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Birding > Bird photos? Or vice versa?

My start in both birding and photograph began in December of 2000.  I bought my first SLR camera, and was excited to go out and use it. I headed out on a cold, snowy day, looking for…something…to photograph, when I came across some Canada Geese around the small unfrozen edge of a local quarry.  From the start, birds were my most common photographic subject.  Soon, they were nearly my ONLY photographic subject.

While I loved shooting birds, for many years, my primary focus when going out was getting photos.  Seeing birds was certainly wonderful as well, but I tended to measure success of a trip in terms of how many “keeper” photos I got.  Even if I saw a rare bird, I was often disappointed when I was unable to get a photo of it.

Fast forward 18 years. I have photos for most species you could reasonably expect to see in South Dakota. I have photos for many species you would NOT normally expect in South Dakota. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve reached my saturation point for photos for many species, but in the last 3 or 4 years, things have changed. I was a photographer first, birder second.  Now, I’m definitely a birder first, photographer second.  I spend MUCH more time using my binoculars, scanning that far away bird to see if it’s a rarity.  In the past, I often ignored far away birds, as I knew I couldn’t get a good photo.  I think that’s what’s so nice about valuing BOTH the birds themselves, and the photography aspect.  When you go out on a trip, you’re rarely disappointed.

Here’s a few recent photos…

Yellow Warbler - Setophaga petechia

A curious Yellow Warbler. It’s been a very slow spring so far for migrating warblers, but as always, there’s never a shortage of Yellow Warblers around.

Harris's Sparrow - Zonotrichia querula

One of my favorite species, a Harris’s Sparrow. They are actually relatively easy to find here during migration.

Blue-winged Warbler - Vermivora cyanoptera

A Blue-winged Warbler, a rarity in South Dakota. However, there’s one specific spot of Newton Hills State Park where one or two breeding pairs are almost always found.

Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis

I have a billion Northern Cardinal Photos. However, when you get an opportunity for these guys, even if it’s a relatively long-distance opportunity such as this one, you can’t pass it up! I’m starting to really appreciate shots like this, or other shots where the bird is smaller in the frame. That’s particularly the case if I’m able to show a lot of their natural habitat in the frame. Here, I just like the simple composition, the pose of the bird, the warm light, and that beautiful blue sky.

American Golden Plover! (Photographic) Lifer!

A new lifer!  Oh, I’ve seen American Golden Plovers. There have been a number of springs where I’ve looked out in a muddy field or the edge of a wet area, and have seen them.  However, they’d definitely fall under the category of “photographic nemesis” bird, in that I’ve never gotten anything close to a “satisfying” photo.

Yesterday wasn’t exactly a day where I’d have expected any halfway decent photos.  It was rainy, gloomy, and a bit windy…not exactly great birding weather, much less photo weather.  The rain changed my plans though, and it’s because of that I ran into a small flock of American Golden Plovers foraging in a flooded field. Perhaps it was BECAUSE of the somber, gloomy day, but they let me get uncharacteristically close.  With the lighting these photos aren’t exactly going to win any prizes, but when you’ve been shooting birds for almost 20 years, ANY time you get a new “photographic lifer”, it’s a good day!American Golden Plover - Pluvialis dominica

American Golden Plover - Pluvialis dominica

All Quiet on the Eastern (South Dakota) Front

After such a cold, snowy spring, we’re finally starting to warm up.  It was a nice sunny day of about 60 degrees, and even better, our ever-present wind wasn’t bad, so I headed out before dawn to look for migrants.  My target for the day…shorebirds.  If the day were to be measured on the basis of that target, I failed miserably!  It’s APRIL 28th!! With such a wet, snowy spring, we have standing water all over the place!  Shallow water, mudflats, flooded fields…there’s as much great habitat for migratory shorebirds as we ever have in the spring.

However, someone forgot to tell the shorebirds!  I don’t think I’ve ever gone out at this time of year and seen so few shorebirds. Hopefully it’s just the cold weather that has them behind schedule, and we’ll get a nice pulse of shorebirds in the coming days.  Today, however, I had to focus on other quarry.  It WAS a beautiful morning for photography, and I did manage some nice finds south and west of Sioux Falls. It’s always fun to find migrating Loons (not all that common around here), and there were three at Wall Lake west of Sioux Falls this morning.  I also found a few Sora in one wetland right as the sun rose, a few Wilson’s Snipe that were cooperative, and a few Franklin’s Gulls to photograph.  Both the birds and the photo opportunities were FAR below what I normally expect this time of year, but it was still a nice morning.   First-of-year birds for me for the day include Sora, Wilson’s Snipe, Barn Swallow, Green Heron, Western Grebe, American Avocet, Willet, Barn Swallow, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Spotted Sandpiper.  A few photos from the day:

Common Loon - Gavia immer

A Common Loon at Wall Lake, west of Sioux Falls. There were (at least) three on the lake, and thankfully one was fishing right off a point extending out into the lake, giving me great photo opportunities.

Sora - Porzana carolina

A Sora on the edge of a wetland, taken just as the sun was rising. Always good to get such a shy bird out in the open like this.

Franklin's Gull -  Leucophaeus pipixcan

A breeding plumage Franklin’s Gull, with a pair of Lesser Yellowlegs in the background. One of my favorite birds in the Spring, particularly when they have the pink blush on their undersides such as this.

Wilson's Snipe - Gallinago delicata

One thing I’ve learned to check in the spring are flooded ditches, as they seem to be favored haunts for Wilson’s Snipe.

Yellow-headed Blackbird - Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus

I have a billion Yellow-headed Blackbird photos, but how can I resist? They’re such beautiful birds, and on a day like today when there just weren’t all that many birds around, the ever-present Yellow-headed Blackbirds make a great photo subject.

Spring busting out in birds

It’s been a damned cold spring. There’s no denying that.  As I speak, it’s snowing to beat the band…on April 8th…and we’re supposed to end up with about 5 more inches.  It’s been a winter of MANY 3-6 inch snows, and winter doesn’t seem to want to give up its grip just yet. But the birds are putting their two cents in and saying they will NOT be deterred.

I went out west of Sioux Falls last night, on a kind of a day that’s been rare around here lately…sunny, and no wind (but still pretty cold).  Even now, most of the big lakes are still frozen over, as are many of the small ones. Water is starting to open up, and the waterfowl are really starting to stack up as they await warmer conditions (and more open water up north) to allow their continued migration.  There are still geese around by thousands.  I had a blast at one location last night, watching as flocks of Snow, Greater White-fronted, Canada, and some Ross’s Geese would intermittently land or take off from a group of geese resting by a large slough. Ducks were on pretty much every available patch of open water, with some spots having incredible concentrations of Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks, as well as pretty much every other duck species you could ever expect to find here.

A highlight came late in the evening when I came across a Great Horned Owl perched in the relative open (for a Great Horned Owl). He was quite unconcerned by the guy with the camera, giving me some of the best looks and photos I’ve had of the species.  As the snow and wind lash us again today, it was also a nice reminder that spring IS here and better weather is ahead!

Great Horned Owl - Bubo virginianus

A quite tame Great Horned Owl, casually giving me a glance as he prepares in the late evening for a night of hunting.

Greater White-fronted Goose - Anser albifrons

The most numerous goose species were Greater White-fronted, of which I came across several thousand during the course of the evening.

Common Merganser - Mergus merganser

A female Common Merganser, sitting at one of the open spots in the ice and occasionally making a dive in search of food. Always loved the “haircut” on the females.

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

One sure sign of spring here is when you seemingly see Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels on every every telephone pole. Plenty of both last night, including this dude giving me a staredown.

Canada Goose - Branta canadensis

Another sure sign of spring…when the ever present Canada Geese are vastly outnumbered by other geese species.

Snow Goose - Chen caerulescens

Still plenty of Snow Geese around. Starting to get a little late to have them stacked up in such huge numbers, but the weather hasn’t been too cooperative.

 

Hybrid Snow / Greater White-fronted Goose

Birds are definitely on the move in the area, with thousands of geese and other waterfowl moving through the area in the last couple of weeks. I haven’t had a chance to get out much, but did manage to get out for a couple of hours south of Sioux Falls, in Lincoln County.  With all the snow melt, there’s certainly plenty of standing water, even without the lakes and ponds themselves still frozen.  There were a number of places I found Snow Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, Canada Geese, and the usual duck suspects hanging around the standing water and surrounding ag fields.

While watching one group of (mostly) Greater White-fronted Geese, I saw a strange-looking bird.  The group flew just as I was starting to get binoculars on him, so I quickly grabbed the camera and tried to get a few shots.  Not the greatest photo in the world, and it is from some distance, but it sure looks like the bird in the upper-right is a hybrid Snow and Greater White-fronted Goose. Much of the plumage and white base of the bill screams Greater White-fronted, but the extensive white, and even the “smile” patch on the bill are Snow Goose characteristics.

Not a hybrid I’ve seen before, but I guess not too surprising given how much these two species intermingle, at least during migration through the state.

Snow Goose / Greater White-fronted Goose Hybrid

Bird in the upper-right, appears to be a hybrid of a Snow Goose and a Greater White-fronted Goose.

Shorebirds Galore – Southeast South Dakota – April 23rd

What an utterly fantastic spring day of birding! It was one of those patented, windy South Dakota days, but the wind certainly didn’t keep the birds from showing off for the camera. I headed out this morning and spent a bit of time at Newton Hills State Park in Lincoln County, before deciding to spend most of my time looking for shorebirds. It was the right choice, as I ended up finding hundreds of shorebirds at Weisensee Slough in western Minnehaha County. It was the perfect set-up for my chair blind, a hunter’s blind I use as a photography blind.  It’s got a little folding chair with short 8-inch legs, and then a camouflaged shell that pulls over the top. There are multiple zippered openings for views, and with the low profile, birds don’t seem spooked by it, once they forget about the guy who set it up and crawled inside.  I ended up spending almost 3 hours in my chair blind as shorebirds of many species paraded in front of me.  Some species would venture so close to the blind that my camera wouldn’t focus (my long lens has a 12-foot minimum focusing distance)!  Others didn’t get quite as close, but I certainly couldn’t complain about a lack of photo opportunities. Fantastic birding day, and fantastic photo day!  Some photos from the day…click on any for even larger views.

Hudsonian Godwit -  Limosa haemastica

A male Hudsonian Godwit coming in for a landing. One of my favorite shorebirds, and one I don’t see all that often. However, today I saw at least 20 at Weisensee Slough, the most I’ve ever seen at one time.

Eastern Towhee - Pipilo erythrophthalmus

I didn’t spend much time at Newton Hills State Park, but while there I saw (and heard) many Eastern Towhees. Here a (chunky!) male hangs out in a cedar tree in the warm dawn light.

Sora - Porzana carolina

While driving past a cattail-filled wetland in Lincoln County, I heard the distinctive call of at least 2 Sora. One eventually gave me a peek…ANY peek of a Sora is a welcome sight, given how secretive they are!

Pectoral Sandpiper - Calidris melanotos

A Pectoral Sandpiper strutting its stuff mere feet in front of my chair blind. This bird certainly had no idea I was sitting inside, as at times he was too close to the blind for my camera to focus!

Baird's Sandpiper - Calidris bairdii

A Baird’s Sandpiper foraging in the shallow right in front of my blind.

Long-billed Dowitchers and Hudsonian Godwit

There were DOZENS of Long-billed Dowitchers and at least 20 Hudsonian Godwits foraging at Weisensee Slough. Every once in a while something would spook them and they’d take flight…usually RIGHT when they were starting to get within photo range of my blind! Sigh. But I did get some flight shot as they whirled around after a spooking event.

Wood Duck - Aix sponsa

A male Wood Duck, trying to blend in and hide from the camera. This was along “Ditch Road” just north of Sioux Falls. That was once one of my favorite birding locations. However, in the last year or two, they’ve cut all the trees along the ditch, and the birding is just a shadow of its former self.

Semipalmated Sandpiper - Calidris pusilla

A Semipalmated Sandpiper. There were a few Least Sandpipers mixed in as well, but overall these guys were by far the most common “peep” on Weisensee Slough today.

Hudsonian Godwit -  Limosa haemastica

Another Hudsonian Godwit at Weisensee Slough. These guys were a bit shyer than the other shorebirds and didn’t approach my blind as closely, but I still got some very nice looks at them.

 

Birding the April Migration in South Dakota

The day started off rather gloomy and wet, but after being on travel far too much lately and not getting a chance to bird, I was determined to head out today no matter what the weather was doing.  I birded about 4 hours, staying primarily around Sioux Falls and Minnehaha County, and ended up having a great day. It’s clearly not peak migration yet for shorebirds, but they are starting to show up.  Numbers were generally small in most places, but there was a pretty decent variety.  Here are some photos from the day, many of which are “first-of-year” sightings for me.  Click on the photos for an even higher-resolution version.

White-faced Ibis - Plegadis chihi

White-faced Ibis are a species that I don’t see all that often, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen them in Minnehaha County. There were 19 foraging in a flooded field west of Sioux Falls.

Swainson's Hawk - Buteo swainsoni

Another first-of-year, a Swainson’s Hawk soaring overhead when the sun came out this afternoon. I ended up seeing several Swainson’s Hawks for the day.

Franklin's Gull - Leucophaeus pipixcan

Franklin’s Gulls are one of my favorite spring migrants…they’re so beautiful when they have the blush of pink on their undersides. This wasn’t a first-of-year sighting, as I saw a few in the last couple of weeks. However, they’re really starting to come through in big numbers right now. This was right on the edge of Sioux Falls, at Harmodan Park on the southeast side of town.

Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs - Comparison

By far the most common shorebird today were Lesser Yellowlegs, with a few Greater Yellowlegs mixed in. Here’s a nice comparison shot of the two. It’s pretty evident when they’re side-by-side, but not always so easy when a lone bird is spotted.

Great Egret - Ardea alba

I have a billion Great Egret photos. But whenever I come across this beautiful bird, I can’t help but take yet another…

Out Duckin’ Around…

South Dakota weather can be absolutely perfect in the spring, even on occasion when spring has only been with us for a few days.  South Dakota can also have stretches of several days where the sun doesn’t make an appearance. Unfortunately, this weekend fell into the latter category. Given my long photographic drought, I had been looking forward to the weekend, and was pretty disappointed that we didn’t even have a peek of the sun.  You can get some nice photos in cloudy, even gloomy, conditions, but it’s not ideal.  However, there have been so many waterfowl moving through that I had to give it a shot today.

I headed to western Minnehaha County and the wetlands and lakes in the area, and certainly wasn’t disappointed in bird numbers.  Waterfowl were using practically every spot of open water, from the bigger lakes, down to shallow pockets of water in wet fields. The massive goose migration is largely over in southeastern South Dakota, although I did run into a couple of small flocks of both Snow Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese.  Duck numbers are certainly very high however, as they have been ever since the ice went out.  I spent about an hour and a half at Dewey Gevik Nature Area west of Sioux Falls, trying for duck photos.  Dewey Gevik is really wonderful for such an activity in migration, as they have a permanent blind that sits out in the water a bit, allowing you good looks at waterfowl as they feed around the blind.  I ended the photographic streak, but given the gloom, not any award winners for the day!  Still, I really enjoy sitting in the Dewey Gevik blind, and seeing waterfowl act so naturally mere feet away.  Given our hunting-happy culture in South Dakota, it’s rare to get chances such as these.

Some photos from the day:

Common Goldeneye - Bucephala clangula

A male Common Goldeneye. They’re not a species I’ve had a ton of luck getting close to around here, so gloom or not, it was nice to get a photo of one. And I mean LITERALLY one, because despite many other Common Goldeneyes being present at Dewey Gevik today, this was the only one brave enough to wander anywhere close to the blind I sat in for an hour and a half.

Ring-necked Duck - Aythya collaris

A male Ring-necked Duck. Yeah…me neither. I know what you’re thinking. “Ring-necked”? Don’t you mean “Ring-billed”? The males do have a dark brownish ring around their neck, but it’s rarely something that really stands out. They are quite beautiful ducks though, and it was nice to get a crisply plumaged male at close range.

Lesser Scaup - Aythya affinis

I guess it’s fitting that on a gloomy, dreary day, the ducks I were able to photograph were all of the black-and-white variety (at least for males). I did see Northern Shovelers, Redheads, Green-winged Teal, Blue-winged Teal, Mallards, and Ruddy Ducks as well, all species with at least SOME other colors, but alas, none came within range of my lens. Thus to break up the monotony of yet another black-and-white male duck, here’s a female Lesser Scaup.

Lesser Scaup - Aythya affinis

The “colorful” duck of the day, a male Lesser Scaup. If the light is just right, you typically see a greenish tone in the dark feathering on their head. Despite the gloom today, you do see a bit of that color. Despite the black-and-white tones on all of these so far, they really are some beautifully plumaged ducks. It’s great to see them at such close range.

Bufflehead - Bucephala albeola

I love Buffleheads. They’re just so fun to watch this time of year, as they’re usually so energetic. Who DOESN’T probably appreciate that “energy” are the female Buffleheads such as this, as it’s hard for them to find a moment of peace at times, with all the male Buffleheads showing off and bothering them. Typical guys…

Hooded Merganser - Lophodytes cucullatus

Crappy photo from a much longer distance than the others on this page, but that’s the luck I have with these absolutely gorgeous birds. Hooded Mergansers aren’t the most common waterfowl we have around, and you never see them in large numbers. It’s typically a pair or two, such as this pair at a wetland in western Minnehaha County. With that crest, they’re such cool looking birds. After 15 years though of doing bird photography, this pretty much matches the best I’ve gotten of the species so far.

Gadwall - Anas strepera

Just a small part of “Weisensee” slough in western Minnehaha County, a shallow wetland that was covered wall-to-wall today with ducks. The vast majority were Gadwalls, more Gadwalls than I have ever seen before. The entire slough was populated similar to this, with Redheads, Mallards, Blue-winged Teal, and other ducks present as well. Gloom or not, it was wonderful to see so many birds today, a welcome change after a (actually rather mild) South Dakota winter.

Headed back north! Geese migration

Wow…And I thought the goose migration was incredible a few weeks ago when it started. Then came the cold weather, all the lakes froze over again, and they…disappeared.

Evidently many either stayed down south or moved back down south for a while, because with the warmer weather today, the migration has been incredible. I’m working at home, sitting in my 2nd floor office, looking out the open window, and for over 2 HOURS now, it’s been a constant stream of geese moving north. Snow Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, and Canada Geese. Spring has sprung! And hopefully this time, it sticks!

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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