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Eurasian Tree Sparrows!! In my Yard!!!

Eurasian Tree Sparrows!  In my freakin’ yard!!  News at 11:00!  More later!!

EDIT: The story…I WAS going to go work in the office today, but woke up in the middle of the night with a massive headache. I thought I’d take it easy and work at home today.  About 10:45 this morning, I looked out the sunroom window. I saw a bird in the back of the yard that looked…odd. I grabbed the binoculars, and as I started to focus on it, the bird flew…right towards me, landing in the crabapple standing 10 feet from the window.  Immediately you could see it was something different…it was NOT a House Sparrow!  It was a Eurasian Tree Sparrow!

I gawked for a few seconds, and then grabbed my camera that fortunately was only a few feet away. As I started snapping photos, ANOTHER Eurasian Tree Sparrow popped up in the same tree!  One seemed to be following the other. At first, I thought they were both male birds, but only because I assumed they had a sexual dimorphism similar to House Sparrows.  Only later did I find that no, both males and females are similar in appearance.  Given the way the two birds moved together, with one always following the other, my best guess is that they were a male and female.

They stayed in the tree for perhaps 1 1/2 minutes, during which I took as many photos as I could.  During the rest of the day, there were only two other, brief sightings in my yard (one bird each time).

Why is this a big deal? They DO look somewhat similar to our everyday House Sparrow. However, Eurasian Tree Sparrows have a unique history. A  small number were released near St. Louis, Missouri in 1870 by a landowner who wanted to replicate the bird life of his native Europe. IN the 148 years since then, Eurasian Tree Sparrows haven’t expanded their range much beyond their original release location. They have still almost exclusively been found in far western Illinois, far eastern Missouri, and far southeastern Iowa.  In recent years, stray sightings have occurred outside this range, including areas as close as Minnesota.

But until the last 2 weeks, no live Eurasian Tree Sparrow had ever been seen in South Dakota.  A couple of weeks ago, the Small family in Vermillion saw an individual bird…the first live Eurasian Tree Sparrows ever seen in the state (a deceased bird was once found)!! The two birds in my yard today thus represent only the 2nd time the species has been seen in the state.

Pretty cool!! Here’s hoping the two are a mating pair, and that they stick around my yard for the summer.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow - Passer montanus

Eurasian Tree Sparrow – Passer montanus

Eurasian Tree Sparrow - Passer montanus

Checking in on the neighbors – Nesting Bald Eagles

Nesting Bald Eagles - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A photo from a couple of days ago, with one of the adults sitting on the nest. They’ve been doing so for over a month now, and with the leaves not yet out on the cottonwood tree, it’s a wonderful time to observe them from afar. Click for a larger view.

As far as neighbors go, you could do worse than a pair of nesting Bald Eagles. These neighbors moved in about 10 years ago, building a massive nest in a huge cottonwood tree along the Big Sioux River, less than a mile from our home (a mere 4,400 feet as the crow flies, according to Google Earth!). The first nest lasted a year or two before a flood event felled the big cottonwood, but thankfully, they responded by simply picking another big cottonwood and rebuilding the nest.

If you haven’t seen a Bald Eagle nest, it’s a damned impressive structure!  They continually build it up, and it’s pretty amazing to see the size of some of the branches they try to pick up and incorporate into the nest. The nest now has to be 10 feet across, and keeps growing each year. And why not? It seems to be working for them, as they appear to have successfully raised a number of broods over the years.

This year, they’ve been sitting on the nest for a least a month, and I’m sure they once again have eggs.  I haven’t seen any lil’ heads poking up yet, so I’m not sure they’ve hatched yet.  Now is the perfect time to observe them, and I often have seen the young in the nest. But alas, in a month the cottonwood will have leafed out and made direct observation much more difficult. Often then the next observations you get of the young themselves is when they fledge from the nest, but they always hang around the same tree for quite some time afterwards.

Very cool neighbors! And neighbors that I’d bet most people don’t know are there. The nest itself is hard to miss, given it’s massive size.  You can easily see it from the north-south highway running through our town of Brandon. But people around here are always surprised to hear that we have such majestic birds nesting right on the edge of town.

Nice winter birding

Yeah, a month since a post. It’s been a bad month on multiple fronts, wasn’t in much of a mood to bird, rockhound, or blog. It HAS been a really nice year for some of the more uncommon winter bird visitors in South Dakota though, so this morning I went out and about, just around Brandon and Sioux Falls.

A nice morning! The highlight were a number of White-winged Crossbills. They are a nomadic species, found in one place one year, gone the next. They are pretty rare visitors to our neck of the woods, but one place they can occasionally be found is Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Sioux Falls. It’s an old cemetery, with some really huge, old spruce and other evergreens. The spruce have a really thick crop of cones this year, which is what attracts the Crossbills.  A really busy morning for birds in the cemetery, not only the rare White-winged Crossbills, but scads of Pine Siskins, and at least a dozen Common Redpolls as well.  There are entire winters that go by where I don’t see those 3 species, so it’s been a really nice treat this winter.

Some photos, including a few from around the yard recently…

White-winged Crossbill - Loxia leucoptera

A White-winged Crossbill hanging out in a spruce tree. They were really active this morning, moving from tree to tree in mixed flocks with Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and a few nuthatches. The problem was their preference to forage near the top of the massive spruce trees! I had to be patient to get one low enough for a photo.

White-winged Crossbill - Loxia leucoptera

Another White-winged Crossbill, foraging in the same place as the previous photo.

Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis

The male Northern Cardinal that visits my yard every day. Like clockwork, both a male and a female show up in the last 20 minutes of daylight, and occasionally at other times as well.

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

A Common Redpoll eating the seeds in the catkins that dangle from my paper birch in the back yard. They LOVE paper birch catkins, and already this winter have pretty much finished all the catkins of the tree. This is only the 3rd winter (in over 20+ years in Brandon) where we’ve had Redpolls visit.

Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis

The female Northern Cardinal that always visits in the evening.

Pine Siskin - Spinus pinus

One of the scads of Pine Siskins in my yard. I’ve occasionally had 1 or 2 come to the feeder in winter. I’ve NEVER had them like this. They have been by far the most common bird in my yard, even outnumbering all the goldfinches that love my thistle feeder. There have been times I look out and there are 50 or more, hanging out in my paper birch, and foraging at my feeders.

Small-town America and New American Values

Brandon, South Dakota

Brandon, South Dakota. Small-town, USA, population 10,000., “Midwestern Values”, But we’re not immune to what’s happening in the country over the last year.

Brandon, South Dakota. population 10,000. Small town, USA. Yet our High School has a new and growing problem with racism and bigotry. That’s the message we got this week, when our son started as a freshman.  We attended a question and answer session, with members of the senior class responding to questions from parents of incoming freshman.  After one question about potential fighting or bullying at Brandon High School, the principal stepped in and sadly announced that last year, for the first time, Brandon High School had experienced notable confrontations related to racism. Small-town USA, in the heart of the Midwest, where people claim to take pride in their “Midwestern values”.  Yet here we were being told that our little town’s high school was having issues with racism over the last year.

The principal has been in Brandon for many years. He didn’t say these words lightly. In fact, he rightfully seemed rather ashamed of the fact that it had become and issue.  The fact that he’s been in Brandon many years, and that racism hadn’t cropped up in an widespread, overt way until 2016? It’s not exactly a mystery as to why overt racism is becoming more common, even here in Brandon, South Dakota.

As a scientist, and particularly as a scientist who touches on climate changes issues, the last year can only be described as “soul-crushing”. We now have state-sponsored attacks on science, and even on basic logic and empirical proven TRUTH.  They are attacks on the very paradigm by which I’ve led my career and life.  However, even as a scientist, there’s been one characteristic of presidency of Orange Hitler (sorry, the SOB is like Voldemort…I can’t say his fucking name) that’s been even more troubling…the bigotry and state-sponsored HATE that emanates from the Oval Office.  Beyond what happens in DC however, is how that hatred and intolerance is trickling down even to small-town America (or perhaps FROM small-town America).

The Texas coast is currently dealing with a disaster of epic proportions…Hurricane Harvey.  Thanks to the predictions of government-funded scientists and research from NOAA (ironically, some of the same scientists ostracized for climate-change related work), we’ve had several days notice of the likely progression of the storm. Hopefully loss of life and property is held at a minimum thanks to those warnings. It’s a time where the nation’s focus rightly is with the people suffering through the storm.  And what was Orange Hitler doing just as the storm was hitting? Using the office of the Presidency to spread his own personal bile, bigotry, and hatred.

As the storm was beginning to lash the Texas coast, Orange Hitler issued the first pardon of his presidency. There have been sickening abuses of Presidential pardons in the past…Ford’s pardon of Nixon, and Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich are the two cases most commonly cited cases. None can top Orange Hitler’s pardon of fellow bigot and hate-monger Joe Arpaio.  None tears at the very soul of a nation more than this action, particularly as it was accompanied by a near-simultaneous executive order instructing the Pentagon to to ban transgender service members. Ford’s pardon of Nixon was presented as a means of ending the traumatic events leading up to Nixon’s resignation and help a nation heal. Clinton’s pardon of Rich?  Likely even more disgusting, given that it’s primarily viewed as a tit-for-tat favor to a man who donated heavily to the Clintons.

But Trump’s moves last night? They go behind personal political favors or misguided attempts to move a nation past a crisis.  They DIRECTLY flout the very principles on which the United States was established.  We’re 240+ years beyond the Declaration of Independence. We’re 240 years past the point where we had established that “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights“. However, after 8 years of a (gasp!!) black President, Orange Hitler tapped into the bigotry and HATRED of vast numbers of Americans, and has used the Oval Office as a platform for spreading hate and intolerance.  The founding fathers of 240 years ago would be aghast at the events of last night.

Joe Arpaio is a hateful bigot.  He was convicted on criminal contempt of court charges after ignoring directives to stop his abusive and discriminatory targeting of…well…anyone not lily-white.  There’s no gray area here, no logical grounds for pardoning such a man. Pardoning a man such as this sends a clear message…that the kind of government sponsored bigotry and hatred practiced by a small man like Arpaio has now graduated to full-fledged sponsorship by the Federal Government. Moments later, the same message was sent when Orange Hitler went against the recommendations of his own military commanders, and banned transgender citizens from serving their country in the military.

Orange Hitler is what he is. It was obvious during the 2016 presidential campaign, when he used his thinly veiled dog-whistle calls to the millions of hateful, bigoted Americans that long for a return to the days where White Power was unquestioned, where anyone who wasn’t white and Christian “knew their place” in society.  Americans KNEW they were voting for a bigot.  They KNEW they were voting for a man who advocated for hatred and intolerance of their fellow Americans.

Confederate Flag in South Dakota

Yes, this is good ol’ small-town South Dakota. Taken near Corson, just outside of Brandon. A new feature since the election, just like the house in Brandon who put “Get on board the Trump Train!” in big block letters across their fence. Small-town values. Small-town hatred and bigotry.

And they voted for him anyway.  Or more accurately, they voted for him BECAUSE of those views.

The dismissal of logic and reason, the outright rebellion against science in Orange Hitler’s administration is sad and disheartening.  But that’s nothing compared to the knowledge that not only is the American President a hateful bigot, but that SO many millions of Americans sympathize with his beliefs.  It’s fundamentally changed how I view the country in which I live. When I go out in public now here in very “red” South Dakota, I can’t help but look at my fellow citizens with a mix of bewilderment, sadness, and even fear.  That hatred and intolerance is showing up even in our own high school, no doubt being “passed down” from South Dakota parents who share those views. Thanks to the election of Orange Hitler, racism, intolerance, and bigotry is now “OK”. It’s OK to express those views in public.  It’s now acceptable to hate your fellow man, to discriminate and abuse them if they happen to be a different color, creed, or sexual orientation.  For many, it’s now evidently OK to even express those views in a public school setting.

