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2020 Warbler Season Ends with a Bang

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.

Hooded Warbler - Setophaga citrina
Hooded Warbler, perched at the top of a tall dead tree at Newton Hills State Park.
Kentucky Warbler - Geothlypis formosa
Kentucky Warbler, moving along a branch and foraging.
South Dakota Warblers - Spring 2020
A montage of the 26 warbler species I saw this spring, in just two South Dakota counties (Minnehaha and Lincoln)

Benefits of living your life by science

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?

Cornell BirdCast - Migration Forecast for May 15-16.
Cornell BirdCast – Migration Forecast for May 15-16 (Issued 2 days in advance)

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.

Blackburnian Warbler - Setophaga fusca
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Blackburnian Warbler - Setophaga fusca
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Blackburnian Warbler May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Blackburnian Warbler - Setophaga fusca
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Blackburnian Warbler May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
American Redstart
Setophaga ruticilla
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
American Redstart May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Least Flycatcher 
Empidonax minimus
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Least Flycatcher May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Swainson's Thrush
Catharus ustulatus
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Swainson’s Thrush May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota

Swainson’s Thrush vs. Gray-cheeked Thrush

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.

Gray-cheeked vs. Swainson's Thrush
Comparison of Gray-cheeked Thrush (left) and Swainson’s Thrush (right). One look at the head in this light is enough to distinguish the two species, as Gray-cheeked Thrush have a gray, dull cheek, a lack of warm tones around the head and face, and a lack of an eye ring. Swainson’s Thrush have the characteristic buffy tone on the face, and an obvious eye ring. The plumage overall has a warmer, richer appearance on the Swainson’s Thrush as well.

Another great day in the blind

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.

Marbled Godwit - Limosa fedoa
A Marbled Godwit flying past the blind, in hot pursuit of another Marbled Godwit. Both Marbled and Hudsonian Godwits were present in good numbers, but Marbled Godwits are the species that breed here. They were in courting mode, with display flights and birds chasing each other the entire time I sat in the blind. Not only my favorite photo of the day, this may be one of my favorite photos of all time, with the lighting, the pose, and the detail in the bird’s plumage.
Hudsonian Godwit - Limosa haemastica
A Hudsonian Godwit in flight. Female Hudsonian Godwits, juveniles, or males not in full breeding plumage can sometimes be difficult to differentiate from Marbled Godwits when they’re standing. But in flight, the bold black and white patterns of a Hudsonian Godwit make it easy to identify.
Lesser Yellowlegs - Tringa flavipes
A Lesser Yellowlegs strutting in front of the blind. Lesser Yellowlegs are always one of the most common shorebirds that migrate through in the spring, and I have plenty of photos of them, but who can resist triggering the shutter on your camera when ANY bird makes it this easy? Opportunities that you may not be able to get without the use of the blind.
Common Grackle - Quiscalus quiscula
Common Grackles are indeed quite common! They’re the bane of my feeder complex at home in the spring, as a small group of them can dominate my feeders and wipe out my offered goodies in short order! Despite that…I didn’t realize how few photos I really have of the species! Particularly when you get great light like this that shows off that iridescence.

Fall Sparrows, and rare visitor

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.

Rock Wren - Salpinctes obsoletus
Rock Wren and his reflection in the early morning sun. The material is a polished stone countertop on a little outdoor bar area behind the Good Earth State Park visitor’s center! A rather unusual bird perch but I loved getting him in this light, with the reflection.
LeConte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii
For me, LeConte’s Sparrows are just about the most beautiful sparrow out there. Gorgeous patterns, along with that orangish facial coloring.
Field Sparrow - Spizella pusilla
Field Sparrow. One of my favorite species, largely because I love hearing them when we walk through the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a state park across the street from where we live.
Orange-crowned Warbler - Vermivora celata
An Orange-crowned Warbler amidst some of the few remaining flowers at Good Earth. These guys and Yellow-rumped Warblers are some late-migrating warblers that you often see here in October.
Savannah Sparrow - Passerculus sandwichensis
Savannah Sparrow, which were downright abundant in the grassland area as you drive into Good Earth State Park.
White-tailed Deer - Odocoileus virginianus
A rare photo of something without feathers! But can’t really pass up an opportunity like this when it comes along. Near the visitor’s center.
Harris' Sparrow - Zonotrichia querula
One of my favorite fall migrants (and sometimes winter-long visitor), this was the only Harris’s Sparrow I saw this morning.
Lincoln's Sparrow - Melospiza lincolnii
An inquisitive Lincoln’s Sparrow, wondering who the bundled up fool was on the walking path that was doing all the “pishing”.
Rock Wren - Salpinctes obsoletus
Another photo of my little Rock Wren friend. This was when he was sitting on the curb right next to me when the sun finally came over the horizon and started to warm things up.
LeConte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii
And another LeConte’s Sparrow…can’t resist taking photos of them, despite having dozens and dozens.
Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus
Red-bellied Woodpecker

The science behind a bird fallout…there’s an app for that!!!

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.

May 17th, 2019 - Weather Map
Weather map on 6:00AM (CST) on Friday, May 17th, showing a stalled to slowly moving stationary front just to our south. The forecast was for the low pressure system in Colorado to slowly move northeastward, bring showers and thunderstorms to the region for Friday night and into the weekend.

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.

Surface weather map at 6:00 AM CST, showing the low sitting almost directly over Sioux Falls. But all night long, the counter-clockwise winds around the low funneled southerly and southeasterly winds through an area from far eastern South Dakota, and eastward into Iowa and Minnesota.

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.

Radar loop from approximately 6:00 PM (CST) Friday, May 17th, 2019 through 6:00 AM Saturday, May 18th, 2019. The areas south and east of Sioux Falls show a clear, very strong signal representing heavy migration of birds taking flight that evening.

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.

Birdcast depiction of migration traffic rate (bird density) and directional movements, from about 6:00 pm Friday, May 17th, through 6:00 AM Saturday, May 18th. with northerly winds and lower bird densities in the western Great Plains, very little bird movement is noted. However, ahead of the advancing front, extremely high migration densities are noted from Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa radar sites, with southeasterly winds pushing them northwestward…towards Sioux Falls. The solid lines represent the advancing sunset (red) and sunrise (yellow).

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.

Houston Audubon "Lights Out" for May 9-12
Image from the Houston Audubon site, calling for a “lights out” period from May 9th to 12th. Heavy migrations were predicted the week before the Sioux Falls fallout…but FAR to our south and east.

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:

Scarlet Tanager - Piranga olivacea
Scarlet Tanager – May 18th, 2019 Good Earth State Park, South Dakota
Magnolia Warbler - Setophaga magnolia
Magnolia Warbler – May 18th, 2019 – Good Earth State Park, South Dakota
Henslow's Sparrow - Ammodramus henslowii
Henslow’s Sparrow – May 19th, 2019 – Newton Hills State Park, South Dakota. Great weekend of birding overall, AND a lifer? I’ll take it.
Great Crested Flycatcher - Myiarchus crinitus
Great Crested Flycatcher – May 18th, 2019 – Good Earth State Park, South Dakota. Flycatchers in general seemed almost non-existent, prior to this weekend.
Mourning Warbler May 18th, 2019 Good Earth State Park, South Dakota. Not a great photo, but Mourning Warblers are a species I see occasionally, some springs. On May 18th, I ran into probably a dozen at Good Earth State Park.

Unusual cold weather has birds struggling in South Dakota

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.

In the account of the Great Crested Flycatcher on my main webpage, for “behavior” it states that Great Crested Flycatchers are “usually found high in the tree canopy, more often heard than seen”. Normally that’s true. They’re a quite vocal species, and I do hear them more than I actually see them. However, in the last week, I’ve seen a number of them, down low, foraging in areas that seem rather odd for the species. At both Newton Hills State Park and Good Earth State Park, I’ve seen multiple Great-crested Flycatchers foraging on the ground or in low grasslands. Again, my take is that insects are hard to find in the cool wet weather, leading birds like Great Crested Flycatchers to forage in areas they normally would not. Photo is from May 19th at Good Earth State Park.
While birding Newton Hills State Park Sunday, I saw three Scarlet Tanagers, all foraging within a few feet of each other. Seeing Scarlet Tanagers at Newton Hills isn’t news, as it’s one of the best places in the state to find them. To see three foraging together is unusual, however. Seeing all three ON THE GROUND, foraging as if they were Robins, is definitely unusual. It was a cornucopia of color, with a Red-headed Woodpecker low in the nearby sumac, an Indigo bunting down low, and American Robins and Scarlet Tanagers feeding together as if they were the same species. I’ve seen more Scarlet Tanagers this spring than I remember seeing before, but frankly it’s because they’re using habitats and behaviors they normally would not. Photo is from May 19th at Newton Hills State Park.
On Sunday, I spent quite a bit of time at Lake Lakota, a reservoir right next to Newton Hills State Park. Sunday morning was a nasty day…temps in the 30s, foggy, and cloudy with occasional drizzle. Again, from a photographer’s perspective it certainly played to my advantage, as birds were heavily concentrated along the lake shores of Lake Lakota. That’s been a common theme in the last week, with insect eating birds often found very near water sources. Given their behavior and concentration, presumably it’s because these insect-eating birds are going where the food is, and with the cold weather, it seems insects associated with water bodies are some of the few that are around. There have been a few times over the last 20 years where on a cold May day, I’ve found heavy concentrations of all kinds of swallow species on the ground, and Sunday was one of those days. Sitting on the beach at Lake Lakota were Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows, Cliff Swallows, Northern Rough-winged Swallows, and Bank Swallows. At any one time, it appeared that about two-thirds of the birds were perched on the beach, with a few low in nearby shrubs and trees. The other third were swooping over the lake itself, extremely close to the water’s surface as they searched for food. Those on the beach would occasionally move, but not in typical swallow fashion. Several appeared to sometimes be almost walking around looking for food, VERY strange for species that collect their insect prey in flight. It wasn’t just swallows, as other species were also concentrated on the beach, including more Baltimore Orioles and Orchard Orioles than I’ve ever seen in one location before. Given that they were seemingly struggling, I didn’t want to get too close for photos, so the photo above is of a Tree Swallow from a similar situation several years ago, on a very cold morning at Lake Thompson in South Dakota.
Speaking of shorelines along water bodies…while most warbler species were pretty much absent in the area until Saturday, that definitely wasn’t the case with Yellow-rumped Warblers. They have been THICK, but often in areas you don’t associate with warblers. While driving north of Wall Lake in western Minnehaha County last week, I saw many birds perched along a barbed wire fence, occasionally flying out to “flycatch”, capturing insects in mid-air. It was an area with a couple of shallow wetlands, areas that must have hatched some mosquitos or other flying insects despite the cool wet weather. It was an area with nary a tree in sight, yet as I got closer I saw what they were…ALL Yellow-rumped Warblers, in big numbers, hanging out here in a completely open landscape and making do with what bugs they could find. The situation was similar one day when I was looking for shorebirds at Weisensee Slough in western Minnehaha County. Weisensee is the last place I’d think of going to look for warblers, given as it’s a very large wetland/water body, with just no woodland patches on the accessible part along the road. That was a very windy day, shorebirds were almost completely absent (another blog post about shorebird migration perhaps), and with the chop on the water, it was difficult to see many birds out on the lake. Yet as I approached the ONE location along the road with a few very small willow trees, I saw a heavy concentration of Yellow-rumped Warblers, perched on the shoreline itself or low in the trees on the lee side of the wind, trying to capture insects. The photo above is one of those Yellow-rumped Warblers from Weisensee.
On Facebook I’ve been seeing many photos people have posted of their orange and jelly feeders, with big concentrations of Orioles. On the east side of the state, that means Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, while Bullock’s Orioles are also thrown into the mix in western South Dakota. that’s certainly been the case at my feeders as well, as I typically have to fill my two jelly cups every morning. The same thing happened during a cold snap last May, where very hungry, insect-starved Orioles showed up at my feeders in force…also the first time Orchard Orioles joined the Baltimore Orioles in our suburban neighborhood.

The invisible bird in plain sight – Common Nighthawk

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.

Common Nighthawk - Chordeiles minor
Common Nighthawk from May 19th, 2019 at Newton Hills State Park. A gray, gloomy, cold morning. A grayish mottled bird sitting completely still on a grayish mottled branch…a camouflaged bird, sitting in plain sight!

A cuckoo kind of a day

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.

Black-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus erythropthalmus
Black-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus erythropthalmus
Black-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus erythropthalmus

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

Bay-breasted Warbler - Setophaga castanea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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