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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Scoop On Snipe

9:55 AM 1 Comments
Whoever said snipe hunts were a wild goose chase, didn't chase the right goose.

Yesterday I wrote about the long standing rite of passage, the snipe hunt. While many of us have participated in, or fallen victim to a snipe hunt, there are those intrepid hunters who do truly hunt the oft thought to be mythical snipe.

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Yes, the snipe does exist, and is a real bird! Here in Illinois where I live, it's also a considered a migratory game bird with a season that usually runs from early September through December. Currently the bag limit in Illinois on this fast and well camouflaged little bird is 8 with a possession limit of 16. In all honesty - I cannot imagine being able to bag 8 of these well camouflaged fast fliers in one lifetime, let alone one day. They will truly challenge your wing shooting skills.

Snipe, Snipe, snipe what is this long legged long billed bird all about?

The common snipe measures about 10 1/2 inches long and weighs about 4 1/2 ounces. It is most comfortable in shallow, freshwater marshy areas. The snipe’s brown, black and white feathering makes for outstanding camouflage in brushy areas, briar patches, fence rows  and low-growing grasses. 

Even in the snowy landscape, the snipe merely appears to be a clump of grass to the casual observer

A snipe looks a little bit like a small version of the woodcock. It’s coloration  is a bit different  , but has the same squatty body and long bill. Like the woodcock, it frequents wet areas where it’s easy to drill for worms. Snipes migrate in flocks. They fly at night and feed in wetlands and wet prairies at dawn and dusk. 

The snipe is a reclusive bird, rarely seen. This  certainly  helps fuel the mythical and legendary  tales that surround the mythical snipe hunt. Because they are so secretive and so well camouflaged, snipes are rarely noticed by those in the field, and can easily be confused when taking flight with a woodcock. Their reclusive nature and rare sightings, only enhance the belief that many people hold; that snipe do not truly exist. 

Considered a  wading bird, the snipe eats a variety of insects, earthworms, small snails and some plant matter. Its bill is long and flexible and is capable of finding food by feel alone. Snipe are often seen in ditch lines, along lake edges, and soggy, flooded, bottom ground. Have a close look at the birds congregated around the puddles in fields after a heavy rain, you may well be rewarded with a glimpse of the mythical snipe.  When startled, the birds  fly away in a zigzag pattern while emitting a high-pitched call. The thick brush they inhabit and their erratic flight makes snipe a most challenging wingshooting target.

Successful and experienced snipe hunters suggest  going  afield early and late in the day. As is common with many other migrators, the migrating flock disperses to feed. Consequently, if you flush one snipe, chances are other members of the group are scattered out nearby.
Because of the thick vegetation they inhabit, hunting them with dogs is recommended. Bear in mind that slogging through the thick heavy and wet cover, where snipe are are often found can be challenge for some bird dogs. A cross trained duck dog is often better suited to the wet and boggy conditions. The physical demands of snipe hunting can be similar to those of waterfowl hunting; slopping  through thick and wet cover, marshy, muddy, hard going in  the areas where snipe are most likely found. If you can hunt a field with small potholes of water after a heavy rain, the conditions will be much easier for both you and your canine companion. Some go so far as to consider the snipe  the most demanding of all game birds to hunt. Consequently, not many choose to pursue them. Those that do choose to pursue them often find it a challenging and rewarding experience. 

The website is valuable resource for those considering snipe hunting and contains a wealth of information, nicely prepared in one convenient location. I suggest a visit to the website, regardless of whether you are an experienced or beginner snipe hunter.

Keeping in mind that when flushed, a snipe, can  accelerate to 45 miles per hour in its first two seconds of flight, it's easy to understand why these can be a most challenging bird to bag. 

Given all of this, and also given my less than stellar wingshooting skills, I think I'll stick to hunting snipe with a camera! 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Successful Snipe Hunting in 10 Easy Steps

11:19 AM 0 Comments

With out the snow, it would be next to impossible to see the snipe feeding in the ditch line.
At last, I have found and documented the mythical snipe!

For many rural youngsters a snipe hunt is a rite of passage.

Try as I may, I cannot find the origins of the mythical snipe hunt although I have learned  that snipe hunts are held  across the nation. I've even heard stories of them being held in parts of Europe. 

Intriguingly enough, the snipe hunt  has even found its way into popular culture as evidenced by  the television show, King of the Hill. The animated comedy series that is set in Texas featured a snipe hunt with Hank Hill and his son. Instead of snipes, the two ended up catching a whooping crane. Clearly a rookie mistake. 

Note that the small, brown toned snipe bears no resemblance to a whooping crane.

How exactly does a snipe hunt work you ask?

I should preface my snipe hunting guide with the statement that I’m not terribly sure of the global, or even the national protocol, but the southern Illinois river rat version I learned goes something like this:

Step 1 :  Gather up  a few young friends. As with many outdoor activities, this is one that serves the teenage population especially well.  The hunt, is even more enjoyable if at least one of said friends has no idea of the true workings of the upcoming “hunt.”

Step 2: Secure the sacks. Sacks are important. The sack of choice is usually a burlap gunny sack, but pillowcases are also highly favored in some areas. It’s easy to spot a newbie or weekend warrior snipe hunter; they are often seen sporting a measly paper or plastic grocery bag.  What’s most important in sack selection, is choosing one that will easily contain a rambunctious  snipe when the action heats up.

the snipe in typical sack entry preparation position

Step 3: Scout for snipes . Scouting is considered by many to be vital. While scouting for snipes can provide some pleasant times afield, it’s not terribly necessary for new snipe hunters. Sometimes it’s simply far easier to just say you were snipe scouting. Most new snipe hunters are accepting of any snipe scenario you lay out for them. 

Step 4: Determine an appropriate snipe hunt location. As the old saying goes, it’s all about location, location, location. Where exactly is the best area to take fledgling snipe hunters? Is it remote, dark, heavily wooded, stinky and even swampy? Grab the GPS coordinates – the more remote and dark an area is the more likely it will be a snipe hunting hotspot.

Step 5: Determine the best night  for snipe hunting. Snipe hunting is a clearly nocturnal activity.  Early summer evenings work especially well. Weekends after the prospective hunters may have consumed a few beverages can be particularly  productive. Snipes thrive under the cover of darkness, so a moonless night is all the better. It’s also helpful to limit the light sources that a prospective snipe hunter drags along into the woods. Minimal light is very important to a successful snipe hunt. 

Step 6: Placement of the prospective snipe hunter. Planning snipe hunter placement is of the utmost importance. The further away from the parking area, the further away from any form of humanity the better. The newest snipe hunters get the best spots. As always when introducing someone to a style of hunting, ensuring success is a huge part of keeping that hunter active and pursuing other hunting activities.  In snipe hunting the best spots just happen to be those farthest from the vehicles. 

Step 7: Set up the prospective snipe hunter: Upon getting the new snipe hunter placed in a snipe hotspot, a key step is to explain that snipe hunting is somewhat solitary. The new hunter MUST understand that in order to be successful he must stay on high alert, every ready holding his snipe sack open on the ground, to capture the snipe. The snipe will be “driven “ to the new hunter by others in the party who disappear off into the remote snipe hot spot to round up the skittish birds.
Some experienced snipe hunters  suggest having the new hunter make an attempt to  call  the snipe. Snipe seem to respond best to an oft repeated and silly sounding call. The sillier the better.

Step 8: Determine the duration of the snipe hunt. Many experienced snipe hunters disagree as to the length of time the inexperienced hunter should be left alone. However it is a common belief that it depends on the experience level of the new hunter. Some are left only a few minutes, while some have been left for hours at a time.  The key is to make the new hunter feel as uncomfortable and abandoned as possible.If shrieks and wails and crying are noted coming  from the  snipe hunter it's always nice to retrieve them immediately. Nice, but not necessary.

Step 9: Retrieval of the snipe hunter. After sufficient time has passed for the new hunter to become uncomfortable, terrorized by mosquitoes, horrified by a myriad of sounds in the nighttime woods or swamp, it becomes time to retrieve the hunter from the snipe hotspot. This is best achieved in stealthy manner in order to completely surprise the young snipe hunter. When the shrieking subsides, explain that your stealth was necessary in order to not scare off the snipes that had been driven to the hunt location.  

Step 10: Share the snipe hunting love! Help maintain the heritage of snipe hunting by sharing your new hunters snipe hunting saga, moment by moment in real time, across every social media site that you have at your disposal. Snipe hunts are legendary in some areas, and you wouldn't want the newest snipe hunter to miss his or her shot at 15 minutes of fame. Consider it an educational and conservation effort. Laugh uproariously, tease unmercifully.  No snipe hunt is successful without a great deal of laughter , teasing, and good natured ribbing. In fact. some snipe hunting tales have come to live in infamy in certain neighborhoods.


Be sure to come back tomorrow for part two of the snipe hunting series, "The Scoop on Snipe" .

Now where's my snipe sack........

