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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. 🙂

Comet Neowise - by Terry Sohl

Another great day in the blind

I’m convinced 90% of bird photography is getting close enough. Having all the technical expertise in the world isn’t going to get you a great bird photo unless you’re close enough to actually capture the image. While I can sometimes get good photos while on a hike, I’d estimate at least 90% of my best photos are those taken when I’m concealed in some way.

Often, that’s my vehicle. As I’ve said before, a great way to get good bird photos is to pull your car over next to a good area of habitat (a wetland, a small pond, a riparian area, etc.), and simply wait. Many birds that are skittish around a human presence are more bold when it’s “just” a car (regardless of what’s inside). However, there are better ways to conceal yourself, showing a much lower profile and getting to good birding areas that you could never take a car.

I started using a chair blind about 10 years ago. One of my favorite ways to use it is during shorebird migration in the spring, where I’ll set it up along a shoreline or the edge of a muddy field. This week I was birding up at Lake Thompson in Kingsbury County, when I came across a shallow water area with scattered mudflats, and quite a few species of shorebirds. A great place to set up the blind! I hiked out onto a good spot at the edge of the lake, making sure to place it in a location with the sun behind me (lighting always important for photography!). Of course everything scattered at first, at while the birds never came back in quite the same numbers as were present before I set up, it was still a great few hours. Here are a few photos from the day in the blind.

Marbled Godwit - Limosa fedoa
A Marbled Godwit flying past the blind, in hot pursuit of another Marbled Godwit. Both Marbled and Hudsonian Godwits were present in good numbers, but Marbled Godwits are the species that breed here. They were in courting mode, with display flights and birds chasing each other the entire time I sat in the blind. Not only my favorite photo of the day, this may be one of my favorite photos of all time, with the lighting, the pose, and the detail in the bird’s plumage.
Hudsonian Godwit - Limosa haemastica
A Hudsonian Godwit in flight. Female Hudsonian Godwits, juveniles, or males not in full breeding plumage can sometimes be difficult to differentiate from Marbled Godwits when they’re standing. But in flight, the bold black and white patterns of a Hudsonian Godwit make it easy to identify.
Lesser Yellowlegs - Tringa flavipes
A Lesser Yellowlegs strutting in front of the blind. Lesser Yellowlegs are always one of the most common shorebirds that migrate through in the spring, and I have plenty of photos of them, but who can resist triggering the shutter on your camera when ANY bird makes it this easy? Opportunities that you may not be able to get without the use of the blind.
Common Grackle - Quiscalus quiscula
Common Grackles are indeed quite common! They’re the bane of my feeder complex at home in the spring, as a small group of them can dominate my feeders and wipe out my offered goodies in short order! Despite that…I didn’t realize how few photos I really have of the species! Particularly when you get great light like this that shows off that iridescence.

Last blast – Winter on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands

One last trip to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands! It’s been a couple of weeks…just have had zero time to post photos…but I had a wonderful day trip to the Grasslands. After some rather slow years on the Grasslands, this was a good winter, although the birds were curiously concentrated on the eastern side, mostly in and around some very large prairie dog towns towards Highway 1806.

As always…Rough-legged Hawks predominated, but there were higher numbers of Ferruginous Hawks than I ever remember seeing in one day. Plenty of other “goodies” as well! With that, some photos from my trip a couple of weeks ago…

Rough-legged - Buteo lagopus
Rough-legged Hawk, that was uncharacteristically 1) cooperative for the camera (they’re usually relatively shy!) and 2) on the ground, instead of on a telephone pole.
Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Look out below! There’s no doubt that Prairie Dogs are a big attractant to some raptors in the winter. Most commonly, it’s Ferruginous Hawks and Bald Eagles that I see hanging out around Prairie Dog towns, but on this day there were also a number of Bald Eagles. Here one makes an unsuccessful attempt to nail a Prairie Dog, who ducked into its burrow a moment before the photo was taken.
Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis
Ferruginous Hawk in flight. I believe this is a younger birds (not nearly as uniform, gorgeous rusty brown on its uppersides, among other things. Probably my favorite raptor on the Grasslands, other than a Gyrfalcon! Such big birds, and as a bonus…they’re generally more cooperative than other raptors!
Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos
A massive Golden Eagle, sitting on a fence post. There’s no doubt in my mind that these guys have become more and more common over the 20+ years I’ve been birding the Grasslands.
Prairie Falcon - Falco mexicanus
A pretty typical view of a Prairie Falcon on the Grasslands! From a “safe distance” as far as the bird is concerned, and in flight as it warily gives you an eye and flies away!
Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus
Another Rough-legged Hawk, this time on a fence post. I guess when you see ~100 Rough-legged Hawks in a day, even though they’re generally shy, you’ll come across a few birds that allow a quick photo!
Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis
A mature Ferruginous Hawk in the evening sun. Such majestic birds…Buteo “regalis” is a fitting name.
Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus
One more Rough-legged Hawk, this one in flight. Until next winter, raptors of the Grasslands! Thanks for another great season!

