Monthly Archives: January 2017

Waiting for Spring

Bird Nest at the Horicon Marsh

Waiting for Spring

Several inches of snow fell on the Horicon Marsh yesterday.  Snow fills this vacant nest which may have been occupied by an American Robin, judging by its size and design. Female Robins build the nest from the inside out pressing dead grass and twigs into a cup shape using their wing.  Once the cup is formed, she uses soft mud from worm castings or puddles to reinforce the nest.  It takes an average of 180 trips per day for 2-6 days to finish this marvel of architecture.  Hopefully, we won’t have to wait long for the American Robins to return.

Nesting Boxes

Nesting Box at the Horicon Marsh

Nesting Box at the Horicon Marsh

Tree Swallows could make a happy home from mid-May to July in this type of nest box in the Horicon Marsh area.  Nest boxes should not be opened, like this one, during nesting season.  If you are interested in building your own nest box, is a website that is a part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and it is loaded with information.  The interactive  home page allowed me to type in my region (“Great Lakes”)  and my habitat (“Marsh”) which took me to a page listing 10 bird species whose numbers are declining in this area.  I can download construction plans for a nesting box to encourage these birds to nest here.  The site tells me how high I should put the nesting box, what I should attach it to, and what direction it should face.  I can decide whether it is a project I want to tackle, because it lets me know if it is a complex or an easy box to build.  I can also find out when each species is expected to nest in my region. What a great way to encourage declining bird species to nest at the Horicon Marsh!

Rough-legged Hawks at the Horicon Marsh

Rough-legged Hawks

This pair of Rough-legged Hawks was perched high in a tree on Highway 49.  This type of hawk spends its summer in the arctic tundra and it travels south to our area in the winter.  The name “Rough-legged” refers to the feathered legs.  There are only two other American raptors that have feathered legs to the toes.  Do you know what they are?  In my previous post, we discussed the legs of raptors and one reason that they can perch for so long.  Another reason is the structure of their tendons. Raptor tendons have a covering surrounding them called a sheath. This is similar to an electrical wire with insulation around it. Picture the wire with little bumps all over it. The insulation has ridges on the inside of it next to the wire. Stretching the tendon causes increased tension that presses the tendon and sheath together. The bumps on the tendon catch in between the ridges of the sheath producing a ratchet effect and preventing the tendons from sliding. The weight of a hawk’s body increases this effect when it perches. This adds to the ability of the hawk to stay perched for long periods of time without expending energy.

Rough-legged Hawk

The bold black wing patch is a distinctive feature of the Rough-legged Hawk.  This hawk has a gorgeous feather coloration pattern that is visible as it takes flight.

Barbed Wire Fence

This residual tree stump embedded in barbed wire caught my eye.  This could be a good metaphor.  If you come up with one, I would love to hear it in the comment section.

Ring-necked Pheasant at the Horicon Marsh

Ring-necked Pheasant

Two male Ring-necked Pheasants were strolling in the tall grass along Dike Road.

I got to make the rounds today from Palmatory Street in Horicon to Highway 49 to Dike Road.  It is always a fun adventure of discovery at the Horicon Marsh.

Fabulous Feet

Red-tailed Hawk at the Horicon Marsh

The Snowy Owl was elusive today as I drove through the fog shrouded Horicon Marsh.  Several vigilant hawks were perched high in trees, including this Red-tailed Hawk.

Red-tailed Hawk at the Horicon Marsh

He fans his reddish brown tail feathers as he takes flight, confirming his identity.

Red-tailed Hawk at the Horicon Marsh

Sharing the backside of a hawk flying away isn’t a prize winning shot.  What I found interesting though, is how relaxed his feet are as he releases his grip on the tree branch.

Bird Leg Anatomy

Hawk Leg Tendons

Hawks have three main leg bones that form a “Z.” Muscles that attach to the back of the leg bones have long tendons. These tendons pass through grooves behind the “ankle” and end at the underside of the toes. (Tendons attach muscles to bones.) Think of the tendon as a big rubber band going over a pulley. When a hawk straightens its leg, the muscle contracts and shortens. There is less tension on the tendon since it does not have to travel as far, and the toes open. A hawk uses this mechanism when it approaches a perch or its prey. The hawk then flexes its legs to grasp the perch or prey. Flexion stretches the tendon and puts more tension on it, causing the toes to close. We have a similar mechanism in our wrists and hands. Try to bend your wrist back and grasp a pen. Then bend your wrist down as far as you can. Your grasp will loosen on the pen and it will be harder to hold. This is referred to as a tenodesis grip in humans and is used as a tool in physical and occupational therapy to rehabilitate damaged tendons.

A hawk’s body weight increases the effect.  This passive closing of the toes allows the muscles to relax and the hawk can stay perched for long periods of time without expending energy.

Hawks also have keen vision.  As soon as they see my car slowing down, off they go to find another lookout post to survey the Horicon Marsh.


Two Strategies for Sharper Photos

Fundamentals of Photography DVD

Rain and freezing rain are pummeling the Horicon Marsh.  My driveway needs a zamboni.  Since I can’t get outside, I’m working on my New Year’s goal to watch the “Fundamentals of Photography” DVD series from The Great Courses.  Joel Sartore, a National Geographic Fellow, teaches the course.  In his lecture on shutter speeds he says, “The faster your subject is moving and the closer it is to your camera, the faster your shutter speed needs to be to freeze the action.”  A good rule of thumb is to “match shutter speed to lens length.”  For instance, if I am using a 50 mm lens, I should use a 1/50 second shutter speed.  If I am using a 300 mm lens, I should use a 1/300 second shutter speed.  Some photographers suggest doubling that.  John and Barbara Gerlach, in their book Digital Wildlife Photography, say that if I want to stop the action of a bird in flight, I should use at least 1/1000 second.[1]  If I am using a tripod or I purposely want to blur motion for an artistic effect, then I can go with lower shutter speeds.

300 mm and 600 mm lenses

I routinely used my 300 mm lens for photography on the Marsh and it takes excellent pictures. I had the exciting opportunity, along with several other photographers, to witness the hatching of 4 Black-necked Stilt chicks.  When I got home and looked at the photos, the chicks were grainy fluff balls lacking detail. One of the photographers alerted me to a sale on the Sigma 150 mm – 600 mm contemporary lens at  It was a deal I couldn’t pass up.  It is wonderful to photograph wildlife and birds that are farther out on the marsh, but I am still frustrated with a lack of sharpness in the images.  Now I know a possible reason.  I need to make sure my shutter speed is 1/1000 or 1/1200 to stop the action of a bird when using this longer lens.

Picture Style Option in the Canon Menu

Picture Style Option in the Canon Menu

Another strategy for increasing sharpness in my photos, is to change the sharpness setting in the menu of the camera.  Yes, I actually read my camera manual (well, some of it) and found this helpful nugget of information.  In the Canon menu, choose Picture Style. There are 6 styles to choose from, depending on whether you are doing portraits, landscapes, or you like to do more post processing on your computer.  I chose Standard which results in vivid, sharp images. Within the Standard picture style, there is a submenu that allows me to choose the level of sharpness, among other things.  Here is the interesting thing:  The default setting was 3 out of 7, with 7 being the sharpest.  Why?  I don’t know.  But I increased the sharpness level to 7.  I guess it pays to actually read the camera manual now and then.  Nikon users may have different menu options.  Pentax did not have this option in the menu.

Sharpness Setting

Sharpness Setting

I’m excited to get back out on the Marsh and try these 2 strategies to improve the sharpness of my images. Next time I want to capture an amazing photo of those cute little Stilt chicks.

By the way, those of you who live in warmer climates and don’t watch ice hockey, may not know that a zamboni is a machine that cleans and makes the surface of an ice rink smoother.

[1] John and Barbara Gerlach, Digital Nature Photography (Burlington, MA:  Focal Press, 2013), 51.

Snow Bird

Snowly Owl at the Horicon Marsh

Snowy Owl

I might have missed this Snowy Owl if it wasn’t for the two cars parked on the shoulder of Highway 49 directly across from it.  Snowy Owls like to perch low to the ground and this one looked like he was posing for a picture in a brochure touting the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge.

Snowy Owl at the Horicon Marsh

Snowy Owls weigh 4-5 pounds, which makes them the largest owl, by weight, in North America.  They spend their summers north of the Arctic Circle.  The extensive barring on this one is typical of an immature female.

Snowy Owl at the Horicon Marsh

Unfortunately, I only had my 17-70 mm lens with me.  It was only 12 degrees outside so I brought limited equipment with me today.  I didn’t want more equipment than necessary to be subject to condensation when I brought it back inside.  Note to self:  A good photographer is always prepared for a photo shoot.  If I had my telephoto lens with me, I could have gotten an amazing shot.  I wonder how many times photographers say, “If only…”

The Horicon Marsh has an interesting history.  The text on the  Historical Marker says, “Horicon Marsh, an area of 31,653 acres, was scoured out by the Wisconsin glacier at least 10,000 years ago.  Gradually the upper Rock River made deposits which slowed its current and spread its waters over the marshland.  The Marsh became a haunt of the earliest Indians whose mounds remain.  To promote lumbering, transportation, and agriculture white pioneers built a dam in 1846.  Horicon Lake, covering 51 square miles, became famous for hunting and fishing.  The dam was removed in 1869, restoring the Marsh, which was subjected to various development schemes that changed its character.  Climaxing a twenty year struggle by conservationists, Horicon National Wildlife Refuge was established July 16, 1941.  The State controls the south 10,857 acres; the Federal government, the north 20,796.  A wide range of wild fowl, many varieties of small birds, and numerous fur-bearing animals constitute the population of Horicon Marsh.”

I look forward to going out again to look for the Snowy Owl.  This time I will be sure to bring my telephoto lens.

Three Thoughts for the New Year

Winter at the Horicon Marsh

“One of the huge mistakes people make is that they try to force an interest on themselves. You don’t choose your passions; your passions choose you.” –Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon

Thank you to everyone who has stopped by to read my blog and for your support this past year.

The quote above has proven true for me.  I have had a passion for photography and nature since I was a little girl.  The interest has continued throughout my life in greater and lesser degrees.  In 2016 I took the plunge and started this blog which has given me a wonderful outlet to pursue my passion.  It has been a fun thing to do with my brother who started his blog at the same time.

Winter at the Horicon Marsh

“A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination, and hard work.” –Colin Powell

Pursuing my passion of nature photography has been fun work.  New Year’s Day is a good time to think about specific goals, the “hard work,” I want to accomplish in the coming year.  There are three things that have helped me to consider how to pursue my passion.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Olbrich Botanical Gardens
Madison, Wisconsin

Professional photographer Troy Freund critiqued the above photo a few years ago after the Edgar G. Mueller Photography Contest. He said, “You were intentional.”  That comment has stayed with me.  I want to pursue photography with intention. Everything in my photos should be there for a reason.  Every element in the photo should contribute to its overall success.  I can use negative space to communicate as effectively as a photo filled with things in nature.  I plan to improve my photography and writing skills by taking a class or two.  These intentional goals will hopefully improve the quality of the blog.

Photography Book

“In previous ages the word ‘art’ was used to cover all forms of human skill.  The Greeks believed that these skills were given by the gods to man for the purpose of improving the condition of life.  In a real sense, photography has fulfilled the Greek ideal of art; it should not only improve the photographer, but also improve the world.” –David Hurn, photographer

 Troy recommended the book On Being a Photographer by Bill Jay.  Jay interviews photographer David Hurn who made the above statement. I started this blog to improve my writing and photography skills and to have a place to share those things with others.  I also wanted to add value to others by promoting the Horicon Marsh and sharing my experience of nature with those who may not be able to visit in person.  The blog is a place to educate people who are interested in learning along with me about photography and nature.  Readers can learn from my successes and mistakes.

Art should also improve the photographer.  A person’s passion, whether it’s photography, wood working, painting, or something else, should also improve the person doing it.  Photography has helped me to be a more observant person.  Photographing nature has given me a deeper appreciation for the variety and beauty of nature and the Artist who created it.  God reveals He has a sense of humor when I see birds with unusual color patterns and observe their sometimes comical behavior.

Mulling over how to be intentional in the practice of our passion, considering how our passion can add value to other’s lives, and realizing our passion also improves ourselves in the process, can result in exceptional and fulfilling art.