Archive for the 'Commentary' Category

Pasque Flowers

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

Yesterday afternoon we headed to a preserve in eastern Iowa where Pasque Flowers (Anemone patens) were found several years ago. They are thinly scattered on the top and north and east sides of a hill among Eastern Red Cedar trees and little limestone outcrops. The lovely buds and open blossoms looked like they are wearing mohair sweaters. When they go to seed, the fruits will be fluffy star bursts often on longer stems.

Several open blossoms were being visited by ants that seemed to be picking up pollen that had fallen under the stamens. Sometimes we saw them walk across the stamens or onto the petals but mostly they stayed deep in the bowl. We think they are Winter Ants (Prenolepis imparis), a common species that they resemble.

This trio invited a vertical composition with the larger blossom at the top rather than at the bottom of the frame. Sometimes subjects suggest compositions that are atypical or unusual.

The tangle of old grasses over and around most of the tiny plants needed a bit of “gardening” to reveal some of the blossoms. Most we found were less than 3 inches tall.  This pair seemed to be looking up and out at the world.

Just as Snow Trilliums are harbingers of spring in woodlands, Pasque Flowers are the ones that announce the equinox on dry hill prairies.

Eagle Watch & Expo

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

This coming Saturday 6 February from 10-3 is the Eagle Watch & Expo sponsored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Iowa City Bird Club and Iowa Audubon. The Watch will be at Tailwater West below the dam at Coralville Lake. The Expo will be at North Central Junior High, 180 E. Forevergreen Road, North Liberty, Iowa.

We will be doing a presentation at 11:30 in the junior high school, titled Birds of Prey – Raptors Day and Night. While the emphasis will be on Bald Eagles (the reason for the watch), there will be photographs and audio of other raptors – both hawks and owls. Before our program at 10:30 there will be as showing of the film  Listen to the Eagle. This will be repeated at 1:00. The film will be followed by naturalist Mike Havlik, accompanied by a live owl, will present his program Big Owls Hoot and Little Owls Toot at 1:30.

There will be a number of exhibitors at the junior high. So stop by before or after you go to the Tailwater area where spotting scopes will be set up.

Iowa Prairie Network

Sunday, January 31st, 2016

Yesterday we attended the winter meeting of the Iowa Prairie Network (IPN) arranged by Region 5. There are 7 regions in the state with several board members coming from each region. The meeting was at Ames High School where the Richard W. Pohl State Preserve/Ames High School Prairie is right behind the school.

Though the day way pleasant, we thought a monochrome image of coneflower seed heads among grasses was suitable to report on the day with friends and new acquaintances. Winter is often monochrome in the Midwest.

As well as information about the history and on-going management of the onsite prairie and an update about conservation issues in the state, one session dealt with pollinators and another with developing prairie reconstructions and urban uses of prairie plants and gardens.

One of the reasons for the winter meeting is to raise money to donate to a conservation project through a silent auction. The silent auction proceeds are added to other IPN funding sources. Since 2000 the IPN has donated well over $80,000 to projects ranging from land acquisition to prairie rescue internships to grazing research and more. This year’s donation is again going to a land acquisition project.

Like many others, we came home with a beautiful or useful purchase of another’s donation to the auction. We will use and enjoy it for years to come. The lovely butternut lazy susan meets William Morris’s command – Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. He first said it in a lecture in 1880. It seems to have weathered time and fashion well. Much like a prairie does.


Thursday, December 31st, 2015

Doves or pigeons, especially white ones, have been symbols of many positive concepts since ancient times. Peace, love, success after battle (peace), nurture, hope and grace being common ideas. Though members of the same taxonomic order Columbiformes and Columbidae family, people have often named the larger ones ‘pigeon’ and the smaller ones ‘dove’.

The ancient white doves that made their way into early myths, stories and religions were mutant specimens that occurred naturally from time to time or had been bred by humans. When people domesticated the Rock Dove (Columba livia, the common urban pigeon now found throughout the world), perhaps more than 5,000 years ago, they took advantage of these mutations and created by selection the many species of domesticated pigeons raised by fanciers to this day. Archeologists and art historians find evidence of human attachment to pigeons in ancient art, so it is no surprise that the birds symbolize positive feelings in many cultures.

People took their domesticated species when settling new lands. In a city flock of pigeons, there may be many color variations beyond the typical gray with two black wing bars and white cere  above its beak of the Rock Dove. White doves are rare in the wild or in cities. Most domesticated species do not fare well in the wild. Today pale or white doves are likely to be racing pigeons that were developed for color, homing ability and speed, or Ringed Turtle-Doves, another introduced species selected for increased whiteness.

In actuality, most seed eating doves and pigeons, like the Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) above, are soft shades and tints of warm, subtle, muted colors – grays and browns with iridescent accents. Fruit eating doves are likely to be a bit more colorful, especially with interesting markings. There are over 300 wild species of this order distributed throughout the world, except Antarctica, so it seems they are a fine symbol for peace and harmony. These gentle birds often have soft musical voices though some sing different songs. Their pretty faces and quiet demeanors suggest peace and tranquility.

We think that the dove is also a reminder of the threats that many species face. The extinct Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) was also in the order Columbiformes, though it was one of two members of the extinct family Raphidae. Pigeons and doves are probably the closest living relatives to the Dodo. Some pigeon species, like the Passenger Pigeon, have become extinct in modern times. At least one of the 308 species is extinct in the wild and over one third of the remaining species are endangered, threatened or near threatened.

This White-tipped Dove (Leptotila verreauxi) , with its perpetually bemused and surprised expression, would be in for a real surprise if and when people declared peace on earth for all creatures – great and small.

Wishing you a happy and peaceful new year.


Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

This wild turkey seems to be skulking away from the traditional Thanksgiving dinner in the United States. She is a member of the Rio Grande subspecies and was photographed in south-central Texas at the end of October just as we pulled into a campground. The females were all pretty with blue and red necks and faces. They are identified as the Rio Grande subspecies by the tan colored tips of their tail feathers.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and we are grateful for so much. Among them is the opportunity to make photographs and write about that adventure. With that said, we wish all of you who see our blog, much to be grateful for and the occasion to acknowledge it to yourselves and others whom you love.

On the Road

Saturday, November 7th, 2015

Several days ago we got home from a trip along the Texas coast and the lower Rio Grande Valley. The stormy southeast winds were pushing the Gulf of Mexico into the bays and inside waterway so we did not get to photograph as many shorebirds as we had hoped. However, while camping at the Falcon State Park in the Valley (as it is known locally) we did encounter a Greater Roadrunner  (Geococcyx californianus).

We first saw it near the turn into the camp road on the way to pick out a campsite. We glimpsed it several more times. It seemed to own that short stretch of road. We spent some time in the Butterfly Garden and the next morning watched a Turkey Vulture eating a big carp that washed out of the shallows at the fishing area on the Falcon Reservoir and a family of Javelinas (also called Collared Peccary) in the tent camping area. We went back to the butterflies and also walked a few short trails.

Then while eating lunch we saw the Roadrunner crossing the camp entrance road several times. So we got out our long lenses and were able to get it patrolling its territory. It was a rather gray day. We only wish we had had time to get our flashes and flash extenders mounted on the tripods. But it was a pleasure getting a few images before it melted into the scrub.

Bob even made an image of it trotting across the road with his 500mm lens. It did not run very fast but trotted along sedately. Linda had the 2X tele-converter on her 300mm lens and was able to make the top image when it stopped to look at us. Its’ eye is so pale that it is not very prominent as a dark eye would be against the light blue and pink eye patch. The flash probably would have helped there.

Roadrunners are members of the cuckoo family.  When we were in the Pantanal in Brazil in September we did see and photograph the smaller Guira Cuckoo which resembles the general shape of the Roadrunner without the very long neck and tail.

We photographed a family group of Guira Cuckoos grooming one another, as well as individuals in several places. This one was on a ranch pasture early one morning. Comparing and contrasting the subjects we photograph helps us recognize related species.

Hyacinth Macaws

Monday, September 21st, 2015

Hyacinth Macaws (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) are huge and noisy. They are also listed as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Their range is in three widely spaced areas in Brazil (one of which goes into Paraguay) and one small area in Bolivia. The world’s largest macaw, these long lived birds are about 1 meter (3 feet 3 inches) in length and weigh 1.2 to 1.7 kg (2.6 to 3.7 pounds). They are very affectionate with their mates.

They are also clowns, as these two demonstrate.

One moment this pair was cuddling and grooming one another. The next they were each hanging by a toe still billing and cooing (yelling). Their active flapping and swinging meant there are many cut off wings in our image files. Our long lenses are prime lenses – only one focal length. It would be useful in these situations to use a long zoom lens.

These images were made late in the afternoon against a pale sky. The contrast of dark birds and light sky meant that there needed to be a plus exposure compensation to show some detail in the plumage. That meant less color and detail in the pale background.

We saw Hyacinth Macaws at two places in the Pantanal. They were often paired up within larger flocks and seeing a flock flying together is an awesome sight. We saw a number of pairs flying together in the evening and again in the morning.

Early one morning we waited at this hollow tree for this lady to come out of her bedroom. At first she peeked out and gradually more of her was visible until at last she swooped out and up.

Her mate was already up and perched in a near-by tree where he yelled obscenities at us or was telling her to hurry up and join him. After she greeted him at his perch they flew off together to find breakfast. Hyacinth Macaws eat palm nuts. Their huge mandibles make short work of cracking hard nuts.

There is something uplifting about seeing these large birds with their exuberant demeanors in the wild. They really seem to enjoy life.

Feather Buds

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

The new Chimney Swifts are two days old and changing quickly. They were pale pink with only their dark eyes showing through their skins on Tuesday. Today their skins are rosier and some of their feather buds are starting to make the follicles from which their feathers will sprout. Wings are getting a gray cast and little spots are appearing along their flanks and rumps.

This is an image crop of the rump of the closest chick in the top photo. The dots will soon become bristles and then tail feathers. Research articles about feather formation may be found online and in libraries. The bits we have read are fascinating.

The fourth egg is still there unhatched. If it does not we wonder what the parents will do. Today we did look at the unbroken egg that fell into the rainwater pan last week when Barbara Boyle of the Althea R. Sherman Chimney Swifts’ Tower Project came to empty the pan.

To add to our telling of the story of this year’s nest we decided to try for images as the parents enter and leave the false chimney. Several our attempts have encouraged us to try harder.

We set up a tripod with a 70-200mm lens on the lawn and used the camera’s high speed continuous shutter drive mode. Seeing and pressing the shutter to start the continuous sequence is not as fast as birds going in and out of the chimney. We may need to use video and pull jpgs from those files to get the birds close to the chimney.

Discovery Day

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

There were four eggs on Friday at the Althea R. Sherman Chimney Swifts’ Tower. There had been five a few days before but one had fallen out of the rather flat nest. Within the last day or possibly two, three of those eggs became hatchlings.

The egg tooth visible on the top of the prominent chick’s beak was used to break the egg so it could emerge. The egg tooth is a special structure made of calcium that is much harder and sharper than its beak or claws. It falls away within several days of hatching.

Though we were in the tower for short while, the three chicks moved about and seemed to be trying to get more comfortable. Between these two images the chicks changed positions several times. They quieted when two of the chicks wrapped around the remaining egg, brooding it much as a parent would.

The top image is through a peak hole using our 90mm tilt-shift lens as a regular lens. It just occurred to us today that its lens diameter of 55mm should be better than using lenses with 72 or 77mm diameters. Why that did not occur last year is a mystery. We will be using it more in other situations where it needs to look through small spaces.

The bottom image was made looking down through the little glass window with a 24-105mm lens.

The remaining egg should hatch within the next several days. Last year there was a chick that hatched much later than the first four. We referred to it as the “little bald one” all the way to fledging. It liked to remain in the middle of the pile of chicks long after they were all feathered out. Perhaps this one also will.

Our visits will be closer together now that they have hatched. They grow so quickly and we do not want to miss their progress.

Sparkles in the Grass

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

Every third year there is an open day at the Big Sand Dunes Nature Preserve along the Mississippi River near Muscatine, Iowa. We look forward to this field day because it is a rare habitat protected by two large companies.

This year among the lovely species we photographed was a large population of American Copper butterflies (Lycaena phlaeas americana). They flitted through the prairie and over the sand dunes like sparkly orange and black sequins. Some writers describe what we called bright orange as “bright iridescent red”. The border of the forewing is also described as dark brown. Our cameras recorded them as almost black.

With wingspans of 1 to 1.3 inches (3-3.5 cm) are sometimes spread when perched. We watched for those who were sunning in the grass. Sometimes they fold their wings above their bodies and are camouflaged by the gray speckled appearance of the hind underwings. The light seemed to come through the forewing of the one just above.

Males, in particular, are active butterflies darting from their perches in hopes that the passing insects are females. Some of them stopped long enough to compose interesting images. They may be found all summer as there are multiple hatches into the fall.

Some writers think that the American Copper may have been introduced from Europe because females lay their eggs on plants that were introduced early in settlement. The American Copper is similar to a European species. It is a bit smaller than other North American Copper species.

Whatever its origins, it is a beautiful small butterfly that provides delight in home garden or prairie expanse. It certainly was a pleasure for all those attending the field day. Now we have to wait until 2018 for the next field day on this special habitat. The preserve changes over time and those who attend are eager to see the next chapter in its story.