As 2020 comes to a close, I had a great end to the year from a birding perspective yesterday! I made one last birding trip, heading up towards Brookings to try to find some Short-eared Owls that had been seen recently. I hadn’t seen any yet this year, and I thought it would be nice to add one more species to what’s been my best South Dakota “big year” yet. But not only did I find a Short-eared Owl, but the first owl I saw was a gorgeous immature female Snowy Owl! Two new 2020 species for the state, on December 30th, and with both being owl species, I couldn’t have asked for a better close to the year.
The two owls put me at 262 species seen in South Dakota in 2020…breaking my own personal high of 256 from last year. It was certainly a terrific year in many aspects, with not only a great variety of species, but some life species, both South Dakota lifers, and overall lifers! Highlights for the year:
Starting in about 2007, I started making a free, downloadable and printable bird calendar for anyone to enjoy. I kept up the tradition through 2017, but when 2018 rolled around, I…whiffed. And I kept whiffing for 2019 and 2020. In the spirit of “new beginnings” in 2021, I want to start making this an annual product again, free for anyone to download and print. Thus, I present a free 2021 bird calendar, with monthly pages that you can download and print.
I tried to keep populate the calendar with “new” photos, and most of these are indeed new from the last year. As always, all are taken within South Dakota itself. Some of the 2020 photos shown here are now among my all time favorites, including the Prairie Falcon (January), Marbled Godwit (June), and Western Grebe and chick (July). In a bit of a break with tradition, I’m also including a non-native species here…the Mandarin Duck for November! That individual bird, spotted in Yankton in November of 2020, is very likely the most photographed bird in the history of the state! He hung out there for a month, with his new bestest buddy, a male Wood Duck. Alas, he seemingly met his demise (some raptor got him), but he certainly was a crowd pleaser when he was around! And given that the photo I got of him, with perfect lighting, great color, and a bit of a splash, is one of my all-time instant favorite photos…I couldn’t leave it out!
Here’s the link to the calendar page. Simply click on the month you want, and you’ll be viewing a PDF file that you should be able to print and/or download. Enjoy!
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. 🙂
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.