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Eagle Nest and Young near Sioux Falls

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) occupying a nest with young

A very windy day, but with time for finding migrant warblers and shorebirds drawing to a close in the next few weeks, I wanted to go out to see what I could find of either group. The answer…not much! It was such a snowy winter and wet spring, and there are flooded fields and other great shorebird habitat everywhere you look, but someone forgot to tell the shorebirds to show up. Warblers haven’t been much better, as so far with the relatively cold last week+, there haven’t been good numbers of migrant warblers, other than the ubiquitous Yellow-rumped.

I’m not going to complain, as it has been a great spring for migrant sparrows and some other species. So while the day started with a focus on warblers and shorebirds, it ended with something very different. I was driving in Minnehaha County, and saw a road closed sign, with a lot of water about half a mile down the road. Thinking it might be a good place to see shorebirds, I went down the road to the place it was washed out. There were a handful of shorebirds (Pectoral Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs), but it was pretty quiet. However, in a stand of some of the tallest cottonwood trees I’ve ever seen was a MASSIVE nest…clearly a Bald Eagle nest. It was a good 200 yards from where I parked and I couldn’t see much, so I did a bit of wading through the washed out road until I got a little bit closer and could see through a gap in the branches. I was rewarded by the sight of an adult Bald Eagle perched on the edge of the nest.

It was a windy, not really pleasant day, but I found a little protected spot near a bridge, a hunkered down to watch for a while. I wanted to try to see if there were any young in the nest, or perhaps see the adults bring food back to the nest. For about half an hour, not much happened, as the lone adult sat on the nest without moving much. Finally she stood up, shook her feathers a few times, and took flight. Off she went along the path of the flooded creek, stopping once and circling a bit when it seemed that something caught here guy, before continuing down the creek and disappearing.

The nest in the meantime seemed unoccupied, and it made me wonder if she’d successfully nested that year. The lack of her mate during the whole episode also made me wonder if she just hadn’t mated this year. However, about 5 minutes after she flew off, a head popped up along the edge of the nest…a young eagle! Then another head, another young bird that looked a little smaller and less developed than the first. Not a lot happened for the nest 20 minutes or so, with the 2 young birds not moving much, but with heads clearly visible in the nest.

Then about half an hour after the adult left the nest, an adult came flying in along the road. Whether it was the adult on the nest previously, I don’t know, but clearly it was one of the parents of the two young. It didn’t appear to have food or anything for the young, and landed on a branch some 20 yards from the nest. Not long after landing, she began to be harassed. The tall cottonwoods must have had some cavities, because there were several European Starlings flying in and around the trees, and they weren’t happy with the Eagle’s presence. They didn’t directly harass the parent, but one resident of the cottonwood grove certainly did…a Red-headed Woodpecker. With some vocalizations that carried through even the heavy wind, the woodpecker twice flew at the Bald Eagle before landing in a branch above it and giving it a good scolding. The eagle scolded the Red-headed Woodpecker right back at one (giving me a great photo opp!), before the two settled into an uneasy truce.

About 5 minutes after landing on the branch, the adult eagle flew to the nest, and settled in. Once she arrived, the young again disappeared and were no longer visible on the edge of the nest. That was still the situation when I departed.

No shorebirds…no warblers…but a wonderful morning spent watching the eagle family try to raise a family. They certainly chose a wonderful spot, in the middle of nowhere (for Minnehaha County), in the tallest trees in the area, and surrounded by a heavily flooded creek flowing around the trees that made it impossible for any land creature to get close to them. From the size of the young it looks like she was well on her way to successfully fledging a pair of young, whether or not she was doing it on her own.

Bald Eagle Young (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in a Nest
Two young eagles, peering over the edge of their nest. It was only during the 30 minutes or so that a parent wasn’t around the nest that the two made themselves visible, pretty much the opposite behavior as I would expected! I’d have thought that without a parent nearby, they’d want to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible.
Bald eagle - Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) near nest site
A war of words between the adult Bald Eagle and a Red-headed Woodpecker that did a couple of fly-bys. This was a little after she came back to the trees where the nest was, after being gone for about half an hour (or it is the 2nd adult).

Eagle Convention at Splitrock Creek

After 17 or so years of using one lens for bird photography (a Canon 400mm 5.6L), I ordered a new lens that arrived Monday…the Canon 100-400mm 4.5/5.6L IS II that I’ve mentioned previously.  The timing was fortuitous, as late this week we’ve had something rather unprecedented happen for the area around our little town. We’ve had severe flooding, flooding which is actually supposed to get worse early next week as all the snow pack north of us melts. Splitrock Creek runs through our little town of Brandon, and in the wake of the flooding it has left massive ice chunks all along banks and roads near the river. But it also left scads of dead Asian Carp and other fish.

Seemingly overnight, the area around our town has been inundated with Bald Eagles. We actually have an active Bald Eagle nest less than a mile from our house, a nest that’s been used continuously for about the last 6-7 years.  It’s not rare to see one or sometimes even two Bald Eagles while out and about near our town. Today however, I was on a bridge over Splitrock Creek, and from that one spot I counted 29 Bald Eagles. In…one…spot.  There have been eagles in varying concentrations all along a 10-mile stretch of Splitrock Creek that I’ve checked out this week.

When I started birding 20 years ago, I still remember seeing my first Bald Eagle along the Big Sioux River near Canton. I remember the excitement of seeing such a majestic bird. It’s amazing how rapidly their numbers have increased in the last few decades, as I can now be in any part of South Dakota, in any season, and it’s not a surprise to see one or more Bald Eagles. Even when I visit the grasslands in the central part of the state, an area that is far from any significant river or lake, I find Bald Eagles, sometimes in big numbers. A true success story for American conservation!  But even on a night like tonight where eagles are seemingly everywhere, it’s still a thrill to see and photograph these birds.  Some photos from today:

Young Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Young (3rd year?) Bald Eagle, flying over Splitrock Creek near Corson, South Dakota. However, it’s not just young birds that are in our area right now. In fact, a majority of the Bald Eagles I’ve seen in the last few days have been fully mature birds.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A mature Bald Eagle flying over the trees near Brandon. There were plenty of mature Bald Eagles around, but they were seemingly shyer than the young birds.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Another young Bald Eagle sitting on a tree stump northeast of Corson. While most birds are along Splitrock Creek, there are so many birds around that they seem to have spilled out onto the surrounding farmland as well.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A mature Bald Eagle hanging out on a chunk of ice left behind by the flooding at Splitrock Creek north of Brandon. This is perhaps the most common “perch” for these guys right now, as most of them that I’ve seen have been among the ice flows, where the dead fish are concentrated.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A long-distance shot, but it gives you an idea of the concentration of the eagles. There are 10 in this one shot, sitting on stranded ice blocks on a sandbar in the receding Splitrock Creek. This is the location where I saw 29 birds at once today.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

An even longer-distance shot, showing a common sight in the trees near Splitrock Creek this week. There are 8 birds in this one tree, but it’s this group of trees where a local farmer told me there were 75 roosting overnight earlier this week.

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Grebe Family

Downy striped young grebe

hidden world below the reeds,

staying close to mom

Pied-billed Grebe and Young

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.

 

 

Burrowing Owl? Here?!? POTD – From 10 years ago today

It was 10 years ago when I had one of my better birding moments. There are always those great trips to “new” places that get the birding juices flowing, but one of the best aspects of birding is that you never know what you might see when you go out.

It was 10 years ago that I was coming back from a business trip. I flew into the Sioux Falls airport and was driving back to my little home town of Brandon (about 6 miles west of Sioux Falls). I was driving by an open alfalfa field, when I noticed a bird on a post.  It was a…no…couldn’t be…yes! a Burrowing Owl!  Here in far eastern South Dakota, just a few miles from Minnesota. Historically Burrowing Owls used to be around here, but there hadn’t been a breeding record of Burrowing Owls anywhere close to here in decades.  Our grassland is gone, and we just don’t have the prairie dogs or other creatures that Burrowing Owls are often found with.  Yet here was an adult Burrowing Owl, hanging out on a fence post, in early August.

I quickly drove the last 4 miles home, got my camera and returned. Upon looking around I saw another Burrowing Owl…and another…and another.  There were two adults, and at least four young!! It didn’t take long to find their home. They were using an old badger hole, in the middle of the alfalfa field by the road.  The young were already as big as the parents, although with a different plumage. I had a blast for the next month, watching the little Burrowing Owl family feed on grasshoppers, crickets, and other little critters, primarily using a big CRP (?) grassland that was right next to the alfalfa field. By early September they started disappearing, one by one.

That alfalfa field is now on a corn and soybeans rotation. The CRP field they were using to forage? Also plowed under, used for corn and soybeans. In the 10 years since, I’ve never again seen a Burrowing Owl anywhere close to  my part of the state. But I’ll always remember the little Burrowing Owl family that successfully fledged several young, just 4 miles from my house.  Here’s one photo I took at night, of one of the adults foraging for insects alongside the road.

Burrowing Owl - Athene cunicularia

Checking in on the neighbors – Nesting Bald Eagles

Nesting Bald Eagles - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A photo from a couple of days ago, with one of the adults sitting on the nest. They’ve been doing so for over a month now, and with the leaves not yet out on the cottonwood tree, it’s a wonderful time to observe them from afar. Click for a larger view.

As far as neighbors go, you could do worse than a pair of nesting Bald Eagles. These neighbors moved in about 10 years ago, building a massive nest in a huge cottonwood tree along the Big Sioux River, less than a mile from our home (a mere 4,400 feet as the crow flies, according to Google Earth!). The first nest lasted a year or two before a flood event felled the big cottonwood, but thankfully, they responded by simply picking another big cottonwood and rebuilding the nest.

If you haven’t seen a Bald Eagle nest, it’s a damned impressive structure!  They continually build it up, and it’s pretty amazing to see the size of some of the branches they try to pick up and incorporate into the nest. The nest now has to be 10 feet across, and keeps growing each year. And why not? It seems to be working for them, as they appear to have successfully raised a number of broods over the years.

