Nice winter birding

Yeah, a month since a post. It’s been a bad month on multiple fronts, wasn’t in much of a mood to bird, rockhound, or blog. It HAS been a really nice year for some of the more uncommon winter bird visitors in South Dakota though, so this morning I went out and about, just around Brandon and Sioux Falls.

A nice morning! The highlight were a number of White-winged Crossbills. They are a nomadic species, found in one place one year, gone the next. They are pretty rare visitors to our neck of the woods, but one place they can occasionally be found is Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Sioux Falls. It’s an old cemetery, with some really huge, old spruce and other evergreens. The spruce have a really thick crop of cones this year, which is what attracts the Crossbills.  A really busy morning for birds in the cemetery, not only the rare White-winged Crossbills, but scads of Pine Siskins, and at least a dozen Common Redpolls as well.  There are entire winters that go by where I don’t see those 3 species, so it’s been a really nice treat this winter.

Some photos, including a few from around the yard recently…

White-winged Crossbill - Loxia leucoptera

A White-winged Crossbill hanging out in a spruce tree. They were really active this morning, moving from tree to tree in mixed flocks with Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and a few nuthatches. The problem was their preference to forage near the top of the massive spruce trees! I had to be patient to get one low enough for a photo.

White-winged Crossbill - Loxia leucoptera

Another White-winged Crossbill, foraging in the same place as the previous photo.

Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis

The male Northern Cardinal that visits my yard every day. Like clockwork, both a male and a female show up in the last 20 minutes of daylight, and occasionally at other times as well.

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

A Common Redpoll eating the seeds in the catkins that dangle from my paper birch in the back yard. They LOVE paper birch catkins, and already this winter have pretty much finished all the catkins of the tree. This is only the 3rd winter (in over 20+ years in Brandon) where we’ve had Redpolls visit.

Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis

The female Northern Cardinal that always visits in the evening.

Pine Siskin - Spinus pinus

One of the scads of Pine Siskins in my yard. I’ve occasionally had 1 or 2 come to the feeder in winter. I’ve NEVER had them like this. They have been by far the most common bird in my yard, even outnumbering all the goldfinches that love my thistle feeder. There have been times I look out and there are 50 or more, hanging out in my paper birch, and foraging at my feeders.

End of the Kiskadee

Great Kiskadee - Pitangus sulphuratus

Great Kiskadee sitting on a roosting box the landowners built.  Alas, even such heroic efforts weren’t enough to save this tropical bird from a South Dakota winter.

Not exactly surprising, given its normal habitat, but the Great Kiskadee that was found hanging around a farmstead near Volga, South Dakota since at least August, was found dead yesterday.  The landowners first noticed one, and maybe up to three, in August.  They weren’t aware of how rare a find it was, so it wasn’t until November that the birding community found out.  One Great Kiskadee was once found in central Kansas.  A few have been found in Oklahoma.  But South Dakota? In winter?

The bird hung on into the new year, which is by itself a minor miracle for a bird of the tropics.  We’ve had a very snowy winter so far, but the Kiskadee survived thanks to the heroic efforts of the landowners who fed it mealworms, minnows, catfood, suet, and anything else it would eat.  In the end though…it’s damned hard to expect a tropical bird to survive a South Dakota winter.  It hasn’t been THAT cold, but no matter whether the bird had food to eat, there are basic physiological tolerances that were no doubt exceeded.

Bummer…I do feel bad for the family who tried to keep it alive.  They were very proud of “their” bird and did a nice job keeping it alive as long as they did.  People from all across the region got the chance to see this incredibly rare tropical visitor, right in the heart of a northern Plains winter.

Unexpected Visitor!

Pine Siskin - North American Range Map

This is a range map for the Pine Siskin. The closest they’re supposed to be to here this time of year would be northern Minnesota or the Black Hills.

My office has been under construction for nearly 2 months now, and my temporary office is, uh…not ideal.  It’s an open cube, shared with 2 other people, 6 feet from the bathroom doors.  Lovely…and hard to work when you’re used to your own office with a door you can shut.  Because of that, I’ve been working at home most of the time.

I had an unexpected surprise today while working at home.  I went into the kitchen to get a drink, looked out the patio doors at the thistle (niger) feeder, and saw a Pine Siskin.  June 2nd?  A Pine Siskin in southeast South Dakota?  It wasn’t even something on my radar, so I had to do a double take, and check it out at close range just to be sure.  Pine Siskins are something you’d only expect in the winter around here, and even though they can be pretty locally common, I rarely get them at my feeders.

The map above shows the supposed range for a Pine Siskin.  Strange!  A nice surprise, and actually after checking my eBird list for the year, I hadn’t seen one yet this year. June 2nd…not the date I’d expect to see my first Pine Siskin here!

Photographing a non-existent bird

Photo of Blue-winged Warbler - Vermivora cyanoptera

A Blue-winged Warbler seen at Newton Hills State Park in South Dakota. Most sources would consider it to be very rare for the area, or an out-of-range vagrant. Thanks to “citizen scientists”, I think our understanding of bird distributions is going to be much improved in the coming years.

I visited Newton Hills State Park this week.  It’s a wonderful place to bird, and rarely fails to produce some interesting birds, particularly given that its an oasis of forest in a vast plain of corn and soybeans.  While walking along a path I heard what is now a familiar song, a buzzy quiet song that sometimes sounds like half insect, half bird.  Soon the source the song popped up on the top of a nearby cedar…a Blue-winged Warbler.  I was able to take quite a few decent photos of him before I moved on to find other quarry.

What’s always interesting about that spot in Newton Hills, and that species, is that they’re generally assumed NOT to be there.  Oh, among local birders, that particular spot is well known as “the”  place to find a Blue-winged Warbler in South Dakota.  However, if you look at field guides or other sources of bird information that provide range maps, southeastern South Dakota is either on the very extreme edge of the Blue-winged Warbler’s range, or it’s outside their normal breeding range.  Despite that, most years you can find a couple of pairs of Blue-winged Warblers breeding in this corner of Newton Hills State Park.

As always, I recorded the Blue-winged Warbler sighting in eBird, along with all the other birds I saw on that day.  If you’re not an eBird user, when you report a “rare” or unusual bird, the software flags it, and makes you enter a bit a detail about the sighting.  To further verify the identification, you can upload a photo that you may have taken of the bird.  EBird flagged Blue-winged Warbler as rare and unusual for the area, so I added a blurb about the very clear sighting, and also later uploaded a photo to accompany the report.

I’m in the habit now of entering eBird sightings most of the time when I go birding, but I’m still surprised sometimes when eBird flags a sighting as rare and unusual.  It does make you realize how incomplete our understanding is for even the most basic of characteristics of a given bird species…where they can be found.  There have been a number of times where I’ve casually entered a species in eBird, and have been surprised when eBird has flagged it as rare for the area.  Many times, it’s a species I’ve found in that area quite consistently.

I’ve brought up eBird here before, but as I photographed and reported what many sources consider to be a “non-existent” species for this part of the country, it does make you realize the power of “citizen science” and what a massive database such as eBird can do to improve our understanding of bird species distributions, migration timing, etc.

Now vs. then…how things change

Upland Sandpiper - Bartramia longicauda

Upland Sandpiper, how you always see them around here, on a fence post. Unfortunately they’re not a common sight any more in my part of South Dakota

Cattle Egret - Bubulcus ibis

The new kid on the block, a Cattle Egret. I’d pretty much expect to see these guys more commonly than Upland Sandpipers in my part of South Dakota.

I spent Sunday morning birding in Lake and Kingsbury counties, to the northwest of Sioux Falls.  Early May, certainly a great time to get “First-of-Year” (FOY) birds, and I certainly saw quite a few new species for the year.  It wasn’t a great day for photos though, as there were really only about 3 species of which I got decent photos.  Two of those species, Cattle Egret and Upland Sandpiper, were FOY.  Both are species I don’t see all that frequently in this part of the state.  As I was driving home I was thinking about the photos I got for the day, and it struck me that right now, in this part of South Dakota, I’d probably expect to find Cattle Egrets before I’d find Upland Sandpipers.  How things change…

In Minnehaha County, the county that contains most of Sioux Falls, I’ve only seen Upland Sandpipers on a handful of occasions, and only once during breeding season.  Given their preference for grassland for breeding, that’s not a surprise, given that we’re mostly corn and soybeans around here, with little prairie/grassland.  Cattle Egrets however, are very well named, as pretty much every time I’ve seen one in South Dakota, they’ve been in a pasture and in close proximity to cattle.

Upland Sandpipers are obviously the natives here, and there’s little doubt that they were once vastly more numerous in my part of South Dakota than they are today.  You could say the same for a heck of a lot of grassland species, birds that were once seen in southeastern South Dakota that have now all but disappeared.  Cattle Egrets are the newcomers.  They were unknown in the New World, until a few ended up in South America in the late 1800s.  By 1950 they had spread all the way to the United States, and for quite a while they have now bred up here in South Dakota.  From all indications, Cattle Egrets were natural invaders with a handful somehow making it to South America unaided, they weren’t introduced.

It does make you wonder what birds you’d find around here today, had people never settled the area and converted nearly all grassland into agricultural land.  Upland Sandpipers would definitely be around, but given the Cattle Egret’s desire to hang around cattle (for the insects they kick up as they graze), you’d bet they would have likely found Bison herds an acceptable substitute. In other words, had nature taken her course, in today’s southeastern South Dakota, it’s likely both birds would be around.

As it is, the “native” Upland Sandpiper is a rarity, a true delight whenever I should happen to find one around here.  Even though I have, oh, a few hundred photos of Upland Sandpipers sitting on fence posts, most are from elsewhere in the state, so when I see one around here, I can’t help but stop and take photos.

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