NATURE CLICKS #432 - HORNED LARK


Male Horned Lark

I haven’t seen and photographed a Horned Lark here in eastern Iowa since more than four years. Before 2015 I never had problems finding them, especially in early spring. The bird is listed as a common bird in steep decline, which underlines my own observations. To my surprise I found a male Horned Lark yesterday and today again on the observation hill at the Dubuque Regional Airport. I saw this bird several times with insects in its bill, and as the second photo shows, they take the bigger ones too. It nurtures my hope that there is a nest somewhere around.

Due to the fact that I was at the airport for making some clicks of the historical airplanes that practice for the big air venture in Oshkosh, WI next week, I didn’t have the tripod out. It helped to stabilize the lens on one of the posts that support the sunroof on the observation deck. The gravel of the parking lot is not really attractive but that’s where the Horned Lark foraged for insects. Although I shot very many pictures of the planes and only a few of the bird, these wildlife photos are important to me and made me very happy.

THE SOUND OF PROP PLANES


During the last couples days the sound of propeller driven airplanes over the house made me aware that it is the time of the year again when pilots with their historical planes get ready and practice for the big airshow next week in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. This evening I went out to the Dubuque Regional Airport and tried to make some clicks. I have done this before during other years and although I’m not really into aviation photography I enjoy these airplanes and take this opportunity for practice of handholding skills with the heavy long lens attached to camera. My keeper rate wasn’t very good today and I hate to come up with tons of excuses, but it was pretty much the lack of practice of my handholding capabilities.

As mentioned in other blog posts over the years before, I like to tell the story of motion with these airplanes and aim for a blurred prop. The only way to get this kind of shot is to stick with a slow shutter speed, means between 1/60 s and 1/200 s. The T6’s flew in formations of four and this was my favorite shot of this evening. But wait, there was some bird present at the observation deck of the airport that I haven’t seen in a long time. But hey, this is for another blog post… 😉

MISSISSIPPI RIVER STORIES 2019 #07 - BEFORE TWILIGHT AND A LOOK AT THE MOON


Mississippi River, Potosi, Wisconsin

Same location as in my last blog post from two days ago. Before the time of twilight the sun has to set, of course, as it happens 365 days a year (but not every day lets us enjoy the twilight time 😉) The view goes to the northwest, the direction where the river comes from, and due to the time of the season the sun sets still over a part of Wisconsin. Our state of Iowa is the small stretch of land on the left hand side, and that may give those of you who are not so familiar with this area an idea how mighty the Mississippi River really is. For shots like this I set the white balance in camera pretty close to 7000 Kelvin. The new Breakthrough 2-stop graduated neutral density filter prevents the blow out of the highlights even in the center of the sun. The real landscape photography gurus may ask, why did you use only a 2-stop filter, if the range of light is asking for three stops or maybe even more.? Yes, I have a 3-stop GND filter (Schneider GND 0.9) and I knew it would have been the proper choice, but I’m still testing the limits of the Breakthrough X4 GND 0.6.

Moon over the river, Potosi, Wisconsin

And here is the other reason to be out there as a photographer, even if it wasn’t really my subject this evening. An almost full moon raised 42 minutes before sunset, pretty much exactly 180 degree on the opposite side. A little too early for the best shot of a moonrise but still good for a picture from the same spot and pointing the lens to the southeast. The exposure time was 0.6 s & f/16, giving the water a nice blur and telling the story about a windy spot by looking at the willow leaves.

I know, family and friends over in Germany often ask me to show more photos of our area. I hope this gives those of you who have never been here, or have a look at my blog from different parts of the world (Hi, Jeanine and Johan in Johannesburg / South Africa) a better perspective if I tell one of my “Mississippi River Stories”. I appreciate every visitor in my blog! Keep sending me message/opinions/questions, etc. 

MISSISSIPPI RIVER STORIES 2019 #06 - STAYING FOR THE TWILIGHT


Mississippi River, Potosi, Wisconsin

I went east, over to the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River this evening. There is a popular spot in Potosi, where a dyke with a gravel road reaches out into the river for about half a mile. At the end is a little parking lot and a boat ramp and you are surrounded by water on three sides. Sometimes it is a great place for wildlife photography but this wasn’t on the agenda this evening. The river makes a bend here and has a northwest to southeast course. Today it was kinda special, because the almost full moon came up in the southeast over the river and the sun set exactly 180 degree on the opposite side. Because the course of the river at this point you can see the sun disappearing behind the trees on the bluffs of the Wisconsin side.

There were some other people coming out for the sunset tonight but only one couple stayed after sunset for the civil and nautical twilight. We got rewarded with a great show in the sky, sunbeams in the northwest and a full moon in the southeast. A little wind made this evening very pleasant, summer doesn’t get much better…

Nikon D750, Nikkor 16-35mm / f4, Induro GIT 404XL tripod, RRS BH-55 ballhead, Vello cable release, Breakthrough GND filter 0.6,   @16 mm, 2.5 s, f/20, ISO100

CHASING CLOUDS AGAIN


Thunderstorm cell moving out, near Sherrill, Eastern Iowa

A little storm cell showed up on the radar this evening and brought finally a few rain showers. I jumped in my car and tried to chase the clouds, hoping for some exciting light and drama in the sky. Well, the clouds dissolved pretty quickly and the big drama didn’t happen. I have photographed this old farm house many times before over the years. It’s condition doesn’t get any better, another reason for not making it the subject of my image, but in context with clouds and landscape it makes sense to include it anyway.

ON THE OLD RAILROAD PATH


Heritage Trail, old railroad path near Durango, Iowa

Another picture from yesterday’s walk on the Heritage Trail in the Little Maquoketa River Valley. The photo from my last blog post was made way in the back behind the couple on bicycles, on the bridge that crosses the river. In the old days when the railroads were built they tried to keep the tracks as straight as possible and blasted away some of the rocks and bluffs that were shaped by the river a long time ago. These hollows make some nice and shady spots on the trail that have a micro climate and can be interesting for finding plants, birds, and critters.

As mentioned in my last blog post, I tried out a new GND filter and even in a situation like this it helps to manage the high dynamic range of the scene.

Nikon D750, Nikkor 16-35mm / f4, Breakthrough 2-stop X4 GND filter

DOWN IN THE VALLEY


Little Maquoketa River, Durango, Iowa

A shot fresh out of camera from this evening. I went down into our Little Maquoketa River Valley to Durango, Iowa, a little village with maybe a dozen homes and the old railroad depot, which is now a bar. The picture was taken from the railroad bridge towards the fork where the Middle Fork Maquoketa River and the Little Maquoketa River meet, only a few miles before their water enters the Mississippi River. The railroad tracks have been removed a long time ago and their path is now a very popular recreation trail, called the Heritage Trail.

I was testing a new 2-stop soft edge graduated neutral density filter and I’m sure after I have more experience with it I will write a little review here in the blog. After the flooding during the last months the river banks don’t look necessarily pretty. A lot of dead wood and debris edges the banks and removing some of the sticks in post process is part of my way to make this landscape picture work. You can see how the GND filter keeps the interesting clouds and the moon on the right hand side intact and leaves good detail and tones in the fore- and middle-ground. Sure, I could lift the dark shadows in post process to reveal more detail in the trees, but this would not benefit the storytelling of this image. This is not a picture with a clear subject but the eye follows the lines of the river, goes to the clouds, maybe the moon, and comes back to the subtle reflections on the water in the foreground. No reason to get lost between dead branches and the mud of the river bank, which are nicely covered in the shadows.

ALL YEAR LONG


American Goldfinch, near Durango, Iowa

Goldfinches breed later than most birds in North America, mostly not before mid-summer. They are vegetarians with almost no exceptions and they rely on plants that provide seeds, like thistle, milkweed, and others. The American Goldfinches are the only finch that molts twice a year. The males get their pretty yellow feathers in late winter and it makes it very easy to identify them even over a long distance. We have them around here in eastern Iowa all year long, but it might not be the same birds that we see during the winter because they migrate.

A good way to attract them to the backyard is by providing a bird bath that is always filled and of course heated during winter time. We don’t see them actually bathing very often but they sure like to drink. Setting up a little perch helps to make a picture without the bird bath in the frame. The gesture of the finch, just ready to jump down to the water source, made me choose this photo for today’s blogpost. Nothing spectacular, but still pretty…

BUSY BLUEBIRD PARENTS


Male Eastern Bluebird, Dubuque, Iowa

A couple days a go I received a call from my photography friend Kevin, inviting me for a backyard shooting at his house in the evening. A pair of Eastern Bluebirds were feeding their offspring, three little chicks in a bird box. Kevin builds nest boxes, not just for his land, also for public places like Swiss Valley. He had set up a nice perch near the nest and all what we had to do was waiting for the parents with some food in their bills. Almost every time they came with insects, larva, or spiders the bluebirds used the perch to observe the surrounding before they safely approached the entrance to the box.

We sat comfortably in lawn chairs behind our tripods, had good conversation, and clicked away when the action took place. The low sun provided relativ soft light and it was not necessary to use any flash for color boost or to fill in the shadows.

Female Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebirds are some of the prettiest birds we have here and they are very photogenic. The blue of the female’s wing feathers is a lot paler than the male’s but both parents put the same efforts in to find enough food for the chicks.

Food supply in abundance

This was the shot Kevin and I were hoping for, both adult bluebirds with food in their bills on the perch at the same time. It happened only once this evening but we used this opportunity. I usually shoot with the long lens wide open at f/6.3 but here I had it set to f/8. This provided of course still not enough depth of field for having both birds in sharp focus. The focus was on the male at the top but the photo summarizes the story of this evening.

It is always fun to shoot together with Kevin and I’m thankful again for sharing a great photo opportunity.

MISSISSIPPI RIVER STORIES 2019 #05 - AN EYE FOR THE LITTLE THINGS


Four-spotted Skimmer, Mississippi River, Mud Lake, Iowa

Here is another photo from our little paddle tour yesterday evening. Of course, if you see a picture of a dragonfly you may think immediately, oh we talk about macro photography today. Well, with 600 mm focal length attached to the camera this is not what it really is. Dragonflies are permanent companions during a paddle trip in the summer on the Mississippi. They are beautiful and I try to include them in my story telling if the setting is right, even if it is not a macro shot. Due to all the rain we had in spring and early summer the vegetation everywhere here in eastern Iowa is lush and green and yellow colors have a strong impact on many photos. The Four-spotted Skimmer can be found here along the river and it wasn’t the first time that I had this dragonfly in front of the lens. Handholding the D750 with the Sigma 150-600 attached is always a challenge, especially in a kayak. The low sitting sun led to a shutter speed of only 1/160s. Not really intended, but having the dragonfly sharp and the water soft and silky made this photo a keeper that I really like.

Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM S   @600 mm, 1/160 s, f/8, ISO200

MISSISSIPPI RIVER STORIES 2019 #04 - BACK ON THE WATER


Painted Turtle, Mississippi River, Mud Lake, Iowa

It is always an enjoyable way to finish the weekend with a paddle tour in the kayak on the Mississippi River. Joan and I took kayak-dog Cooper and the boats down to Mud Lake, the closest access to the big river from our home. Very little wind made the paddling easy and I thought it would help with bird photography, but we didn’t see any within the range of the 600 mm focal length of the Sigma 150-600. Other critters stepped in and let us get close for a photo. Painted Turtles are usually very skittish and slide into the water as soon you come within a 10-20 yards range, but this one didn’t mind our presence at all. I accidentally hit the log it was siting on with the bow of the kayak but this turtle was more than patient and stayed on the piece of driftwood.

Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM S   @600 mm, 1/500 s, f/8, ISO200

BEE BALM, HUMMERS LOVE THEM!


Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird at a Bee Balm

Maybe I have a few days to make a photo like this, maybe not. With flowers you never can predict one hundred percent how long they last. A heavy thunderstorm can bring a quick end to their beauty. The Bee Balm is blooming right now in our front yard and it seems we have more flowers than ever before. Bee Balm is a favorite of the hummingbirds and making a good click while they hover around the flower or drink nectar from its blossom is always a great challenge but also a lot of fun. It takes some patience to be successful. This evening I had periods of time when no bird showed up for 10-15 minutes, instead they preferred one of the hummingbird feeders hanging from the roof of the porch. This is understandable because the resources of each flower are obviously limited. I tried a little trick I learned from other wildlife photographers and sprayed some hummingbird food into the blossom, but I don’t think that has increased the frequency of their visits to a particular blossom. It is the same mixture (4 parts water + 1 part sugar) that we use for our feeders.

This evening I experimented a lot with different settings for exposure and flash compensation and even with some higher ISO settings than I usually apply. Yes, it is a little easier to freeze the action of a hummingbird with a higher ISO setting (today up to 1250) and therefor much faster shutter speed, but I still like the rendering of details much better if the ISO value stays low (100-400).

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,  @ 600 mm, 1/400 s, f/6.3, ISO 1250,

FOLLOWING THE CURVE (PART 2)


If this looks familiar you must have visited my blog a few days ago. Today I tried the same image as a black and white version. I had this in mind when I took the shot but later at home, in front of the computer screen, the play with the color contrast appealed to me as well. Now, with both versions on hand, I think the monochrome version supports the graphic impact of this photo better. The Z-shaped curve of the clouds and the edge of the field are better pronounced.

As much as I like the relativ new B&W presets in Adobe Lightroom Classic, for the finishing of this image I used the well trusted NIK Silver Efex Pro 2. In Lightroom I started with the same Camera RAW settings as for the color version, opened the photo as a Smart Object in Photoshop, and finally applied NIK Silver Efex Pro 2 as a filter. I still love the way how global and local adjustments interact with each other in any program of the NIK Suite. The final touch was made with a subtle dodging and burning layer in PS, mainly in the lower half of the photo.

FOLLOWING THE CURVE


Farm on a hill with clouds, near Sherrill, Iowa

A couple days ago I mentioned I would share another photo from the “cloud chasing” tour that evening. Quite some time ago I made a mental note about this old farm on a ridge not very far from our home here in eastern Iowa. I have driven by several times over the years and always thought this would make a nice foreground or middle ground for a photo with a dramatic looking sky. Well, this week I had my chance. The lush vegetation makes for a nice color contrast to the clouds in the sky. The curved edge of the field leads the eye to the farm structures and from there the curve continues in the sky. Now I’m thinking about a black and white version of the image…

NATURE CLICKS #431 - NORTHERN WATER SNAKE


Here is another image from last weekend. I know, snakes are not everybody’s favorite animal but I was very happy to see this Northern Water Snake crossing our way in the Green Island Wetlands. They are nonvenomous and eat fish, frogs, and salamanders. This was not the biggest one I have ever seen and its color was relativ light and so I assume this was a young adult. Unfortunately the snake population here in eastern Iowa has declined, maybe due to snake fungal disease (SFD). I have written about it here in the blog before.

The water snake was moving very fast and only stopped because we stepped in front of it. With hindsight I think I should have gotten still a little lower on the ground for this photo but overall I’m glad we saw this snake, which seems to become a rare occasion…