It’s been a weird spring. As it was last year, it’s been cool and wet, and migration has been slow or delayed. Two groups of birds I live for in spring are shorebirds and warblers, but migration has been incredibly slow for both, with few warblers other than the ubiquitous Yellow-rumped showing up, and very few shorebirds other than yellowlegs. Other songbirds have also been slow to arrive, as even the ever present Eastern Kingbird has been extremely scarce to date.
However, like last year, one bird has been making itself quite visible…American Bittern. It’s odd, because I went several years without seeing an American Bittern, and now in the past two years, I’ve seen many. I went birding this weekend west of Sioux Falls, and in the span of one mile, came across three American Bitterns, including one doing the classic unk-a-lunk-a song while his buddy watched from nearby.
Warm weather finally arrives today, with a high near 76. Hopefully with the warm weather warblers and other migrants arrive as well, but I’m thankful that the bitterns have taken up a little bit of the slack this spring! A few photos of the bitterns from the weekend:
Ah-HA!! Just when you thought I was over myself seeing a Whooping Crane last Friday, more imagery emerges! But this time it’s video. I…RARELY…ever take video. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s the fact that I never really walk around with a tripod. It’s one thing to shoot a still with a long lens while hand-holding, as you can get sharp individual frames. It’s another to hand-hold a long lens and try to take anything close to stable video. This is watching the Whooping Crane in Buffalo County, South Dakota, while using a fence post as a temporary tripod. Just 26 seconds of video, but shows perhaps a bit more of the behavior of this guy. He was pretty relaxed the whole time I watched him (about 2 hours), and didn’t care about the guy with the camera or all the passing cars on the highway.
One of the best things about birding are those random encounters, the complete serendipity of the hobby. Some of the best “birding” moments even happen when you’re not birding, with a chance encounter. Friday, April 26th, was one of those days for me. I had a conference Friday afternoon and Saturday in Pierre. I left Brandon (our home) at 4:00 AM, as I wanted to do a bit of birding before the conference started at noon. The plan was to arrive at the Big Bend Dam area around dawn, and then drive through the Fort Pierre National Grasslands before heading to the conference.
Things were going as planned, and I was driving south of Fort Thompson (next to Big Bend dam) a little after the sun came up. The water was very high on the Missouri to my left, with flooded trees, grasslands, and wetlands all along the river. Amidst all the flooded land I saw quite a few American White Pelicans, lounging in groups of between 10 and 20. With so many large, white birds in close proximity on the river, I wasn’t too excited when I saw a large white bird flying parallel to the highway, about 40 feet up and a hundred yards or so in front of me. Big white bird…black wings tips…it’s one of the pelicans.
As I continued to drive closer, the bird continued following the general course of the road. Upon getting closer, I had a chill up my spine and one serious case of goose bumps…this was no mere Pelican. It was a lone Whooping Crane, RIGHT in front of me. I held back and watched it continue to fly in front of me for a moment before thinking…nobody is going to believe me! I have to get a photo!! However, when you’re behind a bird in flight that’s moving away from your position, it’s not an ideal situation! I fumbled with the camera with the thought of perhaps just trying to capture a confirmation “butt shot”, but as I grabbed the camera, the Whooping Crane swerved to its right, heading up over a ridge, and out of sight.
Gone! I’d just seen a Whooping Crane! I still had chills and goosebumps, but alas the bird was gone and I had no proof of the sighting! Hoping that he was just moving to one of the nearby corn fields to feed, I started looking for a side road that went in the general direction of the bird. I found a small gravel road, and followed it to the east, hoping to spot the bird in a nearby field. The road was only about 1/4 mile long, and ended at a cemetery. As I approached the cemetery, I looked for a splash of white in the nearby fields…and…THERE! It was there! It was a LONG distance out, probably 1/4 mile or more, but there in a field near the cemetery, the Whooping Crane had landed and was calmly walking about and foraging.
As I approached the cemetery I saw a very fresh mound where there’d clearly been a very recent burial, so I felt a little weird entering the cemetery itself. I parked along the road and instead headed for the fenceline next to the big field. There was a big center pivot in the harvested corn field, and the Whooping Crane was calmly foraging below it. I grabbed the camera and decided to at least try to get some documentation shots. With my 100-400mm lens, the bird was but a small white blob in the middle of the frame, but the photos were completely recognizable as a Whooping Crane. Over my previous elation-then-heartbreak-at-not-getting-a-photo vibe, I was now satisfied! I’d SEEN A WHOOPING CRANE! I had photos that documented the bird. I went back to my pickup, grabbed a coat (it was a COLD morning), and sat down and just watched him through binoculars for about half an hour as he fed in the corn field.
At one point in the corn field, the Whooping Crane gave a few vocalizations that I could hear even from my distance spot. He honked/croaked/”whooped” a couple of more times, shook his tail, and took flight. That’s that, I thought! But what a GREAT morning spent watching this bird. I stood up, watching the crane take flight, fully expecting it to fly…away somewhere. Instead, it lifted off, banked, and started heading back towards the river. Back towards my position! Now, I’m about the last person you’d want in, say, a basketball game, with the game on the line, and a 3-pointer needed to win it. I get way too nervous. As the crane banked and headed towards me, the chills and goosebumps returned, and with it, shaking hands! I had the camera ready! The bird was getting closer! But as much as my hands were shaking I wasn’t sure I was going to get ANY kind of decent shot.
At some point, I think the crane saw me, because it deviated course slightly. It had been headed right towards me, but it moved to a course that took it a bit further out from me. Still, it was within range that I thought I could grab some halfway decent photos. I furiously clicked away as the bird passed to my east, then as it went south of me, and turned west towards the river.
I returned to my pickup, shivering from the cold, but more from the experience! I gave a quick scan through my photos I’d just taken. As I suspected, many of them were pretty darned blurry, probably due to my shaking hands! But I had a couple that at least were clearly recognizable as a Whooping Crane. I headed back down the gravel road to the highway, and thought I’d give one more look for the bird. It didn’t take long to find him. He’d landed in a small flooded grassy area between the highway and the river, and stood out like a sore thumb. Again, it was quite a ways out, but closer than the encounter in the corn field. I pulled over on the side of the highway, moved over to my passenger seat closest to where the bird was, and…ended up sitting there for an hour!
For an hour, the Whooping Crane stayed in the same tiny wet spot, surrounded by Blue-winged Teal, Northern Pintails, and other ducks that were using the spot. He was certainly relaxed and not worried about my presence on the road (probably 200+ yards away?), nor the passing cars. I felt a little odd seeing the cars that were passing me every minute or so. HEY, I wanted to shout…WHOOPING CRANE!! ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME EXPERIENCE HERE! COME LOOK!! But no one else seemed to care about the Whooping Crane, or the bird nut sitting in the passenger seat with his camera and binoculars trained on the bird for an hour. I casually switched between trying to grab some more long-distance photos, and simply watching the bird through the binoculars.
Finally, I realized I needed to get going or I was going to be late for my conference. When I left (around 9:00 AM), the bird was still hanging out in the same wetland by the river. I never saw any other bird it tried to associate with…no other Whooping Cranes, no Sandhill Cranes around. I saw no bands on its legs, so I assumed this was a wild born bird. It seemed perfectly healthy and happy, flying around and foraging on the ground with no problems.
Two hours in my life I certainly won’t forget! The “feature photo” at the top is by far the clearest photo I was able to get as the bird flew past after leaving the corn field and heading back towards the river. Below are more photos from the encounter.
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.
I was birding yesterday in western Minnehaha County, and drove on a gravel road that split a large wetland area. The cattails were right next to the road, making it difficult to peer into the wetland, but in a few places there were breaks in the vegetation. As I slowly drove drove past one of the breaks, a Pied-billed Grebe and its young came swimming out of the thick reeds. Neither were particularly concerned with my presence, so I shut the car off and watched for a while. The adult would dive under water in search of prey, and when she popped up, the fledgling grebe would let out a whining call and quickly swim over to the parent. Once she came up with a relatively large fish (for her size), but despite the young one’s pleas, she downed it herself and returned to hunting. In the ten minutes or so that I watched the pair, I never saw the young one’s pleas answered, but she always stayed close to mom.
This morning was one of the most bizarre birding trips I’ve taken in a while. The forecast was clear skies and low wind, a combination you need to take advantage of when it happens in South Dakota. I headed up to the Lake Thompson area in Kingsbury County, South Dakota, to shoot gulls, terns, shorebirds, herons, egrets…all the wonderful water-loving birds you find up there this time of year.
I wanted to arrive just before dawn, and given it’s a 1 1/2 hour drive, I was up and on the road quite early. I knew right away something was different. Even before the sun arose, the lighting was strange. There were clearly no visible stars in the dark sky, but yet I had no doubt it was indeed cloud-free. We had a hint of this phenomena yesterday, but this morning it hit full bore…a sky full of smoke from the fires hundreds of miles away in the western US and Canada.
Not was I was expecting when I left this morning, and it certainly changed the types of photos I went after! As usual at this time of year, there were birds everywhere. However, even after sunrise, the light was so poor that it was difficult to grab any decent photos. It wasn’t until about half an hour after sunrise when it started to get bright enough to shoot. It’s not often you can point your expensive camera right at the sun at that time of day, and not permanently fry your sensor, but the light was so diffuse this morning I certainly could. I ended up settling down at a wetland area near Lake Thompson, trying to shoot the numerous Black Terns against the odd, but beautiful lighting. Not a situation I’m used to shooting in, but I was able to get some photos I thought were “cool”.
I’ve been in South Dakota 25 years now, and lived at basically the same latitude down in southern Nebraska before that. Until the last few years, I just don’t remember fire seasons out West being SO bad, that our air here on the eastern side of South Dakota was this affected. But last year too, on one rock-hunting trip, the air was so bad that my eyes were watering and I started wheezing a bit. Something has changed! That something most likely is due to, or at least severely exacerbated by, climate change!
Climate change is for the birds. But at least for one morning, it made for some cool photos.
Black Tern, flying through the reflection of a smoke-diffused sun. This is at LEAST half an hour after sunrise!
Today’s photo-of-the-day…a duckweed-covered duck. Well, OK…no, technically it’s not a “duck”, it’s a juvenile Pied-billed Grebe, but I like my title choice and I’m stickin’ to it!! This is from a couple of days ago at a local slough. There’s SO much cropland around here that when I see a wetland or pond completely covered in green, I immediately think it’s out of control algae (fed by all the fertilizer runoff). That wasn’t the case here. The water underneath was quite clear, algae wasn’t really evident, but the duckweed certainly was enjoying the environment.
As were Pied-billed Grebes! There were many adult and juvenile birds. It was fun watching them forage, disappearing underneath the duckweed and popping up through the green. One of my favorite species, and the young have such wonderful plumage patterns.
Photo of the day, for a bird that gets high marks for trying, but failing, to hide. I didn’t have much luck shooting birds yesterday, but did run across this American Bittern along the rip-rap bordering a huge wetland area. The ol’ stick-my-head-up-and-they-won’t-see-me approach Bitterns use may work when they’re standing in the middle of a bunch of dry cattails, but kind of falls apart when they’re out in the open, particularly next to red quartzite.
American Bittern “hiding” at Weisensee Slough in western Minnehaha County, South Dakota.
This week the New York Times had a wonderful (as always), yet sad piece about deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Approximately 360,000 acres in the region were deforested every year during the 1990s, a number that jumped to 660,000 acres a year during the early 2000s. A massive push to slow deforestation rates occurred in the 2000s, temporarily slowing the rate of deforestation. However, in the last few years the deforestation rate has skyrocketed, to over 850,000 acres every year, an area the size of Rhode Island. Every. Year. Clearly that’s not sustainable. Even the supposed “success” in the mid-2000s of slowing the rate of deforestation only “slowed” it, it certainly didn’t stop it or reverse the trend. That’s the world we live in now, where SLOWING the inexorable loss of habitat is considered a major conservation success story, even if those slower rates still would have wiped out most of the rainforest during this century.
We don’t have rainforests in South Dakota. From a birder’s perspective, we don’t have much bird habitat whatsoever in the eastern part of the state, given the preponderance of corn and soybeans that takes up the vast majority of the landscape. Still, as a birder, I have reveled in the little reservoir pockets of remaining habitat, small micro-habitats where birds have thrived, despite the massive use of the landscape for agricultural production. I used to bring my camera with me EVERYWHERE. Every day when I went to work, my camera came with me. I would stop at these little pockets of habitat, and take bird photos. Over the years, I’ve gotten some truly wonderful photographs in these small remaining pockets of habitat.
I don’t bring my camera with me to work any more. I don’t bring my camera with me when I run errands. In fact, I don’t do nearly as much birding right around Brandon and Sioux Falls as I used. Much of the reason is that many of my former little micro-habitat “hotspots” are gone, something that’s just happened in the last several years. There have been multiple reasons behind it. The first is simple economics…with demand for corn and soybeans, farmers are cultivating every possible patch of land to maximize production. Fence rows, shelter belts, and other little pockets of habitat are being plowed under to expand planted acreage. There have also been active “safety” programs in the last few years to clear brush and trees from the edges of the roads. It’s been a truly massive project, with roads all over the state undergoing this kind of “grooming”, removing habitat that is anywhere close to road edges.
We don’t have the rainforest like the Amazon, but habitat loss is having an impact right here in South Dakota. Here are some small, and some larger, examples of what’s happening with habitat change in South Dakota, and how it’s affecting bird species. Bird photos accompanying each image are some of the actual bird photos I’ve gotten from each location over the years.
Ditch Road, just north of Sioux Falls in Minnehaha County. There’s a stretch of road that runs over 5 miles that has a straight drainage ditch running along side it. In the last year, nearly all of the thick trees and shrubs that were found between the road and the waterway have been removed (the area encircled in red shows the vegetation that used to be there). It’s part of the aforementioned “safety” program to remove things that people could evidently crash into and get hurt. (I always thought the point of driving was to stay ON the road). With the water and vegetation, it used to be an absolutely wonderful spot for songbirds and even some waterfowl, particularly in migration. Warblers, Vireos, and Chickadees and Nuthatches, many woodpeckers, and other songbird species were often found here. Not any more…
Big Sioux Recreation near Brandon, South Dakota – One that’s near and dear to my heart, given that we live on the edge of Brandon across the street from the park (house shown above). One of the best places to bird in the park used to be right amidst the campground areas themselves. The looped road shown above was lined with cedar trees, and thick brush separated many of the camping stalls from each other. The image above shows what it used to look like. The cedars in particular really attracted many birds, including one memorable winter when a hoarde of about 20 Long-eared Owls took up residence in the Campground (see photo above). In the last 2 years, all of the cedars have been removed from the campground area, as have most of the shrubs that separated camping stalls. If you want to play football? Thanks to all the vegetation clearing, it’s now MUCH more open in the campgrounds! If you really LOVE being close to other people while camping, with no pesky vegetation to get between you and the next guy, you’ll love the changes! If you’re a bird lover? Not so much…
Minnehaha County Wetland — This one has a Google Earth image that actually catches the transformation as it happened. This is a small area in northern Minnehaha County on 253rd Street and near 481st Avenue. Prior to 2015, the area in red was a mix of wetland, damp grasses, and weedy patches. It was an absolutely WONDERFUL place to bird, a little patch of wet, weedy habitat that attracted species like Le Conte’s Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, Bobolinks, Sedge Wrens, Marsh Wrens, and many other birds. In 2015, the owner installed drain tile, shown as the lines that run through the image above. The drain tile dried out the land so it could be used for cropland, and today, this entire patch is a corn field. Drain tile installation has been RAMPANT in eastern South Dakota in the last few years. In some cases it’s been done to improve conditions on existing cropland. In many areas though, like this, it’s being installed in areas that are naturally too poor to support crops, and need an artificial drainage system. It’s hard to have Swamp Sparrows in an area, if you have no “swamp”.
Shelterbelts – There aren’t a lot of woodlands and forests in eastern South Dakota, but the variety of birdlife in these little oases of trees can be truly astounding. During migration they are definite bird “traps”, with tired songbirds stopped to rest and feed in these areas before continuing on with their migration. The photos are just examples of what you can find in these shelterbelts, as I haven’t birded this specific location before. However, it’s a great example of what’s been going on in much of South Dakota. This is north of Sioux Falls, near the intersections of Highways 121 and 122. This shelterbelt had been there the entire 23+ years we’ve lived in South Dakota, and it had some very large mature, old trees. That changed last year, when all of the woody vegetation in the entire area circled in red was removed. This last summer it was all a big open field, planted in corn. There are many places in eastern South Dakota where this is happening, as farmers try to compensate for lowered corn and soy prices in the last few years by planting more and more acres.
What’s behind South Dakota cropland gains? — So what’s driving the agricultural change in South Dakota? Beyond the little micro-habitat examples given above, there are some very large swaths of grassland being converted to cropland, with some much of the new cropland on land that had never been plowed before. The map above gives you some indication of the economic forces driving cropland gains in the state, and the concomitant loss of vegetated habitats. Some of the largest recent changes in cash rent values for cropland in recent years are concentrated right in eastern South Dakota. As this article states, South Dakota had the largest increases in overall cropland value from 2004 to 2014, an increase of over 350% in just 10 years as average cropland values rose from $734 an acre to over $3,400 an acre. Prices for the major crop commodities of corn and soy have softened substantially in recent years, but that seems to have driven an intensification of land use in some parts of the state, as farmers try to maximize production by expanding the acreage that they plant.
Grassland Conversion in the Great Plains – In 2013, colleagues/acquaintances published a paper the summarized the recent loss of grassland and wetland in the northern Great Plains. The map above shows the percentage of grasslands in an area that were converted to soybeans or corn between 2006 and 2011. Southern Iowa is a bit misleading, given that this shows “percentage” change, and there wasn’t nearly as much grassland there in 2006 as there was in parts of eastern South Dakota. It really has been the eastern Dakotas where a huge chunk of cropland gains in the U.S. have occurred in recent years. From a birder’s perspective…it hasn’t been a happy story. Click here for the journal paper from Chris Wright and Mike Wimberly.
Upland Sandpiper, acting decidedly NOT “upland” by foraging in shallow water.
What better way to start a Monday than with some deep thoughts…
Shorebirds are so named because they are, not surprisingly, often found on shores, wading in shallow water, on mudflats, etc. One of the most common summer birds in grassland parts of South Dakota is the Upland Sandpiper. Well-named, Upland Sandpipers are usually described in field guides as “shorebirds that don’t act like shorebirds”, as they are, not surprisingly given their name, found in upland environments. The most common way to see an Upland Sandpiper in the state is to see one sitting on a fence post in a grassland area, and typically there isn’t a wetland or a “shore” in sight.
So, deep thought to start the week…How do you describe it when you see an Upland Sandpiper, wading and foraging in shallow water like a “normal” shorebird? What do you call a “shorebird” that doesn’t act like a shorebird, but IS acting like a shorebird?