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An actual day of BIRDING!!

After being given a new role at work a month ago, I’ve been traveling and quite busy. I was determined to do something today I haven’t done in quite a while…take a whole day and just go birding. I wasn’t exactly optimistic when the day started. I wanted to see if raptors were starting to show up in the central part of the state, but thought it was probably a little too early.

I needn’t have worried! There were still a lot of Red-tailed Hawks around, probably more than the Rough-legged Hawks I saw. That’s one sign it’s still early in the winter raptor season, as pretty soon Rough-legged Hawks will greatly outnumber Red-tailed Hawks in that part of the state. It’s also early for any Gyrfalcon to be around on the grasslands, as it seems they typically don’t do so until most of the water freezes (I assume they hunt waterfowl around open water). But overall, I had great weather and a boatload of raptors today.

I did my “usual” route…starting out around the Presho and Kennebec area near dawn, working my way west, then heading up towards Pierre, including a stop on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. For the day I ended up seeing at least 75 individual raptors, including ~10 Golden Eagles, ~10 Bald Eagles, ~25 Red-tailed Hawks, ~20 Rough-legged Hawks, plus 3 Ferruginous Hawks, 2 Prairie Falcons, several Northern Harriers, and even a Merlin.

Even better, I got a lifer below Oahe dam! A “photographic lifer”, a White-winged Scoter that was diving right next to shore and gobbling up crawfish. It’s a species I hadn’t seen before in South Dakota until about a week and a half ago, and today I was able to get some very close range photos.

A great day! And given how many raptors were around so early in the winter season, here’s hoping it’s an utterly spectacular winter for raptors in South Dakota. Some pics from the day:

Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos
One of the rare times a Golden Eagle has sat still on its perch while I snapped a photo. And even here, he only put up with me for a couple of quick shots before he slowly lifted off and sailed away.
Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis
Three Ferruginous Hawks for the day…always a treat. It was nice to get one in a natural perch, as I think every photo I have of them is in flight, or on a fence post.
White-winged Scoter - Melanitta deglandi
A (photographic) lifer! This White-winged Scoter was very close to the rip-rap along the shoreline below Oahe Dam. I ended up watching him for about 20 minutes, and in that time he caught and gobbled down two crawfish.
Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus
A Rough-legged Hawk in flight. Usually the most numerous raptor in the areas I go in winter, there were quite a few around, but I suspect many haven’t arrived yet.
Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis
The first bird of the day, a Red-tailed Hawk in the warm morning light of dawn. The most numerous raptor of the day, although as winter starts to set in, some of these will drift further south.
Red-tailed Hawk - Krider's
Another Red-tailed Hawk, but a VERY different looking one! This is what I would call a Krider’s…a very pale variant of a Red-tailed Hawk.
Lesser Black-backed gull - Larus fuscus
There were certainly a lot of gulls below Oahe Dam, taking advantage of the massive amount of water they’re pushing through right now in an effort to get water levels down by next spring. Including in the mix were at least three Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

Fall Sparrows, and rare visitor

I just haven’t had much time to take the new Canon 90D for a whirl, but went out to Good Earth State Park this morning at dawn. I LOVE birding this time of year, particularly for migrating sparrows. We get such an incredible variety that move through.

The star of the morning though was a rather lost Rock Wren. There aren’t any records of Rock Wren in eastern South Dakota in eBird, but a birder found one at Good Earth yesterday. Not really expecting to find him this morning, I was pleasantly surprised to see him sitting on a curb in the parking lot right as I got out of the car! He was an extremely tame little dude, at one point letting me sit about 6 feet away from him on the curb while we both warmed up in the morning sun.

Great morning, including for pics! And when shooting fall sparrows, it’s always wonderful to get some beautiful LeConte’s Sparrows in the mix.

Rock Wren - Salpinctes obsoletus
Rock Wren and his reflection in the early morning sun. The material is a polished stone countertop on a little outdoor bar area behind the Good Earth State Park visitor’s center! A rather unusual bird perch but I loved getting him in this light, with the reflection.
LeConte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii
For me, LeConte’s Sparrows are just about the most beautiful sparrow out there. Gorgeous patterns, along with that orangish facial coloring.
Field Sparrow - Spizella pusilla
Field Sparrow. One of my favorite species, largely because I love hearing them when we walk through the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a state park across the street from where we live.
Orange-crowned Warbler - Vermivora celata
An Orange-crowned Warbler amidst some of the few remaining flowers at Good Earth. These guys and Yellow-rumped Warblers are some late-migrating warblers that you often see here in October.
Savannah Sparrow - Passerculus sandwichensis
Savannah Sparrow, which were downright abundant in the grassland area as you drive into Good Earth State Park.
White-tailed Deer - Odocoileus virginianus
A rare photo of something without feathers! But can’t really pass up an opportunity like this when it comes along. Near the visitor’s center.
Harris' Sparrow - Zonotrichia querula
One of my favorite fall migrants (and sometimes winter-long visitor), this was the only Harris’s Sparrow I saw this morning.
Lincoln's Sparrow - Melospiza lincolnii
An inquisitive Lincoln’s Sparrow, wondering who the bundled up fool was on the walking path that was doing all the “pishing”.
Rock Wren - Salpinctes obsoletus
Another photo of my little Rock Wren friend. This was when he was sitting on the curb right next to me when the sun finally came over the horizon and started to warm things up.
LeConte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii
And another LeConte’s Sparrow…can’t resist taking photos of them, despite having dozens and dozens.
Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus
Red-bellied Woodpecker

The science behind a bird fallout…there’s an app for that!!!

Birding the Sioux Falls area in April and the first half of May was…sloooooooooooooowwwww. With the late cold weather and snow, and continued wet spring precipitation, there was certainly plenty of water around (and there still is). But shorebirds were very slow all spring near Sioux Falls (perhaps just spread out?). Sparrow migration was utterly spectacular in April, but other songbirds? Once the sparrows left, it seemed like there weren’t any other songbirds filling the void. Certainly not warblers, which were few and far between for much of May. With the South Dakota Ornithologist’s Union (SDOU) meeting in Brandon on May 17-19, and with an incredibly wet forecast, the prognosis for good birding wasn’t great.

And then a funny thing happened…songbird migration ended up being utterly spectacular that weekend. The birds seemed to have arrived overnight, with warblers galore, and plenty of other songbirds as well. I personally had a 20-warbler day that Saturday (the 18th), and that’s with me whiffing on a few species that others saw in the area. It was one of the best, if not the best, warbler and songbird days I’ve had here in the 20 years I’ve been birding.

So what happened? As a scientist, I say LET’S CHECK THE SCIENCE behind it! You know how they say “There’s an app for that?” Well there’s also typically a scientific explanation behind…everything, if you look hard enough. That’s certainly true in this case.

For one, let’s check the weather radar for the overnight period from Friday, May 17th through Saturday May 18th. The weather that Friday was cloudy and rainy, driven by a low pressure system and a slowly moving front moving northeastward out of Nebraska. With the system predicted to generally stall over our area for the weekend, the forecast was bleak.

May 17th, 2019 - Weather Map
Weather map on 6:00AM (CST) on Friday, May 17th, showing a stalled to slowly moving stationary front just to our south. The forecast was for the low pressure system in Colorado to slowly move northeastward, bring showers and thunderstorms to the region for Friday night and into the weekend.

The weather system did move northeasterly through the afternoon and evening, triggering storms both along the trailing warm front to the south through Nebraska and Kansas, as well as more unsettled weather wrapping around the low pressure system. Moderate to strong northeasterly winds were found behind the low pressure system, but in front of the low were southerly and southeasterly winds…including in the area around Sioux Falls. It took until daybreak for the low pressure system to reach the Sioux Falls area, basically sitting directly over the region. But from the previous evening through daybreak on May 18th, an area from Sioux Falls, southward into extreme eastern Nebraska and all of Iowa and Minnesota were subject to south and southeasterly winds.

Surface weather map at 6:00 AM CST, showing the low sitting almost directly over Sioux Falls. But all night long, the counter-clockwise winds around the low funneled southerly and southeasterly winds through an area from far eastern South Dakota, and eastward into Iowa and Minnesota.

Given how slow the migration had been all spring long, the birds had to be…somewhere. But where? How could science have explained the fallout of warblers and other birds that weekend? The weather map and the southeasterly winds provide one clue, but the other is provided by weather radar itself. Since the 1950s, it’s been understood that weather radar could potentially identify features in the sky other than the weather…and that includes birds. There’s even a term for it now…Radar Aeroecology. A 1956 paper by Bonham and Blake discussed the radar echoes provided by both birds and flying insects. While research continued in the decades since, it’s only recently that the information has been made available for a birder’s benefit.

The animated map below shows national-scale radar returns for the night of May 17th. The advancing low and front, and associated precipitation, can be seen as it moves out of Colorado, through Nebraska and into South Dakota. But what of the radar returns in the eastern half of the country? Those are birds…birds taking flight just after sunset to resume their spring migration northward. You can identify the “bloom” around each radar location shortly after sunset, with the blooms appearing east to west as the sun sets. Where are the heaviest migration “blooms”? Look at the radars lighting up after sunset in the Midwest…St. Louis…Des Moines…other radars in Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa depicting heavy densities of birds taking flight.

Radar loop from approximately 6:00 PM (CST) Friday, May 17th, 2019 through 6:00 AM Saturday, May 18th, 2019. The areas south and east of Sioux Falls show a clear, very strong signal representing heavy migration of birds taking flight that evening.

But how can we translate those radar echos to where the birds are moving? In recent years, Cornell University, in partnership with multiple academic institutions, have developed “BirdCast“. They have developed algorithms that use weather radar returns to quantify the density of birds, while using short-term weather forecasts to project likely movements. The resultant “BirdCast” provides a 1- to 3-day look on likely bird migration hotspots.

The animated map below provides a depiction of estimated bird migration traffic that night. Ahead of the advancing front, southerly and southeasterly winds were favorable for migration, particularly as large densities of birds were already stacked up from the previous days and weeks. Sioux Falls was on the western edge of this migration hotspot, a beneficiary of favorable weather patterns bringing in birds from Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota.

Birdcast depiction of migration traffic rate (bird density) and directional movements, from about 6:00 pm Friday, May 17th, through 6:00 AM Saturday, May 18th. with northerly winds and lower bird densities in the western Great Plains, very little bird movement is noted. However, ahead of the advancing front, extremely high migration densities are noted from Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa radar sites, with southeasterly winds pushing them northwestward…towards Sioux Falls. The solid lines represent the advancing sunset (red) and sunrise (yellow).

The map below depicts the situation that occurred throughout much of the first half of May. Prevailing weather patterns and storms, along with the cool weather, kept birds stacked up to our south and east, with a very slow spring migration to this point in South Dakota. The week prior to the big Sioux Falls fallout, birds were so far south that the Houston area birders declared a “Lights Out” period from May 9th-12th to avoid confusing the mass of migrating birds. But they had a long ways to go to get to South Dakota.

Houston Audubon "Lights Out" for May 9-12
Image from the Houston Audubon site, calling for a “lights out” period from May 9th to 12th. Heavy migrations were predicted the week before the Sioux Falls fallout…but FAR to our south and east.

