Badlands and Beyond

My favorite thing to do is to go where I’ve never been.

~Diane Arbus

There is a lot of flat land out there in the middle of the country. And not many national forests to disperse camp in it turns out. But, after leaving IL, we drove up along the Missouri River corridor and stopped at a place Melissa had found – Brickyard Hill Conservation Area, in MO. Melissa used a variety of apps and web sites to search for good camping sites. Her favorite, and the one that led us to Brickyard Hill, is iOverlander.

Our isolated campsite at Brickyard Hill with the native prairie vegetation in the distance (click photos to enlarge)

This area is preserved because of its unique geology and plant life. It is part of a region known as the loess hills. Loess (pronounced in a couple of ways it turns out, Luss or Low-ess) refers to fine-grained sediment that is formed by the accumulation of wind-blown soil particles. The explanation for this long line of undulating hills along the eastern edge a stretch of the Missouri River floodplain is that during the last Ice Age, glaciers ground rock into dust-like particles in this region. With warming temperatures, the meltwater deposited huge mud flats along the river. As the mud flats dried out, strong westerly winds moved huge amounts of this fine-grained silt, forming large dune fields. These dunes eventually became stabilized with vegetation and have been gradually carved by erosion into the undulating, and often steep topography we see today.

We drove to the pond access and there were some fishermen and several RVs. We decided to give the other location a try even though it was a few miles away. But, we were glad we did. This camp area was located atop a hill with a circle of designated sites (all empty), a pit toilet, a small prairie grassland in the middle, and was surrounded by forest and a bit of a cornfield on one side. It was perfect (so much so that we stopped again on our way back). The circle of open area above the prairie also gave a great view of the night sky. We fell asleep that night to Coyotes yipping in the distance and a Barred Owl calling nearby.

At this point, we had decided to head toward a national park that would be new to us, Badlands National Park, in SD. Our route took us by DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge along the Missouri River. We drove the auto tour road and had a couple of brief wildlife encounters. We pulled into a parking lot and there was a group of three Wild Turkeys strutting across the pavement. One was doing more than strutting – it was pursuing and pecking at a small rodent (I think it was a vole). The turkey was zigging and zagging and stabbing at the scurrying mammal but looked up when it noticed us and its prey escaped. I have never seen a turkey go after a mammal!

Turkey chasing a rodent

The other bird sighting of note was a large flock of American White Pelicans. It is always a treat to see these giants on the wing (about a 9 ft wingspan!). We would see these magnificent birds in several other places on our trip.

American White Pelicans have the second largest average wingspan of any North American Bird, after the California Condor

Driving on, we passed through a lot of corn and flat land. Melissa had found a spot to camp just outside Badlands National Park frequented by RVs and other dispersed campers. It sounded like it was an area right along the edge of some cliffs and canyons. We pulled in kind of late and were disappointed to see a sea of campers spread out along the rim.

RVs on the edge just outside Badlands NP

As we would soon learn, however, the big advantage of our 4wd truck is that we can drive past where most RVs fear to tread and in doing so managed to secure a nice perch around the bend from most of the other campers.

View from our truck bed at the edge of the Badands

Views from our campsite were amazing, and a herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep kept us company and even bedded down less than 100 ft from the truck as we learned the next morning.

Badlands National Park is a stunning area and surprised us with a number of excellent wildlife sightings, including Pronghorn, Bison, Bighorn Sheep, and Black-tailed Prairie Dogs. We spent much of the morning driving through and taking short hikes to explore the rugged landscape. Below are some of the highlights…

The jagged terrain of Badlands NP
Layers of colors in the early morning light
Sharp features stand out in the crisp air
Bighorn Sheep lamb alongside the road on the way in (photo by Melissa Dowland)
Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep lamb and ewe
Robert’s Prairie Dog Town with a sign explaining that prairie dogs can carry Sylvatic Plague

One of the coolest animals we observed in the park were the Black-tailed Prairie Dogs. The park’s web site has a lot of great information on these fascinating rodents, but here are a few of the highlights:

