Birding > Bird photos? Or vice versa?

My start in both birding and photograph began in December of 2000.  I bought my first SLR camera, and was excited to go out and use it. I headed out on a cold, snowy day, looking for…something…to photograph, when I came across some Canada Geese around the small unfrozen edge of a local quarry.  From the start, birds were my most common photographic subject.  Soon, they were nearly my ONLY photographic subject.

While I loved shooting birds, for many years, my primary focus when going out was getting photos.  Seeing birds was certainly wonderful as well, but I tended to measure success of a trip in terms of how many “keeper” photos I got.  Even if I saw a rare bird, I was often disappointed when I was unable to get a photo of it.

Fast forward 18 years. I have photos for most species you could reasonably expect to see in South Dakota. I have photos for many species you would NOT normally expect in South Dakota. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve reached my saturation point for photos for many species, but in the last 3 or 4 years, things have changed. I was a photographer first, birder second.  Now, I’m definitely a birder first, photographer second.  I spend MUCH more time using my binoculars, scanning that far away bird to see if it’s a rarity.  In the past, I often ignored far away birds, as I knew I couldn’t get a good photo.  I think that’s what’s so nice about valuing BOTH the birds themselves, and the photography aspect.  When you go out on a trip, you’re rarely disappointed.

Here’s a few recent photos…

Yellow Warbler - Setophaga petechia

A curious Yellow Warbler. It’s been a very slow spring so far for migrating warblers, but as always, there’s never a shortage of Yellow Warblers around.

Harris's Sparrow - Zonotrichia querula

One of my favorite species, a Harris’s Sparrow. They are actually relatively easy to find here during migration.

Blue-winged Warbler - Vermivora cyanoptera

A Blue-winged Warbler, a rarity in South Dakota. However, there’s one specific spot of Newton Hills State Park where one or two breeding pairs are almost always found.

Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis

I have a billion Northern Cardinal Photos. However, when you get an opportunity for these guys, even if it’s a relatively long-distance opportunity such as this one, you can’t pass it up! I’m starting to really appreciate shots like this, or other shots where the bird is smaller in the frame. That’s particularly the case if I’m able to show a lot of their natural habitat in the frame. Here, I just like the simple composition, the pose of the bird, the warm light, and that beautiful blue sky.

“Blind Luck” – Shooting Waterfowl

Silly waterfowl.  In a state where everybody seems to have a shotgun in the back of their pickup, for some reason waterfowl here are quite shy when people are around.  For a bird photographer, that makes life a wee bit difficult.  It’s practically impossible to be walking, standing, or otherwise visible and be within shooting range of most waterfowl here. Fortunately, there are several ways of using blinds that allow you to get extremely close…sometimes so close that the birds are too close for my 400mm lens to focus (it has a 12 foot minimum focusing distance).

After a blizzard and 19″ total inches of snow last week, today is sunny and 60.  I left before dawn and went west of Sioux Falls in search of waterfowl and shorebirds. The shorebirds weren’t around, but there certainly were plenty of waterfowl. I won’t go into the details (I had a post once about the blinds I use to get close to birds), but this morning used a combination of three blinds…1) my car, 2) a portable blind I always have with me, and 3) a permanent blind build on a local wetland.  GREAT morning of shooting, with absolutely perfect light for some of these.  Some pics from the day:

Redhead - Aythya americana

Female and Male Redhead, taken in some nice warm, early morning light on a local wetland.

Pied-billed Grebe - Podilymbus podiceps

One of my favorite little birds, a Pied-billed Grebe. They’re not as shy as all the ducks and geese around here, but they do have a nasty habit of just slowly sinking below the surface and swimming away underwater, RIGHT when you’re about to hit the shutter on the camera. Was glad to get a nice detailed shot in the light right after sunrise.

Mallard - Anas platyrhynchos

“Just” a mallard. “Just”? JUST!?!?! I admit that’s my opinion too many times, but you have to admit a drake Mallard is one damned beautiful duck.

