Birding the Bog! Sax-Zim in Minnesota

It’s been a relatively “birdy” winter in South Dakota. We’ve had really high numbers of winter finches. I’ve certainly never had more Pine Siskins at my Feeders, and I’ve also had Common Redpolls in my yard for only the third time ever. Both White-winged and Red Crossbills have also been around in select locations (always a rarity). It’s been a GREAT year for Snowy Owls across the northern U.S., and while normally I have to travel to the central or northern parts of South Dakota to see them, I came across three different Snowy Owls within 15 miles of home this winter!

A pretty good winter, given how bleak birding can be in South Dakota at this time of year, but I still had the birding itch to see “more”.  All winter long, I had pondered making the long trip to Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota to look for owls and other boreal “goodies”, but kept putting it off. It IS a long jaunt and requires a hefty time commitment…a six+ hour drive from home.  This weekend was going to be my last chance to make the trip before the winter ended, so I finally pulled the trigger on a trip. It’s SUCH a special birding location and one where I want to get the most of my few chances to visit, so much to the bewilderment of my wife, I decided to leave a 2:00 AM Saturday to maximize the my birding time in the area.  The forecast called for a gloomy, gray Saturday…PERFECT for owling.

The forecast was wrong. Saturday was gorgeous and sunny, with temperatures over 40 degrees.  Not great for the owls who seem to be less active on such days. After getting up so early and driving so far, I was a bit disheartened after birding the entire day Saturday. The only owl I had seen was a Northern Hawk Owl from a very long distance. I’ll never complain about seeing a Northern Hawk Owl, given how few and far opportunities are to see the species in the lower 48 states, but it was a slow and overall disappointing day nonetheless.

Sunday made up for it. A gloomy, gray day, it certainly did seem to bring out the owls, and I had decent luck with other species as well.  Great Gray Owls are one of the big draws for birders in the Bog, and I was able to see three on Sunday, including one at very close range. Two more Northern  Hawk Owls (none very close), plenty of Gray Jays, Ruffed Grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse, Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, and even a glimpse of a Pine Marten that had been visiting a feeder complex in the area…it ended up being a wonderful day of birding!  I struck out on a couple of target birds…Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpecker…but that just gives me an excuse to make the trip again next winter!  Below are a few photos from the day.

Great Gray Owl - Strix nebulosa

The best photo opportunity of the day was this Great Gray Owl. Evidently he had been actively feeding for a few days alongside “Owl Avenue” (aptly named!). It was about 10 o’clock in the morning when I found him, and while I didn’t get to see him catch or eat anything, I was able to get some nice photos and video. Another photographer who was there told me that he had already caught 4 voles that morning! The same photographer said he was watching the Great Gray the evening before, and it surprisingly went after a muskrat! That’s a VERY large prey item for a Great Gray, but evidently he was able to catch it and somehow swallow it whole.

Great Gray Owl - Strix nebulosa

A Great Gray Owl relaxing at the back of a forest clearing. I ended up watching him for over an hour, and he never left this perch. He spent most of that time preening, not actively looking for prey.

Northern Hawk Owl - Surnia ulula

Not the greatest photo in the world, but it does convey what all of my Northern Hawk Owl sightings were like on this trip! I came across three different Northern Hawk Owls, but alas, all of them were some distance away. Given the rarity of a Northern Hawk Owl in the lower 48 states, I will DEFINITELY take it though!

Gray Jay - Perisoreus canadensis

Photo of a Gray Jay, one of my favorite species to watch.  It seemed like every time I came across the species, it was a pair of birds, and one pair was clearly collecting nesting material as I watched them.  

Hairy Woodpecker -  Leuconotopicus villosus

Not the woodpecker I was after, but I’ll take it. I was looking for Black-backed and Three-toed Woodpeckers, two species that were supposedly around in decent numbers this winter, but I struck out on both. One of the things that’s really changed about Sax-Zim Bog since I first went there 14 years ago is the number of feeder complexes that local residents have set up. This guy was on a long-established feeder complex along Admiral Road, but there are now at least a dozen such areas scattered throughout the bog. Given the warm, pleasant weather when I was there, activity at the feeders was pretty slow, but I still was able to see Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Grosbeaks, Common Redpoll, Gray Jays, and several other species.

Northern Hawk Owl - Surnia ulula

NOT from this trip, but a better representation of a Northern Hawk Owl from Sax-Zim Bog. This was from my very first trip to Sax-Zim Bog during the famed owl irruption of the winter of 2004/2005. My introduction to the Bog came through a friend at work, who had heard about incredible numbers of northern owls being found in the bog. As someone who had only started birding a few years before, in 2000, I had never seen a Great Gray Owl or Northern Hawk Owl. I was torn about whether to go or not, as I didn’t know what my chances actually were to see an owl, and it IS a hefty time commitment to drive 6 hours there and back. I did decide to spend 2 days there though in December 2004, and it remains the greatest birding trip of my life! On that first day, I saw over THIRTY Great Gray Owls, and nearly the same number of Northern Hawk Owls! This was one of the first Northern Hawk Owls I found, and the first photos of the species that I’d ever taken. It definitely remains the best series of Northern Hawk Owl photos I have! This guy was sitting at eye level in a low bush, RIGHT next to the road. He was incredibly tolerant of my presence, and I had him to myself for well over an hour as I watched (and photographed) him from extremely close range. How close? I was in my car, not wanting to get out and disturb him, and found that I was actually too close for my camera lens to focus! My Canon 400 mm lens has a minimum focusing distance of about 12 feet, and I was only about 10 feet away as I watched him! To capture the photos I actually scooted over to the passenger seat, before returning to the driver’s seat and watching him preen, sleep, and generally ignore me over the next hour. One of the most magical birding moments of my life, and this photo more than other shows why I’ve continued to return to the Bog every few years since 2004!!!

Birds in Movies – “Gamenight” gets it right!!

Common Nighthawk Drawing - Chordeiles minor

Drawing of a Common Nighthawk I did a few years ago. They have a VERY distinctive call when flying around at dusk or at night, something that really stands out on the soundtrack when watching a movie! Kudos to “GameNight” for the correct use of a bird call, in the proper time and context!

As a birder, one major pet peeve of mine…Hollywood’s (mis-)use of birds in movies! It seems that Hollywood typically has about 3 different bird vocalizations that are used in any situation a bird is present. One is the ubiquitous Red-tailed Hawk screaming cry, something they use for ANY raptor that happens to even tangentially appear on a screen. Conan O’Brien wasn’t alone when making this erroneous use of a Red-tailed Hawk call, but he WAS called out by birders for his actions!! Bald Eagles are often shown in movies and TV, but the more iconic Red-tailed Hawk call is usually used instead of the real Bald Eagle cry.

The second iconic call that’s heard ALL the time is the haunting call of a Common Loon. Occasionally it’s used in the proper setting and context, but there are SO many times when movie characters are out “in the wild” and the call of a Common Loon is dubbed in the background.  What’s that?  Your favorite character is roaming the forests of the Appalachians? Perhaps it’s a wild setting, but NOT EVERY WILD SETTING SHOULD HAVE LOON CALLS PLAYING IN THE BACKGROUND!! This site notes several “misplaced” birds in TV and movies, including the mis-use of Common Loon calls in Murder She Wrote and Raiders of the Lost Ark (presumably while in Peru!!). The Common Loon has also been mis-used visually…something I noticed IMMEDIATELY when watching Finding Dory. “Becky” is the loopy Common Loon that plays a role in the rescue scenes in Finding Dory, along the California coastline. The presence of a Common Loon along the California coast isn’t out of place IN WINTER.  But “Becky” in Finding Dory is a Common Loon in full summer breeding plumage…NOT LIKELY!!

The third call that’s heard in EVERY jungle scene is the laughing call of a Kookaburra. They’re a bird found in Australia, but listen to any jungle scene supposedly set in Africa, South America, or southeast Asia, and you’ll STILL likely hear the wild calls of a Kookaburra.

