Playing “Jenga” with nature

Ecosystems are like the game of Jenga...take one piece away you don't know what will happen.

Ecosystems are like the game of Jenga…take one piece away you don’t know what will happen.

You never know what will happen when you remove one piece of the puzzle.  Can it survive for a little while longer, albeit in a weakened state?  Or will it all come crashing down when that one piece gets removed?

Yes, I could be talking about the game of “Jenga”, something many of us have played.  But in this case I’m talking about nature.  In the journal Science Advances, research was just published that discusses a link between hawk populations in the southwestern U.S. and breeding success of Black-chinned Hummingbirds.  One wouldn’t immediately think there was much of a link between the two species.  Hummingbirds are far too small and quick for most hawk species to deal with.  They likely couldn’t capture them, and even if they did, they wouldn’t be more than a mouthful.  So how are the species linked?

As the paper discusses, there are actually three bird species who interact to affect nesting success of the hummingbird.  In addition to the Black-chinned Hummingbird, the study looked at Cooper’s Hawks and Mexican Jays.  What they found was that nesting success was much higher for the hummingbirds when they nested very close to Cooper’s Hawk nests.  The Cooper’s Hawks don’t feed on the hummingbirds, but they ARE a threat to Mexican Jays, and Mexican Jays will readily eat hummingbird eggs and young if they get a chance.  In one case, after Cooper’s Hawks left one nesting location, the researchers immediately saw Mexican Jays move in and decimate all hummingbird nests in the area.

Jenga…ala Mother Nature.  That’s what so scary when human beings start to interfere in natural systems.  One of the most publicized impacts of the removal of one species from a system is the Yellowstone ecosystem, before and after the reintroduction of wolves.  It was expected that the reintroduction would impact ungulate populations in the area, but it soon became apparent just how far-reaching an impact wolves have on the ecosystem.  Without wolves, elk and deer browsed freely in lowlands, resulting in nearly all young aspen trees to be browsed to the ground.  Aspen habitat all but disappeared in the park, but with the reintroduction of wolves, that habitat is now being reborn.  With increased aspen came more beavers.  With more aspen habitat and beaver ponds came an influx of more songbirds and other species that use those habitat.  With more wolves, there were fewer coyotes, which meant more small mammals and an increase in numbers of red fox, eagles, and ravens.

All due to the removal of one species.

Be it hawks in the Southwest or wolves in Yellowstone, the removal of one key species can have cascading impacts on the entire ecosystem.  The same certainly can be true in the “reverse” case, where a new, exotic species is introduced into the system.  As a scientist, it’s fascinating to see the incredible impacts humans have on ecosystems, both through how they manage the landscape, and in how they manage the wildlife within that landscape. As just a human being…it also can be pretty depressing to see how we negatively impact so many ecosystems.

Birds vs. People…guess who wins?

Pirate Island

“Pirate Island”, created from dredged sand in order to provide breeding habitat for coastal birds. A nice idea! Then the selfish “Me First” crowd found the island and turned it into “Party Island” for all intents and purposes. It’s hard to image many birds breeding on an island with this much human activity.

There’s a bird “news” blog I like to read, LittleBirdieHome.  Three times a week, there are new stories posted that relate to birds, from the mundane stories such as “Johnny saw a Three-toed Kingbird down at Newton’s Corner!” to bird research published in scientific journals.  Many times they are feel-good stories.  However, as with any “news”, it ain’t always good.

