Grassland habitats in western South Dakota recently hosted bus loads of birdwatchers as part of the 2012 Bird Tour. The Davis and Smeenk Ranches near Belle Fourche welcomed determined visitors June 8-9 to spot varieties of birds that typically make their home on the Great Plains.
With a mission of helping individuals interested in bird watching as well as providing educational opportunities, the South Dakota Grassland Coalition (SDGC) organized the two-day event. In addition to birding, presentations were given by conservation experts and landowners. Landowners are key in delivering land management practices that aid livestock production while developing habitat for native birds.
"My favorite part (of this event) is bringing 'non-ag' people onto the rangeland. They get to hear information from a rancher perspective with views on environment and on species. We gain insights from each other," host Jeff Smeenk said.
Smeenk was bitten by the bird "bug" early on. "Grandpa was a birder, and I became more enthusiastic as I got older. There are so many varieties that travel through the area - it's amazing to see!" Smeenk shared that while bird watching is one the fastest-growing pastimes, he strives to deliver a balanced message regarding the ecosystem.
"Ranchers are the true environmentalists. Who doesn't know a rancher that enjoys watching antelope gather on a crested ridge or mule deer, even? Ranching benefits wildlife. We hope to combat the negative press gained by some groups who are actively trying to diminish commercial livestock operations.
"We saw a really cool and rare bird - a sage thrasher," Smeenk continued. "We officially viewed over 30 species during the weekend event. With very windy conditions, there are certainly 'hiders' in the grass."
Steve Fairbairn, private lands wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, noted that after 10 years of exposure to area grasslands, it was the first time he had actually heard of a sage thrasher being spotted in the area.
"The presence of birds is a marker for the fact that area livestock folks are good stewards of the land and balance commerce with conservation. They are essentially just as interested in balance and maintaining ecosystems as any conservation group," Fairbairn said.
"Landowners grapple with issues that affect all types of animals that forage and use grasslands, striking a balance between the needs of each. Often landowners suffer from the perception that they conduct business at the expense of birds and various other animals," he said. But that hasn't been the case in Fairbairn's experience, stating "they often share in essentially the same concerns, aspirations, and interest for animal welfare as anyone involved in purely conservation efforts."
The tour, limited to 80 participants, provided birders with historical information, sage grouse initiative data, bird identification overviews, as well as the hows and whys of bird banding, splinter presentations on nest dragging, invertebrates and plant identification. Cameras were snapping, binoculars were handy and the entire group anxiously remained on the lookout for new birds.
Conducted annually the last seven years, the locations of tours rotate to examine different South Dakota terrain and landscape. Over 35 species were noted during the 2012 tour, despite overcast and extremely windy conditions. In more ideal bird-watching conditions, past SDGC-organized expeditions have seen as many as 65 varieties in a two-day time frame.
Youth birding activities were also part of the event. Nancy Drilling of the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (RMBO) provided a compressed overview of the regions' viewing opportunities aimed at creating "junior birders." Drilling resides in South Dakota and often participates in educational opportunities that further the mission of the RMBO.
Tours like this are also available for continuing credits, according to Judge Jessop, South Dakota Association of Conservation Districts/Grassland Coalition project coordinator.
"Teachers love this event - offering credits helps get more people there. Teachers, in turn, use the experience in curriculum. On one of our last event evaluations, we had feedback such as 'I can't wait to use this in fourth grade social studies class!'" Jessop said.
The balance between livestock and wildlife is a message that needs to be carried forth, according to Jessop.
"We work to have the events at working ranches. We endeavor to demonstrate good grass management for the good of everyone," he said. "It's not just about birds, or about cows - this is an ecosystem approach ... it's amazing to me, the pecking order of all how they all fit together."
Jessop says the Bird Tour began to debunk the perception that cows kill birds.
"We like to see that John Q Public and that Joe Q Rancher are trying to balance the issues. There is not such a wide chasm between the two. You realize that both share concerns with more common ground than differences. You can certainly designate private land... but most of the lands are privately held. We all need to understand how to co-exist."
Editor's Note: For more information on future events, visit sdgrass.org.