Splash of Winter Color

Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker (The red on the male’s cap is complete and unbroken, while the female has a tan strip at the top of her head). I have a lot of photos of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, but this is one of the few that shows their namesake trait. Most of the time, the subtle red splash on the belly is quite inconspicuous.

More snow yesterday. Just a couple of inches, but we’ve had a seemingly endless stream of “just a couple of inches” in the last two months.  It’s now late February, and after a long winter, and I’m ready for spring birding to begin.

I’m just ready for COLOR.  Birding in South Dakota in winter is often as gray, dreary, and plain as the weather and our sloppy, gloppy streets.  Bird species diversity is low and those birds that do stick around for the winter are, in general, of the black-and-white variety.  I’ve had more Pine Siskins at my feeders than I’ve ever had, and the little bit of yellow they have is a welcome contrast to the gray gloom.  However, the other most common birds at my feeders are Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos,  and House Sparrows, none of which have much color.

My favorite “yard bird” is one that’s become quite reliable, both in winter and summer.  They’re striking not only for the bright splash of color, but for their size, as they’re generally the largest bird we get in the winter….Red-bellied Woodpeckers. We live in a house we built 12 years ago, and tree cover in the neighborhood landscaping is still maturing.  Red-bellied Woodpeckers need mature trees for nesting and foraging, but fortunately, we live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a State Park with ample riparian forest habitat. The male and female pair that visit our yard clearly spend most of their time in the Park.  When I see them come to our yard, they’re almost always flying in from the Park, and they head back to the Park when they’re done feeding.

When they first came to our yard, they were pretty shy.  The feeders are close to the windows of a sunroom that looks out into our back yard, and the woodpeckers would often spook and fly away if I was moving around in the house. Fortunately over the years they’ve become accustomed not only to our presence, but to that of our two spaniels! One suet feeder sits on a hook off our deck, and the male will often continue to sit and feed at the suet feeder, even when I let the dogs out on the deck. The female is a little shyer, but still stays around the yard much more frequently than she used to.

A wonderful visitor, at any time of the year.

Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus

My favorite Red-bellied Woodpecker photo, this is of a male from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, the park across the street from our house.

(Not So) Great Backyard Bird Count 2017

Red-bellied Woodpecker (male)

The male Red-bellied Woodpecker who almost religiously comes to my suet feeders several times a day. Today? Not once did I see him. So went my first ever participatory day in the “Great Backyard Bird Count”, where the usuals didn’t show up, but the (global warming induced) goose migration made up for it.

If you know me at all, you know that I’m not the most social of birders.  In fact, I’m probably the least social birder you know, in that it’s extremely rare for me to go birding with another person, join in group events, or participate in group activities. That extends to things like the Christmas Bird Count, Breeding Bird Survey, or other yearly events.  No, for me, my birding is “me” time.  It’s my time to relish the outdoors, to relish the solitude, to enjoy it all on my own terms.

I’ve never participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count either. But today, I had a lazy day at home, with stuff I wanted to do on my office computer upstairs.  For the first time ever, I thus did an official count for the GBBC, seeing what I could from my 2nd floor window, and also occasionally checking the feeders in the backyard. The weather?  60+ degrees, and brilliantly sunny for most of the day!  That’s in South Dakota…in mid-February!  Not usual weather, and NOT the usual day for birds in my yard.

For one, most feeder birds weren’t around.  For a birder, winter in South Dakota might as well be known as “Junco Season”, as it sometimes seems like Dark-eyed Juncos are the only species that are around here in winter.  Today however, in the beautiful weather?  Not a single Junco to be found.  When it was colder in December and early January, the one thing I could count on at my feeders were hordes of American Goldfinches, sometimes with over 50 fighting for a spot at the thistle feeder, or waiting in a nearby tree.  Today?  6 Goldfinches.  Even House Sparrows, the ubiquitous little bastards that love to come in hordes and wipe out my sunflower feeder, were curiously absent. The only ones I saw were 5 hanging out and taking a sun bath on the bushes in the front yard this afternoon.

While it wasn’t a great day for feeder birds, and certainly not a typical WINTER day at my feeders, the sheer quantity of birds was likely much higher than I’d ever normally get during a GBBC, thanks to the warm weather and all the geese already moving through.  They usually say February 14th, right around Valentine’s Day, is the start of the Sandhill Crane and waterfowl migration down in Nebraska along the Platte in the spring, yet here we sit on February 19th, and scads of Snow Geese, Canada Geese, and Greater White-fronted Geese are migrating through the area already. If I were to have sat outside and counted all the geese flocks that went overhead, I’m positive I would have been well over 1,000 individuals.  As it was, I only counted flocks that went over this morning, when I could have my office window open and not be blinded by the afternoon sun.

Totals for the feeders and yard?  Just a little over 20 birds, of ALL kinds, and that’s even with me looking at the feeders at least 20 times during the course of the day.  Totals for geese flying overhead?  In the time I watched this morning, 275 was my best estimate.  Here’s the breakdown from the day:

  • Canada Goose — 150 — I would bet this is an underestimate, but I didn’t want to double-count those that hang out by the river across the street, so only counted the low-flying ones once, and kept the rest of the count to those high-flying flocks going overhead. I also avoided counting all the flocks I could see that were too far away for me to get a positive ID.
  • White-fronted Goose — 75 — Mostly in two flocks that went over, but also a scattered few in a flock of Canada Geese
  • Snow Goose — 50 — I saw several very large flocks of Snow Geese last Thursday, when I took a trip for work up to Brookings. Today? Just one flock of about 50 birds.
  • Downy Woodpecker – 3 — Again, not wanting to double-count, since the same ones keep coming back all day.  These 3 represent the one time I looked out and saw 3 Downy’s at once.
  • Hairy Woodpecker — 2 — I have a wonderful, usually pretty shy, male and female pair of Hairy Woodpeckers that often come to the feeders.  I remember how much I struggled with ID’s when I first started birding, including trying to distinguish Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers.  Now?  Hairy Woodpeckers always look MASSIVE to me, compared to the little Downy’s, with bills that are so much longer.
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker — 1 — We have both male and female Red-bellied Woodpeckers that come to the feeders, and usually I see them from my upstairs office as they fly across the street from the State Park over to my feeders.  Today, I just saw the female once, and no male.
  • American Crow — 4 — 1 fly-by over the house, 3 chattering on a roof across the street.
  • Blue Jay – 1 — Again, a species I normally get quite a bit in the winter, but on a slow, gorgeously warm February day, only one today.
  • Northern Cardinals — 2–  Dawn and dusk, particularly dusk, are the times I normally see both a male and female at my safflower feeder.  Always together, never just one of them, as least during the winter months.  They made an appearance this morning for a while.
  • American Goldfinch — 6 – Numbers have gone WAY down since the weather turned all “southern California” on us.  I used to have to fill my big tube feeder with thistle/niger seed at least every 2 days, but not lately.
  • House Sparrow — 5 — OK, this one I’m not too upset about. If I put out sunflower seeds, these guys LIVE in the bushes in my front yard, and then come back to the feeders to occasionally gorge.  I was getting rather sick of the horde of House Sparrows, so stopped putting out sunflower, and instead started using just safflower at that feeder.  Keeps the Cardinals, but the House Sparrows don’t like it and stay away.  Only ones I saw were in the front yard this morning, a far cry from the 40+ that would often flock to my feeders in December.
  • American Robin – 1 — A late entry!! I was starting the grill (yes, the GRILL, in FEBRUARY, in SOUTH DAKOTA) as I was preparing this blog post, and I heard and then saw a Robin chirping away.  Singing Robins! In South Dakota, in winter!!


Done, and entering now in eBird!  A semi-social birding contribution, by the biggest “loner” birder there is!

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.

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!

A “birdy” kind o’ day…

Ovenbird - Seiurus aurocapilla

Ovenbird, one of many I heard and saw today at Newton Hills State Park.

The weather wasn’t great this morning.  Cool, overcast, and drizzling every once in a while.  The options for such a Friday in May…go to work, or take the day off despite the weather and go birding all day.

Of course option B was chosen.  May is such an incredible time to bird here, with all the migrants moving through and the summer songbirds arriving.  I spent most of the day at Newton Hills State Park, a gem of a place in Lincoln County, South Dakota.  It’s got wonderful forest habitat reminiscent of forests of the Eastern U.S., right here on the (mostly) plains of South Dakota.  With an “eastern forest” comes “eastern birds”.  Newton Hills is often one of the very few places where you can find some species of forest birds in the state.

At this time of year, the summer breeding residents are arriving and singing their hearts out.  One of my favorite species was one of the first birds I heard when I arrived this morning, an Ovenbird singing his little heart out from the top of a fence post.  Newton Hills is the most reliable spot I know of to find these guys both in the spring, and during the summer breeding season.  I saw several Indigo Buntings flitting through the big Burr Oak trees, providing momentary glimpses of a shocking brilliant blue that you just don’t expect to see flitting through the forest canopy.  Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were singing everywhere, as were Eastern Towhees.  Two of the most numerous summer breeders in parts of the park were also two of the loudest and most obvious birds today, with Yellow Warblers singing and chasing each other all over the place, and the ever-present (in summer anyway!) House Wrens found in practically every corner of the park.

Black-and-white Warbler - Mniotilta varia

An elegant Black-and-White Warbler pausing to get his photo taken.

One of the things I’m learning to appreciate is the unseen, yet heard bird.  Ok, yeah, may seem obvious, but for a guy who has focused on bird photography for so long, seeing has always trumped hearing for me.  There were several species that I heard today, but only got a very brief glimpse of or didn’t see at all.  I hear Wood Thrush in multiple spots, with their beautiful, metallic-sounding (to me) songs.  I desperately was trying to get a photo of a Scarlet Tanager I heard, but he stayed in the treetops and never even gave me a glimpse. One singing bird I REALLY was trying to track down was what sounded very much like a Kentucky Warbler.  I heard it singing at some distance, but when I walked towards the area it stopped singing and I never found it.  I’ve never seen a Kentucky Warbler, hence my excitement at hearing the bird.  I don’t know the song of one well enough for me to conclusively say that’s what it was, even though it sure sounded like a Kentucky Warbler when I got back to my car and compared to the song of one on my iPhone.

Alas, a rarity and a lifer that eluded me.  It really wasn’t a terrific day for any unusual birds, but there certainly was a really nice variety of migrants and arriving breeding birds. The birds I get the most excited for this time of year are the warblers, but other than those mentioned above, the only other species I saw today were Black-and-White, Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped, and Common Yellowthroats.  Warblers are so unpredictable here though, with birds seemingly “dripping off the trees” on some May days, and seemingly absent on others.

A great day overall!  One puzzling thing though was how it was so “birdy” at Newton Hills, but so completely dead at another spot I visited. I haven’t been to Union Grove State Park very much, but in many ways it’s very similar to Newton Hills, with a lot of uncharacteristic (for South Dakota) eastern forest land.  As loud and boisterous as the birds were at Newton Hills, I was immediately struck at how quiet it was at Union Grove.  I kept listening for birds, trying to find a “birdy” spot to get out and walk, but I was met by complete silence.  After half an hour I’d driven all the roads in the small park, and the only birds of ANY kind I saw were a pair of Turkey Vultures, a Crow, and a Blue Jay.   The only birds I heard but didn’t see were a Red-bellied Woodpecker and a Chipping Sparrow on the way out.  Weird…not even a Robin, when they were all over the place at Newton Hills.

Orange-crowned Warbler - Vermivora celata

Ok, somebody tell me…have you EVER seen an actual “orange crown” on an “Orange-crowned Warbler”?

Despite the quiet at Union Grove, despite the rather gloomy weather to start the day, it ended up being a very nice day of birding. There were about a dozen “first-of-year” birds for me, which brings me up to around 160 species for the year so far, within South Dakota.  Not bad, considering we’re a frozen wasteland for 6 months of the year, and there’s not much for quantity or variety of birds during that time!

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