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Ode to the Sparrow – Photo/Haiku of the Day

Ode to a Sparrow

A whisper in the grass

“Just a sparrow”, overlooked.

Autumn’s hidden jewel

Le Conte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii

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

 

Photo Haiku – The Literate Pheasant

Ring-necked Pheasant - No Hunting

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

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Season of the Bobolink

Season of the Bobolink

Tinkly spring-time song

Fades away as summer ends.

Golden autumn fire

Autumn Bobolink - Dolichonyx oryzivorus

Bobolink in the warm dawn sun. This morning I went to a remnant tallgrass prairie patch and found a small group of Bobolinks. Males have lost their bold black-and-white breeding plumage, and share the same warm brown plumage as the females now. Rather than post as simply the “photo of the day”, thought today we’d take it one step further to my first ever “Photo / Haiku of the day”.

Differentiating Female (and male) Goldfinch Species

I was on travel for work this week which mean any blogging or work on my website was delayed. When I returned, I had an email that was thanking me for my “Difficult Bird ID” page, where you can find information on differentiating between commonly confused species. There was also a request to add another page, discussing how to tell apart the three North American goldfinch species. I don’t normally think of goldfinches as a particularly difficult group to identify, but then again, here in eastern South Dakota, we only have the one species. Overall, geography is obviously a huge part of identifying goldfinches, as in the eastern half of the country, the only species of goldfinch you’ll find are American Goldfinch.  However, if you happen to find yourself in parts of the southwestern US, you have three goldfinch species you may potentially encounter, with Lesser Goldfinch and Lawrence’s Goldfinch join the party.

The woman who sent the email lived in California and specifically was trying to figure out how to easily identify female goldfinches. That does represent more of a challenge than differentiating male goldfinches, and given that my Difficult Bird ID pages are some of the most visited pages on my entire website, I thought tonight I would go ahead and create another page that talks about ID keys for the three species.

As with many “difficult” IDs, for birders I think that difficulty melts away with experience, particularly when given keys to look for.  Creating a page such as this helps me as well!  I don’t run into Lesser Goldfinch, for example, unless I travel, but I don’t know if I could have identified a female goldfinch as either Lesser or American in the areas they overlap in range, until creating this page. Now I’ll know what to look for (bill color, and undertail covert color are giveaways).

A bit of a pain to create these pages, but as I said, they are frequently visited.  Click below for the new Goldfinch ID page.

Identifying North American Goldfinch Species

Identifying Goldfinch Species (female)

Females of the three North American goldfinch species. Males in breeding plumage? Piece of cake. A little bit harder for the females (particularly American and Lesser), but not bad when you know what to look for.

Climate Change is for the Birds

This morning was one of the most bizarre birding trips I’ve taken in a while. The forecast was clear skies and low wind, a combination you need to take advantage of when it happens in South Dakota. I headed up to the Lake Thompson area in Kingsbury County, South Dakota, to shoot gulls, terns, shorebirds, herons, egrets…all the wonderful water-loving birds you find up there this time of year.

I wanted to arrive just before dawn, and given it’s a 1 1/2 hour drive, I was up and on the road quite early. I knew right away something was different. Even before the sun arose, the lighting was strange. There were clearly no visible stars in the dark sky, but yet I had no doubt it was indeed cloud-free.  We had a hint of this phenomena yesterday, but this morning it hit full bore…a sky full of smoke from the fires hundreds of miles away in the western US and Canada.

Not was I was expecting when I left this morning, and it certainly changed the types of photos I went after! As usual at this time of year, there were birds everywhere. However, even after sunrise, the light was so poor that it was difficult to grab any decent photos.  It wasn’t until about half an hour after sunrise when it started to get bright enough to shoot. It’s not often you can point your expensive camera right at the sun at that time of day, and not permanently fry your sensor, but the light was so diffuse this morning I certainly could.  I ended up settling down at a wetland area near Lake Thompson, trying to shoot the numerous Black Terns against the odd, but beautiful lighting.  Not a situation I’m used to shooting in, but I was able to get some photos I thought were “cool”.

I’ve been in South Dakota 25 years now, and lived at basically the same latitude down in southern Nebraska before that. Until the last few years, I just don’t remember fire seasons out West being SO bad, that our air here on the eastern side of South Dakota was this affected.  But last year too, on one rock-hunting trip, the air was so bad that my eyes were watering and I started wheezing a bit. Something has changed!  That something most likely is due to, or at least severely exacerbated by, climate change!

Climate change is for the birds. But at least for one morning, it made for some cool photos.

Black Tern (Chlidonias niger) - Flying through smoke-filled skies

Black Tern, flying through the reflection of a smoke-diffused sun. This is at LEAST half an hour after sunrise!

Black Tern (Chlidonias niger)Highway 81 Lakes and Smoky Sky

 

 

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

 

POTD – American Bittern “hiding”

Photo of the day, for a bird that gets high marks for trying, but failing, to hide. I didn’t have much luck shooting birds yesterday, but did run across this American Bittern along the rip-rap bordering a huge wetland area.  The ol’ stick-my-head-up-and-they-won’t-see-me approach Bitterns use may work when they’re standing in the middle of a bunch of dry cattails, but kind of falls apart when they’re out in the open, particularly next to red quartzite.

