South Dakota Winter – Best…photo…day…ever!!

Since I’m still not allowed to go back to work, I spent yet another day birding in the central part of the state. It was a day with lower overall numbers of raptors. I saw far fewer Rough-legged Hawks than normal. I didn’t see any Gyrfalcons, Snowy Owls, Short-eared Owls…some of the “goodies” you often find.  But birding and photography is funny! I’ve had awesome birding days where I got very few photos. Today was the opposite…not huge numbers of birds, but some really wonderful photo opportunities.  Here’s some pics from the day with a little info for each:

Prairie Falcon - Falco mexicanus

While it wasn’t a banner day for many of the “usuals”, I saw more Prairie Falcons (7) than I remember seeing in one day. “Seeing” and “photographing” are two very different things, however. Prairie Falcons are about THE shyest, most skittery raptor I know of. Today however I got a real treat. While birding in Jones County, I saw a falcon on a telephone pole. As I always do, I first stopped a long distance off, grabbed the binoculars, and tried to identify it. Definite Prairie Falcon. I then started to approach, and as ALWAYS happens with Prairie Falcons…it flew off LONG before I got into camera range.  But then something funny happened…it turned around. Still not expecting much, I got out of the pickup and grabbed my camera. But he came closer…and closer…and closer, and I soon realized he was going to fly RIGHT over my head! I couldn’t have asked for a better setup…bird approaching on a clear day, sun in the perfect position to get nice lighting on him, and he was CLOSE…closer than I think I’ve ever been to a Prairie Falcon. He passed right overhead, and then proceeded to…well…check out the next photo.

Prairie Falcon and Lapland Longspurs

As the Prairie Falcon flew towards me and over the field behind me, there was an eruption of Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks, and quite a few Snow Buntings. THAT got the Prairie Falcon’s attention. Instead of continuing to fly past and away from me, he again turned, and started to interact with the mixed flock of birds. At points it was almost like he was herding them! He never came as close as he did for the original overpass, but he offered some more really nice photo opportunities, and with several shots I captured some of his potential prey in the background. Despite scaring the flock of little birds, I never did see him actually make a strong move towards one. After a little while he seemed to get bored, and went back to a nearby telephone pole.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

I remember when I first started birding, and came across my first bald eagle. It was the winter of 1999/2000, and I thought it was the most magical experience I’d ever had! In the 20 years since then, Bald Eagles have become, well…downright COMMON! When I bird the central part of the state in winter, I always run across them. There are several nest locations in the area, and I always KNOW there will be Bald Eagles in a few select spots. One such spot is near Presho, and when I drove past it, sure enough…there were 4 Bald Eagles in a small grove of trees, 3 adults and one sub-adult. Given how often I’ve seen eagles there, I’m sure they’re the same ones, or the same family. As such, perhaps today they gave me a pass and stuck around and let me photograph them! Three of the birds were hidden within the branches or were towards the back of the grove, but one bold individual adult just stared at me from his perch, wondering what I was up to. I watched him for quite some time, before he did what many raptors do right before they’re about to take flight…he pooped and positioned himself to fly off. Those can be truly wonderful moments for photography, with some truly angelic poses. This is now probably one of my favorite Bald Eagle photos that I’ve taken (and I will add it to the hundreds of other Bald Eagle photos I already have!).

Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis

Not only did I have a banner day for Prairie Falcons, but I also saw more Ferruginous Hawks than I normally do…5. 4 of them were in Jones County, and the reason was obvious…Prairie Dogs. Without exception, all 5 Ferruginous Hawks on the day were in and around prairie dog towns. I do have a few photos of other color morphs, but today all were the same light color morph (the most common one). Some, like this bird, are SO snowy white on their undersides with barely a hint of marking, that I sometimes mistake them for Snowy Owls as I approach from a distance! One of my favorite bird species, hands down, and there’s a bonus with Ferruginous Hawks…they are MUCH more cooperative for bird photographers than nearly any other raptor species on the grasslands!

Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis

My longest birding lens, and the lens with which I’ve shot at least 95% of my photos with over the last 15 years, is a Canon 400mm 5.6L. Yes, it’s now 15 years old. But it has always been one SHARP lens, with some incredible detail when you get a bird filling the frame of a photo. The downside…most birders use a 500mm or 600mm, WITH a tele-extender. In short…they have a LOT more “reach” than I have! Because of that I’ve 1) learned how to overcome using a somewhat shorter lens, and 2) learned to accept I’m going to miss some shots where more length is required. However, that latter point is all bad. While I like photos with the birds filling the frame, I also like photos showing the bird interacting with its environment. Here, I came across another Ferruginous Hawk on a prairie dog town. I was nowhere near close enough to get a frame-filling photo, so instead worked on capturing his behavior as he “worked” the prairie dog town, alternating between sitting on the ground or a fence post, and flying through the prairie dog town looking for prey. I never did see him capture anything but it was fun to watch the behavior and try to catch it in a photo.

Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos

Speaking of “environment” photos…here’s a pair of Golden Eagles at the “usual” hangout. By “usual” I should say nearly ALWAYS. This was taken south of Presho, in one of my favorite birding locations. This fallen down structure nearly always…ALWAYS…has a golden eagle sitting on it! Well, during winter and in the morning, that is. When I make trips to this area, I usually try to make it to the Presho area by dawn, and this is one of the first areas I look for raptors. And I swear, 95% of the time when I drive past this fallen-down structure, there’s a golden eagle sitting on it. Today there were two eagles! This kind of winter-range site fidelity is pretty cool, and it’s not just these Golden Eagles. About 5 miles northwest of here, west of Presho, is a farmstead where I ALWAYS find a Northern Shrike in winter. ALWAYS. Has to be the same one, right? Again, not a frame filler of a photo, but I love showing these birds at their favorite hangout.

Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus

Ok, this one is cheating a bit. This one isn’t from Wednesday, January 9th, it’s from Friday, January 4th. Rough-legged Hawks aren’t as numerous this winter as they can be many winters, but there still are always at least a few hanging around. Here’s one taking flight in the early morning sunlight.

 

ID Challenge (for me!) – Glaucous vs. Iceland Gull

OK, I admit it. I often don’t have the patience to scan through large flocks of gulls to find the “oddball”, the one that ISN’T the seemingly ever-present Ring-billed Gull (here in South Dakota). Sometimes, however, you see something that’s clearly so different than you can’t help but notice. That was the case yesterday near Pierre, South Dakota, when I saw a large, nearly all white gull sitting on the ice.  My first thought when seeing the bird from a distance…Iceland Gull, since recent bird reports had frequently mentioned an Iceland Gull being seen in the area. At first glance, that seemed to “fit”.  However, as one who isn’t well-versed in the dark art (I’m think of you Ricky Olson!!) of multi-age gull discrimination…I wasn’t sure. It wasn’t until I got home, downloaded the photos, and did some sleuthing  where I think I can safely call this an immature (probably 2nd winter), quite pale Glaucous Gull. Why?

Immature Glaucous and Iceland Gulls both share some characteristics that were evident in this bird. 1) Pale overall, including pale wingtips without markings. 2) two-toned bill. 3) pink legs.  However, when looking at Sibley’s and online resources, it’s clear the bird has characteristics of a Glaucous Gull.  First…the bird’s size.  There were a handful of Ring-billed Gulls around, and this bird was clearly larger. Much larger. Iceland Gulls are larger than Ring-billeds, but Glaucous Gulls are MUCH larger. With the distance between the Ring-billed Gulls and this gull, it was a bit difficult to judge, but it really did look a much, much larger bird than the Ring-billed Gulls.

Secondly…the head. From this excellent site (South Dublin Birds), it’s noted Glaucous Gulls have a large, flat-topped head, while Iceland Gulls have a more delicate looking, rounded head. This bird clearly has the head shape of a Glaucous. Also…that site is the only one I found that notes a “tertial step”…a clear angle where the tertial feathers on wings meet the primaries when the wing is folded as in the first photo below. Here, you definitely see a clear “step” down where the tertials meet the primaries. Finally, the bill. Young Glaucous and Iceland Gulls both may share a two-toned bill such as this, but the Glaucous Gull has a heavy, longer bill, with parallel top and bottom edges. The Iceland Gull has a much more delicate and smaller looking bill.   The bill on this bird is quite large and shaped as a Glaucous.

So my final call…a first- or second-winter (probably second), very pale Glaucous Gull. Darker juveniles often have a lot of brownish speckling. This bird has a very small amount of that, primarily near the tail. Given that Glaucous Gulls gradually lose that speckling and it’s mostly gone by the third year, my guess is its a second-year bird that’s lost most of the speckling.  Third winter birds generally already have the pale gray mantle of an adult Glaucous Gull. This bird clearly doesn’t have that yet, so it can’t be a 3rd year or adult bird.

