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Spring busting out in birds

It’s been a damned cold spring. There’s no denying that.  As I speak, it’s snowing to beat the band…on April 8th…and we’re supposed to end up with about 5 more inches.  It’s been a winter of MANY 3-6 inch snows, and winter doesn’t seem to want to give up its grip just yet. But the birds are putting their two cents in and saying they will NOT be deterred.

I went out west of Sioux Falls last night, on a kind of a day that’s been rare around here lately…sunny, and no wind (but still pretty cold).  Even now, most of the big lakes are still frozen over, as are many of the small ones. Water is starting to open up, and the waterfowl are really starting to stack up as they await warmer conditions (and more open water up north) to allow their continued migration.  There are still geese around by thousands.  I had a blast at one location last night, watching as flocks of Snow, Greater White-fronted, Canada, and some Ross’s Geese would intermittently land or take off from a group of geese resting by a large slough. Ducks were on pretty much every available patch of open water, with some spots having incredible concentrations of Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks, as well as pretty much every other duck species you could ever expect to find here.

A highlight came late in the evening when I came across a Great Horned Owl perched in the relative open (for a Great Horned Owl). He was quite unconcerned by the guy with the camera, giving me some of the best looks and photos I’ve had of the species.  As the snow and wind lash us again today, it was also a nice reminder that spring IS here and better weather is ahead!

Great Horned Owl - Bubo virginianus

A quite tame Great Horned Owl, casually giving me a glance as he prepares in the late evening for a night of hunting.

Greater White-fronted Goose - Anser albifrons

The most numerous goose species were Greater White-fronted, of which I came across several thousand during the course of the evening.

Common Merganser - Mergus merganser

A female Common Merganser, sitting at one of the open spots in the ice and occasionally making a dive in search of food. Always loved the “haircut” on the females.

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

One sure sign of spring here is when you seemingly see Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels on every every telephone pole. Plenty of both last night, including this dude giving me a staredown.

Canada Goose - Branta canadensis

Another sure sign of spring…when the ever present Canada Geese are vastly outnumbered by other geese species.

Snow Goose - Chen caerulescens

Still plenty of Snow Geese around. Starting to get a little late to have them stacked up in such huge numbers, but the weather hasn’t been too cooperative.

 

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!

Spring Has Sprung! It’s February 22nd!

Snow Goose Migration

Snow Geese migrating through the area. We started seeing Snow Geese in small numbers over 10 days ago. Starting in the latter half of last week, huge flocks started moving through. Just a few days after Valentine’s Day, when normal HIGH temperatures should be around freezing, and we’ve got a major migration going on. That’s not the only sign of an early spring…or of global warming.

Ignore for a moment the forecast.  We’re supposed to get hammered with snow tomorrow, with a full-fledged blizzard watch.  We’re likely to get a foot, and possibly more, over a 24 hour period starting tomorrow.  It’s not supposed to get very cold though, with high temperatures of close to 30…very close to “normal” for this time of year.  Disregarding what’s likely to happen tomorrow though, it’s been anything BUT a “normal” winter in South Dakota.

Right before Valentine’s Day, people started noticing small groups of geese passing overhead.  We can get truly massive flocks of Snow Geese that move through in the spring, and we also get large flocks of migrating Canada Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese.  What’s NOT normal is to start seeing the goose migration in mid-February!  With incredibly warm weather in February (It was over 70 degrees in Sioux Falls yesterday, and nearly 65 today, more than 30 degrees above normal!!), the trickle of migrating geese has become a torrent, with truly massive flocks of birds moving through the area.  Normally at this time of year, I’m hunkered down in the cold, with my local birding restricted to the few Dark-eyed Juncos, Downy Woodpeckers, or American Goldfinches that might visit my feeders.  This year I’m already enjoying the sights and sounds of thousands upon thousands of VERY early migrants.

The warm weather and the migrating geese aren’t the only signs of an incredibly early “spring”.  Given that my livelihood is based on the use of satellite imagery for mapping, monitoring, and ultimately predicting what’s going to happen on the earth’s surface, I follow a lot of other similar work, including data provided by the National Phenology Network.  “Phenology” is “the study of cyclic and seasonal phenomenon”, and the National Phenology Network examines plant and animal phenology and how it relates to the environment.  From a vegetation standpoint, we can  use satellite imagery to assess the phenology of growing vegetation, tracking the timing of spring “green-up”, peak vegetation activity in the summer, and the senescence/browning of vegetation in the fall.

The National Phenology Network produces a data product called the “Spring Leaf Index Anomaly”.  The measure compares satellite-based measurements of spring “green-up” of vegetation compared to the historical green-up across the United States. The latest update was a map of conditions released today, as shown here:

National Phenology Network - Spring Leaf Index Anomaly

The “Spring Leaf Index Anomaly” released today. Vegetation is already greening up as far north as Kansas City, a rate that is over 3 weeks ahead of when things normally start to green up. It’s such an anomalous, warm late winter so far that the legend is going to need some revising!!

We’re SO early in terms of vegetation green-up that we’re literally off the scale!  The legend for the Spring Leaf Index Anomaly shows how early or late spring green up is compared to historical, but only goes out to a 20-day departure from normal.  We are almost a full MONTH ahead of schedule for many parts of the U.S.

Warm weather, migrating geese, vegetation green-up from satellite imagery…it doesn’t stop there!  Daffodils are coming up around Sioux Falls!  In FEBRUARY!  Talking with colleagues from the east coast, daffodils and tulips started coming up a few weeks ago already!  We’ve still got plenty of porous, honeycombed ice on many of the lakes around here, but there’s quite a bit of open water, particularly with all the rivers and streams now unfrozen.

I’m still baffled how any rational human being can choose not to believe that climate change is occurring.  Even for the right-wing nut jobs who have long denounced climate change as some kind of incredibly elaborate, world-wide hoax that evidently involves all scientists on the planet, there’s been increased recognition that something is happening.  Well…duh!! Those same climate-change deniers have increasingly accepted that climate change is occurring, but refuse to believe that human beings that are the cause.

As a scientist, at this stage…frankly I don’t CARE if people believe we’re the cause.  The ship has already sailed…we’re already FAR down the path to severe climate change, given that we’re now over 400 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  There’s just no concerted, global, political, social, or MORAL will to make the sacrifices necessary to slow down climate change, so at this stage…SCREW the cause of climate change.  It’s HERE.  It’s HAPPENING.

If I could say one thing to the politicians who don’t want to acknowledge our role in changing the climate…AT LEAST SUPPORT ACTIVITIES THAT MONITOR CLIMATE CHANGE, and HELP US TO ADAPT TO WHAT’S COMING.  REGARDLESS of what you think is causing climate change, CLEARLY IT IS HERE.  The environment around is, the creatures within that environment, are necessarily adapting to the rapidly changing conditions.

The million dollar question is now if we can do the same.

(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!

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