Birder's Eye View

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

SD Saga: Great explorations

(Note: if you haven't already done so, please read part 1 first)

After a 3 hour drive from Torrington, WY to the Black Hills of South Dakota, we decided to spend the afternoon caving, and go to Custer State Park the next day.

From the travelogue:

7/31 - Visited a place called Sitting Bull Crystal Caverns -- skeptical at first, it looked really touristy, but it turned it to be really cool. We had to climb 103 feet down a cold, narrow, vertical staircase, which I wasn't crazy about. But the caves were amazing. Afterward we hiked a trail behind it for a bit... saw my lifer spotted towhee too!

The caverns were indeed, spectacular, and boasted some of the largest Dogtooth Spar in the world. It was a good introduction to SD caves, but would be dwarfed by Jewel Cave, which we would be exploring later in the trip.

The next day, August 1, we did a lot of hiking and driving. First we hiked to the top of the mountain where we were staying. The view was unbelievable, and apparently it was the only place for miles around where you could get cell phone reception (not that we needed it, but occasionally you'd find people at the top listening to their messages or making a phone call!).

After then visiting Crazy Horse monument (which was amazing!) we headed to Custer State Park. Unfortunately, it was the beginning of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally week in SD, so the winding mountain roads were bogged down with literally hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists.

Regardless, I think I saw more wildlife at Custer than I've ever seen in any other state park. We saw pronghorn, bison, big horn sheep, chipmunks, prairie dogs, deer, and more.

Custer also has a population of "wild" burros. They're actually the feral descendents of a group that was used to carry visitors to Harney Peak in the 1920s. Since they are no longer used by the park, the burros formed herds and have been breeding and living wild ever since.

Well, as "wild" as a burro can be... they seem to have learned that if they hang out by the road, they get free handouts by tourists.

Another cool wild critter we found living in a Prairie Dog town was this 13-Lined Ground Squirrel. Never seen one of these before, and didn't expect to, but it was pretty fun to find!

In the first five days of our trip, I had seen 21 species of birds. I got up early one morning to go birding around the mountain, and saw my lifer Red-naped Sapsucker and Least Flycatcher. I also found lots of wild turkeys, American robins, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Black-capped Chickadees. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird even came to check out the birdfeeders hanging around the deck of our cabin, but didn't stay for long upon discovering we didn't have any hummer feeders.

So far, the trip was going well. We had seen a ton of birds and wildlife, some breathtaking scenery, and fantastic geology and ecosystems in the Black Hills.

Part 3 will be posted tomorrow.

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