Articles for the Month of May 2020

Benefits of living your life by science

We live in interesting times. “Interesting” often being downright disheartening, as we have a society in the US that seems to be embracing the future depicted in the movie Idiocracy. The same US that used to lead the world in innovation and science now has about 40% of the population who shows outright disdain, if not hatred, of “experts”, including science. I could go on…and on…and on…and on…on this topic. But I’ll turn that conversation to how science has benefits in so many aspects of life.

That includes birding! As someone who has been a birder and a bird photographer for 20+ years now, I realize that technical photography skills are a very small part of successful bird photography. The big challenge is getting close enough to a bird! That means knowing when, and where birds will be, and how that species normally behaves. Science can help with all three of these!

I had an absolutely, incredible, spectacular day birding today. It was a drippy, gloomy, dreary day, a day where normally I may not have even left the house. However…SCIENCE told me to leave the house!! Two days ago…Cornell University’s “Birdcast” predicted that the night of May 15th/16th would be a heavy migration night with birds arriving in eastern South Dakota in high numbers. I’ve learned to really trust the Birdcast predictions, particularly after a few events last year where the forecast immediately preceded some absolutely spectacular birding. So what did the forecast predict?

Cornell BirdCast - Migration Forecast for May 15-16.
Cornell BirdCast – Migration Forecast for May 15-16 (Issued 2 days in advance)

I headed out this morning before dawn, arriving at Newton Hills State Park in search of warblers and other migrating birds. Unfortunately, the rain arrived shortly after I did! It was extremely frustrating, as I could SEE many birds moving about in the forest canopy, but with the early hour, the clouds, and rain…it was difficult to see them well enough to identify them. I did bird for an hour or so, and did have a good time, identifying over 50 species. Normally a great time, but with the slight rain continuing and making photography difficult, I started to head home.

As I drove back home, the rain started to lighten, and eventually stopped. As I got within a couple of blocks from my house, I thought…SCIENCE! By god, that BirdCast hadn’t let me down in the past! I thought I’d try one more place while the rain held off, and ended up at Beaver Creek Nature Area, just 3-4 miles from our home. It’s a place where I’ve had decent luck before, but it’s never been as “hot” as Newton Hills.

That changed this morning! THANK YOU science, and thank you BirdCast! There’s one trail I normally take at Beaver Creek, which takes perhaps half an hour at most. Instead, I ended up walking around for nearly 2 1/2 hours. Almost one hour of that was sitting in one spot! There’s a ridge with a steep bank, where you can walk along canopy or mid-story of the trees growing in the ravine below. It’s been a place where I’ve had good luck before, but nothing like this! As I watched, wave after wave of birds were moving through the forest canopy, including…Warblers! The highlight of spring migration!

In 20 years of birding, I had yet to get a good photo of a Blackburnian Warbler. That ended today! I saw two here, both of whom were uncharacteristically cooperative for the camera. In total, in that 2+ hours, I saw 16 different Warbler species! A terrific day, and one that would have turned out very differently if I’d just looked out the window in the morning, had seen the rain and gloom, and stayed home.

Blackburnian Warbler - Setophaga fusca
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Blackburnian Warbler - Setophaga fusca
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Blackburnian Warbler May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Blackburnian Warbler - Setophaga fusca
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Blackburnian Warbler May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
American Redstart
Setophaga ruticilla
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
American Redstart May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Least Flycatcher 
Empidonax minimus
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Least Flycatcher May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Swainson's Thrush
Catharus ustulatus
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Swainson’s Thrush May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota

Swainson’s Thrush vs. Gray-cheeked Thrush

One migrant that I’m sure to see every spring are Swainson’s Thrush, usually in pretty good numbers. They typically start to show up in late April, with about a 3-4 week period where you might run into them. It’s pretty predictable where they can be found. They are usually seen foraging in the grass on the edge of the forest or some other wooded area. They’re always a little “on edge”, sticking close to that forest cover so they can dash into it at any sign of danger. Because of their behavior, they can be hard to photograph sometimes, but on the other hand, I’ve had a lot of chances over the years because they’re pretty common.

There are a few other thrush species they could potentially be confused with. Hermit Thrush is the first of the thrush species to migrate in the spring, but there still can be a few around by the time Swainson’s Thrush arrive. However, I’ve never had too much trouble differentiating Hermit Thrush from Swainson’s Thrush, as they have a rich, reddish-brown rump that easily makes it stand out (if seen well). Veery are another thrush species that migrates through the state (with some breeding in the Black Hills). They’re pretty uncommon, but even if they are seen here, their color is a much richer, warm, reddish brown, and they have less spotting on the undersides than a Swainson’s Thrush. I’ve never had difficulty identifying them either.

But there is one thrush species that can be difficult to differentiate from Swainson’s Thrush…the Gray-cheeked Thrush. One of the difficulties in differentiating the two species lies in their habits! Both have that tendency to hang out at the forest edge, in the shadow of the trees. Because they’re often seen in poor lighting conditions, it’s often difficult in field conditions to differentiate the two.

Gray-cheeked Thrush have also been something of a nemesis bird for me, from a photographic standpoint! I would estimate that at least 90% of the Swainson’s/Gray-cheeked Thrushes I’ve seen over the years have been Swainson’s (if not a higher percentage). Despite that, I HAVE seen and identified Gray-cheeked over the years, but until today I really didn’t have any good photos (or even any recognizable photos!). That problem was taken care of today at Newton Hills State Park, when I got photos of BOTH species in relatively good lighting.

The image below depicts Gray-cheeked and Swainson’s Thrushes. Sure, it’s easy when they’re side by side, in good light! This is the exception rather than the rule, however. If you do have the opportunity to see them in good light, Gray-cheeked Thrushes are 1) Grayer in overall plumage, with few buffy or warm tones, 2) lack of any ring around the eye, and 3) a gray cheek (surprise!) with no warm tones on the face. Swainson’s Thrushes often appear “buffier” and more rich in color overall (although still nowhere close to as rich as a Veery), and have characteristic buffy tones on the face. They also have an obvious eye ring.

It’s all about getting a good look! If you’re having trouble identifying these species, and you can’t see the bird’s eye ring (or lack thereof), or if the lighting is poor and you can’t judge how “buffy” the face is…good luck! You’re on your own! But if you do get a chance to see one of these two species in good light, I hope the photos below and identification points above are of some help.

Gray-cheeked vs. Swainson's Thrush
Comparison of Gray-cheeked Thrush (left) and Swainson’s Thrush (right). One look at the head in this light is enough to distinguish the two species, as Gray-cheeked Thrush have a gray, dull cheek, a lack of warm tones around the head and face, and a lack of an eye ring. Swainson’s Thrush have the characteristic buffy tone on the face, and an obvious eye ring. The plumage overall has a warmer, richer appearance on the Swainson’s Thrush as well.
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