A Birder Photographing Comet Neowise

I’m not really an aficionado of star-gazing and the like. For one…I’m an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of a guy! That’s a big shift from where I was 20+ years ago, but as a birder, getting up early and driving a few hours to get to a favorite location at dawn has become old hat for me. Because of my early hours, staying up late to go star-gazing well after sunset just isn’t…me.

However, as an aficionado of the amazing wonders nature has to offer, I WILL make the effort for special events. I do remember Comet Hale-Bopp from 1997, a comet so bright it was not only boldly visible with the naked eye, but it maintained a presence in night sky for several months. In July of 2018, my son and I also made an 8-hour drive to eastern Wyoming to ensure cloud-free weather for observing a total eclipse, an event that may only occur within driving distance a handful of times in a lifetime.

Now, it’s Comet Neowise that’s grabbing headlines. Neowise isn’t nearly as bright as Hale-Bopp was, nor will it be with us for such an extended period of time. However, it is being touted as the brightest comet since Hale-Bopp, and given the 20+ years since a comet has made such a splash, I have gone out multiple times to observe and try to photograph the comet (more on the latter in a second).

I admit though that my first observation was mostly by accident! Last weekend I was going to go birding in the central part of the state. As I often do when birding, I got up a couple of hours before sunrise and starting making the ~3 hour drive to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. I’d read about Neowise, but I admit it wasn’t until I was half an hour outside of town that I “remembered” I might have a chance to see a comet in the pre-dawn light.

I exited the interstate and stopped, pulling out my phone to look up where to search for the comet. “Northeastern sky, an hour+ before dawn, low on the horizon.” By serendipity, my timing was perfect, and I had perfectly clear weather. I started heading down a gravel road, turned a corner onto another road, and…there she was! I’d read binoculars would possibly be required to initially spot it, but once you knew where to look, you could see it with the naked eye. Nope! It was VERY obvious in the northeastern sky, no searching required, no binoculars required! I excitedly observed it for a few minutes, then positioned myself to take some photos.

Or at least I tried! I have a window-mount with a ball-head on top where I can mount my camera for stability, something I knew I’d obviously need for taking a long-exposure photo of a comet. But as a bird photographer? I have no clue how to shoot a comet. I did manage some halfway decent photos, but they were pretty much the equivalent of going birding, seeing a great bird, and getting “record shot”…a photo of dubious quality, but clear enough to document what you’ve seen.

I’ve since taken my son out to see his first comet, and another trip to specifically try to photograph it. Since my first early morning view, Neowise has “moved”, if you will, now primarily being visible in the northwestern sky an hour+ after sunset. It’s also become quite a bit less bright than what I remember from my first sighting. While I could immediately see, track, and observe Neowise with my naked eye that first day, I had more trouble finding it and keeping track of where it was in the sky on this trip. Still clearly visible however, and a target for a photo!

The photo below is the best I’m ever going to get with my current equipment. I shoot a DSLR, a Canon 90D, and for lenses, I rarely take off my 100-400mm II IS lens, a great birding lens with some versatility in the zoom. When shooting the eclipse in 2018, I didn’t have this lens…I used a much older, but very sharp, 400mm prime. I almost wish I had brought that lens instead, as for that one, you can manually focus on “infinity” for a shot like this, and ensure you’re pretty sharp for this kind of photography. With my 100-400 zoom, it’s not as simple as manually setting focus to infinity, as that sweet spot of focus differs depending on zoomed focal length. The biggest problem trying to shoot this night…with such a faint (to the eye) target, and old eyes suffering from Sjogren’s Syndrome, I couldn’t see well enough to be sure I was getting a clear focus.

My strategy was thus…1) window mount the camera 2) find the comet in the sky 3) frame the composition to my liking 4) manually focusing as best I could, and 5), continually fiddle with the focus in the hopes that at least a FEW of my shots were in focus.