This week there’s a story from near our old stomping grounds. After college, we lived in Maryland for a couple of years.  Every once in a while we’d head east on a weekend to enjoy Ocean City or another beach on the coast.  It was a nice change of pace for a Midwestern couple who hadn’t even seen the ocean many times.  However, it was also a complete MADHOUSE.  Just traveling back and forth to the coast on a weekend was often bumper to bumper, and you certainly couldn’t ever find solitude once you arrived

The story posted by LittleBirdieHome highlights the attitude that certainly seemed to permeate coastal areas when we were there.  People first!  WITHOUT exception!! That’s the general rule.  Wildlife?  That’s about 48th on the list of most important concerns for coastal visitors.  The story concerns newly created islands and a conflict between birds, and people.  Several small islands were created off the coast to benefit bird species that need quiet, isolated locations for breeding.  However, boaters in the area have made one of the islands into a favorite weekend getaway location, flocking to the sandy beach on the island and the relative solitude compared to the coast itself.  Breeding bird species, for which the island was built?  There’s simply not going to be many breeding birds when people are using the island so heavily.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, as it’s really no different here in South Dakota.  Public lands and parks are DEFINITELY “people first”, with wildlife concerns far down the list of most important land management concerns  It’s SO sad here to visit a favored State Park, only to find that areas of wonderful habitat have been cleared to make room for campers, archers, off-road vehicles, etc.  It seems the people-first method of management is universal in the United States, where the ONLY concern for the public is how they can use (and abuse) public lands.  While the article linked above notes that officials are considering permanently closing the island to human visitation, I would bet the farm that the boating/party/beachbum/LOSER interests win out.

I’d like to think that they’d default to the use the island was built for, but when it comes down to people vs. birds, people always win.  It’s as simple as that.

Tree Nazis strike again in South Dakota

Tree cutting - South Dakota roadsides

Another one of my (former) favorite birding spots, hit by the South Dakota Tree Nazis. If they have their way, no habitat of any kind will be left in the state, and we’ll have a nice homogeneous landscape of corn and soybeans.

Sigh…this is getting old.  I went out this morning to do a bit of birding, and thought I’d try “Ditch Road” north of Sioux Falls.  It’s a spot I like to go to in the mornings.  Ditch road has a ditch that often holds water, with thick trees and shrubs on either side.  The stretch I like to bird is on the west side of the road, so there’s some nice light as I drive it in the morning.

As soon as I turned the corner on to Ditch Road, my heart fell.  Yet another of my favorite birding habitats in the area has fallen prey to the South Dakota Tree Nazis.  If you haven’t heard of the group, they’re an evil underground effort to ensure that all of South Dakota is homogeneous corn and soybeans, and that every little bit of remaining bird habitat is removed.  “Spook Road”, another favorite birding spot just east of my home town of Brandon, has also fallen prey to the Tree Nazis.

In both cases, thick shrubs and trees lining the road have been completely removed.  From the rumors I’ve heard, it’s local and county government efforts to satisfy new insurance requirements.  I’m not sure if it’s true, but I had heard that due to an accident involving someone becoming injured or killed in a vehicle strike on roadside woody vegetation, insurance companies pressured local governments to remove woody vegetation that’s anywhere close to a roadway.

Trees aren’t exactly widespread on the South Dakota plains.  Urban areas certainly have plenty of trees, but otherwise they are typically restricted to riparian areas and fencelines.  In the case of the aforementioned Spook Road, there’s about a 3 mile stretch where a small creek intermittently crosses the road, and it’s the thick riparian/roadside trees and shrubs that were removed.  In the case of Ditch Road, it truly is a very thin strip of tree and shrub habitat, perhaps 30 yards wide in total, but it’s always been a very productive birding location for me, particularly in spring when migrant passerines move through.

And now, like many of my other favorite birding locations, the Tree Nazis have destroyed it.  As the photo above shows, ALL vegetation on the side of the ditch closest to the road has been removed.  I guess I should be thankful the Tree Nazis were feeling gracious, and left the vegetation on the far side of the ditch. It’s a far too common site though in the area, with trees along fencelines, shelter belts, and other roadside trees being removed at an incredible rate.

The South Dakota Tree Nazis have many splinter groups operating in the state as well, including the South Dakota Wetland Destroyers who have been incredibly active in the last couple of years, drain-tiling and destroying every tiny remaining spot of wetland in the area.  For an area that historically was chock-full of little wetlands, I now have to drive a ways to find a functional wetland with any kind of decent birding.

