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Add your biodiversity sightings to “iNaturalist” – Big Sioux Rec Area, Beaver Creek Nature Area

Banner page for a new iNaturalist “project” page, “Biodiversity of Beaver Creek Nature Area”. You can enter sightings of any form of life you find in the park boundaries, and iNaturalist will summarize those observations and provide an accounting of all life observed there.

Twitter is a dangerous thing for me. I’m relatively new to it, starting 2 years ago. But it’s rather addictive, and if I don’t curb myself I can spend far too much time on it. The good news…this weekend I spent very little time on Twitter, even going (gasp!) almost 36 hours without even looking at it. The bad news…it’s because Twitter itself got me hooked on another online activity.

When visiting the Black Hills a week ago, I took a number of flower and butterfly photos. I don’t really “do” butterflies and flowers, so didn’t know the ID of most, so I posted some blocks of photos on Twitter. People did help with ID, but I also got multiple suggestions to join iNaturalist. Now, I have done eBird for years, and greatly enjoy recording all of my bird sightings. iNaturalist is similar but expanded to…everything…all life that you wish to record, be it a bird, a reptile, a tree, a shrub, a bug, a fungi…anything. But unlike eBird, where you’re expected to know the species you’re entering, iNaturalist is also a platform for helping you to identify your finds. You upload a photo, identify as best you can, and other people confirm your identification, or offer a corrected identification. There’s a system in place where the “grade” for your entry depends upon matching IDs, with “Research Grade” ranking given to entries that have confirmed IDs from multiple users.

I have many, many thousands of photos over the years, mostly birds, but also other critters. I also have occasionally taken photos of flowers, fungi, and other life, but haven’t really given an ID to most. So instead of wasting time on Twitter this weekend, I spent FAR too much time entering old photos onto iNaturalist.

One feature I think is really cool about iNaturalist is that you can set up your own “project”. Your project can define an area where you can summarize observations. You can also select what taxa are part of your project. So for example, you could set up a project for your favorite birding spot, and do something like “The Birds of Newton Hills”. iNaturalist would then record ANY sighting of a bird, be it by yourself, or someone else, and summarize all the sightings of birds for that area. It’s all automated in that once the project is set up, it automatically records the sightings any one makes within your defined parameters (area, type of life, time of observation, etc.).

A cool concept! And since I admittedly get a little fatigued with bird photography, from the standpoint of taking photos of the “same old birds” (how many American Goldfinch photos do you need?), and since we live right across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, I thought why not start an iNaturalist project that records ALL life in the park? And so that’s what I’ve done, with a new iNaturalist project “Biodiversity of the Big Sioux Recreation Area“. My other most visited birding location is Beaver Creek Nature Area, just 4 miles east of where I live. I started another project for Beaver Creek, “Biodiversity of Beaver Creek Nature Area“.

Join in if you’d like! If you ever visit either the Big Sioux Recreation Area or Beaver Creek Nature Area, just start taking photos of the plants, animals, fungi…whatever life you run across in those two parks. Join iNaturalist and record your sightings. You do need a photo, and you do need to include the location of the sighting. That’s easy if you use your cell phone for the photo (or if your camera has GPS), as the location will be automatically recorded when you take the photo, and uploaded automatically when you add the photo to iNaturalist. And…that’s it! If the sighting is recorded within the boundaries of those two parks, it will automatically be added to these “projects”.

And don’t worry if you don’t know the identification of the plant or animal! That’s the point of iNaturalist. It will offer an initial suggestion based on your photo (most of the time the suggestions are very good!), and others will chime in and offer their 2 cents on ID.

I don’t need another online hobby, but…this one is a bit different! Not only did I end up starting these two iNaturalist “projects” this weekend, but each day I ended up taking long walks through the Big Sioux Recreation Area, going very slowly, and taking photos of a lot of the plants and insects I came across. It’s an online time sucker, but…it’s also an exercise routine in a way! So it all balances out. ūüôā

Give it a try and start entering your sightings! But beware, it’s fun, but a bit addictive. Here are the links again to the two iNaturalist projects I set up:

Biodiversity of the Big Sioux Recreation Area

Biodiversity of Beaver Creek Nature Area

Goin’ on a Safari. A Backyard Safari…

Not a good day birding. I went out this morning in the gray and the gloom, knowing the light wasn’t very good for bird photography, but I thought I’d try anyway.¬† Not only didn’t I get any photos, the birding itself was rather slow. Upon arriving back home I thought I’d change focus.¬† I hadn’t gotten my macro lens out in a while, so decided to go on a “backyard safari”, looking for little critters that inhabit the yard.

The nice thing about a backyard safari is that they never disappoint!  Well, in SUMMER they never disappoint, because you always find plenty of insects and other small critters in the yard. There were a couple of highlights today.  First were the White-lined Sphinx Moths that were gorging on nectar from a big honeysuckle.  Not a rare species, but given their size, you always do a double-take when you first see them.  They were moving pretty quickly from flower to flower, making photography a challenge, but with time (and a lot of deleted photos), I managed a few decent photos.

The second highlight were a couple of surprises on the butterfly weed I had planted. I wasn’t ever clear if the variety I bought was truly a form of milkweed.¬† Sure, butterflies loved the blooms, but would Monarch Butterflies treat it as they do all the wild, Common Milkweed that’s around here? Would they lay eggs?¬† That was answered today, when I found two caterpillars, one quite large, and one small. I don’t have a really large area of butterfly weed, but seeing those Monarch caterpillars today makes me want to plant some more.

A nice time, just a stone’s throw (quite literally!) from the house.¬† Backyard safari saves the day…

White-lined Sphinx Moth - Hyles lineata

White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata), feeding on nectar from our massive honeysuckle in the back yard. There were 2 or 3 hanging around the backyard, with the honeysuckle drawing the most interest by far.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) - Caterpillar

(Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) caterpillar, hanging around on my “butterfly weed”. According to this guy…yes…yes indeed…this IS a form of milkweed.

Leafcutter Bee (Megachile)

A Leafcutter Bee, hanging out on the same Butterfly Weed plant as the two Monarch caterpillars.

White-lined Sphinx Moth

Another White-lined Sphinx Moth at the honeysuckle.

Picking up the pencils…

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Drawing - By Terry Sohl

Colored pencil drawing of a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird at a honeysuckle plant. Click for a larger view.

Yeah, I haven’t blogged since May. ¬†Yeah, I haven’t really worked on my website since May. ¬†In fact, I just haven’t done much BIRDING¬†since May, and no photography to speak of. ¬†I took on some projects this summer that took FAR longer than I anticipated, and generally have kept busy with other activities. ¬†It’s not the best timing, given that summer has come and gone and we’re now moving towards the cold, relatively birdless hell that typifies a South Dakota winter. ¬†However, after a break, I’m getting back into the swing of things with the website, photography, and…even drawing.

I wish I were more motivated to draw. I enjoy the outcome, but admit that drawing to me sometimes seems like a chore, rather than a fun activity. ¬†There are 3 competing personality characteristics that come into play when it comes to drawing: 1) a lack of patience, 2) a desire to finish an activity quickly, and 3) a bit of a perfectionist streak. ¬†That’s not a great combination of attributes when it comes to drawing, as ideally, I’d be able to draw something very quickly, yet have it be of relatively high quality. ¬†As I’ve improved in my drawing over the years (at least I’d like to think I have improved!), I find that I’m going slower and am more meticulous in trying to capture all the details in a bird. ¬†Therein lies the comment about drawing sometimes seeming like a “chore”….I just can’t finish quickly any more, and I get tired of drawing after a little bit.

I did recently have a free Saturday, with no family around and no real tasks on my plate. ¬†After about a 1 1/2 year hiatus, I did drag out the pencils. ¬†Given that we are transitioning into fall, I thought I’d commemorate my long photography-, bird-, and blogging-free summer by drawing my favorite summer yard visitor, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. ¬†It’s usually around May 7th when they first show up in my yard, with males typically the first to arrive. ¬†We’re on the very edge of their breeding range, but they do clearly breed here, as I have them around all summer, and by early July, I inevitably start seeing juvenile hummingbirds in the yard. ¬†By mid-August, i typically stop seeing males, but young and female hummingbirds are still very frequent yard visitors. Numbers slowly trend down from there, and by the last week of September, I’ve typically seen my last Hummingbird for the year.

I’ve done all of our landscaping myself, and have planted a number of items that attract hummingbirds. ¬†However, their favorite plants are the multiple honeysuckles we have in the yard. My favorite Ruby-throated Hummingbird photo is of a beautiful male, hovering in front of a honeysuckle blossom in our yard. ¬†This drawing is a nod to that photo.

I admit that as is typical, my patience was wearing thin as I worked on this one. ¬†I spent about 5 hours drawing the hummingbird itself. ¬†It’s always the bird itself that I enjoy drawing the most. ¬†I never am fond about putting in other elements, such as the honeysuckle blooms here. ¬†Thus, after about 5 hours of working on the bird, I admit I rushed through the drawing of the honeysuckle. Once again, while I was generally pleased with how the bird itself turned out, by the end I just wanted to be DONE, and drawing had turned into a chore.

Which means it will probably be another ¬†1 1/2 years before you see me post another drawing out here. ¬†ūüôā

Ant vs. Fly – Battle Royale

Ant vs. Fly

An ant that has seemingly captured a fly. The fly was firmly in the grip of the ant, and despite having full use of its wings and desperately trying to pull away, it wasn’t making any headway against the tiny but strong ant.

Ah, the thrills of being a nature photographer. ¬†The classic nature battles that are captured through the eye of a photographer…a lion taking down a wildebeest. ¬†A pack of wolves tackling a full-grown elk. ¬†A grizzly bear taking a bison calf.

OK, this may not be quite on bar with the excitement and drama of one of those encounters, but while out taking macro photos, I heard a bit of buzzing and noticed this fly flopping around a bit, seemingly trying desperately to get away from something. ¬†At first I didn’t see the captor, but then saw it was a large ant! ¬†The ant had it’s jaws firmly around the head of the fly, and despite all the efforts of the fly, it certainly didn’t seem like it had much of a chance to get away.

I had seen ants carrying seemingly dead insects away before, often in a cooperative fashion. ¬†But I hadn’t ever really thought of ants as being “killers”, going out and actively hunting for prey. ¬†Another insight into the insect world through a macro lens!

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…

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.

A new favorite – Bananquits

Bananaquit - Coereba flaveola

A Bananaquit amongst the pink flowers of what was seemingly their favorite nectar source at the time we were on St. John’s.

Ah, work. ¬†Such a silly thing, getting in the way of birding, of life in general. ¬†I’ve been on a work trip (conference in Portland, Oregon), and thus no birding (or posts) for a week or so. ¬†Back home now, and finally getting back to processing bird photos from our vacation in the Virgin Islands.

I had grand plans on how to attract birds at our rented beach house while on St. John’s Island, but admit those plans didn’t pan out! ¬†Not in the least. ¬†I had brought a hummingbird feeder with me, and had visions of the two resident hummingbird species (Antillean Crested Hummingbird, Green-throated Carib) dancing around the feeder while we relaxed on the deck overlooking the ocean. Both species of hummingbirds were certainly there, as both were easily observable from the beach house as they fed on nectar from the flowering trees and shrubs. As for the feeder? ¬†Not once did I see a hummingbird even look at it, much less stop to feed.

Another reason for bringing the feeder was to attract another species I’ve certainly read about, but never seen…a Bananaquit. ¬†According to what I read before departing on vacation, Bananaquits were supposedly easily attracted to sources of nectar and sugar. However, just like the hummingbirds, the Bananaquits showed absolutely no interest in the week we were there.

Bananaquit - Coereba flaveola

The method of feeding for a Bananaquit. I had heard they were nectar “robbers”, often piercing blooms at their base to retrieve nectar. Given the repetitive visits to the same blooms, however, they didn’t appear to be destructive to the bloom when feeding in the manner shown in the photo.

Fortunately they’re a pretty easy species to observe, and they were almost always present in the flowering trees and shrubs around our beach house. ¬†The U.S. Virgin Islands have been going through quite a drought, and the vegetation in much of the island was brown. ¬†There was one species of tree that had barely any leaves, but did have quite a few big, tubular pink blossoms. ¬†There were a pair of these trees by the beach house deck, and the Bananaquits certainly loved feeding on nectar from the pink blooms.

People tend to quickly lose interest in the “ordinary”. ¬†Bananaquits in the U.S. Virgin Islands are one of the “ordinary” species that are so frequently seen that the locals likely think very little of them, much like most people are with Robins around here. ¬†But for a non-local, I had a blast watching the Bananaquits. ¬†That unique curved bill, the bright colors, the aggressive behavior in defending their patch of nectar flowers…it certainly was a highlight for the birding on St. John’s.

Hummingbirds in the U.S. Virgin Islands!

Green-throated Carib - Eulampis holosericeus

A Green-throated Carib, hanging out on their favorite tree with the pink tubular flowers. As always, click for a larger view.

I have quite a few bird (and other) photos from our trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, and am just starting to go through and process them. ¬†From a birding standpoint, it was certainly a blast to see a number of new species! ¬†However, as a rule, the smaller the island, the fewer the number of species are found, and St. John’s isn’t a very big island. ¬†Over 430 bird species have been found in South Dakota, quite a few for a location over 1,000 miles from the nearest ocean. ¬†St. John’s, on the other hand, hasn’t had many more than 150 species.

While the number of “new” species for me wasn’t high, there were certainly some very cool birds that you’re not going to find in South Dakota! ¬†A highlight for me as a birder is finding and photographing new hummingbird species (one reason why I love Arizona so much!). ¬†While other species have visited one or more of the islands on rare occasions, but¬†the U.S. Virgin Islands only have two regular hummingbird species, the Green-throated Carib and the Antillean Crested Hummingbird. ¬†I’ve never been in the Caribbean, and neither is found in the United States, so both were new for me!

The U.S. Virgin Islands are experiencing quite the drought right now, and one thing that shocked me upon arriving was just how dry and brown much of St. John’s was. ¬†Most of the island is a dry scrubland forest anyway, but from what the locals told us, it was quite unusual to see things as dry as they were on our visit. ¬†Despite the drought, however, there were a few species of trees and plants that were blooming profusely, including on the property of the beach house. ¬†It didn’t take long to see both species. ¬†We arrived on a Sunday afternoon, and within an hour of arriving at our beach house, I had seen both species.

An Antillean Crested Hummingbird, one of the few relatively clean shots I was able to get of the species.  Despite seeing them at close range multiple times, they were much more difficult to photograph, as they seemed more active and more likely to perch in heavy cover than the Green-throated Cariibs.

An Antillean Crested Hummingbird, one of the few relatively clean shots I was able to get of the species. Despite seeing them at close range multiple times, they were much more difficult to photograph, as they seemed more active and more likely to perch in heavy cover than the Green-throated Cariibs.

I don’t know the name of the tree, but there were a number of large trees with tubular pink blossoms that both hummingbirds seemed to really love. ¬†The first hummingbird I saw and photographed was a Green-throated Carib feeding on nectar from blossoms in this tree. ¬†In sunny St. John’s, it’s hard to miss the brilliant flash of green when you see a Green-throated Carib! ¬†They’re also a relatively large hummingbird species, making them even more noticeable. ¬†Unlikely pretty much every hummingbird species I’ve seen in the United States, they also have a very strongly decurved bill that’s quite noticeable. ¬†I also came across a few other Green-throated Caribs on other locations on the island, but every time I saw one, it was hanging around one of these pink-blossomed trees.

Green-throated Carib - Eulampis holosericeus

Another Green-throated Carib, this one hovering right before heading to a pink bloom to feed.

The Antillean Crested Hummingbird is the more highly sought species from what I was told by birders familiar with the area. ¬†They’re not hard to find on St. John’s, but they do have a pretty small range overall in the Caribbean, making them a nice addition to a birder’s checklist. ¬†The Antillean Crested Hummingbird is quite small hummingbird, very noticeably smaller than the Green-throated Carib. ¬†Perhaps it’s because of the size difference, but there were obvious behavioral differences between the two species. ¬†While the Green-throated Caribs around the beach house were seemingly quite aggressive, attempting to chase away Bananaquits, Lesser Antillean Bullfinches, and other birds using their favorite flowering trees, the Antillean Crested Hummingbirds seemed to stay closer to the ground in more hidden locations. ¬†They too really liked the pink-flowered tree, but would only use it if the Green-throated Caribs weren’t using it at the time. ¬†They also seemed to stay closer to the ground, visiting blooms lower in the tree canopy and generally staying closer to thicker cover. ¬†There were a number of times when I would walk around the pink-flowering trees and I would see an Antillean Crested Hummingbird perched in a thicket nearby. ¬†They tended to stay there most of the time, flying out on occasion to feed, but immediately returning to thicker cover once they were done feeding.

That first day I was just THRILLED to see both species at very close range, and didn’t even try to photograph them. ¬†At one point, while standing next to another tree with gorgeous orange flowers, an Antillean Crested Hummingbird began feeding on blooms a mere 3 feet away! ¬†It was such a thrill to watch this gorgeous male Antillean Crested Hummingbird at such an extremely close range. ¬†Given how easy they were to see that first day and how close they would feed to my position, I was quite excited for the rest of the week, anticipating many good photo opportunities! ¬†However, as it often works with bird photography, things didn’t exactly work out as planned! ¬†I continued to see both species throughout the week, but frustratingly, I couldn’t get nearly as close as I did that first day! ¬†I’m not complaining much however, as I continued to get great looks through my binoculars, and did manage to get enough decent photos of both species to keep me satisfied.

Green-throated Carib - Eulampis holosericeus

And one more Green-throated Carib and the favored tree. Gives you a better look at the tree…anybody that can tell me what those trees are?

One aspect of the trip that did NOT work out as planned…I had brought along a small hummingbird feeder in my bags, anticipating setting it up and enjoying close range action not only from the hummingbirds, but from Bananaquits and other species that feed on nectar on the islands. ¬†I set up the hummingbird feeder near one of the pink-flowering trees that first day, and waited for the heavy hummingbird action! ¬†I waited…and waited…and waited…and not ONCE did I see a hummingbird even approach the feeder, much less start feeding on the sugar water I had put within it. ¬†Very strange, given that both species are known to visit feeders. The Bananaquits (an ever present species on the island!) also showed no interest. ¬†The only species that visited the hummingbird feeder? Interestingly, it was “Swabby and Captain”, the pair of Pearly-eyed Thrashers I had discussed in a previous post.

A real treat seeing both hummingbird species at close range and getting some decent photos! ¬†I’ll post more photos of other species from the trip as I get them processed.

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