Archive for the 'Commentary' Category

Wide Angle View

Sunday, May 7th, 2017

Recently, we happened upon a no-longer-available Sigma 10mm f/2.8 fisheye lens for a Canon APS-C camera, so thought it might be a fun addition to our lens collection. Several weeks ago we had a chance to use it at the Natural Bridge of Alabama in the Bankhead National Forest.

The sandstone bridge is 60 feet above the path in northern Alabama near the village of Natural Bridge, AL There are two bridges – one much shorter than the other. It is reputed to be the longest bridge east of the Rocky Mountains. It is either 148 feet or 127 feet long according to information we found. Veins of iron ore have kept it standing for several hundred thousand years.

The light is dim under the arches. Bob was using his 24-105mm lens pointed up at the arches. You can see him in his blue shirt working under the arch. Linda moved back up the path to get the complete arch with a bit of room around it so that when she used the Transform tool  in Photoshop to straighten some of the lines a bit, there would be space to crop it.

A few hours later we camped at Tombigbee State Park in Mississippi. When we crossed the Tombigbee River we thought about our favorite version of the old folksong Gum Tree Canoe  or the Tombigbee River song, sung by John Hartford. When we lived in Australia it was played often on the Australia All Over program on Sunday mornings, even if it was an American folksong.

Spring Cleaning at the Tower

Monday, April 17th, 2017

This weekend we decided to do the spring cleaning at the Althea R. Sherman Chimney Swifts’ Tower in preparation for the swifts return. Over the winter the tower is invaded with Asian lady beetles, flies, wasps and even a few mice. We took our large shop vacuum, long extension cords, brooms and dust pans along with face masks to the tower. There is an outside electric plug-in on the house and none in the tower so the long cords were put to good use.

Bob started inside the door and Linda started sweeping the insects at the top of the tower. There was lots of dust so the masks were put to good use. Even though there is a double length hose on the shop vac we did have to carry the shop vac and balance it on the landings in stages on the way up. Miss Sherman had cupboards in the entry area and on the landings throughout the tower. Bob vacuumed them out on the way up.

Violets and a few dandelions were sprinkled throughout the lawn. The deciduous tree had a sheen of green as it is beginning to leaf out.  The cedar trees have many little dry twigs waiting for the Chimney Swifts to fly past to break them to use for a new nest. We hope they come again this year; our fourth nesting season in the tower.

Yellow Bells

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

Bellworts (Uvularia grandiflora) are adding to the pleasure of the early ephemeral native flowers appearing in our backyard. This specimen has a cluster of 4 blossoms protruding from a clasping leaf.  It is as graceful as a time-lapse photograph of a dancer making a bow. The petals peaking out are twisted and seem to move even when there is no breeze.

Because the blossoms hang down, their scientific name is derived from the Latin meaning “little grape” and is reminiscent of the uvula which hangs down at the back of a human throat. As one would expect, grandifloria means having large blossoms.

There are several Uvularia species including U. sessilifolia (Merrybells), U. perfoliata (Perfoliate Bellwort)  and U. puberula (Mountain Bellwort). These three  species’ blossoms are more bell-like, similar to Solomon’s Seal bells, but longer. Their petals are not twisted. Merrybells is native to the eastern North America and the other two more southeastern in the United States.

The patch of Yellow Wake-robin (Trillium luteum) should be the next to add color to the yard,  if the Trout Lilies and Wild Ginger  do not beat them. The Yellow Wake-robins’ twisted blossoms point up, instead of down.

2017 Purple Martin Workshop

Saturday, March 18th, 2017

The 12th annual Purple Martin Workshop was held today near Kalona, Iowa. The organizers, Jim Walters and Evan Gingerich, planned another wide ranging session. The morning included information about waste management and recycling, why citizen science and conservation are important, and an update on the reintroduction of Eagles, Ospreys and Peregrine Falcons in the Midwest.

