Articles for the Month of June 2015

Deep Thoughts – A Shorebird that doesn’t act like a shorebird, acting like a shorebird…

Upland Sandpiper - Bartramia longicauda

Upland Sandpiper, acting decidedly NOT “upland” by foraging in shallow water.

What better way to start a Monday than with some deep thoughts…

Shorebirds are so named because they are, not surprisingly, often found on shores, wading in shallow water, on mudflats, etc.  One of the most common summer birds in grassland parts of South Dakota is the Upland Sandpiper.  Well-named, Upland Sandpipers are usually described in field guides as “shorebirds that don’t act like shorebirds”, as they are, not surprisingly given their name, found in upland environments.  The most common way to see an Upland Sandpiper in the state is to see one sitting on a fence post in a grassland area, and typically there isn’t a wetland or a “shore” in sight.

So, deep thought to start the week…How do you describe it when you see an Upland Sandpiper, wading and foraging in shallow water like a “normal” shorebird?  What do you call a “shorebird” that doesn’t act like a shorebird, but IS acting like a shorebird?

Deep thought…discuss amongst yourself.

Passing 200…

Bell's Vireo - Vireo bellii

A singing Bell’s Vireo, the bird that put me to 200 species for South Dakota so far in 2015.

In my not-so-big-state-year, where I’m actually keeping track of how many species I see in South Dakota, I had been stuck at 196 for a few weeks.  Vacation, and no time to bird, will do that!  Also the migrants are all through, and we’re left with the “normal” summer birds, most of which I’d seen in my part of the state.

The answer to get the ball rolling again?  Go to a different part of the state. I did a day trip to the central part of the state this weekend, and was able to find several species you’re just not likely to find around Sioux Falls.  The total is now up to 202!  The Bell’s Vireo photo at the top is what put me to 200.  Other “new” ones for the year were Lark Bunting, Burrowing Owl, Caspian Tern, and, surprisingly, Swainson’s Hawk.  Surprising, because I was sure I’d seen at least one this year, but found I hadn’t when I recorded one in eBird.

Sometime this summer I’ll have to plan on a trip to the Black Hills and/or far northwestern part of the state, to add species you’re not likely to find elsewhere in the state.

Great way to spend an afternoon…

Burrowing Owl - Hovering - Athene cunicularia

Hovering Burrowing Owl, checking me out as I visit a prairie dog town on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in South Dakota

I’ve been busy since back from vacation, getting back in the swing of things with work, catching up on yard work, etc.  Yesterday I had a chance to get out and bird however, and decided to spend much of the time on one of my favorite spots in the world…a prairie dog town on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands south of Pierre.  As a birder, I’m always attracted to the birdlife around a prairie dog town, but it’s also the other life, from rattlesnakes, the prairie dogs themselves, even the insect life.  Prairie dog towns always just seem so “alive” compared to the surrounding grasslands and farmland.

The prairie dog town I like to visit is near Richland Wildlife Area.  There’s a rather non-descript entrance, a cattle guard and and opening in the barbed wire fence that allows you to drive the mile or so back to the prairie dog town itself.  It really doesn’t matter what time of year I visit, the area always seems full of life.  In winter, it’s nice seeing the activity of the prairie dogs themselves, seemingly defying the harsh weather.  Raptors, particularly Ferruginous Hawks, are also a great draw for me in the winter.  However, in summertime, it’s Burrowing Owls that are my favorite attraction around a prairie dog town.

Burrowing Owls aren’t hard to find in South Dakota.  If you find a decent sized prairie dog town, you will very likely find Burrowing Owls.  The problem is simply vast reduction in the number of prairie dog towns compared to historical times.  Ranchers continue to view prairie dogs as pests…despite studies that show grazing is MORE nutritious around prairie dog towns (a reason Bison used to often frequent prairie dog towns).  Because of that, there’s few creatures more persecuted in South Dakota than the prairie dog.  It’s a FAR too common event for me to visit a long-time prairie dog town, only to find degrading burrows and no prairie dog towns, as the land owner, or even more often, the state itself, has poisoned the animals to “protect” rancher interests.

