Saturday, June 11, 2011

The First Fawn

The wily little antelope doe ambled on ahead through the dense prairie shrubbery, stopping periodically to glance back at me or to just shake off the pesky flies that are a constant for her species this time of the year.

Slowly dropping her head, she began to munch at the grass around her. Then, with equal calculation, she suddenly rose up, turned about and threw a long hard stare into the far distance to my left.

She was still pretty young, but already worldly wise in every trick known to her species. I knew it unlikely that anything lay in that direction she faced and that she was just "looking me off." The phrase is a football term where a quarterback, as he retreats to pass, looks away with exaggeration from the primary receiver -- hoping to mislead the defensive backs in their pursuit of the play.

"Clever.... clever." I thought.

For nearly two hours now I had watched that unmistakable style in her body language -- exaggerated stares to a distant ridge; quick glances back over the shoulder, first at me and then beyond. Occasionally she would break into a trot, covering maybe 30 yards, and then stop to begin the cycle again -- always moving in a circular pattern over several hundred yards.

This doe had a secret.

Somewhere in the endless sea of grass surrounding me was new and vulnerable life awaiting the return of motherly care -- one or maybe even two newborn fawns. Her behavior was part of that motherly care -- the meandering stares and encircling routines were all designed to lead me away from her secret in the grass.

I had been crouched in the same spot for about ten minutes now when I realized the doe had changed her pattern. She would stare right at me and then lift her head to look beyond. "Could it be....?" I thought. I began to scan my immediate surroundings.

Incredible! No more than two feet from the toe of my boot was a buck fawn -- curled in the typically circular posture with his ears down flat against his neck, perfectly still. Born during the night, he's been there all the time and done absolutely nothing to give away his position. I could have tripped over him.

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(above) During the first few weeks of its life, a pronghorn fawn will spend many lonely hours lying still in the grass like this while its tiny legs develop the stamina that will carry it like the wind across the grasslands, away from swift predators like the coyote. Notice the similarity in both color & texture between this fawn and buffalo chip beside him -- still another example of how these remarkable creatures blend into a wide open environment like the northern plains.

(right) At birth, a pronghorn fawn weighs 6-7 pounds and stands about 10 inches at the shoulder. Instead of the brilliant tones of the adult's coat, their colors are very subdued, helping them to blend more effectively into the grasslands.

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Few animals possess the stealth of an antelope fawn. They can hide behind a blade of grass. At birth they lack the trademark and striking pelage of the adults and are instead a nondescript grayish brown with their hair running in curly waves. That brilliant, distinctive white rump patch is a subdued yellow. In fact, lying curled like this one today, he bore a striking resemblance in shape and color to the buffalo chip beside him.

This genius for camouflage plus his mother's discretion will be the little guy's chief allies during the next few weeks as, barely out of the womb, he enters the most critical period of his life. Like this morning, he will spend hours at a time lying flat and motionless in such a way as to blend perfectly into his prairie environment.

This fawn most likely had a sibling as multiple births are very common among antelope. If so, the doe will keep the two bedded separately, thereby enhancing the odds that at least one will survive this critical period. She will visit each one periodically throughout the day to nourish their seven pound frames with some of the richest milk known on this planet -- more than two-thirds the fat content of a dairy cow's milk.

Nurtured by this milk, these young spindly legs that now lack stamina will develop and soon carry the youngster across the prairie at speeds of more than 60 mph, leaving swift predators like the coyote far behind.

I glanced back at his mother. She seemed to realize I had spotted the baby as she took a few steps toward me and then stopped to cast a wary eye, though she didn't really seem upset. Stressing her was the last thing I wanted to do, so I needed to move away as soon as I could.

I rose up slowly. Using a camera with a wide-angle lens, I fired off several frames of the youngster as he lay perfectly still. Then I grabbed the rest of my gear, carefully moved off and crouched down again about 50 feet away.

I knew if I were patient enough, sooner or later the doe would get the toddler up for feeding and care, giving me great pictures of interaction between mother and child.

For another hour, the doe continued to browse for food, moving in a circular pattern about me. And then it all came together. She suddenly trotted straight over to where the little buck lay and he stood up instantly to greet his mother. I quickly focused on the two, but before I could press off a single frame, I heard a bleating sound similar to a baby lamb or goat. Thirty feet to their right, the twin (a doe) stood up in tall shrubs and stumbled over to her mother and little brother. Perfect.

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(above & right) If the doe has twins which is normally the case, she will bed each youngster separately about 100 yards apart to help insure that at least one will not be discovered by a predator. Four or five times a day the doe will return to each fawn's bedding site to give care and feeding.

(above) In one of the least glamorous aspects of antelope motherhood, the doe will also lick the anus & genitals of the fawn and consume its urine & feces as it eliminates. A pronghorn fawn has very little scent, save its body wastes and this act makes it more difficult for a predator to follow its trail.

