Friday, May 19, 2017

Fierce electrical storm

While headed home last night around 8:30 pm, I noticed the makings of a wonderful electrical storm off to the north. As I neared home, the storm intensified, and I saw a potential opportunity to not only observe one of Nature's most awe-inspiring spectacles, but to also try and make some lightning images.

Fortunately, by the time I finally made it back, the storm was still cooking. So I ran in, grabbed some appropriate gear, and tore across the street to a field that offered an unobstructed view to the north. As the storm was raging some distance to the north, there was no rain and not even much wind at my position. Quite often, when good electrical storms offer themselves up, driving rain provides accompaniment. If you've got no protected shelter offering a dry view, forget about making images. Luck was with me last night.

As always, click the photo to enlarge

A sunburst spiderweb of lightning bolts creates an interesting pattern against a roiling sky backlit by other more distant lightning flashes. This storm was especially sweet from a photographic viewpoint, as the flashes came frequently, and in the same locale.

To make these images, I used a tripod-mounted Canon 5D IV. The image above was shot with Canon's 70-200mm f/2.8 II, and cropped somewhat. Settings were 70mm, f/3.2, 3.2 second exposure, at ISO 400. I used the camera's level to ensure a flat horizon, and a remote shutter release. Once everything is set, I lock the shutter release and let the camera fire away until I unlock the shutter.

The big trick is setting focus properly. My first series of images was made with the Canon 24mm f/1.4, and those came out nice and sharp. But, I realized that a tighter perspective would be better, so I let the camera continue to run as I ran back home and grabbed the 70-200mm. After changing lenses, I got the 70-200 dialed in pretty sharp, as can be seen in both of these images. However, after a while I zoomed to about 140mm, but neglected to fine-tune the focus. All of those images were a loss.

No matter, though. In all, I let the camera expose about 420 images, and  - at least as lightning shots go - an unusually high number were keepers.

This image is a composite of five shots, all taken (almost) back to back. The flashes came so plentifully that between 1/3rd and 1/2 of my 3.2 second exposures had captured a bolt.

Big electrical storms such as this make one feel rather insignificant, and are a great reminder of the power of Nature. Of the myriad gods that Homo sapiens has invented in an attempt to explain natural phenomena in our short 200,000 years of existence, few have been as impressive as Thor. It was he, after all, that was said to oversee skies such as these.

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

A fortuitous fox encounter

I spent yesterday and this morning in Killbuck Marsh and vicinity, an area rich in wildlife. Located near the town of Shreve in Wayne County, Ohio, this region is full of wetlands and other interesting habitats, and always produces noteworthy encounters.

I was out in the marsh bright and early today, stalking birds. After finding an especially productive honey hole and spending several hours watching and photographing many species of birds, I had to head for home. But the allure of ground squirrels was strong, and I opted to make one slight detour and visit a cemetery that harbors a population of these fascinating little "prairie dogs".

A Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel stands near its burrow, ever watchful. One wrong move from your narrator, and he'd be underground in a shot.

I didn't have much to spend stalking squirrels, and after making a few images, I was slowly rolling out in the Jeep. As I neared the cemetery's exit, I spotted another squirrel nearby, stopped, pulled the camera up and went for more images.

Suddenly, as if from thin air, a gorgeous Red Fox materialized. As I was in the car - vehicles make great blinds - the fox utterly ignored me. He (she?) began trotting about my vicinity, at one point snuffling about a pile of fallen debris. I suspect it was after the very ground squirrels I was there to photograph.

In order to draw a bead on the animal, I had to slowly and quietly slip out of the car, then balance the big telephoto atop the door. That allowed me to get a few shots such as the one above.

As the Red Fox is a very handsome animal, I wanted to take this opportunity to create a portraiture shot. By making squeaking sounds in his direction, I was able to get the beast to briefly freeze and stare my way. Bingo! I'll send him this one for his Facebook profile. As (bad) luck would have it, a car pulled in just after I shot the image above, and spooked the animal. I would have loved to have spent more time with him.

It's not common to see Red Fox hunting and cavorting about during midday hours, and it was a lucky way to end the day.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

New River Birding and Nature Festival!

Too many days have passed since my last post. I thought I'd be able to make more posts this year, but travels and other activities have my web writing at an all-time low for recent times. It's not that I'm wanting for material - I've been tripping the shutter and seeing interesting organisms at a prolific clip.

The last week+ was occupied with the New River Birding & Nature Festival in Fayetteville, West Virginia. This region is one of the most scenic places in eastern North America, and one of the richest in biodiversity. I've been speaking at and leading trips for the festival for a dozen or so years now without missing a beat, and love each return visit. Check out the festival info RIGHT HERE, and consider adding it to your itinerary in 2018.

I take few photos during these sorts of events - I'm too preoccupied with helping everyone else find and see good stuff. In order to satisfy my photographic addiction, I usually tack on a day or two at one end or the other - or both - of the festival and go out and shoot cool stuff.

Following is a miniscule sampling of some of the things that we see and do during the New River Birding & Nature Festival.

A group descends a grassy knob high in the southern West Virginia mountains. This pasture is full of Bobolinks, and we were there to admire the aerial displays of courting males. As William Cullen Bryant penned in his poem Robert of Lincoln:

Merrily swinging on brier and weed,
Near to the nest of his little dame,
Over the mountain-side or mead,
Robert of Lincoln is telling his name:
Bob-o'-link, bob-o'-link, Spink, spank, spink:
Snug and safe is that nest of ours,
Hidden among the summer flowers.
Chee, chee, chee.
 
  
  
  
  
 
  
  
 
We do not want for showy scenery. Interesting field trips radiate through the regions each day - the festival runs for six days, although it isn't necessary to attend the entire thing. This mountain brook was running high from an overnight shower.

Indigo Buntings, such as this day-glo male, are very common. Much rarer fare includes Golden-winged and Swainson's warblers. In all, we probably see about 150 species collectively over the course of the week.

A White-eyed Vireo gushes his song from a thicket: Pick up the beer, Check! We work hard to not only find and identify birds, but also learn about their habitats and ecology. Such efforts are aided by a world-class group of guides (not claiming membership in that category, myself :-).

While birds are nearly always prioritized - they can quickly fly away, after all - we ignore nearly nothing. A showy little Eastern Gartersnake such as this would surely be admired, and commented upon.

Some of the best botanical backdrops in the country form the stage for our forays. This treelet is a Flame Azalea, Rhododendron calendulaceum. It is nearly jarring to encounter one of these orange-flowered beauties in an otherwise still brown forest of early spring.

Pink Lady's-slippers, Cypripedium acaule, nearly never fail to elicit a reaction. While these beautiful orchids might be encountered almost anywhere we go, we've got a few honey holes on tap. The site where I made this image hosted over a hundred plants, all in a fairly small area of dry, rocky upland woods.

The plants, at least for those of us who know them, mean there is never a dull moment. If there is a rare lull in birding action, there is always things like this stunning Miterwort, Mitella diphylla, to ogle. Its tiny bloom resembles a snowflake.

This is the fruit of the Miterwort. Tiny glossy seeds sit loosely anchored in an open cup. The first rain drop to score a hit on the cup knocks the fruit to the forest floor. Splash dispersal. Once grounded, the seeds will probably be picked up and carted off by ants, and thus spread to new locales.

My favorite trips are those that venture high up the mountains and into Cranberry Glades Botanical Area. This year, one of my co-leaders was Mark Garland - orange hat, green shirt. Mark leads trips all over the globe, is a consummate naturalist, and epitomizes the quality of field trip leadership at this festival. There's a lot to point out at Cranberry Glades. This boreal relict harbors many birds that normally breed much further north, such as Canada Warbler and Winter Wren. And they don't call it a botanical area for nothing - the flora is diverse and stunning.

I hope you consider attending the New River Birding & Nature Festival next year.

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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Worm-eating Warbler

A gorgeous Worm-eating Warbler poses nicely in the understory of a wooded slope in Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio. I spent the day in this place yesterday on a glorious spring day. The sun shone all day long, the mercury rose into the 70's F, and migratory birds had returned in droves.

Of all the warblers that breed in Shawnee, it's possible that the Worm-eating Warbler is my favorite. It's a subtle animal in every respect. They breed on steep heavily wooded slopes with a well-developed understory, and do much of their foraging in fairly dense growth. That, coupled with the often dim lighting of their haunts, can make "worm-eaters" tough to spot. While the males sing frequently, it's not an overwhelming song. Their tune is a dry, rapid husky trill, reminiscent of a Chipping Sparrow. This is an easy bird to pass right by, even though in a place like Shawnee, an intrepid traveler might be in proximity to 50 or more of the birds in a morning.

Right now is a great time to make a study of forest breeding birds. Many, such as the worm-eaters, have just returned and the males are quite busy trying to establish territories. This means much singing, and conspicuous battles with neighbors as turfs are set up. The bird in this photo was engaged in a serious sing-off with a nearby neighbor, and constantly visited a regular series of singing perches. All I had to do was sidle into a good spot, and watch the action.

A note on the name: the specific epithet vermivorum of the scientific name means "a worm". Hence the common name. It's naming harks back to a time when scientific descriptions were less than exacting, and caterpillars were often called worms. No self-respecting Worm-eating Warbler would probably actually eat a true worm - one of the "night-crawlers" - but they avidly consume the larvae of Lepidoptera - butterflies and moths (caterpillars). Worm-eaters are somewhat specialized foragers, spending much time gleaning through hanging clusters of dead leaves. Such sites are rich in invertebrate prey.

I continue to be disgusted by the treatment of Shawnee State Forest by its "managers", the Ohio Division of Forestry. This woodland belongs to all Ohioans, harbors some of the richest biodiversity in North America, and is being logged to smithereens. Enough is enough - this is not what most Ohioans want to see, nor is it good for the health of this magnificent woodland.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Lark Sparrow

I spent a fine day in Indianapolis last Sunday, at the stellar Indianapolis Museum of Art. The museum has on display a selection of about 75 original prints from John James Audubon's seminal work, Birds of America. It's well worth a visit to see Audubon's incredible illustrations, but the museum has much more to offer, both inside and out. On the outside is 152 acres of incredible landscapes that is treated as living art. Many native plants are incorporated - in fact, the dominant biomass is native. Thus, the grounds play host to a variety of birds and other wildlife. I gave a talk on Audubon, his art, life, and travels in one of the museum's auditoriums, but beforehand was able to tag along with the museum's chief horticulturalist, Chad Franer, as he led a walk around the museum's property. I highly recommend a visit.

Early the next morning - last Monday - on my return from Indy, I stopped by a long abandoned limestone quarry near Dayton, Ohio that has been made into a park. Barren as the site may appear, it is quite birdy, and didn't disappoint.

One of the first species I encountered was a confiding Prairie Warbler. He seemingly burst with the pleasures of spring, as he sang his rising buzzy melody from the perches that define his turf.

This bird, however, was my primary target - the Lark Sparrow. It is one of my favorites among the Emberizidae, and it's hard picking favorites in such a family of stunners. For us Ohioans, the Lark Sparrow is always a treat. While it becomes quite common to the west, this species is at the eastern periphery of its range here, and quite uncommon. This fellow and at least three others were singing their peculiar buzzy trills from prominent perches. No shrinking violet, the Lark Sparrow.

I was at the park at the crack of dawn, and thus had the place to myself. So, I operated as usual when trying to photograph songbirds. After determining the location of several oft-used perches by one of the territorial sparrows, I sidled into a good position and just waited for him to make his rounds. That's how I got the previous shot. It must be said, though, that the Lark Sparrow is rather tame and not difficult to get near. Nonetheless, I wanted - as always - candid shots of the birds acting naturally, and even with Lark Sparrows that takes a bit of time and patience.

Lark Sparrows remind me of elfin quail, and like quail they spend much time on the ground foraging for plant seeds and small insects. Before long, the singer I was photographing flew to the ground not far from me and began picking about. In short order, his mate joined him and they eventually worked so close to me that I couldn't focus on them. In the shot above, the male hops atop a rock to eye me curiously, then continued on with his activities.

The birds eventually began collecting old plant stems for a nest. This fellow is quite ambitious in his selection of material.


As can be seen by this fine map, the Lark Sparrow is largely a bird of the Great Plains. Its breeding range barely extends as far east as Ohio, which is why it is such a notable treat here. The Buckeye State stronghold has long been the open sandy habitats of the Oak Openings west of Toledo, a place that they've probably bred for thousands of years. But more and more, Lark Sparrows are utilizing - in very small numbers - large abandoned stone quarries such as the one that I visited on this trip.

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

John James Audubon talk - Indianapolis Museum of Art

John James Audubon's beautiful rendering of an American Avocet, a species he found breeding near Vincennes, Indiana in 1814. That remains the state's only nesting record.

I'm giving a program this Sunday, April 23, at 3 pm at the Indianapolis Museum of Art about the one and only Audubon. The museum has about 75 of Audubon's prints from his ground-breaking work, The Birds of America, on exhibit: Audubon: Drawn to Nature. The avocet is included among them.

Audubon roamed America at a time when our habitats were largely unaltered, but lived to see sweeping changes wrought by the onslaught of European colonization. He was a woodsman through and through, and in addition to being a keen observer of nature, was arguably the greatest artist of birds to ever live. His paintings are magnificent, and broke new ground in their animation and attention to detail.

Preceding my talk is a tour of the museum's expansive grounds, which are heavily populated with native plants. Birds and other wildlife abound. For all the details, CLICK HERE.

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Eastern Red Bat

This wonderful little woodland trail meanders along a bluff overlooking a particularly pristine southern Ohio stream. There is lots of wildflower diversity, and as is the case with sites that harbor great floristic diversity, there is lots of animal diversity.

Mostly, on this trip of last Tuesday, I was looking for a mammal - a very special little mammal. I had been here the previous Saturday, with said mammal high on the list of hoped-for targets, but no luck. We saw lots of other great things, and many nice photos were taken, but the migratory mammal that was a main quest had apparently not yet arrived in these haunts.

As you've gathered from this post's title, it was the Eastern Red Bat, Lasiurus borealis, that I was after. These tiny "tree bats" are highly migratory, and the most likely species to be seen hunting during daylight hours. When at rest, the bats typically choose trees for roosting and, as we shall see, can be incredibly difficult to spot when ensconced among the foliage.

I've seen Red Bats on numerous occasions and even photographed them on the wing. The last one that I saw was VERY up close and personal - it was captured as part of a researcher's banding project. The one before that I found napping on the side of an Ohio State University parking garage. But what had thus far eluded me was seeing this wee bat making like a leaf in a tree.

The tan-brown leaves in the photo above are those of American Beech, Fagus grandifolia, and it seems to be the tree of choice for roosting Red Bats.

To make this image, I was prone in the leaf litter. We can see the long-lingering beech leaves of a young sapling projecting in from the left. And if you look quite closely, you may notice a darker lump among those leaves - just left of dead center.

With the help of a 300mm lens and a better lighting angle, we can better make out the "lump". Target acquired - it's a roosting Eastern Red Bat! I was pleased indeed to finally see one of these bats in such habitat, and even more pleased when shortly thereafter I found another one, near eye level.

I'd say it would be a stroke of pure luck - or the result of phenomenal observational skills - for someone to stumble upon one of these bats in a beech tree. But if one is privy to their roosting habits, the odds of locating a Red Bat go way up. I knew they were likely in this area, so I searched the beech trees carefully. However, I've scoured beech for bats many times before, with no luck. Red Bats are even smaller than a beech leaf, and they tend to huddle up next to a leaf or within a small cluster of leaves.

Seen well, the animal is a beast of extraordinary beauty. The pelage is a deep reddish-orange, frosted with a silvery sheen. Small wonder they hide among leaves - the bat is amazingly leaflike and tough to spot among the foliage.

The little fox-like face exudes a certain charm, and those proportionately enormous ears are marvelous augmentations to a remarkably keen sense of hearing.

It would be interesting to know where this bat spent the winter. Red Bats are known to be migratory, and it's possible many of those that pass through or remain to breed in Ohio spent the winter in some southern state. I'm sure FAR more of them are out there than suspected. As this photo essay illustrates, they can quite easily be overlooked. April seems to be a great month for locating Red Bats, and young beech trees with their persistent hanging dead leaves seem to be the best place to search them out. So, should you find yourself in a woodland with beech, keep an eye out for these showy little bats.

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