It has been too warm here in Utah to be called “Winter” yet, the snow that we have had hasn’t lasted long and even most of the mornings have been above freezing but the weather forecasters say that is going to change this weekend. Well, weather forecasters are often wrong so I won’t be holding my breath but it does give me a little hope.
Three years ago today though the ground was covered in drifts of snow, the temps were below freezing, there was ice on the ponds & lakes and there was a sharp briskness to the air that can only be found in winter. These are a few of the images I took that morning at a pond a few blocks from where I live.
American Coot wing flapping – Nikon D200, tripod mounted, f7.1, 1/640, ISO 320, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light
We have tons of American Coots here in the winter until the water freezes solid and then the coots move to find open water. Coots aren’t the most colorful of birds but they are amusing to watch and photograph and they are a challenge because of the high contrasts between the whites and the darks.
Mallard drake – Nikon D200, tripod mounted, f8, 1/500, ISO 250, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light
We also have plenty of Mallards too, domestic, wild and hybrids. Behind this drake this there is a sheet of ice on the pond. By the time I took this image my hands were getting cold even with gloves on and a heat pack tucked into them.
Juvenile Pied-billed Grebe in an icy pond – Nikon D200, tripod mounted, f7.1, 1/350, ISO 250, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light
Pied-billed Grebes are another species that will be on my local pond until it freezes over and they are great fun to photograph because they are feisty little characters. This one was a hatch year bird when I photographed it as it still shows evidence of the striped head that juvenile Pied-billed Grebes have in their first year.
American Coot in pre-attack pose – Nikon D300, tripod mounted, f7.1, 1/500, ISO 250, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light,
The coots squabble and fight a lot amongst each other, this coot was getting ready to chase another one across the icy pond.
Common Goldeneye female – Nikon D200, tripod mounted, f7.1, 1/400, ISO 250, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light
There are times we get other duck species including Common Goldeneyes but they never seem to stick around long. This female Common Goldeneye was gone the next time I visited the pond a few days later.
Ring-billed Gull on the edge of ice – Nikon D200, tripod mounted, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 250, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light
There are also California and Ring-billed Gulls at my local pond during the winter. This Ring-billed Gull had walked too close to the edge of the thin ice and nearly fell in, it was walking back from where one of its feet cracked through the ice and it was using its wings to regain its balance.
Snow is supposed to arrive this Saturday, I hope it does, it is time for winter!
Ring-necked Duck drake – Nikon D200, tripod mounted, f8, 1/800, ISO 250, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited
I photographed this drake Ring-necked Duck in breeding plumage a few years ago on a pond not far from where I live. He was a “one day wonder”, meaning it was the only day I found him on the pond. Lesser and Great Scaup drakes look similar but Ring-necked Duck males are easy to tell apart from them because of the white outline on the bill and the white spur on the flank.
I’m able to use a tripod at this pond and get close to the birds because they are habituated to human foot traffic at the pond. I use a Carbon Fiber tripod and a Gimbal style Jobu Black Widow head.
As I write this the first snow of winter is falling outside my living room window. For the past week I have seen the snow on the mountain tops and I had been looking forward to seeing the snow covering the Salt Lake Valley. It might now snow enough to do that today but I know it won’t be long. Here are some images from previous winters here in Utah.
Fresh Snow on Antelope Island
This was taken last winter, it had snowed during the night and the island had a light covering of it. Winter last year; if you can call it that, was mild. I’m hoping that we get more snow in the valley than we did then.
Coyote eating Falcon leftovers
Even though we didn’t get much snow last winter the temps were bitter cold some days, cold enough that the Great Salt Lake would freeze and when it would warm back up enough to thaw some of the ice the north wind would blow huge sheets of ice to the shore and large piles of ice would form there. This Coyote was eating falcon leftovers with the sheets of ice piled up behind it.
Frost covered Barn Owl
Winters can be harsh here in the Salt Lake Valley with bitter cold temperatures, icy fog, high winds and heavy snow. This Barn Owl shows the effects of a very cold night, that is hoar frost all over its face and back. The birds that stay here in the winter… they are tough, they have to be!
Landing Bald Eagle
Very soon I will be seeing Bald Eagles in the valley. During the summer I rarely see them here, I either need to go up into the high country or head north to see them. But during the winter Bald Eagles from the far north migrate to the Salt Lake Valley to overwinter. Last winter the numbers were low because it had been mild but during a typical winter it is not unusual to count more than a hundred eagles in a morning.
Great Blue Heron on thin ice
Our Great Blue Herons are year round residents and once the ponds, marshes and lakes freeze over they hunt voles in through the snow instead of hunting for prey in the water. Even the Great Blues are tough birds.
Mallard on ice
The pond down the hill from where I live will host Mallards, American Coots, Canada Geese, Pied-billed Grebes, gulls and if I am lucky I’ll see other ducks species and mergansers too. It is so close that I hope to spend time down there perfecting my skills at photographing them in falling snow like I did with the male Mallard above.
Prairie Falcon with the frozen Great Salt Lake in the background
It will become easier to approach raptors like this Prairie Falcon, when it gets colder the birds get stickier and are less apt to fly away so quickly. Our American Kestrels, Prairie and Peregrine Falcons are year round residents but during the warmer months they are a challenge to get close to. Rough-legged Hawks will soon be arriving and the Red-tailed Hawks are coming down from the high country to spend the winter in the valley. Merlins have already been reported. Who knows, maybe some Snowy Owls will show up too. I’ll also want to go to the west desert to look for Golden Eagles and Ferruginous Hawks.
White-crowned Sparrow on frost covered Rabbitbrush
Even smaller birds like this adult White-crowned Sparrow get stickier when the weather turns colder, I am able to get more images of sparrows during the winter than I can get during the summer.
I heard thunder awhile ago, I’ve always gotten a kick out of thunder-snow.
After living for five years in the heat and humidity of Florida I relish fall and winter. Bring on the snow!
Adult Pied-billed Grebe in breeding plumage
This is how we normally see Pied-billed Grebes (Podilymbus podiceps) - floating on the water. This adult in breeding plumage was photographed near where I live at a local pond in December of 2009.
Juvenile Pied-billed Grebe in duckweed
I photographed this juvenile Pied-billed Grebe at Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area on a visit to Utah in October of 2008 before I moved here. The Duckweed just about covered the whole surface of the pond.
Because of the posterior placement of the legs and feet Grebes have a very difficult time standing or walking on solid ground.
Adult Pied-billed Grebe out of the water
On September 21, 2009 I saw several Pied-billed Grebes out of the water and standing on solid ground while photographing birds at Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area. Doesn’t this grebe look barrel-chested? We don’t normally get a view of a Pied-billed Grebe like this one.
Adult Pied-billed Grebe flapping its wings while standing
This image was taken the same day as the one above and it is the same grebe flapping its wings as it moved towards the water.
Three Pied-billed Grebes out of the water
On the same date we saw several Pied-billed Grebes out of the water, some of them were resting (far left and right) while others were actively walking or flapping their wings while standing in an upright position.
Standing Pied-billed Grebe adult
Three days later, September 24, 2009, at the same pond at Farmington Bay WMA there were more Pied-billed Grebes standing on the shoreline while a few others floated on the water’s surface.
Adult Pied-billed Grebe flapping its wings
I think this image shows how far the legs and feet of Pied-billed Grebes are placed at the back of their bodies very well.
Around the time period these standing grebe images were taken there was an outbreak of Avian botulism that was killing grebes, ducks and other water birds in the Salt Lake Valley.
“Avian botulism is a naturally occurring toxin in marshes, activated by warm temperatures and a lack of oxygen in the water. Outbreaks generally happen every August along the Great Salt Lake marshes.” – Salt Lake Tribune (click here to read the article)
I’m not a scientist or a wildlife biologist, I am just a bird photographer who studies my subjects as I photograph them in the field but I did wonder if these Pied-billed Grebes instinctively knew that being in the water during the avian botulism outbreak of 2009 was a risk to their health and if that was why they were resting and standing on the shoreline of the pond. I suppose a biologist who studies Pied-billed Grebes might know the answer to that.
It was an unusual experience to see these Pied-billed Grebes standing upright and walking on the edge of this pond, some might even consider it rare. I know I haven’t seen or photographed them standing since the 24th of September in 2009. You just never know what you might see while out in nature.
Bob Zeller’s recent post Pied-Billed Grebes – Cuties of the lakes at Texas Tweeties reminded me that I have meant to do this post for sometime, today is as good a day as any other!
American Coot moving slowly on ice – Nikon D200, tripod mounted, f7.1, 1/750, ISO 250, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light
The temps are dropping here in the Salt Lake Valley, two days ago it was below freezing when we went out shooting. Winter brings challenges and birds we don’t see during the summer so I am excited about that.
The American Coots (Fulica americana) in Utah will be here until the water freezes solid, if there is any open water they hang around. So when there is ice on part of a pond it can be fun watching the coots slip-sliding around.
Slippery ice – Nikon D200, tripod mounted, f7.1, 1/750, ISO 250, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light
American Coots are common in North America and even though that is true I like to photograph them because they are a challenge to expose correctly because of their dark feathers and that ivory-white bill. Usually in winter I can get closer to them. They will walk on the ice to avoid a fight with another coot which is what the one above was doing when I took the image.
Sinking American Coot – Nikon D200, tripod mounted, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 320, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light
The coot above avoided a fight and was standing on ice that barely support its weight which is why there is a circle of icy water around its feet. Coots might not be very colorful or as powerful as a raptor but they are great fun to photograph.
I’m looking forward to winter and the great bird photography opportunities it will bring.
More American Coot images