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Eagle Convention at Splitrock Creek

After 17 or so years of using one lens for bird photography (a Canon 400mm 5.6L), I ordered a new lens that arrived Monday…the Canon 100-400mm 4.5/5.6L IS II that I’ve mentioned previously.  The timing was fortuitous, as late this week we’ve had something rather unprecedented happen for the area around our little town. We’ve had severe flooding, flooding which is actually supposed to get worse early next week as all the snow pack north of us melts. Splitrock Creek runs through our little town of Brandon, and in the wake of the flooding it has left massive ice chunks all along banks and roads near the river. But it also left scads of dead Asian Carp and other fish.

Seemingly overnight, the area around our town has been inundated with Bald Eagles. We actually have an active Bald Eagle nest less than a mile from our house, a nest that’s been used continuously for about the last 6-7 years.  It’s not rare to see one or sometimes even two Bald Eagles while out and about near our town. Today however, I was on a bridge over Splitrock Creek, and from that one spot I counted 29 Bald Eagles. In…one…spot.  There have been eagles in varying concentrations all along a 10-mile stretch of Splitrock Creek that I’ve checked out this week.

When I started birding 20 years ago, I still remember seeing my first Bald Eagle along the Big Sioux River near Canton. I remember the excitement of seeing such a majestic bird. It’s amazing how rapidly their numbers have increased in the last few decades, as I can now be in any part of South Dakota, in any season, and it’s not a surprise to see one or more Bald Eagles. Even when I visit the grasslands in the central part of the state, an area that is far from any significant river or lake, I find Bald Eagles, sometimes in big numbers. A true success story for American conservation!  But even on a night like tonight where eagles are seemingly everywhere, it’s still a thrill to see and photograph these birds.  Some photos from today:

Young Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Young (3rd year?) Bald Eagle, flying over Splitrock Creek near Corson, South Dakota. However, it’s not just young birds that are in our area right now. In fact, a majority of the Bald Eagles I’ve seen in the last few days have been fully mature birds.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A mature Bald Eagle flying over the trees near Brandon. There were plenty of mature Bald Eagles around, but they were seemingly shyer than the young birds.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Another young Bald Eagle sitting on a tree stump northeast of Corson. While most birds are along Splitrock Creek, there are so many birds around that they seem to have spilled out onto the surrounding farmland as well.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A mature Bald Eagle hanging out on a chunk of ice left behind by the flooding at Splitrock Creek north of Brandon. This is perhaps the most common “perch” for these guys right now, as most of them that I’ve seen have been among the ice flows, where the dead fish are concentrated.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A long-distance shot, but it gives you an idea of the concentration of the eagles. There are 10 in this one shot, sitting on stranded ice blocks on a sandbar in the receding Splitrock Creek. This is the location where I saw 29 birds at once today.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

An even longer-distance shot, showing a common sight in the trees near Splitrock Creek this week. There are 8 birds in this one tree, but it’s this group of trees where a local farmer told me there were 75 roosting overnight earlier this week.

South Dakota Winter – Best…photo…day…ever!!

Since I’m still not allowed to go back to work, I spent yet another day birding in the central part of the state. It was a day with lower overall numbers of raptors. I saw far fewer Rough-legged Hawks than normal. I didn’t see any Gyrfalcons, Snowy Owls, Short-eared Owls…some of the “goodies” you often find.  But birding and photography is funny! I’ve had awesome birding days where I got very few photos. Today was the opposite…not huge numbers of birds, but some really wonderful photo opportunities.  Here’s some pics from the day with a little info for each:

Prairie Falcon - Falco mexicanus

While it wasn’t a banner day for many of the “usuals”, I saw more Prairie Falcons (7) than I remember seeing in one day. “Seeing” and “photographing” are two very different things, however. Prairie Falcons are about THE shyest, most skittery raptor I know of. Today however I got a real treat. While birding in Jones County, I saw a falcon on a telephone pole. As I always do, I first stopped a long distance off, grabbed the binoculars, and tried to identify it. Definite Prairie Falcon. I then started to approach, and as ALWAYS happens with Prairie Falcons…it flew off LONG before I got into camera range.  But then something funny happened…it turned around. Still not expecting much, I got out of the pickup and grabbed my camera. But he came closer…and closer…and closer, and I soon realized he was going to fly RIGHT over my head! I couldn’t have asked for a better setup…bird approaching on a clear day, sun in the perfect position to get nice lighting on him, and he was CLOSE…closer than I think I’ve ever been to a Prairie Falcon. He passed right overhead, and then proceeded to…well…check out the next photo.

Prairie Falcon and Lapland Longspurs

As the Prairie Falcon flew towards me and over the field behind me, there was an eruption of Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks, and quite a few Snow Buntings. THAT got the Prairie Falcon’s attention. Instead of continuing to fly past and away from me, he again turned, and started to interact with the mixed flock of birds. At points it was almost like he was herding them! He never came as close as he did for the original overpass, but he offered some more really nice photo opportunities, and with several shots I captured some of his potential prey in the background. Despite scaring the flock of little birds, I never did see him actually make a strong move towards one. After a little while he seemed to get bored, and went back to a nearby telephone pole.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

I remember when I first started birding, and came across my first bald eagle. It was the winter of 1999/2000, and I thought it was the most magical experience I’d ever had! In the 20 years since then, Bald Eagles have become, well…downright COMMON! When I bird the central part of the state in winter, I always run across them. There are several nest locations in the area, and I always KNOW there will be Bald Eagles in a few select spots. One such spot is near Presho, and when I drove past it, sure enough…there were 4 Bald Eagles in a small grove of trees, 3 adults and one sub-adult. Given how often I’ve seen eagles there, I’m sure they’re the same ones, or the same family. As such, perhaps today they gave me a pass and stuck around and let me photograph them! Three of the birds were hidden within the branches or were towards the back of the grove, but one bold individual adult just stared at me from his perch, wondering what I was up to. I watched him for quite some time, before he did what many raptors do right before they’re about to take flight…he pooped and positioned himself to fly off. Those can be truly wonderful moments for photography, with some truly angelic poses. This is now probably one of my favorite Bald Eagle photos that I’ve taken (and I will add it to the hundreds of other Bald Eagle photos I already have!).

Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis

Not only did I have a banner day for Prairie Falcons, but I also saw more Ferruginous Hawks than I normally do…5. 4 of them were in Jones County, and the reason was obvious…Prairie Dogs. Without exception, all 5 Ferruginous Hawks on the day were in and around prairie dog towns. I do have a few photos of other color morphs, but today all were the same light color morph (the most common one). Some, like this bird, are SO snowy white on their undersides with barely a hint of marking, that I sometimes mistake them for Snowy Owls as I approach from a distance! One of my favorite bird species, hands down, and there’s a bonus with Ferruginous Hawks…they are MUCH more cooperative for bird photographers than nearly any other raptor species on the grasslands!

Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis

My longest birding lens, and the lens with which I’ve shot at least 95% of my photos with over the last 15 years, is a Canon 400mm 5.6L. Yes, it’s now 15 years old. But it has always been one SHARP lens, with some incredible detail when you get a bird filling the frame of a photo. The downside…most birders use a 500mm or 600mm, WITH a tele-extender. In short…they have a LOT more “reach” than I have! Because of that I’ve 1) learned how to overcome using a somewhat shorter lens, and 2) learned to accept I’m going to miss some shots where more length is required. However, that latter point is all bad. While I like photos with the birds filling the frame, I also like photos showing the bird interacting with its environment. Here, I came across another Ferruginous Hawk on a prairie dog town. I was nowhere near close enough to get a frame-filling photo, so instead worked on capturing his behavior as he “worked” the prairie dog town, alternating between sitting on the ground or a fence post, and flying through the prairie dog town looking for prey. I never did see him capture anything but it was fun to watch the behavior and try to catch it in a photo.

Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos

Speaking of “environment” photos…here’s a pair of Golden Eagles at the “usual” hangout. By “usual” I should say nearly ALWAYS. This was taken south of Presho, in one of my favorite birding locations. This fallen down structure nearly always…ALWAYS…has a golden eagle sitting on it! Well, during winter and in the morning, that is. When I make trips to this area, I usually try to make it to the Presho area by dawn, and this is one of the first areas I look for raptors. And I swear, 95% of the time when I drive past this fallen-down structure, there’s a golden eagle sitting on it. Today there were two eagles! This kind of winter-range site fidelity is pretty cool, and it’s not just these Golden Eagles. About 5 miles northwest of here, west of Presho, is a farmstead where I ALWAYS find a Northern Shrike in winter. ALWAYS. Has to be the same one, right? Again, not a frame filler of a photo, but I love showing these birds at their favorite hangout.

Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus

Ok, this one is cheating a bit. This one isn’t from Wednesday, January 9th, it’s from Friday, January 4th. Rough-legged Hawks aren’t as numerous this winter as they can be many winters, but there still are always at least a few hanging around. Here’s one taking flight in the early morning sunlight.

 

Checking in on the neighbors – Nesting Bald Eagles

Nesting Bald Eagles - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A photo from a couple of days ago, with one of the adults sitting on the nest. They’ve been doing so for over a month now, and with the leaves not yet out on the cottonwood tree, it’s a wonderful time to observe them from afar. Click for a larger view.

As far as neighbors go, you could do worse than a pair of nesting Bald Eagles. These neighbors moved in about 10 years ago, building a massive nest in a huge cottonwood tree along the Big Sioux River, less than a mile from our home (a mere 4,400 feet as the crow flies, according to Google Earth!). The first nest lasted a year or two before a flood event felled the big cottonwood, but thankfully, they responded by simply picking another big cottonwood and rebuilding the nest.

If you haven’t seen a Bald Eagle nest, it’s a damned impressive structure!  They continually build it up, and it’s pretty amazing to see the size of some of the branches they try to pick up and incorporate into the nest. The nest now has to be 10 feet across, and keeps growing each year. And why not? It seems to be working for them, as they appear to have successfully raised a number of broods over the years.

This year, they’ve been sitting on the nest for a least a month, and I’m sure they once again have eggs.  I haven’t seen any lil’ heads poking up yet, so I’m not sure they’ve hatched yet.  Now is the perfect time to observe them, and I often have seen the young in the nest. But alas, in a month the cottonwood will have leafed out and made direct observation much more difficult. Often then the next observations you get of the young themselves is when they fledge from the nest, but they always hang around the same tree for quite some time afterwards.

Very cool neighbors! And neighbors that I’d bet most people don’t know are there. The nest itself is hard to miss, given it’s massive size.  You can easily see it from the north-south highway running through our town of Brandon. But people around here are always surprised to hear that we have such majestic birds nesting right on the edge of town.

Birds in Movies – “Gamenight” gets it right!!

Common Nighthawk Drawing - Chordeiles minor

Drawing of a Common Nighthawk I did a few years ago. They have a VERY distinctive call when flying around at dusk or at night, something that really stands out on the soundtrack when watching a movie! Kudos to “GameNight” for the correct use of a bird call, in the proper time and context!

As a birder, one major pet peeve of mine…Hollywood’s (mis-)use of birds in movies! It seems that Hollywood typically has about 3 different bird vocalizations that are used in any situation a bird is present. One is the ubiquitous Red-tailed Hawk screaming cry, something they use for ANY raptor that happens to even tangentially appear on a screen. Conan O’Brien wasn’t alone when making this erroneous use of a Red-tailed Hawk call, but he WAS called out by birders for his actions!! Bald Eagles are often shown in movies and TV, but the more iconic Red-tailed Hawk call is usually used instead of the real Bald Eagle cry.

The second iconic call that’s heard ALL the time is the haunting call of a Common Loon. Occasionally it’s used in the proper setting and context, but there are SO many times when movie characters are out “in the wild” and the call of a Common Loon is dubbed in the background.  What’s that?  Your favorite character is roaming the forests of the Appalachians? Perhaps it’s a wild setting, but NOT EVERY WILD SETTING SHOULD HAVE LOON CALLS PLAYING IN THE BACKGROUND!! This site notes several “misplaced” birds in TV and movies, including the mis-use of Common Loon calls in Murder She Wrote and Raiders of the Lost Ark (presumably while in Peru!!). The Common Loon has also been mis-used visually…something I noticed IMMEDIATELY when watching Finding Dory. “Becky” is the loopy Common Loon that plays a role in the rescue scenes in Finding Dory, along the California coastline. The presence of a Common Loon along the California coast isn’t out of place IN WINTER.  But “Becky” in Finding Dory is a Common Loon in full summer breeding plumage…NOT LIKELY!!

The third call that’s heard in EVERY jungle scene is the laughing call of a Kookaburra. They’re a bird found in Australia, but listen to any jungle scene supposedly set in Africa, South America, or southeast Asia, and you’ll STILL likely hear the wild calls of a Kookaburra.

Given how often birds are mis-used in movies, I always get a bit of satisfaction when I see a movie that gets it right!  Tonight my wife and I went to see “GameNight“, starring Justin Bateman and Rachel McAdams.  It’s a really funny movie!!  We both greatly enjoyed it.  The only time birds were evident (and surely ONLY to me, among the movie crowd) was a scene late in the movie.  It was a setting in a relatively dense urban setting, on a bridge over a large river and fairly out in the open. Large buildings could be seen in the surrounding area, and it was night. As the scene played out (I won’t spoil the movie for you here!), I could CLEARLY hear Common Nighthawks giving their typical flight calls.

PERFECT!! You often DO hear Common Nighthawks as they fly through the night skies in and around urban areas, picking off flying insects in flight with their massive, gaping maw.  One of the places I’ve heard them the most is at the airport here in Sioux Falls. They typically use rocky areas to breed, and the rocky roofs that many urban buildings use work perfectly for their purposes.

WELL DONE GAMENIGHT!!  You get a rare GOLD STAR for proper use of a bird in a movie!!

South Dakota group kills > 100 eagles, >200 raptors (warning – Disturbing image)

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

What do you see when looking at this photos A gorgeous, powerful wonder of nature? A majestic symbol of our nation? Or…a body part to be sold for about $250? For 15 South Dakotans, it’s the latter, as they are charged with killing and selling the carcasses and body parts of over 100 eagles and 200 raptors in total.

Want to buy the head of a Golden Eagle?  It will run you about $250 on the black market.  How about the wings of our national symbol, the Bald Eagle? It’s a bit pricier, as a pair of wings sell for about $900.  What’s that you say?  Black Market? Dead eagles?  Sounds a bit illegal?  Well, that didn’t stop a South Dakota “chop shop” for trafficking in eagle carcasses and parts, as well as other raptors.

The Department of Justice this week charged 15 South Dakotans in conspiring to acquire (aka, kill), process, and distribute the bodies or body parts of eagles and other raptors. The group was known to have killed at least 100 eagles and over 200 raptors in total.  Members of the group face charges for violating the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and the Lacey Act of 1900.  I guess you can forgive the group because these are “new” regulations that have only been around for a minimum of 77 years.  Who knew you couldn’t go out and shoot eagles and sell their parts on the black market?

What I want to know is…why the hell IS there a black market for eagle parts?  What does one DO with the head of a Golden Eagle? The wings of a Bald Eagle? The people who killed and sold all these raptors are disgusting, but so are the people who buy these “treasures”.

I’ve seen some sick things in South Dakota while out birding.  I’ve seen a landowner near Presho, a landowner who himself was later charged with killing eagles and other raptors, duct-tape dead coyotes in a spread-eagle position on telephone poles around his property. Warning…a photo of one of the coyotes is at the bottom of the post, and is rather disturbing.  I’ve seen hunting dog carcasses neatly lined up with bullet holes in their heads, hunting dogs that were temporarily used by out-of-state hunters during the big fall pheasant hunt, and then were “disposed of” when the hunting trip ended. On SEVERAL occasions I’ve come across hunters shooting things they shouldn’t be shooting, such as a pair of South Dakota rednecks driving around in their pickup and stopping at any wetland they passed to blast away at American Coots and other water birds.  I’ve seen a pair of high school girls pull into a wildlife area, drop off their two little brothers, and casually laugh and chatter while the little bastards were out roaming the land and shooting every songbird they could see.  I’ve seen “hunters” shoot and wound a Canada Goose, and then run around chasing the grounded bird and kicking and punching it to death.  I’ve SEEN dead raptors, including a big, gorgeous Golden Eagle, that had clearly been shot. But hey, at least those people were just doing it for “fun”, not for personal profit!!

There’s a reason I’ve gotten more cynical over the 25 years we’ve lived in South Dakota.  I’ve SEEN what some people are like. I’ve SEEN the terrible things people are capable of. When I see stories like this about the killing of hundreds of raptors for profit, I’m sad, I’m sickened, but I certainly can’t say I’m shocked any more.

Coyote - Shot near Presho, South Dakota

I’m sorry for the disturbing image, but, this is one of the most disgusting things I’ve seen while out birding in South Dakota…a land owner near Presho who had shot several coyotes and duct-taped them to telephone poles around his property. This same land owner was charged with shooting raptors, including eagles. Why, you ask? He ran a pheasant and grouse hunting operation, and didn’t want these animals preying on “his” birds. I wish stories like these were isolated cases in South Dakota. They’re not. I’ve been frankly shocked at the attitudes of many people in the state towards our beautiful wildlife.

 

Bye-bye Birdie…Repubs set to gut Endangered Species Act

Greater Sage Grouse -- Centrocercus urophasianus

A Greater Sage Grouse, one of many species that have been considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act in recent years. In the case of this species, political and economic interests won, and Sage Grouse were removed from consideration for protection. The partnership between conservative political groups and economic interests has been very successful in recent years in fighting species listings on the ESA, and with an environmentally hostile Republican Congress now emboldened with a new Republican President, the ESA as a whole has never been under more of a threat.

Mention “Greater Sage Grouse” to a birder, and you’ll get an enthusiastic discussion of a unique, large bird with spectacular breeding displays.  Mention Sage Grouse to a hunter, and you’ll get an enthusiastic discussion of a wily game bird that’s much sought after, particularly as numbers and hunting opportunities decline.  Mention Sage Grouse to energy developers, real estate developers, and conservative politicians in the West, and “Sage Grouse” is a four-letter word. As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) considered the species for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), it sparked a fierce political battle, with Republican politicians in the West teaming with oil, gas, and real estate interests to fight protection.  Despite populations of Greater Sage Grouse declining by over 50% in the last 40 years, and despite the loss of vast areas of former sagebrush habitat, in 2015 the USFWS decided not to list the species under the ESA. It’s disingenuous to discount the impact political pressures had on that decision, as the Greater Sage Grouse still faces significant threats due to habitat loss.  However, one of the contributing factors in the USFWS decision not to list the species was, ironically, widespread conservation efforts that started happening in the West after the species was being considered for listing.  In effect, the threat of listing, and the very existence of the ESA, sparked protections that may have substantially reduced threats to the species. Without the ESA and the threat of legal protection, those conservation efforts likely would never have occurred.

There are other species where equally contentious political battles are currently being waged.  The Lesser Prairie Chicken was listed as “Threatened” under the ESA in 2014, and for good reason. On the global IUCN “red list” of threatened species, the Lesser Prairie chicken is listed as “vulnerable” to extinction, primarily due to the loss of >85% of its original habitat.  Only 20,000-40,000 birds are left, a number that is 98% lower than before settlement of the Great Plains. Despite the obvious scientific reasons for listing the Lesser Prairie Chicken, in 2015, a court order vacated the USFWS decision to protect the species. An energy development group, the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, had teamed with a number of counties in New Mexico to sue the government to prevent listing.  After the court order, the USFWS released a statement that the court order was contrary to the actual scientific, biologic evidence, and that protections were still required to ensure the species was preserved. However, in a very disappointing move to conservationists, the USFWS decided not to appeal the court ruling.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Sights like this have become incredibly common in many parts of South Dakota as Bald Eagle numbers continue to increase. Bald Eagles were one of the original species included on the Endangered Species Act. With their precipitous decline up through the 1970s, the story of the Bald Eagle was in fact one of the driving forces behind the very establishment of the ESA. Despite countless success stories such as this, the ESA is under a threat unlike any other in its 40+ year history, all due to political and economic interests that value short-term monetary gain over environmental and conservation concerns.

Western states and associated economic interests have wielded considerable political power in efforts to derail listing of species under the ESA, The Lesser Prairie Chicken is but one example.  Political battles against the ESA have ramped up substantially since the Northern Spotted Owl listing in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) resulted in the eventual establishment of the Northwest Forest Plan, resulting in major changes in forest management in the region. Those politically opposed to the ESA use the Spotted Owl case as a rallying cry, citing (supposed) massive job losses in the timber industry as a result of the Northwest Forest Plan. However, after the Northwest Forest Plan was enacted, an economic analysis of the first 10 years of the plan found that 40% of communities in the region experienced some economic decline, 37% experienced economic gains, while the rest were relatively stable.  The economic impacts were thus decidedly mixed, not the economic disaster that was foretold, and it was also very difficult to disentangle the economic impact of the Northwest Forest Plan from other economic and political impacts on forestry in the Pacific Northwest.  At the same time the Northwest Forest Plan was beginning to take effect, there was substantial increases in competition for timber products from other timber-producing regions such as Canada, Russia, New Zealand, even the elsewhere in the U.S. (primarily the southeastern U.S.).  Asian economic declines and a sharp decline in demand for PNW timber in Asian markets also strongly contributed to timber industry declines in the region. However, the perception that it was the ESA and the Northern Spotted Owl that “killed the economy” in parts of the PNW is still widely held among those without a complete economic and political understanding of timber industry declines in the area.

It’s been disappointing to see the lack of political will to uphold the ESA and the scientific research that supports decisions to list or not list a species. Given the strong biologic evidence to support listing of the Lesser Prairie Chicken, and given that the 2015 court order to vacate the ESA listing occurred under the watch of a Democratic Obama administration, the decision not to appeal the ruling was viewed as a betrayal by many conservation groups.  However, it’s a sign of the power of political and lobbying groups that have rallied against the ESA in recent years. Even with a Democratic administration that is far more supportive of conservation concerns, the protective power of the ESA has eroded.  Scientific research and the actual biological basis on which ESA listings SHOULD be based have instead been replaced with the influence of politics and economics.

This weekend, we’re shifting to a new administration that will undoubtedly be much more hostile to conservation and environmental concerns than has been the Obama administration. The stocking of the Cabinet and other key government positions with businessmen who are openly hostile to environmental regulation ensures that stories like that of the Lesser Prairie Chicken will become increasingly common, where science and biologic need are dismissed in favor of short-term economic concerns.  The lack of political will to support provisions of the ESA will remove the regulatory and enforcement “bite” of the law, regardless of what happens with the law itself.

Even more distressing, however, are discussions about directly confronting the ESA itself. Rob Bishop (Republican, of course), head of the House Natural Resources Committee, states that he would “love to invalidate” the ESA.  Think about that.  The head of the Congressional Committee tasked with overseeing and preserving the nation’s natural resources, stating that he’d like to remove the very law that has been instrumental in preserving our national symbol, the Bald Eagle, as well as countless other plant and animal species

We’re a country where a wide swath of the electorate knows more about Kim Kardashian’s latest fashion statement than they do about the Affordable Care Act, what’s happening in Syria, the real state of the economy, or other issues that are truly important.  It’s that ignorance, that apathy, that enables the election of a narcissistic, childish, pig of a man to the most powerful position on the planet.  Here’s hoping that someday soon, we all snap out of that apathy, start paying attention, and hold politicians accountable. Otherwise we’re in serious danger of losing all the great strides we’ve made in conservation and environmental protection in the last several decades.

 

 

 

 

Birding central South Dakota

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A Bald Eagle in flight, taken just north of Kennebec, South Dakota. I saw over a dozen of these guys today on the grasslands, and area far from any large water body. I’ve found multiple huge eagle nests in the area in recent years, as they’ve obviously learned that with all the pheasants, grouse, and prairie chickens in the area, it’s a GREAT place to raise (and feed!) a family!

Today was “the” day.  Once or twice a winter, I’ll get up ridiculously early, drive three hours to the central part of the state to ensure I get there right at dawn, and spend the day birding.  What could possess anyone to head to central South Dakota before dawn in the middle of winter?

Winter raptors!  As I’ve said many times, central South Dakota can be truly spectacular for raptors during the winter time.  That surprises a lot of people.  Winters can be pretty damned harsh up here…the blizzard that shut down the western half of the state for the last 2 days is a great example!  In eastern South Dakota in winter, near Brandon where I live, if I drive rural areas I’m not likely to see much for bird life.  The best I can usually hope for is to run across some flocks of Snow Buntings or Lapland Longspurs, but for the most part, all the crop land in the eastern part of the state is pretty dead in the winter.

It’s dramatically different in the central part of the state.  The reason?  Better habitat with cropland interspersed with a lot of open grassland, and more importantly, plentiful prey!  Ring-necked Pheasants, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Greater Prairie Chickens are beyond abundant in many parts of central South Dakota, and attract raptors that can take such big prey, including many eagles (Bald and Golden), Ferruginous Hawks, Gyrfalcons, and more.  The wide-open grasslands of the region also hold many large flocks of Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks, and Snow Buntings in the winter, smaller prey that are favorites for Merlins and Prairie Falcons.  It doesn’t seem to matter the weather, most of the time when I head out there, there are a lot of fat and happy raptors!  That was evident again today, as it was quite obvious (from the full crops on several birds) that the birds were feeding quite well!

There are two general areas I like to bird in the central part of the state: 1) The Presho/Kennebec corridor near I-90, and 2) the Fort Pierre National Grasslands to the north.  As with most of my central South Dakota trips, I timed my drive today to arrive at Presho right around dawn. My day of birding usually begins with the area just south of Presho, an area that’s been truly magical for me for winter raptors in recent years.  The big attraction for raptors are the game birds in the area.  There are a number of hunting operations in the area, many of which release pheasants for hunters.  There have been times in the winter where I’ll 100-200 Ring-necked Pheasants milling about in a field, and there are plenty of Sharp-tailed Grouse in the area as well.  Today got off to a rocky start as it was uncharacteristically slow in the Presho area. Right upon arriving, I came across a Merlin feeding on a small bird (most likely a Horned Lark), and I did find a couple of Bald Eagles south of Presho, but the Rough-legged Hawks that usually are EVERYWHERE in winter were curiously absent.  I spent more time cruising random gravel roads in Presho and Kennebec area this morning and picked up a stray raptor here or there, but it was a depressingly slow start for the day.

Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus

A Rough-legged Hawk just after taking flight from a telephone pole. These guys are always the undisputed “kings” of the prairie in winter, at least in terms of sheer numbers. Today’s count of 32 Rough-legged Hawks was actually a bit of a disappointment. I’ve had some winter days where the count has been more than twice that.

Given the lack of action near Presho and Kennebec, I started to drift northward towards the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.  It soon became abundantly clear that the blizzard from this weekend took a increasingly greater toll the further you moved north from I-90.  Gravel roads are usually somewhat immune to freezing rain, but the amount of freezing rain and slush from this storm was truly amazing, and even gravel roads were smooth, slick mirrors in some spots.  It was even worse for birds in the area, though.  The grasslands were coated with a thick sheet of ice and slush, and many of the game birds in the area appeared to be struggling.  On the Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves, I came across several huge flocks of Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie Chickens, milling about in open grassy areas, searching for clear spots in the ice so they could forage. Despite all the potential prey, however, there were very few raptors on the grasslands themselves. The day wasn’t getting any better.

Something has happened on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands over the last 5 years.  5 years ago, winter raptor birding on the Grasslands was typically spectacular.  Scanning the fence posts and telephone poles, it was often unusual if you could drive a mile WITHOUT encountering a raptor.  Over the last 5 years though, the grasslands have been curiously devoid of raptors.  That again was the case today.  As slow as the birding was around Presho in the morning, it was MUCH slower on the Grasslands further north.  There are definitely fewer pheasants and grouse on the grasslands than in the area around Presho, but  the last 5 years have made me wonder if something has also happened to the small rodent population in the area.  It just seems odd that such consistently great birding for many years could nosedive and stay low for so long.

I admit that by noon, I was a little down.  An entire day devoted to birding the area, and it was pretty slow to that point.  I decided to head back down towards Presho and Kennebec again, and it soon became clear that there were PLENTY of raptors in the area, and that they were much more active than they had been in the morning.  Driving the gravel roads just north of Presho and Kennebec, the usually plentiful Rough-legged Hawks, a species that was almost absent during my morning search, were back in force (where had they been this morning?!?). Red-tailed Hawks were present in larger numbers than normal, and I ran into the occasional Prairie Falcon or Ferruginous Hawk as well.  One thing that surprises people is how common eagles are in the area in winter, both Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles.  There are multiple active Bald Eagle nests in the Presho and Kennebec area, in the middle of the grasslands and far from any large water body, while Golden Eagles that are absent in the area in winter often show up in good numbers for the winter.

Greater Prairie Chicken - Tympanuchus cupido

A Greater Prairie Chicken, searching for food in a prairie covered by a crust of ice and snow. Despite how common these are in parts of Central South Dakota, they’re actually a species I’ve never had any luck photographing! Not the greatest photo here, but at least I finally have something.

I didn’t run across any of the “special” winter raptors today. To me, the list of “special” winter raptors includes Gyrfalcon, Snowy Owl, and Short-eared Owl.  I’d estimate that I spot one of those species in about half of the trips I take to the area, but not today.  It was still a beautiful day for birding, and the final raptor count for the day ended up being pretty good.  Honestly, the tally here is a little lower than what I’ve normally experienced in the area in recent years, but that just emphasizes how truly spectacular winter birding has been lately!  The raptor count for the day:

  • Rough-legged Hawks — 32
  • Bald Eagle — 13
  • Red-tailed Hawks – 12
  • Golden Eagles – 5
  • Ferruginous Hawks – 4
  • Merlin – 4
  • Prairie Falcon – 3

 

While raptors are definitely the attraction for birding the area in winter, there have been some other trends in recent years that are certainly interesting.  I started birding 16 years ago, and during those first few winters when I would bird this area, it was always surprising to run across a stray Western Meadowlark here or there.  In recent years, it seems like more and more Meadowlarks stay in the area all winter long, and today, I came across literally hundreds and hundreds.  I also came across two large flocks of American Robins, a species that does sometimes overwinter in the area in small numbers, but there were probably at least 100 Robins in each flock I saw today.  Southeast of Presho, there also have been large numbers of Red-winged Blackbirds that have been overwintering in recent years.

Three different species of birds, each of which is found in ever-increasing numbers in winter over the last several years…hmmm…I wonder what the cause could be?  It’s almost as if there’s some kind of “warming” effect that’s enabling them to overwinter.  Perhaps someday scientists will discover what’s behind such a change in climate.  🙂

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!

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