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The most popular bird in eastern South Dakota

Such a busy social calendar.  Dress up in your summer finest. Find a home, try to settle down, find a good woman, chase her around incessantly, defend your territory against all comers…it’s a busy life for a bird in the spring.  Two things that probably don’t help: 1) Being hopelessly lost and being the only one of your kind for a few hundred miles, and 2) being constantly interrupted by those pesky humans with the binoculars, cameras, and cell phones.

A male Western Tanager was found near Sioux Falls a couple of days ago.  The closest Western Tanager should be 300+ miles to the west, in the Black Hills, so his appearance in eastern South Dakota caused a stir among the birding community.  Heck, I too went to find him, as I haven’t seen a Western Tanager in South Dakota, outside of the Hills. But after twice going to watch him, I was starting to feel a bit sorry for him. He’s getting a lot of attention and visitors.  His daily routine is also getting interrupted a lot.

I don’t mind birders using electronic calls to see a bird, but it does bother me when it’s done incessantly and it’s clearly affecting a bird. When I’m trying to take photos, I rarely use any electronic call, as not only do I not like the impact on the bird, I don’t like the unnatural look of photos of pissed off birds trying to figure out where that invisible “rival” is, and why he’s singing so much. The first time I went yesterday, there was a young, 14-year old birder walking up looking for the bird. I did pull out my phone, played about 5 seconds of a call, and the Tanager made an appearance for us. We then watched him for a while as he flew around the forest clearing, chasing a female Scarlet Tanager, chasing other birds out of his territory, and doing a lot of “fly-catching” (flying out from a perch to grab insects).

I thought I’d try again later in the day to try to get a better photo.  He was reliably stationed in one location, and with patience, I was sure I’d get better photos than I got earlier in the day.  However, as I walked into the clearing, there were 3 birders, a couple, and another older gentleman. I heard them all before I saw them. Or should I say, I heard the electronic calls they were playing over…and over…and over…and over again.

I left, rather than watch the poor confused Tanager desperately trying to find and dispatch his unseen “rival”.  That was just one moment of the 2nd day after he was “found”.  I have no doubt there were many occasions over the last few days where birders have come into the area with electronic calls, trying to get the perfect photo of an eastern South Dakota rarity.  I probably could have gotten closer photos of a pissed off Western Tanager had I joined them in the clearing. And heck, 10 years ago, I might have joined them.. But as I’ve gotten older, I find myself using my binoculars far more than my camera.  I used to only worry about getting that great photo, to the point that if I saw a bird but didn’t get a good photo, I was disappointed. Now I often find myself putting the camera down and just sitting and watching.   The electronic call wasn’t necessary to enjoy watching this beautiful, lost Western Tanager.

Western Tanagers aren’t going extinct because of birders.  Overall, the actions of birders with electronic calls aren’t likely to dramatically impact a species.  But I still can’t help but feel a bit sorry for this one lost bird.

Western Tanager - Piranga ludoviciana

Photo of the Western Tanager near Sioux Falls. This was taken as he was flying from perch to perch, looking for insects and doing some “flycatching”.  Not the greatest pic in the world, but I didn’t want to do what it would take to get that perfect Western Tanager photo.

Goin’ on a Snipe Hunt

When you were a kid, did you ever have someone send you on a snipe hunt? Perhaps parents who wanted some peace and quiet for a while? Perhaps an older sibling with a devilish side? Perhaps a jerk of a classmate who just liked to pick on people?  In the United States, a “Snipe Hunt” is a practical joke, usually done after the sun has gone down, sending some gullible child (or an extremely gullible adult) off in search of the mystical, mysterious, and completely non-existent Snipe.

But of course in the birding world a “Snipe Hunt” could be the pursuit of an actual bird!  In the United States we have the Wilson’s Snipe, a fairly common species that is often seen in and around wetlands and marshes.  While most often seen on the ground or wading in shallow water, during the breeding season they sometimes can be seen on very prominent perches.  I’ve heard their display flights, seen them perched in shrub early in the spring, and even saw one swaying in the wind while somehow clinging to a telephone line with feet that are NOT made for such a task!  But I’ve never captured a photo of one that wasn’t on the ground or in the water.

This morning I was driving in western Minnehaha County, a part of the “prairie potholes” that has many shallow wetlands and lakes. While approaching a wet, grassy field on a quiet gravel road, I saw a chunky bird perched on top of a fence post.  Western Meadowlark? But as I got closer, it was obviously a Wilson’s Snipe, standing on the fence post and occasionally vocalizing. Love makes a guy do all kinds of crazy things, and this little guy was doing his best to attract attention.  While watching him, he took flight and did a short display flight, calling all the while, and then circling back and landing on the same exact fence post!  I watched him for a minute or two before he fluttered back down into the vegetation, but not before I was able to capture some photos of the behavior.

A successful Snipe hunt!  TAKE THAT, practical jokesters!

Wilson's Snipe - Gallinago delicata

Wilson’s Snipe, calling from atop a wooden fence post.

 

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 > 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

“High-rise” Peregrine Falcon

I think every birder and every bird photographer has their “nemesis” birds, a species that has somehow eluded them over the years. Peregrine Falcons would be one of my nemesis birds.  They’re definitely not common here in South Dakota, but I have seen them on a few occasions However, it’s always been a really quick glance, or a view from a very long distance.

One and sometimes even two Peregrine Falcons have occasionally hung around downtown Sioux Falls.  Lately a lone bird has occasionally been sighted…almost always while perched on a true South Dakota “high-rise”!! The U.S. Bank building, at a TOWERING 9 stories or so, really is one of the tallest buildings in downtown Sioux Falls, and it’s a favorite perch for this bird.  Tonight on the advice of a birding friend who had seen it earlier in the day, I swung by and saw that yes, the bird was still perched on a ledge one floor from the top of the building.

A real treat!  I pulled onto the top floor of a nearby parking garage and watched him for a good hour. Not the greatest photos in the world, but hey, I finally have SOME recognizable photos of a Peregrine Falcon! I won’t check it off my “nemesis” list until I get some top-notch photos, but tonight was a blast nonetheless.

Peregrine Falcon - Falco peregrinus

Peregrine Falcon - Falco peregrinus

Peregrine Falcon - Falco peregrinus

Peregrine Falcon - Falco peregrinus

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.

“Blind Luck” – Shooting Waterfowl

Silly waterfowl.  In a state where everybody seems to have a shotgun in the back of their pickup, for some reason waterfowl here are quite shy when people are around.  For a bird photographer, that makes life a wee bit difficult.  It’s practically impossible to be walking, standing, or otherwise visible and be within shooting range of most waterfowl here. Fortunately, there are several ways of using blinds that allow you to get extremely close…sometimes so close that the birds are too close for my 400mm lens to focus (it has a 12 foot minimum focusing distance).

After a blizzard and 19″ total inches of snow last week, today is sunny and 60.  I left before dawn and went west of Sioux Falls in search of waterfowl and shorebirds. The shorebirds weren’t around, but there certainly were plenty of waterfowl. I won’t go into the details (I had a post once about the blinds I use to get close to birds), but this morning used a combination of three blinds…1) my car, 2) a portable blind I always have with me, and 3) a permanent blind build on a local wetland.  GREAT morning of shooting, with absolutely perfect light for some of these.  Some pics from the day:

Redhead - Aythya americana

Female and Male Redhead, taken in some nice warm, early morning light on a local wetland.

Pied-billed Grebe - Podilymbus podiceps

One of my favorite little birds, a Pied-billed Grebe. They’re not as shy as all the ducks and geese around here, but they do have a nasty habit of just slowly sinking below the surface and swimming away underwater, RIGHT when you’re about to hit the shutter on the camera. Was glad to get a nice detailed shot in the light right after sunrise.

Mallard - Anas platyrhynchos

“Just” a mallard. “Just”? JUST!?!?! I admit that’s my opinion too many times, but you have to admit a drake Mallard is one damned beautiful duck.

Swainson's Hawk - Buteo swainsoni

It’s not just waterfowl moving through right now. Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels are seemingly everywhere right now, and today MANY Swainson’s Hawks like this one showed up.

Great Egret - Ardea alba

With snow still on the ground in many places and temperatures only starting to warm up in the last couple of days, I wasn’t sure what I’d find this morning, but I think the birds are moving more by the calendar than the temperature. I did run across one large wetland with many Great Egrets foraging in the shallows.

Redhead Drake - Aythya americana

Such beautiful birds! Such wonderful lighting this morning! This may be one of my favorite duck photos that I’ve ever taken.

Double-crested Cormorant - Phalacrocorax auritus

A Double-crested Cormorant swimming near the shoreline. They are SUCH cool birds when you see them up close, with those impossibly blue turquoise eyes.

Blue-winged teal - Anas discors

A male Blue-winged Teal. One of the most common dabbling ducks around here, and not all that colorful (until they fly), but they do have some wonderfully intricate patterns on their flanks, along with the unique face crescent.

Lesser Scaup - Aythya affinis

A male Lesser Scaup, one of the most common diving ducks we get in migration.

Updated “South Dakota Rockhound” pages

Bubblegum Agate - South Dakota Rockhound

An incredible, polished bubblegum agate from the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands of South Dakota. An amazing little piece, it was a small, black, featureless lump when we found it, but we’ve found that these little dark bubblegums often have some GORGEOUS patterns that reveal themselves once you polish them for a while. There are other examples on the updated pages on South Dakota Rockhound pages.

I’m 51 years old. I already have so many unprocessed bird photos sitting on my hard drive that I doubt there are enough years left in my life to process them all, and add them to my website or blog. It’s easy to take photos!  It’s FUN to take photos!  It’s much less fun to process them all and DO something with said photos.

And now my son and I have a new hobby that we started last summer…rockhounding in the incredible areas near the Badlands of South Dakota. We certainly have found some beautiful pieces of agate, jasper, petrified wood, and other stones over the last year.  The wonderful and variable patterns and colors just BEG a photographer to get out the camera…I can’t resist!  As if I needed more unprocessed photos cluttering up my hard drive, now I’m also taking macro photos and photos of rocks and minerals, many of which will likely never see the light of day.

I’m trying! I’m trying to be more selective in what I shoot, both for birds and for rocks!  And in an effort to at least get some photos of my favorite pieces out on my website, I have just recently updated the “South Dakota Rockhound” section of my website.  Click on the following for photos of some of the pieces we’ve found over the last year. There are also some cool macro photos of other mineral assets we’ve acquired over the past year (for now, just a batch of Mexican Crazy Lace agate).  As with the birding pages on my website, I’ll try to continually update the Rockhound site as I have time!  For now, enjoy the new photos.

South Dakota Rockhound (Click here)

Mexican Crazy Lace Agate - Macro Photograph

A macro photo of one of the pieces of Mexican Crazy Lace (agate) we bought recently.

Rather slow (but enjoyable) winter raptor search

I treasure my trips to the central part of South Dakota in the winter. Given the bleakness and bitter cold that a South Dakota winter often brings, it’s a true joy to head to the area near the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and generally find it so incredibly full of life. Winter on the Grasslands means raptors, often in numbers that boggle the mind.  Rough-legged Hawks by the dozens, huge Golden and Bald Eagles, Ferruginous Hawks, Prairie Falcons, and the occasional Gyrfalcon, Snowy Owl, Short-eared Owl, or other “goody”.

That’s the normal winter day on the Grasslands. A recent trip unfortunately wasn’t “normal”.  It’s been a hard last year or two for grouse and pheasants on the Grasslands, with drought and some cold winters taking a bit of a toll.  It’s the grouse, pheasants, and other prey that attract the winter raptors, and with the lower prey numbers, raptor numbers have been far below what they normally are.  In a full day’s worth of birding, I “only” came across 15 or so Rough-legged Hawks, about half-a-dozen eagles, and some scattered Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers. I usually find multiple Prairie Falcons and an occasional Merlin or Gyrfalcon, but no falcons of any kind were seen on this trip. A quiet day, but still enjoyable, thanks to the occasional raptor sighting, and VERY large numbers of Mule Deer, Pronghorn, and even 4 or 5 (normally very shy) coyotes.

Not only were the birds rather sparse on this day, but photo opportunities weren’t great.  Here are a (very) few photos from the day, including the highlight…a gorgeous, pure white Snowy Owl.

Snowy Owl - Bubo scandiacus

The definite highlight of the day, an absolutely stunning, pure-white Snowy Owl, found on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. Clearly a mature male with the lack of black barring. Most birds we see around here in winter seem to be younger and/or female birds with substantial black barring. Unfortunately he was pretty shy, and preferred to observe from a distance on a high point in a nearby corn field.

Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos

I love Golden Eagles, particularly when you get to see them at such close range such as this. Such massive, massive birds.

Pronghorn - Antilocapra americana

Pronghorn are something you don’t always see on the Fort PIerre National Grasslands, but they are around. On this day, I saw multiple large groups, including this group (there were about 30 animals in all) moving quickly through a field.

Mule Deer - Odocoileus hemionus

A quite common sight on the Grasslands, Mule Deer were bunched up and quite common on this day. I saw several very large bucks such as this. Shouldn’t be long before they lose their antlers and start growing next year’s.Mul

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