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South Dakota Species Highlight – Short-eared Owl

Weather in South Dakota over the last month has been everything many people probably think about when they visualize a South Dakota winter. We haven’t had that one big snowstorm, but we have had a number of very small snows that keep accumulating because the temperatures have been absolutely BRUTAL. The coldest we got at our house was -28° F, with multiple days last week where the temperatures never got above 0°. Because of the weather, I haven’t done much birding lately, but have done more work on website than I’ve done in years, primarily focusing on updating the species pages and photo pages.

The last real trip I took dedicated to birding was back on January 2nd, a day that started on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in the central part of the state, but ended near Brookings, which ended up being the highlight of the day. Several Short-eared Owls had been seen there recently, and it had been a few years since I’d gotten a good look at one. There was also a Snowy Owl in the area, but this was a very rare case of a Snowy taking a back seat to another species (for me anyway).

Short-eared Owls are a species that normally you never specifically go out looking for, but instead kind of luck into them on various occasions. They’re nomads, present in good numbers in a general location one year, and gone for the next several years. Heading towards a known location where several were hanging out was certainly a treat, and it didn’t disappoint. I ended up seeing several Short-eared Owls that late afternoon, including watching one catch and eat a vole.

I’ve seen Short-eared Owls a times near Sioux Falls, but the area I have had the most luck over the years is the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and surrounding areas. The story is usually the same, as a drive through the grasslands seems devoid of Short-eared Owls, until the last hour before sunset, where they seem to magically materialize out of thin air. Nearly every Short-eared Owl I’ve seen has been in the hour before sunset, or right around sunrise. The Brookings owls were following the same behavior, with birders not finding them until right before sunset each evening.

What follows is a photo blog telling the stories of some of the Short-eared Owls I’ve come across in South Dakota over the years. For more information and additional photos of this wonderful species, check out the following page on the main website:

South Dakota Birds and Birding – Short-eared Owl Information and Photos

Short-eared Owl - Asio flammeus - Fort Pierre National Grasslands, South Dakota
One of my first ever encounters with a Short-eared Owl also ended up being quite the boon to my bird photography! On July 16th, 2004, I was cruising the gravel roads near sunset when I saw the first Short-eared Owl I’d ever gotten a good look at. How could I NOT get a good look at it, because as I pulled over the car and got out, it started circling me, staring at me the entire time! It didn’t take long to see why it was so interested in me. As I watched it circle me, I soon noticed three young Short-eared Owls along the edge of the road some 30 yards further up. Clearly a protective parent, I got back in the car and backed off, while the whole family took off across the grasslands.

This encounter also ended up getting me a brand new Canon 20D DSLR camera body!! I submitted the photo to a Canon photo contest, where first prize was a Canon 20D, and much to my shock for a national-level competition, the photo won! That Canon 20D ended up being my primary birding camera for quite a few years, and started what’s now been a ~15+ year run of using the Canon x0D series as my primary body.
Short-eared Owl - Asio flammeus - Minnehaha County, South Dakota
What’s the Boy Scout motto…”be prepared”? That motto has certainly served me well over the years from a birding and bird photography perspective, as I often have my camera with me, even when doing something as mundane as making the commute to and from work. The USGS facility where I work is 10 miles outside of Sioux Falls, and I often take gravel roads on the way there, driving by what’s an ever-shrinking number of little pockets of bird habitat. Over the years having the camera with me has been fortuitous, including the evening of December 5th, 2005.

I’d just left work, and the sun was getting close to setting. I took a gravel road I often take, and drove past one of the few relatively big marshy/wet spots on my commute. As I approached I saw a bird on a fence post in the distance…Red-tailed Hawk? As I got closer, I saw what it was…Short-eared Owl! The first I’d ever seen in this part of the state. I took some photos from a distance, wanting to capture the moment before it inevitably took off. However, to my surprise, this bird was going NOWHERE. As I drove closer, it looked around, unconcerned about my presence. Soon I was right next to it, enjoying the closest encounter I’ve ever had with a Short-eared Owl. Since that day there have been a handful of times where I’ve seen Short-eared Owls either at work itself, or on the commute home.
Short-eared Owl - Asio flammeus - Near Brookings, South Dakota
One of the Short-eared Owls from the January 2nd trip mentioned above, just outside of Brookings. The owl was actively hunting an open field adjacent to the road, and I was watching as it slowly worked it’s way back and forth across the big open space. It then suddenly dove and with a poof of snow, caught dinner for the evening…a big fat vole. This was the owl just after he caught it. After a moment or two of contemplating its good luck, it took off with it’s meal and landed on a fence post to eat it.
Short-eared Owl in Flight - Asio flammeus - Fort Pierre National Grasslands, South Dakota
Back to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, on December 9th, 2005 (ironically, just four days after I saw the one above on my way home from work!), when I came across a lone Short-eared Owl hanging out on a fence post. We contemplated each other for a while (including me getting additional photos of him perched on the fence post), before it decided it had had enough, and took off. This was just after it left the fence post, giving me a great look at the business end of those feet.
Short-eared Owl - Asio flammeus - "Pueo" - Hawaii (Big Island)
We’re not in South Dakota any more with this one! Short-eared Owls are one of the most widely spread owl species in the world, found in every continent except for Antarctica. They’ve also somehow made their way to places you certainly wouldn’t think there should be some, such as islands that are thousands of miles away from the mainland! We took a family vacation to the Big Island of Hawaii in August of 2017. I knew they were there, where they are locally called “Pueo”. We ended up finding 3 or 4 on the grassy volcanic slopes upwards from the Kona area on the east side of the island.

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.
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