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Critter Stories Birds and Wildlife at Linda's Ranch

Grouse in the juniper trees outside Homestead House.
Photo taken by AJ attending a retreat.

What's Here?

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 Bullsnake 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?
Wilson's Snipe: mysterious winnowing at dusk.

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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.
University of Nevada Press, 2002; pp. 72-83.

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

The Redtail Hawk Misses Bullsnake Dinner

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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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.

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.

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

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?

January 10, 2012 -- The chukar population is now down to five. We were regularly seeing eight just before Christmas, nearly every day, grazing on the gravel trail that runs to our house. But we often see the great-horned owl and the harrier hawk and we know, from the scat we find near the houses, that a coyote is hunting the area too. Recently we found the chukars under several juniper trees in the yard, a shelter that may serve them at night as well. But we wonder now if they can survive the winter. So far we've had very little snow and presumably that will make their lives more difficult. When we approach, they rarely fly but run away with jerky strides. Any self-respecting hawk, owl, or coyote wouldn't have any difficulty catching one.

January 25, 2012 -- We now have only four chukars and are beginning to think they are not going to survive. We did discover their origins: one of our ranching neighbors who lives across the highway to the west, in the foothills of the Black Hills, has raised a batch of 70 chukars in each of the past three years, turning them all loose when they reached maturity. They hope to establish a solid population so that the birds can be hunted. At present, a few live in the vicinity of their ranch buildings and two other batches survive not far away. So our chukars managed to cross the highway. But their native habitat is more wooded with rocky cliffs so they simply don’t seem to understand survival in open prairie where the hawks and owls soar constantly. We have decided not to feed them; causing them to congregate might simply make them an easier target for predators. The predators decimating the chukars, grouse and rabbits are the coyotes, owls and hawks native to the prairie, part of its complex tapestry of life. The chukars need to learn how to survive on their own in this habitat-- or fail.

March 12, 2012 -- Odd chukar behavior today: we heard them and looked out to see one on the greenhouse roof, one on the house roof and these the birds that usually RUN instead of fly. One flew down and scurried along the ground into the cedars and vanished. Another flew off the roof and landed on the rail-road-tie fence and then clucked madly for hours. Finally he worked his way down the gravel road to the cattle chute in the corrals, but we never saw him rejoin the others-- something must have spooked them, or perhaps they were roosters and it's mating behavior.

June 18, 2012 -- a retreat writer who is working on a book at Homestead House reported that she has seen two chukars the past few mornings patrolling the garden and eating grasshoppers, and strolling on the gravel drive. One morning a chukar was sitting on the peak of the cellar roof when she opened the door. The bird jumped off and disappeared; an instant later its head popped up from the grass.

Jerry had found a nest containing three eggs near his building site a few days ago and we thought it might be either chukar or grouse; we all carefully avoided it but the bird did not return and a few days later the eggs were gone-- probably into the larder of the resident bullsnake.

July 20, 2012 -- I'm seeing the 2 chukars here at Windbreak House regularly; it's grasshopper haven in my raised vegetable beds this year so the birds come for an easy meal.

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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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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.

I speak soothingly to the bird as I quickly pull a dozen radishes for lunch. A half-inch of rain yesterday means I don’t have to water here today, so I back away from the nest as the adult flares the other wing and peeks over its shoulder at me. As I move farther away, the bird circles overhead, crying shrilly. I can’t tell males from females and both tend the nest equally, so my reference to the bird as "she" is purely my choice.

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.

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

Killdeer love open spaces with lots of gravel so they nest in the most awkward spots: beside the trail that leads from the highway to our house and in our driveway, as well as the garden. When we spot a nest, though, we simply avoid it as much as possible, because moving the nests is likely to cause the adults to abandon it, as well as being illegal. When we walk the dogs, the birds skitter ahead of us, limping and struggling as though they can barely take another step-- until the ever-optimistic Westies run toward them. Then they fly off cackling happily.

We look forward to the hatching of the chicks because they are so active; in fact, they are called "precocial" because they seem to hatch ready to run. Unlike other baby birds, these are equipped for survival on the prairie, where life can be precarious. Experts say a one-day-old killdeer chick is two weeks more developed than a just-hatched American Robin chick. When killdeer chicks hatch, their down is dry and fluffy. And they can run at once, though they usually rely on camouflage for safety during the first week of their lives, flattening themselves into invisibility among the sticks and stones of our pasture trails. Only the vivid contrast between their black and white stripes stand out in the prairie colors. While the adult birds have two neck bands, the chicks have only one that makes them look as if they are wearing bowties.

The chicks often follow the adults, bobbing along in their stiff-legged strut, but the parents don’t feed them. The chicks can capture their own food-- crickets, worms-- immediately after hatching. And though they may appear to be alone, they are better equipped to survive on their own than with human interference so we don’t attempt to capture them. At 24 days, they fledge and can fly.

Another killdeer steps in a sprightly fashion along the row of beans, no doubt eating the tiny grasshoppers I spotted there yesterday. I leave the garden in good hands-- er, feet and will hope the killdeer is able to raise its family successfully.

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This essay appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of the gardening and local foods magazine Zone 4 ("gardening and living in the High Country West").
Essay (c) 2012, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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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Wilson's Snipe: Mysterious Winnowing at Dusk
(written April, 2015)

The winnowing snipe has returned. Officially called Gallinago delicata, or Wilson’s Snipe, the bird haunts our prairie dawn and dusk.

For years, I heard the eerie sound but could never spot the bird making it. I’d stand on the deck and swear the bird was flying in circles around the house when the sky was just too dark in the evening, or not light enough at dawn, to see it. I wondered if the sound it made was laughter at the awkward humans. Once a bird-watching friend identified it, I began to see the bird in zigzagging flight and perched on fence posts.

The best description I've read of the winnowing sound is hu-hu-hu-hu, but the words on paper don’t seem adequate to describe the sound. Fortunately, if you do an internet search, you can find many recordings and photographs. Air rushing over the bird’s outspread tail feathers creates the sound, and authorities say that males make the sound at the end of a dive or in straight flight, both to attract mates and repel invaders.

The birds also fly high and perform aerial acrobatics. In bird books, the snipe is described as a “small, stocky shorebird;” at first glance you might mistake one for a meadowlark. But whereas the meadowlark’s defining characteristic is the vivid yellow breast and black tie, the snipe is instantly recognizable by the long beak, several times as long as the head, and designed for probing waterside mud for tasty treats. When it’s searching for earthworms, for example, the head moves up and down, reminding me of my sewing machine needle. The head is round, the tail short, and the body is patterned perfectly to blend into prairie grasses, with buff, brown and black stripes. A snipe resting on the ground may sit tight until you are close, then flush and fly rapidly away, twisting and curving evasively.

Because the snipe likes boggy ground and wet places, I was afraid we might not see them in this dry year, but the pond apparently still holds enough water to make them welcome. The night just wouldn't seem the same without them.

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Listen to the sounds made by snipe here (links to sound clips are found in the lower right corner below the range map):

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