Tag Archives: Fort Pierre National Grasslands

Incredible Snowy Owl Winter Continues

Snowy Owl Portrait

Another incredible day for Snowy Owls here in South Dakota. Some of them are incredibly tame, such as this guy, who I watched at very close range (obviously!) for quite a long time. He couldn't have cared less, and napped with his eyes closed for most of that time!!

In late December, I twice went down to the Lake Andes area in south-central South Dakota, to look for the incredible numbers of Snowy Owls being seen.  Both days were very memorable, and I saw around 30 different owls the one day, all in a relatively small area.  I really hadn’t been out birding since then, but took today off and went out to try my luck in the central part of the state.

Where I go in winter in the central part of the state is always incredible for raptors, and today was no exception.  I started near “Presho, drove north, through the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, and up to the area around Lake Oahe north of Pierre.  There were all the “usuals”…several dozen Rough-legged Hawks, quite a few Northern Harriers and Red-tailed Hawks, more Golden Eagles than I think I’ve seen in one day (maybe 15 or so?), and a handful of Bald Eagles, Ferruginous Hawks, and Prairie Falcons.  Also one Merlin.

Snowy Owl

Another Snowy, doing his "king of the roost" pose.

THAT part is a typical winter trip in that area.  But again, the story this winter continues to be the big numbers of Snowy Owls.   They weren’t concentrated like they were in the Lake Andes area back in December, but I still saw 7 different Snowy Owls, a number which in ANY year would be a truly awesome day for them.   They were scattered around, but in one spot near the shores of Lake Oahe, there were three, including 2 that were completely unconcerned about my presence.  One was sitting on a billboard, and after watching from a distance for awhile, I drove by, then parked RIGHT by the billboard.   For the most part he just kept on sleeping.  I watched him at very close range for quite some time…quite a treat to be THAT close to a wild Snowy, where you can see all the little details in his feathers, his brilliant yellow eyes (on the occasions he opened them!) and those massive, powerful talons.

Terrific day!  Certainly THE year folks will always remember for Snowy Owls!

“Best Day Ever”

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Birding the Grasslands

Golden Eagle

A Golden Eagle taking flight.

I had a wonderful day yesterday birding the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in the center of South Dakota.  Winter on the Grasslands can be downright spectacular for raptors, and yesterday was no exception.  I saw at least 50 Rough-legged Hawks, at least that many Northern Harriers, 12-15 Ferruginous Hawks, a couple dozen Red-tailed Hawks, a Merlin, 5 or 6 Golden Eagles, a pair of Bald Eagles, and the highlight for me, 9 Prairie Falcons.

A brilliant sunny day…wide open spaces on the Grasslands…and raptors filling the skies, fenceposts, and telephone poles.  I can think of few better ways to spend a day!!  I still haven’t processed a lot of photos, but am working on putting photos from the trip on my website.

Father and Son Bonding – Hunting for Rattlesnakes

Prairie Rattlesnake

A big prairie rattlesnake warning us to stay away. This guy looked like he'd somehow lost a couple of the rattles at the end.

My son and I went to the Missouri River today to go fishing.  The fishing was very slow after a couple of days of gloom and rain, but it was a beautiful sunny day.  Since the fish weren’t biting, I had a thought, one that I’m sure passes through the minds of most fathers with young sons…

Let’s go rattlesnake hunting!!  NO, not hunting, as in find and kill.  “Hunting” as in find, look at, and photograph!   In the fall, Prairie Rattlesnakes in South Dakota start looking for an overwintering den (or so I’m told).  On sunny days after cool fall nights, they will often come out and sun themselves.  One location, a prairie dog town on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, is known for rattlesnakes coming out at this time of year, so that’s where we headed.While I would never kill a rattlesnake, I DO have a healthy respect for them, especially with my 8-year old son along!  In fact, knowing how folks often report MANY rattlesnakes in this location in the fall, I made him wait in the car while I made short walks out through the prairie dog town.   When I would find a snake, I’d go back to the car to get him, and then he’d follow in my footsteps to the stop where we could look at them.

It didn’t take long!  Within 10 minutes, we found a big chunky rattlesnake sunning himself right on top of a prairie dog burrow.   I went back to get my son, and when we approached, the big snake gave a few shakes of his tail before slowly slithering down the hole.  RATS!!  I thought we’d missed a chance to get a photo, but when I looked closer, there was a young rattlesnake, probably a first year snake, also right by the hole!   Cute little thing, only about 8 inches long.  I took a few photos before he too slithered into the hole.

The best find was a group of three BIG rattlesnakes all intertwined, sunning on top of a prairie dog town.  Two were very intertwined, while one was at least in a position where I could photograph it (the photo at the top).  If you look closely at the photo at the top, you can see some big chunky coils of the other snake(s) at the very bottom of the frame.   This guy was QUITE agitated, and we didn’t get very close to him at all!  He rattled for quite a while before also slowly slithering down the hole.  His two “friends” followed shortly after.