Swainson's Hawk - Buteo swainsoni

It’s not just waterfowl moving through right now. Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels are seemingly everywhere right now, and today MANY Swainson’s Hawks like this one showed up.

Great Egret - Ardea alba

With snow still on the ground in many places and temperatures only starting to warm up in the last couple of days, I wasn’t sure what I’d find this morning, but I think the birds are moving more by the calendar than the temperature. I did run across one large wetland with many Great Egrets foraging in the shallows.

Redhead Drake - Aythya americana

Such beautiful birds! Such wonderful lighting this morning! This may be one of my favorite duck photos that I’ve ever taken.

Double-crested Cormorant - Phalacrocorax auritus

A Double-crested Cormorant swimming near the shoreline. They are SUCH cool birds when you see them up close, with those impossibly blue turquoise eyes.

Blue-winged teal - Anas discors

A male Blue-winged Teal. One of the most common dabbling ducks around here, and not all that colorful (until they fly), but they do have some wonderfully intricate patterns on their flanks, along with the unique face crescent.

Lesser Scaup - Aythya affinis

A male Lesser Scaup, one of the most common diving ducks we get in migration.

Macro Mania

As a bird photographer I don’t put on my macro lens very often, but I got it out this afternoon to take some macro photos of the batch of Mexican Crazy Lace agates that I got this past week. Before I started tumble polishing them, I wanted to record what they look like in their natural state. When you zoom in extremely close like this, you can really see the beauty. It boggles my mind that these gorgeous patterns are all made by nature…such variety, such cool patterns, such wonderful colors.

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace AgateMacro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace AgateMacro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Cheating in Photoshop – The “Warm” Eclipse

After viewing a number of eclipse photos on the web, I’ve decided to likewise “cheat”.  When you see the total eclipse live, you’re primarily seeing white light.  Most of the photos you see from the event thus  similarly show a white solar aura around the dark disc of the moon.  However, you also see photos with a very colorful, warm light.

I’m calling it…it’s “cheating”. It’s clearly applying some kind of warming filter.  I don’t do much in the way of photoshop manipulation, but I actually do kind of like the look of the “warm” colored eclipse.  Here’s my shot at doing the same:

Solar eclipse - 2017

My “cheating” version of the eclipse, with a warming filter applied to give it a more “sunny” look (at least how people tend to perceive the color of the sun).

Eclipse Hunting, Rockhounding, and Dinos…Oh My!

What an utterly spectacular weekend with my son.  We had originally planned to head down to my hometown in Nebraska to view the eclipse Monday. A cloudy forecast for much of Nebraska led to a last-second change of plans, and our extended weekend turned into a weekend of SCIENCE!  And may I say, given how the relentless attack on science continues ever since the election of Orange Hitler, a much NEEDED weekend of science.

Our whirlwind sciency tour was planned in haste on Saturday night.  At that time, the surest bet for sunny skies for the eclipse were in eastern Wyoming, a good 7-8 hour drive from home.  We decided to make a weekend of it, stay in the Black Hills over night Sunday (the nearest hotel we could find to the eclipse path…2 hours away!), and do some agate, fossil, and petrified wood exploring on the way.  Sunday we spent some time on Buffalo Gap National Grasslands in the morning, again finding some nice geologic goodies. By Sunday afternoon we’d made it to Hill City, SD, and spent some time in the Black Hills Institute’s Museum. Wonderful place to look at dinosaur fossils, geologic wonders, and other interesting displays.

The highlight of the trip of course was the eclipse on Monday. Anticipating heavy traffic, we left Hill City by 5:30 AM, and made our way to Lusk, Wyoming.  Traffic wasn’t as bad as we thought, so we were there by 8:00 AM. We grabbed supplies, found a quiet gravel road 20 miles SW of Lusk, and waited for the show.

That “quiet” gravel road ended up being not so quiet. Despite the isolation, other eclipse watchers from all over North America paraded by us, searching out pullouts on the side of the road from which to set up camp. By the time the moon first started to creep in front of the sun, our quiet gravel road had people camped out about every 30 yards for as far as the eye can see. People continued to stream down the road, all the way up until the point of totality.

I’ve never seen a total eclipse. My son has never seen a total eclipse. After this experience, I GUARANTEE that we will make plans to see another, as soon as is feasible (likely 2024).  If there’s a more spine-tingling, goosebump-raising, incredible experience to be had, I’m not sure what it is. As the light got every more dim and eerie, anticipation rose, but the moment of totality kind of sneaks up on you. There was more light than I expected, RIGHT up until totality. The awe of seeing the initial “diamond ring” effect, following by complete totality, is beyond words.

I did want to try to photograph the eclipse. I did take several photos at the start of totality, but after several photos, I HAD to put the camera down, and just revel in the moment.  Other than rather incredible traffic trying to get out of Wyoming and back to South Dakota, it was one of the best travel adventures we’ve ever had.

A few shots of the eclipse, before my jaw dropped and the camera was ignored…

Solar eclipse - 2017

Moments before totality, a few seconds of the “diamond ring” effect. I had read about the stages of the eclipse, and knew this was supposed to happen right before totality. Seeing it was still indescribable.

Solar Eclipse - 2017

The eclipse during the 2_ minutes of totality. This has a bit longer exposure than the next shot, gathering more light so you can see more of the corona. Shooting in this fashion though hides the detail you can observe around the edge of the moon’s disc (see next photo).

Solar Eclipse - 2017

Lower exposure reveals what you can see with your own eyes during totality (at least through my camera, or through our binoculars)…solar prominences flaring off the surface of the sun. This was the moment I dropped the camera and just enjoyed the show. With such a short 2+ minute window to enjoy totality, I didn’t want to miss it with my face behind a camera.

 

Takin’ a hike through active lava flows…

Just your casual, ordinary, every day hike this past Monday. We were vacationing on the Big Island of Hawai’i, and had booked a guide to take us to the active lava flows of Kilauea.  We arose before 3:00 AM, met our guide at 4:00AM, and drove as close as you can get to the active flows.  That’s a minimum of 3 to 4 miles away from either the surface flows or the lava’s entry point into the ocean, which meant a early morning hike was in order.  It’s not the easiest hike in the world! For the first 2 miles, you’re following a gravel road and it’s easy, but to get to the active surface flows, we had to hike a good 1 1/2 to 2 miles across the rough, older flows from Kilauea.

A tiring hike, particularly on the way back when the sun starts beating down on you, but SO worth it! It was the hike of a lifetime, as we were able to experience active, flowing lava from as close as we could physically tolerate.  10 feet was about the limit for me, as any closer and the heat from the lava was overwhelming. An incredible experience for our little family!  Here are some photos from the day…click on each photo for a larger view. When I have time to process video I’ll post out here as well.

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilaluea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea - Lava field sunrise

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava - Epic Lava Dude

The guide who took us to the exact location where lava was flowing on the surface was from EpicLava. Highly recommended, once-in-a-lifetime experience!!

There be BIRDS at the end of the rainbow!!

End of the Rainbow - Lincoln County, South Dakota

The age old question of what’s at the end of the rainbow has been answered. It’s this family farm in Lincoln County, South Dakota

I went birding last night, on a weird weather day in South Dakota.  It was cloudy, then sunny, then cloudy again as a brief thunderstorm would roll through, then sunny again…wash, rinse, repeat.  It was actually a bit of a crisp day with temps hanging around 55 degrees, but even so, there were a couple of the little thunderstorms that put out quite a bit of pea-size hail.  It was such a strange evening given that it was absolutely pouring rain at times, yet the sun was shining.

Despite the rain, the birding was quite wonderful (as it generally is in South Dakota in May!!) The best birding for the day was when I was hanging out by a large wetland, one that had swollen with the recent rains to cover much of the surrounding farmland in a shallow sheet of water. Shorebirds were certainly loving it, as were a beautiful little group of Black Terns.  Forster’s Terns were much more numerous, hanging out on fence posts during the rain spells, dipping and diving over the water whenever the rain would stop. It was actually quite peaceful, watching the intermittent downpours, then seeing the birds jump back to life again when the sun would break out. It’s tough being a bird though when the hail starts!  They seemed to do OK with the little pea-size hail that fell at one point. but they weren’t very happy about it!  Shorebirds tended to crouch low during the hail, as did the terns on the posts, but otherwise, they just stayed still and endured.

Although the birding was quite good, the best moment of the night occurred after one of the little thunderstorms. With small scattered storms separated by wide bands of open sky, the sun was frequently pushing through, even during some of the rainy moments.  A beautiful and extremely long-lasting rainbow lit up the eastern sky and was visible for over half an hour as the little thunderstorm continued slowly pushing on to the south and east.  It was a full rainbow, with a partial double rainbow above it, but without my wide-angle lens along (hey, I’m a birder, I rarely use it anyway), I wasn’t able to get a photo of the whole thing. Instead, with my 400mm birding lens on, I decided to shoot what was at the end of the rainbow…this family farm! I’ve certainly never tried shooting a rainbow with a telephone lens, but I think the effect was quite beautiful.

The weather is supposed to be beautiful again this weekend, so hopefully within the next day or two I’ll have some more birding photos and stories to share…

Forster's Tern - Sterna forsteri

A Forster’s Tern perched on a little metal fence pole. This was just prior to the arrival of a little rain band that produced pea-sized hail. Fortunately, the birds seem to cope with the small hail quite well.

Birding the April Migration in South Dakota

The day started off rather gloomy and wet, but after being on travel far too much lately and not getting a chance to bird, I was determined to head out today no matter what the weather was doing.  I birded about 4 hours, staying primarily around Sioux Falls and Minnehaha County, and ended up having a great day. It’s clearly not peak migration yet for shorebirds, but they are starting to show up.  Numbers were generally small in most places, but there was a pretty decent variety.  Here are some photos from the day, many of which are “first-of-year” sightings for me.  Click on the photos for an even higher-resolution version.

White-faced Ibis - Plegadis chihi

White-faced Ibis are a species that I don’t see all that often, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen them in Minnehaha County. There were 19 foraging in a flooded field west of Sioux Falls.

Swainson's Hawk - Buteo swainsoni

Another first-of-year, a Swainson’s Hawk soaring overhead when the sun came out this afternoon. I ended up seeing several Swainson’s Hawks for the day.

Franklin's Gull - Leucophaeus pipixcan

Franklin’s Gulls are one of my favorite spring migrants…they’re so beautiful when they have the blush of pink on their undersides. This wasn’t a first-of-year sighting, as I saw a few in the last couple of weeks. However, they’re really starting to come through in big numbers right now. This was right on the edge of Sioux Falls, at Harmodan Park on the southeast side of town.

Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs - Comparison

By far the most common shorebird today were Lesser Yellowlegs, with a few Greater Yellowlegs mixed in. Here’s a nice comparison shot of the two. It’s pretty evident when they’re side-by-side, but not always so easy when a lone bird is spotted.

Great Egret - Ardea alba

I have a billion Great Egret photos. But whenever I come across this beautiful bird, I can’t help but take yet another…

New website changes, including new “Favorites” section

Elegant Trogon - Trogon elegans

This isn’t one of my best photos from a technical or artistic standpoint, but it definitely is one of my favorites! It’s an Elegant Trogon, a find from a November 2015 trip south of Tucson. One of my most memorable experiences as a birder, so it’s high-time I update my “favorite photos” section to include photos a little newer than just those from 2000 to 2010!!

I’ve been working on my main website a lot lately (sdakotabirds.com), trying to fix some technical issues, as well as address content issues. On the technical side, note my site is now completely “secure”.  When you try to access the site, no matter what you type in (“sdakotabirds.com”, “http://sdakotabirds.com”, “www.sdakotabirds.com”, etc), you should be rerouted to the safe, SSL “secured” pages with the https:// prefix.  Given that Google search rankings are now said to be affected by whether a site uses https or not, I figured it was about time to make the switch.  It should also help people feel more comfortable on my blog should they want to register on my blog or comment on a post.

I’ve also been working on streamlining my website.  When I first started making my website 15 years ago, I had a “species photo” page that showed all the photos I had for that species. You’d then click on a little image chip that would take you to a separate web page for each individual photo.  My photo collection on my website is now around 5,000 individual photos.  That means I actually have (or had) 5,000 individual pages.  It DOES help me to provide more information about an individual photo, such as details about when and where it was taken, or other anecdotal information that I may want to convey with a photo.  It’s not very efficient though!  It’s made my website massive and unwieldy, and given so many similar pages (for example, ~40 different individual pages for each of the ~40 or so Ruby-throated Hummingbird photos I have), it’s also resulted in “penalties” for how Google ranks my website.  I’m greatly simplifying the structure of my website for displaying photos.  I’m working on having each species have only one web page for the display of photos.  All photos of that species are provided on the one page, as smaller image “chips”.  Clicking on the image chip brings up the photo itself, instead of directing you to another web page that contains the photo. In progress, but it should cut down the number of individual web pages on my website by ~75%, and will make it much easier to navigate around my photo collection.

I’m also working on updating material in other parts of my website. One focus right now is my “Favorite Photos” section. It’s been a long time since I’ve updated that page, so most of my “favorites” were photos from 2000 to around 2010.  I’m updating that page right, making it 1) more “selective” in what I deem to be a “favorite”, and 2) more current, with favorite photos from 2000 all the way through the present day.  Clicking on each “favorite” will bring you to a new webpage with a large version of the photo, and a story about what makes the photo special to me. Given how out-of-date my old favorite photo section was, I hope this provides a better impression of my photography, my favorites, and what makes me “tick” as a birder and a photographer!

More website updates are coming this spring as well, including 1) new Bird Quizzes to go with the ones I already have, and completion of the individual species pages for all ~980 or so species that have been seen in North America.  If there are any other things you’d like to see on my main website, let me know and I’ll see what I can do!

2017 bird calendar done – Free, downloadable, printable

August 2017 Bird Calendar - Horned Puffin

The August representative on the free 2017 bird calendar. This is a Horned Puffin, taken off the coast of Seward Alaska at a place called “Fox Island”. He was obviously nesting and feeding young, diving down for fish, coming to the surface periodically, and repeating until it had a beak full of food. Here I captured him just after he surfaced from a dive.

As I do every year, I completed a free, downloadable and printable bird calendar for the upcoming year.  The calendar pages can be downloaded by month, and are set up for standard letter-sized paper, so they can easily be printed at home.  The calendar pages are available from here:

Free 2017 Bird Calendar

I changed things up a bit this year.  Given that I always offer the calendar through my South Dakota Birds and Birding website, in the past, I’ve always restricted myself to photos from South Dakota itself.  Not this year.  Any time I go on travel outside the state, be it for work, family vacation, or other reason, I bring my camera.  I have so, so many bird and wildlife photos from outside of South Dakota, none of which have been on my calendars before, so this year decided to use images from across the United States.  California, Alaska, Oregon, Minnesota, Florida, Maine, Arizona, Utah…several states are represented, with many birds that you’re just not going to ever see in South Dakota (or are there Horned Puffins in South Dakota?).  Below are the months, the bird that’s represented for each month, and where that photo was taken.  You can also click on the links below for direct access to the printable PDFs for each month.

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