In my first three days on the American Prairie Reserve, I logged 24 miles of hiking and running through this vast landscape in an effort to acquaint myself with this place. Much of those miles were with the Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation Landmark crew as I tagged along on their daily rounds. This group of volunteer researchers have been out here since March 1st traversing the landscape by foot, collecting data that is crucial to understanding wildlife populations. Covering this much ground right away and in the company of people who have a scientific perspective has been an amazing introduction for me. As we walk along, I ask questions about plant species, wildlife behavior, and the prairie ecosystem. If I was alone, much of these fascinating details would go unnoticed under my foreigner’s gaze.
On my first morning, I woke up at 3:30 AM to meet the crew for a pre-dawn hike in search of mating sage grouse. These birds return to the same location every year to perform an elaborate mating dance, so we were able to use a GPS system to find our way to the exact spot. There are many of these “leks” on the prairie and the crew has been checking them regularly for the past month. We split up into pairs and set off through the dark. My team had to go three miles across the prairie to find our lek and we were almost running to reach the location by sunrise. If we arrived any later, we risked missing the birds. Before we could even see them, we could hear their guttural whooping calls. We followed the sound until we saw about 30 birds in the distance, with their white chests puffed up, they looked as big as turkeys. Watching through binoculars, I could see them bouncing their chests and strutting around, while only a few females wandered close by acting uninterested. We watched them for about ten minutes and then without warning the entire group took flight and disappeared.
(This is a video I found on youtube, so you can see what I’m talking about)
My crew mates took detailed notes on the sighting, data which will be used to understand the health of the Sage Grouse population, including whether or not they should be considered an endangered species.
Later that day, we went out hiking again, this time to check motion sensitive camera traps to see what kind of animals have been through the area. By this time I had hiked nine miles since waking up and I was glad I had sturdy hiking boots and gaiters as we strode through the prickly pear cactus and knee high sage brush. On our way back, we found what we thought was cougar scat, which was exciting because just two weeks ago, a cougar had been seen in this area but until photo evidence exists, the cougar presence cannot be officially acknowledged.
On day two, I hiked eight more miles to check camera traps and I was surprised at the variety of terrain I was discovering on the prairie. Contrary to my expectations, it wasn’t all flat ground. We were hiking up and down quite a lot and even went through a Ponderosa Pine forest and discovered some lakes. On this trek we spotted a few groups of Pronghorn and Mule Deer, crossed through a Prairie Dog town, and saw a Kestrel.
I’ve also been finding time to paint. In the early morning from 6 – 8 AM, the light is magical and the meadowlarks are singing. It’s a little cold, but I am loving these peaceful hours spent alone with the wind and the grass, soaking in all the details. This quiet time in a remote landscape is such a gift, when I’m out there all my anxieties are gone and I just think about how lucky I am to be present in this place.
The time spent covering ground with the research crew has been incredibly valuable. Now when I approach my paintings, I’ll know a lot more about the landscape and I’ll pay attention to the subtle differences in ecosystems that exist all across this region. I’ve also seen some spots that I know I’ll return to paint, like the early morning lek trek, which left an impression on my memory. I’d like to take my tent and spend a few days working out there. It’s only day 4, and I’m feeling pretty inspired out here. I’ll try to keep up with the blogging and share as much as I can along the way. Thanks for following along – Emilie