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Pondering Petrified Wood

Human beings are funny creatures. When we see something, we immediately want to categorize it.  For a birder, identifying and tallying species is a huge part of the hobby. For my work as a scientist working with satellite imagery, my task is to categorize the types of land cover (cropland, urban, deciduous forest, etc.) on the earth’s surface.  For a rockhound?  I’m struggling with identification as a rockhound newbie, just as I did 20 years ago when I was a birding newbie.

Petrified wood is one category of material I thought was easy to identify. When I’m out on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, there is a LOT of petrified wood lying around. By that, I mean there’s a lot of easily identifiable pieces that look exactly LIKE wood, with obvious grain patterns.  But as with anything in life, it’s not that easy.  Below are some of the obvious, and not so obvious pieces I’ve found on the Grasslands. Thoughts? Are all of these petrified wood?

Petrified Wood - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

First, an obvious piece of petrified wood. This is what I find the most of…gray exterior pieces with clear grain patterns, some of which are so detailed they look like fresh pieces of wood.

Petrified Wood - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

Another obvious one. Both of these first two pieces have also been tumble polished to a nice shine.

Potential Petrified Wood - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

And this piece? This is the most colorful piece I’ve found, for something that’s possibly petrified wood. You certainly see a linear “grain” running throughout. Petrified wood? Perhaps an agatized petrified wood?

Potential Petrified Wood - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

Same piece as above, except on the flip side. Again, you see the grain pattern throughout.

Potential Petrified Wood - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

A less obvious one. The photo doesn’t show it as clearly as what you see through a loupe, but there are rough “grain” patterns. They’re more little streaky nodules all oriented the same direction. I know there’s petrified palm that can be found in this area, but I don’t know what exactly the palm looks like from this area.

Potential Petrified Wood - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

A similar one, with little linear nodules lined up in the same orientation like a wood grain (again, a bit hard to see in this photo).

Potential Petrified Wood - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

The photo of this piece does a better job showing the type of “grain” seen in the previous two pieces as well. Obvious, and all oriented in the same direction.

New Polished Batch – Best Yet!

There are two moments in polishing stones that are akin to Christmas morning for a kid.  One is after the first rough polish. It’s at that stage where you get some wonderful hidden surprises, where the rough polishing has removed outer material and exposed some beautiful patterns underneath (happens a lot with bubblegum agates, for example).  The second big moment is taking a batch out of the final polish. It’s a long process to polish rocks!  I’ve learned patience, and it’s usually a two-month process to go from rough material, to a beautiful, shiny final product.  Here are photos of the latest batch…my best yet, without question!  A wonderful mix of agates, quartz, petrified wood, and jaspers.   And the best aspect of this batch…EVERY piece was self-collected, on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands here in South Dakota.

Polished agates and Stones - South Dakota Rockhound

An overview of the final batch. In this batch, I included a wide variety of stones, including many different agates, petrified wood, quartz, and jaspers. The one thing they all have in common…they all came out WONDERFULLY shiny!

Polished Fairburn Agate

A surprise! This is one of those agates where there’s a surprise underneath a weathered outer layer. I suspected there might be something special underneath the heavily weathered exterior of this piece. There certainly is…the beautiful, fine banding of a Fairburn agate.

Bubblegum Agates - Polished

Typical bubblegum agates. Once polished, most seem to show the reddish and cream colors of the agates shown here. Once the little eyed nodules wear down in the polishing process, you can get some truly gorgeous colors. Best of all, bubblegums take a VERY good polish and shine.

Petrified Wood - Polished

This is the most common form of petrified wood that I’ve found on the Grasslands. You do have to be careful polishing, as sometimes the wood pattern is only on the exterior of the piece and may wear away if you polish too much. If you’re careful though, you can get a beautifully polished piece such as this.

Polished Bubblegum Agate

This is small piece, the diameter of a penny. But HOLY COW do some polished bubblegum agates look wonderful when polished. In this case, the entire outside of the bubblegum was black when I first put it in the polisher. Many times that black wears completely off, often leaving the typical red and cream colors of bubblegums found here. On this one, I stopped the rough polish while it still had some black “eyes”. Gorgeous little piece.

Polished Gray Quartz "Egg"

There are pieces of quartz on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands of many different colors. This smoky gray piece polished up beautifully, particularly after I left it in the rough-polish stage for many weeks to get the “egg” shape.

Polished Red Congomerate / Jasper

I don’t know what to call this piece, but it’s freakin’ gorgeous! It’s pretty much one-of-a-kind for pieces I’ve found on the grasslands.

Heavily banded agate - Polished

Most of the prairie and bubblegum agates you find have some form of banding. Many have some very fine bands. But this piece has more “layers” of thin banding than most pieces, and it has some incredibly beautiful colors as well. It’s got an unusual shape, and I was tempted to keep it in the rough polish phase for several more weeks to get a more rounded shape. Given how beautiful it is, however, I didn’t want to take a chance it might break apart, so did the final polishing on this unusual shape.

Polished Quartz Variety - South Dakota

Some of the polished quartz pieces from this batch. Clear, White, and pinkish tones are the colors you find the most, but there are others as well. ALL polish up beautifully.

Polished South Dakota Agate - (Fairburn?)

Another agate where the pattern underneath really wasn’t revealed until after many weeks of polishing. It’s not as obvious as the Fairburn above, but there are some hints of a Fairburn-type pattern.

Polished mossy agate - South Dakota

I know there’s a kind of agate called “mossy agate”. I’m not sure that’s what this is, but it’s such an unusual piece. The pattern itself is quite unusual for agates I’ve found, but so is the mossy, orangish patterns that fill in the gaps between the white blobs. Cool one-of-a-kind piece in my collection.

Polished Prairie Agate - South Dakota

From an unusual piece above, to a pretty common piece. While creamy and white banded prairie agates are the most common color form I seem to find, I also often find ones like this, with blackish bands in a creamy matrix.

Colorful Petrified Wood - South Dakota

The grayish petrified wood near the top of this post is easy to find, but you do also sometimes find more colorful pieces. This one has some wonderful reddish tones, as well as a bluish streak on the back side.

Polished South Dakota Agate

I kept putting this pieces back through the rough-tumbling phase, trying to wear a bit more off of this side to try to reveal more of the different colors. But alas, it kept getting smaller and smaller, but with the same color pattern.

Polished South Dakota Bubblegum Agate

Another great little bubblegum agate. Some of these pieces end up showing many little eyes once polished, but many also often show some gorgeous banding underneath.

Petrified Wood - South Dakota

Some of the petrified wood in this batch, showing the variety of forms you can find on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.

Polished South Dakota Conglomerate / Prairie Agate

I’m not sure what you call this…a prairie agate, or some kind of conglomerate. Prairie agates here seem to often be banded, but some too do look like a mish-mash of fragments that have been found together. The conglomerate-looking ones really can have some cool patterns once polished.

Polished South Dakota Conglomerate / Prairie Agate

Speaking of funky conglomerate-like stones…this one has some very fine patterns that are pretty unusual compared to other pieces I’ve found.

Polished Quartz - South Dakota

The biggest piece in this batch, an almost tennis-ball-sized chunk of quartz with an cool brownish-orange tone intermixed throughout.

Polished bubblegum agate with "eyes"

Sometimes bubblegum agates turn out like this when polished, with just the “eyes” remaining.

Small polished prairie agate

Size doesn’t matter! Even the small little pieces have some gorgeous patterns once you photograph them in macro mode.

Polished Red Splotch Agate

I call this “red splotch agate”. Given I’m still new at this and have no idea of what to really call it.

Polished Red Prairie Agate

Some of the prairie agates have reddish tones, but this one has more red throughout than most that I find.

Reddish polished quartz

Another of the reddish quartz pieces.

Polished South Dakota Quartz

And…one last one, another polished piece of quartz.

One more trip – Rocks and Birds

It was a beautiful weekend in much of South Dakota, so much so that the lure of one last rockhounding trip was too much for me to pass up.  With projected highs near 60, and just as importantly on the windswept plains of South Dakota, a lack of a wind, it seemed like the perfect day to roam around the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. An added treat of birding the western part of the state at this time of year…all of the winter raptors that are arriving!

I started out rockhounding, and could tell it was going to be a great day.  I tried a little bit different spot, and immediately found it wasn’t as “picked over” as my typical spot near Kadoka.  Right away I was finding many bubblegum agates, some beautiful rose quartz, some amber-colored honey agates, prairie agates, and some big chunks of petrified wood. I also found several coral and shell fossils, including one cute little bubblegum agate with a crisp imprint of a shell on the back side.  The highlight…after only 10 minutes, I found a gorgeous Fairburn agate with an unusual, rosy-colored quartz center.  That piece alone would have made the trip worth it.

While I spent most of the day rockhounding, I also kept my eyes open for the arriving winter raptors. Rough-legged Hawks, as always, were in abundance in parts of the Grasslands. Ferruginous Hawks, Golden Eagles, a prairie falcon, and plenty of Red-tailed Hawks rounded out a day that finished with the spotting of a gorgeous, pure white, unbarred Snowy Owl on the drive back home. A great “last blast” out on the Grasslands, before the really cold South Dakota winter hits.

Fairburn Agate - South Dakota

A gorgeous Fairburn agate as I found it on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. On average this year, I’d say I find one Fairburn for about every 15 hours of looking, so it’s always a wonderful treat. This one was so unusual, in terms of that grogeous rosy center surrounding by the fortification banding.

South Dakota Agates, Jaspers, Petrified Wood, Quartz

The material I brought back. You can collect on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, but 1) only for private collections (no selling of material), and 2) can collect up to 25 pounds of material in a day. Given I usually only keep the smaller pieces (most are 2″ or less), that’s not a problem! But on this day, there were some BIG pieces of petrified wood I was tempted to bring home! If I had done so though, a couple of them would have used up my 25-lb allotment! Hence sticking with my “usual” agates and other material.

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.

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.

“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.

Agate

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.

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.

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