Monthly Archives: July 2016


Mallards at the Horicon Marsh

The female Mallard on the right did not appreciate the male Mallard’s behavior on the left.  In the next photo she is a blur swimming away.  Can you come up with a caption for this photo?  Share your captions in the comments section.

Home Sweet Home

Would you rather live in a high rise condo, a house built over the water, or camp on the ground gazing at the stars overhead?  It is amazing that birds use such a variety of locations and construction methods to build their homes.

Barn Swallows at the Horicon Marsh

Barn Swallows

Barn Swallow homes are like high rise condos for birds.  They like to build their nests out of mud high on a building.  You may see them on barn beams or above outdoor light fixtures on homes. Barn Swallows gather mud pellets in their beaks.  They add their saliva to the pellet and carry it to their nesting site. Barn Swallows vibrate their heads as they apply a new wet pellet to the drier structure.  This distributes moisture and molds the new pellet onto the nest in progress.  They may use up to 1,500 pellets to build their cup shaped nest.  Adding grass contributes to the durability of the nest.[1]  After multiple trips to get a beak full of mud, I’m sure they work up an appetite.  One of their favorite foods is aerial insects.

Juvelnile Forester's Tern at the Horicon Marsh

Juvenile Forster’s Tern

Another bird that enjoys aerial insects is the Forster’s Tern.  They also plunge-dive for fish to eat.   Their nest is nothing more than a shallow depression in the ground.  The lack of construction leaves them more time to go fishing.

American Bittern at the Horicon Marsh

American Bittern

The American Bittern builds its nest piling up cattails and sticks making a thick platform a few inches above the water.  Nests are 10 to 16 inches across and may rest on a small mound on the ground.[2]  Bitterns usually stand among the cattails with their beaks pointed in the air so they blend in to the vegetation.  I almost drove right by this one.  When he was ready for dinner, he started looking at the water and swayed his head side to side.  Was he trying to lull his dinner into thinking life was good in the marsh muck?  Then, with lightning speed, he plunged his head in the water and plucked a frog from the mud.

If you disturb a bird’s home, you will ruffle his feathers.

Juvenile Forster's Tern at the Horicon Marsh

He will not be happy with you.

Barn Swallows at the Horicon Marsh

Whether it’s high, low, or somewhere in between respect a bird’s nest wherever you find one. It’s their home sweet home.


[1] Peter Goodfellow, Avian Architecture (Princeton and Oxford:  Princeton University Press, 2011), 84.

[2] John Eastman, Birds of Lake, Pond and Marsh:  Water and Wetland Birds of Eastern North America (Mechanicsburg, PA:  Stackpole Books, 1999), 211.

Bird ID

Bird identification can be a challenge and that is part of the fun of birding.  It’s exciting to discover a species we haven’t seen before.  Let’s take a bird ID quiz and start with the bird that was easiest for me to identify today.  He was spotted along the south side of Highway 49.  Do you know what it is?  Your answer is worth 2 points.

Ring-billed Gull at the Horicon Marsh

It is a Ring-billed Gull.  It is a bit hard to tell in this picture because the fish is partially impaled on the end of the beak, but there is a dark ring there.  The Herring Gull has a red spot on the bottom part of the beak (mandible).  The Ring-billed Gull has yellow legs.  The Herring Gull has pink legs.  Also notice that the Ring-billed Gull has a red eye ring around its yellow eye.  You get extra points if you can identify the fish.

This is the next bird I saw.  He was frolicking in the water, which is a bit unusual for this bird, in my limited experience.  I have always seen it wading.  Your correct answer is worth 3 points.

Lesser Yellowlegs at the Horicon Marsh

This photo gives us a solid clue as it reveals the bird’s yellow legs.

Lesser Yellowlegs at the Horicon Marsh

This is a Lesser Yellowlegs.  The bill is dark and slender.  The Greater Yellowlegs has a bit thicker bill with a slight upturn at the end.  The length of the bill is about equal to the length of the head in this Lesser Yellowlegs.  The bill is about 1.5 times the length of the head for the Greater Yellowlegs.

Now let’s look at the most difficult identification of the day.  Is this the Short-billed Dowitcher or the Long-billed Dowitcher?  Your correct answer is worth 5 points.

Short-billed Dowitcher at the Horicon Marsh

Here is another angle.

Short-billed Dowitcher at the Horicon Marsh

Apparently, the best way to distinguish the Short-billed from the Long-billed is by their call.  You can listen to the Short-billed Dowithcher’s call here and the Long-billed Dowitcher’s call here.  Today, there were several Dowitchers wading in the water and they weren’t talking.  They were eating.  They were probing their long beaks up and down in the water and mud like long sewing machine needles.  I think this is the Short-billed Dowitcher.  The Short-billed has an orange wash to the face, neck, breast, and underparts.  It has variable spotting on the upper breast. The belly can include some white.  The Long-billed is brick-red on the underparts and has dark upperparts with reddish markings.  It has a barred breast with no white areas on the belly.

How did you do on the quiz?  Did you get all 10 points plus the bonus points for the fish identification?  I referred to Birds of North America:  Eastern Region, Editor-in-Chief Francois Vuilleumier, Field Guide to Birds by Donald and Lillian Stokes, and The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley for my information today.  Do you have a favorite bird ID book?  Please share your favorites in the comments section.

Overexposure Strategies

Great Egret at the Horicon Marsh

Great Egret
f/7.1, 1/250, ISO 400

This ruggedly handsome Great Egret is adorned with his white breeding plumes cascading over his tail.  The plumes are present only in spring and early summer.  Both male and female egrets have them.  Once valued for use on hats, egrets were almost hunted to extinction.[1]  Great Egrets are aptly named since they are the largest egret.

It was a highlight to see this beautiful bird roosting in a tree today, but, as you can see, I blew the highlights.  Some of the white feathers are overexposed.  Once that happens, there is no getting the detail back in post processing.  What can I do to improve this photo?  Here are 6 strategies to deal with overexposure on white birds.

  1. I took this picture at 5:05 p.m. central time.  I could come later in the day, or earlier in the day, when the light is more golden and there is less contrast.  If the only time I have to shoot is in the middle of the day though, I’m still going to go out and take advantage of that.
  2. I could change my angle to the bird.  With the light behind me and on the front of the bird, it makes the bird look more flat and creates fewer shadows. Shadows add depth.  If I could change my position so the bird is lit from the side there would be more detail. I was stopped on the shoulder of Highway 49 and changing my position wasn’t an option.
  3. I was shooting JPEG images and using aperture-priority mode with my Canon 7D.  These are my typical choices.  I chose a 7.1 f-stop.  The lowest aperture my 150- 600 mm lens allows at 600 mm is f/6.3.  I wanted to keep the f-stop low to blur the background and make the bird stand out.  The lower the number the more wide open the aperture and the more light that is let in to the camera.  This decreases the depth of field so the bird is sharp but the background blurs. The camera set the shutter speed at 1/250.  I set the ISO to 400.  This setting let in too much light.  I have several choices if I want to stay in the aperture-priority mode.  If I increase the f-stop to f/16 to increase the depth of field, the camera will automatically change the shutter speed to compensate.  A change in one control causes an equal change in the number of stops in the other control. I would get the same amount of light.  The aperture is like the diameter of a garden hose.  The shutter speed is how long I turn the water on.  If I have a hose with a large diameter, I only have to turn the hose on a short time to water the garden.  If I decrease the diameter of the hose I am using, I have to turn the water on longer to get the same amount of water on the garden.  Either way, it’s the same amount of water (or light, in this case).  If changing the f-stop in this mode doesn’t help, what else can I do to change the exposure?  I can change the ISO.  ISO is the camera’s sensitivity to light.  Sadly, changing the ISO in aperture-priority mode also causes the camera to change the shutter speed to compensate.  My garden is getting the same amount of water.
  4. The option to use, if I want to stay in aperture-priority mode, is the exposure compensation feature.  The scale for this feature is found in the lower bar in the viewfinder.  I have a dial control on the back of my camera that I can rotate until the arrow on the scale lines up at “0” indicating the exposure is correct.  In this case, I may have to adjust to -1 or -2 because the majority of the photo is darker trees and cattails (prior to my cropping it).  If the photo was mostly the white egret, then I may have to go to +1 or +2.  Exposure compensation only works with automatic exposure modes.
  5. I could leave the comfort zone of aperture-priority mode and enter the scary territory of manual mode.  Now I can set the large aperture I want, set the ISO, and change the shutter speed to a faster speed until the exposure scale is at 0.  That doesn’t seem too scary.  But how do I know the exposure is giving me the detail I want in my photo?  I can check the dreaded histogram.  Actually, that isn’t so frightening either.  I press the “playback” button, then the “info” button three times and the RGB histogram is displayed.  When shooting JPEG images, I want the color that is farthest to the right to be a half stop from the right margin of the graph.  In RAW, the color farthest to the right should touch the right margin of the graph without climbing up the margin. So I can take a shot, check the histogram, and adjust my shutter speed or ISO as needed.
  6. There is one last strategy.  I should turn on my highlight alert feature.  This is found in the menu.  Push the “menu” button.  Search for “highlight alert” and enable it.  Now when I view my images in the playback mode there will be blinking black areas where I overexposed the bird.

I am excited to try these strategies and stop overexposing the abundant white feathered birds at the Horicon Marsh.  I will let you know how the strategies work in a future post.

If you would like to read an excellent article about the manual exposure mode written by John and Barbara Gerlach you can find it here. You might also like their book Digital Wildlife Photography.  Their chapter on exposure strategies will give you more details and examples.

What strategies do you use to keep from overexposing your shots?  Join the discussion in the comments section.

[1] John Eastman, Birds of Lake, Pond and Marsh:  Water and Wetland Birds of Eastern North America (Mechanicsburg, PA:  Stackpole Books, 1999), 200.

Food Glorious Food

American Coots at the Horicon Marsh

I know.  I know.  You are thinking, “Lisa, we just saw pictures of these American Coot chicks two days ago.  They are always eating!”  It’s true.

I’ve been mulling over why I am perfectly happy taking photos of Coot chicks again.  Perhaps I am drawn by their semi-cuteness.  Maybe I’m a sucker for observing the tender moments between the parents and their chicks.  Sometimes I’m motivated by wanting to get a better shot the next time I see them.  There’s an aspect of comfort in seeing that they are surviving and thriving.  For the present moment, the Coots are what are here.

American Coots at the Horicon Marsh

These birds are also absorbed in the present moment.  Often, that involves eating.  Sometimes, it means napping.  At other times, it means floating in calm water on a warm Sunday afternoon.  They are not distracted by “to do” lists and cluttered lives.  Their full attention is given to what is important.  At the moment, it is teaching their little ones how to pull up yummy underwater marsh vegetation.

American Coots at the Horicon Marsh

Maybe that’s one thing that draws me to the Marsh.  It is an opportunity to come away and to be engaged in the moment rather than inundated with life’s many demands.  It’s a chance to come away and single-task, just like the Coots.

American Coots at the Horicon Marsh