I also knew from my few previous attempts at shooting stars, auroras, the moon, etc. that without any kind of special tracking hardware, I had to keep my exposure time to 20 seconds or less. Even at 20 seconds, there’s enough of a rotation of the earth so that the stars appear to “move” in that time period, and instead of clear, crisp points of light for stars, you get short little star trails. To get enough light recorded on the sensor in a short amount of time at night also means using ISO levels far higher than what I normally would do! More ISO means more noise, but it was unavoidable in this situation.

FWIW my final info for the shot below:

  • 100mm focal length, keeping my zoom the widest available view
  • 10-second exposure @ f/6.3
  • ISO 6400…what it took to get enough light to see clearly see both stars and the comet.

That’s it! Throw in some noise reduction in Photoshop, and this is the result! I’ll definitely take it! I’m certainly not going to ever compete with those more experienced in astrophotography, but I saw my “bird” and got that “record shot” to prove it. 🙂

Comet Neowise - by Terry Sohl

Photo / Haiku of the Day – Dakota Prairie Falcon

Prairie Apparition

Prowling Dakota skies

A flash across desolate plains

bound for the horizon

Prairie Falcon - Falco mexicanus

When I head to the central part of the state in winter to photograph raptors, I usually do come across a handful of Prairie Falcons during the course of the day. Falcons in general seem to be camera shy, but these guys are particularly difficult to photograph. They tend to flush long before I can get within camera range. There’s always that oddball individual bird, however, and this is one of them. As with every other Prairie Falcon I come across, he DID flush early, while I was still perhaps 50 yards away. However, he was curious! I’d given up on him, but to my surprise he started circling back towards me. I stopped the car and got my camera ready, and was rewarded by a flyby at perhaps 30 feet up, right along the road past my car. One of my favorite falcon shots, given the difficult I’ve photographing these guys. I also love the pose, with the eye contact and the warm morning light.

We now return to our regularly scheduled program…

I’ve not blogged in several weeks. The reason…I largely “unplugged” during that time period. Given what was at stake in the election Tuesday, I just HAD to unplug. Unfortunately that meant staying unplugged not only from the political ugliness, bigotry, misogyny, and hatred that is life under the Trump administration, but also from my website, blog, and posting of bird photos.  To get back in the swing…a photo from one of my favorite bird encounters EVER in South Dakota…the only dark-phase Gyrfalcon I have ever found. As we head into the middle of November, we’re getting close to the time where there’s the potential to see these gorgeous rarities in the central part of South Dakota!  I’m REALLY looking forward to my periodic winter trips to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, as I search for these guys, Snowy Owls, Ferruginous Hawks, Golden Eagles, Prairie Falcons, and other wonderful winter raptors.

As I get back in the swing of my normal online life, I do want to limit or eliminate the vast majority of political commentary on my blog.  It’s not that I don’t have a lot to say, as I DEFINITELY do in this horrible political climate. But keeping my blog primarily focused on birds, birding, and photography is one way to stay sane in such an environment.  However, I simply have to give a parting blog shot regarding the last couple of months, and the election. If you’re in the GOP and are offended by this…GOOD.  That’s what’s called a “conscience”, something your entire party seems to have lost.  Some points:

  • To my fellow Democrats...PLEASE STOP THE DOOM AND GLOOM that many seemed to adopt even after Tuesday. Saturday Night Live NAILED Democratic attitudes since 2016 (and admittedly, before that).  We have had some major traumas over the years, not the least of which is winning two elections by (2000, 2016) by ALL measures the rest of the civilized world uses, only to have our archaic, unfair electoral system award the most powerful office in the world to the person who received the fewest votes. I get it. I get the trauma. I at least understand the paranoia and pessimism that has permeated our party over the last 18 years.  But Dems…TUESDAY WAS AN OVERWHELMING SUCCESS.  Was it perfect? Hell no. I too was devastated by Gillum’s loss in Florida.  I too am incredibly upset about the situation in Georgia, with Kemp apparently squeaking out the narrowest of wins thanks to his own manipulation of Georgia’s voting rolls. And of course there’s Beto, the charismatic face of the election for Dems. That man has a VERY bright future in politics.  The fact that he lost, by 2.5% in ultra-red Texas, doesn’t diminish that future, nor does it diminish what he accomplished. Yes, the Senate seat didn’t flip.  But thanks to Beto, the face of Texas politics has begun to change. Thanks to Beto, it’s very likely two US House seats flipped blue that wouldn’t have otherwise. Dems…WE WON THE HOUSE!! Despite unprecedented gerrymandering by Republicans, despite the need to win the overall popular vote by a whopping 6% just to have a CHANCE to win the House…we flipped it. And not just flipped it, Dems are likely to have a healthy majority of about 231-204.  We also flipped at least 7 governorships, which is an incredibly powerful accomplishment given those governors will have a say in redistricting and eliminating gerrymandering after the 2020 Census. It was a massive success, and we now have a check on the most corrupt administration America has ever known.  Dems, PLEASE LEARN TO CELEBRATE OUR SUCCESSES, and stop wallowing in self pity.  It serves no purpose and only diminishes our progress. Keep fighting the good fight. WE ARE MAKING PROGRESS.  Don’t give in to the despair and pessimism.
  • To Republican Americans...WAKE…THE…FUCK…UP.  I’m going to be blunt. If you’re in the GOP right now and continue to vote for the GOP, there are only three possible categories in which you fall.
    • #1 — You’re a racist — Nothing new here.  Trump won the election in 2016 by fanning the flames of latent racism. Down the stretch in 2018, what did he focus on? The economy? Health care? No…he talked incessantly about the dangers of immigrant hoards taking over the US.  Never mind that the oft-mentioned “caravan” consists of political refugees fleeing violence in their own country, and that a majority of them are women and children. They were presented as a major threat to the American way of life…and a huge chunk of the GOP ate it up.  Given what we’ve seen for almost three years now, since Trump announced he was running back in 2015, the man is an clearly an unabashed racist. Trump campaigned for the GOP on a platform of racism, and GOP voters responded with a resounding YES…THIS IS WHAT WE WANT. THIS IS WHAT WE STAND FOR.  In the long term…you’re destroying your own party. The 2018 elections are just the start. A party built on racism is unsustainable in the long term. From that perspective, I’m glad to see the GOP revealed for what they have been ever since the racist dog whistles that began with Nixon…a party of and for white America, a party that no longer pretends to even try to represent all Americans.  In the short-term however…it’s incredibly destructive.
    • #2 — You’re ignorant — Another huge chunk of the GOP (and indeed, of Americans as a whole). Let’s face it, Americans on BOTH sides often vote on reflex. They vote for a “D” or an “R”. They are completely ignorant of the issues. The don’t know the candidates or what they stand for.  Other than the outright racism demonstrated by the GOP, the second biggest threat to American democracy is apathy.  Trump was RIGHT a couple of weeks ago, when he said the Florida bomber and the mass shooting disrupted GOP momentum.  Despite every illicit, immoral, outright disgusting action taken by the Trump administration over the last 2 years, GOP numbers were rising somewhat as the election approached. Why? Americans can’t be bothered to account for 2 years worth of reprehensible behavior!  It’s forgotten! Ask most people what Mueller is investigating for example, and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare (or an outright lie). Ask about the huge number of indictments of Trump officials…I guarantee the vast majority of Americans don’t remember anything about Manafort, Cohen, and the rest of the corrupt crew.  Americans just…don’t…care.  TRUTH DOESN’T MATTER.  It’s MUCH easier to digest the drivel that’s spoon fed to them by state TV (otherwise known as Fox “News”) than it is for them to learn the truth of what’s really happening. Of course I can’t give this class of GOP voters a pass. That ignorance, the outright apathy, is almost as destructive as GOP racism.  But at least from a moral standpoint, apathy and stupidity is somewhat less disgusting than GOP racism.
    • #3 — You’re a CEO — Or perhaps not a CEO, but a wealthy business owner. Someone who wants to perpetuate a system with the worst income inequality in the world. Someone where corporate or personal profit is the ONLY thing that matters…morality be damned.  In other words…someone exactly like Trump.  From a morality standpoint, clearly this is just as despicable as the racist sect of the GOP.  These are people that simply do not care about the racism, the misogyny, the bigotry, the spread of hatred…as along as it doesn’t interfere with the most business-friendly, least worker-friendly administration in American history.

Despite the election results, it’s still going to be a very rough next few years. We’ve already seen that, where within 12 hours of the election results coming in, the Trump administration makes their move to bury the Mueller investigation.  The response from GOP politicos?  A yawn.  Other than a few outgoing politicians (e.g., Jeff Flake), or the VERY rare class of GOP politicians who seem to actually have any  morality (e.g., incoming Senator Mitt Romney)…there were no condemnations of the complete flout of the rule of law.  There were no calls in the GOP to protect the investigation. For a morally bankrupt party like the GOP, it’s the end result that matters. Nothing else.  The truth? Irrelevant. The LAW? Irrelevant.

The 2018 election was a powerful rebuke of GOP immorality. It’s a WONDERFUL start, but we’ve got a long slog ahead.

And we now return to our regularly scheduled program.  Birds…photography…nature…a MUCH needed distraction in today’s environment.

Juvenile Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus

It’s time!! Getting close at least. Of course I’m talking about our WONDERFUL South Dakota winters, and the birding opportunities that we have. Yes…yes…it’s a cold, glacial hell here in winter. But we do often have incredible numbers of raptors, including the chance to see US mega-rarities. Gyrfalcons are the big prize for me in the winter. This photo from a few years ago is the ONLY dark-phase Gyrfalcon I’ve seen…a gorgeous, gorgeous bird.

The Sparrow’s Nightmare – Haiku / Photo of the day

The Sparrow’s Nightmare

Petite feathered grace,

luminosity expressed, shrouding:

The sparrow’s nightmare

American  Kestrel - Falco sparverius

With fall migration in full swing, I noticed an influx of raptors today, with a number of Red-tailed Hawks perched on roadside telephone poles and fence posts. Accompanying them were American Kestrels in high numbers, a species that breeds here during the summer months, but can sometimes be found in very high densities during migration. Despite all my sightings of American Kestrels, I have few photos of the species. Along with the Belted Kingfisher, I can think of few birds more wary of my camera lens. For that reason, this photo is rather special for me…a brilliantly colored male American Kestrel, that uncharacteristically paused for a moment before flushing at my approach.  Just enough time to grab a few photos of one of my favorite species.  As for the poem, for decades they were called “Sparrow-hawks”, with the species thought to be most closely related to the Eurasian Sparrowhawk. It wasn’t until 1983 that the American Ornithological Society noted the much closer relationship with other North American falcons, and the species was renamed the American Kestrel.

The Autumn Rebel – Photo / Haiku of the Day

The Autumn Rebel

The flamboyant rebel

Defies autumn’s chilly hand

While verdure surrenders

Northern Cardinal - Haiku of the Day

Autumn has arrived in South Dakota, both by calendar, and by feel. A week ago I basted in heat and humidity while working outside all day. This morning I bundled up while I headed outside. The leaves are just starting to turn on most trees, yet it won’t be long before autumn’s brown replaces the summer verdure. I do LOVE the fall though, as it’s usually a pretty active birding period with migrants. While in summer, the brilliant colors of a bird are sometimes lost in the lushness of the surrounding landscape, in autumn stark contrasts are often seen. This is one of my favorite photos, “just” a Northern Cardinal on a crisp fall day, shuffling through the leaf litter looking for food. The warm, late afternoon light, the contrast between bird and surroundings, and the wonderful pose and head turn make it a scene I mentally picture when I think of the wonderful fall season.

Life-sized Carving of Ivory-billed Woodpecker!

Ivory-billed Woodpecker - Carving

A life-sized carving of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in flight! A wonderful piece that my son is absolutely thrilled to now have hanging in his room. My (rather shy) son is holding the piece here.

February 11th, 2004…Gene Sparling was canoeing through the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. A very large, very unusual woodpecker flew towards him and landed in a tree about 60 feet away.  Knowing it was an unusual bird, he posted a possible Ivory-billed Woodpecker sighting on a website. Sixteen days later, two curious ornithologists from Cornell visited the location, and were rewarded with a definitive sighting of the bird!  A bird thought to be extinct…yet here was a confirmed sighting by respected and experienced ornithologists. In the next year and a half, Cornell researchers had 5 more sightings of the bird in the same general area.

I still remember the day when the sightings were publicly announced. I was at work, and we had visitors all week.  As we were getting ready to head back into a meeting room, one of them came up to me very excitedly (knowing I’m a birder), and said “did you see the news??!?!”. I still remember the goosebumps as he told me about the “re-discovery” of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the forested wetlands of Arkansas. In the subsequent weeks and months, a research group from Auburn identified Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the panhandle of Florida. An elated birding world celebrated the sightings.  And then…

Nothing. Nothing, as in no clear, definitive photos of the species. With a handful of sightings, that’s hardly a surprise to a bird photographer like myself. For example, Red-headed Woodpeckers are very common around here.  I see them about 50% of the days when I take gravel roads to work in the summer. And yet despite many attempts to photograph them over the years, I have precious few photos.  They have a tendency to cling to a telephone pole or tree, and hop to the backside of it, placing the tree between the camera and themselves!  With maybe a dozen half-way decent sightings of an Ivory-billed in the 2004-2006 time frame, I’m not surprised no definitive photo was obtained.

But since then, there have been very few (credible) reports of the bird, and nothing as definitive as the sightings from dedicated ornithologists from Cornell and Auburn. Even worse, since then, many others have rebelled against the Cornell and Auburn sightings, claiming they were faked, either by a good-faith mistake, or by some weird evil intention. The one aspect of birding (and humanity!) that I absolutely DESPISE…mean-spirited people who love nothing more than tearing down the accomplishments of others. Some well known birders published their opinions about the sightings, claiming wrong-doing by the researchers who saw the birds. That spiteful, small-minded, petty hate/jealousy has since infected the debate, with far too many people dismissing the original sightings as faked.  There’s a history here, as sightings of the bird going back decades have been decried as fakes, even when photographs were obtained. The best example…Fielding Lewis took very clear photos of a female Ivory-billed in 1971. George Lowery, head of the American Ornithological Union, excitedly presented those photos to the group’s yearly meeting…and he was greeted by catcalls and jeering.  Even the most respected ornithologists in the world aren’t immune for the mean-spirited, EVIL treatment from the jealous birding crowd who will never accept a sighting regardless of the evidence.

In the years since the Auburn and Cornell sightings, I’ve tried to follow the story, looking for evidence of additional sightings. One website I look at is “Ivory-Bills Live???!”. During the early years after the Cornell sightings, the site and others had many enthusiastic updates, and it seemed like better confirmed evidence of the survival of the species was just around the corner. As the years have gone by, that enthusiasm has waned and the reports have become few and far between, but I still check sites like this quite often.

Over the summer I checked Ivory-Bills Live, and saw a post about some beautiful Ivory-billed Woodpecker carvings that were being done by a Dean Hurliman in Burlington, Iowa. The post stated that he was going to finish perhaps 8 more, bringing his total to about 50 of his carvings that were in the hands of birders and other collectors. The post had some words from Dean, saying he was looking for homes for his final set of carvings, and to send him a note if there was interest.

Given the fascination I had with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, I immediately thought of sending an email to Dean, but more for my son than for myself. My son is a teenager now and my part-time birding/fishing/rockhounding/outdoor buddy!  He already had a bird painting hanging in his room, one he bought with his own money while we were on vacation. He also had some small carved birds he bought. I thought, what better way to continue that “spark” for a budding young birder, than having this unique piece?

I crafted an email to Dean, noting where the carving would end up, and hoping that it would continue that birding spark in my son. I was hoping it would become one of his most prized possessions.  To my surprise, Dean responded, and said he would start work on a carving to send our way!  The carving arrived today…what a beautiful creation!  What a magnificent creature! What a great rendition! I absolutely adore the pose, and Dean has it perfectly balanced for hanging. When hung, it’s in the perfect position, as a bird gaining altitude after taking off in flight.

The carving now occupies a place of HONOR in my son’s bedroom, hanging from the ceiling in the “bird corner”, along with the painting he bought. Dean Hurliman…THANK YOU SO MUCH for your beautiful work! You have a heart of gold for doing this, and have you yourself become part of the lore of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker!

Ivory-billed Woodpecker carving

The final display location for the carving, in the “bird corner” of my son’s bedroom. I can think of no better item to get a budding birder excited about the hobby.

 

Ode to the Sparrow – Photo/Haiku of the Day

Ode to a Sparrow

A whisper in the grass

“Just a sparrow”, overlooked.

Autumn’s hidden jewel

Le Conte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii

We’re approaching mid-September, and with it, one of my favorite birding migrations of the year. Warblers? Fall shorebirds? Migrating raptors? No, I treasure early to mid-Autumn for the wonderful array of sparrow species that migrate through eastern South Dakota. Among them are one of my top 3 species of all time…the Le Conte’s Sparrow. No “little brown job”…not “just a sparrow”…the Le Conte’s Sparrow is a brilliant array of complex patterns and beautiful warm tones.  With a reputation as a “skulker”, they’re a prized birding target for many, but during fall migration here, I’ve found them to be very approachable and rather easy to photograph. Along with the other 20 or so sparrow species that migrate through in the fall, a sparrow bonanza is just around the corner!

 

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Prairie Ghost

The Prairie Ghost

Swift ghost of the prairie

shepherding harem and young

As winter’s despair beckons

Pronghorn Buck - Antilocapra americana

Custer State Park’s famed “Wildlife Loop” never disappoints, but it’s just after dawn when the magical moments occur. Pronghorn are often seen in Custer State Park, but they are typically easier to spot in the early morning hours, before most visitors start to arrive in the park. On this morning, a harem of perhaps 6 females and their young-of-the-year surprised me by cresting a nearby hill. They then slowly worked their way towards me as they grazed, unconcerned about the photographer in the parked car. Last to crest the hill was the big male, the protector of the little band. I watched for 15 minutes as the herd fed in the adjacent grasslands. As they slowly moved on down the hill, the trailing buck paused for a moment to give me a stare.  I evidently passed his judgement, and he then trotted off after his harem as they disappeared around the bend.  The grasslands were still lush from a wet and bountiful summer and forage was good, but the leaves were beginning to change, and a harsh South Dakota winter was just around the corner.

Photo Haiku – The Literate Pheasant

Ring-necked Pheasant - No Hunting

Probably my favorite photo of all time. This was taken near Presho, South Dakota, on a cold winter’s day. The sun was just rising, when I came over a hill and saw this male Ring-necked Pheasant on the fence. To my surprise he didn’t immediately fly, but stayed in the perfect position while I took several photos. The pose…the light…the setting…and of course, the “no hunting” sign…I couldn’t have staged a better photo set up myself. What better photo to inspire a haiku…

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