Articles

A typical day on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands

Fort Pierre National Grasslands - South Dakota

Two weeks off of work, winding down as I prepare to return to work tomorrow. It’s been a wonderful (and much needed!) break, with time with the family, and plenty of birding. In two weeks I managed to make it out to central South Dakota three times…more than I normally do all winter! It’s such a magical place for me in winter. Quiet…open…often harsh and unforgiving…yet very restorative for me when I need time alone to recharge.

So what’s the attraction? Central South Dakota? In the dead of winter? Here’s a photo synopsis of what it’s like, all photos from my most recent trip out there last Thursday/Friday.

Fort Pierre National Grasslands - Sunrise
Pre-dawn on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. Normally I make a (long) day of it, leaving 3 hours before dawn so I can arrive just before the sun rises, and make the most out of short winter days (about 9 hours of sunlight at a minimum). This photo gives you a good idea of what it’s like as you await the sunrise…VAST…open…isolated…and other than barbed wire fences and a few powerlines, often not much of a sign of human habitation. An exciting time as the sun arises, as you just KNOW you’re about to have another wonderful day on the grasslands.
Pronghorn - Fort Pierre National Grasslands
It’s not ALL about birds! While winter raptors are my primary reason for coming to the region, there’s often other wildlife to catch your attention. On this trip I was thrilled to see a large herd of Pronghorn grazing on the rolling hills, just as the sun was rising. Mule Deer and White-tailed Deer are also often seen. Coyotes are certainly around, and I probably see them about every other trip to the Grasslands, but mostly at dawn. They’re extremely shy and difficult to approach.
Buteo Regalis - Ferruginous Hawk - Fort PIerre National Grasslands
There are a few private land holdings within the Grasslands boundaries, but there are more abandoned buildings than any other. In a land that’s often treeless or without any kind of high perches, these abandoned homesteads often are birding hotspots. Here a Ferruginous Hawk is perched next to an abandoned…Packard (?).
Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus
RAPTORS are the name of the game on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, but there’s a definite hierarchy in terms of what I’d love to see!! The Holy Grail bird of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands…a Gyrfalcon! And not only a Gyrfalcon, but an adult Gyrfalcon. In the 20 years I’ve been birding the area, I’ve probably seen about 25 Gyrfalcons. I believe I can count on one hand how many of those have been adults, so I was thrilled to run across one on this trip. I watched from a long distance and took some photos from further away than I normally would, as I wanted to make sure I documented this bird’s presence. I’m glad I stopped so far away and grabbed some photos, because after watching it for perhaps 30 seconds, it flushed and flew away, and I never again found it on this trip.
Greater Prairie Chicken in Flight - Tympanuchus cupido
Why are there so many raptors on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands? Clearly raptors go where the food is. There undoubtedly must be a lot of voles and other small rodents, as that’s what I primarily see birds like Rough-legged Hawks catch. But another attractant to birds like the Gyrfalcon above are all the Ring-necked Pheasants, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Greater Prairie Chickens that are around. It’s a popular hunting location for all of those species, and given that surrounding private lands often release birds (pheasants) for hunting, there’s never a shortage of any of those species. The native Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie Chickens are VERY wary as a result of the hunting pressure, and I have few close photos of either species. On this trip I was very happy to get my first ever flight photo of a Greater Prairie Chicken. With the recent heavy snow, many of the game birds were struggling to find foraging grounds, and were concentrated along the roads more than usual.
Ring-necked Pheasant - Phasianus colchicus
Speaking of Pheasants…they are widespread in the area, but are probably less common on the Grasslands themselves than on the surrounding private lands.
Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus
You’ll see both Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles on the Grasslands. Golden Eagles are more often seen (they were downright common on the three recent trips I took), but even far from any open water, you will also often see Bald Eagles. I’m aware of at least 4 different nests just to the south of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves, near the Presho area. This photo is along the Missouri River just to the north of the Grasslands, a stronghold of the species in the winter months.
Prairie Falcon - Falco mexicanus
A Prairie Falcon in flight. They’re definitely a larger bird than the American Kestrels you see a lot in the summer months (and to a much lesser extent, in winter). They’re larger than the Merlins you sometimes see on the Grasslands (including one I saw Friday). But they share the same “falcon” characteristic when they take flight, with much faster wingbeats than all the Buteo hawks in the region, and a more tapered wing. Couple the relatively large size and that classic falcon flight pattern, and Prairie Falcons OFTEN get my heart racing as I’m thinking that bird flying up in front of me may be a Gyrfalcon! On a typical day on the Grasslands though, I’m lucky if I see a Gyrfalcon, yet I almost always see 3 or 4 Prairie Falcons. Usually they’re pretty shy, but there’s been one hanging around County Line Road on the grasslands this winter that’s uncharacteristically curious. He’ll flush when you get anywhere close, as do nearly all Prairie Falcons. But then he has this habit of circling me one or two times before finding a different perch! It’s not often I can grab a Prairie Falcon in flight, so I’m pretty happy to have seen this guy on this past trip.
Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus
Always by FAR the most common raptor on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in winter…a Rough-legged Hawk. I didn’t stop and record each one in eBird as I often do. But on a trip to the area the week before I saw nearly 50 of them, and I would suspect I tallied a similar number on this past trip. Gorgeous birds, and quite variable in plumage, although this is the typical plumage that you see.
Buteo jamaicensis - Red-tailed Hawk
The Fort Pierre National Grasslands are mostly treeless, and even during the summer months I’ve found Red-tailed Hawks are typically concentrated in the few wooded ravines, shelterbelts, or abandoned farmsteads in the area. In winter, those site tendencies are even more pronounced. Many Red-tailed Hawks move further south for the winter, and I find MANY more Red-tailed Hawks just south of the Grasslands (such as the Presho area) in winter than I do on the Grasslands themselves. However, over the 20+ years I’ve been birding the area, it’s quite obvious to me that more birds are overwintering in the region than used to. Similarly, 20 years ago it wasn’t common to find Western Meadowlark overwintering in any numbers, but on this past trip, there were a few spots where I stirred up a dozen or so Meadowlarks hanging out together. More Red-tailed Hawks, more Meadowlarks, fewer Gyrfalcons….that’s my impression of what’s happened over the last 20 years.
Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos
The one photo here that’s not from last Thursday/Friday, as this was taken on the Grasslands 2 days before Christmas. My impression is that BOTH eagle species are getting much more common on the Grasslands. I have few if any photos of them 10 to 20 years ago, but now I typically see 6-10 each time I go out.

First Shots – Canon 90D

A new toy! My primary camera body for 6+ years now has been a Canon 70D. It’s been a great camera, but…it’s time for an upgrade. I’ve been waiting (not so patiently!!!) for either a Canon 90D or 7D Mark III to be announced, as I wanted an upgrade, but wanted to stay with APS-C and the crop factor (handy when birds are your primary target). It was the 90D that was announced a few weeks ago. It started shipping Thursday, and I got mine from B&H the next day (awesome service as always, B&H).

I was anxious to give the camera a whirl this weekend, and was able to get out for a little bit this morning. As always, I had birds on my mind, but with a very strong south wind and generally non-cooperative birds, I set my sights on other quarry. Just a few photos below if you’re interested in the 90D and what it can do. All were taken with the Canon 100-400mm II lens.

Before the pics, just a few notes on my impression of the 90D. In terms of the nuts and bolts of the body, it has a very similar layout and will feel familiar to any Canon 70D shooter. While both have the same rubbery-coating in key areas of the grip, the rest of the body on the 70D is smoother and feels more “metallic”. The 90D surface has a consistency that feels like powder-coated metal is and is more matte in appearance than shiny. I appreciate the joystick on the 90D, and the fully articulating screen is great. The screen swings out, but also rotates. You can position it with the screen locked and facing back towards the shooter, as if it were a 70D. It’s nice for taking a shot and quickly reviewing (again, as you would with a 70D). When you’re done for the day, you can rotate the screen so it’s “face-down” towards the camera, protecting it when not in use.

There’s little doubt auto-focus is better on the 90D. I was frustrated quite a bit trying to shoot birds in flight with my 70D, in that it often had trouble “holding on” to a target. In my limited shooting this morning, it seemed MUCH better. There were a number of Franklin’s Gulls flying over, and I tried locking onto a bird and shooting, and it did a good job maintaining focus as I tracked the bird in flight (using AI Servo mode).

Note I also did a bit of shooting with an old 1.4x Canon teleconverter I have. I think the newer Canon teleconverters have more capability than the 15-year old teleconverter I have(?). But even with my old 1.4, the 90D will autofocus with an (effective) f/8 lens, meaning I was able to use it with my EF 100-400mm IS II USM and maintain autofocus with the center point. That’s a capability the 70D doesn’t have (although the 80D does). There’s no doubt the images when using the 1.4x were a touch softer than those without, but I’ll have to do more testing to check the capabilities with the 1.4x.

10-frames a second on the 90D…damn. I usually don’t shoot in that mode, as it just means I’d typically end up having to filter through even more shots to settle on my “keepers”, but it’s a nice option and a big upgrade over the 70D.

Of course one big improvement is resolution, where I’m going from 20 MP in the 70D to 32.5 MP in the 90D. A lot of pixels, and a lot of detail. For a guy who shoots primarily birds and often has to crop, those extra pixels are most welcome.

A few shots from this morning are below. Note I am NOT a pixel-peeper who is going to analyze every single element here, nor am I really one to give you a rigorous test. No, what follows are basic shots from the camera, shot RAW, and processed through Canon’s Digital Photo Professional with default settings to produce the JPEGs below. Each are the full-res versions (click to see full-res file). Just a few for now, including some at low ISO and one at quite high ISO. My first subject for the day…a farm cat that was hunting in a grassy field! In all the years I’ve been shooting, that this is probably the first cat photo I’ve ever taken!

CLICK ON THE 800pixel version below to load the original full-res images

Canon 90D, EF100-400mm f/4.5-4.5L IS II USM, 1/320 sec, f/9, ISO 200
Canon 90D, EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, 1/8000 sec, f/9, ISO 8000
I wanted to take something at high ISO. Not exactly the world’s best test of high ISO, in such bright light, but I was pleased with the performance at ISO 8000. Note this again is default settings convert from Camera RAW, and the default is more aggressive at noise control at ISO 8000 than for the ISO200 shot above.
Canon 90D, EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, 1/200 sec, f/9, ISO 200
Canon 90D, EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, 1/320, f/8, ISO 200

Done! Australia Wildlife Photos Page

It only took 5 weeks of photo processing and webpage creation, but I finally have a finished web page that shows all of the better wildlife photos from Australia. There’s around 600 photos out here, of ~75 bird species as well as some other critters. I’m not very good at actually following through, in terms of actually processing, displaying, and archiving my photos once I take them! My hard drive full of tens of thousands of unprocessed photos can attest to that! But given this once-in-a-lifetime trip, I wanted to follow through and create this page. Click on the link below to visit:

Australia Wildlife – May/June 2019

Rainbow Lorikeet feeding on Banksia

The misogynistic birder: Giving female birds their due

When you read the news since, oh…early November 2016, there’s a common theme in many of the news stories. That theme? Misogyny. I cringe when I read the news. I wince when I see how female relatives and friends are often treated. I am disheartened by the “meh” response of many people, for whom misogynistic behavior is so ingrained that it’s second nature and they don’t give it a second thought. And BTW, who am I kidding…the problem goes back FAR before November 2016, although it’s certainly been brought to the forefront since then as attempts have been made to wipe away many of the gains women have made.

Now, I’ve REALLY tried my best to try to focus more on birds and photography on my blog, although sometimes I must necessarily vent on the latest political topic of the day. But after a long week, right now this is a topic that’s too heavy for me to want to tackle. So why I’m a starting a post about misogyny? Bear with me, but…while out shooting the other night at Good Earth State Park, I was surrounded by the songs of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. It seemed like around every corner was another singing bird. I tried and tried to get a photo of one singing, but kept being foiled, with birds either flying away when I got close, or simply stopping their singing and giving me a nasty look.

I ended up taking very few photos that night until the very end. I was trudging up the trail back to my car when I saw a Rose-breasted Grosbeak perched on a log. It wasn’t singing. It didn’t immediately grab my attention as a singing Rose-breasted Grosbeak might because…it was a female. As I raised the camera to shoot, a thought shot through my mind…I’m a misogynistic bird photographer! It’s not just this night or this species. For example, if I’m at a wetland and am surrounded by Yellow-headed Blackbirds, I’m not trying to shoot the less brilliantly plumaged females…I’m going after the males in their striking, colorful breeding plumage. In fact, I think nearly EVERY bird photographer is “misogynistic”, in that the ratio of male-to-female photos is…what…5 to 1 for species with even minor plumage differences? Maybe even 20 to 1 or more where the male is very brightly colored and the female is more drab?

In my small way to fight back against misogyny in general, here’s an ode to the female…the female bird! Below are some of my favorite female bird photos I’ve taken over the years.

NOTE: I’m taking a short hiatus from blogging while I deal with some things, but I will be back soon!

Also Note: This blog post is dedicated to my wonderful wife, who CLEARLY is the better half. In what’s unfortunately a man’s world…she rocks.

Black-throated Green Warbler - Setophaga virens
A female Black-throated Green Warbler, taken on May 25th, 2012 near Acadia National Park in Maine. Are the females as boldly marked as the males? No. They don’t have the black throat of the male, and markings may have less contrast. But a female black-throated Green Warbler is still one hell of a beautiful bird. I loved the pose and of course, the spruce cone in just the perfect position for this composition.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak - Pheucticus ludovicianus
The female Rose-breasted Grosbeak from the other night that got me thinking about my misogynistic ways! While lacking the rich colors of the male, the females are striking as well, with some beautiful plumage patterns and subtle coloring. May 20th, 2019 at Good Earth State Park in South Dakota.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Archilochus colubris
May 6th. That’s the magic date every year when the first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the season shows up in my yard. It’s nearly always within a day of May 6th, and the first bird that shows up is nearly always a male. This year was different however as an intrepid female showed up on that date (!!), braving what has been a cold and wet spring. Yes, the males have that brilliant red throat, but ESPECIALLY for hummingbirds, I couldn’t care less if it’s a male or female that visits my yard. They are so wonderful to have around. This is a bird from September 5, 2011 at our house in Brandon, South Dakota.
Wilson's Phalarope - Phalaropus tricolor
HAH! In your FACE with your fancy plumage, male birds! Wilson’s Phalaropes are a bit different in the bird world, in that it’s the FEMALE that has more colorful plumage. I love this photo, with the unusual pose of a bird as it feeds, and feathers in the back blown up by a strong wind. From May 4th, 2014 in Minnehaha County, South Dakota.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - Sphyrapicus varius
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are one of my favorite species to watch during the summer months. It’s fascinating to watch them at their “wells” they drill, not only because of their behavior, but because of other birds and critters that might come to take advantage of seeping sap. The females aren’t a lot different than the males. They lack the bright red throat of a male, but otherwise they share the same, gorgeous plumage patterns. And yeah…eveyr once in a while you actually even get to see a hint of yellow on their belly (just a bit here!). From May 22nd, 2011 at Beaver Creek Nature Area near Brandon, South Dakota.
Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus
Another woodpecker and one of my favorite regular yard visitors, here’s a female Red-bellied Woodpecker. The only plumage difference that’s noticeable is that males have a complete red head stripe, including the forehead, while the top of the female’s head is gray. From January 8th, 2011 at the Big Sioux Recreation Area near Brandon, South Dakota
Evening Grosbeak - Coccothraustes vespertinus
Evening Grosbeaks are a species I see once a year. Why is it so predictable? Because (usually) I go to Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota once each winter, and there’s one feeder complex where they can reliably be found. In 20 years of birding, that remains almost the ONLY spot I’ve seen this species. So do you think I care that the female isn’t as brightly colored as the male? Heck no! They’re such cool birds, no matter their sex! From December 30th, 2014 at Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota
American Redstart - Setophaga ruticilla
A female American Redstart from May 17th, 2013 at Newton Hills State Park, South Dakota. They don’t have the same black and orange plumage as the males, but they CERTAINLY share the same behavior. Absolutely MADDENING to try to photograph because they rarely sit still for more than a second.
We’ll end with perhaps one of them most underappreciated female birds…the Northern Cardinal. Are they bright red ALL over? No. But they share that same wonderful crest, and instead of simply being red all over like the “boring” male, they have red tinged feathers on their wings, crest, and tail. MUCH more interesting, right?!? In any event I do love this close portrait of a female, from July 1st, 2006 at Newton Hills State Park.

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

Ode to the Black Tern

I’ve done more birding in the last 2 weeks than I’ve done in a long time, trying to take advantage of what normally is the peak migration time here for warblers, shorebirds, and other migrants. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the warblers, shorebirds, and other migrants that they’re supposed to be, you know…migrating. It’s been pretty slow for many things, but I’ve still had a great time. One bird that definitely got the message about migration time are Black Terns, as I’ve run into dozens upon dozens as they forage over many of the lakes, ponds, and wetlands in the area.

Last night I was at Grass Lake in far western Minnehaha County, and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect setup for taking photos of what can be a difficult bird to photograph. The light was at my back, the wind was gusting and keeping many birds in a near hovering position, and I was perched on an elevated road that allowed me to be level or even shooting down on the birds as they fed. It led to some shots I really like…augmenting a gallery of quite a few Black Tern photos I like. For some species, building such a gallery comes rather easy, as the birds are cooperative (sitting still and not flying away certainly helps), and have plumage patterns and colors that make them easy to photograph.

That has NOT been the case with Black Terns. I do have some shots of them sitting on a log or other perch, but most of the time when you see them, they’re in flight, and they have a bouncy, unpredictable flight path as they forage for food. Their coloring is another challenge. A bird in breeding plumage has jet black feathering on the head and underneath, while other feathering is silvery to nearly white, making it very difficult to expose correctly. If you have poor light or the bird is backlit, it’s generally not even worth bothering, as the bird will show up as a dark, featureless smudge.

The conditions all came together last night though! With as happy as I was with the photos from last night, I was going to dust off my bird haiku “skills” (questionable as though they may be), given I haven’t done a haiku for awhile. But it’s Friday, it’s been a long week, and I don’t have it in me. So instead here’s a gallery of some of my favorite Black Tern photos over the years.

Black Tern - Chlidonias niger
A photo from last night. A full breeding plumage Black Tern, in flight, a good exposure that keeps some detail in the blacks (and allows you to see the eye) while not blowing out the silvery upperparts…I was quite happy to get this one! It immediately becomes not only one of my favorite Black Tern photos, but one of my favorite photos overall. May 16th, 2019 – Grass Lake, Minnehaha County, South Dakota
DEFINITELY one of my all-time favorites. The wings may not be in the position I’d prefer, but this has the best exposure of any Black Tern photo I’ve gotten, with quite a lot of detail in the blacks and a great look at that eye. Having a great green bokeh background is nice as well. From May 14th, 2016 in Minnehaha County, South Dakota
Black Tern - Chlidonias niger
Sometimes you do get a photo opportunity of one sitting still! You still have to have the right lighting to get a good exposure of that black and silver plumage though. The lighting gods were favorable though on this day, with a nice perch, a nice little head turn and pose, and a good look at that gorgeous plumage. Taken May 14th, 2010 at Lake Whitewood in South Dakota.
Black Tern - Chlidonias niger
Until last night, I didn’t think I’d ever get a top-down, Black Tern in flight photo that I’d like more than this one. But I like last night’s better. This is still one of my favorites though, taken May 14th, 2010 at Lake Whitewood in South Dakota.
Black Tern - Chlidonias niger
Sometimes it’s less about the bird itself, than the overall composition. Four breeding plumage Black Terns may not be compelling, but I loved the composition here, with the perch cutting through most of the frame, and the blue water as a back drop. From May 17th, 2013 at Lake Thompson, in Kingsbury County, South Dakota

Solved! One of life’s 3 big mysteries

Orange-crowned Warbler - Vermivora celata

When I woke this morning, I had no idea that by the end of the day, I would have solved one of life’s three biggest mysteries. These are questions of profound importance that have bedeviled mankind ever since we pulled ourselves out of the muck, learned to walk upright, and started pointing binoculars at birds. Of course I’m talking about the “Big 3”:

  1. Does a Ring-necked Duck have a ringed neck?
  2. Where’s the red on a Red-bellied Woodpecker’s belly? and,
  3. What color crown does an Orange-crowned Warbler have?
Yellow-rumped Warbler - Setophaga coronata
Yellow-rumped Warblers and Orange-crowned Warblers seem to be best buds in migration, often hanging out together. One big difference between the two…Yellow-rumped Warblers are PROPERLY NAMED, with an obvious yellow rump.

Now, Orange-crowned Warblers are one of the most common migrant warblers we have in the state, just behind the Yellow-rumped Warbler. But you know what my friends? YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS ACTUALLY HAVE, like, you know…YELLOW RUMPS!!! So where does that leave us with Orange-crowned Warblers?

I always thought the naming of Orange-crowned Warblers was kind of a cosmic joke. Someone saw a rather plain bird with a touch of color but really no contrasting features whatsoever, and said…HEY! Let’s have some fun with this! Instead of something like “Drab Olive Warbler”, let’s call it an Orange-crowned Warbler!

