A Birder Photographing Comet Neowise

I’m not really an aficionado of star-gazing and the like. For one…I’m an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of a guy! That’s a big shift from where I was 20+ years ago, but as a birder, getting up early and driving a few hours to get to a favorite location at dawn has become old hat for me. Because of my early hours, staying up late to go star-gazing well after sunset just isn’t…me.

However, as an aficionado of the amazing wonders nature has to offer, I WILL make the effort for special events. I do remember Comet Hale-Bopp from 1997, a comet so bright it was not only boldly visible with the naked eye, but it maintained a presence in night sky for several months. In July of 2018, my son and I also made an 8-hour drive to eastern Wyoming to ensure cloud-free weather for observing a total eclipse, an event that may only occur within driving distance a handful of times in a lifetime.

Now, it’s Comet Neowise that’s grabbing headlines. Neowise isn’t nearly as bright as Hale-Bopp was, nor will it be with us for such an extended period of time. However, it is being touted as the brightest comet since Hale-Bopp, and given the 20+ years since a comet has made such a splash, I have gone out multiple times to observe and try to photograph the comet (more on the latter in a second).

I admit though that my first observation was mostly by accident! Last weekend I was going to go birding in the central part of the state. As I often do when birding, I got up a couple of hours before sunrise and starting making the ~3 hour drive to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. I’d read about Neowise, but I admit it wasn’t until I was half an hour outside of town that I “remembered” I might have a chance to see a comet in the pre-dawn light.

I exited the interstate and stopped, pulling out my phone to look up where to search for the comet. “Northeastern sky, an hour+ before dawn, low on the horizon.” By serendipity, my timing was perfect, and I had perfectly clear weather. I started heading down a gravel road, turned a corner onto another road, and…there she was! I’d read binoculars would possibly be required to initially spot it, but once you knew where to look, you could see it with the naked eye. Nope! It was VERY obvious in the northeastern sky, no searching required, no binoculars required! I excitedly observed it for a few minutes, then positioned myself to take some photos.

Or at least I tried! I have a window-mount with a ball-head on top where I can mount my camera for stability, something I knew I’d obviously need for taking a long-exposure photo of a comet. But as a bird photographer? I have no clue how to shoot a comet. I did manage some halfway decent photos, but they were pretty much the equivalent of going birding, seeing a great bird, and getting “record shot”…a photo of dubious quality, but clear enough to document what you’ve seen.

I’ve since taken my son out to see his first comet, and another trip to specifically try to photograph it. Since my first early morning view, Neowise has “moved”, if you will, now primarily being visible in the northwestern sky an hour+ after sunset. It’s also become quite a bit less bright than what I remember from my first sighting. While I could immediately see, track, and observe Neowise with my naked eye that first day, I had more trouble finding it and keeping track of where it was in the sky on this trip. Still clearly visible however, and a target for a photo!

The photo below is the best I’m ever going to get with my current equipment. I shoot a DSLR, a Canon 90D, and for lenses, I rarely take off my 100-400mm II IS lens, a great birding lens with some versatility in the zoom. When shooting the eclipse in 2018, I didn’t have this lens…I used a much older, but very sharp, 400mm prime. I almost wish I had brought that lens instead, as for that one, you can manually focus on “infinity” for a shot like this, and ensure you’re pretty sharp for this kind of photography. With my 100-400 zoom, it’s not as simple as manually setting focus to infinity, as that sweet spot of focus differs depending on zoomed focal length. The biggest problem trying to shoot this night…with such a faint (to the eye) target, and old eyes suffering from Sjogren’s Syndrome, I couldn’t see well enough to be sure I was getting a clear focus.

My strategy was thus…1) window mount the camera 2) find the comet in the sky 3) frame the composition to my liking 4) manually focusing as best I could, and 5), continually fiddle with the focus in the hopes that at least a FEW of my shots were in focus.

I also knew from my few previous attempts at shooting stars, auroras, the moon, etc. that without any kind of special tracking hardware, I had to keep my exposure time to 20 seconds or less. Even at 20 seconds, there’s enough of a rotation of the earth so that the stars appear to “move” in that time period, and instead of clear, crisp points of light for stars, you get short little star trails. To get enough light recorded on the sensor in a short amount of time at night also means using ISO levels far higher than what I normally would do! More ISO means more noise, but it was unavoidable in this situation.

FWIW my final info for the shot below:

  • 100mm focal length, keeping my zoom the widest available view
  • 10-second exposure @ f/6.3
  • ISO 6400…what it took to get enough light to see clearly see both stars and the comet.

That’s it! Throw in some noise reduction in Photoshop, and this is the result! I’ll definitely take it! I’m certainly not going to ever compete with those more experienced in astrophotography, but I saw my “bird” and got that “record shot” to prove it. 🙂

Comet Neowise - by Terry Sohl

2020 Warbler Season Ends with a Bang

As this spring comes to an end in a few days, I was fortunate enough to add not only two more warblers to my 2020 list, but two new life birds! I’ve birded throughout the western US, but haven’t done much of anything in the Southeast. Therefore when people started seeing a Hooded Warbler and a Kentucky Warbler in Newton Hills State Park this spring, I tried three times to try to find them, to no avail.

Both are extreme rarities in South Dakota. The closest are where Hooded Warblers normally breed is Missouri or Illinois, hundreds of miles to the south and east. Kentucky Warblers are normally a bit closer, with small breeding populations in southeastern Nebraska and southeastern Iowa, but like Hooded Warblers, they’re just not found in South Dakota. Earlier this week, it was reported that both species were still hanging around Newton Hills, so Thursday night I made the trek down, not really expecting to see them.

The Hooded Warbler though was right in the same dead tree along a trail where he’s been often seen by others this spring! He sang a few times from the top of the tree, then flitted off to another more distant perch. I didn’t see him again after that initial sighting, but I heard his singing a few more times as I continued up the trail.

Success! A lifer! I would have been very happy for the day had that been the only bird I saw, but I kept going down the trail to where the Kentucky Warbler had been seen. From the reports it didn’t seem like he was quite as loyal to a given spot as the Hooded was, so I didn’t know exactly where to look for him. I was only 100-150 yards away from where I saw and photographed the Hooded Warbler when I heard it…a series of warbling phrases, somewhat similar to an Ovenbird, but without the Ovenbird’s rise in volume an intensity as the song went along. It was a sustained, loud series of phrases, repeated multiple times. But where? It seemed like after initially hearing the bird, it retreated further into the forest, as I heard the song again, but seemingly quite a bit more distant.

I didn’t hear the song for a few minutes, so thought I’d continue down the trail. After going down the trail for 20 minutes or so and not seeing or hearing anything interesting, I started heading back, and as I approached the area where I’d first heard the Kentucky Warbler, I heard it again. MUCH closer. And again! And…there he was, practically right above my head! I initially got some really good binocular views of him, then set out to try to photograph him. He wasn’t particularly shy, flying from perch to perch, foraging a bit, stopping to sing, then moving on, but he was always pretty high up in the canopy, and often moving. Finally I did manage some decent long-distance record shots that clearly identified it as a Kentucky Warbler.

Two lifers! Within just a hundred or so yards! The two warblers also brought up my warbler total for the spring to 26!! A terrific warbler migration by any measure. I know some other birders saw a few additional species this spring, but all are pretty good finds in South Dakota (Cape May, Black-throated Blue, Connecticut).

Here are a few pics of the Hooded and Kentucky Warblers (not great but hey…lifers!), as well as a montage of the 26 species of warblers I saw this spring.

Hooded Warbler - Setophaga citrina
Hooded Warbler, perched at the top of a tall dead tree at Newton Hills State Park.
Kentucky Warbler - Geothlypis formosa
Kentucky Warbler, moving along a branch and foraging.
South Dakota Warblers - Spring 2020
A montage of the 26 warbler species I saw this spring, in just two South Dakota counties (Minnehaha and Lincoln)

Benefits of living your life by science

We live in interesting times. “Interesting” often being downright disheartening, as we have a society in the US that seems to be embracing the future depicted in the movie Idiocracy. The same US that used to lead the world in innovation and science now has about 40% of the population who shows outright disdain, if not hatred, of “experts”, including science. I could go on…and on…and on…and on…on this topic. But I’ll turn that conversation to how science has benefits in so many aspects of life.

That includes birding! As someone who has been a birder and a bird photographer for 20+ years now, I realize that technical photography skills are a very small part of successful bird photography. The big challenge is getting close enough to a bird! That means knowing when, and where birds will be, and how that species normally behaves. Science can help with all three of these!

I had an absolutely, incredible, spectacular day birding today. It was a drippy, gloomy, dreary day, a day where normally I may not have even left the house. However…SCIENCE told me to leave the house!! Two days ago…Cornell University’s “Birdcast” predicted that the night of May 15th/16th would be a heavy migration night with birds arriving in eastern South Dakota in high numbers. I’ve learned to really trust the Birdcast predictions, particularly after a few events last year where the forecast immediately preceded some absolutely spectacular birding. So what did the forecast predict?

Cornell BirdCast - Migration Forecast for May 15-16.
Cornell BirdCast – Migration Forecast for May 15-16 (Issued 2 days in advance)

I headed out this morning before dawn, arriving at Newton Hills State Park in search of warblers and other migrating birds. Unfortunately, the rain arrived shortly after I did! It was extremely frustrating, as I could SEE many birds moving about in the forest canopy, but with the early hour, the clouds, and rain…it was difficult to see them well enough to identify them. I did bird for an hour or so, and did have a good time, identifying over 50 species. Normally a great time, but with the slight rain continuing and making photography difficult, I started to head home.

As I drove back home, the rain started to lighten, and eventually stopped. As I got within a couple of blocks from my house, I thought…SCIENCE! By god, that BirdCast hadn’t let me down in the past! I thought I’d try one more place while the rain held off, and ended up at Beaver Creek Nature Area, just 3-4 miles from our home. It’s a place where I’ve had decent luck before, but it’s never been as “hot” as Newton Hills.

That changed this morning! THANK YOU science, and thank you BirdCast! There’s one trail I normally take at Beaver Creek, which takes perhaps half an hour at most. Instead, I ended up walking around for nearly 2 1/2 hours. Almost one hour of that was sitting in one spot! There’s a ridge with a steep bank, where you can walk along canopy or mid-story of the trees growing in the ravine below. It’s been a place where I’ve had good luck before, but nothing like this! As I watched, wave after wave of birds were moving through the forest canopy, including…Warblers! The highlight of spring migration!

In 20 years of birding, I had yet to get a good photo of a Blackburnian Warbler. That ended today! I saw two here, both of whom were uncharacteristically cooperative for the camera. In total, in that 2+ hours, I saw 16 different Warbler species! A terrific day, and one that would have turned out very differently if I’d just looked out the window in the morning, had seen the rain and gloom, and stayed home.

Blackburnian Warbler - Setophaga fusca
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Blackburnian Warbler - Setophaga fusca
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Blackburnian Warbler May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Blackburnian Warbler - Setophaga fusca
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Blackburnian Warbler May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
American Redstart
Setophaga ruticilla
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
American Redstart May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Least Flycatcher 
Empidonax minimus
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Least Flycatcher May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Swainson's Thrush
Catharus ustulatus
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Swainson’s Thrush May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota

Swainson’s Thrush vs. Gray-cheeked Thrush

One migrant that I’m sure to see every spring are Swainson’s Thrush, usually in pretty good numbers. They typically start to show up in late April, with about a 3-4 week period where you might run into them. It’s pretty predictable where they can be found. They are usually seen foraging in the grass on the edge of the forest or some other wooded area. They’re always a little “on edge”, sticking close to that forest cover so they can dash into it at any sign of danger. Because of their behavior, they can be hard to photograph sometimes, but on the other hand, I’ve had a lot of chances over the years because they’re pretty common.

There are a few other thrush species they could potentially be confused with. Hermit Thrush is the first of the thrush species to migrate in the spring, but there still can be a few around by the time Swainson’s Thrush arrive. However, I’ve never had too much trouble differentiating Hermit Thrush from Swainson’s Thrush, as they have a rich, reddish-brown rump that easily makes it stand out (if seen well). Veery are another thrush species that migrates through the state (with some breeding in the Black Hills). They’re pretty uncommon, but even if they are seen here, their color is a much richer, warm, reddish brown, and they have less spotting on the undersides than a Swainson’s Thrush. I’ve never had difficulty identifying them either.

But there is one thrush species that can be difficult to differentiate from Swainson’s Thrush…the Gray-cheeked Thrush. One of the difficulties in differentiating the two species lies in their habits! Both have that tendency to hang out at the forest edge, in the shadow of the trees. Because they’re often seen in poor lighting conditions, it’s often difficult in field conditions to differentiate the two.

Gray-cheeked Thrush have also been something of a nemesis bird for me, from a photographic standpoint! I would estimate that at least 90% of the Swainson’s/Gray-cheeked Thrushes I’ve seen over the years have been Swainson’s (if not a higher percentage). Despite that, I HAVE seen and identified Gray-cheeked over the years, but until today I really didn’t have any good photos (or even any recognizable photos!). That problem was taken care of today at Newton Hills State Park, when I got photos of BOTH species in relatively good lighting.

The image below depicts Gray-cheeked and Swainson’s Thrushes. Sure, it’s easy when they’re side by side, in good light! This is the exception rather than the rule, however. If you do have the opportunity to see them in good light, Gray-cheeked Thrushes are 1) Grayer in overall plumage, with few buffy or warm tones, 2) lack of any ring around the eye, and 3) a gray cheek (surprise!) with no warm tones on the face. Swainson’s Thrushes often appear “buffier” and more rich in color overall (although still nowhere close to as rich as a Veery), and have characteristic buffy tones on the face. They also have an obvious eye ring.

It’s all about getting a good look! If you’re having trouble identifying these species, and you can’t see the bird’s eye ring (or lack thereof), or if the lighting is poor and you can’t judge how “buffy” the face is…good luck! You’re on your own! But if you do get a chance to see one of these two species in good light, I hope the photos below and identification points above are of some help.

Gray-cheeked vs. Swainson's Thrush
Comparison of Gray-cheeked Thrush (left) and Swainson’s Thrush (right). One look at the head in this light is enough to distinguish the two species, as Gray-cheeked Thrush have a gray, dull cheek, a lack of warm tones around the head and face, and a lack of an eye ring. Swainson’s Thrush have the characteristic buffy tone on the face, and an obvious eye ring. The plumage overall has a warmer, richer appearance on the Swainson’s Thrush as well.

Another great day in the blind

I’m convinced 90% of bird photography is getting close enough. Having all the technical expertise in the world isn’t going to get you a great bird photo unless you’re close enough to actually capture the image. While I can sometimes get good photos while on a hike, I’d estimate at least 90% of my best photos are those taken when I’m concealed in some way.

Often, that’s my vehicle. As I’ve said before, a great way to get good bird photos is to pull your car over next to a good area of habitat (a wetland, a small pond, a riparian area, etc.), and simply wait. Many birds that are skittish around a human presence are more bold when it’s “just” a car (regardless of what’s inside). However, there are better ways to conceal yourself, showing a much lower profile and getting to good birding areas that you could never take a car.

I started using a chair blind about 10 years ago. One of my favorite ways to use it is during shorebird migration in the spring, where I’ll set it up along a shoreline or the edge of a muddy field. This week I was birding up at Lake Thompson in Kingsbury County, when I came across a shallow water area with scattered mudflats, and quite a few species of shorebirds. A great place to set up the blind! I hiked out onto a good spot at the edge of the lake, making sure to place it in a location with the sun behind me (lighting always important for photography!). Of course everything scattered at first, at while the birds never came back in quite the same numbers as were present before I set up, it was still a great few hours. Here are a few photos from the day in the blind.

Marbled Godwit - Limosa fedoa
A Marbled Godwit flying past the blind, in hot pursuit of another Marbled Godwit. Both Marbled and Hudsonian Godwits were present in good numbers, but Marbled Godwits are the species that breed here. They were in courting mode, with display flights and birds chasing each other the entire time I sat in the blind. Not only my favorite photo of the day, this may be one of my favorite photos of all time, with the lighting, the pose, and the detail in the bird’s plumage.
Hudsonian Godwit - Limosa haemastica
A Hudsonian Godwit in flight. Female Hudsonian Godwits, juveniles, or males not in full breeding plumage can sometimes be difficult to differentiate from Marbled Godwits when they’re standing. But in flight, the bold black and white patterns of a Hudsonian Godwit make it easy to identify.
Lesser Yellowlegs - Tringa flavipes
A Lesser Yellowlegs strutting in front of the blind. Lesser Yellowlegs are always one of the most common shorebirds that migrate through in the spring, and I have plenty of photos of them, but who can resist triggering the shutter on your camera when ANY bird makes it this easy? Opportunities that you may not be able to get without the use of the blind.
Common Grackle - Quiscalus quiscula
Common Grackles are indeed quite common! They’re the bane of my feeder complex at home in the spring, as a small group of them can dominate my feeders and wipe out my offered goodies in short order! Despite that…I didn’t realize how few photos I really have of the species! Particularly when you get great light like this that shows off that iridescence.

COVID-19 — ENOUGH of the anti-science bullshit

COVID-19 - Testing vs. Political Lean

I said a while back that I was going to try to avoid blogging about anything not related to birds and birding. There’s enough crap going on in the world since, oh, January 2017 to keep me occupied with multiple daily blogs if I wanted to, but I’ve been trying to, you know…stay sane.

Well, I’m about to break that oath, and talk something that’s definitely not bird related. We’re a good month into the worst of the COVID pandemic, and people are shell-shocked, and some are increasingly desperate. I get it. I understand the massive, Depression-level impact on the economy. I know there are a lot of people hurting, and I’m extremely sympathetic. I’d do whatever I could to help these people. But what I also know is that this has brought out a WORLD o’ ugly. Many Americans are soldiering on, pitching in to help where they can. Others are literally willing to sacrifice the lives of their fellow Americans, all for the sake of a paycheck.