American Bittern - Botaurus lentiginosus

American Bittern “hiding” at Weisensee Slough in western Minnehaha County, South Dakota.

 

A visual depiction of the problem with men…

I haven’t done much with the website or blog lately, as I’ve been quite busy with work, including some travel.  I’m back home this weekend and am having a lovely morning, going through old, unprocessed photos, of which I have many.   I came across this photo of a pair of Bufflehead drakes fighting (a photo taken so long ago I don’t even remember it), and a blog topic came to mind.  The topic…just how dangerous it is leaving us men in charge.

This photo perfectly demonstrates men.  Testosterone…conflict…trying to prove your manliness with a show of strength.  When a problem arises, THIS is how men tend to handle things.  OK, sure, it’s all well and good if it’s a couple of cute little ducks on the pond, but the same concept applies to world leaders with powerful armies and weapons at their disposal.

Cheery thoughts to start the weekend!

Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) fighting

Boys being boys…two Bufflehead drakes fighting.

 

Bird Feeders Killing Marital Harmony

I’ve always had bird feeders.  I’ll never give them up, but there is a downside.  They’re harming (ever so slightly!!) marital bliss in our household! Over the years we’ve occasionally had a mouse around the house.  That happens when you have every kind of conceivable bird feeder in your backyard.

We came home yesterday to a very warm house, and an unresponsive air conditioner. We couldn’t find anyone to come look at it until today. Here’s the note left on our step.  Bird Feeder —> Mouse –> chewed wire –> no air conditioner –> an unhappy wife.  It’s five degrees of separation!  There’s barely any relationship there at all, right!?!?!? Who’s with me???

The wire is fixed, the air conditioner is working, and all is back to being right with the world. In the meantime, I’ve instructed the mice in the yard to please restrict their mandibular activity to seeds and other organic items.  They’ve agreed to cooperate, so clearly we’ll never again have this problem, and marital harmony is permanently restored. 🙂

Mouse damage - Air Conditioner

A note the repairman left for us after fixing our air conditioner. Circumstantial evidence, I say!! Can you match those bite marks to a specific mouse!?!? Innocent until proven guilty!!

The most popular bird in eastern South Dakota

Such a busy social calendar.  Dress up in your summer finest. Find a home, try to settle down, find a good woman, chase her around incessantly, defend your territory against all comers…it’s a busy life for a bird in the spring.  Two things that probably don’t help: 1) Being hopelessly lost and being the only one of your kind for a few hundred miles, and 2) being constantly interrupted by those pesky humans with the binoculars, cameras, and cell phones.

A male Western Tanager was found near Sioux Falls a couple of days ago.  The closest Western Tanager should be 300+ miles to the west, in the Black Hills, so his appearance in eastern South Dakota caused a stir among the birding community.  Heck, I too went to find him, as I haven’t seen a Western Tanager in South Dakota, outside of the Hills. But after twice going to watch him, I was starting to feel a bit sorry for him. He’s getting a lot of attention and visitors.  His daily routine is also getting interrupted a lot.

I don’t mind birders using electronic calls to see a bird, but it does bother me when it’s done incessantly and it’s clearly affecting a bird. When I’m trying to take photos, I rarely use any electronic call, as not only do I not like the impact on the bird, I don’t like the unnatural look of photos of pissed off birds trying to figure out where that invisible “rival” is, and why he’s singing so much. The first time I went yesterday, there was a young, 14-year old birder walking up looking for the bird. I did pull out my phone, played about 5 seconds of a call, and the Tanager made an appearance for us. We then watched him for a while as he flew around the forest clearing, chasing a female Scarlet Tanager, chasing other birds out of his territory, and doing a lot of “fly-catching” (flying out from a perch to grab insects).

I thought I’d try again later in the day to try to get a better photo.  He was reliably stationed in one location, and with patience, I was sure I’d get better photos than I got earlier in the day.  However, as I walked into the clearing, there were 3 birders, a couple, and another older gentleman. I heard them all before I saw them. Or should I say, I heard the electronic calls they were playing over…and over…and over…and over again.

I left, rather than watch the poor confused Tanager desperately trying to find and dispatch his unseen “rival”.  That was just one moment of the 2nd day after he was “found”.  I have no doubt there were many occasions over the last few days where birders have come into the area with electronic calls, trying to get the perfect photo of an eastern South Dakota rarity.  I probably could have gotten closer photos of a pissed off Western Tanager had I joined them in the clearing. And heck, 10 years ago, I might have joined them.. But as I’ve gotten older, I find myself using my binoculars far more than my camera.  I used to only worry about getting that great photo, to the point that if I saw a bird but didn’t get a good photo, I was disappointed. Now I often find myself putting the camera down and just sitting and watching.   The electronic call wasn’t necessary to enjoy watching this beautiful, lost Western Tanager.

Western Tanagers aren’t going extinct because of birders.  Overall, the actions of birders with electronic calls aren’t likely to dramatically impact a species.  But I still can’t help but feel a bit sorry for this one lost bird.

Western Tanager - Piranga ludoviciana

Photo of the Western Tanager near Sioux Falls. This was taken as he was flying from perch to perch, looking for insects and doing some “flycatching”.  Not the greatest pic in the world, but I didn’t want to do what it would take to get that perfect Western Tanager photo.

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