Just when the world seems like it’s about to self-destruct, just when you’ve given up hope in humanity, a single act of kindness helps reset your view of the world, if only a bit, and if only temporarily. My son and I are (very) amateur rockhounds, doing a little bit of collecting here in South Dakota. I do have some nice specimens from the state (check out myS.Dakota Rockhound page), and have also gotten a small number of other geologic goodies from outside the state, primarily as gifts, or through some of the travel that we’ve done.
This week a box arrived in the mail from a work colleague and friend…Christmas in January! He’s an avid rockhound, and has helped organize and lead a many trips for his local group, traveling to various locations throughout the US. The box had about 10 specimens he was gifting me, pieces that suddenly give my small collection a nice jolt! Thankfully they came with detailed information on the mineral/rock type, and location where they were obtained.
Even with our own South Dakota-derived collection, I’ve loved getting out the camera and photographing them, including trying macro photography to look at some of the fine details. Here are some photos of the new pieces to the collection. Saving the best for last at the bottom. 🙂
As 2020 comes to a close, I had a great end to the year from a birding perspective yesterday! I made one last birding trip, heading up towards Brookings to try to find some Short-eared Owls that had been seen recently. I hadn’t seen any yet this year, and I thought it would be nice to add one more species to what’s been my best South Dakota “big year” yet. But not only did I find a Short-eared Owl, but the first owl I saw was a gorgeous immature female Snowy Owl! Two new 2020 species for the state, on December 30th, and with both being owl species, I couldn’t have asked for a better close to the year.
The two owls put me at 262 species seen in South Dakota in 2020…breaking my own personal high of 256 from last year. It was certainly a terrific year in many aspects, with not only a great variety of species, but some life species, both South Dakota lifers, and overall lifers! Highlights for the year:
Starting in about 2007, I started making a free, downloadable and printable bird calendar for anyone to enjoy. I kept up the tradition through 2017, but when 2018 rolled around, I…whiffed. And I kept whiffing for 2019 and 2020. In the spirit of “new beginnings” in 2021, I want to start making this an annual product again, free for anyone to download and print. Thus, I present a free 2021 bird calendar, with monthly pages that you can download and print.
I tried to keep populate the calendar with “new” photos, and most of these are indeed new from the last year. As always, all are taken within South Dakota itself. Some of the 2020 photos shown here are now among my all time favorites, including the Prairie Falcon (January), Marbled Godwit (June), and Western Grebe and chick (July). In a bit of a break with tradition, I’m also including a non-native species here…the Mandarin Duck for November! That individual bird, spotted in Yankton in November of 2020, is very likely the most photographed bird in the history of the state! He hung out there for a month, with his new bestest buddy, a male Wood Duck. Alas, he seemingly met his demise (some raptor got him), but he certainly was a crowd pleaser when he was around! And given that the photo I got of him, with perfect lighting, great color, and a bit of a splash, is one of my all-time instant favorite photos…I couldn’t leave it out!
Here’s the link to the calendar page. Simply click on the month you want, and you’ll be viewing a PDF file that you should be able to print and/or download. Enjoy!
There are two parks near our house that are characterized by heavily wooded lands next to a river. The first is the Big Sioux Recreation Area, just across the street. It’s nice, but it’s the far more developed of the two parks. This time of year I admit I’m not fond of birding there. They cater SO heavily to campers, going in and taking out a lot of the vegetation around the campsites to accommodate space for the giant RVs that are now so prevalent. I did go there last night for about 20 minutes, before the noise of the big-screen TVs blasting gameshows at top volume drove me away. I REALLY don’t get the point of people who do that.
The second park is Beaver Creek Nature Area. It’s about 3 miles from my house, and is MUCH less developed. No camping…yes! There are trails winding along riparian areas, upland woodland, and open grassy areas. Without the camping, it gets much less attention and is far less crowded. From a birding perspective, it’s wonderful. You can HEAR THE BIRDS! No TVs!! No loud campers! Just…nature.
I had a couple of hours this morning and headed to Beaver Creek. It was an incredibly foggy morning, but the park was certainly birdy. Migrant warblers still have yet to move through in any numbers, and for the morning I didn’t see a single warbler species. That’s a bit odd, as usually you’d at least see plenty of Yellow-rumped Warblers moving through. But what it lacked in warblers it made up for in sparrow species. White-throated, Harris’s, Clay-colored, Chipping, Lincoln’s, Swamp, White-crowned, and Field Sparrows…not a bad mix for one spot, and I frankly I get just as excited for all the migrant sparrows as I do the warblers. Other first-of-year sightings included Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.
Before heading that way for the first time this spring, I admit I was a little concerned about what condition the park would be in. With near-record flooding this spring, one road to the park is closed, and there’s still plenty of high water around. I was happy to see the park open and most of the trails accessible, but there was one major change in the park…Beaver Creek changed course! Over the last couple of years, one big loop in the creek was eroding away the bank just as you crossed a little pedestrian arch bridge over the creek. That’s not going to be a problem any more! Further upstream a bit, the flooded creek evidently tore through a narrow strip of heavily wooded land, cutting off the loop. The water was still quite high and a small amount of water was flowing through the loop, but as the water returns to normal levels is pretty clear that loop is now completely cut off and is going to be a new oxbow.
Thankfully it’s not going to affect the trails in the park, but it certainly is a great indication of just how powerful and unpredictable Mother Nature can be! A few photos from this morning:
I got home rather late tonight, perhaps an hour before sunset. I had to mow the yard, and as I started, I noticed the mayflies that were clustered on bushes in my landscaping, and in the grass itself. Clearly some kind of mayfly hatch had occurred, and as I mowed, they would flutter up into the air, some settling down, others continuing to fly. It didn’t take long before they were joined in mid-air combat…the swallows had arrived!! Both Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows started showing up, with 5 or 6 dipping and darting through the yard, following the mower and taking advantage of the mayflies that were being kicked up. A thankless, repetitive summer task, made much more enjoyable tonight thanks to my swallow visitors! Nature never ceases to amaze, as the swallows clearly had learned to associate the sound of a mower with insects in the air. As for the photo…yeah…I know. Not a Tree Swallow. Not a Barn Swallow. But have you tried taking photos of swallows in flight? NOT…EASY!! I have very few decent photos of ANY swallow species in flight, so I’ll use a bit of artistic license tonight and use this photo to accompany my photo story and haiku. 🙂
After such a cold, snowy spring, we’re finally starting to warm up. It was a nice sunny day of about 60 degrees, and even better, our ever-present wind wasn’t bad, so I headed out before dawn to look for migrants. My target for the day…shorebirds. If the day were to be measured on the basis of that target, I failed miserably! It’s APRIL 28th!! With such a wet, snowy spring, we have standing water all over the place! Shallow water, mudflats, flooded fields…there’s as much great habitat for migratory shorebirds as we ever have in the spring.
However, someone forgot to tell the shorebirds! I don’t think I’ve ever gone out at this time of year and seen so few shorebirds. Hopefully it’s just the cold weather that has them behind schedule, and we’ll get a nice pulse of shorebirds in the coming days. Today, however, I had to focus on other quarry. It WAS a beautiful morning for photography, and I did manage some nice finds south and west of Sioux Falls. It’s always fun to find migrating Loons (not all that common around here), and there were three at Wall Lake west of Sioux Falls this morning. I also found a few Sora in one wetland right as the sun rose, a few Wilson’s Snipe that were cooperative, and a few Franklin’s Gulls to photograph. Both the birds and the photo opportunities were FAR below what I normally expect this time of year, but it was still a nice morning. First-of-year birds for me for the day include Sora, Wilson’s Snipe, Barn Swallow, Green Heron, Western Grebe, American Avocet, Willet, Barn Swallow, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Spotted Sandpiper. A few photos from the day:
A Common Loon at Wall Lake, west of Sioux Falls. There were (at least) three on the lake, and thankfully one was fishing right off a point extending out into the lake, giving me great photo opportunities.
A Sora on the edge of a wetland, taken just as the sun was rising. Always good to get such a shy bird out in the open like this.