Burrowing Owl - Athene cuniculari

One of the most common ways to see a Burrowing Owl in South Dakota…one sitting on a fence post near a prairie dog town.

When I do find an active prairie dog town however, I can spend hours watching the wildlife.  At this time of year, Burrowing Owls have young to feed, and that was certainly the case yesterday.  In the area of the prairie dog town I was at, I saw two different families, each with 2 adults and 3 fledglings.  The adults are understandably protective at this time of year, scolding visitors (be they a stray coyote, another bird, or a curious photographer like myself).  It’s quite cool to watch a little family of Burrowing Owls at a burrow entrance, and how they react when danger is afoot. The adults take immediate action to scold the intruder, while the fluffy fledglings quickly waddle down into the burrow.  I don’t get so close as to greatly disturb the Burrowing Owl families, but even at some distance, the adults will often fly over and scold me, sometimes even hovering right by me and glaring a glare meant to intimidate!!

A great day on the grasslands.  Vacations are nice, but I do so love getting back home to South Dakota…

Hummingbirds in the U.S. Virgin Islands!

Green-throated Carib - Eulampis holosericeus

A Green-throated Carib, hanging out on their favorite tree with the pink tubular flowers. As always, click for a larger view.

I have quite a few bird (and other) photos from our trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, and am just starting to go through and process them.  From a birding standpoint, it was certainly a blast to see a number of new species!  However, as a rule, the smaller the island, the fewer the number of species are found, and St. John’s isn’t a very big island.  Over 430 bird species have been found in South Dakota, quite a few for a location over 1,000 miles from the nearest ocean.  St. John’s, on the other hand, hasn’t had many more than 150 species.

While the number of “new” species for me wasn’t high, there were certainly some very cool birds that you’re not going to find in South Dakota!  A highlight for me as a birder is finding and photographing new hummingbird species (one reason why I love Arizona so much!).  While other species have visited one or more of the islands on rare occasions, but the U.S. Virgin Islands only have two regular hummingbird species, the Green-throated Carib and the Antillean Crested Hummingbird.  I’ve never been in the Caribbean, and neither is found in the United States, so both were new for me!

The U.S. Virgin Islands are experiencing quite the drought right now, and one thing that shocked me upon arriving was just how dry and brown much of St. John’s was.  Most of the island is a dry scrubland forest anyway, but from what the locals told us, it was quite unusual to see things as dry as they were on our visit.  Despite the drought, however, there were a few species of trees and plants that were blooming profusely, including on the property of the beach house.  It didn’t take long to see both species.  We arrived on a Sunday afternoon, and within an hour of arriving at our beach house, I had seen both species.

An Antillean Crested Hummingbird, one of the few relatively clean shots I was able to get of the species.  Despite seeing them at close range multiple times, they were much more difficult to photograph, as they seemed more active and more likely to perch in heavy cover than the Green-throated Cariibs.

An Antillean Crested Hummingbird, one of the few relatively clean shots I was able to get of the species. Despite seeing them at close range multiple times, they were much more difficult to photograph, as they seemed more active and more likely to perch in heavy cover than the Green-throated Cariibs.

I don’t know the name of the tree, but there were a number of large trees with tubular pink blossoms that both hummingbirds seemed to really love.  The first hummingbird I saw and photographed was a Green-throated Carib feeding on nectar from blossoms in this tree.  In sunny St. John’s, it’s hard to miss the brilliant flash of green when you see a Green-throated Carib!  They’re also a relatively large hummingbird species, making them even more noticeable.  Unlikely pretty much every hummingbird species I’ve seen in the United States, they also have a very strongly decurved bill that’s quite noticeable.  I also came across a few other Green-throated Caribs on other locations on the island, but every time I saw one, it was hanging around one of these pink-blossomed trees.

