I spent Sunday morning birding in Lake and Kingsbury counties, to the northwest of Sioux Falls. Early May, certainly a great time to get “First-of-Year” (FOY) birds, and I certainly saw quite a few new species for the year. It wasn’t a great day for photos though, as there were really only about 3 species of which I got decent photos. Two of those species, Cattle Egret and Upland Sandpiper, were FOY. Both are species I don’t see all that frequently in this part of the state. As I was driving home I was thinking about the photos I got for the day, and it struck me that right now, in this part of South Dakota, I’d probably expect to find Cattle Egrets before I’d find Upland Sandpipers. How things change…
In Minnehaha County, the county that contains most of Sioux Falls, I’ve only seen Upland Sandpipers on a handful of occasions, and only once during breeding season. Given their preference for grassland for breeding, that’s not a surprise, given that we’re mostly corn and soybeans around here, with little prairie/grassland. Cattle Egrets however, are very well named, as pretty much every time I’ve seen one in South Dakota, they’ve been in a pasture and in close proximity to cattle.
Upland Sandpipers are obviously the natives here, and there’s little doubt that they were once vastly more numerous in my part of South Dakota than they are today. You could say the same for a heck of a lot of grassland species, birds that were once seen in southeastern South Dakota that have now all but disappeared. Cattle Egrets are the newcomers. They were unknown in the New World, until a few ended up in South America in the late 1800s. By 1950 they had spread all the way to the United States, and for quite a while they have now bred up here in South Dakota. From all indications, Cattle Egrets were natural invaders with a handful somehow making it to South America unaided, they weren’t introduced.
It does make you wonder what birds you’d find around here today, had people never settled the area and converted nearly all grassland into agricultural land. Upland Sandpipers would definitely be around, but given the Cattle Egret’s desire to hang around cattle (for the insects they kick up as they graze), you’d bet they would have likely found Bison herds an acceptable substitute. In other words, had nature taken her course, in today’s southeastern South Dakota, it’s likely both birds would be around.
As it is, the “native” Upland Sandpiper is a rarity, a true delight whenever I should happen to find one around here. Even though I have, oh, a few hundred photos of Upland Sandpipers sitting on fence posts, most are from elsewhere in the state, so when I see one around here, I can’t help but stop and take photos.