The big fellow, the voluble one, grinning at me, wore a sweatshirt and camo pants.

The fellow with Aussie in his voice was in full camo, his shirt collar buttoned tight. The older man was dressed less formally.

They were in the tiny lobby of the Fort Pierre motel in Fort Pierre, S.D. I was there to get coffee before a friend and I headed into the grasslands south of town to look for migrating raptors.

The Aussie, Kansas City now home, said something about “500 yards.”

“You guys hunting?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

You’re shooting 500 yards?

“Yeah.”

What?

“Prairie dogs.”

C’mon, I said. Really? Five hundred yards?

The older fellow, from Georgia and sounding it, said, “Sometimes as far as a thousand.”

He pointed to the wall behind him, a faded photo of a man with a rifle. Written across the bottom was 1,236.

“Willie paced it off,” Georgia said.

There was no prairie dog in the picture. They aren’t trophies.

I looked at the big guy, wavy hair, always smiling. All you do with Willie Dvorak is look at him and he starts talking.

“I’m the guide,” he said, handing me his folded four-color business card. “Willie Dvorak, Jim River Guide Service.” He works Alaska and South Dakota. His card lists 12 species hunted, grizzly bears at the top, prairie dogs at the bottom.

“Prairie dogs?” I said, again.

“This guy’s from Georgia and him, he’s an Australian. I’ve had prairie dog customers from all 50 states and 13 countries,” Willie said.

He kept talking. Finding a gap for a word of your own was like shooting something small at 500 yards.

They were going out that morning to one of the six cattle ranches Willie leases for exclusive shooting rights. This keeps him pretty busy in what normally would be a down time for hunting, he told me.

I suppose it’s that old story, I said, cow steps in a burrow and breaks a leg.

“Oh, no,” Willie said. “I’ll kiss your butt from here to — where you from? — from here to Minneapolis if you can find a rancher who lost a cow to a dog burrow.”

So, what’s the point?

Prairie dogs “mess up” the pastures, Willie said.

The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department website says the population is considered stable, with control measures actively taken to lessen damage the animals cause on some private land.

And, of course, there are guys who will pay for bragging rights.

They do this shooting with special rifles, hand-loaded bullets, pricey telescopic sights, and a bench to steady aim.

What makes a successful trip?

“Ten percent shots on target,” Willie said.

I’ve never heard of this, I told him.

“You read the wrong magazines,” Willie replied.

Learning the purpose of our trip, bird photos, he offered to show us prairie chicken leks, sharp-tailed grouse, eagle nests.

“Once I get these guys set up,” he said, “there’s not much for me to do. We’ll drive around. Come back.”

I won’t pay, I said.

“Oh, we’ll just drive around,” said Willie. “There’s stuff to see.”

The rest of the day was great but less interesting.

In half a dozen hours — without a guide — my friend and I found 37 rough-legged hawks, Arctic nesters heading north. There were two bald eagles, four red-tailed hawks, a merlin, a sharp-tailed hawk, two kestrels, and many mule deer, meadowlarks providing the soundtrack.

On the day before, traveling west on Hwy. 212, we had seen thousands of migrating sandhill cranes and geese.

One flock of white-fronted geese, maybe 2,000 birds, was a spectacle, birds twisting and wobbling in a strong west wind as they dropped onto roadside water.

Birding trips are fun. They always have their moments.

 

Read Jim Williams’ birding blog at startribune.com/wingnut.