(above) During this time a mother doe is usually on a high ridge where there is good visibility in all directions and rarely more than 100-200 yards away.

(above) Throughout the hiding period, a fawn's perspective of its world is limited to what it can see just beyond through the developing spring grass.

(above) And always lurking somewhere about during this time is the persistent coyote in search of a quick, but not necessarily easy meal as antelope does are known to even attack these cunning predators in an effort to save their young.

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We all have our ways of marking the passage of time, ways in which we catalog the events of our lives. For many Native American cultures it was observing the moon's cycles or keeping a winter count. For me, it is the coming of the antelope fawns. Every year, in late May or early June, I await my first sighting as I recall the first time in each of the previous years because I consider them to be among the most beautiful creatures of our planet.

This morning marks the first day of fawn season.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

(above) As the fawns grow older, they become restless and no longer able to tolerate the endless hours of hiding. At this point the does band together into "daycare" groups with more eyes to keep watch on the irrepressible imps.

(above & left) Amidst these groups, the fawns become fast friends as they run and chase about in daily activities that will help prepare them for adulthood.

(above) Now about ten weeks old, this little buck fawn is no longer fearful of wandering from his mother's side as he peeks through the sage to investigate new things.

(above) Spirited play develops between the fawns as they engage in antics that are actually practice for their adult years.

(right) After some fun and frolicking, this little buck stops for a cool drink at a prairie pond on a hot July morning.

(above) Again like most youngsters coming home from play, this pair enjoys a big lunch from their mother's dugs as they consume her extremely rich milk.

(left) And then it's down for a nice, long afternoon nap to top off the perfect pronghorn morning.


Friday, May 20, 2011

The Mists of May

Slightly chilled and moist air fills my lungs in a thoroughly refreshing way as the fog crawls across the lake's glassy surface. My paddle breaking the water accompanied by the distant calls of a few Canada geese are the only sounds that reach my ears as my kayak silently glides along. The stillness of this morning is overpowering.

The place is Stockage Lake, one of the region's most photogenic bodies of water - and today the lake is fulfilling its reputation. Through the tops of distant pines the sun breaches the fog, casting shadows and reflections into the water's undisturbed face as its illumination colors the scene.

Known as fog shadows, this phenomenon occurs when fog is dense enough to be illuminated by light passing through gaps in a structure or tree and yet thin enough to allow a large quantity of light to illuminate points beyond, thus giving a three-dimensional effect to the shadows (the lead picture for this article is an excellent example).

The Mists of May have arrived.

May is a special time in the Black Hills high country as winter finally relinquishes its long grip on the land, bringing an awakening to all. The lakes along with valleys and ravines are encased and defined by mists and banks of fog whose beauty not only treats the eye, but also invigorates the soul with its mystery, its color and its absence of light. The time is one of revival.

Somewhat less romantically, the encyclopedia tells us that fog is the result of water vapor condensing into tiny liquid water droplets in the air when a cool & stable air mass is trapped underneath a warm air mass - such as what is happening before me this morning with the sun heating the air over the chilly lake waters. True and good to know, but scientific definitions like this one seldom speak the spiritual effects of a particular natural phenomenon, how it touches and feeds something from within us.

Even more important, I believe, are the effects of this marvel or any marvel of Nature on our imagination - how we perceive the landscape and ourselves within it. We are, after all, the only species on our planet capable of appreciating the artistry of Nature in this way.

And so on I go, gliding my small craft over the smooth & mirrored lake waters as I collect images of the events that stretch out before me, ever mindful of their effects. For I do wish to experience the landscape, not just observe it. That's what the Mists of May are about.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

(above) Forested islets and ridges are reflected in the waters of Deerfield Lake as the sky begins to open.

(above) The light of a full moon sets into the foggy mists of the central Black Hills' Sheridan Lake.

(left) A small peninsula on Stockade Lake is enshrouded by a growing fog bank in the dawn light.

(above) Dead pine trees in a former burn area are eerily lit and silhouetted in dense rain fog.

(left) Shore reeds begin to catch the morning light as the fog moves over a distant ridge on Deerfield Lake.

(above) A beaver quietly swims through the waters of Stockade Lake as fog shadows light the water behind him.

(left) A small group of whitetail deer feed in the growing light and fog of the limestone country just west of Custer.

(right) Cattails and reeds decorate this shoreline on Sheridan Lake.

(left) A slight breeze ripples the waters of Deerfield Lake as the sun begins to emerge.

(above) Fog begins to lift as sunlight moves across a small inlet on Stockade Lake.


