European Starling eating Brine flies on the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake

European Starling eating Brine flies on the shoreline of the Great Salt LakeEuropean Starling eating Brine flies on the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake

Last week I was photographing shorebirds and a Chukar eating Brine flies on the shore of the Great Salt Lake when this European Starling flew in and started to eat them too. I was surprised to see the Starling ingesting the flies because they are relative newcomers to North America and it seems that they have adapted to the hyper-saline environment around the salty lake and are taking advantage of the abundance of brine flies there. Now I can add European Starlings to my list of birds I have observed and photographed eating the brine flies here.

Mia

The Brine Fly Buffet begins on the Great Salt Lake

First of the year Brine FliesFirst of the year Brine Flies

Yesterday while near the marina on Antelope Island State Park I spotted my first of the year Brine Flies warming up on some of the rocks in the water. You might wonder “why” am I so excited about flies?

It is because I know how many birds feast on the little buggers! If the brine flies are out it won’t be long before the shorebirds that eat them arrive.  Last week there was ice on this water, how quickly things change. The image above was taken yesterday.

California Gull in a thick mass of Brine FliesCalifornia Gull in a thick mass of Brine Flies

This image was taken last year when the brine flies were thick, all of those little dark dots in the air, on the rocks and in front of the California Gull are Brine Flies. With billions of them in just a small area it is easy to see why the birds that devour them like the area of the Great Salt Lake. The California Gulls are already here and they appear to be eating the flies along the causeway.

Franklin's Gull with Brine FliesFranklin’s Gull with Brine Flies

It won’t be long before the first of the Franklin’s Gulls arrive too and for a short time the Bonaparte’s Gulls will feast on the flies too before heading further north. All those dark flecks on the water? Brine Flies.

California Gull with Brine Flies in flightCalifornia Gull with Brine Flies in flight

I do get excited about seeing the first Brine Flies because I know that their presence brings on the birds and the feeding frenzies that follow!

Mia

California Gull – The Chase is On

While my mother was visiting Utah she was able to see how California Gulls chase and feed on Brine Flies, it is fascinating feeding behavior. As my mom watched, I photographed.

California Gull feeding on Brine Flies 1California Gull feeding on Brine Flies 1

The gull starts out standing on the edge of the Great Salt Lake. The Brine Flies can bee seen in this image floating on the hyper saline lake surface.

California Gull feeding on Brine Flies 2California Gull feeding on Brine Flies 2

Then it begins to run and the Brine Flies lift off from the sand and water surface. All of the brown colored specks on the shoreline are the pupal casings of the Brine Flies.

California Gull feeding on Brine Flies 3California Gull feeding on Brine Flies 3

As the gull gains momentum it lifts its wings and more flies take to the air…

California Gull feeding on Brine Flies 4California Gull feeding on Brine Flies 4

Then the gull starts to catch the flies by opening and closing its bill as it runs along.

California Gull feeding on Brine Flies 5California Gull feeding on Brine Flies 5

The Brine Flies fan out in an undulating wave in front of the gull as it races along snatching them from the air

California Gull feeding on Brine Flies 6California Gull feeding on Brine Flies 6

When the flies thin out in front of the bird the gull slow down

California Gull feeding on Brine Flies 7California Gull feeding on Brine Flies 7

And come to a stop.

California Gull feeding on Brine Flies 8California Gull feeding on Brine Flies 8

The gull rests a few moments and begins chasing the Brine Flies again. This frame shows the gull a little further from the shoreline and the flies lifting up from the sand.

California Gull feeding on Brine Flies 9California Gull feeding on Brine Flies 9

Again the gull grabs the flies from the air with its bill.

California Gull feeding on Brine Flies 10California Gull feeding on Brine Flies 10

And comes to a halt again. I have no idea how many flies a California Gull catches when it runs along the shoreline, it would be interesting to know though.

All of these images were taken using my Nikon D300 with my lens resting on my Noodle, f6.3, ISO 500, with shutter speeds ranging from 1/2000 to 1/3200 and all of them were taken using natural light.  These images are a challenge to create because at times the camera tries to focus on the mass of flies instead of the bird.

There are more images of California Gulls exhibiting this feeding behavior on this post titled California Gulls feeding on the Brine Flies of the Great Salt Lake.

Mia

Birds of Antelope Island – A Mix of Feathered Friends

Yesterday I photographed a mixture of birds on Antelope Island State Park.

Chukar walking on the Oolitic sand dunes of the Great Salt LakeChukar walking on the Oolitic sand dunes of the Great Salt Lake – Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/1250, ISO 500, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

There aren’t many places on this planet where a Chukar can be photographed walking on an Oolitic sand dune, I’m fortunate that I live where I can do that. The oolitic sand this Chukar is walking on was formed in the Great Salt Lake when calcium carbonate attached itself to brine shrimp feces in concentric layers. The rolling motion of  the waves on the lake give the grains of sand an egg shape. I was glad I saw the Chukars on the sand.

Preening Lark SparrowPreening Lark Sparrow – Nikon D200, f8, 1/1250, ISO 400, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

Later in the morning I spotted this Lark Sparrow perched on some dead Sagebrush branches, it preened for quite some time. I especially liked that the background is composed of sagebrush bushes. These sparrows are so handsome.

Mockingbird chickNorthern Mockingbird chick – Nikon D200, f8, 1/1000, ISO 400, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

While I was photographing the Lark Sparrow I kept hearing a short, soft bird call so I kept peeking around my lens to see what making the sound. Before long I saw a tiny head pop up on a sagebrush and I scoped it with my lens. To my surprise it was a young Northern Mockingbird. It took awhile but the chick hopped up onto a branch where I could get a fairly clear shot of it and as an added bonus it had the Great Salt Lake in the background.

Sage ThrasherSage Thrasher – Nikon D200, f8, 1/1000, ISO 400, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

Not very far from the Northern Mockingbird chick I spotted this Sage Thrasher, for a change this one was cooperative and stuck around for a bit. It shouldn’t be long before I start seeing their chicks too.

Chukar chick surrounded by Brine FliesChukar chick surrounded by Brine Flies – Nikon D200, f7.1, 1/1000, ISO 400, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

One of the last stops was near the marina where there are boulders that line the shore. We’ve had a tremendous hatch of Brine Flies and even the Chukars are benefiting from that.

Several Chukars with chicks were on the boulders and the muddy shore and oddly enough I also saw a California Quail with the group. California Quail are not common on the island. One of the adult Chukars that was in the mud had the brine flies covering its back almost to its neck. All of those grayish spots in the air, elongated shapes on the boulder the chick is standing on and dark spots on the boulders in the background are brine flies.

Brine FliesBrine Flies

There were flies tickling my face and hands while I photographed these birds, fortunately they don’t bite! This photo shows just a tiny section of the shoreline and a boulder, the small bits of blue is water, everything else that is on the surface are brine flies.

Mia

Wild and Wonderful – Antelope Island State Park – The Wildlife

This is part 2 of my three part series on Wild and Wonderful Antelope Island State Park and it covers some of the wildlife that can be found howling, grazing, buzzing, napping and posing for my camera.

Wildlife of Antelope Island:

Black-tailed JackrabbitA Black-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus californicus) – Nikon D200, f13, 1/500, ISO 320, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 278mm

One of the first furry critters I saw on my original visit to Antelope Island was a Black-tailed Jackrabbit and I was thrilled because I had not seen them for the five years that I had lived in Florida. I love their huge ears, the soft brown of their eyes and how they wiggle their noses.

This jackrabbits’ pose reminds me of the chocolate Easter bunnies I used to get in my basket as a child. A sweet memory for sure!

Bison feedingBison (Bison Bison) Bull feeding – Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/640, ISO 400, -1.0 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 200mm

In 1893 twelve Bison were taken by boat to Antelope Island, there were 4 bulls, 4 cows and 4 calves that provided the foundation for what is now the oldest and largest publicly owned Bison herd in the U.S.. The numbers of Bison on the island vary between 550 and 700 and the reason for that is that in October there is a yearly round up where the Bison are counted, inoculated and culled to keep the population under 700 which has been determined to be the holding capacity of Bison for the island. Some of the Bison from the round up are sold for meat or for breeding stock.

Huge herds of Bison will often make their way down to the shoreline during the warmer months to drink at the natural freshwater springs that are found there. It is amazing to see several hundred Bison all at once.

Photographing Bison can be a challenge to get the exposure right because they are so dark and quite often the surrounding pale golden grasses are in such stark contrast with each other. I’m still learning.

Tourists getting too close to the wild Bison

Tourists getting too close to the wild Bison
Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/1500, ISO 250, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 200mm

The Bison on Antelope Island are wild creatures that roam freely to graze, they are used to traffic and having people view them. They aren’t tame cattle though and they will charge when people get too close. On March 31, 2011 I saw not one, but two incidents that could have ended tragically for the people involved in getting too close to these huge Bison. I was up high and looking down towards the Bridger Bay Campground when I saw two men approaching a bull through my viewfinder, one of the men approached too close and the bull charged at the man. Fortunately the bull was just letting the guy know who was the boss because he stopped shortly after he charged.

Later I was down at the campground when these women tourists got out of their vehicle and approached two bulls within 15 feet. I’m really grateful those bulls did not trample these women and that I didn’t have to witness that type of event.

It pays to stay safe and keep a healthy distance from these huge Bison.

Mule Deer in the sagebrush Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus) buck in velvet – Nikon D200, f8, 1/2000, ISO 320, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm

There are herds of Mule Deer that also roam the island. They are more skittish than the Bison but I see them often while out looking for birds and wildlife to photograph. I recently saw two bucks fighting with each other while they were in rut. Oh, how I wish they had been closer so I could have gotten images of the great action.

North American Porcupine (Erethizon doratum) in a treeNorth American Porcupine (Erethizon doratum) in a tree – Nikon D300, F6.3, 1/1250, ISO 800, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm

There are two animals on the island who have thus far eluded me that I have my heart set on getting great images of, they are Badgers and Porcupines. I’ve seen Badgers on the hillsides and once saw one along the causeway but I have been unable to get close enough, fast enough to get the images of them that I would like. The same could be said about Porcupines, they are always too far away.

Last fall I saw a Porcupine on the rocks while driving towards Frary Peak, the setting would have been stunning but I didn’t get there fast enough and the Porcupine hid under the rocks.

She (or he) who hesitates loses the shot. I still can’t go by those rocks without thinking of the shot I missed.

Pronghorn buck close up Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) buck portrait
Nikon D300, f6.3, 1/1250, ISO 400, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 200mm

I would be remiss if I didn’t include images of the animal that Antelope Island is named after even though Pronghorns are not true Antelopes. Pronghorns used to be nemesis animals for me but since moving to Utah I have been able to fill out my portfolio with many images of these lovely, powerful creatures. I just can’t see or photograph them often enough for my tastes.

Pronghorn buck in rut

Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) buck in rut chasing another buck
Nikon D200, f8, 1/640, ISO 400, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 22omm

When male Pronghorns are in rut they expend enormous amounts of energy chasing off rivals and in keeping their harems under control. I haven’t seen any physical contact between two competing bucks but I understand that does happen. I always look forward to photographing Pronghorns when I am on the island.

Morning CoyoteCoyote (Canis latrans) in the early morning – Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/400, ISO 400, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 350mm, not baited or called in

Some people have a fear of wolves, coyotes and even domesticated dogs, ranchers don’t like wolves or coyotes because of their concern for their livestock. I believe that healthy populations of wolves and coyotes are a benefit to the natural world. Coyotes keep rodent populations down and Wolves cull out the weakened animals of herds such as Elk and Deer.

Coyote eating falcon leftoversCoyote (Canis latrans) in the icy shoreline of the Great Salt Lake – Nikon D300, f6.3, 1/800, ISO 800, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 315mm, not baited or called in

Personally I think Coyotes are fascinating and beautiful and I enjoy observing and photographing them when any opportunity is presented to me. Like Antelope Island itself, they too are wild and wonderful.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on a Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on a Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) – Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/60, ISO 200, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm

I don’t want to forget some of the insects that are found on Antelope Island though there is one species I wish didn’t exist there AT all, and they are the Biting Gnats or No-see-ums that typically come out the later part of spring and make everyone miserable for weeks at a time. Those little buggers will find the one spot that was missed when applying insect repellent and bite it over & over again. They are NOT nice but I keep paying their price to photograph on the island when they are out.

There are less aggressive insects on the island like the Monarch Butterfly in the image above feeding on the nectar of a Showy Milkweed at Fielding Garr Ranch.

Western Spotted Orbweaver (Neoscona oaxacensis)Western Spotted Orbweaver (Neoscona oaxacensis) – Nikon D200, f5.6, 1/250, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm

During July and August on the island there are spider webs everywhere and this is the spider that makes those webs, the Western Spotted Orbweaver. Some folks might be frightened by them but I think they do a great job with the bugs and they are also food for the birds.

Brine flies in flight with pupal casings on the rocksBrine flies in flight with pupal casings on the rocks – Nikon D300, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 400, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm

Speaking of food for the birds… Brine flies are a great source of food for the gulls and shorebirds that inhabit the Great Salt Lake and along the shoreline of Antelope Island. They number in the billions are certain times of the year and swarm along the shoreline. California Gulls are great fun to watch and photograph when they are feeding on the flies. You can see one of my posts about that here.

A swarm of Brine flies A swarm of Brine flies – Nikon D300, f7.1, 1/640, ISO 400, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm

Unlike the Biting Gnats (aka no-see-ums) Brine flies do not bite. They do form thick swarms right along the shoreline that might be distressing for people who are afraid of bugs but they don’t go far from the shoreline. The flies spend a portion of their lives under the water in larval form then they hatch from the pupal casings and provide protein for the birds. Brine flies are a very important part of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem.

Mia