30th March – 1st April 2015 – South Dakota and Wyoming, USA   Leave a comment

Prior to joining the Birdquest tour of Colorado, Margaret and I had a week touring the Mid-West. The last post dealt with the first four days, which we spent in Nebraska. This post features the remaining three days taken in South Dakota and Wyoming.

IMG_3979 Badlands

We spent the night of the 29th in the small town of Kadoka near the I-90 in South Dakota. From here it was just a short hop to the Badlands National Park.

IMG_3926 Badlands

Copied from the National Parks website. ‘A quick look at the Badlands will reveal that they were deposited in layers. The layers are composed of tiny grains of sediments such as sand, silt, and clay that have been cemented together into sedimentary rocks. The sedimentary rock layers of Badlands National Park were deposited during the late Cretaceous Period (67 to 75 million years ago) throughout the Late Eocene (34 to 37 million years ago) and Oligocene Epochs (26 to 34 million years ago). Different environments—sea, tropical land, and open woodland with meandering rivers caused different sediments to accumulate here at different times. The layers similar in character are grouped into units called formations. The oldest formations are at the bottom and the youngest are at the top, illustrating the principal of superposition’.

IMG_3938 Badlands

The various sedimentary layers can clearly be seen in this photo and the next.

IMG_3947 Badlands

As this area was underwater during the Cretaceous period, no fossils of terrestrial dinosaurs have been found only those of marine reptile and fish. Those upper layers corresponding to the Eocene and Oligocene periods have yielded a rich haul of fossil mammals.

IMG_3968 Prairie Dog

Black-tailed Prairie Dog ‘towns’ were a common site. Black-footed Ferrets which prey of Prairie Dogs were once considered extinct, a few were rediscovered in 1981. Following a captive breeding program a population has been reintroduced to the Badlands, but of course we weren’t lucky enough to see any.

IMG_3972 Bighorn Sheep

As well as the stunning geological formations the Badlands preserves the largest area of natural prairie grasslands in the USA and of course was the film location of ‘Dances With Wolves’. Some great mammals occur here, several distant herds of Bison were seen as well as these Bighorn Sheep.

IMG_3974 Bighorn Sheep

The male, with his great enormous horns which are used as a battering ram during conflict in the mating season, was a magnificent sight.

IMG_4077 Pronghorns

The plains of South Dakota held many Pronghorn antelope. This species, made famous in the line ‘home, home on the range where the deet and the antelope play’, is not related to Old World antelope but rather is the only surviving member of the family Antilocapridae.

IMG_3987 Mt Rushmore

There was still much to fit in so by late morning we were back on I-90 heading west. We came off at Rapid City and entered the winding roads of the Black Hills. Our destination was Mount Rushmore, the famous National Monument where the heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln have been carved into the granite.

IMG_3991 George Washington

George Washington in detail. The work was performed by sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln, it took from 1934 – 39 to carve the 60ft high heads. Originally the sculptures were to extend to the waist but Borglum senior’s death in 1941 and shortage of funding due to the War prevented the project being completed. Although, of course, the patriotic symbolism means little to us, it remains an amazing achievement and a wonderful thing to see.

IMG_4014 Crazy Horse

The Native American community have commissioned a huge stature of Crazy Horse which is being carved out of this rock outcrop ‘to show the white-man that the red-man has heroes too’. When complete Crazy Horse will be sitting astride his mount with his arm outstretched. I’m sure it will be magnificent, the entire statue will be nine times higher than the presidential heads at Mount Rushmore. The monument was commissioned in 1948 and as you can see only the head is complete. I doubt if it will be completed in our lifetime. The entry cost was quite high for a project that is still under construction, so we just took a photo from the main highway and moved on.

IMG_4054 Jewel cave

The Black Hills is famous for its cave formations. This one, the Jewel Cave, named after its beautiful mineral deposits on the cave walls, is the third largest in the world. Studies of the airflow in and out of the cave indicate that perhaps only 10% of the cave system has yet to be discovered. However our visit was a disappointing one. We had to wait an hour for the next tour, then found it was only to the first chamber, the longer tours only take place earlier in the day, so we didn’t see any rock formations or mineral deposits.

IMG_4026 WB Nuthatch

Whilst waiting for our cave tour I photographed this White-breasted Nuthatch. These montane birds could be a different species from those of the eastern lowlands. Everybody agrees that more than one species is involved but can’t decide if it should be split into two, three or four. The split has been pended pending further research, in the mean time note exactly where you saw them and try to remember what they sounded like.

IMG_4084 Welcome to Upton

Just over the border in Wyoming we passed through the town of Upton. Living as we do in Upton, Dorset in the UK, I couldn’t resist stopping for a photo.

IMG_4094 Pronghorns

Pronghorns were once threatened with extinction but fortunately were saved from over hunting and habitat destruction in the 30’s and now number up to a million individuals. We saw good numbers in South Dakota, Wyoming and even on our short visit to Montana, smaller numbers were later seen in Colorado. Away from protected areas they are quite nervous and run off at amazing speed (said to reach 45 mph). Wire fences can cause problems but they usually seem to find a way under them.

IMG_4108 Wild Turkey

The following day we drove northwards through Wyoming. Whilst exploring Keyhole State Park we drove through a holiday village that had Wild Turkeys all over the lawns.

IMG_4117 Wild Turkey

Fancy having one of these visiting your bird feeder?

IMG_4126 Devil's Tower

Our destination was the Devil’s Tower, a huge igneous intrusion soaring 1,267 ft above the surrounding plain. It is a very dramatic sight, no the less so for featuring in the epic 70s movie ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’.

IMG_4161 Devil's Tower

Closer to the Tower we took a circular walk around the base ….

IMG_4128 Prairie Dogs

…. and saw plenty of wildlife; more Prairie Dogs ….

IMG_4170 American Red Squirrel

…. American Red Squirrel ….

IMG_4191 Least Chipmunk

…. Least Chipmunk ….

IMG_4157 Townsend's Solitaire

…. and a species of thrush restricted to the west of North America, Townsend’s Solitaire.

IMG_4182 Devil's Tower climbers

Devil’s Tower is a popular spot for climbers, however it is considered a sacred site by certain Native American people who consider climbing it a desecration.

IMG_4186 Devil's Tower

Notice boards told about the geological processes that formed this remarkable structure but also about the native legend which tells of seven young girls being chased by a giant bear, fearing for their lives they climbed a big rock and prayed to the rock to save them. The rock rose quickly into the air, the bear scratched at the side to try to get at the girls, leaving the marks that can still be seen on the Tower’s flanks, the girls however rose so quickly that they were propelled into the heavens where today they can be seen as the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters group of stars. A fanciful story perhaps, but none less so than some believed by those who take a literal approach to mainstream religions.

IMG_4195 Montana sign

The Montana border was only about 15 miles to the north and being a Frank Zappa fan I couldn’t resist visiting, singing as I drove ‘I might be moving to Montana soon, to raise me up a crop of dental floss, waxing it up and waxing it down, in a little white box that I can sell up town’. FZ was once asked if his salacious lyrics in certain songs were contributing to the nation’s moral decay – he replied ‘I wrote a song about dental floss once, nobody’s teeth got any cleaner’.

IMG_4197 Cheap drinks lousy food

OK, we didn’t see any ‘dental floss bushes’, ‘pygmy ponies’ or ‘zircon encrusted tweezers’ but we did find this bar with the sign ‘cheap drinks, lousy food’.

IMG_4201 Montana bar

The bar had a sign saying ‘welcome to Montana, put back your watches 20 years’. The centrepiece of the bar dated back to the mid 1800s, there was sawdust on the floor, saucy photos in the loo ….

IMG_4206 Barmaid

…. and a heavily tattooed barmaid.

IMG_4098 Long Train

We returned to Wyoming and started the long drive south. We wanted to be somewhere were we could go birding the following morning yet still have time to reach Denver by late afternoon. We settled on the small town of Glendo in the middle of a coal mining area which had a nearby State Park, but there was only one motel still open and that was right next to the railroad. There was nowhere to eat either, so we bought microwavable burgers from the gas station and I have to say they were the worst burgers I’ve ever tasted.  Although the room was comfortable enough, the proximity of the railroad, the continual procession of coal-bearing trains through the nightand the habit of American train drivers of sounding their horns all the time meant that we had little chance of sleep. I counted 130 wagons being pulled by this train.

IMG_1732 Glendo SP

The gas station served breakfast and we were regaled with stories from the elderly storekeeper on how he should have taken up the place in the House of Lords that was promised to him by his aristocratic English grandfather! The rest of the morning was spent at Glendo State Park where we saw several Townsend’s Solitaires, Western Grebes ….

IMG_4234 Mule Deer

as well as numerous Mule Deer and Margaret added a mammal to the trip list in the form of two tiny mice that were taking shelter in the ladies loo. We later identified them as Deer Mice.

IMG_4254 Slavonian Grebe best

The final good birds of our private trip were a group of Horned Grebes. Known as Slavonian Grebes in the UK, they are a regular winter visitor to Dorset in small numbers but we usually see them as some distance on the sea and never in their gorgeous breeding plumage.

From here it was a three-hour drive to Denver where we dropped the car off before meeting the others on the Birdquest tour. The next two weeks was taken up with the tour of Colorado, one of the best commercial tours I have ever been on, full of great birds and great scenery. Unfortunately I haven’t edited any of those photos yet and Margaret and I have been invited to a wedding in Austria in the near future, so it might be a little while before I get a chance to post them here.

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