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


Birds With Friends

I have Words with Friends installed on both my iPad and iPhone.  I used to play it relatively frequently with friends and family.  I don’t any more, but I do play Scrabble, single-player (against the computer).  That pretty much sums up my level of social activity in most walks of life. Words with Friends is fun, but with no control on when your opponent plays, you’re stretching a game over a long period of time.  You have no control on when you play, or when you’re done.

My birding life is very similar!  I started birding in the winter of 2000. In the 15 years since, I can (sadly?  pathetically?) say that not once have I set up a birding trip with someone, or spent an entire day or trip birding with another person.  In the word-game vernacular from above…I am a “Single-player Scrabble” birder rather than a “Words with Friends” birder.  My birding time is limited, and it’s “me” time, my time to wander with my thoughts and enjoy birds and the environments in which they are found.  I love being able to control my birding, where I go, when I go, and how much time I spend in a specific location.  Given my focus on bird photography, that’s a necessity!  My photography style isn’t very conducive for group birding, given that patience, and sitting in one place (sometimes for hours at a time) is my preferred method for getting close to birds.

Yesterday, however, was a rare occasion!  After finding four Northern Saw-whet Owls at Newton Hills State Park on Tuesday, I was itching all week for some free time to get back down to the area and look some more! I arrived right at dawn, and immediately ran into Bridget, a wonderfully nice birder from Sioux Falls who I hadn’t met before.  Right from the start yesterday my plans changed…no “Scrabble” birding, the rest of the day was truly “Birds with Friends”.  And it was a wonderful morning!  Bridget and I walked around the Horse Camp area at Newton Hills, finding the two Saw-whets back on the perches they were at four days before, and trying (unsuccessfully) to find more owls.  It was a nice change-of-pace for me to talk birds and other topics while leisurely looking through the cedars for signs of owls.

It wasn’t just Bridget yesterday morning though, as I ran into at least a dozen birders who had come down to try and see the owls.  My day of looking for owls turned into a day of showing birders where the owls were roosting.  And it was wonderful!  They’re not easy owls to find, and it was nice to be able to bring folks to what was a life bird for several of the birders.

I greatly enjoyed my time with Bridget and the other birders.  A highlight though may have been at the very end.  I was tired from going up and down the hills and bushwacking all morning, and was getting close to going home when I ran into Jared and Jessica, two young, new birders who had come down to try and find the owls.  One more trip up the hill!  I brought them to the one owl that was very visible and photogenic, showing them what was only their second owl of any kind since they recently started birding.  Birding in general seems to be an older person’s hobby, as you run into a lot more mature birders than you do young birders.  It was great to end the day by getting some young birders excited a true rarity for this area.

I have no doubt I’ll still primarily be a “Single-player Scrabble” type of birder, given my personality.  But after yesterday morning, I can definitely see the fun of “Birds with Friends”, and will try to make myself a little more of a social birder in the future.


Looking for Saw-whet Owls…and Succeeding!!

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Portrait of a wild Northern Saw-whet Owl, taken on January 27th, 2015 at Newton Hills State Park in South Dakota. Click for a larger view.

I think every birder has “nemesis” species, birds that for some reason, you’ve had little luck in finding.  For me, some of them have been surprisingly common.  A “nemesis” for me typically means it’s a bird I’ve maybe even seen a number of times, but have never managed to get a good photograph of.  Examples for me include a Greater Prairie Chicken, Broad-winged Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, and Common Nighthawk.

The Northern Saw-whet Owl is a species I’ve seen before, and even gotten decent photographs for. But in terms of “hours spent” per “bird found”, I don’t think any bird ranks higher on my nemesis list than the Saw-whet Owl.  The last time I had seen Northern Saw-whet Owls?  January 9th, 2005.  This was on a trip to the Pierre area, where Kenny Miller, Ricky Olson, and Doug Backlund had been consistently finding the birds in the cedar breaks along the Missouri River near Oahe Dam.  Even so, they aren’t an easy bird to find!  Most people don’t even bother looking, given the difficulty in finding them in the thick habitat they use for daytime roosts.  I admit that I wouldn’t have seen a Saw-whet Owl back in January 2005, if not for Kenny Miller and Doug Backlund basically walking me right to the perches of two birds, sitting perhaps 20 yards apart in thick cedar habitat.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

The same bird as the top photograph, but a full body shot. I watched this guy from very close range for about 5 minutes. By the end he was nodding back off to sleep, and I left him alone to complete his daytime nap.

