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. 🙂

Birding Dakota Nature Park in Brookings

Dakota Nature Park
Trail Guide
South Dakota Birds and Birding
Trail map for Dakota Nature Park in Brookings. The reclaimed landfill is represented by the large upland area on the northeast side of the park, while trails wind past the lakes and wetlands created from reclaimed gravel pits on the south and west sides. Click on the map above for a larger view.

Yesterday my son had an all-day event in Brookings, South Dakota. I drove him up, and thought I’d spend the day birding. Brookings is “only” an hour north of where we live, yet in our 25+ years in South Dakota, I’ve done very little birding in the area. Noting that birders recently had posted some nice finds at Dakota Nature Park on the south edge of Brookings, that’s where I started the morning birding.

I will be back! I thoroughly enjoyed the data, spending most of the morning walking the extensive trails around a park that’s much bigger, and much nicer, than I was anticipating. The northeast side of the park is a massive, grassy mound…the capped and reclaimed old Brookings landfill! The lowland areas south and west of here are lowland trails that snake in around wetland and water habitats that were formed from abandoned sand and gravel pit operations. There are paved trails through much of the park, as well as some gravel trails and boardwalks. There are benches, pagodas, and other structures scattered along the trails that allow for a short rest, or provide a nice place to just sit and watch the wildlife. The visitor’s center on the far southwest side of the park is wonderful as well. It’s a very nicely done building (donated by the Larson family I was told, of Larson Doors in Brookings), with displays focused on learning and appreciating wildlife. They also have some nice feeder complexes where you can just sit and enjoy the birds the come to partake.

I started at a parking lot on the far east side of the park, and just started walking unknown (to me) trails. As I walked, the trails kept going, and going, and going. Not realizing the park was so large I ended up spending over 2 1/2 hours here. Not only is there a lot to explore, but from a bird perspective, there’s a really nice mix of habitats. The ponds and wetland themselves are of course a big feature, but the trails also wind past grasslands, shrubby areas, areas of deciduous forest, and strip of pine trees on the far north side. Because of the varied habitat, the birds I found for the morning were also varied, ranging from an Osprey prowling the ponds for fish, to Savannah and Field Sparrows near the “grassy mound” of the reclaimed landfill. For the morning I found 43 species, including a number of first-of-year. For a mid-April day in South Dakota when a majority of songbird migrants and summer residents haven’t arrived yet…that’s pretty darned good for one location. (my eBird list for the day is shown below).

Despite the drive, I will be back! With such a wonderful variety of habitats, and with such wonderfully done trails and facilities, this should be a definite destination for birders who happen to be in the Brookings, South Dakota region.

Dakota Nature Park
eBird Recording
South Dakota Birds and Birding
Bird list for the day, noting 43 species. Several first-of-year, including a calling Sora and another flushed Sora (both quite early for this area), Osprey (not common in eastern South Dakota), and several species of songbirds.

Do predator control programs help gamebirds like Pheasants? (Hint…No)

Ring-necked Pheasant - Phasianus colchicus

South Dakota’s favorite bird…an introduced game bird that does have an economic impact in the state. but are predator control programs like Kristi Noem’s actually beneficial to pheasant populations? Or, in fact, is it likely to WORSEN the situation? For the scads of hunters and others who evidently have found my blog…read this post. Don’t take my word for it regarding this misguided predator control program. Take the word of Sportsmen’s groups…of outdoor magazines…of conservation groups…of the SCIENCE behind bird populations, predators, and habitat. If you truly want to save your resource and stop playing political games because you’re “liberal” or “conservative”…follow the FACTS. Then petition Noem to stop this nonsense and instead focus on habitat conservation efforts.

Wow.  Traffic on my blog literally shot up ten-fold since I posted about the idiocy of Kristi Noem’s predator control program in South Dakota. And with that traffic of course comes the haters, with direct emails to me, and attempted blog replies that offered nothing more than name calling. Not surprisingly, most were from hunters.  If you can get past the four-letter words and try to make some sense of some of the emails I’ve had, the general thought is that killing skunks, opossums, red fox, and raccoons is very helpful for Ring-necked Pheasant populations. And thus, these hunters are all for Noem’s little misguided foray into “conservation”.

Let’s look at the facts. Do you like to hunt Ring-necked Pheasants? Chances are you support groups like Pheasants Forever? Here’s what Pheasants Forever has to say about predator control programs:

Stating an investment in increased habitat is FAR more effective than predator control in improving pheasant populations, they state:

Less-expensive methods to improve game bird populations and nesting success exist. Experts have focused on the amount of habitat (composition of the landscape) and the arrangement (configuration) that increase nesting success by reducing the effectiveness of predators. Well-designed habitat projects can reduce predation by up to 80 percent.

