South of the (Ohio) Border
May, 2014

There are lot of reasons to go birding in other states besides your own, but there is one particular bird that lures Ohioans across the state line into West Virginia, the Swainson's Warbler. While there are a handful of Ohio records for this species, they are few and far between. All the other eastern warblers can be found regularly in Ohio either as summer residents or migrants. Even the rare Kirtland's Warbler seems to show up every year nowadays in the state although you don't have to travel far to reach their breeding grounds in Michigan. Likewise you don't have to travel far south of the state line to find Swainson's Warblers on their breeding grounds.

Swainson's Warbler, West Virginia, May, 2014
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens
f7.1, 1/200th sec., ISO 800

This spring was a busy one and an unusual one with everything arriving in Ohio later than usual. Normally I would recommend heading down to West Virginia during the last week of April soon after the birds arrive on territory and before the leaves are fully leafed out.  But this was a busy spring for me. The Columbus Symphony Orchestra's principal oboe was out this spring and I filled in for him for several concerts as well as playing English horn is some others. That kept me tied closely to the reed desk. I did have a bit of free time the last week of April, but the weather never allowed multiple free days in a row with nice weather to drive down there, especially when I really needed to stay home and make reeds daily. So I waited until the end of our season in mid-May and headed right down to West Virginia, better late than never. Musically one of the highlights this spring for me was playing first oboe in Sibelius' Second Symphony. That symphony is by far the most frequently performed of Sibelius' seven symphonies with his 5th Symphony coming in a distant second place. Although I have owned recordings of all seven for years, I haven't listened to them in a long time. For this trip I grabbed some CD's of Sibelius' less frequently played works. Great music in the car can make long drives a pleasure. An old recording by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan from the 60's containing Sibelius' 4th and 6th Symphonies quickly became a favorite. I listened to this recording of these fascinating masterpieces almost exclusively without getting tired of it on this trip and a subsequent three week trip north into Michigan and Ontario. This recording can still be purchased new and at great prices used from Amazon.com HERE.

Dense Rhododendron Thickets in a Shaded Gorge
Swainson's Warbler Habitat, West Virginia, May, 2014
Canon EOS 6D, Canon 35mm f2 IS lens
f7.1, 1/25th sec., ISO 400

The habitat for Swinson's Warbler varies through its range, but the habitat found in the Appalachians is in deep shady gorges filled with hemlocks and a dense ground cover of rhododendrons. Recognizing this habitat, it can be found in small patches here and there in Ohio such as the southern entrance to the Waterloo State Forest adjacent to the Zaleski State Forest in Athens County and along the Upper Twin Creek in the Adams County portion of the Shawnee State Forest. Neither of places have rhododendrons in the density that you can find in West Virginia and they don't host  nesting populations of Swainson's Warblers, although most of the other species found along side them can be found in those similar Ohio areas. Besides Swainson's Warblers other species found in the above gorge included Blue-headed and Red-eyed Vireos, Acadian Flycatchers, Eastern Wood-Pewees, Wood Thrushes, American Redstarts, Ovenbirds, Northern Parulas, Louisiana Waterthrushes, and Black-throated Green, Blackburnian, Yellow-throated, Cerulean, Worm-eating, Hooded, Kentucky, and Black-and-white Warblers. All of those species including the Blue-headed Vireo and Blackburnian Warbler, both otherwise scarce nesters in Ohio, can be found along the Upper Twin Creek in the Shawnee State Forest. If you have ever wondered why you don't see a whole lot of Swainson's Warbler photos taken in nice warm early morning of late afternoon sunlight take a look above. Their habitat is poorly lit. A late April trip instead of a mid-May visit before the canopy develops might have increased opportunities to find a Swainson's Warbler in sunlight, but even then the gorges they inhabit are so deep and narrow that little sunlight can be found until several hours after sunrise. Many of the birds were already paired up and had stopped singing very persistently on this particular trip compared to a visit I paid to the same place 5 years ago earlier in the season. I do find these areas fascinating and hope to get back there next year at a more appropriate date.

A week or so before this trip I finally decided to purchase a full frame DSLR. I had no desire to replace either of my Canon 1D MarkIV cameras for bird photography. I mostly wanted to have a full frame camera for general use and to really see what my wide angles looked like in the corners. The already discounted refurbished like new Canon 6D directly from Canon was on sale for less than $1300 so I jumped on it. I have no intention of ever even trying to photograph birds with it, but for general use I really like it. The files look good to me and are easy to work with. Of the four wide angle lenses I had, all looked just as good from corner to corner as on my 1D4 except one of them. The 24 f1.4L II, the 28 IS, and the 35 IS all passed the test in flying colors, but what was once my beloved 14mm f2.8 L looked awful in the extreme corners in every shot taken on the 6D. It was like someone had smeared vaseline on the corners of the sensor. The next day I headed to a local camera shop and swapped it for a new Zeiss 18mm Distagon f3.5. The Canon 14mmL was a great effective 18mm lens on the 1.3 crop cameras for me for several years and I definitely enjoyed owning it, but the Zeiss is the best option in that range for full frame other than the Canon 17mm TS-E lens, which was more money than I wanted to spend considering it would probably be overkill for my needs and take up more camera bag real estate than I wanted to give up. I had tried a Zeiss 18 on the 1D4 and wasn't impressed, but to be honest, the focus confirmation connection wasn't working properly and I was just focusing by eye. With everything working properly the Zeiss 18mm lens is a nice little lens at a good value. It may not be up to the standards of the 21mm and 15mm Distagons, but it is a lot less expensive. Light falloff isn't any better or worse than any other lens of this sort around f8 and f11. Soon after buying this lens Canon annunced a new wide angle zoom, the 16-35 f4L IS.  More about that lens in the future.

Swainson's Warbler Habitat, West Virginia, May, 2014
Canon EOS 6D, Zeiss 18mm f3.5 ZE lens
f7.1, 1/20th sec., ISO 400

North of the (Ohio) Border
May, June 2014

With my recording of Sibelius' 4th and 6th Symphonies still in my car's CD player, I took off for a very enjoyable road trip directly north in late May. On this trip I spent most of my time visiting places I had never been before. I have been to the eastern Upper Peninsula too many times to count. On my last trip to Michigan I had the most fun exploring new places in the western UP and Wisconsin, so on this trip I decided to spend most of my time in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula then head further north of Sault Ste. Marie into Ontario, spending only a couple of days in the UP. Even in the lower peninsula are vast tracts of public lands in the form of state forests that aren't even mentioned at all in the ABA Birder's Guide to Michigan. That's where I decided to visit. I found some great places that I can't wait to visit again in the lower peninsula. In Ontario I spent my time in what is called the Chapleau Crown Game Reserve, a huge area with a lot of active logging that at least had a network of navigable tracks to explore. I'll offer only a brief summary of this  trip here.

Kirtland's Warbler, Michigan, May, 2014
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f10, 1/1250th sec., ISO 400

My first stop in Michigan was exploring some jack pine areas. My morning there was very windy. Finding Kirland's Warblers was no problem in the heart of their range, but because of the wind most of them were not singing on the tops of the young jack pines that were swaying heavily. The friendly bird above was singing right at the side of a sandy track and allowed a close approach.  I usually try to avoid placing "perches" out for birds. To me that is gardening and not nature photography. I usually like to photograph birds in settings as I find them, but here I made a minor exception and placed a dead branch against the tree the bird was singing in. It soon came back and readily took advantage of the stable spot that wasn't blowing all over the place in the wind. After a female showed up they both took off into the dense young jack pines.

Golden-winged Warbler, Michigan, May, 2014
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f11, 1/800th sec., ISO 400

As the Blue-winged Warbler population expands northward they infringe on the range of the Golden-winged Warbler and hybridize regularly.  Blue-wingeds then often replace Golden-wingeds. Michigan is in the front lines of this. Golden-winged Warblers are still fairly plentiful in the right habitat in the northern lower peninsula of Michigan. I found them daily in appropriate brushy wet areas and clear cuts, although never in the same abundance that you can find Blue-winged Warblers in similar habitat in Ohio. The above bird was photographed in the same spot in Roscommon County that I saw my very first Golden-winged Warbler over 25 years ago. It was nice to find several apparently pure Golden-wingeds still in that area although a "Brewster's" type hybrid was also present. I later found isolated Blue-wingeds as far north as Otsego County, but Golden-wingeds still seem to be present in good numbers from what I saw.  For those interested in how the Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warbler populations in Michigan have changed in recent decades, comparative maps between the last two breeding bird atlases can be found  HERE.

Cape May Warbler, Michigan, May, 2014
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f11, 1/1250th sec., ISO 500

Cape May Warbler was a species high on my wish list to photograph on this trip. I found them thinly distributed in the northern lower peninsula, the eastern UP, and in Ontario without any significant concentrations anywhere I visited. Last year I had hoped to find them in southeastern Manitoba where they were plentiful on a 2005 visit, but I came up empty. The last time I found them in good numbers anywhere was in 2010 in the western UP. Their numbers fluctuate locally in response to spruce budworm outbreaks. I never really got the photo ops that I was hoping for with Cape Mays on this trip, but that's all the more reason to go back and try again.

Philadelphia Vireo, Ontario, June, 2014
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f10, 1/250th sec., ISO 500

Continuing northward into Ontario I was hoping to find some species that are scarce and difficult to find and photograph in Michigan, with the Philadelphia Vireo at the number one spot on the top of the list. Philadelphia Vireos are familiar migrants in my back yard along the Scioto River in Columbus every spring and fall. There are obviously a lot of them out there nesting somewhere, but I had never had much luck finding many on their breeding grounds. Despite many trips to the UP of Michigan over the years, several trips to southern Manitoba, and trips to Minnesota and Maine in the breeding season, I had only found a few in total on their breeding grounds in the past 20 years. The similarity in song with the usually more abundant Red-eyed Vireo made finding them very difficult. In Ontario I finally found Philadelphia Vireos in large numbers and was able to get a good handle on their songs. The veil of mystery was lifted. The call notes of the Philadelphia Vireo I was already acquainted with from migrants, but on their breeding grounds their song differs most from Red-eyeds in that they will repeat certain phrases over and over during a bout of singing. After reading more about them when I got home I learned that they do this mostly on their breeding grounds when other Philadelphia Vireos are present in adjacent territories. In the Chapleau Crown Game Reserve I found Philadelphia Vireos widely distributed in aspen and birches along the roads and at edges of clear cuts. While Red-eyed Vireos are also abundant there, I was able to easily find Philadelphias by the end of my visit. After many years of birding forests in eastern North America it was very satisfying to finally get to know this species better.

Bay-breasted Warbler, Ontario, June, 2014
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f11, 1/400th sec., ISO 400

Like the Cape May Warbler, the Bay-breasted Warbler is another spruce budworm specialist that can be difficult to find on their breeding grounds. And also like the Cape May I had hoped to find them last year in southeasten Manitoba where they were at least locally common in 2005, but I again had little luck. Unlike the Cape Mays though, Bay-breasteds were fairly common where large tracts of mature spruces were present in the Chapleau Crown Game Reserve this year.

Despite heavy logging activity, that area of Ontario was a very worthwhile place to bird, and is only a four hour drive from Sault Sainte Marie. I definitely want to get back there again soon, but I also enjoyed my trip into the western UP and Wisconsin in 2010. It will be a tough choice whether to head westward or northward next time I visit the UP of Michigan.

Black Bear Cub, Ontario, June, 2014
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 70-300mm f4-5.6 L IS lens (at 260mm)
f5.6, 1/60th sec., ISO 640

Another Black Bear Cub, Ontario, June, 2014
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 70-300mm f4-5.6 L IS lens (at 300mm)
f6.3, 1/100th sec., ISO 640