Drawing – Spoon-billed Sandpiper

Spoon-billed Sandpiper - Drawing

Colored pencil drawing of a Spoon-billed Sandpiper - Terry Sohl (2013)

I have WAY too many hobbies.  There’s also minor other little things in life that get in the way of my hobbies, like work, family, etc.  Because of that…November 9th, 2012.  That’s the last time I drew anything.  For most of 2013, the “feathers” part of the blog (and my hobbies) has been pretty inactive, as not only haven’t I drawn at all, but I just haven’t done a huge amount of birding this year either.  Tonight I finally got motivated to finish one I had at started (barely) a month ago.

This is a Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus). They’re not found in South Dakota.  They’re normally found in eastern Asia, but on rare occasions have been sighted in North America.  Beautiful little shorebirds, and with that unique little spoon-shaped bill, they’re pretty darned adorable.  That alone would make them a great subject to draw, but the real reason I chose this species…they’re one of the rarest birds on the planet, with only a few hundred (at best) left.

They breed in Siberia and then move down and over-winter in southeast Asia.  There, they are subject to subsistence hunting, and are most often caught by folks who use fine netting on mud-flats and other areas where shorebirds gather.  It’s a really tough situation to  manage, as those who (unknowingly) are capturing and killing these little birds are extremely poor, and are just trying to eek out a living.  Education programs are attempting to teach folks about the species, in the hopes of reducing capture of Spoon-billed Sandpipers, but it’s a species that may not have more than a few years left on the planet.  There’s now a captive breeding program that’s attempting to build up numbers of the species, but unless things change on their migration and winter habitat, it’s going to be an uphill climb for this little charismatic bird.

Now to keep my current pace, I can take the next 10 months off of drawing…  ;-)

May Birding – Best time of the year

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

A Buff-breasted Sandpiper, a rare "shorebird" that you normally don't find along the shoreline as they migrate through. Today was the exception to the rule though, as a flock was found on the edge of a shallow wetland.

May is such a wonderful time.  After a long South Dakota winter, May brings warm temperatures and green landscapes.  From a birding perspective, after a winter of very little species diversity, no other time of year can match the number and variety of species that you can see in a given day.  Shorebirds are migrating through the interior of the country, and a trip to a mudflat or shallow water area can easily yield a dozen or more shorebird species.  In eastern South Dakota where I live, we can have truly incredibly warbler migrations, with the possibility to see 20+ warbler species in a day.  The summer breeding birds also have all arrived by the end of the month, with Indigo Buntings, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Baltimore Orioles, Scarlet Tanagers, and more bringing a very welcome splash of color after a winter dominated by the cute, but gray/black/white Dark-eyed Junco.


It's amazing how such a small bird as an Ovenbird can make such a loud noise! This time of year, their loud crescendo songs can be heard throughout Newton Hills State Park.

I always try to save some vacation days and go out on all day birding trips in May.  I went yesterday, and had a truly wonderful day.  The day started with a trip to Newton Hills State Park, about 30 miles south of Sioux Falls.  Newton Hills is a relative rarity for South Dakota habitats, a true “eastern” deciduous forest.  As such, it often holds eastern U.S. forest species that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else in South Dakota. It didn’t take long to hear singing Blue-winged Warblers, a species on the edge of its range in South Dakota.  Warbler numbers weren’t all that high compared to what they can be, but there was a nice mix.  American Redstarts were relatively common, and Yellow Warblers were everywhere.  One of my personal favorites, Ovenbirds, are quite common in Newton Hills and they were certainly doing their best to announce the arrival of spring, with their distinctive, loud songs.  Other warblers included Blackpoll Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Wilson’s Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, and Northern Waterthrush.

Hudsonian Godwit

One of the most beautiful shorebirds that migrates through the state, a male Hudsonian Godwit.

It was also nice to see all the summer “regulars” at Newton Hills.  Scarlet Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, singing Wood Thrush, Red-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireo…all welcome for both the views and for their songs.