Given how often birds are mis-used in movies, I always get a bit of satisfaction when I see a movie that gets it right!  Tonight my wife and I went to see “GameNight“, starring Justin Bateman and Rachel McAdams.  It’s a really funny movie!!  We both greatly enjoyed it.  The only time birds were evident (and surely ONLY to me, among the movie crowd) was a scene late in the movie.  It was a setting in a relatively dense urban setting, on a bridge over a large river and fairly out in the open. Large buildings could be seen in the surrounding area, and it was night. As the scene played out (I won’t spoil the movie for you here!), I could CLEARLY hear Common Nighthawks giving their typical flight calls.

PERFECT!! You often DO hear Common Nighthawks as they fly through the night skies in and around urban areas, picking off flying insects in flight with their massive, gaping maw.  One of the places I’ve heard them the most is at the airport here in Sioux Falls. They typically use rocky areas to breed, and the rocky roofs that many urban buildings use work perfectly for their purposes.

WELL DONE GAMENIGHT!!  You get a rare GOLD STAR for proper use of a bird in a movie!!

Rather slow (but enjoyable) winter raptor search

I treasure my trips to the central part of South Dakota in the winter. Given the bleakness and bitter cold that a South Dakota winter often brings, it’s a true joy to head to the area near the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and generally find it so incredibly full of life. Winter on the Grasslands means raptors, often in numbers that boggle the mind.  Rough-legged Hawks by the dozens, huge Golden and Bald Eagles, Ferruginous Hawks, Prairie Falcons, and the occasional Gyrfalcon, Snowy Owl, Short-eared Owl, or other “goody”.

That’s the normal winter day on the Grasslands. A recent trip unfortunately wasn’t “normal”.  It’s been a hard last year or two for grouse and pheasants on the Grasslands, with drought and some cold winters taking a bit of a toll.  It’s the grouse, pheasants, and other prey that attract the winter raptors, and with the lower prey numbers, raptor numbers have been far below what they normally are.  In a full day’s worth of birding, I “only” came across 15 or so Rough-legged Hawks, about half-a-dozen eagles, and some scattered Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers. I usually find multiple Prairie Falcons and an occasional Merlin or Gyrfalcon, but no falcons of any kind were seen on this trip. A quiet day, but still enjoyable, thanks to the occasional raptor sighting, and VERY large numbers of Mule Deer, Pronghorn, and even 4 or 5 (normally very shy) coyotes.

Not only were the birds rather sparse on this day, but photo opportunities weren’t great.  Here are a (very) few photos from the day, including the highlight…a gorgeous, pure white Snowy Owl.

Snowy Owl - Bubo scandiacus

The definite highlight of the day, an absolutely stunning, pure-white Snowy Owl, found on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. Clearly a mature male with the lack of black barring. Most birds we see around here in winter seem to be younger and/or female birds with substantial black barring. Unfortunately he was pretty shy, and preferred to observe from a distance on a high point in a nearby corn field.

Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos

I love Golden Eagles, particularly when you get to see them at such close range such as this. Such massive, massive birds.

Pronghorn - Antilocapra americana

Pronghorn are something you don’t always see on the Fort PIerre National Grasslands, but they are around. On this day, I saw multiple large groups, including this group (there were about 30 animals in all) moving quickly through a field.

Mule Deer - Odocoileus hemionus

A quite common sight on the Grasslands, Mule Deer were bunched up and quite common on this day. I saw several very large bucks such as this. Shouldn’t be long before they lose their antlers and start growing next year’s.Mul

Common Redpolls are Back

It was a over a month ago when I saw three Common Redpolls feeding at our thistle/niger feeder.  It was only the 3rd winter (in 24 here) that we’ve had Redpolls in our yard, and given it happened so early, in early November, I was hoping for continuous visits by Redpolls all winter long. That certainly would make a dreary South Dakota winter a little brighter, but alas, I only saw them for a couple of hours that day, and then they disappeared.

