The things you learn when you are looking through your photos!! I’ve spent so many hours over the last 2 months trying to catch up on processing old photos. It’s a task I thought I’d never catch up on in this lifetime, given I had photos going back…years. But I can now see the light at the end of the tunnel! Last night I was processing photos from a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota when I got to a series of Common Nighthawk photos I took at Wind Cave National Park.
Common Nighthawks had been something of a photographic nemesis for me. I see them in flight all the time, but have you tried to photograph a nighthawk in flight?!?! Yikes…they don’t fly straight! They do often perch during the day, but in my part of South Dakota, that’s typically in a tree, where they blend right in. However, out west, they might perch on a rock, a fence post, or…a barbed wire fence. Last June, late in the evening, I saw several Common Nighthawks flying around, and I tried in vain to photograph them. However, when I gave up and started driving I came across a Common Nighthawk perched on a barbed wire fence.
I spent probably 30 minutes watching that one bird! What a treat! FINALLY some good photos of a Common Nighthawk, not only of a bird at rest, but a bird opening that massive mouth and calling several times! I did post a few quick photos on social media, but then forgot about them for 9 months…until last night. When looking through the photos, something really stood out on a few of them. What was wrong with one of the bird’s toes!?!? I’d never seen anything like it:
I started poking around and quickly found out it’s called a “pectinate” toe, which is thought to function as a grooming device. Evidently there are a few types of birds that have this feature, including not only “goatsucker” species like the Common Nighthawk, but also Herons and Egrets. On some species they’re found on both feet, but in some species, like this Common Nighthawk, they’re only found on one foot.
Makes me wonder…are they all “left footed”? Are there are “right-footed” birds in terms of their combs? I haven’t been able to find that answer, but I did find this blog that does indeed attempt to show that yes, the birds can and do use that toe to tend to their plumage.
Very cool!! But the question is…HOW cool!?!? Which has the greater “cool” factor? A Common Nighthawk with it’s own built-in comb on it’s toe? Or the millions of US kids who grew up in the 80s, with the standard and oh-so-necessary comb sticking out of their back blue jeans pocket?
There are some species I instantly think of as being iconic northern Great Plains species when I hear the name. Marbled Godwit. Baird’s Sparrow. Lark Bunting. Greater Prairie Chicken. When I think of driving west and north from my home in far southeastern South Dakota, and heading to the central or western part of the state, away from the mosaic of corn and soybeans that dominates my area, I think of wide open grasslands, few people, and a unique ecosystem of iconic bird species. In my mind that also includes the Chestnut-collared Longspur, a gorgeous bird with a unique dark plumage (breeding plumage males) that I almost see when I heard the name, hanging out on a barbed wire fence with nothing but grassland for miles around.
Yesterday I was processing bird photos (still a few years behind) and working on my website. I was working on a directory of photos I got last July in Hyde County, in the east-central part of the state, and got to one photo, and one photo only, of a Chestnut-collared Longspur. It’s not a great photo, and in fact, if it were another species where I had an abundance of photos, I might have thrown it out. I was shooting photos of shorebirds at a small wetland I’d stumbled across, when the lone longspur flew into my vision and plopped down to grab a quick drink. It was mid-day, the lighting was poor, but I grabbed a quick shot, surprised I’d seen one here, as I usually think of them as being a bird I’d find further to the east and north.
Then, as what tends to happen, I downloaded all the photos from that day, and they sat there unprocessed. I’d forgotten about that photo and encounter until processing photos yesterday, and knowing my collection of Chestnut-collared Longspur photos was sparse, I decided to keep the photo and work on the associated species pages on my website. As I was doing so, it brought to light just how rare an encounter the sighting was for me.
Two. TWO. That’s how many “decent” photos of the species I’ve managed to grab in South Dakota in the 21 years I’ve been birding. Despite my internal impression of the species as an iconic Northern Prairie species, both my actual sightings and photographs of the species have been extremely limited.
As I started working on my dedicated species page for the Chestnut-collared Longspur, I got to the “Conservation Status” section of the page and started doing some research, beefing up my current (very sparse) content. When I first created the page for the species some 20 years ago, there seemingly weren’t any worries about the status of the species. But when I looked at the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) web page on the conservation status of the species, it was immediately clear it was a species in trouble. The species has been downgraded in status twice in recent years as numbers have started to dwindle.
It’s wasn’t a cheery exercise reading more about the status of the species. The Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data, the gold standard for rigorous, systematic tracking of population trends over time, indicated a startling decline in the species of almost 90% from 1966 (Sauer et al. 2016). Other data sources show equally shocking declines, with estimates of >95% species loss in the Canadian portion of the Chestnut-collared Longspur range in less than 40 years, from 1971 to 2017 (COSEWIC 2019). A species that was once a common breeding bird in Nebraska, Kansas, and Minnesota has nearly been extirpated from those states, and previously robust populations elsewhere in its historical range are now gone. Clearly, it’s a species in serious trouble.
So what’s the cause of the trouble? Most sources agree that habitat loss is the primary factor in their decline. The Northern Great Plains used to be a mosaic of natural grasslands, wetlands, and riparian corridors with woodlands. Davis (2004) studied habitat needs for the Chestnut-collared Longspur and found that they required quite large, contiguous blocks of grassland to successfully breed. They avoided even what might be considered “prime” grassland habitat if the size of that grassland patch were anything less than 100 acres. With vast swaths of former Great Plains grassland converted to agricultural land uses in the last 150 years, grassland communities have been devastated, and remaining grassland patches have been heavily fragmented. In short, Chestnut-collared Longspurs can’t find enough suitable large patches of grassland on which to breed.
That downward spiral of suitable habitat continues currently, and in fact has recently intensified in parts of the Great Plains. That includes right here in South Dakota, where demand for corn and soybeans, including the uptick in demand due to biofuel use, has resulted in massive swaths of grassland and prairie land being plowed under for the first time in just the last 15-20 years. South Dakota itself is a hotspot of this habitat loss, particularly eastern and north-central South Dakota, where the rate of grassland habitat loss in recent years is actually higher than that of the well-publicized loss of tropical forest in parts of South America.
It’s not just agriculture that’s driving habitat loss in the northern Great Plains. Energy development is front and center in parts of that range, as new methods for extracting fossil fuels have been developed in the last 20 years. The image below depicts the “nighttime lights” dataset for a portion of the northern US. These data record visible light energy from the Earth’s surface at night. Larger cities are clearly visible in the data, but…what’s the massive blob of light in sparsely populated western North Dakota?
North Dakota is now the 2nd largest oil producing state in the country, thanks to fracking technology developed in the 2000s that has allowed companies to extract a difficult to access, but massive resource of oil in the region. There are hundreds upon hundreds of oil wells in the region, wells that may be spaced out across the massive prairie landscape, but…each well requires access, each well requires energy sources. None of this was there even just 15 years ago, but now the network of wells, roads, and powerlines has severely fragmented grassland habitat in the region.
As the map above shows, the Bakken formation is smack dab in the middle of the breeding range for the Chestnut-collared Longspur. The area in North Dakota was developed SO incredibly rapidly, with economic considerations overwhelming any thought for habitat or environmental considerations. But for a species such as the Chestnut-collared Longspur that’s been declining precipitously and needs large, intact grassland patches to breed, oil and gas activity in the Bakken couldn’t have come at a worse time, or in a worse place.
Two. Perhaps it’s not a surprise I only have to photos of Chestnut-collared Longspurs, a species that’s “vulnerable” and fading fast. Get out there and enjoy this species while you can, as your chances of seeing it in the future may be fading.
Weather in South Dakota over the last month has been everything many people probably think about when they visualize a South Dakota winter. We haven’t had that one big snowstorm, but we have had a number of very small snows that keep accumulating because the temperatures have been absolutely BRUTAL. The coldest we got at our house was -28° F, with multiple days last week where the temperatures never got above 0°. Because of the weather, I haven’t done much birding lately, but have done more work on website than I’ve done in years, primarily focusing on updating the species pages and photo pages.
The last real trip I took dedicated to birding was back on January 2nd, a day that started on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in the central part of the state, but ended near Brookings, which ended up being the highlight of the day. Several Short-eared Owls had been seen there recently, and it had been a few years since I’d gotten a good look at one. There was also a Snowy Owl in the area, but this was a very rare case of a Snowy taking a back seat to another species (for me anyway).
Short-eared Owls are a species that normally you never specifically go out looking for, but instead kind of luck into them on various occasions. They’re nomads, present in good numbers in a general location one year, and gone for the next several years. Heading towards a known location where several were hanging out was certainly a treat, and it didn’t disappoint. I ended up seeing several Short-eared Owls that late afternoon, including watching one catch and eat a vole.
I’ve seen Short-eared Owls a times near Sioux Falls, but the area I have had the most luck over the years is the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and surrounding areas. The story is usually the same, as a drive through the grasslands seems devoid of Short-eared Owls, until the last hour before sunset, where they seem to magically materialize out of thin air. Nearly every Short-eared Owl I’ve seen has been in the hour before sunset, or right around sunrise. The Brookings owls were following the same behavior, with birders not finding them until right before sunset each evening.
What follows is a photo blog telling the stories of some of the Short-eared Owls I’ve come across in South Dakota over the years. For more information and additional photos of this wonderful species, check out the following page on the main website: