I never was really a “lister” as a birder until eBird came along. eBird makes it so ridiculously easy to track your sightings, and the tools they have to categorize your sightings by date…geography…comparison to other birders…certainly bring out the competitive side that many birders seem to have! However, even after I started using eBird, I never really set any yearly goals, such as a “big year”. The closest I ever came was a number of years ago when a birding friend at work and I had a very low-key competition to see who could see the most birds in South Dakota during the year.
I ended up at 212 that year, a very similar number to my friend. I’ve gotten close to that a few times since according to eBird, but never really had a “South Dakota Big Year” as a driving goal for my birding in a year. Going into this year though, my birding time had been declining and I seemed to be losing some interest. I thought setting a goal to break my yearly South Dakota record might re spark some of that enthusiasm.
It did!! I started early in January this year…a tough time to start building a bird list in South Dakota! Particularly in a very cold, snowy winter, getting up to just 100 birds by mid-April was doing very well! When spring migration rolled around, I spent more time birding than I have in years. As the year progressed, I never made it to spots like far northwestern South Dakota to tick off species like Baird’s Sparrow, but I made my usual trips to the central part of the state, the Missouri River dams, and a very rare (for me) dedicated birding trip to the Black Hills.
By mid-December, I’d easily passed my highest yearly total, with 248 species. With travel and family commitments in the latter half of the month, I wasn’t expecting to get any more, but when a White-winged Crossbill was seen in Sioux Falls the week before Christmas, I did make the short trip and checked of #249. One short of a nice round number!! I told my wife (notably NOT a birder, and not too invested in the number chase!) that the only way I’d get to 250 is if something unexpected showed up in the yard. Well, on Christmas Day I got a nice surprise present, when a Sharp-shinned Hawk nailed a House Sparrow in mid-flight in the back yard, and then proceeded to consume it right outside our sunroom window. Not that rare of a species around here in winter, but when entering the sighting into eBird, I was surprised that I hadn’t recorded that species yet in 2019, and it was indeed #250!
250 species for the year…a nice number to end with! Not as nice a number as the rather miraculous 303 found by Kenny Miller this year (WOW…considering we’ve only had about 420 species total that have ever been seen in the state), but it was enough for me to end up tied for 6th in the state this year. Something I never thought I’d do as a birder…comparing my year in such a manner…but again, that’s what the wonderful eBird tools do to even a pretty non-competitive birder!!
Sprinkled in those #250 are some definite highlights for the year…new life birds (7 new birds never sighted before anywhere), or new life birds for the state of South Dakota (an additional 9 new South Dakota lifers). Here are some of those 2019 highlights….including some from a major 2019 (and lifetime) birding highlight that’s definitely NOT South Dakota focused.
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.
A researcher at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, dressed in white garb designed to emulate an adult Whooping Crane, and a young, 2-month old Whooping Crane “colt”. Researchers only interact with the young while wearing such outfits, to avoid any human imprinting on the young. Patuxent has played a vital role in conserving Whooping Cranes and bringing them back from the edge of extinction. Thanks to the GOP and this administration, the entire Whooping Crane program and its minuscule $1.5 million cost is being eliminated.
There are around 600 Whooping Cranes in the world, with about 30% of those in captivity. Of the few hundred birds in the wild, most breed near Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, while a smaller and more recently established breeding population is found in central Wisconsin. The species has become reestablished in the wild only due to strong conservation measures and to the diligent and long-term efforts of captive breeding and reintroduction programs such as the 51-year year effort at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. When the program started in 1966, only 42 Whooping Cranes were left. The dedicated efforts of Patuxent scientists were vital for bringing the species back from the edge of extinction.
In 2016, Patuxent scientists developed a plan that would wind down their captive breeding program, with a plan to end the program in another 10 to 15 years. Thanks to the Trump administration, that program is now in the process of being disbanded immediately. In a multi-TRILLION dollar federal budget, the $1.5 million U.S. Geological Survey budget for the Whooping Crane program was a minuscule drop in the bucket. But with a GOP political ideology that’s focused on corporate profit and short-term financial gain over ANY environmental concern, the death of the USGS’s Whooping Crane program is just one small part of a sinister, death-by-a-thousand-cuts to wildlife conservation in the United States.
