Category Archives: In Minnesota

Night Fall(s)

As soon as we stepped out of the car in the parking lot the distant thunder caught our attention and I looked at my wife and smiled. Large thunderstorms just 24 hours earlier had swelled the Gooseberry River to massive proportions. The Lower, Middle, and Upper Falls at Gooseberry Falls State Park cascaded over rocks and fell up to a few stories, generating the giant sound that we were listening to. I glanced up at the full moon of the 2016 Summer Solstice, packed up my camera gear, and we set off for a moonlit stroll.

Summer Solstice, Full Moon, Gooseberry Falls State park
A full moon of the 2016 summer solstice at Gooseberry Falls State Park

You never know what you will see at night, and our first surprise was the clickity-clack of deer hooves on the cement trail. The doe was probably surprised to have such a late night visitor! Down the trail the gleaming eyes of a northern flying squirrel peered at us comically from the crotch of a birch tree. It was a unique treat to see the Northern Flying Squirrel since their activities are nearly 100% nocturnal.

Gooseberry Falls State Park has three primary water falls. After our short walk, the first that we came to was Middle Falls. The falls is easily the widest of the three, and the rush of water over the huge expanse crashed to the river bottom and drowned our ability to communicate easily. We shouted back and forth as the dark-brown water flowed furiously past. I took advantage of the light of the full moon and began to pull together my shots. From the Middle Falls we headed to the upper falls and ended at the lower falls at 2AM.

The opportunity to photograph Gooseberry Falls at night was a unique one! I particularly like how the small rainbows showed up in many of the photographs, as I did not realize the moon was casting them until I went through the pictures. It was also amazing to consider that just a year ago I was enjoying solstice in another amazing (but totally different) part of the country.  I hope you enjoy this unique documentary of a beautiful region!

Thunderstorm at the Lake

Thunderstorm At The Lake

Stars in the sky, pinpricks of light

Reminders of incomprehensible space

Are veiled by celestial violence close to earth

Huge eruptions of light cloaked by billowing curtains which move to blot the heavens


Onward the storm rolls, smothering the sky

The white flashes incessant and blinding like a welder’s torch

Illuminating the windless landscape in rapid succession

Bouncing light off the still water of the lake into the eyes of the beholding humans


A distant rolling bass  is finally heard

Informing the watchers of impending impact

A warm breeze riffles the water

Circular discs shatter the still water, and one by one the rain drops push the observers inside


On That Misty, Minnesota Morn

“August in Minnesota” has a connotation to it for those who have lived here long enough. Hot, sticky, humid days boost electricity bills as air-conditioners stay on full time to beat the heat.  A result of the moist conditions  is heavily dewed grass in the mornings. I stepped outside and thick fog hung in the air. It was 7:00 AM, and the sun was beginning to burn through the mist with some filtered reds and oranges. A large moon hung high in the sky, and my truck passed under it on my way to our land in Butler, Minnesota.  Pulling up, I unlocked the gate and pushed it open. Dew hung heavy on the grass and bejeweled thousands of spider webs across the 30 acre pasture. In a few moments I had my camera in hand as I passed through the knee high grass.

Many of us have a location that we’ve visited many times, and a stop there brings back many important memories for us. For these spots, there are peak experiences when conditions or moments are at their best. This sweaty, August morning was one of those for me. The foggy sunrise catalyzed the transformation of the scene from dewy, shadowed pasture to a hot, new day. As it did so I tried to capture the beauty of the morning dew on the webs and flowers that it encrusted in shiny droplets. Some of the spider webs had drops so large and heavy that they reflected the world over-and-over while dragging their grass pylons down around them with their collective weight.  I feared a slight wind would cause them to drop off before I was done.

The sun rose higher and I turned my meandering around; I was headed south but turned to heading north. I passed along the edge of the grassland and sank below a small rise. As I came over the top hill my eye caught movement and then the body of a deer. The deer (Odocoileus virginianus) was a small fawn accompanied by its mother. Somehow I had caught the attention of the fawn only, and the mother continued to graze. His curiosity got them best of him, and he started to walk towards to me. I stood post-like with camera clicking. By the time the fawn was satisfied that something wasn’t-quite-right he stood 10 yards away. The mother had moved silently up the hill and stood about 20 yards away to contemplate me too. Finally she stomped a foot, snorted, and brought her offspring into the shelter of the woods.

My conclusion to you is this : every day is a new day, and you can only go enjoy what you go to see. If you have a favorite spot, I challenge you to go experience that location when it is at its best.

Misty Sunrise and Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta)
The sunrise begins to pierce through the mist, and illuminated this ditchful of black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta)
Spider Web Dewdrop Reflections
The large dew drops on this spider web performed the function of thousands of magnifying glasses. Each water drop magnified within itself the unfolding sunrise beyond.
Spider Web Dew in the Sunrise
The collected dew on this spider was was so heavy that the grass bent under its weight. Already the sun was high in the sky and drying the landscape out.
Meadow Goat's Bear (Tragopogon pratensis) and Dew
A Meadow Goat’s Beard (Tragopogon pratensis) holds on to dew drops in the morning.
Honey Bee in Flight
A honey bee flies up to sip on the nectar of mullen (Verbascum thapsus) flowers. The honey bees on our land are a great asset for pollination!
Dew covered dragonfly
This dragonfly was too cold and wet to escape, so he perched waiting for the sun’s warmth.
Monarch Catipillar (Danaus plexippus)
A monarch caterpillar clings on to a milkweed.
Orb-weaver Spider
These orb weaver spiders were very common in the pasture. Although I did not capture it in this image, they weave an incredible zig-zag patterns into their web called a stabilimentum. The patterns reflect UV light and are thought to attract prey.

Chasing the Minnesota Aurora

During my trip home to Minnesota I have taken what I have learned about aurora watching in Alaska, and transferred it to conditions in the midwest. In doing so, I traded watching the aurora over snow drifts to squinting my eyes over bean fields with moderate success! A big push of energy from the sun has elevated geomagnetic energy to KP 6 or a G2-“Geomagnetic storm level 2”, which boosts the aurora to Minnesota, and even beyond. The two nights I chased the aurora brought success in both capturing the aurora in central Minnesota, and for playing with some new techniques which I will be honing in the upcoming year and are featured below. I would love to hear your feedback!

This timelapse below is fairly short and does not have a brilliant aurora, but does give a great idea of where to look for the aurora in Central Minnesota. During this G2 storm. In Alaska the aurora during a G2 storm would be far overhead and taking up the whole sky. In Minnesota it rose slightly above the horizon. Viewing would have been better if the smoke haze and moonlight could have been removed.

Moon through the clouds
The first night that I chased the aurora, a strong wing was rapidly pushing the clouds past this moon, which was fortunately setting. I really like the wind in the trees of this particular shot, as well as the long shadow cast by the moon.
Starlapse and Aurora
This star spin shot captures a 1.5 hours timelapse of star movement in the sky. Fortunately I captured the faint glow of aurora on low on the horizon, and directly below the pivotal star – the North Star.

One of the techniques I am very interested in growing is the ability to capture full panoramas of the milky way. The progression of images below shows a little bit on how that works. I learned a lot in this first attempt. A few key findings : 1) find the darkest skies possible! The light pollution shows here. 2) need to have more overlap in the shots 3 ) I tried to capture the whole galaxy in one sweep of the camera. I now know I can stitch multiple rows of shots to capture a larger area 4) keep the ISO of the camera low-ish to reduce noise. For those reading this with experience in capturing the Milky Way, please contact me, it would be great to pick your brain!

Midwest Milky Way
This image does a nice job of capturing a single image of the Milky Way. However, I would like to find darker skies. By taking multiple shots with the camera on the same plane, I can stick them together into the results below.
Milky Way Stretch
Here is one of the things I am struggling with in capturing a full panorama of the Milky Way. This image has a gorgeous amount of contrast, however, after stitching, I did not have enough horizon to create an image that can be cropped well. I would love to get feedback on the best way to straighten and correct these images.
Milky Way Panorama
This image is the best example I have of stitching the Milky Way, but is far from the entire arch. I do really like the bit of aurora that shows up here. Hopefully I can apply what I learned in my next attempt!
Aurora KP 6 Central Minnesota
This image of the aurora was taken in Rice, Minnesota during a G2 auroral storm. If it weren’t for the moon and the haze it would have been a much nicer show!

