Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A cold sky indeed!

Last night was bitterly cold here in central Ohio, as evidenced by my car's thermometer. Yes, it says -20 F, as in MINUS TWENTY. I knew it was going to be about as cold as I've ever experienced, and I wanted to experience such frigidity. So, after getting home from work last night, I took a nap. Then got up, prepared, and headed out the door around midnight.

The only way that I could think of to try and visually portray the brutally cold temperatures was with sky shots. As is usually the case when the mercury plunges to extreme lows, the sky was bright and clear. I headed north, with a few locales in mind. The goal was to get away from city lights, and find a VERY dark spot, perhaps with some interesting scenery. As I worked north of Delaware, the temperature fell until it hit the reading above, which was at the spot where I made the following image. As an interesting footnote, the extreme cold noticeably effected the way that my car drove. It felt wooden and clunky, and fuel economy dropped to less than half of what it would normally be.

I eventually landed in this remote cemetery, and set up the camera gear to make my first stab at shooting star trail photos. There are essentially two ways to expose the camera to capture the earth's rotation, thus making the stars appear to streak across the sky. One is to take a long series of 30 second exposures (or thereabouts), and later stitch them together with editing software. I did take a long series of such shots, but have not yet stitched them. I'm curious to see the results.

The other technique is to take a VERY long single exposure, which is how this shot was made. I did learn at least two things from this exposure. One, as dark as it seemed, there still was probably too much ambient light pollution from distant cities and towns. And two, a distant farm with its attendant night lights shows up far too well - like the onset of a sunrise. I did not know these things. But I look forward to learning from my errors and trying some more star trail shooting.

This image was made with my Canon 5D Mark III firmly affixed to a tripod. For foreground interest, I placed the cedars along the right side of the image, and that small round tree in the lower lefthand corner. I used the 17-40 f/4 ultra wide angle lens, set to a focal length of 25mm. The aperture was at f/8, and ISO at 100. Here's the kicker - the shutter speed was 56 minutes. To get that long of an exposure, you must use the Bulb setting, and trigger the shutter with a locking remote release. Also, the white balance was set to the "tungsten" setting. That gives the sky a more metallic blue look. Finally, Polaris, or the North Star, is near the top left corner of the image. Focusing on or near this celestial body adds interest, is it seemingly remains stationary while the other stars appear to rotate around it.

All of this worked quite well - I just need to find totally dark areas to shoot star trails, AND wait for one of our rare cloudless nights where the moon is not full.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Gadwall, a study in understated aesthetics

The tail waters of Hoover Dam, northern Franklin County, Ohio, last Monday. There was a wee bit of a nip in the air - it was about 10 F - creating a steam cloud from the flume of warmer water exiting the dam. As the catch basin remains ice-free, it is a great spot to observe and photograph waterfowl at reasonably close range.

A drake Mallard tips up to scavenge algae from the rocks. One must admire the hardiness of fowl on a frigid day, as they cavort in water barely above freezing on the downside, and air that is far frostier yet on the upside. The geese and ducks go about their business as if it is a summer day. Less hardy human observers shiver and shake, and would quickly perish if they fell into this drink.

There were several species of ducks plying the waters on this day, including this handsome pair of Northern Shovelers. Note how the hen swims with her rotund spoonbill skimming the water, seining up food. She could easily be dismissed as some other species of somberly hued hen duck, but the fat bill and emerald-green wing speculum give her away instantly. As does her distinctive companion.

While shovelers, wigeon, Hooded Mergansers, and other ducks are cool, it was the Gadwall that mostly intrigued me. I've always rooted for underdogs, and this duck just does not get its proper due. From afar, even a drake such as this can look unassuming and blend with the masses. Waterfowl illiterati might not even notice the Gadwall.

Hen Gadwall are even less distinguished, and look quite female Mallardesque. Note her white speculum peeking through - it often shows on resting birds - and the richly scalloped look to the back.

Wintry as it may be, it is Spring - Spring! - for the fowl, and bonds have already been struck. This charcoal-rumped drake Gadwall watchfully escorts his mate. They no doubt pine for breeding grounds far to the northwest, but ice-choked waters hold them back. Come the spring thaw, they'll bumping against ice-out until they reach their prairie pothole or whatever northern wetland they seek for the making of more Gadwall.

The English name of this duck is odd, and it seems that no one is quite sure of its origins or even exactly what Gadwall means. The scientific name Anas strepera is easier to interpret. Anas = "duck", and strepera = "noisy". One of the aural delights of a spring marsh packed with ducks is the comically nasal blurting quacks of drake Gadwall. CLICK HERE to listen for yourself.

After a bit, a drake Gadwall drifted near, and began bathing - plunging his head under the icewater, and showering itself with spray. I locked the camera on the bird, hoping for interesting compositions, and was not disappointed. In this shot, taken in mid-shake and frozen with a 1/5000 shutter speed, the true majesty of this bird smacks one in the face. It is like an ornately detailed work of art. Note the extremely fine vermiculations of the flank and breast feathers - avian op art in real life. The fanned plumes are nearly egretlike, and the duck reveals its wing panels of chestnut, ebony, and ivory. When caught primping like this, the wallflower becomes a supermodel!

The Gadwall blows the water off with powerful strokes of its wings, offering another perspective of its beauty. Suffering the breezy chill of a frigid February day was well worth it, in order to do a shoot with one of our most beautiful ducks.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Vanilla Ice meets Cooper's Hawk

This is the front page of one of the sections of last Sunday's Columbus Dispatch, and I was pleased to see my column, Nature, got the banner treatment. As did my Cooper's Hawk photo. This isn't the first time that I've managed to come up with something interesting enough to get bannerized, but IT IS the first time that any of my work has shared space with Vanilla Ice.

Yes, THAT Vanilla Ice. He of the explosive 1990 hit Ice Ice Baby, complete with its unmistakable stuttering bass line. Sorry, I imagine that little rapster ditty is now incessantly circling some of your brains, and it may not soon go away. And if his big hit isn't yet wedged in your mind, CLICK HERE.

Well, it turns out that Mr. Robert Matthew Van Winkle (no wonder he goes by Vanilla Ice) is an accomplished home remodeler. That's why the Dispatch featured him on the front page of the At Home section. But as I can't help noting, below my stuff.

Sharing the page with Vanilla Ice. Wonder if this is going to be the pinnacle of my career?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Cooper's hawk is songbird assassin

Cooper's hawk is a songbird assassin

February 15, 2015

Jim McCormac

Few visitors to backyard bird feeders are as polarizing as the Cooper’s hawk.

Many songbird lovers have recoiled in horror when one of these feathered furies has barreled into the yard and plucked a cardinal from the air.

The Cooper’s hawk is the common backyard plunderer of songbirds.

Bad attitudes toward the magnificent raptor go way back. Early ornithologists disparaged them, adding legitimacy to efforts to soil the bird’s reputation and provide fuel for hawk shooters. Said William Dawson, author of the 1903 book Birds of Ohio: “THIS is the real culprit! Punish him who will (for its) . . . evil deeds/"

Waxing anthropomorphic about Cooper’s hawks is irresistible. The hawk possesses the strategic genius of Genghis Khan, the slick agility of Wayne Gretzky and a punch like Mike Tyson.

Cooper’s hawks feed almost entirely on songbirds. Their short rounded wings and long rudderlike tail allow the birds to maneuver like stunt planes. Females are much larger than males and will sometimes take down squirrels. A hawk on the hunt might sit quietly in a tree, awaiting prey. Other times, the bird will explode into a flock of potential victims, using shrubs, houses or other obstacles to hide its approach.

An adult Cooper’s hawk is beautiful. The upperparts are shaded a rich bluish-gray, and colorful orange barring stripes the underside. The head is capped with black, as if the hawk has donned a hoodie, and under that are glaring red eyes (stare into a Cooper’s hawk’s eyes and you’ll be struck by the absolute fearlessness within). Young Cooper’s hawks are clad in muted browns with bold smudgy streaking below.

While common today, Cooper’s hawks’ populations plummeted in the mid-1900s. Harvesting by gunners played a role, but environmental contamination by DDT was worse. The pesticide interfered with raptor reproduction cycles. Following the ban on DDT in 1972, Cooper’s hawks began to recover.