The result of the changing weather pattern…an absolutely spectacular weekend of birding in the Sioux Falls area the weekend of May 17-19, particularly as the forecast deluge mostly fizzled out. I admit that even I as a scientist was somewhat skeptical of the Cornell BirdCasts. But after the events of that weekend, count me as a firm believer!

Here are some photos of the spectacular birds of that weekend:

Scarlet Tanager - Piranga olivacea
Scarlet Tanager – May 18th, 2019 Good Earth State Park, South Dakota
Magnolia Warbler - Setophaga magnolia
Magnolia Warbler – May 18th, 2019 – Good Earth State Park, South Dakota
Henslow's Sparrow - Ammodramus henslowii
Henslow’s Sparrow – May 19th, 2019 – Newton Hills State Park, South Dakota. Great weekend of birding overall, AND a lifer? I’ll take it.
Great Crested Flycatcher - Myiarchus crinitus
Great Crested Flycatcher – May 18th, 2019 – Good Earth State Park, South Dakota. Flycatchers in general seemed almost non-existent, prior to this weekend.
Mourning Warbler May 18th, 2019 Good Earth State Park, South Dakota. Not a great photo, but Mourning Warblers are a species I see occasionally, some springs. On May 18th, I ran into probably a dozen at Good Earth State Park.

Birding Nirvana – Canopy Rainforest Treehouses, Tarzali, Australia

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed right now with the sheer volume of photos I took while in Australia, finding time to process them all, and then deciding what outlets (social media, blog, website) to publish them all. I’m still…weeks…from having all the photos themselves processed, but before I get too much further along I wanted to take the time to provide a review and summary of the place I thought was the highlight of our trip, hands down…the “Canopy Rainforest Treehouses” (or just Canopy Treehouses) near Tarzali, Australia.

In planning our trip, we knew we wanted to spend time in multiple locations, to experience some of the variety Australia has to offer. The Cairns/Port Douglas area in the northeastern part of the country was one area we targeted, given the unique opportunity for access to both tropical rainforest habitat, and the Great Barrier Reef. While researching that area, I also read about the adjacent Atherton Tablelands and some of the birding opportunities it offered. That’s when I stumbled across the website for the Canopy Treehouses, and we made the booking.

We stayed in four different locations during our 3-week vacation, but the Canopy Treehouses just stood out in terms of uniqueness, and for me, opportunities to view and photograph birds and wildlife. And this is despite the weather being rather miserable while we were there. We stayed three nights in the Treehouses, and the weather for that entire time was marked by cloudy, cool conditions (for them), with a steady drizzle and somewhat foggy conditions. Not great weather for getting out and hiking the trails in the area (including on the property of the Treehouses), but we quickly found we didn’t HAVE to leave the Treehouse itself to have some wonderful experiences.

Rather than bore you with a verbose description of our adventures at the Canopy Treehouses, here’s a summary of the accommodations and wildlife we encountered, told through photos of the area. Click for larger views for some of the photos below.

Canopy Treehouses near Tarzali, Australia - Inside overview
A panoramic of the interior of the main floor of the treehouse. Obviously distorted with the pano-shot from my iPhone, but it gives a good impression of the primary space. This isn’t just a simple treehouse! It’s VERY well appointed and comfortable, with gorgeous construction, hardwood floors, and all the amenities you could want. The main floor view here shows the living space and kitchen and view out onto the deck. What it doesn’t show is the main floor bedroom, and bathroom with a wonderful shower and sauna. You may tell your friends you stayed in a treehouse, and give them the impression you were “roughing it”, but this is more comfortable and lush than the vast majority of accommodations you come across.
Canopy Treehouses near Tarzali, Australia - Deck/outside overview
Another (distorted) iPhone panoramic, this time of that wonderful, incredible covered deck. We were there three days. I would have been VERY happy to simply sit on this deck for those entire three days. Most of the experiences you can have on the grounds of the Canopy Treehouses can be had right from this wonderful space! It’s completely covered, and despite the constant rain when we were there, it stayed mostly dry and comfortable, with the only wet part of the deck along the very outer edge. The deck serves as entry to the Treehouse, with the entire structure built on very large pilings, and stairs leading up to the deck and house entry. It has a table and chairs for you to use to enjoy the views of the surrounding rainforest (and river, just out of view here), as well as a gas grill for your use. There’s a full-sized washer and dryer below the main house in the parking area, very handy for travelers like us who had been on the road for 3 weeks. And despite being in the northeast “tropical” zone of Australia…this is at somewhat higher elevation on the Tablelands, and gets quite cool! A wood-burning fireplace and ample wood are provided…very nice for not only keeping warm at night, but for taking away that damp edge to the air and accommodations that simply unavoidable when you’re staying in the rainforest! There’s one more thing you might note from this photo if you zoom up…the deck has a number of birds on it. Which leads to my favorite part of the Treehouses…the wildlife.
Australian King-parrot (Alisterus scapularis)
Ah, the wildlife…where to begin!?!?! Let’s start with your most colorful visitors…the Australian King-parrots that will VERY quickly discover whether 1) the treehouse is occupied, and 2) if the occupants are offering fruit and seeds! The host is a wildlife lover (an understatement!) and does his best to enhance your experience. This includes providing fruit (bananas) and bird seed to attract birds to your treehouse. Birds started showing up immediately after we filled the tray feeder with seeds and banana slices, and that included flocks of big, bold, colorful, and absolutely delightful Australian King-parrots (Alisterus scapularis). This is a male perched in the foliage just off the deck. After my trip, I’ve been posting many photos on social media, and many folks told me they have a hard time getting close to this species. Not here! Not only will they come to the deck, they will SIT ON YOUR SHOULDER…your arms, your head…wherever they can, and gently accept seeds and other foods right from your hand. In the rain and somewhat dark conditions when we were there, these guys were just an incredible contrast of color and vibrancy.
Australian King-parrot (Alisterus scapularis)
Have your camera ready when you head on the deck, because you’ll get some of the closest wildlife encounters that you’ll ever have! Just be sure to have your camera in hand, as ANYTHING on the deck may be fair game as a perch for the Australian King-parrots and other critters. Here’s a quick iPhone shot…necessary when a parrot decides to use your main camera as a perch!!
Australian King-parrot (Alisterus scapularis)
Sorry, I can’t resist…one more Australian King-parrot. Extreme close up! Easy to do when the birds come right up to you, and in many cases, use you as a perch! For bird photograph you typically need a long lens in order to have a bird “fill the frame” of the photo. Not here!
Victoria's Riflebird (male) - Ptiloris victoriae
As a birder, even a birder from South Dakota in the United States, I was well aware of the famed courting displays of Riflebirds. I never thought I’d get such incredible close looks at one! Victoria’s Riflebirds were one of the most common visitors to our Treehouse, as they absolutely LOVED eating bits of banana that we offered. They were a touch more shy than the parrots…but JUST a touch. They wouldn’t use you as a perch, for example, but they WOULD let you get within a few feet, and on a few occasions, would take banana slices directly from my hand. Here’s a GORGEOUS male, showing some of those gorgeous colors. There were a couple of occasions when I witnessed some half-hearted courtship type displays, but I didn’t get any great captures of that behavior.
Macleay's Honeyeater (Xanthotis macleayanus)
Besides the parrots and riflebirds, honeyeaters were the most common visitors to the deck, with multiple species visiting. The most fun were Macleay’s Honeyeaters. They weren’t quite as bold as the parrots, but they weren’t shy! They too loved bits of banana, and would happily take offerings directly from your hand. It’s impossible for me to show all the birds we encountered here, but I can’t go any further without showing the highlight (next photos)
Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius)
THIS IS A WILD SOUTHERN CASSOWARY!! Taken from the stairs of our treehouse!! If there were ONE bird species I wanted to see while in Australia, it was a Cassowary. We were fortunate in that we had two great encounters with Cassowary while visiting Daintree National Park prior to our stay at the Canopy Treehouses, but that can’t compare with the intimate views you can have here. Male Cassowaries raise the chicks, and the same male has brought back many broods over the years to this area to raise. When we were there, two “chicks” from the previous years were onsite, while the big male was out presumably nesting again (likely to return soon with the next batch). The two “chicks” though had the full adult plumage and were MASSIVE birds, although I think we were told they still were only 2/3rds of the size they’ll eventually be. Each of our three days, the cassowary pair visited the area around our Treehouse. What were they doing there? See the following photo:
Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius)
How does a Cassowary drink? VERY CAREFULLY! This seemed to be why they liked to visit our treehouse area. They didn’t seem to be foraging for food, but every day they DID come to this small puddle at the base of one of the treehouse pilings, and use it to drink. The routine was the same each day. They’d have to sit their massive bodies down, extend their necks into the puddle, load up with as much water as possible, and then raise their heads and tilt it back to drink. SO much fun watching, and we could (safely!) observe this behavior from incredibly close range, on the stairs of our deck. Where else are you going to get such an intimate view of a living dinosaur? What a thrill, and a highlight of our entire trip. It wasn’t all about feathered critters though. What was that we heard going bump in the night??? Next photo…
Coppery Brushtail Possum (Trichosurus johnstonii)
From the descriptions of the Canopy Treehouses, we knew we were likely to have Coppery Brushtail Possums visit our deck each night. We weren’t disappointed! They’ve become accustomed to being fed!! And they absolutely LOOOOOOVE bananas (as well as cleaning up our bird feeder each night for the seeds). We had between 2 and 5 visit us each night…for the most part putting up with each other, but occasionally getting into a short tussle. They were as tame as the King Parrots, and if you let them, they would GLADLY sit on your lap while you fed them bananas. I admit we didn’t quite feel comfortable doing that, but I DID offer them bananas which they happily accepted directly from my hand. It was actually pretty sweet the way one small one would take each paw and hold onto my fingers while it gently consumed the banana slice. Wild critters, so always beware, but having these guys feed from my hand is something I will always remember.
Red-legged Pademelon (Thylogale stigmatica) and Australian Brushturkey (Thylogale stigmatica)
So many critters, so little time to post! One critter the hosts were clearly fond of were the Red-legged Pademelons, little Kangaroo/wallaby like creatures. I love the Wikipedia description of the species, saying they are “found in the rainforest but are rarely seen”. Well phooey to that…you WILL see them here! They were a bit shy, but you could often see them along the edges of the clearing below our deck, and at night in particular, there would always be one or two hanging around. Here’s one hanging out with another VERY common visitor to the Treehouses…an Australian Brush-Turkey. We were told the Brushturkeys would eat you out of house and home if you let them, consuming all your bird seed and food you put out in short order. They definitely weren’t shy, and would walk up the stairs onto the deck and eat everything in sight, if you let them!
Australian King-parrot (Alisterus scapularis)
I’ll leave this review where I started…with a photo of Australian King-parrots, lined up on the deck rail after I distributed a bit of seed so they weren’t all fighting over the same bird feeder. In case you can’t tell, I was just a wee bit fond of our stay at the Canopy Treehouses. If you’re a wildlife lover and are visiting the area…STAY HERE! It’s an unforgettable experience.

Birding Australia! Southern Cassowary Encounter

Well, I said I’d not blog for a few weeks…the reason? We had a 3-week family vacation in Australia! It wasn’t a dedicated birding trip (my wife and son would rebel if it were!), but I certainly did fit in some birding while there. There’s always something magical about birding somewhere new, whether it’s just in another state or halfway around the world. Birds that may be common are strange and exotic to a new visitor, and your life list increases with almost every bird you see.

