2018 SuperB Owl Winners – Top 10

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 - Aegolius acadicus

Northern Saw-whet Owl – Newton Hills, South Dakota – 41 (quite arbitrary) points

Snowy Owl - Bubo scandiacus

2nd place – Yawning Snowy Owl – Near Sioux Falls, South Dakota – 33 points

Long-eared Owl - Asio otus

3rd Place – Long-eared Owl – Big Sioux Recreation Area, South Dakota – 30 points

Northern Hawk Owl - Surnia ulula

4th place – Northern Hawk Owl – Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota – 28 points

Elf Owl - Micrathene whitneyi

5th place – Elf Owl – Near Tucson, Arizona – 25 points

Short-eared Owl - Asio flammeus

6th place – Short-eared Owl – Minnehaha County, South Dakota – 20 points

Burrowing Owl - Athene cunicularia

7th Place – Burrowing Owl – Near Brandon, South Dakota – 15 points

Great Grey Owl - Strix nebulosa

8th place – Great Grey Owl – Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota – 12 points

Eastern Screech Owl - Megascops asio

9th place – Eastern Screech Owl – Sioux Falls, South Dakota – 10 points

Barred Owl - Strix varia

10th place – Barred Owl – Newton Hills State Park, South Dakota – 7 points

Bird Photography 101 — Getting close enough

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:

Bird Photography Tips – South Dakota Birds and Birding

Chair Blind - Photographing Birds

My “chair blind”, one invaluable tool that allows you to get close enough to birds for photography.

Shorebirds Galore – Southeast South Dakota – April 23rd

What an utterly fantastic spring day of birding! It was one of those patented, windy South Dakota days, but the wind certainly didn’t keep the birds from showing off for the camera. I headed out this morning and spent a bit of time at Newton Hills State Park in Lincoln County, before deciding to spend most of my time looking for shorebirds. It was the right choice, as I ended up finding hundreds of shorebirds at Weisensee Slough in western Minnehaha County. It was the perfect set-up for my chair blind, a hunter’s blind I use as a photography blind.  It’s got a little folding chair with short 8-inch legs, and then a camouflaged shell that pulls over the top. There are multiple zippered openings for views, and with the low profile, birds don’t seem spooked by it, once they forget about the guy who set it up and crawled inside.  I ended up spending almost 3 hours in my chair blind as shorebirds of many species paraded in front of me.  Some species would venture so close to the blind that my camera wouldn’t focus (my long lens has a 12-foot minimum focusing distance)!  Others didn’t get quite as close, but I certainly couldn’t complain about a lack of photo opportunities. Fantastic birding day, and fantastic photo day!  Some photos from the day…click on any for even larger views.

Hudsonian Godwit -  Limosa haemastica

A male Hudsonian Godwit coming in for a landing. One of my favorite shorebirds, and one I don’t see all that often. However, today I saw at least 20 at Weisensee Slough, the most I’ve ever seen at one time.

Eastern Towhee - Pipilo erythrophthalmus

I didn’t spend much time at Newton Hills State Park, but while there I saw (and heard) many Eastern Towhees. Here a (chunky!) male hangs out in a cedar tree in the warm dawn light.

Sora - Porzana carolina

While driving past a cattail-filled wetland in Lincoln County, I heard the distinctive call of at least 2 Sora. One eventually gave me a peek…ANY peek of a Sora is a welcome sight, given how secretive they are!

Pectoral Sandpiper - Calidris melanotos

A Pectoral Sandpiper strutting its stuff mere feet in front of my chair blind. This bird certainly had no idea I was sitting inside, as at times he was too close to the blind for my camera to focus!

Baird's Sandpiper - Calidris bairdii

A Baird’s Sandpiper foraging in the shallow right in front of my blind.

Long-billed Dowitchers and Hudsonian Godwit

There were DOZENS of Long-billed Dowitchers and at least 20 Hudsonian Godwits foraging at Weisensee Slough. Every once in a while something would spook them and they’d take flight…usually RIGHT when they were starting to get within photo range of my blind! Sigh. But I did get some flight shot as they whirled around after a spooking event.

Wood Duck - Aix sponsa

A male Wood Duck, trying to blend in and hide from the camera. This was along “Ditch Road” just north of Sioux Falls. That was once one of my favorite birding locations. However, in the last year or two, they’ve cut all the trees along the ditch, and the birding is just a shadow of its former self.

Semipalmated Sandpiper - Calidris pusilla

A Semipalmated Sandpiper. There were a few Least Sandpipers mixed in as well, but overall these guys were by far the most common “peep” on Weisensee Slough today.

Hudsonian Godwit -  Limosa haemastica

Another Hudsonian Godwit at Weisensee Slough. These guys were a bit shyer than the other shorebirds and didn’t approach my blind as closely, but I still got some very nice looks at them.


A day of sanity (no, not the science march)


3 very nice northern pike, just a perk on a great day with my son.

Today was the Science March, and we actually had a March in Sioux Falls. I didn’t participate. Ever since the election, I’ve been in a funk. Particularly living here in very “red” South Dakota, it’s hard to avoid the conservative mindset, a mindset where greed is good, helping others is bad, and,yes, science isn’t to be trusted. When your career is focused on trying to help people through science, and that involves assessing the impacts of climate change, it’s hard not to let America’s anti-intellectualism get you down. I’ve tried to do what little I can to fight back. I’ve stood up for science. I’ve let my voice be heard. But I just can’t keep letting it dominate my existence. Hence my decision not to march today.

Part of the reason also is based on my continuing battle with Sjogren’s Syndrome. It seems like every time I “solve” one issue, or at least learn to live with some fun symptom, another thing pops up. The dry eyes and resultant vision impact has been addressed with my scleral contact lenses, something that’s saved my career, my sanity, my spirits. But in the last few months the arthritis part of Sjogrens has unfortunately started to make itself known. It’s only minor right now, but I was hoping that part would never show up, because chances are it will just keep progressing. My hands/fingers are already feeling stiff at times, and my knees getting awfully cranky at times too.

As all of this had been going on, I’ve had to do some hard thinking about how I want to cope. The whole feeling-sorry-for-myself thing isn’t a great long term strategy! Neither is the negativity I’ve felt since the election. Put it all together, and today I decided to focus on what’s really important, and that’s not the Science March. It’s my son and family. So today was a wonderful day with my son!

We headed up to Lake Thompson to do some fishing. It’s a place we usually have some luck, but it’s 1 1/2 hours away. Today that drive was actually a blessing. I LOVE that my soon to be 14-year old son still loves hanging out with dad and being goofy. The drive up to the lake was filled with music!  And goofy singing and air guitaring along!  Another thing I love is how he’s taken to some of the music I love, and hence some of the tunes playing included AC/DC, The Beach Boys, Elton John, ELO, and Chicago.

The fishing was great as well!  We were actually trying to catch walleye, until the first big pike attacked my bait. All we had were light poles and 4-lb test line, and we had no steel leaders to protect the thin line from the pike’s sharp teeth. But after that first hit (and break off) we started using a long, thin Rapala crankbait, one where the pike would hit it and get hooked up, but where the line was away from the pike’s mouth. It certainly worked, and with plenty of open water and nothing for line to get caught on, we were able to just let the pike run for a while before bringing them in on the light line.

Scrambling on the rip-rap (rock) along the shore wasn’t fun at times for my increasingly arthritic knees, but the music on the way up, the silly conversations with my son, the excitement and sheer joy of seeing him land some really nice pike…for a while today, I was largely able to forget about the Sjogrens. I was able to forget about the political bullshit going on. I was able to forget that I live in conservative hell with bigoted, greedy people.

In short, I had a wonderful day, focusing on the most important things in life. A day well spent, despite missing the March for Science.

Headed back north! Geese migration

Wow…And I thought the goose migration was incredible a few weeks ago when it started. Then came the cold weather, all the lakes froze over again, and they…disappeared.

Evidently many either stayed down south or moved back down south for a while, because with the warmer weather today, the migration has been incredible. I’m working at home, sitting in my 2nd floor office, looking out the open window, and for over 2 HOURS now, it’s been a constant stream of geese moving north. Snow Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, and Canada Geese. Spring has sprung! And hopefully this time, it sticks!

