“Red Enhancement Display”

February 11th, 2017

Today while photographing from a nature center blind, we saw what is called by ornithologists a “Red Enhancement display” by a male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). While perched, a bird (usually a male) might raise his feathers on the crown and nape so that it appears large and very red – a sign of threat. There were three birds in the tall trees behind the feeders. One was a female. The males were competing for her attention. This male really puffed up his body as well as the red feathers on his head.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are often described as sleek like the male below. His shiny red crown is more typical of what casual viewers might see. He must have been waiting to try one of the other perching displays used by Red-bellied Woodpeckers.  Sometimes they hunch their shoulders up (stiff pose) or spread their tails while their wings are angled upward at a 45 degree angle (full threat) – also to look bigger and more formidable. The full threat display may also be done in flight and is called a ‘floating threat’.

We hoped they would come close to the feeders but they stayed high in the trees. The female seemed to prefer one tree and we wondered if there was a potential nest hole in it. The males flew to several trees. We only know there were three birds because at one point, all were in the same tree – the one preferred by the female.

Young Eagle Release at Eagle Day

February 5th, 2017

After doing our presentation at the Eagle Day Expo we drove out to the eagle viewing area below the dam on Coralville Lake. We got there just in time for Linda to get her camera and dash to get a few images of the release of young a Bald Eagle who had been cared for by RARE (Raptor Advocacy Rehabilitation & Education), a new bird rescue organization in the Iowa City area.

It was cold, windy and very dreary. There were many bald eagles in the trees and flying over the viewing area so those who came to see eagles got their wish. Some trees had ten or more birds in them.

This young eagle had been found on the ground and was taken to RARE for examination and rehabilitation. No injuries were found, except that it did have a low lead level in its blood. Even a small lead shotgun pellet eaten from carrion (perhaps a dead deer that a hunter did not find) can kill an eagle. Lead accumulates in anything that eats or drinks lead contaminated food or water. It does neurological damage to the organism. The worry is that if it eats more lead contaminated fish or meat it will be severely compromised and probably die a horrific death. Lead shot and fishing weights should be banned in all states.

As you can see above, this is a feisty bird that should take care of itself if it finds uncontaminated fish and carrion. When the bird was released, it flew through dense trees against a background of more trees. Even though the camera was set for high speed continuous images, most were obscured by branches and trees. It did circle once and is visible in this crop from a file. Its wing beats were strong and deep so there is hope for it to survive and thrive.

We hope that people continue to make regulations that protect animals and people. The health of all on the planet is determined by what caring and thoughtful people do.


2017 Bald Eagle Watch & Expo

February 2nd, 2017

Saturday, February 4, 2017 is the Bald Eagle Watch & Expo at the Coralville Dam and nearby North Central Junior High School in North Liberty, IA.  The viewing are is at Tailwater West below the dam. There will be spotting scopes at the viewing area and people to help visitors.

At the junior high school there will a number of exhibits. At 10:30 a.m. and 1:00 p.m., the film Listen to the Eagle will be shown. At 11:30 a.m. we will present Soaring to New Heights: Bald Eagles in Iowa & Elsewhere about the come back of eagles after the ravages of DDT. We also have a short presentation on other hawks and eagles. At 1:30 the Iowa Raptor Project will present about owls.

We hope to meet you on Saturday.

Great Horned Owl Calls

January 20th, 2017

On Wednesday evening, Karla Bloem and Ruby, the Great Horned Owl, were at the Indian Creek Nature Center here in Cedar Rapids to present a program on Great Horned Owl vocalization. We had met Alice, Karla’s other education owl, some years ago when we attended several owl festivals in Houston, Minnesota.

Karla became interested in owl vocalization and while doing a literature search discovered that there was no research. She speculates that this is because Great Horned Owls are quite common.

Ruby, who does not like her travel cage, spent over an hour on Karla’s arm while she talked about the owls in her aviary and the wild owls in the neighborhood who she came to identify by their calls. Male and female GHOs have different and idiosyncratic patterns of vocalizations so it was possible to recognize and name the owls. Above, while Ruby stared at the ceiling projector, Karla showed a sonogram on this slide while playing Alice’s call. She also showed and played the calls of other GHOs she came to know by voice.

Ruby was staring in the distance toward some art work on a wall which provided the opportunity to see her eye from the side. It is easy to see why GHOs get eye injuries when they collide with vehicles or buildings. The cornea protrudes from the sclerotic ring that support the eye. In fact, one wild female owl did injure an eye while attacking the building where the research owls live.

She often looked at the high ceiling and at the projector when she was not looking at the audience or Karla. Karla is a very animated speaker and it was amazing that Ruby did not startle or appear to be concerned. She just wanted to be with Karla. Flash did not bother her in the least because it rarely bothers animals.

The auditorium and projector lighting created issues with camera settings so Linda did something she had never before done. She did not want to have to keep guessing at changing settings so she  put the camera on P or Program mode and let it decide. It chose a shutter speed of 1/60 sec, a much wider aperture and higher ISO than she usually uses. She had a small flash on her camera and the images were useful for this blog post. She was even able to pull these bottom three crops out of larger files so you can look into Ruby’s face.

To learn more about owls, you may want to attend the International Festival of Owls in Houston, MN on March 3-5, 2017. Karla is very busy that weekend with international visitors and helping volunteers for the events and activities. Or plan a trip some other weekend to the International Owl Center in Houston.

Skiing on the River

December 23rd, 2016

We were at Lock & Dam 14 on the Mississippi River yesterday looking for Bald Eagles to photograph. The eagles mostly sat in trees digesting the fish they had caught prior to our arrival. Did get to video one eagle eating a fish and a few flying by. An American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) came skiing in to settle among the ducks and gulls that were fishing along the lock.  It moved along the lines of ducks and gulls as if inspecting them and what they were catching.

One of the things that interested us about the pelican was that is was growing a horn  (nuptial tubercle) on its upper mandible and had the beginning of a wispy feather crest on the back of its head. From what we knew this was far too early or too late  in the year for these to appear. These characteristics appear in the breeding season. Pelicans migrate north in March to nest mostly in the Dakotas and Canada. The horns are present on mature mated pelicans and fall off after eggs are laid.

Some pelicans winter along the Mississippi River if it is not frozen. Most head further south to open water. Several weeks ago we saw groups of White Pelicans further north in Minnesota.

This bird is getting a 3 month head start on these characteristics or may have an endocrine disturbance. We searched for scientific information on nuptial tubercles in pelicans and only found research on some fish species which also have them, but not on pelicans. This bird seemed healthy and curious. And we were left to wonder about its physical appearance on a bright and clear early winter day.

We both made a series of images as it was braking, skiing and settling in the water from different vantage points. The bird shadowed itself from one angle and was much brighter when photographed with the light coming perpendicular to the bird.

Thanksgiving Hummingbird

November 24th, 2016

A  female Rufous Hummingbird (Selaphorus rufus) was reported on the Iowa Bird list on November 20 here in East Central Iowa. Whenever one makes an appearance  this far north in the eastern part of the country, they attract many visitors. We were not able to visit the hospitable home earlier in the week and thought we had missed the opportunity. Early this afternoon there was a message on the bird list that she was still coming to feeders. In spite of the dark and dreary sky we decided to go see her even if we were not able to photograph her.

In spite of the low light we did get our cameras ready. The ISOs were pushed up much higher than we like and the shutter speeds were still too low to stop wing movement even with shallow depth of fields. It was so dull that there is almost no catch light in her normally shiny eyes. The photos have too much digital noise but we enjoyed making them.

We did see several of the identifying characteristics of a female Rufous Hummingbird. The rufous base of her tail and that her tail extended a bit passed her wingtips are typical.  The central spot on her throat is almost visible in the lower image.

Rufous Hummingbirds are sometimes described as small and compact with short wings. This image fits the description.

She came in twice in the hour and a half that we watched the two feeders hanging from the porch rail. We stayed in our vehicle to improve the chances of her appearing. These images are cropped from the original files

We are definitely thankful for opportunities like today, even if the images are a bit too noisy.


November 19th, 2016

On Thursday we drove to several overlooks along the Upper Mississippi NWR to look for Tundra Swans that we thought might be already in their stopover ahead of the winter weather coming this way. There were Tundras way out on the river between the islands – thousands of them – but none close enough to shore for photography. There were also several flocks of American White Pelicans that we could see with our binoculars.

The families that were in reach of our long lenses were Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator). Their common name is a reflection of their scientific name. Cygnus is swan and buccinare is to trumpet. Nest success must have been good this year because we saw family groups with two to four juveniles. Trumpeter Swans lay four to six eggs which they incubate by covering the eggs with their feet.

Trumpeters have made a comeback after near extinction in the last century. Conservation efforts are still important to their continued recovery. Several innovative projects in the Upper Midwest have contributed to this success.

After being startled by someone getting too close to the shore, the birds gradually came back within range of our lenses. These two youngsters felt secure enough to stay still while observing us. The bird close to the camera has relaxed its leg to let it float on the surface. They will grow into the largest waterfowl species in North America with wingspreads up to 8 feet (over 2 meters) and weighing up to 26 pounds (12 kgs).

The sun was setting so we our visit was short. The next time we see swans there will probably be snow on the ground.

Larkspurs in November

November 16th, 2016

Last Saturday at the Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge along the Mississippi River we were surprised to find several larkspur (Delphinium sp.) plants among a dense stand of dried goldenrods. They were in the open woodland near the new visitors’ center on the bluff looking down into the flood plain.

Native larkspurs are mostly known to bloom in May, June and July. We are not certain of the species because the plants were 3 to 3 1/2 feet (a meter and a bit) tall. The Dwarf Larkspur (Delphinium tricorne) that we see in the spring are about 1/3 that tall.

To find several healthy green plants with gorgeous blooms on November 12 is very unusual. Climate changes that have led to such a warm autumn are confusing other plants. We found some Common Fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus) still blooming in our yard yesterday. Its normal bloom time is April into July.

Yesterday the Astronomy Picture of the Day site hosted by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) had a picture showing the Temperature Departure From Average for much of the Northern Hemisphere for November 14, 2016. Here in Iowa the temperature looked like it was 10 to 18 degrees F. above normal. Over the North Pole it was 36 degrees F. above normal for this time of year. Some areas of the map were cooler than normal but great swaths were much warmer than they typically are.

As much as we enjoy beautiful flowers, their blooms at the wrong time of year will mean they bloom in vain. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds headed south in September. The long-tongued bees and butterflies that also pollinate larkspurs may no be longer around so they may not set seeds.

Lunar Perigee

November 14th, 2016

This morning the clouds that had kept us from photographing the full moon as it rose last evening had mostly cleared during the night. Since the moon is in perigee and was to set at 6:28 this morning, we were in the parking area at the end of Cedar Lake at six o’clock to select a place where there might be reflections as the moon dropped. There were a few wispy clouds that draped themselves across the moon (above) but blew on past within a few minutes.

This full moon (Super Moon) appears 15 percent larger and 30 percent brighter because it is passing closer to the Earth than it has since 1948 and will not be this close again until 2034. The moon was so large and bright that there was much experimenting with exposure settings as it contrasted with the dark sky.

As the moon descended behind the trees, it stayed bright and dramatic with the branches silhouetted against the warm glow.

To see the textured pattern of the moon the rest of the image needed to be very dark. To have the reflection show, the moon needed to be over-exposed. We made images of the moon and reflection at several different exposures for differing effects.

There were gulls, ducks and geese at the far end of the lake. To have them in this image, Photoshop came to the rescue. The exposure on the closest line of birds was opened up in Adobe Camera Raw so they could be seen. There were several dark streaks across the reflection that invited some brightening to balance the navy sky.

Close to the horizon, both the sun and moon seem to move more quickly than they do when overhead. There is not much time to change settings back and forth while trying to keep the main subject where you want it in the frame. Sometimes the way the digital file is processed can help to tell the story the photographer wants.

If there are no clouds this evening we hope to make more images of this rare event.

Smart Animals

November 6th, 2016

Just finished Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? by primatologist Frans de Waal and was reminded of a very crafty and smart Vervet monkey we encountered some years ago in Tanzania.

After a morning exploring and photographing in Ngorongoro Crater we were far from the main picnic area. Our driver said there was a rest area nearby but it was not much used because the resident Vervets (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) harassed picnickers. We decided to take a chance and saw only one monkey in the parking area so settled in to eat our sandwiches in the vehicle.

All of a sudden our driver put down his sandwich and got out of the vehicle with a tire wrench in hand to scare off the male who was headed straight for the vehicle. The monkey just kept coming and then made a wide, fast detour around to the back of the safari vehicle. He came up over the back and grabbed an apple out of Linda’s open backpack that was behind her. He did not stop but was out in a flash, across the parking area and up the tree where he quickly ate the apple before either of us could get to a camera.

After eating the apple while looking in our direction, he turned his head to look off into space (above), ignoring us. While not many vehicles stopped at this rest area because of the monkeys’ aggressive behavior, he seemed to think it was worth checking it out at midday just to see if one did. The apple was not much of a prize but it seemed to be worth his effort.

The next day at the main picnic area, we saw Black Kites (Milvus migrans) flying by to snatch sandwiches from unsuspecting picnickers. A human screech meant another bird had successfully made a grab. It has occurred to us that these animals may regard humans as not smart enough to protect their food.

The book is fascinating reading. We knew about some of the research about animal cognition. The new material gave us much to think about. In the last paragraph de Waal states that researchers are returning to the methods of wildlife photographers who hunt to reveal rather than kill. We would have used destroy rather than kill. However, we used to say that we photograph to celebrate or try to represent the essence of our subjects. Reveal is a better word and now part of our vocabularies.