The Niobrara Valley: Biological Crossroads

From where we left off last time in southwest South Dakota, we crossed over into Wyoming, but still in the Black Hills. We stayed two nights at a lovely dispersed campsite next to a wetland in northeast Thunder Basin NG. There was a huge hatch of insects a bit before sunset, and the habitat looked excellent, so I set up the bat recorder. At dusk, scores of bats arrived and fed over the water, but it was still light enough that none needed to echolocate to catch the abundant prey. It was well after dark when I finally started getting recordings and was able to identify them as Little Brown Bats. Thunder Basin NG is large and we took a day to drive southwest across it, but it became less interesting as coal mining came to dominate the land, and the area we planned to camp was no longer publicly accessible.

Upland Sandpiper, Buffalo Gap NG, SD
Upland Sandpiper, Buffalo Gap NG, SD

We ended up staying in Gillette, WY, and in the morning took care of a number of  small items, like haircuts, a PSA blood test for me, finding a graphics shop to print out our new truck insurance card, etc. From there we headed east back into South Dakota, and camped at French Creek in Buffalo Gap NG, in an area where the state gem, Fairburn agate, occurred. We then spent a day in Badlands National Park, enjoying a variety of trails and mammal sightings, as well as a beautiful new butterfly, the Edward’s Fritillary.

Blue Grosbeak, Badlands NP, SD
Blue Grosbeak, Badlands NP, SD

Next on the agenda was Fort Pierre NG, several hours east. As has been the case at many of the national grasslands, finding a good camping spot was difficult, and there were no trails, informational signs, visitor center, nor anything else directed at people touring the area. We found many breeding Bobolinks (a splendid blackbird) and a few Marbled Godwits, which are prairie-nesting sandpipers. At one point, five godwits circled above us and repeatedly gave their clamorous calls.

From Fort Pierre we headed due south, crossing back into Nebraska to reach the Niobrara Valley, one of the most interesting areas we have visited. Six distinct habitats can be found in close proximity here: sandhills prairie; mixed-grass prairie; tallgrass prairie; western coniferous forest; eastern deciduous forest; and boreal forest. The latter was a new ecoregion for the trip. There are many places in the western prairies where western montane plants can be found along river valleys, and similarly in the eastern prairies, eastern forest species occur quite a ways west along river corridors; but only along the Niobrara River do the western species actually meet the eastern species. We stayed a week in this area.

The first night we boondocked in Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest, but the camping opportunities were limited, the bugs bad, and the drive long, so we did not return for another night. We had already seen National Grasslands with no prairies, and here was a National Forest with no trees, but rather sandhills habitat. The highlight of our visit was a brief view of a Badger. The next morning we spent exploring Fort Niobrara NWR, which has nice mixed-grass prairie and boreal forest on the north-facing bank of the river, complete with Paper Birch. We then headed to the Valentine City Park, which proved to be a great camping spot, and we ended up spending six nights there. The campground has a creek running through it, and that afternoon Eileen photographed 4 species of damselflies there, three of which proved to be new (damselflies are like dragonflies but with wings that fold). While she did that I worked on modifying the refrigerator circuitry to increase the compressor speed by 75%, because the refrigerator was running constantly, but still not keeping the temperature below 40° in the very hot weather we were experiencing.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer, Ft. Niobrara NWR, NE
Twelve-spotted Skimmer (a dragonfly), Fort Niobrara NWR, NE
Powdered Dancer, Valentine City Park Cpgd, NE
Powdered Dancer (a damselfly), Valentine City Park, Valentine NE

The next day was spent at Valentine NWR, an hour south, where we drove an auto tour route and four-wheel-drive roads through the sandhills prairie. The area has many natural lakes because the Ogallala Aquifer comes to the surface here. The results is a remarkable and beautiful mixture of sand and water habitats. After a day in camp to catch up on identification of photos and plant specimens, we visited the TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve and Smith Falls State Park. These were very good for plants and we found 10 new species. Of particular note was the hybrid Populus ×smithii. During the last glacial period, both Quaking Aspen and the northeastern species Bigtooth Aspen occurred along the river, but as the climate warmed, both disappeared. However, they had hybridized in the area, and the hybrid proved more tolerant of the warmer weather, and it persists to this day in the Smith Falls area.

Although the souped-up refrigerator was now keeping our food cold, it was consuming too much power when we were driving little, so we had to spend one night in a campground with electric hookups, to top off the battery system. The next morning we had a great forecast – moderate wind and no chance of thunderstorms – so we finally got to float 20 miles down the Niobrara River in our canoe. The current is strong enough that you don’t have to paddle much except to steer, and the scenery is spectacular! This was one of two things I most looked forward to doing on our prairies trip, the other being the visit to the dinosaur tracks in Comanche NG in Colorado. We kept a list of birds detected on the paddle and the total was 57 species, quite a good variety! It was fun to get both Eastern and Western Wood-Pewees in the same location. This trip took us over the 1500-mile-mark in this, our third, canoe, named “Headwind”. An outfitter had driven our truck to the take-out so we were able to head out as soon as we landed. We finished the day with a nice dinner in town to celebrate our 31st wedding anniversary.

Next we head east for more tallgrass prairie …

Selected locations from previous blog past (#1 – 6) and this one (#7 – 11).

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