Articles

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.

Catching up…A mere 8,391 photos to process, upload, display

Photo processing - the long slog

One of two directories worth of “good” photos that I just need to finish processing, and put somewhere where they’ll see the light of day.

Uh…yeah. I’m running a bit behind in terms of processing photos.  Starting in around, oh…2012…I got lazy. Instead of processing photos from a trip rather quickly to ensure I actually DID it, I let them languish. I’d occasionally go back and revisit old shoots, but the photos kept piling up.  Now I didn’t just completely ignore photos from a trip. For all of these photo shoots since early 2014, I DID go in and thin out all the bad photos. I converted the remaining photos from RAW and did some basic image processing. All these photos are thus “good” shots that I’ve just never done anything with. I haven’t cataloged them.  I haven’t put them on my own website. I haven’t put them on any of the photo sites where I have accounts. No Facebook, no Twitter…these are photos that are almost ready to go, but have never seen the light of day.

I’m now finding that on days I don’t go birding, I can pretty much do some virtual birding in my upstairs office, perusing all these unprocessed photos and getting them out on my website and elsewhere.  I’m finding SO many photos that I didn’t know I had! Species I didn’t remember shooting!  Wonderful scenes and settings that have since slipped my mind! So, I’ve decided to take a break. Take a break from going out quite as often as I’m used, and instead, catching up on the photos that I DO have.

Two directories worth of photos…one with 4,491 photos, one with 3,900 photos, all in need of polishing and uploading to somewhere that people can actually see them!  I’m going through it rather randomly, going back to some trip from 2012, back to 2018, etc. Not only am I “discovering” some nice photos, I’m finding photos that may be some of my favorite photos of all time!

No idea how long this will take, but it’s a nice way to spend days I don’t go out birding. Here’s a more recent photo, from Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado earlier this summer.

Woodhouse's Scrub Jay - Aphelocoma woodhouseii

 

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.

 

%d bloggers like this: