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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”.

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

 

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.

Goin’ on a Snipe Hunt

When you were a kid, did you ever have someone send you on a snipe hunt? Perhaps parents who wanted some peace and quiet for a while? Perhaps an older sibling with a devilish side? Perhaps a jerk of a classmate who just liked to pick on people?  In the United States, a “Snipe Hunt” is a practical joke, usually done after the sun has gone down, sending some gullible child (or an extremely gullible adult) off in search of the mystical, mysterious, and completely non-existent Snipe.

But of course in the birding world a “Snipe Hunt” could be the pursuit of an actual bird!  In the United States we have the Wilson’s Snipe, a fairly common species that is often seen in and around wetlands and marshes.  While most often seen on the ground or wading in shallow water, during the breeding season they sometimes can be seen on very prominent perches.  I’ve heard their display flights, seen them perched in shrub early in the spring, and even saw one swaying in the wind while somehow clinging to a telephone line with feet that are NOT made for such a task!  But I’ve never captured a photo of one that wasn’t on the ground or in the water.

This morning I was driving in western Minnehaha County, a part of the “prairie potholes” that has many shallow wetlands and lakes. While approaching a wet, grassy field on a quiet gravel road, I saw a chunky bird perched on top of a fence post.  Western Meadowlark? But as I got closer, it was obviously a Wilson’s Snipe, standing on the fence post and occasionally vocalizing. Love makes a guy do all kinds of crazy things, and this little guy was doing his best to attract attention.  While watching him, he took flight and did a short display flight, calling all the while, and then circling back and landing on the same exact fence post!  I watched him for a minute or two before he fluttered back down into the vegetation, but not before I was able to capture some photos of the behavior.

A successful Snipe hunt!  TAKE THAT, practical jokesters!

Wilson's Snipe - Gallinago delicata

Wilson’s Snipe, calling from atop a wooden fence post.

 

A Cluster of Cuckoos!

Spring migration is largely over.  It was a rather disappointing migration overall, in that there were relatively low numbers of warblers, which also seemed to cut into the variety I normally see.  Despite a very wet spring and many flooded fields and other suitable habitat, shorebird migration was VERY slow in our part of the state.  After having the heater on last weekend, today we’ve touched 102 degrees!  From a birding perspective, we’re on to looking for summer residents.

This morning I went down to Newton Hills State Park, about a 30-minute drive south of us.  It’s a gorgeous park that is characterized by beautiful deciduous forest with a wonderfully healthy understory.  In other words…a rather unique habitat for South Dakota.  It’s one of the best spots in the state for finding eastern “forest birds”, and this morning certainly didn’t disappoint.

While I saw a number of the “usuals”, it wasn’t long after arriving at dawn that I heard a Cuk-Cuk-Cuk-Cuk…Cuk…Cuk…..Cuk…a rather unusual, non-musical call with a distinct slowing pace at the end.  Cuckoo! We have both Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoos around here, but I don’t come across either one very often, so at first I didn’t remember which species to associate with that call.  The answer soon came though as two of the birds drifted into the sumac on the side of the road next to me, seemingly chasing each other.  Yellow-billed Cuckoos!  Two of them!  While I’ve heard them on occasion, Cuckoos are notorious for staying close to vegetative cover.  In my 18 years of birding here I’ve only gotten one halfway decent look at them, yet here two of them were interacting within 30 feet of me!

They were definitely more interested in each other than me, with each vocalizing and moving occasionally through the sumac and surrounding trees, with one often following the movements of the other bird. They’d occasionally disappear from view so I can’t be sure, but I believe there were actually three birds present from the views and simultaneous calls that I heard.

It’s been an absolutely miserable day here with the heat, humidity, and cloud of gnats seemingly everywhere. However, if that’s the price that has to be paid to get great looks and photos of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, I’ll take it!

Yellow-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus americanus

Yellow-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus americanus

Yellow-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus americanus

Birding > Bird photos? Or vice versa?

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

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

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

Here’s a few recent photos…

Yellow Warbler - Setophaga petechia

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

Harris's Sparrow - Zonotrichia querula

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

Blue-winged Warbler - Vermivora cyanoptera

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

Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis

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

American Golden Plover! (Photographic) Lifer!

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

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

American Golden Plover - Pluvialis dominica

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