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It’s been a buzzy summer! South Dakota Cicada

For the past couple of weeks it’s been quite loud in the evenings.  On occasion we get cicada noises here in the summer, but I don’t remember it being as “buzzy” outside as it has been lately. Despite hearing them, I don’t recall ever actually seeing a live cicada here.  That changed this morning when I was outside doing yard work. Something flew past and when I turned, I saw it land on a big rock in our landscaping. When I went to check it out, I saw the cicada, and quickly ran inside to grab my camera gear. Given I’m always set up for birds, not littler critters, it took a second to get my macro lens and macro flash setup on my camera, but when I returned the cicada was thankfully still there.

From what I’ve found online I believe this to possibly be a “Scissors Grinder Cicada” (Neotibicen pruinosus).  If that is indeed the species, we’re at the far northwestern edge of their range, here in southeastern South Dakota. They are one of the “annual” cicadas, not the more famed 13- or 17-year cycle cicadas that periodically come out in the eastern United States. The name common name “Scissors Grinder” comes from the characteristic sound they make.

Cool find, and very glad to get a ton of photos of this guy! After about 10 minutes on the rock, he disappeared.

Scissors Grinder Cicada - Neotibicen pruinosus

Scissors Grinder Cicada - Neotibicen pruinosusScissors Grinder Cicada - Neotibicen pruinosusScissors Grinder Cicada - Neotibicen pruinosusScissors Grinder Cicada - Neotibicen pruinosus

 

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Prairie Ghost

The Prairie Ghost

Swift ghost of the prairie

shepherding harem and young

As winter’s despair beckons

Pronghorn Buck - Antilocapra americana

Custer State Park’s famed “Wildlife Loop” never disappoints, but it’s just after dawn when the magical moments occur. Pronghorn are often seen in Custer State Park, but they are typically easier to spot in the early morning hours, before most visitors start to arrive in the park. On this morning, a harem of perhaps 6 females and their young-of-the-year surprised me by cresting a nearby hill. They then slowly worked their way towards me as they grazed, unconcerned about the photographer in the parked car. Last to crest the hill was the big male, the protector of the little band. I watched for 15 minutes as the herd fed in the adjacent grasslands. As they slowly moved on down the hill, the trailing buck paused for a moment to give me a stare.  I evidently passed his judgement, and he then trotted off after his harem as they disappeared around the bend.  The grasslands were still lush from a wet and bountiful summer and forage was good, but the leaves were beginning to change, and a harsh South Dakota winter was just around the corner.

Small minds, and POOF, a S.Dakota science institution is gone

South Dakota State University - Geospatial Sciences Center of ExcellenceSmall minds, insular thinking.  It’s an infection that’s spread across the United States in the last several years, and one victim of the “disease” is the death of one of the most successful science programs of its kind in the entire world.

In 2016, Barry Dunn became president of South Dakota State University. One thing he did when arriving was review the state of the “Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence” (GSCE)…a truly WORLD-renown science center established in 2005 to develop and apply remote sensing and other geospatial data for research and education purposes. Some of the biggest names in the field were lured to South Dakota State.  In the last 13 years, Mike Wimberly…Matt Hansen…David Roy…Geoffrey Hennebry…Mark Cochrane…all were key parts of GSCE and its development.  Over the last 13 years, they’ve had a massive impact on the field, applying remote sensing data and analysis techniques to applications that include understanding disease vectors and risks of West Nile virus…helping to establish and use the next generation of satellite sensors…mapping fire extent and severity…mapping changes in our ever-declining grassland ecosystems…and many, many more.

Students from all over the world moved to South Dakota, of all places, to work with such a wonderful collection of researchers.  The research impact has been enormous.  The reputation is sterling.  The senior scientists at GSCE brought in huge amounts of external research dollars. It has been, by all logical measures, a raging success.

It’s now decimated. During his review process, Barry Dunn in his infinite wisdom decreed SDSU GSCE wasn’t of any benefit to South Dakota, partially because 1) it didn’t do all its work IN South Dakota, and 2) it didn’t have enough South Dakota students. So, they cut $1 million in core funding. They effectively gave the research leads a 25% pay cut.  The result of the drop of support?  For the next semester that starts in a few weeks, literally NONE of the GSCE Senior Scientists will remain.  That’s right…ALL have decided enough is enough, and all are moving on to greener pastures. A science center like no other, one South Dakota could put up against ANY similar science center in the world…and it’s gone belly up, thanks to new “leadership” at South Dakota State.

Small minds, insular thinking…what the hell has happened in this country? Doing work that’s WORLD-renown and applied in all continents is deemed a NEGATIVE, because they didn’t do all their work in South Dakota? Too many foreign students is a “problem”?  It’s a problem that’s certainly not limited to SDSU, GSCE, or South Dakota.  To me it all falls under the same kind of anti-intellectualism, anti-“expert”, anti-SCIENCE paradigm that seems to have infected America.

A South Dakota institution is gone after far too short a time, all thanks to tiny little minds with a lack of vision and appreciation for the bigger picture.

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

Beauty in Small Packages

Three months. I’m learning the value of patience with my new rockhounding and tumbling hobby, as I’ve learned the stones I tumble (South Dakota agates) are very hard, and need to be tumbled for a long time to get a good polish. I’ve learned that the process thus takes about 3 months!  I was doing one week for each of the four tumbling steps I do, but wasn’t getting great results until I upped that to three weeks for each step.

I’m pretty thrilled with this latest batch!  I would say this is my first real, high-quality batch that I’ve done.  These are from my small tumbler, and thus, most of these stones are only 1″ to 1 1/2″ inches in length. They’re beautiful even to the naked eye, but I’m finding that the use of my macro lens and a close photo really allows me to see the beauty and detail in these stones.  Here’s a (large!) number of photos of various agates and jaspers from my latest batch.

Bubblegum Agate

This agate had the typical, bumpy, bubbly shape of a bubblegum agate, but when I found it on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, it was a dull grayish-black. It took the better part of 4 months worth of tumbling to wear down the outer layer, exposing some of the most beautiful patterns I’ve seen on any of my agates.

South Dakota Agate

I’m calling this one “Crystal Dragon”. Not sure whether you’d call this a prairie, bubblegum, or other agate, but I love the swirling pattern, with the crystal/druzy “neck” on the dragon, and a little pink tongue and eye.

Prairie Agate

A prairie agate, showing a beautiful array of colors. A lot of the more weathered agates on the grasslands have black parts on their exterior. I believe that’s manganese oxide that forms when they’re exposed to the elements (at least some of the blacker agates). Much of the time that black disappears when you tumble, but on this prairie agate, the black was maintained in some of the bands.

South Dakota Agate

Wonderful fine detail that’s not all that noticeable to the naked eye, but is quite evident in a macro photo of this agate.

Prairie Agate

A lot of the bubblegum and prairie agates you find have a very subtle, very fine banding such as this. Very often it’s not noticeable until you tumble.

Bubblegum Agate

A classic bubblegum agate, a little larger than many of the agates on this page. Bubblegum agates really tumble beautifully, as you generally get these beautiful agate “eyes”.

Prairie Agate

Interesting shape on this agate, with a little peak that has it’s own little cap/color pattern.

Prairie Agate

A prairie agate, with a lot of “druzy” (crystally) elements.

Prairie Agate

The biggest agate in this batch is also one of the most gorgeous. This beautiful Prairie Agate has some wonderful banding patterns, and a beautiful range of colors.

Bubblegum agate

Another bubblegum agate with the typical eyes you see when polishing.

South Dakota Agate

I’m not sure what to call this one (help!!). It has a definite linear “grain” pattern, but it’s so unlike all the petrified wood I’ve found that I hesitate to call it that.

Prairie Agate

I love the pattern on this one, with the bold orange streak.

South Dakota Jasper

Jasper? Agate? I dunno. Has a pretty pattern though!

Prairie Agate

The most common prairie agate patterns are jagged, rough striping, but this is also a relatively common type of pattern and color for prairie agates from Buffalo Gap.

Bubblegum Agate

Another polished bubblegum agate

Prairie Agate

A prairie agate with some nice banded patterns

Prairie Agate

I love the contrasting patterns on some of the agates, with very dark sections contrasted by white or very light sections.

Bubblegum Agate

Another bubblegum agate, one that was tumbled awhile and didn’t maintain the “eyes” as much as some of the others.

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!!

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.

New Toy! And a new brand of my hobby?

Blowfly and flower

Literally one of the first few photos I took with the new lens. WHAT A LENS. The sharpness is wonderful, and I was thrilled beyond belief to be able to get such a “close” photo my first time out with it.

I have a Canon 70-200mm 4.0L lens that I’ve had for probably 10 years.  It’s an awesome lens, extremely sharp, particularly given that zooms typically aren’t as sharp as prime lenses.  The problem is that I never use it!  Well, rarely ever.  Given that I mostly shoot birds, I nearly always have my 400mm lens on the camera.  On the rare occasion I shoot landscapes (or people!), the 70-200 is too long, so I typically have on my wide angle.  The 70-200 thus only really gets used on rare occasions that I should large animals other than birds, like when we go to Yellowstone.

Well, we live 14 hours away from Yellowstone, and while we have been there a few times in recent years, it’s not exactly an every day occasion!  The lens may be 3 years between being used!  I had always wanted to try macro shooting, so finally wised up, put the 70-200mm out on eBay, and bought a Canon 100mm 2.8L IS macro lens.  I had dreams of getting some wonderful insect photos like I’ve seen other people shoot with macro!  Given what my first bird photos looked like when I started 15 years ago though, I expected there to be a very steep learning curve.  I expected my initial images to look, well…pretty bad, until I got used to the new lens and learned how to use it.

Bumblebee on bloom

A bumblebee on a flower. This isn’t even close to as close as I could have been, but I didn’t want to get too close shooting this guy. To give you some idea of the capabilities of this lens, later I tried a little sweat bee, and was able to use the lens to get close enough to have a sweat bee fill a big chunk of the frame. I didn’t expect to be able to get such small bugs in such detail.

The lens came today, and I went out in the back yard in search of insects to try it on.  All I have to say about this lens is…HOLY CRAP!  For someone that has never shot macro, the capabilities of this lens have blown me away on day one!  It has a reputation of being one of the sharpest lenses Canon offers, and I certainly have no complaints after my first photos with it.  I knew the lens was a “true” macro lens, capable of 1:1 photos (capturing a real-life object at the same size on the image sensor), but WOW, I didn’t expect to be able to get such great, close, detailed photos of small insects, without the use of extension tubes, close-up lenses, or other attachments people often use for macro.

I’m not a “buggy” person, in that I do NOT like insects or spiders in my house!  But tonight I was in hot pursuit of whatever I could find.  I ended up just sitting in the grass next to a flower bed, and trying to shoot what came by.  I’m pretty sure the species of fly shown here is some kind of blowfly?  Shooting like this sure opens up a new world.  Bugs may be “icky” to many (including me most of the time!), but I was kind of blown away by the subtle beauty and detail that I was able to get with this lens.

I already have WAY too many hobbies.  I fear that after today, macro photography may join bird photography as a hobby.  The nice thing about it…at least outside of winter, you’re ALWAYS going to have some creepy-crawlies right in your own yard that you can shoot!  I’m really looking forward to more use of this lens, and seeing what it can do.

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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