Articles for the Month of December 2015

Getting my Gyrfalcon fix

Juvenile Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus

A juvenile, gray-phase Gyrfalcon flying over the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.

When I got my first SLR (film then!) camera in December of 2000, I took a lot of “nature photos”.  This included many bird photos, but I wasn’t really trying to shoot more birds than other subjects.  I certainly didn’t consider myself “hooked” on birds, birding, and bird photography early that winter.  That changed on a trip up to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in the central part of South Dakota.  Local birders were seeing a Gyrfalcon, calling him the “Pheasant Farm Gyr” because of his hangout near a farm that raised pheasants for release (and hunting).  I really didn’t understand what the big deal was about a Gyrfalcon, until reading about it more, and hearing about them from a couple of local birders.  I decided to make the trip to try and see and photograph it.

It couldn’t have been easier, at least in terms of seeing the bird.  I showed up at the location where the bird was said to be hanging out, saw one of the local birders, and asked if he’d seen the Gyrfalcon.  He pointed to the top of a nearby telephone pole.  Just like that, I had seen my first Gyrfalcon.

I still think that was what sparked my interest in birds and bird photography, because from that point on, I almost exclusively shot birds.  Gyrfalcons are such special birds, very difficult to see in the lower 48 states.  Central South Dakota is definitely a hot spot though.  Despite it being a 3-4 hour drive, I’ve tried to make about 2 all-day birding trips to the area every winter.  I’ve seen my share of Gyrfalcons (including one magical day when I saw 5 individual birds), but it’s quite hit and miss.  In my dawn-to-dusk birding adventures in the area, I’d say I probably end up seeing a Gyrfalcon about 1/4th of my trips, so it’s still a nice treat to find one.

Juvenile Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus

The same Gyrfalcon resting on top of a telephone pole for a minute before taking off again. Love seeing Gyrfalcons, but I do wish they’d choose more photogenic perches! Seems like pretty much every perched bird I see is high on a telephone pole.

I took the day off today with the sole purpose of trying to find a Gyrfalcon.  It’s been a while since I’ve gotten good looks at one, and there have been some reported on the grasslands south of Pierre.  I struck out trying to relocate a couple of recently sighted birds, but while on “County Line Road” south of Pierre, I came across a juvenile gray-phase Gyrfalcon.  This by far is the most common age/color that you see around here.  I’ve only seen one Gyrfalcon that wasn’t a gray/intermediate phase (a dark phase from a number of years ago), and have never seen a light/white bird.  Of the Gyrfalcons I’ve seen in South Dakota, probably at least 3/4ths of them have been juvenile birds.

This one was semi-cooperative for photos.  When I first spotted him I thought it was a Rough-legged Hawk, because I saw him hovering near the road from a distance.  Rough-legged Hawks are one of the few big raptors that actually hover, hence my initial ID, but as I got closer I saw it was a Gyr, holding the same relative position in flight thanks to the strong 30-mph winds.  As I got closer, he flew down to a nearby telephone pole, where I was able to watch and photograph him for a minute or so.  He then took off and headed south across the grasslands, ending the brief 2-3 minute encounter.

Any birding day is always a success if you see a Gyrfalcon!  A nice day for other raptors as well, but it was definitely nice to end a relatively long Gyrfalcon drought and get my Gyr fix.

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

A very lost Great Kiskadee in the great white north

Great Kiskadee - Pitangus sulphuratus

A quite lost Great Kiskadee, casually hanging out on a post on a sunny day in “warm” South Dakota.

A couple of weeks ago, the South Dakota Ornithologists Union (SDOU) had their fall meeting in Brookings, South Dakota.  As the meetings were going on, the folks in attendance became aware of an incredibly unusual sighting in the area.  A landowner near Volga had reported seeing at least two Great Kiskadees in her yard, stating that they had been hanging around since at least August.  Great Kiskadees normally are found in Latin America, as they are warm weather birds with a range that just reaches into the United States in far southern Texas. In the U.S., there have been a handful of sightings outside of Texas.  Of these, there have been several in Oklahoma, a handful in Louisiana, and one or two in Kansas and New Mexico.  The one found in central Kansas was incredibly unusual in its own right, occurring hundreds of miles away from the next closest sighting.  Hence, a Great Kiskadee?  In South Dakota?  In November?  The SDOU attendees were understandably skeptical.  The skepticism vanished when a conclusive photo was provided, and most people attending the meeting got a very exciting treat, making the short trip to the farmstead where the bird (birds?) was seen.

I was out of town on travel at the time.  When I got back, I told myself that maybe if the bird were still hanging around, I’d head north to try and see it (and photograph it).  A couple of weeks passed, and I managed to make excuses not to go.  In other words, I was being lazy!! Honestly, I rarely have any luck chasing single birds like this.  However, today, serendipity struck.  I was walking in the hall at work this morning, and passed my friend Pat, who is also a birder.  He had seen the Great Kiskadee, and we started talking about it.  He noted they were still seeing the bird relatively recently, and it got my mind wandering, in the way that a mind sometimes WILL wander on a Wednesday at work.  After several days of gloom and snow, the sun was finally out.  What was better, sitting in a windowless office, or going out searching for a mega-rarity?

In no time I grabbed my coat, headed home to grab my camera equipment, and then started north towards the area where the bird(s) was being seen.  There are two farmsteads adjacent to each other, and the Great Kiskadees had been seen at both.  Having been told the south farmstead had an extensive feeder setup, that’s where I headed.  With a big snowstorm ending just the day before, I thought surely the bird would be hanging out by the feeders.  I called the landowner and asked permission, and ended up walking around her land for an hour, and hanging around her feeders for another hour.  No luck…no bird.

Great Kiskadee - Pitangus sulphuratus

Snow. That’s a Great Kiskadee, sitting in a pine tree covered with snow. I would bet there haven’t ever been too many similar photos taken.

Par for the course, when I chase a lone bird!  I got back in my car, sent a quick note to the South Dakota “listserver”, informing birders that I had tried, unsuccessfully, to re-locate the Kiskadee.  Perhaps the snowstorm was too much for a tropical bird, I thought.

That’s when our digital, instant-communication world saved the day.  “KC” replied almost immediately to my email to the listserver, telling me that he had seen the bird just this morning.  I spent nearly all my time at the southern farmstead, but he said the bird was now hanging out almost exclusively at the northern farmstead.  I was only 5 miles away when I noticed his message, so I turned around and headed back, this time going to the “right” farmstead.

It only took 2 minutes of looking before I saw the bird.  The landowners had set up special feeders just to try and help the wayward Kiskadee, with suet and mealworms provided for it.  Within 2 minutes of walking around, a lone Great Kiskadee came flying into the feeders, along with some of his new buddies, 3 Blue Jays.  What a gorgeous bird!  A bright splash of yellow isn’t exactly a common sight for a birder in South Dakota when there’s a foot of snow on the ground!  The recent snow doesn’t seem to have hurt the Kiskadee.  He seemed fat, happy, and was feeding very well.  I ended up watching and photographing him for about 45 minutes as he flew back-and-forth between the feeders and the surrounding trees.  He wasn’t shy, either, ALWAYS a very welcome development for a bird photographer.

When I awoke today I was expecting the same old grind at work!  Thanks to bumping into Pat in the hall, and thanks to my own TRUE talent at finding excuses to get away from work, a normal work day turned into a truly once-in-a-lifetime birding day!  A Great Kiskadee in the snow and cold of South Dakota in December!

Great Kiskadee - Pitangus sulphuratus

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