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Birding Dakota Nature Park in Brookings

Dakota Nature Park
Trail Guide
South Dakota Birds and Birding
Trail map for Dakota Nature Park in Brookings. The reclaimed landfill is represented by the large upland area on the northeast side of the park, while trails wind past the lakes and wetlands created from reclaimed gravel pits on the south and west sides. Click on the map above for a larger view.

Yesterday my son had an all-day event in Brookings, South Dakota. I drove him up, and thought I’d spend the day birding. Brookings is “only” an hour north of where we live, yet in our 25+ years in South Dakota, I’ve done very little birding in the area. Noting that birders recently had posted some nice finds at Dakota Nature Park on the south edge of Brookings, that’s where I started the morning birding.

I will be back! I thoroughly enjoyed the data, spending most of the morning walking the extensive trails around a park that’s much bigger, and much nicer, than I was anticipating. The northeast side of the park is a massive, grassy mound…the capped and reclaimed old Brookings landfill! The lowland areas south and west of here are lowland trails that snake in around wetland and water habitats that were formed from abandoned sand and gravel pit operations. There are paved trails through much of the park, as well as some gravel trails and boardwalks. There are benches, pagodas, and other structures scattered along the trails that allow for a short rest, or provide a nice place to just sit and watch the wildlife. The visitor’s center on the far southwest side of the park is wonderful as well. It’s a very nicely done building (donated by the Larson family I was told, of Larson Doors in Brookings), with displays focused on learning and appreciating wildlife. They also have some nice feeder complexes where you can just sit and enjoy the birds the come to partake.

I started at a parking lot on the far east side of the park, and just started walking unknown (to me) trails. As I walked, the trails kept going, and going, and going. Not realizing the park was so large I ended up spending over 2 1/2 hours here. Not only is there a lot to explore, but from a bird perspective, there’s a really nice mix of habitats. The ponds and wetland themselves are of course a big feature, but the trails also wind past grasslands, shrubby areas, areas of deciduous forest, and strip of pine trees on the far north side. Because of the varied habitat, the birds I found for the morning were also varied, ranging from an Osprey prowling the ponds for fish, to Savannah and Field Sparrows near the “grassy mound” of the reclaimed landfill. For the morning I found 43 species, including a number of first-of-year. For a mid-April day in South Dakota when a majority of songbird migrants and summer residents haven’t arrived yet…that’s pretty darned good for one location. (my eBird list for the day is shown below).

Despite the drive, I will be back! With such a wonderful variety of habitats, and with such wonderfully done trails and facilities, this should be a definite destination for birders who happen to be in the Brookings, South Dakota region.

Dakota Nature Park
eBird Recording
South Dakota Birds and Birding
Bird list for the day, noting 43 species. Several first-of-year, including a calling Sora and another flushed Sora (both quite early for this area), Osprey (not common in eastern South Dakota), and several species of songbirds.

Do predator control programs help gamebirds like Pheasants? (Hint…No)

Ring-necked Pheasant - Phasianus colchicus

South Dakota’s favorite bird…an introduced game bird that does have an economic impact in the state. but are predator control programs like Kristi Noem’s actually beneficial to pheasant populations? Or, in fact, is it likely to WORSEN the situation? For the scads of hunters and others who evidently have found my blog…read this post. Don’t take my word for it regarding this misguided predator control program. Take the word of Sportsmen’s groups…of outdoor magazines…of conservation groups…of the SCIENCE behind bird populations, predators, and habitat. If you truly want to save your resource and stop playing political games because you’re “liberal” or “conservative”…follow the FACTS. Then petition Noem to stop this nonsense and instead focus on habitat conservation efforts.

Wow.  Traffic on my blog literally shot up ten-fold since I posted about the idiocy of Kristi Noem’s predator control program in South Dakota. And with that traffic of course comes the haters, with direct emails to me, and attempted blog replies that offered nothing more than name calling. Not surprisingly, most were from hunters.  If you can get past the four-letter words and try to make some sense of some of the emails I’ve had, the general thought is that killing skunks, opossums, red fox, and raccoons is very helpful for Ring-necked Pheasant populations. And thus, these hunters are all for Noem’s little misguided foray into “conservation”.

Let’s look at the facts. Do you like to hunt Ring-necked Pheasants? Chances are you support groups like Pheasants Forever? Here’s what Pheasants Forever has to say about predator control programs:

Stating an investment in increased habitat is FAR more effective than predator control in improving pheasant populations, they state:

Less-expensive methods to improve game bird populations and nesting success exist. Experts have focused on the amount of habitat (composition of the landscape) and the arrangement (configuration) that increase nesting success by reducing the effectiveness of predators. Well-designed habitat projects can reduce predation by up to 80 percent.

Regarding predator control, they state it’s ineffective at helping broad-scale pheasant populations…and in fact, it may INCREASE interactions among predators and pheasants:

It is important to understand that sustained trapping efforts tend to stimulate reproduction by predators (compensating for artificially low densities) and create populations with proportionately more juveniles that wander more across the landscape thereby increasing the chances of encountering pheasants.

Overall, here’s their summary statement on predator control, and where money SHOULD be spent…on habitat restoration:

While predator removal and exclusion methods can increase nesting success on small areas, these methods are too expensive for use on a landscape basis and do not significantly increase the number of nesting birds over the long term. Through the addition and management of habitat, we not only decrease the impact predators have on existing nests, but also increase the number of nests and population size in an area. Predators will continue to eat pheasants and their nests, but weather and habitat conditions will drive population fluctuations.

What’s laughable about Noem’s program is that she ignored the advice of her own people, and ignored past research in South Dakota that has focused on Ring-necked Pheasant populations. Former Governor Daugaard held a “Pheasant Habitat Summit” in 2013 and followed up by commissioning a “Governor’s Pheasant Habitat Work Group”.  You know…actually investing in RESEARCH and DISCUSSION before unilaterally making a bad decision to start a predator control program. Land owners, hunters, and government personnel participated. Regarding predator control, the working group found that “When suitable habitat is available and weather conditions warrant, pheasant populations flourish without direct predator control“. Even when a misguided bounty program like Noem’s is established, they found “Bounty systems in other states have been ineffective because the origin of the predators cannot be verified”.

More information from sportsmen’s groups.  Midwest Outdoors published a piece on the “5 widespread myths about pheasant and quail populations“. One of those 5 myths is shown below:

Myth: Predators are the main reason there are fewer pheasants and quail.

Busted: Yes, coyotes and fox will eat pheasants and quail, and raccoons and skunks are likely culprits when it comes to raided nests. But predators don’t eat habitat, which is far and away the biggest reason why pheasant populations decline. High annual losses to predators should not be misunderstood to mean that predation is responsible for long-term upland population declines. Landscapes with good habitat often have high numbers of pheasant numbers, as well as high numbers of many potential predators.

 

The impact of predators is magnified and often pinpointed as the primary problem after habitat conditions deteriorate. Confine pheasants and quail to smaller and smaller parcels of habitat, and a predator’s job gets a whole lot easier. Thankfully, well-designed habitat projects can reduce predation by up to 80 percent. Through the addition and management of habitat, not only does there tend to be a decrease in the impact predators make on existing nests, but more habitat is likely to increase the number of nests and the overall gamebird population. And habitat for pheasants and quail comes at a fraction of the cost of other intensive predator reduction methods that are cost-prohibitive across a large area.

Just like Pheasants Forever, they note it’s HABITAT that’s the key, and if you have adequate, well designed habitat, that alone decreases nest predation by predators. And just like Pheasants Forever, they note it’s a FAR bigger “bang for the buck” in using conservation dollars to promote pheasant populations.

Another sportsmen/hunting group, Quail Forever, states the following (hint…it ‘s similar to statements from all the other groups:

Bottom line: Through the addition and management of habitat, we not only decrease the impact predators have on existing nests, but also increase the number of nests and population size in the area. This management comes at a fraction of the cost of other predator reduction methods.

MORE HABITAT, LESS PREDATION, BEST OUTCOME
Less-expensive methods to improve game bird populations and nesting success exist. Experts have focused on the amount of habitat (composition of the landscape) and the arrangement (configuration) that increase nesting success by reducing the effectiveness of predators. Well-designed habitat projects can reduce predation by up to 80 percent.

 

Programs such as Noem’s may actually do more HARM than good for Pheasant populations. For example, red fox are noted as the most effective predators on Ring-necked Pheasants, by our own Game Fish and Parks. But red fox populations are quite low in South Dakota, as they simply cannot compete with Coyotes. There’s a direct, inverse relationship between high coyote densities and red fox densities. As this story notes, hunters wrongly blame coyotes for predation on Ring-necked Pheasants, but our own Game Fish & Parks notes Coyotes have a minimal impact on Ring-necked Pheasant populations. Human intervention in removing predators results in unpredictable impacts on other wildlife, and ironically, hunters calling for removal of Coyote should note that would likely HARM Ring-necked Pheasant populations, as Coyotes not only help keep Red Fox populations low, but also help control other small mammalian predators on Ring-necked Pheasant nests.  This isn’t just one isolated case of an unintended consequence of predator control programs. Some other studies note that predator control programs focused on creatures like red fox simply create more of an ecological niche that other predators come in and fill, such as feral cats.

The one common thread from our own GFP…from Pheasants Forever…from Quail Forever…from all groups associated with conservation and wildlife management…NOTHING has anything close to the impact on Ring-necked Pheasant populations as 1) habitat, and 2) climate. So what factors could contribute to any perceived decline of gamebirds in South Dakota. HABITAT LOSS.  Starting in the mid-2000s, the eastern Dakotas have seen an expansion in cropland that literally rivals rates of deforestation in the tropical rain forests.  Here are multiple studies that have quantified recent grassland loss in the Dakotas:

  1. Wright and Wimberly (2013) found a net loss of 1.3 million acres of grassland that resulted from conversion to corn or soybeans in five states comprising the western Corn Belt over the five years from 2006 to 2011.
  2. Johnston (2014) also used the CDL to analyze land cover trends across the eastern Dakotas and found that corn and soy agriculture expanded by 27% (3.8 million ha) during the two years from 2010 to 2012.
  3. Reitsma et al. (2015) reported a net grassland loss of 4.6 million acres resulting from cropland expansion in the state of South Dakota over the six years from 2006 to 2012.

 

I’m a scientist. I look at evidence. I look at FACTS. The FACTS couldn’t be clearer.

  1. Predators aren’t driving any broad-scale decline in gamebirds such as pheasants. 
  2. Habitat loss is far and away the biggest concern for gamebirds (and other wildlife) in the Dakotas
  3. Predator control problems are expensive and ineffective, with a miniscule impact compared to dollar-for-dollar habitat conservation efforts.

I’ll end with one more driving factor for the long term…climate change. As noted above, conservation and management groups all noted TWO factors that had the biggest impact on gamebird populations..habitat, and weather/climate. The climate is changing…whether you “believe” in it or not.  What are the potential impacts on gamebird populations in South Dakota? Let’s look at Sharp-tailed Grouse populations in the state.  They are found from the southern to northern border in South Dakota, in much of the western half to two-thirds of the state. They are found as far south as the Platte River in Nebraska. What about the future?

Using projected changes in both land use (habitat loss) and projected changes in climate, this (wonderful!!!) study found that your grandchildren aren’t going to be hunting Sharp-tailed Grouse. Not in South Dakota anyway.  The top map below shows the “current” distribution of Sharp-tailed Grouse. The areas in red in the bottom three maps? Those all show areas where Sharp-tailed Grouse will be severely impacted by climate and land use change…with a bulls-eye right on South Dakota and northern Nebraska. Three climate scenarios are shown, with “A2” being the most severe scenario, and “B1” being the least severe. REGARDLESS of scenario, this research shows that SHARP-TAILED GROUSE WILL BE EXTIRPATED FROM THE SOUTHERN TWO-THIRDS OF SOUTH DAKOTA BY 2075.

Sharp-tailed Grouse - Tympanuchus phasianellusSo please, sportsmen…if you want to preserve your resource, do ALL of us some good. Predator control? NOBODY (other than our rather clueless governor) believe it’s an effective long-term solution. You want a big bang-for-the-buck? Petition Noem’s office for habitat conservation and preservation programs. Contribute to groups that foster habitat protection. That’s a “win” for all concerned, as it not only benefits Ring-necked Pheasants and reduces predation, but it helps non-game species as well.

And if you’re like me and have a son…and if you worry about his future…play the long game as well, and start paying attention to the long-term devastation climate change is going to have in the state.

Ring-necked Pheasant - Phasianus colchicus

A young Ring-necked Pheasant hanging out on a fence post. Do you want to preserve these birds, and also end up helping ALL wildlife in the state? Stop supporting this ridiculous predator control effort, and focus the state’s attention on habitat conservation.

Spectacular Spring Birding – Minnehaha County

The last two days have been just spectacular for birding, and for bird photography. Both mornings, I went west of Sioux Falls before dawn, spending a lot of time around Wall Lake and the vicinity. Good numbers of birds, a wonderful variety, and some wonderfully cooperative subjects for the camera. It’s not often you get all three of those things in a birding trip. Here are some of the finds for the last 2 days:

Red-breasted Mergansers Courting - Mergus serrator

I don’t see Red-breasted Mergansers often around the Sioux Falls area, and usually just one or two. This weekend there were at least 11 hanging out together at Wall Lake. Unfortunately for the females, there were 7 males and only 4 females…the males were putting on QUITE the show for the females. They were some of the most active birds on the lake, with males chasing females, pausing to fight with each other or do this wonderful display behavior that I’ve never seen before. Given how active they were, given how large Wall Lake is, and given how difficult it can be to get close to a bird out on the main lake, I felt VERY fortunate that they spent quite a bit of time near the beach this morning, and I was able to capture the courting behavior. A bit more of a crop than I’d like, but I love this photo.

Common Loon - Gavia immer

Wall Lake is becoming semi-reliable for finding migrating Common Loons in the spring months, as it’s now been several years in a row where I’ve seen them there. This morning I hung out at the end of the point that sticks out into the lake, arriving at dawn, and staying an hour and a half. I was rewarded by wonderful views of many birds, but it’s ALWAYS wonderful when a gorgeous Common Loon in breeding plumage cruises around the corner and swims right in front of you (and your camera!).

