On the Montana prairie

I’m standing on the prairie in Montana and the sun is shining. Prairie is a wonderful thing – it’s a work of art and a work of technology.

The technology bit is that prairie acts like a finely designed machine. The grasses and flowers that make it up, hundreds of different species, are well-adapted to the soil, the weather, the grazing animals – everything that makes up Montana, or Wyoming, or the Dakotas, or what did make up over a half of the American land mass a couple of centuries ago, and of which only about 2% survives.

Prairie plants are adapted to fire – which is a frequent event out here – caused by lightening. Their long roots allow them to find water and more than half of their biomass is below the surface so that when fire rushes across the prairies the native plants can spring up soon after the earth cools.

It’s a system that works well, and produces great beauty. Up here in Montana it feels like spring even on 1 June. The cottonwood along the rivers is just leafing up and the prairie flowers are blooming in blues, yellows and whites.

And these flowers and grasses support the bison, the pronghorn antelope (I can see one from where I am standing) and all those sparrows and Killdeers, Brown-headed Cowbirds and Western Kingbirds. Maybe because it is a lovely warm day I can also see lots of butterflies moving over the grassland – mostly one yellow species called the Pink-edged Sulphur, and many of them heading east as though they have somewhere to go.

A yellow butterfly passes by a white gravestone on the prairie, marking the spot where a young 7th cavalryman died and then passes a browner stone marking the deathplace of a young Lakota brave, for this is the battlefield of the Little Bighorn where the native Americans won a pyrrhic victory against the might of the US Government in a war that ended in defeat for their way of life.

The site is sensitively and clearly interpreted on foot and by car. It is easy to imagine the fear of the cavalrymen when they realised they had attacked a large and well-armed native American settlement. The cavalry retreated up the hill, Custer’s men were separated and maybe could have regrouped but they failed to do so. Custer’s own troop, including his brother, were isolated, surrounded and killed their own horses to make a last stand on a conical knoll. But the indian forces overwhelmed them and around 270 European Americans died on this prairie on 25 and 26 June 1876. Fewer native Americans died and there was great rejoicing among Sitting Bull’s people.

Were there Pink-edged Sulphur butterflies passing across the battlefield on that June day 135 years ago? Did pronghorns pause their grazing to scan the firefight below them? And was the song of the Western Meadowlark the last sound heard by some dying men? And why have the prairies been valued ever since for the blood of a few hundred men and yet not for their beauty and perfection away from where human blood was spilled?

 

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Black Hills

I’ve spent much of the last four days in the Black Hills of Dakota in Western South Dakota.  Some of it in rain, some with a flat tyre, but even so I can see why Doris Day wanted to go back.  Maybe she hadn’t quite seen all the region’s birds either.

But the bird list keeps mounting.  Townsend’s Solitaire, Red-naped Sapsuscker, American Dipper, White-throated Swift, Western Tanager and Western Gebe amongst others.

But I will probably remember best other moments.  The party of Yellow-rumped Warblers, about 30 of them, mostly males, and presumably newly arrived as they were not teritorial, moving through the trees and looking gorgeous.  And the half hour spent sitting by a lake watching hundreds of swallows fly past to within about six feet. There were our Swallows (Barn Swallows – though noticeably more orange underneath), Cliff Swallows (more like the European Red-rumped Swallow), Tree Swallows (a bit like a large House Martin but without a white rump) and, although it took me a while to realise, Violet-green Swallows too (with a thin white rump).

The gold of the Black Hills led to the US Government breaking several treaties with the native Americans as prospectors headed West into Indian land and to towns such as Deadwood.  These hills were and are precious and sacred to the native Americans, who knew about the gold but also knew you couldn’t do much with gold so didn’t overrate it in the way that European Americans did.  I feel I have tapped into rich seams of wildlife and scenery here but have left each to future travellers to find for themselves again.

In film terms I have moved from South Dakota where fellow Bristolian, Cary Grant, climbed over faces in North by Northwest, to close encounters with Black-tailed Prairie Dogs at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, to Montana where the plains are wide and rivers run through them.

And the soundtrack has been Bob Seger’s greatest hits – and will be today too.

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Feeling tyred

Yesterday I woke fairly early and the sun was shining so I wrote a blog about black birds by the side of the road.  It was too early to get the tire fixed.

Here is some very valuable information for anyone who gets a flat tire in Custer, SD on the Sunday before the holiday of Memorial Day.  It goes like this:

Don’t bother with LaMonte’s Auto Center, 1029 Mount Rushmore Road because it doesn’t exist anymore.

And don’t bother with French Creek Loggers’ Supply because they stopped fixing tires on 28 May 2011.

Don’t bother asking the only two people out on the streets of Custer at 815am as both had only just moved there and knew nothing about tyre repairers

What you need is Leo’s Auto Repair and Towing Service (Owner Paul Schmitz).  The sign on the door said ‘Closed’ but a face poked out and turned it to ‘Open’ when I pulled up. This was Paul’s son Troy – he’s a nice lad and did his best with my tyre but it couldn’t safely be mended so we needed a new one.  Dad phoned around without success while Troy told me that Custer had more days sunshine in the year than Hawaii.  Troy had lived in Custer all his short (25 years?) life but was obviously proud of it and the surrounding Black Hills.  He admitted the winters were ‘slow’ but fall was very nice.  The Schmitzs suggested that a drive to Wal-Mart in Rapid City was the best option as few places would be open on this holiday Monday.

The sun shone as I drove slowly to Rapid City passing a couple of Bison, several Golden Eagles, a grebe which I couldn’t stop to identify and an Upland Sandpiper which flew over the road.

The sun still shone as I entered Rapid City and the place was full of tire centers, auto centers, and most were shut – although a couple could sell me a whole car but not a single tyre.

I found Wal-Mart and they were open (hooray!), and very helpful (thank you!) but didn’t have the right tyre in stock – but Ron said he could order one.  ‘How long would it take?’ I asked.  ‘About 5 weeks’ was the totally amazing answer.  I said ‘But this is America – I could probably get one quicker than that in Afghanistan.’.  ‘You could here before Obama got in’ was Ron’s colleague’s reply.  We didn’t get into why the Pres had screwed up on tires but the good news was that if they could find one on the internet it might only be 5 days instead of 5 weeks.

I wasn’t feeling very hopeful but asked whether there was anywhere else in town and Ron said he’d try Sears.  He phoned, he spoke, they had one suitable tyre.  ‘Get there quick and ask for Ken’ was Ron’s advice and as I headed off I thanked him.

It was sunny as I drove around to Sears and met Ken and his colleague whose name probably wasn’t Ken.  She oozed competence and made me think that all would be OK.  ‘Come back in an hour and a half and it’ll be done’ said the Angel in Overalls.

It was sunny as I walked around the Mall, had a Mexican late lunch, mooched and kept hoping that the Angel in Overalls was right.

And she was!  I didn’t kiss her or hug her but I was very English about putting in lots of ‘thank yous’ in my goodbyes.  As I drove off it started to rain – but I almost didn’t mind.

I had been warned that Mount Rushmore was commercilised and tacky but I liked it.  The first view of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln that I got was from miles away and was impressive.  I got more as I approached on the specially-designed Iron Mountain Road – specially designed to give the traveller impressive views of the Mountain.  I liked it – and there is an impressive view of Washington’s profile alone as you leave the site, which is well worth catching.

I saw birds too, but I’ll tell you about them this evening if I don’t have internet problems like last night.  But here in the Green Bean Cafe in Spearfish, SD, drinking organic coffee and eating apple pie I have internet access and four good tires, and the sun is shining – so let’s go!

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Black birds by the side of the road

I have spent a lot of time in the car and, as a result, see lots of roadside birds.  Many of them are black.

Starlings are still with me – I have seen starlings every day of my trip and that includes Starlings hopping round near bison.

Larger than a Starling but similarly iridescent when seen really well, is the Common Grackle.  The males have characteristically shaped tails – kell-shaped in flight – and I think I have seen them every day too.

Brown-headed Cowbirds are mostly black, and you only see the brown heads of the males when up close.  These are of similar size to Starlings and often form small flocks.  They are nest parasites and are thought to have played a part in the declines of many American woodland species as forests became fragmented and access to those forests became easier for cowbirds.   They follow grazing animals to catch insects stirred up by the animal’s passage and I have now seen flocks of cowbirds under a bison’s feet.

Red-winged Blackbirdsare black too – with spectacular yellow and red shoulder patches in the males.  Andre Dhondt, at Cornell, pointed out to me that the males can hide their red wing patches when they feed in groups around bird feeders – as if to say ‘I’m not looking for a fight’.  These birds are often by the side of the road and only when they fly do I realise from the wing-patch which species is involved.

So, there are four regular black birds to keep the birder-motorist guessing right across the continent.  But a few days ago, around the 100th meridian in the South Dakota prairie-land, I noticed another black bird.  This one feeds on the roadside and is a similar size to the others, and is often with the others, but has white wing patches.  A new black bird – what can it be?

This bird always seemed to fly directly away from the road without perching conveniently ona fence to give me a better look.  At first I laboured under the misapprehension that it might be a Tri-coloured Blackbird as they have white wing patches but once I got a good look at Sibley I realised how foolish that idea was as they don’t live in South Dakota and the white patches are very different – no points for that guess.

New birds on new continents are fun – but sometimes one spends ages looking in the wrong part of the book.  Eventually I realised that these were male Lark Buntings.  The white on the end of the tail isn’t nearly as obvious as Sibley suggests and that sent me the wrong way for a while.

The 100th meridian marks something of a watershed for western/Eastern American birds and I knew that I ought to be seeing another blackbird too.  So, yesterday, in the rain, but before the flat tire, I paid more attention to black birds by the road and after a while I saw the characteristic white eye ring of the Brewer’s Blackbird.

Must get that tire fixed so that I can see what black birds the road has in store.

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Rainy day and a nice Highway Patrolman

Today I drove around the southern Black Hills of Dakota in the rain.  I saw a few Bison, I saw some birds and I had a nice day.

I also learned what I did, really, already know, that I really should check where the jack, wheelbrace, spare tire etc are just in case I get a flat after dark, in the rain, without a flashlight and far from help.  But I was very grateful to the Highway Patrolman who stopped and gave me a hand.

Tomorrow is a Public Holiday – Memorial Day – just as it is in the UK, and I will spend a good chunk of it trying to get roadworthy again – what are the odds on a bright sunny day?

So I may have plenty of time for blogging tomorrow.

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