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.
God I love the month of May. It’s the absolute perfect time of year in South Dakota, both in terms of weather, and especially in terms of birding! All the summer residents are arriving or have arrived, and we have SO many cool migrants moving through the state on their way north.
Today I got up before dawn and wanted to bird the morning hours. I arrived at Newton Hills State Park just before dawn, and right before I even pulled into the park, I saw a big shape in the trees on the side of the road. A Barred Owl! Only the 4th time I’ve seen them in the state, Barred Owls are few and far between in a state better known for its grasslands than forests. WONDERFUL way to start the day, particularly since it was such a photo-cooperative bird! The rest of the morning was spectacular as well…some photos from the day below.
Only the 4th time I’ve seen them in South Dakota, a gorgeous Barred Owl right before sunrise. He was in a forest clearing near the entrance to Newton Hills State Park in Lincoln County.
There’s a home on the edge of Hartford, South Dakota that has 3 Purple Martin houses. They seem to reliable hold Purple Martins every year, and this year was no exception. Beautiful birds, both in appearance and in song. It’s tough to get the good light on them though so you can see the purple! This is probably the best Purple Martin photo I’ve ever been able to get.
THIS is the sound of spring to me…a tiny Ovenbird, singing it’s heart out from the middle of the forest. There were many Ovenbirds singing at Newton Hills State Park this morning.
A Wilson’s Phalarope stretching its wings. Beautiful birds, particularly when you see them in large groups doing their “spinning” behavior at the top of the water as they feed.
A Virginia Rail, perhaps better named “Swamp Ghost”. I hear them all the time! Seeing them is another matter, but usually if you hang out in an area where they’re calling, you’ll eventually get a glimpse of one moving through the marsh.
A Yellow-rumped Warbler, by far the most common warbler we get moving through. This guy is a preview to the “big show”. Many Yellow-rumped Warblers are around right now, but not many other warbler species. That will change in the coming days…warbler migration in South Dakota can be spectacular!
Yeah, it’s been a while. Almost 3 months since any blog post. I’ve had rather major issues with Sjogren’s affecting my eyes, to the point that they’ve been so dry that my vision is affected. It’s hard to take bird photos when you can’t see! Thankfully I have some new “scleral lenses” that protect my eyes and keep them lubricated, and more importantly…I can see!
I dusted off the camera and went out for a couple of hours this morning. It was one of those COLD May days that we often seem to get in mid-May. 32 degrees, with a stiff breeze when I left this morning. That actually turned out to be a good thing, because some birds were behaving in a manner that they wouldn’t behave had the weather been warmer. We’ve had a wet spring, and there are a lot of wet fields and flooded ditches, so I was hoping for some shorebirds. Not much luck there, but it was a “birdy” day. Over a flooded grassy field west of Sioux Falls, I first came across a large flock of Black Terns. They’re not a species that seems to like the cold very much, and many were just sitting on the fence posts in the middle of the flooded field. As the sun rose higher and things began to warm about, they started to forage, flapping and dipping over the water periodically. They’ve always been one of my favorite species. With that dark breeding plumage, they’re so unusual compared to any other gull or tern you see around here.
Black Tern foraging over a flooded grassy field
Nearby at a very large grassy field, I was driving by slowly when I heard the familiar metallic tinkling of a singing Bobolink. Then I heard another. And another. The field was alive with Bobolinks, more than I’ve ever seen at one time before. Both males and females were present, but it did seem the males were more prevalent. At one point while I was stopped and looking around with my binoculars, I was able to see 15 male Bobolinks in 4 or 5 scattered little groups. It was a nice sight, given the issues Bobolinks have with loss of habitat around here.
Given that I wasn’t having much luck with shorebirds west of town, I decided to head to the area near Beaver Creek Nature Area, near my hometown of Brandon. It’s got some nice forested pockets, and in mid-May, it’s often alive with migrant songbirds. Warblers are the main attraction for me this time of year, and Beaver Creek didn’t disappoint. I only stayed for about 45 minutes given the cold, but came across a quite a few warblers, including Blackpoll, Black-and-White, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Magnolia, Palm, and Wilson’s Warblers.
A nice morning, and very good to get back in the swing of things!