We live in interesting times. “Interesting” often being downright disheartening, as we have a society in the US that seems to be embracing the future depicted in the movie Idiocracy. The same US that used to lead the world in innovation and science now has about 40% of the population who shows outright disdain, if not hatred, of “experts”, including science. I could go on…and on…and on…and on…on this topic. But I’ll turn that conversation to how science has benefits in so many aspects of life.
That includes birding! As someone who has been a birder and a bird photographer for 20+ years now, I realize that technical photography skills are a very small part of successful bird photography. The big challenge is getting close enough to a bird! That means knowing when, and where birds will be, and how that species normally behaves. Science can help with all three of these!
I had an absolutely, incredible, spectacular day birding today. It was a drippy, gloomy, dreary day, a day where normally I may not have even left the house. However…SCIENCE told me to leave the house!! Two days ago…Cornell University’s “Birdcast” predicted that the night of May 15th/16th would be a heavy migration night with birds arriving in eastern South Dakota in high numbers. I’ve learned to really trust the Birdcast predictions, particularly after a few events last year where the forecast immediately preceded some absolutely spectacular birding. So what did the forecast predict?
I headed out this morning before dawn, arriving at Newton Hills State Park in search of warblers and other migrating birds. Unfortunately, the rain arrived shortly after I did! It was extremely frustrating, as I could SEE many birds moving about in the forest canopy, but with the early hour, the clouds, and rain…it was difficult to see them well enough to identify them. I did bird for an hour or so, and did have a good time, identifying over 50 species. Normally a great time, but with the slight rain continuing and making photography difficult, I started to head home.
As I drove back home, the rain started to lighten, and eventually stopped. As I got within a couple of blocks from my house, I thought…SCIENCE! By god, that BirdCast hadn’t let me down in the past! I thought I’d try one more place while the rain held off, and ended up at Beaver Creek Nature Area, just 3-4 miles from our home. It’s a place where I’ve had decent luck before, but it’s never been as “hot” as Newton Hills.
That changed this morning! THANK YOU science, and thank you BirdCast! There’s one trail I normally take at Beaver Creek, which takes perhaps half an hour at most. Instead, I ended up walking around for nearly 2 1/2 hours. Almost one hour of that was sitting in one spot! There’s a ridge with a steep bank, where you can walk along canopy or mid-story of the trees growing in the ravine below. It’s been a place where I’ve had good luck before, but nothing like this! As I watched, wave after wave of birds were moving through the forest canopy, including…Warblers! The highlight of spring migration!
In 20 years of birding, I had yet to get a good photo of a Blackburnian Warbler. That ended today! I saw two here, both of whom were uncharacteristically cooperative for the camera. In total, in that 2+ hours, I saw 16 different Warbler species! A terrific day, and one that would have turned out very differently if I’d just looked out the window in the morning, had seen the rain and gloom, and stayed home.
One last trip to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands! It’s been a couple of weeks…just have had zero time to post photos…but I had a wonderful day trip to the Grasslands. After some rather slow years on the Grasslands, this was a good winter, although the birds were curiously concentrated on the eastern side, mostly in and around some very large prairie dog towns towards Highway 1806.
As always…Rough-legged Hawks predominated, but there were higher numbers of Ferruginous Hawks than I ever remember seeing in one day. Plenty of other “goodies” as well! With that, some photos from my trip a couple of weeks ago…
I never was really a “lister” as a birder until eBird came along. eBird makes it so ridiculously easy to track your sightings, and the tools they have to categorize your sightings by date…geography…comparison to other birders…certainly bring out the competitive side that many birders seem to have! However, even after I started using eBird, I never really set any yearly goals, such as a “big year”. The closest I ever came was a number of years ago when a birding friend at work and I had a very low-key competition to see who could see the most birds in South Dakota during the year.
I ended up at 212 that year, a very similar number to my friend. I’ve gotten close to that a few times since according to eBird, but never really had a “South Dakota Big Year” as a driving goal for my birding in a year. Going into this year though, my birding time had been declining and I seemed to be losing some interest. I thought setting a goal to break my yearly South Dakota record might re spark some of that enthusiasm.
It did!! I started early in January this year…a tough time to start building a bird list in South Dakota! Particularly in a very cold, snowy winter, getting up to just 100 birds by mid-April was doing very well! When spring migration rolled around, I spent more time birding than I have in years. As the year progressed, I never made it to spots like far northwestern South Dakota to tick off species like Baird’s Sparrow, but I made my usual trips to the central part of the state, the Missouri River dams, and a very rare (for me) dedicated birding trip to the Black Hills.
By mid-December, I’d easily passed my highest yearly total, with 248 species. With travel and family commitments in the latter half of the month, I wasn’t expecting to get any more, but when a White-winged Crossbill was seen in Sioux Falls the week before Christmas, I did make the short trip and checked of #249. One short of a nice round number!! I told my wife (notably NOT a birder, and not too invested in the number chase!) that the only way I’d get to 250 is if something unexpected showed up in the yard. Well, on Christmas Day I got a nice surprise present, when a Sharp-shinned Hawk nailed a House Sparrow in mid-flight in the back yard, and then proceeded to consume it right outside our sunroom window. Not that rare of a species around here in winter, but when entering the sighting into eBird, I was surprised that I hadn’t recorded that species yet in 2019, and it was indeed #250!
250 species for the year…a nice number to end with! Not as nice a number as the rather miraculous 303 found by Kenny Miller this year (WOW…considering we’ve only had about 420 species total that have ever been seen in the state), but it was enough for me to end up tied for 6th in the state this year. Something I never thought I’d do as a birder…comparing my year in such a manner…but again, that’s what the wonderful eBird tools do to even a pretty non-competitive birder!!
Sprinkled in those #250 are some definite highlights for the year…new life birds (7 new birds never sighted before anywhere), or new life birds for the state of South Dakota (an additional 9 new South Dakota lifers). Here are some of those 2019 highlights….including some from a major 2019 (and lifetime) birding highlight that’s definitely NOT South Dakota focused.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 .
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).
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.
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.