In short…the bird looks very similar to the Sibley drawing of a 2nd-winter Glaucous Gull (Page 220 of my Sibley’s guide!).

There…that wasn’t so painful! And it was kind of an interesting challenge to ID. Perhaps next time I come across a flock of gulls, I’ll pay a little more attention and do some similar sleuthing!

Glaucous Gull - Larus hyperboreus

A large, pale gull found near Pierre, South Dakota. Given that others had reported an Iceland Gull in the area, that was must first thought. But upon getting home and seeing the photos in detail, I’m pretty sure now this is a very pale, immature Glaucous Gull. Reasons…1) The heavy two-toned till, with top and bottom roughly parallel. Immature Iceland Gulls also can have a two-toned bill like this, but it’s smaller and more delicate. 2) Head shape…large, flat topped. Iceland Gulls heads are more rounded and smaller looking. 3) “Tertial Step” – an ID characteristic where there’s a distinct “step” where the tertial feathers meet the primaries (unlike Iceland).

Glaucous Gull - Larus hyperboreus

With wings spread, you can see the complete lack of markings on the wings. However, the pale wings, pink legs, and brownish mottling (VERY pale and not widespread on this bird) can be found on both Iceland and Glaucous Gull.

Glaucous Gull - Larus hyperboreus

Another photo of the bird taking flight, showing the unmarked wings (again, characteristic of both Iceland and Glaucous).

New (photographic) lifer! Greater Roadrunner

We don’t get too many Greater Roadrunners up here in South Dakota! Well, ok, there used to be one at the local zoo, but otherwise the closest one is a good 500 miles away. We do vacation in the Southwest occasionally, and I have seen them a number of times. But usually it’s been one running across a road while we drive, or one scooting around a corner in front of us on a hike. I haven’t had the opportunity to ever photograph the species.

We were in Arizona for the holidays, spending a week and just getting back. Our favorite activity when on vacation is hiking, so we visited a number of state parks, Saguaro National Park, and other areas with nice hikes. One thing I’ve noticed in Arizona…many of the birds seem rather “tame” compared to birds here in South Dakota. Even for species found in both places, the Arizona birds seem much more cooperative for a camera. I assume it is because they’re exposed to human beings more than they are here. If you bird a heavily visited area such as the Gilbert Water Ranch in Phoenix or Saguaro National Park (we did both), the birds are used to humans being around.

The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix is one such place. It’s a large site, with 140 acres to explore, but it’s very heavily visited. As a result, the birds are pretty cooperative. While walking there on our first morning in Arizona, we rounded a bend and saw a Greater Roadrunner parked at the edge of the trail in front of us, hunting some unseen prey. I raised the camera, expecting him to dart away as has every Roadrunner I’ve ever come across. He didn’t disappoint me!  He did indeed dash into the brush. I put the camera down, and we keep walking. I assumed he was gone and I wouldn’t get another opportunity.

I was wrong! As we walked further, he burst out of the vegetation and onto the trail again. This time, he stood there for a long time, letting me shoot quite a few photos before he again took off, chasing…something. I never did see what he was chasing, but he was so intent on following it that I was able to get photos of him in a number of locations, before he settled down on a rock to bask in the cool morning sun.

A photographic lifer! And a much prettier bird than I expected, with the colorful patch on its face.

Greater Roadrunner - Geococcyx californianusGreater Roadrunner - Geococcyx californianusGreater Roadrunner - Geococcyx californianusGreater Roadrunner - Geococcyx californianusGreater Roadrunner - Geococcyx californianus

New state bird – American Black Duck

A new state bird!  Not a super-rarity, but not one you see in South Dakota much. It’s always nice to have a fellow birder in the area find a rarity, report it online, and have it be within 10 miles of your home!  It’s even nicer when you make the short drive and the bird is still in the same place.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to easily tell it apart from all the mallards in the area, but it stood out from the moment I got there. Darker, more evenly colored plumage, and a bill that really distinguishes it from the female Mallards.  One reason to love birding…I sure wasn’t expecting a new state bird when I woke up this morning!

American Black Duck - Anas rubripes

American Black Duck, the first I’ve seen in South Dakota.

American Black Duck - Anas rubripes

Comparison with a female Mallard. Pretty obvious when you see them side-by-side, with the darker, more evenly colored plumage, and that distinctive yellowish bill.

Photo / Haiku of the Day – Dakota Prairie Falcon

Prairie Apparition

Prowling Dakota skies

A flash across desolate plains

bound for the horizon

Prairie Falcon - Falco mexicanus

When I head to the central part of the state in winter to photograph raptors, I usually do come across a handful of Prairie Falcons during the course of the day. Falcons in general seem to be camera shy, but these guys are particularly difficult to photograph. They tend to flush long before I can get within camera range. There’s always that oddball individual bird, however, and this is one of them. As with every other Prairie Falcon I come across, he DID flush early, while I was still perhaps 50 yards away. However, he was curious! I’d given up on him, but to my surprise he started circling back towards me. I stopped the car and got my camera ready, and was rewarded by a flyby at perhaps 30 feet up, right along the road past my car. One of my favorite falcon shots, given the difficult I’ve photographing these guys. I also love the pose, with the eye contact and the warm morning light.

We now return to our regularly scheduled program…

I’ve not blogged in several weeks. The reason…I largely “unplugged” during that time period. Given what was at stake in the election Tuesday, I just HAD to unplug. Unfortunately that meant staying unplugged not only from the political ugliness, bigotry, misogyny, and hatred that is life under the Trump administration, but also from my website, blog, and posting of bird photos.  To get back in the swing…a photo from one of my favorite bird encounters EVER in South Dakota…the only dark-phase Gyrfalcon I have ever found. As we head into the middle of November, we’re getting close to the time where there’s the potential to see these gorgeous rarities in the central part of South Dakota!  I’m REALLY looking forward to my periodic winter trips to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, as I search for these guys, Snowy Owls, Ferruginous Hawks, Golden Eagles, Prairie Falcons, and other wonderful winter raptors.

As I get back in the swing of my normal online life, I do want to limit or eliminate the vast majority of political commentary on my blog.  It’s not that I don’t have a lot to say, as I DEFINITELY do in this horrible political climate. But keeping my blog primarily focused on birds, birding, and photography is one way to stay sane in such an environment.  However, I simply have to give a parting blog shot regarding the last couple of months, and the election. If you’re in the GOP and are offended by this…GOOD.  That’s what’s called a “conscience”, something your entire party seems to have lost.  Some points:

