My “Recipe” – Digital Processing of Bird Photos (from RAW)

This morning I had a nice short excursion to try to grab some photos of migrating sparrows. It was just an hour, but I managed to photograph 6 species, and got some photos in nice early morning light. As I start to process those photos, I thought I’d share my “typical” recipe for processing photos from RAW from my Canon 90D, something I always wanted to blog about.

I don’t do a huge amount of digital processing. I try to use the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) mantra, and keep the habitat and bird as I saw it. I’m trying to show the whole flow for a typical photo, and while the steps below may look daunting, processing from RAW to a final TIF for long-term digital archiving is typically just a couple of minutes for me. That involves two software packages: Adobe Photoshop (and plugins), and Topaz DeNoise AI. A very good example of a typical processing flow follows here, for a Harris’s Sparrow I photographed this morning on top of a fence post.

Open and evaluate the photo in Adobe Camera Raw. Here’s the original photograph straight from my 90D, as it appears when I first open it in Adobe Camera Raw. Note that as is often the case when you’re shooting birds, there’s a lot of “empty” space. You often try to “fill the frame” with the bird to get maximum detail, but birds don’t often cooperate! Thankfully with today’s DSLRs, there are plenty of pixels where you can crop some of the frame, and still have sufficient detail for large-size prints. I’ll eventually crop, but for now my main focus is on the overall exposure.

Example - Adobe Camera Raw screen
Original photo, straight from my Canon 90D, and what it looks like when I open in Camera RAW.

Correcting for exposure: The first thing I notice in the photo is that it’s overexposed in the whites on the underside of the sparrow, and a bit too bright for the scene overall. Not an uncommon situation, as in this case, the sparrow popped up on the fence post for just a second, and I quickly grabbed a photo with a lot of time to change camera settings. If you don’t like to deal with the hassle of shooting RAW and shoot in JPG, you’re already in trouble, as that exposure is baked in and you don’t have nearly as much flexibility in saving that detail in the whites. However, in RAW, you can adjust that exposure before converting to your long term archive format (TIF for me).

Below is a zoom of the bird as I correct exposure in Camera Raw. It can often be done simply in the “Basic” tab, with slider bars where you can correct exposure, contrast, and other elements. Here I’ve simply made three quick changes to lower exposure overall and bring out some detail in those whites (with all other settings shown on the right representing default values for this shot):

  • Drop exposure overall for the whole scene by -0.40
  • Change the “highlights” setting to -80. This lowers overall exposure only for the brightest parts of the scene, a very useful feature in this situation when I want lower exposure in the whites.
  • “Dehaze” increased by +10. Dehaze is described as basically compensating for light scatter in the atmosphere. It’s a strong tool that really is wonderful in providing increased clarity to an image when shooting in hazy conditions, but overall it does a nice job in deepening contrast. Here just a touch of an increase results in some darker background tones and darker tones on the bird, giving the image more “pop”.

Note the end result of this basic adjustment on the bottom, with whites on both the fence post and bird showing much more detail, and a less starkly bright exposure overall. There are other tools in Camera RAW you can also use for exposure adjustment and the like, with Curves being the other tool I often use.

Before and after - Changing exposure settings in Adobe Camera RAW
Before and after applying exposure and other corrections prior to RAW conversion

Other settings for RAW conversion: For this photo there’s not much else I want to do before converting from RAW to TIF. Note the “Detail” tab. I set everything to 0, as I don’t want Camera RAW applying sharpening or noise reduction, as I don’t think it does nearly as good a job as Topaz DeNoise AI (coming step). Also note the “Optics” tab. I always make sure I check the box for “remove chromatic aberration”. It’s not going to make much of a difference for this image, but for an image such as a bird in flight against a bright blue sky, it corrects for the “color fringing” that can sometimes occur. This is very lens dependent, and my primary birding lens (Canon 100-400mm II) has a fluorite and other elements that help minimize chromatic aberration. Still, it is sometimes noticeable a the fringe of a very high contrast area as a pixel or two coloring, and this setting helps correct.

Camera RAW provides a specific correction for the lens you’re using, as it does for “profile corrections”, another box I always check. This corrects for distortion and vignetting. Neither are huge issues with the Canon 100-400, but there are other lenses I have where use of this setting has been quite helpful for correcting vignetting (a shadowing around the corners or edges of a photo).

That’s it! White balance overall looks pretty good on this photo, but correcting for color imbalances is about the only other correction I typically handle in the RAW conversion stage. If white balance is off and there’s an odd color cast to a photo, there are ample tools in Camera RAW for correcting, from basic changes in color “temperature” and “tint”, to more specific corrections. Now I’m ready to convert to TIF…

Basic adjustments in Adobe Camera RAW
Settings for both “detail” and “optics” in Adobe Camera Raw

Conversion to TIF: There’s not much to this step. There’s a “down” arrow in the upper right of Camera RAW that opens up the conversion to TIF (or other format). I use TIF for long-term archiving of a photo as it’s a “lossless” form of photo storage, as opposed to JPEG. JPEG provides a smaller file, but at the cost of image quality. To be honest, it’s virtually impossible to visually distinguish between the highest-quality settings JPEGs, and a TIF. You do have peace of mind with a TIF though in that your photo will always be saved at the highest quality, while each new save of a JPEG may cause an additional small loss of information.

