NATURE CLICKS #435 - BROWN SNAKE


It has been 10 years and one month ago since a Brown Snake was in front of my lens. I have lamented numerous times about the fact that we hardly see any snakes anymore around here, probably due to snake fungal disease (SFD). This photo is a few days old, because I was out of town for business, but my excitement hasn’t really settled yet. This is not a photo for winning an award, but for me it is a very important documentary shot.

While filling a hummingbird feeder in the front yard I discovered this snake between our Brown-eyed Susan sunflowers. Brown Snakes are primarily woodland snakes and eat earthworms, insect larvae, and slugs. They are docile and harmless.

The problem with making this photo was finding a “window” between all the flowers where nothing obstructed at least the head of the snake. This looks easy but a little wind made things moving around the snake and I have several shots where this was just not the case.

AGAIN: 10 OF SOUL (PART 1)


People know me maybe as a nature photographer, and I guess my love for music and performance has been in the second row, at least here in the blog. Last Friday I couldn’t resist. Dubuque hosted again “Dubuque and… All That Jazz!”, a concert series that takes place downtown once a month during the summer. Great bands , well organized, and a good way to finish the week. The act last week was 10 OF SOUL from Minneapolis, MN, a band I had photographed already in 2014 and 2015. Eleven musicians played soul, funk, and blues. The crowd enjoyed their performance very much, many people danced and it was a great party atmosphere again.

I waited until it almost got dark before I took the camera out of the bag. No dealing with buildings, antennas, or wires in the background this way. Other years in the past the SIGMA 150, f/2.8 was used but last Friday I had the Nikkor 70-200, f/4 on camera. Yes, this costs a full stop of light, but I really like the versatility, and looking at the metadata at home revealed that almost every focal length between 70 and 200 mm was used this evening. I shot the lens wide open at f/4 the whole time and just changed my exposure compensation according to what scene I had in the viewfinder. The light intensity and color changes constantly during a concert, depending how crazy the guys behind the mixer work. I prefer to process the images in black & white for my concert photography. It appeals to me more than a crazy color mix due to ever-changing spot lights.

Special thank you to the members of the band for letting me shoot from every direction, including the backstage area!

Six photos today and maybe a few more later this week of this great music event…

ON THE PERCH


Male juvenile Ruby-throated Hummingbird

It is just relaxing to sit at the edge of the porch in the evening and aim the lens at one of our numerous hummingbirds. Today we had a slight overcast with occasional appearance of the sun. To me ideal for hummingbird photography. This time the Micro softboxes were not used as a light modifier and instead the MAGMOD Magbeam flash extender on a flash bracket above the lens was employed. Click on the link “WHAT’S IN THE CAMERA BAG?” if you like to see how this setup works. A hint of flash is concentrated on the bird and the reflected light boosts the colors, even with a gray overcast. The tricky part is to dose the amount of flash and balance it with the ambient light, so it is not apparent that a flash light was used and the bird looks like a “Christmas tree”.

Some of the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds show more character in their behavior than others. This juvenile male doesn’t even have the ruby throat yet but acted like the “neighborhood bully” at one of our feeders. Hummingbirds are very territorial and obviously that starts at an early age. As photographers we can use that behavior to our advantage. The bird returns frequently to the same perch, in this case the stem of a maple leaf. From the perch they can observe what they believe is “their feeder” and start attacks against intruders, most likely their siblings and in-laws.

1/60 s, f/6.3, ISO 320, @600 mm, -1/3 EV, flash -3.3 EV,  with 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.