Regarding predator control, they state it’s ineffective at helping broad-scale pheasant populations…and in fact, it may INCREASE interactions among predators and pheasants:

It is important to understand that sustained trapping efforts tend to stimulate reproduction by predators (compensating for artificially low densities) and create populations with proportionately more juveniles that wander more across the landscape thereby increasing the chances of encountering pheasants.

Overall, here’s their summary statement on predator control, and where money SHOULD be spent…on habitat restoration:

While predator removal and exclusion methods can increase nesting success on small areas, these methods are too expensive for use on a landscape basis and do not significantly increase the number of nesting birds over the long term. Through the addition and management of habitat, we not only decrease the impact predators have on existing nests, but also increase the number of nests and population size in an area. Predators will continue to eat pheasants and their nests, but weather and habitat conditions will drive population fluctuations.

What’s laughable about Noem’s program is that she ignored the advice of her own people, and ignored past research in South Dakota that has focused on Ring-necked Pheasant populations. Former Governor Daugaard held a “Pheasant Habitat Summit” in 2013 and followed up by commissioning a “Governor’s Pheasant Habitat Work Group”.  You know…actually investing in RESEARCH and DISCUSSION before unilaterally making a bad decision to start a predator control program. Land owners, hunters, and government personnel participated. Regarding predator control, the working group found that “When suitable habitat is available and weather conditions warrant, pheasant populations flourish without direct predator control“. Even when a misguided bounty program like Noem’s is established, they found “Bounty systems in other states have been ineffective because the origin of the predators cannot be verified”.

More information from sportsmen’s groups.  Midwest Outdoors published a piece on the “5 widespread myths about pheasant and quail populations“. One of those 5 myths is shown below:

Myth: Predators are the main reason there are fewer pheasants and quail.

Busted: Yes, coyotes and fox will eat pheasants and quail, and raccoons and skunks are likely culprits when it comes to raided nests. But predators don’t eat habitat, which is far and away the biggest reason why pheasant populations decline. High annual losses to predators should not be misunderstood to mean that predation is responsible for long-term upland population declines. Landscapes with good habitat often have high numbers of pheasant numbers, as well as high numbers of many potential predators.

 

The impact of predators is magnified and often pinpointed as the primary problem after habitat conditions deteriorate. Confine pheasants and quail to smaller and smaller parcels of habitat, and a predator’s job gets a whole lot easier. Thankfully, well-designed habitat projects can reduce predation by up to 80 percent. Through the addition and management of habitat, not only does there tend to be a decrease in the impact predators make on existing nests, but more habitat is likely to increase the number of nests and the overall gamebird population. And habitat for pheasants and quail comes at a fraction of the cost of other intensive predator reduction methods that are cost-prohibitive across a large area.

Just like Pheasants Forever, they note it’s HABITAT that’s the key, and if you have adequate, well designed habitat, that alone decreases nest predation by predators. And just like Pheasants Forever, they note it’s a FAR bigger “bang for the buck” in using conservation dollars to promote pheasant populations.

Another sportsmen/hunting group, Quail Forever, states the following (hint…it ‘s similar to statements from all the other groups:

Bottom line: Through the addition and management of habitat, we not only decrease the impact predators have on existing nests, but also increase the number of nests and population size in the area. This management comes at a fraction of the cost of other predator reduction methods.

MORE HABITAT, LESS PREDATION, BEST OUTCOME
Less-expensive methods to improve game bird populations and nesting success exist. Experts have focused on the amount of habitat (composition of the landscape) and the arrangement (configuration) that increase nesting success by reducing the effectiveness of predators. Well-designed habitat projects can reduce predation by up to 80 percent.

 

Programs such as Noem’s may actually do more HARM than good for Pheasant populations. For example, red fox are noted as the most effective predators on Ring-necked Pheasants, by our own Game Fish and Parks. But red fox populations are quite low in South Dakota, as they simply cannot compete with Coyotes. There’s a direct, inverse relationship between high coyote densities and red fox densities. As this story notes, hunters wrongly blame coyotes for predation on Ring-necked Pheasants, but our own Game Fish & Parks notes Coyotes have a minimal impact on Ring-necked Pheasant populations. Human intervention in removing predators results in unpredictable impacts on other wildlife, and ironically, hunters calling for removal of Coyote should note that would likely HARM Ring-necked Pheasant populations, as Coyotes not only help keep Red Fox populations low, but also help control other small mammalian predators on Ring-necked Pheasant nests.  This isn’t just one isolated case of an unintended consequence of predator control programs. Some other studies note that predator control programs focused on creatures like red fox simply create more of an ecological niche that other predators come in and fill, such as feral cats.

The one common thread from our own GFP…from Pheasants Forever…from Quail Forever…from all groups associated with conservation and wildlife management…NOTHING has anything close to the impact on Ring-necked Pheasant populations as 1) habitat, and 2) climate. So what factors could contribute to any perceived decline of gamebirds in South Dakota. HABITAT LOSS.  Starting in the mid-2000s, the eastern Dakotas have seen an expansion in cropland that literally rivals rates of deforestation in the tropical rain forests.  Here are multiple studies that have quantified recent grassland loss in the Dakotas:

  1. Wright and Wimberly (2013) found a net loss of 1.3 million acres of grassland that resulted from conversion to corn or soybeans in five states comprising the western Corn Belt over the five years from 2006 to 2011.
  2. Johnston (2014) also used the CDL to analyze land cover trends across the eastern Dakotas and found that corn and soy agriculture expanded by 27% (3.8 million ha) during the two years from 2010 to 2012.
  3. Reitsma et al. (2015) reported a net grassland loss of 4.6 million acres resulting from cropland expansion in the state of South Dakota over the six years from 2006 to 2012.

 

I’m a scientist. I look at evidence. I look at FACTS. The FACTS couldn’t be clearer.

  1. Predators aren’t driving any broad-scale decline in gamebirds such as pheasants. 
  2. Habitat loss is far and away the biggest concern for gamebirds (and other wildlife) in the Dakotas
  3. Predator control problems are expensive and ineffective, with a miniscule impact compared to dollar-for-dollar habitat conservation efforts.

I’ll end with one more driving factor for the long term…climate change. As noted above, conservation and management groups all noted TWO factors that had the biggest impact on gamebird populations..habitat, and weather/climate. The climate is changing…whether you “believe” in it or not.  What are the potential impacts on gamebird populations in South Dakota? Let’s look at Sharp-tailed Grouse populations in the state.  They are found from the southern to northern border in South Dakota, in much of the western half to two-thirds of the state. They are found as far south as the Platte River in Nebraska. What about the future?

Using projected changes in both land use (habitat loss) and projected changes in climate, this (wonderful!!!) study found that your grandchildren aren’t going to be hunting Sharp-tailed Grouse. Not in South Dakota anyway.  The top map below shows the “current” distribution of Sharp-tailed Grouse. The areas in red in the bottom three maps? Those all show areas where Sharp-tailed Grouse will be severely impacted by climate and land use change…with a bulls-eye right on South Dakota and northern Nebraska. Three climate scenarios are shown, with “A2” being the most severe scenario, and “B1” being the least severe. REGARDLESS of scenario, this research shows that SHARP-TAILED GROUSE WILL BE EXTIRPATED FROM THE SOUTHERN TWO-THIRDS OF SOUTH DAKOTA BY 2075.

Sharp-tailed Grouse - Tympanuchus phasianellusSo please, sportsmen…if you want to preserve your resource, do ALL of us some good. Predator control? NOBODY (other than our rather clueless governor) believe it’s an effective long-term solution. You want a big bang-for-the-buck? Petition Noem’s office for habitat conservation and preservation programs. Contribute to groups that foster habitat protection. That’s a “win” for all concerned, as it not only benefits Ring-necked Pheasants and reduces predation, but it helps non-game species as well.

And if you’re like me and have a son…and if you worry about his future…play the long game as well, and start paying attention to the long-term devastation climate change is going to have in the state.

Ring-necked Pheasant - Phasianus colchicus

A young Ring-necked Pheasant hanging out on a fence post. Do you want to preserve these birds, and also end up helping ALL wildlife in the state? Stop supporting this ridiculous predator control effort, and focus the state’s attention on habitat conservation.

Spectacular Spring Birding – Minnehaha County

The last two days have been just spectacular for birding, and for bird photography. Both mornings, I went west of Sioux Falls before dawn, spending a lot of time around Wall Lake and the vicinity. Good numbers of birds, a wonderful variety, and some wonderfully cooperative subjects for the camera. It’s not often you get all three of those things in a birding trip. Here are some of the finds for the last 2 days:

Red-breasted Mergansers Courting - Mergus serrator

I don’t see Red-breasted Mergansers often around the Sioux Falls area, and usually just one or two. This weekend there were at least 11 hanging out together at Wall Lake. Unfortunately for the females, there were 7 males and only 4 females…the males were putting on QUITE the show for the females. They were some of the most active birds on the lake, with males chasing females, pausing to fight with each other or do this wonderful display behavior that I’ve never seen before. Given how active they were, given how large Wall Lake is, and given how difficult it can be to get close to a bird out on the main lake, I felt VERY fortunate that they spent quite a bit of time near the beach this morning, and I was able to capture the courting behavior. A bit more of a crop than I’d like, but I love this photo.

Common Loon - Gavia immer

Wall Lake is becoming semi-reliable for finding migrating Common Loons in the spring months, as it’s now been several years in a row where I’ve seen them there. This morning I hung out at the end of the point that sticks out into the lake, arriving at dawn, and staying an hour and a half. I was rewarded by wonderful views of many birds, but it’s ALWAYS wonderful when a gorgeous Common Loon in breeding plumage cruises around the corner and swims right in front of you (and your camera!).

Killdeer - Charadrius vociferus

I love the “off-season” at Wall Lake…the time of year when you can sit by the beach and have it all to yourself. Come summer, it’s not somewhere you’d even think about birding. But this time of year, when ice and snow cover the surrounding landscape and birds are looking for food, the sandy beach is a great place to bird. There were many birds near the beach today, with several looking for food right along the shore, such as this Killdeer.  If you are familiar with Wall Lake and the bit of foam that sometimes forms on the beach when there’s a north wind, this is what that foam turns into when it’s 20 degrees! Loved the bird next to the crystally ice.

Bonapaarte's Gull - Larus philadelphia

As always at this time of year, Wall Lake attracted a lot of gulls, primarily Ring-billed and Franklin’s, but I also saw a Herring Gull and 20 or so delicate little Bonaparte’s Gulls. Another bird prowling the “surf” line looking for food. About the only Bonaparte’s Gull I saw that wasn’t in full breeding plumage, but the others weren’t as cooperative for the camera.

American Robin - Turdus migratorius

I REALLY felt bad for the American Robins and other songbirds that were trying to find food this weekend, with a thick crust of ice covering most of the landscape. They were numerous along roadsides and anywhere else where even a bit of open ground was available. Here one hangs out on a branch at dawn at Wall Lake.

Rusty Blackbird - Euphagus carolinus

Three times this weekend I came across small groups of Rusty Blackbirds. I admit I often don’t scan the massive blackbird flocks, but while out on the peninsula at Wall Lake this morning, I kept hearing a squeaky call that I wasn’t familiar with, and then saw a lone Rusty Blackbird. Later this morning north of Wall Lake, I ran into a small group at a flooded field. Not a great photo, but not a species I’ve photographed much. And one that I generally struggle to differentiate from Brewer’s Blackbird when they’re in breeding plumage.

Double-crested Cormorant - Phalacrocorax auritus

Another common species, a Double-crested Cormorant, but I can’t help put trigger the shutter at any bird that flies in front of my camera. Do like the unique look of this one, thanks to a reflection of some buildings across the water at Wall lake.

Horned Grebe - Podiceps auritus

Until this weekend, I didn’t realize I had no photos of a Horned Grebe in full breeding plumage! Problem solved…there were actually many of these guys around Wall Lake the last 2 days. Most weren’t very cooperative, but I finally got one early this morning hanging out near the beach.

Hermit Thrush - Catharus guttatus

With all the snow and ice that was still around heading into this weekend, you kind of do a double take when you see some bird species, as they seem out of place given the weather. Hermit Thrush are always early spring arrivals though. There were a number of them the last 2 days in the Big Sioux Recreation Area near home.

Eastern Phoebe - Sayornis phoebe

Speaking of birds that look out of their element in this weather…one of the LAST things you expect to see when there’s so much snow and ice still around are flycatcher species. But like Hermit Thrush, Eastern Phoebes are early spring migrants. I saw this guy both yesterday and today along Wall Lake beach. Today thankfully things had melted some. Yesterday, he was really having a hard time finding anything other than snow and ice.

Wild Turkeys Today – Rough conditions for ground feeders

I had a blast birding west of Sioux Falls today. The conditions, however, were borderline dangerous in spots. The storm may be gone, but I’ve never seen so many downed powerlines, and some roads are simply impassable with the snow, ice, and mess as things start to melt. But with the harsh conditions, birds were definitely bunched up.  With plenty of open water, water birds were doing ok.  However, with ice as thick as I’ve ever seen it, other birds were struggling. I saw more Ring-necked Pheasants and Wild Turkeys out in the open than I ever have, all struggling to access food below the ice.

But…boys will be boys!  NOTHING is going to stop a Wild Turkey tom from strutting his stuff, and I had a great time shooting a small group of 3 toms that were displaying and carrying on for a nearby group of 4 female Wild Turkeys. There’s little doubt Turkey populations have exploded in the last 20 years (about the time I started birding), as I see them so much more often than I used to. They’ve also expanded the types of habitats they utilize. It used to be that I’d only run across Wild Turkeys along major riparian areas, or in the wooded state parks in the eastern part of the state. Now, I can be driving through cropland areas, and I’ll see small bands of Wild Turkeys hanging around small shelterbelts and farmsteads.

An underappreciated bird to me! So unique, and SO much fun to watch when they’re gobbling and carrying on. Here are some photos from this morning.

Wild Turkey - Meleagris gallopavo

Wild Turkey - Meleagris gallopavo

Wild Turkey - Meleagris gallopavo

Wild Turkey - Meleagris gallopavo

Wild Turkey - Meleagris gallopavo

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