Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

South Dakota Trip Features Birds, Mammals and Scenery
July 05, 2014
By Steve Grinley

     Last week, Margo and I enjoyed a short trip to southwestern South Dakota which was arranged by Swarovski Optik through Connecticut Audubon EcoTravel. The trip enabled us to explore some of South Dakota’s natural history including its beautiful landscape, monuments, mammals, and, of course, birds! It is an area where western and eastern birds overlap so it was an interesting mix of birds we don’t see often and others with which we are very familiar.

     We were joined by Nancy and Mary from the Portland Oregon Audubon Shop and the Northwest Swarovski rep, John Nicholson. Our guide was Andy Griswold from Connecticut Audubon EcoTravel who did a magnificent job sculpting an agenda, making all the arrangements, driving our van, and finding us birds and other wildlife. We were also joined by local guides Marie Curtin, recently retired from the US Forest Service at Wind Cave National Park, and her husband, Duane Weber, a Biological Science Technician at Wind Cave. They referred to themselves as flora and fauna, as Marie’s expertise was plants and Duane’s knowledge was animals and birds. (One looked up while the other looked down, they quipped.) Their knowledge of the natural history of the area encompassed so much more which made this a remarkably enlightening trip in the few days that we were there.

     We stayed in the Black Hills at Spearfish Canyon Lodge where we found nearby white-throated swifts, pine siskins, and a pair of red-naped sapsuckers at a nest. John set up his binoculars on a tripod near the nest, and used his iPhone 5 with an adapter to take photos of the parents coming in to feed the young. He showed us a neat trick of using the volume switch on the earbuds as a “remote” to snap the pictures without touching the phone. He also showed us how to take video in slow motion mode which, with the HD screen of the phone, was awesome!

     The first day we visited Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Monument, birding along the way as we went. It was almost fifty years since I last visited Mount Rushmore and I remembered a dirt parking lot and a small visitors center back then. Now there is a four story parking garage, visitor’s center, gift shop, and granite walkway, lined by pillars displaying all the state flags, to an amphitheatre viewing area. Very impressive! 

     The Crazy Horse Monument is a privately owned mountain sculpture that was started back in 1948 and is planned to be the world’s largest sculpture at 563 feet high. Only Crazy Horse’s head is complete and it is 87 feet high, compared to the 60 foot heads on Mount Rushmore. There is the rest of his body and the tall stallion he is riding are to yet be completed!

     Bird highlights that day included Audubon’s warbler, once a separate species but now a subspecies of our yellow-rumped warbler. We also stopped for nesting mountain bluebirds, red crossbills (building a nest at one location), canyon wren, violet-green swallows, Brewer’s blackbirds and western wood pewees. A special bird for us was the white-winged subspecies of our dark-eyed junco, which may be split off as a separate species in the future.

     The next day we headed for the prairies and eroded landscape of the Badlands. We saw lots of Bison and some great birds including western meadowlarks, black-billed magpies, western kingbirds, lark and grasshopper sparrows, lark buntings, and dickcissel. The expansive prairie dog “towns” included one badger and a few burrowing owls, with some baby owls – too cute! Some small ponds, or “potholes” as they are called, contained many species of ducks, pied-billed grebes, coot with babies, whinnying snipe, and a few avocet. 

     We stopped in one VERY small town called Scenic, and it held a special surprise. As we were walking around the rustic, almost “ghost”, town we heard the “peent” of a nighthawk in the middle of the day. We followed the sound and there was a nighthawk perched in an open dead tree! Then we spotted another nighthawk in the nest tree! A third one eventually flew overhead with sunlight shining through the white stripes in wings and tail and Margo took some amazing photos!

     We spent the last day in the foot hills where the grass prairies meet the ponderosa pine at Custer State Park and Wind Caves National Park. We saw more bison, antelope, burros, and prairie dogs. Bird highlights included a spectacular golden eagle, spotted towhees, grasshopper and vesper sparrows, and awesome looks at upland sandpipers, black-headed grosbeaks (in the sunlight), and lazuli bunting. A fantastic day to cap off a wonderful trip as we tallied a hundred species of birds for our short time in South Dakota!

     You can view some of the birds and beautiful scenery of our trip on our Flickr sight: https://www.flickr.com/photos/24246528@N05

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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