The weather wasn’t great this morning. Cool, overcast, and drizzling every once in a while. The options for such a Friday in May…go to work, or take the day off despite the weather and go birding all day.
Of course option B was chosen. May is such an incredible time to bird here, with all the migrants moving through and the summer songbirds arriving. I spent most of the day at Newton Hills State Park, a gem of a place in Lincoln County, South Dakota. It’s got wonderful forest habitat reminiscent of forests of the Eastern U.S., right here on the (mostly) plains of South Dakota. With an “eastern forest” comes “eastern birds”. Newton Hills is often one of the very few places where you can find some species of forest birds in the state.
At this time of year, the summer breeding residents are arriving and singing their hearts out. One of my favorite species was one of the first birds I heard when I arrived this morning, an Ovenbird singing his little heart out from the top of a fence post. Newton Hills is the most reliable spot I know of to find these guys both in the spring, and during the summer breeding season. I saw several Indigo Buntings flitting through the big Burr Oak trees, providing momentary glimpses of a shocking brilliant blue that you just don’t expect to see flitting through the forest canopy. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were singing everywhere, as were Eastern Towhees. Two of the most numerous summer breeders in parts of the park were also two of the loudest and most obvious birds today, with Yellow Warblers singing and chasing each other all over the place, and the ever-present (in summer anyway!) House Wrens found in practically every corner of the park.
One of the things I’m learning to appreciate is the unseen, yet heard bird. Ok, yeah, may seem obvious, but for a guy who has focused on bird photography for so long, seeing has always trumped hearing for me. There were several species that I heard today, but only got a very brief glimpse of or didn’t see at all. I hear Wood Thrush in multiple spots, with their beautiful, metallic-sounding (to me) songs. I desperately was trying to get a photo of a Scarlet Tanager I heard, but he stayed in the treetops and never even gave me a glimpse. One singing bird I REALLY was trying to track down was what sounded very much like a Kentucky Warbler. I heard it singing at some distance, but when I walked towards the area it stopped singing and I never found it. I’ve never seen a Kentucky Warbler, hence my excitement at hearing the bird. I don’t know the song of one well enough for me to conclusively say that’s what it was, even though it sure sounded like a Kentucky Warbler when I got back to my car and compared to the song of one on my iPhone.
Alas, a rarity and a lifer that eluded me. It really wasn’t a terrific day for any unusual birds, but there certainly was a really nice variety of migrants and arriving breeding birds. The birds I get the most excited for this time of year are the warblers, but other than those mentioned above, the only other species I saw today were Black-and-White, Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped, and Common Yellowthroats. Warblers are so unpredictable here though, with birds seemingly “dripping off the trees” on some May days, and seemingly absent on others.
A great day overall! One puzzling thing though was how it was so “birdy” at Newton Hills, but so completely dead at another spot I visited. I haven’t been to Union Grove State Park very much, but in many ways it’s very similar to Newton Hills, with a lot of uncharacteristic (for South Dakota) eastern forest land. As loud and boisterous as the birds were at Newton Hills, I was immediately struck at how quiet it was at Union Grove. I kept listening for birds, trying to find a “birdy” spot to get out and walk, but I was met by complete silence. After half an hour I’d driven all the roads in the small park, and the only birds of ANY kind I saw were a pair of Turkey Vultures, a Crow, and a Blue Jay. The only birds I heard but didn’t see were a Red-bellied Woodpecker and a Chipping Sparrow on the way out. Weird…not even a Robin, when they were all over the place at Newton Hills.
Despite the quiet at Union Grove, despite the rather gloomy weather to start the day, it ended up being a very nice day of birding. There were about a dozen “first-of-year” birds for me, which brings me up to around 160 species for the year so far, within South Dakota. Not bad, considering we’re a frozen wasteland for 6 months of the year, and there’s not much for quantity or variety of birds during that time!