According to the Audubon Society, Evening Grosbeaks were mistakenly thought to sing only at dusk when they were first discovered in North America in the early 1800s so that misinformation gave them their common name. Despite this misnomer, Evening Grosbeaks can be seen and heard in the morning and the afternoon, not just in the evening. Their enormous, thick bills distinguish them from other finches and even from some other grosbeaks like the Pine Grosbeak. Taken on our last morning in Sax-Zim Bog in Minnesota, this female Evening Grosbeak seems to be staring directly into my lens.
Canada Jays live in the northern latitudes of North America, mostly, and not surprisingly, in Canada. However Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog also provides year-round habitat for these Jays which, until a couple of years ago, were known as Gray Jays. They are from the same family as Scrub Jays, Blue Jays, Magpies, Crows, and Ravens. All of these birds are smart and they are among my favorite birds for their antics and intelligence. They also are aggressive and tend to dominate feeding areas. We watched the Canada Jays swoop into the feeding stations at the Bog. flushing the smaller birds. We were told that the Boreal Chickadee, a bird we hoped to see at Sax-Zim Bog but didn’t, would not come to feeders that Canada Jays visited. However, these jay are still quite appealing to me with their large eyes and smaller bill making them appear cute, not looking like the bullies they can be.
One of my challenges at Sax-Zim Bog this past week was to visualize what I wanted in my photographs before taking any shots. Sometimes I get excited and start shooting without thinking through what elements are needed to create a good photograph. Just because the subject is in my viewfinder doesn’t mean I should take a photograph. Thinking it through and patience makes a difference. Sometimes it is best to enjoy the moment and not to take photograph if the right elements are not in place. With this in mind, I watched the birds to figure out their patterns and where they landed. I found a perch they used with an uncluttered background, watched the light, and focused my lens. Then I waited for a bird to land there. When a female Pine Grosbeak finally landed on my chosen perch, then posed for a number of shots, I was prefocused and ready so I got the shot I was after. I took fewer photographs but better photographs because I was not randomly shooting and hoping for the best. Preparation and patience made a big difference. They say patience is its own reward but in this instance, I was also rewarded with the photograph I wanted to get.
Sax-Zim Bog in Minnesota is a bird-lover’s paradise. If you wait patiently near one of the many feeders throughout the massive area, most of which are maintained by volunteers, you will be rewarded with views and possibly photographs of some of the many species that visit the area, some on their migratory journey to their nesting territory but others, like this White-breasted Nuthatch, are year-round inhabitants. At mid-day Wednesday, I stood near one of the stations in the place noted on the Sax-Zim Bog map as Loretta’ Feeders. Most of the visitors while I was there were small, fast moving Black-Capped Chickadees. But this White-breasted Nuthatch made just one brief visit to the feeders. I watched it grab some seeds from the feeder, then scurry down to the snow-covered ground. I realized there was a small tree near by so I focused on that tree trunk hoping that the Nuthatch would do its characteristic down-facing stance on the trunk. When it did, I was ready and I managed to capture just the gesture I wanted. The bird’s sharp back claw, that helps it cling to bark in its down-facing stance, is visible.
Ermine, also known as the short-tailed weasel or stoat, turns white in the winter cold except for the black tip of its tail. In its winter coat, the Ermine was once sought after by European royalty and its fur was made into cloaks and hats and other fur-trimmed items that were a sign of royalty or wealth. England’s royal crown is lined with the white fur with its black accents from the tail tips. Ermine are no longer sought after as status symbols but this particular Ermine has become somewhat of a celebrity at the Visitor’s Center in Minnesota’s Sax Zim Bog. Although weasels are feisty hunters and fierce carnivores, this one was attracted to the partial carcass of a deer that was stretched over a stump as food for many of the bird species that visit the Sax-Zim Bog area. It knew a good thing when it found it. And we did too as we watched, fascinated, as this tiny white critter scurried up inside the carcass, stripping off pieces to consume and occasionally peeking out to check on its audience.
When we visited the Black Sands Basin in Yellowstone National Park last month, we photographed the brilliant colors in the bottom of a small lake off the boardwalk. At the time, I did not realize that the lake is named Rainbow Pool but the colors, from bottom to top, are indeed the colors of the rainbow: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet, aka ROYGBIV, an acronym I learned in my high school chemistry class. Although there’s no violet in this image, it is quite obvious how this pool got its name.
Coyotes seemed to be everywhere in Yellowstone National Park in January. In my visits in past years, we might have seen a Coyote once, maybe twice, and with little chance to photograph them. This year, we saw Coyotes every day and four out of our five days in the Park, we were able to photograph them fairly close as they went about their daily routines. They strode by us without concern for our presence because we respected their space. This Coyote has a lush winter coat that keeps it warm as the snow falls around it.
Northern Harriers are beautiful birds, exotic looking if you look at their faces. They are hawks but they are slim and long-tailed and they glide low over a marsh or grassland, holding their wings in a V-shape and sporting a white patch at the base of their tails. From the front, a Northern Harrier has an owlish face, more flat with eyes almost front-facing that helps it hear mice and voles beneath the vegetation. Until last week, I had never successfully photographed a Northern Harrier. They were constantly in evidence over the marshlands in the Skagit Valley. Sometimes, late in the day, I mistook a Northern Harrier for a Short-eared Owl until it got closer to me. A very cool bird to photograph!
In the winter, the snow covered knolls in Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley are surrounded by mists from the hot springs and thermals that distinguish Yellowstone from any other place in the world. The mists create an ever-changing scene. At certain times of the day, the winter sun contributes deep shadows that further sculpt the hillsides. I love spending time in the Hayden Valley in the winter with its stark, quiet drama. In January, we were lucky to be the only visitors that day in Hayden Valley, a very special treat. Being alone in that vast, sparse place makes it feel even bigger and more special.
The Coyotes in Yellowstone National Park were ubiquitous last month when we were there. We saw and photographed them at least once each day and often it was with prey in their jaws. Late one afternoon we watched this Coyote trotting by clenching something in his teeth. Our driver shouted that it was a duck. Of course when we viewed our photographs that evening, it was obvious that the Coyote had a hoof in its mouth. It had come across a bison carcass, possibly a wolf kill. The Coyote seemed pretty pleased that it had made off with the foreleg of the unfortunate critter. We searched for it the next couple of days but never found the hidden carcass.
Short-eared Owls don’t flutter. But as I watched through the viewfinder, I was taken with the fact that at a certain point in its flight pattern, its wings resembled a butterfly’s. Most of the time on the East 90 in the Skagit Wildlife Area, the owls stayed far from the road where we stood. Although a few photographers ventured onto the field, we were reluctant to intrude on the owl’s territory so we stayed on the road and the owls were pretty far away. Despite the distance, I think the trees in the foreground and the mountains in the background give the owl a sense of place and it is identifiable as an owl…or a butterfly.
The Skagit Wildlife Area in Washington — also known as the East 90 — is an interesting place. Large open fields are home to Northern Harriers and Short-eared Owls that hunt there. The area is also open to two-legged hunters and large, bright orange signs announce when hunters with guns will be in the area. These hunters don’t hunt the Harriers or the Owls. But our concern last week was that signage announcing the dates when hunters with guns would be in the area was unclear and inconsistent. Some signs said the hunters would be there through March 31, others through March 15, some said January 31, and still other signs had the dates covered with tape. We never saw a hunter and the few hunting blinds in the fields were empty. Still, the confusing dates made me a little wary. Luckily for us, the only hunters we saw were the Northern Harriers like this one, Short-eared Owls, Rough-legged Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, and Bald Eagles.
Great Blue Herons were vigilant hunters in Skagit Valley. Several GBH’s had staked out territory and tried to hold their own against onslaughts from Northern Harriers and Bald Eagles. One Great Blue resisted as long as it could before relinquishing its small prey to a couple of bullying Bald Eagles. This is possibly the same Heron who skirmished with the Bald Eagles earlier and as it later searched the marshy grasses near where we stood watching for Short-eared Owls, its successful strike resulted in a small frog for dinner.
Gung hay fat choy! Today is Chinese New Year 2021, the year of the ox. But today is also Abraham Lincoln’s 212th birthday, and I don’t have any photographs of an ox, so instead, I am featuring a Lincoln’s Sparrow. This little sparrow joined us on the East 90 in the Skagit Wildlife Area as we watched for Short-eared Owls. The tiny bird foraged on the edges of a frozen drainage ditch before venturing out onto the ice.
The Skagit River Valley area is filled with marshes and farm fields that attract predators like the Northern Harrier. Harriers like this one patrol the wetlands in search of a meal along with Short-eared Owls, Rough-legged Hawks, and Bald Eagles. There are frequent skirmishes as the different raptors vie for prey. Our second day here was a bit different from the first with fewer birds flying possibly due to the much colder temperatures. With clouds and overcast gray skies much of the day, our photographic opportunities were limited. This shot is from Day 1 when the Northern Harriers were in constant motion flying over the fields, crossing the roadway into the next field, and generally dominating the area until late afternoon when the Short-eared Owls made their presence known.
Our first day in the Skagit River Valley in Washington State has been a hit! Not only did we see 27 different species of birds, six of them were raptors and we photographed all six of the raptor species that we saw: Bald Eagle, American Kestrel, Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Harrier, Rough-legged Hawk, and at the end of the day in the glow of the setting sun, our target species, the Short-eared Owl. We eventually counted at least six individual Short-eared Owls flying, hunting over the marshy farm fields, and tangling with the Northern Harriers. What a fun day! And what a contrast to our visit here last year when it rained constantly, the skies were gray and dismal, and birds were few and far between. I photographed more birds on our first day here than on our entire visit last year.
The haunting winter landscape in Yellowstone National Park is different from most other winter landscape scenes because of the presence of steam and mists from the thermal features throughout the park. When the temperatures are below zero, the steam and mists hang over the landscape like fog and create those mysterious views. In one moment, a tree is visible. In the next, it has almost completely disappeared into the whiteness. Hayden Valley is almost devoid of trees in some areas and while the snow covered sculpted hills create interest of their own, when a single tree suddenly appears, your eye is drawn to its lonely silhouette.
Watching the Coyotes in Yellowstone National Park was so much fun! At the moment they sense prey under the snow, they hesitate, cock their head, listen, and at the right moment, they leap into the air, break the snow with their front paws and snout, and if all goes right, emerge with something to eat.
“Nevermore” could be the chant “quothed” by novice Yellowstone Snowmobilers instead of the Raven from Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem when they realize their mistake of leaving enticing goodies on the sleds. Many inexperienced sledders return to their ravaged Snowmobiles after they have left food in an accessible bag when they visit some features in the Park. The Ravens in Yellowstone have become quite adept at ferreting out goodies left unattended. Flocks of ravens descend on parking lots as the inexperienced snowmobilers march excitedly off to watch Old Faithful erupt not realizing that as they watch the spectacle, the Ravens are waiting, watching them disappear, and creating a spectacle of their own as they wreak havoc. They make such a mess that is unlikely the Snowmobilers would ever again leave something enticing behind without first securing it.
Clepsydra Geyser near the Fountain Paint Pots in the Lower Geyser Basin is a spectacular performer that has almost constant eruptions from several vents and its steam can be seen throughout the Lower Geyser Basin. A short walk from the bubbling mud pots that define the Fountain Paint Pots area, Clepsydra is breathtaking to see and its eruption creates constantly changing plumes of steam that fill the sky. Swirls of turquoise water punctuate the colorful base of the geyser.