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A Big(gish?) South Dakota Year (262 species)

As 2020 comes to a close, I had a great end to the year from a birding perspective yesterday! I made one last birding trip, heading up towards Brookings to try to find some Short-eared Owls that had been seen recently. I hadn’t seen any yet this year, and I thought it would be nice to add one more species to what’s been my best South Dakota “big year” yet. But not only did I find a Short-eared Owl, but the first owl I saw was a gorgeous immature female Snowy Owl! Two new 2020 species for the state, on December 30th, and with both being owl species, I couldn’t have asked for a better close to the year.

The two owls put me at 262 species seen in South Dakota in 2020…breaking my own personal high of 256 from last year. It was certainly a terrific year in many aspects, with not only a great variety of species, but some life species, both South Dakota lifers, and overall lifers! Highlights for the year:

Blackburnian Warbler - Setophaga fusca
Spring Warblers! The last couple of springs have had utterly fantastic warbler migrations in eastern South Dakota. In both 2019 and 2020, the peak was relatively short. Both years, quiet migrations through about May 20th were dramatically altered with massive migrations where huge numbers and varieties of songbirds appeared overnight. On one day I saw 20 (!!!) species of warblers! And for the spring overall, there were three South Dakota lifers…rarities all (Hooded Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler). The spring also included at least 10 Blackburnian Warblers (above)…more than I’ve seen in 20 years combined in South Dakota.
Mandarin Duck - Aix galericulata
Mandarin Duck – Not your typical South Dakota bird! And not one that really “counts” for most birding lists, given it’s most likely an escapee, and not a true vagrant. But how could I not include this as a highlight of the year? There’s little doubt this little guy is probably the most photographed bird in the history of South Dakota. And the photo I got of him above is one of my all time favorites, with the wonderful colors of the bird, the great splashing water, and the reflected colors on the water (from a nearby sign).
Trumpeter Swan - Cygnus buccinator
Close to home oddities – The photo above is a Trumpeter Swan seen just west of Sioux Falls this autumn. Not a bird that should be around here, but, there it is! There were a number of surprise birds seen within 20 miles of home this year, including the swan, a wayward Mountain Bluebird just half a mile from our house, and
Nelson's Sparrow - Ammodramus nelsoni
Photographic Nemesis Birds – There are a number of species that I’ve glimpsed, but never really gotten great looks of, and never have gotten any good photographs. One of these was this very uncharacteristically cooperative Nelson’s Sparrow, seen just five miles from our house this autumn. One photographic nemesis down!
Western Grebe - Aechmophorus occidentalis
They Grow Up So Fast! – I’ve always wanted to get good photos of nesting Western Grebes, including their wonderful courtship behavior, and the way they carry their young on their backs when they’re small. Lake Whitewood in South Dakota had a bumper crop of Western Grebes this year, with many dozens of pairs nesting and raising young. The photo above from this past June is an instant all time favorite.
Common Nighthawk - Chordeiles minor
Western Road Trip – With COVID decimating travel for most in 2020, our planned extensive vacation throughout the southwestern US didn’t happen. We did manage to take a trip to the Black Hills of western South Dakota, however, renting a wonderful cabin all to ourselves and hiking extensively for several days. A birding highlight from the trip for me…capturing lightning in a bottle! At least that is what it seems like you’re trying to do when attempting to photograph a Common Nighthawk in flight, given their erratic and rapid flight. The photo above isn’t perfect, given the look from behind, but the head turn back towards the camera, and the fact that I actually got an in-focus Nighthwawk photo in flight, makes this a fave for 2020!
Least Tern - Sternula antillarum
Two South Dakota Nemesis Birds Down – I’d never seen a Least Tern or a Piping Plover in South Dakota, until this summer. There’s no excuse for it! They’re here in small numbers and not easy to find, but there are a few spots along the Missouri River where they’ve been known to nest over the years. This summer I finally set aside some time to go down to “North Alabama Bend”, an area on the Missouri near Vermillion where vast extensive sandy flats offer perfect nesting habitat for both species. I ended up making several trips to the area, and was fortunate to get some nice photos of both species.
Ruddy Turnstone - Arenaria interpres
To everything, Turn, Turn, Turn – I LOVE spring, not only for songbird migration, but for the great numbers and varieties of shorebirds we often get. After a rather non-existent shorebird migration in 2019, 2020 was much better in eastern South Dakota. And that included some wonderful views and photo opportunities for relative rarities, such as this Ruddy Turnstone from Lake Whitewood.
Bobolink - Dolichonyx oryzivorus
Black-and-white – Bobolinks are an all-time favorite species. It’s always a highlight every May when I hear that first tinkly Bobolink song. I always see them, but photographing them has been an challenge. They’re often pretty camera shy, flushing before I can get within camera range. For those few opportunities where I have had a good chance to get a close photo, it’s a challenge to capture details in both the black and white plumage patterns, particularly if the light is harsh. This spring, I finally got a cooperative male Bobolink, at close range, in good muted late-evening light that let me control the contrast and get some details in both the black and white parts of the bird’s plumage.
Horned Grebe - Podiceps auritus
All dressed up – One of the best things about spring is seeing so many species in their finest breeding plumage. Here’s a Horned Grebe from up at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge this past April.
Marbled Godwit - Limosa fedoa
Blinded by the Light – I have a chair blind that is probably my most under-utilized tool in my photographic arsenal. I don’t know why I don’t use it more, because I often get photo opportunities I never get otherwise. In April, I got the chair blind out after being frustrated trying to photograph some very amorous Marbled Godwits at Lake Thompson. They weren’t allowing a close enough approach for photos, so I plopped the chair blind down along the shoreline, and waited. This was one of the rewards of the wait, a Marbled Godwit flying right in front of the blind as it gave chase to a rival.
Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis
Winter Raptors – This could be a highlight of ANY year, as the one saving grace for what are often incredibly harsh winters in South Dakota are the huge numbers of raptors that are often found in the central part of the state. That includes the very regal Ferruginous Hawk, which as with this guy, are often easy to find in winter…simply find a prairie dog town, and you’ll likely find one hanging around.

Free downloadable / printable 2021 Bird Calendar

Starting in about 2007, I started making a free, downloadable and printable bird calendar for anyone to enjoy. I kept up the tradition through 2017, but when 2018 rolled around, I…whiffed. And I kept whiffing for 2019 and 2020. In the spirit of “new beginnings” in 2021, I want to start making this an annual product again, free for anyone to download and print. Thus, I present a free 2021 bird calendar, with monthly pages that you can download and print.

I tried to keep populate the calendar with “new” photos, and most of these are indeed new from the last year. As always, all are taken within South Dakota itself. Some of the 2020 photos shown here are now among my all time favorites, including the Prairie Falcon (January), Marbled Godwit (June), and Western Grebe and chick (July). In a bit of a break with tradition, I’m also including a non-native species here…the Mandarin Duck for November! That individual bird, spotted in Yankton in November of 2020, is very likely the most photographed bird in the history of the state! He hung out there for a month, with his new bestest buddy, a male Wood Duck. Alas, he seemingly met his demise (some raptor got him), but he certainly was a crowd pleaser when he was around! And given that the photo I got of him, with perfect lighting, great color, and a bit of a splash, is one of my all-time instant favorite photos…I couldn’t leave it out!

Here’s the link to the calendar page. Simply click on the month you want, and you’ll be viewing a PDF file that you should be able to print and/or download. Enjoy!

Free 2021 South Dakota Bird Calendar

This year’s 12 selections for monthly calendar pages

The invisible bird in plain sight – Common Nighthawk

When I bird, I nearly always am by myself. Birding is my zen time, my time to forget about all the worries of the day. It’s my time to get away from cell phones, other electronics, and yeah…I admit it…people. The last two weeks notwithstanding (I’ve done a LOT of birding during that time), normally I don’t get out all that often, and its a way for me to decompress and have some time alone. My behavior when birding also is most conducive to birding alone. For example, when I saw a very large group of Black Terns dipping and diving over Grass Lake the other night, I did what I OFTEN do…I stayed an entire hour with them. Part of it is the photography side of my hobby. Patience is the greatest attribute you can have in bird photography, and shooting a bird that flies in an erratic pattern certainly taxes that patience. But rather than trying for a few minutes, getting frustrated, and leaving…I kept at it, watching their patterns as they’d circle around for another pass along the shoreline, noting that the strong wind often put them in a near hover mode, and eventually getting quite a few nice photos.

However, I do realize there are advantages to birding in a group that I generally miss out on. This weekend the South Dakota Ornithologist’s Union (SDOU) held their spring meeting in Brandon. On Saturday I ran into SDOU birders twice at Perry Nature Area near Sioux Falls, and joined them for a couple of hours that afternoon. Given the incredible warbler migration on Saturday, I knew I wanted to try Newton Hills State Park Sunday morning, and after birding for an hour or so, I ran into another SDOU group of birders. As I got out and greeting them, a young, very enthusiastic (and very good!) birder in the group (Peter) immediately pointed upward to the branch of a nearby tree…Common Nighthawk! Just sitting there on a horizontal branch, apparently not giving a damn about all the birders just 10 yards away.

There’s no way in hell I would have seen that bird if I’d have been birding alone. Even the group of SDOU birders said they were moving around that spot for quite some time before someone noticed it.

I greatly enjoyed the weekend, both my time birding alone, and my time with the SDOU crowd. The tradeoffs between both styles of birding…when birding alone, I ran into more Black-billed Cuckoos than I ever had in one spot, and was able to spend quite a bit of time with them and get some good photos. I didn’t get any really good photos while birding with the crowd, but I definitely saw more birds! When you have 6-8 pairs of binoculars trained on different spots, it DEFINITELY is helpful during spring migration, when little warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and other birds are often flitting about in the treetops.

Over the years, my birding style has definitely changed. I’ve been birding for 20 years now, and I’d say that for the first 15 years, I was laser-focused on the photography side of things. It seems nuts for me to say this now, but…I didn’t even OWN a pair of binoculars until 5 years ago!! All those little warblers flitting about in the tree tops? They didn’t interest me, as I knew there was no way in hell I’d ever get a photo of them! But I’ve evolved from a photographer who birds, into a birder who also takes photographs. Over the last few years, some of my favorite birding memories don’t involve the camera, but times where I’ve just sat in one spot and watched some rare or interesting bird, often for an hour or more.

My very unusual (for me!) time spent actually (GASP!) birding with other people this weekend was nice…perhaps it’s just another step as I transition from a “photography first” to “birding first” mentality.

Common Nighthawk - Chordeiles minor
Common Nighthawk from May 19th, 2019 at Newton Hills State Park. A gray, gloomy, cold morning. A grayish mottled bird sitting completely still on a grayish mottled branch…a camouflaged bird, sitting in plain sight!

Birds in Movies – “Gamenight” gets it right!!

Common Nighthawk Drawing - Chordeiles minor

Drawing of a Common Nighthawk I did a few years ago. They have a VERY distinctive call when flying around at dusk or at night, something that really stands out on the soundtrack when watching a movie! Kudos to “GameNight” for the correct use of a bird call, in the proper time and context!

As a birder, one major pet peeve of mine…Hollywood’s (mis-)use of birds in movies! It seems that Hollywood typically has about 3 different bird vocalizations that are used in any situation a bird is present. One is the ubiquitous Red-tailed Hawk screaming cry, something they use for ANY raptor that happens to even tangentially appear on a screen. Conan O’Brien wasn’t alone when making this erroneous use of a Red-tailed Hawk call, but he WAS called out by birders for his actions!! Bald Eagles are often shown in movies and TV, but the more iconic Red-tailed Hawk call is usually used instead of the real Bald Eagle cry.

The second iconic call that’s heard ALL the time is the haunting call of a Common Loon. Occasionally it’s used in the proper setting and context, but there are SO many times when movie characters are out “in the wild” and the call of a Common Loon is dubbed in the background.  What’s that?  Your favorite character is roaming the forests of the Appalachians? Perhaps it’s a wild setting, but NOT EVERY WILD SETTING SHOULD HAVE LOON CALLS PLAYING IN THE BACKGROUND!! This site notes several “misplaced” birds in TV and movies, including the mis-use of Common Loon calls in Murder She Wrote and Raiders of the Lost Ark (presumably while in Peru!!). The Common Loon has also been mis-used visually…something I noticed IMMEDIATELY when watching Finding Dory. “Becky” is the loopy Common Loon that plays a role in the rescue scenes in Finding Dory, along the California coastline. The presence of a Common Loon along the California coast isn’t out of place IN WINTER.  But “Becky” in Finding Dory is a Common Loon in full summer breeding plumage…NOT LIKELY!!

The third call that’s heard in EVERY jungle scene is the laughing call of a Kookaburra. They’re a bird found in Australia, but listen to any jungle scene supposedly set in Africa, South America, or southeast Asia, and you’ll STILL likely hear the wild calls of a Kookaburra.

Given how often birds are mis-used in movies, I always get a bit of satisfaction when I see a movie that gets it right!  Tonight my wife and I went to see “GameNight“, starring Justin Bateman and Rachel McAdams.  It’s a really funny movie!!  We both greatly enjoyed it.  The only time birds were evident (and surely ONLY to me, among the movie crowd) was a scene late in the movie.  It was a setting in a relatively dense urban setting, on a bridge over a large river and fairly out in the open. Large buildings could be seen in the surrounding area, and it was night. As the scene played out (I won’t spoil the movie for you here!), I could CLEARLY hear Common Nighthawks giving their typical flight calls.

PERFECT!! You often DO hear Common Nighthawks as they fly through the night skies in and around urban areas, picking off flying insects in flight with their massive, gaping maw.  One of the places I’ve heard them the most is at the airport here in Sioux Falls. They typically use rocky areas to breed, and the rocky roofs that many urban buildings use work perfectly for their purposes.

WELL DONE GAMENIGHT!!  You get a rare GOLD STAR for proper use of a bird in a movie!!

Nemesis conquered – Common Nighthawk

Friday I took the day off and went to the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.  Again.  Funny how this is working out…work gets more and more depressing as budget news gets worse and worse (for any project that DARES have the word “climate” involved in any way…kiss of death in this environment). As and work gets more and more depressing, I find myself taking more and more days off and going out to try to forget.  At this pace, I’ll soon just skip pretending and just retire.  Sure, I’m not nearly old enough to retire yet, and can’t afford it, but isn’t my sanity more important than being able to afford things like food, shelter, health care, etc.?

My purpose on the Grasslands was two-fold Friday” 1) continue trying to satisfy the rockhounding bug that’s infected my very soul in recent weeks, and 2) try like heck to get a photo of all the Common Nighthawks we’ve seen while exploring the area.  Common Nighthawks aren’t exactly a rare sight (hence the word “common” in their name?).  I see them all the time in the summer months. Heck, I see them while sitting on my back deck!  No, seeing them isn’t the problem.  PHOTOGRAPHING them is the problem. Around here in eastern South Dakota, you never see them roosting out in the open.  When you see them, they’re in flight.  Have you tried taking a photo of a Common Nighthawk in flight?  They are very “bat-like” in the air, dipping and darting in very unpredictable, chaotic flights.  I’ve tried…and failed…many times to get a photo of them in flight, including those that sometimes grace the air around my house.

In the Grasslands, you certainly see them in flight as well, but what I was really hoping for was to catch one on the ground, or on a daytime roost on a fence post (a kind of photo you often see of them).  Given how many we’ve seen out there, and given there’s ONLY a bunch of open space for them to perch, I thought my odds might be better!  My first chance would have been perfect, and would have been the only shots of Common Nighthawks I would ever need. I was walking far from the car, headed back, when I (literally) stumbled across a lone Nighthawk, sitting on the ground 10 feet in front of me.  It looked up and casually took off, circling me and scolding me.  There on the ground…it had uncovered two tiny, ping-pong ball-sized fluffballs…two cute little babies, right in front of me!

Perfect opportunity…so where are the photos?  Well, the REASON I was headed back to the car is because of a poor weather forecast. “Sunny with occasional clouds”, the meteorologists said.  That forecast was hard to reconcile with the rain pouring down upon me as I raced back to the car.  My main thought at the time…keep the camera gear dry!! There was no way I was going to try to get any photo in that rain, and I also hated leaving those two little fluffballs exposed to the elements. I moved on as quickly as I can, turned around after a bit, and saw the parent had returned.  All was not lost on the Nighthawk front, however!  Later that day, I did indeed come across a Common Nighthawk using one of the fence poles as a daytime roost.  NEMESIS conquered!!  For finally getting a photo of a “common” bird, it felt awfully good!

Common Nighthawk - Chordeiles minor

Nemesis conquered! A lone Common Nighthawk, sleeping atop a fence pole on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands in South Dakota.

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