Splash of Winter Color

Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker (The red on the male’s cap is complete and unbroken, while the female has a tan strip at the top of her head). I have a lot of photos of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, but this is one of the few that shows their namesake trait. Most of the time, the subtle red splash on the belly is quite inconspicuous.

More snow yesterday. Just a couple of inches, but we’ve had a seemingly endless stream of “just a couple of inches” in the last two months.  It’s now late February, and after a long winter, and I’m ready for spring birding to begin.

I’m just ready for COLOR.  Birding in South Dakota in winter is often as gray, dreary, and plain as the weather and our sloppy, gloppy streets.  Bird species diversity is low and those birds that do stick around for the winter are, in general, of the black-and-white variety.  I’ve had more Pine Siskins at my feeders than I’ve ever had, and the little bit of yellow they have is a welcome contrast to the gray gloom.  However, the other most common birds at my feeders are Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos,  and House Sparrows, none of which have much color.

My favorite “yard bird” is one that’s become quite reliable, both in winter and summer.  They’re striking not only for the bright splash of color, but for their size, as they’re generally the largest bird we get in the winter….Red-bellied Woodpeckers. We live in a house we built 12 years ago, and tree cover in the neighborhood landscaping is still maturing.  Red-bellied Woodpeckers need mature trees for nesting and foraging, but fortunately, we live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a State Park with ample riparian forest habitat. The male and female pair that visit our yard clearly spend most of their time in the Park.  When I see them come to our yard, they’re almost always flying in from the Park, and they head back to the Park when they’re done feeding.

When they first came to our yard, they were pretty shy.  The feeders are close to the windows of a sunroom that looks out into our back yard, and the woodpeckers would often spook and fly away if I was moving around in the house. Fortunately over the years they’ve become accustomed not only to our presence, but to that of our two spaniels! One suet feeder sits on a hook off our deck, and the male will often continue to sit and feed at the suet feeder, even when I let the dogs out on the deck. The female is a little shyer, but still stays around the yard much more frequently than she used to.

A wonderful visitor, at any time of the year.

Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus

My favorite Red-bellied Woodpecker photo, this is of a male from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, the park across the street from our house.

Visit to Teddy Roosevelt National Park

Wild Horses - Teddy Roosevelt National Park

A pair of wild horses standing on a ridge top. This was with my long 400mm lens, and this was as close as the wild horses were going to allow our approach. It was still wonderful seeing a group of about a dozen, roaming in a valley bottom. Click on the photos for a larger view.

In addition to not doing much birding or photography this summer, I also failed to process photos from the relatively few photo opportunities I DID have.  That includes all the photos from our family vacation at the end of July into the beginning of August.  We LOVE visiting National Parks, and this summer we decided to do a driving trip to visit three: 1) Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, 2) Glacier National Park in Montana, and 3) Banff National Park in Alberta.  We’d been to the latter two before, but just once each time.  Banff was the end point of the trip, and in my mind was going to be the highlight of the vacation, while Glacier is a place we felt we “missed out” on during our first visit, because the “going-to-the-sun” scenic road was unexpectedly closed (still snow in early July!).

Teddy Roosevelt National Park? Eh.  I admit I wasn’t too excited about it before we left, but it was kind of on the way, and my wife and son hadn’t seen it before. We ended up staying a couple of nights in Medora, North Dakota, at the edge of the park, and spending 2 days in the park itself.  It ended up being one of the highlights of the trip!!

Lazuli Bunting - Passerina amoena

A male Lazuli Bunting stopping for a moment in a field of flowers. They are SUCH beautiful birds, and I have very few photos of them, so was quite happy to have this guy stay just long enough for a couple of photos.

