Just having FUN…

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

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

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

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

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

A few pics of the behavior:

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

Birding Nirvana – Canopy Rainforest Treehouses, Tarzali, Australia

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

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

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

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

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

Birding Australia! Southern Cassowary Encounter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The misogynistic birder: Giving female birds their due

When you read the news since, oh…early November 2016, there’s a common theme in many of the news stories. That theme? Misogyny. I cringe when I read the news. I wince when I see how female relatives and friends are often treated. I am disheartened by the “meh” response of many people, for whom misogynistic behavior is so ingrained that it’s second nature and they don’t give it a second thought. And BTW, who am I kidding…the problem goes back FAR before November 2016, although it’s certainly been brought to the forefront since then as attempts have been made to wipe away many of the gains women have made.

Now, I’ve REALLY tried my best to try to focus more on birds and photography on my blog, although sometimes I must necessarily vent on the latest political topic of the day. But after a long week, right now this is a topic that’s too heavy for me to want to tackle. So why I’m a starting a post about misogyny? Bear with me, but…while out shooting the other night at Good Earth State Park, I was surrounded by the songs of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. It seemed like around every corner was another singing bird. I tried and tried to get a photo of one singing, but kept being foiled, with birds either flying away when I got close, or simply stopping their singing and giving me a nasty look.

I ended up taking very few photos that night until the very end. I was trudging up the trail back to my car when I saw a Rose-breasted Grosbeak perched on a log. It wasn’t singing. It didn’t immediately grab my attention as a singing Rose-breasted Grosbeak might because…it was a female. As I raised the camera to shoot, a thought shot through my mind…I’m a misogynistic bird photographer! It’s not just this night or this species. For example, if I’m at a wetland and am surrounded by Yellow-headed Blackbirds, I’m not trying to shoot the less brilliantly plumaged females…I’m going after the males in their striking, colorful breeding plumage. In fact, I think nearly EVERY bird photographer is “misogynistic”, in that the ratio of male-to-female photos is…what…5 to 1 for species with even minor plumage differences? Maybe even 20 to 1 or more where the male is very brightly colored and the female is more drab?

In my small way to fight back against misogyny in general, here’s an ode to the female…the female bird! Below are some of my favorite female bird photos I’ve taken over the years.

NOTE: I’m taking a short hiatus from blogging while I deal with some things, but I will be back soon!

Also Note: This blog post is dedicated to my wonderful wife, who CLEARLY is the better half. In what’s unfortunately a man’s world…she rocks.

Black-throated Green Warbler - Setophaga virens
A female Black-throated Green Warbler, taken on May 25th, 2012 near Acadia National Park in Maine. Are the females as boldly marked as the males? No. They don’t have the black throat of the male, and markings may have less contrast. But a female black-throated Green Warbler is still one hell of a beautiful bird. I loved the pose and of course, the spruce cone in just the perfect position for this composition.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak - Pheucticus ludovicianus
The female Rose-breasted Grosbeak from the other night that got me thinking about my misogynistic ways! While lacking the rich colors of the male, the females are striking as well, with some beautiful plumage patterns and subtle coloring. May 20th, 2019 at Good Earth State Park in South Dakota.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Archilochus colubris
May 6th. That’s the magic date every year when the first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the season shows up in my yard. It’s nearly always within a day of May 6th, and the first bird that shows up is nearly always a male. This year was different however as an intrepid female showed up on that date (!!), braving what has been a cold and wet spring. Yes, the males have that brilliant red throat, but ESPECIALLY for hummingbirds, I couldn’t care less if it’s a male or female that visits my yard. They are so wonderful to have around. This is a bird from September 5, 2011 at our house in Brandon, South Dakota.
Wilson's Phalarope - Phalaropus tricolor
HAH! In your FACE with your fancy plumage, male birds! Wilson’s Phalaropes are a bit different in the bird world, in that it’s the FEMALE that has more colorful plumage. I love this photo, with the unusual pose of a bird as it feeds, and feathers in the back blown up by a strong wind. From May 4th, 2014 in Minnehaha County, South Dakota.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - Sphyrapicus varius
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are one of my favorite species to watch during the summer months. It’s fascinating to watch them at their “wells” they drill, not only because of their behavior, but because of other birds and critters that might come to take advantage of seeping sap. The females aren’t a lot different than the males. They lack the bright red throat of a male, but otherwise they share the same, gorgeous plumage patterns. And yeah…eveyr once in a while you actually even get to see a hint of yellow on their belly (just a bit here!). From May 22nd, 2011 at Beaver Creek Nature Area near Brandon, South Dakota.
Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus
Another woodpecker and one of my favorite regular yard visitors, here’s a female Red-bellied Woodpecker. The only plumage difference that’s noticeable is that males have a complete red head stripe, including the forehead, while the top of the female’s head is gray. From January 8th, 2011 at the Big Sioux Recreation Area near Brandon, South Dakota
Evening Grosbeak - Coccothraustes vespertinus
Evening Grosbeaks are a species I see once a year. Why is it so predictable? Because (usually) I go to Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota once each winter, and there’s one feeder complex where they can reliably be found. In 20 years of birding, that remains almost the ONLY spot I’ve seen this species. So do you think I care that the female isn’t as brightly colored as the male? Heck no! They’re such cool birds, no matter their sex! From December 30th, 2014 at Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota
American Redstart - Setophaga ruticilla
A female American Redstart from May 17th, 2013 at Newton Hills State Park, South Dakota. They don’t have the same black and orange plumage as the males, but they CERTAINLY share the same behavior. Absolutely MADDENING to try to photograph because they rarely sit still for more than a second.
We’ll end with perhaps one of them most underappreciated female birds…the Northern Cardinal. Are they bright red ALL over? No. But they share that same wonderful crest, and instead of simply being red all over like the “boring” male, they have red tinged feathers on their wings, crest, and tail. MUCH more interesting, right?!? In any event I do love this close portrait of a female, from July 1st, 2006 at Newton Hills State Park.

Unusual cold weather has birds struggling in South Dakota

Five very different birds, but five species with something very much in common. The cool, wet spring continues, with rain and wind in the eastern part of South Dakota, and a late May snowstorm in the western part of the state. It had already been an odd migration given the cool temps that don’t want to give way to spring. Until last Friday (May 17th, songbird migration was noticeably slow, with very few warblers around other than Yellow-rumped. But that seemed to have changed last weekend. On Saturday (May 18th) we had a major fall-out of migrants, with warblers of every kind (I had 20 species on Saturday), vireos, flycatchers, and other songbirds appearing seemingly out of thin air. The birding this weekend was positively SPECTACULAR, and there’s no doubt for me it was the best warbler spotting in the 20 years I’ve been birding.

That spectacular birding has come with a price, however. With cool and wet conditions continuing, you can tell birds are struggling. The problem? I just think there aren’t the usual insects out yet for this time of year. Because of that, you’re seeing species with behaviors you normally don’t see. From a bird photography perspective I guess it’s been great, as the birds have been 1) concentrated, with many birds often foraging in select locations out of the wind and rain, and in areas where a few insects might be, and 2) many species have been down lower to the ground than normal.

Here’s a pictorial of five species I’ve encountered in recent days, five species that all appear to be impacted by the cool wet weather.

In the account of the Great Crested Flycatcher on my main webpage, for “behavior” it states that Great Crested Flycatchers are “usually found high in the tree canopy, more often heard than seen”. Normally that’s true. They’re a quite vocal species, and I do hear them more than I actually see them. However, in the last week, I’ve seen a number of them, down low, foraging in areas that seem rather odd for the species. At both Newton Hills State Park and Good Earth State Park, I’ve seen multiple Great-crested Flycatchers foraging on the ground or in low grasslands. Again, my take is that insects are hard to find in the cool wet weather, leading birds like Great Crested Flycatchers to forage in areas they normally would not. Photo is from May 19th at Good Earth State Park.
While birding Newton Hills State Park Sunday, I saw three Scarlet Tanagers, all foraging within a few feet of each other. Seeing Scarlet Tanagers at Newton Hills isn’t news, as it’s one of the best places in the state to find them. To see three foraging together is unusual, however. Seeing all three ON THE GROUND, foraging as if they were Robins, is definitely unusual. It was a cornucopia of color, with a Red-headed Woodpecker low in the nearby sumac, an Indigo bunting down low, and American Robins and Scarlet Tanagers feeding together as if they were the same species. I’ve seen more Scarlet Tanagers this spring than I remember seeing before, but frankly it’s because they’re using habitats and behaviors they normally would not. Photo is from May 19th at Newton Hills State Park.
On Sunday, I spent quite a bit of time at Lake Lakota, a reservoir right next to Newton Hills State Park. Sunday morning was a nasty day…temps in the 30s, foggy, and cloudy with occasional drizzle. Again, from a photographer’s perspective it certainly played to my advantage, as birds were heavily concentrated along the lake shores of Lake Lakota. That’s been a common theme in the last week, with insect eating birds often found very near water sources. Given their behavior and concentration, presumably it’s because these insect-eating birds are going where the food is, and with the cold weather, it seems insects associated with water bodies are some of the few that are around. There have been a few times over the last 20 years where on a cold May day, I’ve found heavy concentrations of all kinds of swallow species on the ground, and Sunday was one of those days. Sitting on the beach at Lake Lakota were Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows, Cliff Swallows, Northern Rough-winged Swallows, and Bank Swallows. At any one time, it appeared that about two-thirds of the birds were perched on the beach, with a few low in nearby shrubs and trees. The other third were swooping over the lake itself, extremely close to the water’s surface as they searched for food. Those on the beach would occasionally move, but not in typical swallow fashion. Several appeared to sometimes be almost walking around looking for food, VERY strange for species that collect their insect prey in flight. It wasn’t just swallows, as other species were also concentrated on the beach, including more Baltimore Orioles and Orchard Orioles than I’ve ever seen in one location before. Given that they were seemingly struggling, I didn’t want to get too close for photos, so the photo above is of a Tree Swallow from a similar situation several years ago, on a very cold morning at Lake Thompson in South Dakota.
Speaking of shorelines along water bodies…while most warbler species were pretty much absent in the area until Saturday, that definitely wasn’t the case with Yellow-rumped Warblers. They have been THICK, but often in areas you don’t associate with warblers. While driving north of Wall Lake in western Minnehaha County last week, I saw many birds perched along a barbed wire fence, occasionally flying out to “flycatch”, capturing insects in mid-air. It was an area with a couple of shallow wetlands, areas that must have hatched some mosquitos or other flying insects despite the cool wet weather. It was an area with nary a tree in sight, yet as I got closer I saw what they were…ALL Yellow-rumped Warblers, in big numbers, hanging out here in a completely open landscape and making do with what bugs they could find. The situation was similar one day when I was looking for shorebirds at Weisensee Slough in western Minnehaha County. Weisensee is the last place I’d think of going to look for warblers, given as it’s a very large wetland/water body, with just no woodland patches on the accessible part along the road. That was a very windy day, shorebirds were almost completely absent (another blog post about shorebird migration perhaps), and with the chop on the water, it was difficult to see many birds out on the lake. Yet as I approached the ONE location along the road with a few very small willow trees, I saw a heavy concentration of Yellow-rumped Warblers, perched on the shoreline itself or low in the trees on the lee side of the wind, trying to capture insects. The photo above is one of those Yellow-rumped Warblers from Weisensee.
On Facebook I’ve been seeing many photos people have posted of their orange and jelly feeders, with big concentrations of Orioles. On the east side of the state, that means Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, while Bullock’s Orioles are also thrown into the mix in western South Dakota. that’s certainly been the case at my feeders as well, as I typically have to fill my two jelly cups every morning. The same thing happened during a cold snap last May, where very hungry, insect-starved Orioles showed up at my feeders in force…also the first time Orchard Orioles joined the Baltimore Orioles in our suburban neighborhood.

The invisible bird in plain sight – Common Nighthawk

When I bird, I nearly always am by myself. Birding is my zen time, my time to forget about all the worries of the day. It’s my time to get away from cell phones, other electronics, and yeah…I admit it…people. The last two weeks notwithstanding (I’ve done a LOT of birding during that time), normally I don’t get out all that often, and its a way for me to decompress and have some time alone. My behavior when birding also is most conducive to birding alone. For example, when I saw a very large group of Black Terns dipping and diving over Grass Lake the other night, I did what I OFTEN do…I stayed an entire hour with them. Part of it is the photography side of my hobby. Patience is the greatest attribute you can have in bird photography, and shooting a bird that flies in an erratic pattern certainly taxes that patience. But rather than trying for a few minutes, getting frustrated, and leaving…I kept at it, watching their patterns as they’d circle around for another pass along the shoreline, noting that the strong wind often put them in a near hover mode, and eventually getting quite a few nice photos.

However, I do realize there are advantages to birding in a group that I generally miss out on. This weekend the South Dakota Ornithologist’s Union (SDOU) held their spring meeting in Brandon. On Saturday I ran into SDOU birders twice at Perry Nature Area near Sioux Falls, and joined them for a couple of hours that afternoon. Given the incredible warbler migration on Saturday, I knew I wanted to try Newton Hills State Park Sunday morning, and after birding for an hour or so, I ran into another SDOU group of birders. As I got out and greeting them, a young, very enthusiastic (and very good!) birder in the group (Peter) immediately pointed upward to the branch of a nearby tree…Common Nighthawk! Just sitting there on a horizontal branch, apparently not giving a damn about all the birders just 10 yards away.

There’s no way in hell I would have seen that bird if I’d have been birding alone. Even the group of SDOU birders said they were moving around that spot for quite some time before someone noticed it.

I greatly enjoyed the weekend, both my time birding alone, and my time with the SDOU crowd. The tradeoffs between both styles of birding…when birding alone, I ran into more Black-billed Cuckoos than I ever had in one spot, and was able to spend quite a bit of time with them and get some good photos. I didn’t get any really good photos while birding with the crowd, but I definitely saw more birds! When you have 6-8 pairs of binoculars trained on different spots, it DEFINITELY is helpful during spring migration, when little warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and other birds are often flitting about in the treetops.

Over the years, my birding style has definitely changed. I’ve been birding for 20 years now, and I’d say that for the first 15 years, I was laser-focused on the photography side of things. It seems nuts for me to say this now, but…I didn’t even OWN a pair of binoculars until 5 years ago!! All those little warblers flitting about in the tree tops? They didn’t interest me, as I knew there was no way in hell I’d ever get a photo of them! But I’ve evolved from a photographer who birds, into a birder who also takes photographs. Over the last few years, some of my favorite birding memories don’t involve the camera, but times where I’ve just sat in one spot and watched some rare or interesting bird, often for an hour or more.

My very unusual (for me!) time spent actually (GASP!) birding with other people this weekend was nice…perhaps it’s just another step as I transition from a “photography first” to “birding first” mentality.

Common Nighthawk - Chordeiles minor
Common Nighthawk from May 19th, 2019 at Newton Hills State Park. A gray, gloomy, cold morning. A grayish mottled bird sitting completely still on a grayish mottled branch…a camouflaged bird, sitting in plain sight!

A cuckoo kind of a day

I’ve got so many potential things to focus on from an incredible weekend of birding. The 20-species warbler day yesterday, plenty of other goodies, has my head spinning in terms of what to focus for a blog post.

One of the more curious sightings from today at Newton Hills State Park came while patrolling the beach area. It was a bit foggy yet, drizzle was falling, and it was pretty damned cold for May 19th, and there were birds galore near the beach at Lake Lakota, all foraging on the ground or close to it, in search of whatever few insects might be out. While watching all the commotion, a bird with a noticeably long tail flew past and landed in the bushes behind me. Cuckoo!! But which one? I switched my focus from the beach to the bushes by the parking, and there! A Black-billed Cuckoo! I lucked into 3 Yellow-billed Cuckoos at Newton Hills last spring, but it’s been a few years since I’ve even seen a Black-billed Cuckoo.

As I sat and tried to get a good look at cuckoo #1 through the foliage, here came another long-tailed bird…another Black-billed Cuckoo! I ended up spending half an hour near that bush, and during that time there were up to FOUR Black-billed Cuckoos frolicking about, doing some half-hearted chasing of each other, but mostly looking like they were just trying to survive until the weather warmed up and there was more for them to eat.

Another great morning despite the weather. Here are some of the Cuckoo photos, all from the one location.

Black-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus erythropthalmus
Black-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus erythropthalmus
Black-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Ho-hum South Dakota birding — a 20-warbler day!

Bay-breasted Warbler - Setophaga castanea

With all the birding I’ve done over the last 2 weeks, I have to say…migration had been disappointing to this point. I love my sparrows, and sparrow migration was very good, but the other two groups of migrants that I love…shorebirds and warblers…have been painfully slow in arriving. In the case of shorebirds, I don’t think any sort of migratory breakthrough is going to happen this spring. It could be they’re just spread out, given how incredibly wet it’s been and how much standing water there is over much of the upper Great Plains. But at this stage, I’m not counting on a big influx of shorebirds.

Warblers have been very similar. If you like Yellow-rumped, this has been your spring! They have been absolutely thick, particularly last week when they were not only in woodland and forest edges, but many were hanging out on shorelines, fencelines, or other seemingly uncharacteristic locations. But other than Yellow-rumped Warblers? To say “not much” would be a disservice to the term “not much”, as for most species, they’ve been non-existent.

That changed today. HOLY…COW…did that change today!! I’ve been birding 20 years now. That’s 20 spring migrations where I’ve put in a LOT of effort, hoping to find migratory warblers and other songbirds. In those 20 years, I must say that today was THE best warbler day I have ever had, hands down. It wasn’t just numbers, although numbers were quite good. It was the jaw-dropping variety of warbler species that are moving through the area right now. They weren’t necessarily “dripping off the trees”…a favorite term for some folks when there’s a warbler “fall-out”. But they were certainly around in very good numbers, and at times it seemed that every bird you looked at was a different species.

There were some that were quite abundant. Tennessee and Yellow-rumped Warblers were common, although Tennessee were scattered everywhere, while most of the Yellow-rumped I saw were along the Big Sioux River at Good Earth State Park. Given how intense the birding was and how often I tried to keep my focus on the treetops, I have no doubt my count below is low for those two species, and I KNOW it’s quite low for Yellow Warbler, as they are also extremely abundant right now. When I saw one of those “common” species, I often didn’t pause to enter into eBird. And why was that?

Because there were SO many “good” warbler species, including species I haven’t seen in years. I haven’t seen Blackburnian Warblers very often in South Dakota, and I have zero photos of the species. In fact, there are only two occasions where I even remember seeing a Blackburnian Warbler. Today? FOUR gorgeous Blackburnians, with 2 at Perry Nature Area, and 2 at Good Earth State Park. It’s been 14 years since I’ve seen a Bay-breasted Warbler, but I found one at Good Earth. Mourning Warbler? I have ZERO photos of the species and don’t see them all that often, but I found a pair in close proximity this afternoon. Chestnut-sided are a species I probably see every other year or so, and always one at at time. Today? I saw six, with five spotted from one location at Good Earth!! Magnolia numbered 9 on the day, Blackpoll were at 4, while most of the others were single sightings.

20 species of warbler in one day! 19 of those were from two locations (Perry Nature Area and Good Earth State Park), while 1 was from Ditch Road just north of Sioux Falls (Northern Waterthrush). Here’s the list of warblers on a birding day I will always remember:

  1. Ovenbird – 3 (2 singing and not seen, one seen and not heard)
  2. Golden-winged Warbler – Seen and heard twice, in two visits to Perry Nature Area today (same bird I’m sure…count of 1)
  3. Tennessee Warbler – 47 — I have no doubt this is a big undercount, as many times I didn’t stop to enter them in eBird
  4. Orange-crowned Warbler – 4
  5. Nashville Warbler – 1
  6. Mourning Warbler – 2 – And now I do have photos of the species! Crappy photos, but I had none before today!
  7. Common Yellowthroat – 7 – If I’d taken the time to properly account for all those singing along the Big Sioux River in the northern end of Good Earth State Park, this number would be a lot higher
  8. American Redstart – 9 –
  9. Magnolia – 9 – Definitely the most I’ve seen in one day
  10. Bay-breasted Warbler – A REAL treat as I haven’t seen one in over a decade
  11. Blackburnian Warbler – 4 – TWICE the number I’ve seen in my other 20 springs of birding in South Dakota
  12. Yellow Warbler – 16 – That’s what I had taken the time to enter in eBird. But particularly if I would have paid close attention and recorded every time I heard a Yellow Warbler, the number would be double or triple this.
  13. Chestnut-sided Warbler – 6 – All at Good Earth State park, with an astounding 5 observed while standing near one giant burr oak
  14. Blackpoll Warbler – 4
  15. Yellow-rumped Warbler – 25 – As they’ve been all spring, nearly all were near water, with them flycatching along the banks of the Big Sioux River in Good Earth State Park
  16. Black-throated Green Warbler – 1 – One of my faves, good to see one
  17. Canada Warbler – 1 – I’ll need to check my records but I don’t see these often at all.
  18. Northern Waterthrush – 1 – The only one not at Good Earth or Perry Nature Area, found while doing a short check of Ditch Road north of Sioux Falls.
  19. Black-and-White Warbler – 1 – Usually one of the most common migrants, and I have seen plenty this spring, but only one today.
  20. Wilson’s Warbler – 1 – Also one I typically see every year, but it’s been pretty slow for them this year.
Magnolia Warbler - Setophaga magnolia
I would kill for more warbler photos like this. Magnolia Warblers though sometimes do forage quite low in the canopy, or along a woodland edge, and thus I do have more photos of them than I do most warblers. Unfortunately, it’s SO hard to get photos like this of many warblers, as birds like Blackburnian, Black-throated Green, and many others seem to always stay quite high in the canopy.

Ode to the Black Tern

I’ve done more birding in the last 2 weeks than I’ve done in a long time, trying to take advantage of what normally is the peak migration time here for warblers, shorebirds, and other migrants. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the warblers, shorebirds, and other migrants that they’re supposed to be, you know…migrating. It’s been pretty slow for many things, but I’ve still had a great time. One bird that definitely got the message about migration time are Black Terns, as I’ve run into dozens upon dozens as they forage over many of the lakes, ponds, and wetlands in the area.

Last night I was at Grass Lake in far western Minnehaha County, and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect setup for taking photos of what can be a difficult bird to photograph. The light was at my back, the wind was gusting and keeping many birds in a near hovering position, and I was perched on an elevated road that allowed me to be level or even shooting down on the birds as they fed. It led to some shots I really like…augmenting a gallery of quite a few Black Tern photos I like. For some species, building such a gallery comes rather easy, as the birds are cooperative (sitting still and not flying away certainly helps), and have plumage patterns and colors that make them easy to photograph.

That has NOT been the case with Black Terns. I do have some shots of them sitting on a log or other perch, but most of the time when you see them, they’re in flight, and they have a bouncy, unpredictable flight path as they forage for food. Their coloring is another challenge. A bird in breeding plumage has jet black feathering on the head and underneath, while other feathering is silvery to nearly white, making it very difficult to expose correctly. If you have poor light or the bird is backlit, it’s generally not even worth bothering, as the bird will show up as a dark, featureless smudge.

The conditions all came together last night though! With as happy as I was with the photos from last night, I was going to dust off my bird haiku “skills” (questionable as though they may be), given I haven’t done a haiku for awhile. But it’s Friday, it’s been a long week, and I don’t have it in me. So instead here’s a gallery of some of my favorite Black Tern photos over the years.

Black Tern - Chlidonias niger
A photo from last night. A full breeding plumage Black Tern, in flight, a good exposure that keeps some detail in the blacks (and allows you to see the eye) while not blowing out the silvery upperparts…I was quite happy to get this one! It immediately becomes not only one of my favorite Black Tern photos, but one of my favorite photos overall. May 16th, 2019 – Grass Lake, Minnehaha County, South Dakota
DEFINITELY one of my all-time favorites. The wings may not be in the position I’d prefer, but this has the best exposure of any Black Tern photo I’ve gotten, with quite a lot of detail in the blacks and a great look at that eye. Having a great green bokeh background is nice as well. From May 14th, 2016 in Minnehaha County, South Dakota
Black Tern - Chlidonias niger
Sometimes you do get a photo opportunity of one sitting still! You still have to have the right lighting to get a good exposure of that black and silver plumage though. The lighting gods were favorable though on this day, with a nice perch, a nice little head turn and pose, and a good look at that gorgeous plumage. Taken May 14th, 2010 at Lake Whitewood in South Dakota.
Black Tern - Chlidonias niger
Until last night, I didn’t think I’d ever get a top-down, Black Tern in flight photo that I’d like more than this one. But I like last night’s better. This is still one of my favorites though, taken May 14th, 2010 at Lake Whitewood in South Dakota.
Black Tern - Chlidonias niger
Sometimes it’s less about the bird itself, than the overall composition. Four breeding plumage Black Terns may not be compelling, but I loved the composition here, with the perch cutting through most of the frame, and the blue water as a back drop. From May 17th, 2013 at Lake Thompson, in Kingsbury County, South Dakota

Ruddy Turnstones – Madison Waterfowl Production Area

Another night, another rarity for South Dakota! Last night it was a White-eyed Vireo from Newton Hills State Park. Tonight I went looking for shorebirds up around Madison. It was actually pretty slow for shorebirds, except for one spot…the west side of the Madison Waterfowl Production Area, just southeast of Madison. The highlight…22 Ruddy Turnstones! If I do see them in South Dakota, which isn’t very often, it’s almost always one or two birds, so seeing 22 in one spot was a treat.

A couple of quick photos from tonight. After doing some really hardcore birding over the last week…I’m beat! Just want bed, no more photo processing!

Ruddy Turnstone - Arenaria interpres
Ruddy Turnstone - Arenaria interpres

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