"I came to understand that the prairies are nothing but grass, as the sea is nothing but water...The prairie is not a topography that shows its all but rather a vastly exposed place of concealment...where the splendid lies within the plain cover."
(William Least Heat-Moon, PrairyErth)
My friend and I arrived at the Buffalo Camp on the American Prairie Reserve around mid-day on Saturday April 21, greeted by the solitude of an empty campground (but for a group of five bull bison grazing nearby).
Was it ever heartening to see such vast areas of intact prairie and sagebrush habitat. For some, the miles of continuous prairies and sagebrush might look monotonous, like a vast landscape of 'nothing,' but for us – knowing the treasures contained within – it was a thrilling sight.
First off, just the drive in to the American Prairie Reserve's campground offers some prime prairie birding through large tracts of public land (BLM and state) and private ranches. With little to no traffic, it was easy to putter along with the windows down, listening for that special bird song that makes a person slam on the brakes (in our case, it was a Sprague's pipit). Even though it was only late April and many prairie birds are not back from their wintering grounds yet, a few were in high gear and putting on quite a show on their breeding territories: long-billed curlews, western meadowlarks, horned larks, and chestnut-collared longspurs. American kestrels and Swainson's hawks abounded. Withour map of the APR and surroundings we were able to identify which tracts were public so we could jump out to get a closer look - nothing like standing on a small prairie hilltop and having dapper chestnut-collared longspurs skylarking around us, singing on the wing.
We had long wanted to visit the prairie reserve, and their new public campground offered the perfect setting, putting us right in the heart of the place. Once we set up our tent and made camp, the excitement was palpable as we set off exploring and bird-watching. Should we go to the Buffalo Jump? The Indian Rock? The Fourchette Bay Overlook? Every direction beckoned with something of interest and we were not disappointed.
In the two days we were there, a few highlights included: a sunrise mating display from more than 30 sage grouse dancing on a lek; great glimpses into life in prairie dog towns, complete with burrowing owls staking out their burrow entrances; and songbirds like sage thrashers belting out choruses across the sea of sagebrush. Our sighting of a pair of McCown's longspurs in a prairie dog town was the first for the Reserve (though they have been seen nearby in Phillips County), but it points to the fact that this area is relatively unexplored.
The Reserve is dotted with small wetlands, both stock ponds and natural depressions, and migrating and breeding water birds had found them all. We counted 14 species of ducks. With the warm weather, reptiles and amphibians were making appearances too. We saw painted turtles, a prairie garter snake, a gophersnake, and heard chorus frogs singing from every tiny puddle of water. Mammals included bison, pronghorn, mule deer, prairie dogs, and coyotes.
Given that it was only the end of April and many birds had not arrived back from the wintering grounds, we were astounded at all there was to see. When the northern lights graced our tent in the darkness of our second and last night on the Reserve, we knew a return trip was in order as soon as possible.
Note: Help Prevent the Spread of Noxious Weeds - clean your boots and vehicles! Be sure and clean the dried mud out of your boot soles before a trip to the prairie reserve - it is still relatively weed-free area and noxious weeds are a looming threat. I routinely hike on a knapweed-covered hill near Livingston, and though I couldn't see the tiny seeds, I knew the dried mud in my boot soles was full of them. My friend from Bozeman found Hound's-tongue seeds (those small sticky burrs) in her boot soles when she cleaned them. We never saw either of these noxious weeds at the Reserve - let's help keep it that way!