I had done some research before leaving, and while any Australian bird was a welcome sighting, there were two things I really wanted to see. First was the incredible variety of birds in the parrot family, something we just don’t have a correlate for in the US. Secondly? I REALLY wanted to see a Southern Cassowary. More than any other bird, a Cassowary is the walking manifestation of “strange and exotic” for a US birder, a living relic that looks as if it’s straight out of the days of the dinosaur. Southern Cassowary are hard to miss if you come across one, given they are the second heaviest bird on earth (up to 190 pounds) and can be over 6-feet tall! However, with loss of their rainforest habitat in Australia, Indonesia, and New Guinea, the total wild population is only 10,000 to 20,000, with only 1,500 to 2,000 in Australia (where it is considered endangered). Still I was hoping against hope that we would be able to catch of glimpse of the massive birds.

Over the three weeks, we visited three general locations: 1) Sydney and the surrounding area, including Blue Mountains National Park, 2) Bellingen area, including Coffs Harbour and Dorrigo National Park, and 3) Port Douglas/Cairns, in the tropical northeastern corner of Australia. The visit to the tropics was the last part of our trip, and it was there where we’d potentially have a chance to see a Southern Cassowary. For our first day in the Port Douglas area, we drove northward into the famed Daintree National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage sight. A description of Daintree from Wikipedia:

Daintree National Park is valued because of its exceptional biodiversity. It contains significant habitat for rare species and prolific birdlife. The name is derived from the Daintree River, which was named by George Elphinstone Dalrymple, an early explorer of the area, after his friend Richard Daintree. Much of the national park is covered by tropical rainforest.[ The Greater Daintree Rainforest has existed continuously for more than 110 million years, making it possibly the oldest existing rainforest .

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daintree_National_Park

We wanted to make a day of driving as far north into the park as you (reasonably) can, to Cape Tribulation. We left early that morning, arriving at the Daintree River and taking the only mode of transportation possible to get into the northern section of the Park…the Daintree River ferry. Once across the river, the road remains paved up to Cape Tribulation, but it’s a very narrow road winding through the rainforest, with little traffic for most of that stretch. It’s a hell of a drive through some of the densest, most ancient rainforest on the planet. We took our time driving up to Cape Tribulation, stopping at any point of interest or short hike that we could find.

That morning at about 11:00 we pulled into an area that provided a small parking area and a short hike into the rainforest. Unfortunately part of the trail was being worked on, and we were only able to walk half a mile or less before returning to the parking area. Up until that point, I admit I was a little disappointed in the birdlife. In one of the most revered rainforest habitats on the planet, I’d seen little birdlife on our short hikes and stops, and this stop was no different. We got back into the car, and started to leave the parking area to continue the drive to Cape Tribulation. However, as we rounded a corner heading back to the main road, we saw it…Cassowary! There in front of us at the edge of a clearing near the road was the massive bird, a mere 20 yards away! A Cassowary is considered to be just about the most dangerous bird on the planet, with the size and disposition to quickly spoil the day (and life!) of a careless birder. However, I admit upon sighting that bird that caution was the last thing on my mind. I pulled over, grabbed the camera, and got out to try and grab some photos.

We watched the bird for perhaps 20 minutes. For most of that time, it was slowly moving through the rainforest just off the road, obscured by thick vegetation. I followed on foot, staying on the road and trying to maintain a healthy distance, hoping at some point to get a better look. Finally we were rewarded when the Cassowary started to move towards the road…it was going to cross right in front of us! It casually stepped out of the forest in front of us and slowly walked across the road before disappearing into the vegetation on the other side. That was the last we saw of the bird.

I was so excited and into the moment that I didn’t really think much about what was happening…until after the bird disappeared. CASSOWARY! We’d just seen a living dinosaur at incredibly close range! Then came the goosebumps and appreciation for what we’d just witnessed. Even if the trip had ended at that moment I would have come home a very happy birder. Below are some photos of the encounter. It turns out the Cassowary’s of Australia weren’t done with us on this trip (more in a later blog post).

Southern Cassowary - Casuarius casuarius
The best look we had of the Cassowary while it was foraging in the forest. For most of the first 15 minutes of the encounter, the bird was moving through rather thick vegetation, with few unobstructed views. I was thrilled when it briefly moved across this small clearing, offering a relatively clean view. However, just a few moments later it was clear that it was about to cross the road right in front of us.
Southern Cassowary - Casuarius casuarius
The Cassowary first poked its head out of the forest, looking out across the open space and giving us a glance. Was it going to come out, or head back into the vegetation?
Southern Cassowary - Casuarius casuarius
The Cassowary emerged from the forest, paused and pecked at a few things along the side of the road, and then slowly walked across the road, disappearing into the forest on the other side. A perfectly clear, unobstructed view of a Southern Cassowary! Given how much my hands were shaking during the encounter I wasn’t sure if any of the photos would turn out. Was thrilled to see I did manage to capture some sharp photos to help document the encounter.

The invisible bird in plain sight – Common Nighthawk

When I bird, I nearly always am by myself. Birding is my zen time, my time to forget about all the worries of the day. It’s my time to get away from cell phones, other electronics, and yeah…I admit it…people. The last two weeks notwithstanding (I’ve done a LOT of birding during that time), normally I don’t get out all that often, and its a way for me to decompress and have some time alone. My behavior when birding also is most conducive to birding alone. For example, when I saw a very large group of Black Terns dipping and diving over Grass Lake the other night, I did what I OFTEN do…I stayed an entire hour with them. Part of it is the photography side of my hobby. Patience is the greatest attribute you can have in bird photography, and shooting a bird that flies in an erratic pattern certainly taxes that patience. But rather than trying for a few minutes, getting frustrated, and leaving…I kept at it, watching their patterns as they’d circle around for another pass along the shoreline, noting that the strong wind often put them in a near hover mode, and eventually getting quite a few nice photos.

