Articles

Passing 200…

Bell's Vireo - Vireo bellii

A singing Bell’s Vireo, the bird that put me to 200 species for South Dakota so far in 2015.

In my not-so-big-state-year, where I’m actually keeping track of how many species I see in South Dakota, I had been stuck at 196 for a few weeks.  Vacation, and no time to bird, will do that!  Also the migrants are all through, and we’re left with the “normal” summer birds, most of which I’d seen in my part of the state.

The answer to get the ball rolling again?  Go to a different part of the state. I did a day trip to the central part of the state this weekend, and was able to find several species you’re just not likely to find around Sioux Falls.  The total is now up to 202!  The Bell’s Vireo photo at the top is what put me to 200.  Other “new” ones for the year were Lark Bunting, Burrowing Owl, Caspian Tern, and, surprisingly, Swainson’s Hawk.  Surprising, because I was sure I’d seen at least one this year, but found I hadn’t when I recorded one in eBird.

Sometime this summer I’ll have to plan on a trip to the Black Hills and/or far northwestern part of the state, to add species you’re not likely to find elsewhere in the state.

South Dakota Big Year (Kind of…)

Sora - Porzana Carolina

Sora, one that’s not hard to “count” around here if you go by sound. It’s another matter to see one, much less get a good photo. This is from late April.

I’ve never been a huge “lister”, at least in the formal sense. I know what birds I’ve seen, but I really haven’t ever kept a written list anywhere. Photos? Yeah, I definitely know how many bird species I have photos of. I keep a spreadsheet to organize my photos, with species, date, and location. I have photos for 415 species, all in North America (I haven’t traveled outside of North America during my time birding).

For species I’ve actually seen? I have a rough guess of around 480, just based on the number of of species photos I have. The problem is that I’ve never kept track of species that I’ve seen, but not photographed! Hooded Warbler? Check! Baikal Teal? Check! Even something as common in South Dakota as a Prairie Chicken? Check! I’ve seen them all, but have no photos.

If eBird would have existed when I started birding 15 years ago, I would definitely have an exact count. I’m not just talking my lifetime bird list, I’m talking my “South Dakota List”, my “Minnehaha County List”, my “2008 List”, etc. It’s a wonderful tool for not only contributing to ornithology studies, but also for listing. Since I really started using eBird a couple of years ago, I’ve entered 419 species, including 277 in South Dakota.

One of the interesting aspects of eBird is that you can get your “ranking”, in comparison to other birders in your area. I can see who has the most sightings in South Dakota, in my county, in the U.S. as a whole, or even who has the most “yard birds” in their life. It’s pure genius to me that Cornell includes these features in eBird. Given how (annoyingly sometimes!) competitive birders can be, seeing how you rank against others in your area is a good way to spur more eBird sightings!

This year I decided I would track how many species I see in South Dakota, for several reasons. First, I’ve never done it, and was curious how many the number might be in one year. Secondly, if you’ve birded for a while, seeing your 1,987th Common Nighthawk may not be that exciting, but I admit it IS satisfying to mentally and physically cross it off your list for the year, the first time you see one.

Ovenbird - Seiurus aurocapilla

A species that screams SPRING to me, an Ovenbird. So nice to hear them singing when they arrive in May. Another you normally hear before you see it. Ovenbird was around bird #160 for the year.

It’s May 26th, and the count for the year is (drumroll please…) 193 species seen in South Dakota. That’s many more than I thought I’d have seen by this date.  If you include every rarity ever seen in South Dakota, even if there’s only one recorded instance, there are about 435 “South Dakota species”.  Recording 193 of them in less than 5 months seems pretty good to me, particularly since I haven’t traveled at all in the western part of the state, where many species can be found that can’t be found in the eastern half of South Dakota.  It’s also good from the standpoint that I haven’t seen much in the way of “mega rarities”, which means I’ve seen a good majority of the species you’d expect to see over the course of the year.

The downside?  Well, if you’d have asked me on January 1st whether I’d take 193 species by May 26th, I’d have definitely said yes!  However, 193 puts me in a mere SEVENTH place in South Dakota right now!  SEVENTH!!! The highest totals right now are around 220 species.  Does that bother me? I admit it kind of does!  I have REALLY birded much more this spring than in the past several years, and thought I was doing pretty good!  Evidently there are even kookier bird nuts out there than me!!

CURSE YOU eBIRD, for bringing to light my birding inadequacies!!! If it weren’t for eBird, I’d be quite merry with my 193 total!!

Photographing a non-existent bird

Photo of Blue-winged Warbler - Vermivora cyanoptera

A Blue-winged Warbler seen at Newton Hills State Park in South Dakota. Most sources would consider it to be very rare for the area, or an out-of-range vagrant. Thanks to “citizen scientists”, I think our understanding of bird distributions is going to be much improved in the coming years.

I visited Newton Hills State Park this week.  It’s a wonderful place to bird, and rarely fails to produce some interesting birds, particularly given that its an oasis of forest in a vast plain of corn and soybeans.  While walking along a path I heard what is now a familiar song, a buzzy quiet song that sometimes sounds like half insect, half bird.  Soon the source the song popped up on the top of a nearby cedar…a Blue-winged Warbler.  I was able to take quite a few decent photos of him before I moved on to find other quarry.

What’s always interesting about that spot in Newton Hills, and that species, is that they’re generally assumed NOT to be there.  Oh, among local birders, that particular spot is well known as “the”  place to find a Blue-winged Warbler in South Dakota.  However, if you look at field guides or other sources of bird information that provide range maps, southeastern South Dakota is either on the very extreme edge of the Blue-winged Warbler’s range, or it’s outside their normal breeding range.  Despite that, most years you can find a couple of pairs of Blue-winged Warblers breeding in this corner of Newton Hills State Park.

As always, I recorded the Blue-winged Warbler sighting in eBird, along with all the other birds I saw on that day.  If you’re not an eBird user, when you report a “rare” or unusual bird, the software flags it, and makes you enter a bit a detail about the sighting.  To further verify the identification, you can upload a photo that you may have taken of the bird.  EBird flagged Blue-winged Warbler as rare and unusual for the area, so I added a blurb about the very clear sighting, and also later uploaded a photo to accompany the report.

I’m in the habit now of entering eBird sightings most of the time when I go birding, but I’m still surprised sometimes when eBird flags a sighting as rare and unusual.  It does make you realize how incomplete our understanding is for even the most basic of characteristics of a given bird species…where they can be found.  There have been a number of times where I’ve casually entered a species in eBird, and have been surprised when eBird has flagged it as rare for the area.  Many times, it’s a species I’ve found in that area quite consistently.

I’ve brought up eBird here before, but as I photographed and reported what many sources consider to be a “non-existent” species for this part of the country, it does make you realize the power of “citizen science” and what a massive database such as eBird can do to improve our understanding of bird species distributions, migration timing, etc.

F***ing, Fat, Fake Nature Lovin’ Campers – FFFNLCs

Vegetation removal at Big Sioux Rec Area - 2013 to 2015

Big Sioux Rec Area campground – 2 years ago, and today. All shrubs and trees anywhere close to the road removed, any remaining trees trimmed way up. Can’t have any scratches on those $125,000 RVs!!!

We live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a state park here in South Dakota.  It’s a riparian area along the Big Sioux River, with many very large cottonwoods and burr oaks, among other trees.  We’ve lived in Brandon for over 20 years now, and I’ve always enjoyed the park, including the birds found within.  That enjoyment is becoming less and less as time goes by.

There’s a definite pecking order in terms of what passes for “recreation” in South Dakota.  Birds and birding, and wildlife in general, seems to be very far down that list.  “Parks and Rec” often seems to mean accommodating a few select recreational uses of public land.  Hunting definitely tops the list.  What else would you think when you get to your favorite  South Dakota State Park, and are immediately greeted with a sign that says “Warning – Hunting Season in Progress”?  Nothing says rest and relaxation more than walking a beautiful path, looking for birds, all the time with a wary eye for any trigger happy hunter that may be targeting something in your general vicinity.

Accommodating campers seems to be the second highest priority.  The Big Sioux Recreation Area has always had camping spots, but until recently, they’d been wonderfully vegetated.  There are two loops with camping spots, loops that USED to be lined with cedar trees and other vegetation.  They were wonderful for birding. The deciduous trees and shrubs around the camping sites themselves were sometimes spectacular for warblers and other migrants in the spring.  The thick cover offered by the cedars and surrounding bushes always attracted birds.  A few years ago on a beautiful November day, as my son and I walked through the park, we were surprised by 15 or more Long-eared Owls that were roosting in the evergreens.  They were incredibly tame, allowing close approach.  People came from all around the area to see this unique circumstance, a group of tame, easily seen Long-eared owls that had chosen the Big Sioux Rec Area camping loops as their winter roosting spot.

Long-eared Owl - Asio otus

From 2007, a Long-eared Owl perched in trees in the campground at the Big Sioux Recreation Area. Those trees and any other vegetation in the vicinity are GONE, largely to make way for today’s generation of Fat Fake Nature Lovin’ Campers.

Last summer, the park began removing trees and shrubs.  Ostensibly, part of the reason was due to what’s become an all out war on Eastern Red Cedar by parks in the state.  However, one of the directly stated reasons for the move?  All the increasingly large campers that use the Big Sioux Rec Area were having a difficult time backing into some of the camping spots.  Those cedar trees that held all the Long-eared Owls?  They are ALL gone.  All the bushes and other vegetation that used to line the roads of the camping loops?  Gone.  What was once a wonderful habitat for birds is now a habitat for…FFNLCs.

What is a FFNLC, you ask? My very blunt term for “Fat Fake Nature Lovin’ Campers”.  Frankly, I usually put another “F” in front of the term, and you can imagine what that stands for.  DEFINITE “Fake nature lovers”, given what passes for “camping” at the Big Sioux Recreation Area.  Last night, I was walking through the park and passed a MASSIVE RV that has been parked in the same spot all week. Despite being there for several days, I had yet to actually see someone OUTSIDE, until last night.  Last night, there was a definite FFNLC, “roughing it” in the park.  This FFNLC was massive on a grand scale, just as was her RV!  And just as massive was the huge flatscreen TV she watching in the “wild” of the park.  The RV had a panel on the outside that opened to reveal this massive flatscreen TV. This FFNLC was sitting in a lawn chair with a huge bowl of chips(?), munching away with the volume turned ALL the way up so the rest of the park could also enjoy her viewing of American Idol.

NOTHING says “Nature” more than sitting in a lawn chair, with your satellite TV hooked up, watching a giant screen and speakers belting out American Idol.  And now you see why I usually add another “F” in front of FFNLC.  Even if there WERE a bird in the general vicinity of the VERY fat FFNLC, there’s no way I could have heard it over her TV.

Fox Sparrow photo - Big Sioux Rec Area

Fox Sparrow, taken in the campground loop at Big Sioux Rec Area. Alas, this spruce tree, like EVERY spruce and cedar tree in that loop, is now gone.

I don’t want to be mean about the “fat” part of FFNLC, but…c’mon, it fits SO well for FFNLCs.  This weekend, on a GORGEOUS afternoon, I took a walk through the park with my pups.  There’s a nice, long, paved bike/walking trail through the park that we like to take the pups on.  Beautiful day…many campers at the park…gorgeous trail…and for the 1 1/2 mile walk, do you know how many people I came across on the trail?  ONE.  ONE!!!  But yet you got back to the campground area itself, and there were certainly plenty of FAT FFNLC’s “roughing” it.  “Roughing it” nowadays evidently means never moving more than 15 feet from the vicinity of your massive, air conditioned, satellite TV equipped, more-comfortable-than-most-peoples-houses, 40-foot RV.  TAKE A FREAKIN’ WALK, FFNLCs.  TRY TURNING OFF THE TV and actually enjoying the park itself.

There’s obviously no going back.  My very birdy camping loops are no more, and it’s not going to change.  EVERY change the State Parks make around here end up REMOVING habitat, and putting in MORE camping stalls.  I guess I should enjoy what habitat remains in the Big Sioux Recreation Area, because its inevitable that any bird habitat presently found there is only going to be reduced even further as time goes by.

A “birdy” kind o’ day…

Ovenbird - Seiurus aurocapilla

Ovenbird, one of many I heard and saw today at Newton Hills State Park.

The weather wasn’t great this morning.  Cool, overcast, and drizzling every once in a while.  The options for such a Friday in May…go to work, or take the day off despite the weather and go birding all day.

Of course option B was chosen.  May is such an incredible time to bird here, with all the migrants moving through and the summer songbirds arriving.  I spent most of the day at Newton Hills State Park, a gem of a place in Lincoln County, South Dakota.  It’s got wonderful forest habitat reminiscent of forests of the Eastern U.S., right here on the (mostly) plains of South Dakota.  With an “eastern forest” comes “eastern birds”.  Newton Hills is often one of the very few places where you can find some species of forest birds in the state.

At this time of year, the summer breeding residents are arriving and singing their hearts out.  One of my favorite species was one of the first birds I heard when I arrived this morning, an Ovenbird singing his little heart out from the top of a fence post.  Newton Hills is the most reliable spot I know of to find these guys both in the spring, and during the summer breeding season.  I saw several Indigo Buntings flitting through the big Burr Oak trees, providing momentary glimpses of a shocking brilliant blue that you just don’t expect to see flitting through the forest canopy.  Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were singing everywhere, as were Eastern Towhees.  Two of the most numerous summer breeders in parts of the park were also two of the loudest and most obvious birds today, with Yellow Warblers singing and chasing each other all over the place, and the ever-present (in summer anyway!) House Wrens found in practically every corner of the park.

Black-and-white Warbler - Mniotilta varia

An elegant Black-and-White Warbler pausing to get his photo taken.

One of the things I’m learning to appreciate is the unseen, yet heard bird.  Ok, yeah, may seem obvious, but for a guy who has focused on bird photography for so long, seeing has always trumped hearing for me.  There were several species that I heard today, but only got a very brief glimpse of or didn’t see at all.  I hear Wood Thrush in multiple spots, with their beautiful, metallic-sounding (to me) songs.  I desperately was trying to get a photo of a Scarlet Tanager I heard, but he stayed in the treetops and never even gave me a glimpse. One singing bird I REALLY was trying to track down was what sounded very much like a Kentucky Warbler.  I heard it singing at some distance, but when I walked towards the area it stopped singing and I never found it.  I’ve never seen a Kentucky Warbler, hence my excitement at hearing the bird.  I don’t know the song of one well enough for me to conclusively say that’s what it was, even though it sure sounded like a Kentucky Warbler when I got back to my car and compared to the song of one on my iPhone.

Alas, a rarity and a lifer that eluded me.  It really wasn’t a terrific day for any unusual birds, but there certainly was a really nice variety of migrants and arriving breeding birds. The birds I get the most excited for this time of year are the warblers, but other than those mentioned above, the only other species I saw today were Black-and-White, Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped, and Common Yellowthroats.  Warblers are so unpredictable here though, with birds seemingly “dripping off the trees” on some May days, and seemingly absent on others.

A great day overall!  One puzzling thing though was how it was so “birdy” at Newton Hills, but so completely dead at another spot I visited. I haven’t been to Union Grove State Park very much, but in many ways it’s very similar to Newton Hills, with a lot of uncharacteristic (for South Dakota) eastern forest land.  As loud and boisterous as the birds were at Newton Hills, I was immediately struck at how quiet it was at Union Grove.  I kept listening for birds, trying to find a “birdy” spot to get out and walk, but I was met by complete silence.  After half an hour I’d driven all the roads in the small park, and the only birds of ANY kind I saw were a pair of Turkey Vultures, a Crow, and a Blue Jay.   The only birds I heard but didn’t see were a Red-bellied Woodpecker and a Chipping Sparrow on the way out.  Weird…not even a Robin, when they were all over the place at Newton Hills.

Orange-crowned Warbler - Vermivora celata

Ok, somebody tell me…have you EVER seen an actual “orange crown” on an “Orange-crowned Warbler”?

Despite the quiet at Union Grove, despite the rather gloomy weather to start the day, it ended up being a very nice day of birding. There were about a dozen “first-of-year” birds for me, which brings me up to around 160 species for the year so far, within South Dakota.  Not bad, considering we’re a frozen wasteland for 6 months of the year, and there’s not much for quantity or variety of birds during that time!

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