Hotspots Near You

81. Fort Pierre National Grassland, Fort Pierre, South Dakota

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.

81. Fort Pierre National Grassland, Fort Pierre, South Dakota

Directions

Fort Pierre National Grassland is a 116,000-acre Important Bird Area located 7 miles south of Pierre and 4.5 miles north of I-90. From the city, drive south on Hwy. 83 to the grassland. From the interstate, take exit 212 and drive north on Hwy. 83. Public roads and hiking trails traverse the grassland.

At a Glance

Click on the coordinates below to view location:
44°7’19.98″N 100°20’27.55″W

Habitat

Native mixed-grass prairie, restored grasslands, wetlands, small ponds, and riparian habitat.

Terrain

Mostly level. Steeper terrain near creeks and drainages. Best to bird by car.

Birds

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.

Amenities

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.

Access

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.

Tips

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.

For more info

Fort Pierre National Grassland, (605) 224-5517.
SD-Birds listserv
Missouri Breaks Audubon

Back to Hotspots