Monday, March 18, 2019

Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area-Article #3

Another Day At Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area
(Click on any Image to inlarge it) 

Another trip to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, this one on March 17, 2019.  I took two cameras, my Nikon D500 mounted with a Sigma 150-600mm lens on it and a Nikon D750 with a 50mm prime on it. I wanted to capture the sunrise on this trip as well as look for wildlife feeding in the early morning.  I got there around 6 AM.  It was still dark due to our being on day-light savings time.  Since I live about 45 minutes away I had to leave my house around 5:15 AM.  The nice thing about this hour is little or no traffic.  There is something so mesmerizing about being in a wildlife area just prior to dawn.  The sounds and smells are calming to the soul.

Once in the park, not really a park but rather a conservation area but hence-forth I will refer to it as a park, I got my gear ready with cameras next to me in the front seat and a must is to unhook the seat-belt and connect it behind you.  You need to be able to turn in any direction in your car seat as well as being able to jump out quick for that unexpected shot.  I headed east or towards pool#15 knowing the sun would rise in that direction.  The skies were clear as can be seen in this first image.

I was immediately struck with the rich reds and yellows of the sky.  This image was captured with a Nikon D750 and 50mm lens at or around pool #8.  I used a circular polarizer to enhance the reflections in the water.  Taken at 6:59 AM at f/16, ISO 100, and a shutter speed of 8seconds.  Why such a long shutter speed?  Well at that hour it was pretty dark and I need to be able to recover some of the darks of the foreground as well as get all the colors of the sky.  Overall I am pretty happy with this image.  I used the leafless shrubs to frame up my water pool and let the water lead the viewer into the break of dawn.

Just to show how fast the light can change this second image was taken at 7:41 not quite an hour later and a series of clouds started to move in and the sun which had not broken the surface yet was bouncing colors in and around the clouds. My intent here was to capture the reflection of the clouds and light in the foreground water.  I got as close to the water’s bank as I could and included just a small sampling of the brush in hopes of adding to my depth-of-field.  This was taken on the road next to the channel leading towards pool #15. I shoot in RAW format and as a result, was able to recover all the dynamic range and color in post-processing.  All landscape shots taken on this trip were taken with my Nikon D750 and Nikkor 50mm lens.  This capture was taken at f/16, ISO of 100, and a shutter speed of 1/6 second.  Again I use a circular polarizer to bring out the reflections on the water. There was a little wind but not much.  It was colder than I expected around 37° and all I had on was a sweatshirt and insulated vest.  Overall I am well pleased with how this composition turned out.

My first sighting was of an Eagle in a large dead tree on the corner of pool #10 just before you head back to pool #15.  Not sure if this was MOE but it finally took flight and headed toward the Bandy/MOE nest. A light grey cloud blanket moved in and at 6:30 AM I needed an ISO of 2200 to generate a focus speed of 1/500 with an aperture of f/8.  Normally with a sky like this, I would have chosen to shoot this lens wide open or f/6.3 but I wanted to make sure I included the tree reasonably sharp as well. 

I decided to check out some other pools and found these Lesser Scaups in pool #11  The lesser scaup is a small North American diving duck that migrates south as far as Central America in winter. It is colloquially known as the little bluebill or broadbill because of its distinctive blue bill. This image consists of both a male and female Lesser Scaup.  My camera settings for this picture were f/6.3 at 1/640 of a second, ISO at 1000 and an EV of+0.67.  I was still dealing with low light when this was taken at 6:54 AM.  As I mentioned earlier shooting in RAW format makes some dark and shadow recovery possible in post-processing.

On the west of pool #, 9 were a flock of Pelicans the majority of which were apparently sleeping.  They were really too far away to capture with a telephoto zoom lens but this image is acceptable for storytelling.  Pelicans include Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area in their migratory routes both in the fall and spring. Pelicans are a genus of large water birds that make up the family Pelecanidae. They are characterized by a long beak and a large throat pouch used for catching prey and draining water from the scooped up contents before swallowing. They have predominantly pale plumage, the exceptions being the brown and Peruvian pelicans. It was still not seven o'clock yet when I attempted this shot.  Normally with birds this far away it is hopeless on getting clear sharp images, especially with an f/6.3 lens because this is not a fast lens. I opted to shoot wide open or in the case of this lens at f/6.3.  This does not give a lot of depth-of-field but in this case, I didn’t care if the foreground and background were out of focus. I used 1/640 of a second in order to keep the shutter speed greater than my focal length.  This helps with sharpness. One thing in my favor was that the Pelicans were all lined up in a row so appeared to be on the same focal plane.

I spotted this Pied-billed Grebe along the distribution channel road across from pool #10. The pied-billed grebe is primarily found in ponds throughout the Americas.  This is a breeding adult. It is a small, chunky waterbird with a blocky head, short thick bill, and almost no tail.  Breeding birds have a vertical black strip on the bill. Pied-billed Grebes can adjust their buoyancy and often use this ability to float with just the upper half of the head above the water. They catch small fish and invertebrates by diving or simply slowly submerging. They build floating nests of cattails, grasses, and other vegetation. Look for Pied-billed Grebes on small, quiet ponds and marshes where thick vegetation grows out of the water. In winter they occur on larger water bodies, occasionally in large groups.

Continuing on Channel Drive on the west side parallel to pools #7 and #6 is where I capture this Red-wing Blackbird.  These are pretty common and during migrations, you can see thousands of them.  However, they are pretty skittish and prone to taking flight the minute you stop your car or slow down.  However, once in a while you get lucky as I did with this guy who remained perched, singing his mating song. Red-winged Blackbirds display marked sexual dimorphism. Males in breeding plumage are very familiar birds to many people. They are solid black, with red wing-patches. Each patch has a light yellow stripe below and can be displayed in varying amounts. I captured this image with an aperture of f/6.3 because I didn’t need any depth-of-field here plus I want as much light as possible to hit the sensor.  I chose a shutter speed of 1/400 of a second and an ISO of 1000. Got lucky on this one and should have used a faster shutter speed.

In and around pool #5 which is on the east side of Channel Drive I came across this male and female Northern Shoveler. The very large, spatulate bill is the most distinguishing feature of the aptly named Northern Shoveler. The male in breeding plumage has bright wings, a bright iridescent-green head with a yellow eye, bold white breast, and chestnut sides. Females, juveniles, and males in eclipse plumage (from May through August) are mottled brown with orange legs and a green-black iridescent speculum with a blue patch on the forewing. Again I shot this picture with my aperture wide open at f/6.3,  The subjects were relatively close and I had turned on my vibration reduction control.  My shutter speed was 1/200 of a second with an ISO of 1000. I am amazed this picture was salvageable for this post with that low a shutter speed.

This next shot won’t win any contests for sure but Hawks allude me so I am obsessed with capturing them.  He was quite far away and looked like a speck in this tree. Yes, I have cropped in a lot just to show this bird.  This appears to be a Broad-wing Hawk. A small hawk, common in eastern woodlands in summer. Staying around the edges of the forest, Broad-wings are often not very noticeable during the breeding season, but they form spectacular concentrations when they migrate. Almost all individuals leave North America in fall, in a mass exodus to Central and South America, and sometimes thousands can be seen along ridges, coastlines, or lake shores when the wind conditions are right. Broad-winged Hawks are small, compact raptors with chunky bodies and large heads. In flight, their broad wings come to a distinct point. The tail is short and square. Adult Broad-winged Hawks have reddish-brown heads, barred underparts, and broad black and white bands on the tail. The pale undersides of the wings are bordered in dark brown. Juveniles are lighter brown with coarse streaking on the underparts, particularly on the sides of the breast; the tail is narrowly banded. In the West, rare dark-morph adults are completely dark sooty brown with a banded tail.  My camera settings for this image was f/6.3, shutter speed of 1/400 of a second, and ISO of 1000.  In my excitement to see this hawk, I did not check my shutter speed.  Even though this bird was perched I should have shot it at a minimum of 1/500 of a second.  I just read an article by Steve Perry who stated that you can get by with slower shutter speed when your subject is farther away.  I got lucky but don’t enlarge this picture too much or it will show.

In the same area as my Broad-wing Hawk, I saw these Green-winged Teal.  This image is a little soft due to the distance they were from me. The smallest dabbling duck, the Green-winged Teal is smaller and more compact than other teals and has a round head and narrow bill. All sexes and ages have dark gray wings with green-black speculums and a brown bar above each speculum. Females and juveniles are mottled brown overall with gray legs. Males in breeding plumage have gray bodies with orange-buff, dark-spotted breasts and yellow patches on their flanks. Their rumps are black and buff and their rufous heads have an iridescent green band swooping back in a curve on each side. They also have a vertical white shoulder-bar on each side, which can be a helpful field mark when trying to distinguish the Green-winged Teal from the Eurasian race. This is where I got in trouble with my shutter speed is to slow at 1/400 of a second. The rule of thumb is to try and keep your shutter speed equal to or greater than your focal length.  In this case, my focal length was 600mm but because I shot it with a cropped sensor the 35mm equivalent was 900mm (600mm X 1.5) so I should have had my shutter speed around 1/1000 of a second.  I know this but didn’t pay attention to my settings but this makes for a good example of the softness I mention because my speed wasn’t fast enough to freeze the duck's movement. My aperture was f/6.3 with an ISO of 1000.

Staying in my same location there were a variety of ducks in pools #5 and #8.  The water in these pools is dropping making feeding more plentiful. Their diet consists of grass and aquatic plant seeds, as well as insects and other invertebrates.Blue-winged Teal,  are small dabblers with long bodies and bills. Males in breeding plumage have russet-colored bodies with small, dark spots, black under tail coverts, and white patches on their flanks. Their heads are dark blue-gray with a distinctive white crescent in front of each eye. Males are in non-breeding or eclipse plumage from July to October, during which time they look like females and can easily be confused with Cinnamon Teal in the same plumage. Juveniles and females are mottled brown with a dark bill and yellowish legs. Both males and females have green-black speculums, with pale blue patches on the forewing.

Circling back on South Channel Drive I had previously seen small groups of Greater Yellowlegs but was unable to photograph them.  Persistence pays off. This one was feeding in the lower waters of pool #8.  The Greater Yellowlegs is a mottled gray wading bird with long, bright yellow legs. It is similar in appearance to its smaller relative, the Lesser Yellowlegs. The bill of the Greater Yellowlegs is slender and longer than the diameter of its head, in contrast to the bill of the Lesser Yellowlegs, which is not significantly longer than its head. In breeding plumage, the bill is solid black, whereas in non-breeding plumage it may be lighter gray at the base. The bill may appear slightly upturned. The Greater Yellowlegs' cryptic plumage is mottled brownish-gray and white, with the breeding plumage brighter and more heavily barred. An important field mark of the bird in flight is its white tail, which is barred at the end. Relative to its size, the legs of the Greater Yellowlegs are shorter than those of the Lesser, with the result that the toes do not project as far behind the tail in flight. During the breeding season, insects and insect larvae are the primary sources of food. During winter and migration, small fish, crustaceans, snails, and other aquatic animals round out the diet.

Okay, so I finally woke up and adjusted my shutter speed to 1/1000 of a second but still using an aperture of f/6.3 and to maintain this I needed an ISO of 1600. These birds are so small and blend in with the dead grasses.

No trip to Eagle Bluffs would be complete without at least one shot of a Mallard and his misses.  These two were hanging out with a Blue-winged Teal. Perhaps the most familiar duck in the Northwest, the Mallard is a large and heavy bird. Males have gray bodies with chestnut-brown breasts, white collars, iridescent-green heads, and yellow bills. Females are mottled brown-and-black with lighter brown heads and necks and yellow bills mottled with black. They have a black stripe running horizontally through the eye. Both sexes have orange feet and a blue speculum, or wing-patch, bordered in white on two sides, best seen in flight. From June to September, immatures and males, which are then in non-breeding (eclipse) plumage, look much like females. Here is some trivia. The generic term for ducks of all species (male or female) is a duck. All male ducks (no matter what the species) are called drakes. All female ducks (no matter what the species) are called ducks. All baby ducks (no matter what the species) are called ducklings. 

I wasn’t the only one out watching and enjoying wildlife.  This gentleman had his camera fixed on an Eagle that was perched on a dead tree trunk that was extending out of the water and he was watching a group of ducks nearby.   

Although I am going to include the shot as my final post so so you can see what the gentlemen in the truck were shooting at, it was just too far away to really lock in on a focus. An Eagle roasting on a tree stump is pretty hard to miss. Aperture f/6.3, 1/1000 of second shutter speed and ISO of 1600.  Like the guy in the truck, I should have gotten my tripod out, used the LCD screen, enlarged the image and then attempted to manually focus for this shot.

Well, this concludes another blog post and another day at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area. Thanks for taking this adventure with me.

Thursday, January 24, 2019


(Click on any image to enlarge it)

Loess Bluffs (formerly Squaw Creek) is a 7,350-acre refuge, established in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a resting, feeding, and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife. It is home to 301 bird species (including nesting bald eagles), 33 mammal species, and 35 reptile and amphibian species. During spring and fall migrations, Loess Bluffs' wetlands attract as many as 400,000 snow geese and 100,000 ducks. During the fall and winter, as many as 400 bald eagles have been spotted. Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge includes forest, grassland, cropland and wetland. It is an Internationally Important Bird Area (IBA.) A 10-mile, self-guided driving tour is available.

This was another outing with Bob Colvin. Lots of planning involved. I texted him and said you want to go to Loess Bluffs for the day? He replied, when we leaving? Bob's pretty easy when it comes to outdoor photography. Bob lives in Jefferson City, MO and I live three miles away in Holts Summit, MO. This was a 4 hour, one day trip for us. We left at 5am on a Saturday morning on November 24, 2018 and arrive around 9am. For the most part it is interstate all the way so it was a nice drive.

Nikon D500, Sigma 150-600mm lens, f/13, 1/1600 sec., ISO 500 

When we first arrived Bob called my attention to the entrance to the area.  My first reaction was O-shit.  The snow geese looked like a plague had descended on the water.  The day we were there the number of snow geese was estimated at 100,000. Based on what I saw I would not have doubted it.  How they count such a flock is a mystery to me.  You could hear their honking a block away.  There are always hundreds maybe even thousands constantly hoovering above the group.  I honestly don't know how they land without getting injured.

Nikon D500, Sigma 150-600mm Lens, f/8, 1/2500 sec., ISO 640
Most wildlife photographer photograph anything that flies, moves on land, or swims in water.  While watching the snow geese I observed something moving in the reeds near where I was standing.  Sure enough it was a Muskrat. Never got a really clean shot of him and was amazed that I was able to focus on this guy.

The common muskrat is a medium-sized mammal that has short front legs with small feet, stronger hind legs with large feet, and a vertically flattened, scaly tail that is slightly shorter than the combined length of head and body. The hind feet are partially webbed. The back is blackish brown, and the sides are lighter brown with a reddish tinge; the underparts are still lighter, shading to white on the throat. Their musk glands produce a mild and offensive odor. The principal concern with the muskrat is damage to earthen dams caused by their burrowing. Tunneling into dams can result in leaks or even complete dam failure.
Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600mm Lens, f/8, 1/5000 sec., ISO 500
We continued our drive around the marsh pools. The marsh pools are about three feet deep, replenished by Squaw and Davis Creeks, a well on Mallard Marsh and natural precipitation.   The road around the various pools is 10 mile in length and well maintained.  One of our reasons for this trip was to capture images of Trumpeter Swans.  Reports had indicated there were a large number of them here and we weren't disappointed.  There were quite a few the day we were there and they were easy to photograph and not intimidated by the cars and photographers.  I was using a Nikon D500 with a Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary Lens and Bob was using a Canon 7D Mark II with a Tamron 150-600mm Lens.  Neither of us had any trouble getting some decent shots.

Trumpeter Swans once nested over most of North America, but disappeared rapidly as civilization advanced westward. By the 1930s, fewer than 100 remained south of Canada. With protection from hunting and the general public, populations have rebounded in parts of the northwest.

Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600mm Lens, f/8, 1/5000 sec., ISO 500 EV +0.67
Largest of the native waterfowl in North America, and one of our heaviest flying birds, the Trumpeter Swan was almost driven to extinction early in the 20th century. Its healthy comeback is considered a success story for conservationists. 

Ordinarily the Trumpeter is quite sensitive to human disturbance; in protected areas, such as some parks and refuges, it may become accustomed to humans and allow close approach as I mentioned above.
Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600mm Lens, f/10, 1/800 sec., ISO 400 EV +0.67
These birds favor large but shallow freshwater ponds, or wide, slow-flowing rivers, with lots of vegetation. They obtain food from underwater, and/or above water's surface; sometimes on land, especially in winter. To forage in deeper water, swans upend with tail up and neck extending straight down, finding food by touch with bill.  To me this is one of the most regal birds on water. There is an elegance and grace to them.  Did you know that prior to taking flight they will bob their heads up and down, honk, and start swimming in a line positioning themselves to lift off into the wind.  This helps give them elevation when taking to the air.
Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600mm Lens, f/8, 1/2000 sec., ISO 400 EV +0.67
As we continued around the refuge we spotted Canadian Geese as well.  What interested me was they appeared to be resting or even nesting on top of Muskrat dins. I noticed some of the swans doing the same thing.  

The Canada goose, also called the Canadian goose, is a large wild goose species with a black head and neck, white cheeks, white under its chin, and a brown body. Native to arctic and temperate regions of North America.  The farther north you go the darker and smaller the Canada Goose is.  The Cackling Goose is a smaller version of the Canada goose with shorter necks and bills.
Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600mm Lens, f/10, 1/1250 sec., ISO 400 EV +0.67
Driving along the tour route you will have no shortage of spotting Bald Eagles.  We noticed what appeared to be several nesting pairs.  Visiting areas like this during the winter, when there are no leaves on the trees, affords you the opportunity to easily locate nests.  There are several along this route. 

Eagles can be opportunistic feeders and a lot of the water fowl will die as a result of exhaustion.  Eagles have been know to prey upon them if hungry enough. 

They will go from a dark headed, dark-bellied bird in year one to a white-headed, dark-bellied bird in year four. In year two, the belly is mostly whitish flecked with brown, but the entire head and breast are still dark, giving the bird a hooded look. In year three, the head whitens and the belly darkens. Early on in this year, bald eagle bellies will be predominantly white with brown flecks, but the brown will win out, replacing most or all of the white. The face, crown, nape, and throat will go from mostly brown to mostly white.  The image above appears to be an eagle over one year of age. It's iris is beginning its transformation to yellow and white plumage is beginning to show.

Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600mm Lens, f/8, 1/640 sec., ISO 400 EV +0.67
I am not an expert on frogs but I think this is an American Bullfrog.  If so, it is Missouri's largest frog. It ranges from green to olive to brown. The back may have small brown spots or dark, indistinct, irregular blotches. The hind legs are marked with distinct dark brown bars. The belly is white, and the throat may have some gray mottling. The external eardrum is large and round. On adult males this tympanum is much larger than the eye; on females, it’s about the same size as the eye. This species has been known to reach 8 inches from snout to vent. Call is a deep, sonorous “jug-a-rum, jug-a-rum” that can be heard from half a mile away or more.
Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600mm Lens, f/8, 1/800 sec., ISO 400 EV +0.67
Most birds will take flight as your car approaches and will definitely take flight if you stops. However, Bob stopped the car and to my surprise this Grackle made no attempt to leave.  He was in a bush right outside my car window.  The sun was shining through some clouds and it hit him just right.  At first they appear to just be a black bird but they have a lot of iridescent colors in their feathers. 

A Common Grackle's black plumage is glossy and can show bright purple, bronze, or green highlights, especially on the head. Adult common grackles show a pale yellow eye, contrasting sharply with the dark head.  They eat mostly insects but they are opportunists and will eat nesting bird's eggs, small fish, mice, and frogs. In winter their diet shifts to seeds and grain. The impact of foraging winter flocks on crops has earned the common grackle a reputation as an agricultural pest. Most of the grackle’s foraging is done on the ground, where the birds toss aside leaves and rubbish to uncover their food.  Did you know that Common Grackles will capture bats in the air and eat them? They also ambush House Sparrows in parks and near bird feeders, knock them on the head, and eat them as well. Now that is according to Bird Watchers Digest.
Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600mm Lens, f/6.3, 1/800 sec., ISO 400 EV +0.67
One of my all time favorite challenges is to photograph hawks.  Why?  Because unlike eagles they are skittish and prone to taking flight.  See one on a fence row?  Stop your car 100 yards away and watch how fast they take to the air.  It was a treat when we spotted this guy and he was so intent on something that he did not see me get out of the car and start taking his picture.  Thank you, Thank you, Thank you Mr. Hawk. 

This appears to be a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk. They are pale below with broad and brown belly band.  Head is brown mixed with white feathering.  Tail barred brown and whitish. They inhabit open terrain such as farming or forest clearing.  Look for red-tailed hawks along highway edges, over farm fields and forest clearings, and in almost any other open habitat with at least some telephone poles or trees on which they can perch and scan for prey.  
Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600mm Lens, f/8, 1/1000 sec., ISO 400 EV +0.67
Continuing our drive we come across another pair of eagles. Bald eagles migrate to the refuge by late fall and early winter. As many as 300 immature and adult bald eagles and an occasional golden eagle may be seen during the migration peak, usually by the first of December.  This may have been a nesting pair as they were close to a nest and stayed together in the area. Most birds will defecate prior to taking flight so have your cameras ready to get that lift off image.  These two were quite comfortable and we left before they did.  They could have been protecting their nest from squatters.

Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600mm Lens, f/8, 1/1250 sec., ISO 640 EV +0.67
We saw a fair share of juveniles in the area.  Juveniles have been know to hang around their parents for the first year or until mom and dad run them off.  More than likely this is a fledgling.  We met some ladies from the State of California who came to Loess Bluffs to photograph and a gentleman from Oklahoma.  They, along with Bob got some killer shots of a juvenile starting a fight with an adult.  That was short lived. The driving tour takes you around the pools and marshes and affords many opportunities to observe and photography wildlife.  
Nikon D750,  Nikkor 24-70mm Lens, f/10, 1/500 sec., ISO 200 EV -0.67
For me no trip anywhere is complete without taking in and photographing the area landscape.  I was attracted to this setting sun reflecting on the marsh areas near the banks as well as the clouds in the background.
Nikon D750,  Nikkor 24-70mm Lens, f/10, 1/500 sec., ISO 200 EV -0.67
I am a sucker for a good sunrise or sunset.  It was an overcast day but there were areas where the sun was breaking through the clouds.  It was still early in the afternoon but the cloud cover was low and the sun above was bouncing ambient light off the clouds and providing a nice reflection on the water.

Well that completes another weekender trip photographing nature.  If your ever in the area be sure and plan a visit.  For more information follow this link.  Thanks for stopping by.  I hope you've enjoyed our adventure to Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refudge.  Please leave me a message and let me know where you are from.

John Gilbert