South Dakota Rockhounding Display – Complete!!

The age-old question has been answered!  The question (primarily from my wife)…”What are you going to do with all of those rocks?” Minor detail, something I hadn’t thought about much since my son and I started rockhounding this summer!  But given the growing collection in the basement, it was time to figure out how to display some of our goodies.

It’s been a labor of love, but it’s now complete!  Over the last couple of weeks I’ve refinished the printer’s trays I got on eBay, and installed them on the wall of my office.  Given how new we are at this, we still don’t have a huge number of pieces that have made it all the way through the tumbling and polishing process, but we certainly have PLENTY of combined raw and polished material to fill the 178 individual compartments in the two printer’s trays!  I think they look fantastic, and certainly add some wonderful character to my home office!  Here are some photos:

South Dakota Rockhounding DIsplay

The finished printer’s trays, sanded and refinished on the wider cross pieces, but simply cleaned up and left as-is for the individual compartments themselves. I used a brown enamel paint on the wide pieces, but simply sanded off the old paint and expose the metal faceplate on each drawer. The most satisfying aspect of the collection shown here? Every single piece was hand-collected by my son and I, all from right here in South Dakota!

South Dakota Rockhounding Display

An oblique view, one that shows the bare metal I left on both original drawers.

South Dakota Rockhounding Display - Agates!

For each of the two printer’s trays, I cleaned up the original drawer pull, and repurposed them as labels. The right side is rightly labeled “South Dakota Agates”, as every piece on this side are prairie, Fairburn, bubblegum, or other agates, all collected from the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.

South Dakota Rockhounding Display - Jaspers, Petrified Wood, Quartz, etc.

The original drawer pull and label on the left piece. This side is more of a “mish-mash” of material, with a lot of petrified wood, quartz, chalcedony, jaspers, and other pieces. Again, all collected from right here in South Dakota!

Prairie and Fairburn Agates - South Dakota Rockhound

One of the six major compartments across the two trays. This one is devoted to prairie agates, and the handful of Fairburn agates we have so far.

Fairburn Agate - South Dakota Rockhound

We haven’t found many Fairburns as of yet, but the one on the right here is the favorite of ANY piece we’ve found so far.

Bubblegum Agates - South Dakota Rockhound

One of the six compartments devoted to bubblegum agates. Some are tumbled and polished, most here have not been polished yet. I like the look of the little bubblegums though, and probably won’t polish most of these. The “eyes” of the bubblegum agates give them a great look then when you do polish.

Bubblegum Agates - South Dakota Rockhound

A closer view of some of the “raw”, untumbled bubblegum agates. You can see why they are well named! They do often look like chewed up pieces of bubblegum.

Petrified Wood - South Dakota Rockhound

The 2nd most common find for us on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands – petrified wood. These are all petrified wood pieces. Most you find are the grayish or tan color, but there are also some other beautiful colors and patterns you can find. Most of these have not been tumble polished.

Chalcedony and Chert - South Dakota Rockhound

It’s not just agates and petrified wood on the Grasslands! There are other forms of chalcedony, and a huge variety of other rocks as well. I’ve been told those on the right (particularly the bottom right) are chert, in a limestone matrix.

Miscellaneous Prairie Agates - South Dakota Rockhound

A closer look at some miscellaneous (prairie) agates. There’s quite the variety of colors and patterns that you can find.  All here are polished, except the one in the upper right.

Misc. Jasper and Quartz - South Dakota Rockhound

A few miscellaneous jasper, quartz, and agate.

Large agates, chalcedony, etc. - South Dakota Rockhound

The only downside to the use of the printer’s trays…some of the compartments are relatively big, but the depth is quite shallow. Bigger pieces thus won’t work. I haven’t quite decided how I want to display them, but for now I have a table directly underneath the display, and I’ve started to put out a few big pieces. These are some big chalcedony pieces, prairie agates, and petrified wood.

Printer’s trays – For rock/mineral collection

It’s been about 5 months since my son and I started rockhounding, and polishing some of our finds in a tumbler. It’s rather shocking how much material you can find on the South Dakota grasslands in just 5 months! I’ve got several large trays and buckets worth of agates, jaspers, petrified wood, fossils, and other goodies. Now the number one question I get from our other household member…”What are you going to do with all of those”?

It’s a DAMNED good question!  I’ve already taken over our utility room (the room downstairs with the furnace and water heater).  A big wire shelving system is chock full of rocks and supplies, and two tumblers have been going non-stop for the last 4 months. It’s such a long process to polish, that we don’t have a massive number of “final” pieces, but it’s a growing amount.  Nearly all right now are either sitting on a shelf at work, or are sitting unseen in a tray in the utility room. Lately I’ve been looking at ways to display them.

I came across some images on Pinterest for displaying collections, including a guy who used “printer’s trays” to display his cork collections. I had never heard of a printer’s tray.  They are large wooden trays with many small compartments, used by letterpress printers to hold the tools of their trade.  Not knowing where the heck you could possible get such a thing, I looked on eBay and was surprised to see many available.  One person was selling several quite cheap (only $22 each!), so bought a pair and thought I’d see what I can do with them.

They look wonderful! They’re old and have an antique look to them, but are in really excellent shape. I’m not quite sure how I’ll use them yet, in terms of whether I try to do some kind of refinishing on them, or leave them more as is.  Stay tuned…within the next few weeks I hope to get a nice display set upon the walls of my home office!

Printer's Trays

The two printer’s trays I bought on eBay. Not what they are designed for, but they are truly wonderful for displays of small knick-knacks! For me, that means agates and other geologic goodies. They even came with the original grass drawer pulls! Once I decide whether I want to do something to the finish, I plan on hanging them vertically (kind of similar to this) in my home office.

Unexpected surprise at the feeders – Common Redpolls

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

From the big Redpoll invasion of 2013, a Common Redpoll sitting on a sunflower head in our yard. This week on Halloween, we had our first Common Redpolls since 2013.

We’re at a part of the season that isn’t a lot of fun for a birder in South Dakota. As the calendar flips from October to November, we’re fully entrenched in the “dry season” for birding, where both bird diversity and bird numbers are far lower than in the warmer months. Most of the smaller water bodies in the area are starting to freeze over, and while there are still some waterfowl and gulls hanging around the open water in the bigger lakes, it won’t be long before they too depart for the winter. Nearly all of the insectivorous birds too have long left the state, leaving us with our typical winter mix of species.

Dark-eyed Juncos are now found scattered throughout my yard.  A welcome addition to an otherwise dreary winter in the yard, but…when the Juncos are around it’s a sign that winter is starting to arrive. In addition to my House Sparrow hoards, I’m also getting an occasional surprise sparrow species, such as the Harris’s and Lincoln’s Sparrows that have periodically showed up in the yard. I am now getting regular visits from three woodpecker species (Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied), another nice presence during the winter months. But overall the species that dominates my yard right now are American Goldfinches.

My wife bought me a huge, tall thistle (niger) feeder many years ago, and it’s always been a star attraction in my yard. The goldfinches will use it all season long, disappearing occasionally for a few weeks at a time, only to come back in full force and stay for long periods of time. Lately, as the weather has gotten colder, the finch feeder has been standing room only, with every available perch often full during the day. The goldfinches may not be in the brilliant yellow summer plumage, but the activity and quiet chatter is nice to have around.

Hoary Redpoll - Acanthis hornemanni

A Hoary Redpoll, a pale, beautiful, wonderful surprise later in that winter of 2013. The two that hung around my yard for several weeks are still the only two Hoary Redpolls I’ve seen in South Dakota.

On Halloween this past week, I was working at home when I came downstairs to grab some lunch.  As I was letting the dogs out into the back yard, I couldn’t help but notice some oddballs in the American Goldfinch hoard that scattered when seeing the dogs. Most of the flock landed in my very large River Birch at the back of the yard, and at first I thought the oddballs were just House Finches.  But after the dogs finished their business and came back in, I was very pleasantly surprised to see a handful of Common Redpolls scattered in with the Goldfinches that were returning to the feeder.

We’ve been in South Dakota for 24 years. In those 24 winters, there have only been 3 occasions where I’ve had Redpolls in the yard. One of those occasions was a “one-night stand”, where a few were at the feeders briefly and then disappeared. But from January through March of 2013, my yard was inundated with Redpolls, to the point that Redpolls actually outnumbered the ubiquitous Goldfinches most days.  It was a snowy and long winter (they all seemingly are), but having the Redpolls around made it seem a little less gloomy.

Much to my surprise, the Common Redpolls weren’t even the best surprise that winter. One morning my young son looked out at the feeders and said “what’s the white one?”  He saw a bird among the Common Redpolls at the finch feeder that was obviously different. I went over and looked out, and was rather shocked to see this wonderful, pale Hoary Redpoll mixed in with the Common Redpolls. A life bird, all from the comfort of my cozy sunroom window!

We had one, and then two, Hoary Redpolls stay around the yard for several weeks before disappearing, along with the rest of the Common Redpolls. We haven’t had Redpolls in the yard since, until this Halloween day! I’ve got a glimpse of one Redpoll in the days since, as my finch feeder has returned to being dominated by goldfinches, but I’m hoping the Redpolls are still around, and plan on staying around for the winter. It would bring a VERY welcome splash of color and diversity to our limited suite of winter birds in South Dakota.

Scientists are Assholes

I’m a scientist. I’ve been in my field for over 25 years, employed at the same place for the vast majority of that time. I’ve got a many peer-reviewed journal publications, and have been around science and science publishing long enough to realize that…

Scientists are assholes.

Scientists have egos. I think for any successful venture, including scientific research, you HAVE to have a healthy ego, a confidence in your own capabilities, and a confidence in what  you’re doing. But underlying the “confident” form of ego is the seedy underbelly of scientists acting like assholes.

The New York Times posted a wonderful piece that focuses on social psychology, but the same general storyline could have played out in any of the sciences. In short, a young scientist published an article in 2010 that summarized one piece of her research. That led to notoriety, and even a 2012 TED talk that become one of the most widely viewed talks ever. After basking in the glow of the work for a short time, other researchers began to question her methodology, and question her results. Even worse, it got personal, with scientists and science bloggers taking the young woman to task, making unfounded and hurtful accusations. In short, the young woman DARED to experience success…which triggered a backlash from other scientists, a group of human beings that love NOTHING more than to tear each other down.

Scientists are assholes. At least there’s a segment of the profession that act in this manner. Many of them have built careers not on perfecting their own new, original research path, but instead by tearing apart the work of others. Even in my own field, there are scientists who I am only aware of because of their published “bakeoffs”, assessing the collective work of OTHER scientists, and meticulously picking through the work to find (perceived) flaws.

Given my cynical nature, it’s not like being an asshole is restricted to the field of science. So why devote a blog post to trashing my own profession? To make a point about climate change science. Climate change skeptics are nearly ALL politicians…talking heads…pundits…but very rarely, actual scientists. Even the majority of “scientists” who do attempt to discredit climate science are not climate scientists themselves.  Most often they are from another field. The pool of real climate scientists that are skeptical that 1) the climate is warming, and 2) mankind is at fault is TINY.

Scientists are assholes. And yet among scientists, climate change discord is remarkably absent. In a profession where ego and competitiveness are sometimes out of control, I can think of no better evidence of the sound scientific basis behind anthropogenic climate change. IF there were any speck of credible evidence that the climate isn’t warming, or that mankind’s activities aren’t the primary cause, stories such as the one provided by the New York Times would be rampant. Scientists would be eagerly ripping apart each other’s work, trying to discredit not only the research, but the researcher him/herself.

 

Christmas in October!

I think my favorite part of tumble polishing stones…taking them out from the first time they enter a rough polishing phase. Many at that stage are odd shapes, dirty, or where I collect them, are covered with a blackish or grayish layer after being exposed to the elements. It’s when you get them out of the tumbler after the first rough polish that you start to see the hidden beauty underneath.

Here’s part of a batch fresh out of the tumbler! Woo-hoo…some WONDERFUL surprise October presents!  These all were collected in the same 1-square mile area on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. Yes…you find this incredible variety of agates and other stones, all in one spot!  Rockhounding nirvana.

A couple of pictures. The first shows what they look like wet, and gives a hint of their final glory.  The second shows them in their dry, current stage.

South Dakota Agates and Jaspers

This is what the agates and jaspers look like wet, after the first tumbling stage. When wet you get a good idea of what they’ll look like when they finish polishing.

South Dakota Agates - Rough phase

Part of a batch of South Dakota agates and jaspers, just out of the first tumbling stage. In this stage, the point is to try to shape them, get off the sharp edges, etc. They don’t even start to show any hint of that glorious, shiny luster they’ll eventually have, but even at this stage…they’re gorgeous!

Beauty in Small Packages

Three months. I’m learning the value of patience with my new rockhounding and tumbling hobby, as I’ve learned the stones I tumble (South Dakota agates) are very hard, and need to be tumbled for a long time to get a good polish. I’ve learned that the process thus takes about 3 months!  I was doing one week for each of the four tumbling steps I do, but wasn’t getting great results until I upped that to three weeks for each step.

I’m pretty thrilled with this latest batch!  I would say this is my first real, high-quality batch that I’ve done.  These are from my small tumbler, and thus, most of these stones are only 1″ to 1 1/2″ inches in length. They’re beautiful even to the naked eye, but I’m finding that the use of my macro lens and a close photo really allows me to see the beauty and detail in these stones.  Here’s a (large!) number of photos of various agates and jaspers from my latest batch.

Bubblegum Agate

This agate had the typical, bumpy, bubbly shape of a bubblegum agate, but when I found it on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, it was a dull grayish-black. It took the better part of 4 months worth of tumbling to wear down the outer layer, exposing some of the most beautiful patterns I’ve seen on any of my agates.

South Dakota Agate

I’m calling this one “Crystal Dragon”. Not sure whether you’d call this a prairie, bubblegum, or other agate, but I love the swirling pattern, with the crystal/druzy “neck” on the dragon, and a little pink tongue and eye.

Prairie Agate

A prairie agate, showing a beautiful array of colors. A lot of the more weathered agates on the grasslands have black parts on their exterior. I believe that’s manganese oxide that forms when they’re exposed to the elements (at least some of the blacker agates). Much of the time that black disappears when you tumble, but on this prairie agate, the black was maintained in some of the bands.

South Dakota Agate

Wonderful fine detail that’s not all that noticeable to the naked eye, but is quite evident in a macro photo of this agate.

Prairie Agate

A lot of the bubblegum and prairie agates you find have a very subtle, very fine banding such as this. Very often it’s not noticeable until you tumble.

Bubblegum Agate

A classic bubblegum agate, a little larger than many of the agates on this page. Bubblegum agates really tumble beautifully, as you generally get these beautiful agate “eyes”.

Prairie Agate

Interesting shape on this agate, with a little peak that has it’s own little cap/color pattern.

Prairie Agate

A prairie agate, with a lot of “druzy” (crystally) elements.

Prairie Agate

The biggest agate in this batch is also one of the most gorgeous. This beautiful Prairie Agate has some wonderful banding patterns, and a beautiful range of colors.

Bubblegum agate

Another bubblegum agate with the typical eyes you see when polishing.

South Dakota Agate

I’m not sure what to call this one (help!!). It has a definite linear “grain” pattern, but it’s so unlike all the petrified wood I’ve found that I hesitate to call it that.

Prairie Agate

I love the pattern on this one, with the bold orange streak.

South Dakota Jasper

Jasper? Agate? I dunno. Has a pretty pattern though!

Prairie Agate

The most common prairie agate patterns are jagged, rough striping, but this is also a relatively common type of pattern and color for prairie agates from Buffalo Gap.

Bubblegum Agate

Another polished bubblegum agate

Prairie Agate

A prairie agate with some nice banded patterns

Prairie Agate

I love the contrasting patterns on some of the agates, with very dark sections contrasted by white or very light sections.

Bubblegum Agate

Another bubblegum agate, one that was tumbled awhile and didn’t maintain the “eyes” as much as some of the others.

Fall Sparrows and More…

A wonderful, crisp, sunny fall morning, the perfect morning to sparrowing!! Not too many people get excited about sparrows, but this time of year in South Dakota, there’s such a wonderful variety of species that are moving through. One of my favorite kinds of birding trips…finding a weedy field in the fall, setting up in a quiet spot, and sitting back and enjoying all the sparrow species that are feeding on grass and weed seeds. Some are species we have during the summer as well, such as Savannah and Song Sparrows, but we also get some wonderful migrants such as Harris’s Sparrows and Lincoln’s Sparrows.

The crème de la crème though…Le Conte’s Sparrows. They’re a bird many birders haven’t seen, and even when they’re around, they can sometimes be hard to find as they prefer to hide in dense vegetation. In fall around here though, they are often quite bold.  This morning I saw more Le Conte’s Sparrows than I think I ever have in one day.  One weedy field west of Tea, South Dakota was chock-full of them. They were feeding on weed seeds near a gravel road, and there were times I’d have half a dozen in sight at one time.  A great treat, and I did get some good photos as well.

Photos from this morning:

Le Conte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii

A gorgeous little Le Conte’s Sparrow, basking in the early morning sun along a weedy fenceline.

Lincon's Sparrow - Melospiza lincolnii

Probably my 2nd favorite sparrow, a Lincoln’s Sparrow. They have a touch more color and pattern than many sparrows, and just always look so elegant.

Swamp Sparrow - Melospiza georgiana

A Swamp Sparrow perched among the cattails.

Savannah Sparrow - Passerculus sandwichensis

The most numerous of the sparrow species seen this morning, a Savannah Sparrow.

Song Sparrow - Melospiza melodia

One of our summer breeding residents, there’s a ton of Song Sparrows around right now as well, including many first-year birds.

Sedge Wren - Cistothorus platensis

Seems like Le Conte’s Sparrows and Sedge Wrens often go hand-in-hand when I see them in the fall. The same weedy field with the many Le Conte’s also had several Sedge Wrens.

Franklin's Gull - Franklin's Gull October 7th, 2017 Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Other than sparrows, the most plentiful birds this morning were gulls. The skies were full of gulls, as were the areas near the dump (no surprise) and the bigger water bodies in western Minnehaha County. I didn’t pan through all the massive flocks to look for rarities. Ring-billed Gulls and these guys, Franklin’s Gulls, were present by the thousands.

Ring-billed gull - Larus delawarensis

Thousands of Ring-billed Gulls were around. Here one lounges at the beach at Wall lake.

Curious Red-tailed Hawks

When you encounter a bird in the wild, there’s a standard series of events that occur. Far too often, the encounter ends when the bird flies away as you approach.  Hence the challenge for a bird photographer!! But every once in a while, the quarry seems just as interested as the photographer.  Today was one of those experiences.

I was birding a little bit in western Minnehaha County, west of Sioux Falls. I saw a pair of Red-tailed Hawks sitting on adjacent fence posts on the road in front of me. In these situations, I always have my camera ready when I approach, just on the off change that the bird would actually stay perched and not flush. However, as per usual, the pair both took off well before I got in camera range.

Was was NOT per usual is their behavior after taking flight. Instead of flying off to a distant perch, the pair banked…and turned back towards me as I stood on the side of the road. For the next 3 or four minutes, both of them lazily circled above and around me as I furiously clicked away.  Getting nice flight photos of wild raptors is ALWAYS a welcome opportunity…here are some photos of the pair.

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensisRed-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensisRed-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensisRed-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

Costa’s Hummingbird – Drawing

I have had zero motivation to do any drawing this year. Literally. The last time I drew anything…New Year’s Eve of this past year. Unfortunately, I’ve also not been very motivated to go out and do much bird photography lately (hence the long time between blog updates).  Today, I was planning on going out, but it was a gloomy, drippy day.  To try to get over my funk, I thought I’d just ignore the crappy news of the world, pick up my pencils, and draw a bit while listening to baseball.

Here’s the result. Not my favorite, and I admit I was getting antsy at the end and just wanted to finish, so there’s no vegetation or background to speak of. One of my favorite species though…a Costa’s Hummingbird. We don’t get them in South Dakota, but we’ve seen them many times on our trips down to Arizona.

Costa's Hummingbird - Calypte costae

Colored pencil drawing of a Costa’s Hummingbird male

More South Dakota Agates

On Labor Day I again made the long trek to the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands of western South Dakota, a day to look for agates, fossils, petrified wood, and other goodies.  For the first time since we discovered rockhounding this summer, there were actually a number of other people out searching.  You can see how the known agate hunting locations would get picked over.  However, it’s quite similar to a visit to a busy national park like Yellowstone or Yosemite…just get away from the road a bit and you’re likely to have it all to yourself.

Despite several other searchers, I was able to find solitude just by hiking back away from the gravel roads in the area.  There’s no doubt there are more and better finds as you get away from the roads and places people park.  An interesting day, marked by a heavy haze all day from western US forest fires, but also a day filled with agates.  Here are a few agates from the day. Also the latest batch that’s gone through my polishing.  I’ve pretty much got it down now, and can get a real deep shine, but it’s a 2-month process from start to finish!  Always good to finish a batch and see what you get for all your hard work.

Fairburn Agate - South Dakota

This is one I would have loved to have found before it had worn down. I do think this is a legitimate Fairburn agate, but some of the bands are worn away in places. In others, you can really see the fine detail.

Fairburn Agate - South Dakota

The flip side of the same Fairburn. I think I’m going to call this one the “Bacon” agate, given the banding on this side.

Polished South Dakota jaspers and agates

The latest batch to finish in my small tumble polisher. I’m having much better luck now in getting a great shine, simply by 1) taking twice as much time, meaning 2-full weeks in each of the 4 polishing stages, and 2) using distilled water instead of our very hard city water. Just the choice of water has made a huge difference in the shine.

Agatized Syringopora Coral - Fossil

A piece I found earlier this summer that just made it through the polishing process. This is an agatized piece with bits of Syringopora coral fossils throughout. A unique and gorgeous little piece.

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