My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Archive for April, 2017

American Woodcock, Scolopax minor

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

American Woodcock, Scolopax minor

The American woodcock (Scolopax minor), sometimes colloquially referred to as the timberdoodle, is a small chunky shorebird species found primarily in the eastern half of North America. Woodcocks spend most of their time on the ground in brushy, young-forest habitats, where the birds’ brown, black, and gray plumage provides excellent camouflage.

Because of the male woodcock’s unique, beautiful courtship flights, the bird is welcomed as a harbinger of spring in northern areas. It is also a popular game bird, with about 540,000 killed annually by some 133,000 hunters in the U.S.

The American woodcock is the only species of woodcock inhabiting North America. Although classified with the sandpipers and shorebirds in Family Scolopacidae, the American woodcock lives mainly in upland settings. Its many folk names include timberdoodle, bogsucker, night partridge, brush snipe, hokumpoke, and becasse.

The population of the American woodcock has fallen by an average of slightly more than 1% annually since the 1960s. Most authorities attribute this decline to a loss of habitat caused by forest maturation and urban development.

The American woodcock has a plump body, short legs, a large, rounded head, and a long, straight prehensile bill. Adults are 10 to 12 inches (25 to 30 cm) long and weigh 5 to 8 ounces (140 to 230 g).Females are considerably larger than males. The bill is 2.5 to 2.75 inches (6.4 to 7.0 cm) long.
The plumage is a cryptic mix of different shades of browns, grays, and black. The chest and sides vary from yellowish white to rich tan. The nape of the head is black, with three or four crossbars of deep buff or rufous. The feet and toes, which are small and weak, are brownish gray to reddish-brown.

Woodcock have large eyes located high in the head, and their visual field is probably the largest of any bird, 360° in the horizontal plane and 180° in the vertical plane.

The woodcock uses its long prehensile bill to probe in the soil for food, mainly invertebrates and especially earthworms. A unique bone-and-muscle arrangement lets the bird open and close the tip of its upper bill, or mandible, while it is sunk in the ground. Both the underside of the upper mandible and the long tongue are rough-surfaced for grasping slippery prey.

The primary breeding range extends from Atlantic Canada (Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick) west to southeastern Manitoba, and south to northern Virginia, western North Carolina, Kentucky, northern Tennessee, northern Illinois, Missouri, and eastern Kansas. A limited number of woodcock breed as far south as Florida and Texas. The species may be expanding its distribution northward and westward.

After migrating south in autumn, most woodcock spend the winter in the Gulf Coast and southeastern Atlantic Coast states. Some may remain as far north as southern Maryland, eastern Virginia, and southern New Jersey. The core of the wintering range centers on Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

Woodcock eat mainly invertebrates, particularly earthworms (Oligochaeta). They do most of their feeding in places where the soil is moist. They forage by probing in soft soil in thickets, where they usually remain well-hidden from sight. Other items in the diet include insect larvae, snails, centipedes, millipedes, spiders, snipe flies, beetles, and ants. A small amount of plant food is eaten, mainly seeds. Woodcock are crepuscular, being most active at dawn and dusk.

Woodcock migrate at night. They fly at low altitudes, individually or in small, loose flocks. Flight speeds of migrating birds have been clocked at 16 to 28 miles per hour (26 to 45 kilometers per hour). However, the slowest flight speed ever recorded for a bird, 5 miles per hour (8 kilometers per hour), was recorded for this species. It is believed that woodcock orient visually using major physiographic features such as coastlines and broad river valleys. Both the autumn and spring migrations are leisurely compared with the swift, direct migrations of many passerine birds.

In the North, woodcock begin to shift southward before ice and snow seal off their ground-based food supply. Cold fronts may prompt heavy southerly flights in autumn. Most woodcock start to migrate in October, with the major push from mid-October to early November. Most individuals arrive on the wintering range by mid-December. The birds head north again in February. Most have returned to the northern breeding range by mid-March to mid-April.

Migrating birds’ arrival at and departure from the breeding range is highly irregular. In Ohio, for example, the earliest birds are seen in February, but the bulk of the population does not arrive until March and April. Birds start to leave for winter by September, but some remain until mid-November

In Spring, males occupy individual singing grounds, openings near brushy cover from which they call and perform display flights at dawn and dusk, and if the light levels are high enough on moonlit nights. The male’s ground call is a short, buzzy peent. After sounding a series of ground calls, the male takes off and flies from 50 to 100 yards into the air. He descends, zigzagging and banking while singing a liquid, chirping song. This high spiralling flight produces a melodious twittering sound as air rushes through the male’s outer primary wing feathers.

Males may continue with their courtship flights for as many as four months running – sometimes continuing even after females have already hatched their broods and left the nest.

Females, known as hens, are attracted to the males’ displays. A hen will fly in and land on the ground near a singing male. The male courts the female by walking stiff-legged and with his wings stretched vertically, and by bobbing and bowing. A male may mate with several females. The male woodcock plays no role in selecting a nest site, incubating eggs, or rearing young. In the primary northern breeding range, the woodcock may be the earliest ground-nesting species to breed.

The hen makes a shallow, rudimentary nest on the ground in the leaf and twig litter, in brushy or young-forest cover usually within 150 yards (140 m) of a singing ground. Most hens lay four eggs, sometimes one to three. Incubation takes 20 to 22 days.

The down-covered young are precocial and leave the nest within a few hours of hatching. The female broods her young and feeds them. When threatened, the fledglings usually take cover and remain motionless, attempting to escape detection by relying on their cryptic coloration. Some observers suggest that frightened young may cling to the body of their mother, who will then take wing and carry the young to safety.

Woodcock fledglings begin probing for worms on their own a few days after hatching. They develop quickly and can make short flights after two weeks, can fly fairly well at three weeks, and are independent after about five weeks.

The maximum lifespan of adult American woodcock in the wild is 8 years.

The woodcock population remained high during the early and mid-twentieth century, after many family farms were abandoned as people moved to urban areas, and cropfields and pastures grew up in brush. In recent decades, those formerly brushy acres have become middle-aged and older forest, where woodcock rarely venture, or they have been covered with buildings and other human developments. Because its population has been declining, the American woodcock is considered a “species of greatest conservation need” in many states, triggering research and habitat-creation efforts in an attempt to boost woodcock populations.

Creating young-forest habitat for American woodcock helps more than 50 other species of wildlife that need young forest during part or all of their life cycles. These include relatively common animals such as white-tailed deer, snowshoe hare, moose, bobcat, wild turkey, and ruffed grouse, and animals whose populations have also declined in recent decades, such as the golden-winged warbler, whip-poor-will, willow flycatcher, indigo bunting, and New England cottontail

On to my photos:

These photos were shot in April of 2017, near the headquarters for the Muskegon State Game Area.

American woodcock


American woodcock


American woodcock


American woodcock


American woodcock


This is number 202 in my photo life list, only 148 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!



Notable photos

Even though I’m supposed to be taking a break from blogging, I can’t resist starting another post of some of the more notable photos that I shoot. This post will be nearly all photos and few words. I’ll start with a species of goose that I just recently crossed off the list for the My Photo Life List project, a Ross’s goose.

Ross’s goose

Much better than any of the photos I shot the first time I saw that species.

Also, using the 400 mm prime lens, 2 X tele-converter, and live view focusing with the set-up mounted to my new gimbal tripod head, I was able to get my best ever photos of a golden eagle.

Golden eagle

What’s also notable about that photo is that I waited half an hour to 45 minutes for the sun to break through the clouds to give me some good light to shoot that one in.

I have the feeling that using the gimbal head is going to make a great deal more improvement to the quality of images that I shoot than I had thought.

I’ve only used it on flying birds a few times, but it allows me to better track the birds more smoothly than I can by hand. I’ve only used it on the eagle as far as perched birds, but it allowed me to do exactly what I hoped it would. After shooting a few bad photos handheld, I saw that the eagle wasn’t going to fly away soon, so I set the tripod up with the gimbal head and shot a few better images.

However, it was still quite gloomy then, but I could see that holes were opening up in the clouds, so I waited. The way that the gimbal head works, I could keep the camera pointed at the eagle as I waited, and I shot another series of photos every time that I thought that the light had improved a little. Eventually, one of the holes in the clouds opened so that there was sunshine on the eagle, giving me the image that you see here. I was hoping that the eagle would stick around long enough for there to be sunshine on it and blue sky behind, but the eagle flew away before that happened.

I can’t say for sure, but I believe that the eagle flew off to stay in the sunshine. It had been a chilly morning, and I could really feel the difference when the sunshine hit me, it felt very good. The hole in the clouds that had put the sunshine on both myself and the eagle had closed, so I took that opportunity to check the quality of the images that I had just shot. When I looked up, the eagle was flying off, and it stayed in the sun as it did. The last time that I saw the eagle, it was riding an updraft to gain altitude without having to flap its wings at all.

There wouldn’t have been an updraft for the eagle without the sunshine to heat the ground and the air above it, so I wonder if the eagle had stayed perched there waiting for the sunshine to create the updraft. I know that it warmed up quite a bit as soon as the sun came out for good, and that I remember being jealous of the eagle’s ability to follow the sunshine as the size of the holes in the clouds increased the way that they did that day.

Anyway, I have digressed again, back to the gimbal head and the tripod that I have it mounted on. The tripod is a Benro Com37c, which I would classify as a medium heavy-duty tripod. It’s much sturdier than the Manfrotto tripod that I’ve been using for landscapes, and I was able to purchase it for about half price while it was on sale through B&H Photo.  It doesn’t have a center post to use to adjust the height, I have to do that through the angle of the legs and how far I extend them. I believe that not having a center post is one of the things that makes it so steady in use.

One added bonus to the Benro tripod is that it has a hook under where the center post would be if it had one, and I can hang my second long lens/camera set-up from that hook. It makes the tripod even more stable, and then I don’t have to set the second long lens set-up on the ground as I use the one that’s mounted on the gimbal head. If I hadn’t been reviewing my photos when the eagle took off, I would have snatched the second long set-up off from the hook, and used it to shoot a few images of the eagle taking off.

I could have mounted the gimbal head to the Manfrotto tripod that I already had, as it’s a fine tripod, but I don’t think that it would have been as solid as the Benro is. Also, the gimbal head works great with my long lenses for the way that I shoot with them, but I don’t think that the gimbal head would work as well for landscapes. Besides, I can see that there will come a time when I have the Manfrotto tripod set-up shooting landscapes, and the Benro tripod and gimbal head set-up for shooting wildlife at the same time.

An update. I got the excellent price on the Benro tripod that I did because it was being discontinued. That’s also why I was I was able to get the Manfrotto tripod that I’ve been using for a few years now. I really lucked out when it came to shopping for tripods, I now have two high quality carbon fiber tripods and I paid about what I would have paid for either of them if I hadn’t gotten them on sale.

In my never-ending playing with my camera gear, I used my 100 mm macro lens for this image.

Reflection of a flying ring-billed gull

If only there wasn’t the reflection of a second gull in that image, oh well, I learned a lot while shooting both perched and flying gulls with the macro lens.

Another week has gone by, and this past weekend was wet, cold, and windy. What’s notable about these images is that they turned out as well as they did in very poor conditions for photography, even the ducks looked as if they hated the weather at times.

Male northern shoveler

You can see the rain drops beading up on the shoveler’s back.

I think that ducks are some of our most colorful and beautiful birds, but with many species, you have to see their wings to fully appreciate their beauty, which means photographing them in flight. I wasn’t very hopeful when I saw that more species were returning in their full breeding plumage, but despite the low-light, I gave it a shot.

