Thursday, March 18, 2010

Oh the slings and arrows of retirement!

Yesterday, I did my March critter count out at the Plains Center. It was a beautiful spring-like morning with mostly clear skies and lots of sun. I guess that it was about 50 degrees when I started at 9:40 and 65 at 1:00 when I finished. It was a wonderful 4 and a half mile walk while being serenaded by lots of meadowlarks. This is the first I've heard them this year as they migrated away this year for the first winter I can remember.
The pronghorns have broken the winter herd and now are wandering the prairie in loose groups which I'm sure change day to day. The first herd I saw had one large buck and seven does. I suspect a couple of smaller does were last spring's fawns. I spotted them as they edged down a drainage where I lost sight of them. I hiked up the ridge to get a better count and they got nervous. At first they started walking toward me and then the one on my far right started trotting to my right. 
The rest, except the buck, joined in the trot which quickly became an all-out gallop. What a beautiful sight, seven pronghorns running at about 50 miles an hour in formation across from my left to right. Wow! Like a bunch of Olympic sprinters approaching the finish line, bunched. But sprinters look like they are working hard. The prongies were just loafing, showing off. Gotta realize also that the does are now five months pregnant, so they are probably a bit slower than normal. I think they too were enjoying the wonderful morning.
About halfway through my walk, I spotted a red-tailed hawk in a tree, sitting right above a nest that last year's Swainson's hawks had build but not used. A second red-tail flew in from the east carrying what was left of her breakfast, a prairie dog. I know it was a female because she was much larger than the hawk sitting near the nest who flew out to greet her. She wasn't in a giving mood, so the male came back to the tree. The female came back about 20 minutes later and the two of them circled together for a few minutes in a weak thermal, probably trying to decide if they wanted to spend the summer raising a couple of chicks.
It appeared to me that the half dozen ferruginous hawks, half dozen red-tails, occasional bald eagles, and seven coyotes have made a significant dent in the mucn-too-abundant prairie dog population. I got a lower count of the PDs than in the previous counts which were done on colder and nastier days. We had all those predators because we set a great table for them for the winter. The ferruginous hawks have gone, probably because we don't offer them nesting places. And the extra red-tails are out looking for mates and trees to nest in. The Plains Center can handle at most two nest sites, and probably only one.
It was so beautiful out on the prairie that I didn't want to come back in. As I was finishing, a coyote flushed out of willows in the small creek that flows through the center. I suspect, based on the steep cuts the creek has made and the many willows that provide cover, that the coyotes have a den in that spot. I'll keep an eye out for pups in a couple of months.
Retirement sure is tough! But someone has to do it. :-)