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Bird Feeders Killing Marital Harmony

I’ve always had bird feeders.  I’ll never give them up, but there is a downside.  They’re harming (ever so slightly!!) marital bliss in our household! Over the years we’ve occasionally had a mouse around the house.  That happens when you have every kind of conceivable bird feeder in your backyard.

We came home yesterday to a very warm house, and an unresponsive air conditioner. We couldn’t find anyone to come look at it until today. Here’s the note left on our step.  Bird Feeder —> Mouse –> chewed wire –> no air conditioner –> an unhappy wife.  It’s five degrees of separation!  There’s barely any relationship there at all, right!?!?!? Who’s with me???

The wire is fixed, the air conditioner is working, and all is back to being right with the world. In the meantime, I’ve instructed the mice in the yard to please restrict their mandibular activity to seeds and other organic items.  They’ve agreed to cooperate, so clearly we’ll never again have this problem, and marital harmony is permanently restored. 🙂

Mouse damage - Air Conditioner

A note the repairman left for us after fixing our air conditioner. Circumstantial evidence, I say!! Can you match those bite marks to a specific mouse!?!? Innocent until proven guilty!!

The most popular bird in eastern South Dakota

Such a busy social calendar.  Dress up in your summer finest. Find a home, try to settle down, find a good woman, chase her around incessantly, defend your territory against all comers…it’s a busy life for a bird in the spring.  Two things that probably don’t help: 1) Being hopelessly lost and being the only one of your kind for a few hundred miles, and 2) being constantly interrupted by those pesky humans with the binoculars, cameras, and cell phones.

A male Western Tanager was found near Sioux Falls a couple of days ago.  The closest Western Tanager should be 300+ miles to the west, in the Black Hills, so his appearance in eastern South Dakota caused a stir among the birding community.  Heck, I too went to find him, as I haven’t seen a Western Tanager in South Dakota, outside of the Hills. But after twice going to watch him, I was starting to feel a bit sorry for him. He’s getting a lot of attention and visitors.  His daily routine is also getting interrupted a lot.

I don’t mind birders using electronic calls to see a bird, but it does bother me when it’s done incessantly and it’s clearly affecting a bird. When I’m trying to take photos, I rarely use any electronic call, as not only do I not like the impact on the bird, I don’t like the unnatural look of photos of pissed off birds trying to figure out where that invisible “rival” is, and why he’s singing so much. The first time I went yesterday, there was a young, 14-year old birder walking up looking for the bird. I did pull out my phone, played about 5 seconds of a call, and the Tanager made an appearance for us. We then watched him for a while as he flew around the forest clearing, chasing a female Scarlet Tanager, chasing other birds out of his territory, and doing a lot of “fly-catching” (flying out from a perch to grab insects).

I thought I’d try again later in the day to try to get a better photo.  He was reliably stationed in one location, and with patience, I was sure I’d get better photos than I got earlier in the day.  However, as I walked into the clearing, there were 3 birders, a couple, and another older gentleman. I heard them all before I saw them. Or should I say, I heard the electronic calls they were playing over…and over…and over…and over again.

I left, rather than watch the poor confused Tanager desperately trying to find and dispatch his unseen “rival”.  That was just one moment of the 2nd day after he was “found”.  I have no doubt there were many occasions over the last few days where birders have come into the area with electronic calls, trying to get the perfect photo of an eastern South Dakota rarity.  I probably could have gotten closer photos of a pissed off Western Tanager had I joined them in the clearing. And heck, 10 years ago, I might have joined them.. But as I’ve gotten older, I find myself using my binoculars far more than my camera.  I used to only worry about getting that great photo, to the point that if I saw a bird but didn’t get a good photo, I was disappointed. Now I often find myself putting the camera down and just sitting and watching.   The electronic call wasn’t necessary to enjoy watching this beautiful, lost Western Tanager.

Western Tanagers aren’t going extinct because of birders.  Overall, the actions of birders with electronic calls aren’t likely to dramatically impact a species.  But I still can’t help but feel a bit sorry for this one lost bird.

Western Tanager - Piranga ludoviciana

Photo of the Western Tanager near Sioux Falls. This was taken as he was flying from perch to perch, looking for insects and doing some “flycatching”.  Not the greatest pic in the world, but I didn’t want to do what it would take to get that perfect Western Tanager photo.

“Infinity War” – Spoiler Free, Bird-related PLOT HOLE!!

Common Loon - Gavia immer

A Common Loon in breeding plumage. Are Common Loons truly alien visitors to our planet? Does Hollywood know something we don’t, because they certainly use Common Loon calls in pretty much any possible movie situation. Even when the setting is on an alien planet.

My son and I just got back from Avengers: Infinity War.  No spoilers here, other than we both really enjoyed it.  But as I SO often do for movies, I have a beef.  A BIRD-related beef, as always.

So…end of the movie, pretty much the last scene.  I won’t say who is in the last scene or what it’s about. I WILL say it’s set on an alien planet.  And when the scene first fades in, what sound do we first hear in the background?  THE CALL OF A COMMON LOON!!!  WHY, Hollywood….WHY!?!?!  Why are you SO freakin’ enamored with the call of the Common Loon that you feel the need to put it into practically any situation, no matter how ludicrous!!?!?

Outrageous!  A travesty!!  Ok, no, I really don’t get too worked up about such things, but as a birder, you DO notice!  C’mon Hollywood, out of an entire universe worth of sounds out there, surely you can broaden your scope a bit and stop always relying on the same sounds, no matter the situation!

“Blind Luck” – Shooting Waterfowl

Silly waterfowl.  In a state where everybody seems to have a shotgun in the back of their pickup, for some reason waterfowl here are quite shy when people are around.  For a bird photographer, that makes life a wee bit difficult.  It’s practically impossible to be walking, standing, or otherwise visible and be within shooting range of most waterfowl here. Fortunately, there are several ways of using blinds that allow you to get extremely close…sometimes so close that the birds are too close for my 400mm lens to focus (it has a 12 foot minimum focusing distance).

After a blizzard and 19″ total inches of snow last week, today is sunny and 60.  I left before dawn and went west of Sioux Falls in search of waterfowl and shorebirds. The shorebirds weren’t around, but there certainly were plenty of waterfowl. I won’t go into the details (I had a post once about the blinds I use to get close to birds), but this morning used a combination of three blinds…1) my car, 2) a portable blind I always have with me, and 3) a permanent blind build on a local wetland.  GREAT morning of shooting, with absolutely perfect light for some of these.  Some pics from the day:

Redhead - Aythya americana

Female and Male Redhead, taken in some nice warm, early morning light on a local wetland.

Pied-billed Grebe - Podilymbus podiceps

One of my favorite little birds, a Pied-billed Grebe. They’re not as shy as all the ducks and geese around here, but they do have a nasty habit of just slowly sinking below the surface and swimming away underwater, RIGHT when you’re about to hit the shutter on the camera. Was glad to get a nice detailed shot in the light right after sunrise.

Mallard - Anas platyrhynchos

“Just” a mallard. “Just”? JUST!?!?! I admit that’s my opinion too many times, but you have to admit a drake Mallard is one damned beautiful duck.

Swainson's Hawk - Buteo swainsoni

It’s not just waterfowl moving through right now. Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels are seemingly everywhere right now, and today MANY Swainson’s Hawks like this one showed up.

Great Egret - Ardea alba

With snow still on the ground in many places and temperatures only starting to warm up in the last couple of days, I wasn’t sure what I’d find this morning, but I think the birds are moving more by the calendar than the temperature. I did run across one large wetland with many Great Egrets foraging in the shallows.

Redhead Drake - Aythya americana

Such beautiful birds! Such wonderful lighting this morning! This may be one of my favorite duck photos that I’ve ever taken.

Double-crested Cormorant - Phalacrocorax auritus

A Double-crested Cormorant swimming near the shoreline. They are SUCH cool birds when you see them up close, with those impossibly blue turquoise eyes.

Blue-winged teal - Anas discors

A male Blue-winged Teal. One of the most common dabbling ducks around here, and not all that colorful (until they fly), but they do have some wonderfully intricate patterns on their flanks, along with the unique face crescent.

Lesser Scaup - Aythya affinis

A male Lesser Scaup, one of the most common diving ducks we get in migration.

Blizzard-inspired Drawing – American Woodcock

I don’t draw a lot any more…perhaps twice a year at most.  Not sure why, as I really enjoy it when I do drag out all the colored pencils and give it a go.  With the blizzard this weekend, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to draw. The species is actually inspired BY the blizzard.  American Woodcocks show up here in early April, and are already on their breeding grounds. They’ve already been doing their spectacular, unique display flights in the late evenings, spiraling up into the sky and diving back down, producing series of twittering and tweeting sounds as they go.  They normally feed heavily on earthworms.  When the blizzard hit, I remembered the posts of people seeing their displays here already this spring, and was wondering how they’d handle the blizzard. Inspiration leading to this, a colored pencil drawing of an American Woodcock.

American Woodcock Drawing - Scolopax minor

Colored pencil drawing of an American Woodcock – By Terry Sohl

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!!

Unexpected surprise at the feeders – Common Redpolls

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

From the big Redpoll invasion of 2013, a Common Redpoll sitting on a sunflower head in our yard. This week on Halloween, we had our first Common Redpolls since 2013.

