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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.

 

Birding > Bird photos? Or vice versa?

My start in both birding and photograph began in December of 2000.  I bought my first SLR camera, and was excited to go out and use it. I headed out on a cold, snowy day, looking for…something…to photograph, when I came across some Canada Geese around the small unfrozen edge of a local quarry.  From the start, birds were my most common photographic subject.  Soon, they were nearly my ONLY photographic subject.

While I loved shooting birds, for many years, my primary focus when going out was getting photos.  Seeing birds was certainly wonderful as well, but I tended to measure success of a trip in terms of how many “keeper” photos I got.  Even if I saw a rare bird, I was often disappointed when I was unable to get a photo of it.

Fast forward 18 years. I have photos for most species you could reasonably expect to see in South Dakota. I have photos for many species you would NOT normally expect in South Dakota. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve reached my saturation point for photos for many species, but in the last 3 or 4 years, things have changed. I was a photographer first, birder second.  Now, I’m definitely a birder first, photographer second.  I spend MUCH more time using my binoculars, scanning that far away bird to see if it’s a rarity.  In the past, I often ignored far away birds, as I knew I couldn’t get a good photo.  I think that’s what’s so nice about valuing BOTH the birds themselves, and the photography aspect.  When you go out on a trip, you’re rarely disappointed.

Here’s a few recent photos…

Yellow Warbler - Setophaga petechia

A curious Yellow Warbler. It’s been a very slow spring so far for migrating warblers, but as always, there’s never a shortage of Yellow Warblers around.

Harris's Sparrow - Zonotrichia querula

One of my favorite species, a Harris’s Sparrow. They are actually relatively easy to find here during migration.

Blue-winged Warbler - Vermivora cyanoptera

A Blue-winged Warbler, a rarity in South Dakota. However, there’s one specific spot of Newton Hills State Park where one or two breeding pairs are almost always found.

Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis

I have a billion Northern Cardinal Photos. However, when you get an opportunity for these guys, even if it’s a relatively long-distance opportunity such as this one, you can’t pass it up! I’m starting to really appreciate shots like this, or other shots where the bird is smaller in the frame. That’s particularly the case if I’m able to show a lot of their natural habitat in the frame. Here, I just like the simple composition, the pose of the bird, the warm light, and that beautiful blue sky.

American Golden Plover! (Photographic) Lifer!

A new lifer!  Oh, I’ve seen American Golden Plovers. There have been a number of springs where I’ve looked out in a muddy field or the edge of a wet area, and have seen them.  However, they’d definitely fall under the category of “photographic nemesis” bird, in that I’ve never gotten anything close to a “satisfying” photo.

Yesterday wasn’t exactly a day where I’d have expected any halfway decent photos.  It was rainy, gloomy, and a bit windy…not exactly great birding weather, much less photo weather.  The rain changed my plans though, and it’s because of that I ran into a small flock of American Golden Plovers foraging in a flooded field. Perhaps it was BECAUSE of the somber, gloomy day, but they let me get uncharacteristically close.  With the lighting these photos aren’t exactly going to win any prizes, but when you’ve been shooting birds for almost 20 years, ANY time you get a new “photographic lifer”, it’s a good day!American Golden Plover - Pluvialis dominica

American Golden Plover - Pluvialis dominica

Oriole-palooza! Oriole Fest! Oriolextravaganza!!

One of my favorite things about Spring is the COLOR. After a winter of gloomy, dark, snowy days, a winter where (as always) your South Dakota backyard birdlife is dominated by the plainly colored Dark-eyed Junco, it’s so nice to have a splash of color in your backyard as songbirds begin to return. In my yard in the Spring, that splash of color has always been dominated by male American Goldfinches that have returned to their bright yellow plumage, or the handful of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks that come to our feeders.

We also are used to a splash of orange in the Spring as a Baltimore Oriole may periodically visit the yard. I have a jelly and orange feeder that attracts them, although they lose interest once nesting begins in earnest. I honestly don’t remember having more than one Baltimore Oriole in my yard at one time, and I’ve never had Orchard Orioles. That’s changed!  I have been completely INUNDATED with Orioles this spring!  At one point Friday, I counted FIFTEEN Orioles in the back yard, with 6 Baltimore Orioles fighting around the orange/jelly feeder, 6 more moving around in the flowering pear and cherry trees along the back fence, and 3 Orchard Orioles doing the same!

We’ve had a very cool, wet spring, and the vegetation and flowers are behind where they normally are this time of year. I’m not sure if that’s the cause of the explosion in Orioles in my yard, but I DO know they’re going through grape jelly like there’s no tomorrow!  We’re talking a full TWO POUND jar of grape jelly per day!  Every time I go back to the feeder to check, it’s empty!

It’s a sight the likes I’ve never seen.  Not just in my yard, but I’ve never seen so many Orioles in one place, anywhere.  A wonderful Spring treat! Some photos of the visitors:

Baltimore Oriole - Icterus galbula

Orchard Oriole - Icterus spurius

Baltimore Oriole - Icterus galbula

Baltimore Oriole - Icterus galbula

Baltimore Oriole - Icterus galbula

Baltimore Oriole - Icterus galbula

Orchard Oriole -Icterus spurius

Baltimore Oriole - Icterus galbula

Baltimore Oriole - Icterus galbula

Spring busting out in birds

It’s been a damned cold spring. There’s no denying that.  As I speak, it’s snowing to beat the band…on April 8th…and we’re supposed to end up with about 5 more inches.  It’s been a winter of MANY 3-6 inch snows, and winter doesn’t seem to want to give up its grip just yet. But the birds are putting their two cents in and saying they will NOT be deterred.

I went out west of Sioux Falls last night, on a kind of a day that’s been rare around here lately…sunny, and no wind (but still pretty cold).  Even now, most of the big lakes are still frozen over, as are many of the small ones. Water is starting to open up, and the waterfowl are really starting to stack up as they await warmer conditions (and more open water up north) to allow their continued migration.  There are still geese around by thousands.  I had a blast at one location last night, watching as flocks of Snow, Greater White-fronted, Canada, and some Ross’s Geese would intermittently land or take off from a group of geese resting by a large slough. Ducks were on pretty much every available patch of open water, with some spots having incredible concentrations of Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks, as well as pretty much every other duck species you could ever expect to find here.

A highlight came late in the evening when I came across a Great Horned Owl perched in the relative open (for a Great Horned Owl). He was quite unconcerned by the guy with the camera, giving me some of the best looks and photos I’ve had of the species.  As the snow and wind lash us again today, it was also a nice reminder that spring IS here and better weather is ahead!

Great Horned Owl - Bubo virginianus

A quite tame Great Horned Owl, casually giving me a glance as he prepares in the late evening for a night of hunting.

Greater White-fronted Goose - Anser albifrons

The most numerous goose species were Greater White-fronted, of which I came across several thousand during the course of the evening.

Common Merganser - Mergus merganser

A female Common Merganser, sitting at one of the open spots in the ice and occasionally making a dive in search of food. Always loved the “haircut” on the females.

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

One sure sign of spring here is when you seemingly see Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels on every every telephone pole. Plenty of both last night, including this dude giving me a staredown.

Canada Goose - Branta canadensis

Another sure sign of spring…when the ever present Canada Geese are vastly outnumbered by other geese species.

Snow Goose - Chen caerulescens

Still plenty of Snow Geese around. Starting to get a little late to have them stacked up in such huge numbers, but the weather hasn’t been too cooperative.

 

Birding the April Migration in South Dakota

The day started off rather gloomy and wet, but after being on travel far too much lately and not getting a chance to bird, I was determined to head out today no matter what the weather was doing.  I birded about 4 hours, staying primarily around Sioux Falls and Minnehaha County, and ended up having a great day. It’s clearly not peak migration yet for shorebirds, but they are starting to show up.  Numbers were generally small in most places, but there was a pretty decent variety.  Here are some photos from the day, many of which are “first-of-year” sightings for me.  Click on the photos for an even higher-resolution version.

White-faced Ibis - Plegadis chihi

White-faced Ibis are a species that I don’t see all that often, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen them in Minnehaha County. There were 19 foraging in a flooded field west of Sioux Falls.

Swainson's Hawk - Buteo swainsoni

Another first-of-year, a Swainson’s Hawk soaring overhead when the sun came out this afternoon. I ended up seeing several Swainson’s Hawks for the day.

Franklin's Gull - Leucophaeus pipixcan

Franklin’s Gulls are one of my favorite spring migrants…they’re so beautiful when they have the blush of pink on their undersides. This wasn’t a first-of-year sighting, as I saw a few in the last couple of weeks. However, they’re really starting to come through in big numbers right now. This was right on the edge of Sioux Falls, at Harmodan Park on the southeast side of town.

Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs - Comparison

By far the most common shorebird today were Lesser Yellowlegs, with a few Greater Yellowlegs mixed in. Here’s a nice comparison shot of the two. It’s pretty evident when they’re side-by-side, but not always so easy when a lone bird is spotted.

Great Egret - Ardea alba

I have a billion Great Egret photos. But whenever I come across this beautiful bird, I can’t help but take yet another…

Headed back north! Geese migration

Wow…And I thought the goose migration was incredible a few weeks ago when it started. Then came the cold weather, all the lakes froze over again, and they…disappeared.

Evidently many either stayed down south or moved back down south for a while, because with the warmer weather today, the migration has been incredible. I’m working at home, sitting in my 2nd floor office, looking out the open window, and for over 2 HOURS now, it’s been a constant stream of geese moving north. Snow Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, and Canada Geese. Spring has sprung! And hopefully this time, it sticks!

Breaking out of my photo doldrums – Snow Goose migration

I am in a major photographic funk.  We’re talking an industrial-strength photo drought, a big-league slump, a unlucky spell of biblical proportions. For a guy who loves bird photography, I can’t for the life of me get a photo of anything with feathers lately.  It’s been a season-long slump, lasting all winter long. The most recent failure was this weekend, where I managed to fail twice to bring home a single bird photo.  Saturday, I drove all the way to the central part of the state to look for lingering winter raptors.  I did what I normally do when I go to the central part of the state…I got up 3 hours before dawn so I could arrive right when the sun was coming up.  The sun did indeed come up.  I guess that’s good.  But it revealed a landscape utterly devoid of the raptors that are usually found there by the dozen.  It’s late in the season, and I didn’t expect December/January numbers of raptors.  But I didn’t expect nearly ALL the raptors to have left already.

I cut Saturday’s trip short, and decided to just drive back after a couple of hours of fruitless raptor searching.  On the way back, on an incredibly windy day, I saw thousands upon thousands of waterfowl migrating overhead.  Nothing I could photograph mind you…they were all high in the sky, but there were certainly huge numbers of birds. Encouraged by the sight, I thought the next day I’d head out just around Sioux Falls, to look for waterfowl.  What did I find?  Mostly frozen water, very few birds, and not a single photo opportunity.

THIS has been my winter!  I have never had so much time pass, with so few bird photos!! Even my winter passion, searching for owls, turned out to be a bust. MANY hours busting through brush looking for Northern Saw-whet Owls, and while I did catch a glimpse of one, I had nothing close to a photo opportunity.  No Long-eared Owls, a species I often run across while looking for Saw-whets.  No Short-eared Owls during my trips to the grassy areas of the state, a species I often find in winter.  No Snowy Owls…just not a great winter for them, not many reported around most of South Dakota.  Even freakin’ DARK-EYED JUNCOS, possibly THE MOST COMMON CREATURE ON THE PLANET (well, sometimes seems like that here in winter) were almost completely absent from my feeders all winter!!

After a freakishly warm few days earlier this week, most of the lakes have finally opened up, and given all the waterfowl I saw migrating through over the weekend, I thought surely the local lakes and ponds would have good numbers of waterfowl now.  After work today, I rushed home to grab my camera, and headed to the western part of Minnehaha County to canvas all the wetlands and lakes in the area.

The good news? The water was indeed open in most spots!  There were THOUSANDS upon THOUSANDS of Snow Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese migrating overhead, their squawking filling the air.  But at ground level, in the open water?  Nada.  Zip.  Zilch.  At least in most places.  I did find a couple of spots with some waterfowl, nearly all dabbling ducks. Nearly all were Mallards and Northern Pintails, with a few Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, and American Wigeon.  But even in the couple of spots where I found SOME ducks, they were having NOTHING to do with my camera.  I guess I did get a “bird photo”, if you can count a blurry, long-distance, out-of-focus shot of a boring Mallard.  But good LORD it has been a LONG time since I’ve gotten a good bird photo, something worthy of posting online.

In lieu of any good bird photos, I did grab my iPhone and shot a bit of video of the Snow Geese passing overhead (video above).  This really doesn’t do justice to the number of birds moving overhead, because at one point, there was seemingly a continuous band of birds from the southern horizon to the northern horizon, moving overhead in a steady stream.  A wonderful, incredible sight to see, and something I look forward to every spring around here.

Now if only ONE of those high-flying migrants could be kind enough to actually drop down to earth for a photo session? Sigh…for now…the slump continues.

Spring Has Sprung! It’s February 22nd!

Snow Goose Migration

Snow Geese migrating through the area. We started seeing Snow Geese in small numbers over 10 days ago. Starting in the latter half of last week, huge flocks started moving through. Just a few days after Valentine’s Day, when normal HIGH temperatures should be around freezing, and we’ve got a major migration going on. That’s not the only sign of an early spring…or of global warming.

Ignore for a moment the forecast.  We’re supposed to get hammered with snow tomorrow, with a full-fledged blizzard watch.  We’re likely to get a foot, and possibly more, over a 24 hour period starting tomorrow.  It’s not supposed to get very cold though, with high temperatures of close to 30…very close to “normal” for this time of year.  Disregarding what’s likely to happen tomorrow though, it’s been anything BUT a “normal” winter in South Dakota.

