Photo/Haiku of the Day – Summer’s Last Hummingbird

Summer’s Last Hummingbird

Ruby summer splash

between the flowers they dash

till chased by Fall’s chill

Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Archilochus colubris

A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovering in front of flowers in our yard. It’s now been a couple of days since I’ve seen a male in our yard. They’re always the first to leave for the summer. I still have a couple of females and juveniles, but their time with us is short as well. With the constant buzz of activity in our back yard all summer long, it’s easy to take these guys for granted. Now we will wait another 8 months for their return.

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Grebe Family

Downy striped young grebe

hidden world below the reeds,

staying close to mom

Pied-billed Grebe and Young

I was birding yesterday in western Minnehaha County, and drove on a gravel road that split a large wetland area. The cattails were right next to the road, making it difficult to peer into the wetland, but in a few places there were breaks in the vegetation. As I slowly drove drove past one of the breaks, a Pied-billed Grebe and its young came swimming out of the thick reeds. Neither were particularly concerned with my presence, so I shut the car off and watched for a while. The adult would dive under water in search of prey, and when she popped up, the fledgling grebe would let out a whining call and quickly swim over to the parent. Once she came up with a relatively large fish (for her size), but despite the young one’s pleas, she downed it herself and returned to hunting. In the ten minutes or so that I watched the pair, I never saw the young one’s pleas answered, but she always stayed close to mom.

 

 

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Season of the Bobolink

Season of the Bobolink

Tinkly spring-time song

Fades away as summer ends.

Golden autumn fire

Autumn Bobolink - Dolichonyx oryzivorus

Bobolink in the warm dawn sun. This morning I went to a remnant tallgrass prairie patch and found a small group of Bobolinks. Males have lost their bold black-and-white breeding plumage, and share the same warm brown plumage as the females now. Rather than post as simply the “photo of the day”, thought today we’d take it one step further to my first ever “Photo / Haiku of the day”.

Differentiating Female (and male) Goldfinch Species

I was on travel for work this week which mean any blogging or work on my website was delayed. When I returned, I had an email that was thanking me for my “Difficult Bird ID” page, where you can find information on differentiating between commonly confused species. There was also a request to add another page, discussing how to tell apart the three North American goldfinch species. I don’t normally think of goldfinches as a particularly difficult group to identify, but then again, here in eastern South Dakota, we only have the one species. Overall, geography is obviously a huge part of identifying goldfinches, as in the eastern half of the country, the only species of goldfinch you’ll find are American Goldfinch.  However, if you happen to find yourself in parts of the southwestern US, you have three goldfinch species you may potentially encounter, with Lesser Goldfinch and Lawrence’s Goldfinch join the party.

The woman who sent the email lived in California and specifically was trying to figure out how to easily identify female goldfinches. That does represent more of a challenge than differentiating male goldfinches, and given that my Difficult Bird ID pages are some of the most visited pages on my entire website, I thought tonight I would go ahead and create another page that talks about ID keys for the three species.

As with many “difficult” IDs, for birders I think that difficulty melts away with experience, particularly when given keys to look for.  Creating a page such as this helps me as well!  I don’t run into Lesser Goldfinch, for example, unless I travel, but I don’t know if I could have identified a female goldfinch as either Lesser or American in the areas they overlap in range, until creating this page. Now I’ll know what to look for (bill color, and undertail covert color are giveaways).

A bit of a pain to create these pages, but as I said, they are frequently visited.  Click below for the new Goldfinch ID page.

Identifying North American Goldfinch Species

Identifying Goldfinch Species (female)

Females of the three North American goldfinch species. Males in breeding plumage? Piece of cake. A little bit harder for the females (particularly American and Lesser), but not bad when you know what to look for.

Goin’ on a Safari. A Backyard Safari…

Not a good day birding. I went out this morning in the gray and the gloom, knowing the light wasn’t very good for bird photography, but I thought I’d try anyway.  Not only didn’t I get any photos, the birding itself was rather slow. Upon arriving back home I thought I’d change focus.  I hadn’t gotten my macro lens out in a while, so decided to go on a “backyard safari”, looking for little critters that inhabit the yard.

The nice thing about a backyard safari is that they never disappoint!  Well, in SUMMER they never disappoint, because you always find plenty of insects and other small critters in the yard. There were a couple of highlights today.  First were the White-lined Sphinx Moths that were gorging on nectar from a big honeysuckle.  Not a rare species, but given their size, you always do a double-take when you first see them.  They were moving pretty quickly from flower to flower, making photography a challenge, but with time (and a lot of deleted photos), I managed a few decent photos.

The second highlight were a couple of surprises on the butterfly weed I had planted. I wasn’t ever clear if the variety I bought was truly a form of milkweed.  Sure, butterflies loved the blooms, but would Monarch Butterflies treat it as they do all the wild, Common Milkweed that’s around here? Would they lay eggs?  That was answered today, when I found two caterpillars, one quite large, and one small. I don’t have a really large area of butterfly weed, but seeing those Monarch caterpillars today makes me want to plant some more.

A nice time, just a stone’s throw (quite literally!) from the house.  Backyard safari saves the day…

White-lined Sphinx Moth - Hyles lineata

White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata), feeding on nectar from our massive honeysuckle in the back yard. There were 2 or 3 hanging around the backyard, with the honeysuckle drawing the most interest by far.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) - Caterpillar

(Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) caterpillar, hanging around on my “butterfly weed”. According to this guy…yes…yes indeed…this IS a form of milkweed.

Leafcutter Bee (Megachile)

A Leafcutter Bee, hanging out on the same Butterfly Weed plant as the two Monarch caterpillars.

White-lined Sphinx Moth

Another White-lined Sphinx Moth at the honeysuckle.

POTD – Costa’s Hummingbird with splash of pollen

Today I worked out in the back yard. All. Day. Long.  I’m beat, but got a lot done, and it was a nice day. A bonus…it was nice seeing all the birds coming to my feeders, including a still very active hummingbird feeder.

This is my yearly, gloomy post, focusing on the fact that my hummingbirds are about to leave me for, oh…8 months. The males already are slipping away, as most of the birds I now get are females and young. I have about 4 more weeks before they all disappear.

But this year shall be different! I refuse to go 8 months without seeing a hummingbird!  We are taking a family vacation this winter to Arizona, and while it’s not exactly prime hummingbird season in either variety or number, there are still plenty of hummingbirds around at that time of year. Today’s POTD is a Costa’s Hummingbird who obviously had just fed, from Madera Canyon in Arizona in November 2011.

Costa's Hummingbird - Calypte costae

Canada Jay? Gray Jay? Make up your mind AOU!!

It’s 3:00 AM. I’m not sleeping, so figured I might as well do something productive and work on my website.  It’s a never-ending task, trying to maintain a massive, out-of-control website as a hobby, when you have a full-time job and a family life.  The American Ornithological Union (AOU) doesn’t make it any easier on me!! Or I guess they’re now the American Ornithological Society, but still call themselves the AOU?  It’s hard keep their name-changes straight. What’s even harder is trying to keep up with all of their changes to common and scientific bird names. Every year the AOU releases an official “supplement” to their official list of North American Birds. On June 27th, they released their 59th supplement.  It’s an annual event I’ve learned to dread, and this year is no different. They have made a number of changes to their official list, and it’s worse than usual, in terms of name changes.

About half of all North American woodpeckers have had their scientific names changed, with all the Picoides woodpeckers (including birds like Hairy, Downy, and Red-cockaded Woodpecker) being changed to Dryobates. Many sparrows have similarly changed, with Ammodramus sparrows (including my favorite, Le Conte’s, as well as Nelson’s, Baird’s, and several others) have changed to Ammospiza. In all, 33 names have changed this year!! The “official” linear sequence in the taxonomy has also changed…a lot…but that’s not something I worry about too much with my website. I DO have to go in and update all the names, however.

So no time like the present, right? What else does one do at 3:00 in the morning? It’s going to take awhile, so for now I just focused on fixing the pages associated with the Canada Jay. This is one name change I can get behind, however. The name had been Canada Jay for decades, up until 1957 when the AOU inexplicably changed the name to Gray Jay. As this piece from Audubon notes, the name Canada Jay was a source of pride for Canadians, and had such a long history, with John James Audubon using that name on his iconic artwork of the species. Canadians took it as an affront when the name change occurred, not only because the “Canada” naming convention was changed, but because the AOU used the Americanized spelling of “Gray” (as opposed to “Grey”).

Dan Strickland, who had been studying Canada Jays for decades, proposed the name change to the AOU, and they accepted on a nearly unanimous vote. As they noted, it was some curious and rather arbitrary decision making back in the 1950s that led to the name change from Canada to Gray Jay, and there really wasn’t any justification for keeping that name.  GIven the history outlined in that Audubon piece, it’s a decision that certainly makes sense…a wrong that has been made right.

But that doesn’t make it any easier on my website maintenance!  It took a little while, but I’ve completed the required changes on my website, changing all web pages, photos, and other files to the new name. One species down.  Over thirty more to go for this year’s AOU update!  But in honor of my one tiny step in accounting for this year’s AOU updates, the Photo of the Day for today is a Canada Jay, from Yellowstone National Park.

Canada Jay - Perisoreus canadensis

Today’s photo of the day, a CANADA Jay, taken in 2012 in Yellowstone National Park. One species name change from the AOU, resulting in over 30 files and web pages on my website where I had to make edits!

South Dakota State Guts Research – Polishes Turd with Statement

Replacement SDSU Staff

There IS a strategy behind the SDSU collapse of support for the GSCE program. World-renown researchers Wimberly, Roy, Hennebry, and Zhang have reportedly been replaced with these “new and improved” alternatives.

Clear not all politicians stick with politics. Some obviously branch out in other lines of work…say…working for South Dakota State University’s Division of Research and Economic Development. A few weeks ago the entire research staff of SDSU’s Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence (GSCE) quit, after being fed up with budget cuts and a seeming disinterest from SDSU in supporting the center. GSCE immediately went from being literally one of the world’s premiere research centers for remote sensing and geospatial sciences, to an empty husk with no staff.

Today, SDSU’s Divison of Research and Economic Development sent out the statement below.

University Community –

 

The purpose of this correspondence is to inform you of some changes within theGeospatial Sciences Center of Excellence (GSCE). Beginning August 22, the GSCE will move from the Division of Research and Economic Development to the Department of Geography in the College of Natural Sciences. The move will provide better alignment with the university’s research strategy, a deeper integration within our university budget process, and provide for integration of the research success strategies of the center and its host college and department.

 

Additionally, Dr. Bob Watrel will serve as the center’s acting co-director.

 

The center will continue to serve as a hub of excellence in geospatial science research and research education. The interdisciplinary research conducted provides quality education for future scientists, educators and decision-makers. We will continue our valuable partnership with the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center.

 

The GSCE move into the College of Natural Sciences will be integral to the college’s strategy for impacting society through research. To date, the university has invested more than $100 million of public and private funds into the university’s research and creative capacity. We are committed to continue to optimize investments in support of our institution’s vision of being a premier land-grant university.

 

Thank you for your commitment to South Dakota State University. We appreciate all that you do and look forward to an exciting academic year of discovery and education.

 

Division of Research and Economic Development

Office of the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

Other than the content of the statement, one question that immediately comes to mind…why is the “Division of Research” linked with “Economic Development”? It’s not exactly a surprise to me in today’s political climate, certainly not in South Dakota. But it DOES highlight the emphasis of what SDSU seemingly wants to focus on…research related to economic gain to South Dakota itself. Hence the reported frustration from SDSU president Barry Dunn with all the GSCE work that covered areas outside of South Dakota.

But back to the statement itself…how does one interpret this jumble of alphabet soup? This collection of buzzwords and catch phrases that have an uncanny knack of using as many letters as possible to say absolutely…nothing.  In case you aren’t fluid in this language, here’s an interpretative key:

  • “The move will provide better alignment with the university’s research strategy.” – Interpretation – SDSU HAS no research strategy but we’re polishing this turd the best that we can.
  • “…a deeper integration within our university budget process” – Interpretation – Nobody is safe from our reckless budget cutting, not even world-renown research centers that are self-sustaining and bring a massive reputation boost to SDSU.
  • “…provide for integration of the research success strategies of the center...” – Interpretation – All the research success of the center has walked out the door, and thus it’s quite easy to “integrate” what remains.
  • The interdisciplinary research conducted provides quality education for future scientists.” – Interpretation – We’re encouraging “future scientists” to pursue other careers, as we no longer have any science staff to provide a quality education.
  • The GSCE move into the College of Natural Sciences will be integral to the college’s strategy for impacting society through research” – Interpretation – We were caught with our pants down here. We cut budgets and are now paying the price. We have no strategy moving forward.
  • “To date, the university has invested more than $100 million of public and private funds into the university’s research and creative capacity.” – Interpretation – HEY!  LOOK OVER HERE!  SHINY DISTRACTING OBJECT, BIG DOLLAR NUMBER!! We just lost the most visible research entity at the University but are trying to emphasize what we USED to do to support research.
  • “We are committed to continue to optimize investments in support of our institution’s vision...” – Interpretation – We are committed to continue cutting budgets despite the risk to students and the reputation of the University.
  • Thank you for your commitment to South Dakota State University. We appreciate all that you do and look forward to an exciting academic year of discovery and education.” – Interpretation – Alumni…please continue to send donations to SDSU or we’ll continue hamstringing research at the University.

Perhaps the only sign of any intelligence in this entire word salad…whoever wrote it wasn’t even willing to sign their name to this obvious turd polishing.

 

The Monarch Butterfly vs. South Dakota Politics

Monarch Caterpillar - Danaus plexippus

A Monarch Caterpillar having lunch. This was taken in a roadside ditch in Minnehaha County, South Dakota, but it’s not nearly as common a sight as it could (should) be. Ditches here are mowed, sprayed, and otherwise managed, resulting in ditches (even on rarely used gravel roads) often looking like golf courses or urban lawns.

Yesterday I birded several locations to the northwest of Sioux Falls. I traveled through not only Minnehaha County (where Sioux Falls is), but also nearby McCook, Lake, Kingsbury, and Brookings counties. When I go birding around here, I typically travel on gravel roads, to minimize interaction with other cars and reach places where I can actually stop and watch for a while. While traveling gravel roads through these counties yesterday, I was struck by the incredibly variable management of roadside ditches.

What’s that? You don’t pay much attention to the ditches when you’re driving? I can’t say I normally do either, but I was recently at the North American Congress for Conservation Biology Conference (NACCB), where there were a number of presentations on the plight of the Monarch Butterfly. They’re a species dependent upon milkweed. One of the problems is that SO much of the United States landscape is now being used for agriculture, urban development, energy development, and other uses, and milkweed is crowded out.  Even in areas adjacent or near to agricultural land, herbicides are often used for weed control, further reducing milkweed abundance.

This spring, I was contacted by researchers who were studying landscape change, and how it potentially impacted Monarch Butterflies. Specifically, they were interested in using our landscape modeling to look at future landscapes, and the resultant impacts on both milkweed and Monarch butterflies. In the model they used, they were assuming that roadside ditches in most areas were places where milkweed was likely to be found.

As I quickly learned on my drive yesterday, that characterization is clearly NOT true in many areas, and seems to be strongly driven by local politics, in terms of local land management.  When driving in Minnehaha County, I often come across sprayer trucks, actively spraying herbicide in all the ditches to keep herbaceous weeds in check.  I also often come across tractors with mowers attached, mowing the ditches close to the ground.  Yes…even for the GRAVEL roads that rarely get traffic, the ditches are treated in this manner.  The result? The ditches around here often look like a well-manicured lawn (see photos below).  Hell, they often look BETTER than my yard does!! They often consists of nearly 100% brome grass (an exotic, BTW), while milkweed stems are few and far between, and are typically relegated to small spaces where a sprayer didn’t reach.

When driving through parts of Kingsbury and Brookings counties, I was struck by the incredible difference in the ditches. Many ditches clearly hadn’t been mowed in some time, if they were ever mowed. Grasses were mixed with wildflowers, other herbaceous plants, and yes…MILKWEED (see more photos below).  Milkweed was often present in very high abundance.  The issue clearly isn’t adjacency with actively growing agricultural crops. As the photos below show, the Brookings and Kingsbury County ditches often had an abundance of herbaceous plantlife in areas directly next to corn and soybean fields.

It is possible that I just happened to drive on some gravel roads yesterday in Kingsbury and Brookings counties where no action was taken, but spraying was occurring elsewhere.  On the Brookings County website, for example, I was disappointed to find this page, that notes the county DOES spray right-of-ways with “products such as 2,4-D, Tordon 22K, and possibly mixtures of them“.  They do note on their web page that they spray in May, so clearly they don’t spray all ditches, as the photo below (with the milkweed) is on a gravel road on the very western edge of Brookings County.

During the NACCB conference, one talk I heard focused on recovery efforts for the Monarch, and plans in place to improve Milkweed abundance and improvement. Even a dead-red, conservative state like Oklahoma is taking action, with the Oklahoma highway department specifically managing ditches for Monarch and pollinator habitat. They are specifically planting wildflowers and milkweed along highways in an effort to help not only Mmnarchs, but other species that depend on these plants. The discussion at the conference was a similar “Monarch Highway” stretching from Texas up northward through southern Canada, an area with highway ditches specifically devoted to herbaceous plants, including Milkweed.

Could such a thing happen up here in South Dakota? I’ll see it when I believe it. We have such an focus on agricultural production, that I find it hard to believe they’d accept any land management action that could possibly harm that production in any way.  Not that I BELIEVE an aggressive, pro-Milkweed, pro-Monarch Butterfly agenda would harm agricultural production, but in this VERY red state, environmentalists are usually portrayed as the enemy.  For a large portion of the populous here, I have no doubt they’d view a program like Oklahoma’s as an attempt by environmentalists to meddle in local affairs.

It’s hard to imagine now, but when we moved to South Dakota 25 years ago, our Congressional delegation was completely Democratic. Hell, we had Tom Daschle as a Democratic Senate Majority Leader.  How times have changed. Serendipity may have led to the 3 Democratic Congressional delegates 25 years ago, but in today’s anti-environmentalist concerns for issues like the Monarch Butterfly as far removed from most South Dakotan’s minds.

Minnehaha County Roadside Ditch

I wish my yard looked this green, lush, and free of weeds. Driving home yesterday through northern Minnehaha County, THIS is what roadsides looked like. Even for lightly traveled gravel roads such as this one. Frequent spraying and mowing ensure a monoculture of brome grass, with nary a milkweed stem in sight.

Brookings County Roadside Ditch

In contrast to the Minnehaha County ditch, this is what I saw in many parts of Kingsbury and Brookings Counties. This ditch clearly hadn’t been mowed or sprayed this summer, and was full of herbaceous plants other than brome grass, including many milkweed stems.

 

 

 

Climate Change is for the Birds

This morning was one of the most bizarre birding trips I’ve taken in a while. The forecast was clear skies and low wind, a combination you need to take advantage of when it happens in South Dakota. I headed up to the Lake Thompson area in Kingsbury County, South Dakota, to shoot gulls, terns, shorebirds, herons, egrets…all the wonderful water-loving birds you find up there this time of year.

I wanted to arrive just before dawn, and given it’s a 1 1/2 hour drive, I was up and on the road quite early. I knew right away something was different. Even before the sun arose, the lighting was strange. There were clearly no visible stars in the dark sky, but yet I had no doubt it was indeed cloud-free.  We had a hint of this phenomena yesterday, but this morning it hit full bore…a sky full of smoke from the fires hundreds of miles away in the western US and Canada.

Not was I was expecting when I left this morning, and it certainly changed the types of photos I went after! As usual at this time of year, there were birds everywhere. However, even after sunrise, the light was so poor that it was difficult to grab any decent photos.  It wasn’t until about half an hour after sunrise when it started to get bright enough to shoot. It’s not often you can point your expensive camera right at the sun at that time of day, and not permanently fry your sensor, but the light was so diffuse this morning I certainly could.  I ended up settling down at a wetland area near Lake Thompson, trying to shoot the numerous Black Terns against the odd, but beautiful lighting.  Not a situation I’m used to shooting in, but I was able to get some photos I thought were “cool”.

I’ve been in South Dakota 25 years now, and lived at basically the same latitude down in southern Nebraska before that. Until the last few years, I just don’t remember fire seasons out West being SO bad, that our air here on the eastern side of South Dakota was this affected.  But last year too, on one rock-hunting trip, the air was so bad that my eyes were watering and I started wheezing a bit. Something has changed!  That something most likely is due to, or at least severely exacerbated by, climate change!

Climate change is for the birds. But at least for one morning, it made for some cool photos.

Black Tern (Chlidonias niger) - Flying through smoke-filled skies

Black Tern, flying through the reflection of a smoke-diffused sun. This is at LEAST half an hour after sunrise!

Black Tern (Chlidonias niger)Highway 81 Lakes and Smoky Sky

 

 

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