Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Yellowstone's Final, Magical Gift

 Final Yellowstone 2016 post--yay!

We pulled up our tent stakes early on the morning of September 26, and headed south towards the Tetons. It was a chilly morning, with frost on the van windshield. The autumn sun was just peeking over the trees as we drove along the Firehole River, and I stopped to get a couple photos of the mist rising off the water.

We came around a slight bend to a small traffic jam. I couldn't make out what was going on, then saw, down the road, bison crossing. I looked to my left and there were more--lots more--crossing Nez Perce Creek and moving into the flood plain. I found a place to park our rig, grabbed my camera, and made my way back to the bridge.

I could not have envisioned a more beautiful, or magical, setting. Clouds and mist spread diffuse light across the creek, providing a stunning backdrop. It was so quiet I could hear the huge beasts breathing as they made their way down the bank and into the creek.

I don't know how big this herd was, but it was sizable. There were bison way up on the rise past the bend in the creek, bison in the floodplain, and more kept coming across the road and into the creek.

The morning dew frosted their heads and backs, and ice formed on their beards as they paused to take a drink. I stood, mesmerized, letting the moment wash over me. It felt, for a time, like it was just the bison and me. It felt, for a time, just as it should be, as these iconic animals spread across the valley.

Of all the things we'd experienced, from the wolves in Lamar to the Great Grays at Bay Bridge, this is what stands out the most. This cold, misty morning, surrounded by wild animals, tolerant of my presence, passing through a moment in time, at peace.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

American Dipper--The Songbird That Swims

Yellowstone 2016 cont:

I know. It's 2018, and I still haven't finished blogging about our Yellowstone trip. The past 18 months have been really crazy--our move and getting studios and homes put together took forever, and since October I've been on the road for shows as much as I've been home. Writing seems to be falling to the bottom of the priority list, but I miss it, so here we are!

After spending an afternoon with the Great Gray Owls (see previous post) we started back to the Madison campground. The southeast section of the Loop Road follows the Yellowstone River, and we stopped near the LeHardy Rapids because we'd heard there were American Dippers there. That info turned out to be correct.

American Dipper at LeHardy Rapids on the Lewis River

The dipper is a fascinating bird. While it is considered a passerine, or song bird, it spends its life in the water. It doesn't actually swim, as it lacks webbed feet, but it will completely submerge itself and work its way along the bottom of a river or stream, gleaning insect larvae and tadpoles. They have an inner eyelid, or nictitating membrane, that covers the eye underwater but allows for vision, and they have scales over their nostrils that can be closed when underwater.

We watched several birds working the near shore of the river where the rocks that made the riffles hid many juicy bits. While I had seen juvenile dippers in Alaska, this was my first look at adults in action, and it was fascinating.

While their plummage is rather dull, they do have tiny white feathers on their eyelid, which flashes when they blink. This little one was taking a nap.

Leaving the dippers we continued north, making a stop at sunset along the Hayden Valley. It was quiet this day, but ten years before I had seen my first wild wolves here.

Sunday was a day set aside for birding. Rather than go back into the park, we decided to head out to West Yellowstone and the Gallatin National Forest, and drive part of the West Yellowstone Birding Trail. We stopped at the Fir Ridge Cemetery, where the aspens were ablaze. The sky was so clear and blue it made my heart ache.

Aspens in Gallatin NF

We birded Hebgen Lake, a reservoir of the Madison created by the Hebgen Dam, where there were thousands of waterfowl, but most were too far to identify, even with my scope. Beaver ponds are more my speed anyway.

Beaver pond along the West Yellowstone Birding Trail

Past the Hebgen Dam on US 287, you'll come to a visitor's center dedicated to the 1959 earthquake and subsequent landslide. The quake, whose epicenter was 20 miles below Hebgen Lake and measured a staggering 7.2 on the Richter scale, caused the landslide downstream of the dam. 28 people, many of whom were at a campground near the slide, lost their lives. The landslide also blocked the Madison River, causing a dangerous backup of the river. Channels had to be cut into the slide, but a new lake, called Quake Lake, still formed behind the slide.

Landslide from 1959 Yellowstone earthquake
Back in Yellowstone we stopped at a picnic area along the Madison River. We'd done so much driving around and searching for wildlife that we hadn't taken any time to sit and relax and enjoy the scenery, so we parked and lounged in the autumn sun, taking a cue from a lone bison bull.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Quest for the Great Gray Owl

Yellowstone 2016 continued:

After our visit with the Ruffed Grouse, we continued on to Canyon Village, where the folks at the Madison campground had said there were Great Grays seen earlier in the year. We stopped for gas and I could not resist some close-ups of a stately Common Raven hanging out by the pumps.

"Hey, I'm special too!"
We talked to some employees at the visitor center, but didn't get any clarification about the owl. One ranger directed us to a nearby horse stable, saying he'd heard they'd been seen in the pasture. So we did some driving around, but instead of owls we came across a bear jam. A large grizzly was digging up turf in a field about 100 yards from the road. He was a bit too far for my lens, but I couldn't resist some shots.

