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:
As this spring comes to an end in a few days, I was fortunate enough to add not only two more warblers to my 2020 list, but two new life birds! I’ve birded throughout the western US, but haven’t done much of anything in the Southeast. Therefore when people started seeing a Hooded Warbler and a Kentucky Warbler in Newton Hills State Park this spring, I tried three times to try to find them, to no avail.
Both are extreme rarities in South Dakota. The closest are where Hooded Warblers normally breed is Missouri or Illinois, hundreds of miles to the south and east. Kentucky Warblers are normally a bit closer, with small breeding populations in southeastern Nebraska and southeastern Iowa, but like Hooded Warblers, they’re just not found in South Dakota. Earlier this week, it was reported that both species were still hanging around Newton Hills, so Thursday night I made the trek down, not really expecting to see them.
The Hooded Warbler though was right in the same dead tree along a trail where he’s been often seen by others this spring! He sang a few times from the top of the tree, then flitted off to another more distant perch. I didn’t see him again after that initial sighting, but I heard his singing a few more times as I continued up the trail.
Success! A lifer! I would have been very happy for the day had that been the only bird I saw, but I kept going down the trail to where the Kentucky Warbler had been seen. From the reports it didn’t seem like he was quite as loyal to a given spot as the Hooded was, so I didn’t know exactly where to look for him. I was only 100-150 yards away from where I saw and photographed the Hooded Warbler when I heard it…a series of warbling phrases, somewhat similar to an Ovenbird, but without the Ovenbird’s rise in volume an intensity as the song went along. It was a sustained, loud series of phrases, repeated multiple times. But where? It seemed like after initially hearing the bird, it retreated further into the forest, as I heard the song again, but seemingly quite a bit more distant.
I didn’t hear the song for a few minutes, so thought I’d continue down the trail. After going down the trail for 20 minutes or so and not seeing or hearing anything interesting, I started heading back, and as I approached the area where I’d first heard the Kentucky Warbler, I heard it again. MUCH closer. And again! And…there he was, practically right above my head! I initially got some really good binocular views of him, then set out to try to photograph him. He wasn’t particularly shy, flying from perch to perch, foraging a bit, stopping to sing, then moving on, but he was always pretty high up in the canopy, and often moving. Finally I did manage some decent long-distance record shots that clearly identified it as a Kentucky Warbler.
Two lifers! Within just a hundred or so yards! The two warblers also brought up my warbler total for the spring to 26!! A terrific warbler migration by any measure. I know some other birders saw a few additional species this spring, but all are pretty good finds in South Dakota (Cape May, Black-throated Blue, Connecticut).
Here are a few pics of the Hooded and Kentucky Warblers (not great but hey…lifers!), as well as a montage of the 26 species of warblers I saw this spring.
We live in interesting times. “Interesting” often being downright disheartening, as we have a society in the US that seems to be embracing the future depicted in the movie Idiocracy. The same US that used to lead the world in innovation and science now has about 40% of the population who shows outright disdain, if not hatred, of “experts”, including science. I could go on…and on…and on…and on…on this topic. But I’ll turn that conversation to how science has benefits in so many aspects of life.
That includes birding! As someone who has been a birder and a bird photographer for 20+ years now, I realize that technical photography skills are a very small part of successful bird photography. The big challenge is getting close enough to a bird! That means knowing when, and where birds will be, and how that species normally behaves. Science can help with all three of these!
I had an absolutely, incredible, spectacular day birding today. It was a drippy, gloomy, dreary day, a day where normally I may not have even left the house. However…SCIENCE told me to leave the house!! Two days ago…Cornell University’s “Birdcast” predicted that the night of May 15th/16th would be a heavy migration night with birds arriving in eastern South Dakota in high numbers. I’ve learned to really trust the Birdcast predictions, particularly after a few events last year where the forecast immediately preceded some absolutely spectacular birding. So what did the forecast predict?
I headed out this morning before dawn, arriving at Newton Hills State Park in search of warblers and other migrating birds. Unfortunately, the rain arrived shortly after I did! It was extremely frustrating, as I could SEE many birds moving about in the forest canopy, but with the early hour, the clouds, and rain…it was difficult to see them well enough to identify them. I did bird for an hour or so, and did have a good time, identifying over 50 species. Normally a great time, but with the slight rain continuing and making photography difficult, I started to head home.
