Articles By DakotaBirder

South Dakota’s Jewel – Custer State Park

My family and I just got back from a long weekend in the Black Hills, spending most of our time in Custer State Park. The Black Hills are a 5 or 6 hour drive from our hometown on the far eastern edge of South Dakota. We travel a lot, but have somehow managed to avoid visiting the area for the last 4 or 5 years, other than occasional fishing trips with my son. After a wonderful, long, Labor Day weekend, I’m not sure why we don’t spend more time in the Black Hills and Custer State Park.  We love National Parks and Monuments, visiting 11 different ones during our summer vacation to Colorado and Utah, but I’d put Custer State Park up with any of them.

Part of the attraction is the diversity the park offers. Custer State Park is big, covering over 110 square miles. Habitats are diverse, ranging from wide open prairie to craggy peaks.  Access is quite easy, with several roads traversing the park, including a number of gravel roads that get far less traffic than roads like the iconic Wildlife Loop.  However, even the wildlife loop is never as busy as the popular National Parks. And as with most parks in the United States, once you step away from the main roads and start hiking, you can find yourself with as much solitude as you desire.

On this trip, we stayed at the “Creekside Lodge”, a wonderful little place from which to base your trip to the Hills. It’s part of the State Game Lodge complex, right off Highway 16a, one of the bigger paved roads through the park, and is in an area that provides quick access to many of the Black Hills attractions. We loved our room at the Creekside lodge, a 2nd floor room with a balcony that overlooked Grace Coolidge Creek. Every night, we’d have deer foraging in the grass right below our hotel room, and the room was large and very comfortable.

For me, it’s the hiking and the wildlife that makes Custer State Park special.  There are no bears in the Black Hills, but you’ll certainly find as many bison, deer, elk, Pronghorn, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs as you could want.  That’s right, just one State Park, with habitats that support creatures as diverse as Bison and Pronghorns on the prairies, and Mountain Goats at high elevation. Every morning on our trip I’d wake before dawn, and drive and hike around the less-traveled gravel roads the connect with the Wildlife Loop road. Every morning, I’d find bountiful photo opportunities.

Yes, it’s “just” a state park, but don’t overlook Custer State Park!! It’s one of the most enjoyable places to visit in the region.  Here are just a few of the many photos I took over the weekend. Note I reserve the right to revisit these same photos in upcoming Photo/Haiku of the day posts!  🙂

American Bison - Custer State Park, South Dakota

The iconic American Bison. Custer State Park has a very large herd that has free reign throughout most of the park. While they could be seen almost anywhere, the wide open grasslands around the wildlife loop are a place where you’ll almost certainly run across large numbers of them.

Coyote - Canis latrans - Custer State Park, South Dakota

A lone coyote, giving me one last look before disappearing into the grassland. There are certainly plenty of coyote around, but they’re pretty shy. Drive the Wildlife Loop right around dawn though, and there’s a good chance you may find one.

Black-tailed Prairie Dog - Cynomys ludovicianus

A Black-tailed Prairie Dog at the entrance to its burrow. There are a number of large prairie dog towns scattered throughout Custer State Park, and they’re always a great place to look for wildlife.

Pronghorn - Antilocapra americana - South Dakota

The Wildlife Loop are offers some wonderful prairie habitat, and is a great spot to find Pronghorn. Pronghorn in South Dakota are generally very shy. It’s no wonder, given the hunting pressure on the species. Custer State Park is probably your best opportunity anywhere to get close to a wild Pronghorn. They’re used to the visitors and will often calmly forage just a few meters away from your car.  How close can you get to a wild Pronghorn at Custer State Park? How about….

Pronghorn - Antilocapra americana - South Dakota

This close! When you shoot wildlife, the problem is that you generally can’t get close enough for a frame-filling photo, even with a “long” camera lens. In this case, my long lens made it impossible to frame the entire animal in the shot, and thus I instead had the opportunity to shoot some wonderful portraits from point-blank range.

Mountain Bluebird - Sialia currucoides

One of my favorite species, the Mountain Bluebird. Near the “airport” (not much of an airport) on Wildlife Loop road, there’s a fence line with a number of bluebird boxes. It’s a terrific spot to find these beautiful sky-blue birds.

Mountain Goat - Oreamnos americanus

ALWAYS. BRING. YOUR. CAMERA!!! After this many years doing photography, I should know this by now! But when we decided to do the “Cathedral Spires” hike in the park, I left the camera in the car. I didn’t think we’d see any wildlife up there! Boy was I wrong. We ran into Mountain Goats twice on the beautiful hike up to the spires! Alas, all I had was my iPhone, but this even with just a standard iPhone 7, we were able to get close enough to these beautiful animals to get photos such as this one. This also gives you an indication of the diversity of landscapes in the park…from Pronghorns on the prairies, to Mountain Goats up high!!

Custer State Park - Dawn

A quick grab-shot with my iPhone of the rising sun, from Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park, showing the wide open prairies and rolling hills on this side of the park.

The Swallows’ Feast – Photo/Haiku of the day

The Swallows’ Feast

Summer’s mayfly feast

Shimmery swallows dip and chase

As the mower growls

Cliff Swallow in Flight - Petrochelidon pyrrhonota

I got home rather late tonight, perhaps an hour before sunset. I had to mow the yard, and as I started, I noticed the mayflies that were clustered on bushes in my landscaping, and in the grass itself. Clearly some kind of mayfly hatch had occurred, and as I mowed, they would flutter up into the air, some settling down, others continuing to fly. It didn’t take long before they were joined in mid-air combat…the swallows had arrived!!  Both Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows started showing up, with 5 or 6 dipping and darting through the yard, following the mower and taking advantage of the mayflies that were being kicked up. A thankless, repetitive summer task, made much more enjoyable tonight thanks to my swallow visitors! Nature never ceases to amaze, as the swallows clearly had learned to associate the sound of a mower with insects in the air.  As for the photo…yeah…I know. Not a Tree Swallow. Not a Barn Swallow. But have you tried taking photos of swallows in flight? NOT…EASY!! I have very few decent photos of ANY swallow species in flight, so I’ll use a bit of artistic license tonight and use this photo to accompany my photo story and haiku. 🙂

Photography from a kayak

I’ve had a kayak for about 8 years. The first one I bought was a rather large sit-on-top kayak, a pretty upscale one with an number of bells and whistles that made it perfect for fishing. I immediately fell in love with the freedom you felt while kayaking. As a sit on top, you’re pretty exposed, but that just added to the thrill.

After a couple of trial runs, I decided to head up to Lake Thompson in Kingsbury County, the largest natural lake in South Dakota. I was feeling confident! I had no issues in my initial runs, so when arriving at Lake Thompson I was determined to paddle the length of the lake (5 miles or so). It was a beautiful day…a few puffy clouds, very light winds, perfect for kayaking. Even with a light wind, there was a bit of a chop out in the open water, but I had no problems making it across the lake. I was using muscles I hadn’t used in such a way and was a bit tired, so rested on the opposite shore for a bit before heading back.

The way back was a bit harder. The wind had picked up, the chop had picked up, and I was tired. Still, I was progressing well, and was halfway across when….disaster strikes. There were a few fishermen out on the lake, and I saw one heading across the lake at pretty high speed. He did see me and avoided my position, but he didn’t slow down as he sped past about 20 yards away. I soon realized this might be trouble, as the wake waves quickly headed my way. I tried to turn my kayak into the wave, but was perhaps at a 45-degree angle when the first wave hit. I rocked with it, leaned in the direction of the wave to balance the tipping kayak, and was initially OK…until the second wave hit. Again I didn’t have time to get the kayak headed into the wave, and when the second wave hit I was unable to keep the balance. Into the water I went.

OK…no problem…I’m in the middle of the largest natural lake in South Dakota, but 1) the water was warm (it’s late August), and 2) I had on my life jacket. I thought it would be no problem getting back on top and finishing the trip back, but I just…couldn’t…do it.  I’d READ about what to do if capsized in my sit-on-top…reaching across the kayak, grabbing the opposite side and pulling yourself up…but when push came to shove, I couldn’t do it. The first few times I tried, when I reached across and grabbed the opposite side, the kayak would simply flip and turn over. It was such a buoyant, high-sittingkayak, and no matter my strategy I couldn’t get back on top. It didn’t help that I was tired from the long, hard paddle, and soon I realized I wasn’t going to be able to get back up.  I still wasn’t too concerned. The wind was blowing towards my push-off point, so I thought I’d just swim and drift with the kayak back to my car.  It was a long haul. Trying to swim with the kayak in tow was complicated by an increasing wind that seemed determined to push me off course.  Finally I just decided I needed to head to the closest, easily accessed shore rather than going across.  Exhausted, I pulled myself up, tied up the kayak, and rested for a while before trekking back to retrieve the car.

That’s a VERY long back drop to my mindset when it comes to taking my very expensive Canon camera equipment out in the kayak. Thankfully that day I wasn’t fishing, I wasn’t taking photos, so I didn’t lose any thing when I capsized (other than a water bottle), but the thought of tipping with my camera equipment has always made me a bit leery about trying to use my kayak as a photo platform. However, I thought I’d try taking my 2nd kayak (a very stable high-end, 2-person inflatable that I will take out with my son) out on Lake Vermilion, a rather large reservoir west of Sioux Falls. It was a nice sunny morning with relatively low wind, but even so, I was paranoid about losing my equipment, and kept my camera equipment in a dry bag until needed! It’s not the greatest photography strategy in the world, as you’re fumbling for access to your equipment if you unexpectedly come across a bird, but at least I felt safe and secure.

It wasn’t a great day in terms of the birding. I didn’t really come across any waterfowl, and other than some far away American White Pelicans and some flocks of Franklin’s Gulls that would occasionally stream overhead, it was pretty quiet. However, when returning to my push off point, I spotted a Great Blue Heron prowling the shoreline.  I kept my distance for a while, and was rewarded when he plunged his head down and caught a large bullhead catfish. I missed the moment of the catch, but was able to grab a number of photos as he took off with his catch and slowly flew across the lake right in front of the kayak.

I can definitely see the advantages of shooting from the kayak You can get to locations you simply can’t get to by foot, and when you’re sitting right on the water, you can get some wonderful, low-angle, natural looking shots. I love the photos here of the Great Blue Heron. After my one “dunking” incident, however, I’m still leery of doing this on a regular basis!  With winter approaching, South Dakota’s climate will soon make the choice easy, but hopefully I can get back out in the kayak with the camera one or two more times before the cold weather hits.

Great Blue Heron - Ardea herodias

The Great Blue Heron and his catch at the moment of liftoff from his hunting spot on the shoreline.

Great Blue Heron - Ardea herodias

Perhaps one advantage of the kayak is birds aren’t as scared as they are of an upright, walking human being? It’s a sample size of one, but instead of flying directly away from my position, the Great Blue Heron flew right in front of me with his catch.

Photo Haiku – The Literate Pheasant

Ring-necked Pheasant - No Hunting

Probably my favorite photo of all time. This was taken near Presho, South Dakota, on a cold winter’s day. The sun was just rising, when I came over a hill and saw this male Ring-necked Pheasant on the fence. To my surprise he didn’t immediately fly, but stayed in the perfect position while I took several photos. The pose…the light…the setting…and of course, the “no hunting” sign…I couldn’t have staged a better photo set up myself. What better photo to inspire a haiku…

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Summer’s Last Hummingbird

Summer’s Last Hummingbird

Ruby summer splash

between the flowers they dash

till chased by Fall’s chill

Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Archilochus colubris

A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovering in front of flowers in our yard. It’s now been a couple of days since I’ve seen a male in our yard. They’re always the first to leave for the summer. I still have a couple of females and juveniles, but their time with us is short as well. With the constant buzz of activity in our back yard all summer long, it’s easy to take these guys for granted. Now we will wait another 8 months for their return.

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Grebe Family

Downy striped young grebe

hidden world below the reeds,

staying close to mom

Pied-billed Grebe and Young

I was birding yesterday in western Minnehaha County, and drove on a gravel road that split a large wetland area. The cattails were right next to the road, making it difficult to peer into the wetland, but in a few places there were breaks in the vegetation. As I slowly drove drove past one of the breaks, a Pied-billed Grebe and its young came swimming out of the thick reeds. Neither were particularly concerned with my presence, so I shut the car off and watched for a while. The adult would dive under water in search of prey, and when she popped up, the fledgling grebe would let out a whining call and quickly swim over to the parent. Once she came up with a relatively large fish (for her size), but despite the young one’s pleas, she downed it herself and returned to hunting. In the ten minutes or so that I watched the pair, I never saw the young one’s pleas answered, but she always stayed close to mom.

 

 

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Season of the Bobolink

Season of the Bobolink

Tinkly spring-time song

Fades away as summer ends.

Golden autumn fire

Autumn Bobolink - Dolichonyx oryzivorus

Bobolink in the warm dawn sun. This morning I went to a remnant tallgrass prairie patch and found a small group of Bobolinks. Males have lost their bold black-and-white breeding plumage, and share the same warm brown plumage as the females now. Rather than post as simply the “photo of the day”, thought today we’d take it one step further to my first ever “Photo / Haiku of the day”.

Differentiating Female (and male) Goldfinch Species

I was on travel for work this week which mean any blogging or work on my website was delayed. When I returned, I had an email that was thanking me for my “Difficult Bird ID” page, where you can find information on differentiating between commonly confused species. There was also a request to add another page, discussing how to tell apart the three North American goldfinch species. I don’t normally think of goldfinches as a particularly difficult group to identify, but then again, here in eastern South Dakota, we only have the one species. Overall, geography is obviously a huge part of identifying goldfinches, as in the eastern half of the country, the only species of goldfinch you’ll find are American Goldfinch.  However, if you happen to find yourself in parts of the southwestern US, you have three goldfinch species you may potentially encounter, with Lesser Goldfinch and Lawrence’s Goldfinch join the party.

The woman who sent the email lived in California and specifically was trying to figure out how to easily identify female goldfinches. That does represent more of a challenge than differentiating male goldfinches, and given that my Difficult Bird ID pages are some of the most visited pages on my entire website, I thought tonight I would go ahead and create another page that talks about ID keys for the three species.

As with many “difficult” IDs, for birders I think that difficulty melts away with experience, particularly when given keys to look for.  Creating a page such as this helps me as well!  I don’t run into Lesser Goldfinch, for example, unless I travel, but I don’t know if I could have identified a female goldfinch as either Lesser or American in the areas they overlap in range, until creating this page. Now I’ll know what to look for (bill color, and undertail covert color are giveaways).

A bit of a pain to create these pages, but as I said, they are frequently visited.  Click below for the new Goldfinch ID page.

Identifying North American Goldfinch Species

Identifying Goldfinch Species (female)

Females of the three North American goldfinch species. Males in breeding plumage? Piece of cake. A little bit harder for the females (particularly American and Lesser), but not bad when you know what to look for.

Goin’ on a Safari. A Backyard Safari…

Not a good day birding. I went out this morning in the gray and the gloom, knowing the light wasn’t very good for bird photography, but I thought I’d try anyway.  Not only didn’t I get any photos, the birding itself was rather slow. Upon arriving back home I thought I’d change focus.  I hadn’t gotten my macro lens out in a while, so decided to go on a “backyard safari”, looking for little critters that inhabit the yard.

The nice thing about a backyard safari is that they never disappoint!  Well, in SUMMER they never disappoint, because you always find plenty of insects and other small critters in the yard. There were a couple of highlights today.  First were the White-lined Sphinx Moths that were gorging on nectar from a big honeysuckle.  Not a rare species, but given their size, you always do a double-take when you first see them.  They were moving pretty quickly from flower to flower, making photography a challenge, but with time (and a lot of deleted photos), I managed a few decent photos.

The second highlight were a couple of surprises on the butterfly weed I had planted. I wasn’t ever clear if the variety I bought was truly a form of milkweed.  Sure, butterflies loved the blooms, but would Monarch Butterflies treat it as they do all the wild, Common Milkweed that’s around here? Would they lay eggs?  That was answered today, when I found two caterpillars, one quite large, and one small. I don’t have a really large area of butterfly weed, but seeing those Monarch caterpillars today makes me want to plant some more.

A nice time, just a stone’s throw (quite literally!) from the house.  Backyard safari saves the day…

White-lined Sphinx Moth - Hyles lineata

White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata), feeding on nectar from our massive honeysuckle in the back yard. There were 2 or 3 hanging around the backyard, with the honeysuckle drawing the most interest by far.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) - Caterpillar

(Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) caterpillar, hanging around on my “butterfly weed”. According to this guy…yes…yes indeed…this IS a form of milkweed.

Leafcutter Bee (Megachile)

A Leafcutter Bee, hanging out on the same Butterfly Weed plant as the two Monarch caterpillars.

White-lined Sphinx Moth

Another White-lined Sphinx Moth at the honeysuckle.

POTD – Costa’s Hummingbird with splash of pollen

Today I worked out in the back yard. All. Day. Long.  I’m beat, but got a lot done, and it was a nice day. A bonus…it was nice seeing all the birds coming to my feeders, including a still very active hummingbird feeder.

This is my yearly, gloomy post, focusing on the fact that my hummingbirds are about to leave me for, oh…8 months. The males already are slipping away, as most of the birds I now get are females and young. I have about 4 more weeks before they all disappear.

But this year shall be different! I refuse to go 8 months without seeing a hummingbird!  We are taking a family vacation this winter to Arizona, and while it’s not exactly prime hummingbird season in either variety or number, there are still plenty of hummingbirds around at that time of year. Today’s POTD is a Costa’s Hummingbird who obviously had just fed, from Madera Canyon in Arizona in November 2011.

Costa's Hummingbird - Calypte costae

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