A typical day on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands

Fort Pierre National Grasslands - South Dakota

Two weeks off of work, winding down as I prepare to return to work tomorrow. It’s been a wonderful (and much needed!) break, with time with the family, and plenty of birding. In two weeks I managed to make it out to central South Dakota three times…more than I normally do all winter! It’s such a magical place for me in winter. Quiet…open…often harsh and unforgiving…yet very restorative for me when I need time alone to recharge.

So what’s the attraction? Central South Dakota? In the dead of winter? Here’s a photo synopsis of what it’s like, all photos from my most recent trip out there last Thursday/Friday.

Fort Pierre National Grasslands - Sunrise
Pre-dawn on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. Normally I make a (long) day of it, leaving 3 hours before dawn so I can arrive just before the sun rises, and make the most out of short winter days (about 9 hours of sunlight at a minimum). This photo gives you a good idea of what it’s like as you await the sunrise…VAST…open…isolated…and other than barbed wire fences and a few powerlines, often not much of a sign of human habitation. An exciting time as the sun arises, as you just KNOW you’re about to have another wonderful day on the grasslands.
Pronghorn - Fort Pierre National Grasslands
It’s not ALL about birds! While winter raptors are my primary reason for coming to the region, there’s often other wildlife to catch your attention. On this trip I was thrilled to see a large herd of Pronghorn grazing on the rolling hills, just as the sun was rising. Mule Deer and White-tailed Deer are also often seen. Coyotes are certainly around, and I probably see them about every other trip to the Grasslands, but mostly at dawn. They’re extremely shy and difficult to approach.
Buteo Regalis - Ferruginous Hawk - Fort PIerre National Grasslands
There are a few private land holdings within the Grasslands boundaries, but there are more abandoned buildings than any other. In a land that’s often treeless or without any kind of high perches, these abandoned homesteads often are birding hotspots. Here a Ferruginous Hawk is perched next to an abandoned…Packard (?).
Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus
RAPTORS are the name of the game on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, but there’s a definite hierarchy in terms of what I’d love to see!! The Holy Grail bird of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands…a Gyrfalcon! And not only a Gyrfalcon, but an adult Gyrfalcon. In the 20 years I’ve been birding the area, I’ve probably seen about 25 Gyrfalcons. I believe I can count on one hand how many of those have been adults, so I was thrilled to run across one on this trip. I watched from a long distance and took some photos from further away than I normally would, as I wanted to make sure I documented this bird’s presence. I’m glad I stopped so far away and grabbed some photos, because after watching it for perhaps 30 seconds, it flushed and flew away, and I never again found it on this trip.
Greater Prairie Chicken in Flight - Tympanuchus cupido
Why are there so many raptors on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands? Clearly raptors go where the food is. There undoubtedly must be a lot of voles and other small rodents, as that’s what I primarily see birds like Rough-legged Hawks catch. But another attractant to birds like the Gyrfalcon above are all the Ring-necked Pheasants, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Greater Prairie Chickens that are around. It’s a popular hunting location for all of those species, and given that surrounding private lands often release birds (pheasants) for hunting, there’s never a shortage of any of those species. The native Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie Chickens are VERY wary as a result of the hunting pressure, and I have few close photos of either species. On this trip I was very happy to get my first ever flight photo of a Greater Prairie Chicken. With the recent heavy snow, many of the game birds were struggling to find foraging grounds, and were concentrated along the roads more than usual.
Ring-necked Pheasant - Phasianus colchicus
Speaking of Pheasants…they are widespread in the area, but are probably less common on the Grasslands themselves than on the surrounding private lands.
Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus
You’ll see both Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles on the Grasslands. Golden Eagles are more often seen (they were downright common on the three recent trips I took), but even far from any open water, you will also often see Bald Eagles. I’m aware of at least 4 different nests just to the south of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves, near the Presho area. This photo is along the Missouri River just to the north of the Grasslands, a stronghold of the species in the winter months.
Prairie Falcon - Falco mexicanus
A Prairie Falcon in flight. They’re definitely a larger bird than the American Kestrels you see a lot in the summer months (and to a much lesser extent, in winter). They’re larger than the Merlins you sometimes see on the Grasslands (including one I saw Friday). But they share the same “falcon” characteristic when they take flight, with much faster wingbeats than all the Buteo hawks in the region, and a more tapered wing. Couple the relatively large size and that classic falcon flight pattern, and Prairie Falcons OFTEN get my heart racing as I’m thinking that bird flying up in front of me may be a Gyrfalcon! On a typical day on the Grasslands though, I’m lucky if I see a Gyrfalcon, yet I almost always see 3 or 4 Prairie Falcons. Usually they’re pretty shy, but there’s been one hanging around County Line Road on the grasslands this winter that’s uncharacteristically curious. He’ll flush when you get anywhere close, as do nearly all Prairie Falcons. But then he has this habit of circling me one or two times before finding a different perch! It’s not often I can grab a Prairie Falcon in flight, so I’m pretty happy to have seen this guy on this past trip.
Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus
Always by FAR the most common raptor on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in winter…a Rough-legged Hawk. I didn’t stop and record each one in eBird as I often do. But on a trip to the area the week before I saw nearly 50 of them, and I would suspect I tallied a similar number on this past trip. Gorgeous birds, and quite variable in plumage, although this is the typical plumage that you see.
Buteo jamaicensis - Red-tailed Hawk
The Fort Pierre National Grasslands are mostly treeless, and even during the summer months I’ve found Red-tailed Hawks are typically concentrated in the few wooded ravines, shelterbelts, or abandoned farmsteads in the area. In winter, those site tendencies are even more pronounced. Many Red-tailed Hawks move further south for the winter, and I find MANY more Red-tailed Hawks just south of the Grasslands (such as the Presho area) in winter than I do on the Grasslands themselves. However, over the 20+ years I’ve been birding the area, it’s quite obvious to me that more birds are overwintering in the region than used to. Similarly, 20 years ago it wasn’t common to find Western Meadowlark overwintering in any numbers, but on this past trip, there were a few spots where I stirred up a dozen or so Meadowlarks hanging out together. More Red-tailed Hawks, more Meadowlarks, fewer Gyrfalcons….that’s my impression of what’s happened over the last 20 years.
Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos
The one photo here that’s not from last Thursday/Friday, as this was taken on the Grasslands 2 days before Christmas. My impression is that BOTH eagle species are getting much more common on the Grasslands. I have few if any photos of them 10 to 20 years ago, but now I typically see 6-10 each time I go out.

First Shots – Canon 90D

A new toy! My primary camera body for 6+ years now has been a Canon 70D. It’s been a great camera, but…it’s time for an upgrade. I’ve been waiting (not so patiently!!!) for either a Canon 90D or 7D Mark III to be announced, as I wanted an upgrade, but wanted to stay with APS-C and the crop factor (handy when birds are your primary target). It was the 90D that was announced a few weeks ago. It started shipping Thursday, and I got mine from B&H the next day (awesome service as always, B&H).

I was anxious to give the camera a whirl this weekend, and was able to get out for a little bit this morning. As always, I had birds on my mind, but with a very strong south wind and generally non-cooperative birds, I set my sights on other quarry. Just a few photos below if you’re interested in the 90D and what it can do. All were taken with the Canon 100-400mm II lens.

Before the pics, just a few notes on my impression of the 90D. In terms of the nuts and bolts of the body, it has a very similar layout and will feel familiar to any Canon 70D shooter. While both have the same rubbery-coating in key areas of the grip, the rest of the body on the 70D is smoother and feels more “metallic”. The 90D surface has a consistency that feels like powder-coated metal is and is more matte in appearance than shiny. I appreciate the joystick on the 90D, and the fully articulating screen is great. The screen swings out, but also rotates. You can position it with the screen locked and facing back towards the shooter, as if it were a 70D. It’s nice for taking a shot and quickly reviewing (again, as you would with a 70D). When you’re done for the day, you can rotate the screen so it’s “face-down” towards the camera, protecting it when not in use.

There’s little doubt auto-focus is better on the 90D. I was frustrated quite a bit trying to shoot birds in flight with my 70D, in that it often had trouble “holding on” to a target. In my limited shooting this morning, it seemed MUCH better. There were a number of Franklin’s Gulls flying over, and I tried locking onto a bird and shooting, and it did a good job maintaining focus as I tracked the bird in flight (using AI Servo mode).

Note I also did a bit of shooting with an old 1.4x Canon teleconverter I have. I think the newer Canon teleconverters have more capability than the 15-year old teleconverter I have(?). But even with my old 1.4, the 90D will autofocus with an (effective) f/8 lens, meaning I was able to use it with my EF 100-400mm IS II USM and maintain autofocus with the center point. That’s a capability the 70D doesn’t have (although the 80D does). There’s no doubt the images when using the 1.4x were a touch softer than those without, but I’ll have to do more testing to check the capabilities with the 1.4x.

10-frames a second on the 90D…damn. I usually don’t shoot in that mode, as it just means I’d typically end up having to filter through even more shots to settle on my “keepers”, but it’s a nice option and a big upgrade over the 70D.

Of course one big improvement is resolution, where I’m going from 20 MP in the 70D to 32.5 MP in the 90D. A lot of pixels, and a lot of detail. For a guy who shoots primarily birds and often has to crop, those extra pixels are most welcome.

A few shots from this morning are below. Note I am NOT a pixel-peeper who is going to analyze every single element here, nor am I really one to give you a rigorous test. No, what follows are basic shots from the camera, shot RAW, and processed through Canon’s Digital Photo Professional with default settings to produce the JPEGs below. Each are the full-res versions (click to see full-res file). Just a few for now, including some at low ISO and one at quite high ISO. My first subject for the day…a farm cat that was hunting in a grassy field! In all the years I’ve been shooting, that this is probably the first cat photo I’ve ever taken!

CLICK ON THE 800pixel version below to load the original full-res images

Canon 90D, EF100-400mm f/4.5-4.5L IS II USM, 1/320 sec, f/9, ISO 200
Canon 90D, EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, 1/8000 sec, f/9, ISO 8000
I wanted to take something at high ISO. Not exactly the world’s best test of high ISO, in such bright light, but I was pleased with the performance at ISO 8000. Note this again is default settings convert from Camera RAW, and the default is more aggressive at noise control at ISO 8000 than for the ISO200 shot above.
Canon 90D, EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, 1/200 sec, f/9, ISO 200
Canon 90D, EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, 1/320, f/8, ISO 200

Done! Australia Wildlife Photos Page

It only took 5 weeks of photo processing and webpage creation, but I finally have a finished web page that shows all of the better wildlife photos from Australia. There’s around 600 photos out here, of ~75 bird species as well as some other critters. I’m not very good at actually following through, in terms of actually processing, displaying, and archiving my photos once I take them! My hard drive full of tens of thousands of unprocessed photos can attest to that! But given this once-in-a-lifetime trip, I wanted to follow through and create this page. Click on the link below to visit:

Australia Wildlife – May/June 2019

Rainbow Lorikeet feeding on Banksia

The misogynistic birder: Giving female birds their due

When you read the news since, oh…early November 2016, there’s a common theme in many of the news stories. That theme? Misogyny. I cringe when I read the news. I wince when I see how female relatives and friends are often treated. I am disheartened by the “meh” response of many people, for whom misogynistic behavior is so ingrained that it’s second nature and they don’t give it a second thought. And BTW, who am I kidding…the problem goes back FAR before November 2016, although it’s certainly been brought to the forefront since then as attempts have been made to wipe away many of the gains women have made.

Now, I’ve REALLY tried my best to try to focus more on birds and photography on my blog, although sometimes I must necessarily vent on the latest political topic of the day. But after a long week, right now this is a topic that’s too heavy for me to want to tackle. So why I’m a starting a post about misogyny? Bear with me, but…while out shooting the other night at Good Earth State Park, I was surrounded by the songs of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. It seemed like around every corner was another singing bird. I tried and tried to get a photo of one singing, but kept being foiled, with birds either flying away when I got close, or simply stopping their singing and giving me a nasty look.

I ended up taking very few photos that night until the very end. I was trudging up the trail back to my car when I saw a Rose-breasted Grosbeak perched on a log. It wasn’t singing. It didn’t immediately grab my attention as a singing Rose-breasted Grosbeak might because…it was a female. As I raised the camera to shoot, a thought shot through my mind…I’m a misogynistic bird photographer! It’s not just this night or this species. For example, if I’m at a wetland and am surrounded by Yellow-headed Blackbirds, I’m not trying to shoot the less brilliantly plumaged females…I’m going after the males in their striking, colorful breeding plumage. In fact, I think nearly EVERY bird photographer is “misogynistic”, in that the ratio of male-to-female photos is…what…5 to 1 for species with even minor plumage differences? Maybe even 20 to 1 or more where the male is very brightly colored and the female is more drab?

