Shorebirds Galore – Southeast South Dakota – April 23rd

What an utterly fantastic spring day of birding! It was one of those patented, windy South Dakota days, but the wind certainly didn’t keep the birds from showing off for the camera. I headed out this morning and spent a bit of time at Newton Hills State Park in Lincoln County, before deciding to spend most of my time looking for shorebirds. It was the right choice, as I ended up finding hundreds of shorebirds at Weisensee Slough in western Minnehaha County. It was the perfect set-up for my chair blind, a hunter’s blind I use as a photography blind.  It’s got a little folding chair with short 8-inch legs, and then a camouflaged shell that pulls over the top. There are multiple zippered openings for views, and with the low profile, birds don’t seem spooked by it, once they forget about the guy who set it up and crawled inside.  I ended up spending almost 3 hours in my chair blind as shorebirds of many species paraded in front of me.  Some species would venture so close to the blind that my camera wouldn’t focus (my long lens has a 12-foot minimum focusing distance)!  Others didn’t get quite as close, but I certainly couldn’t complain about a lack of photo opportunities. Fantastic birding day, and fantastic photo day!  Some photos from the day…click on any for even larger views.

Hudsonian Godwit -  Limosa haemastica

A male Hudsonian Godwit coming in for a landing. One of my favorite shorebirds, and one I don’t see all that often. However, today I saw at least 20 at Weisensee Slough, the most I’ve ever seen at one time.

Eastern Towhee - Pipilo erythrophthalmus

I didn’t spend much time at Newton Hills State Park, but while there I saw (and heard) many Eastern Towhees. Here a (chunky!) male hangs out in a cedar tree in the warm dawn light.

Sora - Porzana carolina

While driving past a cattail-filled wetland in Lincoln County, I heard the distinctive call of at least 2 Sora. One eventually gave me a peek…ANY peek of a Sora is a welcome sight, given how secretive they are!

Pectoral Sandpiper - Calidris melanotos

A Pectoral Sandpiper strutting its stuff mere feet in front of my chair blind. This bird certainly had no idea I was sitting inside, as at times he was too close to the blind for my camera to focus!

Baird's Sandpiper - Calidris bairdii

A Baird’s Sandpiper foraging in the shallow right in front of my blind.

Long-billed Dowitchers and Hudsonian Godwit

There were DOZENS of Long-billed Dowitchers and at least 20 Hudsonian Godwits foraging at Weisensee Slough. Every once in a while something would spook them and they’d take flight…usually RIGHT when they were starting to get within photo range of my blind! Sigh. But I did get some flight shot as they whirled around after a spooking event.

Wood Duck - Aix sponsa

A male Wood Duck, trying to blend in and hide from the camera. This was along “Ditch Road” just north of Sioux Falls. That was once one of my favorite birding locations. However, in the last year or two, they’ve cut all the trees along the ditch, and the birding is just a shadow of its former self.

Semipalmated Sandpiper - Calidris pusilla

A Semipalmated Sandpiper. There were a few Least Sandpipers mixed in as well, but overall these guys were by far the most common “peep” on Weisensee Slough today.

Hudsonian Godwit -  Limosa haemastica

Another Hudsonian Godwit at Weisensee Slough. These guys were a bit shyer than the other shorebirds and didn’t approach my blind as closely, but I still got some very nice looks at them.


Birding the April Migration in South Dakota

The day started off rather gloomy and wet, but after being on travel far too much lately and not getting a chance to bird, I was determined to head out today no matter what the weather was doing.  I birded about 4 hours, staying primarily around Sioux Falls and Minnehaha County, and ended up having a great day. It’s clearly not peak migration yet for shorebirds, but they are starting to show up.  Numbers were generally small in most places, but there was a pretty decent variety.  Here are some photos from the day, many of which are “first-of-year” sightings for me.  Click on the photos for an even higher-resolution version.

White-faced Ibis - Plegadis chihi

White-faced Ibis are a species that I don’t see all that often, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen them in Minnehaha County. There were 19 foraging in a flooded field west of Sioux Falls.

Swainson's Hawk - Buteo swainsoni

Another first-of-year, a Swainson’s Hawk soaring overhead when the sun came out this afternoon. I ended up seeing several Swainson’s Hawks for the day.

Franklin's Gull - Leucophaeus pipixcan

Franklin’s Gulls are one of my favorite spring migrants…they’re so beautiful when they have the blush of pink on their undersides. This wasn’t a first-of-year sighting, as I saw a few in the last couple of weeks. However, they’re really starting to come through in big numbers right now. This was right on the edge of Sioux Falls, at Harmodan Park on the southeast side of town.

Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs - Comparison

By far the most common shorebird today were Lesser Yellowlegs, with a few Greater Yellowlegs mixed in. Here’s a nice comparison shot of the two. It’s pretty evident when they’re side-by-side, but not always so easy when a lone bird is spotted.

