Birding the Bog! Sax-Zim in Minnesota

It’s been a relatively “birdy” winter in South Dakota. We’ve had really high numbers of winter finches. I’ve certainly never had more Pine Siskins at my Feeders, and I’ve also had Common Redpolls in my yard for only the third time ever. Both White-winged and Red Crossbills have also been around in select locations (always a rarity). It’s been a GREAT year for Snowy Owls across the northern U.S., and while normally I have to travel to the central or northern parts of South Dakota to see them, I came across three different Snowy Owls within 15 miles of home this winter!

A pretty good winter, given how bleak birding can be in South Dakota at this time of year, but I still had the birding itch to see “more”.  All winter long, I had pondered making the long trip to Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota to look for owls and other boreal “goodies”, but kept putting it off. It IS a long jaunt and requires a hefty time commitment…a six+ hour drive from home.  This weekend was going to be my last chance to make the trip before the winter ended, so I finally pulled the trigger on a trip. It’s SUCH a special birding location and one where I want to get the most of my few chances to visit, so much to the bewilderment of my wife, I decided to leave a 2:00 AM Saturday to maximize the my birding time in the area.  The forecast called for a gloomy, gray Saturday…PERFECT for owling.

The forecast was wrong. Saturday was gorgeous and sunny, with temperatures over 40 degrees.  Not great for the owls who seem to be less active on such days. After getting up so early and driving so far, I was a bit disheartened after birding the entire day Saturday. The only owl I had seen was a Northern Hawk Owl from a very long distance. I’ll never complain about seeing a Northern Hawk Owl, given how few and far opportunities are to see the species in the lower 48 states, but it was a slow and overall disappointing day nonetheless.

Sunday made up for it. A gloomy, gray day, it certainly did seem to bring out the owls, and I had decent luck with other species as well.  Great Gray Owls are one of the big draws for birders in the Bog, and I was able to see three on Sunday, including one at very close range. Two more Northern  Hawk Owls (none very close), plenty of Gray Jays, Ruffed Grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse, Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, and even a glimpse of a Pine Marten that had been visiting a feeder complex in the area…it ended up being a wonderful day of birding!  I struck out on a couple of target birds…Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpecker…but that just gives me an excuse to make the trip again next winter!  Below are a few photos from the day.

Great Gray Owl - Strix nebulosa

The best photo opportunity of the day was this Great Gray Owl. Evidently he had been actively feeding for a few days alongside “Owl Avenue” (aptly named!). It was about 10 o’clock in the morning when I found him, and while I didn’t get to see him catch or eat anything, I was able to get some nice photos and video. Another photographer who was there told me that he had already caught 4 voles that morning! The same photographer said he was watching the Great Gray the evening before, and it surprisingly went after a muskrat! That’s a VERY large prey item for a Great Gray, but evidently he was able to catch it and somehow swallow it whole.

Great Gray Owl - Strix nebulosa

A Great Gray Owl relaxing at the back of a forest clearing. I ended up watching him for over an hour, and he never left this perch. He spent most of that time preening, not actively looking for prey.

Northern Hawk Owl - Surnia ulula

Not the greatest photo in the world, but it does convey what all of my Northern Hawk Owl sightings were like on this trip! I came across three different Northern Hawk Owls, but alas, all of them were some distance away. Given the rarity of a Northern Hawk Owl in the lower 48 states, I will DEFINITELY take it though!

Gray Jay - Perisoreus canadensis

Photo of a Gray Jay, one of my favorite species to watch.  It seemed like every time I came across the species, it was a pair of birds, and one pair was clearly collecting nesting material as I watched them.  

Hairy Woodpecker -  Leuconotopicus villosus

Not the woodpecker I was after, but I’ll take it. I was looking for Black-backed and Three-toed Woodpeckers, two species that were supposedly around in decent numbers this winter, but I struck out on both. One of the things that’s really changed about Sax-Zim Bog since I first went there 14 years ago is the number of feeder complexes that local residents have set up. This guy was on a long-established feeder complex along Admiral Road, but there are now at least a dozen such areas scattered throughout the bog. Given the warm, pleasant weather when I was there, activity at the feeders was pretty slow, but I still was able to see Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Grosbeaks, Common Redpoll, Gray Jays, and several other species.

Northern Hawk Owl - Surnia ulula

NOT from this trip, but a better representation of a Northern Hawk Owl from Sax-Zim Bog. This was from my very first trip to Sax-Zim Bog during the famed owl irruption of the winter of 2004/2005. My introduction to the Bog came through a friend at work, who had heard about incredible numbers of northern owls being found in the bog. As someone who had only started birding a few years before, in 2000, I had never seen a Great Gray Owl or Northern Hawk Owl. I was torn about whether to go or not, as I didn’t know what my chances actually were to see an owl, and it IS a hefty time commitment to drive 6 hours there and back. I did decide to spend 2 days there though in December 2004, and it remains the greatest birding trip of my life! On that first day, I saw over THIRTY Great Gray Owls, and nearly the same number of Northern Hawk Owls! This was one of the first Northern Hawk Owls I found, and the first photos of the species that I’d ever taken. It definitely remains the best series of Northern Hawk Owl photos I have! This guy was sitting at eye level in a low bush, RIGHT next to the road. He was incredibly tolerant of my presence, and I had him to myself for well over an hour as I watched (and photographed) him from extremely close range. How close? I was in my car, not wanting to get out and disturb him, and found that I was actually too close for my camera lens to focus! My Canon 400 mm lens has a minimum focusing distance of about 12 feet, and I was only about 10 feet away as I watched him! To capture the photos I actually scooted over to the passenger seat, before returning to the driver’s seat and watching him preen, sleep, and generally ignore me over the next hour. One of the most magical birding moments of my life, and this photo more than other shows why I’ve continued to return to the Bog every few years since 2004!!!

Rather slow (but enjoyable) winter raptor search

I treasure my trips to the central part of South Dakota in the winter. Given the bleakness and bitter cold that a South Dakota winter often brings, it’s a true joy to head to the area near the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and generally find it so incredibly full of life. Winter on the Grasslands means raptors, often in numbers that boggle the mind.  Rough-legged Hawks by the dozens, huge Golden and Bald Eagles, Ferruginous Hawks, Prairie Falcons, and the occasional Gyrfalcon, Snowy Owl, Short-eared Owl, or other “goody”.

That’s the normal winter day on the Grasslands. A recent trip unfortunately wasn’t “normal”.  It’s been a hard last year or two for grouse and pheasants on the Grasslands, with drought and some cold winters taking a bit of a toll.  It’s the grouse, pheasants, and other prey that attract the winter raptors, and with the lower prey numbers, raptor numbers have been far below what they normally are.  In a full day’s worth of birding, I “only” came across 15 or so Rough-legged Hawks, about half-a-dozen eagles, and some scattered Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers. I usually find multiple Prairie Falcons and an occasional Merlin or Gyrfalcon, but no falcons of any kind were seen on this trip. A quiet day, but still enjoyable, thanks to the occasional raptor sighting, and VERY large numbers of Mule Deer, Pronghorn, and even 4 or 5 (normally very shy) coyotes.

Not only were the birds rather sparse on this day, but photo opportunities weren’t great.  Here are a (very) few photos from the day, including the highlight…a gorgeous, pure white Snowy Owl.

Snowy Owl - Bubo scandiacus

The definite highlight of the day, an absolutely stunning, pure-white Snowy Owl, found on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. Clearly a mature male with the lack of black barring. Most birds we see around here in winter seem to be younger and/or female birds with substantial black barring. Unfortunately he was pretty shy, and preferred to observe from a distance on a high point in a nearby corn field.

Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos

I love Golden Eagles, particularly when you get to see them at such close range such as this. Such massive, massive birds.

Pronghorn - Antilocapra americana

Pronghorn are something you don’t always see on the Fort PIerre National Grasslands, but they are around. On this day, I saw multiple large groups, including this group (there were about 30 animals in all) moving quickly through a field.

Mule Deer - Odocoileus hemionus

A quite common sight on the Grasslands, Mule Deer were bunched up and quite common on this day. I saw several very large bucks such as this. Shouldn’t be long before they lose their antlers and start growing next year’s.Mul

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.

Fall Sparrows and More…

A wonderful, crisp, sunny fall morning, the perfect morning to sparrowing!! Not too many people get excited about sparrows, but this time of year in South Dakota, there’s such a wonderful variety of species that are moving through. One of my favorite kinds of birding trips…finding a weedy field in the fall, setting up in a quiet spot, and sitting back and enjoying all the sparrow species that are feeding on grass and weed seeds. Some are species we have during the summer as well, such as Savannah and Song Sparrows, but we also get some wonderful migrants such as Harris’s Sparrows and Lincoln’s Sparrows.

The crème de la crème though…Le Conte’s Sparrows. They’re a bird many birders haven’t seen, and even when they’re around, they can sometimes be hard to find as they prefer to hide in dense vegetation. In fall around here though, they are often quite bold.  This morning I saw more Le Conte’s Sparrows than I think I ever have in one day.  One weedy field west of Tea, South Dakota was chock-full of them. They were feeding on weed seeds near a gravel road, and there were times I’d have half a dozen in sight at one time.  A great treat, and I did get some good photos as well.

Photos from this morning:

Le Conte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii

A gorgeous little Le Conte’s Sparrow, basking in the early morning sun along a weedy fenceline.

Lincon's Sparrow - Melospiza lincolnii

Probably my 2nd favorite sparrow, a Lincoln’s Sparrow. They have a touch more color and pattern than many sparrows, and just always look so elegant.

Swamp Sparrow - Melospiza georgiana

A Swamp Sparrow perched among the cattails.

Savannah Sparrow - Passerculus sandwichensis

The most numerous of the sparrow species seen this morning, a Savannah Sparrow.

Song Sparrow - Melospiza melodia

One of our summer breeding residents, there’s a ton of Song Sparrows around right now as well, including many first-year birds.

Sedge Wren - Cistothorus platensis

Seems like Le Conte’s Sparrows and Sedge Wrens often go hand-in-hand when I see them in the fall. The same weedy field with the many Le Conte’s also had several Sedge Wrens.

Franklin's Gull - Franklin's Gull October 7th, 2017 Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Other than sparrows, the most plentiful birds this morning were gulls. The skies were full of gulls, as were the areas near the dump (no surprise) and the bigger water bodies in western Minnehaha County. I didn’t pan through all the massive flocks to look for rarities. Ring-billed Gulls and these guys, Franklin’s Gulls, were present by the thousands.

Ring-billed gull - Larus delawarensis

Thousands of Ring-billed Gulls were around. Here one lounges at the beach at Wall lake.

Birding on a COLD May morning

I haven’t been birding all week. I haven’t done much of anything all week. Bit of an issue with an eye, and I was wearing a patch over it all week.  Normally, if it’s mid-May, I’d be out birding a lot, given that it’s pretty much my favorite time of year to bird anyway.  However, the weather has been so cold, gloomy, and wet, that I’m not sure how much I would have gone out today, one eye or not.  Today isn’t any better, but I was getting stir crazy and had to get out for a couple hours. Took the eye patch off and headed down to Newton Hills State Park.

It was 38 degrees and windy when I left the house, but despite the cold and gloom, it was a pretty darn good morning birding. There weren’t many warblers around, but quality sure made up for the lack of quantity.  I first heard a bird I didn’t recognize, and then saw him in shrubs near the path…a Black-throated Blue Warbler, only the 2nd time I’ve seen one in South Dakota.  They’re  usually found much further to the east.  Despite the cold, he was pretty active, moving through the shrubs looking for food.  Given that I’ve never photographed one in South Dakota, I stayed with him for almost half an hour and took what photo opportunities he gave me.  There weren’t many, but I finally did get a decent shot.  Here are some photos from this morning.

Black-throated Blue Warbler - Setophaga caerulescens

The first photo of a Black-throated Blue Warbler that I’ve gotten in South Dakota, and only the 2nd time I’ve ever seen one here. This is why May birding can be so spectacular here…you never know what migrant you might run across.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Archilochus colubris

A chilly looking Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Given that we haven’t seen the sun in about a week, it’s not much of a surprise I wasn’t able to get the gorget to show that beautiful red color. Despite the cold and his miserable looking appearance here, he was actually quite active, flitting about and courting an unseen female. I watched him for about 15 minutes as he’d perch, then periodically zoom up into the air and do the U-shaped courtship flight that males perform.

Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis

Yeah, I’ve got a ton of Northern Cardinal photos. But when a gorgeous male pops up right in front of you and is practically BEGGING to be photographed, it’s hard to refuse.

Spotted Sandpiper - Actitis macularius

A Spotted Sandpiper, one of my favorite little sandpipers, and one of the few that hang around and breed here.

A SPECTACULAR morning of birding.

God I love the month of May.  It’s the absolute perfect time of year in South Dakota, both in terms of weather, and especially in terms of birding! All the summer residents are arriving or have arrived, and we have SO many cool migrants moving through the state on their way north.

Today I got up before dawn and wanted to bird the morning hours. I arrived at Newton Hills State Park just before dawn, and right before I even pulled into the park, I saw a big shape in the trees on the side of the road.  A Barred Owl!  Only the 4th time I’ve seen them in the state, Barred Owls are few and far between in a state better known for its grasslands than forests.  WONDERFUL way to start the day, particularly since it was such a photo-cooperative bird!  The rest of the morning was spectacular as well…some photos from the day below.

Barred Owl - Strix varia

Only the 4th time I’ve seen them in South Dakota, a gorgeous Barred Owl right before sunrise. He was in a forest clearing near the entrance to Newton Hills State Park in Lincoln County.

Purple Martin - Progne subis

There’s a home on the edge of Hartford, South Dakota that has 3 Purple Martin houses. They seem to reliable hold Purple Martins every year, and this year was no exception. Beautiful birds, both in appearance and in song. It’s tough to get the good light on them though so you can see the purple! This is probably the best Purple Martin photo I’ve ever been able to get.

Ovenbird - Seiurus aurocapilla

THIS is the sound of spring to me…a tiny Ovenbird, singing it’s heart out from the middle of the forest. There were many Ovenbirds singing at Newton Hills State Park this morning.

