Articles for the Month of July 2017

“Planetary Agates” from South Dakota

I have a new hobby! I got a new lens 2 summers ago. It’s a very high quality lens that enables some truly stunning, clear, crisp photos, but I just haven’t used it very much since it’s quite a bit different lens than the one I use to shoot birds.  Today I thought I’d give it a whirl, and in doing so, I may have created a new hobby for myself…taking photos of the planets!!  I was able to take photos of 12 different planets today, all while out on my back deck!  Yeah…yeah…THAT’s right… I took photos of TWELVE different planets, in the space of only about an hour.

Well…OK…they may LOOK like planets, but I’ll fess up…they’re not. I put my rarely used macro lens on my camera this afternoon, and started to take some documentary photos of some of the agates and other stones that my son and I have found over the last month on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands here in South Dakota. After taking a few extreme closeup photos of one of our favorite agate finds, the composition of the photo, with the curve of the agate and the shadow behind it, made it look like a photo of a portion of a planet. I really loved the look of the macro shot, and just went with it, setting up other agates and trying to get “planetary agate” photos.  Here’s a collection of some of our favorite agate finds from the last month…

South Dakota Prairie Agate

“Planetary Agate #1” – This is part of a typical Prairie Agate, something that are relatively common on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. This is the photo that started the “Planetary Agate” series. The beautiful, cloud-like banding of a prairie agate definitely gives it a “planetary” vibe in this kind of view.

Fairburn Agate from South Dakota

Of the 12 “Planetary Agate” photos here, this one is perhaps the least “planet-like” given the sharp banding, but this Fairburn has been our best find so far. The gorgeous, thin, parallel banding of a Fairburn, coupled with that incredible translucent red “eye” do give it an otherworldly look.

Bubblegum Agate from South Dakota

This is a bubblegum agate that’s been through the tumbler a few times, revealing the gorgeous warm reddish-tones underneath. We’re DEFINITELY back on a firm “planetary agate” footing with this one.

Fairburn Agate from South Dakota

A planet’s surface, pockmarked by dozens of meteor collisions!! Or…perhaps it’s just a macro shot of a gorgeous Fairburn Agate from the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands of South Dakota. This is a very unusual agate, what we’ve called our “Easter Island Head” Fairburn. When we found it, it was all black, and looked like an Easter Island head. With a bit of polishing, the black gave way to this gorgeous, surreal Fairburn pattern underneath.

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

A very interesting “planet”, as this agate had all the typical markings of a prairie agate when we first spotted it. However, there were a few hints that other patterns were hidden underneath, and with a bit of polishing, some of the tighter banding more typical of a Fairburn agate were revealed. One of the more “planetary” looking of the 12 agate photos here.

Bubblegum Agate - South Dakota

Another bubblegum agate that’s been in the tumbler a while. The bubblegum agates we’ve found so far have been so fun to try in our tumble polisher. There have been some wonderful, surprise patterns on some of the tumbled bubblegum agates, including…this VERY planetary-looking pattern.

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

The typical colors of the prairie agates you find are warm orangish, tan, and white tones, but you do find other colors as well. Probably the second most common are bands of black and white. I believe from what a geologist friend told me, the blackish tones come from a touch of manganese? I guess the vertical bands in this shot make it a bit less “planet-like”, but still a beautiful, typical prairie agate from our state.

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

Not only does this portion of a prairie agate look like a planet, but the entire agate itself does! This is one of the larger agates we’ve taken back with us, a heavy, very round agate with some very interesting “windows” of other colors, such as shown here. Other than the banding, the prairie agates here also can have other patterns similar to this.

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

Another prairie agate that’s a bit different, in that the primary patterns are these elongated ellipsoids of white, surrounded by a thin “shell” of warm brown. Different pattern than the others…perhaps not so “planetary”…but a cool looking agate nonetheless.

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

This agate got my heart racing a bit when I first saw its edge poking out of the hard crust on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. The first thing I saw was that far right edge sticking out, and with a suggestion of the “holly-leaf” look on those bands, I thought I might have found South Dakota’s specialty, a Fairburn agate. Alas, while the markings may have some of the fortification-look of a Fairburn, this is definitely a prairie agate, but a BIG prairie agate with some of the most intricate banding of any prairie agate we’ve found. One of my favorites, and it makes for a nice “planetary agate” as well.

Bubblegum Agate - South Dakota

Another of the polished bubblegum agates, this one was a bit of a surprise when we first took it out of our tumbler after a “rough-polish” phase. The bubblegum-like nodules were worn smooth after tumbling, revealing very distinct fortification patterns that had the shape of a Fairburn, but not really the fine banding structure. Gorgeously colored little agate though.

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

The last of our “planetary agates”, this is another typical prairie agate, showing the most common kind of patterning that you see…broad, diffiuse, “cloud-like” bands. We hope you’ve enjoyed our little foray into “planetary agates!”


Agate bonanza and more, with gorgeous Fairburn

The flip side of the coin from last Friday.  Other than looking for birds, I also spent a lot of time walking the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands looking for agates, fossils, and whatever other goodies I can find.  It was a spectacular day (other than twice getting poured upon, on a day forecast to be totally dry), including a GORGEOUS Fairburn agate find.  Here’s some of the highlights of the day:

Fairburn Agate - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

Probably the best Fairburn Agate I’ve found in my LONG and illustrious career as a rockhound (ok, in the 3 weeks I’ve been doing this). I paid the price for this one! I found it as far away from the car as I walked all day, and it started absolutely pouring on me just 1 minute after finding it.

Bubblegum Agates - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

A collection of some of the best bubblegum agates from the day. The ones shown here are all small ones (1 1/2″ or less).

Bubblegum Agate - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

A very large button (?) agate (about 3″ across). I haven’t found any agates like this that are so well preserved and so big.

Horn Coral - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

A bit of horn coral. I’m told this is a “traveler”, that the geology of the area is too young to host this. It’s a traveler from the Black Hills, washed down like the agates and other goodies you find here.

Unusual Prairie Agate - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

A rather unusual Prairie Agate. The rest of the agate looks like many typical prairie agates you find here, with the jagged, orangish-brown, diffuse banding. However, on this one side are these starkly different, very fine, parallel bands that are not found on any other prairie agate that I’ve found so far. Lacks the “holly leaf” pattern of a real Fairburn, but the thinness of the bands and their perfectly parallel nature reminds you of one.

Prairie Agates - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

More typical prairie agates. The ones you find most often are the ones with warm creamy and orangish tones, but there are also some cool ones with black, reddish-tones, or other colors.


One day away from the 4th of July, so I thought it was very appropriate to bring back this red, white, and “blue” agate. The colors even are arranged correctly!

Petrified Wood - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

A variety of petrified wood pieces. This stuff is just everywhere, and occasionally you run across a much bigger piece that weighs several pounds.

Prairie agate - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

A large prairie agate (almost 4″ across) with an unusual pattern on one side.

Bubblegum Agate - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

A bit bigger bubblegum agate…or at least that’s what I think it is. Reminds me I guess of what a really worn down bubblegum agate might look like, with the stuff in between the “eyes” wearing away more quickly? That’s my (very) amateur interpretation.

Bubblegum Agate - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

A somewhat larger (~2″) bubblegum agate (perhaps an “eye agate?”), with a pattern of nodules that almost make it look like a brain coral in spots

Fossil plant bits

I think this is just a mix of fossilized plant bits. Again, my amateurish interpretation, but that’s what I’ve found online

Nemesis conquered – Common Nighthawk

Friday I took the day off and went to the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.  Again.  Funny how this is working out…work gets more and more depressing as budget news gets worse and worse (for any project that DARES have the word “climate” involved in any way…kiss of death in this environment). As and work gets more and more depressing, I find myself taking more and more days off and going out to try to forget.  At this pace, I’ll soon just skip pretending and just retire.  Sure, I’m not nearly old enough to retire yet, and can’t afford it, but isn’t my sanity more important than being able to afford things like food, shelter, health care, etc.?

My purpose on the Grasslands was two-fold Friday” 1) continue trying to satisfy the rockhounding bug that’s infected my very soul in recent weeks, and 2) try like heck to get a photo of all the Common Nighthawks we’ve seen while exploring the area.  Common Nighthawks aren’t exactly a rare sight (hence the word “common” in their name?).  I see them all the time in the summer months. Heck, I see them while sitting on my back deck!  No, seeing them isn’t the problem.  PHOTOGRAPHING them is the problem. Around here in eastern South Dakota, you never see them roosting out in the open.  When you see them, they’re in flight.  Have you tried taking a photo of a Common Nighthawk in flight?  They are very “bat-like” in the air, dipping and darting in very unpredictable, chaotic flights.  I’ve tried…and failed…many times to get a photo of them in flight, including those that sometimes grace the air around my house.

In the Grasslands, you certainly see them in flight as well, but what I was really hoping for was to catch one on the ground, or on a daytime roost on a fence post (a kind of photo you often see of them).  Given how many we’ve seen out there, and given there’s ONLY a bunch of open space for them to perch, I thought my odds might be better!  My first chance would have been perfect, and would have been the only shots of Common Nighthawks I would ever need. I was walking far from the car, headed back, when I (literally) stumbled across a lone Nighthawk, sitting on the ground 10 feet in front of me.  It looked up and casually took off, circling me and scolding me.  There on the ground…it had uncovered two tiny, ping-pong ball-sized fluffballs…two cute little babies, right in front of me!

Perfect opportunity…so where are the photos?  Well, the REASON I was headed back to the car is because of a poor weather forecast. “Sunny with occasional clouds”, the meteorologists said.  That forecast was hard to reconcile with the rain pouring down upon me as I raced back to the car.  My main thought at the time…keep the camera gear dry!! There was no way I was going to try to get any photo in that rain, and I also hated leaving those two little fluffballs exposed to the elements. I moved on as quickly as I can, turned around after a bit, and saw the parent had returned.  All was not lost on the Nighthawk front, however!  Later that day, I did indeed come across a Common Nighthawk using one of the fence poles as a daytime roost.  NEMESIS conquered!!  For finally getting a photo of a “common” bird, it felt awfully good!

Common Nighthawk - Chordeiles minor

Nemesis conquered! A lone Common Nighthawk, sleeping atop a fence pole on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands in South Dakota.

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