Green-throated Carib - Eulampis holosericeus

Another Green-throated Carib, this one hovering right before heading to a pink bloom to feed.

The Antillean Crested Hummingbird is the more highly sought species from what I was told by birders familiar with the area.  They’re not hard to find on St. John’s, but they do have a pretty small range overall in the Caribbean, making them a nice addition to a birder’s checklist.  The Antillean Crested Hummingbird is quite small hummingbird, very noticeably smaller than the Green-throated Carib.  Perhaps it’s because of the size difference, but there were obvious behavioral differences between the two species.  While the Green-throated Caribs around the beach house were seemingly quite aggressive, attempting to chase away Bananaquits, Lesser Antillean Bullfinches, and other birds using their favorite flowering trees, the Antillean Crested Hummingbirds seemed to stay closer to the ground in more hidden locations.  They too really liked the pink-flowered tree, but would only use it if the Green-throated Caribs weren’t using it at the time.  They also seemed to stay closer to the ground, visiting blooms lower in the tree canopy and generally staying closer to thicker cover.  There were a number of times when I would walk around the pink-flowering trees and I would see an Antillean Crested Hummingbird perched in a thicket nearby.  They tended to stay there most of the time, flying out on occasion to feed, but immediately returning to thicker cover once they were done feeding.

That first day I was just THRILLED to see both species at very close range, and didn’t even try to photograph them.  At one point, while standing next to another tree with gorgeous orange flowers, an Antillean Crested Hummingbird began feeding on blooms a mere 3 feet away!  It was such a thrill to watch this gorgeous male Antillean Crested Hummingbird at such an extremely close range.  Given how easy they were to see that first day and how close they would feed to my position, I was quite excited for the rest of the week, anticipating many good photo opportunities!  However, as it often works with bird photography, things didn’t exactly work out as planned!  I continued to see both species throughout the week, but frustratingly, I couldn’t get nearly as close as I did that first day!  I’m not complaining much however, as I continued to get great looks through my binoculars, and did manage to get enough decent photos of both species to keep me satisfied.

Green-throated Carib - Eulampis holosericeus

And one more Green-throated Carib and the favored tree. Gives you a better look at the tree…anybody that can tell me what those trees are?

One aspect of the trip that did NOT work out as planned…I had brought along a small hummingbird feeder in my bags, anticipating setting it up and enjoying close range action not only from the hummingbirds, but from Bananaquits and other species that feed on nectar on the islands.  I set up the hummingbird feeder near one of the pink-flowering trees that first day, and waited for the heavy hummingbird action!  I waited…and waited…and waited…and not ONCE did I see a hummingbird even approach the feeder, much less start feeding on the sugar water I had put within it.  Very strange, given that both species are known to visit feeders. The Bananaquits (an ever present species on the island!) also showed no interest.  The only species that visited the hummingbird feeder? Interestingly, it was “Swabby and Captain”, the pair of Pearly-eyed Thrashers I had discussed in a previous post.

A real treat seeing both hummingbird species at close range and getting some decent photos!  I’ll post more photos of other species from the trip as I get them processed.

Mountain Lion sighting near Sioux Falls, and “protecting” people from imagined dangers

Mountain Lion - Puma concolor

A Mountain Lion lounging in a tree. If such a sight is recorded in South Dakota, the Mountain Lion itself is likely to be sentenced to death, no matter its location or behavior. Photo credit.

We arrived back from our vacation in the U.S. Virgin Islands on Monday.  It seems that while we were gone, there was a bit of excitement in the neighborhood!  While talking to a neighbor, he told me about a neighbor across the street who was QUITE surprised to see a Mountain Lion lounging in a tree in his back yard!  We live in extreme eastern South Dakota, only a few miles from both Minnesota and Iowa.  South Dakota DOES have a healthy Mountain Lion population in the Black Hills, where biologists typically estimate that a few hundred are around.  Black Hills Mountain Lions are known to wander widely, with tagged animals found far from the Black Hills and far from South Dakota.

However, in our part of the state near Sioux Falls, the landscape is dominated by corn and soybeans.  There are certainly plenty of deer around that would interest a mountain lion, but there isn’t a lot of natural habitat around.  The only forested areas in the area are typically riparian zones.  The potential attraction for the mountain lion seen in our neighborhood?  We live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a state park along the Big Sioux River that features a lot of burr oak, cottonwood, and other trees along the river.  Turkeys and deer both abound in the park, but it’s a small oasis of habitat sitting in a vast landscape of cropland.  It’s also not all that large a park, covering a thin strip along the river for less than 2 miles.  From a long-term habitat standpoint, it’s simply not a location that’s going to hold a population of Mountain Lions for any sustained length of time.

The park is quite popular with campers, joggers, bikers, hikers, dog walkers, etc.  There’s a very nice paved path through the park that connects with other paths in the city of Brandon itself.  There are also other unpaved paths that people frequently use.  The number of people using the park also make it quite unlikely that any Mountain Lion would attempt to stay for any prolonged period of time. The number of people using the park ALSO will likely be used as a reason for Game Fish & Parks to “remove” the Mountain Lion should it happen to stick around.

There has NEVER been a recorded case of a Mountain Lion attacking a human being in South Dakota.  NEVER.  Despite that, they are treated as an extreme danger.  The story linked to here is the typical reaction when any Mountain Lion is found anywhere close to humans in the state.  The Mountain Lion is killed, period.  In the story I linked to, the lions were near Keystone,.  Keystone is in the heart of the Black Hills, and thus, the heart of Mountain Lion country in South Dakota.  The lions were clearly within their normal habitat, but were still “removed” (killed).

Mountain Lions are quite common in the Black Hills, but are rarely every seen.  Being shy and staying away from people is certainly a positive for a Mountain Lion in the state, as just being SEEN is an offense punishable by death for a Mountain Lion in South Dakota.  The Keystone story above has been repeated many, many times in the state, with Lions being shot and killed whenever they happen to be found near people.  That’s especially true outside of the Black Hills.  In South Dakota it’s such a rare sight to see a Mountain Lion outside of the Black Hills.  If one IS seen, people immediately freak out and assume it’s a danger, despite, again, the fact that there has NEVER been an instance of a Mountain Lion causing harm to a human being in the state.  While birding in the Yankton area several years ago, I heard a blood-curdling “scream” in a forested area along the Missouri River, a sound I know came from a Mountain Lion.  I certainly never reported it, knowing what would happen to the animal if authorities were alerted to its presence.

I haven’t heard neighbors say whether the mountain lion found here has been seen again.  Frankly, I hope it has moved on and WON’T ever be seen again, just from the standpoint of the animal’s own safety and well-being.  A “seen” Mountain Lion in South Dakota is usually a CONDEMNED Mountain Lion.

The tale of “Swabby” and “Captain”

Pearly-eyed Thrasher - Margarops fuscatus

“Captain”, the bold “leader” of the local clan of Pearly-eyed Thrashers hanging out around our vacation beach house at St. John’s in the Virgin Islands.

Back from the Virgin Islands!  The family vacation for the summer was on the island of St. John’s in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  We had a rental house right on the water and had a wonderful time.  Our own little private cove and beach, wonderful snorkeling right outside the door, and great food. Of course, there was also a wee bit of birding involved!  I’d never been to the Caribbean, and although the relatively small island of St. John’s doesn’t have a huge variety of bird species, there were some nice “lifers” I was able to see and photograph.

One of those species is the Pearly Eyed Thrasher.  They are a very common and very visible species in the area, but given their geographic range, they were obviously a “new” species for me.  It didn’t take long after we arrived for us to see our first Pearly Eyed Thrasher!  We flew into St. Thomas and took the ferry over to St. John’s, then driving across the island towards Coral Bay and the location of our beach house.  The owner met us and as we were being shown the features of the house, we were greeted by “Captain” (the name my son immediately gave him!), an extremely tame Pearly eyed Thrasher who the owner said “owned” the beach house! Captain certainly did act as if he owned the place!  Every time we were on the deck overlooking the ocean, Captain was there, either casually searching for food, or just hanging out on a nearby tree or the deck itself.  Captain was certainly curious, often choosing to sit and perch within just a few feet of where we were lounging.

Captain was usually accompanied by “Swabby” (again, the name my son gave him!).  “Swabby” was a bit more shy than Captain, and usually was only around if Captain was around.  Swabby generally hung out a little further away from us than Captain, but he too was often very close to us.

I knew before we arrived that they were a common species, with one local birder telling me that locals in the Virgin Islands think of Pearly eyed Thrashers in much the same way as we would think of House Sparrows or Common Grackles here.  One of the joys of birding, however, is seeing a “new” species.  No matter how common a Pearly eyed Thrasher is in the Virgin Islands, they were new to us and were a real joy to have around, particularly as they were so tame and entertaining.  Clearly Captain and Swabby were accustomed to guests at the beach house.  The owner warned us not to leave any small items out on the deck, as they would be “confiscated” by Captain and Swabby!  That certainly was the case for food items too, as Captain and Swabby could be quite bold in begging for food.  We refrained from giving them “human food”, but after noticing their love of the petals of a certain flower, we did gather a few on occasion and put them out for Captain and Swabby to enjoy.

Pearly-eyed Thrasher - Margarops fuscatus

“Swabby”, the day after an accident or attack left him with an obviously broken leg. Despite the horrible looking injury, Swabby seemed to quickly adapt to his new situation.

3 days after arriving, it was obvious that Swabby had been attacked or had some serious accident.  One of his legs was clearly broken and/or dislocated.  The leg was useless to Swabby, held at an awful-looking angle.  For the first couple of days after the leg was broken, Swabby struggled. He wasn’t around as much, and when he did come near the deck, he struggled to adapt to his new situation.  He didn’t seem to have enough strength in the one remaining leg to hold up his body, so whenever he landed somewhere, he typically would lay on his belly.  We gathered a few more flowers for Swabby, and thankfully he was still feeding normally. After a couple of days, the leg still was useless and was still held at a horrible angle, but Swabby seemed to be gaining strength in his remaining leg.  He was starting to hop around on one leg, and seemed to be able to hold his body up with the one leg.

Of course we’ll never know what happened to Swabby, but there are a couple of “unnatural” predators on the island that could have been the culprit.  Mongoose were introduced to the islands many decades ago, a misguided attempt to control runaway rat populations (another introduced species).  Mongoose have had a devastating impact on the native wildlife of the Virgin Islands, particularly on ground-nesting birds.  Another potential culprit is another introduced species, the iguana.  We ran across some extremely large iguanas during our trip, including one gorgeous, bright green iguana in a tree right outside the beach house.  My guess is that either a mongoose or an iguana managed to get a hold of Swabby’s leg, and Swabby only escaped after breaking free of whatever predator attacked him.

Green Iguana - Iguana iguana

A gorgeous Green Iguana lounging in a tree outside the beach house in St. John’s. Could he be the cause of Swabby’s broken leg?

As we left the Beach House to start the long trek back home, Captain and Swabby of course were present to give us a proper send off!  We did put out a bit of left-over bread as we left, which Captain and Swabby immediately devoured.  “Common” or not in the Virgin Islands, it was a treat to see a new species.  Birders tend to get enamored with adding new species to their life lists, and often forget to appreciate the birds that are commonly seen.  Watching their behavior at such close range, interacting with them in the way we did, was a reminder to appreciate the “common” species we have back here in South Dakota.

More invasive species…

Iguana - St. John's, Virgin Islands

Another non-native species on the Virgin Islands, a huge iguana.

A quick follow up on the previous post…on this day in the Virgin Islands, we had a giant iguana laying by the road, several places we had to slow down or stop because of goats in the road, and a “wild” donkey that chose our beach house yard to graze in for the day. Yes, some good birds again, but it’s the non-native species that dominate the ecology.


