.......and Reflections

Monday, June 20, 2011

Wind Cave National Park and Buffalo Gap National Grassland, South Dakota

Last night’s sleep was interrupted. First I was awakened by Great Horned Owls hooting. Then some time later it was a chorus of Coyotes and then very early this morning it was the regimented toots of a Saw-whet Owl. If only I should be so lucky to customarily be subjected to such a sleep disorder.
Today was an opportunity to look for the birds of the Black Hills and Black Hills National Forest. Wind Cave National Park isn’t very big, at least above ground. I have stayed here many times and I still don’t know where the caves are. Caves attract tourists and I got enough of them in Yellowstone N.P. The Park does have a fair representation of the birds to be found in the Black Hills. It is also strategically located to tour Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.
I birded a little bit around my campsite and then headed south to S.D. Route 71 that heads due south into Nebraska and the Oglala National Grasslands.  This Rte 71 cuts through the southern Black Hills and out on to the prairie. There is a good mix of pine forest, ponds and small lakes, a variety of grassland types, and riparian corridors like the Cheyenne River and Hat Creek.
The first stop is one of my all time favorite and a concentration of bird species in a very small place that is like no other that I know about. The place is the J.H. Keith Memorial Park and Black Hills National Forest Cascade Springs. It is a spring and stream that has a lot of deciduous vegetation surrounded by a vast expanse of pine forest. It is an island for mostly song birds. Arriving in the early morning is a chorus of song like no other. When I list the species I saw there and you can imagine their individual and collective songs, you’ll understand why this place is special.
I saw 23 species of birds in this 3 acre island in about 30 minutes. They weren’t all singing at one time today but just being in this place with so much bird activity is an impressive experience. Here is a list of the birds: Mourning Dove, Northern Flicker, Western Wood Pewee, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, Barn Swallow, Black-capped Chickadee, House Wren, Eastern and Mountain Bluebirds, American Robin, Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Cedar Waxwings, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chats, Spotted Towhee, Song Sparrow, Black-headed Grosbeak, Brown-headed Cowbird, Orchard Oriole, Bullock’s Oriole, and American Goldfinch. The list used to be longer but is diminished because of a devastating fire a couple of years ago that killed most of the surrounding pine forest.
The second part of the morning tour was to and through Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, southeastern South Dakota unit. Unlike Thunder Basin National Grasslands in Wyoming, these grasslands are much more expansive and contiguous. This combination greatly improves the productivity and quality of these areas. The grasslands range from cattle gazed, short grass, tall grass and agricultural. The quilt of managed grasslands is State, Federal, and private. The results are impressive.
Touring a substantial area that is a fraction of the whole Grasslands system included: 10 species of waterfowl, 3 species of raptors, Long-eared Owl, American Avocet, Upland Sandpipers, Long-billed Curlews, Marbled Godwit, Common Nighthawks, Vesper Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Lark Buntings, Grasshopper Sparrows, Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Horned Larks, Western Meadowlarks, Brewer’s, Red-winged, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds.
The impressive part is this trip through the grasslands is how many great looks you get at nesting species. Driving down these secondary gravel farm rods at whatever pace you like embodies the great birding experience. I pride myself with being able to go almost anywhere in America and find and identify birds. It is only possible because of spending time in the heart of America’s best birding spots like the Buffalo Gap Grasslands loop. I must have seen hundreds of Horned Larks, Lark Buntings and Western Meadowlarks. The rest of the birds get up close and personal as they respond to your potential threat to their territories.
I spent the rest of the day working on more Black Hills species in Wind Cave. I added Plumbeous Vireo, American Redstart, Warbling Vireo, Blue Jay, White-breasted Nuthatch, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and Western Tanager.
I saw 86 species of birds in just a few habitats that this area uniquely provides. I can’t wait to get to bed so I can start a new list for tomorrow. While you are having sweet dreams I hope to be having sweet nocturnal experiences!
Tomorrow, ever eastward.

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