This is the time of year Trumpeter Swans get testy.  Still in their family groups, but now less tolerant of other adults that encroach on their personal space, it seems they are just downright irritable. With heightened reproductive hormone levels no doubt peaking prior to the upcoming breeding season they attack anything that threatens their mates, their offspring, or whatever is in their way (geese, ducks, etc.).

Trumpeter Swan to Canada Goose — “Out of my way, goose!”

On the Mississippi River in Monticello, MN where thousands of Trumpeter Swans overwinter, confrontations between adult swans are frequent in late February right before the swans depart for their breeding areas.   I watched a family of swans coming in to land near another family on the river as they met with some hostile aggression in one swan-frontation lasting just a few seconds.

Swans must land on water, not on hard surfaces, to cushion the impact. Their feet skate along the surface to slow them down before their heavy (25-35 pound) body drops into the water.

Meeting up with the newcomers — a family of four swans swam over to check them out.  Lots of trumpeting and head bobbing ensued, as a prelude to something.

Escalating aggressive behavior with more vigorous head bobbing and trumpeting — juvenile offspring of the family of three moves away from the swan-frontation.

All the commotion scared the mallards into flight.

Swan-frontation is getting more serious here — but gray-bodied juveniles are staying out of the fight.

Ouch — direct hit on one of the new arrivals.

One of the pair is driven away…

And now the dominant swan goes after the other member of the newcomer pair,

gives that bird a good nip with its hard bill…

and drives that bird away as well.

And that is how Trumpeter Swans feel about newcomers invading their space at this time of year.  Aren’t hormones a wonderful thing?  (or not…)


Winter scenes

Winter is about to give up, here in the northland.  But still it hangs on with fresh snow now and then, and a few frosty mornings where freezing fog has coated the landscape with a crust of crystalline white.  These are beautiful scenes, and I can’t really complain about the weather because it hasn’t treated us harshly this year — so I’ll just enjoy winter’s last gasp.

What could be more typical of late winter than deer herds pushing through snow drifts in search of the last edible bits of plant material?

Like a thin coat of white frosting, the icy fog clings to even the tiniest branchlets of vegetation. What is amazing to me is that it melts from the ground upward to the tops of the trees, where the last bits of hoarfrost cling even in bright sunlight.

Trumpeter Swan lift-off

I visited the Trumpeter Swan congregation at the St. Paul reservoir the other day and was able to photograph quite a few take-offs and landings, as birds came and left from the open water there.   There was a lot of trumpeting that preceded take-offs, almost as if they were announcing departures.  Head bobbing was commonly observed in all of swans that morning — between members of a pair or between members of a family group, and between swans swimming in front of other swans standing along the shore.  Perhaps it is a form of social greeting, to defuse potential antagonism for invading personal space.  (We humans should be so civilized…)

When a bird is as heavy as a Trumpeter Swan (the largest waterfowl in North America stretching to six feet in body length and 25 pounds in weight), it takes power to lift off from land, and especially from water. How do they do it?

[Note to blog subscribers:  you won’t see the video below if you are looking at this post from your email.  You can try this link (https://vimeo.com/387498268) or you can click on the title of the post in the opened email, and that will take you to the WordPress site where the video can be viewed in the post by clicking on play.]

Running is key to take-off, and flapping wings with a powerful downstroke to generate lift is also essential. But what I had not appreciated about the swan take-off is how essential ankle and digit flexibility is. In the photos below, you can see the swan’s foot flexes almost 180 degrees to provide the push off from either water or land surface.

The dull gray morning made it hard to see white swans against white snow, but you can see the amount of flexion of the very black foot and ankle joint in this photo.

The same technique for pushing off is used on water as well, even though there is less resistance pushing against water. However, very large webbed feet with a huge surface area help in this endeavor.

Close-up of the water take-off, focusing on those big black feet.

And of course, those big feet come in handy as platforms for landing as well.  Birds flying into the open water look like they are lowering their landing gears.

Flaps lowered, landing gear down, the Trumpeter Swan flight group is getting ready to land…as always trumpeting to announce their presence.

So, to answer the big question, can swans really walk on water?  Sort of — if they run fast enough and flap hard enough.

Swan morning

Trumpeter Swans have been congregating at open water on one of the St. Paul Reservoirs, lolling about on the ice for a few hours in the morning and then taking off perhaps to feed in a distant cornfield, giving me some practice at photographing swans in flight.  Now if the sun would just come out…

Even in the dullest gray light of a dull, gray morning, you can’t take a bad photo of a Swan…

Embrace the fog

I’ve been playing with some of the images from our trip to Oregon using the most recent version of Luminar (4) photo editor.  I am impressed with this software as it is the easiest to learn and use of any I’ve tried, and produces some very pleasant results with relatively little effort.

The challenges of photographing the Oregon coast (at least on this trip) were the ubiquitous grayness and lots of fog.  Some people love these conditions for photography because it simplifies the images, giving them a more peaceful, serene quality.

Simplistic composition — perhaps entitled “Contemplation”.  The amount of fog obscures the incoming waves as well as the nearby hill.

However, I seem to be on the other end of the aesthetic spectrum because I love color and vibrance, and lots of interesting detail to look at.

The sun was barely peeking through the dense clouds (so I helped it do that). Editing helped bring out the light on the fog rolling over the waves.  I love the repeated acute angles of waves hitting the shore.  Lots to look at here.

The unedited version of the coastal image above.  Most of the detail is lost in the fog and the colors are quite dull.

So, I tried to embrace the fog and the gray mood, but couldn’t help interjecting a little spot of color or brightness into my monochromatic scenes.  You can compare the before and after editing to see what Luminar can do — and probably could do even better with a more experienced user.

Beach sunrise, with enhanced color and detail.

The scene as it was photographed. There is nothing wrong with the camera — it’s the fog and gloom making everything appear in dark shadow.

I thought the composition was interesting enough to try to salvage this poorly lit image.  Iconic Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach must be one of the most frequently photographed scenes along the Oregon coast.  But it was pretty difficult to get a good photo of it from anywhere on the beach,  so….just embrace the fog!

Luminar allows one to insert a replacement sky in an otherwise dull background. You can blend it into the original sky and still be able to embrace the fog…  A light vignette around the outside of the image brightens it up as well.

This image has possibilities, but it’s so dark and gloomy, you can’t see the expressions on their faces.

This one was easy to edit — just brighten it up a bit. The uniform white of the foggy background works well here, keeping the image all about the kids’ joy in running through the surf with no distractions.

Tidepool consumers

Another trip to the tidepools, this time to the site where Mavericks surfing contest is held when winter storms bring 25-50 foot waves to a point off Pillar Point in Half Moon Bay.

There were no waves like this on our visit, but the tide was very low, exposing a lot of coastal tidepoools.  For more information about surf conditions here, click on the link to abcnews report, 2018.

The tide was so low, huge benches of rock encrusted with sea anemones were exposed.

A large rocky outcrop was completely uncovered at low tide, leaving small pools of sea water on top.

Shell-covered exteriors of sea anemones completely cover the rock at the side of the rocky outcrop.

A few Herring Gulls explored the pools, so we had to check them out as well.

In one pool we spotted a crab hiding under a ledge, along with numerous other shells of previous inhabitants — clams, mussels, worms, other crabs… 

If I can find the crabs, so can the gulls!

Taking it apart…the upper mandible can easily penetrate the thin carapace of the crab shell.

Down to the last bite, after flinging away the inedible parts.

Once the crab’s carapace is opened, the gull can extract it’s meal.

The end of the meal…leave the legs for some other scavenger.

Elsewhere on the beach, a Snowy Egret was wading in the tidepools checking out the fish.

The Egret swishes the water with one of its feet while it waits, and then pounces on whatever moves.

We got closer to the action at other tidepools nearer the shore.  Although there were quite a few tidepool sculpin in these pools, the Egret seemed interested in other prey.

Swishing one foot to get things moving in the tidepool…

Got it! It looks like a small eel, not a sculpin.

And down the gullet it goes, and the bird continues to stalk another one.


Another fun morning with sea life on the California coast.

at the beach…

Beautiful Cannon Beach, northwest of Portland, Oregon is a walker’s and photographer’s paradise, even in cloudy, rainy weather.  It seems like you can walk for miles along the beach or drive a few miles north and walk through the headlands at Ecola State Park to view some spectacular ocean scenes.

Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, OR

The surf pounds on rocks quite a ways off shore, but the waves recede far out into the ocean. There are “sneaker waves” that come suddenly and without warning quite high up on the beach, but the kids can quickly outrun them.

Several jelly”fish” have washed ashore by the surf action here, but the beach sand is completely devoid of the usual shells, seaweed, or wood we usually find on a beach. Certainly no messages in a bottle…

The gigantic haystack rock is a nesting site for Tufted Puffins in the spring. Its southern side appears to have a cave hollowed out by the persistent pounding of ocean waves here.

A single rock on this otherwise pristine sand.   Is that my reflection in the bubble?

The scenic bird rocks of Cannon Beach, volcanic remnants of a once rockier cliff shoreline in northwestern Oregon.

Cannon Beach from Ecola State Park.  Fog and rain clouds make for a mystical scene.

Hiking trails at Ecola State Park wind along the coast through dense forest of Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, Sword ferns, and evergreen shrubs.

A walk in the woods…

Usually one leaves the cold northland to bask in the sun on a sandy beach, but this time we are reveling in the rainy mist of the temperate rainforest of coastal Oregon.

Fog shrouds the lofty Sitka spruce in the temperate rainforest of Neahkahnie Mountain south of Cannon Beach, Oregon, making it look like a scene from the planet Endor. (Star Wars, VI)

Like its tropical counterpart, the temperate rainforest is so wet almost all of the year that plants are crowded together and basically grow on top of each other.  The big difference is the cool temperature that makes it a very quiet place almost devoid of animal life, at least in the winter on a rainy day.  The only bird life we saw on this hike was a Pacific Wren.

Typical vegetation in the Oregon coastal temperate rainforest: sword ferns, lodgepole pine, Douglas fir, and high on the mountains — Sitka spruce.

Moss drapes itself over pine branches. Lichens drip from tree limbs as well. Plants grow on top of plants.

Fungi and slime molds can be found on the few bare areas on downed wood that ferns and mosses haven’t colonized.

Hiking in this weather is perfect, because it’s not too cold, and you don’t get overheated or dehydrated, like we do in the Sierras. (I didn’t hear a single complaint from the grandkids about this trail up Neahkahnie Mountain.)

Good morning snack

There are fewer deer in the backyard than usual this winter — whether due to natural fluctuations in their numbers or to culling them from surburbia, I’m not sure.  I always wonder how the deer get enough to eat in the winter when they are forced to eat such low quality forage like evergreens, twigs of shrubs, and dried up perennials and annuals.

Conifers in general are known for their unpalatability. The most edible parts (seeds) are long gone, having been harvested by all the squirrels in the backyard.  Spiny needles and the resinous sap that remain are all designed to deter herbivores from munching on them.  Nevertheless, poor forage is better than no forage, as they say.

Deer munching probably sets young coniferous plants back in their growth. But there aren’t many choices in the winter environment for a hungry deer.

But sometimes, there is a treat worth checking out, just waiting in the backyard for the savvy deer.

All that spilled seed from the hungry birds makes a nice snack. 

Last year the bird feeder was on a shorter pole, and with three feet of snow on the ground, the deer just walked up to it, bit off all the plastic perches, pulled the feeder off the pole, and had a good time taking it apart for the seed inside.  This year, a bit wiser, I put a smaller feeder (just for the local chickadees, nuthatches, etc.) up on a longer pole that the deer won’t be able to reach (I hope — but that depends on how much snow we get).

I took a walk out in the back of the back yard (an open space of ponds and cottonwood forest) and found some fresh remains of one unfortunate deer. I an curious what animals took the meat off this part of the carcass. Would coyotes and foxes do this good a job of removing flesh? A big chunk of skin was lying nearby.

Gray day, colorful birds!

Gray days in the winter dampen one’s mood, but they are great for photography.  The outdoor temperatures can be 10-20 degrees warmer than on a clear, sunny day, which means the birds are likely to be more active.  But the lack of strong light and dark contrast on a gray day seems to enhance the details in colorful birds that would otherwise get lost in glare and shadow.

Since we are back to our semi-monochromatic landscape of white and brown, a little color in the landscape is always welcome.

Mr. Cardinal is fluffed up in 20 F temperatures, which will seem balmy to man and bird in a couple of months!  Cardinals are red (mostly), but look how many shades of red they really are.

I filled the peanut feeder, so of course, the Blue Jays were quick to pick up several at a time and fly off to stash them for later enjoyment.  If you were going to color a blue jay accurately, how many colors would you need?