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.

Splash of Winter Color

Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker (The red on the male’s cap is complete and unbroken, while the female has a tan strip at the top of her head). I have a lot of photos of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, but this is one of the few that shows their namesake trait. Most of the time, the subtle red splash on the belly is quite inconspicuous.

More snow yesterday. Just a couple of inches, but we’ve had a seemingly endless stream of “just a couple of inches” in the last two months.  It’s now late February, and after a long winter, and I’m ready for spring birding to begin.

I’m just ready for COLOR.  Birding in South Dakota in winter is often as gray, dreary, and plain as the weather and our sloppy, gloppy streets.  Bird species diversity is low and those birds that do stick around for the winter are, in general, of the black-and-white variety.  I’ve had more Pine Siskins at my feeders than I’ve ever had, and the little bit of yellow they have is a welcome contrast to the gray gloom.  However, the other most common birds at my feeders are Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos,  and House Sparrows, none of which have much color.

My favorite “yard bird” is one that’s become quite reliable, both in winter and summer.  They’re striking not only for the bright splash of color, but for their size, as they’re generally the largest bird we get in the winter….Red-bellied Woodpeckers. We live in a house we built 12 years ago, and tree cover in the neighborhood landscaping is still maturing.  Red-bellied Woodpeckers need mature trees for nesting and foraging, but fortunately, we live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a State Park with ample riparian forest habitat. The male and female pair that visit our yard clearly spend most of their time in the Park.  When I see them come to our yard, they’re almost always flying in from the Park, and they head back to the Park when they’re done feeding.

When they first came to our yard, they were pretty shy.  The feeders are close to the windows of a sunroom that looks out into our back yard, and the woodpeckers would often spook and fly away if I was moving around in the house. Fortunately over the years they’ve become accustomed not only to our presence, but to that of our two spaniels! One suet feeder sits on a hook off our deck, and the male will often continue to sit and feed at the suet feeder, even when I let the dogs out on the deck. The female is a little shyer, but still stays around the yard much more frequently than she used to.

A wonderful visitor, at any time of the year.

Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus

My favorite Red-bellied Woodpecker photo, this is of a male from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, the park across the street from our house.

Rather slow (but enjoyable) winter raptor search

I treasure my trips to the central part of South Dakota in the winter. Given the bleakness and bitter cold that a South Dakota winter often brings, it’s a true joy to head to the area near the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and generally find it so incredibly full of life. Winter on the Grasslands means raptors, often in numbers that boggle the mind.  Rough-legged Hawks by the dozens, huge Golden and Bald Eagles, Ferruginous Hawks, Prairie Falcons, and the occasional Gyrfalcon, Snowy Owl, Short-eared Owl, or other “goody”.

That’s the normal winter day on the Grasslands. A recent trip unfortunately wasn’t “normal”.  It’s been a hard last year or two for grouse and pheasants on the Grasslands, with drought and some cold winters taking a bit of a toll.  It’s the grouse, pheasants, and other prey that attract the winter raptors, and with the lower prey numbers, raptor numbers have been far below what they normally are.  In a full day’s worth of birding, I “only” came across 15 or so Rough-legged Hawks, about half-a-dozen eagles, and some scattered Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers. I usually find multiple Prairie Falcons and an occasional Merlin or Gyrfalcon, but no falcons of any kind were seen on this trip. A quiet day, but still enjoyable, thanks to the occasional raptor sighting, and VERY large numbers of Mule Deer, Pronghorn, and even 4 or 5 (normally very shy) coyotes.

Not only were the birds rather sparse on this day, but photo opportunities weren’t great.  Here are a (very) few photos from the day, including the highlight…a gorgeous, pure white Snowy Owl.

Snowy Owl - Bubo scandiacus

The definite highlight of the day, an absolutely stunning, pure-white Snowy Owl, found on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. Clearly a mature male with the lack of black barring. Most birds we see around here in winter seem to be younger and/or female birds with substantial black barring. Unfortunately he was pretty shy, and preferred to observe from a distance on a high point in a nearby corn field.

Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos

I love Golden Eagles, particularly when you get to see them at such close range such as this. Such massive, massive birds.

Pronghorn - Antilocapra americana

Pronghorn are something you don’t always see on the Fort PIerre National Grasslands, but they are around. On this day, I saw multiple large groups, including this group (there were about 30 animals in all) moving quickly through a field.

Mule Deer - Odocoileus hemionus

A quite common sight on the Grasslands, Mule Deer were bunched up and quite common on this day. I saw several very large bucks such as this. Shouldn’t be long before they lose their antlers and start growing next year’s.Mul

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.

2018 SuperB Owl Winners – Top 10

It was a long year of hard work and dedication, with participants from across the country vying to win the ultimate prize on SuperB Owl Sunday. Would it be the established veteran, winning yet another title? Or perhaps a young, local upstart?  Fans from across the country enjoyed a heck of a competition, but a winner was finally crowned.

With that, here are the final rankings in this year’s SuperB Owl competition!  The young underdog scored upset after upset in the final playoffs, winning the title in a closely contested match. Congrats to this year’s SuperB Owl winner…a winking Northern Saw-whet Owl, taken at Newton Hills State Park in South Dakota!!

Northern Saw-whet Owl - Aegolius acadicus

Northern Saw-whet Owl – Newton Hills, South Dakota – 41 (quite arbitrary) points

Snowy Owl - Bubo scandiacus

2nd place – Yawning Snowy Owl – Near Sioux Falls, South Dakota – 33 points

Long-eared Owl - Asio otus

3rd Place – Long-eared Owl – Big Sioux Recreation Area, South Dakota – 30 points

Northern Hawk Owl - Surnia ulula

4th place – Northern Hawk Owl – Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota – 28 points

Elf Owl - Micrathene whitneyi

5th place – Elf Owl – Near Tucson, Arizona – 25 points

Short-eared Owl - Asio flammeus

6th place – Short-eared Owl – Minnehaha County, South Dakota – 20 points

Burrowing Owl - Athene cunicularia

7th Place – Burrowing Owl – Near Brandon, South Dakota – 15 points

Great Grey Owl - Strix nebulosa

8th place – Great Grey Owl – Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota – 12 points

Eastern Screech Owl - Megascops asio

9th place – Eastern Screech Owl – Sioux Falls, South Dakota – 10 points

Barred Owl - Strix varia

10th place – Barred Owl – Newton Hills State Park, South Dakota – 7 points

Nice winter birding

Yeah, a month since a post. It’s been a bad month on multiple fronts, wasn’t in much of a mood to bird, rockhound, or blog. It HAS been a really nice year for some of the more uncommon winter bird visitors in South Dakota though, so this morning I went out and about, just around Brandon and Sioux Falls.

A nice morning! The highlight were a number of White-winged Crossbills. They are a nomadic species, found in one place one year, gone the next. They are pretty rare visitors to our neck of the woods, but one place they can occasionally be found is Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Sioux Falls. It’s an old cemetery, with some really huge, old spruce and other evergreens. The spruce have a really thick crop of cones this year, which is what attracts the Crossbills.  A really busy morning for birds in the cemetery, not only the rare White-winged Crossbills, but scads of Pine Siskins, and at least a dozen Common Redpolls as well.  There are entire winters that go by where I don’t see those 3 species, so it’s been a really nice treat this winter.

Some photos, including a few from around the yard recently…

White-winged Crossbill - Loxia leucoptera

A White-winged Crossbill hanging out in a spruce tree. They were really active this morning, moving from tree to tree in mixed flocks with Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and a few nuthatches. The problem was their preference to forage near the top of the massive spruce trees! I had to be patient to get one low enough for a photo.

White-winged Crossbill - Loxia leucoptera

Another White-winged Crossbill, foraging in the same place as the previous photo.

Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis

The male Northern Cardinal that visits my yard every day. Like clockwork, both a male and a female show up in the last 20 minutes of daylight, and occasionally at other times as well.

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

A Common Redpoll eating the seeds in the catkins that dangle from my paper birch in the back yard. They LOVE paper birch catkins, and already this winter have pretty much finished all the catkins of the tree. This is only the 3rd winter (in over 20+ years in Brandon) where we’ve had Redpolls visit.

Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis

The female Northern Cardinal that always visits in the evening.

Pine Siskin - Spinus pinus

One of the scads of Pine Siskins in my yard. I’ve occasionally had 1 or 2 come to the feeder in winter. I’ve NEVER had them like this. They have been by far the most common bird in my yard, even outnumbering all the goldfinches that love my thistle feeder. There have been times I look out and there are 50 or more, hanging out in my paper birch, and foraging at my feeders.

Common Redpolls are Back

It was a over a month ago when I saw three Common Redpolls feeding at our thistle/niger feeder.  It was only the 3rd winter (in 24 here) that we’ve had Redpolls in our yard, and given it happened so early, in early November, I was hoping for continuous visits by Redpolls all winter long. That certainly would make a dreary South Dakota winter a little brighter, but alas, I only saw them for a couple of hours that day, and then they disappeared.

Until now.  I looked out the kitchen window, and there 15 feet in front of me in a paper birch, were about 20 Common Redpolls.  Finches seem to love the catkins on our paper birch, as I’ve seen American Goldfinches, House Finches, Pine Siskins, and now Common Redpolls feeding on them. Interestingly they were only interested in the catkins, and ignored the big finch feeder just 20 feet away.  It’s been a great winter for winter finches, as while the Redpolls were feeding on catkins, there were about 8 Pine Siskins mixed in with Goldfinches on the thistle feeder. Hopefully they don’t disappear again…would be nice to have them around this winter.  Some photos:

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

Snowy Owl!!!

It’s supposed to be a banner year for Snowy Owls in the lower 48 states. Sightings are happening…everywhere…and I also got a quick look at one in late November when driving in the central part of South Dakota on I-90. I’ve been taking gravel roads to work more often than usual, just on the off chance I might come across one, but I never really expected to! But that’s just what happened on the way home from work today.

About 5 minutes from work, in northern Minnehaha County, I saw him sitting on a telephone pole.  Pretty unmistakable, so I immediately knew what it was when I saw the splotch of white from a distance.  There was a time when I had my camera with me EVERYWHERE, but unfortunately I now rarely ever have it with me when I go to work. I’m very content to just sit and watch a gorgeous bird like this, but I was also itching to get a photo! I drove home, picked up my son, dropped him off at home, grabbed my camera, and headed back to the location where I’d seen him. By the time I had returned, an hour had elapsed since I last saw him, but he was still sitting on the same perch!  Wonderful treat for the day.

Snowy Owl - Bubo scandiacus

Snow Owl enjoying the late evening light on top of a telephone pole. What I find so cool about Snowy Owls…they’re so tame! You can tell most have never had the “pleasure” of having a run-in with human beings, and most are quite approachable. This guy sat in the same place for well over an hour, even WITH the JACKASS who felt the need to blast his horn for 10 seconds while he blasted past me and flipped me off (for daring to be pulled off on the shoulder of the road, I guess?).

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.

%d bloggers like this: