Waves of warblers

•June 6, 2014 • 9 Comments

A male Northern Parula

May is always a crazy month with so much going on that I wish that there were 60 days in it. Bird and flower diversities are at their highest but some species can only be found for a few days. My plant photography suffered this spring as I spent most of my time pursuing neotropical migrants like warblers, vireos, orioles and tanagers. Photographing small, frenetic warblers is often an exercise in frustration. These birds are almost constantly on the move as they search for insects, fueling up after a long migration from the tropics. Many will continue much further and pause only briefly in southern Michigan. Following them in a camera’s viewfinder as they flit and jump from branch to branch take’s a lot of practice. I find it best to manually focus on these birds until they move into an open area in the vegetation. Only then will I use autofocus; otherwise, the camera is more likely to focus on an unwanted branch or leaf instead of the bird.

The understated Orange-crowned Warbler.

I look forward to the huge migrations of these birds that fill nighttime skies and flood weather radar screens with their own fronts. Warblers filter through like seconds on the seasonal clock’s sweeping hands. Yellow-rumped, Pine, Palm, Yellow, Black & White, Black-throated Green. Then Yellowthroat, Nashville, Redstart, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Blackburnian and on it goes — culminating in a late-May mix of over 30 species. These along with vireos, flycatchers and many other species make it easy to find over 100 species in a day!


A male Black-throated Blue Warbler

I love photographing birds with my 600mm f/4  but that huge lens can be a hindrance in warbler photography. It’s very heavy and difficult to carry and the closest it focuses is 15.7 ft. Warbler photography is often in close quarters like trails through thick brush where it’s difficult to back up from birds. This is where my 300mm f/2.8 comes into play. It gives great image quality with all of the Nikon teleconverters, and I use the Nikon TC-20E II often with this lens. This gives me a 600mm at f/5.6 that focuses as close as 7.5 ft.  I usually stop down to f/7.1 or f/8 for the best results. Generally I find that teleconverters give good results on subjects that are already close, but unfortunately they are not as sharp on distant subjects. This is still a  heavy kit and requires a sturdy tripod which can be frustrating at times. By the time the tripod is moved from my shoulder to set up on the ground the targeted bird has moved on. A more mobile and cheaper solution would be using the Nikon 300mm f/4 with a teleconverter or the 80-400mm f/4.-5.6. Canon users have several choices in the 300mm f/4, 400mm f/5.6 and 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lenses. Sigma and Tamron also offer several telephoto zoom lenses. Depending on lighting conditions I sometimes use fill flash to bring out details and balance harsh highlights and shadows.

Long distance champion – Blackpoll Warblers breed as far north as northwestern Alaska and winter as far south as Peru.

Always a sucker for “pishing“, a male American Redstart sizes me up.

The effects of this year’s brutal winter carried on into the spring and slowed leaf growth considerably. This made for much easier observation and photography of spring migrants. Geography plays a big part in photographing birds during migration. Peninsulas, points and waterways concentrate birds as they move north and hesitate crossing large expanses of open water. These “migrant traps” include places like Magee Marsh, Ohio; Point Pelee, Ontario; Tawas Point and Whitefish Point in Michigan. Cold dreary days often have the birds feeding low on sluggish insects. The birds are sometimes so intent on hunting that they are oblivious to humans. Windy days force insect life into the lee of dunes and pines. These areas can be full of dozens of birds with the sounds of snapping bills as they gorge on insects.

A male Yellow Warbler grabs a midge.

Midges are most often what these birds are feeding on and the swarms of these aquatic insects can be impressive! Sometimes what look like huge columns of smoke drifting along the shoreline are midges. In the willows, dogwoods, and pines songbirds feast and in the air swallows and swifts blast through the swarms with mouths agape. Be careful when changing lenses around these midge swarms so they don’t end up inside your camera. It’s a good thing that they don’t bite!

A couple of midges (Chironomidae) along the Lake Huron shoreline.



