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Winter’s Snow’s Take Flight

Winter's Snows Take Flight

When I can’t stand to open a paper or look at the news online (this week would be one of those weeks), retreating to the safe space of birds and nature is always a good idea. A revisiting of the daily haiku’s I used to do. Migration has actually been a slow and delayed by the harsh winter, but streams of geese were flying over one morning last week. Always one of the first signs of spring, and a VERY welcome sight after this past winter.

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.

 

Photo / Haiku of the Day – Dakota Prairie Falcon

Prairie Apparition

Prowling Dakota skies

A flash across desolate plains

bound for the horizon

Prairie Falcon - Falco mexicanus

When I head to the central part of the state in winter to photograph raptors, I usually do come across a handful of Prairie Falcons during the course of the day. Falcons in general seem to be camera shy, but these guys are particularly difficult to photograph. They tend to flush long before I can get within camera range. There’s always that oddball individual bird, however, and this is one of them. As with every other Prairie Falcon I come across, he DID flush early, while I was still perhaps 50 yards away. However, he was curious! I’d given up on him, but to my surprise he started circling back towards me. I stopped the car and got my camera ready, and was rewarded by a flyby at perhaps 30 feet up, right along the road past my car. One of my favorite falcon shots, given the difficult I’ve photographing these guys. I also love the pose, with the eye contact and the warm morning light.

The Swallows’ Feast – Photo/Haiku of the day

The Swallows’ Feast

Summer’s mayfly feast

Shimmery swallows dip and chase

As the mower growls

Cliff Swallow in Flight - Petrochelidon pyrrhonota

I got home rather late tonight, perhaps an hour before sunset. I had to mow the yard, and as I started, I noticed the mayflies that were clustered on bushes in my landscaping, and in the grass itself. Clearly some kind of mayfly hatch had occurred, and as I mowed, they would flutter up into the air, some settling down, others continuing to fly. It didn’t take long before they were joined in mid-air combat…the swallows had arrived!!  Both Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows started showing up, with 5 or 6 dipping and darting through the yard, following the mower and taking advantage of the mayflies that were being kicked up. A thankless, repetitive summer task, made much more enjoyable tonight thanks to my swallow visitors! Nature never ceases to amaze, as the swallows clearly had learned to associate the sound of a mower with insects in the air.  As for the photo…yeah…I know. Not a Tree Swallow. Not a Barn Swallow. But have you tried taking photos of swallows in flight? NOT…EASY!! I have very few decent photos of ANY swallow species in flight, so I’ll use a bit of artistic license tonight and use this photo to accompany my photo story and haiku. 🙂

Photography from a kayak

I’ve had a kayak for about 8 years. The first one I bought was a rather large sit-on-top kayak, a pretty upscale one with an number of bells and whistles that made it perfect for fishing. I immediately fell in love with the freedom you felt while kayaking. As a sit on top, you’re pretty exposed, but that just added to the thrill.

After a couple of trial runs, I decided to head up to Lake Thompson in Kingsbury County, the largest natural lake in South Dakota. I was feeling confident! I had no issues in my initial runs, so when arriving at Lake Thompson I was determined to paddle the length of the lake (5 miles or so). It was a beautiful day…a few puffy clouds, very light winds, perfect for kayaking. Even with a light wind, there was a bit of a chop out in the open water, but I had no problems making it across the lake. I was using muscles I hadn’t used in such a way and was a bit tired, so rested on the opposite shore for a bit before heading back.

The way back was a bit harder. The wind had picked up, the chop had picked up, and I was tired. Still, I was progressing well, and was halfway across when….disaster strikes. There were a few fishermen out on the lake, and I saw one heading across the lake at pretty high speed. He did see me and avoided my position, but he didn’t slow down as he sped past about 20 yards away. I soon realized this might be trouble, as the wake waves quickly headed my way. I tried to turn my kayak into the wave, but was perhaps at a 45-degree angle when the first wave hit. I rocked with it, leaned in the direction of the wave to balance the tipping kayak, and was initially OK…until the second wave hit. Again I didn’t have time to get the kayak headed into the wave, and when the second wave hit I was unable to keep the balance. Into the water I went.

