Five very different birds, but five species with something very much in common. The cool, wet spring continues, with rain and wind in the eastern part of South Dakota, and a late May snowstorm in the western part of the state. It had already been an odd migration given the cool temps that don’t want to give way to spring. Until last Friday (May 17th, songbird migration was noticeably slow, with very few warblers around other than Yellow-rumped. But that seemed to have changed last weekend. On Saturday (May 18th) we had a major fall-out of migrants, with warblers of every kind (I had 20 species on Saturday), vireos, flycatchers, and other songbirds appearing seemingly out of thin air. The birding this weekend was positively SPECTACULAR, and there’s no doubt for me it was the best warbler spotting in the 20 years I’ve been birding.
That spectacular birding has come with a price, however. With cool and wet conditions continuing, you can tell birds are struggling. The problem? I just think there aren’t the usual insects out yet for this time of year. Because of that, you’re seeing species with behaviors you normally don’t see. From a bird photography perspective I guess it’s been great, as the birds have been 1) concentrated, with many birds often foraging in select locations out of the wind and rain, and in areas where a few insects might be, and 2) many species have been down lower to the ground than normal.
Here’s a pictorial of five species I’ve encountered in recent days, five species that all appear to be impacted by the cool wet weather.
When I bird, I nearly always am by myself. Birding is my zen time, my time to forget about all the worries of the day. It’s my time to get away from cell phones, other electronics, and yeah…I admit it…people. The last two weeks notwithstanding (I’ve done a LOT of birding during that time), normally I don’t get out all that often, and its a way for me to decompress and have some time alone. My behavior when birding also is most conducive to birding alone. For example, when I saw a very large group of Black Terns dipping and diving over Grass Lake the other night, I did what I OFTEN do…I stayed an entire hour with them. Part of it is the photography side of my hobby. Patience is the greatest attribute you can have in bird photography, and shooting a bird that flies in an erratic pattern certainly taxes that patience. But rather than trying for a few minutes, getting frustrated, and leaving…I kept at it, watching their patterns as they’d circle around for another pass along the shoreline, noting that the strong wind often put them in a near hover mode, and eventually getting quite a few nice photos.
However, I do realize there are advantages to birding in a group that I generally miss out on. This weekend the South Dakota Ornithologist’s Union (SDOU) held their spring meeting in Brandon. On Saturday I ran into SDOU birders twice at Perry Nature Area near Sioux Falls, and joined them for a couple of hours that afternoon. Given the incredible warbler migration on Saturday, I knew I wanted to try Newton Hills State Park Sunday morning, and after birding for an hour or so, I ran into another SDOU group of birders. As I got out and greeting them, a young, very enthusiastic (and very good!) birder in the group (Peter) immediately pointed upward to the branch of a nearby tree…Common Nighthawk! Just sitting there on a horizontal branch, apparently not giving a damn about all the birders just 10 yards away.
There’s no way in hell I would have seen that bird if I’d have been birding alone. Even the group of SDOU birders said they were moving around that spot for quite some time before someone noticed it.
I greatly enjoyed the weekend, both my time birding alone, and my time with the SDOU crowd. The tradeoffs between both styles of birding…when birding alone, I ran into more Black-billed Cuckoos than I ever had in one spot, and was able to spend quite a bit of time with them and get some good photos. I didn’t get any really good photos while birding with the crowd, but I definitely saw more birds! When you have 6-8 pairs of binoculars trained on different spots, it DEFINITELY is helpful during spring migration, when little warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and other birds are often flitting about in the treetops.
Over the years, my birding style has definitely changed. I’ve been birding for 20 years now, and I’d say that for the first 15 years, I was laser-focused on the photography side of things. It seems nuts for me to say this now, but…I didn’t even OWN a pair of binoculars until 5 years ago!! All those little warblers flitting about in the tree tops? They didn’t interest me, as I knew there was no way in hell I’d ever get a photo of them! But I’ve evolved from a photographer who birds, into a birder who also takes photographs. Over the last few years, some of my favorite birding memories don’t involve the camera, but times where I’ve just sat in one spot and watched some rare or interesting bird, often for an hour or more.
My very unusual (for me!) time spent actually (GASP!) birding with other people this weekend was nice…perhaps it’s just another step as I transition from a “photography first” to “birding first” mentality.
I’ve got so many potential things to focus on from an incredible weekend of birding. The 20-species warbler day yesterday, plenty of other goodies, has my head spinning in terms of what to focus for a blog post.
One of the more curious sightings from today at Newton Hills State Park came while patrolling the beach area. It was a bit foggy yet, drizzle was falling, and it was pretty damned cold for May 19th, and there were birds galore near the beach at Lake Lakota, all foraging on the ground or close to it, in search of whatever few insects might be out. While watching all the commotion, a bird with a noticeably long tail flew past and landed in the bushes behind me. Cuckoo!! But which one? I switched my focus from the beach to the bushes by the parking, and there! A Black-billed Cuckoo! I lucked into 3 Yellow-billed Cuckoos at Newton Hills last spring, but it’s been a few years since I’ve even seen a Black-billed Cuckoo.
As I sat and tried to get a good look at cuckoo #1 through the foliage, here came another long-tailed bird…another Black-billed Cuckoo! I ended up spending half an hour near that bush, and during that time there were up to FOUR Black-billed Cuckoos frolicking about, doing some half-hearted chasing of each other, but mostly looking like they were just trying to survive until the weather warmed up and there was more for them to eat.
Another great morning despite the weather. Here are some of the Cuckoo photos, all from the one location.
With all the birding I’ve done over the last 2 weeks, I have to say…migration had been disappointing to this point. I love my sparrows, and sparrow migration was very good, but the other two groups of migrants that I love…shorebirds and warblers…have been painfully slow in arriving. In the case of shorebirds, I don’t think any sort of migratory breakthrough is going to happen this spring. It could be they’re just spread out, given how incredibly wet it’s been and how much standing water there is over much of the upper Great Plains. But at this stage, I’m not counting on a big influx of shorebirds.
Warblers have been very similar. If you like Yellow-rumped, this has been your spring! They have been absolutely thick, particularly last week when they were not only in woodland and forest edges, but many were hanging out on shorelines, fencelines, or other seemingly uncharacteristic locations. But other than Yellow-rumped Warblers? To say “not much” would be a disservice to the term “not much”, as for most species, they’ve been non-existent.
That changed today. HOLY…COW…did that change today!! I’ve been birding 20 years now. That’s 20 spring migrations where I’ve put in a LOT of effort, hoping to find migratory warblers and other songbirds. In those 20 years, I must say that today was THE best warbler day I have ever had, hands down. It wasn’t just numbers, although numbers were quite good. It was the jaw-dropping variety of warbler species that are moving through the area right now. They weren’t necessarily “dripping off the trees”…a favorite term for some folks when there’s a warbler “fall-out”. But they were certainly around in very good numbers, and at times it seemed that every bird you looked at was a different species.
There were some that were quite abundant. Tennessee and Yellow-rumped Warblers were common, although Tennessee were scattered everywhere, while most of the Yellow-rumped I saw were along the Big Sioux River at Good Earth State Park. Given how intense the birding was and how often I tried to keep my focus on the treetops, I have no doubt my count below is low for those two species, and I KNOW it’s quite low for Yellow Warbler, as they are also extremely abundant right now. When I saw one of those “common” species, I often didn’t pause to enter into eBird. And why was that?
Because there were SO many “good” warbler species, including species I haven’t seen in years. I haven’t seen Blackburnian Warblers very often in South Dakota, and I have zero photos of the species. In fact, there are only two occasions where I even remember seeing a Blackburnian Warbler. Today? FOUR gorgeous Blackburnians, with 2 at Perry Nature Area, and 2 at Good Earth State Park. It’s been 14 years since I’ve seen a Bay-breasted Warbler, but I found one at Good Earth. Mourning Warbler? I have ZERO photos of the species and don’t see them all that often, but I found a pair in close proximity this afternoon. Chestnut-sided are a species I probably see every other year or so, and always one at at time. Today? I saw six, with five spotted from one location at Good Earth!! Magnolia numbered 9 on the day, Blackpoll were at 4, while most of the others were single sightings.
20 species of warbler in one day! 19 of those were from two locations (Perry Nature Area and Good Earth State Park), while 1 was from Ditch Road just north of Sioux Falls (Northern Waterthrush). Here’s the list of warblers on a birding day I will always remember:
Ovenbird – 3 (2 singing and not seen, one seen and not heard)
Golden-winged Warbler – Seen and heard twice, in two visits to Perry Nature Area today (same bird I’m sure…count of 1)
Tennessee Warbler – 47 — I have no doubt this is a big undercount, as many times I didn’t stop to enter them in eBird
Orange-crowned Warbler – 4
Nashville Warbler – 1
Mourning Warbler – 2 – And now I do have photos of the species! Crappy photos, but I had none before today!
Common Yellowthroat – 7 – If I’d taken the time to properly account for all those singing along the Big Sioux River in the northern end of Good Earth State Park, this number would be a lot higher
American Redstart – 9 –
Magnolia – 9 – Definitely the most I’ve seen in one day
Bay-breasted Warbler – A REAL treat as I haven’t seen one in over a decade
Blackburnian Warbler – 4 – TWICE the number I’ve seen in my other 20 springs of birding in South Dakota
Yellow Warbler – 16 – That’s what I had taken the time to enter in eBird. But particularly if I would have paid close attention and recorded every time I heard a Yellow Warbler, the number would be double or triple this.
Chestnut-sided Warbler – 6 – All at Good Earth State park, with an astounding 5 observed while standing near one giant burr oak
Blackpoll Warbler – 4
Yellow-rumped Warbler – 25 – As they’ve been all spring, nearly all were near water, with them flycatching along the banks of the Big Sioux River in Good Earth State Park
Black-throated Green Warbler – 1 – One of my faves, good to see one
Canada Warbler – 1 – I’ll need to check my records but I don’t see these often at all.
Northern Waterthrush – 1 – The only one not at Good Earth or Perry Nature Area, found while doing a short check of Ditch Road north of Sioux Falls.
Black-and-White Warbler – 1 – Usually one of the most common migrants, and I have seen plenty this spring, but only one today.
Wilson’s Warbler – 1 – Also one I typically see every year, but it’s been pretty slow for them this year.
I’ve done more birding in the last 2 weeks than I’ve done in a long time, trying to take advantage of what normally is the peak migration time here for warblers, shorebirds, and other migrants. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the warblers, shorebirds, and other migrants that they’re supposed to be, you know…migrating. It’s been pretty slow for many things, but I’ve still had a great time. One bird that definitely got the message about migration time are Black Terns, as I’ve run into dozens upon dozens as they forage over many of the lakes, ponds, and wetlands in the area.
Last night I was at Grass Lake in far western Minnehaha County, and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect setup for taking photos of what can be a difficult bird to photograph. The light was at my back, the wind was gusting and keeping many birds in a near hovering position, and I was perched on an elevated road that allowed me to be level or even shooting down on the birds as they fed. It led to some shots I really like…augmenting a gallery of quite a few Black Tern photos I like. For some species, building such a gallery comes rather easy, as the birds are cooperative (sitting still and not flying away certainly helps), and have plumage patterns and colors that make them easy to photograph.
That has NOT been the case with Black Terns. I do have some shots of them sitting on a log or other perch, but most of the time when you see them, they’re in flight, and they have a bouncy, unpredictable flight path as they forage for food. Their coloring is another challenge. A bird in breeding plumage has jet black feathering on the head and underneath, while other feathering is silvery to nearly white, making it very difficult to expose correctly. If you have poor light or the bird is backlit, it’s generally not even worth bothering, as the bird will show up as a dark, featureless smudge.
The conditions all came together last night though! With as happy as I was with the photos from last night, I was going to dust off my bird haiku “skills” (questionable as though they may be), given I haven’t done a haiku for awhile. But it’s Friday, it’s been a long week, and I don’t have it in me. So instead here’s a gallery of some of my favorite Black Tern photos over the years.
Another night, another rarity for South Dakota! Last night it was a White-eyed Vireo from Newton Hills State Park. Tonight I went looking for shorebirds up around Madison. It was actually pretty slow for shorebirds, except for one spot…the west side of the Madison Waterfowl Production Area, just southeast of Madison. The highlight…22 Ruddy Turnstones! If I do see them in South Dakota, which isn’t very often, it’s almost always one or two birds, so seeing 22 in one spot was a treat.
A couple of quick photos from tonight. After doing some really hardcore birding over the last week…I’m beat! Just want bed, no more photo processing!
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.
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:
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.
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”:
Does a Ring-necked Duck have a ringed neck?
Where’s the red on a Red-bellied Woodpecker’s belly? and,
What color crown does an Orange-crowned Warbler have?
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.