Backyard animals 2021

Happy New Year readers. Here is a selection of backyard wildlife images I made during 2021. Please enjoy! 

Ruffed grouse (Bonassa umbellus) Male grouse in courtship display, Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
Rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus). Male, Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis). Male, Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
Purple finch (Carpodacus purpureus). Male, Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada

Now, we do have a big ‘backyard’, in a rural setting, but this type of photography can be managed virtually everywhere. Some tips for success include:

Make habitat available such trees, flower gardens and wildflowers.

Goldenrod crab spider feeding on captured hummingbird moth in a flower garden, Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) Foraging for nectar in garden flowers, Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
Confused Haploa moth (Haploa confusa), Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada

Set up perches near a bird feeder for realistic backgrounds and surroundings.

Pine grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator). Male, Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
Pine grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator). Female/immature, Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
Evening grosbeak (Hesperiphona vespertina). Male, Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
Downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). Male., Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
Blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata), Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada

Attract wildlife using responsible techniques and resources.

Rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus). Male, Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
Black capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada

Be a good naturalist so you can recognize and react to promising situations.

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Doe and yearling fawn visitng backyard lawn to feed on grass, Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Buck in autumn rut, Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
Yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) Male drumming on shed, Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
Milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum), Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada

Have your camera with an appropriate lens ready so you can react to and capture fleeting moments.

Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) Perching on a Metalbird sculpture, Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
Red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) Resourceful individual raidng bird feeder hanging from clothesline, Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada

Set up a blind to photograph animals that are easily spooked so they can be observed without distracting them. 

Ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) Male on drumming log in spring courtship ritual, Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada

We do not have pets- cat or dog or otherwise. While their companionship is valued, not having a pet puts wildlife at ease. Over the years we have been visited by a wide variety of animals, looking for food or just passing through.

Indoor creative winter photography

This series of photos all began with me slicing a pineapple for the morning fruit smoothie. A running joke in our kitchen centers around me noticing photographically attractive patterns such as in red onions or a bunch of pumpkin seeds. In this case it was the inner core of a pineapple stem.

Cut pineapple stem

I noticed the patterns in the cut stem of the pineapple and decided to photograph it with my macro lens, trying to accentuate the circular concentric patterns.

When finished I moved the camera and tripod to the living room. The camera happened to be facing the Christmas tree. I noticed the electronic viewfinder on my Z7, being still active, was showing me out of focus blue and white images of the Christmas tree lights that the lens happened to be pointing at. Aha! Another photo opportunity. I started making a few exposures of the out of focus lights, changing the focus to make them larger or smaller. I kept the aperture wide open so as to render the lights as circular images.

Christmas tree lights, out of focus, wide aperture
Christmas tree lights, alternate focus

Then I remembered the Z7 has the capability of combining images with a technique called Image Overlay. I proceeded to photograph some of the Christmas tree ornaments using normal focus and then I combined selected images with the out of focus tree lights using the Overlay method.

Tree lights and hanging Santa ornament

The composite image

This is the type of thing that can keep me as a photographer busy whilst indoors (a rainy winter day here today) so long as I am open to the visual possibilities existing around me. Being observant and willing to experiment led me to produce these indoor photos. While my primary interest is nature photography, I consider myself a photographer first.

Happy Holidays!

Casper then and now. Encounters with a blonde grizzly bear through her first 6 years

In 2012 we had the privilege of visiting Tsylos Lodge in the British Columbia interior to photograph grizzly bears during the annual sockeye salmon run. The bears arrive in late August and stay near the river through October, feasting on dead and dying sockeye salmon as the fish complete their life cycle. Photographing grizzlies, primarily mothers and their cubs foraging for the salmon, from the safety of boats, has some distinct advantages- low, intimate camera angles, reflections, and unobstructed views of the wildlife to name some.

That year the lodge staff was excited to report the appearance of an all-white COY (cub of the year), the offspring of a typical chocolate brown mother. The genetics of the male bear is unknown, but perhaps both parents contributed a recessive ‘light fur’ allele to the cub. The staff already had a name for the cub- Casper, as in the ‘Friendly Ghost’ from our bygone cartoon watching days. During that week we had several delightful encounters with Casper and her Mom.

Casper in 2012 as a COY- Cub of the year. With her mother
Casper in 2012 as a COY- Cub of the year. With her mother
Casper in 2012 as a COY- Cub of the year. On the riverbank.
Casper in 2012 as a COY- Cub of the year. Swimming

Four years later, in 2016, we returned to Tsylos for another week of grizzly photography. Casper was now an impressive full grown sub adult, not quite as white but still instantly recognizable. Again, she was the star attraction of the week as she waded and swam for sockeye salmon, spent from their spawning.