I’ve got a LOT of photos on my main website that were taken on Ditch Road. After what I saw today, all of those photos may now just be a remembrance of a time when Ditch Road had decent birding, before the Tree Nazis did their work…

Man vs. Bird – Cherry Battle Royale, 2015

We’ve built our house 8 years ago.  While my wife did most of the heavy lifting in terms of planning the inside, I was excited to have a completely blank canvas on which to landscape.  Of course, I had birds on my mind while I landscaped, putting a focus on plants that provided a nice mix of cover and food.

It wasn’t ALL just about the birds, however.  My wife likes roses…hence, I had to have roses somewhere.  For me, I was looking forward to having a garden, as well as having some fruit trees.  I planted a number of serviceberry (Juneberry) shrubs, and while I knew they were edible, the primary reason I planted them was to attract fruit-eating birds.  Cherries, however, are for me!  Cherry pie is, as I’m sure you know, the most perfect food ever created.  I bought 4 cherry trees, 2 dwarf sour (pie) cherries, and 2 full-size Montmorency cherries (the main sour pie cherry).

The trees were quite small when I bought them, and for the first 3 or 4 years, there were only a few cherries.  As they started to get big enough for the expectation of perhaps SOME kind of cherry harvest, we had a big windstorm take down one of the full-size cherries.  Down to 1 Montmorency, and 2 dwarf cherry trees!  About 4 years ago, the trees were still relatively small, but I was able to gather a very modest harvest.  By VERY modest, I mean enough to make 1 cherry pie, and about 2 jars of jam.  That year, given the relatively small number of cherries, the birds probably ate more cherries than I was able to harvest.  Still, it was a success!  Real cherries from my yard!  I anticipated greater harvests as the trees matured!

The last few years have resulted in no cherry pie.  No cherry jam.  No cherry cobbler.  In other words…no cherries, or at least not enough to bother picking.  The problem? We live in South Dakota!  We are always subject to some late, hard freeze or frost. In 2 years, we had extremely warm March weather and the cherries bloomed very early.  That was followed by colder weather that presumably killed the blooms.  Another year it was just a very late, hard freeze that likely did the blooms in.  What would 2015 bring?

We had a rather ho-hum winter, not all that cold, not all that late, and not all that much snow.  Spring and early summer have been fantastic, with plenty of warm, sunny days, periodic rainfall, and most importantly…no very late, killing frost.  The result of the favorable weather? Ever since about mid- to late-May, you could tell that a massive harvest was possible!  All three cherry trees were just LOADED with blooms, followed by growing and ripening fruit that was so abundant, some of the branches were weighed down and almost touching the ground.

Sour Cherry - Jam

Cherries as far as the eye can see! A couple days harvest shown here, made into jam, another harvest made into pie filling, more in the freezer…a bumper crop in 2015 for both man and birds!

As the first of the cherries started to approach ripeness, the first of the American Robins showed up to start munching.  Then a Gray Catbird. Then several of each species.  Occasionally a small flock of Cedar Waxwings would stop by for a cherry desert. NOOOOOOOOOooooooooooo!!! My first ever bumper crop of cherries…was it going to be all for naught?  Man vs. bird…who was going to win!?!?!!?

Well, thankfully for this bird loving man, BOTH bird and man won!  While the Robins and Catbirds are certainly getting their share, there are more cherries than 5x as many birds could eat.  I’ve picked gallon after gallon of delicious pie cherries, often picking side by side with Robins and Catbirds casually munching away mere feet from where I was picking.

Given South Dakota’s weather, I certainly don’t expect this kind of a harvest to occur every year, but it’s been a perfect harvest in 2015 for both man and beast!

More invasive species…

Iguana - St. John's, Virgin Islands

Another non-native species on the Virgin Islands, a huge iguana.

A quick follow up on the previous post…on this day in the Virgin Islands, we had a giant iguana laying by the road, several places we had to slow down or stop because of goats in the road, and a “wild” donkey that chose our beach house yard to graze in for the day. Yes, some good birds again, but it’s the non-native species that dominate the ecology.

