September 12, 2017
"Only" a few weeks late, I now present an account of my pursuit of birds while in South Dakota early last month, followed by a brief but productive stop at a nature area in Wisconsin on my way home. As a preface, I should note that I saw a few interesting birds while in Kansas City, most notably a Common Nighthawk overhead while my brother Dan and I were in front of Arthur Bryant's famous barbecue place on July 30, but the situation was just not conducive to photography. We also saw a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (and a Monarch butterfly!) at the Shawnee Indian Mission earlier that day. The photo montages seen below, along with individual bird photos, can be see on the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page.
As recounted previously, on the first day of August I took my brother Chris's Hyundai Sonata on a test drive to the northeast part of South Dakota. I figured it was almost a sure bet to get a good photo of the American White Pelicans which breed up in the north where lakes abound, and I was right. I saw a few as I was driving toward my main destination, the Waubay National Wildlife Refuge, but it was harder than I thought to get close to them. Anyway, while driving west along U.S. Route 12 I spotted a hawk perched on a fence pole, did a U-turn and slowly approached it to get a photo. I was pretty lucky, because that bird didn't fly away until after I had taken a few excellent shots from only about 50 feet away. It was a Red-tailed Hawk -- a young one, based on the lack of reddish color in its tail. After lunch in Waubay I drove to the wildlife refuge northeast of town, and I soon spotted a Great Egret and a Snowy Egret in a shallow lake, as well as a Great Blue Heron and a Double-crested Cormorant. I got some good photos of the egrets, as well as of some Purple Martins. I also saw some (probable) Forster's Terns flying around and tried to take photos, but they weren't much good.
Once inside the refuge proper, I spent a lot of time pursuing grassland birds such as Common Yellowthroats, Yellow Warblers, and Clay-colored Sparrows. (At the time, I thought the latter might be Lark Sparrows, but then I learned that the latter species ranges farther to the south.) I also spotted a Spotted Sandpiper by the shore. Next I drove across the causeway which leads to the island on which the refuge headquarters is located. There I heard and saw many Yellow Warblers and Chipping Sparrows. After chatting with the folks inside, I took a walk along one of the trails, and soon heard a scream up in the trees. It turned out to be a juvenile Cooper's Hawk, who was very cooperative as I took pictures! There were many Eastern Kingbirds, Barn Swallows, and Chipping Sparrows, but nothing really spectacular. I was hoping to see Western Grebes, which breed in that region, but no such luck.
Heading west, I saw a Black-crowned Night Heron in a mud flat adjacent to Route 12, and a Western Kingbird perched on a wire! (I didn't realize what it was until I looked at the image later on; they are hardly ever seen in southeastern South Dakota.) Following the suggestion of the refuge ranger I talked to, I stopped at a pond a few miles southwest of Webster. Indeed, it was full of shorebirds, such as Pectoral Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, Solitary Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers, and Killdeers. There were also some Blue-winged Teals. Nearby I saw a few Dickcissels, and an American White Pelican flew right over my head! It was getting late in the afternoon, and I was three hours away from Sioux Falls, so I had to leave. On the way, I came across more lakes where many hundreds of shorebirds had gathered, but there weren't any good photo opportunities. While entering Watertown, I happened to see a dozen or so Pelicans clustered together around a boulder fairly close to the road, and I got some of my best pictures yet!
The next day (August 2) was mostly spent visiting with relatives in Madison, rather than birding. However, I did happen to photograph a Eurasian Collared Dove at the top of at building spire at Dakota State University. Other than that, it was just the usual ducks and gulls in some of the larger ponds.
On Thursday, my last full day in South Dakota, I headed to Atkins Wildlife Protection Area, on the west edge of the town of Tea. It consists of marshes with tall cattails surrounding a small lake, but it is not well maintained, and the main trail becomes impassible half way through. My main target bird there was the Yellow-headed Blackbird, which I had seen only once before -- way back in 2004! It's a high priority for me every time I visit South Dakota, but unfortunately, I struck out once again. As a small consolation, I did get some photos of a Sedge Wren, but it took a lot of effort, since they usually stay deep in the tall grass / sedges. I also saw some Common Yellowthroats, and Red-winged Blackbirds, as well as a Western Meadowlark. To my eyes they are indistinguishable from Eastern Meadowlarks, but the songs are much different.
After that, I drove to Wall Lake, the southern-most of the large lakes that are scattered across northeastern South Dakota. The skies were getting dark, and while I walked across a footbridge I came upon a Green Heron in a low tree branch just 30 or so feet in front of me, and I got a quick photo before it flew away. There were several dozen or more Ring-billed Gulls and Franklin's Gulls around that lake, but not much else. It started to rain, so I left.
I spent most of Friday driving straight across southern Minnesota, with only one significant stop -- in the town of Albert Lea. I crossed the Mississippi River into Wisconsin, and late in the afternoon I arrived at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, where a small colony of endangered Whooping Cranes has been breeding in recent decades. That would be a life bird for me, so I figured it was worth an hour or two. I stopped at an observation platform not far from the entrance, and spotted a young Bald Eagle, as well as probable Great Egrets. Upon arriving at the visitor center, I saw a steel silhouette of a pair of Cranes, making me all the more eager. Then I was thrilled to see a family of cranes across the lake, but I soon realized that they were just Sandhill Cranes, which are relatively common there. Still, it was the first time I had seen a small-sized juvenile of that species, along with its parents. In back of the visitor center there are several bird feeders, and I saw a wide variety of birds (including several Rose-breasted Grosbeaks) feeding there. I was amused to see a Blue Jay next to a sign that said "Blue Jay Way." I even saw a Red-headed Woodpecker, but couldn't get a recognizable photo. It was already dusk, so I had to leave.
The next day while watching a baseball game in Chicago's Wrigley Field, I saw several Ring-billed Gulls on the roof in back of where I was sitting, so I took a photo. Those gulls congregate in large numbers around the outfield late in ballgames, anticipating feasting on the leftover snacks in the bleachers. Aside from brief visits to Indianapolis and Cincinnati, there wasn't much opportunity for me to do any birding for the rest of my trip back east, so that's that. Now all that is left to do as far as blogging about wild birds is to finish writing about my birding adventures in South Dakota two years ago! (Sigh...)
Today I went to Betsy Bell Hill here in Staunton for the first time since the early summer. I was hoping to see some of the neotropical migrants that are passing through, and my hopes were raised when I saw a Chestnut-sided Warbler soon after arriving. It left the area, however, and all during my hike to the top of the hill, there was very little bird activity. Thankfully, I encountered a cluster of small songbirds on the southwest side of the hill on the way down. In the following montage, only the Pileated Woodpecker is a year-round resident; the other birds will be on their way to parts farther south before long...