Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – The missing part of the story

For as we wandered round the lake, even though it was a bitterly cold fall afternoon and the sun had barely half an hour left in the sky, the Oakwood park lakes were busy with fowl activity.  There were ducks of all plumages clustered around the reed beds.  I saw a white pelican, a bird I had always assumed was a marine creature, very much at home about as far from the sea as you could get in North America.  There were a few woodland birds in the trees and we spotted the odd eagle or hawk lazily watching the proceedings from dead trunks, along with an occasional heron that was eyeing up the fish life.

The lakes were shallow and almost any rise in the ground lifted the surface from the water.  As well as a couple of small islands there were several peninsulas dividing up the open water, and we did a circuit of the coast of one of these before we headed back to the car.  On top of a bluff was an open space reputedly the summer camp of the local American Indians, and had been more recently used as a boy scout camp.  Another name for the Oakwood lakes was Tetonkaha and there was evidence of native American habitation everywhere.  The trail stops told us stories of how the different woods were used for making canoes or poles for tents, or for medicines.  The collection of fruit bushes were a valuable source of nutrition in what was a relatively poor natural larder.  The tradition of tapping maple sap  occurred here as it was such a valued source of energy.  We saw what looked like a few raspberry bushes as we wandered around, still with the odd red fruit on despite the snow earlier in the week.  Later I discovered they were a type of gooseberry, which made sense as the stems were a bit spikier than your average raspberry cane.

While wandering this landscape with Gray I realised I was missing a big chunk of the story.  I’d absorbed the settlers agricultural conversion of the plains quite happily and seen how ranches and huge grain fields were feeding the rest of the country.  I had learnt a little about the rocks and the glaciers and knew of the ancient history.  But the time in between I’d not taken in.  Stupid, really, since I had been staying in Sioux Falls the whole week; you would have thought the name of one of the most infamous clans of native Americans would have triggered something in me.  I wondered what the countryside had looked like in those days.  From the agricultural  museum we had visited that morning I realised most of the land had been completely treeless and covered in the sort of transitional area between the long plain grass to the east and the short plain grass to the west.  But even here in the lakes there was very little of the natural swathes of grass you expect in the prairies.  I decided the next day I would put that right.

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Pelican at the lake

Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – In the lakes

We entered the gate to one of those amazing American parks, where the amenities are all pristine, the car parks and roads perfectly tarmacced and the verges cut to a standard short clip length.  These manicured centres belie that you are in a wilderness.  I was at Oakwood Lakes, a network of open water and channels that sat in a small depression in the plains.  They were a few of the hundred that pockmark the state for miles around, formed by glacial scouring in the last ice age.  I know South Dakota has a reputation for being cold and snowy, but I still knew I was at 44 degrees north – over 6 degrees south of where I normally lived in the UK in my mild soggy climate that rarely saw more than a couple of flutters of snow a year, and even that was enough to close off all services for weeks around.  My part of the UK had not been covered in ice in any ice age of the Pleistocene epoch.  Yes it had undergone some modifications based on being close to the edge of the ice which came almost as south as London in one time.  I live where there must have been permafrost, and the material for the singularly unique shingle beaches of the south coast of the UK were formed in this period.   But never ice.  Yet here in the centre of the American continent, there were never any maritime effects and the ice lobes spread way further south, and have left a landscape that is still recovering and native plants should be recolonising.  The lakes actually sat on the slightly raised plateau of Brookings and Sioux Falls – when you travelled west to the Missouri valley this landscape of small lakes disappeared.

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At Oakwood Lakes

These isolated pools are what attracts a lot of the hunters into the state for their sport.  As I had been driving up to the EROS data centre one day I had noticed several guys in camouflage fatigues, guns over their shoulders and dogs tracking alongside, as they crossed the fields.  I had wondered whether they had been hunting the wild turkeys which seemed to be out in these open fields more than you were expecting, but maybe the hunters were just transiting between the lakes to find other wildfowl.