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A Walk in the Woods
May 27, 2015
I am not a man of the trees. I grew up under the open sky and rolling prairie. Trees were something I had to mow around in the back yard or cut down for firewood in the crick. A forest to me was any track of trees wider than three across. Therefore any story or fairy tale that featured mysterious woods held all the more magic for me. When I first hiked in the silent Ponderosa pines of the Black Hills, I was surprised at how quiet the world became. Nowadays, when I walk in the woods, I notice other things. I hear songs of unseen birds, see the flicker of a butterfly wings and catch glimpses of wildflower color, all of which make great subjects to put in front of a camera.
Photographing unseen birds, however, is impossible. Finding those birds is why I’ve spent more time in the woods of Eastern South Dakota this year than any other. It started in February when a local birder reported seeing Northern Saw-whet owls at Newton Hills State Park. This little owl is usually only found on the western side of the state. I had never seen one before and after three unsuccessful trips, I nearly walked into one resting in some young cedars north of the Horse Camp area of the park. The elfin owl looked at me with wide and unblinking eyes, seemingly unconcerned and possibly a little annoyed. I slowly backed away. The owl began to relax and fall back asleep. It may seem like I’m overstating things, but it felt like I was in one of those old fairy tales for just a moment.
Last spring I witnessed/photographed the warbler and songbird migration for the first time. I saw bold and brightly colored birds that I’d never seen before. I guess I was hooked because this spring I was back in the woods searching for more. It is a lesson in patience and listening. At Lake Herman State Park near Madison, I sat for a couple of hours in the trees as waves of warblers made their way through every 10 minutes or so. At Newton Hills State Park, I heard the distinct buzz of a hummingbird along the trail. I sat for an hour or two watching two male Ruby-throated hummingbirds make their rounds from perched preening to feeding on flowering bushes and wild bergamot blooms then achieving amazing aerial acrobatics while squabbling with each other — and then starting the sequence all over again.
I have a goal to photograph all the colorful birds that call South Dakota home. One that has eluded me to this day is the Scarlet Tanager. They are best found in Union Grove State Park or Newton Hills and are colored crimson red with black wings. This year, I made three separate trips to find them. I also took time to learn their song and call. This helped me find a female at dusk at Union Grove, but I could not get a decent photo. Later in the week, as I began another search at Newton Hills, a Summer Tanager flew to a tree next to me and gave me a long look. It was a real treat because the Summer Tanager is much rarer to find in South Dakota than the Scarlet. Later in the day, I finally saw my first male Scarlet … well, his tail feathers anyway. By the time I spotted him, he was flying deep into the tangled woods. I was disappointed. Then I thought that maybe this was an invitation. “Come back into the woods. Lose yourself amongst the leaves, listen to the song I sing and maybe one day we will meet.” I look forward to that day.
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.