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!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Artwork: Barn Swallow and Common Yellowthroat

Things are about to get crazy here! I've just returned from two shows in Florida, and now we are about to close the sale of our house and buy a new place in west Michigan. It's gonna be amazing--once we get it fixed up--and I'll share with you about that soon. So for now, Yellowstone posts are on hold, but I can whip out a quick post about my newest two pieces.

I love drawing these little songbirds. The big, dynamic subjects are fun too, but being able to take a 3" to 6" bird and make it larger than life, to show its personality, to let you see up close detail that you'd miss at 10 or 20 feet, is a real treat.

This first piece is a Common Yellowthroat, a bird I photographed on Galveston Island several years ago when I was in Texas for a show. It was the closest I'd ever gotten to one, and he sat still long enough for me to get some good pics to work from. I love his bold markings, and his "witchity-witchity-wee" song is a joy to hear.

"Uncommon," 8 x 10, matted and framed to 11 x 14. $495.00.
Prints available here

This Barn Swallow is one I watched for quite a while as it sat preening on a railing at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Ohio, right before the Biggest Week in American Birding commenced. They have quite a colony there that nests under the eves of the visitor center. It was late afternoon and the diffuse sun really showed off his brilliant colors.

"Born in a Barn," 8 x 10, matted and framed to 11 x 14. $495.00
Prints available here.

So stay tuned for updates on our move, and all the awesome stuff we plan to do at our new place!

Friday, January 20, 2017

A Political Interlude

We are all political beings. While I have generally kept my blog a place to share my love of our land and environment, the swearing in of our 45th president has brought my politics to the fore. What is posted below is my post on Facebook from this morning, on the eve of what I see as a very dark time before us, ALL of us, regardless of your political leanings. 

Buckle up.

I had trouble going to sleep last night. Not because I was worried about leaking roofs, frozen toilets or how we're going to heat our new home, but because I was thinking about this day. Thinking about what is about to happen to what has arguably been, up till now, the most advanced civilization on the planet. I was so keyed up, so scared, so worried, that I lay in bed, shaking like a leaf.
I am terrified.
There is nothing about the man who is about to become our president, or about our Congress, that I support. The people who are now in charge share not one of my concerns, not for women's health and safety, not for the protection of the environment, not for equality, not for holding up the least among us. They don't support the arts, they believe the free press is a threat against them, they believe our voices should be silenced. They believe that the influence of a hostile foreign nation in our politics is fine since the outcome worked in their favor.
Mark my words--this will not end well.
I'm no political analyst. I have no special training or education or political experience. This is all from my gut--we are in grave danger, and it's not just minorities and women and the environment. It's all of us.
There is a little hope. Best case, Trump is impeached quickly, and Republicans lose control of Congress in 2018, and we can mitigate the damage caused, can mend the fabric of our society. Because make no mistake, this administration is out to dismantle this country. Every cabinet pick--literally every one--has made a career out of working against the very department they have been asked to oversee. And since the new session began, Congress has been moving full steam ahead to dismantle social programs aimed at the most desperate among us, many of whom believed the man who told them he was going to make America great again.
But you see, he wasn't talking to us. His rallies were packed with angry people who were so desperate for change that they handed our country over to a con man--because conned is what we have been. From the day he entered the race, with his inflammatory remarks about Mexican immigrants, he has been distracting us from his real purpose--to line his pockets with the riches of this world. When he vowed to make America great again, he didn't mean for us--he meant for him, and for his peers, who are not you and me, who are people who have never lived a day in their lives worried about how their bills will be paid, how they will feed their families, how they'll afford health care.
It is no accident that Russia was involved in this election. It is no accident that Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, will be our next Secretary of State. It is no accident that Russia and Mobil have a deal waiting in the wings that will generate $500 billion of oil production in the Arctic sea, that is simply waiting for an ally in the White House to remove the sanctions and get this ball rolling.
To me, this is the crux. I would be willing to bet my life that our new leader has been promised a cut of that deal. I would bet my life that he worked closely with Russia to wage an incredibly effective propaganda campaign that demolished a highly qualified candidate, and that instead put a demagogue in charge of the United States of America.
Trump doesn't care about healthcare, or social security, or the environment, or women's issues. He doesn't care about the price of gas, or public education, or National Parks. Those mundane things he's more than happy to let his cabinet and Congress deal with. He doesn't want intelligence briefings, or to hold press conferences, or even allow the press to report on him. No, he cares about only one thing--himself, and how to enrich himself. So while we squabble over his cabinet picks, and scurry around trying to stop Congress from dismantling every social safety net and environmental regulation, while we march and protest and hold up our signs, demanding to be heard, he will be sleeping with the enemy.
Because now, two of the most powerful countries in the world are working together--or at least their very sick, very disturbed leaders are. He and Putin want only one thing--to make themselves the most powerful, wealthiest men in the world. Russia has not hid their desire to swallow up Europe--they started several years ago with Crimea and the Ukraine. Trump has already stated he does not support NATO, leaving our European allies wondering what their future holds, with the shadow of an emboldened Russia looming. I think he will let Putin do whatever the hell he wants, as long as the profits are huge.
So while we are right to fight for social justice, while we are right to do all we can to protect our environment, while we are right to fear for the loss of scientific inquiry and an education system that increasingly fails to educate our kids, we are missing the bigger point. The MUCH bigger point. My fear, the thing that is causing my terror, is that we are entering into a period when the USA and Russia work together to rule the world, and ruling the world always comes with war. Not a war on women, or gays, or immigrants. Not a war on our environment, or our schools, or our press. No. A real war. With real bombs, and real people dying. And I don't see how this can escape us. I don't see how this won't happen on our soil, considering the weapons available today.
Trump is a puppet, put in place by Russia to weaken this great country. And once Trump has served his purpose, Putin will go after us too. Because there can be only one at the top, and it's not going to be us with Trump in the lead. Trump doesn't have the world view needed to be a global tyrant, but Putin does.
I hope that I am wrong. I hope that this is just my over-active imagination whipping my fears into a frenzy, and things will not be as bad as I see they could be.
But mark my words.
I am terrified.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017


