A typical day on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands

Fort Pierre National Grasslands - South Dakota

Two weeks off of work, winding down as I prepare to return to work tomorrow. It’s been a wonderful (and much needed!) break, with time with the family, and plenty of birding. In two weeks I managed to make it out to central South Dakota three times…more than I normally do all winter! It’s such a magical place for me in winter. Quiet…open…often harsh and unforgiving…yet very restorative for me when I need time alone to recharge.

So what’s the attraction? Central South Dakota? In the dead of winter? Here’s a photo synopsis of what it’s like, all photos from my most recent trip out there last Thursday/Friday.

Fort Pierre National Grasslands - Sunrise
Pre-dawn on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. Normally I make a (long) day of it, leaving 3 hours before dawn so I can arrive just before the sun rises, and make the most out of short winter days (about 9 hours of sunlight at a minimum). This photo gives you a good idea of what it’s like as you await the sunrise…VAST…open…isolated…and other than barbed wire fences and a few powerlines, often not much of a sign of human habitation. An exciting time as the sun arises, as you just KNOW you’re about to have another wonderful day on the grasslands.
Pronghorn - Fort Pierre National Grasslands
It’s not ALL about birds! While winter raptors are my primary reason for coming to the region, there’s often other wildlife to catch your attention. On this trip I was thrilled to see a large herd of Pronghorn grazing on the rolling hills, just as the sun was rising. Mule Deer and White-tailed Deer are also often seen. Coyotes are certainly around, and I probably see them about every other trip to the Grasslands, but mostly at dawn. They’re extremely shy and difficult to approach.
Buteo Regalis - Ferruginous Hawk - Fort PIerre National Grasslands
There are a few private land holdings within the Grasslands boundaries, but there are more abandoned buildings than any other. In a land that’s often treeless or without any kind of high perches, these abandoned homesteads often are birding hotspots. Here a Ferruginous Hawk is perched next to an abandoned…Packard (?).
Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus
RAPTORS are the name of the game on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, but there’s a definite hierarchy in terms of what I’d love to see!! The Holy Grail bird of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands…a Gyrfalcon! And not only a Gyrfalcon, but an adult Gyrfalcon. In the 20 years I’ve been birding the area, I’ve probably seen about 25 Gyrfalcons. I believe I can count on one hand how many of those have been adults, so I was thrilled to run across one on this trip. I watched from a long distance and took some photos from further away than I normally would, as I wanted to make sure I documented this bird’s presence. I’m glad I stopped so far away and grabbed some photos, because after watching it for perhaps 30 seconds, it flushed and flew away, and I never again found it on this trip.
Greater Prairie Chicken in Flight - Tympanuchus cupido
Why are there so many raptors on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands? Clearly raptors go where the food is. There undoubtedly must be a lot of voles and other small rodents, as that’s what I primarily see birds like Rough-legged Hawks catch. But another attractant to birds like the Gyrfalcon above are all the Ring-necked Pheasants, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Greater Prairie Chickens that are around. It’s a popular hunting location for all of those species, and given that surrounding private lands often release birds (pheasants) for hunting, there’s never a shortage of any of those species. The native Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie Chickens are VERY wary as a result of the hunting pressure, and I have few close photos of either species. On this trip I was very happy to get my first ever flight photo of a Greater Prairie Chicken. With the recent heavy snow, many of the game birds were struggling to find foraging grounds, and were concentrated along the roads more than usual.
Ring-necked Pheasant - Phasianus colchicus
Speaking of Pheasants…they are widespread in the area, but are probably less common on the Grasslands themselves than on the surrounding private lands.
Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus
You’ll see both Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles on the Grasslands. Golden Eagles are more often seen (they were downright common on the three recent trips I took), but even far from any open water, you will also often see Bald Eagles. I’m aware of at least 4 different nests just to the south of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves, near the Presho area. This photo is along the Missouri River just to the north of the Grasslands, a stronghold of the species in the winter months.
Prairie Falcon - Falco mexicanus
A Prairie Falcon in flight. They’re definitely a larger bird than the American Kestrels you see a lot in the summer months (and to a much lesser extent, in winter). They’re larger than the Merlins you sometimes see on the Grasslands (including one I saw Friday). But they share the same “falcon” characteristic when they take flight, with much faster wingbeats than all the Buteo hawks in the region, and a more tapered wing. Couple the relatively large size and that classic falcon flight pattern, and Prairie Falcons OFTEN get my heart racing as I’m thinking that bird flying up in front of me may be a Gyrfalcon! On a typical day on the Grasslands though, I’m lucky if I see a Gyrfalcon, yet I almost always see 3 or 4 Prairie Falcons. Usually they’re pretty shy, but there’s been one hanging around County Line Road on the grasslands this winter that’s uncharacteristically curious. He’ll flush when you get anywhere close, as do nearly all Prairie Falcons. But then he has this habit of circling me one or two times before finding a different perch! It’s not often I can grab a Prairie Falcon in flight, so I’m pretty happy to have seen this guy on this past trip.
Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus
Always by FAR the most common raptor on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in winter…a Rough-legged Hawk. I didn’t stop and record each one in eBird as I often do. But on a trip to the area the week before I saw nearly 50 of them, and I would suspect I tallied a similar number on this past trip. Gorgeous birds, and quite variable in plumage, although this is the typical plumage that you see.
Buteo jamaicensis - Red-tailed Hawk
The Fort Pierre National Grasslands are mostly treeless, and even during the summer months I’ve found Red-tailed Hawks are typically concentrated in the few wooded ravines, shelterbelts, or abandoned farmsteads in the area. In winter, those site tendencies are even more pronounced. Many Red-tailed Hawks move further south for the winter, and I find MANY more Red-tailed Hawks just south of the Grasslands (such as the Presho area) in winter than I do on the Grasslands themselves. However, over the 20+ years I’ve been birding the area, it’s quite obvious to me that more birds are overwintering in the region than used to. Similarly, 20 years ago it wasn’t common to find Western Meadowlark overwintering in any numbers, but on this past trip, there were a few spots where I stirred up a dozen or so Meadowlarks hanging out together. More Red-tailed Hawks, more Meadowlarks, fewer Gyrfalcons….that’s my impression of what’s happened over the last 20 years.
Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos
The one photo here that’s not from last Thursday/Friday, as this was taken on the Grasslands 2 days before Christmas. My impression is that BOTH eagle species are getting much more common on the Grasslands. I have few if any photos of them 10 to 20 years ago, but now I typically see 6-10 each time I go out.

8 comments on “A typical day on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands

  1. Gerry Uchytil

    I was at the Pierre Grasslands 2 1/2 weeks ago and had a great time. Golden eagles and burrowing owls were the reason I went. Saw and photographed both. Fantastic time. I am very interested in the raptors that you chronicle in your blog. My question is what time frame in the winter is best? (approximate start and end dates) Also a big one… are all the roads passable in the winter? Thanks for any info. I live 7 hours away (Hudson WI and would drive and stay over 2 nights which is what I did a few weeks ago.

  2. DakotaBirder

    Most roads are pretty good. Ironically, it’s better if it’s cold. It’s on warm days, when sun and/or temps > 32 start to melt things, that the roads can get bad. The soil there is a fine clay gumbo that gets VERY sticky and difficult to drive on if it’s wet. But if you go during the coldest months, you’re almost always OK, and even after a recent snow, there will be plenty of good roads to drive on.

    As for time of year…December through February probably best, with January/February best for me. Rough-legged Hawks and the like start to show up earlier. But it’s really not until the lakes around the area freeze that you generally start seeing Gyrfalcons and the like on the grasslands. March can be just as good sometimes too, but if you go in January or February you have the added advantage of it typically being cold, and roads being drivable, and good birding.

    1. Gerry Uchytil

      Thank you very much. I will be there this winter 🙂

  3. Michael Woodley

    I also went to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands last year. The Ring-necked Pheasant was the species I wanted to see the most, but I only saw the Bald Eagles, Greater Prairie Chickens, and Golden Eagles. I wasn’t even aware of the existence of White-tailed Deer. They are so beautiful. Hopefully, next time I will be lucky to see all of them. Gorgeous pictures. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Gerry

    How is the weather and raptor conditions in the grasslands so far this year. I’m thinking about the first week in Jan as a time to come for 2 days from Wisconsin.

    1. DakotaBirder

      Good timing, given I literally just got back from making a run up there! That bad news…it’s 2:30 pm and I’m already home. Given it’s a 3-hour drive there, when I go, I usually make a whole day of it. But it was…slow. Slower than I ever remember it, particularly for Rough-legged Hawks, which are usually downright abundant.

      I still saw scattered eagles (both kind), couple Prairie Falcons, three Ferruginous Hawks around the prairie dog towns as normal. But I think I only saw 4 rough-legged hawks total. Usually it’s 10 times that many.

      It’s been very warm (was >60 today!), and very dry, with no snow. There’s a lot of open water yet too.

      1. Gerry Uchytil

        Hello DakotaBirder. I commented to you 2 years ago and have been to the Grasslands 2 times in the summer to look for burrowing owls. I would like to come to look especially for Golden Eagles and wonder if this is the best time. (In the month of January) Thank you.

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