A Spectacular Night on the Prairie

I created this blog to share the remarkable things that I witness in nature. Now that my days of living on nature preserves are over, I have fewer of those experiences, but two weekends ago that changed. I saw a sublime lightning sunset, a choir of elusive amphibians, a rare mammal attacked by owls, and more. And it all happened on a landscape that few people give a second glance to: the shortgrass prairie at Pawnee National Grassland.

My plan for the night was to confirm the location of a suspected Burrowing Owl nest, set up my blind, photograph the owl family at sunset, sleep in the blind, and photograph them again at sunrise. None of that happened, but the trip was more incredible than I could’ve imagined.

Instead, I arrived as a severe thunderstorm was rolling towards the prairie dog town where the owls were nesting. I spotted two owls perched on a burrow, but before I could set up my blind, the rain and lightning arrived. I didn’t mind. Spending an hour in the prairie listening to rain pelt my car was the perfect end to a hectic week. But the rain continued into the sunset and the lightning drew uncomfortably close. I began to think a lot about the physics of a lightning bolt coursing through my car.

I started to question my commitment to the night, but then a corner of the sky began to glow. Was the rain going to let up in time? Was I going to photograph a lightning sunset? Yes, yes I was.

Raindrops on a window looking out to a prairie at sunset.

As the rain abated and sunset grew, I grabbed my equipment. I ran outside and frantically composed a few shots. The rain was gone, the lightning was fierce, and I was finally in the right place at the right time.

I noticed a two-track road filled with rainwater. After running over and I saw what I had hoped for: the light reflected in the water, appearing as if the molten sky itself had driven through the prairie. As my camera’s sensor recorded the dramatic landscape, a particularly strong bolt of lightning flashed. I looked on my camera’s screen and knew that I had captured a special photo.

Lightning flashes over a wet prairie amid a thunderstorm sunset.

Not long after, the rain started again and I reluctantly retreated to my car. As another storm cell swooped over me, I passed the time by reading Desert Solitaire. Coincidentally, I was reading the chapter about water. I read Abbey’s beautiful descriptions of desert storms and the spadefoot toads that joyfully sing after them. I’d sure like to see a spadefoot toad someday, I thought. I wonder if any amphibians will be calling after this storm.

The storm passed around 10 pm. Poking my head out of the car, I heard the familiar calls of Boreal Chorus Frogs from nearby, along with a strange new call. I grabbed my headlamp and trudged  through the now muddy prairie. As I drew near the closest singer, I slowed my pace to a crawl, desperate not to scare him away. Several times I froze, absolutely certain that a call was coming from directly below me. After several of these disorienting experiences, I looked up and saw the amphibian calling in the water. It was a spadefoot toad.

A Plains Spadefoot Toad calls in a puddle.

I ran back to the car, grabbed my macro lens, and spent the next hour in naturalist heaven. This large puddle (you couldn’t really call it a pond) was filled with an almost deafening chorus of bizarre and beautiful calls. The Plains Spadefoot Toads were the most common and conspicuous, floating through the muddy water with their enormous air sacs inflated. Scattered along the pool’s edge were much smaller but equally loud Boreal Chorus Frogs, which I took great delight in seeing for the first time. Occasionally, an explosive third call erupted from the other side of the pond. As I crept closer it became so loud that I could feel my eardrums reverberate. Finally, I spotted the source: a giant Central Plains Toad with his jellybean air sack blasting soundwaves into the dark, humid air.

A Great Plains Toad calls at night in grass.

At one point I saw a female toad select a mate. Here’s how the process goes: The female toad hops towards the singing male. The male, oblivious or determined, keeps singing. The female then gets his attention by hopping straight into him and knocks him off his perch and right into the water. The two tussle underwater for a moment, and then the back of the male emerges, hunched over his new mate. The two then slowly float away and into the dark.

I spend a lot of time in the prairie. I see a lot of incredible things in it. Yet here was something so incredibly new and spectacular happening in a pool of rainwater with cow turds floating through it. Prairies are brimming with breathtaking sights and sounds. Sometimes you just have to spend a night in a rainstorm to see it.

At 11 pm I left the puddle, only because I knew that I would be awake in six hours and still needed to set up my blind. I gathered all my equipment from the car and trudged towards the prairie dog town. I picked a place that vaguely resembled the spot I had seen from the road and assembled the blind in the dark. At this point I was basically guessing where the owl nest would be, but I didn’t care much. I knew that if I sat long enough anywhere in the prairie I’d see something interesting.

A photographer looks at a puddle in a prairie at night.

That night I had one of those movie dreams where you hear a strange sound that doesn’t fit with the dream and then realize that it’s coming from the real world. The sound happened to be a Burrowing Owl call. At 5 am I looked out the blind and saw the owl perched on a burrow just thirty feet away.

At some point while I scrambled to assemble my camera and tripod, the owl flew away. I waited for an hour. He didn’t come back. I waited another hour. No owls in sight. Eventually, the prairie dogs began to emerge from their burrows and start their busy day of being prairie dogs. I see prairie dogs often, but I had never watched them from a blind before. Doing so allowed me to see their process for building their burrows for the first time.

Here’s how it works: Facing away from her burrow, a prairie dog first uses her sharp teeth to cut the roots holding the soil together (this was surprising to me). Once she’s loosened enough dirt, she kicks it behind her and then proceeds to take another several bites out of the prairie. After doing this for a minute or so, she turns around and uses quick shoves with her forelegs, chest, and neck to shovel the dirt to her burrow. Once it’s in a spot she likes, she tamps down the dirt with several forceful downward pushes. At first I thought the prairie dogs were pressing on the dirt with their forelegs, but after watching the videos I took in slow motion, I think they actually pound the fronts of their noses into it. What an interesting animal.

Just as my mind began to wander, I heard hoarse screeches in the distance. To my disbelief, an American Badger was shuffling across the prairie dog town, followed by a very angry Burrowing Owl. The badger suddenly noticed my blind and stared intently at it while my lens stared back. Then the Burrowing Owl renewed his assault and drove the predator away with several swipes of his talons.

A Burrowing Owl attacks an American Badger.

Still hardly able to process what I had just seen (this was only the second badger I’d seen), I noticed that the two owls were perched on a burrow far away from me, undoubtedly congratulating each other on their bravery. How could this be? Last night I saw the owls perched on a burrow near my blind. Two weeks before that I had seen them perched on another burrow on the other side of the prairie dog town. Did they even have a nest???

But I couldn’t be disappointed. In front of me a pair of baby prairie dogs were playing with each other. Western Meadowlarks and Horned Larks were strolling across the prairie in search of food. A pronghorn rested peacefully on a hill. And I was there with them, part of the prairie, just another species enjoying the serene and beautiful landscape.

I spent the rest of the day at Pawnee Buttes and saw more cool animals there, but I don’t have the space for them in this blog post. Be sure to follow me on Instagram or Facebook to see their photos and stories.

6 thoughts on “A Spectacular Night on the Prairie

  1. Wow! What incredible experiences you had. Your carefully crafted prose and magnificent photos definitely made me feel like I was right there along side you. Thanks for journey!


  2. Barbara MacKinnon July 7, 2020 — 2:19 pm

    Evan – your excelent writing and love of discovery had me following on your every word anticipating the unexpected. Without a doubt you have found your nich in motivating others to appreciate nature.


  3. Just found your blog and enjoyed the read. Truly appreciate your passion for the simplicity.


    1. Thank you, Tara. Glad you like it.


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