Travel!! With Covid sending us home from work for over two years (!!!), work-related travel also came to a complete stop. A short trip across the state to the Black Hills last week for a conference speaking engagement was my first work trip since February, 2020. Given I hadn’t spent any birding time in the Black Hills for quite some time, I took an extra day and a half on my own and had a great time in Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, Spearfish Canyon, and other great spots in the Hills.
However, not all was well in the Hills! Ever since the 2016 election, the Black Hills really has become a magnet for the far right. Hill City, Keystone, Sturgis and other little towns in the area are…bad…to the point that I treat them as drive through areas to get to the hikes, fishing, and birding that I want to do. Each has entire STORES devoted to far-right wing paraphernalia (think Donald Trump dressed as Rambo, shooting Nancy Pelosi…THAT kind of paraphernalia).
I have had the magnet below on the tailgate of my Tacoma for a couple of years. Well, I should say I’ve had a COPY of this magnet during that time, because this is my 3rd copy after the first 2 were taken off by the lovely citizens of South Dakota. While photographing American Dippers at Roughlock Falls this weekend, there were many ATVs moving around the area…many flying Trump flags, or Don’t Tread On Me flags. I assume it was one of them that added the “Don’t” in permanent sharpie on the back of my tailgate.
Not an uncommon incident in South Dakota, where “midwestern nice” is far too often complete bullshit. Since 2016, it’s almost become acceptable to trash Democratic or liberal political signs, vandalize vehicles like this, or verbally accost people wearing (gasp!) messages of tolerance and equality. What the hell is it about American tribalism…for SO many people to lead their lives based on an “us vs. them” mentality, where the only thing that seems to give people satisfaction is tearing down others?
Add it to the list…having my political yard signs stomped on, having them plucked up and thrown in the trash, dealing with people flipping me off and yelling because of the magnet above (really!??!?!)…just another day in South Dakota, where evidently a message of equality and kindness is offensive to folks. I’ll let you come to your own conclusions what that means about people in the state.
Our family had a wonderful vacation in Kauai, spending 9 days on the island. On the evening of June 28th, we headed to the airport in Lihue for the long trip home, with flights from Lihue to Denver, and Denver to Sioux Falls. If everything went well, we were due to be home at 1:30 pm on June 29th. We ended up arriving in Sioux Falls an hour late, safe and sound, but it was anything but a routine experience. Instead, it ended up being one of the scariest experiences our family has had. Given I have yet to see a filed FAA incident report or other information about that last flight (Denver to Sioux Falls, UA Flight 5918), I wanted to record what happened here…partially in case others on the flight were also wondering what the hell happened.
Our first flight was United flight 1685 from Lihue to Denver. We were supposed to depart around 7:10pm (June 28th), arrive in Denver early the morning of June 29th, and have plenty of time to catch our plane to Sioux Falls. From the start, things in Lihue were chaotic. We saw a flight from Lihue to Los Angeles was delayed until the next day, and while we waited for our flight, a flight from Lihue to Seattle was simply cancelled, leaving many angry customers milling around trying to find a way home. As we sat at the gate awaiting our flight to leave, there were no staff at the gate when we first got a text message from United, noting our flight to Denver was delayed. The reason…”Our maintenance team is servicing a fluid leak on our plane before we can depart for Denver”. Little did we know that “fluid leaks” would be the theme of our trip home, with this one being the least of our worries.
We had to wait 2 hours for a replacement part for our Lihue to Denver flight to arrive from Honolulu. Not once during that time did we get an update from an on-the-ground gate person…no verbal notice stating the flight was delayed, much less a reason for the delay. The on-screen status for the flight continued to show “on-time”, even 2 hours after we should have left. It wasn’t until the plane was getting ready to board that the gate crew finally announced we were boarding. Thanks to signing up for text alerts, we knew about the delay, but many in the gate area were puzzled as to what was happening that whole time.
We boarded without incident, sitting in the first exit row next to where people boarded the plane, across from the jump seat where a flight attendant sat. The flight attendants didn’t seem familiar with each other and things were chaotic as people tried to settle in. After taking a long time to load the plane, the ground crew gave the thumbs up to leave and closed the main entry door. However…the door failed to close completely, as the gate pulled away and the ground crew left. The flight attendant in front of us said “it’s not my job to close the door”, so she went to get help from others on the flight crew. One of them finally came over and said “we’ll shut it ourselves”, which they did (is that acceptable procedure?) After the on-the-ground fluid leak and the chaos in the gate area, it wasn’t exactly a reassuring scene, but we were on our way home finally, and that’s all we cared about at the time.