The proposed cuts in both the proposed fiscal year 2018 and 2019 Trump budgets are more a declaration of war on the environment than they are a sound, fiscally responsible means of streamlining federal programs. The Ecosystems mission area of the USGS is responsible for an array of wildlife research and management programs: The Trump budget proposes a 30% cut in those programs for the coming fiscal year. Many programs are slated for complete elimination, including the popular Cooperative Research Units, a network of an onsite USGS presence on academic campuses across the US. Designed to foster local cooperative research on wildlife issues, the entire $25 million budget for the Coop units for 2019 is likely to be eliminated. The Climate and Land Use program is being forced to change its name to “Land Resources”, with nearly ALL climate-related research eliminated (as well as much of the landscape research). Eliminating even the WORD “climate” is a common theme in proposed budgets across ALL Federal agencies. The “Energy and Minerals” Mission Area is the one USGS mission that maintains most of its funding, but the proposed changes are startling in scope. While funding would remain stable or even increase for mineral resource exploitation, the entire “Environmental Health” program, designed to assess potential environmental consequences of resource extraction on Federal lands, is slated to be eliminated. In other words…we want to exploit the Federal lands that YOU AND I own, but we don’t want to even look at the environmental consequences of that exploitation.
Other agencies in the Department of Interior are also slated for severe cuts, including cuts to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service. The GOP goal is to transition the primary focus of DOI to the exploitation of our natural resources, with environmental concern and conservation efforts being severely curtailed. The Endangered Species Act, originally championed under the GOP and the Nixon Administration, is similarly under attack, with multiple efforts in Congress underway to undermine the law.
600 Whooping Cranes on the planet. 600 birds, found in only two concentrated breeding areas, and thus extremely susceptible to some disturbance or disease event, yet while the GOP attempts to raise our military spending by a ridiculous $70-80 BILLION a year, they have the gall to point to the $1.5 million Whooping Crane cost as a “luxury” that our Nation can’t afford. Not to mention a trillion-dollar tax cut for corporations and the rich at a time when corporate profits are at record levels.
There’s so many disgusting things happening in Washington right now that it’s hard to stay on top of all the latest headlines. Russia-gate, potential impeachment, obvious racism and bigotry emanating from the president himself (no, this president doesn’t get a capital “p”), mass killings and gun control issues…it’s overwhelming. Conservation stories such as these are having a hard time getting any play in the mainstream press. With the damage that’s being done RIGHT NOW, it will likely take decades for us to recover, after what’s shaping up to be four years of continuous and widespread attacks on our Nation’s wild resources, and the long-established programs designed to protect and manage them.
I just hope birds like the Whooping Crane can weather the storm until Americans come to their damned senses.
A young Whooping Crane in flight. As a young bird, it’s got a rusty wash on its head and spots on the wings, but even so…this is one BIG bird, and there’s really nothing like it. There’s certainly no bird that looks like this that can be legally shot in the U.S. Yet thanks to Homo redneckii, yet another Whooping Crane has fallen to a gunshot, the 12th in just 6 years. Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
I sometimes wonder if the human race is actually comprised of two species. On the one hand, you have Homo sapiens. I see the wonderful folks around me….family, friends, and co-workers who 1) care about their fellow human beings, 2) care about the world around them, and 3) care about their children’s future. On the other hand, you have another species, let’s call them “Homo redneckii“. Homo redneckii have been QUITE active lately (particularly around early November of last year). Homo redneckii have a strong paranoid streak. Instead of caring for their fellow human beings and participating in societal functions that ensure overall well-being of the species, Homo redneckii are all about…themselves. Homo redneckii don’t believe in the greater good. They don’t believe in social structures such as “government’, “law”, or even basic morality. Homo redneckii don’t give a damn about their fellow man, and rebel against even something as simple as paying taxes to support social programs. Homo redneckii are insecure and jealous, and sneer at the “elite” educated Homo sapiens who have clearly done better at life than themselves. Instead of working to better themselves, Homo redneckii will instead take the easy route and viciously try to bring others down to their level. In summary, Homo redneckii believe they can do whatever they want, that the world around them exists simply for their own personal exploitation, and the well-being of future generations means NOTHING if it might require even the tiniest of sacrifices.
As a scientist, as somebody who cares about the environment, and as someone who cares about my son’s future, the activities of Homo redneckii are often hard to swallow. It even often intersects my “safe haven” of birds and birding, the place I usually go to escape the madness of the world around me. Today was one of those days. A bit of backstory…
On three occasions I’ve been to the Platte River in Nebraska in March for the amazing Sandhill Crane migration. Hundreds of thousands of Cranes foraging in corn fields, flying overhead, roosting on sandbars by the evening…it’s an amazing sight, and that doesn’t even account for the many thousands of Snow Geese and other waterfowl that are also typically around at that time. In all the times I’ve seen Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska and up here in South Dakota, it’s always in the back of your mind that perhaps, just once if you’re lucky, you’ll see a flash of white, and a bird that’s considerably bigger than all of the others. It’s always in the back of your mind that perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to spot a migrating Whooping Crane.
Alas, I have yet to see a Whooping Crane, other than a captive bird. There have been a few false alarms, such as the time a couple of years ago when I saw a small flock of Sandhill Cranes flying overhead. It was from a long distance, but just behind the Sandhill Cranes was a very large white bird with dark wing tips. WHOOPING CRANE! That’s what first flashed through my mind, until, alas, the birds got closer and it was clearly “just” an American White Pelican. These kinds of misidentifications are common when out birding, where you’ll initially see a bird and believe it to be a certain species, only to note it’s a different species when you get a better look. What is quite clear though is that if I ever did come across a Whooping Crane, if I was anywhere within a few hundred yards, it would be quite easy to identify.
When you’re birding, and you initially misidentify a bird, it’s obviously no big deal. When you have a gun in your hand, it IS a big deal. One of the most accessed pages on my entire website is a page that helps to differentiate between Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Prairie Chickens. Do a quick google search, and you’ll find out the reason why. There are a number of hunting forums where somebody asks how to tell the difference between the two species, so they don’t accidentally shoot the “wrong” bird. It’s not just grouse and prairie chickens, it’s also quite obvious that hunters often have a hard time telling apart duck species or other game. Given that there may be a legal hunting season for one species, but not for another, somewhat similar-looking species, there’s obviously the potential for a trigger-happy hunter to shoot the “wrong” bird.
Evidently, there have been 12 “trigger-happy misidentifications” over the last 6 years, where hunters have shot and killed endangered Whooping Cranes in the U.S. As of 2015, there were only about 400 wild Whooping Cranes in existence. That’s up considerably from just 21 birds in the 1940s, but they are still obviously an endangered species, and losing ANY bird is a huge loss, much less having 12 shot by “mistake”. The latest happened just a week ago, when an adult Whooping Crane was shot and killed in southern Indiana. This bird was an adult female, one who had just laid an egg this summer and had it hatch. The youngster later died, but the loss of a breeding female who was able to successfully mate and hatch an egg is a huge loss for Whooping Crane conservation efforts.
Let’s dispense with the bullshit though about “misidentification”. Let’s face it…there’s no mistaking a Whooping Crane, not if it’s within range of a shotgun or a rifle. It’s the tallest bird in all of North America, and it’s a brilliant white bird. The only other large, white bird with a body shape and structure anything close to a Whooping Crane would potentially be a Great Egret, but 1) even a Great Egret is much, much smaller than a Whooping Crane, 2) Whooping Cranes have obvious black wing tips that would be visible in flight, and 3) IT DOESN’T MATTERif you confuse a Whooping Crane with a Great Egret, because it’s not legal to shoot EITHER species. I’ve lost count of how many hunter/hunting related “incidents” I’ve come across while out birding in South Dakota, incidents where I’ve personally witnessed (and reported) hunters shooting creatures they shouldn’t be shooting. I’ve come across plenty of hunters who are anything BUT sportsmen, men (yes…always men) who love their guns, love to shoot things, and don’t seem to care what they shoot. Given that it’s practically impossible to mistake a Whooping Crane for ANY legally hunted bird, I won’t give any benefit of the doubt to any of the 12 redneck hunters who shot and killed these 12 Whooping Cranes over the last 6 years.
It was a little over 3 years ago where a Whooping Crane was shot right here in South Dakota. Jeff Blachford, a 26-year old man from Miller, South Dakota, was apprehended and charged with the crime. Blachford was fined a hefty $85,000…a welcome change from past incidents, because other hunters who have shot Whooping Cranes have sometimes escaped ANY sort of penalty. The last time a Whooping Crane was shot in Indiana, prior to this recent event? It was just back in 2009. The hunter was identified and fined…ONE DOLLAR. Yes, a $1 fine for shooting one of the rarest birds in the world. It remains to be seen what happens in this latest incident. It appears that it’s still under investigation, and it doesn’t sound like they’ve found the perpetrator yet. Given the outrage after the last Indiana “sportsman” got off so easily, one would hope that the punishment would better fit the crime, should the redneck be identified.
I worry that homoredneckiism is actually a contagious disease. When Blachford shot the Whooping Crane in South Dakota a few years ago, I blogged about it, and was immediately innundated with emails from angry Homo redneckii from the Miller area. I’m not a religious man, but if I were? I’d pray for the poor folk around Miller, and other locations where Homo redneckiism has manifested. It’s spreading so quickly. There are some truly nice folk in South Dakota, but as this last election showed, many are also remarkably susceptible to Homo redneckiism. Hunting rights, paying taxes, (having a black president)…all issues that have proven to be triggers for homo redneckiism. In the midst of this major national flare-up of the disease, here’s hoping that a vaccine is on the horizon.
Otherwise, massive, brilliantly white, unmistakable birds like the endangered Whooping Crane might not survive.
The Fish & Wildlife Service notes that they want to get away from “artificial” methods of expanding the Whooping Crane range. They also note cost as an issue. As a Fed scientist, my best guess? It’s cost that’s the biggest factor here. I can at least sympathize with the thought of using only “natural” conservation methodologies, but c’mon. Would we have any Whooping Cranes moving between Wisconsin and Florida, without the use of ultralights and the program associated with it? What about other species? We’ve brought back California Condor from the brink of extinction by capturing all wild birds and initiating a captive-breeding program. Condors are now (rarely) starting to breed in the wild, but could they survive without “artificial” programs to support their population?
It ain’t easy being a Fed scientist in recent years! I’m sure Fish & Wildlife is in the same boat as many of us…long-term declining budgets, and the need to cut valuable research and conservation programs. It can certainly be expensive to implement and maintain programs such as those used for Whooping Cranes, California Condors, and other “iconic” species. There are definitely arguments that a focus on such “artificial” and expensive programs, efforts that benefit only one species, are not the most efficient use of ever-declining conservation and research dollars.
On the other hand, the public in general isn’t going to pay much attention to conservation efforts for a rare forb or insect. The value of programs for species such as Whooping Cranes and Condors goes beyond that individual species. When the general public sees stories in the mainstream press about young Whooping Cranes being led across the country by a person in an ultralight, it draws their interest. It makes them care. From that standpoint, it’s money well spent, as it opens up public discussion about conservation issues in general.
The cynical side of me looks at this story and sees that the total cost for the ultralight program has been around $20 million, with some of that coming from private funds. The cynical side of me looks at the Defense Department budget, hovering around $700 billion, and notes $20 million isn’t even enough to buy spare parts for their most ridiculously expensive fighter jet. The cynical side of me notes that for the cost of a handful of cruise missiles, we can continue to fund a program that may help save a species from disappearing from the face of the planet.
The cynical side of me gets a little depressed seeing stories like this…