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Bird Photography 101 — Getting close enough

Birders or photographers new to birding sometimes ask me how I get some of my bird photos. Sunday was a great example of one tool I use! It’s not the camera. A LONG, expensive lens is definitely a huge asset in bird photography, but no matter what lens you’re using, the challenge is to get close enough to a wild bird for a frame-filling photograph.  With “only” a 400-mm lens (the lens that 99+% of my bird photos have been taken with), if means I typically have to be about 15-20 feet away from a songbird for it to fill a large portion of the image.  How does one get close to a wild bird that’s often skittish and shy around human  beings?

Hide yourself.  Often for me, that’s meant using my car as a blind, but on Sunday when I was shooting shorebirds, that wasn’t an option.  The shorebirds were all foraging in the shallows in a portion of a wetland that was far from the road.  In the back of my pickup I always have the perfect piece of equipment to help in a situation like that…a chair blind.  It has a low profile and doesn’t spook the birds once you’re set up, and it’s actually quite comfortable inside. In this case, as I approached the shoreline, all the birds scattered. No worries…set up the chair blind, make yourself comfortable inside, and after a little while, the birds will forget you’re there and will come back.

The photo below is one a birding friend took of me and my chair blind on Sunday.  Note shorebirds are calmly foraging in the shallows RIGHT in front of the blind.  They were actually too close for my camera to focus on many occasions (my 400mm lens has a 12-foot minimum focusing distance). A great tool, and one of many ways to get close enough to birds to get great photos. For more help on how to get great bird photos, click below to check out a “Bird photography tips” page from my main website:

Bird Photography Tips – South Dakota Birds and Birding

Chair Blind - Photographing Birds

My “chair blind”, one invaluable tool that allows you to get close enough to birds for photography.

Weather radar tracking bird migrations

Ever since I started birding 15 years ago, I had wished I could somehow link my hobby of birding, with my job as a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey. I’ve finally been able to do so in the past couple of years. My work right now focuses on the modeling of future land use and land cover, taking existing land cover maps produced by satellite imagery, and using a model to project what the landscape will look like in the coming decades.  I’ve been able to take those projected land cover data and projected climate data, and look at how future bird species’ distributions will likely be impacted in the future.

Fun work!  But since I started birding, it’s been interesting to see other research related to both my initial love (my bachelor’s degree was in meteorology) and in remote sensing technologies (satellite imagery, aerial photography, etc.) that dominate my current work. Over the years we’ve had a couple of visiting scientists who have presented work on the use of weather radar to track bird migrations.  Here’s a nice feature story on the basics:

Doppler Radar Shows Bird Migrations

A cool thing to see!  I guess I’m not quite sure of the practical applications in terms of bird conservation.  Perhaps long term records and comparisons of radar patterns over multiple years could identify trends in the timing or patterns of migration.  In the meantime, it’s a neat application of a technology devised for other purposes.

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!

Deep Thoughts – A Shorebird that doesn’t act like a shorebird, acting like a shorebird…

Upland Sandpiper - Bartramia longicauda

Upland Sandpiper, acting decidedly NOT “upland” by foraging in shallow water.

What better way to start a Monday than with some deep thoughts…

Shorebirds are so named because they are, not surprisingly, often found on shores, wading in shallow water, on mudflats, etc.  One of the most common summer birds in grassland parts of South Dakota is the Upland Sandpiper.  Well-named, Upland Sandpipers are usually described in field guides as “shorebirds that don’t act like shorebirds”, as they are, not surprisingly given their name, found in upland environments.  The most common way to see an Upland Sandpiper in the state is to see one sitting on a fence post in a grassland area, and typically there isn’t a wetland or a “shore” in sight.

So, deep thought to start the week…How do you describe it when you see an Upland Sandpiper, wading and foraging in shallow water like a “normal” shorebird?  What do you call a “shorebird” that doesn’t act like a shorebird, but IS acting like a shorebird?

Deep thought…discuss amongst yourself.

Losing habitat on the Plains

Grasslands - South Dakota

A gravel road and vast grasslands…one of my favorite types of areas to not only bird, but just to experience. It’s becoming a rarer and rarer sight with all the recent cropland expansion in eastern and central South Dakota.

I ran across (yet another) story this morning discussing the huge loss of habitat in the northern Great Plains over the last few years.  It’s not exactly “news” to anyone who has lives here and has paid attention.  A bit of background…in 2007, Congress passed the “Energy Independence and Security Act”.  It was a huge energy bill, with many components. One of which actually was a huge boon to my work at USGS EROS, as we became part of a huge project to look at the potential for sequestering carbon through land use practices.

However, another component is a renewable fuels standard (RFS), with hard mandates for increased use of biofuels by 2022.  In recent years the price of corn has gone up substantially, in no small part due to the RFS.  The result? Massive loss of grassland in my part of the world, with the Dakotas being hit especially hard.

It’s obvious everywhere I bird, both in eastern South Dakota (which has traditionally been a stronghold of corn production), and now increasingly in central South Dakota.  In eastern South Dakota where I live, the only remaining grasslands are 1) those that are on hilly or very rocky ground, areas too difficult to farm, or 2) individual fields that are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).  CRP provides payments for farmers to keep land in a grassland cover around here, but those payments can’t compete with the profits that can be made by putting arable land into corn production.  I can point to numerous individual fields just on my drive to work that used to be CRP, and had been grassland ever since I moved here over 20 years ago, that have been plowed under and converted to cropland in just the last few years.

The further west you go in the state, the more iffy a proposition it is to grow dryland corn.  The Missouri River dividing the state into “East River” and “West River” used to be a rough dividing line on where corn was grown. Rainfall in South Dakota is a gradient from west to east, with precipitation dropping as you move westward in the state.  One of my favorite birding locations in the winter is around the Presho area. It’s an area with a lot of grasslands and a lot of pheasants (and presumably voles and mice), creatures that attract a lot of winter raptors like Rough-legged Hawks, Ferruginous Hawks, and even the occasional Gyrfalcon or Snowy Owl.  As a drier area than eastern South Dakota, cropland used to be limited to wheat, some sorghum, and sunflowers.  Not any more, as you’re starting to see farmers attempt to grow dryland corn even there.

It’s not just the conversion of complete, large fields from grassland to cropland that you’re seeing, it’s land management practices and micro-scale habitat loss.  From a land management standpoint, the other business that’s booming right now in the Dakotas is the installation of drain tile, underground piping that efficiently drains the land and allows farmers to utilize areas that once tended to collect too much water for cultivation.  One of my favorite little birding spots on my drive to work is now gone, thanks to drain tiling.  It was a low spot along a little drainage way, a moist area that had a grassland and some scattered cattails.  That area was drain tiled and is now a corn field.  From the micro-habitat side, farmers are also ripping out vegetation along fencerows and shelterbelts, trying to squeeze out every acre they can as crop prices are high.

To be frank, it’s damned depressing sometimes to drive around birding, seeing some of your favorite remaining grassland habitats being actively plowed under.  It’s a level of land-use conversion in the northern Great Plains that hasn’t been seen in many decades.

Especially as a father, I can’t help but think “when does it end”?  When do people stop thinking about MONEY, and their short-term well-being, and when do they actually start worrying about their CHILDREN’s future? It’s not just habitat loss, it’s sabotage of the very resources we need to survive.  Increased agricultural land use, drain tiling existing land, and increased fertilizer use as farmers try to bypass crop rotation and plant exclusively corn…all are pumping up nitrate and other pollutant levels in the very water supplies we depend upon to survive.

I tell myself, that just as with the inexorable spread of urban areas across the world, it can’t continue forever, right?  At some point, it has to stop, right?  The only problem is that human beings are too short-sighted to set that “limit” of when we stop degrading and destroying habitat and the resources we depend upon.  What’s going to eventually make it “stop” is ecological disaster…

Unexpected Visitor!

Pine Siskin - North American Range Map

This is a range map for the Pine Siskin. The closest they’re supposed to be to here this time of year would be northern Minnesota or the Black Hills.

My office has been under construction for nearly 2 months now, and my temporary office is, uh…not ideal.  It’s an open cube, shared with 2 other people, 6 feet from the bathroom doors.  Lovely…and hard to work when you’re used to your own office with a door you can shut.  Because of that, I’ve been working at home most of the time.

I had an unexpected surprise today while working at home.  I went into the kitchen to get a drink, looked out the patio doors at the thistle (niger) feeder, and saw a Pine Siskin.  June 2nd?  A Pine Siskin in southeast South Dakota?  It wasn’t even something on my radar, so I had to do a double take, and check it out at close range just to be sure.  Pine Siskins are something you’d only expect in the winter around here, and even though they can be pretty locally common, I rarely get them at my feeders.

The map above shows the supposed range for a Pine Siskin.  Strange!  A nice surprise, and actually after checking my eBird list for the year, I hadn’t seen one yet this year. June 2nd…not the date I’d expect to see my first Pine Siskin here!

Getting over “Warbler Neck”

Golden-winged Warbler - Vermivora chrysoptera

Golden-winged Warbler, moving through a riparian area looking for snacks. A warbler photo taken at eye-level, thanks to one of my “photo bridges!”.

It’s been a great last week for migrants.  Warblers are hit-or-miss around here, as some seasons are great for warblers, and some…not so much.  Even within a given year though it’s unpredictable, as they can seemingly be everywhere one day, and gone the next.  What’s been great about the last week is that there have been good to great numbers of warblers nearly every day, and the variety has been good as well.

The downside of a protracted, good warbler migration? Warbler neck!!  I would be that on an hour-per-photo measurement, warblers rank much higher than most other kinds of birds.  Around here, the most common place to spot warblers is up in the forest canopy.  It makes for tough photography conditions, as either the warblers are usually too far away for a good photo, or you’re shooting from directly below and just getting a shot of their bellies. It also makes for a SERIOUS case of “warbler neck”, a sore neck you get from continually having your head tilted back, looking straight up into the canopy with your binoculars as you scan for warblers.

Yesterday I just couldn’t do another trip of scanning the tree tops, so I thought I’d try some of my old tried-and-true locations for getting up a bit to the birds’ level.  Out here on the plains, trees are mostly found in woodlots, protected ravines, urban areas, and riparian areas.  If there’s a riparian area, that means roads with bridges over the water.  I have several bridges in the area that I’ve used for taking photos of birds in the tree canopy, as the taller bridge places you up towards the tree tops a bit.

It was actually slower for warblers yesterday than it had been all week, and I was a little disappointed when I came to one of my “photo bridges”.  As I pulled over at the corner of the bridge, positioning myself right next to the tree branches, I heard a thin, weak buzzing song.  I’m not the greatest at bird calls, but I knew that buzzy call..a Golden-winged Warbler.  Beautiful birds, but pretty uncommon migrants through South Dakota.  I had no photos of the species and was really hoping this bird would cooperate.  Fortunately, he kept on foraging in the riparian trees, oblivious to the guy with the camera.  When I first started to try to take a photo, he was obscured by leaves and branches, but after a minute or two of waiting, I was finally able to get some decent photos of a Golden-winged Warbler.

And all from my elevated “photo bridge”, eliminating any aggravation of my warbler neck!

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