Who Says Mondays Can’t Be Great

I had a day in the field Monday.  Well, sorta.  My photography day began at our bedroom window, which looks out on a feeder that has been frequented by evening grosbeaks every morning for the last week.

male and female evening grosbeaks
Next, re-visited the Lolo Creek burned area to see if I could get photos of a male black-backed woodpecker to go along with the previously captured photos of a female.
Mission accomplished!

black-backed woodpecker on fire charred tree trunk

Next stop, Council Grove State Park, just outside of Missoula, where I’ve known of a great horned owl with three young for weeks, but had not yet visited.  More success.  I won’t always publicly share nest locations, but this is no secret and these owls are staying high enough to be reasonably safe from intrusion.

great horned owl branchling

I then headed north to visit some birding spots in the Mission Valley and make my first trip over Red Sleep Mountain at the National Bison Range.
My first trip through the Bison Range was enjoyable for the scenery and for adding more birds to my day (and year) list, but no photo opportunities.

I wanted my second trip through the Bison Range to be timed somewhat later, so I decided to prowl around county roads in the Mission Valley.  Good thing for this gal I was not just looking for birds, but also paying attention to the road.  She crossed right in front of me, requiring me to hit the brakes hard to avoid hitting her.  She rewarding me for that by showing me her teeth.  Right…???  Okay, maybe she was warning me not to trespass any closer to her den.  I stayed in the car.  Den location won’t be publicly posted.

closeup of badger

closeup of head and shoulders of badger

closeup of badger head

Upon leaving her, and rounding a corner, I had to hit my brakes hard again, this time to avoid hitting a killdeer chick.

killdeer chick

Back at the Bison Range, atop Red Sleep Mountain, I spent some time observing a pair of mating American kestrels in a snag with the Mission Mountains as backdrop.  They copulated moments after this photo.

pair of American kestrels on a snag against backdrop of Mission Mountains

Post copulation, the female sounded scolded the male…

female American kestrel

…seeming to drive her mate into a “yes, dear” submissive pose (yes, terrible anthropomorphizing)

male American kestrel with head

…in actuality, he was looking for something  – and found just what he was looking for.  He dove off the snag and immediately returned with a vole that he gave to his demanding mate.  I was just able to see that action that occurred behind a tree from where I was.  She then returned to the snag to eat the gift vole.

female American kestrel eating a vole delivered to her by her mate

After some time, I moved on, enjoying the gorgeous scenery as I crawled down Red Sleep Mountain.

the slope of Red Sleep Mountain at the National Bison Range blanketed with arrowleaf balsamroot flowers - Mission Mountains in the background

What a Monday!  As for the birding aspect, I finished the day with 54 species.

  • Evening Grosbeak    Back Yard  – Deck feeder
  • Rock Pigeon    Lolo
  • Black-billed Magpie    Lolo
  • American Robin    Lolo
  • European Starling    Hwy 12
  • Western Bluebird    Hwy 12
  • Canada Goose    Hwy 12
  • Tree Swallow    Hwy 12
  • Common Raven    Hwy 12
  • American Crow    Hwy 12
  • American Kestrel    Hwy 12
  • Mourning Dove    Hwy 12
  • Mallard    Hwy 12
  • Mountain Bluebird    Lolo Creek burn area
  • Black-backed Woodpecker    Lolo Creek burn area
  • Northern Flicker    Lolo Creek burn area
  • Dark-eyed Junco    Hwy 12
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow    Hwy 12
  • Steller’s Jay    Hwy 12
  • Red-winged Blackbird    Hwy 12
  • Belted Kingfisher    Hwy 12
  • Great Blue Heron    Kona Ranch Rd
  • Barn Swallow    Primrose Lane
  • Lewis’s Woodpecker    Council Grove State Park
  • House Wren    Council Grove State Park
  • Common Grackle    Deschamps Ln
  • Yellow-headed Blackbird    Deschamps Ln
  • Northern Harrier    Deschamps Ln
  • Western Kingbird    Deschamps Ln
  • Western Meadowlark    Deschamps Ln
  • Red-tailed Hawk    Arlee
  • American Coot    Ninepipes
  • Ring-billed Gull    Ninepipes
  • Western Grebe    Ninepipes
  • Red-necked Grebe    Ninepipes
  • Double-crested Cormorant    Ninepipes
  • Trumpeter Swan    Ninepipes
  • Gadwall    Ninepipes
  • Northern Pintail    Ninepipe Ln.
  • American Avocet    Ninepipe Ln.
  • Cinnamon Teal    Ninepipe Ln.
  • Marsh Wren    Logan Rd
  • Western Kingbird    Logan Rd
  • Great Horned Owl    West Post Creek Rd
  • Brown-headed Cowbird    West Post Creek Rd
  • Downy Woodpecker    Moiese Store
  • House Sparrow    Moiese Store
  • Wood Duck    National Bison Range
  • Vaux’s Swift    National Bison Range
  • Brewer’s Blackbird    National Bison Range
  • Vesper Sparrow    National Bison Range
  • American Goldfinch    Moiese Store
  • Killdeer    Gallagher Rd – Mission Valley
  • Mourning Dove    Gallagher Rd – Mission Valley
  • Ring-necked Pheasant    Gallagher Rd – Mission Valley
  • Spotted Towhee    National Bison Range

I’ve been back to re-visit the great horned owls.  Yesterday, during my lunch break, I saw the same juvenile with an adult.

great horned owl branchling and adult

In the evening, I returned again.  The owlet above was in precisely the same spot.  In another nearby tree, way up, a sibling was being fed by a parent.  During my lunch break today, I returned again.  The one owlet seems not to have moved in over 24 hours.  I wasn’t able to find either sibling, but did find one adult on the feeding branch of last night.

more photos:  http://www.bigskycountry.net/p499874371 and http://www.bigskycountry.net/p826622402 and http://www.bigskycountry.net/p1056705215


Dead Trees Make Great Homes

I haven’t posted about my the rest of my April Yellowstone weekend.  I’ve been playing outside instead.  Yesterday evening I took a drive up Lolo Creek.  I stopped in a burned area to look for morels.  I didn’t find any morels, but I did find something maybe better – a pair of black-backed woodpeckers.  I could hear the noises of woodpeckers at work.  Finding the bird themselves (black birds on scorched black tree trunks) was a matter of following my ears.  Yesterday, I found the a male first, and, shortly thereafter, a female.  It was dark and gloomy, being late in the evening of a rainy day.  I returned this evening hoping to catch some photos in better light.  I met partial success.  This evening, I found the female, but not the male.  I guess I’ll have to try again!

Black-backed woodpeckers are an uncommon-to-rare woodpecker that are “burnt-forest specialists.”  They feed on beetles that are found in burned trees, by flaking the burned bark off of charred tree trunks.

female black-backed woodpecker flaking charred bark off burned tree

female black-backed woodpecker flaking charred bark off fire-blackened tree trunk

The are in which I found them has several trees that have some bark flaked off, and some that have been extensively debarked – and a few tree trunks with the “dead trees make great homes” signs as above.fire charred tree with sections of bark removed by woodpeckers hunting beetles

Yesterday evening, I observed the pair boring holes in one of the tree trunks – excavating nest cavities, perhaps?  I hope so.  Dead trees do make great homes, not just for fish, but for many bird species, too.

more photos here:  http://www.bigskycountry.net/black-backed_woodpecker

Yellowstone – April 25, 2014

When 2014 began, I had a New Year’s Resolution to get back to making regular posts here on this blog. That resolution went the way of most New Year’s Resolutions. Better late than never, though, right? With this post, I hope to get back on track.

I had a long weekend camping trip in Yellowstone planned for April 25-27, as I missed “opening weekend” the prior week.   As the weekend approached, I reconsidered. The weather forecast was not favorable. I don’t mind tent camping in rain & snow, but rain and snow, particularly rain, also often means dark gloomy days. Of course, that type of weather can also make for icy roads, another consideration. In the end, I followed through with my plans, and I am glad I did.

I arrived at the Mammoth Camp Ground around 10:30 on Thursday evening and pitched my tent in a light rainfall. Throughout the night, there was intermittent rain and wind. I love the sound of rain falling on the tent.

I left camp before sunrise Friday morning and headed south, into the interior of the Park, which has only been open to vehicles for a week. I traveled slowly, both due to road conditions (wet/snow-covered/slushy/frozen slush/ice) and to make frequent stops to search for critters. The road was icy, but I pretty much had it all to myself. After a while, I come upon another traveler. He had his camera on tripod aimed into the trees near Artist Paint Pots. I crawled past him, looking where his lens was aimed. A pine marten! Whoop! That, all by itself, would make it a great trip, as a pine marten has been on my wish list.

I parked in the turnout to Artist Paint Pots (which was plowed like a pullout, not like a road) and tried to tip-toe down and across the road to the other visitor (who turned out to be fellow Ynetter Robert Warrin), without spooking the pine marten.   Snap!  Crackle!  Pop!   Walking on frozen slush makes quiet walking impossible. I’d take a few steps, pause, wait, then take a few more steps. I didn’t want to ruin it for the guy who was there first, but I did want to get close enough for photos. When I was next him, I didn’t see the pine marten at first. I whispered “Oh, no! Did I spook it?” He answered that it was still there. YES! The pine marten, though aware of us, certainly, didn’t seem particularly worried, though it was alert to passing cars. When a third person tried to approach on foot while a loud diesel truck simultaneously decelerated, though, it was game over.

pine marten in a tree

pine marten climbing a tree trunk

pine marten laying on tree branch, with hind end concealed by tree trunk


A few hours into my trip, and I was thoroughly delighted.  If I saw nothing else for the rest of the weekend, I’d be going home satisfied.  Yellowstone had more treats in store for me, though.

I proceeded south to Madison Junction then turned west to check along the Madison River to check out the West Entrance Road for my first time this spring.  I didn’t see anything noteworthy, though I did see the remnants of a wolf kill on a sandbar island from several days prior.

I next drove into the Upper Geyser Basin, and found it to be a ghost town.  I literally saw NO ONE.

Along the Firehole River, both southbound and then northbound again, I saw several osprey.

osprey perched on a dead tree snag in a geyser basin during a snow storm

Somewhere along Obsidian Creek I enjoyed some interaction between two sandhill cranes.

sandhill crane coming in to land near another sandhill crane on the snow-covered ground

The one there first didn’t seem to appreciate the arrival of the second, as it immediately departed upon the arrival of the newcomer.

sandhill crane preparing to take off as another is landing near it

Okay, time to visit the Northern Range.  I didn’t see anything noteworthy until the curve in the road between Wrecker and the Yellowstone Picnic Area, where a friendly fellow who lives in Gardiner, and whose name I can never remember (DARN IT!) flagged me down where he was watching a badger.   Unfortunately, the badger didn’t stick around for more than a second or two, but that was long enough for me to observe and admire his beautiful thick winter coat.

badger digging a hole

I stuck around, hoping the badger would make another appearance, despite several passers by telling me there was a bear at the picnic area.  I eventually gave up on the badger and proceeded to the picnic area, where a black bear was browsing on grass.  I watched him for a few minutes and chatted with Ranger Dooley and other visitors, but never even took a photo.  I guess a black bear butt (which is what was pointed in our direction) didn’t seem that appealing after the earlier treats.

How ’bout that!  I had a pine marten and a badger before my first bear of the year!  An auspicious beginning to the season!

more photos here>>  http://www.bigskycountry.net/yellowstoneapril2014

Yellowstone June 2013 Trip, Last Installment

This entry is for June 15 & 16, 2013.

Day 9 was my last full day in the Park.

I had heard that the Blacktail Plateau Rd had opened the day before, so that was among the first things on my agenda for this day.

So, I headed north from the Norris CG.  It was quite cold on this morning, with freezing fog.  I stopped near the Indian Creek CG for some photos of the fog on Obsidian Creek (still no griz triplet family, by the way).

fog tinted by the rising sun over Obsidian Creek - Yellowstone National Park

morning fog along Obsidian Creek - Yellowstone National Park

By the time I got to the Mammoth Upper Terrace drive, I was predicting a day of extreme temperature shift.  It was a chilly 21 degrees Fahrenheit, but the sun was rapidly burning off the fog.

A female mountain bluebird was puffed up in the cold, but soaking up the morning rays.

female mountain bluebird perched at the apex of a juniper tree

I took two trips through Blacktail Plateau Drive.  On the first, I saw a nursery herd of cow elk with lots of calves.  The were quite skittish.

I also saw my first ruffed grouse of the year.  I’ve been hearing their deep, subterranean sounding, rumbling drumming (reminiscent of a Harley being fired up underground) everywhere I go, but had not been able to lay eyes on any this year until this.

ruffed grouse

Townsend’s Daisies were blooming throughout the plateau, sometimes amidst cushion phlox.

Townsend's daisies growing amidst cushion phlox

On the Elk Creek side of the plateau, I saw a small bull moose (perhaps the same one as seen at Petrified Tree several days before – it’s the same area and it looked about the same) and a black bear.

On my second trip through, a badger cross the road in front of the car that was ahead of me on the road.  That visitor and I both followed the badger on foot, about 300 yards away from the road, to its den.  We both approached the den very slowly, stopping every few feet.  I stopped 25 yards or more shy of the den.  The same can’t be said of the other photographer.   He got down on the ground and slid closer and closer.  His proximity was such that the badger kept a close eye on him, but it didn’t hole up – at least not until another photographer joined me where I stood and the closest photographer stood up to move away.  In any event, we enjoyed a good long visit with it.

badger at sett

badger at sett

The next badger I saw on that day, just a short time later at the Antelope Aspen grove area, had a den only about 10 yards away from the main road, but seemed pretty relaxed despite its proximity to the road, traffic, and lots of onlookers and photographers, napping atop the den mound, grooming, etc.

badger laying on sett mound

badger sitting atop sett mound with head turned to its right

Next on the agenda was a return visit to Trout Lake for another try for the trout lake otters.  This time, I set myself a limit of three hours to be spent there.

Upon arrival, I was greeted by a guardian on the cut log bridge over the outlet of the lake – a bull snake.

bull snake on a trail bridge

On this visit, I spent more time at the shady outlet end of the lake, enjoying the abundant wildflowers, such as this sugar bowl, while waiting for an otter appearance.

sugar bowl wild flower

After a couple hours of waiting, with no otters, I moved to the inlet end of the lake.  Whereas a week previously there had been trout visible in the lake, but none in the inlet, on this occasion there were dozens in the inlet.  So, I found myself photographing fish again.  If anyone had told me that I’d spend more time photographing fish than bears on this trip, I would have scoffed.  Now I’m thinking that photographing fish is so much fun that I need an underwater camera.

I enjoyed the almost abstract quality of the trout in the shallow water, sometimes camouflaged on the pebbled creek bottom.

a Yellowstown cutthroat trout in inlet to Trout Lake, blending in with the streambed stones in an almost abstract fashion

The water there is shallow enough that the fish are exposed, at times, as they pass over shallow spots.

a Yellowstone cutthroat trout skims over the pebbled stream bed, partiall out of the shallow water in the inlet to Trout Lake - Yellowstone National Park

But, no otters or other critters were taking advantage of the easy pickings. I overstayed the 3 hours I had allotted for this visit to Trout Lake but eventually made my way back around the lake, stopping for this tattered mourning cloak butterfly.

mounring cloak butterfly with tattered wings

Back to camp for my last night in the tent…

81 degrees was the high temperature that I observed that day.  21 was the lowest.  60 degree temperature swing.

