Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A quick trip to Goose Pond

I made a whirlwind trip to the Hoosier State last weekend, primarily to speak at the Hendricks County Master Gardeners' annual Adventures in Gardening conference just west of Indianapolis. That was a great time, a very well organized and run event, and an excellent turnout of 140 or so people. Thanks to Theresa Mathieson and crew for having me out.

As good fortune would have it, the conference venue was a short hour and a half drive away from an Indiana natural treasure, Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area. I'd only been here once, last March, when David FitzSimmons and I teamed to teach a photography workshop there in conjunction with Roberts Camera of Indianapolis.

I was totally impressed by my inaugural Goose Pond foray, so after the conference I hopped in the car and headed down to Linton, which sits on the edge of the sprawling wildlife area.

I arrived with just a few hours of daylight on Saturday evening, and spent most of my time casing out honey holes; places I wanted to be at first light the next morning. As I was leaving the area headed back to Linton and the hotel, the moon nudged over the horizon. Whoa! There was no other option than to stop, pull out the camera gear, and create some images of the massive orange orb.

It was early out the following morning, well before sunrise. I stopped at a grand overlook of one of Goose Pond's big marshes to capture the sunrise. This is a great time to be in a marsh, what with the cacophony of coots cackling, squadrons of ducks coming and going, massive flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds loudly squabbling, and myriad other sights and sounds of a healthy wetland.

I hadn't even got my tripod up when a Sora fluttered by in the dim pre-dawn light, legs dangling. Before long, I heard many more, and saw one tiptoeing through the cattails in front of me. Fortunately, I had chest waders in the car, so I donned those, grabbed the tripod and big lens, and waded in. These small rails seem to hold feeding territories even in migration, and I figured out where two of the Soras were spending their time. Even so, it was a real challenge to grab good images, although I managed this one and a few others. It was much easier to just observe the birds skulking amongst the thick vegetation, and watch their behavior. Given the available habitat in this 8,000 acre marsh complex, I wondered how many rails might be present as we're at about the peak of their migration. Hundreds? Thousands? I heard Soras everywhere I went.

In spite of the unseasonably warm weather, the marshes still hosted lots of waterfowl. Here, six Gadwall cruise by in a loose v-formation.

After determining where most of the ducks were concentrated, I found a sweet spot where many incoming and outgoing birds would fly past. Tucked up against a thick cattail stand, the fowl generally didn't spot me until I'd already locked the lens on them. They'd immediately swerve further out, but not before I managed some images, at least some of the time.

This is a flock of American Wigeon. Their high-pitched piping whistles carry some distance and are a classic sound of a waterfowl-filled Midwestern marsh.

I love shooting ducks. Success generally involves several factors, none of which are particularly easy. One, you must know something of their behavior and be able to find a perfect spot from which to shoot. If I had had my portable blind along I probably would have used that, but in this case terrain and vegetation had to suffice. Two, ducks fly fast and are usually supremely wary, so one must be quick with the trigger. Oftentimes, there's only a few seconds to get the lens on the bird, lock focus, and start firing before the optimal window of light, angle, and proximity vanish. It's a heckuva lot like shooting skeet, only instead of shattering a clay pigeon the successful hunter returns with a sharp image of a fast-moving bird. Three, the shooter has to know his/her equipment. Shooting in auto mode will never work (very well).

This hen Blue-winged Teal was shot with the rig I used for all the bird shots in this post, a tripod-mounted Canon 5DS-R with Canon's superb 500mm f/4 II lens, increased to 700mm via their 1.4x teleconverter. Settings for this image were f/5.6 (wide open with this set-up), 1/2000, ISO 800, and +1/3rd exposure compensation in manual mode.

Yes! A pair of Wood Ducks rockets in. A split second later they spotted me and quickly diverted away. The marsh that I fixated on was full of "Woodies" and they routinely made passes by my location, giving me a number of chances to try for wing shots.

By using tall cattails as a shield, I got fairly close to this pair. I found a narrow window between vegetation where I could get the lens on them, but the ducks still picked up on my mostly concealed self and got edgy. Here, the female springs aloft; the drake followed seconds later.

Hen leads drake, which is usually how it is in the duck world. This was such a great experience: perfect light, gorgeous Indian Summer day, and scads of ducks in the marsh.

Mullet flying, a drake Wood Duck blisters by. This photo was taken just about the time he saw me, which worked to my advantage. My sudden appearance caused him to cant his head slightly in my direction, which created a wonderful angle to the bird. Birds, in general, photograph much better if their head is tilted 5-10 degrees towards the photographer.

Not all was ducks at Goose Pond, though. The restoration of these wetlands from agricultural land began only a decade or so ago. Nonetheless, a diverse and vibrant seed bank awaited the return of water, and a great diversity of marsh plants have sprung forth. This is a small, creeping species of vervain known as Fogfruit, Phyla lanceolata.

Great plant diversity spawns insect diversity, including dragonflies. This is a female Eastern Pondhawk, one of many that I saw.

Never before have I seen so many Bronze Coppers in one locale. The tiny butterflies were everywhere and I saw hundreds, probably. This late in the season, many of them were looking a bit long in the tooth, but still very active. Small wonder so many are here. The caterpillars feed on species of dock and smartweed (family Polygonaceae), and I suspect they use Water Smartweed, Polygonum amphibium, which is abundant at Goose Pond.

Finally, I was pleased to see dozens of the beleaguered Monarch butterflies, more than I've seen in one location for a long time. I was probably never out of sight of several or more the entire day. In addition to providing habitat for waterbirds, Goose Pond also offers habitat for scores of upland species, and acts as a huge and vital way station for highly migratory Monarchs. Many of them - and lots of other butterflies - were tapping nectar from the extremely common plant in this photo, White Heath Aster, Symphyotrichum pilosum. This aster is an enormously important nectar source for late-season butterflies.

Before I knew it, my day was over and it was time to make the long haul back to Ohio. If you ever get the opportunity to visit Goose Pond, take advantage. CLICK HERE for more information.



Lisa Greenbow said...

I am so pleased to see this eloquent and picture perfect post of one of our favorite places. We live not far from Goose Pond and dearly love the place. The Super moon was gorgeous.

Lisa Greenbow said...

P.S. I hope you spotted the new Visitor Center that opened just a few weeks ago. Not quite finished but is a marvelous addition to the property.