GOING FOR THE SEEDS


American Goldfinch

When Purple Coneflowers are in their prime they are a good food source for many butterflies and other insects. Later, after they are withered, they become a food source for some birds. The American Goldfinch is primarily a seed eater. There is a reason why they raise their offspring later than most of the birds we have here during the summer. Seeds are available in abundance and beside thistles the faded coneflowers are in high demand. This photo is from last weekend and while looking for hummingbirds I saw this male goldfinch feeding on coneflower seeds. He did not stop until each flower he visited was almost bare. Most of the time the head was down and it was difficult to get a clean shot. But the bird was aware about my presence and had a look at me ones in a while. These were the moments to release the shutter button of the camera…

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

A MORNING WITH THE SMALLEST


Immature male Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee and behind the camera after a busy week on a Sunday morning is hard to beat. We still have a number of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds around and as far I have seen it, they are all juvenile males. These young rowdies have the endless battle about the best feeders and bully each other whenever they can. Their ruby throat is not fully developed yet but the first feathers that look almost like scales start to peek out.

This summer the tiny hummingbirds have nested relatively early here and have probably already left towards the tropics some time ago. What we see are immature birds that have only recently hatched further north and that are now on their first journey to the south.

It had rained overnight again and an overcast still covered the sky this morning. I like this kind of soft light for my hummingbird photography. The MAGMOD MagBeam flash extender was used to throw some extra light at the birds and use the reflection of the feathers to bring out some colors.

There were many keepers on the memory card today but I always look for the special pose or gesture that makes the difference between a good picture and a photo that tells a story.

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, MAGMOD MagBeam flash extender

MISSISSIPPI RIVER STORIES 2019 #12 - GREEN HERON


Green Heron with prey, Mississippi River, Mud Lake, iowa

Sometimes it is not possible to shoot with a low ISO setting if you want to capture what is in front of your eyes for just a brief moment. The moment can be as great as it gets, if you don’t have enough light, increasing the ISO setting in camera might be the only choice. I’m a big advocate for using the lowest possible ISO in order to have as much detail as possible. For my wildlife photography ISO100-200 is the standard, sometimes up to 400, very seldom beyond that.

Yesterday evening I took the Nikon D750 with the 70-200, f/4 with me while going for a walk down to the Mississippi River with our dog Cooper. When I saw this little Green Heron, who had just caught something and posed nicely on a piece of drift wood, I knew that 200 mm was really not enough focal length and light was critical. I still gave it a try, cranked up to ISO1600, and made the click. I shot in DX mode (with just part of the sensor), which already limits the amount of pixels to play with and still had to crop the image a little bit in Adobe Lightroom to make it work. The image needed of course more noise reduction than what is usually applied. With every little bit the noise reduction slider was moved to the right, more details in the bird’s feathers went away. I think the photo still tells the story of that moment down at the river and it works somehow here on the website, but making a nice print for the wall…? I guess not.

FROGS IN THE WOODS


Northern Leopard Frog, Pilot Knob State Park, Iowa

Pilot Knob State Park near Forest City, Iowa has without any doubt a lot to offer for nature lovers. Two lakes are within the park and one of them, Dead Man’s Lake, is a floating sphagnum bog, the only one of it’s kind in Iowa. It is surrounded by flowering plants, native trees, and shrubs. The natural features of the park are significant and most of the park is dedicated as a nature preserve.

We were delighted to see a large number of small Leopard Frogs jumping all over the place while we walked on a trail. If you are close enough the frogs sometimes change their survival behavior and just sit still, using their camouflage skin pattern in hope not to be seen and preyed on. The challenge for the photographer is to find a “window” between the grasses and plants that allows an unobstructed view of the frog. When you were in the park last weekend and saw a man in the middle of the trail, lying on his stomach or on his knees with the butt in the air, well, that was me… All photos were made with just natural light and ISO settings between 320 and 1000.

All images: Nikon D750, Sigma 150mm / f2.8 APO EX DG HSM

NATURE CLICKS #435 - BROWN SNAKE


It has been 10 years and one month ago since a Brown Snake was in front of my lens. I have lamented numerous times about the fact that we hardly see any snakes anymore around here, probably due to snake fungal disease (SFD). This photo is a few days old, because I was out of town for business, but my excitement hasn’t really settled yet. This is not a photo for winning an award, but for me it is a very important documentary shot.

While filling a hummingbird feeder in the front yard I discovered this snake between our Brown-eyed Susan sunflowers. Brown Snakes are primarily woodland snakes and eat earthworms, insect larvae, and slugs. They are docile and harmless.

The problem with making this photo was finding a “window” between all the flowers where nothing obstructed at least the head of the snake. This looks easy but a little wind made things moving around the snake and I have several shots where this was just not the case.

ON THE PERCH


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.

OUT OF THE HOUSE


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.

FEEDING TIME AT THE NEST BOX


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.

HUMMINGBIRDS


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.

BACK IN THE WETLANDS (PART 2)


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.

BACK IN THE WETLANDS


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!

PIC OF THE DAY


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.

NATURE CLICKS #432 - HORNED LARK


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.

ALL YEAR LONG


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…

BUSY BLUEBIRD PARENTS


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.