Tag Archives: state

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!!

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!!

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.

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.

Ovenbird

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!

Don’t blame Romney, Repubs. It’s your party that sucks.

Ohio Polls

Poll trends in Ohio over the last month (Average of polls, from RealClearPolitics.com). Despite this being average of all polls, Repubs continue to insist on poll bias. Or media bias. Or, many are just assuming they're going to lose at this stage, and are blaming Romney. It's not the polls, or the media, or even Romney himself. It's what the Republican Party stands for.

I love the panic right now among Republicans. Ever since the conventions, and ever since Romney lost his ability to censor himself, the polls have moved very strongly in Obama’s favor.  InTrade had Obama with a 54% chance of reelection before the conventions.  Now, it’s over 75%.

Republicans are in a state of shock.  They just assumed they would win this election, solely based on the state of the economy.  Their entire strategy was based on the proposition that voters would blame Obama for the current slow economy, and would vote for the Republican candidate by default, whoever that candidate turned out to be.  Now that Obama is widening his lead in Ohio, Florida, and other important swing states, Repubs are placing the blame on one of 2 factors 1) Romney himself, or 2) “biased” polls.

There is no getting over the fact that Romney has run a miserable campaign.  More on that in a second.  Beyond Romney though, there have been numerous stories and opinion pieces out this week from the right claiming some kind of conspiracy or bias in the poll numbers.  Despite the fact that every poll on the planet has Obama in front nationally, and in front in Ohio, Florida, and every other swing state, Repub pundits are claiming it’s all a part of an effort to depress Republican voter enthusiasm, that the polls are using incorrect assumptions, and that these same Repub pundits “know better” than the pollsters.  Republicans just seem to be in shock that the electorate isn’t rushing to support them.  It HAS to be the polls, right? There’s no way people actually LIKE Obama and Democrats!!!

I am absolutely loving it.  I’m loving seeing the Republican party completely self-destruct.  The election is still almost 6 weeks away, but Republicans are falling all over themselves right now, trying to play the blame game.  IT’S ROMNEY!  If ONLY Romney were more like Paul Ryan!  Or, IT’S THE POLLS!  The media and the polls are out to get Repubs!

Well, guess what, Republicans?  It’s not Romney.  It’s definitely not the polls. It’s not some liberal media conspiracy.  It’s your entire, deluded, $hitty excuse for a political party that’s at fault.

Let’s start with Romney himself.  Clearly, of the miserable batch of Republican “stars” that were in the primaries, Romney was the most “electable”.  He was the most qualified.  He was the right choice, from a Republican perspective.  But in winning the nomination, Romney has been forced to act like he’s something he’s not…a hardcore, right-wing conservative of the kind that Republican leadership INSISTS on.  Romney has had to abandon his former moderate stances and has shifted so far to the right he can’t even remember where he came from.  Granted, given how extreme the Republican party has become, he likely wouldn’t have won the nomination if he hadn’t moved to the right.  Some assumed he’d move back towards the center after winning the nomination, in preparation for the election against Obama.

However, Republican leadership simply hasn’t allowed any wiggle room for Romney.  Be it foreign policy or the tax policy back home, Romney has been squeezed into a position where he’s forced to continually reiterate the most extreme conservative positions.  Obama has taken out Bin Laden and kept us safe at home, but Republicans continue to act as if they alone are the standard-bearers for security and the military.  Hence the sabre-rattling tone from Romney on every foreign policy issue, as if America acting “tough” is the answer to the delicate and extremely complicated issues in the Middle East and elsewhere.  Romney continues the bravado when talking foreign policy, however, simply because he HAS to.  His base insists that he act “tougher” than Obama.

Things are no different on the domestic front.  Romney and every other candidate running for the nomination were all pushed into a position where even a $1 tax increase for every $10 cut in spending was too much.  Romney has been pushed into a position where he has to continually talk about cutting taxes, while at the same time, somehow magically maintaining or increasing our military budget, and balancing our overall budget.  It’s an impossibility…but logic or fact have given way to ideology for the Republican party.  Romney is a problem-solver…he’s not one to carry the Republican ideological flag.

It’s a mismatch, it’s been doomed from the start, and there’s no one to blame other than Republican leadership and the party as a whole.  Republicans, you’ve been done in by your own hatred, your own intolerance, your sole focus on being the “anti-Obama”, rather than standing for anything meaningful.  You’ve been done in by your extremism, by your unwillingness to compromise, no matter the consequences.  You’ve been done in by a vision for America that bends over backwards to accommodate those with money and power, while abandoning those who need our help.

It’s not Romney.  It’s not the media. It’s not biased polls.  Don’t act shocked that you’re losing, that people aren’t stampeding to support Romney or Republicans.  You simply don’t represent what America wants, or needs.