Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Sandhill Cranes at Kensington Metropark

Where I live in Pinckney, Michigan, I am blessed to be within a half hour's drive of tens of thousands of acres of public land. Pinckney, Waterloo, Brighton and Island Lake State Recreation areas encompass more than 41,000 acres, while the Huron/Clinton Metroparks in our area add another 7,200 acres, for over 48,000 acres of space to explore. Oh, and let's not forget the 20 mile long Lakelands Trail State Park, a mostly paved rail trail that runs between Stockbridge and Hamburg. There is no excuse for us to not be getting out on a nearly daily basis, and there are many opportunities for wildlife viewing within an easy commute.

Last May photos started showing up on my Facebook newsfeed of a pair of Sandhill Cranes and their two colts. They were nesting at Kensington Metropark, where several pairs of cranes have been nesting for years now. These birds are quite habituated, and when walking the trails at the nature center you will often encounter them on the path, and can comfortably get within feet of them. We found out one nest was quite near the trail at Wildwing Pond, and Lisa insisted one dreary day that we go and see them so I could do a new piece of artwork featuring cranes.

We arrived to find the pair in a stare down with what we guessed was probably a snapping turtle. The pond is known for its huge snappers, and it's a miracle anything living on or near the water survives to adulthood. Dad was making himself big while mom peered into the water. The little ones watched from the relative safety of the center of the nest, which was perhaps three feet in diameter.




Dad ventured into the water while mom took a few steps back...



..and checked on the kids.



She eventually laid down and the colts climbed up under her wings to stay warm.



She curled up with them but kept a watchful eye.



We eventually moved where we could get a closer view. There were a number of photographers there already but the cranes did not seem to care in the least. But every time there was a new threat from the water, mom would stand up and out would drop both colts, bouncing to the ground. We worried about them and their wet bellies on this chilly day.



Both mom and dad started up a ruckus, sounding the alarm. I looked around to see what had gotten their knickers in a twist.



Ah, that would do it. Mute Swans are notoriously aggressive, and the cranes were not having any of this interloper in their territory. The swan eventually swam back over to its side of the pond.



The pickings were slim on the crane's little nest, and while mom looked for food to feed her colts, it seemed none was to be found.



They settled back down again after the swan passed and all was quiet for about two minutes. While they rested they both kept an open eye on the nest.



Could you get any cuter?



Then dad decided it was dinner time, stretched his huge wings...



...and headed for shore.



Mom poked around again for something for the kids but came up empty. She eventually left the nest too.



The colts stood at the edge of the nest for a couple minutes before the larger of the two stepped into the water to follow its parents. We all held our breath...



...but the colt made it safely to shore. The other followed a minute later. But now they were both really wet and we could see them shivering.



But at least there was sustenance to be found!


Friday, January 22, 2016

New Artwork: Sea Otters


We are in the midst of a kitchen renovation that has taken an awful lot of my attention and not left much for blogging. In the meantime this is a nice, quick post featuring my latest piece.

When I was in Alaska for the birding tour in June 2014 one of the highlights was the afternoon we spent on Kachemak Bay. We were treated to some wonderfully up close views of sea otters, which I was so geeked about, and knew I'd be doing a piece. This pair, showing a mom and youngin', floated within 20-30 feet of our boat. Mom was busy grooming junior. It is vitally important for these animals' coats to be immaculate--dirty fur can result in hypothermia. It was a joy to watch and photograph these two in calm waters on a bright, sunny day, and working on this piece took me right back there.



"Bath Time", Colored pencil and ink, 18 x 12, framed to 22 x 16, $1,300.00

Reproductions will be available later in the year on my website.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Birds of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

 Not only does the Corkscrew Swamp contain the largest remnant of old-growth bald cypress in the world, it also hosts a lot of birds. Over 200 species have been sighted there, and while that's not as many as you might find on a wildlife refuge in a migration flyway, say, in rural eastern Oregon, it's still a respectable number. What was great about Corkscrew was how dang close those birds were. The boardwalk takes you deep into the swamp and there are literally birds everywhere, sometimes just a few feet from the walkway.

Before heading out onto the trail, we stopped at the visitor's center and checked the board for recent sightings. While I am happy to just go for a walk and take pictures, there's always that part of me that wants to log a new bird. I don't recall now all of the species on the list (I wish I'd taken a picture of the board) but one that stuck out was a Blue-headed Vireo. I'd never even heard of this bird (although it does migrate through Michigan) so we made that our target bird. Wouldn't you know, it would be one of the first birds we'd see, right in the area where the list said we'd find it. I wish they were all that easy!


Blue-headed Vireo in some deep shade. Pretty little bird with a touch of yellow and bold white eye ring.

