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Rather slow (but enjoyable) winter raptor search

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

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

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

Snowy Owl - Bubo scandiacus

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

Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos

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

Pronghorn - Antilocapra americana

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

Mule Deer - Odocoileus hemionus

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

One more trip – Rocks and Birds

It was a beautiful weekend in much of South Dakota, so much so that the lure of one last rockhounding trip was too much for me to pass up.  With projected highs near 60, and just as importantly on the windswept plains of South Dakota, a lack of a wind, it seemed like the perfect day to roam around the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. An added treat of birding the western part of the state at this time of year…all of the winter raptors that are arriving!

I started out rockhounding, and could tell it was going to be a great day.  I tried a little bit different spot, and immediately found it wasn’t as “picked over” as my typical spot near Kadoka.  Right away I was finding many bubblegum agates, some beautiful rose quartz, some amber-colored honey agates, prairie agates, and some big chunks of petrified wood. I also found several coral and shell fossils, including one cute little bubblegum agate with a crisp imprint of a shell on the back side.  The highlight…after only 10 minutes, I found a gorgeous Fairburn agate with an unusual, rosy-colored quartz center.  That piece alone would have made the trip worth it.

While I spent most of the day rockhounding, I also kept my eyes open for the arriving winter raptors. Rough-legged Hawks, as always, were in abundance in parts of the Grasslands. Ferruginous Hawks, Golden Eagles, a prairie falcon, and plenty of Red-tailed Hawks rounded out a day that finished with the spotting of a gorgeous, pure white, unbarred Snowy Owl on the drive back home. A great “last blast” out on the Grasslands, before the really cold South Dakota winter hits.

Fairburn Agate - South Dakota

A gorgeous Fairburn agate as I found it on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. On average this year, I’d say I find one Fairburn for about every 15 hours of looking, so it’s always a wonderful treat. This one was so unusual, in terms of that grogeous rosy center surrounding by the fortification banding.

South Dakota Agates, Jaspers, Petrified Wood, Quartz

The material I brought back. You can collect on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, but 1) only for private collections (no selling of material), and 2) can collect up to 25 pounds of material in a day. Given I usually only keep the smaller pieces (most are 2″ or less), that’s not a problem! But on this day, there were some BIG pieces of petrified wood I was tempted to bring home! If I had done so though, a couple of them would have used up my 25-lb allotment! Hence sticking with my “usual” agates and other material.

Curious Red-tailed Hawks

When you encounter a bird in the wild, there’s a standard series of events that occur. Far too often, the encounter ends when the bird flies away as you approach.  Hence the challenge for a bird photographer!! But every once in a while, the quarry seems just as interested as the photographer.  Today was one of those experiences.

I was birding a little bit in western Minnehaha County, west of Sioux Falls. I saw a pair of Red-tailed Hawks sitting on adjacent fence posts on the road in front of me. In these situations, I always have my camera ready when I approach, just on the off change that the bird would actually stay perched and not flush. However, as per usual, the pair both took off well before I got in camera range.

Was was NOT per usual is their behavior after taking flight. Instead of flying off to a distant perch, the pair banked…and turned back towards me as I stood on the side of the road. For the next 3 or four minutes, both of them lazily circled above and around me as I furiously clicked away.  Getting nice flight photos of wild raptors is ALWAYS a welcome opportunity…here are some photos of the pair.

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensisRed-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensisRed-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensisRed-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

South Dakota group kills > 100 eagles, >200 raptors (warning – Disturbing image)

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

What do you see when looking at this photos A gorgeous, powerful wonder of nature? A majestic symbol of our nation? Or…a body part to be sold for about $250? For 15 South Dakotans, it’s the latter, as they are charged with killing and selling the carcasses and body parts of over 100 eagles and 200 raptors in total.

Want to buy the head of a Golden Eagle?  It will run you about $250 on the black market.  How about the wings of our national symbol, the Bald Eagle? It’s a bit pricier, as a pair of wings sell for about $900.  What’s that you say?  Black Market? Dead eagles?  Sounds a bit illegal?  Well, that didn’t stop a South Dakota “chop shop” for trafficking in eagle carcasses and parts, as well as other raptors.

The Department of Justice this week charged 15 South Dakotans in conspiring to acquire (aka, kill), process, and distribute the bodies or body parts of eagles and other raptors. The group was known to have killed at least 100 eagles and over 200 raptors in total.  Members of the group face charges for violating the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and the Lacey Act of 1900.  I guess you can forgive the group because these are “new” regulations that have only been around for a minimum of 77 years.  Who knew you couldn’t go out and shoot eagles and sell their parts on the black market?

What I want to know is…why the hell IS there a black market for eagle parts?  What does one DO with the head of a Golden Eagle? The wings of a Bald Eagle? The people who killed and sold all these raptors are disgusting, but so are the people who buy these “treasures”.

