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South Dakota’s Jewel – Custer State Park

My family and I just got back from a long weekend in the Black Hills, spending most of our time in Custer State Park. The Black Hills are a 5 or 6 hour drive from our hometown on the far eastern edge of South Dakota. We travel a lot, but have somehow managed to avoid visiting the area for the last 4 or 5 years, other than occasional fishing trips with my son. After a wonderful, long, Labor Day weekend, I’m not sure why we don’t spend more time in the Black Hills and Custer State Park.  We love National Parks and Monuments, visiting 11 different ones during our summer vacation to Colorado and Utah, but I’d put Custer State Park up with any of them.

Part of the attraction is the diversity the park offers. Custer State Park is big, covering over 110 square miles. Habitats are diverse, ranging from wide open prairie to craggy peaks.  Access is quite easy, with several roads traversing the park, including a number of gravel roads that get far less traffic than roads like the iconic Wildlife Loop.  However, even the wildlife loop is never as busy as the popular National Parks. And as with most parks in the United States, once you step away from the main roads and start hiking, you can find yourself with as much solitude as you desire.

On this trip, we stayed at the “Creekside Lodge”, a wonderful little place from which to base your trip to the Hills. It’s part of the State Game Lodge complex, right off Highway 16a, one of the bigger paved roads through the park, and is in an area that provides quick access to many of the Black Hills attractions. We loved our room at the Creekside lodge, a 2nd floor room with a balcony that overlooked Grace Coolidge Creek. Every night, we’d have deer foraging in the grass right below our hotel room, and the room was large and very comfortable.

For me, it’s the hiking and the wildlife that makes Custer State Park special.  There are no bears in the Black Hills, but you’ll certainly find as many bison, deer, elk, Pronghorn, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs as you could want.  That’s right, just one State Park, with habitats that support creatures as diverse as Bison and Pronghorns on the prairies, and Mountain Goats at high elevation. Every morning on our trip I’d wake before dawn, and drive and hike around the less-traveled gravel roads the connect with the Wildlife Loop road. Every morning, I’d find bountiful photo opportunities.

Yes, it’s “just” a state park, but don’t overlook Custer State Park!! It’s one of the most enjoyable places to visit in the region.  Here are just a few of the many photos I took over the weekend. Note I reserve the right to revisit these same photos in upcoming Photo/Haiku of the day posts!  🙂

American Bison - Custer State Park, South Dakota

The iconic American Bison. Custer State Park has a very large herd that has free reign throughout most of the park. While they could be seen almost anywhere, the wide open grasslands around the wildlife loop are a place where you’ll almost certainly run across large numbers of them.

Coyote - Canis latrans - Custer State Park, South Dakota

A lone coyote, giving me one last look before disappearing into the grassland. There are certainly plenty of coyote around, but they’re pretty shy. Drive the Wildlife Loop right around dawn though, and there’s a good chance you may find one.

Black-tailed Prairie Dog - Cynomys ludovicianus

A Black-tailed Prairie Dog at the entrance to its burrow. There are a number of large prairie dog towns scattered throughout Custer State Park, and they’re always a great place to look for wildlife.

Pronghorn - Antilocapra americana - South Dakota

The Wildlife Loop are offers some wonderful prairie habitat, and is a great spot to find Pronghorn. Pronghorn in South Dakota are generally very shy. It’s no wonder, given the hunting pressure on the species. Custer State Park is probably your best opportunity anywhere to get close to a wild Pronghorn. They’re used to the visitors and will often calmly forage just a few meters away from your car.  How close can you get to a wild Pronghorn at Custer State Park? How about….

Pronghorn - Antilocapra americana - South Dakota

This close! When you shoot wildlife, the problem is that you generally can’t get close enough for a frame-filling photo, even with a “long” camera lens. In this case, my long lens made it impossible to frame the entire animal in the shot, and thus I instead had the opportunity to shoot some wonderful portraits from point-blank range.

Mountain Bluebird - Sialia currucoides

One of my favorite species, the Mountain Bluebird. Near the “airport” (not much of an airport) on Wildlife Loop road, there’s a fence line with a number of bluebird boxes. It’s a terrific spot to find these beautiful sky-blue birds.

Mountain Goat - Oreamnos americanus

ALWAYS. BRING. YOUR. CAMERA!!! After this many years doing photography, I should know this by now! But when we decided to do the “Cathedral Spires” hike in the park, I left the camera in the car. I didn’t think we’d see any wildlife up there! Boy was I wrong. We ran into Mountain Goats twice on the beautiful hike up to the spires! Alas, all I had was my iPhone, but this even with just a standard iPhone 7, we were able to get close enough to these beautiful animals to get photos such as this one. This also gives you an indication of the diversity of landscapes in the park…from Pronghorns on the prairies, to Mountain Goats up high!!

Custer State Park - Dawn

A quick grab-shot with my iPhone of the rising sun, from Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park, showing the wide open prairies and rolling hills on this side of the park.

Birding the Bog! Sax-Zim in Minnesota

It’s been a relatively “birdy” winter in South Dakota. We’ve had really high numbers of winter finches. I’ve certainly never had more Pine Siskins at my Feeders, and I’ve also had Common Redpolls in my yard for only the third time ever. Both White-winged and Red Crossbills have also been around in select locations (always a rarity). It’s been a GREAT year for Snowy Owls across the northern U.S., and while normally I have to travel to the central or northern parts of South Dakota to see them, I came across three different Snowy Owls within 15 miles of home this winter!

A pretty good winter, given how bleak birding can be in South Dakota at this time of year, but I still had the birding itch to see “more”.  All winter long, I had pondered making the long trip to Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota to look for owls and other boreal “goodies”, but kept putting it off. It IS a long jaunt and requires a hefty time commitment…a six+ hour drive from home.  This weekend was going to be my last chance to make the trip before the winter ended, so I finally pulled the trigger on a trip. It’s SUCH a special birding location and one where I want to get the most of my few chances to visit, so much to the bewilderment of my wife, I decided to leave a 2:00 AM Saturday to maximize the my birding time in the area.  The forecast called for a gloomy, gray Saturday…PERFECT for owling.

The forecast was wrong. Saturday was gorgeous and sunny, with temperatures over 40 degrees.  Not great for the owls who seem to be less active on such days. After getting up so early and driving so far, I was a bit disheartened after birding the entire day Saturday. The only owl I had seen was a Northern Hawk Owl from a very long distance. I’ll never complain about seeing a Northern Hawk Owl, given how few and far opportunities are to see the species in the lower 48 states, but it was a slow and overall disappointing day nonetheless.

Sunday made up for it. A gloomy, gray day, it certainly did seem to bring out the owls, and I had decent luck with other species as well.  Great Gray Owls are one of the big draws for birders in the Bog, and I was able to see three on Sunday, including one at very close range. Two more Northern  Hawk Owls (none very close), plenty of Gray Jays, Ruffed Grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse, Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, and even a glimpse of a Pine Marten that had been visiting a feeder complex in the area…it ended up being a wonderful day of birding!  I struck out on a couple of target birds…Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpecker…but that just gives me an excuse to make the trip again next winter!  Below are a few photos from the day.

Great Gray Owl - Strix nebulosa

The best photo opportunity of the day was this Great Gray Owl. Evidently he had been actively feeding for a few days alongside “Owl Avenue” (aptly named!). It was about 10 o’clock in the morning when I found him, and while I didn’t get to see him catch or eat anything, I was able to get some nice photos and video. Another photographer who was there told me that he had already caught 4 voles that morning! The same photographer said he was watching the Great Gray the evening before, and it surprisingly went after a muskrat! That’s a VERY large prey item for a Great Gray, but evidently he was able to catch it and somehow swallow it whole.

Great Gray Owl - Strix nebulosa

A Great Gray Owl relaxing at the back of a forest clearing. I ended up watching him for over an hour, and he never left this perch. He spent most of that time preening, not actively looking for prey.

Northern Hawk Owl - Surnia ulula

Not the greatest photo in the world, but it does convey what all of my Northern Hawk Owl sightings were like on this trip! I came across three different Northern Hawk Owls, but alas, all of them were some distance away. Given the rarity of a Northern Hawk Owl in the lower 48 states, I will DEFINITELY take it though!

Gray Jay - Perisoreus canadensis

Photo of a Gray Jay, one of my favorite species to watch.  It seemed like every time I came across the species, it was a pair of birds, and one pair was clearly collecting nesting material as I watched them.  

Hairy Woodpecker -  Leuconotopicus villosus

Not the woodpecker I was after, but I’ll take it. I was looking for Black-backed and Three-toed Woodpeckers, two species that were supposedly around in decent numbers this winter, but I struck out on both. One of the things that’s really changed about Sax-Zim Bog since I first went there 14 years ago is the number of feeder complexes that local residents have set up. This guy was on a long-established feeder complex along Admiral Road, but there are now at least a dozen such areas scattered throughout the bog. Given the warm, pleasant weather when I was there, activity at the feeders was pretty slow, but I still was able to see Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Grosbeaks, Common Redpoll, Gray Jays, and several other species.

Northern Hawk Owl - Surnia ulula

NOT from this trip, but a better representation of a Northern Hawk Owl from Sax-Zim Bog. This was from my very first trip to Sax-Zim Bog during the famed owl irruption of the winter of 2004/2005. My introduction to the Bog came through a friend at work, who had heard about incredible numbers of northern owls being found in the bog. As someone who had only started birding a few years before, in 2000, I had never seen a Great Gray Owl or Northern Hawk Owl. I was torn about whether to go or not, as I didn’t know what my chances actually were to see an owl, and it IS a hefty time commitment to drive 6 hours there and back. I did decide to spend 2 days there though in December 2004, and it remains the greatest birding trip of my life! On that first day, I saw over THIRTY Great Gray Owls, and nearly the same number of Northern Hawk Owls! This was one of the first Northern Hawk Owls I found, and the first photos of the species that I’d ever taken. It definitely remains the best series of Northern Hawk Owl photos I have! This guy was sitting at eye level in a low bush, RIGHT next to the road. He was incredibly tolerant of my presence, and I had him to myself for well over an hour as I watched (and photographed) him from extremely close range. How close? I was in my car, not wanting to get out and disturb him, and found that I was actually too close for my camera lens to focus! My Canon 400 mm lens has a minimum focusing distance of about 12 feet, and I was only about 10 feet away as I watched him! To capture the photos I actually scooted over to the passenger seat, before returning to the driver’s seat and watching him preen, sleep, and generally ignore me over the next hour. One of the most magical birding moments of my life, and this photo more than other shows why I’ve continued to return to the Bog every few years since 2004!!!

Money vs. the Endangered Species Act

Golden-cheeked Warbler - Setophaga chrysoparia

A Golden-cheeked Warbler (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife). A little bird less than 5″ long, with a big reputation in its native Texas, thanks to its endangered status. Short-term economic growth, or the very existence of a unique bird species…which side do you think many Texans (and others) fall?

For my main website, I’ve been working for, well, years in getting individual species pages created for all ~980 species that have been found in North America.  I only have like 70 left to make, and just added a new one for the Golden-cheeked Warbler.  They’re kind of a “holy grail” type bird for some birders, given the fact that they’re considered an endangered species, and are only found in a very tiny breeding range in the oak-juniper woodlands of central Texas.  While making the species page, I came across an all-too-typical story from the New York Times.

The Golden-cheeked Warbler is the only species that nests only in Texas.  They have a very unique, specific requirement for breeding…they simply must have the long, stringy bark from an Ashe Juniper tree for building their nests.  Not just any juniper tree will do, it has to be a relatively old Ashe Juniper for the bark to be usable by Golden-cheeked Warblers.  The mixed oak-juniper woodlands where Ashe Juniper is found covers a relatively small area in Texas. The species only has been found to nest in 33 counties in Texas, covering an area that is likely less than 350 square kilometers.  Some of it is pretty rugged country, but like pretty much every other location on the planet, it’s an area that’s impacted by a human presence.

During the twentieth century, substantial areas of habitat were cleared in the Golden-cheeked Warbler’s breeding range.  Simple residential and urban development was one cause of habitat loss, with residences, businesses, roads, and energy development all carving up parts of their range.  Agricultural land use also caused substantial habitat loss, with forests and woodlands being converted to open grazing lands.  The direct loss of Ashe Juniper directly affects the species’ ability to nest, but it’s more than the loss of their favorite nesting material tree. Habitat fragmentation and the creation of more “edge” habitat opens up woodlands and forest to a much higher presence of Brown-headed Cowbirds. As with many songbird species, cowbirds lay eggs in the nests of Golden-cheeked Warblers, with the warblers thus ending up raising cowbirds rather than raising their own young.

With such a small range and with declining numbers, the Golden-cheeked Warbler was an obvious candidate for the listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  They’ve been listed as endangered for more than 25 years (they were first listed in 1990), thanks to scientific studies that count the prevalence of the birds, and weigh the relative threats to well-being of the species in the future.  There’s no doubt the endangered status has benefited Golden-cheeked Warblers.  In the U.S. part of its range, several areas are protected and managed for Golden-cheeked Warbler habitat and breeding.  Brown-headed Cowbird trapping programs are in place to reduce the impact on Golden-cheeked Warblers.  Restrictions on land use and land-use conversion are in place to protect the remaining areas of highly suitable breeding habitat.  Threats to the species extend outside of the U.S. as well, with loss of habitat also a problem on the breeding grounds in Central America, yet protective programs are in place there as well.

The protections may have slowed the rate of habitat loss in the United States, but despite that, the species has continued a slow decline.  The bustling urban centers of Austin and San Antonio lie adjacent to their primary breeding habitat, as does Fort Hood, one of the largest military installations in the world.  Despite the obvious scientific evidence backing the need for protection of this unique species, the New York Times story gives a great summary of the political and economic pressures that are pushing back against conservation efforts for the bird.  Real estate and energy developers are powerful lobbyists that are pushing against the endangered status for the birds. As the New York Times story notes, representatives from those groups, people who have a vested economic interest in land use in the region, state that “bad science” was used in designating the species as endangered.  As a result, a petition is currently being pushed by these groups to delist the species.

Mind you, none of these representatives of the petition are actually scientists! Oh no, it’s very much like the battle over climate change, where people who know absolutely nothing about the scientific issue itself will speak of “bad science” in a vague, general sense.  There are no specifics, no hard-core evidence backing the claim that the species is doing well enough to be delisted.  Their claims all have a basis in economics, as removing the species from the ESA makes it much easier to exploit the landscape for real estate and energy development.  Another powerful agent that would prefer the species be delisted is the U.S. military.  Fort Hood lies in the heart of the breeding range of the Golden-cheeked Warbler, and has a very large area of prime breeding habitat within the installation.  The New York Times piece outlines some of the restrictions placed on military training activities on the base due to the ESA listing. A key line from the New York Times piece that pretty much sums up ALL of these kinds of cases where economic powers but heads with endangered species:

Mr. Perry (director of mission support) said Fort Hood nevertheless supported delisting because the installation pays hundreds of thousands of dollars to comply with the act, including funding a biological assessment every five years.

Note there’s absolutely nothing in his statement about the bird itself.  There’s absolutely nothing in his statement about conservation concerns.  No, the one and only focus is the fact that the installation ends up paying “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to comply with listing of the species.

Money. And political power.  The story also notes some of the other big names in Texas politics who have supported the de-listing, including the Bush family. That’s what proponents of keeping the Golden-cheeked Warbler listed are up against.

What does the science say? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed a five-year review of the species, with a report released two years ago that state the species still needed to be listed as endangered due to ongoing threats to its habitat, and threat of extinction.  Given that ESA is theoretically driven by scientific assessments such as this, you’d think that would be the end of the argument.  You’d think those petitioning for delisting would have little chance of success.

You’d be wrong. ESA has always been a political football, most often when economic interests butt heads with local land-use or other restrictions, but also sometimes simply for the ideological battle of “conservation” vs. “economics”.  The Golden-cheeked Warbler’s protected status is just one example of many across the United States where similar battles are being fought.  In a world where “science” has somehow become a negative term for many in the U.S. in recent years, it’s just one more case where short-term greed and selfishness are pushing up (and often winning) against conservationists and environmentalists.

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