Wilson's Phalarope - Phalaropus tricolor

A Wilson’s Phalarope stretching its wings. Beautiful birds, particularly when you see them in large groups doing their “spinning” behavior at the top of the water as they feed.

Virginia Rail - Rallus limicola

A Virginia Rail, perhaps better named “Swamp Ghost”. I hear them all the time! Seeing them is another matter, but usually if you hang out in an area where they’re calling, you’ll eventually get a glimpse of one moving through the marsh.

Yellow-rumped Warbler - Setophaga coronata

A Yellow-rumped Warbler, by far the most common warbler we get moving through. This guy is a preview to the “big show”. Many Yellow-rumped Warblers are around right now, but not many other warbler species. That will change in the coming days…warbler migration in South Dakota can be spectacular!

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.

Losing the Rainforests…and South Dakota habitat

This week the New York Times had a wonderful (as always), yet sad piece about deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Approximately 360,000 acres in the region were deforested every year during the 1990s, a number that jumped to 660,000 acres a year during the early 2000s.  A massive push to slow deforestation rates occurred in the 2000s, temporarily slowing the rate of deforestation.  However, in the last few years the deforestation rate has skyrocketed, to over 850,000 acres every year, an area the size of Rhode Island. Every. Year.  Clearly that’s not sustainable.  Even the supposed “success” in the mid-2000s of slowing the rate of deforestation only “slowed” it, it certainly didn’t stop it or reverse the trend.  That’s the world we live in now, where SLOWING the inexorable loss of habitat is considered a major conservation success story, even if those slower rates still would have wiped out most of the rainforest during this century.

We don’t have rainforests in South Dakota.  From a birder’s perspective, we don’t have much bird habitat whatsoever in the eastern part of the state, given the preponderance of corn and soybeans that takes up the vast majority of the landscape.  Still, as a birder, I have reveled in the little reservoir pockets of remaining habitat, small micro-habitats where birds have thrived, despite the massive use of the landscape for agricultural production.  I used to bring my camera with me EVERYWHERE.  Every day when I went to work, my camera came with me.  I would stop at these little pockets of habitat, and take bird photos. Over the years, I’ve gotten some truly wonderful photographs in these small remaining pockets of habitat.

I don’t bring my camera with me to work any more. I don’t bring my camera with me when I run errands. In fact, I don’t do nearly as much birding right around Brandon and Sioux Falls as I used.  Much of the reason is that many of my former little micro-habitat “hotspots” are gone, something that’s just happened in the last several years.  There have been multiple reasons behind it.  The first is simple economics…with demand for corn and soybeans, farmers are cultivating every possible patch of land to maximize production. Fence rows, shelter belts, and other little pockets of habitat are being plowed under to expand planted acreage. There have also been active “safety” programs in the last few years to clear brush and trees from the edges of the roads.  It’s been a truly massive project, with roads all over the state undergoing this kind of “grooming”, removing habitat that is anywhere close to road edges.

We don’t have the rainforest like the Amazon, but habitat loss is having an impact right here in South Dakota.  Here are some small, and some larger, examples of what’s happening with habitat change in South Dakota, and how it’s affecting bird species. Bird photos accompanying each image are some of the actual bird photos I’ve gotten from each location over the years.

Ditch Road - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ditch Road, just north of Sioux Falls in Minnehaha County. There’s a stretch of road that runs over 5 miles that has a straight drainage ditch running along side it. In the last year, nearly all of the thick trees and shrubs that were found between the road and the waterway have been removed (the area encircled in red shows the vegetation that used to be there). It’s part of the aforementioned “safety” program to remove things that people could evidently crash into and get hurt.  (I always thought the point of driving was to stay ON the road). With the water and vegetation, it used to be an absolutely wonderful spot for songbirds and even some waterfowl, particularly in migration.  Warblers, Vireos, and Chickadees and Nuthatches, many woodpeckers, and other songbird species were often found here.  Not any more…

Big Sioux Recreation Area near Brandon, South Dakota

Big Sioux Recreation near Brandon, South Dakota – One that’s near and dear to my heart, given that we live on the edge of Brandon across the street from the park (house shown above). One of the best places to bird in the park used to be right amidst the campground areas themselves. The looped road shown above was lined with cedar trees, and thick brush separated many of the camping stalls from each other. The image above shows what it used to look like. The cedars in particular really attracted many birds, including one memorable winter when a hoarde of about 20 Long-eared Owls took up residence in the Campground (see photo above). In the last 2 years, all of the cedars have been removed from the campground area, as have most of the shrubs that separated camping stalls. If you want to play football? Thanks to all the vegetation clearing, it’s now MUCH more open in the campgrounds! If you really LOVE being close to other people while camping, with no pesky vegetation to get between you and the next guy, you’ll love the changes!  If you’re a bird lover? Not so much…