Please, if you get a chance, contact your representative in D.C.

If you get a chance, please…send a note to your representatives in Congress regarding the new GOP proposed “replacement” for Obamacare. Specific contact info is below.

Children with Type-1 diabetes, like our Alex, LITERALLY have a life expectancy that correlates with the level of care and blood sugar control. This new bill? It includes $600 billion in tax cuts, giving the richest 0.1% an average of $195,000 a year. It CUTS coverage for the poor, and eliminates many of the protections for those with chronic illness that Obamacare provides. It cuts health care access for kids like our Alex, kids whose very LIVES depend upon quality care.  As this story from several weeks ago notes, the very LIVES of these children are at stake.

Don’t let a person’s ability to pay be the prime determinant of your access to health care. Don’t let them get away with cutting health care access, JUST TO FUND TAX CUTS FOR THE RICHEST OF AMERICANS. Here are the places to go to contact your Congressional reps (for my Nebraska and South Dakota friends)…for others, please look up contact info for your state’s representatives.

Senator Ben Sasse (Neb) –https://www.sasse.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/email-ben

Senator Deb Fischer (Neb) – http://www.fischer.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contact

Senator John Thune (S.Dakota) – https://www.thune.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contact

Senator Mike Rounds (S.Dakota) – https://www.rounds.senate.gov/contact/email-mike

Representative Kristi Noem (S.Dakota) – http://noem.house.gov/index.cfm/email-kristi

Representative Jeff Fortenberry (Nebraska) – https://fortenberry.house.gov/contact

A “Devil Wear’s Prada” kind of world…

The Devil Wears Prada

“Andrea” and “Miranda” interacting in the movie “The Devil Wears Prada”. For this blog post, I’ll be playing the role of Andrea…

In the movie “The Devil Wears Prada“, Meryl Streep plays the role of Miranda Priestly, an icon in the fashion industry who is editor of Runway magazine. Anne Hathaway plays Andrea Sachs, a young journalism graduate looking for employment in a very competitive environment.  Andrea ends up taking one of the few jobs available, as a personal assistant to Meryl Streep’s character Miranda.  Andrea knows nothing about fashion, and for much of the movie, is openly skeptical and dismissive of the importance those around her place on fashion.  At one stage, Miranda, tiring of Andrea’s lack of fashion awareness, gives the “Cerulean Sweater Speech”, poking fun at Andrea’s dowdy cerulean sweater she had on, while at the same time providing a backstory on the fashion industry and the role it played in making that color of sweater fashionable. Andrea eventually learns to “play the game”, becomes fashion literate herself, and begrudgingly accepts the importance of the fashion industry, before leaving and finding a real journalism job.

I enjoy that movie.  Meryl Streep is, as always, fantastic in her role. But it’s the part of Andrea that I can really relate to, a young person just entering the “real” world, someone who is baffled at what those around here deem to be important in life.  I must say, I myself am constantly baffled at those around me in a very similar “fashion” (ha-ha), as I wonder about what people focus on as “important”.  For example…

We are a few days from the end of the Obama era.  Newspapers are printing a rash of stories about the legacy of Barack Obama, and what it’s meant for America.  The New Yorker posted a piece on his last speech, and the importance of Obama’s definition of what America “should be”.  GQ wrote a piece stating Obama will go down as one of the greatest Presidents in American history, with a heavy focus on his character as a defining feature.  New  York Magazine published a compilation piece, gathering the thoughts of 53 historians to weigh in on their view of Barack Obama’s legacy, with the focus of those views ranging from the impacts of Obamacare to his attempts to change overall political discourse. Countless other pieces have been written, focusing on his legacy in bringing health care to the forefront of the American consciousness, the major shifts in foreign policy such as opening up relations with Cuba, or his relationship with Congress and inability to reduce partisanship, despite his best intentions.

There have also been some wonderful tributes to Michelle Obama, with various stories focusing on her legacy of promoting healthy lifestyles, her overall legacy and how it was shaped by her personality, or her uncanny ability to relate to everyday Americans. She has been celebrated in a way few other First Ladies have been celebrated, and her upcoming departure has been met with both celebration of her accomplishments, and with tears.  But even a woman as revered as respected as much as Michelle Obama is subject to the same biases faced by all women in the United States.  One of her lasting “legacies” is based on her external appearance and how she presents herself.

The New York Times posted a piece this weekend entitled “What Michelle Obama Wore and Why it Mattered“. Here’s where I put on my “Andrea” hat, as a person who discounts the role of fashion as being an important social institution.  I “get” the interest in what she wears. I obviously get why Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, InStyle, and other fashion/women’s magazines have provided summaries of Michelle Obama’s clothing choices over the years.  I’m not bashing the fashion industry, or people who are interested in it.  A fascination with Michelle Obama’s fashion is on par with, oh, some guy’s fascination with birds and birding. I’d never poke fun at what makes people “tick”, what gets them excited.  However, as somebody who loves birds and birding, I’d also never judge another human being based on how good of a birder they are.  Far too often, however, women in general are judged based on appearance, clothing, or behavior rather than accomplishments. The same types of articles that appear in fashion magazines also show up not only in the New York Times, but also the Washington Post, Time Magazine, and other mainstream news organizations. How many similar stories have been written about Barack Obama’s clothing choices over the years?  How many stories have ever been written about ANY (male, of course) President’s choice of clothing?  Other than the rare puff piece such as the takedown of Barack Obama’s tendency to wear “dad jeans, the answer is like somewhere between “zero” and the number of fingers on one hand. Men and women are simply judged differently.

Serena Williams has dominated women’s tennis for many years and is one of the greatest female athletes in history, yet rather than focusing on her remarkable accomplishments, she has often been subject to “body-shaming” and criticism over her appearance, and even was recently called “a hooker” for a basic Sports Illustrated cover where she (gasp!) dared to show her legs. After Hillary Clinton lost the election, stories popped up about her (gasp!) make-up free appearance, with other stories during the campaign discussed her clothing and appearance and the impacts on her “likeability”. Oprah Winfrey is constantly analyzed for her weight (as are many women). Actresses like Renee Zellweger are expected to maintain a youthful, “sexy” appearance, yet are subject to exhaustive speculation and questions of “did she or didn’t she” with regard to elective surgery to try to maintain that appearance. It’s obviously not just outward appearance that dictates how a woman is (unfairly) judged, it’s demeanor as well.  During the campaign, Hillary Clinton was first criticized for not smiling enough, and then criticized for over compensating and smiling too much. Women seem to necessarily walk a tightrope between acting aggressively and confident and being called “a bitch”, and acting more passively and be dismissed as a “ditz”.  Women are often expected to display a moderate amount of sexuality, but if they go “too far” and they are labeled as bimbos and sluts. It’s often a no-win situation, where your actions and accomplishments mean very little compared to your appearance and demeanor.

When I see a statement in a story such as the New York Times piece that “clothing played a role unlike any it had ever played before in a presidential administration”, I immediately go into Andrea Sachs mode, and scoff at the ridiculousness of such an assertion. When I see a piece from a respected news organization like the New York Times that tries to convince me that what Michelle Obama wore “mattered”, all I see is a perpetuation of the same unfair criteria of how women are judged compared to men.

The one aspect of The Devil Wears Prada that was disconcerting was when Andrea began to become assimilated into the culture and world of Miranda Priestly.  She started to “walk the walk” in order to fit in and keep her job at Runway. That part of the movie perhaps hit a little too close to home, as it so perfectly depicted the lengths women have to go to, to fit in and be accepted in a world that judges them solely by appearance and behavior.  By the end of the movie, Andrea recognizes what’s TRULY important in life, ditches Runway and Miranda Priestly, and accepts a much less glamorous job as a entry-level journalist.  As a society, we’re at that same stage in our evolution. Particularly at a time when a misogynistic pig of a man is about to assume the role of the President, It’s time to ditch this “Runway” world, and start to judge women (and all human beings) based on factors other than appearance or behavior. Sorry, New York Times, I just don’t buy the premise of your story.


Fall Sparrows

Le Conte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii

The elusive Le Conte’s Sparrow, a species that’s often difficult to see, given their preference for dense vegetation. It’s always great to get a good look at one, much less get a clear, unobstructed photo like this.

What a beautiful time of year in South Dakota!  Yes, with leaves falling off trees, days very rapidly getting shorter, and temperatures falling, another South Dakota winter is imminent. Yes,the vast majority of insect-eating migrant birds have already passed through the state, not to be seen again until April or May.  Yes, species diversity will continue to fall from the summer and fall migration peak, to the typical winter “diversity” where anything other than a Dark-eyed Junco at your feeders is a treat.

However, one very welcome birding feature at this time of year are migrant sparrows.  There are species moving through right now that are rarely seen at any other time of year.  What’s really nice is how multiple species often mingle together.  I went birding one morning this weekend, and while it wasn’t a great trip overall, the trip was saved by one non-descript, overgrown, weedy field south of Tea, South Dakota. It’s a spot that’s been used as some kind of staging ground for road construction in the past.  Small piles of sand and gravel are scattered about, as are some smaller piles of rock and concrete chunks.  The feature that attracts the sparrows, however, is the weedy overgrowth that covers the entire area.  Just sitting in one location, I was able to find 7 different sparrow species.  Song Sparrows seemed to be the most common species, with Lincoln’s Sparrows not far behind.  There were also quite a few Harris’s Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, and Savannah Sparrows in and around this spot, as well as a handful of Clay-colored Sparrows.

Harris's Sparrow - Zonotrichia querula

Another one of my favorites, a Harris’s Sparrows. These big chunky sparrows always stand out from the crowd, not only by size, but by their unique plumage.

The highlight though were several beautifully plumaged Le Conte’s Sparrows.  Le Conte’s Sparrows are always such a treat to find.  In southeastern South Dakota, about the only time I see them is during fall migration. They are a highly sought species for many birders, although I think they’re actually not all that uncommon in migration in eastern South Dakota.  They do have a tendency to hang out in dense vegetation, however, making a good sighting something to be treasured.  I was fortunate to not only get some great, unobstructed views of Le Conte’s Sparrows this weekend, but also get some of the best photos I’ve ever gotten of the species.

A nice fall day of “sparrowing”!

Lincoln's Sparrow - Melospiza lincolniiSong Sparrow - Melospiza melodia

A new member for the famed Pantheon of Goggle-wearers?

Famous Goggle People

An artist’s rendition of my new look, sporting goggle-type eyewear, along with famed members of the GPGW…Kareen Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Phelps, and “Gordon” from the movie “Dodgeball”.

Sjogren’s Syndrome sucks.  There’s no getting around that fact.  Been diagnosed about 3 years, with various fun symptoms, but the crappiest one by far are my eyes.  Sjogren’s is an autoimmune disease, which among other things, attacks moisture-secreting glands for your eyes and mouth. Dry eye, dry mouth, fatigue, joint pain and other fun things are symptoms.  My eyes have been god-awful lately, so dry that as the day goes on I have a hard time seeing.  Saw my dr. today, and among other things, he said I really should get protective eyewear that holds in moisture and prevents air circulation around my eyes.

Goggle Time!!  OK, perhaps not goggles themselves, but something similar that seals in your eyes.  I am about to join the Great Pantheon of Goggle Wearers (That’s the GPGW to you).  GPGW inductees must meet two conditions: 1) They must wear goggle-type eyewear a significant portion of the time, and 2) they must be famous.  It certainly looks like I’ll be meeting condition #1 very soon.  As for condition #2?  The very fact that you are reading this blog must mean I’m famous, right?

I certainly expect the inductee paperwork to arrive soon after I don my goggles.  I can hardly wait to join the ranks of these fine, famed folk.

Now available – Free 2016 Bird Calendar

Free 2016 Bird Calendar - South Dakota Birds and Birding

February 2016’s featured bird, the Northern Saw-whet Owl. Click the link to individually download printable calendar pages for the coming 2016 year.

As I always do about this time of year, I put together a free, downloadable and printable bird calendar for the coming year.  As a long-time South Dakota “tradition”, the calendar of course features the Great Kiskadee for the month of December (in honor of the one freakishly lost bird that is still around!). You can access the calendar here:

Free 2016 Bird Calendar

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