Monday, July 26, 2010

Pic of the Day

     Lark Bunting – Thunder Basin National Grasslands, Wyoming: It seemed like a good idea at the time. Leave Yellowstone National Park and drive east to the Wyoming/South Dakota boarder. There, on the Wyoming side of the boarder is Thunder Basin National Grasslands, more than a hundred thousand acres of open grasslands filled with breeding birds for me to photograph. My wife and I arrived on the grasslands and began traveling down a gravel road. Using my iPad I could see that dozens of county and state roads crisscrossed the grasslands. So, without trepidation I (my wife is not always on board with my decisions) headed down the gravel road with a plan to cross the grasslands into the badlands of South Dakota.
     After about seven miles down the solidly packed gravel road things began to change. The gravel on the road became loose, and deep ruts began to appear in the road. At this point I should have turned around. But for sure, I thought the road would improve. However, the further I progressed the worse the road became. The gravel became dirt, and the ruts got deeper. It was time to turn around. Checking the map, I saw that if I made a right turn at the next intersection I could get back to our starting point, only 9 miles away.
     I made the right turn, drove a mile and came to an intersection with a road leading to the east. I wanted to go east to South Dakota, and this new road would take me in the direction I really wanted to go. A sign at the intersection read, “Bill”, 8 miles. Bill is where I started this little adventure. Within 8 miles I could be back on a nice paved road and could continue my trip on to the Badlands. The sign at the intersection also gave the name of another town 13 miles away, though I do not remember its name, and it was not on my map, which should have been my first clue that things would go awry. Thirteen miles, according to the sign would put us in a town, and to my reasoning, on one of the state highway I saw on my map.
     So, it was off toward the state highway. A state highway would be paved, right? I made the turn and the wet rutted road improved within a 1000 feet. Well, “this is better,” I exclaimed to my wife! And it was, for a while. My wife gave the look that only a husband understands. The look that says, "ARE YOU CRAZY." But, the words went unspoken. It was not long until the road began to become rutted. Streams crossed the road creating mud holes, and the loose gravel was giving way to dirt. The road was rapidly worsening, again. Still, the words were unspoken.
     As we continued down the road it became narrower and narrower, then turned into a one-lane path with tire ruts. Still along the side of the road was a county road marker. It was the same road my map indicated. After 18 miles, I realized the town mentioned on the road marker back at the intersection was either a cross-road or a myth. It never materialized.
     We were traveling in the right direction, but signs of civilization were scarce. Pronghorn antelope abounded, but I was so busy staying out of ruts it was hard to enjoy the view. At one point I looked up, and a Golden Eagle was soaring just in front of the van. It glided to a promontory that overlooked a valley and landed. Trees are non-existent on this grassland and the Golden Eagle and Ferruginous Hawk nest on the ground and valley cliffs. They also use the high points on the rolling grasslands and valley overlooks as perches to spy their prey.
     It was actually quite beautiful, a gorgeous day with blue sky and cumulus clouds floating in the sky. Green grasses carpeted the rolling hills that were spotted with pronghorn antelope. But, it was difficult to enjoy as I struggled to avoid the hazards of the road.
     Soon the two-tracked rut called a county road came to another of many cattle gates I had crossed. This one however had a backhoe lifting and dropping the gate, readjusting and lifting and dropping it all over again. A young man walked to the van and told me they would not be much longer and sure enough, we were on our way within fifteen minutes.
     As soon as we crossed the cattle gate there was a sign that read, “END OF COUNTY ROAD.” Yet, the two ruts continued on and my map indicated that a state road was ahead. I did not believe it possible, but the road got worse. The ruts got deeper, and were crossed by cuts from rain runoff that were 4 to 6 inches across and a foot deep. After about fifteen miles of following a trail across a pasture, the road (trail) turned into a poorly kept gravel road. The road continued to improve and finally after 35 miles we finally came to a state road. A very poor, graveled, washboard state road that we had to travel on for another 25 miles.
     Seven hours and sixty miles from where we started, we made it to a US highway, a paved US highway. There were lots of birds, and the scenery was beautiful within the grasslands. But concentrating on the road took all the time from wildlife watching and enjoying the trip. Would I recommend a trip to Thunder Basin National Grassland? Yes, but only if you have a four-wheel drive vehicle and lots of time. The roads are definitely not made for a Chevy Express Van!
By the way, the only bird I photographed on this escapade was the Lark Bunting, and I shot the image about 4 miles from where I started.
Nikon D300, Nikkor 500mm f4, Digital Capture, ISO 200

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