Ode to the Sparrow – Photo/Haiku of the Day

Ode to a Sparrow

A whisper in the grass

“Just a sparrow”, overlooked.

Autumn’s hidden jewel

Le Conte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii

We’re approaching mid-September, and with it, one of my favorite birding migrations of the year. Warblers? Fall shorebirds? Migrating raptors? No, I treasure early to mid-Autumn for the wonderful array of sparrow species that migrate through eastern South Dakota. Among them are one of my top 3 species of all time…the Le Conte’s Sparrow. No “little brown job”…not “just a sparrow”…the Le Conte’s Sparrow is a brilliant array of complex patterns and beautiful warm tones.  With a reputation as a “skulker”, they’re a prized birding target for many, but during fall migration here, I’ve found them to be very approachable and rather easy to photograph. Along with the other 20 or so sparrow species that migrate through in the fall, a sparrow bonanza is just around the corner!

 

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Prairie Ghost

The Prairie Ghost

Swift ghost of the prairie

shepherding harem and young

As winter’s despair beckons

Pronghorn Buck - Antilocapra americana

Custer State Park’s famed “Wildlife Loop” never disappoints, but it’s just after dawn when the magical moments occur. Pronghorn are often seen in Custer State Park, but they are typically easier to spot in the early morning hours, before most visitors start to arrive in the park. On this morning, a harem of perhaps 6 females and their young-of-the-year surprised me by cresting a nearby hill. They then slowly worked their way towards me as they grazed, unconcerned about the photographer in the parked car. Last to crest the hill was the big male, the protector of the little band. I watched for 15 minutes as the herd fed in the adjacent grasslands. As they slowly moved on down the hill, the trailing buck paused for a moment to give me a stare.  I evidently passed his judgement, and he then trotted off after his harem as they disappeared around the bend.  The grasslands were still lush from a wet and bountiful summer and forage was good, but the leaves were beginning to change, and a harsh South Dakota winter was just around the corner.

Photo Haiku – The Literate Pheasant

Ring-necked Pheasant - No Hunting

Probably my favorite photo of all time. This was taken near Presho, South Dakota, on a cold winter’s day. The sun was just rising, when I came over a hill and saw this male Ring-necked Pheasant on the fence. To my surprise he didn’t immediately fly, but stayed in the perfect position while I took several photos. The pose…the light…the setting…and of course, the “no hunting” sign…I couldn’t have staged a better photo set up myself. What better photo to inspire a haiku…

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Summer’s Last Hummingbird

Summer’s Last Hummingbird

Ruby summer splash

between the flowers they dash

till chased by Fall’s chill

Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Archilochus colubris

A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovering in front of flowers in our yard. It’s now been a couple of days since I’ve seen a male in our yard. They’re always the first to leave for the summer. I still have a couple of females and juveniles, but their time with us is short as well. With the constant buzz of activity in our back yard all summer long, it’s easy to take these guys for granted. Now we will wait another 8 months for their return.

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Grebe Family

Downy striped young grebe

hidden world below the reeds,

staying close to mom

Pied-billed Grebe and Young

I was birding yesterday in western Minnehaha County, and drove on a gravel road that split a large wetland area. The cattails were right next to the road, making it difficult to peer into the wetland, but in a few places there were breaks in the vegetation. As I slowly drove drove past one of the breaks, a Pied-billed Grebe and its young came swimming out of the thick reeds. Neither were particularly concerned with my presence, so I shut the car off and watched for a while. The adult would dive under water in search of prey, and when she popped up, the fledgling grebe would let out a whining call and quickly swim over to the parent. Once she came up with a relatively large fish (for her size), but despite the young one’s pleas, she downed it herself and returned to hunting. In the ten minutes or so that I watched the pair, I never saw the young one’s pleas answered, but she always stayed close to mom.

 

 

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Season of the Bobolink

Season of the Bobolink

Tinkly spring-time song

Fades away as summer ends.