A breeding plumage Franklin’s Gull, with a pair of Lesser Yellowlegs in the background. One of my favorite birds in the Spring, particularly when they have the pink blush on their undersides such as this.
One thing I’ve learned to check in the spring are flooded ditches, as they seem to be favored haunts for Wilson’s Snipe.
I have a billion Yellow-headed Blackbird photos, but how can I resist? They’re such beautiful birds, and on a day like today when there just weren’t all that many birds around, the ever-present Yellow-headed Blackbirds make a great photo subject.
A Landsat image near Garden City, Kansas, depicting the view of irrigated agriculture using center pivots. Monitoring agricultural change and productivity is one of but many applications of Landsat data, providing scientific and economic benefits to the Nation. The latest move by the Department of Interior to potentially begin charging a fee for Landsat data would devastate Earth science activities around the globe. (click for a larger view).
Nature today published a story about a Department of Interior committee studying the possibility of charging fees for data from the Landsat satellite program, data that are currently available for free. The first Landsat satellite was launched in 1972, with 6 additional satellites launched since then. The latest was Landsat 8, launched in 2013, while Landsat 9 is scheduled for launch in late 2020. Landsat satellites have provided continuous Earth observations for the last 46 years (!!!!), an invaluable and unmatched record for recording changes on the Earth’s surface. The number of applications of Landsat data is astounding, including monitoring forestry activity (forest harvest and regrowth), agricultural productivity, monitoring urban sprawl, quantifying changes in surface water extent in response to flooding or drought, assessing the impacts of natural disasters, mapping geologic landforms, and a host of other uses. As the Nature article notes, a 2013 committee commissioned to assess the economic costs and benefits of the Landsat program found that while the program costs the US government approximately $80 million a year, economic benefits for the country are staggering…well over $2 billion per year.
Management of Landsat has changed over the years, but USGS and NASA are the two Federal agencies currently managing the program. Until 2008, the data came at a cost to the user...a cost that historically could be quite high. A disastrous attempt to semi-privatize Landsat data distribution in the 1990s led to costs for each Landsat “scene” (an area approximately 115 x 115 miles) of up to $4,000! While highly valuable data for a number of applications, the high cost was a major roadblock for usage of the data. In 2008, the USGS made the decision to begin distributing the data free of charge…and usage of Landsat data grew exponentially. Before the policy change, USGS distributed a mere ~50 scenes per day. Once the data were made freely available, usage jumped more than 100-fold, with thousands of Landsat scenes downloaded per day. Having freely available data from the world’s premiere long-term observation platform of the Earth’s surface has since transformed Earth science. Applications once hindered by data costs were now free to tap into the entire Landsat database.
The Nature story notes that under the current administration, the committee is considering again re instituting a fee for access to Landsat. Given the other actions of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and other administration officials with roles overseeing environmental science, it’s easy to speculate as to the real purpose of the committee. DOI, EPA, NOAA, and other scientific agencies and programs in the Federal government have been targeted for draconian reductions by the Trump industry. Elimination of environmental science and privatization of traditional government activities has been a major focus of this administration. My own personal interpretation…this is a move to 1) curtail the vast array of environmental monitoring and analysis that’s occurred since Landsat data were made freely available, 2) bow to the will of industry lobbyists who wish to continue the push towards privatization of Earth observations and increase corporate profits, and 3) eventually extricate the US government from running the Landsat program and other similar Earth observation systems.
Any truly unbiased analysis of the Landsat program would label the 2008 move to freely available data as a smashing success, both in terms of economics and the scientific benefits. Returning to the 1990s and charging high fees for Landsat data access would result in an immediate, sharp decline in environmental and economic applications that use the data. Given that the one overarching theme of the Trump administration is “corporate profit above all else”, it’s impossible to view this potential move with anything other than a highly cynical eye.
It’s been a damned cold spring. There’s no denying that. As I speak, it’s snowing to beat the band…on April 8th…and we’re supposed to end up with about 5 more inches. It’s been a winter of MANY 3-6 inch snows, and winter doesn’t seem to want to give up its grip just yet. But the birds are putting their two cents in and saying they will NOT be deterred.
I went out west of Sioux Falls last night, on a kind of a day that’s been rare around here lately…sunny, and no wind (but still pretty cold). Even now, most of the big lakes are still frozen over, as are many of the small ones. Water is starting to open up, and the waterfowl are really starting to stack up as they await warmer conditions (and more open water up north) to allow their continued migration. There are still geese around by thousands. I had a blast at one location last night, watching as flocks of Snow, Greater White-fronted, Canada, and some Ross’s Geese would intermittently land or take off from a group of geese resting by a large slough. Ducks were on pretty much every available patch of open water, with some spots having incredible concentrations of Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks, as well as pretty much every other duck species you could ever expect to find here.
A highlight came late in the evening when I came across a Great Horned Owl perched in the relative open (for a Great Horned Owl). He was quite unconcerned by the guy with the camera, giving me some of the best looks and photos I’ve had of the species. As the snow and wind lash us again today, it was also a nice reminder that spring IS here and better weather is ahead!
A quite tame Great Horned Owl, casually giving me a glance as he prepares in the late evening for a night of hunting.
The most numerous goose species were Greater White-fronted, of which I came across several thousand during the course of the evening.
A female Common Merganser, sitting at one of the open spots in the ice and occasionally making a dive in search of food. Always loved the “haircut” on the females.
One sure sign of spring here is when you seemingly see Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels on every every telephone pole. Plenty of both last night, including this dude giving me a staredown.
Another sure sign of spring…when the ever present Canada Geese are vastly outnumbered by other geese species.
Still plenty of Snow Geese around. Starting to get a little late to have them stacked up in such huge numbers, but the weather hasn’t been too cooperative.
It was a long year of hard work and dedication, with participants from across the country vying to win the ultimate prize on SuperB Owl Sunday. Would it be the established veteran, winning yet another title? Or perhaps a young, local upstart? Fans from across the country enjoyed a heck of a competition, but a winner was finally crowned.
With that, here are the final rankings in this year’s SuperB Owl competition! The young underdog scored upset after upset in the final playoffs, winning the title in a closely contested match. Congrats to this year’s SuperB Owl winner…a winking Northern Saw-whet Owl, taken at Newton Hills State Park in South Dakota!!
Northern Saw-whet Owl – Newton Hills, South Dakota – 41 (quite arbitrary) points
2nd place – Yawning Snowy Owl – Near Sioux Falls, South Dakota – 33 points
3rd Place – Long-eared Owl – Big Sioux Recreation Area, South Dakota – 30 points
Birders or photographers new to birding sometimes ask me how I get some of my bird photos. Sunday was a great example of one tool I use! It’s not the camera. A LONG, expensive lens is definitely a huge asset in bird photography, but no matter what lens you’re using, the challenge is to get close enough to a wild bird for a frame-filling photograph. With “only” a 400-mm lens (the lens that 99+% of my bird photos have been taken with), if means I typically have to be about 15-20 feet away from a songbird for it to fill a large portion of the image. How does one get close to a wild bird that’s often skittish and shy around human beings?
Hide yourself. Often for me, that’s meant using my car as a blind, but on Sunday when I was shooting shorebirds, that wasn’t an option. The shorebirds were all foraging in the shallows in a portion of a wetland that was far from the road. In the back of my pickup I always have the perfect piece of equipment to help in a situation like that…a chair blind. It has a low profile and doesn’t spook the birds once you’re set up, and it’s actually quite comfortable inside. In this case, as I approached the shoreline, all the birds scattered. No worries…set up the chair blind, make yourself comfortable inside, and after a little while, the birds will forget you’re there and will come back.
The photo below is one a birding friend took of me and my chair blind on Sunday. Note shorebirds are calmly foraging in the shallows RIGHT in front of the blind. They were actually too close for my camera to focus on many occasions (my 400mm lens has a 12-foot minimum focusing distance). A great tool, and one of many ways to get close enough to birds to get great photos. For more help on how to get great bird photos, click below to check out a “Bird photography tips” page from my main website: