I’ve been busy since back from vacation, getting back in the swing of things with work, catching up on yard work, etc. Yesterday I had a chance to get out and bird however, and decided to spend much of the time on one of my favorite spots in the world…a prairie dog town on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands south of Pierre. As a birder, I’m always attracted to the birdlife around a prairie dog town, but it’s also the other life, from rattlesnakes, the prairie dogs themselves, even the insect life. Prairie dog towns always just seem so “alive” compared to the surrounding grasslands and farmland.
The prairie dog town I like to visit is near Richland Wildlife Area. There’s a rather non-descript entrance, a cattle guard and and opening in the barbed wire fence that allows you to drive the mile or so back to the prairie dog town itself. It really doesn’t matter what time of year I visit, the area always seems full of life. In winter, it’s nice seeing the activity of the prairie dogs themselves, seemingly defying the harsh weather. Raptors, particularly Ferruginous Hawks, are also a great draw for me in the winter. However, in summertime, it’s Burrowing Owls that are my favorite attraction around a prairie dog town.
Burrowing Owls aren’t hard to find in South Dakota. If you find a decent sized prairie dog town, you will very likely find Burrowing Owls. The problem is simply vast reduction in the number of prairie dog towns compared to historical times. Ranchers continue to view prairie dogs as pests…despite studies that show grazing is MORE nutritious around prairie dog towns (a reason Bison used to often frequent prairie dog towns). Because of that, there’s few creatures more persecuted in South Dakota than the prairie dog. It’s a FAR too common event for me to visit a long-time prairie dog town, only to find degrading burrows and no prairie dog towns, as the land owner, or even more often, the state itself, has poisoned the animals to “protect” rancher interests.
When I do find an active prairie dog town however, I can spend hours watching the wildlife. At this time of year, Burrowing Owls have young to feed, and that was certainly the case yesterday. In the area of the prairie dog town I was at, I saw two different families, each with 2 adults and 3 fledglings. The adults are understandably protective at this time of year, scolding visitors (be they a stray coyote, another bird, or a curious photographer like myself). It’s quite cool to watch a little family of Burrowing Owls at a burrow entrance, and how they react when danger is afoot. The adults take immediate action to scold the intruder, while the fluffy fledglings quickly waddle down into the burrow. I don’t get so close as to greatly disturb the Burrowing Owl families, but even at some distance, the adults will often fly over and scold me, sometimes even hovering right by me and glaring a glare meant to intimidate!!
A great day on the grasslands. Vacations are nice, but I do so love getting back home to South Dakota…