It was a gray morning. Chilly and foreboding. It was so dark, I didn't bother to pull my Canon SLR out of my camera bag.
The scenery along US Hwy 16 from the city of Custer to the entrance of the National Monument was a surprise.
Acres and acres, as far as the eye could see, scarred by fire. We were surrounded by a forest that was in the process of recovering from a major fire. Mountain meadows dotted with rock outcroppings and blackened remnants of trees, some still standing.
It had to have been one of those summer wildfires I'd seen on the national news years ago. But I was embarrassed to admit, I couldn't remember which one. All I could think of was - how many small creatures must have died. And then - how long would it take before "volunteers" re-populated it.
We didn't see or hear any wildlife until we arrived at the Jewel Cave National Monument entrance gate - a half dozen mule deer, including a very surprised male with a huge rack covered with velvet. While I fumbled with my camera (I was totally unprepared), he turned and headed off across the highway.
It was 8am and the gate was closed. The sign stated that the park opened at 8:30. I pulled over to the shoulder of the road. That's when the show started. "All things come to those who wait."
We heard them first. Mountain Bluebirds, Lewis' Sapsuckers, flickers, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Dark-eyed Juncos.
An orchestra of very hungry birds, hunting insects and seeds along the roadside at the entrance to the Park. The highlight was a pair of Red Crossbills. They we so close to the car, I actually had to move it to the other side of the entrance.
What were they doing? It was hard to tell. We didn't see any insects. Maybe they were after grit or some mineral?
Just before 8:30, a park ranger drove up and opened the gate. After awhile, we followed her in and took a walk through the visitor center, where I got answers to my questions about the fire.
It was the Jasper Fire. Started by a careless smoker who tossed a still-burning match along the road, it destroyed over 83,000 acres, including 90% of the surface of Jewel Cave National Monument. Miraculously, the Visitor Center and other buildings on the Monument were saved.
Instead of taking the cave tour, we decided to check out the birds near the Ranger Cabin just down the road.
Little did we know what a little hot spot that would be. Northern Flickers (red-shafted), lots of crossbills, Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-naped Sapsucker, Pine Siskins and Mountain Bluebirds. Why? They were attracted to the little creek. Despite the brisk temperatures, the birds were taking a bath.