Storms and Shortgrass Prairies

In the previous post I mentioned a number of trip statistics but left off the most important of all: new species towards our goal of 10,000! Yesterday was our 108th day on the road, and we have seen exactly 300 new species, so we have averaged about 2.8 species per day. This brings the grand total to about 8931 species.

In the last travelog post, we left off in southwest Iowa. From there we started west on a 480-mile transit to shortgrass prairie in Pawnee National Grassland (NG), in northeast Colorado. About halfway across southern Nebraska, we drove into massive, dark storm clouds and the rain became fairly heavy, so we slowed to 50 mph. Suddenly, a phenomenal blast of wind struck from the driver’s side and blew the vehicle 5 feet sideways before I could even react! The rain then quickly became so heavy that I could not see, even with the windshield wipers at maximum. Even semis started pulling off to the side, and I did so when I saw a place I could turn the truck 90 degrees, to line up the wind with the canoe, in hopes that it would not be torn off the roof.  Because of the wind, the rain was traveling almost perfectly parallel with the ground — it was like being in a carwash. It was the scariest storm we have ever experienced! Apparently the winds hit about 75 mph, but fortunately we sustained no damage, and we camped as soon as we emerged from the other side of the storm.

The next day we started heading west again, but then checked the weather forecast for northeast Colorado; it was so awful (snow, rain, wind, highs in the low 40s) that we decided to simply stop for a few days and wait it out in Nebraska. The weather there was pretty bad, too, but we were in a nice state park and took walks when the rain let up. After three nights we again headed west and finally reached Pawnee NG, where we spent 5 days. This is a good birding area, and we found three prairie specialists here: Mountain Plover, McCown’s Longspur, and Chestnut-collared Longspur. A local rancher showed us a Mountain Plover nest with three beautiful eggs, and we later saw a chick following its mother in another location. This species has experienced a very serious decline (about 80% in the last 50 years, to around 20,000 birds), and it has become difficult to locate in many parts of its breeding and wintering ranges.

Burrowing Owl, Pawnee NG, CO
Burrowing Owl, Pawnee NG, CO

The eastern half of Pawnee NG has been compromised considerably by large numbers of wind turbines and substantial oil truck traffic, but the Pawnee Buttes area proved to be the best area yet in the prairies for wildflowers. In a day and a half, mostly within walking distance of a dispersed camping site with a nice view of the buttes, we located 19 new plant species! Almost all of these were in areas where the sandstone bedrock came very close to the surface, and so growth of grasses was suppressed. One night in this campsite, a storm rocked the camper so badly we were considering lowering the roof while we were still in it, to catch less wind.

Swainson's Thrush, Crow Valley RA, Pawnee NG, CO
Swainson’s Thrush, Crow Valley Rec. Area, Pawnee NG, CO.

From Pawnee NG we headed north to Scotts Bluff National Monument, in southwest Nebraska, a very scenic location and notable landmark on the Oregon Trail. We then went out of the way to visit Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), which is located within the “Nebraska Sandhills”. This is the largest dune field in the continent, though the dunes are almost entirely covered by prairie vegetation. But high winds have blasted out the vegetation in some places, called “blowouts”, and in this open sand we searched for and found the federally endangered Blowout Penstemon, an extremely rare plant.

Penstemon haydenii, Auto Tour Route, Crescent Lake NWR, NE
Blowout Penstemon (Penstemon haydenii), Crescent Lake NWR, NE

Our next stop was along Pine Ridge in northwest Nebraska, where we had a nice mix of eastern and western birds in Ponderosa Pines. We spent an afternoon at Fort Robinson, which had good history and natural history museums. The latter is most noted for the exceptional display of two fighting Columbian Mammoths, which were unearthed not far away. They locked tusks and both died in the battle, possibly after falling off an embankment.

Escobaria vivipara vivipara, Sandhills Nature Tr, Crescent Lake NWR, NE
Pincushion Cactus (Escobaria v. vivipara), Crescent Lake NWR, NE

We arrived in Toadstool Geologic Park, within Oglala NF, on Memorial Day weekend. Although there were many day trippers visiting these badlands formations, each of the two nights we spent there the campground, with 6 sites, was only half-full. The last four locations we had visited were add-ons, but now we were back on our original itinerary. While traversing Oglala NF on back roads, we saw our first Sharp-tailed Grouse of the trip, a classic prairie species. After crossing into South Dakota, we drove through a portion of Buffalo Gap NG, and birded at the Whitney Preserve, owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). This preserve protects the only undeveloped thermal spring in the Black Hills, an isolated mountain range topping 7000’ elevation, in southwest South Dakota and adjacent Wyoming. The Black Hills are by far the most significant topographical feature in the Great Plains, and quite a few plants here are not found anywhere else in the prairie region.

Flame Skipper, TNC Whitley Preserve, Black Hills, SD
Flame Skimmer, TNC Whitney Preserve, SD

We decided to spend a few days in Wind Cave National Park, which is scenic and is a good place to see mammals. Eileen saw her first Elk here 30 years ago, and we found a few at dusk, our first on this trip. It was very hot and we took advantage of the heat, dry air, and empty campground to respray all our socks and pants with permethrin, to discourage ticks. Heading west, we stopped for a tour of Jewel Cave, the third longest cave in the world; it has extensive calcite crystallization and was very interesting. Wind Cave and Jewel Cave have not yet been shown to connect, but they probably do, and if this is proven, it would become the second longest cave system in the world, or even #1 … watch out, Mammoth Cave!

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