Robert photographing in the bogRobert and Kristin enjoy nature and outdoor activities. As a forest and wildlife biologist, Robert began taking photographs to document species and places where he was working. Quite soon a camera was always included in our outings. When Kristin, an ecologist, started shooting outdoor imagery as well, we began arranging trips specifically to take pictures as we evolved from a point and shoot mentality to a more thoughtful mode of photography to illustrate habitats, plants, animals, and some of the ways they act and interact. We find that we enjoy showing other people some of the outdoor world they may never get a chance to see, providing new perspectives, or helping them remember a special experience.

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If you look at the currently published range maps (which are usually several years behind to start with for almost all species…) for American cliff swallows, they are not supposed to be in coastal Mississippi.  When we moved back to coastal Mississippi a few years ago, there were cliff swallows nesting under a bridge just up the river from our rental house, and I found another colony under yet another bridge that was easy (okay, relatively easy) to get some decent shots of them nesting.  And in all cases in Mississippi, I’ve seen a mix of cliff swallows and barn swallows.

I had taken pictures of barn swallows gathering mud to build nests several years ago (when I was still shooting film), but had never had a chance to do that again.  They only build nests for a 2-week or so period every year.  I guess I was in the right place at the right time because I got the chance to photograph not only barn swallows, but also cliff swallows gathering mud to build nests recently.

The barn swallows landed on relatively thick mud and pecked up a ball of mud, sometimes picking up small fiberous sticks and roots first.  The cliff swallows “hover landed” over very soft mud and pecked up a more gooey ball of mud.

Here’s a pair of cliff swallows fluttering as they pick up mud.


And here is a barn swallow picking up a beak of mud for it’s nest.


The two different species build nests that look different as well.  The cliff swallows build a vase-shaped nest with a narrow tube opening.



The barn swallows build a cup-shaped nest that is open at the top.


Both nests are amazing works of architectural art work, especially when you realize that they are built from mud with a few sticks, roots and feathers mixed in without the use of hands!

I had a chance to meet Jason & Nicole Hahn for their Birds of Prey Nature Photography Workshop ( near their home in central Florida.    Having shot with Jason in the field before and hearing other folks talk about their workshops, I knew that it would be an enjoyable, productive trip.  As I drove far into the night on Friday, I was questioning my decision.

But my decision was primarily made on wanting to get an environmental portrait of a southeastern American kestrel.  The population of these diminutive little falcons that are native to the Deep South and breed in the open, frequently burned piney woods is declining precipitiously.  I wanted an image that showed one of these photogenic little falcons in their native habitat.  And I knew that there just might be that opportunity on this workshop.  I also knew that there would be an opportunity to photograph a dozen or so other species of raptors.  As it ended up (if my mental recall is correct), we had an opportunity to photograph 18 individual birds of 14 different species.

Nicole was great on the phone and via e-mail leading up to the workshop, and I could tell that she was organized.  I had no idea how organized until she opened her 3-ring binder with releases and information as she checked us into the workshop!  I knew that Jason and I shared a similar approach to photographing wildlife, but wasn’t aware that his approach to workshops was similar to that shared by Gary Carter ( and myself – do everything you can to make sure the participants are getting the shot before you pick up your own camera.   Jason and Nicole make a great team for a workshop participant, whether the photographer has just got their first camera or has been photographing for decades.

We met at the rehabilitation facility where we were going to shoot.   The facility rescues, rehabilitates, and reconditions raptors for release into the wild.  The birds that we got a chance to photograph were not candidates for release, either because of an injury or because of early imprinting on humans rather than their own kind.  These avian ambassadors allowed for up close photographic opportunities that would take months and months of field time to have a slight chance of getting something as good in the wild.

We started out photographing a trio of owl species, and then quickly moved on to the kestrels – the main reason that I was there.  And I was able to create an image of a kestrel that is obviously in a southern longleaf pine habitat (except that it was really in an old pasture).


A southeastern American kestrel perched on a longleaf pine branch.

Jason was really good about thinking through shot opportunities out loud all through the workshop.  He constantly talked about camera settings, backgrounds, compositions, perspectives, etc.  And it was his prodding to “not forget a profile shot” that resulted in me getting this shot of a kestrel apparently peering from a nesting/roosting cavity.  (Yes, kestrels are cavity nesters.)


A kestrel peers from a cavity entrance.

Having lived on the Satilla River within a mile or so of 7 different swallow-tailed kite nests per season for a few nesting seasons, I’ve had many, many opportunities to see and photograph flying and nesting swallow-tailed kites.  I’ve seen a few in captivity, but not had a chance to photograph one up close and personally in good light with a good background.  I had that opportunity in spades on this workshop.  Swallow-tailed kites  are neotropical migrants (they winter in South America and breed in the southeastern United States).  They seem to require large tracts of mature bottomland hardwood forests for nesting.  Needless to say, they are not doing well either.


