Male juvenile Ruby-throated Hummingbird

It is just relaxing to sit at the edge of the porch in the evening and aim the lens at one of our numerous hummingbirds. Today we had a slight overcast with occasional appearance of the sun. To me ideal for hummingbird photography. This time the Micro softboxes were not used as a light modifier and instead the MAGMOD Magbeam flash extender on a flash bracket above the lens was employed. Click on the link “WHAT’S IN THE CAMERA BAG?” if you like to see how this setup works. A hint of flash is concentrated on the bird and the reflected light boosts the colors, even with a gray overcast. The tricky part is to dose the amount of flash and balance it with the ambient light, so it is not apparent that a flash light was used and the bird looks like a “Christmas tree”.

Some of the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds show more character in their behavior than others. This juvenile male doesn’t even have the ruby throat yet but acted like the “neighborhood bully” at one of our feeders. Hummingbirds are very territorial and obviously that starts at an early age. As photographers we can use that behavior to our advantage. The bird returns frequently to the same perch, in this case the stem of a maple leaf. From the perch they can observe what they believe is “their feeder” and start attacks against intruders, most likely their siblings and in-laws.

1/60 s, f/6.3, ISO 320, @600 mm, -1/3 EV, flash -3.3 EV,  with 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.


Today around 10:30AM I heard the House Wrens intensively calling while I worked in my office. They just didn’t deliver any food to the nest box in the flower bed of our front yard anymore. I ran downstairs and saw #1 leaning out of the hole but still hesitating. I knew immediately that the time was right and that the little chicks would follow the calls of their parents and leave the nest. The camera was already in position on the porch, ready to shoot.

At 10:37AM #1 finally jumped out of the upper hole, tried briefly to hang on to the wall of the box, and landed on the perch of the lower hole. From there it jumped to nearby bushes, through the grass, and made it safely into the woods where the parents called frenetically.

#2 followed shortly after. #3 didn’t hesitate at all and flew straight into the woods to the parents. I had a look at them from the distance when suddenly a #4 showed up next to me and joined the whole gang in the trees.

This is a photo still from yesterday. The parents had chosen a good time for raising this gang of four little House Wrens. During the last 17 days we had nice weather and there was food in abundance. Here it is a spider but we saw lots of caterpillars, moths, and crickets disappearing in the hungry bills of the juvenile House Wrens.


Friends of the blog have asked already how the little House Wrens in the nest box doing. The parents feed since July, 23rd and as you can see the size of the food is getting bigger. We know for sure that we have at least three little chicks in the box. I shot a few pictures yesterday morning and I liked this one in particular. It’s always hard to tell what’s on the menu because the feeding happens very fast. But here the shadow on the white wall reveals that a cricket was stuffed into the open bill. The new generation makes a lot of noise if the parents arrive with food but in a few days it will be quiet and the little wrens will have left the nest.


Ruby-throated Hummingbird

I spent three hours behind the camera in our front yard this evening and was only after one target: The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds who raise their offspring here during the summer. Inspired by a video famous wildlife photographer Moose Peterson had on his blog, I tried to push the envelope for my own hummingbird photography and tested new ways of lighting the subject. I used two flash lights with a mini soft box for boosting colors but I can tell you, I’m not there yet. These photos are a start.

Here is the idea for today’s shooting. Since the female and young Ruby-throated Hummingbirds do not offer too much color variety I tried to incorporate parts of the surrounding flowers into the background. I thought this works better for the storytelling than just a plain green. Wide open, at f/6.3 and 600 mm, the background is nicely blurred and flowers leave no doubt that the bird is in a perfect environment, with plenty of nectar from host plants, even if our feeders won’t be there.


Male American Goldfinch

Here is another photo from yesterday’s trip to the Green Island Wetlands. You can’t miss the goldfinches between the grasses, thistles, and everything that produces seeds. I know, I had a picture here in the blog less than three weeks ago with some facts about this late breeding bird. Click HERE if you have missed it or like to read it again.


Family of Pied-billed Grebes, Green Island Wetlands, Iowa

It was about time to go back into the wetlands at Green Island. On a sunny day it doesn’t buy you much to be there before 6:00PM, when the light gets softer and warmer. The water level is still very high but for the first time in months no roads or dykes were flooded and the area was complete accessible again.

I talked to an old farmer in his eighties, who owns land adjacent to the Green Island Wetlands, and he told me that the numbers of ducks and geese are the lowest he has seen in a long time. This might be due to the fact that many nest sites were under water for such a long time and still are.

Well, some life can still be found. There were large families of Wood Ducks and the young Canada Geese have almost adult size. I counted three successful broods of Pied-billed Grebes along the main dyke. The one above is my favorite image of this evening, three little chicks stayed close together while their parents dived for food and delivered promptly when they had success.

Paddling is not the best idea at this time of the year. An abundance of water plants, duck weed, and algae make it difficult to move in the backwaters. We have done that before, it’s not impossible, but the fun of paddling is cut in half to say it mildly. I did not regret to leave the kayak at home. The low sun created some dappled light in the foreground, making the “green mess” not so dominant, and with some puffy clouds in the blue sky the picture got some depth and tells today’s story about a perfect summer day along the Mississippi River.

Trumpeter Swans

About 7:45PM I drove slowly back on the main dyke and this pair of Trumpeter Swans enjoyed the last sun of the day as much as I did. Maybe they just found each other this season. Trumpeter Swans often mate for life and most pair bonds are often formed when they are 5-7 years old. More to come… stay tuned!


House Wrens

We watched the female House Wren carefully going in and out of  the hole at the nest box in our front yard for the last 2 weeks. She sat on a clutch of eggs. The male wren guarded the home and tried to lure every potential predator away by singing and drawing the attention to himself instead to the nest location. Today was the moment we were waiting for. While enjoying a cool drink on our porch this evening we saw both parents bringing food to the nest. Sure sign that there is some new life in the box. I don’t think it ever happened during all the years that I had both parents in front of the lens at the same time during this crucial period of time.

The female on the left arrived first with some food in her bill on the roof of the nest box. The male was also a successful hunter and handed his prey to her, just a second after this click was made. She managed to take both and deliver it to their offspring. We watch the House Wrens every year raising their offspring somewhere around the house, but believe me, it is still an excitement for us to be a witness.

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.


Male Horned Lark

I haven’t seen and photographed a Horned Lark here in eastern Iowa since more than four years. Before 2015 I never had problems finding them, especially in early spring. The bird is listed as a common bird in steep decline, which underlines my own observations. To my surprise I found a male Horned Lark yesterday and today again on the observation hill at the Dubuque Regional Airport. I saw this bird several times with insects in its bill, and as the second photo shows, they take the bigger ones too. It nurtures my hope that there is a nest somewhere around.

Due to the fact that I was at the airport for making some clicks of the historical airplanes that practice for the big air venture in Oshkosh, WI next week, I didn’t have the tripod out. It helped to stabilize the lens on one of the posts that support the sunroof on the observation deck. The gravel of the parking lot is not really attractive but that’s where the Horned Lark foraged for insects. Although I shot very many pictures of the planes and only a few of the bird, these wildlife photos are important to me and made me very happy.


American Goldfinch, near Durango, Iowa

Goldfinches breed later than most birds in North America, mostly not before mid-summer. They are vegetarians with almost no exceptions and they rely on plants that provide seeds, like thistle, milkweed, and others. The American Goldfinches are the only finch that molts twice a year. The males get their pretty yellow feathers in late winter and it makes it very easy to identify them even over a long distance. We have them around here in eastern Iowa all year long, but it might not be the same birds that we see during the winter because they migrate.

A good way to attract them to the backyard is by providing a bird bath that is always filled and of course heated during winter time. We don’t see them actually bathing very often but they sure like to drink. Setting up a little perch helps to make a picture without the bird bath in the frame. The gesture of the finch, just ready to jump down to the water source, made me choose this photo for today’s blogpost. Nothing spectacular, but still pretty…


Male Eastern Bluebird, Dubuque, Iowa

A couple days a go I received a call from my photography friend Kevin, inviting me for a backyard shooting at his house in the evening. A pair of Eastern Bluebirds were feeding their offspring, three little chicks in a bird box. Kevin builds nest boxes, not just for his land, also for public places like Swiss Valley. He had set up a nice perch near the nest and all what we had to do was waiting for the parents with some food in their bills. Almost every time they came with insects, larva, or spiders the bluebirds used the perch to observe the surrounding before they safely approached the entrance to the box.

We sat comfortably in lawn chairs behind our tripods, had good conversation, and clicked away when the action took place. The low sun provided relativ soft light and it was not necessary to use any flash for color boost or to fill in the shadows.

Female Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebirds are some of the prettiest birds we have here and they are very photogenic. The blue of the female’s wing feathers is a lot paler than the male’s but both parents put the same efforts in to find enough food for the chicks.

Food supply in abundance

This was the shot Kevin and I were hoping for, both adult bluebirds with food in their bills on the perch at the same time. It happened only once this evening but we used this opportunity. I usually shoot with the long lens wide open at f/6.3 but here I had it set to f/8. This provided of course still not enough depth of field for having both birds in sharp focus. The focus was on the male at the top but the photo summarizes the story of this evening.

It is always fun to shoot together with Kevin and I’m thankful again for sharing a great photo opportunity.


