Recently I had a great birding opportunity, brought to me by my friend Tom Stephenson. Tom, as I’ve mentioned before, is an excellent birder and accomplished bird photographer, and it is always a pleasure spending time with him in the field. He was recently invited to go to the Badlands of South Dakota to help the Nature Conservany with a new property they had purchased, and asked me to join. I leapt at an opportunity to both explore a new habitat and at the same time contribute (a little!) to preservation efforts. So once again I relied on those precious frequent-flyer miles, and flew out west.
I arrived in Denver — the only airport I could easily get to for free — and rented a car there. The rental agent walked me out to the lot to show me the car, and as we were examining the outside for “pre-existing damage”, my attention wandered…there were a pair of birds chasing each other around across the lot, and then perched up on the chainlink fence. That’s an interesting shape, I thought…looks like a kingbird. I dug into my bag for my binoculars, while going over the rental contract, and took a quick look. It was a pair of Western Kingbirds; this trip was going to be fun!
The seven-hour drive took me through NE Colorado, eastern Wyoming, and then into the southwest corner of South Dakota. I passed the time watching for birds, and wound up with a decent little car list. White Pelican, Western Kingbird, Western Meadowlark, Say’s Phoebe, Lark Bunting (in beautiful black-and-white breeding plumage, unlike the one we had last fall on Long Island…not that I’m complaining), Swainson’s Hawk, Mountain Bluebird, and Prairie Falcon were some highlight, all seen at about sixty miles an hour, with only a minimal amount of swerving and rubbernecking, and maybe only one or two “emergency” pull-offs. I got into Rapid City around 6:30pm and met up with Tom and Bob Paulson, who was responsible for buying the new property that we were going to survey. The property is a ranch of about 4,000 acres, located within the Badlands National Park. The immediate area contains about a third of the remaining Black-Footed Ferret population, and consists of long- and short-grass praries, habitats that are relatively rare. Like a lot of people, I have a fairly strong opinion about conservation of habitats like this, based on partial and second-hand information and lots of emotion about “those people” who are “destroying the last of…” blah blah blah. None of it is particularly concrete. That is in stark contrast to Bob, who has been actively working with the ranchers and communities in this area for many years, and has gradually built relationships that will ultimately lead to the purchase the remaining private land within the Badlands park. His goal, and the goal of the Nature Conservancy, is to create a large and contiguous property that is conserved for the future in it’s original, unfarmed state. Bob wasn’t complaining, he was acting, and that was inspirational to see. Here's a link to more information on the project.
We went over topo-maps of the property, which had GPS waypoints marked in groups of three. These lines of three were the survey points we would check in order to get a sample of the birdlife across the property. Our job was to help develop a baseline bird number that the Nature Conservancy can then use to compare with future surveys, and also as a guide to manage the property for the future. By seeing which birds are common and which aren’t, they can decide how to manage for diversity. This can be a long process…for a prarie that has been plowed to return to full plant and animal diveristy, ie to return to a mature state, can take a hundred years.
Driving out to the property I could see how this habitat could be so easily taken for granted. From a moving car it just looks like, well, grassland. It doesn’t have the same dramatic presence as a mature woodland or costal marshland. In fact, I found that the prarie was more conspicuous in its absence that it’s presence. You don’t realize how significant it is until you drive out of the park and into farmland, past those miles and miles of sterile, agricultural “parking lots”, paved with a single type of plant that is anathema to sustaining anything but itself. In contrast, when you walk out into the prarie you find that the seemingly monotonous grassland is actually comprised of dozens and dozens of species. I spent twenty minutes one day photographing some of the different wildflowers we saw (click here): it shows just a little of the variety of life in this place.
We stayed at the former ranch house for the property, and for the next three days we got up before dawn went until noon or so, doing our survey lines. Using a GPS device, we’d go to each designated spot and stand for ten minutes, counting all the birds in a radius of 100 feet. Grasshopper sparrows and Western Meadowlark were ubiquitous throughout, and we often counted a half-dozen of each within a count circle. It was surprising to see as we walked how the prairie wold shift in even short distances. Where in one spot you’d have short grass and wildflowers, a hundred yards away you’d be stepping around cacti and spiky shrubs. With these shifts in plantlife there was also a shift in birdlife, so in the gullies we might have Bell’s Vireo, Blue Grosbeak, and Baltimore and Bullock’s Oriole, whereas on the open flatlands we’d have Western Meadowlark, Western and Eastern Kingbirds, Sharp-Tailed Grouse, Lark Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow and Field Sparrow. One pond turned up Cinnamon, Blue and Green-winged Teals, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Killdeer, Barn, Tree and Bank Swallows, and a passing group of Upland Sandpiper. It was interesting how localized some of the birds were…about twenty miles away we checked out a similar prairie that had Chestnut-Collared Longspur, Bairds Sparrow, and large groups of Lark Bunting, while where we were none of those species turned up.
The weather surprised me as much as the diversity did. I’d reluctantly packed a wool hat and extra jacket layer, thinking at the time that there was no way I’d need that stuff in late May. On our second day I found myself wearing everything I had most of the time, and still being chilled. It was generally overcast and cold, with a steady wind, and temperatures ranged down into the forties during a couple of mornings. It did warm up in the afternoon once or twice, but if I go back to South Dakota I’m bringing my parka! The afternoons were our time off, since bird activity tended to decrease by 11am or so, and our samples would be skewed if we continued to survey after that. Most of our IDs came from hearing, rather than seeing, birds, so if they stopped singing it was hard to get a good read on what was there. In fact, one morning was so rainy/cold/windy that we stopped by 8am—the birds seemed suppressed by the conditions, and it wouldn’t be a usable sample. We did take advantage of our free time, and spent one afternoon at LaCreek NWR. LaCreek is famous for it’s Trumpeter Swan population, which is largest around Thanksgiving and can number in the thousands. We hoped to see a couple of stragglers in the area, but were unlucky in that regard. We were very lucky, though, to meet up with Tom Koerner, who manages the refuge and who, without prompting, took us on a two hour tour of the place in his truck. Tom has a deep knowledge of the Refuge, and is responsible for keeping it healthy and appropriately managed. In that regard he seemed to be very successful. Managing a piece of land is utterly complex…altering one aspect has ramifications for every other. Maintaing a “wild” state is takes a lot of work, and a lot of intelligence and experience, and it certainly seemed that Tom was well-qualified for the job. He was also extremely friendly, and I found myself inspired again by someone doing the hard, concrete work of conservation while maintaining a palpable excitement about the place he is caring for.
It was a short trip..only four days. I had to get back in time to work, and Tom had already been out there for a few days more than me doing similar surveys on a property in Montana. I left Tom in South Dakota and drove myself back towards Denver. In my typical bird-the-crap-out-of-it attitiude, I managed to get in three hours of birding before my 11am flight, starting around 5am in the grassland areas in Northeastern Colorado. I wanted to try for Cassins Sparrow and Mountain Plover there. I was successful with a single, silent Cassin’s that gave me a brief look before diving back into the brush, and I missed on the Mountain Plover which I think I was a couple of weeks late for (it also didn’t help that I didn’t have a scope with me). The bird song was impressive on the prarie, with Lark Bunting, Grasshopper Sparrow and Western Meadowlark all singing over there territories, and it was beautiful to watch the sun come up over the grassland. It only cost me a car wash, with some special attention with a stick to getting the two inches of red mud out of the wheel wells before I brought it back to the rental place—if rental companies only knew what we birders do with their cars, they might put some special policies in place!
My name is Scott Whittle and I'm a professional photographer (www.scottwhittle.com). I have an MFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I started birding as a teenager, and then dropped it for many years. I started to bird again in 2007, and have been birding since then in Brooklyn, NY and Cape May, NJ.