Until now.  I looked out the kitchen window, and there 15 feet in front of me in a paper birch, were about 20 Common Redpolls.  Finches seem to love the catkins on our paper birch, as I’ve seen American Goldfinches, House Finches, Pine Siskins, and now Common Redpolls feeding on them. Interestingly they were only interested in the catkins, and ignored the big finch feeder just 20 feet away.  It’s been a great winter for winter finches, as while the Redpolls were feeding on catkins, there were about 8 Pine Siskins mixed in with Goldfinches on the thistle feeder. Hopefully they don’t disappear again…would be nice to have them around this winter.  Some photos:

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

Snowy Owl!!!

It’s supposed to be a banner year for Snowy Owls in the lower 48 states. Sightings are happening…everywhere…and I also got a quick look at one in late November when driving in the central part of South Dakota on I-90. I’ve been taking gravel roads to work more often than usual, just on the off chance I might come across one, but I never really expected to! But that’s just what happened on the way home from work today.

About 5 minutes from work, in northern Minnehaha County, I saw him sitting on a telephone pole.  Pretty unmistakable, so I immediately knew what it was when I saw the splotch of white from a distance.  There was a time when I had my camera with me EVERYWHERE, but unfortunately I now rarely ever have it with me when I go to work. I’m very content to just sit and watch a gorgeous bird like this, but I was also itching to get a photo! I drove home, picked up my son, dropped him off at home, grabbed my camera, and headed back to the location where I’d seen him. By the time I had returned, an hour had elapsed since I last saw him, but he was still sitting on the same perch!  Wonderful treat for the day.

Snowy Owl - Bubo scandiacus

Snow Owl enjoying the late evening light on top of a telephone pole. What I find so cool about Snowy Owls…they’re so tame! You can tell most have never had the “pleasure” of having a run-in with human beings, and most are quite approachable. This guy sat in the same place for well over an hour, even WITH the JACKASS who felt the need to blast his horn for 10 seconds while he blasted past me and flipped me off (for daring to be pulled off on the shoulder of the road, I guess?).

One more trip – Rocks and Birds

It was a beautiful weekend in much of South Dakota, so much so that the lure of one last rockhounding trip was too much for me to pass up.  With projected highs near 60, and just as importantly on the windswept plains of South Dakota, a lack of a wind, it seemed like the perfect day to roam around the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. An added treat of birding the western part of the state at this time of year…all of the winter raptors that are arriving!

I started out rockhounding, and could tell it was going to be a great day.  I tried a little bit different spot, and immediately found it wasn’t as “picked over” as my typical spot near Kadoka.  Right away I was finding many bubblegum agates, some beautiful rose quartz, some amber-colored honey agates, prairie agates, and some big chunks of petrified wood. I also found several coral and shell fossils, including one cute little bubblegum agate with a crisp imprint of a shell on the back side.  The highlight…after only 10 minutes, I found a gorgeous Fairburn agate with an unusual, rosy-colored quartz center.  That piece alone would have made the trip worth it.

While I spent most of the day rockhounding, I also kept my eyes open for the arriving winter raptors. Rough-legged Hawks, as always, were in abundance in parts of the Grasslands. Ferruginous Hawks, Golden Eagles, a prairie falcon, and plenty of Red-tailed Hawks rounded out a day that finished with the spotting of a gorgeous, pure white, unbarred Snowy Owl on the drive back home. A great “last blast” out on the Grasslands, before the really cold South Dakota winter hits.

Fairburn Agate - South Dakota

A gorgeous Fairburn agate as I found it on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. On average this year, I’d say I find one Fairburn for about every 15 hours of looking, so it’s always a wonderful treat. This one was so unusual, in terms of that grogeous rosy center surrounding by the fortification banding.

South Dakota Agates, Jaspers, Petrified Wood, Quartz

The material I brought back. You can collect on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, but 1) only for private collections (no selling of material), and 2) can collect up to 25 pounds of material in a day. Given I usually only keep the smaller pieces (most are 2″ or less), that’s not a problem! But on this day, there were some BIG pieces of petrified wood I was tempted to bring home! If I had done so though, a couple of them would have used up my 25-lb allotment! Hence sticking with my “usual” agates and other material.

Unexpected surprise at the feeders – Common Redpolls

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

From the big Redpoll invasion of 2013, a Common Redpoll sitting on a sunflower head in our yard. This week on Halloween, we had our first Common Redpolls since 2013.

We’re at a part of the season that isn’t a lot of fun for a birder in South Dakota. As the calendar flips from October to November, we’re fully entrenched in the “dry season” for birding, where both bird diversity and bird numbers are far lower than in the warmer months. Most of the smaller water bodies in the area are starting to freeze over, and while there are still some waterfowl and gulls hanging around the open water in the bigger lakes, it won’t be long before they too depart for the winter. Nearly all of the insectivorous birds too have long left the state, leaving us with our typical winter mix of species.

Dark-eyed Juncos are now found scattered throughout my yard.  A welcome addition to an otherwise dreary winter in the yard, but…when the Juncos are around it’s a sign that winter is starting to arrive. In addition to my House Sparrow hoards, I’m also getting an occasional surprise sparrow species, such as the Harris’s and Lincoln’s Sparrows that have periodically showed up in the yard. I am now getting regular visits from three woodpecker species (Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied), another nice presence during the winter months. But overall the species that dominates my yard right now are American Goldfinches.

My wife bought me a huge, tall thistle (niger) feeder many years ago, and it’s always been a star attraction in my yard. The goldfinches will use it all season long, disappearing occasionally for a few weeks at a time, only to come back in full force and stay for long periods of time. Lately, as the weather has gotten colder, the finch feeder has been standing room only, with every available perch often full during the day. The goldfinches may not be in the brilliant yellow summer plumage, but the activity and quiet chatter is nice to have around.

Hoary Redpoll - Acanthis hornemanni

A Hoary Redpoll, a pale, beautiful, wonderful surprise later in that winter of 2013. The two that hung around my yard for several weeks are still the only two Hoary Redpolls I’ve seen in South Dakota.

On Halloween this past week, I was working at home when I came downstairs to grab some lunch.  As I was letting the dogs out into the back yard, I couldn’t help but notice some oddballs in the American Goldfinch hoard that scattered when seeing the dogs. Most of the flock landed in my very large River Birch at the back of the yard, and at first I thought the oddballs were just House Finches.  But after the dogs finished their business and came back in, I was very pleasantly surprised to see a handful of Common Redpolls scattered in with the Goldfinches that were returning to the feeder.

We’ve been in South Dakota for 24 years. In those 24 winters, there have only been 3 occasions where I’ve had Redpolls in the yard. One of those occasions was a “one-night stand”, where a few were at the feeders briefly and then disappeared. But from January through March of 2013, my yard was inundated with Redpolls, to the point that Redpolls actually outnumbered the ubiquitous Goldfinches most days.  It was a snowy and long winter (they all seemingly are), but having the Redpolls around made it seem a little less gloomy.

Much to my surprise, the Common Redpolls weren’t even the best surprise that winter. One morning my young son looked out at the feeders and said “what’s the white one?”  He saw a bird among the Common Redpolls at the finch feeder that was obviously different. I went over and looked out, and was rather shocked to see this wonderful, pale Hoary Redpoll mixed in with the Common Redpolls. A life bird, all from the comfort of my cozy sunroom window!

We had one, and then two, Hoary Redpolls stay around the yard for several weeks before disappearing, along with the rest of the Common Redpolls. We haven’t had Redpolls in the yard since, until this Halloween day! I’ve got a glimpse of one Redpoll in the days since, as my finch feeder has returned to being dominated by goldfinches, but I’m hoping the Redpolls are still around, and plan on staying around for the winter. It would bring a VERY welcome splash of color and diversity to our limited suite of winter birds in South Dakota.

Fall Sparrows and More…

A wonderful, crisp, sunny fall morning, the perfect morning to sparrowing!! Not too many people get excited about sparrows, but this time of year in South Dakota, there’s such a wonderful variety of species that are moving through. One of my favorite kinds of birding trips…finding a weedy field in the fall, setting up in a quiet spot, and sitting back and enjoying all the sparrow species that are feeding on grass and weed seeds. Some are species we have during the summer as well, such as Savannah and Song Sparrows, but we also get some wonderful migrants such as Harris’s Sparrows and Lincoln’s Sparrows.

The crème de la crème though…Le Conte’s Sparrows. They’re a bird many birders haven’t seen, and even when they’re around, they can sometimes be hard to find as they prefer to hide in dense vegetation. In fall around here though, they are often quite bold.  This morning I saw more Le Conte’s Sparrows than I think I ever have in one day.  One weedy field west of Tea, South Dakota was chock-full of them. They were feeding on weed seeds near a gravel road, and there were times I’d have half a dozen in sight at one time.  A great treat, and I did get some good photos as well.

Photos from this morning:

Le Conte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii

A gorgeous little Le Conte’s Sparrow, basking in the early morning sun along a weedy fenceline.

Lincon's Sparrow - Melospiza lincolnii

Probably my 2nd favorite sparrow, a Lincoln’s Sparrow. They have a touch more color and pattern than many sparrows, and just always look so elegant.

Swamp Sparrow - Melospiza georgiana

A Swamp Sparrow perched among the cattails.

Savannah Sparrow - Passerculus sandwichensis

The most numerous of the sparrow species seen this morning, a Savannah Sparrow.

Song Sparrow - Melospiza melodia

One of our summer breeding residents, there’s a ton of Song Sparrows around right now as well, including many first-year birds.

Sedge Wren - Cistothorus platensis

Seems like Le Conte’s Sparrows and Sedge Wrens often go hand-in-hand when I see them in the fall. The same weedy field with the many Le Conte’s also had several Sedge Wrens.

Franklin's Gull - Franklin's Gull October 7th, 2017 Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Other than sparrows, the most plentiful birds this morning were gulls. The skies were full of gulls, as were the areas near the dump (no surprise) and the bigger water bodies in western Minnehaha County. I didn’t pan through all the massive flocks to look for rarities. Ring-billed Gulls and these guys, Franklin’s Gulls, were present by the thousands.

Ring-billed gull - Larus delawarensis

Thousands of Ring-billed Gulls were around. Here one lounges at the beach at Wall lake.

Curious Red-tailed Hawks

When you encounter a bird in the wild, there’s a standard series of events that occur. Far too often, the encounter ends when the bird flies away as you approach.  Hence the challenge for a bird photographer!! But every once in a while, the quarry seems just as interested as the photographer.  Today was one of those experiences.

I was birding a little bit in western Minnehaha County, west of Sioux Falls. I saw a pair of Red-tailed Hawks sitting on adjacent fence posts on the road in front of me. In these situations, I always have my camera ready when I approach, just on the off change that the bird would actually stay perched and not flush. However, as per usual, the pair both took off well before I got in camera range.

Was was NOT per usual is their behavior after taking flight. Instead of flying off to a distant perch, the pair banked…and turned back towards me as I stood on the side of the road. For the next 3 or four minutes, both of them lazily circled above and around me as I furiously clicked away.  Getting nice flight photos of wild raptors is ALWAYS a welcome opportunity…here are some photos of the pair.

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensisRed-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensisRed-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensisRed-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

Hanging with the Hummingbirds…

I was planning on doing some birding yesterday, but life got in the way. I started doing yard work, and couldn’t help but notice several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds flitting through my back yard, moving from flower to flower, and to my one nectar feeder.  After finishing the yard work, I decided to do something I haven’t done all summer…try to get photos of my visiting hummingbirds.

They’re not going to be around much longer.  They’ll start to leave in a week or two, and numbers will dwindle.  By September, I’m usually only left with occasionally young birds and females. By mid-September, they’ll largely be gone.

I’m always so excited when the first hummingbird shows up in our yard in early May!  I figured I’d better take some time and enjoy them while we can.  For now, here’s a male and female (or young) visiting my nectar feeder.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Archilochus colubris

A somewhat scruffy looking male Ruby-throated Hummingbird. I probably won’t have males around for too much longer. Mature males are always the first to leave, and will be scarce or absent by the end of the month.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Archilochus colubris

A female (or immature) hummingbird. Pretty soon these will all I’ll have, and then sadly, they’ll trickle away as well, leaving me with a long, 8-month period without my beautiful little hummingbird. 🙁


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