Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Carrion My Wayward Son

With the warm weather we have been having, our snow has quickly been melting away. Brown grass and fields aren’t the only thing that blanket of snow was covering up. Scattered around the landscape are the remains of many dead animals. Although these animals may not be pretty to look at as you drive down the road, they are a very important part of nature. They may not have died of natural causes, but the result can still benefit the rest of the natural world.

Many other animals will use this carrion to help them survive the winter. Eagles are only one species that will feed on carrion. Many other birds such as crows, vultures or even song birds will feed off of the meet and fat left behind. Not to mention fox, coyotes, mice and who knows what else will make a meal of the already dead animals.

Photographically speaking, dead animals don’t usually make very pretty images, but I think it’s important to help tell the complete story of our natural world. As photographers, we are storytellers. We use our images to express those stories to our viewers. In this case, the death of one animal will help to insure the survival of another. It’s all part of the great circle of life that we are all a part of.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Porcupine Hunting: Learning About Your Subject

I spent all day Saturday at the Sandhill Outdoor Skills Center near Babcock Wisconsin. The reason for this visit was to study the ecology of the North American Porcupine. You might be asking yourself, why would someone drive 130 miles one way to learn about our states second largest rodent? I have a couple answers to that question. First, curiosity. I just thought it would be interesting. Second, the information would be invaluable for photography.

One of the first things you learn when it comes to wildlife photography, or any type of photography, is that you need to get to know your subject. The more you know about your subject, the better prepared you will be to photograph it.

I wasn't counting on this workshop to produce any award winning photos, but I was counting on it preparing me to create those types of photos in the future. We did have porcupines to photograph though. This was a female that the researchers had captured the day before as part of a long term study they are conducting on porcupines at Sandhill.

After she was released, she climbed up a tree and we headed down the road in search of some more porcupines. You can she is wearing a radio collar.

Once you know what to look for, porcupine dens are pretty easy to locate. You can follow their trails pretty easily in the snow. They are most likely going to lead you to a feed tree or a den site. In the winter, porcupines limit their travels to conserve energy. Look for a hole in a tree, or someplace that would provide a good hiding place for the porcupine where they would be protected from the elements and stay warm. A hollowed out tree makes a great den and the pile of droppings below the opening are a sure sign that it's an active den site.

Once you find a den site, you should check to see if there is a porcupine in it. How do you do this? Easy, stick your hand in it until you feel the quills!

OK, maybe that's not a great idea. To determine if there was something in the den, we would use a digital camera. Simply put it in the hole and take a photo. Make sure your flash is on. Then you can check your photo on the camera's LCD screne to see if there is something in the den.

Be careful when you do this. Porcupines are not aggressive, but there might be something else using the den that is! Culverts make good dens sites too.

If the den is empty, look up, the porcupine might just be watching you from above. Porcupines really only use dens like this in the winter to stay safe and warm. In the summer they spend most of their time in the tree tops feeding. They don't have to worry about the cold, and it's a pretty safe place for them. Their main predator is the fisher. Fishers can climb trees, but they prefer to predate the porcupines while on the ground.

Another way to know if you have porcupines in the area is to look at the trees for signs of damage. Porcupines eat the bark off of trees so when you see trees with the bark stripped from the branches, chances are that a porcupine had a nice meal there. Notice the stripped limbs in the tree in the center of the photo? On closer inspection, we found that this tree also has an active den in it.

Since they are actively conducting research on porcupines at Sandhill, we set a couple of traps while we were out in the field.

The traps are insulated with straw to keep the porcupines warm, and will be checked in the morning. If there is a porcupine in the trap, they will be taken back to the office to collect all of the data the researchers need and possibly be fitted with a radio collar. They will then be taken back to where they were trapped and released.

Getting to know the researchers is another great way to learn more about your subjects. With shrinking budgets, and smaller staffs, researchers are often happy to have volunteers to help them out. While helping them out in the field, you can pick their brain with all kinds of questions. They are happy to share their knowledge with you and it will help you to be prepared for finding and photographing the subjects on your own.

After a long day in the field, and a long drive heading south, it was great to see the geese flying north. It was a nice way to end a great day.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

End Of The Line

I came across this story written in the snow yesterday as I was snowshoeing with my dogs. I don't know what left the tracks in the snow, but I have a pretty good idea of what ended them. A small rodent of some kind was surprised mid stroll by a raptor. Either a hawk or an owl judging by the size of the wing marks left in the snow.

I have seen a hawk in this area but haven't gotten a good look to verify exactly what it is. My guess is a red-tail. I have heard reports of a snowy owl in this area as well, but have yet to actually see it.

These types of stories are written, by wildlife, across the landscape all the time. Taking the time to find and interpret them makes our outdoor adventures more enjoyable. Being able to share them with others makes our adventures even more rewarding.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Winter Wonderland!

I love fresh snow! Even if I'm not out with the intent on taking photos, I love being out in the fresh snow. Cross country skiing, snowshoeing, even running the snow blower. It's all fun for me. I was happy to get out on Saturday for a while to play in fresh powder that covered our area on Friday.

The sun was shining and the wind was minimal making for a great day to get out and play in the snow. The bright blue sky contrasted nicely with the red berries and snow.

The fresh, untouched landscape was a refreshing sight to see. I had expected to see more tracks in the snow, but it looks like I was one of the first to explore this area.

The trail was untouched, but you can still follow the faint tracks left in the last snowfall that wasn't completely covered by this storm.

I hiked a little over 3 miles on my snowshoes on Saturday. A good portion of that was breaking a new trail in the fresh powder.

I wasn't the only one leaving tracks in the snow!

The sun was casting some interesting shadows on the blank canvas of the snow.

The fresh snow, mild temperatures and bright sun made it a great day to spend outside exploring!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Winter has arrived. Finally!

Winter has finally arrived here in the Midwest. Last week I was still seeing motorcycles on the road, this week it's plows and salt trucks. With temps in the single digits and the snow slowly starting to accumulate, it actually feels like January. More snow is predicted for this weekend and I'm hoping for some great photo opportunities in the coming weeks.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Frosty Morning

Winter has finally settled in to Southwest Wisconsin. With the mild winter we have had up until last week, the photo opportunities seemed to be pretty limited. With no snow, the landscaped simply looked brown and boring. The lack of snow also means that there is plenty of food around for wildlife so they don't need to be on the move as much. So with what seems like a lack of subjects to photograph, what's a nature/wildlife photographer to do?

The answer is simple. All you have to do is take a look around and you will find something to photograph. Just because you like to shoot a specific type of subject doesn't mean that you stop looking at other options. Something as simple as frost on a window can make for an interesting photo.

This time of year is one of my favorite times to be out photographing the landscape. Snow, frost and ice transform our surroundings into magical displays of mother nature.

If you don't like being out in the cold, stay inside and find something that interests you. One nice thing about photography frost on your windows is that you can stay inside where it's warm and still make interesting winter photos.

Another great thing about this time of year for photographers is that the sun rises and sets at a lower angle to the earth than at other times of the year. The result is that great magic light last longer into the morning, and begins sooner in the afternoons. That magic light can really help to warm up a cold scene and turn it into something special.

If you like the cold or hate it, there are plenty of opportunities to capture winter scenes if you simply take a look around you and are willing to explore photographic possibilities that you hadn't thought of before.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Story Behind the Photographs - Hyde's Mill

Not another Hyde's Mill photo! That place is way over photographed.

Those are two things that I hear quite often. I'll admit, this place if photographed a lot, but it is these types of comments to photographs of the mill that drive me to return to this location over and over again. Not because I want to add to the deluge of Hyde's Mill photos out there, but because I want to create an image that really stands out from the crowd.

Hyde's Mill is located in a very small town in Iowa County Wisconsin, and is a staple in many local photographer portfolios. The mill and the stone damn that diverted the water flow to drive the water wheel were build in 1850, and are a classic reminder of the days gone bye.

One of the big challenges when it comes to creating a unique photograph of this location is the limited access. Almost all of the photos I have seen of this location are taken from one or two spots. The road, or the grassy area in front of the damn. The land around the mill, and the mill itself is privately owned (and for sale) so you are pretty much limited to these two shooting locations. So how do you make something unique with what seems like very few options?

The way I answer this question is to try something new, experiment and see what works and what doesn't. Add an interesting foreground element.

Isolate a smaller section of the scene.

Visit at a different time of day, or night.

Visit in a different season. Winter with fresh snow on the ground is my favorite time to photograph this location.

This is a location where you really do have to work the scene. If you open your mind, the options become limitless. You are still limited to a few locations to shoot from, but what you choose to photograph from those locations is up to you. Change things up a little bit and you can come home with a new photo from an old location.

When you have finished photographing the mill, don't forget to look around you. Right behind the mill is an old blacksmith shop. The access to the blacksmith shop is even more limited than the mill, so get creative.

Right in front of the area where you park is a display of some of the old grinding stones from the mill. They make a very compelling subject as well.

When you have exhausted your opportunities at Hyde's Mill, drive to the end of the road. Hyde's Chapel is another great subject to photograph that is all but forgotten by photographers. Most of them head to the mill, then return the same way them came and never even see the chapel.