I’ve seen some sick things in South Dakota while out birding.  I’ve seen a landowner near Presho, a landowner who himself was later charged with killing eagles and other raptors, duct-tape dead coyotes in a spread-eagle position on telephone poles around his property. Warning…a photo of one of the coyotes is at the bottom of the post, and is rather disturbing.  I’ve seen hunting dog carcasses neatly lined up with bullet holes in their heads, hunting dogs that were temporarily used by out-of-state hunters during the big fall pheasant hunt, and then were “disposed of” when the hunting trip ended. On SEVERAL occasions I’ve come across hunters shooting things they shouldn’t be shooting, such as a pair of South Dakota rednecks driving around in their pickup and stopping at any wetland they passed to blast away at American Coots and other water birds.  I’ve seen a pair of high school girls pull into a wildlife area, drop off their two little brothers, and casually laugh and chatter while the little bastards were out roaming the land and shooting every songbird they could see.  I’ve seen “hunters” shoot and wound a Canada Goose, and then run around chasing the grounded bird and kicking and punching it to death.  I’ve SEEN dead raptors, including a big, gorgeous Golden Eagle, that had clearly been shot. But hey, at least those people were just doing it for “fun”, not for personal profit!!

There’s a reason I’ve gotten more cynical over the 25 years we’ve lived in South Dakota.  I’ve SEEN what some people are like. I’ve SEEN the terrible things people are capable of. When I see stories like this about the killing of hundreds of raptors for profit, I’m sad, I’m sickened, but I certainly can’t say I’m shocked any more.

Coyote - Shot near Presho, South Dakota

I’m sorry for the disturbing image, but, this is one of the most disgusting things I’ve seen while out birding in South Dakota…a land owner near Presho who had shot several coyotes and duct-taped them to telephone poles around his property. This same land owner was charged with shooting raptors, including eagles. Why, you ask? He ran a pheasant and grouse hunting operation, and didn’t want these animals preying on “his” birds. I wish stories like these were isolated cases in South Dakota. They’re not. I’ve been frankly shocked at the attitudes of many people in the state towards our beautiful wildlife.

 

Where did the Fort Pierre National Grasslands raptors go?

Central South Dakota - Raptor Sightings

Winter raptor sightings in central South Dakota over the last 5 years. The Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves used to be “the” hotspot for winter raptors, including great chances for rarities like Gyrfalcons and Snowy Owls. In recent years, raptor numbers are incredibly low compared to areas just south of the Grasslands, in and around Presho and Kennebec. Click on the map above (or any other image) for a larger view.

I still vividly remember the first time I had ever visited the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.  It was 2000, and I had been bitten by the birding bug.  Hard. Much of my free time was spent birding and taking photos, and as a new birder, there certainly were plenty of “new” birds to discover, just around my home town of Brandon.  One of my friends at work was an avid, lifetime birder, and he not only helped with identification of the birds in my (quite poor!) early photos, but he also helped to stoke the birding fires.  That was very evident when reports came in of a Gyrfalcon on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.  In the years since, the Grasslands have become known as a wonderful location for finding these very rare winter visitors, but at the time, it was something rather novel.  Given that my lifetime birder friend had never seen a Gyrfalcon, I knew this was something special for a birder and I was excited to try to find it. Thus began 16 winters of making periodic birding treks to the Grasslands.

It couldn’t have been easier on that first visit.  The famed “Pheasant Farm Gyrfalcon” was hanging around a farmstead that raised pheasants for hunting operations in the region.  I talked with Doug B. in Pierre, a great birding contact who also helped a lot in my early birding years, and he provided directions (we’re WELL before cell phones and google maps here!).  He had said that he was likely to be around that location early on a Saturday morning, so I made plans to get up ridiculously early and drive to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and arrive at that spot just after dawn.

Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus

The ubiquitous Rough-Legged Hawk, once seemingly found on every other fence post and telephone pole on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. However, for the last 5 years, they’ve been curiously absent.

That cold December day came, I set the alarm, packed up my equipment at 4:30, and started the 3+ hour drive.  My timing was good, and I arrived on County Line Road right around 8:00 AM. As I reached an old abandoned schoolhouse that marked the location close to the pheasant farm, I saw a pair of cars.  I got out, saw Doug B., and asked if they’d seen the Gyrfalcon.  He smiled, and pointed to the top of a nearby telephone pole, and there it was!  My first Gyrfalcon, about as easy a “capture” as a birder can ever hope for with such a rarity!

From that day forward, I was hooked on the Grasslands.  Given that it’s about 3 1/2 hours from home, it’s not a love of convenience!  But I quickly learned to appreciate the isolation and beauty of the area. Most days on the Grasslands, you run into very few people, and there are times after a nice wet period where the beauty of the grasslands and flowers can be really spectacular.  But of course, it’s the birding that was the main attractant for me, and my GOODNESS what incredible birding there was.  Winter in the middle of South Dakota may not sound like a time for vibrant bird life, but the Fort Pierre National Grasslands was building a reputation as a magnet for raptors. This not only included one of the best chances in all of the lower 48 states to see a Gyrfalcon, but also a diverse list of other raptors that spent their winter months on the Grasslands.  Rough-legged Hawks were found in extremely high numbers, such that many times it was quite rare to drive more than half a mile on County Line Road and NOT see a Rough-legged Hawk hanging out on a telephone pole or fence post.  It’s the first place I saw a massive, incredibly powerful Golden Eagle.  It’s the place where I first saw a Ferruginous Hawk, a bird with such a brilliantly white underside that from a distance I thought I was about to see my first Snowy Owl.  It wasn’t that year, but later the Fort Pierre National Grasslands WERE the place I saw my first Snowy Owl, including one incredible year where Snowy Owls were practically as abundant as the ever-present Rough-legged Hawks. It’s the first place I saw a Prairie Falcon, a bird that for a long time was a photographic nemesis for me given their predilection for flushing and flying away whenever I got within 1/4 of a mile of one.  It’s the first place I saw a Short-eared Owl, a summer-time encounter where two adults were tending 4 younger birds.  That encounter concluded with an adult circling me for several minutes as I stood outside my car, resulting in one of my most memorable photo opportunities (and a new Canon DSLR camera body, thanks to the photo winning a nationwide Canon photo contest!).

Winter Sightings - Rough-legged Hawk

Winter sightings of just Rough-legged Hawks. Note the incredibly dense populations near I-90, and the sharp drop off towards the Grasslands in the north.

There have been days on the Grasslands where a full, complete day of birding could simply consist of driving back-and-forth on County Line Road and occasionally taking one of the small gravel roads that connect to it.  One could potentially stay within a relatively small driving area of 10 to 20 square miles, and find dozens, upon dozens, upon dozens of raptors.  Since that first day in 2000, I’ve had some of my most memorable photo experiences on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in winter, including finally getting a close shot of a Prairie Falcon, having a curious first-year Gyrfalcon circle me in curiosity in much the same way that Short-eared Owl did years before, capturing a photo of the massive wingspan of a Golden Eagle as it takes flight, and finally capturing my first decent photos of a Snowy Owl.  During all my winter trips to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, I learned to appreciate not only the Grasslands themselves, but the area south of the Grasslands.  I’d necessarily drive the I-90 corridor past Reliance, Kennebec, and Presho to get to the Grasslands themselves, and couldn’t help notice all the raptors in the area.  Soon, my “Grasslands” birding trips became “central South Dakota” birding trips, with days where I’d usually spend mornings in the Presho area and afternoons on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.  Birding life was good, and many a cold, dismal, South Dakota winter was saved by the vibrant display of life that was always available on the Grasslands.

And then…something happened.  It started about 5 years ago, when I planned one of my “usual” winter trips to the area.  The first half of the trip was the same as always…plenty of raptors of all kinds in the Presho area, and plenty of photo opportunities.  However, as I headed north towards the Grasslands themselves, the birds disappeared. Given my past history of finding winter raptors on the Grasslands, I kept expecting the birds to show up around the next corner, but…they never did.  There was an occasional raptor here or there, primarily Golden Eagles or Ferruginous Hawks, but the incredible density of Rough-legged Hawks, the species that once made up a good 80% of all the raptors found on the Grasslands, was simply absent.  Almost TOTALLY absent.

Greater Prairie Chicken - Tympanuchus cupido

A Greater Prairie Chicken on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. Whatever the cause of the raptor decline on the Grasslands, it doesn’t appear to be because there’s been a noticeable decline of gamebirds.

That first winter after the raptors disappeared, I just speculated that something happened to the prey base that attracted the raptors. When driving the Grasslands, you always saw plenty of Ring-necked Pheasants, Greater Prairie Chickens, and Sharp-tailed Grouse.  There were several times where I’d sat in awe as a Gyrfalcon dive-bombed pheasants in search of a meal, and clearly the gamebirds in the area were one thing that attracted raptors.  There didn’t seem to be any obvious crash in the populations of these three gamebird species. The famed Pheasant Farm near County Line Road had stopped raising pheasants, but that’s such a local phenomenon that it couldn’t explain the drop in raptors across all the grasslands.  Indeed, this winter I visited the Grasslands a couple of days after Christmas, when a massive storm had coated the region in snow and crusty ice.  I ran across truly massive groups of Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie Chickens, milling about in the open and looking for foraging spots in the ice-locked vegetation. Yet despite all the gamebirds that were out, raptors were again curiously absent.  I didn’t spot a single Rough-legged Hawk on the Grasslands themselves, despite easily finding over 30 earlier in the day down by Presho.

If not a decline in gamebirds, what else?  One factor that may play some role is the loss of some truly massive prairie dog towns in the region.  On County Line Road itself, there have always been a few locations for prairie dogs.  Not all raptors target prairie dogs, but Ferruginous Hawks certainly key in on prairie dogs, and prairie dog towns.  Over the last several years, many of the prairie dog towns in the area have disappeared.  Those outside of the administrative boundaries of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves are fair game for poisoning, to clear the land of these “pests” (don’t get me started).  The largest prairie dog town I knew of in the area was on the east end of County Line Road, just outside of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands itself.  It stretched for almost a mile on the north side of the road, with more scattered spots on the south side of the road.  A few years ago, that entire area was clearly poisoned, and the massive colony is gone.