Killdeer - Charadrius vociferus

I love the “off-season” at Wall Lake…the time of year when you can sit by the beach and have it all to yourself. Come summer, it’s not somewhere you’d even think about birding. But this time of year, when ice and snow cover the surrounding landscape and birds are looking for food, the sandy beach is a great place to bird. There were many birds near the beach today, with several looking for food right along the shore, such as this Killdeer.  If you are familiar with Wall Lake and the bit of foam that sometimes forms on the beach when there’s a north wind, this is what that foam turns into when it’s 20 degrees! Loved the bird next to the crystally ice.

Bonapaarte's Gull - Larus philadelphia

As always at this time of year, Wall Lake attracted a lot of gulls, primarily Ring-billed and Franklin’s, but I also saw a Herring Gull and 20 or so delicate little Bonaparte’s Gulls. Another bird prowling the “surf” line looking for food. About the only Bonaparte’s Gull I saw that wasn’t in full breeding plumage, but the others weren’t as cooperative for the camera.

American Robin - Turdus migratorius

I REALLY felt bad for the American Robins and other songbirds that were trying to find food this weekend, with a thick crust of ice covering most of the landscape. They were numerous along roadsides and anywhere else where even a bit of open ground was available. Here one hangs out on a branch at dawn at Wall Lake.

Rusty Blackbird - Euphagus carolinus

Three times this weekend I came across small groups of Rusty Blackbirds. I admit I often don’t scan the massive blackbird flocks, but while out on the peninsula at Wall Lake this morning, I kept hearing a squeaky call that I wasn’t familiar with, and then saw a lone Rusty Blackbird. Later this morning north of Wall Lake, I ran into a small group at a flooded field. Not a great photo, but not a species I’ve photographed much. And one that I generally struggle to differentiate from Brewer’s Blackbird when they’re in breeding plumage.

Double-crested Cormorant - Phalacrocorax auritus

Another common species, a Double-crested Cormorant, but I can’t help put trigger the shutter at any bird that flies in front of my camera. Do like the unique look of this one, thanks to a reflection of some buildings across the water at Wall lake.

Horned Grebe - Podiceps auritus

Until this weekend, I didn’t realize I had no photos of a Horned Grebe in full breeding plumage! Problem solved…there were actually many of these guys around Wall Lake the last 2 days. Most weren’t very cooperative, but I finally got one early this morning hanging out near the beach.

Hermit Thrush - Catharus guttatus

With all the snow and ice that was still around heading into this weekend, you kind of do a double take when you see some bird species, as they seem out of place given the weather. Hermit Thrush are always early spring arrivals though. There were a number of them the last 2 days in the Big Sioux Recreation Area near home.

Eastern Phoebe - Sayornis phoebe

Speaking of birds that look out of their element in this weather…one of the LAST things you expect to see when there’s so much snow and ice still around are flycatcher species. But like Hermit Thrush, Eastern Phoebes are early spring migrants. I saw this guy both yesterday and today along Wall Lake beach. Today thankfully things had melted some. Yesterday, he was really having a hard time finding anything other than snow and ice.

Wild Turkeys Today – Rough conditions for ground feeders

I had a blast birding west of Sioux Falls today. The conditions, however, were borderline dangerous in spots. The storm may be gone, but I’ve never seen so many downed powerlines, and some roads are simply impassable with the snow, ice, and mess as things start to melt. But with the harsh conditions, birds were definitely bunched up.  With plenty of open water, water birds were doing ok.  However, with ice as thick as I’ve ever seen it, other birds were struggling. I saw more Ring-necked Pheasants and Wild Turkeys out in the open than I ever have, all struggling to access food below the ice.

But…boys will be boys!  NOTHING is going to stop a Wild Turkey tom from strutting his stuff, and I had a great time shooting a small group of 3 toms that were displaying and carrying on for a nearby group of 4 female Wild Turkeys. There’s little doubt Turkey populations have exploded in the last 20 years (about the time I started birding), as I see them so much more often than I used to. They’ve also expanded the types of habitats they utilize. It used to be that I’d only run across Wild Turkeys along major riparian areas, or in the wooded state parks in the eastern part of the state. Now, I can be driving through cropland areas, and I’ll see small bands of Wild Turkeys hanging around small shelterbelts and farmsteads.

An underappreciated bird to me! So unique, and SO much fun to watch when they’re gobbling and carrying on. Here are some photos from this morning.

Wild Turkey - Meleagris gallopavo

Wild Turkey - Meleagris gallopavo

Wild Turkey - Meleagris gallopavo

Wild Turkey - Meleagris gallopavo

Wild Turkey - Meleagris gallopavo

PLEASE – Direct your S.Dakota “bounty” program anger to the right outlet!!

Kristi Noem - Architect of SDakota's Misguided Bounty Program

THIS WOMAN, Governor Kristi Noem, is responsible for implementation of South Dakota’s horrible, misguided predator control and “bounty” program. PLEASE folks, do NOT direct any anger or inquiries about the program to the Outdoor Campus. They were mandated from on high by our horrid governor to implement the bounty program. They have no choice in the matter. If you’re upset about the program, direct your attention to the governor’s office.

EDIT: ALSO READ THIS BLOG POST ABOUT THE REAL “VALUE” OF PREDATOR CONTROL PROGRAMS, and what South Dakota and Noem SHOULD be doing.

In several years of blogging, I have NEVER had a blog post receive as much immediate attention (and views) as the one from yesterday, regarding the South Dakota predator “bounty” program.  It’s come to my attention that there are petitions and other energies directed against the program.  That’s GREAT. However, please, please do not direct your anger at the Outdoor Campus itself, or the persons at the Outdoor Campus.  

The staff at the Outdoor Campus is, ironically, in a very similar position to what I and my colleagues (federal scientists) often feel like over the last 2+ years. We’re all dedicated to our mission. We believe with all our heart and soul in that mission. We believe we are HELPING people, and we take great pride and satisfaction in that work. But alas, politics plays an ugly role when you’re a government worker, and increasingly, that politics interferes with the public good, and with the ability for staff to do their jobs.

THIS is one of those situations. The Outdoor Campus didn’t ask for this. They were given a directive from on high to support this god-awful program. They were directed to be a collection point for people to bring in all their dead critters for bounty.  They have no choice in the matter, whether or not the believe in the program.  Because of that…

 PLEASE DO NOT DIRECT ANY INQUIRIES OR ANY ANGER TOWARDS THE OUTDOOR CAMPUS OR ITS STAFF. 

I greatly respect the vast majority of the work that is done by the Outdoor Campus and their staff. Frankly I don’t visit the Outdoor Campus nearly as much as I used to, and you know why? Because the place is usually CRAWLING with children. Weekdays with school field trips, weekends with kids and their families, the Outdoor Campus has become a beehive of activity in the heart of Sioux Falls. Given how disconnected kids generally are these days from the outdoors, I wholeheartedly support most of the work that they do.

And that is why it broke my heart to see how the bounty program has become a mandated part of the mission of the Outdoor Campus. I believe in most things the Outdoor Campus does. But I do not, can not, and will not support ANY kind of “predator control”, and this bounty program is about the worst implementation of such a program that I can imagine. SCIENCE SHOWS PREDATOR CONTROL DOESN’T WORK for the purpose of increasing critters people like to hunt.  Not only that, but the evidence shows it has all kinds of unintended consequences, including increases in rodents and other pests that result in MORE damage than what the predators themselves might be responsible for. It’s a misguided program, mandated from Kristi Noem and the state government.

AIM YOUR ANGER IN THAT DIRECTION. Give the Outdoor Campus folks a break, for they truly are dedicated to a mission of helping people connect with the outdoors.

I DARE you to name a state more ass-backwards than South Dakota

South Dakota Redneck Bounty Program

A small feel for what it’s like when you pull up to the Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls. They’ve brought in a trailer and dumped it next to a trail, and there are bright, obnoxious yellow signs EVERYWHERE touting the new South Dakota Redneck Bounty Program (my title). The Outdoor Campus was a great place for kids to learn about and appreciate the outdoors. Now when they come in, THIS is what first greets them. This is what breaks my heart, that with this program being mandated from on high, that kids coming into the Outdoor Campus will now associate the outdoors with a program that’s all about the exploitation and killing animals.

EDIT: NOTE — Read this related post! If you are upset about the bounty program like I am, direct your anger to the right outlet! That’s not the Outdoor Campus themselves! 

ALSO: READ HERE for what the evidence and experts say about predator control programs, and where your money is better spent.

With a long last couple of weeks that included a conference that went 5 days (including a Saturday and a Sunday), I had today off. With the latest storm-of-the-century winding down, I thought I’d head out and do a bit of birding, given that with fresh snow and ice, the birds were likely bunched up. I’ve seen some sparrow migrants at my feeders in the last day or two, including several Fox Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows.  Knowing sparrow migration can be spectacular here both in terms of number and species, I thought I’d try birding the Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls, given the feeder complexes and habitat that might attract migrants. They bill themselves as “South Dakota’s premiere outdoor skills education center”. They have a little pond, teach kids to fish and canoe, have displays about critters in the state, and have some nice trails to hike, all in the heart of Sioux Falls.

Over the years, I’ve helped out the Outdoor campus on occasion. They have an area with big windows looking out on the feeder complexes, and I’ve donated photos to hang in that room. I’ve given talks at there about birds, birding, and photography.  I’ve donated photos for other purposes. However, after today’s visit, the emotional side of me almost wants that cooperation to end. As I walked past photos of mine in the “bird room”, as I walked in the front DOOR and saw photos of mine advertising upcoming meetings, I frankly was tempted to rip them all down and bring them out with me.  Why?

Our “beloved” dim-witted new governor, Kristi Noem, unilaterally declared war on wildlife in the state. Despite the objections of HER OWN EXPERTS (sound familiar, Donald Trump?), she unilaterally directed Fish & Wildlife funds to go towards a new trapping and bounty program. Her brilliant theory? Sometimes critters will eat Ring-necked Pheasant eggs.  We can’t have that!  The fewer Ring-necked Pheasants we have, the fewer there will be for people to blast away at and kill!! So this “brilliant” woman established this program to trap and kill as many predators in the state as possible. Thinking it’s 1819, not 2019, she actually instituted a bounty on any creature she herself thought might occasionally snack on pheasant eggs.  The bounty includes pretty much any small and medium-sized predator in the state, including raccoon, opossum, skunk, coyote, red fox…etc…etc…etc.

Do you know how many Red Fox I’ve been fortunate enough to see in my 25+ years in South Dakota.  THREE. THREE RED FOX, in 25 freaking years. But evidently they’re a huge threat to pheasants and must be trapped, killed, and their tails must be brought in for reward.

So what do you see now when you go to this premiere educational center? They have a trailer parked outside, and a bunch of signs up touting the availability of traps, and noting where to go to bring your tails for your bounty.  That’s right…it’s 2019, and in the heart of Sioux Falls, we now have a bunch of signs up asking people to go out and kill animals, cut off the tails, and bring them in for a reward.  As this laughable piece touting the program notes, one of the state administrators of the program states this is a way to “get people outside, get them excited for the outdoors“.  Because nothing says “fun” like trapping creatures, then killing them and cutting off their tails.

Sportsmen themselves are appalled at this program. Kristi Noem was supposed to visit a monthly meting of The Black Hills Sportsmen’s Club, but Noem skipped the meeting when she found out the group was circulating material protesting the bounty program. As the Sportsmen’s Club points out, research shows trapping and killing small predators does nothing to actually increase pheasant populations. The Club also rightfully points out that the number one way to improve pheasant populations is to increase suitable habitat. Yet South Dakota currently is a hotbed for conversion of grasslands to cropland, and shelterbelts and other protective cover are being ripped out at an unprecedented pace to increase cultivated acreage. Instead of directing funds to improve habitat, as science states is the logical way to go, she instead chose an action that defies logic and the expertise of her own wildlife people.

I wish I could say this kind of thing is an isolated incident in South Dakota, but we’re known for our ass-backwardsness. Short-term thinking, small minds, and an outright HOSTILITY towards “experts”, science, logic, and truth…that’s pretty much the state logo.  I’ll leave it with a quite from the Dakota Free Press story linked above, regarding Noem’s cowardly refusal to meet with the Sportsmen’s Club.  And I will count the days until I retire and I can leave this state.

But start talking about science, and Governor Noem’s eyes glaze over. Disagree with her, and she turns her back. She’s more interested in crowning herself with more titles than actually solving problems.

Outdoor Campus Redneck Bounty Program

Another view with more signs about the bounty program. This is what breaks my heart. Because of this program mandated from Noem on down, this is now what people will see when they first arrive at the Outdoor Campus. This is what a kid visiting for the first time might associate with “the Outdoors”…that the whole reason it’s there is for exploitation…for killing. That’s what’s most upsetting about seeing this activity at the Outdoor Campus.

 

Winter’s Snow’s Take Flight

Winter's Snows Take Flight

When I can’t stand to open a paper or look at the news online (this week would be one of those weeks), retreating to the safe space of birds and nature is always a good idea. A revisiting of the daily haiku’s I used to do. Migration has actually been a slow and delayed by the harsh winter, but streams of geese were flying over one morning last week. Always one of the first signs of spring, and a VERY welcome sight after this past winter.

Eagle Convention at Splitrock Creek

After 17 or so years of using one lens for bird photography (a Canon 400mm 5.6L), I ordered a new lens that arrived Monday…the Canon 100-400mm 4.5/5.6L IS II that I’ve mentioned previously.  The timing was fortuitous, as late this week we’ve had something rather unprecedented happen for the area around our little town. We’ve had severe flooding, flooding which is actually supposed to get worse early next week as all the snow pack north of us melts. Splitrock Creek runs through our little town of Brandon, and in the wake of the flooding it has left massive ice chunks all along banks and roads near the river. But it also left scads of dead Asian Carp and other fish.

Seemingly overnight, the area around our town has been inundated with Bald Eagles. We actually have an active Bald Eagle nest less than a mile from our house, a nest that’s been used continuously for about the last 6-7 years.  It’s not rare to see one or sometimes even two Bald Eagles while out and about near our town. Today however, I was on a bridge over Splitrock Creek, and from that one spot I counted 29 Bald Eagles. In…one…spot.  There have been eagles in varying concentrations all along a 10-mile stretch of Splitrock Creek that I’ve checked out this week.