As a human being…that’s damned tough to deal with. One thing that’s absolutely killing me right now though…the damned STUPIDITY and anti-expert, anti-science reaction to what’s happening. It all came to a culmination today with some idiot (on Facebook) who started bashing scientists and “stats men” for the (perceived) inability to perfectly predict the spread of COVID, and the trends over the coming days and months. This person made fun of weather men first, with a dig that COVID “stats men” make even weathermen’s predictions look good.

Yeah buddy…FUCK YOU. I’ve had it with the anti-science attitude in this country. There’s a fucking reason the US has by FAR the most cases in the entire world, and the most deaths. It’s the anti-intellectualism, anti-science, anti-expert attitude that’s fucked up the country, not just in the last 3+ years, but going back at least a couple of decades now.

People like this DO KNOW that the only way we’re getting out of this is THROUGH SCIENCE!!?!?? FINDING A CURE and/or TREATMENT!??!?! Anyway…here’s my response. I’ve just had enough of this kind of person.

The weather is a physical phenomenon. A lot of variables, but there are immutable, physical laws you can model. As hard as it is to model the weather, modeling this is orders of magnitude more difficult. COVID may be caused by a virus, but the spread and control is controlled by the actions of people. Blaming a “stats man” is ridiculous, as every scenario from every model has been just that…a scenario IF people behave as expected, or as they should. There are low scenarios, and high scenarios. And surprise…when people act according to the assumptions in the scenario…the models are pretty damned good.

Hint…People don’t do that. They don’t act as expected. They act in ways that are impossible to model (people ignoring the science, for one). So blame 1) a government (at many levels) that twiddled it’s thumbs and still hasn’t done a consistent job in reacting, and hasn’t done what they would be expected to do, 2) idiots like Governor Kristi Noem who play politics and ignore the scientists, despite hosting the biggest individual hot spot in the country, 3) people who are perfectly happy sacrificing other people for the sake of a paycheck.

Even a cynic like myself wouldn’t have foreseen so many Americans being so willing to allow the death of their fellow countrymen. Sorry, but blaming “stats men” and their models is BS. The whole anti-science spin is especially ridiculous given the ONLY thing that’s going to save our ass are the scientists working on treatments and a cure.

NOTE ABOUT GRAPHIC ABOVE: The graphic depicts Coronavirus testing frequency by state, vs. how that state voted in the 2016 election. In short…if you live in a blue state, consider yourself fortunate because you’re statistically much more likely to be tested. 10 of 13 top-testing states are Blue. 10 of 13 bottom-testing states are Red.

Last blast – Winter on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands

One last trip to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands! It’s been a couple of weeks…just have had zero time to post photos…but I had a wonderful day trip to the Grasslands. After some rather slow years on the Grasslands, this was a good winter, although the birds were curiously concentrated on the eastern side, mostly in and around some very large prairie dog towns towards Highway 1806.

As always…Rough-legged Hawks predominated, but there were higher numbers of Ferruginous Hawks than I ever remember seeing in one day. Plenty of other “goodies” as well! With that, some photos from my trip a couple of weeks ago…

Rough-legged - Buteo lagopus
Rough-legged Hawk, that was uncharacteristically 1) cooperative for the camera (they’re usually relatively shy!) and 2) on the ground, instead of on a telephone pole.
Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Look out below! There’s no doubt that Prairie Dogs are a big attractant to some raptors in the winter. Most commonly, it’s Ferruginous Hawks and Bald Eagles that I see hanging out around Prairie Dog towns, but on this day there were also a number of Bald Eagles. Here one makes an unsuccessful attempt to nail a Prairie Dog, who ducked into its burrow a moment before the photo was taken.
Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis
Ferruginous Hawk in flight. I believe this is a younger birds (not nearly as uniform, gorgeous rusty brown on its uppersides, among other things. Probably my favorite raptor on the Grasslands, other than a Gyrfalcon! Such big birds, and as a bonus…they’re generally more cooperative than other raptors!
Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos
A massive Golden Eagle, sitting on a fence post. There’s no doubt in my mind that these guys have become more and more common over the 20+ years I’ve been birding the Grasslands.
Prairie Falcon - Falco mexicanus
A pretty typical view of a Prairie Falcon on the Grasslands! From a “safe distance” as far as the bird is concerned, and in flight as it warily gives you an eye and flies away!
Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus
Another Rough-legged Hawk, this time on a fence post. I guess when you see ~100 Rough-legged Hawks in a day, even though they’re generally shy, you’ll come across a few birds that allow a quick photo!
Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis
A mature Ferruginous Hawk in the evening sun. Such majestic birds…Buteo “regalis” is a fitting name.
Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus
One more Rough-legged Hawk, this one in flight. Until next winter, raptors of the Grasslands! Thanks for another great season!

A typical day on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands

Fort Pierre National Grasslands - South Dakota

Two weeks off of work, winding down as I prepare to return to work tomorrow. It’s been a wonderful (and much needed!) break, with time with the family, and plenty of birding. In two weeks I managed to make it out to central South Dakota three times…more than I normally do all winter! It’s such a magical place for me in winter. Quiet…open…often harsh and unforgiving…yet very restorative for me when I need time alone to recharge.

So what’s the attraction? Central South Dakota? In the dead of winter? Here’s a photo synopsis of what it’s like, all photos from my most recent trip out there last Thursday/Friday.

Fort Pierre National Grasslands - Sunrise
Pre-dawn on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. Normally I make a (long) day of it, leaving 3 hours before dawn so I can arrive just before the sun rises, and make the most out of short winter days (about 9 hours of sunlight at a minimum). This photo gives you a good idea of what it’s like as you await the sunrise…VAST…open…isolated…and other than barbed wire fences and a few powerlines, often not much of a sign of human habitation. An exciting time as the sun arises, as you just KNOW you’re about to have another wonderful day on the grasslands.
Pronghorn - Fort Pierre National Grasslands
It’s not ALL about birds! While winter raptors are my primary reason for coming to the region, there’s often other wildlife to catch your attention. On this trip I was thrilled to see a large herd of Pronghorn grazing on the rolling hills, just as the sun was rising. Mule Deer and White-tailed Deer are also often seen. Coyotes are certainly around, and I probably see them about every other trip to the Grasslands, but mostly at dawn. They’re extremely shy and difficult to approach.
Buteo Regalis - Ferruginous Hawk - Fort PIerre National Grasslands
There are a few private land holdings within the Grasslands boundaries, but there are more abandoned buildings than any other. In a land that’s often treeless or without any kind of high perches, these abandoned homesteads often are birding hotspots. Here a Ferruginous Hawk is perched next to an abandoned…Packard (?).
Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus
RAPTORS are the name of the game on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, but there’s a definite hierarchy in terms of what I’d love to see!! The Holy Grail bird of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands…a Gyrfalcon! And not only a Gyrfalcon, but an adult Gyrfalcon. In the 20 years I’ve been birding the area, I’ve probably seen about 25 Gyrfalcons. I believe I can count on one hand how many of those have been adults, so I was thrilled to run across one on this trip. I watched from a long distance and took some photos from further away than I normally would, as I wanted to make sure I documented this bird’s presence. I’m glad I stopped so far away and grabbed some photos, because after watching it for perhaps 30 seconds, it flushed and flew away, and I never again found it on this trip.
Greater Prairie Chicken in Flight - Tympanuchus cupido
Why are there so many raptors on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands? Clearly raptors go where the food is. There undoubtedly must be a lot of voles and other small rodents, as that’s what I primarily see birds like Rough-legged Hawks catch. But another attractant to birds like the Gyrfalcon above are all the Ring-necked Pheasants, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Greater Prairie Chickens that are around. It’s a popular hunting location for all of those species, and given that surrounding private lands often release birds (pheasants) for hunting, there’s never a shortage of any of those species. The native Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie Chickens are VERY wary as a result of the hunting pressure, and I have few close photos of either species. On this trip I was very happy to get my first ever flight photo of a Greater Prairie Chicken. With the recent heavy snow, many of the game birds were struggling to find foraging grounds, and were concentrated along the roads more than usual.
Ring-necked Pheasant - Phasianus colchicus
Speaking of Pheasants…they are widespread in the area, but are probably less common on the Grasslands themselves than on the surrounding private lands.
Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus
You’ll see both Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles on the Grasslands. Golden Eagles are more often seen (they were downright common on the three recent trips I took), but even far from any open water, you will also often see Bald Eagles. I’m aware of at least 4 different nests just to the south of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves, near the Presho area. This photo is along the Missouri River just to the north of the Grasslands, a stronghold of the species in the winter months.
Prairie Falcon - Falco mexicanus
A Prairie Falcon in flight. They’re definitely a larger bird than the American Kestrels you see a lot in the summer months (and to a much lesser extent, in winter). They’re larger than the Merlins you sometimes see on the Grasslands (including one I saw Friday). But they share the same “falcon” characteristic when they take flight, with much faster wingbeats than all the Buteo hawks in the region, and a more tapered wing. Couple the relatively large size and that classic falcon flight pattern, and Prairie Falcons OFTEN get my heart racing as I’m thinking that bird flying up in front of me may be a Gyrfalcon! On a typical day on the Grasslands though, I’m lucky if I see a Gyrfalcon, yet I almost always see 3 or 4 Prairie Falcons. Usually they’re pretty shy, but there’s been one hanging around County Line Road on the grasslands this winter that’s uncharacteristically curious. He’ll flush when you get anywhere close, as do nearly all Prairie Falcons. But then he has this habit of circling me one or two times before finding a different perch! It’s not often I can grab a Prairie Falcon in flight, so I’m pretty happy to have seen this guy on this past trip.
Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus
Always by FAR the most common raptor on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in winter…a Rough-legged Hawk. I didn’t stop and record each one in eBird as I often do. But on a trip to the area the week before I saw nearly 50 of them, and I would suspect I tallied a similar number on this past trip. Gorgeous birds, and quite variable in plumage, although this is the typical plumage that you see.
Buteo jamaicensis - Red-tailed Hawk
The Fort Pierre National Grasslands are mostly treeless, and even during the summer months I’ve found Red-tailed Hawks are typically concentrated in the few wooded ravines, shelterbelts, or abandoned farmsteads in the area. In winter, those site tendencies are even more pronounced. Many Red-tailed Hawks move further south for the winter, and I find MANY more Red-tailed Hawks just south of the Grasslands (such as the Presho area) in winter than I do on the Grasslands themselves. However, over the 20+ years I’ve been birding the area, it’s quite obvious to me that more birds are overwintering in the region than used to. Similarly, 20 years ago it wasn’t common to find Western Meadowlark overwintering in any numbers, but on this past trip, there were a few spots where I stirred up a dozen or so Meadowlarks hanging out together. More Red-tailed Hawks, more Meadowlarks, fewer Gyrfalcons….that’s my impression of what’s happened over the last 20 years.
Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos
The one photo here that’s not from last Thursday/Friday, as this was taken on the Grasslands 2 days before Christmas. My impression is that BOTH eagle species are getting much more common on the Grasslands. I have few if any photos of them 10 to 20 years ago, but now I typically see 6-10 each time I go out.

South Dakota “Big Year” and Other 2019 Highlights

White-eyed Vireo - Vireo griseus

I never was really a “lister” as a birder until eBird came along. eBird makes it so ridiculously easy to track your sightings, and the tools they have to categorize your sightings by date…geography…comparison to other birders…certainly bring out the competitive side that many birders seem to have! However, even after I started using eBird, I never really set any yearly goals, such as a “big year”. The closest I ever came was a number of years ago when a birding friend at work and I had a very low-key competition to see who could see the most birds in South Dakota during the year.

I ended up at 212 that year, a very similar number to my friend. I’ve gotten close to that a few times since according to eBird, but never really had a “South Dakota Big Year” as a driving goal for my birding in a year. Going into this year though, my birding time had been declining and I seemed to be losing some interest. I thought setting a goal to break my yearly South Dakota record might re spark some of that enthusiasm.

It did!! I started early in January this year…a tough time to start building a bird list in South Dakota! Particularly in a very cold, snowy winter, getting up to just 100 birds by mid-April was doing very well! When spring migration rolled around, I spent more time birding than I have in years. As the year progressed, I never made it to spots like far northwestern South Dakota to tick off species like Baird’s Sparrow, but I made my usual trips to the central part of the state, the Missouri River dams, and a very rare (for me) dedicated birding trip to the Black Hills.

By mid-December, I’d easily passed my highest yearly total, with 248 species. With travel and family commitments in the latter half of the month, I wasn’t expecting to get any more, but when a White-winged Crossbill was seen in Sioux Falls the week before Christmas, I did make the short trip and checked of #249. One short of a nice round number!! I told my wife (notably NOT a birder, and not too invested in the number chase!) that the only way I’d get to 250 is if something unexpected showed up in the yard. Well, on Christmas Day I got a nice surprise present, when a Sharp-shinned Hawk nailed a House Sparrow in mid-flight in the back yard, and then proceeded to consume it right outside our sunroom window. Not that rare of a species around here in winter, but when entering the sighting into eBird, I was surprised that I hadn’t recorded that species yet in 2019, and it was indeed #250!

Sharp-shinned Hawk - Accipiter striatus
A Sharp-shinned Hawk catching a House Sparrow in our back yard on Christmas Day. Species #250 for the year, and a photo that’s instantly one of my favorites.

250 species for the year…a nice number to end with! Not as nice a number as the rather miraculous 303 found by Kenny Miller this year (WOW…considering we’ve only had about 420 species total that have ever been seen in the state), but it was enough for me to end up tied for 6th in the state this year. Something I never thought I’d do as a birder…comparing my year in such a manner…but again, that’s what the wonderful eBird tools do to even a pretty non-competitive birder!!

