Not so sure about all the birds, but I sure do like the birders on this trip. I was in the company of two exceptional birders this day in South Dakota. Taking the lead was David Swanson. He is a Biology Professor at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion specializing in Ornithology and Physiology and that is where we began the day. He is also the author of Birder’s Guide to South Dakota and Co-Author of Birds of South Dakota key books for anyone birding in the state. He is also the author of many scholarly articles coming from his research. So what would it be – academic or birder? Both of course, but this day it would be the latter and he is as good as it gets.
Birder’s Guide to South Dakota
There was also the bonus of Dave being almost as interested in flyfishing as in birding – a subject of much discussion during the day. Plus he was a super nice guy and I know I am laying it on thick, but super good looking too – and not just because he is 20+ years younger than me. After that intro it hardly seems fair to also write about the other birder on the trip, Paul Roisen, but in very different ways Paul is just as impressive and it was Paul who got me in touch with David in the first place. I will leave discussion of him to my next blog because Paul was my guide and companion the next day in Iowa. For now, just leaving it that he is a great birder, too and added much to the day.
Now to the birds. When we started the day, my South Dakota state list was at 7 species. This included a retroactive listing of a Lark Bunting that had caught my attention in 1972 driving from Washington, D.C. to Seattle before I was really a birder. The other 6 were birds I had seen at a pond the evening before as I traveled from North Dakota to Vermillion. Of course none of those would count for this 50/50/50 quest but all were reseen on the official day – except no Lark Bunting.
Lark Bunting – My First SD Bird – Not My Photo
Our first official stop was at a small lake/pond with some mixed habitat. Nothing unusual but it is always nice to have Wood Ducks and a Red Headed Woodpecker – and a count of 13 species. This included a small flock of Common Grackles, my first of the trip, a surprise as I had expected them to be everywhere.
At our next stop we had another Red Headed Woodpecker and another small flock of Common Grackles. Only a few additional species for the day including a Savannah Sparrow – the first of five sparrow species we observed.
Earlier in Minnesota, we had used the call of the Eastern Screech Owl to bring in passerines. Dave was very good at this imitation and at Union Grove State Park, it was very successful in finding a good number of passerines and also in getting a response from an Eastern Screech Owl itself. It was the only owl I had on this five state trip and unfortunately was heard only. We had good visuals and photo ops for both Red Breasted and White Breasted Nuthatch though.
Red Breasted Nuthatch
White Breasted Nuthatch
It was clear that Dave knew every birding spot in the area and the roads, mostly unpaved, to get us there. This was complicated by there being so much flooding from recent rains. Many roads were closed and we had to resort to a Plan B or even a Plan C. Another consequence was that many lakes where shorebirds might be expected on the shoreline mud or waterfowl in the water were not birdable. Nonetheless, we were able to find 3 goose species and 6 species of ducks as well as a Pied Billed Grebe, an American Coot, Ringed Billed Gulls and some American White Pelicans. Much of our birding was finding a new species or two here or there rather than at long stops.
Snow Geese – One Blue Form
I have made a practice during these 50/50/50 trips to pay attention early to getting common more urban birds like House Sparrow, Starling, Rock Pigeon and Eurasian Collared Dove. In more rural areas, the Rock Pigeon and Collared Dove may be found in less “urban” areas. On this trip, a Rock Pigeon was not found until quite late in the day and Eurasian Collared Doves were infrequent. Our first one was maybe an omen that the count for the day would end up well. It was about our 40th species and went unphotographed – a single bird perched on a large cross on a pretty country church. We had House Sparrows in several places. Two times it was a single bird and later we came upon a flock of about 30 that had one that really stood out – highly leucistic – a first for me.
Leucistic House Sparrow
As had been the case earlier in North Dakota, we saw many Monarch Butterflies in migration. A fascinating and beautiful species, they are also major pollinators wherever they are found.
With limited habitat, we only had three shorebirds this day: Killdeer, Least Sandpiper and Pectoral Sandpiper. Killdeer are found in far more habitats than the other shorebirds and I had at least one and sometimes many in all of my Prairie State trips. They also seem to be the most vocal, which may also explain why they are observed more frequently. Being so common, they often get short shrift, so I include a photo of one here.
It is probably one of those cases where we remember the times it works and forget the times when it doesn’t, but it often seems like just mentioning a bird can make it appear. Driving down one country road, I was told to keep my eyes open for Wild Turkeys. Not more than a moment later, a small flock magically appeared. These and a single Ringed Necked Pheasant were the only gallinaceous birds in this state or in any of the others visited on this trip. At an earlier date and further west, others may have been possible.
We continued to add a species or two along the roads or at various stops and reached species #50 for the day a little before noon. I did not keep track of the order of observations but believe it may have been either a Sedge Wren or maybe even the Turkeys. We continued birding and went through s couple of dry spots in the doldrums of the afternoon heat. Nothing astounding but we did find a somewhat early Swainson’s Hawk and a camera shy Lincoln’s Sparrow, the only ones of my trip. Species #60 was a lovely Western Meadowlark. Eastern Meadowlarks are also possible in this area but far less likely. I had expected the fields to be full of these striking and usually singing birds, but they were generally scarce in all of the states I visited. They can be a challenge to identify without hearing the very different songs. Fortunately I heard songs of both during this Prairie State trek. The numbers would have been different as in higher earlier.
Our last stop was at Spirit Mound Historic Prairie. Recovered from former farmland it is on the Lewis and Clark Historic Trail and at least for this place, it truly was visited by Lewis and Clark – apparently not the case with some places that make such claims. They climbed it August 1804. There was a small hope that we might find a LeConte’s Sparrow but in this case we were a week or two early. It was pretty quiet while we were there and we added only Common Yellowthroat and the aforementioned Ring Necked Pheasant. There were many wild flowers and other prairie plant species. I would love to return earlier in the year.
We ended the day with 69 species. South Dakota was State #45 where the 50 species goal was accomplished and I would next be heading to Iowa to bird again with Paul Roisen (covered in my next blog post). Paul headed off to Sioux City, Iowa and Dave joined me for a celebratory steak dinner in Vermillion, SD. It was excellent and very reasonably priced. Dave was as much fun and as interesting at dinner as he had been birding during the day. It was a real treat and privilege to share time with him. My closing photo is of him at Spirit Mound Prairie. Told you he was a good looking guy. Super birder, too.
Dave Swanson at Spirit Mound State Park