Winter’s Omen – Photo / Haiku of the Day

Winter’s Omen

Charming you may be,

Harbinger of glacial hell.

Snow Bird? PLEASE GO BIRD. 🙂

Dark-eyed Junco - Junco hyemalis

I saw the first Dark-eyed Junco (what many people around here call “Snow Birds”) of the season in my yard this afternoon. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate having them around in winter. However, they are sometimes the ONLY species in my yard in winter. Seeing one now is the first sign of the impending wintry, Dakota hell, a hell that may not be over until they leave next April. Cute you may be! But I MUCH prefer the seasons when you are not around!!

Compact Endothermic Mouse Defrosting Unit (CEMDU)

The calendar is changing over to October, which means fall migration is in full swing.  It’s not a cheery time for a birder in South Dakota!  Winters are long, and bird species and numbers are both WAY down compared to the other three seasons. However, there are a few bright spots!  What “saved” winter for me a few winters ago was the sheer delight in finding a species I’d never seen around southeastern South Dakota.

Up until that winter (3 years ago, 2015-2016), the only place I’d seen a Northern Saw-whet Owl was along the Missouri River near Pierre. Birders there found that they liked to winter in the cedar trees along the river. There are a few areas around my part of South Dakota that also have thick stands of cedar, so I thought I’d spend some time that winter searching for the little guys. It was very discouraging at first.  It’s not easy searching through the thick cedar stands! I started in mid-November, searching for signs…the “white-wash” of their poop that you can find on the ground and branches below a daytime roost, or actual regurgitated pellets.  I DID occasionally find owl-sign, but for a good month…no owls.

Then in late December 2015, I went to Newton Hills State Park. Birders had reported hearing a Northern Saw-whet Owl during a Christmas Bird Count, so I thought I’d leave before dawn, and spend several hours looking.  It was a miserable day…cloudy with a very thick, icy fog, and I got a later start than I had planned. By the time I got there, the sun had already risen, and I was sure I wasn’t going to hear any calling owls. However, the fog was SO thick, that it was still relatively dark and gloomy when I arrived. It was only moments after stepping out of my car that I heard a calling Saw-whet Owl!  I headed in the general direction, and by the time I got close, the owl had stopped calling. I slowly made my way into the cedar thicket, and almost immediately found fresh looking signs that an owl had been there. White-wash on the ground as well as pellets!  I then slowly raised my head, hoping to see an owl sitting in the branches directly above the whitewash.  No such luck!  DAMN….IT.  After spending so much time looking, I was getting frustrated and was convinced I’d never actually find one.  I turned around to head out of the thicket, took about 3 steps, and walked into a commotion just above my head.  Owl!  He was only about 6 feet away from all the whitewash, but in a different spot, and I had accidentally caused him to flush when I walked past.

AAAARRGGGGHHH!!! I was at once both happy that I actually got a glimpse of an owl, but frustrated that I missed seeing him before I got so close he flushed. No photograph. Sigh. I continued the search though, and about 15 minutes later, found another location with whitewash and pellets.  And this time…success!  I looked directly above the whitewash, and staring back down at me from about 10 feet up in the cedar tree was a gorgeous little Saw-whet Owl!

I had a blast the rest of that winter. I found several more in the Newton Hills Area, and also 4 more near Lake Alvin just south of Sioux Falls. Overall that winter I found at least a dozen different Northern Saw-whet Owls!  What was striking was how incredibly tame they were. That first owl on that foggy morning was the only one I saw that winter that actually flushed. Several times I was able to approach an owl and get mere feet away, and instead of flushing, I was typically greeted by a disinterested yawn.

This photo is one of my favorites from that winter. Northern Saw-whet Owls are tiny critters.  Their prey is often small voles and mice, but even those are too much for them to consume in one sitting. They will often catch a vole or mouse, eat half of it, and cache the other half in the nook of a tree branch. They then come back later and retrieve the cache, but in our cold winters, they have to thaw it before finishing their meal.  Thus, I’d read you could sometimes find a Northern Saw-whet Owl “defrosting” a mouse.  One morning I was lucky enough to witness such an event, as this grumpy-looking guy was busy defrosting breakfast when I came across him.

A “Compact Endothermic Mouse Defrosting Unit”!!  One of my favorite memories from that winter. As the weather turns colder here, I’m hoping to again find these handsome little birds this winter.

Northern Saw-whet Owl - Aegolius acadicus

A Northern Saw-whet Owl, defrosting it’s morning breakfast.