We’re at a part of the season that isn’t a lot of fun for a birder in South Dakota. As the calendar flips from October to November, we’re fully entrenched in the “dry season” for birding, where both bird diversity and bird numbers are far lower than in the warmer months. Most of the smaller water bodies in the area are starting to freeze over, and while there are still some waterfowl and gulls hanging around the open water in the bigger lakes, it won’t be long before they too depart for the winter. Nearly all of the insectivorous birds too have long left the state, leaving us with our typical winter mix of species.

Dark-eyed Juncos are now found scattered throughout my yard.  A welcome addition to an otherwise dreary winter in the yard, but…when the Juncos are around it’s a sign that winter is starting to arrive. In addition to my House Sparrow hoards, I’m also getting an occasional surprise sparrow species, such as the Harris’s and Lincoln’s Sparrows that have periodically showed up in the yard. I am now getting regular visits from three woodpecker species (Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied), another nice presence during the winter months. But overall the species that dominates my yard right now are American Goldfinches.

My wife bought me a huge, tall thistle (niger) feeder many years ago, and it’s always been a star attraction in my yard. The goldfinches will use it all season long, disappearing occasionally for a few weeks at a time, only to come back in full force and stay for long periods of time. Lately, as the weather has gotten colder, the finch feeder has been standing room only, with every available perch often full during the day. The goldfinches may not be in the brilliant yellow summer plumage, but the activity and quiet chatter is nice to have around.

Hoary Redpoll - Acanthis hornemanni

A Hoary Redpoll, a pale, beautiful, wonderful surprise later in that winter of 2013. The two that hung around my yard for several weeks are still the only two Hoary Redpolls I’ve seen in South Dakota.

On Halloween this past week, I was working at home when I came downstairs to grab some lunch.  As I was letting the dogs out into the back yard, I couldn’t help but notice some oddballs in the American Goldfinch hoard that scattered when seeing the dogs. Most of the flock landed in my very large River Birch at the back of the yard, and at first I thought the oddballs were just House Finches.  But after the dogs finished their business and came back in, I was very pleasantly surprised to see a handful of Common Redpolls scattered in with the Goldfinches that were returning to the feeder.

We’ve been in South Dakota for 24 years. In those 24 winters, there have only been 3 occasions where I’ve had Redpolls in the yard. One of those occasions was a “one-night stand”, where a few were at the feeders briefly and then disappeared. But from January through March of 2013, my yard was inundated with Redpolls, to the point that Redpolls actually outnumbered the ubiquitous Goldfinches most days.  It was a snowy and long winter (they all seemingly are), but having the Redpolls around made it seem a little less gloomy.

Much to my surprise, the Common Redpolls weren’t even the best surprise that winter. One morning my young son looked out at the feeders and said “what’s the white one?”  He saw a bird among the Common Redpolls at the finch feeder that was obviously different. I went over and looked out, and was rather shocked to see this wonderful, pale Hoary Redpoll mixed in with the Common Redpolls. A life bird, all from the comfort of my cozy sunroom window!

We had one, and then two, Hoary Redpolls stay around the yard for several weeks before disappearing, along with the rest of the Common Redpolls. We haven’t had Redpolls in the yard since, until this Halloween day! I’ve got a glimpse of one Redpoll in the days since, as my finch feeder has returned to being dominated by goldfinches, but I’m hoping the Redpolls are still around, and plan on staying around for the winter. It would bring a VERY welcome splash of color and diversity to our limited suite of winter birds in South Dakota.

Good Birding, Bad Photos

It’s rare that you get that perfect day, where the birding is good and photo opportunities are bountiful.  Some days you won’t see many birds, but there are some great photo opportunities that make up for it.  Other days, you see lots of interesting birds, but they’re all camera shy, and good photo opportunities just don’t happen.  Yesterday was one of the latter kinds of days.  Good birding!  Bad Photos!

It is an opportunity to show people what the vast majority of bird photos look like!  If only every bird photo were crisp, in good light, with the bird clearly seen and in a good pose!  It’s not an exaggeration to say that I throw out 95% of the photos that I take.  Yesterday, there really weren’t any great long-term “keepers”, but below are some (bad) photos of some VERY interesting birds for the day.

Blackburnian Warbler - Setophaga fusca

A Blackburnian Warbler, a species you don’t see all that often here. Warblers in general are SO damn frustrating to try to photograph. This guy insisted on staying up towards the top of the canopy of some Burr Oaks. Since I see them so rarely, I still kept trying to get a “record” shot, but this is the best I could manage.

Blue-winged Warbler - Vermivora cyanoptera

We are on the VERY northeastern edge of the breeding range of Blue-winged Warblers, and the only place they seem to reliably be found is at Newton Hills State Park. There were at least 3 in the area yesterday, singing away and squabbling among each other. They’d occasionally chase each other and get close, but the only shot I was able to get was this one.

American Golden Plover - Pluvialis dominica

American Golden Plovers are a nemesis bird for me. Most years, people are saying they’re seeing them all over…and I never see any. When I DO see some, they’re inevitably very far away and I can’t get any photos. Well, the good news is yesterday I 1) saw a large group of about 75, and 2) got some photos. The bad news…this is as good as I could get. They weren’t particularly shy, but were VERY careful to stay just out of camera range.

Baltimore Oriole - Icterus galbula

I birded 6 hours yesterday. In all that time, in all the photo tries, this is by far the best photo I was able to get. It’s about the ONLY photo I was able to get where the bird “fills the frame”, and is quite sharp.  I could do without the thicket of sticks around him.  But on a crappy photo day…I’ll take it.

There be BIRDS at the end of the rainbow!!

End of the Rainbow - Lincoln County, South Dakota

The age old question of what’s at the end of the rainbow has been answered. It’s this family farm in Lincoln County, South Dakota

I went birding last night, on a weird weather day in South Dakota.  It was cloudy, then sunny, then cloudy again as a brief thunderstorm would roll through, then sunny again…wash, rinse, repeat.  It was actually a bit of a crisp day with temps hanging around 55 degrees, but even so, there were a couple of the little thunderstorms that put out quite a bit of pea-size hail.  It was such a strange evening given that it was absolutely pouring rain at times, yet the sun was shining.

Despite the rain, the birding was quite wonderful (as it generally is in South Dakota in May!!) The best birding for the day was when I was hanging out by a large wetland, one that had swollen with the recent rains to cover much of the surrounding farmland in a shallow sheet of water. Shorebirds were certainly loving it, as were a beautiful little group of Black Terns.  Forster’s Terns were much more numerous, hanging out on fence posts during the rain spells, dipping and diving over the water whenever the rain would stop. It was actually quite peaceful, watching the intermittent downpours, then seeing the birds jump back to life again when the sun would break out. It’s tough being a bird though when the hail starts!  They seemed to do OK with the little pea-size hail that fell at one point. but they weren’t very happy about it!  Shorebirds tended to crouch low during the hail, as did the terns on the posts, but otherwise, they just stayed still and endured.

Although the birding was quite good, the best moment of the night occurred after one of the little thunderstorms. With small scattered storms separated by wide bands of open sky, the sun was frequently pushing through, even during some of the rainy moments.  A beautiful and extremely long-lasting rainbow lit up the eastern sky and was visible for over half an hour as the little thunderstorm continued slowly pushing on to the south and east.  It was a full rainbow, with a partial double rainbow above it, but without my wide-angle lens along (hey, I’m a birder, I rarely use it anyway), I wasn’t able to get a photo of the whole thing. Instead, with my 400mm birding lens on, I decided to shoot what was at the end of the rainbow…this family farm! I’ve certainly never tried shooting a rainbow with a telephone lens, but I think the effect was quite beautiful.

The weather is supposed to be beautiful again this weekend, so hopefully within the next day or two I’ll have some more birding photos and stories to share…

Forster's Tern - Sterna forsteri

A Forster’s Tern perched on a little metal fence pole. This was just prior to the arrival of a little rain band that produced pea-sized hail. Fortunately, the birds seem to cope with the small hail quite well.

Bird Photography 101 — Getting close enough

Birders or photographers new to birding sometimes ask me how I get some of my bird photos. Sunday was a great example of one tool I use! It’s not the camera. A LONG, expensive lens is definitely a huge asset in bird photography, but no matter what lens you’re using, the challenge is to get close enough to a wild bird for a frame-filling photograph.  With “only” a 400-mm lens (the lens that 99+% of my bird photos have been taken with), if means I typically have to be about 15-20 feet away from a songbird for it to fill a large portion of the image.  How does one get close to a wild bird that’s often skittish and shy around human  beings?

Hide yourself.  Often for me, that’s meant using my car as a blind, but on Sunday when I was shooting shorebirds, that wasn’t an option.  The shorebirds were all foraging in the shallows in a portion of a wetland that was far from the road.  In the back of my pickup I always have the perfect piece of equipment to help in a situation like that…a chair blind.  It has a low profile and doesn’t spook the birds once you’re set up, and it’s actually quite comfortable inside. In this case, as I approached the shoreline, all the birds scattered. No worries…set up the chair blind, make yourself comfortable inside, and after a little while, the birds will forget you’re there and will come back.

The photo below is one a birding friend took of me and my chair blind on Sunday.  Note shorebirds are calmly foraging in the shallows RIGHT in front of the blind.  They were actually too close for my camera to focus on many occasions (my 400mm lens has a 12-foot minimum focusing distance). A great tool, and one of many ways to get close enough to birds to get great photos. For more help on how to get great bird photos, click below to check out a “Bird photography tips” page from my main website:

Bird Photography Tips – South Dakota Birds and Birding

Chair Blind - Photographing Birds

My “chair blind”, one invaluable tool that allows you to get close enough to birds for photography.

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