Monday, August 24, 2009

Shooting Hummers

When I say I'm shooting hummers, I'm not talking about shooting the military-inspired (and utterly ridiculous) SUV. I'm talking about taking pictures of humming birds. Photographing hummers may be one of the single most difficult tasks in wildlife photography, especially if you're trying to get them in the air. You have to have lightening fast reflexes and really good camera equipment--I have neither.

To get good hummer shots, you need a fast shutter speed, which means you need a lens that can give you a really big aperture--and those lenses are expensive. You also need good, bright light, so I have to wait for a sunny day. Focusing becomes an issue as the little devils move so quickly, so I end up putting the camera on a tripod, focusing on the feeder, and then I start shooting anytime a bird flies by. Most of what I get are furry blobs, but every so often a bird will fly by the area in focus and I get an OK shot.

This series is of a male hummer, a little fellow who guards this feeder with all of his tiny heart, warding off all would-be sippers with a thrust of his needle-sharp bill and a series of raspy alarm calls. Despite his best efforts, however, other hummers manage to slip in for a drink.

There he is! up there in the left corner above the thistle feeder!

Now he's moved around to the front, choosing his perch.

Thrusters on!

Preparing for arrival!

I use a Perky Pet feeder, and I take off all the hoohaas like the yellow wasp cages (they can come loose and get stuck on the hummer's bills) and the goofy flower-shaped cups (they just collect nectar and water and bugs and poo). Also, I make my own nectar from baker's sugar (dissolves easily in tap water) and I don't add any coloring--the birds do just fine without it, and it's possible that it's not good for them.
This is the time of year when they're stocking up for their long trip south, so we're going through about 2 cups of nectar a day between our two feeders. When the hummers are gone, you can be sure that the frosts are not far behind.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Nuthatch Display

One of the things I spend a lot of time doing while I'm in my studio is watch the birds. There are probably days when I spend more time doing that than I do actually working, although I like to argue that watching birds is work for a wildlife artist. The argument doesn't usually get me far.

However, last week while I was finishing my newest piece (a tufted titmouse) I was watching a squirrel perform its gymnastics, eating seeds while hanging upside down on a small wire feeder. I have a few feeders on another pole that is squirrel-proof, so I don't mind sharing this one with my little mammal friends. Some days watching the squirrels is more entertaining than the birds.

But on this day, while I watched this squirrel, I noticed, on the tree behind the feeder, something odd transpiring, at least odd to me. A nuthatch had flown up and landed opposite a young downy woodpecker. The nuthatch immediately flared its tail and spread its wings and turned slowly to the right and then back left. Clearly it was trying to intimidate the other bird!

I did not actually have my camera with me the first time I saw this display--I had to run back to the house, up the stairs, find my camera, make sure there was a card in it (common mistake!) and run back out. Then I had to sit and wait for all the players to return. Thankfully they did, and I was able to catch several sequences on film--err, um, I mean on card.
I had never seen this before. Usually life at the feeders is pretty laid back, especially between the different species--there seems to be more strife between birds of a feather, like the goldfinches squabbling over the thistle feeder. This was quite a treat, and just goes to show that a little daydreaming when you're supposed to be working can be a really good thing. You can bet on seeing a new piece from this little drama!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

August's Silence

In days of old, before we marked the season's passing by the movement of the sun, seasons changed with, well, the seasons. Winter began around the time of the first hard freezes and snow (early November), spring with the first rains (early February). Summer showed up with the departure of the frosts in early May, and autumn with the harvests of August.
I must say that I prefer this method of marking the seasons--it just makes sense. I hate to see snow on the ground at Thanksgiving and think that winter won't start for another month. Much better to view December 21st as the middle of winter! And after winter spring can't start soon enough, so bumping it up to February (it's where we get Groundhog Day, after all) is OK by me. Summer comes with leaves on the trees and temperatures in the 70's, and fall is heralded by the singing of the grasshoppers in the golden brown grass.
The changes from spring to summer and summer to fall are perhaps a bit more subtle than the other two seasons, but it's there. Look around you. You'll see that the fields of grains have been cut. Roadside grasses are brown and seeding. Look to the trees--you'll notice many have leaves that have turned, and the ground beneath them is littered already with dead leaves.
For me, however, nothing marks the change from summer to autumn more strikingly than the silence of the birds. The mating season is over. Too late for a new brood, the males have all but fallen silent. The morning songs of hopeful males is no longer heard. The house wren doesn't wake me up at 5:30am--I haven't heard his cheerful song in several weeks. Now the world is dominated with the soft churr and buzz of insects, and the quiet peeps and chirps of the birds' calls. It's almost eerie, the silence that falls over the woods and fields this time of year. The birds are busy, don't get me wrong, but they're searching for to get ready for the coming migration rather than searching for mates. My feeders have been packed with birds, some which I haven't seen since the early summer. Grackles and red-wings are bringing their young around, bulking them up for their imminent departure.
Yes, the end of summer is a subtle thing, marked by a quiet stillness, an emptiness almost, as the season grows thin and starts to change.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Summer's Bounty

After trying for two years to get a respectable vegetable garden growing we have finally succeeded. The soil here is very sandy--we pretty much live on a sand dune, a glacial moraine created as the last of the glaciers retreated well over 10,000 years ago. It's great for drainage (and therefore a dry basement) but is awful for gardening. This year, however, has been much more productive. Lori, in the pic below, is about 5' 4", so you can see that the corn behind her is about 9 feet tall. In front are summer squash, zucchini, and pole beans to the right.

Last year's garden was pathetic. It was the first year in this site, a south-facing hill, and although we tilled and terraced and fed the soil compost, the plants were thin and small, the corn never reaching 5 feet. The squash did OK (doesn't it always!) although even it suffered form powdery mildew, and the pole beans grew fairly well. We didn't get but a hand full of tomatoes, which just never seemed to ripen and were small, hard little rocks. This years tomatoes are much happier!

After the season last fall, we piled leaves from the yard on the garden, and throughout the winter, when we'd clean the chicken coop, that went in the garden too. This spring we started most of our plants in my studio, and when we put them in the ground we spread half-finished compost between the rows. That seems to have given the garden the boost it needed (a wet June didn't hurt), and now we have a garden to be proud of!

Look, corn that will have more than 5 kernels on it! Last year's "crop" turned into chicken food, but I figure they paid us back with some good fertilizer, not to mention yummy, healthy eggs.

Thanks, chickie girls!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Seney NWR Part 2--The Loons

As we hiked the nature trail and were treated to great views of the osprey, we could hear loons calling. I was pretty sure the sound was coming from somewhere near the nature center and the nature drive, so when we finished the hiking loop we walked down the road a bit to see if we could spot some loons. At first all we saw were Canada geese, which I have nothing against except we have them all over the place here (doesn't everyone). Finally Lori spotted what appeared to be a parent with a chick way on the far side of the pond. We had really wanted to get some loon photos, so Lisa volunteered to go back to the RV to get our bike so I could ride out to where the loons were with my camera. What a sight that must have been, me on a bike with my huge tripod with camera and telephoto lens attached wobbling down the road! I wasn't sure how I was going to stop and get off the bike. But as I came up to a curve in the road I noticed a car had stopped. This was much closer than the place I was headed for, and I hoped they were watching a different pair of loons.

I rounded the corner and was thrilled to see an adult and juvenile in the little cove. I managed to get off the bike without skinning my knees or smashing my equipment, and I threw the tripod up and started shooting. Right away I could see the adult had a tasty morsel and was swimming towards the youngster. Crayfish for lunch!

As the loon swam, it would duck its head under the water, then bring the crayfish up again. I remembered reading Julie Zickafoose's blog where she talked about the wrens bringing back legless daddy longlegs for their babes, and I wonder if this loon wasn't ripping off the large claws of the crayfish, which are clearly missing in this photo.

The eager youngster swam to meet its parent, and the exchange was made. Shortly after this the adult swam away but the chick stayed behind, and I was able to get some nice shots.

A little crayfish indigestion, perhaps?

It was a great opportunity to be able to be so close to these magnificent birds, and I'd never seen a juvenile before so this was a real treat. The Seney refuge is a great place to see all sorts of birds. You may also get lucky and see black bears, (the refuge is loaded with blueberries, which we were munching on as we walked the trail), beaver and moose among others. There's no camping in the refuge but some areas are open for fishing and there are canoe rental places and camping in the area. If you really want to see stuff it's best to get out early and/or stay out late, especially during the hottest months. The loons will begin their southward migration next month, so if you don't have time to make it up this year, take your time and plan a trip for next summer. It will be well worth it!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Seney NWR Part 1--Osprey

On the way home from our Marquette show we had a few hours to spare and so stopped at one of our favorite up north spots, Seney National Wildlife Refuge. We couldn't do one of the drives since we had our camper and trailer, so we walked the nature trail instead. About fifteen minutes into our jaunt I spotted an osprey coming in for a landing in a dead tree to our right. I got the tripod up in time to catch its landing in the tree.

It wasn't immediately obvious that it had a fish until it rearranged it in order to better grip its perch.

I couldn't tell what kind of fish it was, but Lori was pretty sure it was a northern pike, and this shot confirmed that. The fish was very much alive and kicking at this point, flopping around in the bird's firm grip. Shortly after this the ospery started to snack on its catch, but I'll spare you those shots.

After getting a good number of shots, we moved farther down the path to a closer vantage point. The bird would call out occasionally, and was answered by its babes in a nest behind us and across a pond. I was lucky enough to get this shot of the osprey leaving its perch to deliver its catch to its babes, too far away for me to get shots of.

We continued our hike, enjoying the scenery, and after a while we saw another, or the same, osprey fly out over the nearest pond and then hover, watching for fish. We were in a little grove of trees on a bit of land jutting out into the pond, and we watched as the osprey flew right towards us and then landed in a tree, right over our heads. (The other photos in this post are cropped quite a bit, but this one is full frame.) What a moment! It paused long enough for me to get a few shots and then flew off to continue its search for fish.