Birding! I’ve actually had the chance to do a little birding lately!! With my new job responsibilities at work, I’ve been working crazy long hours. That should die down once I completely transition, but in the past month, time has been pretty precious. However, over the last week I have set aside a couple of weekend days to get out and go birding, and the weather thankfully has been pretty good the last 2 weekends.
One priority in finally getting out…going to see a Great Horned Owl nest that has gotten a lot of attention, and was only 10 miles away. Palisades State Park is a gem of a little park. Splitrock Creek runs through the park, and in some areas there are steep cliffs of our famed Sioux Quartzite that rise to 50 feet or more above the river. It’s also a popular spot for rock climbing, with multiple tall quartzite spires in the park. I’ve seen Canada Geese often use those cliffs for nesting, as you can’t imagine a better place to be protected from land predators. But a hiker a few weeks ago noticed a different nesting bird…A Great Horned Owl! She’s in a spot perfectly protected from her now adoring fans, as you can only see her from the opposite side of the river.
As the following pictures show, it’s a rather interesting situation in this particular part of Palisades State Park:
I’ve done more birding in the last 2 weeks than I’ve done in a long time, trying to take advantage of what normally is the peak migration time here for warblers, shorebirds, and other migrants. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the warblers, shorebirds, and other migrants that they’re supposed to be, you know…migrating. It’s been pretty slow for many things, but I’ve still had a great time. One bird that definitely got the message about migration time are Black Terns, as I’ve run into dozens upon dozens as they forage over many of the lakes, ponds, and wetlands in the area.
Last night I was at Grass Lake in far western Minnehaha County, and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect setup for taking photos of what can be a difficult bird to photograph. The light was at my back, the wind was gusting and keeping many birds in a near hovering position, and I was perched on an elevated road that allowed me to be level or even shooting down on the birds as they fed. It led to some shots I really like…augmenting a gallery of quite a few Black Tern photos I like. For some species, building such a gallery comes rather easy, as the birds are cooperative (sitting still and not flying away certainly helps), and have plumage patterns and colors that make them easy to photograph.
That has NOT been the case with Black Terns. I do have some shots of them sitting on a log or other perch, but most of the time when you see them, they’re in flight, and they have a bouncy, unpredictable flight path as they forage for food. Their coloring is another challenge. A bird in breeding plumage has jet black feathering on the head and underneath, while other feathering is silvery to nearly white, making it very difficult to expose correctly. If you have poor light or the bird is backlit, it’s generally not even worth bothering, as the bird will show up as a dark, featureless smudge.
The conditions all came together last night though! With as happy as I was with the photos from last night, I was going to dust off my bird haiku “skills” (questionable as though they may be), given I haven’t done a haiku for awhile. But it’s Friday, it’s been a long week, and I don’t have it in me. So instead here’s a gallery of some of my favorite Black Tern photos over the years.
We don’t get too many Greater Roadrunners up here in South Dakota! Well, ok, there used to be one at the local zoo, but otherwise the closest one is a good 500 miles away. We do vacation in the Southwest occasionally, and I have seen them a number of times. But usually it’s been one running across a road while we drive, or one scooting around a corner in front of us on a hike. I haven’t had the opportunity to ever photograph the species.
We were in Arizona for the holidays, spending a week and just getting back. Our favorite activity when on vacation is hiking, so we visited a number of state parks, Saguaro National Park, and other areas with nice hikes. One thing I’ve noticed in Arizona…many of the birds seem rather “tame” compared to birds here in South Dakota. Even for species found in both places, the Arizona birds seem much more cooperative for a camera. I assume it is because they’re exposed to human beings more than they are here. If you bird a heavily visited area such as the Gilbert Water Ranch in Phoenix or Saguaro National Park (we did both), the birds are used to humans being around.
The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix is one such place. It’s a large site, with 140 acres to explore, but it’s very heavily visited. As a result, the birds are pretty cooperative. While walking there on our first morning in Arizona, we rounded a bend and saw a Greater Roadrunner parked at the edge of the trail in front of us, hunting some unseen prey. I raised the camera, expecting him to dart away as has every Roadrunner I’ve ever come across. He didn’t disappoint me! He did indeed dash into the brush. I put the camera down, and we keep walking. I assumed he was gone and I wouldn’t get another opportunity.
I was wrong! As we walked further, he burst out of the vegetation and onto the trail again. This time, he stood there for a long time, letting me shoot quite a few photos before he again took off, chasing…something. I never did see what he was chasing, but he was so intent on following it that I was able to get photos of him in a number of locations, before he settled down on a rock to bask in the cool morning sun.
A photographic lifer! And a much prettier bird than I expected, with the colorful patch on its face.
I was on travel for work this week which mean any blogging or work on my website was delayed. When I returned, I had an email that was thanking me for my “Difficult Bird ID” page, where you can find information on differentiating between commonly confused species. There was also a request to add another page, discussing how to tell apart the three North American goldfinch species. I don’t normally think of goldfinches as a particularly difficult group to identify, but then again, here in eastern South Dakota, we only have the one species. Overall, geography is obviously a huge part of identifying goldfinches, as in the eastern half of the country, the only species of goldfinch you’ll find are American Goldfinch. However, if you happen to find yourself in parts of the southwestern US, you have three goldfinch species you may potentially encounter, with Lesser Goldfinch and Lawrence’s Goldfinch join the party.
The woman who sent the email lived in California and specifically was trying to figure out how to easily identify female goldfinches. That does represent more of a challenge than differentiating male goldfinches, and given that my Difficult Bird ID pages are some of the most visited pages on my entire website, I thought tonight I would go ahead and create another page that talks about ID keys for the three species.
As with many “difficult” IDs, for birders I think that difficulty melts away with experience, particularly when given keys to look for. Creating a page such as this helps me as well! I don’t run into Lesser Goldfinch, for example, unless I travel, but I don’t know if I could have identified a female goldfinch as either Lesser or American in the areas they overlap in range, until creating this page. Now I’ll know what to look for (bill color, and undertail covert color are giveaways).
A bit of a pain to create these pages, but as I said, they are frequently visited. Click below for the new Goldfinch ID page.
Females of the three North American goldfinch species. Males in breeding plumage? Piece of cake. A little bit harder for the females (particularly American and Lesser), but not bad when you know what to look for.
It was 10 years ago when I had one of my better birding moments. There are always those great trips to “new” places that get the birding juices flowing, but one of the best aspects of birding is that you never know what you might see when you go out.
It was 10 years ago that I was coming back from a business trip. I flew into the Sioux Falls airport and was driving back to my little home town of Brandon (about 6 miles west of Sioux Falls). I was driving by an open alfalfa field, when I noticed a bird on a post. It was a…no…couldn’t be…yes! a Burrowing Owl! Here in far eastern South Dakota, just a few miles from Minnesota. Historically Burrowing Owls used to be around here, but there hadn’t been a breeding record of Burrowing Owls anywhere close to here in decades. Our grassland is gone, and we just don’t have the prairie dogs or other creatures that Burrowing Owls are often found with. Yet here was an adult Burrowing Owl, hanging out on a fence post, in early August.
I quickly drove the last 4 miles home, got my camera and returned. Upon looking around I saw another Burrowing Owl…and another…and another. There were two adults, and at least four young!! It didn’t take long to find their home. They were using an old badger hole, in the middle of the alfalfa field by the road. The young were already as big as the parents, although with a different plumage. I had a blast for the next month, watching the little Burrowing Owl family feed on grasshoppers, crickets, and other little critters, primarily using a big CRP (?) grassland that was right next to the alfalfa field. By early September they started disappearing, one by one.
That alfalfa field is now on a corn and soybeans rotation. The CRP field they were using to forage? Also plowed under, used for corn and soybeans. In the 10 years since, I’ve never again seen a Burrowing Owl anywhere close to my part of the state. But I’ll always remember the little Burrowing Owl family that successfully fledged several young, just 4 miles from my house. Here’s one photo I took at night, of one of the adults foraging for insects alongside the road.
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.
A collection of bird, science, photography, and news links from the past week. Click on the links for the actual stories.
I think I’ve actually been pretty lucky, in that I’ve run across Eastern Screech Owls relatively often over the years, and have many good photos. What I can NOT do is attract one to my yard.
