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.
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:
Ovenbird – 3 (2 singing and not seen, one seen and not heard)
Golden-winged Warbler – Seen and heard twice, in two visits to Perry Nature Area today (same bird I’m sure…count of 1)
Tennessee Warbler – 47 — I have no doubt this is a big undercount, as many times I didn’t stop to enter them in eBird
Orange-crowned Warbler – 4
Nashville Warbler – 1
Mourning Warbler – 2 – And now I do have photos of the species! Crappy photos, but I had none before today!
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
American Redstart – 9 –
Magnolia – 9 – Definitely the most I’ve seen in one day
Bay-breasted Warbler – A REAL treat as I haven’t seen one in over a decade
Blackburnian Warbler – 4 – TWICE the number I’ve seen in my other 20 springs of birding in South Dakota
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.
Chestnut-sided Warbler – 6 – All at Good Earth State park, with an astounding 5 observed while standing near one giant burr oak
Blackpoll Warbler – 4
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
Black-throated Green Warbler – 1 – One of my faves, good to see one
Canada Warbler – 1 – I’ll need to check my records but I don’t see these often at all.
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.
Black-and-White Warbler – 1 – Usually one of the most common migrants, and I have seen plenty this spring, but only one today.
Wilson’s Warbler – 1 – Also one I typically see every year, but it’s been pretty slow for them this year.
Another night, another rarity for South Dakota! Last night it was a White-eyed Vireo from Newton Hills State Park. Tonight I went looking for shorebirds up around Madison. It was actually pretty slow for shorebirds, except for one spot…the west side of the Madison Waterfowl Production Area, just southeast of Madison. The highlight…22 Ruddy Turnstones! If I do see them in South Dakota, which isn’t very often, it’s almost always one or two birds, so seeing 22 in one spot was a treat.
A couple of quick photos from tonight. After doing some really hardcore birding over the last week…I’m beat! Just want bed, no more photo processing!
About a week and a half ago, I was birding in Newton Hills State Park, along Sergeant Creek. It’s a well-known area for birding, and seems to be a bit of a migrant trap, with a number of unusual (for South Dakota) birds seen there. As I was walking up the trail along the creek, I heard a bird singing in a clump of flowering bushes. The song was…a mess…all over the place, variable, with some harsh notes thrown in. For a second I thought it was a weird Gray Catbird song, but it didn’t seem right. I stopped and paused, and it wasn’t long before I found the culprit…White-eyed Vireo!! A lifer!!
White-eyed Vireos are normally found as summer breeding birds in the Southeastern United States, making it as far north as Pennsylvania and Massachusetts in the Northeast, and as far west as the southeastern quarter of Iowa. The map at the bottom shows eBird sightings for White-eyed Vireo in South Dakota. There’s not many! EBird has two sightings in the Sioux Falls Area…one that was banded up in Aberdeen…one seen in the Black Hills…one at Union Grove State Park…and now this bird at Newton Hills. I also seem to remember Bridget J. seeing one at Newton Hills last spring (?) but I don’t see it in eBird. This past weekend, a group of Sioux Falls birders also found the bird, in the same location where it was seen the week before.
The problem though with my first sighting…I couldn’t get a photo! He was a vocal little sucker, singing his heart out and flitting through the foliage, but I never got any good photo chances. Tonight I went back, not really looking for the White-eyed Vireo but walking the same trail. I was only about 10 yards further down the trail than last time when I heard the same unique song. He was still there! This time I was determined to get a photo. He was still foraging in the same general area, actively moving through the bushes and nearby trees, flying out a few times to flycatch. But like last time, he would always land back in the foliage. It took a while, but I was finally able to find a little opening in the twigs and foliage to get a few shots of him while he paused for a moment.
After 20 years of birding, it’s getting harder and harder to get a lifer in South Dakota…it’s always great when you find one! I hope this one beats the odds, sticks around, and somehow finds a mate to join him on his lil’ South Dakota vacation.
