Nemesis conquered – Common Nighthawk

Friday I took the day off and went to the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.  Again.  Funny how this is working out…work gets more and more depressing as budget news gets worse and worse (for any project that DARES have the word “climate” involved in any way…kiss of death in this environment). As and work gets more and more depressing, I find myself taking more and more days off and going out to try to forget.  At this pace, I’ll soon just skip pretending and just retire.  Sure, I’m not nearly old enough to retire yet, and can’t afford it, but isn’t my sanity more important than being able to afford things like food, shelter, health care, etc.?

My purpose on the Grasslands was two-fold Friday” 1) continue trying to satisfy the rockhounding bug that’s infected my very soul in recent weeks, and 2) try like heck to get a photo of all the Common Nighthawks we’ve seen while exploring the area.  Common Nighthawks aren’t exactly a rare sight (hence the word “common” in their name?).  I see them all the time in the summer months. Heck, I see them while sitting on my back deck!  No, seeing them isn’t the problem.  PHOTOGRAPHING them is the problem. Around here in eastern South Dakota, you never see them roosting out in the open.  When you see them, they’re in flight.  Have you tried taking a photo of a Common Nighthawk in flight?  They are very “bat-like” in the air, dipping and darting in very unpredictable, chaotic flights.  I’ve tried…and failed…many times to get a photo of them in flight, including those that sometimes grace the air around my house.

In the Grasslands, you certainly see them in flight as well, but what I was really hoping for was to catch one on the ground, or on a daytime roost on a fence post (a kind of photo you often see of them).  Given how many we’ve seen out there, and given there’s ONLY a bunch of open space for them to perch, I thought my odds might be better!  My first chance would have been perfect, and would have been the only shots of Common Nighthawks I would ever need. I was walking far from the car, headed back, when I (literally) stumbled across a lone Nighthawk, sitting on the ground 10 feet in front of me.  It looked up and casually took off, circling me and scolding me.  There on the ground…it had uncovered two tiny, ping-pong ball-sized fluffballs…two cute little babies, right in front of me!

Perfect opportunity…so where are the photos?  Well, the REASON I was headed back to the car is because of a poor weather forecast. “Sunny with occasional clouds”, the meteorologists said.  That forecast was hard to reconcile with the rain pouring down upon me as I raced back to the car.  My main thought at the time…keep the camera gear dry!! There was no way I was going to try to get any photo in that rain, and I also hated leaving those two little fluffballs exposed to the elements. I moved on as quickly as I can, turned around after a bit, and saw the parent had returned.  All was not lost on the Nighthawk front, however!  Later that day, I did indeed come across a Common Nighthawk using one of the fence poles as a daytime roost.  NEMESIS conquered!!  For finally getting a photo of a “common” bird, it felt awfully good!

Common Nighthawk - Chordeiles minor

Nemesis conquered! A lone Common Nighthawk, sleeping atop a fence pole on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands in South Dakota.

Saw-whets are a’ comin’!!! For now, a drawing…

Colored pencil drawing of a Northern Saw-whet Owl - Aegolius acadicus - By Terry Sohl

A colored pencil of drawing of a Northern Saw-whet Owl. I couldn’t wait until they arrived for the winter, so in the meantime sat down and drew one.

Last winter was a blast.  OK, that’s not something you typically say when you live in frigid South Dakota, but I really enjoyed last winter, and am looking forward to the cold weather again.  The reason?  Northern Saw-whet Owls!! Prior to last winter, I’d seen them on rare occasion, when I went to the Pierre area. It was a quite a few years ago when birders in the area started looking for them in cedar tree thickets near the Missouri River.  It takes quite a bit of work to find one however.  Looking for Saw-whet owls typically involves bush-whacking through dense cedar thickets, looking on the ground and on tree branches for the tell-tale “white-wash” that accumulates when the little owls use the same roost day after day.

When I say I’d seen them on “rare occasion”, it was literally ALWAYS finding a bird that someone else had found.  Oh sure, I’d given it the ol’ college try.  Prior to last winter, there were a number of times that I myself would go tromping through cedar thickets in Pierre, trying to find the little owls.  I was great at finding roosts where they USED to be!  As for finding a live owl?  Not so much.

I think people always suspected Northern Saw-whet Owls were much more widely distributed in South Dakota in the winter, but actual reports were few, likely due tot he effort involved in actually finding one.  Last winter I was determined to 1) actually find my “own” Saw-whet owl, and 2) do so right here near Sioux Falls, rather than making the 3 1/2 hour drive to Pierre, where they’re known to be found.  It wasn’t very encouraging at first.  And when I say “at first”, I mean there were probably about 10 fruitless trips trudging through cedar tree thickets, looking for owls.  The story was much like my attempts in Pierre…I was GREAT at finding owl pellets and whitewash, but wasn’t finding the owls themselves.

That all changed in January when I finally found my first Northern Saw-whet Owl in southeastern South Dakota.  It was at Newton Hills State Park, and he wasn’t alone!  On that truly magnificent day, I found not one, but four different Saw-whet Owls, all in the typical cedar thicket habitat that was similar to where they had been found for years in Pierre.  At least according to “eBird” reports, these were the first Saw-whet Owls reported in this part of the state.  The rest of the winter was great, going back to visit previously found Saw-whets (they tend to have roosting site fidelity, using the same sites for many days in a row), and finding new ones.  I ended up finding a few more at Newton Hills that winter, and then also started finding them  around Lake Alvin, just south of Sioux Falls.  For the winter, at least 9 individual over-wintering owls were found.

Just in the past few days bird banders in the area reported capturing and banding the first migrating Saw-whet owls of the season.  They’re here!  Or, at least they’re starting to arrive!  I’ll probably wait a couple of weeks before heading out to actually look for one, giving them a little more time to arrive, giving a little more time for the whitewash and pellet evidence to accumulate.  In the meantime, last weekend in my excitement for the coming winter, I did a colored pencil drawing of a Northern Saw-whet Owl, using a photo of one from last winter as a guide.

I can’t wait!  The owls are coming! The owls are coming!!  🙂

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