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Eagle Nest and Young near Sioux Falls

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) occupying a nest with young

A very windy day, but with time for finding migrant warblers and shorebirds drawing to a close in the next few weeks, I wanted to go out to see what I could find of either group. The answer…not much! It was such a snowy winter and wet spring, and there are flooded fields and other great shorebird habitat everywhere you look, but someone forgot to tell the shorebirds to show up. Warblers haven’t been much better, as so far with the relatively cold last week+, there haven’t been good numbers of migrant warblers, other than the ubiquitous Yellow-rumped.

I’m not going to complain, as it has been a great spring for migrant sparrows and some other species. So while the day started with a focus on warblers and shorebirds, it ended with something very different. I was driving in Minnehaha County, and saw a road closed sign, with a lot of water about half a mile down the road. Thinking it might be a good place to see shorebirds, I went down the road to the place it was washed out. There were a handful of shorebirds (Pectoral Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs), but it was pretty quiet. However, in a stand of some of the tallest cottonwood trees I’ve ever seen was a MASSIVE nest…clearly a Bald Eagle nest. It was a good 200 yards from where I parked and I couldn’t see much, so I did a bit of wading through the washed out road until I got a little bit closer and could see through a gap in the branches. I was rewarded by the sight of an adult Bald Eagle perched on the edge of the nest.

It was a windy, not really pleasant day, but I found a little protected spot near a bridge, a hunkered down to watch for a while. I wanted to try to see if there were any young in the nest, or perhaps see the adults bring food back to the nest. For about half an hour, not much happened, as the lone adult sat on the nest without moving much. Finally she stood up, shook her feathers a few times, and took flight. Off she went along the path of the flooded creek, stopping once and circling a bit when it seemed that something caught here guy, before continuing down the creek and disappearing.

The nest in the meantime seemed unoccupied, and it made me wonder if she’d successfully nested that year. The lack of her mate during the whole episode also made me wonder if she just hadn’t mated this year. However, about 5 minutes after she flew off, a head popped up along the edge of the nest…a young eagle! Then another head, another young bird that looked a little smaller and less developed than the first. Not a lot happened for the nest 20 minutes or so, with the 2 young birds not moving much, but with heads clearly visible in the nest.

Then about half an hour after the adult left the nest, an adult came flying in along the road. Whether it was the adult on the nest previously, I don’t know, but clearly it was one of the parents of the two young. It didn’t appear to have food or anything for the young, and landed on a branch some 20 yards from the nest. Not long after landing, she began to be harassed. The tall cottonwoods must have had some cavities, because there were several European Starlings flying in and around the trees, and they weren’t happy with the Eagle’s presence. They didn’t directly harass the parent, but one resident of the cottonwood grove certainly did…a Red-headed Woodpecker. With some vocalizations that carried through even the heavy wind, the woodpecker twice flew at the Bald Eagle before landing in a branch above it and giving it a good scolding. The eagle scolded the Red-headed Woodpecker right back at one (giving me a great photo opp!), before the two settled into an uneasy truce.

About 5 minutes after landing on the branch, the adult eagle flew to the nest, and settled in. Once she arrived, the young again disappeared and were no longer visible on the edge of the nest. That was still the situation when I departed.

No shorebirds…no warblers…but a wonderful morning spent watching the eagle family try to raise a family. They certainly chose a wonderful spot, in the middle of nowhere (for Minnehaha County), in the tallest trees in the area, and surrounded by a heavily flooded creek flowing around the trees that made it impossible for any land creature to get close to them. From the size of the young it looks like she was well on her way to successfully fledging a pair of young, whether or not she was doing it on her own.

Bald Eagle Young (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in a Nest
Two young eagles, peering over the edge of their nest. It was only during the 30 minutes or so that a parent wasn’t around the nest that the two made themselves visible, pretty much the opposite behavior as I would expected! I’d have thought that without a parent nearby, they’d want to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible.
Bald eagle - Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) near nest site
A war of words between the adult Bald Eagle and a Red-headed Woodpecker that did a couple of fly-bys. This was a little after she came back to the trees where the nest was, after being gone for about half an hour (or it is the 2nd adult).

Burrowing Owl? Here?!? POTD – From 10 years ago today

It was 10 years ago when I had one of my better birding moments. There are always those great trips to “new” places that get the birding juices flowing, but one of the best aspects of birding is that you never know what you might see when you go out.

It was 10 years ago that I was coming back from a business trip. I flew into the Sioux Falls airport and was driving back to my little home town of Brandon (about 6 miles west of Sioux Falls). I was driving by an open alfalfa field, when I noticed a bird on a post.  It was a…no…couldn’t be…yes! a Burrowing Owl!  Here in far eastern South Dakota, just a few miles from Minnesota. Historically Burrowing Owls used to be around here, but there hadn’t been a breeding record of Burrowing Owls anywhere close to here in decades.  Our grassland is gone, and we just don’t have the prairie dogs or other creatures that Burrowing Owls are often found with.  Yet here was an adult Burrowing Owl, hanging out on a fence post, in early August.

I quickly drove the last 4 miles home, got my camera and returned. Upon looking around I saw another Burrowing Owl…and another…and another.  There were two adults, and at least four young!! It didn’t take long to find their home. They were using an old badger hole, in the middle of the alfalfa field by the road.  The young were already as big as the parents, although with a different plumage. I had a blast for the next month, watching the little Burrowing Owl family feed on grasshoppers, crickets, and other little critters, primarily using a big CRP (?) grassland that was right next to the alfalfa field. By early September they started disappearing, one by one.

That alfalfa field is now on a corn and soybeans rotation. The CRP field they were using to forage? Also plowed under, used for corn and soybeans. In the 10 years since, I’ve never again seen a Burrowing Owl anywhere close to  my part of the state. But I’ll always remember the little Burrowing Owl family that successfully fledged several young, just 4 miles from my house.  Here’s one photo I took at night, of one of the adults foraging for insects alongside the road.

Burrowing Owl - Athene cunicularia

Bird Feeders Killing Marital Harmony

I’ve always had bird feeders.  I’ll never give them up, but there is a downside.  They’re harming (ever so slightly!!) marital bliss in our household! Over the years we’ve occasionally had a mouse around the house.  That happens when you have every kind of conceivable bird feeder in your backyard.

We came home yesterday to a very warm house, and an unresponsive air conditioner. We couldn’t find anyone to come look at it until today. Here’s the note left on our step.  Bird Feeder —> Mouse –> chewed wire –> no air conditioner –> an unhappy wife.  It’s five degrees of separation!  There’s barely any relationship there at all, right!?!?!? Who’s with me???

The wire is fixed, the air conditioner is working, and all is back to being right with the world. In the meantime, I’ve instructed the mice in the yard to please restrict their mandibular activity to seeds and other organic items.  They’ve agreed to cooperate, so clearly we’ll never again have this problem, and marital harmony is permanently restored. 🙂

Mouse damage - Air Conditioner

A note the repairman left for us after fixing our air conditioner. Circumstantial evidence, I say!! Can you match those bite marks to a specific mouse!?!? Innocent until proven guilty!!

Checking in on the neighbors – Nesting Bald Eagles

Nesting Bald Eagles - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A photo from a couple of days ago, with one of the adults sitting on the nest. They’ve been doing so for over a month now, and with the leaves not yet out on the cottonwood tree, it’s a wonderful time to observe them from afar. Click for a larger view.

As far as neighbors go, you could do worse than a pair of nesting Bald Eagles. These neighbors moved in about 10 years ago, building a massive nest in a huge cottonwood tree along the Big Sioux River, less than a mile from our home (a mere 4,400 feet as the crow flies, according to Google Earth!). The first nest lasted a year or two before a flood event felled the big cottonwood, but thankfully, they responded by simply picking another big cottonwood and rebuilding the nest.

If you haven’t seen a Bald Eagle nest, it’s a damned impressive structure!  They continually build it up, and it’s pretty amazing to see the size of some of the branches they try to pick up and incorporate into the nest. The nest now has to be 10 feet across, and keeps growing each year. And why not? It seems to be working for them, as they appear to have successfully raised a number of broods over the years.

This year, they’ve been sitting on the nest for a least a month, and I’m sure they once again have eggs.  I haven’t seen any lil’ heads poking up yet, so I’m not sure they’ve hatched yet.  Now is the perfect time to observe them, and I often have seen the young in the nest. But alas, in a month the cottonwood will have leafed out and made direct observation much more difficult. Often then the next observations you get of the young themselves is when they fledge from the nest, but they always hang around the same tree for quite some time afterwards.

Very cool neighbors! And neighbors that I’d bet most people don’t know are there. The nest itself is hard to miss, given it’s massive size.  You can easily see it from the north-south highway running through our town of Brandon. But people around here are always surprised to hear that we have such majestic birds nesting right on the edge of town.

Long-billed Curlew Encounter

What a magical weekend!  My son and I continue to be enthralled with our new hobby…being rockhounds, looking for agates, petrified wood, rose quartz, and whatever else we may come across on the designated collection spots on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. We stayed overnight Saturday near Philip, South Dakota, and then were searching on Saturday evening and Sunday morning.  The geologic finds were extraordinary (more on that in a later post), but the biggest thrill of the trip for me was an encounter with Long-billed Curlew, a species I haven’t had very good looks at in South Dakota. Saturday evening, we couldn’t have asked for a closer, good look at a wild Long-billed Curlew. The story…

Long-billed Curlew - Numenius americanus

We first saw the curlew as it flew over the gravel road we were on, and landed in the grasslands on the west side of the road. It stood there staring at us from some distance, while my son and I got out of the car to take photos. We started taking photos, and then walked through the ditch to the fence line to get a bit of a closer view. Much to our surprise, instead of retreating (as most birds do when you approach…especially if you have a camera!!) it started walking directly TOWARDS us.

Long-billed Curlew - Numenius americanus

It wasn’t stopping! As I furiously snapped photo after photo, the curlew kept advancing directly towards our position, marching very purposely directly at us! It stopped less than 20 feet away, and began walking back and forth, often stopping to cast a wary look at us and let out a cry.

Long-billed Curlew - Numenius americanus

We remained motionless, standing at the fence line while the curlew paced and sized us up. Finally, it seemed to have had enough and started walking even CLOSER to us. Soon it was too close for me to get the entire bird in the photo frame. Sensing what was going on, we started to back up towards the car as the curlew stared DIRECTLY at us and gave us the scolding of a lifetime.

Long-billed Curlew (Fledgling) - Numenius americanus

We were a little slow on the uptake, but given the adult bird’s behavior, it became obvious that it was upset that we were too close to a nest, or to its young. It wasn’t until we got back in the car and started to drive away that we spotted them…one…then TWO beautiful little spotted puffballs that had been crouching down in the prairie grass, perhaps 20 yards off the road. As we drove away, the adult quickly strode over to its two downy young. Once again the family was together, and safe from the pair of two-legged interlopers who had so rudely interrupted!

Sunset over the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

Sunset over the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, on the edge of the Badlands. This was just an hour and a half after the Curlew encounter, with the intervening time spent looking for agates and other geologic finds. A GORGEOUS end to an absolutely spectacular evening.

In the News – October 9 – 15

A collection of bird, science, photography, and news links from the past week. Click on the links for the actual stories.

Eastern Screech Owl - Megascops asio

I think I’ve actually been pretty lucky, in that I’ve run across Eastern Screech Owls relatively often over the years, and have many good photos. What I can NOT do is attract one to my yard.

  • Attract Screech Owls to Your Yard!! — HAH!  I’ll believe it when I see it!  This piece from Birdwatching Magazine touts how easy it is to attract Screech Owls to your yard, by building and putting up a nest box.  Three years ago, I bought a box built specifically for Screech Owls.  Over three summers, many a young bird has fledged from that box!  Of course all of them have been House Sparrows, the one thing I do NOT need more of.  Hopefully some day an actual Eastern Screech Owl finds it, evicts the House Sparrows within, and justifies my purchase.
  • Coal Declines in the U.S. — One of the things that bugs me great is lying.  In the world of politics, it’s an art form.  This week, fact got in the way of rhetoric, with a study coming out that refutes those who try to pin the decline of coal, and mining jobs in the U.S., to government policy.  Coal started to decline in 2008, right when Obama was elected.  It’s his fault!! Well…no.  As this study notes, it’s basic economics and the rise of cheap natural gas.  People love to complain about cheap energy prices, but now that we have it?  They’ll find something else to complain about…
  • Get ready to add new species to your life list! — There’s been speculation for a while now that Crossbill species in North America may be split into as many as 6 or more new, distinct species.  This study provides more support for that move, using genomics to look at the rapid evolution of Crossbills that feed on pine seeds. It’s always handy when you can add a new species to your life list, without ever leaving your living room.
  • Hotter than Hell — Which, evidently must be around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, given 1) where people believe hell is likely located (think ‘down’), and 2) the estimated temperature at the center of the earth.
  • Caspian Terns Breeding near Arctic Circle — If you’re one of those that doesn’t believe in climate change, you might as well stop reading my blog altogether. As yet more evidence that strange things are afoot, scientists confirmed breeding of Caspian Terns north of the Arctic Circle…1,000 MILES further north than they’ve been found before. If it were just thing one piece of evidence…sure…could be a fluke.  Where there’s smoke, there’s fire though, and it’s getting damned hard to breath with so much “smoke” around.
  • Fires of Hell

    Ever wonder how toasty it will be when your tortured, evil soul rots for an eternity in hell? Evidently it will be around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Before you die, perhaps you should change into shorts…

    Getting away from it all (Noise, that is) — My son and I usually go fishing in the Black Hills of South Dakota once a year.  You wouldn’t want to be in the area in late summer, when the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is going on, and there are certainly tourist hotspots scattered throughout the area.  But what’s always nice about the Black Hills is that if you want solitude, you can find it. Think of the soundtrack of your daily life.  Think how rare it is to NOT have some background noise, be it street noise, a barking dog, etc.  That what struck me at one point this summer while fishing in the hills…how we were hearing…NOTHING. And it was fabulous.  As this story notes, it’s been darn hard to find a noise-free environment going back at least 50 years.

  • Hurricane Matthew Punches Above its Weight — Hurricane Matthew’s story was fascinating, because of the unusual path, its immense power as it tore through the Caribbean, and because it became an afterthought for many Americans once it avoided a direct hit on Florida. Of course, certain political stories overshadowed Matthew when it raged across the Carolinas, but more than that, it was the feeling of relief, the feeling that the U.S. had dodged a bullet.  Instead of Category 4 hurricane striking Florida, it stayed offshore of Florida and was downgraded to a Category 1 by the time it struck the Carolinas. As this story notes, perhaps we need a new rating system for Hurricanes.  Sandy too wasn’t the most powerful hurricane, but it certainly did some damage, and so did Matthew, with 18 inches of rain in parts of North Carolina.
  • Hummingbirds should listen to their parents!! — It’s rough out there for a lil’ wild critter!  Not only do they have to deal with other critters that may want to eat them, but sometimes they just don’t KNOW what they’re supposed to do to survive. That’s one takeaway from this story, that notes different individual hummingbirds use different feeding and migration strategies.  Hummingbirds that have made the migration before?  They are more strategic, Adding up to 40% onto their body weight right before making a long migratory flight.  First-time migrants? They are less strategic, tending to NOT pack on the pounds, but instead migrate south in short bursts and feeding in between.  The lesson overall…LISTEN TO YOUR PARENTS.  They know best.
  • Climate Change Doubles Western U.S. Fires — According to this study, fires overall have likely doubled in the western U.S. since 1984, due to climate change.  Overall fire increase has been even more than that, but due to other issues like fuel build up, beetle kill, ignition sources, and other risk factors.  I believe that fire risk overall has gone up.  As a scientist though, I do find it extremely, extremely difficult to attribute a certain percentage increase in fire due to just one factor, however.  There’s so many factors that drive fire risk, with complicated feedbacks among them, that I’d have a hard time stating “twice” as many fires are due just to climate change.  Good article though for highlighting the issue.
  • Dumbledore - Harry Potter

    Coming back to a movie theater near you…Dumbledore!! I’d certainly welcome it, but alas, for Michael Gambon, the actor who played Dumbledore in the last 5 Harry Potter movies, this will undoubtedly be Dumbledore when he was much younger.

    Captain Kirk was Brain Damaged — OK, maybe that’s not what this story is saying. But it IS saying that there’s a high risk of cognitive issues for astronauts spending time in space, due to cosmic rays and radiation.  Interesting study, given that this week, Obama said a government and private partnership would help us reach Mars by the 2030s.  That’s certainly a very ambitious goal, one that may be doable, but there are a lot of technical challenges to be solved.

  • Dumbledore Returning!! — Not exactly science.  Or birds.  Or really news for that matter.  But with JK Rowling’s “Fantastical Beasts” coming out as a movie in a month, it was announced that she’s working on at least 4 more scripts, for at least 5 movies in total.  There’s also talk of Dumbledore coming back to play some role in these movies!  My cynical side can’t help but scream out “MONEY GRAB!!!” with the announcement that they’re going to make 5 movies.  But my Harry Potter fandom side is loving it.

 

 

Ethical dilemma – What to do about cowbirds?

Orchard Oriole and Cowbird Fledgling

Another species that often falls victim to Cowbird parasitism, a Orchard Oriole.

Spring and summer are wonderful times in South Dakota. After a long winter, the weather in the spring and summer is usually fantastic, the landscape comes alive after months of dormancy, and birds return in force.  Come June and July, my yard starts to come alive with the young of the birds that breed in the area.  Unfortunately, it’s also a time where, without fail, I’ll look out into my yard at some point and see a parent of some species feeding a cowbird young.  I don’t know if they’re more prone to cowbird parasitism, but it seems most years I see an adult Chipping Sparrow trying to feed a giant cowbird fledgling that’s easily twice its size.

Human beings definitely are guilty of anthropomorphizing wild animals, treating them as if they have human emotions and feeling sympathy as you would for a human being in a similar situation.  When I see a tiny Chipping Sparrow trying to feed a big, hungry cowbird fledgling, I immediately feel sorry for the Chipping Sparrow, knowing that its nesting success for its own fledglings has likely suffered at the hands of this giant interloper.  I often know where birds are nesting in my yard.  Chipping Sparrows often use my two spruce trees or this thick juniper to build their tiny nests.  In the spring I can often look directly into their nests, and therein lies the ethical dilemma.  What do you do when you see a giant cowbird egg amidst the smaller host bird eggs?

As a scientist, you of course know that cowbirds too are part of the natural environment, and what you’re witnessing is a natural occurrence.  Cowbirds are a native species, and other birds have always had to deal with cowbird parasitism.  On the other hand, there’s also no doubt that cowbirds are more common in many parts of their range compared to historical averages, thanks to human activity.  Cowbirds have always preferred open habitats, but habitat fragmentation and creation of more “edge” habitat has resulted in increased cowbird access to many species that rarely had to deal with it before.

All true!  Cowbirds HAVE benefited from man’s alteration of the landscape!  And that’s the justification I guess I tell myself when I peer into a bird nest, see a cowbird egg, and…pick it out and destroy it.  Yes, I know I’m anthropomorphizing the situation.  Yes, I know it’s a natural occurrence, cowbirds are a native species, and they have a right to survive just as the Chipping Sparrow does.  But in my own mind, it doesn’t seem “right” when I see that cowbird fledgling following around the little Chipping Sparrow fledgling, demanding food.

And thus, I do destroy cowbird eggs when I see them in a nest in my yard.  It’s one of those things I’m conflicted about though, as even though I almost always do it when I see a cowbird egg, I also feel kind of guilty after the act is done.

Wind Farms hurt birds in yet another way

Map of Greater Prairie Chicken range, and average wind speeds for the conterminous U.S.

Greater Prairie Chickens live in areas with relatively high wind speeds. Not a good combination when wind farms have a negative impact on breeding.

A new research paper in The Condor: Ornithological Applications highlights yet another negative impact of wind energy on bird populations.  It’s already been estimated that between 140,000 and 380,000 birds die each year due to collisions with wind turbines. The new study, led by authors from multiple universities, found that it’s not just collisions that can harm bird populations.

The authors looked at Greater Prairie Chicken populations near wind farms and found that nest abandonment was significantly higher on leks within 8 kilometers (~5 miles) from a wind turbine.  They also found slightly lower weight birds closer to wind turbines. It’s not just the turbines themselves that are an issue, it’s increased human activity, and energy and transportation corridors connecting wind turbines.

So to summarize, fossil fuel burning results in carbon emissions and global warming and also severely impacts habitat at extraction sites.  Solar energy has been implicated in the direct incineration of birds unlikely enough to encounter a solar farm.  Wind farms now have been implicated not only in direct collision deaths, but negative impacts on successful breeding.  In other words, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, regarding any “bird-friendly” choices for energy production.

To me there’s still no question that either solar or wind are much better environmental options than fossil fuels.  Impacts for solar and wind are local, while fossil fuel burning causes both local habitat destruction, and global impacts on climate.  It’s depressing to think that even birds 5 miles from a wind turbine could be negatively impacted, but to me wind farms are the lesser of the various energy evils out there.

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