MISSISSIPPI RIVER STORIES 2019 #09 - ARRIVAL OF CELEBRATION BELLE


Ice Harbor, Mississippi River, Dubuque, Iowa

Great clouds, combined with a short rain shower, made for good shooting conditions this evening at the Ice Harbor in Dubuque, Iowa. I took our dog Cooper for a walk on the dyke, a little further north of this place. Well, I call it a “dog walk” but sometimes he just sits patiently next to me while I’m fiddling with the camera on tripod. I tell you what, he probably understands how photography works… 😊

While taking a few shots of the old railroad bridge that crosses the Mississippi over to Wisconsin, I suddenly saw the CELEBRATION BELLE coming up the river from LeClaire, Iowa and taking a turn towards the harbor. We jumped into the car and drove down the short distance. It takes time to maneuver this big boat through the small entry and flood gates of Ice Harbor, giving me enough time to find a good position. The TWILIGHT was also docked in the port and I rushed to find a shooting position where both Mississippi River boats and the clouds would line up perfectly. The spot was found while the first passengers exited the CELEBRATION BELLE. The image was made with the Nikkor 16-35, f/4 at 16 mm focal length and the BREAKTHROUGH 2-stop GND filter attached. The rain shower earlier made the wood of the pier wet and darker. It takes out the glare and makes the pier a good part of the composition that doesn’t compete with the bright subjects in this photo.

NATURE CLICKS #434 - TIGER SWALLOWTAILS


Male Tiger Swallowtail, Little Maquoketa River Valley, Iowa

It has been a good year so far with the butterfly population in our woods here on top of the bluffs above the Little Maquoketa River Valley. We see a nice variety and overall numbers are better than during some other years. The stars of the bunch are always the three different species of swallowtails.

Female Tiger Swallowtail, black form

Friday night I saw a male Tiger Swallowtail interacting with another black looking swallowtail. First I thought he was fighting with a Black Swallowtail, a species we see here as well, but after it landed on one off our house plants it became clear that it was a female Tiger Swallowtail. I guess love was in the air. Males are always yellow while the females can be yellow or black. The yellow form is pretty common while black females are found more southwards according to my books. The last time I had one in front of the lens was 2015.

Both photos were made with the long lens at 600 mm (SIGMA 150-600 Sport), because I was actually on the hunt for hummingbirds. Like with my other wildlife photography I prefer to make an environmental portrait. Though I feel it is not so important to count every little hair, the insect still has to be sharp.

OUT OF THE HOUSE


Today around 10:30AM I heard the House Wrens intensively calling while I worked in my office. They just didn’t deliver any food to the nest box in the flower bed of our front yard anymore. I ran downstairs and saw #1 leaning out of the hole but still hesitating. I knew immediately that the time was right and that the little chicks would follow the calls of their parents and leave the nest. The camera was already in position on the porch, ready to shoot.

At 10:37AM #1 finally jumped out of the upper hole, tried briefly to hang on to the wall of the box, and landed on the perch of the lower hole. From there it jumped to nearby bushes, through the grass, and made it safely into the woods where the parents called frenetically.

#2 followed shortly after. #3 didn’t hesitate at all and flew straight into the woods to the parents. I had a look at them from the distance when suddenly a #4 showed up next to me and joined the whole gang in the trees.

This is a photo still from yesterday. The parents had chosen a good time for raising this gang of four little House Wrens. During the last 17 days we had nice weather and there was food in abundance. Here it is a spider but we saw lots of caterpillars, moths, and crickets disappearing in the hungry bills of the juvenile House Wrens.

FEEDING TIME AT THE NEST BOX


Friends of the blog have asked already how the little House Wrens in the nest box doing. The parents feed since July, 23rd and as you can see the size of the food is getting bigger. We know for sure that we have at least three little chicks in the box. I shot a few pictures yesterday morning and I liked this one in particular. It’s always hard to tell what’s on the menu because the feeding happens very fast. But here the shadow on the white wall reveals that a cricket was stuffed into the open bill. The new generation makes a lot of noise if the parents arrive with food but in a few days it will be quiet and the little wrens will have left the nest.

WEEKEND ON THE WATER


Cox Hollow Lake, Governor Dodge State Park, Wisconsin, Nikon D750, Nikkor 16-35mm / f4, Breakthrough GND filter 0.6

On the list of our favorite spots to spend a warm or hot summer day is Governor Dodge State Park in Wisconsin. This is about an hour away from home. This wooded area has two lakes and although man-made, they remind me a lot of places in Norway or Sweden I have visited years ago.