I have done a lot to curate my aurora gallery on Fine Art America. I would love if you checked it out!


Click here to View my professional aurora borealis gallery on Fine Art America

A Mirror Lake

This Memorial Day I had a great time with family at our lake cabin in central Minnesota. The night I got there the humidity had dropped from the sky and the stars were intensely clear and beautiful. I walked down to our dock and immediately realized that in the completely still night the earth and sky were the same; the lake was reflecting the stars and lights along the shoreline with mirror-like precision. Not a ripple blurred them. Taking pictures from the dock I did my best to capture the beauty and stillness of the night.

The starry night was reflected perfectly in the lake. The only thing that discerns the the earth is the the dock.
The starry night was reflected perfectly in the lake. The only thing that discerns the the earth is the the dock.


I have a tremendous sense of place at our cabin. I’ve been going there since I was a little kid and have helped in many of the building changes, mowed its lawn, ate pancakes cooked by my grandma every morning, fried fish for dinners, and fished its waters. Fish stories and memories have been firmly set in my memory and the lore of the cabin. Bent hooks, broken rods, and big fish are remembered by uncles, nephews and cousins. A walk down the dock is the beginning and end of any fishing trip. Over the years the has changed in length, shape, style, and design. But regardless of how it looks it is ALWAYS there. I took these photos from that dock to capture a beautiful night.

The boat pictured here has been part of many, many fishing trips. It is decades old and has held up through perhaps a dozen different 4-10 horse engines. The night was so still the boat hardly rocked during this long exposure.
The boat pictured here has been part of many, many fishing trips. It is decades old and has held up through perhaps a dozen different 4-10 horse engines. The night was so still the boat hardly rocked during this long exposure.
This image is a single 8 minute exposure. The stillness of the night reflected the spinning stars captured above.
This image is a single 8 minute exposure. The stillness of the night reflected the spinning stars captured above.

The Boreal Travel Plaza : A Cold Day at Sax Zim Bog

Ahoy Readers!

Yesterday Kassie and I made it to Sax Zim Bog ( to go look for some of the boreal bird species that move in for the winter. In the region there are northern hawk owls, great grey owls, boreal chicadees and black-backed woodpeckers – of course there are many, many more!. Our goal was to beat the cold snap we are having in Minnesota right now – in fact due to the cold Governor Dayton called off school for Monday on Friday! That hasn’t been done since 1997. Although with windchill values exceeding 60 below for Sunday and Monday night I think it’s warranted. Amazing that I can experience the same intense cold in Alaska and Minnesota.

Cold temps in Perham this week!!
Cold temps in Perham this week!!

Sax Zim bog is located just south of Buhl, Minnesota on the ‘Iron Range’ ( I actually spent quite a bit of time up there as a kid, my dad is from the Hibbing region, and attended high school at Buhl.Here is the description of the area from the DNR website : ” Level to gently rolling topography are characteristic of this region. The largest landform is a lake plain. Soils include extensive areas of peat over both fine-textured and sandy lacustrine deposits. This site includes sledge meadows, lowland brush and hayfields. There are stemless lady’s slippers and other species of bog vegetation including sundew, pitcher plant, leatherleaf and bog birch.This well known wintering area for Great gray owls, Northern hawk owls, and Rough-legged hawks is an ideal habitat for more than 240 species of migrant and breeding birds.”. The opportunities are indeed great there! For more information on the area and the opportunities there visit :

Birding at Sax Zim Bog. Image credit goes to :
Birding at Sax Zim Bog. Image credit goes to :

One of the northern migrants in Sax Zim are the northern shrikes. These birds are classified as song birds, but are carnivores. The eat insects and small rodents. They are known as ‘butcher birds’ because to cache food they impale their prey on sticks, thorns, or even barbed wire! The northern shrike below was stooping over the field hunting an unknown prey. I was able to capture the bird as he stooped into the blustery winds as and perching on a nearby branch.

Northern Shrike stooping in the blustery winds at Sax Zim Bog
Northern Shrike stooping in the blustery winds at Sax Zim Bog
Northern Shrike at Sax Zim Bog
Northern Shrike at Sax Zim Bog

Even with the condition of blustery wind we had some great opportunities to see some cool birds. Boreal chickadess are a migrant here we found a couple at the feeders there. Gray jays and a red-breasted nuthatch were also found at the feeders.

Boreal Chickadee at the feeders in Sax Zim Bog
Boreal Chickadee at the feeders in Sax Zim Bog
Gray Jay at Sax Zim Bog
Red-breasted nuthatch at Sax Zim Bog
Red-breasted nuthatch at Sax Zim Bog

As we were driving along the roads looking for owls Kass spotted a ruffed grouse sitting in the trees. She thought it was an owl right away, and so did I!!

Ruffed grouse at Sax Zim Bog
Ruffed grouse at Sax Zim Bog

At the end of the day we never did see any owls. The windy and cold conditions kept the owls hunkered down. However, I didn’t want to leave you without some pictures of them! Part of the reason we went up there was Erik Bruhnke, who runs Naturally Avian. Naturally Avian is his bird tour, education, and photography business and I absolutely encourage you to check out his Facebook page ( If you enjoy birds and just feeling happy subscribe to his page, his posts and photography are both incredible. By visiting the page you’ll be able to see a lot of the birds that we ‘dipped’ (did not see) on. His pictures of boreal, great grey, and northern hawk owls are honestly second to none and are award winning. By visiting the Sax Zim bog website you can see great photography of the owl species and the boreal migrants.

Christmas Tradition

Merry Christmas!… and a happy New Year. It is Amazing that in 5 more days 2014 will be here, and we once again will mis-write the date on our checks as many times as it takes to break a habit – a debatable number.

I’ve had a busy last few weeks of the semester and am looking into the next one. With graduate level statistics and thesis development on the docket, it will be busy for sure.

Being home for Christmas and the Holidays has been a real treat, and this more even more than others, I’ve really felt blessed to be home and back in the tradition of Christmas. The house where I grew up is adorned with lights over the doors and windows and stockings on the Chimney. Every year after Thanksgiving my brother and I would haul box after box of Christmas decorations from the basement and place them up around the house. Two balsam fir Christmas trees, often harvested from the woods around Grand Rapids, Minnesota were put up. One of them ‘belonged’ to my brother and I; it was garnished with lights and personal ornaments collected through the years. The other tree was for my parents.

One of the decorations put up in the house is the ceramic village pieces which my mom hand-painted through the years. The pieces are set up as a village lit by LED lights and represent a quiet town or village. These pieces drew me, and for some reason I have never looked at them as closely as I did this year. The detail put into them upon close inspection brought them to life. The small eyes of carolers have pupils, the tiny window displays of toys are colorful and distinct, and each house is painted uniquely and ornately. I want to do some photography of this Christmas Village and thought the results were just fun to look at and full of life!

The Boys pull a yule-log past the toy store in Christmas Village.
A group of kids get pulled by their dog past the Doctors office in downtown Christmas Town.
Carolers sing in front of the candy shop near the corner or “Ian/Sean” street – named for my brother and I.
A sleigh ride goes past the east end of town.
Throughout Christmas town our family is built into the village. The focus of this image is meant to show off “Johnson’s” Craft shop. In the foreground a couple of shoppers hall gifts in front of the candy shop.
In the Northeast corner of town, up on the hill, the church is lit up with the Nativity in front.
For some reason school is still in session in Christmas town, and it’s all lit up.

After taking pictures of the village I couldn’t help but feel more connected to it. Taking pictures up and down the alleyways gave it life meaning. I have been looking at this village for more than 15 years without ever appreciating the Christmas tradition of it. Here’s a look at Christmas town from a distance, I hope I’ve given you some appreciation of it through these close-up shots of life in Christmas town.

Christmas town from a distance.
Christmas town from a distance.

Of course Christmas Tradition is also about a Christmas tree and family. Below is the tree this year and a group shot of my immediate family. If you have Christmas traditions and stories I’d love for you to post them below. This is the best time of year!

