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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.

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.

 

Deep Thoughts – A Shorebird that doesn’t act like a shorebird, acting like a shorebird…

Upland Sandpiper - Bartramia longicauda

Upland Sandpiper, acting decidedly NOT “upland” by foraging in shallow water.

What better way to start a Monday than with some deep thoughts…

Shorebirds are so named because they are, not surprisingly, often found on shores, wading in shallow water, on mudflats, etc.  One of the most common summer birds in grassland parts of South Dakota is the Upland Sandpiper.  Well-named, Upland Sandpipers are usually described in field guides as “shorebirds that don’t act like shorebirds”, as they are, not surprisingly given their name, found in upland environments.  The most common way to see an Upland Sandpiper in the state is to see one sitting on a fence post in a grassland area, and typically there isn’t a wetland or a “shore” in sight.

So, deep thought to start the week…How do you describe it when you see an Upland Sandpiper, wading and foraging in shallow water like a “normal” shorebird?  What do you call a “shorebird” that doesn’t act like a shorebird, but IS acting like a shorebird?

Deep thought…discuss amongst yourself.

Weekend Shorebirds and Waders

Black-necked Stilt - Himantopus mexicanus

A Lifer (for South Dakota!). A lone Black-necked Stilt has been hanging around for several days in Minnehaha County.

It’s still a bit early for a lot of the songbirds to be moving through (particularly for warblers, the group I love to look for in the spring), so my recent birding efforts have focused on shorebirds and wading birds.  South Dakota is actually a great place for shorebirds in the spring and the fall, as we have such a great variety of migrants that move through here. In addition to the common ones, you never know when you might find a rarity.

Over the last several days there has indeed been a rarity that I’ve found, a first for me in the state!  There’s been a lone Black-necked Stilt hanging out at a wetland in northwestern Minnehaha County, a bird that was nice to enough to hang around for a return visit 4 days after I initially found him!  I say “alone”, but in fact he had buddies.  His buddies just happened to be a different species, as he was loosely associating with several American Avocets that were also using the wetland.  It’s always great fun to see and observe Avocets around here.

It’s actually been a bit slow for shorebirds overall though. Part of it is undoubtedly the water conditions.  It’s been very dry here, and several of my favorite shorebird spots don’t even have any water right now.  Despite that, there have been some scattered shorebirds around, with a nice mix of variety (in addition to the Avocets and Stilt).  There have been a few Willet, which always seem kind of drab until they unfold their wings and take flight, showing that gorgeous black-and-white wing pattern.  I have yet to see any Hudsonian Godwits, but I have seen a few scattered Marbled Godwits. There are always plenty of Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs around, and Pectoral Sandpipers always seem to be pretty common as they move through too.  Baird’s and Semipalmated Sandpipers are also around as usual, with a few scattered Least Sandpipers too.

American Avocet - Recurvirostra americana

Always a fun one to see, and watch as they feed…an American Avocet.

There are three other kinds of shorebirds I’ve found too that are some of my favorites.  I ran into a group of about 15 Semipalmated Plovers, probably the most I’ve ever seen at once, as they normally seem pretty solitary.  They always look so dapper to me and couple with their very small size, they’re just so darn cute.  Another favorite are Wilson’s Phalarope which are pretty common around here right now.  The birds themselves are beautiful, but it’s their behavior that’s such a great attraction, with flocks of them sitting on the water’s surface and spinning around like mad-men as they try to swirl up food items in the water column.  One more favorite are Dunlin, seemingly yet just another small shorebird until you see that distinctive black belly patch.

A nice variety overall, but there are still quite a few shorebirds I normally see in the spring that I haven’t seen yet.  Bigger wading birds are starting to arrive too, including a nice group of White-faced ibis I saw the other day (a species I don’t see all that often).  Black-crowned Night-herons have arrived, as have Great and Snowy Egrets.

White-faced Ibis - Plegadis chihi

Two of five White-faced Ibis found at Lake Thompson, actually the first I’ve seen there.

I’ve also had some nice luck not only hearing, but seeing a couple of species that are normally pretty camera shy!  Sora are something you hear pretty frequently in wetlands, and although I thought it was a bit early for them, I was fortunate this week to not only hear them in two different spots, but to actually see and photograph them.  Nice to add to a relatively sparse number of photos I had of the species!  Virginia Rails may as well be the Sora’s “Twins” in terms of shy behavior, but I also heard a rail and caught a glimpse of him moving through the wetland.

The weather’s been lovely, and the birds are arriving! I can’t wait for the coming days as the full-fledged songbird migration adds to all the fun that the shorebirds and wading birds have given me!

 

 

 

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