Casper in 2016 as an adult bear, hunting for salmon in the river
Casper in 2016 as an adult bear, hunting for salmon in the river
Casper in 2016 as an adult bear, hunting for salmon in the river
Casper in 2016 as an adult bear, hunting for salmon in the river

Then, three years ago, in 2018, we booked into Tsylos for a third time. Casper was now six and my google research suggested that she might be old enough to have offspring of her own. We were certainly anxious to see her again. During our long drive in to the lodge from the landing strip I asked Bud, the lodge owner and driver, about Casper’s whereabouts. He replied that they had not yet seen her, and she might be dead. That shocking and disappointing news certainly put a damper on our arrival to the lodge.

Casper in 2018, with her COY ‘Xeni’. Sleeping on the riverbank. Protective and vigilant.

However, during one of our first guided forays onto the river, we spotted her! Resting on a slope above the river. And, with her own cub! Casper and her cub again became the stars of the week, putting in several appearances for us. The staff named her cub Xeni (pronounced ‘Honey’) after an indigenous name.

Casper in 2018, with her COY ‘Xeni’. Protective and vigilant.
Casper in 2018. Hunting spawning salmon in the river.
Casper in 2018. Capturing a spawning salmon in the river.
Casper in 2018, with her COY ‘Xeni’. Protective and vigilant.
Casper in 2018, with her COY ‘Xeni’. Vigilant for salmon.
Casper in 2018, with her COY ‘Xeni’. Protective and vigilant.
Casper in 2018, with her COY ‘Xeni’. Protective and playful.

Xeni will be three now in 2021. Grizzly cubs usually stay with their mothers for two years so perhaps Casper will soon be a mother again.

Winter Widow

The story begins with a fruit smoothie. Smoothies have become a morning ritual in our household. I cut the pineapple. Brenda peels the banana and plucks grapes from a bunch purchased from our local supermarket. Living in Northern Ontario we are used to having Costa Rica as a source for pineapples and California for grapes.

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus Hesperus) Hitchhiker specimen in a bunch of grapes.

Brenda is a big fan of spiders and snakes but she does not like surprises. Summer shrieks in the garden tell me she has encountered a snake- usually a garter snake. We have no venomous snakes in Northern Ontario. As I was standing by the patio door window, observing our bird feeder, I again heard one of those familiar summer shrieks. This time it was because she spotted a black widow spider hiding in the grapes.

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus Hesperus) Hitchhiker specimen in a bunch of grapes.

Black widows are easy to identify, with their distinctive red hourglass patterns on their abdomens of the females. This one was still alive, having spent the last couple of weeks in refrigeration. And of course, she is highly venomous. Bug Guide.net identified her from my description as likely to be a Western black widow Latrodectus Hesperus.

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus Hesperus) Hitchhiker specimen in a bunch of grapes.

I called our local science center who said they could not take her and advised me to contact Health Canada instead. But I then decided to go it alone and I set up a small plastic enclosure after doing some research on the internet. This article seemed to be just what I needed https://bit.ly/38oK57O I drilled a hole in a small block of wood, inserted a twig snipped from a bush, put sand in the bottom of the plastic cage and added a small sponge soaked with water. In went the spider. Shortly she began constructing a web in the twig and was later observed resting comfortably on the twig.

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus Hesperus) Female resting on her web
Western black widow spider (Latrodectus Hesperus) Female resting on her web

What to feed her? A friend suggested crickets and sure enough the local pet food store informed me they had small crickets for sale at 0.20 each. The author of the on-line article suggested the same thing. In went the crickets and a day later we discovered she had successfully hunted one of them.

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus Hesperus) Female feeding on captured cricket
Western black widow spider (Latrodectus Hesperus) Female in web with captured cricket

Of course, my main motive in this exercise is to try and obtain photos of the spider. Coincidentally I had recently ordered the Venus Optics twin macro flash system from B&H https://bhpho.to/38vnFl0 to pair with my Laowa 100 mm macro lens from Venus Optics . I also use Nikon’s 105 mm micro, often combined with the Nikon TC 14 teleconverter. The dual flash system worked well with this lens also.

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus Hesperus) Female resting on her web after feeding

I discovered that I was able to photograph the spider in her classic web poses without having to disturb her by trying to lift the block of wood/twig (likely with tongs) out of her pen. This was a real bonus. Further, I found I could use my tripod for better stability, with the spider enclosure resting on our kitchen counter. The flashes do a very nice job and the backgrounds are unobtrusive. I tried using a simple tracing paper diffuser solution recommended by a macro photographer, found on YouTube https://youtu.be/8JbJzENXjz8. Another diffuser solution is offered in this YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czpEEFwPovI This is a bit more labour intensive but will be more likely to be a more practical outdoors lighting solution for small animals in the garden. For now this ‘winter widow’ will be my main macro subject.

2021 Selects: Close to Home

It is now the second month of 2022 and I have finally finished my 2021 edit although there is certainly more work to do before I can upload fresh images to my website www.donjohnstonphotos.com. But this is a good start.

I decided to choose some images that caught my eye during the 2021 edit. This time I worked with the theme “Close to Home”- landscapes, impressions and intimate images from areas near where I live.

Window frost, Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada

Certainly, Covid has constrained travel in 2021 but I was quite content to photograph near the woodlands and bodies of water, all of which are short drives from the house or on the property itself. 

Of course, there were some decisions to be made in order to whittle down this group of photos. I tried to choose variety in seasons, photographic style and subject, while staying with this 2021 theme. Please enjoy this selection- 22 from ’21. Stay tuned for other 2021 sets of images. Print enquiries are always welcome. Thanks for visiting!

Creative springtime approaches

Greetings to all my new outlook followers. Welcome aboard!

Green starts to appear in Northern Ontario in early to mid-May, along with the blackflies! The first blush of green in the aspens is always a delight and I make sure to get out with the camera to some of my favourite locales.

Looking up in an aspen woodland. f22, 1/160 @ 35 mm

When the sun is bright and the skies are blue I resort to backlighting to take advantage of the translucent green glow in the emerging leaves. I prefer soft overcast with these first spring colours but I have to ‘go with the flow’ and make the best of what mother nature offers me.

Trying to be creative I usually drift toward some interpretive techniques, most of which are ‘in camera’. I hope to communicate the essence of spring with these approaches- delicacy, freshness, transience to name a few.

One technique I like is to look for emerging leaves in smaller trees near the camera. Positioning them between me and the lens I then (manually) focus on background subjects such as these birch tree trunks. With a telephoto lens and shallow depth of field I created this image (below), all in one shot, in the camera.

Birch woodland. In-camera selective focus. f/4 @ 86 mm

Another in-camera technique I like to occasionally use is multiple exposure. I choose six to ten frames and with a wide aperture I expose 5/6 or 9/10 with varying degrees of ‘de-focus’. I have to deselect autofocus and manually change focus, sometimes accompanied with a bit of zooming.

Aspens on a hillside. In-camera 6 frames. 240 mm.

Birch woodland. In-camera multiple exposure. 10 frames 155 mm f4 manual focus.

Birch woodland. In-camera multiple exposure. 10 frames 155 mm f4 manual focus.

Finally, with stands of tree trunks like these aspens I move the camera slowly up or down or up and down during a long exposure. I obtain longer exposure times using low ISO, small apertures and a polarizing or neutral density filter. This photo was made @200 mm and 3 seconds.

Aspen woodland. 3 seconds @ f20, ISO 31.

The advantage to employing these techniques is that the photographer can make interesting, unique images close to home.

Falkland Islands part 1: Stanley to Volunteer Point

 

Countryside with rainbow

In December Brenda and I joined Joe and MaryAnn McDonlad plus three other participants for a two week wildlife tour of some of the Falkland Islands hotspots. The Falklands is a bucket-list destination for birders and bird photographers. There are 5 species of penguins plus elephant seals, sea lions and many other song birds. Many of the animals display Galapagos-like fearlessness, allowing close approaches, when done with patience and care. It’s been said that one does not need big glass for the bird photography but I brought my 600 Nikkor and used it a lot. It was heavy to carry to some of the colonies but not unbearable and it allowed me to capture tight portraits and bring in the smaller songbirds when necessary. The flexibility and lighter weight of a 150-600 could be an alternative but I have not yet compared such a lens to the 600 for sharpness and contrast.

Residential details in the town of Stanley- painted building walls and fences

The tour began in Stanley with a day trip to Volunteer Point, site of the largest king penguin colony in the Falklands, followed by a day trip to the less visited Cape Bougainville for macaroni penguins, rockhopper penguins, sea lions and king cormorants. Since we were in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer months the sun rose around 4:30 a.m. and set about 9:30 p.m. Late December brought long days and plenty of light.

King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) Adult feeding juvenile

The Falklands are very British, bleak and windswept, perhaps similar to the British moorlands. Sheep farming is the dominant industry but tourism is important too, along with other ventures. The terrain is treeless with occasional rock outcrops and the dominant grass is called white grass, whose colour tends to mask the summer greens, furthering the appearance of bleakness. But the terrain is undulating and dotted with small ponds and crossed by occasional streams. Our inter-island FIGAS flights gave us excellent views of the island landscapes.

King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus). The colony

Getting to Volunteer point requires driving 4WD Rovers over a mix of paved and gravel roads (mostly gravel) followed by 10 miles (15 km or so) of slow, careful off-road driving over some very uneven terrain at times, about 2 1/2 hours from Stanley. The anticipation of seeing our first penguins made the final off-road portion of the day-trip excruciatingly drawn out- “Over there? That far still?”

King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) The colony

We had about 4 hours with the animals at Volunteer Point but it was a very satisfying start. Joe and MaryAnn advised us to concentrate on the kings but how could you pass up the gentoos feeding their newborn chicks? Impossible.

Gentoo penguin (Psygoscelis papua) with newborn chicks

For a fuller portfolio of images please visit my 500px page and click on the Volunteer Point Gallery https://500px.com/don_johnston/galleries/falkland-island-part-1

King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) Marching to the sea

Backyard Animals- Summer 2017

In the spirit of celebrating photography done close to home I offer a small selection of animal subjects photographed in and around our backyard this summer and early fall. Producing quality images from such close proximity to the house does depend on a number of factors, many of which can be controlled by the photographer.

Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) Eating a wild blueberry. I placed a piece of old log on my deck rail and offered a few blueberries.

I always have my cameras ready and easily accessible when we notice a photo opportunity. Battery charged, memory card formatted, lens attached, tripod ready for action. These encounters are often fleeting.

Horned clubtail dragonfly (Arigomphus cornutus) Female preying on another dragonfly. After noticing the subject I grabbed my 200 micro on a tripod and approached slowly. I had about 10 minutes.

It’s important to provide habitat for local critters. Things like feeders (when bears are not around), butterfly gardens, trees and shrubs for cover are important. Also important is good local knowledge of animals and their habits. Having a solid naturalist background gives the nature/wildlife photographer an advantage.

Red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) Foraging in spring maple tree

Large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) Mating pair on a milkweed leaf. The milkweed patch is a hive of ecological activity.

I sometimes create natural perches or settings for animals like chipmunks and frogs. Some natural treats like blueberries help coax them to the preferred spot.

Wood frog (Lithobates sylvaticus or Rana sylvatica). Sitting in some dried leaves I collected.

Most important is having great spotters like my wife Brenda. She noticed the sharp-shinned hawk flying into the tree with its prey. My son Matthew spotted the very well camouflaged wood frog near our garden.

Sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) Eating a songbird it had captured.

And of course, luck plays an important role. While I was waiting for the chipmunk to climb up to the log for some blueberries I noticed a deer fawn approaching the back yard from the bush behind. It stayed out on our lawn, eating some grass and bouncing around for a good half hour before it wandered off.

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Curious fawn visiting our rural backyard.

While trying to photograph chickadees eating pine seeds (again spotted by Brenda!) I noticed a pair of ruffed grouse eyeing each other in the margins of our driveway. They worked their way down towards me, oblivious to my presence.

Black capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) Foraging for seeds in red pine tree cones

Red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) Foraging for pine cones in a red pine

Ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) Two individuals confronting one another in early autumn.

Bad Light- There is no such thing

Jay Maisel, in his book Light, Gesture and Color, presents many compelling images made in ‘Bad Light’. Mr. Maisel’s contention is that there is no bad light in photography, only vision and opportunity.

Nature and landscape photographers usually do not care for high, hard, midday light although there are always backlighting opportunities and blue skies. This is especially true in the forest where the combination of trees and light present huge ranges in tonal contrast, that at times overwhelms the sophisticated modern DSLR sensor.

Autumn foliage on Vancouver Island, Sooke, BC- straight shot

Such was the case for this picture (above). While touring on  Vancouver Island I stopped for the backlit red and green foliage and used a polarizer to try and tone down some of the highlights glinting off the leaves. In post processing I was able to tone down highlights and reveal some detail in the shadows but the straight image is still very contrasty and pedestrian.