The Johnson Family 2013 family photo
The Johnson Family 2013 family photo
The Johnson Family Christmas tree tradition.
The Johnson Family Christmas tree tradition.

A Short Documentation of Life on A Milkweed Plant

During one of my forays with the Herbaceous Jellyfish (ie: thistles) on our land I observed one of the most bizarre bugs that I have seen. It had the head of a mantis and a long neck/thorax area that connected to claw like pinchers. From that point the body of the insect became wasp like with wings and a bulbous abdomen. It was orangish-red in color and had stripes. WHAT IS IT?!?! A google search at home by Kass for “bug that looks like wasp and mantis” quickly revealed that I had discovered a mantid fly. Unfortunately, at that time I didn’t have my camera with. So, a couple of days ago I made it a point to bring my camera up to the land and try to document these bugs. I soon found out that they were quite common throughout the thirty acres of pasture, and were obligatorily associated with the milkweed clusters throughout the pasture. Fortunately they were almost fearless and allowed me to get nice and close. So, before I go into my thoughts on these bugs I thought I would throw a few pictures out here first to bring your attention to the uniqueness that I’m talking about.

Mantid Fly on a Milkweed Plant
Look at those Mantid Eyes!


You’ll notice that it has pinchers just  like a mantis. In an attempt to discover what this bug ate, I skewered a small deer fly on a 12 inch blade of grass and dangled it in front of the mantidfly. It struck out at the dangling fly and continued to back up and run down the stem of the milkweed. He wanted nothing to do with this large insect in front of him! In fact, my prodding caused him to use his wings and flee in flight. I’m assuming based on these results that the mantidfly focus on smaller prey such as fruit flies and aphids. In almost all cases these bugs were tucked underneath leaves or at least close to cover. I think they are afraid of being eaten. After examing many milkweeds I found two cases were a dead mantid fly was tucked against the milkweed stem. It seems they are also very territorial! I can only assume/guess that the carcasses were there because of homicide from another mantidfly. Here another pictures that displays the bizzare figure of this creature.


However, during my close examination of milkweeds I became fascinated with the number of insects that I observed using the milkweed. I took pictures where the creepy crawlies allowed me to demonstrate just how important milkweed is. One of the things I saw were these aphids clinging to a leaf. They numbered in the hundreds if not thousands.

Aphids clustered up for “farming” on a milkweed.

These aphids would be an easy snack for the predatory lady bug. It was hunkered just above them. I’m sure that he was sitting there after just having his big feast of tender, juicy bugs. I almost felt sorry the aphids, however, they were not without armor and defense!

This lady bug is looking for an easy aphid snack. I bet it’s an easy dinner!

Ants, which covered the milkweed were defending the aphids and caring for them. I saw them interact with the lady bug several times and each time the lady bug recoiled from the ants. I don’t think the ants are able to hurt the lady bug, however, they can still help defend the aphids. So why, you might ask, would the ants defend the aphids? They would be a great, easy meal for the ants as well! However, ants and aphids are symbiotic and actually help each other! The Ants take care of the aphids in turn for the sugary liquid that is expelled from the aphid’s butt. You can see the liquid being expelled for collecting below! Also pictured are the number of aphids that covered the milkweed as well as the number of ants.

This ant is reaping the benefit of taking care of its defenseless aphids (sheperd and sheep). He’s sucking the energy rich excretion from the aphid.
There are a lot of aphids and ants on one milkweed flower!


I also saw many examples of spiders that inhabit the leaves and flowers a milkweed, however, only a couple of them hung around for pictures. Here is another example of life and death on the milkweek plant. This crab-spider has caught and is chowing down on an ant. I’m sure he has no problem catching as many as he needs.

It’s dinner time for this unknown species of grab spider. Ants for breakfast, supper and lunch!


I also saw several examples of this black-spotted red bug. If you happen to know the name of this one let me know! They are pretty unique.

I’m unsure of the species of these red bugs, but they were fairly common throughout the milkweed patches.

On of the great things to see was the amount of honey-bee activity happening around all of the milkweed patches. We have bee hives on our land and our pasture is a reliable source for the bees to get pollen, and they do us a favor by pollinating our flowers. The bees can be a bit aggressive however. I was stung on the day I took these pictures while standing 60 feet from the hives. I’m not sure what inspired the bee to jab himself into my back, but I was glad none of his friends follow suit.

Our land has hives on it and the milkweed were a predominant source for the bees at this time of year. There many flitting around each flower. One thing that was interesting was there were also many dead ones on the flower. I’m not sure if that’s a bad sign from inside the hive, or a natural process.

Another one of the insects to inhabit the milkweed patch were the dragonflies. There were several varieties ranging in colors of black to yellow and orange. And, in size from 1.5 inches to 3 inches. There were some really huge dragonflies. I have seen the large dragonflies take bumblebees before and I’m convinced that a large dragonfly will also cannibalize his smaller cousins and fellow species. While walking through pasture I felt one smack into the back of my head, picking a deer fly away from there in the process. The one pictured below is actually a different deer-fly kill than that one! Based on this evidence of two kills I think the take of deer flies by dragon flies must be pretty large! I hope it’s painful for the deerfly – they earned it. Note, this one wasn’t on a milkweed plant, but he was juxtaposed directly to a patch.

Redemption! I was thrilled to see this dragonfly happily munching on this deerfly.

One last random insect on the plants was this great/blue bottlefly.


Of course the one thing I haven’t hit on here at all was the number of butterflies that were using the milkweeds. There were many, but my lens didn’t have enough zoom to do many of them justice as they were skiddish and flighty.

The pictures here show a one hour glimpse of life on milkweeds. It’s amazing when you start to focus on the small things around you the details you will pick up, and there are many that you miss! Be sure to stay observant to your surroundings, and that means more than the physical. There are tiny details in the commons places of our world and personal relationships to entertain, teach and humble.

Un-static Time

I really haven’t been around my home here in Minnesota for over 7 years. My time in college drug me away from here in 2006 and the ponds, roads and woods where I tread as a wee lad haven’t seen my toe prints in quite some time. However, today I went out and walked behind the pond, one of my favorite spots, and was rewarded with birds and wildlife. A grouse was drumming, but was too smart for me to get close and watch him. I did encounter the  green below. He was bit skiddish, but posed in the back of the swamp for a bit.


On my way back I encountered the Minnesota equivalent of a Cicada hatch. The fish flies were hatching in vast numbers and a north wind was pushing them off of Big Pine lake and onto the mainland in front of me. The cedar waxwings, possibly a hundred or more, were dining, scoffing and pigging out on the crunchy flying wings. I sat and watched with my Mom for 15 minutes as waxwings gleaned in front of us. It’s amazing to me how everything we see is such a snapshot in time! If we had been there tomorrow we would have never known that such a large collection of bugs and birds had gathered. Below, I caught this waxwing going for the fishfly, which got away!


As we rounded down our gravel road we came upon a Hoary Pacoon (below) growing in the ditch. This prairie remnant was the only one blooming in an area that I recall having many along with prairie smoke and other prairie species. How long would it be before the small, wooded lot I watched the cedar waxwings in would suffer the same fate as these species? When I return 7 years from now, will there be any more hoary pacoon? Should I be saving the seeds and re-planting them somewhere else? But then, I walked by, sensing the fruitlessness of any interaction.


One bird we saw was a welcome sight was this Tree Sparrow. These birds are defined by the lone black spot on their chest. This one obviously has a family on the brain!


I do still see many of the things that are familiar to me. The forget-me-nots are in bloom, and these delicate flowers are always welcome around the house and in the garden! They remind me of growing up and going to my Grandpa’s, where a fast, ocean colored field of blue out back was always a contentious point between my grandmother and he. When to cut the lawn? Could the lawn be cut before the FMN’s were done blooming? YES! Said one, while “NO!” said the other. My grandmother always won, and the lawn wasn’t cut until the flowers stopped blooming.

P6050114-4 P6050116-5

So, it’s no secret, but time isn’t static. However, don’t lament in it, or feel bad for yourself. Instead use it as incentive to be out doing what you enjoy, knowing that it will never look the same twice!