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

One more trip – Rocks and Birds

It was a beautiful weekend in much of South Dakota, so much so that the lure of one last rockhounding trip was too much for me to pass up.  With projected highs near 60, and just as importantly on the windswept plains of South Dakota, a lack of a wind, it seemed like the perfect day to roam around the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. An added treat of birding the western part of the state at this time of year…all of the winter raptors that are arriving!

I started out rockhounding, and could tell it was going to be a great day.  I tried a little bit different spot, and immediately found it wasn’t as “picked over” as my typical spot near Kadoka.  Right away I was finding many bubblegum agates, some beautiful rose quartz, some amber-colored honey agates, prairie agates, and some big chunks of petrified wood. I also found several coral and shell fossils, including one cute little bubblegum agate with a crisp imprint of a shell on the back side.  The highlight…after only 10 minutes, I found a gorgeous Fairburn agate with an unusual, rosy-colored quartz center.  That piece alone would have made the trip worth it.

While I spent most of the day rockhounding, I also kept my eyes open for the arriving winter raptors. Rough-legged Hawks, as always, were in abundance in parts of the Grasslands. Ferruginous Hawks, Golden Eagles, a prairie falcon, and plenty of Red-tailed Hawks rounded out a day that finished with the spotting of a gorgeous, pure white, unbarred Snowy Owl on the drive back home. A great “last blast” out on the Grasslands, before the really cold South Dakota winter hits.

Fairburn Agate - South Dakota

A gorgeous Fairburn agate as I found it on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. On average this year, I’d say I find one Fairburn for about every 15 hours of looking, so it’s always a wonderful treat. This one was so unusual, in terms of that grogeous rosy center surrounding by the fortification banding.

South Dakota Agates, Jaspers, Petrified Wood, Quartz

The material I brought back. You can collect on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, but 1) only for private collections (no selling of material), and 2) can collect up to 25 pounds of material in a day. Given I usually only keep the smaller pieces (most are 2″ or less), that’s not a problem! But on this day, there were some BIG pieces of petrified wood I was tempted to bring home! If I had done so though, a couple of them would have used up my 25-lb allotment! Hence sticking with my “usual” agates and other material.

South Dakota group kills > 100 eagles, >200 raptors (warning – Disturbing image)

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

What do you see when looking at this photos A gorgeous, powerful wonder of nature? A majestic symbol of our nation? Or…a body part to be sold for about $250? For 15 South Dakotans, it’s the latter, as they are charged with killing and selling the carcasses and body parts of over 100 eagles and 200 raptors in total.

Want to buy the head of a Golden Eagle?  It will run you about $250 on the black market.  How about the wings of our national symbol, the Bald Eagle? It’s a bit pricier, as a pair of wings sell for about $900.  What’s that you say?  Black Market? Dead eagles?  Sounds a bit illegal?  Well, that didn’t stop a South Dakota “chop shop” for trafficking in eagle carcasses and parts, as well as other raptors.

The Department of Justice this week charged 15 South Dakotans in conspiring to acquire (aka, kill), process, and distribute the bodies or body parts of eagles and other raptors. The group was known to have killed at least 100 eagles and over 200 raptors in total.  Members of the group face charges for violating the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and the Lacey Act of 1900.  I guess you can forgive the group because these are “new” regulations that have only been around for a minimum of 77 years.  Who knew you couldn’t go out and shoot eagles and sell their parts on the black market?

What I want to know is…why the hell IS there a black market for eagle parts?  What does one DO with the head of a Golden Eagle? The wings of a Bald Eagle? The people who killed and sold all these raptors are disgusting, but so are the people who buy these “treasures”.

I’ve seen some sick things in South Dakota while out birding.  I’ve seen a landowner near Presho, a landowner who himself was later charged with killing eagles and other raptors, duct-tape dead coyotes in a spread-eagle position on telephone poles around his property. Warning…a photo of one of the coyotes is at the bottom of the post, and is rather disturbing.  I’ve seen hunting dog carcasses neatly lined up with bullet holes in their heads, hunting dogs that were temporarily used by out-of-state hunters during the big fall pheasant hunt, and then were “disposed of” when the hunting trip ended. On SEVERAL occasions I’ve come across hunters shooting things they shouldn’t be shooting, such as a pair of South Dakota rednecks driving around in their pickup and stopping at any wetland they passed to blast away at American Coots and other water birds.  I’ve seen a pair of high school girls pull into a wildlife area, drop off their two little brothers, and casually laugh and chatter while the little bastards were out roaming the land and shooting every songbird they could see.  I’ve seen “hunters” shoot and wound a Canada Goose, and then run around chasing the grounded bird and kicking and punching it to death.  I’ve SEEN dead raptors, including a big, gorgeous Golden Eagle, that had clearly been shot. But hey, at least those people were just doing it for “fun”, not for personal profit!!

There’s a reason I’ve gotten more cynical over the 25 years we’ve lived in South Dakota.  I’ve SEEN what some people are like. I’ve SEEN the terrible things people are capable of. When I see stories like this about the killing of hundreds of raptors for profit, I’m sad, I’m sickened, but I certainly can’t say I’m shocked any more.

Coyote - Shot near Presho, South Dakota

I’m sorry for the disturbing image, but, this is one of the most disgusting things I’ve seen while out birding in South Dakota…a land owner near Presho who had shot several coyotes and duct-taped them to telephone poles around his property. This same land owner was charged with shooting raptors, including eagles. Why, you ask? He ran a pheasant and grouse hunting operation, and didn’t want these animals preying on “his” birds. I wish stories like these were isolated cases in South Dakota. They’re not. I’ve been frankly shocked at the attitudes of many people in the state towards our beautiful wildlife.


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.  🙂

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