Thinking ahead I decided to make duplicate images partially and completely out of focus. I thought I could combine each one later with the ‘straight shot’. This is a digital version of the Orton effect, pioneered in the slide film days by Vancouver Island photographer Michael Orton.

Autumn foliage on Vancouver Island, Sooke, BC- Combination-1

Autumn foliage on Vancouver Island, Sooke, BC- defocused-1

This can be done in camera too, certainly with Nikon DSLRs, but the drag and drop approach for two images is very easy to accomplish in Photoshop. Once combined, I adjusted the opacity slider in the layers window to reveal about 50% of the focused image. I think the results are keepers! What do you think?

Autumn foliage on Vancouver Island, Sooke, BC- Combination-2

Autumn foliage on Vancouver Island, Sooke, BC- defocused-2

Street Photography with a Tripod

I’m a bit out of my element in an urban environment but as generalist photographer I do not shy away from such settings if I have the opportunity. Such was the case when I joined two friends for a street photography workshop in Central Havana with Dan Callis.

Malecón (officially Avenida de Maceo) Seawall with fishermen silhouetted against the Vedado neighbourhood. 1/15@f20

Malecón (officially Avenida de Maceo) Seawall with fishermen silhouetted against the Vedado neighbourhood. 1/15@f20

Street photogrphy in central Havana- Calle Escobar with dawn streetlights

Street photography in Central Havana- Calle Escobar with dawn streetlights. ½ s@f5 ISO 1600

Iglesia San Francisco de Paul - Stained glass interior

Iglesia San Francisco de Paul – Stained glass interior 1/30@f16 ISO 200

Street photogrphy in central Havana-

As morning progressed, doors opened to building interiors. 1 s@f16 ISO 400.

I was the only one in the group who used a tripod for the majority of the work that week but I thought I was able to acquire unique images that would not be easy or possible if I was handholding the camera. Certainly with image stabilization and better quality at higher ISOs handholding has become more the norm.

Street photogrphy in Old Havana- reflections in a water puddle

Street photography in Old Havana- reflections in a water puddle. 1/80@f18 ISO 400

Street photogrphy in central Havana- Painted wall detail

Painted wall detail 1/4s@f16 ISO 125

While having the camera mounted to my tripod (Gitzo carbon fiber) added some weight, reduced mobility when working a subject and made me more conspicuous in the street I still felt it was the right approach for me. I carried accessories and lenses in my trusty photo vest and felt pretty comfortable for the week in the streets of Havana. It was a fantastic experience, full of colour, atmosphere and friendly people.

Bicycle taxi and colourful building, panning with camera. ½ s@f16 ISO 100

Bicycle taxi and colourful building, panning with camera. ½ s@f16 ISO 100

Here are some of the advantages to using a tripod in the streets:

  1. Once I picked my spot for composition I could ‘fade into’ the background and wait for situations to develop. That could be as simple as waiting for someone to walk into the composition or wait for distracting elements like people or vehicles to move on. While I was initially conspicuous the local people quickly ignored my presence and I could photograph the scene using a cable release so I would remain inconspicuous.
  2. By precisely framing the composition I could make more than one exposure as people moved if I thought it would be better to be able to clone them out in a composite image.
  3. I was able to work at lower ISOs and at longer exposures, in the shadows, in interiors, at night and early morning.
  4. I could set up my composition and wait for peak moments of activity.

A lady peeking through a curtain and security fence. 0.6 s@f11 ISO 800

A lady peeking through a curtain and security fence. 0.6 s@f11 ISO 800

Trained dog on the Obispo promenade with passersby. 1.6 s@f22 ISO 100.

Trained dog on the Obispo promenade with passersby. 1.6 s@f22 ISO 100.

I waited for passersby with umbrellas to walk through this scene. 1/10 s@f16 ISO 800

I waited for passersby with umbrellas to walk through this scene. 1/10 s@f16 ISO 800

Revolutionary wall art with blurred pedestrian. 1/13 s@f18 ISO 640

Revolutionary wall art with blurred pedestrian. 1/13 s@f18 ISO 640

Wall mural on Calle Neptuno with pedestrians cloned out (composite of 3 exposures)

Wall mural on Calle Neptuno with pedestrians cloned out (composite of 2 exposures)

Maybe I missed some spontaneous shots but I think I got photos that fit my style that otherwise would not have been able to capture hand-held. The tripod is not just a useful tool for obtaining sharp images, it is also a useful compositional tool.