Articles for the Month of January 2016

It’s a bird-eat-bird world

Merlin (Falco columbarius) with prey (Horned Lark)

A Merlin munching on a freshly caught Horned Lark

It’s Saturday.  I went birding on Monday.  But as is typical, I didn’t even download or start to look at the photos until this morning.  Heck, this is actually FAST for me! I have folders upon folders of bird photos that await.  It’s a lot more fun to take photos than to process them and get them up on a website.  What I’ll often do is just process a few of the best ones and leave the rest for a “later” time period that often seems to never come!  Some day I’ll start my own personal digital birding adventure, where I’ll revisit all my old photos and rediscover ones I never knew I had.

But in the meantime, here’s a few from Monday.  As I like to do a couple of times I winter, I got up early Monday and made the long drive to the central part of the state.  It was a LOVELY day for birding, at a slightly crisp -17 degrees when I arrived at dawn.  One of my favorite birding locations and times in South Dakota is the area around Presho in the dead of winter.  There are many pheasant hunting operations in the region, and a fair amount of land managed for pheasants and grouse.  With literally hundreds of pheasants and grouse sometimes milling about, winter raptors are attracted to the area.  The density and diversity is usually spectacular.  It’s a guarantee you’ll find Golden Eagles, Bald Eagles, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks and Rough-legged Hawks, you’ll usually find Ferruginous Hawks and Prairie Falcons, and you’ll often find some of the more “fun” species, including Gyrfalcon, Merlin, Snowy Owl, or Short-eared Owl.

Northern Harrier - Circus cyaneus

A female Northern Harrier, feeding on the scant remains of a pheasant

By “Presho standards”, Monday wasn’t the greatest, as I “only” came across 75 or so raptors over the course of 7 hours.  No rarities, but I did get some very nice looks at nature in action.  Merlins are a species I don’t see very often, at least not in my part of eastern South Dakota.  But for some reason I often have luck finding them around Presho in the winter. It’s not just all the pheasants and grouse that attract raptors, ti’s also Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and other small birds that often frequent the area.  The photo here is a Merlin munching on a freshly caught Horned Lark (they seem to be a favorite prey species).

The second photo is a female Northern Harrier. I came across her feeding on the remains of a pheasant carcass on the side of the road.  I’m not sure if Harriers take down full-grown pheasants or not…it seems like they’d be a handful.  But I have seen Harriers on carrion, so perhaps this one was feeding on the remains of a bird caught or killed by something else.  It was nice to get relatively close looks at her though, as Harriers around here are typically quite skittish.  For as many as I’ve seen, I don’t have all that great of photos of them.

It’s a rough world out there!  Eat or be eaten!

Mesmerizing Migration Map

Cornell - Migration Map

The mesmerizing migration map, from Cornell University. Each dot represents the typical migration movement and timing for an individual species.

I’m not nearly clever enough for such use of alliteration in a post title…this is straight from the source!  But it’s such a great name and title for the material, I had to use it.  Using eBird data that provides millions of bird sightings submitted by everyday citizens, Cornell University put together animated maps that depict bird migrations in the Western Hemisphere (click to see the animated maps).  118 species are represented, showing typical migration routes over the course of a year.

It’s fascinating to view.  The animation starts at the start of a year, and there’s not much movement at first, as birds are settled into their winter range.  A few oddballs start migrating quite early, but by March there’s widespread movement which crescendos in April and May before most birds are in their summer ranges.  Some species already start moving back south during the month of June, and by September there’s a mass south-bound flux of birds.

The long established monitoring programs of the Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count are great, providing relatively consistent observations of birds for well established routes and locations over several decades. This animated map, however, helps to show the power of eBird.  As someone who has used eBird both as a birder for the recording of my sightings, and as a scientist for the use of the data in bird species distribution modeling, I’m well aware of some of the difficulties with the data.  Given that anyone can enter sightings, there’s no systematic sampling design, there’s definite bias in sightings towards both heavily populated areas and for more “charismatic” species, and there are issues with reliability of sightings with bird ID skills ranging from novice to expert.  But given that eBird data aren’t limited to a specific season or geography, they offer an opportunity that BBS and CBC cannot…the ability to track bird movement, and also track how those movements change in the face of climate change or other stress factors.

Very cool map…it’s very interesting to try and follow one dot over the course of the year!  Only thing I wish it had were some kind of label (or clickable dots) so you knew what species each dot represents.

Hurricane Alex, and what it all means for birds.

Photo of Western Meadowlark - Sturnella neglecta

I clearly remember the day I took this photo of a Western Meadowlark. It was in the winter of 2003, and it was damned cold at the time (10 below). It was a lone bird, huddling in a hay bale, and it was about the only Western Meadowlark I saw on that day. Just a dozen years later, during a day of birding the same location, I came across many hundreds of Western Meadowlarks.

It’s 17 below (F) this morning in the great white hell we call South of course global warming is on my mind!  We’ve got our own Hurricane Alex, in the form of a boy that can be a handful at times.  In the meantime, out in the Atlantic, a real Hurricane Alex formed this past week.  A hurricane?  Forming in January?  Since records were kept there have only been 4 hurricanes that have ever existed in the Atlantic in January, with only 2 that actually formed during that month.

It’s a year with a very strong El Nino, so some weather strangeness is to be expected, but Hurricane Alex certainly caught folks by surprise. There’s been plenty of other climate and weather abnormalities in the last several months.  On the East Coast, Christmas Eve brought temperatures up into the 70s, with Washington D.C. and New York City both hitting 71 for a high, while Norfolk, Virginia saw a downright balmy 82.  Overall, December was the warmest and wettest on record for the U.S.  The December strangeness wasn’t isolated to the U.S.  In Great Britain, records were shattered for precipitation for the month, while temperatures were nearly 7 degrees (F) above normal.  Daffodils were blooming Great Britain in December, a phenomenon that was also occurring across the U.S. East Coast.

Globally, 2015 provided a number of remarkable weather extremes.  Right before the new year, the temperature at the North Pole rose above freezing. Late December…North Pole…a place that hadn’t even seen the SUN for months…yet the temperature rose above freezing in an unprecedented event.  The year started with record breaking snows in the eastern U.S.  Record heat killed thousands in India and Pakistan.  Two tropical cyclones hit Yemen within one week..Yemen had never before been hit by a tropical cyclone of the magnitude of the first to hit. Seabirds in Alaska and elsewhere in the Pacific were dying in massive numbers due to hunger, most likely caused by El Nino and the climate weirdness.  Heat waves have been baking Australia recently after a year punctuated with both droughts and floods.

In any given year, there will always be weather extremes.  There will always be droughts, floods, severe storms, and heat waves.  However, weather and climate models are unequivocal in predicting a strong increase in weather extremes due to climate change.  Droughts will become longer and more severe.  Heavy precipitation events will increase, along with subsequent flooding.  Storm intensity will increase.  The models that predict these changes are now clearly being reinforced by actual empirical evidence.

Over the coarse of a human lifetime, simple observation can also reinforce the impacts of climate change, including from the aspect of being a birder.  There are already well known range expansions and contractions of species that are almost certainly tied to climate change in part, such as Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, and Red-bellied Woodpecker all shift in range to the north in recent decades.  Just from an observational standpoint, one trend I notice are more and more Western Meadowlarks staying in South Dakota to overwinter.  When I started birding over 15 years ago (just a heartbeat in terms of the climate change timeline), I would occasionally run across a single Western Meadowlark or perhaps a handful as I birded the grasslands in the central part of the state in winter.  It seems like every winter, that number rises.  On a recent birding trip to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and areas just to the south, I came across hundreds of Western Meadowlarks over the course of the day.

Climate change?  It’s tough to attribute one short-duration phenomenon to climate change.  As I said, up until this point, it had been a relatively mild winter in terms of temperature, so perhaps you’d expect more Western Meadowlarks to hang around.  But it hasn’t just been a one-year event, it’s been a longer term, visible trend that I’ve noticed just through casual observation.

As a scientist, I admit I do find it fascinating to live through this particular period in time.  It’s amazing to watch these kinds of changes, and realize the incredible impact human beings have on the planet.  Fascinating…amazing…and also damned terrifying and outright depressing at times as well, know that what you’re observing is completely unnatural.


New and improved “Hotspot” pages for South Dakota

Screen Capture - LaCreek National Wildlife Refuge - Hotspot Page

Here’s a screen capture of part of the new “hostpot” page for LaCreek National Wildlife Refuge. The Google Map is clickable, allowing a user to see information and ground photos for actual locations within LaCreek. At the bottom of the hotspot page (not shown here) are also actual bird photos taken from the hotspot. All hotspot pages have been updated, and new pages are coming!

While I am continually adding new bird photos to my website, I admit I do often neglect to update the other pages on my website.  One set of pages that has long cried for updates are the “Hotspot” pages.  These are pages devoted to describing some of my favorite birding locations within South Dakota.  The pages I had contained a lot of information, but for a guy whose JOB it is to spatially map things, I was pretty far behind the technology curve on my hotspots pages.  The location maps and other maps were static screen grabs from maps I’d constructed in photoshop.

Time for an upgrade!  What I want to do with my hotspot pages is not only highlight a location on a map, but allow a viewer to “drill in” to actually look at ground photos for specific locations in and around a hotspot.  Using Google Map tools directly on the hotspot pages certainly allows for a much more dynamic and interactive environment than my old hotspot pages.  I’ve updated all my existing hotspot pages to include interactive Google Map tools. The main hotspot page provides an overview map of South Dakota, with little owl icons marking some of my favorite birding locations.  Clicking on an icon will bring you to a page devoted to birding information for that hotspot.

On each individual hotspot page is another interactive Google Map, showing specific areas of interest in and around the hotspot.  For example, for the hotspot pages for the Big Sioux Recreation Area, the map provides 8 more little owl icons, each of which depicts an actual ground photo from that spot.  The new pages thus allow a user to not only find the location of some of my favorite birding locations, but also allows a user to actually see ground photos of the area.  Each individual hotspot page also highlights a number of bird photos that were actually taken at that hotspot.

I only had 9 “hotspot” locations listed in my old pages, and I want to start adding many more of my favorite birding locations.  One new one that I’ve just added is a hotspot page for LaCreek National Wildlife Refuge.  It’s a long drive from my hometown of Brandon (about 300 miles!), so I don’t get there all that often, but I do just love birding at LaCreek.  Nothing beats curing the winter blues than going to LaCreek and seeing a number of massive Trumpeter Swans.

Hopefully this is just the start!  I plan on doing more augmenting of the hotspot pages in the coming days and weeks, with a specific focus in the short term of now adding additional hotspot locations.  I hope you find them useful!

End of the Kiskadee

Great Kiskadee - Pitangus sulphuratus

Great Kiskadee sitting on a roosting box the landowners built.  Alas, even such heroic efforts weren’t enough to save this tropical bird from a South Dakota winter.

Not exactly surprising, given its normal habitat, but the Great Kiskadee that was found hanging around a farmstead near Volga, South Dakota since at least August, was found dead yesterday.  The landowners first noticed one, and maybe up to three, in August.  They weren’t aware of how rare a find it was, so it wasn’t until November that the birding community found out.  One Great Kiskadee was once found in central Kansas.  A few have been found in Oklahoma.  But South Dakota? In winter?

The bird hung on into the new year, which is by itself a minor miracle for a bird of the tropics.  We’ve had a very snowy winter so far, but the Kiskadee survived thanks to the heroic efforts of the landowners who fed it mealworms, minnows, catfood, suet, and anything else it would eat.  In the end though…it’s damned hard to expect a tropical bird to survive a South Dakota winter.  It hasn’t been THAT cold, but no matter whether the bird had food to eat, there are basic physiological tolerances that were no doubt exceeded.

Bummer…I do feel bad for the family who tried to keep it alive.  They were very proud of “their” bird and did a nice job keeping it alive as long as they did.  People from all across the region got the chance to see this incredibly rare tropical visitor, right in the heart of a northern Plains winter.

Fish in a barrel…

Bald Eagle -  Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A mature Bald Eagle hanging on a tree branch overlooking the Missouri River, below Gavin’s Point Dam on the Nebraska/South Dakota border

I usually spend part of New Year’s Day birding.  I admit one of the reasons?  Often my Nebraska Cornhuskers are playing in a bowl game that day.  In recent years (decades?) they have been too stressful to watch, particularly in a bowl game.  Hence, going birding gives me a reason to avoid seeing/hearing about the game. (Yeah, I know, that’s messed up..).

I missed New Year’s Day this year, going a day late!  I don’t go down to Gavin’s Point Dam on the Nebraska/South Dakota border all that often, perhaps once a year.  But it is a good place to bird in the fall and early winter.  The most obvious attraction are Bald Eagles.  Taking photos of Bald Eagles at Gavin’s Point Dam in winter truly is like shooting fish in a barrel at times.  Not only are there good numbers around, but they’re often perched in a strip of trees that’s squeezed in between the Missouri River and the road, on the Nebraska side.  With the steep bluff and cottonwoods lining the steep shoreline, the eagles like to hang out on branches that overlook the water, giving them an opportunity to swoop out and capture a fish (or sometimes unfortunate waterfowl) found right below the dam.

I have a lot of Bald Eagle photos,as they truly are a pretty easy to find species in South Dakota, but I would guess that about half of my photos are from the Gavin’s Point Dam area.  I didn’t stay long yesterday, only hanging around the dam area for about an hour or so, but as always, I was able to get a few Bald Eagle photos.  There were about a dozen hanging around, along with a few very big groups of ducks in open spots on Lake Yankton below the dam.  A nice first birding trip for 2016!

Wrapping up Birding 2015

Green-throated Carib - Eulampis holosericeus

A Green-throated Carib, one of 24 new “lifers” for 2015. This was in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

I told myself 2015 would be a “big year” kind of year for birding.  I started well!  I had intended to see how many species I could see within South Dakota during the year.  I started early, getting all the winter birds you could reasonably expect around here, then really hit it hard in spring.  During spring migration I did a lot of birding, and had reached 200 species in the state by mid-May.

And I ended with 221 species.  Part of it is the obvious…that it gets harder and harder to find new species as the year goes on. Part of it was health.  Starting in June, I started having all kinds of eye issues, and birding just wasn’t at the top of my priority list.  221 within South Dakota is still a nice year though.  Throw in a trip to Arizona in November for work, where I took a couple of personal days to bird, plus a week in the Virgin Islands on vacation, and my yearly list was closer to 300.  A mere 5800 or so fewer than Noah Strycker saw on his year-long quest to set a new world-wide birding record.

For the year in South Dakota, I only saw a handful of new species.  I’m not even sure how many I have lifetime in the state. Overall there have been about 435 species seen in the state.  For 2015, new ones included the incredibly strange Great Kiskadee that was found in November near Brookings, Violet-green Swallow (I don’t get to the western part of the state much), Gray Jay (see previous comment about traveling west), and a Black-necked Stilt.  Only the Kiskadee was a life bird, as I’d seen the others before out of state.

Photo of Lawrence's Goldfinch

Lawrence’s Goldfinch, another 2015 lifer.  They can be tough to find, even in range.  Sometimes they move into Arizona in winter, and I was lucky in finding several in Tucson in November.

Thanks to my birding in Arizona and the Virgin Islands, I did have several new lifers for 2015 other than the Kiskadee.  24 in total, with the new ones for 2015 including:

  • Elegant Trogon (Florida Canyon south of Tucson – HUGE highlight for me, particularly finding one in November when they’re tough to find)
  • Scaled Quail (SE of Tucson)
  • Hammond’s Flycatcher (Florida Canyon south of Tucson)
  • Plumbeous Vireo (Florida Canyon south of Tucson)
  • Lawrence’s Goldfinch (Within Tucson itself, a really nice one to pick up given how hard they can be to find)
  • Cassin’s Sparrow (SE of Tucson)
  • White-tailed Kite (SE of Tucson)
  • Rufous-winged Sparrow (SE of Tucson)
  • Hepatic Tanager (Madera Canyon south of Tucson)
  • Black-whiskered Vireo (Virgin Islands)
  • Caribbean Elaenia (Virgin Islands)
  • Magnificent Frigatebird (Virgin Islands)
  • Scaly-naped Pigeon (Virgin Islands)
  • Mangrove Cuckoo (Virgin Islands)
  • Zenaida Dove (Virgin Islands)
  • Green-throated Carib (Virgin Islands)
  • Lesser Antillean Bullfinch (Virgin Islands)
  • Antillean Crested Hummingbird (Virgin Islands)
  • Gray Kingbird (Virgin Islands)
  • Pearly Eyed Thrasher (Virgin Islands)
  • Bananaquit (Virgin Islands)
  • Black-faced Grassquit (Virgin Islands)
  • Antillean Nighthawk (Virgin Islands)
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