I am writing this blog post to try to give a taste and feel of what it is like to do a big year when essentially all of the easy birds have been seen. It is now the end of July. It is hot, and I am oh so tempted to say, “Enough is enough. I made a valiant try. It’s just too much work to find any more birds for this South Dakota big year.”
In spite of my feeling depressed about the big year situation and in spite of my lack of knowledge of South Dakota’s birds and bird habitats, I have been making little trips here and there, and I have been looking for birds that I imagine might be around here somewhere. The main problem is that I’m not sure where to look. South Dakota is a long way from the oceans, in the middle of the country, and is in a drought. Shores are hard to find, particularly near the Black Hills where I live. There are a few lakes west of the Missouri River, but the lake beds seem mostly to be either dry or grassy around the remaining water. No place for shorebirds. So, I’ve had to travel “east river” (east of the Missouri River) to look for shorebirds.
The two main shorebirds for which I have been looking lately but that until recently proved very elusive for me are Piping Plover and Buff-breasted Sandpiper. I had read that Piping Plovers, while basically missing from most of the state, can be found along the Missouri River, particularly on and bars and islands in the river. Unfortunately I sold my kayaks when I moved from Texas. Another problem is that the good plover habitat that is along the southern reaches of the Missouri River in South Dakota is perilously close to or in Nebraska. When you are doing a state big year, it is very important to only count birds that are in that state, and apparently the actual state boundary, generally somewhere in the middle of the river, is very difficult to locate.
Nevertheless, I have tried many times to find Piping Plovers. I first realized it might be a serious problem in mid-April when the other people who are doing a big year all saw a Piping Plover north east of Pierre (near Onida) when they chased the Ruff at a pond there. Because I had already seen the Ruff I did not return to the pond the day that they went (I was birding elsewhere), and by the time I realized that they had seen the Ruff and a Piping Plover, the plover was gone. I returned to that pond a few times after that, hoping the plover would reappear but it did not.
I then learned that Piping Plovers had been seen south of Vermillion, all the way across the state from Rapid City, and I raced there. Although I did add Least Terns to my year list on this trip, no plovers were seen. Weeks passed, and then in late June there was a report of Piping Plovers, viewable from a boat only, near Yankton, again all the way across the state. After trying to decide whether I should try to find a boat, I learned that some of the plovers could be seen from the shore in south Yankton, so I made the trip. Sadly, as I approached the viewing spot, I realized that if I did see any Piping Plovers, they would be ineligible for my South Dakota list, as the only sand that I could see was way across the river. But I did not have to worry about it because I did not see any Piping Plovers anyway. In an attempt to salvage the trip, I journeyed on to Vermillion to see if maybe the Piping Plovers had returned there. Not so.
Time passed. I kept checking various lakes east of Pierre that seemed to have potential, one nearly to the North Dakota border north of Aberdeen. No Piping Plovers. About a week later, a friend and I took a long drive to Pierre and up the Missouri River north from there, driving to the river’s edge everywhere there was a road and scanning all islands and shorelines with our telescopes. Nothing. More time passed.
At last in mid-July there was another report of Piping Plovers along the southern Missouri River south of Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge, but I had commitments for a couple of days and could not go. Finally, I raced east, arriving there with the woman who had found them about 6 hours later. It was over 100 degrees as we stood looking from the road across a private grassy field to the river down below us, scanning each sandbar on our side of the river. Nothing so we drove a bit farther and tried again, and to our relief found a single Piping Plover. Only one, but enough for the year, and probably the last one for the year.
The Buff-breasted Sandpiper story is a little shorter. To my knowledge they only migrate through the state and do not nest here. They are also quite rare, and in some years apparently are not even found at all in the state. Therefore, I did not even think it likely that I would see one this year until I got a call on May 11th from a birder in Mitchell who had found one on a wet mudflat during spring migration. I was east river when he called, so I arrived at the spot in a couple of hours, only to find that most of the shorebirds were gone, and as I arrived, the remaining birds were spooked away by a large truck that roared past. I took a few hours to check all of the muddy areas near there that I could find, but eventually gave up. After that when I was near Mitchell on other east river birding trips, I checked in that same area, but did not find any Buff-breasted Sandpipers. I figured that if I was going to get one it would probably not be until they migrated south.
On July 26th, there was an afternoon report of two Buff-breasted Sandpipers at the same spot where the first Piping Plover had been reported north east of Pierre, near Onida. I dropped everything and again raced east. About four hours later I arrived, and spent the next couple of hours scanning the muddy and short grassy areas, until darkness ended my search. A couple of times, I was almost convinced that I had a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, but the lengthening shadows made visibility terrible. I returned home that same day getting to bed about midnight.
I am writing this on Monday, July 31st, from a motel in Sioux Falls, all the way across the state from my home. This trip began mid-morning today with a successful (after many hours) hunt for a reported Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (also a rare bird in the state) near New Holland. While I waited for the sun to start its descent and the Night-Heron to appear somewhere as night approached, I received a call reporting a flock of about 10 Buff-breasted Sandpipers only about 20 miles from me! I skipped dinner and drove rapidly back to the site north of Platte. As I arrived at the spot, a small flock of buffy-colored shorebirds flew up from the water’s edge, over my car, heading south low over the marshy area. I drove south too, and stopped at the next roadside water, set up my telescope, scanned everywhere I could, and after about 5 minutes, located four of the Buff-breasted Sandpipers foraging in the short, cow-trampled grass along the water!
So,I now have these two shorebirds for my year list. As with many other things, finding a difficult-to-find bird usually takes much effort, and also sometimes takes a village of other birders who are also out there birding. Finally seeing a Buff-breasted Sandpiper has given me renewed enthusiasm for the big year effort. I just have to figure out what to look for and where to look. Details.
Note: I did not get a picture of either of these shorebirds this year, so have included copies of paintings of these species done other years from other photographs that I took (not in South Dakota).