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An actual day of BIRDING!!

After being given a new role at work a month ago, I’ve been traveling and quite busy. I was determined to do something today I haven’t done in quite a while…take a whole day and just go birding. I wasn’t exactly optimistic when the day started. I wanted to see if raptors were starting to show up in the central part of the state, but thought it was probably a little too early.

I needn’t have worried! There were still a lot of Red-tailed Hawks around, probably more than the Rough-legged Hawks I saw. That’s one sign it’s still early in the winter raptor season, as pretty soon Rough-legged Hawks will greatly outnumber Red-tailed Hawks in that part of the state. It’s also early for any Gyrfalcon to be around on the grasslands, as it seems they typically don’t do so until most of the water freezes (I assume they hunt waterfowl around open water). But overall, I had great weather and a boatload of raptors today.

I did my “usual” route…starting out around the Presho and Kennebec area near dawn, working my way west, then heading up towards Pierre, including a stop on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. For the day I ended up seeing at least 75 individual raptors, including ~10 Golden Eagles, ~10 Bald Eagles, ~25 Red-tailed Hawks, ~20 Rough-legged Hawks, plus 3 Ferruginous Hawks, 2 Prairie Falcons, several Northern Harriers, and even a Merlin.

Even better, I got a lifer below Oahe dam! A “photographic lifer”, a White-winged Scoter that was diving right next to shore and gobbling up crawfish. It’s a species I hadn’t seen before in South Dakota until about a week and a half ago, and today I was able to get some very close range photos.

A great day! And given how many raptors were around so early in the winter season, here’s hoping it’s an utterly spectacular winter for raptors in South Dakota. Some pics from the day:

Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos
One of the rare times a Golden Eagle has sat still on its perch while I snapped a photo. And even here, he only put up with me for a couple of quick shots before he slowly lifted off and sailed away.
Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis
Three Ferruginous Hawks for the day…always a treat. It was nice to get one in a natural perch, as I think every photo I have of them is in flight, or on a fence post.
White-winged Scoter - Melanitta deglandi
A (photographic) lifer! This White-winged Scoter was very close to the rip-rap along the shoreline below Oahe Dam. I ended up watching him for about 20 minutes, and in that time he caught and gobbled down two crawfish.
Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus
A Rough-legged Hawk in flight. Usually the most numerous raptor in the areas I go in winter, there were quite a few around, but I suspect many haven’t arrived yet.
Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis
The first bird of the day, a Red-tailed Hawk in the warm morning light of dawn. The most numerous raptor of the day, although as winter starts to set in, some of these will drift further south.
Red-tailed Hawk - Krider's
Another Red-tailed Hawk, but a VERY different looking one! This is what I would call a Krider’s…a very pale variant of a Red-tailed Hawk.
Lesser Black-backed gull - Larus fuscus
There were certainly a lot of gulls below Oahe Dam, taking advantage of the massive amount of water they’re pushing through right now in an effort to get water levels down by next spring. Including in the mix were at least three Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

South Dakota Winter – Best…photo…day…ever!!

Since I’m still not allowed to go back to work, I spent yet another day birding in the central part of the state. It was a day with lower overall numbers of raptors. I saw far fewer Rough-legged Hawks than normal. I didn’t see any Gyrfalcons, Snowy Owls, Short-eared Owls…some of the “goodies” you often find.  But birding and photography is funny! I’ve had awesome birding days where I got very few photos. Today was the opposite…not huge numbers of birds, but some really wonderful photo opportunities.  Here’s some pics from the day with a little info for each:

Prairie Falcon - Falco mexicanus

While it wasn’t a banner day for many of the “usuals”, I saw more Prairie Falcons (7) than I remember seeing in one day. “Seeing” and “photographing” are two very different things, however. Prairie Falcons are about THE shyest, most skittery raptor I know of. Today however I got a real treat. While birding in Jones County, I saw a falcon on a telephone pole. As I always do, I first stopped a long distance off, grabbed the binoculars, and tried to identify it. Definite Prairie Falcon. I then started to approach, and as ALWAYS happens with Prairie Falcons…it flew off LONG before I got into camera range.  But then something funny happened…it turned around. Still not expecting much, I got out of the pickup and grabbed my camera. But he came closer…and closer…and closer, and I soon realized he was going to fly RIGHT over my head! I couldn’t have asked for a better setup…bird approaching on a clear day, sun in the perfect position to get nice lighting on him, and he was CLOSE…closer than I think I’ve ever been to a Prairie Falcon. He passed right overhead, and then proceeded to…well…check out the next photo.

Prairie Falcon and Lapland Longspurs

As the Prairie Falcon flew towards me and over the field behind me, there was an eruption of Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks, and quite a few Snow Buntings. THAT got the Prairie Falcon’s attention. Instead of continuing to fly past and away from me, he again turned, and started to interact with the mixed flock of birds. At points it was almost like he was herding them! He never came as close as he did for the original overpass, but he offered some more really nice photo opportunities, and with several shots I captured some of his potential prey in the background. Despite scaring the flock of little birds, I never did see him actually make a strong move towards one. After a little while he seemed to get bored, and went back to a nearby telephone pole.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

I remember when I first started birding, and came across my first bald eagle. It was the winter of 1999/2000, and I thought it was the most magical experience I’d ever had! In the 20 years since then, Bald Eagles have become, well…downright COMMON! When I bird the central part of the state in winter, I always run across them. There are several nest locations in the area, and I always KNOW there will be Bald Eagles in a few select spots. One such spot is near Presho, and when I drove past it, sure enough…there were 4 Bald Eagles in a small grove of trees, 3 adults and one sub-adult. Given how often I’ve seen eagles there, I’m sure they’re the same ones, or the same family. As such, perhaps today they gave me a pass and stuck around and let me photograph them! Three of the birds were hidden within the branches or were towards the back of the grove, but one bold individual adult just stared at me from his perch, wondering what I was up to. I watched him for quite some time, before he did what many raptors do right before they’re about to take flight…he pooped and positioned himself to fly off. Those can be truly wonderful moments for photography, with some truly angelic poses. This is now probably one of my favorite Bald Eagle photos that I’ve taken (and I will add it to the hundreds of other Bald Eagle photos I already have!).

Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis

Not only did I have a banner day for Prairie Falcons, but I also saw more Ferruginous Hawks than I normally do…5. 4 of them were in Jones County, and the reason was obvious…Prairie Dogs. Without exception, all 5 Ferruginous Hawks on the day were in and around prairie dog towns. I do have a few photos of other color morphs, but today all were the same light color morph (the most common one). Some, like this bird, are SO snowy white on their undersides with barely a hint of marking, that I sometimes mistake them for Snowy Owls as I approach from a distance! One of my favorite bird species, hands down, and there’s a bonus with Ferruginous Hawks…they are MUCH more cooperative for bird photographers than nearly any other raptor species on the grasslands!

Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis

My longest birding lens, and the lens with which I’ve shot at least 95% of my photos with over the last 15 years, is a Canon 400mm 5.6L. Yes, it’s now 15 years old. But it has always been one SHARP lens, with some incredible detail when you get a bird filling the frame of a photo. The downside…most birders use a 500mm or 600mm, WITH a tele-extender. In short…they have a LOT more “reach” than I have! Because of that I’ve 1) learned how to overcome using a somewhat shorter lens, and 2) learned to accept I’m going to miss some shots where more length is required. However, that latter point is all bad. While I like photos with the birds filling the frame, I also like photos showing the bird interacting with its environment. Here, I came across another Ferruginous Hawk on a prairie dog town. I was nowhere near close enough to get a frame-filling photo, so instead worked on capturing his behavior as he “worked” the prairie dog town, alternating between sitting on the ground or a fence post, and flying through the prairie dog town looking for prey. I never did see him capture anything but it was fun to watch the behavior and try to catch it in a photo.

Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos

Speaking of “environment” photos…here’s a pair of Golden Eagles at the “usual” hangout. By “usual” I should say nearly ALWAYS. This was taken south of Presho, in one of my favorite birding locations. This fallen down structure nearly always…ALWAYS…has a golden eagle sitting on it! Well, during winter and in the morning, that is. When I make trips to this area, I usually try to make it to the Presho area by dawn, and this is one of the first areas I look for raptors. And I swear, 95% of the time when I drive past this fallen-down structure, there’s a golden eagle sitting on it. Today there were two eagles! This kind of winter-range site fidelity is pretty cool, and it’s not just these Golden Eagles. About 5 miles northwest of here, west of Presho, is a farmstead where I ALWAYS find a Northern Shrike in winter. ALWAYS. Has to be the same one, right? Again, not a frame filler of a photo, but I love showing these birds at their favorite hangout.

Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus

Ok, this one is cheating a bit. This one isn’t from Wednesday, January 9th, it’s from Friday, January 4th. Rough-legged Hawks aren’t as numerous this winter as they can be many winters, but there still are always at least a few hanging around. Here’s one taking flight in the early morning sunlight.

 

ID Challenge (for me!) – Glaucous vs. Iceland Gull

OK, I admit it. I often don’t have the patience to scan through large flocks of gulls to find the “oddball”, the one that ISN’T the seemingly ever-present Ring-billed Gull (here in South Dakota). Sometimes, however, you see something that’s clearly so different than you can’t help but notice. That was the case yesterday near Pierre, South Dakota, when I saw a large, nearly all white gull sitting on the ice.  My first thought when seeing the bird from a distance…Iceland Gull, since recent bird reports had frequently mentioned an Iceland Gull being seen in the area. At first glance, that seemed to “fit”.  However, as one who isn’t well-versed in the dark art (I’m think of you Ricky Olson!!) of multi-age gull discrimination…I wasn’t sure. It wasn’t until I got home, downloaded the photos, and did some sleuthing  where I think I can safely call this an immature (probably 2nd winter), quite pale Glaucous Gull. Why?

Immature Glaucous and Iceland Gulls both share some characteristics that were evident in this bird. 1) Pale overall, including pale wingtips without markings. 2) two-toned bill. 3) pink legs.  However, when looking at Sibley’s and online resources, it’s clear the bird has characteristics of a Glaucous Gull.  First…the bird’s size.  There were a handful of Ring-billed Gulls around, and this bird was clearly larger. Much larger. Iceland Gulls are larger than Ring-billeds, but Glaucous Gulls are MUCH larger. With the distance between the Ring-billed Gulls and this gull, it was a bit difficult to judge, but it really did look a much, much larger bird than the Ring-billed Gulls.

Secondly…the head. From this excellent site (South Dublin Birds), it’s noted Glaucous Gulls have a large, flat-topped head, while Iceland Gulls have a more delicate looking, rounded head. This bird clearly has the head shape of a Glaucous. Also…that site is the only one I found that notes a “tertial step”…a clear angle where the tertial feathers on wings meet the primaries when the wing is folded as in the first photo below. Here, you definitely see a clear “step” down where the tertials meet the primaries. Finally, the bill. Young Glaucous and Iceland Gulls both may share a two-toned bill such as this, but the Glaucous Gull has a heavy, longer bill, with parallel top and bottom edges. The Iceland Gull has a much more delicate and smaller looking bill.   The bill on this bird is quite large and shaped as a Glaucous.

So my final call…a first- or second-winter (probably second), very pale Glaucous Gull. Darker juveniles often have a lot of brownish speckling. This bird has a very small amount of that, primarily near the tail. Given that Glaucous Gulls gradually lose that speckling and it’s mostly gone by the third year, my guess is its a second-year bird that’s lost most of the speckling.  Third winter birds generally already have the pale gray mantle of an adult Glaucous Gull. This bird clearly doesn’t have that yet, so it can’t be a 3rd year or adult bird.

In short…the bird looks very similar to the Sibley drawing of a 2nd-winter Glaucous Gull (Page 220 of my Sibley’s guide!).

There…that wasn’t so painful! And it was kind of an interesting challenge to ID. Perhaps next time I come across a flock of gulls, I’ll pay a little more attention and do some similar sleuthing!

Glaucous Gull - Larus hyperboreus

A large, pale gull found near Pierre, South Dakota. Given that others had reported an Iceland Gull in the area, that was must first thought. But upon getting home and seeing the photos in detail, I’m pretty sure now this is a very pale, immature Glaucous Gull. Reasons…1) The heavy two-toned till, with top and bottom roughly parallel. Immature Iceland Gulls also can have a two-toned bill like this, but it’s smaller and more delicate. 2) Head shape…large, flat topped. Iceland Gulls heads are more rounded and smaller looking. 3) “Tertial Step” – an ID characteristic where there’s a distinct “step” where the tertial feathers meet the primaries (unlike Iceland).

Glaucous Gull - Larus hyperboreus

With wings spread, you can see the complete lack of markings on the wings. However, the pale wings, pink legs, and brownish mottling (VERY pale and not widespread on this bird) can be found on both Iceland and Glaucous Gull.

Glaucous Gull - Larus hyperboreus

Another photo of the bird taking flight, showing the unmarked wings (again, characteristic of both Iceland and Glaucous).

Photo / Haiku of the Day – Dakota Prairie Falcon

Prairie Apparition

Prowling Dakota skies

A flash across desolate plains

bound for the horizon

Prairie Falcon - Falco mexicanus

When I head to the central part of the state in winter to photograph raptors, I usually do come across a handful of Prairie Falcons during the course of the day. Falcons in general seem to be camera shy, but these guys are particularly difficult to photograph. They tend to flush long before I can get within camera range. There’s always that oddball individual bird, however, and this is one of them. As with every other Prairie Falcon I come across, he DID flush early, while I was still perhaps 50 yards away. However, he was curious! I’d given up on him, but to my surprise he started circling back towards me. I stopped the car and got my camera ready, and was rewarded by a flyby at perhaps 30 feet up, right along the road past my car. One of my favorite falcon shots, given the difficult I’ve photographing these guys. I also love the pose, with the eye contact and the warm morning light.

Winter’s Omen – Photo / Haiku of the Day

Winter’s Omen

Charming you may be,

Harbinger of glacial hell.

Snow Bird? PLEASE GO BIRD. 🙂

Dark-eyed Junco - Junco hyemalis

I saw the first Dark-eyed Junco (what many people around here call “Snow Birds”) of the season in my yard this afternoon. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate having them around in winter. However, they are sometimes the ONLY species in my yard in winter. Seeing one now is the first sign of the impending wintry, Dakota hell, a hell that may not be over until they leave next April. Cute you may be! But I MUCH prefer the seasons when you are not around!!

Compact Endothermic Mouse Defrosting Unit (CEMDU)

The calendar is changing over to October, which means fall migration is in full swing.  It’s not a cheery time for a birder in South Dakota!  Winters are long, and bird species and numbers are both WAY down compared to the other three seasons. However, there are a few bright spots!  What “saved” winter for me a few winters ago was the sheer delight in finding a species I’d never seen around southeastern South Dakota.

Up until that winter (3 years ago, 2015-2016), the only place I’d seen a Northern Saw-whet Owl was along the Missouri River near Pierre. Birders there found that they liked to winter in the cedar trees along the river. There are a few areas around my part of South Dakota that also have thick stands of cedar, so I thought I’d spend some time that winter searching for the little guys. It was very discouraging at first.  It’s not easy searching through the thick cedar stands! I started in mid-November, searching for signs…the “white-wash” of their poop that you can find on the ground and branches below a daytime roost, or actual regurgitated pellets.  I DID occasionally find owl-sign, but for a good month…no owls.

Then in late December 2015, I went to Newton Hills State Park. Birders had reported hearing a Northern Saw-whet Owl during a Christmas Bird Count, so I thought I’d leave before dawn, and spend several hours looking.  It was a miserable day…cloudy with a very thick, icy fog, and I got a later start than I had planned. By the time I got there, the sun had already risen, and I was sure I wasn’t going to hear any calling owls. However, the fog was SO thick, that it was still relatively dark and gloomy when I arrived. It was only moments after stepping out of my car that I heard a calling Saw-whet Owl!  I headed in the general direction, and by the time I got close, the owl had stopped calling. I slowly made my way into the cedar thicket, and almost immediately found fresh looking signs that an owl had been there. White-wash on the ground as well as pellets!  I then slowly raised my head, hoping to see an owl sitting in the branches directly above the whitewash.  No such luck!  DAMN….IT.  After spending so much time looking, I was getting frustrated and was convinced I’d never actually find one.  I turned around to head out of the thicket, took about 3 steps, and walked into a commotion just above my head.  Owl!  He was only about 6 feet away from all the whitewash, but in a different spot, and I had accidentally caused him to flush when I walked past.

AAAARRGGGGHHH!!! I was at once both happy that I actually got a glimpse of an owl, but frustrated that I missed seeing him before I got so close he flushed. No photograph. Sigh. I continued the search though, and about 15 minutes later, found another location with whitewash and pellets.  And this time…success!  I looked directly above the whitewash, and staring back down at me from about 10 feet up in the cedar tree was a gorgeous little Saw-whet Owl!

I had a blast the rest of that winter. I found several more in the Newton Hills Area, and also 4 more near Lake Alvin just south of Sioux Falls. Overall that winter I found at least a dozen different Northern Saw-whet Owls!  What was striking was how incredibly tame they were. That first owl on that foggy morning was the only one I saw that winter that actually flushed. Several times I was able to approach an owl and get mere feet away, and instead of flushing, I was typically greeted by a disinterested yawn.

This photo is one of my favorites from that winter. Northern Saw-whet Owls are tiny critters.  Their prey is often small voles and mice, but even those are too much for them to consume in one sitting. They will often catch a vole or mouse, eat half of it, and cache the other half in the nook of a tree branch. They then come back later and retrieve the cache, but in our cold winters, they have to thaw it before finishing their meal.  Thus, I’d read you could sometimes find a Northern Saw-whet Owl “defrosting” a mouse.  One morning I was lucky enough to witness such an event, as this grumpy-looking guy was busy defrosting breakfast when I came across him.

A “Compact Endothermic Mouse Defrosting Unit”!!  One of my favorite memories from that winter. As the weather turns colder here, I’m hoping to again find these handsome little birds this winter.

Northern Saw-whet Owl - Aegolius acadicus

A Northern Saw-whet Owl, defrosting it’s morning breakfast.

Who says blackbirds are boring?

It’s been a busy weekend catching up on projects around the house, but I did take advantage of the cool, crisp morning to get out and bird. It wasn’t a great morning. I did come across some migrant warblers, including Canada and Black-throated Green, two I don’t see all that often, but overall it was pretty slow. One thing you do see this time of year though are mixed flocks of blackbirds gathering, and I came across several on the way home. I do sometimes stop to scan them for “goodies” like Rusty Blackbirds, but alas, no Rusty’s this morning.

However, I did stop and watch the biggest flock for a while, and grabbed the camera. Like many birders and bird photographers, I tend to take certain birds for granted, but there really are some beautiful plumage patterns on fall blackbirds here. The flock was primarily Common Grackles, but there were a number of Red-winged Blackbirds, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and European Starlings mixed in.

By the time I got home, I considered the morning a disappointment, as I didn’t think I really got any really nice photos. Once I started downloading and processing photos, though, my attitude changed. These birds aren’t exactly the poster-child for “coveted” birds for birders (or photographers), but there are certainly some gorgeous colors and patterns on these birds. The fall plumage of a young Red-winged Blackbird, and the non-breeding plumage of a European Starling, are both wonderful in terms of the intricate patterns. Blackbirds, boring?  I think I may have changed my tune after this morning.

European Starling - Sturnus vulgaris

Non-breeding plumage European Starling. Probably one of the least-liked birds in North America, given their non-native status and tendency to compete for nesting sites with native birds. But after being here for nearly 140 years…they’re established. They’re not going anywhere. They’re “ours”. And damn it, they are DARNED attractive birds.

Common Grackle - Quiscalus quiscula

Common Grackles ARE native…but for those of us who feed birds in our yards, they may have a worse reputation than European Starlings. They’re pigs! They drive away other birds! In my yard, I’ve seen them kill and consume young fledglings. But…that iridescence, those colors…they are striking birds in the right light.

Red-winged Blackbird - Agelaius phoeniceus

Red-winged Blackbirds may be the most common bird in the state in the summer. I do like the plumage of the young birds, with this young male starting to show a bit of what will be his trademark red shoulder patch.

 

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Prairie Ghost

The Prairie Ghost

Swift ghost of the prairie

shepherding harem and young

As winter’s despair beckons

Pronghorn Buck - Antilocapra americana

Custer State Park’s famed “Wildlife Loop” never disappoints, but it’s just after dawn when the magical moments occur. Pronghorn are often seen in Custer State Park, but they are typically easier to spot in the early morning hours, before most visitors start to arrive in the park. On this morning, a harem of perhaps 6 females and their young-of-the-year surprised me by cresting a nearby hill. They then slowly worked their way towards me as they grazed, unconcerned about the photographer in the parked car. Last to crest the hill was the big male, the protector of the little band. I watched for 15 minutes as the herd fed in the adjacent grasslands. As they slowly moved on down the hill, the trailing buck paused for a moment to give me a stare.  I evidently passed his judgement, and he then trotted off after his harem as they disappeared around the bend.  The grasslands were still lush from a wet and bountiful summer and forage was good, but the leaves were beginning to change, and a harsh South Dakota winter was just around the corner.

Differentiating Female (and male) Goldfinch Species

I was on travel for work this week which mean any blogging or work on my website was delayed. When I returned, I had an email that was thanking me for my “Difficult Bird ID” page, where you can find information on differentiating between commonly confused species. There was also a request to add another page, discussing how to tell apart the three North American goldfinch species. I don’t normally think of goldfinches as a particularly difficult group to identify, but then again, here in eastern South Dakota, we only have the one species. Overall, geography is obviously a huge part of identifying goldfinches, as in the eastern half of the country, the only species of goldfinch you’ll find are American Goldfinch.  However, if you happen to find yourself in parts of the southwestern US, you have three goldfinch species you may potentially encounter, with Lesser Goldfinch and Lawrence’s Goldfinch join the party.

The woman who sent the email lived in California and specifically was trying to figure out how to easily identify female goldfinches. That does represent more of a challenge than differentiating male goldfinches, and given that my Difficult Bird ID pages are some of the most visited pages on my entire website, I thought tonight I would go ahead and create another page that talks about ID keys for the three species.

As with many “difficult” IDs, for birders I think that difficulty melts away with experience, particularly when given keys to look for.  Creating a page such as this helps me as well!  I don’t run into Lesser Goldfinch, for example, unless I travel, but I don’t know if I could have identified a female goldfinch as either Lesser or American in the areas they overlap in range, until creating this page. Now I’ll know what to look for (bill color, and undertail covert color are giveaways).

A bit of a pain to create these pages, but as I said, they are frequently visited.  Click below for the new Goldfinch ID page.

Identifying North American Goldfinch Species

Identifying Goldfinch Species (female)

Females of the three North American goldfinch species. Males in breeding plumage? Piece of cake. A little bit harder for the females (particularly American and Lesser), but not bad when you know what to look for.

POTD – Costa’s Hummingbird with splash of pollen

Today I worked out in the back yard. All. Day. Long.  I’m beat, but got a lot done, and it was a nice day. A bonus…it was nice seeing all the birds coming to my feeders, including a still very active hummingbird feeder.

This is my yearly, gloomy post, focusing on the fact that my hummingbirds are about to leave me for, oh…8 months. The males already are slipping away, as most of the birds I now get are females and young. I have about 4 more weeks before they all disappear.

But this year shall be different! I refuse to go 8 months without seeing a hummingbird!  We are taking a family vacation this winter to Arizona, and while it’s not exactly prime hummingbird season in either variety or number, there are still plenty of hummingbirds around at that time of year. Today’s POTD is a Costa’s Hummingbird who obviously had just fed, from Madera Canyon in Arizona in November 2011.

Costa's Hummingbird - Calypte costae

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