July 2017 – Not only is Custer, South Dakota, a charming place for RVers to enjoy a spirited, small town 4th of July celebration, it is situated next to enormous Custer State Park where beautiful scenery and unusual wildlife abound. While Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park are famous for bison leisurely strolling down the road, Custer State Park offers the same thrill but in a much less visited setting.
The Wildlife Loop Road is the place to see the animals in Custer State Park. When friends told us this drive was their favorite part of the Park because of all the animals they saw, I wondered how in the world the animals knew they were supposed to hang out there to greet all the tourists. I still don’t know, but it doesn’t take long on the Wildlife Loop Road to see them!
We arranged our 2017 travels to take us to Custer State Park because we knew a professional wildlife photographer that we have admired for a long time was headed there to test out some new camera gear for one of his video reviews. His name is Steve Perry, and he has a very popular YouTube channel as well as two excellent books about photography (links below).
Ever since we purchased and devoured Steve’s first book on wildlife photography a while back, we have studied his tutorials closely and learned a lot from his many tips.
So, we were absolutely thrilled to meet Steve and his wife Rose in downtown Custer. We agreed to catch up with each other again out on the Wildlife Loop Road in the early dawn hours the next day.
We were out on the road before sunrise, and in no time we spotted a little group of wild burros. Several mares were accompanied by their adorable foals. How fun!
Suddenly, the sun appeared above the trees, and cast its soft rays across the meadow. But we hardly noticed as we watched this herd of burros, utterly enchanted by the sweet little knobby kneed foals.
We drove a little further on the Wildlife Loop Road and spotted a gorgeous young white tail deer with soft, fuzzy antlers.
There were pronghorn antelope too.
All these animals live in the middle of a smorgasbord of their favorite foods. There are not only grasses to munch…
…but there are wildflowers too. Yum!
All these animal sightings were great, but where were Steve and Rose? It hadn’t occurred to us that meeting “somewhere” on the Wildlife Loop Road was a little non-specific, and that we would probably all get totally sidetracked by watching the animals and possibly miss each other completely.
Fortunately, with split second timing, just as we passed a dirt road that intersected with the Wildlife Loop Road when we were leaving, we saw Steve’s car bumping down the lumpy road. What luck! Steve excitedly told us what fun they’d just had photographing the prairie dogs in a dog town commonunity just a ways back on that road.
He offered to lead us back there, and soon we were looking out on the open prairie where dozens of these adorable little creatures were busily popping in and out of their burrows.
Mark was using our Tamron 150-600 lens on a Nikon D500 camera, and all three of us hunkered down on the dry prairie grasses and aimed our cameras at these little bands of comedians. What a blast we had watching their capers and taking pics. After growing accustomed to our presence, they stopped barking warnings about us to each other and began going about their daily business and munching breakfast.
The prairie dogs appeared and disappeared all across the meadow, like bubbles forming and popping in a fizzy drink, and we had to think and act fast to catch their antics before they vanished from sight. I realized, as I sat there, that one of the keys to wildlife photography is having a vast reserve of patience.
We had seen prairie dogs at Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico just a few weeks prior, but we had been in a rush to see other things and had given them about five minutes to strut their stuff for us. No wonder our pics had been mediocre. We learned from Steve that if you’re going to shoot prairie dogs and capture their adorable cuteness, it takes time.
It also requires good equipment, and I couldn’t believe the quality of the photos that were coming from the lens I was borrowing from Steve! As I checked my images, it suddenly dawned on me that when we’d decided to come all this way to watch and learn from a pro wildlife photographer, we had inadvertently signed up to start lusting after some really nice camera gear!
After we filled our cameras’ memory cards with pics of prairie dogs and packed up to head out, we told Steve he might have cost us some big bucks if we couldn’t keep our lust in check. He laughed and told us how he had been in the exact same boat when he first got serious about wildlife photography years ago. He said photography buffs have a name for it: GAS or Gear Aquisition Syndrome. Oh dear!
Driving a little further on in Steve’s car, we got another lesson on the patience it takes to get great photos of wildlife. Ever since we’d arrived in Custer a few days prior, we had been hearing the most beautiful birdsong. But we hadn’t been able to track down the bird that was responsible for it. The bird always seemed to be out of sight.
Suddenly, just as we heard the familiar birdsong, Steve stopped the car and backed up slowly, and we noticed that a little yellow bird was sitting on a fence post singing his heart out.
“That’s a Meadowlark,” he said. “I’ve been wanting to get a good shot of one while I’m here, and we spent hours trying yesterday!”
Well, this little guy had no problem with the car being parked right next to him, and as we all pointed our lenses out the car windows, he belted out verse after verse of his angelic song. Every time he opened his beak to sing, a rapid fire rat-a-tat-tat erupted from our camera shutters, providing a funny drumbeat accompaniment to his melody as we all shot as many pics as we could.
We returned to our little camping spot in the woods absolutely elated. We’d each gotten some really cool wildlife photos, and we’d learned the key tip for how to do it: Patience, patience, patience!
If you see some prairie dogs, have a seat, relax, and let them get used to you. Eventually they’ll begin to do their thing at their own pace. And if you see a row of fence posts, don’t drive past too quickly, because there might be a little bird using one of them as center stage for performing his full repertoire!
Sure enough, the next day we were driving down a dirt road that ran alongside a fence line, and suddenly Mark spotted a Mountain Bluebird sitting on it. The bird was on my side of our truck, so I quickly grabbed Mark’s camera with the long lens attached. Following Steve’s tip we’d learned, I rested the lens on the partially lowered car window, and fired away with abandon.
When I paused for a second to check out my images, I was thrilled to see that the bluebird had a bug in its mouth!
He hopped and turned to show me his other side. Perfect!
Suddenly, Mark said, “Look, there’s another bird on the wire over there!”
I turned and fired away again, and then I noticed that it was the little bluebird’s girlfriend, and she too had a bug in her mouth! Thanks, Steve!
Talk about getting some wonderful shutter therapy and having a satisfying feeling of success!
If South Dakota is in your sites for your RV adventures, the cute town of Custer and nearby Custer State Park make for a fantastic RV destination, and driving the Wildlife Loop Road a few times can easily end up being the highlight of the whole trip.
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More info about Custer State Park:
- Custer State Park Official Website
- Location of the town of Custer and the Wildlife Loop Road through Custer State Park – Interactive Google Maps
- RV campgrounds near Custer State Park – RV Park Reviews
More info about Photography:
- Photography Gear and Resources for Learning Photography – The gear we use and how we learned to take great pics
- Steve Perry’s photography books – Both books are awesome
- Steve Perry’s YouTube Channel and his website: Backcountry Gallery
- Colorado Fall Foliage Workshop – A fantastic workshop we took at the peak of autumn color in the Rockies
Other blog posts with fun animal pics:
- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum – Wild Animals in Tucson AZ 03/05/16
- Best Friends Animal Sanctuary & Southwest Wildlife Foundation in Utah 09/15/08
- Black Hills National Forest, SD, RV Boondocking – Camping with Cows! 07/11/17
- Burrowing owls in Gilbert, Arizona – They’re a Hoot! 01/13/15
- Custer State Park Burros & Bison – Close Encounters of the Animal Kind 07/31/17
- Eagles and Hummingbirds in Libby, Montana 08/31/16
- Go Fish! – Some wild ways to catch dinner – It’s for the birds!! 04/24/13
- Huatulco’s Marina Chahué – Landlubbing with parrots! 11/23/12
- On San Diego’s Shores – Dolphins and more! 12/11/13
- Peach Faced Lovebirds in Phoenix, AZ – Parrots in Cactus! 03/01/16
- Phoenix on the Wing! 03/27/14
- PV: Chamela to La Cruz – Dances with Whales at Cabo Corrientes 04/27/13
- Sandhill Cranes in Willcox Arizona – What a Party! 02/21/15
- To Catch a Hummingbird (on camera!) 01/18/14
- Wild Horses of the Salt River in Phoenix 04/25/14
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