Soul crushing.  Orange Hitler is an odious, despicable human being, but he’s one man. It’s the knowledge that so many millions of my fellow Americans share those views that is difficult to take.

 

Hanging with the Hummingbirds…

I was planning on doing some birding yesterday, but life got in the way. I started doing yard work, and couldn’t help but notice several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds flitting through my back yard, moving from flower to flower, and to my one nectar feeder.  After finishing the yard work, I decided to do something I haven’t done all summer…try to get photos of my visiting hummingbirds.

They’re not going to be around much longer.  They’ll start to leave in a week or two, and numbers will dwindle.  By September, I’m usually only left with occasionally young birds and females. By mid-September, they’ll largely be gone.

I’m always so excited when the first hummingbird shows up in our yard in early May!  I figured I’d better take some time and enjoy them while we can.  For now, here’s a male and female (or young) visiting my nectar feeder.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Archilochus colubris

A somewhat scruffy looking male Ruby-throated Hummingbird. I probably won’t have males around for too much longer. Mature males are always the first to leave, and will be scarce or absent by the end of the month.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Archilochus colubris

A female (or immature) hummingbird. Pretty soon these will all I’ll have, and then sadly, they’ll trickle away as well, leaving me with a long, 8-month period without my beautiful little hummingbird. 🙁

 

World’s most expensive dog bowl

Our two beloved spaniels, Oscar and Felix, are rather quirky. Given that they were originally found living by themselves in the wild, they were used to trying to find food, shelter, and water in the outdoors.  In the couple of years since we got them, they’ve become truly wonderful, sweet, loving pups, although they’ve maintained several of their original quirks.

The most maddening to deal with…their refusal to drink water if it’s inside the house. One of the two will sometimes drink from a water bowl inside the house, but strongly prefers drinking “outside water”.  The other?  There were a couple of days last fall, after I’d put the birdbath away for the winter, before there was any “delicious” snow to eat for a water source, where Oscar was refusing to eat much.  Even offering some of his most decadent, beloved treats…like some fresh cooked chicken breast…resulted in a turned up nose.  Wondering if the issue might be water, we placed a pan of water outside.  When we let the two outside, Oscar timidly approached the water, and then proceeded to guzzle the entire pan.  We let them back in the house, tried food again with Oscar, and he downed an entire bowl full.

It’s been maddening to try to get them to drink water, but my bird bath outside has always been their preferred drinking source, from the very first day we got them. However, that bird bath recently broke.  The only solution? Replace it with what’s got to be the world’s most expensive dog bowl (video at the bottom)!  I truly love this fountain…it’s from “Henri”, called their “Phoenix” fountain. It’s got a unique, modern style, has a big deep reservoir that holds a lot of water, has a wonderful shallow pan on top that the birds love to bath in, and most importantly, it’s very low and accessible for the pups!  And expensive, and back-breaking solution to get the dogs a reliable drinking water source!

Oscar and Felix - Birdbath

This is from the very first day we got Oscar (left) and Felix (right) from the rescue group. Almost immediately they found the joys of the bird bath, and for the last 3 years, it’s been their primary summer drinking source. Alas, this is the same bird bath that recently broke, requiring a replacement with the NEW world’s most expensive dog bowl.

Headed back north! Geese migration

Wow…And I thought the goose migration was incredible a few weeks ago when it started. Then came the cold weather, all the lakes froze over again, and they…disappeared.

Evidently many either stayed down south or moved back down south for a while, because with the warmer weather today, the migration has been incredible. I’m working at home, sitting in my 2nd floor office, looking out the open window, and for over 2 HOURS now, it’s been a constant stream of geese moving north. Snow Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, and Canada Geese. Spring has sprung! And hopefully this time, it sticks!

Facts trump Fear: A FACT-based assessment of Mountain Lions in South Dakota

Mountain Lion - Puma concolor

A full-grown Mountain Lion on the prowl. No…no…not my photo! This is a wild animal roaming in Yellowstone National Park. You see, like 99.999% of South Dakotans, I will never see, much less photograph, a Mountain Lion in this state. That, despite Mountain Lions seemingly posing as much of a threat to human health and safety as disease, war, famine, and pestilence combined. At least in the minds of many misguided South Dakotans.

I should just avoid the internet.  My blood pressure might be greatly improved if I were able to do that. It’s bad enough that we have Orange Hitler as our president, with a bunch of mini-Hitlers running all of the Cabinet departments. It’s bad enough that the normal news outlets that I check every day, such as the Washington Post or the New York Times, are now dominated by depressing and often downright sickening news stories about how everything that makes America, America, is now being being systematically dismantled.  What’s worse is that the same “alternative facts” political world we live in has permeated EVERY facet of American life, where fact, reason, and logic mean absolutely nothing any more.

Yesterday I was on Facebook when I came across a South Dakota “gentleman”, posing with a huge shit-eating grin on his face as he held up a dead Mountain Lion that he’d just shot and killed. OK, “gentleman” isn’t the word I want to use here, but I’m going to try to stay civil in this post.  Just the facts…so let’s call him “Gentleman Joe”.  It was a BIG mountain lion…160+ pounds…and evidently shooting a BIG Mountain Lion makes Gentleman Joe some kind of hero in the minds of many who were commenting on Facebook.  Normally I’d see something like that, roll my eyes, get a little sick to my stomach at the whole thought of it, and then move on to the next post. OK, who am I kidding…If you know me, you’d KNOW I was going to respond after seeing that.  As I I scrolled down, I noticed a manifesto from “Jim Bob” (I’m sure some relationship to Gentleman Joe, if not by blood, then by ideology).  Jim Bob was praising Gentleman Joe for the great kill, going on with his thoughts about just how much safer South Dakotans were thanks to his kill.

According to Jim Bob, the Mountain Lion horde of the South Dakota Black Hills are taking over the state. According to Jim Bob, it’s seemingly impossible to go outside in the Black Hills nowadays without the imminent threat of a Mountain Lion attack. In Jim Bob’s eyes, the proliferation of Mountain Lions in the Black Hills is akin to nuclear weapon proliferation during the Cold War, and evidently, poses just as much of a threat to humanity.  In Jim Bob world, it’s not safe to wander outside in the Black Hills. Gentleman Joe was indeed a god-damned American HERO for saving a scared South Dakota populous from the Mountain Lion scourge.

White-tailed Deer Fawn - Odocoileus virginianus

Yes, this IS my photo. I know what you’re thinking…TERRY! YOU HAVE A FAMILY TO THINK ABOUT!?!?! How could you risk so much getting this close to a dangerous killer? OK…ridiculous, you say? How much threat does a lil’ White-tailed Deer pose? SCIENCE MY FRIENDS! And the numbers don’t lie. THIS creature is MUCH more likely to kill or injure you than is a Mountain Lion. If you live in South Dakota, it’s not the creature at the top of the page that is a threat to your life.

I responded with facts, providing the TRUE story of Mountain Lions in the Black Hills, and their supposed threat to health and well-being of South Dakota’s citizens. Jim Bob, clearly not accustomed to facing the world of reality, threw a few half-hearted digital haymakers in Facebook response before slinking back to his hole.  He had nothing to respond with, no evidence to back his claims.  But as he departed the digital conversation, it was quite clearly that the barrage of facts I provided did nothing to change his mind. Those facts?

There’s been a grand total of ONE…count them…ONE confirmed Mountain Lion attack IN THE ENTIRE RECORDED HISTORY OF SOUTH DAKOTA.

Even that one event, in 2008, was an unfortunate encounter that resulted from a lion defending a kill, rather than the lion actively seeking out a human being.  Ryan Hughes was ice fishing on Sheridan Lake in March of 2008 when he headed to the shoreline and came across a Mountain Lion crouched down in the cattails, feeding on a fresh kill (thought to be a fox).  When Hughes first spotted the Mountain Lion, he was a mere 5 feet from the lion and its kill. The surprised lion reacted, dropping it’s food and scratching and biting Hughes. Hughes received minor injuries, and was treated and released from a local hospital for minor scratches and bite marks.

Well over 150 years since settlement of South Dakota, and this one, chance encounter is the ONLY MOUNTAIN LION ATTACK EVER RECORDED ON A HUMAN BEING in the state. However, according to Jim Bob, it’s absolutely essential that “heroes” like Gentleman Joe actively thin out the Black Hills Mountain Lion population.  According to fearful, small-minded men like Jim Bob, it’s a matter of public SAFETY.

I have no doubt that for tiny-penis men like Jim Bob, Mountain Lions ARE something to fear (am I still being civil? OK it’s getting borderline). It’s a scary world when you’re an insecure, weak little man-child (yeah, definitely crossing the border now).  Toting a gun into the wild and blasting away at wildlife?  It’s great for boosting those testosterone levels and boosting the confidence of weak she-men like Jim Bob (I am WAY south of the border…bye-bye civility).  But stating Mountain Lion hunting must be done as a matter of public SAFETY?

Deer Collision Risk - State Farm

From State Farm Insurance, a table of the top 5 riskiest states for car/deer collisions. If only there were some natural predator capable of saving us from the Deer threat…

One attack in over 150 years, in a state that covers over 75,000 square miles. Depending on the estimate and year, recent estimates of the number of Mountain Lions in the Black Hills have varied from 200 to 400. Generally they’ve thought to have stabilized around 250 in recent years. It’s a very healthy, strong lion population, yet despite their substantial presence in an area that’s so heavily used for recreation, there just haven’t been any attacks on human beings, much less any serious injury or fatality caused by a Mountain Lion.  That fear from tiny penis she-men isn’t limited to people in the Black Hills region.  Even here at the opposite end of the state near my town of Brandon, there have been stories of fear from the likes of Jim Bob.

While permanent breeding populations of Mountain Lions in South Dakota are almost exclusively found in the Black Hills, wandering individuals are occasionally found elsewhere in the state and region, even here in southeastern South Dakota. In 2014, there were a few sightings of a Mountain Lion just north of Brandon, where I live. A lot of the reports are rather “bigfoot” like, such as a reported brief glimpse of what might have been a Mountain Lion in the headlights of a speeding car on a highway.  But according to this piece from 2014, some in the Brandon area believed that Mountain Lions were setting up shop in the region. A quote from one of the landowners just north of where I live in Brandon?

Those spottings are just a sampling of the evidence of what Heggen said is a long-running pattern of the lions, which are solitary animals, being a nuisance in his area.

Yes, Mr. Heggen. It’s a “long-running pattern” of Mountain Lions roaming the Brandon Area.  They are a long time “nuisance” here in extreme eastern South Dakota, an area that’s 90% corn and soybeans and unlikely to EVER host a Mountain Lion for any length of time. They have indeed been spotted from time to time. I even know of a guy at my work who has seen one in the area.  But as the story above notes, in 2013 there were only 6 recorded Mountain Lion sightings in the entire state outside of the Black Hills.  Only three of those were in the eastern half of South Dakota. It’s not exactly a “long-running pattern”, and it’s a far cry from Mountain Lions being a “nuisance” in the area. More quotes from the Brandon-area story:

“But we don’t have any raccoons, skunks, possums or even pheasants running around anymore. And for a while, we didn’t even see any rabbits, although we’ve seen a few smaller ones lately,” he said.

 

“I’m guessing they (the lions) are eating them,” Heggen said. “They aren’t scavengers like coyotes.” He said that what he fears most is having his 5-year-old son being harmed by one of the lions in their farmyard.

Mountain Lions Killed - American West

From the Mountain Lion Foundation, a graph of the number of Mountain Lions killed by hunters in the American West from 1900 to the present day. In the last 20 years, hunters have generally killed 3,000 to 4,000 lions a year. In South Dakota in 2017, Game Fish & Parks are allowing up to 60 Lions to be killed.

Once again, let’s return to the facts…ONE CONFIRMED ATTACK IN THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF THE STATE, yet people like this are evidently fearful for the lives of their families.  There are other ridiculously speculative comments in the story, such as one time some cows were spooked by something (clearly HAD to be a Mountain Lion, right?), or that one fall he didn’t see any deer while harvesting his corn (Eegads!  More Mountain Lions!!). Please spare me the anecdotal bullshit about all the poor little animals in the area disappearing, and attributing it to roving Mountain Lions. Trust me, we have PLENTY of deer, raccoons, skunks, opossums, pheasants, and rabbits running around this part of the state.  It’s hard to drive any road in the area and not notice all the road kill on the sides of the road.

I’m perhaps being a little (ok, more than a little) harsh on people like this, but as a scientist, my biggest pet peeve in this world are fearful, ignorant human beings who ignore fact, logic, science, and reason, and instead let their innermost fears and emotions rule their lives. The vast majority of people in the Black Hills, an area that may indeed have one of the highest Mountain Lion concentrations in all of North America, will never even SEE a Mountain Lion in their lifetimes, much less have an encounter or an attack.

I also realize it’s not just the fear of men (with tiny penises) that drives this hatred of Mountain Lions, and the “lionization” (ha-ha) and hero-worship of those who kill them. No, beyond the fear, it’s INSECURITY, and their need to KILL, to express their manliness, that also drives attitudes like those of Jim Bob. That rationalization that it’s up to THEM to SAVE us from the Mountain Lion scourge…that attitude certainly plays to their insecurities, and it’s a great excuse for those who just love to go out and kill things.

On the latter point, hunters in general often have a problem with predators like Mountain Lions, for the simple fact that Lions are competition for the same kinds of prey that hunters like to target. As this story from 2010 points out, Mountain Lions likely kill just as many deer in the Black Hills as do hunters. The entire anti-Mountain Lion vibe in that part of the state simply boils down to this basic statement from this story:

Some hunters don’t like the increased competition from lions, said Mike Kintigh, GF&P regional supervisor in Rapid City.

A Mountain Lion kills a deer, that’s one less deer for hunters to kill.  In the minds of “Sportsmen” who think like this, targeting Mountain Lions is a win-win proposition.  It gives hunters the chance to kill a large, challenging animal, while at the same time reducing a major predator of game such as deer and elk.How do you combat some of the “fact-challenged” rhetoric from the anti-Lion crowd in South Dakota?  Facts don’t seem to have any impact on people like this, but as a scientist, it’s quite easy to shoot down the “logic” of these folks with some basic empirical evidence and numbers.

  • ONE — Again…in the entire history of the state, only ONE recorded attack of a Mountain Lion on a human being, and that was an obvious case of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, surprising a mountain lion on its kill.
  • THREE — In all of Eastern South Dakota in 2013, there were only three confirmed Mountain Lion sightings. No, East River paranoids, Mountain Lions are not in any way a “nuisance” or any kind of threat in the 30,000+ square miles east of the Missouri River. Let’s at least keep the argument just to the Black Hills region.
  • 250 — That’s the roughly the number of Mountain Lions currently thought to be in the Black Hills. In an area of about 5,000 square miles, that puts the number at about one Mountain Lion for every 20 square miles.  That’s a high density for anywhere in North America, much less for such a heavily used area like the Black Hills.  Yet again, despite the number of lions and the potential for interaction with the thousands of visitors and residents in the Black Hills, dangerous encounters have been non-existent.
  • 5,500 — That’s how many deer may be killed every year in the Black Hills by Mountain Lions.
  • 90,000 — Roughly the number of deer killed by hunters every year in South Dakota in the 2000s…during the exact time period when researchers believed Mountain Lion populations were at all-time highs in the Black Hills, with potentially 400 individuals present.
  • 69% — Recent success rate of hunters targeting deer in the Black Hills.  Evidently the Mountain Lions have left one or two deer for human hunters.  No, hunters, Mountain Lions are not wiping out the Black Hills deer population.
  • #5South Dakota was recently ranked as the 5th most likely state for a driver of a vehicle to strike a deer.  One in 70 South Dakota drivers on average have a claim related to a deer collision.  Perhaps a little NATURAL population control would benefit South Dakotans, particularly since the risk of any negative consequence (aka, an attack) is far less than the odds of being struck by lightning.  If only there were some SCIENCE to back this up…hmmmm……
  • 155 — That’s how many lives in the eastern United States would be SAVED over a 30-year period in the eastern United States, IF Mountain Lions were reintroduced into the area.  The number comes from a detailed socioeconomic analysis of the impacts of reintroducing Mountain Lions in the East. The savings come from the reduction in deer populations that would result from the introduction of their most effective natural predator, and the resultant reduction in deer-car collisions.  The same study found that over $2 BILLION in insurance costs would be saved over the 30-year period.

Not to let something as mundane as “science” get in the way of the thinking of people like Jim Bob, but if that many lives and insurance dollars would be SAVED in the eastern U.S. by reintroducing the Mountain Lion, how many avoided collisions in the Black Hills are a result of the presence of Mountain Lions?  How many lives have thus been SAVED by the presence of Mountain Lions in the Black Hills?  If you’re doing a cost-benefit analysis, that would be XX number of lives saved, compared to…ZERO lives that that EVER been lost in the state as a result of a Mountain Lion’s activities. What? That’s all speculative you say?  Not so fast my friends, SCIENCE TO THE RESCUE AGAIN!! From the same socioeconomic analysis:

South Dakota offers a test case example of how effective this solution might be. Cougars have been slowly migrating East: They only recolonized the Black Hills in western South Dakota in 2005. When Gilbert and her team looked at mountain lion recolonization in the western part of South Dakota, they found that from 2005–2012, deer-vehicle collisions fell by 9 percent, resulting in $1.1 million in annual societal benefits for the citizens of western South Dakota. (A 9 percent reduction in seven years is roughly on par with the 22 percent reduction, which researchers think will take 30 years from recolonization.) By avoiding an estimated 158 deer vehicle collisions annually, auto insurers are already saving roughly $630,000 a year in payouts in the Black Hills.

DATA!  REAL DATA showing the decline in deer-auto accidents in South Dakota that occurred RIGHT when Mountain Lion populations were spiking in the region.

