Rather slow (but enjoyable) winter raptor search

I treasure my trips to the central part of South Dakota in the winter. Given the bleakness and bitter cold that a South Dakota winter often brings, it’s a true joy to head to the area near the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and generally find it so incredibly full of life. Winter on the Grasslands means raptors, often in numbers that boggle the mind.  Rough-legged Hawks by the dozens, huge Golden and Bald Eagles, Ferruginous Hawks, Prairie Falcons, and the occasional Gyrfalcon, Snowy Owl, Short-eared Owl, or other “goody”.

That’s the normal winter day on the Grasslands. A recent trip unfortunately wasn’t “normal”.  It’s been a hard last year or two for grouse and pheasants on the Grasslands, with drought and some cold winters taking a bit of a toll.  It’s the grouse, pheasants, and other prey that attract the winter raptors, and with the lower prey numbers, raptor numbers have been far below what they normally are.  In a full day’s worth of birding, I “only” came across 15 or so Rough-legged Hawks, about half-a-dozen eagles, and some scattered Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers. I usually find multiple Prairie Falcons and an occasional Merlin or Gyrfalcon, but no falcons of any kind were seen on this trip. A quiet day, but still enjoyable, thanks to the occasional raptor sighting, and VERY large numbers of Mule Deer, Pronghorn, and even 4 or 5 (normally very shy) coyotes.

Not only were the birds rather sparse on this day, but photo opportunities weren’t great.  Here are a (very) few photos from the day, including the highlight…a gorgeous, pure white Snowy Owl.

Snowy Owl - Bubo scandiacus

The definite highlight of the day, an absolutely stunning, pure-white Snowy Owl, found on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. Clearly a mature male with the lack of black barring. Most birds we see around here in winter seem to be younger and/or female birds with substantial black barring. Unfortunately he was pretty shy, and preferred to observe from a distance on a high point in a nearby corn field.

Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos

I love Golden Eagles, particularly when you get to see them at such close range such as this. Such massive, massive birds.

Pronghorn - Antilocapra americana

Pronghorn are something you don’t always see on the Fort PIerre National Grasslands, but they are around. On this day, I saw multiple large groups, including this group (there were about 30 animals in all) moving quickly through a field.

Mule Deer - Odocoileus hemionus

A quite common sight on the Grasslands, Mule Deer were bunched up and quite common on this day. I saw several very large bucks such as this. Shouldn’t be long before they lose their antlers and start growing next year’s.Mul

Fall Sparrows and More…

A wonderful, crisp, sunny fall morning, the perfect morning to sparrowing!! Not too many people get excited about sparrows, but this time of year in South Dakota, there’s such a wonderful variety of species that are moving through. One of my favorite kinds of birding trips…finding a weedy field in the fall, setting up in a quiet spot, and sitting back and enjoying all the sparrow species that are feeding on grass and weed seeds. Some are species we have during the summer as well, such as Savannah and Song Sparrows, but we also get some wonderful migrants such as Harris’s Sparrows and Lincoln’s Sparrows.

The crème de la crème though…Le Conte’s Sparrows. They’re a bird many birders haven’t seen, and even when they’re around, they can sometimes be hard to find as they prefer to hide in dense vegetation. In fall around here though, they are often quite bold.  This morning I saw more Le Conte’s Sparrows than I think I ever have in one day.  One weedy field west of Tea, South Dakota was chock-full of them. They were feeding on weed seeds near a gravel road, and there were times I’d have half a dozen in sight at one time.  A great treat, and I did get some good photos as well.

Photos from this morning:

Le Conte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii

A gorgeous little Le Conte’s Sparrow, basking in the early morning sun along a weedy fenceline.

Lincon's Sparrow - Melospiza lincolnii

Probably my 2nd favorite sparrow, a Lincoln’s Sparrow. They have a touch more color and pattern than many sparrows, and just always look so elegant.

Swamp Sparrow - Melospiza georgiana

A Swamp Sparrow perched among the cattails.

Savannah Sparrow - Passerculus sandwichensis

The most numerous of the sparrow species seen this morning, a Savannah Sparrow.

Song Sparrow - Melospiza melodia

One of our summer breeding residents, there’s a ton of Song Sparrows around right now as well, including many first-year birds.

Sedge Wren - Cistothorus platensis

Seems like Le Conte’s Sparrows and Sedge Wrens often go hand-in-hand when I see them in the fall. The same weedy field with the many Le Conte’s also had several Sedge Wrens.

Franklin's Gull - Franklin's Gull October 7th, 2017 Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Other than sparrows, the most plentiful birds this morning were gulls. The skies were full of gulls, as were the areas near the dump (no surprise) and the bigger water bodies in western Minnehaha County. I didn’t pan through all the massive flocks to look for rarities. Ring-billed Gulls and these guys, Franklin’s Gulls, were present by the thousands.

Ring-billed gull - Larus delawarensis

Thousands of Ring-billed Gulls were around. Here one lounges at the beach at Wall lake.

Bird Photography 101 — Getting close enough

Birders or photographers new to birding sometimes ask me how I get some of my bird photos. Sunday was a great example of one tool I use! It’s not the camera. A LONG, expensive lens is definitely a huge asset in bird photography, but no matter what lens you’re using, the challenge is to get close enough to a wild bird for a frame-filling photograph.  With “only” a 400-mm lens (the lens that 99+% of my bird photos have been taken with), if means I typically have to be about 15-20 feet away from a songbird for it to fill a large portion of the image.  How does one get close to a wild bird that’s often skittish and shy around human  beings?

Hide yourself.  Often for me, that’s meant using my car as a blind, but on Sunday when I was shooting shorebirds, that wasn’t an option.  The shorebirds were all foraging in the shallows in a portion of a wetland that was far from the road.  In the back of my pickup I always have the perfect piece of equipment to help in a situation like that…a chair blind.  It has a low profile and doesn’t spook the birds once you’re set up, and it’s actually quite comfortable inside. In this case, as I approached the shoreline, all the birds scattered. No worries…set up the chair blind, make yourself comfortable inside, and after a little while, the birds will forget you’re there and will come back.

The photo below is one a birding friend took of me and my chair blind on Sunday.  Note shorebirds are calmly foraging in the shallows RIGHT in front of the blind.  They were actually too close for my camera to focus on many occasions (my 400mm lens has a 12-foot minimum focusing distance). A great tool, and one of many ways to get close enough to birds to get great photos. For more help on how to get great bird photos, click below to check out a “Bird photography tips” page from my main website:

Bird Photography Tips – South Dakota Birds and Birding

Chair Blind - Photographing Birds

My “chair blind”, one invaluable tool that allows you to get close enough to birds for photography.

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.


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.

Another Northern Lights display

Northern Lights, South Dakota

Northern Lights on the early morning of November 7th, 2015 in southeastern South Dakota.

What would I do without my cell phone?  How did people survive without them?  OK…I DO have a nice iPhone.  I would bet I use it less than 99% of all other human beings with a cell phone.  But there are times it comes in handy.  At about 10:00 last night I was about to go to bed, when the phone beeped with a notice. I have an app called “Solar Monitor” that you can use to track solar weather, and it said that a “moderate storm” was in progress.

Since it was a Friday night and I could sleep in this morning, I grabbed my camera and went out to try to take some shots.  I would say that the Northern Lights this time were much better than they were several weeks ago when I was able to see and photograph them for the first time ever.  Last time, it was a glow on the horizon, without much appearance of movement or any distinct features.  Last night, there was a short stretch where you could see them with the naked eye quite well, and could see the changing patterns of the “curtain” of light.

I’m still not the greatest at photographing them however!  Part of it is my equipment.  I just never shoot landscapes and the like so don’t really have a great wide-angle lens.  But who am I kidding, it’s not just equipment.  I have no idea what I’m doing trying to shoot them!  After a lot of experimentation last night I came up with something that at least produced a decent looking image.

A nice unexpected night of photography!!

Birds & the Bees – Identification challenges

Carpenter Bee species

A (new favorite!) photo of a Carpenter bee on a bloom. The species of Carpenter Bee? Uh…WHOA…would you look at the time…uh…I gotta run, I’ll catch up to you later!!

When I started photography 15 years ago and started shooting birds, I knew absolutely nothing about my subject matter.  Species identification?  Hah!  For the first several months I was constantly bugging my friend Jim at work with identification questions, showing him photo after photo while he patiently helped me identify birds.  After this much time, I’ve photographed most birds you could expect to find in South Dakota, and I have very little trouble identifying birds from sight or from a photo (by ear is another matter…).

It did take a while though to become proficient in bird identification.  After all, there are about 430 species that have been seen in South Dakota.  Now as I’m getting into macro photography, i”m having the same issue with insects and spiders, but the magnitude of the problem is MUCH worse!  In the continental U.S. and Canada, there have been over 900 different bird species sighted, including many stray birds, and many pelagic birds you’d never see unless you were off the coast some distance.  In the U.S. alone, there are over 4,000 BEE SPECIES ALONE!!! Many insect species are also differentiated from each other by only very small ID keys. In other words…it’s DAMNED hard to nail many insects down to a given species.

I’m not satisfied taking a bird photo, but not knowing the exact species.  With macro photography and insects…I’m going to HAVE to be satisfied in most cases not knowing the exact species, but perhaps only arriving at the basic genus that species belongs to.  The photo above of a Carpenter Bee (I think!!) is a good example.  There are over 500 species of Carpenter Bees worldwide. .But as soon as I took this photo and looked at it on my screen yesterday, I knew it was instantly one of my favorite  photos!

And that’s going to have to be good enough, as I may NEVER know the exact species shown here…

New Toy! And a new brand of my hobby?

Blowfly and flower

Literally one of the first few photos I took with the new lens. WHAT A LENS. The sharpness is wonderful, and I was thrilled beyond belief to be able to get such a “close” photo my first time out with it.

I have a Canon 70-200mm 4.0L lens that I’ve had for probably 10 years.  It’s an awesome lens, extremely sharp, particularly given that zooms typically aren’t as sharp as prime lenses.  The problem is that I never use it!  Well, rarely ever.  Given that I mostly shoot birds, I nearly always have my 400mm lens on the camera.  On the rare occasion I shoot landscapes (or people!), the 70-200 is too long, so I typically have on my wide angle.  The 70-200 thus only really gets used on rare occasions that I should large animals other than birds, like when we go to Yellowstone.

Well, we live 14 hours away from Yellowstone, and while we have been there a few times in recent years, it’s not exactly an every day occasion!  The lens may be 3 years between being used!  I had always wanted to try macro shooting, so finally wised up, put the 70-200mm out on eBay, and bought a Canon 100mm 2.8L IS macro lens.  I had dreams of getting some wonderful insect photos like I’ve seen other people shoot with macro!  Given what my first bird photos looked like when I started 15 years ago though, I expected there to be a very steep learning curve.  I expected my initial images to look, well…pretty bad, until I got used to the new lens and learned how to use it.

Bumblebee on bloom

A bumblebee on a flower. This isn’t even close to as close as I could have been, but I didn’t want to get too close shooting this guy. To give you some idea of the capabilities of this lens, later I tried a little sweat bee, and was able to use the lens to get close enough to have a sweat bee fill a big chunk of the frame. I didn’t expect to be able to get such small bugs in such detail.

The lens came today, and I went out in the back yard in search of insects to try it on.  All I have to say about this lens is…HOLY CRAP!  For someone that has never shot macro, the capabilities of this lens have blown me away on day one!  It has a reputation of being one of the sharpest lenses Canon offers, and I certainly have no complaints after my first photos with it.  I knew the lens was a “true” macro lens, capable of 1:1 photos (capturing a real-life object at the same size on the image sensor), but WOW, I didn’t expect to be able to get such great, close, detailed photos of small insects, without the use of extension tubes, close-up lenses, or other attachments people often use for macro.

I’m not a “buggy” person, in that I do NOT like insects or spiders in my house!  But tonight I was in hot pursuit of whatever I could find.  I ended up just sitting in the grass next to a flower bed, and trying to shoot what came by.  I’m pretty sure the species of fly shown here is some kind of blowfly?  Shooting like this sure opens up a new world.  Bugs may be “icky” to many (including me most of the time!), but I was kind of blown away by the subtle beauty and detail that I was able to get with this lens.

I already have WAY too many hobbies.  I fear that after today, macro photography may join bird photography as a hobby.  The nice thing about it…at least outside of winter, you’re ALWAYS going to have some creepy-crawlies right in your own yard that you can shoot!  I’m really looking forward to more use of this lens, and seeing what it can do.

New – Major update to Bird Photography Tips pages

I admit I had been letting some pages on my main website languish for far too long.  I always upload new photos when I get them, and I’ve slowly been completing species account pages for every species seen in North America (over 820 done, “only” ~130 to go!).  Some of my other content has been static for, well…too long. One of the sections that desperately needed an update was a page I had on Bird Photography.  The page was meant to provide tips for taking photos of birds.

How long had it been since I updated that page?  Well, one section of the Bird Photography tips page discussed the advantages and disadvantages of using film vs. using digital cameras!  Yeah, it was time to update that section of the website.  I’ve extensively modified the material that was on the old page, and have added a lot of new material as well. The new Bird Photography pages can be accessed here.  The content is now broken into three sections:

  • Equipment Advice – This section provides advice on the necessary equipment to shoot photos of birds, including camera bodies, lenses, flash, tripods, etc.
  • Shooting Birds – This section provides advice on how to get close enough to birds in order to take photos, and also tips on camera settings that ensure you’ll be prepared to get the shot.
  • Photo Stories – Experience is the best teacher. This section provides stories of how individual photos were achieved, including how I got close enough to the bird, and how I used my tools to get the shot.

I hope the vast improvement in this section is useful for those just starting out in bird photography!  When I first started I was feeling my own way around and it took a while to become proficient.  I hope this information shortens the learning cycle for new photographers!!!


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