Friday, October 14, 2016

A Sunny Day in the Badlands

Once the sun was flying higher in the sky, we abandoned our sunrise/moonset photo shoot and drove west along the park road. Not far from Norbeck Pass we came across a group of bighorn sheep rams, possibly the same boys we'd seen the night before. They were grazing right along the road, and we got really nice looks at them in the morning sun.

Sheep and sunflower. He passed on the flower and ate some grass next to it.

Settling down to chew some cud in the sunshine.

Through the whole trip I was surprised at how many free-roaming pronghorn we saw. Starting here in western South Dakota and all throughout Wyoming, we saw countless small herds of this ungulate, which are not antelope, though they are frequently called that. They are the only surviving member of their family, which Wikipedia says contained 12 members during the Pleistocene, though only three were present in North America when humans arrived. Their closest relatives? Giraffes. While pronghorn are able to reach speeds upwards of 60 mph, the predators that they once needed that speed to evade are long extinct. Interestingly, they never developed the ability to jump, and are often trapped behind--or caught in--fences.

Small herds of pronghorn were sprinkled throughout the park.

Big rams were not the only bighorn sheep present in the park. We saw several small groups of ewes with young ones, some with a ram present. This little cutie was heading up into the rocks near an observation area.

Baby bighorn!

I loved watching these animals walk so confidently across this landscape.

Ewe and calf moving through the shade of a butte

We saw several coyote that day too, including one that had got itself a prairie dog. This not long after we had watched another looming within a dog town, wondering if they really have success hunting out in the open like that. This pretty 'yote came up empty, as far as we could tell.

Coyote hunts prairie dogs in the setting sun

One of the biggest moments of the day came while we were stopped at an overlook, next to a prairie dog town. I was feeding our dogs (not the best idea as the sight of them drove the poor rodents mad), and I saw a bigger-than-a-robin bird fly a few feet above the ground and land, at some distance away, atop a burrow. "Bird! Bird! Bird!" I hollered, unable to let go of the dogs to get my binoculars. Lisa came to the rescue and brought my binocs while taking the dogs. When I got the bird in my sights I literally jumped for joy. A Burrowing Owl!! It was too far away for any decent photos, but just to finally get to see one was fantastic. We watched it for a while as it flew from burrow to burrow, until we finally had to start heading back to camp.

Burrowing owl!

While the landscape of the Badlands is fascinating, trying to photograph it on a bright sunny day is nearly pointless. Early and late where OK, but the rest of the day the hills and buttes and gullies looked washed out. But we enjoyed exploring the area nonetheless.

The rocks and grasslands of the Badlands.

Three units comprise the Badlands, this being the northern-most unit. The other two are south in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a place of abject poverty. I know that there were plenty of sacred sites in this area, places of great importance to the Sioux, but I can also see why they were relegated to this region--it's really a God-forsaken place. Arid and hot in summer, colder than Hades in winter, with a relenting wind. Poor soil and little water makes it useless for crops, and the topography makes it useless for much of anything else. In short, it's land we didn't want, or didn't find useful in any way, (until gold was discovered in the Black Hills, just to the west, but that's another story). I would love to see this place on a cloudy, rainy day.

As sunset neared we drove back to camp and hit the hay early. The next day we'd make our way across Wyoming and camp just outside the entrance to Yellowstone National Park.

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