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Spectacular Spring Birding – Minnehaha County

The last two days have been just spectacular for birding, and for bird photography. Both mornings, I went west of Sioux Falls before dawn, spending a lot of time around Wall Lake and the vicinity. Good numbers of birds, a wonderful variety, and some wonderfully cooperative subjects for the camera. It’s not often you get all three of those things in a birding trip. Here are some of the finds for the last 2 days:

Red-breasted Mergansers Courting - Mergus serrator

I don’t see Red-breasted Mergansers often around the Sioux Falls area, and usually just one or two. This weekend there were at least 11 hanging out together at Wall Lake. Unfortunately for the females, there were 7 males and only 4 females…the males were putting on QUITE the show for the females. They were some of the most active birds on the lake, with males chasing females, pausing to fight with each other or do this wonderful display behavior that I’ve never seen before. Given how active they were, given how large Wall Lake is, and given how difficult it can be to get close to a bird out on the main lake, I felt VERY fortunate that they spent quite a bit of time near the beach this morning, and I was able to capture the courting behavior. A bit more of a crop than I’d like, but I love this photo.

Common Loon - Gavia immer

Wall Lake is becoming semi-reliable for finding migrating Common Loons in the spring months, as it’s now been several years in a row where I’ve seen them there. This morning I hung out at the end of the point that sticks out into the lake, arriving at dawn, and staying an hour and a half. I was rewarded by wonderful views of many birds, but it’s ALWAYS wonderful when a gorgeous Common Loon in breeding plumage cruises around the corner and swims right in front of you (and your camera!).

Killdeer - Charadrius vociferus

I love the “off-season” at Wall Lake…the time of year when you can sit by the beach and have it all to yourself. Come summer, it’s not somewhere you’d even think about birding. But this time of year, when ice and snow cover the surrounding landscape and birds are looking for food, the sandy beach is a great place to bird. There were many birds near the beach today, with several looking for food right along the shore, such as this Killdeer.  If you are familiar with Wall Lake and the bit of foam that sometimes forms on the beach when there’s a north wind, this is what that foam turns into when it’s 20 degrees! Loved the bird next to the crystally ice.

Bonapaarte's Gull - Larus philadelphia

As always at this time of year, Wall Lake attracted a lot of gulls, primarily Ring-billed and Franklin’s, but I also saw a Herring Gull and 20 or so delicate little Bonaparte’s Gulls. Another bird prowling the “surf” line looking for food. About the only Bonaparte’s Gull I saw that wasn’t in full breeding plumage, but the others weren’t as cooperative for the camera.

American Robin - Turdus migratorius

I REALLY felt bad for the American Robins and other songbirds that were trying to find food this weekend, with a thick crust of ice covering most of the landscape. They were numerous along roadsides and anywhere else where even a bit of open ground was available. Here one hangs out on a branch at dawn at Wall Lake.

Rusty Blackbird - Euphagus carolinus

Three times this weekend I came across small groups of Rusty Blackbirds. I admit I often don’t scan the massive blackbird flocks, but while out on the peninsula at Wall Lake this morning, I kept hearing a squeaky call that I wasn’t familiar with, and then saw a lone Rusty Blackbird. Later this morning north of Wall Lake, I ran into a small group at a flooded field. Not a great photo, but not a species I’ve photographed much. And one that I generally struggle to differentiate from Brewer’s Blackbird when they’re in breeding plumage.

Double-crested Cormorant - Phalacrocorax auritus

Another common species, a Double-crested Cormorant, but I can’t help put trigger the shutter at any bird that flies in front of my camera. Do like the unique look of this one, thanks to a reflection of some buildings across the water at Wall lake.

Horned Grebe - Podiceps auritus

Until this weekend, I didn’t realize I had no photos of a Horned Grebe in full breeding plumage! Problem solved…there were actually many of these guys around Wall Lake the last 2 days. Most weren’t very cooperative, but I finally got one early this morning hanging out near the beach.

Hermit Thrush - Catharus guttatus

With all the snow and ice that was still around heading into this weekend, you kind of do a double take when you see some bird species, as they seem out of place given the weather. Hermit Thrush are always early spring arrivals though. There were a number of them the last 2 days in the Big Sioux Recreation Area near home.

Eastern Phoebe - Sayornis phoebe

Speaking of birds that look out of their element in this weather…one of the LAST things you expect to see when there’s so much snow and ice still around are flycatcher species. But like Hermit Thrush, Eastern Phoebes are early spring migrants. I saw this guy both yesterday and today along Wall Lake beach. Today thankfully things had melted some. Yesterday, he was really having a hard time finding anything other than snow and ice.

