A typical day on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands

Fort Pierre National Grasslands - South Dakota

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.

Fort Pierre National Grasslands - Sunrise
Pre-dawn on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. Normally I make a (long) day of it, leaving 3 hours before dawn so I can arrive just before the sun rises, and make the most out of short winter days (about 9 hours of sunlight at a minimum). This photo gives you a good idea of what it’s like as you await the sunrise…VAST…open…isolated…and other than barbed wire fences and a few powerlines, often not much of a sign of human habitation. An exciting time as the sun arises, as you just KNOW you’re about to have another wonderful day on the grasslands.
Pronghorn - Fort Pierre National Grasslands
It’s not ALL about birds! While winter raptors are my primary reason for coming to the region, there’s often other wildlife to catch your attention. On this trip I was thrilled to see a large herd of Pronghorn grazing on the rolling hills, just as the sun was rising. Mule Deer and White-tailed Deer are also often seen. Coyotes are certainly around, and I probably see them about every other trip to the Grasslands, but mostly at dawn. They’re extremely shy and difficult to approach.
Buteo Regalis - Ferruginous Hawk - Fort PIerre National Grasslands
There are a few private land holdings within the Grasslands boundaries, but there are more abandoned buildings than any other. In a land that’s often treeless or without any kind of high perches, these abandoned homesteads often are birding hotspots. Here a Ferruginous Hawk is perched next to an abandoned…Packard (?).
Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus
RAPTORS are the name of the game on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, but there’s a definite hierarchy in terms of what I’d love to see!! The Holy Grail bird of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands…a Gyrfalcon! And not only a Gyrfalcon, but an adult Gyrfalcon. In the 20 years I’ve been birding the area, I’ve probably seen about 25 Gyrfalcons. I believe I can count on one hand how many of those have been adults, so I was thrilled to run across one on this trip. I watched from a long distance and took some photos from further away than I normally would, as I wanted to make sure I documented this bird’s presence. I’m glad I stopped so far away and grabbed some photos, because after watching it for perhaps 30 seconds, it flushed and flew away, and I never again found it on this trip.
Greater Prairie Chicken in Flight - Tympanuchus cupido
Why are there so many raptors on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands? Clearly raptors go where the food is. There undoubtedly must be a lot of voles and other small rodents, as that’s what I primarily see birds like Rough-legged Hawks catch. But another attractant to birds like the Gyrfalcon above are all the Ring-necked Pheasants, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Greater Prairie Chickens that are around. It’s a popular hunting location for all of those species, and given that surrounding private lands often release birds (pheasants) for hunting, there’s never a shortage of any of those species. The native Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie Chickens are VERY wary as a result of the hunting pressure, and I have few close photos of either species. On this trip I was very happy to get my first ever flight photo of a Greater Prairie Chicken. With the recent heavy snow, many of the game birds were struggling to find foraging grounds, and were concentrated along the roads more than usual.
Ring-necked Pheasant - Phasianus colchicus
Speaking of Pheasants…they are widespread in the area, but are probably less common on the Grasslands themselves than on the surrounding private lands.
Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus
You’ll see both Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles on the Grasslands. Golden Eagles are more often seen (they were downright common on the three recent trips I took), but even far from any open water, you will also often see Bald Eagles. I’m aware of at least 4 different nests just to the south of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves, near the Presho area. This photo is along the Missouri River just to the north of the Grasslands, a stronghold of the species in the winter months.
Prairie Falcon - Falco mexicanus
A Prairie Falcon in flight. They’re definitely a larger bird than the American Kestrels you see a lot in the summer months (and to a much lesser extent, in winter). They’re larger than the Merlins you sometimes see on the Grasslands (including one I saw Friday). But they share the same “falcon” characteristic when they take flight, with much faster wingbeats than all the Buteo hawks in the region, and a more tapered wing. Couple the relatively large size and that classic falcon flight pattern, and Prairie Falcons OFTEN get my heart racing as I’m thinking that bird flying up in front of me may be a Gyrfalcon! On a typical day on the Grasslands though, I’m lucky if I see a Gyrfalcon, yet I almost always see 3 or 4 Prairie Falcons. Usually they’re pretty shy, but there’s been one hanging around County Line Road on the grasslands this winter that’s uncharacteristically curious. He’ll flush when you get anywhere close, as do nearly all Prairie Falcons. But then he has this habit of circling me one or two times before finding a different perch! It’s not often I can grab a Prairie Falcon in flight, so I’m pretty happy to have seen this guy on this past trip.
Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus
Always by FAR the most common raptor on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in winter…a Rough-legged Hawk. I didn’t stop and record each one in eBird as I often do. But on a trip to the area the week before I saw nearly 50 of them, and I would suspect I tallied a similar number on this past trip. Gorgeous birds, and quite variable in plumage, although this is the typical plumage that you see.
Buteo jamaicensis - Red-tailed Hawk
The Fort Pierre National Grasslands are mostly treeless, and even during the summer months I’ve found Red-tailed Hawks are typically concentrated in the few wooded ravines, shelterbelts, or abandoned farmsteads in the area. In winter, those site tendencies are even more pronounced. Many Red-tailed Hawks move further south for the winter, and I find MANY more Red-tailed Hawks just south of the Grasslands (such as the Presho area) in winter than I do on the Grasslands themselves. However, over the 20+ years I’ve been birding the area, it’s quite obvious to me that more birds are overwintering in the region than used to. Similarly, 20 years ago it wasn’t common to find Western Meadowlark overwintering in any numbers, but on this past trip, there were a few spots where I stirred up a dozen or so Meadowlarks hanging out together. More Red-tailed Hawks, more Meadowlarks, fewer Gyrfalcons….that’s my impression of what’s happened over the last 20 years.
Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos
The one photo here that’s not from last Thursday/Friday, as this was taken on the Grasslands 2 days before Christmas. My impression is that BOTH eagle species are getting much more common on the Grasslands. I have few if any photos of them 10 to 20 years ago, but now I typically see 6-10 each time I go out.

South Dakota “Big Year” and Other 2019 Highlights

White-eyed Vireo - Vireo griseus

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!

Sharp-shinned Hawk - Accipiter striatus
A Sharp-shinned Hawk catching a House Sparrow in our back yard on Christmas Day. Species #250 for the year, and a photo that’s instantly one of my favorites.

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.

In mid-April, I had a conference in Pierre for work. With the conference starting at noon, I left home long before dawn, hoping to get a few hours of birding in before the conference. As I was driving near the Missouri River southeast of Pierre, I saw a number of American White Pelicans along flooded areas along the river, so when I saw a large, white bird with black wing tips flying parallel to the road in front of me, I immediately dismissed it as a pelican. This was no pelican! My jaw dropped as I got closer and saw that it was a lone Whooping Crane!! MAJOR frustration as I quickly grabbed the camera and tried to grab a few frames, but the bird disappeared over a ridge and I thought I’d never get a chance to document the sighting. However, when I found a tiny side road, I was able to relocate the bird foraging in a corn field. For the next hour I watched the bird, getting some long distance shots as it foraged, and a few frames in flight when it left the corn field and returned to forage in a wetland area along the river. My first ever Whooping Crane sighting, and definitely a highlight for my 2019 South Dakota bird list!
Henslow's Sparrow - Ammodramus henslowii
When you’re trying for a South Dakota “Big Year”, spring migration is…everything! There are so many migrant bird species that move through the state, and you have a narrow window in which to spot them. By mid- to late-May, the spring migration was…disappointing! It was very cold yet, and very wet. Warblers are a huge draw for me when I bird in the spring, yet by May 19th, I’d only seen a handful of warbler species. On that day, the South Dakota Ornithologist Union was holding it’s spring meeting in Brandon, and a miserable forecast (stormy cool weather) didn’t seem to bode well for birding! It ended up being a truly magical day, however, with over 20 warbler species seen by birders in the Sioux Falls area that day. I myself ended up with 20 different warbler species that day, including several that you don’t see every year. The highlight of the day though was a lifer, a Henslow’s Sparrow that other birders found foraging in a grassy field on the south side of Newton Hills State Park.
American Three-toed Woodpecker - Picoides dorsalis
As a family we typically go the Black Hills once or twice a year. It’s a 6 hour drive (South Dakota is a big state!), so it’s not somewhere I get to bird a lot, and when with the family, my birding time is generally limited. However, in July I took a dedicated 3-day birding trip to the Hills, hoping to pick up a number of South Dakota species I hadn’t recorded in the state before. It was a great trip…I ended up adding 10 new South Dakota species, more than half of my new 2019 South Dakota total. It was also rather frustrating! I have yet to see a Bullock’s Oriole in the state! They’re common out there! I have yet to see a Black-headed Grosbeak! Also common out there! But I did pick up several South Dakota lifers, and one that was an all-time lifer, when this American Three-toed Woodpecker foraged on spruce trees very close to me.
Not a South Dakota lifer, but one I didn’t have on my yearly list until a VERY unexpected lone Rock Wren showed up at Good Earth State Park along the Iowa/South Dakota border. You can count on one hand the number of Rock Wrens recorded in eBird within 200 miles of this location! A good sighting, and a nice addition without which I wouldn’t have gotten to 250.
Magnolia Warbler - Setophaga magnolia
A Magnolia Warbler from that magical weekend of May 19th. One of 20 different warbler species I recorded that day.
Eastern Rosella - Platycercus eximius
Definitely not a South Dakota bird! But a definite 2019 highlight for birding…a 3-week vacation with the family in Australia! Not a birding trip, but of course I was able to get a lot of life birds on that trip, including some incredibly colored species such as this Eastern Rosella.
Southern Cassowary - Casuarius casuarius
A moment I’ll never forget, when a freakin’ DINOSAUR stepped out of the rainforest right in front of us. A massive Southern Cassowary, from near Cairns, Australia.
Rainbow Lorikeet - Trichoglossus moluccanus
A pretty common sight in many areas where we went in Australia, a Rainbow Lorikeet. Given how they’ve adapted to city life and human landscaping, they’re actually considered a bit of a pest in many areas, but OH what a beautiful pest.
Galah - Eolophus roseicapilla
One of my favorites from Australia, a Galah. SO entertaining and social…just incredible fun to watch as they interact with each other and their environment.
Blue-winged Kookaburra - Dacelo leachii
Blue-winged Kookaburra from near Port Douglas. A BIG, chunk bird, these are the less common of two Kookaburra species we saw. The much more widely spread Laughing Kookaburra was a species we found in all the locations we visited in eastern Australia.

An actual day of BIRDING!!

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:

Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos
One of the rare times a Golden Eagle has sat still on its perch while I snapped a photo. And even here, he only put up with me for a couple of quick shots before he slowly lifted off and sailed away.
Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis
Three Ferruginous Hawks for the day…always a treat. It was nice to get one in a natural perch, as I think every photo I have of them is in flight, or on a fence post.
White-winged Scoter - Melanitta deglandi
A (photographic) lifer! This White-winged Scoter was very close to the rip-rap along the shoreline below Oahe Dam. I ended up watching him for about 20 minutes, and in that time he caught and gobbled down two crawfish.
Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus
A Rough-legged Hawk in flight. Usually the most numerous raptor in the areas I go in winter, there were quite a few around, but I suspect many haven’t arrived yet.
Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis
The first bird of the day, a Red-tailed Hawk in the warm morning light of dawn. The most numerous raptor of the day, although as winter starts to set in, some of these will drift further south.
Red-tailed Hawk - Krider's
Another Red-tailed Hawk, but a VERY different looking one! This is what I would call a Krider’s…a very pale variant of a Red-tailed Hawk.
Lesser Black-backed gull - Larus fuscus
There were certainly a lot of gulls below Oahe Dam, taking advantage of the massive amount of water they’re pushing through right now in an effort to get water levels down by next spring. Including in the mix were at least three Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

Fall Sparrows, and rare visitor

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.

Rock Wren - Salpinctes obsoletus
Rock Wren and his reflection in the early morning sun. The material is a polished stone countertop on a little outdoor bar area behind the Good Earth State Park visitor’s center! A rather unusual bird perch but I loved getting him in this light, with the reflection.
LeConte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii
For me, LeConte’s Sparrows are just about the most beautiful sparrow out there. Gorgeous patterns, along with that orangish facial coloring.
Field Sparrow - Spizella pusilla
Field Sparrow. One of my favorite species, largely because I love hearing them when we walk through the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a state park across the street from where we live.
Orange-crowned Warbler - Vermivora celata
An Orange-crowned Warbler amidst some of the few remaining flowers at Good Earth. These guys and Yellow-rumped Warblers are some late-migrating warblers that you often see here in October.
Savannah Sparrow - Passerculus sandwichensis
Savannah Sparrow, which were downright abundant in the grassland area as you drive into Good Earth State Park.
White-tailed Deer - Odocoileus virginianus
A rare photo of something without feathers! But can’t really pass up an opportunity like this when it comes along. Near the visitor’s center.
Harris' Sparrow - Zonotrichia querula
One of my favorite fall migrants (and sometimes winter-long visitor), this was the only Harris’s Sparrow I saw this morning.
Lincoln's Sparrow - Melospiza lincolnii
An inquisitive Lincoln’s Sparrow, wondering who the bundled up fool was on the walking path that was doing all the “pishing”.
Rock Wren - Salpinctes obsoletus
Another photo of my little Rock Wren friend. This was when he was sitting on the curb right next to me when the sun finally came over the horizon and started to warm things up.
LeConte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii
And another LeConte’s Sparrow…can’t resist taking photos of them, despite having dozens and dozens.
Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus
Red-bellied Woodpecker

The science behind a bird fallout…there’s an app for that!!!

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.

May 17th, 2019 - Weather Map
Weather map on 6:00AM (CST) on Friday, May 17th, showing a stalled to slowly moving stationary front just to our south. The forecast was for the low pressure system in Colorado to slowly move northeastward, bring showers and thunderstorms to the region for Friday night and into the weekend.

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.

Surface weather map at 6:00 AM CST, showing the low sitting almost directly over Sioux Falls. But all night long, the counter-clockwise winds around the low funneled southerly and southeasterly winds through an area from far eastern South Dakota, and eastward into Iowa and Minnesota.

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.

Radar loop from approximately 6:00 PM (CST) Friday, May 17th, 2019 through 6:00 AM Saturday, May 18th, 2019. The areas south and east of Sioux Falls show a clear, very strong signal representing heavy migration of birds taking flight that evening.

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.

Birdcast depiction of migration traffic rate (bird density) and directional movements, from about 6:00 pm Friday, May 17th, through 6:00 AM Saturday, May 18th. with northerly winds and lower bird densities in the western Great Plains, very little bird movement is noted. However, ahead of the advancing front, extremely high migration densities are noted from Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa radar sites, with southeasterly winds pushing them northwestward…towards Sioux Falls. The solid lines represent the advancing sunset (red) and sunrise (yellow).

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.

Houston Audubon "Lights Out" for May 9-12
Image from the Houston Audubon site, calling for a “lights out” period from May 9th to 12th. Heavy migrations were predicted the week before the Sioux Falls fallout…but FAR to our south and east.

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:

Scarlet Tanager - Piranga olivacea
Scarlet Tanager – May 18th, 2019 Good Earth State Park, South Dakota
Magnolia Warbler - Setophaga magnolia
Magnolia Warbler – May 18th, 2019 – Good Earth State Park, South Dakota
Henslow's Sparrow - Ammodramus henslowii
Henslow’s Sparrow – May 19th, 2019 – Newton Hills State Park, South Dakota. Great weekend of birding overall, AND a lifer? I’ll take it.
Great Crested Flycatcher - Myiarchus crinitus
Great Crested Flycatcher – May 18th, 2019 – Good Earth State Park, South Dakota. Flycatchers in general seemed almost non-existent, prior to this weekend.
Mourning Warbler May 18th, 2019 Good Earth State Park, South Dakota. Not a great photo, but Mourning Warblers are a species I see occasionally, some springs. On May 18th, I ran into probably a dozen at Good Earth State Park.

Add your biodiversity sightings to “iNaturalist” – Big Sioux Rec Area, Beaver Creek Nature Area

Banner page for a new iNaturalist “project” page, “Biodiversity of Beaver Creek Nature Area”. You can enter sightings of any form of life you find in the park boundaries, and iNaturalist will summarize those observations and provide an accounting of all life observed there.

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. ­čÖé

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:

Biodiversity of the Big Sioux Recreation Area

Biodiversity of Beaver Creek Nature Area

Done! Australia Wildlife Photos Page

It only took 5 weeks of photo processing and webpage creation, but I finally have a finished web page that shows all of the better wildlife photos from Australia. There’s around 600 photos out here, of ~75 bird species as well as some other critters. I’m not very good at actually following through, in terms of actually processing, displaying, and archiving my photos once I take them! My hard drive full of tens of thousands of unprocessed photos can attest to that! But given this once-in-a-lifetime trip, I wanted to follow through and create this page. Click on the link below to visit:

Australia Wildlife – May/June 2019

Rainbow Lorikeet feeding on Banksia

Just having FUN…

I talk to animals. I don’t just mean our two (absolutely wonderful) cocker spaniels. I mean birds…squirrels…horses…or whatever critter I encounter when I’m out hiking or taking photos. Most often happens when I’m taking the photo of something…words just spurt out, just as when I AM around our dogs. It’s not like I expect an answer, or carry on a conversation! But, for me I think it’s part of a bigger picture in terms of what I think of the animals I relate to. In short…I ALWAYS anthropomorphize them in my own mind, and for good reasons. I think many critters feel the same things we feel.

They say simple “play” is a sign of intelligence, and there’s plenty of evidence of animals playing in nature, from young mammals playing and interacting to each other, to dolphins and whales, to birds that people often consider to be more “intelligent” (whatever that means). On our last day in Australia, I spent several hours at Centennial Park while the family recouped and prepared for our LOOOOOONG flight home. Even though I was exhausted, I’m so glad I went. I saw many birds I hadn’t seen yet on the trip, including big flocks of Little Corella and Long-billed Corella.

Overall on the trip, it was a blast watching different parrot species interact with each other. Galahs, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Rainbow Lorikeet, the Corellas, and other species, all often just looking like they were having FUN. On this last morning, I watched this Little Corella for about 15 minutes as he just played a little game, seemingly just for his own amusement. His game had some basic rules of order:

  1. Hang upside down (always using the same dangling palm leaf strands)
  2. Turn head and give a cheesy look to any onlookers (OK, pretty much just me)
  3. Let go of one foot, dangling briefly by one foot
  4. Let go, free falling for a moment before taking wing
  5. Return to the same perch, and repeat steps 1-4.

6? 7 times? That’s how many times the same bird did this, just for his own amusement. Why? Clearly his behavior wasn’t serving any purpose related to food, shelter, and procreation. No, he was just having FUN…feeling the same kinds of emotions that we feel.

A few pics of the behavior:

Little Corella - Cacatua sanguinea
Stage 2…after hanging upside down for a little while, turn and look at me with a mischievous grin.
Little Corella - Cacatua sanguinea
Getting ready to let go…
Little Corella - Cacatua sanguinea
Free fall! He’d drop 10-15 feet before catching himself and returning to the same perch

Birding Nirvana – Canopy Rainforest Treehouses, Tarzali, Australia

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed right now with the sheer volume of photos I took while in Australia, finding time to process them all, and then deciding what outlets (social media, blog, website) to publish them all. I’m still…weeks…from having all the photos themselves processed, but before I get too much further along I wanted to take the time to provide a review and summary of the place I thought was the highlight of our trip, hands down…the “Canopy Rainforest Treehouses” (or just Canopy Treehouses) near Tarzali, Australia.

In planning our trip, we knew we wanted to spend time in multiple locations, to experience some of the variety Australia has to offer. The Cairns/Port Douglas area in the northeastern part of the country was one area we targeted, given the unique opportunity for access to both tropical rainforest habitat, and the Great Barrier Reef. While researching that area, I also read about the adjacent Atherton Tablelands and some of the birding opportunities it offered. That’s when I stumbled across the website for the Canopy Treehouses, and we made the booking.

We stayed in four different locations during our 3-week vacation, but the Canopy Treehouses just stood out in terms of uniqueness, and for me, opportunities to view and photograph birds and wildlife. And this is despite the weather being rather miserable while we were there. We stayed three nights in the Treehouses, and the weather for that entire time was marked by cloudy, cool conditions (for them), with a steady drizzle and somewhat foggy conditions. Not great weather for getting out and hiking the trails in the area (including on the property of the Treehouses), but we quickly found we didn’t HAVE to leave the Treehouse itself to have some wonderful experiences.

Rather than bore you with a verbose description of our adventures at the Canopy Treehouses, here’s a summary of the accommodations and wildlife we encountered, told through photos of the area. Click for larger views for some of the photos below.

Canopy Treehouses near Tarzali, Australia - Inside overview
A panoramic of the interior of the main floor of the treehouse. Obviously distorted with the pano-shot from my iPhone, but it gives a good impression of the primary space. This isn’t just a simple treehouse! It’s VERY well appointed and comfortable, with gorgeous construction, hardwood floors, and all the amenities you could want. The main floor view here shows the living space and kitchen and view out onto the deck. What it doesn’t show is the main floor bedroom, and bathroom with a wonderful shower and sauna. You may tell your friends you stayed in a treehouse, and give them the impression you were “roughing it”, but this is more comfortable and lush than the vast majority of accommodations you come across.
Canopy Treehouses near Tarzali, Australia - Deck/outside overview
Another (distorted) iPhone panoramic, this time of that wonderful, incredible covered deck. We were there three days. I would have been VERY happy to simply sit on this deck for those entire three days. Most of the experiences you can have on the grounds of the Canopy Treehouses can be had right from this wonderful space! It’s completely covered, and despite the constant rain when we were there, it stayed mostly dry and comfortable, with the only wet part of the deck along the very outer edge. The deck serves as entry to the Treehouse, with the entire structure built on very large pilings, and stairs leading up to the deck and house entry. It has a table and chairs for you to use to enjoy the views of the surrounding rainforest (and river, just out of view here), as well as a gas grill for your use. There’s a full-sized washer and dryer below the main house in the parking area, very handy for travelers like us who had been on the road for 3 weeks. And despite being in the northeast “tropical” zone of Australia…this is at somewhat higher elevation on the Tablelands, and gets quite cool! A wood-burning fireplace and ample wood are provided…very nice for not only keeping warm at night, but for taking away that damp edge to the air and accommodations that simply unavoidable when you’re staying in the rainforest! There’s one more thing you might note from this photo if you zoom up…the deck has a number of birds on it. Which leads to my favorite part of the Treehouses…the wildlife.
Australian King-parrot (Alisterus scapularis)
Ah, the wildlife…where to begin!?!?! Let’s start with your most colorful visitors…the Australian King-parrots that will VERY quickly discover whether 1) the treehouse is occupied, and 2) if the occupants are offering fruit and seeds! The host is a wildlife lover (an understatement!) and does his best to enhance your experience. This includes providing fruit (bananas) and bird seed to attract birds to your treehouse. Birds started showing up immediately after we filled the tray feeder with seeds and banana slices, and that included flocks of big, bold, colorful, and absolutely delightful Australian King-parrots (Alisterus scapularis). This is a male perched in the foliage just off the deck. After my trip, I’ve been posting many photos on social media, and many folks told me they have a hard time getting close to this species. Not here! Not only will they come to the deck, they will SIT ON YOUR SHOULDER…your arms, your head…wherever they can, and gently accept seeds and other foods right from your hand. In the rain and somewhat dark conditions when we were there, these guys were just an incredible contrast of color and vibrancy.
Australian King-parrot (Alisterus scapularis)
Have your camera ready when you head on the deck, because you’ll get some of the closest wildlife encounters that you’ll ever have! Just be sure to have your camera in hand, as ANYTHING on the deck may be fair game as a perch for the Australian King-parrots and other critters. Here’s a quick iPhone shot…necessary when a parrot decides to use your main camera as a perch!!
Australian King-parrot (Alisterus scapularis)
Sorry, I can’t resist…one more Australian King-parrot. Extreme close up! Easy to do when the birds come right up to you, and in many cases, use you as a perch! For bird photograph you typically need a long lens in order to have a bird “fill the frame” of the photo. Not here!
Victoria's Riflebird (male) - Ptiloris victoriae
As a birder, even a birder from South Dakota in the United States, I was well aware of the famed courting displays of Riflebirds. I never thought I’d get such incredible close looks at one! Victoria’s Riflebirds were one of the most common visitors to our Treehouse, as they absolutely LOVED eating bits of banana that we offered. They were a touch more shy than the parrots…but JUST a touch. They wouldn’t use you as a perch, for example, but they WOULD let you get within a few feet, and on a few occasions, would take banana slices directly from my hand. Here’s a GORGEOUS male, showing some of those gorgeous colors. There were a couple of occasions when I witnessed some half-hearted courtship type displays, but I didn’t get any great captures of that behavior.
Macleay's Honeyeater (Xanthotis macleayanus)
Besides the parrots and riflebirds, honeyeaters were the most common visitors to the deck, with multiple species visiting. The most fun were Macleay’s Honeyeaters. They weren’t quite as bold as the parrots, but they weren’t shy! They too loved bits of banana, and would happily take offerings directly from your hand. It’s impossible for me to show all the birds we encountered here, but I can’t go any further without showing the highlight (next photos)
Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius)
THIS IS A WILD SOUTHERN CASSOWARY!! Taken from the stairs of our treehouse!! If there were ONE bird species I wanted to see while in Australia, it was a Cassowary. We were fortunate in that we had two great encounters with Cassowary while visiting Daintree National Park prior to our stay at the Canopy Treehouses, but that can’t compare with the intimate views you can have here. Male Cassowaries raise the chicks, and the same male has brought back many broods over the years to this area to raise. When we were there, two “chicks” from the previous years were onsite, while the big male was out presumably nesting again (likely to return soon with the next batch). The two “chicks” though had the full adult plumage and were MASSIVE birds, although I think we were told they still were only 2/3rds of the size they’ll eventually be. Each of our three days, the cassowary pair visited the area around our Treehouse. What were they doing there? See the following photo:
Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius)
How does a Cassowary drink? VERY CAREFULLY! This seemed to be why they liked to visit our treehouse area. They didn’t seem to be foraging for food, but every day they DID come to this small puddle at the base of one of the treehouse pilings, and use it to drink. The routine was the same each day. They’d have to sit their massive bodies down, extend their necks into the puddle, load up with as much water as possible, and then raise their heads and tilt it back to drink. SO much fun watching, and we could (safely!) observe this behavior from incredibly close range, on the stairs of our deck. Where else are you going to get such an intimate view of a living dinosaur? What a thrill, and a highlight of our entire trip. It wasn’t all about feathered critters though. What was that we heard going bump in the night??? Next photo…
Coppery Brushtail Possum (Trichosurus johnstonii)
From the descriptions of the Canopy Treehouses, we knew we were likely to have Coppery Brushtail Possums visit our deck each night. We weren’t disappointed! They’ve become accustomed to being fed!! And they absolutely LOOOOOOVE bananas (as well as cleaning up our bird feeder each night for the seeds). We had between 2 and 5 visit us each night…for the most part putting up with each other, but occasionally getting into a short tussle. They were as tame as the King Parrots, and if you let them, they would GLADLY sit on your lap while you fed them bananas. I admit we didn’t quite feel comfortable doing that, but I DID offer them bananas which they happily accepted directly from my hand. It was actually pretty sweet the way one small one would take each paw and hold onto my fingers while it gently consumed the banana slice. Wild critters, so always beware, but having these guys feed from my hand is something I will always remember.
Red-legged Pademelon (Thylogale stigmatica) and Australian Brushturkey (Thylogale stigmatica)
So many critters, so little time to post! One critter the hosts were clearly fond of were the Red-legged Pademelons, little Kangaroo/wallaby like creatures. I love the Wikipedia description of the species, saying they are “found in the rainforest but are rarely seen”. Well phooey to that…you WILL see them here! They were a bit shy, but you could often see them along the edges of the clearing below our deck, and at night in particular, there would always be one or two hanging around. Here’s one hanging out with another VERY common visitor to the Treehouses…an Australian Brush-Turkey. We were told the Brushturkeys would eat you out of house and home if you let them, consuming all your bird seed and food you put out in short order. They definitely weren’t shy, and would walk up the stairs onto the deck and eat everything in sight, if you let them!
Australian King-parrot (Alisterus scapularis)
I’ll leave this review where I started…with a photo of Australian King-parrots, lined up on the deck rail after I distributed a bit of seed so they weren’t all fighting over the same bird feeder. In case you can’t tell, I was just a wee bit fond of our stay at the Canopy Treehouses. If you’re a wildlife lover and are visiting the area…STAY HERE! It’s an unforgettable experience.

Birding Australia! Southern Cassowary Encounter

Well, I said I’d not blog for a few weeks…the reason? We had a 3-week family vacation in Australia! It wasn’t a dedicated birding trip (my wife and son would rebel if it were!), but I certainly did fit in some birding while there. There’s always something magical about birding somewhere new, whether it’s just in another state or halfway around the world. Birds that may be common are strange and exotic to a new visitor, and your life list increases with almost every bird you see.

I had done some research before leaving, and while any Australian bird was a welcome sighting, there were two things I really wanted to see. First was the incredible variety of birds in the parrot family, something we just don’t have a correlate for in the US. Secondly? I REALLY wanted to see a Southern Cassowary. More than any other bird, a Cassowary is the walking manifestation of “strange and exotic” for a US birder, a living relic that looks as if it’s straight out of the days of the dinosaur. Southern Cassowary are hard to miss if you come across one, given they are the second heaviest bird on earth (up to 190 pounds) and can be over 6-feet tall! However, with loss of their rainforest habitat in Australia, Indonesia, and New Guinea, the total wild population is only 10,000 to 20,000, with only 1,500 to 2,000 in Australia (where it is considered endangered). Still I was hoping against hope that we would be able to catch of glimpse of the massive birds.

Over the three weeks, we visited three general locations: 1) Sydney and the surrounding area, including Blue Mountains National Park, 2) Bellingen area, including Coffs Harbour and Dorrigo National Park, and 3) Port Douglas/Cairns, in the tropical northeastern corner of Australia. The visit to the tropics was the last part of our trip, and it was there where we’d potentially have a chance to see a Southern Cassowary. For our first day in the Port Douglas area, we drove northward into the famed Daintree National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage sight. A description of Daintree from Wikipedia:

Daintree National Park is valued because of its exceptional biodiversity. It contains significant habitat for rare species and prolific birdlife. The name is derived from the Daintree River, which was named by George Elphinstone Dalrymple, an early explorer of the area, after his friend Richard Daintree. Much of the national park is covered by tropical rainforest.[ The Greater Daintree Rainforest has existed continuously for more than 110 million years, making it possibly the oldest existing rainforest .

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daintree_National_Park

We wanted to make a day of driving as far north into the park as you (reasonably) can, to Cape Tribulation. We left early that morning, arriving at the Daintree River and taking the only mode of transportation possible to get into the northern section of the Park…the Daintree River ferry. Once across the river, the road remains paved up to Cape Tribulation, but it’s a very narrow road winding through the rainforest, with little traffic for most of that stretch. It’s a hell of a drive through some of the densest, most ancient rainforest on the planet. We took our time driving up to Cape Tribulation, stopping at any point of interest or short hike that we could find.

That morning at about 11:00 we pulled into an area that provided a small parking area and a short hike into the rainforest. Unfortunately part of the trail was being worked on, and we were only able to walk half a mile or less before returning to the parking area. Up until that point, I admit I was a little disappointed in the birdlife. In one of the most revered rainforest habitats on the planet, I’d seen little birdlife on our short hikes and stops, and this stop was no different. We got back into the car, and started to leave the parking area to continue the drive to Cape Tribulation. However, as we rounded a corner heading back to the main road, we saw it…Cassowary! There in front of us at the edge of a clearing near the road was the massive bird, a mere 20 yards away! A Cassowary is considered to be just about the most dangerous bird on the planet, with the size and disposition to quickly spoil the day (and life!) of a careless birder. However, I admit upon sighting that bird that caution was the last thing on my mind. I pulled over, grabbed the camera, and got out to try and grab some photos.

We watched the bird for perhaps 20 minutes. For most of that time, it was slowly moving through the rainforest just off the road, obscured by thick vegetation. I followed on foot, staying on the road and trying to maintain a healthy distance, hoping at some point to get a better look. Finally we were rewarded when the Cassowary started to move towards the road…it was going to cross right in front of us! It casually stepped out of the forest in front of us and slowly walked across the road before disappearing into the vegetation on the other side. That was the last we saw of the bird.

I was so excited and into the moment that I didn’t really think much about what was happening…until after the bird disappeared. CASSOWARY! We’d just seen a living dinosaur at incredibly close range! Then came the goosebumps and appreciation for what we’d just witnessed. Even if the trip had ended at that moment I would have come home a very happy birder. Below are some photos of the encounter. It turns out the Cassowary’s of Australia weren’t done with us on this trip (more in a later blog post).

Southern Cassowary - Casuarius casuarius
The best look we had of the Cassowary while it was foraging in the forest. For most of the first 15 minutes of the encounter, the bird was moving through rather thick vegetation, with few unobstructed views. I was thrilled when it briefly moved across this small clearing, offering a relatively clean view. However, just a few moments later it was clear that it was about to cross the road right in front of us.
Southern Cassowary - Casuarius casuarius
The Cassowary first poked its head out of the forest, looking out across the open space and giving us a glance. Was it going to come out, or head back into the vegetation?
Southern Cassowary - Casuarius casuarius
The Cassowary emerged from the forest, paused and pecked at a few things along the side of the road, and then slowly walked across the road, disappearing into the forest on the other side. A perfectly clear, unobstructed view of a Southern Cassowary! Given how much my hands were shaking during the encounter I wasn’t sure if any of the photos would turn out. Was thrilled to see I did manage to capture some sharp photos to help document the encounter.
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