Splash of Winter Color

Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker (The red on the male’s cap is complete and unbroken, while the female has a tan strip at the top of her head). I have a lot of photos of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, but this is one of the few that shows their namesake trait. Most of the time, the subtle red splash on the belly is quite inconspicuous.

More snow yesterday. Just a couple of inches, but we’ve had a seemingly endless stream of “just a couple of inches” in the last two months.  It’s now late February, and after a long winter, and I’m ready for spring birding to begin.

I’m just ready for COLOR.  Birding in South Dakota in winter is often as gray, dreary, and plain as the weather and our sloppy, gloppy streets.  Bird species diversity is low and those birds that do stick around for the winter are, in general, of the black-and-white variety.  I’ve had more Pine Siskins at my feeders than I’ve ever had, and the little bit of yellow they have is a welcome contrast to the gray gloom.  However, the other most common birds at my feeders are Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos,  and House Sparrows, none of which have much color.

My favorite “yard bird” is one that’s become quite reliable, both in winter and summer.  They’re striking not only for the bright splash of color, but for their size, as they’re generally the largest bird we get in the winter….Red-bellied Woodpeckers. We live in a house we built 12 years ago, and tree cover in the neighborhood landscaping is still maturing.  Red-bellied Woodpeckers need mature trees for nesting and foraging, but fortunately, we live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a State Park with ample riparian forest habitat. The male and female pair that visit our yard clearly spend most of their time in the Park.  When I see them come to our yard, they’re almost always flying in from the Park, and they head back to the Park when they’re done feeding.

When they first came to our yard, they were pretty shy.  The feeders are close to the windows of a sunroom that looks out into our back yard, and the woodpeckers would often spook and fly away if I was moving around in the house. Fortunately over the years they’ve become accustomed not only to our presence, but to that of our two spaniels! One suet feeder sits on a hook off our deck, and the male will often continue to sit and feed at the suet feeder, even when I let the dogs out on the deck. The female is a little shyer, but still stays around the yard much more frequently than she used to.

A wonderful visitor, at any time of the year.

Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus

My favorite Red-bellied Woodpecker photo, this is of a male from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, the park across the street from our house.

A very lost Great Kiskadee in the great white north

Great Kiskadee - Pitangus sulphuratus

A quite lost Great Kiskadee, casually hanging out on a post on a sunny day in “warm” South Dakota.

A couple of weeks ago, the South Dakota Ornithologists Union (SDOU) had their fall meeting in Brookings, South Dakota.  As the meetings were going on, the folks in attendance became aware of an incredibly unusual sighting in the area.  A landowner near Volga had reported seeing at least two Great Kiskadees in her yard, stating that they had been hanging around since at least August.  Great Kiskadees normally are found in Latin America, as they are warm weather birds with a range that just reaches into the United States in far southern Texas. In the U.S., there have been a handful of sightings outside of Texas.  Of these, there have been several in Oklahoma, a handful in Louisiana, and one or two in Kansas and New Mexico.  The one found in central Kansas was incredibly unusual in its own right, occurring hundreds of miles away from the next closest sighting.  Hence, a Great Kiskadee?  In South Dakota?  In November?  The SDOU attendees were understandably skeptical.  The skepticism vanished when a conclusive photo was provided, and most people attending the meeting got a very exciting treat, making the short trip to the farmstead where the bird (birds?) was seen.

I was out of town on travel at the time.  When I got back, I told myself that maybe if the bird were still hanging around, I’d head north to try and see it (and photograph it).  A couple of weeks passed, and I managed to make excuses not to go.  In other words, I was being lazy!! Honestly, I rarely have any luck chasing single birds like this.  However, today, serendipity struck.  I was walking in the hall at work this morning, and passed my friend Pat, who is also a birder.  He had seen the Great Kiskadee, and we started talking about it.  He noted they were still seeing the bird relatively recently, and it got my mind wandering, in the way that a mind sometimes WILL wander on a Wednesday at work.  After several days of gloom and snow, the sun was finally out.  What was better, sitting in a windowless office, or going out searching for a mega-rarity?

In no time I grabbed my coat, headed home to grab my camera equipment, and then started north towards the area where the bird(s) was being seen.  There are two farmsteads adjacent to each other, and the Great Kiskadees had been seen at both.  Having been told the south farmstead had an extensive feeder setup, that’s where I headed.  With a big snowstorm ending just the day before, I thought surely the bird would be hanging out by the feeders.  I called the landowner and asked permission, and ended up walking around her land for an hour, and hanging around her feeders for another hour.  No luck…no bird.

Great Kiskadee - Pitangus sulphuratus

Snow. That’s a Great Kiskadee, sitting in a pine tree covered with snow. I would bet there haven’t ever been too many similar photos taken.

Par for the course, when I chase a lone bird!  I got back in my car, sent a quick note to the South Dakota “listserver”, informing birders that I had tried, unsuccessfully, to re-locate the Kiskadee.  Perhaps the snowstorm was too much for a tropical bird, I thought.

That’s when our digital, instant-communication world saved the day.  “KC” replied almost immediately to my email to the listserver, telling me that he had seen the bird just this morning.  I spent nearly all my time at the southern farmstead, but he said the bird was now hanging out almost exclusively at the northern farmstead.  I was only 5 miles away when I noticed his message, so I turned around and headed back, this time going to the “right” farmstead.

It only took 2 minutes of looking before I saw the bird.  The landowners had set up special feeders just to try and help the wayward Kiskadee, with suet and mealworms provided for it.  Within 2 minutes of walking around, a lone Great Kiskadee came flying into the feeders, along with some of his new buddies, 3 Blue Jays.  What a gorgeous bird!  A bright splash of yellow isn’t exactly a common sight for a birder in South Dakota when there’s a foot of snow on the ground!  The recent snow doesn’t seem to have hurt the Kiskadee.  He seemed fat, happy, and was feeding very well.  I ended up watching and photographing him for about 45 minutes as he flew back-and-forth between the feeders and the surrounding trees.  He wasn’t shy, either, ALWAYS a very welcome development for a bird photographer.

When I awoke today I was expecting the same old grind at work!  Thanks to bumping into Pat in the hall, and thanks to my own TRUE talent at finding excuses to get away from work, a normal work day turned into a truly once-in-a-lifetime birding day!  A Great Kiskadee in the snow and cold of South Dakota in December!

Great Kiskadee - Pitangus sulphuratus

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