The afternoon began with a presentation about Purple Martins (Progne subis) and appropriate landlord practices which was followed by a panel of Purple Martin landlords answering questions from the audience. Everyone learns a bit more from the questions and answers.

Between the morning and afternoon sessions the crowd enjoyed a hearty lunch provided by women in the neighborhood. Mr. Walters also showed a short video about an Eagle Scout project involving a new Osprey tower.

There were exhibits of birding books and equipment, information on a variety of birds and organizations but especially information on Purple Martins, our largest swallow. The end of the program is always followed by door prizes and an auction. The proceeds from the auction are donated to the charity whose building hosts the workshop.

People come from all over the state and some from neighboring states to visit and learn more about birds, but more particularly about Purple Martins. Purple Martins are almost completely dependent on humans for providing nest houses and gourds in the Eastern U.S. That is why those who provide homes for the martins are called landlords.

The one above is sub-adult – probably a male. It is not turned far enough to see for certain if there are any purple feathers on its chin, chest or tail. The chin is darker than sub-adult females, so that is our guess. The bird behind is crawling into the gourd appears to be a brownish female.

The first “scout” Purple Martin has recently been reported in southern Iowa so they are on their way back. Just as we are awaiting Spring, we hope the Purple Martins will also be arriving soon, even if they do not nest until the big insects are hatching.

Home Coming

Sunday, July 3rd, 2016

We returned home from a 3 week trip to photograph several bird species in eastern Canada and New England to find a wonderful surprise in our back garden – a Queen-of-the-Prairie in bloom.

The Queen-of-the-Prairie (Filipendula rubra) is a tall plant preferring wet prairies. The pink buds and flowers are lacey and fluffy. It is considered threatened here in Iowa.

It is a delight and we hope multiplies. It appeared in the area we call “The Swamp.” Many years ago we buried a child’s large wading pool in which we put a mixture of sand and soil. There are irises and sometimes cardinal flowers and other plants that move about the yard at their own volition.

Like the Michigan Lily (Lilium michiganese) that surprised us several years ago and now has four long stems each fitted with a candelabra of lovely orange blossoms, it is in our small urban garden because Linda sprinkles seeds from the packets offered by seed  nurseries at prairie and environmental meetings. She also collects seeds in prairies where we photograph but has never knowingly seen the Queen-of-the-Prairie in the wild. Sometimes we purchase mixed seed packets from reputable native plant nurseries and sprinkle them about and hope for the best. The only seeds that became a problem are the Groundnuts that tangle in all the plants in our front yard. Neither of us has a particularly green thumb and take a casual approach to gardening.

Bob spent time with the Michigan Lilies yesterday while Linda unpacked the pickup camper. When he came in, he asked if she knew the name of a new flower in The Swamp. Early this morning, when the soft light was just over the trees, the edges of the yard were still in shade. The Queen-of-the-Prairie was lit by the sky reflecting down into the area. This separated the blossom from the dark background along with using a fairly shallow depth of field. This is one of Linda’s favorite light conditions for photographing native flowers.

We will be posting about some of the birds we saw – a pair of nesting Piping Plovers in Ontario, over 100,000 Northern Gannets on Quebec’s Bonaventure Island, Harlequin Ducks in Perce, Quebec, Atlantic Puffins and Razorbills and Murres in Maine, and Eider Duck females teaching their ducklings in the surf in Massachusetts. And there was the thrush that sang to us along Lake Michigan at the beginning of the trip.

And then we came home to find the Queen-of-the-Prairie. And there is a bird “soap opera” going on the Althea R. Sherman Chimney Swifts’ Tower that we must follow.


Thursday, June 2nd, 2016

The Chimney Swift pair is getting very serious. They are preparing for when their chicks leave the nest.

One recent afternoon Barbara Boyle reported that one of the adult swifts seemed to be attaching a stick about a foot below the nest. Sticks are sometimes placed on the chimney wall below the nest so that when the youngsters leave the nest they will have places to cling  if they cannot dig their nails into the wall. This evening we located the stick just where Barbara had seen the adult. Barbara is the Althea R. Sherman Chimney Swifts’ Tower director.

We had left our LED flashlights on a table at home and needed to improvise to get enough light to both focus and make images.

Our little point and shoot, which makes raw files, came to the rescue for several of the images. The swifts were not in the area so we opened the door to the chimney and a bit of late afternoon light came through the west window near the door. The camera can focus in fairly dim light and its flash made the image. The door made it possible for Miss Sherman to sometimes handle chicks.

This image looking down into the nest was also made by the point and shoot. It juts out from the wall and is quite cup shaped. The wall seems shinier than during the last 2 years. The adults are painting glue over a wide area.

Next we tried the 90mm tilt-shift lens on its DSLR through one of the peek holes on the south wall. The open door provided enough light for Live View to be used to focus. A small flash was attached to the camera with a cable and was held at the peek hole about 10 inches above the one the lens was peeking through.

We will double check that the little flashlights come with us the next time. The nest looks ready for its first egg. Maybe when next we visit the tower there will be one.

Canada Warbler

Saturday, May 21st, 2016

Today at the Spring bird banding at Wickiup Outdoor Learning Center, the banders and spectators were surprised and delighted by the capture of a handsome male Canada Warbler (Cardellina canadensis or Wilsonia canadensis depending on which source one uses).

Photographing at a bird banding event is sometimes a hit or miss affair. We do not want to get in the banders and recorders way and the other spectators want to see both the common and uncommon birds. Sometimes birds are held briefly against acceptable backgrounds and we make a few images.

The banders said that they rarely find Canada Warblers in their mist nets. This one may be one of the few that claims a territory here in Iowa or may still be headed to the northwoods of Minnesota and Wisconsin or on to Canada. One of their common names of this boreal bird is the Necklaced Warbler. The band of black splotches against his yellow throat and breast are distinctive as is the black flecks outlined in gray on his head.

The white eye ring around his large eyes and the yellow streak above his beak are also identifiers. In the top image his nostrils are apparent as are his rictal bristles. This warbler often catches insects like flycatchers do. The rictal bristles are thought to help protect his eyes from insect legs and antennas when he is catching them in the air.

The image of the top of his head was made in the tent canopy where the banding, measuring and recording occurred. The image is a good example of why color correction is sometimes needed to represent colors accurately. In the sunlight his back feathers are a blue-gray.

Here the colors were corrected in Lightroom so that the feathers appear more closely to how they would have been in sunlight, though they were photographed in the shade. The light is softer in the shade but the colors are truer. Compare to the color to the image of the bird in bright sunlight.

Under the banders’ tent canopy the light was filtered and had a much warmer cast. Color is so often affected by the colors around it and what the light on the subject is travelling through. Both images were processed the same but with and without color correction of an original raw file.

We were surprised by how warm the photos under the tent were. Human eyes and brains make all sorts of corrections that cameras cannot yet do.

Drooping Trillium

Saturday, May 7th, 2016

A friend called to say that he had seen several trilliums with large leaves along a trail in one of the county conservation areas. He thought they may be Large White Trilliums. Bob followed our friend’s directions and found the small group of Drooping Trilliums (Trillium flexipes). They were in among some tangled vegetation with other treasures – Bellwort, Jack-in-the Pulpit and other spring ephemerals - just where they had been described..

While the Large White are lovely, we think that the Drooping Trillium and the Nodding Trillium (Trillium cernuum) are among the most charming of the trilliums. There are many trillium species across temperate North America and Asia. As a group they have been moved around taxonomically and currently are listed as in the tribe Parideae.

Both species are similar as the blooms are at the end of pedicels (stalks) that poke out from clusters of three large leaves. The Drooping blossoms usually are more erect and stay above the leaves. The Nodding blossoms often are tipped below the leaves. While the Drooping Trilliums’ stamens are usually white or yellow, the Nodding’s stamens may be a deep red color, at least along the edges.

Whichever species we find, it is almost always possible to make an interesting image to celebrate the beauty and importance of these contributors to biodiversity in the woodland areas. Sometimes it is difficult to capture the gesture or essence of the subject because of location, what surrounds it and where light falls.

Linda has been reading Jay Meisel’s work on “Light, Gesture & Color” in photography. She thinks that gesture may be the place in the composition from which the subject speaks to the viewer most clearly. It literally waves “look here.” Not because of any arbitrary composition rules, but because it is in the right location to wave most vigorously.

John James Audubon’s Birthday

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

Today is the 231st birthday of John James Audubon, born in 1785. To celebrate it we thought we would do a post about one of his favorite birds – the Wild Turkey. It was Plate 1 in his epic work “Birds of America.” The Audubon Society has the text about each bird and copies of the paintings on this web site. The Wild Turkey page is found here.

In the information accompanying the Ruffed Grouse page from Birds of America, Audubon said  ”You are now presented, kind reader, with a species of Grouse, which, in my humble opinion, far surpasses as an article of food every other land-bird which we have in the United States, except the Wild Turkey, when in good condition.” He loved hunting and eating birds. Danny Heitman in a 2010 article in the Wall Street Journal recounted Roger Tory Peterson’s comment that Audubon ate many of the birds he painted, even owls and juncos.

The photograph (above) was made just as the sun was going down, turning the gobblers into burnished copper statues with a green and blue patina. This is the “Magic” or “Golden Hour” (just before sunset and just after sunrise) so admired by many photographers.  These two were among a group of gobblers displaying along a creek near a road. Our vehicle was our blind/hide. When they walked out  into the evening light, they seemed to reflect it back to the world. It was as if nature, in all its glory, just walked out of the woods.

Wild Turkeys were diminished in the last century but have revived through careful management and now are in all states but Alaska. They often live in and near woodlands where oaks, beech and hickory provide mast (nuts) that make up a substantial part of their diet. Wild Turkeys also eat leaf buds, a variety of seeds, ferns, other plants and some small animals.

So many of us will, continue to quote Audubon when he said: “During all these years there existed within me a tendency to follow Nature in her walks.” Happy Birthday, Mr. Audubon.

Day of Insects

Monday, April 11th, 2016

On last Saturday we attended the 8th Annual Day of Insects at Reiman Gardens in Ames, IA. As usual it was a great gathering of people who admire and value  insects. Some study them. Others photograph or write about them. Others manage properties where insects are studied and photographed. And still others encourage the general public to value and support pollinators. It is always a place to catch up with old friends and acquaintances and make new ones.

There were several presentations about Monarch butterflies and efforts to provide more habitat and appropriate plants for the larva and the adults. One of the projects had a screen cage full of Monarch butterflies for people to enjoy. There were times when there were several with the proboscises in the sliced green grapes on the plate in the lower right. Photographing through the screen mesh cage modifies the colors slightly even while the image is sharp.

This image was made with our “pocket camera” – a Canon Powershot that does make raw files. The light at the top of the cage was rather harsh. Having a raw file that was able to be processed to reduce the glare is one of the many advantages to making raw captures.

The variety of presentations is always fun and informative and sometimes even poignant, as in the case of Lulu Berry who was an expert on raising moths early in the 20th century. Three insects that convert other insects into zombies were met with gasps and giggles. Moths that overwinter as adults under the snow were surprisingly attractive. College students contributed a study comparing bees, butterflies and ground beetles in remnant and planted prairies. A report on a searchable database of the 2156 species of moths in Iowa encouraged people to submit more records. These are just a few of the 15 presentations.

Now we wonder what Nathan and MJ will plan for next year’s Day of Insects.