Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 in Review

Eastern Bluebird Canon 60D, 600mm, ISO 320,f4.5, 1/90

As 2011 passes into history I look back at my outdoor photographic endeavors and marvel at what an incredible year it turned out to be.  Posting to Country Captures, I was frequently at a loss for words but never for wildlife images.  The year started with visiting the eagles at Conowingo early in January, then  on to Pa's elk herd in February, and then to Middle Creek for the snow geese migration in March. 

By early April the waterfowl migration was going strong around home and combining fishing and photography filled the freezer with fresh fillets and my computer with image files through May.  June and July were spent near home photographing the waterfowl young, whitetail fawns, and the bucks as their antlers grew.

Come August it was on to Shenandoah National Park in search of velvet and SNP seldom disappoints.  A highlight of the August trips was encountering the blueberry eating coyote who, although he kept the deer on alert, showed no interest in eating anything other than the berries.  September found me in Pa's elk country photographing the rut.  While I didn't capture any images that really grabbed my attention it was a good trip with a number of good bulls to photograph and a quite a few great guys to shoot the bull with.

October as always seen the foliage change from a uniform green to a coat of many colors.  Whitetail activity picked up as the first stirring of the pre-rut began exciting the deer herd.  A day trip to SNP was just the ticket for pre-rut buck images.  Migrating waterfowl began to show up at the local lake as the birds began their southward journey.  Fall waterfowl photography is never as productive as the spring, the migration moves faster and hunting pressure makes the birds very wary.  The month ended with the opening of Pa's elk season and for the first time I was there with Willard to document the hunt around Winslow Hill.  We photographed the events as hunters killed a human habituated bull on the hillside facing the viewing area.   By the time the season had ended a number of the habituated bulls that had thrilled thousands of viewers were dead; a sad note to end the month on.  It was also on this trip that I heard the story of the bull shot by this years holder of the Governors Conservation Tag.  It was told that he arrowed bull #22; a bull that was collared with a transmitter.  The wounded bull escaped only to die eight days later; 4 1/2 miles from where he was initially shot.  If it hadn't been for the collar he would not have been located.  The bull was alread spoiled by the time they got there;  only his antlers could be salvaged.

November brought on the whitetail rut.  Thanks to Pa's antler restrictions and a number of trips to SNP it was the most fantastic whitetail rut I have ever experienced.  The rut was winding down by the time SNP began closing the middle district during the night and Pa's deer season opened; the two events that ended my season of buck photography.  With the ending of the rut my photographic attention turned to feeder birds.  

Birds and squirrels have been my targets the last few days but I am already beginning to feel the need to put the wheels on the highway in search of bigger and better things for 2012! 

Happy New Year!   

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

What are they eating?

The components that make up ideal wildlife habitat are not much different than our own; food, water, and shelter.  Knowing what food source the wildlife you are seeking is utilizing at any given time is an important clue to locating it.  Squirrels in my area will be found around hickory trees in mid to late August where they are cutting the green hickory nuts.  As the acorns ripen squirrels will show a marked preference for the oak ridges where they will feed and collect fallen nuts many of which they will bury for later retrieval.  In year's when the acorn crop fails, squirrels can be found targeting other food sources such as red-bud pods, dogwood berries, wild grape, poplar seed, etc.

Recently I have noticed that most of our local gray squirrels are targeting black walnuts.  They seem to have forsaken nearly all other food sources, even our feeders offering sunflower seed and corn, preferring the hard thick shelled black walnuts instead.  The walnut meats are quite tasty but at the same time difficult to access.  It is not uncommon to watch a squirrel gnaw for fifteen minutes or more on a single nut as it chews holes through the shell to extract the contents.  It's a lot of work for a small meal but the squirrels don't seem to mind.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Wildlife Population Perceptions

Recently as I thumbed through a Pennsylvania outdoor publication I was struck by the observations that contributors had made.  A number of hunters were questioned about their opinion of the recent changes to the Pa bear season format where extra days were added to the archery season, one day added to the firearms season with that being a Saturday opener to allow hunters more access without needing to take time away from work.  The comments were all positive and respondents generally felt there are too many bears in Pennsylvania and increased hunting opportunities posed no problem. 

Additionally in letters to the editor hunters decried the lack of deer.  One Pennsylvania legislator has even proposed a bill requiring a separate committee be appointed to oversee antlerless license allocation as the PGC has over harvested deer and apparently cannot be trusted to manage deer numbers.  Continuing to spot read I did not find one person expressing the opinion that Pennsylvania has enough deer let alone too many.

