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For the Birds
Jan 25, 2017
You might think that freezing temperatures and wind-driven snow pelting your face would make for poor photography. Normally I’d agree. However, there are certain places I like to go on a snowy day. One of them is the Sioux Falls Outdoor Campus near the feeders. If you are patient, there is a very good chance of spotting one of a few resident cardinals coming in for lunch or hanging around the nearby branches. The brilliant red of the male is always a joy to see, but seems to stand out even more beautifully amidst the snowflakes.
Friends and co-workers often tease me about how I’m becoming a birder, as if there’s something bad about that. I’m not a true birder, but I’ve taken more steps in that direction the last few years. True birders are interested in every bird they see or hear. I’m partial to the ones I think look cool in a photograph. True birders can tell you where migrating birds come from and about how long they’ll stay. I have to go to the internet for that kind of knowledge. True birders do this thing called “pishing” to get birds to show themselves and take good long looks at you. I try it sometimes, but I think the birds that show up are doing it more out of humorous curiosity than anything else.
Something that has really interested and awed me about birds is how much most of them travel. In the spring, we can get birds from as far away as South America. There is a similar story in the winter. Birds like Lapland longspurs from the arctic come down and hang out in open fields with flocks of horned larks. Bohemian waxwings, the northern cousin of our resident cedar waxwings, are a treat to see. But the most popular and exciting traveller from the north is the snowy owl. I’ve been lucky to see one in almost every winter over the last five years except this one, though it’s not for a lack of trying. I headed northwest of Aberdeen in mid-January, where one had been reported. I didn’t see it, but did I found flocks of snowy buntings, thousands of pheasants and a lone meadowlark, which is interesting because the closest they usually winter is Nebraska
A few Februarys ago, a local birder spent a lot of time looking for the little Northern Saw-whet owl in parks around southeast South Dakota. He reported three of them at Newton Hills State Park. Although these owls can be found along the Missouri River, particularly in the Pierre area at Farm Island and a few other hot spots, I did not know they would come this far south and east. So I went looking too. I failed miserably. On the third visit, I found dead field mice hanging on branches, which is good owl sign, but could not for the life of me spot the owl itself. Finally on my fourth or fifth try, I nearly walked headlong into the owl resting on a young cedar branch in the midst of a tangled thicket. I froze. Usually wild birds flush when discovered at close range. The owl looked at me for about 30 seconds then slowly closed its eyes and went back to sleep. It was an amazing, breathtaking encounter with a winter bird that I’ll never forget. Do seeking out and enjoying thrills like that make me a true birder? Not yet, but I’m getting there.
Christian Begeman grew up in Isabel and now lives in Sioux Falls. When he's not working at Midcontinent Communications he is often on the road photographing South Dakota’s prettiest spots. Follow Begeman on his blog.