 Yellowstone 2016 con't:

We left the Lamar valley around 11:30 Wednesday morning, having not seen any wolves, and drove all the way to the North Entrance and out to Gardiner to visit the Yellowstone Association headquarters. We were told the folks there would have up to date info on wolf sightings throughout the park. But when we asked, they didn't seem to know much at all, and had no knowledge of the bison that had been hit the previous evening. But the ladies were very nice, and we bought some books and a few souvenirs, then went next door to an ice cream shop for a treat.

Back in the park we stopped along the Gardiner River. The only places where we could let the dogs out of the van were within 100 feet of a road or other developed area. This spot along the river had a picnic area near the parking lot--this is actually just across the road from day use area at the Boiling River--so we took the boys out for a walk along the river.

Gardiner River
It was a nice, sunny afternoon, so we took our time and enjoyed the scenery.

These two beagle that we adopted last year, Stanley and Cooper, more than likely spent most of their lives in a pen. They were both heartworm positive when we adopted them (the shelter did the treatment) and had a host of other parasites. Neither is neutered, and neither was housebroken, and both had clearly been abused. But they've come a long way in the year we've had them, and we love traveling with them, even if it limits what we can do and where we can go. They are good boys, quiet and pretty chill.

Cooper surveying the river, hoping I'm not gonna make him go swimming!

A bit farther down the road we came across this beautiful meadow full of blazing yellow willows. We stopped for some shots...

...then noticed a big bull elk with his harem up ahead. What a remarkable animal. He was bugling away, calling the girls. I noticed the big crook in his muzzle--not sure if that's something that happens with age, or if he had been injured at some point. In any case, he was simply magnificent.

Bull elk.

He eventually caught up with the girls...

...then continued to move uphill through the sagebrush. I swear he's posing.

We eventually made our way back to Lamar Valley, and found a spot to park and set up our scopes. There were lots of folks there, but not much activity. We were one pull-out west of where the bison carcass had been dragged to, and could not see it. We asked some folks near us about wolves but no one seemed to know.

Evening in Lamar Valley.
I had my scope up and was scanning the valley when I noticed a few lumps about 150 yards out. As I looked closely, one of the lumps moved, and I realized I'd found all four wolves, lounging on our side of the Lamar River!

Three of the four wolves--the fourth was off to the left, another tan and gray.

Oh boy were we excited! It wasn't too long before the black wolf on the left got up and stretched, and started making his way towards the carcass. He howled and called to the others, who seemed reluctant at first to join him. It seemed pretty clear that these were in fact the four pups from the Prospect Peak pack--pups this age (probably around six months old) have spiky hair on their backs, kind of like a warthog.

Young pup ambles across the Lamar valley.

He eventually got the two gray and tan pups to join him. We were all hopeful that they would finally make their way to the carcass.

The trio howled and howled, and I tired some "digiscoping" with my iPhone

Digiscoped image showing two pups howling.

The black pup got within 50 yards or so of the carcass, then turned and trotted away to the west, ultimately passing in front of us before disappearing behind a ridge. It seemed like such a sudden move, and we wondered if  the rest of the pack was off that way somewhere. We hadn't heard any howling from that way but they were definitely moving with intent.

We watched until they slipped from view.

The ever-present coyotes watched them leave too.

We had to leave the following morning to get down to Madison campground, so there was no time to revisit the Lamar valley the next day, but we did hear that the wolves were on the carcass overnight, and were still there the next day. But nonetheless we were thrilled with the looks we had gotten, and it's another experience with wolves in the wild that I will never forget.

Next up: Norris and Madison areas.