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New state bird – American Black Duck

A new state bird!  Not a super-rarity, but not one you see in South Dakota much. It’s always nice to have a fellow birder in the area find a rarity, report it online, and have it be within 10 miles of your home!  It’s even nicer when you make the short drive and the bird is still in the same place.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to easily tell it apart from all the mallards in the area, but it stood out from the moment I got there. Darker, more evenly colored plumage, and a bill that really distinguishes it from the female Mallards.  One reason to love birding…I sure wasn’t expecting a new state bird when I woke up this morning!

American Black Duck - Anas rubripes

American Black Duck, the first I’ve seen in South Dakota.

American Black Duck - Anas rubripes

Comparison with a female Mallard. Pretty obvious when you see them side-by-side, with the darker, more evenly colored plumage, and that distinctive yellowish bill.

Photo / Haiku of the Day – Dakota Prairie Falcon

Prairie Apparition

Prowling Dakota skies

A flash across desolate plains

bound for the horizon

Prairie Falcon - Falco mexicanus

When I head to the central part of the state in winter to photograph raptors, I usually do come across a handful of Prairie Falcons during the course of the day. Falcons in general seem to be camera shy, but these guys are particularly difficult to photograph. They tend to flush long before I can get within camera range. There’s always that oddball individual bird, however, and this is one of them. As with every other Prairie Falcon I come across, he DID flush early, while I was still perhaps 50 yards away. However, he was curious! I’d given up on him, but to my surprise he started circling back towards me. I stopped the car and got my camera ready, and was rewarded by a flyby at perhaps 30 feet up, right along the road past my car. One of my favorite falcon shots, given the difficult I’ve photographing these guys. I also love the pose, with the eye contact and the warm morning light.

We now return to our regularly scheduled program…

I’ve not blogged in several weeks. The reason…I largely “unplugged” during that time period. Given what was at stake in the election Tuesday, I just HAD to unplug. Unfortunately that meant staying unplugged not only from the political ugliness, bigotry, misogyny, and hatred that is life under the Trump administration, but also from my website, blog, and posting of bird photos.  To get back in the swing…a photo from one of my favorite bird encounters EVER in South Dakota…the only dark-phase Gyrfalcon I have ever found. As we head into the middle of November, we’re getting close to the time where there’s the potential to see these gorgeous rarities in the central part of South Dakota!  I’m REALLY looking forward to my periodic winter trips to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, as I search for these guys, Snowy Owls, Ferruginous Hawks, Golden Eagles, Prairie Falcons, and other wonderful winter raptors.

As I get back in the swing of my normal online life, I do want to limit or eliminate the vast majority of political commentary on my blog.  It’s not that I don’t have a lot to say, as I DEFINITELY do in this horrible political climate. But keeping my blog primarily focused on birds, birding, and photography is one way to stay sane in such an environment.  However, I simply have to give a parting blog shot regarding the last couple of months, and the election. If you’re in the GOP and are offended by this…GOOD.  That’s what’s called a “conscience”, something your entire party seems to have lost.  Some points:

  • To my fellow Democrats...PLEASE STOP THE DOOM AND GLOOM that many seemed to adopt even after Tuesday. Saturday Night Live NAILED Democratic attitudes since 2016 (and admittedly, before that).  We have had some major traumas over the years, not the least of which is winning two elections by (2000, 2016) by ALL measures the rest of the civilized world uses, only to have our archaic, unfair electoral system award the most powerful office in the world to the person who received the fewest votes. I get it. I get the trauma. I at least understand the paranoia and pessimism that has permeated our party over the last 18 years.  But Dems…TUESDAY WAS AN OVERWHELMING SUCCESS.  Was it perfect? Hell no. I too was devastated by Gillum’s loss in Florida.  I too am incredibly upset about the situation in Georgia, with Kemp apparently squeaking out the narrowest of wins thanks to his own manipulation of Georgia’s voting rolls. And of course there’s Beto, the charismatic face of the election for Dems. That man has a VERY bright future in politics.  The fact that he lost, by 2.5% in ultra-red Texas, doesn’t diminish that future, nor does it diminish what he accomplished. Yes, the Senate seat didn’t flip.  But thanks to Beto, the face of Texas politics has begun to change. Thanks to Beto, it’s very likely two US House seats flipped blue that wouldn’t have otherwise. Dems…WE WON THE HOUSE!! Despite unprecedented gerrymandering by Republicans, despite the need to win the overall popular vote by a whopping 6% just to have a CHANCE to win the House…we flipped it. And not just flipped it, Dems are likely to have a healthy majority of about 231-204.  We also flipped at least 7 governorships, which is an incredibly powerful accomplishment given those governors will have a say in redistricting and eliminating gerrymandering after the 2020 Census. It was a massive success, and we now have a check on the most corrupt administration America has ever known.  Dems, PLEASE LEARN TO CELEBRATE OUR SUCCESSES, and stop wallowing in self pity.  It serves no purpose and only diminishes our progress. Keep fighting the good fight. WE ARE MAKING PROGRESS.  Don’t give in to the despair and pessimism.
  • To Republican Americans...WAKE…THE…FUCK…UP.  I’m going to be blunt. If you’re in the GOP right now and continue to vote for the GOP, there are only three possible categories in which you fall.
    • #1 — You’re a racist — Nothing new here.  Trump won the election in 2016 by fanning the flames of latent racism. Down the stretch in 2018, what did he focus on? The economy? Health care? No…he talked incessantly about the dangers of immigrant hoards taking over the US.  Never mind that the oft-mentioned “caravan” consists of political refugees fleeing violence in their own country, and that a majority of them are women and children. They were presented as a major threat to the American way of life…and a huge chunk of the GOP ate it up.  Given what we’ve seen for almost three years now, since Trump announced he was running back in 2015, the man is an clearly an unabashed racist. Trump campaigned for the GOP on a platform of racism, and GOP voters responded with a resounding YES…THIS IS WHAT WE WANT. THIS IS WHAT WE STAND FOR.  In the long term…you’re destroying your own party. The 2018 elections are just the start. A party built on racism is unsustainable in the long term. From that perspective, I’m glad to see the GOP revealed for what they have been ever since the racist dog whistles that began with Nixon…a party of and for white America, a party that no longer pretends to even try to represent all Americans.  In the short-term however…it’s incredibly destructive.
    • #2 — You’re ignorant — Another huge chunk of the GOP (and indeed, of Americans as a whole). Let’s face it, Americans on BOTH sides often vote on reflex. They vote for a “D” or an “R”. They are completely ignorant of the issues. The don’t know the candidates or what they stand for.  Other than the outright racism demonstrated by the GOP, the second biggest threat to American democracy is apathy.  Trump was RIGHT a couple of weeks ago, when he said the Florida bomber and the mass shooting disrupted GOP momentum.  Despite every illicit, immoral, outright disgusting action taken by the Trump administration over the last 2 years, GOP numbers were rising somewhat as the election approached. Why? Americans can’t be bothered to account for 2 years worth of reprehensible behavior!  It’s forgotten! Ask most people what Mueller is investigating for example, and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare (or an outright lie). Ask about the huge number of indictments of Trump officials…I guarantee the vast majority of Americans don’t remember anything about Manafort, Cohen, and the rest of the corrupt crew.  Americans just…don’t…care.  TRUTH DOESN’T MATTER.  It’s MUCH easier to digest the drivel that’s spoon fed to them by state TV (otherwise known as Fox “News”) than it is for them to learn the truth of what’s really happening. Of course I can’t give this class of GOP voters a pass. That ignorance, the outright apathy, is almost as destructive as GOP racism.  But at least from a moral standpoint, apathy and stupidity is somewhat less disgusting than GOP racism.
    • #3 — You’re a CEO — Or perhaps not a CEO, but a wealthy business owner. Someone who wants to perpetuate a system with the worst income inequality in the world. Someone where corporate or personal profit is the ONLY thing that matters…morality be damned.  In other words…someone exactly like Trump.  From a morality standpoint, clearly this is just as despicable as the racist sect of the GOP.  These are people that simply do not care about the racism, the misogyny, the bigotry, the spread of hatred…as along as it doesn’t interfere with the most business-friendly, least worker-friendly administration in American history.

Despite the election results, it’s still going to be a very rough next few years. We’ve already seen that, where within 12 hours of the election results coming in, the Trump administration makes their move to bury the Mueller investigation.  The response from GOP politicos?  A yawn.  Other than a few outgoing politicians (e.g., Jeff Flake), or the VERY rare class of GOP politicians who seem to actually have any  morality (e.g., incoming Senator Mitt Romney)…there were no condemnations of the complete flout of the rule of law.  There were no calls in the GOP to protect the investigation. For a morally bankrupt party like the GOP, it’s the end result that matters. Nothing else.  The truth? Irrelevant. The LAW? Irrelevant.

The 2018 election was a powerful rebuke of GOP immorality. It’s a WONDERFUL start, but we’ve got a long slog ahead.

And we now return to our regularly scheduled program.  Birds…photography…nature…a MUCH needed distraction in today’s environment.

Juvenile Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus

It’s time!! Getting close at least. Of course I’m talking about our WONDERFUL South Dakota winters, and the birding opportunities that we have. Yes…yes…it’s a cold, glacial hell here in winter. But we do often have incredible numbers of raptors, including the chance to see US mega-rarities. Gyrfalcons are the big prize for me in the winter. This photo from a few years ago is the ONLY dark-phase Gyrfalcon I’ve seen…a gorgeous, gorgeous bird.

Compact Endothermic Mouse Defrosting Unit (CEMDU)

The calendar is changing over to October, which means fall migration is in full swing.  It’s not a cheery time for a birder in South Dakota!  Winters are long, and bird species and numbers are both WAY down compared to the other three seasons. However, there are a few bright spots!  What “saved” winter for me a few winters ago was the sheer delight in finding a species I’d never seen around southeastern South Dakota.

Up until that winter (3 years ago, 2015-2016), the only place I’d seen a Northern Saw-whet Owl was along the Missouri River near Pierre. Birders there found that they liked to winter in the cedar trees along the river. There are a few areas around my part of South Dakota that also have thick stands of cedar, so I thought I’d spend some time that winter searching for the little guys. It was very discouraging at first.  It’s not easy searching through the thick cedar stands! I started in mid-November, searching for signs…the “white-wash” of their poop that you can find on the ground and branches below a daytime roost, or actual regurgitated pellets.  I DID occasionally find owl-sign, but for a good month…no owls.

Then in late December 2015, I went to Newton Hills State Park. Birders had reported hearing a Northern Saw-whet Owl during a Christmas Bird Count, so I thought I’d leave before dawn, and spend several hours looking.  It was a miserable day…cloudy with a very thick, icy fog, and I got a later start than I had planned. By the time I got there, the sun had already risen, and I was sure I wasn’t going to hear any calling owls. However, the fog was SO thick, that it was still relatively dark and gloomy when I arrived. It was only moments after stepping out of my car that I heard a calling Saw-whet Owl!  I headed in the general direction, and by the time I got close, the owl had stopped calling. I slowly made my way into the cedar thicket, and almost immediately found fresh looking signs that an owl had been there. White-wash on the ground as well as pellets!  I then slowly raised my head, hoping to see an owl sitting in the branches directly above the whitewash.  No such luck!  DAMN….IT.  After spending so much time looking, I was getting frustrated and was convinced I’d never actually find one.  I turned around to head out of the thicket, took about 3 steps, and walked into a commotion just above my head.  Owl!  He was only about 6 feet away from all the whitewash, but in a different spot, and I had accidentally caused him to flush when I walked past.

AAAARRGGGGHHH!!! I was at once both happy that I actually got a glimpse of an owl, but frustrated that I missed seeing him before I got so close he flushed. No photograph. Sigh. I continued the search though, and about 15 minutes later, found another location with whitewash and pellets.  And this time…success!  I looked directly above the whitewash, and staring back down at me from about 10 feet up in the cedar tree was a gorgeous little Saw-whet Owl!

I had a blast the rest of that winter. I found several more in the Newton Hills Area, and also 4 more near Lake Alvin just south of Sioux Falls. Overall that winter I found at least a dozen different Northern Saw-whet Owls!  What was striking was how incredibly tame they were. That first owl on that foggy morning was the only one I saw that winter that actually flushed. Several times I was able to approach an owl and get mere feet away, and instead of flushing, I was typically greeted by a disinterested yawn.

This photo is one of my favorites from that winter. Northern Saw-whet Owls are tiny critters.  Their prey is often small voles and mice, but even those are too much for them to consume in one sitting. They will often catch a vole or mouse, eat half of it, and cache the other half in the nook of a tree branch. They then come back later and retrieve the cache, but in our cold winters, they have to thaw it before finishing their meal.  Thus, I’d read you could sometimes find a Northern Saw-whet Owl “defrosting” a mouse.  One morning I was lucky enough to witness such an event, as this grumpy-looking guy was busy defrosting breakfast when I came across him.

A “Compact Endothermic Mouse Defrosting Unit”!!  One of my favorite memories from that winter. As the weather turns colder here, I’m hoping to again find these handsome little birds this winter.

Northern Saw-whet Owl - Aegolius acadicus

A Northern Saw-whet Owl, defrosting it’s morning breakfast.

The Sparrow’s Nightmare – Haiku / Photo of the day

The Sparrow’s Nightmare

Petite feathered grace,

luminosity expressed, shrouding:

The sparrow’s nightmare

American  Kestrel - Falco sparverius

With fall migration in full swing, I noticed an influx of raptors today, with a number of Red-tailed Hawks perched on roadside telephone poles and fence posts. Accompanying them were American Kestrels in high numbers, a species that breeds here during the summer months, but can sometimes be found in very high densities during migration. Despite all my sightings of American Kestrels, I have few photos of the species. Along with the Belted Kingfisher, I can think of few birds more wary of my camera lens. For that reason, this photo is rather special for me…a brilliantly colored male American Kestrel, that uncharacteristically paused for a moment before flushing at my approach.  Just enough time to grab a few photos of one of my favorite species.  As for the poem, for decades they were called “Sparrow-hawks”, with the species thought to be most closely related to the Eurasian Sparrowhawk. It wasn’t until 1983 that the American Ornithological Society noted the much closer relationship with other North American falcons, and the species was renamed the American Kestrel.

Who says blackbirds are boring?

It’s been a busy weekend catching up on projects around the house, but I did take advantage of the cool, crisp morning to get out and bird. It wasn’t a great morning. I did come across some migrant warblers, including Canada and Black-throated Green, two I don’t see all that often, but overall it was pretty slow. One thing you do see this time of year though are mixed flocks of blackbirds gathering, and I came across several on the way home. I do sometimes stop to scan them for “goodies” like Rusty Blackbirds, but alas, no Rusty’s this morning.

However, I did stop and watch the biggest flock for a while, and grabbed the camera. Like many birders and bird photographers, I tend to take certain birds for granted, but there really are some beautiful plumage patterns on fall blackbirds here. The flock was primarily Common Grackles, but there were a number of Red-winged Blackbirds, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and European Starlings mixed in.

By the time I got home, I considered the morning a disappointment, as I didn’t think I really got any really nice photos. Once I started downloading and processing photos, though, my attitude changed. These birds aren’t exactly the poster-child for “coveted” birds for birders (or photographers), but there are certainly some gorgeous colors and patterns on these birds. The fall plumage of a young Red-winged Blackbird, and the non-breeding plumage of a European Starling, are both wonderful in terms of the intricate patterns. Blackbirds, boring?  I think I may have changed my tune after this morning.

European Starling - Sturnus vulgaris

Non-breeding plumage European Starling. Probably one of the least-liked birds in North America, given their non-native status and tendency to compete for nesting sites with native birds. But after being here for nearly 140 years…they’re established. They’re not going anywhere. They’re “ours”. And damn it, they are DARNED attractive birds.

Common Grackle - Quiscalus quiscula

Common Grackles ARE native…but for those of us who feed birds in our yards, they may have a worse reputation than European Starlings. They’re pigs! They drive away other birds! In my yard, I’ve seen them kill and consume young fledglings. But…that iridescence, those colors…they are striking birds in the right light.

Red-winged Blackbird - Agelaius phoeniceus

Red-winged Blackbirds may be the most common bird in the state in the summer. I do like the plumage of the young birds, with this young male starting to show a bit of what will be his trademark red shoulder patch.

 

Ode to the Sparrow – Photo/Haiku of the Day

Ode to a Sparrow

A whisper in the grass

“Just a sparrow”, overlooked.

Autumn’s hidden jewel

Le Conte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii

We’re approaching mid-September, and with it, one of my favorite birding migrations of the year. Warblers? Fall shorebirds? Migrating raptors? No, I treasure early to mid-Autumn for the wonderful array of sparrow species that migrate through eastern South Dakota. Among them are one of my top 3 species of all time…the Le Conte’s Sparrow. No “little brown job”…not “just a sparrow”…the Le Conte’s Sparrow is a brilliant array of complex patterns and beautiful warm tones.  With a reputation as a “skulker”, they’re a prized birding target for many, but during fall migration here, I’ve found them to be very approachable and rather easy to photograph. Along with the other 20 or so sparrow species that migrate through in the fall, a sparrow bonanza is just around the corner!

 

The Swallows’ Feast – Photo/Haiku of the day

The Swallows’ Feast

Summer’s mayfly feast

Shimmery swallows dip and chase

As the mower growls

Cliff Swallow in Flight - Petrochelidon pyrrhonota

I got home rather late tonight, perhaps an hour before sunset. I had to mow the yard, and as I started, I noticed the mayflies that were clustered on bushes in my landscaping, and in the grass itself. Clearly some kind of mayfly hatch had occurred, and as I mowed, they would flutter up into the air, some settling down, others continuing to fly. It didn’t take long before they were joined in mid-air combat…the swallows had arrived!!  Both Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows started showing up, with 5 or 6 dipping and darting through the yard, following the mower and taking advantage of the mayflies that were being kicked up. A thankless, repetitive summer task, made much more enjoyable tonight thanks to my swallow visitors! Nature never ceases to amaze, as the swallows clearly had learned to associate the sound of a mower with insects in the air.  As for the photo…yeah…I know. Not a Tree Swallow. Not a Barn Swallow. But have you tried taking photos of swallows in flight? NOT…EASY!! I have very few decent photos of ANY swallow species in flight, so I’ll use a bit of artistic license tonight and use this photo to accompany my photo story and haiku. 🙂

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Season of the Bobolink

Season of the Bobolink

Tinkly spring-time song

Fades away as summer ends.

Golden autumn fire

Autumn Bobolink - Dolichonyx oryzivorus

Bobolink in the warm dawn sun. This morning I went to a remnant tallgrass prairie patch and found a small group of Bobolinks. Males have lost their bold black-and-white breeding plumage, and share the same warm brown plumage as the females now. Rather than post as simply the “photo of the day”, thought today we’d take it one step further to my first ever “Photo / Haiku of the day”.

Goin’ on a Safari. A Backyard Safari…

Not a good day birding. I went out this morning in the gray and the gloom, knowing the light wasn’t very good for bird photography, but I thought I’d try anyway.  Not only didn’t I get any photos, the birding itself was rather slow. Upon arriving back home I thought I’d change focus.  I hadn’t gotten my macro lens out in a while, so decided to go on a “backyard safari”, looking for little critters that inhabit the yard.

The nice thing about a backyard safari is that they never disappoint!  Well, in SUMMER they never disappoint, because you always find plenty of insects and other small critters in the yard. There were a couple of highlights today.  First were the White-lined Sphinx Moths that were gorging on nectar from a big honeysuckle.  Not a rare species, but given their size, you always do a double-take when you first see them.  They were moving pretty quickly from flower to flower, making photography a challenge, but with time (and a lot of deleted photos), I managed a few decent photos.

The second highlight were a couple of surprises on the butterfly weed I had planted. I wasn’t ever clear if the variety I bought was truly a form of milkweed.  Sure, butterflies loved the blooms, but would Monarch Butterflies treat it as they do all the wild, Common Milkweed that’s around here? Would they lay eggs?  That was answered today, when I found two caterpillars, one quite large, and one small. I don’t have a really large area of butterfly weed, but seeing those Monarch caterpillars today makes me want to plant some more.

A nice time, just a stone’s throw (quite literally!) from the house.  Backyard safari saves the day…

White-lined Sphinx Moth - Hyles lineata

White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata), feeding on nectar from our massive honeysuckle in the back yard. There were 2 or 3 hanging around the backyard, with the honeysuckle drawing the most interest by far.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) - Caterpillar

(Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) caterpillar, hanging around on my “butterfly weed”. According to this guy…yes…yes indeed…this IS a form of milkweed.

Leafcutter Bee (Megachile)

A Leafcutter Bee, hanging out on the same Butterfly Weed plant as the two Monarch caterpillars.

White-lined Sphinx Moth

Another White-lined Sphinx Moth at the honeysuckle.

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