Great Egret - Ardea alba

I have a billion Great Egret photos. But whenever I come across this beautiful bird, I can’t help but take yet another…

Out Duckin’ Around…

South Dakota weather can be absolutely perfect in the spring, even on occasion when spring has only been with us for a few days.  South Dakota can also have stretches of several days where the sun doesn’t make an appearance. Unfortunately, this weekend fell into the latter category. Given my long photographic drought, I had been looking forward to the weekend, and was pretty disappointed that we didn’t even have a peek of the sun.  You can get some nice photos in cloudy, even gloomy, conditions, but it’s not ideal.  However, there have been so many waterfowl moving through that I had to give it a shot today.

I headed to western Minnehaha County and the wetlands and lakes in the area, and certainly wasn’t disappointed in bird numbers.  Waterfowl were using practically every spot of open water, from the bigger lakes, down to shallow pockets of water in wet fields. The massive goose migration is largely over in southeastern South Dakota, although I did run into a couple of small flocks of both Snow Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese.  Duck numbers are certainly very high however, as they have been ever since the ice went out.  I spent about an hour and a half at Dewey Gevik Nature Area west of Sioux Falls, trying for duck photos.  Dewey Gevik is really wonderful for such an activity in migration, as they have a permanent blind that sits out in the water a bit, allowing you good looks at waterfowl as they feed around the blind.  I ended the photographic streak, but given the gloom, not any award winners for the day!  Still, I really enjoy sitting in the Dewey Gevik blind, and seeing waterfowl act so naturally mere feet away.  Given our hunting-happy culture in South Dakota, it’s rare to get chances such as these.

Some photos from the day:

Common Goldeneye - Bucephala clangula

A male Common Goldeneye. They’re not a species I’ve had a ton of luck getting close to around here, so gloom or not, it was nice to get a photo of one. And I mean LITERALLY one, because despite many other Common Goldeneyes being present at Dewey Gevik today, this was the only one brave enough to wander anywhere close to the blind I sat in for an hour and a half.

Ring-necked Duck - Aythya collaris

A male Ring-necked Duck. Yeah…me neither. I know what you’re thinking. “Ring-necked”? Don’t you mean “Ring-billed”? The males do have a dark brownish ring around their neck, but it’s rarely something that really stands out. They are quite beautiful ducks though, and it was nice to get a crisply plumaged male at close range.

Lesser Scaup - Aythya affinis

I guess it’s fitting that on a gloomy, dreary day, the ducks I were able to photograph were all of the black-and-white variety (at least for males). I did see Northern Shovelers, Redheads, Green-winged Teal, Blue-winged Teal, Mallards, and Ruddy Ducks as well, all species with at least SOME other colors, but alas, none came within range of my lens. Thus to break up the monotony of yet another black-and-white male duck, here’s a female Lesser Scaup.

Lesser Scaup - Aythya affinis

The “colorful” duck of the day, a male Lesser Scaup. If the light is just right, you typically see a greenish tone in the dark feathering on their head. Despite the gloom today, you do see a bit of that color. Despite the black-and-white tones on all of these so far, they really are some beautifully plumaged ducks. It’s great to see them at such close range.

Bufflehead - Bucephala albeola

I love Buffleheads. They’re just so fun to watch this time of year, as they’re usually so energetic. Who DOESN’T probably appreciate that “energy” are the female Buffleheads such as this, as it’s hard for them to find a moment of peace at times, with all the male Buffleheads showing off and bothering them. Typical guys…

Hooded Merganser - Lophodytes cucullatus

Crappy photo from a much longer distance than the others on this page, but that’s the luck I have with these absolutely gorgeous birds. Hooded Mergansers aren’t the most common waterfowl we have around, and you never see them in large numbers. It’s typically a pair or two, such as this pair at a wetland in western Minnehaha County. With that crest, they’re such cool looking birds. After 15 years though of doing bird photography, this pretty much matches the best I’ve gotten of the species so far.

Gadwall - Anas strepera

Just a small part of “Weisensee” slough in western Minnehaha County, a shallow wetland that was covered wall-to-wall today with ducks. The vast majority were Gadwalls, more Gadwalls than I have ever seen before. The entire slough was populated similar to this, with Redheads, Mallards, Blue-winged Teal, and other ducks present as well. Gloom or not, it was wonderful to see so many birds today, a welcome change after a (actually rather mild) South Dakota winter.

Headed back north! Geese migration

Wow…And I thought the goose migration was incredible a few weeks ago when it started. Then came the cold weather, all the lakes froze over again, and they…disappeared.

Evidently many either stayed down south or moved back down south for a while, because with the warmer weather today, the migration has been incredible. I’m working at home, sitting in my 2nd floor office, looking out the open window, and for over 2 HOURS now, it’s been a constant stream of geese moving north. Snow Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, and Canada Geese. Spring has sprung! And hopefully this time, it sticks!

Breaking out of my photo doldrums – Snow Goose migration

I am in a major photographic funk.  We’re talking an industrial-strength photo drought, a big-league slump, a unlucky spell of biblical proportions. For a guy who loves bird photography, I can’t for the life of me get a photo of anything with feathers lately.  It’s been a season-long slump, lasting all winter long. The most recent failure was this weekend, where I managed to fail twice to bring home a single bird photo.  Saturday, I drove all the way to the central part of the state to look for lingering winter raptors.  I did what I normally do when I go to the central part of the state…I got up 3 hours before dawn so I could arrive right when the sun was coming up.  The sun did indeed come up.  I guess that’s good.  But it revealed a landscape utterly devoid of the raptors that are usually found there by the dozen.  It’s late in the season, and I didn’t expect December/January numbers of raptors.  But I didn’t expect nearly ALL the raptors to have left already.

