Here is a disclaimer. This is not an actual photo, not even from last year, or the year before. The shot was made in 2015 and kept a quiet existence on my hard drive until now. No, there is no lack of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds this year. We actually have a lot of hummers visiting our feeders all day long. Their metabolism is so high, they have to feed every fifteen minutes and they may do it even more frequently with the relative low temperatures we had during the last few days. The Weigela was blooming like every year, with lots of little blossoms, and was a perfect food source for the hummingbirds beside our feeders. But circumstances have not been in my favor, although I tried hard to get some new images. And here is the point I try to make. As photographers we are only as good as our last picture. It doesn’t make sense to publish a new image if its quality isn’t at least as good as the last one if the story we try to tell with the photo is the same.
I try to visit the Green Island Wetlands at least once a week and one thing hasn’t changed during the last few weeks, the extreme high water level. The main road is still partly under water and closed for all through traffic, making it a dead end. I used that to my advantage and drove slowly on the left hand side (yep, like the British do), the camera in my lap and eyes and ears wide open. Oh, there were many warblers singing in the trees but spotting them is not that easy. The leaves have full size now and even if you see a bird doesn’t mean you have a photo opportunity. This male Yellow Warbler sat in a dead tree and sang his heart out. I cropped the photo because getting closer was no option, the tree stood in the water.
Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM S
I still remember when I saw the first Trumpeter Swans 2010 here in eastern Iowa. A year later it was great excitement to report about the first cygnet that had just hatched in a nest at the Mill Creek Ponds near Bellevue, Iowa. Every year since I return to this location in a side valley of the Mississippi and have witnessed the restoration of a bird that was once common in Iowa, but was gone from the state by the late 1880’s.
Every time during the day is probably a good time to watch the largest waterfowl in North America. It is not uncommon anymore to see Trumpeter Swans in and around the upper Mississippi Valley. The late afternoon or early evening on a day with blue sky is definitely the best time at the Mill Creek Ponds if you like to make a photograph. The warm and low light of the sun brings some structure to the feathers without risking overexposure of the image.
Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM S, Induro GIT 404XL tripod, Induro GHB2 gimbal head
Last night I watched a congregation of about 45-50 Great Egrets in the Green Island Wetlands. Today I do what I normally wouldn’t do, I post a picture that doesn’t meet my own criteria for being published, but I like to show you why a good wildlife observation may not lead automatically to a great image. The egrets were standing pretty close together. There was a lot of interactions between the birds and plenty of great gestures could be captured with the camera. The problem was the terrain, the sticks and stalks from last year’s vegetation that made it difficult to predict a shot and most important, to separate a bird from all the clutter on the ground. The picture below gives you an idea what I mean. There is not a clear subject, even if the incoming egret and the one on the left, who reacts to the arrival of another food competitor, are sharp. There is too much distraction in the picture and even cropping of the image would not have helped much to make this more than a documentary shot.
Believe me, I take these pictures anyway because they are my diary for future reference and for my own memories. It was clear that it needs separation, maybe not necessarily from other birds, but definitely from the clutter of old vegetation. and that’s why the photo above is my favorite of yesterday’s shooting in the wetlands.
Yes, it does not just looks like it, the Eastern Kingbird actually regurgitated pellets of insect exoskeletons while I took a burst of images. While here in its breeding grounds during the summer, the Eastern Kingbird eats mostly flying insects. In the winter along the Amazon in Brazil, however, it has a completely different lifestyle: it travels in flocks and eats fruit. (source: allaboutbirds.org)
The Eastern Kingbird is a summer resident in the Green Island Wetlands, Iowa but I have seen them at several other places along the Mississippi River or in side valleys. I have photographed them on many different occasions, but what I have not managed yet is a photo with a crown of yellow, orange, or red feathers on its head, that is usually concealed. When it encounters a potential predator the kingbird may simultaneously raise its bright crown patch, stretch its beak wide open to reveal a red gape, and dive-bomb the intruder.
Any time I take a picture of a critter or bird and like to share it here in the blog I try to educate myself by reading about the species. The sources are endless these days. Beside a number of good guide books in the home library we can use apps on our cell phones, or some really good websites. One I can highly recommend to my fellow wildlife photographers is allaboutbirds.org from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
And this all seems to be an endless cycle for the bird lover and photographer. Like in the case of the Eastern Kingbird, I read about its concealed crown feathers and now I’m motivated and fired up to look for this moment and capture it on “digital film”…
I have been in Green Island during the last couple weekends and the situation is different than at any other time before. Due to the very high water level some parts parts of the wetlands are not accessible by car because the main road is flooded. The surrounding fields are also under water and much of the waterfowl can be found outside of the boundaries of the wildlife management area and the bird refuge. Well, there is still plenty to see and with open eyes you may find a bird that is not always in the front row.
This was only the second time that I found a Yellow-billed Cuckoo in the wetlands. This bird came all the way from South America where they spend the winter. The cuckoo moved around in a small grove of willows and picked up caterpillars, its preferred food. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get closer and so I cropped this photo to make it work.
As its latin name implies, the Gray Tree Frog is able to change colors from gray to green, depending on the substrate where they sit. This little guy announced his presence with loud calls from our flower bed in the front yard. We hear several tree frogs in our woods since a few weeks and sometimes they choose the house plants we have outside as their residence during the summer. This one is a male because the females don’t call.
It is an easy task to make a photo of the American White Pelican while they swim almost motionless against the current in the Mississippi River or just drift along. It is a perfect bird to practice shooting techniques and proper long lens handling. If nothing else, our story telling with the final photo can always be about a majestic bird that is at home on the Mississippi River.
Wednesday night I saw this guy messing with something big in the water and soon it became clear that the pelican tried to swallow a giant carp. I don’t think the carp was dead, but it was definitely somehow impaired and didn’t defend itself aggressively. The story ended with the pelican giving up, not able to swallow the big fish, even after he tried hard several times. What I saw beside the the bird trying to eat, was the gorgeous light, great colors, and the reflections on the water. Just another “Mississippi River Story” that needed to be told…
Remember, I talked about several times before over the years that we see some birds here in our woods above the Little Maquoketa River Valley only for a few days in early May. One of them is the Red-headed Woodpecker, but to my surprise this bird showed up again yesterday evening. This makes me wonder if this guy will stick around during the summer. I haven’t seen a second one, a potential partner, like in other years, and maybe it was just the cold weather that we see a different pattern in migration. Other species, like the Scarlet Tanager or the Orchard Oriole, are also still present in larger numbers than usual. Not such a bad thing for the photographer but it puts up the question why this is all different this year…?
I have been out of town for a few days but I guess I didn’t miss much in regards of wildlife photography. It was rainy and cold here. It warmed up today and this evening, after my return, I took our dog for a much needed exercise down to the Mississippi River. The water level is almost back to normal and Mud Lake Park is open again. Some dirt and debris is still evidence from the recent weeks of flooding.
The month of May was relatively cold overall and I had already concerns about the many flycatchers species, who spend the summer here and depend so much on flying insects. It was nice to see an Eastern Wood-Pewee, catching insects mid-air. Knowing the feeding and foraging habits of birds has helped me many times to find them. The pewee was very busy between the stranded logs the river had left along the shore he and returned quite often to the same perch after catching an insect. I used the car for cover and after getting the MAGMOD MagBeam flash extender out of the bag my results improved while the sun was hiding behind a cloud.
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.