Eastern Wyoming is a land of rolling hills and bluffs, compliments of the last Ice Age.
The deposits of sand, gravel and silt are some of the youngest rock formations in Wyoming. Farther to the east, glacial deposits created the fertile farmlands that make up America’s breadbasket. In Wyoming, the gravel and sand carry water from the western mountains to the thirsty plains, making well water plentiful. In addition to wells, dams have created reservoirs of water to supply farmland and growing cities with water for domestic use and irrigation.
Grayrocks reservoir is unique in that it was created for a completely different purpose. In a word: electricity! The reservoir was created to provide the water necessary to drive the steam turbines at the Laramie River Power Station. The coal heated generators at the power plant deliver electricity to Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. It is one of the largest electric supply ventures of its kind in the United States.Construction of the dam was halted in 1978 in response to environmental concerns. The conflict was settled with the establishment of a $7.5 million trust fund for habitat improvement in Wyoming and Nebraska. The dam and power plant were completed and electricity generation began in 1980. The eight-mile long reservoir is a free access public recreation and wildlife management area maintained by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission.
With Labor Day a month in the past, the waters of the reservoir were mostly empty the day I took my camera and went for a hike. Fish were jumping and I regretted my lack of a fishing pole, but I was on a mission to see what kinds of wildlife I would find besides fish!
My first two discoveries were a little startling. Tiny Woodhouse Toads hopped across the gravel shores of the lake and a Horntail Wasp landed on the sand just ahead of my path! Out in the center of the lake a loose flock of Western Grebes had gathered. They were pretty shy for most of the day and it became my goal to capture a close-up of one before the end of the day!
Since the waterfowl weren’t cooperative, I turned to hunting the tiny, adorable, annoying birds fluttering just out of reach of my camera. I prowled stealthily through tall grass and dry sunflowers, probably sounding like an elephant to my feathered prey, armed only with a small telephoto lens, searching for an unsuspecting bird seated atop a stalk of grass. They laughed their little birdy laughs and flew off every time I thought I had a perfect shot! One goldfinch was too preoccupied with her bath to give me much thought and I was able to capture her, fluffed up in a stand of sunflowers. A white-crowned sparrow was pretty cooperative as well!
The diversity of birds feasting on the sunflower and thistle seeds was remarkable. I think sometimes I get distracted by flashy color of a bluejay or the majesty of an eagle and overlook the charm of the inhabitants of grasslands and shrubs.
As I traversed the eight miles of the reservoir, there were times the beauty and the quiet of the area was overwhelming. The shore of the reservoir reflected the character of the surrounding bluffs. In many places, there are sandy or pebbly shores that are perfect for splashing with friends. In other places there are rapid drop-offs that mirror the nearby cliffs. Watersports of all kinds are permitted at the reservoir but you play at your own risk.
The calm day and the afternoon sunlight conspired to form a perfect mirror in the backwater areas of the reservoir.
The autumn flowers attracted their share of late summer butterflies.
Bugs, birds and toads were easy to find. They weren’t always willing to be photographed, but they were still a pleasure to watch. There were a few furry surprises, however. I don’t know who was more surprised, the deer or me! And I am sure this little rabbit was hoping I didn’t see him hiding in the grass!
You can’t visit a place called Gray Rocks without talking about the rocks! The bluffs surrounding the reservoir are capped with a coarse conglomerate, courtesy of the last glacial period. Its appearance ranges from a whitish sandstone to a coarse concrete.Like most sedimentary rocks, water played a role in the formation of the conglomerate. Water carries dissolved minerals that help to cement the particles in the rock together. The minerals sometimes form veins of crystals within the rock. These veins were apparent in the walls of the bluffs and in small, eroded pieces of gravel closer to the shores of the lake. The most common mineral I found was gypsum in various forms. A massive form of gypsum called alabaster lay in chunks near the shores of the lake. Nearer the bluffs I found crystals of the same mineral in the form of selenite. An outcropping of a deep red flint near the western end of the reservoir seemed to be the source of pieces of flint I found along the shore of that end of the reservoir. I came home with a fistful of interesting pebbles to try out in my rock tumbler!
Near the eastern end of the reservoir are a series of small ponds across the road from the big lake. I finally found some photogenic waterfowl! These handsome fellows were a new variety of duck to me. I was glad to have photos to help identify them when I got home. As near as I can tell, they are Redheads. They spend their summers on ponds and lakes and their winters in tidewaters. They do not settle down in Wyoming, but migrate through in spring and fall. I am lucky to have seen them! I spooked up a Great Blue Heron earlier in my hike and was happy to see another. They are such majestic birds! This poor guy had his fishing interrupted by some enthusiastic gulls but I was uphill and pretty far from him so he didn’t feel the need to fly.
And finally! The afternoon quieted to the point where the Grebes decided it was safe to swim closer to shore. I got my closeup and went home happy!