Settings are below…not much to it! The only other thing to really consider is colorspace for your output. That’s a topic for another blog post. Take my word for it and just choose SRGB, and go ahead and convert.

The result here…a beautiful, “lossless” TIF file with 6960 x 4640 pixels that’s corrected for exposure, chromatic aberration, and vignetting.

Converting from RAW to TIF in Adobe Camera RAW
Screen in Adobe Camera RAW for conversion to TIF

Noise Removal: This photo was shot in pretty early morning light, and I used ISO 1000 to ensure enough shutter speed to get a sharp photo. Shooting at as low an ISO as possible is always a good idea to reduce noise, but thankfully there are some wonderful tools for correcting noise in an image. For the last year or so I’ve been doing it with Topaz DeNoise AI, simply…awesome…software that I use for both noise correction and sharpening.

In the zoomed out photos above, it’s hard to see much of the noise, but for “pixel peepers” like myself, I’m not fond of the noise you see when viewing an image at full resolution. Remember when converting from Camera RAW, I didn’t do any correction for noise, so my converted TIF right now is showing all the noisy warts from the sensor on my Camera 90D. Next thing I do is load the TIF into Topaz DeNoise AI.

Topaz will both remove noise and sharpen the image. When you load the image in Topaz DeNoise AI, it will select default “remove noise” and “enhance sharpness” settings, based on its own evaluation of your photo. To show you the effects of each in turn, first here are default settings from Topaz DeNoise AI in reducing noise for this photo. Note the background color around the bird and the dramatic improvement in noise (image immediately below). Also note the eye itself, with the textured look in the original image, vs. the smooth, noise-free look in the corrected version.

I flipping love this software, but do realize it’s not everybody’s preference to dramatically reduce noise. Some people prefer some of that original “grain” in a photograph, which I think harkens back to the days of film photography where that grain was part of the image. I say bull-puckey to that! Noise in a digital camera is just that…noise…not a feature of the subject or environment you’re trying to photography. It’s a digital artifact. Reducing that noise provides a much cleaner image, with the smooth even tones that represent the reality around us. Particularly for a photo like this where the background is this wonderful smooth bokeh from the original photo, noise reduction makes for a much more gorgeous background.

The software is great, but beware getting TOO aggressive in trying to remove noise, as you will start to lose detail in areas where you don’t want that detail lost. If you get too aggressive in noise reduction in Topaz DeNoise AI, I’ve also noticed some smudgy edges that can result, as as the border between a bird and a background.

Noise Reduction in Topaz DeNoise AI
Noise reduction example in Topaz DeNoise AI

Sharpening: I also use Topaz DeNoise AI for basic sharpening of the full resolution imaging. Don’t expect miracles with any sharpening software. Garbage in = garbage out, and if you don’t have a good sharp image to begin with, a sharpening algorithm isn’t going to save the shot. However, it can give it that extra “crispness” that can really help bring it over the top.

I used to use Photoshop sharpening tools, but now find the default sharpening in Topaz DeNoise AI to be superior. It helps too at how easy and fast it is, in that I can both remove noise and sharpen an image simultaneously. The first image below shows the software screen itself, and how very simple the basic operation is. If you set it to ‘auto’ it evaluates your image and chooses the ‘correct’ level of noise reduction and sharpening. I always let the software calculate auto settings, and then it shows you a preview of the impact of those settings. Pretty simple…if you want to increase noise reduction from that default setting…simply slide the bar and get an instant preview of the impact. Same for sharpness. You can also play with “recovering original detail”, which “places back” detail that may be lost by the noise reduction, or you can specifically target color noise reduction. In this case, basic noise reduction and sharpness effects are damned good, and I didn’t change the settings. I will often play around with the settings though before saving a new output image.

The image at the bottom shows a before and after, for doing BOTH the noise reduction, and sharpening. For sharpening, it’s subtle, as the original image was quite sharp on it’s own. But you do see some more crispness in the feathering around and in front of the eye and elsewhere in the image.

Topaz DeNoise AI - Example of screen
What the Topaz DeNoise AI software looks like as you’re processing.
Before and after - Sharpening with Topaz DeNoise AI
Before and after processing through Topaz DeNoise AI, showing the improvement in sharpening in the crisper feathering on the bird.

Final step – Cropping to preference – That’s pretty much it for most photos! I do keep it simple. At this stage I still have all the extra space around the bird, so my final step before presentation online, or for a print, is to crop to a pleasing composition. I do typically keep the corrected TIF file though with all the original pixels, in case I want to reframe a photo later with a different presentation. Here’s the final output (compare to the top original photo above). Even with the cropping of all the empty space, thanks to the 32.5 MB sensor on the 90D, the photo has enough remaining pixels to retain a lot of detail, and provide 300 DPI prints up to 10×14 or more.

Note some additional processing steps I sometimes take are below.