We arrived in Denver with plenty of time to catch our flight to Sioux Falls. We grabbed a quick breakfast and headed for the gate, where things were much more organized. The plane was loaded without incident, and we departed Denver for the short 1 hour 15 minute flight home to Sioux Falls. We were in row 9 of an Embraer 175, with my son and I on the right side of the aisle, and my wife on the left. Our window view gave us a view of the right wing. We settled down, thankful we were almost home.
The first half of the flight was uneventful. I was looking out the right window and saw Yankton, South Dakota and Lewis & Clark Lake off to my right. We were getting close to home. And that’s when we first heard a loud “thunk”, a shudder to the plane, and a whining noise. It was definitely different than turbulence, but given the noise quickly abated, we didn’t think much of it. That changed a few minutes later.
The pilot came on the intercom and said without emotion “We have lost hydraulics and are going to try to make our way to our destination in Sioux Falls.” Simple and short, and it certainly caught people’s attention, but at first there wasn’t any sense of concern or panic. That was the last I remember hearing from the pilot himself until we were on the ground. Given what happened over the next 25 minutes, I have many questions as to why we weren’t given more updates from the pilots, although I’m sure they were quite busy working the emergency.
From that point on, until the plane stopped on the ground, all communication was through our flight attendants. At first, they too were calm, but that quickly changed and the sense of calm in the main cabin began to disintegrate. At one point they said something like “the pilots are working the problem, but if it can’t be addressed we will have to make an emergency evacuation.” The seriousness of the situation really started to dawn on the passengers when the flight attendants came on the intercom and said “Do we have any fire fighters or policemen on board? We would like to move them to exit rows to facilitate a potential emergency evacuation”.
The tension was now quite palpable on the plane, and it only became worse when a flight attendant came on and said in a VERY tense and nervous tone: “Please take the safety cards from their pockets and make yourself familiar with the content. We are facing an emergency landing. The plane may make multiple hard impacts before coming to rest, at which point you may be asked to make an emergency evacuation”.
We were approaching Sioux Falls from the southwest at this point and I could see the city up ahead. As we circled to the north of Sioux Falls and positioned ourselves for a landing towards the south, the cabin got increasingly tense, with prayers being given, people crying, and a general sense of foreboding. As for myself…it seemed…surreal. Like it wasn’t really happening. The next few moments certainly made it “real”.
About 5 minutes before landing, the flight attendants were quite frantic, and the cabin really went into panic mode when the lead flight attendant starting running up and down the main aisle stating “Get in your brace positions!!! I want to see everyone in their brace positions!!!“. Everyone leaned down and covered their heads with their arms, awaiting impact. Now people were wailing loudly as we all waited for what happened next.
What was quite obvious during this time…the hydraulic problem clearly was impacting multiple systems. We never heard the usual “clunk” and whir of the landing gear going down. Did we even HAVE landing gear down??? The runway ahead already had fire trucks waiting…were we going to land gear up? Equally troubling…looking out at the right wing, and seeing no movement of the flaps or spoilers (right term?) as usually happens as you’re landing. Given the warning that “we may make several hard impacts before coming to rest”, did we have brakes? Steering? Were we anticipating an inability to slow down upon touching down? Was the only thing stopping the plane being a “heavy impact” (as they’d stated) into the ground or an object?
It was 5 minutes or less that we were in brace positions, but it seemed like forever. Someone said to keep the windows closed, but I opened mine a bit, just to see when we were getting close to the ground. My son leaned into me and buried his face in my side and gave me the tightest hug I’ve ever had as the ground approached, and I said “any moment now…any moment now!!”.
And…we hit. The landing itself was actually relatively smooth at first, but the stopping of the plane certainly wasn’t normal. There were no flaps to slow us down, and now we strongly suspect the main braking system was out with the hydraulic leak. Our current understanding is the backup braking system did kick in and thankfully was working. It was a VERY heavy application of the brakes, and the plane actually came to a stop much quicker than it normally does.
The plane erupted into cheers and clapping as the pent-up tension and fear was all released in a moment. A smell of smoke and burned rubber started to enter the cabin, but the pilot (finally) came on again, and said “The smell is from the braking system, but we show temperatures within parameters” (in other words, they weren’t going to catch on fire). Firemen surrounded the plane and were checking it out, and the pilot came on one more time to note “We have lost all steering and cannot make our way to the terminal. We will have to wait for a tow in”. We ended up on the tarmac about 45 minutes before getting towed back.
