South Dakota’s Jewel – Custer State Park

My family and I just got back from a long weekend in the Black Hills, spending most of our time in Custer State Park. The Black Hills are a 5 or 6 hour drive from our hometown on the far eastern edge of South Dakota. We travel a lot, but have somehow managed to avoid visiting the area for the last 4 or 5 years, other than occasional fishing trips with my son. After a wonderful, long, Labor Day weekend, I’m not sure why we don’t spend more time in the Black Hills and Custer State Park.  We love National Parks and Monuments, visiting 11 different ones during our summer vacation to Colorado and Utah, but I’d put Custer State Park up with any of them.

Part of the attraction is the diversity the park offers. Custer State Park is big, covering over 110 square miles. Habitats are diverse, ranging from wide open prairie to craggy peaks.  Access is quite easy, with several roads traversing the park, including a number of gravel roads that get far less traffic than roads like the iconic Wildlife Loop.  However, even the wildlife loop is never as busy as the popular National Parks. And as with most parks in the United States, once you step away from the main roads and start hiking, you can find yourself with as much solitude as you desire.

On this trip, we stayed at the “Creekside Lodge”, a wonderful little place from which to base your trip to the Hills. It’s part of the State Game Lodge complex, right off Highway 16a, one of the bigger paved roads through the park, and is in an area that provides quick access to many of the Black Hills attractions. We loved our room at the Creekside lodge, a 2nd floor room with a balcony that overlooked Grace Coolidge Creek. Every night, we’d have deer foraging in the grass right below our hotel room, and the room was large and very comfortable.

For me, it’s the hiking and the wildlife that makes Custer State Park special.  There are no bears in the Black Hills, but you’ll certainly find as many bison, deer, elk, Pronghorn, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs as you could want.  That’s right, just one State Park, with habitats that support creatures as diverse as Bison and Pronghorns on the prairies, and Mountain Goats at high elevation. Every morning on our trip I’d wake before dawn, and drive and hike around the less-traveled gravel roads the connect with the Wildlife Loop road. Every morning, I’d find bountiful photo opportunities.

Yes, it’s “just” a state park, but don’t overlook Custer State Park!! It’s one of the most enjoyable places to visit in the region.  Here are just a few of the many photos I took over the weekend. Note I reserve the right to revisit these same photos in upcoming Photo/Haiku of the day posts!  🙂

American Bison - Custer State Park, South Dakota

The iconic American Bison. Custer State Park has a very large herd that has free reign throughout most of the park. While they could be seen almost anywhere, the wide open grasslands around the wildlife loop are a place where you’ll almost certainly run across large numbers of them.

Coyote - Canis latrans - Custer State Park, South Dakota

A lone coyote, giving me one last look before disappearing into the grassland. There are certainly plenty of coyote around, but they’re pretty shy. Drive the Wildlife Loop right around dawn though, and there’s a good chance you may find one.

Black-tailed Prairie Dog - Cynomys ludovicianus

A Black-tailed Prairie Dog at the entrance to its burrow. There are a number of large prairie dog towns scattered throughout Custer State Park, and they’re always a great place to look for wildlife.

Pronghorn - Antilocapra americana - South Dakota

The Wildlife Loop are offers some wonderful prairie habitat, and is a great spot to find Pronghorn. Pronghorn in South Dakota are generally very shy. It’s no wonder, given the hunting pressure on the species. Custer State Park is probably your best opportunity anywhere to get close to a wild Pronghorn. They’re used to the visitors and will often calmly forage just a few meters away from your car.  How close can you get to a wild Pronghorn at Custer State Park? How about….

Pronghorn - Antilocapra americana - South Dakota

This close! When you shoot wildlife, the problem is that you generally can’t get close enough for a frame-filling photo, even with a “long” camera lens. In this case, my long lens made it impossible to frame the entire animal in the shot, and thus I instead had the opportunity to shoot some wonderful portraits from point-blank range.

Mountain Bluebird - Sialia currucoides

One of my favorite species, the Mountain Bluebird. Near the “airport” (not much of an airport) on Wildlife Loop road, there’s a fence line with a number of bluebird boxes. It’s a terrific spot to find these beautiful sky-blue birds.

Mountain Goat - Oreamnos americanus

ALWAYS. BRING. YOUR. CAMERA!!! After this many years doing photography, I should know this by now! But when we decided to do the “Cathedral Spires” hike in the park, I left the camera in the car. I didn’t think we’d see any wildlife up there! Boy was I wrong. We ran into Mountain Goats twice on the beautiful hike up to the spires! Alas, all I had was my iPhone, but this even with just a standard iPhone 7, we were able to get close enough to these beautiful animals to get photos such as this one. This also gives you an indication of the diversity of landscapes in the park…from Pronghorns on the prairies, to Mountain Goats up high!!

Custer State Park - Dawn

A quick grab-shot with my iPhone of the rising sun, from Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park, showing the wide open prairies and rolling hills on this side of the park.

Visiting Bear’s Ears, Reflecting on Roosevelt and Zinke

Teddy Roosevelt Display - Natural Bridges National Monument

A display greeting visitors at Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah, with Teddy Roosevelt’s proclamation declaring the area as protected lands. An ironic display given the proximity to Bear’s Ear’s National Monument, and what supposed Roosevelt devotee Ryan Zinke and his Department of Interior have done to conservation efforts in the US.

In June, our family took a vacation to the western United States, visiting almost a dozen different National Parks and National Monuments. For a part of the trip we were based in Moab in eastern Utah, with two subsequent days in Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado.  On the travel day in between those two locations, we were going to Natural Bridges National Monument in southeastern Utah when we realized that Bear’s Ears National Monument was nearby. Given the controversy surrounding Bear’s Ears, we had to make a short detour to visit.

Bear’s Ears is so named for a pair of adjacent buttes thought to resemble a pair of bear’s ears.  In Navajo legend, the buttes were formed from the ears of Changing Bear Maiden, who was beautiful and desired by all men.  Tricked into marrying Coyote, Changing Bear Maiden’s brother attempted to hide her from him by cutting off her ears and changing her form. The ears became the prominent buttes for which the National Monument was named.

Bear’s Ears was targeted by the Trump administration for a reduction in size. Key to that move was Senator Orrin Hatch, who suggested the move to the administration shortly after the January 2017 inauguration.  Why reduce the size of a National Monument?  Money of course. It was thought there were some potential oil, gas, and mineral sources on some of the land.  Hatch submitted his own proposed “shapefile” (a digital boundary) to the administration, looking like a heavily gerrymandered political district, with boundaries drawn to eliminate potential resource extraction locations from the Monument boundaries. The suggested boundary was adopted largely as is.  The move was completed on December 4th, 2017, when Trump issued issued a proclamation reducing the size of the monument by an astounding 85%.

The area itself is gorgeous. On much of the lowlands around Bear’s Ears, sagebrush flats are interspersed with dry pinyon and juniper woodlands.  The two Bear’s Ears buttes themselves reach up to 9,058 feet, with heavily forested and green slopes.  It’s rugged and wild land, with little in the way of current development or anthropogenic land uses other than some grazing cattle.

Bear's Ears National Monument - Summit

A small gravel and rock road leads to a small pass between the “ears” of Bear’s Ears, giving you wonderful looks at the two rugged buttes.

There’s a rough unpaved road that leads up to the buttes themselves, allowing you to drive between the two buttes and towards the interior of the National Monument. When I say “rough”, I mean a road that you DEFINITELY wouldn’t take if there had been any recent rain, and a road that we probably had no business taking our rental car. Given the infamy of what’s happened to Bear’s Ears though, we did make the drive up.  It’s quiet and isolated…we only encountered one other car on the road (thankfully, given the narrowness of the road!). The literal quiet in places such as this is something I’ve REALLY learned to appreciate, as there are fewer and fewer locations where you can sit and enjoy your surroundings without hearing even a hint of noise from nearby transportation routes or people.  A beautiful location that we thoroughly enjoyed.

Natural Bridges National Monument is adjacent to Bear’s Ears. We spent time hiking in that Monument, and also stopped at the visitor’s center (Bear’s Ears doesn’t have it’s own visitors center). As you enter the Natural Bridges visitor’s center, you’re greeted by a lifesize cutout of Teddy Roosevelt, with a quote of his own proclamation from 1908, establishing the area as a National Monument. Irony…pure irony.  That’s what went through my mind after seeing the Roosevelt display, just after visiting Bear’s Ears.

The reason? Ryan Zinke, Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, fancies himself as a Teddy Roosevelt devotee.  From the day he started the position, Zinke has constantly compared himself to Teddy Roosevelt.  As a “fan” of the outdoors and using the outdoors for personal enjoyment, Zinke and Roosevelt may have some common ground. Roosevelt himself has a checkered past.  He’s considered an icon for conservation in the United States, while simultaneously being labeled as deplorable for his treatment of Native Americans.  Other informational signs at Natural Bridges note that Bear’s Ears is considered sacred land by the Pubelos, Utes, and Navajos…given that Zinke and Trump completely ignored the Native American communities’ history and desire to protect this land, it’s clear that Zinke too shares Roosevelt’s complete lack of respect for Native American rights.  It’s not forgivable in either case, but with Roosevelt it was more a mirroring of prevalent attitudes in the country.  Over 100 years later, you’d hope someone like a Zinke or Trump would be more enlightened (hint…they’re not).

Bear's Ears National Monument

A view of the two famed “ears” of Bear’s Ears National Monument, from the small road leading to the top. A dry sage, juniper, and pinyon pine landscape becomes more lush as you move up towards the buttes, with greener deciduous and evergreen forests at the top.

Soon after the naming of Zinke as Secretary of the Interior, Grist published an interview with Roosevelt scholar and historian Douglas Brinkley about the comparisons between Zinke and Roosevelt. Brinkley notes some similarities, stating that both were military men, both have/had massive egos, and both were “conservationists”, in that they appreciated our natural lands. Again, however, much of that “appreciation” is based not on environmentalism or even protection of a natural state, and more on the exploitation of that land for human gain.  “Human gain” can mean the hunting and fishing that both Zinke and Roosevelt enjoyed, but also means timber harvesting, cattle grazing, and mineral extraction.

Brinkley does make the clear distinction between “Conservationist” and “Environmentalist”.  The Zinke definition of “conservationist” is a far cry from the modern definition of conservationist, and in complete opposition to modern environmentalist views. Zinke has a history of touting himself as a modern-day Roosevelt conservationist, but turning a blind eye on environmental issues when push comes to shove.  When Zinke ran for Congress in Montana, he was originally given skeptical-yet-hopeful grades for his supposedly pro-environment ideology. That changed the moment he took office. His voting record consistently showed a complete disdain for conservation and environmentalism, with the League of Conservation Voters giving him  a lifetime score of a mere 4% (!!!) for their National Environmental Scorecard. Similar to the somewhat hopeful attitudes towards Zinke before he took office a DOI, I suspect the Brinkley interview would be quite different if held today, after Zinke’s anti-environmentalist views were made even more clear.

Despite Roosevelt’s well-established faults, there’s little doubt he was a true “fan” of America’s natural heritage. Roosevelt has to be rolling over in his grave based on supposed fanboy Zinke’s moves related to conservation of US lands.  Under his guidance the Department of Interior has eliminated over 2 million acres of protected lands. They’ve moved to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.   After a very successful program under Obama to establish state, federal, and private partnerships to protect the Sage Grouse in the Western U.S., Zinke and DOI have scrapped the plan and moved to expand mineral extraction and grazing on fragile sagebrush habitats on which the Grouse depends. As with much of Trump’s administration, Zinke is clearly beholden to the oil and gas industry, with conservation barely considered in any of DOI’s land management decisions. As this story from the New York Times reports, Department of Interior personally were LITERALLY asked by Zinke to prepare a summary of each National Monument in the United States, and what the oil, gas, and mineral production potentials were on those lands. 

Ryan Zinke…other than your ego and your disdain for Native American rights, you are no Teddy Roosevelt.  

It’s such a beautiful, rugged landscape. I  hope it’s kept in this state in the coming decades.  However, indications aren’t favorable, based on what’s happening at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, another Monument that was drastically cut in size by Zinke and the Trump administration.  Mere months after a reduction in size of that monument, a Canadian mining company has announced plans to mine copper and cobalt from lands that were previously protected.

Your national “protected” lands, up for auction to the highest bidder. THAT is the legacy you shall be remembered for, Mr. Zinke.

Bear's Ear's National Monument - Sign

A display at Natural Bridges National Monument, with the two prominent buttes from Bear’s Ears in the background. As the sign notes, Bear’s Ears is considered sacred land by multiple Native American Tribes, tribes which all put heavy pressure on the Trump administration and Zinke to keep the land protected.

Birding the Bog! Sax-Zim in Minnesota

It’s been a relatively “birdy” winter in South Dakota. We’ve had really high numbers of winter finches. I’ve certainly never had more Pine Siskins at my Feeders, and I’ve also had Common Redpolls in my yard for only the third time ever. Both White-winged and Red Crossbills have also been around in select locations (always a rarity). It’s been a GREAT year for Snowy Owls across the northern U.S., and while normally I have to travel to the central or northern parts of South Dakota to see them, I came across three different Snowy Owls within 15 miles of home this winter!

A pretty good winter, given how bleak birding can be in South Dakota at this time of year, but I still had the birding itch to see “more”.  All winter long, I had pondered making the long trip to Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota to look for owls and other boreal “goodies”, but kept putting it off. It IS a long jaunt and requires a hefty time commitment…a six+ hour drive from home.  This weekend was going to be my last chance to make the trip before the winter ended, so I finally pulled the trigger on a trip. It’s SUCH a special birding location and one where I want to get the most of my few chances to visit, so much to the bewilderment of my wife, I decided to leave a 2:00 AM Saturday to maximize the my birding time in the area.  The forecast called for a gloomy, gray Saturday…PERFECT for owling.

The forecast was wrong. Saturday was gorgeous and sunny, with temperatures over 40 degrees.  Not great for the owls who seem to be less active on such days. After getting up so early and driving so far, I was a bit disheartened after birding the entire day Saturday. The only owl I had seen was a Northern Hawk Owl from a very long distance. I’ll never complain about seeing a Northern Hawk Owl, given how few and far opportunities are to see the species in the lower 48 states, but it was a slow and overall disappointing day nonetheless.

Sunday made up for it. A gloomy, gray day, it certainly did seem to bring out the owls, and I had decent luck with other species as well.  Great Gray Owls are one of the big draws for birders in the Bog, and I was able to see three on Sunday, including one at very close range. Two more Northern  Hawk Owls (none very close), plenty of Gray Jays, Ruffed Grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse, Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, and even a glimpse of a Pine Marten that had been visiting a feeder complex in the area…it ended up being a wonderful day of birding!  I struck out on a couple of target birds…Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpecker…but that just gives me an excuse to make the trip again next winter!  Below are a few photos from the day.

Great Gray Owl - Strix nebulosa

The best photo opportunity of the day was this Great Gray Owl. Evidently he had been actively feeding for a few days alongside “Owl Avenue” (aptly named!). It was about 10 o’clock in the morning when I found him, and while I didn’t get to see him catch or eat anything, I was able to get some nice photos and video. Another photographer who was there told me that he had already caught 4 voles that morning! The same photographer said he was watching the Great Gray the evening before, and it surprisingly went after a muskrat! That’s a VERY large prey item for a Great Gray, but evidently he was able to catch it and somehow swallow it whole.

Great Gray Owl - Strix nebulosa

A Great Gray Owl relaxing at the back of a forest clearing. I ended up watching him for over an hour, and he never left this perch. He spent most of that time preening, not actively looking for prey.

Northern Hawk Owl - Surnia ulula

Not the greatest photo in the world, but it does convey what all of my Northern Hawk Owl sightings were like on this trip! I came across three different Northern Hawk Owls, but alas, all of them were some distance away. Given the rarity of a Northern Hawk Owl in the lower 48 states, I will DEFINITELY take it though!

Gray Jay - Perisoreus canadensis

Photo of a Gray Jay, one of my favorite species to watch.  It seemed like every time I came across the species, it was a pair of birds, and one pair was clearly collecting nesting material as I watched them.  

Hairy Woodpecker -  Leuconotopicus villosus

Not the woodpecker I was after, but I’ll take it. I was looking for Black-backed and Three-toed Woodpeckers, two species that were supposedly around in decent numbers this winter, but I struck out on both. One of the things that’s really changed about Sax-Zim Bog since I first went there 14 years ago is the number of feeder complexes that local residents have set up. This guy was on a long-established feeder complex along Admiral Road, but there are now at least a dozen such areas scattered throughout the bog. Given the warm, pleasant weather when I was there, activity at the feeders was pretty slow, but I still was able to see Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Grosbeaks, Common Redpoll, Gray Jays, and several other species.

Northern Hawk Owl - Surnia ulula

NOT from this trip, but a better representation of a Northern Hawk Owl from Sax-Zim Bog. This was from my very first trip to Sax-Zim Bog during the famed owl irruption of the winter of 2004/2005. My introduction to the Bog came through a friend at work, who had heard about incredible numbers of northern owls being found in the bog. As someone who had only started birding a few years before, in 2000, I had never seen a Great Gray Owl or Northern Hawk Owl. I was torn about whether to go or not, as I didn’t know what my chances actually were to see an owl, and it IS a hefty time commitment to drive 6 hours there and back. I did decide to spend 2 days there though in December 2004, and it remains the greatest birding trip of my life! On that first day, I saw over THIRTY Great Gray Owls, and nearly the same number of Northern Hawk Owls! This was one of the first Northern Hawk Owls I found, and the first photos of the species that I’d ever taken. It definitely remains the best series of Northern Hawk Owl photos I have! This guy was sitting at eye level in a low bush, RIGHT next to the road. He was incredibly tolerant of my presence, and I had him to myself for well over an hour as I watched (and photographed) him from extremely close range. How close? I was in my car, not wanting to get out and disturb him, and found that I was actually too close for my camera lens to focus! My Canon 400 mm lens has a minimum focusing distance of about 12 feet, and I was only about 10 feet away as I watched him! To capture the photos I actually scooted over to the passenger seat, before returning to the driver’s seat and watching him preen, sleep, and generally ignore me over the next hour. One of the most magical birding moments of my life, and this photo more than other shows why I’ve continued to return to the Bog every few years since 2004!!!

Eclipse Hunting, Rockhounding, and Dinos…Oh My!

What an utterly spectacular weekend with my son.  We had originally planned to head down to my hometown in Nebraska to view the eclipse Monday. A cloudy forecast for much of Nebraska led to a last-second change of plans, and our extended weekend turned into a weekend of SCIENCE!  And may I say, given how the relentless attack on science continues ever since the election of Orange Hitler, a much NEEDED weekend of science.

Our whirlwind sciency tour was planned in haste on Saturday night.  At that time, the surest bet for sunny skies for the eclipse were in eastern Wyoming, a good 7-8 hour drive from home.  We decided to make a weekend of it, stay in the Black Hills over night Sunday (the nearest hotel we could find to the eclipse path…2 hours away!), and do some agate, fossil, and petrified wood exploring on the way.  Sunday we spent some time on Buffalo Gap National Grasslands in the morning, again finding some nice geologic goodies. By Sunday afternoon we’d made it to Hill City, SD, and spent some time in the Black Hills Institute’s Museum. Wonderful place to look at dinosaur fossils, geologic wonders, and other interesting displays.

The highlight of the trip of course was the eclipse on Monday. Anticipating heavy traffic, we left Hill City by 5:30 AM, and made our way to Lusk, Wyoming.  Traffic wasn’t as bad as we thought, so we were there by 8:00 AM. We grabbed supplies, found a quiet gravel road 20 miles SW of Lusk, and waited for the show.

That “quiet” gravel road ended up being not so quiet. Despite the isolation, other eclipse watchers from all over North America paraded by us, searching out pullouts on the side of the road from which to set up camp. By the time the moon first started to creep in front of the sun, our quiet gravel road had people camped out about every 30 yards for as far as the eye can see. People continued to stream down the road, all the way up until the point of totality.

I’ve never seen a total eclipse. My son has never seen a total eclipse. After this experience, I GUARANTEE that we will make plans to see another, as soon as is feasible (likely 2024).  If there’s a more spine-tingling, goosebump-raising, incredible experience to be had, I’m not sure what it is. As the light got every more dim and eerie, anticipation rose, but the moment of totality kind of sneaks up on you. There was more light than I expected, RIGHT up until totality. The awe of seeing the initial “diamond ring” effect, following by complete totality, is beyond words.

I did want to try to photograph the eclipse. I did take several photos at the start of totality, but after several photos, I HAD to put the camera down, and just revel in the moment.  Other than rather incredible traffic trying to get out of Wyoming and back to South Dakota, it was one of the best travel adventures we’ve ever had.

A few shots of the eclipse, before my jaw dropped and the camera was ignored…

Solar eclipse - 2017

Moments before totality, a few seconds of the “diamond ring” effect. I had read about the stages of the eclipse, and knew this was supposed to happen right before totality. Seeing it was still indescribable.

