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South Dakota “Big Year” and Other 2019 Highlights

White-eyed Vireo - Vireo griseus

I never was really a “lister” as a birder until eBird came along. eBird makes it so ridiculously easy to track your sightings, and the tools they have to categorize your sightings by date…geography…comparison to other birders…certainly bring out the competitive side that many birders seem to have! However, even after I started using eBird, I never really set any yearly goals, such as a “big year”. The closest I ever came was a number of years ago when a birding friend at work and I had a very low-key competition to see who could see the most birds in South Dakota during the year.

I ended up at 212 that year, a very similar number to my friend. I’ve gotten close to that a few times since according to eBird, but never really had a “South Dakota Big Year” as a driving goal for my birding in a year. Going into this year though, my birding time had been declining and I seemed to be losing some interest. I thought setting a goal to break my yearly South Dakota record might re spark some of that enthusiasm.

It did!! I started early in January this year…a tough time to start building a bird list in South Dakota! Particularly in a very cold, snowy winter, getting up to just 100 birds by mid-April was doing very well! When spring migration rolled around, I spent more time birding than I have in years. As the year progressed, I never made it to spots like far northwestern South Dakota to tick off species like Baird’s Sparrow, but I made my usual trips to the central part of the state, the Missouri River dams, and a very rare (for me) dedicated birding trip to the Black Hills.

By mid-December, I’d easily passed my highest yearly total, with 248 species. With travel and family commitments in the latter half of the month, I wasn’t expecting to get any more, but when a White-winged Crossbill was seen in Sioux Falls the week before Christmas, I did make the short trip and checked of #249. One short of a nice round number!! I told my wife (notably NOT a birder, and not too invested in the number chase!) that the only way I’d get to 250 is if something unexpected showed up in the yard. Well, on Christmas Day I got a nice surprise present, when a Sharp-shinned Hawk nailed a House Sparrow in mid-flight in the back yard, and then proceeded to consume it right outside our sunroom window. Not that rare of a species around here in winter, but when entering the sighting into eBird, I was surprised that I hadn’t recorded that species yet in 2019, and it was indeed #250!

Sharp-shinned Hawk - Accipiter striatus
A Sharp-shinned Hawk catching a House Sparrow in our back yard on Christmas Day. Species #250 for the year, and a photo that’s instantly one of my favorites.

250 species for the year…a nice number to end with! Not as nice a number as the rather miraculous 303 found by Kenny Miller this year (WOW…considering we’ve only had about 420 species total that have ever been seen in the state), but it was enough for me to end up tied for 6th in the state this year. Something I never thought I’d do as a birder…comparing my year in such a manner…but again, that’s what the wonderful eBird tools do to even a pretty non-competitive birder!!

Sprinkled in those #250 are some definite highlights for the year…new life birds (7 new birds never sighted before anywhere), or new life birds for the state of South Dakota (an additional 9 new South Dakota lifers). Here are some of those 2019 highlights….including some from a major 2019 (and lifetime) birding highlight that’s definitely NOT South Dakota focused.

In mid-April, I had a conference in Pierre for work. With the conference starting at noon, I left home long before dawn, hoping to get a few hours of birding in before the conference. As I was driving near the Missouri River southeast of Pierre, I saw a number of American White Pelicans along flooded areas along the river, so when I saw a large, white bird with black wing tips flying parallel to the road in front of me, I immediately dismissed it as a pelican. This was no pelican! My jaw dropped as I got closer and saw that it was a lone Whooping Crane!! MAJOR frustration as I quickly grabbed the camera and tried to grab a few frames, but the bird disappeared over a ridge and I thought I’d never get a chance to document the sighting. However, when I found a tiny side road, I was able to relocate the bird foraging in a corn field. For the next hour I watched the bird, getting some long distance shots as it foraged, and a few frames in flight when it left the corn field and returned to forage in a wetland area along the river. My first ever Whooping Crane sighting, and definitely a highlight for my 2019 South Dakota bird list!
Henslow's Sparrow - Ammodramus henslowii
When you’re trying for a South Dakota “Big Year”, spring migration is…everything! There are so many migrant bird species that move through the state, and you have a narrow window in which to spot them. By mid- to late-May, the spring migration was…disappointing! It was very cold yet, and very wet. Warblers are a huge draw for me when I bird in the spring, yet by May 19th, I’d only seen a handful of warbler species. On that day, the South Dakota Ornithologist Union was holding it’s spring meeting in Brandon, and a miserable forecast (stormy cool weather) didn’t seem to bode well for birding! It ended up being a truly magical day, however, with over 20 warbler species seen by birders in the Sioux Falls area that day. I myself ended up with 20 different warbler species that day, including several that you don’t see every year. The highlight of the day though was a lifer, a Henslow’s Sparrow that other birders found foraging in a grassy field on the south side of Newton Hills State Park.
American Three-toed Woodpecker - Picoides dorsalis
As a family we typically go the Black Hills once or twice a year. It’s a 6 hour drive (South Dakota is a big state!), so it’s not somewhere I get to bird a lot, and when with the family, my birding time is generally limited. However, in July I took a dedicated 3-day birding trip to the Hills, hoping to pick up a number of South Dakota species I hadn’t recorded in the state before. It was a great trip…I ended up adding 10 new South Dakota species, more than half of my new 2019 South Dakota total. It was also rather frustrating! I have yet to see a Bullock’s Oriole in the state! They’re common out there! I have yet to see a Black-headed Grosbeak! Also common out there! But I did pick up several South Dakota lifers, and one that was an all-time lifer, when this American Three-toed Woodpecker foraged on spruce trees very close to me.
Not a South Dakota lifer, but one I didn’t have on my yearly list until a VERY unexpected lone Rock Wren showed up at Good Earth State Park along the Iowa/South Dakota border. You can count on one hand the number of Rock Wrens recorded in eBird within 200 miles of this location! A good sighting, and a nice addition without which I wouldn’t have gotten to 250.
Magnolia Warbler - Setophaga magnolia
A Magnolia Warbler from that magical weekend of May 19th. One of 20 different warbler species I recorded that day.
Eastern Rosella - Platycercus eximius
Definitely not a South Dakota bird! But a definite 2019 highlight for birding…a 3-week vacation with the family in Australia! Not a birding trip, but of course I was able to get a lot of life birds on that trip, including some incredibly colored species such as this Eastern Rosella.
Southern Cassowary - Casuarius casuarius
A moment I’ll never forget, when a freakin’ DINOSAUR stepped out of the rainforest right in front of us. A massive Southern Cassowary, from near Cairns, Australia.
Rainbow Lorikeet - Trichoglossus moluccanus
A pretty common sight in many areas where we went in Australia, a Rainbow Lorikeet. Given how they’ve adapted to city life and human landscaping, they’re actually considered a bit of a pest in many areas, but OH what a beautiful pest.
Galah - Eolophus roseicapilla
One of my favorites from Australia, a Galah. SO entertaining and social…just incredible fun to watch as they interact with each other and their environment.
Blue-winged Kookaburra - Dacelo leachii
Blue-winged Kookaburra from near Port Douglas. A BIG, chunk bird, these are the less common of two Kookaburra species we saw. The much more widely spread Laughing Kookaburra was a species we found in all the locations we visited in eastern Australia.

Ho-hum South Dakota birding — a 20-warbler day!

Bay-breasted Warbler - Setophaga castanea

With all the birding I’ve done over the last 2 weeks, I have to say…migration had been disappointing to this point. I love my sparrows, and sparrow migration was very good, but the other two groups of migrants that I love…shorebirds and warblers…have been painfully slow in arriving. In the case of shorebirds, I don’t think any sort of migratory breakthrough is going to happen this spring. It could be they’re just spread out, given how incredibly wet it’s been and how much standing water there is over much of the upper Great Plains. But at this stage, I’m not counting on a big influx of shorebirds.

