Thursday, January 19, 2017
While it is the allure of Great Gray Owls that lures many people to the Sax-Zim Bog of northern Minnesota, there are many other interesting birds to be found, as we shall see. I was up there for three solid days last week - my first visit - and was quite impressed with the place. January and February are obviously peak times for winter birding, but come prepared for icy cold. The first morning saw a low of minus 29 F, and the mercury was well below zero each of the following two mornings.
Sax-Zim is an interesting place. Its boundaries include black spruce bogs, cultivated fields, and mixed and deciduous woodlands. A wonderful organization, the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog, has built and staffs a new visitor's center. This building, contrary to many similar installations that see peak visitation in summer, is only open during the winter months.
Some years, other species of northern owls, most notably Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl and Boreal Owl, invade Sax-Zim in numbers during winter. This wasn't one of those years, but I hope to return when a full-fledged owl invasion is in progress.
I would have dearly loved to have spent much more time with the crossbills, but circumstances did not permit it. They are highly fascinating birds, and vital to the ecology of the boreal forests in which they live.
I look forward to a return trip to Sax-Zim Bog to catch up with the owls, crossbills, and all of the other interesting avifauna.
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
Well, my blogging has certainly fallen behind! I was hoping for more time for this sort of thing, but travels and other stuff have made for less of it.
Anyway, just returned from a trip to the bog lands of northern Minnesota, and saw and photographed many interesting birds. Just time for this one photo now, but I'll try and put up some others soon.
It was nearly dark when I made this image. Dusk is an excellent time to find these massive owls, as that's when they typically emerge to hunt. The photo demonstrates the vast improvements in camera technology in recent years. It was shot with the amazing new Canon 5D VI, at an ISO of 12,800! Even so, and with minimal noise reduction applied in post-processing, the image still holds up fairly well. Such a high ISO was needed to harvest enough light to make the image, even with the lens (800mm) wide open at f/5.6 and using a fairly slow shutter speed of 1/320 (could have gone slower and should have), and exposure compensation at +1.7. To help produce a sharp shot, I utilized live view to eliminate shutter slap, and careful camera-holding technique (tripod-mounted). Should have used a remote shutter release too, but forgot to throw it in my pocket.
But nerdy photo-talk is not the point here, cool birds are. I'll hope to share some other hardy boreal birds before long. And hardy they are - every morning saw temperatures well below 0 F, with the mercury plummeting to minus 29 F one memorable morning!
Friday, January 6, 2017
One way to try and make photographs of very common species stand out is to capture them in unusual postures, situations, or in flight. Making a sharp image of a rapidly moving songbird on the wing (click the photo to enlarge) is not easy. In this situation, there was a feeder a few feet to the left, and that's where this bird is headed. As it was about 12 F when I made this image, birds were hungry and the feeders were quite active, and I saw an opportunity. By pre-focusing my camera at a point a few feet off the feeder's right side, I could wait, (frozen) finger on the trigger, for targets to enter the bulls-eye zone.
I got plenty of opportunities with several species, but the vast majority of images will be throw-aways. Only a few times did I nail a photo when the bird was: 1) smack in the focus area; 2) and displaying good posture ( head not turned away, wings in a pleasing position, etc.). Because of the cold and the need to attend to something else, I only spent about a half-hour at this, but want to go back and try some more.
This shot was made with the new Canon 5D IV, and I'm finding this to be a stellar camera, especially for bird photography. Its focus acquisition system is amazing, and it handles high ISO levels well. For this shot I used the Canon 800mm f/5.6 lens, at f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO 1600, exposure compensation +1.7, no flash.
Sunday, January 1, 2017
One of Ohio's smallest counties has long been a favored refuge of Columbus residents fleeing the big city. Hocking County is small, but its 421 square miles are packed with natural beauty.
It's the stunning sandstone gorges, their steep, rocky slopes carpeted in towering hemlock trees, that give the Hocking Hills their distinctive flavor. Iconic places such as Conkles Hollow, Old Man's Cave and Cantwell Cliffs are treasured by tens of thousands of visitors annually.
Because of Hocking County's varied habitats and extraordinary botanical diversity, birds also abound.
A recent book, "The Birds of Hocking County, Ohio" (McDonald & Woodward Publishing Co., 144 pages), does a stellar job of documenting the Hocking Hills' avifauna. The authors are three legends of Ohio natural-history exploration: John Watts, Paul Knoop Jr. and Gary Coovert.
Studies of Hocking County's bird life really picked up steam in the 20th century, thanks to the labors of an early Dispatch writer. Edward Sinclair Thomas, who penned this column for 59 years beginning in 1922, maintained a cabin for decades in what he dubbed Neotoma Valley. The cabin still stands, and it is now part of Clear Creek Metro Park at the north end of the Hocking Hills.
A who's who of naturalists regularly made the pilgrimage to Thomas' Neotoma retreat, and they added much to our knowledge of the region's birds. The first photo in "Birds of Hocking County" is an image of a Bewick's wren taken by Thomas in 1923. While relatively common then, this species no longer occurs in the state.
Those planning a trip to Hocking County in search of certain species will find the book helpful. It documents a remarkable 266 species, describing the status and habitat of each in short accounts. Changes in abundance, such as with the aforementioned wren, are well-described.
Peppered throughout are several dozen photos of birds and habitats. Especially interesting are the images by Thomas, taken nearly a century ago, packaged with modern photos taken by Watts. They make one grateful for conservation — there are almost no trees in the old images! Today, these areas are densely cloaked with timber, thanks to the efforts of conservation agencies.
Especially interesting is the rich introduction, which covers Hocking County's history of nature exploration, its habitats, changes in bird life and excellent sites to seek birds. Among many interesting nuggets, the reader will find historical photos of giant trees — snapshots of what the Hocking Hills would have looked like before timbering.
Hocking County is especially notable for the rare birds that breed within its hemlock gorges. Species such as the blue-headed vireo, hermit thrush, and Canada and magnolia warblers are birds that normally nest far to the north of Ohio. These birds are just part of the highly specialized ecosystems of Hocking County — habitats that should be fiercely protected for their natural treasures.
"The Birds of Hocking County, Ohio" should be indispensable to anyone who visits or lives in the area and is interested in natural history. Birders statewide also will find it a valuable resource. Copies can be had for $24.95 from the Newark-based publisher, or from Amazon.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com
Wednesday, December 28, 2016
Bald Eagles sometimes get a rap for being vulturelike and frequently noshing on carrion and other easy - dead - pickings. But they are highly adept fishermen, and I've seen scenes like this play out many times. I'm just not usually fortunate enough to be able to capture them with my camera.
Tuesday, December 27, 2016
Giant Leopard Moth caterpillars overwinter in the larval stage, and on sunny days when the temperature rises somewhat above freezing, some will become active and commence wandering about. This one had a bit of mud caked on its bristles; it had undoubtedly been under leaves or wood. Because of the GLM cats' predilection for late season and winter wandering, they are often confused with the Woolly-bear by the larvally illiterate. The Woolly-bear, as you know, is the caterpillar of the Isabella Tiger Moth, Pyrrharctia isabella, and is fabled for its alleged ability to predict winter's severity, or lack thereof.
So, people seeing roaming GLM cats may presume it to be a very dark Woolly-bear, and thus predict an exceptionally harsh winter (the darker the Woolly-bear the more severe the winter). On the lighter side, another late fall/early winter wandering caterpillar is that of the Virginian Tiger Moth, Spilosoma virginica, the Yellow Bear. This larva is also similar to the Woolly-bear but is quite pale. Misidentifications of this animal result in predictions of a mild winter.
As the Woolly-bear as winter predictor is a demonstrably false myth, none of these larval identification challenges much matters.
I've written in more detail about Woolly-bears and larval forecasting RIGHT HERE.