Grizzly filling up on grubs before winter.

Starting to feel a little frustrated about our owl search, we went back to Canyon Village and asked someone else about the Great Gray. This time we hit pay dirt--her friend had seen the owls around the Bay Bridge Marina only a few days before. We wasted no time in heading down.

As we neared the area, Lisa and Lori scoured the sides of the road as I drove. We weren't sure about the exact location, but when we approached the marina, Lisa spotted a group of people with cameras and scopes pointed up into the trees lining the road. I turned around as soon as I could, and on the way back Lisa saw the owl.

I had to contain myself and not burn rubber into the parking lot. My first view of the magnificent Great Gray Owl was of her perched on a dead-fall, looking mildly irritated, as they usually do.

She was hunting in the area along the channel that leads from Yellowstone Lake into the marina, where a little footbridge crosses a creek. Shortly after I joined the throng, she took off towards the bridge.

She sat, listening intently to the scurrying sounds of critters in the tall grass.

She dove into the grass, but she missed her prey and I missed getting a descent shot. But as she came up off the ground she landed in a tree so close to me I couldn't get her whole body in the frame.

I eventually moved around the tree and stood on the shore to get a better angle, and to get a little farther away. I was concerned that we were scaring her prey, as she seemed not the slightest bit bothered by us. I imagine she'd seen a lot of people in her time.

Oh such a disapproving stare these owls have!

She eventually took off, heading across the entrance road and disappearing into the woods. The throng left with her, and we found ourselves alone by the lake.

We decided to stay there and have a picnic lunch as the sky began to clear and the sun shone. We watched some ducks on the lake, then, while packing up our food, Lisa spotted the owl, or perhaps a second one, fly directly behind me and land in a tree over my head. By the time I got my camera, it had flown over to the little footbridge.

This time, however, there was no one else there, just us and the owl. It was oh so special. The sun shone and lit up those bright yellow eyes.

He's got a bit of blood on his beak, so I'm thinking this is a different owl.

I was struck, from this angle, how incredibly well camouflaged this bird is. If not for the shadows, he would blend right in.

I should not have worried about being a bother to this bird. As we stood and watched, he began to preen.

Owl foots!

He turned around on his perch to face the sun and the wind, and continued to preen.

We moved around to face him, and watched as he cleaned his toes and feathers, did some stretches and rearranged his feathers.

It is such a privilege just to be able to see a bird this close, but to have the opportunity to watch it do it's thing is even more amazing.

After his bath he took to the air. I'm not sure, but I think I may have wept.

On our way out of the marina, we were treated to one more look at him. He had perched in a tree along the entrance, and as we watched he swooped down to the ground after some critter. I believe he came up empty taloned, but from the blood on his beak I think he didn't miss often.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Ruff day in Yellowstone

Yellowstone 2016 continued:

While we'd had great weather for most of our trip, (unlike the weather there this past September, when it was snowing), it didn't hold for the whole trip. Friday was grey and rainy and cold. We visited the Artist Paint Pots, and got caught out in the cold rain, so didn't see much of it. We ended up driving south from Madison on the Grand Loop, stopping at Old Faithful to buy a few souvenirs, (but didn't stay for the eruption), checked out the Lewis Lake campground, (where I had a squirrel throwing pine cones at me), and on down to the south entrance where we had a picnic lunch. I was feeling a bit crabby, not having had an opportunity to do any hiking. Short days, long drives, and dogs meant much of the trip had been spent in the van, and I was getting a bit stir crazy. So Lori offered to stay with the boys while Lisa and I picked a trail near Lewis Lake, where we stopped again on the way back to Madison.

We had two options from the parking area: Shoshone or Dogshead trail. We picked Dogshead, though in hindsight I wished we'd picked the other, as I think we would have had some nice views of Lewis Lake. In any event, we gave ourselves two hours, one out and one back, set an alarm, and headed out. The hike was pretty uneventful, but it felt good to get out and stretch my legs. We had walked about 1 1/2 miles, and knew our timer was about to go off, when we realized it was looking pretty ominous. We turned to head back a little early, but after about five minutes, little frozen pellets started falling from the sky.

We donned our rain ponchos and took shelter under a tree, hoping it would stop, but instead it came down even harder. The wind kicked up too, and the trees swayed above us. There was really no option but to keep walking through the onslaught. The sleet mixed with rain at times, until the trail turned into a river of ice. We were quite happy to get back to the van.

Sleet begins to cover the Dogshead trail

One mile of this pelting us and we were happy for the warm van!

Friday being something of a bust, and knowing Saturday would be our last full day in the park, we were more determined than ever to find what was starting to be our nemissis bird: the Great Gray Owl. GGOW (birder lingo) breed in Yellowstone, and was a bird none of us had seen. While they occasionally show up in Michigan, I knew our best bet was to see one while out west. We were determined to find this bird.