I’ve also remembered that day very fondly, seeing the two little owls that looked more like little wind-up toys than actual living, breathing creatures.  I’ve also tried MANY times to replicate that day in the intervening years!  I head to the Pierre area 2 or 3 times every winter to look for winter raptors, but also, to (hopefully!) replicate that day where I saw the Saw-whets.  I know what to looks for, I know that habitat in which they’re found, but in the LONG 10 years since that last sighting, all my hours of bush-wacking through the cedar trees have led to a total of ZERO Saw-whet Owl finds.

THIS winter I told myself I was going to find a Saw-whet Owl.  It’s a good 3 1/2 hour drive to Pierre, but given the distribution of Northern Saw-whet Owls in the surrounding area and states in the region, people always thought it was likely they were around southeast South Dakota in winter, but nobody was bothering to search for them.  Starting in late November, I started looking through cedar groves in and around the Sioux Falls region, looking for the tell-tale whitewash and pellets that mark a Saw-whet Owl’s daytime roost.  I was IMMEDIATELY encouraged by what I found.  There were owl pellets, and whitewash, in many different locations, including the Big Sioux Recreation Area in Brandon, around Lake Alvin, and in Newton Hills State Park.  But despite many, many hours of searching, none of the evidence ended up leading to an observation of an actual Saw-whet.

I’m glad to report the 10-year dry spell ended on January 27th of this year!  The forecast was sunny and warm (well, warm by South Dakota winter standards), so I took the day off work, telling myself I would spend the entire day looking until I actually found one.  I wanted to focus on Newton Hills State Park, because two local birders had recently gone “owling” in the early morning hours, and had Saw-whet Owls responding to played tapes.  Going to the locations where they had heard owls, I started the search, and immediately started finding whitewash and pellets.  But after 3 hours…no actual owls.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

A more typical view of a Saw-whet Owl! Unlike the previous photos here, it's MUCH more likely that any Saw-whet you're fortunate enough to find will be partially obscured by the thick vegetation that he's roosting in! One reason I was so thrilled to get the photos of the previous bird in this post is that it's the ONLY time I've been able to see a Saw-whet Owl that wasn't obscured by vegetation!

The drought ended when I walked past a thick, young cedar stand I had searched earlier in the morning, and thought I’d look one more time, given all the whitewash on the ground.  Frankly, I think I just missed the bird the first time.  This time, I found a little ring of whitewash on the ground, looked up, and was rather shocked to see a tiny Saw-whet Owl staring back down at me, from about 12 feet high in a small cedar tree.

The day ended up being truly spectacular.  I went on to find 3 more Saw-whet Owls, with all four being found in widely separated locations.  Records of Saw-whet Owls are few and far between in this part of the world, with eBird only having 3 sightings registered in the entire eastern half of South Dakota.  I think there’s little doubt Saw-whet Owls are a lot more common than most people think, and I have little doubt that there are many other Saw-whets waiting to be found in the state.

All it takes is a birder willing to sacrifice innumerable hours of their life bush-wacking through thick cedar stands!  It’s a low-probability task in terms of the hours spent per bird, but it’s incredibly rewarding to actually find and observe a Saw-whet Owl at close range in the wild.  Just as the birders of Pierre inspired me to search for Saw-whets, I hope others follow their lead and take the time to try to find these little beauties, and help us better understand the winter distribution and population of Northern Saw-whet Owls.

New blog focus! Birds, Birds, and more Birds…

In case you haven’t noticed, all the old blog content is gone.  Deleted, gone forever.  The “old” blog was also Feathers and Folly, an odd mix of my passion (birds), with my more emotional passion, the folly of politics and mankind in general.

To be frank…it’s too damned depressing to blog about politics, culture wars, or other issues that drive me crazy.  Given the tie of the blog to my main birding website, South Dakota Birds and Birding, it makes more sense to focus solely on birds, birding, and conservation issues…both for consistency with my main website, but also simply to maintain my sanity and post more about what’s FUN in life.


Prairie Falcon Photo

Prairie Falcon - Falco mexicanus

Prairie Falcon in Flight - Lyman County, SD

A recent shot from Lyman County, South Dakota.  Prairie Falcons are a species that I have a hard time getting close to.  Usually they spook and fly away when you get anywhere close to one.

On this day, I came across this guy on a fence post.  Expecting “normal” Prairie Falcon behavior, I stopped the pickup, expecting him to fly off.  He did.  However, instead of flying away, he acted curious and was circling the car.  I hopped out, camera in hand, and took this shot as he flew by in the warm morning light.

A nice surprise!  I’ve come to the conclusion that birds have personalities too, with some oddballs like this guy breaking the typical mold for a species.

Arizona Hummingbirds

Broad-billed Hummingbird

Broad-billed Hummingbird, in Madera Canyon.

Ah, Arizona.  I’d never been to Arizona, until about 8 years ago, when we went on a family vacation.  It’s such a diverse state, with mountains, deserts, the Grand Canyon, and the very large metro areas of Phoenix and Tucson.  For me, vacation is about seeing the natural world, and Arizona certainly offers some amazing experiences.  While I love the Grand Canyon, the forested mountains of the east, and the Sedona area, nothing for me can touch far southern Arizona, with the Sonoran desert habitat and the forested “sky islands”.

Anna's Hummingbird

Anna's Hummingbird, on the outskirts of Tucson

We found a wonderful bed-and-breakfast on the outskirts of Tucson, nestled up against the eastern edge of the city and the eastern unit of Saguaro National Park.  Hacienda del Desierto is an acreage with natural Sonoran desert habitat surrounding it, with a pair of small ponds literally offering an oasis in the desert to the animals of the region.  We’ve seen coyotes, javelina, bobcats, jackrabbits, tarantulas, lizards, and snakes on the grounds of the B&B, but of course for me, it’s the birds that are the attraction.  And when I think birds in Arizona, I think hummingbirds.

May 7th.  Within a day or two, that’s the time our one resident hummingbird comes back for the summer in South Dakota.  It’s wonderful having Ruby-throated Hummingbirds around our house in the summer, but they’re the only species found in eastern South Dakota, and they’re only here from May through September.  A spring visit to Arizona on the other hand offers the chance to see a dozen or more species of hummingbirds, with several species found throughout the year.  Costa’s, Black-chinned, Anna’s, Broad-billed, Broad-tailed, Rufous, and Calliope Hummingbirds are some of the more common species to be found in the state at times, but lurking in the sky-island canyons of southern Arizona, and in nearby locations, a birder may also run across Magnificent, Allen’s, Blue-throated, Lucifer, White-eared, and Violet-crowned Hummingbirds, with yet rarer finds including a  Berylline Hummingbird or Plain-capped Starthroat,

Magnificent Hummingbird

Magnificent Hummingbird, on Mount Lemmon

After a long, very cold winter in South Dakota, we made plans for a week-long trip to the Tucson area around Easter. We again stayed at Hacienda del Desierto, and as always, the birding in the area didn’t disappoint.  My wife and son aren’t birders, so to maximize my birding time on vacation, I’ve gotten into a habit at getting up at dawn and birding until they’re ready for breakfast.  The B&B is wonderful for desert birding, but even with a few feeders up and a lush, flower-filled landscape, I’ve never found all that many hummingbirds around.  The exception is a wonderful Broad-billed Hummingbird female who annually builds a nest on the vines that cascade over the roof and trail down into the B&B’s courtyard. She didn’t disappoint on this trip either, as once again she built a new nest, and had two young that appeared to be about ready to fledge.

Black-chinned Hummingbird

Black-chinned Hummingbird in Madera Canyon

Within the city of limits, there are a number of parks that are wonderful to visit, with our favorite being Tohono Chul park on the north side of Tucson.  It’s a botanical garden with a wide variety of micro habitats, and a vast array of flowering plants, and I’ve always had wonderful luck finding hummingbirds.  It seems to be a “hotspot” for Costa’s Hummingbirds, a species I’ve found without fail at the park.  Tohono Chul also has a wonderful cafe, where you can dine in the courtyard and enjoy the wonderful vegetation and birds.  On this trip, a Costa’s Hummingbird had built a nest in a light fixture on the courtyard wall, with a mother feeding 2 young and seemingly oblivious to the diners and servers continually walking by.

Saguaro National Park has two units, one on both the east and west sides of Tucson.  Hummingbirds can always be found there, foraging on blooming Ocotillo and plants, but they tend to be quite dispersed.  Sabino Canyon and Mount Lemmon are two very popular destinations on the outskirts of Tucson, for both tourists and residents alike.  Family hikes through both have yielded Hummingbirds.  On this trip, a feeder at the visitor’s center near the top of Mount Lemmon attracted many Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, but a gorgeous Magnificent Hummingbird would also occasionally fly in.

Anna's Hummingbird at Nest

Female Anna's Hummingbird feeding young at the nest

However, for both the sheer number of hummingbirds, and variety of species, nothing can touch the sky-island canyons.  Names like “Ramsey Canyon“, “Madera Canyon“, and “Miller Canyon” are famous among birders, as rarities from Mexico are often found here, and nowhere else in the United States.  The same holds for hummingbirds, with the canyons attracting an incredible number of hummingbird species.  Destinations such as the Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon, or The Nature Conservancy center in Ramsey Canyon, further enhance the excitement, with feeder complexes that attract large densities of hummingbirds.  On this trip, we visited Santa Rita Lodge.  While no rarities were seen, an hour at the Lodge feeders turned up a number of Black-chinned, Anna’s, Broad-billed, and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, and a Magnificent Hummingbird also made an appearance.

A week-long vacation interspersed with casual birding, and 7 hummingbird species were tallied (Broad-billed, Broad-tailed, Costa’s, Anna’s, Black-chinned, Magnificent, and Rufous).  Arizona never disappoints, and for hummingbird lovers, nothing can top a spring trip to the southern part of the state.

Putting down the camera…


An inquisitive Bufflehead, doing pre-dawn surveillance of my blind.

Peace of mind.  Something that’s hard to find at times.  For me, it’s been something that’s been elusive over the last few months as I try to deal with the effects of Sjogren’s syndrome.  Dry eyes and mouth are something you kind of get used to, but it certainly makes me sure to always have gum and eye drops handy.  Achy joints…fine, I can handle that most of the time.  Fatigue is the toughest one to deal with, as there are days where it suddenly feels like you’ve just been “unplugged”.  One by one, they’re nuisances, but put it all together, and have it occur day-after-day-after-day, and it’s a downer.

It’s been enough of a downer that I haven’t really had much interest in the photography thing lately.  Probably a mistake on my part, to let that go.  If there’s one thing that can provide peace of mind for me, it’s one of those ‘magical’ days out in the field, taking photos.  My photography time is my chance to escape for a few hours.  It’s my release, it’s my chance to try to forget the Sjogren’s, forget any bullshit at work (of which there’s always some), etc.  It’s my chance to recharge.

Yesterday I dragged out the “chair blind” with the intention of using it to try to get close to all the waterfowl that are moving through as the ice melts. It’s a hunter’s device, what basically amounts to a very low folding chair, with legs a mere 4-5 inches long, and a camouflage shell that pulls over the top.  I’ve had it for a few years, but really haven’t used it much.  I’m not sure why, given that 1) it’s actually pretty comfy sitting inside it, and 2) I have one hell of a lot of patience, and can sit there for a while, waiting for birds to happen by.  I got up before dawn and headed to the wetlands and lakes west of Sioux Falls. I found a nice spot that was full of ducks when I arrived, and set up the blind about half an hour before sunrise.

There was already a little bit too much light at that time for me to get away with it, without the birds noticing.  The ducks all flushed as I set up, but that was fine…I knew they’d eventually wander back, forgetting there’s a weirdo in the camouflaged clamshell by the shoreline.  I was right, but ducks definitely wandered back, but much sooner than I anticipated.   The sun still hadn’t risen when a very inquisitive little Bufflehead approached.  It’s almost as if he suspected something was “wrong”, given the beeline he made right towards the blind itself.  He stopped for a moment, perhaps 15 feet from the blind, before moving closer.  TOO close, given that the minimum focusing distance on my long lens is 12 feet.

American Coot

One of the 30 or so American Coots milling around my blind. Common...drab plumage...but beautiful in their own right, especially when you get a chance to see them behaving naturally at close distance.

If I were obsessed with just “getting the photo”, as many photographers are, I probably would have wished he were a bit further away.  I’ll never understand that mentality.  It’s the same with birders who are obsessed with their “lifelists”, state checklists, county checklists, etc.  For many, it’s the list itself, it’s the photo itself, that’s the most important aspect of the respective hobby.  You’ll often see birders drive miles to see a rarity, some species they don’t have on their list.  For many, the quest seems to end the moment the bird is spotted.  Having mentally (or physically in many cases) checked the bird off their list, off they go, in search of the next checkmark.

For me?  The best moments, the moments where I do find that elusive peace of mind, is when the moment takes over, and I put the camera down.  The now too-close Bufflehead continued to poke around the area in front of my blind, seemingly half bloodhound, trying to sniff out the “trouble” inside.  I put down the camera, leaned forward, and watched this wonderful little creature parading around mere feet in front of my blind.  It’s not easy getting photos of truly wild ducks in South Dakota. They literally are “gun-shy”, equating human beings with trouble, and flushing as soon as someone comes within 50 yards of them.  The tiny little Bufflehead is one I’ve particularly had a hard time getting close to.  I certainly wasn’t going to miss the moment, and sometimes the camera just gets in the way.  It was only a minute or two that the gorgeous male Bufflehead paraded around the blind.  But it was a nice “put the camera down” moment, and one of those restorative moments that helps me find peace of mind.

After sunrise, most of the ducks seemed to leave the little wetland.  I packed up and decided to try another spot.  I ended up at Grass Lake, a large lake in western Minnehaha county that still was about half ice-covered.  As the ice melts, you often get gulls and other birds feasting on any dead fish that had become locked up in the ice over the winter, and Grass Lake was certainly full of birds yesterday morning, from massive American White Pelicans, to gulls, to ducks of many species.  I again found a little bay full of ducks, set up my blind, and waited for the now departed birds to return.

Again it didn’t take long.  One inquisitive American Coot came swimming back into the bay, and began poking along the shoreline.   It’s not often you see just one American Coot, as they’re a gregarious bunch, and sure enough, it wasn’t long before his buddies showed up as well.  About 20 minutes after setting the blind up, there were perhaps 30 Coots poking around the bay, and it wasn’t long before they returned to the same location they were before I arrived, which was right where I had placed my blind.

American Coots aren’t exactly a birder’s dream bird.  They’re not exactly a photographer’s dream bird.  They’re common, they’re rather drab at first glance, and they have a reputation as being, well…not the brightest bird on the block.  They’re not particularly difficult to get close to, at least close enough for a photograph if you have a long lens.  However, it’s one thing to “get the photo”.  It’s quite another to have an active flock of wild birds, behaving and feeding normally within feet of you, oblivious to your presence.  For half an hour, the Coots milled about the vicinity of my blind, often coming so close as to be practically touching it at times.  It when you get close to birds that you can see their real beauty.  Yes, they’re a rather drab dark grey overall, but American Coots have a brilliant red eye, a strange and contrasting light-colored beak and “shield” on their forehead, and some of the weirdest, massive floppy fleet of any creature on the planet.

Peace of mind.  Camera down.  Sitting in MY church on a Sunday morning, enjoying the moment.  It wasn’t a good morning from a photography perspective, as most other species stayed away and I got very few “good” photos.  However, it was just what the doctor ordered…

New 2014 (free) Bird Calendar

As I always do, I put together a free, downloadable and printable bird calendar for 2014.

Each month’s download is a PDF, set up to be sized and printed on letter-sized paper.  It should be pretty easy to download and print.

For the first time this year, I went beyond just bird photos, and also have a few months where I have my bird artwork.

The calendar pages can be downloaded and printed from the following URL.  Enjoy!

Drawing – Golden-winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler - Drawing by Terry SohlA little more “feather” to get my mind off the “folly” of the shutdown.  In keeping with my usual subject matter…this is a species that I don’t have photos of.  Well, not any good photos anyway. This is a Golden-winged Warbler.  They migrate through South Dakota in May, but aren’t all that common.  I’ve seen them four or five times, with just one very bad, blurry photo…hence choosing it as a subject for drawing.

Click on the image for a larger view.

Drawing – Atlantic Puffin

Atlantic Puffin - Drawing by Terry Sohl

Click for a larger view

A lot of opportunity to post this week about the “folly” side of my blog, given that I’m sitting at home for the 3rd straight day as House Republicans continue to throw their temper tantrum.  But instead of focusing on the folly, thought I’d focus on the “feather” side to help me forget about the maddening news.

An Atlantic Puffin drawing.  First portrait I’ve tried.  Kind of looks like George Washington on a coin or something to me, so not sure if I’ll do any more closer portraits like this.