This year, they’ve been sitting on the nest for a least a month, and I’m sure they once again have eggs.  I haven’t seen any lil’ heads poking up yet, so I’m not sure they’ve hatched yet.  Now is the perfect time to observe them, and I often have seen the young in the nest. But alas, in a month the cottonwood will have leafed out and made direct observation much more difficult. Often then the next observations you get of the young themselves is when they fledge from the nest, but they always hang around the same tree for quite some time afterwards.

Very cool neighbors! And neighbors that I’d bet most people don’t know are there. The nest itself is hard to miss, given it’s massive size.  You can easily see it from the north-south highway running through our town of Brandon. But people around here are always surprised to hear that we have such majestic birds nesting right on the edge of town.

Long-billed Curlew Encounter

What a magical weekend!  My son and I continue to be enthralled with our new hobby…being rockhounds, looking for agates, petrified wood, rose quartz, and whatever else we may come across on the designated collection spots on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. We stayed overnight Saturday near Philip, South Dakota, and then were searching on Saturday evening and Sunday morning.  The geologic finds were extraordinary (more on that in a later post), but the biggest thrill of the trip for me was an encounter with Long-billed Curlew, a species I haven’t had very good looks at in South Dakota. Saturday evening, we couldn’t have asked for a closer, good look at a wild Long-billed Curlew. The story…

Long-billed Curlew - Numenius americanus

We first saw the curlew as it flew over the gravel road we were on, and landed in the grasslands on the west side of the road. It stood there staring at us from some distance, while my son and I got out of the car to take photos. We started taking photos, and then walked through the ditch to the fence line to get a bit of a closer view. Much to our surprise, instead of retreating (as most birds do when you approach…especially if you have a camera!!) it started walking directly TOWARDS us.

Long-billed Curlew - Numenius americanus

It wasn’t stopping! As I furiously snapped photo after photo, the curlew kept advancing directly towards our position, marching very purposely directly at us! It stopped less than 20 feet away, and began walking back and forth, often stopping to cast a wary look at us and let out a cry.

Long-billed Curlew - Numenius americanus

We remained motionless, standing at the fence line while the curlew paced and sized us up. Finally, it seemed to have had enough and started walking even CLOSER to us. Soon it was too close for me to get the entire bird in the photo frame. Sensing what was going on, we started to back up towards the car as the curlew stared DIRECTLY at us and gave us the scolding of a lifetime.

Long-billed Curlew (Fledgling) - Numenius americanus

We were a little slow on the uptake, but given the adult bird’s behavior, it became obvious that it was upset that we were too close to a nest, or to its young. It wasn’t until we got back in the car and started to drive away that we spotted them…one…then TWO beautiful little spotted puffballs that had been crouching down in the prairie grass, perhaps 20 yards off the road. As we drove away, the adult quickly strode over to its two downy young. Once again the family was together, and safe from the pair of two-legged interlopers who had so rudely interrupted!

Sunset over the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

Sunset over the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, on the edge of the Badlands. This was just an hour and a half after the Curlew encounter, with the intervening time spent looking for agates and other geologic finds. A GORGEOUS end to an absolutely spectacular evening.

Owl Fledgling Video

Not anything of mine, but ran across this video of an young owl having a standoff with a police officer and had to share…

http://gazette.com/owl-with-an-attitude-wins-face-off-with-colorado-deputy/article/1556220

Fringe Benefits of Birding

White-tailed Deer Fawn - Odocoileus virginianus

A young white-tailed deer fawn. He clearly wanted mom, given how he kept looking around and bleating for her.

Ever since I got my first SLR camera 15 years ago, I’d say 98% of the photos I’ve taken have been of birds.  When I go birding, as I did this afternoon, I have binoculars and camera in hand, and birds on my mind.  On rare occasions, I’ll note some spectacular landscape and take a photo, but it has to be pretty spectacular! After all, if I want to shoot a landscape, I have to change lenses…WAY too much trouble for a bird photographer!  One of the fringe benefits of going out birding though IS running into unexpected sights, be it a beautiful landscape or some creature that happens to cross your path. If I get a good opportunity to shoot an animal other than a bird, I will generally do it, unless it’s something really common.  I usually don’t give a second thought to all the deer I run across, given how common they are.  But today was something different.

As I turned on a gravel road, there on the side of the road in front of me was a tiny, spotted White-tailed Deer fawn.  With all the deer I’ve seen, it’s not often I see young fawns, and I had absolutely no photos of them until today.  When I turned the corner, he looked at me and gave a little bleat.  I got the camera in hand, fully expecting him to run before I could get a photo, but…he just stood there, and gave another bleat.  I took a number of photos while he looked around, occasionally bleating, but he didn’t move more than a few steps.

I’m sure he was calling for mom, but despite watching the little guy/gal for 15 minutes or so, I never saw the mother deer.  He slowly meandered off into a grassy area before laying down, although I could still occasionally hear him bleating from his now hidden location.

It’s tough out there for a little guy! As I drove away I couldn’t help but feel a little worried about him, hoping his mom came back soon.

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