  • To my fellow Democrats...PLEASE STOP THE DOOM AND GLOOM that many seemed to adopt even after Tuesday. Saturday Night Live NAILED Democratic attitudes since 2016 (and admittedly, before that).  We have had some major traumas over the years, not the least of which is winning two elections by (2000, 2016) by ALL measures the rest of the civilized world uses, only to have our archaic, unfair electoral system award the most powerful office in the world to the person who received the fewest votes. I get it. I get the trauma. I at least understand the paranoia and pessimism that has permeated our party over the last 18 years.  But Dems…TUESDAY WAS AN OVERWHELMING SUCCESS.  Was it perfect? Hell no. I too was devastated by Gillum’s loss in Florida.  I too am incredibly upset about the situation in Georgia, with Kemp apparently squeaking out the narrowest of wins thanks to his own manipulation of Georgia’s voting rolls. And of course there’s Beto, the charismatic face of the election for Dems. That man has a VERY bright future in politics.  The fact that he lost, by 2.5% in ultra-red Texas, doesn’t diminish that future, nor does it diminish what he accomplished. Yes, the Senate seat didn’t flip.  But thanks to Beto, the face of Texas politics has begun to change. Thanks to Beto, it’s very likely two US House seats flipped blue that wouldn’t have otherwise. Dems…WE WON THE HOUSE!! Despite unprecedented gerrymandering by Republicans, despite the need to win the overall popular vote by a whopping 6% just to have a CHANCE to win the House…we flipped it. And not just flipped it, Dems are likely to have a healthy majority of about 231-204.  We also flipped at least 7 governorships, which is an incredibly powerful accomplishment given those governors will have a say in redistricting and eliminating gerrymandering after the 2020 Census. It was a massive success, and we now have a check on the most corrupt administration America has ever known.  Dems, PLEASE LEARN TO CELEBRATE OUR SUCCESSES, and stop wallowing in self pity.  It serves no purpose and only diminishes our progress. Keep fighting the good fight. WE ARE MAKING PROGRESS.  Don’t give in to the despair and pessimism.
  • To Republican Americans...WAKE…THE…FUCK…UP.  I’m going to be blunt. If you’re in the GOP right now and continue to vote for the GOP, there are only three possible categories in which you fall.
    • #1 — You’re a racist — Nothing new here.  Trump won the election in 2016 by fanning the flames of latent racism. Down the stretch in 2018, what did he focus on? The economy? Health care? No…he talked incessantly about the dangers of immigrant hoards taking over the US.  Never mind that the oft-mentioned “caravan” consists of political refugees fleeing violence in their own country, and that a majority of them are women and children. They were presented as a major threat to the American way of life…and a huge chunk of the GOP ate it up.  Given what we’ve seen for almost three years now, since Trump announced he was running back in 2015, the man is an clearly an unabashed racist. Trump campaigned for the GOP on a platform of racism, and GOP voters responded with a resounding YES…THIS IS WHAT WE WANT. THIS IS WHAT WE STAND FOR.  In the long term…you’re destroying your own party. The 2018 elections are just the start. A party built on racism is unsustainable in the long term. From that perspective, I’m glad to see the GOP revealed for what they have been ever since the racist dog whistles that began with Nixon…a party of and for white America, a party that no longer pretends to even try to represent all Americans.  In the short-term however…it’s incredibly destructive.
    • #2 — You’re ignorant — Another huge chunk of the GOP (and indeed, of Americans as a whole). Let’s face it, Americans on BOTH sides often vote on reflex. They vote for a “D” or an “R”. They are completely ignorant of the issues. The don’t know the candidates or what they stand for.  Other than the outright racism demonstrated by the GOP, the second biggest threat to American democracy is apathy.  Trump was RIGHT a couple of weeks ago, when he said the Florida bomber and the mass shooting disrupted GOP momentum.  Despite every illicit, immoral, outright disgusting action taken by the Trump administration over the last 2 years, GOP numbers were rising somewhat as the election approached. Why? Americans can’t be bothered to account for 2 years worth of reprehensible behavior!  It’s forgotten! Ask most people what Mueller is investigating for example, and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare (or an outright lie). Ask about the huge number of indictments of Trump officials…I guarantee the vast majority of Americans don’t remember anything about Manafort, Cohen, and the rest of the corrupt crew.  Americans just…don’t…care.  TRUTH DOESN’T MATTER.  It’s MUCH easier to digest the drivel that’s spoon fed to them by state TV (otherwise known as Fox “News”) than it is for them to learn the truth of what’s really happening. Of course I can’t give this class of GOP voters a pass. That ignorance, the outright apathy, is almost as destructive as GOP racism.  But at least from a moral standpoint, apathy and stupidity is somewhat less disgusting than GOP racism.
    • #3 — You’re a CEO — Or perhaps not a CEO, but a wealthy business owner. Someone who wants to perpetuate a system with the worst income inequality in the world. Someone where corporate or personal profit is the ONLY thing that matters…morality be damned.  In other words…someone exactly like Trump.  From a morality standpoint, clearly this is just as despicable as the racist sect of the GOP.  These are people that simply do not care about the racism, the misogyny, the bigotry, the spread of hatred…as along as it doesn’t interfere with the most business-friendly, least worker-friendly administration in American history.

Despite the election results, it’s still going to be a very rough next few years. We’ve already seen that, where within 12 hours of the election results coming in, the Trump administration makes their move to bury the Mueller investigation.  The response from GOP politicos?  A yawn.  Other than a few outgoing politicians (e.g., Jeff Flake), or the VERY rare class of GOP politicians who seem to actually have any  morality (e.g., incoming Senator Mitt Romney)…there were no condemnations of the complete flout of the rule of law.  There were no calls in the GOP to protect the investigation. For a morally bankrupt party like the GOP, it’s the end result that matters. Nothing else.  The truth? Irrelevant. The LAW? Irrelevant.

The 2018 election was a powerful rebuke of GOP immorality. It’s a WONDERFUL start, but we’ve got a long slog ahead.

And we now return to our regularly scheduled program.  Birds…photography…nature…a MUCH needed distraction in today’s environment.

Juvenile Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus

It’s time!! Getting close at least. Of course I’m talking about our WONDERFUL South Dakota winters, and the birding opportunities that we have. Yes…yes…it’s a cold, glacial hell here in winter. But we do often have incredible numbers of raptors, including the chance to see US mega-rarities. Gyrfalcons are the big prize for me in the winter. This photo from a few years ago is the ONLY dark-phase Gyrfalcon I’ve seen…a gorgeous, gorgeous bird.

Compact Endothermic Mouse Defrosting Unit (CEMDU)

The calendar is changing over to October, which means fall migration is in full swing.  It’s not a cheery time for a birder in South Dakota!  Winters are long, and bird species and numbers are both WAY down compared to the other three seasons. However, there are a few bright spots!  What “saved” winter for me a few winters ago was the sheer delight in finding a species I’d never seen around southeastern South Dakota.

Up until that winter (3 years ago, 2015-2016), the only place I’d seen a Northern Saw-whet Owl was along the Missouri River near Pierre. Birders there found that they liked to winter in the cedar trees along the river. There are a few areas around my part of South Dakota that also have thick stands of cedar, so I thought I’d spend some time that winter searching for the little guys. It was very discouraging at first.  It’s not easy searching through the thick cedar stands! I started in mid-November, searching for signs…the “white-wash” of their poop that you can find on the ground and branches below a daytime roost, or actual regurgitated pellets.  I DID occasionally find owl-sign, but for a good month…no owls.

Then in late December 2015, I went to Newton Hills State Park. Birders had reported hearing a Northern Saw-whet Owl during a Christmas Bird Count, so I thought I’d leave before dawn, and spend several hours looking.  It was a miserable day…cloudy with a very thick, icy fog, and I got a later start than I had planned. By the time I got there, the sun had already risen, and I was sure I wasn’t going to hear any calling owls. However, the fog was SO thick, that it was still relatively dark and gloomy when I arrived. It was only moments after stepping out of my car that I heard a calling Saw-whet Owl!  I headed in the general direction, and by the time I got close, the owl had stopped calling. I slowly made my way into the cedar thicket, and almost immediately found fresh looking signs that an owl had been there. White-wash on the ground as well as pellets!  I then slowly raised my head, hoping to see an owl sitting in the branches directly above the whitewash.  No such luck!  DAMN….IT.  After spending so much time looking, I was getting frustrated and was convinced I’d never actually find one.  I turned around to head out of the thicket, took about 3 steps, and walked into a commotion just above my head.  Owl!  He was only about 6 feet away from all the whitewash, but in a different spot, and I had accidentally caused him to flush when I walked past.

AAAARRGGGGHHH!!! I was at once both happy that I actually got a glimpse of an owl, but frustrated that I missed seeing him before I got so close he flushed. No photograph. Sigh. I continued the search though, and about 15 minutes later, found another location with whitewash and pellets.  And this time…success!  I looked directly above the whitewash, and staring back down at me from about 10 feet up in the cedar tree was a gorgeous little Saw-whet Owl!

I had a blast the rest of that winter. I found several more in the Newton Hills Area, and also 4 more near Lake Alvin just south of Sioux Falls. Overall that winter I found at least a dozen different Northern Saw-whet Owls!  What was striking was how incredibly tame they were. That first owl on that foggy morning was the only one I saw that winter that actually flushed. Several times I was able to approach an owl and get mere feet away, and instead of flushing, I was typically greeted by a disinterested yawn.

This photo is one of my favorites from that winter. Northern Saw-whet Owls are tiny critters.  Their prey is often small voles and mice, but even those are too much for them to consume in one sitting. They will often catch a vole or mouse, eat half of it, and cache the other half in the nook of a tree branch. They then come back later and retrieve the cache, but in our cold winters, they have to thaw it before finishing their meal.  Thus, I’d read you could sometimes find a Northern Saw-whet Owl “defrosting” a mouse.  One morning I was lucky enough to witness such an event, as this grumpy-looking guy was busy defrosting breakfast when I came across him.

A “Compact Endothermic Mouse Defrosting Unit”!!  One of my favorite memories from that winter. As the weather turns colder here, I’m hoping to again find these handsome little birds this winter.

Northern Saw-whet Owl - Aegolius acadicus

A Northern Saw-whet Owl, defrosting it’s morning breakfast.

Who says blackbirds are boring?

It’s been a busy weekend catching up on projects around the house, but I did take advantage of the cool, crisp morning to get out and bird. It wasn’t a great morning. I did come across some migrant warblers, including Canada and Black-throated Green, two I don’t see all that often, but overall it was pretty slow. One thing you do see this time of year though are mixed flocks of blackbirds gathering, and I came across several on the way home. I do sometimes stop to scan them for “goodies” like Rusty Blackbirds, but alas, no Rusty’s this morning.

However, I did stop and watch the biggest flock for a while, and grabbed the camera. Like many birders and bird photographers, I tend to take certain birds for granted, but there really are some beautiful plumage patterns on fall blackbirds here. The flock was primarily Common Grackles, but there were a number of Red-winged Blackbirds, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and European Starlings mixed in.

By the time I got home, I considered the morning a disappointment, as I didn’t think I really got any really nice photos. Once I started downloading and processing photos, though, my attitude changed. These birds aren’t exactly the poster-child for “coveted” birds for birders (or photographers), but there are certainly some gorgeous colors and patterns on these birds. The fall plumage of a young Red-winged Blackbird, and the non-breeding plumage of a European Starling, are both wonderful in terms of the intricate patterns. Blackbirds, boring?  I think I may have changed my tune after this morning.

European Starling - Sturnus vulgaris

Non-breeding plumage European Starling. Probably one of the least-liked birds in North America, given their non-native status and tendency to compete for nesting sites with native birds. But after being here for nearly 140 years…they’re established. They’re not going anywhere. They’re “ours”. And damn it, they are DARNED attractive birds.

Common Grackle - Quiscalus quiscula

Common Grackles ARE native…but for those of us who feed birds in our yards, they may have a worse reputation than European Starlings. They’re pigs! They drive away other birds! In my yard, I’ve seen them kill and consume young fledglings. But…that iridescence, those colors…they are striking birds in the right light.

Red-winged Blackbird - Agelaius phoeniceus

Red-winged Blackbirds may be the most common bird in the state in the summer. I do like the plumage of the young birds, with this young male starting to show a bit of what will be his trademark red shoulder patch.

 

Life-sized Carving of Ivory-billed Woodpecker!

Ivory-billed Woodpecker - Carving

A life-sized carving of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in flight! A wonderful piece that my son is absolutely thrilled to now have hanging in his room. My (rather shy) son is holding the piece here.

February 11th, 2004…Gene Sparling was canoeing through the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. A very large, very unusual woodpecker flew towards him and landed in a tree about 60 feet away.  Knowing it was an unusual bird, he posted a possible Ivory-billed Woodpecker sighting on a website. Sixteen days later, two curious ornithologists from Cornell visited the location, and were rewarded with a definitive sighting of the bird!  A bird thought to be extinct…yet here was a confirmed sighting by respected and experienced ornithologists. In the next year and a half, Cornell researchers had 5 more sightings of the bird in the same general area.

I still remember the day when the sightings were publicly announced. I was at work, and we had visitors all week.  As we were getting ready to head back into a meeting room, one of them came up to me very excitedly (knowing I’m a birder), and said “did you see the news??!?!”. I still remember the goosebumps as he told me about the “re-discovery” of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the forested wetlands of Arkansas. In the subsequent weeks and months, a research group from Auburn identified Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the panhandle of Florida. An elated birding world celebrated the sightings.  And then…

Nothing. Nothing, as in no clear, definitive photos of the species. With a handful of sightings, that’s hardly a surprise to a bird photographer like myself. For example, Red-headed Woodpeckers are very common around here.  I see them about 50% of the days when I take gravel roads to work in the summer. And yet despite many attempts to photograph them over the years, I have precious few photos.  They have a tendency to cling to a telephone pole or tree, and hop to the backside of it, placing the tree between the camera and themselves!  With maybe a dozen half-way decent sightings of an Ivory-billed in the 2004-2006 time frame, I’m not surprised no definitive photo was obtained.

But since then, there have been very few (credible) reports of the bird, and nothing as definitive as the sightings from dedicated ornithologists from Cornell and Auburn. Even worse, since then, many others have rebelled against the Cornell and Auburn sightings, claiming they were faked, either by a good-faith mistake, or by some weird evil intention. The one aspect of birding (and humanity!) that I absolutely DESPISE…mean-spirited people who love nothing more than tearing down the accomplishments of others. Some well known birders published their opinions about the sightings, claiming wrong-doing by the researchers who saw the birds. That spiteful, small-minded, petty hate/jealousy has since infected the debate, with far too many people dismissing the original sightings as faked.  There’s a history here, as sightings of the bird going back decades have been decried as fakes, even when photographs were obtained. The best example…Fielding Lewis took very clear photos of a female Ivory-billed in 1971. George Lowery, head of the American Ornithological Union, excitedly presented those photos to the group’s yearly meeting…and he was greeted by catcalls and jeering.  Even the most respected ornithologists in the world aren’t immune for the mean-spirited, EVIL treatment from the jealous birding crowd who will never accept a sighting regardless of the evidence.

In the years since the Auburn and Cornell sightings, I’ve tried to follow the story, looking for evidence of additional sightings. One website I look at is “Ivory-Bills Live???!”. During the early years after the Cornell sightings, the site and others had many enthusiastic updates, and it seemed like better confirmed evidence of the survival of the species was just around the corner. As the years have gone by, that enthusiasm has waned and the reports have become few and far between, but I still check sites like this quite often.

Over the summer I checked Ivory-Bills Live, and saw a post about some beautiful Ivory-billed Woodpecker carvings that were being done by a Dean Hurliman in Burlington, Iowa. The post stated that he was going to finish perhaps 8 more, bringing his total to about 50 of his carvings that were in the hands of birders and other collectors. The post had some words from Dean, saying he was looking for homes for his final set of carvings, and to send him a note if there was interest.

Given the fascination I had with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, I immediately thought of sending an email to Dean, but more for my son than for myself. My son is a teenager now and my part-time birding/fishing/rockhounding/outdoor buddy!  He already had a bird painting hanging in his room, one he bought with his own money while we were on vacation. He also had some small carved birds he bought. I thought, what better way to continue that “spark” for a budding young birder, than having this unique piece?

I crafted an email to Dean, noting where the carving would end up, and hoping that it would continue that birding spark in my son. I was hoping it would become one of his most prized possessions.  To my surprise, Dean responded, and said he would start work on a carving to send our way!  The carving arrived today…what a beautiful creation!  What a magnificent creature! What a great rendition! I absolutely adore the pose, and Dean has it perfectly balanced for hanging. When hung, it’s in the perfect position, as a bird gaining altitude after taking off in flight.

The carving now occupies a place of HONOR in my son’s bedroom, hanging from the ceiling in the “bird corner”, along with the painting he bought. Dean Hurliman…THANK YOU SO MUCH for your beautiful work! You have a heart of gold for doing this, and have you yourself become part of the lore of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker!

Ivory-billed Woodpecker carving

The final display location for the carving, in the “bird corner” of my son’s bedroom. I can think of no better item to get a budding birder excited about the hobby.

 

Your garage: A Hummingbird’s worst enemy?

I was working in my yard this afternoon when my next-door neighbor came walking up. She knew I was a bird lover, and wanted to know if I knew how to get a hummingbird out of her garage. It may sound like an odd request to many. However, it’s one I’m getting all too familiar with. I have over 4,000 individual web pages on my South Dakota Birds website. Of all those pages, which page gets the most hits? During the summer months it’s generally not even close…it’s this blog post page from a few years ago, about a hummingbird trapped in my garage.

Once a hummingbird is in your garage, it’s not easy to get them out. My garage, for example, is quite tall, with the ceiling height a good six feet above the top of the garage door itself. Once a hummingbird comes in a garage, their instinct to escape drives them to fly upwards. They really seem to have trouble seeing the open garage door as an escape, and instead seem to always fly up towards the ceiling of the garage. For us, we’ve had two hummingbirds trapped in our garage over the  years, and in both cases, we weren’t able to get them out until they were quite tired from flying around trying to escape. Then we got them to cling to a feather duster while we slowly moved them down and out the garage door. Other people have had some luck luring them down with flowers, hummingbird feeders, or some “red” item that grabs their attention.

And that is the problem in the first place…their attraction to the color red. The item in the picture below may be the most dangerous item for a hummingbird that you have in your entire house or  yard. This is the manual “pull” on a garage door opener, what you use when the power goes out and you want to manually close or open your garage door. The problem is quite simple…garage door manufacturers seem to love making these items red in color. Hummingbirds strongly key in on the color red, associating it with flowers, and thus, nectar for feeding. If a hummingbird goes past an open garage door and sees a red item dangling down, just that attraction to the color red may cause them to enter the garage and check it out.  Once inside, if you have a garage with a ceiling higher than the top of the garage door, they tend to get “stuck”.

We have multiple hummingbirds around our yard from early May through late September. However, with one simple change in our garage four years ago, we haven’t had any hummingbirds inside our garage.  That change? Simply taking the red pull off the garage door opener and changing it to a black item. When I went over to my neighbor’s garage this afternoon, I knew what I would find…red garage door pulls.

Given how difficult it can be to get a hummingbird out of your garage, the best advice I have…prevent their entry in the first place. Check your manual garage door pulls. If they have a red pull, take it off and use a neutral colored item in its place.

Red Garage Door Pull

A typical red “pull” on a garage door opener, for release and manual movement of the garage door. So many manufacturers seem to use bright red pulls such as this. With an open garage door, this is a huge attractant to hummingbirds, who are very easily “trapped” in a garage once they are inside.

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