Attract Screech Owls to Your Yard!! — HAH! I’ll believe it when I see it! This piece from Birdwatching Magazine touts how easy it is to attract Screech Owls to your yard, by building and putting up a nest box. Three years ago, I bought a box built specifically for Screech Owls. Over three summers, many a young bird has fledged from that box! Of course all of them have been House Sparrows, the one thing I do NOT need more of. Hopefully some day an actual Eastern Screech Owl finds it, evicts the House Sparrows within, and justifies my purchase.
Coal Declines in the U.S. — One of the things that bugs me great is lying. In the world of politics, it’s an art form. This week, fact got in the way of rhetoric, with a study coming out that refutes those who try to pin the decline of coal, and mining jobs in the U.S., to government policy. Coal started to decline in 2008, right when Obama was elected. It’s his fault!! Well…no. As this study notes, it’s basic economics and the rise of cheap natural gas. People love to complain about cheap energy prices, but now that we have it? They’ll find something else to complain about…
Get ready to add new species to your life list! — There’s been speculation for a while now that Crossbill species in North America may be split into as many as 6 or more new, distinct species. This study provides more support for that move, using genomics to look at the rapid evolution of Crossbills that feed on pine seeds. It’s always handy when you can add a new species to your life list, without ever leaving your living room.
Hotter than Hell— Which, evidently must be around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, given 1) where people believe hell is likely located (think ‘down’), and 2) the estimated temperature at the center of the earth.
Caspian Terns Breeding near Arctic Circle — If you’re one of those that doesn’t believe in climate change, you might as well stop reading my blog altogether. As yet more evidence that strange things are afoot, scientists confirmed breeding of Caspian Terns north of the Arctic Circle…1,000 MILES further north than they’ve been found before. If it were just thing one piece of evidence…sure…could be a fluke. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire though, and it’s getting damned hard to breath with so much “smoke” around.
Ever wonder how toasty it will be when your tortured, evil soul rots for an eternity in hell? Evidently it will be around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Before you die, perhaps you should change into shorts…
Getting away from it all (Noise, that is) — My son and I usually go fishing in the Black Hills of South Dakota once a year. You wouldn’t want to be in the area in late summer, when the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is going on, and there are certainly tourist hotspots scattered throughout the area. But what’s always nice about the Black Hills is that if you want solitude, you can find it. Think of the soundtrack of your daily life. Think how rare it is to NOT have some background noise, be it street noise, a barking dog, etc. That what struck me at one point this summer while fishing in the hills…how we were hearing…NOTHING. And it was fabulous. As this story notes, it’s been darn hard to find a noise-free environment going back at least 50 years.
Hurricane Matthew Punches Above its Weight — Hurricane Matthew’s story was fascinating, because of the unusual path, its immense power as it tore through the Caribbean, and because it became an afterthought for many Americans once it avoided a direct hit on Florida. Of course, certain political stories overshadowed Matthew when it raged across the Carolinas, but more than that, it was the feeling of relief, the feeling that the U.S. had dodged a bullet. Instead of Category 4 hurricane striking Florida, it stayed offshore of Florida and was downgraded to a Category 1 by the time it struck the Carolinas. As this story notes, perhaps we need a new rating system for Hurricanes. Sandy too wasn’t the most powerful hurricane, but it certainly did some damage, and so did Matthew, with 18 inches of rain in parts of North Carolina.
Hummingbirds should listen to their parents!! — It’s rough out there for a lil’ wild critter! Not only do they have to deal with other critters that may want to eat them, but sometimes they just don’t KNOW what they’re supposed to do to survive. That’s one takeaway from this story, that notes different individual hummingbirds use different feeding and migration strategies. Hummingbirds that have made the migration before? They are more strategic, Adding up to 40% onto their body weight right before making a long migratory flight. First-time migrants? They are less strategic, tending to NOT pack on the pounds, but instead migrate south in short bursts and feeding in between. The lesson overall…LISTEN TO YOUR PARENTS. They know best.
Climate Change Doubles Western U.S. Fires — According to this study, fires overall have likely doubled in the western U.S. since 1984, due to climate change. Overall fire increase has been even more than that, but due to other issues like fuel build up, beetle kill, ignition sources, and other risk factors. I believe that fire risk overall has gone up. As a scientist though, I do find it extremely, extremely difficult to attribute a certain percentage increase in fire due to just one factor, however. There’s so many factors that drive fire risk, with complicated feedbacks among them, that I’d have a hard time stating “twice” as many fires are due just to climate change. Good article though for highlighting the issue.
Coming back to a movie theater near you…Dumbledore!! I’d certainly welcome it, but alas, for Michael Gambon, the actor who played Dumbledore in the last 5 Harry Potter movies, this will undoubtedly be Dumbledore when he was much younger.
Dumbledore Returning!! — Not exactly science. Or birds. Or really news for that matter. But with JK Rowling’s “Fantastical Beasts” coming out as a movie in a month, it was announced that she’s working on at least 4 more scripts, for at least 5 movies in total. There’s also talk of Dumbledore coming back to play some role in these movies! My cynical side can’t help but scream out “MONEY GRAB!!!” with the announcement that they’re going to make 5 movies. But my Harry Potter fandom side is loving it.
“Pirate Island”, created from dredged sand in order to provide breeding habitat for coastal birds. A nice idea! Then the selfish “Me First” crowd found the island and turned it into “Party Island” for all intents and purposes. It’s hard to image many birds breeding on an island with this much human activity.
There’s a bird “news” blog I like to read, LittleBirdieHome. Three times a week, there are new stories posted that relate to birds, from the mundane stories such as “Johnny saw a Three-toed Kingbird down at Newton’s Corner!” to bird research published in scientific journals. Many times they are feel-good stories. However, as with any “news”, it ain’t always good.
This week there’s a story from near our old stomping grounds. After college, we lived in Maryland for a couple of years. Every once in a while we’d head east on a weekend to enjoy Ocean City or another beach on the coast. It was a nice change of pace for a Midwestern couple who hadn’t even seen the ocean many times. However, it was also a complete MADHOUSE. Just traveling back and forth to the coast on a weekend was often bumper to bumper, and you certainly couldn’t ever find solitude once you arrived
The story posted by LittleBirdieHome highlights the attitude that certainly seemed to permeate coastal areas when we were there. People first! WITHOUT exception!! That’s the general rule. Wildlife? That’s about 48th on the list of most important concerns for coastal visitors. The story concerns newly created islands and a conflict between birds, and people. Several small islands were created off the coast to benefit bird species that need quiet, isolated locations for breeding. However, boaters in the area have made one of the islands into a favorite weekend getaway location, flocking to the sandy beach on the island and the relative solitude compared to the coast itself. Breeding bird species, for which the island was built? There’s simply not going to be many breeding birds when people are using the island so heavily.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, as it’s really no different here in South Dakota. Public lands and parks are DEFINITELY “people first”, with wildlife concerns far down the list of most important land management concerns It’s SO sad here to visit a favored State Park, only to find that areas of wonderful habitat have been cleared to make room for campers, archers, off-road vehicles, etc. It seems the people-first method of management is universal in the United States, where the ONLY concern for the public is how they can use (and abuse) public lands. While the article linked above notes that officials are considering permanently closing the island to human visitation, I would bet the farm that the boating/party/beachbum/LOSER interests win out.
I’d like to think that they’d default to the use the island was built for, but when it comes down to people vs. birds, people always win. It’s as simple as that.
The authors looked at Greater Prairie Chicken populations near wind farms and found that nest abandonment was significantly higher on leks within 8 kilometers (~5 miles) from a wind turbine. They also found slightly lower weight birds closer to wind turbines. It’s not just the turbines themselves that are an issue, it’s increased human activity, and energy and transportation corridors connecting wind turbines.
So to summarize, fossil fuel burning results in carbon emissions and global warming and also severely impacts habitat at extraction sites. Solar energy has been implicated in the direct incineration of birds unlikely enough to encounter a solar farm. Wind farms now have been implicated not only in direct collision deaths, but negative impacts on successful breeding. In other words, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, regarding any “bird-friendly” choices for energy production.
To me there’s still no question that either solar or wind are much better environmental options than fossil fuels. Impacts for solar and wind are local, while fossil fuel burning causes both local habitat destruction, and global impacts on climate. It’s depressing to think that even birds 5 miles from a wind turbine could be negatively impacted, but to me wind farms are the lesser of the various energy evils out there.