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Photo/Haiku of the Day – Season of the Bobolink

Season of the Bobolink

Tinkly spring-time song

Fades away as summer ends.

Golden autumn fire

Autumn Bobolink - Dolichonyx oryzivorus

Bobolink in the warm dawn sun. This morning I went to a remnant tallgrass prairie patch and found a small group of Bobolinks. Males have lost their bold black-and-white breeding plumage, and share the same warm brown plumage as the females now. Rather than post as simply the “photo of the day”, thought today we’d take it one step further to my first ever “Photo / Haiku of the day”.

Back in the saddle…

Magnolia Warbler - Setophaga magnolia

Magnolia Warbler peeking out between the leaves.

Yeah, it’s been a while.  Almost 3 months since any blog post.  I’ve had rather major issues with Sjogren’s affecting my eyes, to the point that they’ve been so dry that my vision is affected.  It’s hard to take bird photos when you can’t see!  Thankfully I have some new “scleral lenses” that protect my eyes and keep them lubricated, and more importantly…I can see!

I dusted off the camera and went out for a couple of hours this morning.  It was one of those COLD May days that we often seem to get in mid-May.  32 degrees, with a stiff breeze when I left this morning. That actually turned out to be a good thing, because some birds were behaving in a manner that they wouldn’t behave had the weather been warmer.  We’ve had a wet spring, and there are a lot of wet fields and flooded ditches, so I was hoping for some shorebirds.  Not much luck there, but it was a “birdy” day.  Over a flooded grassy field west of Sioux Falls, I first came across a large flock of Black Terns. They’re not a species that seems to like the cold very much, and many were just sitting on the fence posts in the middle of the flooded field.  As the sun rose higher and things began to warm about, they started to forage, flapping and dipping over the water periodically.  They’ve always been one of my favorite species.  With that dark breeding plumage, they’re so unusual compared to any other gull or tern you see around here.

Black Tern - Chlidonias niger

Black Tern foraging over a flooded grassy field

Nearby at a very large grassy field, I was driving by slowly when I heard the familiar metallic tinkling of a singing Bobolink. Then I heard another.  And another.  The field was alive with Bobolinks, more than I’ve ever seen at one time before.  Both males and females were present, but it did seem the males were more prevalent.  At one point while I was stopped and looking around with my binoculars, I was able to see 15 male Bobolinks in 4 or 5 scattered little groups.  It was a nice sight, given the issues Bobolinks have with loss of habitat around here.

Given that I wasn’t having much luck with shorebirds west of town, I decided to head to the area near Beaver Creek Nature Area, near my hometown of Brandon.  It’s got some nice forested pockets, and in mid-May, it’s often alive with migrant songbirds.  Warblers are the main attraction for me this time of year, and Beaver Creek didn’t disappoint. I only stayed for about 45 minutes given the cold, but came across a quite a few warblers, including Blackpoll, Black-and-White, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Magnolia, Palm, and Wilson’s Warblers.

A nice morning, and very good to get back in the swing of things!

Harris's Sparrow - Zonotrichia querulaBraod-winged Hawk - Buteo platypterusWilson's Warbler - Cardellina pusilla

Difficulty finding grassland birds in (former) grasslands

Blue Grosbeak - Male -  Passerina caerulea

Male Blue Grosbeak. These guys are scattered around in southern South Dakota, but it’s always a bit of a surprise when you run across one. Yesterday west of Lake Thompson I saw three in one small area.

Eastern South Dakota was once >95% grassland and scattered wetlands.  Trees were limited to riparian areas or pockets where the landscape was protected from the tree-killing effects of fire, and of course, there used to be no agriculture or urban land use.  Now of course the story is completely reversed, as pockets of unbroken grassland are rare in many parts of the state, as cropland has become the dominant land use.  In an area where grassland used to be king, it can now be quite difficult to find some of the traditional grassland bird species.

For some species, such as Sharp-tailed Grouse, they’re forever gone from most of eastern South Dakota. For other bird species, they’re found scattered in pockets of remaining suitable habitat.  Right around Sioux Falls, there simply isn’t a lot of grassland.  The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) does provide farmer payments in multi-year contracts in return for keeping the land in a grassland cover, but in recent years, CRP has sharply declined in the Dakotas, with the demand for corn and soy driving extensive expansion of cropland at the expense of what pockets of grassland remain.  For birds like Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Upland Sandpipers, you’ll occasionally find one in a small remaining pocket of grassland, but there’s very little in the way of a “go-to” for place for birds, with extensive grassland, right around Sioux Falls.

Bobolink - Male - Dolichonyx oryzivorus

Male Bobolink. Kind of a scruffy looking dude, but nice to get so close to one as they’re normally shy for me. These guys were numerous where I went birding yesterday.

In South Dakota, the three counties where I bird the most are Minnehaha (where I live), Lincoln (just a few miles south), and…Kingsbury County.  Kingsbury County isn’t even adjacent to Minnehaha or Lincoln county…in fact it’s well over an hour drive to even get to the edge of Kingsbury County.  The attraction of Kingsbury County for me is two-fold. Lake Thompson is the largest natural lake in South Dakota,and the region has extensive open water, shallow water habitats, mudflats, and wetlands.  The other attraction for me is the west side of Lake Thompson.  There are some very large cattle operations in the area, and instead of cropland, much of the land is kept as grassland and pasture.  There are also large areas of alfalfa fields.  Unlike many pastures around here that are overgrazed to the point of erosion becoming a problem, the land in this area seems pretty well managed, with a mix of taller grasslands and (seemingly) responsibly grazed grasslands.

The result is one of the best areas I know in the general vicinity for finding grassland birds.  I drove the area yesterday on a GORGEOUS, sunny, cool day, and was just reveling in the sounds and sights.  There’s one particular road that’s now closed due to fluctuating water levels on Lake Thompson itself. The road gets no traffic and isn’t maintained much anymore, but it’s no problem for my little pickup.  No people, some very nice grassland habitat, and some wonderful birds.  This is one of the few places around here where I can reliably find Upland Sandpipers.  If you go to the central part of the state, Upland Sandpipers are seemingly on every other fence post in the big grassland areas.  You just don’t see them all that often in much of eastern South Dakota, so it’s always a treat to find them here.

Orchard Oriole - Icterus spurius

Orchard Oriole male. Never have I seen such a concentration of Orchard Orioles as I do in this area west of Lake Thompson. Such beautiful little birds, an oriole many folks may not even know are around here.

Singing Bobolinks are another big attraction for me for this area.  I sometimes see (and hear) Bobolinks right around Sioux Falls, but it’s nearly always a single bird, trying to utilize a small remaining piece of pasture or an alfalfa field.  On the west side of Lake Thompson you hear them singing everywhere…one of my favorite sounds in the world, with their long, tinkly songs.  Both Eastern and Western Kingbirds are numerous, seemingly always fighting for fenceline foraging and perching rights.  It’s a place where I see Orchard Orioles in numbers I’ve never seen elsewhere.  The bug-like calls of Grasshopper Sparrows sound out from their hidden perches, as do the buzzy songs of Clay-colored Sparrows.  It’s the same kind of experience you sometimes find in areas of extensive grasslands in the central part of the state, such as on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, but it’s so much closer to home.

A wonderful day! I just hope the land in that area continues to be managed as it is right now, and that it too doesn’t succumb to the ever expanding cropland in the area.

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