Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A fortuitous badger encounter!

This year marked the 8th year that I've led natural history forays in one of the great hidden gems of eastern North America, Presque Isle County, Michigan. I work in partnership with NettieBay Lodge, and there couldn't be a finer base camp. The lodge and its cabins sit on the shore of a beautiful natural lake. The wild yodels of Common Loons are commonplace, Eastern Whip-poor-wills sing from the forest, an American Woodcock displays nightly in the front yard, and scores of other birds are on the property.

But we range throughout the county and beyond on our day trips. Above, this year's group patrols a remote road in the Pigeon River State Forest. There were Mourning Warblers, Northern Waterthrushes, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Ruffed Grouse, and more at this locale. In sum, the group's total bird list for our 3+ days was 142 species, and if my other observations from pre and post excursions is included, the number soars to over 150 species.

If you're interested in coming along next year, drop me a line. We're doing two groups, each of two full days, with a half-day on either end. I think the first one is full, but there are a few spots for the second group. We'll sort the exact dates out soon, but it'll be sometime in the 3rd and 4th week of May.

We usually stop at this big meadow, which always hosts a complement of grassland birds, and this year was no exception.

Savannah Sparrows can always be found singing from the fence posts along the gravel lane in the previous photo, and this is one of those birds.

The highlight of Big Meadow, though, is the Bobolinks. The males put on quite a show, chasing females about and singing their twangy R2-D2 songs. Although Bobolinks occur in many of the pastures up there, this is a particular good spot to view them.

Whoa! An American Badger! While we watched the Bobolinks' antics over the meadow, sharp-eyed Carl Winstead suddenly exclaimed something to the effect of "Is that a badger?!" Yes, indeed it was, and here's the beast. It was snuffling about near the entrance to its burrow along the fenceline buffering the meadow, and close enough to offer stellar looks. We even had him in the scopes for extended views.

Badgers apparently don't see so well, and rely heavily upon scent to interpret their surroundings. We were upwind, which helped a lot, and I don't think the beast even knew we were there, or if it did, it didn't care. Finally, I crept stealthily in its direction, and it eventually detected me and paused to stare my way. After a bit, it slunk back into its burrow, after offering up the best looks one could ever ask for of one of these hard to observe animals.

Two years ago, Sandy Brown spotted a badger from the van on one of our trips. That was the first one I'd ever seen, and I told the story RIGHT HERE. Badgers are quite common in Presque Isle County and vicinity, as evidenced by their numerous burrows. But seeing one requires a fair bit of luck. I'm not sure that they are particularly concerned about people, but the animals spend much of their day holed up in dens, and apparently forage mostly by night.

Photo courtesy of Bob Crist.

Your narrator was quite pleased with the badger sighting, as was the rest of the group. Carl was man of the hour for making the initial spot. To me, this even trumped the singing Connecticut Warbler that we found first thing that morning.

In the case of the badger of two years ago, I got no photos. That's because I didn't bring a camera. It was raining hard when we set out that morning, and the forecast called for lots of precipitation. I didn't want to take the rig out in the rain, and left it behind. Dumb, and a stupid mistake I'll not make again. I could have just left the camera in the van in case of emergency.

For photographers, the rig I'm holding is one of the greatest setups for handheld field work, in my opinion. It is the Canon 5DS-R (more often I'll use the 5D IV) attached to Canon's fantastic 100-400mm II lens. In this case, I had the 1.4x extender attached, and was glad that I did. That makes the lens at full zoom a 560mm, which was plenty of reach to pull in the badger, and it's easy to handhold. Pop the extender off, and the 100mm low end offers the ability to do tight landscapes, people or groups, etc., and the lens focuses to 3.5 feet. Lots of versatility here. If I could only carry one rig, this would be it.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Some images from Michigan

Sorry, I've been remiss in posting of late. Too busy, but having great fun. I've been up in northern Michigan, where I guided a fabulous group of ten people for the better part of five days. We were based at NettieBay Lodge in Presque Isle County, and mostly stayed in that county, with peripheral forays into neighboring Cheboygan and Montmorency counties. We found all manner of cool stuff, including over 140 species of birds.

Before and after the group expedition, I went exploring, and photographing. The last few days I've been on Drummond Island, off the eastern tip of the Upper Peninsula. I'd not visited here before, and am glad I came. Drummond is an absolute goldmine of flora and fauna, always backdropped by stunning scenery.

Following, in no particular order, are a few images from recent days.

Male Golden-winged Warbler, foraging in alder swamp. Pigeon River State Forest.

A pair of male Northern Flickers "dance" while issuing synchronous wicka wicka calls. they are vying for a female. Drummond Island.

A Sandhill Crane struts across the Maxton Plains on Drummond Island. This site is one of the largest and best alvars on the Great Lakes.

A Sharp-tailed Grouse surveys his domain from atop a white spruce. A lek was nearby, and this bird and three other males had just finished their courtship displays, and had dispersed to forage. Drummond Island.

A very young Killdeer chick, still with fuzz. Drummond Island.

Yes, an American Badger! There's a story behind this photo, and it'll warrant its own blog post at a later date. Presque Isle County.

A Mourning Warbler, at one of its singing perches. Pigeon River State Forest.

The oddly beautiful flower of a Naked Miterwort, Mitella nuda. Drummond Island.

A lone Yellow Lady's-slipper, Cypripedium parviflorum, stands sentinel over the Maxton Plains on Drummond Island. In a week or so, these orchids will be conspicuous all over the island. They are just starting to bloom.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Ohio Dragonfly Conference: June 23-25

Mark your calendars for the annual Ohio Odonata Society's dragonfly conference, this year dubbed ODO-CON 17. It'll take place at the picturesque Grand River Conservation Campus, owned by the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, in Ashtabula County, from June 23 thru 25. This is smack in the middle of some of Ohio's wildest wetland country, and the area is rich in dragonfly diversity. I remember seeing tiny Sedge Sprites right outside the doors of the building where the talks will take place, and some of the local streams are known for supporting significant clubtail populations.

We'll have fun, and see a great diversity of dragonfly species on field trips. Lots of other elements of natural history, too.

All of the conference details are RIGHT HERE. Everyone is welcome!

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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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