Splash of Winter Color

Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker (The red on the male’s cap is complete and unbroken, while the female has a tan strip at the top of her head). I have a lot of photos of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, but this is one of the few that shows their namesake trait. Most of the time, the subtle red splash on the belly is quite inconspicuous.

More snow yesterday. Just a couple of inches, but we’ve had a seemingly endless stream of “just a couple of inches” in the last two months.  It’s now late February, and after a long winter, and I’m ready for spring birding to begin.

I’m just ready for COLOR.  Birding in South Dakota in winter is often as gray, dreary, and plain as the weather and our sloppy, gloppy streets.  Bird species diversity is low and those birds that do stick around for the winter are, in general, of the black-and-white variety.  I’ve had more Pine Siskins at my feeders than I’ve ever had, and the little bit of yellow they have is a welcome contrast to the gray gloom.  However, the other most common birds at my feeders are Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos,  and House Sparrows, none of which have much color.

My favorite “yard bird” is one that’s become quite reliable, both in winter and summer.  They’re striking not only for the bright splash of color, but for their size, as they’re generally the largest bird we get in the winter….Red-bellied Woodpeckers. We live in a house we built 12 years ago, and tree cover in the neighborhood landscaping is still maturing.  Red-bellied Woodpeckers need mature trees for nesting and foraging, but fortunately, we live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a State Park with ample riparian forest habitat. The male and female pair that visit our yard clearly spend most of their time in the Park.  When I see them come to our yard, they’re almost always flying in from the Park, and they head back to the Park when they’re done feeding.

When they first came to our yard, they were pretty shy.  The feeders are close to the windows of a sunroom that looks out into our back yard, and the woodpeckers would often spook and fly away if I was moving around in the house. Fortunately over the years they’ve become accustomed not only to our presence, but to that of our two spaniels! One suet feeder sits on a hook off our deck, and the male will often continue to sit and feed at the suet feeder, even when I let the dogs out on the deck. The female is a little shyer, but still stays around the yard much more frequently than she used to.

A wonderful visitor, at any time of the year.

Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus

My favorite Red-bellied Woodpecker photo, this is of a male from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, the park across the street from our house.

Unexpected surprise at the feeders – Common Redpolls

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

From the big Redpoll invasion of 2013, a Common Redpoll sitting on a sunflower head in our yard. This week on Halloween, we had our first Common Redpolls since 2013.

We’re at a part of the season that isn’t a lot of fun for a birder in South Dakota. As the calendar flips from October to November, we’re fully entrenched in the “dry season” for birding, where both bird diversity and bird numbers are far lower than in the warmer months. Most of the smaller water bodies in the area are starting to freeze over, and while there are still some waterfowl and gulls hanging around the open water in the bigger lakes, it won’t be long before they too depart for the winter. Nearly all of the insectivorous birds too have long left the state, leaving us with our typical winter mix of species.

Dark-eyed Juncos are now found scattered throughout my yard.  A welcome addition to an otherwise dreary winter in the yard, but…when the Juncos are around it’s a sign that winter is starting to arrive. In addition to my House Sparrow hoards, I’m also getting an occasional surprise sparrow species, such as the Harris’s and Lincoln’s Sparrows that have periodically showed up in the yard. I am now getting regular visits from three woodpecker species (Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied), another nice presence during the winter months. But overall the species that dominates my yard right now are American Goldfinches.

My wife bought me a huge, tall thistle (niger) feeder many years ago, and it’s always been a star attraction in my yard. The goldfinches will use it all season long, disappearing occasionally for a few weeks at a time, only to come back in full force and stay for long periods of time. Lately, as the weather has gotten colder, the finch feeder has been standing room only, with every available perch often full during the day. The goldfinches may not be in the brilliant yellow summer plumage, but the activity and quiet chatter is nice to have around.

Hoary Redpoll - Acanthis hornemanni

A Hoary Redpoll, a pale, beautiful, wonderful surprise later in that winter of 2013. The two that hung around my yard for several weeks are still the only two Hoary Redpolls I’ve seen in South Dakota.

On Halloween this past week, I was working at home when I came downstairs to grab some lunch.  As I was letting the dogs out into the back yard, I couldn’t help but notice some oddballs in the American Goldfinch hoard that scattered when seeing the dogs. Most of the flock landed in my very large River Birch at the back of the yard, and at first I thought the oddballs were just House Finches.  But after the dogs finished their business and came back in, I was very pleasantly surprised to see a handful of Common Redpolls scattered in with the Goldfinches that were returning to the feeder.

We’ve been in South Dakota for 24 years. In those 24 winters, there have only been 3 occasions where I’ve had Redpolls in the yard. One of those occasions was a “one-night stand”, where a few were at the feeders briefly and then disappeared. But from January through March of 2013, my yard was inundated with Redpolls, to the point that Redpolls actually outnumbered the ubiquitous Goldfinches most days.  It was a snowy and long winter (they all seemingly are), but having the Redpolls around made it seem a little less gloomy.

Much to my surprise, the Common Redpolls weren’t even the best surprise that winter. One morning my young son looked out at the feeders and said “what’s the white one?”  He saw a bird among the Common Redpolls at the finch feeder that was obviously different. I went over and looked out, and was rather shocked to see this wonderful, pale Hoary Redpoll mixed in with the Common Redpolls. A life bird, all from the comfort of my cozy sunroom window!

We had one, and then two, Hoary Redpolls stay around the yard for several weeks before disappearing, along with the rest of the Common Redpolls. We haven’t had Redpolls in the yard since, until this Halloween day! I’ve got a glimpse of one Redpoll in the days since, as my finch feeder has returned to being dominated by goldfinches, but I’m hoping the Redpolls are still around, and plan on staying around for the winter. It would bring a VERY welcome splash of color and diversity to our limited suite of winter birds in South Dakota.

Hanging with the Hummingbirds…

I was planning on doing some birding yesterday, but life got in the way. I started doing yard work, and couldn’t help but notice several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds flitting through my back yard, moving from flower to flower, and to my one nectar feeder.  After finishing the yard work, I decided to do something I haven’t done all summer…try to get photos of my visiting hummingbirds.

They’re not going to be around much longer.  They’ll start to leave in a week or two, and numbers will dwindle.  By September, I’m usually only left with occasionally young birds and females. By mid-September, they’ll largely be gone.

I’m always so excited when the first hummingbird shows up in our yard in early May!  I figured I’d better take some time and enjoy them while we can.  For now, here’s a male and female (or young) visiting my nectar feeder.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Archilochus colubris

A somewhat scruffy looking male Ruby-throated Hummingbird. I probably won’t have males around for too much longer. Mature males are always the first to leave, and will be scarce or absent by the end of the month.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Archilochus colubris

A female (or immature) hummingbird. Pretty soon these will all I’ll have, and then sadly, they’ll trickle away as well, leaving me with a long, 8-month period without my beautiful little hummingbird. 🙁


The return of Clyde

Cooper's Hawk - Accipiter cooperii

“Clyde” the Cooper’s Hawk, giving me the evil eye for daring to question his presence in my back yard. Perhaps it’s not me, perhaps he’s upset for another reason. He had just attempted to catch a House Sparrow at my feeders, and failed. Given the remains of feathers I’m increasingly finding in my yard this winter, it’s clear that he also succeeds quite a bit.

It almost seems like a horrible nightmare, looking back on our life one year ago.  We were living a happy, blissful life in the suburbs when he appeared.   “Clyde” terrorized our back yard, suddenly appearing when you least expected him, wreaking havoc and sewing fear. We had nightmares of a lifetime of Clyde appearances, fearing the phantom menace that would dominate our very existence.  However we were lucky (or so we thought).  We thought we had escaped the horrors of Clyde when he disappeared as suddenly he initially appeared, granting us many months of Clyde-free bliss. We thought we’d never again have to worry about Clyde.

We were wrong.

Clyde.  Is.  BACK.

Clyde made his reappearance on Thanksgiving Day.  A peaceful Thanksgiving dinner was interrupted by the sudden flurry of activity in the back yard, with songbirds scattering and fleeing for their lives while Clyde came roaring through the yard, looking for an easy meal.  Clyde (so named when he first appeared in our yard last year) is a Cooper’s Hawk, and he does what Cooper’s Hawks do…chase and eat birds.  We’ve had a bumper crop of House Sparrows this year (never a good thing), as well as a large number of American Goldfinches feeding on our big thistle feeder.  Throw in the ever-present Dark-eyed Juncos, the similarly common Black-capped Chickadees, and periodic visits by Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, and White-breasted Nuthatches, and Clyde has a veritable buffet of birds from which to choose.

On Thanksgiving day, it was a beautiful male Northern Cardinal that he appeared to key in on.  The first sighting was when a flash of red flew up from the feeders, hovered a moment by the sun room window as it desperately sought escape, and then bolted for cover in the trees in the back of the yard.  Clyde gave it a good try, darting towards the Cardinal by the window (and nearly crashing into it himself), but on that occasion, the prey was the winner.  That’s not always the case.  Clyde is a pretty damned good bird hunter.  Ever since Thanksgiving, there’s been plenty of evidence of his successes, with little piles of feathers generally all that’s left after he’s consumed his catch.

In reality, I like having Clyde around.  I know some people (my wife included) aren’t fond of attracting birds, only to see them serve as prey for predators that attracted to their presence. For me, it’s fascinating watching their interaction, and regardless of whether I have a bird feeder up or not, Clyde is going to hunt and eat birds, and the songbirds that serve as his prey are going to be hunted and eaten.  Circle of life, something which certainly adds to the birding experience in a dreadful, cold, snowy South Dakota winter.

Where have my songbirds gone?

Cooper's Hawk - Accipiter cooperii

“Clyde”, the very fat Cooper’s Hawk who has slowly been consuming all birds in the neighborhood.

What shows up at your feeders is so unpredictable.  In winter, I always expect Dark-eyed Juncos foraging on the ground below my feeders.  Many winters, they’re about the only bird it seems I ever see, in my yard or elsewhere.  Not this year, where they’ve been scarce in my yard.  That’s been made up for with many more American Goldfinches than normal.  I have one very tall tube feeder, and most of the winter it’s been very crowded, with most perches full and other Goldfinches waiting in the nearby tree for an open spot.  It’s been a good year for Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers, and I have at least two (a male and a female) gorgeous Red-bellied Woodpeckers who are quite regular at my suet. Despite the lack of Dark-eyed Juncos, it’s been a fairly “birdy” winter in my yard.

That “birdiness” level has been slowly declining all winter though.  Simple attrition from a snowy winter would probably explain it, but in my yard, there’s another obvious factor.  That factor is Clyde.  Clyde is the Cooper’s Hawk that has been frequenting my yard, and buzzing my feeders all winter long.  Why “Clyde”?  I dunno.  It starts with a C.  He looks like a “Clyde”.  Very workman-like and efficient, very “blue-collar”. Comes in regularly every day, punches the clock, does his thing, kills a bird or two…just the same hum-drum “Clyde” kind of a life for a Cooper’s Hawk.

My wife is not fond of Clyde.  My wife does not appreciate the “nature” occurring in the yard. Clyde isn’t exactly subtle when he buzzes the yard and grabs a songbird.  He’s also getting quite bold. Last week I opened the front door, and Clyde was sitting on the front step, munching on a goldfinch.  Normally, you’d expect a wild bird to immediately bolt.  Not Clyde.  Clyde looked up at me, paused a second, before seemingly sighing and reluctantly flying off with his breakfast, clearly put out that I had interrupted him.I do have one concern about Clyde.  He appears to be gaining weight at an alarming clip.  He’s had a well-fed winter in my yard!  It’s showing on his waist line, as he is one FAT Cooper’s Hawk!

Unlike my wife, I do think it’s very cool to have Clyde around. With the Big Sioux Recreation Area and a lot of forested habitat right across the street, Clyde may end up sticking around the area permanently.

A very lost Great Kiskadee in the great white north

Great Kiskadee - Pitangus sulphuratus

A quite lost Great Kiskadee, casually hanging out on a post on a sunny day in “warm” South Dakota.

A couple of weeks ago, the South Dakota Ornithologists Union (SDOU) had their fall meeting in Brookings, South Dakota.  As the meetings were going on, the folks in attendance became aware of an incredibly unusual sighting in the area.  A landowner near Volga had reported seeing at least two Great Kiskadees in her yard, stating that they had been hanging around since at least August.  Great Kiskadees normally are found in Latin America, as they are warm weather birds with a range that just reaches into the United States in far southern Texas. In the U.S., there have been a handful of sightings outside of Texas.  Of these, there have been several in Oklahoma, a handful in Louisiana, and one or two in Kansas and New Mexico.  The one found in central Kansas was incredibly unusual in its own right, occurring hundreds of miles away from the next closest sighting.  Hence, a Great Kiskadee?  In South Dakota?  In November?  The SDOU attendees were understandably skeptical.  The skepticism vanished when a conclusive photo was provided, and most people attending the meeting got a very exciting treat, making the short trip to the farmstead where the bird (birds?) was seen.

I was out of town on travel at the time.  When I got back, I told myself that maybe if the bird were still hanging around, I’d head north to try and see it (and photograph it).  A couple of weeks passed, and I managed to make excuses not to go.  In other words, I was being lazy!! Honestly, I rarely have any luck chasing single birds like this.  However, today, serendipity struck.  I was walking in the hall at work this morning, and passed my friend Pat, who is also a birder.  He had seen the Great Kiskadee, and we started talking about it.  He noted they were still seeing the bird relatively recently, and it got my mind wandering, in the way that a mind sometimes WILL wander on a Wednesday at work.  After several days of gloom and snow, the sun was finally out.  What was better, sitting in a windowless office, or going out searching for a mega-rarity?

In no time I grabbed my coat, headed home to grab my camera equipment, and then started north towards the area where the bird(s) was being seen.  There are two farmsteads adjacent to each other, and the Great Kiskadees had been seen at both.  Having been told the south farmstead had an extensive feeder setup, that’s where I headed.  With a big snowstorm ending just the day before, I thought surely the bird would be hanging out by the feeders.  I called the landowner and asked permission, and ended up walking around her land for an hour, and hanging around her feeders for another hour.  No luck…no bird.

Great Kiskadee - Pitangus sulphuratus

Snow. That’s a Great Kiskadee, sitting in a pine tree covered with snow. I would bet there haven’t ever been too many similar photos taken.

Par for the course, when I chase a lone bird!  I got back in my car, sent a quick note to the South Dakota “listserver”, informing birders that I had tried, unsuccessfully, to re-locate the Kiskadee.  Perhaps the snowstorm was too much for a tropical bird, I thought.

That’s when our digital, instant-communication world saved the day.  “KC” replied almost immediately to my email to the listserver, telling me that he had seen the bird just this morning.  I spent nearly all my time at the southern farmstead, but he said the bird was now hanging out almost exclusively at the northern farmstead.  I was only 5 miles away when I noticed his message, so I turned around and headed back, this time going to the “right” farmstead.

It only took 2 minutes of looking before I saw the bird.  The landowners had set up special feeders just to try and help the wayward Kiskadee, with suet and mealworms provided for it.  Within 2 minutes of walking around, a lone Great Kiskadee came flying into the feeders, along with some of his new buddies, 3 Blue Jays.  What a gorgeous bird!  A bright splash of yellow isn’t exactly a common sight for a birder in South Dakota when there’s a foot of snow on the ground!  The recent snow doesn’t seem to have hurt the Kiskadee.  He seemed fat, happy, and was feeding very well.  I ended up watching and photographing him for about 45 minutes as he flew back-and-forth between the feeders and the surrounding trees.  He wasn’t shy, either, ALWAYS a very welcome development for a bird photographer.

When I awoke today I was expecting the same old grind at work!  Thanks to bumping into Pat in the hall, and thanks to my own TRUE talent at finding excuses to get away from work, a normal work day turned into a truly once-in-a-lifetime birding day!  A Great Kiskadee in the snow and cold of South Dakota in December!

Great Kiskadee - Pitangus sulphuratus

Madera Canyon and Santa Rita Lodge in the “off-season”

Phot of magnificent hummingbird

A male Magnificent Hummingbird soaking up some rays at Santa Rita Lodge.

May 7th.  It always within a day or two of May 7th when the first Ruby-throated Hummingbird shows up in our yard. While there are no confirmed breeding records in far southeastern South Dakota, there’s little doubt they nest there. I have birds in my yard all summer, and by July sometime I start to see immature birds. After a great (but short!) summer flitting about our yard, they’re gone by the end of September. That’s less than 5 months, with the “hummingbird off season” consisting of 7+ months of cold weather and absolutely zero hummingbirds.

It’s the “hummingbird off-season” where I am this week, in Tucson.  After peaking in August here, where up to 15 hummingbird species may be sighted, numbers and variety start to dwindle. By this time in November the slow season is definitely underway. There’s just a WEE bit of a difference in the Tucson off season compared to South Dakota. Here in the Tucson area, you can still find plenty of hummingbirds, but “only” 4-5 kinds (typically).

Photo of Costa's Hummingbird.

A male Costa’s Hummingbird, not commonly found at Madera Canyon in the winter.

There are some extremely famous hummingbird locales that attract birders from across the world. Madera Canyon south of Tucson is world famous for many birds, but it’s the hummingbird feeders at Santa Rita Lodge that are the big attraction for many. In the non-work part of my trip I twice visited Madera and Santa Rita Lodge, and I’d be hard pressed to call it the “off-season”. No, there were no Plain-capped Starthroats, Violet-crowned Hummingbirds, or other U.S. mega-rarities that make southern Arizona famous. For the week I “only” saw and photographed five different species, with all five being seen at Santa Rita Lodge (and some species also found elsewhere).

From a photographers standpoint it’s really nice taking photos at Santa Rita Lodge. Until 1:00 or so you have the sun at your back, and most of the feeders are out in the sunlight, making it easy to get beautiful photos of hummingbirds with their gorgets “lit-up”. The ever-present Mexican Jays, Bridled Titmouse, and Wild Turkeys are there to entertain, and you never know what might show up to feed on the suet, fruit, and seeds that are also available. Hepatic Tanagers have an extremely limited U.S. range, but they are pretty reliable in Madera Canyon. Despite it also being the “off-season” for them, I did find a pair at Santa Rita Lodge and was able to add the species to my life list.

Hepatic Tanager

Hepatic Tanager, a southern Arizona specialty.

Santa Rita Lodge is also the only place I have ever found Arizona Woodpeckers. Acorn Woodpeckers are also always around, while the Niger seed feeders typically have a bunch of Lesser Goldfinch and Pine Siskins. Checking the trees around the feeders can reveal all kinds of interesting songbirds, and even in this slow season, I saw Black-throated Gray Warblers, Hutton’s Vireo, Yellow-rumps Warblers, and more. I also got a nice surprise by standing by the one big berry-laden bush in font of the feeders.  A Red-naped Sapsucker flew in and landed literally 2 feet in front of me and started feeding on the berries. A newcomer to the Santa Rita Lodge, a pair of Canyon Wrens started nesting under the building recently, despite the uncharacteristic habitat

Not a bad “off-season” visit!  And this doesn’t even touch on the Elegant Trogon or other birds you can find in the Canyon.

I enjoyed birding this week all around the Tucson area, but in terms of “birdy-ness”, nothing beats a trip to Madera Canyon and Santa Rita Lodge.

Photo of Canyon WrenRed-naped SapsuckerBroad-tailed Hummingbird

Hummingbird perspective

Photo of Rufous Hummingbird in FLight

Drink up little Rufous Humminbird! One flower down, 1,163 cans of Coke (hummingbird equivalent) to go!!

From, there’s a nice feature today about the “fierceness” of hummingbirds:

Hummingbirds are Fierce, Deadly Gods of War

I can relate to this.  Pop (hey, I’m from the Midwest, it’s “pop”, not “soda” or anything else) is my downfall.  I don’t drink coffee, and especially during the week, a can of pop somehow makes it into my office.  Mostly it’s Coke.  If I’m really having a bad, tiring day, a Mountain Dew has been known to slip into my office.  But having an occasional can of Coke is nothing, if you read this story.

Given the metabolism of a hummingbird, they consume half their body weight in sugar every day.  As the article notes, an equivalent would be a human being drinking 1,163 cans of Coke a day, or 1,106 cans of Pepsi (Pepsi has more sugar).

Therefore, I have determined my occasional can of Coke isn’t bad.  It may actually be a health food, based on this comparison.  Not only am I drinking the “right” pop in Coke (the less sugary one), but I’m only drinking 0.09% of my daily allowance of sugar, in hummingbird terms.

It’s all a matter of perspective…

Unexpected Visitor!

Pine Siskin - North American Range Map

This is a range map for the Pine Siskin. The closest they’re supposed to be to here this time of year would be northern Minnesota or the Black Hills.

My office has been under construction for nearly 2 months now, and my temporary office is, uh…not ideal.  It’s an open cube, shared with 2 other people, 6 feet from the bathroom doors.  Lovely…and hard to work when you’re used to your own office with a door you can shut.  Because of that, I’ve been working at home most of the time.

I had an unexpected surprise today while working at home.  I went into the kitchen to get a drink, looked out the patio doors at the thistle (niger) feeder, and saw a Pine Siskin.  June 2nd?  A Pine Siskin in southeast South Dakota?  It wasn’t even something on my radar, so I had to do a double take, and check it out at close range just to be sure.  Pine Siskins are something you’d only expect in the winter around here, and even though they can be pretty locally common, I rarely get them at my feeders.

The map above shows the supposed range for a Pine Siskin.  Strange!  A nice surprise, and actually after checking my eBird list for the year, I hadn’t seen one yet this year. June 2nd…not the date I’d expect to see my first Pine Siskin here!

Ant Moat! What a great idea!

Just came across this product:

What a great idea!  Every year, late April, we start to see ants in the house.  We spray outside around the foundation and it ends, but they are ALWAYS an issue around my hummingbird feeder.  I usually put some pesticide around the base of the pole that holds the hummingbird feeder, but that only seems to help for a day or two.  The solution? This ant moat may just do the trick!  I do believe I will have to order one….

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