Harris's Sparrow - Zonotrichia querula

Other” processing steps: This example with the Harris’s Sparrow is pretty typical, when I’m dealing with a pretty high-quality photo to begin with. Dependent upon the photo some other steps I sometimes take are:

  • Shadow/highlight adjustment – You can’t ask for much better lighting than the Harris’s Sparrow above, with warm, early morning, and even lighting and a bird that’s posed perpendicular to the light source (behind me as the photographer). That’s obviously often not the case! In harsh lighting situations or other cases where the result is a high-contrast image, sometimes deep shadows are a result, and you’d like to try to bring out some detail in those shadows. There are shadow/highlight tools in Photoshop that I’ll use in those situations. Note dependent upon the photo, trying to bring out detail in the shadows can end up simply bringing out the noise in those shadows. Again, garbage in = garbage out, and if there’s not detail in those shadows to begin with, you’re not going to magically pull it out in post-processing. The best time to try to try to pull out details from the shadows is during RAW conversion, analogous to what I did with this photo in trying to bring out detail in the (overexposed) whites.
  • Selective adjustments – Sometimes you don’t want a specific adjustment to impact the whole image, but just one part. In that case there are many tools in Photoshop that allow you to select specific parts of the image, and apply color adjustments, exposure, sharpness, noise, or other changes to only the selected area.
  • Cloning out unwanted elements – I try to keep my photos as close to the original scene as possible, and that means inclusion of habitat elements if they were in the shot at the time. However, Photoshop has tools that do make it quite easy to “get rid of” unwanted elements in an image. For example, in the final image above, it’s simply the sparrow on a post, with a perfectly “clean” background. What if there were a few blades of grass or an overhanging branch that intersected one corner of the photo (for example)? In that case, it is extremely easy to use the “clone” tool…selecting an area of the background nearby the unwanted feature, and effectively copying and brushing over the unwanted feature. You can often thus end up with that “perfect” background with the unwanted element removed. I try to keep my use of this to a minimum, for those really “special” images where I want that last bit of perfection before printing or selling.

That’s it!! – I’m not selling my typical “recipe” or toolset as the best answer for everyone. A bit part of your own personal workflow is 1) what software you have, 2) what you’re comfortable with, and 3) what effects you’re trying to achieve. The process above “works” for me as I’ve used it for countless thousands of photos, and I can whip through any one photo quite quickly. Your mileage may vary, but I hope the examples above are helpful.

Photobook: Shutterfly vs. Printique (no contest)

Last post I noted the bird photobooks I was putting together. I had originally put one together in the summer on Shorebirds, and then backed off doing more until the last month or so. For the first one, I saw a coupon for Shutterfly and used them to produce a lay-flat photobook.

It looked fine, and the photo quality was…ok. Nothing more. Before deciding to do a whole series, I poked around and looked for reviews of other places, and thought I’d try Printique. The first of the those arrived today, and suffice it to say I’ll be using Printique for the rest of the series.

Deep, rich blacks. Beautiful color prints. And the thickness of the lay flat pages is unbelievably thick and durable. The Printique book is about twice as thick as the Shutterfly book despite having similar number of pages. Cost? The Printique one was a touch more, but not much. General costs:

  • Shutterfly – 38 pages, 10×10″ lay-flat – $93.49 total cost
  • Printique – 42 pages, 10×10″ lay-flat – $107.17 total cost.

`$14 more, for 4 more pages, but vastly improved stock thickness and photo quality. I also preferred the tools for developing the photobook on Printique.

Just my observations on using the two! I’m not in contact with either company or being compensated here! Just some friendly advice if you’re looking for a really high quality photobook to display your photos.

Comparison of thickness of the two books! Astoundingly better quality of page stock for Printique with very thick durable lay-flat paper.
Final photobook for “North American Waterfowl” by Printique.

Something for posterity: Bird photobooks

As you get older you start to wonder about things like…why the hell do I have thousands upon thousands of digital photos on my computer? What’s the purpose? What’s going to happen to them when I’m gone? I certainly have an online presence in social media and my website where my photos are shown, but I wanted to start making something more tangible that perhaps my son and others could have, something more than just photos on a hard drive.

My wife always makes photobooks from our “big” yearly vacation, as well as one for family photos for a given year. Why not do the same with all the thousands of photos I have sitting around on my computer? I started to make photobooks based on themes (categories of birds). So far I’ve only gotten one back from the printer, but I really liked it so have followed up and made five more that are currently being printed. This morning I just finished #6.

I’m keeping them pretty simple, with what to me is an elegant black hard cover and background on the interior pages, with photos and a short descriptions of the species, date, and location the photo was taken. Simple, because I wanted the books to focus on the photos themselves, and not any descriptive material from me.

The six I’ve completed are:

  • Shorebirds
  • Raptors
  • Owls
  • Warblers
  • Waterfowl
  • Sparrows

Here are some example pages from some of the books. I’ve got a least another 8 or 10 planned. It will take me a while to get them all done, but will be a nice series to have and hold for the future.

Owl Photobook 
Photography by Terry Sohl
Pages from the Owl Photobook
Shorebird photobook
Photography by Terry Sohl
Pages from the first I did on Shorebirds
Sparrows & Towhees photobook
Photography by Terry Sohl
Pages from the most recently completed on North American Sparrows & Towhees

Spring signs of life, and living dangerously

Birding! I’ve actually had the chance to do a little birding lately!! With my new job responsibilities at work, I’ve been working crazy long hours. That should die down once I completely transition, but in the past month, time has been pretty precious. However, over the last week I have set aside a couple of weekend days to get out and go birding, and the weather thankfully has been pretty good the last 2 weekends.

One priority in finally getting out…going to see a Great Horned Owl nest that has gotten a lot of attention, and was only 10 miles away. Palisades State Park is a gem of a little park. Splitrock Creek runs through the park, and in some areas there are steep cliffs of our famed Sioux Quartzite that rise to 50 feet or more above the river. It’s also a popular spot for rock climbing, with multiple tall quartzite spires in the park. I’ve seen Canada Geese often use those cliffs for nesting, as you can’t imagine a better place to be protected from land predators. But a hiker a few weeks ago noticed a different nesting bird…A Great Horned Owl! She’s in a spot perfectly protected from her now adoring fans, as you can only see her from the opposite side of the river.

As the following pictures show, it’s a rather interesting situation in this particular part of Palisades State Park:

Great Horned Owl - Bubo virginianus
At first glance when you look across the river towards the nest, this is what you often see…a lone adult Great Horned Owls and….some fluff!! Sometimes she’s sitting directly on three little fluff balls, other times like this, they’re hiding behind her when the morning sun comes up and lights up her side of the canyon. She’s positioned the nest about 20 feet up the cliff wall, in a part of the canyon where the gorgeous pink Sioux Quartzite rises vertically on both sides of the narrow canyon.
Great Horned Owl nest - Feeding Chicks - Bubo virginianus
For all the nest watchers (and there seem to be quite a few, for sparsely populated South Dakota standards!), there’s often not a lot of action during the day. But on my visit last weekend, after watching the nest for about an hour, the parent bird stood up to not only reveal a couple of chicks underneath her (and one behind her), but there was also part of a bird she’d caught and had been feeding the chicks. For 30 minutes the 4 or 5 of us watching were treated to the sight of her feeding her young chicks.
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) nest with 3 young chicks
The happy family after finishing breakfast. The young are getting bigger, and some of their flight feathers are just starting to come in (you see a hint of that in the above photo). Her choice of nest site offers protection from ground predators (although the Canada Geese in the park will often fly at her to express their displeasure at her presence). However, I do worry about the chicks when they take their first flight. The canyon is narrow and steep here, with nothing but Splitrock Creek below. That first flight could be harrowing, and it could be difficult for the inexperienced chicks to avoid hitting the water below.
Canada Goose - Branta canadensis - nesting on cliff ledge
It’s not just the Great Horned Owl’s choice of nesting locations that brings some worry for the young. This is a Canada Goose who is also nesting on the cliff face. She is either the smartest goose on the planet, or one of the dumbest. Her rocky cliff ledge completely protects her from any ground predators she might otherwise have to deal with. However, her exact location…about 40 feet above the water on the cliff, and…20 feet DIRECTLY above the Great Horned Owl nest!! When the young hatch, they leave the nest almost immediately, and are tended to by the parents as they gather their own food. But “leaving the nest” in this case means making an already perilous jump to the creek below, one where the chicks have to worry about a bounce or two off the cliff face on their way down. Even more perilous for them…jumping down, and somehow avoiding the ledge and the Great Horned Owl nest right below them!

Science to the rescue! Saving the day on high ISO images

I’m not fond of processing all the photos I take. That could be why that up until 3 months ago, I had unprocessed folders of bird photos corresponding to trips going all the way back to 2014! Thousands of photos, taken and never processed, witting there waiting to see the light of day. In some ways it has been fun over the last 3 months, going through those photos, finding hidden treasures of things I don’t remember even taking. However, it’s also been a royal pain in the butt to slog through them all.

The light is at the end of the tunnel though! In another month, month and a half, I’ll have caught up! The last thing I thought I needed though was another step in the process of processing a RAW digital file into the final polished form. I try to keep my workflow very simple, with a basic RAW conversion and subsequent simple things in Photoshop (which typically for me is just some cropping if appropriate, and adding metadata about where the photo was taken). However there are always some photos that require a little bit more.

Photos that require “more” often include those taken in low light, whether it’s early in the morning, late in the evening, or due to cloudy or shady conditions. In those cases, to get enough shutter speed for me to hand-hold the camera (which I almost always do), you have to bump up the ISO setting. That does help getting a photo in low-light, but at the cost of a noisy image, and image that also seems to lack detail. Given how picky I am about my photos, I thus typically don’t shoot much in low light situations, unless it’s a rare bird or something else I really want to document.

Science to the rescue! Yesterday I was poking around Twitter, and came across someone posting a before-and-after of a really grainy, high ISO photo that had then been processed through “Topaz DeNoise AI” software. I’ve seen ads before for noise software like that. I have always been…skeptical…to say the least. What you see on those ads often seems too good to be true, turning a crappy, noisy picture into award winning material. But this wasn’t an ad from a company, it was a regular joe who was really pleased with the result and was sharing.

OK, I thought, what the hell, I’ll give it a whirl. I downloaded the software on a 30-day free trial, and was looking for an unprocessed, high-noise photo try it out with. Given my pool of unprocessed photos was much smaller than 3 months ago, I didn’t have much, but did have a photo of a Barred Owl from the state park across the street from just a few weeks ago. Barred Owls are quite rare in South Dakota, thus my using high-ISO in really bad lighting just to record the event.

I opened one of the owl photos in the software, and let it do it’s thing. Pardon the language but HOLY. CRAP. The software was showing a preview of the output at a 100% crop, showing the center of the image that was focused around the owl’s face. What was a recognizable, but noisy mess had been turned into something that was completely noise free. That part doesn’t shock me, as you can ALWAYS easily remove noise…but typically at a cost to image detail. Here, the opposite occurred, with feather detail around the face of the owl suddenly showing up, information content I thought didn’t even EXIST in the original image.

Topaz DeNoise AI software is something that may not only change how I process photos, it may change my birding habits themselves! I rarely go out with the camera is light is poor (which given our gloomy, often cloudy winters, is a lot!). I’m looking forward to experimenting with more high-ISO photos and seeing just what the DeNoise AI software can do! Even imagines with much more modest noise seem to get a nice “kick” in clarity and sharpness, more so than what I can typically get out of Photoshop. The only downside I’ve noticed is that depending on how aggressive you get with pushing the software, the image can start to turn into something that looks more like a painting than a photograph, but that’s just when I bump up the default “auto” settings where the software determines the appropriate level of correction, and instead push a maximally aggressive processing.

Cool software! Not an “ad” or anything for this software, as yesterday was the first day I even knew it existed, and I’m not getting reimbursed or anything for “endorsing” it with this post! Just passing along the info for photographers who want a potential solution to high ISO, noisy images.

Before and after photo using Topaz DeNoise AI software
Click on the image and look at full resolution to see exactly what the Topaz DeNoise AI software can do. A very noisy image, in both the background and the plumage on the owl’s face, is suddenly COMPLETELY noise free on the right, but what shocked me the most is the plumage detail that was ‘recovered’ by the software.

A bird with a built-in comb!! Pectinate Toe on a Common Nighthawk

The things you learn when you are looking through your photos!! I’ve spent so many hours over the last 2 months trying to catch up on processing old photos. It’s a task I thought I’d never catch up on in this lifetime, given I had photos going back…years. But I can now see the light at the end of the tunnel! Last night I was processing photos from a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota when I got to a series of Common Nighthawk photos I took at Wind Cave National Park.

Common Nighthawks had been something of a photographic nemesis for me. I see them in flight all the time, but have you tried to photograph a nighthawk in flight?!?! Yikes…they don’t fly straight! They do often perch during the day, but in my part of South Dakota, that’s typically in a tree, where they blend right in. However, out west, they might perch on a rock, a fence post, or…a barbed wire fence. Last June, late in the evening, I saw several Common Nighthawks flying around, and I tried in vain to photograph them. However, when I gave up and started driving I came across a Common Nighthawk perched on a barbed wire fence.

Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) perched on a barbed wire fence.
Common Nighthawk just hanging out on a barbed wire fence. Finally! Good photos of a photographic nemesis bird for me!! From Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota June 27th, 2020

I spent probably 30 minutes watching that one bird! What a treat! FINALLY some good photos of a Common Nighthawk, not only of a bird at rest, but a bird opening that massive mouth and calling several times! I did post a few quick photos on social media, but then forgot about them for 9 months…until last night. When looking through the photos, something really stood out on a few of them. What was wrong with one of the bird’s toes!?!? I’d never seen anything like it:

Pectinate toe on a Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor)
The left middle toe of the Common Nighthawk…it’s a comb! A built-in comb on its foot!

I started poking around and quickly found out it’s called a “pectinate” toe, which is thought to function as a grooming device. Evidently there are a few types of birds that have this feature, including not only “goatsucker” species like the Common Nighthawk, but also Herons and Egrets. On some species they’re found on both feet, but in some species, like this Common Nighthawk, they’re only found on one foot.

Makes me wonder…are they all “left footed”? Are there are “right-footed” birds in terms of their combs? I haven’t been able to find that answer, but I did find this blog that does indeed attempt to show that yes, the birds can and do use that toe to tend to their plumage.

Very cool!! But the question is…HOW cool!?!? Which has the greater “cool” factor? A Common Nighthawk with it’s own built-in comb on it’s toe? Or the millions of US kids who grew up in the 80s, with the standard and oh-so-necessary comb sticking out of their back blue jeans pocket?

Comb in jeans pocket (1980s)
Inquiring minds want to know!! Who wears it “cooler”!?!? The Common Nighthawk with it’s built-in comb toe??? Or us cool, giant-haired kids of the 80s with our colorful combs in our jeans pocket!??!?
Common Nighthawk calling - Chordeiles minor
Question answered! I got a lot of “squawk back” when implying we 80s kids were cooler. The question is now settled…



South Dakota Species Highlight: Chestnut-collared Longspur

There are some species I instantly think of as being iconic northern Great Plains species when I hear the name. Marbled Godwit. Baird’s Sparrow. Lark Bunting. Greater Prairie Chicken. When I think of driving west and north from my home in far southeastern South Dakota, and heading to the central or western part of the state, away from the mosaic of corn and soybeans that dominates my area, I think of wide open grasslands, few people, and a unique ecosystem of iconic bird species. In my mind that also includes the Chestnut-collared Longspur, a gorgeous bird with a unique dark plumage (breeding plumage males) that I almost see when I heard the name, hanging out on a barbed wire fence with nothing but grassland for miles around.

Chestnut-collared Longspur - Calcarius ornatus
Harding County, SOuth Dakota
Chestnut-collared Longspur from July 22nd, 2011 in Harding County, South Dakota. This. This is what I think of when I hear the name, a gorgeous breeding plumaged male Chestnut-collared Longspur hanging out on a barbed wire fence in a rolling grassland environment.

Yesterday I was processing bird photos (still a few years behind) and working on my website. I was working on a directory of photos I got last July in Hyde County, in the east-central part of the state, and got to one photo, and one photo only, of a Chestnut-collared Longspur. It’s not a great photo, and in fact, if it were another species where I had an abundance of photos, I might have thrown it out. I was shooting photos of shorebirds at a small wetland I’d stumbled across, when the lone longspur flew into my vision and plopped down to grab a quick drink. It was mid-day, the lighting was poor, but I grabbed a quick shot, surprised I’d seen one here, as I usually think of them as being a bird I’d find further to the east and north.

Then, as what tends to happen, I downloaded all the photos from that day, and they sat there unprocessed. I’d forgotten about that photo and encounter until processing photos yesterday, and knowing my collection of Chestnut-collared Longspur photos was sparse, I decided to keep the photo and work on the associated species pages on my website. As I was doing so, it brought to light just how rare an encounter the sighting was for me.

Chestnut-collared Longspur - Calcarius ornatus
Hyde County, South Dakota
Chestnut-collared Longspur July 5th, 2020 Hyde County, South Dakota. One quick photo grab, and the bird was gone.

Two. TWO. That’s how many “decent” photos of the species I’ve managed to grab in South Dakota in the 21 years I’ve been birding. Despite my internal impression of the species as an iconic Northern Prairie species, both my actual sightings and photographs of the species have been extremely limited.

As I started working on my dedicated species page for the Chestnut-collared Longspur, I got to the “Conservation Status” section of the page and started doing some research, beefing up my current (very sparse) content. When I first created the page for the species some 20 years ago, there seemingly weren’t any worries about the status of the species. But when I looked at the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) web page on the conservation status of the species, it was immediately clear it was a species in trouble. The species has been downgraded in status twice in recent years as numbers have started to dwindle.

IUCN Redlist status for the Chestnut-collared Longspur.
From the IUCN page for the Chestnut-collared Longspur, a history of the official status of the species in their eyes. The species status has been downgraded twice in recent years, and numbers continue to decline.

It’s wasn’t a cheery exercise reading more about the status of the species. The Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data, the gold standard for rigorous, systematic tracking of population trends over time, indicated a startling decline in the species of almost 90% from 1966 (Sauer et al. 2016). Other data sources show equally shocking declines, with estimates of >95% species loss in the Canadian portion of the Chestnut-collared Longspur range in less than 40 years, from 1971 to 2017 (COSEWIC 2019). A species that was once a common breeding bird in Nebraska, Kansas, and Minnesota has nearly been extirpated from those states, and previously robust populations elsewhere in its historical range are now gone. Clearly, it’s a species in serious trouble.

So what’s the cause of the trouble? Most sources agree that habitat loss is the primary factor in their decline. The Northern Great Plains used to be a mosaic of natural grasslands, wetlands, and riparian corridors with woodlands. Davis (2004) studied habitat needs for the Chestnut-collared Longspur and found that they required quite large, contiguous blocks of grassland to successfully breed. They avoided even what might be considered “prime” grassland habitat if the size of that grassland patch were anything less than 100 acres. With vast swaths of former Great Plains grassland converted to agricultural land uses in the last 150 years, grassland communities have been devastated, and remaining grassland patches have been heavily fragmented. In short, Chestnut-collared Longspurs can’t find enough suitable large patches of grassland on which to breed.

That downward spiral of suitable habitat continues currently, and in fact has recently intensified in parts of the Great Plains. That includes right here in South Dakota, where demand for corn and soybeans, including the uptick in demand due to biofuel use, has resulted in massive swaths of grassland and prairie land being plowed under for the first time in just the last 15-20 years. South Dakota itself is a hotspot of this habitat loss, particularly eastern and north-central South Dakota, where the rate of grassland habitat loss in recent years is actually higher than that of the well-publicized loss of tropical forest in parts of South America.

From a well-publicized study from Wright & Wimberly (2013), a graphic showing hotspots of grassland loss in recent years. The eastern Dakotas have been a hotspot of habitat loss as grasslands are plowed under and converted to soybean and corn fields.

It’s not just agriculture that’s driving habitat loss in the northern Great Plains. Energy development is front and center in parts of that range, as new methods for extracting fossil fuels have been developed in the last 20 years. The image below depicts the “nighttime lights” dataset for a portion of the northern US. These data record visible light energy from the Earth’s surface at night. Larger cities are clearly visible in the data, but…what’s the massive blob of light in sparsely populated western North Dakota?

Image from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program’s Operational Line Scan System (DMSP-OLS), generally referred to as the “Nighttime Lights” dataset. Depicting areas of visible light at night, lights from urban centers clearly dominate. However, one of the biggest signals is a sparsely populated, massive swatch in western North Dakota. Those are flaring natural gas associated with hundreds and hundreds of oil wells, as fracking technology made extracting oil possible in this region.

North Dakota is now the 2nd largest oil producing state in the country, thanks to fracking technology developed in the 2000s that has allowed companies to extract a difficult to access, but massive resource of oil in the region. There are hundreds upon hundreds of oil wells in the region, wells that may be spaced out across the massive prairie landscape, but…each well requires access, each well requires energy sources. None of this was there even just 15 years ago, but now the network of wells, roads, and powerlines has severely fragmented grassland habitat in the region.

Range map of the Chestnut-collared Longspur, overlaid with general are of Bakken Oil Formation
The species range map for the Chestnut-collared Longspur, with the general area of the Bakken Oil Formation in the cross-hatched area. The red color on the underlying map represents the breeding range of the Chestnut-collared Longspur. The location of the Bakken formation? Smack dab in the middle of it.

As the map above shows, the Bakken formation is smack dab in the middle of the breeding range for the Chestnut-collared Longspur. The area in North Dakota was developed SO incredibly rapidly, with economic considerations overwhelming any thought for habitat or environmental considerations. But for a species such as the Chestnut-collared Longspur that’s been declining precipitously and needs large, intact grassland patches to breed, oil and gas activity in the Bakken couldn’t have come at a worse time, or in a worse place.

Two. Perhaps it’s not a surprise I only have to photos of Chestnut-collared Longspurs, a species that’s “vulnerable” and fading fast. Get out there and enjoy this species while you can, as your chances of seeing it in the future may be fading.

South Dakota Species Highlight – Short-eared Owl

Weather in South Dakota over the last month has been everything many people probably think about when they visualize a South Dakota winter. We haven’t had that one big snowstorm, but we have had a number of very small snows that keep accumulating because the temperatures have been absolutely BRUTAL. The coldest we got at our house was -28° F, with multiple days last week where the temperatures never got above 0°. Because of the weather, I haven’t done much birding lately, but have done more work on website than I’ve done in years, primarily focusing on updating the species pages and photo pages.

The last real trip I took dedicated to birding was back on January 2nd, a day that started on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in the central part of the state, but ended near Brookings, which ended up being the highlight of the day. Several Short-eared Owls had been seen there recently, and it had been a few years since I’d gotten a good look at one. There was also a Snowy Owl in the area, but this was a very rare case of a Snowy taking a back seat to another species (for me anyway).

Short-eared Owls are a species that normally you never specifically go out looking for, but instead kind of luck into them on various occasions. They’re nomads, present in good numbers in a general location one year, and gone for the next several years. Heading towards a known location where several were hanging out was certainly a treat, and it didn’t disappoint. I ended up seeing several Short-eared Owls that late afternoon, including watching one catch and eat a vole.

I’ve seen Short-eared Owls a times near Sioux Falls, but the area I have had the most luck over the years is the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and surrounding areas. The story is usually the same, as a drive through the grasslands seems devoid of Short-eared Owls, until the last hour before sunset, where they seem to magically materialize out of thin air. Nearly every Short-eared Owl I’ve seen has been in the hour before sunset, or right around sunrise. The Brookings owls were following the same behavior, with birders not finding them until right before sunset each evening.

What follows is a photo blog telling the stories of some of the Short-eared Owls I’ve come across in South Dakota over the years. For more information and additional photos of this wonderful species, check out the following page on the main website:

South Dakota Birds and Birding – Short-eared Owl Information and Photos

Short-eared Owl - Asio flammeus - Fort Pierre National Grasslands, South Dakota
One of my first ever encounters with a Short-eared Owl also ended up being quite the boon to my bird photography! On July 16th, 2004, I was cruising the gravel roads near sunset when I saw the first Short-eared Owl I’d ever gotten a good look at. How could I NOT get a good look at it, because as I pulled over the car and got out, it started circling me, staring at me the entire time! It didn’t take long to see why it was so interested in me. As I watched it circle me, I soon noticed three young Short-eared Owls along the edge of the road some 30 yards further up. Clearly a protective parent, I got back in the car and backed off, while the whole family took off across the grasslands.

This encounter also ended up getting me a brand new Canon 20D DSLR camera body!! I submitted the photo to a Canon photo contest, where first prize was a Canon 20D, and much to my shock for a national-level competition, the photo won! That Canon 20D ended up being my primary birding camera for quite a few years, and started what’s now been a ~15+ year run of using the Canon x0D series as my primary body.
Short-eared Owl - Asio flammeus - Minnehaha County, South Dakota
What’s the Boy Scout motto…”be prepared”? That motto has certainly served me well over the years from a birding and bird photography perspective, as I often have my camera with me, even when doing something as mundane as making the commute to and from work. The USGS facility where I work is 10 miles outside of Sioux Falls, and I often take gravel roads on the way there, driving by what’s an ever-shrinking number of little pockets of bird habitat. Over the years having the camera with me has been fortuitous, including the evening of December 5th, 2005.

I’d just left work, and the sun was getting close to setting. I took a gravel road I often take, and drove past one of the few relatively big marshy/wet spots on my commute. As I approached I saw a bird on a fence post in the distance…Red-tailed Hawk? As I got closer, I saw what it was…Short-eared Owl! The first I’d ever seen in this part of the state. I took some photos from a distance, wanting to capture the moment before it inevitably took off. However, to my surprise, this bird was going NOWHERE. As I drove closer, it looked around, unconcerned about my presence. Soon I was right next to it, enjoying the closest encounter I’ve ever had with a Short-eared Owl. Since that day there have been a handful of times where I’ve seen Short-eared Owls either at work itself, or on the commute home.
Short-eared Owl - Asio flammeus - Near Brookings, South Dakota
One of the Short-eared Owls from the January 2nd trip mentioned above, just outside of Brookings. The owl was actively hunting an open field adjacent to the road, and I was watching as it slowly worked it’s way back and forth across the big open space. It then suddenly dove and with a poof of snow, caught dinner for the evening…a big fat vole. This was the owl just after he caught it. After a moment or two of contemplating its good luck, it took off with it’s meal and landed on a fence post to eat it.
Short-eared Owl in Flight - Asio flammeus - Fort Pierre National Grasslands, South Dakota
Back to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, on December 9th, 2005 (ironically, just four days after I saw the one above on my way home from work!), when I came across a lone Short-eared Owl hanging out on a fence post. We contemplated each other for a while (including me getting additional photos of him perched on the fence post), before it decided it had had enough, and took off. This was just after it left the fence post, giving me a great look at the business end of those feet.
Short-eared Owl - Asio flammeus - "Pueo" - Hawaii (Big Island)
We’re not in South Dakota any more with this one! Short-eared Owls are one of the most widely spread owl species in the world, found in every continent except for Antarctica. They’ve also somehow made their way to places you certainly wouldn’t think there should be some, such as islands that are thousands of miles away from the mainland! We took a family vacation to the Big Island of Hawaii in August of 2017. I knew they were there, where they are locally called “Pueo”. We ended up finding 3 or 4 on the grassy volcanic slopes upwards from the Kona area on the east side of the island.

New South Dakota “Hotspots” Page – Good Earth State Park

One of my New Year’s Resolution…less time sulking about the state of the world, more time being productive. Now when I say “productive”, I don’t necessarily mean work! No, I’m thinking more about my free time, and instead of wasting it, spending it doing things I love. Of course that includes birding, but it also includes working on my massive, out of control website, which I’ve neglected lately.

One element of my website are “Hotspots” pages, detailed information on specific birding hotspots in South Dakota. It’s been a work in progress, as it takes quite a long time to make each one of the hotspot pages! Over the last week I have completed a new one, one that was LONG overdue…for Good Earth State Park just outside of Sioux Falls.

We live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a state park of comparable size, that also borders the Big Sioux River and has extensive, forested riparian habitat. While I do bird there, in recent years it just can’t hold a candle compared to Good Earth State Park. Much of it for me is how the parks are managed. The Big Sioux Recreation Area has a BIG focus on camping and other heavy recreational use. As a result, they’ve really disappointed me in recent years by ripping out a lot of good bird habitat to make way for camping, frisbee golf, etc. I get it…you have to manage the parks for multiple uses, but overall in South Dakota, birders and birding are the LAST priorities for park management.

That’s what’s so great about Good Earth. It’s not managed for birding, but there’s no camping. That alone makes a huge difference, as it’s less busy and there’s much more natural vegetation. The big draw of the park for me is the variety of habitats, from upland forest, to gorgeous, well-vegetated grasslands with plenty of native plants, to riparian floodplain. The trail system is incredible as well, with several miles of very well maintained trails.

I’ll save the rest for the new “Birding Hotspot” page itself! I hope you find this useful as you consider Good Earth State Park for your next birding trip. Click below to access the page:

Good Earth State Park – Birding “Hotspot”

Christmas in January! New Geologic Goodies

Just when the world seems like it’s about to self-destruct, just when you’ve given up hope in humanity, a single act of kindness helps reset your view of the world, if only a bit, and if only temporarily. My son and I are (very) amateur rockhounds, doing a little bit of collecting here in South Dakota. I do have some nice specimens from the state (check out my S.Dakota Rockhound page), and have also gotten a small number of other geologic goodies from outside the state, primarily as gifts, or through some of the travel that we’ve done.

This week a box arrived in the mail from a work colleague and friend…Christmas in January! He’s an avid rockhound, and has helped organize and lead a many trips for his local group, traveling to various locations throughout the US. The box had about 10 specimens he was gifting me, pieces that suddenly give my small collection a nice jolt! Thankfully they came with detailed information on the mineral/rock type, and location where they were obtained.

Even with our own South Dakota-derived collection, I’ve loved getting out the camera and photographing them, including trying macro photography to look at some of the fine details. Here are some photos of the new pieces to the collection. Saving the best for last at the bottom. 🙂

Cuprian Smithsonite
Macro of Cuprian Smithsonite, From the 79 Mine, Banner Mining District, Gila County, Arizona
Botryoidal Goethite
Botryoidal Goethite, from the 60 Mine, Luis Lopez Manganese District Socorro County, New Mexico
Polished petrified Wood, "Blue Forest" area
Polished Petrified Wood from the “Blue Forest” Area, Eden Valley Near Farson, Sweetwater County, Wyoming. It’s surrounded by a ring of agatized material.
Quartz and Fluorite
Quartz with Fluorite from the Blanchard Mine, New Mexico
Beryl, Aquamarine Variety
Beryl, Aquamarine variety, from Mount Antero, Chaffee County, Colorado
Smoky Quartz, Feldspar, and Phenakite
Smoky Quartz, Feldspar, and Phenakite From Mount Antero, Chaffee County, Colorado. The Phenakite is the small clear crystal in the front of the piece.
Fluorite
Fluorite, from the Blanchard Mine, New Mexico. Macro photo showing the wonderful cubic crystals of Fluorite.
Opalized Wood
Opalized Wood, from the Virgin Valley, Humboldt County, Nevada
Cuprian Smithsonite and Hemimorphite
Cuprian Smithsonite and Hemimorphite, from the 79 Mine, Banner Mining District, Gila County, Arizona. The Cuprian Smithsonite is the green crystals on the right half of the piece, while the Hemimorphite are the small clear crystals in the cavity on the lower left of the piece.
Linarite Specimen on matrix of Quartz and Fluorite, with scattered brochantite
My favorite new piece, from the famed Blanchard Mine in New Mexico, it feathers flue blue Linarite crystals, embedded in quartz and fluorite. The green is likely brochantite.
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