Friday, May 6, 2011


A myriad of sound fills the still young morning only a couple of hours after dawn. The distant gobbling of a tom turkey calling to the hens mixes with the continuous songs of meadowlarks as they perch on rocks or fly about in search of mates. The familiar beats and music of the sharptail grouse reverberate from the nearby lek where I have just been collecting images of this splendid ritual of spring.

Although refreshing at first, winter's silence does become somewhat monotonous after a time, making welcome the clatter that goes with spring. The seasons are about change, about things that are ever shifting. And our senses shift with them.

For these many months we have known the stark tones of winter along with its truly mystical light, but now our senses tire of the bare & brown landscapes beset with leafless trees, the snow and cold as winter makes another of its seemingly endless returns. Spring is about resurgence - of life, its presence, its sounds and its color. How our eyes long for color.

As I head down through the tall, withered grass of last summer, I scan across the grasslands for any sign of color beginning to emerge from beneath that sea of brown, a sea that appears infinitive as it stretches to the horizon. Usually by this time I've seen a couple of spider lilies or a pasqueflower, but all of the spring things have been late coming to the prairie this year, having been the same with the wildflowers. I feel like an ancient mariner or navigator searching an ocean for a land that he is not completely sure is really there.

Near giving up for the day, I continue on down the slope with my feet falling only on dried grassland. As I am about to plant my left foot, my eyes catch sight of a familiar pale lavender color just barely visible through the grass. The halts me in my tracks. "Can it be?" I wonder.

Dropping to my knees, I carefully open the grass to reveal its secret. And there it is - the blossom of a spreading pasqueflower. Another sure sign that spring will finally not be denied.

The spreading pasqueflower is indicative of the hearty perennials that flourish across this grasslands environment, being one of the earliest to appear and frequently before surrounding vegetation even begins to turn green. This ostensibly delicate little blossom pushes its way up through choking clumps of dead grass made even heavier by melting snows, giving the resurgence of color to an emerging spring. This is a moment by which to mark time.

Lying down in front of the pasqueflower, I gently push back the grass around it so as to get the best pictures. With blossoms of about an inch in diameter, it looked so lost fragile in all that expanse of old grass. It will grow no more than two inches tall, but yet its lovely lavender tones will come to dominate the prairie landscape over the next month or so, along with rich yellows, blues and purples as other perennials join the resurgence.

After clicking off several frames of the pasqueflower, I rise up and look about. Suddenly, my eyes are greeted with much more. I see small clumps of green grass now creeping from beneath last summer's remains. Green weeds here and a dandelion there. About five yards away is another pasqueflower.... and then another. As I continue on, I see even more. Funny how the discovery of one thing shows us how much more was really there.

Nature knows how to get the most for her buck.

"Nice To Be Here"

Nice to be here, hope you agree
Lying in the sun.
Lovely weather, must climb a tree
The show has just begun.

All the leaves start swaying
To the breeze that's playing
On a thousand violins
And the bees are humming
To a frog sat strumming
On a guitar with only one string.

I can see them, they can't see me
I feel out of sight.
I can see them, they can't see me
Much to my delight.

And it seems worth noting
Water rats were boating
As a lark began to sing
The sounds kept coming
With Jack Rabbit loudly drumming
On the side of a biscuit tin.

The Moody Blues

(above) The pale blossoms of the spreading pasqueflower actually bloom before surrounding vegetation turns green, appearing before most other prairie perennials. The state flower of South Dakota, pasqueflowers grow throughout the high plains.

(above) The starlily is another early season perennial that grows low to the ground from fleshy roots with leaves that are narrow and grasslike.

(left & below) Among the most colorful of the prairie's spring wildflower displays are the brilliant yellows of the hymenoxys with blossoms about the size of a dime. Below they are surrounded by the purple of the showy peavine.

(above & below) Varying in tones from pale pink to deep purple and blue, the bracted spiderwort is one of richest and most brilliant colored of the prairie perennials. The blossoms usually close during the heat of the day and reopen before morning.

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(above) Another of the May perennials, the pointed phlox has a short stem with fibrous bark. Its sharp pointed petals vary from white to rose colors.

(right) With stiff, evergreen and bayonet-shaped leaves, the yucca plant grows stout flower stalks that reach a height of 1-4 feet and blooms in early June. Many grazing animals enjoy yucca flowers.

(above) The tufted evening-primrose or gumbo lily grows along dry buttes and clay banks and is typically found in places like the Dakota Badlands. Native Americans created a liquid preparation for treatment of coughs and other respiratory ailments by boiling its stout taproots.

(left) The yellow blossoms of the Louisiana bladderpod grow on stems that attain a height of 12 inches or more. These plants are toxic to grazing animals.

(above & right) In the fading light of the day, the brilliant blossoms of the white penstemon(above) and the wild plum glow against the prairie sky.

(above) And while we wait for the spring color of the prairie to develop, we can still take joy in the tones of an incomparable prairie sunset.


Friday, April 29, 2011

Awaiting the King

The light is just beginning to turn that wonderful honey amber color of early evening, right about six o'clock with maybe an hour of daylight left. It has been a wonderful spring day - temps in the high 60s, sunny and no wind. The days grow longer now, seemingly at a quickened pace.

A musical menagerie of bird songs and calls fills my ears as they resonate from all about - meadowlarks, robins, crows, mourning doves, turkeys, red-winged blackbirds, etc. Everyone appears to be applauding the day. Fitting how at sunset, life seems content to just celebrate itself - for its own sake.

Keeping me company with my thoughts is a group of eleven turkey hens busy feeding on the cracked corn that I throw out in an area of prairie grass and cottonwoods about thirty yards from the house - for their enjoyment and mine. I'm awaiting the arrival of the toms. They should be along soon as they are now at the peak of their display period. Already some of the hens have disappeared to begin building nests and laying eggs. Most of my turkey pictures come from this bunch as they all go about their business through the tall grasses and cottonwoods near the house.

This past winter brought change. During previous years the turkeys disappeared about early November despite my cracked corn meals and we didn't see them again until early March. This year they wintered with us as well, roosting in the tall cottonwoods nearby and staying plump on the corn. I have no idea what changed their pattern, but after a winter of daily feeding, they have become so habituated to me that I'm not sure I can call them wild turkeys anymore. I no longer use a blind to photograph them.

My attention is drawn back to the birds as I see the toms striding up and out of the creek draw. This bunch now includes four males, two large and mature ones along with two younger that were jakes or immature toms until this spring. Noticeably absent is the largest of the toms, one I call The King. Typically, he will make his entrance when all are present to observe.

The King is in fact one of the most photogenic toms I have ever seen - never a broken or missing feather in his fan, huge and stately with a bushy beard that literally drags on the ground when he feeds. Perfectly proportioned in every way, his display is nothing less than gorgeous. Each of the other toms falls off just a bit thought still making for nice images, but they are not this bird. And now that he has chosen to winter here, there is even less chance that a hunter will take him.

The young toms begin to display as they approach the feeding hens, showing smaller fans with the middle feathers standing taller and stubby beards. How they pale in comparison to The King. The older tom gobbles a bit, but soon all three birds are distracted by the corn and settle in with the hens for supper.

A loud and unmistakable gobble resonates from within the cottonwood trees, grabbing the attention of the birds before me. All three toms gobble back as I see movement coming through the tall grass. Enter His Arrogance, The King.

With typical flair and pomposity the great bird strides forth to greet his subjects, making the usual drumming sound as his secondary wing feathers drag across the ground. His huge fan turns one way and then the other as the lumpy folds of skin under his throat called a dewlap turn fire engine red and his head takes on a complex pattern of white and bluish-purple. The other toms step aside as this grandiose entrance is made. Elvis has entered the building.

(above & below) Two mature tom turkeys go into a full fan and display as they glide past one another in motions that are reminiscent of a ballet. The next several weeks will bring scenes like this one throughout the region.

* * * * * * * * * *

(above & right) Except for the tom's beard, an adult turkey replaces its entire plumage once a year with the molt taking place during summer when heat retention is not as important. The beard is actually a type of feather which rarely exceeds about 11 inches due to the wear they incur while dragging on the ground during feeding.

(right) In some respects the turkey's eyesight is superior to man's. They do not have to focus both eyes to see well, being able to look in opposite directions simultaneously. While birds in general cannot see as many color hues as mammals, turkeys are color sensitive as is proved by the way they react to the color changes in the head and neck of a gobbler.

(left) Despite Benjamin Franklin's well known preference for the turkey as our national symbol over the bald eagle, it's hard to imagine this profile having the same impact on the national seal.

(right) Like most ground nesting birds, the plumage is much more drab on the hen which suffers from much higher rates of predation because of the hazards of nesting and rearing poults.

(above) In spite of their weight, a turkey can shoot into the air from a complete standstill, moving away at 55 miles per hour. Their flight distances are short, however, maybe one-eighth of a mile before they fatigue quickly.

* * * * * * * * * *

(above & below) Gobbling is not so much intended as aggression between toms as it is the act of beckoning to the hens, "Here I am, here I am."

* * * * * * * * * *

(above & right) Winter makes frequent returns during spring on the high plains, even during the late days of April, but seems to have little effect on these birds' courtship activities as they will even strut and display in the falling snow.

* * * * * * * * * *

(left) The big tom continues his strut even as the day closes across the grasslands.

(above) As the final light of the day disappears, the turkeys fly one by one up into the tops of tall cottonwoods where they will roost for the night, free from the clutches of nighttime ground predators such as raccoons and bobcats.