Custer State Park Burros & Bison – Close Encounters of the Animal Kind

July 2017 – Custer State Park in South Dakota is a wonderful place to see wildlife up close, and we ended up driving the Wildlife Loop Road quite a few times during our stay.

Wild burros with RV Custer State Park South Dakota

The “wild” burros in Custer State Park are surprisingly tame!

The “wild” burros are actually feral burros that were “set free” many decades ago. Now they are known as the “begging burros,” and for good reason!

As we drove on the Wildlife Loop Road with pro wildlife photographer, Steve Perry, and his wife Rose, we were astonished when some very bold burros walked right up to our car.

Car with wild burro Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

Wild burros approached our car.

Wild burro approaches car Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

Steve reaches out to pet a “wild” burro in Custer State Park.
The burros here rightfully earned the nickname, “begging burros!”

The white burro pressed his nose against a closed car window and made funny faces at us…

Wild burro at the car window Custer State Park South Dakota

A burro presses his big nose against the car window.

The other poked his whole head right in!

Wild burro head in car Custer State Park South Dakota

Another burro sticks his nose right inside the car!

It turns out that these begging burros are the rather lazy descendants of a very hard working group of burros who began taking Custer State Park visitors on rides from Sylvan Lake up to Harney Peak back in 1927.

Little girl with wild burro Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

The wild burros are very accustomed to people, but not all the people are accustomed to the wild burros!

After a few years of providing these fun sounding burro rides, Custer State Park officials decided to end the rides, and they simply let the burros go.

Petting a wild burro Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

“Look what I found. Can I keep him?”

Nowadays, the burros are so accustomed to human visitors — and are so fond of the treats that many humans bring them — that they are quite fearless and are more than happy to mingle with tourists. They even let folks pet them.

Boy and wild burro Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

The burros don’t mind being petted.

Custer State Park encourages people not to feed the burros, but while we were there loads of people got out of their cars with bags of food for them. Keeping the burros’ waistlines in mind, though, most folks showed up with something nutritious like a bag of carrots or romaine lettuce.

Feeding a wild burro Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

Although signs say not to, lots of visitors bring snacks for the burros.

On our first foray into Custer State Park, we had been amazed just to see the wild burros and their foals from a distance, period. But this time we found ourselves standing right next to them.

Wild burro mare and foal Custer State Park South Dakota

We saw several moms and babies.

Wild burro mare stands watch over foal Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

Standing watch.

Wild burros nuzzing Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

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The burros were so darned laid back that one mom suddenly did a barrel roll in the dirt, letting a cloud of dust fly.

Wild burro dust bath Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

Mom takes a dust bath!

I was smitten by the little foals. They had such sweet and innocent faces.

Portrait wild burro foal Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

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One foal was particularly mellow. It must have been nap time, and when I knelt down next to her and stroked the soft fur on her head and neck, she leaned her whole weight against my leg and closed her eyes. Naturally, I was thrilled!

Burro foal resting Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

I could not believe this little foal was so trusting.

Wild burro foal on the Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

“Look what I found. Can I keep her?”

Custer State Park’s herd of bison is another big draw for tourists, and the opportunities to see them are plentiful. Custer State Park’s 71,000 acres are fully enclosed by fencing, and there are roughly 1,300 buffalo in the Park’s buffalo herd. The herd is carefully culled and maintained each year.

On the day that we were out photographing prairie dogs with Steve and Rose, we suddenly noticed there was a huge group of bison approaching us from the distance hills. As the leaders drew near, we turned our cameras away from the prairie dogs and focused on the approaching buffalo.

Group of buffalo in Custer State Park South Dakota

A huge herd of bison came down out of the hills towards us.

There were both buffalo cows and bulls in the herd and lots of buffalo calves as well. They came down from the hills in a long, steady stream.

Buffalo herd approaches Custer State Park South Dakota-2

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The herd fanned out and approached us like an approaching army. It was a little unsettling, even though they were walking slowly.

Bison herd approaches in Custer State Park South Dakota

The herd approaches.

Even the prairie dogs stood up on their hind legs to see what was rattling the roofs of their underground compound.

Prairie dog stands up when herd of buffalo approach Custer State Park South Dakota

“Who’s making all that noise?

As they approached us they stirred up the dust with their hooves.

Buffalo herd Custer State Park South Dakota

The dust flies as the herd approaches.

A few even stopped for a dust bath as their comrades marched on.

Buffalo dust bath Custer State Park South Dakota

A buffalo takes a bath.

The herd easily numbered a hundred, and they moved steadily towards us, getting closer and closer. We kept taking photos, but we all began to back up towards the car.

Bison herd Custer State Park South Dakota

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All of a sudden they were within just a few feet of us, and let me tell you, these animals a huge.

It felt like a gang was surrounding us as they walked towards the road and then circled around us and the car. We could hear them breathing, and we could hear the grass rustling as they moved pass. The gravel in the road crunched under their feet. Their huge heads swayed slowly back and forth as they came right towards us.

Photographing buffalo in Custer State Park South Dakota

Steve takes photos of the approaching bison.

It was an incredible opportunity to take some portraits! Each buffalo was completely different. Some had tall horns, or widely spaced horns or sharply curving horns. Some had long faces and others had broad faces.

Approaching buffalo Custer State Park South Dakota

Every buffalo portrait revealed a totally different face.

Bison head Custer State Park South Dakota

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Buffalo head Custer State Park South Dakota

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The bison were big and burly and a little frightening up close, but as we studied them, we could see they lead very hardscrabble lives.

Mark got photos of one that had a big open sore on its side that was bleeding. We weren’t sure if it had been gored by another buffalo or had scraped itself on a tree branch, but it was a surprise to see a bright red oozing wound. Another had a horn that had broken off.

Bison with broken horn Custer State Park South Dakota

A buffalo’s life can be rough and tumble.

As we clicked away with our cameras, all I could think of was the scary statistic from Yellowstone National Park: Each year more people are gored by bison there than are attacked by grisly bears! I backed up to the car and stood in front of the open door for a few last shots and then dove into the car in a panic.

Steve’s wife Rose was already in the car, and she cracked up as I fell all over myself getting in.

I sorted myself out, and then we both watched anxiously as Steve and Mark remained outside the back of the car, madly taking photos as these enormous animals closed in around us.

Buffalo head Custer State Park South Dakota

Watch out for those sharp horns!

Finally the two crazed photographers threw their tripods in the trunk and then jumped inside with us, slamming the doors closed and rolling the windows up.

The bison surrounded us like a big black sea, walking slowly alongside the car within a few feet. Then, like water flowing around an island, they moved on down the road, more interested in finding greener pastures than in bothering with the silly photo crew in the little car.

In the distance, we could see other members of the herd running across the meadow. It was amazing to see the huge creatures nimbly galloping, the calves dutifully scampering right behind.

Buffalo on the run Custer State Park South Dakota

Buffalo on the move…

Buffalo cow and calf runnning in Custer State Park South Dakota

A buffalo cow runs at full speed with her calf following close behind.

And then, as quickly as it started, the show was over.

The entire herd had easily covered a few miles of ground in a very short time, moving from the hills on one horizon to the stream, trees and meadows on the other. What a fabulous experience that was.

Buffalo on dirt road Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park south Dakota

We’ll always treasure our memories of this unusual buffalo encounter.

Buffalo calf Custer State Park South Dakota

Not quite as sweet as a baby burro, perhaps, but the buffalo calves were still pretty cute!

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Custer State Park Wildlife Loop Road – Where the Animals Are!

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.

Photographing a bison Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

The animals were easy to spot in Custer State Park!

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!

Buffalo at Custer State Park South Dakota

We had to share the road…with bison!

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).

Buffalo head through the grass Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

Up close and personal in Custer State Park.

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.

Wildlife Photographers Custer South Dakota

Mark with pro wildlife photographer Steve Perry.

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!

Mother and baby wild burros Custer State Park South Dakota

Mom and her foal.

Mare and foal wild burros Custer State Park South Dakota

There were wild burro moms and babies everywhere.

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.

Wild foal Custer State Park South Dakota

Adorable!

Wild burro mare and foal Custer State Park South Dakota

The babies are all legs…!

We drove a little further on the Wildlife Loop Road and spotted a gorgeous young white tail deer with soft, fuzzy antlers.

Young buck Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

A young buck.

There were pronghorn antelope too.

Pronghorn antelope Custer State Park South Dakota

Pronghorn in the grass.

All these animals live in the middle of a smorgasbord of their favorite foods. There are not only grasses to munch…

Pronghorn antelope Custer State Park South Dakota

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…but there are wildflowers too. Yum!

Pronghorn eating flowers Custer State Park South Dakota

Flowers taste good!

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.

Steve Perry Wildlife Photographer 00 601 Wild foal Custer State Park South Dakota

Steve Perry showed us how it’s done!

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.

Two prairie dogs in a burrow Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota-1

A pair of prairie dogs peeks out of their burrow.

Pair of prairie dogs Custer State Park South Dakota

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Prairie dogs tell secrets Custer State Park South Dakota

Psst! Can you keep a secret??

Steve crouched down with the new Nikon D7500 camera and a mammoth Nikon 600 mm lens to get photos for his review, but before he did, he lent me his Nikon 200-500 mm lens to see how I liked it. Wow!

Prairie Dog Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

“Watcha doin’?”

Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota Prairie Dog

Pretty in pink.

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.

Prairie Dog Custer State Park South Dakota

A prairie dog sits in the middle of a breakfast buffet.

Prairie dog eating grass Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

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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.

Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota Prairie Dog

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Prairie Dog munching grass Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

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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.

For RVers traveling to South Dakota, another great place to watch prairie dogs is in front of Devils Tower National Monument.

Prairie Dog trio Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

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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!

Prairie Dogs standing Custer State Park South Dakota

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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.

Meadowlark Custer State Park South Dakota

A meadowlark was singing his heart out.

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!

Mountain bluebird with bug Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

OMG – That bluebird has a bug in his mouth!

He hopped and turned to show me his other side. Perfect!

Mountain bluebird holding bug Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

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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!

Female Mountain bluebird with bug Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

His little girlfriend had found breakfast too!

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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Black Hills National Forest, SD, RV Boondocking – Camping with Cows!

July 2017 – The US Forest Service, which manages all the National Forests in America, dubs its land the “Land of Many Uses.” The uses we love most are camping with our RV, hiking, biking and photography. But when we are on public land, we share it with folks who hunt, fish, ride horses, graze cattle and extract various natural resources.

For urban and suburban folk who come out to America’s public lands to smell the pungent fresh air and see the stunning scenery, the omnipresence of cattle can be a bit of a surprise. In our many years of nightly boondocking, we have found ourselves sharing our back yard with cows quite a few times. It is, after all, open range.

Open Range Grazing Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

In the west, the public lands are Open Range. Literally!

Cattle ranching is very much alive today, and cowboys really do exist in the real world, far from the classic TV shows and western movies. The other day, as we were driving to town in Buffalo, Wyoming, we came across a cattle drive going right up the highway.

Cattle drive across highway

On the highway one day we came upon a cattle drive. How cool is that?!

We crept past and were amazed at the huge number of cows and calves. The cowboys herding them were on horseback.

Cattle drive on horseback

The cattle were being driven by cowboys on horseback.

Slow traffic for horseback cattle drive on highway

This is what a traffic jam in the big western states looks like!

As we went down the line of mooing cows and watched the calves trotting along to keep up with their moms, it was like stepping back in time. America has a rich history in cattle ranching, and in many ways it is a way of life that hasn’t changed all that much in the past 150 years.

But technology has definitely made deep inroads, and besides using ATVs to zip around the many square miles of a ranch, it helps simplify many other things too. Towards the end of the herd of cows we came across a cowboy riding his horse with a coiled rope in one hand and a cell phone in the other! How much easier it must be to coordinate the herding process when you can simply call your buddy cowboy at the other end of the herd!

Cowboy on cell phone during cattle drive

Modern day ranching: a coiled rope in one hand and a cell phone in the other!

In South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest we found a lovely spot to camp with our RV for a few days, and as we were first setting up, we couldn’t help but take a few photos of our idyllic little campsite.

RV boondocking and camping in the US National Forest

Finding a beautiful place to camp in the National Forest is one of the biggest highlights of our lifestyle.

Boondocking in the National Forest is always a treat for the senses. In the early mornings we spotted deer nearby.

White tail deer in Black Hills National Forest South Datkota

Hi Neighbor!

A wild turkey caught Mark’s eye on a solo hike he did at dawn another morning.

Wild Turkey Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

A wild turkey fluffs his feathers and shakes his tail.

He’s not a birder, but his camera managed to catch a woodpecker searching for bugs, a robin carrying a bug in his mouth, and a stunning Western Tanager.

Woodpecker in Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

Woodpecker.

Robin with bug in its mouth Black Hills National Forest

Robin.

Western Tanager Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

Western Tanager.

Flying Western Tanager Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

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The nights were glorious. The Milky Way marched across the sky all night every night for a few days.

Milky Way with RV boondocking in Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

Starry, starry night!

Beautifully mysterious trail of clouds crossed the sky one night, and we were astonished later when Mark lightened his photos on his computer later and saw how much orange and pink lingered in those clouds.

RV under the Milky Way in Black Hills South Dakota

Wispy clouds cross the Milky Way.

RV under the Milky Way in Black Hills South Dakota

Clouds whirl past the stars.

But the most humorous and heartwarming aspect of this particular South Dakota campsite wasn’t the stars or the natural wildlife.

We were both jolted out of bed one morning by the raucous braying of a huge animal standing right under our fifth wheel’s overhang. Right under our bed! Good grief, what was that?

I jumped out of bed and poked my head out the door and found myself face to face with an enormous brown bull with a white face and an expectant expression. It was the ideal photo op. Our trailer and awning framed this huge bull’s head as he stared at me.

But I was in my PJs and was still wiping my eyes with disbelief, while my camera was tucked away in some safe place out of reach. By the time I got my hands on my camera, the bull was walking away to greener grass.

Cow by an RV in the US National Forest Black Hills South Dakota

This big bull stood under our bedroom and bellowed loudly to wake us up!

It turned out that his noisy braying — he sounded suprisingly like a very loud donkey on steroids — was a call to the herd to come check out our trailer. Before I knew it, our little buggy was surrounded with USDA Choice Grade A Grass Fed Beef!

Cows around fifth wheel trailer RV Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

Cows and calves check out our trailer.

Fifth wheel trailer RV boondocking with cows in the National Forest

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Over the next few days these cows came by our campsite on a regular basis. They seemed to be fascinated by us. And we were fascinated by them. We’d be sitting quietly minding our own business in our trailer when suddenly we’d hear the sound of grass being ripped out by the roots and footsteps clomping around in the dirt. We’d look out the window, and sure enough, there they’d be.

Herd of cows surround RV boondocking in the National Forest

We’re surrounded!

On a few mornings we woke to the trailer rocking as the cows rubbed their shoulders and scratched their itches on its corners.

Cow outside RV window camping in Black Hills South Dakota boondocking

I look out the window to see a peeping Tom!

Cow outside fifth wheel trailer RV Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

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Moms and calves would gather together and stare at us whenever they heard us come out of the trailer. The calves were skittish and would run away if we got too close, but the moms would stand calmly facing us, slowly grinding grass in their mouths and staring.

Cattle herd with fifth wheel camper RV in Black Hills National Forest

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Fifth wheel camper with herd of cows in Black Hills National Forest

The herd moves in on us.

One morning we were both woken from a deep sleep when we heard another strange sound just outside the trailer. We ran outside to see what it was and saw a balloon floating past. The sound we’d heard was the balloonist firing up the gas flame. Every few seconds he’d do that and the flame would fill the balloon with hot air to make it rise.

Balloon over RV boondocking in Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

The sound of a balloonist filling his balloon with hot air woke us up at dawn.

But it was those darn cows that kept the smirks on our faces and gave our days a special funkiness. I began to imitate their mooing, and that would make them turn around and look at me. I had to laugh when Mark commented, “That’s pretty good. You sound just like them!”

Grazing cattle Black Hills National Forest

All ears perked up when I mooed.

Mark took out his guitar one day and sat on our steps and played for them. They seemed to like the music and began mooing. Just like howling dogs, they seemed to want to add their own melody to his tunes.

Playing guitar for cows in US National Forest

The cows responded to Mark’s guitar playing by adding their voices in a moo-along!

A few calves got bold and ventured close to our truck. They were very intrigued by it.

A calf visits our truck in the National Forest

A brave calf approaches our truck.

Baby calf sniffs our pickup truck US National Forest

Another calf sniffs our bumper.

One day I came out of the trailer to find myself facing a lineup of cows. If I hadn’t knowd better, they would have seemed a little intimidating. They looked a lot like a gang of thugs in the hood.

Herd of cows and grazing cattle Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

The gang’s all here — in the hood!

Mark got busy taking portrait shots of a calf one day, and it was hilarious to see the little guy’s mind turning as he approached the camera.

Cow checks out Nikon camera

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Photography cow inspects Nikon camera

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Closeup of calf face

By placing the camera so low, Mark got a neat angle on this calf’s face.

Suddenly Mark saw his big wet nose and thick black tongue going for his camera. Uh oh!!

cow inspects Nikon camera Photography_

What does that thing taste like?

He pulled his camera away just in time, but when we started to pack up to leave the campsite a few days later, he discovered that one of the cows had gotten into our barbecue and had damaged the latch on the cover. He did a quickie repair job on the fly before we hitched up to leave.

Mother cow and calf in US National Forest

Camping in the National Forest sometimes gives us close encounters with cows.
It’s most fun with moms and their calves in Spring!

After we arrived at our next campsite, we found gooey prints from cow lips in a few places on our truck and trailer. Oh well! That’s all just part of the unusual experience of RV boondocking in the National Forest.

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Eagles and Hummingbirds in Libby, Montana

July 2016 – While RV camping in Libby, Montana, we had some fabulous encounters with wild birds: a beautiful big bald eagle and a mixed flock of tiny hummingbirds. Over at Libby Dam, we were thrilled to see a bald eagle soaring high overhead.

Bald Eagle Flying in Libby Montana

A bald eagle flies near Libby Dam in Montana

This eagle was well known to the employees and volunteers who work at Libby Dam. He liked to fish in the water just below the dam where the fish pile up as they migrate upstream and find themselves trapped by the dam. The pool of fish made a smorgasbord for this very happy eagle, and he had an easy time getting breakfast, lunch and dinner whenever he got a bit hungry.

One morning we spotted him sitting high up in a tree right by the dam.

Bald eagle near Libby Dam Montana

We looked up to see this guy at the top of a tree.

We started snapping photos as we crept towards him, and assumed he would fly off any second. Surprisingly, he stayed put!

Bald Eagle Montana

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Hoping for some better pics, we returned the next morning with our long lenses and tripods. There he was again, checking us out over his shoulder.

Bald Eagle in tree Libby Montana

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He sat still for a while, preened a little bit, and then started making noises. I think he was trying to talk to a good buddy on the other side of the Kootenai River. He let out a loud squawk.

Bald Eagle squawking Libby Montana

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We didn’t hear a response, but he squawked a few more times.

Bald Eagle Calling Libby Montana

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He must have heard a reply, or decided to go looking for his friend in person, because suddenly he crouched.

Bald Eagle Ready to fly Libby Montana

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And launched…

Bald Eagle Taking off Libby Montana

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Bald Eagle Launching Libby Montana

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What a magnificent sight in the sky!

Bald Eagle flying Libby Montana

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Bald Eagle in flight Libby Montana

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Meanwhile, back at our trailer, we had noticed some hummingbirds poking around, peeking in our windows, and generally scoping us out. We put out our window hummingbird feeder that attaches to the RV window with suction cups, and sat back to see if anyone would find it.

Within minutes, the word was out. The hummingbirds in this area know what feeders are, and they have passed the info on from friend to friend and generation to generation. As soon as a new feeder is found, a memo goes out to the whole community.

Hummingbirds at feeder on RV window

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By sunset, the feeder had been drained! By noon the next day it had been drained again!

We’ve always had a few hummingbird feeders with us, but we were chagrined to find that they all leaked because we hadn’t used them in a long time. We were also out of regular granulated table sugar. So, we went into town to get another five pound bag of sugar and a second feeder. Luck was with us, and there was one last window feeder left on the shelf!!

Hummingbird flying above feeder

Almost close enough to touch!

For the next 10 days, we filled these two feeders every morning and every evening, and our world was abuzz with hummers.

We noticed that these little hummingbirds had different spots and colors, and we got curious about which ones they were. Our general purpose Peterson bird guides and National Geographic bird guide don’t make it so easy to tell one hummingbird species from another.

Luckily, we have found a super book about hummingbirds that makes it really easy to know who’s slurping up all the sugar water we’re putting out.

Hummingbird flying Libby Montana

Black chinned hummingbird. His neck flashes violet in the sun!

It’s a small book called the Beginner’s Guide to Hummingbirds by Donald and Lillian Stokes.

What’s neat is that the very first two pages show which hummingbirds can be found in which of the four regions in the country: East/Central, Gulf Coast, West, and Southwest. It also delineates the species by the color of the male’s throat: Orange, Red/Pink, Purple/Violet, Green, White and Blue.

It also marks the sides of the pages by color, so you can easily flip to the appropriate section and see multiple photos of both the males and females and see a map of where they live.

Hummingbird in flight Libby Montana

The female black chinned hummingbird wears a whole different wardrobe!

We determined that we were seeing Black Chinned and Rufous Hummingbirds. The males were easy to spot because they have dramatic coloring on their necks and heads. But the muted and spotted colors of the juveniles and females made them all look alike!

The fun thing about the Black Chinned hummingbirds is that they truly buzz when they fly. They sound like a bunch of bees as they zoom around, but they’re a whole lot cuter.

The Rufous hummingbirds have bright orange on their necks and an orange tint to their little bodies. They are beautiful and very petite. But they act be like little Napoleons sometimes. They are extremely skittish, but nonetheless some of them want to rule the world anyway, and they make every effort to.

Rufous Hummingbird Libby Montana

Rufous hummingbird – Small, skittish and domineering!

All hummingbirds can be very territorial about their feeders, and the turf wars can be astonishing to watch.

The King of the Feeder will stand watch over it from a nearby branch, and will dive bomb any other hummingbird that tries to get a drink! It is particularly funny when one little Rufous decides to chase off twenty other hummingbirds from his personal feeder. He is one busy little guy!

Rufous Hummingbird_

Mine!

Over the years, when it has seemed that one particular hummingbird has become a little too dominant at our feeder, we’ve found a good solution is to put out multiple feeders in such a way that one hummingbird can see only one feeder at a time. Hanging them on opposite sides of the trailer is a good trick.

But for the most part, it seems that everyone gets a turn eventually.

Hummingbirds share a drink at the RV window feeder

Hummingbirds can be territorial, but they do know how to share too!

We got immense pleasure from watching these guys from inside our RV. Our trailer’s windows are darkly tinted, and with the feeder mounted on the window, if we didn’t move or make any noises in the trailer, we could watch them from just a foot or two away from inside.

 

We were astonished to see that sometimes the hummingbirds would double dip, with two of them poking their beaks into one hole in the feeder at the same time, even though the holes in the feeder are tiny. At other times, the bird sitting on the perch would lean way back while the one hovering overhead got a quickie slurp. They would take turns drinking that way.

Hummingbirds share RV window feeder

Two for one!

Sometimes they even lined up in front of the feeder, like airplanes in a landing pattern, with each bird getting a chance to drink his fill before flying off.

Hummingbirds line up at RV window feeder

The hummers get into a landing pattern at our feeder!

By the way, the recipe for hummingbird nectar is super easy:

1 part sugar
4 parts water

I like to mix up one cup of nectar at a time. I’ll put 1/4 cup of sugar into a 1/4 cup of warm water and stir it until it dissolves. Then I’ll add another 3/4 cup of cold water and stir some more before serving.

Hummers aren’t Natural Food fanatics, so they don’t go for Raw or Turbinado sugar or brown sugar, and they don’t like other sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, agave syrup or confectioners sugar either.

There was lots of wildlife in around Libby Dam and in the neighboring Kootenai National Forest, and staying in the Libby area, it felt like we were a world apart.

Deer near Libby, Montana

We saw lots of wildlife in Libby, Montana.

If you take your RV to northwestern Montana, and especially to the small town of Libby, pay a visit to the Libby Dam and keep an eye out for the big, beautiful bald eagle. And if you are there in July, put a hummingbird feeder out, and be prepared with a stockpile of sugar and your camera!!

There’s more info on Libby, Montana and hummingbirds below.

RV at sunset Montana

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Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum – Wild Animals in Tucson AZ

February 2016 – During our RV travels in Tucson, we visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum which is located in Saguaro National Park. This really fun “museum” is really more of an outdoor nature walk and zoo that lets you see all the creatures native to the Sonoran Desert up close in their natural environment.

Big horn sheep Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

The great thing at this “museum” is that the animals don’t run away!

The Sonoran Desert spans the states of Arizona on the US side of the border and Sonora on the Mexican side of the border, and it is an ecosystem and habitat that we just love. But the most exotic birds and animals are a bit reclusive, and the iconic creatures aren’t so easy to find while out hiking in the desert.

So it was just fabulous to see a big horn sheep sitting up on a rocky hill and to be able to admire him will he slowly turned his head this way and that in the morning sun.

Big horn sheep Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

Within moments of entering the park, we saw a big horn sheep sunning himself.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has several habitats for the animals of the different regions of the desert, with a mountain habitat for the animals that like the cooler climes amid big rocks and trees, and open grasslands for the creatures that prefer those areas.

Fox Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

A cute little fox walks by

We haven’t ever seen a fox or a wolf while out hiking, but we got see both here at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. A beautiful wolf who was pacing in his enclosure, no doubt looking for Little Red Riding Hood.

Wolf Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

A wolf on the prowl — looking for Little Red Riding Hood!

Little did he know that Little Red Riding Hood was actually over at the mountain lion enclosure!

Mountain lion Arizona Sonoran Desert museum

A little girl checks out a mountain lion… or vice versa!

You can watch the mountain lion on two sides of her enclosure. There is a plexiglass window in one corner where the little girl was, or you can stand on a slightly elevated viewing area on the opposite side of the enclosure for another view down into her mini canyon.

Mountain Lion Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

What a beautiful cat.

This lioness kept everyone guessing and on the run. First she’d hang out by the window, but when the crowd got thick, she’d move around the corner out of sight. Then the crowd would trot around on the path to try and see her from the open viewing area on the other side.

What a hoot! As this enormous cat leaped effortlessly between the rocks by the window and the big open gully around the corner, all of us tourists ran back and forth on the path outside her enclosure, cameras and cell phones at the ready!

Mountain lion Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum Saguaro National Park Tucson

This mountain lion kept all the tourists on the run!

The trick to getting the most out of this museum is to arrive a little before the place opens at 8:30 a.m. When we arrived at 8:32, the parking lot was quickly filling and there was a line for tickets at the door already. The thing is, the animals are fed at opening time, so if you hustle down the path to the ones you want to see, you’ll catch them as they eat their breakfast.

Within an hour, most of the animals were settling in for a nap, and many of them were hard to spot!

We caught a fleeting glimpse of an absolutely gorgeous ocelot. What a fur coat!!

Ocelot Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The ocelot ran past so fast she was just a blur.

But after that out-of-the-corner-of-our-eyes peek at her, she was gone for the day in a quiet corner where we could just see her head moving as she licked her paws…

But we did see the bobcats. They were snoozing under a rock!

Bobcats Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

Bobcats catnap under a rock

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is artfully laid out, with paved and dirt walking paths that intersect and wind through the property. In some higher areas there are lookouts, and we loved the gnarly shade shelter that protected one of them.

Lookout Area Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

A fun and crazy awning over a viewing platform.

There are lots of more common animals too, and we got a kick out of the javelina, an animal we have spotted many times in the desert.

Javelina Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

Arizona’s desert “pig” – a javelina (pronounced “havaleena”

A little squirrel was busy scratching…

Squirrel Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

I’m not sure if this guy was on display or just stopped by for the free food.

And a coyote posed for several minutes while a crowd of camera shutters clicked away.

Coyote Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

A coyote strikes a classic pose.

We even spotted a deer back in the brush.

Deer Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

We saw deer through the trees.

One of the big highlights of a trip to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is the Raptor Free Flight presentation which happens twice a day at 10:00 and 2:00 all winter long. Again, even though we were there on a mid-week school day, the crowds were thick. Everyone stands along the walking path in one area and then a presenter begins to talk about the various birds that will be flying by.

Raptor Free Flight demonstration_

The highlight of a visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is the raptor free flight show.

There are two trainers who have yummy dead animal pieces in their pockets, and they go into the various bird enclosures and ask the birds if anyone wants come out and fly around and get a snack.

They bring out only those birds that are in the mood, so there is no guarantee who will be flying on the day you are there!

The first bird we saw was a raven. These guys love the western National Parks, and we’ve seen them many times, but it was still a thrill to see one swoop over our heads and land on the trainer’s hand.

Ravens and crows are extraordinarily smart birds, and I’ve read of a study of a flock of crows where one member of the flock was taken away for seven years and then brought back. The flock went wild upon his return, obviously recognizing their long lost buddy.

Free Flying Raptor Exhibit Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

A raven flies to the trainer for a snack.

Perhaps most thrilling was the great horned owl. I have a super sweet spot for owls (we had a wonderful encounter with some adorable wild burrowing owls just a little southeast of Phoenix last year and watched a wild great horned owl at the sandhill crane roosting area in southeastern Arizona too).

Great horned owl Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

A great horned owl came out to see the crowd.

To keep all these free flying birds within reasonable range, the trainers pulled bloody bits of thawed quail out of their pockets every so often and lure the birds over. (These weren’t pieces of the southwest’s sweet Gambel’s quail, thank goodness, but were commercially grown to feed raptors). Mark got an awesome shot of the great horned owl downing a bite!

Great horned owl Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

Mmmm, mmm, good!!

What a beautiful bird!!

Great horned owl Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

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Last up was a peregrine falcon, and it was really wonderful to see a falcon flying without the leather hood that falconers usually put on them. This guy zipped around and did some fabulous dives.

Peregrine Falcon Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

A peregrine falcon comes in for a landing.

Arizona was once home to a parrot species too. The Thick Billed Parrot lived all over the American southwest and was last seen in the Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains in the 1930’s. They were reintroduced to the wild in Arizona in the 1980’s, but the effort was a tragic failure, in part because of predators, like hawks, and also due to releasing adults that had lived in cages for too long and had lost their street smarts.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum had two thick billed parros on display, and they were making a wonderful racket!

Thick Billed Parrot Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

A pair of thick billed parrots squawked happily

There are two big walk-through aviaries in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum — one for bigger birds and one for hummingbirds.

What we’ve discovered in our RV travels around the southwest is that hummingbirds of all varieties are super easy to attract with a hummingbird feeder hung outside the rig, or mounted an RV window, and filled with a concoction of four parts water and one part table sugar.

Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are easy to attract and fun to photograph from an RV if you’ve got a feeder.

Hummingbird hand-feeding kit

A hand-feeding kit!

Even better — and a reader just alerted us to this — get a hummingbird hand-feeding kit. Doesn’t that look like fun?! We’ve just ordered one ourselves!

Another great way to attract both birds and other small animals is to put out a dish of water a little ways from the rig. We’ve used a big upside down frisbee with great results. Several birds at a time, including cardinals, will stand in and around the frisbee, taking baths and drinking.

The Sonoran Desert spans the Sea of Cortez too. This is an unusual eco-region because the creatures that live in or near the water have to contend with the very cold Pacific Ocean temps and climate that sweep up from the open ocean and the very hot desert climate and water temps that develop each summer.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has a tropical fish display that shows some of the fish of the area.

Fish Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

The Sonoran Desert includes Baja California and the Sea of Cortez where tropical fish abound.

A trip to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a really fun excursion, especially for RV snowbirds looking for a neat daytrip during their stay in Tucson. Be sure to get there early so you can catch the animals as they chow down their breakfast!!

There’s more info at the links below…

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Peach Faced Lovebirds in Phoenix, AZ – Parrots in Cactus!

If you are walking down the city streets of Scottsdale or Mesa in the greater Phoenix, Arizona, area, you are bound to hear the squeaks of little green peach faced lovebirds as they fly between the trees and cactuses.

Peach faced lovebird parrot saguaro cactus Scottsdale Arizona

A peach faced lovebird perches on a saguaro cactus.

They nest in the holes in the saguaro cactuses that have been made by other birds (mostly woodpeckers and flickers), and they are just as adorable as can be when they peek out of these nesting holes and look down at you.

Peach faced lovebird in a saguaro cactus Scottsdale Arizona

A peach faced lovebird peeks out of a saguaro cactus

I have wanted to get a photo of one of these little cuties sitting in a saguaro for ages, and I had the chance a few days ago when we were visiting with our friend John Sherman, a professional wildlife and bird photographer who shoots for Arizona Highways. He knew of a saguaro cactus nearby where the peach faced lovebirds hang out in the late afternoons. 

Peach faced lovebird in saguaro cactus nest in Scottsdale Arizona

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He is a full-time RVer who lives in a wonderful custom built Class C motorhome, and he has a mouthwatering collection of photography gear.  He very kindly he let me borrow his humongous 150-600 mm Tamron lens (that I have been lusting after) to take a bunch of shots.

Wow, what a lens, and WOW what a fun experience! (And thanks, John, for the inspiration to buy one a few months later!).

Peach faced lovebird parrot saguaro cactus Phoenix Arizona

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I’m not used to lenses that hang out nearly a foot from the camera body, so it took me a while to wrestle the thing into submission and make it stay still in my hands. But the little birds in the arms of the saguaro cactus waited very patiently as I got myself sorted out, and once I started shooting, they seemed happy to pose.

What a surprise it was to see one lovebird in the flock that was a blue mutation!

Peach faced lovebird parrot blue mutation Scottsdale Arizona

A blue mutation of a peach faced lovebird!!

Peach faced lovebirds are not native to Arizona. They are actually native to southwestern Africa! However, over the years escaped pet birds have established themselves in the urban Sonoran Desert, and they have become naturalized citizens of the state.  All the flocks in the desert areas here are descendants of escaped pet birds.

Peach faced lovebird parrot blue mutation saguaro cactus Scottsdale Arizona

Pretty in pink…and pretty in blue!

They love the dry desert heat of the Sonoran Desert because it is just like their ancestral home across the ocean in southwestern Africa! They are savvy to bird feeders, and they make the most of whatever offerings they can find in residents’ back yards.  Wisely, they seem to have developed a palate for yummy Sonoran Desert goodies too.

Peach faced lovebird parrot Mesa Arizona

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Not all “introduced” species are appreciated, and certainly not all of them have endearing little personalities like these guys.  This part of Arizona seems to attract special feral animals, though, and last year I wrote about the wonderful wild horses we found living just beyond the Phoenix city limits.  Arizona’s wild parrots have been enjoyed for many years (here is an article from Bird Talk Magazine about them.

Peach faced lovebird parrot in Mesa Arizona

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Wild parrots can be found all over the country, and a few years back we bumped into a wonderful documentary about a flock of wild parrots that has taken up residence in San Francisco.  This is charming movie, Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, is one of our favorites (blush), and we have watched it time and again, as it always makes us smile.

Peach faced lovebird parrot in a palo verde in Mesa Arizona

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Where do these peach faced lovebirds live around Phoenix? Check out the streets between 52nd and 64th Street and Cactus Road to Thunderbird Road in Scottsdale. They can also be seen in the trees between Albertson’s and the Shell station across the parking lot at McDowell Road and Power Road in Mesa, here.

Peach faced lovebird parrot on saguaro cactus Scottsdale Arizona

You’ll hear these guys’ high pitched squeals long before you see them!

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Sandhill Cranes in Willcox Arizona – What a Party!

February, 2015 – Every winter an amazing sandhill crane extravaganza takes place in southern Arizona and New Mexico. These big, raucous birds don’t mean to put themselves on display, but whenever 20,000 or so of any species show up in one place, whether its to witness a rock concert or just to loll about by the water’s edge, the sheer volume of identical creatures becomes an Event.

The sandhill cranes show up in November every year, and they hang around until March, and one of the best places to see them during those months is around Willcox, Arizona. When we woke up on our first morning there, it was the cries of sandhill cranes flying overhead that got us out of bed.

“It’s them!” I said to Mark excitedly as I whipped off the covers and flew out the door in my PJ’s. “They’re here!”

Sandhill cranes in southeastern Arizona

We look up and see wild zig-zag patterns of sandhill cranes in the sky.

“Huh?” He said, clambering out of bed beind me. “Who?”

I grinned at him as he joined me outside the rig in the pre-dawn light, and we both stared at the sky in awe as hundreds of sandhill cranes flew right over our trailer, making scattered V-formations all across the sky.

This was their morning commute, and they were honking and jostling around in the sky just like motorists do on the freeways every morning on their way to the office. These guys were heading for their favorite foraging grounds, however. Once there, they would catch a bit of breakfast and then find a quiet spot for some mid-day frolicking or perhaps a nap. In the late afternoon they’d grab another quick bite to eat and then commute home to roost.

Sandhill cranes fly in formation in Willcox Arizona

These guys are heading to breakfast out in the farm fields.

One of the best viewing areas is the roosting area at Whitewater Draw, a wide and shallow body of water about 6 miles south of the tiny town of Elfrida. As we drove down there in the middle of the day, we saw little pockets of sandhill cranes flying here and there, and we spotted little groups of them standing around in the farm fields. Their distinctive cries filled the air now and then as they called out to each other.

Great exhibitions often come with entertaining sideshows, and the sandhill crane exhibition at Whitewater Draw is no exception. A pair of great horned owls had taken up residence in a large lean-to building, living in the rafters and watching all the crazy bird people coming and going below them.

Great Horned Owl

The “sideshow” at the sandhill crane extravaganza

Crazy bird people never miss a bird trick, though, and these birders had set up a row of seats right below the owls so everyone could have a good look at them. When we got there, only one owl was in the rafters, but he made some priceless faces for us as we set up our tripods and took portrait shots of him.

Sandhill cranes at a pond

Throngs of birds line the shore

A little ways from this shelter is a paved walking path for people to stroll along the edges of the water and take in the exotic spectacle of thousands of large birds standing around. At midday, most of the flock was out in the farm fields, but a sizable number was still at the water’s edge here at Roost Central.

Sandhill cranes milling around by the water

These guys were busy and oblivious to the people watching them from the walking paths nearby!

The noise of these guys conversing among themselves was a low, continuous hum.

A pair of sandhill cranes flies overhead

Every so often a pair or trio would fly by.

Overhead we’d catch them flying by every so often. This was a lazy time of day for them, and they flew past in pairs and threes. Most of their social activities were taking place on the ground, though, and they strutted and flapped and preened and marched around on the far side of the pond. Every once in a while the noise of their cries would rise momentarily and a few birds would take to the air and fly to a new spot.

Three sandhill cranes fly over farmland in southeastern Arizona

Three sandhill cranes flying over Whitewater Draw Arizona

Sandhill cranes flying

Hey! Wait for me!!!


As the sun began to set, we suddenly began to notice small flocks of cranes flying in. The din of squawking and flapping from the birds on the ground would swell slightly when a new flock was sighted in the distance.

The first sandhill cranes arrive at the lake

As the sun began to sink in the sky, small flocks appeared on the horizon.

As the flock would get closer the cries from the crowd on the ground would increase. Then another flock would show up on the horizon and the squawks from the home team would grow a little louder.

Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw Arizona at sunset

More and more flocks began arriving.

Soon the arriving flocks were truly enormous. Literally thousands of birds were arriving at once, coming in from all directions and flying in massive V’s and W’s. The welcoming song from the birds on the ground grew ever louder, as if an orchestra conductor were leading them, waving his baton and flapping his arms and coaxing them to sing ever louder.

A flock of sandhill cranes arrives at sunset in southern Arizona

The noise of the excited birds on the ground and in the air calling to each other was deafening!!

The crescendo grew louder and louder until the sound was truly startling. It was as if the rock stars had arrived. The crowd on the ground surged as the arriving birds landed, and the noise of them all squawking at the tops of their lungs became a defeaning din.

For once, the people — the humans watcing all this — were all silent. Crazy birders, maniac photographers, and happy couples out for a stroll, all stared in stunned silence as the Arrival of the Cranes took place.

People watch the sandhill cranes fly in Arizona sunset

People watch the cranes arrive.

We all watched with silly, happy smiles too. For once, humanity was completely upstaged by Nature as this miraculous event unfolded before us, totally beyond our control.

And then, as if a light switch had been thrown, the vivid orange of sunset was gone, and delicious shades of pink and blue slowly blanketed the sky. The birds had all landed now, and the roar of excitement was gone from the air.

Sunset at Whitewater Draw

Peace reins once the birds have all found a spot by the water’s edge.

The birds didn’t completely settle down for hours, though, and we heard them long into the night. Little squabbles would break out now and then, and suddenly a bird or two would take to the air in a huff, squawking loudly as he flew.

First thing in the morning, about an hour before dawn, we crept down to the water’s edge, drawn by the rising sound of the sandhill cranes. When it was finally light enough to see across the pond, we noticed that the cranes had settled in the water overnight rather than on shore. No dry toes at bedtime for these guys. They like to stand knee deep in water when they sleep!

Flocks of birds standing in a pond at sunrise

We creep down before sunrise and find the birds slept standing in the water overnight!

They shuffled around and, one by one, each bird’s head came out from under its wing as it shook the fuzzies and sleepies from its feathers. And then the low hum of crane squawks began to grow again. Soon the low rumble became a roar, rolling across the water like thunder, and then suddenly the pitch seemed to rise and the noise peaked, just as it had the night before.

The rock stars had taken flight, and they were off — and they were ushered off stage with a cacophony of beating wings and loud squawks. Thin ribbons of birds began to fill the sky, and they wove their jagged patterns from horizon to horizon as they set off to get breakfast.

In no time, the number of birds in the water had dwindled to just a small remaining few. The morning show was over, and the rush hour commute to the distant farm fields was well underway.

Sandhill cranes roosing and flying in the morning in Arizona

The raucous send-off is just as loud and wild as the welcome home was the night befor

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Burrowing owls in Gilbert, Arizona – They’re a Hoot!

We spent a few hours hoo-hoo-ing with the owls at Zanjero Park in Gilbert, Arizona, the other day. What a great spot for a day trip! Our friend Rick had told us about it, and he showed us some amazing photos he’d taken there. So off we went to do a little owling.

A burrowing owl in Phoenix Arizona

A burrowing owl checks us out!!

Zanjero Park is is on the southern part of the 202 loop on the southeastern edge of Phoenix, Arizona. As we drove towards it, we wondered if we’d come to the right place, because it is as nondescript as can be. It’s in farm country and takes up just a few acres, and it is pressed right up against the highway berm! There’s a dirt parking lot and a small sign identifying the park and a larger sign explaining what this unique owl habitat is all about. And that’s about it!

A burrowing owl at Zanjero Park in Gilbert AZ

You rang?

Burrowing owls like to live in tunnels, so volunteers have erected tunnels for them using large diameter pipe. Each owl house has a front door and a back door, and the owls like to hang out by their doors and watch the wold go by. There are about 15 or so owl burrows scattered along the ground next to the paved walkway though the park.

An owl looks out of his burrow

Whatcha lookin’ at ??

What’s funny is that his is not a particularly scenic park. The highway traffic zooms by right next door, and it is definitely not a place that shows off Arizona’s gorgeous Sonoran Desert landscape that we love so much. However, despite being rather bleak and barren, it sits right next to a farm field full of yummy mice, and that’s why the owls like to live here and why the volunteers decided to help them out.

Burrowing owl Zanjero Park Gilbert AZ

Maybe I’m just a softy old bird lover, but these guys are darn cute!!

We went at high noon, and much to our surprise, the owls were wide awake and out and about. We saw at least six pairs of burrowing owls lounging around on their front stoops as we strolled down the short paved walkway. In hindsight, morning or evening might be an even better time to visit if you want to take pics, because the owl burrows are lined up along the south side of the walkway, so at noontime you are staring into the sun as you spy on these cute little guys.

If you are staying near Phoenix and are looking for something fun and different to do, go visit the burrowing owls of Zanjero Park, it’s a hoot!

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Wild Horses of the Salt River in Phoenix

Horseback riders on the dusty trail

Horseback riders on the dusty trail.

April, 2014 – The phrase “wild west” evokes images of horses and cowboys and wide open spaces.

While we were visiting Phoenix Arizona these past few months, we ran into lots of different horses and riders out on the desert trails.

Some suddenly appeared in a cloud of dust, materializing on the trail as if in a mirage, or as if walking right out of a movie.

Their cowboy hats and boots and spurs completed the picture to perfection.

Others rode a fine line between the modern digital age and the wild west of yore, holding the horse’s reins in one hand while chatting away on a cell phone with the other. Continue reading

Phoenix on the Wing!

Artist easel in the Sonoran desert

An artist creates his vision in the desert

March, 2014 – The Phoenix area is full of beautiful hiking trails, and the Windy Cave Trail at Usery Mountain is just one of many lovely places to experience the Sonoran desert.

We wandered out into the desert on marked trails and unmarked roads to go hiking — or at least to go for a walk — every day during our stay on the outer eastern edges of the city.  There was always something new to see.

One morning we came across an art class that had set up easels all through the desert.

Wildflower

Spring is springing!

The group of artists was huddled around the teacher as we hiked past, and we found Continue reading