Snow a blessing in disguise, after long winter

Northern Saw-whet Owl

A flirty Northern Saw-whet Owl! OK, not really "flirty", but an owl that seemed more interested in his sleep than he did in my presence. He kept slowly opening and closing his eyes before eventually falling asleep while I watched.

It’s not been a terribly cold or terribly snowy winter in South Dakota, yet…it’s WINTER IN SOUTH DAKOTA!!!  It’s never all that fun here in winter.  However, finding Northern Saw-whet Owls for the first time ever in this area has been a really delightful surprise, something that’s kept me going.  I wanted to head down to Newton Hills State Park again yesterday to look for the owls.

The easiest way to find Saw-whet Owls isn’t to look for the owls themselves.  Not to be gross (it’s really not when you find it), but it’s owl poo and barf that you’re looking for!  The owls are often in such dense habitat that the easiest way to find them is to look for whitewash, their poo that may spot and streak a tree and the ground below a commonly used day roost.  You’ll also find owl pellets lying below a commonly used perch (not really “barf”, but you get the idea).  It was cold yesterday, but clear…at least when I left the house.  By the time I got to close to Newton Hills there were clouds, and the road was slightly damp as if there had been some precipitation.  When I got to Newton Hills itself…there was a fresh dusting a snow on the ground.

A DUSTING OF SNOW!!!  DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT A DISASTER THAT IS!?!?!?!   With a dusting of snow, the ground and trees have a coating of white.  With a coating of white, it’s impossible to see the whitewash, and thus very, very difficult to find Saw-whet Owls.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

The same owl shown above. This guy was the most photogenic of the three I found this day, at eye-level, and not so buried in the vegetation like some tend to be.

I gave it a half-hearted effort for half an hour without finding any owls.  I decided to head back home, dejected about the surprise dusting of snow that had ruined my plans.  However, in between Newton Hills and home is Lake Alvin, a reservoir with many cedar trees scattered around its shores.  Given that it hadn’t snowed at Lake Alvin, I thought I’d do a short search for owls, even though I’d never found one there before.

It was only 10 minutes of searching when I found the first really strong indication of an owl roost.  The whitewash below the tree (and streaking a few branches) was unmistakable, something that always gets your heart racing, because you KNOW an owl has been there at some point.  Then comes the real excitement…following the imaginary path straight up from the whitewash, hoping you’ll come eye-to-eye with a Saw-whet Owl.  BINGO!!  OWL!!! The first possibly roost that I found also yielded a beautiful owl, looking down at me from about 10 feet up in the small cedar tree.

Maybe the snow in Newton Hills was a blessing in disguise!  I’d never have looked at Lake Alvin if conditions were better at Newton Hills.  After enjoying the first owl for a few minutes, I continued the search, moving to the area directly below the dam.  I parked, began the search, and literally within 5 minutes of looking found another splotchy pile of whitewash below a small cedar tree.  The slow raise of the head, and BOOM!  Another Saw-whet Owl!  And what a find this one was!  He was at eye-level, the lowest of any Saw-whet Owl I’ve found this winter, and in such a location that you could get an almost clear look at the bird.  What a beauty!  And a sleeping beauty at that, as he kept seemingly nodding off and falling asleep as I watched and photographed him from close range.

A disaster of a day caused by snow had now resulted in me finding Northern Saw-whet Owls at Lake Alvin for the first time!  I continued the search, finding many obvious roost locations, but after the early success, I went another hour and a half without finding another owl.  I was tired from trudging up and down the hilly terrain, slogging through the brush, but I tried one more location on the north shore of the lake.  It didn’t take long before I found owl #3 of the day!  This one was about 14 feet up in a thick stand of slender cedars, on a steep slope.  Not the most photogenic of owls, but a wonderful way to end the day.

Thank you Mother Nature for the unexpected dusting of snow in Newton Hills!  I now have another local (and closer!!) Northern Saw-whet Owl “hot-spot” to help get me through long South Dakota winters!

(OK…YES, it’s another post about Saw-whet Owls!! But hey, March is around the corner!  With March comes the first migrants…hopefully I’ll be able to go birding for something else “fun” soon!!)

New threat to Bald Eagle populations?

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle attacks prey, toxins accumulating in the prey end up killing the eagle. Are we now about to see a repeat similar to DDT's effects on eagle populations prior to the 1970s?

You never know how the introduction of a new species to an ecosystem is going to alter the status quo.  Hydrilla is now found on every continent except South America and Antarctica, yet it’s unclear as to where the plant originated.  Some think it came from southeast Asia originally, some think it’s native to Australia.  and some think it’s African in origin.  What is clear is that it is an invasive in the United States, where it is now found in abundance in waterways of the southeastern United States after being introduced here in the 1950′s.  Climatically, much of the United States is suitable for it, and there’s little doubt it will continue to spread.

How does this relate to Bald Eagle populations?  It’s not the hydrilla itself, it’s a cyanobacteria that is often found growing on the undersides of hydrilla leaves. A recent paper published by University of Georgia researchers establishes a direct link between the cyanobacteria and the deaths of thousands of waterfowl and other birds in the southeastern United States.  The bacteria is new to science and highly unusual, but what is quite clear is that it produces a toxin that is lethal to birds.

It’s not just Eagles, it’s the waterfowl they prey upon that can succumb to the effects of the toxin.  For Bald Eagles, the route to exposure is through the consumption of waterfowl that feed on the hydrilla, and thus begin to accumulate the cyanobacteria toxin.  When the eagles eat the waterfowl, the toxin accumulates with them, eventually causing severe neurological dysfunction and death.

As I’ve started to link my “day job” (USGS scientist, studying and modeling land-use change) with my birding hobby (by modeling the effects of land-use change on bird populations), it’s become abundantly clear just how unpredictable the outcomes can be for man-made alterations of ecosystems.  A seemingly harmless introduction of an invasive species, an alteration of climate, or an alteration of land use can have unforeseen and devastating consequences on many components of the ecosystem.  Given that there isn’t a single square inch of the planet that’s not been affected by a human presence in some way, be it through climate change, land-use change, or introduction of invasives, it literally is a case where every location on the planet is an (unintended) experiment in progress.  In every location on the planet, our alteration of the environment is causing some form of response within an ecosystem.

In this case, it’s an iconic, highly visible and highly popular species that is suffering as a result, but it’s a story that’s being played out daily all over the planet.  It’s sad to think that a species that has come so far since the ban of DDT is again starting to succumb to toxins in its environment.

Compact Endothermic Mouse Defrosting Units!! Get Yours Now!!

Northern Saw-whet Owl with Mouse

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OK, it’s not a Compact Endothermic Mouse Defrosting Unit.  It’s a Northern Saw-whet Owl…again.  Yes, I know.  Half (or more) of my blog posts lately have been about Northern Saw-whet Owls.  Have you been to South Dakota in winter?  I think we’re just lucky we have ANY living, breathing birds to find, much less a bird as fun to find and watch as Saw-whet Owls.

It was a slow birding day down in Newton Hills State Park, but I did find one Saw-whet Owl.  I was hoping to eventually find one who was “thawing” a mouse like this.  Saw-whet Owls are small, so small that even a full mouse is too much of a meal for them!  A Saw-whet will typically eat half of a mouse in one meal, and then cache the rest of the mouse in the crook of a tree, for later consumption.  Sometimes they may even catch “extra” mice to cache for later meals.

Last night it got down to about zero, and it only got up to 15 for an afternoon high.  As you can thus imagine, any cached mice are going to be frozen solid.  Before a Saw-whet can eat them, they have to thaw them out, holding them like they’re incubating an egg and using their own body heat to thaw it before eating it.

Fun to see, and nice to get a photograph of the behavior!

A Four-owl (species) morning

Northern Saw-whet Owl

A Northern Saw-whet Owl cracking his eyes open a bit on a gorgeous, sunny South Dakota day.

Another nice day “owling” down around Newton Hills State Park.  For several hours of walking around it was pretty darned productive, with the highlight (again!) being owls.

I started out looking for Northern Saw-whet Owls around the “Horse Camp” area, and the most reliable bird (using the same roost or roost area routinely) was hiding a bit, but I was able to find him.  I’ve seen him about 2 out of every 3 trips now, and while he’s not using the exact same roost, I’ve been able to find him usually within about 30-50 feet of his original location.  A nice way to start the day!  There’s another Saw-whet near this location, but he hasn’t been nearly as reliable, and again today he was absent.

I left the Horse Camp and headed up the hill towards the park itself, when I saw a large “lump” in the trees off to the right.  I stopped and put the binoculars on it, and it was a Barred Owl, a nice sight for me as it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen one in Newton Hills.

I headed down towards Lake Lakota and again started looking through the cedars for Saw-whets.  I have yet to again find the one that was mere feet from the parking lot, but decided to give a thorough search through the cedars on the north shore of the lake.  I ended up finding 3 species of owls in a couple of hours of bush-wacking, a nice trade-off to me!  The first was a after about an hour, with another Saw-whet near the shore of the northeastern corner of the lake.  This could have been the same one that was near the parking lot a couple of weeks ago, but perhaps not, as it was a decent hike to get back to his thick stand of cedars.

I then went over to the north side of the tree-line, near the top of  the hill, and was rewarded with a Great Horned Owl and a Long-eared Owl in quick succession, only about 5 minutes apart.  It’s the second time I’ve found the Great Horned in this location, but the first time I’ve seen a Long-eared.  What surprised me was that the Long-eared was relatively close to the Great Horned, within a 50-yard hike.  He was pretty hidden back in a very thick, mature group of cedars, otherwise I think the Great Horned would take offense to his presence (or more likely, would just eat him!).

A gorgeous, 40-degree day (that’s gorgeous for South Dakota in February), with plenty of sun, exercise, and owls!!

Eagle Hunters of China

If you’ve seen some of my past posts, I’m not too keen on falconry, particularly as the ONLY dark-phase Gyrfalcon that I’ve ever seen in the wild in South Dakota was being actively pursued by falconers for capture.  But if you get a chance, check out this gorgeous series of photos about the “Eagle Hunters of China”.

Eagle Hunters of China

A long standing tradition in the region, there’s certainly a historical/cultural element that makes it very romantic, and even for me and my disdain for falconry in general, I find it a very captivating story.  The photos are exactly what I’d expect to see when flipping through the pages of National Geographic.  I would be very interested to learn more about the “ancient set of rules” they follow, and how those may differ from “modern” falconry.

Fish > Birds…the Plight of the Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant

The devil incarnate? The Double-crested Cormorant seems to be public enemy number one in the eyes of many "sportsmen" and commercial fishermen.

Ah the age old math question…which is greater?  Fish, or birds?  Not a math question, you say? It seems that way when it comes to the Double-crested Cormorant and  other cormorant populations. The species was in serious decline by the 1970s, likely due to the effects of DDT and egg-shell thinning.  With the ban of DDT, cormorant numbers began to recover to previous levels.

Unfortunately for the Double-crested Cormorant, folks seem to have forgotten what “previous levels” were.  With the recovery of the cormorant has come ire or even open hatred of the species, primarily by fishermen.  By 2008, there were stories about the Couble-crested Cormorant being the “most hated bird in the world“, and very active efforts began to cull cormorants and reduce the population.  Most early “culling” efforts took place in and around the Great Lakes.   “Culling” has taken many forms, with the most basic…simply shooting adult birds.

Double-crested Cormorant wish Fish

A Double-crested Cormorant doing what cormorants do...eating a fish to survive. A criminal act as far as "sportsmen" are concerned.

“Culling” of course is just a nicer way to say you’re going to go out and kill something.  Why the hatred?  Cormorants have the unfortunate (for them) habit of eating fish….just as they have for thousands of years before man can on the same and wanted to CATCH said fish for recreation or for food.  In the Great Lakes, fishermen accuse the cormorants of decimating walleye populations. In Oregon and elsewhere, they’re accused of decimating salmon and trout populations.

Amazingly, Double-crested Cormorants once managed to live in harmony wish fish populations, without “decimating” walleye, trout, or salmon in America’s waters.  But much like the culling of wolves so hunters would have more moose to hunt, a predator of any kind is public enemy number one for “sportsmen” who fail to notice that it’s human activities that are overwhelmingly responsible for reduced fish and game populations.  In the recent case above in Oregon, where Double-crested Cormorants are accused of seriously reducing salmon and steelhead populations, it’s the Corps of Engineers who wants to cull the birds.

Corps of Engineers folks…which do you think has had the greater impact on fish populations?  YOUR activities in damming rivers of the West?  Or a bird that’s lived in harmony with fish populations before mankind ever came along?

The most “Hated Bird in the World”.   Perhaps it’s time “sportsmen” start using a different moniker for themselves, something that better portrays the kind of human being who would advocate for the slaughter of thousands of wild, native birds, just for the possibility that they could catch a few more fish.

Free high-resolution Bird and Nature Wallpaper

Tufted Puffin - Free Screen Background

One of my favorite images as a screen background, a Tufted Puffin taking a bath. You can click on the image here to get a 1280x720 version, with higher-res versions on my main website.

As you may have noticed, I’m getting back to not only blogging, but also working on my main website. I’ve added new bird quizzes this week and cleaned up some other things, but now I’ve added a new feature…free, downloadable, high-resolution screen backgrounds, suitable for desktop and laptop screens.  There are many offerings and I’m still adding to the site.  You can access the free screen backgrounds here:

South Dakota Birds and Birding – Free Hi-Res Backgrounds

It’s taken a while to compile some images I wanted to offer as backgrounds.  Some of my favorite photos didn’t make the cut, simply because they didn’t seem to “fit” very well as what are necessarily, long, not-as-tall images to perfectly fit a computer screen.  I’m offering the images at 3 different resolutions to suit people who have monitors set at different resolutions.  Note it’s mostly birds, but I also have other animals and a few landscapes in there as well.

It’s pretty easy nowadays to select an image and save it as your screen background, and given all the potential set-ups that people have, I can’t offer specific advice for everyone.  For me, however, running Windows, the method is:

  • Right-click on empty space (not an icon) on your computer screen
  • Select “Personalize”
  • At the bottom you’ll see “Desktop Background”.  After you’ve downloaded one of the background images you want and saved it to your own computer, just click on Desktop Background and choose that image.
Yarrow's Spiny Lizard - Screen Background

They're not all bird images! I really love this photo of a Yarrow's Spiny Lizard, and it makes a great screen background.

Note you can also have a slide show set of images that rotate your background image on a pre-set schedule (the default for mine is 30 minutes).  So if you happen to like more than one background image, don’t fret!  Download as many as you’d like, and you can set up your own rotating background set of nature photos.

Enjoy!  If there are any specific birds you don’t see offered, let me know and I can try to make a background for you (if I have a photo!).

Foiled again…

Damn.  Back to normal.  The last two times down to Newton Hills, I’ve found the Saw-whet Owls.  I wanted to show my son the owls, because I thought he’d get a kick out of them.  I went down on what was a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, we checked the 3 spots where they’ve been, and…nothing.  Nada.  Zip.

Par for the course!  Back to normal!! I estimate I’ve bush-wacked through cedar thickets about 40 hours this year before finding the four owls a couple of weeks ago.  Today was quite similar to those 40 “pre-owl” days!  But it was a gorgeous day, and my son was a real trouper tromping through the snow and crashing through the brush.

Snow.  Speaking of snow…man, that really screws up the saw-whet owl hunting.  I know the specific trees these owls had been roosting in, but if they move?  You’re basically looking for white-wash (poop!) on the ground below the owl roosts, but you can imagine that’s a little tough when there’s 6 inches of snow on the ground.

No owls in the old spots!  No ability to find new locations with snow on the ground!  Such is the life of a Northern Saw-whet Owl hunter, but we shall try again!!

New bird ID quizzes

Bird Quiz - Female

I'm a female...a female...uh, one of those game birds. Prairie Chicken? Sharp-tailed Grouse? Pheasant? I dunno...

As I’m getting back to blogging (and keeping it just on bird-related issues), I’m also getting back to working on my website more.  I haven’t update some sections in quite some time.  Time for that to change!

This week I’ve been working on some new bird ID quizzes, and have uploaded them tonight.  You can find them here:

South Dakota Birds and Birding – Bird ID Quizzes

The newest quizzes are towards the bottom of each section.  The absolute newest (created last night and tonight) are the “Waterfowl” and “Female” quizzes.  I thought a photo ID quiz based on females might be interesting, given that most of the attention seems to be given to male birds when there’s a strong plumage difference between sexes.  It’s also dang tough to ID some female birds!  I put a couple of dabbling duck females in the female quiz. I doubt I get them in the field, unless I’m looking at them with guide book in hand.

Enjoy the quizzes!  I’ll try to put more out in the same location by the end of the weekend!

Climate and Land-use Change Altering Birds’ Range

Modeling Changes in Range - Hooded Warbler

The upper-left map is a model of the current range for the Hooded Warbler. The other maps show various scenarios for how that range will change by 2075. Blue colors represent gains in range (primarily in the north) while red represents a loss of range (primarily in the south, and in scattered areas where forest is projected to be lost).

A couple of months ago ago, when I was admittedly in a phase of never blogging, I had a paper published in PLoS ONE that examines how projected changes in climate and land use are likely to affect bird populations across the conterminous United States.  Given that I wasn’t blogging at the time, I thought I’d get it out here on Feathers and Folly.  It was a paper that got a lot of attention from the popular press…a rarity for me…including newspaper stories, an upcoming feature in Popular Science, and a live interview on South Dakota Public Radio.  Here’s the link to listen to the Public Radio story:

SD Public Radio – “Mid-day” – Birds, Climate, and Land-use

My “day job” with the U.S. Geological Survey is to map and model land use and land use change, using satellite imagery and other sources.  By modeling land use out into the future, we can determine how landscape changes might affect biodiversity, climate, hydrology, or other ecological processes.  This paper represents the first time I’ve been able to link my day job, with my passion of birds and birding, which is why I was so excited to do this work, and thrilled to get it published.

For access to the paper itself, anybody can freely download it from PLoS ONE. Click here to go to the web pages for the paper.

I modeled 50 species of birds for the U.S., with most showing losses of range at their southern edge due to a warming climate, with gains of range at the northern end.  Land change affected different species in different ways.  Some species actually benefit from man-drive landscape change, while many others are negatively impacted by loss of habitat.  The purpose of the paper was to show that it’s not just climate change that affects changes in bird populations, but also how man uses the landscape.

Maps such as the one found at the top are available for viewing for all 50 species that I modeled at the following website:

USGS Sohl Research – Climate and Land-use Change Impacts on Birds