However, the decline in prairie dogs also fails to fully explain the decline in raptors.  There are NO prairie dog towns down by Presho and Kennebec, yet raptors of every kind are still found there in incredible numbers. Perhaps it’s a decline in the small rodent population in the area? For a raptor such as a Rough-legged Hawk, mice and voles make up a huge part of the diet.  Could there have been some cyclic decline in small rodent numbers on the grasslands?  That was my initial thought, but it’s been 5 years since the noticeable and sharp decline in raptor numbers.  You wouldn’t think some repetitive cycle of boom-and-bust rodent populations would be in “bust” mode for so long. Perhaps it’s related to the Prairie Dog poisoning? Could that have also had an impact on small rodents in the area?

A Black-tailed Prairie Dog. There’s little doubt number of these guys HAVE declined around the fringes of the Grasslands, given active poisoning programs.

One other major prey source in the area, particularly for Merlins and Prairie Falcons, are the sometimes huge flocks of Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks, and Snow Buntings that are found in the area in the winter. The vast majority of Merlin sightings I’ve had in South Dakota have been on the Grasslands themselves or in the Presho area.  During my last trip over Christmas, the first raptor I saw at dawn was a Merlin munching on a freshly caught Horned Lark by Kennebec, and I’ve had numerous other occasions over the years where I’ve seen Merlins feeding on Horned Larks or Lapland Longspurs.   You do see roving flocks of Longspurs, Larks, and Snow Buntings on the Grasslands,certainly enough to capture the attention of a raptor that’s passing through, but the numbers of those potential prey species have seemed higher in the Presho/Kennebec area in recent years.

The maps that are shown in this post are indicative of the raptor numbers on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands vs. the I-90 corridor in recent years. These are all actual sightings made by myself over the last 5 years, and recorded in eBird.  During each and every trip I’ve made in the last 5 years, I take the same general routes. I start in the Kennebec/Presho area around dawn, by mid-morning start to work my way up through the Grasslands themselves, and then start to head back down south again by mid-afternoon. It’s clearly not a precise, spatially distributed sample of the space shown on the map, but over the last 5 years, I have driven most of the roads in a rectangle bounded by Highways 1806 and 273 on the east, an area typically no more than 5-8 miles south of I-90 south of Presho, and Kennebec, westward to Highway 83 and a few miles to the west (particularly around the Sheriff Dam and Richland Wildlife Area, and northward to County-Line Road itself and a few miles north of it.  Good roads are few and far between in parts of the area, particularly north-south roads that take you from Presho northward into the Grasslands.  As a result, the maps here tend to show the 2 major north-south gravel road that connect the two areas, as well as other more easily traveled roads in the area.

Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus

A Gyrfalcon taken during the “Golden Years” on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. This is a very dark-phase juvenile, and I’ve never seen one quite like this. The Grasslands may still be a good spot to try to find this mega-rarity, but it’s not an ideal spot for other winter raptors any more.

I wish I had eBird recordings for the “golden years” on the Grasslands, prior to this last 5 year period, something against which these maps could be compared.  I DO have a vast number of raptor photos taken on the Grasslands themselves from 2000 to present, with most of those from 2011 and earlier.  What’s clear from these maps, however, is just how sharp a delineation there is between the I-90 corridor, and raptor numbers to the north on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves.  On the map at the top that shows all raptor sightings I’ve recorded, note the one north-south road that extends up from the I-90 corridor, about halfway between Presho and Vivian. That’s my main path for getting north, and while there are plenty of raptor sightings south of the Grasslands, those sightings drop off sharply almost exactly at the Grassland boundary itself.  On EVERY trip over the last 5 years, I will drive County line Road, an east-west road along the county boundary (visible towards the north side of these maps).  Once THE hotspot for raptors, in the last 5 years, I have very few raptor sightings of any kind along this road.  Rough-legged Hawk sightings on the Grasslands are incredibly small when compared to the area just to the south of the Grasslands. Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers have always seemed to be much more abundant in the southern part of this area, but in recent years they are almost completely absent once you get 4 or 5 miles north of I-90.  Bald Eagles are often incredibly abundant in and around the Presho area.  I have had days where a dozen or more Bald Eagles are sitting in one concentrated area, and there are also at least 3 active Bald Eagle nests that I’ve found in and around the Presho and Kennebec area.  I have a few Bald Eagle sightings around the Grasslands, but that’s certainly dwarfed by how many have been found in and around Presho.

There are some species that are more evenly distributed in the area.  Golden Eagles are a species I’m almost certain to find on any trip to the area, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether I’m on the Grasslands, or in the Presho/Kennebec area.  Prairie Falcons also seem rather randomly distributed, as they seem rather unpredictable and likely to pop up just about anywhere on this map.  Ferruginous Hawks also seem rather even distributed.  Is there something in common about these species that may make them more likely to be found on the grasslands? Golden Eagles and Ferruginous Hawks are much more likely to key in on mammals, including rabbits and other larger mammals.  Perhaps if it is a population crash of small rodents, they’re still on the Grasslands as they don’t depend on those smaller prey as much as Rough-legged Hawks or other raptors. Prairie Falcons can feed on a variety of prey items, including small birds like Horned Larks, and even large birds like Greater Prairie Chickens.  Perhaps they too would be less sensitive to a decline in small rodent numbers.

I’ll continue to make my winter treks to the central part of the state, including visits to the Grasslands.  Given that the Grasslands themselves are still the location where I’ve seen most of my Gyrfalcons over the years (including the years prior to the data represented in these maps), that alone is clearly worth the time!  Hopefully over the next few years the Grasslands recover from whatever “ails” it in terms of supporting winter raptor numbers.

In the News – Week of January 1st, 2017

A new year, a new set of nature and science news pieces for the week…

Black-tailed Prairie Dog - Cynomys ludovicianus

A “varmint”, a Black-tailed Prairie Dog. I have on several occasions run into “sportsmen” in South Dakota who are lined up at the edge of a prairie dog town, picking them off one by one with rifles. Killing for the sake of killing…and doing twice the intended harm, given the lead that’s ingested by predators when they eat the carcasses.

Ammunition choice in shooting “varmints” — There have been many occasions on my birding trips to the central part of the state where I come across a sight that makes me sick to my stomach.  I’ll drive past a prairie dog town, and see multiple hunters lined up along a fence line, crouched and in a shooting position, picking off prairie dogs for “fun”.  That’s it…there’s no other purpose to it, other than killing for the sake of killing.  The prairie dogs that are killed aren’t used for anything, they’re simply left to rot.  Unfortunately, “sportsmen” who feel this sick need to kill for the sake of killing end up doing even more harm to animal communities.  By leaving the dead bodies, it provides an avenue for predators to consume the dead prairie dogs, and ingest the lead in the ammunition that was used to kill them.  Lead poisoning is a major cause of mortality for many raptor species, and is THE leading cause of California Condor mortality. A simple solution, as this article points out, would be to use ammunition that’s free of lead.  Even that common-sense approach though, one that still allows redneck hunters to kill prairie dogs and other “varmints”, is hated by hunting groups, as they claim that lead alternatives in ammunition don’t perform as well as lead shot and bullets.  Given what I have come across over the years on all my birding excursions, I’ve had a major downturn overall in my attitudes towards hunting…and particularly…hunters.  Stories like this don’t help my perceptions of hunters.

Cheetah numbers down to 7,100 worldwide — Over the last century, cheetah numbers worldwide have dropped from 100,000, to only 7,100 today.  Think about that…in a world with nearly 7 billion human beings, for an iconic, well-known predator such as the cheetah, there are only several thousand left. As with most species’ declines, habitat loss is behind the cheetah’s loss in population.  They range over huge territories, and there simply aren’t “huge territories” available in most parts of their range any more.  Throw in targeted persecution, such as the shooting of cheetahs by poachers and farmers, and this story estimates cheetahs could be extinct in the wild in 20-40 years.

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle

Is this the face of Earth’s largest animal migrations? This is a Goldenrod Soldier Beetle from here in South Dakota, and I admit I have no idea if these “migrate” as with some beetles mentioned in this story. By sheer mass, however, this story points out that insect migration likely dwarfs any other migration on the planet.

Biggest migration of land animals on the planet — When you think of what creature may make up the largest migration of any land animal on the planet, in terms of sheer mass, what species do you think of? Or group of species?  When you say “migration”, most people probably think of birds first, and there certainly are mass migrations of birds that are so heavy that weather radar is being increasingly used as a tool to study those migrations. In terms of sheer mass, perhaps some people think of large caribou migrations.  However, as this study notes, one overlooked migration likely has all of these beat…insect migration.  This study notes that around 3.5 trillion arthropods migrate over southern Great Britain each year, accounting approximately 8 times the mass of bird migrations in the same area.  Some winged insects are well-known for their migratory talents, such as the Monarch Butterfly in North America.  But as this study notes, there all sorts of winged and even non-winged creatures that migrate through the atmosphere.

What the heck is a “species” anyway? — People are funny.  We have this intrinsic need to categorize things, put them in neat little bins that help our minds process realty.  Birders sometimes take that to an extreme, with “life lists” that are often incredibly detailed, with “big day” lists (how many species you see in one day), “big years”, “state lists that detail bird species seen within the confines of state boundaries, and more.  What gets bird listers in a tizzy?  Just what IS a species!  The American Ornithological Union and American Birding Association are always making tweaks to their “official” lists of species that have been found in North America.  Just watch birders heads collectively explode if the AOU or ABA does decide to split Red Crossbills into up to six distinct species…life lists will be substantially increased!!  Even with the science of DNA-based splits, it’s still not a precise science in determining what’s a unique species.  As with many things, we’re categorizing things into unique thematic categories, when the phenomena you’re measuring is actually a continuous variable with no definite boundaries.

One, maybe two new comets moving through — Speaking of birders and their lists, I have a friend at work who is a birder, and someone who has a life list.  He also has another, more unusual life list posted on his bulletin board in his office…his “comet life list”!  He’s about to get one, and maybe two new ones for his list.  Comet C/2106 U1 was recently discovered by the “NEOWISE” project, and is potentially visible with binoculars right now, through about January 14th. It would appear in the southeastern sky just before sunrise.  An object called 2016 WF9 was also discovered by NEOWISE, and it will come close to Earth’s orbit in late February.  It’s estimated to be 0.5 to 1.0 km in diameter.  Note the designation “object”, because it’s not clear whether this object is an asteroid or comet (related to the previous story, in that the categorization of what’s a “comet” and what’s an “asteroid” can be fuzzy).

Bird Dropping Moth - Caterpillar - Ponometia

A caterpillar of Ponometia…the “Bird Dropping Moth”. Should a new species of “shit moth” be discovered, I would suggest it be named after Trump, in the same manner that several creatures have been named after Obama in recent years.

Nine creatures named for President Obama — Over the last few years, no less than 9 different creatures have had scientific names that honor Barack Obama.  Multiple fish, a lizard, bird, etc…all have scientific names such as “Nystalus obamai” (A Western Striated Puffbird, in this case). Once Trump leaves office in 4 years (or in a perfect world, once he’s impeached after a year or so), I wonder what creatures will be named after him?  I have many, many classes of creatures where new discoveries should consider his name. There are the Onychophora phylum of worms known for excreting slime. There are the Annelidas…leaches…which would be a wonder creature to name after him.  There’s a moth called Ponometia, and it’s associated caterpillar, that would be good.  Their common name is the “Bug-dropping Moth”.  Naming him after shit would be a perfect way to “honor” him once he leaves office.

Where you’re most likely to get struck by lightning — We had a very unusual Christmas day in South Dakota.  I believe it was 4 years ago when we were absolutely smothered in snow, getting close to 2 feet on Christmas.  We’ve had Christmas’s where the temperature never got above zero.  And then there was this Christmas where we had…a thunderstorm?  In late December? In South Dakota?  We set a record for most rainfall on Christmas Day, getting over an inch in most areas, and the lightning and thunder was the first time that’s ever occurred here on Christmas (or late December for that matter).  I could go into global warming here, but no, the point is the story in the above link.  Standing outside on Christmas Day in South Dakota normally isn’t a high-risk endeavor, in terms of being struck by lightning.  So where are the most active areas on earth for lightning?  Thanks to a satellite called the Tropical Rainfall Monitoring Mission, we now know.  The winner…a Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela.  Over each one square kilometer in the area, one could expect over 230 lightning strikes per year.  The lake is surrounded by mountains, and nearly every night, cool airflow from the mountains hits the warm waters and air above the lake and produces thunderstorms.

Western Meadowlark - Sturna neglecta

A Western Meadowlark, taken with a temp of -10° near Presho, South Dakota, in the winter of 2003-2004. I have a billion Meadowlark photos, but specifically remember this one because it was so rare to SEE one in the heart of winter. Now? They’re everywhere.

Bird migration changing with climate — As I noted in a previous post, I went birding to the central part of the state last week, and was amazed at how many Western Meadowlarks were around.  15 years ago, it was rare to spot one in winter in that part of the state.  Now…I saw hundreds, all across the region.  Global warming? It’s hard to ignore signs like that.  As this story describes, many birds are changing their migration patterns as the climate changes. Many are arriving on the summer breeding grounds much earlier than they used to.  There are also some species where migrations have become shorter, or perhaps such as the case of the Western Meadowlarks, where they’ve simply stopped moving south for the winter.

China bans ivory trade and purchase — A rare bit of good conservation news.  This last week, China announced that they will ban the sale and trade of ivory by the end of 2017. China was by far the largest market for legally sold ivory, with ivory selling for over $1,000 a kilogram.  The Great Elephant Census recently published noted that elephant populations world-wide plummeted by 30% in just the last 7 years (!!!!!), and incredible population decline for such a short time period.  With the shutting of the largest legal ivory market, it’s hoped that poaching pressures will decline.  However, it’s hard to guess what will happen with ivory trade, and if much of this will simply move to the black market.

The return of Clyde

Cooper's Hawk - Accipiter cooperii

“Clyde” the Cooper’s Hawk, giving me the evil eye for daring to question his presence in my back yard. Perhaps it’s not me, perhaps he’s upset for another reason. He had just attempted to catch a House Sparrow at my feeders, and failed. Given the remains of feathers I’m increasingly finding in my yard this winter, it’s clear that he also succeeds quite a bit.

It almost seems like a horrible nightmare, looking back on our life one year ago.  We were living a happy, blissful life in the suburbs when he appeared.   “Clyde” terrorized our back yard, suddenly appearing when you least expected him, wreaking havoc and sewing fear. We had nightmares of a lifetime of Clyde appearances, fearing the phantom menace that would dominate our very existence.  However we were lucky (or so we thought).  We thought we had escaped the horrors of Clyde when he disappeared as suddenly he initially appeared, granting us many months of Clyde-free bliss. We thought we’d never again have to worry about Clyde.

We were wrong.

Clyde.  Is.  BACK.

Clyde made his reappearance on Thanksgiving Day.  A peaceful Thanksgiving dinner was interrupted by the sudden flurry of activity in the back yard, with songbirds scattering and fleeing for their lives while Clyde came roaring through the yard, looking for an easy meal.  Clyde (so named when he first appeared in our yard last year) is a Cooper’s Hawk, and he does what Cooper’s Hawks do…chase and eat birds.  We’ve had a bumper crop of House Sparrows this year (never a good thing), as well as a large number of American Goldfinches feeding on our big thistle feeder.  Throw in the ever-present Dark-eyed Juncos, the similarly common Black-capped Chickadees, and periodic visits by Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, and White-breasted Nuthatches, and Clyde has a veritable buffet of birds from which to choose.

On Thanksgiving day, it was a beautiful male Northern Cardinal that he appeared to key in on.  The first sighting was when a flash of red flew up from the feeders, hovered a moment by the sun room window as it desperately sought escape, and then bolted for cover in the trees in the back of the yard.  Clyde gave it a good try, darting towards the Cardinal by the window (and nearly crashing into it himself), but on that occasion, the prey was the winner.  That’s not always the case.  Clyde is a pretty damned good bird hunter.  Ever since Thanksgiving, there’s been plenty of evidence of his successes, with little piles of feathers generally all that’s left after he’s consumed his catch.

In reality, I like having Clyde around.  I know some people (my wife included) aren’t fond of attracting birds, only to see them serve as prey for predators that attracted to their presence. For me, it’s fascinating watching their interaction, and regardless of whether I have a bird feeder up or not, Clyde is going to hunt and eat birds, and the songbirds that serve as his prey are going to be hunted and eaten.  Circle of life, something which certainly adds to the birding experience in a dreadful, cold, snowy South Dakota winter.

It’s a bird-eat-bird world

Merlin (Falco columbarius) with prey (Horned Lark)

A Merlin munching on a freshly caught Horned Lark

It’s Saturday.  I went birding on Monday.  But as is typical, I didn’t even download or start to look at the photos until this morning.  Heck, this is actually FAST for me! I have folders upon folders of bird photos that await.  It’s a lot more fun to take photos than to process them and get them up on a website.  What I’ll often do is just process a few of the best ones and leave the rest for a “later” time period that often seems to never come!  Some day I’ll start my own personal digital birding adventure, where I’ll revisit all my old photos and rediscover ones I never knew I had.

But in the meantime, here’s a few from Monday.  As I like to do a couple of times I winter, I got up early Monday and made the long drive to the central part of the state.  It was a LOVELY day for birding, at a slightly crisp -17 degrees when I arrived at dawn.  One of my favorite birding locations and times in South Dakota is the area around Presho in the dead of winter.  There are many pheasant hunting operations in the region, and a fair amount of land managed for pheasants and grouse.  With literally hundreds of pheasants and grouse sometimes milling about, winter raptors are attracted to the area.  The density and diversity is usually spectacular.  It’s a guarantee you’ll find Golden Eagles, Bald Eagles, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks and Rough-legged Hawks, you’ll usually find Ferruginous Hawks and Prairie Falcons, and you’ll often find some of the more “fun” species, including Gyrfalcon, Merlin, Snowy Owl, or Short-eared Owl.

Northern Harrier - Circus cyaneus

A female Northern Harrier, feeding on the scant remains of a pheasant

By “Presho standards”, Monday wasn’t the greatest, as I “only” came across 75 or so raptors over the course of 7 hours.  No rarities, but I did get some very nice looks at nature in action.  Merlins are a species I don’t see very often, at least not in my part of eastern South Dakota.  But for some reason I often have luck finding them around Presho in the winter. It’s not just all the pheasants and grouse that attract raptors, ti’s also Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and other small birds that often frequent the area.  The photo here is a Merlin munching on a freshly caught Horned Lark (they seem to be a favorite prey species).

The second photo is a female Northern Harrier. I came across her feeding on the remains of a pheasant carcass on the side of the road.  I’m not sure if Harriers take down full-grown pheasants or not…it seems like they’d be a handful.  But I have seen Harriers on carrion, so perhaps this one was feeding on the remains of a bird caught or killed by something else.  It was nice to get relatively close looks at her though, as Harriers around here are typically quite skittish.  For as many as I’ve seen, I don’t have all that great of photos of them.

It’s a rough world out there!  Eat or be eaten!

Gorgeous Fall Birding

Osprey in flight - Pandion haliaetus

An osprey circling over Lake Alvin, near Sioux Falls.

In about, oh, 2 weeks, I’m likely to bemoan the fact that I live in often frigid South Dakota.  Winter here isn’t for the faint of heart, and even moving just one state up from where I grew up (Nebraska), it’s clearly, much colder here. But, I have to admit…May through October are usually freakin’ spectacular in terms of weather.  Yes, we get some hot muggy days, but more often than not, we have some truly wonderful weather from late spring through mid-fall.

The weather this fall has been above-and-beyond wonderful, with crisp nights, but typically sunny and warm days.  Today, November 1st, and it was sunny most of the day, high of about 65, with nary a breeze.  I took the opportunity to go birding this morning, with the intention of doing my first real hard searching for Saw-whet Owls.  People banding them in the state have been catching them, so clearly they’re moving through.  I bush-whacked through thick cedar stands for about 3 hours this morning with nary a hint of an owl.  Not only no owls, but not a bit of “whitewash” (the white-stained tree branches and ground below their frequent roosts), and no pellets.  My guess is that it’s still just too early.

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

Red-tailed Hawk protecting a kill. Another was just a few feet away, hoping for a bite.

It still was a wonderful day to get out and walk around, and I did have other birds that “saved the day”.  First, an Osprey circling over Lake Alvin, just south of Sioux Falls.  Osprey aren’t a species you see all that often around here, so it was nice to get good close looks at him.

Near there I came across a pair of (young?) Red-tailed Hawks, hanging out on the ground on the edge of a tilled field.  One was clearly protecting something that it had caught, with it’s wings spread a bit and hovering over the prey like a protective umbrella. This bird was feeding while another was sitting about 10 feet away.  You definitely don’t think of raptors like this “sharing”, so I would bet that 2nd bird ended up going hungry.

American Robin - Turdus migratorius

American Robin gorging on berries in a cedar tree. An awfully common species…but in frigid South Dakota, one I’m not likely to see much of for the next 5 months!

The other thing of note this morning were the scads of birds gorging on berries of cedar/juniper.  We get a few American Robins that actually over-winter here, but overall most move south of South Dakota a little ways.  This time of year though you certainly can see many Robins gorging on berries in preparation for winter.  It wasn’t just Robins, and there were also many Cedar Waxwings joining the feast.  I know encroaching eastern red cedar isn’t a popular thing for many, but one thing you do have to admit is they provide a heck of a lot of good habitat and food for some species of birds.

One last nice bird to end the birding portion of the day…a beautiful male Red-bellied Woodpecker at our feeder at home.  We live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a State Park with a lot of mature forest.  You often see (and hear!) Red-bellied Woodpeckers in the park, but it’s not very often one makes the effort to cross the street and visit my yard.

Great way to end a gorgeous fall birding day in South Dakota!

Pictures! Of things with “feathers”!!

Nelson's Sparrow - Ammodramus nelsoni

A Nelson’s Sparrow, one of the rather elusive “skulkers” that moves through the area in the fall.

For a website that started out as a place to share my bird photos, it sure seems like it’s been a long time since I’ve actually posted any bird photos.  Snakes?  Check!  Insects? Check?  Even an aurora? Check!!  But photos of creatures with feathers haven’t been very prominent lately.

It’s not like I haven’t been out birding.  Since late May, I haven’t birded as much as I would over a normal summer, but I have been out on occasion.  I truly haven’t had much luck getting good photos though.  Part of the issue is 1) my reluctance to shoot (yet more) photos of species that I already have many photographs, and 2) a higher standard for what constitutes a “keeper” photo.  In bird photography, it’s inevitable that you’ll toss most of your photos (dang things don’t sit still and pose for a nice picture!), but I toss more photos now than I ever have.

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

A Red-tailed Hawk, busy feeding on grasshoppers. This guy was gorging, looking down from this fence post, dropping down to grab the sluggish fall grasshoppers, coming back to the post to consume it, and then looking for another.

I spent time birding and taking photos the last couple of days, with the intention of actually getting photos “good enough” to put on my website.  Mission accomplished!  I really love birding in the fall.  While May is a magical month for warblers and other migrants that move through, October is a month for sparrows!  Sparrows aren’t exactly high on the “must see” list for most people (even many birders), but there’s a wonderful variety that moves through in the fall.  Despite the tendency for most people to think of sparrows as rather drab birds, there are also several with truly beautiful plumage.

One of the highlights in the fall for me are finding Le Conte’s and Nelson’s Sparrows.  Neither breed in my part of the state, and I never seem to be able to find them when they move north through the area in the spring.  However, I have multiple locations where I’ve had great luck finding them in the fall, particularly Le Conte’s Sparrows.  The species is highly sought by many birders, having a reputation of being “skulky” and difficult to find.  They definitely do stick to thick vegetation, usually in thick wet meadows or along the edges of wetlands, but with patience, you’ll usually get some good looks of them as they forage and go about their business in the fall.

Savannah Sparrow - Passerculus sandwichensis

One of the more common sparrows moving through in the fall, a Savannah Sparrow. You often see loose collections of a few dozen birds at this time of year.

Raptors can also be fun in the fall, typically not so much for variety of species in this part of the state (southeastern South Dakota), but in terms of sheer number.  You tend to see concentrations of American Kestrels, Red-tailed Hawks, and a handful of others as they move through in the fall.  It also tends to be a pretty good time for photographing them, as many are first year birds that tend to not be as spooky as older birds.

Note although it’s likely too early, I spent some time this weekend bushwhacking through cedar thickets, looking for early arrival Northern Saw-whet Owls.  No luck!  But I am looking forward to their arrival.   One of the few bright spots of a chilly South Dakota winter!

As always, click on the images for larger views.

 

 

Cooper's Hawk - Accipiter cooperiiHarris's Sparrow - Zonotrichia querulaMarsh Wren - Cistothorus palustris

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