Sunday, June 25, 2017

Post #108 - South Dakota - Landscapes, birds, wildlife, and loads of roadside fun!

Quick, what's the first thing that you think of when I say 'South Dakota'? It's kind of tough, right? Yes, the state has Mount Rushmore, but South Dakota doesn't elicit the strong and stereotypical images that states like California, New York, or Texas instantly do. South Dakota instead flies a bit off radar as a sparsely populated, unspoiled, and beautiful part of the Upper Midwest. My recent and inaugural visit to South Dakota was made as part of a weeklong road trip from Minnesota to California. We generally followed I-90 west, but we made some really fun detours along the way. This post will therefore be a mix of birding, more general wildlife, landscapes, and entertaining roadside fun.

Our route from Minnesota to California.
We flew for a wedding and drove back over 6 days.

Our South Dakota leg, in a bit more detail.

Our first day took us from Minneapolis to Chamberlain. The eastern portion of South Dakota is incredibly flat, all of the land being used for agriculture or ranching. We didn't make any birding stops along that easternmost stretch, but we did make a brief detour to experience the world famous Corn Palace in Mitchell. It was super fun, a must-do for anyone in the area. The palace is a giant commemoration to the region's corn industry, the highlight being the huge corn murals that adorn the inside and outside of the building. During the summer months, 'corny' tours of are offered, and a pop-up gift shop attracts all sorts of visitors. Once the tourist season ends, the facility converts back to the town's recreation hall and basketball arena. Our visit was made extra interesting by a passing storm front and associated tornado warning that kept us hunkered down for over an hour. It was the true Midwest experience, quite exciting for us Californians! Since the weather was so bad, I pulled a couple shot from online to give you an idea of the palace.

Corn Palace, Mitchell, SD 
Corn Willie Nelson and Corn Elvis murals visible

Bison mural made of corn

Summer gift shop

Recreation hall and basketball arena rest of year

Angry skies during our visit

Radar during our Corn Palace visit.
The storm dropped gold ball-sized hail in places,
thankfully not on us.

Nervous moments as the town's tornado sirens sounded!

Killing time while waiting for the storm to pass

The storm front passed early enough for us to camp at the American Creek Campground on the Missouri River at Chamberlain that night. It was really pretty and held quite a few birds, notably both Eastern and Western Kingbirds. We packed up early the next day and made miles towards Badlands National Park, but before we reached that point, we made 2 roadside stops. The first was at the 1880 Town between Stamford and Belvidere. Basically, someone has salvaged a whole bunch of vintage buildings from around the American West and reassembled them into a complete town right off of I-90. Many of the buildings are filled with period furniture, decor, and possessions, and together they really give a sense of what frontier life might have felt like. There is also a fairly extensive homage to the Oscar-winning movie "Dances with Wolves", a beautiful epic filmed entirely within South Dakota.

Locked up in the 1880 town

Our second stop was at a The Ranch Store on Highway 240 as one heads into the Badlands from I-90. This is another roadside tourist trap, albeit of the best sort. Adjacent to the gift shop one finds a colony of very tame White-tailed prairie dogs. For $1, a back of peanuts can be purchased to feed these animals, and, let me tell you, its worth every penny! If you're patient, they'll even eat right out of your hand. The sun was a bit steep compared to how I usually like it, but I squeezed out a few fun shots despite the harsh light and admittedly manipulated conditions.

Sonia feeding prairie dogs

After the prairie dog nonsense, we made it into the Badlands National Park. I had no idea what to expect but was thoroughly impressed with the scenery. There is an extensive auto tour, and we drove the whole thing as we made miles west.

Badlands National Park

Bighorn Sheep at Badlands National Park

This one with a radio transmitter ran right in front of our car

From the Badlands we continued west where we made the obligatory stop at Mount Rushmore. Some people think it's kind of cheesy. I personally though it was really cool, particularly from a design and engineering standpoint. Gutzon and Lincoln Borglum only got one shot at it, right? It wasn't as though they could glue Washington's nose back on if they made some critical mistake.

Clowning it up at Mount Rushmore

We spent that night, our second in the state, at Sylvan Lake Campground in Custer State Park in the same Black Hills where Mount Rushmore is located. There the birding was very good, feeling as much like Colorado as anywhere else. Around our campground I found Hairy Woodpecker, Swainson's Thrush, Gray Jay, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Red Crossbill, and Pine Siskin. Hikes on trails in other parts of the huge park further yielded Northern Flicker, Western Wood-Pewee, Plumbeous Vireo, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, and Mountain Bluebird. Beyond birds, Yellow-bellied Marmots and American Bison showed nicely. The State Park was an amazing place, a place where we could have easily spent a few more days just exploring hiking and exploring.

Sylvan Lake in nice morning light

Black Hills vista

View of Black Hills formations

A quiet horse trail that we hiked - no one else on it

Yellow-bellied Marmot

Roadside American Bison (in terribly midday light!)

Bison calf, chillaxin'

Adult bison with curious calf

Roody staying warm at the campsite.
And, yes, we are totally ridiculous with our dog, I know.

What I hope you can see is that there is lots of cool stuff to see and do in South Dakota. It might not have quite the number of specialty birds as other, more peripheral areas of the US, but the birding experience is absolutely fantastic. At many places we were the only people for miles, a nice break from our familiar but admittedly overcrowded Bay Area surrounds. So, if your travels take you to the center of the country for any reason, please do think about either a pass through or an extended stay in South Dakota. It really is a fun place! 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Post #107 - My first time visiting and birding Minnesota!

I'm so sorry to have two full weeks between posts. Between logistics surrounding our move from LA to SF and a 10-day road trip, writing has fallen temporary casualty to other responsibilities. That will all change with this post as I had on that road trip some wonderful birding experiences that will provide great fodder for this blog. Without going into too much detail, Sonia and I spent 4 days in Minnesota before driving from there back to California. Along that arc we did a fair amount of birding (notably in MN, SD, and UT), and I'll use a series of 3 posts to share my experiences from this recent journey.

Our route from Minnesota to California

Prior to this trip, I had visited 43 of the 50 states, the outliers being Oklahoma, Arkansas, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Montana. That I didn't visit any part of the Midwest on my 2014 Biking for Birds adventure was probably my biggest regret of the entire endeavor, but a visit to that geography simply didn't make sense given the distribution of species and the physical limits of my body. So, when Sonia and I were invited to a wedding in Alexandria, MN, I was stoked for my inaugural visit to the Gopher State!

My 2014 Biking for Birds Route. I completely missed the midwest.

In my last post, I wrote a bit about birding during the nesting season, and, while birding around my Bay Area home is admittedly a bit slow during those summer months, nothing could be further from the truth in Minnesota. Warblers, vireos, and orioles were everywhere in great abundance. Particularly striking was the presence and diversity of flycatchers. Least Flycatchers, Great-crested Flycatchers, Eastern Phoebes, and Eastern Wood-Pewees were everywhere. I also, and finally(!), saw my lifer Alder Flycatcher for ABA-seen #717. I know, it's totally crazy that it took me so long to add such a relatively common bird to my life list. Alder Flycatcher was just a species that I figured I'd run into at some point but never did, even on my bicycle Big Year (they migrate late and don't call on the Texas Coast for ID anyway). Once photography came to rival birding for my fullest attentions, it is understandable that I instead focused on other, more photogenic species. Anyway, Alder Flycatcher is finally a done deal, a loudly calling individual begging for my attention at Fort Snelling State Park just outside Minneapolis.

A typical Minnesota summer scene

Though I only spent a few days in Minnesota, I can say that the birding seems to get better as as one moves north. This isn't shocking as population also thins in that same direction. I only wish that I had more time to visit farther reaches than I did. I didn't, for instance, make it to true boreal forest on this trip. Interestingly, it seems as though summer and winter are the best birding times to visit Minnesota. This contrasts with many other areas where it is the spring and falls migrations that make for the most exciting birding. So, when things near your home are slower between those migrations, head to Minnesota for non-stop birding action. I'd love to make it to the Sax-Zim bog in the northern part of the state in winter to photograph owls at some point, but that will have to wait for another trip.  For those thinking of visiting in Spring or summer to avoid those frigid winter temperatures, may I suggest the Festival of Birds in Detroit Lakes each May. It looks like a really cool event. David Sibley was this year's keynote speaker, so the event clearly attracts some notable birding names.

More Minnesota scenery

As a a last note, I want to mention a particularly wonderful morning that I spent in Minnesota. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I put a post up on the Minnesota Birders Facebook page asking if there was anyone who owned a boat who might be willing to take me out on the water to photograph loons, grebes, and terns. Detroit Lakes birder Beau Shroyer saw my request and contacted me saying he'd be happy to take Sonia and I out for a morning.

Captain Beau at the helm!

We met Beau east of Detroit Lakes at 5:45am on a Saturday morning. In his small boat he toured us around Round Lake, a body where he and his family spend at least some time each summer. Though he is now a real estate agent, Beau knows a ton about the ecology and natural history of Minnesota. His personality was warm and his commentary informative, and our time with him highlighted exactly the sort of personal connections that are so often made through the common interest of birding. I managed a few nice shots that morning, but my time with Beau will certainly be the most memorable part of my entire Minnesota experience.

Red-necked grebe - Podiceps grisegena
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 1250

Common Loon - Gavia immer
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Common Loon - Gavia immer
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 1000

Common Loon - Gavia immer
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1600 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Black Tern - Chlidonias niger
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 800

So that's what I have for you after a too quick trip to Minnesota. In the next installment I'll visit South Dakota, another new state for me! Please stay tuned for that post sometime next week!

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Sunday, June 4, 2017

Post #106 - Nesting season is here: Collecting nesting data and photographing nesting birds!

Though Coastal California has some of the best birding in the country, summer around here is notoriously slow. Migrant species have returned to more northerly latitudes, species diversity is at its lowest point in the year, the possibility of rarities is painfully low, and good weather and associated summer crowds mean that natural areas are unusually crowded for the next few months. On the surface, it might look like birding might take a backseat to other activities for a few months. However, there are a couple of unique and really wonderful birding and photography opportunities that arise during nesting season irrespective wherever you live.

Northern Fulmars - Fulmaris glacialis
Whitless Bay, Newfoundland, Canada
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1000 at f/7.1, ISO 400, handheld

The first of these is the chance to view locally nesting species and, with the help of eBird, collect valuable data on those local breeders. While all habitat is important, it would be difficult to argue against breeding habitat as the most valuable to most species. I appreciate the value of Christmas Counts, but I have always though it would be really cool if a similar community-based effort was put into censusing nesting species. I suspect that if the holiday season fell in June we'd be doing exactly that, but as it is people have more time off in December. What this means is that the data that individuals generate with respect to locally nesting species is particularly valuable. So, while species diversity in areas such as Coastal California might be lower in summer, the data contained in eBird checklists from those months still has great value!

Pacific-slope Flycatcher - Empidonax difficilus
Huntington Beach, California
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/800 at f/11, ISO 800, bit of flash.

The second fun thing about the summer nesting season is finding actual nests. Once an active nest is located, its a blast to watch the parents go about their daily business as they raise their young. There is constant activity as the adults come and go, and depending on what species is being observed (particularly shorebirds) it quite possible to follow the chicks from hatching through fledging. There is a reason why there are so many of those 'nest-cam' things, right? Who doesn't want to see stuff like this?

American Oystercatcher - Haematopus palliatus
Winthrop, Massachusetts
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 7D original
1/160 at f/11, ISO 320, handheld

One last thing about nesting season is that photographing nesting birds is really fun and productive. Nesting birds behave in a very predictable manner, particularly once the chicks hatch, so its possible to just set up shop ad wait for the particular behavior or shot that you want. The bigger the chicks get, the more the parents have to come and go to keep them fed. Setting up shop along the most popular supply routes or flight paths is a great way to get flight shots. That's exactly how I got this shot this weekend. This Cliff Swallow was nesting under a dock here on SF Bay. I watched the colony for an hour and figured out the best strategy. Once I got familiar with what was going on, getting this shot wasn't as difficult as it might seem. Nest photography gives a shooter a great opportunity to plan out and execute shots!

Cliff Swallow - Petrochelidon pyrrhonota
Palo Alto, California
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/5000 at f/4, ISO 1000, handheld

All that being said, it's really important to respect the space of all birds, but particularly nesting birds. There are all sorts of procedural and ethical considerations, and I would point you to this article from Audubon rather than rehashing points that have already been stated nicely. The biggest thing is that nesting birds are tolerant of humans if humans take the time to establish trust with the birds. Walking straight up to a nest and scaring off the parents is not how to do this. Find a nest, observe it for an hour, and learn the birds' behavior. Let the birds additionally get used to your presence over the course of several hours or even several days. If you don't want to take the time to approach nests respectfully, then please consider not doing it at all. If the birds fly off and don't immediately return or they look agitated, back off! It's really that simple. Think of how you'd want your kids treated and return the favor to the birds.

I'm off to Minnesota for the first time on Friday! Will be fun to bird a new state (#44!). I'll also be spending a few days in South Dakota (#45!), so I'd love to hear from people about birding in those areas! After this trip I'll just be missing Arkansas, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, and Oklahoma.

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