Here is another image from last weekend. This was shot at the John Deere Marsh, right beside the road, and about a kilometer away from the main channel of the Mississippi River. This young muskrat had absolutely no fear and kept chewing on fresh grass tips even after I just parked my car right beside it. 200 mm focal length was enough to make this picture and I employed the Nikon Nikkor 200 f/4 on the D750. I made a slight crop in post for esthetic reasons. Too many bleak sticks after the winter distracted from the subject, this beautiful little muskrat. Their fur looks great when it is dry. I saw and heard an adult calling from down below the river bank but this little bugger gave a dam and kept chewing on the first fresh grass. Some people are put off by anything that is called a “rat”, although this rodent is not a member of the genus rattus. Muskrats are smaller than beavers and they share quite often the same habitat. Their diet is 95% plant materials.
Yesterday I spent the last two hours before sunset in the Green Island Wetlands. The water level in the Mississippi River has dropped a little bit but many areas are still flooded. The sun came finally out and it was a good evening for wildlife observations and photography. The first Greater Yellowleg has arrived and was searching for food in one of the muddy fields that are part of the area. I saw the first pairs of Wood Ducks and numerous female Red-winged Blackbirds have joined the males , who were already present since several weeks.
But the star of this evening was the first and only Great Egret I watched this season so far. First I saw him standing almost motionless for several minutes between some flooded small trees along the dyke. After a while the bird started moving its neck forth and back and stirred the water with its feet. It was clear, the egret was hunting for a fish. It had his head turned to the east, means the setting sun lit just the back of the head. I made a few clicks anyway. Suddenly the bird turned around, now facing the sun, and moved a few feet to an area where not so many branches were obstructing the view. And than it happened very fast. The clouds opened up a little more and at that moment the egret caught a fish. The metadata of my pictures reveal, from the moment he got it out of the water until the fish was going down its throat only 9 seconds had elapsed. A piece of weed was hanging over his head. Happy egret and happy photographer!
Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm/f5-6.3 DG OS HSM S, @600 mm , 1/500 s, f/6.3, ISO200
Any time I go to the Green Island Wetlands in spring I see or at least hear some Sandhill Cranes. Two years ago we had about 200 cranes but this year I have not seen more than 20 at a given time. Getting close to them can be a challenge. They are not skittish, like for example most of the ducks, but they keep a distance to humans and cars that doesn’t always allow to make a decent photo of these birds.
Last Sunday I was lucky and came close to a single pair that was searching for food. I didn’t get both cranes in the same frame but was nevertheless pretty happy about the results. Getting close is key for a sharp image. In this habitat, between the old grass and reeds, the Sandhill Cranes do not provide a lot of contrast to lock on focus all the time. The ground is still cold and the warmed up air above can lead to heat shimmer and make obtaining focus even more difficult. Going out late in the day, when the temperatures drop and the light gets warmer seems to be the best time for success.
After not making a single click in over a week for several reasons I finally went out to the Green Island Wetlands yesterday evening. The water level of the Mississippi River is still rising and also in the Green Island area it is above normal.
It was windy and many of the ducks were hiding or at least not near the shore. Every year I have seen a large fleet of American Coots at this time of the year and I always was debating with myself how to make a picture that tells the story about their presence in large numbers. Quite often the raft of coots is stretched out and it is impossible to make this kind of a photo. This time was different and they did me a great favor. While I watched them through the binoculars in the distance, the whole fleet suddenly swam towards me and didn’t stop until they all were near my “mobile blind”, the car of course.
They were feeding and goofed around like coots do. Coots are kleptoparasitic, they’ll steal their meal from other birds if they don’t feel like hunting for their own food (source: iBirdPro app). Indeed, I have seen them arguing about water plants. Maybe that’s why it is always fun to watch this raucous and quarrelsome bird.
Light, gesture, and color, it all came together this evening in the Ice Harbor near downtown Dubuque, Iowa. My special thanks goes to photography friend Kevin McTague, who send me a message this afternoon about the presence of Bald Eagles in the Ice Harbor behind the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium. I have shot there before when the ice broke during other years and knew ahead of time that this can lead to some good photography. Beside that it was the first real day of spring, with sunshine, a clear sky, and mild temperatures. The interesting part of this urban location is the fact that the brick stone building, which was as far as I know an old warehouse and is now part of the museum, reflects in the water of the marina and makes for some interesting color opportunities.
Most of the time the Bald Eagles just sat on the ice, looked around, and paid little attention to the Ring-billed Gulls, who were also hanging around. I was waiting for the gestures that were made when another eagle flew above or when the eagles communicated by calls and body language. By the way, it isn’t as static as it may look. The ice floes move around by wind and water current in the harbor and the light and reflections were different from one minute to the next. What a great way to start a weekend…!!
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
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
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!
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
STORYTELLING IN WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY
E.B. Lyons Interpretive Center,
Mines of Spain Recreation Area
8991 Bellevue Heights
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
This photo tells pretty much today’s story. More snow and the birds were here all day long, determined to get the much needed food and water during these cold temperatures.