Amazing

“I’m on the Great Plains! It’s amazing here! The sky is like a person yawned and never stopped!”

– Friend of Ian Frazier, as quoted in his book Great Plains

Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado

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Hiker’s Paradise

Harsh country, yet incredibly beautiful. These are the badlands of the North Dakota’s Little Missouri National Grassland; my first visit to America’s largest National Grassland.

Wandering across the grassy slope in the photo below, I spied three rocky peaks poking above the ridgeline. I decided to hike to the summit on the left…

Like so many other slices of North American wilderness that I’ve been fortunate enough to explore, roaming through this area is a sublime experience. Nothing is more rewarding to me than the opportunity to revel in the silence and solitude of the natural world.

You can follow this Vimeo link to watch a slow rotation atop the butte and enjoy the sweeping view of this amazing landscape. (Video duration is 40 seconds.)

Over one million acres of wild beauty…hiking opportunities to last a lifetime. I’m sure that I’ll return to LMNG again and again.

The Curious Owl

This is a story about those gifts that just fall into your lap every now and then. As I’ve mentioned before, I haven’t had nearly enough owl encounters for my taste. Since these sightings are so rare, I treasure each one and I recall the experiences quite clearly. Back in October, I was lucky enough to add two more to the list.

The first occurred on a hot and sunny day in a tiny prairie town in southwestern Kansas. I had stopped beneath a big shady tree in the town’s park just to give myself and the car a short rest. While reaching for my water bottle, my eye caught a sudden movement in the rearview mirror. A very large bird had leapt from a tree branch and was heading my way. I turned my face toward the sky as it zoomed directly above the Pontiac at low altitude and landed in another tree up ahead. One of the most impressive things about owls is how deadly silent they are in flight, even when they are skimming just above your head. This was a big beast…probably a great horned owl. Sorry, no photos of this event.

Jump ahead about two weeks to another sunny day in South Dakota’s Buffalo Gap National Grassland. I had dedicated the entire day to exploring some dusty roads east of the Black Hills. After parking at a remote intersection to enjoy a snack and the view and the silence, I heard a high-pitched barking noise directly behind me. Prairie dog? I turned to look past the trunk and spotted an adorable bird standing near the cattle guard, bobbing its head down and up with each squawk. A burrowing owl! My first such sighting, and a nice surprise.

Having never met Athene cunicularia before, I had no idea how bold or shy these birds could be. I certainly wanted to get some photos of this meeting, but I didn’t want to lose valuable seconds assembling the camera. So, I used the phone first to get some video; would’ve been disappointed had I missed the chance to record that voice. I slid out of the car carefully and was encouraged when the owl held its ground. After a few more barks, it jumped up and flew a tight circle around the Pontiac, just to return to the starting point and resume its barking and dancing.

You can watch that lap via this link to my Vimeo account. (Video duration is 58 seconds. You may want to boost your speaker volume to hear the owl’s call.)

As this owl evidently had no plans to leave soon, I then grabbed the DSLR and the big lens. The owl took another lap around the car, this time landing on an assortment of fence posts along the way. Certainly not a camera-shy creature; it seemed to be deliberately perching in great spots and posing like a pro. I’ve never had a more cooperative wild subject.

Perhaps this owl was curious about the Pontiac. Perhaps it wanted to be immortalized on the internet. More than likely, it was just annoyed; I think it wanted me to leave its nesting area. So I did. Thanks for the photos, little bird.

Sea of Grass

The biggest lawn I’ve ever seen. Yes, there is a rancher’s home on the horizon at the center of the frame. Wonder how they’d feel about having a long-term houseguest…

Buffalo Gap National Grassland, South Dakota

Nature, Preserving Itself

Well, five years have gone by and a few more inches of aluminum have been ingested by this old oak tree, living its life in super-slow motion (or, maybe we’re living too fast).

Being in a nature preserve, I imagine this tree will live and die right where it stands. But should this oak ever make its way to a lumber mill, the saw operator is in for a big surprise.

I’ll visit again in 2023. Stay tuned.