Sprinkled in those #250 are some definite highlights for the year…new life birds (7 new birds never sighted before anywhere), or new life birds for the state of South Dakota (an additional 9 new South Dakota lifers). Here are some of those 2019 highlights….including some from a major 2019 (and lifetime) birding highlight that’s definitely NOT South Dakota focused.

In mid-April, I had a conference in Pierre for work. With the conference starting at noon, I left home long before dawn, hoping to get a few hours of birding in before the conference. As I was driving near the Missouri River southeast of Pierre, I saw a number of American White Pelicans along flooded areas along the river, so when I saw a large, white bird with black wing tips flying parallel to the road in front of me, I immediately dismissed it as a pelican. This was no pelican! My jaw dropped as I got closer and saw that it was a lone Whooping Crane!! MAJOR frustration as I quickly grabbed the camera and tried to grab a few frames, but the bird disappeared over a ridge and I thought I’d never get a chance to document the sighting. However, when I found a tiny side road, I was able to relocate the bird foraging in a corn field. For the next hour I watched the bird, getting some long distance shots as it foraged, and a few frames in flight when it left the corn field and returned to forage in a wetland area along the river. My first ever Whooping Crane sighting, and definitely a highlight for my 2019 South Dakota bird list!
Henslow's Sparrow - Ammodramus henslowii
When you’re trying for a South Dakota “Big Year”, spring migration is…everything! There are so many migrant bird species that move through the state, and you have a narrow window in which to spot them. By mid- to late-May, the spring migration was…disappointing! It was very cold yet, and very wet. Warblers are a huge draw for me when I bird in the spring, yet by May 19th, I’d only seen a handful of warbler species. On that day, the South Dakota Ornithologist Union was holding it’s spring meeting in Brandon, and a miserable forecast (stormy cool weather) didn’t seem to bode well for birding! It ended up being a truly magical day, however, with over 20 warbler species seen by birders in the Sioux Falls area that day. I myself ended up with 20 different warbler species that day, including several that you don’t see every year. The highlight of the day though was a lifer, a Henslow’s Sparrow that other birders found foraging in a grassy field on the south side of Newton Hills State Park.
American Three-toed Woodpecker - Picoides dorsalis
As a family we typically go the Black Hills once or twice a year. It’s a 6 hour drive (South Dakota is a big state!), so it’s not somewhere I get to bird a lot, and when with the family, my birding time is generally limited. However, in July I took a dedicated 3-day birding trip to the Hills, hoping to pick up a number of South Dakota species I hadn’t recorded in the state before. It was a great trip…I ended up adding 10 new South Dakota species, more than half of my new 2019 South Dakota total. It was also rather frustrating! I have yet to see a Bullock’s Oriole in the state! They’re common out there! I have yet to see a Black-headed Grosbeak! Also common out there! But I did pick up several South Dakota lifers, and one that was an all-time lifer, when this American Three-toed Woodpecker foraged on spruce trees very close to me.
Not a South Dakota lifer, but one I didn’t have on my yearly list until a VERY unexpected lone Rock Wren showed up at Good Earth State Park along the Iowa/South Dakota border. You can count on one hand the number of Rock Wrens recorded in eBird within 200 miles of this location! A good sighting, and a nice addition without which I wouldn’t have gotten to 250.
Magnolia Warbler - Setophaga magnolia
A Magnolia Warbler from that magical weekend of May 19th. One of 20 different warbler species I recorded that day.
Eastern Rosella - Platycercus eximius
Definitely not a South Dakota bird! But a definite 2019 highlight for birding…a 3-week vacation with the family in Australia! Not a birding trip, but of course I was able to get a lot of life birds on that trip, including some incredibly colored species such as this Eastern Rosella.
Southern Cassowary - Casuarius casuarius
A moment I’ll never forget, when a freakin’ DINOSAUR stepped out of the rainforest right in front of us. A massive Southern Cassowary, from near Cairns, Australia.
Rainbow Lorikeet - Trichoglossus moluccanus
A pretty common sight in many areas where we went in Australia, a Rainbow Lorikeet. Given how they’ve adapted to city life and human landscaping, they’re actually considered a bit of a pest in many areas, but OH what a beautiful pest.
Galah - Eolophus roseicapilla
One of my favorites from Australia, a Galah. SO entertaining and social…just incredible fun to watch as they interact with each other and their environment.
Blue-winged Kookaburra - Dacelo leachii
Blue-winged Kookaburra from near Port Douglas. A BIG, chunk bird, these are the less common of two Kookaburra species we saw. The much more widely spread Laughing Kookaburra was a species we found in all the locations we visited in eastern Australia.
%d bloggers like this: