THE HUNT CONTINUES, AND GOES WILD
by Lynn Barber
It’s been a long time since I lived in a state that is so in need of spring-time migrants. In fact, I’ve been a southerner for about half of my life and am just now awakening to the barely remembered wonder of newly arriving birds filling all the winter-empty niches, singing, displaying, eating, as spring migration takes off. Some birds will stay and some will pass through. I need to go try to find them all, when they’re here. It’s all just so exciting.
Every time I check my emails I see reports of new first-of-year sightings all over South Dakota. Of course, these birds are all “needed” on my big year quest. Every minute that I can fit in to go birding, I need to do so. But which direction should I go? Blackhills resident birds are mostly on my list and hopefully the migrants will hold off a minute or so. I’ve been many times to the Fort Randall area, on the Missouri River and close to the southern state line and an excellent spot for returning gull and duck migrants, and I just got back last night from yet another trip to Pierre, in the center of the state and also on the Missouri River (where I missed a Lesser Black-backed Gull, but did get Franklin’s Gull and Forster’s Tern). It looks like new arrivals will continue along the river, and I need to go back often. Two of my fellow big-year birders live in Pierre and don’t have much of a trek for these birds.
Since I live in the far southwestern corner of the state near the Black Hills, and since most migrants come through “east-river” (east of the Missouri River which bisects the state, north to south), the answer is clear. But in spite of not being Texas-size, South Dakota still does have a lot of state east-river, and I need to decide what’s next to explore.
Since I last wrote in the ABA blog, I have been east-river a couple of times. The first was for the Whooping Crane on March 27. Another Rapid City birder and I left Rapid City at 3:30 AM for a nearly 5-hour drive to Beadle County where the crane had been reported by the other Rapid City big-year birder the day before. Not surprisingly all four of us big-year birders who had not seen the Whooping Crane yet were out looking for it, a hunt very much remindful of a needle in a haystack. There were thousands upon thousands of Sandhill Cranes spread out for miles and miles of rolling countryside primarily in cut-off corn fields, but spilling over into ravines and on to hill-tops, filling the air with the slow winged flight and raucous calls. Periodically, we would glimpse something white, but it was always Snow Geese.
Hours passed as we drove the dusty gravel roads over and over near where the Whooping Crane had been previously seen, gradually widening our field of search. Two of the other birders had to leave, but we were prepared to spend the full day and possibly overnight in our quest. We took a break to look for Great-tailed Grackles that had been seen out near there months earlier (Texas birders: do not laugh; Great-tailed Grackles are actually sought after up here!). No luck there, so we returned to the crane hunt. At about 4:30 PM as we came to a road-bend where we had not previously driven, there it was a huge white flying bird amid about a hundred Sandhills – a joy-bringing Whooping Crane! They circled around and landed in a ravine, hidden from view. We drove farther up the road and were able to see the crane flock on the ground, with the a glowing white crane among them. They were quite far from us, but I was able get a few pictures to prove I’d seen it. While we had also added Tree Swallow, Blue-winged Teal (many), Lesser Yellowlegs (a few) and Chestnut-collared Longspur (2) to our year list that day, the Whooping Crane was by far the highlight.
Since then, I have been east river to Sioux Falls, where I began to add sparrows (e.g., Fox, Harris’s) to my list, as well as displaying American Woodcocks.
Now I need to go even farther east and north in the state, soon. I’m thinking Thursday this week. I understand that shorebirds are pouring into the state way out east and may be found on the multitude of potholes and wet areas out there. It sounds like I need to make a long trip across much of South Dakota, but I try to remember Texas. It will be just like going to past Rockport or Corpus Christi from Fort Worth, a drive that I made all the time when I was a Texan. I can do it, and I will! Shorebirds await. And warblers are not far behind. Stay tuned.