Updated “South Dakota Rockhound” pages

Bubblegum Agate - South Dakota Rockhound

An incredible, polished bubblegum agate from the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands of South Dakota. An amazing little piece, it was a small, black, featureless lump when we found it, but we’ve found that these little dark bubblegums often have some GORGEOUS patterns that reveal themselves once you polish them for a while. There are other examples on the updated pages on South Dakota Rockhound pages.

I’m 51 years old. I already have so many unprocessed bird photos sitting on my hard drive that I doubt there are enough years left in my life to process them all, and add them to my website or blog. It’s easy to take photos!  It’s FUN to take photos!  It’s much less fun to process them all and DO something with said photos.

And now my son and I have a new hobby that we started last summer…rockhounding in the incredible areas near the Badlands of South Dakota. We certainly have found some beautiful pieces of agate, jasper, petrified wood, and other stones over the last year.  The wonderful and variable patterns and colors just BEG a photographer to get out the camera…I can’t resist!  As if I needed more unprocessed photos cluttering up my hard drive, now I’m also taking macro photos and photos of rocks and minerals, many of which will likely never see the light of day.

I’m trying! I’m trying to be more selective in what I shoot, both for birds and for rocks!  And in an effort to at least get some photos of my favorite pieces out on my website, I have just recently updated the “South Dakota Rockhound” section of my website.  Click on the following for photos of some of the pieces we’ve found over the last year. There are also some cool macro photos of other mineral assets we’ve acquired over the past year (for now, just a batch of Mexican Crazy Lace agate).  As with the birding pages on my website, I’ll try to continually update the Rockhound site as I have time!  For now, enjoy the new photos.

South Dakota Rockhound (Click here)

Mexican Crazy Lace Agate - Macro Photograph

A macro photo of one of the pieces of Mexican Crazy Lace (agate) we bought recently.

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.

South Dakota Rockhounding Display – Complete!!

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

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

South Dakota Rockhounding DIsplay

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

South Dakota Rockhounding Display

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

South Dakota Rockhounding Display - Agates!

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

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

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

Prairie and Fairburn Agates - South Dakota Rockhound

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

Fairburn Agate - South Dakota Rockhound

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

Bubblegum Agates - South Dakota Rockhound

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

Bubblegum Agates - South Dakota Rockhound

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

Petrified Wood - South Dakota Rockhound

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

Chalcedony and Chert - South Dakota Rockhound

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

Miscellaneous Prairie Agates - South Dakota Rockhound

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

Misc. Jasper and Quartz - South Dakota Rockhound

A few miscellaneous jasper, quartz, and agate.

Large agates, chalcedony, etc. - South Dakota Rockhound

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

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.

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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