Male blue-winged teal in flight


Male redhead duck in flight


Male northern shoveler in flight


Male northern shoveler in flight


Male bufflehead taking off

With the 7D Mk II and the lenses that I have now, getting birds in flight is much easier, not only ducks, but raptors like this northern harrier as well.

Male northern harrier

I was able to shoot a few much better photos of another recent addition to My Photo Life List, the northern shrike.

Northern shrike

That brings me to a species of bird which has just returned for the summer, but isn’t colorful at all. They are fun to watch however, and I missed them while they were gone.

American coot

They use their oversized lobed feet as ducks use their webbed feet for swimming, but the coots are also able to wade in soft mud as well. They don’t fly unless forced to, so it’s a little unusual to see them with their wings spread.

American coot

That one was using its wings for balance as it climbed up on the rocks.

Give them a little food, and they look so happy.

American coot


American coot

A few weeks ago, I shot this photo of a horned lark showing its horns.

Male horned lark

And this past weekend, I got the quintessential image of a male red-winged blackbird staking out his territory.

Male red-winged blackbird

The time has come for me to put a hold on purchasing any more camera gear for a while, and instead, to get some type of portable blind to hide in and also some camouflaged clothes so that I can get closer to my subjects.

As if by magic, I found a portable hide designed for photographers and have ordered one. I don’t know if I’ll have the chance to try it this coming weekend or not, the forecast for the weekend is looking very good right now. If it turns out to be as nice as predicted, I’m planning on doing some doing some longer walks at some of the better birding locations in the Muskegon State Game area.

I suppose that I’ll have to give the new hide a try, since the one that I ordered is made for photographers that move around quite a bit. It’s not much more than a tarp with an opening for the lens to stick through, and a mesh opening to look through to spot the subject. It folds into a carrying pouch that you can wear on your belt if so inclined and weighs less than three pounds. The one that I ordered is the right colors for spring or fall, and if it works out well, I may eventually order a second one in white for our snowy winters here in Michigan.

Most of all, I’m looking forward to getting out in nice weather for a change, and the forecast is looking good for that right now. For the last month or more, if it was warm on a weekend, it was cloudy and gloomy, if there was good light, it’s been cold. The forecast for the upcoming weekend is for slightly above average temperatures and sunny skies, something I’ve not had since last fall.

Also if by magic, since my last post where I complained about not having enough time to blog, I’ve been getting home an average of an hour earlier than I was when I wrote that post. That still doesn’t leave me a lot of time to work on my blog, it’s still more time than I used to have. And, I still don’t have time to make it outside during the week. So, I’m really excited about having two good days to be out and about for a change.

I shouldn’t have typed that last paragraph, since I did, work has gone back to the way that it was before, leaving me just enough time to eat, sleep, and do the other things required just to survive. Still, I’m looking forward to a full weekend of being outside starting tomorrow.

Well, it’s Sunday morning as I type this, and Saturday was every bit as nice as they had predicted. Although, the day did begin well below freezing, so I began with some drive by birding at the Muskegon County wastewater facility as I have been doing. The light was so good that I installed a polarizing filter to the 400 mm lens to shoot ducks in flight. The polarizing filter helps to cut the glare coming off from the water, but it seemed to shift the colors of the  ducks that I shot. Look at the colors on this northern shoveler’s wings…

Northern shoveler blasting off

…compared to the photos earlier in this post.

Also, nice weather brought out a lot of birders, keeping most of the birds well out of range of my camera. Still, I was having fun trying to get good shots of ducks in flight.

Bufflehead duck in flight

I hate to brag, but I’m getting better all the time. However, there are still times when the birds won’t cooperate. I saw this pair of hooded mergansers, and tried to get a photo with both of them looking back at me at the same time, this was the best that I could do.

Hooded mergansers

Then, there are the wood ducks. Getting close to one out in the open is tough enough to begin with, then, they have so many colors in so many places, that it’s hard to get an image showing all those colors in one shot.

Male wood duck

That one shows the purple on the back of the duck’s head, but then you can’t see how colorful its face is.

Male wood duck and mallard

That one does a better job of showing the duck’s face, but then you can’t see the purple on the back of his head. It’s going to take perfect lighting at the perfect angle to fully capture all the colors of a male wood duck, so I’ll keep trying.

Once it had warmed up, I went to the headquarters of the Muskegon State Game Area, but there were some people target shooting there. they were set-up so that they were shooting right at the best birding trail, so I left. My next stop was Lane’s Landing, but by that time, most of the birds were taking their afternoon siesta, and I saw very few birds, and none close enough for a photo. I hope to do better today.

Sunday turned out to be a pretty good day, I could fill a post with the photos that I shot today, but I’ll stick to the notable ones, starting with another lifer for me, a rusty blackbird.

Rusty blackbird

I came across a small flock of them in a swamp near the Muskegon River as I was scouting for places to use the new portable hide when it arrives, and I managed to get that one good image, plus another not so good image of one of the flock.

The rusty blackbird looks a lot like a common grackle, but the common crackle has a much longer tail as you can see here.

Common grackle

I also got my first photos ever of a bird that I used to see quite often when I hunted, an American Woodcock.

American woodcock

They’re an odd-looking bird, their eyes are so far back on their head that they can see behind themselves.

American woodcock

They also have a flexible bill that they use to probe the soil for worms, and they constantly bob up and down as they walk. They are considered a shorebird even though they are seldom found near a shore, other than a small inland lake from time to time.

With the photos of those two species, I am now two-thirds of the way through the list from the Audubon Society that I’m working from as I try to photograph every species of bird seen regularly in Michigan. Not bad, it’s only taken me a few years to make it this far, now I need some time to be able to catch up in posting to the series of posts that I’m doing as I continue to cross new species off from the list. But, that would probably take away time that I could use in search of more species to cross off from the list.

I know that my ramblings about working on the My Photo Life List bore some people, but it’s one of the best things that I have ever undertaken. It helps to keep my eyes and my mind sharp as search for new species, and how to identify birds quickly. It’s improved my skills as a photographer as I often have to shoot under less than ideal conditions when I first see a new species. I’m learning to be more patient as a scan a flock of birds to see if there are any different species “hiding” within a flock of birds. Mostly, I’m learning how diverse birds are, how beautifully marked many of what are considered plain birds are, such as the woodcock, and I’m also learning much more about the state that I live in, Michigan, as I search out the correct habitats for the birds that I need to find yet.

Moving on, some of the insect-eating birds have returned from down south, including the eastern phoebe…

Eastern Phoebe

…tree swallows…

Tree swallow

…and eastern bluebirds.

Eastern bluebird

At one point, the swallow was discouraging the bluebird from using one of the nesting boxes people have installed in the area, but they were too far away from me to get any photos of that.

I did get photos of two buffleheads fighting over a female.

Bufflehead ducks fighting

I shot close to 100 photos of them going at it, but I’ll just post that one.

I added to my collection of good photos of ducks in flight, or I suppose that I should say, ducks landing.

Northern shoveler landing


Northern shoveler landing

This will be too many photos for this post, but I have to use them all. Male Bufflehead are quite comical in the way that they land as they are trying to impress females.

Male bufflehead landing

After they hit the water, they ride on top of the water as tall as they can make themselves look.

Male bufflehead landing


Male bufflehead landing


Male bufflehead landing


Male bufflehead landing

Until they run out of steam, and slip straight down into the water.

Male bufflehead landing


Male bufflehead landing

It’s fun to watch them as they run across the water to build up speed so that they can skate on top of the water until they sink, then surface, bobbing their heads up and down, all to impress a female nearby. One of these days, I’m going to be in the right position and in the right circumstances to shoot a good video of them going at it.

Well, that’s about it for this post, but I’m going to throw in one last photo that shows that spring has finally arrived here in Michigan.

Song sparrow singing

It’s so good to step outside and here all the birds that have returned singing away in the mornings, and it gets better each day as more birds arrive.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!