Banff is gorgeous. Glacier National Park is gorgeous.  But my GOD, the people!  In Glacier National Park, we got to do going-to-the-sun road, but with the road jammed with tourists, it was almost impossible to find a place to park and walk on most of the route.  In Banff National Park, you can certainly find quieter spots if you get off the road and hike, but Lake Louise? The town of Banff itself?  The glacier on the way up to Jasper?  You sometimes feel like you’re in Central Park or some other park in the middle of a metropolis.  SO many people, which for me, takes away much of the joy of places like that.

And that, my friends, is one reason why Teddy Roosevelt was such a gem to me.  Let’s start with where we stayed, in Medora.  I had a bit of an issue with the company that seemed to OWN most of Medora, as they ran many of the restaurants, lodging, and tourist traps in town.  But Medora itself?  It’s tiny, and even in the middle of the tourist season, it was uncrowded, relaxing, and may I say, damn enjoyable for a town that could easily be turned into a gaudy tourist trap.  You can comfortably walk and see every site in town, walk to visit any restaurant in town.  There are a few shops that you’d deem typical for a summer tourist town, such as candy shops, ice-cream shops, upscale art…but they’re not crowded and don’t overwhelm the natural charm of the place.

The park itself is lovely. Coming from South Dakota, we knew Teddy Roosevelt National Park is sometimes described as a “greener” version of South Dakota’s Badlands.  That’s an apt description, because the topography and geological features do look similar, but with quite a bit more grassland and other vegetation in comparison with the Badlands. It really was quite lovely, and for someone trying to get away from humanity (one of my goals on any vacation!), it’s remarkably quiet.  We walked many trails during our two days in the park, and typically we’d only run into one or two other hiking groups, if we met any at all. I’m a sucker for open spaces and grasslands, and Teddy Roosevelt certainly has plenty of that to offer, in addition to the rugged terrain in many places.

Prairie Dog - Teddy Roosevelt National Park

An alert prairie dog, wondering whether to wait us out, or dart into his hole. I LOVE walking through prairie dog towns in the Dakotas. They’re often so rich with wildlife. Teddy Roosevelt offers several locations where you can see these guys.

With just 2 days in the park, I really didn’t get a chance to get away and do any devoted birding, but it was still a very interesting place from a wildlife perspective.  Bison roam through much of the park, and there was a time or two where we had to detour or pause on a hike to give some nearby Bison the spaced they need.  Pronghorn and deer were commonly seen, and more often than not, when you scanned the sky around you, you’d see soaring hawks.  Prairie dog towns are always a favorite spot for mine, not for the prairie dogs themselves (although they are darned cute), but for the wildlife that’s often attracted to them. In one spot we saw a badger loping through a prairie dog town (much to the chagrin of the prairie dogs), and we also saw coyotes on a couple of occasions. There aren’t many in the park, but one attraction from a “wildlife” standpoint are the few dozen wild horses that roam the park.  We did see about a dozen of them at one point, but they were very skittish and didn’t allow people to get within half a mile of them.  I did manage to get a few nice photos of a pair standing on a ridge, before they galloped away.

If you’re looking for a relaxing, quiet, beautiful, and UNCROWDED vacation spot…Teddy Roosevelt National Park really turned out to be a gem in my book!  It goes to show that the “big name” parks like Yellowstone, Glacier, or Banff up in Canada certainly are majestic, but a visit to the lesser-known National Parks is definitely worth  your time as well.

Photographing a non-existent bird

Photo of Blue-winged Warbler - Vermivora cyanoptera

A Blue-winged Warbler seen at Newton Hills State Park in South Dakota. Most sources would consider it to be very rare for the area, or an out-of-range vagrant. Thanks to “citizen scientists”, I think our understanding of bird distributions is going to be much improved in the coming years.

I visited Newton Hills State Park this week.  It’s a wonderful place to bird, and rarely fails to produce some interesting birds, particularly given that its an oasis of forest in a vast plain of corn and soybeans.  While walking along a path I heard what is now a familiar song, a buzzy quiet song that sometimes sounds like half insect, half bird.  Soon the source the song popped up on the top of a nearby cedar…a Blue-winged Warbler.  I was able to take quite a few decent photos of him before I moved on to find other quarry.

What’s always interesting about that spot in Newton Hills, and that species, is that they’re generally assumed NOT to be there.  Oh, among local birders, that particular spot is well known as “the”  place to find a Blue-winged Warbler in South Dakota.  However, if you look at field guides or other sources of bird information that provide range maps, southeastern South Dakota is either on the very extreme edge of the Blue-winged Warbler’s range, or it’s outside their normal breeding range.  Despite that, most years you can find a couple of pairs of Blue-winged Warblers breeding in this corner of Newton Hills State Park.

As always, I recorded the Blue-winged Warbler sighting in eBird, along with all the other birds I saw on that day.  If you’re not an eBird user, when you report a “rare” or unusual bird, the software flags it, and makes you enter a bit a detail about the sighting.  To further verify the identification, you can upload a photo that you may have taken of the bird.  EBird flagged Blue-winged Warbler as rare and unusual for the area, so I added a blurb about the very clear sighting, and also later uploaded a photo to accompany the report.

I’m in the habit now of entering eBird sightings most of the time when I go birding, but I’m still surprised sometimes when eBird flags a sighting as rare and unusual.  It does make you realize how incomplete our understanding is for even the most basic of characteristics of a given bird species…where they can be found.  There have been a number of times where I’ve casually entered a species in eBird, and have been surprised when eBird has flagged it as rare for the area.  Many times, it’s a species I’ve found in that area quite consistently.

I’ve brought up eBird here before, but as I photographed and reported what many sources consider to be a “non-existent” species for this part of the country, it does make you realize the power of “citizen science” and what a massive database such as eBird can do to improve our understanding of bird species distributions, migration timing, etc.

F***ing, Fat, Fake Nature Lovin’ Campers – FFFNLCs

Vegetation removal at Big Sioux Rec Area - 2013 to 2015

Big Sioux Rec Area campground – 2 years ago, and today. All shrubs and trees anywhere close to the road removed, any remaining trees trimmed way up. Can’t have any scratches on those $125,000 RVs!!!

We live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a state park here in South Dakota.  It’s a riparian area along the Big Sioux River, with many very large cottonwoods and burr oaks, among other trees.  We’ve lived in Brandon for over 20 years now, and I’ve always enjoyed the park, including the birds found within.  That enjoyment is becoming less and less as time goes by.

There’s a definite pecking order in terms of what passes for “recreation” in South Dakota.  Birds and birding, and wildlife in general, seems to be very far down that list.  “Parks and Rec” often seems to mean accommodating a few select recreational uses of public land.  Hunting definitely tops the list.  What else would you think when you get to your favorite  South Dakota State Park, and are immediately greeted with a sign that says “Warning – Hunting Season in Progress”?  Nothing says rest and relaxation more than walking a beautiful path, looking for birds, all the time with a wary eye for any trigger happy hunter that may be targeting something in your general vicinity.

Accommodating campers seems to be the second highest priority.  The Big Sioux Recreation Area has always had camping spots, but until recently, they’d been wonderfully vegetated.  There are two loops with camping spots, loops that USED to be lined with cedar trees and other vegetation.  They were wonderful for birding. The deciduous trees and shrubs around the camping sites themselves were sometimes spectacular for warblers and other migrants in the spring.  The thick cover offered by the cedars and surrounding bushes always attracted birds.  A few years ago on a beautiful November day, as my son and I walked through the park, we were surprised by 15 or more Long-eared Owls that were roosting in the evergreens.  They were incredibly tame, allowing close approach.  People came from all around the area to see this unique circumstance, a group of tame, easily seen Long-eared owls that had chosen the Big Sioux Rec Area camping loops as their winter roosting spot.

Long-eared Owl - Asio otus

From 2007, a Long-eared Owl perched in trees in the campground at the Big Sioux Recreation Area. Those trees and any other vegetation in the vicinity are GONE, largely to make way for today’s generation of Fat Fake Nature Lovin’ Campers.

Last summer, the park began removing trees and shrubs.  Ostensibly, part of the reason was due to what’s become an all out war on Eastern Red Cedar by parks in the state.  However, one of the directly stated reasons for the move?  All the increasingly large campers that use the Big Sioux Rec Area were having a difficult time backing into some of the camping spots.  Those cedar trees that held all the Long-eared Owls?  They are ALL gone.  All the bushes and other vegetation that used to line the roads of the camping loops?  Gone.  What was once a wonderful habitat for birds is now a habitat for…FFNLCs.

What is a FFNLC, you ask? My very blunt term for “Fat Fake Nature Lovin’ Campers”.  Frankly, I usually put another “F” in front of the term, and you can imagine what that stands for.  DEFINITE “Fake nature lovers”, given what passes for “camping” at the Big Sioux Recreation Area.  Last night, I was walking through the park and passed a MASSIVE RV that has been parked in the same spot all week. Despite being there for several days, I had yet to actually see someone OUTSIDE, until last night.  Last night, there was a definite FFNLC, “roughing it” in the park.  This FFNLC was massive on a grand scale, just as was her RV!  And just as massive was the huge flatscreen TV she watching in the “wild” of the park.  The RV had a panel on the outside that opened to reveal this massive flatscreen TV. This FFNLC was sitting in a lawn chair with a huge bowl of chips(?), munching away with the volume turned ALL the way up so the rest of the park could also enjoy her viewing of American Idol.

NOTHING says “Nature” more than sitting in a lawn chair, with your satellite TV hooked up, watching a giant screen and speakers belting out American Idol.  And now you see why I usually add another “F” in front of FFNLC.  Even if there WERE a bird in the general vicinity of the VERY fat FFNLC, there’s no way I could have heard it over her TV.

Fox Sparrow photo - Big Sioux Rec Area

Fox Sparrow, taken in the campground loop at Big Sioux Rec Area. Alas, this spruce tree, like EVERY spruce and cedar tree in that loop, is now gone.

I don’t want to be mean about the “fat” part of FFNLC, but…c’mon, it fits SO well for FFNLCs.  This weekend, on a GORGEOUS afternoon, I took a walk through the park with my pups.  There’s a nice, long, paved bike/walking trail through the park that we like to take the pups on.  Beautiful day…many campers at the park…gorgeous trail…and for the 1 1/2 mile walk, do you know how many people I came across on the trail?  ONE.  ONE!!!  But yet you got back to the campground area itself, and there were certainly plenty of FAT FFNLC’s “roughing” it.  “Roughing it” nowadays evidently means never moving more than 15 feet from the vicinity of your massive, air conditioned, satellite TV equipped, more-comfortable-than-most-peoples-houses, 40-foot RV.  TAKE A FREAKIN’ WALK, FFNLCs.  TRY TURNING OFF THE TV and actually enjoying the park itself.

There’s obviously no going back.  My very birdy camping loops are no more, and it’s not going to change.  EVERY change the State Parks make around here end up REMOVING habitat, and putting in MORE camping stalls.  I guess I should enjoy what habitat remains in the Big Sioux Recreation Area, because its inevitable that any bird habitat presently found there is only going to be reduced even further as time goes by.

A “birdy” kind o’ day…

Ovenbird - Seiurus aurocapilla

Ovenbird, one of many I heard and saw today at Newton Hills State Park.

The weather wasn’t great this morning.  Cool, overcast, and drizzling every once in a while.  The options for such a Friday in May…go to work, or take the day off despite the weather and go birding all day.

Of course option B was chosen.  May is such an incredible time to bird here, with all the migrants moving through and the summer songbirds arriving.  I spent most of the day at Newton Hills State Park, a gem of a place in Lincoln County, South Dakota.  It’s got wonderful forest habitat reminiscent of forests of the Eastern U.S., right here on the (mostly) plains of South Dakota.  With an “eastern forest” comes “eastern birds”.  Newton Hills is often one of the very few places where you can find some species of forest birds in the state.

At this time of year, the summer breeding residents are arriving and singing their hearts out.  One of my favorite species was one of the first birds I heard when I arrived this morning, an Ovenbird singing his little heart out from the top of a fence post.  Newton Hills is the most reliable spot I know of to find these guys both in the spring, and during the summer breeding season.  I saw several Indigo Buntings flitting through the big Burr Oak trees, providing momentary glimpses of a shocking brilliant blue that you just don’t expect to see flitting through the forest canopy.  Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were singing everywhere, as were Eastern Towhees.  Two of the most numerous summer breeders in parts of the park were also two of the loudest and most obvious birds today, with Yellow Warblers singing and chasing each other all over the place, and the ever-present (in summer anyway!) House Wrens found in practically every corner of the park.

Black-and-white Warbler - Mniotilta varia

An elegant Black-and-White Warbler pausing to get his photo taken.

One of the things I’m learning to appreciate is the unseen, yet heard bird.  Ok, yeah, may seem obvious, but for a guy who has focused on bird photography for so long, seeing has always trumped hearing for me.  There were several species that I heard today, but only got a very brief glimpse of or didn’t see at all.  I hear Wood Thrush in multiple spots, with their beautiful, metallic-sounding (to me) songs.  I desperately was trying to get a photo of a Scarlet Tanager I heard, but he stayed in the treetops and never even gave me a glimpse. One singing bird I REALLY was trying to track down was what sounded very much like a Kentucky Warbler.  I heard it singing at some distance, but when I walked towards the area it stopped singing and I never found it.  I’ve never seen a Kentucky Warbler, hence my excitement at hearing the bird.  I don’t know the song of one well enough for me to conclusively say that’s what it was, even though it sure sounded like a Kentucky Warbler when I got back to my car and compared to the song of one on my iPhone.

Alas, a rarity and a lifer that eluded me.  It really wasn’t a terrific day for any unusual birds, but there certainly was a really nice variety of migrants and arriving breeding birds. The birds I get the most excited for this time of year are the warblers, but other than those mentioned above, the only other species I saw today were Black-and-White, Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped, and Common Yellowthroats.  Warblers are so unpredictable here though, with birds seemingly “dripping off the trees” on some May days, and seemingly absent on others.

A great day overall!  One puzzling thing though was how it was so “birdy” at Newton Hills, but so completely dead at another spot I visited. I haven’t been to Union Grove State Park very much, but in many ways it’s very similar to Newton Hills, with a lot of uncharacteristic (for South Dakota) eastern forest land.  As loud and boisterous as the birds were at Newton Hills, I was immediately struck at how quiet it was at Union Grove.  I kept listening for birds, trying to find a “birdy” spot to get out and walk, but I was met by complete silence.  After half an hour I’d driven all the roads in the small park, and the only birds of ANY kind I saw were a pair of Turkey Vultures, a Crow, and a Blue Jay.   The only birds I heard but didn’t see were a Red-bellied Woodpecker and a Chipping Sparrow on the way out.  Weird…not even a Robin, when they were all over the place at Newton Hills.

Orange-crowned Warbler - Vermivora celata

Ok, somebody tell me…have you EVER seen an actual “orange crown” on an “Orange-crowned Warbler”?

Despite the quiet at Union Grove, despite the rather gloomy weather to start the day, it ended up being a very nice day of birding. There were about a dozen “first-of-year” birds for me, which brings me up to around 160 species for the year so far, within South Dakota.  Not bad, considering we’re a frozen wasteland for 6 months of the year, and there’s not much for quantity or variety of birds during that time!

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