All’s well that ends well, but one reason from blogging about this…what the hell really happened!?!? How much danger were we really in? We clearly had lost steering, flaps, some braking, but between the announcement of losing hydraulics, and the message about the smoke in the cabin and brake temps after we landed, we had no information from the pilots. There wasn’t any information on the problem itself from the flight attendants other than “hydraulics”. I can’t find any FAA flight incident recorded yet. That leaves speculation.
Our brother in law, a flight mechanic in Lincoln, gave us the following summary of what he thought happened (complete with schematic of an Embraer 175!!):
If he’s correct, If I would have known that was “all” that was wrong, I would have felt better as we came in to land. Obviously still a major cause of concern, but…We didn’t know anything! We didn’t know if the landing gear were down! We were told directly we may “come to rest” after “making several hard impacts”, and have to do emergency evac!!
Given that BOTH of our planes (two very different types) had “fluid” issues (a “fluid leak” on plane #1 from Lihue, loss of hydraulics on plane #2 from Denver)…given all of the flight cancellations lately….given our witnessing of flight crews that clearly hadn’t worked together before, it does give you pause as to whether maintenance too is suffering during this airline labor shortage. I realize flying is extremely safe overall, but none of us have slept too well since the event, and it wouldn’t surprise me if my son is extremely resistant to ever flying again.
I just wish we had better communication during the incident from the pilots and/or flight crew, as given what we were told, we had a lot of people expecting the plane to crash upon landing! Again, a major motivator for blogging about it is to get something out online in case others are wondering what happened during that flight.
This morning I had a nice short excursion to try to grab some photos of migrating sparrows. It was just an hour, but I managed to photograph 6 species, and got some photos in nice early morning light. As I start to process those photos, I thought I’d share my “typical” recipe for processing photos from RAW from my Canon 90D, something I always wanted to blog about.
I don’t do a huge amount of digital processing. I try to use the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) mantra, and keep the habitat and bird as I saw it. I’m trying to show the whole flow for a typical photo, and while the steps below may look daunting, processing from RAW to a final TIF for long-term digital archiving is typically just a couple of minutes for me. That involves two software packages: Adobe Photoshop (and plugins), and Topaz DeNoise AI. A very good example of a typical processing flow follows here, for a Harris’s Sparrow I photographed this morning on top of a fence post.
Open and evaluate the photo in Adobe Camera Raw. Here’s the original photograph straight from my 90D, as it appears when I first open it in Adobe Camera Raw. Note that as is often the case when you’re shooting birds, there’s a lot of “empty” space. You often try to “fill the frame” with the bird to get maximum detail, but birds don’t often cooperate! Thankfully with today’s DSLRs, there are plenty of pixels where you can crop some of the frame, and still have sufficient detail for large-size prints. I’ll eventually crop, but for now my main focus is on the overall exposure.
Correcting for exposure: The first thing I notice in the photo is that it’s overexposed in the whites on the underside of the sparrow, and a bit too bright for the scene overall. Not an uncommon situation, as in this case, the sparrow popped up on the fence post for just a second, and I quickly grabbed a photo with a lot of time to change camera settings. If you don’t like to deal with the hassle of shooting RAW and shoot in JPG, you’re already in trouble, as that exposure is baked in and you don’t have nearly as much flexibility in saving that detail in the whites. However, in RAW, you can adjust that exposure before converting to your long term archive format (TIF for me).
Below is a zoom of the bird as I correct exposure in Camera Raw. It can often be done simply in the “Basic” tab, with slider bars where you can correct exposure, contrast, and other elements. Here I’ve simply made three quick changes to lower exposure overall and bring out some detail in those whites (with all other settings shown on the right representing default values for this shot):
Drop exposure overall for the whole scene by -0.40
Change the “highlights” setting to -80. This lowers overall exposure only for the brightest parts of the scene, a very useful feature in this situation when I want lower exposure in the whites.
“Dehaze” increased by +10. Dehaze is described as basically compensating for light scatter in the atmosphere. It’s a strong tool that really is wonderful in providing increased clarity to an image when shooting in hazy conditions, but overall it does a nice job in deepening contrast. Here just a touch of an increase results in some darker background tones and darker tones on the bird, giving the image more “pop”.
Note the end result of this basic adjustment on the bottom, with whites on both the fence post and bird showing much more detail, and a less starkly bright exposure overall. There are other tools in Camera RAW you can also use for exposure adjustment and the like, with Curves being the other tool I often use.
Other settings for RAW conversion: For this photo there’s not much else I want to do before converting from RAW to TIF. Note the “Detail” tab. I set everything to 0, as I don’t want Camera RAW applying sharpening or noise reduction, as I don’t think it does nearly as good a job as Topaz DeNoise AI (coming step). Also note the “Optics” tab. I always make sure I check the box for “remove chromatic aberration”. It’s not going to make much of a difference for this image, but for an image such as a bird in flight against a bright blue sky, it corrects for the “color fringing” that can sometimes occur. This is very lens dependent, and my primary birding lens (Canon 100-400mm II) has a fluorite and other elements that help minimize chromatic aberration. Still, it is sometimes noticeable a the fringe of a very high contrast area as a pixel or two coloring, and this setting helps correct.
Camera RAW provides a specific correction for the lens you’re using, as it does for “profile corrections”, another box I always check. This corrects for distortion and vignetting. Neither are huge issues with the Canon 100-400, but there are other lenses I have where use of this setting has been quite helpful for correcting vignetting (a shadowing around the corners or edges of a photo).
That’s it! White balance overall looks pretty good on this photo, but correcting for color imbalances is about the only other correction I typically handle in the RAW conversion stage. If white balance is off and there’s an odd color cast to a photo, there are ample tools in Camera RAW for correcting, from basic changes in color “temperature” and “tint”, to more specific corrections. Now I’m ready to convert to TIF…
Conversion to TIF: There’s not much to this step. There’s a “down” arrow in the upper right of Camera RAW that opens up the conversion to TIF (or other format). I use TIF for long-term archiving of a photo as it’s a “lossless” form of photo storage, as opposed to JPEG. JPEG provides a smaller file, but at the cost of image quality. To be honest, it’s virtually impossible to visually distinguish between the highest-quality settings JPEGs, and a TIF. You do have peace of mind with a TIF though in that your photo will always be saved at the highest quality, while each new save of a JPEG may cause an additional small loss of information.
Settings are below…not much to it! The only other thing to really consider is colorspace for your output. That’s a topic for another blog post. Take my word for it and just choose SRGB, and go ahead and convert.
The result here…a beautiful, “lossless” TIF file with 6960 x 4640 pixels that’s corrected for exposure, chromatic aberration, and vignetting.
Noise Removal: This photo was shot in pretty early morning light, and I used ISO 1000 to ensure enough shutter speed to get a sharp photo. Shooting at as low an ISO as possible is always a good idea to reduce noise, but thankfully there are some wonderful tools for correcting noise in an image. For the last year or so I’ve been doing it with Topaz DeNoise AI, simply…awesome…software that I use for both noise correction and sharpening.
In the zoomed out photos above, it’s hard to see much of the noise, but for “pixel peepers” like myself, I’m not fond of the noise you see when viewing an image at full resolution. Remember when converting from Camera RAW, I didn’t do any correction for noise, so my converted TIF right now is showing all the noisy warts from the sensor on my Camera 90D. Next thing I do is load the TIF into Topaz DeNoise AI.
Topaz will both remove noise and sharpen the image. When you load the image in Topaz DeNoise AI, it will select default “remove noise” and “enhance sharpness” settings, based on its own evaluation of your photo. To show you the effects of each in turn, first here are default settings from Topaz DeNoise AI in reducing noise for this photo. Note the background color around the bird and the dramatic improvement in noise (image immediately below). Also note the eye itself, with the textured look in the original image, vs. the smooth, noise-free look in the corrected version.
I flipping love this software, but do realize it’s not everybody’s preference to dramatically reduce noise. Some people prefer some of that original “grain” in a photograph, which I think harkens back to the days of film photography where that grain was part of the image. I say bull-puckey to that! Noise in a digital camera is just that…noise…not a feature of the subject or environment you’re trying to photography. It’s a digital artifact. Reducing that noise provides a much cleaner image, with the smooth even tones that represent the reality around us. Particularly for a photo like this where the background is this wonderful smooth bokeh from the original photo, noise reduction makes for a much more gorgeous background.
The software is great, but beware getting TOO aggressive in trying to remove noise, as you will start to lose detail in areas where you don’t want that detail lost. If you get too aggressive in noise reduction in Topaz DeNoise AI, I’ve also noticed some smudgy edges that can result, as as the border between a bird and a background.
Sharpening: I also use Topaz DeNoise AI for basic sharpening of the full resolution imaging. Don’t expect miracles with any sharpening software. Garbage in = garbage out, and if you don’t have a good sharp image to begin with, a sharpening algorithm isn’t going to save the shot. However, it can give it that extra “crispness” that can really help bring it over the top.
I used to use Photoshop sharpening tools, but now find the default sharpening in Topaz DeNoise AI to be superior. It helps too at how easy and fast it is, in that I can both remove noise and sharpen an image simultaneously. The first image below shows the software screen itself, and how very simple the basic operation is. If you set it to ‘auto’ it evaluates your image and chooses the ‘correct’ level of noise reduction and sharpening. I always let the software calculate auto settings, and then it shows you a preview of the impact of those settings. Pretty simple…if you want to increase noise reduction from that default setting…simply slide the bar and get an instant preview of the impact. Same for sharpness. You can also play with “recovering original detail”, which “places back” detail that may be lost by the noise reduction, or you can specifically target color noise reduction. In this case, basic noise reduction and sharpness effects are damned good, and I didn’t change the settings. I will often play around with the settings though before saving a new output image.
The image at the bottom shows a before and after, for doing BOTH the noise reduction, and sharpening. For sharpening, it’s subtle, as the original image was quite sharp on it’s own. But you do see some more crispness in the feathering around and in front of the eye and elsewhere in the image.
Final step – Cropping to preference – That’s pretty much it for most photos! I do keep it simple. At this stage I still have all the extra space around the bird, so my final step before presentation online, or for a print, is to crop to a pleasing composition. I do typically keep the corrected TIF file though with all the original pixels, in case I want to reframe a photo later with a different presentation. Here’s the final output (compare to the top original photo above). Even with the cropping of all the empty space, thanks to the 32.5 MB sensor on the 90D, the photo has enough remaining pixels to retain a lot of detail, and provide 300 DPI prints up to 10×14 or more.
Note some additional processing steps I sometimes take are below.
“Other” processing steps: This example with the Harris’s Sparrow is pretty typical, when I’m dealing with a pretty high-quality photo to begin with. Dependent upon the photo some other steps I sometimes take are:
Shadow/highlight adjustment – You can’t ask for much better lighting than the Harris’s Sparrow above, with warm, early morning, and even lighting and a bird that’s posed perpendicular to the light source (behind me as the photographer). That’s obviously often not the case! In harsh lighting situations or other cases where the result is a high-contrast image, sometimes deep shadows are a result, and you’d like to try to bring out some detail in those shadows. There are shadow/highlight tools in Photoshop that I’ll use in those situations. Note dependent upon the photo, trying to bring out detail in the shadows can end up simply bringing out the noise in those shadows. Again, garbage in = garbage out, and if there’s not detail in those shadows to begin with, you’re not going to magically pull it out in post-processing. The best time to try to try to pull out details from the shadows is during RAW conversion, analogous to what I did with this photo in trying to bring out detail in the (overexposed) whites.
Selective adjustments – Sometimes you don’t want a specific adjustment to impact the whole image, but just one part. In that case there are many tools in Photoshop that allow you to select specific parts of the image, and apply color adjustments, exposure, sharpness, noise, or other changes to only the selected area.
Cloning out unwanted elements – I try to keep my photos as close to the original scene as possible, and that means inclusion of habitat elements if they were in the shot at the time. However, Photoshop has tools that do make it quite easy to “get rid of” unwanted elements in an image. For example, in the final image above, it’s simply the sparrow on a post, with a perfectly “clean” background. What if there were a few blades of grass or an overhanging branch that intersected one corner of the photo (for example)? In that case, it is extremely easy to use the “clone” tool…selecting an area of the background nearby the unwanted feature, and effectively copying and brushing over the unwanted feature. You can often thus end up with that “perfect” background with the unwanted element removed. I try to keep my use of this to a minimum, for those really “special” images where I want that last bit of perfection before printing or selling.
That’s it!! – I’m not selling my typical “recipe” or toolset as the best answer for everyone. A bit part of your own personal workflow is 1) what software you have, 2) what you’re comfortable with, and 3) what effects you’re trying to achieve. The process above “works” for me as I’ve used it for countless thousands of photos, and I can whip through any one photo quite quickly. Your mileage may vary, but I hope the examples above are helpful.
As you get older you start to wonder about things like…why the hell do I have thousands upon thousands of digital photos on my computer? What’s the purpose? What’s going to happen to them when I’m gone? I certainly have an online presence in social media and my website where my photos are shown, but I wanted to start making something more tangible that perhaps my son and others could have, something more than just photos on a hard drive.
My wife always makes photobooks from our “big” yearly vacation, as well as one for family photos for a given year. Why not do the same with all the thousands of photos I have sitting around on my computer? I started to make photobooks based on themes (categories of birds). So far I’ve only gotten one back from the printer, but I really liked it so have followed up and made five more that are currently being printed. This morning I just finished #6.
I’m keeping them pretty simple, with what to me is an elegant black hard cover and background on the interior pages, with photos and a short descriptions of the species, date, and location the photo was taken. Simple, because I wanted the books to focus on the photos themselves, and not any descriptive material from me.
The six I’ve completed are:
Here are some example pages from some of the books. I’ve got a least another 8 or 10 planned. It will take me a while to get them all done, but will be a nice series to have and hold for the future.
Birding! I’ve actually had the chance to do a little birding lately!! With my new job responsibilities at work, I’ve been working crazy long hours. That should die down once I completely transition, but in the past month, time has been pretty precious. However, over the last week I have set aside a couple of weekend days to get out and go birding, and the weather thankfully has been pretty good the last 2 weekends.
One priority in finally getting out…going to see a Great Horned Owl nest that has gotten a lot of attention, and was only 10 miles away. Palisades State Park is a gem of a little park. Splitrock Creek runs through the park, and in some areas there are steep cliffs of our famed Sioux Quartzite that rise to 50 feet or more above the river. It’s also a popular spot for rock climbing, with multiple tall quartzite spires in the park. I’ve seen Canada Geese often use those cliffs for nesting, as you can’t imagine a better place to be protected from land predators. But a hiker a few weeks ago noticed a different nesting bird…A Great Horned Owl! She’s in a spot perfectly protected from her now adoring fans, as you can only see her from the opposite side of the river.
As the following pictures show, it’s a rather interesting situation in this particular part of Palisades State Park:
The things you learn when you are looking through your photos!! I’ve spent so many hours over the last 2 months trying to catch up on processing old photos. It’s a task I thought I’d never catch up on in this lifetime, given I had photos going back…years. But I can now see the light at the end of the tunnel! Last night I was processing photos from a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota when I got to a series of Common Nighthawk photos I took at Wind Cave National Park.
Common Nighthawks had been something of a photographic nemesis for me. I see them in flight all the time, but have you tried to photograph a nighthawk in flight?!?! Yikes…they don’t fly straight! They do often perch during the day, but in my part of South Dakota, that’s typically in a tree, where they blend right in. However, out west, they might perch on a rock, a fence post, or…a barbed wire fence. Last June, late in the evening, I saw several Common Nighthawks flying around, and I tried in vain to photograph them. However, when I gave up and started driving I came across a Common Nighthawk perched on a barbed wire fence.
I spent probably 30 minutes watching that one bird! What a treat! FINALLY some good photos of a Common Nighthawk, not only of a bird at rest, but a bird opening that massive mouth and calling several times! I did post a few quick photos on social media, but then forgot about them for 9 months…until last night. When looking through the photos, something really stood out on a few of them. What was wrong with one of the bird’s toes!?!? I’d never seen anything like it:
I started poking around and quickly found out it’s called a “pectinate” toe, which is thought to function as a grooming device. Evidently there are a few types of birds that have this feature, including not only “goatsucker” species like the Common Nighthawk, but also Herons and Egrets. On some species they’re found on both feet, but in some species, like this Common Nighthawk, they’re only found on one foot.
Makes me wonder…are they all “left footed”? Are there are “right-footed” birds in terms of their combs? I haven’t been able to find that answer, but I did find this blog that does indeed attempt to show that yes, the birds can and do use that toe to tend to their plumage.
Very cool!! But the question is…HOW cool!?!? Which has the greater “cool” factor? A Common Nighthawk with it’s own built-in comb on it’s toe? Or the millions of US kids who grew up in the 80s, with the standard and oh-so-necessary comb sticking out of their back blue jeans pocket?
There are some species I instantly think of as being iconic northern Great Plains species when I hear the name. Marbled Godwit. Baird’s Sparrow. Lark Bunting. Greater Prairie Chicken. When I think of driving west and north from my home in far southeastern South Dakota, and heading to the central or western part of the state, away from the mosaic of corn and soybeans that dominates my area, I think of wide open grasslands, few people, and a unique ecosystem of iconic bird species. In my mind that also includes the Chestnut-collared Longspur, a gorgeous bird with a unique dark plumage (breeding plumage males) that I almost see when I heard the name, hanging out on a barbed wire fence with nothing but grassland for miles around.
Yesterday I was processing bird photos (still a few years behind) and working on my website. I was working on a directory of photos I got last July in Hyde County, in the east-central part of the state, and got to one photo, and one photo only, of a Chestnut-collared Longspur. It’s not a great photo, and in fact, if it were another species where I had an abundance of photos, I might have thrown it out. I was shooting photos of shorebirds at a small wetland I’d stumbled across, when the lone longspur flew into my vision and plopped down to grab a quick drink. It was mid-day, the lighting was poor, but I grabbed a quick shot, surprised I’d seen one here, as I usually think of them as being a bird I’d find further to the east and north.
Then, as what tends to happen, I downloaded all the photos from that day, and they sat there unprocessed. I’d forgotten about that photo and encounter until processing photos yesterday, and knowing my collection of Chestnut-collared Longspur photos was sparse, I decided to keep the photo and work on the associated species pages on my website. As I was doing so, it brought to light just how rare an encounter the sighting was for me.
Two. TWO. That’s how many “decent” photos of the species I’ve managed to grab in South Dakota in the 21 years I’ve been birding. Despite my internal impression of the species as an iconic Northern Prairie species, both my actual sightings and photographs of the species have been extremely limited.
As I started working on my dedicated species page for the Chestnut-collared Longspur, I got to the “Conservation Status” section of the page and started doing some research, beefing up my current (very sparse) content. When I first created the page for the species some 20 years ago, there seemingly weren’t any worries about the status of the species. But when I looked at the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) web page on the conservation status of the species, it was immediately clear it was a species in trouble. The species has been downgraded in status twice in recent years as numbers have started to dwindle.
It’s wasn’t a cheery exercise reading more about the status of the species. The Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data, the gold standard for rigorous, systematic tracking of population trends over time, indicated a startling decline in the species of almost 90% from 1966 (Sauer et al. 2016). Other data sources show equally shocking declines, with estimates of >95% species loss in the Canadian portion of the Chestnut-collared Longspur range in less than 40 years, from 1971 to 2017 (COSEWIC 2019). A species that was once a common breeding bird in Nebraska, Kansas, and Minnesota has nearly been extirpated from those states, and previously robust populations elsewhere in its historical range are now gone. Clearly, it’s a species in serious trouble.
So what’s the cause of the trouble? Most sources agree that habitat loss is the primary factor in their decline. The Northern Great Plains used to be a mosaic of natural grasslands, wetlands, and riparian corridors with woodlands. Davis (2004) studied habitat needs for the Chestnut-collared Longspur and found that they required quite large, contiguous blocks of grassland to successfully breed. They avoided even what might be considered “prime” grassland habitat if the size of that grassland patch were anything less than 100 acres. With vast swaths of former Great Plains grassland converted to agricultural land uses in the last 150 years, grassland communities have been devastated, and remaining grassland patches have been heavily fragmented. In short, Chestnut-collared Longspurs can’t find enough suitable large patches of grassland on which to breed.
That downward spiral of suitable habitat continues currently, and in fact has recently intensified in parts of the Great Plains. That includes right here in South Dakota, where demand for corn and soybeans, including the uptick in demand due to biofuel use, has resulted in massive swaths of grassland and prairie land being plowed under for the first time in just the last 15-20 years. South Dakota itself is a hotspot of this habitat loss, particularly eastern and north-central South Dakota, where the rate of grassland habitat loss in recent years is actually higher than that of the well-publicized loss of tropical forest in parts of South America.
It’s not just agriculture that’s driving habitat loss in the northern Great Plains. Energy development is front and center in parts of that range, as new methods for extracting fossil fuels have been developed in the last 20 years. The image below depicts the “nighttime lights” dataset for a portion of the northern US. These data record visible light energy from the Earth’s surface at night. Larger cities are clearly visible in the data, but…what’s the massive blob of light in sparsely populated western North Dakota?
North Dakota is now the 2nd largest oil producing state in the country, thanks to fracking technology developed in the 2000s that has allowed companies to extract a difficult to access, but massive resource of oil in the region. There are hundreds upon hundreds of oil wells in the region, wells that may be spaced out across the massive prairie landscape, but…each well requires access, each well requires energy sources. None of this was there even just 15 years ago, but now the network of wells, roads, and powerlines has severely fragmented grassland habitat in the region.
As the map above shows, the Bakken formation is smack dab in the middle of the breeding range for the Chestnut-collared Longspur. The area in North Dakota was developed SO incredibly rapidly, with economic considerations overwhelming any thought for habitat or environmental considerations. But for a species such as the Chestnut-collared Longspur that’s been declining precipitously and needs large, intact grassland patches to breed, oil and gas activity in the Bakken couldn’t have come at a worse time, or in a worse place.
