Homeward Bound

We should come home from adventures, and perils and discoveries every day with new experience and character.

~Henry David Thoreau

NOTE – This is the final post from our 7200 mile truck camping trip in May.

Leaving Yellowstone was the start of our long journey home. Time on the road passes so quickly and we tend to not think of home much until we turn the truck toward the East. Then, we realize the adventure must soon come to an end and we (or at least I) start to wonder how things have fared while we were away or what tasks lie ahead. My thoughts are soon bought back to the immediate as we drive through the beautiful and varied landscapes of Wyoming. You go from snow-capped mountains one minute to desert or vast areas of sagebrush and grasslands the next. Along much of our drive we saw the brilliant red “flowers” of Indian Paintbrush. The tips of the plant look like they have been dipped in red paint. The bright red is not really the flower parts, but rather flower-like bracts (a modified leaf or scale on a plant). It is a semi-parasitic plant, its roots penetrating other nearby plants to rob some of their nutrients and water.

Indian Paintbrush, also called Prairie-fire, is Wyoming’s state flower (photo by Melissa Dowland) (click photos to enlarge)

I steered toward one of our favorite national forests in the Bighorn Mountains. We camped there on our last two trips and have been very pleased with the number and variety of camping options. We hoped to camp in a site from our first extended truck camping trip last year, one along a small stream on a rocky outcrop in a high meadow. As we drove through, we soon realized things were a bit different now as snow still covered much of the slopes at this elevation. Indeed, the road to that campsite was closed due to deep snow, so we proceeded down in elevation looking for drier ground.

Another outstanding campsite in the Bighorns…what a view

After driving a couple of roads that didn’t quite satisfy us, Melissa found a route with open meadows, streams, some ponds, and potential views of high mountains in the distance. When we pulled into the area, we knew this was it. We passed only a few RVs on a long stretch of dirt road with patches of conifers, open grasslands, and plenty of beaver ponds and creeks. With a strong wind blowing, we pulled into the lee side of a forest grove to set up camp. The meadow was covered in wildflowers and we soon found ourselves on the ground taking a closer look.

Pasqueflower, also known as Prairie Crocus (and you can see why)
Shooting Stars, one of my favorite western wildflowers. The flowers on these 4-inch tall plants are bell-shaped when they first open, but the petals then reflex backwards, giving them the appearance of a shooting star

Before starting the campfire, we hiked down to a pond about a half mile across the meadows. With our faces close to the water, we could see numerous water beetles and fairy shrimp, those upside-down one-inch long lobster relatives that are often found in ephemeral pools.

Large, shallow pool at the far end of the meadow
Our sunrise view from the truck with temperatures hovering around 32 degrees F
Pasqueflowers close at night and in inclement weather

Our next days’ drive went from long stretches on Interstate 90 to some scenic country roads that took us through part of Badlands National Park and the adjacent Pine Ridge Reservation and eventually into the Sandhills of northern Nebraska. On the back roads, we saw some familiar wildlife like Pronghorn and vast prairie dog towns, along with two new species, both of which I had on my radar as something I really wanted to see.

Pronghorn buck running across grasslands near the road

There were so many prairie dog towns along this route and some were huge with what looked like hundreds of mounds. We had discussed looking for Burrowing Owls when we saw prairie dog habitat as these diminutive birds frequently use abandoned prairie dog burrows as roost and nest sites. Burrowing Owls range from Canada to Mexico and parts of Central and South America. There are populations in Florida and some islands in the Caribbean as well. Throughout much of their range, their numbers are declining due to habitat loss and decline in the populations of burrowing mammals. We kept scanning as we drove, but I finally pulled over at a large roadside prairie dog town and told Melissa to find me an owl. Lo and behold, after only a couple of minutes, she spotted one. It was way back away from the road sitting on a mound.

Suddenly, another one flew toward the road and landed on a fence post a few hundred yards from us. We jumped in the truck and slowly approached. It was on my side so I stopped and took a few pictures from across two lanes and then had to drive on as a car was coming up behind us. We turned and drove back and pulled as best we could off the side of the road.

A long sought after species for me – the curious Burrowing Owl

Now the owl was much closer and on Melissa’s side. She started taking pics as the bird looked our way. I was trying to hold my telephoto and shoot past her head, but it was tough. Luckily, she caught an amazing sequence of what the owl did next. It leaned forward and looked like it was gagging and then up came a pellet!

The owl leans forward and looks like it wants to do something… (this photo sequence by Melissa Dowland)
The beak opens wide…
It looks like a lot of effort…
Out comes the pellet!
Whew, that was tough

Owls and other raptors must regularly cough up pellets consisting of indigestible parts of their diet such as feathers, fur, bones, and insect exoskeletons. It is rare to witness this behavior, yet alone photograph it! I was very happy she got this sequence (and a little jealous, I must admit:) Finally, the bird flew off and landed on the ground quite some distance from us.

Melissa then suggested we should go look for the pellet (this is how truly nerdy we are, in case you didn’t know). We found a couple of pellets at this post indicating it is an often used perch. Their diet is mainly made up of insects (it looked like a lot of beetles), and small vertebrates like lizards and mice.

Two owl pellets beneath a fence post

Driving through this habitat for the next hour or so, we saw many Burrowing Owls associated with various prairie dog towns with several sitting on fence posts (the only high points in the landscape). I would love to go back and just hang out for a few days watching these comical and endearing birds.

We stopped and helped this gorgeous Ornate Box Turtle (another new species for us) across the road

Melissa guided us to Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest in the north-central Sandhills region of Nebraska. There really aren’t that many “forests” here (except for a Ponderosa Pine forest planted many years ago) but plenty of expansive rolling grasslands and an amazing abundance of ponds and lakes. In fact, there were temporary signs all along the route indicating high water may be on the road. That had us a little worried about mosquitoes, but we found the non-biting midges to be the dominant insect as we looked for a non-flooded refuge road to take for a campsite. We finally found one late in the day and set up camp in a small gap between high grass-covered dunes. Once again, we found the Sandhills are apparently maintained by grazing cattle and our site had plenty of evidence that cows had frequented the area (luckily, there were none anywhere nearby at that time). But there were plenty of wildflowers and a surprising amount of poison ivy scattered about, so we took our time walking up the hill above camp. Once on top, a fantastic vista unfolded of seemingly endless rolling grasslands bathed in the golden fading daylight.

Late afternoon sunlight highlights some distant ridges in the Sandhills
A beautiful beardtongue in flower
Hairy Puccoon (one of the puccoon species at least) – hairy because of the “hairs” present on the leaves and stem; puccoon is an American Indian word for plants that produce a dye. Various parts of the puccoons produce a red, yellow, or purple dye
The prairie grasses take on a golden hue in the late day sun
Melissa enjoys a spectacular sunset over the Sandhills

Our next stop was originally going to be a familiar one, Brickyard Hills Conservation Area in Missouri. But I really wanted to revisit Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge (where we saw all the Monarch butterflies last Fall) and that was a full 30 minutes or so past Brickyard Hills. We didn’t want to backtrack so we settled on another conservation area near the refuge in order to drive the auto tour late in the day before heading to our last campsite. The iffy weather (cloudy and windy) made for less than ideal conditions, but we did see a few straggler Snow Geese, some American White Pelicans, a Coyote, some Muskrats, and lots of Dicksissels and Red-winged Blackbirds.

One of many male Red-winged Blackbirds belting out their konk-a-ree call along the refuge roads
A huge Snapping Turtle was out on a short bridge across a canal. I got out and took one photo, then turned to get back in the truck when I heard a huge splash. Though it remained motionless when I approached for the photo, Melissa said it pushed itself off the bridge and fell the 10+ feet to the water when I turned around

Leaving the refuge and looking at the weather forecast, we decided to make this conservation area our last camping spot to avoid predicted heavy rains the next night. That meant a marathon last day drive of about 18 hours from Missouri to home. A beautiful sunset and some deer, Coyote calls, and the distant hoots of a Barred Owl were a good way to spend our last night on this epic road trip. The next day we crossed portion of four more states and finally rolled into our home woods at about 2:30 a.m., a bit tired, but glad to be home. Now, where to next?

Our last sunset

14 thoughts on “Homeward Bound

  1. Mike and Melissa,
    I have SO enjoyed this road trip! Your photos are mesmerising- I just soak in them for a while before going to the next. Love the descriptions of each day and know that this is the only way I am going to experience these landscapes.
    Thank You!
    Eve

  2. I agree totally withEve’s comment. I have looked forward to each new post & wish I could see everything in person. Pictures were just great & the narrations. Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. Just magical! I love the owl sequence and the ornate box turtle is new to me as well. Thank you for your gifts of sharing wildlife adventures!!

  4. So sorry to see this trip end!!! The burrowing owl photos were really interesting. You two make a great team, and thanks for sharing all your adventures with us! Looking forward to the next one!

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