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.
I never was really a “lister” as a birder until eBird came along. eBird makes it so ridiculously easy to track your sightings, and the tools they have to categorize your sightings by date…geography…comparison to other birders…certainly bring out the competitive side that many birders seem to have! However, even after I started using eBird, I never really set any yearly goals, such as a “big year”. The closest I ever came was a number of years ago when a birding friend at work and I had a very low-key competition to see who could see the most birds in South Dakota during the year.
I ended up at 212 that year, a very similar number to my friend. I’ve gotten close to that a few times since according to eBird, but never really had a “South Dakota Big Year” as a driving goal for my birding in a year. Going into this year though, my birding time had been declining and I seemed to be losing some interest. I thought setting a goal to break my yearly South Dakota record might re spark some of that enthusiasm.
It did!! I started early in January this year…a tough time to start building a bird list in South Dakota! Particularly in a very cold, snowy winter, getting up to just 100 birds by mid-April was doing very well! When spring migration rolled around, I spent more time birding than I have in years. As the year progressed, I never made it to spots like far northwestern South Dakota to tick off species like Baird’s Sparrow, but I made my usual trips to the central part of the state, the Missouri River dams, and a very rare (for me) dedicated birding trip to the Black Hills.
By mid-December, I’d easily passed my highest yearly total, with 248 species. With travel and family commitments in the latter half of the month, I wasn’t expecting to get any more, but when a White-winged Crossbill was seen in Sioux Falls the week before Christmas, I did make the short trip and checked of #249. One short of a nice round number!! I told my wife (notably NOT a birder, and not too invested in the number chase!) that the only way I’d get to 250 is if something unexpected showed up in the yard. Well, on Christmas Day I got a nice surprise present, when a Sharp-shinned Hawk nailed a House Sparrow in mid-flight in the back yard, and then proceeded to consume it right outside our sunroom window. Not that rare of a species around here in winter, but when entering the sighting into eBird, I was surprised that I hadn’t recorded that species yet in 2019, and it was indeed #250!
250 species for the year…a nice number to end with! Not as nice a number as the rather miraculous 303 found by Kenny Miller this year (WOW…considering we’ve only had about 420 species total that have ever been seen in the state), but it was enough for me to end up tied for 6th in the state this year. Something I never thought I’d do as a birder…comparing my year in such a manner…but again, that’s what the wonderful eBird tools do to even a pretty non-competitive birder!!
Sprinkled in those #250 are some definite highlights for the year…new life birds (7 new birds never sighted before anywhere), or new life birds for the state of South Dakota (an additional 9 new South Dakota lifers). Here are some of those 2019 highlights….including some from a major 2019 (and lifetime) birding highlight that’s definitely NOT South Dakota focused.
After being given a new role at work a month ago, I’ve been traveling and quite busy. I was determined to do something today I haven’t done in quite a while…take a whole day and just go birding. I wasn’t exactly optimistic when the day started. I wanted to see if raptors were starting to show up in the central part of the state, but thought it was probably a little too early.
I needn’t have worried! There were still a lot of Red-tailed Hawks around, probably more than the Rough-legged Hawks I saw. That’s one sign it’s still early in the winter raptor season, as pretty soon Rough-legged Hawks will greatly outnumber Red-tailed Hawks in that part of the state. It’s also early for any Gyrfalcon to be around on the grasslands, as it seems they typically don’t do so until most of the water freezes (I assume they hunt waterfowl around open water). But overall, I had great weather and a boatload of raptors today.
I did my “usual” route…starting out around the Presho and Kennebec area near dawn, working my way west, then heading up towards Pierre, including a stop on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. For the day I ended up seeing at least 75 individual raptors, including ~10 Golden Eagles, ~10 Bald Eagles, ~25 Red-tailed Hawks, ~20 Rough-legged Hawks, plus 3 Ferruginous Hawks, 2 Prairie Falcons, several Northern Harriers, and even a Merlin.
Even better, I got a lifer below Oahe dam! A “photographic lifer”, a White-winged Scoter that was diving right next to shore and gobbling up crawfish. It’s a species I hadn’t seen before in South Dakota until about a week and a half ago, and today I was able to get some very close range photos.
A great day! And given how many raptors were around so early in the winter season, here’s hoping it’s an utterly spectacular winter for raptors in South Dakota. Some pics from the day:
I just haven’t had much time to take the new Canon 90D for a whirl, but went out to Good Earth State Park this morning at dawn. I LOVE birding this time of year, particularly for migrating sparrows. We get such an incredible variety that move through.
The star of the morning though was a rather lost Rock Wren. There aren’t any records of Rock Wren in eastern South Dakota in eBird, but a birder found one at Good Earth yesterday. Not really expecting to find him this morning, I was pleasantly surprised to see him sitting on a curb in the parking lot right as I got out of the car! He was an extremely tame little dude, at one point letting me sit about 6 feet away from him on the curb while we both warmed up in the morning sun.
Great morning, including for pics! And when shooting fall sparrows, it’s always wonderful to get some beautiful LeConte’s Sparrows in the mix.
Birding the Sioux Falls area in April and the first half of May was…sloooooooooooooowwwww. With the late cold weather and snow, and continued wet spring precipitation, there was certainly plenty of water around (and there still is). But shorebirds were very slow all spring near Sioux Falls (perhaps just spread out?). Sparrow migration was utterly spectacular in April, but other songbirds? Once the sparrows left, it seemed like there weren’t any other songbirds filling the void. Certainly not warblers, which were few and far between for much of May. With the South Dakota Ornithologist’s Union (SDOU) meeting in Brandon on May 17-19, and with an incredibly wet forecast, the prognosis for good birding wasn’t great.
And then a funny thing happened…songbird migration ended up being utterly spectacular that weekend. The birds seemed to have arrived overnight, with warblers galore, and plenty of other songbirds as well. I personally had a 20-warbler day that Saturday (the 18th), and that’s with me whiffing on a few species that others saw in the area. It was one of the best, if not the best, warbler and songbird days I’ve had here in the 20 years I’ve been birding.
So what happened? As a scientist, I say LET’S CHECK THE SCIENCE behind it! You know how they say “There’s an app for that?” Well there’s also typically a scientific explanation behind…everything, if you look hard enough. That’s certainly true in this case.
For one, let’s check the weather radar for the overnight period from Friday, May 17th through Saturday May 18th. The weather that Friday was cloudy and rainy, driven by a low pressure system and a slowly moving front moving northeastward out of Nebraska. With the system predicted to generally stall over our area for the weekend, the forecast was bleak.
The weather system did move northeasterly through the afternoon and evening, triggering storms both along the trailing warm front to the south through Nebraska and Kansas, as well as more unsettled weather wrapping around the low pressure system. Moderate to strong northeasterly winds were found behind the low pressure system, but in front of the low were southerly and southeasterly winds…including in the area around Sioux Falls. It took until daybreak for the low pressure system to reach the Sioux Falls area, basically sitting directly over the region. But from the previous evening through daybreak on May 18th, an area from Sioux Falls, southward into extreme eastern Nebraska and all of Iowa and Minnesota were subject to south and southeasterly winds.
Given how slow the migration had been all spring long, the birds had to be…somewhere. But where? How could science have explained the fallout of warblers and other birds that weekend? The weather map and the southeasterly winds provide one clue, but the other is provided by weather radar itself. Since the 1950s, it’s been understood that weather radar could potentially identify features in the sky other than the weather…and that includes birds. There’s even a term for it now…Radar Aeroecology. A 1956 paper by Bonham and Blake discussed the radar echoes provided by both birds and flying insects. While research continued in the decades since, it’s only recently that the information has been made available for a birder’s benefit.
The animated map below shows national-scale radar returns for the night of May 17th. The advancing low and front, and associated precipitation, can be seen as it moves out of Colorado, through Nebraska and into South Dakota. But what of the radar returns in the eastern half of the country? Those are birds…birds taking flight just after sunset to resume their spring migration northward. You can identify the “bloom” around each radar location shortly after sunset, with the blooms appearing east to west as the sun sets. Where are the heaviest migration “blooms”? Look at the radars lighting up after sunset in the Midwest…St. Louis…Des Moines…other radars in Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa depicting heavy densities of birds taking flight.
But how can we translate those radar echos to where the birds are moving? In recent years, Cornell University, in partnership with multiple academic institutions, have developed “BirdCast“. They have developed algorithms that use weather radar returns to quantify the density of birds, while using short-term weather forecasts to project likely movements. The resultant “BirdCast” provides a 1- to 3-day look on likely bird migration hotspots.
The animated map below provides a depiction of estimated bird migration traffic that night. Ahead of the advancing front, southerly and southeasterly winds were favorable for migration, particularly as large densities of birds were already stacked up from the previous days and weeks. Sioux Falls was on the western edge of this migration hotspot, a beneficiary of favorable weather patterns bringing in birds from Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota.
The map below depicts the situation that occurred throughout much of the first half of May. Prevailing weather patterns and storms, along with the cool weather, kept birds stacked up to our south and east, with a very slow spring migration to this point in South Dakota. The week prior to the big Sioux Falls fallout, birds were so far south that the Houston area birders declared a “Lights Out” period from May 9th-12th to avoid confusing the mass of migrating birds. But they had a long ways to go to get to South Dakota.
The result of the changing weather pattern…an absolutely spectacular weekend of birding in the Sioux Falls area the weekend of May 17-19, particularly as the forecast deluge mostly fizzled out. I admit that even I as a scientist was somewhat skeptical of the Cornell BirdCasts. But after the events of that weekend, count me as a firm believer!
Here are some photos of the spectacular birds of that weekend:
Twitter is a dangerous thing for me. I’m relatively new to it, starting 2 years ago. But it’s rather addictive, and if I don’t curb myself I can spend far too much time on it. The good news…this weekend I spent very little time on Twitter, even going (gasp!) almost 36 hours without even looking at it. The bad news…it’s because Twitter itself got me hooked on another online activity.
When visiting the Black Hills a week ago, I took a number of flower and butterfly photos. I don’t really “do” butterflies and flowers, so didn’t know the ID of most, so I posted some blocks of photos on Twitter. People did help with ID, but I also got multiple suggestions to join iNaturalist. Now, I have done eBird for years, and greatly enjoy recording all of my bird sightings. iNaturalist is similar but expanded to…everything…all life that you wish to record, be it a bird, a reptile, a tree, a shrub, a bug, a fungi…anything. But unlike eBird, where you’re expected to know the species you’re entering, iNaturalist is also a platform for helping you to identify your finds. You upload a photo, identify as best you can, and other people confirm your identification, or offer a corrected identification. There’s a system in place where the “grade” for your entry depends upon matching IDs, with “Research Grade” ranking given to entries that have confirmed IDs from multiple users.
I have many, many thousands of photos over the years, mostly birds, but also other critters. I also have occasionally taken photos of flowers, fungi, and other life, but haven’t really given an ID to most. So instead of wasting time on Twitter this weekend, I spent FAR too much time entering old photos onto iNaturalist.
One feature I think is really cool about iNaturalist is that you can set up your own “project”. Your project can define an area where you can summarize observations. You can also select what taxa are part of your project. So for example, you could set up a project for your favorite birding spot, and do something like “The Birds of Newton Hills”. iNaturalist would then record ANY sighting of a bird, be it by yourself, or someone else, and summarize all the sightings of birds for that area. It’s all automated in that once the project is set up, it automatically records the sightings any one makes within your defined parameters (area, type of life, time of observation, etc.).
A cool concept! And since I admittedly get a little fatigued with bird photography, from the standpoint of taking photos of the “same old birds” (how many American Goldfinch photos do you need?), and since we live right across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, I thought why not start an iNaturalist project that records ALL life in the park? And so that’s what I’ve done, with a new iNaturalist project “Biodiversity of the Big Sioux Recreation Area“. My other most visited birding location is Beaver Creek Nature Area, just 4 miles east of where I live. I started another project for Beaver Creek, “Biodiversity of Beaver Creek Nature Area“.
Join in if you’d like! If you ever visit either the Big Sioux Recreation Area or Beaver Creek Nature Area, just start taking photos of the plants, animals, fungi…whatever life you run across in those two parks. Join iNaturalist and record your sightings. You do need a photo, and you do need to include the location of the sighting. That’s easy if you use your cell phone for the photo (or if your camera has GPS), as the location will be automatically recorded when you take the photo, and uploaded automatically when you add the photo to iNaturalist. And…that’s it! If the sighting is recorded within the boundaries of those two parks, it will automatically be added to these “projects”.
And don’t worry if you don’t know the identification of the plant or animal! That’s the point of iNaturalist. It will offer an initial suggestion based on your photo (most of the time the suggestions are very good!), and others will chime in and offer their 2 cents on ID.
I don’t need another online hobby, but…this one is a bit different! Not only did I end up starting these two iNaturalist “projects” this weekend, but each day I ended up taking long walks through the Big Sioux Recreation Area, going very slowly, and taking photos of a lot of the plants and insects I came across. It’s an online time sucker, but…it’s also an exercise routine in a way! So it all balances out. 🙂
Give it a try and start entering your sightings! But beware, it’s fun, but a bit addictive. Here are the links again to the two iNaturalist projects I set up: