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Burrowing Owl? Here?!? POTD – From 10 years ago today

It was 10 years ago when I had one of my better birding moments. There are always those great trips to “new” places that get the birding juices flowing, but one of the best aspects of birding is that you never know what you might see when you go out.

It was 10 years ago that I was coming back from a business trip. I flew into the Sioux Falls airport and was driving back to my little home town of Brandon (about 6 miles west of Sioux Falls). I was driving by an open alfalfa field, when I noticed a bird on a post.  It was a…no…couldn’t be…yes! a Burrowing Owl!  Here in far eastern South Dakota, just a few miles from Minnesota. Historically Burrowing Owls used to be around here, but there hadn’t been a breeding record of Burrowing Owls anywhere close to here in decades.  Our grassland is gone, and we just don’t have the prairie dogs or other creatures that Burrowing Owls are often found with.  Yet here was an adult Burrowing Owl, hanging out on a fence post, in early August.

I quickly drove the last 4 miles home, got my camera and returned. Upon looking around I saw another Burrowing Owl…and another…and another.  There were two adults, and at least four young!! It didn’t take long to find their home. They were using an old badger hole, in the middle of the alfalfa field by the road.  The young were already as big as the parents, although with a different plumage. I had a blast for the next month, watching the little Burrowing Owl family feed on grasshoppers, crickets, and other little critters, primarily using a big CRP (?) grassland that was right next to the alfalfa field. By early September they started disappearing, one by one.

That alfalfa field is now on a corn and soybeans rotation. The CRP field they were using to forage? Also plowed under, used for corn and soybeans. In the 10 years since, I’ve never again seen a Burrowing Owl anywhere close to  my part of the state. But I’ll always remember the little Burrowing Owl family that successfully fledged several young, just 4 miles from my house.  Here’s one photo I took at night, of one of the adults foraging for insects alongside the road.

Burrowing Owl - Athene cunicularia

No feathers! Not even fur! POTD…

Given we were on vacation for 2 weeks recently, and I was gone on travel for work last week, it’s been a while since I’ve been out birding locally.  With a great forecast temps, light winds, and partial cloud cover, it was shaping up to be a perfect day for bird photography!  I left at dawn this morning with the intention of finding migrating shorebirds and other goodies.

I didn’t want to commit to a long drive up to Lake Thompson where I was pretty much guaranteed of finding shorebird habitat somewhere. Given how wet our summer has been and the rain we had when I was gone last week, I thought there would likely be some standing water around locally…perfect habitat for migrating shorebirds. I was wrong! There were a few areas of standing water, but with crops at almost full height and other vegetation quite lush from the wet summer, most of those wet spots were hidden or surrounded by vegetation. Several did have a few shorebirds, but I never did get any photo opportunities.

The one great photo opportunity for today was a true rarity for me…something without feathers. Something without fur (a target of opportunity I always shoot when out birding). I was driving in western Minnehaha County about half an hour after sunrise, and saw an old…combine (?) in a partially cut wheat field. I say “combine” because it was so old, so simple a piece of farm equipment, that I don’t know what else you’d call it.  Curiously, it was sitting on the fence row right by the road, in a small area of cut wheat in a much bigger wheat field, and with a brightly painted “John Deere” sign facing the road. I couldn’t have designed a better photo opportunity, and with the warm morning light, I spent a good 30 minutes getting various styles of photos of the scene.

With such a perfect scene, I do wonder if it WAS some kind of display that someone had set up, but regardless of why it was there, I thank the owner for providing the photo opportunity!  It turned out to be a great photo day, despite few opportunities to actually shoot birds.

John Deere in the Wheat Field

An old but brightly colored piece of farm equipment, sitting in a partially harvested wheat field. Too perfect a photo opportunity to have occurred without someone actually designing the scene!

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.

“High-rise” Peregrine Falcon

I think every birder and every bird photographer has their “nemesis” birds, a species that has somehow eluded them over the years. Peregrine Falcons would be one of my nemesis birds.  They’re definitely not common here in South Dakota, but I have seen them on a few occasions However, it’s always been a really quick glance, or a view from a very long distance.

One and sometimes even two Peregrine Falcons have occasionally hung around downtown Sioux Falls.  Lately a lone bird has occasionally been sighted…almost always while perched on a true South Dakota “high-rise”!! The U.S. Bank building, at a TOWERING 9 stories or so, really is one of the tallest buildings in downtown Sioux Falls, and it’s a favorite perch for this bird.  Tonight on the advice of a birding friend who had seen it earlier in the day, I swung by and saw that yes, the bird was still perched on a ledge one floor from the top of the building.

A real treat!  I pulled onto the top floor of a nearby parking garage and watched him for a good hour. Not the greatest photos in the world, but hey, I finally have SOME recognizable photos of a Peregrine Falcon! I won’t check it off my “nemesis” list until I get some top-notch photos, but tonight was a blast nonetheless.

Peregrine Falcon - Falco peregrinus

Peregrine Falcon - Falco peregrinus

Peregrine Falcon - Falco peregrinus

Peregrine Falcon - Falco peregrinus

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.

Hearing Neil deGrasse Tyson — Science in today’s world

Neil deGrasse Tyson - Sioux Falls, SD

Neil deGrasse Tyson, speaking at the Boe Forum at Augustana University in Sioux Falls. All science related of course, getting sidetracked on some amusing other issues at times, but a great speech. My biggest takeaway…the need to restore humanity’s sense of wonder about the universe (and our own world).

We had the GREAT pleasure last night to hear Neil deGrasse Tyson speak at the “Boe Forum” at Augustana University in Sioux Falls.The Boe Forum on Public Affairs was founded in 1995, with a goal “to provide access to individuals who can address events, issues or problems of worldwide or national concern and of broad public interest.”  They’ve certainly had some wonderful speakers (and some less wonderful speakers…think Newt Gingrich and Rudy Guiliani) over the years. They’ve managed to draw some very big names, including Colin Powell, Mikhail Gorbachev, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, Desmond Tutu, Vicente Fox, Sandra Day O’Connor, Pervez Musharraf, and Madeline Albright. Augustana University has just opened their new “Froiland Science Complex”, and said they wanted a “moonshot” science speaker to coincide with opening of that science center.  They certainly succeeded by managing to draw Neil deGrasse Tyson to Sioux Falls.

Tyson ended up talking for two hours, and while my son was getting a wee bit antsy towards the end, I must say that it was a very engaging, surprisingly funny, and interesting talk that kept me very engaged the entire time. There were a few things that surprised me a bit, things I disagreed with.  Given today’s political climate and how it’s affecting science, I was hoping for more content on the intersection of the two, but overall it was a terrific talk.  Some of the takeaways for me:

1968 – 1972 – Birth of the Environmental Movement — The highlight of the talk to me was a section where he specifically talked about the period of 1968 to 1972 and the profound effect it had on humanity and our country.  Apollo 8 was the first mission to orbit the moon, in 1968. As they rounded the moon, astronaut William Anders took the iconic “EarthRise” photo (bottom of this post), looking across the moon’s surface back at Earth.  The next year we landed on the moon. As Tyson noted, these events totally changed humanity and how we view our own planet.  Some very simple observations noted how little we understood our earth up to that point.  He showed a photo from Star Trek, of the Enterprise orbiting the Earth. Their depiction of Earth had the continents, the oceans…but no clouds!  Tyson gave other examples of artwork and even scientific renderings of Earth up to that point, and none of them portrayed the clouds that are always present! The sense of wonder during the space race, the first looks at our planet from space…it changed how we viewed our planet.  In the period from 1968 to 1972, you thus ended up with the establishment of the first Earth Day. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was founded.  We started cleaning up our air, our water.  We noticed the massive decline in our national symbol, the Bald Eagle, and banned DDT to save the species (a resounding success!).  The Endangered Species Act was founded in 1973.  This period STARTED the environmental movement.

Reinvigorating interest in science — The take-home point from the examination of the 1968-1972 period?  All that sense of wonder…that feeling that our Earth is a special place…that’s GONE, or at least incredibly diminished right now. Many people today simply can’t see past their own short-term guilty pleasures to even THINK about the future.  At the end of Tyson’s talk, he had a question-and-answer period. One of the questions was related to these points, and how we can get back to those days of the 1960s and 1970s where environmental conservation, where caring about our planet, really was part of the American consciousness. The answer from Tyson wasn’t related to politics, it wasn’t related to things like the March for Science coming up on April 22nd, it wasn’t related to need for better PR.  No, the answer was much more basic, and was rooted in k-12 education. We just don’t value science as much as we should in those formative years. As Tyson stated, what’s going to end up giving us a kick in the butt isn’t just a change in k-12 education, but a realization that we’re losing our economic competitiveness.  With education driven not by national-scale policy but local and state policy, the States that embrace science and technological innovation, starting in k-12, are the ones that will be competitive for industries that drive our economy. Given how much of a focus their is in this country right now on economics, money, and growth, the cynical side of me believes that it will be economic competitiveness that will end up re-igniting the interest and science and innovation, rather than any pure desire to invest in science for science’s sake.

Star Trek depiction of Earth

Prior to the famed “EarthRise” photo from 1968 and our landing on the moon a year later, humanity had little awareness of how to even portray our Earth. As Tyson noted, up until the late 1960s and the space race, this was a typical depiction of Earth (from the original Star Trek) series. Continents…check! Water…check!! Atmosphere, clouds, and weather…something’s missing! The space race had a profound impact on the way humanity viewed our own planet

Intersection of Science, Culture, and Politics — Speaking of the March on Science on April 22nd, one of the questions he received was about scientists and their role in activities such as this. Overall for the night, he really avoided politics, although there were a few timely, light jabs thrown in.  When the audience member asked this question, I thought we might finally hear his thoughts on the impact of politics on science right now. He did touch on that intersection, but it was different than I was expecting. He’s an educator, some may view him as an entertainer, but at his heart, he’s a scientist through-and-through.  His answer began by saying he was on the fence, that in his own mind, he’s still trying to decide how scientists should react in this kind of political environment.  But for the March itself, he said what he really hoped was that such an event wouldn’t be necessary.  As he hammered home all night long, science isn’t political.  Science provides its own truths, as as he stated, it doesn’t really give a damn what you think about it, what your personal, cultural, or political beliefs are.  In short, you can tell that what he’d like to have happen is that the science would speak for itself, that the knowledge and understanding we produce would stand on its own, and that humanity would return to a time where we’d base our decisions on that knowledge.  You can tell he’s struggling a bit with the issue, and is likely as bewildered as many of the rest of us as to how truth, how fact, are being ignored in the face of cultural, political, and ideological attacks. He definitely didn’t seem to have a clear answer on how scientists respond.

Human ego and science — Tyson ended his talk with a theme similar to his discussion of the 1968-1972 period, and its effect on humanity.  He talked about the “Pale Blue Dot” images, the first from Voyager One in 1990, where the instrument looked backed towards Earth and took an image representing our planet as tiny, pale blue dot in a sea of stars and emptiness.  The Cassini satellite studying Saturn provided a similar view more recently, with a 2013 image that shows Earth as a tiny blue dot hiding in the shadows below the foreground image of Saturn and its rings. The end of the talk itself was a reading of material from Carl Sagan, from his 1994 book “Pale Blue Dot”.  The following summarizes that material (a bit revised, from a talk Sagan gave that year):

We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

 

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

 

To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

"Pale Blue Dot", Cassini

‘Version 2″ of the Pale Blue Dot photo, if you will. This is from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn, looking back at Earth (the small dot in the bottom right).

Religion and Science — Tyson touched on topics related to the Sagan reference all night long. In the overall scheme of the universe, we’re insignificant. We’re not “special”.  At one point he listed the 5 most common elements in the Universe.  He then listed the most common elements in a human body. The list is identical, with the exception of helium (given it’s pretty much non-reactive, it doesn’t form elements found in the human body).  The point he makes…we’re just “stardust”, made up of the same common elements found throughout the universe.  On a night when he would occasionally brush up against the edge of talking in depth about the intersection of culture, politics, and science, but never really dive into the deep end of that pool, this may have been the most “controversial” part of the talk (particularly given that the talk was at a University associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and was speaking in very “red” South Dakota). When touching on politics or culture, you can tell he tries very hard to avoid offending anyone, and he barely mentioned religion.  But as I listened to this part of the discussion, I did wonder what some of the more religious people in the room were thinking.  We’re not “special“.  We’re almost certainly not alone in the Universe, given that we’re made up of the same material as is found throughout the rest of the Universe. We live in a country, however, where a huge swath of the population is unable to separate the science, even the empirical world staring them in the face, from their religion.  In the end its a personal ideology that ends up driving the behavior and interactions of so many Americans, science (and reality!) be damned.  Overall for the night, in what would be interpreted to be a tough cultural and political setting for a science purist like Tyson, he did a great job walking the fine line of informing, without offending.

If you ever get a chance to see Tyson speak, it’s well worth your time.  He’s a wonderful speaker, with a rare ability for a scientist…he knows how to connect with people.

Apollo 8, William Anders' "Earthrise"

The iconic “Earthrise” photo, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders on Christmas Eve, 1968.

And my first NON-endorsement…Avoid PrairieSons Inc.

PrairieSons Inc.

Evidently we’re all going to “suffer” and the “worst is yet to come”. This is the cheery message received from the local PrairieSons company when I got the (ridiculously high) bill for looking at our furnace. But hey, at least they’re helpful about it, pointing to a website where I can “Repent”…or Perish.  Click for a larger view. DO IT…CLICK AND READ IT!!  OR PERISH!!!  🙂

Just two days ago in my last post, I gave my first ever endorsement for a product or service of any kind.  Two days later…I’m giving my first “un-endorsement”.  What a historic week!!!

We went to Lincoln, Nebraska to visit family and celebrate Christmas, the weekend before actual Christmas.  We got back to our home late that Sunday, December 18th, and it was 48 degrees in the house!  The furnace had stopped working at some point that weekend.  Knowing it was a Sunday and nobody was likely to come out, we looked in the phone book and thought we’d try somebody new (for us)…”PrairieSons Inc.” in Brandon.  They said they’d be out the next day. We turned the fireplace on, kept reasonably warm through the night, and waited for them to come the next day.  They arrived, and couldn’t find anything physically wrong with the furnace.  They hit a reset switch (the “roll out switch, that  had tripped), the furnace was running, and they said to just keep an eye on it.

6 days later, we wake up on Christmas Eve morning (Saturday) and it’s not working.  We call. They’re working that day, so they come out, and again, find nothing wrong after doing a diagnostic.  Again, the roll-out switch was flipped, and it runs again.  The guy basically said “it happens”, but didn’t recommend changing out the roll-out switch or anything, so there wasn’t anything new installed, nothing replaced. I got the bill today.  Here’s everything the bill “description” said. The bill didn’t even refer to 2 visits, just the one visit on the 19th:

  • Customer called with no heat
  • Found the roll-out switch had tripped.  Fire unit and it started up and shut down correctly.  Checked intake to exhaust for any obstructions. Found none.  Checked temp rise and filter.

For that…$270, plus $17.55 in taxes.

It’s a rip off.  It’s a ridiculous fee for a very small amount of labor.  I would NEVER use this business again, just for that reason.  But to make it worse, when we got the bill a few weeks later? A small card with a rambling message on the back.  It turns out PrairieSons Inc. has a very religious owner, by the looks of the enclosed card (photo of it shown above).  It’s quite the ramble, moving from topic to topic!  It all ends with a cheery “Godly people are basically guaranteed to suffer” and “The worst is yet to come”.

CHEERY!  Thanks for the sermon, PrairieSons Inc.!  Not that I asked for it.

I contacted the owner and complained about the bill, saying it was a rather ridiculous fee for providing no parts, and simply hitting a reset switch. I also complained about getting a religious message with my bill.  The response?

