or during candid moments. That leads mainly to artists, musicians, sportsmen, etc.. Well, concert photography is right down this aisle.
The FINAL MIX Show Band started to play during daylight and making a “documentary click” would have been a breeze. I’m more interested to reveal the essence of the musician’s engagement during the concert and that’s why I started shooting only 45 minutes before the final chord. The quality of stage lighting was mediocre, to say it mildly (it was actually lousy), but shooting from backstage or any spot you like without security interference is absolutely priceless, and I will stop complaining right here!
On a side note, I was hoping to name every musician under each picture but the band’s website is obviously not in sync with their current cast. It doesn’t matter, it was a good concert and the band members were very cooperative during my humble attempt to create some art.
I told you a few days ago about the gourd that hangs from our porch and is right now home for the second brood of the House Wrens. The entrance hole faces the house and there is not much light available for taking a picture. To make a few clicks I used the short time when the sun actually appeared in a gap between the trees and sent some light to the backside of the gourd this evening. When the female showed up with food in her bill the light hit her just right. It still needed some fill flash to make this photo work. The Impact Quikbox Soft box does a very good job to soften the light that comes from the flash.
Another way to make a picture that tells the story about feeding the offspring, is to use the brief moment when the adult bird lands on a branch nearby and checks the surrounding before it flies up to the nest under the roof of the porch.
With the very pleasant cooler temperatures at the moment the hummingbirds use the feeders with sugar water very frequently. Some hang from the same wood beam as the gourd with the wren’s nest. I knew that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds also feed on tiny little insects, but making the click while the bird actually snapped at, what appears to be a gnat, was a first one for me.
I went out for another kayak paddle tour on the Mississippi River last Sunday. Johnson Slough paddle trail is in a backwater area about an hour north of Dubuque, Iowa by car. For the first half you have to paddle northwards in the slough against a mild current, then take a sharp turn to the right, and paddle down south in the main channel of the big river, back to the starting point.
No “killer light” this time but a thin overcast made for some soft light. The slough has not much traffic and the wildlife feels obviously comfortable as long you will approach it slowly. This adult Bald Eagle saw me probably already when I came around a bend of Johnson Slough and when I was still more than 200 yards away. It is a lot easier to make a click during winter season, when open water dictates where Bald Eagles will fish and a lot of migrating eagles are present. At this time of the year you only find the birds that nest along the Mississippi River. Sure enough, shortly after I took this picture I saw a juvenile bird changing locations just on the opposite side of the slough.
Hey, 15 years ago, while still living in my home country of Germany, I knew Bald Eagles (Weisskopf-Seeadler) only from TV or nature magazines. Seeing them now any time we want here in the Mississippi Valley is the result of smart decisions for their protection after they have been almost extinct. Reading about that the current administration has 36 proposals to change the ESA (Endangered Species Act), of which nearly one-third are expected to have at least partially negative impacts on conservation, makes me sick. I just hope the people with a broader view about the future of this country have the longer arm.
It all came together this evening after a four hour paddle tour on the Mississippi River and upstream into the Little Maquoketa River. Almost back at the sandy boat launch of Mud Lake Park I saw this Green Heron hunting for little fish at an opening in the dyke that separates the main river and the backwaters of Mud Lake.
The cousin of the Green Heron, the Great Blue Heron, is easy to find in the Mississippi Valley and I make only a click if the light has some quality or if there is an outstanding gesture or location. The Green Heron is not present in such high numbers and it is a very skittish bird. On my way out today I saw several birds, but the only reason I saw them was the fact that they took off and flew away before I even was in a range of 50 yards.
I don’t know why this heron accepted my presence in the boat so well, but it did. I had our dog Cooper in the cockpit but he stayed calm and quiet as usual. When approaching a bird or critter I usually give the kayak a push with the paddle before I grab the camera and just hope for the best. The current in the river at this location pushed me away from the bird several times and I had to paddle again for another chance to make a few clicks. This heron must have known that I waited for this moment since several years. As I said, it all came together, oh boy, I wished I could say this a lot more often…😉
Summer has passed its peak and most birds are done with their offspring. Not so the House Wrens. Mother wren has incubated a second clutch of eggs and is currently feeding her babies in a gourd that hangs from our porch. We have two bird boxes for the wrens in the front yard but it isn’t the first time that they use a different location for the second brood. Usually we see both parents feeding but this time the male hasn’t shown up at the nest yet, although he is still around. Maybe as the little birds grow during the next days, and more food is needed, he might support the effort.
It was raining this evening and there wasn’t much light available. I just played around with the camera for some practice and was surprised that even a halfway sharp image turned out. This was shot with 1/20s at 600mm. The female wren checks the surroundings carefully before she flies up to the entrance hole of the gourd with the much needed food.
When you live in the woods it is inevitable that ones in a while a critter enters the house without a particular invitation. I have helped numerous birds over the years to reobtain their freedom after they couldn’t find the open door again through which they had entered the house.
Knocked over decorations on a window sill told us already a few days ago that something is in the house that shouldn’t be there, but we couldn’t find any suspect. Yesterday I finally found this Little Brown Bat sitting on the floor, looking pretty powerless. I put a leather glove over my hand and a minute later the bat was in the grass behind the house. Bats are nocturnal and don’t usually fly during the day. The poor critter tried to reach a dark spot under the rack for the garden hose and moved on the ground while I tried to take a picture of it. After an hour it was gone and is hopefully in a better and safer spot.
Here are some facts I have found at different sources on the web: The Little Brown Bat (Myotis Lucifugus) is the most common bat in North America and can be found even in Alaska. As already mentioned, these bats are nocturnal and sleep or groom during the day. A single bat can eat up to 1000 mosquitos during only one hour! Bats are not aggressive by nature and unless you are threatening them they won't act aggressively toward you. Most bats are quite timid and prefer to avoid people.
Little Brown Bats are now at a higher threat due to white-nose syndrome (WNS) in eastern North America. White-nose syndrome is caused by the fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which affects bats during hibernation. WNS is estimated to have killed more than 5.5 million bats in the Northeast and Canada. In some sites, 90 to 100 percent of bats have died (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, 2015). Many states have made special considerations with respect to the disease, including listing them as a sensitive or protected species. Canada has listed them as an endangered species. It is estimated that 94% of the population in the eastern half of the country has died over the last few years from WNS, and the disease is moving westward at a rate that may see them extirpated within as little as 12 years.
We are just back from another paddle / camping weekend. This time we paddled a nice tour on the Northern Raccoon River near Jefferson in Central Iowa. Last night we were joined by our grandsons and their dad in our camp at Squirrel Hollow County Park, a wooded area next to the Raccoon River. This was the first time for the twins to camp in a tent and I can tell you, they had a blast. An unwritten rule of camping is that the household chores are shared. We didn’t have to point that out this morning to Anthony and Teegan. They were eager to grab the empty water canisters, walk across the whole campsite to the location of the water faucet, and fill them with daddy’s help.
When we watched the boys walking away, the sun just appeared over the top of the oaks in the forest and made their blond hair standing out. I ran to the car, grabbed the camera, and made this early morning shot of this memorable moment.
The help didn’t stop there. According to their dad Danny, they insisted and carried the full jugs all the way back.
There is a German saying, “Wer gut arbeitet soll auch gut essen!” (Who works good, should eat good!). Oma Joan feeds the boys Pflaumenmus-Brötchen (plum jam bread). Looks a little messy but tastes soooo good! Can’t think of a better morning…
This afternoon we were invited to an early birthday party for the boys. On Monday they will be three years old. Happy Birthday Anthony and Teegan!
This shot with soft light and reflections on the water suggest a quiet, romantic location, just a few minutes before sunset, right? But nothing of the above was true. Behind the belt of reeds is a busy highway where people headed home from work or shopping. The noise level was not bad but definitely not quiet and the sunset was still 45 minutes away.
The steep bluffs of the Mississippi Valley make the sun disappear a little earlier, hence the blue reflections from the sky on the water. The light is nevertheless very warm and by watching the white balance settings in camera and underexpose by one f-stop we can romance the photo to the final result. Shooting from across the pond and keeping any distracting element from the highway out of the frame was possible by using the Nikon Nikkor 70-200, f/4 at 200 mm. No magic, just using what the camera has to offer…