Black and White and Dread All Over

One of the pleasures of hiking in the Black Hills is seeing wildlife. Mule deer stand and watch you go by with casual interest. Whitetail deer leap away through the woods when they hear you coming, their tails waving to signal danger—not seeming to realize that if they just stood still you probably wouldn't see them in the first place. Turkeys flap away in flight as inelegant as the first attempts of the Wright brothers. Chipmunks dart across the rocks as if an invisible force were pulling them along by the tails that stand straight up over their backs.

On one recent hike, though, we saw something different. We were walking along an old railroad bed that had been built some 130 years ago a short way above the bottom of a narrow canyon. A moving flash of black and white in the canyon caught my eye, and I thought, "There's a Border Collie."

Close, but not quite. It was a skunk, the biggest one I've ever seen. (Of course, it's hard to get an accurate comparison, since most of the skunks I've seen were in various stages of squashedness in the middle of the highway.) It was a beautiful animal, with its dramatic striped coat and magnificent plume of a tail. Presumably the stripes help camouflage a skunk at night, but in the sunlight it seemed a tad overdressed, like a socialite in pearls and satin at a backyard barbecue.

Since skunks are both nocturnal and also one of the most common carriers of rabies, it's not a good sign to see one in the middle of a sunny afternoon. We kept very quiet, preferring to remain anonymous while we watched this one. Its behavior seemed normal enough. Though since we tend to do our hiking in the daytime and had never seen a skunk in the woods before, how would we know?

It was obviously on a mission, trotting down the bottom of the canyon. It came to a little spring, stopped to get a drink, then pattered on up the canyon and out of sight. Reassured—at least until we realized the skunk was between us and our car—we went quietly on with our hike in the opposite direction.

A little further along, on the opposite side of the canyon, we saw a huge bird perched atop a pillar of rock. We thought it was an eagle until we spotted its red head. It was a turkey buzzard, basking in the sun. It sat and watched us watching it, seeming to wait while we got the camera out. Then it spread its wings into an elegant sweep, the sun behind the long pinions haloing them in golden light. We expected it to launch into the air, but instead it just sat for several minutes, sunning itself, watching us take pictures almost as if it were posing.

Or maybe it was just waiting to see whether we would stop moving long enough to be considered lunch. We made sure to stay in motion, and after a while it gave up on us and flew away.

Some people might consider seeing a skunk and a turkey buzzard in the same afternoon a bad omen. It may have been. Or maybe not. We were just glad neither one was a mountain lion.

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