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:
When I woke this morning, I had no idea that by the end of the day, I would have solved one of life’s three biggest mysteries. These are questions of profound importance that have bedeviled mankind ever since we pulled ourselves out of the muck, learned to walk upright, and started pointing binoculars at birds. Of course I’m talking about the “Big 3”:
Does a Ring-necked Duck have a ringed neck?
Where’s the red on a Red-bellied Woodpecker’s belly? and,
What color crown does an Orange-crowned Warbler have?
Now, Orange-crowned Warblers are one of the most common migrant warblers we have in the state, just behind the Yellow-rumped Warbler. But you know what my friends? YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS ACTUALLY HAVE, like, you know…YELLOW RUMPS!!! So where does that leave us with Orange-crowned Warblers?
I always thought the naming of Orange-crowned Warblers was kind of a cosmic joke. Someone saw a rather plain bird with a touch of color but really no contrasting features whatsoever, and said…HEY! Let’s have some fun with this! Instead of something like “Drab Olive Warbler”, let’s call it an Orange-crowned Warbler!
After seeing a number of Orange-crowned Warblers, tonight I’d had enough. When one started flitting around the crabapple tree right outside my sunroom window, I decided to get down to the bottom of it all. Now, my wife knows I talk to birds. Hell, I do it all the time, particularly when I really get excited! You can be DAMNED sure that when I saw that Whooping Crane a week and a half ago that we had one of the longer, more fulfilling conversations I’ve ever had in life. Usually I just say whatever pops into my head, with deep, thoughtful conversational elements such as “hey sweetie!!”? Or “You’re a pretty bird!” When a bird is extremely cooperative and has allowed a number of good photos, it’s not unusual for me to toss out a “Thank you sweetie” as I depart. (If you’re wondering…sadly for me…every word of this is true).
Now, I admit those conversations are usually very one sided, so today when I started talking to the Orange-crowned Warbler in my crabapple, I wasn’t expecting the bird to engage. However, much to my surprise, when I softly muttered “now where’s that supposed orange crown of yours?”, the bird paused, gave me a thoughtful stare, and then proceeded to dip his head and hold a pose for several seconds, as if to say “Hey, dumbass…I’ve got your orange crown right here”.
And that, as they say, is that! A few clicks of the camera shutter, some evidence of orange feathering on the crown, and one of life’s greatest mysteries is solved.
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.
One of the best things about birding are those random encounters, the complete serendipity of the hobby. Some of the best “birding” moments even happen when you’re not birding, with a chance encounter. Friday, April 26th, was one of those days for me. I had a conference Friday afternoon and Saturday in Pierre. I left Brandon (our home) at 4:00 AM, as I wanted to do a bit of birding before the conference started at noon. The plan was to arrive at the Big Bend Dam area around dawn, and then drive through the Fort Pierre National Grasslands before heading to the conference.
Things were going as planned, and I was driving south of Fort Thompson (next to Big Bend dam) a little after the sun came up. The water was very high on the Missouri to my left, with flooded trees, grasslands, and wetlands all along the river. Amidst all the flooded land I saw quite a few American White Pelicans, lounging in groups of between 10 and 20. With so many large, white birds in close proximity on the river, I wasn’t too excited when I saw a large white bird flying parallel to the highway, about 40 feet up and a hundred yards or so in front of me. Big white bird…black wings tips…it’s one of the pelicans.
As I continued to drive closer, the bird continued following the general course of the road. Upon getting closer, I had a chill up my spine and one serious case of goose bumps…this was no mere Pelican. It was a lone Whooping Crane, RIGHT in front of me. I held back and watched it continue to fly in front of me for a moment before thinking…nobody is going to believe me! I have to get a photo!! However, when you’re behind a bird in flight that’s moving away from your position, it’s not an ideal situation! I fumbled with the camera with the thought of perhaps just trying to capture a confirmation “butt shot”, but as I grabbed the camera, the Whooping Crane swerved to its right, heading up over a ridge, and out of sight.
Gone! I’d just seen a Whooping Crane! I still had chills and goosebumps, but alas the bird was gone and I had no proof of the sighting! Hoping that he was just moving to one of the nearby corn fields to feed, I started looking for a side road that went in the general direction of the bird. I found a small gravel road, and followed it to the east, hoping to spot the bird in a nearby field. The road was only about 1/4 mile long, and ended at a cemetery. As I approached the cemetery, I looked for a splash of white in the nearby fields…and…THERE! It was there! It was a LONG distance out, probably 1/4 mile or more, but there in a field near the cemetery, the Whooping Crane had landed and was calmly walking about and foraging.
As I approached the cemetery I saw a very fresh mound where there’d clearly been a very recent burial, so I felt a little weird entering the cemetery itself. I parked along the road and instead headed for the fenceline next to the big field. There was a big center pivot in the harvested corn field, and the Whooping Crane was calmly foraging below it. I grabbed the camera and decided to at least try to get some documentation shots. With my 100-400mm lens, the bird was but a small white blob in the middle of the frame, but the photos were completely recognizable as a Whooping Crane. Over my previous elation-then-heartbreak-at-not-getting-a-photo vibe, I was now satisfied! I’d SEEN A WHOOPING CRANE! I had photos that documented the bird. I went back to my pickup, grabbed a coat (it was a COLD morning), and sat down and just watched him through binoculars for about half an hour as he fed in the corn field.
At one point in the corn field, the Whooping Crane gave a few vocalizations that I could hear even from my distance spot. He honked/croaked/”whooped” a couple of more times, shook his tail, and took flight. That’s that, I thought! But what a GREAT morning spent watching this bird. I stood up, watching the crane take flight, fully expecting it to fly…away somewhere. Instead, it lifted off, banked, and started heading back towards the river. Back towards my position! Now, I’m about the last person you’d want in, say, a basketball game, with the game on the line, and a 3-pointer needed to win it. I get way too nervous. As the crane banked and headed towards me, the chills and goosebumps returned, and with it, shaking hands! I had the camera ready! The bird was getting closer! But as much as my hands were shaking I wasn’t sure I was going to get ANY kind of decent shot.
At some point, I think the crane saw me, because it deviated course slightly. It had been headed right towards me, but it moved to a course that took it a bit further out from me. Still, it was within range that I thought I could grab some halfway decent photos. I furiously clicked away as the bird passed to my east, then as it went south of me, and turned west towards the river.
I returned to my pickup, shivering from the cold, but more from the experience! I gave a quick scan through my photos I’d just taken. As I suspected, many of them were pretty darned blurry, probably due to my shaking hands! But I had a couple that at least were clearly recognizable as a Whooping Crane. I headed back down the gravel road to the highway, and thought I’d give one more look for the bird. It didn’t take long to find him. He’d landed in a small flooded grassy area between the highway and the river, and stood out like a sore thumb. Again, it was quite a ways out, but closer than the encounter in the corn field. I pulled over on the side of the highway, moved over to my passenger seat closest to where the bird was, and…ended up sitting there for an hour!
For an hour, the Whooping Crane stayed in the same tiny wet spot, surrounded by Blue-winged Teal, Northern Pintails, and other ducks that were using the spot. He was certainly relaxed and not worried about my presence on the road (probably 200+ yards away?), nor the passing cars. I felt a little odd seeing the cars that were passing me every minute or so. HEY, I wanted to shout…WHOOPING CRANE!! ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME EXPERIENCE HERE! COME LOOK!! But no one else seemed to care about the Whooping Crane, or the bird nut sitting in the passenger seat with his camera and binoculars trained on the bird for an hour. I casually switched between trying to grab some more long-distance photos, and simply watching the bird through the binoculars.
Finally, I realized I needed to get going or I was going to be late for my conference. When I left (around 9:00 AM), the bird was still hanging out in the same wetland by the river. I never saw any other bird it tried to associate with…no other Whooping Cranes, no Sandhill Cranes around. I saw no bands on its legs, so I assumed this was a wild born bird. It seemed perfectly healthy and happy, flying around and foraging on the ground with no problems.
Two hours in my life I certainly won’t forget! The “feature photo” at the top is by far the clearest photo I was able to get as the bird flew past after leaving the corn field and heading back towards the river. Below are more photos from the encounter.