After seeing a number of Orange-crowned Warblers, tonight I’d had enough. When one started flitting around the crabapple tree right outside my sunroom window, I decided to get down to the bottom of it all. Now, my wife knows I talk to birds. Hell, I do it all the time, particularly when I really get excited! You can be DAMNED sure that when I saw that Whooping Crane a week and a half ago that we had one of the longer, more fulfilling conversations I’ve ever had in life. Usually I just say whatever pops into my head, with deep, thoughtful conversational elements such as “hey sweetie!!”? Or “You’re a pretty bird!” When a bird is extremely cooperative and has allowed a number of good photos, it’s not unusual for me to toss out a “Thank you sweetie” as I depart. (If you’re wondering…sadly for me…every word of this is true).

Now, I admit those conversations are usually very one sided, so today when I started talking to the Orange-crowned Warbler in my crabapple, I wasn’t expecting the bird to engage. However, much to my surprise, when I softly muttered “now where’s that supposed orange crown of yours?”, the bird paused, gave me a thoughtful stare, and then proceeded to dip his head and hold a pose for several seconds, as if to say “Hey, dumbass…I’ve got your orange crown right here”.

And that, as they say, is that! A few clicks of the camera shutter, some evidence of orange feathering on the crown, and one of life’s greatest mysteries is solved.

Birding the (nature-altered) Beaver Creek Nature Area

White-throated Sparrow - Zonotrichia albicollis

There are two parks near our house that are characterized by heavily wooded lands next to a river. The first is the Big Sioux Recreation Area, just across the street. It’s nice, but it’s the far more developed of the two parks. This time of year I admit I’m not fond of birding there. They cater SO heavily to campers, going in and taking out a lot of the vegetation around the campsites to accommodate space for the giant RVs that are now so prevalent. I did go there last night for about 20 minutes, before the noise of the big-screen TVs blasting gameshows at top volume drove me away. I REALLY don’t get the point of people who do that.

The second park is Beaver Creek Nature Area. It’s about 3 miles from my house, and is MUCH less developed. No camping…yes! There are trails winding along riparian areas, upland woodland, and open grassy areas. Without the camping, it gets much less attention and is far less crowded. From a birding perspective, it’s wonderful. You can HEAR THE BIRDS! No TVs!! No loud campers! Just…nature.

I had a couple of hours this morning and headed to Beaver Creek. It was an incredibly foggy morning, but the park was certainly birdy. Migrant warblers still have yet to move through in any numbers, and for the morning I didn’t see a single warbler species. That’s a bit odd, as usually you’d at least see plenty of Yellow-rumped Warblers moving through. But what it lacked in warblers it made up for in sparrow species. White-throated, Harris’s, Clay-colored, Chipping, Lincoln’s, Swamp, White-crowned, and Field Sparrows…not a bad mix for one spot, and I frankly I get just as excited for all the migrant sparrows as I do the warblers. Other first-of-year sightings included Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Before heading that way for the first time this spring, I admit I was a little concerned about what condition the park would be in. With near-record flooding this spring, one road to the park is closed, and there’s still plenty of high water around. I was happy to see the park open and most of the trails accessible, but there was one major change in the park…Beaver Creek changed course! Over the last couple of years, one big loop in the creek was eroding away the bank just as you crossed a little pedestrian arch bridge over the creek. That’s not going to be a problem any more! Further upstream a bit, the flooded creek evidently tore through a narrow strip of heavily wooded land, cutting off the loop. The water was still quite high and a small amount of water was flowing through the loop, but as the water returns to normal levels is pretty clear that loop is now completely cut off and is going to be a new oxbow.

Thankfully it’s not going to affect the trails in the park, but it certainly is a great indication of just how powerful and unpredictable Mother Nature can be! A few photos from this morning:

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - Sphyrapicus varius
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, one of the first-of-year sightings from today. One of my favorite bird species, and one that’s usually relatively easy to find at Beaver Creek in the summer.
American Robin - Turdus migratorius
“Just” an American Robin. I say “just” because they’re common and people just seem to overlook them. They’re such a gorgeous bird though, and with a wonderful song that just screams “spring” after a long South Dakota winter.
Beaver Creek Nature Area - South Dakota
Overview showing what happened to the creek. The area between the red lines is where the flooded creek tore through a wooded area and created a new channel, thus cutting off the hatched area, which is now a new oxbow.
Beaver Creek Nature Area
South Dakota
Pic on a foggy morning, showing where the new channel cut through an area of trees and cut off the channel to the right, which now looks like it will be an oxbow that only has flowing water during times of high water.

Whooping Crane Encounter – Central South Dakota

Whooping Crane - Grus americana

One of the best things about birding are those random encounters, the complete serendipity of the hobby. Some of the best “birding” moments even happen when you’re not birding, with a chance encounter. Friday, April 26th, was one of those days for me. I had a conference Friday afternoon and Saturday in Pierre. I left Brandon (our home) at 4:00 AM, as I wanted to do a bit of birding before the conference started at noon. The plan was to arrive at the Big Bend Dam area around dawn, and then drive through the Fort Pierre National Grasslands before heading to the conference.

Things were going as planned, and I was driving south of Fort Thompson (next to Big Bend dam) a little after the sun came up. The water was very high on the Missouri to my left, with flooded trees, grasslands, and wetlands all along the river. Amidst all the flooded land I saw quite a few American White Pelicans, lounging in groups of between 10 and 20. With so many large, white birds in close proximity on the river, I wasn’t too excited when I saw a large white bird flying parallel to the highway, about 40 feet up and a hundred yards or so in front of me. Big white bird…black wings tips…it’s one of the pelicans.

As I continued to drive closer, the bird continued following the general course of the road. Upon getting closer, I had a chill up my spine and one serious case of goose bumps…this was no mere Pelican. It was a lone Whooping Crane, RIGHT in front of me. I held back and watched it continue to fly in front of me for a moment before thinking…nobody is going to believe me! I have to get a photo!! However, when you’re behind a bird in flight that’s moving away from your position, it’s not an ideal situation! I fumbled with the camera with the thought of perhaps just trying to capture a confirmation “butt shot”, but as I grabbed the camera, the Whooping Crane swerved to its right, heading up over a ridge, and out of sight.

Gone! I’d just seen a Whooping Crane! I still had chills and goosebumps, but alas the bird was gone and I had no proof of the sighting! Hoping that he was just moving to one of the nearby corn fields to feed, I started looking for a side road that went in the general direction of the bird. I found a small gravel road, and followed it to the east, hoping to spot the bird in a nearby field. The road was only about 1/4 mile long, and ended at a cemetery. As I approached the cemetery, I looked for a splash of white in the nearby fields…and…THERE! It was there! It was a LONG distance out, probably 1/4 mile or more, but there in a field near the cemetery, the Whooping Crane had landed and was calmly walking about and foraging.

As I approached the cemetery I saw a very fresh mound where there’d clearly been a very recent burial, so I felt a little weird entering the cemetery itself. I parked along the road and instead headed for the fenceline next to the big field. There was a big center pivot in the harvested corn field, and the Whooping Crane was calmly foraging below it. I grabbed the camera and decided to at least try to get some documentation shots. With my 100-400mm lens, the bird was but a small white blob in the middle of the frame, but the photos were completely recognizable as a Whooping Crane. Over my previous elation-then-heartbreak-at-not-getting-a-photo vibe, I was now satisfied! I’d SEEN A WHOOPING CRANE! I had photos that documented the bird. I went back to my pickup, grabbed a coat (it was a COLD morning), and sat down and just watched him through binoculars for about half an hour as he fed in the corn field.

At one point in the corn field, the Whooping Crane gave a few vocalizations that I could hear even from my distance spot. He honked/croaked/”whooped” a couple of more times, shook his tail, and took flight. That’s that, I thought! But what a GREAT morning spent watching this bird. I stood up, watching the crane take flight, fully expecting it to fly…away somewhere. Instead, it lifted off, banked, and started heading back towards the river. Back towards my position! Now, I’m about the last person you’d want in, say, a basketball game, with the game on the line, and a 3-pointer needed to win it. I get way too nervous. As the crane banked and headed towards me, the chills and goosebumps returned, and with it, shaking hands! I had the camera ready! The bird was getting closer! But as much as my hands were shaking I wasn’t sure I was going to get ANY kind of decent shot.

At some point, I think the crane saw me, because it deviated course slightly. It had been headed right towards me, but it moved to a course that took it a bit further out from me. Still, it was within range that I thought I could grab some halfway decent photos. I furiously clicked away as the bird passed to my east, then as it went south of me, and turned west towards the river.

I returned to my pickup, shivering from the cold, but more from the experience! I gave a quick scan through my photos I’d just taken. As I suspected, many of them were pretty darned blurry, probably due to my shaking hands! But I had a couple that at least were clearly recognizable as a Whooping Crane. I headed back down the gravel road to the highway, and thought I’d give one more look for the bird. It didn’t take long to find him. He’d landed in a small flooded grassy area between the highway and the river, and stood out like a sore thumb. Again, it was quite a ways out, but closer than the encounter in the corn field. I pulled over on the side of the highway, moved over to my passenger seat closest to where the bird was, and…ended up sitting there for an hour!

For an hour, the Whooping Crane stayed in the same tiny wet spot, surrounded by Blue-winged Teal, Northern Pintails, and other ducks that were using the spot. He was certainly relaxed and not worried about my presence on the road (probably 200+ yards away?), nor the passing cars. I felt a little odd seeing the cars that were passing me every minute or so. HEY, I wanted to shout…WHOOPING CRANE!! ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME EXPERIENCE HERE! COME LOOK!! But no one else seemed to care about the Whooping Crane, or the bird nut sitting in the passenger seat with his camera and binoculars trained on the bird for an hour. I casually switched between trying to grab some more long-distance photos, and simply watching the bird through the binoculars.

Finally, I realized I needed to get going or I was going to be late for my conference. When I left (around 9:00 AM), the bird was still hanging out in the same wetland by the river. I never saw any other bird it tried to associate with…no other Whooping Cranes, no Sandhill Cranes around. I saw no bands on its legs, so I assumed this was a wild born bird. It seemed perfectly healthy and happy, flying around and foraging on the ground with no problems.

Two hours in my life I certainly won’t forget! The “feature photo” at the top is by far the clearest photo I was able to get as the bird flew past after leaving the corn field and heading back towards the river. Below are more photos from the encounter.

Whooping Crane - Grus americana
Whooping Crane April 26th, 2019 Near Fort Thompson, South Dakota. This was the corn field where the bird initially landed. It ended up walking around this field for about half an hour while I watched from long distance (photo above is a significant crop from the original frame).
Whooping Crane - Grus americana
At one point while walking through the field, the Whooping Crane stopped and even from where I was I could hear the loud vocalization. It reminded me of our two cocker spaniels who love to howl when they hear a police siren…head straight up, very serious about the whole matter! The bird only gave a few honking whoops before walking around a bit more and getting ready to take flight.
Whooping Crane - Grus americana
And she’s off!! After half an hour in the corn field with the center pivot, here the Whooping Crane takes flight. Given it’s initial direction away from me and the river, I thought this was the last I’d see of it. However, shortly after it took off, it banked, and started heading back towards the river.
Whooping Crane - Grus americana
Same photo as the “feature” photo at the top, this is the closest I was to the bird during the two hour encounter, as it passed to my east and south as it headed back down towards the river. Not the sharpest photo in the world, and even this is a very significant crop as it was a decent distance out, but I will take a recognizable flight shot of a Whooping Crane ANY day!!
Whooping Crane - Grus americana
After I headed back towards the highway and the river, I was able to quickly re-locate the Whooping Crane. She’d landed in a flooded field near the river, perhaps 200-250 yards out from the road. I pulled my pickup over on what little shoulder there was, unbuckled and climbed over to the passenger seat, and proceeded to watch the bird for another hour as it slowly foraged through the wet field.
Whooping Crane - Grus americana
Another of the bird as it foraged in the grassy wet spot. Here it started to fluff its feathers and extend its wings, making me think it was about to take flight again, but it settled down and continued to hunt for food here. The bird was still here when I left, about 2 hours after our initial encounter! After my conference in Pierre ended, I drove back home along this road and did a quick search for the bird but didn’t find her. Hopefully it moved on, and was able to find others of its kind.

Spectacular Spring Birding – Minnehaha County

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

Red-breasted Mergansers Courting - Mergus serrator

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

Common Loon - Gavia immer

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

Killdeer - Charadrius vociferus

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

Bonapaarte's Gull - Larus philadelphia

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

American Robin - Turdus migratorius

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

Rusty Blackbird - Euphagus carolinus

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

Double-crested Cormorant - Phalacrocorax auritus

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

Horned Grebe - Podiceps auritus

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

Hermit Thrush - Catharus guttatus

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

Eastern Phoebe - Sayornis phoebe

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

%d bloggers like this: