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High Plains Drifters

The map in my eBird profile reveals not only where I need to do more birding—it shows me what states, provinces, and countries I have yet to visit. As of the end of July 2019, my eBird profile map traced a lifetime of birding across the United States with most states visited and many birded more than superficially. There remained, however, two glaring holes in my coverage: the tri-state region of Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota and Nevada.

My eBird profile map of the United States as of July 30, 2019. I listed at least 10 birds in every state that I visited so by this point I had visited 46 states. I set out to visit and bird in three states that create the big hole in the center of my map.

I sometimes think I may be the oddest person on the planet. Every time I opened my eBird profile and was reminded of those holes in my birding experiences, it gave me an overwhelming desire to fill in the gaps. So, I planned a trip to visit the three adjoining states that I was missing. I know U. S. geography pretty well, but off the top of my head I had no idea what city (if any) sat at the point where Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota meet. A glance at a map told me that Sioux City, Iowa holds that key location, which was good news for me. Sioux City was large enough to have a commercial airport serviced by major carriers like American. Thus, I had the starting point for an Iowa/Nebraska/South Dakota trip. In my earliest ideas for this trip, I was just going to bird from Sioux City and spend a few hours in each state that constituted the greater Sioux City metro region. But that sort of in-and-out trip, counting House Sparrows and Starlings, defeats the purpose of going to a new region of the country to really experience it. My son Trevor, who is not a birder but likes to do road trips, was hanging out for the summer as he applied to law school, so I asked him if he wanted to go and if there was anything he wanted to see in the region. He answered “yes” and “Deadwood”. Both Trevor and I had really enjoyed the HBO series “Deadwood” that ran about 10 years ago, and Trevor had always wanted to visit the town to get a better feel for the region of the country where Wild Bill was shot and Al Swearengen had once ruled the roost. Deadwood lies at the opposite side of South Dakota from the Sioux City suburbs, but it was the sort of cross-country trip I was looking for—a chance to drift across the high plains and see the birds of the region. Our trip would take us from the eastern-bird-dominated deciduous woodlands along the Missouri River across the Great Plains to the western-bird-dominated pine forests of the Black Hills.

I planned a 4-night visit with three-and-a-half days for birding. It started on Weds, July 31 when we landed at the Sioux City airport and picked up our rental car. We were birding by about 4pm which gave us 4 or 5 hours to run up our Iowa list because this one afternoon was our only allotted time for Iowa birding. After a quick stop at Snyder Bend Park, which is a patch of woods along the Missouri River, we headed east to the Owego Wetland Complex. I found this spot by looking at the hotspot map in eBird, and it turned out to be better than I could have guessed. It is a large patch of prairie wetland that is being preserved and recovered for conservation, hunting, and outdoor activities including birding. It had a nice assortment of prairie birds including Dickcissels, Sedge Wrens, Grasshopper Sparrows, Blue Grosbeaks, and both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks. I went to sleep that night with 54 birds on my Iowa list—not bad for one afternoon of late summer birding.

Dickcissels were abundant in the grasslands of western Iowa.

On day 2 of our trip, we crossed the river into Nebraska and started tallying Cornhusker birds. Our first major stop was Ponca State Park, which I chose not for the prospect of fantastic birding but simply because it was on our route. It turned out to be a fine birding location—a little bit of the Carolinian habitat in this mostly prairie state. The feeders at the visitor center hosted a group of turkeys as well as a parade of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. These had to be some of the western-most Rose-breasted Grosbeaks on the continent, and I couldn’t help but wonder if they might be carrying some Black-headed Grosbeak genes. If they were, I was guessing that their introgressed genes would be only autosomal nuclear genes and not mitochondrial or Z-linked genes but that is a top for another blog (see my blog defending the mitonuclear compatibility species concept from 2017). In the extensive deciduous forest in the center of park we ran up a list not much different than a list I might amass at Chewacla State Park in Auburn—Eastern Wood-pewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, American Redstart, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Red-eyed Vireo among others. We picked up prairie birds as we moved across the state and by noon, when we crossed into South Dakota at Yankton, my Nebraska list stood at 64 species.

The Rose-breasted Grosbeaks at the feeders in Ponca State Park in Nebraska are undoubtedly some of the western most Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.

(As an aside, Yankton is the town where Seth Bullard takes Bill Hickok's murderer Jack McCall to be tried for the crime in the HBO series. We were officially at the fringe of Deadwood country.)

We had two days to bird South Dakota, but the afternoon of our second day was my time to get wetland and marsh bird and I was counting on Lake Andes NWR for most of those species. eBird lists from recent years included essentially all of the water and shorebirds of the regions, often in fantastic number. But the winter and spring of 2019 was the wettest on record for this part of the country, and not only was Andes Lake 10 feet above normal pool level, every low spot in the region was flooded. It took us all afternoon to find a way to get to the lake, and when we did we found mostly birdless open water. The ducks and other waterbirds of the region like shallow productive water, not an overflowing lake. I was worried about missing a long list of ducks and other waterbirds for my South Dakota list.

This group of Wilson's Phalarope, which included 14 birds in total, was one of more than two dozen wetland species present in big numbers at Torrey Lake north of Platte, North Dakota.

I had booked us into a motel in the town of Platte SD, about 30 miles north of Lake Andes, and after we ate dinner I left Trevor in the motel to have a little non-birding time and headed north to some wetland areas I could see on the map. I wasn’t really expecting much—I just wanted to roam around an add a few birds to my SD list before dark. As I approached the Torrey Lake wetland to the west of HWY 45, however, the numbers of birds was jaw dropping. Apparently all of the birds that would normally be at Andes Lake in a normal or dry year had moved to more ephemeral wetlands like Torrey Lake this year. There were hundreds of duck—mostly Blue-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, and Mallard, but I also saw flocks of Lesser Scaup and Redhead and a few Canvasback. In one small patch of shallow water, I counted 14 Wilson's Phalaropes. There were more than a dozen Western Grebes and I spotted a pair of Eared Grebes feeding newly hatched chicks. As I scanned around I spotted American Avocets and Marbled Godwits mixed with the flocks of ducks standing on mud, and flying past were many White-faced Ibis, along with a few Black-crowned Night-herons and one Great Egret. Even more striking than the species diversity were the numbers of birds. Wave after wave of ducks, cormorants, ibis, and shorebirds flew past. It was quite the show and I was adding state birds as fast as I could fill in my eBird list. I birded the edge of the lake until dark with birds still calling from the blackness as they flew overhead.

Our goal for the start of the third day of our trip was to get up early and drive across much of South Dakota in the pre-dawn hours. I wanted to get to Badlands National Park in the morning and it was about 4 hours drive from Platte. After wasting in hour in a ridiculous traffic jam in the middle of the emptiest portion of the emptiest state in the country because a truck driver tried to make a U turn on the expressway and got his truck stuck blocking the entire expressway, we made it to Badlands National Park. This park has spectacular landscapes and is not to be missed, but it offered little in the way of birding. We scarcely added a bird to our South Dakota list during our 3-hr visit.

Badlands National Park was beautiful, but not very birdy.

By the time we left Badlands National Park it was early afternoon. We more-or-less quit birding for a while and did more conventional tourist things (in other words, it was Trevor's turn for a while, although I can't say I didn't enjoy it). First stop, Mount Rushmore, just west of Rapid City and sort of on the way to Deadwood. It turned out that there was a HUGE biker rally in the area that was starting just as we arrived. We would find bikers swarming the region, with Deadwood one of the centers of activity. So, Mount Rushmore was viewed to the chorus of revving motorcycle engines. The monument itself was much smaller and much less disruptive to the landscape than I had thought. Now I know the statue is monstrous, and if it were moved to, say, the Mall in Washington, I would gawk at its immensity. But on the cliff face in this rugged landscape, it almost blended in.

From Mount Rushmore we drove into Deadwood. I found the bikers to be somewhat annoying but since there are no wagons to clatter through the unpaved streets any longer, maybe a swarm of motorcycles provided that proper amount of mayhem to properly view "the camp" as it was called in the HBO series. We had a fun afternoon visiting museums and saloons, and we walked to the cemetery above the town, where Wild Bill, Calamity Jane, Seth Ballard, and most of the other legends of Deadwood and the Black Hills are buried.

By some cruel twist of fate, every biker in America decided to come to Deadwood on the same weekend that we visited.

This trip was mostly about birding in states that I had never visited before and seeing a new part of the country. Going into the trip, my ABA (non-Hawaiian) life list was 740 species, and there were essentially no lifers to left get in the middle of the country in the middle of the summer. “Essentially” is the key word here, because there was one key bird that I could go after: Baird’s Sparrow. In my trip across North Dakota in 2015 (see earlier blog post), I missed Baird’s Sparrow and feared that I would never get a chance to see one. So, when I saw on eBird that Baird’s Sparrows were being reported by multiple birders in the grasslands north of the Black Hills, I made it a target destination. The one glitch in the plan was that NOBODY had reported Baird’s Sparrow in August. All of the sightings were in May and June and every photo showed birds singing from the tops of grass stems. Conventional wisdom might say that when a secretive grassland bird like a Baird’s Sparrow stops singing, it is game over in terms of any chance of finding them.

The grasslands east of HWY85 in South Dakota were teaming with grassland birds including Baird's Sparrows.

Despite conventional wisdom, I was optimistic about seeing Baird’s Sparrows if they were in the area. My reasoning (or delusion) was that they were ecologically, behaviorally, and phylogenetically close to Grasshopper Sparrows, and I’ve always found that August is a good time to go after Grasshopper Sparrows. Grasshopper Sparrows are usually still singing in August and more importantly Grasshopper Sparrows have a habit of coming out of their dense grassy territories to stand on gravel roads and perch on fences along roads in August. Also just after breeding there are probably a 2 to 3x more Baird’s Sparrows to look for than in the spring, including all of the foolish just-fledged birds.

Saturday morning, the third morning of our trip, I got up very early to drive an hour and forty five minutes north to grasslands where Baird’s Sparrows had been reported on eBird. Trevor was happy to sleep in and get started around 11am so I was on my own. It was a crystal clear pre-dawn in Deadwood but it was densely foggy out on the plains. I made it to the start of the Baird’s Sparrow area around what should have been sunrise, but it was so foggy that visibility was about 10 feet. Despite the fog, my birds were waiting for me. As I started to slowly drive down the gravel road off of HWY85, which is labeled RB Road on Google Maps, I almost immediately heard Baird’s Sparrows. It is a distinctive song and I was sure that was them, but it was voices from the mist. Despite walking around in the wet prairie until my pants were soaked, I didn’t catch a glimpse of the birds. I had my life bird since I count birds that I hear and identify with certainty, but I did want to see and photograph a Baird’s Sparrow.

There were a lot of Baird's Sparrows in the grasslands east of HWY85 in South Dakota and several were standing right on the gravel road. Not what you expect from a notoriously secretive species.

I was driving due east on RB Road and I knew that when the sun finally burned through the fog I’d want to be facing west, so I pretty quickly drove to my turn-around point, about 6 miles east of HWY85. I heard Baird’s Sparrows a couple of more times as I drove along but I stuck to my plan to get turned around and come back with the sun to my back. It worked. Just as I got to the turnaround point, the sun started to break through the fog and I had singing Baird’s Sparrows around me. I finally got a long-distance look at a bird in the top of prairie shrub and an unidentifiable photo. Then I started to pay more attention to the birds in the gravel road, of which there were many. Most were Chestnut-collared Longspur in drab juvenile plumage, although there were a few males molting out of their colorful feathers. There were also Lark Sparrows, Vesper Sparrows, and lots of Grasshopper Sparrows in both worn adult and juvenile plumage. There were also Baird’s Sparrows. I had to convince myself that some of the birds really were Baird’s Sparrows because their plumage was worn and there were lots of other highly variable species around. But, they had every field mark—Ammadramas shape, fine necklace of short black streaks below the throat, unmarked belly, and a head stripe that maybe looked ochre. Generally they were drab gray birds. The amazing thing was that they were on the road, out in the open, right in front of me. I’ve never seen anyone ever report Baird’s Sparrow as “easy to see standing on gravel roads”. My suggestion might be: look for the birds in August instead of May or June.

I found Lark Buntings a few miles south of the Baird's Sparrow fields.

My last challenge was to get a photo of a Lark Bunting. These grasslands were in the center of the species range for Lark Bunting and they should have been around. But, I looked hard along the whole route to see Baird's Sparrow and I saw no Lark Buntings. I had a vague memory that Lark Buntings were reported on more lists on a road south of the Baird's Sparrow road, so on my way back south, I pulled into the gravel road labeled 796 on Google Maps and drove about a mile east to where the road rose to the base of an interesting rock outcropping. As I got out of my car, I heard a Canyon Wren singing from the rock face above me. There were lots of birds moving along a fence line and among the birds was a jet black bird with a conspicuous white wing patch--Lark Bunting. Once I found the birds, getting a half-decent photo was no challenge.

I ended my trip with 54 species for Iowa, 64 species for Nebraska, and a whooping 132 species for South Dakota. Not bad for a 3 day trip in early August. Next year: Nevada

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