Green Heron, Mississippi River, Mud Lake, Iowa

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


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.


Bald Eagle, Mississippi River, Johnson Slough, Iowa

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.


Green Heron, Mississippi River, Mud Lake, Iowa

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.

Stretching is important, not only afer a long paddle tour...

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.


Little Brown Bat (Myotis Lucifugus)

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.


Yellow-bellied Cuckoo, near Durango, Iowa

We hear its distinctive , rattling call almost every day during the summer, very seldom we see the bird, and I have never had a chance to aim my glass at a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Until today! This cuckoo spends its time high up in the canopy of the trees and it is very difficult to spot it, even if you know where the bird might be, because of the unique call. This morning, after walking with our little dog Cooper, I heard the bird again and finally saw it sitting high up in a tree above our driveway. Well, against all common sense rules, I shot against a gray sky, but I wanted at least a documentary shot of this bird so badly that I gave a damn about rules. Of course, this is not a quality image. I cropped this picture to death, but still think it is an honest shot because I had no chance to get any closer. Last night we had thunderstorms with much needed rain passing through, for more than 12 hours. It looks like the cuckoo tried to use the first hint of sun to dry its feathers.


Juvenile male Ruby-throated Hummingbird, near Durango, Iowa, 1/125s, f/6.3, ISO400

One of the goals I wanted to accomplish this year was to step up a notch with my hummingbird photography. The time is just right, we have probably at least a dozen birds buzzing around the house and the new generation is as aggressive as the old “bullies” in their pursue to “own” one of the feeders we provide.

I mentioned in my last post already that I started using a new light modifier, a small soft box that attaches to the speed light. It still maintains the same purpose, just to bring out the colors in the bird’s feathers. The ambient light is still the main light source for the pictures. But it takes more than a new piece of gear to make better images. First I analyzed photos made during the last few years and realized that I had very few that caught the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds during a special gesture. To make it clear, there is nothing a hummingbird does slowly and even preening is done in short intervals that last maybe a second.

1/100s, f/6.3, ISO400

This juvenile male was my main subject today. He often returned to the same branch above one of our feeders and allowed me really to work with him between the “high-speed chases” that went on all afternoon and evening. Many clicks were made, but after the sun disappeared behind the trees on our ridge, there was a brief moment when a shaft of warm light hit the hummer just perfect, and this became my favorite shot of the day.

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


Tiger Swallowtail

Hi friends, I was hoping to publish this blog post already a few days earlier, but the “pilot” made an error and the files didn’t make it onto his laptop. Hence, I was traveling for business, but discovered far away from home, that the portable drive with the copies of all my photos I made last weekend was accidentally left at home…


OK, nothing is in a hurry, here are some pictures, …. Every year , about at the same time, I make a statement here in the blog that I’m not a macro photographer and creating pictures of insects or spiders is just a side project. Well, I tested a new light modifier and as soon I have a real opinion about it I may give you my ten cents of wisdom about the experience…

Giant Swallowtail

One of the easiest pictures... We have three of them here in our flower beds  this year. They are in constant motion , but persistance pays back....

The Monarch, like many other species, is under the thread of extinction. Much has been done here in Iowa to prevent this, but the question is, if down in Mexico, where the Monarch is during the cold season, habitats can be secured in order to make it a story of success.


Green Frog, Mississippi River, Mud Lake, Iowa

The last three evenings were used to paddle the Mississippi River and its backwaters, but only yesterday I took the camera with me. Aiming for wildlife during the last two hours with daylight and shooting from the low level in the boat have been often a key for success.

The mix of duck weed, algae, and aquatic plants that have reached the surface is a great habitat for many species. Don’t worry, this is usually just near the shore, the main channel in the backwaters of Mud Lake is clear and easy to paddle. This Green Frog blends right in and the reflection of its eye in an open spot of the water made me choose this image for today’s blog post.

Young Barn Swallow, Mississippi River, Mud Lake, Iowa

A new generation of swallows is learning how to catch insects in flight. I have seen all five species we can find along the big river but this young Barn Swallow posed perfectly on top of a water lily.

Painted Turtle,  Mississippi River, Mud Lake, Iowa

Painted Turtles enjoy the sun as much as we do, but most of the time they slide into the water as soon they detect some movement. This one seemed to know that I was not a thread in my kayak and stayed on this piece of drift wood until I was only five feet away.

Eastern Kingbird,  Mississippi River, Mud Lake, Iowa

The young Eastern Kingbirds were hunting for insects right at the boat ramp. Even if I’m not always in favor of a backlit situation, I still prefer this shot over the ones I took while I left the boat launch.

Sure, I could make an image of all these critters from shore, but shooting out of the kayak delivers most of the time a perspective that is almost impossible to obtain by standing on land, much higher above the water level.

All images: Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports Lens


Cedar Waxwing, Mississippi River, Deere Marsh, Dubuque, Iowa

The Cedar Waxwing is one of the most beautiful birds we can see here in eastern Iowa. Previously we found them along the clear streams that we like to paddle during the summer or in the fall we have them quite often on our bluffs, feeding on ripe juniper berries of the Red Cedars.

This photo was made last week at the Mississippi River, right at the end of the Deere dyke, that sticks far out into the main channel of the river. The sun was already very low and getting the right exposure pretty simple.


House Wren

Yes, it’s this time of the year again when another generation of House Wrens is almost ready to leave the nest. The “snacks” the parents deliver get a little bigger every day and the noise coming out of the nest box, as soon mom or dad show up with food, gets louder as well. The wrens are pretty tolerant and don’t panic as quickly as other birds if someone is relatively close to the nest. Sure, a House Wren is not as pretty as some of the more colorful summer guests, but watching them every year to have one or two broods in our yard is always exciting.


Common Gallinule with offspring, Green Island Wetlands, Iowa

Many of the waterfowl is very secretive while they care for their offspring. In particular the Common Gallinule is sometimes hard to spot. You may hear them calling in the reeds but getting the bird in front of the lens isn’t easy. Yesterday I made a short visit in the Green Island Wetlands and for the first time I had an opportunity to see a pair of gallinules caring for two little chicks. Although already late in the day the light was still harsh, the scene was backlit, and exposure was a challenge. As you can see in the second picture, their big feet allow the birds to walk on the leaves of waterlilies and other aquatic plants. The parents did their best to feed the young gallinules and it was fun watching them. I’m not 100% happy with the quality of the pictures. Shooting from the car without a chance to get into a better position with less backlight wasn’t ideal, but I think the story of this exciting moment is still told and I like to share it with you.

Both photos: Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports Lens