The Black Hills, South Dakota - Custer State Park and The Badlands National Park
We were based in Rapid City, whose main claim tofame is being on the doorstep of Mount Rushmore, and its less well known native American and ongoing carving of Crazy Horse. A sumptuous day can be had at both, I am sure, but the fees of $30 total for both can be saved by viewing from the main highways (it IS possible to do this for both), and make haste to Custer State Park, which is sandwiched between the two, and offers the delectable wildlife alternative. As with many of the locations within this large country, this park is a lot larger than it seems in planning. There are a few entry points, each charging the princely sum of $15 per car for a 7 day pass. The route 16A is the main access road, passes the Norbeck visitors centre, but is fairly quiet overall.
We entered from Keystone along the initial part of the 16A, which is a narrow byway, passing through mainly coniferous woodland. Stopping off at the Norbeck pullout was good for the localised white-winged race of Dark-eyed Junco, and also a well sized flock of Red Crossbills. After passing briefly through the visitor centre, we took the Needles Highway scenic drive, where we passed the first (lone) American Bison, and also marvelled at the great scenery at the top. The nearby Sylvan Lake was worth a circumnavigation. In addition to the common American Robins and Red-winged Blackbirds, with Violet-Green Swallows overhead, a couple of Cordilleran Flycatchers were found, and Pine Siskins were flying to and fro.
The Southern part of the park, which is enclosed by the Wildlife Loop road, is the best for mammals. The herds of American Bison are the most famed of these, with a stable population of 950 or so providing ample opportunity to come across them in collections on the grasslands. We even became part of a true "bison jam", with a small herd parking the bus across the road, preventing the traffic from moving. The two small towns of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs were a real treat, with many visible, and one in particular almost daring in its approach to our stationary vehicle. The only other big critter of note was Pronghorn, a most inelegant looking beast, but fascinating nevertheless. Most were singles or pairs at a distance, until a group of four were finally passed next to the road. Near to them, a pair of Mountain Bluebirds were using a nest box as home, with singing Western Meadowlarks as company. Apart from the numerous Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds, the only other bird of note was a Swainson's Hawk which seemed to be doing a mini flight display.
At just over an hour's drive East of Rapid City,this park is well worth a visit for the day. $15 buys a 7 day pass to astunning geological spectacle, where the elements have eroded some impressive rock formations. A map is handed out at the entrance station, and is really all that is needed for the visit. Covering the area is quite straight forward, since there is one main Road, the Badlands Loop, which runs the length, merging into the gravelled Rim Road. This in turn goes North as the route 502 and East as the Sage Creek Road. Most of the park is covered in the car, stopping for views and wildlife either at well signed lookout points on the way, or whenever wildlife appears. There are also some short trails at the Eastern end. The Cliff Shelf Trail turned up a Say's Phoebe, Chipping Sparrow, and Black-billed Magpie. The Door Trail offers a short wander into the badlands architecture, and also holds singing Rock Wren and Say's Phoebe, as well as breeding Cliff Swallows.
For much of the length of the Badlands Loop Road, the main birds are many Red-winged Blackbirds and Western Meadowlarks, although there are the odd Western Kingbirds and a single Loggerhead Shrike. The first interesting mammals were reached at the Homestead Overlook, where a couple of family parties of Bighorn Sheep were perched on rocky outcrops just below the road. These included lambs, presumably ewes which had shortish horns and were collared. A group of 6 rams in a "bachelor party", most sporting a fine pair of large horns, were a little further along, just beyond the start of the Rim Road. 4 miles along this road is the beginning of a very large Black-tailed Prairie Dog town, with many of the showy individuals right next to the track. Some were heard calling when a Prairie Falcon passed overhead. This part of the grassy prairie also held a large herd of American Bison.
The most interesting part of the park for birds is the route 502, turning East into the 590, or Sage Creek Road. It is at first gravelled, then tarmac, and passes through some excellent grassland. Shorelarks were the first to show in amongst the Prairie Dogs. Once the "town" was left behind, an Eastern Kingbird preceded some good grassland birds. Lark Buntings were quite regular, and one had Blue Grosbeaks for company. A Spotted Towhee was on the fence just before a small lake to the South, which held a handful of American White Pelicans.