Tag Archives: grasslands

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.

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!!