Warblers have been very similar. If you like Yellow-rumped, this has been your spring! They have been absolutely thick, particularly last week when they were not only in woodland and forest edges, but many were hanging out on shorelines, fencelines, or other seemingly uncharacteristic locations. But other than Yellow-rumped Warblers? To say “not much” would be a disservice to the term “not much”, as for most species, they’ve been non-existent.

That changed today. HOLY…COW…did that change today!! I’ve been birding 20 years now. That’s 20 spring migrations where I’ve put in a LOT of effort, hoping to find migratory warblers and other songbirds. In those 20 years, I must say that today was THE best warbler day I have ever had, hands down. It wasn’t just numbers, although numbers were quite good. It was the jaw-dropping variety of warbler species that are moving through the area right now. They weren’t necessarily “dripping off the trees”…a favorite term for some folks when there’s a warbler “fall-out”. But they were certainly around in very good numbers, and at times it seemed that every bird you looked at was a different species.

There were some that were quite abundant. Tennessee and Yellow-rumped Warblers were common, although Tennessee were scattered everywhere, while most of the Yellow-rumped I saw were along the Big Sioux River at Good Earth State Park. Given how intense the birding was and how often I tried to keep my focus on the treetops, I have no doubt my count below is low for those two species, and I KNOW it’s quite low for Yellow Warbler, as they are also extremely abundant right now. When I saw one of those “common” species, I often didn’t pause to enter into eBird. And why was that?

Because there were SO many “good” warbler species, including species I haven’t seen in years. I haven’t seen Blackburnian Warblers very often in South Dakota, and I have zero photos of the species. In fact, there are only two occasions where I even remember seeing a Blackburnian Warbler. Today? FOUR gorgeous Blackburnians, with 2 at Perry Nature Area, and 2 at Good Earth State Park. It’s been 14 years since I’ve seen a Bay-breasted Warbler, but I found one at Good Earth. Mourning Warbler? I have ZERO photos of the species and don’t see them all that often, but I found a pair in close proximity this afternoon. Chestnut-sided are a species I probably see every other year or so, and always one at at time. Today? I saw six, with five spotted from one location at Good Earth!! Magnolia numbered 9 on the day, Blackpoll were at 4, while most of the others were single sightings.

20 species of warbler in one day! 19 of those were from two locations (Perry Nature Area and Good Earth State Park), while 1 was from Ditch Road just north of Sioux Falls (Northern Waterthrush). Here’s the list of warblers on a birding day I will always remember:

  1. Ovenbird – 3 (2 singing and not seen, one seen and not heard)
  2. Golden-winged Warbler – Seen and heard twice, in two visits to Perry Nature Area today (same bird I’m sure…count of 1)
  3. Tennessee Warbler – 47 — I have no doubt this is a big undercount, as many times I didn’t stop to enter them in eBird
  4. Orange-crowned Warbler – 4
  5. Nashville Warbler – 1
  6. Mourning Warbler – 2 – And now I do have photos of the species! Crappy photos, but I had none before today!
  7. Common Yellowthroat – 7 – If I’d taken the time to properly account for all those singing along the Big Sioux River in the northern end of Good Earth State Park, this number would be a lot higher
  8. American Redstart – 9 –
  9. Magnolia – 9 – Definitely the most I’ve seen in one day
  10. Bay-breasted Warbler – A REAL treat as I haven’t seen one in over a decade
  11. Blackburnian Warbler – 4 – TWICE the number I’ve seen in my other 20 springs of birding in South Dakota
  12. Yellow Warbler – 16 – That’s what I had taken the time to enter in eBird. But particularly if I would have paid close attention and recorded every time I heard a Yellow Warbler, the number would be double or triple this.
  13. Chestnut-sided Warbler – 6 – All at Good Earth State park, with an astounding 5 observed while standing near one giant burr oak
  14. Blackpoll Warbler – 4
  15. Yellow-rumped Warbler – 25 – As they’ve been all spring, nearly all were near water, with them flycatching along the banks of the Big Sioux River in Good Earth State Park
  16. Black-throated Green Warbler – 1 – One of my faves, good to see one
  17. Canada Warbler – 1 – I’ll need to check my records but I don’t see these often at all.
  18. Northern Waterthrush – 1 – The only one not at Good Earth or Perry Nature Area, found while doing a short check of Ditch Road north of Sioux Falls.
  19. Black-and-White Warbler – 1 – Usually one of the most common migrants, and I have seen plenty this spring, but only one today.
  20. Wilson’s Warbler – 1 – Also one I typically see every year, but it’s been pretty slow for them this year.
Magnolia Warbler - Setophaga magnolia
I would kill for more warbler photos like this. Magnolia Warblers though sometimes do forage quite low in the canopy, or along a woodland edge, and thus I do have more photos of them than I do most warblers. Unfortunately, it’s SO hard to get photos like this of many warblers, as birds like Blackburnian, Black-throated Green, and many others seem to always stay quite high in the canopy.

Back in the saddle…

Magnolia Warbler - Setophaga magnolia

Magnolia Warbler peeking out between the leaves.

Yeah, it’s been a while.  Almost 3 months since any blog post.  I’ve had rather major issues with Sjogren’s affecting my eyes, to the point that they’ve been so dry that my vision is affected.  It’s hard to take bird photos when you can’t see!  Thankfully I have some new “scleral lenses” that protect my eyes and keep them lubricated, and more importantly…I can see!

I dusted off the camera and went out for a couple of hours this morning.  It was one of those COLD May days that we often seem to get in mid-May.  32 degrees, with a stiff breeze when I left this morning. That actually turned out to be a good thing, because some birds were behaving in a manner that they wouldn’t behave had the weather been warmer.  We’ve had a wet spring, and there are a lot of wet fields and flooded ditches, so I was hoping for some shorebirds.  Not much luck there, but it was a “birdy” day.  Over a flooded grassy field west of Sioux Falls, I first came across a large flock of Black Terns. They’re not a species that seems to like the cold very much, and many were just sitting on the fence posts in the middle of the flooded field.  As the sun rose higher and things began to warm about, they started to forage, flapping and dipping over the water periodically.  They’ve always been one of my favorite species.  With that dark breeding plumage, they’re so unusual compared to any other gull or tern you see around here.

Black Tern - Chlidonias niger

Black Tern foraging over a flooded grassy field

Nearby at a very large grassy field, I was driving by slowly when I heard the familiar metallic tinkling of a singing Bobolink. Then I heard another.  And another.  The field was alive with Bobolinks, more than I’ve ever seen at one time before.  Both males and females were present, but it did seem the males were more prevalent.  At one point while I was stopped and looking around with my binoculars, I was able to see 15 male Bobolinks in 4 or 5 scattered little groups.  It was a nice sight, given the issues Bobolinks have with loss of habitat around here.

Given that I wasn’t having much luck with shorebirds west of town, I decided to head to the area near Beaver Creek Nature Area, near my hometown of Brandon.  It’s got some nice forested pockets, and in mid-May, it’s often alive with migrant songbirds.  Warblers are the main attraction for me this time of year, and Beaver Creek didn’t disappoint. I only stayed for about 45 minutes given the cold, but came across a quite a few warblers, including Blackpoll, Black-and-White, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Magnolia, Palm, and Wilson’s Warblers.

A nice morning, and very good to get back in the swing of things!

Harris's Sparrow - Zonotrichia querulaBraod-winged Hawk - Buteo platypterusWilson's Warbler - Cardellina pusilla

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