When one feeds the songbirds, one also feeds Cooper’s hawks. One invites them into the yard by providing a buffet of cardinals, jays, sparrows and such. Rather than excoriating the hardworking hawk for plying its trade, one should instead appreciate the hawk for what it is. A Cooper’s hawk is the pinnacle of avian engineering, an indomitable spirit of the wild in the midst of our largely domesticated lives.

As do all high-end predators, Cooper’s hawks play a vital role in creating equilibrium among populations of lesser beasts.

Some people just don’t like the way they go about it — although many folks who deride a Cooper’s hawk for doing what comes naturally would defend the nonnative house cat that slays backyard birds.
Cats are beautiful and have their place — in the house. Leave the bird-hunting to the natives such as the majestic Cooper’s hawk.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com

Saturday, February 14, 2015

A gorgeous winter sunset

A fading sunset paints the sky in warm hues, reflected off interesting cloud formations. Big Island Wildlife Area, Marion County, Ohio, February 7, 2015.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Wildlife Diversity Conference: A perk for attendees

I recently wrote about the upcoming Ohio Wildlife Diversity Conference, which will take place in Columbus on March 11. CLICK HERE for that post and additional conference details.

It is customary to unveil new Division of Wildlife publications at this conference, and this year will be no exception. Scroll on down...

Conference attendees will be the first to receive a showy new publication entitled Milkweeds & Monarchs. This slick little booklet describes the current plight of our most iconic butterfly, lays out its ecology and the integral role of milkweeds in the butterfly's life cycle, and details many of the other benefits that milkweeds provide. Above all, the publication outlines ways in which people can easily and directly help the Monarch.

There will be other perks for attendees as well. Be sure to attend, and get your Milkweeds & Monarchs booklet, hear a bunch of great talks, and share with hundreds of other like-minded nature enthusiasts. And please, pass the word. For conference registration, CLICK HERE.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Rough-legged Hawk

Teed up like an angel ornament crowning a Christmas tree, a Rough-legged Hawk surveys its surroundings from atop a scraggly locust at Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area in Wyandot County. Students of raptors soon learn of this hawk's propensity for perching at the very tip of whatever surveillance point the hawk chooses, often mounting impossibly small twigs. Such perching behavior can give the observer a strong idea as to what species is involved, long before any field marks can be seen. Years ago, I had a new birder in my car, and as we drove through the wintry Ohio landscape, I espied a raptor perched on the extreme uppermost branches of a large oak in the middle of an otherwise barren field. "Rough-legged Hawk!" I proclaimed, even though the bird was very far off and just an undefined speck. She was stunned, and demanded to know how I could possibly be sure of its identity. I launched into an utterly - but unbeknownst to her - fanciful description of how the legs were feathered to the feet, the small bill and delicate facial features, blah blah blah. By now she thinks I must have Superman vision, and soon we were close enough to the bird to stop and and admire it through our optics. Sure, enough, light morph Rough-legged Hawk.

I was just playing the odds in order to have some fun, relying on the treetop perching habits of this beautiful raptor to prove me right. As we admired the stunning raptor, I of course came clean and divulged why my guess was what it was. And why such knowledge can make for a good party trick when with newer birders.

A closer view of a Rough-legged Hawk in flight, as seen yesterday at Big Island Wildlife Area in Marion County. A stunning bird indeed, with a complex pattern of white, black, and brown. In addition to their habit of treetop perching, Rough-leggeds excel at "wind-kiting": facing into the wind and hovering in place for sometimes extensive periods. They do this when prey is seen below. A favored food is meadow voles, and these little rodents often dash in and out of the snow or grass clumps. The raptor remains tethered overhead, as if attached to a string, awaiting an opportunity to pounce.

The bird in this photo is a light morph individual. There is also a striking dark morph of the Rough-legged Hawk that is mostly black. The color forms of Rough-legged Hawks - and other animals with distinct morphs such as Snow Geese - are often mistakenly referred to as "phases", as in "Did you see that beautiful dark phase Rough-legged Hawk?". Sorry to mount a nerdish, mildly pedantic soap box, but such forms are decidedly not phases and shouldn't be referred to as such. A phase is, according to Webster's: "a particular appearance or state in a regularly recurring cycle of changes".