A male Scarlet Tanager hunts for midges among the maple blossoms.

I wish I knew more about these beautiful little insects and will be working on that. But for now I’ll just enjoy the spectacle of bugs and birds in a gigantic cycle that is always too fleeting.

A male Blackburnian warbler with a juicy midge.

Thanks for taking a look and I hope that if you missed out on this incredible spectacle this year, that you will plan for it next spring!



Chasin’ Chickens

•May 15, 2014 • 6 Comments

Two male Greater Sage-grouse face off in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

My last two waterfowl photography trips didn’t result in as many duck images that I had hoped for. Instead, I had some opportunities to photograph several grouse species. This spring was the first time I’ve seen Greater Sage-grouse and Greater Prairie-chicken. My first view of a sage was in the spotlight of a researcher as he scanned for the eye shine of grouse as we made a midnight hike through the sagebrush. Once a grouse was located we closed in, the white noise of a cb radio at full blast, masking the sounds of our footsteps. The dazed grouse usually stayed still, not sure what to do in the barrage of alien light and sound. Then a long-handled net was used to capture the bird. Males received a standard USFWS band along with a 3 digit colored plastic band. Females were also radio collared. Feather samples were taken for DNA analysis and birds were weighed and measured.

A male sage-grouse is fitted with a plastic tarsal band which can be read through a spotting scope during lek surveys.

There are two species of these grouse, Greater and the smaller Gunnison which was recently described as a separate species in 2000. Both are in serious decline due to disappearing habitat. Introduced plant species are a major factor along with overgrazing, habitat fragmentation and renewable energy infrastructure. Cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum, is probably the biggest threat to the sage-steppe ecosystem. This grass, native to Europe, southwestern Asia and northern Africa is invasive and causes fires that wipe out many native species. Both of these desert grouse are being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Populations are being closely monitored and scientists are trying to learn what can be done before it’s too late.

A female receives a radio collar.

After a night of stumbling around the desert I crawled into my blind long before sunrise and waited for the big show to start. Male sage-grouse perform strange courtship displays in hopes of attracting females. These performances take place every spring at traditional locations known as leks. The males inflate yellowish air sacs on their necks creating bizarre popping and burping sounds. There are sometimes dozens of males on a lek but only one or two will be chosen by females for mating.

My first morning in the blind didn’t go too well with all of the birds far behind me. After birds dispersed from the lek in the late morning I marked a better spot to set up for the next morning. A surprise winter storm overnight made things interesting! There’s still plenty of room for improvement on my sage-grouse photography but I was happy to get a few images in the snow.

A female is dwarfed by two strutting males.




Camp was in rough shape! 

Two weeks later I was in South Dakota for the spring migration of waterfowl. Duck photography was fair but the image making on a Sharp-tailed Grouse lek was far more rewarding. A friend and I set up a pop-up blind just east of the trampled down area where a dozen male sharp-tails performed their strange dances every morning.

Prairie rattler – a male Sharp-tailed grouse inflates air sacs, erects combs, arches wings and rattles his tail as he stamps his feet.

Females watch the show.

Sharp-tail populations are in better shape than that of the sage-grouse, but they need native grasslands which are increasingly threatened by agriculture, overgrazing and energy industries.

The displaying starts while it’s still dark out so a 4:00 a.m. wake-up was in order. After a bumpy ATV ride we got set up in the blind and waited, one morning at a chilly 9 degrees. Birds could be heard flying in and it wasn’t long before the dancing started. It stopped and started suddenly with birds dozing off in between performances. Occasionally they would be startled, possibly by raptors or other predators that we couldn’t see from the blinds.

One morning a Greater Prairie-chicken tried to join in. The sharp-tails had other ideas about that.

Unexpected visitor – a male Greater Prairie-chicken.

Cock fight! A sharp-tail evicts the prairie-chicken.