If you support Mountain Lion hunting in South Dakota, please spare us all the bullshit.  It’s NOT a safety issue.  Not to let facts spoil your storyline, anti-Mountain Lion, crowd, but from a safety standpoint, there’s absolutely no doubt that South Dakotans are safer WITH Mountain Lions than without.

SCIENCE!! NUMBERS!! FACT!!!

If you’re going to spout off about the need to “control” Mountain Lions, skip the crap about safety.  It’s clearly about either 1) your COMPLETELY irrational fear of a beautiful creature that’s MUCH less likely to harm you than is your hair dryer, shaver, or random bolt of lightning, or 2) your desire to KILL a creature for no other reason than the enjoyment of the “sport”.

For more information, here are some of the journal and news articles mentioned in this blog post:

(Not So) Great Backyard Bird Count 2017

Red-bellied Woodpecker (male)

The male Red-bellied Woodpecker who almost religiously comes to my suet feeders several times a day. Today? Not once did I see him. So went my first ever participatory day in the “Great Backyard Bird Count”, where the usuals didn’t show up, but the (global warming induced) goose migration made up for it.

If you know me at all, you know that I’m not the most social of birders.  In fact, I’m probably the least social birder you know, in that it’s extremely rare for me to go birding with another person, join in group events, or participate in group activities. That extends to things like the Christmas Bird Count, Breeding Bird Survey, or other yearly events.  No, for me, my birding is “me” time.  It’s my time to relish the outdoors, to relish the solitude, to enjoy it all on my own terms.

I’ve never participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count either. But today, I had a lazy day at home, with stuff I wanted to do on my office computer upstairs.  For the first time ever, I thus did an official count for the GBBC, seeing what I could from my 2nd floor window, and also occasionally checking the feeders in the backyard. The weather?  60+ degrees, and brilliantly sunny for most of the day!  That’s in South Dakota…in mid-February!  Not usual weather, and NOT the usual day for birds in my yard.

For one, most feeder birds weren’t around.  For a birder, winter in South Dakota might as well be known as “Junco Season”, as it sometimes seems like Dark-eyed Juncos are the only species that are around here in winter.  Today however, in the beautiful weather?  Not a single Junco to be found.  When it was colder in December and early January, the one thing I could count on at my feeders were hordes of American Goldfinches, sometimes with over 50 fighting for a spot at the thistle feeder, or waiting in a nearby tree.  Today?  6 Goldfinches.  Even House Sparrows, the ubiquitous little bastards that love to come in hordes and wipe out my sunflower feeder, were curiously absent. The only ones I saw were 5 hanging out and taking a sun bath on the bushes in the front yard this afternoon.

While it wasn’t a great day for feeder birds, and certainly not a typical WINTER day at my feeders, the sheer quantity of birds was likely much higher than I’d ever normally get during a GBBC, thanks to the warm weather and all the geese already moving through.  They usually say February 14th, right around Valentine’s Day, is the start of the Sandhill Crane and waterfowl migration down in Nebraska along the Platte in the spring, yet here we sit on February 19th, and scads of Snow Geese, Canada Geese, and Greater White-fronted Geese are migrating through the area already. If I were to have sat outside and counted all the geese flocks that went overhead, I’m positive I would have been well over 1,000 individuals.  As it was, I only counted flocks that went over this morning, when I could have my office window open and not be blinded by the afternoon sun.

Totals for the feeders and yard?  Just a little over 20 birds, of ALL kinds, and that’s even with me looking at the feeders at least 20 times during the course of the day.  Totals for geese flying overhead?  In the time I watched this morning, 275 was my best estimate.  Here’s the breakdown from the day:

  • Canada Goose — 150 — I would bet this is an underestimate, but I didn’t want to double-count those that hang out by the river across the street, so only counted the low-flying ones once, and kept the rest of the count to those high-flying flocks going overhead. I also avoided counting all the flocks I could see that were too far away for me to get a positive ID.
  • White-fronted Goose — 75 — Mostly in two flocks that went over, but also a scattered few in a flock of Canada Geese
  • Snow Goose — 50 — I saw several very large flocks of Snow Geese last Thursday, when I took a trip for work up to Brookings. Today? Just one flock of about 50 birds.
  • Downy Woodpecker – 3 — Again, not wanting to double-count, since the same ones keep coming back all day.  These 3 represent the one time I looked out and saw 3 Downy’s at once.
  • Hairy Woodpecker — 2 — I have a wonderful, usually pretty shy, male and female pair of Hairy Woodpeckers that often come to the feeders.  I remember how much I struggled with ID’s when I first started birding, including trying to distinguish Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers.  Now?  Hairy Woodpeckers always look MASSIVE to me, compared to the little Downy’s, with bills that are so much longer.
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker — 1 — We have both male and female Red-bellied Woodpeckers that come to the feeders, and usually I see them from my upstairs office as they fly across the street from the State Park over to my feeders.  Today, I just saw the female once, and no male.
  • American Crow — 4 — 1 fly-by over the house, 3 chattering on a roof across the street.
  • Blue Jay – 1 — Again, a species I normally get quite a bit in the winter, but on a slow, gorgeously warm February day, only one today.
  • Northern Cardinals — 2–  Dawn and dusk, particularly dusk, are the times I normally see both a male and female at my safflower feeder.  Always together, never just one of them, as least during the winter months.  They made an appearance this morning for a while.
  • American Goldfinch — 6 – Numbers have gone WAY down since the weather turned all “southern California” on us.  I used to have to fill my big tube feeder with thistle/niger seed at least every 2 days, but not lately.
  • House Sparrow — 5 — OK, this one I’m not too upset about. If I put out sunflower seeds, these guys LIVE in the bushes in my front yard, and then come back to the feeders to occasionally gorge.  I was getting rather sick of the horde of House Sparrows, so stopped putting out sunflower, and instead started using just safflower at that feeder.  Keeps the Cardinals, but the House Sparrows don’t like it and stay away.  Only ones I saw were in the front yard this morning, a far cry from the 40+ that would often flock to my feeders in December.
  • American Robin – 1 — A late entry!! I was starting the grill (yes, the GRILL, in FEBRUARY, in SOUTH DAKOTA) as I was preparing this blog post, and I heard and then saw a Robin chirping away.  Singing Robins! In South Dakota, in winter!!

 

Done, and entering now in eBird!  A semi-social birding contribution, by the biggest “loner” birder there is!

Countering today’s ugliness with some beauty…

I just can’t do it today.  I can’t watch the news.  I can’t read the newspaper. I can’t turn on the TV.  Not today. Not on a day where we’re losing one of the most dignified, graceful, moral families that have ever graced the White House.  Not on a day where many are celebrating a victory by hatred, by racism, by ugliness.

For today, a needed shot of some of the “beautiful” things in the world.  Here are some of my favorite photos, and the story behind them.

Black Oystercatcher - Haematopus bachmani

Black Oystercatcher – Cannon Beach, Oregon – June 2009 — We first visited Cannon Beach in Oregon as a family about 11 years ago. We’ve been back several times since, as it’s become one of our favorite vacation spots. From a birding perspective, it’s heaven on earth for me. “Haystack Rock” is just off the beach, a massive rock spire that is home to hundreds of nesting Murre’s, Puffins, Gulls, Cormorants, and other species. It’s a fascinating place for my son, and the vibrant tidal pools have always been a favorite of his. Cannon Beach is the first place I saw a Black Oystercatcher, and at dawn one morning I was able to capture a photo of one foraging amongst the rocks at low tide. Being able to capture such a unique bird against a backdrop of colorful starfish was a real treat.

Western Bluebird - Sialia mexicana

Western Bluebird – Zion National Park – May 2008 — We LOVE our family vacations, particularly visits to national parks. This was in 2008, our first visit to Utah and Zion National Park. I’d seen Western Bluebirds before, but didn’t have any photos. This gorgeous male decided to make things easy for me. We were sitting on the back patio of our B&B one night when he flew around the corner and landed in a tree about 15 feet away. A rarity in bird photography…getting an easy opportunity. This is one of my favorite photos though, with the warm colors of the canyon in the background, the curve of the branch, and the beautiful clean view of the bird.

Burrowing Owl - Athene cunicularia

Burrowing Owl – Near Brandon, South Dakota – August 2008 — It’s the location of this shot that makes it a special memory for me. I will often drive 3 to 4 hours to go birding in the central part of the state. In any season, prairie dog towns are good places to bird, as they attract a variety of birds. One of the reasons I like to visit prairie dog towns is because many of them also house Burrowing Owls. I’d seen them many times in the central part of the state, but always at least 200 miles from home. In August of 2008 I was returning home from a business trip, was driving on a road just northeast of my hometown of Brandon, and I saw something sitting on a fence post. A double-take, a slam of the brakes, and YES, it was a Burrowing Owl! Mere minutes from our house! I watched for a while before returning with my camera, and quickly realized it was a family of 2 adults and at least 4 youngsters. There were nesting in an old badger hole in an alfalfa field, a far cry from the prairie dog towns I was used to seeing them in. For nearly 2 months I watched the little family grow up and eventually disappear for the winter. Never again have I seen Burrowing Owls anywhere close to this part of South Dakota, but I’ll always remember this special little family.

Horned Puffin - Fratercula corniculata

Horned Puffin – Fox Island, Alaska – August 2010 — Who doesn’t love Puffins? I’ve been fortunate to see all three species in the wild, seeing Atlantic Puffins on a short whale-watching cruise off of the coast of Maine, seeing Tufted Puffins many times at Cannon Beach in Oregon, and seeing Horned Puffins in Alaska. This was during one of our most memorable family vacations, where we visited several locations in Alaska. Our favorite part of the trip was staying overnight on “Fox Island” just outside of Seward Alaska, and taking an all-day wildlife cruise the next day. When we awoke from our cabin on Fox Island that morning, there were several Horned Puffins feeding just off of the rocky beach. It was simply a matter of sitting and waiting for one to surface. I was fortunate enough to catch this adult with both a bill full of fish, but also a nice wing stretch. A definite favorite photo of mine.

Costa's Hummingbird - Calypte costae

Costa’s Hummingbird – Madera Canyon, Arizona – November 2015 — I do manage to fit some birding in when we go on family vacations, but because I don’t want to take time away from our family, it’s typically early morning hours, before my wife and son get up. That changes, however, when I go on work trips. If I have a work trip in an area with a good birding location nearby, I will often use my own money and stay and extra day to bird. In November of 2015, I had work meetings in Tucson…one of our favorite locations on earth. Did I mention earlier that Cannon Beach was “heaven on earth” for a birder? Take that, double it, and add 3,456, and that describes how great birding is in the Tucson area. There are many famous birding locations in the area, including Madera Canyon south of Tucson. This trip was incredibly memorable because I saw several species for the first time, including a “Holy Grail” bird for birders in the U.S., and Elegant Trogon. Another attraction for the area in general is the wonderful variety of hummingbirds that are often around, some of which are rarely found elsewhere in the United States. This is a male Costa’s Hummingbird, not one of the mega-rarities, but one of my favorite hummingbird species. It’s hard to capture the colors of male hummingbird’s gorget, as the light has to be JUST right, but on this occasion the lighting helped to show off that brilliant purple gorget of a male Costa’s.