Monday, March 18, 2013

There Is No Bad Light

8:36 AM 0 Comments
I'm guilty - I freely admit that I am terribly guilty of uttering  the phrase - "Acck the light's crappy. Not wasting my time." when it comes to deciding whether or not to head afield in search of wildlife and landscape photo  opportunities.

I find myself getting caught in the trap of if it isn't the nice light of dawn and dusk times, or if the sky is flat, grey and overcast, or even way too bright and sunny... I just seemed to stop trying.

Instead of abandoning ship - I used the poor light and foggy conditions to set the scene on this image of migrating mallards in the timber

Yesterday a quote I once read hit me right between the eyes..

There is no such thing as bad light, only light used improperly.

So in an effort to challenge my less than perfect appropriate use of light skills I set out in the flattest of flat, greyest of grey, miserable light to see what I could wrangle out of my time slogging around in the wet weather.

As always in spring, I find myself spoiled by the great winter light that we have here, the sun sits lower in the southern sky, the sunrises and sunsets, seem much more colorful. Call me crazy but winter light is so wonderful.

During a recent conversation with a friend who is beginning to learn her way around a camera , she asked why my photos looked like they did and hers didn't. I further confounded the issue by replying "You have to learn to read the light. "  This  statement that sent her scurrying off to her Adorama catalog to find a light meter.

That wasn't what I meant by learning to read the light.

Break a few rules - really you can shoot into the sun! Make it work as back light for you

Outdoor and nature photographers are at the mercy of Mother Nature most of the time. When your studio consists of the wide open spaces, you must learn to adjust to whatever lighting scenario Mother Nature dumps in your lap for the day.

There is no perfect light that works for every situation and for every subject. I for one had to get myself out of the rut that I needed that perfect lighting to achieve the best image.  Note to self:
- no matter the light conditions, no light should be considered bad.  Instead, a bad light day  should be looked at as an opportunity, to bend, flex, and adapt and find subjects and scenes that work in the light of the moment.

Since yesterday was such a flat, grey, overcast day I had to rethink what I would search out to photograph. The heavy rains, were causing lots of rising water, lots of rushing streams, waterfalls tumbling over the bluff edges and lake overflows.

It was clear that while the light wasn't going to be worth a damn for photographing the eagles feeding at the strip pit lake, it was by golly perfect for photographing running water. And there was plenty of running water! 

Yesterday's "bad light" was actually the best light for shooting running water with a low ISO, a low, low shutter speed, and tight aperture. If there had been great sun, it would have been nigh on to impossible to capture the water in a silky. misty fashion, without  a whole bunch futzing, fiddling, .and filters. The flat, muted overcast weather turned out to be perfect in the end.

The crucial point to remember is that there is no such thing as bad light! All light is good light! It’s how you as the photographer choose to portray your subject that requires effort. While there are moments when Mother Nature  provides you with the perfect light for your subject, when she does not you still have plenty of options.

There is a fabulous subject waiting to be captured in less than perfect lighting conditions and with all the tools available to digital photographers, sometimes the magic happens on the computer instead of in the field. Shoot in RAW and don't be afraid to utilize your processing software to give images a little more punch, and little more pop.

When mother nature hands you poor lighting conditions, back up, regroup, step outside the box, look around and  find  a way to turn that bad light  into the best light! 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Blossoms and Butterflies, Birds and Bison

10:08 AM 0 Comments
Yesterday I posted about my recent trip the Sophia M. Sachs butterfly house for the Morpho Mania event. Blue Morphos weren't the only butterflies flitting around, and as always I couldn't resist photographing some of the gorgeous blossoms that the butterflies love so much.

Some of the other species found flitting around the conservatory

So many beautiful and colorful blossoms  "butterfly food" !
Wanting to maximize our photo opportunities while in the city; after lunch we scurried off to the World Bird Sanctuary and Lone Elk Park.  While I was disappointed to find that the elk were up high on the ridge lines, and we truly didn't have the time to set out on foot in search of them, happily the bison provided some great photo ops instead.

The baby bison in the images caught  Lone Elk Park staff by surprise. Born January 3, it was certainly a much earlier than expected arrival in the Lone Elk bison herd!

Lone Elk Bison 

The World Bird Sanctuary offered up multiple opportunities for close head shots of the varied assortment of raptors and other birds that reside there. I have to admit though - although I greatly respect all the hard work performed at the World Bird Sanctuary - it's always hard for me to photograph the birds in captivity. I've spent far too much time afield to truly enjoy seeing the birds tethered or held in the large flight cages.

Please don't think that I don't fully understand the need for all of the rehab and conservation work that the World Bird Sanctuary performs - I do and I also understand that these birds need to be exactly where they are - getting the best of care. It just tugs at my heart a little to see a magnificent raptor tethered.

All in all I would say the outing to the city was a great success as everyone returned home with memory cards  brimming full of beautiful images. Now I'm convinced it's time to plan a trip the Missouri Botanical Garden .....

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Blue Morph Mania

6:58 AM 1 Comments

Earlier this week, five hardy gals from my community loaded up my friend's  "camera car" with backpacks full of camera gear and set off to see what we could capture at the Sophia M, Sachs Butterfly House. 

It's Morpho Mania time at the Butterfly House. A time when close to 5,000  Blue Morpho butterflies flood the tropical conservatory.

Blue Morpho ~Mopho paleides

The Butterfly House  web site provides this information about the blue morphs :
Native to the forests of Central and South America, the Blue Morpho's dazzling, metallic blue is all in the eye of the beholder: their wings are not actually colored blue, but are lined with many tiny scales that only allow blue light to escape. And what a sight to behold: thousands of these creatures catching the light in our sunny conservatory.
Despite their opulence, wild Morpho peleides prefer to stay in the forest understory, feeding on fermenting fruit, tree sap, even decomposing animals—keeping their wings folded to avoid catching the eye of would-be predators. But during mating flights, Blue Morphos rise high into the canopy, attracting mates with their iridescent splendor.
 Throughout the month of March, visitors to the Sophia M Sachs Butterfly House, in Chesterfield, MO have an opportunity to see huge numbers of the Blue Morphos. According to a Butterfly House representative, throughout the year the Butterfly House averages approximately 2,000 blue morphs. March Morpho Mania brings that number closer to 5,000.

Because the Blue Morph tends to hang low and try to be discreet about it's showy iridescent blue, some consider it a difficult butterfly to photograph - especially in  all it's blue splendor. With a little patience and a willingness to simply wait on the beauties to land I was able to capture them without much difficulty. Of course as predicted, finding them with them with wings closed and displaying the many "camouflage eyes"  was much easier. Luckily, I find the multiple eyes and camouflage pattern just as fascinating as the brilliant blue!

Oh my! A little butterfly love!

Patience pays off - the beautiful Blue Morph in all it's iridescent glory

Stay tuned for my next post where ewe look at some of the other butterflies, birds, and bison that we encountered during our day out! Until then, why not  have a look at this  post about a  previous visit to the Butterfly House.

Monday, March 4, 2013

A Venue of Vultures

7:31 AM 3 Comments
There I was, scurrying around getting things ready for the Retievers Unlimted Fun Hunt, when I heard suspicious rustling over head. Then a huge dark shadow went  over, and when I looked up into the early mornig light, I was surrounded. I had found myself slap dab in the middle of a venue of vultures.

A group of vultures is called a wake, committee, venue, kettle, or volt. The term kettle refers to vultures in flight, while committee, volt, and venue refer to vultures resting in trees. Wake is reserved for a group of vultures that are feeding. Before all was said and done, I found myself in the middle of all of the above with the exception of the wake.

Frankly, the way the vultures were  peering down at me made me wonder if my own wake wasn't right around the corner.

As the sun topped the thick stand of pines, I could see that there were vultures in front of me, behind me, tree lines on both sides of me were  full.  These big often maligned, not the most attractive birds, were EVERYWHERE. I estimated this group numbered close to 150, but it was hard toi tell exactly how many were roosting in the pines.

As vultures are want to do on cold mornings, they sit in the sun, perched precariously on limbs and soak up any warmth they can before taking off for first morning flight The Turkey Vulture Society has a great web site full of vulture facts and tells us that:
This is called the "horaltic pose." The stance may serve multiple functions, including warming the body and drying the wings. Research on this pose suggests that turkey vultures spread their wings in the mornings, once the sun's intensity reaches a certain level, to raise their body temperature (which they lower at night by a few degrees as an energy saving mechanism).

Let's face it vultures can be a hard bird to love. They certainly aren't the prettiest, although if you take the time look closely, the have some beautiful coloration in their feathers. Their wrinkled red heads remind me of sour faced priests during the Inquisition. They eat dead stuff. Nasty dead stuff. They vomit when they feel threatened ,  and they purposefully urinate on their  own legs.  Is it any wonder they aren't in the top ten most loved wild bird list?

Despite all of those things, I have some crazy fascination with the  turkey vultures that are year round residents on the high bluffs and river bottoms of my neighborhood. I love to photograph them, love to watch them feed, and use them as heralds of where there may be a carcass with interesting bones or other left overs for examination my my inner science geek.

C'mon - let's show a little love to these big birds that keep our fields and forests cleaned of all types of carrion and carcasses !