Joan had to work yesterday and so it was just “kayak dog” Cooper and myself who went on a paddle tour on Cox Hollow Lake. No camera was on board at all! Today we repeated the tour but this time Joan launched her kayak as well. The lake has pretty clear water and swimming was of course on the agenda both days. We know a good spot, away from the busy beaches this lake has to offer, where we can land the boats and go for a swim.

I had two lenses in the boat, the SIGMA 150/f2.8 Macro and the Nikkor 16-35, f/4. The SIGMA macro lens was used for some shots of dragonflies and for the image below. For the photo above the new Breakthrough GND 0.6 filter was employed and delivered just what I had in mind after my observations the day before. Luckily we had the same kind of puffy clouds again, with great reflections on the water and a little bit of blue sky for a nice color contrast. At 16 mm focal length Joan’s blue kayak seems to be far away and Cooper’s head in front of her is just a tiny dot. 

“Kayak dog” Cooper, Nikon D750, Sigma 150mm / f2.8 APO EX DG HSM, in-camera flash

Here is the story behind this photo. Cooper loves to be on the water and in the kayak but he is not really a “water dog”. However, we took him into the water a couple times to cool him off and clean him a little. Oh boy, when Cooper came back to shore he rolled immediately in a pile of pine needles, dust, and sand, just to tell us that our “cleaning efforts” are a hopeless idea…After the second time he climbed on a big rock along the shore and the expression on his face tells it all (at least to us). First, you will never get me down from here again, bastards! Second, I ignore you anyway!… Well, tonight after a delicious chicken dinner, Joan had created on the grill, we were good friends again…😉

HUMMINGBIRDS


Ruby-throated Hummingbird

I spent three hours behind the camera in our front yard this evening and was only after one target: The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds who raise their offspring here during the summer. Inspired by a video famous wildlife photographer Moose Peterson had on his blog, I tried to push the envelope for my own hummingbird photography and tested new ways of lighting the subject. I used two flash lights with a mini soft box for boosting colors but I can tell you, I’m not there yet. These photos are a start.

Here is the idea for today’s shooting. Since the female and young Ruby-throated Hummingbirds do not offer too much color variety I tried to incorporate parts of the surrounding flowers into the background. I thought this works better for the storytelling than just a plain green. Wide open, at f/6.3 and 600 mm, the background is nicely blurred and flowers leave no doubt that the bird is in a perfect environment, with plenty of nectar from host plants, even if our feeders won’t be there.

NATURE CLICKS #433 - PAINTED LADY


Our yard is the feeding ground for many different butterflies, including three different species of swallowtails. They are all here theses days but I still couldn’t resist to point my lens at one of the most common butterflies in North America and even around the world, the beautiful Painted Lady. Joan manages to grow a nice patch of Purple Coneflowers every year in the yard. The butterflies like them and they make for a nice background.

Although a little slow with focus, the 12 years old SIGMA 150, f/2.8 is still sharp as a tack and a macro lens I always have recommended. The newer models have OS (optical stabilization) and probably have faster focus, but I’m sure they are as sharp as the old one in my bag.

Nikon D750, Sigma 150mm / f2.8 APO EX DG HSM, @ 1/800 s, f/8, ISO 400

BACK IN THE WETLANDS (PART 2)


Male American Goldfinch

Here is another photo from yesterday’s trip to the Green Island Wetlands. You can’t miss the goldfinches between the grasses, thistles, and everything that produces seeds. I know, I had a picture here in the blog less than three weeks ago with some facts about this late breeding bird. Click HERE if you have missed it or like to read it again.

BACK IN THE WETLANDS


Family of Pied-billed Grebes, Green Island Wetlands, Iowa

It was about time to go back into the wetlands at Green Island. On a sunny day it doesn’t buy you much to be there before 6:00PM, when the light gets softer and warmer. The water level is still very high but for the first time in months no roads or dykes were flooded and the area was complete accessible again.

I talked to an old farmer in his eighties, who owns land adjacent to the Green Island Wetlands, and he told me that the numbers of ducks and geese are the lowest he has seen in a long time. This might be due to the fact that many nest sites were under water for such a long time and still are.

Well, some life can still be found. There were large families of Wood Ducks and the young Canada Geese have almost adult size. I counted three successful broods of Pied-billed Grebes along the main dyke. The one above is my favorite image of this evening, three little chicks stayed close together while their parents dived for food and delivered promptly when they had success.

Paddling is not the best idea at this time of the year. An abundance of water plants, duck weed, and algae make it difficult to move in the backwaters. We have done that before, it’s not impossible, but the fun of paddling is cut in half to say it mildly. I did not regret to leave the kayak at home. The low sun created some dappled light in the foreground, making the “green mess” not so dominant, and with some puffy clouds in the blue sky the picture got some depth and tells today’s story about a perfect summer day along the Mississippi River.

Trumpeter Swans

About 7:45PM I drove slowly back on the main dyke and this pair of Trumpeter Swans enjoyed the last sun of the day as much as I did. Maybe they just found each other this season. Trumpeter Swans often mate for life and most pair bonds are often formed when they are 5-7 years old. More to come… stay tuned!

IN CAPTIVITY, BUT STORYTELLING


Diamondback Water Snake, Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, Dubuque, Iowa

There is at least one thing that any picture of an animal has to have in common, no matter if it was shot in the wild, or like this one, shot through the thick glass of a terrarium in the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. I’m talking about sharpness, in particular the sharpness of the eye. If the eye is not sharp the image goes to the trash can. Are there exceptions? Of course, as always in life. I have plenty of pictures in my library that will never see the eye of the public because they are not sharp, but I keep them for reference. The photo library is also a diary and can tell us, i.e. what day in late April or early May the migrating birds arrived from South America.

Back to this photo of a Diamondback Water Snake. Until tonight, when I sat in front of the computer screen, I didn’t realize that I had photographed this beautiful snake before in the wild but had mistakenly labeled it as a Northern Water Snake. The body part that reveals the pattern of a Diamondback is from another snake and beside that, I trust the naming of professional biologists still more than my own research. Not a big deal, that’s what museums are for, educational places not just for the young generation.

If you try to find out how the body of this snake is coiled in this picture you may get lost. What you see is the head of one, but underneath were three other snakes, hopefully enjoying location and climate as well. However, the composition of this photo is not an accident. I wanted to have the upper part of the body in a coil, knowing that the blue color of the background will still help to tell the story of a beautiful critter, even if displayed in captivity.

I WISH…


Spiny Softshell Turtle, Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, Dubuque, Iowa

… I can find a Spiny Softshell Turtle one of these days out in the great outdoors. This one is a resident of the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa. More “summer fun” with the grandkids again today and a visit of this great museum is always on the agenda when they visit us.

The softshell turtle’s soft, rubbery, and flat shell makes it easy to distinguish them from other turtles . The long and piglike nose gives the turtle a unique appearance. They are among my favorite critters in the museum and when the day comes I find one in the wild, you will hear from a very happy photographer…

Nikon D750, Nikkor 70-200mm / f4 @ 200 mm, 1/250 s, f/4, ISO 400

SUMMER FUN


We had some summer fun with the grandkids in the backyard this afternoon. Beside “water battles” and other kids entertainment we watched our little House Wrens being fed by their parents, looked at butterflies, and collected acorns and other nature treasures. During a break this small dragonfly caught my eye. I believe it is a Four-spotted Skimmer, but I’m not sure.

I didn’t shoot the SIGMA 150, f/2.8 wide open but at f/4 it still had a very shallow depth of focus. By exposing strictly for the highlights the not so pretty background of our compost bin got thrown out and the dragonfly stands out nicely.

Nikon D750, Sigma 150mm / f2.8 APO EX DG HSM