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More Geologic Goodies – Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

OK, so the gorgeous yellow-orange Fairburn was the highlight of my rockhounding trip this weekend, but it certainly wasn’t the only “find”.  Here’s a selection of some of the other agates, jaspers, etc.  What amazes me about this location on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands is the seeming infinite variety of what you can find, all within one very small area. All of these were collected within a one-square mile area.

Prairie Agates - South Dakota

A collection of Prairie Agates, something you find relatively often on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, but they’re so pretty and so variable that I can’t help but collect more.

Agate/Jasper - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

This one was SO striking when I saw it lying there that I couldn’t help but collect it. I admit however that I have no idea what this is…any ideas?

Prairie Agate - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

A gorgeous prairie agate (or what I’d call a prairie agate), with some very intricate banding and patterns.  The green is a bit of lichen I have yet to clean off. 

Bubblegum Agates - South Dakota

Bubblegum agates! I actually have a somewhat difficult time finding many of these, but always pick them up when I do. Of all the stones out here, it’s the bubblegum agates that really “shine” (ha) when I put them through the polisher. Once you start to wear down those nodules, there are often some truly incredible patterns and banding underneath.

Banded Agate - South Dakota

Stones like this make me want to take a hammer and break every stone open. I don’t have a rock saw or anything, but I imagine there are SO many hidden treasures like this on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, pieces where you don’t see the beauty unless you slice them open.

Prairie Agate - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

A prairie agate. The orangish ones are probably the most common, but there are some pretty red tones in many of them as well.

Agate - South Dakota

While many agates have the banding patterns shown on this post, there are some other cool patterns you find as well. Love the pink “druzy” crystalline area that forms the heart of this agate, with some banding and other patterns around it.

Jasper - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

A jasper, of which there are many on the grasslands.

Miscellaneous Agate - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

One more agate (at least that’s what I’d call it), with some interesting fine banding.

Jackpot! Agate find on Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

Been stressful at work lately so I took off Friday and did something I’ve only done one other time this summer…head out to the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands and go rockhounding. It wasn’t the most pleasant of days! The forecast called for 75 and cloudy, but when I got about 60 miles away, the fog started getting thicker and thicker, and soon it was accompanied by a light drizzle.  Much to my chagrin, things were exactly the same at my favorite rockhounding spot southwest of Kadoka.  I ended up rockhounding from about 8 AM to 2 pm, and the temperature never got higher than 60, with the drizzle falling most of that time.

I found plenty of “good” material.  As many prairie agates as I could want, as always.  Bubblegum agates. Quartz. Petrified Wood. Jaspers. Adventurine.  But the “prize” for people searching out there is a Fairburn agate. Since we started doing this last summer, we’ve probably been out there about 8 times, and have found a Fairburn about half the time, and that’s with a good, hard days’ search each time.

As the drizzle was just thick enough to make you a bit miserable Friday, I was contemplating leaving. But as I paused for a second to assess my situation, I saw a bright yellowish-orange stone ahead of me, one that really stood out from the others around it in terms of the color.  Much to my delight, as I approached I saw some fine parallel banding…Fairburn! And a pretty good sized one, at over 2 inches in length.  I did continue rockhounding for  awhile before returning to the car and getting a good look at the banding.

A find that made a miserable weather day a whole lot brighter.

Fairburn Agate - South DakotaFairburn Agate - South Dakota

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Prairie Ghost

The Prairie Ghost

Swift ghost of the prairie

shepherding harem and young

As winter’s despair beckons

Pronghorn Buck - Antilocapra americana

Custer State Park’s famed “Wildlife Loop” never disappoints, but it’s just after dawn when the magical moments occur. Pronghorn are often seen in Custer State Park, but they are typically easier to spot in the early morning hours, before most visitors start to arrive in the park. On this morning, a harem of perhaps 6 females and their young-of-the-year surprised me by cresting a nearby hill. They then slowly worked their way towards me as they grazed, unconcerned about the photographer in the parked car. Last to crest the hill was the big male, the protector of the little band. I watched for 15 minutes as the herd fed in the adjacent grasslands. As they slowly moved on down the hill, the trailing buck paused for a moment to give me a stare.  I evidently passed his judgement, and he then trotted off after his harem as they disappeared around the bend.  The grasslands were still lush from a wet and bountiful summer and forage was good, but the leaves were beginning to change, and a harsh South Dakota winter was just around the corner.

South Dakota’s Jewel – Custer State Park

My family and I just got back from a long weekend in the Black Hills, spending most of our time in Custer State Park. The Black Hills are a 5 or 6 hour drive from our hometown on the far eastern edge of South Dakota. We travel a lot, but have somehow managed to avoid visiting the area for the last 4 or 5 years, other than occasional fishing trips with my son. After a wonderful, long, Labor Day weekend, I’m not sure why we don’t spend more time in the Black Hills and Custer State Park.  We love National Parks and Monuments, visiting 11 different ones during our summer vacation to Colorado and Utah, but I’d put Custer State Park up with any of them.

Part of the attraction is the diversity the park offers. Custer State Park is big, covering over 110 square miles. Habitats are diverse, ranging from wide open prairie to craggy peaks.  Access is quite easy, with several roads traversing the park, including a number of gravel roads that get far less traffic than roads like the iconic Wildlife Loop.  However, even the wildlife loop is never as busy as the popular National Parks. And as with most parks in the United States, once you step away from the main roads and start hiking, you can find yourself with as much solitude as you desire.

On this trip, we stayed at the “Creekside Lodge”, a wonderful little place from which to base your trip to the Hills. It’s part of the State Game Lodge complex, right off Highway 16a, one of the bigger paved roads through the park, and is in an area that provides quick access to many of the Black Hills attractions. We loved our room at the Creekside lodge, a 2nd floor room with a balcony that overlooked Grace Coolidge Creek. Every night, we’d have deer foraging in the grass right below our hotel room, and the room was large and very comfortable.

For me, it’s the hiking and the wildlife that makes Custer State Park special.  There are no bears in the Black Hills, but you’ll certainly find as many bison, deer, elk, Pronghorn, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs as you could want.  That’s right, just one State Park, with habitats that support creatures as diverse as Bison and Pronghorns on the prairies, and Mountain Goats at high elevation. Every morning on our trip I’d wake before dawn, and drive and hike around the less-traveled gravel roads the connect with the Wildlife Loop road. Every morning, I’d find bountiful photo opportunities.

Yes, it’s “just” a state park, but don’t overlook Custer State Park!! It’s one of the most enjoyable places to visit in the region.  Here are just a few of the many photos I took over the weekend. Note I reserve the right to revisit these same photos in upcoming Photo/Haiku of the day posts!  🙂

American Bison - Custer State Park, South Dakota

The iconic American Bison. Custer State Park has a very large herd that has free reign throughout most of the park. While they could be seen almost anywhere, the wide open grasslands around the wildlife loop are a place where you’ll almost certainly run across large numbers of them.

Coyote - Canis latrans - Custer State Park, South Dakota

A lone coyote, giving me one last look before disappearing into the grassland. There are certainly plenty of coyote around, but they’re pretty shy. Drive the Wildlife Loop right around dawn though, and there’s a good chance you may find one.

Black-tailed Prairie Dog - Cynomys ludovicianus

A Black-tailed Prairie Dog at the entrance to its burrow. There are a number of large prairie dog towns scattered throughout Custer State Park, and they’re always a great place to look for wildlife.

Pronghorn - Antilocapra americana - South Dakota

The Wildlife Loop are offers some wonderful prairie habitat, and is a great spot to find Pronghorn. Pronghorn in South Dakota are generally very shy. It’s no wonder, given the hunting pressure on the species. Custer State Park is probably your best opportunity anywhere to get close to a wild Pronghorn. They’re used to the visitors and will often calmly forage just a few meters away from your car.  How close can you get to a wild Pronghorn at Custer State Park? How about….

Pronghorn - Antilocapra americana - South Dakota

This close! When you shoot wildlife, the problem is that you generally can’t get close enough for a frame-filling photo, even with a “long” camera lens. In this case, my long lens made it impossible to frame the entire animal in the shot, and thus I instead had the opportunity to shoot some wonderful portraits from point-blank range.

Mountain Bluebird - Sialia currucoides

One of my favorite species, the Mountain Bluebird. Near the “airport” (not much of an airport) on Wildlife Loop road, there’s a fence line with a number of bluebird boxes. It’s a terrific spot to find these beautiful sky-blue birds.

Mountain Goat - Oreamnos americanus

ALWAYS. BRING. YOUR. CAMERA!!! After this many years doing photography, I should know this by now! But when we decided to do the “Cathedral Spires” hike in the park, I left the camera in the car. I didn’t think we’d see any wildlife up there! Boy was I wrong. We ran into Mountain Goats twice on the beautiful hike up to the spires! Alas, all I had was my iPhone, but this even with just a standard iPhone 7, we were able to get close enough to these beautiful animals to get photos such as this one. This also gives you an indication of the diversity of landscapes in the park…from Pronghorns on the prairies, to Mountain Goats up high!!

Custer State Park - Dawn

A quick grab-shot with my iPhone of the rising sun, from Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park, showing the wide open prairies and rolling hills on this side of the park.

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.

“Planetary Agates” from South Dakota

I have a new hobby! I got a new lens 2 summers ago. It’s a very high quality lens that enables some truly stunning, clear, crisp photos, but I just haven’t used it very much since it’s quite a bit different lens than the one I use to shoot birds.  Today I thought I’d give it a whirl, and in doing so, I may have created a new hobby for myself…taking photos of the planets!!  I was able to take photos of 12 different planets today, all while out on my back deck!  Yeah…yeah…THAT’s right… I took photos of TWELVE different planets, in the space of only about an hour.

Well…OK…they may LOOK like planets, but I’ll fess up…they’re not. I put my rarely used macro lens on my camera this afternoon, and started to take some documentary photos of some of the agates and other stones that my son and I have found over the last month on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands here in South Dakota. After taking a few extreme closeup photos of one of our favorite agate finds, the composition of the photo, with the curve of the agate and the shadow behind it, made it look like a photo of a portion of a planet. I really loved the look of the macro shot, and just went with it, setting up other agates and trying to get “planetary agate” photos.  Here’s a collection of some of our favorite agate finds from the last month…

South Dakota Prairie Agate

“Planetary Agate #1” – This is part of a typical Prairie Agate, something that are relatively common on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. This is the photo that started the “Planetary Agate” series. The beautiful, cloud-like banding of a prairie agate definitely gives it a “planetary” vibe in this kind of view.

Fairburn Agate from South Dakota

Of the 12 “Planetary Agate” photos here, this one is perhaps the least “planet-like” given the sharp banding, but this Fairburn has been our best find so far. The gorgeous, thin, parallel banding of a Fairburn, coupled with that incredible translucent red “eye” do give it an otherworldly look.

Bubblegum Agate from South Dakota

This is a bubblegum agate that’s been through the tumbler a few times, revealing the gorgeous warm reddish-tones underneath. We’re DEFINITELY back on a firm “planetary agate” footing with this one.

Fairburn Agate from South Dakota

A planet’s surface, pockmarked by dozens of meteor collisions!! Or…perhaps it’s just a macro shot of a gorgeous Fairburn Agate from the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands of South Dakota. This is a very unusual agate, what we’ve called our “Easter Island Head” Fairburn. When we found it, it was all black, and looked like an Easter Island head. With a bit of polishing, the black gave way to this gorgeous, surreal Fairburn pattern underneath.

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

A very interesting “planet”, as this agate had all the typical markings of a prairie agate when we first spotted it. However, there were a few hints that other patterns were hidden underneath, and with a bit of polishing, some of the tighter banding more typical of a Fairburn agate were revealed. One of the more “planetary” looking of the 12 agate photos here.

Bubblegum Agate - South Dakota

Another bubblegum agate that’s been in the tumbler a while. The bubblegum agates we’ve found so far have been so fun to try in our tumble polisher. There have been some wonderful, surprise patterns on some of the tumbled bubblegum agates, including…this VERY planetary-looking pattern.

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

The typical colors of the prairie agates you find are warm orangish, tan, and white tones, but you do find other colors as well. Probably the second most common are bands of black and white. I believe from what a geologist friend told me, the blackish tones come from a touch of manganese? I guess the vertical bands in this shot make it a bit less “planet-like”, but still a beautiful, typical prairie agate from our state.

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

Not only does this portion of a prairie agate look like a planet, but the entire agate itself does! This is one of the larger agates we’ve taken back with us, a heavy, very round agate with some very interesting “windows” of other colors, such as shown here. Other than the banding, the prairie agates here also can have other patterns similar to this.

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

Another prairie agate that’s a bit different, in that the primary patterns are these elongated ellipsoids of white, surrounded by a thin “shell” of warm brown. Different pattern than the others…perhaps not so “planetary”…but a cool looking agate nonetheless.

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

This agate got my heart racing a bit when I first saw its edge poking out of the hard crust on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. The first thing I saw was that far right edge sticking out, and with a suggestion of the “holly-leaf” look on those bands, I thought I might have found South Dakota’s specialty, a Fairburn agate. Alas, while the markings may have some of the fortification-look of a Fairburn, this is definitely a prairie agate, but a BIG prairie agate with some of the most intricate banding of any prairie agate we’ve found. One of my favorites, and it makes for a nice “planetary agate” as well.

Bubblegum Agate - South Dakota

Another of the polished bubblegum agates, this one was a bit of a surprise when we first took it out of our tumbler after a “rough-polish” phase. The bubblegum-like nodules were worn smooth after tumbling, revealing very distinct fortification patterns that had the shape of a Fairburn, but not really the fine banding structure. Gorgeously colored little agate though.

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

The last of our “planetary agates”, this is another typical prairie agate, showing the most common kind of patterning that you see…broad, diffiuse, “cloud-like” bands. We hope you’ve enjoyed our little foray into “planetary agates!”

 

Long-billed Curlew Encounter

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…

Long-billed Curlew - Numenius americanus

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.

Long-billed Curlew - Numenius americanus

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.

Long-billed Curlew - Numenius americanus

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.

Long-billed Curlew (Fledgling) - Numenius americanus

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, South Dakota

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.

Evolution in the blink of an eye…

Prairie Deer Mouse - Peromyscus maniculatus bairdii

The cool thing about science and nature is that interesting stories are all around us. The tiny Deer Mouse, shown here, has overcome long odds, with the vast majority of its historical habitat gone. However, through some remarkable, fast-track evolutionary adaptation, they’re now able to cope with their new world. Photo by Gregory Smith.

It’s been a busy last week, without any time for birding or photography.  Or blogging, for that matter. I was down in Nebraska for a few days, mixing work and pleasure. The “pleasure” part was my fantasy baseball draft in Omaha Saturday.  Our fantasy league is likely one of the longest running leagues in the country, going back to 1985 during our freshman year in college, when fantasy baseball was still very new.  What’s great about it is that many of the original league members are still participating! It’s great fun, not only the draft itself, but catching up with old college friends.

The “work” part of my Nebraska trip was participation in the 2017 Great Plains Symposium, on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Much like the baseball draft, the symposium too was like stepping back in time, as I reconnected with some of my old college professors who were participating in the symposium. The focus of the symposium was “Flat Places, Deep Identities: Mapping Nebraska and the Great Plains”.  I gave a talk one some of the work I’ve been doing, mapping past, present, and potential future landscapes in the Great Plains.  It was a great symposium, a little different kind of crowd than I’m used to.  Given the work I do, most of the conferences and symposiums I attend deal with the physical sciences. This conference melded mapping, history, socioeconomics, and other social sciences that I’m not exposed to as much.  It was quite fascinating, particularly hearing about the history of Nebraska, using maps to help tell the “story” of change over time.

As part of the symposium “goodies”, participants were given a copy of The New Territory, a quarterly magazine that focuses on Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.  I admit I’d never heard of the publication before. The content fits quite well with the focus of the symposium itself, with many human interest stories about the geography and people of the region. As a physical scientist, one piece caught my eye though. entitled “Evolution in the Cornbelt“, by Conor Gearin. The story focuses on the Prairie Deer Mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus bairdii), a common little fellow from the Great Plains that feeds on the tiny seeds of grasses and weeds in the prairies.

Researchers at Iowa State and Purdue University were curious how a species so adapted to life in the Great Plains has been able to thrive, given that >99% of the original tallgrass prairie in the region has been plowed under, converted to agriculture, urban land, or other man-made land uses. The grass and weed seeds the Prairie Deer Mouse had historically fed on were much more sparsely distributed than they were 200 years ago, yet the species is still quite common.  They started field work to assess the distribution of the nice, including setting up artificial nest boxes that the mice could use for habitation and food storage.  The results astounded the scientists.

Prior to beginning the work, it was assumed that deer mice populations would be the highest in “edge” habitat, areas such as grassy ditches, fencelines, or other “boundary” conditions where remnants of their traditional food sources may still be found.  However, they quickly found that the highest populations of deer mice were often right in the middle of very large corn and soybean fields, far from any traditional food source.  Clearly, Prairie Deer Mice had adapted to an agricultural setting, and were feeding on man-raised grains and pulses. The question was, how could a tiny mouse that was so well adapted to eating tiny grass and weed seeds shift gears and start feeding on corn and soybeans?

The researchers found historical deer mice in historical museums, creatures that had been preserved with taxidermy. Anatomical comparisons with Prairie Deer Mice from today found some stark differences.  The older specimens were well adapted to feeding on tiny seeds, with small mandibles and jaws that didn’t open very far.  The modern specimens had 1) significantly longer lower mandibles, 2) structural changes that allowed their mouths to open wider, and 3) larger upper mandibles. Accompanying the larger mandibles were more robust “hardware” for linking bone to muscle, with beefed up jaw muscles that enabled the tiny mice to feed on much larger food items than they had historically.

In the blink of an eye, geologically speaking, Prairie Deer Mice had shown measurable, obvious evolutionary adaptation in response to their new environment and food sources.  The researchers found high densities of deer mice in the middle of corn and soybean fields.  Some inevitably will succumb to the mechanical tools humans use to turn and manipulate the soil, but with such a rich, dense, bountiful food source, the mice had quickly evolved to fill the new ecological niche and feed on corn and soybean waste.

For a scientist like myself, I’m completely dumbfounded by the sheer ignorance of those who doubt science…who doubt climate change is real…who doubt in evolution.  The actual empirical evidence is overwhelming, conclusive, and “in-your-face”, for those who bother to open their eyes to the world around them. It’s a fascinating story, and the writer (Conor Gearin) did a great job not only summarizing the research, but telling it in a true story-teller’s fashion.  To me, this is exactly the kind of story, and writing style, that could perhaps help to turn the tide against the anti-science wave that seems to be cresting in the U.S. right now. Great story, and The New Territory really looks like a publication that’s worth subscribing to or picking up if you get a chance.

Grand River National Grasslands, Harding County, South Dakota

Expansive grasslands of the Grand River National Grasslands, in Harding County, in far northwestern South Dakota. Grassland habitat like this is greatly reduced in the Great Plains. However, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for one species, the Prairie Deer Mouse, who evidently can do quite well without an actual “prairie”.

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!!

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