 

“Arrogant” to think man can change the Earth?

Photo of Cruz Bay on St. John's, U.S. Virgin Islands

St. John’s, U.S. Virgin Islands. “Virgin” it is not, as it is about as unnatural a place as you can go.

One of my pet peeve lines from politicians and business people who are climate change deniers…that it is “arrogant” to think that human beings can have such a huge impact on the Earth. It is usually meant to pander to those with a religious bent, as it is often said hand in hand with comments about only “God” being able to affect that kind of change. Ridiculous, of course, when you see the astounding effects man has had on the planet.

Our effect on the planet is something you are constantly reminded of, no matter where you live. For me it was recently reinforced while on vacation. We took a family trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands. We have never vacationed in the Caribbean, and even after researching things to death, it’s still always a new experience when you go somewhere for the first time. There are certainly some great things to do and see there (more posts on birds there will follow!), but the big impression I have after our first visit? It’s colored with sadness over what things may have once been like there, as compared to now.

You of course have the visible human footprint.  We were on St. John’s Island, but flew through St. Thomas before ferrying across. Over half of St. John’s is covered by National Park, the population is one-tenth that of St. Croix or St. Thomas. St. John’s is generally considered the more quiet and unspoiled island. There are certainly fancy, well kept up parts, but there is also a lot of very run down and impoverished areas. There is no central trash collection on St. John’s, instead there are what have turned into “drive by” trash containers where people (quite literally!) throw their trash, often from a moving car.  It seems about half the trash actually makes the bin. Government seems ineffective, with incredibly high crime on St. Thomas and St. Croix (better on St.

John’s) and poor roads and services the norm. Junk is found scattered around many parts of the islands, from abandoned cars and buildings to the good ol’ plastic bottles and bags you find junking up every other part of the planet

Beyond the visible human footprint though is the altered ecology of the area.  Even on the “quiet” island of St. John’s there are chickens and goats running around everywhere.  “Wild” donkeys are the largest animals, followed by introduced deer. Mongoose, introduced to control introduced rats, have devastated native birds and other animals (as have rats).  As a birder there are certainly some great new birds I found there, but the bird community is vastly different than it was a few hundred years ago, thanks to habitat alteration, introduced bird species, hunting, and the introduction of the mongoose and other animals.

We we had a blast snorkeling the beautiful waters around the island. Back on land though, it’s not exactly a natural, lush, island paradise.

Living in eastern South Dakota amongst the vast fields of corn and soybeans, you realize just how much of an impact man has on the Earth   Sadly you see the same devastating impact even in an area such as St. John’s in the Virgin Islands.  Multiply those effects for every other spot on the planet that people are found, and you quickly see the only “arrogance” comes from blowhard politicians who try to use any excuse they can to 1) get re-elected and 2) pander to short-term, money-driven interests.

Arrogance indeed…

Losing habitat on the Plains

Grasslands - South Dakota

A gravel road and vast grasslands…one of my favorite types of areas to not only bird, but just to experience. It’s becoming a rarer and rarer sight with all the recent cropland expansion in eastern and central South Dakota.

I ran across (yet another) story this morning discussing the huge loss of habitat in the northern Great Plains over the last few years.  It’s not exactly “news” to anyone who has lives here and has paid attention.  A bit of background…in 2007, Congress passed the “Energy Independence and Security Act”.  It was a huge energy bill, with many components. One of which actually was a huge boon to my work at USGS EROS, as we became part of a huge project to look at the potential for sequestering carbon through land use practices.

However, another component is a renewable fuels standard (RFS), with hard mandates for increased use of biofuels by 2022.  In recent years the price of corn has gone up substantially, in no small part due to the RFS.  The result? Massive loss of grassland in my part of the world, with the Dakotas being hit especially hard.

