This huge national grassland south of Pierre is one of the best places in the lower 48 states to look for Gyrfalcons in winter. Other prime attractions include Snowy Owl, Greater Prairie-Chicken, Ferruginous Hawk, and nesting Burrowing Owls.
By Doug Backlund | Published: 12/28/2009
I saw my first Gyrfalcon here many years ago, and I’ve seen many others since, including one white morph. They can be a challenge to find, but three or four adults usually winter in or near the grassland. Several juveniles typically wander the area as well. Gyrfalcons first appear here in late November and may be seen until April; the best time is from late December to February. To find Gyrs, I drive slowly along back roads and watch utility poles and hay bales for perching birds. Pay close attention in areas with high concentrations of pheasants, grouse, or waterfowl. Prairie Falcons are much more common, so be sure to refresh your ID skills for the two species.
Snowy Owls are usually present in winter, while Short-eared Owls are sporadic. Some years they’re low in number, and other years, when the prey base is high, they are seemingly everywhere. Sprague’s Pipits are most frequently seen in fall migration, especially on prairie-dog colonies. Just about every colony has a Ferruginous Hawk wintering on it, and in summer, the colonies attract nesting Burrowing Owls, Chestnut-collared Longpsurs, and Marbled Godwits. — Doug Backlund
Doug Backlund is a biologist for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Parks and the president of Missouri Breaks Audubon.
At a Glance
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Native mixed-grass prairie, restored grasslands, wetlands, small ponds, and riparian habitat.
Mostly level. Steeper terrain near creeks and drainages. Best to bird by car.
Winter: many raptors, including Gyrfalcon and Snowy Owl. Spring: waterfowl, prairie grouse on leks, Whooping Crane (rare), grassland sparrows, and many migrant species. Summer: Burrowing Owl, Grasshopper Sparrow, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Upland Sandpiper. Fall: Sprague’s Pipit, raptors, and many migrants, occasionally Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Whooping Crane.
When to go
Anytime of year can be excellent.
No hotels, stores, gas stations, or any other services on the grassland. Pierre and Fort Pierre have all services; Vivian has gas and food. Grouse-viewing blinds available in April and May by reservation at no cost.
National grassland. Open year-round. Public land is interspersed with private land; the Forest Service land is clearly marked. Access to private land by permission only. Camping allowed on Forest Service property.
Buy a map of the grassland from the Forest Service office in Fort Pierre for $10. A spotting scope is useful. Winter winds are sometimes fierce, and windchill temperatures can drop to -50˚F or lower. Watch for prairie rattlesnakes, especially when walking in prairie-dog colonies in spring and fall.