“Arrogant” to think man can change the Earth?

Photo of Cruz Bay on St. John's, U.S. Virgin Islands

St. John’s, U.S. Virgin Islands. “Virgin” it is not, as it is about as unnatural a place as you can go.

One of my pet peeve lines from politicians and business people who are climate change deniers…that it is “arrogant” to think that human beings can have such a huge impact on the Earth. It is usually meant to pander to those with a religious bent, as it is often said hand in hand with comments about only “God” being able to affect that kind of change. Ridiculous, of course, when you see the astounding effects man has had on the planet.

Our effect on the planet is something you are constantly reminded of, no matter where you live. For me it was recently reinforced while on vacation. We took a family trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands. We have never vacationed in the Caribbean, and even after researching things to death, it’s still always a new experience when you go somewhere for the first time. There are certainly some great things to do and see there (more posts on birds there will follow!), but the big impression I have after our first visit? It’s colored with sadness over what things may have once been like there, as compared to now.

You of course have the visible human footprint.  We were on St. John’s Island, but flew through St. Thomas before ferrying across. Over half of St. John’s is covered by National Park, the population is one-tenth that of St. Croix or St. Thomas. St. John’s is generally considered the more quiet and unspoiled island. There are certainly fancy, well kept up parts, but there is also a lot of very run down and impoverished areas. There is no central trash collection on St. John’s, instead there are what have turned into “drive by” trash containers where people (quite literally!) throw their trash, often from a moving car.  It seems about half the trash actually makes the bin. Government seems ineffective, with incredibly high crime on St. Thomas and St. Croix (better on St.

John’s) and poor roads and services the norm. Junk is found scattered around many parts of the islands, from abandoned cars and buildings to the good ol’ plastic bottles and bags you find junking up every other part of the planet

Beyond the visible human footprint though is the altered ecology of the area.  Even on the “quiet” island of St. John’s there are chickens and goats running around everywhere.  “Wild” donkeys are the largest animals, followed by introduced deer. Mongoose, introduced to control introduced rats, have devastated native birds and other animals (as have rats).  As a birder there are certainly some great new birds I found there, but the bird community is vastly different than it was a few hundred years ago, thanks to habitat alteration, introduced bird species, hunting, and the introduction of the mongoose and other animals.

We we had a blast snorkeling the beautiful waters around the island. Back on land though, it’s not exactly a natural, lush, island paradise.

Living in eastern South Dakota amongst the vast fields of corn and soybeans, you realize just how much of an impact man has on the Earth   Sadly you see the same devastating impact even in an area such as St. John’s in the Virgin Islands.  Multiply those effects for every other spot on the planet that people are found, and you quickly see the only “arrogance” comes from blowhard politicians who try to use any excuse they can to 1) get re-elected and 2) pander to short-term, money-driven interests.

Arrogance indeed…

What kind of birder are you?

Eastern Kingbird

Are you a “Kingbird” birder, for which birding is a competitive event?

I had a conversation recently with someone about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  She was talking the latest Sibley guide, and how either the Ivory-billed Woodpecker wasn’t listed at all, or it was listed but shown as “extinct” (I don’t remember which she had said).  Later I thought about what she’d said and it got me a little riled up.  From the moment Cornell published their materials about the Arkansas Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, Sibley criticized it.  Why does that rile me up?  This is the kind of reaction that for DECADES has dampened any kind of search for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, or restricted any efforts to save remaining habitat.  Those who have claimed to have seen an Ivory-billed Woodpecker since the 1950s have primarily been met with scorn and skepticism, rather than excitement.

Cornell had several long-time ornithologists and birders who gathered evidence about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  No, they didn’t get any clear video or photos, but the PEOPLE who reported sighting the bird certainly have the “cred” from a birding and ornithology standpoint.  I certainly believe them, just as I believe the Auburn group who claimed they saw Ivory-billed Woodpeckers shortly after the Arkansas sightings.  What I’ve found since I started birding 15 years ago though is that birders definitely fall in certain categories.  I’ve never met David Sibley, but based on his reaction to the Cornell group and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, I can imagine what “class” he falls into in my mind.

Let’s put it into “bird terms”. If a birder were a bird, what kind of bird would he be?  Here are the general kinds of birders I’ve run across over the years:

The Peacock – Peacocks are all about appearance. How do I “look” to other birders?  What is my reputation?  For this class of birder, it’s less about the birds and more about their own reputation.  What’s that you say, non-Peacock?  You saw a rare Yellow-footed Gobbling Grouse?  Pfft…I haven’t seen one, and I’m not so sure you have either!!!  Besides, if you have, it can’t compare to the Whistling Chatter-billed Flycatcher that I have seen!

The Kingbird – Have you ever watched Kingbirds along a fenceline?  Life seems to be a never-ending competition, fighting for every inch of fenceline.  Kingbird birders view birding as a competition.  Life lists, “Big Year” lists, county lists, state lists…and most importantly…how does your list compare to MY list…these are the concerns of the Kingbird.  There are definitely many well-intentioned and friendly Kingbirds, for whom birding is a game, but a friendly and cordial game.  The birder you need to look out for though?  The Kingbird/Peacock hybrid, for which the “game” is deathly serious.  Don’t invade the space of a Kingbird/Peacock hybrid…you may not come back with all your limbs intact.

Black-capped Chickadee

The beloved “Chickadee” birder, always cheerful and willing to share their experiences.

The Chickadee – Have you ever noticed that Chickadees seem to be the “journalists” of the bird world?  They’re always letting the other birds know what’s happening. OWL!  DANGER!  Here comes a birder!  Be Alert!!  Chickadee birders are cherished because they love to share what they’re experiencing.  Hey birders!  A Broad-butted Cuckoo was spotted along Rosie’s Creek!  On the way back I saw a Pink-legged Wattlebird…here are the coordinates!  For the Chickadee, a major part of the birding experience is sharing that experience with other birders, and helping them to share the same experience.  A great class of birders, and one that we fortunately have many of in South Dakota.

The Yellow Rail – Have you met a Yellow Rail birder?  I’m sure you have while out birding.  Do you know their name?  Do you know where they live, what they do for a living, what birds they’ve seen?  Very doubtful.  The Yellow Rail birder lives an active birding life. However, they do so in anonymity, avoiding the crowd, not publicizing any birding activity they do, not reporting their sightings.  Yellow Rail/Kingbird hybrids definitely exist, birders that may obsessively “list”, but for them it’s a private activity, for which no sharing is needed.  Comparing to other birders’ lists?  Not important, because for a Yellow Rail, it’s all about leading a quiet, unobtrusive birding life.  The Yellow Rail and the Peacock are often mortal enemies, with neither fully understanding the mindset of the other.

The Coot – How often do you see a lone Coot? Not nearly as often as you see a gaggle of Coots.  For the Coot, birding is about camaraderie.  Birding is a social activity, something meant to be shared.  Going birding? It may also mean grabbing a beer or a bite to eat after.  Coots can be either quite serious or very casual birders.

While I’m sure you can easily slot some birders you know into one of the above categories, in reality I think most birders are probably hybrids.  If I had to classify myself, I’d definitely leave out the “Coot” component.  For me birding is “me” time, time to be alone with my thoughts and enjoy not only the birds, but just being outside.  In that respect I’m definitely part Yellow Rail in terms of wanting solitude, but I also have a lot of Chickadee in me, in that I do like sharing what I find.  In that respect though I admit I probably DO have some “Peacock” in me, particularly given my fondness for sharing my photos with the world!

As for the start of the post, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and David Sibley…as I said, I’ve never met the man, but the attitude of complete disrespect and disdain for the Cornell work really turns me off.

Losing habitat on the Plains

Grasslands - South Dakota

A gravel road and vast grasslands…one of my favorite types of areas to not only bird, but just to experience. It’s becoming a rarer and rarer sight with all the recent cropland expansion in eastern and central South Dakota.

I ran across (yet another) story this morning discussing the huge loss of habitat in the northern Great Plains over the last few years.  It’s not exactly “news” to anyone who has lives here and has paid attention.  A bit of background…in 2007, Congress passed the “Energy Independence and Security Act”.  It was a huge energy bill, with many components. One of which actually was a huge boon to my work at USGS EROS, as we became part of a huge project to look at the potential for sequestering carbon through land use practices.

However, another component is a renewable fuels standard (RFS), with hard mandates for increased use of biofuels by 2022.  In recent years the price of corn has gone up substantially, in no small part due to the RFS.  The result? Massive loss of grassland in my part of the world, with the Dakotas being hit especially hard.

It’s obvious everywhere I bird, both in eastern South Dakota (which has traditionally been a stronghold of corn production), and now increasingly in central South Dakota.  In eastern South Dakota where I live, the only remaining grasslands are 1) those that are on hilly or very rocky ground, areas too difficult to farm, or 2) individual fields that are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).  CRP provides payments for farmers to keep land in a grassland cover around here, but those payments can’t compete with the profits that can be made by putting arable land into corn production.  I can point to numerous individual fields just on my drive to work that used to be CRP, and had been grassland ever since I moved here over 20 years ago, that have been plowed under and converted to cropland in just the last few years.

The further west you go in the state, the more iffy a proposition it is to grow dryland corn.  The Missouri River dividing the state into “East River” and “West River” used to be a rough dividing line on where corn was grown. Rainfall in South Dakota is a gradient from west to east, with precipitation dropping as you move westward in the state.  One of my favorite birding locations in the winter is around the Presho area. It’s an area with a lot of grasslands and a lot of pheasants (and presumably voles and mice), creatures that attract a lot of winter raptors like Rough-legged Hawks, Ferruginous Hawks, and even the occasional Gyrfalcon or Snowy Owl.  As a drier area than eastern South Dakota, cropland used to be limited to wheat, some sorghum, and sunflowers.  Not any more, as you’re starting to see farmers attempt to grow dryland corn even there.

It’s not just the conversion of complete, large fields from grassland to cropland that you’re seeing, it’s land management practices and micro-scale habitat loss.  From a land management standpoint, the other business that’s booming right now in the Dakotas is the installation of drain tile, underground piping that efficiently drains the land and allows farmers to utilize areas that once tended to collect too much water for cultivation.  One of my favorite little birding spots on my drive to work is now gone, thanks to drain tiling.  It was a low spot along a little drainage way, a moist area that had a grassland and some scattered cattails.  That area was drain tiled and is now a corn field.  From the micro-habitat side, farmers are also ripping out vegetation along fencerows and shelterbelts, trying to squeeze out every acre they can as crop prices are high.

To be frank, it’s damned depressing sometimes to drive around birding, seeing some of your favorite remaining grassland habitats being actively plowed under.  It’s a level of land-use conversion in the northern Great Plains that hasn’t been seen in many decades.

Especially as a father, I can’t help but think “when does it end”?  When do people stop thinking about MONEY, and their short-term well-being, and when do they actually start worrying about their CHILDREN’s future? It’s not just habitat loss, it’s sabotage of the very resources we need to survive.  Increased agricultural land use, drain tiling existing land, and increased fertilizer use as farmers try to bypass crop rotation and plant exclusively corn…all are pumping up nitrate and other pollutant levels in the very water supplies we depend upon to survive.

I tell myself, that just as with the inexorable spread of urban areas across the world, it can’t continue forever, right?  At some point, it has to stop, right?  The only problem is that human beings are too short-sighted to set that “limit” of when we stop degrading and destroying habitat and the resources we depend upon.  What’s going to eventually make it “stop” is ecological disaster…

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