Right before Valentine’s Day, people started noticing small groups of geese passing overhead.  We can get truly massive flocks of Snow Geese that move through in the spring, and we also get large flocks of migrating Canada Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese.  What’s NOT normal is to start seeing the goose migration in mid-February!  With incredibly warm weather in February (It was over 70 degrees in Sioux Falls yesterday, and nearly 65 today, more than 30 degrees above normal!!), the trickle of migrating geese has become a torrent, with truly massive flocks of birds moving through the area.  Normally at this time of year, I’m hunkered down in the cold, with my local birding restricted to the few Dark-eyed Juncos, Downy Woodpeckers, or American Goldfinches that might visit my feeders.  This year I’m already enjoying the sights and sounds of thousands upon thousands of VERY early migrants.

The warm weather and the migrating geese aren’t the only signs of an incredibly early “spring”.  Given that my livelihood is based on the use of satellite imagery for mapping, monitoring, and ultimately predicting what’s going to happen on the earth’s surface, I follow a lot of other similar work, including data provided by the National Phenology Network.  “Phenology” is “the study of cyclic and seasonal phenomenon”, and the National Phenology Network examines plant and animal phenology and how it relates to the environment.  From a vegetation standpoint, we can  use satellite imagery to assess the phenology of growing vegetation, tracking the timing of spring “green-up”, peak vegetation activity in the summer, and the senescence/browning of vegetation in the fall.

The National Phenology Network produces a data product called the “Spring Leaf Index Anomaly”.  The measure compares satellite-based measurements of spring “green-up” of vegetation compared to the historical green-up across the United States. The latest update was a map of conditions released today, as shown here:

National Phenology Network - Spring Leaf Index Anomaly

The “Spring Leaf Index Anomaly” released today. Vegetation is already greening up as far north as Kansas City, a rate that is over 3 weeks ahead of when things normally start to green up. It’s such an anomalous, warm late winter so far that the legend is going to need some revising!!

We’re SO early in terms of vegetation green-up that we’re literally off the scale!  The legend for the Spring Leaf Index Anomaly shows how early or late spring green up is compared to historical, but only goes out to a 20-day departure from normal.  We are almost a full MONTH ahead of schedule for many parts of the U.S.

Warm weather, migrating geese, vegetation green-up from satellite imagery…it doesn’t stop there!  Daffodils are coming up around Sioux Falls!  In FEBRUARY!  Talking with colleagues from the east coast, daffodils and tulips started coming up a few weeks ago already!  We’ve still got plenty of porous, honeycombed ice on many of the lakes around here, but there’s quite a bit of open water, particularly with all the rivers and streams now unfrozen.

I’m still baffled how any rational human being can choose not to believe that climate change is occurring.  Even for the right-wing nut jobs who have long denounced climate change as some kind of incredibly elaborate, world-wide hoax that evidently involves all scientists on the planet, there’s been increased recognition that something is happening.  Well…duh!! Those same climate-change deniers have increasingly accepted that climate change is occurring, but refuse to believe that human beings that are the cause.

As a scientist, at this stage…frankly I don’t CARE if people believe we’re the cause.  The ship has already sailed…we’re already FAR down the path to severe climate change, given that we’re now over 400 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  There’s just no concerted, global, political, social, or MORAL will to make the sacrifices necessary to slow down climate change, so at this stage…SCREW the cause of climate change.  It’s HERE.  It’s HAPPENING.

If I could say one thing to the politicians who don’t want to acknowledge our role in changing the climate…AT LEAST SUPPORT ACTIVITIES THAT MONITOR CLIMATE CHANGE, and HELP US TO ADAPT TO WHAT’S COMING.  REGARDLESS of what you think is causing climate change, CLEARLY IT IS HERE.  The environment around is, the creatures within that environment, are necessarily adapting to the rapidly changing conditions.

The million dollar question is now if we can do the same.

Unexpected Visitor!

Pine Siskin - North American Range Map

This is a range map for the Pine Siskin. The closest they’re supposed to be to here this time of year would be northern Minnesota or the Black Hills.

My office has been under construction for nearly 2 months now, and my temporary office is, uh…not ideal.  It’s an open cube, shared with 2 other people, 6 feet from the bathroom doors.  Lovely…and hard to work when you’re used to your own office with a door you can shut.  Because of that, I’ve been working at home most of the time.

I had an unexpected surprise today while working at home.  I went into the kitchen to get a drink, looked out the patio doors at the thistle (niger) feeder, and saw a Pine Siskin.  June 2nd?  A Pine Siskin in southeast South Dakota?  It wasn’t even something on my radar, so I had to do a double take, and check it out at close range just to be sure.  Pine Siskins are something you’d only expect in the winter around here, and even though they can be pretty locally common, I rarely get them at my feeders.

The map above shows the supposed range for a Pine Siskin.  Strange!  A nice surprise, and actually after checking my eBird list for the year, I hadn’t seen one yet this year. June 2nd…not the date I’d expect to see my first Pine Siskin here!

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