Friday, December 07, 2018


Eagle Nest

For the eighth December since 2005, I went to Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge (former Squaw Creek NWR) in northwest Missouri to see eagles and geese. Unlike last year there weren't so many geese this time, but there were lots of eagles. I also saw something I hadn't seen there before, bald eagles actively building a nest.

I got there Wednesday afternoon and it was already getting overcast by the time I found the nest. There are a couple of nests on the western side of the driving loop, but this one was on the southeastern part of the loop. I expertly located it by spotting a bunch of cars stopped along the side of the road and slowing down to see what they were looking at. It was overcast late Wednesday and the light wasn't great, but the slide show includes some interesting nestbuilding shots. Thursday morning it cleared off, but the eagles weren't back working on the nest until 11:40 a.m. I took advantage of the better light and shot snapshots for about 40 minutes until the pair flew off to do something else.

According to the official count, the number of geese peaked a couple weeks ago. In my expert opinion, the geese have already moved on because the ponds have mostly frozen over already. Officially, the eagle count peaked at 198 on Nov. 27 and dipped to 95 on Dec. 4. I easily spotted 50 without really trying. The eagles out on the ice shadowing what waterfowl remained were generally too far away to photograph (although there is one in the slide show), so most of the images are in the trees. Click on images to start slide show of 47 images.

Loess Bluffs Bald Eagles

Loess Bluffs Eagle Nest

The refuge had its Eagle Days the previous weekend. I generally try to avoid these events because seeing more people than eagles is not the reason I go to these places. But if you want to become more educated about eagles and how to find them, lots of places near where eagles congregate in winter have such events.

Sunday, December 02, 2018


Snow Angels

Toward the end of Duquesne's 51-6 loss to South Dakota State in the FCS playoffs during a winter storm yesterday, the beleaguered Dukes defense finally made a play and recovered a fumble. With no hope for victory, a couple of senior defensive linemen said "what the hell" and did snow angels to celebrate the fumble recovery and the end of their college careers. The refs threw a flag. Of course they did.

I really hate the choreographed NFL end zone dances, which are rehearsed and tiresome. This was different. It was spontaneous and harmless and fun. No fun allowed, 15 yards.

The great thing about FCS football is everyone who has a remote chance gets into the 24-team playoff field. Thankfully no Herbstreit droning on and on and on. And on and on and on. If we did have an FBS-style "debate," the Jacks would have been pleading with the committee to ignore its stinko loss at Northern Iowa and give it a top 3 seed. Instead they were seeded #5 and will have to win two road games, likely including one in Fargo, to reach the final. (Lesson to SDSU: Don't lose to UNI. Lesson to Georgia: Don't lose to LSU and Alabama.) Not ideal, but the Jackrabbits will decide their own fate on the field, which next week in Kennesaw, Georgia will probably not be snow angel-ready.

Thursday, November 15, 2018


We are doomed

I had an oversized letter to mail today so I went to the nearest postal station which happens to be at the customer service counter in a grocery store. When I got to the counter there was a sign that said the system was down. I had this delusion that they could still weigh it and figure out the postage manually. No such luck.

"The system is down and we can't do anything." "Can't you just weigh it?" "They told us not to trust it."

It is believed the Earth was hit by a massive coronal mass ejection from the Sun in 1859, frying telegraph lines across the U.S. and Europe. Scientists warn that if our modern world gets hit by a solar event of comparable magnitude, it would fry all of our electronics and send us back to the stone age. No more GPS satellites, no computers, perhaps not even any functional vehicles made after 1975. Since our economy is now almost entirely dependent on electronic technology to function, mass starvation seems to be the unavoidable result. We don't have an analog backup for most of our digital world. It's not like we can seamlessly revert to using 1859 steam locomotives.

I took the letter home, weighed it on my analog food prep scale, slapped two Forever stamps on it and stuck it in the mailbox. Disaster averted, for now.

Saturday, November 10, 2018


I have found it!

The greatest stuntwoman in history, Kitty O'Neil, died last week at age 72. That caught my eye, not only because we shared the same last name, but because the place of her demise was Eureka, South Dakota.

In addition to being acknowledged as the greatest stuntwoman, Kitty also holds the world land speed record for women of nearly 513 mph. She had her own Mattel action figure and a biopic movie. Stockard Channing played her in the movie, but she did her own stunts. She overcame much adversity in her life, including deafness from a childhood illness, meningitis which ended a promising Olympic diving career, a couple bouts of cancer, and various injuries from her risky profession. She retired from that lifestyle in 1982, and in 1993 moved to Eureka. She was a native Texan, but apparently she moved there with a fellow named Ray Wald who had some ties to the area.

[In a side note, South Dakota native Jessi Combs (Rapid City), has tried to put together an attempt to break the land speed record, which Kitty set in a three-wheel vehicle. Combs already holds the women's record for a four-wheel vehicle, 399 mph. Combs is best known, at least to me, for one season on Mythbusters while Kari Byron was on maternity leave. Kitty publicly supported Jessi's plans.]

Some of the news coverage of Kitty's passing included bewilderment how a famous Hollywood figure could end up in a tiny little town deep in flyover country. According to the Hollywood Reporter, "I got tired of living in L.A.," she said. "I don't like the big city, too many people. So I moved here and fell in love with it. The people are so friendly."

According to the Washington Post, “How and why they (her and Wald) settled in Eu­reka probably still has a lot of people scratching their heads and a bit baffled,” said Barry Lapp, president of the Eureka Pioneer Museum, which features an exhibit on Ms. O’Neil’s life.

In my former life as a bank examiner, I never went to Eureka per se, but drove just south of there heading to towns further west such as McLaughlin. My understanding is Eureka is a nice little town, maybe even an oasis in the vast expanse of prairie, but it is only 868 people. Aberdeen, population 28,000, is 73 miles away. In McLaughlin, which is near the Missouri River, we asked a single 20-something junior bank officer what he did for fun. He thought about it for a while before responding, "It helps if you like fishing."

When I retired and moved from Massachusetts back to South Dakota, my co-workers thought I was going to the wild frontier. And I'm in a city that has a Costco and Paul McCartney concerts. Eureka is 280 miles deeper into the wilderness. For the last 25 years of her life, Kitty had the blue skies of uncrowded Eureka rather than LA's congestion and brown smog cloud, but I'm sure the writer for the Hollywood Reporter still doesn't get it.

Friday, October 12, 2018


Side effect

At my annual eye exam two years ago, I first noticed that the corrective lenses prescribed for my extreme, life-long nearsightedness no longer brought the world into focus. Last year, the eye doctor acknowledged that I was developing cataracts but didn't think it was necessary to pursue treatment at that time. The past few months as one stoplight became three and I thought perhaps I was become a road hazard, I asked my regular doctor what he thought. He shined a light in my eyes, said "cataracts," and immediately referred me to an eye surgeon.

Ten days ago the surgeon removed the cloudy lens from my right eye and replaced it with an artificial lens. Four days ago, the procedure was performed on my left eye. In the six days in between, I was able to compare what the world looked like through a cataract versus a clear lens. Even though I knew the cloud had been reducing the amount of light that passed into my eye, I was surprised at how much brighter everything was. Even more surprising was the color, which I had not noticed was shifting toward the murky. Have you ever seen a piece of aged plastic that used to be clear? It turns yellowish brown, and that was what had happened to the lenses in my eyes.

The audience for network evening news is old people, so the commercials often are for the multitude of medicines that old people need. The sales pitch is followed by the list of side effects, some of which are quite horrendous and alarming. While there are potential negative side effects to cataract surgery, there was one positive side effect I hadn't thought of: I am no longer nearsighted. The implanted lenses fixed it. I've been wearing glasses every waking moment since age 7, but now I don't need glasses for distance vision. I still need reading glasses, but as I'm at my computer typing this I'm not wearing them.

This image of bighorns in the Badlands approximates the difference in my eyes without glasses between the surgeries. Most (but not all) of the blurriness is due to my nearsightedness, so not everyone with cataracts will be this blurry. This actually understates the problem because it doesn't show the triple vision I was experiencing. Click on the image to see a larger version, and welcome to my (former) world.

I started driving again a couple days ago. As I settled into my truck, I noticed with relief that I was able to see the dashboard without the reading glasses. I also noticed the MPG number on my dashboard. I thought Ford was stupid for using a small blue number on a black background which nobody could possibly see, particularly during the day. After the operations, it is crystal clear even during the day. So maybe it was me.

I probably should have started gathering information in late 2016 after I first started noticing that my glasses weren't doing the job. Certainly after my eye exam in late 2017, I should have been more insistent that I needed something other than a new glasses prescription. My suggestion is if your eye doctor ever says it looks like you are developing cataracts, ask about the surgery. It is a relatively safe procedure and I'm unaware of any benefit of putting it off until you see three stoplights where there should be one.

One week later: I used to have a superpower. I used to be able to read the tiniest print by holding it four inches from my face. Now that I'm no longer extremely nearsighted, those days are gone. I suppose now having 95% of the world in focus makes up for it.

Five weeks later: After waiting for my eyes to stabilize and for delivery, I finally got my new glasses today. I'm slightly nearsighted in my right eye, which was planned (monovision), but I primarily need glasses for reading. The new lenses are one-third the thickness of the old lenses. If high index lenses had not been invented, the difference would be more dramatic. Maybe this sounds mundane to anyone who has always been able to see, but for me it still feels like a miracle.

Monday, August 20, 2018


Always tweaking

Since I started my photo web site years ago there have been tremendous advances in the tools (cameras, computers, monitors, software) and my skill in using them. For some reason I came across this image from 2008 today. I remembered how the shadow across the owl's head posed a lot of difficulty while editing, and I never produced an image worth posting. Maybe Photoshop Elements is better than it was, but the sliders for RAW processing changed a few years ago and now it seems much easier to balance shadows and highlights. The shadow is still a bit distracting, but this is much better than it was.

Great Horned Owl

Saturday, August 18, 2018


Little Brothers revisited

I've been posting photographs on the internet for more than 20 years. At first, the only way I could get SLR quality in a digital image was to shoot it on film, get it printed, and scan the print on a flatbed. The first digital SLRs circa 2000 were quite costly and I thought one way to put off that major expense was to invest in a film scanner. I settled on a Minolta Dimage Elite Pro, which was merely rather expensive versus an insanely expensive DSLR.

In 2002 after coming back from an air show in England with 16 rolls of film, I got REALLY sick of scanning. A few months later I took the digital plunge with my first Canon DSLR, the 1D. But I still had my good Canon film cameras and continued to shoot some film for a few more years, perhaps in part to justify buying that film scanner.

In August 2004 I took my most successful photo trip ever, to Machias Seal Island in the Gulf of Maine to shoot puffins. This trip resulted in the only image I've ever bothered to title, "Little Brothers," which was on the cover of the 2010 book "Nothin' but Puffins: And Other Silly Observations" by John McDonald, still available on The Latin name for the Atlantic puffin, Fratercula Arctica, translates as "Little Brother of the North." Another 20 of my puffin images are inside the book. All of the puffin images in the book and on my web site are from the digital SLR.

Recently I purchased VueScan scanning software which has breathed new life into my now-vintage Minolta film scanner. I'm certainly not shooting any new film images. The Canon film cameras are long gone. I do have a couple of vintage Pentax SLRs and a few lenses, but there is no temptation to take them off the shelf and put them back into production. I got the new software to deal with hundreds of old family photos on black & white negatives and color slides. VueScan has improved the scanning process, although it remains tedious.

Yesterday I came across a box of slides from the 2004 Machias trip. I suppose back in the day I picked out the best digital images from that trip for web posting, and when the slides came back later I didn't feel like scanning. Looking back through my archives, I found only one scan. When the publisher asked for images for the book six years later, I didn't even remember that I had slides.

I scanned a few batches today and came up with 12 new images for the web site. One thing worth remembering is the Canon 1D only had a 4.1 megapixel sensor. (I was hoping to get the new 8.2mp 1D Mark II delivered before the Machias trip, but alas it didn't come until after I got back.) The 35mm slides I scanned today at 4800 dpi resulted in 27.8mp images, almost 7x larger than those original 1D images. It can be debated whether the scanned images have 7x the resolution of the digital images, but to my eye the scans would have been more than good enough to be in the book. The ISO was probably 200, so there is some film grain, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Click on the image to start the slide show of new images, which eventually loops back into the images originally posted in 2004.

Little Brothers redux

The original Little Brothers

This may be an old man yelling "Get off of my lawn," but when hands-on photography meant chemicals and darkrooms, and consumer photography meant a trip to the store and waiting days to see your photos, there were a lot fewer photographs taken. I actually had the title of photographer at a weekly newspaper 35 years ago and my relatively basic equipment was better than what 99% of the population had. Even though the club is less exclusive now, I don't want to go back. Digital photography is a modern wonder if for no other reason than automatic white balance. Scanning the old B&W negatives is no big deal since white balance is not a factor and you can get a good exposure by adjusting three sliders on a histogram. I could teach someone to scan B&W negatives in 30 seconds.

Color on the other hand introduces far more variables, complicated by the fact that our brains interpret strong white daylight and soft yellow artificial light differently. Even though I did the darkroom and chemicals at the newspaper, I only did B&W. Our chief photographer did color only a few times a year. Color processing required very precise temperature control and attention to detail.

