Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Staring at Pronghorn

In case you didn't know, it's pronghorn hunting season here in Colorado. It's only 9 days long, so it's possible that hunters who eagerly desire a pronghorn trophy might be willing to trespass onto private preserve land. And if you want to keep them off your land, you need to watch over your land and gently remind those eager hunters that there are signs posted all around the property clearly stating that No Hunting is allowed.

If your best friend asked you to run off to Pritchett, CO to go stare at bison, pronghorn, hawks, prairie dogs, and hunters, you'd say "Yes!", wouldn't you?

I did.

But then, we already knew that I'm a sucker.

And so, off we went, gallivanting across the countryside to protect property rights and migrating herds of pronghorn.

On the way in to the Bison Ranch,

we passed The Hut. I didn't take the time to photograph it last time, but made certain to this time around. Creepy, no?

Its decrepit nature will only continue to worsen as the vagaries of wind and weather attack it relentlessly over time. Nothing good ever happens here. Do Not Enter.

After driving for hours and not seeing any pronghorn, we were starting to wonder if we would ever see a single one during our trip or if we were going to have to ask for a do-over. Pronghorn?! What pronghorn!

Then, pounding away from us in the distance, we saw a small herd of about 11 - 12.

Turns out that their brown/tan/cream coloration means they blend in really well with the dry grasses and scrub on the prairie. You don't really notice them until they start to move. At one point, Misty mistook an entire field of baled hay for a large herd as we were driving past. A very still herd.

At the ranch, we hung out and chatted about pronghorns, wolves, and politics. Suddenly, Misty yelled at me to come outside and have a look at the sky.

That night, at that moment, the sky looked like this:

Incredible. Awe inspiring. Fantastic.

Freezing cold.

It's an incredible experience that you just can't get down in the city. Even on top of Flagstaff Mountain outside of Boulder, you still have to deal with light pollution. Here, however, there are no lights and few houses, separated by miles of scrub and critter filled space. What I can't properly share with you in these photos is that behind the shivering photographer there came the sound of a pack of coyotes, howling into the distance. How far the distance was I don't know, but I was hoping they weren't making designs on my haunches.It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and reminded me why humans like caves, huts, and houses.

Just as I felt that I was finally getting the hang of night sky shots, my frozen hands and numb fingers forced me to stop for awhile and warm up. By the time I returned, the sky was completely clouded over, just as if someone had pulled a big woolly blanket across the plains. It was impossible to see a single star at that point and made me very glad that I had taken as many pictures as I had before going inside. It also made me wonder why I didn't have a flashlight, because a night on the plains without a moon is very, very, very dark.

Instead of the cabin, which appeared to be overrun with mice, we decided to sleep in the pop-up camper that Nicole had brought. An unheated pop-up camper, in a two person sleeping bag, in long underwear, PJs, two pairs of socks, a hat and a warm and fuzzy blanket. It was a little chilly that night, you see. Fortunately for me, Misty was like a roaring fire at my back and kept me toasty warm, in addition to all the other layers I was wearing. After giggling and shivering in our double sleeping bag (Misty is incredibly cuddly.), we finally settled down and fell asleep to the sound of the wind ruffling the camper's canvas sides.

In the morning, after waking up three hours later than planned, we got ready to go stare at the plains, wild animals, and watch for trespassing hunters. The plan was for Misty and I to take note of license plates of hunters in the wrong and phone them into the local Wildlife rangers. However, as it turned out, most of our time was spent sitting the in cold car and watching hunters drive around aimlessly looking for public lands to hunt on, miles and miles away from us. The preserves we were protecting are checker-boarded with private ranch land and public grazing grasslands, so it's easy to get confused as to where you can and cannot hunt. However, the pronghorn weren't abundant, so we'd see more trucks than ungulates. As far as calling it hunting goes, it didn't seem very sportsmanlike to me. Instead of having to trek into the woods, set up a base camp, create blinds or hide in trees and wait for your prey, pronghorn hunters get to drive around the vast grid that makes up the South Eastern portion of Colorado on dirt roads, stop when they finally see something and then shoot it. Even fishing has more of a mystery to it than that.

I also discovered that you can hear gunshots from very far away on the prairie. There's nothing but gently rolling scrub and distance to muffle the sound. It's also incredibly quiet out there, except for the sound of the local wildlife. No engine noises, no people, no equipment. Just wind, birds, prairie dogs, and the occasional insect. It's very soothing. Very zen.

A hawk and crow appear to be playing together, circling in the air.

A hawk sits on a pole and contemplates its next meal of prairie dog.

The Lone Prairie

Someone ate all of the sunflower seeds.

The colors are beautiful and make me think in terms of paint chips. You could make a really nice room with lime green, chocolate brown, cream, and tan.

Yes, something big clearly died here.

All of the most fashionable environmentalists are wearing Blaze Orange this year.

Plants are still blooming. 

Prairie dog having a snack. 

This p-dog thinks we might want to eat it. Maybe if I were a little hungrier.... 

We were getting ready to head back home and were making our way back to the ranch when Misty stopped the car abruptly. There, on the left side of the road was a single pronghorn. (Or perhaps it was married. I dunno, since I didn't ask.)

The Lone Pronghorn.

After taking a few shots (with our cameras!), we crept the car closer to it. My 70-200mm lens just isn't cutting it for wildlife photography. Clearly I should rent a big prime! The prongie decided it needed to hie itself home and trotted over to the other side of the road and ducked under the fence.

Pronghorns go under fences, not over. Strange but True Tales from the Prairie. 

The fact that we got to see the pronghorn actually walking under a fence was great, because I was honestly having a hard time believing that these deer-like critters didn't just jump every fence they came across. Turns out they aren't as sproingy as deer and it's the best reason why the bottom wire on prairie fences should be smooth instead of barbed.

Once it was on the other side, it turned back to us to watch us closely. Very curious was this ungulate. 

Having successfully survived this close encounter with humans, it took off at a trot to find some friends and maybe a mate.

As I mentioned last time, Colorado is a fence OUT state, which means if you don't want cattle on your land, it's up to you to keep them off of your property by putting up fences all along your borders. It also means you're very likely to run into them on the road.

Young cattle with winter coats look all soft and pettable. Also a bit daft.

Just try not to do it literally. Cattle will seriously mess up your ride.

Bison, on the other hand, will utterly destroy your ride and wreck your life, should you piss them off whilst trying to pass them in your suddenly completely inadequately safe vehicle.  I highly recommend stopping and waiting for them to move.

"You shall not pass...easily!"

Or creeping up to them really really slowly and encouraging them to get out of the way.

"Where are you goin'?"

Perhaps if you offered them a sacrificial hunk of gluten free zucchini bread they might be tempted to move out of the way faster.

Staring contest winner: Number 45!

No? Then you're going to have to do the best you can to get past them without somehow pissing them off.

Safety tip: Do not enrage the bison.

I also highly recommend that you don't forget your glasses on the bathroom sink, thus requiring you to drive through the herd of semi-unpredictable (Prediction: They will get in the way. True! Prediction: They will get out of the way. Possibly!) bison a total of four times instead of the two it would have taken originally. Although I was quite amused listening to Misty hyperventilate over just how BIG they were and how CLOSE they were and how utterly SURROUNDED we were by a dozen or more two ton animals. Well entertained, but you should know that I had my window rolled up tight. Bison kisses aren't on my Bucket List, you see.

Then, not-so-suddenly, we were no longer surrounded by giant shaggy beasts and were on our way home.

Gunshots heard: 5
Interactions with hunters: limited entirely to waving in a friendly fashion.
Trespassers evicted: Zero for Misty and I, Nicole snagged a few on her watch.
Close encounters with bovine: Six
Dogs acquired: Zero (But it was a very close thing, because Misty is a sucker.)
Fun memories acquired: Tons!

The six or seven hour drive out and back again was spent with almost non-stop talking, laughing, joking, and being completely inappropriate in ways I won't share. Misty has threatened to bring a recording device next time just so she has a record of how completely ridiculous I can get when cooped up in a car.

Ruh-dick-uh-luss. I'm tellin' you!

And just so you know: when you want to have an adventure, I am the friend you call.

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