I am sure there is more to the work we did than hit a reset for the fee that was assessed Terry. I will have Bruce in our office look this up Monday for more clarification and get back to you. In regards to the Bible tract, we send that out with the bill to every new customer. We are sorry you took offense to it. That is a staple of who we are and what we stand for. It may not fit you and that is fine. Everyone will stand before him on the last day and need to make an account of their own life. That is a decision that only you can answer.

Uh…NO, PrairieSons, what I told you was 100% accurate.  You came out, found nothing wrong, reset the “roll out switch” to flip it back on, and…that’s it.  Two times, yes, and if you charge $270 for less than an hour’s worth of work? I guess that’s your prerogative. It’s also my prerogative to complain about your ridiculously high prices.

As for getting ANOTHER sermon, after I complained about the first one?  TERRIFIC customer service, PrairieSons!  What is your business model?  To TRY to piss off your customers?  That’s what it seems like.  Telling your customers they’re basically going to hell isn’t the type of message you typically expect to hear when you’re getting home appliances repaired!

Quick perusal online and I see others have complained about PrairieSons, both in terms of getting ripped off, and in terms of the religious messages.  Save yourself the bother.  Is your furnace out? Air conditioner out?  Live in the Brandon/Sioux Falls area? There are PLENTY of repair places in the area, so unless you skipped church and REALLY, REALLY want a sermon along with your repair…pass on PrairieSons and go with another company.

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!

Tree Nazis strike again in South Dakota

Tree cutting - South Dakota roadsides

Another one of my (former) favorite birding spots, hit by the South Dakota Tree Nazis. If they have their way, no habitat of any kind will be left in the state, and we’ll have a nice homogeneous landscape of corn and soybeans.

Sigh…this is getting old.  I went out this morning to do a bit of birding, and thought I’d try “Ditch Road” north of Sioux Falls.  It’s a spot I like to go to in the mornings.  Ditch road has a ditch that often holds water, with thick trees and shrubs on either side.  The stretch I like to bird is on the west side of the road, so there’s some nice light as I drive it in the morning.

As soon as I turned the corner on to Ditch Road, my heart fell.  Yet another of my favorite birding habitats in the area has fallen prey to the South Dakota Tree Nazis.  If you haven’t heard of the group, they’re an evil underground effort to ensure that all of South Dakota is homogeneous corn and soybeans, and that every little bit of remaining bird habitat is removed.  “Spook Road”, another favorite birding spot just east of my home town of Brandon, has also fallen prey to the Tree Nazis.

In both cases, thick shrubs and trees lining the road have been completely removed.  From the rumors I’ve heard, it’s local and county government efforts to satisfy new insurance requirements.  I’m not sure if it’s true, but I had heard that due to an accident involving someone becoming injured or killed in a vehicle strike on roadside woody vegetation, insurance companies pressured local governments to remove woody vegetation that’s anywhere close to a roadway.

Trees aren’t exactly widespread on the South Dakota plains.  Urban areas certainly have plenty of trees, but otherwise they are typically restricted to riparian areas and fencelines.  In the case of the aforementioned Spook Road, there’s about a 3 mile stretch where a small creek intermittently crosses the road, and it’s the thick riparian/roadside trees and shrubs that were removed.  In the case of Ditch Road, it truly is a very thin strip of tree and shrub habitat, perhaps 30 yards wide in total, but it’s always been a very productive birding location for me, particularly in spring when migrant passerines move through.

And now, like many of my other favorite birding locations, the Tree Nazis have destroyed it.  As the photo above shows, ALL vegetation on the side of the ditch closest to the road has been removed.  I guess I should be thankful the Tree Nazis were feeling gracious, and left the vegetation on the far side of the ditch. It’s a far too common site though in the area, with trees along fencelines, shelter belts, and other roadside trees being removed at an incredible rate.

The South Dakota Tree Nazis have many splinter groups operating in the state as well, including the South Dakota Wetland Destroyers who have been incredibly active in the last couple of years, drain-tiling and destroying every tiny remaining spot of wetland in the area.  For an area that historically was chock-full of little wetlands, I now have to drive a ways to find a functional wetland with any kind of decent birding.

I’ve got a LOT of photos on my main website that were taken on Ditch Road. After what I saw today, all of those photos may now just be a remembrance of a time when Ditch Road had decent birding, before the Tree Nazis did their work…

Mountain Lion sighting near Sioux Falls, and “protecting” people from imagined dangers

Mountain Lion - Puma concolor

A Mountain Lion lounging in a tree. If such a sight is recorded in South Dakota, the Mountain Lion itself is likely to be sentenced to death, no matter its location or behavior. Photo credit.

We arrived back from our vacation in the U.S. Virgin Islands on Monday.  It seems that while we were gone, there was a bit of excitement in the neighborhood!  While talking to a neighbor, he told me about a neighbor across the street who was QUITE surprised to see a Mountain Lion lounging in a tree in his back yard!  We live in extreme eastern South Dakota, only a few miles from both Minnesota and Iowa.  South Dakota DOES have a healthy Mountain Lion population in the Black Hills, where biologists typically estimate that a few hundred are around.  Black Hills Mountain Lions are known to wander widely, with tagged animals found far from the Black Hills and far from South Dakota.

However, in our part of the state near Sioux Falls, the landscape is dominated by corn and soybeans.  There are certainly plenty of deer around that would interest a mountain lion, but there isn’t a lot of natural habitat around.  The only forested areas in the area are typically riparian zones.  The potential attraction for the mountain lion seen in our neighborhood?  We live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a state park along the Big Sioux River that features a lot of burr oak, cottonwood, and other trees along the river.  Turkeys and deer both abound in the park, but it’s a small oasis of habitat sitting in a vast landscape of cropland.  It’s also not all that large a park, covering a thin strip along the river for less than 2 miles.  From a long-term habitat standpoint, it’s simply not a location that’s going to hold a population of Mountain Lions for any sustained length of time.

The park is quite popular with campers, joggers, bikers, hikers, dog walkers, etc.  There’s a very nice paved path through the park that connects with other paths in the city of Brandon itself.  There are also other unpaved paths that people frequently use.  The number of people using the park also make it quite unlikely that any Mountain Lion would attempt to stay for any prolonged period of time. The number of people using the park ALSO will likely be used as a reason for Game Fish & Parks to “remove” the Mountain Lion should it happen to stick around.

There has NEVER been a recorded case of a Mountain Lion attacking a human being in South Dakota.  NEVER.  Despite that, they are treated as an extreme danger.  The story linked to here is the typical reaction when any Mountain Lion is found anywhere close to humans in the state.  The Mountain Lion is killed, period.  In the story I linked to, the lions were near Keystone,.  Keystone is in the heart of the Black Hills, and thus, the heart of Mountain Lion country in South Dakota.  The lions were clearly within their normal habitat, but were still “removed” (killed).

Mountain Lions are quite common in the Black Hills, but are rarely every seen.  Being shy and staying away from people is certainly a positive for a Mountain Lion in the state, as just being SEEN is an offense punishable by death for a Mountain Lion in South Dakota.  The Keystone story above has been repeated many, many times in the state, with Lions being shot and killed whenever they happen to be found near people.  That’s especially true outside of the Black Hills.  In South Dakota it’s such a rare sight to see a Mountain Lion outside of the Black Hills.  If one IS seen, people immediately freak out and assume it’s a danger, despite, again, the fact that there has NEVER been an instance of a Mountain Lion causing harm to a human being in the state.  While birding in the Yankton area several years ago, I heard a blood-curdling “scream” in a forested area along the Missouri River, a sound I know came from a Mountain Lion.  I certainly never reported it, knowing what would happen to the animal if authorities were alerted to its presence.

I haven’t heard neighbors say whether the mountain lion found here has been seen again.  Frankly, I hope it has moved on and WON’T ever be seen again, just from the standpoint of the animal’s own safety and well-being.  A “seen” Mountain Lion in South Dakota is usually a CONDEMNED Mountain Lion.

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