With those opinions in mind lets look at some numbers. 

During the 2010 hunting season 161,119 bear hunting licenses were sold.  Hunters bagged 3,090 bears during the hunting season.  However, during the same license year hunters took an estimated 316,240 deer; 122,930 antlered and 193,310 antlerless.  When comparing bear license to harvest one finds that less than two percent of bear hunters were successful.  However, when comparing the deer harvest of 316,240 deer against a total of over 800,000 licensed hunter yields a thirty seven percent success rate.

From a personal point of view, during 2011 I have seen deer nearly every day and photographed them innumerable times. During the same period I had just one bear encounter with a sow and three small cubs, and never a chance to fire the camera.  Yet those interviewed by the hunting publication generally agreed; Pa has too many bears when over 100 times more deer were harvested.  And guess what; We don't have any deer!

Kinda hard to figure

Monday, December 26, 2011

Blue Jays & The 600

The minimum focus distance of the 600mm lens required me to move the blind farther away from the feeders.  The wary blue jays, difficult to photograph with the 400mm, seem to appreciate the extra personal space.

The 600 presents its own set of challenges.  Quarters are cramped enough inside the small blind and adding the big lens makes it even more so, but the biggest problem by far is locating the birds through the lens.  At the close distances necessary for frame filling shots the field of view through the finder only covers a few inches and for the most part that is blurred because of the shallow depth of field. 

I have also found that to capture the very sharpest images that I must shoot hands free with a cabled remote.  The tiny vibrations induced by simply touching any part of the rig; camera, lens, or tripod will soften the image perceptibly.  However, when it all comes together the resulting images are just what I was hoping for.  Now I can hardly wait until the spring waterfowl migrations begin!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas



Blue Jay

Let Heaven and Nature Sing

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Prime Time Bushytails

Don't get me wrong, I love my Canon 100-400mm L.  In Canon's lens line-up you cannot get more bang for your buck in a lens to cover a wide range of wildlife photography.  Sure the f5.6 is a little slow for low-light photography and the dof isn't as shallow as one might like, but with 300mm of zoom topping at 400mm it does a fantastic job without sending one for a home equity loan. 

However there is a reason that wildlife photographers lust after the big primes.  There is a reason that folks like me look at their prices and feel an empty pit in our stomachs; knowing that someday we won't be satisfied without one.  And after saving for a couple of years I find myself sitting in front of the computer, the order filled out; feeling the upwelling of the dry heaves as the cursor hovers over the "place order" button. 

A few days later the big box arrives.  Almost hesitantly I open it and am soon fitting the beast into the Kirk gimbal head.  It feels much heavier than the advertised 11+ pounds but swings effortlessly in the gimbal. 

A couple of days later and it's show time at the feeders. 

This little fellow mustered up a bushel of "Cute Factor" for my first 600mm prime-time shoot.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Too Close For Comfort

 During a visit to Shenandoah National Park during the 2011 rut I spotted a good buck at a considerable distance and decided to get closer.  Not to be left behind Brad Myers joined me with Willard bringing up the rear.  Twenty five yards distance was close enough for frame filling head shots with my 400mm so we set the tripods down and went to work.

The buck seemed unconcerned with our presence but then began moving in our direction.  By this time I was sitting on the ground keeping my camera low for a better shooting angle.  I noticed that he was drawing nearer and soon was zooming out to obtain the compositions I desired.

And then with his head down his ears went back; there was no doubting his aggressive body language.  We all began talking sternly to him as we slowly backed away, making sure to continue maintaining eye contact as we went.  After following us for twenty yards or so he lost interest, turned and began moving parallel.

When he came to the woodline he scraped.  This image captured him as he scent-marked the overhanging branches by licking and rubbing them with his facial glands.

As he moved through a strip of woodland we repositioned to intercept him coming out the other side.  We watched as he battled the bushes in mock fighting and then as he began to emerge shutters began clicking.

And once again he headed directly toward the cameras!  When he lifted his tail we all knew that it was time once again to move back and give him room.  While this body language may not appear threatening don't be mislead; it is!  When a whitetail encounters a predator, if they don't flee, they will approach with head held high and tail lifted just as this buck was doing to us. 

Later in the evening we were again photographing the same buck as he rubbed a large tree, but this time from a much greater distance and this time he didn't seem to mind.

This whitetail was the most agressive buck I have ever encountered during my years of photographing the rut.  Having an understanding of their body language and behaviour helped defuse the situation.  Always remember if you get into a "Too Close For Comfort" situation always back away slowly, maintain eye contact, and never, never turn and run for that may be the trigger that brings on an attack.