I cut Saturday’s trip short, and decided to just drive back after a couple of hours of fruitless raptor searching.  On the way back, on an incredibly windy day, I saw thousands upon thousands of waterfowl migrating overhead.  Nothing I could photograph mind you…they were all high in the sky, but there were certainly huge numbers of birds. Encouraged by the sight, I thought the next day I’d head out just around Sioux Falls, to look for waterfowl.  What did I find?  Mostly frozen water, very few birds, and not a single photo opportunity.

THIS has been my winter!  I have never had so much time pass, with so few bird photos!! Even my winter passion, searching for owls, turned out to be a bust. MANY hours busting through brush looking for Northern Saw-whet Owls, and while I did catch a glimpse of one, I had nothing close to a photo opportunity.  No Long-eared Owls, a species I often run across while looking for Saw-whets.  No Short-eared Owls during my trips to the grassy areas of the state, a species I often find in winter.  No Snowy Owls…just not a great winter for them, not many reported around most of South Dakota.  Even freakin’ DARK-EYED JUNCOS, possibly THE MOST COMMON CREATURE ON THE PLANET (well, sometimes seems like that here in winter) were almost completely absent from my feeders all winter!!

After a freakishly warm few days earlier this week, most of the lakes have finally opened up, and given all the waterfowl I saw migrating through over the weekend, I thought surely the local lakes and ponds would have good numbers of waterfowl now.  After work today, I rushed home to grab my camera, and headed to the western part of Minnehaha County to canvas all the wetlands and lakes in the area.

The good news? The water was indeed open in most spots!  There were THOUSANDS upon THOUSANDS of Snow Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese migrating overhead, their squawking filling the air.  But at ground level, in the open water?  Nada.  Zip.  Zilch.  At least in most places.  I did find a couple of spots with some waterfowl, nearly all dabbling ducks. Nearly all were Mallards and Northern Pintails, with a few Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, and American Wigeon.  But even in the couple of spots where I found SOME ducks, they were having NOTHING to do with my camera.  I guess I did get a “bird photo”, if you can count a blurry, long-distance, out-of-focus shot of a boring Mallard.  But good LORD it has been a LONG time since I’ve gotten a good bird photo, something worthy of posting online.

In lieu of any good bird photos, I did grab my iPhone and shot a bit of video of the Snow Geese passing overhead (video above).  This really doesn’t do justice to the number of birds moving overhead, because at one point, there was seemingly a continuous band of birds from the southern horizon to the northern horizon, moving overhead in a steady stream.  A wonderful, incredible sight to see, and something I look forward to every spring around here.

Now if only ONE of those high-flying migrants could be kind enough to actually drop down to earth for a photo session? Sigh…for now…the slump continues.

Spring Has Sprung! It’s February 22nd!

Snow Goose Migration

Snow Geese migrating through the area. We started seeing Snow Geese in small numbers over 10 days ago. Starting in the latter half of last week, huge flocks started moving through. Just a few days after Valentine’s Day, when normal HIGH temperatures should be around freezing, and we’ve got a major migration going on. That’s not the only sign of an early spring…or of global warming.

Ignore for a moment the forecast.  We’re supposed to get hammered with snow tomorrow, with a full-fledged blizzard watch.  We’re likely to get a foot, and possibly more, over a 24 hour period starting tomorrow.  It’s not supposed to get very cold though, with high temperatures of close to 30…very close to “normal” for this time of year.  Disregarding what’s likely to happen tomorrow though, it’s been anything BUT a “normal” winter in South Dakota.

Right before Valentine’s Day, people started noticing small groups of geese passing overhead.  We can get truly massive flocks of Snow Geese that move through in the spring, and we also get large flocks of migrating Canada Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese.  What’s NOT normal is to start seeing the goose migration in mid-February!  With incredibly warm weather in February (It was over 70 degrees in Sioux Falls yesterday, and nearly 65 today, more than 30 degrees above normal!!), the trickle of migrating geese has become a torrent, with truly massive flocks of birds moving through the area.  Normally at this time of year, I’m hunkered down in the cold, with my local birding restricted to the few Dark-eyed Juncos, Downy Woodpeckers, or American Goldfinches that might visit my feeders.  This year I’m already enjoying the sights and sounds of thousands upon thousands of VERY early migrants.

The warm weather and the migrating geese aren’t the only signs of an incredibly early “spring”.  Given that my livelihood is based on the use of satellite imagery for mapping, monitoring, and ultimately predicting what’s going to happen on the earth’s surface, I follow a lot of other similar work, including data provided by the National Phenology Network.  “Phenology” is “the study of cyclic and seasonal phenomenon”, and the National Phenology Network examines plant and animal phenology and how it relates to the environment.  From a vegetation standpoint, we can  use satellite imagery to assess the phenology of growing vegetation, tracking the timing of spring “green-up”, peak vegetation activity in the summer, and the senescence/browning of vegetation in the fall.

The National Phenology Network produces a data product called the “Spring Leaf Index Anomaly”.  The measure compares satellite-based measurements of spring “green-up” of vegetation compared to the historical green-up across the United States. The latest update was a map of conditions released today, as shown here:

National Phenology Network - Spring Leaf Index Anomaly

The “Spring Leaf Index Anomaly” released today. Vegetation is already greening up as far north as Kansas City, a rate that is over 3 weeks ahead of when things normally start to green up. It’s such an anomalous, warm late winter so far that the legend is going to need some revising!!

We’re SO early in terms of vegetation green-up that we’re literally off the scale!  The legend for the Spring Leaf Index Anomaly shows how early or late spring green up is compared to historical, but only goes out to a 20-day departure from normal.  We are almost a full MONTH ahead of schedule for many parts of the U.S.

Warm weather, migrating geese, vegetation green-up from satellite imagery…it doesn’t stop there!  Daffodils are coming up around Sioux Falls!  In FEBRUARY!  Talking with colleagues from the east coast, daffodils and tulips started coming up a few weeks ago already!  We’ve still got plenty of porous, honeycombed ice on many of the lakes around here, but there’s quite a bit of open water, particularly with all the rivers and streams now unfrozen.

I’m still baffled how any rational human being can choose not to believe that climate change is occurring.  Even for the right-wing nut jobs who have long denounced climate change as some kind of incredibly elaborate, world-wide hoax that evidently involves all scientists on the planet, there’s been increased recognition that something is happening.  Well…duh!! Those same climate-change deniers have increasingly accepted that climate change is occurring, but refuse to believe that human beings that are the cause.

As a scientist, at this stage…frankly I don’t CARE if people believe we’re the cause.  The ship has already sailed…we’re already FAR down the path to severe climate change, given that we’re now over 400 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  There’s just no concerted, global, political, social, or MORAL will to make the sacrifices necessary to slow down climate change, so at this stage…SCREW the cause of climate change.  It’s HERE.  It’s HAPPENING.

If I could say one thing to the politicians who don’t want to acknowledge our role in changing the climate…AT LEAST SUPPORT ACTIVITIES THAT MONITOR CLIMATE CHANGE, and HELP US TO ADAPT TO WHAT’S COMING.  REGARDLESS of what you think is causing climate change, CLEARLY IT IS HERE.  The environment around is, the creatures within that environment, are necessarily adapting to the rapidly changing conditions.

The million dollar question is now if we can do the same.

(Not So) Great Backyard Bird Count 2017

Red-bellied Woodpecker (male)

The male Red-bellied Woodpecker who almost religiously comes to my suet feeders several times a day. Today? Not once did I see him. So went my first ever participatory day in the “Great Backyard Bird Count”, where the usuals didn’t show up, but the (global warming induced) goose migration made up for it.

If you know me at all, you know that I’m not the most social of birders.  In fact, I’m probably the least social birder you know, in that it’s extremely rare for me to go birding with another person, join in group events, or participate in group activities. That extends to things like the Christmas Bird Count, Breeding Bird Survey, or other yearly events.  No, for me, my birding is “me” time.  It’s my time to relish the outdoors, to relish the solitude, to enjoy it all on my own terms.

I’ve never participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count either. But today, I had a lazy day at home, with stuff I wanted to do on my office computer upstairs.  For the first time ever, I thus did an official count for the GBBC, seeing what I could from my 2nd floor window, and also occasionally checking the feeders in the backyard. The weather?  60+ degrees, and brilliantly sunny for most of the day!  That’s in South Dakota…in mid-February!  Not usual weather, and NOT the usual day for birds in my yard.

For one, most feeder birds weren’t around.  For a birder, winter in South Dakota might as well be known as “Junco Season”, as it sometimes seems like Dark-eyed Juncos are the only species that are around here in winter.  Today however, in the beautiful weather?  Not a single Junco to be found.  When it was colder in December and early January, the one thing I could count on at my feeders were hordes of American Goldfinches, sometimes with over 50 fighting for a spot at the thistle feeder, or waiting in a nearby tree.  Today?  6 Goldfinches.  Even House Sparrows, the ubiquitous little bastards that love to come in hordes and wipe out my sunflower feeder, were curiously absent. The only ones I saw were 5 hanging out and taking a sun bath on the bushes in the front yard this afternoon.

While it wasn’t a great day for feeder birds, and certainly not a typical WINTER day at my feeders, the sheer quantity of birds was likely much higher than I’d ever normally get during a GBBC, thanks to the warm weather and all the geese already moving through.  They usually say February 14th, right around Valentine’s Day, is the start of the Sandhill Crane and waterfowl migration down in Nebraska along the Platte in the spring, yet here we sit on February 19th, and scads of Snow Geese, Canada Geese, and Greater White-fronted Geese are migrating through the area already. If I were to have sat outside and counted all the geese flocks that went overhead, I’m positive I would have been well over 1,000 individuals.  As it was, I only counted flocks that went over this morning, when I could have my office window open and not be blinded by the afternoon sun.

