Monday, March 30, 2015

Pic of the Day

     After shooting the star filled sky (previous post) I sat in the blind for an hour waiting for the grouse to come to the lek.  Setting in the chair I began to doze off when I was wakened by the call of a Sanhill Crane.  Unusual I thought, it was still pitch black yet a crane squawked a couple of times, and the call came from above.  Something must have frightened the crane from its roost.  There was a southerly breeze, but if a flock of cranes were heading north there would have surely been many cranes making their rattling calls as they flew overhead.

Sharp-tailred Grouse

     Sitting in the darkness I leaned back in my chair and fell back into my slumber.  Suddenly I thought, “how will I know when the grouse arrive!” About that time I heard a meadowlark, then, moments later the soft cooing of a grouse, then another, and another, the birds were on the lek.  I had my camera at the ready, but there was no light.  It would be another thirty-minutes or more before the sun would break the horizon.
     Looking through a portal of the blind I could barely discern the vegetation on the lek, nothing had detail.  Eventually, as I stood staring into the nothingness I caught a glimpse of movement.  A Sharp-tailed Grouse was there, but it was like a ghost.  I could barely make out the shape of the bird.  As I stared into the dimly lit landscape the bird became easier to see, and then I began to see others, many others.  As the light grew in intensity so did the activity of grouse.  They were like synchronize swimmers.  They all ran across the lek with outstretched quivering wings, produced a thumping sound that only a grouse can create.  Then, in unison males would pair up, sit on the ground and face each other.  It was a stand off, each staring at each other with great intensity just waiting of the other to flinch.  One bird would make a slight lunge toward the other, then, the other would lunge forward.  
Sharp-tailed Grouse facing-off
The act continued until each would take flight toward the other, pounding their chests into each other creating a loud thump.  This was usually followed with the two birds flying upward a few feet pecking and scratching each other with beaks and talons.  As the birds came back to earth the stare down resumed and the ritual was repeated.  All this so the females could pick the strongest and healthiest males to mate with.
Sharp-tailed Grouse

     Often during the stare down, one bird would callout sending all the males into a running frenzy across the lek.  Their outstretched wings quivered, their heads held low to the ground, as all the males began to vocalize the display call at the same time.  It was a cacophony of audible madness.       As I watched the birds, I picked up on the call that caused the frenzy.  As I listened to their vocalizations I put words to the call to help me remember the sound.  Clearly the birds were saying…. “Cock-a-Waffle.”  The sound was being repeated over and over again.  If you say the phrase really fast, you will sound just like a Sharped-tailed Grouse.
     As each of the wing quivering, “Cock-a-Waffle” calling frenzies took place I snapped images as fast as possible trying to capture the movement.  I soon realized that capturing a moment of the dance did not to it justice.  I could show the high points, but still photography would never do justice to this ancient ritual.  This snippet of video gives the reader an idea of what occurred, but  you must see this event live, and in person to really appreciate the dance.

Sharp-tailed Grouse on Lek near Halsey, Nebraska

Too be continued ………….

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Pic of the Day

Sharp-tailed Grouse lek under the Milky Way
Nebraska National Forest near Halsey, Nebraska
     On the day before my Sharp-tailed Grouse adventure began, a local friend and I went to the lek and set-up two photography blinds.  When we arrived we looked for feathers, and found many.  There was no doubt that the lek was active, so we set about erecting the photo blinds.  Setting the blind up before the morning shoot was essential.  The moon was only 2 days old, so there was no moonlight whatsoever the following morning.  We would have never been able to get the blinds in the proper place in the dark.
The next morning we arrived at the blind two hours before sunrise.  The temperature was somewhere in the forties, not warm but not brutally cold.  The stars were wonderful.  I have some pretty dark skies at home, but they had nothing on a moonless night in the heart of Nebraska. 
     The constellation Scorpio loomed over the southern horizon and the Milky Way was as brilliant as I had ever seen it, maybe more.  It was then that I thought of shooting an image of the sky above the lek.  I wanted my blog viewers to understand the experience, and arriving at the blind before sunrise so not to disturb the birds is essential.
    Over the years I have found that a ten second exposure when using a 20mm to 35mm, f2 lens works quite well as an exposure.  This exposure produces star that are points of light instead of streaks of light (star trails).  I did not have a cable release with me so I set my shutter to 13 seconds.  I set the camera to mirror lock up to reduce vibration. I then placed my hand in front of the lens, trip the shutter, counted to 3 and removed my hand.  This prevents vibration from touching the shutter button.  The technique seems to work fairly well.  At ten seconds there does seem to be slight star movement when the image is made larger.
     After my morning of shooting Sharp-tailed Grouse (see previous post) I took a photo of the lek in the morning light.  To create this photo I used photoshop and combined the two images.  I layered the star image over the lek image and proceeded to erase the black landscape area of the star image.  I reduced the opacity of the eraser to 5% and erased the black landscape area of the star image until the foreground area of the lek was visible.  I erased just enough to give the hint of the grassy lek.
    The idea is to give you a hint of my experience.  It was absolutely amazing.  The stars, the grasslands, and birds; but nothing I say here, or images that I post can convey the experience.  It is something that you must experience yourself to fully understand its magnitude.

To Be Continued ……………...

Nikon D800, Nikkor 35mm f2, 10 seconds @ f2

Monday, March 23, 2015

Pic of the Day

Sharp-tailed Grouse, Tympanuchus phasianellus
Bessey Ranger District, Nebraska National Forest; near Halsey, Nebraska
     Wow!  I have just had two great mornings, (today and yesterday), photographing Sharp-tailed Grouse in the Bessey Ranger District grassland regions of Nebraska National Forest near Halsey, Nebraska.  The lek I visited has a public blind that is great for viewing, but is not suitable for photography.  A local friend set up a couple of photography blinds and we were there about an hour before sunrise both days.  If you want to photograph the birds at this lek, you will need your own blind.  This situation should be corrected next season with a public access blind suitalbe for photography.
     About thirty minutes before sunrise the sharp-tails came on the lek.  Though it was still dark and the birds could not be seen, you could definitely hear the booming and display calls.  Yesterday the birds danced until an hour after sunrise.  Today they went for an hour and half after sunrise.  There were about twenty males on the lek each day and they danced the night…morning away.  
     Tomorrow I should be shooting Prairie Chickens, but a rainy morning is predicted.  Hopefully the rain and clouds will hold off another day.  I will post more about the Sharp-tail Grouse later, with more photos and a video(?).  Everyone should see sharp-tails on their lek.  It was an amazing show.

Stay tuned, more to come.

My favorite image of the day.  I love the background.

Both Images: Nikon D800, Nikkor 500mm f4, 1/2500 second @ f/7.1, ISO 1600.  Shot from a blind

Friday, March 20, 2015

Pic of the Day

Great Egret, Ardea alba
Saint Augustine Alligator Farm; Saint Augustine, Florida
    Great Egret standing on its nest at the alligator farm in Saint Augustine, Florida.  Nesting is well underway and more species arriving each day.  I will be back at the end of the month to shoot more of these beautiful birds in the rookery.  By the end of the month the rookery will be livelier than it was four weeks ago.  This is a great place to shoot.  If you are not a photographer, it's just a great place to be close to these wonderful birds.

Nikon D800, Nikkor 500mm f4, 1/2000 second @ f7.1, ISO 640

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Great Egret, Ardea alba
Saint Augustine Alligator Farm; Saint Augustine, Florida
     The heron rookery at the Saint Augustine Alligator Farm is already hopping this year.  I stopped by on the 4th of March and found Great Egrets building nest and Roseate Spoonbills and Woodstorkes scouting locations.  The later should have already started building by now.
I captured this Great Egret as it flew over me on the way to its nest.  The back lighting shows the delicate bone structure in the wings and provides an excellent view of the wing feather pattern.  Primary, secondary’s, and under wing coverts are easily distinguishable.

Nikon D800, Nikkor 300mm f2.8, 1/2500 second @ f8, Handheld on gunstock mount.