Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Trip Day 2: Crow Valley and Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

What trip would be complete without an Great Horned Owl sighting. This fine lady was nesting just outside the Crow Valley camping area, and was one of the first birds I saw that morning.

Kestrels are always fun to photograph. They have such great colors and are often easily seen an prominent perches. There were several around, and the rising sun really highlighted their colors.

I left the Pawnee National Grasslands and headed straight north along the western edge of Nebraska. My next destination was the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. Before I arrived I had a chance to enjoy some truly beautiful rolling country. Herds of Antelope were abundant, and the limestone hilltops that occasionally punched through the shortgrass kept the scenery interesting. It is some of my favorite driving country.
(a bit non-birdy below feel free to skip to the next photo if you are a die-hard bird only type)
I arrived at AFBNM and had the place to myself. I don't know that there are many crowds to deal with even at the height of tourist season, but this is a place that can really be savored solo. I checked out the museum first, which is split between a display of the fossilized remains of mammals who lived in the area 19-20 million years ago, and Native American Relics gathered by the rancher who owned the land and befriended residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in the late 19th century.
I was in heaven. I graduated with a Bachelors in history, and took a year of Geology as an elective just because I find it interesting. Even though I have forgotten a good deal of my geology coursework (its been close to 15 years) I am well grounded to appreciate the sedimentation and erosion cycles that created the area of the monument.
So 20 million years ago the Great Plains resembled the African Serengeti, cycles alternated between rain and drought, and large mammal ancestors of the large species we know today lived in the area. The monument has been developed around several dig sites that were discovered in the early 20th century. They formed at waterholes, where animals became concentrated around shrinking mudholes in periods of drought. As happens today in Africa some animals ultimately perish, and provide a sampling of all age and species groups in fairly close proximity. This site is unique in that several times these drought death scenes were immediately followed by remote volcanic eruptions, in at least one of the cases the ash deposits point to a volcano on the Idaho border. The ash buried the remains and allowed them to rest undisturbed for all these millions of years.
During that time the Rocky Mountains rose, and the erosion that followed caused the landscape to change from a large flat plain to the deep valleys and rolling hills seen today. A muddy sinkhole became a rocky highpoint and further erosion of that hill revealed the fossilized skeletons to the residents over one hundred years ago.
I didn't get as much of the Native American experience as the museum was going to be undergoing renovations, and I wanted to get back outside to the 80 degree sunshine, but I did buy a copy of the biography of the rancher and will enjoy getting a feel for his connection to both the traders and scouts of the mid 19th century whom I have studied closely in the area of the Bent's operations in southeastern Colorado, and his connection to the Lakota with whom I worked in high school in South Dakota.

On to my time outdoors:

The trail to University and Carnegie Hills crosses the Niobarra River several hundred yards from the Visitor Center. Here I was just miles from its headwaters in eastern Wyoming, but due to the previous week's precipitation it was in full flood mode and looked quite impressive. I saw several common birds, and startled both a White Tailed-Deer and what I believe was a Mink as I approached the thicker vegetation near the true creek bank.
Sometimes birds can be flat-out tough to spot, and this before the leaves have filled in. The shot above shows how well they can hide just by placing a branch between themselves and the perceived threat. That White-Crowned Sparrow had me frustrated with brief looks and cluttered foregrounds for a bit, but eventually patience paid off.

A bit more text to wrap up a great Thursday. Walking up the hill to the dig sites at the top of the two hills was like a mini version of a day hike above treeline in the mountains. There were patchy clouds and a stiff breeze, and standing between the two hilltops channeled all of the moving air right through. Just me, the Meadowlarks, Harriers, and insects, and an impossibly gorgeous moment in nature.
Back at the visitor center I thanked the ranger geologist and he recommended the Toadstool Geologic Park if I had time. I was finding the travel times less than I had allowed for, without even pushing the speed limits, so I decided to head on up. He did caution that the road in and out was subject to flash flooding. I drove on up on the worst of the roads I encountered on my trip. It was still soft, and required vigilance to keep from hitting some unexpectedly deep potholes. My "off-road ready" Accord two door made it in style though, and I arrived to see the gathering thunderheads just clearing the ridge. I had though that camping there might be a possibility, but clearly the weather was not going to cooperate. I completed the one mile loop in about twelve minutes, (I left the camera in the car - a reason to return some other day).
I then raced the thunderstorm southeast to Chadron, where I had planned to camp in the Pine Ridge National Forest. Being that it was a ridge, covered with trees, and that I don't make a habit of setting up camp in rain or thunderstorms anyway, I made an audible to drive on ahead to Valentine, Nebraska and check into my hotel there a day before my reservation. The storm and I were neck and neck halfway across Nebraska, and I was certainly glad to have a roof over my head as the weather was a-changin'.

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