As I drove back home, the rain started to lighten, and eventually stopped. As I got within a couple of blocks from my house, I thought…SCIENCE! By god, that BirdCast hadn’t let me down in the past! I thought I’d try one more place while the rain held off, and ended up at Beaver Creek Nature Area, just 3-4 miles from our home. It’s a place where I’ve had decent luck before, but it’s never been as “hot” as Newton Hills.
That changed this morning! THANK YOU science, and thank you BirdCast! There’s one trail I normally take at Beaver Creek, which takes perhaps half an hour at most. Instead, I ended up walking around for nearly 2 1/2 hours. Almost one hour of that was sitting in one spot! There’s a ridge with a steep bank, where you can walk along canopy or mid-story of the trees growing in the ravine below. It’s been a place where I’ve had good luck before, but nothing like this! As I watched, wave after wave of birds were moving through the forest canopy, including…Warblers! The highlight of spring migration!
In 20 years of birding, I had yet to get a good photo of a Blackburnian Warbler. That ended today! I saw two here, both of whom were uncharacteristically cooperative for the camera. In total, in that 2+ hours, I saw 16 different Warbler species! A terrific day, and one that would have turned out very differently if I’d just looked out the window in the morning, had seen the rain and gloom, and stayed home.
One migrant that I’m sure to see every spring are Swainson’s Thrush, usually in pretty good numbers. They typically start to show up in late April, with about a 3-4 week period where you might run into them. It’s pretty predictable where they can be found. They are usually seen foraging in the grass on the edge of the forest or some other wooded area. They’re always a little “on edge”, sticking close to that forest cover so they can dash into it at any sign of danger. Because of their behavior, they can be hard to photograph sometimes, but on the other hand, I’ve had a lot of chances over the years because they’re pretty common.
There are a few other thrush species they could potentially be confused with. Hermit Thrush is the first of the thrush species to migrate in the spring, but there still can be a few around by the time Swainson’s Thrush arrive. However, I’ve never had too much trouble differentiating Hermit Thrush from Swainson’s Thrush, as they have a rich, reddish-brown rump that easily makes it stand out (if seen well). Veery are another thrush species that migrates through the state (with some breeding in the Black Hills). They’re pretty uncommon, but even if they are seen here, their color is a much richer, warm, reddish brown, and they have less spotting on the undersides than a Swainson’s Thrush. I’ve never had difficulty identifying them either.
But there is one thrush species that can be difficult to differentiate from Swainson’s Thrush…the Gray-cheeked Thrush. One of the difficulties in differentiating the two species lies in their habits! Both have that tendency to hang out at the forest edge, in the shadow of the trees. Because they’re often seen in poor lighting conditions, it’s often difficult in field conditions to differentiate the two.
Gray-cheeked Thrush have also been something of a nemesis bird for me, from a photographic standpoint! I would estimate that at least 90% of the Swainson’s/Gray-cheeked Thrushes I’ve seen over the years have been Swainson’s (if not a higher percentage). Despite that, I HAVE seen and identified Gray-cheeked over the years, but until today I really didn’t have any good photos (or even any recognizable photos!). That problem was taken care of today at Newton Hills State Park, when I got photos of BOTH species in relatively good lighting.
The image below depicts Gray-cheeked and Swainson’s Thrushes. Sure, it’s easy when they’re side by side, in good light! This is the exception rather than the rule, however. If you do have the opportunity to see them in good light, Gray-cheeked Thrushes are 1) Grayer in overall plumage, with few buffy or warm tones, 2) lack of any ring around the eye, and 3) a gray cheek (surprise!) with no warm tones on the face. Swainson’s Thrushes often appear “buffier” and more rich in color overall (although still nowhere close to as rich as a Veery), and have characteristic buffy tones on the face. They also have an obvious eye ring.
It’s all about getting a good look! If you’re having trouble identifying these species, and you can’t see the bird’s eye ring (or lack thereof), or if the lighting is poor and you can’t judge how “buffy” the face is…good luck! You’re on your own! But if you do get a chance to see one of these two species in good light, I hope the photos below and identification points above are of some help.
I’m convinced 90% of bird photography is getting close enough. Having all the technical expertise in the world isn’t going to get you a great bird photo unless you’re close enough to actually capture the image. While I can sometimes get good photos while on a hike, I’d estimate at least 90% of my best photos are those taken when I’m concealed in some way.
Often, that’s my vehicle. As I’ve said before, a great way to get good bird photos is to pull your car over next to a good area of habitat (a wetland, a small pond, a riparian area, etc.), and simply wait. Many birds that are skittish around a human presence are more bold when it’s “just” a car (regardless of what’s inside). However, there are better ways to conceal yourself, showing a much lower profile and getting to good birding areas that you could never take a car.
I started using a chair blind about 10 years ago. One of my favorite ways to use it is during shorebird migration in the spring, where I’ll set it up along a shoreline or the edge of a muddy field. This week I was birding up at Lake Thompson in Kingsbury County, when I came across a shallow water area with scattered mudflats, and quite a few species of shorebirds. A great place to set up the blind! I hiked out onto a good spot at the edge of the lake, making sure to place it in a location with the sun behind me (lighting always important for photography!). Of course everything scattered at first, at while the birds never came back in quite the same numbers as were present before I set up, it was still a great few hours. Here are a few photos from the day in the blind.
I just haven’t had much time to take the new Canon 90D for a whirl, but went out to Good Earth State Park this morning at dawn. I LOVE birding this time of year, particularly for migrating sparrows. We get such an incredible variety that move through.
The star of the morning though was a rather lost Rock Wren. There aren’t any records of Rock Wren in eastern South Dakota in eBird, but a birder found one at Good Earth yesterday. Not really expecting to find him this morning, I was pleasantly surprised to see him sitting on a curb in the parking lot right as I got out of the car! He was an extremely tame little dude, at one point letting me sit about 6 feet away from him on the curb while we both warmed up in the morning sun.
Great morning, including for pics! And when shooting fall sparrows, it’s always wonderful to get some beautiful LeConte’s Sparrows in the mix.
Birding the Sioux Falls area in April and the first half of May was…sloooooooooooooowwwww. With the late cold weather and snow, and continued wet spring precipitation, there was certainly plenty of water around (and there still is). But shorebirds were very slow all spring near Sioux Falls (perhaps just spread out?). Sparrow migration was utterly spectacular in April, but other songbirds? Once the sparrows left, it seemed like there weren’t any other songbirds filling the void. Certainly not warblers, which were few and far between for much of May. With the South Dakota Ornithologist’s Union (SDOU) meeting in Brandon on May 17-19, and with an incredibly wet forecast, the prognosis for good birding wasn’t great.
And then a funny thing happened…songbird migration ended up being utterly spectacular that weekend. The birds seemed to have arrived overnight, with warblers galore, and plenty of other songbirds as well. I personally had a 20-warbler day that Saturday (the 18th), and that’s with me whiffing on a few species that others saw in the area. It was one of the best, if not the best, warbler and songbird days I’ve had here in the 20 years I’ve been birding.
So what happened? As a scientist, I say LET’S CHECK THE SCIENCE behind it! You know how they say “There’s an app for that?” Well there’s also typically a scientific explanation behind…everything, if you look hard enough. That’s certainly true in this case.
For one, let’s check the weather radar for the overnight period from Friday, May 17th through Saturday May 18th. The weather that Friday was cloudy and rainy, driven by a low pressure system and a slowly moving front moving northeastward out of Nebraska. With the system predicted to generally stall over our area for the weekend, the forecast was bleak.
The weather system did move northeasterly through the afternoon and evening, triggering storms both along the trailing warm front to the south through Nebraska and Kansas, as well as more unsettled weather wrapping around the low pressure system. Moderate to strong northeasterly winds were found behind the low pressure system, but in front of the low were southerly and southeasterly winds…including in the area around Sioux Falls. It took until daybreak for the low pressure system to reach the Sioux Falls area, basically sitting directly over the region. But from the previous evening through daybreak on May 18th, an area from Sioux Falls, southward into extreme eastern Nebraska and all of Iowa and Minnesota were subject to south and southeasterly winds.
