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South Dakota Species Highlight: Chestnut-collared Longspur

There are some species I instantly think of as being iconic northern Great Plains species when I hear the name. Marbled Godwit. Baird’s Sparrow. Lark Bunting. Greater Prairie Chicken. When I think of driving west and north from my home in far southeastern South Dakota, and heading to the central or western part of the state, away from the mosaic of corn and soybeans that dominates my area, I think of wide open grasslands, few people, and a unique ecosystem of iconic bird species. In my mind that also includes the Chestnut-collared Longspur, a gorgeous bird with a unique dark plumage (breeding plumage males) that I almost see when I heard the name, hanging out on a barbed wire fence with nothing but grassland for miles around.

Chestnut-collared Longspur - Calcarius ornatus
Harding County, SOuth Dakota
Chestnut-collared Longspur from July 22nd, 2011 in Harding County, South Dakota. This. This is what I think of when I hear the name, a gorgeous breeding plumaged male Chestnut-collared Longspur hanging out on a barbed wire fence in a rolling grassland environment.

Yesterday I was processing bird photos (still a few years behind) and working on my website. I was working on a directory of photos I got last July in Hyde County, in the east-central part of the state, and got to one photo, and one photo only, of a Chestnut-collared Longspur. It’s not a great photo, and in fact, if it were another species where I had an abundance of photos, I might have thrown it out. I was shooting photos of shorebirds at a small wetland I’d stumbled across, when the lone longspur flew into my vision and plopped down to grab a quick drink. It was mid-day, the lighting was poor, but I grabbed a quick shot, surprised I’d seen one here, as I usually think of them as being a bird I’d find further to the east and north.

Then, as what tends to happen, I downloaded all the photos from that day, and they sat there unprocessed. I’d forgotten about that photo and encounter until processing photos yesterday, and knowing my collection of Chestnut-collared Longspur photos was sparse, I decided to keep the photo and work on the associated species pages on my website. As I was doing so, it brought to light just how rare an encounter the sighting was for me.

Chestnut-collared Longspur - Calcarius ornatus
Hyde County, South Dakota
Chestnut-collared Longspur July 5th, 2020 Hyde County, South Dakota. One quick photo grab, and the bird was gone.

Two. TWO. That’s how many “decent” photos of the species I’ve managed to grab in South Dakota in the 21 years I’ve been birding. Despite my internal impression of the species as an iconic Northern Prairie species, both my actual sightings and photographs of the species have been extremely limited.

As I started working on my dedicated species page for the Chestnut-collared Longspur, I got to the “Conservation Status” section of the page and started doing some research, beefing up my current (very sparse) content. When I first created the page for the species some 20 years ago, there seemingly weren’t any worries about the status of the species. But when I looked at the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) web page on the conservation status of the species, it was immediately clear it was a species in trouble. The species has been downgraded in status twice in recent years as numbers have started to dwindle.

IUCN Redlist status for the Chestnut-collared Longspur.
From the IUCN page for the Chestnut-collared Longspur, a history of the official status of the species in their eyes. The species status has been downgraded twice in recent years, and numbers continue to decline.

It’s wasn’t a cheery exercise reading more about the status of the species. The Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data, the gold standard for rigorous, systematic tracking of population trends over time, indicated a startling decline in the species of almost 90% from 1966 (Sauer et al. 2016). Other data sources show equally shocking declines, with estimates of >95% species loss in the Canadian portion of the Chestnut-collared Longspur range in less than 40 years, from 1971 to 2017 (COSEWIC 2019). A species that was once a common breeding bird in Nebraska, Kansas, and Minnesota has nearly been extirpated from those states, and previously robust populations elsewhere in its historical range are now gone. Clearly, it’s a species in serious trouble.

So what’s the cause of the trouble? Most sources agree that habitat loss is the primary factor in their decline. The Northern Great Plains used to be a mosaic of natural grasslands, wetlands, and riparian corridors with woodlands. Davis (2004) studied habitat needs for the Chestnut-collared Longspur and found that they required quite large, contiguous blocks of grassland to successfully breed. They avoided even what might be considered “prime” grassland habitat if the size of that grassland patch were anything less than 100 acres. With vast swaths of former Great Plains grassland converted to agricultural land uses in the last 150 years, grassland communities have been devastated, and remaining grassland patches have been heavily fragmented. In short, Chestnut-collared Longspurs can’t find enough suitable large patches of grassland on which to breed.

That downward spiral of suitable habitat continues currently, and in fact has recently intensified in parts of the Great Plains. That includes right here in South Dakota, where demand for corn and soybeans, including the uptick in demand due to biofuel use, has resulted in massive swaths of grassland and prairie land being plowed under for the first time in just the last 15-20 years. South Dakota itself is a hotspot of this habitat loss, particularly eastern and north-central South Dakota, where the rate of grassland habitat loss in recent years is actually higher than that of the well-publicized loss of tropical forest in parts of South America.

From a well-publicized study from Wright & Wimberly (2013), a graphic showing hotspots of grassland loss in recent years. The eastern Dakotas have been a hotspot of habitat loss as grasslands are plowed under and converted to soybean and corn fields.

It’s not just agriculture that’s driving habitat loss in the northern Great Plains. Energy development is front and center in parts of that range, as new methods for extracting fossil fuels have been developed in the last 20 years. The image below depicts the “nighttime lights” dataset for a portion of the northern US. These data record visible light energy from the Earth’s surface at night. Larger cities are clearly visible in the data, but…what’s the massive blob of light in sparsely populated western North Dakota?

Image from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program’s Operational Line Scan System (DMSP-OLS), generally referred to as the “Nighttime Lights” dataset. Depicting areas of visible light at night, lights from urban centers clearly dominate. However, one of the biggest signals is a sparsely populated, massive swatch in western North Dakota. Those are flaring natural gas associated with hundreds and hundreds of oil wells, as fracking technology made extracting oil possible in this region.

North Dakota is now the 2nd largest oil producing state in the country, thanks to fracking technology developed in the 2000s that has allowed companies to extract a difficult to access, but massive resource of oil in the region. There are hundreds upon hundreds of oil wells in the region, wells that may be spaced out across the massive prairie landscape, but…each well requires access, each well requires energy sources. None of this was there even just 15 years ago, but now the network of wells, roads, and powerlines has severely fragmented grassland habitat in the region.

Range map of the Chestnut-collared Longspur, overlaid with general are of Bakken Oil Formation
The species range map for the Chestnut-collared Longspur, with the general area of the Bakken Oil Formation in the cross-hatched area. The red color on the underlying map represents the breeding range of the Chestnut-collared Longspur. The location of the Bakken formation? Smack dab in the middle of it.

As the map above shows, the Bakken formation is smack dab in the middle of the breeding range for the Chestnut-collared Longspur. The area in North Dakota was developed SO incredibly rapidly, with economic considerations overwhelming any thought for habitat or environmental considerations. But for a species such as the Chestnut-collared Longspur that’s been declining precipitously and needs large, intact grassland patches to breed, oil and gas activity in the Bakken couldn’t have come at a worse time, or in a worse place.

Two. Perhaps it’s not a surprise I only have to photos of Chestnut-collared Longspurs, a species that’s “vulnerable” and fading fast. Get out there and enjoy this species while you can, as your chances of seeing it in the future may be fading.

South Dakota Species Highlight – Short-eared Owl

Weather in South Dakota over the last month has been everything many people probably think about when they visualize a South Dakota winter. We haven’t had that one big snowstorm, but we have had a number of very small snows that keep accumulating because the temperatures have been absolutely BRUTAL. The coldest we got at our house was -28° F, with multiple days last week where the temperatures never got above 0°. Because of the weather, I haven’t done much birding lately, but have done more work on website than I’ve done in years, primarily focusing on updating the species pages and photo pages.

The last real trip I took dedicated to birding was back on January 2nd, a day that started on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in the central part of the state, but ended near Brookings, which ended up being the highlight of the day. Several Short-eared Owls had been seen there recently, and it had been a few years since I’d gotten a good look at one. There was also a Snowy Owl in the area, but this was a very rare case of a Snowy taking a back seat to another species (for me anyway).

Short-eared Owls are a species that normally you never specifically go out looking for, but instead kind of luck into them on various occasions. They’re nomads, present in good numbers in a general location one year, and gone for the next several years. Heading towards a known location where several were hanging out was certainly a treat, and it didn’t disappoint. I ended up seeing several Short-eared Owls that late afternoon, including watching one catch and eat a vole.

I’ve seen Short-eared Owls a times near Sioux Falls, but the area I have had the most luck over the years is the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and surrounding areas. The story is usually the same, as a drive through the grasslands seems devoid of Short-eared Owls, until the last hour before sunset, where they seem to magically materialize out of thin air. Nearly every Short-eared Owl I’ve seen has been in the hour before sunset, or right around sunrise. The Brookings owls were following the same behavior, with birders not finding them until right before sunset each evening.

What follows is a photo blog telling the stories of some of the Short-eared Owls I’ve come across in South Dakota over the years. For more information and additional photos of this wonderful species, check out the following page on the main website:

South Dakota Birds and Birding – Short-eared Owl Information and Photos

Short-eared Owl - Asio flammeus - Fort Pierre National Grasslands, South Dakota
One of my first ever encounters with a Short-eared Owl also ended up being quite the boon to my bird photography! On July 16th, 2004, I was cruising the gravel roads near sunset when I saw the first Short-eared Owl I’d ever gotten a good look at. How could I NOT get a good look at it, because as I pulled over the car and got out, it started circling me, staring at me the entire time! It didn’t take long to see why it was so interested in me. As I watched it circle me, I soon noticed three young Short-eared Owls along the edge of the road some 30 yards further up. Clearly a protective parent, I got back in the car and backed off, while the whole family took off across the grasslands.

This encounter also ended up getting me a brand new Canon 20D DSLR camera body!! I submitted the photo to a Canon photo contest, where first prize was a Canon 20D, and much to my shock for a national-level competition, the photo won! That Canon 20D ended up being my primary birding camera for quite a few years, and started what’s now been a ~15+ year run of using the Canon x0D series as my primary body.
Short-eared Owl - Asio flammeus - Minnehaha County, South Dakota
What’s the Boy Scout motto…”be prepared”? That motto has certainly served me well over the years from a birding and bird photography perspective, as I often have my camera with me, even when doing something as mundane as making the commute to and from work. The USGS facility where I work is 10 miles outside of Sioux Falls, and I often take gravel roads on the way there, driving by what’s an ever-shrinking number of little pockets of bird habitat. Over the years having the camera with me has been fortuitous, including the evening of December 5th, 2005.

I’d just left work, and the sun was getting close to setting. I took a gravel road I often take, and drove past one of the few relatively big marshy/wet spots on my commute. As I approached I saw a bird on a fence post in the distance…Red-tailed Hawk? As I got closer, I saw what it was…Short-eared Owl! The first I’d ever seen in this part of the state. I took some photos from a distance, wanting to capture the moment before it inevitably took off. However, to my surprise, this bird was going NOWHERE. As I drove closer, it looked around, unconcerned about my presence. Soon I was right next to it, enjoying the closest encounter I’ve ever had with a Short-eared Owl. Since that day there have been a handful of times where I’ve seen Short-eared Owls either at work itself, or on the commute home.
Short-eared Owl - Asio flammeus - Near Brookings, South Dakota
One of the Short-eared Owls from the January 2nd trip mentioned above, just outside of Brookings. The owl was actively hunting an open field adjacent to the road, and I was watching as it slowly worked it’s way back and forth across the big open space. It then suddenly dove and with a poof of snow, caught dinner for the evening…a big fat vole. This was the owl just after he caught it. After a moment or two of contemplating its good luck, it took off with it’s meal and landed on a fence post to eat it.
Short-eared Owl in Flight - Asio flammeus - Fort Pierre National Grasslands, South Dakota
Back to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, on December 9th, 2005 (ironically, just four days after I saw the one above on my way home from work!), when I came across a lone Short-eared Owl hanging out on a fence post. We contemplated each other for a while (including me getting additional photos of him perched on the fence post), before it decided it had had enough, and took off. This was just after it left the fence post, giving me a great look at the business end of those feet.
Short-eared Owl - Asio flammeus - "Pueo" - Hawaii (Big Island)
We’re not in South Dakota any more with this one! Short-eared Owls are one of the most widely spread owl species in the world, found in every continent except for Antarctica. They’ve also somehow made their way to places you certainly wouldn’t think there should be some, such as islands that are thousands of miles away from the mainland! We took a family vacation to the Big Island of Hawaii in August of 2017. I knew they were there, where they are locally called “Pueo”. We ended up finding 3 or 4 on the grassy volcanic slopes upwards from the Kona area on the east side of the island.

New South Dakota “Hotspots” Page – Good Earth State Park

One of my New Year’s Resolution…less time sulking about the state of the world, more time being productive. Now when I say “productive”, I don’t necessarily mean work! No, I’m thinking more about my free time, and instead of wasting it, spending it doing things I love. Of course that includes birding, but it also includes working on my massive, out of control website, which I’ve neglected lately.

One element of my website are “Hotspots” pages, detailed information on specific birding hotspots in South Dakota. It’s been a work in progress, as it takes quite a long time to make each one of the hotspot pages! Over the last week I have completed a new one, one that was LONG overdue…for Good Earth State Park just outside of Sioux Falls.

We live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a state park of comparable size, that also borders the Big Sioux River and has extensive, forested riparian habitat. While I do bird there, in recent years it just can’t hold a candle compared to Good Earth State Park. Much of it for me is how the parks are managed. The Big Sioux Recreation Area has a BIG focus on camping and other heavy recreational use. As a result, they’ve really disappointed me in recent years by ripping out a lot of good bird habitat to make way for camping, frisbee golf, etc. I get it…you have to manage the parks for multiple uses, but overall in South Dakota, birders and birding are the LAST priorities for park management.

That’s what’s so great about Good Earth. It’s not managed for birding, but there’s no camping. That alone makes a huge difference, as it’s less busy and there’s much more natural vegetation. The big draw of the park for me is the variety of habitats, from upland forest, to gorgeous, well-vegetated grasslands with plenty of native plants, to riparian floodplain. The trail system is incredible as well, with several miles of very well maintained trails.

I’ll save the rest for the new “Birding Hotspot” page itself! I hope you find this useful as you consider Good Earth State Park for your next birding trip. Click below to access the page:

Good Earth State Park – Birding “Hotspot”

A Big(gish?) South Dakota Year (262 species)

As 2020 comes to a close, I had a great end to the year from a birding perspective yesterday! I made one last birding trip, heading up towards Brookings to try to find some Short-eared Owls that had been seen recently. I hadn’t seen any yet this year, and I thought it would be nice to add one more species to what’s been my best South Dakota “big year” yet. But not only did I find a Short-eared Owl, but the first owl I saw was a gorgeous immature female Snowy Owl! Two new 2020 species for the state, on December 30th, and with both being owl species, I couldn’t have asked for a better close to the year.

The two owls put me at 262 species seen in South Dakota in 2020…breaking my own personal high of 256 from last year. It was certainly a terrific year in many aspects, with not only a great variety of species, but some life species, both South Dakota lifers, and overall lifers! Highlights for the year:

Blackburnian Warbler - Setophaga fusca
Spring Warblers! The last couple of springs have had utterly fantastic warbler migrations in eastern South Dakota. In both 2019 and 2020, the peak was relatively short. Both years, quiet migrations through about May 20th were dramatically altered with massive migrations where huge numbers and varieties of songbirds appeared overnight. On one day I saw 20 (!!!) species of warblers! And for the spring overall, there were three South Dakota lifers…rarities all (Hooded Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler). The spring also included at least 10 Blackburnian Warblers (above)…more than I’ve seen in 20 years combined in South Dakota.
Mandarin Duck - Aix galericulata
Mandarin Duck – Not your typical South Dakota bird! And not one that really “counts” for most birding lists, given it’s most likely an escapee, and not a true vagrant. But how could I not include this as a highlight of the year? There’s little doubt this little guy is probably the most photographed bird in the history of South Dakota. And the photo I got of him above is one of my all time favorites, with the wonderful colors of the bird, the great splashing water, and the reflected colors on the water (from a nearby sign).
Trumpeter Swan - Cygnus buccinator
Close to home oddities – The photo above is a Trumpeter Swan seen just west of Sioux Falls this autumn. Not a bird that should be around here, but, there it is! There were a number of surprise birds seen within 20 miles of home this year, including the swan, a wayward Mountain Bluebird just half a mile from our house, and
Nelson's Sparrow - Ammodramus nelsoni
Photographic Nemesis Birds – There are a number of species that I’ve glimpsed, but never really gotten great looks of, and never have gotten any good photographs. One of these was this very uncharacteristically cooperative Nelson’s Sparrow, seen just five miles from our house this autumn. One photographic nemesis down!
Western Grebe - Aechmophorus occidentalis
They Grow Up So Fast! – I’ve always wanted to get good photos of nesting Western Grebes, including their wonderful courtship behavior, and the way they carry their young on their backs when they’re small. Lake Whitewood in South Dakota had a bumper crop of Western Grebes this year, with many dozens of pairs nesting and raising young. The photo above from this past June is an instant all time favorite.
Common Nighthawk - Chordeiles minor
Western Road Trip – With COVID decimating travel for most in 2020, our planned extensive vacation throughout the southwestern US didn’t happen. We did manage to take a trip to the Black Hills of western South Dakota, however, renting a wonderful cabin all to ourselves and hiking extensively for several days. A birding highlight from the trip for me…capturing lightning in a bottle! At least that is what it seems like you’re trying to do when attempting to photograph a Common Nighthawk in flight, given their erratic and rapid flight. The photo above isn’t perfect, given the look from behind, but the head turn back towards the camera, and the fact that I actually got an in-focus Nighthwawk photo in flight, makes this a fave for 2020!
Least Tern - Sternula antillarum
Two South Dakota Nemesis Birds Down – I’d never seen a Least Tern or a Piping Plover in South Dakota, until this summer. There’s no excuse for it! They’re here in small numbers and not easy to find, but there are a few spots along the Missouri River where they’ve been known to nest over the years. This summer I finally set aside some time to go down to “North Alabama Bend”, an area on the Missouri near Vermillion where vast extensive sandy flats offer perfect nesting habitat for both species. I ended up making several trips to the area, and was fortunate to get some nice photos of both species.
Ruddy Turnstone - Arenaria interpres
To everything, Turn, Turn, Turn – I LOVE spring, not only for songbird migration, but for the great numbers and varieties of shorebirds we often get. After a rather non-existent shorebird migration in 2019, 2020 was much better in eastern South Dakota. And that included some wonderful views and photo opportunities for relative rarities, such as this Ruddy Turnstone from Lake Whitewood.
Bobolink - Dolichonyx oryzivorus
Black-and-white – Bobolinks are an all-time favorite species. It’s always a highlight every May when I hear that first tinkly Bobolink song. I always see them, but photographing them has been an challenge. They’re often pretty camera shy, flushing before I can get within camera range. For those few opportunities where I have had a good chance to get a close photo, it’s a challenge to capture details in both the black and white plumage patterns, particularly if the light is harsh. This spring, I finally got a cooperative male Bobolink, at close range, in good muted late-evening light that let me control the contrast and get some details in both the black and white parts of the bird’s plumage.
Horned Grebe - Podiceps auritus
All dressed up – One of the best things about spring is seeing so many species in their finest breeding plumage. Here’s a Horned Grebe from up at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge this past April.
Marbled Godwit - Limosa fedoa
Blinded by the Light – I have a chair blind that is probably my most under-utilized tool in my photographic arsenal. I don’t know why I don’t use it more, because I often get photo opportunities I never get otherwise. In April, I got the chair blind out after being frustrated trying to photograph some very amorous Marbled Godwits at Lake Thompson. They weren’t allowing a close enough approach for photos, so I plopped the chair blind down along the shoreline, and waited. This was one of the rewards of the wait, a Marbled Godwit flying right in front of the blind as it gave chase to a rival.
Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis
Winter Raptors – This could be a highlight of ANY year, as the one saving grace for what are often incredibly harsh winters in South Dakota are the huge numbers of raptors that are often found in the central part of the state. That includes the very regal Ferruginous Hawk, which as with this guy, are often easy to find in winter…simply find a prairie dog town, and you’ll likely find one hanging around.

