A lifer! White-eyed Vireo

White-eyed Vireo -Vireo griseus

About a week and a half ago, I was birding in Newton Hills State Park, along Sergeant Creek. It’s a well-known area for birding, and seems to be a bit of a migrant trap, with a number of unusual (for South Dakota) birds seen there. As I was walking up the trail along the creek, I heard a bird singing in a clump of flowering bushes. The song was…a mess…all over the place, variable, with some harsh notes thrown in. For a second I thought it was a weird Gray Catbird song, but it didn’t seem right. I stopped and paused, and it wasn’t long before I found the culprit…White-eyed Vireo!! A lifer!!

White-eyed Vireos are normally found as summer breeding birds in the Southeastern United States, making it as far north as Pennsylvania and Massachusetts in the Northeast, and as far west as the southeastern quarter of Iowa. The map at the bottom shows eBird sightings for White-eyed Vireo in South Dakota. There’s not many! EBird has two sightings in the Sioux Falls Area…one that was banded up in Aberdeen…one seen in the Black Hills…one at Union Grove State Park…and now this bird at Newton Hills. I also seem to remember Bridget J. seeing one at Newton Hills last spring (?) but I don’t see it in eBird. This past weekend, a group of Sioux Falls birders also found the bird, in the same location where it was seen the week before.

The problem though with my first sighting…I couldn’t get a photo! He was a vocal little sucker, singing his heart out and flitting through the foliage, but I never got any good photo chances. Tonight I went back, not really looking for the White-eyed Vireo but walking the same trail. I was only about 10 yards further down the trail than last time when I heard the same unique song. He was still there! This time I was determined to get a photo. He was still foraging in the same general area, actively moving through the bushes and nearby trees, flying out a few times to flycatch. But like last time, he would always land back in the foliage. It took a while, but I was finally able to find a little opening in the twigs and foliage to get a few shots of him while he paused for a moment.

After 20 years of birding, it’s getting harder and harder to get a lifer in South Dakota…it’s always great when you find one! I hope this one beats the odds, sticks around, and somehow finds a mate to join him on his lil’ South Dakota vacation.

EBird White-eyed Vireo sightings for South Dakota.
EBird White-eyed Vireo sightings for South Dakota. Not very many! The Red X marks the location of this sighting in Newton Hills State Park.

Bonanza of Bitterns

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:

American Bittern - Botaurus lentiginosus
American Bittern May 11th, 2019 Near Grass Lake, Minnehaha County, South Dakota. This one was EXTREMELY close to the road and allowed as good of looks at an American Bittern as I’ve ever had.
American Bittern - Botaurus lentiginosus
American Bittern May 11th, 2019 Near Grass Lake, Minnehaha County, South Dakota. A lot further out than the first, and not in nearly as good a hiding spot! Bitterns usually can be hard to spot, but this guy didn’t get the message on how Bitterns are supposed to act. I think the fact that he isn’t even bothering to stretch his neck out and act like brown cattails shows that he knew he blew it. 🙂
American Bittern - Botaurus lentiginosus
An instant favorite and the cover shot of my main website page, this American Bittern had a buddy! I watched this one for about 5 minutes while the Yellow-headed Blackbird flitted around the general area where he was “hiding”, hoping to get a shot like this with both birds.

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).

Solved! One of life’s 3 big mysteries

Orange-crowned Warbler - Vermivora celata

When I woke this morning, I had no idea that by the end of the day, I would have solved one of life’s three biggest mysteries. These are questions of profound importance that have bedeviled mankind ever since we pulled ourselves out of the muck, learned to walk upright, and started pointing binoculars at birds. Of course I’m talking about the “Big 3”:

  1. Does a Ring-necked Duck have a ringed neck?
  2. Where’s the red on a Red-bellied Woodpecker’s belly? and,
  3. What color crown does an Orange-crowned Warbler have?
Yellow-rumped Warbler - Setophaga coronata
Yellow-rumped Warblers and Orange-crowned Warblers seem to be best buds in migration, often hanging out together. One big difference between the two…Yellow-rumped Warblers are PROPERLY NAMED, with an obvious yellow rump.

Now, Orange-crowned Warblers are one of the most common migrant warblers we have in the state, just behind the Yellow-rumped Warbler. But you know what my friends? YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS ACTUALLY HAVE, like, you know…YELLOW RUMPS!!! So where does that leave us with Orange-crowned Warblers?

I always thought the naming of Orange-crowned Warblers was kind of a cosmic joke. Someone saw a rather plain bird with a touch of color but really no contrasting features whatsoever, and said…HEY! Let’s have some fun with this! Instead of something like “Drab Olive Warbler”, let’s call it an Orange-crowned Warbler!

After seeing a number of Orange-crowned Warblers, tonight I’d had enough. When one started flitting around the crabapple tree right outside my sunroom window, I decided to get down to the bottom of it all. Now, my wife knows I talk to birds. Hell, I do it all the time, particularly when I really get excited! You can be DAMNED sure that when I saw that Whooping Crane a week and a half ago that we had one of the longer, more fulfilling conversations I’ve ever had in life. Usually I just say whatever pops into my head, with deep, thoughtful conversational elements such as “hey sweetie!!”? Or “You’re a pretty bird!” When a bird is extremely cooperative and has allowed a number of good photos, it’s not unusual for me to toss out a “Thank you sweetie” as I depart. (If you’re wondering…sadly for me…every word of this is true).

Now, I admit those conversations are usually very one sided, so today when I started talking to the Orange-crowned Warbler in my crabapple, I wasn’t expecting the bird to engage. However, much to my surprise, when I softly muttered “now where’s that supposed orange crown of yours?”, the bird paused, gave me a thoughtful stare, and then proceeded to dip his head and hold a pose for several seconds, as if to say “Hey, dumbass…I’ve got your orange crown right here”.

And that, as they say, is that! A few clicks of the camera shutter, some evidence of orange feathering on the crown, and one of life’s greatest mysteries is solved.

May Birding Rocks! Lifer and more today…

Great-tailed Grackle - Quiscalus mexicanus

If I could, I think every year I’d just take the month of May off and go birding. After a god-awful South Dakota winter, May almost seems too good to be true, with an explosion of life that seemed impossible just a month or two ago. I think birders always have a bit of the “grass-is-always-greener” mentality, wanting to see new species, and I’m no different. But I have to say migration in May, along with the arrival of summer residents, can make for some truly spectacular birding.

After today I’m at 154 species for the year for South Dakota. Not bad considering I was struggling to hit 100 a week or two ago. Today I birded Lincoln County, spending quite a bit of time around Newton Hills State Park. The highlight…when walking along the trail from the Horse Camp to the picnic area (along Sergeant Creek), I reached the halfway point that’s been THE spot to find Blue-winged Warblers in South Dakota. I paused and waited, hoping to hear the buzzing song that meant they’d returned yet again. No luck on Blue-winged Warblers yet, but while standing there, I heard a strange mess of a song in the bushes along the creek. It wasn’t a song I was familiar with, but reminded me of a Catbird or Brown Thrasher with the weird mix of phrases and some harsh notes. It took me a while to find it in the binoculars…White-eyed Vireo! A lifer for me!! I watched him belt out a couple of bursts of song through the binoculars, then reached for the camera and…bye-bye. Just a glance down to grab the camera and not only was it gone, but I didn’t hear or see it again. A bit bummed to not get a photo, but after birding 20+ years here any time you get a lifer it’s a great day.

Another highlight was when I wound my way back towards Sioux Falls by going past some of my favorite wetland areas. There’s the “Pet Cemetery” wetland south of Tea 6-8 miles or so where I often have good luck, but I ran into trouble today on the road that cuts through it. After the flooding this spring, there’s one spot on the road where water has been across the road, but it was very shallow and I’d already driven through it a couple of times this spring. Today was different! Today there was one big, deep hole in that road!! Now when I go birding I have a Toyota Tacoma with 4-wheel drive, and the thing has always been a beast, getting me in and out of any kind of terrain. Today I thought I’d met my match! When I hit the hole I was going nowhere fast, and the water was deep enough that I feared it was going to run into the passenger cabin. I’d pretty much resigned myself to getting wet and calling a tow truck, but after a bit of rocking, the hole reluctantly released my Tacoma and let me back out (with a LOT of effort!). So much for going on that road all the way through the wetland!

It turned out to be a blessing though. I turned around and headed back, and as I did, I saw a Great-tailed Grackle in the marsh. They’re a southern species that has been moving north in recent decades. I still remember when people were getting excited seeing them, and then…they seemed to disappear for several years (for me anyway). This was the first I remember seeing for quite some time. In another sign that birding is always unpredictable, I saw a 2nd one an hour later, up near Humboldt!

A lifer, and a rarity…a great day! And other than the White-eyed Vireo and Great-tailed Grackle, there were many first-of-year (FOY) birds for me including:

  • Baltimore Oriole (in my yard when I got home!)
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird (also in my yard when I got home!)
  • Virginia Rail
  • Snowy Egret
  • Marsh Wren
  • Pectoral Sandpiper
  • Cliff Swallow
  • Eastern Screech Owl
  • Swainson’s Thrush
  • Wood Thrush
  • Eastern Towhee
  • Ovenbird
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Blackpoll Warbler
  • Palm Warbler

A few more photos from the day:

Eastern Towhee - Pipilo erythrophthalmus
Eastern Towhee, which have shown up in force in Newton Hills State Park. It was hard to find a place where you did NOT hear them singing.
Long-billed Dowitcher - Limnodromus scolopaceus
Long-billed Dowitcher at the “Worthing Sloughs” in Lincoln County, one of multiple locations where I saw this species today.
Rallus limicola - Virginia Rail
Great-tailed Grackles weren’t the only FOY I saw at the “Pet Cemetery sloughs”. I also heard and saw a Virginia Rail.
Lesser Yellowlegs - Tringa flavipes
Shorebird migration still hasn’t fully taken off, at least not near Sioux Falls. There have been plenty of Lesser Yellowlegs around, but not a lot of variety yet.
Snowy Egret - Egretta thula
Snowy Egret, which I later found was the first I’d recorded in Lincoln County in eBird. It does seem like I see them quite a bit up around Lake Thompson, but not around Sioux Falls.

Birding the (nature-altered) Beaver Creek Nature Area

White-throated Sparrow - Zonotrichia albicollis

There are two parks near our house that are characterized by heavily wooded lands next to a river. The first is the Big Sioux Recreation Area, just across the street. It’s nice, but it’s the far more developed of the two parks. This time of year I admit I’m not fond of birding there. They cater SO heavily to campers, going in and taking out a lot of the vegetation around the campsites to accommodate space for the giant RVs that are now so prevalent. I did go there last night for about 20 minutes, before the noise of the big-screen TVs blasting gameshows at top volume drove me away. I REALLY don’t get the point of people who do that.

The second park is Beaver Creek Nature Area. It’s about 3 miles from my house, and is MUCH less developed. No camping…yes! There are trails winding along riparian areas, upland woodland, and open grassy areas. Without the camping, it gets much less attention and is far less crowded. From a birding perspective, it’s wonderful. You can HEAR THE BIRDS! No TVs!! No loud campers! Just…nature.

I had a couple of hours this morning and headed to Beaver Creek. It was an incredibly foggy morning, but the park was certainly birdy. Migrant warblers still have yet to move through in any numbers, and for the morning I didn’t see a single warbler species. That’s a bit odd, as usually you’d at least see plenty of Yellow-rumped Warblers moving through. But what it lacked in warblers it made up for in sparrow species. White-throated, Harris’s, Clay-colored, Chipping, Lincoln’s, Swamp, White-crowned, and Field Sparrows…not a bad mix for one spot, and I frankly I get just as excited for all the migrant sparrows as I do the warblers. Other first-of-year sightings included Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Before heading that way for the first time this spring, I admit I was a little concerned about what condition the park would be in. With near-record flooding this spring, one road to the park is closed, and there’s still plenty of high water around. I was happy to see the park open and most of the trails accessible, but there was one major change in the park…Beaver Creek changed course! Over the last couple of years, one big loop in the creek was eroding away the bank just as you crossed a little pedestrian arch bridge over the creek. That’s not going to be a problem any more! Further upstream a bit, the flooded creek evidently tore through a narrow strip of heavily wooded land, cutting off the loop. The water was still quite high and a small amount of water was flowing through the loop, but as the water returns to normal levels is pretty clear that loop is now completely cut off and is going to be a new oxbow.

Thankfully it’s not going to affect the trails in the park, but it certainly is a great indication of just how powerful and unpredictable Mother Nature can be! A few photos from this morning:

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - Sphyrapicus varius
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, one of the first-of-year sightings from today. One of my favorite bird species, and one that’s usually relatively easy to find at Beaver Creek in the summer.
American Robin - Turdus migratorius
“Just” an American Robin. I say “just” because they’re common and people just seem to overlook them. They’re such a gorgeous bird though, and with a wonderful song that just screams “spring” after a long South Dakota winter.
Beaver Creek Nature Area - South Dakota
Overview showing what happened to the creek. The area between the red lines is where the flooded creek tore through a wooded area and created a new channel, thus cutting off the hatched area, which is now a new oxbow.
Beaver Creek Nature Area
South Dakota
Pic on a foggy morning, showing where the new channel cut through an area of trees and cut off the channel to the right, which now looks like it will be an oxbow that only has flowing water during times of high water.

Whooping Crane Video

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.

Avengers Endgame – Spoiler free review on the most important bird-related theme

A Common Loon, which evidently not only lives on Earth, but also on…whatever planet bad guy Thanos retired to after the end of the previous Avengers movie, Infinity War. Would “EndGame” show proper respect to the use of bird vocalizations in a movie?

What a great night from an entertainment perspective! My son and I went to see Avengers Endgame this evening. After 10 years or so and 22 movies, we were pretty invested in the storylines and characters, and the movie certainly delivered! Without giving anything away, it hit all the right notes and is definitely one of the best of the lot. That was followed by watching the newest episode of Game of Thrones. Wow…another satisfying and highly entertaining show.

But there’s one elephant in the room that I’m sure is on EVERYONE’s mind regarding the Marvel movies and the Avengers storyline. It all goes back to “Infinity War”. At the end of that movie, big baddie Thanos snaps his fingers, and BOOM, half of all sentient beings in the universe turn to dust…including many of our favorite Marvel characters. Thanos then retreats to an idyllic planet to “retire”.

The problem that was on EVERYONE’s mind after watching Infinity War…the audio that accompanied Thanos and his retirement. As the scene goes to this strange planet, what sound are we greeted with in the background? THE HAUNTING CRIES OF A COMMON LOON!!!! Now, Hollywood certainly is guilty of using the vocalizations of a few species in movies, particularly Common Loons, Red-tailed Hawks, and Kookaburra. But a Common Loon…ON AN ALIEN PLANET!?!? That was a new low.

When we got to the theater tonight, the lot was by FAR more full than I’d ever seen it. We got there 50 minutes early and still stood in a massive line to wait for our screen to open. While waiting, we overheard a theater working noting that the day before, they had 4,901 tickets sold, a record for one day. ONE THEATER, in a city of 180,000, and they had almost 5,000 people visit for this movie! And what was on EVERYBODY’S mind? That’s right…Was Marvel going to have a major bird-related faux pas again?!?!? So as the movie got going and we caught up with our favorite (surviving) characters, I, like everyone else in the theater, had my ears tuned to the sound track. Would we have a similar ridiculous audio misstep?

It was relatively early in the movie where I heard, yes…THE CALL OF A COMMON LOON!! AGAIN!!! But alas, THIS time Marvel got it right!! It was a stage in the movie where we visited Tony Stark and a home on a lake. It looked like what might be typical northern woods surrounding the lake, and yes, this was on Earth. A PERFECTLY normal place to potentially have a loon call!

WELL DONE MARVEL!! I hereby brand “Endgame” to be a total success, and at the end of the movie, everybody was clapping, which I’m SURE was also related to the proper use of a Loon call!

Whooping Crane Encounter – Central South Dakota

Whooping Crane - Grus americana

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.

Whooping Crane - Grus americana
Whooping Crane April 26th, 2019 Near Fort Thompson, South Dakota. This was the corn field where the bird initially landed. It ended up walking around this field for about half an hour while I watched from long distance (photo above is a significant crop from the original frame).
Whooping Crane - Grus americana
At one point while walking through the field, the Whooping Crane stopped and even from where I was I could hear the loud vocalization. It reminded me of our two cocker spaniels who love to howl when they hear a police siren…head straight up, very serious about the whole matter! The bird only gave a few honking whoops before walking around a bit more and getting ready to take flight.
Whooping Crane - Grus americana
And she’s off!! After half an hour in the corn field with the center pivot, here the Whooping Crane takes flight. Given it’s initial direction away from me and the river, I thought this was the last I’d see of it. However, shortly after it took off, it banked, and started heading back towards the river.
Whooping Crane - Grus americana
Same photo as the “feature” photo at the top, this is the closest I was to the bird during the two hour encounter, as it passed to my east and south as it headed back down towards the river. Not the sharpest photo in the world, and even this is a very significant crop as it was a decent distance out, but I will take a recognizable flight shot of a Whooping Crane ANY day!!
Whooping Crane - Grus americana
After I headed back towards the highway and the river, I was able to quickly re-locate the Whooping Crane. She’d landed in a flooded field near the river, perhaps 200-250 yards out from the road. I pulled my pickup over on what little shoulder there was, unbuckled and climbed over to the passenger seat, and proceeded to watch the bird for another hour as it slowly foraged through the wet field.
Whooping Crane - Grus americana
Another of the bird as it foraged in the grassy wet spot. Here it started to fluff its feathers and extend its wings, making me think it was about to take flight again, but it settled down and continued to hunt for food here. The bird was still here when I left, about 2 hours after our initial encounter! After my conference in Pierre ended, I drove back home along this road and did a quick search for the bird but didn’t find her. Hopefully it moved on, and was able to find others of its kind.

Wingspan! Great board game for birders, and board game enthusiasts

Wingspan Game - Review

We had a very nice relaxing day with the family at home today for Easter. A delicious meal of cheesy shrimp risotto, some coconut cream pie, and a day of games. Today was the day we broke out the new “Wingspan” game! The game has gotten incredible reviews and quickly sold out the first few printings. When I saw a new printing becoming available, I ordered right away.

I’m glad I did! The game is a 4-round strategy game, where you’re stockpiling birds on your “network of wildlife preserves”. There are 170 different birds, with cards for each detailing that species food needs, nesting capacity, habitat needs and “special abilities”. It’s a turn-based game, where a player chooses whether to:

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  • Gather food from the “feeder”, making sure to select food items that support the bird species in your preserves (if that food is available). The different categories of available food include “invertebrates”, “seeds”, “fish”, “fruit”, and “rodent”.
  • Select new bird cards, providing additional species options for placement in your preserves
  • Place a bird in your preserve, making sure that you have the proper food to support that bird. Birds require anywhere from 1 to 3 food resources, and you must have those food items in your possession to be able to place the bird.
  • Having an individual species in your preserve lay eggs
  • Carrying out any actions. Some species provide rewards as the game proceeds, depending upon the action the player takes that round.

The game itself is deceptively simple once you understand the rules. Your choices don’t go far beyond the options outlined above, but once you play it you realize the need for strategy right from the start. For example, the game is played in four rounds. Each round has a specific scoring goal. For example, Round 1 may focus on providing points to players who place the most wetland habitat birds in their preserve. Round 2 may focus on cavity-nesting birds that lay the most eggs. The priority for each round is chosen at the start of the game, so long-term strategy comes into play. You want to maximize your points for the current round, but if you don’t also set yourself up for scoring priorities in future rounds, you’ll likely do poorly.

By the end of the game, scoring is tallied as followed:

  • Individual round scoring. During each individual round (4 rounds total), you are ranked against your competitors. In the first round example given above, for example, the player who had the most birds in their preserve who used wetland habitats would have gotten the most points for that round. More points are awarded in later rounds than in the first round, so the fourth-round 1st place scorer gets more points than the first-round 1st place scorer.
  • Points from birds in your preserve. Different birds are worth different scores. For example, I placed a Bald Eagle in my preserve, which was worth a very healthy 9 points (the highest point total for a bird, I believe). Point values for each species are partially related to how difficult it is to place that bird in the preserve. For example, to be able to place that Bald Eagle in my preserve, I had to stock up on 2 fish resources and 1 rodent resource before I could place him on the board. Other, lower-point birds are easier to place, with some birds that are only worth two points only requiring one food resource for placement on the board.
  • Eggs – Players receive one point for every egg on their final board.
  • “Bonus” cards – During the game, each player collects unique bonus cards. Bonus cards include titles such as “photographer”, “prairie manager”, “wetland scientist”, “backyard birder”, and much more. Each card rewards points at the end of the game based on certain characteristics of the birds in your aviary. For example, there are four types of nests birds build in the game: 1) platform nests, 2) bowl nests, 3) cavity nests, and 4) ground nests. My bonus card provided +4 points for having four different birds who build platform nests in my preserve.
  • Food on bird cards – Some bird species “cache” food on their cards. For example, the American Kestrel can collect rodents! If you can use it during a turn, it can collect one or more rodent tokens that are placed on the species card. Each cached food item counts as a point for the final scoring.
  • Tucked” cards – Some birds can form flocks! For example, the American White Pelican can effectively form a flock, with other bird cards tucked behind the pelican card in your preserve. Each bird in a flock counts as a point.

After four rounds, you add up the final scores using the 6-category scoring system. From what I’m seeing online, final scores for a winner are typically between 65-85 points.

At first it’s a bit confusing, but once we watched this short YouTube video on the rules of the game, it really is quite straightforward. Straightforward, but rather elegant! While the rules themselves may be straightforward, there’s definitely quite a bit of strategy involved! In the first game we played, the winner ended up with 65 points…on the low end of a winning score from what I’ve read. But now that we understand the rules and the strategy more, I’m sure our next game will be higher scoring.

Great game! It’s also very well put together. Materials are solid, and the artwork on the cards is absolutely beautiful. I love the “bird feeder”, a device you construct that allows you to roll dice that represent foods available in the feeder. A few times I caught myself just looking through the cards, as it’s fun not only to look at the beautiful artwork, but to see the special attributes and abilities the gamemakers assigned to each species. A really enjoyable game, and I can see a lot of replay value, given that each game’s goals and birds will be different.

Highly recommended, if you can get a copy! And hey, if my non-birding teenage son can get a kick out of it and ask to play again tomorrow, it’s a great indication that the audience for this game goes far behind just birders!

Wingspan Game - Closeup
A closeup of the game. Note the eggs on the gameboard here…did you know the Yellow-headed Blackbird laid such shiny eggs? Well, it WAS Easter Sunday! We did happen to have some candy “glimmer eggs” laying around! So we augmented the game with candy eggs, and some liberal rules about when a player could raid a nest and eat those eggs. 🙂
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