Rattlesnakes saved what was largely a fishless day!

Thar' be Pipits here!! Sprague's Pipits!!

Sprague's Pipit - Anthus spragueii

A Sprague's Pipit takes a rare moment away from his usual hiding, and poses out in the open for a photo.

The weather this late summer and early fall has just been incredibly perfect.  OK, I don’t even remember the last time it rained, after all the record flooding we had this spring and early summer, but for outside activities, it’s been nothing short of perfect.  It seems like we’re going on about 2 months of weather right around 75 degrees and sunny, including all of this week.

So when Jim, a friend at work, came in to my office Monday and told me about the birding they’d done around Pierre over the weekend, my mind started wandering, and I decided it was just TOO nice to go to work Tuesday.  I took the day off and headed to the Pierre area, and one of things at the top of my wish list for the trip were Sprague’s Pipits.   If you’re not familiar with them, Sprague’s Pipits are one of those birds that are on a lot of birder’s wish lists.  They’re only found in a rather limited part of the northern Great Plains in summer, and they’re also very difficult to see, in that they prefer to stay on the ground, hidden in the grasslands of the Plains.   There’s a prairie dog town southwest of Pierre where Sprague’s Pipits have often been found as they start to migrate south in the Fall, and that’s where I headed to find them.

Sprague’s Pipits weren’t the only thing on my mind though.  I was also hunting for rattlesnakes!  I have never seen a live rattlesnake in the wild, and on this same prairie dog town, on fall days with cool nights and warm days, rattlesnakes are often found basking in the sun as they prepare to hole up for the winter.  I did my “usual” when I head to the grasslands in the central part of the state, which means I timed my alarm so I’d arrive on the grasslands around dawn.  Given that it’s about a 3-hour drive to this prairie dog town, that meant I got up at 4:30 Tuesday and started heading west, arriving on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands around dawn.

Sprague's Pipit

Another Sprague's Pipit, this one hanging out on the edge of a prairie dog hole.

It didn’t take long to see the Pipits.  The prairie dog town is only accessed by opening a barbed wire gate and driving about a mile over what is very generously called a “road”.   It’s more a dusty path through the grassland, but it’s that same dusty path that the Pipits seemed to like on this morning.   Sprague’s Pipits are generally solitary birds, so even in a “hotspot” for them like this prairie dog town, you typically would expect to find a bird here and there, not a group of them together.  Sure enough, as I headed up the road, I first saw one Pipit scoot off the road and walk back into the taller grass.  20 minutes later, I found another one, who behaved in much the same manner.  And so the day went, with me SEEING Sprague’s Pipits every once in awhile.  Photographing them? Well, that’s another matter.

Given this was the first time I’d even seen Sprague’s Pipits, I did end up spending most of the day on the prairie dog town trying to photograph them.  As I’ve stated before, one of the most important attributes for a bird photographer is patience, and I’ve learned over the years to just bide my time and keep trying when things aren’t going well.  It was probably 3 hours on the prairie dog town before I got my first decent photo, a Sprague’s Pipit that was again right along the dusty road.  Instead of trying to approach closer, this time I simply sat down in the grass on the side of the road and waited.  The strategy paid off, as he didn’t fly away, but simply stopped on the side of the road.  He was still too far away for a good photo, but after about a minute, he was on the move again, foraging in the shorter grass on the side of the road.  After only about 5 minutes, he was moving towards me instead of away from me, and I was able to get several good shots of him.

I can’t think of few better ways to spend a beautiful fall day like this, than exploring the grasslands around a big prairie dog town.  I probably walked for about 7 hours Tuesday, exploring every corner of  the prairie dog town, and using the “sit and wait” strategy to get a number of good Sprague’s Pipit photos.  I also had the company of a handful of late-staying Burrowing Owls who had yet to migrate south, MANY Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks, and scattered groups of migrating sparrows, primarily Savannah and Vesper Sparrows, but I also saw White-crowned, Lincoln’s, and Song Sparrows.  A really wonderful day, and it’s always good to come away with photos of a “new” species.

The one bummer about the day?  No rattlesnakes!! My wife said that’s probably a good thing!  Silly wife, worrying about a little thing like poisonous rattlesnakes while I’m out walking around in shorts and tennis shoes!  I suspect it was just too warm for the rattlesnakes to come out Tuesday, as it did get up to about 85.  There was no need for them to come out of their wintering burrows and warm up.  Sigh.   I really was just as excited to try to see, and photograph, the rattlesnakes as I was to see and photograph the Pipits.  That’s the great thing about birding and nature photography though, is that there’s ALWAYS a good excuse to take another day off someday, and go back and try again!!