Two. Perhaps it’s not a surprise I only have to photos of Chestnut-collared Longspurs, a species that’s “vulnerable” and fading fast. Get out there and enjoy this species while you can, as your chances of seeing it in the future may be fading.
Weather in South Dakota over the last month has been everything many people probably think about when they visualize a South Dakota winter. We haven’t had that one big snowstorm, but we have had a number of very small snows that keep accumulating because the temperatures have been absolutely BRUTAL. The coldest we got at our house was -28° F, with multiple days last week where the temperatures never got above 0°. Because of the weather, I haven’t done much birding lately, but have done more work on website than I’ve done in years, primarily focusing on updating the species pages and photo pages.
The last real trip I took dedicated to birding was back on January 2nd, a day that started on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in the central part of the state, but ended near Brookings, which ended up being the highlight of the day. Several Short-eared Owls had been seen there recently, and it had been a few years since I’d gotten a good look at one. There was also a Snowy Owl in the area, but this was a very rare case of a Snowy taking a back seat to another species (for me anyway).
Short-eared Owls are a species that normally you never specifically go out looking for, but instead kind of luck into them on various occasions. They’re nomads, present in good numbers in a general location one year, and gone for the next several years. Heading towards a known location where several were hanging out was certainly a treat, and it didn’t disappoint. I ended up seeing several Short-eared Owls that late afternoon, including watching one catch and eat a vole.
I’ve seen Short-eared Owls a times near Sioux Falls, but the area I have had the most luck over the years is the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and surrounding areas. The story is usually the same, as a drive through the grasslands seems devoid of Short-eared Owls, until the last hour before sunset, where they seem to magically materialize out of thin air. Nearly every Short-eared Owl I’ve seen has been in the hour before sunset, or right around sunrise. The Brookings owls were following the same behavior, with birders not finding them until right before sunset each evening.
What follows is a photo blog telling the stories of some of the Short-eared Owls I’ve come across in South Dakota over the years. For more information and additional photos of this wonderful species, check out the following page on the main website:
One of my New Year’s Resolution…less time sulking about the state of the world, more time being productive. Now when I say “productive”, I don’t necessarily mean work! No, I’m thinking more about my free time, and instead of wasting it, spending it doing things I love. Of course that includes birding, but it also includes working on my massive, out of control website, which I’ve neglected lately.
One element of my website are “Hotspots” pages, detailed information on specific birding hotspots in South Dakota. It’s been a work in progress, as it takes quite a long time to make each one of the hotspot pages! Over the last week I have completed a new one, one that was LONG overdue…for Good Earth State Park just outside of Sioux Falls.
We live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a state park of comparable size, that also borders the Big Sioux River and has extensive, forested riparian habitat. While I do bird there, in recent years it just can’t hold a candle compared to Good Earth State Park. Much of it for me is how the parks are managed. The Big Sioux Recreation Area has a BIG focus on camping and other heavy recreational use. As a result, they’ve really disappointed me in recent years by ripping out a lot of good bird habitat to make way for camping, frisbee golf, etc. I get it…you have to manage the parks for multiple uses, but overall in South Dakota, birders and birding are the LAST priorities for park management.
That’s what’s so great about Good Earth. It’s not managed for birding, but there’s no camping. That alone makes a huge difference, as it’s less busy and there’s much more natural vegetation. The big draw of the park for me is the variety of habitats, from upland forest, to gorgeous, well-vegetated grasslands with plenty of native plants, to riparian floodplain. The trail system is incredible as well, with several miles of very well maintained trails.
I’ll save the rest for the new “Birding Hotspot” page itself! I hope you find this useful as you consider Good Earth State Park for your next birding trip. Click below to access the page:
As 2020 comes to a close, I had a great end to the year from a birding perspective yesterday! I made one last birding trip, heading up towards Brookings to try to find some Short-eared Owls that had been seen recently. I hadn’t seen any yet this year, and I thought it would be nice to add one more species to what’s been my best South Dakota “big year” yet. But not only did I find a Short-eared Owl, but the first owl I saw was a gorgeous immature female Snowy Owl! Two new 2020 species for the state, on December 30th, and with both being owl species, I couldn’t have asked for a better close to the year.
The two owls put me at 262 species seen in South Dakota in 2020…breaking my own personal high of 256 from last year. It was certainly a terrific year in many aspects, with not only a great variety of species, but some life species, both South Dakota lifers, and overall lifers! Highlights for the year: