South Dakota Winter – Best…photo…day…ever!!

Since I’m still not allowed to go back to work, I spent yet another day birding in the central part of the state. It was a day with lower overall numbers of raptors. I saw far fewer Rough-legged Hawks than normal. I didn’t see any Gyrfalcons, Snowy Owls, Short-eared Owls…some of the “goodies” you often find.  But birding and photography is funny! I’ve had awesome birding days where I got very few photos. Today was the opposite…not huge numbers of birds, but some really wonderful photo opportunities.  Here’s some pics from the day with a little info for each:

Prairie Falcon - Falco mexicanus

While it wasn’t a banner day for many of the “usuals”, I saw more Prairie Falcons (7) than I remember seeing in one day. “Seeing” and “photographing” are two very different things, however. Prairie Falcons are about THE shyest, most skittery raptor I know of. Today however I got a real treat. While birding in Jones County, I saw a falcon on a telephone pole. As I always do, I first stopped a long distance off, grabbed the binoculars, and tried to identify it. Definite Prairie Falcon. I then started to approach, and as ALWAYS happens with Prairie Falcons…it flew off LONG before I got into camera range.  But then something funny happened…it turned around. Still not expecting much, I got out of the pickup and grabbed my camera. But he came closer…and closer…and closer, and I soon realized he was going to fly RIGHT over my head! I couldn’t have asked for a better setup…bird approaching on a clear day, sun in the perfect position to get nice lighting on him, and he was CLOSE…closer than I think I’ve ever been to a Prairie Falcon. He passed right overhead, and then proceeded to…well…check out the next photo.

Prairie Falcon and Lapland Longspurs

As the Prairie Falcon flew towards me and over the field behind me, there was an eruption of Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks, and quite a few Snow Buntings. THAT got the Prairie Falcon’s attention. Instead of continuing to fly past and away from me, he again turned, and started to interact with the mixed flock of birds. At points it was almost like he was herding them! He never came as close as he did for the original overpass, but he offered some more really nice photo opportunities, and with several shots I captured some of his potential prey in the background. Despite scaring the flock of little birds, I never did see him actually make a strong move towards one. After a little while he seemed to get bored, and went back to a nearby telephone pole.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

I remember when I first started birding, and came across my first bald eagle. It was the winter of 1999/2000, and I thought it was the most magical experience I’d ever had! In the 20 years since then, Bald Eagles have become, well…downright COMMON! When I bird the central part of the state in winter, I always run across them. There are several nest locations in the area, and I always KNOW there will be Bald Eagles in a few select spots. One such spot is near Presho, and when I drove past it, sure enough…there were 4 Bald Eagles in a small grove of trees, 3 adults and one sub-adult. Given how often I’ve seen eagles there, I’m sure they’re the same ones, or the same family. As such, perhaps today they gave me a pass and stuck around and let me photograph them! Three of the birds were hidden within the branches or were towards the back of the grove, but one bold individual adult just stared at me from his perch, wondering what I was up to. I watched him for quite some time, before he did what many raptors do right before they’re about to take flight…he pooped and positioned himself to fly off. Those can be truly wonderful moments for photography, with some truly angelic poses. This is now probably one of my favorite Bald Eagle photos that I’ve taken (and I will add it to the hundreds of other Bald Eagle photos I already have!).

Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis

Not only did I have a banner day for Prairie Falcons, but I also saw more Ferruginous Hawks than I normally do…5. 4 of them were in Jones County, and the reason was obvious…Prairie Dogs. Without exception, all 5 Ferruginous Hawks on the day were in and around prairie dog towns. I do have a few photos of other color morphs, but today all were the same light color morph (the most common one). Some, like this bird, are SO snowy white on their undersides with barely a hint of marking, that I sometimes mistake them for Snowy Owls as I approach from a distance! One of my favorite bird species, hands down, and there’s a bonus with Ferruginous Hawks…they are MUCH more cooperative for bird photographers than nearly any other raptor species on the grasslands!

Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis

My longest birding lens, and the lens with which I’ve shot at least 95% of my photos with over the last 15 years, is a Canon 400mm 5.6L. Yes, it’s now 15 years old. But it has always been one SHARP lens, with some incredible detail when you get a bird filling the frame of a photo. The downside…most birders use a 500mm or 600mm, WITH a tele-extender. In short…they have a LOT more “reach” than I have! Because of that I’ve 1) learned how to overcome using a somewhat shorter lens, and 2) learned to accept I’m going to miss some shots where more length is required. However, that latter point is all bad. While I like photos with the birds filling the frame, I also like photos showing the bird interacting with its environment. Here, I came across another Ferruginous Hawk on a prairie dog town. I was nowhere near close enough to get a frame-filling photo, so instead worked on capturing his behavior as he “worked” the prairie dog town, alternating between sitting on the ground or a fence post, and flying through the prairie dog town looking for prey. I never did see him capture anything but it was fun to watch the behavior and try to catch it in a photo.

Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos

Speaking of “environment” photos…here’s a pair of Golden Eagles at the “usual” hangout. By “usual” I should say nearly ALWAYS. This was taken south of Presho, in one of my favorite birding locations. This fallen down structure nearly always…ALWAYS…has a golden eagle sitting on it! Well, during winter and in the morning, that is. When I make trips to this area, I usually try to make it to the Presho area by dawn, and this is one of the first areas I look for raptors. And I swear, 95% of the time when I drive past this fallen-down structure, there’s a golden eagle sitting on it. Today there were two eagles! This kind of winter-range site fidelity is pretty cool, and it’s not just these Golden Eagles. About 5 miles northwest of here, west of Presho, is a farmstead where I ALWAYS find a Northern Shrike in winter. ALWAYS. Has to be the same one, right? Again, not a frame filler of a photo, but I love showing these birds at their favorite hangout.

Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus

Ok, this one is cheating a bit. This one isn’t from Wednesday, January 9th, it’s from Friday, January 4th. Rough-legged Hawks aren’t as numerous this winter as they can be many winters, but there still are always at least a few hanging around. Here’s one taking flight in the early morning sunlight.

 

Catching up…A mere 8,391 photos to process, upload, display

Photo processing - the long slog

One of two directories worth of “good” photos that I just need to finish processing, and put somewhere where they’ll see the light of day.

Uh…yeah. I’m running a bit behind in terms of processing photos.  Starting in around, oh…2012…I got lazy. Instead of processing photos from a trip rather quickly to ensure I actually DID it, I let them languish. I’d occasionally go back and revisit old shoots, but the photos kept piling up.  Now I didn’t just completely ignore photos from a trip. For all of these photo shoots since early 2014, I DID go in and thin out all the bad photos. I converted the remaining photos from RAW and did some basic image processing. All these photos are thus “good” shots that I’ve just never done anything with. I haven’t cataloged them.  I haven’t put them on my own website. I haven’t put them on any of the photo sites where I have accounts. No Facebook, no Twitter…these are photos that are almost ready to go, but have never seen the light of day.

I’m now finding that on days I don’t go birding, I can pretty much do some virtual birding in my upstairs office, perusing all these unprocessed photos and getting them out on my website and elsewhere.  I’m finding SO many photos that I didn’t know I had! Species I didn’t remember shooting!  Wonderful scenes and settings that have since slipped my mind! So, I’ve decided to take a break. Take a break from going out quite as often as I’m used, and instead, catching up on the photos that I DO have.

Two directories worth of photos…one with 4,491 photos, one with 3,900 photos, all in need of polishing and uploading to somewhere that people can actually see them!  I’m going through it rather randomly, going back to some trip from 2012, back to 2018, etc. Not only am I “discovering” some nice photos, I’m finding photos that may be some of my favorite photos of all time!

No idea how long this will take, but it’s a nice way to spend days I don’t go out birding. Here’s a more recent photo, from Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado earlier this summer.

Woodhouse's Scrub Jay - Aphelocoma woodhouseii

 

Latest Agate/Jasper Batch from Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

I’ve been on vacation for a couple of weeks, and have been playing catch up since getting back a week ago.  Hence no blog posts for a few weeks. One advantage of being gone…my rock tumbler continued to carry on, and finished off a really beautiful batch that I’ve been working on the last 3 months.  It’s one I’m particularly fond of, because every stone here is one that my son and I found on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands here in South Dakota.

I guess I have a hard time classifying these, although most are prairie agates, with some bubblegum agates, jaspers, and quartz as well.  Photos of the latest batch (click on the smaller ones at the end for a larger view).

Prairie Agate - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

Prairie Agate - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

Prairie Agate - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

Prairie Agate - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

Prairie Agate - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

Prairie Agate - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

Bubblegum Agate - Buffalo Gap National GrasslandsBubblegum Agate - Buffalo Gap National GrasslandsBubblegum Agate - Buffalo Gap National GrasslandsBubblegum Agate - Buffalo Gap National GrasslandsBubblegum Agate - Buffalo Gap National GrasslandsJasper - Buffalo Gap National GrasslandsJasper - Buffalo Gap National GrasslandsJasper - Buffalo Gap National GrasslandsPrairie Agate - Buffalo Gap National GrasslandsPrairie Agate - Buffalo Gap National GrasslandsQuartz - Buffalo Gap National GrasslandsPrairie Agate - Buffalo Gap National GrasslandsPrairie Agate - Buffalo Gap National GrasslandsPrairie Agate - Buffalo Gap National GrasslandsPrairie Agate - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

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.

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