Sep 17, 2012
September 26, 2009 was the date I first set foot in Sica Hollow State Park. I had heard of the park’s beauty in autumn and always wanted to go, plus I had just purchased a new camera. What better way to test out the new gear than exploring one of South Dakota’s most noted and mysterious places? I didn’t find any ghosts or spirits walking the trails, but I did witness beautiful and saturated fall colors due to recent wet weather. I found rich oranges, yellows and reds along the streams and horse trails. The new camera got plenty of work and the trip turned out to be very successful. Two photos I took that day were later published in the July/August 2010 South Dakota Magazine article “Ten Naturally Beautiful Places.” Getting my first full-page photo in a real and noted magazine was pretty exciting stuff for a country boy from Ziebach County.
I have returned to the park a handful of times since, the most recent being last weekend. Why would I make the three-hour trip before the colors of fall season have appeared, you may ask? This time, I went in search of a different kind of colorful phenomenon — the monarch butterfly. At the end of August and into early September the annual monarch migration south to Mexico comes right through our state. Sica Hollow, which is located on the edge of the Coteau des Prairies, is located on one of the main highways for these orange blazes of color as they make their way south.
Last year, on the first weekend in September, I went to Sica Hollow on a hunch. The last week of August, I had happened across 25 to 30 monarchs feeding on Maximillian sunflowers and ironweed in the Coteau Hills near Clear Lake while working on another project. I deduced that the migration was beginning and set off to Sica Hollow the following weekend. The hunch paid off. I was rewarded with a spectacle that would make most nature lovers' pulses quicken. Around a hundred monarchs were fueling up on nectar in the upper hills of the park. I was able to get close enough to one of their roosting sites just before sundown to get a series of photos showing 20 to 30 butterflies crowding on the same tree branch. It is a sight I won’t soon forget. It is also a sight that I’m now realizing may be much harder to duplicate than I first thought.
You see, this time around I was skunked twice at the same sight. I only saw two monarchs at the park in two tries two weeks apart. It could be the drought and/or the unseasonably warm weather that is keeping the butterflies' numbers low this year. It is hard to say. Whatever it is, it seems disappointingly ironic to me. I say that because I’ve seen single monarchs fluttering amongst the wildflowers in many of my other state park travels this summer.
South Dakota’s weather has never been what one would call predictable. The appearance of autumn’s colors on the fringes of Sica Hollow in early September is proof that things are off a bit this year. It looks to me like the prime fall color is around two or maybe even three weeks early this year. Looking back at the dates of my other visits to Sica Hollow demonstrates the differences. When I was there in late September of 2009 the prime color was just before peak. On my trip there in mid-October of last year, it was about a week after peak colors and this year I’m seeing fall colors start as early as Sept. 8.
One of the essentials to shooting good fall foliage is correctly guessing when the best time is to view the most turning trees. I try to catch it early rather than later as I don’t trust the notorious west wind from stealing the gold from the trees before I have the chance to photograph them. All in all, trying to outguess the weather is actually one of the fun things about nature photography. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. I’ve learned that when I guess correctly, I need to drink it in and enjoy it for all it is worth, because who knows if and when the particular beauty of that particular day will come around again. So happy hunting and may you fill your memory cards with all sorts of beautiful South Dakota fall color this year. Good luck!
Christian Begeman grew up in Isabel and now lives in Sioux Falls. When he's not working at Midcontinent Communications he is often on the road photographing our prettiest spots around the state. Follow Begeman on his blog. To view Christian's columns on other South Dakota state parks and recreation areas, visit his state parks page.