However, I do realize there are advantages to birding in a group that I generally miss out on. This weekend the South Dakota Ornithologist’s Union (SDOU) held their spring meeting in Brandon. On Saturday I ran into SDOU birders twice at Perry Nature Area near Sioux Falls, and joined them for a couple of hours that afternoon. Given the incredible warbler migration on Saturday, I knew I wanted to try Newton Hills State Park Sunday morning, and after birding for an hour or so, I ran into another SDOU group of birders. As I got out and greeting them, a young, very enthusiastic (and very good!) birder in the group (Peter) immediately pointed upward to the branch of a nearby tree…Common Nighthawk! Just sitting there on a horizontal branch, apparently not giving a damn about all the birders just 10 yards away.

There’s no way in hell I would have seen that bird if I’d have been birding alone. Even the group of SDOU birders said they were moving around that spot for quite some time before someone noticed it.

I greatly enjoyed the weekend, both my time birding alone, and my time with the SDOU crowd. The tradeoffs between both styles of birding…when birding alone, I ran into more Black-billed Cuckoos than I ever had in one spot, and was able to spend quite a bit of time with them and get some good photos. I didn’t get any really good photos while birding with the crowd, but I definitely saw more birds! When you have 6-8 pairs of binoculars trained on different spots, it DEFINITELY is helpful during spring migration, when little warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and other birds are often flitting about in the treetops.

Over the years, my birding style has definitely changed. I’ve been birding for 20 years now, and I’d say that for the first 15 years, I was laser-focused on the photography side of things. It seems nuts for me to say this now, but…I didn’t even OWN a pair of binoculars until 5 years ago!! All those little warblers flitting about in the tree tops? They didn’t interest me, as I knew there was no way in hell I’d ever get a photo of them! But I’ve evolved from a photographer who birds, into a birder who also takes photographs. Over the last few years, some of my favorite birding memories don’t involve the camera, but times where I’ve just sat in one spot and watched some rare or interesting bird, often for an hour or more.

My very unusual (for me!) time spent actually (GASP!) birding with other people this weekend was nice…perhaps it’s just another step as I transition from a “photography first” to “birding first” mentality.

Common Nighthawk - Chordeiles minor
Common Nighthawk from May 19th, 2019 at Newton Hills State Park. A gray, gloomy, cold morning. A grayish mottled bird sitting completely still on a grayish mottled branch…a camouflaged bird, sitting in plain sight!

A cuckoo kind of a day

I’ve got so many potential things to focus on from an incredible weekend of birding. The 20-species warbler day yesterday, plenty of other goodies, has my head spinning in terms of what to focus for a blog post.

One of the more curious sightings from today at Newton Hills State Park came while patrolling the beach area. It was a bit foggy yet, drizzle was falling, and it was pretty damned cold for May 19th, and there were birds galore near the beach at Lake Lakota, all foraging on the ground or close to it, in search of whatever few insects might be out. While watching all the commotion, a bird with a noticeably long tail flew past and landed in the bushes behind me. Cuckoo!! But which one? I switched my focus from the beach to the bushes by the parking, and there! A Black-billed Cuckoo! I lucked into 3 Yellow-billed Cuckoos at Newton Hills last spring, but it’s been a few years since I’ve even seen a Black-billed Cuckoo.

As I sat and tried to get a good look at cuckoo #1 through the foliage, here came another long-tailed bird…another Black-billed Cuckoo! I ended up spending half an hour near that bush, and during that time there were up to FOUR Black-billed Cuckoos frolicking about, doing some half-hearted chasing of each other, but mostly looking like they were just trying to survive until the weather warmed up and there was more for them to eat.

Another great morning despite the weather. Here are some of the Cuckoo photos, all from the one location.

Black-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus erythropthalmus
Black-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus erythropthalmus
Black-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Ho-hum South Dakota birding — a 20-warbler day!

Bay-breasted Warbler - Setophaga castanea

With all the birding I’ve done over the last 2 weeks, I have to say…migration had been disappointing to this point. I love my sparrows, and sparrow migration was very good, but the other two groups of migrants that I love…shorebirds and warblers…have been painfully slow in arriving. In the case of shorebirds, I don’t think any sort of migratory breakthrough is going to happen this spring. It could be they’re just spread out, given how incredibly wet it’s been and how much standing water there is over much of the upper Great Plains. But at this stage, I’m not counting on a big influx of shorebirds.

Warblers have been very similar. If you like Yellow-rumped, this has been your spring! They have been absolutely thick, particularly last week when they were not only in woodland and forest edges, but many were hanging out on shorelines, fencelines, or other seemingly uncharacteristic locations. But other than Yellow-rumped Warblers? To say “not much” would be a disservice to the term “not much”, as for most species, they’ve been non-existent.

That changed today. HOLY…COW…did that change today!! I’ve been birding 20 years now. That’s 20 spring migrations where I’ve put in a LOT of effort, hoping to find migratory warblers and other songbirds. In those 20 years, I must say that today was THE best warbler day I have ever had, hands down. It wasn’t just numbers, although numbers were quite good. It was the jaw-dropping variety of warbler species that are moving through the area right now. They weren’t necessarily “dripping off the trees”…a favorite term for some folks when there’s a warbler “fall-out”. But they were certainly around in very good numbers, and at times it seemed that every bird you looked at was a different species.

There were some that were quite abundant. Tennessee and Yellow-rumped Warblers were common, although Tennessee were scattered everywhere, while most of the Yellow-rumped I saw were along the Big Sioux River at Good Earth State Park. Given how intense the birding was and how often I tried to keep my focus on the treetops, I have no doubt my count below is low for those two species, and I KNOW it’s quite low for Yellow Warbler, as they are also extremely abundant right now. When I saw one of those “common” species, I often didn’t pause to enter into eBird. And why was that?

Because there were SO many “good” warbler species, including species I haven’t seen in years. I haven’t seen Blackburnian Warblers very often in South Dakota, and I have zero photos of the species. In fact, there are only two occasions where I even remember seeing a Blackburnian Warbler. Today? FOUR gorgeous Blackburnians, with 2 at Perry Nature Area, and 2 at Good Earth State Park. It’s been 14 years since I’ve seen a Bay-breasted Warbler, but I found one at Good Earth. Mourning Warbler? I have ZERO photos of the species and don’t see them all that often, but I found a pair in close proximity this afternoon. Chestnut-sided are a species I probably see every other year or so, and always one at at time. Today? I saw six, with five spotted from one location at Good Earth!! Magnolia numbered 9 on the day, Blackpoll were at 4, while most of the others were single sightings.

20 species of warbler in one day! 19 of those were from two locations (Perry Nature Area and Good Earth State Park), while 1 was from Ditch Road just north of Sioux Falls (Northern Waterthrush). Here’s the list of warblers on a birding day I will always remember:

  1. Ovenbird – 3 (2 singing and not seen, one seen and not heard)
  2. Golden-winged Warbler – Seen and heard twice, in two visits to Perry Nature Area today (same bird I’m sure…count of 1)
  3. Tennessee Warbler – 47 — I have no doubt this is a big undercount, as many times I didn’t stop to enter them in eBird
  4. Orange-crowned Warbler – 4
  5. Nashville Warbler – 1
  6. Mourning Warbler – 2 – And now I do have photos of the species! Crappy photos, but I had none before today!
  7. Common Yellowthroat – 7 – If I’d taken the time to properly account for all those singing along the Big Sioux River in the northern end of Good Earth State Park, this number would be a lot higher
  8. American Redstart – 9 –
  9. Magnolia – 9 – Definitely the most I’ve seen in one day
  10. Bay-breasted Warbler – A REAL treat as I haven’t seen one in over a decade
  11. Blackburnian Warbler – 4 – TWICE the number I’ve seen in my other 20 springs of birding in South Dakota
  12. Yellow Warbler – 16 – That’s what I had taken the time to enter in eBird. But particularly if I would have paid close attention and recorded every time I heard a Yellow Warbler, the number would be double or triple this.
  13. Chestnut-sided Warbler – 6 – All at Good Earth State park, with an astounding 5 observed while standing near one giant burr oak
  14. Blackpoll Warbler – 4
  15. Yellow-rumped Warbler – 25 – As they’ve been all spring, nearly all were near water, with them flycatching along the banks of the Big Sioux River in Good Earth State Park
  16. Black-throated Green Warbler – 1 – One of my faves, good to see one
  17. Canada Warbler – 1 – I’ll need to check my records but I don’t see these often at all.
  18. Northern Waterthrush – 1 – The only one not at Good Earth or Perry Nature Area, found while doing a short check of Ditch Road north of Sioux Falls.
  19. Black-and-White Warbler – 1 – Usually one of the most common migrants, and I have seen plenty this spring, but only one today.
  20. Wilson’s Warbler – 1 – Also one I typically see every year, but it’s been pretty slow for them this year.
Magnolia Warbler - Setophaga magnolia
I would kill for more warbler photos like this. Magnolia Warblers though sometimes do forage quite low in the canopy, or along a woodland edge, and thus I do have more photos of them than I do most warblers. Unfortunately, it’s SO hard to get photos like this of many warblers, as birds like Blackburnian, Black-throated Green, and many others seem to always stay quite high in the canopy.

May Birding Rocks! Lifer and more today…

Great-tailed Grackle - Quiscalus mexicanus

If I could, I think every year I’d just take the month of May off and go birding. After a god-awful South Dakota winter, May almost seems too good to be true, with an explosion of life that seemed impossible just a month or two ago. I think birders always have a bit of the “grass-is-always-greener” mentality, wanting to see new species, and I’m no different. But I have to say migration in May, along with the arrival of summer residents, can make for some truly spectacular birding.

After today I’m at 154 species for the year for South Dakota. Not bad considering I was struggling to hit 100 a week or two ago. Today I birded Lincoln County, spending quite a bit of time around Newton Hills State Park. The highlight…when walking along the trail from the Horse Camp to the picnic area (along Sergeant Creek), I reached the halfway point that’s been THE spot to find Blue-winged Warblers in South Dakota. I paused and waited, hoping to hear the buzzing song that meant they’d returned yet again. No luck on Blue-winged Warblers yet, but while standing there, I heard a strange mess of a song in the bushes along the creek. It wasn’t a song I was familiar with, but reminded me of a Catbird or Brown Thrasher with the weird mix of phrases and some harsh notes. It took me a while to find it in the binoculars…White-eyed Vireo! A lifer for me!! I watched him belt out a couple of bursts of song through the binoculars, then reached for the camera and…bye-bye. Just a glance down to grab the camera and not only was it gone, but I didn’t hear or see it again. A bit bummed to not get a photo, but after birding 20+ years here any time you get a lifer it’s a great day.

Another highlight was when I wound my way back towards Sioux Falls by going past some of my favorite wetland areas. There’s the “Pet Cemetery” wetland south of Tea 6-8 miles or so where I often have good luck, but I ran into trouble today on the road that cuts through it. After the flooding this spring, there’s one spot on the road where water has been across the road, but it was very shallow and I’d already driven through it a couple of times this spring. Today was different! Today there was one big, deep hole in that road!! Now when I go birding I have a Toyota Tacoma with 4-wheel drive, and the thing has always been a beast, getting me in and out of any kind of terrain. Today I thought I’d met my match! When I hit the hole I was going nowhere fast, and the water was deep enough that I feared it was going to run into the passenger cabin. I’d pretty much resigned myself to getting wet and calling a tow truck, but after a bit of rocking, the hole reluctantly released my Tacoma and let me back out (with a LOT of effort!). So much for going on that road all the way through the wetland!

It turned out to be a blessing though. I turned around and headed back, and as I did, I saw a Great-tailed Grackle in the marsh. They’re a southern species that has been moving north in recent decades. I still remember when people were getting excited seeing them, and then…they seemed to disappear for several years (for me anyway). This was the first I remember seeing for quite some time. In another sign that birding is always unpredictable, I saw a 2nd one an hour later, up near Humboldt!

A lifer, and a rarity…a great day! And other than the White-eyed Vireo and Great-tailed Grackle, there were many first-of-year (FOY) birds for me including:

  • Baltimore Oriole (in my yard when I got home!)
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird (also in my yard when I got home!)
  • Virginia Rail
  • Snowy Egret
  • Marsh Wren
  • Pectoral Sandpiper
  • Cliff Swallow
  • Eastern Screech Owl
  • Swainson’s Thrush
  • Wood Thrush
  • Eastern Towhee
  • Ovenbird
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Blackpoll Warbler
  • Palm Warbler

A few more photos from the day:

Eastern Towhee - Pipilo erythrophthalmus
Eastern Towhee, which have shown up in force in Newton Hills State Park. It was hard to find a place where you did NOT hear them singing.
Long-billed Dowitcher - Limnodromus scolopaceus
Long-billed Dowitcher at the “Worthing Sloughs” in Lincoln County, one of multiple locations where I saw this species today.
Rallus limicola - Virginia Rail
Great-tailed Grackles weren’t the only FOY I saw at the “Pet Cemetery sloughs”. I also heard and saw a Virginia Rail.
Lesser Yellowlegs - Tringa flavipes
Shorebird migration still hasn’t fully taken off, at least not near Sioux Falls. There have been plenty of Lesser Yellowlegs around, but not a lot of variety yet.
Snowy Egret - Egretta thula
Snowy Egret, which I later found was the first I’d recorded in Lincoln County in eBird. It does seem like I see them quite a bit up around Lake Thompson, but not around Sioux Falls.

Birding the (nature-altered) Beaver Creek Nature Area

White-throated Sparrow - Zonotrichia albicollis

There are two parks near our house that are characterized by heavily wooded lands next to a river. The first is the Big Sioux Recreation Area, just across the street. It’s nice, but it’s the far more developed of the two parks. This time of year I admit I’m not fond of birding there. They cater SO heavily to campers, going in and taking out a lot of the vegetation around the campsites to accommodate space for the giant RVs that are now so prevalent. I did go there last night for about 20 minutes, before the noise of the big-screen TVs blasting gameshows at top volume drove me away. I REALLY don’t get the point of people who do that.

The second park is Beaver Creek Nature Area. It’s about 3 miles from my house, and is MUCH less developed. No camping…yes! There are trails winding along riparian areas, upland woodland, and open grassy areas. Without the camping, it gets much less attention and is far less crowded. From a birding perspective, it’s wonderful. You can HEAR THE BIRDS! No TVs!! No loud campers! Just…nature.

I had a couple of hours this morning and headed to Beaver Creek. It was an incredibly foggy morning, but the park was certainly birdy. Migrant warblers still have yet to move through in any numbers, and for the morning I didn’t see a single warbler species. That’s a bit odd, as usually you’d at least see plenty of Yellow-rumped Warblers moving through. But what it lacked in warblers it made up for in sparrow species. White-throated, Harris’s, Clay-colored, Chipping, Lincoln’s, Swamp, White-crowned, and Field Sparrows…not a bad mix for one spot, and I frankly I get just as excited for all the migrant sparrows as I do the warblers. Other first-of-year sightings included Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Before heading that way for the first time this spring, I admit I was a little concerned about what condition the park would be in. With near-record flooding this spring, one road to the park is closed, and there’s still plenty of high water around. I was happy to see the park open and most of the trails accessible, but there was one major change in the park…Beaver Creek changed course! Over the last couple of years, one big loop in the creek was eroding away the bank just as you crossed a little pedestrian arch bridge over the creek. That’s not going to be a problem any more! Further upstream a bit, the flooded creek evidently tore through a narrow strip of heavily wooded land, cutting off the loop. The water was still quite high and a small amount of water was flowing through the loop, but as the water returns to normal levels is pretty clear that loop is now completely cut off and is going to be a new oxbow.

Thankfully it’s not going to affect the trails in the park, but it certainly is a great indication of just how powerful and unpredictable Mother Nature can be! A few photos from this morning:

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - Sphyrapicus varius
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, one of the first-of-year sightings from today. One of my favorite bird species, and one that’s usually relatively easy to find at Beaver Creek in the summer.
American Robin - Turdus migratorius
“Just” an American Robin. I say “just” because they’re common and people just seem to overlook them. They’re such a gorgeous bird though, and with a wonderful song that just screams “spring” after a long South Dakota winter.
Beaver Creek Nature Area - South Dakota
Overview showing what happened to the creek. The area between the red lines is where the flooded creek tore through a wooded area and created a new channel, thus cutting off the hatched area, which is now a new oxbow.
Beaver Creek Nature Area
South Dakota
Pic on a foggy morning, showing where the new channel cut through an area of trees and cut off the channel to the right, which now looks like it will be an oxbow that only has flowing water during times of high water.
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