January 12, 2014 [LINK / comment]
With the recent deep freeze brought about by the "polar vortex," many people have put off birding activities for the time being. But temperature is relative, and I just returned from a Christmas vacation trip to South Dakota, where it was even colder than it has been here in Virginia: below zero almost every day for over a week! (Br-r-r-r.) Fortunately, I managed to squeeze in a couple days of birding with my family when it wasn't quite so brutal.
On Saturday December 28, my brother John joined my father and me for a trip across the Missouri River into the wilderness of Nebraska. The population in the north-eastern part of that state is even sparser than south-eastern South Dakota, if you can believe that. We took some back roads, and it paid off as we spotted a Rough-legged Hawk. The angle of the sun wasn't good, and I had a hard time pointing my camera at the moving target, and I only got one good photo, from behind. We also saw a Red-tailed Hawk and then proceeded to our destination, Ponca State Park. There we saw a dozen or more White-breasted Nuthatches at the well-stocked bird feeders, along with Downy Woodpeckers, Black-capped Chickadees, Goldfinches, and even a Bald Eagle that flew directly overhead. On the way back, we saw another Rough-legged Hawk, and I was surprised that it was hovering, or "kiting," just like Kestrels and Red-tailed Hawks do. I had seen Rough-legged Hawk before, but never at such close range and in such good light. Unfortunately, it was difficult to aim the camera, but at least I got a couple decent photos. Further along the road we saw a dead Rough-legged Hawk along the side of the road, and we saw a dead Screech Owl on the Missouri River bridge.
On Friday January 3, my father and I drove up to Spirit Mound, the highest elevation in Clay County. I didn't see any birds there, but on the way back to town I saw a flock of birds foraging in a corn field, and just as I surmised, they turned out to be Horned Larks. We stopped the car at the entrance to the field, where a lot of the corn had been spilled by trucks, and in spite of getting in close proximity I had a hard time getting the camera to focus properly. I eventually managed to get a few good shots of some Horned Larks, and I realized that there were a few other birds mixed in there with them. From looking at the images I had taken, I guessed that they were some kind of sparrow, but there are very few sparrow species that winter in South Dakota. Finally, I determined that they were Lapland Longspurs, a species which breeds in the remote Arctic tundra. My brother John confirmed that for me. (Coincidentally, there were reports of Lapland Longspurs in the Shenandoah Valley recently.) I had seen that species before, but this was by far my best look at them.
These photos, and several more, can be seen on the Wild birds yearly photo gallery page.
On my return trip east (the itinerary of which had to be changed because of weather), my brother Chris and I stopped at the Straight River rest stop just south of Owatonna, Minnesota. They have some well-stocked bird feeders in back, and we saw a wide variety of birds there, similar to what I had seen at Ponca State Park about ten days earlier. I tried to take some photos, but the glass and steam made it very hard to get good images.
Since late November, there have been multiple reports of Snowy Owls in the Shenandoah Valley, and other states as far south as Florida. It's a classic "irruption" year, and I hope to see one of those owls before long. (Maybe this afternoon!) See audubon.org for more on this.