Totals for the feeders and yard?  Just a little over 20 birds, of ALL kinds, and that’s even with me looking at the feeders at least 20 times during the course of the day.  Totals for geese flying overhead?  In the time I watched this morning, 275 was my best estimate.  Here’s the breakdown from the day:

  • Canada Goose — 150 — I would bet this is an underestimate, but I didn’t want to double-count those that hang out by the river across the street, so only counted the low-flying ones once, and kept the rest of the count to those high-flying flocks going overhead. I also avoided counting all the flocks I could see that were too far away for me to get a positive ID.
  • White-fronted Goose — 75 — Mostly in two flocks that went over, but also a scattered few in a flock of Canada Geese
  • Snow Goose — 50 — I saw several very large flocks of Snow Geese last Thursday, when I took a trip for work up to Brookings. Today? Just one flock of about 50 birds.
  • Downy Woodpecker – 3 — Again, not wanting to double-count, since the same ones keep coming back all day.  These 3 represent the one time I looked out and saw 3 Downy’s at once.
  • Hairy Woodpecker — 2 — I have a wonderful, usually pretty shy, male and female pair of Hairy Woodpeckers that often come to the feeders.  I remember how much I struggled with ID’s when I first started birding, including trying to distinguish Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers.  Now?  Hairy Woodpeckers always look MASSIVE to me, compared to the little Downy’s, with bills that are so much longer.
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker — 1 — We have both male and female Red-bellied Woodpeckers that come to the feeders, and usually I see them from my upstairs office as they fly across the street from the State Park over to my feeders.  Today, I just saw the female once, and no male.
  • American Crow — 4 — 1 fly-by over the house, 3 chattering on a roof across the street.
  • Blue Jay – 1 — Again, a species I normally get quite a bit in the winter, but on a slow, gorgeously warm February day, only one today.
  • Northern Cardinals — 2–  Dawn and dusk, particularly dusk, are the times I normally see both a male and female at my safflower feeder.  Always together, never just one of them, as least during the winter months.  They made an appearance this morning for a while.
  • American Goldfinch — 6 – Numbers have gone WAY down since the weather turned all “southern California” on us.  I used to have to fill my big tube feeder with thistle/niger seed at least every 2 days, but not lately.
  • House Sparrow — 5 — OK, this one I’m not too upset about. If I put out sunflower seeds, these guys LIVE in the bushes in my front yard, and then come back to the feeders to occasionally gorge.  I was getting rather sick of the horde of House Sparrows, so stopped putting out sunflower, and instead started using just safflower at that feeder.  Keeps the Cardinals, but the House Sparrows don’t like it and stay away.  Only ones I saw were in the front yard this morning, a far cry from the 40+ that would often flock to my feeders in December.
  • American Robin – 1 — A late entry!! I was starting the grill (yes, the GRILL, in FEBRUARY, in SOUTH DAKOTA) as I was preparing this blog post, and I heard and then saw a Robin chirping away.  Singing Robins! In South Dakota, in winter!!


Done, and entering now in eBird!  A semi-social birding contribution, by the biggest “loner” birder there is!

Predicting that next winter finch irruption

Pine Siskin - Spinus pinus

A Pine Siskin, a regular but unpredictable visitor in winter in South Dakota Research shows that southward irruptions of boreal finches such as Pine Siskins may be predicted from recent seasonal climate records.

Not a lot of time this week to blog, as I’ve been in pretty intense meetings all week for work.  However, it was through those meetings that I became aware of this interesting research paper.  Birders are always wondering when that next great “irruption” of boreal bird species will occur.  On occasion, boreal finches such as Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and Crossbills will move southward in great numbers from their boreal forest stronghold.  The thought is that such irruptions occur when poor “mast” production occurs, with lower conifer seed numbers than normal.  The birds thus move southward in search of food.

It’s not just boreal finches that are subject to occasional southward irruptions.  One of the greatest birding experiences of my life was during the huge boreal owl irruption into northern Minnesota over a decade ago, when Great Grey Owls and Northern Hawk Owls were seemingly “dripping off the trees”.  Those irruptions are thought to be due to a similar driving force…a loss of a primary food source…with periodic crashes of small rodent populations driving the owls southward in search of food for the winter.

The paper below (click to see it) gives an assessment of climate data to potentially predict when a finch irruption would occur.  The species studied here is the Pine Siskin, but the authors note that it may also apply for other boreal finch species that depend on conifer mast.  Cool study…

More coming next week!  Given I’m still in meetings the rest of the week and have family obligations all weekend, it’s likely the next blog post won’t come until Monday!  Click below for the study…

Predicting finch irruptions with climate information

In the News – Week of January 1st, 2017

A new year, a new set of nature and science news pieces for the week…

Black-tailed Prairie Dog - Cynomys ludovicianus

A “varmint”, a Black-tailed Prairie Dog. I have on several occasions run into “sportsmen” in South Dakota who are lined up at the edge of a prairie dog town, picking them off one by one with rifles. Killing for the sake of killing…and doing twice the intended harm, given the lead that’s ingested by predators when they eat the carcasses.