A swallow-tailed kite perches on an oak branch.

In addition to perched shots, because the rehabilitation facility had falconers, we had a chance to photograph several species in flight.  We watched an impressive peregrine stoop at a lure.  Unfortunately, while 1/1250th of a second was fast enough to freeze the falconer’s motion, it was not sharp enough to freeze a peregrine in mid-stoop.  But there were other chances to photograph the peregrine (and a couple of other falcons as well).


A peregrine falcon perches on a falconer’s glove after a successful stoop at a moving lure.

The barn owl in front of the barns was a fun shoot.


A barn owl glides silently across the farm yard.

They also flew a pair of the mischievous Harris hawks at the same time.  Choosing a favorite flight shot of a Harris hawk was not an easy task.

Harris Hawk

A Harris hawk peers carefully as it soars, just waiting on a chance to pounce.


I just barely had room for this whole red-tailed hawk in the image as it decelerated to land on a perch.  Note the leather falconry field jesses and radio transmitter hanging in the image.  The handlers were great about helping pose the birds in such a way at times that the jesses, leashes, and bands wouldn’t be seen in the resulting images.  At other times, the falconry gear was a critical part of the story and images.

Red-tailed Hawk

A captive red-tailed hawk flares as it prepares to land on a perch.

It was a treat to be able to create an iconic bald eagle image in front of an American flag as well.  The hard part was choosing a favorite bald eagle and American flag image!


A bald eagle perched in front of the American flag.

And the queen angelfish photographic opportunities were great as well.  As I walked into the local hotel the night before the workshop, I noticed that they had a nicely done saltwater tank that was very clean and had very few reflected highlights on the glass.  Since the lobby was deserted around midnight when I checked in, as I returned the luggage cart, I took a camera & lens with me to see if I could get a decent fish shot…


A queen angelfish swims by a coral head.

I recently heard the Indian pipes were blooming in a rich, mature woodland in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, so I went to photograph them.  Indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora) are strange-looking herbaceous woodland plants.  Indian pipes are named for their flowering stalks’ resemblance to the white pipes made out of kaolin clay that were common during the early colonial period in the Americas.

Clay Pipe

A kaolin (white clay) pipe used in colonial America.

The only time we really see Indian pipe is when their flowering stalks emerge from underground so they can be pollinated and produce seeds.

Indian Pipe

A single stemmed Indian pipe blossom emerges from the underground plant.

Indian pipe is also known as ghost plant or corpse plant.  This small plant that may grow as a single stalk or a group of stalks appears strange because it has no chlorophyll – the pigment that makes most plants green.  Chlorophyll is also the chemical that helps plants use solar energy to convert nutrients to sugars.  Since Indian pipe does not have chlorophyll, it has to get its energy from another source.

Indian pipes are parasitic!  Technically, they are a myco-heterotoroph.  That means that Indian pipes get their energy from a fungi.  Specifically, they get their energy from a fungi that has a mycorhizal relationships.   Mycorhizae are fungi that are symbiotic with roots.  In this case, the fungi help trees roots efficiently absorb water, phosphorus and other nutrients.  The tree gives the fungus carbohydrates.  So the Indian pipes attach themselves to a fungus that gets its energy from a tree – so Indian pipes indirectly get their energy from other plants.

Indian Pipe

A clump of Indian pipe on the floor of a rich, moist woodland.

Indian pipes are an ericad – meaning they are related to our blueberries, huckleberries, rhododendrons, and azaleas.  This is a little more understandable when the flower of an Indian pipe is compared to the flower of a tree sparkleberry (winter huckleberry).  The fruit of Indian pipes are capsules that more closely resemble rhododendron.

Indian Pipe

Indian pipe blossom.


Winter huckleberry blossoms.


Indian Pipe

A clump of Indian pipe with some fresh blossoms and some capsules already split to disperse their seeds.



Rosebay rhododendron capsules split.


Indian pipe can be found in almost every state in the United States of America except for a few states in the central southwest and Hawaii.  It has a sister species, Dutchman’s pipe (Monotropa hypopitys) that I was lucky enough to spot in one of those southwestern states.

Dutchman's Pipe

Dutchman’s pipes are relatives of Indian pipes.

Unbeknownst to many folks, we’ve got scorpions in the Deep South.  We’ve got 5 or so species, all of them small (usually just over an inch when stretched out).  Yes, they can sting, and based on personal experience, it feels about like a bad wasp sting.

The places I most commonly see them are under loose pine bark.  Sometimes that pine bark is on older, living pines (I’ve even got an image of a federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker holding a scorpion just prior to chowing down on it!).  Sometimes that pine bark is on pines that have been killed by southern pine beetles.  The next most common place that I’ve seen them is in the bathtub!  It seems that they don’t mind coming into houses; they can walk up a wall with little difficulty, but they have a problem walking up the sides of a tub.  This particular one was found in a light fixture where it had fallen down from the attic.  Two other places that I’ve found them frequently were in folds of canvas tents at a summer camp and in folds of burlap in a ground blind at a hunting club.

One of the neat things about scorpions is that they fluoresce (or glow) under ultraviolet light.  There are also many minerals that fluoresce under ultraviolet light.  Knowing these two things, I’ve managed in the past to get these two fluorescent subjects together, and did so again the other evening.  Both the scorpion and the minerals fluoresce a little differently depending upon the ultraviolet source (UVA vs UVB vs UVC).  Unfortunately, I don’t have ready access to a UVB bulb in south Mississippi (yet), so the fluorescent part of this shot was taken with a low wattage UVA bulb.

Along with fellow photographers Sharon Milligan and Larry Dees, I had a great trip up the Pascagoula River with Lynn and Benny McCoy of McCoy’s River and Marsh Tours ( recently.  We were headed out to investigate reports of our native, epiphytic orchid in bloom at nearly eye level.  Now, we’ve got several native orchids here in the Deep South, and I’ve been lucky enough to photograph several of them this year, but our native ephiphytic orchid wasn’t one of them.

Oh, I reckon that I ought to talk about that epiphytic part for second….  Breaking down that big ostentatious word down into parts of “epi” and “phytic” give us it’s meaning of “upon” “plant”.  So an epiphytic plant is a plant that grows ON ANOTHER PLANT.  It depends on that plant for support, but not nutrients (it’s not a parasite).  Our best known epiphytic plant down this way is Spanish moss.  A little further south in Florida several epiphytic bromeliads can be seen.  But our only native epiphytic orchid in Mississippi is the greenfly orchid.

Greenfly orchids can be found on magnolias, live oaks, tupelos, and other hardwoods in moist swamps & bluffs.  They are often found in conjunction with resurrection fern.  Greenfly orchid flowers are non-descript when compared to some of our other native orchids, but the little greenish, yellowish blossoms are attractive in their own right.

We carried our gear onto the stable, well-appointed boat the McCoy’s use for their river tours and began our short trip up the river in search of the orchid.  Of course, we took a boat-load of photography equipment in case we saw something else to photograph…

Before we could even get up to speed, an American alligator swam across the bayou.  There were several cypress and cypress snags that hosted birds or would have made nice scenic shots.  Several wildlflowers were blooming out in the marsh as well.  But we pressed on in search of the epiphytic orchid.  The wild rice seedheads were beginning to fill out and had already attracted many red-winged blackbirds.  There were also reports of early flocks of teal beginning to take advantage of the ripening seeds.


Male red-winged blackbird availing himself of ripening wild rice.


The first sight that really interrupted our progress and caused us to stop was a water-level osprey.  While we would see many osprey and osprey nests on our short expedition, this was the only water-level osprey we would see.  We killed the motor and allowed the current to carry us nearer the bird as a trio of cameras hammered off frame after frame.  As we got closer, it was obvious that this was a juvenile osprey and that it had likely fallen into the water and climbed out on the log to dry off.  Our concern mounted when it became obvious that the osprey was blind or nearly in one eye (which would really make depth perception as you dove for a fish
impossible).  However, the bird flew off strongly and with no problem.  Hopefully the nictitating membrane over its eye will return to functioning normally.


Osprey perched near a nest under construction.



A juvenile osprey that made a mistake and had to climb onto a water-level log to dry out.


As we pushed on up the river, we saw a number of cooters and yellow-blotched map turtles basking on logs.  The yellow-blotched map turtle (aka yellow-blotched sawback) is a federally threatened species endemic to the Pascagoula River system.  So it was a treat when one of them cooperated for photographic opportunity.


A yellow-blotched map turtle basking on a log.


When we arrived at the reported greenfly orchid location, we quickly found a large clump on a limb about 10 feet over the water (which is MUCH more accessible than the heights where they are “normally” spotted).  There were hundreds of blossoms, but it was evident that just a week or so earlier that there had been THOUSANDS of blossoms.  Then several additional clumps were located as well.  Requisite shots were taken and mental notes were made to come back a littler earlier in 2014 and capture that large clump of greenfly orchids in their combined radiant glory!


An individual greenfly orchid making up part of one of the larger clumps that we located.


Greenfly orchid blossoms.


So, if you want to come along on a fun trip in late July of 2015, shoot the McCoys or me a message and tell us to put you on the list for a fun trip up the Pascagoula River in search of whatever nature offers us!