An Index to the Website
may be found by clicking here.



Unseen by me or anyone else, [the land's] true inhabitants-- the grasses and bushes, the underground water, the antelope, deer, rabbits, skunks, snakes, toads, meadowlarks, and dung beetles-- are going about the business of living as they should. Part of my job is leaving them alone to do theirs.

-- from Linda's book
No Place Like Home
the chapter entitled
"Overlooking Antelope Ridge"
U of NV Press, 2009

A barn owl
in an abandoned building a couple miles from Windbreak House.


Humans tinker with their world as surely as coyotes eat mice; it's all natural behavior, but we sometimes forget that our human puttering has a greater effect on the whole landscape.

-- from Linda's book
No Place Like Home
the chapter entitled "Dear John:
How to Move to the Country"
U of NV Press, 2009




Bird Pond
This small metal bird bath sits at the side of the garden under Linda's dining room window at Windbreak House.


Tracks across the stock dam.
Winter 2011. By the time Linda photographed these tracks they had melted in the sun so she was unable to confirm what animal(s) made them.


The Sibley Guide to Birds
A great reference book, though a bit too large to carry into the field easily.

Quick Links

Find Authors

Bird and Wildlife Habitat Improvement
at Linda's Ranch

Linda wades the creek crossing, fall 2004.
What's Here?


Riparian Habitat Improvement
How the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory helped Linda improve a creekside area for birds and wildlife.

Riparian Habitat Timeline and Updates
Yearly updates on the habitat improvement.

Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory Lists
Includes a ranch-wide informal survey plus the official annual bird surveys of the riparian habitat.

Linda's List of Birds Seen on the Ranch
Linda has been keeping a list of birds for many years.

Linda's List of Animals Seen on the Ranch
Linda's animal list. How many of these have you seen?

Critter Stories
Some stories about the wildlife mentioned in Linda's lists, often with photos.


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Riparian Habitat Improvement


A riparian area is the land adjacent to a watercourse. A healthy riparian habitat is critical, not only to the aquatic life and creekside plants, but to birds and wildlife.

According to John D. Grahame and Thomas D. Sisk:
”Although the riparian habitats of these rivers and their tributaries represent less than 1 percent of the total acreage of public lands in the 11 western states, about 72% of all reptiles, 77% of all amphibian species, 80% of all mammals, and 90% of all bird species which occur regularly in the Colorado Plateau region routinely use riparian areas for food, water, cover or migration routes.”

Grahame, John D. and Thomas D. Sisk, editors of “Canyons, Cultures and Environmental Change: An introduction to the land-use history of the Colorado Plateau” (2002)
For more, see their website at www.cpluhna.nau.edu

Although their research was in the Colorado Plateau, no doubt similar statistics apply to Linda’s ranch in arid western South Dakota.


Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory

www.rmbo.org

The Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory is a non-profit organization founded in 1988 to address bird conservation and related public education needs in the western United States. RMBO is headquartered in Colorado, approximately 15 miles northeast of Denver. The Observatory's programs are supported by a wide variety of grants from state and federal agencies, foundations and other non-profits, as well as dues and contributions from RMBO members.

The mission of the RMBO is to conserve birds of the Rocky Mountains, Great Plains, and Intermountain West and the habitats on which they depend through research, monitoring, education, and outreach. The RMBO accomplishes that mission through numerous research and public education programs which have dual goals: to conserve birds and bird habitat, and to increase people's understanding of birds-- how they interact with humans, what habitats they use, and what factors threaten their survival.

Linda especially appreciates that the RMBO believes wildlife conservation and agricultural production go hand-in-hand.



Cattle along Battle Creek in the winter, 1979
In 2005 this area adjacent to the creek was fenced off
to prevent cattle from trampling the riparian area
along the creek's bank.
Prairie Partners Private Lands Habitat Enhancement

Linda’s project was one of six in a grant proposal submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “Private Stewardship Grants Program” by the RMBO through their Prairie Partners Program.

Partners on the project (this is where the money and labor comes from) include the landowner; South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks; USFWS Partners for Wildlife Program; and The Quivira Coalition. The grant was approved in 2004.

The overall goal of this project was to restore and improve habitat for birds and other grassland species-at-risk, and to improve the status of these species on private grazing lands in the Great Plains. For Linda’s specific project, the goal was to restore native vegetation and manage livestock use of the riparian area in Linda’s pasture along Battle Creek.

The project ran for 5 years (2004 through 2009).

During the first year of the grant, baseline information on bird and plant species was collected; a fence was installed along 1/3 of a mile (34 acres) of Battle Creek restricting access to riparian vegetation; and a cattle crossing was developed on the creek allowing cattle to access two pastures, separated by the creek, during the dormant season.

Evaluation and monitoring continued throughout the 5-year project. RMBO staff conducted annual “point count” surveys to monitor birds during the breeding season, and took photos to monitor the vegetation in the managed areas. They also monitored for non-native invasive plants such as saltcedar (tamarisk) to stop them before they spread.

Some bird species which will benefit from the project include: Red-headed Woodpecker, Great Blue Heron, Bald Eagle, Common Yellowthroat, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Lazuli Bunting, Yellow-breasted Chat, Say’s Phoebe, House Wren, Bullock’s Oriole, Yellow Warbler, and Bobolink. The plains minnow is also associated with and will benefit from riparian improvements within this watershed.

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The creek a couple months after the flood that took place August, 2007.
Riparian Habitat Updates


Each year in the spring, the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory sends out a couple staff biologists to survey the habitat, make a bird count, and take photos to document the habitat improvement. Here's a timeline and what they've been finding.


2002
A small group of people from the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory spent two days (May 31 and June 1) doing an informal survey of birds on the ranch. Linda took them to the far pastures Over East as well as to the hay ground and riparian area along Battle Creek. For a list of birds seen, click here or scroll down to the bird list lower on the page.


2003
The RMBO discussed with Linda various ways they could help her improve bird habitat. It was decided to apply for a grant to protect the riparian area along a short stretch of Battle Creek.


2004
The grant was approved, but the paperwork moved as slowly as always. In November, 2004, a meeting was held at the Creek Place to lay out where the fence would be constructed and discuss erosion control at the creek crossing.


2005
The baseline bird survey was conducted in May. Click here to see it or scroll down the page to the Bird Lists entry. In October the 4-strand barb wire fence was installed on both sides of the creek, except for a necessary crossing where cattle will drink in the winter. We hope that the bird numbers and variety of species will increase as the fenced area is allowed to grow up into brush and trees.


2006
A survey was conducted in May. We will post it below as soon as we can-- paperwork is slow at times, sorry. But we know one of the biologists nearly stepped on a hen turkey sitting on her eggs, startling him when she leaped up. In August there was a torrential downpour upstream-- 4 inches of rain fell in one hour, causing flooding in the Battle Creek drainage. Linda and Tam inspected the Creek Place finding the fence wire at the crossing had been washed out as suspected. They scared up a group of ten or so turkeys during their hike-- perhaps the clutch seen in the spring? The fence at the crossing was repaired later in the fall before cattle arrived.


2007
An annual bird survey was conducted in May. In August the Hermosa area experienced its second "100-year" flood in 35 years, with up to twelve inches of rain falling in the span of about 2 hours in parts of the Battle Creek drainage above Hermosa.

The other 100-year flood was the infamous 1972 Rapid City flood, which also caused death and destruction here in the southern Black Hills. Happily no one died this time, but many houses in an upstream development east of Hermosa were damaged or destroyed, and downstream landowners were littered with debris, including an entire house which floated onto Linda's hay field not far north of Battle Creek.

Much of the riparian fence was damaged and had to be repaired or replaced. On the positive side, the flood deeply saturated the ground after eight years of drought and it redistributed the organic wealth from upstream-- silt, brush and leaves, enormous cottonwood trees. We even found pine cones; the closest pine trees are about five miles away in the Black Hills.


2008
This year the usual route across Linda's hay field was impassable due to last year's flood and this spring's excess rain. The RMBO field biologist had to walk in to the riparian area from the neighbor's land (with permission, of course) in order to conduct the annual survey. By the time he made it to all the designated survey points, he'd thoroughly soaked himself crossing Battle Creek.


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RMBO Bird Lists


A number of lists appear here: a list of birds seen by the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory during an informal survey of much of Linda's ranch; and the on-going bird lists made during the RMBO annual surveys of the riparian habitat, which are posted here year-by-year. Birds are duplicated in these lists.


Birds observed during Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory survey
May 24, 2006



Coming soon . . .

But we know they saw a hen turkey and a nest with eggs.

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Birds observed during Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory survey
May 24, 2005


Once the fence was installed to protect the riparian area, an official baseline bird inventory was conducted on May 24, 2005. Species detected included:

American Kestrel
American Goldfinch
American Robin
Barn Swallow
Belted Kingfisher
Black-capped Chickadee
Brown-headed Cowbird
Cliff Swallow
Common Grackle
Common Yellowthroat
Downy Woodpecker
Eastern Kingbird
European Starling
Great Blue Heron (rookery? Two active nests)
Hooded Merganser
House Wren
Mallard
Mourning Dove
Northern Flicker
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-winged Blackbird
Song Sparrow
Violet-green Swallow
Western Meadowlark
Western Wood-pewee
Wilson's Snipe
Wood Duck
Yellow Warbler

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Birds observed during Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory survey
May 31-June 1, 2002


This informal survey encompased much of the ranch, including the pastures Over East and the Creek Place. I believe birds are listed in the order the group saw them as they toured the ranch.


Spotted Sandpiper -- at pond by Windbreak House
Bobolink -- by Windbreak House, alfalfa
Eastern Kingbird -- everywhere
Gadwall -- pond by Windbreak House, pond in Lindsay pasture
Mallard -- alfalfa
Upland Sandpiper -- pond by Windbreak House, alfalfa
Say’s Phoebe -- by Windbreak House
American Robin -- by Windbreak House, Homestead House
Red-Winged Blackbird -- alfalfa and hay ground at Battle Creek place
Common Nighthawk -- everywhere
Barn Swallow -- by Windbreak House and Homestead House
Orchard Oriole -- by Homestead House, hay ground
Bullock’s Oriole -- by Homestead House (nesting)
Cedar Waxwing -- by Homestead House, hay ground
Western Wood-Pewee -- by Homestead House
Yellow Warbler -- by Homestead House, hay ground
Brown-Headed Cowbird -- by Homestead House, alfalfa
Common Grackle -- by Homestead House
Western Meadowlark -- alfalfa and prairie
American Goldfinch -- by Homestead House
Common Snipe -- pond by house
Mourning Dove -- by Homestead House, prairie
Grasshopper Sparrow -- hilltops in prairie
Lark Bunting -- hilltops in prairie
Wilson’s Phalarope -- alfalfa
Red-Tailed Hawk -- prairie, hayfield east of Windbreak House, hay ground at Battle Creek
Northern Flicker (red-shafted) -- 640-acre pasture
Rock Dove -- barn and alfalfa
European Starling -- by Homestead House, hay ground
Turkey Vulture -- prairie
Killdeer -- alfalfa, pond by Windbreak House
Brewer’s Blackbird -- rocky outcrop
American Crow -- prairie
Northern Pintail -- dam in Lindsay pasture
Blue-winged Teal -- dam in Lindsay pasture
Lark Sparrow -- canyon in 640-acre pasture
Spotted Towhee -- canyon in 640-acre pasture
Rock Wren -- canyon in 640-acre pasture
Brown Thrasher -- canyon in 640-acre pasture
Horned Lark -- canyon in 640-acre pasture
Loggerhead Shrike -- “school section” canyon Over East
Red-Headed Woodpecker -- hay ground at Battle Creek
Northern Rough-Winged Swallow -- banks of creek crossing on the hay ground at Battle Creek
Common Yellowthroat -- hay ground, Battle Creek
Great Horned Owl, and Owlet -- hay ground, Battle Creek

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Linda's List of Birds Seen on the Ranch


Linda has been keeping and adding to her list since the 1980s. And she wants to point out that cattle have been grazing this land during all that time.

Linda makes every effort to identify the animals properly, using numerous field guides, though as any birder knows there can be some subtle differences between some species, making identification difficult. The birds are listed in no particular order-- apologies to serious birders.

The Black Hills area lies in the overlap where the range of eastern bird species gives way to western bird species-- eastern and western mingle freely. Linda's ranch, however, is predominantly prairie, attracting different species of birds than those found in the pine trees of the Black Hills just a few miles to the west.

The amount of rainfall in a year also affects which birds are seen. During a wet spell, the prairie plants will grow tall and thick, and the stock dams will offer standing water all year. During a drought we have short, sparse grass offering little cover, but bringing in birds who prefer open ground.

Linda with an unidentified nest that blew down during the winter.
Birds Linda Has Seen at the Ranch

Eagles:
Golden
Bald

Hawks:

Northern Harrier

Swainson’s

Red-tailed
click here to read the story below

Ferruginous

Kestrel (commonly called sparrow hawk)

Owls:

Burrowing Owl

Great Horned Owl

Barn Owl

Mourning Dove

Magpie

Brown Thrasher

A birdhouse on the old outhouse.
Grouse:

Sharptailed Grouse
Click here to read the story below

Sage Grouse

Lesser Prairie Chicken

Chukar Partridge (introduced species)
click here to read the story below

Northern Bobwhite

Common Nighthawk

Kingbirds:
Eastern
Cassin’s
Western

Scissortailed Flycatcher

Long-Billed Curlew

Blackbird:
Redwing
Brewer’s

Bronzed Cowbird

Robin

Chickadee

Shrikes:
Northern
Loggerhead

Dickcissel

Sparrows: various, including
American Tree
Clay-colored
Field
Vesper
Lark

Larks:
Horned Lark
Meadowlark

Longspurs:
McCown’s Lapland
Smith’s
Chestnut-colored

Turkey vulture

Swallows: including
Cliff Swallow
Barn Swallow


Birds usually seen near water:

Water Pipit

Winnowing Snipe

Killdeer
click here to read the story below

Upland Sandpiper

Blue Heron
click here to read the story below

Least Tern

Piping Plover

Ducks, various


Buntings:
Lark
Snow

Bluebirds:
Eastern
Mountain

Orchard oriole
click here to read the story below

Bobolink

Goldfinch (sometimes called Wild Canary by locals)


Birds usually seen only passing through:

Canada Geese

Sandhill Crane

Whooping Crane
maybe? -- click here to read the story below

Merlin

Peregrine falcon

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List of Animals Seen on the Ranch


Linda has been keeping and adding to this list since the 1980s. And Linda wants to point out that cattle have been grazing this land during all that time.

Linda has short stories about some of these critters. Either click on the link or just keep scrolling down to read all the stories posted at the end of the wildlife list.

The animals are listed in no particular order.


Mammals

Rabbits:

Eastern cottontail
click here to read the story below

Black-tailed jackrabbit

White-tailed jackrabbit

beaver (along Battle Creek near Hermosa)

Thirteen-lined ground squirrel

northern pocket gopher

Ord's kangaroo rat

marsh rice rat

Mouse:
Eastern harvest mouse
White-footed mouse
Deer mouse
Golden mouse
Northern grasshopper mouse
Meadow Jumping

Voles:
Prairie
Meadow

Shrews:
Dwarf
Northern short-tailed

Muskrat

Porcupine

Black-tailed prairie dog

Coyote
click here to read the story below

Swift fox

Red fox

Raccoon

Long-tailed weasel

Black-footed ferret
??? Maybe. Click here to read the story below.

Mink

Badger

Striped skunk

Western spotted skunk

Bobcat

Mountain lion-- tracks only

Pronghorn (antelope)

Mule deer

White-tailed deer

Bats: Big brown bat


Reptiles and Amphibians

Snapping turtle

Western painted turtle

Prairie rattlesnake

Pine gopher snake (commonly called a bullsnake)
Click here to read the story below about a nest robber
Click here to read the story below about a fight with a hawk

Garter snakes:
Common, Plains, Western Terrestrial
Red-sided garter snake
Western plains garter snake

Eastern yellow-bellied racer (commonly called a blue racer)

Western plains hognose

Pallid milk snake

Smooth green snake

Northern water snake

Skinks:
Many-lined
Great Plains

Leopard frog

Boreal chorus frog (commonly called Spring Peeper)

Bullfrog (invasive species)

Toads:
Plains spadefoot
Great Plains
Rocky Mountain
Woodhouse

Blotched tiger salamander


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Critter Stories

Here are some stories about various birds and wildlife Linda has encountered. Click on the critter listed or just scroll down and read them all. Keep checking back as we'll be adding to these stories.

Photos are labeled as to whether they are free-use photos from the internet or if they were taken by Linda or other folks, on Linda's ranch or elsewhere.


Black-footed Ferret?
Bullsnake robs a nest
Bullsnake fights a hawk
Chukar Partridges invade the ranch
Cottontail Rabbit: baby bunny in the overflow pipe
The resident Coyote
Redtail Hawk misses dinner
Great Blue Heron
Killdeer nests in the garden
Oriole at the Bird Pond
Sharp-Tailed Grouse at Homestead House
Whooping Crane in the pasture?


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Black-footed Ferret
Photo from We for Animals website.

Black-footed Ferret?

Yes, after all the uproar about them being endangered, George-- who spent a lot of time in the prairie dog town on the ranch walking, hunting, and just looking-- thought he saw one in the early 1980s. He was sharp-eyed, not given to exaggeration, had read the stories and looked at the field guides, and he described its behavior without looking at any references. I trust his observation and believe he did see one.

But my father was concerned when we mentioned it, and said, "Don't tell anybody or they'll take the ranch away from us and make it a federal preserve."

Quietly, we invited a friend who was a wildlife biologist to visit our prairie dog town, but we couldn't find any definitive traces.

As of 2012, black-footed ferrets are known to be living some miles east and southeast of the ranch in the Badlands or Buffalo Gap Wilderness, and also southwest of the ranch in Wind Cave National Park.

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A bullsnake robbing a nest.
Photo taken by Linda.

Bullsnake Robs a Nest

On a warm June day in 2011, the dogs’ barking alerted me to birds screaming and circling a juniper tree near the house. A variety of birds-- eastern kingbirds, robins, and redwing blackbirds-- were flying from a nearby barbed wire fence to the tree, circling, screeching. Cautiously, I parted the branches and saw what was probably a robin’s nest, with this bullsnake.

Looking closely on the left side of the photo, you can see under the snake’s body the wing of the parent bird who died defending her nest.

Bullsnakes are one of our most useful plains companions, so I left it to its business.

For details of another snake encounter, see “Coiled in the Pressure Cooker” in my book Between Grass and Sky. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2002; pp. 72-83.

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Chukar partridges photographed through the window of Windbreak House.
Photo taken by Linda, 2011.

Chukar Partridges Invade the Ranch

September 27, 2011 -- We have been seeing a flock of 17 grouse; we've gotten good looks and counts several times.

But today, while I was eating lunch, 13 chukar partridges dined with me -- this is the best I could do for photos through the screen. They have a very prominent black V at their throats that continues up and across both eyes as a mask stripe and broad dark stripes on their sides. Beautiful. Their plumage is much smoother than the little grouse, and they ran and flew more smoothly. Their call was a little "chuckle chuckle chuckle," or as the book has it "chuckar."

So possibly these chukars have also been disporting themselves in the flower bed. (see my notes about the sharp-tailed grouse, below)

November 3, 2011 -- Update: The chukar partridges are still here. Authorities indicate they prefer rocky terrain but have been observed in varied open woodlands and grasslands. The population is considered stable and not endangered but they would make a lively and entertaining addition to the wildlife. Rumor has it that someone in the neighborhood is raising and releasing them; I’d love to know more if any local reader knows about this.

Chukar Partridge showing the stripes on the wings. Photo by Linda, 2011.

Meanwhile, they are having a great time hanging around Homestead House, dusting themselves daily in loose dirt around the increasingly sad remains of the gaillardia and penstemon I planted beside the house. I could put wire over the plants to protect them but I would hate to drive the little birds away; they love the dust baths that help keep them free of parasites. Next spring I’ll transplant some larger gaillardia that might be able to better withstand the birds’ ablutions.

Biologists in the area say that the little birds certainly may stay here, if they can covey up to stay warm this winter-- and the junipers we’ve planted will help them do that. They like to eat millet and other grain crops but there are no plowed/planted grain fields for miles in all directions. Still, they were gobbling wild sunflower seed near the house and the native grasses are rich with seeds this fall; they also may eat some insects.

One website I consulted notes that chukar prefer to roost on rocky slopes or under shrubs, choosing protected niches or caves in winter. A group may roost in a tight circle with their heads pointed outwards to conserve heat and keep a look out for predators. Jerry sees them often near the garden, which has low-growing bushes nearby where they might find shelter.

When Jerry startled the flock today, one accidentally flew away from the others. Hearing it call, Jerry responded with a “chuck chuck chuck,” and the bird called back and then flew to a tree near him. The birds call frequently during the day especially in the mornings and evenings. The call is loud and includes loud repeated "Chuck" notes and sometimes duetting "Chuker" notes.

We also regularly see one of the dangers to the chukars: the great-horned owl who often keeps watch from the favorite spot in the easternmost juniper north of Homestead House, where resident writers have enjoyed watching and listening to a pair of the owls courting.


November 16, 2011 -- Update on the chuckar partridge: We’ve been seeing them so often that we now can tell by the sound whether the grouse or the chukars are flying out of the trees around Homestead House. The grouse make gobbling, chuckling sounds but the chukars are silent.

This morning we found chukar feathers just outside the windbreak beside a large pile of coyote scat. No body, but enough feathers to be sure the chukar did not survive. So did the coyote carry the bird away to eat it? Or did an owl take the chukar from above, scattering feathers and leave the coyote to express his annoyance at missing a meal?

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Rain Capture Tank
Gutters from both sides of the house flow into a 300-gallon tank. It is easily filled by only 1/10 inch of rain.
The black overflow pipe is in the lower left of the photo.

Cottontail Rabbit

May 2012: A baby bunny has adopted the overflow pipe from our rain tank as its burrow. A 3-inch pipe is stuck into a black ribbed plastic one about 6 inches in diameter. Twice I’ve seen the bunny run into it and twice I’ve shaken it out right at the feet of the dogs-- who yelped and sniffed and galloped and missed him. At Jerry’s urging we’ve adopted him and I won’t be doing that again. Instead we watch every morning as he emerges from the pipe and starts nibbling the grass right beside the greenhouse. Last night’s rain must have sent him somewhere else temporarily because the tank did overflow through the pipe, but the bunny was there this morning, nibbling happily in the sun.

The next day: The little rabbit rarely gets far from his pipe home, grazing within a five foot radius most of the time-- a circle that includes some of my flax and evening primrose as well as the invasive alfalfa I’m happy to serve for its lunch.

The day after that: The dogs discovered the bunny hiding in the drain pipe yesterday. Toby stuck his head in one end and pushed, then jerked back and pulled it loose from its attachment. Then Cosmo stuck his head in the other end and between them they pushed and pulled the pipe all over the hillside with the rabbit inside. When we finally caught them, Jerry shook the pipe enough to determine that the rabbit was still in there and then reattached it to the overflow. If the rabbit is smart, it’ll move.

And the next day: The rabbit has proven its intelligence level-- this morning it was grazing just outside the pipe again, nose and ears wiggling, a picture of contentment.

On a (rare) rainy day: the baby bunny left the overflow pipe and kept dry inside one of my glass-fronted cold frames.

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The Resident Coyote

October, 2011 -- Our resident coyote is a big one. This morning when I spotted the tawny shape moving across the hayfield south of the house, I had to grab the binoculars to be sure I wasn’t seeing a deer. The coyote trotted to the edge of the pond and eyed the gathered ducks, who all raised their heads and became very alert-- but remained silent. The coyote watched for a while, then turned and trotted up the hill, heading toward the badger dens on the ridge, where the coyote family may live.

We have been seeing this coyote well after sunrise these fall mornings, almost always in the field south of the house and just west of the highway. At night for the summer and fall months, we’ve heard the yaps and howls of pups, indicating a whole family has been raised nearby. And coyotes are known to share dens with badgers, so we conclude that this coyote probably lives somewhere on badger ridge. The coyotes may live in the badger holes we can see from our deck, or perhaps in other holes on the more remote south side of the ridge.

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The enormous bull snake in the stock dam. Photo by Linda, 2012.

The Redtail Hawk Misses Lunch

At about 4 pm on April 4, 2012 Jerry and I were strolling with the dogs on the hillside as usual when we glanced south toward the stock dam.

At the edge of a water, we saw something thrashing. A redtail hawk was in the water, great wings spread out on the surface. Every now and then he’d flap his wings and try to rise, but was dragged down and rolled over into the water.

Several ducks were gathered in a half circle out in the water, watching. Perhaps, I thought, the hawk had struck a duck and was having a hard time subduing it. Sometimes the hawk was completely underwater. In another moment his shoulders came above the surface but his wings were not visible.

Jerry ran for the binoculars while I watched to keep track of the action. The redtail rose out of the water several times but seemed to be pulled back, was ducked under again, rolled, wings thrashing.

Then finally he seemed to break loose and flew to the top of the dam where he alighted for only a moment, then rose again and sailed off east. The hawk did not seem to be carrying anything.

Immediately I climbed through the fence and walked to the spot where I’d seen the commotion: the water was a little cloudy, but the dam bank and bottom there is nearly all large rocks or small pebbles so it was hard to see any disturbance. There were no talon marks on the bank, no blood. I walked back and forth along the bank several times but could not see any evidence that the hawk had killed anything, or been wounded.

I started back to the house, walking slowly along the bank, noticing how many frogs leaped ahead of me into the water. And suddenly a portion of the bank moved, stretched and turned its head and hissed at me: a bullsnake.

The snake was at least five feet long, its body as big around as my arm. And it was moving slowly, without the quick slither I’ve come to expect from escaping bullsnakes.

I followed the snake, snapping pictures and it kept facing me, inhaling and exhaling. Coiling and retreating, the snake backed itself into the water without hesitation, always facing me. When I got too close, it coiled quickly and struck.

I visualize the scene this way: the bullsnake is on the bank or in the water, collecting frogs for its afternoon meal. The hawk drops on the snake-- but fails to get the killing strike behind the head that would kill or immobilize the snake. And the snake is too heavy for the hawk to lift and drop to its death. So they struggled-- and this time the struggle was a draw.

When I searched “redtail hawk bullsnake” I found a YouTube video of a redtail hawk eating a bullsnake-- though the viewer must trust the photographer because it’s pretty hard to tell what the bird is eating. Clearly, though, there’s precedent for this and I count myself incredibly lucky to have seen it. Living in the country gives one a better chance of seeing things like this-- but alertness is required. If I’d been in my office writing, or turned away to watch the dogs, I’d have missed it.

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Great Blue Heron.
Photo from FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Great Blue Heron

September, 2011 -- Nearly every morning all summer we’ve looked for a great blue heron on the pond at first light. And nearly always we see at least one, sometimes two. The heron moves on long legs through the shallows along the pond edges, occasionally stabbing down with a beak. The duck families seemed to ignore the heron, though they are feeding in the same area.

One September morning, we were watching the heron as usual. This time when it raised its head, it held in its beak something very large. We looked through binoculars. A turtle? No, too limp. A plant? Too large, and anyway unlikely. Finally we concluded that the heron was "handling" a dead duck.

The heron would raise its beak as high as possible, lifting the duck free of the water, then shake it hard a few times and drop it. Perhaps the duck had been dead long enough so the heron was ripping off rotting pieces and eating them; we couldn’t really tell through the binoculars.

Looking online, we did find one source that reported a heron killing and eating ducklings-- and of course the birds are carnivores, eating fish and frogs-- so I suppose it’s possible the heron killed a mature duck.

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Killdeer.
Photo taken by Tam
at Windbreak House.

A Killdeer Nests in the Garden

As I step into the garden, the slender brown bird with the natty black collar runs a few steps and collapses, dragging one wing and uttering pitiful cries. I glance toward the nest I located yesterday, tucked close to a splitter that allows me to water a row of cabbage and a row of peas at the same time. Still four blotchy eggs. Apparently the bullsnake who lives under the garden shed hasn’t found the nest.

The killdeer’s nest is secure but she is working hard to lure the big predator away with a pretense of injury. A few days of rain has kept me away from the garden, and in that time she selected this spot for her nest; in 24 days, the eggs will hatch. Meanwhile, I’ll have to pull the hose connectors far enough away so watering won’t harm the nest.

Killdeer eggs by the hose.
Photo taken by Linda at the garden by Homestead House, 2011.

Grasslands, a nature guide produced by the National Audubon Society, remarks rather testily that the bird’s call is a shrill kill-DEE, "repeated endlessly." The bird’s proper name, fittingly, is Charadrius vociferus. Indeed, at this time of year, there is rarely a moment when we aren’t hearing killdeer calls. Despite their mosquito-like annoying qualities, we easily forgive them, for between screeches they are gobbling ants, ticks, fly larvae, and other insects that might be nibbling on us or eating our garden plants. The killdeers’ presence here is confirmation that we haven’t used pesticides that kill their food supplies; they are the farmer and gardener’s friends.


These paragraphs are excerpted from an essay by Linda M. Hasselstrom which appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of the gardening and local foods magazine Zone 4 ("gardening and living in the High Country West").

For more information:
website for Zone 4 Magazine.

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Orchard Oriole
Free-use photo by Don Pancamo, from Wikimedia.

Oriole at the Bird Pond

Usually, the bathers in the pond under my dining room window are robins in the evening-- a succession of them, starting with the smallest and moving up to the largest.

Today (June 25, 2012), just before noon, a slender bird with a chestnut-colored breast landed on a spike of delphinium. It looked around carefully for several mininutes before swooping down to the largest stone in my metal pond. Again, it looked everywhere and then-- dived in, splashing, splooshing, shaking and shimmying, then diving in again.

I thought "oriole" and grabbed my Sibley Guide to Birds and there it was-- the Orchard oriole.

While I watched, it thoroughly soaked itself, then climbed out on the rock again. It shook, took off, wobbled and came to a sloppy landing on the porch railing where it shook some more. Once its feathers were smooth, it took off again, zinging east.

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A photo of the metal bird pond is in the left-hand column near the top of this webpage.

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Sharp-tailed grouse in the Homestead House windbreak. Photo taken by AJ during a writing retreat in 2009.

Sharp-Tailed Grouse

Part I -- The juvenile grouse

September 21, 2011-- The west porch of Homestead House and the flower beds along the house on that side have become the Stay-cation Destination of choice for a flock of sharp-tailed grouse that have been growing up around the ranch yard all summer.

Last year I planted some purchased ground covers along the house foundation, hoping to keep the dirt from washing away. They died over the winter, so this spring I transplanted some goblin gaillardia, several kinds of stonecrops and some violas into that location. They thrived all spring and summer.

So as fall approached, I spent one evening digging up more goblin gaillardia and oxalis from the gardens around my own house and transplanted them to the bare spots.

The next morning when I went to water them, the plants were gone or lying in the dirt, shriveled. Grrrr! A very little detective work revealed round bowl-shapes in the loose dirt along the house foundation. And fluttering among these holes, which closely resembled the dusting spots my chickens used to love to create in their pen, were lovely brown and cream feathers. Grouse!

So I transplanted more gaillardia, more oxalis and stonecrop.

This time when I checked, I noticed that not only were the new plants gone, but the west porch and step of Homestead House were liberally decorated with grouse droppings.

Each cool evening, when the setting sun illuminates the west porch, the teenage grouse gather there for grouse cocktail hour. I can picture them: some dusting themselves, some basking on the metal couch, some perhaps sunbathing on the concrete steps. Some sip water from the handy plastic pond weighted down and made safe for smaller birds with "pretty rocks" my father gathered. Some have a bar snack of juniper berries while others nibble gaillardia seeds or a fat, slow grasshopper. I suppose they chuckle and gossip among themselves, perhaps flirt-- whatever young grouse do as they prepare for the winter ahead.

So I retrieved a few surviving stonecrop plants and tucked them inside the window well, which the grouse don’t seem to enter, hoping they will survive until next spring. And next spring, when young grouse are only a gleam in the oldsters’ eyes or warm eggs in a hidden nest, I’ll transplant more gaillardia and oxalis. They should have a chance to become well established before the juveniles get old enough to discover the loose dirt.


Part II -- The Slippery Grouse

One retreat participant was feeling a little blue one afternoon in late summer, 2011, because she was near to the end of a major project she'd been working on for years. She was looking out the Eagle bedroom window toward the pump house, which has a roof which slopes steeply only one way: a shed roof covered with corrugated tin.

She noticed nearly a dozen young grouse perched at the highest point of the roof. Then one of then slid down the roof and PLOPPED! to the ground at the end. Another did the same. Another. Another -- until all the grouse had slid down the roof like kids sledding down a steep hill, and landed in a flurry of feathers at the bottom.

And then they flew to the peak of the roof and did it again.

And again.

Grouse at play.

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Whooping crane
Photo from Saving Cranes website.

Whooping Crane

One early morning in the late 1980s, my father and I and George drove out in the pickup headed over east and saw in the alfalfa field east of the house, near the railroad tracks, a large white bird. We stopped the pickup at once, knowing it was unusual, and looked at it through binoculars.

While we watched, it stood up, and we all gasped because it appeared to be nearly 6 feet tall. One wing was extended, with the tip resting on the ground, and as we watched it extended the other and hopped, as if trying to fly. The tips of the wings were black. We'd all read about how rare whooping cranes were, but we couldn't imagine anything else it could be. I'm not sure we even had a bird identification book at that time.

Slowly we turned the truck and then zipped back to the house, where I called the Game, Fish & Parks-- though perhaps George did that, since we did have a wildlife biologist friend in the Rapid City office. By the time we'd talked to GF&P, and they'd arrived and we drove back out to the field, at least an hour had elapsed. My father wasn't happy about the delay in our work plans for the day, but he was so stunned when it seemed to be clear that the bird really was an injured whooping crane, that he just mumbled.

But when we got back to the field the bird was gone. The GF&P man was initially disappointed, but we searched the area carefully and found no feathers, so we interpreted that to mean the bird was well enough to fly away. We watched the pastures to the south of the house for weeks, but never found any evidence that the bird didn't survive.

After that, I sometimes remembered to take a camera with us on the trips over east-- but usually not.

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