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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.

Goin’ on a Snipe Hunt

When you were a kid, did you ever have someone send you on a snipe hunt? Perhaps parents who wanted some peace and quiet for a while? Perhaps an older sibling with a devilish side? Perhaps a jerk of a classmate who just liked to pick on people?  In the United States, a “Snipe Hunt” is a practical joke, usually done after the sun has gone down, sending some gullible child (or an extremely gullible adult) off in search of the mystical, mysterious, and completely non-existent Snipe.

But of course in the birding world a “Snipe Hunt” could be the pursuit of an actual bird!  In the United States we have the Wilson’s Snipe, a fairly common species that is often seen in and around wetlands and marshes.  While most often seen on the ground or wading in shallow water, during the breeding season they sometimes can be seen on very prominent perches.  I’ve heard their display flights, seen them perched in shrub early in the spring, and even saw one swaying in the wind while somehow clinging to a telephone line with feet that are NOT made for such a task!  But I’ve never captured a photo of one that wasn’t on the ground or in the water.

This morning I was driving in western Minnehaha County, a part of the “prairie potholes” that has many shallow wetlands and lakes. While approaching a wet, grassy field on a quiet gravel road, I saw a chunky bird perched on top of a fence post.  Western Meadowlark? But as I got closer, it was obviously a Wilson’s Snipe, standing on the fence post and occasionally vocalizing. Love makes a guy do all kinds of crazy things, and this little guy was doing his best to attract attention.  While watching him, he took flight and did a short display flight, calling all the while, and then circling back and landing on the same exact fence post!  I watched him for a minute or two before he fluttered back down into the vegetation, but not before I was able to capture some photos of the behavior.

A successful Snipe hunt!  TAKE THAT, practical jokesters!

Wilson's Snipe - Gallinago delicata

Wilson’s Snipe, calling from atop a wooden fence post.

 

“Infinity War” – Spoiler Free, Bird-related PLOT HOLE!!

Common Loon - Gavia immer

A Common Loon in breeding plumage. Are Common Loons truly alien visitors to our planet? Does Hollywood know something we don’t, because they certainly use Common Loon calls in pretty much any possible movie situation. Even when the setting is on an alien planet.

My son and I just got back from Avengers: Infinity War.  No spoilers here, other than we both really enjoyed it.  But as I SO often do for movies, I have a beef.  A BIRD-related beef, as always.

So…end of the movie, pretty much the last scene.  I won’t say who is in the last scene or what it’s about. I WILL say it’s set on an alien planet.  And when the scene first fades in, what sound do we first hear in the background?  THE CALL OF A COMMON LOON!!!  WHY, Hollywood….WHY!?!?!  Why are you SO freakin’ enamored with the call of the Common Loon that you feel the need to put it into practically any situation, no matter how ludicrous!!?!?

Outrageous!  A travesty!!  Ok, no, I really don’t get too worked up about such things, but as a birder, you DO notice!  C’mon Hollywood, out of an entire universe worth of sounds out there, surely you can broaden your scope a bit and stop always relying on the same sounds, no matter the situation!

Birds in Movies – “Gamenight” gets it right!!

Common Nighthawk Drawing - Chordeiles minor

Drawing of a Common Nighthawk I did a few years ago. They have a VERY distinctive call when flying around at dusk or at night, something that really stands out on the soundtrack when watching a movie! Kudos to “GameNight” for the correct use of a bird call, in the proper time and context!

As a birder, one major pet peeve of mine…Hollywood’s (mis-)use of birds in movies! It seems that Hollywood typically has about 3 different bird vocalizations that are used in any situation a bird is present. One is the ubiquitous Red-tailed Hawk screaming cry, something they use for ANY raptor that happens to even tangentially appear on a screen. Conan O’Brien wasn’t alone when making this erroneous use of a Red-tailed Hawk call, but he WAS called out by birders for his actions!! Bald Eagles are often shown in movies and TV, but the more iconic Red-tailed Hawk call is usually used instead of the real Bald Eagle cry.

The second iconic call that’s heard ALL the time is the haunting call of a Common Loon. Occasionally it’s used in the proper setting and context, but there are SO many times when movie characters are out “in the wild” and the call of a Common Loon is dubbed in the background.  What’s that?  Your favorite character is roaming the forests of the Appalachians? Perhaps it’s a wild setting, but NOT EVERY WILD SETTING SHOULD HAVE LOON CALLS PLAYING IN THE BACKGROUND!! This site notes several “misplaced” birds in TV and movies, including the mis-use of Common Loon calls in Murder She Wrote and Raiders of the Lost Ark (presumably while in Peru!!). The Common Loon has also been mis-used visually…something I noticed IMMEDIATELY when watching Finding Dory. “Becky” is the loopy Common Loon that plays a role in the rescue scenes in Finding Dory, along the California coastline. The presence of a Common Loon along the California coast isn’t out of place IN WINTER.  But “Becky” in Finding Dory is a Common Loon in full summer breeding plumage…NOT LIKELY!!

The third call that’s heard in EVERY jungle scene is the laughing call of a Kookaburra. They’re a bird found in Australia, but listen to any jungle scene supposedly set in Africa, South America, or southeast Asia, and you’ll STILL likely hear the wild calls of a Kookaburra.

Given how often birds are mis-used in movies, I always get a bit of satisfaction when I see a movie that gets it right!  Tonight my wife and I went to see “GameNight“, starring Justin Bateman and Rachel McAdams.  It’s a really funny movie!!  We both greatly enjoyed it.  The only time birds were evident (and surely ONLY to me, among the movie crowd) was a scene late in the movie.  It was a setting in a relatively dense urban setting, on a bridge over a large river and fairly out in the open. Large buildings could be seen in the surrounding area, and it was night. As the scene played out (I won’t spoil the movie for you here!), I could CLEARLY hear Common Nighthawks giving their typical flight calls.

PERFECT!! You often DO hear Common Nighthawks as they fly through the night skies in and around urban areas, picking off flying insects in flight with their massive, gaping maw.  One of the places I’ve heard them the most is at the airport here in Sioux Falls. They typically use rocky areas to breed, and the rocky roofs that many urban buildings use work perfectly for their purposes.

WELL DONE GAMENIGHT!!  You get a rare GOLD STAR for proper use of a bird in a movie!!

“Longmire” disappoints! Episode 43 TOTALLY unbelievable!

Barred Owl - Range Map

Do you see Barred Owls in any part of Wyoming on this range map?

I’m not a huge Netflix junkie, but there are a few TV series that I have watched in their entirety.  Recently I’ve been watching “Longmire”, a series focused on (fictional) Absaroka County in Wyoming.  It follows the Absaroka County Sheriff’s Department, with the sheriff himself being “:Walt Longmire”.

There are four seasons of the show on Netflix, and 43 episodes.  Last night I watched the last one, episode 43.  After devoting the time to watch the entire series, after following all the individual storylines, after waiting in anticipation how some of those may play out in this episode, my impression of the entire series changed on a dime with the very first sound of episode 43.

When episode 43 starts, the scene is set at a medicine woman’s house out in the middle of nowhere, in the ‘mountains” on a Crow Indian reservation.  The first sound you hear as the scene fades in from black…an owl calling.  I’ve been birding 15 years now. I can identify anything by sight.  I’m not the world’s greatest birder in identifying things by sound, but it certainly sounded like the distinctive hooting of a Barred Owl that opened up episode 43.

The problem?  There are no Barred Owls in Wyoming!!  It’s never quite clear where the fictional Absaroka County is supposed to lie in Wyoming, but it doesn’t matter as there’s no region in Wyoming where the species is found.

43 episodes.  43 hours devoted to a show.  RUINED by careless sound editing.

Somehow, someway, I managed to struggle through the remaining 59 minutes of the show.  During that time there’s another instance where you hear the hooting of a Barred Owl.  OK, no, it really didn’t “ruin” the show for me, but it is irritating when you’re watching a movie or a TV show and there’s an “inappropriate” bird sound.  It happens a lot.  Note that if you see ANY kind of hawk or eagle in a movie, the accompanying sound is very likely to be the distinctive cry of a Red-tailed Hawk.  Sure, it’s a cool sound, a sound that helps to set the stage for a “wild” scene.  But c’mon!  When I see a circling Bald Eagle on the screen, I don’t want to hear the accompanying cry of a Red-tailed Hawk!!

Be careful, Hollywood!  We birders are watching!  Inappropriate bird sounds in entertainment could be Hollywood’s undoing!  A revolution is brewing, a revolution led to disgruntled birders who want REALISM in their Hollywood entertainment!!

 

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