When I started birding 20 years ago, I still remember seeing my first Bald Eagle along the Big Sioux River near Canton. I remember the excitement of seeing such a majestic bird. It’s amazing how rapidly their numbers have increased in the last few decades, as I can now be in any part of South Dakota, in any season, and it’s not a surprise to see one or more Bald Eagles. Even when I visit the grasslands in the central part of the state, an area that is far from any significant river or lake, I find Bald Eagles, sometimes in big numbers. A true success story for American conservation!  But even on a night like tonight where eagles are seemingly everywhere, it’s still a thrill to see and photograph these birds.  Some photos from today:

Young Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Young (3rd year?) Bald Eagle, flying over Splitrock Creek near Corson, South Dakota. However, it’s not just young birds that are in our area right now. In fact, a majority of the Bald Eagles I’ve seen in the last few days have been fully mature birds.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A mature Bald Eagle flying over the trees near Brandon. There were plenty of mature Bald Eagles around, but they were seemingly shyer than the young birds.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Another young Bald Eagle sitting on a tree stump northeast of Corson. While most birds are along Splitrock Creek, there are so many birds around that they seem to have spilled out onto the surrounding farmland as well.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A mature Bald Eagle hanging out on a chunk of ice left behind by the flooding at Splitrock Creek north of Brandon. This is perhaps the most common “perch” for these guys right now, as most of them that I’ve seen have been among the ice flows, where the dead fish are concentrated.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A long-distance shot, but it gives you an idea of the concentration of the eagles. There are 10 in this one shot, sitting on stranded ice blocks on a sandbar in the receding Splitrock Creek. This is the location where I saw 29 birds at once today.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

An even longer-distance shot, showing a common sight in the trees near Splitrock Creek this week. There are 8 birds in this one tree, but it’s this group of trees where a local farmer told me there were 75 roosting overnight earlier this week.

Silver lining to the flooding – Icy Art

With a snowier winter than I ever remember in my 26 years in South Dakota, and with a couple of inches of rain over the last week, we’ve also had flooding far worse than I ever remember. The number of roads that are closed boggles the mind, while parts of Sioux Falls and the surrounding area where I have NEVER seen flooding are now flooded with several feet of water. Yesterday I went out to take photos of the flooding, and while it was incredible to see, I ended up on a gravel road east of my home town of Brandon, pointing the camera down at the ground. What was it that attracted my attention away from the flooding and flood damage?

As the water has started to retreat, there’s a massive amount of ice that’s being left behind, from massive chunks big enough to block traffic on roads, to very fine ice crystals that formed as temperatures cooled after the main flood event. What caught my attention on this road was an icy shelf of ice and ice crystals, suspended over the road. As the water started to retreat, we had a cold night, and the top of the water started to freeze. With the water movement and retreat and the freezing, some of the patterns left on this suspended ice shelf were incredibly beautiful.

I’m glad I arrived as I did, because as it got warmer, this icy shelf started to collapse. Indeed, as I walk through it, one step would crack through the shelf and lead to the collapse of surrounding areas as well. But with some careful shooting, I was able to capture the photos below. It definitely wasn’t what I was planning on shooting when I went out, but I really had a blast shooting these one-of-a-kind icy patterns.

Ice Pattern - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 2 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 3 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 4 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 5 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 6 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 7 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 8 - Minnehaha County, South DakotaIce Pattern - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 9 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 10 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 11 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 12 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

South Dakota Winter – Best…photo…day…ever!!

Since I’m still not allowed to go back to work, I spent yet another day birding in the central part of the state. It was a day with lower overall numbers of raptors. I saw far fewer Rough-legged Hawks than normal. I didn’t see any Gyrfalcons, Snowy Owls, Short-eared Owls…some of the “goodies” you often find.  But birding and photography is funny! I’ve had awesome birding days where I got very few photos. Today was the opposite…not huge numbers of birds, but some really wonderful photo opportunities.  Here’s some pics from the day with a little info for each:

Prairie Falcon - Falco mexicanus

While it wasn’t a banner day for many of the “usuals”, I saw more Prairie Falcons (7) than I remember seeing in one day. “Seeing” and “photographing” are two very different things, however. Prairie Falcons are about THE shyest, most skittery raptor I know of. Today however I got a real treat. While birding in Jones County, I saw a falcon on a telephone pole. As I always do, I first stopped a long distance off, grabbed the binoculars, and tried to identify it. Definite Prairie Falcon. I then started to approach, and as ALWAYS happens with Prairie Falcons…it flew off LONG before I got into camera range.  But then something funny happened…it turned around. Still not expecting much, I got out of the pickup and grabbed my camera. But he came closer…and closer…and closer, and I soon realized he was going to fly RIGHT over my head! I couldn’t have asked for a better setup…bird approaching on a clear day, sun in the perfect position to get nice lighting on him, and he was CLOSE…closer than I think I’ve ever been to a Prairie Falcon. He passed right overhead, and then proceeded to…well…check out the next photo.

Prairie Falcon and Lapland Longspurs

As the Prairie Falcon flew towards me and over the field behind me, there was an eruption of Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks, and quite a few Snow Buntings. THAT got the Prairie Falcon’s attention. Instead of continuing to fly past and away from me, he again turned, and started to interact with the mixed flock of birds. At points it was almost like he was herding them! He never came as close as he did for the original overpass, but he offered some more really nice photo opportunities, and with several shots I captured some of his potential prey in the background. Despite scaring the flock of little birds, I never did see him actually make a strong move towards one. After a little while he seemed to get bored, and went back to a nearby telephone pole.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

I remember when I first started birding, and came across my first bald eagle. It was the winter of 1999/2000, and I thought it was the most magical experience I’d ever had! In the 20 years since then, Bald Eagles have become, well…downright COMMON! When I bird the central part of the state in winter, I always run across them. There are several nest locations in the area, and I always KNOW there will be Bald Eagles in a few select spots. One such spot is near Presho, and when I drove past it, sure enough…there were 4 Bald Eagles in a small grove of trees, 3 adults and one sub-adult. Given how often I’ve seen eagles there, I’m sure they’re the same ones, or the same family. As such, perhaps today they gave me a pass and stuck around and let me photograph them! Three of the birds were hidden within the branches or were towards the back of the grove, but one bold individual adult just stared at me from his perch, wondering what I was up to. I watched him for quite some time, before he did what many raptors do right before they’re about to take flight…he pooped and positioned himself to fly off. Those can be truly wonderful moments for photography, with some truly angelic poses. This is now probably one of my favorite Bald Eagle photos that I’ve taken (and I will add it to the hundreds of other Bald Eagle photos I already have!).

Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis

Not only did I have a banner day for Prairie Falcons, but I also saw more Ferruginous Hawks than I normally do…5. 4 of them were in Jones County, and the reason was obvious…Prairie Dogs. Without exception, all 5 Ferruginous Hawks on the day were in and around prairie dog towns. I do have a few photos of other color morphs, but today all were the same light color morph (the most common one). Some, like this bird, are SO snowy white on their undersides with barely a hint of marking, that I sometimes mistake them for Snowy Owls as I approach from a distance! One of my favorite bird species, hands down, and there’s a bonus with Ferruginous Hawks…they are MUCH more cooperative for bird photographers than nearly any other raptor species on the grasslands!

Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis

My longest birding lens, and the lens with which I’ve shot at least 95% of my photos with over the last 15 years, is a Canon 400mm 5.6L. Yes, it’s now 15 years old. But it has always been one SHARP lens, with some incredible detail when you get a bird filling the frame of a photo. The downside…most birders use a 500mm or 600mm, WITH a tele-extender. In short…they have a LOT more “reach” than I have! Because of that I’ve 1) learned how to overcome using a somewhat shorter lens, and 2) learned to accept I’m going to miss some shots where more length is required. However, that latter point is all bad. While I like photos with the birds filling the frame, I also like photos showing the bird interacting with its environment. Here, I came across another Ferruginous Hawk on a prairie dog town. I was nowhere near close enough to get a frame-filling photo, so instead worked on capturing his behavior as he “worked” the prairie dog town, alternating between sitting on the ground or a fence post, and flying through the prairie dog town looking for prey. I never did see him capture anything but it was fun to watch the behavior and try to catch it in a photo.

Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos

Speaking of “environment” photos…here’s a pair of Golden Eagles at the “usual” hangout. By “usual” I should say nearly ALWAYS. This was taken south of Presho, in one of my favorite birding locations. This fallen down structure nearly always…ALWAYS…has a golden eagle sitting on it! Well, during winter and in the morning, that is. When I make trips to this area, I usually try to make it to the Presho area by dawn, and this is one of the first areas I look for raptors. And I swear, 95% of the time when I drive past this fallen-down structure, there’s a golden eagle sitting on it. Today there were two eagles! This kind of winter-range site fidelity is pretty cool, and it’s not just these Golden Eagles. About 5 miles northwest of here, west of Presho, is a farmstead where I ALWAYS find a Northern Shrike in winter. ALWAYS. Has to be the same one, right? Again, not a frame filler of a photo, but I love showing these birds at their favorite hangout.

Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus

Ok, this one is cheating a bit. This one isn’t from Wednesday, January 9th, it’s from Friday, January 4th. Rough-legged Hawks aren’t as numerous this winter as they can be many winters, but there still are always at least a few hanging around. Here’s one taking flight in the early morning sunlight.

 

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