Some of the fights between male sharp-tails were brutal. One pair of males faced off and fought periodically for over 2 hours. As you can see, it got pretty bloody with one bird narrowly escaping a serious eye injury.






After that bit of ultra-violence you may need something to calm your nerves. This beautiful video from Dawson Dunning should do the trick.
Sharp-tailed Grouse Lek in Snow



‘been a while…

•May 9, 2014 • 1 Comment

OK, I know there’s been nothing here for a long time…. There will be some content worth looking at soon.  I’ve been away from the computer and chasing birds.  A few highlights from the past months include Greater Sage-grouse & Cinnamon Teal in Nevada, Sharp-tailed Grouse in South Dakota, warblers in NW Ohio….  details later.  Thanks for looking!Greater_Sage-grouse_display1
A male Greater Sage-grouse puts on a show for the ladies in Nevada.

Cinnamon Teal, Anas cyanoptera, male, Washoe County, Nevada
A drake Cinnamon teal on a Nevada wetland.

A male Sharp-tailed grouse stretches after a tough morning of displaying and fighting for a female.

A male Black-throated blue warbler pauses on the southern Lake Erie shoreline before continuing the homestretch of a long journey.


More Frozen Fowl

•February 14, 2014 • 4 Comments

Literally…  This female Red-breasted Merganser was in big trouble.

In my 20+ years photographing waterfowl in southeastern Michigan, I’ve never seen so much ice and so many birds this desperate for food. I don’t know why some birds’ bills get so iced up while others escape it. I do know that when your mouth is frozen you can no longer hunt or eat. This was evidenced by a number of dead and dying ducks floating by me on the St. Clair River a few days ago. The bird above tried to shake that ice off unsuccessfully.  Another’s head kept slipping off her shoulder as she succumbed to this incredibly hard winter.

A dead male Redhead floats by, it’s bill encased in ice.

“Why don’t they just fly south?” is a question that comes up often.  When you’re starving to death you’re not really in good shape for a flight that may have to cover several hundred miles. Migration is a weird phenomena. In some cases the birds that breed furthest north fly further south than birds that summer 1,000 miles to the south of them. Perhaps certain populations of arctic and northern prairie birds have evolved to winter in the Great Lakes while other groups dig for the east coast. There are benefits in spending the winter further north. These birds don’t expend energy to migrate as far as others, and they have a head start on the spring migration and nest sites on their breeding grounds. I’m not a biologist and this is speculation, but there is evidence to back it up if you look into it. The good news is that most birds are surviving, but I’m pretty sure they’re underweight and reproduction will suffer.

Long-tailed Ducks over the predawn St. Clair River

More Long-tails

The heavy ice cover on Lake Huron has forced tens of thousands of Long-tailed Ducks into the St. Clair River. If you live in southeastern Michigan and haven’t made the trip to Port Huron to see this, well, I don’t know what to say. The masses of birds, steam and ice are incredibly beautiful.

A female Canvasback with a load of zebra mussels.

There are fantastic close up views of many birds that are usually well offshore.

Redhead, Aythya americana, male, St. Clair River, Michigan
A male Redhead dries off after a series of dives.

Male Red-breasted Merganser

Male Greater Scaup

Horned Grebes taking a break.

A rare shot of a male Long-tailed Duck out of the water.

Long-tails are some of the toughest birds on earth, living in icy conditions for much of the year. They can dive to depths of at least 200 feet! Unlike any other North American waterfowl, they have two distinct seasonal plumages and the amount of variation in winter birds is amazing. Plus they sound friggin cool!

Here’s a particularly pale and beautiful female Long-tail.


Thanks for taking a look. I hope to get out after some White-winged Scoters next week.

Frozen Fowl

•January 31, 2014 • 12 Comments

A male Red-breasted Merganser

Do you know what photographers get when they’ve been sitting on the ice too long?


I’m always wishing for a really cold and snowy winter with lots of ice to concentrate my favorite subject, ducks.  Well, I got my wish big time! This winter is the coldest I’ve ever seen, to the point that many of my favorite spots for waterfowl are totally frozen over and some ducks are probably starving to death. Brutal cold has been a test for all animals in southeastern Michigan, including me. I’m going through lots of hand warmers as I try to keep my fingers from freezing while using my camera.

There’s an unusually high number of Red-breasted Mergansers around this winter. We see mostly commons and a few hoodeds during the winter months.  Red-breasteds are hard to find, and I always thought that these birds wintered further south or to the east on Lake Ontario where there are good numbers during the winter. Maybe I was wrong. The St. Clair River currently has more of these birds than I’ve ever seen, along with many thousands of Long-tailed Ducks. I suspect that these birds normally winter far offshore on Lake Huron and were forced into the river due to heavy ice cover.


A few of the thousands of Long-tailed Ducks on the St. Clair River.

A Round Goby is in big trouble! Two female Red-breasted Mergansers battle for a meal.

Round Gobies, native to the Black and Caspian Seas, are yet another invasive species introduced to North America by us stupid humans. They were first discovered in the St. Clair River in 1990 and likely came from the dumping of a ship’s ballast water. They eat the eggs of native fish, BUT they also eat Zebra Mussels. That’s a good thing, and native fish like Smallmouth Bass and Walleye are eating gobies. Of course, there’s a twist. Some fish feed heavily on nonnative zebra and quagga mussels that are at times also a good source for Type E botulism. The mussels are supposedly not affected by the botulism, but fish and fish-eating birds that ingest them are and they often die. Their bodies are littered upon the beaches of Lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie. Fish species commonly found during die-off events include  Freshwater Drum, Smallmouth Bass, Rock Bass, Round Gobies, and Channel Catfish. Bird species affected by Type E botulism include loons, grebes, cormorants, ducks, herons, shorebirds, gulls and eagles.  More information can be found at the Michigan Sea Grant website.

A male Redhead struggles with a big cluster of Zebra Mussels as more birds try to steal them.

Suicide race: A bunch of mergansers fight for a fishing lure.

This jig looked pretty good to them and it changed hands (or bills) several times. I’m pretty sure no one actually swallowed it, but I do see birds with hooks and line wrapped around them pretty often.

Sea duck photography at 15F below.

Yeah, those temperatures and a clear sky sounded awesome, but a northeast wind on Lake Ontario proved my frozen brain wrong again. Sea smoke — a beautiful term for really crappy conditions — made autofocus pretty much useless. Hypothermic conditions are serious character-building for me but just another day for these tough little Long-tailed Ducks. Can you imagine having to dive underwater for your food in these temperatures!?  This recent trip was a bust but I look froward to trying again with cleats gripping an icy breakwall and, hopefully, the wind at my back.

A drake Canvasback dries off after a bath.

The Ice Storm

•December 27, 2013 • 10 Comments


Of course I’m going to start this out with a bird image.  After a late fall of some serious hunting/gathering it’s time to settle back into photo mode. Ice storms are probably the worst natural disasters we endure in Michigan. They’re rare, dangerous and beautiful. This time we lost power for only 2 days.  A few years ago we went 5 days.  Anyway, Blue Jays are way underrated. They’re one of the prettiest birds on this continent. Throw in some contrasting fall foliage or some matching icy whites and blues and the possibilities are endless.


I wasn’t ready (who is!?) for this storm. Returning from a successful up north muzzle loader trip, I had to brace for days without power and worry about my deer freezing solid. As usual, Erika had everything under control and the first night had the kerosene heater cranking, reading by candlelight and TED talks on the radio. Losing power helps slow life down and makes us realize what’s really important. Maybe we should all do a week every winter.

American Tree Sparrow

The American Tree Sparrow, a stupid name for a bird that should be called the tundra sparrow. Google it!  The trees are probably about 24″ tall where this bird spend its summers. They’re friggin beautiful. If you haven’t seen one, either kill yourself or go outside tomorrow. Okay, maybe that’s a bit overboard but do go outside!


