Saturday, June 18, 2011
Tensleep Creek, Back Roads and TravelTthrough Thunder Basin National Grassland
Salt Lick Trailhead is tucked away in the Tensleep Creek foothills of the Bighorn Mountains in central Wyoming. Tensleep Creek and Canyon is a place to die for. It is stunningly beautiful, lush in riparian habitat, gateway to the mountains and surrounded by pine and juniper.
This where I started my day because I discovered a Black-throated Gray Warbler in the preferred Juniper habitat that the trail bisects. I played the warbler’s song and right on cue the Black-throated Gray showed his interest in the song. This is a stunning warbler fit for a stunning setting. Also present were patrolling Violet-green Swallows and Common Ravens. A Lazuli Bunting and a Cassin’s Finch joined the ever common Warbling Vireo singing in the rising morning sunshine.
The Bighorn Mountains are little known but a wilderness of note for sure. Much of these mountains are developed for recreation but they have a peak over 13,000 ft. and the Powder Pass on the southern end of this chain is 9,666 ft. I didn’t see much to write about. It was a nice but bitter cold and windy day. Most of the area in elevation had a coating of new snow from last night.
I am in the habit of taking the back roads as you probably have figured out by now. So as I headed south I chose to take Wyoming Route 196 instead of Interstate 25 that runs close and parallel to. There is much more to enjoy at 55 miles per hour than traveling just 20 miles per hour faster. Good ol’ 196 slices through farms, grasslands and more impoverished habitats. If I had taken the freeway I would not have seen a Black-tailed Deer feeding its baby. I’d seen only a fraction of the Pronghorn along the way. Rte 196 is one of those roads where the center line is only significant should by some chance a car or farm truck might be coming or passing.
There were birds too. There is nothing spectacular to report, just the common but wonderful regular cast of prairie characters. Western meadowlarks are a constant chorus along the way. Ted-tailed Hawks soar high in the sky along with an occasional Turkey Vulture. Northern Harriers were hunting low to the ground and American Kestrels hovering over an interest meal opportunity. Cliff Swallows swarmed at every culvert and Barn Swallows zoomed the whole length of the road in the slow lane.
I crossed the Powder River and through the river’s valley. As if by magic Common Nighthawks became common. These Nighthawks have unique flight and if you listen carefully you can hear their distinct “peent” call orchestrated with their wing beats.
The last leg of today’s trip took me through parts of Thunder Basin national Grassland. Wyoming Route 450 cuts through some of the mostly fragmented National Grasslands but much of this land is also held by Wyoming State and local Land Trusts. The result is protection for prairie species of birds and the other neighbors on this prairie.
Rock Wrens are a common species is rocky outcroppings. I am ashamed to say how many stops I’ve made since I got in these habitats and frankly I’m embarrassed to say I’ve been “skunked.” Well, today I finally got this bird along Route 450. I played the song and a pair of Rock Wrens responded with showing themselves and singing their hearts out.
It was travel day, but one where I could take my time, stop when I wanted and travel when I needed too. It wasn’t a busy birding day but a great day to take in the sights and sounds of our great American heartland.
I’m camping at Wind Cave National Park and as I type this into a “word” document I am serenaded by meadowlarks nuthatches. Stay tuned for Buffalo Gap National Park and other South Dakota special places.