Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Milk and Butter(fly) Run

Its Butterfly Season out on the prairie and I've been searching the grasslands for new and interesting butterflies as well as seeing many of our native species of birds.  Next week should be an even bigger week of bugs as the flights of early summer skippers should begin.  The week before and after July 4th tis the season of prairie flowers and prairie butterflies, but with the late spring, it could be a weird year of say Dakota skippers about without cone flowers up yet
       In the middle of this, I see a post about a bonanza out west of me, Baird's Sparrows in the Grand River National Grassland and in numbers....I've looked for them out there before, almost every year, and some years I see one, but other's I've struck out.  Dan Svingen posted last that he'd seen many, and had some great photographs, so I was smitten, It was time to go....It was time for the MILK RUN!
       I name this annual tradition the Milk Run because it is an early morning point to point focused trek of birding.  The true Milk Run, I leave my cabin at 0130, head west, sometimes stop at Grand River Bridge on the river if low water but I need to get to Lemmon, SD 250 miles west of me about first good light.
      In my experience with Baird's, they start signing way before dawn, not as early as Nelson's but early, and if the sun is too high, they stop and become hard to get.  My usual trip is to turn on Reidy Road, drive it south to County 2, drive through pasture 7, go south to a couple of pastures areas that hold long enough grass for Baird's, scour the prairie dog town for Sprague's pipit, hit the state highway, go south, two miles to the campground, use the facilities, then drive across the dam on Hugh Glass Road.  Back in 1823, almost exactly where I always get Spotted towhee on a hillside, Hugh Glass was attacked by a grizzly bear protecting two cubs, Glass abandoned for dead by his party, came to, and stumbled and limped back over 200 miles to Fort Kiowa, near what is Chamberlain SD now.  
      On My normal milk run, after the towhee stop I drive hard back up near Lemmon, hit Hwy 12 head west and drive to Bowman County ND.  I scour the Rhame prairie for McCown's Longspurs, sometimes driving almost in Montana near some sage crouse leks I know of, then turn for another historical site at Riva Gap area, where our starving Calvary massacred women and children native Americans, I get some birds and drive like a maniac back home crawling in sometime after midnight, tired, car weary, but happy after seeing a lot of birds.
     This year, I had hoped to look for some butterflies and as such planned on turning back around after cursing Hugh Glass and thanking the grizzly bear's spirit, although it should have killed him, leaving the Arikara tribe the honor of doing so in 1833.  The only good thing that came from Glass is a free camping site near his monument near a Bureau of Reclamation Dam on the Shadehill Reservoir, I ponder if we ever needed, that ruined some good birding habitat.
     The rain continued, so I didn't go out to get butterflies, but Baird's sparrows were everywhere.  It was such a surprise.  Baird's along with their cousins, Nelson, Henslow, and Le Conte are notoriously skittish birds, heard but never seen, or seen as LBB flushing and never sitting up, but this year, I kept hearing the sparrow in the green lush prairie grass (some years, it only grows a few inches, but today, it was almost knee high, and so I'd walk into the grass, flush the bird and try to get a photo, it was so dark so long in the morning due to the weather, the birds never turned off, and so it continued.  I got soaked being out in the wet and instead of quitting, just peeled off the wet clothing and continued.  You know I'm not a shy birder in terms of what I wear and I hate such wet duds.  They were drying nicely on the passenger seat with the heat turned up and car running. I didn't want to wear my bathrobe I had with outside and no one was anywhere near me, so it didn't matter.  It was just me and a prairie full of sparrows.
Baird's Sparrow one of about 50

Grasshopper sparrow, actually less numerous than Baird's if can believe that

Chestnut collared longspurs, numerous especially on "Longspur Hill" where I always get their tick for the year, lately I go see them near my cabin but a bird historically I list from the same spot over and over again

The willet pair is still at Willet Valley a name I give for a valley with a pond.  They always get territorial just by driving by and stand in the road

It was so dark out then, I also heard my first Baird there and this is the typical photo I can get of this elusive bird, if I can even get this
That is about as good as I ever get.  Some points on Baird's ID, first, they are very light, almost looking white, much much lighter than a Savannah, and is their face from other small sparrows on face, they also got more tail than grasshopper, or Nelson's, the second....when you flush them, they fly low and dive right in never sitting up.  If they post, they are something else.....except....this year, on the road, on fences, anywhere but in the grass.  Maybe it was because the grass was wet, maybe it was because there were so many, maybe it was just luck, IDK, but it was some good butter from the milk run.

I left for home photographing old grain elevators from near ghost towns before getting harassed by a drunk Native getting gas in McIntosh SD.  "Indian Killer" was his accusation against me.  I'm not sure if it was my "Wapiti" plate on my car that attracted him thinking I was kin only to be a white man in a Shoshoni named car.  Then he asked me for a few bucks.....He wondered off, and I drove away
There are a lot of things dying on on the prairie the last 200 years, Natives, Grizzly Bears, the frontier spirit, small towns, butterflies, and thankfully Hugh Glass 

Views of the prairies from my hopefully ranch Monday and Tuesday

Upland sandpiper

Common ringlet

tawny-edged skipper

Melissa Blue

Pearl crescent

American Lady

Peck's skipper

Silvery Blue

The craziest thing I saw this week was this moth, a snowberry clearwing also called the hummingbird moth

just a taste of butterflies yet to come
I'm around in July.....make NE South Dakota your butterfly stop, or better yet, go see those Baird's next week!  It will never be like that again

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