Another Northern Lights display

Northern Lights, South Dakota

Northern Lights on the early morning of November 7th, 2015 in southeastern South Dakota.

What would I do without my cell phone?  How did people survive without them?  OK…I DO have a nice iPhone.  I would bet I use it less than 99% of all other human beings with a cell phone.  But there are times it comes in handy.  At about 10:00 last night I was about to go to bed, when the phone beeped with a notice. I have an app called “Solar Monitor” that you can use to track solar weather, and it said that a “moderate storm” was in progress.

Since it was a Friday night and I could sleep in this morning, I grabbed my camera and went out to try to take some shots.  I would say that the Northern Lights this time were much better than they were several weeks ago when I was able to see and photograph them for the first time ever.  Last time, it was a glow on the horizon, without much appearance of movement or any distinct features.  Last night, there was a short stretch where you could see them with the naked eye quite well, and could see the changing patterns of the “curtain” of light.

I’m still not the greatest at photographing them however!  Part of it is my equipment.  I just never shoot landscapes and the like so don’t really have a great wide-angle lens.  But who am I kidding, it’s not just equipment.  I have no idea what I’m doing trying to shoot them!  After a lot of experimentation last night I came up with something that at least produced a decent looking image.

A nice unexpected night of photography!!

Pictures! Of things with “feathers”!!

Nelson's Sparrow - Ammodramus nelsoni

A Nelson’s Sparrow, one of the rather elusive “skulkers” that moves through the area in the fall.

For a website that started out as a place to share my bird photos, it sure seems like it’s been a long time since I’ve actually posted any bird photos.  Snakes?  Check!  Insects? Check?  Even an aurora? Check!!  But photos of creatures with feathers haven’t been very prominent lately.

It’s not like I haven’t been out birding.  Since late May, I haven’t birded as much as I would over a normal summer, but I have been out on occasion.  I truly haven’t had much luck getting good photos though.  Part of the issue is 1) my reluctance to shoot (yet more) photos of species that I already have many photographs, and 2) a higher standard for what constitutes a “keeper” photo.  In bird photography, it’s inevitable that you’ll toss most of your photos (dang things don’t sit still and pose for a nice picture!), but I toss more photos now than I ever have.

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

A Red-tailed Hawk, busy feeding on grasshoppers. This guy was gorging, looking down from this fence post, dropping down to grab the sluggish fall grasshoppers, coming back to the post to consume it, and then looking for another.

I spent time birding and taking photos the last couple of days, with the intention of actually getting photos “good enough” to put on my website.  Mission accomplished!  I really love birding in the fall.  While May is a magical month for warblers and other migrants that move through, October is a month for sparrows!  Sparrows aren’t exactly high on the “must see” list for most people (even many birders), but there’s a wonderful variety that moves through in the fall.  Despite the tendency for most people to think of sparrows as rather drab birds, there are also several with truly beautiful plumage.

One of the highlights in the fall for me are finding Le Conte’s and Nelson’s Sparrows.  Neither breed in my part of the state, and I never seem to be able to find them when they move north through the area in the spring.  However, I have multiple locations where I’ve had great luck finding them in the fall, particularly Le Conte’s Sparrows.  The species is highly sought by many birders, having a reputation of being “skulky” and difficult to find.  They definitely do stick to thick vegetation, usually in thick wet meadows or along the edges of wetlands, but with patience, you’ll usually get some good looks of them as they forage and go about their business in the fall.

Savannah Sparrow - Passerculus sandwichensis

One of the more common sparrows moving through in the fall, a Savannah Sparrow. You often see loose collections of a few dozen birds at this time of year.

Raptors can also be fun in the fall, typically not so much for variety of species in this part of the state (southeastern South Dakota), but in terms of sheer number.  You tend to see concentrations of American Kestrels, Red-tailed Hawks, and a handful of others as they move through in the fall.  It also tends to be a pretty good time for photographing them, as many are first year birds that tend to not be as spooky as older birds.

Note although it’s likely too early, I spent some time this weekend bushwhacking through cedar thickets, looking for early arrival Northern Saw-whet Owls.  No luck!  But I am looking forward to their arrival.   One of the few bright spots of a chilly South Dakota winter!

As always, click on the images for larger views.

 

 

Cooper's Hawk - Accipiter cooperiiHarris's Sparrow - Zonotrichia querulaMarsh Wren - Cistothorus palustris

Saving $500 – a DIY macro flash diffuser

Mayfly photo - macro photography by Terry Sohl

Mayfly, taken with my do-it-yourself macro flash unit. This was taken well after sunset, with the modified flash unit providing all lighting.

I’m now about 3 weeks into the macro world.  One thing that became obvious pretty quickly is that with such a short focusing distance (often about 1 foot from the subject), controlling light can be a lot tougher with macro.  Flash is an obvious way to control the light for a shot, but the “standard” flash units for DSLR’s generally aren’t good for macro, at least not with the flash right on the hot shoe of the camera.  For example, I have Canon’s “Speedlight” 430 EXII, a very nice flash unit.  But when it’s on the camera itself, there’s no way to direct the flash to such a short focusing distance.

You can buy a cord and take the flash off the camera itself, but to me it’s a little unwieldy to try to manage an off-camera flash and the camera itself.  Canon does make a specific flash for macro.  It’s a ring-flash, a round flash that goes right on the end of your lens.  It’s a nice solution!  It’s also $500!! Given that I’m still new to macro, I didn’t want to spend that much on a dedicated macro flash, so started looking around on the web and saw people have made all kinds of do-it-yourself flash setups for macro.

Better Beamer Photo

The basic Better Beamer setup, a simple pair of frame pieces and a Fresnel lens that attach to your flash with Velcro. I used the frame pieces of one as the basis for my modified macro flash.

It’s the opposite problem of when I shoot birds, and when I want to “extend” my flash a longer distance.  For birds, I have a “Better Beamer”, a simple yet very effective attachment to the flash that uses a Fresnel lens to focus light from the flash for a longer distance shot.  I actually had an extra bracket pair for my flash, so started wondering if I could use a modified Better Beamer setup for macro flash.

The idea…I just wanted something that could redirect the flash output.  The minimum focusing distance on my Canon 100mm 2.8L IS macro lens is a about a foot, so ideally I wanted something that would direct the light towards a very close object, but could also be used for a little bit longer distances (say 1 to 3 feet) that you might use for larger macro subjects like butterflies.  With a little aluminum foil, tape, and foam core board, I ended up making a surprisingly effective and easy to use macro flash setup.

Do-it-yourself macro flash

This is the basic modified Better Beamer components. The top is enclosed with foil-covered foam core. Another foil-covered foam core piece is positioned within the frame, directing the flash downward. The Better Beamer itself is also foil covered on the inside (OK, and outside because it was easier!) to better reflect the light from the flash.

I started with the Better Beamer frame pieces themselves.  They attach to the flash unit with Velcro, so it’s very easy to add or remove the Better Beamer setup.  What I needed was to direct the flash downward, towards a distance of about 1 foot from the lens.  I started by cutting a piece of foam core to fit exactly on the top of the flash unit, between the Better Beamer frame, and layered it with with aluminum foil.  This basically encloses the top of the ad-hoc macro flash unit.  With the top enclosed, I then wanted another foil-covered foam-core piece to fit within the frame, but at an angle that would direct the flash downward towards a subject about a foot away from the camera lens.  With the modified Better Beamer on the flash unit, and with the flash on the camera, I calculated a rough angle the piece would have to be at inside the frame, cut a foam core piece to fit, covered it with foil, and put it in place.  I also covered the Better Beamer frame itself with foil.  With this simple setup, the “normal” flash goes into the semi-enclosed unit, and is deflected downwards towards a close subject.

After trying it out, I was thrilled with the results!  For macro shooting in natural light, you often need a well-lit, bright subject or you won’t have enough shutter speed to get a sharp photo.  With the flash, I can make the flash the primary source of light, and given the very short burst of light from a Canon Speedlight, shutter speed itself isn’t as important and you can “stop the action” and get a crisp shot fairly easily.  With the flash set in the 90-degree position, with the flash pointing straightforward, the angle inside is perfect for bouncing flash towards a subject close to minimum focusing distance.  For a bit of a longer distance shot, the angle deflects the light downward too quickly, but with the 430EX flash, you can tilt the flash unit upward.  It’s thus very simple to use for a range of macro distances.  While the initial shots were very well lit and sharp, I made one more modification to diffuse the light from the flash.  With the simple bounce set-up, with the flash light deflected off the aluminum foil, the shots were well lit, but sometimes a bit contrasty and harsh.  I wanted a simple diffuser to soften the light, so just took a piece of thin white cloth and stretched it across the bottom of the modified flash setup.  It worked wonderfully to avoid the harshness of the un-diffused flash.

DIY Macro Flash Diffuser

The final piece of the puzzle, a bit of white cloth stretched across the bottom of the unit. The flash must pass through the cloth, diffusing the light and providing a more pleasing image.

Very simple, took me perhaps an hour to put together, and it saved me $500!  No, it’s not as elegant as Canon’s ring flash.  In fact, it’s definitely the ugliest piece of camera equipment I now have!  But it’s worked wonderfully, as I get to keep the wonderful ETTL (electronic “through-the-lens”) flash metering of my 430 EXII, and with the Better Beamer frame as the base, the modified flash components are easily removed when I’m not shooting macro.

I do suspect that if I keep up my interest in macro, that I will give in and get the ring flash unit some day.  But for now, my DIY macro flash diffuser is working quite well.

Birds & the Bees – Identification challenges

Carpenter Bee species

A (new favorite!) photo of a Carpenter bee on a bloom. The species of Carpenter Bee? Uh…WHOA…would you look at the time…uh…I gotta run, I’ll catch up to you later!!

When I started photography 15 years ago and started shooting birds, I knew absolutely nothing about my subject matter.  Species identification?  Hah!  For the first several months I was constantly bugging my friend Jim at work with identification questions, showing him photo after photo while he patiently helped me identify birds.  After this much time, I’ve photographed most birds you could expect to find in South Dakota, and I have very little trouble identifying birds from sight or from a photo (by ear is another matter…).

It did take a while though to become proficient in bird identification.  After all, there are about 430 species that have been seen in South Dakota.  Now as I’m getting into macro photography, i”m having the same issue with insects and spiders, but the magnitude of the problem is MUCH worse!  In the continental U.S. and Canada, there have been over 900 different bird species sighted, including many stray birds, and many pelagic birds you’d never see unless you were off the coast some distance.  In the U.S. alone, there are over 4,000 BEE SPECIES ALONE!!! Many insect species are also differentiated from each other by only very small ID keys. In other words…it’s DAMNED hard to nail many insects down to a given species.

I’m not satisfied taking a bird photo, but not knowing the exact species.  With macro photography and insects…I’m going to HAVE to be satisfied in most cases not knowing the exact species, but perhaps only arriving at the basic genus that species belongs to.  The photo above of a Carpenter Bee (I think!!) is a good example.  There are over 500 species of Carpenter Bees worldwide. .But as soon as I took this photo and looked at it on my screen yesterday, I knew it was instantly one of my favorite  photos!

And that’s going to have to be good enough, as I may NEVER know the exact species shown here…

A few more Virgin Islands birds

Mangrove Cuckoo - Coccyzus minor

A Mangrove Cuckoo, one of several I saw and photographed. Nearly every one I came across on St. John’s was NOT in the mangroves, but was in the dry forest scrub that covers much of the island.

I’m just not in a photo processing mood.  Unfortunately, that’s not an uncommon situation.  It’s a bad combination to ALWAYS be in a photo SHOOTING mood, but to rarely be in a photo processing mood.  The result?  A huge backlog of unprocessed photos.  I typically make a directory on my computer where I put a day’s worth of photos, then delete that directory when they’re all processed and the good ones are on my website. Unfortunately right now I have many such directories worth of unprocessed photos!

That even includes a folder of “Virgin Islands birds” I made, from our recent vacation.  I have a number of “new” species” for me that I don’t have on my website, but I haven’t gotten around to processing the photos yet. Here are a few more new species I did this morning.  The highlight of this group for me is the Mangrove Cuckoo.  They’re around in the U.S. itself, with a few lurking in mangrove swamps of southern Florida. I find cuckoos in general to be SO incredibly difficult to try to see. I knew they were on St. John’s Island, the island where we spent our vacation, but I wasn’t really expecting much beyond maybe a brief glimpse, or just hearing them but not seeing them.

Gray Kingbird - Tyrannus dominicensis

A photo of a Gray Kingbird observing his domain from a natural perch. These guys were everywhere, but the problem was trying to get a photo of one that wasn’t hanging out on an electric line.

Fortunately the Mangrove Cuckoos on St. John’s were the most visible cuckoo population I’ve seen!  The first one I heard on the trip was in deed in the heart of a mangrove swamp, but their real stronghold on the island is in the dry scrubby forest that dominates much of the landscape.  They may be a well-named species in much of their range, but they were definitely more common in dry scrub on St. John’s than they were in the Mangrove swamps.  I was able to get wonderful views of a number of different cuckoos, and it seemed on nearly every drive across the island, at some point one would fly across the road.

Another highly visible species on the island were Gray Kingbirds.  If there was any kind of relatively decent-sized patch of open land on the island, you could almost guarantee there would be a Gray Kingbird or two looking out over the landscape from a high perch.  The most common sight was of a Gray Kingbird sitting on a telephone/electric wire, but towards the end of the trip I was able to get some really nice photos of Gray Kingbirds hanging out on natural vegetation.

Zenaida Dove - Zenaida aurita

Zenaida Doves were extremely common on the island. GIven their similarity to our own very common Mourning Doves, I almost forgot to try to grab a few photos before we left!

The third “new” species I processed today was the Zenaida Dove.  This one generally falls into the category of “missed opportunity” from a photographic standpoint!  They were extremely common on the island, basically the ecological equivalent of the ubiquitous Mourning Doves we have around here in the summer.  They were most common in around settlements, but were found in nearly every habitat on the island.  Because they were such a common sight, I kept passing on very easy photo opportunities, waiting instead for a chance at the more “exotic” hummingbird or other species.  Before I knew it, the trip was almost over and I had no Zenaida Dove photos!  I managed a few rather boring photos of Zenaida Doves walking across an open lot, but I definitely felt like I missed many chances to get some nicer photos of the species.

3 species processed…and now I’m no longer in the mood to process photos today!  The rest of the Virgin Islands photos will have to wait!

Fringe Benefits of Birding

White-tailed Deer Fawn - Odocoileus virginianus

A young white-tailed deer fawn. He clearly wanted mom, given how he kept looking around and bleating for her.

Ever since I got my first SLR camera 15 years ago, I’d say 98% of the photos I’ve taken have been of birds.  When I go birding, as I did this afternoon, I have binoculars and camera in hand, and birds on my mind.  On rare occasions, I’ll note some spectacular landscape and take a photo, but it has to be pretty spectacular! After all, if I want to shoot a landscape, I have to change lenses…WAY too much trouble for a bird photographer!  One of the fringe benefits of going out birding though IS running into unexpected sights, be it a beautiful landscape or some creature that happens to cross your path. If I get a good opportunity to shoot an animal other than a bird, I will generally do it, unless it’s something really common.  I usually don’t give a second thought to all the deer I run across, given how common they are.  But today was something different.

As I turned on a gravel road, there on the side of the road in front of me was a tiny, spotted White-tailed Deer fawn.  With all the deer I’ve seen, it’s not often I see young fawns, and I had absolutely no photos of them until today.  When I turned the corner, he looked at me and gave a little bleat.  I got the camera in hand, fully expecting him to run before I could get a photo, but…he just stood there, and gave another bleat.  I took a number of photos while he looked around, occasionally bleating, but he didn’t move more than a few steps.

I’m sure he was calling for mom, but despite watching the little guy/gal for 15 minutes or so, I never saw the mother deer.  He slowly meandered off into a grassy area before laying down, although I could still occasionally hear him bleating from his now hidden location.

