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Winter’s Omen – Photo / Haiku of the Day

Winter’s Omen

Charming you may be,

Harbinger of glacial hell.

Snow Bird? PLEASE GO BIRD. ūüôā

Dark-eyed Junco - Junco hyemalis

I saw the first Dark-eyed Junco (what many people around here call “Snow Birds”) of the season in my yard this afternoon. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate having them around in winter. However, they are sometimes the ONLY species in my yard in winter. Seeing one now is the first sign of the impending wintry, Dakota hell, a hell that may not be over until they leave next April. Cute you may be! But I MUCH prefer the seasons when you are not around!!

Who says blackbirds are boring?

It’s been a busy weekend catching up on projects around the house, but I did take advantage of the cool, crisp morning to get out and bird. It wasn’t a great morning. I did come across some migrant warblers, including Canada and Black-throated Green, two I don’t see all that often, but overall it was pretty slow. One thing you do see this time of year though are mixed flocks of blackbirds gathering, and I came across several on the way home. I do sometimes stop to scan them for “goodies” like Rusty Blackbirds, but alas, no Rusty’s this morning.

However, I did stop and watch the biggest flock for a while, and grabbed the camera. Like many birders and bird photographers, I tend to take certain birds for granted, but there really are some beautiful plumage patterns on fall blackbirds here. The flock was primarily Common Grackles, but there were a number of Red-winged Blackbirds, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and European Starlings mixed in.

By the time I got home, I considered the morning a disappointment, as I didn’t think I really got any really nice photos. Once I started downloading and processing photos, though, my attitude changed. These birds aren’t exactly the poster-child for “coveted” birds for birders (or photographers), but there are certainly some gorgeous colors and patterns on these birds. The fall plumage of a young Red-winged Blackbird, and the non-breeding plumage of a European Starling, are both wonderful in terms of the intricate patterns. Blackbirds, boring?¬† I think I may have changed my tune after this morning.

European Starling - Sturnus vulgaris

Non-breeding plumage European Starling. Probably one of the least-liked birds in North America, given their non-native status and tendency to compete for nesting sites with native birds. But after being here for nearly 140 years…they’re established. They’re not going anywhere. They’re “ours”. And damn it, they are DARNED attractive birds.

Common Grackle - Quiscalus quiscula

Common Grackles ARE native…but for those of us who feed birds in our yards, they may have a worse reputation than European Starlings. They’re pigs! They drive away other birds! In my yard, I’ve seen them kill and consume young fledglings. But…that iridescence, those colors…they are striking birds in the right light.

Red-winged Blackbird - Agelaius phoeniceus

Red-winged Blackbirds may be the most common bird in the state in the summer. I do like the plumage of the young birds, with this young male starting to show a bit of what will be his trademark red shoulder patch.

 

The Autumn Rebel – Photo / Haiku of the Day

The Autumn Rebel

The flamboyant rebel

Defies autumn’s chilly hand

While verdure surrenders

Northern Cardinal - Haiku of the Day

Autumn has arrived in South Dakota, both by calendar, and by feel. A week ago I basted in heat and humidity while working outside all day. This morning I bundled up while I headed outside. The leaves are just starting to turn on most trees, yet it won’t be long before autumn’s brown replaces the summer verdure. I do LOVE the fall though, as it’s usually a pretty active birding period with migrants. While in summer, the brilliant colors of a bird are sometimes lost in the lushness of the surrounding landscape, in autumn stark contrasts are often seen. This is one of my favorite photos, “just” a Northern Cardinal on a crisp fall day, shuffling through the leaf litter looking for food. The warm, late afternoon light, the contrast between bird and surroundings, and the wonderful pose and head turn make it a scene I mentally picture when I think of the wonderful fall season.

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¬†cr√®me de la cr√®me 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!

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