The appearance of the moon at any given time is a phase. It'll change appearance in successive days, but it is still the moon, albeit with very different looks as it progresses through its phases.

Rough-legged Hawks do not change form. They are either light morphs (which most birds that appear in Ohio are), or they are dark morphs. If the bird changed appearance from a light type to a dark type over its development, then one might say that the first stage of color form was a phase. But since they don't, one cannot accurately apply the term phase in this case. Again, from Webster, the definition of morph, as the term relates to biology: "a phenotypic variant of a species". And that's what light and dark morphs of the Rough-legged Hawk are - variants of the same species, but stable variants that do not change appearance over time, or phase into other plumages.

Enough of that. A person could easily be bowled over by the dashing good looks of a Rough-legged Hawk even if they didn't know its name, let alone whether the bird should be correctly termed a phase or morph. Also of interest is that the closest breeding Rough-legged Hawks to Ohio are about 1,200 miles to the north. To these hardy raptors of the far north, wintering in Ohio is their Floridian vacation.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

OSU Museum Open House! This Saturday!

If you're looking for a fascinating way to spend part of a day - and who isn't? - stop by the Ohio State University Museum of Biological Diversity this Saturday, February 7. From 10am to 4pm, the museum's doors will be open to all; a rare opportunity to visit the fascinating collections that reside within.

The museum's contents are robust. Get a load of these figures:

Mites & ticks (acarology): well over one million specimens
Bioacoustics (sound recordings): over 40,000 - mostly birds, but also insects, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and fish (yes, fish!)
C.A. Triplehorn Insect Collection: over 3.5 million (Million!) specimens (this is worth the visit alone)
Fishes: 10's of thousands, I think
Herbarium (plants): about 500,000
Molluscs: nearly 100,000
Birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles (tetrapods): over 2,000 species

Not only will you get to see all manner of strange and bizarre stuff you never knew existed, the museum's experts - some of the best in the world - will be on hand to answer your every question. Adding to the allure is this year's theme: venoms and poisons! Who wouldn't want to learn more about Nature's deadly toxins, in a safe, fun, and educational way?

Grab the kids, pass the word, and head down to the museum this Saturday. It is conveniently located at 1315 Kinnear Road, Columbus, Ohio 43212. For more details, CLICK HERE for the museum's website.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Heron inhales large fish

The tail waters of Hoover Reservoir in northern Franklin County. The dam impounds a large reservoir that extends north into Delaware County, and when it freezes, the open waters below the dam teem with birds. A brief stop here last Saturday produced some interesting observations, but none bested the hungry heron that follows.

As the torrential outflow from the dam always keeps some water open, hardy Great Blue Herons overwinter here. There are usually at least a half-dozen or so at any time. Lots of fish get sucked through the dam's tunnels, and are expelled relatively unharmed in the basin below the dam. They make for easy pickings for the herons, and the bird above is stalking fish.

It didn't take long for the heron to spot prey, and quicker than you might think possible, he was out in deep water and instantly bagged a good one.That's a hefty white bass, Morone chrysops, in its bill, and it hardly seems possible that the bird could swallow that thing.

Apparently the heron wanted to deal with its piscine prey on firmer ground, so it swam ducklike back to the cement skirt of the catch basin. Only to be greeted by an aggressive heron that seemed to be making overtures towards its hard won catch.

A few shakes of those massive wings, probably accompanied by some Neanderthal grunts, and the would-be aggressor was sent packing.

Now the fun begins. The heron deftly shakes and quivers the fish into proper swallowing position, which is headfirst. The fish is very much alive, and probably had other plans for its day; plans that didn't include being swallowed alive by some gargantuan, primitive sushi-spearer. Note the bass's dorsal fin, which is stiffly extended and webbed with hard sharp spines. The fin folds backward - if the heron didn't swallow the fish headfirst, it would have no chance of gagging the thing down. The dorsal spines would tear into its throat, probably causing damage and certainly impeding progress.

It didn't take long for the skilled fisherbird to suck the bass into its gullet. The outline of the fish's head and half its body is clearly seen silhouetted through the bird's throat. What a way to go. If you're a white bass, don't go getting yourself sucked through Hoover Dam and into the tail waters. As rough and unwanted a trip as that would be, this fate is worse.

No escape for the bass now. It hardly seems possible that a heron could swallow a fish that large, but I've seen them successfully put down significantly larger fish.

An extended neck is the only evidence that the fish once was.
A happy little burp, and game over: heron 1 - fish - 0. After being dissolved by caustic gastric acids in the heron's digestive tract, what's left of the bass will later be projectile-sprayed from the bird's posterior in a showy display of fecal fluming.

Ah, Nature. Brutal as it may be, you gotta love it.

Horticulture Symposium: The Living Landscape

On Saturday, February 21, the Indianapolis Museum of Art will host an interesting event that's all about native plants: Horticulture Symposium: The Living Landscape. For all details and registration info, CLICK HERE.

I will assure you that this will be a fun, informative, and interesting day. For one, the event is nestled within a truly world class art museum that boasts some 54,000 individual works in its collection. There are always major exhibits; CLICK HERE for a roster of current exhibitions. I became connected with the museum in 2013, when I was invited to come and give a pictorial lecture entitled Nature as Art. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the museum, to me, is their living collections. The museum sits on 150 acres of grounds, and the plants - and animals - found there are treated as living art. Thanks in large part to the hard work and vision of Chad Franer, the grounds are heavily planted with native species.

And that's the theme of this symposium - native plants. The keynote is none other than the dean of native plants, Dr. Doug Tallamy. The symposium borrowed its title from Doug's latest book, coauthored with Rick Darke: The Living Landscape. In it, the authors lay out a plan for creating beautiful landscapes that foster a rich environment for native fauna. Those of you that attended last year's Midwest Native Plant Conference in Dayton heard Rick Darke's slant on the book. This symposium offers a chance to hear Doug's views on the same. Having heard Doug numerous times, I guarantee the talk will be outstanding.

Kevin Tungesvick will offer a program entitled Native Plants from Around Indiana, and it's sure to be full of useful information for those seeking to enrich the yardscape with beautiful natives. Irvin Etienne will give a talk labeled Nativars - Strangers in a Strange Land. We'll get the lowdown on what the horticultural industry is doing to manipulate - hopefully for good - our native plants.

And yours truly will present For the Birds, a look at some of the interesting avian visitors to Midwestern backyards, what we can do to help them, and how suburban plots can factor into a larger picture of bird conservation. Illustrated liberally with tasty photos, of course.

Again, CLICK HERE for full conference details, and I hope that you can make it out.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Birds in Flight

Yesterday was a rare blue (mostly) sky day here in wintertime central Ohio, and I took the opportunity to go to some local hotspots and point the camera skyward. While I took a lot of shots of many different things - nearly 1,000 images, most of which got chucked into the digital dust bin - I found that I was somewhat fixated on flying birds.

Shooting birds in flight isn't very easy, and requires purposeful adjustments to the camera, among other tactics. Following are a few images from yesterday, with some info on how each was made.

An adult Ring-billed Gull gives the photographer a sideways glance from up in the blue ether. Gulls are always great practice for aspiring birds in flight photographers. They're big, often fly rather languidly, and sometimes nearly float in place. Plus, they are often rather predictable in their movements, which allows the photographer to prepare for the moment when the subject enters optimal air space.

All the shots in this post were made with a Canon 5D Mark III hooked to a Canon 500 mm f/4 II, along with a 1.4 teleconverter, which transforms the lens into a 700 mm. That's a really good setup for flying birds, but great results can be had even with higher end point & shoot bridge cameras. The settings used for this gull photo were: 1/3200 shutter speed; f/5.6; and ISO 320. For flying birds, it is almost always best to use a VERY fast shutter speed. At the beginning of the learning curve, it's probably best to set your camera to shutter priority, and let the camera select the f-stop and ISO. On a bright sunny day, very quick shutter speeds can be used, with little penalty in the ISO department.

