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

The Dakota Prize – Haiku of the Day

Dakota’s Prize

Dakota’s painted prize
Water, rock, and time conspire
A rainbow set in stone

Fairburn Agate - South Dakota

An elusive Fairburn agate, from the wonderful rockhounding area of Buffalo Gap National Grasslands in South Dakota. I’m headed there in the morning for a day of rockhounding, so what better time for my first ever ROCK-related haiku of the day? Such a difficult prize to find, as chances are all I’m back tomorrow without one, but OH so worth it when you do find one.

Ode to the Sparrow – Photo/Haiku of the Day

Ode to a Sparrow

A whisper in the grass

“Just a sparrow”, overlooked.

Autumn’s hidden jewel

Le Conte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii

We’re approaching mid-September, and with it, one of my favorite birding migrations of the year. Warblers? Fall shorebirds? Migrating raptors? No, I treasure early to mid-Autumn for the wonderful array of sparrow species that migrate through eastern South Dakota. Among them are one of my top 3 species of all time…the Le Conte’s Sparrow. No “little brown job”…not “just a sparrow”…the Le Conte’s Sparrow is a brilliant array of complex patterns and beautiful warm tones.  With a reputation as a “skulker”, they’re a prized birding target for many, but during fall migration here, I’ve found them to be very approachable and rather easy to photograph. Along with the other 20 or so sparrow species that migrate through in the fall, a sparrow bonanza is just around the corner!

 

It’s been a buzzy summer! South Dakota Cicada

For the past couple of weeks it’s been quite loud in the evenings.  On occasion we get cicada noises here in the summer, but I don’t remember it being as “buzzy” outside as it has been lately. Despite hearing them, I don’t recall ever actually seeing a live cicada here.  That changed this morning when I was outside doing yard work. Something flew past and when I turned, I saw it land on a big rock in our landscaping. When I went to check it out, I saw the cicada, and quickly ran inside to grab my camera gear. Given I’m always set up for birds, not littler critters, it took a second to get my macro lens and macro flash setup on my camera, but when I returned the cicada was thankfully still there.

From what I’ve found online I believe this to possibly be a “Scissors Grinder Cicada” (Neotibicen pruinosus).  If that is indeed the species, we’re at the far northwestern edge of their range, here in southeastern South Dakota. They are one of the “annual” cicadas, not the more famed 13- or 17-year cycle cicadas that periodically come out in the eastern United States. The name common name “Scissors Grinder” comes from the characteristic sound they make.

Cool find, and very glad to get a ton of photos of this guy! After about 10 minutes on the rock, he disappeared.

Scissors Grinder Cicada - Neotibicen pruinosus

Scissors Grinder Cicada - Neotibicen pruinosusScissors Grinder Cicada - Neotibicen pruinosusScissors Grinder Cicada - Neotibicen pruinosusScissors Grinder Cicada - Neotibicen pruinosus

 

Your garage: A Hummingbird’s worst enemy?

I was working in my yard this afternoon when my next-door neighbor came walking up. She knew I was a bird lover, and wanted to know if I knew how to get a hummingbird out of her garage. It may sound like an odd request to many. However, it’s one I’m getting all too familiar with. I have over 4,000 individual web pages on my South Dakota Birds website. Of all those pages, which page gets the most hits? During the summer months it’s generally not even close…it’s this blog post page from a few years ago, about a hummingbird trapped in my garage.

Once a hummingbird is in your garage, it’s not easy to get them out. My garage, for example, is quite tall, with the ceiling height a good six feet above the top of the garage door itself. Once a hummingbird comes in a garage, their instinct to escape drives them to fly upwards. They really seem to have trouble seeing the open garage door as an escape, and instead seem to always fly up towards the ceiling of the garage. For us, we’ve had two hummingbirds trapped in our garage over the  years, and in both cases, we weren’t able to get them out until they were quite tired from flying around trying to escape. Then we got them to cling to a feather duster while we slowly moved them down and out the garage door. Other people have had some luck luring them down with flowers, hummingbird feeders, or some “red” item that grabs their attention.

And that is the problem in the first place…their attraction to the color red. The item in the picture below may be the most dangerous item for a hummingbird that you have in your entire house or  yard. This is the manual “pull” on a garage door opener, what you use when the power goes out and you want to manually close or open your garage door. The problem is quite simple…garage door manufacturers seem to love making these items red in color. Hummingbirds strongly key in on the color red, associating it with flowers, and thus, nectar for feeding. If a hummingbird goes past an open garage door and sees a red item dangling down, just that attraction to the color red may cause them to enter the garage and check it out.  Once inside, if you have a garage with a ceiling higher than the top of the garage door, they tend to get “stuck”.

We have multiple hummingbirds around our yard from early May through late September. However, with one simple change in our garage four years ago, we haven’t had any hummingbirds inside our garage.  That change? Simply taking the red pull off the garage door opener and changing it to a black item. When I went over to my neighbor’s garage this afternoon, I knew what I would find…red garage door pulls.

Given how difficult it can be to get a hummingbird out of your garage, the best advice I have…prevent their entry in the first place. Check your manual garage door pulls. If they have a red pull, take it off and use a neutral colored item in its place.

Red Garage Door Pull

A typical red “pull” on a garage door opener, for release and manual movement of the garage door. So many manufacturers seem to use bright red pulls such as this. With an open garage door, this is a huge attractant to hummingbirds, who are very easily “trapped” in a garage once they are inside.

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Prairie Ghost

The Prairie Ghost

Swift ghost of the prairie

shepherding harem and young

As winter’s despair beckons

Pronghorn Buck - Antilocapra americana

Custer State Park’s famed “Wildlife Loop” never disappoints, but it’s just after dawn when the magical moments occur. Pronghorn are often seen in Custer State Park, but they are typically easier to spot in the early morning hours, before most visitors start to arrive in the park. On this morning, a harem of perhaps 6 females and their young-of-the-year surprised me by cresting a nearby hill. They then slowly worked their way towards me as they grazed, unconcerned about the photographer in the parked car. Last to crest the hill was the big male, the protector of the little band. I watched for 15 minutes as the herd fed in the adjacent grasslands. As they slowly moved on down the hill, the trailing buck paused for a moment to give me a stare.  I evidently passed his judgement, and he then trotted off after his harem as they disappeared around the bend.  The grasslands were still lush from a wet and bountiful summer and forage was good, but the leaves were beginning to change, and a harsh South Dakota winter was just around the corner.

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