The Spice of Birding Life

Roughlock Falls

American dippers have a decided eye for the most beautiful real estate around. Roughlock Falls, high in the northern Black Hills, would be delightful even without its famous cinclids — the combination of the two is downright enchanting.

American dipper

We watched this immature snooze and preen and stretch in the freezing air, then suddenly start feeding frenetically atop mossy rocks and in shallow water. I’d been hoping for a quick flyby or maybe two, but this one stayed with us for half an hour, winking and blinking as it bobbed and splashed.

Mount Rushmore

Still grateful for our good luck, we moved on to cast a glance at the stone faces of Mount Rushmore, then to a quick lunch in Hot Springs before moving south to Four-Mile Draw in Custer State Park. It was almost birdless there (how quickly red-shafted flickers and mountain bluebirds have become routine!), a circumstance due at least as much to the cloudy skies as to the merlin, American kestrel, and unidentified big falcon we saw flashing around.

Instead of rare woodpeckers, Custer delivered a good mammal show. American bison kept me on high alert, black-tailed prairie-dogs kept all of us in stitches. White-tailed and mule deer and pronghorns were loafing on the roadsides, and two coyotes gave us two kinds of equally evocative views — one in full and glorious lope through a dog town, the other little more than a set of sensitive ears moving through the grass.


Thanks to the lack of birds at Custer, we had a little extra time to stop in at the badlands of Toadstool Park on the way to Chadron. I had predicted two species, but an errant turkey vulture made three. A Say’s phoebe hunted from the mushroomy erosional remnants, and at least three rock wrens bounced around on the rocks and into and out again of impossibly tiny crevices; one was quite an expert flycatcher, leaping several feet into the air to take insects.

The skies clouded as we reached Chadron, and there was a brief but heavy shower while we had our early dinner. Undeterred, most of us set out afterwards in the sunset for Chadron State Park. It didn’t take long to find common poorwills, four of which granted the kind of views we’d been hoping for earlier this week. The species was a lifer for several in our group, and even those of us more familiar with this cute nightjar relished the great looks we had at birds sitting on the road and hunting in our headlights. Great ending to a great day!








Into the Hills

Sylvan Lake

We arose this morning to temperatures a full 55 degrees lower than those we’d basked in in Denver. And fog. And mist, and a little rain, too.

All that changed, suddenly, miraculously, within moments of our arriving at our first stop for the day, Sylvan Lake, more than 6000 feet up in the Black Hills. First the clouds lightened, then lifted, and soon enough the sky was actually blue — a rare enough sight at this location, and one that we enjoyed to its fullest.

Sylvan Lake

We saw several good birds up there, including an adult broad-winged hawk, two squabbling sharp-shinned hawks, a Clark’s nutcracker, and a gray jay. As usual, though, it wasn’t the rarities and scarcities that truly made the morning, but rather one of the commonest birds of the area, and perhaps its most charming: the white-winged junco.

white-winged junco

I love seeing this species (!) at this locality because it calls to mind the story of Elliott Coues, Principal Danby of Custer High, and their new junco from Sylvan Lake.

Coues had been stationed at Fort Randall in the early 1870s, but he paid his first visit to the Black Hills in 1895. On September 16 of that year he wrote from “picturesque and romantic” Sylvan Lake, where he had installed himself for a month of “much-needed respite from work and worry.” Coues may have escaped worry, but his work was with him always, especially in a place as birdy as Sylvan Lake.

Two birds in particular caught Coues’s attention: the pinyon jay, “one of the commonest birds,” and the breeding junco, which the visiting ornithologist tentatively described as a new taxon to be named Danby’s junco, Junco hyemalis danbyi. The proposed subspecific epithet was chosen in honor of Durward E. Danby, principal of the high school in Custer, the faculty and students of which Coues happens to have addressed earlier in the day on that September 16.

Coues noted that the differences between the nominate slate-colored junco and the Black Hills bird were obvious even “at gunshot range”:

The impression is that of a large gray rather than blackish bird, with the dark color ofthe breast fading gradually into the white of the belly [and] the gray of the back overcast with a brownish wash; and some of them show an approach to the characters of aikeni [the white-winged junco] in having an imperfect wingbar formed by the white tips of the … secondary coverts.

Two years later, in the pages of the Auk, Coues recanted. The Danby’s junco, he affirmed, was “simply the young of” the white-winged. Even so, Coues found a silver lining in his having described the Sylvan Lake birds as new even provisionally:

The naming of the supposed new form will prove to have been not entirely in vain if it serves to emphasize the fact that [the white-winged junco] is so thoroughly distinct from [the slate-colored] that it can be recognized at any age,

even in individuals that lack the eponymous wing bars.

The bird could not be mistaken for hyemalis at any age; the ‘aspect’ in life, even at gunshot range, is distinctive; for one receives the impression of a large gray bird.

We confirmed that impression over and over this morning as we watched our white-wingeds, the descendants or at least near relatives of the very birds described from Sylvan Lake exactly 122 years ago today.

Sylvan Lake