We asked around at the Madison campground, and the staff there said try up by Canyon Village, that one had been seen there earlier in the year. So we headed that way, hoping to get lucky. Along the way, we decided to take another one of the side drives, which took us along the Gibbon River and the Virginia Cascades (see map below). We had really enjoyed our other detours, so gave this one a shot too.

We stopped numerous times along the road so I could take some photos of the scenery.

Virginia Cascades

Oh those glorious colors of Yellowstone autumn!

Walking back to the van after taking the picture above, I heard a rustling in the leaves next to me. I stopped dead and waited, holding my breath, when out walked a Ruffed Grouse hen. I couldn't believe what I was seeing--I've never been within 40 feet of a grouse as they tend to explode out of the brush any time you get near them. But this little lady wandered out right in front of me, cocked her head to size me up, then pecked and poked her way towards the van. I couldn't take pictures fast enough.

An amazingly unafraid Ruffed Grouse hen.

She pecked at the ground and nipped off leaves to munch while I watched her, smitten. She reminded my of our chickens back home.

Grouse having lunch.

She eventually crossed the road, but stayed well within our sight. I got in the van and switched cameras, and kept shooting out the window. This was such a treat I didn't want to waste it.

Yes, we're still watching!

As we were getting ready to leave, she came out from behind the spruces and posed oh so prettily among the wild strawberries, leaving us with an experience we won't forget.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Yellowstone's Lower Geyser Basin and the Firehole River

Yellowstone continued: 

Hey hey hey, I'm back! It's a glorious day here in West Michigan, at our new home in Bitely. 75 degrees, barely a breeze, sun is shining and the birds are singing. And yes, I'm inside writing a blog post. I've been thinking for a few weeks now that I'd like to get back to it, and the bug bit me hard today, so here I am. I'll probably head out later for a hike on the North Country Trail, which is literally 10 minutes from our house!

While there are so many things to share with you about our new place, I really want to finish up the Yellowstone posts before I get into that. So here we go, heading back to September of 2016....

Thursday, September 22nd, we left the Mammoth campground and made our way down to Madison. Our four days in the Lamar valley and Mammoth areas had paid off with fabulous wolf sightings, and we were now headed down into the geyser area of Yellowstone. The road from Mammoth to Norris was closed for repairs, so we had to drive all the way around the east side of the Grand Loop to get to Madison, but any detour through Yellowstone is no hardship.

Lower Geyser area of Yellowstone

Along the way we stopped for a bit along the Gibbon River in the Norris Basin. Hot water and steam bubbled from seeps and fissures along the river.

Gibbon River

After setting up camp we drove south along the loop road and into the Lower Geyser Basin, which is bisected by the Firehole River, so named for the multitude of seeps and hot springs that drain into it.
The area is dominated by volcanic formations, like the one seen here on the left.

Firehole River near a picnic area.

As mentioned in past posts, the aspens and willows were ablaze. I couldn't resist this lone aspen toughing it out among the spruce below a rock slide.

We opted for the Firehole Canyon Drive, which got us a bit off the beaten path, and closer to the river. We stopped many times along the way, and I climbed down to the river to see it up close and personal. Being in the van for so many hours and days had finally gotten to me, and I needed to move. The roar of the water and the view from the river bank were intense.

Firehole River

While Yellowstone is a grand place of beautiful vistas, I try to look to the small too. I'm always amazed by the places trees find to grow. This little spruce was slowly cracking this rock apart along the river bank.

Farther along the drive we stopped for a look at the beautiful Firehole Falls.

Firehole Falls

As we headed south, ominous-looking clouds began to gather on the horizon. We pulled over near a swimming hole, where a couple of young men were in the water. The air wasn't all that warm but they reported that the water was fabulous.

Looking down towards the swimming area on the Firehole River

I was really struck by the geology of the place, as more and more evidence of a violent geologic past emerged. These could be volcanic formations, or they could be rock that formed horizontally and then pushed vertically by some massive upheaval, then cut and smoothed by the river.

Something about these trees really struck me, and the dark sky beyond really gave the scene a dramatic effect.

After the canyon drive we continued south to the Firehole Lake Drive, which winds around past many steaming creeks, mud pots and geysers. The color of the grass and sedges continued to blow my mind throughout the trip.

Firehole Lake Drive

Mountain Bluebirds flitted along a section of the road, contrasting beautifully with the rusty background.

Mountain Bluebird

Steam from the thermals would lift and fall with the wind, creating eerie landscapes.

We drove through once, stopping to check out some boardwalks, then looped around again, hoping to catch one of the geysers erupting. We passed up the Great Fountain Geyser as it was surrounded by cars (and is a less predictable geyser), and stopped instead at White Dome. I got out and read about it, and walked around a bit, then heard a funny sound. I looked to see a bit of steam coming from the cone and then whoosh! Up went the geyser! I don't recall now how long the eruption lasted, but long enough for me to take several videos with my phone, as well as many photos. This was my favorite, silhouetted by the bright sky of the setting sun--and we were the only ones there to enjoy it.

White Dome Geyser

Next: More explorations of the south end, including a short hike in a hail storm!