Mobridge, S.D., 22 Oct 2012 – Doug and I have been on a quick trip, headed for Lemmon, S.D. to look for the land on which his paternal grandmother homesteaded about 100 years ago. It’s not a birding trip per se, but all trips are birding trips. The wind four days ago, once we reached Aberdeen on Highway 12, blew at a steady 40 mph, maybe more, with gusts to 60. It was difficult to open car doors, difficult to stand upright outside, and impossible to keep a hat on. Gusts rose to 70 and 80 mph. Not very good for birding.
But for ducks and one enormous flock of blackbirds, birds have been pretty much nonexistent since we left Minneapolis. We’ve seen thousands of ducks of several species. There is more water than we expected to see, about half of the roadside potholes with at least puddles. We’ve seen raptors, Red-tailed Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Golden Eagle, Harrier, and Kestrel.
There were blackbirds. One flock must have been at least 10,000 blackbirds, a sooty corridor cutting through a sheared cornfield. We saw them first when they rose out of the field and wheeled around for a new feeding site. The birds in the front of the column would touch down, the birds behind following in sequence. It was like watching spectators performing the wave at a football game. When the last of the birds touched down the birds in the front were on the rise. The flock would bunch up, forming a cloud of birds, then lengthen as it swirled and twisted in the wind, only to land again, repeating and repeating. It was mesmerizing and amazing, a spectacle. I left the car to take photos. I was blown off my stance, almost always on the move as I tried to keep my balance.
Back on the road the only living things in sight were cattle. Fence lines that would display endless numbers of breeding birds in the spring held only cornhusks hooked to the wire barbs by the wind. Tumbleweed blew across the road at 60 mph looking as it could dent the car if there was a collision.
We were in northwester South Dakota, eastern Montana, and headed home through the oily area of western North Dakota. Stopping at a visitors’ center in Dickinson, we asked about the oil boom, a charming lady handed us an eight-page list of open jobs, in small type, hundreds of jobs. We wanted birds, though.
The wind was gone. We found Horned Larks and unidentified sparrows in harvested sunflower fields searching for fallen seeds. Juncos flushed from roadside thickets. Price paid to farmers here for 100 pounds of black oil sunflower seed, by the way, is $25, according to one grower. I most recently paid $21 plus tax for 50 pounds. That seems like a good and fair price.