A Crane-derful morning

We heard there were a large number of Sandhill Cranes at a Wildlife Management Area just north of the Twin Cities, so we headed up there early in the morning, hoping to catch the cranes out feeding in the wetlands.  Our first encounter was spectacular, a male and female emerged from the very tall cattails (where just their heads had been visible) to perform a little courtship dance for us. (Click on any of the photos to get a larger view.)

Sandhill Crane, Carlos Avery WMA, MN

Here’s the male — isn’t he studly? Now watch what he does next after strutting a little in front of his not very interested mate.

Sandhill Crane courtship display

The head thrown back accompanied by crane “rattles”, their distinctive call.

Sandhill Crane courtship display

Wings fully spread, bill pointed to the sky…

Sandhill Crane courtship display-

A little jump just to tease her with the full range of his repertoire

Sandhill Crane courtship display-

The neck-wrenching posture gives me a back ache watching him.

That was quite exciting, but the best was yet to come, as we continued our drive around the pools of Carlos Avery WMA, and stumbled upon the mega-herd of about 100 cranes feeding just as we predicted in the short grassy wetlands.

Sandhill Cranes-feeding in wetlands at Carlos Avery WMA, MN

There are groups of cranes in the foreground, mid, and background areas here, but their brownish coloration enables them to blend in very well with those dried cattail stems.  Only the movement of that red forehead gives them away.

Sandhill Cranes-feeding in wetlands at Carlos Avery WMA, MN

Every now and then a few cranes would start jumping around at and on each other, but they were mostly quietly feeding and preening all morning.

But the best was yet to come.  We had a very close encounter with a pair of cranes that we spied crossing the road in front of us.  As we drove up opposite them within about 25 feet, they began to pace and call (very loudly), most likely protesting our presence.

Sandhill Cranes-pair calling-

Finally, they stood still long enough for me to get a decent photo of them — really up close and personal.  The minute we drove off, they quieted down.  Getting this close to these magnificent and very large birds was a real treat.

Prairie potholes

Potholes — those incredible road hazards that “surface” every spring when the melting ice heaves chunks out of the pavement that our tires then fall into.  Potholes in the prairie are much the same thing, created by retreating glacial ice from the last (Wisconsin) glaciation about 10,000 years ago.  Melting ice blocks left small kettle lakes that pockmark the landscape from the upper Midwest into central Canada.

prairie pothole lakes-sunset

A couple of small prairie pothole lakes at Sibley State Park near New London, MN.

Some of the potholes are small and ephemeral, filling with spring rains and then slowly drying up, with just enough time for the local frogs to bring off a brood.  Other, larger potholes are permanent lakes that attract a wide variety of species during the year.

prairie pothole pond on Ordway prairie, near Sundberg, MN

Like this little temporary pond found on Ordway Prairie, near Sundberg, MN.

The rolling hills of the prairie landscape in central Minnesota are dotted with tiny to large pothole lakes that are the prime breeding grounds for a huge proportion of the North American migratory waterfowl.

prairie pothole lake

Small to medium-sized pothole lakes may drain into larger lakes whose basin was carved out by the thick glacial ice scraping away the soft sediments below.  But it is these smaller potholes that the waterfowl prefer because of the protection they can find in the marshes of cattails and sedges that line the lake shores.

Vegetation surrounding the pothole lakes performs a vital ecological function that preserves their pristine condition, and insures that waterfowl return year after year.

barn reflection-in a pothole lake

Marshes not only provide habitat for breeding birds, like this pair of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, but act like a filter to strain out the agricultural chemicals added to the water as runoff from farm fields, golf courses, and private lawns.

yellow-headed blackbird singing

Yellow-headed Blackbirds stand out in their marshy habitat, but their screechy song is disappointing.  (Yes, the lake water in the background really was this blue.)

Unfortunately, in recent years, rising crop prices have resulted in the loss of about 50% of the wetlands in the U.S. part of the prairie pothole region (but a staggering 90% of the wetlands in the prairie pothole region in Minnesota!!), as the lakes and their marshy buffer strips get drained and plowed in order to increase crop acreage.  Run-off of agro-chemicals further degrades the wetland habitat for waterfowl as well other wildlife that use this habitat.

And one wonders — how are these changes impacting us (i.e., human health) as well?

the best heron

I love taking photos of Great Blue Herons — they are such regal birds standing and walking around in their wetland habitat.  But the best photos I have ever taken of the GBHs came from a bird standing right by the side of the road at the base of a waterfall, cascading down an embankment from a prairie pothole pond.

Great Blue Heron at a waterfall

The bird blended into its background so well, I almost didn’t see it. We had stopped so I could take a photo of the Yellow-headed Blackbirds there.  Click on the photo for a much larger version.

Or, perhaps this is the best shot?

Great Blue Heron at a waterfall

Even though I got a closer shot with the telephoto, the bird is remarkably well camouflaged against this background. It might have been hunting frogs or perhaps little fish that washed over the edge o the pond. Click on the photo for a much larger version.

More on prairie potholes in the next post.

babe in the woods

I almost missed this — dallying around in the kitchen with my coffee early in the morning while Bambi here was tracking its mother across my backyard into the neighbors’.  It took a few moments to find my camera and get the telephoto mounted on it, but here’s the last of this encounter.

White-tailed fawn

The fawn was reluctant to enter the raspberry tangle and venture down the semi-steep hill into the neighbor’s yard — giving a last look at my wildflower garden where potential treats await this babe.

White-tailed fawn

Reluctantly, the fawn started down the hill. The doe was at the bottom of the hill, completely hidden by the trunk of the large walnut on the right of the photo.

White-tailed doe waiting for her fawn-

I moved to a different window to get a glimpse of the doe as she turned to watch the fawn coming down the hill. It’s so interesting to think how much her behavior will have changed in the past week, to become the watchful, nurturing mother she is now.  Ah….hormones.

White-tailed doe waiting for her fawn-

I can’t see the fawn, but it must have gotten to the bottom of the hill, because the doe suddenly started walking quickly away, across the neighbor’s backyard lawn.

White-tailed doe and her fawn

The fawn awkwardly galloped across the lawn, and I knew the light was too dim to capture that action, but there is a hint of the blur of the fawn’s legs as it runs toward the doe and they both get lost in the vegetation of the next hillside.

Mid-May is the time we see new fawns in the backyard, and I’m glad I didn’t miss this one.  Usually the does have twins, but only if they managed to get enough nutrition during the fall and winter to carry both to term.  It wasn’t a particularly hard winter here, but this might have been an older doe, or an animal that had less access to good forage.

Spring flowers — and another photography experiment

Among the many new techniques in photography I’ve tried recently is a cool way to get wonderful depth of field in a complex or large subject using multiple images.  The process is called “focus stacking”, which means that you take several photos (usually on a tripod), as you focus on different areas of the subject.  Then you have to blend them all together in Photoshop.

I decided to experiment with this technique after an overnight rainstorm had left a collection of dew drops on the newly opening Columbine flowers in my front yard.  For this shot, I positioned the camera directly over the flower, pointed down at it, put it on manual focus, and then turned the focus ring very slightly as I clicked the shutter.  Here’s the result of blending 5 images together — I probably needed more images in the stack because there are some holes in my focus, but you’ll get the idea.

raindrops on Columbine

Click on the image for higher resolution and a larger picture to see the finer detail of raindrops on the Columbine.  The top-most flower is pink before it develops fully into what the middle, red flower looks like.  The bottom flower is also in sharp focus in this stacked image.

raindrops on Columbine-

Here’s a sideview of the Columbine flowers to illustrate how much depth of field you would need when shooting straight down on the flower. Even in this view, only part of the plant is in focus with the macro lens.

raindrops on Columbine leaves

The surface of Columbine leaves must be pretty waxy, making the spherical droplets stay coalesced. On other plants in my garden, the drops had already dispersed, making the leaf surfaces slick with water.

Moving on…

A brief tangent to explain what I’ve been doing lately with The Arcanum photography group (and why the Backyard Biology blog has been taking somewhat of a back seat in my “work”).  I graduated from the Foundation levels (in early May) and have moved into a Landscape Mastery cohort now with 19 other apprentices and a new Master, Ron Clifford.   Now I’m learning about the subtle changes one can make to a photo, using various software products to process or develop that image to its full potential.  I started with a couple of photos I had trouble with in the Foundation level, and have moved on to work with some new pieces I shot this week.

Some before and after shots will illustrate this process best.

morning sunbeam-

Longtime blog readers may recognize this photo from June 2014 — a beautiful orange sunbeam streaming through the oaks where we were camped at Glacial Lakes State Park. There was so little light before 6 a.m., it was difficult to see anything but the sunbeam.

morning sunbeam

Using tools in the Lightroom program, I “painted” light into the photo to bring out some of the highlights that were obscured by fog and darkness in the original. By selectively brightening particular aspects, the goal is to make the scene more 3-dimensional and less flat and direct light in the image to where you want the viewer’s eye to follow.

swans n the mist on the Mississippi River at Monticello, MN

This photo of Trumpeter Swans on the Mississippi River at Monticello, MN was taken this winter. It was a cloudy, dreary day, with just a bit of sun that was able to peak through clouds. The fog rising from the river almost completely obscured the dozens of swans there that morning.

swans in the mist - Monticello, MN

Cropping the photo to the nearest groups of swans, I directed a sunbeam of light onto one group, while obscuring the rest in fog, to give this a little more interesting look. Again, this was using just the tools in the Lightroom program

sucker creek reflection-

This is a creek I have photographed many times before — where the swans and mallards like to hang out in the winter. Not a single bird was swimming in the creek a few days ago, and the water was exceptionally still and clear to give this amazing reflection of sky and trees on the opposite bank. The beautiful red tree in the photo is unfortunately a dead evergreen, but it really provides a nice contrast to the rich, green color of the others. This was a 2-image HDR photo that I processed in Photoshop, adding filters to bring out the deep blue of the sky and the rich greens of the vegetation.

One more before and after of  the Sucker Lake part of the St. Paul reservoir on a sunny afternoon where the light was so uniform, the scene was very flat and pretty uninteresting.

sucker lake-canada geese-before edit

Sucker Lake — before editing in Lightroom

sucker lake-canada geese-after editing in LR

The scene after editing in Lightroom to make the trees more 3-dimensional, increasing shadows, highlights and depth in a fairly flat scene.

[You can click on any of the edited images for a higher resolution and larger view]

My goal isn’t to introduce something that isn’t there naturally.  I think our eyes see far more range or color and values/tones in a scene than the camera does, and editing software makes it possible to bring back the scene to the level of our visual memory.  I have found there is a kind of divided camp among nature photographers, with some who like to “play” with the scene to create a much more vivid and dramatic imagery that might depart significantly from reality, and others that simply want to portray that same scene in a way that is more realistic, but highlights to draw attention to or focus on the subject(s).  I guess I am in that latter camp.  So, how am I doing?

the singer, the squawker, and the silent partner

I carried the big telephoto around for several hours yesterday, visiting several locations at which I had previously seen quite a few warblers, but I came up with a very short list of birds.  The resident orioles, song sparrows, goldfinches, cardinals, and even catbirds were quite obliging — all singing away, but the warblers (except one you’ll see below) were sadly absent.

The best and most persistent singer of the bunch was the Yellow Warbler, a bird fond of willows and low shrubs, where it usually advertises its presence in a bold manner by shouting out “here I am — aren’t I beautiful?”

yellow warbler

At least the bird was in front of the sticks, instead of behind them…

yellow warbler

And yes, this was a particularly handsome male Yellow Warbler, who is looking a bit chubby from those fluffed out feathers.  It was a cold. windy morning.

The Squawker was an Eastern Kingbird, who sat on an eye level branch about 50 feet away, giving me the once over. But the bird was not shy about diving after an insect or two and then returning to exactly the same branch.  I took at least 20 nice photos, but only one in which the bird opened its mouth to give its characteristic buzz-squawk call.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has several recordings of the pleasant songs Kingbirds sing — but perhaps this was a female, or  a non-territorial male.

eastern kingbird

“buzz-squawk” — feathers all fluffed out to keep warm, even tucking them over its bare toes.

eastern kingbird-

Good looking in any position.

American Goldfinches males are usually vociferous singers, loudly proclaiming their breeding status to all around them.  I must have gotten too close, because he half-turned, looked shyly away from me, and then made a dive for cover in the nearby bushes.

american goldfinch

This bird had nothing to say — he was all looks and no voice.

Better luck next year…maybe the warblers will stop in for a day or two then.

the flyover

Where are the warblers that should have arrived here in early May?  I think they flew right over Minnesota this year, in a hurry to get up north and set up housekeeping to raise the next brood of chicks.  Even the few Yellow-rumped Warblers that roamed the lakeside woods for a few days have moved on.  Better luck next year.

But in keeping with the “flyover” theme, I was treated to many flyovers by the local osprey at the marsh today.  First one member of the pair and then its mate circled over head while I fired off the camera shutter.


This may well be the most photographed bird in my collection. I have gone back to the marsh several times to check on whether there are chicks in the nest yet.


Those are some amazing long wings — all the better to glide around in circles watching me.


Part of this circling act may have been hunting, but there were too many trees in the way for me to see whether they actually were diving for fish.


Feet lowered to go after some fish?


It’s amazing how agile they are in flight, changing directions quickly and abruptly.

osprey at the nest

At one point, the presumed female gave up incubating for some exercise.  She took off, flew around the nest a couple of times, doing a few swoops and dives, and then settled right back on her eggs.  The incubation period is 36-42 days, so she will be sitting here for some time still.

A place to call home

Meet the star of our show for today — Henslow’s Sparrow.   It is a colorful bird with a lot of yellow on its head, and a rather thick beak and short neck, that inhabits tallgrass prairie in the spring and summer and then retreats to its winter home in the southeastern U.S.

henslow's sparrow, Frontenac State Park, MN

This is a rare bird in the Minnesota prairies, or in most midwestern prairies for that matter. Populations have declined precipitously as their preferred habitat has disappeared, and even when birds breed in tallgrass prairies one year, they may not be present the next.  Why? 

It seems that although Henslow’s Sparrow does prefer tallgrass prairie as a nesting site to raise the next crop of offspring, not just any prairie will do for this bird.  It must be a rather large acreage, and it must have lots of standing dead stems still poking up through the deep thatch of last year’s grass growth.  In fact, this bird is rather fussy about its home, and numbers of nests are directly correlated with how long ago that patch of prairie was burned.  They are so fussy about the exact structure of their tallgrass prairie home, they are willing to tolerate breeding in small colonies of closely spaced nests.  Some researchers feel the particular grass structure of their favored breeding sites protects them better from predation and the nest parasitism of Cowbirds.

henslow's sparrow, Frontenac State Park, MN

Yes, we like a lot of dead, tallgrass stems still standing, thanks. The better to suppress the current year of grass growth and make it easier for us to scuttle about, hidden from view on the prairie floor.”

It’s a precarious balance between burning the prairie often enough to suppress the growth of woody vegetation and keep it in prairie, and burning infrequently enough to satisfy the needs of birds like this one, which require a lot of standing dead biomass in their prairie homes. What’s a prairie manager to do?

Derr sandhills prairie - prescribed fire.  March 2012

Burn only part of the prairie at a time, leaving that standing biomass in other parts?  Derr sandhills prairie – prescribed fire. March 2012. From the Prairie Ecologist.

Whatever humans do to protect or conserve one species, inevitably, it seems to  come at the expense of others.  But one solution is to simply conserve more natural habitat — one parcel at a time, until there is a substantial enough acreage to manage for multiple species at one time.

Not your average chicken

Prairie Chickens might cackle a little like a farmyard chicken, but they are definitely not in the same class.  These native prairie inhabitants put on quite a show in the spring, with 20 or more males joining up to display their prowess to the local females in a central “booming” ground, called a lek.  Here’s a little of the show we saw early this morning while sitting in blinds provided by the Nature Conservancy at Bluestem Prairie near Moorhead, MN.

male prairie chicken display

The males arrived right at 5:20, as usual, and got right to work displaying to each other and to an occasional female wandering through their little area of the community lek on the booming ground.

Bright yellow colored skin on the neck is inflated with air as the chicken utters its low frequency,two syllable “woo-hoo” which can be heard from quite a distance away.  They lean forward, tilt the tail feathers upward and spread them, and then raise elongate black neck feathers like two horns behind their head.  It’s quite an intricate display between the sound effects and the posturing with raised feathers.  In between booms, males occasionally drum their feet by dancing a little in place or run toward another male to chase them off their booming area, as the video below shows.

prairie chicken display-

An elaborate series of postures and displays between males may escalate to flying at each other or to simply turning around and going the other direction.

prairie chicken display

Now this interaction might lead to something…

prairie chicken display

Instead of a fight, we have parallel displays, both presenting sideways, instead of threatening each other face to face.

prairie chicken display-

But every now and then, one bird just ticks the other one off, and the back and forth postures and displays erupt into a great flapping of wings and wild leaps in the air.

prairie chicken display-

No blood was spilled, and the two birds went right back to displaying, booming, and running around their little area of the lek.

Unfortunately, numbers of Greater Prairie Chickens have declined markedly due to loss of grassland habitat and hunting pressure in the early 1900s.  Where once hundreds of thousands of birds roamed throughout the Great Plains, now managed grassland areas hold just a few hundred birds, and populations fluctuate as the land around them is converted from idle cropland (e.g., land in the Conservation Reserve Program) back into full-scale agricultural production.  In addition, these small, isolated populations are prone to some inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity, which makes it even more difficult to them to meet the challenges of a changing environment and climate.

prairie chicken display

These energetic little males put on a 3-hr show for us, and then suddenly departed all together right at 8:30, just as they have every day in the past month.  One male insisted on displaying right in front of the blind, giving us a rare frontal view of the booming display.

LATE ADDITION: If you wander over to Paul Sundberg’s blog for this week, you’ll see a similar display in another lekking species, the Sharp-tailed Grouse.  Paul’s photos, taken in bright morning light (instead of the rainy overcast we had) really highlight the action and color of these otherwise very cryptically colored birds.