Golden autumn fire

Autumn Bobolink - Dolichonyx oryzivorus

Bobolink in the warm dawn sun. This morning I went to a remnant tallgrass prairie patch and found a small group of Bobolinks. Males have lost their bold black-and-white breeding plumage, and share the same warm brown plumage as the females now. Rather than post as simply the “photo of the day”, thought today we’d take it one step further to my first ever “Photo / Haiku of the day”.

POTD – Costa’s Hummingbird with splash of pollen

Today I worked out in the back yard. All. Day. Long.  I’m beat, but got a lot done, and it was a nice day. A bonus…it was nice seeing all the birds coming to my feeders, including a still very active hummingbird feeder.

This is my yearly, gloomy post, focusing on the fact that my hummingbirds are about to leave me for, oh…8 months. The males already are slipping away, as most of the birds I now get are females and young. I have about 4 more weeks before they all disappear.

But this year shall be different! I refuse to go 8 months without seeing a hummingbird!  We are taking a family vacation this winter to Arizona, and while it’s not exactly prime hummingbird season in either variety or number, there are still plenty of hummingbirds around at that time of year. Today’s POTD is a Costa’s Hummingbird who obviously had just fed, from Madera Canyon in Arizona in November 2011.

Costa's Hummingbird - Calypte costae

Burrowing Owl? Here?!? POTD – From 10 years ago today

It was 10 years ago when I had one of my better birding moments. There are always those great trips to “new” places that get the birding juices flowing, but one of the best aspects of birding is that you never know what you might see when you go out.

It was 10 years ago that I was coming back from a business trip. I flew into the Sioux Falls airport and was driving back to my little home town of Brandon (about 6 miles west of Sioux Falls). I was driving by an open alfalfa field, when I noticed a bird on a post.  It was a…no…couldn’t be…yes! a Burrowing Owl!  Here in far eastern South Dakota, just a few miles from Minnesota. Historically Burrowing Owls used to be around here, but there hadn’t been a breeding record of Burrowing Owls anywhere close to here in decades.  Our grassland is gone, and we just don’t have the prairie dogs or other creatures that Burrowing Owls are often found with.  Yet here was an adult Burrowing Owl, hanging out on a fence post, in early August.

I quickly drove the last 4 miles home, got my camera and returned. Upon looking around I saw another Burrowing Owl…and another…and another.  There were two adults, and at least four young!! It didn’t take long to find their home. They were using an old badger hole, in the middle of the alfalfa field by the road.  The young were already as big as the parents, although with a different plumage. I had a blast for the next month, watching the little Burrowing Owl family feed on grasshoppers, crickets, and other little critters, primarily using a big CRP (?) grassland that was right next to the alfalfa field. By early September they started disappearing, one by one.

That alfalfa field is now on a corn and soybeans rotation. The CRP field they were using to forage? Also plowed under, used for corn and soybeans. In the 10 years since, I’ve never again seen a Burrowing Owl anywhere close to  my part of the state. But I’ll always remember the little Burrowing Owl family that successfully fledged several young, just 4 miles from my house.  Here’s one photo I took at night, of one of the adults foraging for insects alongside the road.

Burrowing Owl - Athene cunicularia

POTD – Dreaming of our next Arizona vacation

A story of one of my all-time favorite photos, related to an upcoming vacation. We LOVE Arizona. The diversity of landscapes, the scenery, the wildlife…it’s just such a treat, and so different than what we have in our part of South Dakota.  We first went about 20 years ago and have been back many times since.  However, it’s been a few years!  We decided that we’d take a week-long vacation and head down to Tucson this winter.

From a birding perspective, the Tucson area (where we usually go) is birding nirvana for me, particularly when we go down to Madera Canyon and some of the other famed birding spots in the area. Winter is still good for birding, but not nearly as good as the spring and summer (HOT!!!!) months. But despite what birds we may find, there’s always the scenery.

If it weren’t for the oppressive heat in summer, if I had the choice of anywhere to live in the US, it would be in the Sonoran desert habitat of Arizona. My first time there, I was shocked not only by the beauty, but the amount of LIFE that you find there. Given the heat and aridity, I expected a place that was tough for live to thrive, but whenever we go, it seems full of birds, insects, reptiles, and other life.  The backbone of the ecoystem, the “big daddy” from a vegetation standpoint, are the giant saguaro cactus. So many species depend upon them, not only for cover and nesting cavities, but for food.  It’s really cool being there in May when the saguaro are blooming, and seeing how many critters utilize the big blooms.

The place we stayed many times is now sadly closed…”Hacienda del Desierto”, a former B&B that not only had wonderful hosts, but a massive acreage with their own Sonoran desert habitat. Many a morning on vacation I’d wake before dawn and roam their lands, running into critters including coyotes, javelina, birds, snakes, and even bobcat.  Right outside the Hacienda is one of the largest saguaro cactus you’ll ever see, a saguaro full of character, with all the nesting holes from the birds that have used it over the years. Elf Owls will often nest in this cactus, as will Gila Woodpeckers, Gilded Flickers, and other birds.

On one of these mornings at the B&B, I awoke just before dawn to a gorgeous sky full of wonderful, scattered clouds. As I walked out by the big saguaro, I thought I’d try something unique for me…a photo that wasn’t a bird! I wanted something that captured not only the grandeur of that saguaro, but the wonderful early morning sky.  I put on my (rarely used) wide-angle lens, and tried to get a shot that captured both the sky and the saguaro. Not happy with what I was getting, I decided to try something different. I laid down on the ground next to the saguaro, and shot straight up the cactus towards the sky.

I absolutely love the resultant shot.  I love it so much, I made a big 36″ tall print on canvas that adorns my office wall at work.  I paid the price for this photo!  I learned that even if you don’t see them, the Sonoran desert ground is LITTERED with cactus thorns of all shapes and sizes! After taking the photo, I returned to my room, and spent some time with my wife, who graciously removed the thorns from my back, and the back of my legs and arms.  A price, but oh so worth it for one of my favorite photos of all time.

Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea)

POTD for August 3rd – Kilauea one year ago

One thing Facebook is very efficient at is telling you what you were up to one…three…five…etc years ago.  It was one year ago we vacationed on the Big Island of Hawai’i.  My son, wife, and I each chose one “big” thing to do while we were there.  My “big” thing was to arrange for participation in a hike with “Epic Lava“.  The eruption of the Pu’u ‘O’o vent had been going on since 1983, and while changes in the eruptive activity had often occurred since then, the eruption was relatively reliable, for those willing to hike to an area of actively flowing lava.  Epic Lava Tours took visitors on hikes, promising to take you right up to active lava flows.

It was safe. It was semi-predictable.  So we met the tour group at some ridiculously early time (4:00 AM?), and drove down to the southeastern coast. The road was closed at one point, and thus it was necessary to hike a few miles to get to the area of actively flowing lava.  Epic Lava tried to time it so you arrived right around dawn, and they certainly didn’t disappoint.  The sun rose just a few minutes before we reached an area where we saw our first actively flowing lava.

It was…incredible.  It was mesmerizing watching the slowly moving lava, with sudden “breakouts” getting folks excited as we moved from location to location in search of the latest, newest flow.  The HEAT was incredible.  I guess we should have expected that, right?  It’s molten rock!  But it certainly amazing to not only see the lava from close range, but FEEL the heat and energy emanating from it.

A trip of a lifetime!  Today…one year later…The Pu’u ‘O’o vent has collapsed, after a 35-year run of continuous eruptions! Today’s activity is certainly much more “exciting”, with occasional lava fountaining and a massive, molten river of lava that dwarfs what we saw.  That activity is obviously devastating to those who have had their lives disrupted. The disruption extends to Epic Lava Tours, as that predictable, “safe” Pu’u ‘O’o flow is no longer available, and the owner is fighting for the right to bring visitors to the newest volcanic sights on the island.  But once you see it, you’re “hooked”, and want to do it again.  We hope to visit the Big Island again some day and see what sights Kilauea has to offer.

For now…today’s photo of the day, an example of the activity from Pu’u ‘O’o from last year.

Kilauea Lava - Pu'u 'O'o vent activity

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