|Pawnee National Grasslands
When photographers talk about photographing wildlife and landscapes in Colorado, it often seems that the majority of the conversations revolve around the Rocky Mountains or southern Colorado. Pawnee National Grassland, in the northeast corner of the state may not seem to compete with these other destinations at first glance, but a little time spent looking for subjects here reveals a target rich environment. The 301 bird, 49 mammal, numerous reptile and amphibian, and many attractive plant species, plus colorful dragonflies and other insects, populate an open rolling terrain with streambeds, gullies, buttes, bluffs, and other interesting landscape features.
Pawnee National Grassland is managed by the US Forest Service and consists of over 193,000 acres of short-grass steppe in Weld County, Colorado. When combined with the adjacent Central Plains Experimental Range and private lands that are potentially accessible with permission, a nature photographer could spend many successful days in the area. The grasslands are about half an hour east of Fort Collins and are scattered over a 30 by 60 mile rectangle in a checkerboard of public and private ownership.
The National Audubon Society has recognized the Pawnee National Grassland as an Important Bird Area that is critical for 16 individual species and 3 major bird groups. Two of Colorado's official Watchable Wildlife sites are within Pawnee National Grassland. In the ornithological world, this area is known for world-class birding for some hard-to-find birds, notably longspurs and mountain plovers. Special regulations for approaching mountain plovers are in effect in addition to the normal respect that we should give our public and private lands and the wildlife that lives there.
The Grassland, like many of our public lands, was created in the 1930's as part of the effort to reclaim & restore eroded Dust Bowl era sites. The short-grass steppe is in the rain shadow east of the Rocky Mountains and is dominated by blue grama, buffalo grass, and saltbush with many other plants. These short grasses actually comprise different habitat types depending on how intensively they are grazed or managed with prescribed fire. Comparatively small areas of irrigated agriculture and impounded water are human-influenced areas that attract certain wildlife species. Rocky arroyos, bluffs & buttes, larger wooded creek corridors, and old home sites provide habitats needed by some species.
The north end of this area abuts the High Plains where Chalk Bluffs rise above the short-grass steppe. The Pawnee Buttes are twin remnant portions of eroded plains that rise an impressive 500 feet above the adjacent terrain. James Michener's Centennial is reputedly set at least partially in the PNG area with the Pawnee Buttes renamed Rattlesnake Buttes.
Compared to our time spent in the Rocky Mountains, it was amazingly easy to get away from other recreationists. We saw 1 other photographer, 1 pair of campers, and one group of trail riders in 3 long days, and for the most part, felt as though we had the entire area to ourselves. During those 3 days, we shot 7 types of scenics, 7 plant, 19 bird, 9 mammal, 3 reptile, and 1 amphibian species. We used our long lens and wide angle lens most of the time while bypassing several flower, seedhead, and damselfly/dragonfly shots waiting for less windy conditions (which never happened). The only time we used the macro lens was for the reptile and amphibian shots.
We saw birds in the appropriate habitat types, with some of them preferring the heavily grazed areas and others preferring the small wooded areas or the rougher country where shrubs begin to show up. The mammals seemed to be mostly around the rougher edges or where taller vegetation was juxtaposed with more heavily grazed areas. For someone from the southeastern woods, it is refreshingly easy to get good bird pictures with clean backgrounds and foregrounds. Our most successful technique consisted of slowly driving the roads when the light was good and scanning for birds and mammals. A good beanbag or window mount is very helpful. If there was a fence on only one side of the road, we tried to drive the rectangular block in a way that offered the best directional lighting for perched birds. These are public roads, so caution is advised, when slowing for a shot. There were only 2 or 3 times where we missed a shot because a vehicle was approaching; we could usually go on past and come back after the dust settled. The locals, sometimes pulling heavy cattle trailers, are not used to a car stopped in the middle of a road over the hill, so a little common sense and courtesy go a long way.
Two publications that helped us have a successful trip are: 1) Birding on the Pawnee by Automobile and Mountain Bike which was produced by the USDA Forest Service, Platte & Prairie Audubon Society, and the Colorado Division of Wildlife and 2) Birder's Guide to Colorado by Harold R. Holt and James A. Lane. We stayed at West Pawnee Ranch Bed and Breakfast immediately adjacent to the grassland; hosts Paul and Louanne Timm provided not only clean, comfortable rooms, but also access to 7,000 privately-owned acres and great advice on where to best find some of the animals.
This was our third (and longest) trip through this area, and while we got many great shots, we still feel like we need to go back. We missed getting a shot of the brilliant male oriole with his head shoved up in a purple thistle head against a drab background, the upland sandpiper that flushed from right beside the road and fluttered over the horizon to disappear, and any number of critters we simply didn't see.
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Robert and Kristin Smith are natural resource management professionals living and working mostly in southeastern Georgia and central North Carolina. You can find more shots from their recent Colorado trip at Photobiologist.com.
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