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.

On and off the deck


Male ruby-throated hummingbird perched on a branch on the deck, near the nectar feeder

A male ruby-throated hummingbird perches on a branch on our deck, near the nectar feeder


Brenda and I are about to hit the road again and I thought I had better get in a blog post before leaving for the Northwest Territories and Vancouver Island. We usually stay home for the summer, preferring to avoid the crowds, traffic and higher prices.


A male goldfinch forages among the goldenrods behind our lawn

A male goldfinch forages among the goldenrods behind our lawn

Brenda enjoys her gardening and we tend a vegetable garden and milkweed patch that was finally visited by monarchs. It has been a cool summer thus far, perhaps following upon the very cold winter and its lingering effects. Blueberries were late this year but the crop was quite good in places. Nonetheless birds, small and large mammals, insects, snakes and spiders continue their seasonal rituals around our property.


Geranium flowers in a basket after a morning rain

Geranium flowers in a basket after a morning rain

During the summer I stay close to home with the camera too. Not surprisingly, if I am ready and the equipment is at hand there are photo opportunities awaiting in Brenda’s gardens, on the lawn and on the deck.


A moth rests on red flower petals, chilled by raindrops

A moth rests on red flower petals, chilled by raindrops

Here is a collection of examples from the last couple of months. Please enjoy!

This red squirrel has mastered traversing the clothesline to venture out to a hanging seed feeder

This red squirrel has mastered the art of  traversing the clothesline to venture out to a hanging seed feeder

On the way out to the seed feeder

It swiftly moves out to the seed feeder

Sheep laurel and birch near a blueberry patch behind the shed

Sheep laurel and birch near a blueberry patch behind the shed

Raindrops on fern fronds at the edge of the lawn

Raindrops on fern fronds at the edge of the lawn

Swallowtail butterflies visit a patch of hawkweed I leave un-mowed on the lawn

Swallowtail butterflies visit a patch of hawkweed I leave un-mowed on the lawn

Butterflies are attracted to Brenda's flowers too

Butterflies are attracted to Brenda’s flowers too

A patch of summer flowers with camera movement during the exposure

A patch of summer flowers photographed with camera movement during the exposure

After a bear left a 'calling card' on our lawn the chipmunk moved in and scavenged the seeds in the flop

After a bear left its ‘calling card’ on our lawn this chipmunk moved in and scavenged the seeds in the flop

Milkweed Garden

Brenda found another monarch chrysalis a few days ago, hanging from a cucumber leaf. It is late in the season and most of the milkweeds are going to seed. Frost is threatening so we hope the adult will emerge in time. Summer of 2013 was a relatively poor year for us on the monarch butterfly front, with noticeably fewer adults seen flitting around our milkweed patch and fewer caterpillars observed chewing milkweed leaves and flowers. These observations jive with disquieting reports in the media about plummeting monarch numbers province wide, with fingers pointed at the usual suspects- habitat loss and agribiz practices along the monarch’s migration routes.

Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus. chrysallis

Milkweed is classified as a noxious weed in Ontario. I innocently brought a seed case home a few years ago. The seeds are so darn photogenic. Because the Sudbury Region’s soils are acidic (great for blueberries, not good for milkweed) there are few populations of common milkweed in our area. It has thrived near our garden. Now we have a burgeoning patch of milkweed, which invades our garden and lawn, but we pull and mow when necessary and let it thrive since it is the host plant for the beautiful and famous monarch butterfly. This January, Brenda and I will touring to California where we will participate in Cathy and Gordon Illg’s Beauty and the Beasts Photo Tour that will include two days photographing monarchs in their western winter refuge.

Canadian Plants (Ontario)

Even though milkweed is noxious it is attractive to us in so many ways. The flowers are lovely and fragrant. Milkweed attracts many other small critters that feed and live among the plants- hummingbird moths, other butterfly species, spiders and beetles. And of course it is the host plant for the monarch.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Flowers

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Flowers

Here are some favourites from over the past few years. Most were made with a 200 mm Nikkor micro. I prefer soft, overcast light.

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Don’t Trash It

Apologies for blogging hiatus, but as the old saying goes ‘Better late than never!”

Sometimes I hear people extolling the benefits of digital photography from the standpoint of being able to ‘just delete pictures you don’t like’. This cavalier statement always makes me cringe a bit worrying that photographers might be throwing away good images without taking the time to properly evaluate them.

A documentary image of the butterfly feeding on flowers


John Shaw and other pros consistently recommend photographers to be ruthless with their editing and generally I subscribe to that principle. Believe me I have become very ruthless with my editing, especially with wildlife. In a burst sequence of 10 frames there is likely just one winner, a single frame worth keeping, so why hang on to any of the others?

This is one of about 15 frames captured in a burst. For now, I have saved most of the others.

In the field I use my review screen three ways. First, I check the histogram to ascertain a proper exposure. Then I check the full frame, especially the edges for compositional issues. Finally I check at 100 % for sharpness. Usually there is time with landscapes to do those things without missing a change in the situation.

There are times though when one needs to reconsider the urge to hit ‘Delete’, especially in the field. I rarely delete in the field unless I am fine-tuning exposure. I usually save bracketed compositions until I am back home, preferring to review them with a larger monitor rather than using my in-camera review screen.

A dispassionate eye is needed when editing so it’s generally a good idea to let the captured images sit for a while to let go of some of the emotional baggage attached to the images, unless you are on assignment with a tight deadline.Here are some reasons I use to justify me keeping some second best images (as RAW files- the selects are retained as derivative TIFs): 1. I use a ranking system and process only my highest ranking images. 2. I have a pretty thorough system of keywording and archiving so I can easily filter and find images. 3. Storage media such as external hard drives are fairly inexpensive these days. 4. A re-visit, some time later might change my opinion of a near-miss and elevate it to ‘worth processing and submitting’ status. 5. When teaching, it sometimes makes sense to show mistakes to students, for comparison. 6. A portion of a lesser ranked image might work well as a composite with other images.

I check exposure, framing and sharpness before moving on.

Certainly, like anyone else, I am anxious to see what I captured so I do  a rough edit shortly after a photo excursion, I will sort and group similars and delete the obvious ‘howlers’. A quick review helps to identify whether the sensor needs cleaning or whether (rarely) there might be a technical issue with a certain lens or camera body. After an initial review it may be a few months before I return for a serious edit. I’m usually about six months to a year behind in my editing, and I don’t think I’m alone in that camp.

But what about those in-camera mistakes? Such as the inadvertent click of the shutter whilst moving the camera or an accidental multiple exposure (some examples are depicted below).

I had just acquired my D4 and was playing around with settings while photographing wildflowers and butterflies. I sometimes like to photograph wildflowers using multiple exposure techniques. In this situation it appeared at first glance that the process of setting multiple exposure in the D4 was the same as the D3x, but I learned later that there is a difference. I had to disengage the setting in the D4 in order to stop multiple exposing. This became apparent when I reviewed an informal portrait of the kids at the camp, and realized that I had made several combined exposures rather than several individual exposures. When I scrolled back through the captured images, I realized that several butterfly captures were also multiple exposures rather than single captures. Rather than deleting that afternoon I decided to keep them and review later.

I liked the way the inadvertent multiple exposure captured the flitting, unpredictable nature of a foraging butterfly.

I’m not sure whether these will be accepted by my agencies. Time will tell, but I liked the results enough to keep a few and send them off for agency approval. Next summer I might try a little harder to duplicate these results.