Splash of Winter Color

Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker (The red on the male’s cap is complete and unbroken, while the female has a tan strip at the top of her head). I have a lot of photos of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, but this is one of the few that shows their namesake trait. Most of the time, the subtle red splash on the belly is quite inconspicuous.

More snow yesterday. Just a couple of inches, but we’ve had a seemingly endless stream of “just a couple of inches” in the last two months.  It’s now late February, and after a long winter, and I’m ready for spring birding to begin.

I’m just ready for COLOR.  Birding in South Dakota in winter is often as gray, dreary, and plain as the weather and our sloppy, gloppy streets.  Bird species diversity is low and those birds that do stick around for the winter are, in general, of the black-and-white variety.  I’ve had more Pine Siskins at my feeders than I’ve ever had, and the little bit of yellow they have is a welcome contrast to the gray gloom.  However, the other most common birds at my feeders are Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos,  and House Sparrows, none of which have much color.

My favorite “yard bird” is one that’s become quite reliable, both in winter and summer.  They’re striking not only for the bright splash of color, but for their size, as they’re generally the largest bird we get in the winter….Red-bellied Woodpeckers. We live in a house we built 12 years ago, and tree cover in the neighborhood landscaping is still maturing.  Red-bellied Woodpeckers need mature trees for nesting and foraging, but fortunately, we live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a State Park with ample riparian forest habitat. The male and female pair that visit our yard clearly spend most of their time in the Park.  When I see them come to our yard, they’re almost always flying in from the Park, and they head back to the Park when they’re done feeding.

When they first came to our yard, they were pretty shy.  The feeders are close to the windows of a sunroom that looks out into our back yard, and the woodpeckers would often spook and fly away if I was moving around in the house. Fortunately over the years they’ve become accustomed not only to our presence, but to that of our two spaniels! One suet feeder sits on a hook off our deck, and the male will often continue to sit and feed at the suet feeder, even when I let the dogs out on the deck. The female is a little shyer, but still stays around the yard much more frequently than she used to.

A wonderful visitor, at any time of the year.

Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus

My favorite Red-bellied Woodpecker photo, this is of a male from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, the park across the street from our house.

Where have my songbirds gone?

Cooper's Hawk - Accipiter cooperii

“Clyde”, the very fat Cooper’s Hawk who has slowly been consuming all birds in the neighborhood.

What shows up at your feeders is so unpredictable.  In winter, I always expect Dark-eyed Juncos foraging on the ground below my feeders.  Many winters, they’re about the only bird it seems I ever see, in my yard or elsewhere.  Not this year, where they’ve been scarce in my yard.  That’s been made up for with many more American Goldfinches than normal.  I have one very tall tube feeder, and most of the winter it’s been very crowded, with most perches full and other Goldfinches waiting in the nearby tree for an open spot.  It’s been a good year for Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers, and I have at least two (a male and a female) gorgeous Red-bellied Woodpeckers who are quite regular at my suet. Despite the lack of Dark-eyed Juncos, it’s been a fairly “birdy” winter in my yard.

That “birdiness” level has been slowly declining all winter though.  Simple attrition from a snowy winter would probably explain it, but in my yard, there’s another obvious factor.  That factor is Clyde.  Clyde is the Cooper’s Hawk that has been frequenting my yard, and buzzing my feeders all winter long.  Why “Clyde”?  I dunno.  It starts with a C.  He looks like a “Clyde”.  Very workman-like and efficient, very “blue-collar”. Comes in regularly every day, punches the clock, does his thing, kills a bird or two…just the same hum-drum “Clyde” kind of a life for a Cooper’s Hawk.

My wife is not fond of Clyde.  My wife does not appreciate the “nature” occurring in the yard. Clyde isn’t exactly subtle when he buzzes the yard and grabs a songbird.  He’s also getting quite bold. Last week I opened the front door, and Clyde was sitting on the front step, munching on a goldfinch.  Normally, you’d expect a wild bird to immediately bolt.  Not Clyde.  Clyde looked up at me, paused a second, before seemingly sighing and reluctantly flying off with his breakfast, clearly put out that I had interrupted him.I do have one concern about Clyde.  He appears to be gaining weight at an alarming clip.  He’s had a well-fed winter in my yard!  It’s showing on his waist line, as he is one FAT Cooper’s Hawk!

Unlike my wife, I do think it’s very cool to have Clyde around. With the Big Sioux Recreation Area and a lot of forested habitat right across the street, Clyde may end up sticking around the area permanently.

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!

Mountain Lion sighting near Sioux Falls, and “protecting” people from imagined dangers

Mountain Lion - Puma concolor

A Mountain Lion lounging in a tree. If such a sight is recorded in South Dakota, the Mountain Lion itself is likely to be sentenced to death, no matter its location or behavior. Photo credit.

We arrived back from our vacation in the U.S. Virgin Islands on Monday.  It seems that while we were gone, there was a bit of excitement in the neighborhood!  While talking to a neighbor, he told me about a neighbor across the street who was QUITE surprised to see a Mountain Lion lounging in a tree in his back yard!  We live in extreme eastern South Dakota, only a few miles from both Minnesota and Iowa.  South Dakota DOES have a healthy Mountain Lion population in the Black Hills, where biologists typically estimate that a few hundred are around.  Black Hills Mountain Lions are known to wander widely, with tagged animals found far from the Black Hills and far from South Dakota.

However, in our part of the state near Sioux Falls, the landscape is dominated by corn and soybeans.  There are certainly plenty of deer around that would interest a mountain lion, but there isn’t a lot of natural habitat around.  The only forested areas in the area are typically riparian zones.  The potential attraction for the mountain lion seen in our neighborhood?  We live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a state park along the Big Sioux River that features a lot of burr oak, cottonwood, and other trees along the river.  Turkeys and deer both abound in the park, but it’s a small oasis of habitat sitting in a vast landscape of cropland.  It’s also not all that large a park, covering a thin strip along the river for less than 2 miles.  From a long-term habitat standpoint, it’s simply not a location that’s going to hold a population of Mountain Lions for any sustained length of time.

The park is quite popular with campers, joggers, bikers, hikers, dog walkers, etc.  There’s a very nice paved path through the park that connects with other paths in the city of Brandon itself.  There are also other unpaved paths that people frequently use.  The number of people using the park also make it quite unlikely that any Mountain Lion would attempt to stay for any prolonged period of time. The number of people using the park ALSO will likely be used as a reason for Game Fish & Parks to “remove” the Mountain Lion should it happen to stick around.

There has NEVER been a recorded case of a Mountain Lion attacking a human being in South Dakota.  NEVER.  Despite that, they are treated as an extreme danger.  The story linked to here is the typical reaction when any Mountain Lion is found anywhere close to humans in the state.  The Mountain Lion is killed, period.  In the story I linked to, the lions were near Keystone,.  Keystone is in the heart of the Black Hills, and thus, the heart of Mountain Lion country in South Dakota.  The lions were clearly within their normal habitat, but were still “removed” (killed).

Mountain Lions are quite common in the Black Hills, but are rarely every seen.  Being shy and staying away from people is certainly a positive for a Mountain Lion in the state, as just being SEEN is an offense punishable by death for a Mountain Lion in South Dakota.  The Keystone story above has been repeated many, many times in the state, with Lions being shot and killed whenever they happen to be found near people.  That’s especially true outside of the Black Hills.  In South Dakota it’s such a rare sight to see a Mountain Lion outside of the Black Hills.  If one IS seen, people immediately freak out and assume it’s a danger, despite, again, the fact that there has NEVER been an instance of a Mountain Lion causing harm to a human being in the state.  While birding in the Yankton area several years ago, I heard a blood-curdling “scream” in a forested area along the Missouri River, a sound I know came from a Mountain Lion.  I certainly never reported it, knowing what would happen to the animal if authorities were alerted to its presence.

I haven’t heard neighbors say whether the mountain lion found here has been seen again.  Frankly, I hope it has moved on and WON’T ever be seen again, just from the standpoint of the animal’s own safety and well-being.  A “seen” Mountain Lion in South Dakota is usually a CONDEMNED Mountain Lion.

F***ing, Fat, Fake Nature Lovin’ Campers – FFFNLCs

Vegetation removal at Big Sioux Rec Area - 2013 to 2015

Big Sioux Rec Area campground – 2 years ago, and today. All shrubs and trees anywhere close to the road removed, any remaining trees trimmed way up. Can’t have any scratches on those $125,000 RVs!!!

We live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a state park here in South Dakota.  It’s a riparian area along the Big Sioux River, with many very large cottonwoods and burr oaks, among other trees.  We’ve lived in Brandon for over 20 years now, and I’ve always enjoyed the park, including the birds found within.  That enjoyment is becoming less and less as time goes by.

There’s a definite pecking order in terms of what passes for “recreation” in South Dakota.  Birds and birding, and wildlife in general, seems to be very far down that list.  “Parks and Rec” often seems to mean accommodating a few select recreational uses of public land.  Hunting definitely tops the list.  What else would you think when you get to your favorite  South Dakota State Park, and are immediately greeted with a sign that says “Warning – Hunting Season in Progress”?  Nothing says rest and relaxation more than walking a beautiful path, looking for birds, all the time with a wary eye for any trigger happy hunter that may be targeting something in your general vicinity.

Accommodating campers seems to be the second highest priority.  The Big Sioux Recreation Area has always had camping spots, but until recently, they’d been wonderfully vegetated.  There are two loops with camping spots, loops that USED to be lined with cedar trees and other vegetation.  They were wonderful for birding. The deciduous trees and shrubs around the camping sites themselves were sometimes spectacular for warblers and other migrants in the spring.  The thick cover offered by the cedars and surrounding bushes always attracted birds.  A few years ago on a beautiful November day, as my son and I walked through the park, we were surprised by 15 or more Long-eared Owls that were roosting in the evergreens.  They were incredibly tame, allowing close approach.  People came from all around the area to see this unique circumstance, a group of tame, easily seen Long-eared owls that had chosen the Big Sioux Rec Area camping loops as their winter roosting spot.

Long-eared Owl - Asio otus

From 2007, a Long-eared Owl perched in trees in the campground at the Big Sioux Recreation Area. Those trees and any other vegetation in the vicinity are GONE, largely to make way for today’s generation of Fat Fake Nature Lovin’ Campers.

Last summer, the park began removing trees and shrubs.  Ostensibly, part of the reason was due to what’s become an all out war on Eastern Red Cedar by parks in the state.  However, one of the directly stated reasons for the move?  All the increasingly large campers that use the Big Sioux Rec Area were having a difficult time backing into some of the camping spots.  Those cedar trees that held all the Long-eared Owls?  They are ALL gone.  All the bushes and other vegetation that used to line the roads of the camping loops?  Gone.  What was once a wonderful habitat for birds is now a habitat for…FFNLCs.

What is a FFNLC, you ask? My very blunt term for “Fat Fake Nature Lovin’ Campers”.  Frankly, I usually put another “F” in front of the term, and you can imagine what that stands for.  DEFINITE “Fake nature lovers”, given what passes for “camping” at the Big Sioux Recreation Area.  Last night, I was walking through the park and passed a MASSIVE RV that has been parked in the same spot all week. Despite being there for several days, I had yet to actually see someone OUTSIDE, until last night.  Last night, there was a definite FFNLC, “roughing it” in the park.  This FFNLC was massive on a grand scale, just as was her RV!  And just as massive was the huge flatscreen TV she watching in the “wild” of the park.  The RV had a panel on the outside that opened to reveal this massive flatscreen TV. This FFNLC was sitting in a lawn chair with a huge bowl of chips(?), munching away with the volume turned ALL the way up so the rest of the park could also enjoy her viewing of American Idol.

NOTHING says “Nature” more than sitting in a lawn chair, with your satellite TV hooked up, watching a giant screen and speakers belting out American Idol.  And now you see why I usually add another “F” in front of FFNLC.  Even if there WERE a bird in the general vicinity of the VERY fat FFNLC, there’s no way I could have heard it over her TV.

Fox Sparrow photo - Big Sioux Rec Area

Fox Sparrow, taken in the campground loop at Big Sioux Rec Area. Alas, this spruce tree, like EVERY spruce and cedar tree in that loop, is now gone.

I don’t want to be mean about the “fat” part of FFNLC, but…c’mon, it fits SO well for FFNLCs.  This weekend, on a GORGEOUS afternoon, I took a walk through the park with my pups.  There’s a nice, long, paved bike/walking trail through the park that we like to take the pups on.  Beautiful day…many campers at the park…gorgeous trail…and for the 1 1/2 mile walk, do you know how many people I came across on the trail?  ONE.  ONE!!!  But yet you got back to the campground area itself, and there were certainly plenty of FAT FFNLC’s “roughing” it.  “Roughing it” nowadays evidently means never moving more than 15 feet from the vicinity of your massive, air conditioned, satellite TV equipped, more-comfortable-than-most-peoples-houses, 40-foot RV.  TAKE A FREAKIN’ WALK, FFNLCs.  TRY TURNING OFF THE TV and actually enjoying the park itself.

There’s obviously no going back.  My very birdy camping loops are no more, and it’s not going to change.  EVERY change the State Parks make around here end up REMOVING habitat, and putting in MORE camping stalls.  I guess I should enjoy what habitat remains in the Big Sioux Recreation Area, because its inevitable that any bird habitat presently found there is only going to be reduced even further as time goes by.

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