Friday, February 26, 2010

February Ice

Late winter is one of my favorite times of the year. I always look forward to late February and early March with great anticipation. The reason for this is simple. I love ice. As March approaches, ice buildup on Lake Superior usually increases. This was true again this year, but not to the extent that I was hoping. We had very little ice coverage on the lake in February this year mostly due to above average temperatures. It simply wasn't getting cold enough for ice to form the way it usually does. We did, however, still have plenty of ice right along the shoreline.

There were a few times when ice did form farther out into the lake, and a handful of days where the wind was just right that it broke that ice into sheets and pushed it towards shore. One such day was this evening where I photographed these ice piles on the shoreline of Red Rock Beach in Grand Portage. A strong wind off the lake the previous night had pushed this ice into the shore, and created some nice (although not very tall) piles of ice. At any rate it made for a fun evening of photography. The ice was still being slowly pushed towards shore as I made these images... it groaned, creaked and popped as I walked along the shore. These sounds that are made by the ice are hauntingly beautiful.

A couple of days later, I was walking along the shoreline of Grand Portage Bay and found some other neat ice formations that were just begging to have their picture taken. There was one spot where a rather thick piece of ice had been pushed up onto the shore and as it was being pushed up it split into four pieces. There may not be as much ice as there has been in past years, but if you took the time to look you could still find some cool stuff!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Monticello Swans

Swan Park looked truly magical with the trees covered in hoar frost!

This weekend I met up with my friend Roger in Elk River and we headed over to Monticello, MN to see and photograph a somewhat unusual animal gathering. Much like the Eagles that I photographed in Homer, Alaska a few years ago, there is a gathering of Trumpeter Swans along the Mississippi River in Monticello each winter. In Alaska, the eagles were fed for many years by "The Eagle Lady" Jean Keene, who tossed several hundred pounds of fish scraps to the Eagles each day. In Monticello there is a woman known as "The Swan Lady" who tosses food out to the swans each day, only in this case its corn and not fish scraps.

Above: Sheila's neighbor has constructed this photo deck, which can be used (for a fee) by photographers and bird watchers. It gives you a closer view of the birds, and gets you closer to eye-level with the birds on the water. All proceeds go to help Sheila pay for corn for the Swans.

The day we visited "Swan Park" along the banks of the Mississippi in Monticello, every tree in sight was covered in beautiful hoar frost. The previous night had produced some thick fog which froze to all the trees, creating a white winter wonderland! There are a couple of reasons why Swans (and Geese and Ducks) congregate here in the winter. One reason is the power plant that is just a little ways upstream... outflow from the power plant keeps the river water warm and ice-free all winter. The other reason is the food. Several years ago Sheila "The Swan Lady" started handing out some corn to the ducks that wintered on the river. After a while some Swans started to show up. Fast forward several years later and the Swans now congregate in very large numbers on this stretch of river. The day we visited the river there were easily several hundred Swans, as well as a fair amount of Canada Geese and various ducks.

Swan Park is a very small city park nestled in between two home sites on the banks of the Mississippi. From the parking area on the opposite side of the street from the park, you can easily hear the Swans as soon as you get out of your car. As you walk towards the park and get closer the river, the sound quickly becomes deafening. We spent about an hour and a half photographing the birds and by the time we left I swear my ears were ringing!

To see a video clip of the Swans, click here:

As the birds wait in preparation for their daily feeding, several small groups fly in one after the other from down the river. This makes for some great flight shot opportunities, as they usually fly right past you then circle around before landing on the river.

One of my favorite things to do when photographing birds in flight is to experiment with slower shutter speeds in an attempt to create artsy blurs of the birds. This takes some practice, though. Too long of a shutter speed and the bird won't be recognizable. Not slow enough of a shutter speed, and the photo will look just like an accidental "out of focus" shot. When you can get the right mix of the perfect shutter speed combined with a well-timed panning motion of the camera to match the flight pattern of the bird, the results can be magical.

If you're looking for a fun way to spend a winter's day, head over to Monticello to see the Swans. It is certainly one of those experiences that will be with you forever!