Pretty in pink:  A crazy sunset lights up a White Oak in Lapeer County.


Winter draws pretty pictures, better than any human.


I know, cliche.  I never photograph cardinals because everyone does that.  I hope that I captured one of my favorite southern Michigan birds in a way that you find pleasing.

Back after freezer filling: ducks, geese and deer.  And then hopefully, one of the best winters for photographing owls and waterfowl.

Cold, ice, snow…. this is what a Michigan winter should be and I’m happy!  Hope you are too.

Damn Wind!

•October 22, 2013 • 6 Comments

The southern Lake Huron forecast on October 22, 2013.

Good weather for duck hunting!  Maybe not so good for making sharp images of Sugar Maples and White Birches in their autumn splendor. As the fall season goes into overdrive I’m trying to finish up yard work, catch a few good raptor migration days, gathering and hunting wild food and photographing the last few days of fall color. The weather rarely cooperates and the wind is often a photographer’s biggest problem. Slow shutter speeds are in order for low ISO, small aperture images – the usual combination for best image quality when shooting landscapes and plants.

Birch forest, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Alger County, Michigan
Not a leaf twittering on a calm morning in this six-frame panorama at Pictured Rocks
National Lakeshore. Please click on it to view at full size.

What to do when the wind just won’t stop and the colors are at peak? As mentioned in my previous post, you can point the camera at the ground or into the waters’ reflections. Tree trunks, fallen leaves, logs, rocks and moving water are all great subjects relatively unaffected by the wind.

Sugar Maple on Black Cherry: The wind wasn’t an issue in this photograph. Cliche?
Probably, but I guess just about everything is now. At least I found the leaf where it was.

Decomposing cottonwood leaves are beautiful.

Presque Isle River, reflections, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Michigan
The Presque Isle River creates its own art with reflections of sky and aspen.

Fallen leaves and reflections are obvious subjects that are relatively unaffected by windy conditions. Sometimes it’s fun to harness the wind’s energy and let it be your “painter”.  What I’m going for is a purposely blurred image. These can be totally abstract images or impressionistic, with just enough sharpness or static elements to give the eye an anchor in what is sometimes a sea of chaos. Even pure pattern with subtle or no composition can be a beautiful thing. Think Jasper Johns and Jackson Pollock.

Here are two takes on a Sugar Maple, one a stab at painterly impressionism and the other a more chaotic but fractal pattern. Both were made by choosing very slow shutter speeds and using the multiple exposure function on my Nikon D300. This function allows up to 10 exposure to be made on the same frame. These experiments are often failures but hey, they’re digital! The film experiments were costly. Similar looking results could be created in Photoshop but I prefer the spontaneity and challenge of making them in-camera. Please click on the image for full size as there’s a lot of texture and depth that one cannot appreciate in the small images within the post.

If Monet couldn’t paint… The camera was stationary. 6 slow exposures while the wind howled.

Fractal faux… This had little to do with the wind. I moved the camera 6 times during a 10 frame exposure.

The possibilities are endless! Why limit photography to clinical, razor sharp representations of botanical specimens and locations when we have the tools to convey what we feel about these plants and places – the reasons we exist?  Yeah, I know. Blah blah… that’s what happens when you go to art school. Anyway, here’s a couple tries on aspen.

Oil pastel wannabe… Lots of up and down movement with just enough sharpness on a few of those golden leaves.

Quaking Aspen, Populus tremuloides, Ottawa National Forest, Houghton County, Michigan
Ode to Spirograph… Lying on my back in the Ottawa National Forest I got the hairbrained idea to spin my camera on the tripod while incrementally zooming the lens
during a multiple exposure.  Maybe a little too trippy?

Thanks for taking a look and I hope that you will try your own experiments.

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