Egret preening at sunset.

Birds have up to 25,000 feathers, and regular preening (see image below) keeps each one of those feathers in top condition. Second only to feeding, preening is a common bird behavior easily observed in a backyard, out in the field or even among captive birds or pets. Understanding why and how birds preen can help birders better appreciate their beautiful avian friends.

What Is Preening?

Preening is a bird's way of grooming its feathers to keep them in the best condition.

While preening, birds will remove dust, dirt and parasites from their feathers and align each feather in the optimum position relative to adjacent feathers and body shape. Most birds will preen several times a day to keep themselves healthy.

The uropygial gland, or preen gland, is an essential part of preening. This gland is found near the base of the tail and produces an oily substance that contains diester waxes that help waterproof feathers and keep them flexible. While preening, birds spread this oil to each feather so they are evenly coated and protected. Some types of birds, including owls, pigeons, parrots and hawks, lack a uropygial gland. Instead, these birds have specialized feathers that disintegrate into powder down, which serves the same purpose as preen oil. Birds that produce powder down are less likely to bathe or immerse themselves in water and do not require the stronger waterproofing that preen oil provides.

Why Preening Is Essential?

Preening serves several essential purposes for birds, including:

  • Moisturizing feathers with preen oil so they are flexible and strong, instead of brittle and easily breakable. This helps feathers better withstand the stress of flight.
  • Aligning feathers for optimum waterproofing and insulation to protect against adverse conditions, such as soaking or extreme hot or cold temperatures.
  • Aligning feathers into the most aerodynamic shape for easier, more efficient flight. This helps birds use less energy in flight and make more acrobatic moves.
  • Removing feather parasites and body lice that can destroy feathers or carry disease. This keeps birds healthier and protects the entire flock or nest from an outbreak.
  • Removing tough sheaths from newly molted feathers. Removing these sheaths helps gets feathers into the proper position more quickly so they can be useful right away.
  • Creating a healthier appearance to attract a mate. A healthier, more attractive bird will attract a stronger mate and have a better chance of raising many strong, healthy chicks.
  • Bonding between mates as a courtship ritual that involves mutual preening, called allopreening. This is a form of communication between mates and helps keep their connection strong.

With so many reasons to preen, it is no surprise that many birds engage in this behavior for several hours a day.

How Birds Preen?

Birds use their bills and feet to preen each feather on their body, methodically nibbling or stroking every feather from its base to its tip to get it aligned just so. Birders are familiar with different contortions birds will use in order to reach every feather, and it is not unusual to see a bird in an unusual and odd position while preening.

There are other behaviors, however, that are also a part of preening.

  • Dust Bathing: Many birds, particularly game birds and sparrows, that will take dust baths as part of their regular preening. The dust helps dislodge parasites and absorbs excess preen oil so feathers are not too heavily coated. Birds that do not bathe in water are more likely to use dust baths frequently, but many birds will use both types of bathing.
  • Sunning: Sunning helps birds control body parasites and feather mites by moving these pests around to different areas of the body where they can be nibbled away. Sunning can also make the oil from the preen glad more liquid and easier to spread to different feathers in a thin, even layer.
  • Bathing: Many songbirds will bathe in water before engaging in extensive preening, splashing around to moisten all their feathers. Bathing removes dust, dirt and parasites from feathers before birds work to put each feather into its proper position.
  • Stretching: Extensive stretching helps provide space between each feather so the entire feather can be stroked and groomed effectively. Stretching or fluffing also helps birds align all their feathers after a section has been preened.
  • Anting: Some birds will lay on an anthill or rub ants over their bodies while preening. This process, called anting, distributes formic acid from the ants' bodies onto the birds' feathers. This is believed to help inhibit parasites that can damage feathers.

Preening Problems

While preening is essential for birds' health, it can also be dangerous if birds are affected by other hazards. Oiled birds, for example, will preen excessively in a desperate attempt to rid themselves of the sticky residue, and in doing so they ingest the toxic oil. This can quickly lead to poisoning or other contamination if the birds are not properly treated.

Similarly, fishing line is hazardous to preening birds. If a length of monofilament line is caught in a bird's plumage, it may become wrapped around the bird's bill while preening. This can inhibit the bird's ability to eat and may cause starvation, or the bird could inadvertently tighten the line while preening and cause injuries.

Some birds have difficulty preening each part of their body, and may develop bald patches if they cannot preen effectively. In the case of many crested songbirds, such as cardinals and blue jays, this can lead to temporary baldness that can be startling, but the birds will regrow their head feathers very soon. While the exact causes of bald birds are complicated, preening difficulties are one possible factor.

Birds must preen regularly to stay in the best health, and preening is a common behavior for birders to observe. By understanding how and why birds preen, every birder can better appreciate what it means to be a bird.

Fall colors are reflected in the water with the reflection of a White Egret, preening as the sun sets.


Turkey Vulture

There was a death along the side of the road near my home a while back. It was hidden from view, but obvious to everyone who spotted the "wake". Turkey vultures feeding together is called a wake, and it is a common site in Iowa nearly year round. On this day several vultures were sitting on the fence posts with the sun on their backs (see image below). Vultures often sit and spread their wings in one spot for hours to sunbathe. The sun helpsvultures keep their feathers healthy by causing parasites to converge in areas where birds can more easily get rid of them. On especially chilly days, sunbathing can also help with warming up. Vultures aren’t “cute and cuddly”, nor do they attract crowds like Bald Eagles. But, vultures are a vital part of nature’s clean-up crew and they play a crucial role in the balance of nature.


White Egret Landing

There is a backwater area on Lake Macbride where I can almost always find waterfowl, from various ducks, geese, herons and egrets.  The herons and egrets are the most sensitive to the activity of humans. There are times, I can not step off the trail into the grass without the herons and egrets flying away. I wish they could understand, that I don't want to disturb them, just take their picture. There appears to be a margin of safety that each species lives by, with the herons being the most skittish, followed closely by egrets. Most of the time the geese and most ducks couldn't care if I am in their line of sight or for that matter, anywhere near them.

I try to approach the herons and egrets very slowly and if possible from the side with my camera and 100-400 lens, handheld, ready for any action. Occasionally, the sun backlights the birds as they feed, take-off, fly or as seen below, land. These birds look gangly and awkward when on the ground or in the water hunting for food, but when they are flying, it’s like watching an aerial ballet. I think the translucent feathers of their spread out wings while landing is a beautiful site.

On a side note, one evening, mid summer, I was fortunate to watch a doe and her two fawns approach the backwater edge, drink and disappear in a matter of less than a few minutes. I stood absolutely still, not even swatting at the mosquitoes. I didn't have the proper lens to get a photograph, so I just watched. Sometimes that is even a better memory than a image.

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Playing peek-a-boo

When entering or leaving Estes Park via HW 34-Big Thompson Canyon, you should always be on the outlook for Bighorn Sheep. On my last trip down HW 34 heading back to Iowa, we saw a large herd; a few rams, several ewes and their lambs. I was watching this ewe (see image below) move around off to the side of the extended family. With every step, she was looking downhill, watching the traffic and the people milling around watching them. She paused, ate a little grass, ate some leaves from the bush and poked her head out staring directly towards me. I smiled and thought, she is playing "peek-a-boo".

Canon 80D, 100-400mm lens at 400mm, Manfroto tripod, cable release, f/5.6, 1/640 sec.   

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When I returned from Brainard Lake Recreation Area, I stopped a the entrance of RMNP, to ask if there had been any sightings of moose around Spraque Lake, as Renee and I had seen them there earlier this year. The ranger checked with a few other rangers and said yes, that early in the mornings, a family of moose had been seen almost daily, in the area.The next day, I ventured into RMNP, heading in early, to Spraque Lake. When I arrived there were only a few cars in the lot, so I grabbed my camera bag and tripod in anticipation of finding the moose family. It did not take me long to find the other visitors. They were gathered just off the loop trail near a small pond, lots of cell phones were out and a few point and shoot cameras. I setup my canon 80D with the 100-400 lens on the tripod and walked up a small rise so I would be able to get a clear shot at the moose family. There was a female in the pond feeding, a pair of yearlings frolicking in and out of the pond and a large bull standing very still on the edge of the pond. I soon had a few of the other visitors join me, asking if they could look thru my camera at the moose. I locked down the equipment, and let them view the action from about 100 feet away.