OK…no problem…I’m in the middle of the largest natural lake in South Dakota, but 1) the water was warm (it’s late August), and 2) I had on my life jacket. I thought it would be no problem getting back on top and finishing the trip back, but I just…couldn’t…do it.  I’d READ about what to do if capsized in my sit-on-top…reaching across the kayak, grabbing the opposite side and pulling yourself up…but when push came to shove, I couldn’t do it. The first few times I tried, when I reached across and grabbed the opposite side, the kayak would simply flip and turn over. It was such a buoyant, high-sittingkayak, and no matter my strategy I couldn’t get back on top. It didn’t help that I was tired from the long, hard paddle, and soon I realized I wasn’t going to be able to get back up.  I still wasn’t too concerned. The wind was blowing towards my push-off point, so I thought I’d just swim and drift with the kayak back to my car.  It was a long haul. Trying to swim with the kayak in tow was complicated by an increasing wind that seemed determined to push me off course.  Finally I just decided I needed to head to the closest, easily accessed shore rather than going across.  Exhausted, I pulled myself up, tied up the kayak, and rested for a while before trekking back to retrieve the car.

That’s a VERY long back drop to my mindset when it comes to taking my very expensive Canon camera equipment out in the kayak. Thankfully that day I wasn’t fishing, I wasn’t taking photos, so I didn’t lose any thing when I capsized (other than a water bottle), but the thought of tipping with my camera equipment has always made me a bit leery about trying to use my kayak as a photo platform. However, I thought I’d try taking my 2nd kayak (a very stable high-end, 2-person inflatable that I will take out with my son) out on Lake Vermilion, a rather large reservoir west of Sioux Falls. It was a nice sunny morning with relatively low wind, but even so, I was paranoid about losing my equipment, and kept my camera equipment in a dry bag until needed! It’s not the greatest photography strategy in the world, as you’re fumbling for access to your equipment if you unexpectedly come across a bird, but at least I felt safe and secure.

It wasn’t a great day in terms of the birding. I didn’t really come across any waterfowl, and other than some far away American White Pelicans and some flocks of Franklin’s Gulls that would occasionally stream overhead, it was pretty quiet. However, when returning to my push off point, I spotted a Great Blue Heron prowling the shoreline.  I kept my distance for a while, and was rewarded when he plunged his head down and caught a large bullhead catfish. I missed the moment of the catch, but was able to grab a number of photos as he took off with his catch and slowly flew across the lake right in front of the kayak.

I can definitely see the advantages of shooting from the kayak You can get to locations you simply can’t get to by foot, and when you’re sitting right on the water, you can get some wonderful, low-angle, natural looking shots. I love the photos here of the Great Blue Heron. After my one “dunking” incident, however, I’m still leery of doing this on a regular basis!  With winter approaching, South Dakota’s climate will soon make the choice easy, but hopefully I can get back out in the kayak with the camera one or two more times before the cold weather hits.

Great Blue Heron - Ardea herodias

The Great Blue Heron and his catch at the moment of liftoff from his hunting spot on the shoreline.

Great Blue Heron - Ardea herodias

Perhaps one advantage of the kayak is birds aren’t as scared as they are of an upright, walking human being? It’s a sample size of one, but instead of flying directly away from my position, the Great Blue Heron flew right in front of me with his catch.

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Summer’s Last Hummingbird

Summer’s Last Hummingbird

Ruby summer splash

between the flowers they dash

till chased by Fall’s chill

Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Archilochus colubris

A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovering in front of flowers in our yard. It’s now been a couple of days since I’ve seen a male in our yard. They’re always the first to leave for the summer. I still have a couple of females and juveniles, but their time with us is short as well. With the constant buzz of activity in our back yard all summer long, it’s easy to take these guys for granted. Now we will wait another 8 months for their return.

