Fledgling Prairie Falcon, fresh out of the nest
Feathers & Folly…but I think I’ve been focusing too much on the “folly”, at the expense of the “feathers”. Who can blame me? Read the news, and it’s SO easy to find material to make fun of, or get mad at! So, in an attempt to buff up my “feathers” credentials, I’m going to start periodically posting photos I’ve taken, and the stories behind them.
I’ve lived in South Dakota for 18 years now (crap I feel old), and have been birding and taking photos for 10 years. However, I’ve never been to the northwest corner of South Dakota, to the noted birding spots in Harding County, or to the Grand River National Grasslands on the North Dakota border. It IS quit a jaunt, about a 7-hour drive to get to Harding County. However, the higher elevation bluffs and hills in the area offer some unique birding opportunities, while the grassland areas offer about the state’s only chance to find Baird’s Sparrows and Sprague’s Pipits. I decided to take a day off of work, drive up, and spend a day and a half birding the area.
My birding and photography time is pretty limited, so I always want to make the most of any chance I get. So, in what’s become a crazy tradition for me, I got up early to ensure I got to my destination right around dawn. In this case, I actually slept in a bit…until 2:00 AM, meaning I actually didn’t arrive in Harding county until almost 9:00 AM (was being a slacker, what can I say). I spent most of the first day driving around Harding County in what was an incredibly frustrating day. One full day of birding, and I can honestly say I didn’t capture one really good photo, despite the abundance of grassland species I came across. At the end of the day, I drove into “North Cave Hills”, a higher-elevation area with flat-top buttes and exposed, rocky cliffs. I didn’t have much time as the sun was setting, but as I was leaving, some beautiful Mountain Bluebirds bade me adieu for the day, and I decided the next morning, I would head back and bird the area.
After holing up in a hotel in Lemmon, South Dakota and making it through a night filled with wind and tornado warnings, I headed back towards North Cave Hills. Again, the Mountain Bluebirds greeting me at the entrance, and I spent some time getting some nice photos. I started walking the main gravel road into the park on a gorgeous, cool, sunny morning. I immediately noticed all the shallow depressions and little caves on the sides of the bluffs, a few of which showed obvious signs of nesting birds (whitewash below the depressions). I had heard the area was perhaps the best location in the state to find nesting Merlins, and started scanning every likely location in the hopes of getting lucky and finding some.
And I got lucky, but not with a Merlin. As I walked around a corner in the road, I saw a flat ledge on a cliff that had a stretch of about 5 yards streaked with whitewash. It was obvious the location had been used very recently for nesting, but were the birds still around? I started scanning the nearby cliffs, and soon saw one, and then two, young fledgling Prairie Falcons sitting on the edge of a nearby ledge, staring casually down at me. I’ve seen my share of Prairie Falcons, nearly all of them on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands during the winter months. Prairie Falcons on the grasslands though are typically VERY skittish, and I’d never had any luck getting close to one. My pulse picked up as I slowly started to approach the cliffs.
Prairie Falcon #2
I needn’t have worried about getting close. These two fledglings barely paid any attention to me as I slowly approached. Not wanting to come away empty handed in situations like this, I started using my “click-and-crawl” approach, clicking a photo or two, and then slowly and carefully moving a few steps closer and taking a few more photos at every stop. In the span of 10 minutes, I went from getting “habitat” photos, showing the cliff ledge with the bird(s) small in the frame, to standing 15 feet directly below one of the fledglings, and getting a close portrait as it stared curiously down at me.
I ended up spending about an hour with the two fledglings, with a good portion of that time sitting below a tree back down the slope a bit and just watching them as they went about their business of preening and looking around. Neither fledgling ever moved more than a couple of feet from where I originally found them, but after a while, a scolding screech overhead from a concerned parent convinced me to slowly head back down to the road and move on. On that same morning, I did end up finding a number of Baird’s Sparrows, getting practically a lifetime supply of Baird’s Sparrow photos, but when I remember this trip, it will always be the time I spent with these two beautiful falcons.