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Ode to the Sparrow – Photo/Haiku of the Day

Ode to a Sparrow

A whisper in the grass

“Just a sparrow”, overlooked.

Autumn’s hidden jewel

Le Conte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii

We’re approaching mid-September, and with it, one of my favorite birding migrations of the year. Warblers? Fall shorebirds? Migrating raptors? No, I treasure early to mid-Autumn for the wonderful array of sparrow species that migrate through eastern South Dakota. Among them are one of my top 3 species of all time…the Le Conte’s Sparrow. No “little brown job”…not “just a sparrow”…the Le Conte’s Sparrow is a brilliant array of complex patterns and beautiful warm tones.  With a reputation as a “skulker”, they’re a prized birding target for many, but during fall migration here, I’ve found them to be very approachable and rather easy to photograph. Along with the other 20 or so sparrow species that migrate through in the fall, a sparrow bonanza is just around the corner!

 

The Swallows’ Feast – Photo/Haiku of the day

The Swallows’ Feast

Summer’s mayfly feast

Shimmery swallows dip and chase

As the mower growls

Cliff Swallow in Flight - Petrochelidon pyrrhonota

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

Photography from a kayak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Blue Heron - Ardea herodias

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

Great Blue Heron - Ardea herodias

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

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Season of the Bobolink

Season of the Bobolink

Tinkly spring-time song

Fades away as summer ends.

Golden autumn fire

Autumn Bobolink - Dolichonyx oryzivorus

Bobolink in the warm dawn sun. This morning I went to a remnant tallgrass prairie patch and found a small group of Bobolinks. Males have lost their bold black-and-white breeding plumage, and share the same warm brown plumage as the females now. Rather than post as simply the “photo of the day”, thought today we’d take it one step further to my first ever “Photo / Haiku of the day”.

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.

Catching up…A mere 8,391 photos to process, upload, display

Photo processing - the long slog

One of two directories worth of “good” photos that I just need to finish processing, and put somewhere where they’ll see the light of day.

Uh…yeah. I’m running a bit behind in terms of processing photos.  Starting in around, oh…2012…I got lazy. Instead of processing photos from a trip rather quickly to ensure I actually DID it, I let them languish. I’d occasionally go back and revisit old shoots, but the photos kept piling up.  Now I didn’t just completely ignore photos from a trip. For all of these photo shoots since early 2014, I DID go in and thin out all the bad photos. I converted the remaining photos from RAW and did some basic image processing. All these photos are thus “good” shots that I’ve just never done anything with. I haven’t cataloged them.  I haven’t put them on my own website. I haven’t put them on any of the photo sites where I have accounts. No Facebook, no Twitter…these are photos that are almost ready to go, but have never seen the light of day.

I’m now finding that on days I don’t go birding, I can pretty much do some virtual birding in my upstairs office, perusing all these unprocessed photos and getting them out on my website and elsewhere.  I’m finding SO many photos that I didn’t know I had! Species I didn’t remember shooting!  Wonderful scenes and settings that have since slipped my mind! So, I’ve decided to take a break. Take a break from going out quite as often as I’m used, and instead, catching up on the photos that I DO have.

Two directories worth of photos…one with 4,491 photos, one with 3,900 photos, all in need of polishing and uploading to somewhere that people can actually see them!  I’m going through it rather randomly, going back to some trip from 2012, back to 2018, etc. Not only am I “discovering” some nice photos, I’m finding photos that may be some of my favorite photos of all time!

No idea how long this will take, but it’s a nice way to spend days I don’t go out birding. Here’s a more recent photo, from Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado earlier this summer.

Woodhouse's Scrub Jay - Aphelocoma woodhouseii

 

POTD – Dreaming of our next Arizona vacation

A story of one of my all-time favorite photos, related to an upcoming vacation. We LOVE Arizona. The diversity of landscapes, the scenery, the wildlife…it’s just such a treat, and so different than what we have in our part of South Dakota.  We first went about 20 years ago and have been back many times since.  However, it’s been a few years!  We decided that we’d take a week-long vacation and head down to Tucson this winter.

From a birding perspective, the Tucson area (where we usually go) is birding nirvana for me, particularly when we go down to Madera Canyon and some of the other famed birding spots in the area. Winter is still good for birding, but not nearly as good as the spring and summer (HOT!!!!) months. But despite what birds we may find, there’s always the scenery.

If it weren’t for the oppressive heat in summer, if I had the choice of anywhere to live in the US, it would be in the Sonoran desert habitat of Arizona. My first time there, I was shocked not only by the beauty, but the amount of LIFE that you find there. Given the heat and aridity, I expected a place that was tough for live to thrive, but whenever we go, it seems full of birds, insects, reptiles, and other life.  The backbone of the ecoystem, the “big daddy” from a vegetation standpoint, are the giant saguaro cactus. So many species depend upon them, not only for cover and nesting cavities, but for food.  It’s really cool being there in May when the saguaro are blooming, and seeing how many critters utilize the big blooms.

The place we stayed many times is now sadly closed…”Hacienda del Desierto”, a former B&B that not only had wonderful hosts, but a massive acreage with their own Sonoran desert habitat. Many a morning on vacation I’d wake before dawn and roam their lands, running into critters including coyotes, javelina, birds, snakes, and even bobcat.  Right outside the Hacienda is one of the largest saguaro cactus you’ll ever see, a saguaro full of character, with all the nesting holes from the birds that have used it over the years. Elf Owls will often nest in this cactus, as will Gila Woodpeckers, Gilded Flickers, and other birds.

On one of these mornings at the B&B, I awoke just before dawn to a gorgeous sky full of wonderful, scattered clouds. As I walked out by the big saguaro, I thought I’d try something unique for me…a photo that wasn’t a bird! I wanted something that captured not only the grandeur of that saguaro, but the wonderful early morning sky.  I put on my (rarely used) wide-angle lens, and tried to get a shot that captured both the sky and the saguaro. Not happy with what I was getting, I decided to try something different. I laid down on the ground next to the saguaro, and shot straight up the cactus towards the sky.

I absolutely love the resultant shot.  I love it so much, I made a big 36″ tall print on canvas that adorns my office wall at work.  I paid the price for this photo!  I learned that even if you don’t see them, the Sonoran desert ground is LITTERED with cactus thorns of all shapes and sizes! After taking the photo, I returned to my room, and spent some time with my wife, who graciously removed the thorns from my back, and the back of my legs and arms.  A price, but oh so worth it for one of my favorite photos of all time.

Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea)

An anniversary POTD – Saving my sanity with macro photography

In the summer of 2015, I was having a tough time. I was diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome a few years before, but I was dealing with it and the symptoms weren’t crippling yet.  That changed that summer, when my eyes were getting so dry that not only was I miserable, but it was affecting my vision. Typically it just got worse as the day went on, although the severity of symptoms varied each day.  Some days, I simply couldn’t see well at all by late afternoon (or earlier), to the point I couldn’t really use a computer well.  Ever since that summer, my work hours have been very early (typically 6-3), but it all started that summer as I couldn’t work very well after mid-afternoon..

It wasn’t until later that winter that I started investigating scleral contact lenses (more in a bit).  But that summer, I was struggling. I soon discovered that if I wore goggles, the dryness was still uncomfortable, but the moisture accumulating in the googles was enough to allow me to maintain my vision.  The problem? I HAD TO WEAR GOGGLES!!  And my eyeglass prescription is so off-the-charts weird, that nobody would make custom goggles with a prescriptions.  That thus meant I wore very big motorcycle goggles over my regular prescription glasses.  It’s a WONDERFUL look!  But not one I felt like sharing in public.

My days that summer were as follows…go to work, use eyedrops literally every 15 minutes, go home, and as soon as my vision started to leave me, I’d throw on the goggles and stay home the rest of the day.   It was…depressing. I wasn’t doing any birding, I wasn’t doing many of the things I loved, because I either felt miserable, or my vision was horrible. But just by chance, earlier that summer, I had bought a very nice macro lens for my Canon DSLR.  I hadn’t really played with it much…until my vision started to go and I didn’t want to leave the house much.

I spent quite a bit of time that summer and fall, just walking through the backyard, and learning to appreciate the tiny little world that had been there all along. I knew nothing about insects (ok, I still don’t know a lot), but I did QUICKLY discover the incredible variety, and incredible beauty, of the little critters roaming my backyard. Many nights I’d come home from work, not be feeling well, and I’d go out in the back yard with the camera. It helped me feel normal. It helped me feel connected to my old hobbies.  It gave me a bit of much needed joy.  As my eyes seemingly got drier and my vision deteriorated, I’d even don the goggles and walk around the yard.  If no neighbors were out, that is.  Pride and vanity is a tough thing to overcome, even when you’re miserable…

It was later in the winter that the scleral lenses (a lens that gives your eyes a nice day-long bath in saline) literally saved my sanity.  Heck, they saved my JOB, as when the scleral lenses are in, my eyes feel almost normal, and my vision is awfully damned sharp. I can still only wear them 12 hours a day at most, so my evenings are still often spent at home, with my lovely fashionable goggles on. However, with the scleral lenses and the return of my vision, I resumed more of a normal life, and resumed my bird photography. I haven’t used the macro lens a lot since that summer, but I will always appreciate the distraction macro photography gave me that summer, a period that helped bridge the period to the salvation of the scleral lenses.

With that…today’s POTD is a macro photo of a meadowhawk (dragonfly) in my yard from that summer. The second photo is simply a crop of the first photo, showing the incredible fine detail the macro lens can resolve.

Meadowhawk - SympetrumMeadowhawk - Sympetrum

Duckweed Covered Duck – POTD for July 31st

Today’s photo-of-the-day…a duckweed-covered duck.  Well, OK…no, technically it’s not a “duck”, it’s a juvenile Pied-billed Grebe, but I like my title choice and I’m stickin’ to it!!  This is from a couple of days ago at a local slough. There’s SO much cropland around here that when I see a wetland or pond completely covered in green, I immediately think it’s out of control algae (fed by all the fertilizer runoff). That wasn’t the case here. The water underneath was quite clear, algae wasn’t really evident, but the duckweed certainly was enjoying the environment.

As were Pied-billed Grebes! There were many adult and juvenile birds. It was fun watching them forage, disappearing underneath the duckweed and popping up through the green.  One of my favorite species, and the young have such wonderful plumage patterns.

Juvenile Pied-billed Grebe - Podilymbus podiceps

The most popular bird in eastern South Dakota

Such a busy social calendar.  Dress up in your summer finest. Find a home, try to settle down, find a good woman, chase her around incessantly, defend your territory against all comers…it’s a busy life for a bird in the spring.  Two things that probably don’t help: 1) Being hopelessly lost and being the only one of your kind for a few hundred miles, and 2) being constantly interrupted by those pesky humans with the binoculars, cameras, and cell phones.

A male Western Tanager was found near Sioux Falls a couple of days ago.  The closest Western Tanager should be 300+ miles to the west, in the Black Hills, so his appearance in eastern South Dakota caused a stir among the birding community.  Heck, I too went to find him, as I haven’t seen a Western Tanager in South Dakota, outside of the Hills. But after twice going to watch him, I was starting to feel a bit sorry for him. He’s getting a lot of attention and visitors.  His daily routine is also getting interrupted a lot.

I don’t mind birders using electronic calls to see a bird, but it does bother me when it’s done incessantly and it’s clearly affecting a bird. When I’m trying to take photos, I rarely use any electronic call, as not only do I not like the impact on the bird, I don’t like the unnatural look of photos of pissed off birds trying to figure out where that invisible “rival” is, and why he’s singing so much. The first time I went yesterday, there was a young, 14-year old birder walking up looking for the bird. I did pull out my phone, played about 5 seconds of a call, and the Tanager made an appearance for us. We then watched him for a while as he flew around the forest clearing, chasing a female Scarlet Tanager, chasing other birds out of his territory, and doing a lot of “fly-catching” (flying out from a perch to grab insects).

I thought I’d try again later in the day to try to get a better photo.  He was reliably stationed in one location, and with patience, I was sure I’d get better photos than I got earlier in the day.  However, as I walked into the clearing, there were 3 birders, a couple, and another older gentleman. I heard them all before I saw them. Or should I say, I heard the electronic calls they were playing over…and over…and over…and over again.

I left, rather than watch the poor confused Tanager desperately trying to find and dispatch his unseen “rival”.  That was just one moment of the 2nd day after he was “found”.  I have no doubt there were many occasions over the last few days where birders have come into the area with electronic calls, trying to get the perfect photo of an eastern South Dakota rarity.  I probably could have gotten closer photos of a pissed off Western Tanager had I joined them in the clearing. And heck, 10 years ago, I might have joined them.. But as I’ve gotten older, I find myself using my binoculars far more than my camera.  I used to only worry about getting that great photo, to the point that if I saw a bird but didn’t get a good photo, I was disappointed. Now I often find myself putting the camera down and just sitting and watching.   The electronic call wasn’t necessary to enjoy watching this beautiful, lost Western Tanager.

Western Tanagers aren’t going extinct because of birders.  Overall, the actions of birders with electronic calls aren’t likely to dramatically impact a species.  But I still can’t help but feel a bit sorry for this one lost bird.

Western Tanager - Piranga ludoviciana

Photo of the Western Tanager near Sioux Falls. This was taken as he was flying from perch to perch, looking for insects and doing some “flycatching”.  Not the greatest pic in the world, but I didn’t want to do what it would take to get that perfect Western Tanager photo.

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