The most popular bird in eastern South Dakota

Such a busy social calendar.  Dress up in your summer finest. Find a home, try to settle down, find a good woman, chase her around incessantly, defend your territory against all comers…it’s a busy life for a bird in the spring.  Two things that probably don’t help: 1) Being hopelessly lost and being the only one of your kind for a few hundred miles, and 2) being constantly interrupted by those pesky humans with the binoculars, cameras, and cell phones.

A male Western Tanager was found near Sioux Falls a couple of days ago.  The closest Western Tanager should be 300+ miles to the west, in the Black Hills, so his appearance in eastern South Dakota caused a stir among the birding community.  Heck, I too went to find him, as I haven’t seen a Western Tanager in South Dakota, outside of the Hills. But after twice going to watch him, I was starting to feel a bit sorry for him. He’s getting a lot of attention and visitors.  His daily routine is also getting interrupted a lot.

I don’t mind birders using electronic calls to see a bird, but it does bother me when it’s done incessantly and it’s clearly affecting a bird. When I’m trying to take photos, I rarely use any electronic call, as not only do I not like the impact on the bird, I don’t like the unnatural look of photos of pissed off birds trying to figure out where that invisible “rival” is, and why he’s singing so much. The first time I went yesterday, there was a young, 14-year old birder walking up looking for the bird. I did pull out my phone, played about 5 seconds of a call, and the Tanager made an appearance for us. We then watched him for a while as he flew around the forest clearing, chasing a female Scarlet Tanager, chasing other birds out of his territory, and doing a lot of “fly-catching” (flying out from a perch to grab insects).

I thought I’d try again later in the day to try to get a better photo.  He was reliably stationed in one location, and with patience, I was sure I’d get better photos than I got earlier in the day.  However, as I walked into the clearing, there were 3 birders, a couple, and another older gentleman. I heard them all before I saw them. Or should I say, I heard the electronic calls they were playing over…and over…and over…and over again.

I left, rather than watch the poor confused Tanager desperately trying to find and dispatch his unseen “rival”.  That was just one moment of the 2nd day after he was “found”.  I have no doubt there were many occasions over the last few days where birders have come into the area with electronic calls, trying to get the perfect photo of an eastern South Dakota rarity.  I probably could have gotten closer photos of a pissed off Western Tanager had I joined them in the clearing. And heck, 10 years ago, I might have joined them.. But as I’ve gotten older, I find myself using my binoculars far more than my camera.  I used to only worry about getting that great photo, to the point that if I saw a bird but didn’t get a good photo, I was disappointed. Now I often find myself putting the camera down and just sitting and watching.   The electronic call wasn’t necessary to enjoy watching this beautiful, lost Western Tanager.

Western Tanagers aren’t going extinct because of birders.  Overall, the actions of birders with electronic calls aren’t likely to dramatically impact a species.  But I still can’t help but feel a bit sorry for this one lost bird.

Western Tanager - Piranga ludoviciana

Photo of the Western Tanager near Sioux Falls. This was taken as he was flying from perch to perch, looking for insects and doing some “flycatching”.  Not the greatest pic in the world, but I didn’t want to do what it would take to get that perfect Western Tanager photo.

Landscaping MVP – Most Valuable Plant (for a birder)

Honeysuckle - Lonicera

A current view of our yard “MVP”, a honeysuckle tucked in a tiny spot next to the garage and front porch. This is a pretty typical view for a visitor to our house in the spring…greeted by a big honeysuckle that is absolutely loaded with beautiful orange blooms. Click for a larger view.

Competition this spring was high.  Who would be named MVP? The long-time, consistent performer who never lets you down? The up-and-comer, inconsistent, but absolutely glorious so far this spring?  Or perhaps some underdog, flying under the radar and gathering votes as the top two split other voters?

When we built our house 11 years ago, I had a blast doing all of my own landscaping. It’s taken a while to “build up” to a mature landscaped yard, but after 11 years, we now are starting to get some trees of substantial size, while the bushes and perennials have matured. During those 11 years, it’s been simply wonderful noticing how the number and diversity of birds in our yard has grown, as the landscaping has matured.

MVP of course is “Most Valuable Plant”, from the perspective of a birder and how attractive the plant is to birds in our yard. When I did the landscaping, I focused VERY heavily on planting shrubs, perennials, and trees that would attract birds. We have a few conifers, for cover and nesting. We have some fast growing birch, trees that have matured quickly and attracted birds, with catkins on our paper birch that are an absolute favorite for finches in the winter. I have sour cherries, viburnum, and other bushes and small trees with berries to attract birds. I have many perennials specifically chosen for the blooms that attract hummingbirds.

But this year’s MVP is the same as the MVP from about the, oh…last 5 or 6 years.  In the front of our house, right by the entrance and front porch, is a little spot perhaps 2 x 4 feet.  It fits in between the curved sidewalk leading from the driveway to the front porch, and the side of the garage.  When I was landscaping, it was kind of a “throwaway” spot, an afterthought, without much room to do anything substantial.  We had a honeysuckle that we actually had indoors at our old house. Not even knowing if it was hardy, I planted it in that location, and didn’t think much of it.

To my surprise, it not only survived the winter, it absolutely THRIVED. The little spot faces the southwest, and with the garage wall blocking any of our cold, South Dakota north winds, the honeysuckle has grown and thrived beyond all expectations.  In that protected location, getting the full blunt of the afternoon sun and being protected from cold, the honeysuckle often starts to bud out by late March.  Last year, IT STILL HAD BLOOMS ON THANKSGIVING!!  That’s NOVEMBER in South Dakota, and an outdoor plant was still blooming!! In the spring, it goes absolutely nuts with absolutely prolific blooms (see photo above), and then continues to bloom during the entire summer and fall.

American Robin Nest - Turdus migratorius

A peek inside the honeysuckle today revealed the American Robin nest, with one hatchling and another that is still in the process of working her way out of its egg.

The reason the honeysuckle gets the “MVP” award? I’m a sucker for hummingbirds, and there’s no feature in my yard, not even my nectar/sugar feeder, that attracts hummingbirds like this honeysuckle. We live across the street from a state park, the Big Sioux Recreation Area, and I often seen hummingbirds coming from the park, making an extended stop at the honeysuckle, and then returning to the park. The blooms also have attracted other birds over the years. This spring I had Orchard Orioles that seemed to like to pierce the blooms for nectar, and I’ve also had Tennessee Warblers do the same.

The plant is also unbelievable thick and lush, with a support structure holding up the extensive number of vines. Within that thick cover, birds have often nested within.  The two most common have been House Finches, and American Robins.  This spring, an American Robin once again built a nest within the thicket of the honeysuckle.  I have SO many Brown-headed Cowbirds in our neighborhood, but I don’t ever seem to find cowbird eggs in the nest in the honeysuckle. I think that’s likely because of how thick it is, and how well hidden the nests are.

MVP!! MVP!! MVP!! For 2018, the long-standing champ takes the crown yet again!

 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Archilochus colubris

Ruby-throated Hummingbird foraging at the honeysuckle.

Goin’ on a Snipe Hunt

When you were a kid, did you ever have someone send you on a snipe hunt? Perhaps parents who wanted some peace and quiet for a while? Perhaps an older sibling with a devilish side? Perhaps a jerk of a classmate who just liked to pick on people?  In the United States, a “Snipe Hunt” is a practical joke, usually done after the sun has gone down, sending some gullible child (or an extremely gullible adult) off in search of the mystical, mysterious, and completely non-existent Snipe.

But of course in the birding world a “Snipe Hunt” could be the pursuit of an actual bird!  In the United States we have the Wilson’s Snipe, a fairly common species that is often seen in and around wetlands and marshes.  While most often seen on the ground or wading in shallow water, during the breeding season they sometimes can be seen on very prominent perches.  I’ve heard their display flights, seen them perched in shrub early in the spring, and even saw one swaying in the wind while somehow clinging to a telephone line with feet that are NOT made for such a task!  But I’ve never captured a photo of one that wasn’t on the ground or in the water.

This morning I was driving in western Minnehaha County, a part of the “prairie potholes” that has many shallow wetlands and lakes. While approaching a wet, grassy field on a quiet gravel road, I saw a chunky bird perched on top of a fence post.  Western Meadowlark? But as I got closer, it was obviously a Wilson’s Snipe, standing on the fence post and occasionally vocalizing. Love makes a guy do all kinds of crazy things, and this little guy was doing his best to attract attention.  While watching him, he took flight and did a short display flight, calling all the while, and then circling back and landing on the same exact fence post!  I watched him for a minute or two before he fluttered back down into the vegetation, but not before I was able to capture some photos of the behavior.

A successful Snipe hunt!  TAKE THAT, practical jokesters!

Wilson's Snipe - Gallinago delicata

Wilson’s Snipe, calling from atop a wooden fence post.

 

A Cluster of Cuckoos!

Spring migration is largely over.  It was a rather disappointing migration overall, in that there were relatively low numbers of warblers, which also seemed to cut into the variety I normally see.  Despite a very wet spring and many flooded fields and other suitable habitat, shorebird migration was VERY slow in our part of the state.  After having the heater on last weekend, today we’ve touched 102 degrees!  From a birding perspective, we’re on to looking for summer residents.

This morning I went down to Newton Hills State Park, about a 30-minute drive south of us.  It’s a gorgeous park that is characterized by beautiful deciduous forest with a wonderfully healthy understory.  In other words…a rather unique habitat for South Dakota.  It’s one of the best spots in the state for finding eastern “forest birds”, and this morning certainly didn’t disappoint.

While I saw a number of the “usuals”, it wasn’t long after arriving at dawn that I heard a Cuk-Cuk-Cuk-Cuk…Cuk…Cuk…..Cuk…a rather unusual, non-musical call with a distinct slowing pace at the end.  Cuckoo! We have both Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoos around here, but I don’t come across either one very often, so at first I didn’t remember which species to associate with that call.  The answer soon came though as two of the birds drifted into the sumac on the side of the road next to me, seemingly chasing each other.  Yellow-billed Cuckoos!  Two of them!  While I’ve heard them on occasion, Cuckoos are notorious for staying close to vegetative cover.  In my 18 years of birding here I’ve only gotten one halfway decent look at them, yet here two of them were interacting within 30 feet of me!

They were definitely more interested in each other than me, with each vocalizing and moving occasionally through the sumac and surrounding trees, with one often following the movements of the other bird. They’d occasionally disappear from view so I can’t be sure, but I believe there were actually three birds present from the views and simultaneous calls that I heard.

It’s been an absolutely miserable day here with the heat, humidity, and cloud of gnats seemingly everywhere. However, if that’s the price that has to be paid to get great looks and photos of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, I’ll take it!

Yellow-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus americanus

Yellow-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus americanus

Yellow-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus americanus

Birding > Bird photos? Or vice versa?

My start in both birding and photograph began in December of 2000.  I bought my first SLR camera, and was excited to go out and use it. I headed out on a cold, snowy day, looking for…something…to photograph, when I came across some Canada Geese around the small unfrozen edge of a local quarry.  From the start, birds were my most common photographic subject.  Soon, they were nearly my ONLY photographic subject.

While I loved shooting birds, for many years, my primary focus when going out was getting photos.  Seeing birds was certainly wonderful as well, but I tended to measure success of a trip in terms of how many “keeper” photos I got.  Even if I saw a rare bird, I was often disappointed when I was unable to get a photo of it.

Fast forward 18 years. I have photos for most species you could reasonably expect to see in South Dakota. I have photos for many species you would NOT normally expect in South Dakota. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve reached my saturation point for photos for many species, but in the last 3 or 4 years, things have changed. I was a photographer first, birder second.  Now, I’m definitely a birder first, photographer second.  I spend MUCH more time using my binoculars, scanning that far away bird to see if it’s a rarity.  In the past, I often ignored far away birds, as I knew I couldn’t get a good photo.  I think that’s what’s so nice about valuing BOTH the birds themselves, and the photography aspect.  When you go out on a trip, you’re rarely disappointed.

Here’s a few recent photos…

Yellow Warbler - Setophaga petechia

A curious Yellow Warbler. It’s been a very slow spring so far for migrating warblers, but as always, there’s never a shortage of Yellow Warblers around.

Harris's Sparrow - Zonotrichia querula

One of my favorite species, a Harris’s Sparrow. They are actually relatively easy to find here during migration.

Blue-winged Warbler - Vermivora cyanoptera

A Blue-winged Warbler, a rarity in South Dakota. However, there’s one specific spot of Newton Hills State Park where one or two breeding pairs are almost always found.

Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis

I have a billion Northern Cardinal Photos. However, when you get an opportunity for these guys, even if it’s a relatively long-distance opportunity such as this one, you can’t pass it up! I’m starting to really appreciate shots like this, or other shots where the bird is smaller in the frame. That’s particularly the case if I’m able to show a lot of their natural habitat in the frame. Here, I just like the simple composition, the pose of the bird, the warm light, and that beautiful blue sky.

American Golden Plover! (Photographic) Lifer!

A new lifer!  Oh, I’ve seen American Golden Plovers. There have been a number of springs where I’ve looked out in a muddy field or the edge of a wet area, and have seen them.  However, they’d definitely fall under the category of “photographic nemesis” bird, in that I’ve never gotten anything close to a “satisfying” photo.

Yesterday wasn’t exactly a day where I’d have expected any halfway decent photos.  It was rainy, gloomy, and a bit windy…not exactly great birding weather, much less photo weather.  The rain changed my plans though, and it’s because of that I ran into a small flock of American Golden Plovers foraging in a flooded field. Perhaps it was BECAUSE of the somber, gloomy day, but they let me get uncharacteristically close.  With the lighting these photos aren’t exactly going to win any prizes, but when you’ve been shooting birds for almost 20 years, ANY time you get a new “photographic lifer”, it’s a good day!American Golden Plover - Pluvialis dominica

American Golden Plover - Pluvialis dominica

Oriole-palooza! Oriole Fest! Oriolextravaganza!!

One of my favorite things about Spring is the COLOR. After a winter of gloomy, dark, snowy days, a winter where (as always) your South Dakota backyard birdlife is dominated by the plainly colored Dark-eyed Junco, it’s so nice to have a splash of color in your backyard as songbirds begin to return. In my yard in the Spring, that splash of color has always been dominated by male American Goldfinches that have returned to their bright yellow plumage, or the handful of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks that come to our feeders.

We also are used to a splash of orange in the Spring as a Baltimore Oriole may periodically visit the yard. I have a jelly and orange feeder that attracts them, although they lose interest once nesting begins in earnest. I honestly don’t remember having more than one Baltimore Oriole in my yard at one time, and I’ve never had Orchard Orioles. That’s changed!  I have been completely INUNDATED with Orioles this spring!  At one point Friday, I counted FIFTEEN Orioles in the back yard, with 6 Baltimore Orioles fighting around the orange/jelly feeder, 6 more moving around in the flowering pear and cherry trees along the back fence, and 3 Orchard Orioles doing the same!

We’ve had a very cool, wet spring, and the vegetation and flowers are behind where they normally are this time of year. I’m not sure if that’s the cause of the explosion in Orioles in my yard, but I DO know they’re going through grape jelly like there’s no tomorrow!  We’re talking a full TWO POUND jar of grape jelly per day!  Every time I go back to the feeder to check, it’s empty!

It’s a sight the likes I’ve never seen.  Not just in my yard, but I’ve never seen so many Orioles in one place, anywhere.  A wonderful Spring treat! Some photos of the visitors:

Baltimore Oriole - Icterus galbula

Orchard Oriole - Icterus spurius

Baltimore Oriole - Icterus galbula

Baltimore Oriole - Icterus galbula

Baltimore Oriole - Icterus galbula

Baltimore Oriole - Icterus galbula

Orchard Oriole -Icterus spurius

Baltimore Oriole - Icterus galbula

Baltimore Oriole - Icterus galbula

“High-rise” Peregrine Falcon

I think every birder and every bird photographer has their “nemesis” birds, a species that has somehow eluded them over the years. Peregrine Falcons would be one of my nemesis birds.  They’re definitely not common here in South Dakota, but I have seen them on a few occasions However, it’s always been a really quick glance, or a view from a very long distance.

One and sometimes even two Peregrine Falcons have occasionally hung around downtown Sioux Falls.  Lately a lone bird has occasionally been sighted…almost always while perched on a true South Dakota “high-rise”!! The U.S. Bank building, at a TOWERING 9 stories or so, really is one of the tallest buildings in downtown Sioux Falls, and it’s a favorite perch for this bird.  Tonight on the advice of a birding friend who had seen it earlier in the day, I swung by and saw that yes, the bird was still perched on a ledge one floor from the top of the building.

A real treat!  I pulled onto the top floor of a nearby parking garage and watched him for a good hour. Not the greatest photos in the world, but hey, I finally have SOME recognizable photos of a Peregrine Falcon! I won’t check it off my “nemesis” list until I get some top-notch photos, but tonight was a blast nonetheless.

Peregrine Falcon - Falco peregrinus

Peregrine Falcon - Falco peregrinus

Peregrine Falcon - Falco peregrinus

Peregrine Falcon - Falco peregrinus

Eurasian Tree Sparrows!! In my Yard!!!

Eurasian Tree Sparrows!  In my freakin’ yard!!  News at 11:00!  More later!!

EDIT: The story…I WAS going to go work in the office today, but woke up in the middle of the night with a massive headache. I thought I’d take it easy and work at home today.  About 10:45 this morning, I looked out the sunroom window. I saw a bird in the back of the yard that looked…odd. I grabbed the binoculars, and as I started to focus on it, the bird flew…right towards me, landing in the crabapple standing 10 feet from the window.  Immediately you could see it was something different…it was NOT a House Sparrow!  It was a Eurasian Tree Sparrow!

I gawked for a few seconds, and then grabbed my camera that fortunately was only a few feet away. As I started snapping photos, ANOTHER Eurasian Tree Sparrow popped up in the same tree!  One seemed to be following the other. At first, I thought they were both male birds, but only because I assumed they had a sexual dimorphism similar to House Sparrows.  Only later did I find that no, both males and females are similar in appearance.  Given the way the two birds moved together, with one always following the other, my best guess is that they were a male and female.

They stayed in the tree for perhaps 1 1/2 minutes, during which I took as many photos as I could.  During the rest of the day, there were only two other, brief sightings in my yard (one bird each time).

Why is this a big deal? They DO look somewhat similar to our everyday House Sparrow. However, Eurasian Tree Sparrows have a unique history. A  small number were released near St. Louis, Missouri in 1870 by a landowner who wanted to replicate the bird life of his native Europe. IN the 148 years since then, Eurasian Tree Sparrows haven’t expanded their range much beyond their original release location. They have still almost exclusively been found in far western Illinois, far eastern Missouri, and far southeastern Iowa.  In recent years, stray sightings have occurred outside this range, including areas as close as Minnesota.

But until the last 2 weeks, no live Eurasian Tree Sparrow had ever been seen in South Dakota.  A couple of weeks ago, the Small family in Vermillion saw an individual bird…the first live Eurasian Tree Sparrows ever seen in the state (a deceased bird was once found)!! The two birds in my yard today thus represent only the 2nd time the species has been seen in the state.

Pretty cool!! Here’s hoping the two are a mating pair, and that they stick around my yard for the summer.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow - Passer montanus

Eurasian Tree Sparrow – Passer montanus

Eurasian Tree Sparrow - Passer montanus

“Blind Luck” – Shooting Waterfowl

Silly waterfowl.  In a state where everybody seems to have a shotgun in the back of their pickup, for some reason waterfowl here are quite shy when people are around.  For a bird photographer, that makes life a wee bit difficult.  It’s practically impossible to be walking, standing, or otherwise visible and be within shooting range of most waterfowl here. Fortunately, there are several ways of using blinds that allow you to get extremely close…sometimes so close that the birds are too close for my 400mm lens to focus (it has a 12 foot minimum focusing distance).

After a blizzard and 19″ total inches of snow last week, today is sunny and 60.  I left before dawn and went west of Sioux Falls in search of waterfowl and shorebirds. The shorebirds weren’t around, but there certainly were plenty of waterfowl. I won’t go into the details (I had a post once about the blinds I use to get close to birds), but this morning used a combination of three blinds…1) my car, 2) a portable blind I always have with me, and 3) a permanent blind build on a local wetland.  GREAT morning of shooting, with absolutely perfect light for some of these.  Some pics from the day:

Redhead - Aythya americana

Female and Male Redhead, taken in some nice warm, early morning light on a local wetland.

Pied-billed Grebe - Podilymbus podiceps

One of my favorite little birds, a Pied-billed Grebe. They’re not as shy as all the ducks and geese around here, but they do have a nasty habit of just slowly sinking below the surface and swimming away underwater, RIGHT when you’re about to hit the shutter on the camera. Was glad to get a nice detailed shot in the light right after sunrise.

Mallard - Anas platyrhynchos

“Just” a mallard. “Just”? JUST!?!?! I admit that’s my opinion too many times, but you have to admit a drake Mallard is one damned beautiful duck.

Swainson's Hawk - Buteo swainsoni

It’s not just waterfowl moving through right now. Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels are seemingly everywhere right now, and today MANY Swainson’s Hawks like this one showed up.

Great Egret - Ardea alba

With snow still on the ground in many places and temperatures only starting to warm up in the last couple of days, I wasn’t sure what I’d find this morning, but I think the birds are moving more by the calendar than the temperature. I did run across one large wetland with many Great Egrets foraging in the shallows.

Redhead Drake - Aythya americana

Such beautiful birds! Such wonderful lighting this morning! This may be one of my favorite duck photos that I’ve ever taken.

Double-crested Cormorant - Phalacrocorax auritus

A Double-crested Cormorant swimming near the shoreline. They are SUCH cool birds when you see them up close, with those impossibly blue turquoise eyes.

Blue-winged teal - Anas discors

A male Blue-winged Teal. One of the most common dabbling ducks around here, and not all that colorful (until they fly), but they do have some wonderfully intricate patterns on their flanks, along with the unique face crescent.

Lesser Scaup - Aythya affinis

A male Lesser Scaup, one of the most common diving ducks we get in migration.

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