Birding! I’ve actually had the chance to do a little birding lately!! With my new job responsibilities at work, I’ve been working crazy long hours. That should die down once I completely transition, but in the past month, time has been pretty precious. However, over the last week I have set aside a couple of weekend days to get out and go birding, and the weather thankfully has been pretty good the last 2 weekends.
One priority in finally getting out…going to see a Great Horned Owl nest that has gotten a lot of attention, and was only 10 miles away. Palisades State Park is a gem of a little park. Splitrock Creek runs through the park, and in some areas there are steep cliffs of our famed Sioux Quartzite that rise to 50 feet or more above the river. It’s also a popular spot for rock climbing, with multiple tall quartzite spires in the park. I’ve seen Canada Geese often use those cliffs for nesting, as you can’t imagine a better place to be protected from land predators. But a hiker a few weeks ago noticed a different nesting bird…A Great Horned Owl! She’s in a spot perfectly protected from her now adoring fans, as you can only see her from the opposite side of the river.
As the following pictures show, it’s a rather interesting situation in this particular part of Palisades State Park:
It was 10 years ago when I had one of my better birding moments. There are always those great trips to “new” places that get the birding juices flowing, but one of the best aspects of birding is that you never know what you might see when you go out.
It was 10 years ago that I was coming back from a business trip. I flew into the Sioux Falls airport and was driving back to my little home town of Brandon (about 6 miles west of Sioux Falls). I was driving by an open alfalfa field, when I noticed a bird on a post. It was a…no…couldn’t be…yes! a Burrowing Owl! Here in far eastern South Dakota, just a few miles from Minnesota. Historically Burrowing Owls used to be around here, but there hadn’t been a breeding record of Burrowing Owls anywhere close to here in decades. Our grassland is gone, and we just don’t have the prairie dogs or other creatures that Burrowing Owls are often found with. Yet here was an adult Burrowing Owl, hanging out on a fence post, in early August.
I quickly drove the last 4 miles home, got my camera and returned. Upon looking around I saw another Burrowing Owl…and another…and another. There were two adults, and at least four young!! It didn’t take long to find their home. They were using an old badger hole, in the middle of the alfalfa field by the road. The young were already as big as the parents, although with a different plumage. I had a blast for the next month, watching the little Burrowing Owl family feed on grasshoppers, crickets, and other little critters, primarily using a big CRP (?) grassland that was right next to the alfalfa field. By early September they started disappearing, one by one.
That alfalfa field is now on a corn and soybeans rotation. The CRP field they were using to forage? Also plowed under, used for corn and soybeans. In the 10 years since, I’ve never again seen a Burrowing Owl anywhere close to my part of the state. But I’ll always remember the little Burrowing Owl family that successfully fledged several young, just 4 miles from my house. Here’s one photo I took at night, of one of the adults foraging for insects alongside the road.
What a magical weekend! My son and I continue to be enthralled with our new hobby…being rockhounds, looking for agates, petrified wood, rose quartz, and whatever else we may come across on the designated collection spots on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. We stayed overnight Saturday near Philip, South Dakota, and then were searching on Saturday evening and Sunday morning. The geologic finds were extraordinary (more on that in a later post), but the biggest thrill of the trip for me was an encounter with Long-billed Curlew, a species I haven’t had very good looks at in South Dakota. Saturday evening, we couldn’t have asked for a closer, good look at a wild Long-billed Curlew. The story…
We first saw the curlew as it flew over the gravel road we were on, and landed in the grasslands on the west side of the road. It stood there staring at us from some distance, while my son and I got out of the car to take photos. We started taking photos, and then walked through the ditch to the fence line to get a bit of a closer view. Much to our surprise, instead of retreating (as most birds do when you approach…especially if you have a camera!!) it started walking directly TOWARDS us.
It wasn’t stopping! As I furiously snapped photo after photo, the curlew kept advancing directly towards our position, marching very purposely directly at us! It stopped less than 20 feet away, and began walking back and forth, often stopping to cast a wary look at us and let out a cry.
We remained motionless, standing at the fence line while the curlew paced and sized us up. Finally, it seemed to have had enough and started walking even CLOSER to us. Soon it was too close for me to get the entire bird in the photo frame. Sensing what was going on, we started to back up towards the car as the curlew stared DIRECTLY at us and gave us the scolding of a lifetime.
We were a little slow on the uptake, but given the adult bird’s behavior, it became obvious that it was upset that we were too close to a nest, or to its young. It wasn’t until we got back in the car and started to drive away that we spotted them…one…then TWO beautiful little spotted puffballs that had been crouching down in the prairie grass, perhaps 20 yards off the road. As we drove away, the adult quickly strode over to its two downy young. Once again the family was together, and safe from the pair of two-legged interlopers who had so rudely interrupted!
Sunset over the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, on the edge of the Badlands. This was just an hour and a half after the Curlew encounter, with the intervening time spent looking for agates and other geologic finds. A GORGEOUS end to an absolutely spectacular evening.