The New Year dawned cold in the badlands of South Dakota. Temperatures in the low single digits at sunrise on January 1 warmed to a balmy 30°F by midday. The sunny, calm conditions were perfect for my first hike of 2013. I hadn’t walked fifty feet from the trailhead, however, before the sun glinting off the surface of the snow captured my attention. I commonly see delicate sparkles on the snow in the morning sun, but these were bold flashes coming from platy ice crystals the size of my thumbnail.
I knelt to see better, and exclaimed in delight. Even with my naked eye, I could see fine growth ridges running parallel to the edges of each plate, forming beautiful facets. My first thought was surprise that such big, perfectly hexagonal snowflakes could have persisted since the last snowfall, several days ago. But then I realized that the ice crystals weren’t old snowflakes at all: they were a beautiful example of surface hoar. Read more
We crept slowly forward, peering into the hedge where it thinned, looking to the lawn on the far side. We saw nothing. We closed to within five feet of where the hawk had flown into the hedge. Still nothing. Until, with the same swift grace with which it had flown in, the hawk emerged from the hedge. As the bird sprung aloft, so close in front of us that we felt its wingbeats as much as we saw them, it faced us for the briefest of moments as it elegantly arced back over the hedge and up into the spreading branches of a massive pin oak in the churchyard.
The flash of the hawk’s underside showed that the white feathers of its breast and belly were marked with fine, red barring. We had a bit longer to take in the dorsal view, with the bird’s slate-gray back and banded tail. As the hawk flared its wings and tail to brake into a landing, we could see that the tip of the tail had a deep, C-shaped curve, edged in white. It was a Cooper’s hawk.
The latest book from California naturalist, artist, and educator John Muir Laws is a delight, with a potential audience far beyond what its title suggests. The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds is not just about drawing birds or bird anatomy, though it addresses those topics thoroughly and adeptly. It is, rather, a book about seeing nature more truly and getting over fear. Read more
For Thanksgiving, a quick post singing the praises of that humblest fruit, the cranberry.
Growing up, I never cared for the gelatinous cranberry sauce my relatives turned out of a can each year at Thanksgiving. The wobbly, alarmingly-colored goo made me leery of cranberries for years, in fact. I didn’t discover the delights of dried cranberries until my early twenties, when I started studding my oatmeal with them at breakfast. And it wasn’t until last Thanksgiving that I discovered how I love to eat fresh cranberries: minced into a relish with a whole orange and a bit of sugar, no cooking required. Read more
Yellowstone National Park recently announced that it had removed over 300,000 lake trout from Yellowstone Lake during its summer 2012 gill-netting operations. Yes, that’s three hundred thousand of the non-native, predatory fish pulled out of the lake, all in a single season. And many of them are real whoppers, like the one held by Park Service fisheries biologist Phil Doepke in the NPS photo at left.
Where did all these lake trout come from? Why does the park want them gone? How has the lake trout’s presence in Yellowstone Lake affected other organisms, such as the iconic cutthroat trout? Read more
The Badlands just disappeared. From where I sit next to my kitchen window, I can usually lean slightly to my right and have a nice view of the formations to the north. They have been fading for some time now, first veiled by fog, then whitened by falling snow. The big flakes, carried nearly horizontally by the prairie winds, are now falling thickly enough that the buttes and spires a quarter of a mile away have vanished.
Townsend's solitaires are fairly common in Badlands National Park and the surrounding areas in the winter months. You don't see them just anywhere, though. They tend to hang out in places where juniper trees cluster. In Badlands, that generally means places like Cliff Shelf or Deer Haven—areas where the steep badlands formations have slumped, leaving a ledge of relatively level ground. The gentler topography of the slumps retains a bit more moisture, allowing the growth of a shrubby woodland. This is a rarity on the prairie, where the climate is generally too harsh and dry for trees.
Art and I have an uneasy relationship. I enjoy looking at art. I admire people who create original works. I often wish I could draw, or paint, or sculpt; I long for the artistic ability to capture the beauty I see in wild animals and plants. Every now and then I take a stab at sketching in my nature notebook ... but I always fall back on words to describe what I see. Writing is far easier, for me. It comes more naturally. Drawing is mildly scary. Painting or using pastels, or introducing color in any way? Terrifying!
The eastern yellow-bellied racer is a common snake in the grasslands of western South Dakota. True to their name, racers are speedy snakes, long and slender. They’re nonvenomous and, in my opinion, beautiful: the archetype of what a snake should be. I was delighted to see this blue-green adult racer, roughly three feet in length, as I walked home for lunch today. Read more
I’ve been in my new home in Badlands National Park for just over two weeks now. I arrived here in summer, and within a week the autumnal equinox carried us over into fall. On cue, the cottonwood trees turned from green to gold, and the nights became crisp and clear. Read more