Given how slow the migration had been all spring long, the birds had to be…somewhere. But where? How could science have explained the fallout of warblers and other birds that weekend? The weather map and the southeasterly winds provide one clue, but the other is provided by weather radar itself. Since the 1950s, it’s been understood that weather radar could potentially identify features in the sky other than the weather…and that includes birds. There’s even a term for it now…Radar Aeroecology. A 1956 paper by Bonham and Blake discussed the radar echoes provided by both birds and flying insects. While research continued in the decades since, it’s only recently that the information has been made available for a birder’s benefit.
The animated map below shows national-scale radar returns for the night of May 17th. The advancing low and front, and associated precipitation, can be seen as it moves out of Colorado, through Nebraska and into South Dakota. But what of the radar returns in the eastern half of the country? Those are birds…birds taking flight just after sunset to resume their spring migration northward. You can identify the “bloom” around each radar location shortly after sunset, with the blooms appearing east to west as the sun sets. Where are the heaviest migration “blooms”? Look at the radars lighting up after sunset in the Midwest…St. Louis…Des Moines…other radars in Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa depicting heavy densities of birds taking flight.
But how can we translate those radar echos to where the birds are moving? In recent years, Cornell University, in partnership with multiple academic institutions, have developed “BirdCast“. They have developed algorithms that use weather radar returns to quantify the density of birds, while using short-term weather forecasts to project likely movements. The resultant “BirdCast” provides a 1- to 3-day look on likely bird migration hotspots.
The animated map below provides a depiction of estimated bird migration traffic that night. Ahead of the advancing front, southerly and southeasterly winds were favorable for migration, particularly as large densities of birds were already stacked up from the previous days and weeks. Sioux Falls was on the western edge of this migration hotspot, a beneficiary of favorable weather patterns bringing in birds from Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota.
The map below depicts the situation that occurred throughout much of the first half of May. Prevailing weather patterns and storms, along with the cool weather, kept birds stacked up to our south and east, with a very slow spring migration to this point in South Dakota. The week prior to the big Sioux Falls fallout, birds were so far south that the Houston area birders declared a “Lights Out” period from May 9th-12th to avoid confusing the mass of migrating birds. But they had a long ways to go to get to South Dakota.
The result of the changing weather pattern…an absolutely spectacular weekend of birding in the Sioux Falls area the weekend of May 17-19, particularly as the forecast deluge mostly fizzled out. I admit that even I as a scientist was somewhat skeptical of the Cornell BirdCasts. But after the events of that weekend, count me as a firm believer!
Here are some photos of the spectacular birds of that weekend:
Five very different birds, but five species with something very much in common. The cool, wet spring continues, with rain and wind in the eastern part of South Dakota, and a late May snowstorm in the western part of the state. It had already been an odd migration given the cool temps that don’t want to give way to spring. Until last Friday (May 17th, songbird migration was noticeably slow, with very few warblers around other than Yellow-rumped. But that seemed to have changed last weekend. On Saturday (May 18th) we had a major fall-out of migrants, with warblers of every kind (I had 20 species on Saturday), vireos, flycatchers, and other songbirds appearing seemingly out of thin air. The birding this weekend was positively SPECTACULAR, and there’s no doubt for me it was the best warbler spotting in the 20 years I’ve been birding.
That spectacular birding has come with a price, however. With cool and wet conditions continuing, you can tell birds are struggling. The problem? I just think there aren’t the usual insects out yet for this time of year. Because of that, you’re seeing species with behaviors you normally don’t see. From a bird photography perspective I guess it’s been great, as the birds have been 1) concentrated, with many birds often foraging in select locations out of the wind and rain, and in areas where a few insects might be, and 2) many species have been down lower to the ground than normal.
Here’s a pictorial of five species I’ve encountered in recent days, five species that all appear to be impacted by the cool wet weather.
When I bird, I nearly always am by myself. Birding is my zen time, my time to forget about all the worries of the day. It’s my time to get away from cell phones, other electronics, and yeah…I admit it…people. The last two weeks notwithstanding (I’ve done a LOT of birding during that time), normally I don’t get out all that often, and its a way for me to decompress and have some time alone. My behavior when birding also is most conducive to birding alone. For example, when I saw a very large group of Black Terns dipping and diving over Grass Lake the other night, I did what I OFTEN do…I stayed an entire hour with them. Part of it is the photography side of my hobby. Patience is the greatest attribute you can have in bird photography, and shooting a bird that flies in an erratic pattern certainly taxes that patience. But rather than trying for a few minutes, getting frustrated, and leaving…I kept at it, watching their patterns as they’d circle around for another pass along the shoreline, noting that the strong wind often put them in a near hover mode, and eventually getting quite a few nice photos.
However, I do realize there are advantages to birding in a group that I generally miss out on. This weekend the South Dakota Ornithologist’s Union (SDOU) held their spring meeting in Brandon. On Saturday I ran into SDOU birders twice at Perry Nature Area near Sioux Falls, and joined them for a couple of hours that afternoon. Given the incredible warbler migration on Saturday, I knew I wanted to try Newton Hills State Park Sunday morning, and after birding for an hour or so, I ran into another SDOU group of birders. As I got out and greeting them, a young, very enthusiastic (and very good!) birder in the group (Peter) immediately pointed upward to the branch of a nearby tree…Common Nighthawk! Just sitting there on a horizontal branch, apparently not giving a damn about all the birders just 10 yards away.
There’s no way in hell I would have seen that bird if I’d have been birding alone. Even the group of SDOU birders said they were moving around that spot for quite some time before someone noticed it.
I greatly enjoyed the weekend, both my time birding alone, and my time with the SDOU crowd. The tradeoffs between both styles of birding…when birding alone, I ran into more Black-billed Cuckoos than I ever had in one spot, and was able to spend quite a bit of time with them and get some good photos. I didn’t get any really good photos while birding with the crowd, but I definitely saw more birds! When you have 6-8 pairs of binoculars trained on different spots, it DEFINITELY is helpful during spring migration, when little warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and other birds are often flitting about in the treetops.
Over the years, my birding style has definitely changed. I’ve been birding for 20 years now, and I’d say that for the first 15 years, I was laser-focused on the photography side of things. It seems nuts for me to say this now, but…I didn’t even OWN a pair of binoculars until 5 years ago!! All those little warblers flitting about in the tree tops? They didn’t interest me, as I knew there was no way in hell I’d ever get a photo of them! But I’ve evolved from a photographer who birds, into a birder who also takes photographs. Over the last few years, some of my favorite birding memories don’t involve the camera, but times where I’ve just sat in one spot and watched some rare or interesting bird, often for an hour or more.
My very unusual (for me!) time spent actually (GASP!) birding with other people this weekend was nice…perhaps it’s just another step as I transition from a “photography first” to “birding first” mentality.
I’ve got so many potential things to focus on from an incredible weekend of birding. The 20-species warbler day yesterday, plenty of other goodies, has my head spinning in terms of what to focus for a blog post.
One of the more curious sightings from today at Newton Hills State Park came while patrolling the beach area. It was a bit foggy yet, drizzle was falling, and it was pretty damned cold for May 19th, and there were birds galore near the beach at Lake Lakota, all foraging on the ground or close to it, in search of whatever few insects might be out. While watching all the commotion, a bird with a noticeably long tail flew past and landed in the bushes behind me. Cuckoo!! But which one? I switched my focus from the beach to the bushes by the parking, and there! A Black-billed Cuckoo! I lucked into 3 Yellow-billed Cuckoos at Newton Hills last spring, but it’s been a few years since I’ve even seen a Black-billed Cuckoo.
As I sat and tried to get a good look at cuckoo #1 through the foliage, here came another long-tailed bird…another Black-billed Cuckoo! I ended up spending half an hour near that bush, and during that time there were up to FOUR Black-billed Cuckoos frolicking about, doing some half-hearted chasing of each other, but mostly looking like they were just trying to survive until the weather warmed up and there was more for them to eat.
Another great morning despite the weather. Here are some of the Cuckoo photos, all from the one location.