Solar Eclipse - 2017

The eclipse during the 2_ minutes of totality. This has a bit longer exposure than the next shot, gathering more light so you can see more of the corona. Shooting in this fashion though hides the detail you can observe around the edge of the moon’s disc (see next photo).

Solar Eclipse - 2017

Lower exposure reveals what you can see with your own eyes during totality (at least through my camera, or through our binoculars)…solar prominences flaring off the surface of the sun. This was the moment I dropped the camera and just enjoyed the show. With such a short 2+ minute window to enjoy totality, I didn’t want to miss it with my face behind a camera.

 

Kilauea Lava Videos

I still haven’t had a lot of time to process all the Hawai’i photos and videos, but here are a few videos of some of the lava.  I’m not much of a videographer (doesn’t help that I absolutely hate tripods), but you get the feel for what it’s like.

Takin’ a hike through active lava flows…

Just your casual, ordinary, every day hike this past Monday. We were vacationing on the Big Island of Hawai’i, and had booked a guide to take us to the active lava flows of Kilauea.  We arose before 3:00 AM, met our guide at 4:00AM, and drove as close as you can get to the active flows.  That’s a minimum of 3 to 4 miles away from either the surface flows or the lava’s entry point into the ocean, which meant a early morning hike was in order.  It’s not the easiest hike in the world! For the first 2 miles, you’re following a gravel road and it’s easy, but to get to the active surface flows, we had to hike a good 1 1/2 to 2 miles across the rough, older flows from Kilauea.

A tiring hike, particularly on the way back when the sun starts beating down on you, but SO worth it! It was the hike of a lifetime, as we were able to experience active, flowing lava from as close as we could physically tolerate.  10 feet was about the limit for me, as any closer and the heat from the lava was overwhelming. An incredible experience for our little family!  Here are some photos from the day…click on each photo for a larger view. When I have time to process video I’ll post out here as well.

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilaluea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea - Lava field sunrise

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava - Epic Lava Dude

The guide who took us to the exact location where lava was flowing on the surface was from EpicLava. Highly recommended, once-in-a-lifetime experience!!

The “melting pot” of Hawaiian birds

Just back from 10 days in Hawaii, a region with one of the most screwed-up ecosystems on the planet. As a birder, it was certainly a fun trip, as I added at least 30 “new” species to my life list. Of those 30, however, only one-third were native to the Hawaiian Islands.  No area of the United States has suffered a greater loss of native bird species than Hawaii.  The reasons are many, but they all have a man-made origin. The devastation began when the islands first became populated, and ecosystems were directly impacted by mankind. Forest clearing and the introduction of fire certainly had an impact, but other anthropogenic factors were the most devastating.

There are no native reptiles or amphibians on the Hawaiian islands, and only one native mammal, a species of bat.  However, with the arrival of man came rats and mice, cats, as well as introduced mongoose that were brought to the islands to control the rat populations.  These introduced mammals all were new predators of eggs, young birds, and even adult birds…threats Hawaiian birds had never had to deal with before. Introduced pigs, goats, and sheep devastated the natural vegetation of the islands.  Disease also has had a devastating impact on Hawaiian birds, as introduced avian malaria has wiped out entire species and devastated other species.  Introduced plant species have changed the vegetative composition of Hawaiian ecosystems, and even now, a new fungal disease has started to wipe out Hawaii’s Ohi’a tree, one of the most common and important forest tree’s for Hawaiian birds.

For someone from South Dakota, it’s thus a fun place to bird, but it’s also sobering. Hawaii has certainly become a “melting pot”, regional ecosystem experiment, where birds, plants, and diseases from all regions of the globe are thrown together…winner take all. Unfortunately it’s the native plants and animals that are losing in this experiment.

Here’s a sampling of some of the birds I was able to photograph, and a bit of information as to where these now well-established “Hawaiian” birds actually originated.

Hawai'i 'Amakihi - Chlorodrepanis virens

An ‘Amakihi, specifically, the Hawai’i subspecies. Similar subspecies are found on O’ahu and Kaua’i. This is a native species. They are one of a very few Hawaiian honeycreeper species that has continued to thrive, despite all the ecosystem changes. They were quite common on our visit to the Big Island, and I found them on both the dry and wet sides of the island.

Erckel's Francolin - Pternistis erckelii

There’s no shortage of “gamebirds” now on the big island. Many species of pheasant, quail, and other similar birds have been introduced. This was one of the most common that we saw on Hawai’i, an Erckel’s Francolin. We found them on dry grasslands on the western side of the island, forest edges, and even forest clearings in the wet rain-forests of the eastern side of the island. Nasty looking spurs on these guys…I’d bet the males use them to good effect during the breeding season.

Yellow-billed Cardinal - Paroaria capitata

20 years ago, before I started birding, my wife and I visited O’ahu. Even as a non-birder I noticed the striking Red-crested Cardinals. It wasn’t until I became a birder a few years later that I learned they weren’t native. Hawai’i island doesn’t have the Red-crested Cardinal, but they do have a similar looking bird, the Yellow-billed Cardinal. They are native to parts of South America, but were introduced to Hawai’i several decades ago. They’re not actually closely related to cardinals, they are a species of tanager. We found them in a variety of settings, all over the island, but they certainly have adapted well to a human presence. They were almost ubiquitous in and around suburban settings and parks.

Photo of White-tailed Tropicbird - Phaethon lepturus

This one was a huge surprise to me! We were visiting Kilauea’s main crater, an active crater with a lava lake at the bottom, when I saw multiple white birds streaking through the sky in and around the crater rim. I never got close enough for a great photo, but it was quite obvious what they were once I got my binoculars on them…White-tailed Tropicbirds! I certainly wasn’t expecting to find a tropical sea-bird flying around the crater of an inland volcano, but these guys actually nest on the cliff walls in and around Kilauea’s summit! They are native, and given their unique habitat choice on the island, they are one species not heavily impacted by anthropogenic activity. Their choice of nesting location shields them from the rats, cats, and mongoose that have devastated other nesting birds on the islands.

Photo of African Silverbill - Euodice cantans

One of the best places I birded on Hawai’i was on the slopes of Mauna Loa, between 5,000 and 7,500 feet above sea level. There were many native mamane trees on the dry eastern slopes, and these dry woodlands with scattered trees and grasses were wonderful for a wide variety of species. This included native Amakihi and Elepaio, but also included MANY non-native species. That included roving flocks of these guys, African Silverbills. They are a native of western and central Africa.

Photo of Red-billed Leiothrix - Leiothrix lutea

Another non-native species that was common in the dry mamane forests on the slopes of Mauna Loa…Red-billed Leiothrix. Beautiful birds, these guys were mingling with mixed flocks of other small birds, including the native Amakihi. They are native to southern China and the Himalayan region.

Photo of 'Apapane - Himatione sanguinea

Like the Amakihi, this is another of the few native Hawaiian honeycreepers that seems to still be doing well…the ‘Apapane. They are still quite common and widespread on Hawai’i. Wherever we found Ohi’a trees on the wet, eastern side of the island, we found ‘Apapane. Alas though, even the few native Hawaiian honeycreeper species that have survived are faced with devastating population losses. The Ohi’a tree on which these guys depend (shown in this photo) have been subjected to a new fungal disease that just started devastating Ohi’a populations on Hawai’i in 2010. In the few short years since, large areas of Ohi’a-dominated forest have been affected. We ourselves saw huge swaths of forests with all the large Ohi’a trees dead. So far the fungus is confined to the island of Hawai’i, but it’s a horrible development for Hawaiian birds that are so dependent upon this plant.

Photo of Grey Francolin - Francolinus pondicerianus

Another of the non-native Francolin’s, this is a Grey Francolin. These weren’t nearly as common as the Erckel’s Francolin, and they seem to be restricted to the dry lowlands on the western side of Hawai’i. I also saw a number of Black Francolin on Hawai’i, but wasn’t able to get a photo of them. The Grey Francolin shown here is native to southern Asia.

Photo of Nene - Branta sandvicensis

The state bird of Hawai’i, the Nene. We saw them flying over on occasion, but the ONLY place we ever saw them on the ground? Golf courses. Nene nearly went extinct several decades ago until captive breeding was used to rebuild the population. Despite seeing them on a number of occasions on Hawai’i, it’s not a complete conservation success story. Populations on the main island of Hawai’i are still likely not self-sustaining. As ground nesters, eggs and young are extremely susceptible to predation from rats, cats, and mongoose. Even brooding adult birds may be attacked. Without captive breeding, it is unlikely the species would survive on Hawai’i.

Photo of Zebra Dove - Geopelia striata

A Zebra Dove sitting on a fenceline. A native of southeastern Asia, these guys are EVERYWHERE on the Big Island, particularly in and around urban and suburban areas. Zebra Doves have pretty much become the equivalent of Rock Pigeons in the continental United States…a species that is found everywhere humans are found.

Photo of Yellow-fronted Canary - Serinus mozambicus

A beautiful, yet non-native, Yellow-fronted Canary. They are native to sub-Saharan Africa. We found them in a number of habitats, but particularly on woodland edges with grasses and grass seed available nearby.

Photo of Black Noddy - Anous minutus

A Black Noddy…specifically the Hawaiian sub-species, known locally as the Noio. When visiting southern part of Hawai’i, we saw them on multiple occasions, cruising in and around the coastal seacliffs upon which they nest. A native seabird that seems to still be doing quite well.

Photo of Saffron Finch - Sicalis flaveola

One of the first birds we saw after getting off the plane in Kona were a pair of absolutely gorgeous Saffron Finches near the Airport. Beautiful, found in many places all over the island, but alas, not native. They are a tanager relative native to South America.

Photo of Eurasian Skylark - Alauda arvensis

European settlers introduced some of their favorite European species in multiple locations throughout the globe. One of their favorite birds from “back home” were Eurasian Skylarks, a song known for their melodious songs. They are now well established on the Big Island, and we saw them EVERYWHERE on the grassy western slopes of Mauna Loa.

Photo of Pueo - Asio flammeus sandwichensis

For our first 4 days on the island, we stayed at an area about 20 miles north of the Kona airport. Despite driving across several parts of the dry, western part of the island in those first few days, it took THREE FULL DAYS before I finally saw a bird that was actually NATIVE to Hawai’i. That bird was a “Pueo”, the local name for the only native owl found in the Hawaiian islands. Most think it’s a subspecies of the Short-eared Owl. There was one road on the western slopes of Mauna Loa where I had incredible success finding these guys, including 5 individual owls in one 8-mile section of road one evening.

Photo of Pueo - Asio flammeus sandwichensis

Both the first and last native bird photos of our trip were of a Pueo. This was our last evening on the island, with a lone Pueo sitting on a fence post on the western slopes of Mauna Loa.

 

Geologic Therapy – South Dakota Agates, Petrified Wood

Buffalo Gap National Grasslands - Kadoka

A typical view of our newly discovered geologic nirvana, near Kadoka, South Dakota. The eroding bluffs reveal their treasures contained within, with the surrounding ravines and flatlands literally covered with agates, petrified wood, and other geologic goodies. Click for a larger view. Photos of all the geologic goodies are at the bottom of this post.

Yeah, it’s been 4 weeks since a blog post.  It’s been a rather stressful last few weeks, thus the general lack of birding, or blogging about birding.  The stress comes from being a scientist and having all of my funding coming from federal programs that happen to have the word “climate” in their name. My work focuses on landscape change and trying to anticipate what future landscapes will look like, and while it necessarily focuses on potential impacts of climate change, that’s not the major focus.  No matter…with the word “climate” in my funding source and appearing occasionally in my published work, it’s work with a big red bullseye target in this political environment.  Hence the stressful few weeks, dealing with budget cuts, and the stress of having to re-orient staff and resources….”re-orient” being the most friendly way to say it.

In the last few weeks though, it has given me some time to think about life priorities.  I hate to say it, given how I love my job, but it has made me realize that work is pretty damned low on the totem pole of ranked priorities.  What I have done more in the last few weeks…spend time with my wonderful son, including what has been absolutely wonderful “geologic therapy”.

What’s that you say? You’ve never undergone geologic therapy to get over your troubles? I highly recommend it!  At work there’s a wonderful guy who has been there forever.  He’s a geologist by training, and is always eager to share his knowledge and enthusiasm about geology.  It was a morning a few weeks ago, literally just a couple of hours before I found out about the budget cuts, that he came into my office and the topic turned to good places to find rocks and fossils in South Dakota.  He excitedly talked about a location on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, took me back to his office, and printed out maps to show me exactly where to look.  Wonderful, I thought! It sounded like so much fun, and I imagined that perhaps at some point later this summer, I might try to visit the location!!

“Later this summer” turned out to be the very next day!  After hearing of the budget cuts, I had to get away from work. That next day I took the day off, and my son and I headed west to the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands near Kadoka, South Dakota.  It’s a bit of a jaunt from our part of South Dakota…3 1/2 hours to be exact…but the long drive was definitely worth it.  It turned into a “geologic therapy” day that helped me at least temporarily forget about everything at work.  It was SO much fun, prospecting for rocks and fossils with my son, that we again made the long drive yesterday and had another wonderful day on the Grasslands.

The location is on the northwest edge of the Grasslands.  It’s an area of eroding bluffs, softer material in which agates, jaspers, rose quartz, petrified wood, and other geologic goodies are embedded. When you first arrive at the site, it’s rather astonishing to see the landscape literally covered with a smorgasbord of rocks, ranging from pebble sized up to rocks the size of your fist (and a few larger ones).  As you walk the rocky grounds around the bluffs, the variety of materials around you is rather incredible. Agates are the major attraction here, with gorgeous Prairie Agates found strewn throughout the area, as are “bubblegum agates” and water agates.  We haven’t found one yet, but the famed Fairburn Agate also can be found here, a unique, incredibly beautiful agate for which South Dakota is famous.

Pieces of petrified wood are also found in the area, and the variety there is also rather amazing.  Pieces range from thumbnail size up to chunks up to a foot long, with a wide variety of colors and textures.

Because of these two visits, both my son and I have become smitten with “rock-hounding”! In the past few weeks, we’ve also bought a tumbler and the necessary materials for polishing our finds. It’s a process that definitely tests the patience of a young teenage boy, given that there are four individual steps for polishing, each of which takes about a week as you progress to ever-finer grits in the tumbler.  The polishing part itself is a fascinating process, as many of the agates and petrified wood pieces REALLY start to come alive in the polishing process, with a dull outer coating giving way to some incredibly beautiful patterns underneath.  We still haven’t completed the polishing process on a batch, but hope to have some finished rocks shortly.

It’s a wonderful area to visit if you have any interest in geology or science in general. Unlike most places in the state, it’s also 100% legal to take what you find!  Badlands National Park is right next to the location we were searching, an area known for its geologic “goodies”, but also an area where collecting of rocks, minerals, or fossils is illegal.  On these locations in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, however, collecting is allowed. The Buffalo Gap visitors center will be able to direct you to multiple locations where agates, petrified wood, and other minerals may be found.

Some photos of the goodies!!

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

One of the most beautiful Prairie Agates we’ve found in our two trips there so far. The “holly-leaf” look at the bottom had me excited at first that we found a Fairburn agate, but no, I think it’s just a very beautiful Prairie Agate. Note this is wet to give it a bit of a look of what it might look like polished.

Prairie Agates -South Dakota

Several Prairie Agates from yesterday on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

Bubblegum Agates - South Dakota

(Mostly) Bubblegum agates, a cool form of agate that really stand out from the banded prairie agates. When you first see some of them lying on the ground, they truly do look like pieces of chewed up bubblegum.

Petrified Wood - South Dakota

A number of different varieties of petrified wood from yesterday. The range of colors and textures is amazing.

Prairie Agates - South Dakota

Closer view of some of the prairie agates

Petrified Wood - South Dakota

There were a few really big chunks of petrified wood we found, but this is the biggest that we kept (about 6-7 inches long).

Petrified Wood - South Dakota

Another piece of petrified wood, this one with a grayish tone that is much different than some of the others. The detail and wood patterns are so incredibly detailed on many of these.

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

Another beautifully banded prairie agate

 

Yellowstone Winter – Geothermal Features

I’m still trying to find to time to process photos and video from Yellowstone. I only had half a day to walk around the Upper Geyser Basin at Yellowstone, but it was really magical. I started walking the basin a bit before dawn, and it was 2 hours before I finally ran into another human being.  The only sounds that you heard were the gurgling of the Firehole River, and the hissing, bubbling, roaring sounds of the many geothermal features in the area.  A wonderful morning, and a morning I thought I’d try something different (for me, at least).

I’m still a neophyte with regard to video. Even with a DSLR that shoots wonderful video, I very rarely actually try it. I did use my Canon 70d for some video in Yellowstone last week, but most of the time when I wanted video instead of still photographs, I found myself using my iPhone 7.  I frankly don’t use my iPhone for much of anything, really, and haven’t ever really used it for photography or video. Last week though I quickly found just how wonderful video quality can be using an iPhone. I’ll still always love shooting with my DSLR, particularly given my focus on birds and need for a long lens, but it’s nice knowing that I’ll have good video capabilities as well, just by carrying my phone.

Here are several videos of geothermal features in the Upper Geyser Basin and in the Fountain Paint Pots area of Yellowstone.  So beautiful in winter, and the geothermal features have such a different look in the extreme cold.

This one is “Red Spouter”, a unique little hot spring/fumarole from the Fountain Paint Pots region. It’s a very new feature geologically. It didn’t exist until the massive Hebgen Lake earthquake of 1959, an event that changed a lot of the geothermal features in the park.

Fountain Paint Pots is adjacent to Red Spouter.  I’ve seen the area in summer, when there’s more water available and it’s more like boiling water than boiling “mud”.  It was rather cool to see the thick bubbling mud on a cold winter’s day.

The highlight of the trip was just after I arrived at the Snow Lodge near Old Faithful.  The only way into the area in winter is by snow mobile or snow coach. I took a snow coach, and arrived at the Snow Lodge just as the sun was setting.  We were told Old Faithful was likely to erupt in about 30 minutes, so I checked in, grabbed my camera, and headed for the geyser.  The sun had already set, with just a bit of light still in the western horizon.  I was rather shocked to find that I was all alone, rather stunning for someone who has been in Yellowstone many times during the summer months, and was used to throngs of people in the Old Faithful area.  The eruption started, and I still was literally the only person watching. My only company?  A pair of coyotes that loped in and started hunting around the boardwalks.  A magical, solitary moment I’ll never forget.

Castle Geyser is a feature we’ve seen several times before in summer during our Yellowstone visits. It’s always interesting, with a large cone structure and some beautifully colored bacterial mats growing in the hot water runoff.  However, we’ve never seen it erupt. Seeing it actually erupt on a morning where the temperatures were about 10-below zero was truly wonderful.  The noise, the incredibly tall plume of steam, and again, having it all to myself…a great treat.

Morning Glory Pool in the Upper Geyser Basin is such an iconic feature, and I had to see it in winter. It’s only about a mile walk down from Old Faithful, and while the boardwalks and paths weren’t maintained, enough snowshoe and cross-country skiing traffic had occurred that it was “walkable”, even without snowshoes. Morning Glory is always beautiful, but alas, even in the 20 or so years since we’ve been going to Yellowstone, you can see a difference in the colors.  It’s not as vibrant any more, due to visitors throwing debris in the pool that interferes with hot water movement into the pool. Still a beautiful feature though, particularly against a backdrop of snow and ice.

It’s not just the big iconic geothermal features that are an attraction in the Upper Geyser Basin. There are SO many little hot springs, geysers, and fumaroles that at times it’s hard to know where to look.  This little feature is called “Scissors Spring”.  Certainly a high-temperature feature, as it was vigorously boiling the entire time I watched.

One of the first erupting geysers I encountered on this cold January morning was tiny “Little Squirt” geyser.  What it was lacking in size, it made up for in “spunk”! A fun little geyser to watch.

One of the bigger eruptions that occurred while I was there, Grotto Geyser put on a nice early morning show when temperatures were still very cold.  It was fun watching the hot water shoot up into the 10-below air, and come falling back down as a puffy, steamy cloud.  A fun eruption to watch, and one that continued for quite some time.

Another little feature, called “Ear Spring” — It’s not just the geothermal features themselves that are cool when you’re walking through the geyser basins.  The beautifully colored bacterial mats that grow in the hot water can be truly spectacular.  A beautiful little area of these were found right around Ear Spring.

This is one of the first videos I shot this morning, a panorama of the entire Upper Geyser basin, right as the sun was coming up. This one gives a great idea of the isolation, and the beauty, of winter in the area.

Finally, a video of the aptly named Firehole River that winds through the Upper Geyser Basin. There are numerous geothermal features right along the shores of the Firehole, with warm water keeping the river clear of ice all year round. The warm water in the river was certainly an attractant to wildlife, with Canada Geese, Common and Barrow’s Goldeneye, Common Merganser, and Mallard all birds I saw while walking through the Upper Geyser Basin.

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