Free downloadable / printable 2021 Bird Calendar

Starting in about 2007, I started making a free, downloadable and printable bird calendar for anyone to enjoy. I kept up the tradition through 2017, but when 2018 rolled around, I…whiffed. And I kept whiffing for 2019 and 2020. In the spirit of “new beginnings” in 2021, I want to start making this an annual product again, free for anyone to download and print. Thus, I present a free 2021 bird calendar, with monthly pages that you can download and print.

I tried to keep populate the calendar with “new” photos, and most of these are indeed new from the last year. As always, all are taken within South Dakota itself. Some of the 2020 photos shown here are now among my all time favorites, including the Prairie Falcon (January), Marbled Godwit (June), and Western Grebe and chick (July). In a bit of a break with tradition, I’m also including a non-native species here…the Mandarin Duck for November! That individual bird, spotted in Yankton in November of 2020, is very likely the most photographed bird in the history of the state! He hung out there for a month, with his new bestest buddy, a male Wood Duck. Alas, he seemingly met his demise (some raptor got him), but he certainly was a crowd pleaser when he was around! And given that the photo I got of him, with perfect lighting, great color, and a bit of a splash, is one of my all-time instant favorite photos…I couldn’t leave it out!

Here’s the link to the calendar page. Simply click on the month you want, and you’ll be viewing a PDF file that you should be able to print and/or download. Enjoy!

Free 2021 South Dakota Bird Calendar

This year’s 12 selections for monthly calendar pages

2020 Warbler Season Ends with a Bang

As this spring comes to an end in a few days, I was fortunate enough to add not only two more warblers to my 2020 list, but two new life birds! I’ve birded throughout the western US, but haven’t done much of anything in the Southeast. Therefore when people started seeing a Hooded Warbler and a Kentucky Warbler in Newton Hills State Park this spring, I tried three times to try to find them, to no avail.

Both are extreme rarities in South Dakota. The closest are where Hooded Warblers normally breed is Missouri or Illinois, hundreds of miles to the south and east. Kentucky Warblers are normally a bit closer, with small breeding populations in southeastern Nebraska and southeastern Iowa, but like Hooded Warblers, they’re just not found in South Dakota. Earlier this week, it was reported that both species were still hanging around Newton Hills, so Thursday night I made the trek down, not really expecting to see them.

The Hooded Warbler though was right in the same dead tree along a trail where he’s been often seen by others this spring! He sang a few times from the top of the tree, then flitted off to another more distant perch. I didn’t see him again after that initial sighting, but I heard his singing a few more times as I continued up the trail.

Success! A lifer! I would have been very happy for the day had that been the only bird I saw, but I kept going down the trail to where the Kentucky Warbler had been seen. From the reports it didn’t seem like he was quite as loyal to a given spot as the Hooded was, so I didn’t know exactly where to look for him. I was only 100-150 yards away from where I saw and photographed the Hooded Warbler when I heard it…a series of warbling phrases, somewhat similar to an Ovenbird, but without the Ovenbird’s rise in volume an intensity as the song went along. It was a sustained, loud series of phrases, repeated multiple times. But where? It seemed like after initially hearing the bird, it retreated further into the forest, as I heard the song again, but seemingly quite a bit more distant.

I didn’t hear the song for a few minutes, so thought I’d continue down the trail. After going down the trail for 20 minutes or so and not seeing or hearing anything interesting, I started heading back, and as I approached the area where I’d first heard the Kentucky Warbler, I heard it again. MUCH closer. And again! And…there he was, practically right above my head! I initially got some really good binocular views of him, then set out to try to photograph him. He wasn’t particularly shy, flying from perch to perch, foraging a bit, stopping to sing, then moving on, but he was always pretty high up in the canopy, and often moving. Finally I did manage some decent long-distance record shots that clearly identified it as a Kentucky Warbler.

Two lifers! Within just a hundred or so yards! The two warblers also brought up my warbler total for the spring to 26!! A terrific warbler migration by any measure. I know some other birders saw a few additional species this spring, but all are pretty good finds in South Dakota (Cape May, Black-throated Blue, Connecticut).

Here are a few pics of the Hooded and Kentucky Warblers (not great but hey…lifers!), as well as a montage of the 26 species of warblers I saw this spring.

Hooded Warbler - Setophaga citrina
Hooded Warbler, perched at the top of a tall dead tree at Newton Hills State Park.
Kentucky Warbler - Geothlypis formosa
Kentucky Warbler, moving along a branch and foraging.
South Dakota Warblers - Spring 2020
A montage of the 26 warbler species I saw this spring, in just two South Dakota counties (Minnehaha and Lincoln)

Benefits of living your life by science

We live in interesting times. “Interesting” often being downright disheartening, as we have a society in the US that seems to be embracing the future depicted in the movie Idiocracy. The same US that used to lead the world in innovation and science now has about 40% of the population who shows outright disdain, if not hatred, of “experts”, including science. I could go on…and on…and on…and on…on this topic. But I’ll turn that conversation to how science has benefits in so many aspects of life.

That includes birding! As someone who has been a birder and a bird photographer for 20+ years now, I realize that technical photography skills are a very small part of successful bird photography. The big challenge is getting close enough to a bird! That means knowing when, and where birds will be, and how that species normally behaves. Science can help with all three of these!

I had an absolutely, incredible, spectacular day birding today. It was a drippy, gloomy, dreary day, a day where normally I may not have even left the house. However…SCIENCE told me to leave the house!! Two days ago…Cornell University’s “Birdcast” predicted that the night of May 15th/16th would be a heavy migration night with birds arriving in eastern South Dakota in high numbers. I’ve learned to really trust the Birdcast predictions, particularly after a few events last year where the forecast immediately preceded some absolutely spectacular birding. So what did the forecast predict?

Cornell BirdCast - Migration Forecast for May 15-16.
Cornell BirdCast – Migration Forecast for May 15-16 (Issued 2 days in advance)

I headed out this morning before dawn, arriving at Newton Hills State Park in search of warblers and other migrating birds. Unfortunately, the rain arrived shortly after I did! It was extremely frustrating, as I could SEE many birds moving about in the forest canopy, but with the early hour, the clouds, and rain…it was difficult to see them well enough to identify them. I did bird for an hour or so, and did have a good time, identifying over 50 species. Normally a great time, but with the slight rain continuing and making photography difficult, I started to head home.

As I drove back home, the rain started to lighten, and eventually stopped. As I got within a couple of blocks from my house, I thought…SCIENCE! By god, that BirdCast hadn’t let me down in the past! I thought I’d try one more place while the rain held off, and ended up at Beaver Creek Nature Area, just 3-4 miles from our home. It’s a place where I’ve had decent luck before, but it’s never been as “hot” as Newton Hills.

That changed this morning! THANK YOU science, and thank you BirdCast! There’s one trail I normally take at Beaver Creek, which takes perhaps half an hour at most. Instead, I ended up walking around for nearly 2 1/2 hours. Almost one hour of that was sitting in one spot! There’s a ridge with a steep bank, where you can walk along canopy or mid-story of the trees growing in the ravine below. It’s been a place where I’ve had good luck before, but nothing like this! As I watched, wave after wave of birds were moving through the forest canopy, including…Warblers! The highlight of spring migration!

In 20 years of birding, I had yet to get a good photo of a Blackburnian Warbler. That ended today! I saw two here, both of whom were uncharacteristically cooperative for the camera. In total, in that 2+ hours, I saw 16 different Warbler species! A terrific day, and one that would have turned out very differently if I’d just looked out the window in the morning, had seen the rain and gloom, and stayed home.

Blackburnian Warbler - Setophaga fusca
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Blackburnian Warbler - Setophaga fusca
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Blackburnian Warbler May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Blackburnian Warbler - Setophaga fusca
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Blackburnian Warbler May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
American Redstart
Setophaga ruticilla
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
American Redstart May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Least Flycatcher 
Empidonax minimus
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Least Flycatcher May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Swainson's Thrush
Catharus ustulatus
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Swainson’s Thrush May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota

Swainson’s Thrush vs. Gray-cheeked Thrush

One migrant that I’m sure to see every spring are Swainson’s Thrush, usually in pretty good numbers. They typically start to show up in late April, with about a 3-4 week period where you might run into them. It’s pretty predictable where they can be found. They are usually seen foraging in the grass on the edge of the forest or some other wooded area. They’re always a little “on edge”, sticking close to that forest cover so they can dash into it at any sign of danger. Because of their behavior, they can be hard to photograph sometimes, but on the other hand, I’ve had a lot of chances over the years because they’re pretty common.

There are a few other thrush species they could potentially be confused with. Hermit Thrush is the first of the thrush species to migrate in the spring, but there still can be a few around by the time Swainson’s Thrush arrive. However, I’ve never had too much trouble differentiating Hermit Thrush from Swainson’s Thrush, as they have a rich, reddish-brown rump that easily makes it stand out (if seen well). Veery are another thrush species that migrates through the state (with some breeding in the Black Hills). They’re pretty uncommon, but even if they are seen here, their color is a much richer, warm, reddish brown, and they have less spotting on the undersides than a Swainson’s Thrush. I’ve never had difficulty identifying them either.

But there is one thrush species that can be difficult to differentiate from Swainson’s Thrush…the Gray-cheeked Thrush. One of the difficulties in differentiating the two species lies in their habits! Both have that tendency to hang out at the forest edge, in the shadow of the trees. Because they’re often seen in poor lighting conditions, it’s often difficult in field conditions to differentiate the two.

Gray-cheeked Thrush have also been something of a nemesis bird for me, from a photographic standpoint! I would estimate that at least 90% of the Swainson’s/Gray-cheeked Thrushes I’ve seen over the years have been Swainson’s (if not a higher percentage). Despite that, I HAVE seen and identified Gray-cheeked over the years, but until today I really didn’t have any good photos (or even any recognizable photos!). That problem was taken care of today at Newton Hills State Park, when I got photos of BOTH species in relatively good lighting.

The image below depicts Gray-cheeked and Swainson’s Thrushes. Sure, it’s easy when they’re side by side, in good light! This is the exception rather than the rule, however. If you do have the opportunity to see them in good light, Gray-cheeked Thrushes are 1) Grayer in overall plumage, with few buffy or warm tones, 2) lack of any ring around the eye, and 3) a gray cheek (surprise!) with no warm tones on the face. Swainson’s Thrushes often appear “buffier” and more rich in color overall (although still nowhere close to as rich as a Veery), and have characteristic buffy tones on the face. They also have an obvious eye ring.

It’s all about getting a good look! If you’re having trouble identifying these species, and you can’t see the bird’s eye ring (or lack thereof), or if the lighting is poor and you can’t judge how “buffy” the face is…good luck! You’re on your own! But if you do get a chance to see one of these two species in good light, I hope the photos below and identification points above are of some help.

Gray-cheeked vs. Swainson's Thrush
Comparison of Gray-cheeked Thrush (left) and Swainson’s Thrush (right). One look at the head in this light is enough to distinguish the two species, as Gray-cheeked Thrush have a gray, dull cheek, a lack of warm tones around the head and face, and a lack of an eye ring. Swainson’s Thrush have the characteristic buffy tone on the face, and an obvious eye ring. The plumage overall has a warmer, richer appearance on the Swainson’s Thrush as well.

Another great day in the blind

I’m convinced 90% of bird photography is getting close enough. Having all the technical expertise in the world isn’t going to get you a great bird photo unless you’re close enough to actually capture the image. While I can sometimes get good photos while on a hike, I’d estimate at least 90% of my best photos are those taken when I’m concealed in some way.

Often, that’s my vehicle. As I’ve said before, a great way to get good bird photos is to pull your car over next to a good area of habitat (a wetland, a small pond, a riparian area, etc.), and simply wait. Many birds that are skittish around a human presence are more bold when it’s “just” a car (regardless of what’s inside). However, there are better ways to conceal yourself, showing a much lower profile and getting to good birding areas that you could never take a car.

I started using a chair blind about 10 years ago. One of my favorite ways to use it is during shorebird migration in the spring, where I’ll set it up along a shoreline or the edge of a muddy field. This week I was birding up at Lake Thompson in Kingsbury County, when I came across a shallow water area with scattered mudflats, and quite a few species of shorebirds. A great place to set up the blind! I hiked out onto a good spot at the edge of the lake, making sure to place it in a location with the sun behind me (lighting always important for photography!). Of course everything scattered at first, at while the birds never came back in quite the same numbers as were present before I set up, it was still a great few hours. Here are a few photos from the day in the blind.

Marbled Godwit - Limosa fedoa
A Marbled Godwit flying past the blind, in hot pursuit of another Marbled Godwit. Both Marbled and Hudsonian Godwits were present in good numbers, but Marbled Godwits are the species that breed here. They were in courting mode, with display flights and birds chasing each other the entire time I sat in the blind. Not only my favorite photo of the day, this may be one of my favorite photos of all time, with the lighting, the pose, and the detail in the bird’s plumage.
Hudsonian Godwit - Limosa haemastica
A Hudsonian Godwit in flight. Female Hudsonian Godwits, juveniles, or males not in full breeding plumage can sometimes be difficult to differentiate from Marbled Godwits when they’re standing. But in flight, the bold black and white patterns of a Hudsonian Godwit make it easy to identify.
Lesser Yellowlegs - Tringa flavipes
A Lesser Yellowlegs strutting in front of the blind. Lesser Yellowlegs are always one of the most common shorebirds that migrate through in the spring, and I have plenty of photos of them, but who can resist triggering the shutter on your camera when ANY bird makes it this easy? Opportunities that you may not be able to get without the use of the blind.
Common Grackle - Quiscalus quiscula
Common Grackles are indeed quite common! They’re the bane of my feeder complex at home in the spring, as a small group of them can dominate my feeders and wipe out my offered goodies in short order! Despite that…I didn’t realize how few photos I really have of the species! Particularly when you get great light like this that shows off that iridescence.

Last blast – Winter on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands

One last trip to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands! It’s been a couple of weeks…just have had zero time to post photos…but I had a wonderful day trip to the Grasslands. After some rather slow years on the Grasslands, this was a good winter, although the birds were curiously concentrated on the eastern side, mostly in and around some very large prairie dog towns towards Highway 1806.

As always…Rough-legged Hawks predominated, but there were higher numbers of Ferruginous Hawks than I ever remember seeing in one day. Plenty of other “goodies” as well! With that, some photos from my trip a couple of weeks ago…

Rough-legged - Buteo lagopus
Rough-legged Hawk, that was uncharacteristically 1) cooperative for the camera (they’re usually relatively shy!) and 2) on the ground, instead of on a telephone pole.
Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Look out below! There’s no doubt that Prairie Dogs are a big attractant to some raptors in the winter. Most commonly, it’s Ferruginous Hawks and Bald Eagles that I see hanging out around Prairie Dog towns, but on this day there were also a number of Bald Eagles. Here one makes an unsuccessful attempt to nail a Prairie Dog, who ducked into its burrow a moment before the photo was taken.
Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis
Ferruginous Hawk in flight. I believe this is a younger birds (not nearly as uniform, gorgeous rusty brown on its uppersides, among other things. Probably my favorite raptor on the Grasslands, other than a Gyrfalcon! Such big birds, and as a bonus…they’re generally more cooperative than other raptors!
Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos
A massive Golden Eagle, sitting on a fence post. There’s no doubt in my mind that these guys have become more and more common over the 20+ years I’ve been birding the Grasslands.
Prairie Falcon - Falco mexicanus
A pretty typical view of a Prairie Falcon on the Grasslands! From a “safe distance” as far as the bird is concerned, and in flight as it warily gives you an eye and flies away!
Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus
Another Rough-legged Hawk, this time on a fence post. I guess when you see ~100 Rough-legged Hawks in a day, even though they’re generally shy, you’ll come across a few birds that allow a quick photo!
Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis
A mature Ferruginous Hawk in the evening sun. Such majestic birds…Buteo “regalis” is a fitting name.
Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus
One more Rough-legged Hawk, this one in flight. Until next winter, raptors of the Grasslands! Thanks for another great season!
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