In my small way to fight back against misogyny in general, here’s an ode to the female…the female bird! Below are some of my favorite female bird photos I’ve taken over the years.

NOTE: I’m taking a short hiatus from blogging while I deal with some things, but I will be back soon!

Also Note: This blog post is dedicated to my wonderful wife, who CLEARLY is the better half. In what’s unfortunately a man’s world…she rocks.

Black-throated Green Warbler - Setophaga virens
A female Black-throated Green Warbler, taken on May 25th, 2012 near Acadia National Park in Maine. Are the females as boldly marked as the males? No. They don’t have the black throat of the male, and markings may have less contrast. But a female black-throated Green Warbler is still one hell of a beautiful bird. I loved the pose and of course, the spruce cone in just the perfect position for this composition.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak - Pheucticus ludovicianus
The female Rose-breasted Grosbeak from the other night that got me thinking about my misogynistic ways! While lacking the rich colors of the male, the females are striking as well, with some beautiful plumage patterns and subtle coloring. May 20th, 2019 at Good Earth State Park in South Dakota.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Archilochus colubris
May 6th. That’s the magic date every year when the first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the season shows up in my yard. It’s nearly always within a day of May 6th, and the first bird that shows up is nearly always a male. This year was different however as an intrepid female showed up on that date (!!), braving what has been a cold and wet spring. Yes, the males have that brilliant red throat, but ESPECIALLY for hummingbirds, I couldn’t care less if it’s a male or female that visits my yard. They are so wonderful to have around. This is a bird from September 5, 2011 at our house in Brandon, South Dakota.
Wilson's Phalarope - Phalaropus tricolor
HAH! In your FACE with your fancy plumage, male birds! Wilson’s Phalaropes are a bit different in the bird world, in that it’s the FEMALE that has more colorful plumage. I love this photo, with the unusual pose of a bird as it feeds, and feathers in the back blown up by a strong wind. From May 4th, 2014 in Minnehaha County, South Dakota.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - Sphyrapicus varius
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are one of my favorite species to watch during the summer months. It’s fascinating to watch them at their “wells” they drill, not only because of their behavior, but because of other birds and critters that might come to take advantage of seeping sap. The females aren’t a lot different than the males. They lack the bright red throat of a male, but otherwise they share the same, gorgeous plumage patterns. And yeah…eveyr once in a while you actually even get to see a hint of yellow on their belly (just a bit here!). From May 22nd, 2011 at Beaver Creek Nature Area near Brandon, South Dakota.
Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus
Another woodpecker and one of my favorite regular yard visitors, here’s a female Red-bellied Woodpecker. The only plumage difference that’s noticeable is that males have a complete red head stripe, including the forehead, while the top of the female’s head is gray. From January 8th, 2011 at the Big Sioux Recreation Area near Brandon, South Dakota
Evening Grosbeak - Coccothraustes vespertinus
Evening Grosbeaks are a species I see once a year. Why is it so predictable? Because (usually) I go to Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota once each winter, and there’s one feeder complex where they can reliably be found. In 20 years of birding, that remains almost the ONLY spot I’ve seen this species. So do you think I care that the female isn’t as brightly colored as the male? Heck no! They’re such cool birds, no matter their sex! From December 30th, 2014 at Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota
American Redstart - Setophaga ruticilla
A female American Redstart from May 17th, 2013 at Newton Hills State Park, South Dakota. They don’t have the same black and orange plumage as the males, but they CERTAINLY share the same behavior. Absolutely MADDENING to try to photograph because they rarely sit still for more than a second.
We’ll end with perhaps one of them most underappreciated female birds…the Northern Cardinal. Are they bright red ALL over? No. But they share that same wonderful crest, and instead of simply being red all over like the “boring” male, they have red tinged feathers on their wings, crest, and tail. MUCH more interesting, right?!? In any event I do love this close portrait of a female, from July 1st, 2006 at Newton Hills State Park.

A cuckoo kind of a day

I’ve got so many potential things to focus on from an incredible weekend of birding. The 20-species warbler day yesterday, plenty of other goodies, has my head spinning in terms of what to focus for a blog post.

