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Ode to the Sparrow – Photo/Haiku of the Day

Ode to a Sparrow

A whisper in the grass

“Just a sparrow”, overlooked.

Autumn’s hidden jewel

Le Conte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii

We’re approaching mid-September, and with it, one of my favorite birding migrations of the year. Warblers? Fall shorebirds? Migrating raptors? No, I treasure early to mid-Autumn for the wonderful array of sparrow species that migrate through eastern South Dakota. Among them are one of my top 3 species of all time…the Le Conte’s Sparrow. No “little brown job”…not “just a sparrow”…the Le Conte’s Sparrow is a brilliant array of complex patterns and beautiful warm tones.  With a reputation as a “skulker”, they’re a prized birding target for many, but during fall migration here, I’ve found them to be very approachable and rather easy to photograph. Along with the other 20 or so sparrow species that migrate through in the fall, a sparrow bonanza is just around the corner!

 

It’s been a buzzy summer! South Dakota Cicada

For the past couple of weeks it’s been quite loud in the evenings.  On occasion we get cicada noises here in the summer, but I don’t remember it being as “buzzy” outside as it has been lately. Despite hearing them, I don’t recall ever actually seeing a live cicada here.  That changed this morning when I was outside doing yard work. Something flew past and when I turned, I saw it land on a big rock in our landscaping. When I went to check it out, I saw the cicada, and quickly ran inside to grab my camera gear. Given I’m always set up for birds, not littler critters, it took a second to get my macro lens and macro flash setup on my camera, but when I returned the cicada was thankfully still there.

From what I’ve found online I believe this to possibly be a “Scissors Grinder Cicada” (Neotibicen pruinosus).  If that is indeed the species, we’re at the far northwestern edge of their range, here in southeastern South Dakota. They are one of the “annual” cicadas, not the more famed 13- or 17-year cycle cicadas that periodically come out in the eastern United States. The name common name “Scissors Grinder” comes from the characteristic sound they make.

Cool find, and very glad to get a ton of photos of this guy! After about 10 minutes on the rock, he disappeared.

Scissors Grinder Cicada - Neotibicen pruinosus

Scissors Grinder Cicada - Neotibicen pruinosusScissors Grinder Cicada - Neotibicen pruinosusScissors Grinder Cicada - Neotibicen pruinosusScissors Grinder Cicada - Neotibicen pruinosus

 

Photo / Haiku of the Day – The Sentry’s Bark

The Sentry’s Watch

Spreading like a rumor,

the bark of the sentry echoes;

the trickster foiled again

The Sentry's Bark - Black-tailed Prairie Dog

A sentry stands watch along the edge of a prairie dog town in Custer State Park, as a coyote (aka, “the trickster”) slinks away over the hill. I first heard the barking prairie dogs before seeing them, and when I came over the hill I saw why they were agitated. A young coyote was probing the edge of the town, prompting the alarm calls to echo across the prairie. Whether it was my arrival or the bark of the sentry prairie dogs, the coyote disappeared out of sight shortly after this photo.

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Season of the Bobolink

Season of the Bobolink

Tinkly spring-time song

Fades away as summer ends.

Golden autumn fire

Autumn Bobolink - Dolichonyx oryzivorus

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

Fall Sparrows and More…

A wonderful, crisp, sunny fall morning, the perfect morning to sparrowing!! Not too many people get excited about sparrows, but this time of year in South Dakota, there’s such a wonderful variety of species that are moving through. One of my favorite kinds of birding trips…finding a weedy field in the fall, setting up in a quiet spot, and sitting back and enjoying all the sparrow species that are feeding on grass and weed seeds. Some are species we have during the summer as well, such as Savannah and Song Sparrows, but we also get some wonderful migrants such as Harris’s Sparrows and Lincoln’s Sparrows.

The crème de la crème though…Le Conte’s Sparrows. They’re a bird many birders haven’t seen, and even when they’re around, they can sometimes be hard to find as they prefer to hide in dense vegetation. In fall around here though, they are often quite bold.  This morning I saw more Le Conte’s Sparrows than I think I ever have in one day.  One weedy field west of Tea, South Dakota was chock-full of them. They were feeding on weed seeds near a gravel road, and there were times I’d have half a dozen in sight at one time.  A great treat, and I did get some good photos as well.

Photos from this morning:

Le Conte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii

A gorgeous little Le Conte’s Sparrow, basking in the early morning sun along a weedy fenceline.

Lincon's Sparrow - Melospiza lincolnii

Probably my 2nd favorite sparrow, a Lincoln’s Sparrow. They have a touch more color and pattern than many sparrows, and just always look so elegant.

Swamp Sparrow - Melospiza georgiana

A Swamp Sparrow perched among the cattails.

Savannah Sparrow - Passerculus sandwichensis

The most numerous of the sparrow species seen this morning, a Savannah Sparrow.

Song Sparrow - Melospiza melodia

One of our summer breeding residents, there’s a ton of Song Sparrows around right now as well, including many first-year birds.

Sedge Wren - Cistothorus platensis

Seems like Le Conte’s Sparrows and Sedge Wrens often go hand-in-hand when I see them in the fall. The same weedy field with the many Le Conte’s also had several Sedge Wrens.

Franklin's Gull - Franklin's Gull October 7th, 2017 Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Other than sparrows, the most plentiful birds this morning were gulls. The skies were full of gulls, as were the areas near the dump (no surprise) and the bigger water bodies in western Minnehaha County. I didn’t pan through all the massive flocks to look for rarities. Ring-billed Gulls and these guys, Franklin’s Gulls, were present by the thousands.

Ring-billed gull - Larus delawarensis

Thousands of Ring-billed Gulls were around. Here one lounges at the beach at Wall lake.

Fall Sparrows

Le Conte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii

The elusive Le Conte’s Sparrow, a species that’s often difficult to see, given their preference for dense vegetation. It’s always great to get a good look at one, much less get a clear, unobstructed photo like this.

What a beautiful time of year in South Dakota!  Yes, with leaves falling off trees, days very rapidly getting shorter, and temperatures falling, another South Dakota winter is imminent. Yes,the vast majority of insect-eating migrant birds have already passed through the state, not to be seen again until April or May.  Yes, species diversity will continue to fall from the summer and fall migration peak, to the typical winter “diversity” where anything other than a Dark-eyed Junco at your feeders is a treat.

However, one very welcome birding feature at this time of year are migrant sparrows.  There are species moving through right now that are rarely seen at any other time of year.  What’s really nice is how multiple species often mingle together.  I went birding one morning this weekend, and while it wasn’t a great trip overall, the trip was saved by one non-descript, overgrown, weedy field south of Tea, South Dakota. It’s a spot that’s been used as some kind of staging ground for road construction in the past.  Small piles of sand and gravel are scattered about, as are some smaller piles of rock and concrete chunks.  The feature that attracts the sparrows, however, is the weedy overgrowth that covers the entire area.  Just sitting in one location, I was able to find 7 different sparrow species.  Song Sparrows seemed to be the most common species, with Lincoln’s Sparrows not far behind.  There were also quite a few Harris’s Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, and Savannah Sparrows in and around this spot, as well as a handful of Clay-colored Sparrows.

Harris's Sparrow - Zonotrichia querula

Another one of my favorites, a Harris’s Sparrows. These big chunky sparrows always stand out from the crowd, not only by size, but by their unique plumage.

The highlight though were several beautifully plumaged Le Conte’s Sparrows.  Le Conte’s Sparrows are always such a treat to find.  In southeastern South Dakota, about the only time I see them is during fall migration. They are a highly sought species for many birders, although I think they’re actually not all that uncommon in migration in eastern South Dakota.  They do have a tendency to hang out in dense vegetation, however, making a good sighting something to be treasured.  I was fortunate to not only get some great, unobstructed views of Le Conte’s Sparrows this weekend, but also get some of the best photos I’ve ever gotten of the species.

A nice fall day of “sparrowing”!

Lincoln's Sparrow - Melospiza lincolniiSong Sparrow - Melospiza melodia

Fall day birding

Northern Flicker - Colaptes auratus

A Northern Flicker feeding on juniper berries. Hanging around fruiting juniper/cedar trees at this time of year is always “fruitful” (ha-ha), given the number of species that will feed on the berries.

I love fall in South Dakota.  It’s my favorite time of year, by far.  Yes, I know what’s coming in a couple of months, and I’m not exactly thrilled when the snow flies and it’s 10 below!  But nothing beats the gorgeous fall weather here, with cool nights and perfect fall days. I’m not particularly fond of heat and humidity, and while summers in eastern South Dakota are usually relatively pleasant, this past summer was an exception, with many more days of >90 degree heat and humidity than we’ve had in the past several summers.  The cooler fall weather is certainly welcome!

The birding is pretty good in the fall as well!  I’m a bit of an oddball, in that one of the big attractions for fall birding for me are the many varieties of sparrows that move through.  Yes, the primary color you’re going to see on most of the sparrows is brown, but there are some truly beautiful sparrows that move through in migration, birds that to me rival the more colorful songbirds in beauty. Today I was trying to find and photography Le Conte’s and Nelson’s Sparrows, two species that are generally uncommon here in migration.  I saw a Le Conte’s, but no Nelson’s and no photos of either.  It was still a beautiful and productive day.

One of the things that’s so amazing about fall migration are the concentrations of birds you run into.  There were gulls by the thousands in western Minnehaha County, mostly Franklin’s Gulls.  Huge flocks of mixed blackbirds (mostly Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds, but I also saw a handful of Rusty Blackbirds in a wet field) were gathering for the fall migration.  Sparrows were abundant in both variety and number.  No real rarities for the day (although I don’t see Rusty Blackbirds often), but a nice day nonetheless!

Gorgeous Fall Birding

Osprey in flight - Pandion haliaetus

An osprey circling over Lake Alvin, near Sioux Falls.

In about, oh, 2 weeks, I’m likely to bemoan the fact that I live in often frigid South Dakota.  Winter here isn’t for the faint of heart, and even moving just one state up from where I grew up (Nebraska), it’s clearly, much colder here. But, I have to admit…May through October are usually freakin’ spectacular in terms of weather.  Yes, we get some hot muggy days, but more often than not, we have some truly wonderful weather from late spring through mid-fall.

The weather this fall has been above-and-beyond wonderful, with crisp nights, but typically sunny and warm days.  Today, November 1st, and it was sunny most of the day, high of about 65, with nary a breeze.  I took the opportunity to go birding this morning, with the intention of doing my first real hard searching for Saw-whet Owls.  People banding them in the state have been catching them, so clearly they’re moving through.  I bush-whacked through thick cedar stands for about 3 hours this morning with nary a hint of an owl.  Not only no owls, but not a bit of “whitewash” (the white-stained tree branches and ground below their frequent roosts), and no pellets.  My guess is that it’s still just too early.

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

Red-tailed Hawk protecting a kill. Another was just a few feet away, hoping for a bite.

It still was a wonderful day to get out and walk around, and I did have other birds that “saved the day”.  First, an Osprey circling over Lake Alvin, just south of Sioux Falls.  Osprey aren’t a species you see all that often around here, so it was nice to get good close looks at him.

Near there I came across a pair of (young?) Red-tailed Hawks, hanging out on the ground on the edge of a tilled field.  One was clearly protecting something that it had caught, with it’s wings spread a bit and hovering over the prey like a protective umbrella. This bird was feeding while another was sitting about 10 feet away.  You definitely don’t think of raptors like this “sharing”, so I would bet that 2nd bird ended up going hungry.

American Robin - Turdus migratorius

American Robin gorging on berries in a cedar tree. An awfully common species…but in frigid South Dakota, one I’m not likely to see much of for the next 5 months!

The other thing of note this morning were the scads of birds gorging on berries of cedar/juniper.  We get a few American Robins that actually over-winter here, but overall most move south of South Dakota a little ways.  This time of year though you certainly can see many Robins gorging on berries in preparation for winter.  It wasn’t just Robins, and there were also many Cedar Waxwings joining the feast.  I know encroaching eastern red cedar isn’t a popular thing for many, but one thing you do have to admit is they provide a heck of a lot of good habitat and food for some species of birds.

One last nice bird to end the birding portion of the day…a beautiful male Red-bellied Woodpecker at our feeder at home.  We live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a State Park with a lot of mature forest.  You often see (and hear!) Red-bellied Woodpeckers in the park, but it’s not very often one makes the effort to cross the street and visit my yard.

Great way to end a gorgeous fall birding day in South Dakota!

Pictures! Of things with “feathers”!!

Nelson's Sparrow - Ammodramus nelsoni

A Nelson’s Sparrow, one of the rather elusive “skulkers” that moves through the area in the fall.

For a website that started out as a place to share my bird photos, it sure seems like it’s been a long time since I’ve actually posted any bird photos.  Snakes?  Check!  Insects? Check?  Even an aurora? Check!!  But photos of creatures with feathers haven’t been very prominent lately.

It’s not like I haven’t been out birding.  Since late May, I haven’t birded as much as I would over a normal summer, but I have been out on occasion.  I truly haven’t had much luck getting good photos though.  Part of the issue is 1) my reluctance to shoot (yet more) photos of species that I already have many photographs, and 2) a higher standard for what constitutes a “keeper” photo.  In bird photography, it’s inevitable that you’ll toss most of your photos (dang things don’t sit still and pose for a nice picture!), but I toss more photos now than I ever have.

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

A Red-tailed Hawk, busy feeding on grasshoppers. This guy was gorging, looking down from this fence post, dropping down to grab the sluggish fall grasshoppers, coming back to the post to consume it, and then looking for another.

I spent time birding and taking photos the last couple of days, with the intention of actually getting photos “good enough” to put on my website.  Mission accomplished!  I really love birding in the fall.  While May is a magical month for warblers and other migrants that move through, October is a month for sparrows!  Sparrows aren’t exactly high on the “must see” list for most people (even many birders), but there’s a wonderful variety that moves through in the fall.  Despite the tendency for most people to think of sparrows as rather drab birds, there are also several with truly beautiful plumage.

One of the highlights in the fall for me are finding Le Conte’s and Nelson’s Sparrows.  Neither breed in my part of the state, and I never seem to be able to find them when they move north through the area in the spring.  However, I have multiple locations where I’ve had great luck finding them in the fall, particularly Le Conte’s Sparrows.  The species is highly sought by many birders, having a reputation of being “skulky” and difficult to find.  They definitely do stick to thick vegetation, usually in thick wet meadows or along the edges of wetlands, but with patience, you’ll usually get some good looks of them as they forage and go about their business in the fall.

Savannah Sparrow - Passerculus sandwichensis

One of the more common sparrows moving through in the fall, a Savannah Sparrow. You often see loose collections of a few dozen birds at this time of year.

Raptors can also be fun in the fall, typically not so much for variety of species in this part of the state (southeastern South Dakota), but in terms of sheer number.  You tend to see concentrations of American Kestrels, Red-tailed Hawks, and a handful of others as they move through in the fall.  It also tends to be a pretty good time for photographing them, as many are first year birds that tend to not be as spooky as older birds.

Note although it’s likely too early, I spent some time this weekend bushwhacking through cedar thickets, looking for early arrival Northern Saw-whet Owls.  No luck!  But I am looking forward to their arrival.   One of the few bright spots of a chilly South Dakota winter!

As always, click on the images for larger views.

 

 

Cooper's Hawk - Accipiter cooperiiHarris's Sparrow - Zonotrichia querulaMarsh Wren - Cistothorus palustris

Rattlesnakin! Family fun for all…

Prairie Rattlesnake photo - Crotalus viridis

A Prairie Rattlesnake, curled up in a weedy spot right next to the burrow of a prairie dog.

I had never seen a rattlesnake before until 4 years ago.  I knew Prairie Rattlesnakes were found in much of South Dakota, but not in the eastern part of the state where I live.  A fellow birder posted something that fall, about not only finding some nice birds on a prairie dog town (e.g., Sprague’s Pipits and Burrowing Owls), but also noted that after a cool fall night, there were rattlesnakes out sunning on that warm fall day.

Rattlesnakes!  An 8-year old son!  What better father-son bonding activity than going “rattlesnakin’!!” I am SUCH a good father!  First actually, we went fishing in the morning on the Missouri River, below Oahe Dam by Pierre.  However by noon, with a nice warm sun starting to heat things up, we grabbed lunch and headed for that same prairie dog town. It didn’t take long to find sunning rattlesnakes.  They hang out in prairie dog burrows (presumably abandoned ones), coming out to sun during warm fall days.  On one prairie dog mound were 4 rattlesnakes, 3 quite large ones, and one very small one that couldn’t have been more than 12 inches long.  Great fun had by all!  Photos!  A son that, well…wasn’t quite enamored as I was in seeing poisonous snakes up close and personal.

Funny…my wife and sister also both gave me a bit of grief for PURPOSELY taking our son out to see poisonous snakes.  Silly family…they don’t know good clean fun when they see it!

Prairie Rattlesnake - Crotalus viridis

Another Prairie Rattlesnake, and this guy was a big boy. Probably the biggest I’ve seen.

I hadn’t been back out “rattlesnakin” again until this past week.  No, I didn’t bring my son this time, but I did the same thing…fish during the cool morning hours, and then look for rattlesnakes as the sun warmed the ground at the prairie dog town.  Rattlesnakes weren’t out in force like they were on that fall day of four years ago, but there were still a handful to be found, including probably the largest rattlesnake I’ve seen.

So, if you’re sitting at home on a warm fall day, wondering where to have some good clean family fun, don’t forget!  Rattlesnakin’….a family activity you ALL can enjoy!!

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