The Minolta is actually my second film scanner. The first one was so awful with color that I eventually gave up and passed it along to some other poor sucker on eBay. The Minolta/VueScan combination often (but not always) produce a good color balance automatically, and I also can do some additional tweaking in Photoshop Elements 14, as was necessary with the puffin scans. Digital images shot with automatic white balance rarely need color adjustment. Still, getting the **perfect** color balance remains elusive. Viewed on their own the color of the puffin slide scans and the digital images are quite acceptable, but side by side you can see color differences. At this point I'm going to leave it at that.

Monday, July 09, 2018



For the second straight year I spent the 4th of July in Red Lodge, MT with family. This visit gave me the chance to finally see what my Browning trailcam captured in the past year.

The rodeo in Red Lodge is preceded each of the three days by a parade, but the biggest parade is always on the 4th. Appreciation goes out to Dunham Real Estate, Whispering Pines, and Aspen Ridge Ranch for their hospitality during the parade and other activities during the week. Click on any of the images below to start the 45-image slide show.

Red Lodge Parade

Last year I shot the fireworks with my Canon S95 on a pop bottle tripod on a deck post and had "artistic" motion squiggles in the images. This year I used my newer Canon M100 on a sturdy tripod on solid ground and for the most part eliminated the squiggles. My triggering method was a two-second delay after pressing the button, so I think only one image showed the slightest camera shake. Maybe next year I will break down and use my DSLR with a cable release.

Red Lodge Fireworks

The highlight of the trailcam images was the bull moose that strolled past on Nov. 1, 2017 in the snow. There also were moose images later on of a female and a young one, although not together. There was one elk and a number of deer. For more on my trailcams and where they are currently deployed, see "Tom's Trailcam Central."

Montana Moose

Tuesday, June 05, 2018


First Light

When a telescope is put into service and is pointed at the stars for the first time, that is referred to as seeing first light. I planted a new Browning Strike Force HD Pro trailcam near my brother's cabin in Montana last July but haven't gotten back there to see its first light results. He went down a couple days ago to see what there was to see.

Here is a moose trudging through an early snowfall somewhere in the Beartooth Mountains, Nov. 1, 2017. I'm told there are plenty of other images but apparently I'll have to wait in suspense for another month until I get up there. Click on the image for a larger version.

Montana Moose

For more info on this image and my trail cameras, see my trailcam blog.

Friday, May 25, 2018


Keep South Dakota Green

South Dakota has gotten plenty of snow and rain the last couple of months and the state is green everywhere, except for the brown and black parts in and around Custer State Park. The effects of December's 54,000-acre Legion Lake Fire are plain to see as the burned forest stands in contrast to the flourishing spring grass.

In the '60s while employed by South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, my dad Jerry O'Neil was on the Board of Directors of the Keep South Dakota Green Association, an organization formed in response to devastating wildfires. In the '70s and '80s, he was the forester for Black Hills Power and Light. The recent fire happened to be caused by a tree falling into a BHP&L power line. After this week's drive through Custer State Park I couldn't help but think how it would look through his eyes today.

Although much of the burn area looks more like the singed middle of this photo than the completely-burned top, having all of those brown trees still standing means extreme fire danger when things dry out. The park is frantically trying to clear the dead trees from along the heavily-traveled Wildlife Loop Road, but it will take a long time to recover completely from this fire. But, as is evident in the bottom of the image, the grass is doing fine.

Custer State Park

One of my primary goals on this trip was to find the Moultrie trailcam that I had deployed in the fire area. An effort to find the camera in February failed due to snow cover. This time I found it, although my worst fears were confirmed when it turned out to be a charred and melted mess. I'm going to make a perfunctory effort to try to read the remains of the SD card, but I am not confident it will work.

I deployed the two cameras that survived the fire, the Reconyx and the Browning, in a new area outside of the parks. I decided to put them on the edge of another burn area, the 2000 Jasper Fire around Jewel Cave west of Custer. Large elk herds have been seen in that area in the past, but I'll probably check the cameras more frequently in the near future to make sure I have them in a good area.

After that I headed to the Badlands where I was disappointed to find the Sage Creek Rim Road closed. This is usually the best place to spot bighorn rams. Instead I settled for a herd of 17 ewes which crossed the road at the Pinnacles Overlook.

Badlands National Park

Updates: I added a few more images from my February trip out west and a moose from my trailcam in Montana. See the last four images in this slide show. Also, earlier this month I happened to be back at the Kansas Cosmosphere, one of the great space museums of the world. It is in the most unlikely location on the campus of a junior college in Hutchinson. I was disappointed that Liberty Bell 7 was out on loan, but the Apollo 13 command module was still there. I added three images to this slide show.

Friday, January 12, 2018


Gone Fishin'

The two places I usually go to see wintering bald eagles are different. At Loess Bluffs along the Missouri, the eagles chase migrating geese and feed off stragglers. At the dams along the Mississippi, the eagles catch fish. I did Loess Bluffs a few weeks ago, and this week I did the dams near Burlington and Keokuk, Iowa. When the upper Mississippi freezes, the eagles congregate around the open water below the dams. Except for the overcast skies which resulted in some gray photo backgrounds, conditions were ideal to see hundreds of eagles at both dams.

I posted lots of photos, because I can, 54 in all. I want to point out a couple of sequences. The first one is about halfway through the slide show. I was getting a bit discouraged at Burlington (actually Gladstone, Illinois) because the eagles were fishing far from shore, but then a juvenile came to the edge of the ice nearest me and on its second try managed to catch a small fish. The second sequence near the end of the slide show was in Keokuk where an eagle perched on a shoreline tree near me with a big fish. After taking a few bites, the fish slipped out of its grasp and fell in the water. I thought maybe the eagle might go down and retrieve it, but apparently that was too much bother and it flew away.

Click here to start the slide show at the beginning, or click on one of the images below to start one of the sequences, or the link at the bottom to see the short video.

Bald Eagle fishing

Bald eagle having lunch

Despite my preference for still photography, it is hard to convey how many eagles there are at the dams when conditions are right. I posted a 20-second video on YouTube showing the eagles buzzing around below the dam at Burlington.

Technical camera stuff: I didn't use the Canon M100 mirrorless a lot, but the first two images in the slide show are of a pair of eagles roosting, one taken with the M100 and one with the 5D Mark III, both with the 500mm lens. I would rate image quality the same. There is a slight difference in brightness that I haven't bothered to fix. The M100 does well on a long lens with static subjects, but forget about using it with any sort of action shot. As I have said before, for that you need a camera with a real viewfinder such as the 5D.

After five years of owning the 5D, I found out about a technical quirk regarding storage card selection and burst shooting. The camera takes both CF and SD cards, and for five years I shot primarily with the SD card. Bursts were limited to about 8 shots, then the buffer had to clear. It turns out that the camera buffer will clear much more quickly with a fast CF card and no SD card, so I bought a Sandisk Extreme Pro CF rated 10 times faster than my old CF card. The fishing sequence, of which I posted 13 images, was actually 19 images in 15 seconds. Obviously that is not continuous shooting as the 5D is rated for 6 frames per second. However, based on previous experience, in a sequence like that there was a danger of the buffer filling up and taking a few seconds to clear, causing me to miss the key sequence culminating in the 10th image shown above. I took some other bursts and never felt any lag, but with freedom comes responsibility. I fired off 830 shots in 24 hours which is a lot to go through.

The overcast skies were troublesome for flight shots, so from 2014 here's what a Mississippi River eagle looks like with a big fish and a blue sky:

Bald eagle with fish from 2014

Sunday, January 07, 2018


Photo of the Year 2017

The bighorns in the Badlands were my most reliable subject during the year and I was tempted to make one of those images my POY, but eclipses don't come along that often and I went with the cropped image that shows the three prominences on the sun revealed by the solar eclipse of August 21.


Here are my POY selections for 2002-2016.

Young red-tailed hawk Junior I (2002 edition) right outside my office window.
Junior I 2002
Gentoo penguins greet each other, Jougla Point, Dec. 4, 2003.
Gentoo Penguins 2003
Puffins on Machias Seal Island, Gulf of Maine, 2004.
Little Brothers 2004
Bald Eagle along the Mississippi River, 2005.
Bald Eagle 2005
Blue Jay, 2006.
Blue Jay 2006
Eagle with fish, 2007.
Eagle with fish 2007
Great Horned Owls, 2008.
Great Horned Owls 2008
Custer State Park Bighorn, 2009.
Custer SP Bighorn 2009
Keokuk eagle, 2010.
Keokuk Eagle 2010
Sertoma ButterflySertoma Butterfly 2011 Dark Morph of Broad-Winged HawlDark Morph 2012 Yellow Crowned Night HeronNight heron 2013
Elk FrameElk Frame 2014Squaw Creek Geese
Squaw Creek Geese 2015
Elk 2016

Thursday, December 07, 2017


Loess is Less Offensive

Just east of the Missouri River in Iowa and Missouri is a line of hills made of wind-blown silt, also known as loess. Therefore the piles of silt are known as the Loess Hills or Loess Bluffs. After extensive study, the US Fish and Wildlife Service determined earlier this year that "loess" is a much less offensive word than "squaw", so the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge was renamed to Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge.