Elegant Trogon - Trogon elegans

Elegant Trogon – Madera Canyon near Tucson, Arizona – November 2015 — After mentioning it with the previous photo, how can I not show this? Elegant Trogons are indeed a “Holy Grail” kind of a bird, as they are uncommon to begin with, and have a range that just barely touches the U.S. On occasion they are found in some of the forested canyons of southern Arizona, near the border. I’ve been to two of those, “Ramsey Canyon”, where I’ve visited twice, and “Madera Canyon”, where I’ve been 3 times. In my November 2015 visit to Madera Canyon, I knew the timing wasn’t great. Summer is much better for hummingbirds, as well as many other rarities that breed in these canyons. Elegant Trogon have bred in these canyons, but most of the time, they move southward for the winter. On occasion, however, one overwinters. I wasn’t thinking “Trogon” at ALL as I visited the area. I had heard of another rarity, a Rufous-capped Warbler that had been seen in nearby Florida Canyon, so I thought I’d try making the hike to where that bird was seen. I parked the car, headed up the trail, and struck out on the warbler. However, when I was nearly back to my car and about to leave, I saw the movement of a large bird out of the corner of my eye. Elegant Trogon! It had just flown down the canyon and landed in a tree by the creek! I’ve been birding 15 years, and don’t really freak out when I see a “good” bird, but I must say, as I raised the camera to try to get a shot, I was shaking a bit, just PRAYING it didn’t move or fly away before I could watch it and get a photo. Fortunately, it stayed in its perch for a few minutes before flying away. This definitely isn’t one of my greatest photos from a photographer’s standpoint, but I’ll always consider it one of my greatest experiences from a birding standpoint.

Gray Wolf - Canis lupus

Gray Wolf – Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota – March 2013 — I admit I often turn a blind eye to any photo opportunity that doesn’t involve a bird. Sometimes an opportunity arises that you can’t pass up, however. Another favorite American birding location for me is Sax-Zim Bog in Minnesota. I was there for the incredible northern owl irruption of 2004, when in one day, I saw over 30 Great Gray Owls, and over 30 Northern Hawk Owls. It’s never been quite as magical since that incredible winter, but it’s still a wonderful place to try to find a northern owl or other boreal species that are hard to find in the lower 48 states. In early March of 2013 I thought I’d try one last late-winter visit, hoping to spot Boreal Owls that had been seen in the area. I ended up striking out on owls, but the trip ended up being magical due to what happened in the first 10 minutes when I arrived at the bog. I had gotten up ridiculously early and left Brandon at about 2:00 in the morning, hoping to arrive in the Sax-Zim area just a little after dawn. As I reached the bog and started up a small road, I saw movement in the trees to my left. As I stopped to see what it was, this beautiful creature stepped out of the woods, a lone Gray Wolf. He stopped for a second and stared right at me before deciding I wasn’t all that interesting. He slowly trotted across the road and back into the forest. It remains the only wild wolf I’ve ever seen (even with all our visits to Yellowstone!), and I’m very grateful he paused long enough for me to get this photo.

Saguaro Sky - Tucson, Arizona

Saguaro Sky – Near Tucson, Arizona — Yeah, another Tucson area shot. There’s a wonderful B&B we’ve stayed at multiple times on the edge of Tucson, right next to Saguaro National Park. The B&B owners have their own 40 acres of beautiful Sonoran Desert habitat, and I just love getting up at dawn to walk through it and take photos. As always, birds are a focus, but other critters I’ve found there include rattlesnakes, coyotes, javelina, and even a bobcat one morning. On this morning, just after dawn, it was the sky the caught my attention The sun was just coming over the mountains, and the blue sky was dotted with beautifully patterned, high, wispy clouds. I decided to try something new (for me), trying to capture the majesty of the tallest saguaro cactus I could find, with that gorgeous sky as a backdrop. I also call this photo “Paying the Price”. I laid flat on my back at the base of the saguaro to get this photo, shooting up into the sky. Did you know that in a Sonoran desert habitat, the ground is sprinkled with all KINDS of cactus needles? Neither did I! I got the shot I wanted, and was thrilled with the result, but also spent half an hour back in the B&B having my wife pick cactus thorns out of my back and legs.

Juvenile Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus

Dark-phase Gyrfalcon – Fort Pierre National Grasslands, South Dakota – January 2010 — This is both one of my favorite photos, and a photo that breaks my heart. In all the dead of winter trips I take to the central part of the state, THE attraction, the ONE SPECIES I’m really hoping to see, is a Gyrfalcon. They’re the largest falcon in the world, and are a bird that’s damned tough to ever see in the United States, outside of Alaska. Every winter, a few may straggle down from the Arctic and cross into the United States, but they’re real rarities and another “Holy Grail” bird for U.S. birders. Central South Dakota is actually one of the best places to see them in the lower 48, and I’ve been lucky enough to find them on several occasions. On this day, in the distance I saw a dark bird on a snag. Given the coloration, I wasn’t thinking “Gyrfalcon” at all. It was too dark. As I got closer, I saw it was indeed a Gyrfalcon, a young, dark-phase Gyrfalcon. This is the only dark Gyrfalcon I’ve seen, and it was a thrill to get some nice photos of him. However, as I approached, I also noticed a bird seemingly struggling in the middle of the gravel road. As I got closer, I saw it was a pigeon, tangled inside a net. That pigeon DEFINITELY had the attention of the Gyrfalcon, but he wasn’t about to make a move while I was there. As I wondered what to do, a SUV came roaring down the hill, and as they approached, a man and woman frantically waved their arms at me, motioning me to “move away” from the pigeon. Not knowing what the hell was going on, I pulled up to them, rolled down the window, and asked what was going on. They were falconers. The pigeon and net was theirs. They were trying to capture the young Gyrfalcon to use for falconry. Unfortunately this actually IS legal in the U.S., even for a mega-rarity such as a Gyrfalcon. They had the proper permits. I admit I wasn’t the friendliest to this couple. There are SO few Gyrfalcons that ever make it into the lower 48 states, it just didn’t seem right that they could actually capture one and keep it for their own personal entertainment. Unfortunately, that young Gyr stayed in his perch the entire time I argued with the couple. After a while, after checking with South Dakota Game Fish & Parks friend to see if this was indeed legal, I drove off. I always wondered if that couple caught the Gyrfalcon. That even DEFINITELY changed my behavior though as a birder. After finding out that falconers often scour the birding hotlines for news of a Gyrfalcon, I now NEVER report a Gyrfalcon sighting. After coming across this bird and the falconers trying to catch it, never again will I do anything that could potentially help a falconer remove one of these magnificent birds from the wild.

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