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Oregon to Oklahoma

June 2003

Part 8:  Devil's Tower


The next day was designated a "down day" (at this point we were just waiting for the Big System to hit Montana) so after analysis we made plans to go to Devil’s Tower, seeing as most of us had never been there (except in the movies J), so off we went. (Actually, I should mention the motel: David was very displeased with it, not only because it didn’t have high-speed Internet access but also because all the rooms smelled very moldy; I will say that by opening my windows in the morning I got a Vesper Sparrows out of it). We first stopped by the road heading into the park which had a beautiful view of the tower; Dave, being a geologist, explained that it was actually an old volcano mouth! While we were enjoying the view I heard a Bobolink singing over the field, and across the street in the pines I got a pair of Lark Sparrows all upset with me!


Towering cumulus being "sheared" to death


Stu sets up his camera, flanked by Ed and Bill


Ed, David, Lisa, and Dave, and surrounding habitat

From there we headed into the park proper and parked at the trailhead where you could take a short 1.3 mile hike around the base, or a longer three-mile hike that would take you all the way down to the Prairie Dog town and back. Since the plan was to meet back at the van at 3:30, I opted to take the flatter dirt trail and just turn around at the proper time, and it turned out to be a marvelous choice: I only ran into three other parties on that trail (one of them was practically at the trailhead) and had some marvelous birds and views, even at the worst time of day! A Plumbeous Vireo was singing right at the trailhead, along with a Warbling Vireo, Butterbutt, Chipping Sparrow, and an especially vocal Brown Creeper who actually showed himself! The trail opens up into a grassy area where Turkeys were gobbling in the distance, and then a burned area where you not only got a terrific view of the Tower (with its attendant White-throated Swifts), but also had a Townsend’s Solitaire just singing his little heart out! A House Wren got mad at me as well, but the star of the show was a male Mountain Bluebird that came sailing in! What a knockout! Other goodies along that trail included Rock Wren, a female Western Tanager and Black-headed Grosbeak, a tin-horning Red-breasted Nuthatch, Western Wood Pewee, American Goldfinch, and a laughing Downy Woodpecker. At the turnaround point was a father and daughter (the latter looked pretty beat) who were resting under a rock outcropping with a perfect seat, and after I told them where they were and how far they had to go, they continued on and let me have the seat!


View of the Tower from the Lower Trail (this was thankfully the less popular trail)!


The gang spots me from the more popular Upper Trail!


View of the valley


Rock-protected tree, Mountain Bluebird that matches the sky, and balanced rock


More scenes with juvenile Robin  

Back at the trailhead (I really scooted to get back and made it just in time) I was shooting a juvenile Robin when I noticed the rest of the gang sitting over by the Visitor’s Center, so I left my bins with David and went to use the restroom and get a checklist. They had a nice hike but reported that it was "reasonably crowded" (oh, they spotted me from their higher trail; what a great photo op!), so I felt good that I had made the right decision (and they didn’t feel I was at all rude for going off on my own; they were even impressed with the Mountain Bluebird when I showed them the picture!). From there we went to the Prairie Dog town where we enjoyed the little critters for a long time; we did spot a Red-tailed Hawk but he was too far away to cause any concern. I did see something flying around the Tower with pointy wings that was smaller than the circling TVs yet obviously bigger than swifts, and the thought of having a falcon on my hands excited me (I certainly would expect them up there), but they turned out to be plain ol’ Rock Doves, although I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised: that would be perfect habitat for them! While we were sitting added Flicker and Bullock’s Oriole to the list.


Prairie Dog Town and residents...


That night we lodged in Sheridan where another big isolated storm was brewing, so after checking in we jumped in the van and took off after it! The frustrating thing for David was that it was quite hilly around there, so there really weren’t many places you could pull over and get an unobstructed view. He was really agitated when we suddenly saw this huge wall cloud dip down from the base, and even though conditions ripe for tornadoes hadn’t been forecast, you never know when conditions may suddenly change and one may surprise you, and (visually anyway) it was starting to look promising, and we couldn’t see below the base of the stupid wall cloud!! David was grousing that there could be a huge tornado there and we’d never see it because of the hills! But when we finally did find a spot to stop, it was apparent that the wall cloud was breaking down, and we were starting to get that strong outflow wind that tells you that the "juice" of the storm is basically being drained out, and there’s no moist inflow from the other side to keep it going. So again, we just saw some marvelous structure, some great lightning, and a Common Nighthawk "beenting" over (had to get the bird in there)! Quarter-sized hail was being reported, so we all huddled in the van to experience that as it passed over us, but even that didn’t materialize; we just got a lot of rain! So we headed back to town and went to Applebee’s for dinner, where the storm finally caught up with us, and David predicted that the power would go out, and sure enough, it did! (Not for long, though…)


Massive supercell near Sheridan, WY, and another monster supercell: the tower reveals the location of the updraft


Another promising storm: note how low the cloud base is to the ground, which can be a good clue that the storm could produce tornadoes.      

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