Large lumbering birds such as this Great Blue Heron make for fairly easy flying targets.With lots of species of birds in flight, a clear blue sky background with the light coming from behind makes for an excellent backdrop. In the case of this heron, the distant brown shrubs and trees makes for a nice background. This shot was made at 1/2500; f/5.6; and ISO 640.

When shooting a flying bird, you want to pick it up in the camera as far out as possible, and track it as it moves (hopefully) closer. When it enters striking distance, begin depressing the shutter and keep smoothly tracking the bird as you fire off shots. Ideally you'll have your camera set to burst mode. This means that as long as you have your finger depressing the shutter button, the camera will keep firing shots. Burst rates vary between cameras, but mine is six shots a second. "Bursting" a flying target greatly increases your odds of a sharp image.

A pair of Rock Pigeons rockets by. Pigeons are extraordinary flyers, and appear deceptively slow. They're not - these birds were probably doing 40-50 mph. I am an unabashed pigeon enthusiast (SEE HERE), and I think this shot shows the beauty of this species. As I was tracking the birds, firing off rapid bursts of shots, the blurred pigeon in the foreground was gaining and ended up photo-bombing the other bird in this shot, which was my target. Although I have other shots of one crisp bird, I like this one for some reason. Camera parameters were 1/3200; f/5.6; and ISO 250.

Another tip, at least for DSLR shooters, is to use Al-Servo shooting mode. Al-Servo allows the focus to constantly adjust to moving targets, so as you hold the shutter button down, the focus constantly updates to compensate for the target's changing distance. In tandem with Al-Servo, a huge positive change is shifting your camera to back button focusing. Basically, the way my camera is set up, the typical shutter button that is on the front of the camera and deployed by one's right index finger only trips the shutter. Nothing else. The focus and exposure compensation is controlled by one of the buttons at the top right rear of the camera, and this button is deployed with the right thumb. There are many advantages to this system, and I think that most DSLR cameras will allow it. Google "back button focus" and "Al-Servo mode" to learn more.

A Cooper's Hawk explodes through the brush. This shot was taken at Mike and Becky Jordan's place in Delaware County - home of the famous lark/bunting/longspur flocks (CLICK HERE). As we watched throngs of Horned Larks, the hawk ripped through the yard and landed in a thick patch of brush. Lots of House Sparrows and other songbirds frequent the thicket and adjacent garden, and Senor Cooper was intent on making a meal of one. I moved a bit closer and got into a good position, fixed the camera on the raptor, and waited until it flew. When it finally did, I was ready and hit the shutter while tracking the bird as smoothly as possible. I only got two images in which the bird was fully in the frame, but both came out quite nicely. The camera was set to 1/3200; f/5.6; and ISO 400.

One grim reality of making crisp in flight bird shots is the need for a decent tripod. I don't like lugging tripods around, and generally only do so if I'm birding in a situation where I need/want my scope, or if I know I am going to be specifically focusing on shooting images of birds. All of the shots presented here were shot with a Manfrotto tripod and an  Induro head. The latter is an especially fluid swivel mount that the camera sits on, and it allows for buttery smooth travel.

The smaller the target, the more difficult getting a clear in-flight shot becomes. Songbirds, such as these Horned Larks, can be quite difficult to pick up and track as they rocket about. I often just set up on a flock, and pull the trigger when I see incoming birds, as was the case here. The very fast shutter speed froze the lark in flight. I also wait until something spooks a feeding flock, which usually doesn't take long, and then try to burst off shots while doing my best to track the birds as they fly away. This one was made at 1/3200; f/5.6; and ISO 250. When light is abundant, I like to shoot at 1/3200, as that is usually plenty fast enough to freeze moving birds, but still allows the ISO to remain low, thus keeping image quality at a high level.

Everyone, it seems, has a camera these days and the quality of shots of birds that I see is routinely amazing. Lots of great images are made with all manner of cameras, from good point & shoot bridge cameras to high end Nikon, Canon and other DSLR's. One way to try and stand out from the crowd is to shoot your subjects in poses that most people don't, such as on the wing.