A few weeks ago, I traveled to the mixed-grass prairie of the Nebraska Sandhills for a meeting. It was a really good meeting where various folks looked at and talked about outreach to help private landowners better manage their properties so that both the economy and ecology of the area was sustained. I took a few pictures during the field trips and stayed an extra day or two to photograph more things in the area.
I had a great time photographing in the central and northern sandhills. The afternoon that I planned to spend in northern Nebraska turned off gray – not just gray but DARK gray. At 3:00 the light was just gone – it wasn’t overcast, it was dark! And the wind was blowing as the rain intermittently spit from the sky. I could have gone with some long exposure to show grass movement in the rolling prairie, or I could be spontaneous and make a run for Badlands National Park just a couple of hours away in South Dakota.
Normally, I plan a photographic trip pretty carefully. I look for all kinds of options, make an Excel spreadsheet that I can sort by location or species, have a plan A, B, and C. This time, I hadn’t even considered going into South Dakota! Well, I made a run for it anyway. I got there right at dusk. The visitor center was closed, and I couldn’t even find a park map!
I repaired to my hotel room, drank a Coke and ate some nabs for supper, and jumped on the internet. I didn’t have time to do much planning. I found the park map brochure on-line, but didn’t have access to a printer. I noted a couple of spots that other folks had taken “sunrise” shots and saw that the western end of the park was “better” for wildlife pictures (with me being on the southeastern end of course…).
I went to bed planning to go shoot a sunrise spot. Luckily, I got up at my normal eastern time and headed out anyway because I took a wrong turn and went about 36 miles out of my way well before sunrise. I still managed to make it to Panorama Point well before sunrise. As I set up my gear in the dark, I met a nice photographer that was shooting his way along as he moved from Chicago to Los Angeles. I also met Jeannee C. Gannuch, the force behind Southeastern Living (http://www.southeasternliving.com/home.html).
Now, I photograph landscapes from time to time. Unlike a lot of my friends who primarily photograph landscapes and create wondermous images, if I’ve got “good” light, I’d much rather be looking for a critter! I took a few pre-sunrise shots.
Before the sun came up in the Badlands.
As we stood around waiting for the light to change, Jeannee asked, “Do you like to photograph wildlife?” Now, she had absolutely no way of knowing that I was standing there weighing in my mind whether to continue to stay here & wait for the light to change or jump in my rental vehicle and go off in search of animals who might cooperate. After I replied in the affirmative, she told me that back towards the east a couple of pulloffs where a trail crosses the road, there had been a bighorn sheep for the last couple of mornings that was cooperative. I figured that I knew about where she was talking about.
As the sun broke the horizon, there was a brief flash of color in the sky that quickly dimmed. I couldn’t see any way that I’d get more color than I’d already gotten, so I packed my gear and headed for the rental.
The sun breaking the horizon in the Badlands.
As I pulled into the pulloff that I thought she was talking about, there 30 yards from the truck was a gorgeous, mature bighorn ram eating dried grass in beautiful light.
Bighorn ram in the morning sun.
I photographed the ram and went on in search of other critters. (I did cross pass with Jeannee and thank her for the tip!). Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had to have crossed paths at least twice during the day with my friend Eric Bowles (http://www.bowlesimages.com) who was prescouting for a workshop he was leading starting the next day! (I was able to pass on the location to Eric who got some nice shots of him as well).
I spent the next several hours wandering Badlands National Park and wishing that I had more time there. I did manage to get within photographable distance of several critters before I began my dash back towards central Nebraska to catch my flight home.
Bison strolling through the prairie.
Bison headed for the Badlands.
Pronghorn headed for the far side of a hill.
Coyote looking for a meal.
Prairie dog having a meal.
Western Meadowlark ready to leave a rangeland fence.
Clouded sulphur feeding on a fall aster.
I was truly blessed to see so many critters and more in such a short time!