Giving a damn about your children…

I’ve tried SO hard to stay away from politics on my blog. I’ve tried to keep it focused on birds, rockhounding, etc. I have to, just to stay sane. But after the last week, I have to momentarily go off-topic. I need some catharsis.

I still vividly remember two years ago, when the “pussy tape” came out about Trump.  The feelings of outright disgust that such a man could be running for the most powerful job on the planet.  But then I was actually…glad…glad the tape was out there. With a mere 5 weeks before the election, the tape sealed the deal. There’s absolutely no way such a disgusting, misogynistic, narcissistic piece of shit like him could win.  My mind was at peace.

And then, election night. The knot in my stomach, transitioning to outright nausea, particularly as it dawned on me…there’s a massive segment of the population that AGREES with this man. What has been the most disheartening over the last 2 years aren’t the old, white, misogynistic, racist politicians. There will always be men like Trump, Kavanaugh, and literally every male personality on Fox News.  What’s the most disheartening is that so many of my fellow Americans have the same selfish, morally corrupt core.

The Kavanaugh confirmation fiasco over the last week has reinforced the one thought in my mind that’s been there for the last two years…do any of these people actually give a damn about their children?  Kavanaugh has been accused by multiple women of sexual assault and other misogynistic behaviors. The testimony this week from Ford was compelling and obviously fit with all the other evidence of the attitudes and behavior of Kavanaugh’s circle of friends in high school and college. Throughout the confirmation hearings, Kavanaugh repeatedly lied…about his drinking, about his past behavior, even about the very meaning of established slang words related to sexual behavior.  I’m horrified by the man.  Horrified by his sense of entitlement to the SCOTUS seat. Horrified by his dismissive behavior towards women, including towards the Senators in the hearing last Thursday.

For those that support Trump and Kavanaugh…how the HELL do you face your children? Particularly if you have daughters? There are two categories here in which I think you could put supporters: 1) those that don’t even want to know the truth, as long as “their” guy wins, and 2) those that don’t think sexual assault is a disqualifying event.  For those that don’t want to even KNOW the truth, you’re placing your own selfish political ideology ahead of the law, and ahead of basic morality.  You’re telling your children that winning at all costs…be it bending the rules, ignoring the rules, or covering up the truth, is OK as long as your own selfish desires are met. You’re saying it’s OK to “fight dirty”, to demean the “other side”, to treat them as lesser entities. It’s OK to abandon all morality, stick your fingers in your ears and scream NA-NA-NA-NA-NA if ignoring the truth lets you get what you want.

The second stance is even worse. If you support Kavanaugh, even if the allegations were true and he DID sexually assault multiple women, you’re saying women are of lesser value than men, that men can do whatever they want to women, without consequence.  You’re TELLING YOUR DAUGHTERS THAT THEY ARE NOT EQUAL, that it is OK for a man to rape or  otherwise sexually assault you.  You are telling your wives and daughters not to bother reporting sexual assault, as they will be mocked, demeaned, humiliated, and ignored.  YOU ARE TELLING THEM THEY JUST…DON’T…MATTER.  Imagine YOUR DAUGHTER being raped.  Imagine a society that shames her from even reporting the event. Imagine a society that threatens HER, the VICTIM, for reporting a sexual assault.  Imagine your daughter living with that pain and humiliation her entire life, knowing that nobody really gives a damn. Evidently…not even many parents.

Both are repugnant positions. It baffles me how any human being with any basic morality, particularly anyone with children, could adopt either position. That attitude goes far beyond the Kavanaugh case, of course. While the Kavanaugh case and other outrages grab the headlines, behind the scenes this administration is rapidly dismantling environmental protections, all in the name of short-term economic gain. Clean water, clean air, food safety…regulations for each of these are being gutted at an unprecedented pace. The big daddy of them all is what’s happening with climate change science and regulation, with the word “climate” itself being stricken from the agendas and work flows of government agencies. What’s most abhorrent about the right’s stance on climate is that they KNOW it’s happening. They KNOW CLIMATE CHANGE WILL BE A TREMENDOUS BURDEN ON THEIR CHILDREN and future generations.  And they just…don’t…give a damn, because dealing with climate change might mean some minor sacrifice on their part.

There really is only one conclusion…those on the right just don’t give a damn about their children.

I could go on…and on…and on. But again, for the sake of my sanity, I’ll stop here and return to birds, rockhounding, and nature photos…

 

The Sparrow’s Nightmare – Haiku / Photo of the day

The Sparrow’s Nightmare

Petite feathered grace,

luminosity expressed, shrouding:

The sparrow’s nightmare

American  Kestrel - Falco sparverius

With fall migration in full swing, I noticed an influx of raptors today, with a number of Red-tailed Hawks perched on roadside telephone poles and fence posts. Accompanying them were American Kestrels in high numbers, a species that breeds here during the summer months, but can sometimes be found in very high densities during migration. Despite all my sightings of American Kestrels, I have few photos of the species. Along with the Belted Kingfisher, I can think of few birds more wary of my camera lens. For that reason, this photo is rather special for me…a brilliantly colored male American Kestrel, that uncharacteristically paused for a moment before flushing at my approach.  Just enough time to grab a few photos of one of my favorite species.  As for the poem, for decades they were called “Sparrow-hawks”, with the species thought to be most closely related to the Eurasian Sparrowhawk. It wasn’t until 1983 that the American Ornithological Society noted the much closer relationship with other North American falcons, and the species was renamed the American Kestrel.

Who says blackbirds are boring?

It’s been a busy weekend catching up on projects around the house, but I did take advantage of the cool, crisp morning to get out and bird. It wasn’t a great morning. I did come across some migrant warblers, including Canada and Black-throated Green, two I don’t see all that often, but overall it was pretty slow. One thing you do see this time of year though are mixed flocks of blackbirds gathering, and I came across several on the way home. I do sometimes stop to scan them for “goodies” like Rusty Blackbirds, but alas, no Rusty’s this morning.

However, I did stop and watch the biggest flock for a while, and grabbed the camera. Like many birders and bird photographers, I tend to take certain birds for granted, but there really are some beautiful plumage patterns on fall blackbirds here. The flock was primarily Common Grackles, but there were a number of Red-winged Blackbirds, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and European Starlings mixed in.

By the time I got home, I considered the morning a disappointment, as I didn’t think I really got any really nice photos. Once I started downloading and processing photos, though, my attitude changed. These birds aren’t exactly the poster-child for “coveted” birds for birders (or photographers), but there are certainly some gorgeous colors and patterns on these birds. The fall plumage of a young Red-winged Blackbird, and the non-breeding plumage of a European Starling, are both wonderful in terms of the intricate patterns. Blackbirds, boring?  I think I may have changed my tune after this morning.

European Starling - Sturnus vulgaris

Non-breeding plumage European Starling. Probably one of the least-liked birds in North America, given their non-native status and tendency to compete for nesting sites with native birds. But after being here for nearly 140 years…they’re established. They’re not going anywhere. They’re “ours”. And damn it, they are DARNED attractive birds.

Common Grackle - Quiscalus quiscula

Common Grackles ARE native…but for those of us who feed birds in our yards, they may have a worse reputation than European Starlings. They’re pigs! They drive away other birds! In my yard, I’ve seen them kill and consume young fledglings. But…that iridescence, those colors…they are striking birds in the right light.

Red-winged Blackbird - Agelaius phoeniceus

Red-winged Blackbirds may be the most common bird in the state in the summer. I do like the plumage of the young birds, with this young male starting to show a bit of what will be his trademark red shoulder patch.

 

The Autumn Rebel – Photo / Haiku of the Day

The Autumn Rebel

The flamboyant rebel

Defies autumn’s chilly hand

While verdure surrenders

Northern Cardinal - Haiku of the Day

Autumn has arrived in South Dakota, both by calendar, and by feel. A week ago I basted in heat and humidity while working outside all day. This morning I bundled up while I headed outside. The leaves are just starting to turn on most trees, yet it won’t be long before autumn’s brown replaces the summer verdure. I do LOVE the fall though, as it’s usually a pretty active birding period with migrants. While in summer, the brilliant colors of a bird are sometimes lost in the lushness of the surrounding landscape, in autumn stark contrasts are often seen. This is one of my favorite photos, “just” a Northern Cardinal on a crisp fall day, shuffling through the leaf litter looking for food. The warm, late afternoon light, the contrast between bird and surroundings, and the wonderful pose and head turn make it a scene I mentally picture when I think of the wonderful fall season.

Life-sized Carving of Ivory-billed Woodpecker!

Ivory-billed Woodpecker - Carving

A life-sized carving of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in flight! A wonderful piece that my son is absolutely thrilled to now have hanging in his room. My (rather shy) son is holding the piece here.

February 11th, 2004…Gene Sparling was canoeing through the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. A very large, very unusual woodpecker flew towards him and landed in a tree about 60 feet away.  Knowing it was an unusual bird, he posted a possible Ivory-billed Woodpecker sighting on a website. Sixteen days later, two curious ornithologists from Cornell visited the location, and were rewarded with a definitive sighting of the bird!  A bird thought to be extinct…yet here was a confirmed sighting by respected and experienced ornithologists. In the next year and a half, Cornell researchers had 5 more sightings of the bird in the same general area.

I still remember the day when the sightings were publicly announced. I was at work, and we had visitors all week.  As we were getting ready to head back into a meeting room, one of them came up to me very excitedly (knowing I’m a birder), and said “did you see the news??!?!”. I still remember the goosebumps as he told me about the “re-discovery” of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the forested wetlands of Arkansas. In the subsequent weeks and months, a research group from Auburn identified Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the panhandle of Florida. An elated birding world celebrated the sightings.  And then…

Nothing. Nothing, as in no clear, definitive photos of the species. With a handful of sightings, that’s hardly a surprise to a bird photographer like myself. For example, Red-headed Woodpeckers are very common around here.  I see them about 50% of the days when I take gravel roads to work in the summer. And yet despite many attempts to photograph them over the years, I have precious few photos.  They have a tendency to cling to a telephone pole or tree, and hop to the backside of it, placing the tree between the camera and themselves!  With maybe a dozen half-way decent sightings of an Ivory-billed in the 2004-2006 time frame, I’m not surprised no definitive photo was obtained.

But since then, there have been very few (credible) reports of the bird, and nothing as definitive as the sightings from dedicated ornithologists from Cornell and Auburn. Even worse, since then, many others have rebelled against the Cornell and Auburn sightings, claiming they were faked, either by a good-faith mistake, or by some weird evil intention. The one aspect of birding (and humanity!) that I absolutely DESPISE…mean-spirited people who love nothing more than tearing down the accomplishments of others. Some well known birders published their opinions about the sightings, claiming wrong-doing by the researchers who saw the birds. That spiteful, small-minded, petty hate/jealousy has since infected the debate, with far too many people dismissing the original sightings as faked.  There’s a history here, as sightings of the bird going back decades have been decried as fakes, even when photographs were obtained. The best example…Fielding Lewis took very clear photos of a female Ivory-billed in 1971. George Lowery, head of the American Ornithological Union, excitedly presented those photos to the group’s yearly meeting…and he was greeted by catcalls and jeering.  Even the most respected ornithologists in the world aren’t immune for the mean-spirited, EVIL treatment from the jealous birding crowd who will never accept a sighting regardless of the evidence.

In the years since the Auburn and Cornell sightings, I’ve tried to follow the story, looking for evidence of additional sightings. One website I look at is “Ivory-Bills Live???!”. During the early years after the Cornell sightings, the site and others had many enthusiastic updates, and it seemed like better confirmed evidence of the survival of the species was just around the corner. As the years have gone by, that enthusiasm has waned and the reports have become few and far between, but I still check sites like this quite often.

Over the summer I checked Ivory-Bills Live, and saw a post about some beautiful Ivory-billed Woodpecker carvings that were being done by a Dean Hurliman in Burlington, Iowa. The post stated that he was going to finish perhaps 8 more, bringing his total to about 50 of his carvings that were in the hands of birders and other collectors. The post had some words from Dean, saying he was looking for homes for his final set of carvings, and to send him a note if there was interest.

Given the fascination I had with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, I immediately thought of sending an email to Dean, but more for my son than for myself. My son is a teenager now and my part-time birding/fishing/rockhounding/outdoor buddy!  He already had a bird painting hanging in his room, one he bought with his own money while we were on vacation. He also had some small carved birds he bought. I thought, what better way to continue that “spark” for a budding young birder, than having this unique piece?

I crafted an email to Dean, noting where the carving would end up, and hoping that it would continue that birding spark in my son. I was hoping it would become one of his most prized possessions.  To my surprise, Dean responded, and said he would start work on a carving to send our way!  The carving arrived today…what a beautiful creation!  What a magnificent creature! What a great rendition! I absolutely adore the pose, and Dean has it perfectly balanced for hanging. When hung, it’s in the perfect position, as a bird gaining altitude after taking off in flight.

The carving now occupies a place of HONOR in my son’s bedroom, hanging from the ceiling in the “bird corner”, along with the painting he bought. Dean Hurliman…THANK YOU SO MUCH for your beautiful work! You have a heart of gold for doing this, and have you yourself become part of the lore of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker!

Ivory-billed Woodpecker carving

The final display location for the carving, in the “bird corner” of my son’s bedroom. I can think of no better item to get a budding birder excited about the hobby.

 

Days at the Pond – Haiku/Photo of the Day

Days at the Pond

Memories of youth, 
The babbling song echoes still;
Summer’s sweet cadence

Western Meadowlark - Sturnella neglecta

Last Friday was a day devoted to rockhounding on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. However, it started on a sour note, with fog, drizzle, and gloom. It was a productive, yet quite uncomfortable trip, as the wet and grayness kept trying to persuade me back to the comforts of my pickup, and then to home. But the mood changed during a brief break in the clouds, when an oh-so-familiar sound cut through the gloom…the song of the Meadowlark. It’s a familiar sound to anyone in the Great Plains, but each and every time I hear that sweet warbling I’m reminded of one place and time…fishing at my uncle and aunt’s pond in southeastern Nebraska as a kid. It’s been years…decades…since I’ve been there, but that sound is forever engrained in my mind and forever associated with that pond. So as I pondered the gloom, pondered heading home, I was reminded of the times at that pond.  I remembered the time grandpa and grandma took my twin brother and I fishing there, and his hearty rolling laugh even as blood ran down the side of his face, thanks to my back-cast that planted a hook firmly in his earlobe.  I remember my sweet aunt (still with us) and the jokes of my uncle (sadly not with us), all on that farm and around that pond, with the song of the Meadowlark filling the air.  It’s funny how strongly we can tie a smell…a sight…or a sound…to a specific place, to a specific emotion, to a specific time. But yet one more time, the Meadowlark’s song brightened the day.

More Geologic Goodies – Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

OK, so the gorgeous yellow-orange Fairburn was the highlight of my rockhounding trip this weekend, but it certainly wasn’t the only “find”.  Here’s a selection of some of the other agates, jaspers, etc.  What amazes me about this location on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands is the seeming infinite variety of what you can find, all within one very small area. All of these were collected within a one-square mile area.

Prairie Agates - South Dakota

A collection of Prairie Agates, something you find relatively often on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, but they’re so pretty and so variable that I can’t help but collect more.

Agate/Jasper - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

This one was SO striking when I saw it lying there that I couldn’t help but collect it. I admit however that I have no idea what this is…any ideas?

Prairie Agate - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

A gorgeous prairie agate (or what I’d call a prairie agate), with some very intricate banding and patterns.  The green is a bit of lichen I have yet to clean off. 

Bubblegum Agates - South Dakota

Bubblegum agates! I actually have a somewhat difficult time finding many of these, but always pick them up when I do. Of all the stones out here, it’s the bubblegum agates that really “shine” (ha) when I put them through the polisher. Once you start to wear down those nodules, there are often some truly incredible patterns and banding underneath.

Banded Agate - South Dakota

Stones like this make me want to take a hammer and break every stone open. I don’t have a rock saw or anything, but I imagine there are SO many hidden treasures like this on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, pieces where you don’t see the beauty unless you slice them open.

Prairie Agate - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

A prairie agate. The orangish ones are probably the most common, but there are some pretty red tones in many of them as well.

Agate - South Dakota

While many agates have the banding patterns shown on this post, there are some other cool patterns you find as well. Love the pink “druzy” crystalline area that forms the heart of this agate, with some banding and other patterns around it.

Jasper - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

A jasper, of which there are many on the grasslands.

Miscellaneous Agate - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

One more agate (at least that’s what I’d call it), with some interesting fine banding.

Jackpot! Agate find on Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

Been stressful at work lately so I took off Friday and did something I’ve only done one other time this summer…head out to the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands and go rockhounding. It wasn’t the most pleasant of days! The forecast called for 75 and cloudy, but when I got about 60 miles away, the fog started getting thicker and thicker, and soon it was accompanied by a light drizzle.  Much to my chagrin, things were exactly the same at my favorite rockhounding spot southwest of Kadoka.  I ended up rockhounding from about 8 AM to 2 pm, and the temperature never got higher than 60, with the drizzle falling most of that time.

I found plenty of “good” material.  As many prairie agates as I could want, as always.  Bubblegum agates. Quartz. Petrified Wood. Jaspers. Adventurine.  But the “prize” for people searching out there is a Fairburn agate. Since we started doing this last summer, we’ve probably been out there about 8 times, and have found a Fairburn about half the time, and that’s with a good, hard days’ search each time.

As the drizzle was just thick enough to make you a bit miserable Friday, I was contemplating leaving. But as I paused for a second to assess my situation, I saw a bright yellowish-orange stone ahead of me, one that really stood out from the others around it in terms of the color.  Much to my delight, as I approached I saw some fine parallel banding…Fairburn! And a pretty good sized one, at over 2 inches in length.  I did continue rockhounding for  awhile before returning to the car and getting a good look at the banding.

A find that made a miserable weather day a whole lot brighter.

Fairburn Agate - South DakotaFairburn Agate - South Dakota

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