The skies had cleared yesterday morning and the air was crisp and clear. The snow still sticked to the trees on the ridge above our house. The branches of the little red cedar in the foreground were bent under the load of snow and the morning sun made for a nice contrast. Winter can be nice around here…

Nikon D750, Nikon Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm, f/4G ED VR,  @70mm, 1/400s, f/8, ISO100


Another snow storm hit the area today and because it was snowing all day long we didn’t start shoveling until late afternoon. Instead the camera was placed on a tripod and I wanted to do some storytelling about the critters out there that try to make a living in these weather conditions.

Another layer of snow on top what’s already out there makes our Eastern Gray Squirrels desperate. If they still have food stashed away, like hickory nuts or acorns, it is probably buried deep under old frozen snow. It’s easier for them to search for dropped sunflower seeds near a bird feeder or just take possession of the whole feeder if possible.

We do not have natural grown conifers, like spruces or firs, in our woods, but we have our 2018 Christmas tree in the front yard and it makes a perfect hideaway for the Dark-eyed Juncos, finches, or sparrows.

Apropos storytelling, next Sunday I do my slideshow “Storytelling in Wildlife Photography” again. The “Friends of the Mines of Spain” have invited me to be the presenter at their Sunday program next weekend. If you missed the first one last November, or if you live in or around the Tri-State area of Dubuque, Iowa, please mark your calendar and join me for this presentation.

Sunday, February 24, 2019, at 1:00 PM


E.B. Lyons Interpretive Center, 

Mines of Spain Recreation Area

8991 Bellevue Heights 

Dubuque, IA

My presentation will touch the questions below, and hey, we can discuss your ideas and thoughts as well afterwards.

How to start with wildlife photography, even with a small camera and lens?

What are good locations for wildlife shooting in and around the Mississippi Valley?

How to become better storytellers with our photos?

How about safety and ethics?

The program is free and I would be happy to see you.


Female Purple Finch

As already mentioned in my last blog post, Sunday was a gray day but I spent some time in the “front yard studio” and practiced long lens shooting technique. We have lots of birds visiting our feeders with all the snow on the ground at the moment and I tried a few new things. Shooting directly from the front porch is not a valid approach right now. Sure, some “regulars” will still come close but the majority of our feathered friends stays away. I have the camera on tripod inside the bedroom (like in a blind) and since it was not as cold as earlier in January, the window was open. Because the window is 8-9 feet away from the edge of the porch I loose that much distance to my subjects, the little birds on one of the perch branches. To make up for that I attached the 1.4 teleconverter to the Sigma 150-600 S, which gives me an effective focal length of 850 mm. The best f-stop I can get is f/9 and that bares quite a challenge. The good thing is that the Sigma 1.4 and 150-600 S combination still works with autofocus, as long some contrast is provided to focus on. Both birds, the female Purple Finch and the Dark-eyed Junco have lines with contrast on their chest to lock on the focus. No, it doesn’t always work, autofocus is slow and the birds never stay long in the same spot.

Dark-eyed Junco

The rest is easy. I use the MAGMOD MagBeam flash extender to throw a hint of light at the birds in order to overcome the gray overcast and bring out their colors. The Nikon D750 is capable of separating the exposure compensation for the ambient light and for the flash and after a few tests I found the right combinations.

Junco: camera +0.33EV, flash -3EV

Finch: camera -0.33 EV, flash -3EV

Having the roof of the porch for most of the distance between camera and the birds has the advantage that the flash will not hit a lot of snow flakes if used during snow fall. I like to have falling snow in the picture but too much reflection can ruin the shot.

Both images: 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,    @ 850 mm, 1/200s, f/9, ISO200


Nikon D750, Carl Zeiss Distagon T*, 35mm / f2 ZF

I’m glad Joan, dog Cooper, and I went out on a drive along the Mississippi River yesterday. It was soooo nice to have the sun out again for a few hours. Today the sky is covered with a uniform gray overcast again, it snows a little bit, and just makes the “cabin fever” raising again…

During part of the trip we went on the Illinois side of the big river and after the kiss of the polar vortex and now temperatures still below freezing the river is covered with ice for the most part. We explored some new wetlands and discussed the possibilities we would have there during the upcoming warmer seasons. I had all my lenses in the car and decided for the one I had recently most neglected. The Zeiss Distagon T* 2/35 is the only lens I own with nothing but manual focus. Most of the time I rely on autofocus for my photography. Eye sight isn’t getting better with age and I think there is nothing wrong with employing AF and the high tech we pay for if we buy a new lens or camera. However, the sharpness of the Zeiss 2/35 is fantastic but the main reason I love this lens so much is how it reproduces the colors. The snow is hard and crusty right now and I wanted to bring this out in the shot, taken at some backwaters of the Mississippi. The subtle changes of tones on the old melted and re-frozen snow in combination with the long shadows of grass in the mid afternoon sun tell hopefully the story of a gorgeous February day. Still love this lens…


Winter holds us in its claws but every day is a little different than the one before. Yesterday we had some icy rain and most of the oaks around here were still covered with a glass-like ice layer today. This afternoon I stepped outside for a couple minutes and exposed myself to the cold wind. The low sun made the branches shining like silver and this was of course my subject for this artsy-fartsy picture.

Nikon D750, Nikon Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm, f/4G ED VR, @70mm, 1/100s, f/29, ISO100


This shot wasn’t exactly intended when it was made during the very cold days we had last week. Two Downy Woodpeckers (out of actually ten!) had an argument about who can eat first at one of our suet feeders. It was made during the late afternoon, it was snowing, and light was fading away quickly. I shot at 1/50 s, nothing unusual for me even with the long lens, but that was definitely too slow for this outburst of energy between the two birds. Stories can be told in different ways and motion blur is one tool I like to explore more. I think I I like the outcome…


During the last few weeks I watched several KelbyOne online classes by photographer and Nikon Ambassador Dave Black about painting with light. That is something that has interested me since a long time but I have never tried it before. If you are not living in the Midwest of the United States you heard it at least in the media, it was really cold here lately, thanks to a polar vortex, and I guess long cold winter nights are perfect for starting such a new photography adventure.

I tell you upfront, it looks easy when you watch the video classes but I had more than 30 attempts before I had results that reflected what I had in mind. I wanted to keep it simple and used just the turntable and a couple of my favorite vinyl records as a background for my first lightpainting project. The light source was a LED flashlight with a very bluish color. I wanted a cold light for this photo but it was a little too much and so I countered it by setting the white balance in the Nikon D750 to 10,000 Kelvin. I attached a little snoot, made out of paper, to the head of the lamp in order to give the light more direction and not spill it all over the place while painting. The room was pitch dark, the shutter was open for 30 seconds at f/20 and I started painting. It takes a little while to find out how much light every element in the frame needs and at the end there is no two photos that look alike.

The learning curve is steep and it is easy to make mistakes that ruin the whole photo. Sounds like a lot of work, but it was instead much fun and a very satisfying process. The possibilities for painting with light are endless and I’m sure even after this polar vortex has weakened, there is another cold winter night waiting for me to start another project…

Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-120mm / f4, Induro GIT 404XL tripod, RRS BH-55 ballhead, @ 48mm, 30s, f/20, ISO100


Male Hairy Woodpecker

Four of the seven woodpecker species we find here in the woods above the Little Maquoketa River Valley are regular visitors to our bird feeders. At times with lots of snow and very cold temperatures, as we have right now, the competition over the food and feeding times is always on.

Female Northern Flicker

Size matters and if a Northern Flicker with its long bill wants to eat, everybody else has to wait in line. We count at least four different flickers.

The Hairy Woodpeckers do not visit as often as the other species and they are the most difficult ones to photograph. They are high in the ranks with their long bill and they can be very vocal. We see at least one pair and an immature bird.

Female Red-bellied Woodpecker

Since we live here up on the bluffs the Red-bellied Woodpeckers have been a pleasure to watch every year. They may argue with a Hairy Woodpecker about the best spots, because they are similar in size, but if a flicker wants to feed, they go back to a waiting position. We see two adults and a couple immature red-bellies, who were born last year.

Male Downy Woodpecker

The smallest one of the bunch is the Downy Woodpecker. They look very similar to a Hairy Woodpecker but they are much smaller in size. As you can imagine the downys always have to leave a suet feeder if one of the bigger birds decides to eat. They are the first ones in the morning and still feed when all the other woodpeckers are gone at dusk. Usually we see 5-6 birds at the same time around the house but a week ago, when we received the first big snow of the season, we counted 10 different Downy Woodpeckers, which is a new record this year.


Northern Cardinal

I have three photos and three little stories or thoughts for you today. It all accumulated during this week as much as the snow did here on the bluffs above the Little Maquoketa River Valley.

All three pictures were made in the ‘backyard studio’, which means around the house. I did a “mini class” on bird photography with speed light during our “flash workshop” at the last meeting of the Dubuque Camera Club. However, no flash was used to boost colors this time because the giant reflector, called ‘snow’, took over this function. I was really happy to see some great results on social media of other photographers who applied some of the ideas I taught to their own photography (John Leicht, you are on the right track!).

This Northern Cardinal is part of the gang, joining us every morning and evening. Not a great gesture, but look at the shaft of light that hits this fellow during sunset time…

Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker (hybrid?)

I have photographed this guy before. Usually male Yellow-shafted Northern Flickers have a  deep black mustache but this must be a hybrid between a red-shafted (hence the red mustache) and the yellow shafted Northern Flicker (hence the yellow undertail). Not really uncommon, but the line where both races overlap is usually much further west. Any thoughts from other birders about this topic are more than welcome.

American Robin

When I moved to this country almost 15 years ago and started to learn about the birds of North America I quite often heard, the American Robin migrates and we don’t see them here in this part of the Midwest during the winter. The reappearance in March, or even April, was celebrated as a sure sign of spring by many people. I thought this was true for a long time, but during the last 4-5 years I have always seen American Robins during the winter. This season, now with temperatures way below 0ºF (-16ºC), the robins still come to the water sources we provide. A bird will show up only at feeders if either food, water, and/or exceptional safety are nearby. In case of the robins, they don’t eat really any of the food we provide. Ones in a great while I see an American Robin feeding on a suet feeder that we have out there for the woodpeckers. What draws them in is the abundance of juniper berries from the Red Cedars that grow on the limestone bluffs above the valley here. I guess this kind of food must make them very thirsty…. I refilled both of our bird baths with more than a gallon of water (2x 3.87 liters) today. Sure, part of it is the low humidity, letting the water evaporate more quickly, but it is amazing how much liquid these birds can consume within a short period of time.


Female Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker

About a foot (30cm) of snow came down last night on top of what we already got over the weekend. In the morning after the snow fall it is essential to make sure all the bird feeders are filled and the bird baths have fresh and clean water. I don’t show many pictures that have a bird feeder or bath in the frame but I make an exception if a species that we don’t see all the time visits or, like in this case, the light is out of the ordinary. Last Sunday this female Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker posed against the rising steam and the morning light backlit the lady nicely. I shot this through the glass door of the balcony and therefore didn’t use a fill flash. In post process I just lifted the shadows a little bit and brought the highlights a tad down for the final image.

Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM S, Induro GIT 404XL tripod, Induro GHB2 gimbal head,    @350 mm, 1/400s, f/6, ISO400


Horseshoe Bluff, Mines of Spain, Dubuque, Iowa

Joan and I went on a little hike yesterday into the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area, located just south of downtown Dubuque, Iowa, and enjoyed the sun and fresh powder snow. We hiked through the old lime stone quarry and climbed up to an overlook. From there you can see up and down the Mississippi. Finally the big river had started to freeze over, although we saw still some open water in the main channel. The late afternoon sun on Horseshoe Bluffs made a good color contrast to the sky and blue reflections on the snow. Once I found a good position it was an easy click. Yes, it was cold but I call this a perfect winter day…


European Barn Owl

Yesterday I promised you to show some pictures from the 31st annual Bald Eagle Watch at the Grand River Center in Dubuque, Iowa. This family event celebrates the American Bald Eagle with bird programs, children’s activities, and a lot of information. I attended the event at the information table of the Dubuque Camera Club but also tried to educate myself and network with members of other conservation and nature organizations.

This year the World Bird Sanctuary from Valley Park, Missouri showed their program ‘Live birds of prey!’. Their mission is to preserve, protect, and inspire to safeguard bird species as part of the global community for future generations. They had a variety of owls, hawks, and eagles from Europe, Africa, and America. Most of them are unable to live on their own in the wild, mostly due to human interference in their earlier part of life. We heard stories about illegal animal trading and a mortality rate of 90% as a result. Much needs to be done to educate people about the fatal consequences of wild animal trading.

Bald Eagle

You can take as many pictures as you want during the program but using a flashlight is not permitted. I used the Nikon D750 with Nikon Nikkor 70-200, f/4 lens attached, wide open at f4 and camera set to ISO1600 the whole time. My shutter speed was between 1/15s and 1/80s for the most part. The young presenters of the bird sanctuary moved slowly around with the birds and of course the birds don’t sit still either. With other words, a great challenge and opportunity to practice handholding technique for photographers. I was at Bald Eagle Watch for the third time and it was again an interesting and joyful event. If you missed it, take your whole family next year…


Pine Siskin, Little Maquoketa River Valley, Iowa

A couple notable things happened today. First, we got our first real snow storm of the season last night. About eight inches of the white stuff hit the ground here on our bluffs above the Little Maquoketa River Valley, followed by sunshine this morning and I bet there is no nature photographer that would complain about that. The second was ‘Eagle Watch Day’, one of my favorite educational events here in Dubuque, Iowa, and I will show some photos for this part of the day tomorrow.

With the fresh snow came all the birds to the feeders and the two bird baths we provide. Not always seen and only here in the winter is the Pine Siskin. This photo was taken in the ‘backyard studio’, to be more precise on our balcony. I didn’t scoop the snow on the deck because I want the gorgeous light from underneath for my bird photography. During the last few years we had actually an elm growing very close to the balcony in the backyard. This makes for a perfect perch for the birds before they enter any of the feeders and this fast growing tree has been quite often a great stage for bird photography. However, the little branch you see in this picture is mounted to the reeling of the balcony, right next to a bird bath and a feeder with sunflower seeds. Shameless trick? I don’t think so. The birds will come to the feeders no matter what, unless a hawk is around the house, but this little perch allows me to make a photo even through the glass of the balcony door with a good background. Ok, this may not be always exciting, but if we don’t practice long lens technique as much as we can, we will never make the click that we always hope to make one of these days…


Dark-eyed Junco

I’m not the only one who complains on social media about having the ‘cabin fever’ at the moment. The gray weather and lack of sunshine wear me down, with other words, I haven’t used my camera much outdoors lately. The time with daylight is still short and there isn’t much light left after work if the sun is hidden behind a thick layer of clouds. Well, we expect some snow here in the next couple days and maybe that will be a game changer. I love shooting in the snow.

The good part is that I have time to re-organize my photo library, a project I want to get done before spring arrives, and that’s where I came across this picture of a Dark-eyed Junco in the beautiful light of a clear winter day.

Speaking of social media, I started to share some of my photos on Instagram. You can find me there  @exnerimages . This is another way to fight the ‘cabin fever’ and get inspiration from other photographers and all kinds of creative people.