Yesterday we got another dump of snow, a good six inches worth, which piled on top of the foot we got last week, which was on the foot from the week before, with very little melting in between. It’s a shame that I’m not more into winter sports, because it seems the conditions out there at the moment are perfect for just about any of them. However, given that my pastime is hiking, and hiking in knee-deep snow is not only a lot of work but also results in very wet feet, it doesn’t work as well for me. I should learn to snowshoe, but haven’t.
So for those of you who need a short break from all the snow, like I do, I offer some sweltering hot South Dakota grasslands in the summer. I was sorting out some of the pictures last night, and thinking fondly of the warm temperatures. These were taken last July, during a cross-country car trip (final destination was a fall employment contract in British Columbia). I tried to pace myself so that I could make some stops along the way and do some birding, and the formations of the badlands combined with the birdlife made it a target destination.
When I first got there it was overcast and lightly raining, and I was a little disappointed at the muted colours and potential for low bird activity. Little did I know how preferable this was to the clear sky! I had put on jeans and a long-sleeved shirt when I first arrived, but within half an hour of the sun coming out I’d stripped off as much clothing as was socially acceptable and lathered myself up with sunscreen.
The formations are caused by erosion of soft sediment and volcanic ash over the course of millions of years. The landscape has gone through many changes, starting out as a large sea some 75 million years ago, becoming lush, wet floodplains about 40 through 25 million years ago, and then undergoing regional uplifting some 5 million years ago that began the erosion resulting in the formations seen today. Because of the area’s wet history, many well-preserved fossils can be found in the layers, often exposed by erosion (I didn’t see any while I was there, but I was focussed more on the wildlife). I took so many photos of these cool formations, but they’re a little like mountains – when you look back at the photos, they all sort of look the same, even though each one seemed marvelous and new when you took the picture.
I loved the colours in these formations, called the Yellow Mounds. It was only in a very small area of rock where these rainbow walls could be found, so I have to assume there was some local event here when the sediment was laid down that created these unique hues (or, alternatively, where the unique hues were exposed by erosion). The Badlands National Park visitors guide indicates they were caused by the uplifting of the area exposing the ocean mud to the air where it became yellow (through oxidation? does that suggest high sulfur content?). Lots of great information about the geology of the park can be found in their guide (in pdf form at the above link).
This was one of the first birds I came across in the park, in a small sheltered area with a good stand of juniper trees. It’s a Spotted Towhee, previously considered the same species as the Eastern Towhee (no spots) that we have here at home. He was singing from the trees while I was there, but staying mostly hidden.
At my next stop this young Western Meadowlark had obviously gotten quite used to the bustling parking lot; he walked back and forth along the edge and under the cars looking for bugs, paying little attention to the people. He got so close at a couple points that I could no longer focus on him with my telephoto lens (which has a close-focus of 1.5m). Look at him strutting…
I tried starting down one of the trails to get away from the crowded lookout spots, but the beating sun (which came out just after I made my first stop at the towhee) turned me back quickly – I just didn’t have enough water to make it very far. However, in the short area I did traverse, I found this Lark Sparrow, evidently quite upset with me being in the area. I love the Prickly Pear cactus. :)
A short search of possible hiding places turned up this little fledgling huddled at the base of a small shrub. Although it had left the nest, it was only a day or two out of the nest, as it didn’t flush when I peeked in at it.
Just down the road a bit was this Lark Sparrow family. The youngster (on the right, taking off after its parent) was considerably older than the one I found in the bush. Considering that these were the first Lark Sparrows I’d ever seen, I felt fortunate to have come across multiple whole families of them.
Meadowlarks were the bird of the day. They were at virtually every stop. While I struggled to turn up a Rock Wren or a Lark Bunting, meadowlarks were a dime a dozen.
I had really been hoping to see an Upland Sandpiper while there, but departed the park gates without having seen one. Then, not 100 metres outside the park, I spotted this guy perched on a fencepost at the side of the road.
Mammals weren’t very apparent, but there were a couple colonies of prairie dogs who all very obligingly posed for pictures near the side of the road (the road seemed to bisect the colony; I wasn’t sure what this did for roadkill statistics, but didn’t figure it could be good. However, there was no evidence that it was a problem, either).
And finally, I startled this jackrabbit from underneath the boardwalk where he was trying to keep cool. He paused after going out about 50 metres into the grass to look back at me, before taking off and disappearing from view. Even though it was just a quick view, I was excited to see him. Check out those ears! Their giant ears are used for keeping cool in the scorching prairie heat, through heat loss over the broad, exposed surface area.
Well, that’s it for South Dakota. We’ll be back to the regularly scheduled Ontario winter tomorrow!