Winter’s Omen – Photo / Haiku of the Day

Winter’s Omen

Charming you may be,

Harbinger of glacial hell.

Snow Bird? PLEASE GO BIRD. 🙂

Dark-eyed Junco - Junco hyemalis

I saw the first Dark-eyed Junco (what many people around here call “Snow Birds”) of the season in my yard this afternoon. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate having them around in winter. However, they are sometimes the ONLY species in my yard in winter. Seeing one now is the first sign of the impending wintry, Dakota hell, a hell that may not be over until they leave next April. Cute you may be! But I MUCH prefer the seasons when you are not around!!

Compact Endothermic Mouse Defrosting Unit (CEMDU)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northern Saw-whet Owl - Aegolius acadicus

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

Who says blackbirds are boring?

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

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

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

European Starling - Sturnus vulgaris

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

Common Grackle - Quiscalus quiscula

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

Red-winged Blackbird - Agelaius phoeniceus

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

 

Life-sized Carving of Ivory-billed Woodpecker!

Ivory-billed Woodpecker - Carving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory-billed Woodpecker carving

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

 

Photo / Haiku of the Day – The Sentry’s Bark

The Sentry’s Watch

Spreading like a rumor,

the bark of the sentry echoes;

the trickster foiled again

The Sentry's Bark - Black-tailed Prairie Dog

A sentry stands watch along the edge of a prairie dog town in Custer State Park, as a coyote (aka, “the trickster”) slinks away over the hill. I first heard the barking prairie dogs before seeing them, and when I came over the hill I saw why they were agitated. A young coyote was probing the edge of the town, prompting the alarm calls to echo across the prairie. Whether it was my arrival or the bark of the sentry prairie dogs, the coyote disappeared out of sight shortly after this photo.

South Dakota’s Jewel – Custer State Park

My family and I just got back from a long weekend in the Black Hills, spending most of our time in Custer State Park. The Black Hills are a 5 or 6 hour drive from our hometown on the far eastern edge of South Dakota. We travel a lot, but have somehow managed to avoid visiting the area for the last 4 or 5 years, other than occasional fishing trips with my son. After a wonderful, long, Labor Day weekend, I’m not sure why we don’t spend more time in the Black Hills and Custer State Park.  We love National Parks and Monuments, visiting 11 different ones during our summer vacation to Colorado and Utah, but I’d put Custer State Park up with any of them.

Part of the attraction is the diversity the park offers. Custer State Park is big, covering over 110 square miles. Habitats are diverse, ranging from wide open prairie to craggy peaks.  Access is quite easy, with several roads traversing the park, including a number of gravel roads that get far less traffic than roads like the iconic Wildlife Loop.  However, even the wildlife loop is never as busy as the popular National Parks. And as with most parks in the United States, once you step away from the main roads and start hiking, you can find yourself with as much solitude as you desire.

On this trip, we stayed at the “Creekside Lodge”, a wonderful little place from which to base your trip to the Hills. It’s part of the State Game Lodge complex, right off Highway 16a, one of the bigger paved roads through the park, and is in an area that provides quick access to many of the Black Hills attractions. We loved our room at the Creekside lodge, a 2nd floor room with a balcony that overlooked Grace Coolidge Creek. Every night, we’d have deer foraging in the grass right below our hotel room, and the room was large and very comfortable.

For me, it’s the hiking and the wildlife that makes Custer State Park special.  There are no bears in the Black Hills, but you’ll certainly find as many bison, deer, elk, Pronghorn, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs as you could want.  That’s right, just one State Park, with habitats that support creatures as diverse as Bison and Pronghorns on the prairies, and Mountain Goats at high elevation. Every morning on our trip I’d wake before dawn, and drive and hike around the less-traveled gravel roads the connect with the Wildlife Loop road. Every morning, I’d find bountiful photo opportunities.

Yes, it’s “just” a state park, but don’t overlook Custer State Park!! It’s one of the most enjoyable places to visit in the region.  Here are just a few of the many photos I took over the weekend. Note I reserve the right to revisit these same photos in upcoming Photo/Haiku of the day posts!  🙂

American Bison - Custer State Park, South Dakota

The iconic American Bison. Custer State Park has a very large herd that has free reign throughout most of the park. While they could be seen almost anywhere, the wide open grasslands around the wildlife loop are a place where you’ll almost certainly run across large numbers of them.

Coyote - Canis latrans - Custer State Park, South Dakota

A lone coyote, giving me one last look before disappearing into the grassland. There are certainly plenty of coyote around, but they’re pretty shy. Drive the Wildlife Loop right around dawn though, and there’s a good chance you may find one.

Black-tailed Prairie Dog - Cynomys ludovicianus

A Black-tailed Prairie Dog at the entrance to its burrow. There are a number of large prairie dog towns scattered throughout Custer State Park, and they’re always a great place to look for wildlife.

Pronghorn - Antilocapra americana - South Dakota

The Wildlife Loop are offers some wonderful prairie habitat, and is a great spot to find Pronghorn. Pronghorn in South Dakota are generally very shy. It’s no wonder, given the hunting pressure on the species. Custer State Park is probably your best opportunity anywhere to get close to a wild Pronghorn. They’re used to the visitors and will often calmly forage just a few meters away from your car.  How close can you get to a wild Pronghorn at Custer State Park? How about….

Pronghorn - Antilocapra americana - South Dakota

This close! When you shoot wildlife, the problem is that you generally can’t get close enough for a frame-filling photo, even with a “long” camera lens. In this case, my long lens made it impossible to frame the entire animal in the shot, and thus I instead had the opportunity to shoot some wonderful portraits from point-blank range.

Mountain Bluebird - Sialia currucoides

One of my favorite species, the Mountain Bluebird. Near the “airport” (not much of an airport) on Wildlife Loop road, there’s a fence line with a number of bluebird boxes. It’s a terrific spot to find these beautiful sky-blue birds.

Mountain Goat - Oreamnos americanus

ALWAYS. BRING. YOUR. CAMERA!!! After this many years doing photography, I should know this by now! But when we decided to do the “Cathedral Spires” hike in the park, I left the camera in the car. I didn’t think we’d see any wildlife up there! Boy was I wrong. We ran into Mountain Goats twice on the beautiful hike up to the spires! Alas, all I had was my iPhone, but this even with just a standard iPhone 7, we were able to get close enough to these beautiful animals to get photos such as this one. This also gives you an indication of the diversity of landscapes in the park…from Pronghorns on the prairies, to Mountain Goats up high!!

Custer State Park - Dawn

A quick grab-shot with my iPhone of the rising sun, from Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park, showing the wide open prairies and rolling hills on this side of the park.

Photography from a kayak

I’ve had a kayak for about 8 years. The first one I bought was a rather large sit-on-top kayak, a pretty upscale one with an number of bells and whistles that made it perfect for fishing. I immediately fell in love with the freedom you felt while kayaking. As a sit on top, you’re pretty exposed, but that just added to the thrill.

After a couple of trial runs, I decided to head up to Lake Thompson in Kingsbury County, the largest natural lake in South Dakota. I was feeling confident! I had no issues in my initial runs, so when arriving at Lake Thompson I was determined to paddle the length of the lake (5 miles or so). It was a beautiful day…a few puffy clouds, very light winds, perfect for kayaking. Even with a light wind, there was a bit of a chop out in the open water, but I had no problems making it across the lake. I was using muscles I hadn’t used in such a way and was a bit tired, so rested on the opposite shore for a bit before heading back.

The way back was a bit harder. The wind had picked up, the chop had picked up, and I was tired. Still, I was progressing well, and was halfway across when….disaster strikes. There were a few fishermen out on the lake, and I saw one heading across the lake at pretty high speed. He did see me and avoided my position, but he didn’t slow down as he sped past about 20 yards away. I soon realized this might be trouble, as the wake waves quickly headed my way. I tried to turn my kayak into the wave, but was perhaps at a 45-degree angle when the first wave hit. I rocked with it, leaned in the direction of the wave to balance the tipping kayak, and was initially OK…until the second wave hit. Again I didn’t have time to get the kayak headed into the wave, and when the second wave hit I was unable to keep the balance. Into the water I went.

OK…no problem…I’m in the middle of the largest natural lake in South Dakota, but 1) the water was warm (it’s late August), and 2) I had on my life jacket. I thought it would be no problem getting back on top and finishing the trip back, but I just…couldn’t…do it.  I’d READ about what to do if capsized in my sit-on-top…reaching across the kayak, grabbing the opposite side and pulling yourself up…but when push came to shove, I couldn’t do it. The first few times I tried, when I reached across and grabbed the opposite side, the kayak would simply flip and turn over. It was such a buoyant, high-sittingkayak, and no matter my strategy I couldn’t get back on top. It didn’t help that I was tired from the long, hard paddle, and soon I realized I wasn’t going to be able to get back up.  I still wasn’t too concerned. The wind was blowing towards my push-off point, so I thought I’d just swim and drift with the kayak back to my car.  It was a long haul. Trying to swim with the kayak in tow was complicated by an increasing wind that seemed determined to push me off course.  Finally I just decided I needed to head to the closest, easily accessed shore rather than going across.  Exhausted, I pulled myself up, tied up the kayak, and rested for a while before trekking back to retrieve the car.

That’s a VERY long back drop to my mindset when it comes to taking my very expensive Canon camera equipment out in the kayak. Thankfully that day I wasn’t fishing, I wasn’t taking photos, so I didn’t lose any thing when I capsized (other than a water bottle), but the thought of tipping with my camera equipment has always made me a bit leery about trying to use my kayak as a photo platform. However, I thought I’d try taking my 2nd kayak (a very stable high-end, 2-person inflatable that I will take out with my son) out on Lake Vermilion, a rather large reservoir west of Sioux Falls. It was a nice sunny morning with relatively low wind, but even so, I was paranoid about losing my equipment, and kept my camera equipment in a dry bag until needed! It’s not the greatest photography strategy in the world, as you’re fumbling for access to your equipment if you unexpectedly come across a bird, but at least I felt safe and secure.

It wasn’t a great day in terms of the birding. I didn’t really come across any waterfowl, and other than some far away American White Pelicans and some flocks of Franklin’s Gulls that would occasionally stream overhead, it was pretty quiet. However, when returning to my push off point, I spotted a Great Blue Heron prowling the shoreline.  I kept my distance for a while, and was rewarded when he plunged his head down and caught a large bullhead catfish. I missed the moment of the catch, but was able to grab a number of photos as he took off with his catch and slowly flew across the lake right in front of the kayak.

I can definitely see the advantages of shooting from the kayak You can get to locations you simply can’t get to by foot, and when you’re sitting right on the water, you can get some wonderful, low-angle, natural looking shots. I love the photos here of the Great Blue Heron. After my one “dunking” incident, however, I’m still leery of doing this on a regular basis!  With winter approaching, South Dakota’s climate will soon make the choice easy, but hopefully I can get back out in the kayak with the camera one or two more times before the cold weather hits.

Great Blue Heron - Ardea herodias

The Great Blue Heron and his catch at the moment of liftoff from his hunting spot on the shoreline.

Great Blue Heron - Ardea herodias

Perhaps one advantage of the kayak is birds aren’t as scared as they are of an upright, walking human being? It’s a sample size of one, but instead of flying directly away from my position, the Great Blue Heron flew right in front of me with his catch.

Goin’ on a Safari. A Backyard Safari…

Not a good day birding. I went out this morning in the gray and the gloom, knowing the light wasn’t very good for bird photography, but I thought I’d try anyway.  Not only didn’t I get any photos, the birding itself was rather slow. Upon arriving back home I thought I’d change focus.  I hadn’t gotten my macro lens out in a while, so decided to go on a “backyard safari”, looking for little critters that inhabit the yard.

The nice thing about a backyard safari is that they never disappoint!  Well, in SUMMER they never disappoint, because you always find plenty of insects and other small critters in the yard. There were a couple of highlights today.  First were the White-lined Sphinx Moths that were gorging on nectar from a big honeysuckle.  Not a rare species, but given their size, you always do a double-take when you first see them.  They were moving pretty quickly from flower to flower, making photography a challenge, but with time (and a lot of deleted photos), I managed a few decent photos.

The second highlight were a couple of surprises on the butterfly weed I had planted. I wasn’t ever clear if the variety I bought was truly a form of milkweed.  Sure, butterflies loved the blooms, but would Monarch Butterflies treat it as they do all the wild, Common Milkweed that’s around here? Would they lay eggs?  That was answered today, when I found two caterpillars, one quite large, and one small. I don’t have a really large area of butterfly weed, but seeing those Monarch caterpillars today makes me want to plant some more.

A nice time, just a stone’s throw (quite literally!) from the house.  Backyard safari saves the day…

White-lined Sphinx Moth - Hyles lineata

White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata), feeding on nectar from our massive honeysuckle in the back yard. There were 2 or 3 hanging around the backyard, with the honeysuckle drawing the most interest by far.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) - Caterpillar

(Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) caterpillar, hanging around on my “butterfly weed”. According to this guy…yes…yes indeed…this IS a form of milkweed.

Leafcutter Bee (Megachile)

A Leafcutter Bee, hanging out on the same Butterfly Weed plant as the two Monarch caterpillars.

White-lined Sphinx Moth

Another White-lined Sphinx Moth at the honeysuckle.

The Monarch Butterfly vs. South Dakota Politics

Monarch Caterpillar - Danaus plexippus

A Monarch Caterpillar having lunch. This was taken in a roadside ditch in Minnehaha County, South Dakota, but it’s not nearly as common a sight as it could (should) be. Ditches here are mowed, sprayed, and otherwise managed, resulting in ditches (even on rarely used gravel roads) often looking like golf courses or urban lawns.

Yesterday I birded several locations to the northwest of Sioux Falls. I traveled through not only Minnehaha County (where Sioux Falls is), but also nearby McCook, Lake, Kingsbury, and Brookings counties. When I go birding around here, I typically travel on gravel roads, to minimize interaction with other cars and reach places where I can actually stop and watch for a while. While traveling gravel roads through these counties yesterday, I was struck by the incredibly variable management of roadside ditches.

What’s that? You don’t pay much attention to the ditches when you’re driving? I can’t say I normally do either, but I was recently at the North American Congress for Conservation Biology Conference (NACCB), where there were a number of presentations on the plight of the Monarch Butterfly. They’re a species dependent upon milkweed. One of the problems is that SO much of the United States landscape is now being used for agriculture, urban development, energy development, and other uses, and milkweed is crowded out.  Even in areas adjacent or near to agricultural land, herbicides are often used for weed control, further reducing milkweed abundance.

This spring, I was contacted by researchers who were studying landscape change, and how it potentially impacted Monarch Butterflies. Specifically, they were interested in using our landscape modeling to look at future landscapes, and the resultant impacts on both milkweed and Monarch butterflies. In the model they used, they were assuming that roadside ditches in most areas were places where milkweed was likely to be found.

As I quickly learned on my drive yesterday, that characterization is clearly NOT true in many areas, and seems to be strongly driven by local politics, in terms of local land management.  When driving in Minnehaha County, I often come across sprayer trucks, actively spraying herbicide in all the ditches to keep herbaceous weeds in check.  I also often come across tractors with mowers attached, mowing the ditches close to the ground.  Yes…even for the GRAVEL roads that rarely get traffic, the ditches are treated in this manner.  The result? The ditches around here often look like a well-manicured lawn (see photos below).  Hell, they often look BETTER than my yard does!! They often consists of nearly 100% brome grass (an exotic, BTW), while milkweed stems are few and far between, and are typically relegated to small spaces where a sprayer didn’t reach.

When driving through parts of Kingsbury and Brookings counties, I was struck by the incredible difference in the ditches. Many ditches clearly hadn’t been mowed in some time, if they were ever mowed. Grasses were mixed with wildflowers, other herbaceous plants, and yes…MILKWEED (see more photos below).  Milkweed was often present in very high abundance.  The issue clearly isn’t adjacency with actively growing agricultural crops. As the photos below show, the Brookings and Kingsbury County ditches often had an abundance of herbaceous plantlife in areas directly next to corn and soybean fields.

It is possible that I just happened to drive on some gravel roads yesterday in Kingsbury and Brookings counties where no action was taken, but spraying was occurring elsewhere.  On the Brookings County website, for example, I was disappointed to find this page, that notes the county DOES spray right-of-ways with “products such as 2,4-D, Tordon 22K, and possibly mixtures of them“.  They do note on their web page that they spray in May, so clearly they don’t spray all ditches, as the photo below (with the milkweed) is on a gravel road on the very western edge of Brookings County.

During the NACCB conference, one talk I heard focused on recovery efforts for the Monarch, and plans in place to improve Milkweed abundance and improvement. Even a dead-red, conservative state like Oklahoma is taking action, with the Oklahoma highway department specifically managing ditches for Monarch and pollinator habitat. They are specifically planting wildflowers and milkweed along highways in an effort to help not only Mmnarchs, but other species that depend on these plants. The discussion at the conference was a similar “Monarch Highway” stretching from Texas up northward through southern Canada, an area with highway ditches specifically devoted to herbaceous plants, including Milkweed.

Could such a thing happen up here in South Dakota? I’ll see it when I believe it. We have such an focus on agricultural production, that I find it hard to believe they’d accept any land management action that could possibly harm that production in any way.  Not that I BELIEVE an aggressive, pro-Milkweed, pro-Monarch Butterfly agenda would harm agricultural production, but in this VERY red state, environmentalists are usually portrayed as the enemy.  For a large portion of the populous here, I have no doubt they’d view a program like Oklahoma’s as an attempt by environmentalists to meddle in local affairs.

It’s hard to imagine now, but when we moved to South Dakota 25 years ago, our Congressional delegation was completely Democratic. Hell, we had Tom Daschle as a Democratic Senate Majority Leader.  How times have changed. Serendipity may have led to the 3 Democratic Congressional delegates 25 years ago, but in today’s anti-environmentalist concerns for issues like the Monarch Butterfly as far removed from most South Dakotan’s minds.

Minnehaha County Roadside Ditch

I wish my yard looked this green, lush, and free of weeds. Driving home yesterday through northern Minnehaha County, THIS is what roadsides looked like. Even for lightly traveled gravel roads such as this one. Frequent spraying and mowing ensure a monoculture of brome grass, with nary a milkweed stem in sight.

Brookings County Roadside Ditch

In contrast to the Minnehaha County ditch, this is what I saw in many parts of Kingsbury and Brookings Counties. This ditch clearly hadn’t been mowed or sprayed this summer, and was full of herbaceous plants other than brome grass, including many milkweed stems.

 

 

 

Climate Change is for the Birds

This morning was one of the most bizarre birding trips I’ve taken in a while. The forecast was clear skies and low wind, a combination you need to take advantage of when it happens in South Dakota. I headed up to the Lake Thompson area in Kingsbury County, South Dakota, to shoot gulls, terns, shorebirds, herons, egrets…all the wonderful water-loving birds you find up there this time of year.

I wanted to arrive just before dawn, and given it’s a 1 1/2 hour drive, I was up and on the road quite early. I knew right away something was different. Even before the sun arose, the lighting was strange. There were clearly no visible stars in the dark sky, but yet I had no doubt it was indeed cloud-free.  We had a hint of this phenomena yesterday, but this morning it hit full bore…a sky full of smoke from the fires hundreds of miles away in the western US and Canada.

Not was I was expecting when I left this morning, and it certainly changed the types of photos I went after! As usual at this time of year, there were birds everywhere. However, even after sunrise, the light was so poor that it was difficult to grab any decent photos.  It wasn’t until about half an hour after sunrise when it started to get bright enough to shoot. It’s not often you can point your expensive camera right at the sun at that time of day, and not permanently fry your sensor, but the light was so diffuse this morning I certainly could.  I ended up settling down at a wetland area near Lake Thompson, trying to shoot the numerous Black Terns against the odd, but beautiful lighting.  Not a situation I’m used to shooting in, but I was able to get some photos I thought were “cool”.

I’ve been in South Dakota 25 years now, and lived at basically the same latitude down in southern Nebraska before that. Until the last few years, I just don’t remember fire seasons out West being SO bad, that our air here on the eastern side of South Dakota was this affected.  But last year too, on one rock-hunting trip, the air was so bad that my eyes were watering and I started wheezing a bit. Something has changed!  That something most likely is due to, or at least severely exacerbated by, climate change!

Climate change is for the birds. But at least for one morning, it made for some cool photos.

Black Tern (Chlidonias niger) - Flying through smoke-filled skies

Black Tern, flying through the reflection of a smoke-diffused sun. This is at LEAST half an hour after sunrise!

Black Tern (Chlidonias niger)Highway 81 Lakes and Smoky Sky

 

 

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