Minnehaha County Wetland

Minnehaha County Wetland — This one has a Google Earth image that actually catches the transformation as it happened. This is a small area in northern Minnehaha County on 253rd Street and near 481st Avenue.  Prior to 2015, the area in red was a mix of wetland, damp grasses, and weedy patches.  It was an absolutely WONDERFUL place to bird, a little patch of wet, weedy habitat that attracted species like Le Conte’s Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, Bobolinks, Sedge Wrens, Marsh Wrens, and many other birds. In 2015, the owner installed drain tile, shown as the lines that run through the image above.  The drain tile dried out the land so it could be used for cropland, and today, this entire patch is a corn field. Drain tile installation has been RAMPANT in eastern South Dakota in the last few years. In some cases it’s been done to improve conditions on existing cropland.  In many areas though, like this, it’s being installed in areas that are naturally too poor to support crops, and need an artificial drainage system.  It’s hard to have Swamp Sparrows in an area, if you have no “swamp”.

South Dakota Shelterbelt

Shelterbelts – There aren’t a lot of woodlands and forests in eastern South Dakota, but the variety of birdlife in these little oases of trees can be truly astounding.  During migration they are definite bird “traps”, with tired songbirds stopped to rest and feed in these areas before continuing on with their migration. The photos are just examples of what you can find in these shelterbelts, as I haven’t birded this specific location before. However, it’s a great example of what’s been going on in much of South Dakota. This is north of Sioux Falls, near the intersections of Highways 121 and 122. This shelterbelt had been there the entire 23+ years we’ve lived in South Dakota, and it had some very large mature, old trees.  That changed last year, when all of the woody vegetation in the entire area circled in red was removed. This last summer it was all a big open field, planted in corn. There are many places in eastern South Dakota where this is happening, as farmers try to compensate for lowered corn and soy prices in the last few years by planting more and more acres.

Increase in Cropland Cash Rents - 2009 to 2014

What’s behind South Dakota cropland gains? — So what’s driving the agricultural change in South Dakota?  Beyond the little micro-habitat examples given above, there are some very large swaths of grassland being converted to cropland, with some much of the new cropland on land that had never been plowed before. The map above gives you some indication of the economic forces driving cropland gains in the state, and the concomitant loss of vegetated habitats.  Some of the largest recent changes in cash rent values for cropland in recent years are concentrated right in eastern South Dakota. As this article states, South Dakota had the largest increases in overall cropland value from 2004 to 2014, an increase of over 350% in just 10 years as average cropland values rose from $734 an acre to over $3,400 an acre. Prices for the major crop commodities of corn and soy have softened substantially in recent years, but that seems to have driven an intensification of land use in some parts of the state, as farmers try to maximize production by expanding the acreage that they plant.

Grassland conversion in the Great Plains

Grassland Conversion in the Great Plains – In 2013, colleagues/acquaintances published a paper the summarized the recent loss of grassland and wetland in the northern Great Plains. The map above shows the percentage of grasslands in an area that were converted to soybeans or corn between 2006 and 2011. Southern Iowa is a bit misleading, given that this shows “percentage” change, and there wasn’t nearly as much grassland there in 2006 as there was in parts of eastern South Dakota.  It really has been the eastern Dakotas where a huge chunk of cropland gains in the U.S. have occurred in recent years.  From a birder’s perspective…it hasn’t been a happy story.  Click here for the journal paper from Chris Wright and Mike Wimberly.

Where did the Fort Pierre National Grasslands raptors go?

Central South Dakota - Raptor Sightings

Winter raptor sightings in central South Dakota over the last 5 years. The Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves used to be “the” hotspot for winter raptors, including great chances for rarities like Gyrfalcons and Snowy Owls. In recent years, raptor numbers are incredibly low compared to areas just south of the Grasslands, in and around Presho and Kennebec. Click on the map above (or any other image) for a larger view.

I still vividly remember the first time I had ever visited the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.  It was 2000, and I had been bitten by the birding bug.  Hard. Much of my free time was spent birding and taking photos, and as a new birder, there certainly were plenty of “new” birds to discover, just around my home town of Brandon.  One of my friends at work was an avid, lifetime birder, and he not only helped with identification of the birds in my (quite poor!) early photos, but he also helped to stoke the birding fires.  That was very evident when reports came in of a Gyrfalcon on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.  In the years since, the Grasslands have become known as a wonderful location for finding these very rare winter visitors, but at the time, it was something rather novel.  Given that my lifetime birder friend had never seen a Gyrfalcon, I knew this was something special for a birder and I was excited to try to find it. Thus began 16 winters of making periodic birding treks to the Grasslands.

It couldn’t have been easier on that first visit.  The famed “Pheasant Farm Gyrfalcon” was hanging around a farmstead that raised pheasants for hunting operations in the region.  I talked with Doug B. in Pierre, a great birding contact who also helped a lot in my early birding years, and he provided directions (we’re WELL before cell phones and google maps here!).  He had said that he was likely to be around that location early on a Saturday morning, so I made plans to get up ridiculously early and drive to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and arrive at that spot just after dawn.

Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus

The ubiquitous Rough-Legged Hawk, once seemingly found on every other fence post and telephone pole on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. However, for the last 5 years, they’ve been curiously absent.

That cold December day came, I set the alarm, packed up my equipment at 4:30, and started the 3+ hour drive.  My timing was good, and I arrived on County Line Road right around 8:00 AM. As I reached an old abandoned schoolhouse that marked the location close to the pheasant farm, I saw a pair of cars.  I got out, saw Doug B., and asked if they’d seen the Gyrfalcon.  He smiled, and pointed to the top of a nearby telephone pole, and there it was!  My first Gyrfalcon, about as easy a “capture” as a birder can ever hope for with such a rarity!

From that day forward, I was hooked on the Grasslands.  Given that it’s about 3 1/2 hours from home, it’s not a love of convenience!  But I quickly learned to appreciate the isolation and beauty of the area. Most days on the Grasslands, you run into very few people, and there are times after a nice wet period where the beauty of the grasslands and flowers can be really spectacular.  But of course, it’s the birding that was the main attractant for me, and my GOODNESS what incredible birding there was.  Winter in the middle of South Dakota may not sound like a time for vibrant bird life, but the Fort Pierre National Grasslands was building a reputation as a magnet for raptors. This not only included one of the best chances in all of the lower 48 states to see a Gyrfalcon, but also a diverse list of other raptors that spent their winter months on the Grasslands.  Rough-legged Hawks were found in extremely high numbers, such that many times it was quite rare to drive more than half a mile on County Line Road and NOT see a Rough-legged Hawk hanging out on a telephone pole or fence post.  It’s the first place I saw a massive, incredibly powerful Golden Eagle.  It’s the place where I first saw a Ferruginous Hawk, a bird with such a brilliantly white underside that from a distance I thought I was about to see my first Snowy Owl.  It wasn’t that year, but later the Fort Pierre National Grasslands WERE the place I saw my first Snowy Owl, including one incredible year where Snowy Owls were practically as abundant as the ever-present Rough-legged Hawks. It’s the first place I saw a Prairie Falcon, a bird that for a long time was a photographic nemesis for me given their predilection for flushing and flying away whenever I got within 1/4 of a mile of one.  It’s the first place I saw a Short-eared Owl, a summer-time encounter where two adults were tending 4 younger birds.  That encounter concluded with an adult circling me for several minutes as I stood outside my car, resulting in one of my most memorable photo opportunities (and a new Canon DSLR camera body, thanks to the photo winning a nationwide Canon photo contest!).

Winter Sightings - Rough-legged Hawk

Winter sightings of just Rough-legged Hawks. Note the incredibly dense populations near I-90, and the sharp drop off towards the Grasslands in the north.

There have been days on the Grasslands where a full, complete day of birding could simply consist of driving back-and-forth on County Line Road and occasionally taking one of the small gravel roads that connect to it.  One could potentially stay within a relatively small driving area of 10 to 20 square miles, and find dozens, upon dozens, upon dozens of raptors.  Since that first day in 2000, I’ve had some of my most memorable photo experiences on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in winter, including finally getting a close shot of a Prairie Falcon, having a curious first-year Gyrfalcon circle me in curiosity in much the same way that Short-eared Owl did years before, capturing a photo of the massive wingspan of a Golden Eagle as it takes flight, and finally capturing my first decent photos of a Snowy Owl.  During all my winter trips to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, I learned to appreciate not only the Grasslands themselves, but the area south of the Grasslands.  I’d necessarily drive the I-90 corridor past Reliance, Kennebec, and Presho to get to the Grasslands themselves, and couldn’t help notice all the raptors in the area.  Soon, my “Grasslands” birding trips became “central South Dakota” birding trips, with days where I’d usually spend mornings in the Presho area and afternoons on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.  Birding life was good, and many a cold, dismal, South Dakota winter was saved by the vibrant display of life that was always available on the Grasslands.

And then…something happened.  It started about 5 years ago, when I planned one of my “usual” winter trips to the area.  The first half of the trip was the same as always…plenty of raptors of all kinds in the Presho area, and plenty of photo opportunities.  However, as I headed north towards the Grasslands themselves, the birds disappeared. Given my past history of finding winter raptors on the Grasslands, I kept expecting the birds to show up around the next corner, but…they never did.  There was an occasional raptor here or there, primarily Golden Eagles or Ferruginous Hawks, but the incredible density of Rough-legged Hawks, the species that once made up a good 80% of all the raptors found on the Grasslands, was simply absent.  Almost TOTALLY absent.

Greater Prairie Chicken - Tympanuchus cupido

A Greater Prairie Chicken on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. Whatever the cause of the raptor decline on the Grasslands, it doesn’t appear to be because there’s been a noticeable decline of gamebirds.

That first winter after the raptors disappeared, I just speculated that something happened to the prey base that attracted the raptors. When driving the Grasslands, you always saw plenty of Ring-necked Pheasants, Greater Prairie Chickens, and Sharp-tailed Grouse.  There were several times where I’d sat in awe as a Gyrfalcon dive-bombed pheasants in search of a meal, and clearly the gamebirds in the area were one thing that attracted raptors.  There didn’t seem to be any obvious crash in the populations of these three gamebird species. The famed Pheasant Farm near County Line Road had stopped raising pheasants, but that’s such a local phenomenon that it couldn’t explain the drop in raptors across all the grasslands.  Indeed, this winter I visited the Grasslands a couple of days after Christmas, when a massive storm had coated the region in snow and crusty ice.  I ran across truly massive groups of Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie Chickens, milling about in the open and looking for foraging spots in the ice-locked vegetation. Yet despite all the gamebirds that were out, raptors were again curiously absent.  I didn’t spot a single Rough-legged Hawk on the Grasslands themselves, despite easily finding over 30 earlier in the day down by Presho.

If not a decline in gamebirds, what else?  One factor that may play some role is the loss of some truly massive prairie dog towns in the region.  On County Line Road itself, there have always been a few locations for prairie dogs.  Not all raptors target prairie dogs, but Ferruginous Hawks certainly key in on prairie dogs, and prairie dog towns.  Over the last several years, many of the prairie dog towns in the area have disappeared.  Those outside of the administrative boundaries of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves are fair game for poisoning, to clear the land of these “pests” (don’t get me started).  The largest prairie dog town I knew of in the area was on the east end of County Line Road, just outside of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands itself.  It stretched for almost a mile on the north side of the road, with more scattered spots on the south side of the road.  A few years ago, that entire area was clearly poisoned, and the massive colony is gone.

However, the decline in prairie dogs also fails to fully explain the decline in raptors.  There are NO prairie dog towns down by Presho and Kennebec, yet raptors of every kind are still found there in incredible numbers. Perhaps it’s a decline in the small rodent population in the area? For a raptor such as a Rough-legged Hawk, mice and voles make up a huge part of the diet.  Could there have been some cyclic decline in small rodent numbers on the grasslands?  That was my initial thought, but it’s been 5 years since the noticeable and sharp decline in raptor numbers.  You wouldn’t think some repetitive cycle of boom-and-bust rodent populations would be in “bust” mode for so long. Perhaps it’s related to the Prairie Dog poisoning? Could that have also had an impact on small rodents in the area?

A Black-tailed Prairie Dog. There’s little doubt number of these guys HAVE declined around the fringes of the Grasslands, given active poisoning programs.

One other major prey source in the area, particularly for Merlins and Prairie Falcons, are the sometimes huge flocks of Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks, and Snow Buntings that are found in the area in the winter. The vast majority of Merlin sightings I’ve had in South Dakota have been on the Grasslands themselves or in the Presho area.  During my last trip over Christmas, the first raptor I saw at dawn was a Merlin munching on a freshly caught Horned Lark by Kennebec, and I’ve had numerous other occasions over the years where I’ve seen Merlins feeding on Horned Larks or Lapland Longspurs.   You do see roving flocks of Longspurs, Larks, and Snow Buntings on the Grasslands,certainly enough to capture the attention of a raptor that’s passing through, but the numbers of those potential prey species have seemed higher in the Presho/Kennebec area in recent years.

The maps that are shown in this post are indicative of the raptor numbers on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands vs. the I-90 corridor in recent years. These are all actual sightings made by myself over the last 5 years, and recorded in eBird.  During each and every trip I’ve made in the last 5 years, I take the same general routes. I start in the Kennebec/Presho area around dawn, by mid-morning start to work my way up through the Grasslands themselves, and then start to head back down south again by mid-afternoon. It’s clearly not a precise, spatially distributed sample of the space shown on the map, but over the last 5 years, I have driven most of the roads in a rectangle bounded by Highways 1806 and 273 on the east, an area typically no more than 5-8 miles south of I-90 south of Presho, and Kennebec, westward to Highway 83 and a few miles to the west (particularly around the Sheriff Dam and Richland Wildlife Area, and northward to County-Line Road itself and a few miles north of it.  Good roads are few and far between in parts of the area, particularly north-south roads that take you from Presho northward into the Grasslands.  As a result, the maps here tend to show the 2 major north-south gravel road that connect the two areas, as well as other more easily traveled roads in the area.

Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus

A Gyrfalcon taken during the “Golden Years” on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. This is a very dark-phase juvenile, and I’ve never seen one quite like this. The Grasslands may still be a good spot to try to find this mega-rarity, but it’s not an ideal spot for other winter raptors any more.

I wish I had eBird recordings for the “golden years” on the Grasslands, prior to this last 5 year period, something against which these maps could be compared.  I DO have a vast number of raptor photos taken on the Grasslands themselves from 2000 to present, with most of those from 2011 and earlier.  What’s clear from these maps, however, is just how sharp a delineation there is between the I-90 corridor, and raptor numbers to the north on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves.  On the map at the top that shows all raptor sightings I’ve recorded, note the one north-south road that extends up from the I-90 corridor, about halfway between Presho and Vivian. That’s my main path for getting north, and while there are plenty of raptor sightings south of the Grasslands, those sightings drop off sharply almost exactly at the Grassland boundary itself.  On EVERY trip over the last 5 years, I will drive County line Road, an east-west road along the county boundary (visible towards the north side of these maps).  Once THE hotspot for raptors, in the last 5 years, I have very few raptor sightings of any kind along this road.  Rough-legged Hawk sightings on the Grasslands are incredibly small when compared to the area just to the south of the Grasslands. Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers have always seemed to be much more abundant in the southern part of this area, but in recent years they are almost completely absent once you get 4 or 5 miles north of I-90.  Bald Eagles are often incredibly abundant in and around the Presho area.  I have had days where a dozen or more Bald Eagles are sitting in one concentrated area, and there are also at least 3 active Bald Eagle nests that I’ve found in and around the Presho and Kennebec area.  I have a few Bald Eagle sightings around the Grasslands, but that’s certainly dwarfed by how many have been found in and around Presho.

There are some species that are more evenly distributed in the area.  Golden Eagles are a species I’m almost certain to find on any trip to the area, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether I’m on the Grasslands, or in the Presho/Kennebec area.  Prairie Falcons also seem rather randomly distributed, as they seem rather unpredictable and likely to pop up just about anywhere on this map.  Ferruginous Hawks also seem rather even distributed.  Is there something in common about these species that may make them more likely to be found on the grasslands? Golden Eagles and Ferruginous Hawks are much more likely to key in on mammals, including rabbits and other larger mammals.  Perhaps if it is a population crash of small rodents, they’re still on the Grasslands as they don’t depend on those smaller prey as much as Rough-legged Hawks or other raptors. Prairie Falcons can feed on a variety of prey items, including small birds like Horned Larks, and even large birds like Greater Prairie Chickens.  Perhaps they too would be less sensitive to a decline in small rodent numbers.

I’ll continue to make my winter treks to the central part of the state, including visits to the Grasslands.  Given that the Grasslands themselves are still the location where I’ve seen most of my Gyrfalcons over the years (including the years prior to the data represented in these maps), that alone is clearly worth the time!  Hopefully over the next few years the Grasslands recover from whatever “ails” it in terms of supporting winter raptor numbers.

Fall day birding

Northern Flicker - Colaptes auratus

A Northern Flicker feeding on juniper berries. Hanging around fruiting juniper/cedar trees at this time of year is always “fruitful” (ha-ha), given the number of species that will feed on the berries.

I love fall in South Dakota.  It’s my favorite time of year, by far.  Yes, I know what’s coming in a couple of months, and I’m not exactly thrilled when the snow flies and it’s 10 below!  But nothing beats the gorgeous fall weather here, with cool nights and perfect fall days. I’m not particularly fond of heat and humidity, and while summers in eastern South Dakota are usually relatively pleasant, this past summer was an exception, with many more days of >90 degree heat and humidity than we’ve had in the past several summers.  The cooler fall weather is certainly welcome!

The birding is pretty good in the fall as well!  I’m a bit of an oddball, in that one of the big attractions for fall birding for me are the many varieties of sparrows that move through.  Yes, the primary color you’re going to see on most of the sparrows is brown, but there are some truly beautiful sparrows that move through in migration, birds that to me rival the more colorful songbirds in beauty. Today I was trying to find and photography Le Conte’s and Nelson’s Sparrows, two species that are generally uncommon here in migration.  I saw a Le Conte’s, but no Nelson’s and no photos of either.  It was still a beautiful and productive day.

One of the things that’s so amazing about fall migration are the concentrations of birds you run into.  There were gulls by the thousands in western Minnehaha County, mostly Franklin’s Gulls.  Huge flocks of mixed blackbirds (mostly Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds, but I also saw a handful of Rusty Blackbirds in a wet field) were gathering for the fall migration.  Sparrows were abundant in both variety and number.  No real rarities for the day (although I don’t see Rusty Blackbirds often), but a nice day nonetheless!

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