May is a a wonderful month for birding. After a long winter, not only do the summer breeding birds make their way back to South Dakota, but many, many species of migrants move through the state on their way north. Friday after work, I headed out with my camera, looking for migrants. The birds certainly didn’t disappoint, with scads of shorebirds, ducks, and wading birds loafing around the wetlands I visited.
While heading towards some of my favorite spots, I stopped in a small town to get gas. Despite my cynicism and general anti-social behavior (shocking that I call myself anti-social, I know), every once in a while, you get the warm fuzzies when coming across some truly nice people. While pumping my gas, an old couple pulled up in a pickup. A gentleman in overalls got out and started to fill the tank while his wife went inside. As soon as he had the gas running, he walked around the pump, just to chat with me, with a total stranger. And a very nice chat it was!! When I went inside to pay (old gas station, no credit card at the pump!), the wife was waiting at the counter, with two freshly made ice cream cones. “Darn that Earl, he found another person to talk to!!”, she “complained” to the clerk. Sure enough, I look out and “Earl” was chatting up another customer. The wife wasn’t genuinely upset…she was having her own long conversation with the clerk. As I’m paying, another person walks in, and the clerk and the wife both call out and ask how “Jodie” was doing. Evidently “Jodie” had broken an ankle.
I walk back out to my pickup, and pass Earl, who’s finally coming in to pay. He gives me a tip of the hat and a “have a good evenin’!” as we pass each other. I literally could feel my cynicism melting away, being pushed down by a wonderful dose of good ol’ small-town friendliness. It made me realize how nice it is to have a place like this, where the clerk knows the customers’ names, where people have no problem striking up a friendly conversation with a total stranger.
My gushy warm feelings lasted approximately 15 minutes and 38 seconds. That’s about how long it took to get to one of my favorite birding spots, a big marshy spot that often has a lot of birds. As I turned onto the gravel road to head towards the wetland, I saw a pickup about half a mile ahead, pulled over on the side of the road. As soon as I got on the road, the pickup took off. I didn’t think anything of it, UNTIL I got near the spot where he was parked. Laying in the marsh grass…three VERY freshly dead Great Egrets. One had a spot with blood, but although otherwise I couldn’t see what killed them, I assumed it was the tiny penis gun nuts in that pickup. A pretty safe assumption, given my past experiences in South Dakota.
Warm fuzzy feelings long gone, I continued on, turned a corner, and came across a pile of about a dozen dead snow geese, a mere half a mile from the dead egrets. These were obviously long dead, with scavengers having already taken their toll. However it’s obvious the birds were killed and then dumped in a pile on the side of the road. It wasn’t for food, as they weren’t cleaned…just shot, and dumped. The spot I was birding is a bit difficult to get to. Officially, the road is closed. With high water levels, water trickles over the gravel in a few places, and the road really isn’t passable except if you have a good 4-wheel drive. Given the proximity of the dead egrets and the dead snow geese, my guess is that the local rednecks (of which South Dakota has plenty) use this quiet little spot for “target practice”…with my birds being the target.
I went birding later this past weekend, on Sunday, and again while out in a relatively remote spot, I came over a hill, and there were 3 young men with rifles, standing on the side of the road next to their truck. Rifles…out in the middle of nowhwere…on a nice spring day. Not exactly any hunting season I know about. As I approached the three placed their rifles on the far side of their bodies, away from me. Doesn’t take much imagination to know that people who try to hide something are generally up to no good.
Events such as these certainly are enough to fuel my cynicism for, oh…several months at least. And given where I live, and how damned often I’ve come across dead birds and other animals that have been used as target practice, there aren’t very many occasions where my cynicism has a chance to melt away.
Alas, it’s not just the “hunting” (HAH!!! more like KILLING) culture of South Dakota. Underlying that good ol’ fashioned small town charm I encountered while filling my pickup, there’s also a lot of good ol’ fashioned bigotry and intolerance in the state. Hell, it’s so ingrained in the culture of South Dakota that bigotry and intolerance has become a campaign strategy for some state politicians. Check out the recent comments from Steve Hickey, a Republican (of course) state legislator. Last week he called gay men and gay sex “a one way alley for the garbage truck“. Uh…OK…not even sure what that means, but I’m sure he meant it as a “clever”insult to gay people. As if he wanted to make his point even clearer, this week he stated that gay sex is like “eight of your friends that you’re in love with take a dump in your bed and then you can sleep in it all year long.”
Small town charm in South Dakota? Occasionally. Every once in awhile, you may get a chance to enjoy that small town charm. All you have to do to experience it is to put up with the gun wackos who think everything that moves is a target, as well as the bigoted people of the state and the politicians that they vote for.