Canada Geese, Green Island Wetlands, Iowa

A lot has to happen before I post a picture of Canada Geese here in the blog. We have them all year long in the Mississippi Valley and it is not really difficult to find some. However, they are always a good subject to practice and when the quality of the light is above average I can’t resist and will make the click.

This photo is still from last weekend. The sun had a very soft light and was reflected by the ice on the river. This gave the birds some additional light from underneath and in addition I liked the colors and soft appearance of the background. As I said above, a lot has to happen…😉

Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM S, @ 600 mm, 1/500 s, f/8, +0.66EV, ISO200


Crows picking up what’s left of a an eagle’s meal, Mississippi River, Sabula, Iowa

I talked to other wildlife photographers today during a meeting of the Dubuque Camera Club and everybody agreed, it wasn’t the best winter season to photograph the iconic Bald Eagle along the Mississippi River. The reasons may vary. December last year was very mild and they may have stayed up north but even during January and February we didn’t see very many, except for the ones who stay here all year long. However, last weekend, with the ice on the Mississippi breaking apart, it was no problem finding eagles along the river. This makes me believe that the birds who went further south just move back to Minnesota or Canada again, following the receding ice.

These two photos were made at the boat landing in Sabula, Iowa. Earlier, an hour before these pictures were taken, I drove over the bridge to Savannah, Illinois and saw a number of Bald Eagles feeding on the ice, or at least arguing about who owns the fish. The fish was long gone before I came back and aimed my lens at the one eagle who was still there. Two American Crows owned the spot now and ate what was left of the meal.

I used the DX mode on the Nikon D750 for the first picture and still cropped the image slightly to frame the scene closer. Not ideal, but I liked the storytelling in the photo and thought a closer crop would work better. The second pic was shot full frame (FX mode) but was cropped slightly for esthetic reasons.

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


Male Hooded Merganser, Mississippi River, Green Island Wetlands, Iowa

As many times before I used my car as a mobile blind while watching for birds and taking pictures in the Green Island Wetlands yesterday. The Hooded Mergansers are usually very shy and take off quite often even before the car comes to a standstill. But love is in the air already and I watched several males competing for the attention of a female. This is our chance to make a successful click because they are distracted. The Hooded Merganser is the smallest of the three species found in North America. They find their prey underwater by sight. A third eyelid, the nictitating membrane, is clear and protects the eye during swimming. Beside aquatic insects, crustacians, frogs, plants and seeds, they feed on fish, capturing them with their serrated and hooked bill (see photo). More to come…please stay tuned!


Greater White-fronted Geese, Mississippi River, Green Island, Iowa

Hey, we are back from a trip to Germany but the photos made on the old continent have to wait. I’m glad to see that most of the snow is gone here in eastern Iowa, although flooding effects people in many areas. I couldn’t wait to get out today and see the state of bird migration in the Mississippi Valley. It was a gorgeous Saturday and I spent eight hours in the Green Island Wetlands and the island town of Sabula in the Mississippi River. Great bird watching, and yes, many clicks were made this afternoon!

Thousands of Greater White-fronted and Canada Geese rested in the flooded fields around the little town of Green Island on their way up north. Among them were only five Snow Geese. The best moment of the day came just a couple minutes before the sun finally disappeared behind a dark cloud at the horizon. Something flushed the Greater White-fronted Geese and many of them took off and circled in the sky for a while before they returned to their overnight roosts. It was very exciting when the loud sounds of their calls filled the air. Gosh, I wanted to make this kind of image since a long time. Can you tell I’m a happy camper today? 😊

Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM S


Today was my presentation about STORYTELLING IN WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY, hosted by the Friends of the Mines of Spain, in the E.B. Lyon Interpretive Center, Dubuque, Iowa. We had a great audience and the questions at the end showed how passionate many people are about wildlife, conservation, and of course photography.

One of the topics I was talking about is how we can make better photographs of the common species. You know, the ones that are present most of the time and not so difficult to find. Well, we can look and wait for good gestures or shoot from a more interesting angle instead of pointing the camera down to the critter, but I think the most important point is to photograph the common species in interesting light. Light that really shows their colors or texture of fur or feathers.

Such a common species here is the Mourning Dove. We have usually between four and a dozen of them around here in our woods. They come to the bird feeders once in a while but most of the time they sit on a branch, expose themselves to the sun, and try to stay warm. Not really exciting action, but if they come close and there is some good warm side light from the low sun I can’t resist and have to make a few clicks of these pretty wild doves.


Unpleasant weather, to say it mildly, this weekend. From rain and temperatures above freezing on Saturday to ice cold winds and snow drifts on Sunday. I shot a lot in the front and backyard studio again. This Downy Woodpecker was briefly resting in our maple tree and gave me a gesture I really like, but throwing even a little hint of flash towards a wet branch is not such a good idea. The water on the wood reflects the light source and this is not very desirable. The reflection on top of the branch reveals that the sun was kinda behind the bird, a little to the left, and without the flash, well, the picture would look probably “crappy-gray”. Not a photo for the record books but still a nice gesture of the woodpecker…


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


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


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.


Black-necked Stilt, Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve, California, 2017

Light, gesture, and color are still the main ingredients for a photo that may not even get more than just one second of attention span these days on social media. Ok, nothing new here, but if a picture doesn’t even have at least one of the above mentioned, it goes down the digital drain without any notice. A good photo hardly ever needs all three ingredients, one just can make the difference.