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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‚Ķrarities 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.

Spectacular Spring Birding – Minnehaha County

The last two days have been just spectacular for birding, and for bird photography. Both mornings, I went west of Sioux Falls before dawn, spending a lot of time around Wall Lake and the vicinity. Good numbers of birds, a wonderful variety, and some wonderfully cooperative subjects for the camera. It’s not often you get all three of those things in a birding trip. Here are some of the finds for the last 2 days:

Red-breasted Mergansers Courting - Mergus serrator

I don’t see Red-breasted Mergansers often around the Sioux Falls area, and usually just one or two. This weekend there were at least 11 hanging out together at Wall Lake. Unfortunately for the females, there were 7 males and only 4 females…the males were putting on QUITE the show for the females. They were some of the most active birds on the lake, with males chasing females, pausing to fight with each other or do this wonderful display behavior that I’ve never seen before. Given how active they were, given how large Wall Lake is, and given how difficult it can be to get close to a bird out on the main lake, I felt VERY fortunate that they spent quite a bit of time near the beach this morning, and I was able to capture the courting behavior. A bit more of a crop than I’d like, but I love this photo.

Common Loon - Gavia immer

Wall Lake is becoming semi-reliable for finding migrating Common Loons in the spring months, as it’s now been several years in a row where I’ve seen them there. This morning I hung out at the end of the point that sticks out into the lake, arriving at dawn, and staying an hour and a half. I was rewarded by wonderful views of many birds, but it’s ALWAYS wonderful when a gorgeous Common Loon in breeding plumage cruises around the corner and swims right in front of you (and your camera!).

Killdeer - Charadrius vociferus

I love the “off-season” at Wall Lake…the time of year when you can sit by the beach and have it all to yourself. Come summer, it’s not somewhere you’d even think about birding. But this time of year, when ice and snow cover the surrounding landscape and birds are looking for food, the sandy beach is a great place to bird. There were many birds near the beach today, with several looking for food right along the shore, such as this Killdeer.¬† If you are familiar with Wall Lake and the bit of foam that sometimes forms on the beach when there’s a north wind, this is what that foam turns into when it’s 20 degrees! Loved the bird next to the crystally ice.

Bonapaarte's Gull - Larus philadelphia

As always at this time of year, Wall Lake attracted a lot of gulls, primarily Ring-billed and Franklin’s, but I also saw a Herring Gull and 20 or so delicate little Bonaparte’s Gulls. Another bird prowling the “surf” line looking for food. About the only Bonaparte’s Gull I saw that wasn’t in full breeding plumage, but the others weren’t as cooperative for the camera.

American Robin - Turdus migratorius

I REALLY felt bad for the American Robins and other songbirds that were trying to find food this weekend, with a thick crust of ice covering most of the landscape. They were numerous along roadsides and anywhere else where even a bit of open ground was available. Here one hangs out on a branch at dawn at Wall Lake.

Rusty Blackbird - Euphagus carolinus

Three times this weekend I came across small groups of Rusty Blackbirds. I admit I often don’t scan the massive blackbird flocks, but while out on the peninsula at Wall Lake this morning, I kept hearing a squeaky call that I wasn’t familiar with, and then saw a lone Rusty Blackbird. Later this morning north of Wall Lake, I ran into a small group at a flooded field. Not a great photo, but not a species I’ve photographed much. And one that I generally struggle to differentiate from Brewer’s Blackbird when they’re in breeding plumage.

Double-crested Cormorant - Phalacrocorax auritus

Another common species, a Double-crested Cormorant, but I can’t help put trigger the shutter at any bird that flies in front of my camera. Do like the unique look of this one, thanks to a reflection of some buildings across the water at Wall lake.

Horned Grebe - Podiceps auritus

Until this weekend, I didn’t realize I had no photos of a Horned Grebe in full breeding plumage! Problem solved…there were actually many of these guys around Wall Lake the last 2 days. Most weren’t very cooperative, but I finally got one early this morning hanging out near the beach.

Hermit Thrush - Catharus guttatus

With all the snow and ice that was still around heading into this weekend, you kind of do a double take when you see some bird species, as they seem out of place given the weather. Hermit Thrush are always early spring arrivals though. There were a number of them the last 2 days in the Big Sioux Recreation Area near home.

Eastern Phoebe - Sayornis phoebe

Speaking of birds that look out of their element in this weather…one of the LAST things you expect to see when there’s so much snow and ice still around are flycatcher species. But like Hermit Thrush, Eastern Phoebes are early spring migrants. I saw this guy both yesterday and today along Wall Lake beach. Today thankfully things had melted some. Yesterday, he was really having a hard time finding anything other than snow and ice.

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