Lots of little birds flitted about the swamp, including this female Palm Warbler. I wish I'd gotten better shots, but she was clinging to this branch above the water and nabbing insects from the surface. I love watching their behavior as much as I enjoy their sheer beauty.


Female Palm Warbler on the hunt.

The little birds are very difficult to photograph because they move so dang fast, and, in a situation like this, they are usually in the shade, which means slow shutter speeds and, consequently, blurry photos. I was really happy, then, to get a few decent shots of a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher more or less in focus, from tip to tip, with a bonus of a tasty morsel in its beak. I need to practice shooting with a fill flash to help stop movement and bring these guys out of the darkness.


Blue-grey Gnatcatcher with a spider--yum!

I think one of the things I love so much about photographing birds is it brings me closer to them. Not only do I get to study them in the field, through the lens, but I get to study them further at home, months or even years later. And there's always the challenge of getting a better image of a bird I've already seen. It goes like this:

1) Get an image, any image, of a bird seen for the first time
2) Try to get better images of a bird already photographed
3) Finally capture that "OMG I can't expect to do better than that" image that all photographers dream of.

I have very few number threes, which is what keeps me going back out into the field, keeps me shooting. This image is not a level three, but is certainly a number two--I'd only gotten fairly poor images of Great-crested Flycatchers until I came across this gorgeous bird. While its crest is not raised you do get a good look at those rusty primaries.


Good looks were had of a Great-crested Flycatcher.

But the birds who stole the show in the swamp were the wading birds. Holy moly, they were all over, and close. Little Blue Herons were plentiful, and we watched as this one nabbed a tasty treat then paused to scratch an itch.


Little Blue Heron.

White Ibis were everywhere, probably the most plentiful bird in the sanctuary. I was able to get good shots from a variety of angles. I like this one showing its narrow bill and blue eyes.


White Ibis in the soft afternoon sun.

This is not the greatest quality image as this bird was in some deep shade but as you can see, he found himself quite a meal in a large black crayfish. They probe the muddy bottom with that long narrow bill until they bump up against something, then bring it up and inspect it. He swallowed this crustacean whole.


Ibis and crayfish. The water behind the bird is really pretty, I just noticed.

There were a lot of immature Black-crowned Nightherons too, and we watched this youngster stalking prey. He eventually lunged but came up empty.


Imm. Black-crowned Nightheron hunting.

I waffled back and forth about whether this is an Anhinga or Double-crested Cormorant but I have finally settled on Anhinga--the red eye is what finally settled it. Cormorants have green eyes. In any case, it had speared this fish, and we watched as it worked it off it's bill and swallowed it. This is one of the only shots not obstructed by a branch, which is also another challenge when shooting in the woods.

Anhinga and an unfortunate fish.

Did I mention that the birds where really close? This is an uncropped image of a Great Egret who was just below the boardwalk, stalking prey.


Almost too close to see!

The sanctuary boardwalk closed at sunset and we were hungry, so we hustled through the last half mile or so and headed back to the van for a picnic lunch, then went back out to the boardwalk to cover that last bit more leisurely. Much to my delight, right past the visitor's center at the intersection of the loop, was a male Pileated Woodpecker, going to town on a pine tree. Oh happy day! Getting pileated shots is not easy--in most places they are pretty shy birds. But this one, well, he didn't care at all about the people milling about underneath as he searched for insects. I did a piece based on this bird as soon as I had a chance--maybe the fastest I've turned a photo around to art. It sold at the first show it was displayed. Guess I should do some more!


The magnificent Pileated Woodpecker.


Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Florida

So now that we have Alaska out of the way, I can get on with writing about the bazillion other places I've been in the past few years. Thanks to a bunch of out-of-state art shows I did in 2014, I visited a number of new places. While I've been to south Florida before, I'd never been to the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and Blair Audubon Center near Bonita Springs, Florida.

I had booked a campsite at a place called Gulf Coast Camping RV Resort in Bonita Springs. My show was on Sanibel Island, home to "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which I thought would be a good place for a wildlife artist (it wasn't, at least not for my style of work). Bonita Springs was the closest place I could find with an available site. When we arrived we discovered that this is a 55 and over community--oops! While there were some spaces available for the mobile retiree, most of the lots were filled with more permanent travel trailers--ones that had been skirted and sided and made to look like little houses. No one, as far as I know, objected to us camping there, and our neighbors were quite friendly.

It was in the office of the campground that I saw a brochure for Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. I had never heard of it, but since I was looking for something to do during our few days off after the show, I decided we should check it out. I was not disappointed!

