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Closing the pheasant season, celebrating public land and singing the praises of wintering robins

The Oral GPA parking area at sundown after a previous hunt
Kevin Woster
The Oral GPA parking area at sundown after a previous hunt

The South Dakota pheasant season -- the main one; the traditional one; the real one -- ended Tuesday at sundown.

It wrapped up without me in attendance. And without Rosie. At least, not in attendance out in a tangled shelter belt or switchgrass swale.

We had our last hunt of the season last Friday, down on the Oral Game Production Area near the tiny hamlet of Oral about 16 miles east, as the crow or prairie falcon flies, of Hot Springs. But you don’t get there, of course, with the flight of a bird, but rather on winding country roads that demand slower speeds and encourage proper inspection of the countryside.

The GPA itself is a sprawling piece of landscape offering everything from spring-fed, cattail-covered lowlands to high ground dotted with yucca, sage and prickly pear, with shelter belts, wooded creek bottoms and corn and milo food plots mixed in.

So it’s a nice place to spend an hour or two, a place where I occasionally shoot a pheasant but always enjoy taking a stroll around the property.

My property, by the way. Our property. Yours and mine. Public property, one of the great gifts to the public.

Just stop and think: hundreds of thousands of acres of such land — more if you count the Black Hills National Forest — spread across South Dakota, and virtually all of it open to public hunting. Or just, well, public sauntering.

And you don't have to pester a farmer working in his field or a rancher herding her cattle or sheep to ask for permission to hunt. Just go on in, on foot, and treat our land with the respect it deserves.

Squeezing in an end-of-season hunt before the weather goes south

Rosie and I took advantage of that gift and got in our short end-of-season hunt late in the afternoon Friday, just before the mist settled in, worked its way up to a light rain and eventually turned into a pretty good snowstorm.

It took a while, though, to get nasty. Long enough for our purposes, which was nice. I don't care much anymore for inclement-weather hunting. And Rosie isn't much up to it, especially if it means blasting through heavy snow.

The coming snow and a forecast of below-zero lows for the weekend convinced me to get out Friday before the system moved in.

So we ended this pheasant season early but on a high and almost-dry note, working one piece of cover after another at an old-dog's pace for about 2 1/2 miles around the GPA.

Which was plenty for both of us, but especially for Rosie and her arthritic joints.

She picked up a collection of burs along the way, of course. After the hunt she would do her best to pull out the burs with her teeth later while sitting on the floor in the backseat of the pickup during the drive home -- the pungent smell of the burs and the dense, musty odor of wet dog permeating the cab.

Rosie hunts for pheasants near a Russian olive tree at the Oral GPA
Kevin Woster
Rosie hunts for pheasants near a Russian olive tree at the Oral GPA

It wasn't an unpleasant smell. Not to me, at least. It was a pheasant-hunting smell — tolerable at worst, comforting at best — harkening back to the past through olfactory driven recollections of Rosie and other wet dogs and other pheasant hunts and other contented trips home.

We never flushed a pheasant on Friday. But I’m pretty sure Rosie hit the still-warm trail of a rooster in deep grass and dried kochia weed along the edge of a food plot of picked corn. She was too excited for it to have been anything but pheasant scent. And she trailed it back and forth eagerly, retracing with her snuffling nose and pounding tail the escape route that a sneaking rooster almost certainly followed.

Why some rooster pheasants deserved to get away

Rosie’s snake dance ended out in the cornfield, leaving her momentarily bewildered and disappointed. It’s likely that the rooster flushed and flew low across the corn and over a gravel road to the safety of private land beyond before we got close enough to see it go.

That was OK with me. Smart old public-land roosters that have survived a full season of dogs and hunters and shotgun blasts have earned their escape. And I hope they live through the winter to pass on that tough, crafty DNA.

After the bird scent died, Rosie settled down into a cadence of casual interest, entertaining herself by trailing cottontail rabbits through clusters of cedar and cottonwood. And when the bunny trails fizzled, she turned her nose and never-say-quit attention to the circuitous travel lanes engineered in the grass by industrious voles.

First pheasants, then rabbits, then voles. Why not? A girl's gotta hunt something, after all.

Me? I just strolled along and watched her hunt and looked around a bit, carrying the 12 gauge over my right shoulder, or diagonally in front of my chest, or in my right hand at my side, depending on what was most comfortable at the time.

I did some bird watching, too. There were hundreds of birds on the Oral GPA. And other than a hawk in flight off in the distance and a passing flock of Canada geese, all the birds were robins.

American robins. There were robins in the air, robins on the ground, robins in the trees. Oh, my, there were robins in the trees.

Most of the trees had half a dozen robins in them. Many had a dozen, or two. Russian olive trees were particularly busy, ornamentally infused with robin red-breasts, which could more accurately be called robin-reddish-orange breasts.

The good and the bad of the Russian olive tree

It wasn’t surprising that the Russian olives were popular. There's a lot for a bird to like in a Russian olive. The berries are favored winter food for pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse and smaller birds, including robins.

Robins are effective meat hunters -- night crawlers and caterpillars beware -- during the warm months. But those that forgo the southern migration and hang around here all year go vegetarian by necessity in the winter.

The Russian olive's fruit, which is really a berry rather than an olive, hangs on into the winter when a good source of energy is essential for birds. That’s all good.

But it should be noted, too, that the Russian olive is no angel. It's a non-native variety brought to this country in the 1800s as an ornamental tree and windbreak shrub. And it did its job for that. It grows well in an often-harsh land that challenges and sometimes defeats young trees and shrubs of other varieties.

That hearty nature of the Russian olive is good in some ways, not so good in others. It can crowd out native trees and overwhelm native herbs. And it's easily spread by birds that eat the berries and pass the seeds on in their droppings. Birds like robins, for instance.

So, like people, Russian olives are not just one thing. They’re both bad and good. And the robins at the Oral GPA were taking advantage of the good last week. Good for them.

Speaking of those robins, their presence there in such impressive numbers was not some strange sign of an early spring. They’ve been around all winter. Just as Russian olives aren’t just one thing, robins aren’t all the same when it comes to migration.

Some robins migrate hundreds and even thousands of miles. Many make shorter migrations, just far enough for better weather and more available food. And some robins hang out here through the winter, often concentrating in country settings with plenty of trees and brushy cover and fruit-like berries to eat.

Those warm-up periods that delight us during the cold months make wintering here in western South Dakota more appealing to robins, too.

Along with the Oral GPA, I’ve seen large winter concentrations of robins at the Hill GPA south of Hot Springs and at McNenny State Fish Hatchery and the adjoining state GPA northwest of Spearfish near the Wyoming line.

I’ll bet you could find them elsewhere if you looked.

Seeing such concentrations of robins out in the country will give you a different view of that oh-so-common “red breast” you typically see hunting worms in your summertime back yard. I think it’s a better, more complete view.

So take a drive, look around and check them out sometime. You might even see a smart old rooster pheasant or two, now that the season is over.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.