Since 2005, this refuge by whatever name has been my #2 go-to location for bald eagles and #1 for huge flocks of snow geese. Early December is the best time to go as the geese migration is in full swing. I arrived yesterday and found just about nothing. I saw no snow geese and about 10 distant eagles. It was very windy and I wondered whether that somehow scattered the birds.

There were more eagles visible this morning, especially around the eagle nest south of the road intersection. I hung around there for a while and got my best shots of two eagles fighting over the wing of a smaller bird. After all, the reason the eagles congregate there in December is to pick off any birds that aren't strong enough to complete the migration. As I continued around the loop, I finally found a good-sized flock of snow geese east of where I've seen them in prior years. I got a few good flock shots, but just before noon it was starting to cloud over so I headed for home.

I continued experimenting with my new Canon M100 mirrorless camera. Although I can attach my big lenses to it, I quickly figured out that the M100 has no role in getting images of flying birds. A camera with a real viewfinder remains the best option for action shots, and after five years my Canon 5D Mark III DSLR is still exactly what I need. The M100 does work well with the big lens on a tripod, and the first image shown below is an example of that.

Click on images to start the slide show at that point. There are 24 images in all, including nine of the fight over the bird wing.

Bald Eagle in nest

Two eagles fight over a bird wing

Snow geese

Sunday, November 19, 2017


Mirrorless camera test

After 35 years of shooting with a single lens reflex camera, the idea of a mirrorless camera has an appeal. In the old days, the ultimate mirrorless camera was the Leica rangefinder, a beautiful device that took 35mm film but was much smaller than a 35mm SLR. National Geographic writers observing indigenous cultures usually carried Leicas due to their small size, ease of use, and relatively quiet operation (no mirror slap). The major disadvantages of rangefinders were the viewfinder view was slightly different than the resulting image (parallax), and it was difficult to design a system with interchangeable lenses, particularly long lenses.

The modern mirrorless camera is a digital device so both of these disadvantages can be eliminated. My new Canon M100 has a big screen on the back like so many digital camera these days, although some more expensive models have a digital viewfinder that you can look through like an optical viewfinder. I decided not to go with the digital viewfinder for two reasons, (a) you lose some of the size and weight advantage vs. a DSLR, and (b) it will not be my primary wildlife camera. But when I don't have my 5D Mark III handy, I can use one of my Canon long lenses on the M100 with the use of an adapter.

A drive back from Denver Nov. 18-19 served as a test of the M100 in wildlife mode. The configuration included my 70-200 f4 lens that is best know for Galapagos 2004. Since the M100 has a 1.6x crop factor, supposedly this equates to a 112-320 equivalent vs. a full-frame 35mm camera such as the 5D. I've never really believed in this supposed "magnification" since I can get the same effect on my 5D just by cropping, but whatever. The M100 also came with a 15-45 kit lens, which is equivalent to 24-72 full frame. This is somewhat important because it covers the "normal" range used for most non-wildlife shooting.

The past few years I've gotten far more of what interests me in the Badlands rather than the Black Hills, and so it was again on this drive. There weren't any bighorns in their usual spot on the Sage Creek Rim Road, but there were several groups further east on the main Loop Road. Click on the image to start the slide show.


This image was taken with the kit lens at the Chamberlain rest stop on I-90. The statue is 50 feet tall and is called "Dignity," depicting a Dakota/Lakota woman. Despite the area's location overlooking the Missouri River and the history of Lewis and Clark passing through there, this is not a depiction of Sacagawea, who was Shoshone. As a newspaper reporter in Sturgis 35 years ago, I occasionally came in contact with the artist, Dale Lamphere, who is now the artist laureate for South Dakota.


This image, which is not included in the slide show, shows the M100 with 70-200 on the left and the 5D with 100-400 on the right. The difference in length isn't much (9.5 inches vs. 10.5 inches, not including the lens hoods), but the M100 rig weighs only about half as much, 45 ounces vs. 88 ounces. So when I don't want to take all the heavy stuff, the M100 is a viable option. Dec. 9 update: And when I do carry the heavy stuff, I can hook the M100 to the 500mm lens (supposed 800mm equivalent) on a tripod to focus in on an eagle's next while keeping the 100-400 on the 5D to get in-flight shots. Click on the image to see larger version.

Saturday, October 21, 2017


New Toy

I'm not an early adopter any more, but I did acquire a Canon M100 mirrorless camera today, one day after the official US introduction. It is a cloudy, windy day today, but I went down the local duck pond a few minutes ago to see what it can do.

I also bought a converter so I can use my full-sized EOS lenses on it, so my combo for today was the M100 and the venerable 70-200 f4. I know the lens is sharp due to an image I got in the Galapagos many years ago, but it lacks image stabilization so I need to keep a close eye on shutter speed. I manually set shutter speed for 1/500, which resulted in a wide-open f4 and narrow depth of field. The birds closest to the camera are fuzzy, which you can see if you click on the image to bring up the larger version. With that proviso in mind, I see the M100/70-200 combo standing in for the 5D Mark III/100-400mm when I feel like traveling light. And when I am in full 5D Mark III/500mm monster lens mode, I'll have the M100 with its 15-45mm kit lens to cover the shorter end, which is a few steps up from the 7-year-old S95 point-and-shoot that has been filling that role.

I've been shooting RAW instead of JPG 99.9% of the time since my first digital SLR in 2002. One pain-in-the-ass problem which I also endured with the 5D is my version of Photoshop Elements can't process the M100's RAW files. Eventually I upgraded from version 9 to version 14 so I could process 5D RAW files. Until I get tired of the extra steps involved and spend the $99 to upgrade Elements, I'll have to convert the RAW files to DNG files using Adobe DNG converter.

After I got back I saw this weird cloud formation like piano keys in the sky and and got this shot with the 15-45mm kit lens.

Saturday, September 30, 2017



On my trip to western South Dakota this week, I kept encountering single photo subjects: A bighorn camped out for days along a road in the Badlands, a bison grazing along the rim above the Badlands, a migrating butterfly stopping off in Custer State Park, a golden eagle soaring above the Conata Basin, a badger lumbering through a prairie dog town in the basin, and a lone cottonwood on the otherwise treeless expanse of the basin.

Click on any of the images below to start the slide show.


Lone tree

Bighorn at sunset

Solitary bison

On the road home

The purpose of the trip was to redeploy my trail camera in some manner. Part of that involved temporarily putting two of them in a prairie dog town in the Conata Basin south of the Badlands to see if I could find a black-footed ferret. At first I thought I had succeeded, but I now believe I got images and a short video of a badger. It's still a first for me. Anyway, this is the current trailcam situation:

Next spring I will probably pull #2 and #6 out of Wind Cave. After seven years, I think I will have thoroughly documented the elk that pass through that area. Unless #3 reveals something new in Custer State Park, I will probably place most of my cameras in the Conata Basin in search of burrowing owls, ferrets, and (yes) badgers.

Thursday, September 28, 2017


Still experimenting

I'm a gizmo addict, and one of the gizmos I'm always trying to find is an effective way to connect a camera to my telescopes. When I saw a $12.56 Landove cell phone adapter on Amazon, I jumped on it. I got the order on a cloudy Monday the day before I left for Buffalo Gap National Grassland and wasn't able to test it out, so I packed my Televue to try a few things out on my trip.

The prairie dog pictures simply did not turn out. Whether it's a cell phone or a conventional camera's LCD screen, focusing the scope in daylight is very difficult. But I was able to get decent results shooting the sun because I was able to focus on the sunspots. For a camera phone, this is pretty good. Click on the image for the full-size version.

Shot through my cell phone (with telescopic assistance)

This gizmo is already a success, but the next test when I get home is to see whether it will work with my Coronado solar scope. I've had that scope for years and have never gotten a decent image through it.

Saturday, September 09, 2017



We were supposed to be in Glacier National Park in early September, but nature interceded in the form of large forest fires that covered much of Montana with smoke. We pivoted south through Yellowstone and got caught in a traffic jam while approaching the lake. The reason for the jam became apparent eventually when we saw bison swimming across the Yellowstone River. We got to the front of the jam just as the last of the herd was crossing the road and heading toward the river.

Click on any of the images below to start the very brief slide show.

Bison swimming the Yellowstone

Friday, August 25, 2017


A Brief History of (My) Trailcams

I’ve been dabbling with trail cameras since 2009 so I thought it was time to mark them in my database so I could have a custom web page. I thought it would be a big project but I actually did it in about an hour. One thing that surprised me is I had only posted 147 images in eight years. I would have guessed a lot more.

All but a couple are from Wind Cave National Park near Highland Ridge Road, with elk the primary subject. I had seen some elk in the area and tried to pick a spot where they were likely to pass. I started with a location west of the road at the bottom of a hill. Then due to elk activity I had observed on a hillside to the east, in 2012 I moved across the road and have been in the same general area since.

Best image from west of the road

My first camera was a bulky Bushnell that used big “D” batteries. NiMh rechargeables only lasted a few weeks so I tried to augment with a solar panel. One of the elk decided to chew on the solar panel cord and put an end to that configuration. I went looking for a better camera and in 2011 settled on my current #1 camera, a Reconyx PC900 (no glow). The Bushnell sat for a couple years before being revived briefly in 2014 when I got some cheap “D” cells on clearance at Target, but after I used those up it went into permanent retirement.

Reconyx is the premier name in trail cameras and prices its products accordingly. Battery life is impressive, sometimes 18-24 months. But even with a high-end camera, image quality usually doesn’t measure up to what you can get from a cheap consumer point-and-shoot or even a cell phone. I suppose there are reasons for that, such as the use of fixed focus. That allows for quick response when triggered and holds down the cost, I suppose. Also, I don't fall into the usual demographic for purchasers of trail cameras. I think most customers just want to know that there is a big buck out there for them to harvest and don't care about image quality.

Winter scene at the "new" location

One crazy factoid is that of the 147 images, 20 of them were obtained within 2-3 hours of my first deployment of the Reconyx on July 2, 2011. The 20 were the best of a sequence of 500 images of two elk shot in quick succession in less than 15 minutes. They lingered in front of the camera, seemed to pose, then a couple times acted like they wanted to take a bite out of it. If only they were always so cooperative. I could have posted 300 good images out of that sequence, but it would have been a bit repetitive. But I have gone back six years later and added nine more images to the posted sequence.

In 2014 I acquired my current #2 camera, a Moultrie M-880 Low Glow. The Moultrie images are easy to spot on the thumbnail page as they have a wide aspect ratio consistent with HD video. The Reconyx does not have a video mode and I have not experimented with it on the Moultrie. Moultrie images also have more of a reddish cast while the Reconyx images are greenish. I've figured out a couple of Photoshop Elements adjustments that bring the color closer to reality, but there will always be differences between the cameras.

In 2016 I went cheap and put a Primos Proof Cam 02 (low glow) into service as camera #3 and had nothing but trouble with it. Bottom line is daytime images are almost always washed out (overexposed) and this camera is much more susceptible to false triggers than the other two. First time I checked the camera it had 60,000 images of waving grass. I tried it at a couple locations in Custer State Park that I thought would be more sheltered, but it didn’t get much better. Even though there are five images from the Primos in the gallery (as of today, the last five images), I just don’t think it is worthwhile to keep feeding it batteries to get yellow-cast, overexposed crap. The Primos is currently under my deck at home trying to get images of bunny rabbits. It's like being sent down from the majors to rookie ball. In that application I was hoping to use rechargeable batteries rather than expensive lithiums, but my rechargeables don't work in the Primos.

One of the best from the Moultrie

So today I ordered a new camera #3, a Browning Strike Force HD Pro. I had considered getting another Reconyx, but the price difference is astounding ($660 vs $160). I would probably go with the premium product if I had assurance some dirtbag wouldn't steal it. Considering I leave these things out in the woods for six months at a time, theft is a consideration. The Reconyx is secured with a Masterlock Python cable, but a couple years ago I had to cut through one of those using just my Leatherman so I know that only discourages casual thieves. Although the cameras have recorded a couple of instances where people walked by, the biggest risk to the cameras so far has been the elk. Besides the elk chewing on the Bushnell solar panel, there have been at least two instances where elk jostled the Reconyx (2011 and 2017) and one in 2014 where an elk nearly ripped the Moutrie off the tree and somehow loosened the cable lock. The Moultrie hung crooked for the next five months but some of the crooked images were actually good and I posted 10 of them in the October 2014 update.

A few times the elk fogged the lens with their breath. In a strange way, that's maybe what I like about trailcams. They allow you to get close to the animals without spooking them. I have found some national parks (Yellowstone, Grand Canyon) where fat elk lounge around near the visitor center, but that is not the case at Wind Cave. I have found elk in the Black Hills to be very skittish so I feel more of a reward when I get something good.

What is next? I would like to get images of mountain lions. I have a location picked out in Custer State Park where I was planning to put the Primos, but since it didn't measure up it will be a few months before I can get the new Browning out there. I've also thought about some sort of remote solution for imaging burrowing owls in the central South Dakota grasslands. A trailcam might work, but I've also thought about setting an SLR with a tripod close to the burrow and remotely triggering it from my truck 100 yards away. Either solution has advantages and disadvantages.

Click here to bring up the web page with the 156 thumbnails, including the nine "new" ones. I don't have the images set up in a slide show, so to see the next image you may have to return to the thumbnail page.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]