After Newton Hills, I headed up towards the Lake Thompson area in Kingsbury county, looking for waterbirds.  Lake Thompson never disappoints in the spring.  It’s so large, and no matter the water levels for a given year, you’ll always find mudflats and shallow waters that hold shorebirds, as well as deeper water for other birds.  The highlight was a Little Blue Heron, a bird more often thought of as a bird of the southeastern United States. It was hanging out with a group of about a dozen Snowy Egrets, and is only the 2nd Little Blue Heron I’ve ever seen in the state.  Another highlight were a group of at least 18 Buff-breasted Sandpipers.  They are a pretty rare migrant to begin with and are always a welcome sight, but it’s not often you see a large group of them.  They’re normally found in short-grass areas, but at least yesterday, this flock was acting like other “shorebirds”, hanging around the edge of a shallow-water lake.

Little Blue Heron

A bird you associate more with the Gulf Coast than you do South Dakota, this is only the 2nd Little Blue Heron I've ever seen in the state.

On the grasslands and fence lines, both Eastern and Western Kingbirds had returned, while Bobolinks were seen, and heard, singing their unique, metallic/clinky songs.

Wonderful day, both for the variety of birds seen, from forests, to grasslands, to wetlands, but also for the surprise of seeing some rarities for the state.  Gotta love May birding in South Dakota!

Harvey Potts – Photographer / Thief Extraordinaire

Harvey Potts - Photo Thief

A photo of a "Pygmy Owl" supposedly taken by Mr. Harvey Potts in Green Valley Arizona. IN reality? It's MY PHOTO, taken near Tucson Arizona, and is of an ELF OWL.

If you get a chance check out the wonderful photography on Harvey Potts website.  He’s got some truly beautiful photography.  Gorgeous nature photography, beautiful landscape shots, photos of old bridges and barns…he has a really diverse set of photos.  I’m particularly amazed by the quality of some of the nature photos.

I’m amazed that he was able to PERFECTLY replicate, down to the pixel level, shots taken by other photographers!!  IMAGINE the patience and determination it must take, to find someone else’s photo online and try to recreate it! Traveling to the location, finding a bird that is EXACTLY the same, positioning it EXACTLY the same, waiting for EXACTLY the same lighting conditions…what amazing devotion to his “art”!!  What an INCREDIBLE photographer!!

Elf Owl - Terry Sohl

MY Elf Owl photo on my website, taken on the outskirts of Tucson Arizona. Mr. Harvey Potts just cloned out my name and copyright symbol, and placed on his photography website as his own.

For example, look at this “Pygmy Owl” photo above, supposedly taken in Green Valley, Arizona.  Now compare to this ELF OWL photo that I TOOK near Tucson Arizona.  Note the attention to detail!! Note the PERFECT replication of nearly every detail from my photo!! In fact, the ONLY difference between the photos is that Mr. Potts digitally removed my name and copyright symbol from the photo!!!  AMAZING WORK, Mr. Potts!!!

Pretty “ballsy”, Mr. Potts!! If you have a public website with displayed photos, those photos WILL be used by others without your permission.  It’s a fact of life, and something any photographer with a website should expect.  I’ve been absolutely amazed at how often I run across my own photos.  Usually, it’s something like a blog where somebody wanted a bird photo for a blog post, but even in my work at the U.S. Geological Survey, there have been a number of times where I’ve gone to a conference, and seen my photos pop up in other scientists’ presentations and on their posters of their work.

It’s damned annoying when people use your photos without permission, particularly when you clearly define usage limits on your website, but Mr. Harvey Potts has taken it to an entirely new level!  A supposed PHOTOGRAPHER, displaying photos from OTHER PHOTOGRAPHERS on his own personal website and claiming they are his own!! This Elf Owl is NOT the only stolen image.  Another photographer noted their images stolen, and Mr. Potts even had the nerve to put his OWN NAME AND COPYRIGHT symbol on the stolen photo.

Mr. Potts, you are TRULY a piece of $hit.  Displaying and marketing photos from other photographers as your own?  That goes WELL beyond simply using someone else’s photo for a blog post.

Did you take ANY of the photos on your site?  Do you even KNOW how to use a camera?

Fortunately, I am QUITE sure my website gets much more traffic than yours, Mr. Potts. I sincerely hope anyone searching for the “WONDERFUL” photography of Mr. Harvey Potts ends up finding this blog post.  You, Mr. Potts, are one despicable piece of crap.

Review – “The World’s Rarest Birds”

The World's Rarest BirdsThere are books that are a struggle to get through, books that are forgotten the moment the last page is read.  There are the rare books that you may read cover-to-cover multiple times.  There’s another class of books that to me truly fit under the category of “coffee table book”, books that you will occasionally pick up and casually browse through.

The World’s Rarest Birds” by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash, and Robert Still, squarely fits in the last category.  The World’s Rarest Birds is a follow on project to the “Rare Birds Yearbooks“, publications that highlighted the 190 most threatened birds in the world, those considered to be “critically endangered”.  The World’s Rarest Birds is an effort to expand on the idea of the Rare Birds Yearbooks. The book is based on the periodic assessments by BirdLife International and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), assessments that provide summaries of the world’s bird species and their conservation status.  This book highlights critically endangered and endangered species from the May 2012 assessment, as well as a number of species whose status is poorly known, for a total of just over 600 species.

The book’s format is very straightforward, with introductory segments that talk about the concept of the book and the specific threats faced by bird species.  The majority of the book, however, is devoted to “regional directories”, sections devoted to summaries of endangered bird species from each of the continents and Oceania. Each species has a paragraph that describes the species, its range, and conservation threats.  Distribution maps are included for each species, and most of the species have corresponding photographs.

And what photographs they are! As a bird photographer, I can certainly appreciate a good bird photograph, and understand the tremendous effort that must go into capturing high-quality photos of the world’s rarest bird species.  The book is a true delight to page through, with the small photos accompanying most of the species accounts interspersed with large, gorgeous, full- or partial-page photographs.

This isn’t a book that you’ll sit down with and read cover-to-cover.  While the regional presentation does attempt to help maintain a semblance of a “story” to the book, it does indeed fit the category of “coffee table book”, one that you’ll keep in a handy spot and reference from time to time, a book you can page through and enjoy with a cup of coffee or while you watch TV.  The World’s Rarest Birds is book you’ll be glad to own, particularly if you have an interest in bird conservation and enjoy high-quality nature photography.

Wilson’s Phalarope – Spinning Fools

Wilson's Phalarope - Phalaropus tricolor

Still from a video of a very large flock of "spinning" Wilsons' Phalarope. See below to view the YouTube video.

What an incredible, LOOOOONG winter it’s been.  It’s May 1st…and we’re supposed to get 2 inches of snow today.  In mid-April, we had the biggest ice storm I’ve ever seen, resulting in 3 days where my work was closed, and 4 days of school being closed.  Since mid-April we’ve had significant snow about 3 times.

Sunday I went birding for a bit.  April 28th…and there was still ICE on parts of the lakes where I was birding.  Unbelievable.  From a birding perspective, it’s certainly been an odd spring, as “winter” species have hung around well past their normal departure times, and some of the early spring migrants have stacked up in the region, waiting for a thaw further north so they can resume their migration. Just last week, during (yet another) snow storm, at my feeders I had the incredibly odd mix of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak (summer bird!), scads of Dark-eyed Juncos (Winter!), a Pine Siskin (Winter!), and Red-winged Blackbirds (bird I’ve never seen in my yard). I’ve had “winter” sparrows (American Tree Sparrows) foraging right alongside “summer” sparrows (Song Sparrows and Chipping Sparrows) below my feeders.  Weird, weird, weird.

Sunday was a warm, “normal” spring day, and despite the ice still hanging around the lakes in Lake and Kingsbury counties, there were quite a few birds.  I specifically was looking for shorebirds, and in a normal year, we’d have quite a few around.  However, despite a lot of waterfowl, gulls, pelicans, cormorants, and wading birds, there were hardly any shorebirds.  The one exception?  A massive flock of Wilson’s Phalarope on the “highway 81 lakes” north of Madison, South Dakota.

Wilson’s Phalarope are a personal favorite of mine.  They are rather pretty birds, and are unusual in that it’s the female who is the more colorful.  While pretty, it’s not their looks that makes them a favorite of mine, it’s their behavior.  Wilson’s Phalaropes, like other Phalaropes, often feed by “spinning”.  They swim in very tight circles on the surface of the water, and it’s thought the spinning action brings up small food items from below, close to the surface where the Phalaropes can grab them with their bill.

Wilson’s Phalarope do breed in the area, but when breeding, they’re not as visible and you don’t see them in numbers.  On this trip, I saw the largest flock of Phalaropes I’ve ever seen…at least 1,000 birds, and they were all doing their mad spinning in the shallows.  I never, and I mean never, video birds, but for some reason I had my little video camera with me and really wanted to document their behavior.  I pulled onto a tiny abandoned driveway next to the water, and was at first disappointed when all the birds flew away.  However, as I sat there, the circling flock slowly began to return, with small groups landing in the water many yards from shore.  After 20 minutes or so, they’d largely “forgotten” about the guy sitting in his car, and the entire flock was spinning like crazy on the water’s surface, just a few yards from where I sat.

Fun day, and very cool to capture it on video.  Here’s a YouTube link to the video of the “spinning” Phalaropes:

Wilson’s Phalarope Video – Spinning

Website – USGS EROS Land-cover Modeling

FORE-SCE Example

Finally. About 8 years after starting work on our own modeling framework and using it to project the Earth's land-cover out into the future, we have our own, official, dedicated USGS website.

Finally.  A website. 

USGS Land-Cover Modeling Website

This will be my 20th year working at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center.  OK…USGS EROS for short.  For the first 12 or so years, I primarily worked on the mapping of land cover (what’s on the surface of the Earth, such as “agriculture”, “urban”, Forest”, “wetland”, etc.), and analyzing land-use change, using satellite imagery.  About 8 years ago, we started work on taking the concept forward into the future, projecting what the landscape of the Earth will look like at some future date.  Over the years, I led the development of a new land-cover modeling framework, the “FORE-SCE” model (FOREcasting SCEnarios of land-use change).  FORE-SCE?  Get it?  We’re “FORE-SCE-ing” the future!!

It’s been fun over the last 8 years, and our modeling work has gotten quite a bit of attention.  However, that attention has all come from publications in the literature.  We haven’t had a website!  Until yesterday, when we finally had an official USGS website go active for the modeling work.

USGS Land-cover Modeling Website

Pretty simple so far, but it gives you an idea of what we do, has a few little tools to show “before” and “after” maps of land-cover, and lets you download some of our land-cover projection data that we’ve produced.  Excited to FINALLY have a web presence, a presence I hope to expand in the coming years, particularly with more interactive tools for data exploration and analysis.

Pile O’ Dead Birds – Just another South Dakota Day…

I used to be a hunter, back as a kid and through high school.  I wasn’t an avid hunter or anything, but did go out occasionally with friends.  However,  in my current place in life, I can’t imagine ever going out hunting again.  I can’t really say I see the thrill in going out and blasting away, but at least I can somewhat see hunting as one means of putting food on the table.  I REALLY don’t understand anyone’s desire to go out and kill, just for the sake of killing (ala prairie dog, coyote, or mountain lion hunting in South Dakota).  However, I at least have been telling myself for years that I’m not against hunting in general.

It’s getting harder…and harder…and harder…to keep telling myself that I’m not against hunting in general.  Not when it seems every other time I go to bird and take photos that I run into yet another example of South Dakota “hunters” gone bad.  I was recently up birding in the Lake Thompson area of South Dakota.  Lake Thompson used to be a big wetland area with scattered shallow water, but since heavy rains in the 1980s and 1990s, it’s now the largest natural lake in South Dakota.  Ice is just going out on the big lakes, including Lake Thompson.  The lake was a mix of open water, rotten ice, and piles of slushy ice crystals being blown into masses by a strong northwest wind.  Along the ice edge were gulls, several thousand snow geese, as well as thousands of ducks scattered around the lake.

In other words, a nice day of birding!  That is…until I drove along “Oldham road”, a road bed slicing through the lake with water on both sides.  As I started to drive along the grade, I saw a few thousand Snow Geese well south of the road, but near the road was a pair of Snow Geese.  One was obviously wounded, with a wing dragging behind it as it and its partner struggled to walk away on the ice as my car approached.  I drive another hundred yards, and I see a dead goose on the rocks by the road.  A tough winter and a tough migration, I’m thinking.  However, as  I drive a bit further and approach the one bridge on Oldham road, I see a mass of white.  I stop, and on the rocks by the bridge, I see a pile of about two dozen dead snow geese.

The birds were on the rocks, well above the water line, and it was quite obvious the wind or waves hadn’t deposited their bodies there.  I didn’t closely examine the bodies, but when I got out and looked, there was quite a bit of blood on some of the birds.  They had obviously died rather recently, and had died of trauma.  Unfortunately, I’m positive it was a “South Dakota” type of trauma..some redneck or group of rednecks with shotguns, who saw the masses of geese on the lake and started blasting away.

The carnage didn’t end there.  Further down were a few more dead snow geese.  As I headed west from the lake on Oldham road, I approached a large lake, again with water on both sides of the road.  As I started to cross the lake, a single snow goose struggled mightly to move to the water.  It had been sitting on the side of the road, and could obviously barely move.  It wasn’t hard to see why…it’s right lower part of it’s body was covered with blood.  On the retreating ice on the lake, another sad pair of Snow Geese stood…one with a drooped wing, another victim.  As a wildlife lover, it’s hard for me not to anthropomorphize animals at times. Snow Geese mate for life, so with one of the pair shot and injured, the other bird stays behind with it.  It was pretty obvious that mating pair wasn’t going to ever raise young again.

I’m losing count of how many times I’ve run across this kind of thing in South Dakota in recent years.  I’ve come over a hill, only to find two rednecks in a pickup, too lazy to even get out, guns pointing out of the window, and blasting away at American Coots in the wetland by the road.  I’ve gone to a favorite birding spot, having a quiet day interrupted when two young girls pull into the parking area to drop off their two younger brothers, both of whom immediately start to blast away at ANY bird or living creature they come across.  I’ve come across an idiot who wing-shot a goose, but didn’t know how to finish it off, so was chasing it around a field, kicking it and beating it with his fists.

Sadly, I could go on…and on…and on.  There are unfortunately MANY South Dakota “sportsmen” who behave in such a manner, using wildlife for target practice or abuse.

I have some friends who hunt, and I know they are indeed sportsmen who follow the law to the letter.  I know the good that groups like Ducks Unlimited do for habitat.  However, when it seems that I run into examples of South Dakota rednecks about every other time I go out, it’s VERY hard for me to continue to say I’m not against hunting.  Even for groups like Ducks Unlimited, it becomes VERY hard for my cynical side not to come out, for me to view them as simply focused on ensuring a steady supply of targets to blast away at.

It only takes a few idiots to spoil the “fun” for everybody else.  It only takes a few idiots to forever taint the views folks like myself may have about hunting.  However, the more I go out and about, the more my cynical side becomes convinced that there are one HELL of a lot more than just a FEW South Dakota rednecks who think this is acceptable behavior.


Sax-Zim Bog Trip – Wolf(!), Owls, and Rude Photographers

Wolf - Canis lupus

Wolf emerging from the forest near Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota. Certainly much larger than all of the many coyotes I've seen, I still couldn't convince myself for sure that I'd seen and photographed a wolf, until getting confirmation after showing the photos to Minnesota DNR folks who work in the area. Highlight of the trip, and it doesn't have feathers! Click for a larger view.

Eight years ago, I had one of the most memorable birding trips of my life.  Birders in northern Minnesota were seeing unprecedented numbers of “winter” owls, particularly Great Gray Owls and Northern Hawk Owls.  Both species are quite hard to find in the lower 48 states, and I had never seen either, so did the 6-hour drive to Duluth and ended up seeing a lifetime’s worth of owls in 1 day, with 30+ Great Grays and Northern Hawk Owls.  This winter, they’ve reported a large number of Boreal Owls, another species I’ve never seen, so I decided to take a trip to the Duluth area again. 

Northern Hawk Owl

Wonderful look at a Northern Hawk Owl, curious as I first walked up, but then very relaxed. When you see these guys up there, they seem to show little fear of humans, making you wonder how much, if any, experience they've ever had in seeing and dealing with a human being.

I left Saturday afternoon and arrived that evening, intent on birding all of Sunday and until about noon on Monday before driving back.  Sunday morning I left before dawn and was nearing the famed Sax-Zim Bog area, when I decided to start taking small gravel roads up instead of the main highway.  I got on a gravel road right around dawn and started driving very slowly, scanning the trees on either side of the road for owls.  Only a few minutes into it, I noticed a bit of motion in the forest to my right.  Given how thick the trees were, I couldn’t see what it was, but I could see motion every once in awhile, and could tell something was paralleling the road, and me, as I slowly drove along.  It seemed like whatever the creature was, it was looking for a chance to cross the road, so I stopped, hoping it would cross the road in front of me.  I got out, crouched down beside my car, and got my camera ready to shoot.

Boreal Chickadee

With the rich chestnut sides and the grayish-brown cap, Boreal Chickadees really stand out from the much more common Black-capped Chickadees in the area. A nice species to find in the lower 48!

About a minute after I stopped, the creature stepped out of the forest and onto the snowy side of the road about 20 yards in front of me, and turned his head and stared in my direction.  One glance and I knew this was a creature I’d never seen in the wild before…a wolf!! I’ve seen plenty of coyotes before, and this animal certainly was much larger than any coyote I’ve seen.  I only ended up seeing him for about 10 seconds, as he paused briefly to stare at me before crossing the road and disappearing into the thick forest on the other side.  With the camera ready, I was able to grab a handful of shots before he slipped into the forest, including the photo at the top.  I may be a “bird” guy, but seeing my first wolf in the wild, at close range?  Definitely the highlight of the trip, and a moment I won’t soon forget.

Northern Hawk Owl

See the rather relaxed Northern Hawk Owl in the first photo? THIS is what happens when a jackass "nature" photographer decides to intentionally piss off a rare, wild owl, just so he can get a "better pose".

The trip was off to a rousing success!  Unfortunately, I had a little bit less luck searching for birds over the next day and a half.  The Boreal Owls I was searching for?  The prior day, two Boreal Owls were spotted in the Bog area, treating several birders who were able to enjoy them.  Despite talking to every birder I came across on Sunday and Monday, nobody I talked to had seen any Boreal Owls or Great Gray Owls on those days.  However, someone had reported a Northern Hawk Owl on “Big Stone Lake Road” at the northeastern edge of the bog, so I headed in that direction to try my luck.

As I arrived, the Northern Hawk Owl was easy to spot, sitting on a branch in a taller tree overlooking an area of scattered shrubs.  The Owl was about 200 yards out from the road, but after a short hike through the snow, I arrived at a reasonable distance and started to shoot.  What a gorgeous bird!  Big Stone Lake Road was also where I saw my first Northern Hawk Owl, 8 years before, so it was a real treat to see one again in the same area.   He gave me a few quick looks before resuming his normal hunting, searching the ground around him for signs of prey.  I snapped a number of photos and left him as I had found him.

Later that day, I found another Northern Hawk Owl on Big Stone Lake road.  This one was closer to the road, but just as relaxed, acting normally as I snapped photos of him on his perch.  Another photographer arrived and approached with a tripod and camera.  He plopped his gear down, set up the camera, snapped a few quick shots, and then said “Are you ready”?  I had no idea what he meant, but he immediately started playing a Northern Hawk Owl call on his iPod!  I am NOT a fan of people using digital calls to lure in birds, but in this case, the owl was sitting right there in front of us!  There was no need to lure the bird in!  Rather startled by what this guy was doing, he said he “wanted a better pose”. 

What WAS a very relaxed, calm owl was now one pissed-off, not very happy owl.  He immediately started fluffing his feathers up, spreading his wings and tail, and even started calling back.  I’m rarely amazed any more at the lengths some “nature” photographers will go to in order to get a shot, but the owl wasn’t the only one pissed off in this situation.  One of the rarest birds to find in the lower 48 states, a bird that could very well be in a stressed state to begin with, and now this “nature” photographer decides he needs a “better pose”, so he PURPOSELY irritates the bird to get it to change poses.  Sometimes it seems the rare birds bring out the worst in some birders and some photographers.  It was 8 years ago, in Sax-Zim bog, that I personally witnessed multiple photographers trying to lure the stressed birds closer by using live pet mice. 

And you wonder why I’m cynical?  Argh.

The rest of the trip was nice, but no more owls of any kind were found.  I did find Boreal Chickadees, Pine Grosbeaks, Gray Jays, and other nice “northern” species, and had a wonderful trip in general.  I’m hoping to get up to Sax-Zim bog again next year, as even without the wolf, even without the owls, it’s a very nice birding and wildlife experience.

Climate Change and Hummingbird Migration – With Great Photo!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding at a honeysuckle plant. In Brandon, South Dakota. On June 9th, 2008. At someone's front porch. With a guy grilling hamburgers nearby. Just a hunch...

Jason Courter from Taylor University, along with his co-authors, published research that examined the migration of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, finding the birds are moving north earlier than they did historically.  The birds are arriving back in North America 12 to 18 days earlier than they did prior to 1970.  Overshadowing the research itself is of course the incredible, fantastic photo that has accompanied the story that’s been carried by the popular press.  The photo is of a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovering in front of an orange honeysuckle bloom.  I happen to have very, very personal knowledge that the photo was taken from the front porch of a private home in Brandon, South Dakota, in between the grilling of hamburgers  (just a hunch).

It is cool to have a photo in a science story like this, a story that’s been picked up by AP and has shown up in a number of news outlets, including overseas in The Guardian and elsewhere.  But of course it’s the science itself that is the cool story here.  The research isn’t the first to show that migration dates have changed in the last century, presumably in response to climate change.  It is yet another very strong piece of evidence that indicates our climate is changing, and that natural ecosystems are evolving to adapt.

Nice story, and the research article is definitely worth reading if you can get a copy.  It is published in The Auk, the journal of the American Ornithologists Union.

Nature Thrives – If we just give it half a chance

Injured Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle near Brandon, South Dakota, with injured bill and missing left eye. Despite all the human activity in the area, despite the injury, I believe he is in one of two nesting pairs in the area. Nature thrives, if we give it just the tiniest opportunity, but given our short-sighted nature and greed, far too often even that tiny opportunity doesn't exist.

I live right next to the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a state park along the Big Sioux River.  I often take walks there, taking trails or going off-trail along the river, through the forest, and through an area of open grassland. This morning I was walking along the river and came across and adult and younger (not totally mature plumage) Bald Eagle, perched on a tree overlooking the river.  Over the next half hour the two would occasionally leave the perch, fly to a different one, or disappear upstream a bit before coming back a few minutes later.  I took a number of photos, and everything seemed fine.

However, when I got home, I noticed the adult bird was missing part of its bill, and it appeared its left eye was also gone.  I don’t think it was a fresh injury, from the appearance, but it was obvious the eagle had undergone some sort of trauma.  Given my cynical nature, and given the idiots around here who blast away at anything that moves, my first thought was a shotgun blast.  What’s amazing though is the bird appears to be doing quite well, despite the setback.

Sioux Falls is the largest city in South Dakota.  OK, at 150,000 or so, it’s not huge by some standards, but there are a lot of folks that live in Sioux Falls and the surrounding area.  The Big Sioux River isn’t exactly the cleanest river in the world.  It’s a typical, slow, meandering, Great Plains river, very muddy and receiving one heck of a lot of agricultural runoff.  Despite the setting just a few miles from the biggest city in South Dakota…despite the cleanliness of the river…and despite this eagle’s injury, there are not one, but two active Bald Eagle nests, including one less than a mile from my house.  What I am always amazed at is how nature can thrive, if you provide it just the slightest bit of an opportunity.

What I find so depressing though is how often human beings are unable to provide even that slight opening for life to thrive.  The USGS center where I work is 15 miles outside of town, and I often used to take gravel roads to work.  It’s all agricultural land here, soybeans and corn, but there were a few tiny pockets of habitat where I would stop on my to and from work, looking for birds.  It’s amazing how often these tiny pockets of land would host a variety of birds.   Nearly all the wetlands on my drive have long since been drained and converted to cropland, but there was one small patch of damp land, not more than 2 or 3 acres, where I would often stop on the way home from work.  Despite being in a sea of cropland, despite being such a tiny bit of habitat, this damp bit of land with some sedges and a few cattails would often hold a lot of birds, including some real exciting birds from a birder’s perspective, such a Le Conte’s Sparrows that I often found there during the fall migration.

This summer, we had a severe drought, and farmers took advantage of the dry situation by plowing up dried up wetlands and installing drain tile to ensure they remained dry in the.  After this summer, I don’t bother taking gravel roads to work any more.  My little damp spot was plowed up and drain tile was installed.  Other little patches of habitat, including brushy fencerows and windbreaks, have also been torn out and plowed under in the last few years, as farmers are capitalizing on high commodity prices by plowing and planting every square inch of available land.

Just a small opportunity…that’s all life needs.  But given our short-sighted, greedy nature, we seem incapable of providing even that tiny opportunity.