Articles for the Month of June 2017

Long-billed Curlew Encounter

What a magical weekend!  My son and I continue to be enthralled with our new hobby…being rockhounds, looking for agates, petrified wood, rose quartz, and whatever else we may come across on the designated collection spots on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. We stayed overnight Saturday near Philip, South Dakota, and then were searching on Saturday evening and Sunday morning.  The geologic finds were extraordinary (more on that in a later post), but the biggest thrill of the trip for me was an encounter with Long-billed Curlew, a species I haven’t had very good looks at in South Dakota. Saturday evening, we couldn’t have asked for a closer, good look at a wild Long-billed Curlew. The story…

Long-billed Curlew - Numenius americanus

We first saw the curlew as it flew over the gravel road we were on, and landed in the grasslands on the west side of the road. It stood there staring at us from some distance, while my son and I got out of the car to take photos. We started taking photos, and then walked through the ditch to the fence line to get a bit of a closer view. Much to our surprise, instead of retreating (as most birds do when you approach…especially if you have a camera!!) it started walking directly TOWARDS us.

Long-billed Curlew - Numenius americanus

It wasn’t stopping! As I furiously snapped photo after photo, the curlew kept advancing directly towards our position, marching very purposely directly at us! It stopped less than 20 feet away, and began walking back and forth, often stopping to cast a wary look at us and let out a cry.

Long-billed Curlew - Numenius americanus

We remained motionless, standing at the fence line while the curlew paced and sized us up. Finally, it seemed to have had enough and started walking even CLOSER to us. Soon it was too close for me to get the entire bird in the photo frame. Sensing what was going on, we started to back up towards the car as the curlew stared DIRECTLY at us and gave us the scolding of a lifetime.

Long-billed Curlew (Fledgling) - Numenius americanus

We were a little slow on the uptake, but given the adult bird’s behavior, it became obvious that it was upset that we were too close to a nest, or to its young. It wasn’t until we got back in the car and started to drive away that we spotted them…one…then TWO beautiful little spotted puffballs that had been crouching down in the prairie grass, perhaps 20 yards off the road. As we drove away, the adult quickly strode over to its two downy young. Once again the family was together, and safe from the pair of two-legged interlopers who had so rudely interrupted!

Sunset over the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

Sunset over the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, on the edge of the Badlands. This was just an hour and a half after the Curlew encounter, with the intervening time spent looking for agates and other geologic finds. A GORGEOUS end to an absolutely spectacular evening.

Finding Hidden Treasures – Fairburn Agates!

Fairburn Agate - South Dakota

The partially polished Fairburn Agate, with the black outer layers being worn away, starting to reveal the beautiful, characteristic banding pattern of a Fairburn Agate underneath. In this “profile” view, you can perhaps see why my son and I have dubbed this the “Easter Island Head” agate.

My son and I have have been bitten hard by the rock-hounding bug. We’re newly infected…we’ve only made two excursions in search of geologic wonders…but I fear a lifetime affliction may be forming. In those two trips, we went to an area of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands where you’re allowed to collect agates, jaspers, petrified wood, or other geologic finds. The variety (and beauty) of rocks and minerals you find in the area is astonishing.  While we’ve certainly had a blast and had some wonderful finds, so far we have struck out on finding the “Holy Grail” of agates…the famed Fairburn Agate.

Fairburn Agates are one of the world’s most famous, and they’re found only here in South Dakota. They have an incredible fine, even banding, often displaying an incredible array of different colors. They were originally identified near Fairburn, South Dakota, on the outskirts of the Black Hills. However, they can also occasionally be found elsewhere in southwestern South Dakota, including the area of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands where we have been searching.

In our two trips, we hadn’t identified any Fairburn agates, but we’ve certainly found our fair share of prairie agates, bubblegum agates, rose quartz, and petrified wood.  All of these are very beautiful in their raw state, but we’ve also purchased a rotary tumbler for polishing our finds. We had our first batch going in the tumbler, and last night was the first “reveal”. It’s only the first “rough” stage of polishing, meant to round off and shape stones, so there are at least couple weeks of more polishing before this first batch is in their final, lustrous form. However, in this first batch we had a major surprise…a simply GORGEOUS Fairburn Agate!

On our last trip, we found a small (1 1/2″), egg-shaped stone with a very irregular outer surface.  It was entirely coal black, without a speck of color, without a trace of banding. However, it was one that we threw in with our first polish batch.  The rough shaping and polishing has started to wear away the black outer layer, revealing the gorgeous Fairburn patterns underneath!  We are going to put the agate through the rough polish stage again to wear away more black and reveal more of the inner Fairburn pattern. We also have another, very similar stone (photo below) that I suspect is also a Fairburn. SUCH FUN!  SUCH EXCITEMENT, to open the polisher for the first time and see the transformed agates and stones.

Fairburn Agate - South Dakota

A full-sized view of the “Eastern Island Head” agate.  None of the colors or banding here was visible until the agate went through the “rough” polishing stage for 8 days. 

Fairburn Agate - South Dakota

Another view of the Fairburn, on the opposite side of photo #1. Similar beautiful banding patterns, with several “eyes”.

Fairburn Agate - South Dakota

The “Back side” of the Easter Island Head agate. It’s quite evident that everywhere the black outer layer is worn down by the polisher, a gorgeous Fairburn pattern is revealed underneath.

Fairburn Agate (likely) - South Dakota

Another agate from the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, with a similar shape and size. It lacks the overall dark coloring of the “Easter Islands Head’ agate, but you can see a hint of a Fairburn pattern in the pebbly outer shell of this one as well. This one is also headed to the polisher, and my guess is that polishing will also reveal a beautiful Fairburn underneath.

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


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