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The Fort Pierre National Grasslands cover almost 200 square miles in
the central part of the state. The area is easy to find, as Highway 83
runs north/south through the middle of the Grasslands. The northern
boundary is approximately 5 miles south of Pierre, while the southern boundary
is approximately 5 miles north of Interstate 90.
12' 33" N, 100° 20' 45" W
(Intersection of Highway 83 and County Line Road, in the heart of the
Fort Pierre National Grasslands offer vast expanses of open grassland on
gently rolling hills or flatlands. Grassland is interspersed with
private holdings, with significant grazing (on Grassland areas as well) and
scattered crops (primarily wheat or sorghum). Stock dams are scattered
throughout the Grasslands, offering water sources which attract bird life as
well as other animals. Access to the Grasslands is good, with gravel
roads criss-crossing most of the region. There is no development
within the Grasslands, other than scattered farmsteads.
The vast open expanses are broken by only scattered
patches of trees, primarily near stock dams. Prairie Dog towns are
scattered throughout the Grasslands, and often attract Burrowing Owls
and other species which frequent the towns. In most places, the only
other features are fencelines and the occasional row of telephone poles.
The region can be very good for birding at any time of year. Summer
brings the normal grassland species, while winter attracts large numbers
(and a variety) of raptors. The open expanses and relatively few
natural perches make the region an excellent location to spot (and
Points of Note (Click on numbers on the map to see
photos of the locations)::
Are you a hardy sort? While the weather can
occasionally be brutal, the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in the dead of
winter is my favorite location to bird in all of South Dakota.
Extremely large numbers of raptors are found here in the winter, including some
species rarely found in the lower 48 states. A birder can have success
simply by randomly driving the gravel roads which criss-cross the area, but
there are certain areas where I've had more luck than others.
The first of these is the famed (in South Dakota birding
circles!) "Pheasant Farm", at
point 1 on the image to the right.
This area can be reached by heading south from Pierre (or north from I-90)
along highway 83, until you see "County Line Road" (which is actually 1 mile
north of the county line along Highway 83). Head east on County Line
Road for 5 1/2 miles, and the road will jog to the south. 1 mile
south, the road will turn back towards the east. A small old
schoolhouse sits at this corner (check the chimney, which often
has a raptor
sitting on it!!), and the pheasant farm itself can be seen about 1/2 mile
south of here. I started birding in the winter of 2000 and 2001, and
the experience that really sparked my love of birding and photography
happened in December 2000, at the Pheasant Farm area. A
found hanging out in the area, regularly harassing the
being raised at the farm, as well as the numerous
Sharp-tailed Grouse found
in the area. Being new at birding and not even knowing the
significance of the species, I make the long trek, arriving right at dawn.
To my surprise, immediately upon arriving at dawn, a group of birders in the
location simply pointed to the
Gyrfalcon sitting on a telephone pole near
the Pheasant Farm. It wasn't until reading about the species that
night at home that I realized what a true rarity the species is in the lower
48. However, Gyrfalcons are often found in this area, as well as a
good variety of other raptors in winter as well. A drive east from
Highway 83 on County Line Road will always result in a number of raptors
being seen on fence posts and telephone poles in the winter.
A second area I always make a point of visiting is the
vicinity of the Richland Wildlife Area (point 2). To reach this area,
go to the same intersection of Highway 83 and County Line Road, but head
west. Follow the road (generally west, with curves) about 3 1/2 miles
until the first intersection. Head south, and in about another 3 1/2
miles, you'll see the area on the west side of the road. A small
reservoir is found here, with shelterbelts and other trees around the
reservoir. Wonderful prairie on rolling hills is found in the area.
If you head south past the reservoir, there will be a small gate (often with
the barbed wire gate closed) with a very small road heading west through the
prairie. This is another great spot to bird, especially for raptors
and species that frequent prairie dog towns, as there's a large town west of
the main road about a mile. Richland is another area where I've often
found Gyrfalcons, and the prairie dog town is a great place to look for
migrating grassland rarities like
Sprague's Pipit or
Another similar area to the reservoir at Richland is
point 3 on the map to the right is the Sherriff Dam area.
Just head south from Richland Wildlife Area, taking the first right, and
following the jogs in the road about 3 1/2 miles until the trees and dam of
the area are sighted. I've not had quite as much luck here as I have
at the nearby Richland Wildlife Area, but have had some memorable sightings.
There are a number of cedar and deciduous trees below the dam (on the north
side of the little reservoir), an area that has often had some surprises.
I've found a Bohemian Waxwing amongst a large flock of
Cedar Waxwings, a
Townsend's Solitaire, and a
Sharp-shinned Hawk in these trees.
As with the rest of the Grasslands, you never know what species of raptor
might be seen in the area in winter.
I just LOVE birding prairie dog towns on the Fort Pierre
National Grasslands, and perhaps the biggest is in and around
point 4, just to the east of the actual boundary of the
Fort Pierre national Grasslands. Just follow County Line Road east from Highway 83 for about 17
or 18 miles, and you can't help but see the massive prairie dog town on the
north side of the road, covering the slope of a very large hill. This has been a wonderful raptor location for
me, at all seasons. In summer,
Burrowing Owls and
are quite common, while in winter, there always seem to be 2 or 3
Eagles hanging out in some of the few trees in the area (to the south of the
town), and Ferruginous Hawks and other raptors are also quite common.
Note this is Reservation land, not public land, and I haven't walked the
actual prairie dog town, I've just birded from the road.
One last road I normally travel when visiting the area is
a gravel road just a mile east of Highway 83, in the northern part of the
Grasslands (point 5). If you take County Line Road east of Highway 83,
this road is the first north. It can get a little hairy up towards the
northern end, especially in winter or after a rain, but I've always had
great luck birding along this road. The road bisects a few little stock ponds,
and these general areas have been great and held some surprises, such as
nesting Marbled Godwits.
The east side of this road has some very nice grassland, while the west side
seems to have more managed lands with some crops. Maybe it's because
the road is less traveled than many in the area, but the fence posts along
the road seem to hold about 2 or 3 raptors for every mile you travel in
winter. I have photographed a very large variety of raptors along this
road, including a Snowy Owl
just to the north and east of here.
Birds of Note:
Raptors, Raptors, Raptors!!!!! My GOODNESS, if you want to see an
incredible number and variety of raptors, come to the Fort Pierre National
Grasslands during the winters months. It can be (and normally IS!) truly
astounding in terms of raptor density and variety, and you may find something
you'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in the lower 48 states. Spend a winter day
driving around the Grasslands, and you won't break a sweat to find 75+ individual raptors,
often at very close range as they hang out on fencelines and telephone poles
near the roads. Summer months can be good for raptors on the
Grasslands, with Northern
Red-tailed Hawks, and
Swainson's Hawks often found. But it's the winter
months that are truly special.
How special? Normally I'm too busy taking
photos and enjoying myself to count, but on the few occasions where I've
counted raptors on a winter trip, a typical tally would be 50+
(these guys are EVERYWHERE in winter), several
Ferruginous Hawks, and
Golden Eagles, scattered
Falcons, Red-tailed Hawks, and
Bald Eagles, and the occasional
Merlin. I've even found both
Cooper's Hawks on the Grasslands.
Do you like Owls? How about the possibility of seeing 8 species of
owls in one day? It's possible in the Fort Pierre National Grasslands
and Pierre area in early spring. The first spring after I started
birding, I had a very memorable April Fool's Day (2001). It was a
great year for Snowy Owls,
including some hanging around late, and I found a pair hanging out on some of the last remaining patches of
snow, along County Line Road. In a prairie dog town further west, I found an early
(as well as a
can be found year-round (although sporadically).
winter in cedars in and around Pierre and the Oahe Dam area, and breed there
Northern Sawwhet Owls commonly winter in these same locations.
Owls can be found in forested areas, and have been found in
scattered groves of trees on the Grasslands themselves, as have
Great Horned Owls.
The Pierre birding crowd has found that
commonly nest in burrows along the Missouri River and Oahe reservoir, and
sometimes overwinter as well. Will you actually see 8 owl species in
one day? I truly doubt it, but it seems like a trip to the area always
turns up SOME type of owl, and I have no doubt that on that April 1, 2001,
there were indeed 8 owl species hanging out in the area.
This page has obviously focused on the raptors in the Fort Pierre
National Grasslands, but the birding opportunities definitely don't stop
there. I enjoy birding the area in other seasons almost as much as I
do in winter.
Upland Sandpipers seem to be hanging out on every fence post at
Sharp-tailed Grouse and
Chickens can be seen displaying on their leks in the Spring.
Phalarope can be found breeding on some of the stock dams and
reservoirs in the Grasslands, and
Long-billed Curlews may occasionally be found (primarily in
migration). That gray blob on a fence post may be a resting
in the summer months. Other species commonly seen along fenclines are
and Western Kingbirds,
(or Northern Shrikes
in the winter), Dickcissels,
and a large number of typical grassland sparrows and other species.
Other Birding Locations (sorted by distance):