One of the more curious sightings from today at Newton Hills State Park came while patrolling the beach area. It was a bit foggy yet, drizzle was falling, and it was pretty damned cold for May 19th, and there were birds galore near the beach at Lake Lakota, all foraging on the ground or close to it, in search of whatever few insects might be out. While watching all the commotion, a bird with a noticeably long tail flew past and landed in the bushes behind me. Cuckoo!! But which one? I switched my focus from the beach to the bushes by the parking, and there! A Black-billed Cuckoo! I lucked into 3 Yellow-billed Cuckoos at Newton Hills last spring, but it’s been a few years since I’ve even seen a Black-billed Cuckoo.

As I sat and tried to get a good look at cuckoo #1 through the foliage, here came another long-tailed bird…another Black-billed Cuckoo! I ended up spending half an hour near that bush, and during that time there were up to FOUR Black-billed Cuckoos frolicking about, doing some half-hearted chasing of each other, but mostly looking like they were just trying to survive until the weather warmed up and there was more for them to eat.

Another great morning despite the weather. Here are some of the Cuckoo photos, all from the one location.

Black-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus erythropthalmus
Black-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus erythropthalmus
Black-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Ode to the Black Tern

I’ve done more birding in the last 2 weeks than I’ve done in a long time, trying to take advantage of what normally is the peak migration time here for warblers, shorebirds, and other migrants. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the warblers, shorebirds, and other migrants that they’re supposed to be, you know…migrating. It’s been pretty slow for many things, but I’ve still had a great time. One bird that definitely got the message about migration time are Black Terns, as I’ve run into dozens upon dozens as they forage over many of the lakes, ponds, and wetlands in the area.

Last night I was at Grass Lake in far western Minnehaha County, and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect setup for taking photos of what can be a difficult bird to photograph. The light was at my back, the wind was gusting and keeping many birds in a near hovering position, and I was perched on an elevated road that allowed me to be level or even shooting down on the birds as they fed. It led to some shots I really like…augmenting a gallery of quite a few Black Tern photos I like. For some species, building such a gallery comes rather easy, as the birds are cooperative (sitting still and not flying away certainly helps), and have plumage patterns and colors that make them easy to photograph.

That has NOT been the case with Black Terns. I do have some shots of them sitting on a log or other perch, but most of the time when you see them, they’re in flight, and they have a bouncy, unpredictable flight path as they forage for food. Their coloring is another challenge. A bird in breeding plumage has jet black feathering on the head and underneath, while other feathering is silvery to nearly white, making it very difficult to expose correctly. If you have poor light or the bird is backlit, it’s generally not even worth bothering, as the bird will show up as a dark, featureless smudge.

The conditions all came together last night though! With as happy as I was with the photos from last night, I was going to dust off my bird haiku “skills” (questionable as though they may be), given I haven’t done a haiku for awhile. But it’s Friday, it’s been a long week, and I don’t have it in me. So instead here’s a gallery of some of my favorite Black Tern photos over the years.

Black Tern - Chlidonias niger
A photo from last night. A full breeding plumage Black Tern, in flight, a good exposure that keeps some detail in the blacks (and allows you to see the eye) while not blowing out the silvery upperparts…I was quite happy to get this one! It immediately becomes not only one of my favorite Black Tern photos, but one of my favorite photos overall. May 16th, 2019 – Grass Lake, Minnehaha County, South Dakota
DEFINITELY one of my all-time favorites. The wings may not be in the position I’d prefer, but this has the best exposure of any Black Tern photo I’ve gotten, with quite a lot of detail in the blacks and a great look at that eye. Having a great green bokeh background is nice as well. From May 14th, 2016 in Minnehaha County, South Dakota
Black Tern - Chlidonias niger
Sometimes you do get a photo opportunity of one sitting still! You still have to have the right lighting to get a good exposure of that black and silver plumage though. The lighting gods were favorable though on this day, with a nice perch, a nice little head turn and pose, and a good look at that gorgeous plumage. Taken May 14th, 2010 at Lake Whitewood in South Dakota.
Black Tern - Chlidonias niger
Until last night, I didn’t think I’d ever get a top-down, Black Tern in flight photo that I’d like more than this one. But I like last night’s better. This is still one of my favorites though, taken May 14th, 2010 at Lake Whitewood in South Dakota.
Black Tern - Chlidonias niger
Sometimes it’s less about the bird itself, than the overall composition. Four breeding plumage Black Terns may not be compelling, but I loved the composition here, with the perch cutting through most of the frame, and the blue water as a back drop. From May 17th, 2013 at Lake Thompson, in Kingsbury County, South Dakota
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