Rather slow (but enjoyable) winter raptor search

I treasure my trips to the central part of South Dakota in the winter. Given the bleakness and bitter cold that a South Dakota winter often brings, it’s a true joy to head to the area near the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and generally find it so incredibly full of life. Winter on the Grasslands means raptors, often in numbers that boggle the mind.  Rough-legged Hawks by the dozens, huge Golden and Bald Eagles, Ferruginous Hawks, Prairie Falcons, and the occasional Gyrfalcon, Snowy Owl, Short-eared Owl, or other “goody”.

That’s the normal winter day on the Grasslands. A recent trip unfortunately wasn’t “normal”.  It’s been a hard last year or two for grouse and pheasants on the Grasslands, with drought and some cold winters taking a bit of a toll.  It’s the grouse, pheasants, and other prey that attract the winter raptors, and with the lower prey numbers, raptor numbers have been far below what they normally are.  In a full day’s worth of birding, I “only” came across 15 or so Rough-legged Hawks, about half-a-dozen eagles, and some scattered Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers. I usually find multiple Prairie Falcons and an occasional Merlin or Gyrfalcon, but no falcons of any kind were seen on this trip. A quiet day, but still enjoyable, thanks to the occasional raptor sighting, and VERY large numbers of Mule Deer, Pronghorn, and even 4 or 5 (normally very shy) coyotes.

Not only were the birds rather sparse on this day, but photo opportunities weren’t great.  Here are a (very) few photos from the day, including the highlight…a gorgeous, pure white Snowy Owl.

Snowy Owl - Bubo scandiacus

The definite highlight of the day, an absolutely stunning, pure-white Snowy Owl, found on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. Clearly a mature male with the lack of black barring. Most birds we see around here in winter seem to be younger and/or female birds with substantial black barring. Unfortunately he was pretty shy, and preferred to observe from a distance on a high point in a nearby corn field.

Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos

I love Golden Eagles, particularly when you get to see them at such close range such as this. Such massive, massive birds.

Pronghorn - Antilocapra americana

Pronghorn are something you don’t always see on the Fort PIerre National Grasslands, but they are around. On this day, I saw multiple large groups, including this group (there were about 30 animals in all) moving quickly through a field.

Mule Deer - Odocoileus hemionus

A quite common sight on the Grasslands, Mule Deer were bunched up and quite common on this day. I saw several very large bucks such as this. Shouldn’t be long before they lose their antlers and start growing next year’s.Mul

Countering today’s ugliness with some beauty…

I just can’t do it today.  I can’t watch the news.  I can’t read the newspaper. I can’t turn on the TV.  Not today. Not on a day where we’re losing one of the most dignified, graceful, moral families that have ever graced the White House.  Not on a day where many are celebrating a victory by hatred, by racism, by ugliness.

For today, a needed shot of some of the “beautiful” things in the world.  Here are some of my favorite photos, and the story behind them.

Black Oystercatcher - Haematopus bachmani

Black Oystercatcher – Cannon Beach, Oregon – June 2009 — We first visited Cannon Beach in Oregon as a family about 11 years ago. We’ve been back several times since, as it’s become one of our favorite vacation spots. From a birding perspective, it’s heaven on earth for me. “Haystack Rock” is just off the beach, a massive rock spire that is home to hundreds of nesting Murre’s, Puffins, Gulls, Cormorants, and other species. It’s a fascinating place for my son, and the vibrant tidal pools have always been a favorite of his. Cannon Beach is the first place I saw a Black Oystercatcher, and at dawn one morning I was able to capture a photo of one foraging amongst the rocks at low tide. Being able to capture such a unique bird against a backdrop of colorful starfish was a real treat.

Western Bluebird - Sialia mexicana

Western Bluebird – Zion National Park – May 2008 — We LOVE our family vacations, particularly visits to national parks. This was in 2008, our first visit to Utah and Zion National Park. I’d seen Western Bluebirds before, but didn’t have any photos. This gorgeous male decided to make things easy for me. We were sitting on the back patio of our B&B one night when he flew around the corner and landed in a tree about 15 feet away. A rarity in bird photography…getting an easy opportunity. This is one of my favorite photos though, with the warm colors of the canyon in the background, the curve of the branch, and the beautiful clean view of the bird.

Burrowing Owl - Athene cunicularia

Burrowing Owl – Near Brandon, South Dakota – August 2008 — It’s the location of this shot that makes it a special memory for me. I will often drive 3 to 4 hours to go birding in the central part of the state. In any season, prairie dog towns are good places to bird, as they attract a variety of birds. One of the reasons I like to visit prairie dog towns is because many of them also house Burrowing Owls. I’d seen them many times in the central part of the state, but always at least 200 miles from home. In August of 2008 I was returning home from a business trip, was driving on a road just northeast of my hometown of Brandon, and I saw something sitting on a fence post. A double-take, a slam of the brakes, and YES, it was a Burrowing Owl! Mere minutes from our house! I watched for a while before returning with my camera, and quickly realized it was a family of 2 adults and at least 4 youngsters. There were nesting in an old badger hole in an alfalfa field, a far cry from the prairie dog towns I was used to seeing them in. For nearly 2 months I watched the little family grow up and eventually disappear for the winter. Never again have I seen Burrowing Owls anywhere close to this part of South Dakota, but I’ll always remember this special little family.

Horned Puffin - Fratercula corniculata

Horned Puffin – Fox Island, Alaska – August 2010 — Who doesn’t love Puffins? I’ve been fortunate to see all three species in the wild, seeing Atlantic Puffins on a short whale-watching cruise off of the coast of Maine, seeing Tufted Puffins many times at Cannon Beach in Oregon, and seeing Horned Puffins in Alaska. This was during one of our most memorable family vacations, where we visited several locations in Alaska. Our favorite part of the trip was staying overnight on “Fox Island” just outside of Seward Alaska, and taking an all-day wildlife cruise the next day. When we awoke from our cabin on Fox Island that morning, there were several Horned Puffins feeding just off of the rocky beach. It was simply a matter of sitting and waiting for one to surface. I was fortunate enough to catch this adult with both a bill full of fish, but also a nice wing stretch. A definite favorite photo of mine.

Costa's Hummingbird - Calypte costae

Costa’s Hummingbird – Madera Canyon, Arizona – November 2015 — I do manage to fit some birding in when we go on family vacations, but because I don’t want to take time away from our family, it’s typically early morning hours, before my wife and son get up. That changes, however, when I go on work trips. If I have a work trip in an area with a good birding location nearby, I will often use my own money and stay and extra day to bird. In November of 2015, I had work meetings in Tucson…one of our favorite locations on earth. Did I mention earlier that Cannon Beach was “heaven on earth” for a birder? Take that, double it, and add 3,456, and that describes how great birding is in the Tucson area. There are many famous birding locations in the area, including Madera Canyon south of Tucson. This trip was incredibly memorable because I saw several species for the first time, including a “Holy Grail” bird for birders in the U.S., and Elegant Trogon. Another attraction for the area in general is the wonderful variety of hummingbirds that are often around, some of which are rarely found elsewhere in the United States. This is a male Costa’s Hummingbird, not one of the mega-rarities, but one of my favorite hummingbird species. It’s hard to capture the colors of male hummingbird’s gorget, as the light has to be JUST right, but on this occasion the lighting helped to show off that brilliant purple gorget of a male Costa’s.

Elegant Trogon - Trogon elegans

Elegant Trogon – Madera Canyon near Tucson, Arizona – November 2015 — After mentioning it with the previous photo, how can I not show this? Elegant Trogons are indeed a “Holy Grail” kind of a bird, as they are uncommon to begin with, and have a range that just barely touches the U.S. On occasion they are found in some of the forested canyons of southern Arizona, near the border. I’ve been to two of those, “Ramsey Canyon”, where I’ve visited twice, and “Madera Canyon”, where I’ve been 3 times. In my November 2015 visit to Madera Canyon, I knew the timing wasn’t great. Summer is much better for hummingbirds, as well as many other rarities that breed in these canyons. Elegant Trogon have bred in these canyons, but most of the time, they move southward for the winter. On occasion, however, one overwinters. I wasn’t thinking “Trogon” at ALL as I visited the area. I had heard of another rarity, a Rufous-capped Warbler that had been seen in nearby Florida Canyon, so I thought I’d try making the hike to where that bird was seen. I parked the car, headed up the trail, and struck out on the warbler. However, when I was nearly back to my car and about to leave, I saw the movement of a large bird out of the corner of my eye. Elegant Trogon! It had just flown down the canyon and landed in a tree by the creek! I’ve been birding 15 years, and don’t really freak out when I see a “good” bird, but I must say, as I raised the camera to try to get a shot, I was shaking a bit, just PRAYING it didn’t move or fly away before I could watch it and get a photo. Fortunately, it stayed in its perch for a few minutes before flying away. This definitely isn’t one of my greatest photos from a photographer’s standpoint, but I’ll always consider it one of my greatest experiences from a birding standpoint.

Gray Wolf - Canis lupus

Gray Wolf – Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota – March 2013 — I admit I often turn a blind eye to any photo opportunity that doesn’t involve a bird. Sometimes an opportunity arises that you can’t pass up, however. Another favorite American birding location for me is Sax-Zim Bog in Minnesota. I was there for the incredible northern owl irruption of 2004, when in one day, I saw over 30 Great Gray Owls, and over 30 Northern Hawk Owls. It’s never been quite as magical since that incredible winter, but it’s still a wonderful place to try to find a northern owl or other boreal species that are hard to find in the lower 48 states. In early March of 2013 I thought I’d try one last late-winter visit, hoping to spot Boreal Owls that had been seen in the area. I ended up striking out on owls, but the trip ended up being magical due to what happened in the first 10 minutes when I arrived at the bog. I had gotten up ridiculously early and left Brandon at about 2:00 in the morning, hoping to arrive in the Sax-Zim area just a little after dawn. As I reached the bog and started up a small road, I saw movement in the trees to my left. As I stopped to see what it was, this beautiful creature stepped out of the woods, a lone Gray Wolf. He stopped for a second and stared right at me before deciding I wasn’t all that interesting. He slowly trotted across the road and back into the forest. It remains the only wild wolf I’ve ever seen (even with all our visits to Yellowstone!), and I’m very grateful he paused long enough for me to get this photo.

Saguaro Sky - Tucson, Arizona

Saguaro Sky – Near Tucson, Arizona — Yeah, another Tucson area shot. There’s a wonderful B&B we’ve stayed at multiple times on the edge of Tucson, right next to Saguaro National Park. The B&B owners have their own 40 acres of beautiful Sonoran Desert habitat, and I just love getting up at dawn to walk through it and take photos. As always, birds are a focus, but other critters I’ve found there include rattlesnakes, coyotes, javelina, and even a bobcat one morning. On this morning, just after dawn, it was the sky the caught my attention The sun was just coming over the mountains, and the blue sky was dotted with beautifully patterned, high, wispy clouds. I decided to try something new (for me), trying to capture the majesty of the tallest saguaro cactus I could find, with that gorgeous sky as a backdrop. I also call this photo “Paying the Price”. I laid flat on my back at the base of the saguaro to get this photo, shooting up into the sky. Did you know that in a Sonoran desert habitat, the ground is sprinkled with all KINDS of cactus needles? Neither did I! I got the shot I wanted, and was thrilled with the result, but also spent half an hour back in the B&B having my wife pick cactus thorns out of my back and legs.

Juvenile Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus

Dark-phase Gyrfalcon – Fort Pierre National Grasslands, South Dakota – January 2010 — This is both one of my favorite photos, and a photo that breaks my heart. In all the dead of winter trips I take to the central part of the state, THE attraction, the ONE SPECIES I’m really hoping to see, is a Gyrfalcon. They’re the largest falcon in the world, and are a bird that’s damned tough to ever see in the United States, outside of Alaska. Every winter, a few may straggle down from the Arctic and cross into the United States, but they’re real rarities and another “Holy Grail” bird for U.S. birders. Central South Dakota is actually one of the best places to see them in the lower 48, and I’ve been lucky enough to find them on several occasions. On this day, in the distance I saw a dark bird on a snag. Given the coloration, I wasn’t thinking “Gyrfalcon” at all. It was too dark. As I got closer, I saw it was indeed a Gyrfalcon, a young, dark-phase Gyrfalcon. This is the only dark Gyrfalcon I’ve seen, and it was a thrill to get some nice photos of him. However, as I approached, I also noticed a bird seemingly struggling in the middle of the gravel road. As I got closer, I saw it was a pigeon, tangled inside a net. That pigeon DEFINITELY had the attention of the Gyrfalcon, but he wasn’t about to make a move while I was there. As I wondered what to do, a SUV came roaring down the hill, and as they approached, a man and woman frantically waved their arms at me, motioning me to “move away” from the pigeon. Not knowing what the hell was going on, I pulled up to them, rolled down the window, and asked what was going on. They were falconers. The pigeon and net was theirs. They were trying to capture the young Gyrfalcon to use for falconry. Unfortunately this actually IS legal in the U.S., even for a mega-rarity such as a Gyrfalcon. They had the proper permits. I admit I wasn’t the friendliest to this couple. There are SO few Gyrfalcons that ever make it into the lower 48 states, it just didn’t seem right that they could actually capture one and keep it for their own personal entertainment. Unfortunately, that young Gyr stayed in his perch the entire time I argued with the couple. After a while, after checking with South Dakota Game Fish & Parks friend to see if this was indeed legal, I drove off. I always wondered if that couple caught the Gyrfalcon. That even DEFINITELY changed my behavior though as a birder. After finding out that falconers often scour the birding hotlines for news of a Gyrfalcon, I now NEVER report a Gyrfalcon sighting. After coming across this bird and the falconers trying to catch it, never again will I do anything that could potentially help a falconer remove one of these magnificent birds from the wild.

Where did the Fort Pierre National Grasslands raptors go?

Central South Dakota - Raptor Sightings

Winter raptor sightings in central South Dakota over the last 5 years. The Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves used to be “the” hotspot for winter raptors, including great chances for rarities like Gyrfalcons and Snowy Owls. In recent years, raptor numbers are incredibly low compared to areas just south of the Grasslands, in and around Presho and Kennebec. Click on the map above (or any other image) for a larger view.

I still vividly remember the first time I had ever visited the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.  It was 2000, and I had been bitten by the birding bug.  Hard. Much of my free time was spent birding and taking photos, and as a new birder, there certainly were plenty of “new” birds to discover, just around my home town of Brandon.  One of my friends at work was an avid, lifetime birder, and he not only helped with identification of the birds in my (quite poor!) early photos, but he also helped to stoke the birding fires.  That was very evident when reports came in of a Gyrfalcon on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.  In the years since, the Grasslands have become known as a wonderful location for finding these very rare winter visitors, but at the time, it was something rather novel.  Given that my lifetime birder friend had never seen a Gyrfalcon, I knew this was something special for a birder and I was excited to try to find it. Thus began 16 winters of making periodic birding treks to the Grasslands.

It couldn’t have been easier on that first visit.  The famed “Pheasant Farm Gyrfalcon” was hanging around a farmstead that raised pheasants for hunting operations in the region.  I talked with Doug B. in Pierre, a great birding contact who also helped a lot in my early birding years, and he provided directions (we’re WELL before cell phones and google maps here!).  He had said that he was likely to be around that location early on a Saturday morning, so I made plans to get up ridiculously early and drive to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and arrive at that spot just after dawn.

Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus

The ubiquitous Rough-Legged Hawk, once seemingly found on every other fence post and telephone pole on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. However, for the last 5 years, they’ve been curiously absent.

That cold December day came, I set the alarm, packed up my equipment at 4:30, and started the 3+ hour drive.  My timing was good, and I arrived on County Line Road right around 8:00 AM. As I reached an old abandoned schoolhouse that marked the location close to the pheasant farm, I saw a pair of cars.  I got out, saw Doug B., and asked if they’d seen the Gyrfalcon.  He smiled, and pointed to the top of a nearby telephone pole, and there it was!  My first Gyrfalcon, about as easy a “capture” as a birder can ever hope for with such a rarity!

From that day forward, I was hooked on the Grasslands.  Given that it’s about 3 1/2 hours from home, it’s not a love of convenience!  But I quickly learned to appreciate the isolation and beauty of the area. Most days on the Grasslands, you run into very few people, and there are times after a nice wet period where the beauty of the grasslands and flowers can be really spectacular.  But of course, it’s the birding that was the main attractant for me, and my GOODNESS what incredible birding there was.  Winter in the middle of South Dakota may not sound like a time for vibrant bird life, but the Fort Pierre National Grasslands was building a reputation as a magnet for raptors. This not only included one of the best chances in all of the lower 48 states to see a Gyrfalcon, but also a diverse list of other raptors that spent their winter months on the Grasslands.  Rough-legged Hawks were found in extremely high numbers, such that many times it was quite rare to drive more than half a mile on County Line Road and NOT see a Rough-legged Hawk hanging out on a telephone pole or fence post.  It’s the first place I saw a massive, incredibly powerful Golden Eagle.  It’s the place where I first saw a Ferruginous Hawk, a bird with such a brilliantly white underside that from a distance I thought I was about to see my first Snowy Owl.  It wasn’t that year, but later the Fort Pierre National Grasslands WERE the place I saw my first Snowy Owl, including one incredible year where Snowy Owls were practically as abundant as the ever-present Rough-legged Hawks. It’s the first place I saw a Prairie Falcon, a bird that for a long time was a photographic nemesis for me given their predilection for flushing and flying away whenever I got within 1/4 of a mile of one.  It’s the first place I saw a Short-eared Owl, a summer-time encounter where two adults were tending 4 younger birds.  That encounter concluded with an adult circling me for several minutes as I stood outside my car, resulting in one of my most memorable photo opportunities (and a new Canon DSLR camera body, thanks to the photo winning a nationwide Canon photo contest!).

Winter Sightings - Rough-legged Hawk

Winter sightings of just Rough-legged Hawks. Note the incredibly dense populations near I-90, and the sharp drop off towards the Grasslands in the north.

There have been days on the Grasslands where a full, complete day of birding could simply consist of driving back-and-forth on County Line Road and occasionally taking one of the small gravel roads that connect to it.  One could potentially stay within a relatively small driving area of 10 to 20 square miles, and find dozens, upon dozens, upon dozens of raptors.  Since that first day in 2000, I’ve had some of my most memorable photo experiences on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in winter, including finally getting a close shot of a Prairie Falcon, having a curious first-year Gyrfalcon circle me in curiosity in much the same way that Short-eared Owl did years before, capturing a photo of the massive wingspan of a Golden Eagle as it takes flight, and finally capturing my first decent photos of a Snowy Owl.  During all my winter trips to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, I learned to appreciate not only the Grasslands themselves, but the area south of the Grasslands.  I’d necessarily drive the I-90 corridor past Reliance, Kennebec, and Presho to get to the Grasslands themselves, and couldn’t help notice all the raptors in the area.  Soon, my “Grasslands” birding trips became “central South Dakota” birding trips, with days where I’d usually spend mornings in the Presho area and afternoons on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.  Birding life was good, and many a cold, dismal, South Dakota winter was saved by the vibrant display of life that was always available on the Grasslands.

And then…something happened.  It started about 5 years ago, when I planned one of my “usual” winter trips to the area.  The first half of the trip was the same as always…plenty of raptors of all kinds in the Presho area, and plenty of photo opportunities.  However, as I headed north towards the Grasslands themselves, the birds disappeared. Given my past history of finding winter raptors on the Grasslands, I kept expecting the birds to show up around the next corner, but…they never did.  There was an occasional raptor here or there, primarily Golden Eagles or Ferruginous Hawks, but the incredible density of Rough-legged Hawks, the species that once made up a good 80% of all the raptors found on the Grasslands, was simply absent.  Almost TOTALLY absent.

Greater Prairie Chicken - Tympanuchus cupido

A Greater Prairie Chicken on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. Whatever the cause of the raptor decline on the Grasslands, it doesn’t appear to be because there’s been a noticeable decline of gamebirds.

That first winter after the raptors disappeared, I just speculated that something happened to the prey base that attracted the raptors. When driving the Grasslands, you always saw plenty of Ring-necked Pheasants, Greater Prairie Chickens, and Sharp-tailed Grouse.  There were several times where I’d sat in awe as a Gyrfalcon dive-bombed pheasants in search of a meal, and clearly the gamebirds in the area were one thing that attracted raptors.  There didn’t seem to be any obvious crash in the populations of these three gamebird species. The famed Pheasant Farm near County Line Road had stopped raising pheasants, but that’s such a local phenomenon that it couldn’t explain the drop in raptors across all the grasslands.  Indeed, this winter I visited the Grasslands a couple of days after Christmas, when a massive storm had coated the region in snow and crusty ice.  I ran across truly massive groups of Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie Chickens, milling about in the open and looking for foraging spots in the ice-locked vegetation. Yet despite all the gamebirds that were out, raptors were again curiously absent.  I didn’t spot a single Rough-legged Hawk on the Grasslands themselves, despite easily finding over 30 earlier in the day down by Presho.

If not a decline in gamebirds, what else?  One factor that may play some role is the loss of some truly massive prairie dog towns in the region.  On County Line Road itself, there have always been a few locations for prairie dogs.  Not all raptors target prairie dogs, but Ferruginous Hawks certainly key in on prairie dogs, and prairie dog towns.  Over the last several years, many of the prairie dog towns in the area have disappeared.  Those outside of the administrative boundaries of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves are fair game for poisoning, to clear the land of these “pests” (don’t get me started).  The largest prairie dog town I knew of in the area was on the east end of County Line Road, just outside of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands itself.  It stretched for almost a mile on the north side of the road, with more scattered spots on the south side of the road.  A few years ago, that entire area was clearly poisoned, and the massive colony is gone.

However, the decline in prairie dogs also fails to fully explain the decline in raptors.  There are NO prairie dog towns down by Presho and Kennebec, yet raptors of every kind are still found there in incredible numbers. Perhaps it’s a decline in the small rodent population in the area? For a raptor such as a Rough-legged Hawk, mice and voles make up a huge part of the diet.  Could there have been some cyclic decline in small rodent numbers on the grasslands?  That was my initial thought, but it’s been 5 years since the noticeable and sharp decline in raptor numbers.  You wouldn’t think some repetitive cycle of boom-and-bust rodent populations would be in “bust” mode for so long. Perhaps it’s related to the Prairie Dog poisoning? Could that have also had an impact on small rodents in the area?

A Black-tailed Prairie Dog. There’s little doubt number of these guys HAVE declined around the fringes of the Grasslands, given active poisoning programs.

One other major prey source in the area, particularly for Merlins and Prairie Falcons, are the sometimes huge flocks of Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks, and Snow Buntings that are found in the area in the winter. The vast majority of Merlin sightings I’ve had in South Dakota have been on the Grasslands themselves or in the Presho area.  During my last trip over Christmas, the first raptor I saw at dawn was a Merlin munching on a freshly caught Horned Lark by Kennebec, and I’ve had numerous other occasions over the years where I’ve seen Merlins feeding on Horned Larks or Lapland Longspurs.   You do see roving flocks of Longspurs, Larks, and Snow Buntings on the Grasslands,certainly enough to capture the attention of a raptor that’s passing through, but the numbers of those potential prey species have seemed higher in the Presho/Kennebec area in recent years.

The maps that are shown in this post are indicative of the raptor numbers on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands vs. the I-90 corridor in recent years. These are all actual sightings made by myself over the last 5 years, and recorded in eBird.  During each and every trip I’ve made in the last 5 years, I take the same general routes. I start in the Kennebec/Presho area around dawn, by mid-morning start to work my way up through the Grasslands themselves, and then start to head back down south again by mid-afternoon. It’s clearly not a precise, spatially distributed sample of the space shown on the map, but over the last 5 years, I have driven most of the roads in a rectangle bounded by Highways 1806 and 273 on the east, an area typically no more than 5-8 miles south of I-90 south of Presho, and Kennebec, westward to Highway 83 and a few miles to the west (particularly around the Sheriff Dam and Richland Wildlife Area, and northward to County-Line Road itself and a few miles north of it.  Good roads are few and far between in parts of the area, particularly north-south roads that take you from Presho northward into the Grasslands.  As a result, the maps here tend to show the 2 major north-south gravel road that connect the two areas, as well as other more easily traveled roads in the area.

Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus

A Gyrfalcon taken during the “Golden Years” on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. This is a very dark-phase juvenile, and I’ve never seen one quite like this. The Grasslands may still be a good spot to try to find this mega-rarity, but it’s not an ideal spot for other winter raptors any more.

I wish I had eBird recordings for the “golden years” on the Grasslands, prior to this last 5 year period, something against which these maps could be compared.  I DO have a vast number of raptor photos taken on the Grasslands themselves from 2000 to present, with most of those from 2011 and earlier.  What’s clear from these maps, however, is just how sharp a delineation there is between the I-90 corridor, and raptor numbers to the north on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves.  On the map at the top that shows all raptor sightings I’ve recorded, note the one north-south road that extends up from the I-90 corridor, about halfway between Presho and Vivian. That’s my main path for getting north, and while there are plenty of raptor sightings south of the Grasslands, those sightings drop off sharply almost exactly at the Grassland boundary itself.  On EVERY trip over the last 5 years, I will drive County line Road, an east-west road along the county boundary (visible towards the north side of these maps).  Once THE hotspot for raptors, in the last 5 years, I have very few raptor sightings of any kind along this road.  Rough-legged Hawk sightings on the Grasslands are incredibly small when compared to the area just to the south of the Grasslands. Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers have always seemed to be much more abundant in the southern part of this area, but in recent years they are almost completely absent once you get 4 or 5 miles north of I-90.  Bald Eagles are often incredibly abundant in and around the Presho area.  I have had days where a dozen or more Bald Eagles are sitting in one concentrated area, and there are also at least 3 active Bald Eagle nests that I’ve found in and around the Presho and Kennebec area.  I have a few Bald Eagle sightings around the Grasslands, but that’s certainly dwarfed by how many have been found in and around Presho.

There are some species that are more evenly distributed in the area.  Golden Eagles are a species I’m almost certain to find on any trip to the area, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether I’m on the Grasslands, or in the Presho/Kennebec area.  Prairie Falcons also seem rather randomly distributed, as they seem rather unpredictable and likely to pop up just about anywhere on this map.  Ferruginous Hawks also seem rather even distributed.  Is there something in common about these species that may make them more likely to be found on the grasslands? Golden Eagles and Ferruginous Hawks are much more likely to key in on mammals, including rabbits and other larger mammals.  Perhaps if it is a population crash of small rodents, they’re still on the Grasslands as they don’t depend on those smaller prey as much as Rough-legged Hawks or other raptors. Prairie Falcons can feed on a variety of prey items, including small birds like Horned Larks, and even large birds like Greater Prairie Chickens.  Perhaps they too would be less sensitive to a decline in small rodent numbers.

I’ll continue to make my winter treks to the central part of the state, including visits to the Grasslands.  Given that the Grasslands themselves are still the location where I’ve seen most of my Gyrfalcons over the years (including the years prior to the data represented in these maps), that alone is clearly worth the time!  Hopefully over the next few years the Grasslands recover from whatever “ails” it in terms of supporting winter raptor numbers.

Birding central South Dakota

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A Bald Eagle in flight, taken just north of Kennebec, South Dakota. I saw over a dozen of these guys today on the grasslands, and area far from any large water body. I’ve found multiple huge eagle nests in the area in recent years, as they’ve obviously learned that with all the pheasants, grouse, and prairie chickens in the area, it’s a GREAT place to raise (and feed!) a family!

Today was “the” day.  Once or twice a winter, I’ll get up ridiculously early, drive three hours to the central part of the state to ensure I get there right at dawn, and spend the day birding.  What could possess anyone to head to central South Dakota before dawn in the middle of winter?

Winter raptors!  As I’ve said many times, central South Dakota can be truly spectacular for raptors during the winter time.  That surprises a lot of people.  Winters can be pretty damned harsh up here…the blizzard that shut down the western half of the state for the last 2 days is a great example!  In eastern South Dakota in winter, near Brandon where I live, if I drive rural areas I’m not likely to see much for bird life.  The best I can usually hope for is to run across some flocks of Snow Buntings or Lapland Longspurs, but for the most part, all the crop land in the eastern part of the state is pretty dead in the winter.

It’s dramatically different in the central part of the state.  The reason?  Better habitat with cropland interspersed with a lot of open grassland, and more importantly, plentiful prey!  Ring-necked Pheasants, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Greater Prairie Chickens are beyond abundant in many parts of central South Dakota, and attract raptors that can take such big prey, including many eagles (Bald and Golden), Ferruginous Hawks, Gyrfalcons, and more.  The wide-open grasslands of the region also hold many large flocks of Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks, and Snow Buntings in the winter, smaller prey that are favorites for Merlins and Prairie Falcons.  It doesn’t seem to matter the weather, most of the time when I head out there, there are a lot of fat and happy raptors!  That was evident again today, as it was quite obvious (from the full crops on several birds) that the birds were feeding quite well!

There are two general areas I like to bird in the central part of the state: 1) The Presho/Kennebec corridor near I-90, and 2) the Fort Pierre National Grasslands to the north.  As with most of my central South Dakota trips, I timed my drive today to arrive at Presho right around dawn. My day of birding usually begins with the area just south of Presho, an area that’s been truly magical for me for winter raptors in recent years.  The big attraction for raptors are the game birds in the area.  There are a number of hunting operations in the area, many of which release pheasants for hunters.  There have been times in the winter where I’ll 100-200 Ring-necked Pheasants milling about in a field, and there are plenty of Sharp-tailed Grouse in the area as well.  Today got off to a rocky start as it was uncharacteristically slow in the Presho area. Right upon arriving, I came across a Merlin feeding on a small bird (most likely a Horned Lark), and I did find a couple of Bald Eagles south of Presho, but the Rough-legged Hawks that usually are EVERYWHERE in winter were curiously absent.  I spent more time cruising random gravel roads in Presho and Kennebec area this morning and picked up a stray raptor here or there, but it was a depressingly slow start for the day.

Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus

A Rough-legged Hawk just after taking flight from a telephone pole. These guys are always the undisputed “kings” of the prairie in winter, at least in terms of sheer numbers. Today’s count of 32 Rough-legged Hawks was actually a bit of a disappointment. I’ve had some winter days where the count has been more than twice that.

Given the lack of action near Presho and Kennebec, I started to drift northward towards the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.  It soon became abundantly clear that the blizzard from this weekend took a increasingly greater toll the further you moved north from I-90.  Gravel roads are usually somewhat immune to freezing rain, but the amount of freezing rain and slush from this storm was truly amazing, and even gravel roads were smooth, slick mirrors in some spots.  It was even worse for birds in the area, though.  The grasslands were coated with a thick sheet of ice and slush, and many of the game birds in the area appeared to be struggling.  On the Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves, I came across several huge flocks of Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie Chickens, milling about in open grassy areas, searching for clear spots in the ice so they could forage. Despite all the potential prey, however, there were very few raptors on the grasslands themselves. The day wasn’t getting any better.

Something has happened on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands over the last 5 years.  5 years ago, winter raptor birding on the Grasslands was typically spectacular.  Scanning the fence posts and telephone poles, it was often unusual if you could drive a mile WITHOUT encountering a raptor.  Over the last 5 years though, the grasslands have been curiously devoid of raptors.  That again was the case today.  As slow as the birding was around Presho in the morning, it was MUCH slower on the Grasslands further north.  There are definitely fewer pheasants and grouse on the grasslands than in the area around Presho, but  the last 5 years have made me wonder if something has also happened to the small rodent population in the area.  It just seems odd that such consistently great birding for many years could nosedive and stay low for so long.

I admit that by noon, I was a little down.  An entire day devoted to birding the area, and it was pretty slow to that point.  I decided to head back down towards Presho and Kennebec again, and it soon became clear that there were PLENTY of raptors in the area, and that they were much more active than they had been in the morning.  Driving the gravel roads just north of Presho and Kennebec, the usually plentiful Rough-legged Hawks, a species that was almost absent during my morning search, were back in force (where had they been this morning?!?). Red-tailed Hawks were present in larger numbers than normal, and I ran into the occasional Prairie Falcon or Ferruginous Hawk as well.  One thing that surprises people is how common eagles are in the area in winter, both Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles.  There are multiple active Bald Eagle nests in the Presho and Kennebec area, in the middle of the grasslands and far from any large water body, while Golden Eagles that are absent in the area in winter often show up in good numbers for the winter.

Greater Prairie Chicken - Tympanuchus cupido

A Greater Prairie Chicken, searching for food in a prairie covered by a crust of ice and snow. Despite how common these are in parts of Central South Dakota, they’re actually a species I’ve never had any luck photographing! Not the greatest photo here, but at least I finally have something.

I didn’t run across any of the “special” winter raptors today. To me, the list of “special” winter raptors includes Gyrfalcon, Snowy Owl, and Short-eared Owl.  I’d estimate that I spot one of those species in about half of the trips I take to the area, but not today.  It was still a beautiful day for birding, and the final raptor count for the day ended up being pretty good.  Honestly, the tally here is a little lower than what I’ve normally experienced in the area in recent years, but that just emphasizes how truly spectacular winter birding has been lately!  The raptor count for the day:

  • Rough-legged Hawks — 32
  • Bald Eagle — 13
  • Red-tailed Hawks – 12
  • Golden Eagles – 5
  • Ferruginous Hawks – 4
  • Merlin – 4
  • Prairie Falcon – 3


While raptors are definitely the attraction for birding the area in winter, there have been some other trends in recent years that are certainly interesting.  I started birding 16 years ago, and during those first few winters when I would bird this area, it was always surprising to run across a stray Western Meadowlark here or there.  In recent years, it seems like more and more Meadowlarks stay in the area all winter long, and today, I came across literally hundreds and hundreds.  I also came across two large flocks of American Robins, a species that does sometimes overwinter in the area in small numbers, but there were probably at least 100 Robins in each flock I saw today.  Southeast of Presho, there also have been large numbers of Red-winged Blackbirds that have been overwintering in recent years.

Three different species of birds, each of which is found in ever-increasing numbers in winter over the last several years…hmmm…I wonder what the cause could be?  It’s almost as if there’s some kind of “warming” effect that’s enabling them to overwinter.  Perhaps someday scientists will discover what’s behind such a change in climate.  🙂

Rattlesnakin! Family fun for all…

Prairie Rattlesnake photo - Crotalus viridis

A Prairie Rattlesnake, curled up in a weedy spot right next to the burrow of a prairie dog.

I had never seen a rattlesnake before until 4 years ago.  I knew Prairie Rattlesnakes were found in much of South Dakota, but not in the eastern part of the state where I live.  A fellow birder posted something that fall, about not only finding some nice birds on a prairie dog town (e.g., Sprague’s Pipits and Burrowing Owls), but also noted that after a cool fall night, there were rattlesnakes out sunning on that warm fall day.

Rattlesnakes!  An 8-year old son!  What better father-son bonding activity than going “rattlesnakin’!!” I am SUCH a good father!  First actually, we went fishing in the morning on the Missouri River, below Oahe Dam by Pierre.  However by noon, with a nice warm sun starting to heat things up, we grabbed lunch and headed for that same prairie dog town. It didn’t take long to find sunning rattlesnakes.  They hang out in prairie dog burrows (presumably abandoned ones), coming out to sun during warm fall days.  On one prairie dog mound were 4 rattlesnakes, 3 quite large ones, and one very small one that couldn’t have been more than 12 inches long.  Great fun had by all!  Photos!  A son that, well…wasn’t quite enamored as I was in seeing poisonous snakes up close and personal.

Funny…my wife and sister also both gave me a bit of grief for PURPOSELY taking our son out to see poisonous snakes.  Silly family…they don’t know good clean fun when they see it!

Prairie Rattlesnake - Crotalus viridis

Another Prairie Rattlesnake, and this guy was a big boy. Probably the biggest I’ve seen.

I hadn’t been back out “rattlesnakin” again until this past week.  No, I didn’t bring my son this time, but I did the same thing…fish during the cool morning hours, and then look for rattlesnakes as the sun warmed the ground at the prairie dog town.  Rattlesnakes weren’t out in force like they were on that fall day of four years ago, but there were still a handful to be found, including probably the largest rattlesnake I’ve seen.

So, if you’re sitting at home on a warm fall day, wondering where to have some good clean family fun, don’t forget!  Rattlesnakin’….a family activity you ALL can enjoy!!

Great way to spend an afternoon…

Burrowing Owl - Hovering - Athene cunicularia

Hovering Burrowing Owl, checking me out as I visit a prairie dog town on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in South Dakota

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.

Burrowing Owl - Athene cuniculari

One of the most common ways to see a Burrowing Owl in South Dakota…one sitting on a fence post near a prairie dog town.

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…

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