The following morning I slept in a little bit so that the noise of my breaking camp and loading up would be made after quiet hours ended at 6:00am.  Nonetheless, I was on the road by about 6:30, making my final round trip north, then back south again, along Obsidian Creek to look for the grizzly triplet family.  I hoped the family that welcomed me to the Park for this trip would see me off, but no such luck.

This bull bison with Electric Peak as backdrop was more gracious.

bull bison with Electric Peak in the background - Yellowstone National Park

I never noticed before that, from this angle, Electric Peak’s outline is that of a bull bison.

Really… I never would have noticed it if they weren’t lined up so, but the outlines of Electric Peak and a bull bison are remarkably similar. See it?

head low on shoulders
hump – peak
sloping back

I exited the Park at West Yellowstone and went past Henry’s Lake and then toward the Centennial Valley.  I don’t recommend that route for passenger cars.  For the most part, the dirt road was fine.  However, there were some heavily rutted sections that would be utterly impassable to passenger cars if wet and muddy.  I was able to skirt one such section and get through others without event, but I was carefully negotiating my way through one such hazard (in my Toyota Camry Hybrid), riding on the top of the ruts, when I came over a rise to find the ruts were diagonally cut by a washout.  From where I was, there was no way out but through.   I scraped my car’s bottom though that section.  Ouch!  I haven’t heard any noises and there is no evident damage, but that’s the kind of thing that can do some real damage.   It would have been possible to tear a passenger car apart on those ruts if they weren’t navigated right or if a person got unlucky.   Knowing what I know now, I won’t take a passenger car on the road between Henry’s Lake and the Red Rocks Lake NWR.  The road between the Red Rock Lakes NWR office and Monida is an “improved” dirt road and fine for passenger cars.

I didn’t have much time to do any real birding, but I did enjoy some great looks at Swainson’s hawks and, of course, the scenery is great.

road through Montana's Centennial Valley

Centennial Valley's mountain walls

I did some searching north of Dillon, MT for a burrowing owl nest, but the harsh light and mirage about killed my eyes scoping, and I was not met with success.  I’ll have to make another trip there to look for burrowing owls.  It was time to continue home and get the car unloaded and for me to get a much needed shower.

The trip galleries with more photos from the trip are here:  http://www.bigskycountry.net/yellowstone_june_2013

Yellowstone June 2013 Trip, Part 4

This entry is for June 14 & 15, 2013.

On Day 8, I returned to LeHardy Rapids to try for more leaping Yellowstone cutthroat trout at LeHardy Rapids with better light. I’m pleased with the results.

A Yellowstone cutthroat trout, wearing the ruby tones of the spawning season, makes a leap upstream at LeHardy Rapids on the Yellowstone River

a Yellowstone cutthroat trout in ruby spawn color, making a leap at Le Hardy Rapids - Yellowstone National Park

I don’t think he was as pleased with his success as I was with mine.

a Yellowstone cutthroat trout wearing the ruby tones of the spawning season makes a leap at LeHardy Rapids - Yellowstone National Park

I would estimate that the ratio of unsuccessful attempts to successful attempts was about 5:1.  Two techniques were employed – jumps, as illustrated above, and shimmying over the rocks but below the surface of the water, as below.

a Yellowstone cutthroat trout skimming over the boulders that make rapids, under the surface of the water

a Yellowstone cutthroat trout under the surface of the water, skimming over the river boulders at LeHardy Rapids - Yellowstone National Park

In this video both techniques are demonstrated – neither successfully.

In this video, one leaper is successful, and one is not. Please pardon the shakes – a heavy footed person walked by on the boardwalk.

Some leap higher than others – and they are the ones that generally clear the obstacle.

A Yellowstone cutthroat trout, wearing the ruby tones of the spawning season, makes a leap upstream at LeHardy Rapids on the Yellowstone River

Meanwhile, an American dipper kept living up to his species name, dipping for aquatic insects.

An American dipper living up to his name, as they so often do, dipping its head into the water for aquatic insects.

Other than a disappearing bear butt at the Fishing Bridge intersection, LeHardy Rapids action pretty much sums up the day.

Day 9 was my geyser day. Any time I spend more than a few days in the Park I spend the better part of one day in the geyser basins.

I started out at the West Thumb Geyser Basin, where the colors are always so incredible.

A scene from the West Thumb Geyser basin, along the shore of Yellowstone Lake

A scene from the West Thumb Geyser basin, along the shore of Yellowstone Lake

On the boardwalk, I came across a man bitterly balling out his wife about the bitter cold, as though it were her fault. He finds 40′s in summer ridiculous “it’s June, the middle of summer, for crying out loud.” No, I did not tell him that it is June – spring, and in the Rockies, for crying out loud. With Summer Solstice being a full week off, it was hardly the “middle of summer.” It was a pleasantly crisp spring morning.

Next up: the Upper Geyser Basin.
I had a bit of time before the next eruption of a predictable geyser, so I walked around the basin for a bit.

Chromatic Spring colors the surrounding area with colorful thermophile life

Chromatic Pool above and below.

Chromatic Spring colors the surrounding area with colorful thermophile life

I was struck by the reflected copper tones of the Anemone Geysers (with the Old Faithful Inn and the Snow Lodge in the background).

Anemone Geysers (Big & Little or North and South) shine with copper tones with Old Faithful Geyser, the Old Faithful Inn and the Snow Lodge visible in the background

I watched an eruption of Grand Geyser then waited for Beehive to perform. While waiting for Beehive, I enjoyed visiting with, for the second time on this trip, Steven Bumgardner, of Yosemite Nature Notes fame. If you haven’t watched any of his videos, you should. Awesome work. He was in Yellowstone working on a series of videos from Yellowstone similar to the Yosemite series. He is working as an NPS volunteer and his work will be in the public domain when complete to entertain and enlighten the public for years to come.

As I waited for Beehive to erupt, I came to agree with the man I encountered on the boardwalk at the West Thumb Geyser Basin. It WAS bitter cold. I wasn’t as cold as poor people who had the misfortune to watch Beehive from the lower viewing platform, though. The wind changed direction just at eruption time and blasted them with spray. Bitter cold wind…. *shivers*

There was pretty crappy light and sky for those two eruptions, so I’m not posting any photos of those.

At the end of Beehive’s eruption, Castle Geyser started to play. Castle Geyser has a good long eruption period (something like a 20 minute water phase plus a 20 minute steam phase), so I took my time walking over there. By the time I got there, the last black cloud was east of the cone and the sun low in the western sky was shining on the plume.

Castle Geyser performs against a storm dark sky with sunlight illuminating the water and steam of the eruption

Castle Geyser performs against a storm dark sky with sunlight illuminating the water and steam of the eruption

Visitors even got a rainbow out of the deal.

Castle Geyser performs against a storm dark sky with sunlight illuminating the water and steam of the eruption

I stopped with a view overlooking the Midway Geyser Basin to watch as the sun sunk behind plumes of steam as I ate dinner (a hot meal on a cold evening with no time invested in making it, as it heated as I drove in the RoadPro Stove – no this is not a paid endorsement).

Then I made a pass through Firehole Lake Drive. When I came out of the timber and could see the Fountain Paintpots area, I was greeted with an incredible sunset.

What a note on which to end the day!