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A Birder Photographing Comet Neowise

I’m not really an aficionado of star-gazing and the like. For one…I’m an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of a guy! That’s a big shift from where I was 20+ years ago, but as a birder, getting up early and driving a few hours to get to a favorite location at dawn has become old hat for me. Because of my early hours, staying up late to go star-gazing well after sunset just isn’t…me.

However, as an aficionado of the amazing wonders nature has to offer, I WILL make the effort for special events. I do remember Comet Hale-Bopp from 1997, a comet so bright it was not only boldly visible with the naked eye, but it maintained a presence in night sky for several months. In July of 2018, my son and I also made an 8-hour drive to eastern Wyoming to ensure cloud-free weather for observing a total eclipse, an event that may only occur within driving distance a handful of times in a lifetime.

Now, it’s Comet Neowise that’s grabbing headlines. Neowise isn’t nearly as bright as Hale-Bopp was, nor will it be with us for such an extended period of time. However, it is being touted as the brightest comet since Hale-Bopp, and given the 20+ years since a comet has made such a splash, I have gone out multiple times to observe and try to photograph the comet (more on the latter in a second).

I admit though that my first observation was mostly by accident! Last weekend I was going to go birding in the central part of the state. As I often do when birding, I got up a couple of hours before sunrise and starting making the ~3 hour drive to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. I’d read about Neowise, but I admit it wasn’t until I was half an hour outside of town that I “remembered” I might have a chance to see a comet in the pre-dawn light.

I exited the interstate and stopped, pulling out my phone to look up where to search for the comet. “Northeastern sky, an hour+ before dawn, low on the horizon.” By serendipity, my timing was perfect, and I had perfectly clear weather. I started heading down a gravel road, turned a corner onto another road, and…there she was! I’d read binoculars would possibly be required to initially spot it, but once you knew where to look, you could see it with the naked eye. Nope! It was VERY obvious in the northeastern sky, no searching required, no binoculars required! I excitedly observed it for a few minutes, then positioned myself to take some photos.

Or at least I tried! I have a window-mount with a ball-head on top where I can mount my camera for stability, something I knew I’d obviously need for taking a long-exposure photo of a comet. But as a bird photographer? I have no clue how to shoot a comet. I did manage some halfway decent photos, but they were pretty much the equivalent of going birding, seeing a great bird, and getting “record shot”…a photo of dubious quality, but clear enough to document what you’ve seen.

I’ve since taken my son out to see his first comet, and another trip to specifically try to photograph it. Since my first early morning view, Neowise has “moved”, if you will, now primarily being visible in the northwestern sky an hour+ after sunset. It’s also become quite a bit less bright than what I remember from my first sighting. While I could immediately see, track, and observe Neowise with my naked eye that first day, I had more trouble finding it and keeping track of where it was in the sky on this trip. Still clearly visible however, and a target for a photo!

The photo below is the best I’m ever going to get with my current equipment. I shoot a DSLR, a Canon 90D, and for lenses, I rarely take off my 100-400mm II IS lens, a great birding lens with some versatility in the zoom. When shooting the eclipse in 2018, I didn’t have this lens…I used a much older, but very sharp, 400mm prime. I almost wish I had brought that lens instead, as for that one, you can manually focus on “infinity” for a shot like this, and ensure you’re pretty sharp for this kind of photography. With my 100-400 zoom, it’s not as simple as manually setting focus to infinity, as that sweet spot of focus differs depending on zoomed focal length. The biggest problem trying to shoot this night…with such a faint (to the eye) target, and old eyes suffering from Sjogren’s Syndrome, I couldn’t see well enough to be sure I was getting a clear focus.

My strategy was thus…1) window mount the camera 2) find the comet in the sky 3) frame the composition to my liking 4) manually focusing as best I could, and 5), continually fiddle with the focus in the hopes that at least a FEW of my shots were in focus.

I also knew from my few previous attempts at shooting stars, auroras, the moon, etc. that without any kind of special tracking hardware, I had to keep my exposure time to 20 seconds or less. Even at 20 seconds, there’s enough of a rotation of the earth so that the stars appear to “move” in that time period, and instead of clear, crisp points of light for stars, you get short little star trails. To get enough light recorded on the sensor in a short amount of time at night also means using ISO levels far higher than what I normally would do! More ISO means more noise, but it was unavoidable in this situation.

FWIW my final info for the shot below:

  • 100mm focal length, keeping my zoom the widest available view
  • 10-second exposure @ f/6.3
  • ISO 6400…what it took to get enough light to see clearly see both stars and the comet.

That’s it! Throw in some noise reduction in Photoshop, and this is the result! I’ll definitely take it! I’m certainly not going to ever compete with those more experienced in astrophotography, but I saw my “bird” and got that “record shot” to prove it. ūüôā

Comet Neowise - by Terry Sohl

In the News – Week of January 1st, 2017

A new year, a new set of nature and science news pieces for the week…

Black-tailed Prairie Dog - Cynomys ludovicianus

A “varmint”, a Black-tailed Prairie Dog. I have on several occasions run into “sportsmen” in South Dakota who are lined up at the edge of a prairie dog town, picking them off one by one with rifles. Killing for the sake of killing…and doing twice the intended harm, given the lead that’s ingested by predators when they eat the carcasses.

Ammunition choice in shooting “varmints” — There have been many occasions on my birding trips to the central part of the state where I come across a sight that makes me sick to my stomach. ¬†I’ll drive past a prairie dog town, and see multiple hunters lined up along a fence line, crouched and in a shooting position, picking off prairie dogs for “fun”. ¬†That’s it…there’s no other purpose to it, other than killing for the sake of killing. ¬†The prairie dogs that are killed aren’t used for anything, they’re simply left to rot. ¬†Unfortunately, “sportsmen” who feel this sick need to kill for the sake of killing end up doing even more harm to animal communities. ¬†By leaving the dead bodies, it provides an avenue for predators to consume the dead prairie dogs, and ingest the lead in the ammunition that was used to kill them. ¬†Lead poisoning is a major cause of mortality for many raptor species, and is THE leading cause of California Condor mortality. A simple solution, as this article points out, would be to use ammunition that’s free of lead. ¬†Even that common-sense approach though, one that still allows redneck hunters to kill prairie dogs and other “varmints”, is hated by hunting groups, as they claim that lead alternatives in ammunition don’t perform as well as lead shot and bullets. ¬†Given what I have come across over the years on all my birding excursions, I’ve had a major downturn overall in my attitudes towards hunting…and particularly…hunters. ¬†Stories like this don’t help my perceptions of hunters.

Cheetah numbers down to 7,100 worldwide — Over the last century, cheetah numbers worldwide have dropped from 100,000, to only 7,100 today. ¬†Think about that…in a world with nearly 7 billion human beings, for an iconic, well-known predator such as the cheetah, there are only several thousand left. As with most species’ declines, habitat loss is behind the cheetah’s loss in population. ¬†They range over huge territories, and there simply aren’t “huge territories” available in most parts of their range any more. ¬†Throw in targeted persecution, such as the shooting of cheetahs by poachers and farmers, and this story estimates cheetahs could be extinct in the wild in 20-40 years.

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle

Is this the face of Earth’s largest animal migrations? This is a Goldenrod Soldier Beetle from here in South Dakota, and I admit I have no idea if these “migrate” as with some beetles mentioned in this story. By sheer mass, however, this story points out that insect migration likely dwarfs any other migration on the planet.

Biggest migration of land animals on the planet — When you think of what creature may make up the largest migration of any land animal on the planet, in terms of sheer mass, what species do you think of? Or group of species? ¬†When you say “migration”, most people probably think of birds first, and there certainly are mass migrations of birds that are so heavy that weather radar is being increasingly used as a tool to study those migrations. In terms of sheer mass, perhaps some people think of large caribou migrations. ¬†However, as this study notes, one overlooked migration likely has all of these beat…insect migration. ¬†This study notes that around 3.5 trillion arthropods migrate over southern Great Britain each year, accounting approximately 8 times the mass of bird migrations in the same area. ¬†Some winged insects are well-known for their migratory talents, such as the Monarch Butterfly in North America. ¬†But as this study notes, there all sorts of winged and even non-winged creatures that migrate through the atmosphere.

What the heck is a “species” anyway? — People are funny. ¬†We have this intrinsic need to categorize things, put them in neat little bins that help our minds process realty. ¬†Birders sometimes take that to an extreme, with “life lists” that are often incredibly detailed, with “big day” lists (how many species you see in one day), “big years”, “state lists that detail bird species seen within the confines of state boundaries, and more. ¬†What gets bird listers in a tizzy? ¬†Just what IS a species! ¬†The American Ornithological Union and American Birding Association are always making tweaks to their “official” lists of species that have been found in North America. ¬†Just watch birders heads collectively explode if the AOU or ABA does decide to split Red Crossbills into up to six distinct species…life lists will be substantially increased!! ¬†Even with the science of DNA-based splits, it’s still not a precise science in determining what’s a unique species. ¬†As with many things, we’re categorizing things into unique thematic categories, when the phenomena you’re measuring is actually a continuous variable with no definite boundaries.

One, maybe two new comets moving through — Speaking of birders and their lists, I have a friend at work who is a birder, and someone who has a life list. ¬†He also has another, more unusual life list posted on his bulletin board in his office…his “comet life list”! ¬†He’s about to get one, and maybe two new ones for his list. ¬†Comet C/2106 U1 was recently discovered by the “NEOWISE” project, and¬†is potentially visible with binoculars right now, through about January 14th. It would appear in the southeastern sky just before sunrise. ¬†An object called 2016 WF9 was also discovered by NEOWISE, and it will come close to Earth’s orbit in late February. ¬†It’s estimated to be 0.5 to 1.0 km in diameter. ¬†Note the designation “object”, because it’s not clear whether this object is an asteroid or comet (related to the previous story, in that the categorization of what’s a “comet” and what’s an “asteroid” can be fuzzy).

Bird Dropping Moth - Caterpillar - Ponometia

A caterpillar of Ponometia…the “Bird Dropping Moth”. Should a new species of “shit moth” be discovered, I would suggest it be named after Trump, in the same manner that several creatures have been named after Obama in recent years.

Nine creatures named for President Obama — Over the last few years, no less than 9 different creatures have had scientific names that honor Barack Obama. ¬†Multiple fish, a lizard, bird, etc…all have scientific names such as “Nystalus obamai” (A Western Striated Puffbird, in this case). Once Trump leaves office in 4 years (or in a perfect world, once he’s impeached after a year or so), I wonder what creatures will be named after him? ¬†I have many, many classes of creatures where new discoveries should consider his name. There are the Onychophora phylum of worms known for excreting slime. There are the Annelidas…leaches…which would be a wonder creature to name after him. ¬†There’s a moth called Ponometia, and it’s associated caterpillar, that would be good. ¬†Their common name is the “Bug-dropping Moth”. ¬†Naming him after shit would be a perfect way to “honor” him once he leaves office.

Where you’re most likely to get struck by lightning — We had a very unusual Christmas day in South Dakota. ¬†I believe it was 4 years ago when we were absolutely smothered in snow, getting close to 2 feet on Christmas. ¬†We’ve had Christmas’s where the temperature never got above zero. ¬†And then there was this Christmas where we had…a thunderstorm? ¬†In late December? In South Dakota? ¬†We set a record for most rainfall on Christmas Day, getting over an inch in most areas, and the lightning and thunder was the first time that’s ever occurred here on Christmas (or late December for that matter). ¬†I could go into global warming here, but no, the point is the story in the above link. ¬†Standing outside on Christmas Day in South Dakota normally isn’t a high-risk endeavor, in terms of being struck by lightning. ¬†So where are the most active areas on earth for lightning? ¬†Thanks to a satellite called the Tropical Rainfall Monitoring Mission, we now know. ¬†The winner…a¬†Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. ¬†Over each one square kilometer in the area, one could expect over 230 lightning strikes per year. ¬†The lake is surrounded by mountains, and nearly every night, cool airflow from the mountains hits the warm waters and air above the lake and produces thunderstorms.

Western Meadowlark - Sturna neglecta

A Western Meadowlark, taken with a temp of -10¬į near Presho, South Dakota, in the winter of 2003-2004. I have a billion Meadowlark photos, but specifically remember this one because it was so rare to SEE one in the heart of winter. Now? They’re everywhere.

Bird migration changing with climate — As I noted in a previous post, I went birding to the central part of the state last week, and was amazed at how many Western Meadowlarks were around. ¬†15 years ago, it was rare to spot one in winter in that part of the state. ¬†Now…I saw hundreds, all across the region. ¬†Global warming? It’s hard to ignore signs like that. ¬†As this story describes, many birds are changing their migration patterns as the climate changes. Many are arriving on the summer breeding grounds much earlier than they used to. ¬†There are also some species where migrations have become shorter, or perhaps such as the case of the Western Meadowlarks, where they’ve simply stopped moving south for the winter.

China bans ivory trade and purchase — A rare bit of good conservation news. ¬†This last week, China announced that they will ban the sale and trade of ivory by the end of 2017. China was by far the largest market for legally sold ivory, with ivory selling for over $1,000 a kilogram. ¬†The Great Elephant Census recently published noted that elephant populations world-wide plummeted by 30% in just the last 7 years (!!!!!), and incredible population decline for such a short time period. ¬†With the shutting of the largest legal ivory market, it’s hoped that poaching pressures will decline. ¬†However, it’s hard to guess what will happen with ivory trade, and if much of this will simply move to the black market.

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