Autumn 2008

Driving around the Plains
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My goals for fall, which I loosely define here as August through December, was to get some elk and bighorn sheep images, and I'm always on the outlook for eagles and other raptors.

 
Rams in the snow, Custer SP

Although I photographed elk in Yellowstone way back in '03, I didn't get around to making the long drive this time. Instead I made a couple of day trips down to Simmons Wildlife Safari near Omaha where two dozen elk roam through a large enclosure. During the first tour in August, the elk were shedding the velvet from their antlers. A few weeks later in September the bulls were bugling. There was some half-hearted sparring, but nothing dramatic. I also made a few attempts to find elk in Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park. Although they could be heard bugling, I caught no more than a distant glimpse. I set up my trail camera at what I thought was a likely location for elk in Wind Cave NP, but I didn't get any images in about seven weeks from late October through early December. I'll try again next year. (There is one trail camera image in the gallery of a deer in the woods near my house.)

But I did find bighorn sheep in Custer State Park during several visits. In September I found two rams grazing along Highway 16 west of the visitor center. I hit the jackpot on October 19 when I found seven rams grazing along the highway and a group of 12 ewes on the lawn of the Norbeck Visitor Center. I visited Custer again in December and found a group of two rams and seven ewes on the lawn of the visitor center. In December, I also found a group of eight rams and four ewes at Cleghorn State Fish Hatchery on the western edge of Rapid City, SD. In December at both Custer and Cleghorn (about 40 miles apart), the rams were exhibiting signs of the rut (curling lips and chasing the ewes) but I didn't see any head butting. In all, autumn in the Black Hills was a good time to see bighorns.


Bugling Elk, Simmons
 

My drive through Colorado in October also included an attempt to find bighorns in Bighorn Canyon, but I didn't see any. I thought it was ironic that I found a whole bunch of Rocky Mountain Bighorns in the Black Hills, but none in the Rockies. About the only excitement I had in Colorado was an electrical fire started by high winds next to my hotel in Canon City. A photo of that is included in the slide show.

I continued on through Colorado to Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico, where I have been many times before to see the snow geese and sandhill cranes. There weren't very many of either as it was probably a bit early in the season. However, there are always plenty of resident raptors. At one point I saw three harriers in the air at the same time. I got a decent harrier flight shot and a couple of other roosting raptors that I didn't recognize. After scouring through my bird book I think at least one of them was a falcon.

 
Bald eagle on a muskrat hut, Squaw Creek

Another good place for snow geese is Squaw Creek NWR in northwest Missouri. There were perhaps 130,000 on hand in late November, as well as a few eagles and hawks. I plan another visit in mid-December when the eagle numbers should be at their peak.

Also included in the autumn gallery are a few images from the South Dakota Air and Space Museum at Ellsworth Air Force Base. I stopped there for an hour on my way home from the Black Hills in September.

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All photos 1998-2008 by Thomas O'Neil