Ammunition choice in shooting “varmints” — There have been many occasions on my birding trips to the central part of the state where I come across a sight that makes me sick to my stomach.  I’ll drive past a prairie dog town, and see multiple hunters lined up along a fence line, crouched and in a shooting position, picking off prairie dogs for “fun”.  That’s it…there’s no other purpose to it, other than killing for the sake of killing.  The prairie dogs that are killed aren’t used for anything, they’re simply left to rot.  Unfortunately, “sportsmen” who feel this sick need to kill for the sake of killing end up doing even more harm to animal communities.  By leaving the dead bodies, it provides an avenue for predators to consume the dead prairie dogs, and ingest the lead in the ammunition that was used to kill them.  Lead poisoning is a major cause of mortality for many raptor species, and is THE leading cause of California Condor mortality. A simple solution, as this article points out, would be to use ammunition that’s free of lead.  Even that common-sense approach though, one that still allows redneck hunters to kill prairie dogs and other “varmints”, is hated by hunting groups, as they claim that lead alternatives in ammunition don’t perform as well as lead shot and bullets.  Given what I have come across over the years on all my birding excursions, I’ve had a major downturn overall in my attitudes towards hunting…and particularly…hunters.  Stories like this don’t help my perceptions of hunters.

Cheetah numbers down to 7,100 worldwide — Over the last century, cheetah numbers worldwide have dropped from 100,000, to only 7,100 today.  Think about that…in a world with nearly 7 billion human beings, for an iconic, well-known predator such as the cheetah, there are only several thousand left. As with most species’ declines, habitat loss is behind the cheetah’s loss in population.  They range over huge territories, and there simply aren’t “huge territories” available in most parts of their range any more.  Throw in targeted persecution, such as the shooting of cheetahs by poachers and farmers, and this story estimates cheetahs could be extinct in the wild in 20-40 years.

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle

Is this the face of Earth’s largest animal migrations? This is a Goldenrod Soldier Beetle from here in South Dakota, and I admit I have no idea if these “migrate” as with some beetles mentioned in this story. By sheer mass, however, this story points out that insect migration likely dwarfs any other migration on the planet.

Biggest migration of land animals on the planet — When you think of what creature may make up the largest migration of any land animal on the planet, in terms of sheer mass, what species do you think of? Or group of species?  When you say “migration”, most people probably think of birds first, and there certainly are mass migrations of birds that are so heavy that weather radar is being increasingly used as a tool to study those migrations. In terms of sheer mass, perhaps some people think of large caribou migrations.  However, as this study notes, one overlooked migration likely has all of these beat…insect migration.  This study notes that around 3.5 trillion arthropods migrate over southern Great Britain each year, accounting approximately 8 times the mass of bird migrations in the same area.  Some winged insects are well-known for their migratory talents, such as the Monarch Butterfly in North America.  But as this study notes, there all sorts of winged and even non-winged creatures that migrate through the atmosphere.

What the heck is a “species” anyway? — People are funny.  We have this intrinsic need to categorize things, put them in neat little bins that help our minds process realty.  Birders sometimes take that to an extreme, with “life lists” that are often incredibly detailed, with “big day” lists (how many species you see in one day), “big years”, “state lists that detail bird species seen within the confines of state boundaries, and more.  What gets bird listers in a tizzy?  Just what IS a species!  The American Ornithological Union and American Birding Association are always making tweaks to their “official” lists of species that have been found in North America.  Just watch birders heads collectively explode if the AOU or ABA does decide to split Red Crossbills into up to six distinct species…life lists will be substantially increased!!  Even with the science of DNA-based splits, it’s still not a precise science in determining what’s a unique species.  As with many things, we’re categorizing things into unique thematic categories, when the phenomena you’re measuring is actually a continuous variable with no definite boundaries.

One, maybe two new comets moving through — Speaking of birders and their lists, I have a friend at work who is a birder, and someone who has a life list.  He also has another, more unusual life list posted on his bulletin board in his office…his “comet life list”!  He’s about to get one, and maybe two new ones for his list.  Comet C/2106 U1 was recently discovered by the “NEOWISE” project, and is potentially visible with binoculars right now, through about January 14th. It would appear in the southeastern sky just before sunrise.  An object called 2016 WF9 was also discovered by NEOWISE, and it will come close to Earth’s orbit in late February.  It’s estimated to be 0.5 to 1.0 km in diameter.  Note the designation “object”, because it’s not clear whether this object is an asteroid or comet (related to the previous story, in that the categorization of what’s a “comet” and what’s an “asteroid” can be fuzzy).

Bird Dropping Moth - Caterpillar - Ponometia

A caterpillar of Ponometia…the “Bird Dropping Moth”. Should a new species of “shit moth” be discovered, I would suggest it be named after Trump, in the same manner that several creatures have been named after Obama in recent years.

Nine creatures named for President Obama — Over the last few years, no less than 9 different creatures have had scientific names that honor Barack Obama.  Multiple fish, a lizard, bird, etc…all have scientific names such as “Nystalus obamai” (A Western Striated Puffbird, in this case). Once Trump leaves office in 4 years (or in a perfect world, once he’s impeached after a year or so), I wonder what creatures will be named after him?  I have many, many classes of creatures where new discoveries should consider his name. There are the Onychophora phylum of worms known for excreting slime. There are the Annelidas…leaches…which would be a wonder creature to name after him.  There’s a moth called Ponometia, and it’s associated caterpillar, that would be good.  Their common name is the “Bug-dropping Moth”.  Naming him after shit would be a perfect way to “honor” him once he leaves office.

Where you’re most likely to get struck by lightning — We had a very unusual Christmas day in South Dakota.  I believe it was 4 years ago when we were absolutely smothered in snow, getting close to 2 feet on Christmas.  We’ve had Christmas’s where the temperature never got above zero.  And then there was this Christmas where we had…a thunderstorm?  In late December? In South Dakota?  We set a record for most rainfall on Christmas Day, getting over an inch in most areas, and the lightning and thunder was the first time that’s ever occurred here on Christmas (or late December for that matter).  I could go into global warming here, but no, the point is the story in the above link.  Standing outside on Christmas Day in South Dakota normally isn’t a high-risk endeavor, in terms of being struck by lightning.  So where are the most active areas on earth for lightning?  Thanks to a satellite called the Tropical Rainfall Monitoring Mission, we now know.  The winner…a Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela.  Over each one square kilometer in the area, one could expect over 230 lightning strikes per year.  The lake is surrounded by mountains, and nearly every night, cool airflow from the mountains hits the warm waters and air above the lake and produces thunderstorms.

Western Meadowlark - Sturna neglecta

A Western Meadowlark, taken with a temp of -10° near Presho, South Dakota, in the winter of 2003-2004. I have a billion Meadowlark photos, but specifically remember this one because it was so rare to SEE one in the heart of winter. Now? They’re everywhere.

Bird migration changing with climate — As I noted in a previous post, I went birding to the central part of the state last week, and was amazed at how many Western Meadowlarks were around.  15 years ago, it was rare to spot one in winter in that part of the state.  Now…I saw hundreds, all across the region.  Global warming? It’s hard to ignore signs like that.  As this story describes, many birds are changing their migration patterns as the climate changes. Many are arriving on the summer breeding grounds much earlier than they used to.  There are also some species where migrations have become shorter, or perhaps such as the case of the Western Meadowlarks, where they’ve simply stopped moving south for the winter.

China bans ivory trade and purchase — A rare bit of good conservation news.  This last week, China announced that they will ban the sale and trade of ivory by the end of 2017. China was by far the largest market for legally sold ivory, with ivory selling for over $1,000 a kilogram.  The Great Elephant Census recently published noted that elephant populations world-wide plummeted by 30% in just the last 7 years (!!!!!), and incredible population decline for such a short time period.  With the shutting of the largest legal ivory market, it’s hoped that poaching pressures will decline.  However, it’s hard to guess what will happen with ivory trade, and if much of this will simply move to the black market.

In the News – Week of October 23rd


This snowball brought to you by the effects of climate change?

A collection of bird, science, photography, and news links from the past week.  Not many bird stories this week, but some good science stories.  Click on the links for the actual stories.

“Global Warming” causing cold winters — James Inhofe, jackass senator from Oklahoma (pardon my value judgement, but the man IS indeed a jackass from the standpoint of any scientist), famously strolled onto the Senate Floor a few years ago and presented a snowball.  PROOF, he said, that global warming was a hoax! A sham! A deception, set up by evil scientists like myself!!  How can global warming be real, if snow was falling in the DC area?  Sigh. In the last decade, the term”climate change” has been used much more frequently than “global warming”, and with good reason.  Yes, temperatures are warming overall, but the impacts also impact precipitation patterns, storm severity, and atmospheric flows, meaning “warming” is just one component of climate change.  As this story point out, severe warming in the Arctic is affecting the position of the jet stream, making it more likely that “wavy” jet stream patterns will occur in winter.  As a result, winters become more variable, with cold snaps become more common as a wavy jet stream brings colder air down from the Arctic. Sorry Senator Inhofe!  That snowball you used as a prop may have been an example of the effects of climate change!!

Heading to California for a long nap — I’ve only been fortunate enough to come across bats on a  handful of occasions.  If we take a walk in the late evening, just after sunset, we’ve occasionally seen individual bats flying about. Growing up, I remember seeing them flying around streetlights at night, scooping up the insects that the lights attract. The most memorable encounter?  Moving the portable air conditioner out of my wife’s grandmother’s kitchen window in the fall…only to have a live bat plop down on the kitchen counter. We interrupted his daytime roost!! Cool creatures, that I wish I’d had more chances to see. This is a neat story about Hoary Bats, one of the bigger species in North America.  Some bats will hibernate, some will migrate when weather gets cold, but the Hoary Bat is unique in that it first migrates to California, and then settles in for hibernation.  When I read stories like this, it always makes you realize how very little we know about the world around us…

Lesser Meadow Katydid - Conocephalus

Coming soon to a dinner plate near you? No thanks!

Edible Bugs — Can they replace beef?  NO. THEY CANNOT. I have nothing further to say on the matter.

Yo Dude…Surf’s Up!! — From the realm of “pure” science that doesn’t seem to have any practical application, some research on Mute Swans, with a finding that they will sometimes “windsurf” as they move on the surface of the water.  This researcher on 3 occasions observed Mute Swans sitting on the surface of the water, then opening their wings to catch the wind and “windsurf” across the water’s surface.  The REAL story here for me, from the perspective of a scientist?  That this dude was able to get an actual journal publication about this!  Publish-or-perish, the  mantra for many scientists, and this dude was able to publish something based on what he saw during his lunch hour!  Bravo…

And you think your life sucks? — I believe I’ve seen this before, in a David Attenborough-narrated nature documentary.  The Pearlfish is a species of fish often found in sandy shallows where there’s not a lot of protective cover.  It’s solution to not getting eaten? 1) Find a Sea Cucumber 2) Enter it’s anus and crawl inside.  Lovely!  Something to think about the next time you think your life sucks…it could always be worse.

Unseen moons may be circling Uranus — My son would have some crude jokes to say about this story…

Donald Trump

Brain activity declines as lying becomes more frequent? Why am I showing a picture of Donald Trump next to this story? Must be coincidence…

Brain reacts less as lies become more frequent — Scientific proof of why this election cycle has been so god-awful!  Fact checkers have certainly been kept busy over the last several months.  As this story notes, your brain gets conditioned to frequent lying, where it reacts less as lie after lie pile up.  Less brain activity with more lying…that certainly explains Donald Trump!!  He’s been at it so long during this campaign that you can hardly blame him for his many slip-ups.

ET Phoning Earth — I hate the mainstream media at times. I understand the competitive nature of journalists and the desire to be the one to break a big story.  From an economic perspective, I get the focus on the trivial by places like CNN, as unfortunately, they’re much more likely to get a lot of “clicks” on a story about Kim Kardashian’s latest hair-do than they are to get clicks on some boring science story.  But what I REALLY HATE is how everything is sensationalized, how a story always has to be “sexed up” to make it more controversial and eye-catching.  Hence this story, with the provocative headline of “Strange messages coming from the stars are probably aliens“.  The scientists involved here also deserve some of the blame, as it’s incredibly, ridiculously premature to assign these “strange messages” to an alien source, but it’s the story in the Independent that really plays that aspect of the work.  Interesting work, but I’ll need a hell of a lot more proof of the source of this signals before donning my tinfoil hat.  There are just far, far too many things we don’t know about the universe to unequivocally associate the unknown to some alien source.

Carolina Parakeet - Drawing

Carolina Parakeets were once occasionally found here in South Dakota, so why not parrots in Siberia? This is one of the first bird drawing I did when I started several years ago.

Parrot fossil from…Siberia?  — A parrot fossil dating from around 16 million years ago was unearthed near Lake Baikal in Siberia.  This marks the furthest north a fossil from a parrot-like species has been found.  It was warmer in the Milocene when this bird was living in the region, but not as tropical as the climate where most parrot species are found.  It’s not exactly unprecedented though. In North America, our own Carolina Parakeet was found over a good chunk of the eastern United States, and there are even reports that it had occasionally been found up here in South Dakota.

Got the sniffles? Go milk a Tasmanian Devil — I believe this is sound medical advice, based on this story!  Researchers have found that the milk from a Tasmanian Devil contains peptides that are able to kill hard-to-kill “superbugs”, bacteria that are becoming immune to our most commonly used antibiotics.  I envision a world where everybody keeps their own small herd of Tasmanian Devils, faithfully milking them every morning and use Devil Milk on their morning cereal to keep sickness at bay.

Two-thirds of Earth’s wildlife gone in last 40 years — Well this is a depressing story.  A study by the World Wildlife Fund has found that almost 60% of vertebrate populations have disappeared from the wild since 1970. Numbers a dire across all ecosystems, but are particularly bad for freshwater ecosystems, with over 80% population declines.  Good. Lord.  It’s not exactly surprising, particularly the fresh-water habitat finding.  I’m a fisherman, and have been since I was a boy.  We rarely bother going fishing in eastern South Dakota any more.  The rivers are E.Coli-filled cess pools of ag runoff and animal waste, and every year more and more lakes in the region are being assigned as mercury threats, with fishermen warned to either not eat the fish or to severely limit how much is consumed.  And yet there are groups out there that want to ABOLISH the Environmental Protection Agency…something that even our Republican presidential candidate has promised to do.  It sickens me to think what we’re leaving behind for our children…

Luke Perry AARP eligible —  I’m of an age where I definitely remember 90210 and Melrose Place.  I wasn’t a big fan and didn’t watch, but my wife did, as did many other people I knew back then. Well, evidently being “of an age” where I remember 90210 means I AM FREAKING OLD!! The reason this story caught my attention? Luke Perry from 90210 turned 50 and became AARP eligible…as have I recently.  Sigh.  With that, I’ll sign off from another week’s worth of news.  Now where are my damned glasses? And cane.  And prescriptions…sigh….



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