• Terry Grabill

Little Birdies on the Prairie

Our oldest daughter, Caitie, and her husband, Danny live on the prairie. Well, not the prairie dog and burrowing owl prairie, but Little Town on the Prairie prairie. Really...this is where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived and taught. Ma and Pa Ingalls are buried there. The old homestead and schoolhouse are preserved in a park and they have a festival for the old family every summer. Those of us of a certain age probably remember the TV show Little House on the Prairie. The part of Laura's life depicted in the show took place in DeSmet, South Dakota. The Ingalls family graves are in the DeSmet cemetery. The tall one to the right is Charles "Pa" Ingalls'.

I visited Caitie earlier this week. I told her I wanted to spend some time with my horse, who moved to SD with her, and to drive tractor some, which I don't have much occasion to do since the horses moved to SD. On day one we got Fire and Cherokee saddled and trailered them from pasture to pasture to check on cows.

Eastern South Dakota is some big country. Wide, open spaces with grassland birds singing in all directions! The larger ones sang from fence posts or other prominent place. These were the Western Meadowlarks, Dicksissels and Bobolinks. There were so many Bobolinks that it sounded like R2D2 coming from EVERYWHERE! Unseen, but calling constantly were Savannah Sparrows and Grasshopper Sparrows.

I learned pretty early in the morning that using binoculars and sitting on a moving horse are two tasks best left as individual operations. I hadn't been on Fire in probably five years...and she knew it. Standing still was not on her agenda for the day. Riding is a terrific way to see birds, but a terrible way to get optics on birds! I stopped Fire, dismounted, and had Caitie hold her as I took a poor cell phone shot of a small lake with American White Pelicans. I've seen pelicans there every time I've visited, but it still seems surreal to me that pelicans nest on the prairie.

Other prairie specialties we found in the pastures included Upland Sandpipers on fence posts, Northern Harriers flying low over the grass and Ring-necked Pheasant sneaking and running from the horses. The pheasants only flushed when the truck sped by while they were near the road. Eastern Kingbirds (my favorite bird) seemed to be everywhere I looked.

There are loads of sloughs in the pastures and fields where Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds nest. Marsh wrens sing their bubbling songs there too and American Egrets sneak along the shores. Most of the ducks that I saw were Blue-winged teal with some Mallards mixed in.

The second day's chores included what looked like a SD amusement park ride. Work needed to be done on the pivot irrigator so Caitie and Danny were lifted with Neil (Danny's dad) at the controls.

Prairie birding is very different from Michigan forest birding with wide open spaces and fantastic views of birds on roadside perches.


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I’ve noticed that every particular profession or interest carries along its own language. Being a educator, I can speak teacher jargon pretty fluently. Being married to an educator, Andrea does a pr