August 28, 2008

Scouting for Elk, Birding in the Grasslands


The past few weeks, like most outdoor enthusiasts, I have been soaking up the summer sun by trying to be outside as often as possible before the dreaded tundra temperatures return.

I have been busy "playing" in the mighty Little Missouri Grasslands, primarily the Badlands portions near the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Our target was to scout elk with a brother-in-law and do some birding at the same time.

Most of our endeavors began during the wee hours of the morning before the birds even thought of beginning their morning song.

A few cups of cappuccino and a quick bite to eat and we were off. Winding our way around buttes and bluffs in the dark is quite an adventure.

One can hardly see beyond the headlights and you can never quite tell what might be on the road just around the next bend.

To our surprise, we found a burrowing owl on a hairpin turn and observed it munching on a tasty morsel of a vole in the beams of our headlights.

Further up the road, just as the light was beginning to creep upon us, a line of 35 wild turkeys were stampeding their way to their favorite smorgasbord. I counted eight toms (males) and my thoughts quickly turned to thinking of planning my upcoming fall turkey hunts.

After enough driving to get us to our destined elk scouting position, we decided to park the pickup and head about a mile and a half up a narrow drainage to the peak of nice bluff overlooking three massive dry creek bottoms.

Quickly after arriving to the peak of the bluff, I noticed three large turkey vultures seeming to wait for the warm thermals to begin so they could embark on their soaring for the day.

While sitting in a single spot on a ridge for nearly three hours, you never have enough time to observe everything below you.

The hours seem to tick quickly by as you are glassing buttes, bluffs and creek bottoms, scouring the surroundings for any movement, a little flicker of tan and brown.

While sitting in the most beautiful part of North Dakota, you realize just how small you are and how desolate these Badlands are, and you often wonder what it must have been like for the early settlers in this area.

The scenery is spectacular, the wildlife abundant, and the people few and far between. I absolutely love it!

That first scouting trip, we only observed a single cow elk just off of the interstate between Belfield and Fryburg. We also observed some long-billed curlews just a mile or so off the rugged Badlands and noticed they must have been preparing for migration because of the large numbers of them that seemed to scour a harvested wheat field for grasshoppers and beetles.

This past weekend, my brother-in-law and I decided to head back "out west" to the Badlands.

We noticed numerous American crows gathering in large flocks numbering in the hundreds of individuals.

These crows were extremely vocal beginning at least an hour before daybreak. What a sight it was to see that many individuals in a single flock.

And for those of you hunters who may be reading this column, we found four large bull elk in an undisclosed location.

It is truly the time to get out and enjoy our beautiful outdoors and soak up that warm sun before our summer friends migrate south before the winter.

Good luck to all you elk hunters who begin your hunts in a few weeks. Please be mindful of property and wildlife so we can all enjoy the grasslands for many years to come.

(Dan Ackerman is an environmental scientist with the North Dakota Department of Transportation.)

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