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

 

 

Birds in Movies – “Gamenight” gets it right!!

Common Nighthawk Drawing - Chordeiles minor

Drawing of a Common Nighthawk I did a few years ago. They have a VERY distinctive call when flying around at dusk or at night, something that really stands out on the soundtrack when watching a movie! Kudos to “GameNight” for the correct use of a bird call, in the proper time and context!

As a birder, one major pet peeve of mine…Hollywood’s (mis-)use of birds in movies! It seems that Hollywood typically has about 3 different bird vocalizations that are used in any situation a bird is present. One is the ubiquitous Red-tailed Hawk screaming cry, something they use for ANY raptor that happens to even tangentially appear on a screen. Conan O’Brien wasn’t alone when making this erroneous use of a Red-tailed Hawk call, but he WAS called out by birders for his actions!! Bald Eagles are often shown in movies and TV, but the more iconic Red-tailed Hawk call is usually used instead of the real Bald Eagle cry.

The second iconic call that’s heard ALL the time is the haunting call of a Common Loon. Occasionally it’s used in the proper setting and context, but there are SO many times when movie characters are out “in the wild” and the call of a Common Loon is dubbed in the background.  What’s that?  Your favorite character is roaming the forests of the Appalachians? Perhaps it’s a wild setting, but NOT EVERY WILD SETTING SHOULD HAVE LOON CALLS PLAYING IN THE BACKGROUND!! This site notes several “misplaced” birds in TV and movies, including the mis-use of Common Loon calls in Murder She Wrote and Raiders of the Lost Ark (presumably while in Peru!!). The Common Loon has also been mis-used visually…something I noticed IMMEDIATELY when watching Finding Dory. “Becky” is the loopy Common Loon that plays a role in the rescue scenes in Finding Dory, along the California coastline. The presence of a Common Loon along the California coast isn’t out of place IN WINTER.  But “Becky” in Finding Dory is a Common Loon in full summer breeding plumage…NOT LIKELY!!

The third call that’s heard in EVERY jungle scene is the laughing call of a Kookaburra. They’re a bird found in Australia, but listen to any jungle scene supposedly set in Africa, South America, or southeast Asia, and you’ll STILL likely hear the wild calls of a Kookaburra.

Given how often birds are mis-used in movies, I always get a bit of satisfaction when I see a movie that gets it right!  Tonight my wife and I went to see “GameNight“, starring Justin Bateman and Rachel McAdams.  It’s a really funny movie!!  We both greatly enjoyed it.  The only time birds were evident (and surely ONLY to me, among the movie crowd) was a scene late in the movie.  It was a setting in a relatively dense urban setting, on a bridge over a large river and fairly out in the open. Large buildings could be seen in the surrounding area, and it was night. As the scene played out (I won’t spoil the movie for you here!), I could CLEARLY hear Common Nighthawks giving their typical flight calls.

PERFECT!! You often DO hear Common Nighthawks as they fly through the night skies in and around urban areas, picking off flying insects in flight with their massive, gaping maw.  One of the places I’ve heard them the most is at the airport here in Sioux Falls. They typically use rocky areas to breed, and the rocky roofs that many urban buildings use work perfectly for their purposes.

WELL DONE GAMENIGHT!!  You get a rare GOLD STAR for proper use of a bird in a movie!!

Curious Red-tailed Hawks

When you encounter a bird in the wild, there’s a standard series of events that occur. Far too often, the encounter ends when the bird flies away as you approach.  Hence the challenge for a bird photographer!! But every once in a while, the quarry seems just as interested as the photographer.  Today was one of those experiences.

I was birding a little bit in western Minnehaha County, west of Sioux Falls. I saw a pair of Red-tailed Hawks sitting on adjacent fence posts on the road in front of me. In these situations, I always have my camera ready when I approach, just on the off change that the bird would actually stay perched and not flush. However, as per usual, the pair both took off well before I got in camera range.

Was was NOT per usual is their behavior after taking flight. Instead of flying off to a distant perch, the pair banked…and turned back towards me as I stood on the side of the road. For the next 3 or four minutes, both of them lazily circled above and around me as I furiously clicked away.  Getting nice flight photos of wild raptors is ALWAYS a welcome opportunity…here are some photos of the pair.

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensisRed-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensisRed-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensisRed-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

Breaking out of my photo doldrums – Snow Goose migration

I am in a major photographic funk.  We’re talking an industrial-strength photo drought, a big-league slump, a unlucky spell of biblical proportions. For a guy who loves bird photography, I can’t for the life of me get a photo of anything with feathers lately.  It’s been a season-long slump, lasting all winter long. The most recent failure was this weekend, where I managed to fail twice to bring home a single bird photo.  Saturday, I drove all the way to the central part of the state to look for lingering winter raptors.  I did what I normally do when I go to the central part of the state…I got up 3 hours before dawn so I could arrive right when the sun was coming up.  The sun did indeed come up.  I guess that’s good.  But it revealed a landscape utterly devoid of the raptors that are usually found there by the dozen.  It’s late in the season, and I didn’t expect December/January numbers of raptors.  But I didn’t expect nearly ALL the raptors to have left already.

I cut Saturday’s trip short, and decided to just drive back after a couple of hours of fruitless raptor searching.  On the way back, on an incredibly windy day, I saw thousands upon thousands of waterfowl migrating overhead.  Nothing I could photograph mind you…they were all high in the sky, but there were certainly huge numbers of birds. Encouraged by the sight, I thought the next day I’d head out just around Sioux Falls, to look for waterfowl.  What did I find?  Mostly frozen water, very few birds, and not a single photo opportunity.

THIS has been my winter!  I have never had so much time pass, with so few bird photos!! Even my winter passion, searching for owls, turned out to be a bust. MANY hours busting through brush looking for Northern Saw-whet Owls, and while I did catch a glimpse of one, I had nothing close to a photo opportunity.  No Long-eared Owls, a species I often run across while looking for Saw-whets.  No Short-eared Owls during my trips to the grassy areas of the state, a species I often find in winter.  No Snowy Owls…just not a great winter for them, not many reported around most of South Dakota.  Even freakin’ DARK-EYED JUNCOS, possibly THE MOST COMMON CREATURE ON THE PLANET (well, sometimes seems like that here in winter) were almost completely absent from my feeders all winter!!

After a freakishly warm few days earlier this week, most of the lakes have finally opened up, and given all the waterfowl I saw migrating through over the weekend, I thought surely the local lakes and ponds would have good numbers of waterfowl now.  After work today, I rushed home to grab my camera, and headed to the western part of Minnehaha County to canvas all the wetlands and lakes in the area.

The good news? The water was indeed open in most spots!  There were THOUSANDS upon THOUSANDS of Snow Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese migrating overhead, their squawking filling the air.  But at ground level, in the open water?  Nada.  Zip.  Zilch.  At least in most places.  I did find a couple of spots with some waterfowl, nearly all dabbling ducks. Nearly all were Mallards and Northern Pintails, with a few Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, and American Wigeon.  But even in the couple of spots where I found SOME ducks, they were having NOTHING to do with my camera.  I guess I did get a “bird photo”, if you can count a blurry, long-distance, out-of-focus shot of a boring Mallard.  But good LORD it has been a LONG time since I’ve gotten a good bird photo, something worthy of posting online.

In lieu of any good bird photos, I did grab my iPhone and shot a bit of video of the Snow Geese passing overhead (video above).  This really doesn’t do justice to the number of birds moving overhead, because at one point, there was seemingly a continuous band of birds from the southern horizon to the northern horizon, moving overhead in a steady stream.  A wonderful, incredible sight to see, and something I look forward to every spring around here.

Now if only ONE of those high-flying migrants could be kind enough to actually drop down to earth for a photo session? Sigh…for now…the slump continues.

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