Articles

Bonanza of Bitterns

It’s been a weird spring. As it was last year, it’s been cool and wet, and migration has been slow or delayed. Two groups of birds I live for in spring are shorebirds and warblers, but migration has been incredibly slow for both, with few warblers other than the ubiquitous Yellow-rumped showing up, and very few shorebirds other than yellowlegs. Other songbirds have also been slow to arrive, as even the ever present Eastern Kingbird has been extremely scarce to date.

However, like last year, one bird has been making itself quite visible…American Bittern. It’s odd, because I went several years without seeing an American Bittern, and now in the past two years, I’ve seen many. I went birding this weekend west of Sioux Falls, and in the span of one mile, came across three American Bitterns, including one doing the classic unk-a-lunk-a song while his buddy watched from nearby.

Warm weather finally arrives today, with a high near 76. Hopefully with the warm weather warblers and other migrants arrive as well, but I’m thankful that the bitterns have taken up a little bit of the slack this spring! A few photos of the bitterns from the weekend:

American Bittern - Botaurus lentiginosus
American Bittern May 11th, 2019 Near Grass Lake, Minnehaha County, South Dakota. This one was EXTREMELY close to the road and allowed as good of looks at an American Bittern as I’ve ever had.
American Bittern - Botaurus lentiginosus
American Bittern May 11th, 2019 Near Grass Lake, Minnehaha County, South Dakota. A lot further out than the first, and not in nearly as good a hiding spot! Bitterns usually can be hard to spot, but this guy didn’t get the message on how Bitterns are supposed to act. I think the fact that he isn’t even bothering to stretch his neck out and act like brown cattails shows that he knew he blew it. ūüôā
American Bittern - Botaurus lentiginosus
An instant favorite and the cover shot of my main website page, this American Bittern had a buddy! I watched this one for about 5 minutes while the Yellow-headed Blackbird flitted around the general area where he was “hiding”, hoping to get a shot like this with both birds.

Whooping Crane Video

Ah-HA!! Just when you thought I was over myself seeing a Whooping Crane last Friday, more imagery emerges! But this time it’s video. I…RARELY…ever take video. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s the fact that I never really walk around with a tripod. It’s one thing to shoot a still with a long lens while hand-holding, as you can get sharp individual frames. It’s another to hand-hold a long lens and try to take anything close to stable video. This is watching the Whooping Crane in Buffalo County, South Dakota, while using a fence post as a temporary tripod. Just 26 seconds of video, but shows perhaps a bit more of the behavior of this guy. He was pretty relaxed the whole time I watched him (about 2 hours), and didn’t care about the guy with the camera or all the passing cars on the highway.

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Grebe Family

Downy striped young grebe

hidden world below the reeds,

staying close to mom

Pied-billed Grebe and Young

I was birding yesterday in western Minnehaha County, and drove on a gravel road that split a large wetland area. The cattails were right next to the road, making it difficult to peer into the wetland, but in a few places there were breaks in the vegetation. As I slowly drove drove past one of the breaks, a Pied-billed Grebe and its young came swimming out of the thick reeds. Neither were particularly concerned with my presence, so I shut the car off and watched for a while. The adult would dive under water in search of prey, and when she popped up, the fledgling grebe would let out a whining call and quickly swim over to the parent. Once she came up with a relatively large fish (for her size), but despite the young one’s pleas, she downed it herself and returned to hunting. In the ten minutes or so that I watched the pair, I never saw the young one’s pleas answered, but she always stayed close to mom.

 

 

Climate Change is for the Birds

This morning was one of the most bizarre birding trips I’ve taken in a while. The forecast was clear skies and low wind, a combination you need to take advantage of when it happens in South Dakota. I headed up to the Lake Thompson area in Kingsbury County, South Dakota, to shoot gulls, terns, shorebirds, herons, egrets…all the wonderful water-loving birds you find up there this time of year.

I wanted to arrive just before dawn, and given it’s a 1 1/2 hour drive, I was up and on the road quite early. I knew right away something was different. Even before the sun arose, the lighting was strange. There were clearly no visible stars in the dark sky, but yet I had no doubt it was indeed cloud-free.¬† We had a hint of this phenomena yesterday, but this morning it hit full bore…a sky full of smoke from the fires hundreds of miles away in the western US and Canada.

Not was I was expecting when I left this morning, and it certainly changed the types of photos I went after! As usual at this time of year, there were birds everywhere. However, even after sunrise, the light was so poor that it was difficult to grab any decent photos.¬† It wasn’t until about half an hour after sunrise when it started to get bright enough to shoot. It’s not often you can point your expensive camera right at the sun at that time of day, and not permanently fry your sensor, but the light was so diffuse this morning I certainly could.¬† I ended up settling down at a wetland area near Lake Thompson, trying to shoot the numerous Black Terns against the odd, but beautiful lighting.¬† Not a situation I’m used to shooting in, but I was able to get some photos I thought were “cool”.

I’ve been in South Dakota 25 years now, and lived at basically the same latitude down in southern Nebraska before that. Until the last few years, I just don’t remember fire seasons out West being SO bad, that our air here on the eastern side of South Dakota was this affected.¬† But last year too, on one rock-hunting trip, the air was so bad that my eyes were watering and I started wheezing a bit. Something has changed!¬† That something most likely is due to, or at least severely exacerbated by, climate change!

Climate change is for the birds. But at least for one morning, it made for some cool photos.

Black Tern (Chlidonias niger) - Flying through smoke-filled skies

Black Tern, flying through the reflection of a smoke-diffused sun. This is at LEAST half an hour after sunrise!

Black Tern (Chlidonias niger)Highway 81 Lakes and Smoky Sky

 

 

Duckweed Covered Duck – POTD for July 31st

Today’s photo-of-the-day…a duckweed-covered duck.¬† Well, OK…no, technically it’s not a “duck”, it’s a juvenile Pied-billed Grebe, but I like my title choice and I’m stickin’ to it!!¬† This is from a couple of days ago at a local slough. There’s SO much cropland around here that when I see a wetland or pond completely covered in green, I immediately think it’s out of control algae (fed by all the fertilizer runoff). That wasn’t the case here. The water underneath was quite clear, algae wasn’t really evident, but the duckweed certainly was enjoying the environment.

As were Pied-billed Grebes! There were many adult and juvenile birds. It was fun watching them forage, disappearing underneath the duckweed and popping up through the green.  One of my favorite species, and the young have such wonderful plumage patterns.

Juvenile Pied-billed Grebe - Podilymbus podiceps

POTD – American Bittern “hiding”

Photo of the day, for a bird that gets high marks for trying, but failing, to hide. I didn’t have much luck shooting birds yesterday, but did run across this American Bittern along the rip-rap bordering a huge wetland area.¬† The ol’ stick-my-head-up-and-they-won’t-see-me approach Bitterns use may work when they’re standing in the middle of a bunch of dry cattails, but kind of falls apart when they’re out in the open, particularly next to red quartzite.

American Bittern - Botaurus lentiginosus

American Bittern “hiding” at Weisensee Slough in western Minnehaha County, South Dakota.

 

Photographing a Ghost

Virginia Rail - Rallus limicola

Virginia Rail
May 3rd, 2015
Lake County, SD
Canon 70D, 400 5.6L
(Click for larger view)

5 years. Until this week that’s the last time I’d actually seen a Virginia Rail. ¬†I actually think they’re pretty common around here, as you do hear them quite a bit when you’re around wetlands with a lot of cattails and shallow water. ¬†Actually SEEING a Virginia Rail though? ¬†That’s a treat.

I admit I cheated in getting this photograph.  I rarely do it any more, but I did use a digital call of a Virginia Rail on my iPhone to attract this bird.  I was birding in Lake and Kingsbury counties, trying to concentrate on shorebirds and other water birds.  In a very large wetland on the Lake/Kingsbury county border, I heard one, then another, then another Virginia Rail.

Virginia Rails have several vocalizations, but whenever I think of Virginia Rails, I think of the Three Stooges. ¬†Yes, the Three Stooges. ¬†Why, you ask? ¬†Because their grunting call to me always reminds of Curly doing his “Nyuk, Nyuk, Nyuk, Nyuk!!! ¬†That’s what I was hearing on this morning, multiple Virginia Rails doing their very best Curly imitations.

What’s so dang frustrating about these guys, and Sora, another species they always seem to be found in conjunction with around here, is that sometimes when you hear them, they’re vocalizing mere feet from your location. You’re staring at the source of the sound, and instead of “bird”, all you see are cattails and other wetland vegetation. ¬†After 5 years of not actually seeing a Virginia Rail, I did indeed pull out the iPhone to see if I had a Virginia Rail call.

I did, and after a few Curly-style “Nyuk Nyuk Nyuk Nyuks”, I saw a twinge of motion in the cattails. ¬†He was only perhaps 20 feet away, peering out from amongst a stand of cattails. ¬†He was obviously interested in whatever fellow Three Stooges fan was making that noise, but he also made it quite clear that he wasn’t going to come out into the open. ¬†Not wanting to disturb him any further, I took what photos I could and stopped playing the tape.

5 years, but I got my Virginia Rail fix, and a photo that turned out better than I expected. ¬†It does a great job of showing how these guys like to stay hidden. ¬†Unless I’m incredibly lucky, now I’ll wait another 5-10 years or so before again trying to get a photo of one of these guys.

%d bloggers like this: