As 2020 comes to a close, I had a great end to the year from a birding perspective yesterday! I made one last birding trip, heading up towards Brookings to try to find some Short-eared Owls that had been seen recently. I hadn’t seen any yet this year, and I thought it would be nice to add one more species to what’s been my best South Dakota “big year” yet. But not only did I find a Short-eared Owl, but the first owl I saw was a gorgeous immature female Snowy Owl! Two new 2020 species for the state, on December 30th, and with both being owl species, I couldn’t have asked for a better close to the year.
The two owls put me at 262 species seen in South Dakota in 2020…breaking my own personal high of 256 from last year. It was certainly a terrific year in many aspects, with not only a great variety of species, but some life species, both South Dakota lifers, and overall lifers! Highlights for the year:
As this spring comes to an end in a few days, I was fortunate enough to add not only two more warblers to my 2020 list, but two new life birds! I’ve birded throughout the western US, but haven’t done much of anything in the Southeast. Therefore when people started seeing a Hooded Warbler and a Kentucky Warbler in Newton Hills State Park this spring, I tried three times to try to find them, to no avail.
Both are extreme rarities in South Dakota. The closest are where Hooded Warblers normally breed is Missouri or Illinois, hundreds of miles to the south and east. Kentucky Warblers are normally a bit closer, with small breeding populations in southeastern Nebraska and southeastern Iowa, but like Hooded Warblers, they’re just not found in South Dakota. Earlier this week, it was reported that both species were still hanging around Newton Hills, so Thursday night I made the trek down, not really expecting to see them.
The Hooded Warbler though was right in the same dead tree along a trail where he’s been often seen by others this spring! He sang a few times from the top of the tree, then flitted off to another more distant perch. I didn’t see him again after that initial sighting, but I heard his singing a few more times as I continued up the trail.
Success! A lifer! I would have been very happy for the day had that been the only bird I saw, but I kept going down the trail to where the Kentucky Warbler had been seen. From the reports it didn’t seem like he was quite as loyal to a given spot as the Hooded was, so I didn’t know exactly where to look for him. I was only 100-150 yards away from where I saw and photographed the Hooded Warbler when I heard it…a series of warbling phrases, somewhat similar to an Ovenbird, but without the Ovenbird’s rise in volume an intensity as the song went along. It was a sustained, loud series of phrases, repeated multiple times. But where? It seemed like after initially hearing the bird, it retreated further into the forest, as I heard the song again, but seemingly quite a bit more distant.
I didn’t hear the song for a few minutes, so thought I’d continue down the trail. After going down the trail for 20 minutes or so and not seeing or hearing anything interesting, I started heading back, and as I approached the area where I’d first heard the Kentucky Warbler, I heard it again. MUCH closer. And again! And…there he was, practically right above my head! I initially got some really good binocular views of him, then set out to try to photograph him. He wasn’t particularly shy, flying from perch to perch, foraging a bit, stopping to sing, then moving on, but he was always pretty high up in the canopy, and often moving. Finally I did manage some decent long-distance record shots that clearly identified it as a Kentucky Warbler.
Two lifers! Within just a hundred or so yards! The two warblers also brought up my warbler total for the spring to 26!! A terrific warbler migration by any measure. I know some other birders saw a few additional species this spring, but all are pretty good finds in South Dakota (Cape May, Black-throated Blue, Connecticut).
Here are a few pics of the Hooded and Kentucky Warblers (not great but hey…lifers!), as well as a montage of the 26 species of warblers I saw this spring.
Birding the Sioux Falls area in April and the first half of May was…sloooooooooooooowwwww. With the late cold weather and snow, and continued wet spring precipitation, there was certainly plenty of water around (and there still is). But shorebirds were very slow all spring near Sioux Falls (perhaps just spread out?). Sparrow migration was utterly spectacular in April, but other songbirds? Once the sparrows left, it seemed like there weren’t any other songbirds filling the void. Certainly not warblers, which were few and far between for much of May. With the South Dakota Ornithologist’s Union (SDOU) meeting in Brandon on May 17-19, and with an incredibly wet forecast, the prognosis for good birding wasn’t great.
And then a funny thing happened…songbird migration ended up being utterly spectacular that weekend. The birds seemed to have arrived overnight, with warblers galore, and plenty of other songbirds as well. I personally had a 20-warbler day that Saturday (the 18th), and that’s with me whiffing on a few species that others saw in the area. It was one of the best, if not the best, warbler and songbird days I’ve had here in the 20 years I’ve been birding.
So what happened? As a scientist, I say LET’S CHECK THE SCIENCE behind it! You know how they say “There’s an app for that?” Well there’s also typically a scientific explanation behind…everything, if you look hard enough. That’s certainly true in this case.
For one, let’s check the weather radar for the overnight period from Friday, May 17th through Saturday May 18th. The weather that Friday was cloudy and rainy, driven by a low pressure system and a slowly moving front moving northeastward out of Nebraska. With the system predicted to generally stall over our area for the weekend, the forecast was bleak.
The weather system did move northeasterly through the afternoon and evening, triggering storms both along the trailing warm front to the south through Nebraska and Kansas, as well as more unsettled weather wrapping around the low pressure system. Moderate to strong northeasterly winds were found behind the low pressure system, but in front of the low were southerly and southeasterly winds…including in the area around Sioux Falls. It took until daybreak for the low pressure system to reach the Sioux Falls area, basically sitting directly over the region. But from the previous evening through daybreak on May 18th, an area from Sioux Falls, southward into extreme eastern Nebraska and all of Iowa and Minnesota were subject to south and southeasterly winds.
Given how slow the migration had been all spring long, the birds had to be…somewhere. But where? How could science have explained the fallout of warblers and other birds that weekend? The weather map and the southeasterly winds provide one clue, but the other is provided by weather radar itself. Since the 1950s, it’s been understood that weather radar could potentially identify features in the sky other than the weather…and that includes birds. There’s even a term for it now…Radar Aeroecology. A 1956 paper by Bonham and Blake discussed the radar echoes provided by both birds and flying insects. While research continued in the decades since, it’s only recently that the information has been made available for a birder’s benefit.
The animated map below shows national-scale radar returns for the night of May 17th. The advancing low and front, and associated precipitation, can be seen as it moves out of Colorado, through Nebraska and into South Dakota. But what of the radar returns in the eastern half of the country? Those are birds…birds taking flight just after sunset to resume their spring migration northward. You can identify the “bloom” around each radar location shortly after sunset, with the blooms appearing east to west as the sun sets. Where are the heaviest migration “blooms”? Look at the radars lighting up after sunset in the Midwest…St. Louis…Des Moines…other radars in Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa depicting heavy densities of birds taking flight.
But how can we translate those radar echos to where the birds are moving? In recent years, Cornell University, in partnership with multiple academic institutions, have developed “BirdCast“. They have developed algorithms that use weather radar returns to quantify the density of birds, while using short-term weather forecasts to project likely movements. The resultant “BirdCast” provides a 1- to 3-day look on likely bird migration hotspots.
The animated map below provides a depiction of estimated bird migration traffic that night. Ahead of the advancing front, southerly and southeasterly winds were favorable for migration, particularly as large densities of birds were already stacked up from the previous days and weeks. Sioux Falls was on the western edge of this migration hotspot, a beneficiary of favorable weather patterns bringing in birds from Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota.
The map below depicts the situation that occurred throughout much of the first half of May. Prevailing weather patterns and storms, along with the cool weather, kept birds stacked up to our south and east, with a very slow spring migration to this point in South Dakota. The week prior to the big Sioux Falls fallout, birds were so far south that the Houston area birders declared a “Lights Out” period from May 9th-12th to avoid confusing the mass of migrating birds. But they had a long ways to go to get to South Dakota.
The result of the changing weather pattern…an absolutely spectacular weekend of birding in the Sioux Falls area the weekend of May 17-19, particularly as the forecast deluge mostly fizzled out. I admit that even I as a scientist was somewhat skeptical of the Cornell BirdCasts. But after the events of that weekend, count me as a firm believer!
Here are some photos of the spectacular birds of that weekend:
Five very different birds, but five species with something very much in common. The cool, wet spring continues, with rain and wind in the eastern part of South Dakota, and a late May snowstorm in the western part of the state. It had already been an odd migration given the cool temps that don’t want to give way to spring. Until last Friday (May 17th, songbird migration was noticeably slow, with very few warblers around other than Yellow-rumped. But that seemed to have changed last weekend. On Saturday (May 18th) we had a major fall-out of migrants, with warblers of every kind (I had 20 species on Saturday), vireos, flycatchers, and other songbirds appearing seemingly out of thin air. The birding this weekend was positively SPECTACULAR, and there’s no doubt for me it was the best warbler spotting in the 20 years I’ve been birding.
That spectacular birding has come with a price, however. With cool and wet conditions continuing, you can tell birds are struggling. The problem? I just think there aren’t the usual insects out yet for this time of year. Because of that, you’re seeing species with behaviors you normally don’t see. From a bird photography perspective I guess it’s been great, as the birds have been 1) concentrated, with many birds often foraging in select locations out of the wind and rain, and in areas where a few insects might be, and 2) many species have been down lower to the ground than normal.
Here’s a pictorial of five species I’ve encountered in recent days, five species that all appear to be impacted by the cool wet weather.
With all the birding I’ve done over the last 2 weeks, I have to say…migration had been disappointing to this point. I love my sparrows, and sparrow migration was very good, but the other two groups of migrants that I love…shorebirds and warblers…have been painfully slow in arriving. In the case of shorebirds, I don’t think any sort of migratory breakthrough is going to happen this spring. It could be they’re just spread out, given how incredibly wet it’s been and how much standing water there is over much of the upper Great Plains. But at this stage, I’m not counting on a big influx of shorebirds.
Warblers have been very similar. If you like Yellow-rumped, this has been your spring! They have been absolutely thick, particularly last week when they were not only in woodland and forest edges, but many were hanging out on shorelines, fencelines, or other seemingly uncharacteristic locations. But other than Yellow-rumped Warblers? To say “not much” would be a disservice to the term “not much”, as for most species, they’ve been non-existent.
That changed today. HOLY…COW…did that change today!! I’ve been birding 20 years now. That’s 20 spring migrations where I’ve put in a LOT of effort, hoping to find migratory warblers and other songbirds. In those 20 years, I must say that today was THE best warbler day I have ever had, hands down. It wasn’t just numbers, although numbers were quite good. It was the jaw-dropping variety of warbler species that are moving through the area right now. They weren’t necessarily “dripping off the trees”…a favorite term for some folks when there’s a warbler “fall-out”. But they were certainly around in very good numbers, and at times it seemed that every bird you looked at was a different species.
There were some that were quite abundant. Tennessee and Yellow-rumped Warblers were common, although Tennessee were scattered everywhere, while most of the Yellow-rumped I saw were along the Big Sioux River at Good Earth State Park. Given how intense the birding was and how often I tried to keep my focus on the treetops, I have no doubt my count below is low for those two species, and I KNOW it’s quite low for Yellow Warbler, as they are also extremely abundant right now. When I saw one of those “common” species, I often didn’t pause to enter into eBird. And why was that?
Because there were SO many “good” warbler species, including species I haven’t seen in years. I haven’t seen Blackburnian Warblers very often in South Dakota, and I have zero photos of the species. In fact, there are only two occasions where I even remember seeing a Blackburnian Warbler. Today? FOUR gorgeous Blackburnians, with 2 at Perry Nature Area, and 2 at Good Earth State Park. It’s been 14 years since I’ve seen a Bay-breasted Warbler, but I found one at Good Earth. Mourning Warbler? I have ZERO photos of the species and don’t see them all that often, but I found a pair in close proximity this afternoon. Chestnut-sided are a species I probably see every other year or so, and always one at at time. Today? I saw six, with five spotted from one location at Good Earth!! Magnolia numbered 9 on the day, Blackpoll were at 4, while most of the others were single sightings.
20 species of warbler in one day! 19 of those were from two locations (Perry Nature Area and Good Earth State Park), while 1 was from Ditch Road just north of Sioux Falls (Northern Waterthrush). Here’s the list of warblers on a birding day I will always remember:
Ovenbird – 3 (2 singing and not seen, one seen and not heard)
Golden-winged Warbler – Seen and heard twice, in two visits to Perry Nature Area today (same bird I’m sure…count of 1)
Tennessee Warbler – 47 — I have no doubt this is a big undercount, as many times I didn’t stop to enter them in eBird
Orange-crowned Warbler – 4
Nashville Warbler – 1
Mourning Warbler – 2 – And now I do have photos of the species! Crappy photos, but I had none before today!
Common Yellowthroat – 7 – If I’d taken the time to properly account for all those singing along the Big Sioux River in the northern end of Good Earth State Park, this number would be a lot higher
American Redstart – 9 –
Magnolia – 9 – Definitely the most I’ve seen in one day
Bay-breasted Warbler – A REAL treat as I haven’t seen one in over a decade
Blackburnian Warbler – 4 – TWICE the number I’ve seen in my other 20 springs of birding in South Dakota
Yellow Warbler – 16 – That’s what I had taken the time to enter in eBird. But particularly if I would have paid close attention and recorded every time I heard a Yellow Warbler, the number would be double or triple this.
Chestnut-sided Warbler – 6 – All at Good Earth State park, with an astounding 5 observed while standing near one giant burr oak
Blackpoll Warbler – 4
Yellow-rumped Warbler – 25 – As they’ve been all spring, nearly all were near water, with them flycatching along the banks of the Big Sioux River in Good Earth State Park
Black-throated Green Warbler – 1 – One of my faves, good to see one
Canada Warbler – 1 – I’ll need to check my records but I don’t see these often at all.
Northern Waterthrush – 1 – The only one not at Good Earth or Perry Nature Area, found while doing a short check of Ditch Road north of Sioux Falls.
Black-and-White Warbler – 1 – Usually one of the most common migrants, and I have seen plenty this spring, but only one today.
Wilson’s Warbler – 1 – Also one I typically see every year, but it’s been pretty slow for them this year.
Golden-winged Warbler, moving through a riparian area looking for snacks. A warbler photo taken at eye-level, thanks to one of my “photo bridges!”.
It’s been a great last week for migrants. Warblers are hit-or-miss around here, as some seasons are great for warblers, and some…not so much. Even within a given year though it’s unpredictable, as they can seemingly be everywhere one day, and gone the next. What’s been great about the last week is that there have been good to great numbers of warblers nearly every day, and the variety has been good as well.
The downside of a protracted, good warbler migration? Warbler neck!! I would be that on an hour-per-photo measurement, warblers rank much higher than most other kinds of birds. Around here, the most common place to spot warblers is up in the forest canopy. It makes for tough photography conditions, as either the warblers are usually too far away for a good photo, or you’re shooting from directly below and just getting a shot of their bellies. It also makes for a SERIOUS case of “warbler neck”, a sore neck you get from continually having your head tilted back, looking straight up into the canopy with your binoculars as you scan for warblers.
Yesterday I just couldn’t do another trip of scanning the tree tops, so I thought I’d try some of my old tried-and-true locations for getting up a bit to the birds’ level. Out here on the plains, trees are mostly found in woodlots, protected ravines, urban areas, and riparian areas. If there’s a riparian area, that means roads with bridges over the water. I have several bridges in the area that I’ve used for taking photos of birds in the tree canopy, as the taller bridge places you up towards the tree tops a bit.
It was actually slower for warblers yesterday than it had been all week, and I was a little disappointed when I came to one of my “photo bridges”. As I pulled over at the corner of the bridge, positioning myself right next to the tree branches, I heard a thin, weak buzzing song. I’m not the greatest at bird calls, but I knew that buzzy call..a Golden-winged Warbler. Beautiful birds, but pretty uncommon migrants through South Dakota. I had no photos of the species and was really hoping this bird would cooperate. Fortunately, he kept on foraging in the riparian trees, oblivious to the guy with the camera. When I first started to try to take a photo, he was obscured by leaves and branches, but after a minute or two of waiting, I was finally able to get some decent photos of a Golden-winged Warbler.
And all from my elevated “photo bridge”, eliminating any aggravation of my warbler neck!
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.
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.
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.
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!