Articles

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

A lifer! White-eyed Vireo

White-eyed Vireo -Vireo griseus

About a week and a half ago, I was birding in Newton Hills State Park, along Sergeant Creek. It’s a well-known area for birding, and seems to be a bit of a migrant trap, with a number of unusual (for South Dakota) birds seen there. As I was walking up the trail along the creek, I heard a bird singing in a clump of flowering bushes. The song was…a mess…all over the place, variable, with some harsh notes thrown in. For a second I thought it was a weird Gray Catbird song, but it didn’t seem right. I stopped and paused, and it wasn’t long before I found the culprit…White-eyed Vireo!! A lifer!!

White-eyed Vireos are normally found as summer breeding birds in the Southeastern United States, making it as far north as Pennsylvania and Massachusetts in the Northeast, and as far west as the southeastern quarter of Iowa. The map at the bottom shows eBird sightings for White-eyed Vireo in South Dakota. There’s not many! EBird has two sightings in the Sioux Falls Area…one that was banded up in Aberdeen…one seen in the Black Hills…one at Union Grove State Park…and now this bird at Newton Hills. I also seem to remember Bridget J. seeing one at Newton Hills last spring (?) but I don’t see it in eBird. This past weekend, a group of Sioux Falls birders also found the bird, in the same location where it was seen the week before.

The problem though with my first sighting…I couldn’t get a photo! He was a vocal little sucker, singing his heart out and flitting through the foliage, but I never got any good photo chances. Tonight I went back, not really looking for the White-eyed Vireo but walking the same trail. I was only about 10 yards further down the trail than last time when I heard the same unique song. He was still there! This time I was determined to get a photo. He was still foraging in the same general area, actively moving through the bushes and nearby trees, flying out a few times to flycatch. But like last time, he would always land back in the foliage. It took a while, but I was finally able to find a little opening in the twigs and foliage to get a few shots of him while he paused for a moment.

After 20 years of birding, it’s getting harder and harder to get a lifer in South Dakota…it’s always great when you find one! I hope this one beats the odds, sticks around, and somehow finds a mate to join him on his lil’ South Dakota vacation.

EBird White-eyed Vireo sightings for South Dakota.
EBird White-eyed Vireo sightings for South Dakota. Not very many! The Red X marks the location of this sighting in Newton Hills State Park.

A Cluster of Cuckoos!

Spring migration is largely over.  It was a rather disappointing migration overall, in that there were relatively low numbers of warblers, which also seemed to cut into the variety I normally see.  Despite a very wet spring and many flooded fields and other suitable habitat, shorebird migration was VERY slow in our part of the state.  After having the heater on last weekend, today we’ve touched 102 degrees!  From a birding perspective, we’re on to looking for summer residents.

This morning I went down to Newton Hills State Park, about a 30-minute drive south of us.  It’s a gorgeous park that is characterized by beautiful deciduous forest with a wonderfully healthy understory.  In other words…a rather unique habitat for South Dakota.  It’s one of the best spots in the state for finding eastern “forest birds”, and this morning certainly didn’t disappoint.

While I saw a number of the “usuals”, it wasn’t long after arriving at dawn that I heard a Cuk-Cuk-Cuk-Cuk…Cuk…Cuk…..Cuk…a rather unusual, non-musical call with a distinct slowing pace at the end.  Cuckoo! We have both Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoos around here, but I don’t come across either one very often, so at first I didn’t remember which species to associate with that call.  The answer soon came though as two of the birds drifted into the sumac on the side of the road next to me, seemingly chasing each other.  Yellow-billed Cuckoos!  Two of them!  While I’ve heard them on occasion, Cuckoos are notorious for staying close to vegetative cover.  In my 18 years of birding here I’ve only gotten one halfway decent look at them, yet here two of them were interacting within 30 feet of me!

They were definitely more interested in each other than me, with each vocalizing and moving occasionally through the sumac and surrounding trees, with one often following the movements of the other bird. They’d occasionally disappear from view so I can’t be sure, but I believe there were actually three birds present from the views and simultaneous calls that I heard.

It’s been an absolutely miserable day here with the heat, humidity, and cloud of gnats seemingly everywhere. However, if that’s the price that has to be paid to get great looks and photos of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, I’ll take it!

Yellow-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus americanus

Yellow-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus americanus

Yellow-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus americanus

Birding on a COLD May morning

I haven’t been birding all week. I haven’t done much of anything all week. Bit of an issue with an eye, and I was wearing a patch over it all week.  Normally, if it’s mid-May, I’d be out birding a lot, given that it’s pretty much my favorite time of year to bird anyway.  However, the weather has been so cold, gloomy, and wet, that I’m not sure how much I would have gone out today, one eye or not.  Today isn’t any better, but I was getting stir crazy and had to get out for a couple hours. Took the eye patch off and headed down to Newton Hills State Park.

It was 38 degrees and windy when I left the house, but despite the cold and gloom, it was a pretty darn good morning birding. There weren’t many warblers around, but quality sure made up for the lack of quantity.  I first heard a bird I didn’t recognize, and then saw him in shrubs near the path…a Black-throated Blue Warbler, only the 2nd time I’ve seen one in South Dakota.  They’re  usually found much further to the east.  Despite the cold, he was pretty active, moving through the shrubs looking for food.  Given that I’ve never photographed one in South Dakota, I stayed with him for almost half an hour and took what photo opportunities he gave me.  There weren’t many, but I finally did get a decent shot.  Here are some photos from this morning.

Black-throated Blue Warbler - Setophaga caerulescens

The first photo of a Black-throated Blue Warbler that I’ve gotten in South Dakota, and only the 2nd time I’ve ever seen one here. This is why May birding can be so spectacular here…you never know what migrant you might run across.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Archilochus colubris

A chilly looking Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Given that we haven’t seen the sun in about a week, it’s not much of a surprise I wasn’t able to get the gorget to show that beautiful red color. Despite the cold and his miserable looking appearance here, he was actually quite active, flitting about and courting an unseen female. I watched him for about 15 minutes as he’d perch, then periodically zoom up into the air and do the U-shaped courtship flight that males perform.

Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis

Yeah, I’ve got a ton of Northern Cardinal photos. But when a gorgeous male pops up right in front of you and is practically BEGGING to be photographed, it’s hard to refuse.

Spotted Sandpiper - Actitis macularius

A Spotted Sandpiper, one of my favorite little sandpipers, and one of the few that hang around and breed here.

A SPECTACULAR morning of birding.

God I love the month of May.  It’s the absolute perfect time of year in South Dakota, both in terms of weather, and especially in terms of birding! All the summer residents are arriving or have arrived, and we have SO many cool migrants moving through the state on their way north.

Today I got up before dawn and wanted to bird the morning hours. I arrived at Newton Hills State Park just before dawn, and right before I even pulled into the park, I saw a big shape in the trees on the side of the road.  A Barred Owl!  Only the 4th time I’ve seen them in the state, Barred Owls are few and far between in a state better known for its grasslands than forests.  WONDERFUL way to start the day, particularly since it was such a photo-cooperative bird!  The rest of the morning was spectacular as well…some photos from the day below.

Barred Owl - Strix varia

Only the 4th time I’ve seen them in South Dakota, a gorgeous Barred Owl right before sunrise. He was in a forest clearing near the entrance to Newton Hills State Park in Lincoln County.

Purple Martin - Progne subis

There’s a home on the edge of Hartford, South Dakota that has 3 Purple Martin houses. They seem to reliable hold Purple Martins every year, and this year was no exception. Beautiful birds, both in appearance and in song. It’s tough to get the good light on them though so you can see the purple! This is probably the best Purple Martin photo I’ve ever been able to get.

Ovenbird - Seiurus aurocapilla

THIS is the sound of spring to me…a tiny Ovenbird, singing it’s heart out from the middle of the forest. There were many Ovenbirds singing at Newton Hills State Park this morning.

Wilson's Phalarope - Phalaropus tricolor

A Wilson’s Phalarope stretching its wings. Beautiful birds, particularly when you see them in large groups doing their “spinning” behavior at the top of the water as they feed.

Virginia Rail - Rallus limicola

A Virginia Rail, perhaps better named “Swamp Ghost”. I hear them all the time! Seeing them is another matter, but usually if you hang out in an area where they’re calling, you’ll eventually get a glimpse of one moving through the marsh.

Yellow-rumped Warbler - Setophaga coronata

A Yellow-rumped Warbler, by far the most common warbler we get moving through. This guy is a preview to the “big show”. Many Yellow-rumped Warblers are around right now, but not many other warbler species. That will change in the coming days…warbler migration in South Dakota can be spectacular!

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.

 

%d bloggers like this: