It appears that you are currently using Ad Blocking software. What are the consequences? Click here to learn more.
Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

Pawnee National Grassland‏

July 24th, 2010 · 5 Comments

Print This Post Print This Post
Advertisment


Although my SUV broke down on my way back home from the Pawnee National Grassland this week, I’m still a lucky man.

I was lucky to break down in Greeley, Colorado, the only sizable city on my route between the grassland and my home in Boulder. My Toyota Highlander stalled at a busy intersection, so I called AAA on my cell phone and told the operator that I smelled gasoline. She considered it an emergency and called the fire department, the police, and a tow truck driver, who quickly arrived in that order. They discovered that I had a hole in my SUV’s fuel tank. This was result, I guess, of driving almost 1,000 miles in the previous four days on dirt roads that were often muddy and where I may have bottomed out on some rock.

The Toyota dealership in Greeley was just a mile from where my SUV stalled. After the tow truck driver took me and my SUV there, the dealership quickly gave me their diagnosis — an estimate of $1,050 and a four-day wait for the parts. After renting a 2010 Corolla from the dealer, I was on my way home just two hours after my SUV stalled.

Years ago on a lonely road in Africa I was able to fix a leak in my car’s fuel tank with soap until I could get to a mechanic who repaired it. Nowadays, we replace, not repair.

But I was lucky this time too. The experience was expensive, but it was only money. I got through it safely and with very little loss of time.

I was also lucky this time as I explored the Pawnee National Grassland looking for photographic beauty. I found what I sought, although my best shots kept me waiting until the last moment.

This was my first extended visit to the Colorado’s prairies. I explored the 30-by-60 mile area where this national grassland protects 193,060 acres of shortgrass prairie. This is the western end of the Great Plains, that broad expanse of North American prairie, steppe, and grassland running about 500 miles from east to west and 2,000 miles from north to south.

A View of the Prairie within Pawnee National Grassland

A View of the Prairie within Pawnee National Grassland

Click on the picture above to enlarge

A Rainbow During a Rain Storm in the Grassland

A Rainbow During a Rain Storm in the Grassland

Click on the picture above to enlarge


A talk and book by Dave Showalter brought me there. His talk to the Colorado Nature Camera Club a few months ago first led me to appreciate the beauty that we can find on my adopted state’s high plains. His beautiful book, Prairie  Thunder, added to my interest in our prairies. Then, a few days ago I called him on the phone to ask his advice on where and when to go.

Dave told me that I should get going right away, before the grass turned from green to yellow. I complied with his advice as soon as I could.

Colorado’s prairie comprises more than one-third of the state. But like most people here, I usually turned toward the Rocky Mountains just to the west of Boulder.

The Pawnee National Grassland is just two or three hours east of my home in Boulder. I stayed at the Pioneer Trails Lodge Bed and Breakfast, which is at the far southeast corner of the grassland, three miles east of the settlement of Stoneham and then five miles north at the end of a dirt road.

Pioneer Trails Lodge B&B and my Dirty SUV

Pioneer Trails Lodge B&B and my Dirty SUV

Click on the picture above to enlarge

Cheryl and Bill Keelan live at the B&B with two of their three children. The lodge has four guest rooms, but I was the only guest when I stayed there.

I was extremely fortunate to discover this place. Not only is it the closest accommodation to the grassland — especially to Pawnee Buttes, the biggest landmark — but their hospitality was superb. I especially appreciated Cheryl’s cooking. She cooks low-carb, following Dana Carpender’s 500 Low-Carb Recipes. Her meals also tastes great. And she served them to me when I wanted them — breakfast before 6 a.m. and dinner at either 6 p.m. or 9 p.m., depending on whether I ate before or after going out on my evening photo rounds.

Actually, I had made a quick trip to the Pawnee National Grassland in September 2008. That time I pitched my tent right next to its greatest attraction, the Pawnee Buttes. But that was a fiasco, because the wind and heavy rain that night prevented any sleep until I struck my tent after midnight and drove back home.

The photos that I took of the buttes a couple of years ago didn’t please me. Neither did the first shots that I took when I arrived there on Monday before checking in at the B&B. Rain had fallen all afternoon, and while it has stopped coming down when I reached the buttes just before the theoretical sunset, the sky was heavily overcast. My first photos of the buttes were correspondingly dull.

I called Cheryl to tell her that I had just left Pawnee Buttes and was on my way. She said that I was about half an hour from the lodge and could get dinner whenever I arrived.

But I wasn’t close, because I noticed that the sun was peaking out from behind the clouds, promising a real sunset. So I turned around and went back. Just then, for no more than five minutes and less than a quarter of an hour before the sun set, it shone on the buttes, giving me the shot that I sought. I was in luck.

Pawnee Buttes at Sunset

Pawnee Buttes at Sunset

Click on the picture above to enlarge

Later, I captured this image of the wider area.

A Panorama of the Pawnee Buttes and Nearby Cliffs

A Panorama of the Pawnee Buttes and Nearby Cliffs

Click on the picture above to enlarge

On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday until I returned home, I drove around the grassland at first light and just before sunset as I looked for birds and wildlife. Every day Cheryl woke me before 5 a.m. by knocking on my door as I had requested.

I also explored the surrounding area, especially on heavily overcast mornings. I visited Jackson Lake State Park, North Sterling State Park, and went to lunch in the nearby cities of Fort Morgan and Sterling, which with a population of about 12,000 is the biggest city on the prairie west of the Front Range.

On Wednesday I also drove about 70 miles to Cabela’s headquarters in Sidney, Nebraska, where my host Bill Keelan happens to work. Like the town of Wall in South Dakota, Sidney is famous for just one store. But Wall Drug is a heavily advertised tourist trap, while I had to use my iPad to find Cabela’s, one of the country’s major outdoor outfitters, where I found something that I wanted. I knew that they carry shirts in my hard-to-find size, medium tall, and did find three of them, one of which I am happily wearing as write.

Back on the grassland, it is a birder’s paradise with more than 250 species. I saw a lot more of them than I could identify as well as wildlife. On Tuesday morning I had hiked the Bird Walk Trail at the Crow Valley Recreation Area, the only campground within the grassland. Nobody else was there except the birds and the wildlife.

One of Many Rabbits I Saw at Crow Valley

One of Many Rabbits I Saw at Crow Valley

Click on the picture above to enlarge

The predominant wildlife on the prairies now that the buffalo are mostly gone is the pronghorn, which people often incorrectly call an antelope. Pronghorns do fill a similar ecological niche.

A Male Pronghorn Just Before Sunset on Wednesday

A Male Pronghorn Just Before Sunset on Wednesday

Click on the picture above to enlarge

Two Female Pronghorns at Sunrise on Thursday

Two Female Pronghorns at Sunrise on Thursday

Click on the picture above to enlarge

But what I most hoped to see on my visit to the grassland was birds. I found them not only as I hiked the Bird Walk Trail but also on the grassland’s other marked trail, the three-mile roundtrip hike to the Pawnee Buttes, and by driving around miles and miles of the grassland’s mostly dirt roads. Actually, the dirt road to the B&B where I stayed had some of the greatest profusion of birdlife. I saw thousands of birds there on power and fence lines. Maybe one out of a thousand would stay put when I stopped and shut off the motor. The two-track road, actually more of a trail than a road, to the East Stoneham Reservoir a couple of miles from the B&B was especially productive of pictures.

A Dragonfly at the Reservoir

A Dragonfly at the Reservoir

Click on the picture above to enlarge

A Butterfly on a Sunflower at the Reservoir

A Butterfly on a Sunflower at the Reservoir

Click on the picture above to enlarge

A Mourning Dove

A Mourning Dove

Click on the picture above to enlarge

An Unidentified Little Bird That I Spotted Along the Pawnee Butte Trail

A Rock Wren That I Spotted Along the Pawnee Butte Trail

Click on the picture above to enlarge

Another Unknown Bird

A Savannah Sparrow

Click on the picture above to enlarge

This Small Bird Has Big Wings

A Western Meadowlark Along the Pawnee Butte Trail

A Western Meadowlark Along the Pawnee Butte Trail

Click on the picture above to enlarge

A Western Kingbird

A Western Kingbird

Click on the picture above to enlarge

The birds that I most wanted to see were raptors, the birds of prey. The obvious place to look for them was the cliffs along the Pawnee Buttes trail, because the U.S. Forest Service closes that trail from March 1 to June 30 every year to protect nesting hawks and falcons. But although I went there twice just three weeks later, I saw no raptors.

Not there, but I saw them on fence posts and power lines a dozen times. I got a couple of shots as they flew away from me in my first three days there.

A Hawk and a Smaller Bird Fly

A Hawk and a Smaller Bird Fly

Click on the picture above to enlarge

A Red-Tailed Hawk Flies Away

A Red-Tailed Hawk Flies Away

Click on the picture above to enlarge

I couldn’t get close enough to a hawk before it flew off, and the skies were overcast. I thought that my luck might have run out. But then on Thursday morning less than a quarter of an hour before I left the Pawnee National Grassland, the sun was shining brightly on this hawk resting on a fence post and looking for prey. Then, I was able to capture an image of the hawk as it took off.

A Red-Tailed Hawk Looks for Prey

A Red-Tailed Hawk Looks for Prey

Click on the picture above to enlarge
Then, the Hawk Takes Off

Then, the Hawk Takes Off

Click on the picture above to enlarge

What a successful trip! I loved driving through the grasslands on dirt roads unencumbered by excess signs and often free of fences.

I do love the prairies like I love the desert and the ocean. In all of those environments I can see for miles.

This is Plainsong country, the beautiful novel that Kent Haruf wrote, based on the years he lived in Yuma, Colorado, an hour south of Sterling. This can be a harsh land, but even now early in the summer the temperatures were not nearly as hot as I expected and the grassland was much greener.

My good luck holds.

Share

Posted in: Hiking, Photography

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bob Fenton // Aug 11, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    Aah, I see what you meant. A couple of excellent red-tailed hawk pictures. Even the one flying away is an excellent view of the underside and wing span.

  • 2 Dan Boone // Feb 3, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Greetings,

    The “unidentified” bird in the photo you took “along the Pawnee Butte Trail” is a Rock Wren. And I believe the following photo of another “unidentified” bird shows a Savannah Sparrow (note its yellow lores). Great photos! I look forward to visiting the Pawnee Grasslands this summer.

  • 3 David Mendosa // Feb 3, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    Dear Dan,

    Thanks so much. I think that you will enjoy the Grassland, but don’t go too late in the summer. In a normal year I would have been too late. Right now I am finalizing arrangements for an April trip beyond the Grassland to Wray to see a Greater Prairie-Chicken display at a nearby lek.

  • 4 Charlie C // May 25, 2013 at 9:52 am

    I’m glad you took the pictures that you did…they are a historical document of the past now…
    No point in going out there anymore…from the moment you leave New Raymer and make your way along the Pioneer Scenic Byway all you are going to see are gas wells and huge multipad wells (on National Land!!!) and an unbelievable amount of truck traffic going in and out of the wells so the roads have been made way worse
    For the first almost 75 miles of our drive up to and past the Buttes there is hardly a space to stop without looking at wells and traffic. If you (like me) used to take the little side roads and follow the washes…forget it! They are all gas access roads now. I could not find a single place to drive in as we passed through the whole of eastern section going west.
    100 miles of driving and we saw two antelope and zero birds of prey.

    They should start taking down the scenic byway signs soon…it’s just a cruel sad joke that these companies have been allowed to do this to hundreds of square miles of what was pristine prairie.

    It’s is an absolute disgrace that this has been allowed to happen, it will never be returned to the condition it was in…it has been for intent and purpose been destroyed.

  • 5 David Mendosa // Sep 20, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    Dear Charlie,

    I just came back last night from three wonderful days in the Pawnee Grassland. Your message disturbed me, but I went there anyway and am glad for it. Actually, I found the grassland little changed from my trips there in 2008 and 2010. There is more activity and there are more oil wheels in the eastern section of the grassland than in the western section where some of the best birding in the country is. The eastern section is noteworthy only for the Pawnee Buttes, and I didn’t see any oil wells in that immediate area. I did see hundreds of wind turbines there and had to find just the right angle to photograph the buttes without the turbines in the picture. But that has been the case for years.

    Without question, the best birding on the grassland is around the Crow Valley Campground. The other outstanding area is the Pawnee National Grassland Birding Tour, a self-guided auto tour near the southern edge of the western section. In three days of constant activity I saw very few oil wells and oil company trucks in the western section. I am so glad that I went back for a wonderful trip and I will write my photo essays about it in the next week or so.

    With metta,

    David

Leave a Comment