It’s tough out there for a little guy! As I drove away I couldn’t help but feel a little worried about him, hoping his mom came back soon.

15 Years in the making…that’s bird photography

Broad-winged Hawk - Buteo platypterus

Broad-winged Hawk
Buteo platypterus
Click for a larger view

15 years.  A few posts back I started a thread with “5 years”, referring to the last time I’d seen a Virginia Rail.  The 15 years?  That’s about how long I’ve been birding and taking photos.  In those 15 years, I’d never gotten a photo of a Broad-winged Hawk until yesterday.

That’s how bird photography seems to work.  Just like in birding itself, people tend to have “nemesis birds”, birds that may not even be that rare, but simply due to luck-of-the-draw, they’re a bird you haven’t seen.  It’s the same with photography.  Broad-winged Hawks definitely aren’t rare, although South Dakota is at the fringe of their range.  But until yesterday, I hadn’t seen them all that often around here, and when I had, they had always been at quite a distance.

Given the actions of this bird yesterday, I don’t even think it’s because they’re shy.  This bird was extremely cooperative, continuing to scan around and hunt while I took photos of him from pretty close range.

One (relatively common!) nemesis bird down!!

Walking around in a crooked world

Crooked Sandpiper - Rotated Photo

Crooked Upland Sandpiper photo, rotated clockwise like most of my original shots.

I’m broken.  I’m talking a serious medical condition. That’s the only logical explanation.  Somewhere in the last 47 years, my internal gyroscope has broken, and I’m walking around crooked.  Or perhaps it’s just my head that’s walking around crooked.

The evidence? My photography.  I hate tripods with a passion, so pretty much every shot you see by me is taken by hand-holding my camera.  My Canon 70D does have a little sensor that can tell whether the image your framing is level.  There’s a little icon that shows up on the bottom when you look through the viewscreen, that shows whether you’re level, and what direction the camera may be tilted.  The problem is that in bird photography, it’s usually pretty fast action, and I rarely have time to pay much attention to whether the camera is level or not.

When I download my photos and start to process them, it’s obvious that I’m crooked, because most of my photos have a slight clock-wise rotation to them.  You can tell from this photo, where you have a tilted horizon and fence post, when both should be straight.

It’s no big deal from a photography standpoint, as I can simply rotate my photos a smidge once I start processing them.  What I’m really worried about is whether my crookedness is hereditary.  What if my poor son inherits my crooked gene?  Will this automatically disqualify him from many careers?  It’s hard to be an architect if you’re always crooked.  I don’t think I’d want a crooked surgeon operating on me…god knows what he/she may accidentally do.  I can only pray he chooses a career such as photography, where your inherent crookedness can be digitally fixed.

New – Major update to Bird Photography Tips pages

I admit I had been letting some pages on my main website languish for far too long.  I always upload new photos when I get them, and I’ve slowly been completing species account pages for every species seen in North America (over 820 done, “only” ~130 to go!).  Some of my other content has been static for, well…too long. One of the sections that desperately needed an update was a page I had on Bird Photography.  The page was meant to provide tips for taking photos of birds.

How long had it been since I updated that page?  Well, one section of the Bird Photography tips page discussed the advantages and disadvantages of using film vs. using digital cameras!  Yeah, it was time to update that section of the website.  I’ve extensively modified the material that was on the old page, and have added a lot of new material as well. The new Bird Photography pages can be accessed here.  The content is now broken into three sections:

  • Equipment Advice – This section provides advice on the necessary equipment to shoot photos of birds, including camera bodies, lenses, flash, tripods, etc.
  • Shooting Birds – This section provides advice on how to get close enough to birds in order to take photos, and also tips on camera settings that ensure you’ll be prepared to get the shot.
  • Photo Stories – Experience is the best teacher. This section provides stories of how individual photos were achieved, including how I got close enough to the bird, and how I used my tools to get the shot.

I hope the vast improvement in this section is useful for those just starting out in bird photography!  When I first started I was feeling my own way around and it took a while to become proficient.  I hope this information shortens the learning cycle for new photographers!!!

 

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