A Travellerspoint blog

Day 5: Black Hills to the Badlands

South Dakota

semi-overcast 75 °F

Upon waking up at 4:05am, I proceeded to throw on my clothes, grab my camera, and excitedly made me way out of the campground: this was my last morning birding the Black Hills and the winds had finally died down, meaning hopefully even more avian activity than in the past days.

I started the day birding the Needles Highway by car (it was much more of a scenic route than a highway this morning because I was the only car!) and I picked up a number of new species for the trip including a GREAT HORNED OWL flying overhead in the darkness, and as it gradually became brighter, DUSKY FLYCATCHER & MACGILLIVRAY’S WARBLER, among others. Also, I couldn’t believe that nobody was out admiring the sunrise along the Needles Highway because let me tell you, when paired with the incredible landscape, it was just BREATHTAKING:

My main objective for the day was to hike the Willow Creek Trail #8 in the Black Hills National Forest somewhat near Mt. Rushmore in search of Pygmy Nuthatch which had been seen there recently, as well as anything else I might luck into. The habitat there is absolutely impressive with lush mixed forest adorning a beautiful mountain stream, and as I expected, birds proliferated. CEDAR WAXWING:



Then, I experienced a strange, almost uncomfortable sensation in my chest and I briefly got scared...it felt as if my heart all the sudden was palpitating. I stopped walking, took a few deep breaths, and then realized what I had just felt: the vibrations of a RUFFED GROUSE drumming! Now that is one cool sensation as usually in birding you identify a bird by sight or sound, but when a Ruffed Grouse drums by clapping its wings into its chest, you can literally feel it yourself. Male grouse drum in order to proclaim their territory and attract mates, similar to other male species’ songs.

I waited for the grouse to drum again and then moved back down the trail in the direction of the drumming. Soon, I saw a “lump on a log” that sure enough turned out to be an exceptionally-camouflaged, beautifully-patterned male RUFFED GROUSE!

And a little ways down the trail, I found a second one, too!

Unfortunately, you can’t truly experience the sensation of a drumming grouse unless you are there in person, but I did take a video (which I seldom do) of the second grouse drumming because it was just so COOL! I posted it to youtube — skip to 1:07 if you get impatient like my dad, but start from the beginning if you want to hear this morning’s incredible birdsong in the background including OVENBIRD, SWAINSON’S THRUSH, and RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH.

RED-NAPED SAPSUCKERS abounded which was cool:


A half-silhouetted Audubon’s YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER:

The CORDILLERAN FLYCATCHERS out here remind me of the Yellow-bellied we have out east.

Black Hills’ White-winged subspecies of DARK-EYED JUNCO:



Unfortunately, no Pygmy Nuthatch which means I missed it entirely for this trip. Dang! Well, maybe I will get one next year in Idaho...it’s good to save one for later!

By late morning we were all packed and back on the road, eastward this time, to Badlands National Park, a bit more centrally-located in the state. We briefly stopped in a quaintly empty town named Scenic, SD:large_F9EE04B2-3BE1-4F83-A811-C5B277C97D7B.jpeglarge_11AE8F41-66B3-43F4-BBA8-130294D35463.jpeglarge_2D1D6FB3-D0AD-414E-9AC3-5AAF77318A3A.jpeglarge_68980AED-4649-4D3A-81AE-98600639F78B.jpeg


And we made it to the incredible landscape of the Badlands by 2:30. While unpacking the RV, i picked up a new trip bird, the BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE:

And soon we did a short, half-mile loop hike to get a teaser of the amazing landscape the Badlands has in store for us the next couple of days.

I quickly snapped a shot at a SPOTTED TOWHEE before he disappeared into the brush.

Back at the campground, a LARK SPARROW was waiting for us:

Since a lot of time remained before dinner, Tian and I decided to drive an hour away to Sage Rim Road to look for Long-billed Curlew, Burrowing Owl, and any other cool animals along the way. We were NOT disappointed when we saw my life-animal Bighorn Sheep along the road:

Bison also proliferated today, thankfully at a safe distance.

And soon, we arrived to the famed Prairie Dog colonies. We probably saw over a thousand of these feisty creatures! They are so cute with their different postures and sharp calls.

I had my eye out for a different inhabitant of the colonies though, the Burrowing Owl...


And soon, we flushed a medium-small but rather large-winged brown bird from the side of the road, it perched, and there it was, BURROWING OWL! Super cool — a “sophomore bird” for me as it is only the second time I have ever observed this species (the first being Marco Island, FL).

A couple distant AMERICAN WHITE PELICANS caught my eye:

Then, we got to the appointed spot on the road where, according to eBird, a Long-billed Curlew has been reported in recent days. I played the call and, nothing...

And then all the sudden Tian shouts “look Henry, there it is!”

She happened to be looking *behind* the car at exactly the right time as a LONG-BILLED CURLEW winged over the road, calling in response (I quickly shut up the tape, don’t worry). As I had only previously seen this bird briefly in flight over the highway a few days ago, I was absolutely ecstatic to get these looks, thanks to Tian.

Then it landed on the ROAD in front of us! INCREDIBLE! I even had to motion to a passing car to slow down as to not endanger this incredible bird. Look at that BILL! Just...wow! Although this species is somewhat more common in areas even further west, it is such a cool-looking bird.

Me with the bird-spotter today :)

We declared victory and headed back the same way on Sage Rim Road where the Burrowing Owl was still waiting for us, this time perched on a road sign. Tian marveled at its tiny size.

And off it went!

We incredulously watched it hawk over the prairie in search of crickets, voles, and other small creatures which make up this bird’s diet. I did not know that, similar to kestrels, Burrowing Owls can literally hover for what seemed like over a minute! Incredible strength.

Nice Jackrabbit on the way back.


And my last new trip-bird for the day was a flyover PRAIRIE FALCON which was a great treat since they are not common enough to absolutely count on getting on a trip like this. Amazing!

Bird-of-the-day to the Long-billed Curlew with runners-up to the MacGillivray’s Warbler, Ruffed Grouse, Burrowing Owl, & Prairie Falcon. An extremely productive day of birding which brought my trip list up to 137 species, see below. Stay tuned: tomorrow, my family and I will take a hike through the crazy-looking canyons and crevices which are hallmarks of the Badlands. Should be fun!

Good birding,
World Life List: 1117 Species

REVISED TRIP LIST, 137 species and counting:
Canada Goose
Blue-winged Teal
Cinnamon Teal
Northern Shoveler
American Wigeon
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Pheasant
Ruffed Grouse
Wild Turkey
Rock Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Mourning Dove
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Eastern Whip-poor-will
Chimney Swift
White-throated Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
American Coot
Upland Sandpiper
Long-billed Curlew LIFE BIRD
Greater Yellowlegs
Wilson’s Phalarope
Ring-billed Gull
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
American Bittern
Turkey Vulture
Golden Eagle
Northern Harrier
Bald Eagle
Swainson’s Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Great Horned Owl
Burrowing Owl
Short-eared Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Red-naped Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
Prairie Falcon
Great Crested Flycatcher
Western Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird
Western Wood-Pewee
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Willow Flycatcher
Dusky Flycatcher
Cordilleran Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Say’s Phoebe
Loggerhead Shrike
Yellow-throated Vireo
Plumbeous Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
Clark’s Nutcracker
Black-billed Magpie
American Crow
Horned Lark
Bank Swallow
Tree Swallow
Violet-green Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Canyon Wren
House Wren
Carolina Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
Mountain Bluebird
Townsend’s Solitaire
Swainson’s Thrush
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
Sage Thrasher
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
House Sparrow
House Finch
Cassin’s Finch
Red Crossbill
White-winged Crossbill
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
Yellow-breasted Chat
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Western Meadowlark
Bullock’s Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
Orchard Oriole
Red-winged Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Brewer’s Blackbird
Common Grackle
American Redstart
MacGillivray’s Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Western Tanager
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Black-headed Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Grasshopper Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Lark Bunting LIFE BIRD
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Brewer’s Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Song Sparrow
Spotted Towhee
Eastern Towhee

Posted by skwclar 20:18 Archived in USA

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What wonderful scenes! Find out who owns Scenic, SD. Maybe you'll want to buy it some day.

by liz cifani

What an exciting day! Thanks for sharing the variety of pictures - I wasn't expecting a photo of a jail - and the video of the drumming grouse. Amazing.

by Marlene Scott

Wow!!! Unbelievable....wait....Not so unbelievable coming form you Henry. I can really see a difference in the new camera.
I enjoyed the travelogue photos as well.
The video, the Owl shots, and of course the Long Bille Curlew, so beautiful and exciting!

by Kim

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