Four-spotted Skimmer, Mississippi River, Mud Lake, Iowa

Here is another photo from our little paddle tour yesterday evening. Of course, if you see a picture of a dragonfly you may think immediately, oh we talk about macro photography today. Well, with 600 mm focal length attached to the camera this is not what it really is. Dragonflies are permanent companions during a paddle trip in the summer on the Mississippi. They are beautiful and I try to include them in my story telling if the setting is right, even if it is not a macro shot. Due to all the rain we had in spring and early summer the vegetation everywhere here in eastern Iowa is lush and green and yellow colors have a strong impact on many photos. The Four-spotted Skimmer can be found here along the river and it wasn’t the first time that I had this dragonfly in front of the lens. Handholding the D750 with the Sigma 150-600 attached is always a challenge, especially in a kayak. The low sitting sun led to a shutter speed of only 1/160s. Not really intended, but having the dragonfly sharp and the water soft and silky made this photo a keeper that I really like.

Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM S   @600 mm, 1/160 s, f/8, ISO200


Painted Turtle, Mississippi River, Mud Lake, Iowa

It is always an enjoyable way to finish the weekend with a paddle tour in the kayak on the Mississippi River. Joan and I took kayak-dog Cooper and the boats down to Mud Lake, the closest access to the big river from our home. Very little wind made the paddling easy and I thought it would help with bird photography, but we didn’t see any within the range of the 600 mm focal length of the Sigma 150-600. Other critters stepped in and let us get close for a photo. Painted Turtles are usually very skittish and slide into the water as soon you come within a 10-20 yards range, but this one didn’t mind our presence at all. I accidentally hit the log it was siting on with the bow of the kayak but this turtle was more than patient and stayed on the piece of driftwood.

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


Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird at a Bee Balm

Maybe I have a few days to make a photo like this, maybe not. With flowers you never can predict one hundred percent how long they last. A heavy thunderstorm can bring a quick end to their beauty. The Bee Balm is blooming right now in our front yard and it seems we have more flowers than ever before. Bee Balm is a favorite of the hummingbirds and making a good click while they hover around the flower or drink nectar from its blossom is always a great challenge but also a lot of fun. It takes some patience to be successful. This evening I had periods of time when no bird showed up for 10-15 minutes, instead they preferred one of the hummingbird feeders hanging from the roof of the porch. This is understandable because the resources of each flower are obviously limited. I tried a little trick I learned from other wildlife photographers and sprayed some hummingbird food into the blossom, but I don’t think that has increased the frequency of their visits to a particular blossom. It is the same mixture (4 parts water + 1 part sugar) that we use for our feeders.

This evening I experimented a lot with different settings for exposure and flash compensation and even with some higher ISO settings than I usually apply. Yes, it is a little easier to freeze the action of a hummingbird with a higher ISO setting (today up to 1250) and therefor much faster shutter speed, but I still like the rendering of details much better if the ISO value stays low (100-400).

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,  @ 600 mm, 1/400 s, f/6.3, ISO 1250,


Here is another image from last weekend. I know, snakes are not everybody’s favorite animal but I was very happy to see this Northern Water Snake crossing our way in the Green Island Wetlands. They are nonvenomous and eat fish, frogs, and salamanders. This was not the biggest one I have ever seen and its color was relativ light and so I assume this was a young adult. Unfortunately the snake population here in eastern Iowa has declined, maybe due to snake fungal disease (SFD). I have written about it here in the blog before.

The water snake was moving very fast and only stopped because we stepped in front of it. With hindsight I think I should have gotten still a little lower on the ground for this photo but overall I’m glad we saw this snake, which seems to become a rare occasion…


American Mink with kit, Mississippi River, Green island Wetlands, Iowa

Today’s photo is not more than a documentary shot, the photo lacks some sharpness, but it was such a nice encounter that I like to show it anyway. Yesterday Joan and I went for a drive to some of the nature locations I visit frequently. One of them was the Green Island Wetlands, which is still flooded and only partly accessible. As we stopped briefly while on one of the dykes I saw suddenly an American Mink with two little kits disappearing in the tall grass and bushes that grow along the dyke. It happened at some distance in front of the car and so quickly that there wasn’t even time to get out of the car. We waited for a minute, hoping to see the minks again. Suddenly the mother came out of the dense vegetation without the two kits and ran back from where she came from the first time. After a little while she came back and with her was another little kit. I took some pictures but failed to get a sharp image. Well, I had another chance. She went back again and a little later a fourth young mink was guided to the place where obviously its siblings were waiting. I supported the lens on top of the car door but heat shimmer over the gravel road and the fast movement of the minks made it very difficult to obtain focus. The picture is heavily cropped, I’m not very proud of it, but the fun we had watching the mink with a litter of four was priceless…