At 13,000 acres, Corkscrew encompasses the largest intact stand of old-growth bald cypress trees in the world. The sanctuary includes a number of other types of habitat, making it a great place to see a wide variety of birds and mammals. No food is allowed on the 2.25 mile long boardwalk, so be sure to eat at the visitor's center, where there is a really good lunch counter as well as well-appointed gift shop.


Map of Corkscrew Swamp showing different types of habitat in the sanctuary.

The trail lead us through the pine flatwoods and along the wet prairie, where grasses and ferns mixed with scraggly trees.




Once in the cypress grove, we were surrounded by towering trees that shade a bonanza of ponds and swamps teeming with birds. Many of the largest trees are named, but I found photographing them to be useless as I just can't convey the enormity of these giants, some of which are over 500 years old.


Boardwalk through Corkscrew.

Florida strangler figs, Ficus aurea, are prevalent. Here's what Wikipedia has to say about them:

"Ficus aurea is a strangler fig. In figs of this group, seed germination usually takes place in the canopy of a host tree with the seedling living as an epiphyte until its roots establish contact with the ground. After that, it enlarges and strangles its host, eventually becoming a free-standing tree in its own right. Individuals may reach 30 m (100 ft) in height. Like all figs, it has an obligate mutualism with fig wasps: figs are only pollinated by fig wasps, and fig wasps can only reproduce in fig flowers. The tree provides habitat, food and shelter for a host of tropical lifeforms including epiphytes in cloud forests and birdsmammalsreptiles and invertebratesF. aurea is used intraditional medicine, for live fencing, as an ornamental and as a bonsai."


Florida strangler fig on bald cypress.

The low sun angle of mid-February cast long shadows through the afternoon swamp.




We didn't see any mammals, but there are several dozen in the sanctuary, including the critically endangered Florida panther. We did see several alligators, but not until later in the day when it had warmed up a bit.

Young gator warming up on a downed cypress, covered with water lettuce.

Several plants were in bloom, including this swamp lily, crinum americanum.

Swamp lily in the shade.

But perhaps the most spectacular find, plant-wise, was this cardinal air plant, Tillandsia fasciculata, a bromeliad, that was blooming right next to the trail. An epiphyte, these are plants that do not grow in soil, but rather attach themselves to trees and collect nutrients through their leaves. It's one of those plants that is so alien to someone who grew up in the north, and I spent quite a while studying and photographing it.


Cardinal air plant, or Tillandsia fasciculata

These amazing plants do not harm the tree, and actually serve to help other critters as the plants become small reservoirs up in the trees. Insects are drawn to them, which in turn benefits frogs and birds. I was smitten with the placement of the pistol and stamen on these plants--that tiny splash of purple that you could easily miss if you only gave this plant a passing look.



Next: the birds of Corkscrew Swamp

Monday, December 21, 2015

Grizzly Cubs in Denali National Park

 Alaska 2014 continued:

Oh FINALLY.

We are finally at the end of the Alaska trip!

While this was ultimately a birding trip--and we saw well over 100 species of birds, many of which were new to me--the parts that stick with me have more to do with the amazing scenery and other animals that we saw. From the boulder-strewn tundra of the Seward Peninsula to the glaciers of Resurrection Bay to the mountains of the interior, I was blown away every day by the beauty of this amazing state. We were lucky to see musk ox on the tundra, the only place on this trip where we could have seen them, and certainly something I could never see at home. Caribou too, and Dall sheep. Then of course all the marine mammals, like sea otters, Orcas, harbor seals, and Stellar's sea lions. Those beautiful, calm, clear days on the waters around Homer and Seward. Getting to join the 30% after being lucky enough to see a cloudless Mt. Denali (whose name has been changed from Mt. McKinley since I started this blog series). Spending ten days with eight of the nicest people you could hope to be stuck in a passenger van with.

But on that last day, with our trip though Denali National Park winding down, we were treated to the ultimate sight.

As we trundled along the dirt road in the tour bus, we spotted a grizzly fairly near the road, digging in the soil for insects and roots. She glanced up as we approached.


Grizzly sow less than 50 feet from the side of the road!

As we inched forward, two small brown blobs became visible.


Could it be?? 

There, scratching in the dirt as they imitated mom, were two first-year cubs.


OMGOMGOMG

To say we were delighted would be an understatement.




They scritched and dug and rolled around on the side of the hill. One paused to take a look at the bus as we idled on the side of the road.




He eventually got up and found a stick to chew on...




...while his sibling looked on.




















I could have sat there all day, watching this family. To be so close, to have such an amazing view of them as they went about their day to day lives, roaming free, not in a zoo, not behind a fence--it was magical.

We were only able to spend a few minutes with them as another bus rolled up and waited their turn to take a look. While it was such a short time, it's an experience I'll never forget.

I cannot wait to go back.