As the sun dropped below the horizon we watched as this same buck approached another photographer with head and tail up.  The photographer, being seasoned and fully understanding the situation, backed away and continued backing until the buck lost interest.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bird Feeders: Keeping it Natural

A gust of wind ruffles the feathers of a Mourning Dove

As those of you who visit Country Captures regularly know, I always strive to capture wildlife images in natural settings.  Photos of birds sitting on feeders, roof tops, and powerlines are not as aesthetically appealing to me as birds on a natural perch.  It really doesn't take much to set up a feeding location with lots of natural props as long as your local ordinances allow a brush pile on your property.

This photo shows the setup where many of my bird shots are taken.  The pop-up blind gives the birds a sense of security although they know full well that I am inside.  While the brush pile provides perches galore, the upright hollow logs hold the bird seed that brings then flocking in.  Scattering some feed in the brush attracts ground feeding birds such as the mourning dove pictured above.

Spending time in the blind is a great way to pass a few hours on a chilly winter day.  Reviewing, deleting, and processing the keeper images will make the long winter evening hours fly by quickly as well.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Backlit Leaves

It seems like quite a bit of time has passed since the colorful autumn foliage drifted to the ground but going through my archives I found this one touch of color that I had yet to process.  I made the image one foggy November morning.  The combination of fog, wet leaves and backlight caught my attention as I was driving along a dirt road.  I tried a few different compositions with this one being my favorite.  I hope you like it too.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Too Much Depth of Field

400mm f5.6, 5.5m distance

Try as I might I haven't been able to capture a satisfactory shot of a blue jay yet this year.  It's not that there is a lack of bird for at times more than a dozen jays will swarm the feeding area.  Rather the problem is their wariness.  Seldom will they perch for more than a split second unless they are in or near cover when I am positioned close enough to the feeding area to capture an acceptable image.  When I snapped this image the bird was close enough to the camera but too close to cover. 

It is a good sharp image of the bird but the busy background is too distracting.  While reviewing my shots from the day I thought for a moment about hitting the delete button and then decided to post about those times when having too much DOF ruins the shot.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Born on our family farm, castrated during his first day of life, he spent his entire life grazing the pastures with the brood cow herd. Normally our calves are kept until they are 500-600lbs and then sold as feeder calves to be finished out for beef, but this fine looking fellow was chosen two years ago to stay. He had been chosen while still a young calf to provide beef for our family.

He never had to endure the trauma of being trucked to the livestock auction, chased through the sale ring, herded onto a truck, and then dumped into a crowded feedlot where he would barely have room to move. He never had medicated feed, hormone implants, or a steady diet of corn to make him grow faster than he would naturally. And he was never rounded up and trucked to a slaughter plant where he would be forced in line awaiting his turn to be killed. Instead this morning he was pasturing in the same fields he had known all of his life when suddenly his life ended.

Millions of people every day dine on a steak or wolf down a burger without giving a moment's thought that an animal had lost it's life in order for them to have that meal. But when you are around them from the time they are born right up until you carefully aim the shot that strikes their forehead you do think about such things.

It was with sadness that I aimed the rifle. Knowing that this animal had lived a much better, more tranquil life than most cattle slaughtered in the US helped to lessen the sadness. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Nibbling on a frost covered twig a whitetail buck fawn shows off his tiny antler.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Pennsylvania Antler Restrictions: My Opinion

When this Pennsylvania firearms deer season draws to a close Saturday we will have ten years of antler restrictions behind us.

Prior to the 2002 season Pa regulations required a buck to carry either a 3" minimum length spike or two points on one side to be a legal antlered deer.  Starting with the 2002 season to be legal; a buck had to carry at least 3 points an inch or more in length on one side and some regions required at least 4.  This year after much complaining from hunters in the 4 point region as to the difficulty in determining whether a buck with three points on top also had the required brow tine the PGC changed the 4 point region to requiring 3 points on top; brow tines do not count.

At the same time the antler restrictions were instituted antlerless rifle deer season, which had previously been the Monday through Wednesday following buck season, became concurrent with the two weeks of buck season.  Since then due to hunter complaints about lack of deer much of the state is now buck only the first five days followed by seven days of concurrent antlered and antlerless hunting.

Legal buck prior to 2002

 Prior to 2002 1 1/2 year old buck made up 85% of the buck harvest.  Leaving only 15% of the bucks to have a chance to become 2 1/2 years old.  At 1 1/2 bucks are simply too young to grow nice antlers.  Spikes were so common that it was the running joke that they were Pennsylvania 11 pointers.  If I remember correctly studies were reporting that the adult buck/doe ratio was somewhere around 14 does for each buck following the hunting season. 

 Another legal buck prior to 2002

Willard and I both became interested in our local whitetails at an early age and have hunted, watched, and photographed them extensivily over the past forty plus years.  Prior to 2002 we would have refered to the buck pictured in the first photo as a big buck for our area and indeed he may have been the biggest buck we spotted during the course of the year.  Today our standards have changed.  Now I would refer to him as a little eight pointer as bucks of his size are quite common.

After nine years of antler restriction it takes a buck like this to really get my attention

Pennsylvaina was never known for big bucks.  Our deer herd was managed for quanitity and quanitity only.  With 750,00 to 1,000,000 hunters in the woods a buck did not have much of a chance to live to adulthood.  Our problem has never been geneticts, it has always been age.  No buck can grow impressive antlers at 1 1/2 years of age.  2 1/2 year olds can grow some nice antlers but they simply cannot be big.  Its very simple, it takes time for a buck to grow.  Our current antler restrictions are designed to protect yearlings and is producing a good crop of nice bucks each year.    

I have listened to many hunters discuss antler restriction and surfed message boards.  What I find is that some hunters swear by them while others swear at them however, surveys of hunters finds that support for antler restrictions is very high.  Personally I would never want to go back to the old way.  If change were to be made I would like to see the entire state changed to 3 points on top however the way it is now suits me just fine!

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Side Light: Female Cardinal

A cold frosty morning at the feeders was a perfect time to work with low-angle side light.  Shortly after sun rise a female cardinal utilized a number of perches to show off here beautiful muted colors.

Here the light passes through her translucent legs and bill making them glow as if lit from within.

Don't get stuck in the rut of always shooting with frontal light and miss some of the best shots of the day.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Whitetail Humor

Shooting the rut isn't always serious business.  I was quick to click the shutter when this buck peered out from behind a tree.  Did he think that he was hid? Or was he practicing for the coming deer season?

When a buck began closing in on the doe he was chasing I focused the camera on her to capture the interaction between the animals.  I had to chuckle when his antlers lined up with her head, nearly looking as if she was wearing the headgear in reverse.

And when a grazing fawn found a leaf firmly attached to its nose it tossed its head violently.  I was too late focusing on the fawn to capture its frantic action in its failed attempt to dislodge the leaf, however I was able to make this capture moments before she dropped her head and wiped the leaf away with her hoof.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Capturing the Feeder Critters

During this first week of Pa firearms deer season I spent quite a bit of morning and evening time at the bird feeders.  It's pretty easy to take pictures of feeder birds so instead I have been concentrating on making close-up photographs in dramatic light as you seen with the male cardinal in my last post.

Here a Tufted Titmouse poses nicely in the warm evening sunlight.  The background was heavily shadowed.  Since a camera cannot record the light range seen by the human eye, exposing the bird properly rendered the shadows as black, just the combination I was looking for.

The early morning sun coming from in front of the squirrel creates an interesting play of light and shadow across this image.  The combination of highlights and shadows add depth to the image that would not be present if the sun were in the traditional over the shoulder position. 

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Thursday, December 01, 2011

Shooting the Feeders

Wildlife photography can be a hit-or-miss affair but snuggling up to a bird feeder tilts the odds in the photographer's favor. To capture this series of photographs I needed to be close so I set up my Ameristep Outhouse blind this morning ten feet away from the primary feeder.  This gave the birds a few hours to become comfortable with it before the afternoon shoot.  Once the sun had dropped a to a suitable angle it was time to enter the blind and wait for the shots to materialize.  The low-angle light illuminating this cardinal against a deeply shaded background made for a dramatic image.

 My goal is to always capture the birds in their natural surroundings.  To facilitate this our feeders are constructed from natural tree trunks with brush and weeds to provide cover and perches.  There is nothing wrong with shooting birds on man-made feeders; it's just not my style.

This cardinal paused while hopping from branch to branch through a dead poke weed as he approached the feeder.  The earthy browns contrasting with the cardinals brilliant reds, black face mask and shadows playing across his body made a striking image.

With so many perches for the birds to chose from lighting angles and backgrounds vary a great deal depending upon which perch the bird chooses.  With a rather shallow depth of field the distant woodland become a pleasing soft brown background.

For a productive session of wildlife photography setting up close to a busy bird feeder is a nearly sure-fire recipe for an action-packed outing.  And if you pay attention to details the resulting images may become some of your all-time favorites.