The image below, was one of the last ones taken that morning. The bull had not moved in over two hours when one of the yearlings walked over by him, drank some water, and turned and rubbed noses with the bull. It was a very loving moment. I spoke to the ranger as I was leaving, and he commented that this bull is a little crazy, he stands around for long periods of time, not moving, than suddenly charges at some human visitors that are in his line of sight. He then returns to stand still again for a while. He has never hit a visitor, but seems to enjoy scaring them.

FYI - I didn't get directly in front of the bull that morning, mostly, because there was not a clean line of site for my photography. Renee and I returned later that week and did not see the moose family.

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Brainard Lake CO

The week of September 24th, I was able to go to CO and visit with several photography friends while photographing the "rut". On Tuesday, they had to work, so I planned on hiking an area I had briefly visited last winter, about an hour south of Estes Park. The Brainard Lake Recreation Area is noted for its hiking trails and for several moose families. I arrived at sunrise at Long Lake to find a parking lot nearly full. The weather was absolutely perfect, clear, cool and no wind.

I gather my backpack and walked over to a group of hikers, asking which trail they were going on and if I could join them explaining that this was my first time hiking the area above Long Lake. The trails here range from about 2 miles to over 10 miles round trip. I join them for a hike up to Blue Lake.

Below are a few of my images from that adventure. I carried my Canon 5D Mark IV and24-105 lens, as well as my 100-400 lens, hoping to see some moose. Unfortunately, we did not see any moose.

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White Egret Resting

The last couple of weeks were really busy with working, family and planning another vacation to CO. Last Thursday, I was able to get out and wanted to walk some of the more hilly nature trails at the Coralville Reservoir. I grabbed my camera bag and headed towards the U of I Field Campus NE of North Liberty. On the way there I decided to swing by one of Lake Macbride backwater areas to check on the pelicans, egrets and herons that feed there. I parked and immediately spotted several white egrets sitting in the trees. This is a common behavior. Egrets rest in trees overlooking the water where they are feeding. Also, both egrets and herons behave like most birds and perch in trees at night as protection from ground dwelling predators that might catch them off guard. As I walked around the backwater for about an hour, I spotted several egrets in trees (see image below). Unfortunately, I did not get my 10,000 steps in, but I did get some great images.

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2017 Solar Eclipse

Renee and I went to St. Joseph MO to see the 2017 Solar Eclipse. There were thousands of cars, RV's and campers at the airport. Unfortunately, there were two layers of clouds moving in opposite directions during the eclipse. We were able to see, thru the clouds, maybe 60 total seconds of the eclipse. This photo is from early on, when one layer of clouds thinned out allowing the crowd to view the early transit of the moon. A few sunspots are visible in the image, as well as the thin cloud layer obscuring the sun. There was some cheering every time the eclipse became visible and amazement when the total eclipse darkened the sky.

Traffic was as one would expect, bumper to bumper from the airport to well into Iowa. Stop and Go for nearly 4 hours.

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All in a row!

I went out for a long walk yesterday around the lake and the reservoir. As usual, I carried in my backpack, a camera and a couple of lens ranging from 24 to 400mm. Some leaves are beginning the slow process of changing color, a few red leaves hanging on the branches, but a lot if yellow leaves already on the ground. As I reviewed my images this morning, I noticed that I had unconsciously taken several photos that screamed "All in a row!.

The hike started with a group of geese on a log, preening. A little while later, I came across some ducks resting on another log. Towards the end of the walk, as I neared boat docks for our association, I heard and then spotted several loud birds sitting on a cover of a pontoon boat. They apparently were not happy with several other birds attempting to land on "their" spot. Sometimes, I think we forget how social animals are. Perhaps we humans should practice sitting all in a row and talking.

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Milky Way

Last night, the sky was as clear as I have ever seen it. Around midnight, I went outside with the goal of grabbing another image of the Milky Way Galaxy. The lights of Cedar Rapids were to the NE, the lights of IC-Coralville and North Liberty were to the S and SW, so I pointed my camera straight up.

Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 24-105mm at 24mm, 25 sec exposure at f/4.5 as a RAW file. I brought it into Photoshop and adjusted the exposure 1 stop to get this image.

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Bumble Bee

As most of my friends know, I am allergy to stings of bumble bee and wasps. Because of that I always carry an EpiPen with me at all times when outdoors. I also will not purposely get to close to either bees or wasps. Today while hiking a trail near Lake Macbride, I came across several bees enjoying the day, much like I was. I stopped several yards away and reached into my backpack for my Canon 80D with 100-400mm lens, instead of my Tamron 90mm macro lens, as the macro lens would have put me way to close to the bees. Checking around me, I sat on the ground and attempted to formed a tripod using my elbows on my knees. I know I should have been carrying a tripod, but I wasn't. Focusing on a bee that lands, and just as quickly, takes off to the next flower takes practice. There were 100's of blurry images created, and obviously deleted this afternoon. I also got a lot of rear-end bee images, very few head-on as this image. Another issue besides focusing, is having the correct ISO and corresponding shutter speed to stop the action of the wings. This image was 1/1250 sec at ISO 200.

Immature Red-Winged Blackbird

This image was taken handheld from about 10 feet away. I have never proclaimed to be an expert at identifying birds, wildflowers, trees, etc. When I saw this bird, larger than a sparrow, I was curious as to what it was. I have "The Cornell Lab Merlin" program on my phone, so I pulled up the "Start Bird ID" program. After inserting the variables, it said it was a Red-winged Blackbird. Well, everyone in the Midwest knows what they look like, and I thought, something is wrong with the program.  However, it turns out that the red-winged Blackbird females are a subdued, streaky brown, almost like a large, dark sparrow. And this is an immature female.  

I continue to be impressed at the sharpness of my new Canon hardware

I waited until after the passing shower to venture out on a walk near Lake Macbride. I was carrying my Canon 5D Mark IV and a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II USM Lens. I was looking for images of some white egrets that were usually in this area of the lake. I did find eight white egrets, a couple of blue herons and a Shallowtail butterfly (see below). This image was taken handheld around 5pm today. The image is cropped to 6x4" from a RAW original at 20x13" in Photoshop. The eyes of the butterfly are sharp, as are the antennae and proboscis. The wind was blowing a little, thus a blur was caused from a foxtail plant in front of the shallowtail.

Dark-eyed Junco

I was down at the U of I field campus, specifically the bird blind early in the morning a while ago, photographing the Bluejays when this Dark-eyed Junco started to pose for me. I sent the image in to Pennington and I won this weeks photo contest.

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My first attempt since grad school to photograph the Milky Way

My first attempt since grad school, I was a TA at UNI, in Science Education, to photograph the Milky Way. Last night the sky was clear, the weather was in the 70's with falling humidity. There are no street lights in the association where we live at Lake Macbride. I setup my Canon 5D Mark IV on a tripod in the front yard. ISO settings started at 6400 and as the night progressed, I dropped it to 1600. Using a 19mm lens, I started shooting at 1 minute, but the images had some star trails. I finally got down to a 25 second exposure without any star trails. It was approaching midnight when I saw a jet off to the west coming across my camera's field of view. I waited a few seconds to press the remote switch with the hope of catching the plane in the image (see below).

This image was 35 seconds long, so some star trails were just starting and unfortunately, the planes lights seem to have been just bright enough, that the Milky Way was washed out. It was a fun adventure. I will be out again tonight.

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We attended a very nice, small celebration of our countries founding last night.

I have attended almost all of the Cedar Rapids Freedom festival fireworks.since it's inception nearly 30 years ago. Renee and I were busy yesterday watching a parade in the morning with family, and doing some outside work that needed to be completed in the afternoon/evening. We ended up with a late supper which put us too late to head to Cedar Rapids. Instead, we drove over to Lake Macbride State Park, found us a spot on the beach near another Canon photographer, and sat down to watch and photograph the fireworks over the lake.

It was a very nice show and appreciative crowd. Instead of tens of thousands of people we had several hundred scattered around to watch a nearly thirty minute fireworks show sponsored by Cottage Reserve. In all, I missed the music with the fireworks, but not the crowds.

The image below was taken about 1/3 of the way into the show. f/11, 28mm, ISO 400 for 4.4 seconds.

Wickiup, a place of beauty and if you want solituDe in Linn county

As many of you know, I have been volunteering for Linn County Conservation and at Wickiup for at least 15 years. From doing some photography for them to serving as a host at Wickiup on weekends. I discovered this special place a few months after moving to Linn county from Iowa City nearly forty years ago. I am sure that I have hiked all of the property, from the north woods end to the south pond, from the east prairie to the Cedar River greenbelt. Getting to know the conservation staff, especially at the volunteer appreciation dinners, has been a lot of fun.

Last weekend, I had the morning shift Saturday, from 10-1pm. I arrived early, wanting to hike around before my shift. I took the boardwalk into the central pond area. Everywhere I looked there were dragonflies. When my shift ended, I grabbed my Canon 5D Mark IV, 100-400 lens and tripod and sat down on the walkway, waiting and hoping that a dragonfly would land nearby. After about 10 minutes, several dragonflies started to land about 10 feet from my position. I waited quietly, not moving hoping that one of them would come even closer, finally, one did (see image below). With their four wings that can function independently of each other, you need to practice waiting patiently for the right moment. To stop the action, the image was taken at 1/200 at f/16 ISO400.

There are more than 5,000 known species of dragonflies, all of which (along with damselflies) belong to the order Odonata, which means “toothed one” in Greek and refers to the dragonfly's serrated teeth.

Spring in Rural Iowa

I went out a few days ago, cruising around Eastern Iowa, looking for farm scenes, a change from my usual wildflowers, animals, birds and grandkid photography. The clouds were building, looking like a storm was likely, but unfortunately, never materialized. I visited several counties and on the way back towards Lake Macbride, I came saw this beautiful farm. 

I always try to pre-visualize, see link below, as taught by Ansel Adams, what my final image would look like. But on this day, I didn't have a clue as to how I wanted to display it. The next weekend, I ran across some work by a Minnesota photographer, Douglas Cummelin. He inserted one of his sunset images into a outline of Minnesota on a brochure promoting his work. I thought I would try it. This is my first attempt to show the beauty of Iowa, one of the fly over states. Your comments are always welcomed.

Memorial Day

Below are a few quotes about Memorial Day. I hope everyone understands and appreciates the sacrifices that our solders gave to protect our country. Often today, I am not sure that others realize how great our country is.

"The United States and the freedom for which it stands, the freedom for which they died, must endure and prosper. Their lives remind us that freedom is not bought cheaply. It has a cost; it imposes a burden. And just as they whom we commemorate were willing to sacrifice, so too must we -- in a less final, less heroic way -- be willing to give of ourselves." - - Ronald Reagan

"A man’s country is not a certain area of land, of mountains, rivers and woods, it is a principle and patriotism is loyalty to that principle." - - George William Curtis

"Patriotism consists not in waving the flag, but in striving that our country shall be righteous as well as strong." - - James Bryce

"Our flag does not fly because the wind moves it. It flies with the last breath of each soldier who died protecting it." - - Unknown


Canon EOS 5D Mark IV video image capture

I have always been disappointed with the video capabilities on my 5D Mark II camera. It would randomly hang and not save the video that was being recorded. I was forced to turn off the camera each time it occurred. Unfortunately, Canon was aware of this issue as it happened on so few of cameras that they were never able to correct it.

I recently purchased the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV camera and had a chance to test the video features a few nights ago at my granddaughter's spring concert. I took several Full high-Definition (Full HD) videos of their performance, Everyone was very pleased with the outcome.

This evening I decided to look into a feature of the EOS Movie Utility where you can generate a still image from a video file. The still image specs were 8bit, 1.12MB, 1920x1080 with a resolution of 72ppi. The image below is a 1/4 crop from the actual image capture. An image that you certainly can post on social media or a personal website. Good Job Canon!