Winter’s Snow’s Take Flight

Winter's Snows Take Flight

When I can’t stand to open a paper or look at the news online (this week would be one of those weeks), retreating to the safe space of birds and nature is always a good idea. A revisiting of the daily haiku’s I used to do. Migration has actually been a slow and delayed by the harsh winter, but streams of geese were flying over one morning last week. Always one of the first signs of spring, and a VERY welcome sight after this past winter.

Eagle Convention at Splitrock Creek

After 17 or so years of using one lens for bird photography (a Canon 400mm 5.6L), I ordered a new lens that arrived Monday…the Canon 100-400mm 4.5/5.6L IS II that I’ve mentioned previously.  The timing was fortuitous, as late this week we’ve had something rather unprecedented happen for the area around our little town. We’ve had severe flooding, flooding which is actually supposed to get worse early next week as all the snow pack north of us melts. Splitrock Creek runs through our little town of Brandon, and in the wake of the flooding it has left massive ice chunks all along banks and roads near the river. But it also left scads of dead Asian Carp and other fish.

Seemingly overnight, the area around our town has been inundated with Bald Eagles. We actually have an active Bald Eagle nest less than a mile from our house, a nest that’s been used continuously for about the last 6-7 years.  It’s not rare to see one or sometimes even two Bald Eagles while out and about near our town. Today however, I was on a bridge over Splitrock Creek, and from that one spot I counted 29 Bald Eagles. In…one…spot.  There have been eagles in varying concentrations all along a 10-mile stretch of Splitrock Creek that I’ve checked out this week.

When I started birding 20 years ago, I still remember seeing my first Bald Eagle along the Big Sioux River near Canton. I remember the excitement of seeing such a majestic bird. It’s amazing how rapidly their numbers have increased in the last few decades, as I can now be in any part of South Dakota, in any season, and it’s not a surprise to see one or more Bald Eagles. Even when I visit the grasslands in the central part of the state, an area that is far from any significant river or lake, I find Bald Eagles, sometimes in big numbers. A true success story for American conservation!  But even on a night like tonight where eagles are seemingly everywhere, it’s still a thrill to see and photograph these birds.  Some photos from today:

Young Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Young (3rd year?) Bald Eagle, flying over Splitrock Creek near Corson, South Dakota. However, it’s not just young birds that are in our area right now. In fact, a majority of the Bald Eagles I’ve seen in the last few days have been fully mature birds.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A mature Bald Eagle flying over the trees near Brandon. There were plenty of mature Bald Eagles around, but they were seemingly shyer than the young birds.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Another young Bald Eagle sitting on a tree stump northeast of Corson. While most birds are along Splitrock Creek, there are so many birds around that they seem to have spilled out onto the surrounding farmland as well.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A mature Bald Eagle hanging out on a chunk of ice left behind by the flooding at Splitrock Creek north of Brandon. This is perhaps the most common “perch” for these guys right now, as most of them that I’ve seen have been among the ice flows, where the dead fish are concentrated.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A long-distance shot, but it gives you an idea of the concentration of the eagles. There are 10 in this one shot, sitting on stranded ice blocks on a sandbar in the receding Splitrock Creek. This is the location where I saw 29 birds at once today.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

An even longer-distance shot, showing a common sight in the trees near Splitrock Creek this week. There are 8 birds in this one tree, but it’s this group of trees where a local farmer told me there were 75 roosting overnight earlier this week.

Ode to the Sparrow – Photo/Haiku of the Day

Ode to a Sparrow

A whisper in the grass

“Just a sparrow”, overlooked.

Autumn’s hidden jewel

Le Conte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii

We’re approaching mid-September, and with it, one of my favorite birding migrations of the year. Warblers? Fall shorebirds? Migrating raptors? No, I treasure early to mid-Autumn for the wonderful array of sparrow species that migrate through eastern South Dakota. Among them are one of my top 3 species of all time…the Le Conte’s Sparrow. No “little brown job”…not “just a sparrow”…the Le Conte’s Sparrow is a brilliant array of complex patterns and beautiful warm tones.  With a reputation as a “skulker”, they’re a prized birding target for many, but during fall migration here, I’ve found them to be very approachable and rather easy to photograph. Along with the other 20 or so sparrow species that migrate through in the fall, a sparrow bonanza is just around the corner!

 

Birding > Bird photos? Or vice versa?

My start in both birding and photograph began in December of 2000.  I bought my first SLR camera, and was excited to go out and use it. I headed out on a cold, snowy day, looking for…something…to photograph, when I came across some Canada Geese around the small unfrozen edge of a local quarry.  From the start, birds were my most common photographic subject.  Soon, they were nearly my ONLY photographic subject.

While I loved shooting birds, for many years, my primary focus when going out was getting photos.  Seeing birds was certainly wonderful as well, but I tended to measure success of a trip in terms of how many “keeper” photos I got.  Even if I saw a rare bird, I was often disappointed when I was unable to get a photo of it.

Fast forward 18 years. I have photos for most species you could reasonably expect to see in South Dakota. I have photos for many species you would NOT normally expect in South Dakota. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve reached my saturation point for photos for many species, but in the last 3 or 4 years, things have changed. I was a photographer first, birder second.  Now, I’m definitely a birder first, photographer second.  I spend MUCH more time using my binoculars, scanning that far away bird to see if it’s a rarity.  In the past, I often ignored far away birds, as I knew I couldn’t get a good photo.  I think that’s what’s so nice about valuing BOTH the birds themselves, and the photography aspect.  When you go out on a trip, you’re rarely disappointed.

Here’s a few recent photos…

Yellow Warbler - Setophaga petechia

A curious Yellow Warbler. It’s been a very slow spring so far for migrating warblers, but as always, there’s never a shortage of Yellow Warblers around.

Harris's Sparrow - Zonotrichia querula

One of my favorite species, a Harris’s Sparrow. They are actually relatively easy to find here during migration.

Blue-winged Warbler - Vermivora cyanoptera

A Blue-winged Warbler, a rarity in South Dakota. However, there’s one specific spot of Newton Hills State Park where one or two breeding pairs are almost always found.

Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis

I have a billion Northern Cardinal Photos. However, when you get an opportunity for these guys, even if it’s a relatively long-distance opportunity such as this one, you can’t pass it up! I’m starting to really appreciate shots like this, or other shots where the bird is smaller in the frame. That’s particularly the case if I’m able to show a lot of their natural habitat in the frame. Here, I just like the simple composition, the pose of the bird, the warm light, and that beautiful blue sky.

American Golden Plover! (Photographic) Lifer!

A new lifer!  Oh, I’ve seen American Golden Plovers. There have been a number of springs where I’ve looked out in a muddy field or the edge of a wet area, and have seen them.  However, they’d definitely fall under the category of “photographic nemesis” bird, in that I’ve never gotten anything close to a “satisfying” photo.

Yesterday wasn’t exactly a day where I’d have expected any halfway decent photos.  It was rainy, gloomy, and a bit windy…not exactly great birding weather, much less photo weather.  The rain changed my plans though, and it’s because of that I ran into a small flock of American Golden Plovers foraging in a flooded field. Perhaps it was BECAUSE of the somber, gloomy day, but they let me get uncharacteristically close.  With the lighting these photos aren’t exactly going to win any prizes, but when you’ve been shooting birds for almost 20 years, ANY time you get a new “photographic lifer”, it’s a good day!American Golden Plover - Pluvialis dominica

American Golden Plover - Pluvialis dominica

All Quiet on the Eastern (South Dakota) Front

After such a cold, snowy spring, we’re finally starting to warm up.  It was a nice sunny day of about 60 degrees, and even better, our ever-present wind wasn’t bad, so I headed out before dawn to look for migrants.  My target for the day…shorebirds.  If the day were to be measured on the basis of that target, I failed miserably!  It’s APRIL 28th!! With such a wet, snowy spring, we have standing water all over the place!  Shallow water, mudflats, flooded fields…there’s as much great habitat for migratory shorebirds as we ever have in the spring.

However, someone forgot to tell the shorebirds!  I don’t think I’ve ever gone out at this time of year and seen so few shorebirds. Hopefully it’s just the cold weather that has them behind schedule, and we’ll get a nice pulse of shorebirds in the coming days.  Today, however, I had to focus on other quarry.  It WAS a beautiful morning for photography, and I did manage some nice finds south and west of Sioux Falls. It’s always fun to find migrating Loons (not all that common around here), and there were three at Wall Lake west of Sioux Falls this morning.  I also found a few Sora in one wetland right as the sun rose, a few Wilson’s Snipe that were cooperative, and a few Franklin’s Gulls to photograph.  Both the birds and the photo opportunities were FAR below what I normally expect this time of year, but it was still a nice morning.   First-of-year birds for me for the day include Sora, Wilson’s Snipe, Barn Swallow, Green Heron, Western Grebe, American Avocet, Willet, Barn Swallow, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Spotted Sandpiper.  A few photos from the day:

Common Loon - Gavia immer

A Common Loon at Wall Lake, west of Sioux Falls. There were (at least) three on the lake, and thankfully one was fishing right off a point extending out into the lake, giving me great photo opportunities.

Sora - Porzana carolina

A Sora on the edge of a wetland, taken just as the sun was rising. Always good to get such a shy bird out in the open like this.

Franklin's Gull -  Leucophaeus pipixcan

A breeding plumage Franklin’s Gull, with a pair of Lesser Yellowlegs in the background. One of my favorite birds in the Spring, particularly when they have the pink blush on their undersides such as this.

Wilson's Snipe - Gallinago delicata

One thing I’ve learned to check in the spring are flooded ditches, as they seem to be favored haunts for Wilson’s Snipe.

Yellow-headed Blackbird - Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus

I have a billion Yellow-headed Blackbird photos, but how can I resist? They’re such beautiful birds, and on a day like today when there just weren’t all that many birds around, the ever-present Yellow-headed Blackbirds make a great photo subject.

Spring busting out in birds

It’s been a damned cold spring. There’s no denying that.  As I speak, it’s snowing to beat the band…on April 8th…and we’re supposed to end up with about 5 more inches.  It’s been a winter of MANY 3-6 inch snows, and winter doesn’t seem to want to give up its grip just yet. But the birds are putting their two cents in and saying they will NOT be deterred.

I went out west of Sioux Falls last night, on a kind of a day that’s been rare around here lately…sunny, and no wind (but still pretty cold).  Even now, most of the big lakes are still frozen over, as are many of the small ones. Water is starting to open up, and the waterfowl are really starting to stack up as they await warmer conditions (and more open water up north) to allow their continued migration.  There are still geese around by thousands.  I had a blast at one location last night, watching as flocks of Snow, Greater White-fronted, Canada, and some Ross’s Geese would intermittently land or take off from a group of geese resting by a large slough. Ducks were on pretty much every available patch of open water, with some spots having incredible concentrations of Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks, as well as pretty much every other duck species you could ever expect to find here.

A highlight came late in the evening when I came across a Great Horned Owl perched in the relative open (for a Great Horned Owl). He was quite unconcerned by the guy with the camera, giving me some of the best looks and photos I’ve had of the species.  As the snow and wind lash us again today, it was also a nice reminder that spring IS here and better weather is ahead!

Great Horned Owl - Bubo virginianus

A quite tame Great Horned Owl, casually giving me a glance as he prepares in the late evening for a night of hunting.

Greater White-fronted Goose - Anser albifrons

The most numerous goose species were Greater White-fronted, of which I came across several thousand during the course of the evening.

Common Merganser - Mergus merganser

A female Common Merganser, sitting at one of the open spots in the ice and occasionally making a dive in search of food. Always loved the “haircut” on the females.

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

One sure sign of spring here is when you seemingly see Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels on every every telephone pole. Plenty of both last night, including this dude giving me a staredown.

Canada Goose - Branta canadensis

Another sure sign of spring…when the ever present Canada Geese are vastly outnumbered by other geese species.

Snow Goose - Chen caerulescens

Still plenty of Snow Geese around. Starting to get a little late to have them stacked up in such huge numbers, but the weather hasn’t been too cooperative.

 

Hybrid Snow / Greater White-fronted Goose

Birds are definitely on the move in the area, with thousands of geese and other waterfowl moving through the area in the last couple of weeks. I haven’t had a chance to get out much, but did manage to get out for a couple of hours south of Sioux Falls, in Lincoln County.  With all the snow melt, there’s certainly plenty of standing water, even without the lakes and ponds themselves still frozen.  There were a number of places I found Snow Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, Canada Geese, and the usual duck suspects hanging around the standing water and surrounding ag fields.

While watching one group of (mostly) Greater White-fronted Geese, I saw a strange-looking bird.  The group flew just as I was starting to get binoculars on him, so I quickly grabbed the camera and tried to get a few shots.  Not the greatest photo in the world, and it is from some distance, but it sure looks like the bird in the upper-right is a hybrid Snow and Greater White-fronted Goose. Much of the plumage and white base of the bill screams Greater White-fronted, but the extensive white, and even the “smile” patch on the bill are Snow Goose characteristics.

Not a hybrid I’ve seen before, but I guess not too surprising given how much these two species intermingle, at least during migration through the state.

Snow Goose / Greater White-fronted Goose Hybrid

Bird in the upper-right, appears to be a hybrid of a Snow Goose and a Greater White-fronted Goose.

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.

 

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