  • Prairie dogs were once an integral part of the western landscape – estimates are that, before 1800, prairie dog populations may have been in excess of 5 billion
  • Original range has shrunk to about 5%
  • Prairie dog populations were greatly reduced by settlers that saw them as competing for forage (new research shows they improve the nutritional quality of vegetation by their trimming of grasses and other plants in their colonies) and due to the accidental introduction of Sylvatic Plague by shipboard rats into the U.S. in the early 1900’s. Plague is deadly to prairie dogs (and can be transmitted to humans, where it is called Bubonic Plague, by bites or fleas from an infected animal)
  • Prairie dogs live in colonies called towns with the largest ever recorded estimated to cover a land area greater than the size of the state of West Virginia
  • Prairie dogs are keystone species: they are important food for many predators, they enhance vegetative communities where they feed, and they provide shelter for other species (like Burrowing Owls) by digging so many burrows
  • Prairie dogs have a very complex system of communication, perhaps one of the most complex ever decoded. The park web site states they can apparently alert the colony to the difference between a dog and coyote approaching, and some speculate they may not only be able to communicate that a human is entering the colony, but they can get as specific as, “A tall human in a blue shirt is approaching rapidly!”
Black-tailed Prairie Dog, the most common species in the U.S.
This species exhibits grooming behavior (called allogrooming) as a way to reinforce family bonds and rid each other of ectoparasites
Melissa is dwarfed by the stunning landscape
Sunflower against the backdrop of cliffs

We reluctantly departed for the Black Hills, looking for future camping spots online as we drove. Since we were close, we drove by Mount Rushmore, but were disappointed in the “touristy” nature of the entrance and decided to pass by with just a look from down the road. We made a detour to see (again from the road) the Crazy Horse Memorial, the monument being carved in another mountain as a tribute to the Lakota Chief.

Mount Rushmore

We camped on an isolated dirt road in the Black Hills National Forest that night and headed out the next morning for our next destination – Devils Tower National Monument. When we let some friends know our location, we got back two cryptic (to us) notes about sculpting mashed potatoes and were a bit perplexed until we googled it (we watched Spielberg’s classic film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this week to help us better understand the reference).

Devils Tower as we approached the National Monument (it seemed more majestic and mysterious in black and white)

Many American Indian tribes of the region held this geologic wonder as a sacred site and their oral histories recount many origin stories and tales of the significance of the tower. Translations of Indian names for the site include Bear Lodge, Bear’s Tipi, Tree Rock, and Gray Horn Butte. President Theodore Roosevelt set it aside as the first national monument on September 24, 1906.

The tower is 867 feet from its base to the top, about a mile in circumference, and the area at the summit is about 1.5 acres (the size of a football field). We walked the paved trail in face masks as the park was very crowded. Signage along the way explained the tower’s formation as an igneous intrusion (hardened magma) into surrounding sedimentary rock layers some 50 million years ago. Erosion over millions of years removed the softer sedimentary rock, exposing the tower we see today.

The huge columns of Devils Tower

The rock type has the strange name of phonolite porphyry derived from two characteristics – a small slab of the rock rings when struck; and its texture, containing large crystals of feldspar. The greenish cast you see on many of the columns is from layers of crustose lichens growing on the rocks. Melissa (the geologist turned naturalist) commented that she had never seen me taking so many rock pictures…I’ll agree, this trip was especially heavy on cool rock formations.

We enjoyed a leisurely lunch in the picnic area, watched some more prairie dogs along the entrance road, and then headed west.

Another One Hundred!

During all these years there existed within me a tendency to follow Nature in her walks.

~John James Audubon

Per my habit of posting such milestones, it is time to recognize another one hundred posts gone by. This makes 400 posts since this blog was born shortly into my retirement. Like the others before it, this last 100 has covered a lot of ground, and remembering it helps me appreciate how fortunate I am to experience the things I write about. Here are just a few of the highlights from this past 100…

Green Mantisfly, Zeugomantispa minuta 1

Green mantisfly found on my back door window (click photos to enlarge)

As usual, a lot of my posts concerned things observed right here in the yard and woods of Chatham County. Sometimes the most beautiful and unusual are right outside (or on) your door.

Monkey Slug from below

Monkey slug caterpillar

I continue with my obsession of all things caterpillar (hope you don’t mind).

Zombie fungus on cricket 3

A Carolina leaf-roller cricket that has been manipulated and killed by a “zombie fungus”

Zombie-making fungi and mind-controlling larval parasitoids played a role in several of my posts…what strange phenomena!

bear in canal wider view

It was a long hot summer

It was another hot summer, so it was tough to be outdoors for a few months. I did learn one way to stay cool while visiting Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge…

NW Alligator River 1

Paddling near Columbia, NC

I was fortunate to spend some quality time in the wilds around Columbia, NC, working on a project with NCLOW to encourage ecotourism to this beautiful, and wild, part of our state.

Screech owl in wood duck box close up

Screech owl peering (or is it glaring) at me as I drive by the nest box

There were many close observations of wildlife over the past several months. I always enjoy spending time with them in their haunts.

snow geese banking

Snow goose landing in a corn field

snow geese over field

Snow geese circling a field at sunset

Spending time at my favorite refuge, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, is always a highlight, and this winter was no different.

canebrake rattlesnake head

An unusual wintertime rattlesnake

I had several encounters with beautiful rattlesnakes this year, including this one, which was out and about for a few weeks in January at Pocosin Lakes NWR.

least bittern and reflection 1

Least bittern

There was a rare treat of seeing a least bittern at another of my favorite haunts, Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge (thanks, Keith!).

Northern Gannet  just at impact with ocean

Northern gannet just as it hits the water while diving for fish

I joined a museum trip for an unforgettable cruise off our coast in February. The rapid-fire diving of large numbers of northern gannets was a photographic challenge, and a highlight.

Chestnut-sided warbler singing in NC 1

Chestnut-sided warbler belting it out

Another wonderful museum trip was to the opposite end of our beautiful state in search of mountain birds, like this chestnut-sided warbler.

View from Grassy Bald

Roan Mountain highlands

Melissa and I hiked part of the Roan Mountain highlands, along with a large group of other visitors…but spectacular nonetheless.

alligator black and white head

An alligator basking in the sun in Everglades National Park

little blue heron head

Little blue heron next to the trail

I was lucky to lead a trip with friends to Everglades National Park in early spring. Gators and birds were everywhere!

Littel T on ridge at sunset

A quiet moment watching a wolf before my group arrived

Great Gray Owl female

Great gray owl just outside the park

Yellowstone is always a highlight in my year. I had a great couple of folks with me, and we had a wonderful time hiking and observing wildlife.

sunset LCT 2

Sunset along the Lost Coast

We backpacked for a few days along the Lost Coast Trail in California when fires and smoke altered our earlier plans for Yosemite.

Redwood forest with trail for scale

A trail through the redwoods

Hiking among the giant redwoods is a humbling and peaceful experience, something we can all use when times get difficult.

Bald Eagle on snag 1

Bald eagle at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

I made a swing north looking for snow geese last November. Not too many of the target species, but plenty of cool sights.

Yellow warbler male on nest

Yellow warbler nest along the boardwalk

Northern parula warbler male singing

A northern parula warbler singing

One of the highlights of the year was a trip to famed Magee Marsh along the south shore of Lake Erie in Ohio, perhaps the warbler capitol of the world in spring. Definitely worth the trek.

So, another 100 events and observations of the incredible beauty all around us. I am fortunate to live in an area where there are many wonders just steps outside the door. Many are small wonders, there for the observing and enjoying, if only we take the time. Others were found on a variety of public lands across our state and beyond. It is fitting that this past Saturday was National Public Lands Day, the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort for pubic lands. Public lands are critical as habitat and for our recreation, education, and health. We owe them our support and our votes in this election season.

Our public lands – whether a national park or monument, wildlife refuge, forest or prairie – make each one of us land-rich. It is our inheritance as citizens of a country called America.

~Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of the Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks

 

 

 

 

Yellowstone in Feathers

 ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
~Emily Dickinson

It has been a busy week, but I finally had a chance to wrap up some images and thoughts about my recent Yellowstone trip. Like every trip out there, this one helped me see the world as it should be, at least the wild parts do. Being there is an experience of feeling free – free from the drumbeat of the daily news (and it has been a particularly steady drumbeat this political season); free to feel the joy of sharing a place I love; and free to feel that there is hope in this world. I usually don’t take quite as many images when I have other folks with me as I spend more time trying to get them to places to see the things they want to see. But, I still managed some shots, especially of birds. Plus, I had a couple of days by myself before the others arrived and decided to spend some of it just watching some of the smaller wildlife the park has to offer.

Great Horned Owl nest with three young

Great horned owl chicks in nest in Lamar Canyon (click photos to enlarge)

It seemed it was the season of the owls this summer, especially great horned owls. I had seen reports online of a nest high on a rock face in Lamar Canyon and was delighted to see it on my first evening in the park. The three chicks were quite visible in their seemingly precarious perch across the Lamar River. I checked on them every day I was in the area, and they all apparently fledged by the time we left the park.

Great Horned Owl chick under eave

Great horned owl fledgling in Mammoth

I also checked in on another nest that is usually in a tree in the Fort Yellowstone area of Mammoth. It was in the same conifer as last year and the  two chicks fledged within a few days. Much to my surprise, one of the chicks ended up about 200 feet from the nest up under the eaves of a three story building. I guess it must have some flight ability as I can’t imagine it “branching” and climbing up the side of that stone building.

Great Horned Owl adult

Great horned owl adult sitting near chick

Just a few feet away was one of the adults, calmly sleeping under the roof overhang. The next day both birds were gone, but we found the chick in a nearby cottonwood tree.

Great horned owl with chick in nest in Beartooths

Great horned owl nest in Beartooths

The day we went up the Beartooth Highway, I checked a nest I had found last year along the road. Sure enough, another active great horned owl nest. These chicks seemed a bit further behind developmentally than their counterparts from the lower elevations in the park.

Great Gray owl fledgling

Great gray owl chick

I was fortunate to once again tag along with my friend, Dan Hartman, as he checked a great gray owl nest he has been observing outside the park. Great grays are the largest owl in North America, and it is always a pleasure to spend time with these magnificent birds in their forest home. When we walked in, I spotted a chick that had just fledged and had climbed a leaner to perch above the ground (a much safer place to be in these woods).

Great Gray Owl chick

Great gray owl chick high in branches near nest

We soon spotted another fledgling high in the branches just beyond the nest. A third, smaller chick, remained in the nest.

Great Gray Owl female

Female great gray owl

The adult female was nearby, watching over the chicks. A northern goshawk nest was not far away, and we soon witnessed an encounter between an agitated hawk and the female owl. The hawk came screaming through the trees as the owl took flight, striking the owl from behind. The owl went down to the ground. But, other than missing a few feathers, the owl seemed fine, and soon continued to hunt while the hawk disappeared into the forest. Soon, the male owl showed up and we witnessed a simultaneous feeding of the two fledged chicks by the two adults.

Great Gray chick with prey 3

Great gray owl chick with food brought by male owl

I was near the first owl chick, which was closer to the ground than its sibling. The male owl flew in, clung to the side of the tree trunk next to the chick, and transferred a small mammal to its begging beak. It was a mouthful (looks like a northern pocket gopher, a favorite prey of great grays). The chick struggled with it, and in the dim light, I managed a lot of blurred images and a few decent ones.

Great Gray chick with prey

Going down…

The chick finally managed to swallow the food after a lot of gulping and head shaking.

Raven nest

Raven nest on cliff

Several other nests were spotted during our visit, including the highly visible raven nest that is usually on the cliff wall in the area known as the Golden Gate, just outside Mammoth.

Sandhill cranes at sunset

Sandhill cranes at sunset

 We saw several pair of sandhill cranes with their young (called colts), feeding in wet meadows along various waterways in the park. It is always a thrill to see, and especially hear, these majestic birds.

Male and female green-winged teal

Female and male green-winged teal

Green-winged teal male

The male is distinguished by a cinnamon head with a beautiful green eye mask

One afternoon I was fortunate to spend about 30 minutes alone with a pair pf green-winged teal just behind Soda Butte. We were hidden from the road by the formations of this old thermal feature, and it was a pleasure to just sit and watch this pair as they fed in a side channel of Soda Butte Creek.

Ruddy duck male

Male ruddy duck with his Carolina blue bill

Eared grebe

Eared grebe

Floating Island Lake provided good views this year of several species of water birds, including some ruddy ducks and eared grebes that were busy courting and fussing.

Harlequin duck

Lone harlequin duck at LeHardy Rapids

American dipper on rock

American dipper bobbing on a rock before diving in…

American Dipper feeding

…looking for dinner underwater

LeHardy Rapids once again provided some good bird watching with a single harlequin duck out on the usual rock, and a very active American dipper feeding in the rushing water ( I never tire of watching these unique birds and their amazing feeding style).

Clark's nutcracker with bison scat pile

Clark’s nutcracker picking through some bison scat for who knows what

Cliff swallow nests

Cliff swallow nests under roof overhang of pit toilet

Trumpeter swan on Soda Butte Creek

Trumpeter swan along Soda Butte Creek

Trumpeter swan with leg band

It wasn’t until I looked at the image on my laptop that I saw the swan has a large leg band

Mountain Bluebird male 1

Mountain bluebird

 While most people are more interested in the charismatic mega-fauna of Yellowstone, I find some of the smaller forms of wildlife, especially those with feathers, to be just as interesting and fun to watch. It is a treat to be able to spend time with these feathered beauties each time I visit this incredible wonderland.

 

Here is the bird checklist for this year’s trip:

Canada Goose, Trumpeter Swan, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Mallard,   Cinnamon Teal,  Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup, Harlequin Duck, Bufflehead,  Barrow’s Goldeneye, Common Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Wild Turkey, Eared Grebe, Western Grebe, American White Pelican,  Osprey, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Peregrine Falcon, American Coot, Sandhill Crane,  Killdeer, American Avocet, Spotted Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, California Gull, Great Horned Owl, Great Gray Owl, White-throated Swift, Northern Flicker, Gray Jay, Stellar’s Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, American Magpie, American Crow, Common Raven, Tree Swallow, Violet-green Swallow, Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Mountain Chickadee, American Dipper, Mountain Bluebird, American Robin,  European Starling, American Pipit,  Yellow-rumped (aka Audubon’s) Warbler, Green-tailed Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Red-winged Blackbird, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Brewer’s Blackbird, Western Meadowlark, Brown-headed Cowbird, Purple Finch, Cassin’s Finch, Pine Siskin

 

We Need Places Like Yellowstone

Contemplating the flow of life and change through living things, we make new discoveries about ourselves.

~Ansel Adams

I just returned from another wonderful trip to Yellowstone National Park. It is still beautiful, still magical, still a place you must reckon with and not take lightly. It is as it should be, wild.

Wolf watchers at Slough Creek

Wolf watchers at Slough Creek (click photos to enlarge)

At times, it may not seem that way, especially in the some of the more popular spots like Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Even my favorite part of the park that includes Little America and Lamar Valley, can be crowded with wildlife seekers, especially where there are wolves, as is the case this year at Slough Creek.

Lake pano at sunset

Shoreline of Yellowstone Lake at sunset

But, if you try, you can find a peaceful spot to just watch and listen as the natural world goes on about its business, seemingly uninterested by our comings and goings.

Sunset on Soda Butte Creek

Sunset sky along Soda Butte Creek

You can pause and look at the sky, listen to water flowing by, and think about your place in this world.

Grand Prismatic

Grand Prismatic Spring

Or marvel at the life and beauty in extreme environments, and ponder whether these conditions may exist elsewhere in our universe.

27352349580_d75a6c6562_b1

Bison cow and calf

You can spend time enjoying peaceful scenes like herds of bison with their newborn calves.

Coyote pups and parent playing

Coyote with playful pups at den site

Or watch the family life of predators like these coyote pups tugging at their parent’s tail or a group of nine wolf pups tussling in a grassy meadow. Scenes of predator and prey, sky and water, life and death, scenes of beauty, moments of peace, time to reflect…that is some of what an experience in a place like Yellowstone provides. It is something we need in times like these, what we all need, to help us see the good in the world, and in ourselves.

More peaceful scenes from Yellowstone, June, 2016…

Grand Geyser in eruption

Grand Geyser in eruption

Grizzly in Round Prairie

Grizzly in Round Prairie

Littel T on ridge at sunset

Black wolf of the Lamar Canyon pack near bison carcass

Mud bubble at Fountain Paint Pots

Mud pot bubble

Pronghorn doe

Pronghorn doe in Little America

Reflections at Grand Prismatic overflow

Reflections at Grand Prismatic Spring

Moose in Soda Butte Creek

Moose in Soda Butte Creek

Sugar Bowl

Sugar Bowl, a type of clematis

Nule Deer in mud in Lamar

Mule deer doe feeding in muddy spot in Lamar Valley

Baby Uinta Ground Squirrels

A group of baby Uinta Ground Squirrels

Bison along the Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley

Bison along the Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley

Trout Lake

Trout Lake

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me

And I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be

I go and lie down where the wood drake

Rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

Who do not tax their lives with forethought

Of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

Waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

~Wendell Berry

 

Celebrating Parks – January

The creation of a park establishes that sense of a special place. When you enter a park – you think differently. You pause and it takes you a little bit out of the rush of time and I think that is why so many families take their kids back and why those kids will take their kids back because it encapsulates an imperishable moment that you experience as a child.

~Dayton Duncan, writer and co-producer of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea documentary

sunset at Roosevelt Arch

Sunset at Roosevelt Arch, north entrance, Yellowstone National Park (click photos to enlarge)

For the past couple of years, Melissa and I have used some of our images to create nature-themed calendars as gifts for family and friends. We also included quotes collected from a variety of sources that we feel match the imagery. This year, we decided to do a calendar celebrating the centennial of the birth of both the National Park System and the North Carolina State Parks System. These organizations, and the lands they protect, have had a profound influence on us. They are among our favorite places to visit and to take others to learn about the natural world. It occurred to me that the calendar pages might make a good monthly installment on this blog and highlight why parks are so important to all of us. So, here is the first installment, along with a little background on the history of our National Park System. More on the North Carolina’s State Parks story in the February posting.

Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, was established by an act of Congress on March 1, 1872, as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.

In the years following the establishment of Yellowstone, additional parks were created, some managed by the Secretary of the Interior, some by the War Department, and others by the Forest Service. It became obvious that there needed to be a more unified management approach to these federal park lands. And so, on August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation creating the National Park Service under the Department of the Interior.

This so-called Organic Act states that the Service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations…by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

And so it began, the creation of a unit of government whose mission was to protect and interpret our nation’s most outstanding natural and historical resources for this and future generations. One hundred years later, we have 409 units in our National Park System. This year, take the opportunity to learn more about your National (and State) Parks, and be sure to give yourself the gift of visiting one (or more) to help celebrate the birth of this incredible idea.

Here is our January calendar photo and quote…

Hayden Valley

Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley in winter (photo by Melissa Dowland)

At its best, the National Park idea connects us to something larger than ourselves.

~Dayton Duncan