Articles for the Month of November 2015

Practicing what you preach, America…

Birding, fun.  Photography, fun.  Walking outside while doing both…fun.

War…not fun.  ISIS…not fun.  Paris attacks…not fun.  When I “rebranded” my blog a while back, deleting old material and focusing only on birds, science, and photography, it was partially for my own sanity.  Blogging about politics and the ridiculousness of humanity isn’t fun. But the last few days have been depressing, seeing the reaction of Americans to the Paris bombings.  Can’t help but break rank here and go off topic…

Several weeks ago, the world was shocked by a photo of a 3-year old Syrian boy, a refugee, who washed up dead along the Turkish coast.  It put a face on the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and for a moment, provided world-wide sympathy for what the Syrian people are going through.

That’s gone.  A terrorist attack in Paris, conflicting reports about the origin of the attackers, and now Syrian refugees are being characterized as being nearly as bad, nearly as EVIL, as ISIS themselves.  In the last few days, 23 Governors have decreed they will ban any Syrian refugees from entering their state (even though it’s quite clear they don’t have that power).  The Republican presidential candidates have fallen all over themselves trying to out-do each other in promoting hatred and bigotry towards Syrian refugees, with Bush and Christie even both suggesting that refugees pass a “religion test”, with Muslims denied entry to the U.S. and Christians admitted.  Nothing screams “AMERICA!!!” to me more than making political hay out of a tragedy, and Republicans are certainly doing their damnedest to squeeze every last bit of political capital out of the Paris attacks.

What I find even more disheartening is the general reaction of Americans in general.  It’s absolutely disgusting to go online right now, either to social media or in reading comments on mainstream news stories.  The bigotry, the outright HATE that’s being spewed by so many every-day Americans is shocking, even to a cynic like myself.

In World War II, we let our fear and bigotry control our actions, and we placed thousands of Japanese Americans in interment camps, as black a mark as there is in U.S. history. Evidently we haven’t learned our lesson.  When we look back at what’s happening right now, we will look back with disgust, we will look back with SHAME.  Or at least we should.

The worst component to me is the complete and utter disregard for “Christian” beliefs.  What I’m seeing on Facebook…”Friends” (now former friends) posting meme images such as “One nation under GOD…NOT Allah!!”.  The states whose governors wish to ban Syrian refugees are almost exclusively “red” states, with conservative politicians and conservative constituencies.  EVERY STATE IN THE SOUTHEASTERN U.S. has had their governor proclaim they wish to ban Syrian refugees.  In other words…the entire so-called “Bible Belt” of America is turning its back on its OWN religion, making a mockery of Christianity, and choosing instead to be led by their own fear and bigotry.

I’m an atheist, not because of any disdain for religious belief in general, but because as a scientist…I need proof!  I need evidence!  However, I have no problem with people practicing whatever religion they desire, so long as it doesn’t directly cause harm to others, and so long as it isn’t force-fed down the throats of “other” religions.  Islam is NOT a violent religion…it’s perverted by a very small minority, to obvious evil and violent ends.

I’m sorry, American “Christians”, right now you are guilty of the same kind of perversion of your religion.  When people self-identifying as “Christian” deny assistance to a group of people undergoing the most unimaginable horrors…it’s a perversion of your religion.  When self-identified “Christians” direct hateful language towards Muslims and Syrians…it’s a perversion of your religion.  It’s absolutely shocking…absolutely DISGUSTING…to see what people are publicly saying in social media and elsewhere right now, and that includes some people I personally know and had thought highly of.

Nothing brings out the true character of a human being than fear.  And the Paris attacks have certainly brought out that fear (and thus, the hideous nature of far too many human beings).

It’s not just religion that’s been perverted by both Muslims and Christians though, it’s the foundation of the United States itself that is being perverted.  We were founded in the name of freedom, freedom to believe what you want, freedom to practice whatever religion you want, without fear, without consequence.  We are a nation of immigrants, as much of a “melting pot” as any nation on the planet.  Suddenly, conservatives who have long pointed to the Constitution, who have long pointed to the ideals of our Founding Fathers…are trashing it all, all in the name of their own cowardice, fear, and bigotry.  Suddenly we are NOT a nation of immigrants.  Suddenly we are NOT a nation of tolerance.  Suddenly we are a fearful nation, a nation of COWARDS, a nation where anyone who doesn’t share your skin color or religion is suspect.

The Paris attacks themselves were obviously shocking, an act of pure evil.  Our reaction to those attacks has been every BIT as perverted and evil.

