Sun, Sky and Snow: A Winter Day in Yellowstone

Breaking trail on a perfect winter day in Yellowstone.

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Wolves up there?

Wolves up there?

Nope.  Bighorns!

Nope. Bighorns!

What about these?

What about these?

Yep!

Yep! Far away, though.

 

Bobcat trail.

Bobcat trail.

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See you in the Spring, Yellowstone!

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Now You See Me…

Yesterday’s task was to try and find a Great Horned Owl that we knew was hanging around some old cottonwoods not too far from our house.    We tramped around the slushy woods, looking for that distinctive owl silhouette on one of the bare branches.    After 45 minutes of searching, I was just about to give up when Bill stopped and pointed: “There he is!”

Score.     I took a quick picture.

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Actually, double score.  When I looked closely, I saw there were two Great Horned Owls.  See the second guy?  On the left?

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He was even harder to see when he turned his head.

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I walked around the tree and the one on the right seemed to disappear.  Magic owls.

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It took some time, but I finally found a spot where I could see them both at the same time.  Gotta love camouflage!

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Posted in Birding, Montana, Nature, Photography, Wildlife | Tagged , , | 21 Comments

Tracking the Toughest Critter Out There

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US Fish and Wildlife Service Photo

Grizzly bears are some bad ass critters, no two ways about it.  But pound for pound, the wolverine wins the One Tough Critter contest, hands down.     And it’s not just because they’ll take on animals many times their size.    For one thing, grizzly bears sleep most of the winter, while wolverines are out prowling around no matter how cold it gets.    Heck, one guy was even monitored as he winter climbed straight up Mt. Cleveland in Glacier:  he reached the top (5000 feet in 90 minutes!) and then just went down the other side.     There was nothing he wanted up there; he just was climbing because that’s what tough critters do.  Their jaws are so strong that they eat every part of a carcass, bones included.  I’ve even seen video of a wolverine going up a tree after a black bear.     They’re rare, and I thought that they were pretty much all in the Glacier Park area.

So I was surprised last weekend when the Montana Wilderness Association and Wild Things Unlimited offered a workshop to go out and learn about tracking wolverines and lynx just an hour outside of Helena.    There are wolverines there?  Cool.

We spent two hours on Friday night learning about winter tracking in general: information about stride, straddle, and direct registry that was nifty in itself.     We (the citizen scientists!) were going to be looking for three animals in particular: lynx, wolverines, and fishers.    On Saturday we broke into four groups and headed up four different drainages to search for tracks.  Our group found interesting stuff right away: bobcat, coyote, snowshoe hare and deer tracks, and some unknown scat that our fearless leader collected.

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We continued up the trail, trying hard to decipher the tracks we found in the crusty snow.

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More scat.

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The big reward came  when we discovered a fairly fresh elk carcass.  Something had been eating on it recently, and had even buried it in the snow.

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We started looking carefully, and found….wolverine tracks!  They were not the best tracks, but they were clearly wolverine: large, with five toes, and with a gait and track pattern that is typical of wolverines.  We may have even found lynx tracks,  as well.  There was even a bit of scat near the carcass (yay, poop!)   My photos of the tracks are not the best, but I think you can make out the prints:

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We had lunch near the carcass, and then headed back.  When we all met up we discovered that three of our four groups had found wolverine tracks.  One group even followed some tracks to a snowshoe hare kill.  Amazing.

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If you’re interested in learning more, here is the link to Wild Things Unlimited, as well as a link to a short piece that NPR did about our day in the field.

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The Eyes Have It

We all know that you’re not supposed to make eye contact with wild animals.    Or even with the neighborhood dogs.  Or cats. Which must be why it is so disconcerting when a wild critter makes eye contact with us.

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It can be pretty creepy.

Ospreys are good at the intimidating stare.  This guy absolutely did not want me getting any closer to his lunch:

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Even if they don’t have a snack to protect, any raptor will give you the evil eye if  you take one step too close.

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A Great Grey Owl might not seem too scary from 50 feet away, but get a little closer and his glare can look a bit more predatory.

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Juveniles try to intimidate, but somehow they just can’t pull it off.

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Sometimes, though, there’s really no malevolence in the stare.  It’s all curiosity.   What are you doing out here?

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antelope

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Oddly enough, even a meat-eating predator can manage to look you in the eye and not be scary.  What’s that about?

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A grizzly bear, though….

Is this guy looking at me?  Maybe.  But I’m not going any closer to find out.

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Camping at the End of the Road: The Loner’s Guide to the Best Campsites

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Johnny Gulch, Montana

Some of our best friends are people.   We like them.   And sometimes we even like to go camping with them.

But more often than not, we* prefer to camp alone, and we’re perfectly happy if we don’t see another soul the whole time we’re out there.

* “we” = my husband and I.  Apparently we don’t really consider each other “people”.

It’s pretty easy to be alone when we’re backpacking.  But what about car camping?  What makes a campsite that you drive to the perfect site for the anti-social camper?

1.  The first requirement is obvious:  solitude.  If you want to get away from it all, it’s important to get away from them all.    This is where the campsite at the end of the road comes in pretty handy.

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Missouri Breaks, Montana

Sometimes all you need is a barely used road; no need to go all the way to the end.

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Canyon Pintado, Colorado

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Gravelly Mountains near Black Butte, Montana

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Gravelly Mountains, Montana

When you’re having your morning coffee it’s important to feel like you’re the boss of all you see.  You’re not, of course, but your solitary campsite lets you live the dream.

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2.  Since you’re all alone out there, grand vistas are the second requirement.

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Near Granite Butte, Montana

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Granite Butte

Even if the best spot to stop is at the bottom of a swale, make sure that it will only take a short climb to give you the required grand vista.

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North of Red Rock Lakes, Montana

3.   Rainbows over your chosen campsite are not a requirement, but they are a definite plus.  Double rainbows give you double points, of course.

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Gravelly Mountains

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Medicine Rock Creek, Montana

4.  Likewise, a full moon rising over your campsite is not required.  But extra points, for sure.

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Missouri Breaks, Montana

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Butler Wash, Utah

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Near Canyonlands, Utah

5.  Once that moon is up, a nice fire can be a big plus, especially in the winter.

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6.  And a little whiskey by the fire  (again, not required!) is pretty nice in my book.

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7.  Finally, a critter at the campsite will give you lots of bonus points.    The requirement is actually the possibility of a critter showing up for a visit, but the actual visit of something bigger than a rabbit is a huge plus.  If a grizzly or a wolf shows up, the bonus points go through the roof.

Missouri River, Montana

Missouri River, Montana

 

Posted in Adventure, Camping, Montana, Nature, Travel, Yellowstone | Tagged , , , | 22 Comments

Winter Birds

It’s easy to think that there aren’t many birds left hanging around these cold northern woods by the end of December.

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But they’re there, huddled up in their little down coats, making an occasional foray to find some fermented berries or little bugs that have burrowed into rotten tree trunks.    Their wiser cousins have headed south,  but these guys hang tough, hoping that the energy they’ve saved by not making that long flight will be enough to get them through the winter.

The Pine Grosbeaks manage to find trees full of berries that must be especially tasty after a good hard freeze:  they are so intent on eating that they let me get close enough to get a somewhat disconcerting look at their tongues.

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The Townsend’s Solitaire hangs around all winter as well, usually singing its long complicated song from the top of a tall spruce.    But sometimes all it can do is fluff itself up into a nice warm ball and wait out the cold.

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Northern Flickers are generally busy all winter pecking holes in houses or rapping on chimneys.   Luckily for us, they like the spruce tree in our yard,

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but are particularly fond of the heated water bath we provide.  This guy hung out all day, warming his toes in his own personal hot tub.

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The Bohemian Waxwings fly in frantic flocks from tree to tree, looking for the same fermented berries that the Pine Grosbeaks like.    Once they’ve found a good tree, they eat their fill and then hang out in a contented group for the rest of the day.

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Group hangouts seem to be popular, actually.  House finches are particularly fond of each other.

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Magpies, too, have a predilection for holding loud squawking meetings.  They’re particularly happy if they can meet in a tree in a yard with a cat or dog that they can aggravate.

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Mallards group up near whatever open water they can find.  If there’s a water slide available, so much the better!

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And Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers manage to find plenty of voles and rabbits to keep them full and happy all winter long.

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Yep, it’s quiet is the winter woods, but that doesn’t mean nothing’s going on.

 

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Solstice Wolves

I’m standing on a hilltop in Yellowstone on a cold and bright December morning.    The snow beneath me is covered with hundreds of wolf tracks.    They must have been through here early this morning – the tracks are clearly fresh, and there are no other people tracks around.

All wolf tracks.

All wolf tracks.

I look over my shoulder.  It’s eerie.  Where are they now?    I’m not generally afraid of wolves, but when you see how big their tracks are…well, it’s eye-opening.

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I notice a line of little coyote tracks in the midst of all of these giants.   How brave of him to be anywhere near this place!

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The silence is broken by howling to the east of me, with answering howls from the hills across the river.  Not far!    I head back to the trailhead where Bill is waiting. The Wolf Project team has arrived.

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It’s the Prospect Peak Pack, but they’re not sure about all the members, and they’re not sure why they’re this far east.    The wolves are not too close, but we can see them clearly with our binoculars, and get beautiful views of them through the great scopes that the wolf folks have.    I can even get some photos with my little camera.

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RSCN5167We stayed until all was quiet and then went to explore elsewhere.  We returned late in the afternoon and once again followed the tracks to the hillside.   As we walked a lone coyote came out of the sagebrush just ten feet from us and walked down the trail ahead of us.   Was he the brave little guy whose tracks I’d seen that morning?  He sure wasn’t worried about us.

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The coyote turned off the trail, and we thought he’d headed off, but as we got closer we saw that he was urgently digging in the snow.  There was something there for him to eat, and was not going to be distracted by a couple of weak looking humans.   He found it.

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The wolves started howling as we watched.  I thought the coyote would finally give up, but no.  He paused, and looked our way, but he wasn’t giving up a dinner this good.

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And the wolves?  They stayed hidden.   But hearing their howls at the end of the day was a perfect solstice gift.

 

Posted in Adventure, Montana, Nature, Outdoors, Wildlife, Yellowstone | Tagged , , | 38 Comments