Bird watching is a favorite pastime on the ranch, not just for those who live here, but also for those who visit.
The old cottonwoods that canopy the house are perfect for nest builders and cavity dwellers.
These sights are carefully selected and are often out of sight. To see our feathered friends more clearly, we strategically place a couple of bird feeders off the deck of the ranch house for prime viewing.
The passerine birds are often very colorful, with flashes of orange, blue and red fluttering to and from their nest.
Although a few bird species stay through the winter, most show up in the spring, raise their families, then bunch up in the fall and head south.
Often when discussing birds with others, they learn for the first time that not all birds nest in trees.
Where birds live, and the habitat they need for their survival, is not a topic that would make many people’s top 10 list but it’s on our minds all the time.
The ground-nesting birds are more challenging to view, as their plumage is subtler, like the prairie itself. But like the passerines, many of these ground-nesting birds come to the prairie to breed and raise their young, with a few being year-long residents, like the Sharp Tailed Grouse.
Each species seeks its specific niche within the prairie ecosystem. The diversity of the prairie grasses with open arid areas, dotted with prairie playas, is the required habitat for these species.
There are currently over 200 species of ground-nesting birds on the Great Plains prairies. These grassland birds have been on the decline since the mid 1800’s.
When the European settlers arrived, an estimated 360 million acres of tall-grass, short-grass and mixed-grass prairies filled the middle part of our country. Today, about 70 million acres remain. Although there are many contributors to their decline, the loss of grassland habitat due to prairie plow up and other exploitation is the largest factor.
One of the most staggering statistics is the Eastern Meadowlark with an 89% decline over the last forty years. The Western Meadow Lark (pictured below) isn't trailing too far behind with a 40% decline over the same time period.
Their songs are the bugle call "that spring has arrived." To think of it being silenced is heart wrenching.
There is no doubt that preserving the breeding ground habitat for prairie ground-nesting birds is essential to their survival. So, if you see a lost or confused bird looking for good place to raise its family, send them our way, we've got room... as long as the buffalo keep marching on.
Identification of bird photos from top to bottom: Black Headed Grossbeak, Blue Jay, Red Headed Woodpecker, Lazuli Bunting with Lark Sparrow, Juvenile Red Headed Woodpecker with adult, Baby Blue Jays, Long Billed Curlews, Short Eared Owl, Birds over playa; Mallards, Killdeer, Red Winged Black Birds, Yellow Headed Black Birds, Upland Sandpiper (Plover), Lark Buntings, Trio with eggs; Avocet Eggs, Baby Killdeer Chick, Killdeer Eggs, Wilson Phalarope, Sharp Tailed Grouse, Western Meadow Lark with Meadowlark Nest and Buffalo Birds (cow birds) with bison. Photos taken by Jill O'Brien on the Cheyenne River Ranch, in western SD.