It’s obvious everywhere I bird, both in eastern South Dakota (which has traditionally been a stronghold of corn production), and now increasingly in central South Dakota.  In eastern South Dakota where I live, the only remaining grasslands are 1) those that are on hilly or very rocky ground, areas too difficult to farm, or 2) individual fields that are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).  CRP provides payments for farmers to keep land in a grassland cover around here, but those payments can’t compete with the profits that can be made by putting arable land into corn production.  I can point to numerous individual fields just on my drive to work that used to be CRP, and had been grassland ever since I moved here over 20 years ago, that have been plowed under and converted to cropland in just the last few years.

The further west you go in the state, the more iffy a proposition it is to grow dryland corn.  The Missouri River dividing the state into “East River” and “West River” used to be a rough dividing line on where corn was grown. Rainfall in South Dakota is a gradient from west to east, with precipitation dropping as you move westward in the state.  One of my favorite birding locations in the winter is around the Presho area. It’s an area with a lot of grasslands and a lot of pheasants (and presumably voles and mice), creatures that attract a lot of winter raptors like Rough-legged Hawks, Ferruginous Hawks, and even the occasional Gyrfalcon or Snowy Owl.  As a drier area than eastern South Dakota, cropland used to be limited to wheat, some sorghum, and sunflowers.  Not any more, as you’re starting to see farmers attempt to grow dryland corn even there.

It’s not just the conversion of complete, large fields from grassland to cropland that you’re seeing, it’s land management practices and micro-scale habitat loss.  From a land management standpoint, the other business that’s booming right now in the Dakotas is the installation of drain tile, underground piping that efficiently drains the land and allows farmers to utilize areas that once tended to collect too much water for cultivation.  One of my favorite little birding spots on my drive to work is now gone, thanks to drain tiling.  It was a low spot along a little drainage way, a moist area that had a grassland and some scattered cattails.  That area was drain tiled and is now a corn field.  From the micro-habitat side, farmers are also ripping out vegetation along fencerows and shelterbelts, trying to squeeze out every acre they can as crop prices are high.

To be frank, it’s damned depressing sometimes to drive around birding, seeing some of your favorite remaining grassland habitats being actively plowed under.  It’s a level of land-use conversion in the northern Great Plains that hasn’t been seen in many decades.

Especially as a father, I can’t help but think “when does it end”?  When do people stop thinking about MONEY, and their short-term well-being, and when do they actually start worrying about their CHILDREN’s future? It’s not just habitat loss, it’s sabotage of the very resources we need to survive.  Increased agricultural land use, drain tiling existing land, and increased fertilizer use as farmers try to bypass crop rotation and plant exclusively corn…all are pumping up nitrate and other pollutant levels in the very water supplies we depend upon to survive.

I tell myself, that just as with the inexorable spread of urban areas across the world, it can’t continue forever, right?  At some point, it has to stop, right?  The only problem is that human beings are too short-sighted to set that “limit” of when we stop degrading and destroying habitat and the resources we depend upon.  What’s going to eventually make it “stop” is ecological disaster…

Difficulty finding grassland birds in (former) grasslands

Blue Grosbeak - Male -  Passerina caerulea

Male Blue Grosbeak. These guys are scattered around in southern South Dakota, but it’s always a bit of a surprise when you run across one. Yesterday west of Lake Thompson I saw three in one small area.

Eastern South Dakota was once >95% grassland and scattered wetlands.  Trees were limited to riparian areas or pockets where the landscape was protected from the tree-killing effects of fire, and of course, there used to be no agriculture or urban land use.  Now of course the story is completely reversed, as pockets of unbroken grassland are rare in many parts of the state, as cropland has become the dominant land use.  In an area where grassland used to be king, it can now be quite difficult to find some of the traditional grassland bird species.

For some species, such as Sharp-tailed Grouse, they’re forever gone from most of eastern South Dakota. For other bird species, they’re found scattered in pockets of remaining suitable habitat.  Right around Sioux Falls, there simply isn’t a lot of grassland.  The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) does provide farmer payments in multi-year contracts in return for keeping the land in a grassland cover, but in recent years, CRP has sharply declined in the Dakotas, with the demand for corn and soy driving extensive expansion of cropland at the expense of what pockets of grassland remain.  For birds like Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Upland Sandpipers, you’ll occasionally find one in a small remaining pocket of grassland, but there’s very little in the way of a “go-to” for place for birds, with extensive grassland, right around Sioux Falls.

Bobolink - Male - Dolichonyx oryzivorus

Male Bobolink. Kind of a scruffy looking dude, but nice to get so close to one as they’re normally shy for me. These guys were numerous where I went birding yesterday.

In South Dakota, the three counties where I bird the most are Minnehaha (where I live), Lincoln (just a few miles south), and…Kingsbury County.  Kingsbury County isn’t even adjacent to Minnehaha or Lincoln county…in fact it’s well over an hour drive to even get to the edge of Kingsbury County.  The attraction of Kingsbury County for me is two-fold. Lake Thompson is the largest natural lake in South Dakota,and the region has extensive open water, shallow water habitats, mudflats, and wetlands.  The other attraction for me is the west side of Lake Thompson.  There are some very large cattle operations in the area, and instead of cropland, much of the land is kept as grassland and pasture.  There are also large areas of alfalfa fields.  Unlike many pastures around here that are overgrazed to the point of erosion becoming a problem, the land in this area seems pretty well managed, with a mix of taller grasslands and (seemingly) responsibly grazed grasslands.

The result is one of the best areas I know in the general vicinity for finding grassland birds.  I drove the area yesterday on a GORGEOUS, sunny, cool day, and was just reveling in the sounds and sights.  There’s one particular road that’s now closed due to fluctuating water levels on Lake Thompson itself. The road gets no traffic and isn’t maintained much anymore, but it’s no problem for my little pickup.  No people, some very nice grassland habitat, and some wonderful birds.  This is one of the few places around here where I can reliably find Upland Sandpipers.  If you go to the central part of the state, Upland Sandpipers are seemingly on every other fence post in the big grassland areas.  You just don’t see them all that often in much of eastern South Dakota, so it’s always a treat to find them here.

Orchard Oriole - Icterus spurius

Orchard Oriole male. Never have I seen such a concentration of Orchard Orioles as I do in this area west of Lake Thompson. Such beautiful little birds, an oriole many folks may not even know are around here.

Singing Bobolinks are another big attraction for me for this area.  I sometimes see (and hear) Bobolinks right around Sioux Falls, but it’s nearly always a single bird, trying to utilize a small remaining piece of pasture or an alfalfa field.  On the west side of Lake Thompson you hear them singing everywhere…one of my favorite sounds in the world, with their long, tinkly songs.  Both Eastern and Western Kingbirds are numerous, seemingly always fighting for fenceline foraging and perching rights.  It’s a place where I see Orchard Orioles in numbers I’ve never seen elsewhere.  The bug-like calls of Grasshopper Sparrows sound out from their hidden perches, as do the buzzy songs of Clay-colored Sparrows.  It’s the same kind of experience you sometimes find in areas of extensive grasslands in the central part of the state, such as on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, but it’s so much closer to home.

A wonderful day! I just hope the land in that area continues to be managed as it is right now, and that it too doesn’t succumb to the ever expanding cropland in the area.

Salton Sea disappearing? Good riddance…

Salton Sea - Satellite Image

Satellite image of the Salton Sea area. The patterns above and below the lake are the massive agricultural lands that have built up since diversion of the Colorado River to the area in the 1900s. The tan color everywhere else? Desert. As Mother Nature is showing us recently, there is a price to be paid for trying to maximize short-term profit and make the desert temporarily “bloom”.

Sometimes Mother Nature gives us a reminder of how much we’ve screwed up the planet.  That’s certainly happening right now in the western U.S., with an extreme drought serving to highlight human mismanagement of both water and land use in the region. While most of the focus has been on urban and agricultural water limitations, there’s also an impact on wildlife.

The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California.  It also didn’t even exist until 1905, at least not in recorded history in the West.  The Colorado River has long been an overused water source for a water-thirsty West, and in 1905 an accidental break in canals diverting water from the Colorado River resulted in two years of ALL Colorado River water flowing into the Salton Sea basin.  Since its formation, it has sporadically served as a resort destination, extremely productive fishery, and habitat for millions of migratory birds.

What’s that you say?  Habitat for millions of birds, and a bird crazy person like myself is saying “good riddance” to the Salton Sea?  Yes, without reservation.  The basin holding the Salton Sea HAS occasionally naturally filled with water over the past several thousand years, but the accident that created the current version of the Sea was anything but natural.  Before settlement of the West, the Colorado River flowed into the Gulf of California, creating a vast delta where it entered the ocean.  Once California, Nevada, and Arizona started diverting water from the Colorado, those flows to the ocean diminished, to the point that NO water from the Colorado regularly reaches the Gulf of California anymore.  A planned pulse of water was allowed to reach the Gulf in 2014, but other than that, water has only sporadically (and rarely) reached the Gulf since the 1950s.

The Colorado River’s delta has long since dried up, taking with it the natural habitat that was once found there.  Has the Salton Sea been a boon to bird life in the West?  Perhaps, although it’s hard to judge the tradeoff of creating the Salton Sea, but losing the Colorado Delta and riparian habitat associated with the Colorado River.  What everybody agrees on is that as the Salton Sea continues to shrink, there are serious health and environmental issues that are likely to occur.  The boom days of the Salton Sea are long past.  The resorts are gone, and the now extremely salty water is only able to support Tilapia, who themselves are now subject to periodic fish kills due to poor water conditions.  Diverted water from the Colorado continues to enable agriculture in the region, but as the recent drought is showing, there simply isn’t enough water to go around in the West.

“Fixing” the Salton Sea would again require diverting massive amounts of water from the Colorado River.  There simply isn’t enough of a water resource to support the Salton Sea, the Colorado Delta, and a booming human footprint in the West.   And so I say…good riddance to the Salton Sea, IF it means restoring natural flows to the Colorado Delta and Gulf of California. Yes, there will be health and environmental issues to deal with in the aftermath of the demise of the Salton Sea.  But as Mother Nature has again reminded us with the western drought, there are consequences for only thinking about short-term economic gain and human well-being, and failing to consider sustainability and long-term consequences.

F***ing, Fat, Fake Nature Lovin’ Campers – FFFNLCs

Vegetation removal at Big Sioux Rec Area - 2013 to 2015

Big Sioux Rec Area campground – 2 years ago, and today. All shrubs and trees anywhere close to the road removed, any remaining trees trimmed way up. Can’t have any scratches on those $125,000 RVs!!!

We live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a state park here in South Dakota.  It’s a riparian area along the Big Sioux River, with many very large cottonwoods and burr oaks, among other trees.  We’ve lived in Brandon for over 20 years now, and I’ve always enjoyed the park, including the birds found within.  That enjoyment is becoming less and less as time goes by.

There’s a definite pecking order in terms of what passes for “recreation” in South Dakota.  Birds and birding, and wildlife in general, seems to be very far down that list.  “Parks and Rec” often seems to mean accommodating a few select recreational uses of public land.  Hunting definitely tops the list.  What else would you think when you get to your favorite  South Dakota State Park, and are immediately greeted with a sign that says “Warning – Hunting Season in Progress”?  Nothing says rest and relaxation more than walking a beautiful path, looking for birds, all the time with a wary eye for any trigger happy hunter that may be targeting something in your general vicinity.

Accommodating campers seems to be the second highest priority.  The Big Sioux Recreation Area has always had camping spots, but until recently, they’d been wonderfully vegetated.  There are two loops with camping spots, loops that USED to be lined with cedar trees and other vegetation.  They were wonderful for birding. The deciduous trees and shrubs around the camping sites themselves were sometimes spectacular for warblers and other migrants in the spring.  The thick cover offered by the cedars and surrounding bushes always attracted birds.  A few years ago on a beautiful November day, as my son and I walked through the park, we were surprised by 15 or more Long-eared Owls that were roosting in the evergreens.  They were incredibly tame, allowing close approach.  People came from all around the area to see this unique circumstance, a group of tame, easily seen Long-eared owls that had chosen the Big Sioux Rec Area camping loops as their winter roosting spot.

Long-eared Owl - Asio otus

From 2007, a Long-eared Owl perched in trees in the campground at the Big Sioux Recreation Area. Those trees and any other vegetation in the vicinity are GONE, largely to make way for today’s generation of Fat Fake Nature Lovin’ Campers.

Last summer, the park began removing trees and shrubs.  Ostensibly, part of the reason was due to what’s become an all out war on Eastern Red Cedar by parks in the state.  However, one of the directly stated reasons for the move?  All the increasingly large campers that use the Big Sioux Rec Area were having a difficult time backing into some of the camping spots.  Those cedar trees that held all the Long-eared Owls?  They are ALL gone.  All the bushes and other vegetation that used to line the roads of the camping loops?  Gone.  What was once a wonderful habitat for birds is now a habitat for…FFNLCs.

What is a FFNLC, you ask? My very blunt term for “Fat Fake Nature Lovin’ Campers”.  Frankly, I usually put another “F” in front of the term, and you can imagine what that stands for.  DEFINITE “Fake nature lovers”, given what passes for “camping” at the Big Sioux Recreation Area.  Last night, I was walking through the park and passed a MASSIVE RV that has been parked in the same spot all week. Despite being there for several days, I had yet to actually see someone OUTSIDE, until last night.  Last night, there was a definite FFNLC, “roughing it” in the park.  This FFNLC was massive on a grand scale, just as was her RV!  And just as massive was the huge flatscreen TV she watching in the “wild” of the park.  The RV had a panel on the outside that opened to reveal this massive flatscreen TV. This FFNLC was sitting in a lawn chair with a huge bowl of chips(?), munching away with the volume turned ALL the way up so the rest of the park could also enjoy her viewing of American Idol.

NOTHING says “Nature” more than sitting in a lawn chair, with your satellite TV hooked up, watching a giant screen and speakers belting out American Idol.  And now you see why I usually add another “F” in front of FFNLC.  Even if there WERE a bird in the general vicinity of the VERY fat FFNLC, there’s no way I could have heard it over her TV.

Fox Sparrow photo - Big Sioux Rec Area

Fox Sparrow, taken in the campground loop at Big Sioux Rec Area. Alas, this spruce tree, like EVERY spruce and cedar tree in that loop, is now gone.

I don’t want to be mean about the “fat” part of FFNLC, but…c’mon, it fits SO well for FFNLCs.  This weekend, on a GORGEOUS afternoon, I took a walk through the park with my pups.  There’s a nice, long, paved bike/walking trail through the park that we like to take the pups on.  Beautiful day…many campers at the park…gorgeous trail…and for the 1 1/2 mile walk, do you know how many people I came across on the trail?  ONE.  ONE!!!  But yet you got back to the campground area itself, and there were certainly plenty of FAT FFNLC’s “roughing” it.  “Roughing it” nowadays evidently means never moving more than 15 feet from the vicinity of your massive, air conditioned, satellite TV equipped, more-comfortable-than-most-peoples-houses, 40-foot RV.  TAKE A FREAKIN’ WALK, FFNLCs.  TRY TURNING OFF THE TV and actually enjoying the park itself.

There’s obviously no going back.  My very birdy camping loops are no more, and it’s not going to change.  EVERY change the State Parks make around here end up REMOVING habitat, and putting in MORE camping stalls.  I guess I should enjoy what habitat remains in the Big Sioux Recreation Area, because its inevitable that any bird habitat presently found there is only going to be reduced even further as time goes by.

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