Madera Canyon and Santa Rita Lodge in the “off-season”

Phot of magnificent hummingbird

A male Magnificent Hummingbird soaking up some rays at Santa Rita Lodge.

May 7th.  It always within a day or two of May 7th when the first Ruby-throated Hummingbird shows up in our yard. While there are no confirmed breeding records in far southeastern South Dakota, there’s little doubt they nest there. I have birds in my yard all summer, and by July sometime I start to see immature birds. After a great (but short!) summer flitting about our yard, they’re gone by the end of September. That’s less than 5 months, with the “hummingbird off season” consisting of 7+ months of cold weather and absolutely zero hummingbirds.

It’s the “hummingbird off-season” where I am this week, in Tucson.  After peaking in August here, where up to 15 hummingbird species may be sighted, numbers and variety start to dwindle. By this time in November the slow season is definitely underway. There’s just a WEE bit of a difference in the Tucson off season compared to South Dakota. Here in the Tucson area, you can still find plenty of hummingbirds, but “only” 4-5 kinds (typically).

Photo of Costa's Hummingbird.

A male Costa’s Hummingbird, not commonly found at Madera Canyon in the winter.

There are some extremely famous hummingbird locales that attract birders from across the world. Madera Canyon south of Tucson is world famous for many birds, but it’s the hummingbird feeders at Santa Rita Lodge that are the big attraction for many. In the non-work part of my trip I twice visited Madera and Santa Rita Lodge, and I’d be hard pressed to call it the “off-season”. No, there were no Plain-capped Starthroats, Violet-crowned Hummingbirds, or other U.S. mega-rarities that make southern Arizona famous. For the week I “only” saw and photographed five different species, with all five being seen at Santa Rita Lodge (and some species also found elsewhere).

From a photographers standpoint it’s really nice taking photos at Santa Rita Lodge. Until 1:00 or so you have the sun at your back, and most of the feeders are out in the sunlight, making it easy to get beautiful photos of hummingbirds with their gorgets “lit-up”. The ever-present Mexican Jays, Bridled Titmouse, and Wild Turkeys are there to entertain, and you never know what might show up to feed on the suet, fruit, and seeds that are also available. Hepatic Tanagers have an extremely limited U.S. range, but they are pretty reliable in Madera Canyon. Despite it also being the “off-season” for them, I did find a pair at Santa Rita Lodge and was able to add the species to my life list.

Hepatic Tanager

Hepatic Tanager, a southern Arizona specialty.

Santa Rita Lodge is also the only place I have ever found Arizona Woodpeckers. Acorn Woodpeckers are also always around, while the Niger seed feeders typically have a bunch of Lesser Goldfinch and Pine Siskins. Checking the trees around the feeders can reveal all kinds of interesting songbirds, and even in this slow season, I saw Black-throated Gray Warblers, Hutton’s Vireo, Yellow-rumps Warblers, and more. I also got a nice surprise by standing by the one big berry-laden bush in font of the feeders.  A Red-naped Sapsucker flew in and landed literally 2 feet in front of me and started feeding on the berries. A newcomer to the Santa Rita Lodge, a pair of Canyon Wrens started nesting under the building recently, despite the uncharacteristic habitat

Not a bad “off-season” visit!  And this doesn’t even touch on the Elegant Trogon or other birds you can find in the Canyon.

I enjoyed birding this week all around the Tucson area, but in terms of “birdy-ness”, nothing beats a trip to Madera Canyon and Santa Rita Lodge.

Photo of Canyon WrenRed-naped SapsuckerBroad-tailed Hummingbird

I hereby declare, “new” bird to be named for my father!!

Photo of Lawrence's Goldfinch

A new species for me! In honor of my achievement, I hereby name this species “Lawrence’s Goldfinch” in honor of my father!!

This morning I bravely ventured out in search of a “new” species.  I heard rumors of a mysterious creature wandering Tanque Verde Wash on the northeast side of Tucson.  With nothing but a camera and my wits, I ventured forth, braving frigid morning temperatures (hey, 35 degrees at dawn is dang cold in Tucson!!) in search of the elusive creature.  Others of my ilk (aka, “birders”) have ventured forth in search of this rare creature, only to come back empty handed.  For example, a nameless colleague who has birded his whole life…let’s just call him “Jim” for the sake of argument…has tried…and failed…to find this mythical creature.

Would I be deterred?  Would I fail?  I WOULD NOT!!  Despite overwhelming odds, despite the incredibly harsh weather, I found the elusive creature foraging in the shrubs at Tanque Verde.  How shall I commemorate this historic achievement?

I SHALL TAKE THE FIRST RIGHT OF NAMING!!  I HEREBY DECLARE that from this day forward, this species shall be called “Lawrence’s Goldfinch”, in honor of my father.  In the words of Ramses II (From the movie “Moses” anyway)…SO SHALL IT BE WRITTEN!  SO SHALL IT BE DONE!!

Already, I hear a revisionist history being whispered by those jealous of my mighty achievement.  I hear vague rumors that others have seen this species long before I had.  I hear whisperings that “Lawrence’s Goldfinch” has LONG had that name, and that it has nothing to do with my father.

LIES!! DAMNED LIES!! Curse the jealous mob who cannot appreciate my achievement!  As for you, casual blog reader, believe what you will!  But in my heart, whenever someone utters the words “Lawrence’s Goldfinch”, I shall think of my father, and remember this historic day!!


Who you calling ugly? Throwin’ some love to Sparrows

Cassin's Sparrow

The “plain” Cassin’s Sparrow. That’s alright little guy, don’t let them get you down with those kinds of harsh words. You “plain” sparrows DO have some fans.

I had another great time birding south of Tucson today, with some great looks and photos of some truly gorgeous, colorful birds. It was a 5 hummingbird species day, and with the ever present Tucson sun, I got some very colorful photos of male hummingbirds with their gorget “lit up”. I had great looks (but not so great photos) of a Painted Redstarts, one of the most brilliantly colored birds you can find. I had a Red-napped Sapsucker feeding right in front of me in a bush full of bright red berries, with bird itself flashing its complex color pattern.

With all those colorful birds…why am I posting photos of a couple of sparrows? I’ve said it before…I DIG sparrows!! They may not have the splashy colors of other birds but the variety, and yes, subtle beauty of sparrows is outstanding. In the Southwest there are a number of sparrows I haven’t seen or photographed before, so despite all the gorgeous colorful birds flitting around, I’ve been targeting a few sparrows missing from my “list”.

Rufous-winged Sparrow

Another “plain” sparrow, this one a Rufous-winged Sparrow. I think he’s a handsome fellow, with the bright rufous shoulder patch and that crown.

It’s not an ideal time for some of them, as they’ve already moved to different areas for the winter, but there is still a wonderful variety of sparrows here at the moment. One of those that is supposed to have largely moved on from here by now is the Cassin’s Sparrow (top photo). In a lot of birding guides they’re described as “plain” birds. I beg to differ! Buck up little buddy, I think you’re gorgeous! It must get depressing when people, even birders, pass you by and scoff at the “little brown job” of a sparrow, without trying (or caring) to even try and identify what kind of sparrow.

The second bird is a Rufous-winged Sparrow, so named for the little reddish-brown patch you see on his shoulder. They are a quite common species around here, but given their proclivity for hiding in grass and shrubs, they’re not one I’ve gotten great looks at before, and not one I had photographed. It was nice to have one pop out into the open for a bit.

Throwing some love your way, sparrows! One more day to bird, and hopefully I can find some more of your kind.

Holy $hit!! An honest-to-goodness Trogon!

Photo of Elegant Trogon

Serendipity strikes! This gorgeous Elegant Trogon flew in like a dream and landed right in front of me this morning, while birding at Florida Canyon south of Tuscon, Arizona.

Better lucky than good!!  I had a work trip to Tucson, one of my favorite places on earth to bird, so I took a couple extra days of personal time to bird. I had a number of “target” species I wanted to try and find (and photograph). This wasn’t one of them.

Elegant Trogons are dang tough to see in the U.S. They’re only found in a few spots in far southern Arizona, near the Mexican border.  In November though?  Nearly all Trogons move south for the winter, so you’re not likely to find one this time of year.  I started birding this morning in “Florida Canyon”, a place I’d checked out through eBird.  Painted Redstarts, Hepatic Tanager, and several other “new” species to me had been seen there recently, henc my decision to start there.

Florida Canyon certainly didn’t disappoint!  I saw a gorgeous Painted Redstart right away, and later, a male and female Hepatic Tanager.   It was very “birdy”, but I certainly wasn’t expecting what happened next.  As I was watching a tree seemingly filled with Hutton’s Vireo and other birds, this very big, brilliantly colored bird came flying in. My first thought as it came in over my head…Magpie, as it was the big long tail in flight that reminded me of a Magpie. But this certainly wasn’t a magpie!!  There in front of me was an absolutely brilliant Elegant Trogon!

Over the course of the next half hour, I watched and photographed the Trogon, with it making a couple of short flights and changing perches in that time. Getting a clean shot was a challenge, but I finally did find a good vantage point.

Great morning!  One of my biggest thrills as a birder!

Another Northern Lights display

Northern Lights, South Dakota

Northern Lights on the early morning of November 7th, 2015 in southeastern South Dakota.

What would I do without my cell phone?  How did people survive without them?  OK…I DO have a nice iPhone.  I would bet I use it less than 99% of all other human beings with a cell phone.  But there are times it comes in handy.  At about 10:00 last night I was about to go to bed, when the phone beeped with a notice. I have an app called “Solar Monitor” that you can use to track solar weather, and it said that a “moderate storm” was in progress.

Since it was a Friday night and I could sleep in this morning, I grabbed my camera and went out to try to take some shots.  I would say that the Northern Lights this time were much better than they were several weeks ago when I was able to see and photograph them for the first time ever.  Last time, it was a glow on the horizon, without much appearance of movement or any distinct features.  Last night, there was a short stretch where you could see them with the naked eye quite well, and could see the changing patterns of the “curtain” of light.

I’m still not the greatest at photographing them however!  Part of it is my equipment.  I just never shoot landscapes and the like so don’t really have a great wide-angle lens.  But who am I kidding, it’s not just equipment.  I have no idea what I’m doing trying to shoot them!  After a lot of experimentation last night I came up with something that at least produced a decent looking image.

A nice unexpected night of photography!!

Gorgeous Fall Birding

Osprey in flight - Pandion haliaetus

An osprey circling over Lake Alvin, near Sioux Falls.

In about, oh, 2 weeks, I’m likely to bemoan the fact that I live in often frigid South Dakota.  Winter here isn’t for the faint of heart, and even moving just one state up from where I grew up (Nebraska), it’s clearly, much colder here. But, I have to admit…May through October are usually freakin’ spectacular in terms of weather.  Yes, we get some hot muggy days, but more often than not, we have some truly wonderful weather from late spring through mid-fall.

The weather this fall has been above-and-beyond wonderful, with crisp nights, but typically sunny and warm days.  Today, November 1st, and it was sunny most of the day, high of about 65, with nary a breeze.  I took the opportunity to go birding this morning, with the intention of doing my first real hard searching for Saw-whet Owls.  People banding them in the state have been catching them, so clearly they’re moving through.  I bush-whacked through thick cedar stands for about 3 hours this morning with nary a hint of an owl.  Not only no owls, but not a bit of “whitewash” (the white-stained tree branches and ground below their frequent roosts), and no pellets.  My guess is that it’s still just too early.

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

Red-tailed Hawk protecting a kill. Another was just a few feet away, hoping for a bite.

It still was a wonderful day to get out and walk around, and I did have other birds that “saved the day”.  First, an Osprey circling over Lake Alvin, just south of Sioux Falls.  Osprey aren’t a species you see all that often around here, so it was nice to get good close looks at him.

Near there I came across a pair of (young?) Red-tailed Hawks, hanging out on the ground on the edge of a tilled field.  One was clearly protecting something that it had caught, with it’s wings spread a bit and hovering over the prey like a protective umbrella. This bird was feeding while another was sitting about 10 feet away.  You definitely don’t think of raptors like this “sharing”, so I would bet that 2nd bird ended up going hungry.

American Robin - Turdus migratorius

American Robin gorging on berries in a cedar tree. An awfully common species…but in frigid South Dakota, one I’m not likely to see much of for the next 5 months!

The other thing of note this morning were the scads of birds gorging on berries of cedar/juniper.  We get a few American Robins that actually over-winter here, but overall most move south of South Dakota a little ways.  This time of year though you certainly can see many Robins gorging on berries in preparation for winter.  It wasn’t just Robins, and there were also many Cedar Waxwings joining the feast.  I know encroaching eastern red cedar isn’t a popular thing for many, but one thing you do have to admit is they provide a heck of a lot of good habitat and food for some species of birds.

One last nice bird to end the birding portion of the day…a beautiful male Red-bellied Woodpecker at our feeder at home.  We live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a State Park with a lot of mature forest.  You often see (and hear!) Red-bellied Woodpeckers in the park, but it’s not very often one makes the effort to cross the street and visit my yard.

Great way to end a gorgeous fall birding day in South Dakota!

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