South Dakota Discovery Center Nature Explorations

Latest update March 22, 2019 Started on February 14, 2019
An on-going collection of nature and science observations from and through the South Dakota Discovery Center in Pierre, SD. Our hands-on science center has a strong commitment to encouraging people to explore the outdoors.

February 14, 2019
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In The Field

Things are slowly returning to seasonal after the Bomb Cyclone. Temperatures are getting above freezing during the day which means the snow is slowly melting. The birds are in full voice with robins, mourning doves and finches vocalizing.

And yet, there are still fingerprints of the storm.I was looking up for birds as I took my mid-morning constitutional around Steamboat Park and saw snow stuck in the deep grooves on the north side of the cottonwood trees. I know the winds were really high during this storm. That the snow was still packed into the grooves of the tree a week after the storm show just how hard the wind was blowing.


Pierre got its share snow from the bomb cyclone event, somewhere in the area of 10 inches. I personally did not experience it as I was in Sioux Falls when it moved into Pierre and in Raleigh when it moved into Sioux Falls.

Before I left, before the storm hit, I got an email from a friend.

"I looked out my office window a little while ago and saw a tree full of birds. When I looked a little closer I saw that they were a bunch of pudgy little robins. I hope you enjoy the low-quality cellphone photo that I took through the integrated blinds in my window."

For the record, I enjoyed the photo. It's better than many I have taken with my phone. Bird photos are hard with cell phones.

As I said earlier the robins are feeling the lengthening days. A bomb cyclone with 60 mph winds and insane amounts of snow delayed but did not derail their business of mating because this morning on my way out to work I saw a flash of red/orange breast in a tree. It was a male robin.

Spring will prevail.


Return of the Robins

For the past few years, we have run an online campaign called #RobinWatch through our social media outlets. We use the resources from the University of Wisconsin's Journey North program to build awareness of robins and by extension phenology, seasonality, and science particularly citizen science. We also do this because people are eager for spring and thinking of/looking for/learning about robins is a way to scratch that spring itch.

Robins do over winter even here on the Northern Great Plains. Whether they are local robins that have flocked up or northern robins that have moved south it is hard to say without banding or DNA analysis. The flocks stick to the heavily forested areas where there is cover and food which around here are the islands on the river. They exhibit winter behaviors of staying in flocks and not singing so it is easy to miss them as they rarely visit feeders.

On warm days starting in late February, you will often see and hear a lone male or two, warming up for spring and mating. The next cold snap will drive him back to the flock and into silence.

Robins respond primarily to change in photoperiod or length of daylight. Warm ups in temps will cause those mating hormones to stir but it's mostly the day length that determines when they transition from winter behavior to the spring behaviors of singing aka marking territory, mate selection, nest building and so forth.

Even though we are unseasonably cold here in Pierre SD, the length of daylight is causing robins to start to move. Community members have started reporting robin activity on social media. We are encouraging everyone to report their observations on the Journey North website.

The robins are coming. Spring will arrive. This year, this is as much a promise as it is a sign. Welcome back, robins. We are very glad to see you.

Today is the first day of meteorologic spring. March is definitely coming in like a lion. A snow squall is passing through so I did what we do around here. I went outside to take pictures.

Like many in our community we are weary of winter and the snow, ready for the warmth and color of spring.


There is something quite lovely about the fragile, symmetrical beauty of a snowflake.

Or many snowflakes for that matter.


As we gear up for our 2019 observations, I thought it would be good to do an overview of what we might find. This is a link to the iNaturalist observations collected to date in our community.

There is a good sample of plants, arthropods, birds and even some reptiles and amphibians on iNaturalist. Mammals, however, are rather sparse partly because this area, despite its rural nature, has a lot of human impacts (development and agriculture) and partly because the mammals that are here like coyote, fox and mink are somewhat furtive.

The red bellied woodpecker pictured below is a recent photo taken at the Farm Island bird feeders. According to the All About Birds range map we are on the furthest north and west edge of their range. You find red bellied woodpeckers in South Dakota only along the river which makes sense as they prefer a habitat with a lot of trees. South Dakota is known for many things but dense tree coverage is not one of them.

Somewhat surprisingly, the red bellied woodpeckers' bellies are not particularly red at least when compared with their heads. The red on their heads is quite noticeable while the red on the bellies is more of an orange blush. However, the red headed woodpecker name was already taken by a woodpecker with a brilliant, all red head that makes the red bellied's red head seem almost plain. Apparently, the belly was the next noticeable feature and as far as woodpeckers are concerned, belongs uniquely to this bird.

Expedition Background

Our new blog South Dakota Discovery Center Nature Explorations is a way to elevate and celebrate the explorations we do in our classes for students, our educator professional development and our citizen science outreach.

Our expedition location is our community: our campus, nearby parks and natural areas, near/on/in the Missouri River, and even our backyards. We are looking at habitat, flora, fauna, water quality, clouds, and more. Our explorers are our guests and community members, educators, and young participants in our classes and events. We invite collaborators who want to share their explorations of the natural world in and around Pierre and Fort Pierre.

We invite you to join us and share in the exploration with us.


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